I N Arthur's Court there dwelt a poor knight named Balin, who had accidentally killed the cousin of King Arthur, and had been taken to the court of the king for trial. He had lived there almost as a prisoner for six months, until it was decided that he had not meant to do wrong. All his money was gone, and his clothes and armor were poor. He was sorry for this, but he was still more sorry that he was not doing brave deeds like the other knights.
One day when he sat in the great hall at Camelot, looking at the shields which were carved or covered with gold, a damsel entered who wore a rich mantle, trimmed with fur. As Arthur and the knights looked at her, she let it fall to the floor, and they saw that she wore a heavy sword.
"Damsel," said Arthur, "why do you, a maiden, wear a sword?"
"Alas!" said the maiden, "I should be glad if I did not wear it. It is very heavy, and causes me pain. But I am forced to wear it until I meet a knight who can take it from me."
"Surely many knights could do that, and gladly," the lords said.
"No," said the lady. "It seems that there is but one knight in all the world who is to take the sword. I heard that there were brave knights at the Court of King Rience, the enemy of King Arthur, and I went there. Yet no one could unfasten the sword. Now am I come here on the same errand."
"In truth, damsel," said the king, "you are right welcome. My knights shall try to take your weapon."
Then, at a sign from Arthur, a knight stepped forward. But, even though he exerted all this strength, the sword could not be unfastened.
"Sir, you need not pull so hard," said the damsel. "The one who is to take the sword will do so easily."
All the knights tried except Sir Balin, who stood back because of his poor clothes. Yet he wanted very much to see if he was the chosen knight, and just as the damsel was going away, he said:
"Damsel, will you let me try? I am poorly clothed, but my heart tells me that I may succeed."
The damsel saw that he had a good face. But his clothes were so poor she doubted if he were really a knight.
"I'm afraid you will fail," she said.
"Ah, maiden," he returned, "poor clothes are but the outside. Good deeds are just as worthy, whether done by a rich person or a poor one. Many a man who is badly clothed has real valor and kindness."
"That is very true," she said; "so try, good sir."
Then Sir Balin seized the hilt of the sword, and the weapon came away easily. All the lords wondered, and the lady said:
"You are a good knight, the best I have met. You shall do many brave deeds. And now, give me my sword again."
"No," said Sir Balin, "I should like to keep this sword, for I have no other."
"Alas!" said the maiden, "I am sorry to hear these words, for now I must give you the sword."
"Surely he deserves it," said Arthur, "for it weighed heavily on you."
"Yes," she replied, "but it is a misfortune for him to keep it. He shall slay with it the best friend he has in the world. It is going to prove his destruction."
Sir Balin would not believe her.
"I could not slay my best friend," he said. "Besides, I am willing to meet whatever happens, and I wish to keep the sword."
Then the maiden departed in great sorrow, while Balin said to the king:
"My lord, give me permission to leave your court."
I do not like to lose you," said the king. "Perhaps you are angry because you were in prison so long. You must know that it takes time to find out who is innocent and who is guilty."
"My lord," answered Sir Balin, "I know it is not wise to make a judgment hastily, and I do not blame you for keeping me in prison. I love you, and wish to leave your court that I may do some deed worthy of the Round Table."
Then Arthur said that he might go. Soon a servant brought to Balin a fine horse and good armor which were the gifts of the king. Balin at once took leave of Arthur and the knight, and rode away, singing as he rode, for he was very happy. Sometimes he stopped to lift up his shield and admire it. It had a blue emblem upon it, and to Sir Balin's eyes its beauty was that of the sky, the soft blue of heaven.
Sir Balin rode until he was tired. At last, from the crest of a hill, he saw a gloomy stone castle, and galloped towards it joyfully, hoping to rest there.
At a turn of the road, he saw a cross with gold letters upon it. He stopped to read the words, which were: "Let no knight go to the castle, for great danger is there."
"Oh," said Balin, "I am used to danger. I fear nothing," and he went on.
Presently an old man started up beside the road. He had a long gray beard, and was dressed in a long gray robe that sparkled with little specks of frost. The old man said to Sir Balin:
"Did you not read the letters on the cross?"
"Yes," replied Sir Balin, "but I am not afraid."
"Oh, Sir Balin, you of all men should fear to go to that castle," the old man said.
"Why?" he asked in amazement. "Nevertheless, I shall go."
"Sir Balin, Sir Balin!" cried the old man after him, "you are too self-willed. You will be very sorry for what you have done before you die."
But Sir Balin rode on without fear, and soon reached the gate of the castle. A hundred beautiful ladies and many knights welcomed him. They took off his armor and put a rich crimson cloak upon his shoulders. Then they led him into a banquet hall where there was music and dancing. They set food before him, and he ate, thankfully. He was very happy, feeling sure that he could rest here for many days.
Just as he was thinking this, the lady who was mistress of the castle said:
"Sir knight, it is the rule of this castle that every lord who comes here as a guest must fight."
"That is a hard custom," said Sir Balin.
"Yet you need fight but once," answered the lady. "We have here the knight who entered just before you came."
"Alas!" said Sir Balin, "I would rather not fight, for I wish to rest. Since such is the custom of the castle, however, I must do my part. Let some one bring my armor.
A servant at once came up to him with a suit of black armor.
"That is not my armor," said Sir Balin. "My armor is not painted black. It is honest gray steel, decorated with blue."
"It is the custom of the castle to wear black," they told him. "This armor is as good as your own."
Sir Balin felt sad, he could hardly tell why; and was very sorry that he had ever come to the castle. Putting on the armor, however, he went into the courtyard and mounted his horse. No sooner was he ready than another knight, clad all in black, entered the courtyard.
The two knights rode together so fiercely that the shock threw them both off their horses in a swoon. After a time they recovered and began to fight on foot, pressing each other near the walls of the castle.
Sir Balin was fighting with the sword that he had taken from the damsel in King Arthur's Court. It was a strong sword, and whenever it struck, the armor of his opponent cracked. They fought till their breath failed, and then they rested. Each knew that never before had he dealt with such a strong enemy.
Then they fought again, and gave each other seven deep wounds, the least of which would prove fatal. All the ground was red with blood, but Sir Balin fought on still, for the people of the castle were watching form the walls, and he wished to be thought a great warrior. So at last he used all his remaining strength and gave the other knight such a hard blow that he fell to the ground. Sir Balin knew that it was a death stroke. He felt that he, too, was about to die, and said:
"Who are you? I never fought with such a strong knight before."
The other answered faintly:
"I am Sir Balan, the brother to the good knight Sir Balin."
Then Sir Balin cried out:
"Alas, alas! that I should live to see this day!" and he fell backward in a swoon.
Sir Balan was dying, but he crawled on his hands and knees to where Sir Balin lay, and took off his helmet only to discover the face of his brother. Then he wept bitterly till Sir Balin recovered from his swoon.
"Alas!" said Sir Balan, "if we had but worn our own armor we should have known each other. And now we must die; we have killed each other."
Sir Balin was too full of remorse to weep.
"All this is my fault," he said. "As the old man on the road told me, I have been too self-willed. First, I would have the damsel's sword, although she told me that I should slay with it the best friend I had. That is you, Balan. And then I would enter this castle in spite of warnings. I deserve to die, but it is a hard punishment that I should have killed you, my brother."
Soon some ladies came from the wall into the courtyard, and to them Sir Balin said:
"We are two dear brothers who have killed each other. I pray you, promise to bury us in the same grave."
The ladies wept as they made the promise. The two brothers put their arms about each other and waited for death. They hoped to die together, but Sir Balan died first. Soon after, when Sir Balin had also died, the ladies buried them together, and put a stone above the grave, telling the sad story of their combat and death.