The three had barely been on the road for an hour when they crested the hills that overlooked the village of Charing Vale.
“That was fast,” said Dean.
Robin nodded. “I keep forgetting how close together everything in England is.”
Charing Vale was a small village nestled in a little valley that opened onto the sea. The green hills rose sharply around the hamlet from the rocky beach. Two main roads went through Charing Vale, the one from inland, which ended there, and one that followed the coast. About half of town’s inhabitants raised sheep on the surrounding hills. The other half of the populace made their livings as weavers, fishermen and other assorted tradesmen.
The town looked much the same as the other villages, with the houses in the main part of the village built narrow and close together. Their church was not the same gothic edifice other towns boasted. This was a square building with a small tower, built entirely of rough stone and with a shingled roof. Robin guessed correctly that the church had been built fairly recently, and by what would later be called a Puritan. What had become of the other village church, which had surely been there, Robin never found out.
It was market day and the people from all over the lonely coastland filled the center square of the village to buy and sell their wares. Robin smiled. Market day would mean that the inn was busy, and hopefully, the innkeeper would be interested in some extra help.
They found the inn near the center square of the village. It was built just like the other town buildings, except it was wider and stood apart from its neighbors. On the side closest to the center square was a flower garden that had once been neat and well kept, but now ran wild. Behind the house, the stable could be seen, with another neatly laid out garden, this time with vegetables, that had also been left to grow as it willed. Chickens scratched among the plants with a half-hearted air. The inn seemed deserted.
“That’s strange,” muttered Robin. She looked at the sign bearing the picture of a white bear. “The White Bear. This must be it.”
“It doesn’t seem to be doing so good,” observed Dean.
Elizabeth shrugged. “They did say at the market it was the only inn in the vale.”
“Then something fishy is going on,” sighed Robin.
She pounded on the closed front door, braced for action. There was silence within. Robin pounded again.
“Anybody there?” she called.
A window opened above, and a thin, pinched-looking woman poked her head out.
“Be off with you!” she called. “Don’t you know the inn is closed?”
“They didn’t tell us that at the market,” returned Robin. “We’re looking for Master John Miller, the cousin of Mistress Anne Ford. She told us we could find him here, as the innkeeper.”
The woman sighed. “Wait a moment. I’ll come down.”
She withdrew her head, and in a couple minutes, the door opened, and she admitted the three travelers into the gloomy best room.
“I am Mistress Mary Whiteford,” the woman said. “Master Miller is my uncle. He has been ill since last spring. I’m the only relation he has living near him, so it has fallen on me to nurse him. I’ve a husband and children of my own to take care of. It’s been all I could do to keep care of them and Uncle. That’s why the inn is closed. You must have come from some distance not to have heard. It’s been closed since the snow melted.”
“We have come some way,” Robin replied. “We’re looking for work, and Mistress Ford suggested we come here to work for your uncle.”
“That was kind of Cousin Anne, no doubt. But there’s no work to be had. Uncle is better, but he is not well enough to open the inn again. It would be a mercy if he could. He hasn’t much left to live on, and my husband is a poor man.”
“We could open the inn and run it for him,” volunteered Dean.
“Mary?” called an older voice. It quavered but had plenty of power left in it. “Mary? What visitors are there?”
“Two young men and a young woman.” Mistress Whiteford crossed to the bottom of the stairway and called up. “Cousin Anne sent them to work for you.”
“Work?” returned the voice with rising enthusiasm. “Do you mean re-open the inn? Send them up! Hurry! Send them up now!”
“Peace, Uncle!” Mistress Whiteford cried. “Don’t excite yourself. You’ll only make yourself sick again. I’ll send them up if you promise to rest quietly.”
“As you wish,” sighed the voice.
With Mistress Whiteford’s instructions not to excite the old man, Robin, Dean and Elizabeth filed into the bedroom occupied by Master John Miller. It was apparent that as a youth, he had been a formidable character. Age had ravaged his long frame, leaving it withered and gaunt. Still, out of the ancient face peered two bright eyes that darted everywhere and missed little.
“So, my good Cousin Anne sent you,” he said. “What are your names?”
“I am Robert Parker, and this is my brother Richard Parker,” said Robin. “But I am called Robin, and he, Dean. This is our cousin, Elizabeth Wynford.”
“Can you work in an inn?” The old man watched them.
“Mistress Ford seemed pleased,” Robin replied.
“Then why are you not still in her service?”
Robin smiled. “Let’s just say it seemed expedient to leave in light of local politics.”
The old man laughed. “Someone wanted you hanged, did they?”
“We were wrongly accused, sir,” Robin said urgently.
“Oh, I believe you,” chuckled Master Miller. “Cousin Anne wouldn’t have sent you to me if she did not know you to be honest. Nor would you have known to ask for me if she hadn’t told you to. But back to this matter of re-opening the inn.” Master Miller coughed, then held his chest. “My heart, you know. I haven’t been able to get out of bed since it first started, just as the snow melted last spring.” He smiled weakly. “It seems such a strange thing, not to be able to get around, big healthy fellow, as I’ve always been. There’s a lot to be done. The rooms must be swept and aired out, the gardens tended to. I expect the ale’s gone bad. That should be the first thing to tend to, I imagine. Then we’ll need fresh straw and oats in the stable, and flour and other staples to feed the guests. I can tell you who to go to, or Mary can. How do you brew the ale? In the way that Cousin Anne does? Very good. Then tend to that immediately. We’ll open in two weeks.”
“Two weeks?” asked Mistress Whiteford, entering the room with a bowl of soup. “How? All the supplies must be bought, and I don’t suppose you’ve given a thought to how you’re going to pay for it. You can barely afford to feed yourself, let alone three other people.”
Master Miller looked so deflated that Robin felt compelled to speak.
“Good sir, if you will not take it amiss, we have a little money ourselves,” she said. “We could purchase what’s needed, and once the inn’s running, you could pay us back out of the profits.”
“Borrowing is not a good idea,” snorted the old man. But need and interest in maintaining his chosen livelihood won out. “Well, I suppose I might. Not that I like this type of arrangement. But maybe it will push you three into working harder. The more money the inn makes, the sooner you will be repaid.” He mulled over this new thought. “Yes. Yes. This could be quite satisfactory. Mary, go prepare the chambers. And you, young woman, Elizabeth, is it?”
“How are you at nursing?”
“Well enough, sir. I spent some months nursing my grandmother before she died. She said I brought her a great deal of comfort.”
Master Miller smiled with surprising warmth. “Yes, my child, I’m sure you did. And you’ll help me back to health. Mary, when you’re done with the chambers, go back to your children and stay there. I don’t care to deprive them of their mother any longer.”
“Yes, Uncle,” Mistress Whiteford sighed, torn between her desire to be free of her patient, and her basic distrust of the newcomers.
Mistress Whiteford stayed long enough to make sure Elizabeth knew what she was doing, and to have her brains picked by Robin, who, once committed, was determined to make a success of the venture.
It was barely noon when Robin left the inn to purchase the barley and hops needed to get the ale brewed. Because of the time needed to ferment, that was the first step. She had to go some distance, however, to find the farmer Master Miller insisted she go to. Adding to the difficulty was the handcart she pulled after her. The farm was in the next valley over, and as Robin went down the steep slope, the cart banged against the backs of her legs.
The farm lay off the small road, surrounded by green pastureland dotted with sheep. Robin followed the small path about half a mile to the farmhouse.
“Is anyone here?” she called out, startling the chickens.
A middle-aged woman appeared from the house.
“Yes?” she asked, slowly. “And who are you?”
“I am called Robin Parker. Master John Miller sent me to purchase hops and barley from you. He insisted I go to no other.”
“Well, it’s a fine thing we have his recommendation. But isn’t he too ill yet to reopen the inn?”
“Yes. My brother and I have come to work for him as a kindness to his cousin. We’re doing the work until he is well enough.”
“That’s a mercy to him.” The woman turned towards the fields. “James!”
James, or rather, Master Ashley, appeared within minutes. He was a stocky man, somewhat browned by the sun. Even though it was a cool day, perspiration stained his shirt. He, too, was a little suspicious of Robin until she explained. Robin wondered what was behind it but declined to ask. The couple was friendly enough, even hospitable, as they carried on their business.
The Ashleys had numerous children, ranging in age from infancy to fifteen. Robin counted at least seven. Mistress Ashley insisted on sharing their lunch with Robin. After they’d eaten, Master Ashley loaded the sacks of barley and hops onto the handcart. Then the oldest boy, a sturdy youth of thirteen, was instructed to help Robin up the hill with the cart.
With the boy’s help, Robin made good time. As they reached the top, Robin turned to thank him.
“I don’t dare go further,” he said suddenly.
“Why?” Robin began, but to no avail, as the boy promptly turned away and ran off toward his farm.
Puzzled, Robin concentrated on maneuvering the handcart downhill. Near the bottom, a group of young men, they appeared to be in their late teens, joined her.
“You’re new here.” observed a dark-haired youth, his face scarred by acne or smallpox or both.
“Yes.” Robin nodded. There was something not quite friendly about this group. “I am called Robin Parker.”
“Ah. I am Samuel.” The dark-haired one indicated his companions as he spoke. “This is Robert, Edward, Richard, Charles, and John.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sirs.” Robin nodded at them as they all walked.
“You haven’t much beard,” observed Edward happily, his own beard not being much to speak of.
“Uh, no,” Robin replied.
“Yet you’re so tall,” said Samuel.
Robin shrugged. But before she could start her story, she was interrupted.
“What’s in the sack?” asked John.
“Barley and hops,” Robin answered.
“To sell?” asked John.
“No. I’ve just bought them. I’m bringing them to the inn.”
“The inn?” cried Samuel in delight. The attitude of the boys changed immediately for the better. “It’s reopening? Hurrah!”
“You’ll have to wait a couple weeks. The ale’s got to be brewed first.” Robin smiled.
“God speed you on your way!” Samuel said. “Better still we shall help. This vale has been too long without a decent tankard of ale.”
Robin was glad enough of the help, although somewhat suspicious of the boys. But their motives were indeed centered on the ale. They arrived at the inn in record time, with the barley and hops in excellent shape. Robin thanked them and sent them off in high spirits. After taking a deep breath, she turned to the inn and the next step.
Of course, everything had to be discussed with Master Miller, but Robin didn’t mind. There was something about the old man that caught her fancy. She sat up late in the evening with him, discussing the inn, at first, then other matters. The man was ignorant, but only because of the circumstances of his birth. Even at an age when many elderly people have no intention of learning anything, John Miller was eager for instruction and knowledge. Robin thought he would have made a fine scientist, had he the education available.
The next day was the Sabbath. The pastor of the village was a youngish man, approximately in his late twenties, with a mild demeanor and an educated speaking style.
Robin had taken one look at the communion table in the center of the church and guessed at his Puritan leanings. Between that and his black clothes and the way he launched into the service with almost no ceremony at all, Robin worried that she wouldn’t get along with this fellow any better than she had Pastor Middleton, back in Downleigh.
But Pastor Layton appeared to be cut from different cloth. He did not speak down to his congregation, nor did his sermon go over their heads. He challenged without condemning. Although the other villagers looked suspiciously at Robin, Elizabeth, and Dean, Pastor Layton did not.
After the service, he held them in the doorway of the church. It was pouring down rain outside. He gazed at Robin strangely.
“Greetings,” he said, shaking Robin and Dean’s hands. “You are new in our village. Mistress Mary Whiteford told me of your arrival yesterday.”
“That was kind of her,” Robin replied.
“Well, your kindness in caring for her uncle is not to be overlooked.” The pastor smiled. “I am Pastor William Layton. If you would be so kind as to tell Master Miller, I shall call on him this afternoon, as usual.”
“We’ll do that.” Robin smiled awkwardly and shifted. Aside from the recent bad experience, the suspicion of the other villagers made her rather suspicious herself.
Back at the inn, they relaxed in the inn’s best room next to a roaring fire.
“There’s something strange about this place,” grumbled Dean. “People don’t like us already.”
“They just don’t trust us yet,” replied Robin. “We’re new here.”
“That’s not quite right,” said Elizabeth. “True, they don’t trust us, but it’s not because we’re strangers. There’s something wrong in the village. People are afraid. There must be a band of highwaymen or other evil bandits in the county. Didn’t you see that almost no young girls were at church? At least none that were not young children or mothers. Certainly, no comely ones.”
“You mean the people are hiding their women?” Robin mused over this. “Hm. I wonder why.”
“As I said, highwaymen,” Elizabeth replied.
“Then why suspect us?” Robin returned. “We’re obviously not highwaymen.”
“True,” Elizabeth conceded.
“Well, whatever the problem is,” said Dean. “Maybe we’d better keep Elizabeth under wraps. I mean, if there’s some sort of danger.”
“You may have a point, Dean,” Robin sighed and looked at Elizabeth.
She smiled. “I’ll have enough to do here, don’t worry. As a matter of fact, I do believe our master has woken.”
Pastor Layton arrived carrying two books just as the bell in the church was tolling three o’clock. Elizabeth had Robin show him up to Master Miller’s room, then prevailed on Dean to help her bring up food and drink for the guest and the invalid. As soon as he saw his visitor, Master Miller started struggling to a sitting position.
“Hold on, now,” Robin scolded. “Let me help you.”
“I don’t want help,” protested the old man.
“I know,” Robin replied, adjusting the pillows. “But if you don’t ease into more activity, you’re only going to make yourself sick again. There, the pillows are fixed. Now, sit up slowly. I’ll let you do it on your own this time.”
Grumbling, Master Miller slowly pushed himself up. Robin slid her arms around his chest and pulled him back against the pillows.
Well, Pastor,” Master Miller smiled. “What have we got today?”
“More of the same, I’m afraid,” replied Pastor Layton. “It does take so long for things to get out here in the country. I did get one special item from my bishop. It’s a pamphlet from one of John Donne’s sermons. They were just published about two years ago. My bishop says they make excellent reading and are good for study. He’ll send me the volumes as he can procure them. But I think I shall have to ask His Lordship for them. It costs far too much to send them, and I doubt my bishop will visit the vale any too soon. There’s just too much going on, with the Parliament’s militia and all.”
“And your bishop is calling for it as strongly as My Lord, the Earl?” Master Miller grinned.
“Of course,” replied the pastor.
“If he values his neck and his post, that is.”
Pastor Layton laughed. “Perhaps. I know my bishop to be a most sincere man. But come, I know you are just jesting with me.”
“I am?” Master Miller’s eyes twinkled, so full of the challenge that Robin was hard-pressed to tell if the man had been joking with the pastor or not.
“Yes, you are. You are as staunch a supporter of the Parliament as ever lived in this valley. But I also know you will say anything to get a good debate going.” The pastor smiled at Master Miller with genuine fondness. “Unfortunately, today I am somewhat out of temper for it. Young Master William Cowly was exceptionally vocal during his baptism. I have already read the sermon and will leave it for you to read at your leisure. Then next Sabbath we can argue it.”
“That sounds good.”
Master Miller nodded. “And what other books do you have for me?”
“Just the Donne poems and the Shakespeare.”
“Shakespeare?” asked Dean, appearing in the doorway.
He carried five bowls, spoons, and some cloths. Elizabeth came in behind him, carrying a large black pot, and a tray loaded with bread, cheese, two pitchers, and a roasted chicken. Robin got up and shifted a small chest around to make a table with the tray.
“Will you dine with us, Pastor?” Elizabeth asked. “I’m afraid the cheese is still green. We only arrived Friday. I’m surprised the cow would milk. But she did, and I made the cheese yesterday. We’ve no ale, either, but the water is quite good.”
“Considering the circumstances, you’ve laid before me quite a splendid feast, indeed.” Pastor Layton smiled. “I shall be glad to share it with you. But first, let us thank Our Father in Heaven for His goodness in giving it to us.”
Everyone bowed their heads as Pastor Layton made a good long prayer, giving thanks for a great many things besides the food. Robin’s stomach gurgled as the “Amen” was said, and Dean most irreverently watched the chicken. But before he could eat, he had to run downstairs to fetch the tankards he had forgotten. Elizabeth busied herself serving the pastor, while Robin prepared Master Miller’s bowl, taking care to give him small portions and only the leanest bits of the chicken.
“No cheese?” he complained, as he received his bowl.
Robin tucked a cloth under his chin. “No. You know why not.”
“Why not?” asked Pastor Layton, as the old man snorted.
“Because cheese is full of the bad humours that hurt his heart,” Robin replied.
“I’ve never heard that,” replied the pastor.
“My father held it to be true,” said Robin hesitantly. “He was most skilled in herbs and medicines.”
“Your father?” Pastor Layton looked as though he was trying to make sense of something exceedingly difficult. “Perhaps you are related. Forgive me, Master Robin. You remind me of a lady I knew when I was a student in Oxford. She, too, was very skilled in the healing arts. Lady Eleanor of Hawkesland. Her husband was the Earl, Lord James Haverfield.”
Robin shrugged. “Never heard of them.”
“You are very like her in speech and manner. Even as I look at you, I see how your faces seem much the same.”
“Well…” Robin paused. Her Ladyship could have been an ancestor, but it would hardly do to say so. “If Her Ladyship is a relative, she’s a distant one. Anyway, Master John’s heart is so weak, we have to be careful of what he eats.”
The pastor mused over that bit of information, while Elizabeth rolled her eyes behind his back. Robin had insisted that she not give Master Miller any salt, instead directing Elizabeth to feed him garlic and onions. Elizabeth thought the whole idea silly. Salt was an important staple to her. How were they to preserve any meat without it? They’d need the meat for the coming winter.
Then there was the prohibition on cheese, which Robin said was naturally loaded with salt and bad fats. Master Miller was also forbidden to drink whole milk. Robin had Elizabeth skim the cream very carefully from the top, first. Elizabeth didn’t think much of Robin’s strange ideas but conceded because she couldn’t argue against them.
Dean appeared with the tankards, and they all fell to the meal.
“Hey, books,” Dean observed as he collected the pastor’s bowl.
“Yes.” Pastor Layton smiled. “The poetry of John Donne and the works of William Shakespeare.”
“Shakespeare?” Dean asked delightedly. “Can I look?”
“Certainly.” Pastor Layton handed him the book, which was quite large.
Dean opened the cover and whistled low under his breath. “Wow. A real First Folio.”
“I wasn’t aware there were any others.” Pastor Layton looked puzzled.
“Oh.” Dean caught Robin’s warning glare. “Well, um. Maybe there aren’t. Anyway, this is pretty bitchen.”
“I’m glad you like it,” replied the pastor. “Do you read much?”
“Only when I have to.” Dean grinned. “Well, not really. I like Shakespeare.” He turned a few pages. “Woh. This is hard to read.”
“Is it?” Robin came over and took the book from him. The type was in that difficult old English style with all the s’s looking like fs. The language was not translated. “That’s interesting.”
“What is?” asked Dean.
“Oh, nothing,” Robin replied. “I’ll tell you later. In the meantime, the pastor’s time is valuable, and we should let him spend it with Master Miller.”
She returned the book to the pastor.
“You don’t all have to leave,” grumbled Master Miller.
“I’d best clear away these dishes,” said Elizabeth.
Dean jumped up. “I’ll help.”
Master Miller and Pastor Layton both gave him an odd look as he filled the tray and picked it up. Elizabeth smiled indulgently.
In a few seconds, Elizabeth cleared the room of dishes and Dean. The afternoon whiled away peacefully. Robin listened as the two men discoursed, occasionally interjecting a comment here and there. The local baron, one Lord Roger Featherton had sponsored Pastor Layton’s excellent education. The pastor was great friends with Master Miller, who had not had the same opportunity for an education. But instead of begrudging it of the pastor, Master Miller took advantage of it, receiving the pastor’s instruction gladly.
Of course, despite being uneducated, Master Miller could frame an argument in the best academic style. Robin had to stop herself from laughing when Pastor Layton was forced to concede to Master Miller’s better logic. Then she found herself drawn into an argument. She never noticed that Dean and Elizabeth did not return.
All too soon, it seemed, the village clock tower tolled the hour of five o’clock, and Pastor Layton stood and stretched.
“I must take my leave,” he said. “My wife has surely made my supper and will be most distressed if I’m not there to eat it. Good Master Parker, you will have to continue joining our weekly discourses.”
“Thank you, sir.” Robin smiled.
“And bring Marlowe’s ‘Passionate Shepherd’ next week,” said Master Miller. “We’ll see how Donne stacks up to it.”
“How about Raleigh, also?” asked Robin. “If you have it. Since ‘The Bait’ is in reply to Marlowe, it’s only fair to compare it to another reply.”
“Raleigh was no poet,” snorted Master Miller. “A Godless man.”
“So was Marlowe,” Robin shot back.
“I’ll leave you two to continue the debate.” Pastor Layton cut in, laughing.
Robin left to show him out. She finally noticed that Dean and Elizabeth had disappeared. But her mind was too full of Bait and Fleas and pleasant discourse to care where her brother was.
The next day, while Dean cleaned out the stables, Robin turned to the vegetable garden. Supplies were low, and while they still had quite a bit of money, it wouldn’t last forever. Robin decided to see what she could salvage.
She harvested a good crop of cabbages, as well as carrots. She was pulling up onions when shadows fell across the garden. She looked up to see the six young men from two days before gathered around her.
“Hello,” she said, sitting back on her haunches.
“Not brewing any ale today?” asked Samuel.
“This afternoon,” Robin replied. “We figure the inn should be open in about two weeks.”
“Should we tell him about…” started Richard, but the others shushed him.
“About what?” asked Robin. She stood.
“About, well,” Samuel hedged, then shrugged. “There’s another inn two vales to the north of here. They’ve been doing very well since Master Miller’s illness. The owner won’t like it that this inn has re-opened. But we don’t mind.”
“Don’t like traveling that far, huh?” Robin grinned.
“That, and the innkeeper charges too much for bad ale,” said John.
“Too bad for him, then,” Robin returned. “My brother, cousin, and I brew very good ale, and a penny a tankard isn’t too much, is it?”
The boys cheered. Elizabeth came outside from the kitchen.
“Robin, where’s Dean?” she asked.
“In the stable,” Robin replied.
Elizabeth left. The boys stared after her.
“Robert,” hissed Edward. “Warn them.”
Robert looked at Samuel, who nodded.
“They’re not his spies,” Samuel said, derisively stressing the “his.” “She’d be with him, if they were, and they wouldn’t be opening the inn.”
“Who are we talking about?” Robin asked.
“Master Thomas Blount,” replied Robert. “He’s Lord Roger Featherton’s steward, and a more crooked man never walked the earth. You’d better keep your cousin hidden. Any pretty creature he sees is soon taken away to be a lady in waiting for My Lady Featherton, or so he says. But most have returned beaten and carrying his bastards.”
“Not exactly a nice person,” Robin replied. “I suppose anyone new here is probably one of his spies.”
“Many times,” said Samuel. “We have to always be cautious. Worse still, there are those of our neighbors who will not refuse payment from him for information. The wise farmer in this vale only leaves his farm for market day, and then does not bring his best goods. Master Blount collects the taxes and is not afraid to collect more than his due if he thinks he can get it.”
“Can’t someone complain to Lord Roger?” Robin asked.
“How?” snorted Charles. “He’s forever with the Earl, My Lord of Essex.”
“Besides, we have,” said Samuel. “Or one of the braver villagers did. Master Blount simply bought some false witnesses, and the other man was put in the stocks.”
“His men wrecked my father’s grain bin,” John complained. “Then Master Blount demanded more money to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.”
“Protection money, pimping, his men control several gambling rackets,” Robin told Dean and Elizabeth that evening at supper. “I swear this guy makes the Mafia sound like nice guys.”
“The Mafia?” Elizabeth asked.
“A bunch of organized criminals, and they are really rotten fellows,” Robin explained.
“So that’s where all the girls are,” said Dean.
“And Elizabeth should be too,” Robin added. “If it isn’t too late. Apparently, he’s got spies all over.”
“I’d like to see him try to take Elizabeth away,” Dean threatened.
“Dean, here we can’t afford to play any modern tricks,” Robin warned.
“Well, there’s other ways.” Dean shrugged.
“We’ll see,” grumbled Robin.