Sir Lanceor loaded up with his best armor and weaponry, and rode off after Sir Balin. Balin didn’t have all that much of a lead, and wasn’t hurrying, so after a good bit of hard riding Lanceor caught up.

“You!” cried Sir Lanceor. “I challenge you in Arthur’s name!”

“Hello! My name is Balin! Nice to meet you!” Sir Balin turned and waved. “Is that an Irish accent I detect?”

“Yes,” said Lanceor. “I am Irish, but I’m here to kill you on a mission from Arthur!”

“Aw!” Balin was crestfallen. “Is Arthur still mad at me?” he asked. “It’s been hours! I was hoping he’d have gotten over it by now. She was an evil lady. The guest of the court whose head I lopped off while she was in mid-conversation with the king, I mean. She was so bad.”

“Shut up and joust!” cried Lanceor. Which would be a good title for a reality show wherein contestants compete for the title of America’s Next Top Jouster.

So, they jousted. And to make a long story slightly shorter, Balin killed the hell out of Sir Lanceor.

Mere moments later, as Balin stood over Lanceor’s dead body, another figure arrived on a horse, a maiden! Not Wilma, the maiden from whom Balin took his new sword, but a different one. Specifically, it was Columbe, Lanceor’s girlfriend.

“Noooo!” Columbe sobbed, and clutched at Lanceor’s corpse. Then she picked up Lanceor’s sword, and Balin tried to get it away from her but somehow in the confusion she ended up stabbing herself in the chest. “Oh! I have just now committed suicide!” she cried. “Sir Balin definitely didn’t murder me!” And then she died.

That’s how Balin would relate the story to people afterwards, anyway.

“I can’t help feeling partially responsible,” said Balin to himself. “If I hadn’t angered Arthur then he wouldn’t have sent this Irish knight after me, and then I wouldn’t have had to kill him, and then this maiden wouldn’t have picked up his sword and then carefully balanced it on its end on the ground and leaped upon it, stabbing herself in the chest and leaving a wound that so closely resembles a conventional stab-wound such as a man like myself might have inflicted by stabbing her.”

Moved by this unhappy tableau, he turned away, and looked down (this whole scene had taken place on a mountaintop, did Malory forget to mention that?) at the forest below. He watched another rider coming up, and it was, by strange chance, his brother Sir Balan.

That’s right: Sir Balin and Sir Balan. No way that’s needlessly confusing.

“Your squire found me,” said Balan. “He was pretty drunk but I got that you were out of prison, so I came up to this mountaintop to look for you.”

“Worked out,” said Balin.

“So what’s new?” asked Balan.

“Aw, man, I was in Camelot, all right, minding my own business? And then this girl wearing nothing but a scabbard wanted me to pull out her sword! And then she wanted it back!”

“The nerve!” said Balan.

“I know! So I told her off. Then I’m leaving, and Arthur is like, don’t go, but I’m like, I’m going! And then the Lady of the Lake shows up!”

“No way!” said Balan.

“So naturally I kill her, and suddenly I’m the bad guy!”

“Outrageous!” said Balan.

“So of course I ride off and then this knight comes up and tries to joust me, so of course I kill him.”

“Of course,” said Balan.

“And then his lady-friend rides up and she’s sobbing and screaming and she grabs his sword –”

“Whoa!” said Balan. “Ladies aren’t allowed to touch swords!”

“That’s what I said!” cried Balin. “And then she stabbed herself in the chest. No way did I kill her.”

“Wow,” said Balan.

“I know!” said Balin. “That’s why ladies aren’t allowed to touch swords. It’s a safety thing.”

“Still, it’s all in God’s hands, right?” said Balan.

“Yeah. The real tragedy here is that Arthur’s mad at me,” said Balin. “I have a plan to deal with that, though. I’m going to murder King Rience, that’ll make everyone love me again. I might have to murder some more people along the way, but once I kill Rience everything will be great again and I’ll go back to Camelot and there will be a pizza party. I know, through some means Malory hasn’t bothered to specify, that Rience is currently occupying Castle Terrabil, so that’s where I’m headed.”

“I’ll come with!” said Balan. “You and I should be in more scenes together. Our names are awesome.”

“Sounds good! We should get a move on,” said Balin.

“Let’s stand around and chat a bit longer,” said Balan.

“Sounds good!” said Balin.

This mountaintop was surprisingly well-trafficked, as before Balin and Balan had moved on, another rider happened along. It’s that most beloved of Arthurian characters, Peter the dwarf! That is to say, he was a guy with dwarfism. Just headed out from Camelot. Peter approached, seeing the two corpses and the two knights. “Well well well, what happened here?”

“Who wants to know? asked Balin.

“Me,” said Peter. “I want to know.”

“Oh, okay then,” said Balin. “I slew the knight, but it was self-defense; we were jousting. Then the maiden came up and I slew…” Balin trailed off. “I slew her beloved,” he said carefully. “So she killed herself with his sword.”

“I see,” said Peter.

“I’ve decided to be nicer to women in the future,” Balin added hastily. “For her sake.”

Peter harrumphed. “You don’t realize how bad you’ve got it,” he said. “This was Sir Lanceor, knight of the Round Table (which hasn’t been established yet) and son of the King of Ireland.”

“I thought he was Irish,” agreed Balin.

“He had a lot of friends and a lot of relatives who altogether have a lot of swords,” Peter explained.

“That makes sense,” said Balin. “Him being a knight and prince and all.”

“They will try to kill you and they will not give up until you’re dead,” Peter explained. He might have tried drawing Balin a diagram. I’m not saying he didn’t.

It didn’t sink in, though. “Man,” said Balin. “And now Arthur’s going to be double-mad at me because I killed this guy Lanceor and his girlfriend…” Balin paused, then resumed. “His girlfriend killed herself. Arthur’s going to be so mad. About that.”

Peters continued to try to explain to Balin how bad his situation was, but it’s a hole with no bottom. So of course we get yet another random bystander arrival! This one was King Mark of Cornwall. Mark was just in the area, noticed a commotion, and came to see.

Mark saw the dead bodies and had to have everything explained to him all over again. Naturally he got sad and angry. Mark called up some fixers and arranges for a nice tomb to be constructed with a sign saying “HERE LIES LANCEOR THE SON OF THE KING OF IRELAND, KILLED BY BALIN ALLEGEDLY IN SELF-DEFENSE DURING A JOUST; AND WITH HIM THE LADY COLOMBE HIS PARAMOUR, WHOM BALIN INSISTS DIED OF A SELF-INFLICTED STAB WOUND IN THE CENTER OF HER CHEST, WHICH IS A STORY ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN WOULD LOOK ASKANCE AT, I’M JUST SAYING.” It only took a few minutes to erect, apparently.

Merlin showed up at this point, because that sort of thing was bound to happen. Just to recap: Balin had been riding along, and then Lanceor caught up to him here. Then Columbe arrived, and then Sir Balan, and then Peter, and then King Mark, and now Merlin. It was an extremely heavily-trafficked random stretch of road.

Merlin ignored everyone else and approached Mark, as he oversaw the finishing touches being put on the tomb.

“The great battle shall be here,” Merlin announced.

Mark jumped, because he hadn’t heard Merlin coming up. “Gah! Sneak up on a guy. I beg your pardon!”

“The great battle, the greatest between two knights that shall ever happen, will happen here. And neither shall slay the other!” cried Merlin.

“Oh ah.”

Merlin pulled out a pen which wrote in gold, and inscribed upon the door of the tomb two names: LAUNCELOT DU LAKE and TRISTRAM. “Those are the knights who shall fight here,” he said to Mark.

“Well aren’t you an interesting fellow,” said Mark. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Mark, the King of Cornwall; charmed I’m sure. And you are?”

“I shall tell you not!” cried Merlin. “But when Sir Tristram runs off with his lady, that is when you will learn my name, and many other terrible things besides.”

“I don’t know a Tristram,” muttered Mark, but Merlin had already moved on.

“You!” he cried to Balin, who had been standing by his horse nonchalantly watching the tomb getting erected. “You have done terrible things! Columbe is dead because of you!”

“You mean because I didn’t act fast enough to stop her from suiciding, right?” asked Balin. “Right?”

“You know what I mean,” said Merlin.

“I swear I didn’t kill her!” shouted Balin, way louder than necessary. “She stabbed herself! I couldn’t stop her! Quit accusing me everyone stop it!”

“Because of Columbe’s death,” intoned Merlin, “you shall strike a stroke most dolorous that ever man struck. It will ruin the most admirable man in Britain (aka Logris, aka England; these are interchangeable terms).”

“You mean Arthur?” asked Balin. “He means Arthur, everyone.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Through that stroke not one, not two, but three whole nations shall fall into an economic recession that shall last a generation, and the strikee of your dolorous stroke shall not recover for many years.”

Merlin then spun on his heel and started to walk away from Balin.

“I’m going to do my best to make you a liar,” said Balin to Merlin’s back. It was the best comeback he could think of. Lame, Balin. Lame.

Merlin dignified Balin’s insult by vanishing in a puff of smoke, because Merlin had better things to do than take crap from the Idiot Knight.

“We should really be going,” said Sir Balan.

“I didn’t kill her,” said Sir Balin.

“I know, I know.”

“Before you gentlemen depart, might I know your names? I’m Mark, the king of Cornwall; charmed I’m sure,” said Mark. Mark had watched Merlin and Balin’s exchange with interest.

Before Peter had wandered off at some point, he had convinced Sir Balin that as a wanted criminal Balin shouldn’t be giving out his real name. “I’m… some guy,” said Balin.

“Yes?” said Mark.

“Um, okay, look,” said Balan. “You see how he’s got two swords? Just call him the Knight with Two Swords. Mister Two-Swords.”

“One sword I pulled from a chastity belt,” said Balin, holding it up.

“I’m sure you did,” said Mark.

Balin held up his other sword. “And this is the sword that killed Columbe She killed herself.”

“Of course,” said Mark. “Listen, I just remembered I don’t want to talk to you any longer, so I’ve got to take my leave of you.”

“Bye Mark!”

“Cheerio.” Mark rode off.

“What a nice guy! Well, we should go,” Balin told Balan. They rode off in the other direction, towards King Rience. They hadn’t gone far before Merlin started messing with them again. First he stepped out from behind a tree, disguised as a completely different old man than the old man we’re used to.

“Where are you going?” Disguised Merlin asked.

“Who wants to know?” asked Balin.

“I’m not telling you my name,” said Disguised Merlin.

“Well, maybe you’re a jerk,” said Balan. “Honest people tell people their names!”

“Yeah!” said Balin.

“Weren’t you just now telling Mark you were Mister Two-Swords?” asked Merlin.

“I fail to see your point.”

Merlin sighed. “Well, regardless. I know you’re coming this way to find King Rience, but unless you do as I say you won’t find him.”

Balin’s face lit up. “Oh! Oh! I know this! I know you! There’s only one guy who orders people around and says weird stuff like that! You must be Merlin! It’s Merlin! Hello, Merlin!”

“Who?” asked Balan.

“Merlin is Arthur’s advisor,” said Balin. “Merlin must be here to help us get in good graces with Arthur again!”

Merlin slapped his forehead. “Okay, listen, you pull this off, it’ll work out great, but you’ve got to be on your toes, c’mon.”

“Don’t worry… Merlin,” said Balin. “I’m your man, Merlin! You’re Merlin!” Balin basically never figured things out, so he was pretty pleased with himself about this one.

Merlin led Balin and Balan to a little woodsy copse, and told them to nap for a while, which they eagerly did. All the best strange adventures feature a nap! Roundabout midnight Merlin woke them up, and told them it was their time to shine.

“That road over there connects Castle Terrabil, where Rience is quartered, to the castle where Lady de Vance lives,” Merlin explained.

“Say no more,” said Balin. “You want me to murder Lady de Vance! I’m really good at killing ladies.”

“No,” said Merlin. “No. Rience is having an affair with Lady de Vance, and in a little while he and a light escort of about fifty knights are going to ride down that road. It’s the best chance you’ll have to get him out in the open.”

“Okay!” Balin started to run out into the middle of the road to wait for Rience and his men, but Merlin pulled him back.

“Listen, idiot,” said Merlin. “You just stand there, you end up fighting his fifty knights while he rides on. I’ll show you where you’ll ambush him.”

“Ambush! Clever!” said Balin.

Merlin led Balin and Balan to a certain gully the road wound down, and the two brothers made ready at the top of the gully. A few minutes after they began to lie in wait, Rience and his entourage came riding through, exactly as Merlin had predicted.

“Banzai!” Balin and Balan leaped down into the middle of them, circumventing all Rience’s men, and slammed into Rience, who was dehorsed and wounded during the surprise round. Then the brothers fought Rience’s knights back-to-back for while, until they’d each slain a couple dozen, and the handful remaining gave up and ran off.

Once the battle had ended, Balin towered over Rience. “And now you die!” he cried.

“Wait! No! You can ransom me! You can ransom me!” shouted Rience. “You’ll get way more money ransoming me than just looting my corpse, brigands!”

“We’re not brigands,” said Balan.

“He makes a good point, though,” said Balin. They loaded Rience up on a litter.

Meanwhile Merlin had teleport without errored over to Arthur, waking him and his mistress up.

“Good evening Arthur, and good evening miss,” said Merlin.

“Do you never knock?” asked Arthur.

“I thought you’d want to know about how Rience has been captured,” said Merlin.

“Yeah, okay, that’s good to know,” said Arthur. He rubbed his eyes. “Who did it? Was it Ulfius and Brastias?”

“No, sire, it was two other knights who seek to get into your good graces,” said Merlin. “You’ll meet them tomorrow.”

“Great,” said Arthur.

“I’ll just show myself out,” said Merlin, and leaves.

“Does he do that often?” asked Arthur’s mistress.

Anyway the next morning Balin and Balan and Rience arrived at Camelot. At Merlin’s urging, Balin wore a face-concealing helmet and told everyone he was Mister Two-Swords, the Knight With Two Swords. Kay or Ulfius or someone took Rience away in chains. Arthur went to see Rience first, to gloat, before meeting the knights who captured him.

“Welcome to Camelot,” Arthur said to the captive Rience. “How have you enjoyed your stay so far?”

“It’s been a trip,” said Rience.

“Who was it that took you in, anyway? Merlin was being cagey last night,” said Arthur.

“Mister Two-Swords is what he calls himself,” said Rience. “Him and his brother. He’s dumb as a post.”

“Dumb he may be,” said Arthur, “but I owe him one, definitely.”

Merlin appeared at Arthur’s elbow. “Would you forgive him any single crime, sire?”

“That’s an odd question, Merlin, but yes. I suppose I would,” said Arthur. “This Rience situation has been troubling me for thousands of words now.”

“Then I’ll tell you!” Merlin cackled. “It was Sir Balin all along! He and his brother captured Rience! You don’t know Balin’s brother Sir Balan, but he’s a B+ knight, maybe A-. Nowhere near as powerful in combat as Balin, but then, Balin’s got a doom-curse working on his side, and won’t live much longer.”

“Oh, he’s dying? That’s, I guess that’s too bad,” said Arthur. “I feel very ambivalent towards Balin right now. Given that he’s dying I suppose I’ll swallow it and just forgive him, I suppose he deserves that.”

“Well, he’s not dying yet,” said Merlin. “But by all means, be nice to him; before he dies he’s going to do you another good turn or several. Also, tomorrow morning Rience’s brother Nero is going to show up and bring along an army, so, get ready for that.”

Arthur assembled all his knights together, forewarned as he was about Nero’s attack, and he sallied forth in hopes of getting the drop on Nero. But Nero was ready and champing at the bit and he had more men than Arthur: outside Castle Terrabil they fought a long series of battles that even Malory isn’t interested in describing in any great detail. Sir Kay did really well, as did Balin and Balan and of course Arthur himself maimed like forty guys, and there was a knight name of Sir Hervis who did well also…

But who cares? Meanwhile Merlin teleported without error up to the Orkneys, where he met up with King Lot. Lot was at the head of a column of soldiers, armed and ready.

“Merle!” King Lot waved; he hadn’t seen Merlin in ages. “How you doing? I’m just about to ride down and do battle with Arthur again, on the side of Rience’s brother Nero. I hate Rience, like all right-thinking people, but his brother’s okay. Pull up a horse, ride alongside me. We could use a good crazy dreamspeaking soothsayer.”

“Hold that thought,” said Merlin. “I need to relate to you a prophecy.”

“Everybody, hold up!” Lot shouted, and the soldiers stopped. “Okay, Merle, what’s the deal?”

Merlin then began telling Lot a story that went on forever and has no point (make your own joke here). At times Lot nodded sagely, or smiled at an implied witticism, or otherwise signaled that he was paying attention, because he didn’t want to look foolish in front of Merlin, and Merlin was all the time saying things like “of course you understand the significance of this,” and “hold onto your hat, Lot, because it gets better!”

Around three days later, a messenger from Nero showed up, with a message along the lines of what the hell is keeping you we are getting creamed here.

“Whoa, sorry Merle,” said Lot. “I got to get going.”

“Hold on,” said Merlin. “I haven’t gotten to the end of the story!”

“It’ll have to wait,” said Lot.

Then another messenger appeared. “I bear news from Terrabil!” he cried. “I traveled much faster than the first messenger! Nero and all his host have been slain and dispersed by Arthur! Nero’s last words were ‘where were you, Lot?'”

“Shoot,” said Lot.

“‘And then they all lived happily ever after, the end,'” said Merlin. “Go on, do whatever now.”

“I feel terrible about this,” said Lot. “Nero had a lot of good men fighting alongside him. You know me, Merle, I’m not a lunatic, I don’t love war. But still I wish I had been there.”

“There was nothing to be done, Lot,” said Merlin. To himself Merlin was thinking if Lot had been there then Arthur would have died, can’t have that and I would rather neither Lot nor Arthur die in battle but if I have to choose one to die it’ll be Lot no question.

“Well, what now? Any advice, Merle?” asked Lot. “It’s not too late, we could ride down there and our men will be fresh while Arthur’s are exhausted. On the other hand, they’ll outnumber us considerably, and I haven’t got Mister 100 here with me.”

Merlin shrugged.

“Let me at them, boss!” One of Lot’s knights was full of vim. “I could take on all the Round Table (which hasn’t been established yet) myself!”

“Heh, well, hopefully it won’t come to that,” said Lot. “But yes! Onward, men! We’ll take Arthur down a notch yet!”

Then another fight, blah blah blah, Lot and the remnants of Team Lot & Mister 100 Featuring Nero on one side, Arthur on the other, and since Book II is all about Balin, I can assure you that Balin on Arthur’s side kicked enormous amounts of ass. But Lot, let’s give him his due and remember that he wasn’t not such a bad guy. He could have been Arthur’s wise and kindly elder brother-in-law, if they had gotten along better, but no. Maybe part of Lot’s antipathy towards Arthur stemmed from Arthur sleeping with Lot’s wife and fathering Mordred, plus the incest thing on top of that. Just saying. Arthur isn’t 100% the victim here.

Anyway, Lot was in the thick of it, holding his troops together, when at the height of the battle a mystery knight appeared from behind! The mystery knight ran straight for Lot and took him out! It was — you were not expecting this — King Pellinore, the Questing Beast Guy! Yeah, that jackass! I know, right?

Pellinore disappeared as soon as he’d taken out Lot, which was pretty well the end of the battle; Lot had been single-handedly holding his side together. Malory reminds us that in a decade or so, Lot’s son Sir Gawaine would avenge his father’s death, but that didn’t matter in the here and now. I don’t know why Malory is even bringing it up. It’s as if he’s a terrible writer with no sense of pacing, even by the lax standards of the fifteenth century.

What matters is that the remnants of Team Lot & Mister 100 were crushed, the various kings on Lot’s side were slain (though, again, Mister 100 and some of the other heavy-hitters weren’t present), and they were tossed in a big mass grave in Camelot.

The mass grave thing sounds better once you hear about the absolutely fabulous funeral Arthur threw together for Lot and the eleven kings on his side in this last battle, which group of kings overlapped with but was not identical to the kings in Team Lot & Mister 100 from back in Book I. Arthur asked Merlin to put together something special, and Merlin used magic to erect a huge crypt with gold-leaf pressed into everything and statues of everybody looking sad (and one of Arthur in the middle looking triumphant), plus lots of eternal flames. I don’t think there’s a spell in the 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons list of magic-user spells that does this, but I could be wrong.

Everybody thought it very nice, including Arthur’s special funerary guests: Margawse, Lot’s widow; Uriens, king of Gore and longtime comrade of Lot; and Uriens’s wife Morgan le Fay, sister to both Margawse and Arthur. Afterwards at a private reception Uriens and Margawse started drinking and didn’t stop. Let’s join the scene, already in progress!

“They are really packing it away,” said Morgan le Fay to her half-brother and his weird elfin magical advisor.

“Well, it’s been an eventful day,” said Arthur. “The eternal flames were nice, I thought.”

Merlin explained to Arthur that the eternal flames aren’t really eternal. They would go out when Merlin died, which would be just before the whole Quest for the Holy Grail happened.

“Hold on,” said Arthur. “Malory doesn’t mention me saying this but I think it’s worth objecting here. Didn’t you tell me before that you were going to outlive me, but I would get a nice tomb while you were tossed in a ditch?”

“Possibly,” said Merlin. “I utter a lot of prophecy. I can’t be expected to keep track of it all.”

Arthur muttered something under his breath.

“Speaking of,” said Merlin. “Here’s some additional prophecy. I already mentioned this to him, but not you: Sir Balin is going to be the one who strikes the dolorous stroke.”

“What?” asked Arthur.

“You’ll know it when you see it,” said Merlin. He winces. “Right in the jimmies.”

“Hey now,” said Morgan le Fay. “There are ladies present.”

“Uh, Balin,” said Arthur, changing the subject. “Where did he get off to, him and his brother? And were late-battle reports of Pellinore (that jackass!) appearing, were those correct?”

“Oh, Pellinore will show up again,” said Merlin. “And Balin will be sticking by you until his death.”

“Yeah, you mentioned he was doomed,” said Arthur. “That’s a shame. I mean, yes, he murdered the Lady of the Lake, and he may be dumb as a post, but he’s a hellacious fighter. He’s better than me and I maimed forty guys this morning! He may as well be a superhero.”

“You have a superpower too, don’t forget!”

“I am very good at siring illegitimate children, but I don’t know if that’s a superpower.”

“That magic scabbard! You remember. Excalibur’s scabbard, prevents blood loss.”

Morgan le Fay perked up. “Really? A magic scabbard that prevents blood loss?”

“Yes indeed,” said Arthur.

“Can I take a look?” asked Morgan le Fay. “It sounds like a form of necromancy, blood and all, and I majored in necromancy.”

“Sure, why not?” Arthur handed it to her.

Morgan le Fay smiled nervously. “Just so we’re clear, this doesn’t mean I’m going to sleep with you!”

She and Arthur shared some anxious titters, because the whole Arthur/Margawse situation really cast a pall on what might have otherwise been a nice family get-together.

Meanwhile Merlin spouted still more prophecy, as he always did when drunk, about how there would be a great battle at Salisbury and Mordred would be there and also Uriens knew a man named Bagdemagus who was Arthur’s long-lost cousin.

Later, in their private tent, while Uriens slept it off, Morgan le Fay did some magic. Scabbard in hand, she cast analyze dweomer and enchant an item and so on. She wasn’t much for inventing new magic items, but she was pretty good at duplicating existing ones; Morgan easily constructed a second scabbard identical to the first. Malory is vague as to whether the second scabbard had the same enchantment as the first one, or if it just appeared so because Morgan le Fay cast Nystul’s magical aura on it. For right now, I’m going with the latter interpretation.

“Hey Sir Accolon,” she called to her lover, a young and lusty knight whose death she would have liked to prevent. “Take this scabbard, it was Arthur’s until I borrowed it. I’m returning him this duplicate I made; he’ll never know the difference.”

“M’okay,” said Accolon.

“It would serve him right to bleed to death, anyway,” muttered Morgan le Fay. “All the needless death he’s caused, making my husband go off to war for years at a time, leaving me to rule Gore in his stead… well, that part wasn’t so bad. Still, being a woman in an Arthurian romance is a terrible position to be in; I’m entitled to be bitter.”

“M’okay,” said Accolon.


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