Keira awoke to light filtering in through the latched shutters over the cot in the attic room she’d retreated to the night before. In the light of day, she could see that it was sparsely decorated, the wood cot and a rickety chair the only furniture aside from a small chest of drawers. Yet the fresh flowers and filled water pitcher on top of the chest told her that someone had done their best to bring some homey touches to the room. The thick, hand-sewn quilt of rich red and blue fabric that she was currently curled up under confirmed this suspicion. She would have liked to have stayed tucked away forever, had it not been for the rumbling she heard coming from her stomach.
Reluctantly, she slid out from underneath her warm covers and stepped gingerly onto the rough-hewn floorboards. Chilly as it was, she wrapped the old quilt around her shoulders and plodded toward the door, feeling comforted and oddly protected by its substantial weight.
Stepping out into the hallway, she heard a faint, lyrical humming coming from below, and the unmistakable smell of freshly fried bacon wafted up to her. Her stomach growled again to remind her of its deprivation and otherwise ill-treatment the day before. Conceding, she carefully eased her way down the tightly twisting staircase to the warm kitchen below. Elliott stood at a worktable against the far window, scraping freshly cut herbs into a stone mortar and grinding them into a thick paste with a pestle.
“I’ve left you some fresh bacon on the stove and buttered bread underneath that cloth over there.” Elliott gestured over his shoulder with his pestle. “Danny’s out working with the horses, but he’ll be back in for dinner around midday.”
Keira shuffled over to what must have been the stovetop, oddly shaped though it was. It looked to be made of an ironlike material of some sort. She scooped a few pieces of bacon onto the plate Elliott had left out for her. It smelled heavenly, and she quickly bit into the largest piece, her eyes closing in rapture. She heard chuckling and opened one eye to see Elliott smiling at her. She shrugged at him. “I’ve never been one to turn down free food.”
“So what’s with the stove?” Keira asked between eager bites. “Isn’t this supposed to be the Dark Ages or something? At the Renaissance faire, everybody had to cook over open fires.” Even just saying it made Keira feel ridiculous. Elliott didn’t laugh though, continuing to grind his herbs as he added small dribbles of water from a nearby tankard until it reached a paste-like consistency.
“An open fire is far more common here, yes,” Elliott explained in that thick BBC accent of his. “One advantage of coming from other times and places is that it gives you superb ideas on how to reduce the soot content of the average kitchen.” Elliott eyed her over his shoulder. “We also bathe more than your average villager, placing a higher premium on clean clothes and personal hygiene.” Keira blushed at this, remembering that she was still wearing the same clothes from yesterday, though she doubted that Elliott had meant his comments to be pointed.
“But remember,” Elliott continued, sounding professorial, “this isn’t the actual Dark Ages, at least not so far as you learned about them. Well, first of all, it could be argued that it far more closely resembles classical antiquity.” He actually sounded excited now. “But we are actually in an entirely different world, with different lands and where ideas and innovations travel differently. For instance, we’ve managed to configure a pump outside that draws from our well. It’s all really quite interesting!” Keira couldn’t help but smile at his obvious delight and tried in vain to stifle the yawn that came suddenly, unbidden.
Elliott cocked his head, looking sheepish. “You must still be exhausted. I’ve laid out some clean clothes for you by the washtub in the back room, the pantry where we keep our stores.” He smiled kindly.
Ok, Keira thought, maybe his earlier comment was pointed. Regardless, Keira thanked him and went outside to draw up the water she’d need for her bath. The filling bucket was not very large, and it took Keira a number of trips to manage it. She’d all but resigned herself to the cold dunking that awaited her hard work and was about to pull off her sweatshirt when Elliott knocked on the door to the back room. She opened it for him.
“Just a moment,” Elliott said.
Kneeling by the filled washtub, he reached a long white hand into the water, letting the water flow through his fingers. He closed his eyes and hummed a single long note to himself. Keira was just about to ask what exactly he was trying to do when she noticed gentle ripples begin under the surface. Keira could only stare as the ripples turned to bubbles, which themselves popped on the surface and emitted a gentle steam into the air. When he was clearly satisfied with his work, Elliott withdrew his hand, wiping it on his tunic as he stood up. Keira could only gape at him as he grinned widely, clearly proud of himself.
“Now it’s ready.”
“H-How? W-What on earth did you do?” Keira stammered, barely coherent.
Elliott just smiled before pointing and sternly replying, “First, bathe. Then we’ll talk.”
He strode out of the room, leaving Keira staring at her now near-scalding bathwater and wondering just what she had gotten herself into.
As Keira stretched languidly in the steaming bath, she could feel her muscles slowly unwind, bringing solace that not even sleep could offer. At that moment, she could have been anywhere, in a spa somewhere or even just back at her apartment off campus. She inhaled the steaming vapor through flared nostrils and opened her eyes. The wood-paneled back room of the small farmhouse greeted her, with its muted tones of earthy beige. She sighed.
She still couldn’t wrap her mind around everything that had happened. Somehow, impossibly, she had left the only world she’d ever known. But did she really believe it? She was a scientist, after all, destined for medical school and life as a physician. Was she prepared to accept this new and unexplained reality into her cosmic worldview? She shook her head.
But I saw it.
She’d watched Elliott heat the water with his bare hands. No one could create heat from nothing; that much she knew undeniably. Then how did he do it? She was itching to ask him, to make him explain it to her in detail, but something in her resisted, unwilling to be suckered into whatever trick she still somehow believed it to be. She refused to believe she was really alone. Her mom had to be out there, somewhere.
Sure, Keira and her mom, Tammy, had never had the most normal of mother-daughter relationships. Keira’s dad had taken off before she’d even started walking. Tammy had done her best; Keira had to give her that. But being a young, single mom was a tough gig under the best of circumstances, and Lord knew Tammy’s circumstances were never the best. Keira had never met her grandparents, but had certainly heard stories. Between her flighty mother and alcoholic father, Tammy had spent her childhood dreaming of escape. When she finally did, she set about to make a better life for herself than the one she’d grown up with. And as Norman Rockwell and the Hallmark channel had made evidently clear, a better life required a man.
Keira didn’t know much about her father. Tammy had alternately flat out refused to talk about him or else spun the most obviously absurd fairy tales, which Keira couldn’t help but laugh at, quickly defusing that line of inquiry. The only thing Keira knew for certain is that he had existed and that somewhere along the line, he’d decided to take off on her and her mother. Deeply insecure, Tammy had spent the years that followed flitting between men, exchanging one loser for another until they became a spinning carousel in Keira’s memory, one painted ass indistinguishable from the next.
Keira glanced down to realize that her hands had balled into fists, her nails biting into her wrinkled palms. With a deep breath, she willed herself to unfold them. Her relationship with her mother was . . . complicated, to say the least. A pang of guilt cut through her. What if her mom had survived the crash? What if she was out there somewhere, looking for her? Keira wasn’t sure how this whole cross-worlds thing worked. Did time move differently here? She pressed her fingertips briefly into her temples before resolutely heaving herself out of the tub. One way or another, she would figure out what the hell was going on.