Once Upon a Time, Carrey stood with Liam, a reassuring hand on his shoulder as they stood before the closed door to the infirmary. Carrey wore black chain mail over leather since taking the throne as regent and had his familial sword Dawn sheathed on his hip. He had commanded a small group of guards to accompany him, their fear registered in the metallic tang of their sweat and the liquid, concerned eyes which met his gaze. Carrey ordered his men to surround the door and enter, he squeezed Liam’s shoulder and pushed him forwards.
‘Whatever’s behind the door, we face it as men, understand?’ he said.
Carrey’s voice carried, lending courage to the surrounding men. The bodies at the inn had their entrails dragged and festooned over the ceiling beams and tables like pink and yellow banners of victory and the one survivor had injuries Carrey knew were common not in the heat of battle, but the aftermath. Liam raised the guard. Carrey drew Dawn and held it to his eyes, admired the blonde–red sheen of the metal and took a deep breath. A cold, sinking dread which pulled at his insides as he ordered his men forward.
Blood welled underneath the door and the guard stepped back with his weapon drawn as another pulled the door open. They exchanged potent looks before they swept inside.
Carrey smelled the blood and shit, the stink of voided bodies and all of it packed like clay into each breath. Liam pitched forwards and made a tight, mewling sound at the back of his throat as he held his sword ahead of him.
‘She said there was something wrong with the woman, your highness.’ Liam said.
There was no sign of Gwyneth but the walls and floor as the guards swept through, swords drawn and eyes narrowed to slits. Four men entered, ahead of Carrey. They stopped when they got to the rows of cots and Carrey heard someone gag with revulsion. He pushed past to see what had disgusted them. He regretted his decision in an instant.
It was the woman from the inn.
Most of her.
From collarbone to thighs, she was a wet, glistening ruin. The contents of her stomach shredded and pulled out, with glistening ropes of intestine dangling in all directions. Her last expression was one of relief. Carrey peered at the remains of her pelvis and glanced in Liam’s direction. He asked him what the woman had said, and Liam repeated the words he’d heard.
There had been something inside her.
It had gotten out.
Carrey saw the horrors men inflicted on themselves and one another, it made him tactile with his children, patient with his wife and earnest with his men but this, much like the inn, showed signs of something inhuman.
The arrow fired without an archer.
Henry driven to murderous intent.
He had the men search the rest of the infirmary. They flipped cots, lit torches and moved furniture with the urgency of fear.
There was no sign of Gwyneth. Carrey strode outside, took a deep breath to fill his lungs with good, clean air instead of the miasma which clotted his sinuses and throat. A guard came to him, asked him for his orders and Carrey stared out into the night.
‘Double the patrols. Send word to the homesteads and huntsmen to report anything strange.’ He said.
The guard nodded and ran to enact the regent’s will.
Carrey wanted Eilhu, Paul or Mirabelle here. The former had a touch of wildness to him, and had manifested displays of prowess at the perfect time, Paul had tremendous wisdom and his daughter took after her father. He sheathed Dawn, adjusted his gauntlets and walked back to the infirmary.
‘See she’s given a good burial. Find Gwyneth as soon as you can.’ He said.
The guard asked if they should wait until first light but Carrey grimaced and shook his head.
‘I doubt I’ll sleep so let’s use it for a purpose, eh?’ he said.
The guard bowed from the waist and ran to summon men and horses. Carrey waited until he was alone before emitting a slow, tight shudder.
Carrey’s education had been broad and involved. He knew the sigils of the great houses and the signs of a good steward but he also knew how to thread a fish hook and skin a deer. He knew the life cycles of insects and animals, and those lessons returned to him, taught again in the ruined bodies he came across.
Certain breeds bred by guile and force.
Some men too, he thought, but this was no man. He recalled a species of wasp which laid its eggs in the flesh of others and waited for its young to eat their way out from the inside. His hand touched the hilt of Dawn for reassurance. Carrey had always set stock by the things he could touch or see but the fear which burned in his chest held sway over everything.
He sent a messenger to The Caliphate and another to the High Colleges before he prepared the court for what came to dog their steps. It was dawn before he slipped beneath the furs on his bed and his wife, Susannah woke up to find him staring at her, his eyes shining with tears as he pulled her close.
He pressed himself against her. Susannah knotted her fingers in his as he whispered how he loved her and wanted her. Their coupling was urgent in its passion and soon over but afterwards, he collapsed against her and fell into a deep, thick sleep. Susannah stroked his hair as she wondered what had frightened her husband.
He turned his head in sleep and muttered a phrase which made her flesh prickle with distaste.
‘There will be more.’ He said.