“What’s the story, Merlin?” asked Jamie, gazing up from his cross-legged position on the floor, very like a small boy waiting for a treat. Merlin settled himself in an armchair, with the young people at his feet. For a moment he was taken back to the days of his youth when, as a Bard, he had taught the young Arthur the history of the land. Arthur was not unlike the young man at his feet, he mused. All fire and innocence, ablaze with life. When he spoke, his voice took on the cadence of the Bard of old and held his listeners spellbound.
“Long, long ago, when the world was still young, there stood a fair and prosperous city on the banks of a lake. The people were beautiful, dressed in fine linen and decked with silver wrought into delicate jewels. Their homes gleamed in the sunlight and there was music in the streets. One night, a poor and aged beggar stumbled into town, cold, hungry and thirsty. He knocked on one fine door after another, only to be turned away by the haughty inhabitants. House after house closed their doors to him and sent him away unaided.
At last, when he had tried every house, the old man found himself once more outside the great city. The sky was dark and clouded, with only the crescent moon to guide his steps. Some way ahead, the beggar saw a faint light and made his way towards it. The acrid tang of woodsmoke and tallow greeted him as he approached. The cottage was the merest hovel, a tiny building of wattle and daub, thatched with reeds. Outside a few chickens roosted and an elderly goat was tethered to a stake.
“The old man knocked on the door and it was opened warily by a young man. When he saw the beggar was alone, he held the door wide and invited him into the warmth. Inside the cottage was clean and tidy, but very bare. A table of rough-hewn wood and two stools stood to one side, in the corner there was a curtained alcove with a rush mattress covered with a coarse, woollen blanket. On a stool beside the fire, a tired young woman sat spinning in the dim light. She looked up and smiled, laying aside the spindle with care and ushering the old man to her stool. She bade him sit and warm himself. Seeing him shiver, she took a large stone from the hearth, and, wrapping it in a fleece, placed it at his feet.
“The husband brought two beakers of ale and sat beside the old man and asked how far he had come and whither he was going, speaking to the beggar with kindness and respect. The young woman heated a soup of vegetables and herbs on the fire, placing cakes of bread to bake in the cinders. When all was ready, the meagre meal was shared with the old man.
“After the meal, the husband cleared a place near the fire for the old man to sleep, building up the sweet rushes and herbs and covering them with a blanket. Only when the beggar was settled did they blow out the tallow candles and retire themselves.
“The old beggar left the cottage while his poor but kindly hosts were sleeping. As he walked away, he looked down on the great, shining city below and said, “Semer water rise, and Semer water sink, and swallow the town all save this house, where they gave me food and drink.”
“Next morning, when the young couple awoke, they looked for their erstwhile guest to no avail. Going outside, they saw that the once great city, and the valley where it lay, had disappeared completely and the waters of the lake now reached the edge of their little plot of land. Some tales say that the old beggar was really an angel in disguise. Be that as it may, no trace of the city or its inhabitants was ever seen again. But the stories tell that in times of peril one can hear the great bells booming in the deep water. I give you this tale from my heart to yours.” For a few moments longer, his little audience remained in attentive silence, savouring the magic of the Bard’s voice. Listening to the old man, Jamie understood why the bards were so honoured in days gone by, when they trained for decades, learning their craft of voice and woven wisdom.
Extract from Sword of Destiny