The following morning, we awoke to frenzied shouts from a new squad of soldiers that had arrived to supplement the beleaguered and depleted forces we had there previously. I stormed outside to the path to see a cart being escorted by two red-coated riders. The soldiers on the path gawked at the approaching cart with rapturous attention.
“What is it?” I asked one of the young men.
“Some bodies, from the sounds it!” he excitedly squeaked.
“An’ they ‘aven’t got any ‘eads,” a second soldier added.
A dull ache set in around my chest and stomach. If they were telling the truth, that would be yet another crisis for us. It was quite rare in ordinary criminality to have a find that grisly. The same applied in the practice of medicine. While I had seen a number of gruesomely disfigured bodies in my time, what was described to me was something else altogether.
When the cart arrived in front of the palace, I walked around the riders to look at the remains they were carrying with them. The riders, for their own part, said nothing. They stared straight ahead as though they were mindless automatons. When I rounded the rear of the cart, I was hit by the unmistakable waft of putrefying flesh. The rancid, overpowering odor even carried over that crisp wintry air. I covered my nose, dreading what I would find when I opened the cart’s rear panel.
As soon as I did, I saw two corpses, dressed in muddied red wool uniforms, their heads severed and missing, and their skin green and purple. In a brief mindless moment, I dropped my hand from my nose in shock and took in a heavy gulp of that air, inundated with the odious vapors of putrefaction. I consider it a blessing that I had allowed my stomach to be empty that morning as the vomit that I unleashed was naught but clear saliva and some yellow bile. I quickly composed myself and stepped to the side of the cart to point to the men who stood idly by, gawking.
“You! All of you! Help me with these bodies!” I barked.
The men only grudgingly obeyed, but at least they were swift and efficient when they did so. They carried and laid the bodies out upon the ground to be examined near the palace. Sir Lucas and I undertook the examination as Doctor Warren and Sir George claimed they had little expertise in such things. I suspected that they merely had weak constitutions and would rather not be burdened with it. I cannot blame them.
Sir Lucas was wise to focus on the strange pattern of the flesh around the neck where their heads had been severed. I focused far too much time on the strange mottling of the skin, which was largely irrelevant compared to what he noticed.
“These weren’t clean cuts,” he said, taking breaths of a perfumed handkerchief in between his examinations. “See? There’s this jagged nature here on this one. And then on the other, it’s at a bit of an angle. Yes, like it was coming up from below and across. Below and across, yes. This wasn’t an execution. I think both of them lost their heads whilst standing or running.”
“I am trying to imagine what could have done that”
“Admittedly I am not an expert on how one kills another man,” Sir Lucas dryly joked. I glared at him for his morbid impertinence. His face straightened and he again examined the wounds. “Yes, with these jagged marks, I dare say that it was something akin to a chain that must have come across and ripped their heads off.”
“And apparently the heads were not discovered. I venture someone or something may have taken them,” I murmured. “In any case, it seems obvious to me that these are the two who ran off the night we encountered the ghost of Octavius.”
With a startled expression, Sir Lucas gawked at me.
“Are you certain?”
“They look somewhat familiar. I’ll have the few guards remaining from that night confirm it, but it seems likely,” I groaned as I stood from examining the corpses. “This all only adds to our woes.”
Sure enough, the guards from the first night of our strange encounters at Kew confirmed those were their comrades, identifying their hands and one of their birthmarks. In some respects, I was glad to have learned what had become of them, though without their heads I feared that there could be something truly irregular at work. Whomsoever stole those heads would have done so only for a dastardly purpose as there is no good reason for a sane man to want to keep two rotting heads in their possession.
Later that afternoon, we received a response from the Prime Minister regarding our inquiry of the previous day on any peculiar activities, rumors, or reports in Wales. As it happened, there was a great deal more than we expected. Mr. Pitt was kind enough to enclose a detailed map of Wales that allowed us to sift through the innumerable incidents to attempt to discern some manner of pattern.
It was my observation that those incidents down along the southern coast of Wales, near Cardiff, Swansea, Carmarthen and so on were far more vague and obtuse than those as one moved northwards through the more remote parts of Wales, including lightly-inhabited locales such as the Cambrian Mountains and up into the northerly reaches. The incidents and reports centered most heavily on Gwynedd and Clwyd, two of the three northernmost counties of Wales.
“I’ve always found these Welsh place names intolerable,” Warren fumed, tossing notes aside at one point. “Everything ends in ‘ed’ or ‘yd’, it seems. It is hard for me to tell anything apart.”
“I quite agree,” Greville said. “Though this is all making sense to me now.”
“This? This all makes sense to you?” Warren chuckled.
“In a way. Sir George, you mentioned to me that His Majesty has been to Wales before, in fact fairly recently,” Greville said, pinching his nose to relieve what was doubtlessly incredible strain. He had laboured more heavily than any of us through the Prime Minister’s correspondence.
The weight of sudden unwanted attention made Sir George form a dismissive smile. The piercing gazes of the rest of our gathering compelled him to speak after a short silence.
“Ah, well. It is the case that His Majesty and Her Majesty undertook a journey to Wales some time after their son Octavius died. I believe that they may have spent some time in the Vale of Clwyd, now that we have mentioned it,” Sir George said in a careful tone. “I would not invest so much in a fleeting coincidence, however.”
“Coincidences are only irrelevant if there is indeed no link between two events,” Robert offered, straightening himself in his chair and developing an accusatory posture toward Sir George. “If our evidence is pointing us toward Clwyd and His Majesty has some link, however tenuous to Clwyd, then we should go there.”
I glanced at the map again, my eyes settling on the village of Ruthin in the Vale of Clwyd. The number of incidents and rumors that had been reported in and around the village could not be ignored. Not with the whole weight of all of the corresponding evidence. I decided to interrupt some incipient squabbling between our well-meaning, but disagreeable, grouping.
“We will set off tomorrow for Ruthin in Clwyd,” I declared. “I read in the Prime Minister’s dispatches that there were two men decapitated in much the same way our two soldiers here were. Those were near Ruthin. Several other pieces of evidence point this way as well. It may end as a tragic act of deceit that leads us toward Ruthin, but it is a wiser path than any other I can think of.”
“All roads lead to Ruthin, eh? We’ve come a long way from Rome,” Thomas joked, drawing a couple of groans, much ignoration, and no laughs. He shrugged and return to fiddling with a small locking mechanism that had gained his attention for the previous several hours while others had done true work.
Ultimately, all agreed with my conclusion. When I spoke with His Majesty just before going to bed, he had a rare lucid moment where even he concurred with our decision.
“Anything you can do, please help me!” he cried.