A crowd gathered outside of the chancellery waiting for news about the stranger found unconscious inside an abandoned building in the woods at the edge of town. Visitors to Shambles were a grievous rarity, a remedy to tragedy. Strangers only appeared when a villager died out of sequence and new stock was needed.
This man’s arrival righted the imbalance caused by the untimely death of Tracker Conner the night prior to his discovery. It was as if the stranger stumbled into Shambles as Conner crossed the borderline into Empyrean.
All chatter stopped when the village Elders exited the chancellery and climbed the stairs to a quickly constructed stage. High Elder Wynn stood at the rostrum waiting for the babel to subside. Arms by his side, a stern expression on his wizened face, his presence was enough to quell any unrest.
“The visitor is awake,” Wynn said, his voice carrying across the courtyard. “Our healers have pronounced him worthy. He is consigned to Tracker Conner’s widow, Eryn, until which time she has fulfilled her procreative obligations.”
A young woman pushed through the crowd, shouting her disapproval.
“Foul! Foul!” Hester shoved people out of her way rushing to the dais. “The stranger was promised to me! I was chosen to be next.”
Wynn allowed the crowd a moment of grumbling before he raised his hand, signaling for quiet.
“Be still, Hester,” he said unkindly. “Eryn and Conner were without issue. With his inopportune death, she holds sway over this matter.”
“Is it my concern if the cow is barren?” Hester turned to address the crowd. “Promises were made, a stranger arrived. The pairing belongs to me.”
“You will hold your tongue!” Wynn’s voice bombed, silencing the crowd. “Your only concern is the welfare of this village. Any offspring of Eyrn’s is promised to Dianne and Steffon. Any offspring of yours would be unsuitable. You are fully aware of that. Stop your selfish prattle.”
The crowd solemnly parted, yielding a path to the village doulas. They escorted Eryn into the chancellery to meet her new consort. Through their guidance and ministrations, a successful fusion would result and the village bloodlines would remain untainted by inbreeding.
Eryn entered Vincent’s room, followed silently by the doulas.
“You’re the one?” Vincent nervously looked around the sparsely appointed room, stopping his gaze on the small wad of women lingering in the far corner.
“I am Eyrn.” She kept a demure distance from the stranger. “The Elders told you what is to come?”
“It doesn’t make sense,” Vincent said. “I can’t stay here. I have a wife, family, friends. They’ll be worried about me. I love my wife, I won’t betray her.”
“You will do what is necessary, then you will be returned to your time, your life,” Eryn said, moving closer while unbuttoning her frock and dropping it to the floor. “While here, you will come to embrace your standing in Shambles. I am a woman of some influence, but I won’t ask you to stay longer than necessary.”
The doulas arranged privacy screens around the couple as Eryn climbed into bed with Vincent, straddling her powerless captive.
Vincent remained in Shambles until the doulas confirmed Eryn’s pregnancy and until the birth of her son, Galen. After a night of revelry at the infant’s naming ceremony, Vincent awoke at White River General Hospital, the memories of Shambles slowly fading.
Trina explained again to her husband’s parents why he was in the hospital. She called them after Vincent’s accident to tell them that park rangers found their only son inside an abandoned building near his favorite hiking trail. He had no visible injuries, but was still unconscious and unresponsive.
A middle-aged doctor walked into the stark waiting room, a stethoscope peeking out of a pocket of her white lab coat. Her blank expression gave no clues to what news she was there to deliver to the small group of people. She stood in the center of the room. Trina and Vincent’s family and friends huddled close, expecting the worst.
Trina fought back grateful tears. Hugging her parents, she followed the doctor to Vincent’s room. Still hooked up to a daunting array of machines, he looked pale and vulnerable. His weak but familiar smile was all she needed to tell her that he was really back.
He smoothed the sheet on the side of his bed, a gesture she knew so well. Sitting close, Trina took his hand, drawing it to her cheek.
“You had us worried,” she said, keeping his hand wrapped with both of hers.
“I’m sorry I was gone for so long,” Vincent said. “I wanted to come back, but couldn’t get away.”
Trina looked at the doctor still in the room, an unasked question flittering across her face.
“Vincent,” the doctor began, “how long do you think you were ‘away’?”
He looked from the doctor to Trina, confused by the question.
“You know,” he said. “It was months.”
“Doctor?” Trina stood up and backed away from Vincent’s bed.
The doctor put her hand on Trina’s shoulder.
“That’s nothing to be concern about,” she said. “It’s not unusual for a patient to be confused after initially waking from a coma.”
“I’m not confused,” Vincent said. “I was gone for almost a year.”
“While it is impossible to know precisely what occurs in a patient’s mind while unconscious, many patients report having vivid hallucinations, dreams, that feel very real.” The doctor addressed Trina, “Often it is recovering from those images that is more difficult than healing from their actual injuries.”
“What are you two talking about?” Vincent tried to push up from his bed, tugging on the IV tubes feeding into his arm.
Trina sat back down next to him, gently laying her hand on his chest, holding him to the bed.
“Vincent,” she choked on his name. “It hasn’t been months. You’ve only been unconscious for little more than a day.”