“What the hell’s this?” James’ eyes narrowed as he wiped the rust from his fingertips on his stark white lab coat.
The old hag smiled, revealing dark swollen sockets where teeth should’ve been. “That key,” She cackled, “is the beginning of your adventure.”
James scrutinized the old hag. She leaned against what was left of a broom. It was by no means a modern broom, but a bundle of grain stalks bound with woven cloth. The ends of the stalks were burnt as if the broom had been used as a torch. The handle was a dead branch a crook indicating it had been broken off a much larger branch rather than cut with a tool.
The old hag withdrew her hand from her pocket and with embellishment normally reserved for stage magicians, revealed a gold coin. “This coin,” She brought her hand within inches of his nose. “This coin is your ticket home.”
James furrowed his eyebrows and held his breath, avoiding smelling the dirty hand. He reached for the coin, but the old hag clenched her fist.
“Pay the ferryman this coin to go home.” She flicked the coin towards James who caught it in the air. One side had a profile of a face. James flipped the coin over in his hand. The other side contained simply the letter ‘V.’
“Are you ready?” wheezed the old hag.
James shrugged, but before he could vocalize his answer, the old hag produced the thigh bone of a large animal, brushed the broken end on her broom, and stabbed James in the shoulder.
“What the f…” He shouted as he slumped to the floor.
His vision faded. He was aware of the old hag kneeling over his prostrate body. With his last fragment of consciousness, he felt her roll his body over and place items in each of his hands. Before darkness consumed him, he felt the old hag kiss him tenderly on the forehead.
* * *
My head hurts.
James brought his fists to his eyes to shield them from the brilliant sun light.
How much did I drink last night?
He rubbed his eyes and sat up. He unclenched his fists to reveal a gold coin in one and a rusty key in the other. Looking around, his eyes took in the lush green expanse before him. He breathed in the cool, fresh air. Both these were in stark contrast to the city he had lived in for his entire adult life.
“Oi!! What’er you doin there?”
James looked around to discern the source of the voice. He shielded his eyes from the sunlight with the hand still gripping the key.
“Stealing fro’ me?” The voice transitioned from curiosity to anger. The key was ripped from his grasp, followed by a kick to the kidney. “Imma talkin to you!”
“Stop!” He bellowed. Rolling to his side to confront the voice, he rubbed his eyes once again. The woman belonging to the voice had a slender build with flowing brown hair. She wore a tunic almost the same color as her hair. Her bare feet were dirty and she carried herself with an elegance James couldn’t quite place.
“You work for me, no?”
“Madam.” James spoke through clenched teeth. “I have never laid eyes upon you. I would certainly have remembered such violent feet as yours.”
“Mi’lord.” The woman spoke quietly and bowed her head in submission. “Apologies. I mistook you for one of my field hands.”
James rose to his feet. “Is this how you treat your employees?”
“Employees?” Still looking down. “I’m not sure what that word means, Mi’lord.”
“Damn it.” He whispered. He was about to unleash a torrent of profanities but was stopped by the sight of the woman crossing herself.
“A curse, Mi’lord?” She sniffled and James had to strain to hear her next words. “My actions are hardly befitting a pox upon me.”
The woman looked up with wet eyes. “Does thou dabble in witchcraft?”
James sighed. “No. I’m just angry – that’s all.”
The woman crossed herself again. “Thank the Lord.”
James brushed weeds and grain stalks from his lab coat.
“You speak funny and your garb is equally odd.” She proclaimed. “And how did you come to possess my key?”
“An old…” He paused, “woman, gave it to me. She said it was my key to adventure.” He looked at the woman. “What’s it for?”
The woman smiled. “Follow me.” She commanded.
James followed the woman down a path to a stone building with a thatched straw roof.
Adventure, indeed. He thought.
* * *
Over the next few weeks, James busied himself assisting the woman. He came to know her name was Elizabeth and she hated it when he called her “Liz.” She was widowed young and ran her late husband’s brewery and farm that grew the barley, hops and other grains used in fermenting the brew. He figured he was in the 16th century, and found that although he had foreknowledge, his skills as a chemical lab tech were of the most value. Knowing how to operate a computer or a mass spectrometer weren’t skills he could transition to the new world he found himself a part of. He suspected even if he could, he wouldn’t want to. His apparent skill as a brewer brought fame as artisans came to Elizabeth’s brewery to learn from him. As he and Elizabeth worked side by side to improve and streamline the brewery’s processes, he found himself coveting the time they had together.
They were on a walk in the woods surrounding the fields when their conversation turned towards their first meeting.
“I never thought I’d feel this way again…” Elizabeth’s voice trailed off as she smelled a wild flower James had given her moments before.
Elizabeth scowled and hit him with the flower. “Why do you persist? You know I hate being called that.”
He held her free hand and led her to a stump that was a frequent destination on their walks. He sat on the stump and looked up into her eyes. He reached out and caressed her cheek.
“My mother’s name is Elizabeth. My father called her Liz. They were always happy together.”
“I’d like to meet your mother.” Elizabeth whispered, speaking into her chest.
“She’s far away.” He stood and lifted her chin. “Why do you do that?”
“In matters of business you’re a strong, confident woman. But when we’re alone…” He stopped talking when her eyes teared up. “What’s the matter?”
“I’m a widow.” She wiped her eye with her free palm. “Nineteen years old and a widow.”
“Three years isn’t that long to be married and you bore no children.”
Elizabeth dropped his hand and turned her back to him. “I’ve no need for heirs, but since I’ve met you.” She turned to him and he drew her into an embrace.
He started by kissing her forehead. She held her breath as he kissed his way to her lips. His hands wandered first to the small of her back and then to her posterior. His lips migrated to her neck and bosom. She moaned at the attention he provided and allowed him to lift her up. He continued kissing her while using a hand to undo the toggle buttons to her tunic. She followed suit freeing him from his trousers. He lowered her gently and she gasped as they coupled.
He was an expert in both technique and attention. She shuddered time and time again before he was finally spent. They collapsed onto the ground still entwined, still embracing one another. They lie in a pile of leaves, panting and peeling leaves from anywhere sweaty skin was exposed.
* * *
“Do we need to talk?” James asked as they walked back to the brewery. They had walked in silence most of the return from their woodland liaison.
“What about?” She asked.
“Well, usually marriage precedes…” His voice trailed as he struggled to find the correct word.
“I don’t want to remarry.” She stated. “I’ll not cede my holdings to a man.” She stopped walking and grabbed his hand. “No matter how I feel about him.”
He kissed her hand and replied, “As you wish, Elizabeth.”
They held hands and didn’t separate for the rest of the walk.
* * *
Their liaisons continued for weeks. They maintained the same level of passion and intensity as their initial coupling. They stopped hiding their intimacy and stolen kisses and touches were frequently witnessed by the farm hands. When there was business to be performed, Elizabeth became distant until that business was completed.
It was after one of these difficult business negotiations James and Elizabeth found themselves by the same stump on another stroll through the woods. “James. I’ve got news to share.”
James raised his eyebrows in response.
She grabbed his hand and placed it on her belly. “I’m with child.”
He held her face and kissed her. “That’s wonderful news!”
“I’m glad you feel that way.” She kicked at some leaves. “We need to see my brother.”
“Yes it’s important to me he meet you.”
“Let’s do it ASAP.
“As soon as possible.”
She giggled, “You continue to talk funny after all this time. Perhaps that’s why I love you.”
James pulled her by the arm towards the brewery. “I love you too. Let’s go.”
* * *
James sat in a high-backed chair in the antechamber of Elizabeth’s brother’s estate. It was eight months later and Elizabeth was ready to pop. They had finished another visit with her brother and he wait for her to say her goodbyes.
Elizabeth appeared and held her back. She breathed deeply. “James. We need to go to the midwife.”
James jumped up and rushed to her. “Now?” He asked.
“Now!” She winced.
They raced to her brother’s stables to procure the fastest horse and buggy. Her brother met them at the stables and ordered his ferryman to drive them to the midwife.
The trip was uneventful and as the buggy stopped in front of the midwife, James stepped out to help Elizabeth out on to the cobblestone. When his foot struck the stone, a gold coin fell from his pocket.
The ferryman stooped to retrieve the coin. “Mi’lord. You dropped a coin.”
He picked up the coin and extended it to James. When James touched the coin, a blue spark emanated between the coin and both of the men’s fingers. James blacked out immediately and the ferryman was able to catch Elizabeth while James collapsed to the ground.
* * *
James opened his eyes to see another lab tech looming over him.
“You all right, man?”
“I’m not sure. Where am I?”
“You’re in the lab. What happened?”
“I’m not sure.” James sat up. “Help me up man.”
James’ coworker helped him to his feet. “You need to head home. We got this.”
“You can’t work it alone.”
“No worries, man. We got the new girl to fill in.”
“Yeah, she started today. Her name’s Elizabeth I think.”