Trembling, Brettel touched the iron gate. It didn’t burn. She huffed. Foolish woman, why would it? She gripped a bar tightly and held onto the solidness of home.
Reaching through the bars, she raised the latch and pushed the gate open. Silently. Before it had made god-awful noises. Her breath caught. No. Oh, no. Holding the gate open, she studied the house before her.
She knew the sage bushes and willows that lined the path to the door. The swing hanging on the left side of the porch was an old friend. To the right stood the same rocking chairs that had stood there since time immemorial. Brettel smiled. This was home. This was where she belonged.
Someone had oiled the gate. In all these years, someone should have. It was a small change. Things would have. She had. But this was still home. Still where she belonged.
She hurried up the path, took a deep breath, and knocked. She’d been gone too long to just walk in.
An adolescent girl yanked the door open a few heartbeats later. She looked Brettel up and down, raised an eyebrow and said, “Yes?”
Who–? Brettel frowned and shook her head. It didn’t matter. “Is this still the carpenter’s residence?”
“He takes orders at his shop.” The girl pointed to adjacent building.
Brettel sighed with relief. “Is his wife home?”
The girl turned away and hollered, “Mom! Someone here for you.”
Leaving the door hanging open, she disappeared into the house.
Brettel heard footsteps and braced herself. An older woman, auburn hair streaked with grey, came around the corner and walked to the door. “Can I–?” Her brow furrowed momentarily. Her jaw dropped open. She whispered, “Brettel?”
Brettel bit her lip. “Mom?”
“Oh sweet lords! Brettel!” Her mother threw her arms around Brettel and pulled her into the house in a bone-crushing hug. Through eyes swimming with tears, Brettel saw the adolescent girl creep up to the parlor door. Brettel pulled back a little. Her mother let go and saw the direction of Brettel’s gaze.
“Delial, run to your father’s workshop. Tell him Brettel’s returned!”
The girl raised her eyebrows and disappeared back around the corner.
Brettel’s eyebrows shot up. That sulky almost grown girl was little Delial? Her sister who’d been in pigtails when Brettel left?
Their mother’s eyes raked across Brettel’s face. “Are you home? Are you home to stay?”
“If you’ll allow me–”
“Of course, of course.” Her gaze dropped lower and the frown returned between her eyes as she took in the well-cut dress of expensive linen and the finely tooled leather bag hanging at Brettel’s hip.
“Are you married?” she asked.
Brettel shook her head. Her mother paled and briefly closed her eyes. “You’ve become as a courtesan.”
Her mother waved a hand at her clothes.
“I’ll tell you both when Dad gets here, but I promise I’ve never sold my body for money. I had a job. My employer wished us to dress well and provided the clothes. The bag was a parting gift.”
Her mother still looked worried, but she closed the door and escorted Brettel to the kitchen. Her father burst in mere seconds later. “Brettel!”
His hug knocked breath from her lungs. As soon as he let her go, a young man pulled her into his arms. Brettel froze for a second and pulled away. He grinned. Oh, wow, how could she have not recognized him no matter how old her little brother had grown. “Garnan!”
Delial had returned as well, but she hung back. Arms crossed, she leaned against the wall.
“Where have you been all this time?” Garnan demanded.
Brettel looked at her parents. “You said if I wasn’t going to help out in Dad’s shop that I’d have to find work.”
Her parents exchanged a look full of pain and recrimination.
Brettel smiled sadly. “I’m sorry. I know I was an utter brat over the idea. For years I’ve wished I could do them over, and that wasn’t how you remembered me.”
“Ah, you were young,” her father said. He clasped her hand. “Only sixteen.”
“Sixteen is old enough to know when you’re acting like a brat.”
Delial frowned. So did Brettel. Delial couldn’t be that old yet.
“Anyway, I knew work was inevitable so I left that morning to attend the hiring fair.”
Her parents exchanged a look.
“Releigh had offered you work in her bakery,” her mother said.
“I remember, but I hated the idea. So I went to the hiring fair instead. There was a woman there, dressed much as I am today, looking for people to work at a huge estate. She said very little of the estate, only enough to give clue to its size and that it was on one of the islands, not here in Dwankey. When she offered me a seven-year position as an upstairs maid, I couldn’t say no. It sounded so elegant!
“A young man from a farmstead well north of us wanted work in the gardens, and a girl from the fishing huts took a position in the estate’s kitchens. We all followed the woman to the docks, where a beautiful white ship awaited us. It wasn’t any larger than the fishing vessels, but so dainty and well-kept.” Brettel shook her head.
“The woman ushered us aboard, but didn’t get on herself. She had served her time and finished her final task in hiring us and now could go home. She’d introduced herself at the fair as Trudy, now she told us she was related to the Millers.”
“Trudy Miller!” her mother shrieked. Her parents exchanged a stunned look. Garnan’s jaw dropped. Delial stepped away from the wall, her arms falling to her side and eyes wide.
“That woman claims she spent the seven–” Her mother’s eyes grew wide. “Seven years she was gone on the White Isle.”
Brettel nodded. “That’s where the white ship took us. We had to restrain the fishmonger’s girl from jumping over as we drew near and it became obvious the White Isle was our destination.”
“I remember,” Garnan said dreamily. “I remember the Isle was visible that day. My friends and I spent quite a bit of time that morning watching the glitter of the sun on the white towers, discussing what it might really be like. Did you see the Fae? Did you see magic?”
Brettel shuddered. “Yes to both. Luckily, I didn’t have much to do with either. I was just an upstairs maid. I made their beds and cleaned their rooms and avoided them as best I could. My life wasn’t much different than a maid at any grand estate, I have to believe.”
“But what of the Fae? Who is the lord there? What is he like?” Delial took a seat at the table. Her mouth hung open.
“He–His name–” The name hovered on the tip of her tongue, but dissolved before she could form it. His image stayed behind her eyes. Tawny hair, chilly gold eyes. The image blurred. Brettel shook her head. “I’m sorry. They said it would all fade the further we got from the White Isle. I don’t seem to remember much of them. ”
“You were there for seven years. You must remember!”
Brettel’s brow furrowed. “I remember cleaning. I remember my friends among the human staff. The boy who came from the farm fell in love with one of them. He chose to stay on permanently.”
“One of the Fae?” Delial’s eyes were huge.
“That’s so romantic!” Delial squealed. “What was she like? Is she beautiful beyond words? Will they marry?”
Startled, Brettel laughed. “No, I don’t think they marry. She was–she was beautiful. All raven blue locks and deep…dark eyes.” The image dissipated as Brettel tried to describe her. She shook her head. “I–I do recall she was beautiful.
“I served the seven years of my contract and came home. They did pay me well. I have money for the household.” Brettel started to dig through her bag.
Her father caught her arm and said, “Are you telling us that Trudy Miller knew exactly where you were all this time? She let our hearts break with worry for seven years and never did us the kindness of passing on your location?”
Brettel blushed. “She probably didn’t know whose child I was.”
“We asked all over town for months and months!” her mother exclaimed. “Had anyone seen you? Did anyone remember you leaving Dwankey on any of the carts from the fair? A couple of people have always insisted they saw you at the fair, but since no one could say and we never heard from you, we feared the worst.”
“I’m sorry. If I’d had any way of getting word to you, I would have. I didn’t understand when I accepted the contract where I was going. Not until we were halfway across the bay to the White Isle and even then I didn’t believe we were really going to the White Isle until we actually docked there. No one’s ever reached it before. How was I to know we’d stepped onto a Fae boat with Fae sailors?”
“But she knew,” her father said. “That bitch knew all along how distraught we were and that you were safe and–I’m going to kill her.”
“Dad, no.” Brettel shook her head and squeezed her eyes tightly shut for a moment. She didn’t want to say this, but knew she must. “It was her final duty to find new servants. Few choose to stay on beyond their seven years. The estate is immense. You would not believe from the glimpses we see from shore, how truly big the island and the estate is. They need servants.”
“What are you saying?” her mother asked.
“It is the final duty for departing servants. To find replacements.”
“Today was the hiring fair,” Garnan said. “Sol and Nerles were planning to look for better work.”
“Brettel?” Her father frowned. “Did you go first to the fair this morning?”
Brettel nodded. “I had that duty, yes.”
“Who? Who did you send off to them?” her father demanded. Brettel shook her head.
“No, you can’t do this, Brettel,” her mother said. “You must tell their families. You cannot allow another family to go through the grief we’ve suffered. Who did you send to them?”
“I can’t remember.”
Garnan insisted he could finish the current job alone, but their father returned to the workshop with him. Delial disappeared. After several miserable attempts to question Brettel about her life on the White Isle, her mother focused on catching Brettel up on seven years worth of gossip.
Mother made them tea, but wouldn’t let Brettel help. The teacups rested in the same cabinet as ever. The sugar, milk, spoons, all were where they should be. Brettel would have made the tea for them, but her mother brushed away all offers of assistance and served Brettel as if she were a guest.
Delial must have run to tell friends and family, for both showed up in droves that evening. An impromptu party replaced dinner. By its end, Brettel felt more exhausted than spring cleaning ever left her.
Everyone grilled her about the Fae. Many seemed frustrated that she could tell them nothing. More than one older relative took her to task over the pain she’d caused her parents–as if she could go back in time and fix that at this point.
Brettel’s bed had never been such a refuge, not even when the White Isle was at its scariest. She frowned. Memories of terror increased her heartbeat, but what had happened? The question drew a shiver down her spine. Better to not remember.
Her room remained her room. No one else needed the tiny space with the tattered patchwork quilt. Her old, dusty clothes filled the miniscule wardrobe. Faded drawings hung on the walls.
“I couldn’t bear to pack it up.” Her mother twisted her hands as she stood in the hall.
“It’s okay, Mom. I’m back now.” Brettel hugged her.
She shut the door and breathed in the silence.
Home was not what she expected. She thought she’d feel safe here. She thought it would be familiar, but she missed her friends in service. She missed the camaraderie. She missed the singing and the gardens and the beauty and peace. The White Isle felt more like home than this tiny dark house filled with inquisitive people, who stared at her like she was a spook!
Brettel climbed into bed and curled up under the strange blankets that had covered her for most nights of her life.
It would be better tomorrow. Today had been a shock for them all. Tomorrow life would start getting back to normal.
A thud drew her upright. Glass shattered. Another thud hit the wall. Brettel shrieked.
Lantern in hand, Garnan burst through the door. “What–?” He saw the rock lying in the pool of shattered glass. “Bastards.”
Their parents crowded in the door. “What’s happened? What’s wrong? What does that say?”
Garnan knelt in the glass and cut the note from the rock. He read aloud, “You’ll bring back them you’ve stolen, bit–” He shot a frantic glance at his mother. “You bring them back now.”
Brettel didn’t sleep well. The board her father hammered over the shattered window left the room too dark. She woke sandy-eyed and tired. Morning made nothing better.
Breakfast was well underway when she got downstairs.
“I’m sorry. I never sleep in this late. What can I do to help?”
“You have a seat. We’ll have the food ready in a jiffy,” Mom said.
“Let me set the table.”
“It’s your first morning back. Delial will do it.”
Delial shot Mom an outraged glare, slammed down the breadknife, and stalked out of the room.
“Delial! Get back here!”
“It’s okay. I’ll get it.” Brettel finished slicing the bread and set the table. It was her first and last triumph.
Offers to help were met with protests that it was her first morning back, her first lunch, her first afternoon, her first week. Her mother allowed her to do nothing. Her father needed her not at all. Delial scowled at every rebuffed offer.
Brettel attempted to ignore her mother’s refusal the first night at dinner and assist Delial, but Delial grabbed the flatware from Brettel’s hands and insisted she could handle her own chores.
Brettel needed to find work. Leaving the White Isle, she’d known she’d need to, would want to, but she hadn’t expected to be dying to escape her home again. Nothing like several years in Faerie to demonstrate beyond question what it means to be an outsider. She expected to fit right in at home.
The constant rebuffs had her ready to flee again.
She needed work, something to make proper use of her time. If her parents couldn’t provide, she’d find it in town.
Brettel dressed in her best dress, coat and gloves and went down to breakfast a week to the day she’d come home. Her mother looked up to greet her and dropped her knife with a clatter.
“Are you leaving?” Mom’s face paled.
“I thought I’d seek work in town after breakfast.”
“Oh.” Her mother dropped her hand over her heart. “I need to pick up a few things at the market. I’ll walk down with you.”
Delial huffed and stormed out of the room.
“Delial! The porridge!”
“It’s okay. I can get it.” Before her mother could protest, Brettel plucked the spoon from the pot and planted herself before the stove.
Her mother sighed, but didn’t say anything as Brettel finished the rest of Delial’s breakfast tasks. Delial’s obvious discontent killed any satisfaction Brettel might have gained from actually being able to help.
Brettel found the walk into town more perplexing than the walk home had been. Surely that house had blue shutters before, not dingy brown. And hadn’t that one been yellow? Was this a different route? What happened to Miss Oliandra’s roses? The sheared yard left Brettel unsure if she identified the right house. Vastly overgrown hedges no longer hid the house at the end of the lane.
An old man approached them from town. He doffed his battered straw hat and said hello. Brettel echoed her mother’s response.
“Good to see you.” He nodded to Brettel as he passed.
Brow furrowed in confusion, Brettel leaned close to her mother to whisper. “Who was that?”
“Donnod. You remember him.”
Brettel gave her a blank look.
“He owns a fleet of fishing boats.” Her mother smiled. “Well, he has seven sons and son-in-laws and owns all their boats. You must remember Methew. He courted you.”
The name pricked at her memories. “Reddish blond hair, brown eyes? Really skinny?”
“That’s the one. He’s still single.”
Startled, Brettel blushed. How had her mother known she was wondering about that?
They turned a corner and started down main street. The roofs of the homes of Dwankey’s rich could be seen over the shops.
“Do you want me to meet you back somewhere here in town or just see you at home?” Brettel asked.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Her mother bit her lip.
“Seeking employment? How could it not be?”
Brettel visited seven houses before exhaustion led her back to main street. No one needed anyone right now. Those who’d been shorthanded hired at the fair last week. Of course. Brettel felt foolish to have not thought of that.
But her efforts might yet bear fruit. Several housekeepers took her information and seemed to think their mistresses would be interested to have a maid who’d worked on the White Isle.
She would keep her fingers crossed, but the day’s search had done nothing to solve her immediate problem of uselessness.
Wondering if she’d need to leave Dwankey to find employment, Brettel headed back to Releigh’s Bakery to meet her mother. Mere feet from the door, bruising hands grabbed her arms and whipped her around.
“What have you done with my wife?” Spittle landed on her face as the man bellowed. He shook her. “You had no right to take her away from me! Harlot! Demon!”
Brettel flopped helplessly in his arms. She could hear people shrieking, but couldn’t catch her breath to add to their cries.
“Thief! You had no right! How do I get her back? Tell me!” He shook her so hard she nearly lost balance. “How do I get her—oomph.”
Garnan socked the man in the side. He pried Brettel free of the man’s hold and pulled her away. “Are you okay?”
Her mother and a flurry of older women surrounded her all asking the same question. Brettel’s head spun.
“You leave my sister alone, Coffard! Everyone knows why your wife left you!”
Coffard swung a punch, but Garnan ducked out of the way. Guards bustled through, breaking up the fight before it went further and dispelling the crowd.
Brettel couldn’t sleep that night. She truly missed the White Isle. The housekeeper would have had a salve and a cool drink that would have soothed her throat in no time. Back on the Isle, she wouldn’t be lying here with a burning throat throbbing too much to allow sleep.
The witch hazel-infused cloth around her neck felt good when first applied, but its comfort dissipated in minutes. Brettel refused to consider dipping into the funds she’d provided to the household for the apothecary and a better painkiller.
She rolled over and took another sip of lukewarm honey-filled tea. The honey helped, but again, its succor disappeared too quickly to allow escape into sleep.
The White Isle would be visible somewhere tonight. On it, one forgot to look across the waters, but once in a rare moon, she would remember the world outside its shore and steal a glimpse of the mainland.
Some nights the moon illuminated forested rocky shores without a sign of human habitation to be found. Other times, she caught glimpses of immense, formidable cities that stretched as far as the eye could see.
She never saw Dwankey. Not once until this week when she climbed back into the faerie boat to come home.
Why had she wanted to return so badly? Her family had missed her; she must acknowledge that. But she wasn’t needed here. No one knew what to do with her.
Her parents wouldn’t accept the money she’d hoarded all these years to give them. They kept returning it to her room. She moved it back to the house coffer every morning. Her father even refused to let her pay for the glazier to give her this new window. She rolled over and glared at it.
The night sky looked paler than usual. Brettel frowned and climbed out of bed. Maybe she was remembering wrong. Everything was weird on the White Isle. The sky often seemed darker, the stars brighter and closer there.
The world outside looked eerily orange. The connection took only a moment. “Fire!”
She pivoted and flew out of her room. Still shouting “Fire!” she clattered down the stairs. Doors slammed open. She burst outside and gasped. Her father’s carpentry shop was aflame.
She needed to raise the town.
Brettel ran for the gate. She heard her father yell to her brother not to go inside the shop. She flung open the gate and, glancing back to make sure Garnan wasn’t risking his life, slammed into someone solid.
“Oh, sorry! Can you help? I’ve got to get to the emergency bell.” Brettel tried to pull free of the hands that caught her.
“No. What you’ve got to do is take me to my wife.”
The man caught both her wrists in his left hand and shoved a rag in her mouth. He pulled her away from the house. She dragged her heels. She couldn’t stop him, but they weren’t moving very fast.
The emergency bell clanged. Running footsteps drew closer to them and filled Brettel with relief. But Coffard heard them as well. He threw her over his shoulder and took off at a stumbling lope.
Hands free, Brettel yanked out the gag. She screamed, kicked, and beat his back with her fists as he ran. No one stopped him. His distraction had been too good. The entire town was awake, oh yes, but they hurried to help her parents. No one heard her screams over the uproar about the fire. Coffard cut through yards and dragged her down back ways where they passed no one.
At the docks, he threw her to the ground, knocking the wind out of her. “Shut up! No one’s going to help you. You don’t deserve help, thieving demon-tainted bitch like you. Leading good women astray. You’re going to fetch back what you stole.”
Brettel scooted away, but he caught her arm and yanked her to her feet–about pulling her shoulder out of socket.
“Your wife chose to go! I didn’t lead her anywhere. She was at the hiring fair!”
“I can’t get you to the White Isle. I’m human like you. The Isle’s not there. Can’t you see that?” She gestured towards the harbor. Dark outlines of islands were barely visible. Coonie, Sperko, Laseey, and the tiny mounds of Little Fess and Upper Fess, but not the glowing, glittering shore of the White Isle.
He slapped her across the face. The coppery taste of blood filled her mouth.
“Let her go!”
They spun to face Delial. Arms akimbo, she glared at Coffard. “Your wife left because you beat her. All of Dwankey knows that, and no one would ever help you get her back! She’ll have taken a lifetime contract. You’ll never get to the White Isle, and she’ll never leave it.”
“You shut your face! You’re a stupid child. What do you know of anything?”
“I’m not a child,” her father huffed up behind Delial. “You know Delial’s words are true. You let my Brettel go. She rescued your wife. Something all of us should have done long ago.”
“You want your daughter, you help get my wife!”
“How?” Garnan demanded. Startled, Brettel watched Garnan shove past their father, their mother on his heels.
“She came from there! She can get back.”
“She came from here,” her mother growled. “That’s my daughter. Our family! She was born and raised in Dwankey. This is her home. She worked there. That doesn’t make her from there any more than it makes your wife from there now that she works there.”
“She cannot go taking good people off to that decadent land! It’s wrong!”
“And beating your wife senseless on a weekly basis, isn’t?” Garnan asked.
Coffard flung Brettel aside and advanced on him. “I did not beat my wife.”
Her mother pulled Brettel into her arms.
“Yeah? Where’d those bruises come from?”
Coffard threw a punch. Garnan ducked. His return hit caught Coffard in the stomach. He didn’t wait for the man to recover, but served a quick uppercut to the chin and knocked him out cold.
“I can’t do anything about his wife,” Brettel said as she stared down at him.
“And you shouldn’t. Adara deserves her life free of him.”
“Yeah, but is he going to leave Brettel alone?” Delial kicked Coffard’s foot.
“Stop that,” their father ordered.
“He set fire to the shop and tried to abduct my sister! Are we going to just ignore that?”
“Of course not, we’ll press charges—”
“The shop!” Brettel exclaimed. “What are you doing here? The shop is on fire!”
“The fire was about under control, but we better get back.” Her father bit his lip.
“I’m sorry.” Tears filled Brettel’s eyes.
“This isn’t your fault,” her father said.
Brettel shook her head. “It is. I ran off to the White Isle. I got involved with the Fae. And then I came back and brought this all down on you—”
“You stop right there!” Her mother dropped her hands to her hips. In her anger, she looked just like Delial. “You belong here. You should have come back and you should stay. Everyone else will just have to accept that. You’re here to stay, you hear me? This is where you belong.”
Encircled by her family, Brettel climbed the hill back to where she belonged.