“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.