Read CHAPTER III of The Tale of Balen , free online book, by Algernon Charles Swinburne, on

As the east wind, when the morning’s breast
Gleams like a bird’s that leaves the nest,
A fledgeling halcyon’s bound on quest,
Drives wave on wave on wave to west
Till all the sea be life and light,
So time’s mute breath, that brings to bloom
All flowers that strew the dead spring’s tomb,
Drives day on day on day to doom
Till all man’s day be night.

Brief as the breaking of a wave
That hurls on man his thunderous grave
Ere fear find breath to cry or crave
Life that no chance may spare or save,
The light of joy and glory shone
Even as in dreams where death seems dead
Round Balen’s hope-exalted head,
Shone, passed, and lightened as it fled
The shadow of doom thereon.

For as he bound him thence to fare,
Before the stately presence there
A lady like a windflower fair,
Girt on with raiment strange and rare
That rippled whispering round her, came.
Her clear cold eyes, all glassy grey,
Seemed lit not with the light of day
But touched with gleams that waned away
Of quelled and fading flame.

Before the king she bowed and spake:
“King, for thine old faith’s plighted sake
To me the lady of the lake,
I come in trust of thee to take
The guerdon of the gift I gave,
Thy sword Excalibur.” And he
Made answer: “Be it whate’er it be,
If mine to give, I give it thee,
Nor need is thine to crave.”

As when a gleam of wicked light
Turns half a low-lying water bright
That moans beneath the shivering night
With sense of evil sound and sight
And whispering witchcraft’s bated breath,
Her wan face quickened as she said:
“This knight that won the sword his head
I crave or hers that brought it. Dead,
Let these be one in death.”

“Not with mine honour this may be;
Ask all save this thou wilt,” quoth he,
“And have thy full desire.” But she
Made answer: “Nought will I of thee,
Nought if not this.” Then Balen turned,
And saw the sorceress hard beside
By whose fell craft his mother died:
Three years he had sought her, and here espied
His heart against her yearned.

“Ill be thou met,” he said, “whose ire
Would slake with blood thy soul’s desire:
By thee my mother died in fire;
Die thou by me a death less dire.”
Sharp flashed his sword forth, fleet as flame,
And shore away her sorcerous head.
“Alas for shame,” the high king said,
“That one found once my friend lies dead;
Alas for all our shame!

“Thou shouldst have here forborne her; yea,
Were all the wrongs that bid men slay
Thine, heaped too high for wrath to weigh,
Not here before my face today
Was thine the right to wreak thy wrong.”
Still stood he then as one that found
His rose of hope by storm discrowned,
And all the joy that girt him round
Brief as a broken song.

Yet ere he passed he turned and spake:
“King, only for thy nobler sake
Than aught of power man’s power may take
Or pride of place that pride may break
I bid the lordlier man in thee,
That lives within the king, give ear.
This justice done before thee here
On one that hell’s own heart holds dear,
Needs might not this but be.

“Albeit, for all that pride would prove,
My heart be wrung to lose thy love,
It yet repents me not hereof:
So many an eagle and many a dove,
So many a knight, so many a may,
This water-snake of poisonous tongue
To death by words and wiles hath stung,
That her their slayer, from hell’s lake sprung,
I did not ill to slay.”

“Yea,” said the king, “too high of heart
To stand before a king thou art;
Yet irks it me to bid thee part
And take thy penance for thy part,
That God may put upon thy pride.”
Then Balen took the severed head
And toward his hostry turned and sped
As one that knew not quick from dead
Nor good from evil tide.

He bade his squire before him stand
And take that sanguine spoil in hand
And bear it far by shore and strand
Till all in glad Northumberland
That loved him, seeing it, all might know
His deadliest foe was dead, and hear
How free from prison as from fear
He dwelt in trust of the answering year
To bring him weal for woe.

“And tell them, now I take my way
To meet in battle, if I may,
King Ryons of North Wales, and slay
That king of kernes whose fiery sway
Doth all the marches dire despite
That serve King Arthur: so shall he
Again be gracious lord to me,
And I that leave thee meet with thee
Once more in Arthur’s sight.”

So spake he ere they parted, nor
Took shame or fear to counsellor,
As one whom none laid ambush for;
And wist not how Sir Launceor,
The wild king’s son of Ireland, hot
And high in wrath to know that one
Stood higher in fame before the sun,
Even Balen, since the sword was won,
Drew nigh from Camelot.

For thence, in heat of hate and pride,
As one that man might bid not bide,
He craved the high king’s grace to ride
On quest of Balen far and wide
And wreak the wrong his wrath had wrought.
“Yea,” Arthur said, “for such despite
Was done me never in my sight
As this thine hand shall now requite
If trust avail us aught.”

But ere he passed, in eager mood
To feed his hate with bitter food,
Before the king’s face Merlin stood
And heard his tale of ill and good,
Of Balen, and the sword achieved,
And whence it smote as heaven’s red ire
That direful dame of doom as dire;
And how the king’s wrath turned to fire
The grief wherewith he grieved.

And darkening as he gave it ear,
The still face of the sacred seer
Waxed wan with wrath and not with fear,
And ever changed its cloudier cheer
Till all his face was very night.
“This damosel that brought the sword,”
He said, “before the king my lord,
And all these knights about his board,
Hath done them all despite.

“The falsest damosel she is
That works men ill on earth, I wis,
And all her mind is toward but this,
To kill as with a lying kiss
Truth, and the life of noble trust.
A brother hath she, see but now
The flame of shame that brands her brow!
A true man, pure as faith’s own vow,
Whose honour knows not rust.

“This good knight found within her bower
A felon and her paramour,
And slew him in his shameful hour,
As right gave might and righteous power
To hands that wreaked so foul a wrong.
Then, for the hate her heart put on,
She sought by ways where death had gone
The lady Lyle of Avalon,
Whose crafts are strange and strong.

“The sorceress, one with her in thought,
Gave her that sword of magic, wrought
By charms whereof sweet heaven sees nought,
That hither girt on her she brought
To be by doom her brother’s bane.
And grief it is to think how he
That won it, being of heart so free
And perfect found in chivalry,
Shall by that sword lie slain.

Great pity it is and strange despite
That one whose eyes are stars to light
Honour, and shine as heaven’s own height,
Should perish, being the goodliest knight
That even the all-glorious north has borne.
Nor shall my lord the king behold
A lordlier friend of mightier mould
Than Balen, though his tale be told
Ere noon fulfil his morn.”