Darkness there was, always darkness. A blade flying through the air, twisting in and out of the shadows. He ran—he always ran—and the dagger always caught up with him. It jabbed and sliced at his throat. He dodged as best he could as the scenery around him began to shift.
There was the laughter, right on time. Low-pitched, almost seductive laughter that sounded both very mad and very sane at once. It could be a woman laughing—heavens knew there was a woman here, somewhere—but it could have been a man. The dagger came at him again. He threw himself to the ground to avoid the desperate swipe and realized for the first time that it was not free-wheeling, but being carefully controlled by someone with long, thin fingers and broad, pale palms. Strangler's hands, although not the ones you usually saw when someone said the phrase.
And the laughter again. Always the laughter.
Then came the face, always half-concealed by something. It could have been a woman's face—lovely in its features but somehow perverse, perhaps warped by some unnatural emotion—or a man's—handsome to the point of striking, slightly feminine, but more natural, stronger. He was in a forest now, running through trees to avoid whoever had their absurdly beautiful strangler's hands on that cursed dagger. The face was concealed by trees and leaves, sometimes smiling in kindness, sometimes smiling with an evil glint in the one visible eye, sometimes mangled with rage.
He was running—he didn't know where to, and he didn't have much of an idea of what from. He was alone in this horrific, terrifying place of mist and half-light, and he had never felt more wretched in solitude. As if his surroundings had read his thoughts, the trees turned into a bustling town full of demon-eyed citizens all desperate to hold him down for the dagger to cut open. He reached down to his side for his sword. It was gone—he was defenseless as well, then. There was nothing left to do but keep shouldering through. Just when he thought it might be less of a hassle to let the dagger have him, the townspeople faded into the haze and the village became an empty field. The laughter echoed again, rattling him into running ever faster despite the painful stitch in his chest. His own breath sounded ragged in his ears. He was wearing out. The blade was coming closer.
And then, something new.
"Give up," whispered a malicious voice that he thought he recognized from some memory just out of reach. "Why continue with your pathetic leadership and chivalry? Just give up and let me take England for myself. You know you will fail. All heroes die."
A thousand other voices joined it, all sounding the same, all bouncing around the field, surrounding him. The dagger had vanished. Unable to run any longer, he fell to his knees, pulling his hands to his ears. He tried to speak—or perhaps to scream—but his throat was full of cotton and he could not form the words, nor catch his breath. Again, he heard the laughter.
"Even now, you are weak. When it matters, when you are facing me. You are no king. You shame the word. Look at you, panting on the ground. How do you expect to rule a country when you can't even talk to a voice in your head?"
It was growing darker, the field fading once more, going black. Soon there would be nothing but that haunting, paralyzing voice that turned his heart cold with panic and his thoughts thick with fear.
"Lift your feet when you walk, O king," said the voice, dripping with sarcasm, laughing with the words. "Have a care when you tread the ground. Mind your feet; watch where you step. We wouldn't want you tripping on your path, now, would we? Keep in mind, O king. It is a long walk from Badon Hill."
And the laughing again, rising, screeching, accented by the darkness, multiplied somehow, all around him, battering him, buffeting him, assaulting his sense, breaking his ears—
And then a different voice, a young man's voice, strong and full of righteous fury, yet comforting all the same—and familiar, somehow, just as familiar as the voice and face of the thing in the mist.
A single word, nothing more, and the darker voice vanished with a whoosh of air, and the darkness turned into a blinding, scouring white light—
And he sat bolt-upright in his bed with a shiver and a gasp, drenched in sweat, gasping for air that could not fill his lungs quickly enough. His bedchamber was darker than it should have been, and he could only just feel his wife's warm body next to his. He thought he would have awakened her with his deadly night-struggle, that she would be sitting by him, urging him to wake, telling him it was only a dream, comforting him as only she could. She was not. She slept on as though the night were more peaceful than most. Yet there was someone standing over him—he could feel just the ghost of a touch as a slender finger was retracted from his temple.
Of all the faces he expected to see, the face of his nephew's enigmatic young squire was not among them.
Their eyes locked, something the young man was obviously not expecting either. They stared at each other for a moment. The squire's lips twitched as if repressing a smile. In a slow, smooth motion, the squire raised an eyebrow at the king, as if daring him to say a word about this night, to even believe that he was there. Then he took a single step backward and all but vanished into the shadows.
The room was a little brighter suddenly, glowing with moonlight that was not there just a moment ago. The king lowered himself back into bed, exhausted by his terrors, and was asleep again—almost too quickly. Somehow he knew he would not have that particular recurring dream again.
And when Arthur rose that morning, he could not be sure whether the squire had really been in his rooms, or whether that had been part of the dream, too.
Gawain knelt and said, "Our service is always yours, sire."
"Even in my dreams?" Arthur asked.
"Especially there, O king," Terence murmured, bowing. (The Squire's Tale, p. 209)
Disclaimer: Yeah, I'm still not a man, so there's no way I could be Gerald Morris.
Note: At the moment, this is a one-shot. It will (probably) not have a second chapter, but if I am (shamefully, I know) so inclined, this might become my dumping ground for Squire's Tales one-shots.