Read CHAPTER V of The Tale of Balen , free online book, by Algernon Charles Swinburne, on ReadCentral.com.

As thought from thought takes wing and flies,
As month on month with sunlit eyes
Tramples and triumphs in its rise,
As wave smites wave to death and dies,
So chance on hurtling chance like steel
Strikes, flashes, and is quenched, ere fear
Can whisper hope, or hope can hear,
If sorrow or joy be far or near
For time to hurt or heal.

Swift as a shadow and strange as light
That cleaves in twain the shadow of night
Before the wide-winged word takes flight
That thunder speaks to depth and height
And quells the quiet hour with sound,
There came before King Mark and stood
Between the moorside and the wood
The man whose word God’s will made good,
Nor guile was in it found.

And Merlin said to Balen: “Lo,
Thou hast wrought thyself a grievous woe
To let this lady die, and know
Thou mightst have stayed her deadly blow.”
And Balen answered him and said,
“Nay, by my truth to faith, not I,
So fiercely fain she was to die;
Ere well her sword had flashed on high,
Self-slain she lay there dead.”

Again and sadly Merlin spake:
“My heart is wrung for this deed’s sake,
To know thee therefore doomed to take
Upon thine hand a curse, and make
Three kingdoms pine through twelve years’ change,
In want and woe: for thou shalt smite
The man most noble and truest knight
That looks upon the live world’s light
A dolorous stroke and strange.

“And not till years shall round their goal
May this man’s wound thou hast given be whole.”
And Balen, stricken through the soul
By dark-winged words of doom and dole,
Made answer: “If I wist it were
No lie but sooth thou sayest of me,
Then even to make a liar of thee
Would I too slay myself, and see
How death bids dead men fare.”

And Merlin took his leave and passed
And was not: and the shadow as fast
Went with him that his word had cast,
Too fleet for thought thereof to last:
And there those brethren bade King Mark
Farewell: but fain would Mark have known
The strong knight’s name who had overthrown
The pride of Launceor, when it shone
Bright as it now lay dark.

And Balan for his brother spake,
Saying: “Sir, albeit him list not break
The seal of secret time, nor shake
Night off him ere his morning wake,
By these two swords he is girt withal
May men that praise him, knights and lords,
Call him the knight that bears two swords,
And all the praise his fame accords
Make answer when they call.”

So parted they toward eventide;
And tender twilight, heavy-eyed,
Saw deep down glimmering woodlands ride
Balen and Balan side by side,
Till where the leaves grew dense and dim
Again they spied from far draw near
The presence of the sacred seer,
But so disguised and strange of cheer
That seeing they knew not him.

“Now whither ride ye,” Merlin said,
“Through shadows that the sun strikes red,
Ere night be born or day be dead?”
But they, for doubt half touched with dread,
Would say not where their goal might lie.
“And thou,” said Balen, “what art thou,
To walk with shrouded eye and brow?”
He said: “Me lists not show thee now
By name what man am I.”

“Ill seen is this of thee,” said they,
“That thou art true in word and way
Nor fain to fear the face of day,
Who wilt not as a true man say
The name it shames not him to bear.”
He answered: “Be it or be it not so,
Yet why ye ride this way I know,
To meet King Ryons as a foe,
And how your hope shall fare.

“Well, if ye hearken toward my rede,
Ill, if ye hear not, shall ye speed.”
“Ah, now,” they cried, “thou art ours at need
What Merlin saith we are fain to heed.”
“Great worship shall ye win,” said he,
“And look that ye do knightly now,
For great shall be your need, I trow.”
And Balen smiled: “By knighthood’s vow,
The best we may will we.”

Then Merlin bade them turn and take
Rest, for their good steeds’ weary sake,
Between the highway and the brake,
Till starry midnight bade them wake:
Then “Rise,” he said, “the king is nigh,
Who hath stolen from all his host away
With threescore horse in armed array,
The goodliest knights that bear his sway
And hold his kingdom high.

“And twenty ride of them before
To bear his errand, ere the door
Turn of the night, sealed fast no more,
And sundawn bid the stars wax hoar;
For by the starshine of to-night
He seeks a leman where she waits
His coming, dark and swift as fate’s,
And hearkens toward the unopening gates
That yield not him to sight.

Then through the glimmering gloom around
A shadowy sense of light and sound
Made, ere the proof thereof were found,
The brave blithe hearts within them bound,
And “Where,” quoth Balen, “rides the king?”
But softer spake the seer: “Abide,
Till hither toward your spears he ride,
Where all the narrowing woodland side
Grows dense with boughs that cling.”

There in that straitening way they met
The wild Welsh host against them set,
And smote their strong king down, ere yet
His hurrying horde of spears might get
Fierce vantage of them. Then the fight
Grew great and joyous as it grew,
For left and right those brethren slew,
Till all the lawn waxed red with dew
More deep than dews of night.

And ere the full fierce tale was read
Full forty lay before them dead,
And fast the hurtling remnant fled
And wist not whither fear had led:
And toward the king they went again,
And would have slain him: but he bowed
Before them, crying in fear aloud
For grace they gave him, seeing the proud
Wild king brought lowest of men.

And ere the wildwood leaves were stirred
With song or wing of wakening bird,
In Camelot was Merlin’s word
With joy in joyous wonder heard
That told of Arthur’s bitterest foe
Diskingdomed and discomfited.
“By whom?” the high king smiled and said.
He answered: “Ere the dawn wax red,
To-morrow bids you know.

“Two knights whose heart and hope are one
And fain to win your grace have done
This work whereby if grace be won
Their hearts shall hail the enkindling sun
With joy more keen and deep than day.”
And ere the sundawn drank the dew
Those brethren with their prisoner drew
To the outer guard they gave him to
And passed again away.

And Arthur came as toward his guest
To greet his foe, and bade him rest
As one returned from nobler quest
And welcome from the stormbright west,
But by what chance he fain would hear.
“The chance was hard and strange, sir king,”
Quoth Ryons, bowed in thanksgiving.
“Who won you?” Arthur said: “the thing
Is worth a warrior’s ear.”

The wild king flushed with pride and shame,
Answering: “I know not either name
Of those that there against us came
And withered all our strength like flame:
The knight that bears two swords is one,
And one his brother: not on earth
May men meet men of knightlier worth
Nor mightier born of mortal birth
That hail the sovereign sun.”

And Arthur said: “I know them not
But much am I for this, God wet,
Beholden to them: Launcelot
Nor Tristram, when the war waxed hot
Along the marches east and west,
Wrought ever nobler work than this.”
“Ah,” Merlin said, “sore pity it is
And strange mischance of doom, I wis,
That death should mar their quest.

“Balen, the perfect knight that won
The sword whose name is malison,
And made his deed his doom, is one:
Nor hath his brother Balan done
Less royal service: not on earth
Lives there a nobler knight, more strong
Of soul to win men’s praise in song,
Albeit the light abide not long
That lightened round his birth.

“Yea, and of all sad things I know
The heaviest and the highest in woe
Is this, the doom whose date brings low
Too soon in timeless overthrow
A head so high, a hope so sure.
The greatest moan for any knight
That ever won fair fame in fight
Shall be for Balen, seeing his might
Must now not long endure.”

“Alas,” King Arthur said, “he hath shown
Such love to me-ward that the moan
Made of him should be mine alone
Above all other, knowing it known
I have ill deserved it of him.” “Nay,”
Said Merlin, “he shall do for you
Much more, when time shall be anew,
Than time hath given him chance to do
Or hope may think to say.

“But now must be your powers purveyed
To meet, ere noon of morn be made
To-morrow, all the host arrayed
Of this wild foe’s wild brother, laid
Around against you: see to it well,
For now I part from you.” And soon,
When sundawn slew the withering moon,
Two hosts were met to win the boon
Whose tale is death’s to tell.

A lordly tale of knights and lords
For death to tell by count of swords
When war’s wild harp in all its chords
Rang royal triumph, and the hordes
Of hurtling foemen rocked and reeled
As waves wind-thwarted on the sea,
Was told of all that there might be,
Till scarce might battle hear or see
The fortune of the field.

And many a knight won fame that day
When even the serpent soul of Kay
Was kindled toward the fiery play
As might a lion’s be for prey,
And won him fame that might not die
With passing of his rancorous breath
But clung about his life and death
As fire that speaks in cloud, and saith
What strong men hear and fly.

And glorious works were Arthur’s there,
That lit the battle-darkened air:
But when they saw before them fare
Like stars of storm the knight that bare
Two swords about him girt for fray,
Balen, and Balan with him, then
Strong wonder smote the souls of men
If heaven’s own host or hell’s deep den
Had sent them forth to slay.

So keen they rode across the fight,
So sharp they smote to left and right,
And made of hurtling darkness light
With lightning of their swords, till flight
And fear before them flew like flame,
That Arthur’s self had never known,
He said, since first his blast was blown,
Such lords of war as these alone
That whence he knew not came.

But while the fire of war waxed hot
The wild king hearkened, hearing not,
Through storm of spears and arrow-shot,
For succour toward him from King Lot
And all his host of sea-born men,
Strong as the strong storm-baffling bird
Whose cry round Orkney’s headlands heard
Is as the sea’s own sovereign word
That mocks our mortal ken.

For Merlin’s craft of prophecy,
Who wist that one of twain must die,
Put might in him to say thereby
Which head should lose its crown, and lie
Stricken, though loth he were to know
That either life should wane and fail;
Yet most might Arthur’s love avail,
And still with subtly tempered tale
His wile held fast the foe.

With woven words of magic might
Wherein the subtle shadow and light
Changed hope and fear till fear took flight,
He stayed King Lot’s fierce lust of fight
Till all the wild Welsh war was driven
As foam before the wind that wakes
With the all-awakening sun, and breaks
Strong ships that rue the mirth it makes
When grace to slay is given.

And ever hotter lit and higher,
As fire that meets encountering fire,
Waxed in King Lot his keen desire
To bid revenge within him tire
On Arthur’s ravaged fame and life:
Across the waves of war between
Floated and flashed, unseen and seen,
The lustrous likeness of the queen
Whom shame had sealed his wife.

But when the woful word was brought
That while he tarried, doubting nought,
The hope was lost whose goal he sought
And all the fight he yearned for fought,
His heart was rent for grief and shame,
And half his hope was set on flight
Till word was given him of a knight
Who said: “They are weary and worn with fight,
And we more fresh than flame.”

And bright and dark as night and day
Ere either find the unopening way
Clear, and forego the unaltering sway,
The sad king’s face shone, frowning: “Yea,
I would that every knight of mine
Would do his part as I shall do,”
He said, “till death or life anew
Shall judge between us as is due
With wiser doom than thine.”

Then thundered all the awakening field
With crash of hosts that clashed and reeled,
Banner to banner, shield to shield,
And spear to splintering spear-shaft, steeled
As heart against high heart of man,
As hope against high hope of knight
To pluck the crest and crown of fight
From war’s clenched hand by storm’s wild light,
For blessing given or ban.

All hearts of hearkening men that heard
The ban twin-born with blessing, stirred
Like springtide waters, knew the word
Whereby the steeds of storm are spurred
With ravenous rapture to destroy,
And laughed for love of battle, pierced
With passion of tempestuous thirst
And hungering hope to assuage it first
With draughts of stormy joy.

But sheer ahead of the iron tide
That rocked and roared from side to side
Rode as the lightning’s lord might ride
King Lot, whose heart was set to abide
All peril of the raging hour,
And all his host of warriors born
Where lands by warring seas are worn
Was only by his hands upborne
Who gave them pride and power.

But as the sea’s hand smites the shore
And shatters all the strengths that bore
The ravage earth may bear no more,
So smote the hand of Pellinore
Charging, a knight of Arthur’s chief,
And clove his strong steed’s neck in twain,
And smote him sheer through brow and brain,
Falling: and there King Lot lay slain,
And knew not wrath or grief.

And all the host of Orkney fled,
And many a mother’s son lay dead:
But when they raised the stricken head
Whence pride and power and shame were fled
And rage and anguish now cast out,
And bore it toward a kingly tomb,
The wife whose love had wrought his doom
Came thither, fair as morning’s bloom
And dark as twilight’s doubt.

And there her four strong sons and his,
Gawain and Gareth, Gaherys
And Agravain, whose sword’s sharp kiss
With sound of hell’s own serpent’s hiss
Should one day turn her life to death,
Stood mourning with her: but by these
Seeing Mordred as a seer that sees,
Anguish of terror bent her knees
And caught her shuddering breath.

The splendour of her sovereign eyes
Flashed darkness deeper than the skies
Feel or fear when the sunset dies
On his that felt as midnight rise
Their doom upon them, there undone
By faith in fear ere thought could yield
A shadowy sense of days revealed,
The ravin of the final field,
The terror of their son.

For Arthur’s, as they caught the light
That sought and durst not seek his sight,
Darkened, and all his spirit’s might
Withered within him even as night
Withers when sunrise thrills the sea.
But Mordred’s lightened as with fire
That smote his mother and his sire
With darkling doom and deep desire
That bade its darkness be.

And heavier on their hearts the weight
Sank of the fear that brings forth fate,
The bitter doubt whose womb is great
With all the grief and love and hate
That turn to fire men’s days on earth.
And glorious was the funeral made,
And dark the deepening dread that swayed
Their darkening souls whose light grew shade
With sense of death in birth.