Arthur woke up, again, and this time instead of going back to sleep he called in what remained of his brain trust, Sir Lucan the Caterer and his brother Sir Bedivere, who were literally the last Round Table knights in his service. They weren’t the only surviving Knights of the Round Table; Launcelot’s followers all still lived, and there were a few others scattered around, like Sir Constantine (who ruled England in Arthur’s stead in Book V) and Sir Pellas the Good (who has fled the book for good, together with his wife Nimue). But only Bedivere and Lucan remained at Arthur’s side, neither taking up arms against him nor sitting the war out at home.
“Loyal dregs,” said Arthur, “the time has come for me to send you on an extremely important mission. Go to Mordred and barter for a cease fire. Make whatever concessions you need to; we’ve got to delay the fighting for another month. Sir Gawaine came to me in a dream and told me so.”
Understandably, Bedivere and Lucan had some questions about this new plan, but Arthur laid it all out. “Whatever it takes, for a month of peace. Then Launcelot will arrive with reinforcements, and save me, even though we are technically at war.”
So Bedivere and Lucan loaded up and rolled out. In Mordred’s camp, they found the usurper and his army of one hundred thousand knights.
Between Arthur’s 60 000 and Mordred’s 100 000, I’m beginning to wonder whether there were any men in Malory’s fifth-century England-Logris-Britain who weren’t knights. A few minutes quick googling lets me estimate the English population in the nebulous fifth-or-fifteenth century to be around two million, though, so, only about a third or half of the fighting-age male population were knights I guess.
Anyway, Bedivere and Lucan had to make some ridiculous concessions to get Mordred to even agree to sit down at the bargaining table. He drove a hard bargain, and they were obliged to carry out Arthur’s wishes and do whatever it took.
What it took: Mordred got half of Arthur’s kingdom now, and the other half when Arthur died.
Mordred, Bedivere, and Lucan negotiated a treaty signing ceremony to take place in between the two assembled armies, with only small honor guards present for Arthur and Mordred, no more than fourteen knights each. When the ceremony began, Arthur called his honor guard into a quick huddle.
“You all know the drill here. We’re stalling for time. This treaty is just to stave off the battle until Launcelot gets here. That said, I don’t want to die in an ambush and Mordred is a tricky little snake. You see him pull anything, you be ready to get me out of there, all right?”
Meanwhile Mordred spoke to his own huddle of guards.
“Okay, idiots, listen up. Arthur’s planning something. Look at him over there, with his gray hair and his crown and his magic sword. Sneaky jerk, probably wants his kingdom back. Bedivere and Lucan were happy to give up the farm, so obviously he’s got a trick up his sleeve. Stay alert and look alive and if anything goes down, I want you guys to kill Arthur first and ask questions later.”
It was a tense scene, with both Arthur’s group and Mordred’s group expecting the other to double-cross. Naturally things went south; the catalyst here was a snake biting a knight’s ankle. This knight (Malory doesn’t specify if he’s one of Arthur’s or one of Mordred’s) drew his sword to chop up the snake, because that’s what you do I guess. And one drawn sword turned to ten drawn swords turned to twenty drawn swords and horns blowing and banners unfurling and cavalry charging…
Arthur spent the entire battle chasing Mordred around; Mordred spent the entire battle trying to stay out of Arthur’s kill-zone. The battle stretched on for hours, and knights kept coming up with the intention of slaying Arthur. Arthur kept slicing them to bits, and the ground turned to blood-red mud.
At last, after fifteen hours or so of carnage, Arthur found himself alone on the battlefield, surrounded by corpses. It’s dark, and he’d lost track entirely of where anyone was; everybody he saw was dead.
He called out, and heard a distant reply. Arthur made towards the source of the shout, and found Bedivere and Lucan, both badly wounded, resting at the bottom of a ditch. Or maybe lying there waiting to die. One of the two.
“Where is everybody?” Arthur asked them.
Lucan and Bedivere exchanged glances. “We’re everybody,” Bedivere said, eventually.
“Pretty sure everybody else died,” agreed Lucan.
“But man, there are a lot of corpses in this field. Six figures easy.”
“Damn.” Arthur lowered his head. “This has all gone even more to pot than it already had, which, that’s saying something. I just wish I knew where Mordred was, so…”
At this point, Sir Mordred came around a corner, whistling a happy tune. When he saw Arthur among the piles of corpses, he stopped whistling abruptly and ran off.
“Spear!” cried Arthur.
“Give me your spear! I lost mine and Excalibur’s too good a weapon to use on that prick!”
Lucan reluctantly handed over his spear. “Sire, what with about a hundred and fifty nine thousand, nine hundred and six of the original one hundred sixty thousand knights being dead, maybe you should just let this one go. Mordred’s power is plainly broken. And if you chase him down, Sir Gawaine’s dire prediction might bear out.”
“Don’t care. Launcelot’s not here. Mordred is.”
Arthur dashed off after Mordred, and caught up to him! “Traitor! Now is thy death-day come!” he shouted, and charged.
Mordred heard Arthur coming and drew his sword. When Arthur connected with him, Mordred thrust and bashed Arthur’s helmet in, even as Arthur drove a spear into Mordred’s brain and killed him instantly. Then they both went down.