Alec sat silently in the bar, it was empty as was his purse. He had arrived, expecting the greetings of people and demands of songs and sagas. His bright colored clothes and mandolin called everyone together for entertainment. He had foolishly gambled the last of his money away before arriving here. He had not expected what he found.
Normally villages were lively and joyful. Bakers cooking warm bread and women preparing stews. Farmers going back and forth from field to home. Children running to and fro on whatever errand set to them by their elders. This was what he had expected. He had never seen the plague before.
Instead of life, bodies lay stacked outside homes. Instead of lively chat, weeping and sadness filled the air. Bird faced surgeons wandered from home to home, bleeding people and trying to balance their humours to no avail. Not knowing what else to do he went to the bar. He strummed and occasionally sang in the empty place. The bartender lay in the street, blood running from his bloated corpse. No one objected when he drank himself into a stupor and ate the salted meats from the pantry.
He awoke and wept. He knew not what to do. To leave felt like abandoning them, yet he feared his own death. He swallowed and rose, self-preservation winning over his piety. He stepped into the blighted streets and gagged at the stench. Not only the smell of death but burning flesh as someone had begun to burn the corpses. Not exactly a Christian death, but a practical one.
Head down to avoid seeing the horror, he was surprised to hear someone yell “Troubadour! Wait!” he lifted his head and saw a poorly dressed man running his way. His clothes were shabby, even for a peasant, and his face was wet with tears.
Part of him wished to flee the man, but something held him back. He wanted to know what this was about. The man approached and grabbed his shoulders, shaking him. “Please sir, there’s no time. I will pay what I can but please come with me!” his eyes were wide and pleading.
Alec pushed the man’s hands off his shoulders and said “What is it you need of me? It seems I have little to offer in this place. I am no miracle worker, I am but a singer.”
“A song is what I need! My daughter, “ his voice choked and he wiped a hand over his eyes “she has little time left but asks only for a song. Something beautiful before she succumbs. Please.”
Alec wanted to be gone, but he could not deny the man. A young girl wanted only a song to carry her to heaven. In the name of the Lord, he would give her that. “I will give her that song. It is a small thing in this tragedy, but this I can do. Lead on” he waved a graceful hand to the man. The man grabbed it and yanked him through the streets at a breakneck pace.
It took but a few minutes, and he found himself in a dark room. A poor man, no doctor stood here, but a brother burned incense and recited the last rites. The man ran to a girl in a bed. She was younger than Alec had expected, extremely pale and leaking blood from her mouth and ears.
“I have brought a singer, love. He will sing for you, and give you something beautiful to carry you into the arms of the Lord “ the man turned and looked at Alec’s, eyes pleading.
Alec choked back a sob. He had a job here, perhaps more important when he sang for a Lord. “The song I will sing for you is called It is the Last Meeting”
He began to play and his golden voice came forth, filling the room “It is the last meeting, I know it to well; and near you tomorrow no more shall I dwell,” he struggled vainly against tears but kept his voice firm as he continued his song. His words stirred the girl, who despite her pain smiled at him. He forced the words out, strong and clear. He sang better than he ever had for this small girl.
Something began happening as he began the second verse. “I blame not your going, the error was mine: I suffer Love’s fetters around me to twine,” While he thought he imagined it, soon he realized it was true, a chorus of beautiful voices sang from all around. As he watched a glowing being appeared in the room and took the small girl by the hand.
He continued singing as he watched the girl cough and begin to go quake. As he finished his song “It is the last meeting, receive my farewell,” the girl went still and the golden form held the hand of a luminous spirit. It was the girl, free of pain and happy. She skipped to the singer and kissed his hand. She then faded, along with luminous creature, leaving a small corpse and several shocked people.
The man and monk dropped to pray and Alec wept. He had given a final goodbye to a poor peasant girl more moving than the greatest song for a King. Silently, he left the praying men and went to the next home. He spent the next week singing to one after another, till his voice cracked. Finally, he left. He had taken not a penny from the people. Nothing to pay for his travels and food.
As he coughed he knew it wouldn’t matter. Yet he could not regret his final performance.
The Ballad referenced in the story is a real one. It appears in a book hosted here