Trigger warning: references to child death and suicide
Book 2 begins with a quick recap about how Uther died and Arthur had to wade through a lot of blood to get to the throne. I will add a recap of my own about how some of that blood on Arthur’s hands belonged to the small children of his lords and ladies, in a COMPLETELY pointless effort to murder his infant son Mordred and thereby avert Merlin’s visions of doom.
But that is, somehow, irrelevant to the current situation. King Rience of North Wales has invaded Arthur’s lands, burning and pillaging as he goes. Arthur withdraws to the castle of Camelot where he calls a council. A maiden finds him there, sent by the Lady Lile of Avelion. It is delightfully dramatic – the girl lets her heavy fur cloak fall and reveals the sword bound at her hip. She tells the bemused king that she must be delivered of the sword by a great knight who is without villainy or treason. Only such a man can draw the sword from its sheath. This is, of course, a very similar enchantment to the one Arthur encountered himself when he was named Uther’s successor. “I have been at King Rience’s,” the girl says, “it was told me that there were passing good knights, and he and all his knights have assayed it and none can speed.”
Perhaps Arthur was a man without villainy when he drew the sword from the stone, but even he doesn’t believe that he is that man now. “I myself will assay to draw out the sword, not presuming upon myself that I am the best knight, but that I will begin to draw at your sword in giving example to all the barons that they shall assay every each one after the other when I have assayed it,” he says. He takes hold of the sword; it will not move. “Sir,” the girl says reprovingly, “you need not to pull half so hard, for he that shall pull it out shall do it with little might.” Tell it, ma’am.
Arthur steps back and allows the other men of the court to try their luck. Each and every knight fails. The girl cries aloud her disappointment, and Arthur agrees with her.
At this point in time there happens to be a knight at Arthur’s court who has been held prisoner for over six months for the killing of one of Arthur’s cousins. Sir Balin is a poor man but popular enough to be bailed out by the other barons. He comes across the scene of maiden and blade and wants to try his hand with the other knights, but is too aware of his low status to push forward. As the girl moves to leave, however, he calls out to her, asking that he might try drawing the sword.
The girl is dubious, equating his threadbare appearance to a lack of respectability, which is very classist of her. Balin defends himself, reminding her that good deeds do not always come in good clothes. “Many a worshipful knight is not known unto all people,” he says, “and therefore worship and hardiness is not in arrayment.” The girl acknowledges his point and allows him to grasp the sword. It slides easily from the scabbard under his hand.
The court marvels over Balin’s success. The girl, unexpectedly, asks for her sword back. Balin refuses, which does not seem to fit with the ‘no treachery’ stricture, does it? “Well, ye are not wise to keep the sword from me,” the girl warns, “for ye shall slay with the sword the best friend that ye have, and the man that ye most love in the world, and the sword shall be your destruction.” Balin is undeterred. Sadly, the girl leaves him to his own bad decisions. The women of Arthur’s court get used to doing that.
Balin, meanwhile, is getting ready to leave. Arthur, seeing that he is about to lose both a strong knight and a magic sword, makes an awkward apology for Balin’s months of imprisonment. “Blame me the less, for I was misinformed against you,” he hedges, “but I weened ye had not been such a knight as ye are, of worship and prowess, and if ye will abide in this court among my fellowship, I shall so advance you as ye shall be pleased.” Balin thanks him but insists on leaving. Arthur assures him he will be welcome when he chooses to return. No sooner has Balin departed than gossip is spreading in his wake, whispering that he did not win that sword by virtue but by witchcraft.
Which makes you wonder, doesn’t it, if people said the same thing of Arthur himself? And whether, given what Morgan is like, it might be true?
Oh, but wait, there’s MORE. Lanceor had a girlfriend, who rode after him as fast as she could and arrived just a little too late. “O Balin, two bodies thou hast slain and one heart, and two hearts in one body and two souls thou hast lost,” she cries, and taking up her fallen lover’s sword, collapses on the ground. When she comes to, Balin tries to take the sword from her, but her grip is of iron; she raises the sword and drives it through her chest.
Balin is horrified, and grieves the deaths of both lovers. As he’s standing there, looking away from the bodies and out towards the forest, he sees a knight approaching – none other than his brother Balan. It is an emotional reunion. Balan had heard from the castle of Four Stones that his brother was released from long imprisonment at Arthur’s court and came for him at once. Balin tells him about what happened with the sword and the Lady of the Lake, and his banishment from court, and the deaths of Lanceor and his love. Balan urges him to continue onward to adventure. Balin, however, has committed to a course of action. “I am right heavy that Lord Arthur is displeased with me, for he is the most worshipful knight that reigneth now on earth,” he declares, “and his love will I get or else will I put my life in adventure, for the King Rience lieth at a siege at Castle Terrabil, and thither will we draw in all haste.” Balan agrees to join this mission.
A dwarf rides from Camelot and finds the dead lovers. He looks at Balin and Balan and demands to know which of them is responsible. Balin tries to explain how Lanceor sought battle with him and how the girl committed suicide. “For her sake,” Balin acknowledges, “I shall owe all women the better love.” This is not good enough for the dwarf, who swears that Lanceor’s family will hunt him until death.
This random spot of wilderness is where it’s all going on, apparently, because while these threats are being made, none other than King Mark of Cornwall comes riding up. He hears the story, is moved by it, and has the lovers placed in a fine tomb. How here lieth Lanceor the king’s son of Ireland, is written upon it, that at his own request was slain by the hands of Balin; and how his lady, Colombe, and paramour, slew herself with her love’s sword for dole and sorrow.
Which goes to show that true love can move the hearts of great men…when it’s not inconvenient to them personally.
This being such a mess of death and love and revenge already, what we REALLY needed was Merlin to swan over to deliver his two cents. He predicts that this place will be the site of ‘the greatest battle betwixt two knights that was or ever shall be, and the truest lovers, and yet none of them shall slay other’. He then writes these knights’ names on the tomb Mark has had built, as if that is a thing it is reasonable to do. The names he writes are Launcelot de Lake and Tristram. I agree with his assessment of one of them.
King Mark is very curious, inquiring who Merlin might be. “I will not tell,” Merlin replies, “but at that time when Sir Tristram is taken with his sovereign lady, then ye shall hear and know my name, and at that time ye shall hear tidings that shall not please you.”
Look, I have plenty of issues with Merlin, but his ice cold contempt of King Mark is not one of them.
Merlin then turns to Balin, scolding him for not stopping the lady Colombe from killing herself. Balin protests that it all happened so quickly, he had no chance to act. Merlin throws prophecy in his face, declaring that because of his previous failure, he will strike a blow to ‘the truest knights and the man of most worship that now liveth’, and in so doing put three kingdoms into decline. Balin, already down, is now panicked. Merlin, having done his work, literally vanishes.
Helpful sort, isn’t he?
King Mark asks after the identities of Balin and Balan but receives no more satisfaction than he did from Merlin. The brothers take their leave and Mark rides on to Camelot. Balin and Balan end up with a companion – Merlin, disguised for maximum interference. He won’t tell the brothers his name and they are hypocritically offended by this. Merlin is undaunted by their disapproval. “I can tell you wherefore ye ride this way, for to meet King Rience,” he comments, “but it will not avail you without ye have my counsel.” Balin immediately realises it is Merlin.
On Merlin’s advice the brothers rest in a wood and rise at midnight. Rience is close by, riding ahead of his army with ‘three score horses’, with twenty of that number riding ahead of him to the household of the Lady de Vance, who Rience plans on sleeping with. Merlin points out Rience and the brothers ambush him, dragging him to the ground. They are so brutally efficient in their attack that between them they kill forty of Rience’s men and would have killed the king himself too if he had not chosen to yield.
Merlin vanishes again and reappears at Arthur’s ear, telling him of Rience’s defeat. Arthur wants to know who has done this, but surprise surprise, Merlin does not tell him. The brothers deposit Rience like a parcel at Arthur’s gate and depart; Arthur is very civil to his prisoner and asks for his story. Rience explains how he was defeated by ‘the knight with the two swords and his brother’. Merlin, for once, clarifies. It is Balin and Balan to whom Arthur owes thanks. Arthur regrets his harshness to Balin but Merlin’s eyes are on a bigger prize. Rience has a brother Nero, who is already marching on Camelot.