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Darkness and Light

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Fabien Marchal came back late at night. Claudine had expected him to return since the day he had left with the man she had saved and he had tortured, refusing to let her tend to the damage he had inflicted. Left her with table and floor covered in blood, with blood on her clothes and hands and on the surgeon’s saw. She had scrubbed the whole room, not content to only clean up the aftermath of the surgery, but the whole room, furiously working so she wouldn’t think about what had happened. And what was in store for her and her father later. They had known too much even before and the rumours about Marchal were dark and numerous. Her father had wanted them to go, to flee, but Claudine had refused. Where, after all, could they go and be out of reach from the long arm of the King?

It tooks days to clean everything, and her father left her to it, for once going to see his patients without her help. When everything was clean she warmed water for a bath, carrying the heavy pails of water from the well to the cauldron to warm, and then to the tub. There Claudine scrubbed herself as vigorously as she had cleaned the room, the harsh lye soap stinging her eyes when she washed her hair. When she was finished she sat down in front of the dwindling fire, clad only in her shift and a shawl. She combed the damp locks with her fingers to let them dry before she went to bed. The soap had dried out her skin, and she slowly rubbed in cream on her arms and legs, delighting in the scent or orange blossom. The house was silent, the night outside still, otherwise she wouldn’t have heard the soft knock on the door when it finally came.

Her first reaction when she saw him was that of a doctor, the word spoken before she could stop them. “Are you hurt?”

He looked faintly amused as if the notion was laughable and shook his head. Claudine stepped aside, and he passed her, taking the rushlight from her hand as he did so. He strolled around the room, raising the rushlight to let its feeble light illuminate the jars and bottles filling the shelves. Claudine retreated to the fireplace, wishing for more clothes both for warmth and to shield her from him, even though he had only given her a glance so far. She watched him carefully, in his dark clothes his body melted into the shadows, while his face seemed unnaturally white. There was no hurry in his movements, his hand flickered through an open book on the table and he traced his fingers over the tools of her trade lying ready for use on a sideboard. Then he placed the rushlight in its holder and came to stand before her.

Up close Marchal looked gaunt and tired and Claudine wondered if he had slept since she saw him last. And she could smell him, sweat and smoke and the coppery stench of blood. Whatever assignment the King had sent him on, she was sure it had involved death and suffering, and he was not finished yet.

“You know more than a woman ought to know. Why aren’t you content with cooking and cleaning for your father like any dutiful daughter?”

“God gave me the gift of healing. Who am I to turn away such gift?”

“Hmm, yes. And you are good at it too. You father can’t be too happy to be surpassed by a mere girl.”

She didn’t know what to answer. No, her father was not happy, but she would not speak of her private grief over causing him pain. Marchal didn’t seem to expect an answer either, and after a moment he spoke again.

“Recently I held a child in my arms as she bled to death. I could have used your skills then.”

“Why didn’t you bring her to me?”

“There was too much blood on the ground already, when I found her. Death was waiting by her side when I came, to move her would only have caused unnecessary pain.”

Claudine wrapped her shawl tighter around her. She wasn’t sure what she had expected from him, but it had certainly not been a wistful tale of a murdered child.

“Why are you here Monsieur Marchal? The hour is late and you look like you need a meal and a bed, not a nighttime conversation.”

“I do. But I am not in the habit of letting loose ends go unattended. The question is; is that what you are? My King trusts you. I’m here to make sure his trust isn’t misplaced.”

“How can I prove such a thing if you don’t think my conduct are proof enough yet?”

“I admit you have shown nothing but discretion and intelligence in our earlier encounters, but is that enough? Who are you? What are your passions? You have a pretty face and lithe body- does his Majesty sleep with you?”

“No!”

“Would you want him to?” Most ladies of the court hankers for the King’s notice, however brief. You have been singled out like few others.”

Claudine thought about the King, of his beautiful face and guarded, intelligent eyes. The self control and haughtiness, but also of the way he had looked at her and what he had seen. He had not seen a woman, but a doctor. She didn’t want him to see anything else. But how could she convey to Fabien Marchal that she would serve and love the King her whole life for giving her this opportunity she had never really thought would be hers.

“He is my King”, she said after a long pause.

Marchal nodded. “As he is mine. And my duty, above any other thing, is his safety.”

“Isn’t my duty too?”

He looked at her thoughtfully and then he slowly stretched out his hand and wrapped it around her throat. Not choking her, but still tight enough so she could feel her own pulse beat against his fingers. So, this was the end, then. Claudine had always thought death would come with cold fingers to pluck her life from her, but his hand was unexpectedly warm. She would die and her father would die and then perhaps another fire and it would all be a tragic accident. She looked into his dark eyes and saw no anger, but no compassion either. Was there any regret, or would he relish in taking her life? And once again words fell out of her mouth before she could stop them.

“Do you enjoy killing?”

“It’s a part of my responsibilities.”

“Yes, I know, but do you feel pleasure in taking another human’s life?”

“Do you take pleasure in healing?”

“Of course I do.”

“Why?”

This was so much easier to answer.

“When someone needs me and I realise what I can do to help, then it feels good. Everything I read, everything I learn I use so I can be better at helping those in need. I want to save life and to ease pain. And when I am successful and I know my skills haven’t failed me, that is a wonderful feeling.”

He pulled her closer, the hand tightening its grip. It was strange, Claudine thought, the things you noticed when you were about to die. How cold her feet were and how the wool of her shawl scratched her neck slightly. She saw a small spot of dried blood on Marchal’s cheekbone and when he bowed his head down towards hers, she caught the fleeing scent of perfume, her nose picking up warm, woody resins, ambergris and musk.

“No, I don’t think it’s only the pleasure of healing,” he whispered. “For me, there is no better feeling than to hold a life in my hands, to know I have the power over life and death. And I believe it’s the same for you. Ah yes, I understand now what I saw in your eyes when you saved that man’s life. It was triumph in them when you stood there with your hands bloody, knowing with your whole being it was your actions alone who decided a fate. You and I are more alike than I thought.”

An eternity of seconds passed where Claudine’s heartbeats rose to a thundering storm in her ears. Then he stepped back and removed his hand. The cool air caressed her throat, making it feel oddly naked.

“But you will choose life every time and you will not harm our King. There is no darkness in you, no wish to cause sorrow and you will not go against your nature. You will have nothing to fear from me.”

He disappeared into darkness, the door opening and shutting softly behind him. Claudine remained still until her heart had slowed to its normal pace. She was safe now though she still felt confused over what had convinced him to trust her. When she was finally breathing normally again she bolted the door and covered the last glowing embers before she took her rushlight and went to bed. Sleep, however, eluded her until long after daybreak.