A lone figure strode from the forest, limping slightly. Her hood hid her face from view, but an onlooker could easily see her red hair peeking out. She walked with a slow determination, leaning on her staff as she crossed the empty field toward the bright village. It was the time of the harvest celebration and this particular village was anticipating the end of the season. The twilight was cheerfully greeted by the people as they bustled through, lighting torches and preparing the bonfires to be lit. Along the edge of the little town was a group of children, keeping watch for the storyteller to arrive. A young blonde girl saw her first.
“Kaila!” she sprinted out, followed by the others. They crowded around her, jostling her and causing the hood to fall off revealing her short red curly hair and petite freckled face. Their excitement was infectious and soon she was laughing as they begged her for stories.
“No, no!” The blonde girl started pushing people out of the way. “You must rest first! Mama said you can stay with us.” She took Kaila’s hand and led her out of the throng. “Come with me. I’ll make sure you’re taken care of.” She said it matter-of-factly and the other kids began to melt away as they realized they wouldn’t get stories till later.
“Lead the way, Paisley.” Kaila followed through the winding path of the village to the two-story house of the miller. In a short time she was tucked safely into the eldest girl’s room, where she was to stay. The door opened and Anna, a girl about the same age as Kaila, entered.
“Kaila!” She wrapped the traveler in a hug. “I’m so glad to see you! We were worried you’d skipped us this year. And Harvest wouldn’t be the same without your stories.”
Kaila smiled. “I nearly didn’t make it. But I survived.”
“Paisley told me that you fell. Anything need to be looked at?”
“Close the door.”
Anna looked surprised, but shut the door.
“I was shot. I need you to look at it.” She unclasped her cloak to reveal a bloodstain on her left shoulder. “I pulled the shaft out and cleaned it as best I could, but I couldn’t stitch it.”
Anna swallowed hard and nodded. “I…I just learned how to do stitches. John nearly sliced his hand off with the scythe. I’ll go get my stuff.” She bustled out and Kaila stripped the material of her shirt away. Minutes later she returned with a large basket, breathing heavily.
“Had to run to the apothecary. Didn’t tell him what was going on.” She said between breaths. She unpacked all the things she needed and looked questioningly at Kaila. “Why’d you tell Paisley you fell?”
“Well, I did. After I was shot. I twisted my leg and I gotta say it hurts like none other. But I don’t want people to know that I was attacked.”
“What happened?” Anna began to clean the wound and Kaila hissed.
“I was walking and they shot at me.”
“But why?” She gasped. “Was it the Corllu? I heard that there was a band near here making mischief. It would be just like them to attack an unarmed travel—“
“It wasn’t the Corllu.”
“How do you know?”
Her tone caused Anna to pause for a moment before continuing the preparations to stitch her up. When she began Kaila bit her lip in pain and she tried to grasp for a new topic.
“Do you have any news? Folks are anxious about the new edicts that were up to be passed.”
“Only one was passed.”
“The one that is allowing the annihilation of the Corllu.”
Anna paused once more, but quickly moved on and finished up.
“Surely you don’t think it’s wrong? The Corllu have plagued this country for hundreds of years. They’re like rats or, or…”
“Cockroaches? They aren’t actually people, right? They don’t deserve to be treated like people.”
“Look what they’ve done! They’re robbers and vagabonds! They don’t have any sort of productive purpose.”
“You don’t know that. You can’t know that. You don’t even know one of them.” Kaila stood. “I’d better get ready.”
Later that night, the bonfires were lit and the revelry began. Kaila was in fine form, telling all sorts of fairy stories with the best animation in body and voice. The children were captivated, and most adults as well. As the night grew darker she told tales of the kingdom of old and scarier stories until the fires were embers. It was early morning when all fell to their beds and finally slept. Kaila didn’t sleep much and left early to get her morning meal at the tavern. Old Pete had left the celebration early, knowing she’d be up earlier than the rest and wanting to keep with tradition.
“How was the festival?” he asked as she entered.
“The same. Wonderful.” She smiled at him. “Can I have some eggs?”
“Course! You can have that and more. Got it all ready for ya.” He went to the back and brought a tray of steaming food. She sighed in complete satisfaction.
“Pete, that looks fantastic.” She sat at the bar and dug in, enjoying the tastes and smells.
Pete laughed. “You look like you haven’t eaten in a day and an age. Didn’t ya get any of that food last night?”
“Not much.” She responded between bites. “I didn’t eat much before either. I’ve been busy.”
“I guess you have.” He poured her some coffee and sat to wait for the others. About a half hour later four old men trooped in one by one. Mark, Nick, George, and Micah all came in complaining about getting up so early.
“Why is this tradition?” George complained. “It’s too early.”
“We have to see Kaila off. Hello, Kaila.” Nick smiled at her showing the laugh lines in his weathered face.
“Morning Nick.” She smiled, finishing her coffee. “Where’s Dani?”
“Here.” Dani entered, followed by Anna. “I couldn’t seem to roll out of bed this mornin’. Pour me some coffee will ya, Pete?” The women collapsed into a wooden booth.
“It ain’t mornin’ any more, Dani.” Mark chimed in. “It’s almost noon.”
“Too early.” Micah grunted. “Need coffee.”
As soon as the small bunch was filled with caffeine and some breakfast they turned to Kaila.
“What’s the news Kaila?” George asked.
“The new edict about the Corllu was passed, but the taxes weren’t raised.” Her eyes swept over them as they breathed a collective sigh.
“Finally ridding us of the scourge of the Corllu.” Dani slumped. “It’s about time.”
Anna winced, not taking her eyes off Kaila.
“They’ve been around too long,” George agreed. “They need to be gone. I heard somewhere that the Corllu are from an ancient line of evil wizards. That’s why they steal babies: for their sacrificial ceremonies.”
Kaila snorted and took a sip of coffee. Everyone turned to look at her. No one ever doubted George’s word about anything. Kaila knew that as well as anyone.
“You don’t think it’s true?” he asked angrily.
“I know it’s not true.” She stated, looking him directly in the eye. “It’s a load of hogwash.”
His face reddened a bit. “How do you know?”
“How do you know it’s not? Have you ever met any Corllu?”
“Well, no!” Dani chimed in. “God forbid we ever should! They’re vagabonds and robbers and murderers.”
“There are some that are known witches.” Nick nodded. “They cast spells on a man that normal folk can’t see and make him act funny. That’s why they have their own language. It’s a demon tongue.”
“They kill babies and steal ‘em from their cradles.” Micah added.
Mark said nothing, but looked down.
“Well, you certainly have well-formed opinions about a people group that you’ve never run into.” She set her mug on the table. “I’d like to tell you a story.”
“If it’s about them, I don’t want to hear it.” George shook his head. “I say, good riddance to the lot! The world’s a better place without them.”
“Even if they have to kill women and children?” Kaila’s face turned red.
“The women and children you’re talkin’ about are just as bad as the men. They hardly deserve the consideration they’ll prolly be given.”
“Why?” She burst out. “Why do you hate them? What do you even know about them? Nothing! You only know what you’ve heard from random strangers who heard it from someone else. You don’t know any Corllu and you’re just willing to MURDER an entire people group to get rid of an annoyance? The king is! Are you willing to slaughter innocent children whose only crime is the blood that runs through their veins? You know nothing.” She spat out the last. They all stared at her silently and she ran a hand through her hair in frustration. She took a deep breath, let it out and slumped a little. Then she straightened. “I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a story about the Corllu, but it’s important. So I’m going to tell it, and you can leave if you want. But I have to tell it.”
Dani paused then nodded. “All right. I’ll listen.”
“Dani!” George cried.
“She’s got a right to tell it, and all stories ought to be heard. Even ones about the Corllu. Tell it.” She looked at Kaila. The others settled back a bit. George huffed, but didn’t leave. So Kaila took a deep breath and began.
“Long ago, hundreds of years in the past, the Corllu were a bad people. There weren’t really more than a hundred or so and they lived off the beaten path. They were scorned in the cities for the funny way they spoke, and so resorted to thievery and deception to earn food and bed. Most citizens thought they were a menace and weren’t afraid to complain, even to the magistrates. The magistrates took word to the king, who didn’t really know what to do. The people were driven out of the cities, what choice did they have? But he had a bad advisor who told him that the best way to deal with them would be to wipe them out completely. There were only a hundred or so, he reasoned. It wouldn’t be difficult. So the king had an edict written up that allowed for the annihilation of the Corllu.
“When the prince heard of this, he ran to his father and spoke quickly, hoping to win his favor. He warned him against killing all of them, for not all were guilty. He pointed out that children were innocent, that they didn’t have much of a choice and that it would not make him popular with other minorities in their kingdom. The king saw his son’s wisdom and did not pass the edict. In gratefulness, the Corllu shed their mother tongue and adopted the language of the king. They tried to integrate themselves into society and become respectable. However, most wouldn’t hire them or allow them to stay in the towns. They were talented musicians and so split up into groups to become traveling bards and entertainers. It worked well for them, and they were paid for services amongst the nobility. Because the nobles accepted them, the common folk did and they were on their way to becoming good citizens.
“But there was a rogue group who continued to commit their dastardly crimes. Late one night they set upon a small riding, killed all and took the money and jewels off their victims. It wasn’t until the next morning that they learned that it was the prince and that they had killed their mediator. The king’s council flew into rage, demanding that the edict be passed. But the king was full of grief and could not countermand his son’s last piece of wisdom. The Corllu were grateful for that as well and rooted out the rebels and put them on trial. They were sentenced to death. Since then, the Corllu have attempted to live peacefully. Some are now members of high standing in court. Some are soldiers and some still travel as entertainers.
“The current king is passing this edict out of hatred for one member of this race. He found out recently that his father was not the late king as he thought, but a Corllu lover that his mother had taken. He is half Corllu.”
They sat in stunned silence for a moment before Anna timidly cleared her throat.
“How could you possibly know that Kaila?”
“Because I am Corllu.”
Everyone’s eyes widened at that, but no one said a thing.
Suddenly the door was thrown open and a young boy leapt into the room.
“What’s wrong Sky?” Peter asked him.
Kaila immediately stood, but glanced at her leg and sat again. They all heard the tromp of soldiers’ boots through the village until they entered the tavern. The leader looked at Kaila.
“Are you Kaila Mossfer?”
“Come with me.” He grabbed her left arm roughly and she cried out in pain as the wound reopened slightly. He smiled.
“Thought it was you. We heard her speaking in her god-forsaken tongue in the mountains. Tried to catch her, but she knew her way too well. We figured she’d stop at the first village to patch up. You are under arrest by order of the new edict to be sentenced to death.”
“We get a trial.” She said through clenched teeth. The guards all laughed at her.
“Sure you do.” The leader said agreeably. “Come on now.” He pushed her into two guards who each grabbed an arm and began dragging her out of the tavern.
“But…” Anna trailed off, tears streaming down her cheek. “Why?” she whispered.
The leader looked at her in disgust. “She’s a Corllu witch. That’s why. Do we need any other reason?” And he left to lead the procession through the village. The men and women in the tavern sat in silence for a moment before George raised his cup.