Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris




How Balin Gave The Dolorous Stroke

A day or two after King Arthur had placed the magical scabbard in the hands of his evil-thinking sister, he grew unwell, and had his tent pitched in a meadow near Camelot for the benefit of the fresh air and the green verdure. Here he sought in vain to sleep, lying long in uneasy wakefulness. As he thus lay he heard a horse approaching, and looking through the door of his tent, beheld a knight, who lamented deeply as he came.

"Halt! fair sir," cried Arthur. "Tell me the cause of your sorrow."

"You can little aid me," said the knight, and he rode onward without further answer.

Soon afterward Balin rode up, and on seeing King Arthur sprang from his horse and saluted him.

"By my head, you are welcome," said the king. "A knight has just ridden past here moaning sadly, but has declined to tell me the cause of his sorrow. I desire of your courtesy to bring that knight to me, either by force or good-will, for I wish greatly to know why he so deeply grieves."

"That is little to what I should be glad to do for you," said Balin. He rode on apace, and ere long found the knight in a neighboring forest in company with a damsel.

"Sir knight," he said, "you must come with me to King Arthur. He demands to see you and learn the cause of your sorrow."

"That I shall not do," said the knight. "It will injure me greatly, and do no good to you or him."

"Then you must make ready to fight," said Balin. "I have my order to bring you willingly or by force, and I should be loath to have a fight with you."

"Will you be my warrant if I go with you?" asked the knight. "For truly you lead me into danger."

"Yes. And I shall die rather than let you come to harm, if it is in my power to avert it."

This said, the knight turned and rode back with Balin, accompanied by the damsel. But as they reached King Arthur's pavilion a strange thing happened. A spear was thrust through the body of the knight, inflicting a mortal wound. Yet the hand and form of him who did this fatal deed remained unseen.

"Alas!" said the knight, "it is as I feared. Under your conduct and guard I have been slain by a traitorous knight called Garlon, who through enchantment rides invisible, and does such deeds as this. My day is done. As you are a true knight, I charge you to take my horse, which is better than yours, and ride with this damsel on the quest which for me is at an end. Follow as she will lead, and revenge my death when best you may."

"That shall I do," said Balin. "Upon the honor of knighthood I vow to follow your quest, and to revenge you on this false foe, or die as you have done."

Then, leaving the king, Balin rode with the damsel, who bore with her the truncheon of the spear with which the knight had been killed. After they had gone, King Arthur had the knight buried richly and honorably, and had written upon the tomb his name, Herleus de Berbeus, and how he came to his death through the treachery of the invisible knight Garlon.

Meanwhile Balin and the damsel rode onward until they found themselves in a forest. Here they met a knight engaged in hunting, who asked Balin why he showed such grief.

"That I do not care to tell," said Balin.

"You should if I were armed as you are, for your answer is too curt to be courteous."

"My story is not worth fighting for," answered Balin. "I will tell you if you so greatly desire to know." He thereupon told him the fatal event which had just occurred, and that he mourned the untimely death of the knight who had been so treacherously slain.

"This is a sad story," said the knight. "As I am a true cavalier I will go with you on your quest, and leave you not while life lasts."

Then he went with Balin to his inn, armed himself, and rode forth with him. But as they passed by a hermitage near a church-yard the invisible knight Garlon came again, and smote Balin's companion through the body, as he had done to Herleus before.

"Alas!" cried the knight. "I too am slain by this invisible traitor, who does murder at will under cover of enchantment."

"It is not the first despite the wretch has done me," cried Balin. "Could I see him I would soon repay this outrage. I am bound by the honor of a knight to a double revenge on this unworthy caitiff."

He and the hermit thereupon buried the slain knight, Perin de Mountbeliard, under a rich stone in a noble tomb, inscribing thereon the cause of his death.

In the morning the knight and damsel proceeded on their quest, and in good time found themselves before a castle, which rose high and broad by the roadside. Here Balin alighted, and he and the damsel turned towards the castle, with purpose to enter. But as Balin entered in advance the portcullis was suddenly let fall behind him, cutting him off from his companion. Immediately a number of men assailed the damsel with drawn swords.

When Balin saw this treacherous proceeding his soul burned within him. What to do at first he knew not. Then he ran hastily into the gate tower, and leaped, all armed, over the wall into the ditch. Finding himself unhurt, he drew his sword and rushed furiously upon the armed men who surrounded his companion.

"Traitors and dogs!" he cried. "If you are eager for fight, I will give you your fill."

"We cannot fight you," they answered. "We do nothing but keep the old custom of the castle."

"What is that?" asked Balin. "It is an ill custom, methinks, that thus displays itself."

"Our lady is sick, and has lain so for many years. Nothing will cure her but a dish full of blood from a maid and a king's daughter. It is, therefore, the custom that no damsel shall pass this way without leaving a silver dish full of blood."

"That is for the damsel to say," replied Balin. "If she chooses to bleed for the good of your lady she may, but her life shall not be taken while mine lasts."

The damsel thereupon yielded a dish full of her blood, but it helped not the lady. She and Balin rested in the castle for the night, where they had good cheer. In the morning they proceeded again on their quest.

Three or four days now passed without adventure. At the end of that time the knight and damsel found lodging in the house of a rich gentleman, the owner of a fair estate. As they sat at supper Balin was moved by the grievous complaints of one who sat beside him, and asked his host the cause of this lamentation.

"It is this," said the host. "I was lately at a tournament, where I twice overthrew a knight who is brother to King Pellam. He threatened to revenge his defeat on my best friend, and has done so by wounding my son. The hurt is a grievous one, and cannot be cured till I have some of that knight's blood; but how to find him I know not, for his name is unknown to me, and he always rides invisible."

"Aha!" cried Balin, "has that treacherous dog been at his murderous work again? I know his name well. It is Garlon, and he has lately slain two knightly companions of mine in the same base manner. I should rather meet with that invisible wretch than have all the gold in this kingdom. Let me see him once and he or I dies."

"I shall tell you what to do, then," said the host. "King Pellam of Listeneise has announced a great feast, to be given within twenty days, to which no knight can come unless he brings with him his wife or his love. That false knight, your enemy and mine, will be there, and visible to human eyes."

"Then, as I am a true knight," cried Balin, "you shall have of his blood enough to twice heal your son's wound, if I die in the getting it."

"We shall set forward to-morrow," said the host, "and I hope it may be as you say."

In the morning they rode towards Listeneise, which it took them fifteen days to reach, and where the great feast began on the day of their arrival. Leaving their horses in the stables, they sought to enter the castle, but Balin's companion was refused admittance, as he had no lady with him. Balin, however, having the damsel with him, was at once received, and taken to a chamber where he laid aside his armor and put on rich robes which the attendants brought him. They wished him to leave his sword, but to this he objected.

"It is the custom of my country," he said, "for a knight always to keep his weapon with him. This custom shall I keep, or depart as I came."

Hearing this, they objected no longer to his wearing his sword, and he thereupon entered the feasting chambers with his lady companion. Here he found himself among many worshipful knights and fair ladies.

Balin, after looking carefully round him, asked a guest,—

"Is there not a knight in this good company named Garlon?"

"Yes. Yonder knight is he, the one with the dark face. And let me tell you that there is no more marvellous knight living. He has the power of going invisible, and has destroyed many good knights unseen."

"I have heard of this," said Balin. "A marvellous gift, indeed. This, then, is Garlon? Thanks for your information."

Then Balin considered anxiously what had best be done. "If I slay him here my own life will pay the forfeit," he said to himself. "But if I let him escape me now it may be long before I have such an opportunity, and in the meanwhile he may do much harm."

As he stood thus reflecting, with his eyes fixed on Garlon's face, the latter observed his close and stern regard. In haughty anger he came to him and smote him on the face with the back of his hand.

"Sir knight," he said, "take that for your impertinent stare. Now eat your meat, and do what you came here for. Hereafter learn to use your eyes to better purpose."

"You dog!" cried Balin, "this is not your first insult to me. You bid me do what I came for. It is this." As he spoke he rose furiously from his seat, drew his sword, and with one fierce blow clove Garlon's head to the shoulders.

"That is my errand here," cried Balin to the guests. "Now give me the truncheon," he said to the damsel, "with which he slew your knight."

She gave it to him, and Balin thrust it through Garlon's body, exclaiming,—

"With that truncheon you killed a good knight, and with this blow I revenge him."

Then he called his late host, who had by this gained entrance to the feast, and said,—

"Here lies your foe. Take with you enough of his blood to heal your son."

All this had happened so quickly that none had time to interfere, but the knights now sprang hastily from their seats, and rushed from the hall for their weapons, that they might revenge their slain companion. Among them rose King Pellam, crying furiously,—

"Why have you killed my brother! Villain and murderer, you shall die for this!"

"Here I stand," said Balin. "If you wish revenge, seek it yourself. I stand in my defence."

"It is well said," cried the king. "Stand back, all. For the love I bore my brother I will take his revenge on myself. Let no one interfere. This murderer is mine."

Then King Pellam snatched up a mighty weapon and struck fiercely at Balin, who threw up his own sword in guard. He was in time to save his head, but the treacherous blade went into pieces beneath the stroke, leaving him unarmed before the furious king.

Balin, finding himself thus in danger of death, ran into a neighboring chamber in search of a weapon, closely pursued by his enraged adversary. Finding none there, he ran on from chamber to chamber, seeking a weapon in vain, with King Pellam raging like a maddened lion behind him.

At length Balin entered a rich and marvellously adorned chamber, within which was a bed covered with cloth of gold of the noblest texture, and in this bed a person lay. Near by was a table with a top of solid gold and four curiously-shaped pillars of silver for its legs, while upon it stood a mighty spear, whose handle was strangely wrought, as though it had been made for a mighty king.

But of all this marvel and magnificence Balin saw only the spear, which he seized at once with a strong grip, and turned with it to face his adversary. King Pellam was close at hand, with sword uplifted for a fatal stroke, but as he rushed in blind rage forward Balin pierced his body with the spear, hurling him insensible to the floor.

Little dreamed the fated warrior of all that thrust portended. The spear he used was a magical weapon, and prophecy had long declared that the deadliest evil should come from its use. King Pellam had no sooner fallen beneath that fatal thrust than all the castle rocked and tottered as if a mighty earthquake had passed beneath its walls, and the air was filled with direful sounds. Then down crushed the massive roof, and with a sound like that of the trumpet-blast of disaster the strong walls rent asunder, and rushed downward in a torrent of ruin. One moment that stately pile lifted its proud battlements in majesty toward the skies; the next it lay prostrate as though it had been stricken by the hand of God to the earth.

Men say who saw it that when fell that fatal blow—thereafter to be known in history and legend as the "dolorous stroke"—the castle shivered like a forest struck by a strong wind, and then fell with a mighty crash, burying hundreds beneath its walls. Among these were Balin and King Pellam, who lay there for three days without aid or relief, in deep agony and peril of death.