Stories of King Arthur and His Knights/Chapter 4
On a day there came a messenger to King Arthur saying that King Ryons of North Wales, a strong man in body, and passing proud, had discomfited and overcome eleven kings, and each of these to do him homage had cut his beard clean off as trimming for King Ryons' royal mantle. One place of the mantle still lacked trimming; wherefore he sent for Arthur's beard, and if he did not receive it he would enter England to burn and slay, and never would he leave till he had Arthur, head and all.
"Well," said Arthur to the messenger, "thou hast said thy message, the most insolent ever sent unto a king. Thou seest my beard is full young yet to make a trimming of it. Tell thou thy king I owe him no homage, but ere long he shall do me homage on both his knees." So the messenger departed.
Among those who, at Arthur's call, gathered at Camelot to withstand King Ryons' invasion of the land was a knight that had been Arthur's prisoner half a year and more for some wrong done to one of the court. The name of this knight was Balin, a strong, courageous man, but poor and so poorly clothed that he was thought to be of no honour. But worthiness and good deeds are not all only in arrayment. Manhood and honour is hid within man's person, and many an honourable knight is not known unto all people through his clothing. This Balin felt deeply the insult of King Ryons, and anon armed himself to ride forth to meet with him and mayhap to destroy him, in the hope that then King Arthur would again be his good and gracious lord.
The meanwhile that this knight was making ready to depart on this adventure, there came to Arthur's court the Lady of the Lake, and she now asked of him the gift that he promised her when she gave him his sword Excalibur.
"Ask what ye will," said the King, "and ye shall have it, if it lie in my power to give."
Thereupon she demanded Balin's head, and would take none other thing.
"Truly," said King Arthur, "I may not grant this with my honour," and Balin was allowed to make ready for the adventure with King Ryons.
But ere he had left the court he saw the Lady of the Lake. He went straight to her, and with his sword lightly smote off her head before King Arthur, for he knew her as the untruest lady living, one that by enchantment and sorcery had been the destroyer of many good knights.
"Alas! for shame," said Arthur. "Why have ye done so? Ye have shamed me and all my court, for this was a lady that I was beholden to, and hither she came under my safe conduct. I shall never forgive you that trespass. What cause soever ye had, ye should have spared her in my presence; therefore withdraw you out of my court in all haste that ye may."
So Balin, — called Balin the Wild for his savage and reckless nature, — departed with his squire, and King Arthur and all the court made great mourning, and had shame at the death of the Lady of the Lake. Then the King buried her richly.
In sorrow over the evil he had wrought and the disfavour of his king, Balin turned his horse towards a great forest, and there by the armour he was ware of his brother Balan. And when they were met, they put off their helms and kissed together, and wept for joy.
Anon the knight Balin told his brother of the death of the Lady of the Lake, and said: "Truly I am right heavy of heart that my lord Arthur is displeased with me, for he is the most honourable knight that reigneth on earth, and his love I will get or else I will put my life in adventure with King Ryons, that lieth now at the castle Terrabil. Thither will we ride together in all haste, to prove our honour and prowess upon him."
"I will gladly do that," said Balan; "we will help each other as brothers ought to do."
So they took their way to find King Ryons, and as they rode along together they encountered him in a straight way with threescore knights. Anon Balin and Balan smote him down from his horse, and slew on the right hand and the left hand more than forty of his men. The remnant fled, and King Ryons yielded him unto their grace as prisoner. So they laid him on a horse-litter, for he was fiercely wounded, and brought him to Camelot. There they delivered him to the porters and charged them with him; and then they two returned to further adventure.
And Balin rode towards the castle of King Pellam to revenge the wrongs of knights and ladies on a treacherous knight named Garlon. He had a fifteen days' journey thither, and the day he came unto the castle there began a great feast. Balin was well received, and led to a chamber, where he laid off his armour. They also brought him robes to his pleasure, and would have had him leave his sword behind him.
"Nay," said Balin, "that do I not, for it is the custom of my country for a knight always to have his weapon with him, and that custom will I keep, or else I will depart as I came."
Then they gave him leave to wear his sword, and so he went unto the hall and was set among the knights of honour.
Soon he saw the false knight Garlon, and thought to himself: "If I slay him here I shall not escape, and if I leave him now, peradventure I shall never meet with him again at such a good time, and much harm will he do if he live."
Then this Garlon espied that Balin watched him, and he came and smote Balin on the face, and said: "Knight, why watchest thou me so? Eat thy meat, and do that thou camest for."
Then Balin said, "I will do that I came for," and rose up fiercely and clove his head to the shoulders.
Anon all the knights arose from the table to set on Balin, and King Pellam himself caught in his hand a grim weapon and smote eagerly at Balin, but Balin put his sword betwixt his head and the stroke. With that his sword was broken in sunder, and he, now weaponless, ran into the chamber to seek some weapon, and so, from chamber to chamber, but no weapon could he find, and alway King Pellam came after him.
At last Balin entered into a chamber that was marvellously well furnished and richly, wherein was a bed arrayed with cloth of gold, the richest that might be thought, and thereby a table of clean gold, and upon the table a marvellous spear, strangely wrought. And when Balin saw that spear he took it in his hand, and turned to King Pellam and smote him passing hard with it so that he fell down in a swoon. Therewith the castle roof and walls brake and fell to the earth, and Balin also, so that he might not stir foot nor hand, for through that dolorous stroke the most part of the castle that was fallen down lay upon him and Pellam.
After three days Merlin came thither, and he took up Balin and gat him a good horse, for his was dead, and bade him ride out of the country. Merlin also told him that his stroke had turned to great dole, trouble, and grief, for the marvellous spear was the same with which Longius, the Roman soldier, smote our Lord Jesus Christ to the heart at the crucifixion.
Then departed Balin from Merlin, never to meet him again, and rode forth through the fair countries and cities about Pellam Castle, and found people dead, slain on every side. And all that were left alive cried: "O Balin, thou hast caused great damage in these countries, for by the dolorous stroke thou gavest unto King Pellam three countries are destroyed, and doubt not but the vengeance will fall on thee at the last."
When Balin was out of those countries he was passing glad, and after many days he came by a cross, whereon were letters of gold written that said, "It is not for any knight alone to ride towards this castle." Then saw he an old hoary gentleman coming towards him that said, "Balin the Wild, thou passest thy bounds to come this way; therefore turn again and it will avail thee." The old gentleman vanished away, and then Balin heard a horn blow, as if for the death of a beast in the chase. "That blast," said he, "is blown for me, for I am the prize, yet am I not dead." Anon he saw a hundred ladies and many knights, that welcomed him with fair semblance, and made him passing good cheer seemingly, and led him into the castle, where there were dancing and minstrelsy, and all manner of joy.
Then the chief lady of the castle said, "Knight, you must have ado with a knight close by that keepeth an island, for there may no man pass this way but he must joust, ere he go farther."
"That is an unhappy custom," said Balin, "that a knight may not pass this way unless he joust, but since that is my duty, thereto am I ready. Travelling men are oft weary, and their horses also; but though my horse be weary my heart is not weary."
"Sir," said the knight then to Balin, "me thinketh your shield is not good; I will lend you a better."
So Balin took the shield that was unknown, and left his own, and rode unto the island. He put himself and his horse in a great boat, and when he came on the other side he met with a damsel, and she said, "O Knight Balin, why hast thou left thine own shield? Alas! thou hast put thyself in great danger, for by thine own shield thou shouldst have been known. It is a great pity, for of thy prowess and hardiness thou hast no equal living."
"Me repenteth," said Balin, "that ever I came within this country, but I may not turn now again for shame, and what adventure shall fall to me, be it life or death, I will take the adventure that shall come to me."
Then he looked on his armour, and understood he was well armed, for which he was thankful, and so he mounted upon his horse. Then before him he saw come riding out of a castle a knight in red armour, and his horse was all trapped in the same colour. When this knight in red beheld Balin, he thought he was like his brother; but because he knew not his shield, he deemed it was not he. And so they couched their spears and came marvellously fast together, and they smote each other in the shields; but their spears were so heavy and their course so swift that horse and man were borne down, and both knights lay in a swoon. Balin was bruised sore with the fall of his horse, for he was weary with travel, and Balan (for the knight in red was none other) was the first that rose to his feet. He drew his sword and went towards Balin, who arose and went against him. But Balan smote Balin first, striking through his shield and cleaving his helm. Then Balin smote him in return with that unhappy sword that had already wrought so great harm, and the blow well nigh felled his brother Balan. So they fought there together till their breaths failed.
Then Balin looked up to the castle, and saw the towers stand full of ladies; so they went to battle again and wounded each other dolefully. Then they breathed ofttimes, and yet again went unto battle, until all the place there was blood-red from the great wounds that either had smitten other, and their hauberks became unriveted so that naked they were on every side.
At last Balan, the younger brother, withdrew a little and laid himself down. Then said Balin the Wild, "What knight art thou? for ere now I found never a knight that matched me."
"My name is," said he, "Balan, brother to the good knight Balin."
"Alas!" said Balin, "that ever I should see this day." Thereupon he fell backward in a swoon.
Then Balan crept on all fours to his brother and put oft his helm, but he might not know him, his visage was so disguised by blood and wounds. But when Balin awoke, he said, "O Balan, my brother, thou hast slain me and I thee, wherefore all the wide world shall speak of us both."
"Alas!" said Balan; "that ever I saw this day, that through mishap I might not know thee! Because thou hadst another shield I deemed thou wert another knight."
"Alas!" said Balin, "all this was caused by an unhappy knight in the castle, that made me leave mine own shield, to the destruction of us both."
Then anon Balan died, and at midnight after, Balin; so both were buried together, and the lady of the castle had Balan's name written on the tomb and how he was there slain by his brother's hand, but she knew not Balin's name. In the morn came Merlin and wrote Balin's inscription also in letters of gold: "Here lieth Balin the Wild, that smote the dolorous stroke."
Soon after this was done Merlin came to King Arthur and told him of the dolorous stroke that Balin gave King Pellam, and how Balin and Balan fought together the most marvellous battle that ever was heard of, and how they buried both in one tomb. "Alas!" said King Arthur; "this is the greatest pity that ever I heard tell of two knights, for in the world I know not such two knights."
Thus endeth the tale of Balin and Balan, two brethren born in Northumberland, good knights both.