When they were both seated before a fire with a plate of food in front of them Valentyna told Robin her story. Valentyna and her cousin Vladek had come from Poland, brought to England to serve Baron Malvern. They worked in his house; Valentyna in the kitchen and Vladek as a footman. One afternoon Vladek was called into the Baron’s study where he overheard a portion of a disturbing conversation. What he heard Valentyna never knew, but he was very afraid afterwards.
He told Val that they might have to leave the Baron’s employ and take to the road for their safety, and Valentyna prepared for that. She was unprepared however for what followed.
One evening Vladek was sent into the village to obtain some papers from the clergy when he was attacked. Valentyna had come into the village to purchase some geese from the butcher and turned a corner in time to see a man bending over Vladek’s dead body. Her screaming brought the Baron’s guards who took the man- the town’s brewer - to the manor house. The brewer protested his innocence, but Valentyna had seen him just after her cousin was killed. The brewer was to be sent to prison.
The Baron had been very eager to show Val his sympathies. In fact he’d been far too eager in all of his attentions. When he attempted to comfort her in his bed she fled and had been on the road since. She’d always had a talent for divination so posing as a fortune teller came naturally, and gave her a bit of camouflage in case Baron Malvern’s guards might happen to be in the vicinity.
"I wish Vladek had told me what he overheard. I’m sure that’s why the Baron had the brewer kill my cousin."
"You think the Baron hired the brewer to take him out?"
"Tak, I do." Valentyna said firmly.
There was a commotion as Marion arrived in camp, leading a man on horseback behind her. Robin and Val stood back as they dismounted and the horses were led away to be cared for.
"I’ve brought back a guest. So have you. Guess we’re gonna have a party tonight, eh?" Robin quipped as Marion approached in the lengthening gloom of evening.
"The party’s going to have to wait. We have serious business to take care of." Marion answered. When Marion’s new acquaintance stepped into the light Valentyna froze.
"You!" she seethed. When Robin saw the expression on her face he was surprised that her fingers hadn’t lengthened to claws and her teeth into fangs. He expected at any moment she’d launch at the man and tear him to pieces. It took him half a moment, but he finally comprehended the situation just before Valentyna stepped forward and swung both fists at the young man.
Valentyna swung helplessly from Robin’s arm, flinging her fists toward Locky and swearing a blue streak in her native language. Locky clasped Marion’s arm as if he’d push her out of harm’s way.
"Uhh, let me guess." Robin smirked. "You’re a brewer?"
"Gee, how’d you figure that?" Locky asked.
"No, he’s Locky." Marion interjected. "And he came for help."
"He’s going to get it. I have the feeling there is more to both of your stories than we know right now. Let’s sit down and talk about it."
Robin, Marion, Locky, Valentyna, Tuck and Little John sat down around the fire and put the puzzle pieces together.
"Valentyna, I swear on all that’s holy that I did not kill your kinsman. I found him, but he was already dead." Locky pleaded.
"Of course you can say that now. I was the only one who saw you." she sulked.
"But you weren’t. There was a guard standing over Vladek when I arrived. He ran as soon as he saw me." Locky explained. "When I checked to see if Vladek was okay you came along and started screaming. When the guard came back I thought he’d explain but he clapped me in irons and led me away. He never said anything about finding Vladek."
"I think he didn’t explain because he killed Vladek himself." Tuck swirled the mead in his cup. "It makes sense that he was ordered by the Baron because he’d found out what Vladek had overheard. The question is what did Vladek hear that is so dangerous?"
"I have had my problems with the Baron, but they’re not big enough to get me into this kind of trouble." Locky bent his head and rubbed both hands over his hair so it stood on end.
"What kind of problems?" Marion asked.
Locky sighed, staring into the fire before he answered. "He asked me to make a special brew for the townspeople. I told him I had no time and no resources to brew metheglin at this time of year. He wasn’t happy about it. No one should get killed over it though."
"What’s metheglin?" Little John queried.
"Metheglin is mead; honey, water, yeast, with herbs added." Valentyna was curious now. "What was in the special recipe he gave you?"
Locky thought hard, trying to remember. "Ginger, bergamot, cloves, and rue, a lot of rue."
Valentyna’s brow creased. "Why would he use so much rue?"
"It’s used commonly in brewing." Locky explained.
"How much rue did he say to use?"
"Quite a lot more than I’d use myself. Why do you ask?" Valentyna touched the pouch of herbal medicines she always carried with her. "Rue is also used to help women’s troubles.Women can lose their babies if they take it while enceinte. If enough was used people would die from it."
"So why would he want to make mead that would kill all his villagers?" Tuck pondered.
Locky’s and Valentyna’s eyes met. Neither one could come up with a reason.
The Outlaws rode to Malvern, the village near the Baron’s house. The Baron had only recently come into the acquisition of the estate, according to Locky. Prince John gave it to him as a favor to some distant relative. The former Lord Malvern had been a Saxon loyal to King Richard, and the villagers had been very loyal to Lord Malvern. Now they struggled under the thumb of the Baron.
They passed by stubbled fields waiting for the warming touch of spring; passed by the mill and the blacksmith; passed by the alehouse, which Locky eyed with wistfulness, wishing he were back at work brewing. He pulled his hood down a little further over his face, remembering he was a wanted man in this village.
Valentyna viewed everything with a jaundiced eye. Nothing appeared comforting or familiar anymore. Every sight was tainted with Vladek’s blood. Shadows lurked everywhere and she looked for some sign of the evil that had killed her cousin. She itched to look back at Locky, to make sure he still rode behind her. It made her uncomfortable to have his eyes on her back.
The Friar took the horses to the livery while Marion checked the tavern to make sure there were no guards there. Robin and Little John waited behind an outbuilding with Valentyna and Locky.
"Valentyna, how do you know so much about herbs?" Robin asked.
"My Matka was a healer; some might call her Dziwozony. They were legendary women of the woods, very strong and athletic, and very talented in healing." Valentyna touched her medicine pouch absently.
"That could come in handy. And did she teach you your fortune telling skills as well?"
"Nie, I taught myself."
"Y’know," Locky interrupted. "The Baron could have you hung or burned as a witch for fortune telling. Did he know about it?"
Valentyna looked daggers at Locky. "He knew. That was one of the reasons he brought me and Vladek here. He asked me to read for him every day. One of the chambermaids warned me not to draw bad cards or he’d torture and kill me."
"What was the other reason?" asked Little John.
Robin thumped Little John in the chest with his elbow.
When it was safe they made their way to the tavern and they sat at a dark table in the corner.
"Locky, I stopped at the alehouse and asked your assistant to come." Friar Tuck whispered across the table.
"Thank you Friar. Let’s hope Noah can tell us the way things lie now."
Valentyna was furious. "The Baron will have put his own men in the lehouse. He will know we’re here!"
Locky placed his hand on hers, willing her to be quiet. "I raised Noah since he was eight. Anything we tell him stays our little secret."
A serving girl brought a pitcher of ale to the table and left it. She looked tired and paid no attention to anyone at the table.
"Oh miss, do you have imported ales here?" Friar Tuck asked hopefully, remembering the poisonous mead recipe.
"We’re clearin’ out the cellars. Baron’s orders." she flung over her shoulder as she walked away.
"That’s not right. I had kegs of winter wheat beer maturing. They’d be ready by now." Locky protested under his breath.
"Men and their beer." Marion lamented sotto voce in Valentyna’s direction.
In a little while the youth who had been Locky’s assistant stood in the doorway. In no time he was seated at the table with a tankard of ale.
"What’s the good word, Noah?" Robin eyed the doorway. A guard stood just outside the entrance.
Noah related what had happened since Locky had been carted off to prison. The Baron had sent his own men into the alehouse and set the brewers to making ale and mead, to which the Baron himself added herbs and other ingredients. The mead might take longer to mature, but the ale would be ready in weeks.
"Locky, he added a pouch full of herbs to every barrel. I don’t know what was in it, but I have a clue it was the recipe he gave you before." Noah had noticed the direction of Robin’s attention and he glanced nervously at the soldier.
Robin pondered again the purpose of the poisoned ales. Why would the Baron poison his own people?
"He’d have taken over the alehouse entirely if Brother Timothy hadn’t reminded him of Lord Malvern’s will."
Noah had everyone’s attention. All at once they asked: "What will?"
Noah revealed that upon his death all the lands that once belonged to Lord Malvern now belonged to the people of the village as a collective body. The town belonged to itself. Prince John’s gift to the Baron was practically worthless, because the only thing the Baron actually owned was his own house. The village would never pass to him because it would pass down to the children after their parents had passed on.
"If the Baron poisoned everyone he still wouldn’t get the land." Little John pointed out.
"But if he prevented the women from conceiving so there was no one to inherit..." Valentyna pondered.
"So when everyone died childless who would the land pass to?" Locky wondered.
"What do you want to bet it would go to Prince John?" Robin asked
"I’d bet a barrel of my best stout you’re right." Locky answered, a hard gleam in his eye.
"So what do we do about this?" Marion thumped her fist on the table.
Robin turned to Valentyna. "Can you get us into the castle? Do you have any friends in the kitchen?"
"Tak, I do. How are we going to stop him?"
"We? I don’t think you need my help on this one." Robin grinned a dimpled
smile and began to outline his
The following morning Baron Malvern was still in his bed well after sunrise. He lounged there going over the documents he’d received from the priest weeks ago.
The Late Lord Malvern’s will caused him no end of difficulty, but getting rid of the difficulty was going to be delicious to watch. He relished the thought of watching the villagers waste away, suffer horribly for the obstacles they presented him before they died knowing he’d win in the end.
First thing he’d do would be to demolish this hovel of a manor and build himself a proper castle, with all the opulent grandeur he deserved. There was a scratch at the door and he hefted himself out of bed, grabbing for his bed robe. "Come!" he yelled in the direction of the door, fully expecting it to be a kitchen maid come with his morning meal. He was partially correct; it took two maids to bring in the feast this morning.
He surveyed the repast of eggs in cream sauce, bread studded with currants and slathered with sweet thick cream, cold mutton sauced with a winter fruit compote, a wedge of hard yellow cheese and a full flagon of ale. This was quite a treat, even from his own personal cook.
"What has brought this on? Did we receive visiting dignitaries in the middle of the night that I should eat like the king himself this morning?"
The rasp of his voice grated like millstones in the quiet light of day. "No, milord, the cooks have extra help this morning." Said one of the maids, glancing warily from under her reddish-brown curls.
The Baron didn’t miss a thing. "You’re new! I’ve not seen you before.
What is your name?" He placed his hands on his hips, widening the vee of his robe and exposing a little more of his bare chest. He tossed his ebony curls back from his face, swiping angrily at the silver streak that insisted on falling on his brow.
"I’m Marion." she answered, plastering a come-hither smile on her face.
Valentyna had said he had a penchant for pretty serving girls, and it was better for Marion to distract him now and make sure he ate well.
Valentyna’s presence would give away their game before they were ready. She was so fresh, he thought, and possibly just a little bit saucy. Would she prove willing enough sport or not? Best to try a little seduction and survey the lay of the land before planning his attack.
"Did you make this?" he asked her, his nearly colorless eyes flicked over the bodice of her dress as he sampled the eggs. She nodded shyly. He moved the tray of food to the bed and invited her to join him there. She went reluctantly, flickering her eyes to the door where the second serving girl had just let herself out. She knew she had to feed his ego with breakfast, then break him later.
Marion sat up against the foot of his bedstead, with the Baron reclining on his pillows as he ate. He attempted to feed her as well, but all she would eat were pieces of bread and cheese. She drank none of the ale, but encouraged him to drain the flagon himself. If he thought he pleased her by eating the food she’d prepared, it was that much easier to get him to consume it all. He heaped flatteries on Marion and she deflected most of them by offering him more food. How anyone could eat that much for breakfast was beyond her, but Valentyna had assured her this was the easiest way to get to Baron Malvern.
When he’d finished the last morsel of food the Baron fell back against the cushions and closed his eyes in contentment. Maybe the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, Marion reflected. Too bad her cooking only inspired a dull uncomfortable burn in Robin’s heart.
Marion’s attention was caught by the light laughter of the loathsome man at the other end of the bed. "Come, my sweet Marion. I’ve eaten all of your excellent cooking, but now I would sample a taste of you. Are you as succulent as your dishes, I wonder?"
He slipped his hand beneath her hair at the nape of her neck and attempted to draw her up the bed towards him. Marion didn’t fight, just resisted his pull. "Milord, I’ve lied to you. I had help in the kitchen."
His pleasure-laden eyes lifted slightly. "Really? Well then I think she should share in the praise I intend to lavish on you. Let’s call for her and see if she’ll join us, shall we?"
There was another scratch at the door and Marion scrambled off the bed in her rush to open it. The Baron’s lascivious smile turned to awe when he saw
Valentyna walk into the room and to his bedside.
"Valentyna, I had no idea you’d returned! How marvelous. Let’s all celebrate your homecoming together." he tugged at her sleeve. "Hate to crash your little homecoming party, Baron, but we have business to discuss." Robin interrupted. The sound of his voice jolted the Baron, who hadn’t seen Robin or Locky enter the room.
The Baron bolted upright and tied the belt of his robe tighter. "What is the meaning of this?" he yelled, trying to look authoritative while frantically searching his wardrobe for his sword.
"Looking for this?" Valentyna asked. She wore the Baron’s sword on her own hip, as the second serving maid had stolen it for her while Marion distracted the Baron.
"You’ll all rot in the dungeon for invading my private chambers!"
"What about you, Baron?" Locky stepped forward. "How long should we let you rot for attempting to murder an entire village?
The Baron sniffed indignantly. "I don’t know what you’re talking about.
You are the murderer here and should have been hanged long ago."
"I don’t think so." Locky put his hand on Valentyna’s shoulder and they faced him together. "You had one of your soldiers murder Vladek, because he overheard you plotting to poison the villagers. He would have warned the priest who would have told everyone else, so you sent him on an errand and had one of your men kill him on the way."
"You made sure Vladek’s errand took him close to the ale house. At that late hour the only person to find him would have been Locky. If you could blame Locky for killing Vladek then he wouldn’t be able to tell anyone you’d asked him to poison his ales for you, not to mention that left no one to oppose you in the alehouse when you made your lethal brews." Valentyna’s anger simmered just under the surface; Locky’s presence behind her gave her the strength to keep it in check.
The Baron sputtered and stammered for a minute before yelling for his guards.
"Oh I wouldn’t worry about their interference." Robin smirked. "Little
John and Friar Tuck are taking care of them. You understand, we didn’t want to be disturbed, and thought you’d appreciate the gesture as well."
"Why would you think that?" A fine sheen of perspiration dotted the Baron’s brow, his color turning decidedly pale.
"Don’t you feel well, Baron?" Locky asked.
"Must be something he ate." Marion replied.
Something twisted uncomfortably in the Baron’s stomach, an ache paired with a roiling nausea that had him leaning weakly on the bedpost. "Maybe I just ate too fast."
"Could be," Valentyna pondered as she examined him more closely. "It could be the rue I put in your ale."
The Baron blanched even more. "Rue? How much?"
"Just enough." Val taunted.
"You put it in his ale? I put it in the mutton!" Robin commented.
"You put it in the mutton? I put it in the eggs!" Marion added.
"Lets see, that much can make you sick, can’t it Valentyna?" asked Locky.
Valentyna appeared shocked. "Why yes I hadn’t thought of that!"
The Baron was looking very green by now and ran hurriedly toward the garderobe just off his bed chamber. Robin met him at the door, blocking the way with his sword.
"You don’t look well, Baron. I think you need to take a trip to recover. A nice long trip. Maybe back to the continent?"
The Baron groaned an assent just as Robin allowed him to pass. The door slammed loudly behind him and the groaning became louder as the Baron’s breakfast disagreed vehemently with his stomach.
Robin looked once at the door, then back to his friends. "I think he’s
gonna go on a diet after this."
The Baron had vacated the manor with his personal staff, and the village no longer had to worry about being poisoned. Locky directed his workers to dump the doctored brews where they would not run off into the wells and he began work on a new project with his new assistant.
Robin, Marion, Little John, and Friar Tuck went to the alehouse to say goodbye to Locky and Valentyna.
"So you’re going to stay here, Valentyna?" Robin asked. "I thought you would have wanted to go home to Poland."
"Nie, I think I will give England a second chance. My new employer offered me quite a bit more than my last one."
Valentyna gave a warm glance back at Locky, who was skimming a large kettle of steaming honey water that would soon become mead. "And I think I can help these people. They have no healer but the barber who comes once a year. I’m truly needed here."
"So you’re going to stay and play doctor?" Marion laughed.
"I’m hoping to convince her to stay and play house." Locky admitted as he joined them. "I’ve become attached to my Valentine, and I’ve asked her to be mine."
"Congratulations! That’s wonderful." Little John exclaimed.
"You know, I thought I sensed something brewing between you two." Tuck pointed out.
"Hopefully we will have something new brewing in here as well." Locky grinned excitedly. "I’ve recently come across an Irish recipe for a red lager. I hope it comes out well. If it does I’ll send some barrels to you, Friar."
"I can’t wait. What’s the name of your brewery?"
"It’s my last name, Killian."
Friar Tuck shook Locky’s hand as the brewer led them to the door. "I will be eagerly awaiting a taste of Killian’s Irish Red."
"What about you two? What can we send to you?" Valentyna asked Robin and Marion.
"I’m sorry to say I’m not really fond of beer." Robin demurred.
"I’ll save you some mead then." Valentyna smiled knowingly.
"How long does that take?"
"It will be ready in time for your wedding." Val leaned back against Locky’s strong arms as he wrapped them around her.
"Whose wedding?" Robin asked as Marion tugged on the back of his tunic.
"Yours, you silly fool!"
Locky and Valentyna laughed together as Robin clumsily mounted his horse, still dumbfounded at Val’s announcement, and followed Marion’s horse toward home.
"How do you know about those two?" Locky whispered in her ear.
"It’s all in the cards, my love."
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