by Meril
Meril waves.

Meril dusts off the pale mistwood harp in her hand.

Meril says, "Thank you each for coming, and for your forbearance at my taking your time. The song I bring to you today is 'A Hunt Through the Dark'."

(Meril closes her eyes for a moment in concentration, her hands resting on her harp. Then, with face tilted down, she starts to play. It is a brisk and lively melody, with a tinge of northern flavor.)

Meril sings:

"Through a snow-laden valley forgotten by time--
Through treacherous rockfalls and a long, breathless climb--
In a dim, twisting tunnel beneath miles of cold stone,
The light of two torch-fires flickered and shone."

Meril sings whiningly:

"'I thought it'd be closer,' young Arlan complained.
'A hunt through the darkness is not what I've trained.
If I'd only a quarry, a spear, and a bow--
Not this nearly blind journey so dreadfully slow.'"

Meril sings teasingly:

"A step in front, Rhia smiled and gave him a wink.
'A true hunter has to learn more than you think.
We were sent here, little sparrow, and don't you protest,
You were always so eager to prove yourself best--"

Meril sings teasingly:

"And if you hadn't named yourself, neither would I--
It's your fault we're both here, so at least you could try.
Now keep your ears sharpened where eyes have been blind,
And maybe you'll spy the old ruins we're to find.'"

(Meril adds a high tinkling to the melody, reminiscent of falling rain.)

Meril sings:

"She pressed on ahead with her torch held aloft,
Retracing the trail where the ground was yet soft.
These were not natural tunnels, that much she could see,
But no sign as to which folk the delvers might be."

Meril sings hesitantly:

"The floor grew more slippery, and somewhere nearby--
'Do you hear it too, sister? Like a river, but why
Would there be such a thing down in caverns this deep?
There are no streams outside and the slopes were so steep.'"

Meril sings quietly:

"'Like all flowing water, from fresh-melted snow--
But this runs through stone and pours out far below.
If people once lived here, that water they'd need,
So let's follow those sounds to wherever they lead.'"

(Meril gives a grand sweep of the harp-strings, merging the main chords with the persistent tinkling until background and foreground seem to interchange, the traveller's ballad subsumed under a spray of rain.)

Meril sings:

"The cavern they found was majestic in sight--
A black lake that shimmered with red mirrored light,
With falls roaring down from an underground stream
That poured through the mountain by chasm and seam."

Meril sings:

"And over the water, from cold iron made,
A long swinging bridge in the shadows there swayed--
The rivets were rusted, but the chains still held fast,
And step by step, carefully, they clambered past."

Meril sings happily:

"'I think these are tracks!' Arlan gasped, kneeling down.
'Do you see where the stone is a little off-brown?
Looks like mud from old footsteps, they lead farther in--
We're sure to see more signs of where they had been.'"

Meril sings hesitantly:

"'Lead on then,' said Rhia, for she saw the tracks too,
Though she paused just a moment--one thing rang untrue.
Might be she was wrong, but she shivered with doubt--
For the footsteps led inward, but not one led out."

(Meril lets the last note drift into a brief silence, looking up thoughtfully. Then she starts again, slower and quieter, punctuating each verse with a low thrum.)

Meril sings:

"They ventured yet deeper, the tracks as their guide,
And the air became musty, the tunnels less wide,
The torches burned dimmer, the shadows grew long,
Dancing wildly behind in an unruly throng."

Meril sings quietly:

"She peered forward, frowning, then dipped down her flame.
'It's nothing,' she told him, 'Keep doing the same--
I'm saving on torchlight, for sake of the air.
Just one is enough, I can see more than fair.'"

Meril sings earnestly:

"He nodded and led them, his eyes on the trail.
'I remember the elder once told us a tale,
How we fled underground in an age of great strife,
And found there a shelter and made a new life.'"

Meril sings amusedly:

"'Well, not to these caverns for certain,' she laughed.
'That bridge would have fallen had it been of their craft.
It is only a legend from centuries ago,
So temper your hopes, take it steady and slow.'"

Meril sings earnestly:

"'But I've looked at these tracks, and they're so like our own.
The stride is just right, the weight on the stone--
Whoever once delved this to make their abode,
It wasn't some Other that walked down this road.'"

Meril sings:

"She thought on that harder, but couldn't surmise
Any truth that explained what was before her eyes--
And as her mind raced to find reason in it all,
The path widened out to a small carven hall--"

(Meril lets the melody drift into the lower chords, playing it at a deliberate pace.)

Meril sings:

"There were pillars that rose to a ceiling of stone,
A seat that lay broken like a lord's fallen throne,
Clay vessels adorned with some forgotten art,
An archway that loomed a short distance apart--"

Meril sings happily:

"'We've found it,' breathed Arlan, and making his way
Around in a dream as a child might at play,
He held up his torch to each crack in the stone,
Inspecting the pieces as if he were alone."

Meril sings:

"But Rhia glanced 'round warily, sensing deceit.
The lay of the room was too perfect, too neat,
A scent in the air seemed to smell of distrust--
And if it was abandoned, then where was the dust?"

Meril sings sharply:

"'Come back here,' she called, but he didn't quite hear,
And briefly, she thought, a shape seemed to appear--
It was there for a flicker--on the arch as light fell--
Then the shadows there surged in a smothering swell."

(Meril stills her harp for the space of a single breath, then picks up the melody once more on the lowest strings, its notes echoing deep and hollow.)

Meril sings:

"The flame had blown out, the hall was pitch-black,
And dimly, half-deafened, she heard him call back--
A clanking of iron--a short, muffled sound--
A rustling, as someone were dragged on the ground--"

Meril sings:

"She found her own torch at last, breathed it to life,
Then held it before her, a hand on her knife.
But whatever it was, it had long since moved on--
And as much she cried out, she knew he was gone."

Meril sings tremblingly:

"'Little sparrow,' she whispered, 'as I still draw breath,
I shall seek you and save you, though it lead to my death.
May the Goddess succor me and guide me, I pray,
I'll not rest 'til I've found you, though hells bar the way.'"

(Meril pauses at the end of the prayer, waiting until the echoes have gone silent. And then, subtly, it is not the melody that starts again, but the tinkling of falling water--softly at first, then louder, fuller--until at last the ballad cuts back in at the crescendo.)

Meril sings:

"He awoke with a shiver in cold, biting rain,
Still feeling on his temple a dull, throbbing pain.
His hands had been shackled, his arms had been bound,
But he sat upright, straining, and looked all around--"

Meril sings:

"There were tents by the hundreds, and bright flaring lamps,
And figures that hurried between vast bustling camps--
And so many faces, all harried and dim,
Each one of them chained down and bound just like him."

Meril sings darkly:

"A haggard man watched him, and chuckled without mirth.
'You are welcome to our fire, for what it is worth.
But you'll soon meet our masters, so best guard your tongue--
They've an ear for defiance in servants so young.'"

Meril sings gravely:

"'Aye, that is the truth,' said a woman, more soft--
'I've seen it before here--and lately too oft--
From warriors who have been more foolish than brave.
Let them think you wish only the life of a slave.'"

Meril sings earnestly:

"'My sister will find me,' he hoped--no, he knew.
'I've only to wait 'til a message gets through--
If I could but tell her, then as the crow flies--'
He stopped short then, seeing the sad look in those eyes."

Meril sings wistfully:

"'For uncounted years we have lived 'neath their thumb--
Let go of that dream, boy, she never will come.
But serve them and learn all their ways, my sweet child.
In time, when they trust you--' and at that, she smiled."

(Meril brings the ballad to the forefront again, giving it one last lively rendition in refrain. Then, looking a bit apologetic, she claps her hands to her harp and stills the melody.)

Meril bows.