Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris




How Arthur Triumphed Over the Kings

While the tomb was being erected over the dead knight and his love, Merlin appeared at the scene.

"You have done yourself great harm," he said to Balin. "Why saved you not this lady?"

"By the faith of my body, I could not," said Balin, "she slew herself so suddenly."

"This must I tell you," said Merlin. "Because of the death of this lady you shall strike a stroke the most dolorous that ever man struck, except the stroke of our Lord; for you shall hurt the truest knight and the man of most worship that now lives, and through that stroke three kingdoms shall be in great poverty, misery, and wretchedness for twelve years, and the knight you will hurt shall not be whole of his wound for many years."

"If I knew that it were true as you say," answered Balin, "I would do such a rash deed as to slay myself to make you a liar. But the future must reveal itself. I trust no man's predictions."

Thereupon Merlin suddenly vanished away, leaving them in deep marvel at his coming and going. Soon after Balin and his brother took leave of King Mark.

"First," said the king, "tell me your name."

"You see he bears two swords," said Balan. "You may call him the knight with the two swords."

And so King Mark rode towards Camelot, and the brothers towards Terrabil. As they rode, Merlin again met them, but now in disguise.

"Whither do you ride?" he asked.

"Why should we tell you that?" said the knights.

"You need not, for I know already. And I can tell you this. You will gain no advantage over King Ryons without my counsel."

"Ah! you are Merlin," said Balin. "Then we shall be glad of your counsel."

"Come then with me. But look that you brace yourself to knightly deeds, for you will have great need to do so."

"As for that," said Balin, "we will do what we can. No knight can do more."

Then Merlin lodged them in a leafy wood beside the highway, where they rested till it was near midnight. He then awakened them and bade them rise and make ready, for the king they sought was near at hand. He had stolen away from his host with threescore of his best knights to visit a lady.

"How shall we know the king?" asked Balin.

"Hereby is a narrow way where you shall meet him," said Merlin.

They followed him to the place, where they lay in ambush till the rattle of harness showed that the party approached. Then, at Merlin's suggestion, the two knights rode from their covert and assailed the king at the head of his followers, wounding him sorely and hurling him to the ground. They then, in the darkness, attacked the array of knights with the fury of lions, slaying more than forty of them, and putting the remnant to flight.

This done, they returned to King Ryons where he lay helpless, and with a threat of death forced him to yield himself to their grace.

"Valiant knights, slay me not," he asked. "You may profit by my life, but can win nothing by my death."

"There you speak truly," said they, and lifting him carefully they placed him on a horse-litter for conveyance to Camelot.

Then Merlin vanished and came to King Arthur, whom he told that his greatest enemy was vanquished and taken.

"By whom?" asked the king.

"By two of the most valorous knights in your realm. To-morrow you shall learn who they are."

In good time Balin and his brother came with the wounded king and delivered him to the porters at the gates, charging them to bear him to King Arthur. Then they turned again and departed in the dawning of the day.

When King Ryons was brought to the court, Arthur received him graciously.

"Sir king," he said, "you are heartily welcome. By what adventure came you hither?"

"By a hard one," said the captive, "as you well may see."

"Who won you?" asked Arthur.

"The knight with the two swords and his brother," said Ryons. "And knights of marvellous prowess they are."

"I know them not," said Arthur, "but none the less am I deeply beholden to them."

"I shall tell you," said Merlin. "One of these knights was Balin, he that won the sword; the other was Balan, his brother, and as good a knight. And it is the most sorrowful thing that tongue can say that neither of these brave knights shall live long to win the fame of which they are so worthy."

"Alas!" said Arthur, "if that be so, it is indeed a great pity. I am much beholden to Balin, for he has highly redeemed the despite he did me. I have not deserved such good service at his hands."

"He shall do more for you, and that soon," said Merlin. "I must now depart, for I have duties elsewhere; but before I go let me warn you to prepare your forces for battle at once. To-morrow before noon you will be set upon by a great host, led by Nero, King Ryons's brother. Therefore make all haste for your defence."

Merlin's departure was for a purpose which he told not to the king. He well knew that King Lot of Orkney, Arthur's bitterest foe, was marching to join Nero with a powerful host, and foresaw that if they fell together on King Arthur he and all his army would be destroyed. The shrewd magician thereupon repaired to King Lot, and held him with idle tales of prophecy till Nero and his people were destroyed.

For between Nero and Arthur a vigorous battle was fought, in which many knights won honor and renown, while King Arthur with his own hand slew twenty knights and maimed forty. But Balin and his brother Balan, who came in during the fight, did such mighty deeds of prowess that all who beheld them said they fought like angels from heaven or devils from hell, while Arthur beheld their prowess with wonder and delight, and vowed that he owed to them his victory.

The combat, which took place at the Castle Terrabil, ended in the complete defeat of Nero, and the destruction of nearly all his host. Word of this disaster was brought to King Lot, where he lay resting with his army.

"Alas!" he said, "why did I let myself be beguiled? Had I been there no host under heaven could have matched us. That false prattler, with his prophecy, has mocked and befooled me. But what shall now be done? Shall we treat with Arthur, or is it wise to fight him with half an army?"

"His men are weary with fighting and we are fresh," said a knight. "Now is the time to set upon him."

"So be it, then. And I hope that every knight will bear himself in the fray as well as I, for it is no laggard's task we have now before us."

Then with waving banners and serried spears they assailed Arthur's weary host. But the Round Table Knights, with the aid of the two valiant brothers Balin and Balan, roused themselves vigorously to the fray, and bore all before them, so that only where King Lot himself fought did his host hold its ground. But where he battled in the van all his men seemed borne up by his valor, and not a knight met him but was overthrown or forced back by his prowess.

Then King Pellinore pushed through the press of knights and horses, and struck a mighty stroke at King Lot as he fought at the head of his host. The sword failed in its aim, but struck the neck of the king's horse, so that the wounded animal fell to the ground with its rider. Then Pellinore struck so furious a stroke that his sword cut King Lot's helmet in twain, and cleft his head to the brows, hurling him lifeless to the earth.

Seeing their king thus slain, all the host of Orkney turned and fled, and great was the slaughter in the pursuit. That day there fell in all twelve kings, who fought with Lot and Nero, and all these were buried in the church of Saint Stevens at Camelot.

[Illustration] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris

KING ARTHUR'S TOMB


Of the tombs that were made for these kings that of King Lot was most richly adorned, and King Arthur had a tomb prepared for himself beside it. For this he had made twelve images of brass and copper, which were gilt with gold. These represented the twelve kings, and each of them held a taper of wax, that burned night and day. An image of King Arthur was also made, in the form of a statue that stood above the twelve kings with a drawn sword in its hand, while the faces of the twelve images were those of men that had been overcome. All these figures were made by Merlin through his subtle craft.

"When I am dead," he said to the king, "these tapers shall burn no longer. Then the end will be near, and the adventures of the Sangreal shall be achieved."

Much more he told the king of the strange events that would come to pass in the future time; and further he said,—

"Look well to the scabbard of Excalibur. You shall lose no blood while you wear this scabbard, even though you be covered with wounds."

Thus admonished, Arthur, in loving trust, took the scabbard to Morgan le Fay, his sister, and gave it into her care to keep for him. Much did he peril in doing so, for Morgan was false at heart, and proved recreant to her trust, from love for a knight named Accolan, whom she cherished in her soul beyond her husband, while she had grown to hate her brother. She made, by enchantment, another scabbard like the one given her in trust, and gave the scabbard of Excalibur to her love. By this deed of treachery she hoped in her false soul to bring King Arthur to his death. And well-nigh she succeeded therein, as shall be told hereafter.