Dear Mom and Dad,
Well, I’m here. It’s not so bad, and I don’t want you to worry, even though I guess you will. The Terricks are taking good care of me. Mrs. Terrick is nice. I like her. She showed me how to spin on a spindle the other day. I know, mom, but it’s important here. I think it’s called housewifery? I remember that from one of my social studies classes. It’s not physics or calculus, but running a big house like this one takes a lot of work.
Kate paused to rub her fingers. They were smudged with ink. She dipped the quill pen and began again.
Mr. Terrick is exactly the way I remember him. Gruff and kind of forbidding. He reminds me of that judge that you introduced me to at the Christmas party last year? But he means well, and he’s kind of nice. He even–
She stopped. Would her parents understand when she wrote, “He even smiled at me this morning”? Look, she told herself, it’s not like they’re really going to read this. They would never even see it. The gordath, the portal between her home in North Salem, New York, and the country of Aeritan, was shut tight. The only indication there even had been a portal was a strange malevolent shimmer in the air. Only then had it really hit her–she would never see her parents again.
That was two weeks ago, two weeks in which she had to slough off her old skin of Kate Mossland, junior in high school, horse-crazy suburban girl with straight As, a driver’s license, and college applications on the horizon.
Now she was just Kett, foster daughter of the House of Terrick, betrothed to Colar of Terrick, the eldest son. This was her new home. No school, just learning huswifery. No bathrooms, but chamber pots. No TV or computers, just thick paper and a scratchy quill pen.
Kate knew that she was being foolish, writing a letter her parents would never read, but it made her feel as if she were still connected to them. It was comforting. She didn’t have much time either. She knew from experience that crossing the portal between America and here meant that once her brain reset, she wouldn’t be able to read and write in English anymore, and the final connection would be severed. She had to tell them everything while she still could, so she put the scratchy pen to the paper again.
He even smiled at me this morning.
Colar has two brothers, Aevin and Yare, and a little sister, Erinye. He had another sister, but she died. He said it was probably something we could have cured back home. That’s so sad, isn’t it? That’s why I plan to become a doctor in Aeritan. Aren’t you proud of me? Haha. I know, you always wanted me to be a doctor.
She put in a smiley face and continued.
Aevin is okay, except he is constantly trying to prove himself and it gets tiring. Yare’s a little pain in the butt, and Eri’s a sweetie. We share a room and I look after her.
Kate paused again, thinking about that. It seemed to help Lady Beatra that she was there to make sure Eri was dressed and clean and had someone to keep her company at her chores. She didn’t mind doing it, and had stepped up without being asked, but now that it was expected, she wasn’t sure how she felt about it. She didn’t know how to put any of that in the letter, so she carried on.
I want you to know how much I love you and miss you. I’m in good hands, okay? I’ll write as often as I can, and maybe someday, you can read these letters.
Her vision blurred and she sat back so that she wouldn’t let a teardrop fall on the letter. She strewed sand across the paper and blew on it, then set it aside so the ink would dry. Kate blinked back tears as the door opened behind her and Eri came in.
“Kett, mama said it’s time for dinner.”
“Okay, I’ll be right there.”
She got up, sniffed and wiped her face with her sleeve. Eri watched her seriously.
“I’m sorry you’re sad, Kett.”
“Thanks, sweetie. I know.”
Eri came over and took her by the hand. She looked at the letter on the thick, coarse paper, cocking her head. The lamplight cast her delicate face in shadow so the child looked like a Renaissance subject in her kerchief and simple dress.
“Is that writing?”
“How can you read it?”
“It’s easy for me now,” Kate said. “It goes away after I’ve been here long enough, and then I will be able to read and write in Aeritan.”
To forestall more questions she squeezed Eri’s hand. “Let’s go. I’m hungry and I don’t want to keep your mom and dad waiting.”
Eri giggled. “You’re funny, Kate.”
“I’m funny! You’re the funny one, you silly kid you.”
Eri laughed louder and they teased each other on the way down the stairs.
The Terrick holding was more a fortress than a house. The square stone structure faced the old road leading away to the rest of Aeritan. The house was as stern and weathered as the current Lord Terrick, now her foster father. The road was lined with ancient elms, their spreading branches giving comfort and cover to travelers. Kate and Colar had ridden up that avenue when she brought him home to Terrick from North Salem.
Now she knew how Colar felt almost a year ago. To save the boy’s life after the last battle of the Aeritan war, his father told her to take him back through the gordath with her. There doctors had patched him up, and she stood by him as he navigated his new world of school and cars, computers and science class, airplanes and modern plumbing. And now it was her turn to become Aeritan, just as Colar had made his peace with his new world.
Kate and Erinye slipped into the dining room. The family stood by their chairs at the shining table. Lord Terrick would arrive last, per custom. Aevin and Yare sat on the left, and Colar sat at his father’s right hand. His mother Lady Beatra sat at the foot, and there were two empty chairs for Eri and Kate. Even that stinker Yare sits higher than I do, Kate thought.
It shouldn’t have mattered. She knew who she was and her own value, and all the ingrained sexism of her new world couldn’t change that. It still grated. Maybe that was in her expression, because Colar caught her eye and shook his head slightly. She gave him a half smile, half-grimace, and took her place next to Lady Beatra, Eri on the opposite side.
“You’re late,” Yare told her across the table. “And Eri’s face is smudged. Mama!”
You rotten little brat, Kate thought. She flushed. She had forgotten, again, to make sure Eri was kept clean and presentable. The little girl looked as beautiful as always, but to be sure there was a smudge on her cheek and her simple smock was awry.
“Sorry–” Kate began, but Lady Beatra made a gesture.
“Yare, hush. Eri is old enough to make herself presentable. Are you not, Eri? Try not to disappoint your father, as he loves you very much.”
“I’m sorry, Mama,” Eri said in a small voice.
Kate’s stomach clenched. The terror of obligation to one’s parents, their honor, and above all their love permeated all things Terrick, even a simple meal.
Lord Terrick entered the room, bringing the smell of outdoors with him, of sweat, well-worn clothes, supple leathers. It was another thing to get used to. People were clean, but there was no getting around the aroma of the human body.
Lord Terrick’s gaze flicked down the table and back. Kate’s back stiffened, and she thought even Lady Beatra’s did. To her relief he didn’t cast a particular grim eye over Eri. Saved by the lack of electricity, she thought. The dining room was illuminated with plenty of oil lamps but was still dim.
“By the grace of the high god who holds us all in his hand, we are blessed with food and shelter,” Lord Terrick said. He sat, and they followed suit.
The meal was simple yet hearty; spiced lamb, flatbreads, stewed greens and red potatoes. Every bite tasted like sawdust. Kate chewed diligently and without savor. She fumbled to eat with a spoon and a knife. Her first dinner at Terrick, still terrified and exhausted from their long journey home, she had made a small joke to Colar about inventing forks. She thought he would laugh. She thought he would accept her offering of their shared history. Instead, he looked at her seriously and said that she would get used to a knife and spoon, like he had gotten used to forks.
She washed down an impossibly tiny bite with an even smaller sip of Terrick brandy, which tasted like mouthwash and which she loathed. As always it made her break out into a sweat, even the polite taste she had taken. She concentrated fiercely on her dinner, not even trying to catch Colar’s eye. She had tried that at their second dinner, hoping to get a smile from him, only to have Yare shout, “Mama! She’s making eyes at Colar!”
Her face flamed at the memory, or maybe that was the brandy.
Lord Terrick was going around the table, asking everyone their business. When he got to Eri, his eyes narrowed and Kate held her breath, but he said only, “Erinye, have you practiced your letters today?”
“No, lord father,” Eri said in a small, frightened voice.
“I see,” Lord Terrick said. “Perhaps you had better things to do than improve your mind?”
Yare made a derisive noise, then jumped in his seat, by which Kate thought that Aevin had kicked him under the table. Good, she thought at the boy.
“I–I” Eri started.
Lord Terrick waited politely, and when it was clear that he had silenced his daughter into frightened immobility, he turned to Kate.
“Perhaps our foster daughter can help you, Erinye. Kett’s knowledge and understanding impressed us all last year. You learned to read and write with Talios, among your lessons as his apprentice, did you not?”
“Ye–yes, sir, I did.” Kate winced inwardly at her own stumble. “I would be happy to help Eri with reading and writing, and arithmetic too.”
“Arithmetic! Learned indeed. Erinye, how would you like to be Kett’s pupil?”
Eri beamed with relief and Kate smiled back at her.
“So it’s decided then.” He turned toward his wife, but Kate interrupted.
“Lord Terrick, I can’t yet.”
The entire table fell silent. Kate took a deep breath. “I can’t read yet in Aeritan. I’ll be able to in a few weeks, but it takes a while.”
Lord Terrick’s expression was unfathomable. Kate hurried on. “Same thing happened for Colar. Right?”
She turned to Colar. “It’s true,” he said. “But,” he frowned. “It didn’t take me that long–a half-month?”
“Yes,” and now she was babbling. “Longer even, because you were in the hospital, and it wasn’t until you were out and at home that we even began to try to read and write, remember? We started with Catcher in the Rye, because you were going to need it for freshman English… “
Her voice faded. Lord Terrick and Lady Beatra were looking at the both of them, their expressions full of uncomprehension. Yare had a look of evil glee.
“Catcher in the Rye,” Colar repeated, as if the memory wasn’t a pleasant one. She had to admit, he had a point.
“When you can, then,” Lord Terrick said finally. “Arithmetic,” he added in a considering voice. “Perhaps you should also teach Yare.”
Kate and Yare looked at each other in equal disgust.
“Of course,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Yes, lord father,” Yare said, but she could tell by the gleam in his eye that he had no intention of obeying. Great, she thought. And it’ll be my fault if he doesn’t learn a thing.
Eri, freshly washed and tucked into bed, yawned in the candlelight. Kate sat next to her, braiding the little girl’s hair. She wore a flowy nightgown just like Eri’s, and wished for her camis and pajama pants, so comfortable that girls used to wear them to class. The nightgown was good for one thing however, and that was hiding her t shirt and jeans that she wore under it, so she could sneak out as soon as Eri fell asleep.
“Are you going to tell me a story?” Eri asked.
“Sure,” Kate said. “Here’s a fun one. Have you ever heard of the Three Billy Goats Gruff?”
Eri giggled at the strange words, and Kate launched into the story, making the trip-trap trip-trap tapping sounds by rapping her knuckles on the bedstead.
“Who’s that crossing over my bridge?” she growled, and Eri squealed with delight. She got the three billy goats safely past the troll and over the river to the green pasture and to happily ever after, and Eri sighed with giddiness and tiredness. She yawned again.
“Can you tell me that one again?”
“Tomorrow,” Kate promised.
“Okay,” Eri sighed, her eyes closing. Kate smiled at the sound of the American expression in the littlest Terrick’s accent. I love this kid, she thought. Two weeks, and I want to protect her, even from her father.
Eri’s breathing evened out, and Kate got up, careful not to make a noise. Eri slept on. Kate stripped the nightgown and stood in her jeans and t shirt. She picked up the candle and carefully opened the door.
She was off to meet her husband-to-be.
Kate slipped out and closed the door with a gentle snick. She waited a moment in the hallway. The small candle barely shed any light in the corridor. She listened for Eri’s breathing, but the massive wooden door kept any noise behind it to itself. Kate put her hand on the stonecut masonry wall, its rough dampness irritating her fingertips, and felt along the hallway.
The stairs yawned ahead of her, a blacker darkness in the dark, a rush of cold rising from the first floor as if it were from beneath the earth itself. Her candle guttered and went out before she could shield it from the breeze. Still, she could see a little now, faint starlight coming through the slit window at the end of the hall. She sidled past the staircase. The starlight led her down the hall to Colar’s room.
I hate this, she thought, butterflies roiling in her belly. I don’t want to sneak around. But we never get to see each other. We don’t get to talk, we don’t get to do anything. She was pretty sure that the Terrick household had orders to keep them separated.
At Colar’s door she hesitated, leaning to listen against wooden barrier. She heard nothing except for the nervous pounding of her pulse. Kate took a breath and scratched nervously at the door.
Nothing. Kate scratched again and this time, she thought she heard noise. Yes! Voices. Wait–voices? There was Aevin’s lighter voice, Colar’s deeper one. Soldier’s god. He must share with Aevin and Yare. Kate backed away from the door and ran to her room, no longer sidling against the wall. The blast of cold air from downstairs hit her and then she was at her door when she heard, “sst!” She turned, her heart hammering. Small candleflame glowed in the dark, ruining her night vision. She squinted and managed to see Colar.
“What are you doing?” he whispered, cupping his hand around the flame. “If you get caught… “
“I needed to talk to you,” she whispered crossly. “When did Aevin share a room with you?”
He didn’t answer that. Instead, he took her by the hand and led her down the hall the other way. There was an archer’s alcove by the window overlooking the road. The cold summer night’s air flowed over them, and Kate shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. Colar extinguished the candle, and the starlight gave them enough shadow so that she fancied she could see him. They were so close their knees touched. He wore only his trousers. He leaned forward so that their foreheads touched. They clasped hands, and she felt the warmth rise into her, and give her confidence.
“What did you need to talk to me about?”
“Everything. Nothing. Colar, we haven’t really talked to each other since we got here.” She heard the hurt in her voice. “I know it’s not your fault, but I just–wanted to see you.”
More than anything, she wanted his reassurance. She fumbled, trying to ask for it without seeming needy. “I wanted to touch base.”
“I know,” he admitted. “But my father wants me by him, and it’s not the custom here, for us to be together. This is dangerous, Kate.”
She took a breath. “I won’t do it again. It’s just that–I haven’t seen you.” It was lame, and she couldn’t explain what she meant but she tried again. “Like when we were home.” Back in North Salem, they would get a snack after school before her parents came home, settle down in the kitchen to do homework and talk, about school, about Aeritan, about the war camp where they met.
“Kate, this is home.” He lifted her chin and kissed her, and she relaxed a little. “You’ll get used to it, the same way I did. We’ll have a life here, we’ll get married.”
“I’ll be a doctor,” Kate said, thinking of her promise to her parents.
“I know,” he said. “It’s just for now, we have to play by these rules.”
“I don’t know if I can,” she admitted. “I feel like every step I take is a wrong one.”
“You’ll get the hang of it. And you’ve been doing great so far,” he said, and she could almost see his smile.
“Is this how you felt?” she said suddenly. She meant when the tables were turned, when he lived for all those months in North Salem, never thinking he could go home again. “So empty and lost? Scared?” His smile went away. “I hate this Colar. I hate being here, I hate not knowing–what’s going to happen to me.” Her voice was rising and she caught herself, but not before she sobbed once. It was shockingly loud in the silent stone house, and for a second she thought she woke everyone up with a piercing cry.
“Shh!” And then he softened it. “Shh,” he said again, and he held her close, his arms comforting, his bare chest warm. “Don’t worry, please, Kate. It’s not bad here. You’ll get used to things and you’ll like it, I promise.”
She swallowed back her tears. She was stupid to act this way. He was right. She was going to be all right. She raised her face to his and this time she let herself enjoy the stolen kiss, the fear and uncertainty melting away.
The sound of voices from below stairs jolted them apart, and Kate’s heart pounded. They stayed still, barely breathing. The voices of the householders faded, and she let herself breathe. But the moment of intimacy, of comfort, had passed. Colar stood.
“We need to go back,” he said. His voice was urgent. He took her by the hand. She got to her feet and he led her back to her bedroom. At the door he leaned close.
“We can’t do this,” he whispered. “You have to be more careful, please Kate? It’s just different here. If we caused a scandal–”
Terrick honor again. She swallowed her stubbornness. “Okay. I promise.”
He loomed over her and kissed her, but in the dark his kiss missed and landed on her cheek. She didn’t say anything, pushed the door open and slipped back inside.
Eri’s comforting breathing rose up from the big bed. Kate undressed and threw on the night gown and crawled in with the girl. She muffled her sobs in the rough, prickly pillow and when she had exhausted her grief she fell into a troubled sleep.