It was some time past midnight, after he had intentionally splashed a couple of drops of white candle wax on to the black squares in the chequered flooring, when he sat down on a small sofa in a hidden away, cosy room they called “the snug” -such rooms are generally considered an embarrassment to a certain class of castle-dwelling society. He gulped down a hearty portion of gruel, before allowing the sofa to swallow him up. As he lay there, his mind occupied with thoughts of his impending adventures in the wide world, he suddenly felt his ears twitch.
Suddenly attentive, he straightened up, straining to hear the sound again. It came again, closer, clearer. Clank, clank. It seemed to originate from inside the castle walls. Arthur sighed. Tonight of all nights. He resigned himself to postponing his plan for another night – although he knew he would have to work hard to get the castle back in shape and get rid of this intruder before the Countess returned.
He stepped out of the snug, gently pushing the oak door to a close. He trod his way lightly to the edge of the huge wooden staircase and leant over the edge, peering into the shadows far below. Over the years Arthur’s eyesight had become accustomed to the dark of the castle, and so he saw the shape slinking around at the bottom of the stairs. Oh God, thought Arthur, watching the tall knight creeping forwards, and craning his neck around a doorway. The poor sod’s here to try and kill her. On his own.
Arthur observed the knight with interest, watching him twitch at every creak and whisper in the dark corners of the castle. He could imagine his heart rising up into his throat and his eyes were wide open with fear inside his large metal helmet, not knowing what to expect around the corner. Didn’t he realise that the most fearful thing in the castle went out hunting every night and left Arthur alone to get on with his chores in peace? Her pets were around it was true, but truth be told they had proven to be embarrassingly friendly towards hostile guests. Everything else was just… atmosphere. He’d almost miss it.
This slinking man was going to mess up his plan. He’d have to lead him out of the castle, get rid of him – and soon. The night was drawing in, and she would likely be back before long, depending on how things were going in the valley. Arthur set off quietly down the creaking stairs. At once the knight tensed, staring into the shadowy void above him, unable to see Arthur, who was continuing down slowly. With a thud, an arrow struck into the wall next to him. He paused. He had to give it to him, this guy was one of the better ones – it was obvious he couldn’t see Arthur in the dark, but his shot was only a few inches off.
He could see the knight pulling back another arrow – perhaps he needed to try a different approach. Sidestepping into a doorway out of the line of sight, he let out a low growl – a trick he had learnt from his time in the castle: better to keep their minds fearing the worst until they finally see you. Arthur had no doubt the knight would not be intimidated by his small stature and limp. The Countess, however, had a very active interest in trespassers. There was another thunk as an arrow embedded itself into the doorframe near Arthur’s head. Arthur let out a frustrated hiss. This was really getting in the way of things.
Down below, the knight closed his eyes. He’d heard an odd sound, not like any beast he’d heard before. Listening intently, the silence roared in his ears. He hadn’t expected this. He’d prepared himself for what everyone knew lived here. His mission was to enter the castle and find something, anything, that would give them a clue as to how this invincible terror could be defeated once and for all.
They’d chosen him for this mission, he thought proudly. True, they had chuckled into their tankards when he’d proposed the venture in the tavern that evening, and then they did grumble extensively when he demanded an up-front deposit… but there was no doubt about it, everyone agreed things had to change. Life had, it was true, much improved from the terrible legends of the old days, when the night terror would come upon the village and there would be a whole night of ‘the hunt’, when the fearsome thing would attack without warning, fires would be lit, arrows fired into the air in vain, women and children would ride horses at full speed towards supposedly safe havens in the forests. There was no escape from the terror in those days, and you lived every day as though it were your last. As the saying went, “Today has enough worries of its own to worry about tomorrow.”
This year the villages had come together because the demands of the Countess had become unbearable. When the night terror had finally been ended on that long-since celebrated night, the Countess had taken the helm, and in many ways, this was a huge improvement. But evil is evil, in whatever guise. Whilst the Countess opened up a channel of communication with the villagers, she made demands that broke the hearts of all who heard them. At first, the Countess agreed on a truce: she would no longer hunt the villagers, but instead, demanded a sacrifice of livestock to satiate her appetite. This was certainly deemed an improvement in affairs and was swiftly agreed to. The Countess allowed this to continue and the parish became more and more complacent, living as they were in relative peace, seeing her less and less.
One day, however, after the last person who had been alive to recount the Count’s death had themselves died, she came once more to the village in person, walking to the centre, bellowed her new demands: she was a fair ruler, she said, and would not hunt unfairly. But, she required a new sacrifice – once a month she would require the sacrifice of a human life. It would not be an old person nearing death, nor would it be a child. Other than that, the village would have to decide who this person would be, and yield them up to her at the agreed time and place. If the demands were met, she would continue to leave the region in peace. They didn’t dare ask what would happen if the demands were not met.
The villagers had been filled with dread. Throughout the night they had held a tense meeting: many didn’t believe the threats of the Countess, having only heard children’s stories and old wive’s tales about the wrath of the night terror. They argued bitterly and the village was nearly torn apart by their disagreement. But the Countess’s demands had to be satisfied. It was agreed that those who committed heinous crimes would be the first to be presented, having themselves taken away the lives of others. Many years passed, and the painful recurring event went on. Eventually, though, it became rare for any serious crime at all to occur in the whole region, as the threat was so real and so great. One month, the villagers were unable to provide a suitable person from their empty prisons, and, unable to choose from their innocent population, they decided to withhold the sacrifice.
The onslaught had been terrifying that night, and all who remembered shuddered to think of it. The Countess had appeared in the centre of the village as always, emerging out of the shadows in the wind. She stood stock still and looked coldly at the spot where the sacrifice was usually presented. All around her, eyes peeped out of dim windows. Those who observed it said that as she looked around with her terrible, unblinking grey eyes, a mist grew up from the ground she was standing in. Soon the village was covered in a mist that came up through the cracks in the doors and windows until no one could see anyone around them. Every house reported separately that the Countess had appeared before them, and taken one of their family away, explaining coldly that she had warned them, and that she was just holding her side of the bargain.
When the sun rose the next day, the wailing could be heard all around: not a household had been left without the mark of death on them. Many tried to escape the land that day, only to find they were unable, by some dark power, to exit through the forest that surrounded them for miles around: experienced travellers found themselves walking out of the forest where they entered, having wandered aimlessly under a heavy cloud for days. A dark despair hung over the stoic people, who had for so many years been under a continued oppression from the rulers of their land. And so, whilst they began to plan hopeless counter attacks and how they could gather information in hushed meetings in secret cellars, they also resigned themselves to drawing lots for those who would be sacrificed. But finally the villagers had overcome their cowering fear and met up secretly to form a plan to get rid of the Countess once and for all. The young knight who had entered the castle this evening had been very excited to be chosen as the scout.
Changing tack, Arthur walked slowly backwards, whistling infuriatingly. The whistles echoed off the walls and up the staircase, returning in an eerie echo. The knight drew his sword and began to walk forwards tentatively, holding the sword close to himself, but tensed, ready to spring. Arthur led him around the castle corridors, past the kitchens and towards the cloisters, which led out to the back of the castle. Arthur hoped that he could block the man out of the castle from the rear, and then maybe he would see sense and leave.
A cold seemed to radiate up from the flagstones about them. As they left the castle and entered the cloister grounds, they were bathed in pale moonlight and the knight suddenly caught a glimpse of Arthur’s face. With a sudden fury, he darted forwards, but he was too late; Arthur knew the grounds too well and had quickly turned a corner and vanished further into the shadows.
It was eerily quiet after a sudden flurry of movement. Mist rolled along the ground. The knight followed now, breathing heavily but with a new confidence after catching sight of his enemy. He’d seen Arthur’s human form, his limp and his small stature, and all thoughts of terror and imaginary fear of the unknown had been replaced with a single-minded desire to pursue this damned, treacherous man who worked willingly for the dark powers who lived here.
Running to catch the man he came up against a solid door back into the castle, but it was barred shut. Running along the cloisters he found another entrance, and another, but each was barred shut like the last. Eventually, he found one where the hinges hung slightly loose. Striking his sword just above the revealed door hinge barrel, and holding his weight against the corner of a stone wall, he kicked the sword hilt into the hinge with all his effort. It took a couple of attempts, but soon the door was far enough ajar that he was able to squeeze himself back inside the castle kitchens. Compared to the cloister the interior was suddenly very dark, a flickering warm glow betraying a fireplace far away down the corridor. Cautiously he crept with his back to the wall to the heart of the castle keep.
Somewhat smugly, Arthur had returned to his duties, having decided that although tonight had not really gone to plan, he was still going to try and give it a go. Two hundred years, and now he was feeling impatient. Just then, a roaring of wind and the all-too-domestic ‘click’ of the front door latch signified the arrival of the Countess. Arthur swallowed. That was when he turned and – too late – realised the knight had made his way back into the castle.
Arthur turned, limping towards the knight who was holding a flaming cloth low in front of him and shielding his eyes from the direct light so that he wouldn’t be blinded. The knight saw Arthur rushing toward him and not realising his intention wasn’t to harm him, threw his flaming cloth down before him, sidestepping into the darkness. Arthur’s vision was thrown by the sudden bright light and as he turned he felt a sharp sting across his leg; the knight had struck him with his sword. Arthur staggered back and fell to the ground, sprawling, a white-hot blinding agony overcoming him. His leg felt warm and wet, and crawling backwards he felt the metal girdle around it slacken, and then fall off with a clank.
The knight approached Arthur cautiously as he crawled away from him along the ground. Blood was smeared across the floor under his leg, and he seemed incapacitated. His sword ready to strike, the intruder forward, and spoke, “Who are you, wretch?”
Arthur stared at him. The pain had almost overcome him, but somehow he found the strength to reply, “‘m Arthur,” he swallowed, and finding his voice said, “and I am a servant in the house of the Countess.” The knight shuddered at his voice – it had in it the silver edge of a tongue that no man would wish to hear. It was almost as though two voices were speaking at once, or perhaps there was a lingering whisper after he had finished speaking. The knight felt very uneasy, a growing sensation of a shadow of dread overcoming him as he realised that although he had defeated this man, he was too late to escape without confronting the Countess. And suddenly, there she was standing before him. “Lamia!” The knight cried, “the serpent’s daughter!” He spat the words, but felt beaten down into a bow by her powerful stare. The knight felt humiliated but slowly forced himself upright again, as though some invisible arm was pushing against him.