“My parents were poor field workers on a large farm up north. When my mother knew she was with child, they decided that they would move south to rebuild their life and have a small farm of their own. My father had saved up most of his wages, as had my mother, existing on not much more than bread and water with a few cups of milk from the goats when the owners were feeling generous. So they gathered their meager belongings, said their goodbye’s to family they were leavin’…I am told it was my grandmother and my mother’s two younger siblings…and set off. They traveled for some time as my mother’s stomach grew, coming across acres and acres of fruitful land, but they were all spoken for. None would sell for the meager savin’ they had and my father was too honest to fight for what already belonged to someone else, though I do hear it was somethin’ a lot would do. Survival of the fittest, he’d called it. When my mother was so far it became they could no longer travel, a farmer took pity on them and offered the ownership of a small piece of his farm that already possessed a small house. Nothin’ more than one room, but it had a stove and a window. He only asked that my father give him seventy five percent of all profit from the farm for twenty years and then the land and the house would belong to my father after the years were up. It wasn’t much land, but as you well know, this is quite a generous deal for a man with no reputation and a wife in the family way.”
“Quite the bargain, yes. These days, my farmlands allow much less than that, more in the way of gleaning allowed for their field hands. Enough for them to live on, but not much more. And with the gift of property to boot. Tell me, do you know this man’s name and did he have any sons?” The king turned sipped tea and settled into the tall back of the tufted chair.
“My father never said whether he did or not, and I never learned his name, though he did snicker a bit that the farmer thought my mother very pretty. Can you imagine? Her big with child? In any case, the farmer was very nice indeed, but his wife was a bit of a shrew. When my father’s land yielded the best crops and fetched better prices in town on market days, she made the farmer take back his land so that he could be keepin’ the full percentage of sales from it. And so he did. He took back my father’s small portion, but in a small change of heart, let my father keep seed from the crops and his profits from market. But still turned ‘em out on their ears. My parents were vagabonds again and my mother in her last month.
“When she went into labor early and while still on the road, my father was beside himself, but dedicated to her so much that he refused to leave her side and kept vigil all night long at their makeshift camp in the forest as she delivered not one, but two baby boys. They were happy, despite their circumstances, but come the next mornin’, my mother’s bleedin’ had not stopped and her breathin’ wasn’t quite right.
“My father said it was the screams of the babies that brought the Coills to the camp. One man dressed in fancy clothes and even a fur-lined cloak with a nice dressed woman holding her own wee babe came into the camp. He said they didn’t speak a word to him, but saw my mother and the two infants screaming for their mother in his arms, and started movin’. He said it was like watching two angels bein’ set about to work. The woman took my brothers to her bosom to feed them while nodding to the man as he foraged for herbs and held them up for her to see. When my brothers were satisfied, she sat them in the arms of my father and began grinding the herbs into a poultice, praying for the Provider to make it effective and strong. He said he couldn’t do much but watch ‘em. For two weeks they stayed with them, until they felt my mother safe to travel, but by then, they’d become friends and finally my father shared with them that he had nowhere to raise his family.
“He waited a week, as they went to the rest of the Coills to ask permission for them to join their ranks, but a heavy rain came and my father couldn’t wait any longer to find shelter for his family. In desperation, he and my mother ran through the forest until they came upon a small hut that seemed to have not been occupied for many a year. For weeks on end, they stayed and when no one came to claim it, my father claimed it for his family and began to clear some of the land surrounding it until it was his own small farmstead. Eventually, the Coill man and women found them, but brought bad news. The Coills would not take them among themselves…for they are an untrusting sort of people and feared my father’s lack of honor to their whereabouts. Which is rather silly, if you ask me. It was not the end of the world though, you see, for they were quite happy in their small little hut and their twin boys. The man and the woman agreed to visit, and my father said they often did with their little girl who played with my older brothers. When my mother fell pregnant again, the woman gave her many poultices and potions for a healthy baby, which she readily took. She came to stay when my mother’s time drew near, taking care of my brothers and the house as if it were her own. But when the first pains of childbirth began, the woman shook her head in sadness and prepared my father for the worst.
“The man came the next day and helped my father bury my mother. They offered to take me and raise me as a Coill and my father conceded, fearing I would die if left with him. But the other Coills were angry with them for bringing me in. The man and the woman fought to keep me there until fate intervened. A plague swept through their camp…their own daughter dying from the fever a year after I was born. All the woman’s knowledge of herbs couldn’t save her little girl. It was in their great sorrow that the idea struck them, for all the Coills spent well over a year sequestered from each other, waiting for the plague to fully pass. When at last the plague was over, many survivors were stricken with sunken skin and shrunken bodies. They saw an opportunity to keep me, claiming the orphan had died, but that their own daughter, having also been sick but recovered, was me. But when I reached the age where recognition of family resemblance occurs…my eyes remained dark, as did my hair, and no amount of sun would change my skin from pale to Coill dark…they both had the kindest blue eyes and light brown hair…the other Coills began to suspect and grow hostile towards them once again. And so…they brought me back to my father just after my twelfth year. He died after I returned, though I tried my best to nurse him back to health. We were given only ten months together. When he passed, I expected them to fetch me, as they were the only family I knew…but they never did come.
“Did you learn from her the poultices and potions she knew?” The king had done as he said he would, having listened intently, but now, fresh curiosity from her story was winning over.
Maurlee lowered her head, slowly nodding, sad to remember her life cost her father so much and the feeling of being deserted by her Coill family. “I was kept mostly inside, for reasons you can understand, I’m sure. My only teacher was the woman and her knowledge was limited to herbs and midwifery. I know quite a bit about that as well, having helped her deliver two stillbirths until her body no longer yielded children. They may have cared for me, but you understand how I have never been, nor do I consider myself, with the likes of them. I was never permitted to leave camp, and that means never returned to it. I have no knowledge of where they are, or what they are up to now. Sometimes, when the winter was so cold and me and my brothers were growing so thin, we would find little gifts at our door of food and such. One other time, some men tried to take our farm and were scared off by strange sounds in the fields. My brother’s said the vex had saved them, but I knew it was the man and woman. The rest of the Coills may not have liked me, but they at least felt somethin’ for me.”
“And did you call this man and woman by name?”
Maurlee lifted her eyes to his, the tears ready to stream from her lids, and though she knew their given names, she held that secret for herself. “I called them Ahmi…and Ahmu. ‘Mother’ and ‘father’ to the Coills.” When the king did not immediately comment, Maurlee took the opportunity to ask of him what she had spent hours contemplating as she nursed ReAnne. “My brothers have fought to keep my father’s farm, Your Majesty, and my father did as best he knew how, as well. But I am afraid that life was unkind and made my brothers cruel. If it pleases you…if I have shown you allegiance and fealty, and proven myself to be of use to you…please, Sire, may I stay here? I do not wish to ever return to them.”
The king sighed deeply and eyed Maurlee with a keen interest. “No, child. You do not have to return to them anytime soon. But I am interested to hear once again of this stranger with the orange eyes who visited them and how it came to be that they were willing to work for him.”
Maurlee couldn’t hide her excitement of having confirmation from the king of being welcome, but at his mention of the orange eyed man, her smile fell.
And the king took notice.