Sorry this took so long. This chapter was annoying, and I'm putting it up in two parts, because it's kind of large-ish. So, nerve-wrecking part one, and a title so obscure it's possible even you forgot about it!
I should have known better, really, Arthur thought with a sigh. Well, perhaps that wasn't quite fair. He really had no idea the feast would be that boring, but if he had, he would have told Gawain to stay in his room—the man seemed to attract trouble. The trick was that Kai always managed to stay decently close and handy for conversation, and tonight Kai was three seats down with Conniore and he was sandwiched between Griflet and Guinevere, and neither of them were particularly stimulating company at a full banquet. Because between Kai and the odd sympathetic dignitary, the king rarely got bored at these things, but when he did and Gawain was present, things had a tendency to go wrong. Hart-and-hound, war-with-Rome, giant-green-knight wrong. When he first felt the tendrils of tedium, he shot his nephew an apprehensive look (which Gawain saw and looked hilariously puzzled at) and began watching the doors to the banquet rooms.
He was not disappointed now, as his sigh was drowned out by the banging of the doors and the startled gasps of men and women alike as a fully armed and very angry-looking man threw off the guards failing to restrain him and marched in like he owned the place. He stood to greet the visitor, wondering if this was to be the test-of-courage sort of intrusion or the Camelot-is-mine-now sort. "Welcome to court, sir. I'm afraid you've walked into the middle of our meal already. You are free to join us, or wait outside until we are finished…"
The knight (Arthur assumed he was a knight, anyway; why else would he be wearing armor?) surveyed the court with a look of contempt and shook his head at the king's words. "This is the mighty court of Camelot? These are the fabled Knights of the Round Table? I came here expecting to find a troupe of valiant warriors and instead find a string of lay-abouts filling their faces!"
The king bit back another sigh. "I did just mention something about a feast, did I not? If you'd care to pull up a seat—"
"I did not care to eat the table scraps of so-called heroes!" the man snapped. "I came to see if they were worth their mettle, but I can tell there isn't one of them here even half-worthy of the reputation of the least of them."
"My men are the Knights of the Round Table. There is no least of them," Arthur said, voice suddenly much colder and more formal. No one insulted his men like that and got away with it. Not if he had anything to do with it.
The stranger spat on the floor. "Whatever you like. Bare-faced boys and popinjays. I'm not surprised the stories are false, but I am surprised one of the lot actually managed to kill my brother."
Ah. Challenge, then. "I apologize for the death of your brother," he said over the murmurs that had started among the feasters. "And I would be perfectly willing to discuss this with you away from the others—no reason to stop a banquet that's half-over. The food would spoil."
Then the man chuckled and lifted a hand in a sort of mockery of one of Merlin's old wards against evil, and Arthur's blood ran cold. There was more to this than met the eye. "Oh, you have much more to worry about than a spoiled meal, King Arthur. I am Mendelen, and I am more than just a knight. I have a contingent of men on the hill outside the city, and one of my men is a sorcerer currently using his magic to monitor me. If anything happens to me, he will know and take action. I tell you this because you may be inclined to imprison me when I tell you what else is being held on that hill."
There was no way on earth this line of conversation could end well. Arthur braced himself, quieted the increasing murmurs with a raised hand, and nodded to the man. "Well? What else is being held?"
A wicked smile appeared on Mendelen's face. "I believe your banquet is only half-over because of a late start? A sudden and uncharacteristic shortness of staff in the kitchens when a group of maids went missing? And perhaps a couple of ladies have been reported unusually absent from your number as well?"
The murmurs turned to whispers of outrage and fear, and the king's hand clenched as a wave of anger shook his frame. Right. Right. Not funny anymore. "Release my subjects," he ordered, quiet and menacing.
"Gladly. When I get what I want."
"And what is it that you want?"
"A fight. A duel, a trial-by-battle, single combat. Whatever you want to call it. I want a fair shot at killing the man who killed my brother."
His fist clenched again, and he forced himself to continue speaking in a civil tone when all he wanted to do was run the man through. "I cannot ask that of any of my knights."
"The lives of fifteen women say otherwise."
He gritted his teeth and the whispers grew louder. "…Very well. If the knight consents, you will have your fight. Who killed your brother?"
"The Knight of the Island."
Dead silence, then a great, swelling roll of whispers as no one recognized the name and no one stepped forward. "I'm sorry, who?" Arthur asked.
"Don't play dumb with me, Arthur Pendragon. Bring forward the Knight of the Island."
And the whispers grew into a quiet thrum of scandal and conversation as a single knight stood from the table. Arthur closed his eyes and suppressed a groan, his earlier thoughts of keeping a certain nephew of his away from all celebrations returning as everyone looked at Gawain. These things nearly always seemed to center on Gawain. He opened his eyes again as the knight began to speak.
"We're not, as you call it, 'playing dumb,'" Gawain said, a muscle in his neck jumping in a way that told Arthur he was just as incensed about the hostage situation as the king himself was—but there was something else, too, a kind of worry more desperate than that of a soldier whose home was at risk. "Who is this 'Knight of the Island?' Has anyone ever heard of him?" Several people shook their heads. "No? Perhaps he doesn't even exist. Perhaps you fear the real knights of the Round Table and have invented this man as an excuse to make a scene."
Mendelen snorted. "I'm not afraid."
"Fight me instead, then."
"Who are you?"
The evil man grinned. "Nice try, Sir Gawain, but the knight does exist. In fact, I think you know who he is. I recall a story where you saw him. Fought him, perhaps? You know him."
Gawain's face was grim. "…Yes, I know him." The ambient conversation spiked at the words, but Gawain shook his head. "You have insulted the Knights of the Round Table and threatened the citizens of Camelot. But you have called out the Knight of the Island, who is not of the Round Table. So I say again: fight me instead."
Mendelen shook his head. "I have no quarrel with you, Sir Gawain. I only want my revenge. I will fight the Knight of the Island, or I will fight none."
The red-headed knight's voice rose and echoed around the chamber, frustrated and angry. "Then you will fight none, because the Knight of the Island is not here. Let those poor women go and get out."
Arthur's apprehension grew with Gawain's volume. Gawain did not defend strangers like this. There was only one reason his nephew would be this adamant in a foreign knight's protection. He swallowed and looked to the shadows behind the knight.
For the second time that horrible evening, he was not disappointed. Terence's hands appeared on Gawain's shoulders, gently pushing his master back into the empty chair. "That's enough, Milord," he said, voice carrying despite the noise that only increased at the sight of a squire telling his master what to do. Terence ignored the crowd and made his way around the wide table toward the recreant. "How do you know this man killed your brother?" he asked as he walked.
The man tensed and turned a furious glare onto Terence. "And who are you to question me like this?"
He hesitated before answering, an act that only made Arthur's suspicions grow. "I am Sir Gawain's squire."
"And you expect me to answer you?"
"If you want answers yourself, then yes," Terence said, his voice mild but his hands shaking. He stopped and stood before the man, looking somehow powerful and very vulnerable at once. The tremor in his hands was the only indicator of any sort of discomfort at the situation. He was speaking like a lord. "Sir Mendelen, there are only two people in this room who have ever heard the name Knight of the Island before this day. Sir Gawain is one. I am the other."
That got the man's attention. "Well? I'm listening."
"Now, Sir Gawain would die before revealing the man to you," Terence said, shooting his master a fond look, "because he is a sentimental idiot who holds his friends in dangerously high esteem. I usually feel the same, but to the Knight of the Island, I hold no such loyalties." *
"Terence, don't," Gawain growled, starting to stand again.
Mendelen smiled, reaching for the purse at his belt. "All right, then, young whelp. How much do you want for a name and a location?"
He stopped when the squire laughed. "I have more loyalty than that. I cannot be bought. I propose something else."
"The Knight of the Island needs no prompting to fight you. Let the women go and I will tell you all."
Mendelen chuckled and shook his head. "No, I think not."
"Then do so anyway, and pass your challenge to me."
The murmurs stopped. Arthur's stomach jumped into his throat. Mendelen looked surprised, cocking his head toward the squire, a hand reaching for the hilt of his sword. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me." Terence stood up a little straighter. "You say you will fight none but the Knight of the Island, and I think that is a vanity. You clearly want to fight someone, and I don't see why some other man should take the fall. Let your hostages go and fight me, and I will give you the name, regardless of the outcome."
"Terence," Gawain said again, panic flickering across his face.
"I have neither the time nor desire to kill you, boy," Mendelen said, turning away.
"You won't get the name any other way. Or are you afraid of me?"
"Hold your tongue."
"After all, if you can't kill a squire, what hope do you have against the Knight of the Island?"
"Shut up, squire."
"Vanity and cowardice. You may look like a man and dress like a knight, but I don't think you're any better than a dog—"
Mendelen roared with rage and whipped around, almost faster than the eye could follow, and within seconds he had backhanded Terence, hard, sending him sprawling across the floor, blood dripping from his mouth and nose, the man's sword resting on his collarbone. Gawain leapt the table, knocking a pitcher of wine into Tor's lap, but stopped cold at the sight of metal glinting at Terence's throat. Several knights—Kai, Bedivere, and a drenched Tor, notably—were also standing and ready to jump to the unarmed squire's aid, and many woman had screamed at the sudden movement, sure they were about to watch someone die.
Terence, on the other hand, was grinning. "I do believe you just issued me a challenge, Sir Mendelen. I accept."
The man's face twisted into a grotesque snarl, but he did step back and sheath his blade. "…Fine. If you are so eager to die, I will grant your wish. I'll be back tomorrow, at noon."
"And you'll let the women go free at dawn," the squire prompted, looking almost feral with blood dribbling down his chin. "I swear on my life I will tell you the knight's identity. You don't need the women anymore."
"Agreed," Mendelen said. "They'll be returned to you, alive and well, at dawn." He swept out of the room without another word, the doors banging shut behind him.
For a second, no one moved. Then the second passed, and Gawain was pulling Terence to his feet, a steadying arm on the squire's back. "If you'll excuse us, sire," he muttered to Arthur, heading for a side door without waiting for a response.
Arthur nodded and remained only just long enough to get everything under control again before following the motley pair—no one had really expected him to stay at the feast while Kai was there to take control and Gawain and Terence clearly needed him much more than the feast-goers. He followed them down a hallway and into a small, empty room. Arthur shut the door behind them and turned.
He was just in time to see Gawain, hands shaking even more than Terence's had been, spin the squire to face him. "What were you thinking?" he snapped, roughly grabbing Terence's shoulders. "Are you trying to get yourself killed? Why didn't you let me take him?"
"Ei-Eileen," Terence stammered, trembling a little. "Eileen, she was due back tonight, she—"
"She wouldn't have been this close to Camelot yet. She's fine. She'll probably be back tomorrow, in fact. With luck, she may be able to see you die—"
"Gawain," Arthur interrupted. "You'll give him a headache, shaking him like that."
"Good Gog, lad, why didn't you let me take him?"
"He was after me anyway," Terence snapped, stepping out of arm's reach at last and holding a sleeve to his dripping nose. "I figured I may as well give him what he wanted."
"So you are," Arthur said, and both looked at him as if they'd only just noticed him there. "The Knight of the Island, I mean."
They looked at each other and seemed to wilt, all the tension draining out of them. "I am," Terence admitted. "Though I can't think of where he heard the phrase. That title's used so little, I forget it until someone points it out to me."
Gawain was a bit more under control now. He pulled a large handkerchief from his tunic and stepped forward to mop up some of the gore. "Yes, yes, shut up about the ridiculous number of titles you have. The entire side of your face is red, and it's not all blood, are you aware of that?"
"Very," Terence said, wincing away from his friend's hand.
Arthur paused. "Did you kill his brother?"
Terence shrugged, shouldering Gawain, who swatted the back of his head. "Who knows? Maybe. I've only assumed that particular role a handful of times. Once I killed a few knights in defense of a castle….uh…"
"You did sign that writ of execution," Gawain muttered. "Was that as the Island Knight?"
"I don't remember," Terence said, looking older than he had a right to. "Who knows? Maybe this man has only been led to believe the Knight of the Island killed his brother. Maybe someone figured out who the Knight of the Island was, or at the least, who he could be, but couldn't connect it any farther. Maybe he doesn't even have a brother, and this is an assassination attempt. It hardly matters now."
"Mmm," Gawain said with a slow nod. "The Knight of the Island, Champion of the Enchanter, Defender of England. Makes sense that he'd be found in Camelot, doesn't it?" Louder, then, "I think your lip has stopped now, but your nose is another story."
Arthur sighed and leaned against the wall, crossing his arms and staring at the ceiling. "Does he have a chance, Gawain?"
The knight stepped back and surveyed his somewhat battered squire. "…He looks younger than he is, and he's been my squire and the Knight of the Island for a long time. He's more experienced than most people think, and he's good with a sword. He'll surprise Mendelen in being able to put up a fight at all, and he can use that to his advantage."
Terence glanced down. "…He's fast, milord. Faster than I expected, and I was goading him."
"Yes, well, he'd have to be good to be cheeky enough to pull something like this off," Gawain said, then softened and glanced between Arthur and Terence. "You're good, too. There's a chance, there's always a chance."
Arthur nodded and turned to Terence. "You'll need armor."
"I'll get it. I'm certain Father knows about the fight already. He'll send it to me."
"And a sword," he added. "I want you to take Excalibur. It'll give you an edge."
"Sire, I couldn't—"
"Terence, my court will be in an uproar for this. A squire, fighting a knight? It's everything the Table is against. If I don't show my support to you in some ridiculously obvious way, people will be unhappy for months. Do me a favor and take the sword."
Terence smirked, then grimaced in pain. "Fine. Fine. Milord, are you sure Eileen—"
"She's fine, lad. And don't call me milord if you're going to play knight-for-a-day. You set my teeth on edge when you mix our roles like that."
"One more thing," the king said, stepping toward the pair. "…The court's heard the title now. They'll have to be told something."
Gawain blinked, a light blush spreading across his face. "Huh," he said. "Hadn't thought of that."
"We'll tell them it's Sir Wozzell," Terence said, almost at once. "It's true enough, and as far as everyone knows, 'Sir Wozzell' is dead now, so it can hardly be double-checked. I can say I didn't tell him right off because he'd be so angry at being denied the chance to fight Sir Wozzell, the hostages would have been hurt."
"Very good," Arthur said with a nod. "But what are you going to tell him?"
Terence sighed, pressing the handkerchief closer to his nose. "…I don't know. I…I don't know."