The fire of Heaven is not the flame of Hell.
—Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Balin and Balan”
In the darkness of the cave, they battle, one redder with blood than the other. With their long tails and bulbous foreheads, they look like a kind of whale. They grow as they struggle, getting stronger, lashing out as they stir in their primordial dreams. Their eyes are filled with darkness. They know only each other, and their duel. They do not know why they fight, but fight they do, like warring beasts.
They surge together, coursing through the watery void. Sounds reach them from the surface and shake the cave. At times it sounds like the pounding of machinery, people at excavation, their shouts and cries as they come to find them. If beasts, they will make them the totems of nations, if they find them men, they will give them coloured shields. Sometimes these echoes to the prisoned world come louder, as if the earthmovers are inspired to cup their hands and holler down to the depths where they dwell, like a crowd cheering on a bout. Their silent mouths open to scream back to those above if they could, but they cannot even hear each other’s cries.
The pool is drained. The red comes out into the world first and then the paler, hanging from chains. Their bonds are cut. Serpent tails are thrown to the dogs.
“Balin. Balan,” she names them.
Two knights sit by a fire, sharing the flames. They are of similar build, one carrying two swords crossed over his back, the other a sword fastened to his waist, a shield propped at his side. They sit opposite each other, wearing the same face, like a meeting between that which is good and evil in a man sprung into the open air.
“Do you think Arthur will accept the weregild?”
“He was forgiving of your first crime. He was sore to lose you.”
“Yes, but this is the second and done before him and all of his hall.” He pokes the fire. “He was sore to lose you.”
“You should not have spilled blood there, brother. It was done so hastily. To do violence to a man, a fellow knight, was one thing, but to kill she who gave Arthur his second sword…” Balan’s voice fails. “The king was in her debt for Excalibur,” he states, more firmly. “That debt is now ours, to Arthur and all of his hall.”
Sir Balin the Savage unsheathes one of his swords and looks at it in the firelight. “I have my prize. And little hope for forgiveness. I will use it against this demon as you say. That must be worth an enchantress. Do not mourn the witch. The stone that gave him his first blade is just as cold.”
Balan flinches against his harshness. “Arthur will forgive you. He must.”
They sit silently staring into the fire, watching the shapes and figures summoned there, Balin letting the flames lick at the end of the blade. They listen to the night sounds, the calls of creatures, the movement of the leaves.
“I am with you whatever your fate.”
Balin looks at him scornfully. “And ours? Our fate.”
“Yes, even then. Cast the sword away before our doom reaches us.”
Balin gets to his feet and towers over his brother. He parades before him angrily. “Do not heed the words of this prophetess. I cursed her in worse terms than on this blade, before I spilled her blood with it.”
Good Sir Balan remains sitting and closes his eyes.
Balin reads the words raised on the steel, the letters lengthened by shadow: Whosoever draws this sword shall slay his brother. “It shall not come to pass.”
Balin kicks up the flames, showering the dark forest with sparks. “Never. You are my true brother.”
“And so are they false brothers? Those who swore as we?”
“Yes, for the same blood does not belong to them. Vows of brotherhood mean little. Words are not chains.” Balin holds up the inscribed blade. “You would talk differently if you had been bound by iron as I have, held in Arthur’s dungeon.”
“Your stay was not long. The king released you on your repentance.”
“I remember it was yours. They were fooled by your face. They saw you and all the things you said when they looked on me.”
“I spoke for you, with you—”
“And I will not forget it, true brother.”
They venture towards the wildlands, united in face though not in aspect. Ever good Balan gazes towards the clouds as though expecting retribution to fall on them. The light and the reflection of the clouds fall on his cheeks and forehead, making him seem paler than his brother, an anaemic counterfeit drained of his twin’s fierce blood. A more earthbound curse follows him: Sir Balin the Savage, dogging his heels with the sword prophesied to slay him, like a phantom from his own death come back in warning.
Balin passes through the land, wracked and unruly, his fingers playing on the hilts of the swords. He draws them needlessly and skulks through the quiet woodland like the survivor of a battle he does not know has ended. Sometimes good Balan follows him, and when he does it looks like a memory from better times chasing its dark and angry host, or like an image of the descent of man. They share bread and water and the meat they take from the land. Walking and at rest they take counsel, like Jesus and his adversary in the desert. They arrive at the edge of Arthur’s rule.
There is no sign to mark the border. The country runs green and thick with trees into the distance. The way the tangled branches run together and apart looks like a map of underground tunnels, built by burrowing things. Balan pauses at the sounds of the water and birdsong nearby.
Balan turns to see Balin low by his side, the two swords in the savage knight’s hands. He hears it too. Like the far-off cry of a beast in a trap.
“A bear? A boar?” Balan whispers.
Balin shakes his head warily.
Balan puts a cautioning hand on the shoulder of his brother, who bristles. “It is said the demon dwells in this region.”
Balin nods irritably and turns back to his hunt. They sneak through the border country towards the sound. As they get closer it sounds less like a denizen of the Earth, and more like part of it—like the roots of trees breaking apart the mountains.
The brothers keep step. The trees are dense and thick-trunked and sometimes come between them. As they emerge to each other it is as though they catch a glimpse of themselves in a distorting mirror, a window to another world, where each has chosen differently, and been shaped differently by the world in kind.
A clearing opens up on a cave. They look towards the empty chasm, a channel of darkness. It is as if they stand at the mouth of night from which all its dark rivers flow. The darkness seems to yawn back as they look at it, and into a supernatural blackness beyond the limits of the world.
They advance together until they stand at the shadow’s edge. The voice of the cave blows over them. It rattles their armour, like the breath of the arch-leviathan. They look like figures, ivory chess pieces, rather than knights of Arthur, dwarfed as they are beneath its black entrance. They half expect a pale Cyclops to jump from the gloom and place its giant strength upon them. The sound coming from the cave could be its tread. The two heroes stand there, bright against the black canvas. They listen to the hellish noise. Their weapons look like toys when raised against that vastness.
Balin grinds the two swords together, as if to make a spark to challenge the indomitable dark.
“Pendragon!” Balan cries. He strikes the air above him with his shield and charges forwards. They do not expect the attack to come from behind.
A spear flies at him and disappears into the unseen depths as if it has never been. Balan turns. Balin is already charging into the undergrowth after their assailant, his two swords hacking eagerly through the leaves.
The good brother follows and looks madly between the close branches. Balin is gone. He does not have his brother’s skill in woodcraft. Their foe is invisible to him.
The voice of the cave rises to meet his call. The ground shudders as though a subterranean beast thrashes beneath it. He hurries further into the wood and finds no answering cry. The branches are in a flurry as he struggles through them.
Balin the Savage runs hotly after his enemy. He can hear his footsteps ahead of him, his panting breath out of rhythm with his own. A fierce power courses through his limbs as he makes his pursuit.
Separated in the wild lands, the brothers are lost in a foreign country. Balin charges heedlessly through settlements, baring his teeth. He cannot soothe his blood while his enemy lures him on ahead. He ventures far into that land.
When Balan passes through after him, the people drop what they carry and bar their doors against him. They think him an unmoored soul, a phantom, a shadow in pursuit of the demon who has stolen his frame.
A castle rises before fierce Balin as in a dream. Its walls are white and of no stone he has ever come across. It is like veins of lightning cut through the rock. The walls are far from the ringed keep, which stands like a sentinel beyond. The tallest tower he has ever seen rises above them like one of the axes of the world, rounded like the trunk of a tree. It is noon and the sun is cradled on the peak as if it is Hyperion’s sceptre.
The knight pauses for a second as sweet singing carries to him from within, but it is not enough to dispel his urgent need. As he stands there in hate, he looks like Grendel listening to the laughter from the hall. He crosses the drawbridge and looks down. Deep waters run below and there are boats on the river. He calls curtly to the men in the water but they are too far away and occupied with other work. Glancing from the watery chasm back to the tower, he feels as if he takes in the height of the world and he loses his footing for a moment.
Balin regains his balance and raises his head. A lion’s wrinkled jaws meet his sight. He can see the crease in its tongue, the thick black lips, the protruding fangs. Two of them guard the open gate. He raises his swords and then sees that they are of lifeless metal. The threat drops from his arms and his face is turned by an ugly smirk. He clangs the fated blade against their hides as if he is beating a gong or ringing a bell. No one comes forward to challenge him.
He finds himself in an antechamber. The noise of a feast carries to him from beyond. He remembers no table, tapestry, or shield hung on the wall in his coming here, only a driving red noise, the swords shining in his hands, and the way the light plays on their steel cross like the blood of seraphim. It is like he is drunk, or sick, or dreaming.
A knight asks him to leave the swords behind and join their table.
“Nay, that I shall not do,” he says formally, “for it is the custom of my country that a knight always keeps his weapon with him, and I will keep that custom, or else I will depart as I came.”
The warding knight permits him to carry one sword in ceremony, and he leaves the cursed sword behind.
Alone in a long passage, he spies the glow of the hall ahead. The stone here is red as if he has stumbled into a sultan’s palace, reared from the desert. He looks back and the corridor has no end that he can see. As he walks along, he passes many doors and turnings and stairways. In the shadow of one he senses a presence. He drags the interloper from his hiding spot and knows him for his foe. The serpentine face, the fiery eyes are anathema to him and Balin draws his sword and works the golden head from his enemy’s shoulders and then sticks it in the hateful gut.
He enters the hall bright with his enemy’s blood. Golden lights shine from the ceiling. The benches are lined with feasters and the radiance swims over their plates and goblets.
On the dais sits an old king. His hair and beard are as white as a lamb’s wool and his cheeks are ruddy as though splashed with its blood. He wears a high crown of gold. The points are shaped like leaves as an emblem of his charge. His chair is carved into a golden tree. On it are cut the names of his ancestors leading back to Joseph of Arimathea, writ larger than all others.
The canopy of the tree reaches back into the wall and spreads over the ceiling. Balin realises the hall is lit by the glow of the gilded leaves, rather than candles as he thought, rubies set amongst them like berries. The roots of the tree are wide and hold a number of other seats, all empty. There are seats in the branches too, cushioned and draped like the king’s.
King Pellam rises to welcome him, but halts when he sees the evidence of the knight’s frantic slaying. As though swept away by a gale, the hall’s warm glow disappears and the place is emptied and silenced. The roots and branches of the golden tree bear down on the savage knight, like an army of spears.
Balin stands alone before the king, who now looks tall and wrathful. The king’s voice crashes down on him like a hurricane, the old man’s eyes burn with blue fire. His green cloak sweeps out like a forest in the wind’s rage. Red lightning courses over his golden sceptre and his crown twists with crimson thorns. White locks cast a deadly chill over his face.
The king aims a grim weapon at him, but Balin puts man-forged steel between his head and the stroke. His sword bursts asunder. The hilt slides apart in his hand. Sir Balin the Savage flees, weaponless, from the hall.
And so begins the dreadful pursuit. The unruly knight flies from chamber to chamber, the thunderous king behind. He casts about for a sword, a spear, and finds none. He is no longer the hunter. A red drum booms in his ears. Balin crashes into servants, suits of armour, well-laden tables, doorways. Unlike the castle gates, inside the thick doors of wood and metal are kept shut. He scrabbles for the handles and bangs them against the castle walls.
He cannot escape the heavy sounds of the king. He finds a stairway. He takes it. Round and round the spiral takes him. He must be climbing the high tower he saw from without. The lights from the windows beat with the heat of fire. Flame and shadow flash at him as if he is riding a horse through the trees. He can see gardens through the windows and the walls high and impregnable beyond. Vengeful feet echo behind him.
At the top is a chamber. Gold-leafed arches follow the circle of the walls, all empty and open to the winds. In the centre of the chamber a long spear rests in a simple shrine. Its end is already bloodied. He clutches at it greedily, and spins round to face the top of the stairs.
He waits, watching for the warning of the king’s shadow. Angled downwards, blood drips from the spear, unceasingly. It trickles down the first few stairs. His eyes twitch to the line of blood connecting the spear to the stones. He did not notice any bodies or wounded men. He turns his gaze back to the foreboding stair. He becomes convinced of an unseen presence. He gives his eyes leave to scan the room, but no one is there.
He keeps watch. The blood draws his eye. It runs from the spear. He thinks it looks like wine. He listens to it dripping. He is about to put his fingers to it and taste it when he remembers to dart his eyes up again.
So high, the air is thin. The spear is weightless as though it is a weapon of the gods, meant for a battle in the heavens. It does not give him the reassurance steel should. He clutches it tighter, brandishing it impatiently at the entrance, showering the arch with crimson droplets. He has to get out. He cannot shake the feeling that the room is occupied.
He urges his body to the descent, letting the pull of the world speed his progress. His feet lurch out in front of him as he quickly makes his way down the stairs. Through the windows, the circles of stone and the bright gardens wheel closer. A building moan fills his ears as he descends, as though he listens to the monasteries of Hell raised in song.
The king flares up in front of him. What follows is a profane act, near unparalleled in the works of men. With the fabled spear, Balin deals the king the Dolorous Stroke. The spear sinks into the king’s thigh, near his groin. The stones crack apart under their feet.
Balin is falling. The blocks of the tower with him. Lightning rends the crimson sky. For a moment he sees all the land weltering in a bloody light. It is as if he is in the midst of an avalanche. The world grows beneath him, as it did for the devils flung from the highest. In the hall the leaves rain down like daggers.
He wakes under an overcast sky. The movements of the clouds look like that of a cloaked and trampling host. He turns his head away. He cannot see over the heap of masonry. He gets into a sitting position and then stands, trembling. He is in a field of broken stone. An entire city’s worth. He sits back down again.
Balin staggers over the wreckage, dusting away the leprous weeds that cling to him. The remains of the gatehouse rear up in the distance. His heart rebels against his chest when he sees the fated sword wedged in a pile of rubble. He cowers in its shadow. The blade gleams bitterly. He clambers over the ruins and yanks it free.
With the sword tight in his hand, he makes his way over the splintered drawbridge. In the gaps he can see the dry riverbed at the bottom of the gorge, skeletons lounging in the boats.
Before him rises an ominous desert, a dour wasteland that abides nothing to grow except thirst, hunger and heart’s yearning. He did not come this way. He starts over the dimming tract, a lone insurgent who has destroyed an entire country.
In the blue nights and the red days, the brothers search for each other. Self-exiled for the love he bears his savage twin, good Balan does penance for Balin’s crime. The other refugees of the wasteland flee from their faces, as if the mark of Cain lurks there. When the brothers draw near, the stragglers throw stones at them and spit on them. The lines and huddles of people pull close their tattered robes and watch them as they would known thieves. In the presence of their escort, very conversation stops. The brothers start to shy from the hard eyes of the people. Their armour weighs them down. It rusts and falls apart. It weighs them down less.
Good Balan’s shield moulders. For him, every shadow that falls over him is an omen of doom. He runs in grief to the dark shapes that lie in the sand and hunch in the bogs, but he does not find his brother’s face.
Fierce Balin’s scabbard wears away from his back. It lies discarded behind like a snakeskin. He disappears over the horizon and then comes back to it and eats it.
The savage knight has nowhere to put his sword. Balin’s arm drops and the blade touches his ankle where the chain links and guards have fallen away, scalding him. The desert people point at him and scatter as he wades towards them, brandishing the sword like a marauder.
The brothers’ faces are aged and changed by their hardships, their bodies ravaged. Walking in this place makes them feel strange, as if the very soil is irradiated. Another country is the past. Delirious with want, everywhere Balin is hunted by wrathful kings. He finds them, waiting on the dunes holding their marvellous weapons, crowned with gold and fury. He begs them, he sobs in their robes, and slices at them with his sword. The kings’ flesh is black and mummified. He bows his head to avoid looking at the sunken eyes, their skin too withered and stretched over their skulls for their eyelids to fully close. They watch him in unblinking judgement with their pinched mouths, lipless and wrinkled, sucking at the air.
They are arrayed before him, legions of them, all reaching for him with scorched and caressing hands. They blur and swing in his vision, between ranks and a single vivid form. In the sky he sees dark clouds rumbling. He flees from their touch toward hot and open vistas.
When he bunkers down in the dirt to sleep, he sees a headless corpse, flopping in her gown. A spreading pool. Arthur’s eyes like twin suns. The brand on his ankle throbs.
He dreams he is soaking in her blood and marches on, stinking. Grizzled hands paw at him from the dried earth, like anthropochorous flora. Crowned figures crowd in the waste waters and hang from the blasted trees, their arms rising in accusation. He walks with a cloak raised over his head, not daring to be seen. From a distance he looks like a great bat, flying low over the desert.
He loses the horizon in a dead and groaning forest. A painful breeze brings the branches against him. On his knees he quivers like a sick animal. He digs a hole in the earth, as if looking for the seed of his sin that was buried long ago. He beats his fists against his helmet and screams when he does not find it. A hand is on his shoulder.
“Balan?” begs the savage knight.
He turns. A thin body encased in armour. Wisps of soft hair fall to its shoulders from the golden band around its temples. He dares the eyes: Arthur’s borne in a dead face.
Encircled by the kings, he crawls beneath them. They turn their gazes to him as he stirs their cloaks. Their sharp fingers brush his back and shoulders, as though looking for the spot to place the dagger. He listens to the click of the nails on their leathery toes as they move together over the country. He is crawling through the roots of rotting trees.
Walking beneath black and teetering logs, good Sir Balan finds his plight nearing an end. He hears the voice of the cave, where they parted, and rushes to it.
What could only be the demon waits at the entrance. It has come forth in mockery of a man, an insubstantial spirit possessing a suit of wasted armour. At the end of its legs and at its wrists the metal is ragged and torn. It looks as if it has stolen a suit too small for it from a youth or smaller man, or else, feeding its malice, it has grown too large for its shell, like a glutinous crustacean. It clanks towards him, its joints stiff, armed with a single sword.
“I have sacked entire cities,” it groans to him in challenge.
They do battle in the cave’s mournful cry. The demon bellows at him and hacks at his darkened shield. It withers at the blade’s touch. The good knight spins his sword, putting a gash on the ridge of the creature’s foot. Their chainmail falls away like beaded necklaces at the touch of each other’s swords. The bodies revealed beneath look old and strained. They circle each other before the cave, rending away pieces of sullied flesh. The wounds are many and deep. The ground turns red beneath them. Their feet work their blood into the soil.
The demon beats its head into Balan’s. Rusted metal shatters, blood splatters over both their faces. They stagger away from each other. Balan looks at the sunken cheeks and hollow eyes of his opponent that glare at him through the wrecked visor.
“Did you kill my brother? Did you?” Balan’s voice is thin and muffled through the helmet.
Through its broken teeth it answers. “Yes.” The demon raises its weapon as if it speaks for the anguished blade. “I am the death of all brothers. I killed the world.” The demon hunches and digs its fists into its eyes. Then it charges forward and runs him through.
Sir Balan falls. The demon’s hold is still on the hilt and it is dragged down with him. They collapse in the dirt before the dark opening of the cave.
Balan pulls the sword from his chest with a heavy gout of blood. He looks at it. Beneath the grime he sees the legend on the blade. He turns to the demon and waves the sword at it feebly.
“You took this from him. You took this from him.”
The demon prises the helmet from its head. It pins Balan’s sword arm down and then wrenches the fallen knight’s helmet away. Balan cries out in pain as the ruined edges of the helmet scratch at his skin. The demon glowers over him.
“I am Balin, master of the sword.”
An unanswerable horror grips Balan’s ruined face. “Balin. Balin,” he whispers.
“The Savage,” Balin roars, sending a haze of blood over his brother.
Polluted tears run down Balan’s face. “We are cursed. We are cursed.”
Balin drops from his view. “No. No.”
They lie before the darkness of the cave, cradling each other as their blood drains away. Balin calls to his brother and twin, brokenly and in gasps, the sound barely reaching him under the cave’s endless wail. Balan watches his savage brother’s lips.
“G-good brother, give me the s-sword—”
Balan lets it slip from his grasp. The savage knight takes it to his breast so that it is caught between the cross of his arms. He heaves himself onto his knees. Balan watches him.
“I will cast it away, true brother. I will.”
Balin lurches through the trees. Hunched and panting, he looks like a man in the first throws of lycanthropy. He holds his breath and then spews out blood and teeth, as if making way for fangs. Or he could be a teething infant. But he heard it. He follows it. The sound of water. The smell of water.
The first shoots shine brighter than the brightest jewels to his eyes. He stumbles over the grass and bursts onto the riverbank.
He is back in Logres. Arthur’s country.
Without strength for a throw Balin wades into the water, the current nearly taking him under. His muscles look as if they are going to rupture from his skin as he struggles to stand upright like a man, not a beast. Red clouds billow up around his thighs as though he really is a creature ruled by the moon. He lets fall the blade and it slides away like a fish, a silver shadow under the water.
Falling, moaning, he makes his way back to his brother. Balan looks saintly, like a sleeping child. Balin’s stomach heaves at the sight of the hole he has put in his brother’s chest.
“Am I too late?”
The eyelids of the sleeper flutter.
“Balan, Balan.” He shakes him gently. “It’s gone. I cast it away.”
Balan smiles at him. Balin collapses alongside.
They make a brothers’ vow, always to find each other no matter where they go, no matter where they are heading. Balin watches the hewn face. Even as it is, it shines to him like the last star. He moves his gaze away from the black wall of the cave to look upon the mortal realm one last time before they leave it together. Night creeps in at the edge of his vision regardless.
“I cannot see you now.”
Balan moves his arm. They close their death-drowsing eyes, locked together like the babes they were in the womb. A single cry asks for his brother.
So end Balin the Savage, the knight with two swords, and his brother, blameless Sir Balan, who followed him. They die by one sentence, for an unanswerable crime.
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Story copyright © 2021 by Craig Hinds
Artwork copyright © 2021 by Carrion House
Craig Hinds lives and works in Newcastle, UK, where he is often mistaken for his identical twin brother. He graduated from Newcastle University with a first-class degree in English Literature, and a Distinction in his English Literature 1500-1900 MA, for which he was awarded two prestigious scholarships, the School Bursary Award and Excellence Scholarship. He has fought in many battles, mainly against Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, but he always seems to lose. Twitter: @CraigHinds_.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.