Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

The Fate of Balin and Balan

At the end of the three days came Merlin, who rescued Balin from under the ruined walls.

"Your horse is dead," he said, "but I have brought you another, and the sword you won in Arthur's hall. My counsel is that you ride out of this country with all speed; for little you know the evil you have done."

"The damsel I brought hither must go with me," said Balin.

"She shall never go farther," answered Merlin. "The damsel is dead, and with her many a good knight and fair lady. That blow of yours was the fatalest ever struck, as you may see in the ruin of this castle, and as you will see further when you ride abroad through this distracted country."

"What have I done?" cried Balin. "How could I know that such dread disaster dwelt within that spear? Who was he that lay within the bed, and what does this strange thing portend?"

"You did but what destiny commanded," said Merlin. "It is fate, not you, that is at fault. Let me tell you the meaning of this mighty and terrible event, which destiny has thrown into your hands. He who lay in that rich bed was Joseph of Arimathea, who came years ago into this land, and bore with him part of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. And that spear was the same fatal weapon with which Longius smote our Lord to the heart. King Pellam was nigh akin to Joseph of Arimathea, and great pity is it of his hurt, for that stroke has filled the land with trouble, grief, and mourning. As for King Pellam, he shall lie for many years in sore pain from the wound you dealt him, and shall never be whole again until Galahad, the high prince, shall heal him when he comes this way in the quest of the Sangreal."

These words said, Balin mounted his horse, and departed in deep grief for the harm he had wrought, saying to Merlin as he left, "In this world we shall never meet again, for I feel that destiny has marked me for its victim." But little knew he the full effects of that fatal blow till he rode forth through the land. Then as he went through the once fair cities and fertile country he saw the people lying dead on every side, and cities and lands in ruin together. Few remained alive of all the inhabitants of that populous realm, and as he passed these cried out to him,—

"Oh, Balin, terrible is the harm that thou hast done to this innocent land! Three countries lie destroyed through the dolorous stroke thou gavest unto King Pellam. Woe to thee for this dread deed! Thou hast escaped alive, yet doubt not but the vengeance of heaven will fall on thee at last!"

Great was the grief and suffering with which the good knight heard these words, and glad at heart was he when at length he left behind him that land of woe and ruin, to which his innocent hand had wrought such deadly harm.

But as he rode onward the feeling came to him that his end was at hand, though this grieved him little, for he felt as one set apart to do heaven's work of destiny. And for eight days thereafter he rode over many leagues of strange country without adventure.

At length came a day when he saw before him, by the roadside, a cross, on which in letters of gold was written, "It is not wise for any knight alone to ride towards this castle," Then he saw a white-haired old man approach, who said,—

"Balin le Savage, you pass your bounds to come this way. Turn again, if you would leave this place in safety."

With these words he vanished, and as he did so there rang on the air a bugle-blast like that blown for the death of a beast of the chase.

"That blast is blown for me," said Balin. "I am the prize of the invisible powers. I am not yet dead, but they claim me for their own."

As he stood lost in deep thought there came trooping from the castle, which he now saw in the distance, a hundred fair ladies and many knights, who welcomed him with great show of gladness, and led him with them to the castle, where he found dancing and minstrelsy, and all manner of sport and pleasure. As he stood observing all this the chief lady of the castle said to him,—

"Knight of the two swords, there is a custom of this castle which all who come here must keep. Hereby is an island which is held by a knight, and no man can pass this way unless he joust with him."

"That is an unhappy custom," said Balin. "Why should every traveller be forced to fight?"

"You shall have to do with but one knight," said the lady.

"That troubles me little," said Balin. "I and my horse are both weary from our journey, but I am not weary at heart, and, if fight I must, I am ready to do it now. If death comes to me, it will not come unwelcome."

"Your shield does not seem to be a good one," said a knight. "Let me lend you a larger one."

Balin took the proffered shield and left his own, and rode to the island, where he and his horse were taken over in a great boat. On reaching the island shore he met a damsel, who said in sorrowful accents,—

"O Knight Balin, why have you left your own shield? Alas! you have put yourself in great danger. Had you borne your own you would have been known. It is a great pity that a knight of your prowess and hardiness should fight unknown."

"I repent that I ever came into this country," said Balin. "But now that I am here I shall not turn again, and whatever comes to me, be it life or death, I shall take it as my lot."

Then he mounted and rode into the island, in whose midst he saw a castle, from which rode a knight wearing red armor, and mounted on a horse which bore trappings of the same color. The warriors looked at each other, but neither knew the other, though the two swords that Balin wore should have revealed him, had not he borne a shield of strange device.

Then, couching their spears, the hostile knights rode together at the full speed of their war-horses, meeting with such mighty force and equal fortune that both horses went down, and both knights were hurled to the earth, where they lay in a swoon.

Balin was sorely bruised and weary with travel, and the red knight was the first to gain his feet. But as he advanced with drawn sword, Balin sprang up and met him with ready shield, returning his blow with such force that he cut through his shield and cleft his helmet.

And now began the mightiest battle that island had ever beheld. As they fought, Balin looked at the castle and saw that its towers were full of ladies who were watching the deadly contest, and who applauded each blow as though this combat was meant for their sport. The valiant knights fought till their breath failed, and then took rest and fought again, until each was sorely wounded and the spot upon which they stood was deeply stained with blood.

They fought on until each of them had seven great wounds, the least of which might have brought death to the mightiest giant of the world. But still the terrible sword-play continued, until their coats of mail were so hewn that they stood unarmed, and the blood poured piteously from their veins. At length the red knight withdrew a little and lay down. Then said Balin,—

"Tell me what knight you are. For never did I meet a man of your prowess before."

"I am Balan," was the answer, "brother to the good knight Balin."

"Alas!" cried Balin, "that ever I should see this day!" and he fell to the earth in a swoon.

Then Balan dragged himself up on his hands and feet, and took off his brother's helmet, but the face was so scarred and blood-stained that he did not know it. But when Balin came to himself he cried,—

"Oh, Balan, my brother, thou hast slain me, and I thee! Fate has done deadly work this day."

"Heaven aid me!" cried Balan. "I should have known you by your two swords, but your shield deceived me."

"A knight in the castle caused me to leave my own shield," said Balin. "If I had life enough left me I would destroy that castle for its evil customs."

"And I should aid you," said Balan. "They have held me here because I happened to slay a knight that kept this island. And if you had slain me and lived, you would have been held in the same way as their champion."

As they thus conversed there came to them the lady of the castle, with four knights and six ladies and as many yeomen. The lady wept as she heard them moan that they as brothers had slain each other, and she promised them that they should be richly entombed on the spot in which the battle had been fought.

"Now will you send for a priest," asked Balan, "that we may receive the sacrament?"

"It shall be done," said the lady.

And so she sent for a priest and gave them the rites of the church.

"When we are buried in one tomb," said Balin, "and the inscription is placed over us telling how two brothers here slew each other in ignorance and valor, there will never good knight nor good man see our tomb but they will pray for our souls, and bemoan our fate."

At this all the ladies wept for pity. Soon after Balan died, but Balin lived till midnight. The lady thereupon had them both richly buried, and the tomb inscribed as they had asked, though she knew not Balin's name.

But in the morning came the magician Merlin, who wrote Balin's name upon the tomb in letters of gold, as follows: "Here lieth Balin le Savage, the knight with the two swords, and he that smote the Dolorous Stroke."

More than this did Merlin, through this magic art. In that castle he placed a bed, and ordained that whoever should lie therein would lose his wits. And he took the sword which Balin had won from the damsel, and removed its pommel, placing upon it another pommel. Then he asked a knight beside him to lift that sword, but he tried to do so in vain.

"No man shall have power to handle that sword," said Merlin, "but the best knight in the world; and that shall be Sir Launcelot, or his son Sir Galahad. And Launcelot with this sword shall slay Sir Gawaine, the man he loves best in the world." All this he wrote in the pommel of the sword.

Then Merlin built to the island a bridge of steel and iron that was but half a foot broad, and ordained that no man should cross that bridge unless he were of virtuous life and free from treachery or evil thoughts and deeds.

This done, Merlin by magical skill fixed Balin's sword in a block of marble as great as a millstone, and set it afloat upon the stream in such a way that the sword always stood upright above the water. And for years this stone swam down the stream, for no man could take it from the water or draw the sword, until in time it came to the city of Camelot (which is in English Winchester), where the sword was drawn, and many strange things followed thereupon, as shall be hereafter related.

Soon after this was done, Merlin came to King Arthur and told him the story of the dolorous stroke which Balin had given to King Pellam, and of the marvellous battle Balin and Balan had fought, and how they were buried in one tomb.

"Alas!" cried Arthur, "I never heard a sadder tale. And much is the loss to knighthood and chivalry, for in the world I know not two such knights."

Thus endeth the tale of Balin and Balan, two brethren born in Northumberland, good knights.