The Tale of Mercandes

by Rob Huston

The bard flourishes his black cape with a graceful twirl and a deep bow. Seeing that his performance has ended, the patrons of the tavern begin to applaud. Propping his ornate lute safely in a corner, the bard catches your eye, and makes his way to the bar amidst the tide of congratulatory faces - many of whom toss gold coins his way or clap him on the back. As the man steps to the bar beside you, you see that his face is fair and youthful. His clothing is simple, yet elegant, and you notice that he wears no jewellery or other adornments - somewhat unusual, you think, for a practitioner of the bardic arts.

"Greetings, my friend!" he says, clasping your shoulder warmly. "Mecandes al'Maradon, humble gleeman - at your service!" He waves to the barkeep, who begins to draw him a tankard of ale - from a hidden keg, you note with interest. Seeing your look, Mecandes grins. "Some of my private stock," he explains. "And I can tell you that I went through no small trouble to have it brought from my home."

Pulling up a stool, he motions you to sit. "Indeed, I miss my home a great deal - it has been far too long since I last saw Skara Brae's blessed shores."

"Why have you not returned to your home, Mecandes?" you ask.

A dark shadow crosses his face, and he speaks with his head down, staring deeply into his ale. "I have nothing left there," he says, quietly.

"Would you hear the tale?" Mecandes asks, looking up at you. "I warn you that it is a long tale, and not particularly pleasant." You nod, and the bard begins.

"You see... my father was a very wealthy and successful shipwright, and my father's father - and his father before him. It was always just assumed that I would carry on the family tradition." Shaking his head, the bard continues. "I was young, and consumed with such a passion for music and the arts... but my father told me I could never put bread on the table with such 'foolishness', as he called it. The argument between he and I became more and more heated as I grew older. Finally," says Mecandes, taking a draught from his ale, "I could stand it no longer, and I left home in the night - but a youth - determined to find fame and fortune wherever fate guided my feet."

"Finding a merchant ship that would take me on as a deck hand was simplicity itself in Skara Brae," he tells you with a distant look in his eyes. "We sailed south, and took port in the Valerian Isles - until then, I had never been away from my island home, and I was overjoyed when the captain gave me leave to experience the sights and sounds of Jhelom - and the duelling pit! - in the afternoons, after my shipboard duties were complete."

"However, my adventurous ambition soon turned to sorrow," Mecandes says soberly. "One evening, as I was mending a sail, a shout went up from the dock and everyone began pointing out to sea. A frigate had appeared on the horizon, it's sails aflame, the black smoke curling up into the sky like a phantom. When it finally drifted to port, it's crew told a grim tale - the shipyards of Skara Brae had been besieged by rogue pirates intent on stealing vessels to aid in their plundering. The city guards were hard pressed to rout the pirates, and the battle was not going well. They had sent their fastest ship to Jhelom - the obvious choice - to beg for help in defending the city. As it happens, the ship barely made it past the pirates."

"Granted, pirate raids on Skara Brae are not uncommon," Mecandes allows, "But this attack seemed exceptionally well-organised and vicious. My first thought was for my kin - were they safe? I had to know, and towards this end I began to search among the confusion surrounding the half-burned frigate for a familiar face - anyone who might be able to tell me what had become of my family."

"I was about to give up my search when a face appeared in the turmoil that I recognised - it was an older man who had once worked for my father... I didn't know his name, and I never had the chance to find out." Shaking his head, Mecandes continues. "I caught up with him in the crowd, and when I grabbed his arm, he spun around, and a look of recognition - and surprise - crossed his weathered features."

"'Why lad, how did ye get here?' he said, puzzled, 'I thought surely ye could not have escaped...' I tried to explain that I had been here all along, but quickly gave up and asked him if he knew of my family. 'By the virtues, lad - haven't ye heard? Ye family, they are gone.' The
words were said, but I couldn't grasp them. Gone? How can that be? The man continued, but I only caught pieces of what he was saying through my shock. 'Ship yards destroyed ... and houses burned to the ground ... not enough to just pillage, they were murdering innocent women and children ... say there must be some more sinister force at work, lad. Lad, are you listening to me?' he said with concern, shaking my shoulder. 'They can't be dead,' I tell him. 'I'm sorry lad, but it is so. I saw ye father fall with mine own two eyes - he was trying to defend the newly-built ships, but there were too many of the thieving...' I never heard the rest of his story," explains Mecandes, "For right then cries started going up all over the docks, and the sound of steel ringing against steel began in earnest - the frigate had been been followed, and the pirates were there to finish the job!"

Seeing the astonished look on your face, Mecandes says, "Oh, I know what you are thinking - why in Sosaria would the pirates pursue the ship all the way to Jhelom, and openly attack them in the port of such a well armed and defended city?" Nodding, he continues, "At the time, I never stopped to consider, but now - years later - I think the old dock-hand was right... something much more diabolic than mere piracy was at work that day."

"I had no time to ponder the implications, however - I was reeling from the shock of the blow I had just received - my family, dead. Gone forever. And they would never know how I felt... their last memories of me that of a rebellious young man. The sorrow welled up deep inside of me. The battle began to rage around me, and I was oblivious to it all. The anguish sprang forth from me suddenly then, and in a most unexpected way - I began to sing."

Mecandes abruptly rises from his bar stool and disappears into the crowd. You begin to worry that you have somehow offended him, when he returns to his seat with his ornate lute in hand. He gently strums it, fusses over the tuning of one of the strings, and strums it again - by the second strum, the whole tavern had hushed in anticipation. And Mecandes begins to play. It is perhaps the saddest song you have ever heard, and the words are haunting and strange to your ears - it is a tongue you have never heard before. The other patrons are likewise captivated as he sings.

"Maidin 's tús an lae
's fágaim mo bhaile.
Tá mo chroíse go brón
's fada ar shiúl m'óige.

Oíche 's mé liom féin.
Spéartha dubh go domhain, a choích.
Ag cuimhneamh ar laetha a bhí
gan ghá agus gan ghruaim.
Éistim leis an ghaoth.
Uaigneas mór, go deo, a choích.

Deireadh an turas mór,
táim brónach, buartha 's briste.
I mo dhiaidh nach mbeidh níos mó,
ach, tá sé i ndán dúinn, a pháistí.
ach, tá sé i ndán dúinn, a pháistí

Is fada anois an lá
a d'fhág mé mo bhaile.
Níl áthas i mo shaol.
Níl ann ach an marbh.
Níl ann ach an marbh."

As his song ends, you hear a muted sobbing from somewhere in the tavern, and are not surprised to see more than one patron rubbing tears from their eyes - you cannot remember the last time you heard such beautiful and calming music. Applause wouldn't have seemed appropriate after such a sombre tune, and so the people simply return to what they were doing - though the mood in the common room is now much quieter and more subdued than it was earlier.

Mecandes sits with his eyes closed for a moment before lowering his lute. "That is the song that came to me that fateful day. I know not where the words came from - I had certainly never heard the music before - and although my soul understands the meaning of the lyrics well enough, I would be hard pressed to translate it for you."

"But the mysterious origins of the music is the least of it," explains Mecandes. "The effect of my song is the true miracle - for somehow, in the midst of the battle, my voice was heard by all... and all who heard ceased their fighting and dropped their weapons to listen," Mecandes says with wonder. "Further still, when the song had ended, it almost seemed as if those with the most hatred in their hearts were the most affected by this magical occurrence, for they did not put up a struggle when the noble guards of Jhelom regained their composure and surrounded them. If there is any virtue in this world," the bard says with a slight sneer, "They are rotting in their prison cells to this day."

The slight anger of his voice softens then, and he pauses to take a draught from his tankard of ale. "I didn't notice much of this at the time, however - for when the final cry of the song had departed my lips, I fell to my knees on the dock and wept into my hands. I don't know how long I remained weeping," he says, "But I was roused from my sorrow by the light touch of a hand on my shoulder, and a soft voice asking me, 'Are you injured?' It was a woman. 'No!' I shouted rudely, 'Just leave me be!'"

"The hand withdrew, and I realised that I had been quite harsh in my reproach. But, turning to apologise, I beheld one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. My jaw dropped - though I'm sure she did not see my reaction for what it really was," the bard grins, "And I was immediately ashamed of my sorrowful appearance."

"She looked me up and down once, and turned to leave," he tells you. "'If you are uninjured,' she called over her shoulder, 'Then you can at least help those who are.' I was shamed by her words - here I was, wallowing in self-pity and grief, while people all around me suffered from brutal injuries and faced equal - if not greater - grievances than I. Rising and composing myself, I followed the young woman to a nearby hastily-constructed aid station, and spent the rest of the day tending to the wounded and trying to forget my own sorrows."

"Later that evening, I ran into her again in a pleasant tavern in western Jhelom - though not as pleasant as the one we are in, of course," winks Mecandes, noticing that the barkeep had been surreptitiously listening to the story while pretending to fuss over the wiping of some mugs. "Seeing me in the corner, she approached my table and asked if she could join me. I naturally agreed," grins the bard, "And after stepping to the bar for a glass of wine, she took a seat next to me. 'Thank you for your help today,' she said a little hurriedly. 'Although I do have some talent in healing, there were far too many injured for me to care for them alone.' I nodded, accepting her thanks, and we sat in uncomfortable silence. 'Listen,' she said after a time, 'I want you to know that I think what you did today was incredible.' A little puzzled, I said, 'I did only what had to be done - I have some small knowledge of bandages...' Flustered, she says, 'No, not that - I mean... the song...' Now I understood. 'There was something almost magical about it - by the virtues, how did you ever cause the pirates to drop their weapons like that?' she asked. 'I really don't know,' I answered, 'It is just something which came from deep within me.' We spoke at length of this and other matters... until the soft rays of dawn could be seen through the open window of the tavern..."

"And thus I met Eilwynne - the beautiful young red-haired ranger," Mecandes tells you. "I found out that she had just finished her studies in Skara Brae when the pirate attack came, and had volunteered to help in the defence of the ship bound for Jhelom for help. Since her studies were complete, she was seeking employment. The following day, I arranged for her to meet the captain of the ship I was serving on, for indeed he had lost a couple of the ship's guard in the battle - she was hired on the spot, and we set sail the day after that."

"We spent the next four years ever at each other's side - offering our services to various merchant ships... Eilwynne as a hired guard, and myself as an entertainer to lift the spirits of the crew and passengers during the long sea voyages." Mecandes slaps the bar suddenly. "And what adventures we had!" he exclaims.

"What has become of Eilwynne?" you ask curiously.

"That, my friend, is a good question!" Mecandes says with a smile, "For it has been two years since she disappeared."

"Disappeared?" you say, raising your eyebrow.

"Indeed - when I asked her to pledge her troth to me!" Laughing and raising his mug to his lips, Mecandes finds it empty. "Alas," he says, standing up, "But that is a tale for another time - for the end of my ale means the end of my break. It's back to the stage for me!" Once again clasping your shoulder warmly, he says, "If you are still here when I am finished, perhaps you could share the tales of your adventures with me."

The tavern patrons applaud again as Mecandes bounds to the stage at the front of the common room and his performance begins...

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