Robin and Edward arrived in the outskirts of Charing Vale late in the afternoon as the sun was just beginning to set. Robin had them hide until full darkness could cover their entry into the village. The day was bitter cold, and the night even colder. Edward was anxious, once the sun set, to hurry to her home. But Robin held her back.
“Too many people are abroad yet,” she said. “Look at how many houses there are lit up by candles.”
They waited three more hours. The night grew colder around them. Finally, Robin decided it was safe. Edward led them through the dark streets to her father’s house. The door was unbolted. Edward admitted Robin and shut the door silently.
“Wait here,” Edward whispered. “I’ll go fetch my parents.”
“Who’s there?” a voice coming from the stairs hissed.
“Father?” Edward asked.
“Bess, is that you?” answered the voice.
“Who’s with you?”
“Master Robin, Father.”
“She’s home!” a woman’s voice called out. “Put away that pike, Matthew!”
The light of a small candle appeared at the top of the stairs. It was carried by a large woman in a flowing gown, her hair loose and flying about her night cap. She hurried down the stairs, followed by her husband, who was similarly dressed.
“Oh, Bess, at last,” the woman crooned. She found another candle in the best room chest and lit it.
“Bess?” Robin asked Edward.
“It’s my real name,” Edward replied.
Her mother turned to Robin. “Oh, Master Robin, I want to thank you so much for bringing my child back. I’m sure you know why she couldn’t stay.”
“I do, Mistress.”
“It’s such a blessing it was you who brought her,” Mistress Skippington continued. “And that you arrived now, when you’re needed so badly.”
“What’s wrong?” Robin’s heart stopped.
“Today, your brother and cousin were arrested for witchcraft.”
“What?” Robin let loose a short string of obscenities, then turned on Mistress Skippington. “What did that idiot brother of mine do now?”
“We know them to be innocent,” Master Skippington said. “It’s more of Master Blount’s evil. He simply took advantage of a most unfortunate accident that resulted in some most peculiar actions by your brother.”
“But what happened?” Robin demanded.
“Master Fletcher’s youngest son somehow contrived to fall into the ocean this morning, near that part of the beach closest to the inn.” Master Skippington took a deep breath. “Your brother realized that to fetch a boat to rescue him would take far too long, so he dove into the waves and swam after the boy. As if that wasn’t peculiar enough, he remained in the water with the child for a full five minutes before returning to the beach.”
Robin knew exactly what had happened. She hadn’t been raised on a beach for nothing.
“They just floated in one place for five minutes,” Mistress Skippington cried. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Surely you’ve seen people swim before,” Robin said.
“Of course,” replied Mistress Skippington. “But staying in one place like that?”
Robin groaned. “It’s simple once you know how.”
“But why?” Mistress Skippington pressed. “It was frightfully cold out there.”
“He was probably tired and catching his breath before trying to swim in,” Robin explained, although she doubted that was the real answer. The truth would only frighten the others more. She hoped Dean had kept his mouth shut about that.
“That makes sense.” Master Skippington nodded. “The trouble is that while most of the townspeople believe they are innocent, they were frightened, and Master Blount surely has paid for enough witnesses to guarantee a hanging tomorrow.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Robin sighed. “Well, that settles it, we’re leaving town. We were planning on it anyway. I sure as hell wasn’t going to stay in the army.”
“And why not?” asked Master Skippington.
Edward giggled. Robin glared at her.
“Somebody has to take care of my dumb brother,” Robin said quickly. Edward giggled again. Robin turned on her. “You, come here for a second.”
Edward obeyed. Robin pushed her over into a corner, then checked to see that her parents couldn’t overhear.
“Don’t you dare say anything about me,” Robin said with quiet firmness. “If I’m leaving, I’ve got to stay in disguise. Besides, you know anyone else who can get those two out of wherever they are?”
“But they all know you’re quick witted,” Edward said.
“They know I’m quick witted as a man. Everything changes once they find out I’m a woman. Remember, Samuel wouldn’t listen to me after he found out.”
“And you’re smarter than he is. All right, I won’t say anything. You’re one lucky woman, you know that. I envy you.”
“Thanks.” Robin paused, then took the small purse they’d taken from the peddler and opened it. “Here’s your share of the booty.” She glanced over her shoulders to make sure Edward’s parents couldn’t see. She removed half of the coins and pressed them into Edward’s hand. “You earned it like a man, you keep it like one.”
Edward sniffed and embraced Robin.
“All right,” said Robin in her normal voice as she pulled away. “Do you know where Dean and Elizabeth are being held?”
“In the town gaol, next to the church,” said Master Skippington.
“That should be fairly easy to break them out of.” Robin thought. “Who’s guarding them?”
“No one,” Master Skippington said. “They’re locked in. There isn’t a locksmith in the town, and the nearest one wouldn’t dream of crossing Master Blount.”
“I don’t think we’ll need a locksmith. I’d better go get some things from the inn first. I do want to thank you for your kindness. I’ll be off now.” Robin turned for the door.
“Wait!” said Master Skippington. “I’ll go with you. I can help you carry what you need from the inn.”
“If I can’t carry it, I can’t take it,” said Robin.
“But your brother can. I’ll take his place until you are able to liberate him.”
Robin sighed. “Thank you, sir. Your help will be much appreciated.”
Master Skippington disappeared, then came back a few minutes later, fully dressed. Robin slipped out of the house with him following. As she approached the inn, she saw a dim light glowing in one of the upstairs windows. Master Skippington gasped.
“Ghosts?” he asked.
“Hardly,” Robin replied. “I’ve got a feeling someone thinks there’s more money in there than we’ve let on.” She pulled her pistol from her sash. “Come on. But be as silent as possible. We’ll want to surprise him.”
With Robin in the lead, the two stalked silently up to the inn. The street door was half open. Robin slid through without a sound, Master Skippington did likewise. Footsteps above approached the stairs. Robin scuttled underneath the stairs, with Master Skippington on her heels.
Though the intruder tried to move quietly, the stairs creaked softly as he came down. He turned into the best room and Robin recognized him: Master Neddrick. He carried a small candle with him, and he went straight to the chest and rifled through its contents. Robin turned to him and aimed.
“Evening, Master Neddrick,” she said.
Stunned, the tall man whirled around.
“I assure you,” Robin continued. “You are well within accurate range of this pistol. It’s amazing what one picks up in the army, isn’t it? Master Skippington, would you kindly tie and gag the gentleman? Isn’t it a funny coincidence that you show up, Master Neddrick, just as another manufactured witchcraft charge was brought against my brother and cousin?”
“You know this man?” Master Skippington asked, tying Neddrick’s wrists.
“We’ve run into him before,” replied Robin. “I don’t know what he’s got against us, except that he wants my cousin for some purpose. Odd how he just happened to have the ear of someone else who wanted to hang us for witchcraft. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t behind this charge and my conscription into the army. It makes sense. Get rid of the brains of the family, and then move in on the others. It had to be you, Master Neddrick. Master Blount just isn’t that smart, or that subtle.”
“Indeed not,” agreed Master Skippington.
Donald Long glared furiously at Robin, at a complete loss for words. It was impossible. If the information he’d gotten in London was correct – and there was no reason to doubt it – the Parkers and Elizabeth would be in London in a week or so. Perhaps he would catch them on the road. But, no. They’d recognized him in London. There had to be some way to get to Elizabeth. The DNA hadn’t lied. Or had it?
Skippington applied the gag with added viciousness. They seated Master Neddrick next to the wall so his feet could be bound. Robin went through his pockets, and only found a nasty looking knife. A quiet groan startled her.
“What?” She turned.
In the corner, Pastor Layton lay crumpled in a heap, and was slowly coming to.
“Oh, no!” Robin scurried over to him. “What happened to you?”
“Master Robin?” asked the pastor weakly.
“Yes, it’s me.” She gently turned him onto his back.
“Praise be to the Lord, you’ve returned. Have you heard?”
“Yes. That’s why I’m here.”
“It’s why I came. I came after dark, so I shouldn’t be found out. I wanted to fetch some blankets for them, and some food. I came in, and that’s the last thing I remember.”
Robin waved the candle in front of his eyes. They weren’t dilated.
“You’ve been hit on the head,” she said. “You should be okay. But you should go straight home and stay in bed for several days, at least.”
He struggled to a sitting position. “I can’t do that.”
“You could die if you don’t.” Robin glanced around. “Master Skippington, will you help the pastor home?”
“Wait!” Master Layton cried out. “Master Robin, don’t you understand? If there is to be any chance of them escaping conviction, I must present myself at the trial tomorrow and give evidence.”
“There’s not going to be a trial,” said Robin curtly. “We’re leaving permanently. I didn’t exactly get an honorable discharge.”
“But the inn…”
Robin sighed as she looked around the best room. “Boy, is Samuel going to be mad. Wait. Pastor, will you see to it that the deed is signed over to Samuel Shepwell when he returns? It’s here in this chest.” Robin ran over and got the piece of paper, plus some others. “Here it is. And here are Master Miller’s notes on how to brew the porter, and where to buy supplies.”
Pastor Layton smiled and nodded. Master Skippington came over to take the pastor. Robin slipped away and upstairs. Besides blankets and food, there were a few things she wanted that she didn’t want anyone else to see.
Neddrick had been through Master John’s bedroom. The hidden hole behind the bed was opened, and empty. Robin stuck her hand in and smiled. The false back she’d put in was still intact. She removed it and the three bags the remaining hole contained. In the bags were almost twenty pounds in various pieces of change: earnings from the inn, leftovers from Master John’s money, plus the loot from the thieves. There were also a keyboard console, a terry cloth towel, and an iPhone and its speaker dock. Robin hurried back downstairs. Master Skippington had been replaced by Master Shepwell.
“Master Skippington told me what happened here. We met as he was taking the pastor home,” Master Shepwell said. “I was on my way to the gaol, to see if I could bring anything to make Master Dean and Mistress Elizabeth more comfortable. Master Skippington said I should come here.”
“Oh. Thanks. I just want to get as much cheese and dried sausage as we have into these bags. And blankets, and a pot or two.”
“Master Skippington has already seen to that. I’ll help you carry them. What about your prisoner?”
“Leave him. There’s no way to carry him and everything else.”
“Yes, there is. You have a handcart.”
“Yeah. Hey, I’ve got an idea.” Robin chuckled. “Yeah. That’s perfect. Bring him along.”
Master Shepwell brought the handcart around, and dumped Neddrick into it. The two hurried along the quiet streets to the gaol. Robin was surprised to see that Dean and Elizabeth were still awake.
“We’ve enough food,” Dean hissed through the bars as he heard them approach.
“What food, you dope!” Robin hissed back.
“Robin!” Dean replied with delight. “Boy, am I glad to see you. See, Elizabeth, I told you.”
“I’ll bet you’re glad,” Robin returned. She looked at the lock and nodded. “You two get as far back from the door as you can.”
“Why?” asked Dean.
“Just do it.” Robin pulled her pistol from her sash once more.
With the barrel on top of the door lock, she squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. Robin glared at the pistol, hit it with the heel of her hand and squeezed again. The heavy iron padlock danced against the bars of the door. Robin brought the butt of the pistol down onto the lock. It fell away easily. She swung the door open.
“Where did you get that gun?” Dean asked.
“Never mind,” said Robin as she re-loaded. “Just get your butts out of there.”
“Just a second, we got some stuff to collect.”
Robin nodded at Master Shepwell. As soon as Dean and Elizabeth emerged, Master Shepwell entered the gaol and dumped Neddrick in. Elizabeth gasped as she saw him.
“He was behind this,” she said.
“No kidding,” said Robin.
“Tis a pity,” said Master Shepwell, shutting the door. “I wish you didn’t have to leave. We’ve been looking forward to the wedding.”
“What wedding?” asked Robin.
“Master Dean and Mistress Elizabeth are betrothed,” replied Master Shepwell. Dean squirmed. “Surely you knew about that.”
“Oh, they are?” Robin glared at the pair. “No, I didn’t know. I’d sure like to know more, too.”
“It’s a long story,” said Dean quickly. “Let’s get out of here. Half the town probably heard that gun go off.”
“Half the town is helping us escape,” Robin pointed out. “Nonetheless, you’re right. Is everything loaded on the handcart?”
“Yeah,” Dean shook his head. “Sheesh, we’ve got enough food to last us a year.”
“Hopefully, we won’t need it for that long.” Robin turned. “Master Shepwell, please convey our sincerest thanks to everyone.”
“I will, Master Parker, Master Dean, Mistress Wynford, fare well, and God go with you.”
“And you too,” said Elizabeth.
They hurried off, slipping through the streets to the south road. Once out of sight of the town, Robin headed them off the road and across the fields to the London road. They traveled a couple more hours, then bedded down for the night.
The next morning, Robin had them up early and off again. But this time they stayed on the road because of the handcart. Dean and Elizabeth were silent. Robin saw they were waiting.
“All right,” she said about mid-morning. “What’s the long story, Dean?”
“It’s no big deal,” he replied. “We just had a marriage contract drawn up so Blount couldn’t do the same and get Elizabeth that way. Elizabeth knows we’re not really betrothed. It was just to protect her. That’s the only reason I went along with it.”
“That, and you knew it would be pretty hard to enforce a three-hundred-year-old contract,” Robin answered cynically. One look at Elizabeth told her there was a lot more involved, at least on the girl’s part.
“Hey, I didn’t think of that,” Dean said.
“I’m surprised,” said Robin. “I’ll bet this whole thing was Elizabeth’s idea.”
“And if it was?” Elizabeth said, defensively.
Robin sighed. “Elizabeth, surely you realize that Dean cannot stay in the Seventeenth Century. That’s going to make it very hard for you to marry him.”
“Hey, Robin, can we stop for lunch?” Dean asked.
They pulled off the road into a little thicket. Elizabeth laid out a blanket and set out bread and cheese while Dean took Robin aside.
“Robin, will you please go easy on Elizabeth?” he asked. “The past few days have been really rough on her.”
“What do you mean?”
“You want to know the real reason she didn’t want to go back to her family?”
“She was convicted for witchcraft. Roger pulled her the night before she was supposed to be hanged. She’s really upset ‘cause she thinks she’s under some sort of curse that she’s going to get busted for witchcraft wherever she goes.”
Robin shook her head. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Maybe, but she really believes it.”
Robin sighed. “You really like her, don’t you?”
“Do you want to marry her?”
“Aw, come off it, Robin.” Dean flushed.
Robin paused, suddenly sorry she’d asked. Dean wasn’t denying it and even a blind person could see he was just as hooked as Elizabeth was.
“You think it’s time to go home yet?” Dean asked.
“And what about Elizabeth?”
“Bring her with us. She’ll get along in our time. And people won’t be trying to hang bogus witchcraft charges on her.”
Robin frowned. “Maybe.”
She turned away. Clearly Dean had had enough of their adventure. But there was still Elizabeth. Robin found it hard to dismiss the memory of how frightened the girl had been in the future. It would be cruel to bring Elizabeth forward again. Yet how to resolve hers and Dean’s obvious affection for each other?
“Why don’t we try getting lost in the big city first?” Robin said finally.
“London.” She turned back to the blanket where Elizabeth was waiting. “Hey, Elizabeth, how do you feel about settling down in London for a while?”
Elizabeth smiled happily. “Oh, that would be most interesting. I’ve always wanted to go to London.”
“Well, there you have it,” Robin said triumphantly.
She did not see Dean winking at Elizabeth as if to suggest that they two were just going along to indulge Robin. Which they were.
In the gaol in Charing Vale, Donald Long paced relentlessly. Guards were mounted as the prisoner made every attempt to escape. It wasn’t until after the January Assizes were held and he was bound and taken to Scotland that he fell into a sullen stupor, mumbling over and over that he couldn’t have failed. The DNA had matched his. He was the baby’s father. It was unquestionable. He was the baby’s father.