“Good night, Countess,” he droned solemnly, his head bowed slightly but watching his Lady as she swept down the grand staircase and across the slate floor towards the entrance with a flapping of dark, heavy velvet. She held his gaze with her steely grey eyes and said – as she did every night, “Good night, Arthur. Keep the place tidy for me won’t you?”
Arthur didn’t reply, but instead just smiled gravely — the sort of smile that starts tentatively at the corners of the mouth but never quite makes it up to the eyes. The Countess had never been great at reading emotions, and Arthur had, over almost two hundred years, managed to cultivate a smile which did at least ensure he would stay, as it were, off the menu.
With a nod, the Countess swept out of the grand doors and down the long path outside, cape billowing behind her as she floated past the grotesque statues that lined the path. Arthur barely gave it any thought that the Countess didn’t make any sound as she crossed the gravel path and quickly disappeared into shadow. He turned on his heel and headed with a limp towards the great stairway to get on with his chores for the night – the great doors of the entrance swinging silently to a close, and a gentle click denoting the latch dropping.
Arthur paused, frowning. He’d have to look into that, it just wasn’t right. No matter how hard he tried, if he left the doors long enough they lost their characteristic rusty scream and traditional booming close and ended up sounding a bit… domestic. Well, it certainly didn’t sound intimidating, and that was the whole point, wasn’t it?
In the old days, before the Count had died, leaving the Countess in charge, Arthur’s chores had been more… interesting. He would have started cleaning upstairs and worked his way down. That way, the grime, dirt — and in this case, blood and bones — kept heading downwards and you didn’t run the risk of having to scrub the same place twice over. With a long brush he would have started with the ceiling of the drawing room — so called because the guests were, ahem, drawn here as part of the breakfast frivolities — and continued his way slowly all the way to the dungeons, making his way to bed as screams carried on the wind would herald the Count’s arrival back from his hunt.
These days, however, Arthur had a much more challenging clean-up, as his mistress had developed an obsessive compulsion for everything to be neat and organised, and it was amazing how untidy everything became over just one night in even a slightly haunted castle. However, tonight Arthur wasn’t going to tidy up and wasn’t going to follow his usual set of chores, because tonight, Arthur was going to escape.
It had been a good run. Two hundred years, rent-free. Admittedly, the first hundred were much harder, working under the old master. He’d seen and heard things he would rather forget. Since his ladyship took over it had been mostly plain sailing. But he’d decided enough was enough. There was a whole world old there, with trees, birds, grass, open blue sky, and even… women. He’d read about them in books. The castle library seemed to be particularly well stocked in books about young, pure, nubile women, that read a little bit too much like an a la carte menu for his liking. He had secretly managed to read most of the books he could from the library, although many of them were written in indecipherable lettering and strange languages, or seemed to be locked shut no matter how hard he tried.
His hand moved unconsciously down to the metal girdle attached tightly around his leg. Even now, after all these years, the skin above and below was a deep, angry purple, and very tender to the touch. The girdle had been attached to him for as long as he could remember, well before he’d been put to use under the Countess. Even though it had been his burden to bear, he knew surprisingly little about it, or the event that had caused him to wear it. All he knew was what the Countess had told him when she was unusually agreeable one day: that he had needed it as soon as they had found him, and that it kept Arthur living to this day. Over the many decades, Arthur had managed to piece together elements of his story, but everything stopped at the day he was found in the wreckage of a burning village, with no living person around him. There was nothing before that.
He straightened up, wincing as he did so, and made his way up the stone stairway, passing tall, grim paintings of thin-lipped, stern-looking lords and ladies. Their gazes bore down on him with palpable contempt. He kept his eyes down as he continued his way up, flight after flight. Although Arthur generally felt weak and had his eternal limp, he actually moved with a speed and lightness that would have surprised an onlooker.
He continued on his usual cleaning route around the castle. Anyone watching might think he was simply doing his chores, but if they watched carefully they might notice that he would occasionally pause as though listening intently, and would walk over to a bookcase and swap one book with another, or move a chair slightly further away from the table. At one point he swapped the knives and forks over on the immaculately presented long table, but after a minute passed he scurried back into the room and swapped them back. He mustn’t push her too far too soon.
Arthur’s plan relied on something he had noticed in the Countess. You might think that she was generally a very calm, collected individual — if you had ever witnessed her in a rage, you were probably dead. However, there were things that caused her to instantly flare up, and in the last few years, it had been getting worse. Seemingly innocuous things such as returning to find the welcome mat – which read, “Come for the company, stay for dinner” – not being perfectly in line with the flagstones, or not having exactly ten teaspoons of pepper in her Bloody Mary (a morning drink she claimed to have invented), would cause her to fly into an inconsolable rage that invariably ended in the castle being trashed, fires breaking out in villages all around, livestock strewn dead across the hills, and the Countess having to go for a lie down with a headache for a few days. She really wasn’t herself if the castle wasn’t just so.
One thing Arthur was perplexed about was that although these rages had now occurred several times over recent years, and all were caused by him, the Countess had never once attempted to hurt him in her anger. In fact, she had never even come close. It was almost as though behind the blinding rage, part of her knew to keep away from him until the anger subsided and she was ready for him to help her off to sleep. Arthur speculated that this might be because he was the only person left in her world from the old days, and she wanted to keep him around for old time’s sake – but he was under no illusion that she couldn’t just find another servant to replace him if she needed to.
He had no intention of trying to hurt the Countess who had, despite everything, been generally kind towards him. Whilst he knew it was technically possible to cause her harm (the day the Count had not returned from a hunt had silenced that question), for his plan to work he intended to incapacitate her so that he could make his escape, and by the time she came to, he would be far, far away.
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.
Arthur felt strangely detached as he watched this. His first thought was one of pity for the knight; he imagined she would quickly despatch him, which would at least resolve the situation. But this thought was quickly overtaken by a new, surging sensation, one he hadn’t felt before – and as a strange warmth coursed through his veins from the wound in his leg upwards, his thoughts flashed from his pity for the knight to a sudden burning hatred towards him, then as swiftly as that came on, his pity returned. His mind was confused, tugging in two directions, but the hatred was winning. Then, in an instant, he felt nothing. His mind was immediately clear, rational, cold. He no longer felt the pain in his leg and glancing down noticed with a distant interest that although there was blood all down his leg, the wound had diminished and seemed to have small scales over it. He looked straight at the knight without emotion. He no longer saw a fellow man, but instead he began to see a creature to be hunted: he saw prey.
The knight stepped back into a corner, trembling, terror in his eyes, sweat dripping cold down the back of his neck. He likewise began to see the man on the floor as something other than a man – something about him had subtly changed, and he seemed to be straightening out and growing before his eyes.
Keeping both the grim lady and the man-creature within his field of view, he edged back crouching, unsure who to fear more. On his way up to the castle, he had prepared his heart before God and prayed that God would grant him favour against the evil of the woman in the castle. Maybe his prayers should have been broader. He flicked his eyes from one person to the other, and to his shock the man-creature was no longer lying on the floor, injured, but stood, impossibly tall. His skin seemed shiny and his eyes burned – not with vengeance, or anger or hatred, but were simply staring straight at him as a wildcat might transfix its prey. There was no thought there, no doubt – just a clear intention of death towards him. The man he had been fighting was gone. The creature in front of him was something out of nightmares.
The knight became aware that the Countess was no longer paying him any attention. Her eyes were instead fixed on the man-creature with a strange expression on her face – could that be fear? Her lips were pursed, and it seemed to him as though she was considering her next move. She looked down at the ground where the metal girdle lay in a pool of blood, pushing it gently with her foot.
The creature formerly known as Arthur strode rapidly forwards towards the knight, unheeding of the Countess, who watched as he walked past. He lifted his huge arm to strike the knight down, but his hand was caught mid-arc as the Countess suddenly stood next to him, holding his arm effortlessly in an iron grip. A struggle ensued, as the knight watched on with morbid fascination: the man and woman seemed to have equal strength. The Countess pushed the man who was thrown back hard into the wall, but quickly recovered as though he felt nothing. He stood taller than ever and seemed to be growing in strength and ferociousness. Then the Countess spoke.
“Arthur?” she questioned. The creature looked at her but made no sound apart from the sound of steady, powerful breathing. “My husband knew who you were.” A thought seemed to cross her mind. “Do you know who I am? Do you remember me?”
The person stood still, a puzzled expression flashing across his face. It looked strange, and then he looked like Arthur again for a moment, “You are the Countess,” and his face changed again, now resembling a grim statue of an animal, “You are the one who bound me,” he said in stern tones. The voice had changed to a sinister whisper, and the human element in it was becoming less and less obvious.
“We found you. We brought you in, and watched over you.”
“You trapped me in this wretched body. You couldn’t kill me, so you enslaved me.”
“You were a threat to everything around you. You were a threat to your own existence,” said the Countess, facing him. “We found you in the wild: you had destroyed everything – everyone – around you. Your appetite had no end – my husband wanted to keep you close, and I wanted to protect our lands from your ravaging hands. So we kept you close, and we changed your nature,” she nodded at the girdle on the floor, “a primitive thing, but it has proved effective in keeping us safe against your kind before. So… unfortunate that it should come to this.” She looked at the knight as she said this, but returned her gaze to the creature as he retorted,
“My kind?” He walked towards the girdle, lifted it, and after inspecting it for a moment ripped it in half as though it was made of paper. “And what is ‘my kind’?”
“You don’t know what you are?”
“I am… I was… before you,” the voice sounded both ancient and dark, “The memory is growing within me. I have no name for myself. I stood alone. I remember a time before you, before the Lamia came to try and tame me. I remember ruling these lands and many others besides. I remember a trap. I remember fighting, plunging into the deep, and then… I slept.”
The knight realised he was in the presence of two terrible inhuman creatures, and felt paralysed, but somehow whilst watching this conversation unfold he willed his legs of lead to move slowly backwards, taking advantage of the fact that his two foes were too preoccupied with each other to take much notice of his presence.
The Countess spoke, standing erect and proud, “You must leave my lands. I have cultivated its people and harvested responsibly: we have asked much of them, but they — ”
“You are weak. You have shown them what you truly are: a pathetic creature.” Contempt dripped off every word. “You think you have power, but it is only the power to turn your cattle this way and that, to control and tame with fear. Your tricks and games have come to an end. I have returned. My time has come.”
“What would you do?”
“You asked of them. I will not ask. I will take what is rightfully mine.” The creature’s eyes lit as though by an internal fire, ”I will show them my true glory. And they will fear me as they once did. And they will bow, and I will have no mercy. And you,” he looked straight at her, “Countess Sabra, have no power to stop me.”
The Countess recoiled as it spoke her name. In revealing it, he was showing his power and knowledge, and diminishing hers in an instant – to call up the names of those who should be nameless. She knew what he – what it – was, and knew there was little chance that she could defeat it now it was returning to its true state.
The fight – if it could be called that – lasted only a few moments, but to the knight it seemed as though the world was exploding around his ears. Smoke, ash, fire and wood splinters flew in every direction. Tiles cracked and beams fell from the ceiling. As he tried to make a run towards an open door he found himself in between them, and then he felt an impact and everything went black.
The Countess lay on the ground, mortally wounded, the creature standing over her, triumphant. As he watched her it seemed as though her pale skin turned to stone, and then at once crumbled into dust onto the ground. The creature looked down, and took up a pan and brush that was lying there. Sweeping the ashes away unceremoniously, he spoke in an otherworldly voice, “Goodnight Countess. Goodnight, last of the Lamia. Goodnight… Sabra.” He lifted his head and walked towards the castle gate.
The knight lay on his front in the wild grass outside the castle walls, having been flung clear from the castle in the explosion. His head was screaming as he watched the creature stride powerfully out of the castle doors. The soft dusk light reflected pale on skin which seemed like that of a reptile now, reflecting scaly metallic hues of silver, purple and blue. It paused, looking back at the castle for a brief moment, before leaping forwards in huge steps, one, two, and with a cracking sound and a roaring it leapt into the air, and a shadow as of huge wings covered ‘Arthur’ as he disappeared into the clouds. Lightning crackled around, and a glowing as of fire in the sky revealed the monstrous shape in its true form to the knight.
As he lay there for a while, watching as the shape moved rapidly through the sky towards the horizon, the dull thudding of enormous wings echoed across the valley. A distant screech as of some creature in pain sent a shudder down his spine. He smelt smoke, and looking back at the castle, he saw flames licking the window frames out of a couple of the rooms. With a grunt he pushed himself upright and ran as best he could back into the main doorway, disappearing inside. The smoke began to billow out of the windows, and several shattered as the fire began to blaze throughout. Still the knight didn’t emerge.
Finally, he burst out of a far window from the first floor, landing hard on the grass but still intact. As he lay there, he opened his arms to reveal a large, crusty, ancient book. He wasn’t able to read the strange runes inside, apart from one word, emblazoned down the spine in thick, metallic lettering.