Chapter seven is where the story takes a turn.
Arthur’s in this dark prison, surrounded by moaning knights. “Who are you and why are you moaning?” he asks.
“We’re knights, twenty knights, that have been locked up here as prisoners,” one of them says. “We’ve all been here seven years.”
“Actually I have been here longer than that,” says another.
“And I have not been here that long,” says a third.
“Shut up, I’m explaining,” says the first one. “On average we have been here for seven years. Seven years is the arithmetic mean.”
“There’s a knight, a wicked villain named Sir Damas, and he has a younger brother named Sir Ontzlake.”
“With you so far,” says Arthur.
“Ontzlake wants his rightful inheritance, but Damas won’t give it to him, except for a nice manor house.”
“Ontzlake has challenged Damas to a joust, for the inheritance, but Damas is too cowardly to fight.”
“Damas therefore has been abducting knights and demanding that we fight Ontzlake in his stead.”
“For seven (plus or minus) years?”
“Yes. We’ve all refused, because he’s a terrible person, but he keeps abducting knights from strange adventures (he hides throughout the countryside and waits until a knight on a strange adventure falls asleep)! Eighteen of us have already died!”
“That’s dreadful,” says Arthur.
“Now we’re all so weak and hungry and light-deprived that we’ve got rickets and scurvy and so on!”
“You poor fellas,” says Arthur.
(Also, you guys, you don’t know how many words Malory spends laying this situation out, it’s like a full chapter’s worth of longwinded exposition I tell you.)
After he’s been apprised of the situation, a damosel approaches Arthur. Let’s call her Mildred (Malory of course does not name her).
“Good morning, sire,” she says, and winks at Arthur.
“Not really,” he says.
“If you agree to fight for my lord Damas,” she says, “I’m authorized to take you out of this prison. Otherwise, you’ll rot here.” She winks again.
“Hmm,” says Arthur. “It’s a tough choice. This Damas seems like a real piece of work. I can see why thirty-eight knights have chosen slow death. It’s not my style, though. I’ve thought it over, and I’m willing to fight for Damas, on one condition. He has to free these twenty guys he’s locked up.”
“I’m sure that won’t be a problem,” says Mildred, “strange knight whom I have never met before.” She winks a third time.
“Oh, also I’ll need my armor and sword and shield back, and a horse too,” says Arthur.
“Of course, sire, I mean, stranger,” says Mildred. “That goes without saying.” One more wink for good measure.
“Do I know you?” asks Arthur.
“Finally!” cries Mildred. “I mean, no, sire. I mean, no, stranger. Wink wink.”
“Did you just say wink wink?”
“No,” says Mildred, nodding yes.
“I remember now,” says Arthur. “You’re my sister Morgan’s lady-in-waiting!”
“I am not!” says Mildred, nodding yes again.
“No? I guess I’m mistaken,” says Arthur.
Mildred slaps her forehead. In Arthur’s defense, it’s really dark in there.
Anyway, Mildred goes to Damas and tells him about how Arthur has agreed to fight for him, and Damas tries to remember when he hired her, but anyway, he’s pleased, and swears that if Arthur defeats Ontzlake (or Ontzlake’s champion) then Damas will free the knights he’s taken prisoner. In return, Arthur swears to fight as hard as he would if he were doing it of his own free will.