The ship's bell clanged loudly in dawning mist, an echo in an awakening world. A slender, dark-haired young woman strained to see anything in the wispy distance, but all was concealed from her prying eyes. She gave a frustrated sigh, slumping against the ship's rail. It had been three weeks, and they had still not arrived at their destination.
A head full of blond tousled curls hurtled its way to her side. Sarah Williams jumped back, laughing at the teary blue eyes that looked up and beseeched her mercy.
"What kind of trouble have you gotten yourself into now, Toby?”
Her half-brother, small for his age, pulled a puppy face that only a practiced five-year-old can accomplish.
He's even got the lip trembling down… His sister mused, who was just as proficient at seeing through Toby’s schemes as he was at planning them.
"Mr. Saito won't let me steer the ship. He doesn't think I'm strong enough." The child scoffed at this outrageous offense. "I'm plenty strong, ain't I, Sarah?” He puffed out his chest, rather like a rooster.
"Aren't, Toby, not ain't." Sarah corrected him, the schoolteacher in her unable to let the mistake slip by unaddressed. Her brother looked at her in astonishment that she was not taking this ultimate insult to heart as he was, so she smoothed his ruffled ego over a bit. "I'm sure Mr. Saito knows how strong you are, dear. You helped carry all our bags aboard, didn't you? Perhaps you can show him later how strong you are by helping the crew."
Toby perked up at this, and whisked himself away with barely a thank you, ecstatic that he could finally prove his prowess to the ship's captain. She shook her head at his quickly disappearing back, a wistful smile turning at her lips. Toby had rarely been in a petulant mood like this in the last few months, so she didn't discourage it altogether. More common was the listless, unresponsive state he would enter for days at a time.
About six months before, Robert and Karen Williams had died in an accident at her father's flour mill in Wales. The entire factory had burned to the ground, leaving barely anything of value behind for the newly orphaned Williams. Even the house was sold to pay off various debts. Toby had been in a state of shock and mourning for a long time, only recently coming to terms with his parents' deaths. Sarah, twenty years old and a schoolteacher paid barely enough to eat on, roused herself quickly with the knowledge that she had to find another situation if she wanted to provide for Toby and herself.
She'd contacted the British Board of Education, and begged for any other job openings they possessed. They had replied with a tentative proposition. Britain had recently begun a tenuous treaty with a barbaric country, a kingdom untouched by British influence. The ruler of this kingdom had requested someone who could teach his children the ways of "civilized" people. The Board was more than happy to assist with this step towards modernizing, but had difficulty finding a schoolteacher who was willing to drop everything and move to a strange country.
The Board insisted that the country was safe, if a little shockingly uncivilized. They were pleased with her credentials, and promised her a significant pay raise, as well as payment from the King himself. It sounded near perfect, and she had only one request.
"A house?" The gray bearded man had frowned at her with eyes squinting suspiciously over a thin pair of spectacles. She had nodded enthusiastically.
"Yes, sir. I would feel immensely more comfortable to have my own place with Toby, instead of living in the King’s home. It needn't be anything extravagant, just private."
The elderly man observed her quietly for a moment, before conceding, to her relief. She probably would have taken the job anyway, but this made things infinitely better. The Board contacted the ruler, who agreed with the terms.
Now, Sarah and Toby were sailing to their new home, Perdu. Lost. Fitting, because that was exactly how she felt. Sarah was not at all sure what she expected to see on its shores.
Feeling a tug on her long skirts, she glanced down to see her little brother gazing up at her. His lip trembled again, but this time she recognized the traces of fear that sparked in his blue eyes. She gathered him in her arms, tucking her wool cloak around his small frame. He curled into her immediately, clutching at her neck like a life support.
"What's wrong, darling?” Toby was usually so brave; she'd been worried that he was hiding everything until it became too much. He looked up at her hesitantly.
"I'm scared, Sarah. What if the King is mean? The sailors say he can do magic, and steals little children. That's why he has so many."
Anger coiled in her stomach at the sailors who couldn't resist adding to a little boy's nightmares. Did it make them feel tough to frighten others smaller than themselves? She resolved to speak to them before they left the ship. Turning her attention back to the youth in her arms, she let her eyes twinkle at him before leaning close to speak in a whisper.
"Shall I tell you a secret, Toby?”
That got his attention. Sniffling back the onset of woe, he stared wide-eyed and nodded.
"Even if the King has all the magic in the world, he can't hurt you if you're not afraid of him. He won't have any power over you."
Toby mulled this over. "But what if I am scared, Sarah? And I just can't stop being scared?”
Sarah grinned. "Then you must pretend you are not. The best way to do that, dear, is to whistle a happy tune." She whistled a lilting lullaby to show him, and rocked him from side to side. "You can fool him, and you may even convince yourself! No one will ever know you're afraid."
Her brother's face broke out into a gleaming, toothy smile. He wriggled out of her arms and immediately began this new practice of noise. His obvious glee made Sarah feel significantly more relaxed.
Just then, a call rang out over the deck, and her face paled and her back became rigid.
Turning, she saw a dim outline in the fog. Dark, craggy mountains loomed in the distance, giving her more feelings of trepidation than of welcome.
Home, sweet home?