At the very edge of everything, he spied a distant castle and, much closer, a sign with a golden message in Merlin’s handwriting.
DO NOT GO INTO THIS CASTLE IF YOU ARE AN UNACCOMPANIED KNIGHT.
And then, for good measure, a mysterious old man who may or may not have been Merlin in a costume appeared! “Balin the Idiot Knight! You should not have come this way! Turn around right now!”
Balin heard a distant horn blow, and decided his best course of action was to ride to the castle. Because screw people telling him what to do, and screw trying to do the right thing, I guess.
Merlin watched him go. “Well, I tried.”
Sir Balin arrived at the castle in the midst of a massive party. It was unlike most parties Balin has attended, which is to say it was better: the women outnumber the men three to one! Also, less awesome from Balin’s perspective, there was a total lack of jousting happening. Everybody seemed happy to see him, as well as unsurprised. The partygoers pressed a drink into his hand, they watered his horse, they cleaned his armor, and so on. Just as he was getting good and relaxed he bumped into the queen whose castle it was.
“Ah, Mister Two-Swords!” she exclaimed. Apparently she knew him, though he didn’t know her. “Are you having a good time?”
“Yeah,” Balin said. “Yeah, I am, your ladyship. I’ve been through a lot lately and this party is just what I needed. Though I wish there was more jousting.”
“That is good to hear,” said the queen. “Now it’s time for you to duel to the death for my pleasure.”
“There’s a knight on that island,” she said, pointing to a small island just offshore. “You go out there, and you joust him. To the death.”
“It’s compulsory of every knight who comes here whose name starts with a B,” she said.
“Doesn’t seem fair, making me fight to the death…”
“Oh, come on, big strapping man like you, I’m sure you’ll be fine. Besides it’s just the one knight, we’re not demanding you fight an entire platoon or anything,” she said.
“Okay, well, I guess I don’t have much reason to live at this point anyhow,” said Balin. “My horse is tired and I’m pretty exhausted myself, but what the hell.”
“Wonderful!” The queen snapped her fingers and Balin was quickly outfitted with some new armor, new protective face-concealing helmet, and a new shield.
“Where’s my old shield?” Balin asked someone. “The one with PROPERTY OF SIR BALIN on the back and the KNIGHTS DO IT BAREBACK bumper sticker?”
“That stinky old thing? It’s being dry-cleaned,” said someone.
Sir Balin let himself be loaded onto a boat and sent over to the island. There another maiden waited for him. While she moored the boat this extra maiden scolded Balin for getting himself into this situation, with a concealing helmet and a stranger’s shield. No one could recognize him, done up like that.
“Well, what can you do?” Sir Balin shrugged. He checked his gear and his horse, mounted up, and rode off in search of the knight he’s supposed to joust. It wasn’t a very big island, so he didn’t have to go far. Out from the shadows emerged his designated opponent, another knight all in red, likewise with a face-concealing helmet. Spoiler: this was Sir Balan, Balin’s brother, last seen wandering off to no particular purpose after capturing Rience!
Balan saw Balin, Balin saw Balan, and neither recognized the other due to the helmets. Across the water the lords and ladies (mostly ladies) clambered up to the tower-tops and pulled out binoculars, so as to clearly see their bloodsport. Balan noticed that Balin had two swords, and suspected for a minute that it might have been his brother Sir Balin the Knight with Two Swords, but then he shook his head at that foolishness. After all, he knew quite well that Balin’s shield had a distinctive KNIGHTS DO IT BAREBACK bumper sticker on it. This knight’s shield featured no ribaldry.
Balin and Balan jousted! It’s quite a joust; the ladies in the balconies cheered at the plentiful good bits. The two brothers put on a great show, without ever speaking, for what seemed like hours. Eventually they were both bleeding and circling around one another. Balin waved his magic sword around like he meant business. Both were winded, bleeding, frankly it was a wonder they were standing. If they sat down at this point, they were going to have a hard time standing back up.
Balan called a thirty-second time-out, and took a knee. Balin took a knee also. As they rested, Sir Balin asked Balan what his name was, on account of he’d like to know the name of the first knight to ever put up a decent fight.
Balan gave up his name readily. In fact he announced himself as “Balan the brother of Balin,” as if otherwise Balin might not have remembered that he had a brother named Balan.
“Well, knock me over with a feather,” said Balin. “I had no idea!” He tried to stand up but he was too surprised and injured, and fell over instead.
“Whoa, buddy,” said Balan, and crawled over to Balin. They were both bleeding profusely, remember. “Let me get you some air!”
Balan pulled Balin’s helmet off, and would have seen that he was Balin, except that Balin and Balan were both all mashed up in their faces and neither looked like himself, plus neither were all that great at seeing just then. But Balin, coughing up blood, said “Oh Balan! It’s me your brother!”
“Balin! I knew it! You had two swords!”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“You had a different shield!”
“My shield is getting dry-cleaned back at that castle,” said Balin, and tried to point but fell down again instead.
“If we weren’t both dying,” said Balan, “we ought to sack that place, teach them to make us fight bloodsports for their amusement and replace our shields and so on. You know I killed the previous knight they had here on this island, and then they wouldn’t let me leave? That was weeks ago. If you killed me and survived, you’d have been their prisoner too I don’t doubt.”
“What jerks!” cried Balin.
Eventually the partygoers figured out that the bloodsports were finished. The queen rowed out to the island with a handful of retainers, and approached the two injured knights.
“So it looks like you’re both dying,” she said. “I guess that makes this a draw, then.”
“Bury us!” said Balan.
“Bury us in one tomb!” said Balin. “We were in the same womb, it’s only fitting!”
“That’s poetic!” said Balan. “Oh I am dying!”
“Thank you!” said Balin. “I also am dying!”
The queen made the hurry-up gesture. “Fine, fine. I’ll have you buried, yes. I suppose you want last rites also?”
“Yes please!” cried the knights. A priest was fetched, last rites given, yadda yadda.
“Be sure to put how we were brothers who killed one another on our tomb,” said Balin.
“Got it,” said the Queen. Her laborers were already setting a tomb up around the knights.
“Thank you!” said Balan, and dies.
“Oh my brother!” said Balin, and expected to die, but didn’t, for hours and hours. I suppose this is Malory’s idea of suspense.
Finally he died.
“Shoot,” said the Queen. “I forgot to ask his name. Balan’s name I knew, we had him for weeks, but what’s his brother’s name? Not ‘Mister Two-Swords,’ that’s obviously an epithet. Anyone know?”
They didn’t think to check Sir Balin’s shield for his name, so the tomb-construction crew just put up an epitaph that says Here lies Sir Balan and His Brother Mister Two-Swords, Who Died Fighting One Another.
“Enh,” said the Queen. “It’ll have to do.”
The next morning, of course, Merlin showed up. He pulled out his special golden pen and wrote under the epitaph on the tomb Here Lies Sir Balin the Idiot Knight, also known as the Knight with Two Swords, also known as the jackass who struck the dolorous stroke.
This attracted something of a crowd of onlookers, including the labor crew and the knights of the castle.
“You there,” said Merlin. “Laborers. You aren’t done with this tomb yet.”
“Sure we are,” said the foreman.
“No,” said Merlin. “You need to put a bed in here, next to the crypt itself, for Launcelot to eschew.”
“That seems pointless,” said the foreman. “But you’re the wizard.”
While the laborers installed a bed, Merlin retrieved Balin’s magic sword and disassembled it, replacing the pommel with a different pommel.
“You there,” said Merlin. “Knight. Try out this sword, tell me what you think.”
Merlin tossed the sword to one of the knights, who gave it a few practice swings before grimacing and throwing it to the ground.
“This sword is crap,” said the knight. “What did you do to it? It’s all off-balance now.”
Merlin snickered, because he’s a jerk. “You only say that because you aren’t its destined wielder. His name is Launcelot, or if he’s unavailable, his son Galahad. Launcelot will use this sword to slay Sir Gawaine.”
“Why are you telling us this?” asked the knight.
“I’m dictating!” snapped Merlin. “Aren’t you engraving this on the pommel?”
“No,” said the knight.
“Fine, fine, I’ll do it myself.” Merlin took the sword and his magic pen and wrote down some dire predictions about Launcelot and Gawaine.
“Also build a bridge out to this island,” Merlin told the queen on his way out.
“You never call, Merle,” she said. “What’s this about?”
Merlin ignored her. “The bridge should be made of iron, and six inches wide. Don’t let anyone go over it, until heroic knights show up, which won’t be for a long while,” he said.
“That’s a lot of work,” she said.
“I’m doing all the hard stuff,” Merlin grumbled. “Like this. Step back, I’m going to use magic.”
And then Merlin cast another spell not to be found anywhere in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook that I know of, wish maybe. End result of the spell was that Balin’s pommel-replaced magic sword was embedded in a block of marble — swords being stuck in things being a recurring theme — and that block of marble hovering eerily over the river. There, says Malory, it would remain for many years until it washed downstream to Camelot in the distant future of Book XIII.
“And I’m off!” Merlin then teleported without error back to Camelot.
Straightaway he found Arthur, and sat him down. “Have I got a story for you!” Merlin said. He told Arthur all about Balin’s adventures, the dolorous stroke, and so on.
“That’s a terrible story,” said Arthur, when finally Merlin finished. “Balin’s strange adventure makes very little narrative sense, and there’s next to no characterization. Certainly no dramatic arc. The best part of the story was when it ended. I’m just glad I didn’t have to experience it myself, like last time with Pellinore. These strange mystic quests don’t make any more sense from the outside, though, it sounds like.”
“Bah, kids today,” grumbled Merlin.
“Still, it’s a shame Balin and Balan died so miserably,” mused Arthur. “They were remarkably badass. Thick as bricks, but well-intentioned.”
And with that stirring eulogy, the tale of Balin the Idiot Knight ends, and with it, Book II.