On the eve of this planned joust/battle with Mordred, Arthur dream[s] a wonderful dream. He’s in a chair on a scaffold!
It gets better. The scaffold is all connected to this big wheel assembly, and it’s slowly turning. As it turns, Arthur’s chair tilts up, steeper and steeper, until it’s horizontal and Arthur falls out of it, into the black moat below. Bonus: the moat is full of foul and horrible spiders, that eat him!
Indeed, yes, a wonderful dream. Arthur wakes up with a shout, but falls asleep again quickly. This second dream is arguably more pleasant: he’s in an airy, well-lit space, seated comfortably with a cool drink, chatting with Sir Gawaine while several dozen maidens — all the women whose illegitimate children Gawaine sired, in life — attend them.
“Being dead is pretty sweet, Uncle Sire,” Gawaine says. “I got all these babes, God turns out to be a swell guy…”
“So the ghosts of your former lovers are, what, your heavenly wives and concubines?”
Gawaine shrugs. “Or they’re purely ethereal constructs created to serve my whims. Doesn’t really matter.”
Arthur sighs. “That’s great. With you dead, I forget sometimes how you’re the worst.”
“Anyway, because God and Jesus both like you, They gave me permission to visit you like this, and warn you about Mordred.”
“Little late for that!”
“No no, I mean, this battle you have planned tomorrow, it’s not going to go well. If you kill Mordred without Launcelot, you’ll end up dead. You need to delay, until Sir Launcelot shows up.”
“I don’t think Launcelot’s coming. It’s been a month with no word back.”
“But I sent a letter! Give him another month!”
Then Sir Gawaine and all the ladies vanish.
Arthur wakes up, again, and this time instead of going back to sleep he calls in what’s left of his brain trust, Sir Lucan the Caterer and his brother Sir Bedivere, who are literally the last knights that King Arthur has. They aren’t the only surviving Knights of the Round Table; Laucelot’s followers are all still alive, and there are 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 remain at Arthur’s side, neither taking up arms against him nor sitting the war out at home.
“Loyal dregs,” says 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 have some questions about this new plan, but Arthur lays 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 load up and roll out. They ride over to Mordred’s camp, where he and his army of one hundred thousand knights have assembled.
Between Arthur’s 60 000 and Mordred’s 100 000, I’m beginning to wonder whether there were any men in England 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 have to make some ridiculous concessions to get Mordred to even agree to sit down at the bargaining table. He drives a hard bargain, and they’re obliged to carry out Arthur’s wishes and do whatever it takes.
What it takes: Mordred gets half of Arthur’s kingdom now, and the other half when Arthur dies.
Mordred, Bedivere, and Lucan negotiate 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 begings, Arthur calls 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 talks 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.”