Time is seldom generous; when it passes it tends to bequeath only regret and longing. For many, the sorrow of unfulfilled potential that plagues them at the end of their days is life’s final indignity. For artists, especially those whose lives are governed by a desperate desire for justice, leaving work undone brings the added burden of having left a hole in eternity.
Dainne Folter had spent a lifetime perfecting her skills. Her first apprenticeship had begun when she was only eight seasons old, helping her father on his rounds. By the time the war had come, three seasons later, she had risen to become a capable and trusted assistant. Collaborating with her father had not been easy, he was a kind but demanding teacher who insisted upon nothing short of perfection. He was instructing her in a role usually reserved for men, so he pushed her hard and challenged her to use skill to silence would-be critics. A quality that had served her well after they had been captured and Dainne’s second apprenticeship begun.
Now, nearing seventy, having put aside the tools of her involuntarily adopted trade more than a decade ago, Dainne had been offered the chance to put them to use one final time. When the summons had come, she had wept. It was an opportunity she had never thought that Time would afford her. Even now, as she moved through the workshop where she had spent so much of this life, she could not believe what fate had gifted her.
She looked at her hands, gnarled and spoiled by the years, and for a moment felt the cold grip of doubt. But as she opened and closed them, she glimpsed the shadow of their former strength and knew that her fingers yet remembered their skill. They would not let her down.
Running her hand across the cold surface of the table where the king would soon be laid, she breathed in the unmistakable dense air of the chamber. Closing her eyes, she listened to the enduring, patient silence of the space. It was the kind of mute, smothering quiet that can only be achieved underground and where the dreary acoustics assured privacy, no matter how loud the screams. She doubted even the grave could make one feel so empty.
Terrible and stifling though it was, she realized that she had missed it.
When her time here had ended, Dainne had feared that she would be haunted by what she had done in this place, but she had found peace working in her small garden and walking the forested slopes that surrounded the small cabin where she lived in exile. The quiet of her mountain home was composed of the cries of eagles, the howling of wolves, the singing of birds and the lively rush of mountain streams and waterfalls. It was the boisterous and active quiet of life, and it had replenished and healed her wounded soul.
Looking around at the shadowy recesses of this cavern she released the tears she hadn’t realized she had been fighting. Through her long and difficult years of service, she had been sustained by a desperate and impossible hope, but until this moment she had never truly allowed herself to believe in it. The joy of it filled her even as she wept and the long years of her servitude seemed no more tangible than the shadows that danced and writhed upon the walls, their silhouettes animated by the flickering flames of the torches that lit this place of misery and pain.
The space was exactly as it had been when she and her father had first been brought here. This brought a strange comfort as it made the memories of her father vital and immediate, but it was also made her aware of a deep and profound sadness. The purpose of life was change; this place was as fixed as a mausoleum.
A lifetime of memories vied for her attention, but she forced herself to focus only on thoughts of her father. Even now, she could imagine him walking about the workshop, moving from station to station, cleaning his tools, oiling the machines, checking the restraints. The image of her father was so strong that Dainne felt that she could reach out and touch him but as real as he seemed in her mind, she could not remember his voice. She knew that it had been rich and strong with a musical quality that made him a superb storyteller but Dainne could only recall how her father’s voice had made her feel, not how it had sounded. Time had silenced the living memory of it. She had no difficulty conjuring the voices of every person she had worked on in this place and it seemed a senseless injustice that the one voice denied her would be her father’s.
She lowered her head, as though in prayer, reminding herself that her hope had impossibly come to fruition. Fate, she supposed, could exact whatever price it thought right. But she wished that she could hear her father’s voice just once more.
Dainne and her father had worked as surgeons before they had been captured. They had been spared, not because of their fame or value as healers, though both were considerable, but because their understanding of anatomy and of the limits of what a human body could endure had intrigued the king, as had the notion of having a female torturer in his service. Dainne and her father had taken oaths to protect and cherish life, and so they had held firm and refused … at first. The king was not one to take no for an answer and had compelled compliance by punishing others in their stead. The king was endlessly imaginative when it came to meting out such punishments and his cruelty had changed their minds within days. The toll the king was willing to charge was beyond what they had believed a human being capable of. Reluctant and sickened, Dainne and her father had turned their skills from medicine and surgery to torture and interrogation.
The king often watched them work, delighting in making them prolong the suffering of a prisoner by ordering them to provide medical care during the session. It meant that victims could languish in the cells that surrounded the chamber for years. The horror of the situation was too much for her father to bear and only months into their service he had taken his own life. Devasted, Dainne had continued, sustained by her one desperate hope and an unlikely boon she had begged of the king.
After her father’s death she had petitioned the king to allow her to serve the people of his kingdom as doctor and surgeon. She had argued that such labours would raise the king’s standing among his people who would be grateful for such benevolence. But knowing the workings of the king’s mind she had sweetened the request further by saying that it was essential for her to keep her skills honed and prevent them degenerating to the level of a mere butcher, like the torturers of other, lesser, kings. She had no doubt which argument had finally won him over.
Though her other role was well known to them, Dainne’s efforts as doctor saw her win the trust of the people earning their understanding and even their pity over her situation. She secretly trained others to serve as doctors and worked to foment rebellion, establishing an underground resistance network slowly, over years. Her efforts were aided by the king’s own actions; he was as unpopular as he was cruel.
When the uprising finally came, ten years ago, the king, through a strange accident of timing, had slipped through their net and disappeared. At her own request, and despite a strong opposition to the idea, the new regime had exiled Dainne. It had been her intention to live out the remainder of her days alone, in penance for what she had done.
Then a rider had brought the news.
The king had been found and captured. She had never mentioned her hope to another living soul, and yet the universe had seen fit to allow her to fulfill her great desire. She could not believe it when she was told that dispatching the king was to be her privilege, should she want it.
The former king was dragged, screaming and hurling insults, into the chamber. He fought and struggled as they stripped and secured him to the table. For his age, he was still quite strong, and anger and fear had infused him with added vigour. He was proving to be as defiant has he had been cruel.
“My liege,” Dainne said, appearing from the shadows.
She looked down upon him, and her hands began to tremble. She had longed for this moment ever since she had laid eyes upon the first poor soul the king had sent to her and her father. She had dreamed of venting her guilt upon this very flesh. And now, with the object of all her hatred at her mercy she saw him defenceless, hopeless, and as pathetic as any he had condemned. For all he had done to deserve punishment, she wondered if she had the right.
“This king wishes to use us as butchers, but we are surgeons. The difference is not in skill but intent.”
The words were her fathers.
“He seeks to make a mockery of our calling and twist our art. He can only succeed if we allow him to mangle our souls. That must not happen. Though they will never know it, we owe these people that charity, that courtesy.”
Her heart swelled. She wasn’t simply remembering what her father had said, she was hearing him. It was as though all the voices of those who had suffered and perished at her hand had stepped aside to allow him through to remind her what her hesitation meant; she was not driven by a lust for revenge. Though she had every right to forsake empathy where he was concerned, she could not. Her hands had been bathed in blood in the service of this king, but her soul remained unstained. It was all the assurance she needed.
The king’s eyes widened in terror and his struggles ceased. He had watched Dainne work countless times and knew well what awaited him but it was the sympathetic look in her eye that extinguished the last vestiges of his pride and resistance.
“Well, my king, shall we begin?”