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.”