Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

Book II
The Deeds of Balin

How Balin Won and Used the Enchanted Sword

It befell upon a time when King Arthur was at London, that tidings came to him that King Ryons of North Wales was carrying out his threat. He had crossed the borders with an army, and was burning and harrying his lands and slaying his people without mercy. On learning this the king sent word to his lords and knights to assemble with all haste at Camelot, where a council would be held and measures of defence and reprisal taken.

And it so fell out that while this assembly was in session at Camelot, a damsel came into the court who had been sent by the great lady Lile of Avelion. When she came before King Arthur she let fall her mantle, which was richly furred, and revealed a noble sword, with which she was girt.

"Damsel," said the king in wonder, "why wear you that sword? It beseems you not."

"Indeed, sir, it is a sore burden to me," replied the damsel, "but I must wear it till a knight of the highest honor and virtue can be found to deliver me of my charge. None other than such a one may draw this sword from its sheath, for so it is ordained. I have been to King Ryons's camp, where I was told there were knights of high excellence, and he and all his knights tried it, but in vain. I have therefore come to your court with my burden, and hope that the knight fit to draw it may here be found."

"This is surely a great marvel," said Arthur. "I shall try to draw the sword myself; not that I claim to be the best knight, but as an example to my barons."

Then Arthur took the sword by the sheath and the girdle, and pulled at it eagerly, but it failed to yield.

"You need not pull so hard," said the damsel. "He who shall draw it will need little strength, but much virtue."

"Now try ye, all my barons," said Arthur. "But beware ye be not defiled with shame, treachery, or guile."

"That is well advised," said, the damsel, "for none shall draw it but a clean knight without villany, and of gentle birth both by father and mother."

Then most of the Knights of the Round Table who were there tried their fortunes, but none succeeded in the magic task.

"Alas!" said the damsel, "I hoped to find in this court the best knights upon earth."

"By my faith," said Arthur, "the world holds no better knights; but it grieves me to find that none here seem to have the grace or power to draw this sword."

It happened that at that time there was a poor knight of Northumberland birth in Arthur's court, Balin by name. He had been held prisoner there more than half a year, for slaying a knight who was cousin to the king, and had just been set free through the good services of some of the barons, who knew that he was not at fault in this deed.

When he learned what was being done his heart bade him try his fortune, but he was so poor and so shabbily dressed that he held back in shame. Yet when the damsel took her leave of Arthur and his barons, and was passing from the court, Balin called to her and said,—

"Suffer me, I pray you, to try this venture. Though I am poorly clad, and but ill considered, I feel in my heart that in honor and grace I stand as high as any of those knights."

The damsel looked on him with some disdain, and begged him not to put her to useless trouble, for he seemed not the man to succeed where so many of noble guise had failed.

"Fair damsel," he replied, "you should well know that worthiness and good qualities do not dwell in attire, but that manhood and virtue lie hidden within man's person, not in his dress; and therefore many a worshipful knight is not known to all people."

"You speak wisely," said the damsel. "You shall essay the task, and may fortune befriend you."

Then Balin took the sword by the girdle and sheath, and drew it out with such ease that king and barons alike were filled with wonder, and many of the knights, in spite and jealousy, cried that Balin had done this not by might, but by witchcraft.

"He is a good knight," cried the damsel, "the best and worthiest among you all, even if fortune has dealt with him shabbily. Now, gentle and courteous knight, give me the sword again."

"No," said Balin, "I have fairly won this sword, and well it pleases me. I shall keep it unless it be taken from me by force."

"You are not wise to keep it," said the damsel. "I warn you that if you do so you will slay with the sword your best friend and the man you most love in the world, and that it will be your destruction."

"I shall take such adventure as God may ordain me," said Balin, "but by the faith of my body I shall keep the sword."

"You will quickly repent it," said the damsel. "It is more for your good than for mine that I ask it back. I am sad to find that you will not believe me, and will bring destruction on yourself. The wilful man makes his own destiny." With this the damsel departed, in great sorrow.

Then Balin sent for his horse and his armor, and made ready to depart, though Arthur begged him to remain.

"I knew not your worth," he said, "or you should not have been so unkindly treated. I was misinformed concerning you."

"My heartfelt thanks are yours," said Balin. "But asking your good grace, I must needs depart."

"Then tarry not long, fair knight; you shall always be welcome to my court."

So Balin donned his armor and made ready to depart. But while he still tarried there came to the court a lady richly attired, and riding on a handsome horse.

She saluted King Arthur, and presented herself as the Lady of the Lake, from whom he had received the sword, saying that she had now come to demand the gift which he had promised her whenever she should ask for it.

"A gift I promised you, indeed," said Arthur, "and you do well to ask it. But first I would know the name of the sword you gave me."

"The name of it," said the lady, "is Excalibur, which signifies cut-steel."

"Then well is it named," said the king. "Now ask what gift you will. If it is in my power to present you shall have it."

"What I ask," said the Lady of the Lake, "is the head of the knight who has just won the sword, or of the damsel who brought it; or both their heads, if you will. He slew my brother, and she caused my father's death."

"Truly," said the king, in pain and wonder, "you ask what I cannot in honor grant. Ask what you will else and you shall not be denied, but even a king cannot pay his debts with murder."

"I shall ask nothing else," said the lady. "Little deemed I that King Arthur would be recreant to his word."

When Balin was told of the demand of the Lady of the Lake, he went straight to her, where she stood before the king, and said, "Evil you are in heart and voice, and evil have ever been. Vile enchantress, you would have my head, and therefore, shall lose yours." And with a light stroke of his sword he smote off her head before the king, so that it fell bleeding at his feet.

"What shame is this?" cried Arthur, in hot wrath. "Why have you dared treat thus a lady to whom I was beholden, and who came here under my safe-conduct?"

"Your displeasure grieves me," said Balin. "But you know not this lady, or you would not blame me for her death, for she was of all women the vilest that ever breathed. By enchantment and sorcery she has slain many good knights, and I have sought her during three years, to repay her for the falsehood and treachery by which she caused my mother to be burnt."

"Whatever your grievance, you should not have sought your revenge in my presence. You have done me a foul disgrace, sir knight. Leave my court in all haste while you may, and believe me you shall be made to repent this insult to my dignity."

Then Balin took up the head of the lady, and meeting his squire at his inn, they rode together from the town.

"Now," said the knight, "we must part. Take this head and bear it to my friends in Northumberland, and tell them that my mortal foe is dead. Also tell them that I am out of prison, and by what adventure I got this sword."

"You were greatly to blame to displease King Arthur," said the squire.

"As for that," said Balin, "I hope to win his grace again by the death or capture of King Ryons, whom I go to meet. The woman sought my death, and has had her just deserts."

"Where shall I find you again?" asked the squire.

"In King Arthur's court."

And so they parted. Meanwhile King Arthur and all the court grieved deeply over the death of the Lady of the Lake, and felt greatly shamed that they had not hindered the sudden and bloody deed. And the king ordered that she should have a rich and stately funeral.

At this time there was in Arthur's court a knight named Lanceor, the son of the king of Ireland, a proud and valiant warrior, who was angry at Balin for winning the sword, and sought revenge on him. He asked the king to give him leave to ride after Balin and revenge the insult to his crown.

"Go and do your best," said the king. "Balin has done me a great despite, and richly deserves punishment."

Thereupon the knight of Ireland armed and rode at all speed after Balin, whom he quickly overtook on a mountain side. He called to him in loud tones,—

"Stop, sir knight. You shall halt whether you will or not, and the shield you bear shall prove but light defence to you, for I am come to punish you for your crime."

Hearing this outcry, Balin turned fiercely, and demanded,—

"What do you wish, sir knight? Are you here to joust with me?"

"It is for that I have followed you," said the Irish knight.

"It might have been better for you to stay at home," answered Balin. "Many a knight who thinks to chastise his enemy finds ill fortune to fall upon himself. From what court have you been sent?"

"From the court of King Arthur, to revenge the insult you put upon him in murdering his guest before his face."

"Then must I fight with you," said Balin. "Yet I warn you your quarrel is a weak one. The lady that is dead richly deserved her fate, or I should have been as loath as any knight living to kill a woman."

"Make ready," said Lanceor. "Fight we must, and one of us shall remain dead upon this field. Our combat is to the utterance."

Then they put their spears in rest, and rode together at the full speed of their horses, meeting with a shock in mid career. Lanceor struck Balin a blow upon the shield that shivered the spear in his hand. But Balin smote him with such force that the spear-point went through shield and hauberk, and pierced his body, so that he fell dead to the earth.

As the victorious knight stood looking on the corpse of his slain foe, there came from Camelot a damsel, who rode up at full speed upon a fair palfrey. When she saw that Lanceor was dead she fell into a passion of sorrow, and cried out in tones of deep lamentation,—

"Oh, Balin, thou hast slain two bodies and one heart! Yes, two hearts in one body, and two souls thou hast murdered with thy fatal spear."

Then she took the sword from her love, and as she took it fell to the ground in a swoon. When she arose again her sorrow was so great that Balin was grieved to the heart, and he sought to take the sword from her hands, but she held it so firmly that he could not wrest it from her without hurting her. Suddenly, before he could move to hinder, she set the pommel of the sword to the ground and threw her body upon the naked blade. Pierced through the heart, she fell dead upon the body of her slain love.

"Alas!" said Balin, "that this should have happened. I deeply regret the death of this knight for the love of this damsel; for such true love as this I never saw before. Yet his death was forced on me, and hers I could not hinder."

Full of sorrow, he turned his horse, and as he looked towards a great forest near by he saw a knight riding towards him, whom he knew, by his arms, to be his brother Balan.

When they were met they took off their helmets and kissed each other, and wept for joy and pity.

"I little expected to meet you thus," said Balan. "A man in the Castle of Four Stones told me that you were freed from prison, and therefore I came hither in hope to find you at the court."

Then Balin told his brother of all that had happened at Camelot, and of the displeasure of the king, and that he had determined to win Arthur's favor at the risk of his life.

"King Ryons lies not far away besieging the Castle Terrabil," he said. "Thither will we ride, to prove our worth and prowess upon him."

"I shall be your comrade," said Balan. "We shall help each other as brethren should, and trust to God for fortune."

As they stood conversing there came a dwarf riding in all haste from Camelot. When he saw the dead bodies he tore his hair for sorrow.

"Which of you knights has done this foul deed?" he demanded.

"Why do you ask?" queried Balin.

"Because I have the right to know."

"It was I," said Balin. "He pursued me hither, and forced me to fight. One of us had to die. As for the damsel, she died by her own hand, for which no man can be sorrier than I. For her sake I shall owe all women the better love and favor."

"You have done yourself great damage," said the dwarf. "The kindred of this knight will follow you through the world till they have revenged on you his death."

"That I do not greatly dread," said Balin. "But I am sorry to have displeased King Arthur for the death of this knight; and sorrier still for the fate of this lovelorn damsel."

As they thus talked there chanced to pass a king of Cornwall, named King Mark, who halted on seeing the dead bodies, and demanded what had been done. When the tale was told him he was grieved that true love should have met so sad a fate, and said, "I shall not leave here till I have built them a tomb, for they have earned a rich interment."

Then he pitched his tents, and buried them nobly, placing above them a rich and fair tomb which he found in a church near by, and upon this tomb he wrote their epitaph, as follows:

"Here lieth Lanceor, the son of Ireland's king, who was slain in fair combat by the hands of Balin; and his lady Colombe, who for deep love and sorrow slew herself with her true love's sword. May lovers henceforth make this their place of pilgrimage."