ARTHUR AND THE VALE OF SHADOWS
By Thomas G. Adams, October 19, 2016
Word Count: 3075
Rating: PG-13 for violence and disturbing imagery
Summary: Arthur and Lancelot confront Dracula in his castle along with their fears.
One crisp October day, King Arthur andhis trusted knight, Sir Lancelot, set out from Camelot. They brought no companions other than their horses, as it was a cloudy day with adventure in the air, and to bring a large group would have taken away from the wonder of the excursion.
As morning turned to noon time, the two knights came to that well-known place of faery, the Forest of Arawn. They rode deeper and deeper into the forest, sometimes side by side, sometimes single file as in some places the trees grew so close together that the trail was almost too narrow for their horses. This caused Lancelot to feel a bit claustrophobic occasionally, but he still rode on and tried to pretend that the tight conditions didn’t bother him.
As they entered a clearing in that magical wood, Arthur and Lancelot were greeted by two of their most wondrous friends, Sir Pelias and his wife, Lady Nymue of the Lake. The four of them feasted together on venison, red wine, and the finest apples and fruits harvested by the fairies themselves.
When they had finished the meal, Sir Pelias and his lady told King Arthur and Sir Lancelot of a dark castle which had recently appeared outside the Forest of Arawn. This castle was said to be ruled by an enchanter, and every knight who had entered that castle had perished by some terrible fate. Sir Pelias warned his two friends of a most grim and fearful sight which they would have to endure if they came to that dark place, but he had not the heart to say what it was.
The minds of Arthur and Lancelot were made up. They would assay this adventure, and do vengeance upon the vile sorcerer of that black castle. Pelias and Nymue begged their friends to be careful, and not to underestimate the evil they surely would have to face. Thus it was, after a warm farewell, Arthur and Lancelot set off to find the dark castle.
As the sun was just setting behind the horizon, King Arthur and Sir Lancelot exited a stand of trees and beheld the dark castle from about five hundred yards away. They also saw what Sir Pelias had warned of but was unable to describe. All around the castle were spears that stood up from the ground, and but a narrow pathway in the midst of the spears that stretched from the gates of the castle to the hooves of the knights’ horses.
But what was grim and frightening about these spears was that each one was piercing a human corpse so that each body hung at the half-way point of each shaft. Arthur and Lancelot watched silently for a moment, then with a nod from the king, both men charged their horses toward the castle. They stopped at twenty paces from the gate, and Arthur cried out, “Let the lord of this castle come forth! May he receive the judgment he so rightly deserves!”
After a short moment of silence, a deep, dark, and inhuman voice, like the voice of darkness itself, called out from the castle. “You must prove yourselves worthy if you are to have the honor of death at the hands of our master.”
Suddenly the castle gate opened, and two of the largest knights Arthur and Lancelot had ever seen stepped out. They were covered all in black armor, and stood twelve feet tall each. Then one spoke, and it was the same dark voice that had come from the castle. “We are the champions of Lord Dracula.”
Then the other giant knight continued with the same voice as the first, “If you can defeat us, the gate will be open to you.”
Now the first giant spoke again.“But if not, you will join the countless others who died here, and Lord Dracula will feast on your blood.”
Arthur and Lancelot dismounted their horses, and the king bravely shouted back to their foes, “May God choose the victors!”
The two giants seemed to shudder at Arthur’s words, causing Lancelot to quietly remark to the king, “My Lord, they seem to have some fear of God, and lo! When they shudder, a queer rattling can be heard. Sire, I do believe our foes are not of flesh and blood.”
“No matter,” replied Arthur, “we shall succeed by God’s grace.” The two brave knights drew their swords, and so did their enemies. With loud battle cries, Arthur and Lancelot charged the two giants, and an epic battle ensued.
Broadswords crashed together, merciless blows were narrowly avoided on both sides of the conflict, but it wasn’t long before Sir Lancelot had hewn off the helm of his opponent, revealing not a human face, but a bare skull. This somewhat troubled Lancelot, but Arthur was not discouraged by the sight of his foe’s true face.
Arthur’s foe was getting agitated, and in his rage he had forgotten to take the king’s speed into account. Thus Arthur was able to easily sidestep a powerful blow which left the giant foe’s blade deeply imbedded in the earth, allowing Arthur to swiftly hack off the skull and arms of his enemy. Meanwhile, Lancelot delivered so powerful a thrust to his enemy that the blade pierced all the way through the breastplate and out the back.
Both giant skeletons now lay on the ground, and in unison they said, “You have beaten the champions of Lord Dracula. The castle now opens to you.” With that said, the two skeletons turned to dust, and the double doors of the castle were opened.
Arthur looked to Lancelot, who responded with a nod. The two of them sheathed their swords and walked boldly through the doors of the black castle. Guided by faint candlelight that shone from the end of a dark hall, the knightly companions strode down the hall, glancing at the walls beside them.
Here and there were suits of black armor, and odd paintings hung on the walls. Many of the paintings were very morbid, depicting such things as graveyards and grotesque creatures. Others were surprisingly pleasant, showing such things as a beautiful castle, almost completely opposite from the one our heroes were now walking through, and one painting depicted what appeared to be a happy royal family.
Arthur wondered what sort of man this “Dracula” really was. Where did he come from? Who was the family whose portrait he kept on his wall? And what had made him become the wicked being that keeps a forest of impaled human beings outside of his castle? As they entered the candlelit room at the end of the hallway, the king thought that perhaps he might find an answer to his questions soon.
It was a circular room with three exits besides the way they came: One to the left and the right, and one more directly ahead. All three were spiraling stairways, and seemed to be exactly the same, with a candelabra visible standing beside the far wall in each.
The dark disembodied voice which they had heard earlier addressed the brave knights. “Arthur, Lancelot. Our master awaits your presence in a room atop one of these stair cases. But which one? That will be up to you to discover.”
A cruel chuckle concluded the voice’s challenge, and the castle returned to its deathly silence. Neither Lancelot nor Arthur could hold back a shiver at that demonic voice. The evil in this castle could be felt on the air, heard in the dead silence, and seen in the darkness.
Arthur and Lancelot were alarmed by their situation, but Arthur was not quite so afraid as Lancelot, for he knew who they were in Christ, and he remembered, “Perfect love casteth out fear”. So, with a short prayer, they proceeded up the left stairway.
As they continued up the staircase, they found a new candelabra about every twelve steps, until at last they entered another hallway; this one had a single room at the end of it like the first, but no paintings to adorn the walls. Entering the dimly lit room at the end of the hall, they found it to be a large rectangular room filled with paintings, books, and old relics of different sorts. There was only one exit, a stairway like the first three they had seen, only this staircase led downward instead of upward.
“Shall we continue down those stairs, sire?” Asked Lancelot, “Or shall we go back the way we came and try one of the other stairways?”
Arthur thought for a moment, and then replied, “First, let us examine what we can in this room. I’d like to know as much about our host as we can find out before we meet him, and after that we shall go down the stairs ahead of us. Judging by the amount of turns we have already made in just following the stairs and the hall into this room, I expect those stairs are actually the same stairs that were to our right when we entered the room on the first floor.”
“I do believe you’re right, sire.” With that, the king and the knight began searching through the books in the room. They were all books on occult topics and necromancy, some of them with titles like, “Living Among the Dead”, and “The Dead Among the Living”. They also found one book that was quite different though: a genealogy and diary of a Roman nobleman who had allegedly died a hundred years before Arthur’s birth. He had had no descendants, no heirs, and a peculiar will.
The will was unlike any ever heard of before. Rather than naming people who would inherit the nobleman’s possessions, the will strictly commanded that after the nobleman’s death, all of his possessions were to be left precisely as they were, and for all who lived and served in his house to either leave the house forever, or be killed and left to rot on the castle floor. The nobleman had also ordered for his own corpse to be placed in an oaken coffin which he had crafted himself, and left in the center of a room at the topmost floor. After the will and the orders for his most unusual entombment, the Roman nobleman had written one last journal entry.
Little did our heroes know that as they read the journal, they were being watched through the spiritual eyes of the journal’s author. What was going through the mind of this dark being, we may never know. Could there have been some measure of remorse in his heart? Was it even possible for this phantom of what was once a man to feel remorse? Was there any part of him that wished he had not embarked on this dark path? Whatever the case may have been, the only emotions that could be sensed from this Hell-like environment were those of the worst kind: Hopelessness, fear, and anger.
The knights read the final entry of the journal. They are all gone now. . .
. . . every last living soul of my house. . .
The fools didn’t believe me. . . They thought me insane.
“You cannot live forever, Vladius!” They said. . .
“Cease this witchcraft, my lord! It is madness!” They said. . .
But who was it they placed in the coffin, just as I ordered them?
They thought they were honoring the last wishes of a dead man, but who now lives?
. . .Vladius I was. . .
. . . But now, thanks to my secret friends in darkness, I am. . .
Lancelot slammed the book shut with a shudder as he read the last of those chilling words. Arthur and Lancelot now knew without a doubt that the lord of this castle was a wretched man, possessed by the vilest of Satan’s spirits. Though Lancelot did not show it, doubts had begun to creep into his heart, and in the back of his mind he suspected that this would be the final quest from which he would not return.
The king and his knight continued down the stairs out of the room, and Arthur’s theory was proven correct as they were soon back in the room they had started in, with only one staircase left to explore. These stairs seemed much longer than the first as the two knights climbed higher and higher, and they almost began to wonder if the stairs even had an end.
Lancelot was dwelling on his doubts, and in truth, he would have been searching for the way out of the castle by now if it hadn’t been for Arthur’s steadfast courage. Lancelot was thought by many to be the bravest of all Arthur’s knights, and he almost believed it himself until now. In his wildest dreams he never thought such an oppressive and evil place as this could exist, nor that he could be stricken with such terror as was arising in his heart. But Arthur simply continued to show no signs of this fear in his own self, and Lancelot wondered at the king’s courage. So the knight followed his leader, and determined to show himself just as brave.
At last they came to a dark room lit by six red candles. In the center of the floor was the oaken coffin as told of in the diary, surrounded by the six candles, each on long candlesticks standing five feet tall. Arthur and Lancelot stepped into the room cautiously with their swords drawn. The walls of the large hexagonal room were so deep in shadow that anything could have been hiding near them.
Suddenly, the coffin creaked wide open, and Arthur’s heart skipped a beat as the figure of a man, all dressed in a black robe and cloak, rose and stepped out of it. However brave they had been, the two men now felt like boys in a nightmare.
“Welcome, guests.” The wretched figure hissed as he turned toward the companions. His face was withered and pale, like a corpse, but there was still some form of life behind his sunken black irises. A stench like sulfur was on his breath, and his tongue flicked between four sharp canines as he spoke. “I give you a choice, Arthur of the Britons, and Lancelot of the Lake: Renounce Christ and live forever as a creature of shadow, or become two more corpses in my forest of spears.”
Arthur felt God’s hand on him, and replied with a holy confidence. “Vladius, no one wins in a deal with the devil. You may have escaped the fires of hell for now, but you will not escape on judgment day. All will stand and be judged before the Throne of God, the living and the dead. The longer you continue to defy God’s law, the more severe your sentence shall be. But I have come to stop your reign of terror, and deliver justice for your crimes.”
Dracula emitted a hellish shriek of indignation that seemed to come from the walls of the castle itself.
Arthur and Lancelot braced themselves for the assault, when suddenly the six candles went out, leaving the room in pitch blackness.
Arthur heard his companion shout his name, though it seemed as if it were a distant echo, soon covered by the unearthly screams of demons and sinners long dead. Arthur could feel himself being knocked around the room, and as much as he wanted to swing his sword frantically for the foe that struck him, he dared not for fear of hitting Lancelot. Cold fingers with long nails began to clasp around his throat, but swinging his left fist through the darkness he could not find his target.
Pray, my son! Arthur heard the voice in his head. It sounded like Merlin, his old mentor. The king began to pray silently, as he felt the cold fingers attempting to squeeze the air from his throat. . .
Father in Heaven, whose mercy endureth forever, hear the cry of your blood-bought son. Shadows around me seek to destroy my very soul and snuff out my life, but You are with me. Yea, though I am harried in the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For thy rod and thy staff comfort me. Christ above me, Christ beneath me. Christ around me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ within me.
The cold fingers suddenly lost their grip, and Arthur could see all around him, clearly as if the sun was shining into that very room. He punched the wide-eyed Dracula in the jaw, and before the vampire could recover, Arthur’s sword struck the fiend’s head clean from its shoulders. Seeing that the coffin was now closed, Arthur threw it open and found Lancelot gasping inside.
“Lord, save me!” Lancelot gasped.
“It’s alright,” said Arthur as he helped Lancelot out of the coffin and gave him back his sword which had fallen to the floor. “Dracula is dead.”
“How do we get out of here?” Lancelot asked, still in a panic. “It’s pitch black!”
“The stairs are right there, can’t you see them?” Arthur soon realized that only he had been given miraculous sight in this darkest of moments, so he advised Lancelot to hold onto him as he guided them both down the stairs and out of the evil castle.
After nearly falling down the stairs multiple times because of Lancelot’s lack of vision, at last they made it out and across the clearing, back to their horses. As they mounted up, they took one last look back at the castle and forest of corpses, and saw both visions of evil begin to crumble to dust and then disappear entirely, as if they had never existed at all.
As they rode off into the moonlit path that would take them back to Camelot, Lancelot looked back in his mind on all that had happened. He realized now that he felt much braver than he did before, and he wondered if all these things he had seen were a divine test that had been arranged for this very purpose. He realized that the strength he had relied upon was not his own, but Arthur’s, and through talking with him, Lancelot also realized that this strength was not Arthur’s own strength either, but came from the One on whom Arthur relied for strength.