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

In winter, when the year burns low
As fire wherein no firebrands glow,
And winds dishevel as they blow
The lovely stormy wings of snow,
The hearts of northern men burn bright
With joy that mocks the joy of spring
To hear all heaven’s keen clarions ring
Music that bids the spirit sing
And day give thanks for night.

Aloud and dark as hell or hate
Round Balen’s head the wind of fate
Blew storm and cloud from death’s wide gate:
But joy as grief in him was great
To face God’s doom and live or die,
Sorrowing for ill wrought unaware,
Rejoicing in desire to dare
All ill that innocence might bear
With changeless heart and eye.

Yet passing fain he was when past
Those lands and woes at length and last.
Eight times, as thence he fared forth fast,
Dawn rose and even was overcast
With starry darkness dear as day,
Before his venturous quest might meet
Adventure, seeing within a sweet
Green low-lying forest, hushed in heat,
A tower that barred his way.

Strong summer, dumb with rapture, bound
With golden calm the woodlands round
Wherethrough the knight forth faring found
A knight that on the greenwood ground
Sat mourning: fair he was to see,
And moulded as for love or fight
A maiden’s dreams might frame her knight;
But sad in joy’s far-flowering sight
As grief’s blind thrall might be.

“God save you,” Balen softly said,
“What grief bows down your heart and head
Thus, as one sorrowing for his dead?
Tell me, if haply I may stead
In aught your sorrow, that I may.”
“Sir knight,” that other said, “thy word
Makes my grief heavier that I heard.”
And pity and wonder inly stirred
Drew Balen thence away.

And so withdrawn with silent speed
He saw the sad knight’s stately steed,
A war-horse meet for warrior’s need,
That none who passed might choose but heed,
So strong he stood, so great, so fair,
With eyes afire for flight or fight,
A joy to look on, mild in might,
And swift and keen and kind as light,
And all as clear of care.

And Balen, gazing on him, heard
Again his master’s woful word
Sound sorrow through the calm unstirred
By fluttering wind or flickering bird,
Thus: “Ah, fair lady and faithless, why
Break thy pledged faith to meet me? soon
An hour beyond thy trothplight noon
Shall strike my death-bell, and thy boon
Is this, that here I die.

“My curse for all thy gifts may be
Heavier than death or night on thee;
For now this sword thou gavest me
Shall set me from thy bondage free.”
And there the man had died self-slain,
But Balen leapt on him and caught
The blind fierce hand that fain had wrought
Self-murder, stung with fire of thought,
As rage makes anguish fain.

Then, mad for thwarted grief, “Let go
My hand,” the fool of wrath and woe
Cried, “or I slay thee.” Scarce the glow
In Balen’s cheek and eye might show,
As dawn shows day while seas lie chill,
He heard, though pity took not heed,
But smiled and spake, “That shall not need:
What man may do to bid you speed
I, so God speed me, will.”

And the other craved his name, beguiled
By hope that made his madness mild.
Again Sir Balen spake and smiled:
“My name is Balen, called the Wild
By knights whom kings and courts make tame
Because I ride alone afar
And follow but my soul for star.”
“Ah, sir, I know the knight you are
And all your fiery fame.

“The knight that bears two swords I know,
Most praised of all men, friend and foe,
For prowess of your hands, that show
Dark war the way where balefires glow
And kindle glory like the dawn’s.”
So spake the sorrowing knight, and stood
As one whose heart fresh hope made good:
And forth they rode by wold and wood
And down the glimmering lawns.

And Balen craved his name who rode
Beside him, where the wild wood glowed
With joy to feel how noontide flowed
Through glade and glen and rough green road
Till earth grew joyful as the sea.
“My name is Garnysshe of the Mount,
A poor man’s son of none account,”
He said, “where springs of loftier fount
Laugh loud with pride to be.

“But strength in weakness lives and stands
As rocks that rise through shifting sands;
And for the prowess of my hands
One made me knight and gave me lands,
Duke Hermel, lord from far to near,
Our prince; and she that loved me she
I love, and deemed she loved but me,
His daughter, pledged her faith to be
Ere now beside me here.”

And Balen, brief of speech as light
Whose word, beheld of depth and height,
Strikes silence through the stars of night,
Spake, and his face as dawn’s grew bright,
For hope to help a happier man,
“How far then lies she hence?” “By this,”
Her lover sighed and said, “I wis,
Not six fleet miles the passage is,
And straight as thought could span.”

So rode they swift and sure, and found
A castle walled and dyked around:
And Balen, as a warrior bound
On search where hope might fear to sound
The darkness of the deeps of doubt,
Made entrance through the guardless gate
As life, while hope in life grows great,
Makes way between the doors of fate
That death may pass thereout.

Through many a glorious chamber, wrought
For all delight that love’s own thought
Might dream or dwell in, Balen sought
And found of all he looked for nought,
For like a shining shell her bed
Shone void and vacant of her: thence
Through devious wonders bright and dense
He passed and saw with shame-struck sense
Where shame and faith lay dead.

Down in a sweet small garden, fair
With flowerful joy in the ardent air,
He saw, and raged with loathing, where
She lay with love-dishevelled hair
Beneath a broad bright laurel tree
And clasped in amorous arms a knight,
The unloveliest that his scornful sight
Had dwelt on yet; a shame the bright
Broad noon might shrink to see.

And thence in wrathful hope he turned,
Hot as the heart within him burned,
To meet the knight whose love, so spurned
And spat on and made nought of, yearned
And dreamed and hoped and lived in vain,
And said, “I have found her sleeping fast,”
And led him where the shadows cast
From leaves wherethrough light winds ran past
Screened her from sun and rain.

But Garnysshe, seeing, reeled as he stood
Like a tree, kingliest of the wood,
Half hewn through: and the burning blood
Through lips and nostrils burst aflood:
And gathering back his rage and might
As broken breakers rally and roar
The loud wind down that drives off shore,
He smote their heads off: there no more
Their life might shame the light.

Then turned he back toward Balen, mad
With grief, and said, “The grief I had
Was nought: ere this my life was glad:
Thou hast done this deed: I was but sad
And fearful how my hope might fare:
I had lived my sorrow down, hadst thou
Not shown me what I saw but now.”
The sorrow and scorn on Balen’s brow
Bade silence curb him there.

And Balen answered: “What I did
I did to hearten thee and bid
Thy courage know that shame should rid
A man’s high heart of love that hid
Blind shame within its core: God knows,
I did, to set a bondman free,
But as I would thou hadst done by me,
That seeing what love must die to see
Love’s end might well be woe’s.”

“Alas,” the woful weakling said,
“I have slain what most I loved: I have shed
The blood most near my heart: the head
Lies cold as earth, defiled and dead,
That all my life was lighted by,
That all my soul bowed down before,
And now may bear with life no more:
For now my sorrow that I bore
Is twofold, and I die.”

Then with his red wet sword he rove
His breast in sunder, where it clove
Life, and no pulse against it strove,
So sure and strong the deep stroke drove
Deathward: and Balen, seeing him dead,
Rode thence, lest folk would say he had slain
Those three; and ere three days again
Had seen the sun’s might wax and wane,
Far forth he had spurred and sped.

And riding past a cross whereon
Broad golden letters written shone,
Saying, “No knight born may ride alone
Forth toward this castle,” and all the stone
Glowed in the sun’s glare even as though
Blood stained it from the crucified
Dead burden of one that there had died,
An old hoar man he saw beside
Whose face was wan as woe.

“Balen the Wild,” he said, “this way
Thy way lies not: thou hast passed to-day
Thy bands: but turn again, and stay
Thy passage, while thy soul hath sway
Within thee, and through God’s good power
It will avail thee:” and anon
His likeness as a cloud was gone,
And Balen’s heart within him shone
Clear as the cloudless hour.

Nor fate nor fear might overcast
The soul now near its peace at last.
Suddenly, thence as forth he past,
A mighty and a deadly blast
Blown of a hunting-horn he heard,
As when the chase hath nobly sped.
“That blast is blown for me,” he said,
“The prize am I who am yet not dead,”
And smiled upon the word.

As toward a royal hart’s death rang
That note, whence all the loud wood sang
With winged and living sound that sprang
Like fire, and keen as fire’s own fang
Pierced the sweet silence that it slew.
But nought like death or strife was here:
Fair semblance and most goodly cheer
They made him, they whose troop drew near
As death among them drew.

A hundred ladies well arrayed
And many a knight well weaponed made
That kindly show of cheer: the glade
Shone round them till its very shade
Lightened and laughed from grove to lawn
To hear and see them: so they brought
Within a castle fair as thought
Could dream that wizard hands had wrought
The guest among them drawn.

All manner of glorious joy was there:
Harping and dancing, loud and fair,
And minstrelsy that made of air
Fire, so like fire its raptures were.
Then the chief lady spake on high:
“Knight with the two swords, one of two
Must help you here or fall from you:
For needs you now must have ado
And joust with one hereby.

“A good knight guards an island here
Against all swords that chance brings near,
And there with stroke of sword and spear
Must all for whom these halls make cheer
Fight, and redeem or yield up life.”
“An evil custom,” Balen said,
“Is this, that none whom chance hath led
Hither, if knighthood crown his head,
May pass unstirred to strife.”

“You shall not have ado to fight
Here save against one only knight,”
She said, and all her face grew bright
As hell-fire, lit with hungry light
That wicked laughter touched with flame.
“Well, since I shall thereto,” said he,
“I am ready at heart as death for me:
Fain would I be where death should be
And life should lose its name.

“But travelling men whose goal afar
Shines as a cloud-constraining star
Are often weary, and wearier are
Their steeds that feel each fret and jar
Wherewith the wild ways wound them: yet,
Albeit my horse be weary, still
My heart is nowise weary; will
Sustains it even till death fulfil
My trust upon him set.”

“Sir,” said a knight thereby that stood,
“Meseems your shield is now not good
But worn with warrior work, nor could
Sustain in strife the strokes it would:
A larger will I lend you.” “Ay,
Thereof I thank you,” Balen said,
Being single of heart as one that read
No face aright whence faith had fled,
Nor dreamed that faith could fly.

And so he took that shield unknown
And left for treason’s touch his own,
And toward that island rode alone,
Nor heard the blast against him blown
Sound in the wind’s and water’s sound,
But hearkening toward the stream’s edge heard
Nought save the soft stream’s rippling word,
Glad with the gladness of a bird,
That sang to the air around.

And there against the water-side
He saw, fast moored to rock and ride,
A fair great boat anear abide
Like one that waits the turning tide,
Wherein embarked his horse and he
Passed over toward no kindly strand:
And where they stood again on land
There stood a maiden hard at hand
Who seeing them wept to see.

And “O knight Balen,” was her cry,
“Why have ye left your own shield? why
Come hither out of time to die?
For had ye kept your shield, thereby
Ye had yet been known, and died not here.
Great pity it is of you this day
As ever was of knight, or may
Be ever, seeing in war’s bright way
Praise knows not Balen’s peer.”

And Balen said, “Thou hast heard my name
Right: it repenteth me, though shame
May tax me not with base men’s blame,
That ever, hap what will, I came
Within this country; yet, being come,
For shame I may not turn again
Now, that myself and nobler men
May scorn me: now is more than then,
And faith bids fear be dumb.

“Be it life or death, my chance I take,
Be it life’s to build or death’s to break:
And fall what may, me lists not make
Moan for sad life’s or death’s sad sake.”
Then looked he on his armour, glad
And high of heart, and found it strong:
And all his soul became a song
And soared in prayer that soared not long,
For all the hope it had.

Then saw he whence against him came
A steed whose trappings shone like flame,
And he that rode him showed the same
Fierce colour, bright as fire or fame,
But dark the visors were as night
That hid from Balen Balan’s face,
And his from Balan: God’s own grace
Forsook them for a shadowy space
Where darkness cast out light.

The two swords girt that Balen bare
Gave Balan for a breath’s while there
Pause, wondering if indeed it were
Balen his brother, bound to dare
The chance of that unhappy quest:
But seeing not as he thought to see
His shield, he deemed it was not he,
And so, as fate bade sorrow be,
They laid their spears in rest.

So mighty was the course they ran
With spear to spear so great of span,
Each fell back stricken, man by man,
Horse by horse, borne down: so the ban
That wrought by doom against them wrought:
But Balen by his falling steed
Was bruised the sorer, being indeed
Way-weary, like a rain-bruised reed,
With travel ere he fought.

And Balen rose again from swoon
First, and went toward him: all too soon
He too then rose, and the evil boon
Of strength came back, and the evil tune
Of battle unnatural made again
Mad music as for death’s wide ear
Listening and hungering toward the near
Last sigh that life or death might hear
At last from dying men.

Balan smote Balen first, and clove
His lifted shield that rose and strove
In vain against the stroke that drove
Down: as the web that morning wove
Of glimmering pearl from spray to spray
Dies when the strong sun strikes it, so
Shrank the steel, tempered thrice to show
Strength, as the mad might of the blow
Shore Balen’s helm away.

Then turning as a turning wave
Against the land-wind, blind and brave
In hope that dreams despair may save,
With even the unhappy sword that gave
The gifts of fame and fate in one
He smote his brother, and there had nigh
Felled him: and while they breathed, his eye
Glanced up, and saw beneath the sky
Sights fairer than the sun.

The towers of all the castle there
Stood full of ladies, blithe and fair
As the earth beneath and the amorous air
About them and above them were:
So toward the blind and fateful fight
Again those brethren went, and sore
Were all the strokes they smote and bore,
And breathed again, and fell once more
To battle in their sight.

With blood that either spilt and bled
Was all the ground they fought on red,
And each knight’s hauberk hewn and shred
Left each unmailed and naked, shed
From off them even as mantles cast:
And oft they breathed, and drew but breath
Brief as the word strong sorrow saith,
And poured and drank the draught of death,
Till fate was full at last.

And Balan, younger born than he
Whom darkness bade him slay, and be
Slain, as in mist where none may see
If aught abide or fall or flee,
Drew back a little and laid him down,
Dying: but Balen stood, and said,
As one between the quick and dead
Might stand and speak, “What good knight’s head
Hath won this mortal crown?

“What knight art thou? for never I
Who now beside thee dead shall die
Found yet the knight afar or nigh
That matched me.” Then his brother’s eye
Flashed pride and love; he spake and smiled
And felt in death life’s quickening flame,
And answered: “Balan is my name,
The good knight Balen’s brother; fame
Calls and miscalls him wild.”

The cry from Balen’s lips that sprang
Sprang sharper than his sword’s stroke rang.
More keen than death’s or memory’s fang,
Through sense and soul the shuddering pang
Shivered: and scarce he had cried, “Alas
That ever I should see this day,”
When sorrow swooned from him away
As blindly back he fell, and lay
Where sleep lets anguish pass.

But Balan rose on hands and knees
And crawled by childlike dim degrees
Up toward his brother, as a breeze
Creeps wingless over sluggard seas
When all the wind’s heart fails it: so
Beneath their mother’s eyes had he,
A babe that laughed with joy to be,
Made toward him standing by her knee
For love’s sake long ago.

Then, gathering strength up for a space,
From off his brother’s dying face
With dying hands that wrought apace
While death and life would grant them grace
He loosed his helm and knew not him,
So scored with blood it was, and hewn
Athwart with darkening wounds: but soon
Life strove and shuddered through the swoon
Wherein its light lay dim.

And sorrow set these chained words free:
“O Balan, O my brother! me
Thou hast slain, and I, my brother, thee
And now far hence, on shore and sea,
Shall all the wide world speak of us.”
“Alas,” said Balan, “that I might
Not know you, seeing two swords were dight
About you; now the unanswering sight
Hath here found answer thus.

“Because you bore another shield
Than yours, that even ere youth could wield
Like arms with manhood’s tried and steeled
Shone as my star of battle-field,
I deemed it surely might not be
My brother.” Then his brother spake
Fiercely: “Would God, for thy sole sake,
I had my life again, to take
Revenge for only thee!

“For all this deadly work was wrought
Of one false knight’s false word and thought,
Whose mortal craft and counsel caught
And snared my faith who doubted nought,
And made me put my shield away.
Ah, might I live, I would destroy
That castle for its customs: joy
There makes of grief a deadly toy,
And death makes night of day.”

“Well done were that, if aught were done
Well ever here beneath the sun,”
Said Balan: “better work were none:
For hither since I came and won
A woful honour born of death,
When here my hap it was to slay
A knight who kept this island way,
I might not pass by night or day
Hence, as this token saith.

“No more shouldst thou, for all the might
Of heart and hand that seals thee knight
Most noble of all that see the light,
Brother, hadst thou but slain in fight
Me, and arisen unscathed and whole,
As would to God thou hadst risen! though here
Light is as darkness, hope as fear,
And love as hate: and none draws near
Save toward a mortal goal.”

Then, fair as any poison-flower
Whose blossom blights the withering bower
Whereon its blasting breath has power,
Forth fared the lady of the tower
With many a lady and many a knight,
And came across the water-way
Even where on death’s dim border lay
Those brethren sent of her to slay
And die in kindless fight.

And all those hard light hearts were swayed
With pity passing like a shade
That stays not, and may be not stayed,
To hear the mutual moan they made,
Each to behold his brother die,
Saying, “Both we came out of one tomb,
One star-crossed mother’s woful womb,
And so within one grave-pit’s gloom
Untimely shall we lie.”

And Balan prayed, as God should bless
That lady for her gentleness,
That where the battle’s mortal stress
Had made for them perforce to press
The bed whence never man may rise
They twain, free now from hopes and fears,
Might sleep; and she, as one that hears,
Bowed her bright head: and very tears
Fell from her cold fierce eyes.

Then Balen prayed her send a priest
To housel them, that ere they ceased
The hansel of the heavenly feast
That fills with light from the answering east
The sunset of the life of man
Might bless them, and their lips be kissed
With death’s requickening eucharist,
And death’s and life’s dim sunlit mist
Pass as a stream that ran.

And so their dying rites were done:
And Balen, seeing the death-struck sun
Sink, spake as he whose goal is won:
“Now, when our trophied tomb is one,
And over us our tale is writ,
How two that loved each other, two
Born and begotten brethren, slew
Each other, none that reads anew
Shall choose but weep for it.

“And no good knight and no good man
Whose eye shall ever come to scan
The record of the imperious ban
That made our life so sad a span
Shall read or hear, who shall not pray
For us for ever.” Then anon
Died Balan; but the sun was gone,
And deep the stars of midnight shone,
Ere Balen passed away.

And there low lying, as hour on hour
Fled, all his life in all its flower
Came back as in a sunlit shower
Of dreams, when sweet-souled sleep has power
On life less sweet and glad to be.
He drank the draught of life’s first wine
Again: he saw the moorland shine,
The rioting rapids of the Tyne,
The woods, the cliffs, the sea.

The joy that lives at heart and home,
The joy to rest, the joy to roam,
The joy of crags and scaurs he clomb,
The rapture of the encountering foam
Embraced and breasted of the boy,
The first good steed his knees bestrode,
The first wild sound of songs that flowed
Through ears that thrilled and heart that glowed,
Fulfilled his death with joy.

So, dying not as a coward that dies
And dares not look in death’s dim eyes
Straight as the stars on seas and skies
Whence moon and sun recoil and rise,
He looked on life and death, and slept.
And there with morning Merlin came,
And on the tomb that told their fame
He wrote by Balan’s Balen’s name,
And gazed thereon, and wept.

For all his heart within him yearned
With pity like as fire that burned.
The fate his fateful eye discerned
Far off now dimmed it, ere he turned
His face toward Camelot, to tell
Arthur of all the storms that woke
Round Balen, and the dolorous stroke,
And how that last blind battle broke
The consummated spell.

“Alas,” King Arthur said, “this day
I have heard the worst that woe might say:
For in this world that wanes away
I know not two such knights as they.”
This is the tale that memory writes
Of men whose names like stars shall stand,
Balen and Balan, sure of hand,
Two brethren of Northumberland,
In life and death good knights.