Friday, March 29, 2019

Balyn and Balan

Balyn of Tyneside had brown hair, blue eyes, and a black and white striped shield. His father was a crofter and his mother a mender of shawls. He was twenty-five years old and wanted nothing more in life than to help King Arthur clear the land of Saxons and Picts, build the holy realm of Logres, and one day restore in this island the Western Roman Empire. So Balyn went to the High King's court in Caerleon to play his part, but he was a hot-tempered youth and trouble drew itself to him like a magnet.

One winter's night, after the evening feast, Balyn was attacked in the courtyard by a cousin of Arthur's who had fallen out of favour with the King and had taken out his anger on Balyn, who though of humble birth had risen high in the King's esteem. Balyn did not want to fight but the fellow was hurting him so he pushed him in the chest in self-defence. The man slipped on the wine-stained floor and cracked his head on a stone flag, dying on the spot.

Balyn spent six months in the dungeon for this unlucky act. On the morning of his release he walked up the stairs to the Great Hall at Caerleon and saw that King Arthur was in a state of high indignation. He hid behind a pillar to watch. A messenger was standing next to the throne, a dark lad with thick brown curly hair. Arthur stood before him, waving a scrat of paper in his face. 'Tell King Ryon of Gwynedd,' he bellowed, 'that I will most certainly not accept him as my overlord. On the contrary, he will take me as his overlord and I will bring my army to his stronghold and demand and receive his submission.'

The messenger departed, Arthur sat on his throne, and a young woman of about Balyn's age dressed in purple and white entered the Hall. 'My Lord the High King,' she began. 'The Lady of the Lake has by her magic arts strapped this sword and scabbard to my side and laid upon me a heavy enchantment of sorrow, gloom and dread. And I am destined to carry this burden for ever unless I can find a man of princely heart and noble intention who can draw the sword from its sheath. I have travelled the land these past five years and have not found such a man. So now I try my luck at the court of King Arthur.'

So one by one Arthur's men tried to draw the sword from its scabbard but none of them could do it. Balyn, sensing his moment, sprang from the shadows and drew the blade quickly and easily. The woman in purple and white thanked him, then asked for the sword, but Balyn refused to return it. He stood there gazing at the glistening blade, as if he was under enchantment himself. Balyn had never seen such splendour and glory in his life and he wanted to take it and possess it for ever and ever.

The woman left the Hall, but no sooner had she gone than another came in - older and taller, with a golden circlet around her head like a queen. 'My Lord the High King,' she said. 'When I gave you your sword, Excalibur, a short time ago, you promised in return to grant me anything I desire should ever I have need of your bounty.'

'I did,' said the King.

'Then,' said the Lady, 'bring me the head of this impudent thing who refuses to return my sword. He should know that it bears a curse and that if he keeps it he will kill the one he loves dearest with it, then die himself.'

Rage descended on Balyn and Arthur never got chance to respond. For Balyn, fearful beyond measure that his sword of glory might be taken from him, leapt forward and cut off the Lady's head with one blow.

The King rose up in fury. 'Go from this place and never return,' he commanded, 'unless by some great deed of arms you can redeem yourself. For you have brought shame on yourself and the whole realm of Logres this day.'

So Balyn packed his bag, mounted his horse and rode out into the summer morning, heading for Wales. He was almost there when his brother, Balan, drew up alongside him, and Balyn was delighted, as always, to see him. Balan was two years older than Balyn and had always been a good influence on him. Nothing bad ever seemed to happen to Balyn when Balan was around.

Balyn told his brother everything that had happened and about his intention to find Ryon of Gwynedd and bring him captive to Caerleon, as that way, he believed, he could regain King Arthur's favour. For Balan, until then, had known nothing of Balyn's misadventures. He did not belong to Arthur's Company; nor did he serve any of the other kings and petty chiefs. He came and went as he pleased and served the common good in his own manner. This gave him an independence which most others lacked, but it often meant that news was slow to reach his ears.

It was almost dusk when the brothers crossed a tinkling stream and saw a man with a long grey beard and a robe of silver and blue standing in their way on the other side. Balyn recognised him at once - Merlin, the King's enchanter.

'Listen now, Balyn and Balan,' said the mage. 'Though the Lady of the Lake's prophecy carries some truth, there is still great good to be achieved, and if you follow my instructions you will achieve it and much more besides. Remain here until midnight, for King Ryon will pass this way then with twenty men at arms to seize the Lady of Caergybi, whom he has long desired and who has only two men to guard her. I know your valour, you two, and have no doubt that you will best those twenty men and fight Ryon himself to a standstill. I will then reappear and lead him to Caerleon, where I will tell the King of the great deed you have done. Balan will then escort the Lady of Caergybi north to her father's lands, but Balyn must ride west and further west into the secret heart of Wales, for a greater adventure awaits him there.'

Everything fell out exactly as Merlin had predicted. At sunrise next morning, Balyn was on his own again, riding up into the mountains. He was weary and sore, for he had taken it on himself to engage Ryon in single combat and without the exceptional sharpness of his sword, which continually pierced the King's armour and drew blood every time, the fight might not have ended well for him.

Then Balyn saw a man and a woman ahead of him, both on horseback. But the man was lying sideways on his saddle, groaning in pain, while the woman led both horses up the path with her bridle. When Balyn asked if he could help she replied, 'Only if you can see the invisible, for Garlon of Carbonek, who has the power to go unseen, has come on us by stealth and gashed my bethrothed with a wound which I fear may be mortal.'

'Why?' asked Balyn.

'Because my father defeated him in an arm-wrestle in the summer festivities at Carbonek. Garlon, you see, is the son of King Pelles of Carbonek. He is pampered and spoilt, like all Pelles' household, and not used to coming second, even in sport. But my father is not in awe of Carbonek's wealth and does not show deference to the King's family as so many others do. Garlon was so offended, in fact, that he also attacked my brother, who now lies grievoulsy ill at our home, Castle Melyot.'

Balyn escorted the woman and her lover to the walls of Castle Melyot, but just as they arrived the man breathed his last and gave up the ghost with a great cry of pain. Balyn knelt down, buried his face in his hands and wept. He swore vengeance on Garlon and asked the lady's father, the Master of Melyot, where he might be found.

'At Castle Carbonek still,' he replied. 'The festivities continue till Michaelmas and he will be wanting to regain his pride.'

It took Balyn five days and five nights to reach Castle Carbonek. It was a difficult place to find but he tracked it down at last, tucked away in a pleasant country of valleys, woods and streams. But Balyn was too angry and upset to notice, much less rejoice, in the glories of nature around him. The rage was on him again.

In the King's Hall that night, he asked one of the serving boys where Garlon might be, and when the boy pointed him out, Balyn rushed towards him, pulled out his sword, and cut off his head there and then. The whole company turned and gazed at him in horror. King Pelles rushed from his dais and struck such a blow with his mace that it clove Balyn's black and white shield in two. He swung the mace again and Balyn lifted his sword to protect his face, but the mace was so big and heavy that it thrust the sword from his hand and sent it flying through the air, out of Balyn's sight and reach.

Without a weapon, Balyn had to run. He ran through the castle for what felt like hours and hours with Pelles in hot pursuit. He sprinted down long, dusty corridors, through high-vaulted chambers, up countless spiral staircases, and in and out of tiny cubby-holes, until he came at last to a tower which seemed to have no end but just went up and up and up until Balyn felt his legs turn to jelly and knew he could run no more.

The staircase ended and there was nowhere to go except for a little wooden door straight in front of him. He pushed it open, not knowing what else to do, and as soon as he did he heard a woman's voice - strong and clear - call out, 'Balyn of Tyneside, do not enter this place, for it is holy ground.'

Balyn looked into the room, but there was no-one there. It was a small space with an arch carved into the ceiling at the far end and under the arch a stone table with six tall candlesticks blazing on it, three to the left and three to the right. Between them, in the middle, stood a golden chalice, which glowed and shone with such a fierce and vibrant light that Balyn thought the sun must be pouring down on it through a window above. Balyn looked up, but there was no window. The chalice was ablaze with a light entirely its own.

He stepped forward into the chamber and noticed a long spear behind the table, suspended in mid-air with the point down. Its shaft was gleaming bronze and the tip blood-red. Then he heard footsteps and heavy breathing behind him. He turned and saw King Pelles standing in the doorway, all anger vanished from his face, his mouth wide open in amazement, wonder and (so Balyn thought) surprise.

The mace fell from the King's hand and rolled along the floor. But Balyn was enraged by the sight of Pelles and lunged across the table for the spear. No other weapon would do, and he did not know why. The voice came again, 'Balyn of Tyneside, touch not the spear, for it has pierced the side of Christ Jesus.' But Balyn was too far gone. He seized the spear and whirled it around his head, and a veil was lifted from his mind as he saw and understood the deeper reason for his hatred of Pelles. And when he cried out it was not with his own voice but the voice of the woman who had warned him not to enter and not to take the spear. And this is what she said: 'Now, Pelles the False, you see what has been in your castle all this time. You stand there gaping, yet you knew this was here and you chose to forget it and turn your back on your sacred calling as Priest of the Grail and embrace a life of sin. Balyn of Tyneside will take the blame in this world for the devastation to follow but know that I, Constantina, Angel and Maiden of the Grail, lay the fault fully at your door.'

And Balyn flung the spear, straight at Pelles' heart. But his arm was heavy and tired, and  the spear dipped at the last moment and pierced the King through the side instead. Pelles screamed in agony and fell in a heap on the floor. Then came a mighty wind and a great shaking and roaring. The stonework collapsed, the masonry tumbled down, and Balyn felt the ground give way beneath him. Down and down he fell and down again until darkness covered his eyes and he had no idea any more of who or where he was.

It was raining when Balyn opened his eyes. He felt sick, and his head and body hurt like they had never hurt before. Castle Carbonek lay around him in ruins - bricks and stones and dead and mangled bodies scattered and strewn as far as his eye could see. He staggered to his feet and spotted his sword gleaming like a ship's lantern about ten yards away. The better part of him wanted to turn his back on it for ever, but even at this stage he could not resist its allure. He scrambled cautiously through the debris, picked it up and went sadly on his way. And Balyn saw that the fertile, wooded valleys which had formerly surrounded the castle had vanished and been replaced by a barren land of dried-up streams, blackened trees, and ash-grey grass that looked like it had been burnt to a cinder. And everywhere he went, poor people dressed in rags pressed around him piteously and called out, 'Ah, Balyn of Tyneside, what have you done? For by your impious deed you have laid three counties waste and condemned us to a life without beauty and hope.'

Eventually, Balyn left the wasteland behind him and arrived in a greener country. He came to a river early one morning and crossed it along a wooden bridge. On the other side was a fortress, but between Balyn and the fortress, at the end of the bridge, stood a large number of men and women who gathered around him in a very tight circle.

'Sir,' their leader said. 'Our custom is that any man who passes this way alone must fight the champion of our realm in single combat. If he loses he goes down into the dust, but if he wins he becomes champion in his turn.'

It sounded like a rotten custom to Balyn but he was so fed up and sick at heart that he no longer cared whether he lived or died. So they took him and put a suit of white armour on him with a red shield to replace his broken black and white one. And by noon he was locked in battle with the champion of that land, who wore a black suit of armour and had a golden shield. Both men wore their visor's down, so they could not see each other's faces. They fought beneath the fortress walls and were so well-matched that Balyn wondered who he was up against, for no-one, not even King Ryon, had given him such difficulty in one-on-one combat. But for all his opponent's skill he was unable to land a decisive blow and the fight went on and on until both men were grievously wounded and past the point of exhaustion. At length, the black and gold champion pitched forward onto his hands and knees, unable to continue. But Balyn was so spent that he could do nothing at all except stand and lean on his sword, for without that he would have fallen down too.

'Who are you?' Balyn gasped. 'Never have I fought a man such as you.' But then his sword split in two under his weight and he flopped to the ground. The champion crawled across the grass and when he spoke his voice was choked with tears.

'I am Balan of Tyneside,' he said. 'And you are Balyn of Tyneside. knew you by your voice, my brother, the voice I love best in all the world. And this is a sad and desperate day for us both, for within minutes we shall cross into the Otherworld, each slain by the other's hand.'

Balyn sighed and groaned and held his brother's hand and the two wept together. Then Balan said, 'Where is your black and white shield? For I would have known you by it and would not have fought you and together we would have routed these people.'

And Balyn tried to tell him but it seemed such a long and convoluted story that he did not know how to start, but even before he could attempt to begin Balan died there and then in his arms and Balyn himself breathed his last a few moments after.

Then Merlin came with his sister, Brisen, and said to the people of that country, 'You pack of worthless curs. Now your wretched custom has caused the deaths of two of the finest men ever to draw breath in this island. Logres has been deprived of great strength and potential this day through your decadence and corruption.'

And they beat their breasts and took Merlin's words to heart and revoked their custom from that hour. They wore sackcloth and ashes for five years and five days as an act of penance and a mark of remorse for the great harm they had done.

Then Merlin and Brisen took the bodies of Balyn and Balan and laid them to rest in a little copse by the side of a stream. And Merlin mended Balyn's sword and set it in a block of silver marble and pushed it down the stream. 'This sword,' he told Brisen, 'will be found and drawn at the appointed hour by the one who will heal and restore the wasteland and hold the Holy Grail in his hands, bringing blessings beyond measure to Logres, the Empire, the world beyond the Empire, and all the ages to come.'

They took a smaller block of marble and fixed it in the ground above where they had laid Balyn and Balan. And Merlin wrote an inscription on the headstone, which ran, 'Here lie Balyn and Balan, brothers and princes, who by their passion and nobility made possible the advent of the Great Restorer.'

Then Merlin and Brisen left that place, but always, even when it was cloudy and wet, passers-by would say that the headstone seemed to glimmer, gleam and shine with a fierce and vibrant light, which came from no outside source but appeared to emanate entirely from itself.