Once Upon a Time, Gwyneth woke from sleep by the sound of strained whispers, slithering down the hall to where she sat, warming her dry, withered hands by the fire and watching the flames lick at the bundles of sticks stacked like sacrifices at its base. She opened her eyes, ran her tongue over her cracked lips and peered into the gloom past the warm light cast by the firelight. Her hips and knees protested as she stood up and called out to Liam, the guard who stood watches with her as they waited for the woman to regain her senses.
She had survived a terrible night, every patron and member of staff reduced to stain and gibbet and bore injuries of an intimate nature. Gwyneth arrested the worst of it, making a damp poultice and bandaging it in place between her bruised thighs then giving the woman a draught to send her into a deep and dreamless sleep. If it had been a time of war, she would have run an edge along the woman’s throat but the regent had insisted on her being kept alive to bear witness. Gwyneth shuffled down the hall, kicked Liam in the shin. He awoke with a panicked snort and got up, clutching the hilt of his sword and stared around him in surprise.
‘She’s awake.’ Gwyneth said.
Liam adjusted his helmet and blinked twice before he grunted.
‘Not sure what good I’ll be.’ He said.
Gwyneth chuckled. Men bore torrents of blood and broken bones but the bodies of women were still arcane to them. She shook her head and continued down the hall. Her lower body ached with each step, spurs of pain digging into each tendon like a thorn, but she carried on without pause. The woman tossed and turned in her bed, hands splayed over the tight, rounded drum of her stomach as she breathed in sharp, urgent spurts through her nose. Her hair was dark and damp with sweat, framing her pale, frightened features as she looked at Gwyneth.
‘There’s something inside me.’ She said.
Gwyneth bit the inside of her cheek. Survival was not the gift others believed it to be. The mind played tricks on the body which made the former a pleasing alternative. She had tended to soldiers who still felt the fingers on hands cleaved away in battle and the woman’s injuries spoke to a different grief. She reached for a length of cloth, dipped it in the bowl of water and daubed it across her forehead.
‘There’s no bastard in your belly.’ Gwyneth said.
She stared at Gwyneth, eyes white and bulging with shock before her lips peeled back over her teeth and she screamed. Her voice was raw and sharp, scraped and bleeding with need.
‘There’s something moving inside me.’ She said.
Gwyneth placed her palm over the woman’s distended belly. She consulted the long list of conditions which arose from trauma and battle, a small cut could end up ravaging a person from the inside but when the muscles of the woman’s abdomen pushed back against her withered palm, Gwyneth forced the shudder of horror downwards and turned to Liam.
‘Get someone.’ She said.
Liam nodded and ran, his armour clattering with each stride as he left the two women to their pain. There had been points emerging from within the woman’s belly and Gwyneth set the cloth aside and picked up a small hooked knife and held it against the length of her forearm as she leaned over and looked into the woman’s eyes.
‘Whatever’s inside you, it cannot suffer to live.’ She said.
The woman nodded and snatched Gwyneth’s hand, pulled it towards her sweating throat and stared into her eyes with the force of utter despair.
‘Kill me.’ She said.
Gwyneth closed her eyes and turned the blade so the hilt rested in the meat of her palm as she rested her other hand on the woman’s forehead.
The woman closed her eyes and gave a short nod as Gwyneth grimaced.
‘Be at peace.’ Gwyneth said.
She swiped the tip of the blade from left to right, slashing across both arteries with a steady hand before stepping backwards and clutching the woman’s hand in hers as she squeezed, bucking and choking on the bed as she bled out. Her last expression was not horror or surprise but relief. The convulsions stopped in sympathy with her heart and Gwyneth set the blade down, her attention focused on the woman’s distended abdomen. It sunk into a concave and Gwyneth went to find sage to cover the stink of voided bowels and spilled blood
Gwyneth heard the thick ripping sound call to her as she walked away, followed by the sound of a liquid splash and something soft slapping to the stone floor. She glanced over her shoulder and saw the glint of wet bone, curved into five singular sharp points and flexing against the night air. The bloodied knife was next to the bowl of water and Gwyneth clamped her hand over her mouth as a black, emaciated arm glistening with scales and the blunt triangle of a shoulder emerged.
An eye stared at her, glowing with a terrible hatred and she ran from it. She shouted for help as she heard the gelid slap of motion and the screech of sharp claws against the stone floor. Whatever had emerged from the anatomic ruins did so in full knowledge of its purpose. Gwyneth made it to the door before claws punched into the meat of her shoulders and shoved her against the door, clipping her chin and snapping the bones in her neck with a sharp crack as feeling fled from everything below her neck. It was a small, final mercy but the tiny, sharp claws raked through her hair and she heard the keening song of a predator taking delight in their work.
It had its father’s eyes.