Marian had been nursing her father for a little over three years, rescuing traumatised children from the gallows for two and stitching up battle-weary outlaws for around six months. She knew a thing or two about treating deep wounds of both the emotional and physical kind, and, though she had never encountered a creature quite like Djaq before, she did her best to be soothing.
The Saracen’s hands were shaking so badly that she could not wash herself, and Marian, patient and determined, did it for her, steadily sponging the dirt from her face, her hair, her arms, feet and legs. When she got to Djaq’s back she inhaled sharply, for the bloody mess that had been made of the flesh was worse than any she had yet to see.
“This is going to hurt,” she informed the Saracen, bluntly.
“Just get it over with,” Djaq muttered.
Marian dampened a clean cloth in warm water and took it to the first tear in her patient’s back. Djaq hissed and clenched her fists then shook her head violently.
“Stop!” She twisted away from Marian’s touch.
“These have to be cleaned,” Marian told her, gently.
“I can’t,” Djaq shook her head again, disgusted at how pathetic she was being, but quite sure that she would go mad if she had to endure more pain that day.
Marian placed a hand on Djaq’s bare shoulder, “if your back is not cleaned, these wounds will become infected – you will take a fever and die. And, for goodness sake, for someone who has been through what you have been through, surely that is a truly pathetic way to die?”
“I just – can’t,” Djaq hissed.
Marian sighed, softly. She had seen people hit their breaking points many times in the last few years – her father had hit his some time ago – and Djaq looked to be on the brink of hers.
“Alright then,” she said, softly, “alright, come on.”
She helped Djaq to her feet, and led her to the bed. She had given her a clean pair of breeches to wear, and let her cover her chest with a blanket while she inspected her back. Now, she bid Djaq lie down on the bed, and pulled the covers up over legs, leaving her wounded back open to the air.
Marian’s fingers were beginning to ache with the need to play nurse. Some of those wounds, barely hours old, were already looking inflamed, angry, ready to turn septic at any moment. Quietly, she climbed up next to Djaq on the bed and watched the Saracen fidget about on her stomach uncomfortably.
“I will have to clean those wounds at some point,” Marian pointed out.
“Just – not now,” Djaq replied, through gritted teeth.
Marian was silent, turning the situation over in her mind. The thing was, she did rescue women, on occasion. Young women. Pretty women. Desperate, grateful women.
She knew that it was selfish – playing God. Picking a pretty face out of a crowd, snapping her fingers and voila – somebody lived. It was dangerous, too. The women, particularly the pretty ones, were noticed when they went missing. She hadn’t done it in a while for that particular reason. A few months ago, she had come perilously close to being caught with a pretty little red headed sixteen year old (a very, very grateful red headed sixteen year old). Turned out, the Sheriff had had a particular interest in seeing the girl – Marie, her name had been – hang by her pale, pretty little neck, and half the castle had turned out looking for her.
Far too close for comfort.
But it was fun, pulling the girls out. Those pretty, grateful girls. With their wide eyes, and their fearful tears, begging – please don’t send me back, m’lady. I’ll do anything. Anything you want.
Which was, of course, all she needed to hear.
“I know of another way to clean your wounds, if you want,” Marian offered, softly, “it will hurt less.”
The Saracen twisted slightly to look at her, narrowing darkly suspicious eyes. “And I keep telling you – not now.”
“I can’t!” Djaq shook her head violently and clenched her fists. She buried her face in the pillows and was still again.
Marian watched her bony rib cage contract beneath papery flesh. This strange, tortured creature, so determinedly refusing treatment that would certainly save her life. She was so thin, so ragged. It was a wonder that the wounds on her back had not exposed the bone. Week and exhausted as she clearly was, she would succumb to infection and die before she saw another two Sundays – that much, Marian knew.
And Marian knew about death. In all her twenty one years, she had seen too much of it for her own liking. She knew about crumpled, weary bodies, succumbing to age and disease. She knew about lumpy, twitching corpses swaying in the breeze, their crooked necks supporting blue faces with huge, empty eyes. She knew about the still little bundles of flesh that poor, helpless infants became when they finally screamed themselves away. She knew about tears and grief and fear.
And she knew about life, too. About will. About strength. About need. More acutely than anyone might give her credit for.
So she stole herself, and leant over the Saracen’s trembling shoulders, examining the bright, wet, gashes that lined the woman’s shoulders. Then she dipped her head, and closed her mouth over the upper most of the wounds.
Djaq tensed, instantly, every wasted muscle along her back stiffening at that warm, wet touch. Marian did not wait for her to protest, but delicately ran her tongue over the open wound and sucked, steadily drawing out grime and dirt and dry blood. She could feel her patient’s breath catching, could smell the sweat on her skin. The blood in her mouth was metallic and gritty.
“What are you doing?” Djaq’s voice was harsh but low.
Unhurried, Marian raised her head, and spat the blood into a bowl by her bedside – then she leant down to press her lips close to Djaq’s ear.
“I’m saving your life,” she allowed her nose to graze the nape of the Saracen’s neck, “now hush – lie still.”
Djaq shivered, but obeyed.
It was the strangest sensation that Djaq had ever experienced. The sharp sting of each initial contact dulled almost instantly, this strange Noblewoman’s tongue soft and velvety and warm on her skin. Marian had been right – it hardly hurt at all. Not compared to what else she had been through that day.
And it was soothing. Curiously so. The room was warm. The blankets beneath her were soft. The air was quiet, but for the distant rattleings and rumblings of the building alive all around them. Even with so much of her body still throbbing dully with pain, Djaq knew herself to be suddenly far more comfortable than she had been in at least six months.
She was beginning to drift. There was only the warm, moist touch of her nurse’s mouth, over and over; the creaking of the bed as Marian shifted every few minutes or so, turning to spit out blood or move to another wound. The breath of the noblewoman bloomed and died over Djaq’s skin, and every now and again, she was sure that she could feel Marian’s eyelashes fluttering against her flesh.
“Alright?” Marian’s voice was gentle, one hand resting on Djaq’s shoulder.
“Yes,” Djaq muffled her reply in the pillows, but could not bring herself to thank the woman.
“I’m going to dress your wounds,” Marian spoke firmly, her tone still kind, but carrying an edge to it that suggested to Djaq that she might need far more strength than was currently available to her if she wanted to protest, “I need you to just lay still, alright? I’ll do the rest.”
Djaq obeyed – for she could do little else – and listened to the pale-faced noblewoman fussing. She twisted her head to watch her opening a wardrobe and retrieving a heavy wooden box, which she brought back to the bed. Out of this, she took a thick roll of clean white linen – perhaps a sheet that had been shredded for such purposes, long ago, and then she sat down on the bed, and began.
Bandaging the wounds was an arduous process, despite the fact that Djaq barely had to participate in it. The sting of the linen on her flesh burned unbearably for several seconds after it had been applied, and she had to fight not to cry out on numerous occasions. Even so, she could not stop herself gasping and yelping in pain every few minutes.
“Shh-sh-shh,” Marian stroked her hair soothingly as she pulled another bandage taught about Djaq’s shoulders. She was essentially having to mummify most of the Saracen’s torso in order to properly dress her wounds, gently easing her spool of linen cloth beneath Djaq’s body and then criss-crossing it over her back.
“You try shh-ing when your back is on fire!” Djaq told her, irritably – and this, for some reason, amused Marian.
“You have a sharp tongue in your head,” her voice was soft, “even after all that you have been through. That is admirable.” She touched Djaq’s hair again, and Djaq shivered. Marian’s hands kept playing at the base of her neck, moving in delicate circles over the skin whenever Djaq flinched with the pain. It was a comforting gesture. A kindness. But…
While there was something soothing about that touch, it was starting to make Djaq feel nervous. It felt… intimate. Too much so.
“Are you going to tell me your name?” Marian’s voice, close against her ear again.
“My name is Djaq,” Djaq replied, shutting her eyes.
“But that’s not what your mother called you,” those fingers at the nape of her neck again, “will you tell me?”
“No,” and frankly, it was none of this woman’s business. It was none of anyone’s business. The last person to know her real name had been her brother – and he had been buried under that name, as she took his. She had no wish to relinquish that last, languishing part of her old identity to someone she barely knew – albeit someone who was being so kind to her.
“Hm, well,” Marian’s hands moved gently over the bandages, tucking in the last loose ends and pulling them straight, “I can make you tell me, you know. I have ways and means of getting information – and I can assure you,” she dipped her head again, murmuring close to Djaq’s ear, “my methods of persuasion are far more fun than the Sheriff’s.”
In the space of twenty four hours, she had been running through a foreign country, re-captured, dragged to a strange castle, tossed into a stinking hell hole, dragged out again, lashed, tortured, thrown in again, dragged out again, presented to this strange woman and now she was being seduced.
Djaq would have begun to laugh hysterically at the total surreality of the situation, had she had any strength left at all. But she didn’t. So she lay still and wandered what parallel of normalcy she had stumbled into.
“What are you planning to do with me?” She managed to keep the tremble of exhaustion out of her voice, twisting her head to fix her gaze steadily on the noblewoman.
Marian smiled, the expression distinctly predatory, “nothing you wont enjoy.”
Djaq felt her stomach turn over. She knew very well that she was both too exhausted and too badly wounded to be able to do anything about the situation should she feel the need to escape it. Even if she had been well enough to over-power the noblewoman, Marian had taken her knife from her and they were in the middle of a castle full of guards who would drag her away and hang her should she attempt to navigate it alone.
Marian could do whatever she wanted to Djaq and there was very little that Djaq could do about it. And she could see from the glint in the noblewoman’s eye that Marian knew it too.
So she closed her eyes, and let it begin.