"Bess! Leave the horses to Tim, the guests need a dinner!" Bess dismounted her gray mare to see her father calling to her from the dusty windowsill of the inn. She tucked a stray strand of her unkempt black hair behind her ears and took a few steps towards his projected head.

"The horses need exercise." She said simply, glancing at him with a slightly defiant gleam in her eye. Her father grunted at her.

"It's not your place, child-the guests need dinner, and you need to cook it." His Irish brogue had been heavily slurred by his whiskey intake. She stood a moment more, as he stared at her with impatience. "I'll have none of your temper, Bess. Leave the horse to Old Tim."

"I'll be in in a minute. Start heating some water for the stew!" Bess called after his retreating figure from the window. She slapped the horse's hindquarters. "Go on, Molly!" The mare began trotting gracefully towards the barn, as was her habit.

Bess hurried across the hay and mud to the back kitchen door, pulling her hair back in a red handkerchief as she went. Stepping across the threshold, she was accosted by the sound of men's laughter, and the usual scent of yeast, sweat, and whiskey.

She shook her head as she walked past the cookstove, unsurprised to see that no pot of boiling water was present. Looking through the doorway, she could see her father drinking at his usual table, talking with the usual customers. She hurriedly loaded a pot with potatoes and water, and ran into the other room.

About twenty glasses of whiskey raised up with the shouting of men as Bess stepped in behind the bar, still tying her apron around her waist. She gave them a smile.

It was the same crowd of regulars as always, mainly farmhands wanting something to relax them before they went home to their families. Mainly good men. Only one unfamiliar body lurked in the corner, wearing velvet and black leather boots. A dark hat to hid his face. Bess wasn't surprised- noblemen weren't uncommon at this inn, since it was the only halfway decent one for a good 20 miles. She was more surprised that there was only one, with the storm that had started raging outside. Lords never liked to get their clothes wet.

"What will we be recievin' from the angels tonight, Bess?" One toothless old man shouted.

"Tonight we've got potato stew and plenty of ale!" another cheer went up and several amply-endowed men rubbed their expansive guts in anticipation.

Old Bill Malone winked at her as he put his mug forward. "Thank the Heavens you got here when you did, Bess," he grunted as she filled his cup. "I was about empty, and Shawn's getting to drunk to be fillin' the orders." He fell off his chair laughing at his own joke.

"I can see that," she said quietly. Bess looked up to watch her father spill more amber liquid on his shirt as he tipped his glass back.

"Another round then, Bess?" someone hollered behind her.

By midnight most of the men had gone home to their disapproving wives. With Shawn asleep in the corner, Bess was left to round up the last few stragglers. As usual, she ended up hoisting most of them off the floor.

"Come on, up you get, Peter. The inn's closing for the night." Bess dragged the semi-conscious man to his feet. Peter steadied himself on the table.

"You make wonderful stew, Bess. . ." He half-mumbled to her, squinting, "Just like your mother's stew. . ." Bess smiled and helped him to the door.

"Now, what would your wife think if she were hearing you?" Bess grinned again. "On with you now, before the storm starts sending spirits out." He staggered toward the barn. He would make it alright, she knew. He always did.

With only the nobleman and her father left, Bess made her way over to the corner, clearing up the tables as she went. Her father snored behind her.

"And where have you come from Sir?" It wasn't a good idea to rush a lord, but Bess could tell by the way he had isolated himself that he had wanted to be alone. If this didn't get him out of the bar or into a room, she would just have to try less subtle tactics.

It was a long time before he answered. In his hand he held a gold coin, which he continually palmed and flashed, performing the same slight of hand trick over and over again. He tipped his hat up to reveal a young face with dark, clever brown eyes.

"Many places," he said elusively, in a polished Victorian accent. "I never stay anywhere too long." He gave her a slightly conspiratorial smile, as if flaunting the secrets he didn't share.

Bess shook her head, holding back her curiosity. Save it for a day when there aren't any dishes to wash, she told herself. "May I ask then, if you're planning on staying here for the night, then? Or should I go ask the ostler to get your horses ready?" If that wasn't blunt, she didn't know what was, but she was in no mood to patronize richer men.

"How much for a room? I made no minds to stay, but I don't think I want to ride in that unless it's necessary." He gestured to the pelting rain outside. It had battered the dirt road into a slick expanse of mud.

"What, no carriage?" her tone was laced with as much sarcasm as could be allowed. He didn't answer her retort, just started at her and waited for an answer to his question.

"Ten shillings for the room, and five for the ale and stew." She said, taking his empty glass from him. He began to palm the coin in his hand again, his eyes flashing every time he revealed the gold once more against the candlelight.

"Tell me, is your bar normally full of regulars, or am I not the only stranger to pass through?" he asked passively, never taking his eyes off the coin. Bess gave him a strange look.

"We get some." She answered, throwing his own vagueness back in his face.

"Strangers?" he asked looking up, trying to finish her ambiguous sentence. Without glancing at it, he continued to move the coin around in his hand.

"Yes." She smiled slyly. Bess looked down to find that she had been scrubbing the same spot on the table for the past five minutes. Giving up the effort, she sat down.

"Why?" she asked, tempting fate by being so abrupt.

"Just wanted a guesstimate of how long I'd be staying here." Bess stopped trying to read into what he clearly thought was none of her business.

"Alright then." Bess said airily, and stood up to take the glass to the kitchen. At the door she turned around. "You can get a room with a key for two shillings more, if you like." He seemed like the type who would want a locked door.

"I'll pay it." He said, and watched her go.

When she came back with the key, he handed her the gold piece. She stared a moment.

"This is quite a bit more than 27 shillings, Sir." She glared at him, her green eyes questioning and suspicious. "You expecting any . . . favors, to go along with the bed and food? I'll tell you now; it's not that kind of inn."

The stranger's eyes widened a moment as he felt the flare of her temper. "You have seen some strangers pass through here, haven't you?" Bess just stood and glared, not denying that many men had tried that trick before. He grinned a moment, and shook his head, standing. He took the key from her outstretched hand.

"Have no fear, Madam," he said with a slight bow. "I just enjoyed the conversation." Quickly turning on his heel, he took up the saddle bag that had been resting against his chair, and walked up the stairs to the rooms.

Bess let out a frustrated sigh. Looking at her father still asleep against the table, she stalked off to the kitchen. There were plenty of mugs to wash.

The next morning, Bess awoke early and ran down to open shop. Her father, still asleep at the table, groaned at the light that suddenly invaded the dining room. Bess slammed a cup of water down in front of his face, making him jump back from the table.

"Drink this," she said hurriedly. "If you're not awake, you can't feed anyone, now, can you?" Shawn just blinked in semi-understanding, groaning in protest of the thought of approaching the day. Bess ignored him and continued.

"I've left some bread and cheese out on the kitchen table, if any of the guests want breakfast, that'll do them. . ." She began unlocking the doors and taking down chairs.

"Wait," he said, in a low, far-off voice. "Where are you going, then?" The bench creaked with relief as he slowly staggered to stand up.

"Molly needs some exercise. . . In that rain, I doubt Tim did anything with her at all. . ."

"Bess. . ." Shawn said, chidingly.

"I must to the Miller's as well." Bess said, by way of excuse. She ran up the stairs for her shawl.

"Bess. . ." He said again, slightly harsher.

"I can't bake any break if we're out of flour, now can I?" she shouted down, exasperatedly, "No need for fuss, the Miller's no more than an hour's journey away-I'll be back in time to start serving ale." She coaxed, helping him to walk to the kitchen. Prevailing him to drink the glass of water, she ignored is half-hearted grumblings, kissed him on top of the head, and dashed out the door.

"Tim!. . .Tim!" She ran excitedly towards the barn. She ran inside, only to find Molly's stall empty. Sudden fears flashed through Bess' head; Molly could have broken loose during the storm, she could have run away through the rain, untrackable. Turning around, a figure suddenly became known to Bess, subtly waiting in the shadows. At first, the only feature the light fell upon the man's one eye, roaming madly, blinded by a ghostly white film that flattened its views and rendered it sightless. Slowly, the remainder of the ostler's curious features advanced into view-his other eye, sharp, black, and inquisitive, staring fixedly at Bess while it's brother continued to roll this way and that without self control, his sagging, aged face and matted gray hair, haphazardly tied back, his ruddy shirt and trousers, no longer discernable as any color but brown. A rope, clenched in his bony fingers, led Molly out to Bess.

"I had a feeling you'd be wanting to ride her today, Ma'm" He continued to watch her intently. Bess smiled.

"Thank you Tim. I should be back within a few hours' time. Take care to look in every now and then and try to keep Shawn from the rum?" Bess mounted the horse as she spoke. Tim waved her off.

"I will Ma'm! Take care on the roads!" He cried hoarsely, smiling with what few teeth he had left. Smiling at her retreating figure, long after she had vanished from sight.

Bess, now out of the sight of her father and the others, pressed Molly faster. She had long ago talked herself out of being a dreamer, but it was in moments of speed and solitude such as this that she often let her mind be idle. Not taking care to slow down the horse, Bess quickly turned off the road and into the bordering forest. With her speed and some well-placed shortcuts, she could easily have a half and hour to herself before anyone expected her at the inn.

Bess turned again through the trees onto a well-trodden path she had taken many times before. It would get her to the millers in half the time. Now she could have the ease of slowing down for once.

Off to her far right through the trees, Bess thought for a moment she caught a wisp of smoke rising up from the bushes. Slowing down, she looked again, only to find thin air and the sound of wind in the trees. Kicking Molly again, she sped up, chastising herself for wasting time.

By the time she reached the flour mill and put in her order, the gray clouds above had evolved into menacing warnings of another storm.

"Better get yourself back, Bess," Tom Bingley said, handing her two sacks of flower and twenty shillings change, "The banshees haven't finished their screaming on our fields yet-it's bound to start raining any minute.

"Thanks Tom!" Bess hoisted the flour sacks onto Molly's back and rode to outrun the storm.

Passing through the trees once more, Bess couldn't help but stop a moment to see if the smoke had continued from where she had seen it last. Yes, there it was, the same small wisp of a dying cookfire. Bess drew a breath as she suddenly felt the point of a sword pushed against her back.

"Don't turn around, Madam." A clipped British accent ordered cordially. A highwayman. Bess sighed in frustration. The voice sounded somewhat familiar, but Bess' mind was on too many other things for her to worry about it.

The sword point suddenly left its post pressed against Bess' back. "Don't move." The robber warned again. Bess felt the flat of the blade flow smoothly down the curve of her waste. A weight suddenly lifted from her one side. Out of the corner of her eye, Bess could see the ropes of her coin purse, now caught on the tip of a robber's sword.

The horse pawed uneasily at the ground.

"Shh, Molly," Bess coaxed.

"Interesting name for a horse." The robber remarked behind her. With such apprehension racing through her blood, Bess' quick temper was running even thinner than usual. Sarcasm from someone who had just stolen from her was the last thing she could bear.

"She was named for my mother." Bess said abruptly.

"Ah, milady. I don't think she would be at all pleased to hear that you had named a horse after her." The man said in a patronizing tone.

"Whatever her opinion may be, she will not speak it; her tongue has been stopped for quite some time now." Bess sat a moment in silence, wondering if the thief had gone and left her to her ramblings.

"You have my sympathies, milady." He said finally.

"You may keep your sympathies, and return my twenty shillings." Bess said shortly. She started to turn in anger.

"Ah, lady," the thief said, lifting a hand to stop her, "I would not attempt that that, if I were you. I would not want to be forced to do anything rash."

"I don't care what the devil himself thinks-" Bess started, shoving away his hand and roughly starting to turn.

A blindfold suddenly blackened the world around her, and she could suddenly feel the mans hands gently placed on the back of her head. A voice suddenly whispered in her ear.

"Milady, your unshakeable resolve is most admired." The weight of his hands suddenly lifted, and the warmth of his breath was gone from her neck. Ripping the cloth off her face and turning, Bess was not surprised to find that he had gone. Her face burned in anger and embarrassment. A flash of red suddenly caught her vision.

A elegant, red satin ribbon now rested on her lap where the coin purse had been. Bess gasped at the sheer vivacity of the color with which it displayed itself in perfect splendor. This was worth more than a mere twenty shillings. As it had been waiting for the confrontation to end, rain suddenly began pouring from the sky.

Blessing her luck that the highwayman had been so careless in dropping it, Bess hurried her horse for home.