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The land of Britain being now in peace, and many great and valiant knights therein ready to take part in whatsoever battles or adventures might arise, King Arthur resolved to follow all his enemies to their own coasts. Anon he fitted out a great fleet, and sailing first to Ireland, in one battle he miserably routed the people of the country. The King of Ireland also he took prisoner, and forced all earls and barons to pay him homage.
Having conquered Ireland, he went next to Iceland and subdued it also, and the winter being then arrived, returned to Britain.
In the next year he set forth to Norway, whence many times the heathen had descended on the British coasts; for he was determined to give so terrible a lesson to those savages as should be told through all their tribes both far and near, and make his name fearful to them.
As soon as he was come, Riculf, the king, with all the power of that country, met and gave him battle; but, after mighty slaughter, the Britons had at length the advantage, and slew Riculf and a countless multitude besides.
Having thus defeated them, they set the cities on fire, dispersed the country people, and pursued the victory till they had reduced all Norway, as also Dacia, under the dominion of King Arthur.
Now, therefore, having thus chastised those pagans who so long had harassed Britain, and put his yoke upon them, he voyaged on to Gaul, being steadfastly set upon defeating the Roman governor of that province, and so beginning to make good the threats which he had sent the emperor by his ambassadors.
So soon as he was landed on the shores of Gaul, there came to him a countryman who told him of a fearful giant in the land of Brittany, who had slain, murdered, and devoured many people, and had lived for seven years upon young children only, "insomuch," said the man, "that all the children of the country are destroyed; and but the other day he seized upon our duchess, as she rode out with her men, and took her away to his lodging in a cave of a mountain, and though five hundred people followed her, yet could they give her no help or rescue, but left her shrieking and crying lamentably in the giant's hands; and, Lord, she is thy cousin Hoel's wife, who is of thy near kindred; wherefore, as thou art a rightful king, have pity on this lady; and as thou art a valiant conqueror, avenge us and deliver us."
"Alas!" said King Arthur, "this is a great mischief that ye tell of. I had rather than the best realm I have, that I had rescued that lady ere the giant laid his hand on her; but tell me now, good fellow, canst thou bring me where this giant haunteth?"
"Yea, Lord!" replied the man; "lo, yonder, where thou seest two great fires, there shalt thou find him, and more treasure also than is in all Gaul besides."
Then the king returned to his tent, and, calling Sir Key and Sir Bedwin, desired them to get horses ready for himself and them, for that after evensong he would ride a pilgrimage with them alone to St. Michael's Mount. So in the evening they departed, and rode as fast as they could till they came near the mount, and there alighted; and the king commanded the two knights to await him at the hill foot, while he went up alone.
Then he ascended the mountain till he came to a great fire. And there he found a sorrowful widow wringing her hands and weeping miserably, sitting by a new-made grave. And saluting her, King Arthur prayed her wherefore she made such heavy lamentations.
"Sir knight," she said, "speak softly, for yonder is a devil, who, if he hear thy voice, will come and straightway slay thee. Alas! what dost thou here? Fifty such men as thou were powerless to resist him. Here lieth dead my lady, Duchess of Brittany, wife to Sir Hoel, who was the fairest lady in the world, foully and shamefully slaughtered by that fiend! Beware that thou go not too nigh, for he hath overcome and vanquished fifteen kings, and hath made himself a coat of precious stones, embroidered with their beards; but if thou art so hardy, and wilt speak with him, at yonder great fire he is at supper."
"Well," said King Arthur, "I will accomplish mine errand, for all thy fearful words;" and so went forth to the crest of the hill, and saw where the giant sat at supper, gnawing on a limb of a man, and baking his huge frame by the fire, while three damsels turned three spits, whereon were spitted, like larks, twelve young children lately born.
When King Arthur saw all that, his heart bled for sorrow, and he trembled for rage and indignation; then lifting up his voice he cried aloud—"God, that wieldeth all the world, give thee short life and shameful death, and may the devil have thy soul! Why hast thou slain those children and that fair lady! Wherefore arise, and prepare thee to perish, thou glutton and fiend, for this day thou shalt die by my hands."
Then the giant, mad with fury at these words, started up, and seizing a great club, smote the king, and struck his crown from off his head. But King Arthur smote him with his sword so mightily in return, that all his blood gushed forth in streams.
At that the giant, howling in great anguish, threw away his club of iron, and caught the king in both his arms and strove to crush his ribs together. But King Arthur struggled and writhed, and twisted him about so that the giant could not hold him tightly; and as they fiercely wrestled, they both fell, and rolling over one another, tumbled—wrestling, and struggling, and fighting frantically—from rock to rock, till they came to the sea.
And as they tore and strove and tumbled, the king ever and anon smote at the giant with his dagger, till his arms stiffened in death around King Arthur's body, and groaning horribly, he died. So presently the two knights came and found the king locked fast in the giant's arms, and very faint and weary, and loosed him from their hold.
Then the king bade Sir Key to "smite off the giant's head, and set it on the truncheon of a spear, and bear it to Sir Hoel, and tell him that his enemy is slain; and afterwards let it be fastened to the castle gate, that all the people may behold it. And go ye two up on the mountain and fetch me my shield and sword, and also the great club of iron ye will see there; and as for the treasure, ye shall find there wealth beyond counting, but take as much as ye will, for I have his kirtle and the club, I desire no more."
Then the knights fetched the club and kirtle, as the king had ordered, and took the treasure to themselves, as much as they could carry, and returned to the army. But when this deed was noised abroad, all the people came in multitudes to thank the king, who told them "to give thanks to God, and to divide the giant's spoils amongst them equally." And King Arthur desired Sir Hoel to build a church upon the mount, and dedicate it to the Archangel Michael.
On the morrow, all the host moved onwards into the country of Champagne, and Flollo, the Roman tribune, retired before them into Paris. But while he was preparing to collect more forces from the neighboring countries, King Arthur came upon him unawares; and besieged him in the town.
And when a month had passed, Flollo—full of grief at the starvation of his people, who died in hundreds day by day—sent to King Arthur, and desired that they two might fight together; for he was a man of mighty stature and courage, and thought himself sure of the victory. This challenge, King Arthur, full weary of the siege, accepted with great joy, and sent back word to Flollo that he would meet him whensoever he appointed.
And a truce being made on both sides, they met together the next day on the island without the city, where all the people also were gathered to see the issue. And as the king and Flollo rode up to the lists, each was so nobly armed and horsed, and sat so mightily upon his saddle, that no man could tell which way the battle would end.
When they had saluted one another, and presented themselves against each other with their lances aloft, they put spurs to their horses and began a fierce encounter. But King Arthur, carrying his spear more warily, struck it on the upper part of Flollo's breast, and flung him from his saddle to the earth. Then drawing his sword, he cried to him to rise, and rushed upon him; but Flollo, starting up, met him with his spear couched, and pierced the breast of King Arthur's horse, and overthrew both horse and man.
The Britons, when they saw their king upon the ground, could scarcely keep themselves from breaking up the truce and falling on the Gauls. But as they were about to burst the barriers, and rush upon the lists, King Arthur hastily arose, and, guarding himself with his shield, ran with speed on Flollo. And now they renewed the assault with great rage, being sorely bent upon each other's death.
At length, Flollo, seizing his advantage, gave King Arthur a huge stroke upon the helm, which nigh overthrew him, and drew forth his blood in streams.
But when King Arthur saw his armor and shield all red with blood, he was inflamed with fury, and lifting up Excalibur on high, with all his might, he struck straight through the helmet into Flollo's head, and smote it into halves; and Flollo falling backwards, and tearing up the ground with his spurs, expired.
As soon as this news spread, the citizens all ran together, and, opening the gates, surrendered the city to the conqueror.
And when he had overrun the whole province with his arms, and reduced it everywhere to subjection, he returned again to Britain, and held his court at Caerleon, with greater state than ever.
Anon he invited thereto all the kings, dukes, earls, and barons, who owed him homage, that he might treat them royally, and reconcile them to each other, and to his rule.
And never was there a city more fit and pleasant for such festivals. For on one side it was washed by a noble river, so that the kings and princes from the countries beyond sea might conveniently sail up to it; and on the other side, the beauty of the groves and meadows, and the stateliness and magnificence of the royal palaces, with lofty gilded roofs, made it even rival the grandeur of Rome. It was famous also for two great and noble churches, whereof one was built in honor of the martyr Julius, and adorned with a choir of virgins who had devoted themselves wholly to the service of God; and the other, founded in memory of St. Aaron, his companion, maintained a convent of canons, and was the third metropolitan church of Britain. Besides, there was a college of two hundred philosophers, learned in astronomy, and all the other sciences and arts.
In this place, therefore, full of such delights, King Arthur held his court, with many jousts and tournaments, and royal huntings, and rested for a season after all his wars.
And on a certain day there came into the court a messenger from Ryence, King of North Wales, bearing this message from his master: That King Ryence had discomfited eleven kings, and had compelled each one of them to cut off his beard; that he had trimmed a mantle with these beards, and lacked but one more beard to finish it; and that he therefore now sent for King Arthur's beard, which he required of him forthwith, or else he would enter his lands and burn and slay, and never leave them till he had taken by force not his beard only, but his head also.
When King Arthur heard these words he flushed all scarlet, and rising in great anger said, "Well it is for thee that thou speakest another man's words with thy lips, and not thine own. Thou hast said thy message, which is the most insolent and villainous that ever man heard sent to any king: now hear my reply. My beard is yet too young to trim that mantle of thy master's with; yet, young although I be, I owe no homage either to him or any man—nor will ever owe. But, young although I be, I will have thy master's homage upon both his knees before this year be past, or else he shall lose his head, by the faith of my body, for this message is the shamefullest I ever heard speak of. I see well thy king hath never yet met with a worshipful man; but tell him that King Arthur will have his head or his worship right soon."
Then the messenger departed, and Arthur, looking round upon his knights, demanded of them if any there knew this King Ryence. "Yea," answered Sir Noran, "I know him well, and there be few better or stronger knights upon a field than he; and he is passing proud and haughty in his heart; wherefore I doubt not, Lord, he will make war on thee with mighty power."
"Well," said King Arthur, "I shall be ready for him, and that shall he find."
While the king thus spoke, there came into the hall a damsel having on a mantle richly furred, which she let fall, and showed herself to be girded with a noble sword. The king being surprised at this, said, "Damsel, wherefore art thou girt with that sword, for it beseemeth thee not?" "Sir," said she, "I will tell thee. This sword wherewith I am thus girt gives me great sorrow and encumbrance, for I may not be delivered from it till I find a knight faithful and pure and true, strong of body and of valiant deeds, without guile or treachery, who shall be able to draw it from its scabbard, which no man else can do. And I have but just now come from the court of King Ryence, for there they told me many great and good knights were to be ever found; but he and all his knights have tried to draw it forth in vain—for none of them can move it."
"This is a great marvel," said King Arthur; "I will myself try to draw forth this sword, not thinking in my heart that I am the best knight, but rather to begin and give example that all may try after me." Saying this, he took the sword and pulled at it with all his might, but could not shake or move it.
"Thou needest not strive so hard, Lord," said the damsel, "for whoever may be able to pull it forth shall do so very easily."
"Thou sayest well," replied the king, remembering how he had himself drawn forth the sword from the stone before St. Paul's. "Now try ye, all my barons; but beware ye be not stained with shame, or any treachery, or guile." And turning away his face from them, King Arthur mused full heavily on sins within his breast he knew of, and which his failure brought to mind right sadly.
Then all the barons present tried each after other, but could none of them succeed; whereat the damsel greatly wept, and said, "Alas, alas! I thought in this court to have found the best knight, without shame or treachery or treason."
Now by chance there was at that time a poor knight with King Arthur, who had been prisoner at his court for half a year or more, charged with slaying unawares a knight who was a cousin of the king's. He was named Balin le Savage, and had been by the good offices of the barons delivered from prison, for he was of good and valiant address and gentle blood. He being secretly present at the court saw this advantage, and felt his heart rise high within him, and longed to try the sword as did the others; but being poor and poorly clad, he was ashamed to come forward in the press of knights and nobles. But in his heart he felt assured that he could do better—if Heaven willed—than any knight among them all.
So as the damsel left the king, he called to her and said, "Damsel, I pray thee of thy courtesy, suffer me to try the sword as well as all these lords; for though I be but poorly clad, I feel assurance in my heart."
The damsel looked at him, saw in him a likely and an honest man, but because of his poor garments could not think him to be any knight of worship, and said, "Sir, there is no need to put me to any more pain or labor; why shouldst thou succeed where so many worthy ones have failed?"
"Ah, fair lady," answered Balin, "worthiness and brave deeds are not shown by fair raiment but manhood and truth lie hid within the heart. There be many worshipful knights unknown to all the people."
"By my faith, thou sayest truth," replied the damsel; "try therefore, if thou wilt, what thou canst do."
So Balin took the sword by the girdle and hilt, and drew it lightly out, and looking on its workmanship and brightness, it pleased him greatly.
But the king and all the barons marveled at Sir Balin's fortune, and many knights were envious of him, for, "Truly," said the damsel, "this is a passing good knight, and the best man I have ever found, and the most worshipfully free from treason, treachery, or villainy, and many wonders shall he achieve.
"Now, gentle and courteous knight," continued she, turning to Balin, "give me the sword again."
"Nay," said Sir Balin, "save it be taken from me by force, I shall preserve this sword for evermore."
"Thou art not wise," replied the damsel, "to keep it from me; for if thou wilt do so, thou shall slay with it the best friend thou hast, and the sword shall be thine own destruction also."
"I will take whatever adventure God may send," said Balin; "but the sword will I keep, by the faith of my body."
"Thou will repent it shortly," said the damsel; "I would take the sword for thy sake rather than for mine, for I am passing grieved and heavy for thy sake, who wilt not believe the peril I foretell thee." With that she departed, making great lamentation.
Then Balin sent for his horse and armor, and took his leave of King Arthur, who urged him to stay at his court. "For," said he, "I believe that thou art displeased that I showed thee unkindness; blame me not overmuch, for I was misinformed against thee, and knew not truly what a knight of worship thou art. Abide in this court with my good knights, and I will so advance thee that thou shalt be well pleased."
"God thank thee, Lord," said Balin, "for no man can reward thy bounty and thy nobleness; but at this time I must needs depart, praying thee ever to hold me in thy favor."
"Truly," said King Arthur, "I am grieved for thy departure; but tarry not long, and thou shalt be right welcome to me and all my knights when thou returnest, and I will repair my neglect and all that I have done amiss against thee."
"God thank thee, Lord," again said Balin, and made ready to depart.
But meanwhile came into the court a lady upon horseback, full richly dressed, and saluted King Arthur, and asked him for the gift that he had promised her when she gave him his sword Excalibur, "for," said she, "I am the lady of the lake."
"Ask what thou wilt," said the king, "and thou shalt have it, if I have power to give."
"I ask," said she, "the head of that knight who hath just achieved the sword, or else the damsel's head who brought it, or else both; for the knight slew my brother, and the lady caused my father's death."
"Truly," said King Arthur, "I cannot grant thee this desire; it were against my nature and against my name; but ask whatever else thou wilt, and I will do it."
"I will demand no other thing," said she.
And as she spake came Balin, on his way to leave the court, and saw her where she stood, and knew her straightway for his mother's murderess, whom he had sought in vain three years. And when they told him that she had asked King Arthur for his head, he went up straight to her and said, "May evil have thee! Thou desirest my head, therefore shalt thou lose thine"; and with his sword he lightly smote her head off, in the presence of the king and all the court.
"Alas, for shame!" cried out King Arthur, rising up in wrath; "why hast thou done this, shaming both me and my court? I am beholden greatly to this lady, and under my safe conduct came she here; thy deed is passing shameful; never shall I forgive thy villainy."
"Lord," cried Sir Balin, "hear me; this lady was the falsest living, and by her witchcraft hath destroyed many, and caused my mother also to be burnt to death by her false arts and treachery."
"What cause soever thou mightest have had," said the king, "thou shouldst have forborne her in my presence. Deceive not thyself, thou shalt repent this sin, for such a shame was never brought upon my court; depart now from my face with all the haste thou mayest."
Then Balin took up the head of the lady and carried it to his lodgings, and rode forth with his squire from out the town. Then said he, "Now must we part; take ye this head and bear it to my friends in Northumberland, and tell them how I speed, and that our worst foe is dead; also tell them that I am free from prison, and of the adventure of my sword."
"Alas!" said the squire, "ye are greatly to blame to have so displeased King Arthur."
"As for that," said Sir Balin, "I go now to find King Ryence, and destroy him or lose my life; for should I take him prisoner, and lead him to the court, perchance King Arthur would forgive me, and become my good and gracious lord."
"Where shall I meet thee again?" said the squire.
"In King Arthur's court," said Balin.
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