The Song Of Arthur - Chapter IV
by S. Fowler Wright
Return to Chapter III
King Arthur left Caerleon. "If here I stay,
Through hills to hills Rience might break his way,
Shirking the plains; or Severn ford could wade,
And spoil the fair land in so swift a raid
As might its outrage and return complete
Before my altered front could close retreat."
Therefore he moved to Camelot, gathering there
The full strength of Logre, alert to hear
That from impregnable hills the mountaineer
Moved downward to the plains.
The while he sate
In the fair city, to its hall of state
There came a damsel well-beseen, and fair
As the most noble of its ladies were.
Cloaked was she in rich furs from neck to heel,
And when she backward threw that close conceal,
Lo, she was girded with a sword of might.
And Arthur, moved by that unseemly sight,
Required her: "Oh, most fair, I charge thee show
A doubtless cause that in such guise you go,
Bearing, as though you sought some warrior field,
A sword unequal for your hands to wield."
"Lord king," she said, "within this sheath you see
A sword not purposed to be drawn by me.
I bear it with a word that Nimue sends
Even to thyself. Who draws this sword must be
Of coward thought or base, or treasonous end,
Wholly devoid: a knight whose truth were shown
Flawless, although before the Eternal's throne.
To King Rience I bore it first, that he
The full perdition of his knights should see;
And none could loose it from the sheath, although
Great gains he pledged them for that feat; and so
I bring it, with a better hope, to try
If knight of thine shall solve its sorcery.
For clement, just, and gentle must be he;
And pure from base resolve as are but few;
And mighty of his hands great deed to do."
"Damsel," the king replied, "so hard a test
I would not think to dure, who am not best,
Even of my hands, among my knights. And who
Knows his own heart so well to speak and do
That in God's sight he call it clean? But I
Merely to lead my knights, the test will try,
That all alike be shamed who fail, and none
May be contemned unduly."
While he spake
He rose, and hardly strove the sword to take,
One hand on hilt, and one the sheath that strained;
But naught it moved.
The damsel said: "Perde,
Noble as thou art, the sword is not for thee.
A grasp God-sanctioned had more lightly gained."
"I thought it never," the king replied; and then
Came his high barons and less noble men,
Till few there were in all that court untried.
But still the great sword at the damsel's side
Dragged its sheathed weight, and she with sore lament
Reproached their impotence: "I had not thought
So burdened to withdraw from Arthur's court."
But Arthur answered: "Here be more than few
Strong knights and noble, and clean of base intent,
As any perchance who live. Yet deep I rue
Their grace is not to help you. Haply true,
Is one that, only for this venture meant,
Now far, shall yet thy thwarted hope renew,
If seek ye, constant in good heart."
Thus spake they, doubtful down the opening aisle,
From where he lingered near the doors, there drew
A captive knight, Sir Balyn, late releast
From closer bonds, but pledged to yet remain
At Arthur's court; for by his hand was slain
In dubious strife, a kinsman of the king.
Yet friends of worth he had who worked to bring
Forgiveness for that fault, if fault it were.
And so the freedom of the court to share
They gained him.
Lowly to the king's high feast
In meanest garb he came, but felt his heart
Lift as he heard, though no presumptuous part
Till all had failed he sought, nor cared to stand
In forward contrast with the glittering band
Of Arthur's courtlier knights.
But when the maid
Bewailed that loss that none her need should aid,
Sir Balyn ventured from his place, and said:
"Past those untried a pointless shaft is sped."
The damsel judged him with short glance, and thought,
Seeing him so mean: 'A likely knight; but naught
Save treacherous guiles, or wrongs by violence wrought
Could win to worship from such poor estate.' ....
"Fond is thy thought," she said, "to here prevail
Who hast seen but now King Arthur's noblest fail."
"Damsel, not all that garbs in pride is great,
Nor all is mean that moves in mean array."
"God knoweth," the damsel answered, "sooth ye say,
And therefore shalt thou do the most ye will."
At that, left-hand, the sheath he caught, and hand
Gripped the cross-hilts beneath the gauntlet-guard;
But seemed that needless was the toil he did,
For loosely in his grasp the sword outslid.
"So art thou proved," she said, "and all may see
That the mean garment hides the best degree."
But envy stirred the court - an outland knight -
One from Northumbria wandering here to brawl -
So meanly clad - should he be first of all? -
How knew they that she told the test aright? -
How knew they who she was, or who was he? -
"Witchcraft," they said, "may walk in knighthood's guise,"
And viewed the illclad knight with friendless eyes.
But Balyn heard not. Only eyes had he
For that charmed sword which told its sorcery
Down the blue blade in wavering scrolls, that none
Of earth might read, it may be. Yet it seemed
He almost read them. Like he seemed to one
Who some eluding gain or danger dreamed,
And reaches backward in his memory's pit
For that he would, without recalling it,
Which is no more than half a thought away.
The damsel said: "Fair knight, of courtesy -
Fair gentle knight, and proved of worth, I pray
Thou wilt restore the sword. Its virtue lay
In that discernment which it showed to thee,
But evil were it to retain."
Closed harder. "Shall I loose this sword," said he,
"Which by its own release is meant for me?
Who else should lift it with the larger right?"
"I speak not of thy right, nor doubt," she said,
"That such thou hast; but evil all have sped
That sword who bore. And at the fatal end
The blood may stain it of thy dearest friend.
Be warned by me."
But on the mystic blade
His eyes were fixed. He said: "With God to aid,
I will the venture take. The sword is mine.
I will, but only, with cold death resign
That which hath chosen in my hand to stay."
"It was for thine avail I spake. Believe,
While at thy side that mystic sword shall be,
Shall honour thwart thee, and success shall grieve."
But yet so glamoured by the sword was he
Nor pleas nor tears could move him. At the last,
Lamenting vainly, from the court she passed
Came she indeed from Nimue? Who shall say?
That sword returning at a greater day
Proved one unborn its proper lord to be.
Loud weeping for that dole she went away.
As one who wailed in bitter grief she went.
Yet for what purpose had the sword been sent?
So Balyn kept it; and his fate to know
Ever behind the swift pursuit of woe:
Ever to see success to failure fall.
"Lord King," he said, "behold, in open hall,
To all men's reading doth this verdict show
I am not traitored. Have I leave to go?"
"Free leave is thine. But shouldst thou choose to stay,
Fair shall be mine amends, the most I may.
For wrong I judged thee."
"On a later day
I gladly may return. But here I see
Friends to thy throne enough, but few to me."
"Wrong dost thou think. Yet if thou thinkest so,
With all good speeding hast thou leave to go."
While Balyn, of no friendly eyes aware,
Made to reject that court his brief prepare,
There came a damsel more than mortal fair,
Her hair flame-gold, a wonder, passing praise.
Her vesture, woven in no earthly loom,
Was broidered with strange scrolls, her foes to doom
Remedeless: and her eyes were steel that slays.
To Arthur's seat she came. "Lord King," she cried,
"When from my hand you took the conquering sword
To Nimue didst thou plight her own reward."
Doubt in his heart, the careful king replied:
"Truth are thy words. A gift I pledged. But yet
Full memory fails me, that I half forget
The essential name of that good sword. I pray
You tell me once again."
She answered: "Yea,
Excalibar, which means All steel I cleave,
But none can cleave me."
So I must believe
Thou art from Nimue. To fulfil my debt
Ask what thou wilt, and take it; naught denied
Within my power to give thee."
The damsel, "of thy faith would doubt thee none.
I ask that knight's head who the sword hath won,
Or hers who brought it. If both heads I had
The better paid I were, and largelier glad.
For ruthless he in mortal combat slew
My brother; and by her wiles she did fordo
My father's life."
The troubled king replied:
"Nay, ask not that. Ask what thou wilt beside.
My hand to sate thee shall be opened wide.
But that too deep would shame me."
"Nay," she said,
"I will naught only but the damsel's head,
Or his so wizardly that sword who drew.
Is this thy faith? The boon I ask put by?
Thy shelter round my foes? Naught else will I."
While paused the king his final rule to give,
Caught in the choice of shames alternative,
To Balyn, in the outer court prepared
To leave that place where none his friendship shared,
A chance word came, and stayed him. Silently
He entered. At her back the maid he eyed.
Flashed to the morn sun through the oriel wide
His sheathless sword. Downward it swept, and smote
The sorceress' head. Off-sheared from neck to throat,
From the swung blade it leapt its ghastly course
To the king's feet, the while the uncertain corse
Clutched with blind hands and fell.
The wrathful king
On Balyn gazed: "Is thine the ordering
Of whom I doom or save? Dost think that thou
Canst end her asking thus, and grace allow
Thy judgement for mine own? Such scorn till now
Was done me never."
"Nay, lord a binding vow
Constrained me to it, who would not lightly grieve
Thy grace, nor fail to serve thy throne. Believe
She was not truly whom ye deemed, but one
With false assume of whom she mocked to be.
My mother, foully by her crafts fordone,
That stroke avenged. Of lying lips was she,
Who only sought thy shame."
"What cause you had,"
The King replied, "or where the truth may be,
I will not doubt; for not as Nimue
Her boon she chose. But, were you wrong or right,
Yet in my presence to my much dispite
Unseemly deed was thine. So get you gone
Forth of this court in all the haste you may.....
Bethink - I also have the power to slay."
"Lord, I forthink thy wrath," Sir Balyn said,
Uplifting as he spake the tumbled head,
"Yet only in my haste our safety lay,
Both thine and mine. Her sorcerous power I knew."
"Yet, be she whom she might, or false or true,
Dispitious to my throne such deed to do
Thy fault remains," the troubled king replied.
"I neither pardon, nor my word repeat."
So warned, Sir Balyn, with no more debate,
Made from the king's reproach his swift retreat,
And at his lodging found his squire await.
"Take thou," he charged him, "this slain sorceress' head
To our Northumbrian home, and tell my kin
That she who practiced for my life is dead.
Tell them of all I lose, and all I win.
The king's sharp anger; and the sword I drew
Which none beside could loose."
"A happier tale
It were that Arthur's favour should not fail."
"Tell them to deem that that may soon be true.
I ride to seek Rience, and if we meet
Death may be mine, but any less defeat
I will not take; and should I find success
Then may the king resume his graciousness."
"Where shall I find thee next?"
"Return ye here.
For Arthur's favour I regain or die."
Thereat they went their separate ways.
The wrothed king ruled that that slain witch should lie
In no mean grave. "For wherefore here she came,
And who she was, are doubts I need not try.
Too late the sum to change of right or blame
Till God at last all wrongs shall reconcile."
There was a knight of Ireland, Lanceor named,
King Anguish's heir, to Arthur's court who came,
Of overreaching pride, of moods untamed,
Insatiate in uncomely lust for fame
Beyond the rightful meed of worth.
- In envy of a nameless knight he spake,
Who from the all default of that proud ring
The sword had won, and hope himself to take
Both sword and fame - "may one with grief who saw
The honour of thy great Court contemned, chastise
Him who so late in scorn of courteous law
Hath stained thy stones with damsel's blood?"
Answered: "I left him free, but where he lies
May seek who choose, and God the event may bring
To that sure end he will."
In such consent,
And armed in hastiest sort, did Lanceor ride,
Till Balyn lowlier on a long hillside
He marked, and forward in his fierce intent
He urged, and nearing at the hill's decline
Hailed him aloud: "In Arthur's name," he cried,
"False knight, for treasons meed I bid thee stay.
For thou shalt turn thee if thou wilt or nay,
Or forced or free."
Sir Balyn answered stern:
"Guard thou thy life, so loud who threatenest mine,
Out-boasting fool. Or hast thou yet to learn
The gibe of shearers shorn? Thyself shalt see
How lightly I reverse thy brawl and thee."
Then in the whirl of sudden dust they closed,
And Lanceor's spear that Balyn's shield opposed
Splintered and sprang; but Balyn's course he ran
So sure that deep beneath the insanguined shield
The unbroken point he drove, and horse and man,
A foundered heap they fell.
He reined, he wheeled,
His ready sword outswung, awhile unware
That Lanceor cast from that sought onfall lay
To rise in life not ever. His surcoat gay,
Where the strong lance its fatal course had torn,
His lifeblood spilled upon the dusty way.
Down leapt Sir Balyn. Mortal hurt to deal
He had not thought. But here too soon he knew
No scarf could bind, no craft of leech should heal,
The wound his lance had given; for whom he slew
Died as he bent: the high white-clouded blue
Wavered: the o'erhanging boughs to dimness grew:
Across his sight the endless darkness grew.
Then Balyn, lifting from the knight he felled
A gaze of grief, on that white road beheld
A damsel, urgent that a palfrey bore
Adown that long descent a headlong way,
But all too late the fatal strife to stay.
"Oh, Balyn! Oh, unhappy of hand," she cried,
"One life thy wrath hath taken, and twain have died."
And in the dust she sank with knees bloodwet,
And sought for life until sure death she knew.
Thereat the sword of her dead love she drew,
And to her hopeless heart its point she set.
Forward he stept that fatal stroke to stay:
In his right hand her lifted arm he caught.
But grasp too gentle for her desperate thought
One instant failed, and on its rending way
The keen steel pierced her tender side, that red
From out the wound the piteous lifeblood spread.
So in the white flower of her youth she died,
Calling aloud to Love, and Death replied.
The passing cloud restored the sunnier day.
Blithe from the thicket the thrush, love's liegeman, sang.
But turned Sir Balyn from that sight away
Of pride and love to common loss betrayed.
Sad was his heart to mark such bale, and know
Himself the cause of that reverseless woe.
Turned from the scene of death, his glance surveyed
The further way. From out a greenwood glade
A spearhead flashed. Hooves on the hard road rang.
Forth rode a knight whose vermeil shield was gay
With crossing gold, alike that Balyn's bore;
And like in mien and strengthful ease was he.
For cradled on the same Northumbrian shore,
And nursed by seawinds of the same wild sea,
Twinborn were they. Not love's close bonds allowed
In earlier years that parted ways they went,
Till sorcery raught their mother's life, and sent
Their bloodquest, to unpitying vengeance vowed,
In separate search.
From out the veiling wood
Rode Balan now. The steeds unruled that stood,
The deathstrewn ground, his gaze first held; but when
Themselves they knew that each of earthly men
Most loved and longed, with all around forgot
They joyful greetings gave.
But that sad view
More soon again the gaze of Balan drew
- For who the insistent hour may long forget? -
And Balyn told: "By woeful chance I met
This knight and damsel to their deaths, though not
To my swords point she perished." - And more he said,
Showed the won sword, and told the sorceress dead,
And Arthur's wrath that drave him out, and how,
As forth he rose, he made to Heaven his vow
That by God's aid he would such service do
The indignant king as should his pardon sue,
Potent to claim and gain a grace unpled.
And Balan answered: "In good hour for thee
Our meeting comes. Such fateful news I bear
As who shall first before his throne declare
The king must thank; nor Lanceor's death might be
A thing of weight against it. Hearken. While
Misled, false-questing, following words of guile,
(A net that sorceress for our lairing spread,
The while to Arthur's court she went, and blind
Approached her death, who deemed us wide behind
Joined the path I held, and like to find
Such venture there as haply thralled or dead
Should leave us, and relieve her lively dread)
Still foiled by Severn's further bank I rode
A southward way. I found a trampled road,
Wheel-worn; and turning from it, in glade and glen
Charred ashes of fires, and marks of camping men.
And searching here, beside a leafy brook,
With mouth to stream, a dying serf I found,
Whose flight a random-following shaft had paid.
Vain for his life a wound too deep I bound,
And learned the while the urgent tale I bring.
No private strife he told, no plundering raid,
But all North Gales, beneath the bearded king
"With wary heed I took
The deeper ways, but held their trace, and saw,
On the wide lands where Severn's waters meet
Smooth Avon's flood, Rience, with all his war
Marshalled. He tales his heavy ranks complete
On some near goal their ordered force to fling.
"While to the further bank his lines he led,
And spoiling wide that fertile land advanced,
- The fords were held - the deeper stream I chanced.
A pathless way to foil his riders spread
Wide-cast I came. A weary rein I drew
At Fourstone Tower at last, for there I knew
Pursuit were lost; and gained for warning there
Good change of steed, and southward swerved; and so
Thy fairer days begin. For thou shalt go
Thy backward path at better pace than I
- Myself outworn, my charger spent and lame -
And prove thy will to Arthur's part, that well
He may not stint whatever peace you claim."
While thus they spake, in more pursuit there came
A dwarf that well Sir Lanceor served, whom he,
Hastening his death to meet, had charged to tell
His damsel where he rode, that so should she
His triumphed return await. The warier dread,
That toward their deaths their fearful course had led,
To like resolve the doubtful dwarf impelled.
Fearing he came, but past his fear beheld.
Now bold he spake: "Which knight of ye strong twain
Hath this fair lord and hapless damsel slain?"
And Balan answered: "Ere we grant reply
Reveal us by what right you ask, and why."
"For I would wit."
"It boots not to withhold,"
Said Balyn. "That is wrought may well be told.
This knight to guard my life myself I slew;
And when his certain death the damsel knew
Her life she let."
The dwarf gave answer high,
As one who to his less than equals spake:
"Then fly ye fast, and think, the while ye fly,
Ye do but choose the further place to die.
For he whom thus ye overweened to slay
Is Ireland's heir, and meanliest though ye lie
His kin shall earth ye: For this woeful day
Poor are such lives as yours the price to pay."
Then Balyn: Boldly have thy boasts been said;
And praise belongs the loyal hardihed
That flouts us thus. But that which God ordains
To each man cometh: to his equal lance
The doom of splendid or disastrous chance
Is dealt from Heaven. On our part remains
To meet it in good heart. Full light I weigh
His kinsmen's wrath. But this my grief will say:
To vex my sovereign lord my heart is sore;
Yet more offence may yield to service more."
As went the dwarf, the summer dust they saw
Rise from the road, as in no fear of war,
But marshalled fairly, came a glittering crowd,
Gay with bright dyes, with calling bugles loud.
For here from Cornish towers to Camelot drew,
Boldly beseen, and ranged in order due,
A pride of spears, with sumpter mules, and train
Such as were likely in fair rank to ride
Attendant on the state of kings who pay
Homage to one of loftier state than they,
Yet would their own to fitting place exalt.
By Cornwall's gules and argent arms they knew
The subtle-counselled Mark.
His ranks to halt
Signalled the king at that disastrous sight.
Hearing the tale, a ready ruth he showed,
And gave command that there his guide alight
On the green sward that fringed the woodland road
Was soon a line of high pavilions pight.
"Nay, by my faith, from this cold sight," he said,
"I will not move until the piteous dead
Be tombed aright."
The thanks of Ireland's King,
And his liege lord, King Arthur, both thereby
He largely bought. But of what mood, and why,
Perchance himself he did not wholly know,
For craft with evil may not only dwell;
Nor is man born of earth can wholly tell
The mingled springs of his self-counselling.
Now, while the brethren knights their tale exposed,
There came a carle adown the road, and he,
With little reverence for their great degree,
Paused where the king and knights in converse closed.
"Truly," he said, "this tomb ye talk will be
A shrine of fame, for one, Sir Lancelot,
Shall meet the noblest lord of Lyonesse,
Sir Tristram, in unstinting strife."
Answered the king, "thy boisterous churlishness
Would equal Heaven the unborn days to wot?
Who art thou, fellow, of tattered wisdom?"
As for this time, my name I will not say."
"Then that were evil heard we shall not hear."
"But when the Lyonesse knight, thy nephew dear,
Shall to his sovereign lady come too near.
Thou shalt recall my words with little glee."
And then to Balyn turned the churl, and said:
"Much for this lady's death thy grief must be,
For her salvation in thy hands was laid."
"Now by my lady's faith, whoe'er ye be,
There is nor truth in that nor fault in me,
With such a sudden stroke herself she slew."
"Yet wast thou backward to her death prevent,
And for that fault this doom from Heaven is sent
That thou shalt strike all earth's most dolorous blow.
Save that by which the sacred blood did flow
From the pierced side of Christ, and hence shall be
Such bane to Britain, and such grief to thee,
As fell not since four hundred years and three."
And answered Balyn: "If I feared it true,
To prove it false I would my life fordo,"
And gazed in marvel, for the road was bare.
"God's mercy," said King Mark, "though seers foretell,
It may be, heaven's intent, a fiend from hell
May evil speak to make that evil be,
To loss of those who heed him. As for me,
Such words I will not in my thought contain.
Yet ere ye leave ye might not think it vain
To tell me where ye ride, and whom ye be."
And answered Balan: "As two swords he bears
My brother may be called by whoso cares
The knight of the two swords."
"Your names to hide
Is yours of courteous right," the king replied,
And then to his pavilion turned aside.
But not far forward did the brethren ride
Before that churl again appeared. "Now say,"
He asked, "what purpose guides your chosen way?"
"Why ask us that, and not yourself declare
From whence you came, and what the name you bear?"
"As for this time, my name I will not tell."
"Then by that word thy truth is evil seen."
"Yet such my word, and you should heed me well.
Yourselves I know, and where your steps have been,
And where you next would tidings bear. But ye
Can go with more than any tidings be;
Even with Rience himself. Yet all is vain
Except my counsel shall your spears sustain."
"Thou art Merlin's self!" said Balyn.
"If I be,
You shall the likelier find relief in me.
But this I warn you: never knightlier need
Shall the near testing of your strength exceed."
"Dread not for that. We do the most we may."
"Then heed the tale I heard. The dame de Vance,
Moved by the common impulse of the spring,
Or seeking issue of so great a king,
Her lustful fancy ruling unrestrained,
Hath sent Rience such word as answer gained
That gives with fall of night a desperate chance.
Through the deep woods he rides a secret way,
But rides not single. Forty mounted men
- Three tens behind him, and a forward ten -
Will guard him; but they count no foe to see
More than some outlawed bandit rogue might be.
An open chance is here. The king waylaid,
Were all the impulse of his army stayed;
And be he slain or be he captive brought
Loud would the welcome be at Arthur's court
Of who should compass thus to take or slay."
Then to a wood's close shade mage Merlin led.
Narrow the path and straight, and overhead
The low wide branches of the beeches spread.
Here for good ease they loosed their steeds, and lay
In the cool bracken till the close of day.
-"Here," said the sage, "Rience must ride, and here
Single must ride his escort, spear by spear,
Dreadless of evil in the lonely wood."
"How shall we know him?"
"White his steed will be.
Such rides he at all times, and only he."
Faint was the moonlight in that leafy shade
When ambush closely to the path they made,
And waited, silent on soft ground, until
The trampling hooves they heard, and, silent still,
They let the long-lanced escort, one by one,
Ride past them. Each must take good space; so low
The boughs, that level must their lances go.
Then, with the passing of the ten, they saw
Rience, and charged upon him. His time was none
Either his shield to dress or sword to draw.
Came the first wound to him who waked the war.
Down went he, by two lances earthward flung.
Right turned Sir Balyn, left Sir Balan swung.
What force could front them those close woods among?
"The foe! The foe! The king is down." The cry
Rang through the night, and those who turned to fly
Than those who rallied in good heart were more.
Those who came on, the flyers backward bore.
Awhile the brethren on their traces slew.
Yet why too far a broken force pursue,
While unsecured they left so dear a prize?
But abject lay Rience, too bruised to rise,
For mercy screaming when their swords he saw:
"A king I am - the King Rience - for me
How great the ransom! What the gains to thee
My death would bring?"
Sir Balyn answered: "Nay,
It is not ours to save, nor yet to slay.
To Arthur shalt thou fall, and Arthur's law."
No comfort had Rience that name to hear,
And feel the strong cords twist his feet around.
But in a woodman's cart that Merlin found
They laid him, careless of his loud protest.
His knightly word? Not kings, but churls, were bound!
Arthur's release their sure rebuke would be.
"The king shall serve thee as him pleases best,"
Sir Balyn answered, "but no word from thee
Were aught but churlish to mine ears."
They bore him to the steps of Arthur's throne,
And like a carcass on the pavement thrown
They left him, till the king with morning came,
And loosed him from his bonds, and learned his name,
And said: "This only shall thy scourging be
That in the empty place once meant for me
Thy beard shalt hang, and thou that cloak shalt wear,
Brushing the dirt behind thee. Kingly place
Thou canst no longer hold, for heart so base
Could never to the kingly rule comply.
But here within my walls are byre and sty,
Which fainly may be cleansed by hands of thine.
No penal word is here, for swine with swine
Should find no fault in common straw to lie."
So was he, wondering at his life's reprieve,
Led forth for garbing as the king had said,
And Arthur asked: "Who brought him?"
Gave answer: "He who did the sword receive
When others all had failed - and they, misled
By envy, further failed his worth to share
With comrade welcome - left thy court the less
Lustred than hadst thou held him, and thereon,
Not having hope of better grace forgone,
With one, his brother, of a kindred kind,
Waylaid Rience, and toiled him. Soon again
They will the witness of thy throne maintain
Against more deathful foes. You would not find
Worthier than Balyn, constant, bold, and sure,
In all thy realm; and could he long endure
Thy greatest might require a lowlier seat.
But that he will not. That charmed sword he bears
Will hell's black warrant for his end prepare,
Though that which cometh may be strangely sweet
To his soul's rescue at the last."
Gave careful answer: "All who worth esteem
Would much lament it."
"Yet such harvesting,
Beyond remede, from any seed should spring
Which prudence might prefer or caution change,
For here beyond the mortal choice we range
To destined ends. But not such end shall be
Before his valour and his faith to thee
Shall past defaults and Lanceor's death redeem."
Lightly had Arthur thought North Gales to keep
Now that Rience for his strong mountains knew
No better hillock than the steaming heap
On which the litter of the sties he threw.
But from the further west a warning came
Of urgent foes who roused that strife anew.
For not alone Rience had thought to tame
The power of Arthur. On the Cornish coast
King Lot had landed with his Lothian host,
And Neros, from the outer Hebrides,
Rience's brother, brought a heathen crew
As wild and fell as their contending seas.
Now inland fast they came, and burnt and slew,
Thinking on Arthur's flank to fall the while
He faced Rience, and well mage Merlin knew
Not Arthur's self had dured it. Well may be
That changed was all the wide land's destiny
When wrote de Vance her missive to beguile
Rience by night a forest path to ride.
For came King Neros in such regiment
That ten great battles formed his deep array
When Arthur found him, while some space aside
Camped the great host of Lot. For no delay
To more recruit his power had Arthur stayed,
Though far and urgent were the calls he sent
To friend and liegeman for their further aid
Beyond their tale who would Rience have met.
Those only in his battle ranks were set
When on the plain that east of Terribil
Had seen the sieging might of Uther, still
Mounded and trenched as when Duke Gorlois died,
He clashed with Neros. Meagre force had he,
But one to two, with fear of one to three
If the near host of Lot against his side
Its savage ranks in middle strife to fling.
There was his danger most. The Northland king
He knew his wronged and bitter foe to be;
Though cautious in his watchful guise, had he
Held backward for a while, to make more sure.
Till the cold hate that only death could cure,
And yet the rule of bloodless craft obeyed,
Judged its best moment in Rience's raid.
Fair dawn it was when Neros' archers saw
The bright approaching front of Arthur's war,
And noon in skies that held no cloud was high
While still those striving ranks preferred to die.
Reputes a life to last were made that day
For like a lean fierce leopard fought Sir Kay.
His strength, as yet ungrossed by food and wine,
Still crescent, signless of its soon decline.
He fought for all his life could gain or be
If Arthur's kingdom held, for well knew he
Naught would he from his father's name possess
But narrow lands and little nobleness.
Hervis de Revel did his part that day,
But the twin brethren all surpassed, for they
Stirrup to stirrup rode, and smote so well
That angels sent from God, or fiends from hell,
They seemed to those they saved and those they slew.
While thus they strove, but four short miles away,
The camp-held force of Lot unmotioned lay,
Not fronted yet for war. For Merlin knew
One host's assault at once, but nowise two,
Might Arthur dure. By curious arts he read
One king must conquer, and two kings be dead,
Ere eve should fall. He would not save King Lot
At such stern choice, although he altered not
In high esteeming of the northern king.
Therefore he held him in such talk as few
Would fail to heed. For all that time would bring
To Britain's feet a thousand years ahead
Of power and wealth - and all those years would sing
Of fame and praise - he told, and in such wise
That none he heard might doubt the scenes he said.
Till while they spake a panting courier came:
"Lord, dost thou care not that thy foemen slay
Thy friends, and broken are thy strong allies?
Fallen on the field of death King Neros lies
Beneath the hooves of Arthur."
"Now my shame,"
Spake the wrothed king, "this guile-bred chatterer sought,
And did not miss! For by my slack repair
How many have died who, had I first been there,
This hour were live. To shave that boaster short,
Though my last act -" His threatful sword was bare,
But clove, in Merlin's place, the vacant air.
Then to his lords with more restraint he said:
"Friends, shall we feed on words to more regret
So shrewd a snare? But what remaineth yet
For harvest? With our ranks unvanquished
Shall we retrieve the loss? Or else retire
To light with better brands a later fire?"
"Lord," said the knight, "when weary men contend
With those untoiled, there is a likely end."
"Yea, by God's thunder! Let the trumpets blow,
And, comrades, charge we down a wearied foe."
Then bright with banners, and with steel alight,
Moved the long front of Orkney's marshalled might,
Till like two tides of ocean, swell to swell,
It met the ranks of Arthur.
Sooth to tell
It met no semblance of a wearied foe,
But one exultant from one overthrow
To serve another in a practiced way.
Yet fresher knights were Lot's to strife prolong,
And trained were they by nurture stark and strong
Hard blows to take, and equal pains to pay.
Nor least was he his striving ranks to cheer,
No knight he faced who broke a deadlier spear,
And while he ranged along his vanward press
It was not of its mood than Arthur's less.
Long hung the issue of the doubtful war:
Swayed the long lines but did not break therefor.
Loud through the clouds of risen dust arose
The clang and clamour of contending foes.
There was no sign that strike determining,
Till in the midst they countered, king to king,
Pellinor and Lot.
Contending knights alike
On either side delayed to fend or strike,
Turning their eyes to that great bout. The kings
Smote with such fierce down-battering blows as few
Could long endure. One stroke from Pellinor
Lot's sword received, and turned in all men's view
Featly, yet better had his helm sustained
The blow's full weight, for glancing down it gained
Beyond its loss. Upon the horses mane
With force unspent it smote. A purple stain
Leapt to the shield: the stumbling charger fell.
Swang the great sword a further stroke that well
Its vantage reaped. For cleaving casque and skull.
Even to the brows, the falling king it slew.
Who now would longer stand for Orkney? Who
Support a host unleadered? Fast they fled,
Till Arthur ceased pursuit. Ten kings beside
On that red field with Lot and Neros died.
And these were laid, with Neros and with Lot,
Within St. Stephen's Church at Camelot,
Where men may see that end of earthly pride.
Many a strong king and many a knight of fame
With their high ladies to those burials came,
There came a night Lot's widow, fair Morgause,
Whose love-filled eyes had been that slaughter's cause,
And would of more disasters yet to be.
Lot's widow, Arthur's sister still was she,
And by that secret hour incestuous
More close than sister. Now its visible fruit,
Modred, among her older sons she brought;
And these in humble guise at Arthur's knee,
As to a conqueror's led; and made her suit
That they should be sustained in their degree
With all the lands of Lot.
"Oh, sister, rise,"
Answered the king, "for that you seek to be
I had not thought to change. Thy sons shall stand
In honour at my side, of life and land
And all their rights in settled peace secure,
Enduring surely as my throne endure.
Lot's death hath left no longer feud to be,
My wrath was not to him, but his to me,
Causeful or causeless. Yet may all men see
It hath not prospered as of God's good will."
And, sister also to the king, there came
Morgan le Fey, whom Urience brought, although
Not docile to his word, to bide or go
Was Morgan ever. If here she came, god wot,
Some nearer cause than was the end of Lot
Richly were those tombs designed
By Merlin's counsel, for his craft wit
Saw that the more their tombs displayed their fame
The more of praise their victor's part became,
Of brass, of copper, and of gold refined,
Twelve statues of the fallen kings he wrought,
With Lot and Neros shown in hardy sort,
And yet as those subdued, who both submit;
And while beneath them grouped the lowlier ten
With faces of abashed and fallen men,
Above them Arthur showed in conqueror's style,
And in his hand the sword Excalibar
Shone upward, pointing his particular star,
Bright in a painted heaven.
So peace and ease
To Arthur came, and many bended knees
Confest him conqueror with good heart or ill.
But Merlin's curse of birth pursued him still,
The sight that could the threatening cloud foresee
But could not turn its tempest, nor provide,
Most often, shelter from its drowning tide.
Much counsel at this time he gave the king
Of what might change, and what must changeless be.
High deeds and bitter doles forecasted he,
Even to the seeking of the Grail.
"Short space is mine, for neither live nor dead,
It seemeth by some hidden mystery,
I soon, despite my wariest craft, may be.
But life is thine, to better fruit to bring
A livelier fate. Yet be thy careful heed
To guard the scabbard of Excalibar,
For by its virtue never wound shall bleed.
Neither for bribe nor wile nor courtesy
Release it from thy keeping."
"That shall be,"
Answered the king, "my wakeful care. But say
Why Pellinor here contrived so short delay?
And where is Balyn? Deep to those my debt,
For knights of loftier worth I have not met.
And Balan also. Not a wandering way
Their deeds deserve."
"With Pellinor look to meet
At no far day, and Balyn's less retreat
Will bring him to thee at thine earliest need.
But Balan not again thine eyes shall see."
Now sought the king the warning word to heed.
How should that sheath through changeful years to be
Lie day and night in most security?
It must be secret: held in faith secure:
And near and certain at his need. Was one
He so might trust. Queen Morgan had the wit
To hide: the craft to hold. And surely none
Of faith more certain than a sister is,
Being wed to one most loyal. So he prayed
Her care to guard it. For the trenchant blade
A sheath to mock the magic sheath he made.
In the full heat of summer came a day
When Arthur in a lone pavilion lay
Pitched for his ease besides a woodland way.
Hearing the thuds of hooves on turf, he gazed
In idlesse out, some passing knight to view,
But then a wonder held his eyes amazed,
For came a knight the thickest woodland through
Who seemed in haste, but held no constant way;
Starting aside, or swerving fearfully,
Leaning or crouching as a knight may lean
Suddenly to avoid the imminent lance
At the last instant, to confound its aim.
Yet none of threatening mien behind him came.
There was none other in those woods to see,
Neither on horse nor foot, but only he.
"Hold," cried the king, "and rede thy wildering dread.
I were not for thy need too weak a friend."
"Delay me naught," the hasteful warrior said.
"High towers alone my mortal fear amend.
Ware thou the invisible death," and faster spurred
Toward the castle Meliot.
At this word
Much wondering, mused the king, and watched a road
Bear to the sultry heavens, and white with drought.
And while he looked and wondered, seemed it showed
Fresh hoof-marks in the dust, where surely naught
Passed while he gazed, which stirred a wildering doubt.
But in his doubtful mind he mocked his thought,
And turned his eyes to that disordered knight
Till the boughs hid him, and his further flight
Was noiseless on a pinewood path. But came
Sir Balyn, riding with no certain aim,
Save the fresh breeze to feel, the woods to see.
Content of heart in days of peace was he.
What curse had followed from the sheath he bore?
Great was his part in Arthur's victory,
And those who most had slurred his worth before
Were friendlier now. Yet wholly peace to know
He might not reach. The while the sword was bare
The damsel's warnings left him, light as air.
But sheathed, it vexed him with a boding woe
Which steadfast valour would not own nor show.
Now the king stayed him. What had been he told.
"Or so to me it soothly seemed," he said,
"I marvel what was feigned, or what was true.
Wilt thou some while that flying knight pursue,
And bring him, if thou canst?"
"Yea, that will I.
I would that harder task were mine to try
My loyal will," he answered.
Swift he sped,
Swerving or doubling as the hoof-prints led,
And urgent of his mood, for he would rede
What error of these woods such fear could breed.
The knight whom Balyn at such pace pursued
Was halting at a green pavilion now,
So sheltered by green leaf and leaning bough
That only might its silken porch be viewed
By those who looked with care, or came most nigh.
With grave unsmiling eyes, that yet were glad
Her lord to see - for sharp the fear she had
That he by sorcerous arts was marked to die -
Out came a damsel from that cool retreat.
Comely and young she looked, and all ways meet
For love's high service, but his eyes on her
Were fearful only, as the vizor rose.
"Garlon is out," he said, "my life to close.
Only in Meliot's tower will safety lie."
"Then will we there," she answered, "while will I
Behind thee mount, a backward thrust, to bear
Which even he might shrink to deal, though he
Be base of heart as never son should be
Born from the shrunk loins of the holy king."
So had she done it, with his fear's consent,
But to that glade, by man and nature meant
For sweet converse and summer loitering,
Came Balyn with fair words that yet were said
In Arthur's name, which all must heed: "The king
Hath straitly charged me that, alive or dead,
I bring thee to him."
"That my scathe would be
With no fair reason or avail to thee."
"Nay, but no hurt were thine. Our lord would know
What evil doth distract thy peace. Thy woe
He will amend, if any mortal may."
"Thou art Balyn, as I think?"
"That name is mine."
"Loth were I to resist thee."
"Loth were I
My sword to bare."
"If I thy hest obey,
I should not vainly on thy shield rely,
If through void air a sudden spear should shine?"
What menace to a mail clad knight could be,
Thought Balyn, in so frail a fantasy?
Even in strong knights' hands, are spears to dread?
"I will safeguard thee with my life," he said.
"Thou art so much the stronger knight than I,
No choice is left beyond of whom I die."
Then with dejection, as to death resigned,
With eyes all ways for that he might not see,
And ears alert for Garlon's sorcery,
He followed Balyn, and, some space behind,
Without their heed, that dreadless damsel rode.
"Dear," thought she, "for his death the price shall be."
So holds a forest scent a patient hound,
Knowing its quarry must at last be found,
However oft it turn, or swift it flee.
The king's pavilion was in sight, and there
Himself stood waiting, and Sir Balyn thought
His care was ended of the knight he brought
The while the moment came that mocked his care.
For even as he turned, soft earth to tread,
The highway leaving for the path that led
To the bright-hued pavilion, came a sound
Too sudden to resolve, too swift to stay.
Hooves on the hard road sounded: dust arose;
And ere Sir Balyn could his shield oppose
To that he saw not, though he heard, a spear
Driven unhindered knavely from the rear
Transfixed the captured knight, and snapt.
Though instant, was pursuit. Soft ground again,
The further side the road, the murderer took.
How may they ride at haste who first must look
For hoofmarks on soft ground, or strain to hear
Soft thuds on summer grass? His wrath aware
Of folly, soon Sir Balyn stayed. He drew
Beside the fallen. Naught was here to do;
And what was said was little space to say.
While for short time contriving death's delay
They left the truncheon of the spear undrawn,
The slain knight spake: "Oh, Balyn, dost thou see,
When past avail, that what thou didst to me
Was my life's loss? That not thy word, nor his
Who lord of Britain and its tributes is,
Before God's throne shall be regarded now?
I go beyond his reach or thine. But hear
One word before I at that throne appear.
I will acquit thee if I hear thee vow
To venge my death, and cleanse the land of him
Who wrought it basely. When his hate I won
- Sir Garlon he, King Pellam's sorcerous son -
He shunned to meet me in fair strife, for he
Is caitiff-hearted; but the arts of hell
He used, to ride invisible. Wilt thou swear
To find him in his father's halls, and there,
While the light shows him, be so swift to slay
He shall not foil thee?"
Balyn answered: "Yea,
For I am forfeit for thy life, and they
Who on such arts depend no mercy earn,
Nor knightly warning ere their end they learn."
The king stood by them as they spake. "To me
Alike the penance as the blame should be,"
Sadly he said. But Balyn answered: "Lo!
It is the sword I would not yield which brings
Destruction round me, nor the might of kings,
Nor Merlin's wisdom, could avert the woe.
I doubt not to some bitter end I go,
Yet think I first that felon knight shall die."
While thus they spake, the damsel wrought to see
If any rescue from that wound might be,
Then, hopeless, drew the lance's broken head.
"I will not leave it till its point be red
With other, baser blood than thine," she said,
And kissed dead lips that would not more reply.
Tearless she rose: "Fair knight, in gentleness,
I pray thee that a common path we ride."
And Balyn answered: "Come thou at my side,
And by God's grace I will thy wrong redress
So far as justice may."
So in that bond
They rode some days together, till they met
A knight who rested by a lonely pond
Where the deer drank. The wild swine hunted he,
But loved the antlered herd, and let them be.
"What do ye here," he asked, "where few men ride?"
"We seek a Christless knight, to break his pride."
"Noble or felon, here are found but few."
"But one we seek."
"And yet ye say not who."
"Naught would we hide. King Pellam's heir is he,
Garlon, and though thy friend - "
"No friend to me.
The taint of treason fouls his name. But heed
His sorcerous wile. He rides in such conceal
His foes may feel his sword before they see."
"So have we found it."
"Will a lance the more
Be welcome? Even those who sightless ride
May fear the challenge which two spears provide.
For smite he one the other swift may be
To bring his steed to ground, and how should he
Avoid the blows a mounted knight may deal,
Remorseless at such odds, with hoof and steel?"
"So might it be, if fortune willed aright;
But think we rather in his halls to find
In open view an unsuspecting knight;
And deal to one who strikes his foes behind
A blow too swift for magic's subtlest sleight
To save him."
"So by God's good grace ye may.
Yet who should slay him, soon his friends would slay.
King Pellam thinks him as himself to be,
Chaste-hearted. Rapine, lust, and sorcery
He follows; but his sire believes it not."
"All will we dare."
"Then I will guide ye."
Some miles they journeyed till the dusk was low,
And darkness in the deeper woods. And then,
As searched they for the kindly roofs of men,
Where they might rest them and be fairly fed,
There was an outbreak from the boughs, and red
A spear-point through their comrade's surcoat showed,
And silent to his death he earthward slid.
The startled charger plunged, and thus fordid
The swift attempt that Balyn made to stay
The slayer ere he fled the boughs amid.
The end that comes alike to knight and clown
Was their new comrade's on that woodland way,
And after halting there two days to lay
His corse in holier earth, they rode not long
Till came they to a castle walled and strong,
But open of approach. Its bridge was down:
Its grille was raised. And Balyn thought nor wrong
Nor harboured dread. "Now here," he said, "may we
Find shelter by its good lord's courtesy,
For the wind riseth and the night is near."
Down from the charger's side he clomb, and she
Alighted with less haste, that first was he,
To cross the bridge, and as the court he gained
Behind him the portcullis clanging fell.
Round swung he at the sound. He saw too well
His heedless error. Still the maid remained
Without, but now by violent hands assailed.
In terror she cried. Bare steel was round her now.
Wrathful he called, but naught his wrath availed
With that strong gate between them. Up the stair
Of the ward-tower he ran. He cared not how,
Nor at what jeopard of limb the wall he leapt,
But scatheless came he to her side.
He cried, "with what intent your knives you bare,
And raise unseemly hands. My sword shall share
Whatever bicker would you have from now."
The varlets all as with one voice replied:
"Lord, hear us. Custom here hath long been kept,
As all men in this land would witness bear,
That any damsel at these gates who stays,
Who will not of base blood consent to be,
Nor make disclaim of her virginity,
Shall of her blood a silver dish supply,
Which surely she may yield, and need not die.
For long the lady of these towers hath lain
Vext by much sickness and continual pain,
Which by no leech-craft may amended be,
Except a maiden's blood of high degree
Be rendered for her use. We did not doubt,
Seeing her alight with thee our gates without,
That for this purpose you had brought her here."
And answered Balyn: "Naught of this we knew,
And naught but of her will this maid shall do.
But haply to amend your lady's ill
She may accord it of her own good will,
Though not of violence. So her life ye save,
I will not counter."
Of good heart she gave
Blood from her arm that heavy dole to heal,
But naught availed it.
That unholy price
A maiden at her own life's sacrifice
Chose of her will with no constraint to pay.
But that was far to be, long years away:
Sir Percival's sister she.
That night remained
Sir Balyn there, but when new daylight gained
Its passing empire, forth they rode anew.
Through hours of storm, and summer sunlight through,
Four days the path of these deep woods they crost,
As hounds may quarter when the scent is lost,
Seeking for guidance which they did not get,
And riding in a thrall of pauseless fear
Of death's swift menace from a viewless spear
Seen only as its fatal aim it met.
Then came they to a manor. Liberal cheer
Was theirs from one who lived at ease therein,
A knight of worth and good esteem; but woe
When they were seated at his board he told.
"I chanced at Listonaise a joust to win
Against King Pellam's son. I thought not so
Should rancour rise among good knights. But old
He thought me, and to prove his might was more
Another course would take. But then, perde,
Beyond refute a harder fall had he,
With more dishonour than he felt before.
"Degraded thus, his malice stirred to say:
'Tomorrow those may rise who fall today,
And I may wound thee, if I do not slay,
More deeply than the pang of death would be.'
"So hath he done. By sorcerous perfidy
In viewless air concealed, he rode behind
Mine only son, and such the wound he gave
Death waits expectant, while no leech can find
The poison lurking where the lancehead drave.
Maimed, tortured, longing for release he lies,
Hating the light, or with his midnight cries
Chiding the darkness that it doth not bring
Death's sombre rescue on its dusky wing.
Only if he who dealt that blow should die
Its curse were ended. And what force have I
Against so ruthless and so guiled a foe?"
To which Sir Balyn answered: "Foe to thee
He is not more than to ourselves, for we
More than our lives his end regard. We go
Where most he goeth, of our choice, as may
A hound that scents, or seeks to scent, a prey.
He hath in Arthur's sight his peace defied:
Through him this damsel's dearest lord hath died."
"I will go with you."
"Those who go with me
Find a short road to death."
"It would not be
More than thine own is, nor my cause the less;
To Castonack, for there the Holy King
Hath called his lieges for high banqueting,
On this consent, that there each knight who rides
Damsel - or wife or paramour, must bring,
Or coldly in the outer ward he bides.
I may not enter by that count, but thou
Canst surely with this damsel, and thereby
Meet Garlon as thou wouldst."
"I care not how
Or where it be, nor with what poor retreat,
If but one moment in plain sight we meet."
So through the shortening of the August days
They journeyed on the road to Listonaise,
Stayed not by viewed, nor hurt by viewless foe,
And came to that strange land, and found the gate
Where the king's guests were proved, when he who led,
Stating his name, the guards for entrance pled,
But as his doubt foretold, they answered no.
"Wife," said they, "may ye bring, or plighted fere,
Or wayside chance, or some loved leman dear,
But single to the feast ye may not go."
While Balyn, with the damsel at his side,
Proving his name and rank, they not denied.
They led him to a lofty chamber fair
Where maiden's hands his arms released, and brought
Fair cates and wines of price. Not Arthur's court
Gave royaller tendance. Many a robe was there
Of sendal and of silk and miniver
His choice to win. Forgotten were dust and heat
In comfort of soft garbs for banquet meet.
But when they laid his sword aside, his hand
Reached it again, and by the broidered band
He slung it from his shoulder as before.
"It is the custom of my land," he said.
"Vowed am I." Waiting not for words the more
He entered to the banquet-hall, and so,
Joining his damsel at the board, he sate
Amid bright eyes, and garments bright and fair
Of ladies and of those who joyed to share,
With each his choice, the bounty ordinate
Of Listonaise's maimed and cloistered king.
But careless voices could not turn his care
From his set purpose. To a jestful dame
Seated beside him, when her eyes forsook
Her lord upon her other hand, and met
His graver glance, he said: "But late I came
From Arthur's distant court. I know not yet
Even the greatest here. But is not one
Of these bold knights King Pellam's single son?"
Whereat low-voiced, and with an altered look,
She answered: "Mark you where the swarthy knight
Strides down the hall, and where his looks alight
Fall friendless silence, and avoiding eyes?
Taught by some fiend of hell, the art he knows
To ride unseen against his hopeless foes,
And who shall cross his wrath untimely dies."
Then Balyn gazed, and in his mind he weighed
A doubtful thought: "If here at once I smite
Before he knows, the sudden-thrusting blade
Might find his life ere summoned fiend could aid,
Or darkness hide him. If I grant respite,
Because my life were surely forfeit so,
Then might he pass abroad, and I should know
My chance were lost, and all he wrought anew
Of evil justly on myself were laid."
Debating this, his hand unheeded strayed
Toward that hilt which in his thought he drew,
And Garlon marked, and rightly in his gait
Read menace, and in his eyes unfearing hate,
But yet in pride and hard repute secure,
And in the concourse of the knights he led,
And deeming none was of such hardihed
As face him there, where none might hope endure,
At Balyn's mouth a hard black-handed blow
He dealt in scorn.
"Sir knight, I bid thee know
That none shall in these halls regard me so.
Do that thou camest to do, and eat and go."
And Balyn answered: "That I came to do
Now will I at thine asking."
From the board
Swiftly he rose, and as he rose his sword
Leapt to its height, and downward swung, and through
The helmless head clove deep. At that grim view
Burst like floods that force a breaking dyke
Loud clamour, as the knights around who sat
Sprang from their seats with swords aloft to strike,
Or deadlier points at level height. Thereat
Sir Balyn backward to the wall withdrew,
And hearing Pellam's fierce though feeble cry:
"You shall not for that death delay to die,"
Made answer: "Kill me if thou canst, for thine
Should be such vengeance in a knightly way;
And bid this rabble that they hold away."
"So shall it be," replied the angry king,
And hobbling forward with his sword aswing
Smote as he might. Though halt, his arm was strong,
And down his blade a magic virtue ran,
If tales were true, that all contacting steel
Shivered against it.
Less the king to wrong
Was in Sir Balyn's thought than so to deal
That parley might be made, with hope to show
Good cause for what had seemed a causeless blow.
He countered only with a fensive guard,
And saw with marvel that his sundered blade
Clinked on the stones.
A pass before too hard
Was hopeless now. He sideways turned, and fled
Down the long hall, and through an offering door,
Which swifter than pursuit he clanged and barred;
And thence from room to room vain search he made
For some good weapon cast on chest or bed,
Or patterned on the wall its shield before.
But naught he found. The chamber walls were bare
Of all but pictured saints and calls to prayer.
But now the noises of pursuit were near,
And neither passage more before him lay
Nor might he turn by any sideward way.
Only one door remained, and entering here
He found a chamber lustrous, marvellous,
As though a kingdom all its tithes had pled
To yield bright honour to its princely head.
Its rich-veined stones were fire beneath his feet.
Its shining walls revealed its whole complete
Fourfold around it. Bare its furnishing,
Except that only in its midst was set
A pale-gold altar very richly wrought.
A writhing demon was its sole support,
In silver moulded. Neither cloth it bore,
Nor plate, nor chalice, but a stranger thing,
A short outlandish lance that still was wet
With blood of one it wounded long afore.
It was the lance that Longius used, men said,
To pierce the Saviour's side. God's lifeblood red
Yet stained it.
Naught he paused for doubt or heed,
Nor thought of reverence gave. For deadliest need
Constrained him blindly to the impious deed.
Close came the fierce pursuit that thundered through
That quiet place the holiest place that knew:
The weapons clattered, and the armed feet rang,
And Pellam's voice was loud: "Stand all away!
Mine only is it this false knight to slay."
Again his magic sword around he swang
But surely different was the steel it met
From aught its charm was framed to break. The spear
Turned the runed blade, and in its own career
Entered the halt king's side. As sinful gore
Was mingled with the sacred stain it bore.
A wail as though of Earth's own voice arose.
The great towers shook, and whether powers of Hell
Or outraged Heaven impelled the dreadful close,
In cataracts of disjointed stones they fell.
Slowly the dust of that great fall dispersed,
But those proud towers by Garlon's treason cursed
In tumbled ruin and red slaughter lay.
Only the holy place remained; and they
Who brought that woe were live its cause to say.
To Balyn, bruised and stunned, but whole of limb,
The voice of Merlin came: "Arise, and fly!
Fierce vengeance for thy deed alert will be
When this strange horror from its deadening pain
To outward-conscious life reverts again.
Rouse thee, and ride - a living steed I bring -
While the loud storm that smote these towers apart
Is yet too dreadful in its thundering
For men to gather, or pursuit to start."
But Balyn answered: "Surely naught I know
Of what hath chanced, or aught of wrong I did.
For life to strike, doth man or God forbid?
Nor could I knightly ride, and leave behind
My damsel, safety for myself to find.
Surely she cometh, or I do not go."
"Beyond thy rescue, or thy reach, behold
Thy damsel quiet in death's embracing cold,
Where fell the eastward tower."
His glance he raised
Where the sun smote the ruins, and while he gazed
Across that white and broken form there lay
The broad wing-shadows of a bird of prey.
Eight days he rode, intent to leave behind
Shades that pursued and voices that condemned.
Heedless and pathless course he rode, and blind
Or height or pass he toiled or stream he stemmed.
And no man smote him. Only rode he still
Aware of eyes that cursed him, and aware
Of ruin, and wasted fields, and everywhere
The dead, and they that mourned them, and a land
Storm-wasted. In a torturing dream he fled
The hateful living, and the piteous dead.
Leagues of bare waste untamed of mortal hands
He rode beyond the known world's utterest bound
Through trackless sands and vacant mountains, crowned
With lifting of lone towers in loneliest lands -
Wizard or fiend he deemed their building knew.
But when the ninth day to its noontide grew
He came again to ordered lands and fair,
Where midst high woods the vales were green; and there
Sweet was the sound of rain on leaves, and air
Blew kindlier. Peace, that not his life should know
A longer day, was round him. Soft he reined
His wasted steed. By bending paths and low
Through the great woods he sank. At ease he gained
A meadowed stream and still. The bounded view
Showed a great tower with girth of ivied wall
Held in a moat that from the stream was fed.
In peaceful strength it stood, and silent all.
But nearer than the tower, unhelmeted,
A seemly knight upon the ground was laid,
And where a great oak's branches outward spread
A noble warhorse by the rein was stayed.
With gestures of despair, and wild lament,
Showed that prone form a grief incontinent.
Aloud the heedless trees his dole he told.
Then Balyn stayed, and bending toward him spake:
"Fair knight, what venture lost, or damsel's sake,
Impels this grief unmeet and uncontrolled?"
And he, as one who found relief to tell
The tale that weighed him, spake: "In days foredone,
As servitor to this land's lord I knelt,
And served his part when Arthur's wars began;
And being not backward when strong blows were dealt,
By God His grace my interposing glaive
At Badon fortuned my good lord to save
Then knighthood from his princely sword he gave,
And lands and name - Sir Garnish of the Mount.
Fair gifts were these, yet all of light account
Except they raised me from my meanness high,
To reach his daughter's love that called to mine.
"For oft midst menial toil, in days gone by,
I watched her passing with regardless eyes,
As though no pulse of passioned hope dare rise;
Yet purpose toward great deeds, and yearning high
She gave, as gives an inaccessible star
Night-guidance through the waters waste and far.
"And later while, though still in bonds I bowed,
By proof of war some lowly place I won,
And comrades in front rank my part allowed,
Swift glance of answering eyes, else seen of none,
At passing chance she gave, and hot desire,
A hound hard-leashed within me, rose. But she
- Star-fair, dawn-distant - if she mocked at me
I knew not, nor I know.
"But when my name,
Exempt from bonds and stain of menial shame,
Was raised and honoured in the mouths of men,
She gave me grace of hands and lips; and then
Chilled her regard with varying moods. At last,
Her faith she gave that here, this noontide past,
Meet should we, and our loves accord; for now
Her father's death doth her full choice allow,
From past restraint and fear of censure free."
"Then whence your woe?"
"Because the sun's decline
Mocks me, that false I deem her tryst, and she
Laid as I wait in other arms than mine."
Grief found new current at the spoken word.
To Balyn, half was lost; and half he heard
He half discarded from his mind, as though
He less regarded than a child's light woe
The spoken tale. No strength it held to draw
His mind from out its larger grief. Yet so
His practiced use to stanch the wound he saw,
If power were his, constrained him.
"Knight," he said,
"Such doubt is peril. Many a faith, misled
By seeming wrong, hath wrought the wrong it dread.
Accept me comrade in this test, and we
Will reach the truth of all your fear; and free
From trustless bonds shall loose you, or more sure
Thy stablished faith in later days shall dure.
Where bide ye both?"
"In yonder hold we bide.
Short mile upon the beaten path to ride."
"There will we seek her first."
In this consent
Together to that silent hold they went,
And paused before a gateway void and wide.
But no man at their halting showed; and none
Crossed the wide court on which the sinking sun
Lengthened the gateway arch.
"Abide you here
Short space," Sir Balyn said, "and news of cheer
My single quest may bring than would thine own,
None will mislead who am myself unknown."
Entering to quieter shade and cooler air,
An ample hall he reached, and vaulted fair,
But vacant all and silent, save alone
Rang the steel tread along the echoing stone.
Calling to no response, and baring now
His sword's bright menace to that drowsing gloom,
Door after door he found free path allow,
And passing still from vacant room to room
Entered at last a bedded chamber where
A gaping panel showed a secret stair,
Whereby he reached a garden close: the air
Bloom-laden. Riot of roses white and red
Restrained the path he trode, and overhead
Delayed his plume.
Beyond, a grove he found
Of closest growth, wherethrough the pathway wound
In glimmering shade, and in its last recess
A couch of leaves was laid; and sleeping there
A damsel lewdly in a knight's embrace.
Backward he went, and told: "The place is bare
Of moving life. It may be those who serve
Were ordered, as yourself was guiled, away.
A damsel only and a knight are there.
Lost in the sleep of sated lust are they;
But be she whom you seek is yours to say."
No words had Garnish as they entered in
Through those still chambers to that garden close,
Where to the loss of love's rejected rose
His lady snatched at lust's inferior sin.
But when he gazed on that unholy sight
Of faith betrayed, and her accepted knight,
Foul-featured, out a sudden sword he drew,
And pierced the throat he loved, that ere she knew
She choked in death; and that foul knight beside
Alike he smote, that in his sleep he died.
"Balyn," he said, "you make this grief too hard.
I might have lived, except that here I came,
Even to hear it and endure her shame;
For that we do not see we less regard.
But now is life and hope and purpose through."
"God knoweth that I did was knightly meant,"
Sir Balyn answered, "with no more intent
Than that thou shouldst her naked treason view.
So would I others to myself should do
Were I so basely in my faith misled."
No heed gave Garnish. On his sword fell he,
And round Sir Balyn's feet the slain were three.
Gloom at his heart, long downward at the dead,
He gazed in silence, while the slow pools spread
That made their lifebloods one. "Behold," he said,
"Oh, Lord, I am not equal! All I wrought
Of purposed good becomes a demon's sport;
And whom I seek to save my counsels slay.
Though the charmed sword betrayed my closest need,
Its fragments in that fallen tower to leave,
Yet seems that past escape, and past reprieve,
Its curse is on my trace, new bane to breed."
Then from that ruin of lives he turned away,
And through the twilight roses dusky red,
And the still chambers passed; and as the day
Surrendered to the night, his steed he gained,
And, seeking more to leave than find, he fled
From that death-stillness that around him lay,
Riding with no regard nor certain way.
Three days Sir Balyn rode his weary steed
Blindly as one who goes where death shall lead.
Silent at times he rode with head low-bowed,
At times he either wept or groaned aloud.
"Lord of the lost," he cried. "Who seekest all
Who wander from the strait appointed way,
Still meshed in adverse circumstance I fall.
If thou thy rescue or regard delay.
Be death the night of my disastrous day:
The only night of peace that yet remains.
Nor such a night as any dream contains,
Lest on the darkness I behold once more
The dead face of the love of Lanceor,
The dead face of the damsel that was mine."
But even as he appealed the Sacred Name
Across his eyes a sunlit vision came
Of falling towers, wide ruined, that sank and spread;
And crushed in that cast havoc a damsel dead;
And o'er her white and broken form there lay
The broad wing-shadows of a bird of prey.
The vision passed. The road before him showed
Open and bare. A ruined cross and grey
Beside it stood. He turned his eyes to see
A narrow climbing path that branched apart,
Once guarded by the cross. But hautier now
A banner hung beyond it. Bold was dight
Its blazoned threat: 'It is not for a knight
Alone to ride toward this castle.' His heart
Lightened thereat, 'for here,' he thought, 'is strife
That endeth all.' He took the path. It seemed
That voices warned him, and the mort of a horn
Sounded, and cries of warriors overborne,
As from lost lives returning, wailed forlorn.
And hearing, in his weary heart he deemed
That rest was night.
'I ween that blast is blown
For me, though living, for I ride alone
Where none may turn and live.'
Short space he found
A strength of towers before him, and wide surround
Of lawns that tamed the encroaching woods away.
Quiet in the peace of drowsing noon they lay,
Till where beneath his earlier glance had been
Bare space of lawns and girdling growths of green,
At once a hundred ladies, fair beseen,
Were round him, and their knights. In courteous way,
To banquet ease a welcome guest they led.
No menace of doom, no hostile glance was here;
Content had been more prompt of mood to fear
Than Balyn ever; But while the meal was spread,
And mirth at height, their chiefest lady said,
Leaning to where upon her right he sat:
"Oh, knight, why came you? Slain except you slay!
For else is no return or forward way.
For none may here the warning cross defy
Save in their own or other's death they die.
This weird is ours till one concluding fate
Itself beyond more woe shall consummate."
And answered Balyn: "Naught that speech can say
May turn us from the doom forewritten. For me,
My heart is light that here my death should be;
Toiled in such bonds that no release beside
Can peace prefer."
"There may belike betide
No evil to thyself; for seldom yet
A knight of mightier thews mine eyes have met.
It is one only that thy spear must meet,
Though mortal is the strife. To bar retreat
Upon an island is the combat set."
"It is a custom of no grace," he said,
"That passing knights should thus be snared; for they
Who ride abroad may ride in wearihed,
And their toiled steeds no equal course may stay
With those that freshly to the lists are led."
Then spake a knight of smooth aspect thereby:
"What doubt is thine? A single strife you try.
And not shalt thou by any knight alone
With either lance or sword be overthrown...
Yet thy good shield a downward stroke hath cleft,
Too deep for safety in close strife. I pray
You will not scorn a better, in all goodwill
Lent for thy need?"
He answered: "Choicelessness
On either choice may wait, but yet will I,
Here where no loss but loss of life is left,
Accept, and thank thee."
From the board they rose,
And he, so destined since that path he chose,
Went with them, constant in his mood, as they
Who when fear enters, and the last hope dies,
Meet failure with resolved and equal eyes.
A space of waters, like a steel-grey targe,
Shone darkly. Dense with matted woods the marge
Met the deep flood. One only downward way
Before them showed. And here a waiting barge
Received them. As the island bank they gained
One only damsel at his side remained.
"Unhappy knight," she said, "a stranger's shield
Denies thee, from thy closest friend concealed.
Who bears a different blazon from his own
Is bare to blind mischance, and ills unknown."
Kindly she spake, and with sure sight, but he:
"Can naught disease me more. Let chance what may,
My heart is fain that here my death may be,
And all my woes find end. I am a knight
Foredoomed to find disaster. Cared I naught
To what event I came, or shield I brought;
For whatso'er of noble hope I know
Some monstrous evil lurks its flower below.
This curse is not delayed, and not complete:
There is nor dread to shun, nor hope to meet."
"Still is it ruth; but more I must not say."
Then rode they silent by a tortuous way,
Till to a tower they came, and spread below
A field for joust or mortal combat fit.
Draped seats of many hues surrounded it.
Their colour chastened by the warmer glow
Of ladies and high lords who there did sit,
So were they clad in every glorious hue,
Saffron and argent, crimson, vert and blue,
God's sunlight gives, as some bright tourney-show
They well might grace. But their unpitying eyes
Were cold in hope a harder sight to see.
A steward to Sir Balyn came: "Fair knight,
Yourself you chose that here you stand, as he,
Our island champion chose. Your lives are plight
To conquer or to die. No place to flee
Remains; nor any hope in mercy's plea."
"I ask not mercy. But I fain would know,
Why to such bitter end this strife must go?"
"It is the doom of those the horn who dare,
And take the challenge of the warning there."
"I did not make protest. I asked but why."
"It is our custom; finding most delight
When those who with no thought of mercy fight,
As only those who know that ordeal may."
"Whom do I meet in this relentless play?"
"A knight too little known, but soon is he
Great as the greatest in men's sight to be,
Unless thy lance shall thwart him. Here he came,
Dimmed by the shadow of a greater name,
To hold this ward a twelve month's space; and so
High valour and consummate might to show."
"He is not of the Table?"
"Nay, for he
Came from the wild lands of the Northern Sea."
"Likely of Neros' horde?"
"It well may be."
"High may he aim, but surely base are they
Who use no sign the cost of strife to stay.
I dread not death, who have no lust to live,
Yet that I shall not ask I well may give."
"It were to find the doom thou didst not deal."
"Those who regard not life no fear can feel
Except for baseness that themselves they do."
Then ceased they; for the calling trumpet blew,
And from the tower there came a knight arrayed
In scarlet, and his steed, some space who stayed,
As though in doubt, before he sank his spear.
Yet spurred he then, and in such fierce career
That Balyn, instant though he spurred alike,
Felt on his shield the crashing impact strike
More hard than from his own well-practiced hand
The thrust he gave. Alike the chargers fell,
But Balyn's, wearier, fell the worse, and he
Scarce from the rolling steed his feet could free
Before the sword of his opponent shone
So close that, though his shield he lifted well,
It scarce availed his throat to guard. Perde,
Fierce joy was in the eyes that looked thereon,
Such strength, such swiftness, and such skill displayed
Those twain, though neither knight, close-helmed, could see,
Or knew beforehand by whose hands should be
The wounds he felt. For life they fought, and one
Fought also that an equal fame he won
With whom had shadowed long his own. They met
In strife that did not pause though swords were wet
With flowing blood, though broken shields no more
Could shredded hawberks guard. In slippery gore
They fought, and with blood-blinded eyes, so sore
Their helms were battered. Those who watched could guess
Their mortal wounds, but not for those the less
They strove, and plaudits from the crowded ring,
And waving of bright scarves, and wagering
On who would longer last, approved their toil.
"First must our champion fall."
"So say not I."
"The strange knight weakens."
"Both alike must die."
No word of mercy, no protesting cry,
Rebuked that rule which gave no amnesty
To those who deathward went with hearts so high.
And Balyn turned his glance aside, and blurred
But bright coloured showed that throng. He heard
Voices that cheered their deaths, and all his might
Gathered within him, one last stroke to smite
To end it. Through drained veins the indignant blood
Pulsed hotly, as his sword he upward swang,
And on the red knight's helm so hard it rang
That to the ground he sank. Nor only he,
But Balyn, as that final impulse failed,
Sank at his side, the while black night prevailed.
Neither they strove to rise, but both they lay
As those resigned to death's dark empire may.
Till Balyn, on one hand uplifting said:
"Fair gentle knight, through thee that road I tread
Which waits for all, but ere I deathward go,
I would more knowledge of the nameless foe
Who hast slain me here in almost equal fight."
And he to whom he spake, in words too low
For easy hearing answered: "That to show
Unloth am I, for those who deathward go
Find the full peerage of an equal night.
I am Balan, brother to a greater knight,
"More than death thy word is woe!
I thought too soon no further grief should be
In hastening through the kindly doors of death.
Myself am Balyn."
"Brother, mine the woe
To thus have slain thee. But what evil hap
Disguised thy blazonry? I thought I knew
Thy gait and riding, but thy swords were two,
And thy shield-symbol is the sinking star,
Not those blue leopards."
"Brother, warned was I,
And by the burden of my fault we die.
For I rejected God, and would not see
His part is His, but mine is left for me,
Unaltered by reverse. The best I might
I did not aim to reach, and failing so
I draw thee with me to the lasting night.
My sword? The mystic blade which worked my woe
Broke like base metal at my direst need."
"Brother," a fainter voice replied, "we go
Together, as we should. And I for thee
The witness at the throne of Christ shall be
That nothing is my charge of wrath or wrong;
But all is well between us."
"All is well......
But, brother, wilt thy strength avail to tell
How thou couldst hold to this unmercied strife?"
"Because they caught me in too close a net
For any strength to break it. Dear is life.
For that I swore that all whom here I met
I would resist as those who champion wrong
Must be resisted: no loth word to say:
No victoring stroke to stint. For surely they,
Ladies and lords to whom of course belong
The mercies and regards high nurture bears,
To cease determined strife would lightly give
The signal that shall bid the fallen live."
"But that they did not."
"Nay, such hearts are theirs
As wolves might scorn. To sate their lust requires
That when wounds weaken, or long combat tires
A champion knight, he shall his death foresee,
And desperate hopeless strife prolonged shall be
With one who knows that save such end he deal,
The like unmercied death himself shall feel."
"There were our faults," Sir Balyn answered, "so,
For gain of life, or life's despair, to go
The way they pointed or constrained. To live
We were not worthy; and, though God forgive,
Ours is the shame before His throne to bear
Who by His guiding hand would not be there.
For they through whom we die their ardours gain
Not from high triumphs but for victims slain."
More of their love was in his heart to say.
For who by Nature's bond are close as they
Who share one birth, and in one failure die
By mutual fault, though clean of perfidy?
But now in bloodless veins was life too weak.
Sank in a murmuring sound his voice away.
His lifted head fell back. More grace to speak
He did not have, nor Balan life to hear.
But unregarded while they spake, anear
Were those who came the bloodwet scene to cheer,
And heard them, though their names they heard not. She
Who bade Sir Balyn ware the sorcery
Which gave him that false shield which caused his fall,
And only she, showed pitying eyes. She said:
"Though by each other's hands these knights are dead,
See how those hands are joined! If brethren they,
As those who heard them do not doubt to say,
Then in one tomb united shall they lie,
Who came from different ways this doom to find,
As sin misled them, or High God designed."
So dealt she at her cost. And that she did,
And that she spake, was of such potency
That they who ruled that castle all forbid
Its evil custom, and the horn no more
Blew the mort note for those who turned to try
What hazard on the upward path should lie.
Long stood the tomb she built, on which was writ
The most she knew, but not their names, and so
There was no word of that which no man wit
By wanderers told. Their far Northumbrian kin
Waited, and asked, and heard not. Minstrels said,
In Arthur's court, if any sought to know:
"Balyn? A valiant knight. He looked to win
The greatest place of all. But years have fled
Since last upon the ragged front of war
The shield that showed the dying star we saw.
Belike was wayside chance that left him dead,
Or, being maimed, he homeward went. He came
From that wild North which all our strength to tame
So these brethren past
From sight and tongue of men. While Earth shall last,
Until the Christ shall call, to doom or save,
Asleep together in their nameless grave.
End of Chapter IV