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Chapter 1: A walk in the woods

Though Ankur’s not so foul as some cities, and provides my livelihood at Court, I must often leave for a time to seek my peace in the woodlands of my youth. Far from those who, appearances notwithstanding, are my kin. To most of them, the forest is uncomfortable at best, when it ignores them and their sojourn is brief; when it doesn’t, it’s cruel and unforgiving. Yet it’s the only place where what I am means naught—where what lies within is all that matters. There’s a strange kind of intimacy there, entirely nonverbal, and that acceptance renews me. It grants me for a time the reserves of strength I need to face those who judge me by my veneer, and reinforces the outsider’s perspective His Majesty values so. Being allowed to escape now and then helps me endure my lot.

So it was that I wandered along a game trail that day, following fresh spoor—purely for the joy of tracking, for my pack was heavy with the best provender the royal kitchen could provide and there was no need to kill to feed myself. My spirit was already lighter and my breath in the clean air came easily for the first time in weeks.

The deer I’d been following soon veered off the trail, and kneeling to investigate, it became obvious why: there was a blood trail and the deep, forked impressions of a boar’s feet in the spongy earth. I gritted my teeth and paid closer heed to my surrounding, for someone was hunting here illegally; no forester would have let a wounded animal escape to die alone and in agony in the woods, yet I saw no footprints of men paralleling those of the wounded beast. I was no longer in these woods as a forester, yet that training was a part of me and not something I could set aside.

A boar, even wounded, was not something to face lightly, and I had only a short spear and my belt knife with me, more suitable for discouraging brigands than facing the fiercest animal in these woods. Casting about me, I found a piece of wood perhaps two hands-span long to serve as a cross-hilt, and grubbing in the rich loam beneath a nearby spruce, found its roots. I cut them loose, and stripped the bark and rootlets and soil until naught remained but the slick root surface. Exerting all my strength, I lashed the homemade crosspiece to my spear, and leaned on it to test its strength. It sagged, but didn’t slide far down the shaft under my weight. With time, the roots would dry and tighten; in the meantime, I hoped their grip would suffice.

Without delaying any further, lest my courage fail, I followed the boar’s trail. Of the emotions that warred in my breast, anger predominated: this was not what I had come here to seek, yet it having found me, there was scant hope of peace until my responsibility to the animal was done.

These thoughts soon left my mind, for I needed all my concentration to avoid the beast’s ambush, and the blood trail weakened as the wound began to scab over. I’m better at woodcraft than I am at the jester’s trade, for I’d been raised in similar woods by an old forester and had spent much of my life there, but time spent behind stone walls dulls the keenness of one’s senses.

There was little wind, and what there was gusted unpredictably from several directions. But after perhaps an hour, spear cradled in both hands, ready to ground and brace against a charge, I came across the boar resting on his side deep within a pine thicket. He snorted as a stray breeze carried him my scent, and came to his feet, defiant hatred glowing in bloodshot, piggy eyes. Bristly, coarse grey hair grew in irregular patches across his body, larger than that of a hunting dog and more muscular. A deep chest wound had stained and splashed him with gore, and that wound reopened with his sudden movement. Bright blood trickled, falling to glue together the brown pine needles. His breathing came raggedly, pierced with a gurgling whistle, and I knew he’d been hit in a lung. I hurt in sympathy for him. Warm pig smell mingled with the tang of blood, and we stood there, he and I, uncomfortably alike in certain ways, watching each other warily.

My spear seemed unequal to the contest against curved tusks longer than my hand was wide and the unconquerable will that drives a boar down the shaft of an impaling spear and still leaves enough fury to savage the man handling it.

This boar was a giant of his kind, and outweighed me by a hundred pounds or more. It was no encounter I looked forward to with any glee; indeed, had he been unwounded, I would have fled up the nearest tree without a second thought and waited for him to leave. But he was wounded enough to stagger as he gathered his legs beneath him, and I had faced a wounded boar more than once. The whole matter became moot as he broke the standoff with his charge.

Even wounded as he was, I had to be quick on my feet. As he came at me, I grounded the spear and braced myself. For the second time that day, the boar ran himself onto sharp steel, burying it a good dozen inches in his chest before the broad crosspiece behind the blade brought him up short, spear twisting and trying to leave my grip. A gout of blood washed over my hands and streamed onto the forest floor, and his agonized squeal echoed in the still air. His breath blew hot on my face, and it took all my strength to hold that spear firm against his last desperate lunge to free himself. If he’d not been weakened by that first wound, I would never have held him, but he’d lost too much blood, and sagged to his knees after one last abortive effort to wrench himself free. I withdrew the spear from his wound with some difficulty, violated muscle spasming and gripping the blade, and watched him warily. Even this near death, he glared, trying to toss his head and gore me.

I changed my grip on the spear’s shaft and plunged the blade into his throat, severing the great artery that pulsed there beneath layers of corded muscle. More blood rushed from the wound to soak the ground. With a quiver and a last plaintive squeal, the massive body subsided.

I took a deep breath, forcing the tightness in my chest to subside. An edge of the blade had embedded itself in the bones of his spine, and it took considerable strength to free it. I wiped the blade on his ugly pelt, then did my best to wipe the blood from my hands with the clean litter of the forest floor. I hesitated before leaving, and cast one last look back at my vanquished opponent. But the day was waning, and I had one more task before returning to my own affairs.

I followed the boar’s back trail, easy enough given how quickly the blood increased as I neared the site of the original wound. My path took me towards the town I knew lay at the forest’s edge, and I soon came across a clearing. The greenlit afternoon silence stole my breath, and the pale sunlight that shone through the new leaves was magical, so despite my caution, I almost missed the occupants of the clearing. When I did notice them and focused on the scene before me, my reverie vanished and I crouched under cover of some bushes.

Through the leaves, I saw an attractive young lady, long brown hair flowing unbound around her shoulders. She knelt across the clearing from me, eyes scanning the walls of early-spring growth that enclosed the glade. I remained still, and thereby escaped her notice. She was clad in a man’s leather breeches and jerkin, but the undershirt that spilled from beneath the jerkin was finely embroidered. On the ground by her knees, a somewhat older man lay beside a shattered spear, legs splashed with blood and serviceable woodsman’s clothing stained with leaf mould. He had black hair, sun-lightened or beginning to grey, and worn shorter than the current fashion; his weather-beaten complexion spoke of someone who’d spent more time outdoors than in, but the quality of his sword’s sheath and hilt told me he was no mere woodsman. The pallor underlying that tan confirmed he was wounded, had any doubt remained.

My anger faded. These were no poachers, but rather unfortunates who had blundered across the boar and been attacked before they could take to the trees. Yet bitterness replaced my anger, washing over me like a green and spiteful wave, for it was spring and I knew why these two had sought out such a sheltered spot—had intruded on my woods and ruined my solitude. I wallowed a moment in the feeling, a grimace twisting my face and bitter tears starting from my eyes. But self-pity is a poor path for one such as I, for it leads to self-murder—or worse, for at least self-murder brings a clean end. I fought that mood down before it could take hold, my instincts for self-preservation reasserting themselves. Envy was replaced by revulsion that I could let myself behave as my foes at Court accused, and revulsion was replaced by a cleansing anger at my own weakness. Finally, concern replaced all else, and once more in control, I stepped from behind the concealing bushes, leaving the spear.

These woods had been nurtured for the King’s pleasure, and were well stocked with game animals of all sorts, including the boars so beloved of huntsmen. The woman feared the worst, for as I rose from concealment, she seized the broken spear and made ready to defend herself. Her eyes widened in shock at the sight of me, and I found myself pleasantly surprised she had the wit to avoid fainting—most of the women at Court are all too well-trained in that reflex—but I held back a smile, knowing what effect that had on those who didn’t know me. Yet even now that she recognized I was not what she’d feared, she remained wary. I strode into the glade, my steps silent upon the grass that had sprung up here where the light was stronger, my arms open and empty-handed, hoping she would accept me as an ally if not a friend.

The man moaned and her gaze went straight to him. I froze, not wanting to startle her with a sudden movement. As I waited, sunlight warm upon my back, the man’s eyes opened. I was close enough to see the blankness give way to shock as he focused on me. Callused as I was, that reawoke a familiar pain in my chest, and it was faint consolation that he’d been expecting far worse. He made a tentative move for his weapon but subsided with an agonized expression as his wound made itself felt. His lady made as if to interpose herself, but halted when he placed a hand upon her arm. He forced himself up onto one elbow and reappraised me, his initial shock replaced by something more like confidence.

When you’re born a dwarf in a world of normal men and women, you soon learn to abandon any hope of the trappings of normalcy: friendship, apprenticeship to a suitable guild, and a place to live free of mockery and the torment of being different in a world that doesn’t forgive differences. Most certainly, you abandon any hope of the abiding attachments that might sustain you throughout your life. That’s not to say you abandon the available substitutes—in a kingdom as depraved as ours can be, such things can be bought, and there are always those who want something “unique” to brag of. And while my flesh is strong and (despite appearances) healthy, my spirit weakens often, and at times I have sacrificed my self-respect in the face of a greater need, knowing as I did that the fulfillment I sought remained ever out of reach.

What you never achieve is acceptance. I admit that in my more honest moments.

I made my first words light and reassuring, though the tightness in my chest diminished the intended effect. “Fear not, good folk, I am Morley, the King’s jester. I’m here to aid you.” Though deficient in so many other ways, I’d been born with a fine voice. The man relaxed further, though his lady remained wary. The couple looked familiar, though I was sure I’d not seen them here at the King’s home away from Court; it must have been an overheard description that evoked that sense of recognition. But I had more important things to concern me just now.

His voice was steady when he spoke. “The boar?”

“Dead, Sir, by my hand. They’re tough beasts, but your aim was very nearly true.”

“Truer than the spear’s shaft. It surprised us, and I had no time to brace for it properly.” His face grew ashen as he struggled to rise and failed. “I fear it wounded me when the spear gave way. Mercifully, my lady was spared any wound.” One hand relinquished the spear to caress the back of his neck. She was older than I’d first thought, and I saw something more than formal devotion in that gesture. Though it was something forever denied to me, it was no less pleasant to watch now that I could distance my envy.

“If you’ll lie still, I can help you.” Then, apologetically. “This will hurt.” I knelt beside him and appraised the long slash wound that curved tusks had opened along the length of his thigh. There was blood aplenty, but the wound appeared shallow. Most importantly, I saw no bone; rather, there was surface muscle laved by a gentle welling of fresh blood. The boar had touched neither artery nor tendon, and despite the blood loss, it looked more like the sort of wound to provide a fine scar now and to lame him in his old age. If the boar had indeed surprised them, he would have been fast indeed to have escaped its charge with so little harm. His eyes narrowed as I drew my knife, but he forced calm upon his face again. The woman watched me narrowly, hands once again tight upon the spear’s shaft.

“Trust me,” I soothed. “Despite my fearsome visage, I mean you no harm.” That surprised them into an exchange of guilty looks, but they relaxed as I continued talking. “Modesty notwithstanding, I’ll have to bare the wound and cut a bandage.” I did this, setting aside what remained of the cloth, and he stoically bore the pain. Once I’d removed enough clothing to reveal bare flesh, the old scars that lay there told me the source of his courage—this one had fought before, many times, and he was no stranger to wounds and surgery.

I spoke reassuringly to the woman. “If you would help him, bring fresh water. There’s a small stream perhaps twenty yards over that way. Mind that the water is fresh, and bears no scum or debris.” I pointed without taking my eyes off what I was doing, and handed her my spare water skin. She left, and from the corner of my eye, I caught his look of obvious concern. “Fear not. The boar is dead, and I saw no signs of others.”

“My thanks for killing him. A slow death when the wound goes bad is no fate even for such as he.” He grimaced as I pressed on the flesh on either side of the wound, exploring until I was satisfied there was no deeper damage. “Would that my first thrust had slain him and spared you the effort!”

By now, his lady was out of sight. I took a skin of fortified wine from my pack. “This will hurt, as you well know, but it’s necessary.”

He grinned, lips tight but appreciation replacing apprehension in his eyes. “Aye, that it will, but better that by far than river water.”

We shared a smile, then I washed the wound thoroughly, pressing gently upon it in case I’d missed something and watchful for any new bleeding. I probed the wound one last time, a little more firmly, until I saw a suspicious puckering of the flesh. Looking closer, I found and removed a long wooden splinter that had come to rest there after being expelled from the spear’s shattered shaft. Then I debrided the edges of the cut with a fine pair of scissors I’d purchased long ago. He bore the pain stoically, even though I’d distanced the woman to protect his dignity should he cry out.

By the time his lady returned, I’d cleaned the wound as best as possible under the circumstances and begun stitching it closed with some gut I carried in my kit. She watched, unflinching, and my respect for her grew. As I worked, she spoke in a soft, pleasant voice.

“What brings the King’s jester alone to these woods?”

“My feet,” I replied, rather more brusquely than I’d intended, avoiding her question. I hadn’t intended to give offense, but my bitterness had not dissipated as much as I’d hoped. From the corner of my eye, I saw them exchange glances while I used the river water to bathe the skin around the wound, careful not to contaminate the wound itself as I cleared away the clotted blood. With the wound now stanched, I covered it with peat moss from my kit and applied my makeshift bandages. It was not as fine a job as one of the King’s surgeons could have done, but under the circumstances, I was proud of my handiwork.

“You’ll need a proper surgeon to tend to the wound when you return to town, but this leg ought to hold you till then. I’ve packed the wound with peat moss to keep it from festering, but you’ll need to change the dressing soon.” I verified that the bandages were tight, then giving a last tug for security, I rose and washed my hands with what was left of the water. Then I dried my hands on my jerkin and turned to go.

“Wait,” he called as I moved to leave the clearing. “Do you not wish some reward?”

Our eyes met, and I read the expected pity in his gaze, but heard honest gratitude in his voice. “The King cares for me well enough. I would stay and see you home, but...” I shrugged awkwardly. Once again he looked surprised, then grave as he replied.

“Know then, Morley, that you have the gratitude of Bram of Ankur for what you have done. Should you ever have need, seek me out.” He offered his hand, and after a moment’s hesitation, I took it. There were calluses there, and old scars across the back, and though he did not exert his full swordsman’s strength, neither did he draw back in revulsion nor grasp my hand limply as he might with a child.

Now I remembered why he’d seemed so familiar.

This man was one of the King’s advisors, and as ambassador for Ankur, he’d traveled widely. The lady, of course, would be his wife Alison. Their return after an absence of more than a year had been the talk of the Court, and I’d looked forward to meeting him, taking his measure, and learning where he stood in the network of alliances and counter-alliances that was life in Ankur.

What little I knew said he’d come from Amelior in the far West, acquiring a measure of infamy to equal the respect in which he was widely held. The infamy was natural for one who’d broken the bloodoath and survived, yet he’d also earned respect for his role in the war against his former countrymen these nine years past. The couple had been married since the war ended, and—spiteful rumors notwithstanding—I’d heard no reliable evidence either had been unfaithful. In Ankur, there’d have been no want of opportunity.

Our eyes met again, and I was warmed by what I saw. The pity was gone, and in its place lay respect, something I’d rarely seen directed at me. Uncomfortable with the emotions that raised and at the length of the silence that had fallen between us, I turned to go.

“I thank you, Bram. Rest assured I shall.”

“And thank you again for meeting my responsibility to the animal.” I grunted assent, and left to reclaim my spear, for I had much to think on and much to resolve. Without looking back, I turned and moved off. I’d told my liege I’d return that day, but now found myself in need of time to think. It was likely this would be my last visit to these woods for some time, and scant time remained to restore the peace I so desperately needed before returning to Ankur.

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