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Chapter 2: Another twist of the dagger

When I’d chosen to leave the woodland life and seek my fortune in the city, my foster father shook his head in incomprehension. It was beyond him why I’d leave the safety of the forest and secure employment as one of the King’s foresters. Though my father was learned in his own way, and knew the songs the minstrels had taught him and the histories that lay behind them, he could never understand my need to learn still more of our land and seek acceptance in Ankur. I was unsure of my own reasons, save that the other foresters had not so much loved me as tolerated me, and despite having earned a measure of respect, I felt driven to find something more. What that was I could not say, but if I could find it anywhere, I felt sure it would be in Ankur.

“And how will you provide for yourself?” my father demanded. “How will you protect yourself from those who will torment you because of what you are?”

I’d spent long nights pondering this, and had an answer ready. “I shall earn my living by my wits and by the music you’ve taught me. Perhaps I shall even find employ at the King’s Court, for he has no jester to mock him and teach him wisdom, and who better to fill such a role than one who has been mocked his whole life and learned wisdom thereby?”

Gaining employment had been a near thing, for though it was easy enough to play for my dinner and a warm, dry place to sleep in the many taverns of Ankur, I acquired more than a few bruises and had once or twice been in peril of my life from those who hated and feared me based solely on my appearance. But I’d fought down what rose within me and persevered, enduring the stench and foulness of the city and forcing myself to forget how clean and pleasing the forests had been by comparison, until I earned an audience with the King. The quality of my music and the gentle mockery with which I’d reminded him of his own flaws had gained me a room in the palace and the King’s protection, if not yet his love.

It had not gained me the acceptance I’d fooled myself into hoping for, and even the protection was not always as efficacious as one might wish.

“Come now, little man, surely even you can leap this high?” The taunting emerged from amidst a grease-stained mass of jowls. Because I kept my expression neutral and failed to furnish the response he’d sought, he grew more angry than mocking and waved a large fist beneath my nose. Arms akimbo, face calm but chest aching, I waited patiently for him to tire of his sport.

Another voice chimed in. “Jump, dwarf, or we’ll teach you some respect for your betters.”

I kept my voice calm, in part by imagining my hand drawing the long dagger belted at my side and cutting him a second mouth. A week in Ankur had done much to erode the calm I’d won in my brief sojourn in the woods. “Sir, I am the King’s Fool by occupation, not by wit.” Then, noticing a familiar tall figure striding towards me, I could not resist adding a taunt of my own. “But do enlighten me, Sir, how it is that you should have the wit of a Fool and not the profession?”

He made as if to strike me and I stood my ground, daring him with my smile. Then Bram’s hand fell on Fatty’s shoulder, spinning him around to face the Advisor. “Surely you have not forgotten the penalties for striking the Fool, Osric?” The fat man hesitated, then glared back into my savior’s eyes. “I thought not. Now unless I am mistaken, that Lady yonder—your wife, is she not?—beckons even now for your attention.”

I smiled gratefully as Osric dropped my motley hat to the floor with a clash of bells and strutted away among his friends, without looking back. But beneath that smile, my anger still seethed, and it was several breaths before the pain in my chest eased and the pounding of my heart began to slow. I tucked my hands in my belt to hide their trembling, as Bram bent to retrieve my headgear, not meeting my eyes and granting me time to collect myself. But his strong hand fell on my shoulder and squeezed as he set the hat back in place. From anyone else, I might have mistaken this for pity, but from Bram, I’d learned to accept the gesture for what it was: the understanding and commiseration of a friend. That lifted my mood more than anything I could have done myself.

“I suppose I should be thankful, Bram, that he torments me only briefly. His wife must endure him constantly.” We shared a smile and parted, he rejoining his lady Alison, a faint limp still evident, and me continuing on my rounds, sprinkling a witticism here and a song there, and keeping an ear open for words I’d report later to the King—and humiliating myself as the situation required, of course, for my job was to make a fool of myself, not to leave that responsibility to others.

I passed the evening that way, uneventfully, though as always, much was said—and left unsaid—that I would report to my King or keep in mind for the future. As always, more of my countrymen laughed at me than with me. But that was something I’d long since learned to deal with, soothing its gall with enough ale to dull the edge of the pain without dulling my own edge. Indeed, with that aid, I could convince myself my lot was better than it might have been. For instance, had I stayed much longer with my birth parents rather than fleeing into the woods, I would surely be dead now or crippled from their incessant beatings. Instead, my foster father had helped me earn the self-esteem that sustained me against the worst these people could inflict. Now, deep within, I had that on which I could draw when times grew bad, and so it was I could laugh at them even as they laughed at me. It made the evening tolerable.

As the night grew older and the revelers drifted away, alone or in pairs, I bent my path nearer the high table and watched for signs the King would soon be seeking his chambers. So it was that when he rose to leave, I was positioned to watch the few who still remained at table and note their expression or carefully affected lack of expression as their Lord left.

John had been a warrior before claiming his throne, and given the times we lived in, had been given ample opportunity to keep his skills sharp; that fitness, my delayed departure, and my inadequate legs conspired to keep me some distance behind him. I arrived in time to see his squire struggling to remove a new pair of boots, not yet broken in well enough to slip easily from the King’s feet. At the jingle of bells, my liege looked up in distaste from his strivings, his look slowly easing into tired affection. “So, my short spy. What heard you that passed beneath my notice?”

“The musing of the mice, my liege, and the ruminations of those more nearly my height—your hounds, that is.” He snorted, and encouraged by his mood, I continued. “And—happily—little else to distract you from matters of such gravity.” I swept him a bow that ended with my hat tucked beneath one arm, the other arm indicating his boots, with which the squire still struggled.

The first boot, not without some reluctance, conceded the field to the perspiring squire, and the King’s sigh was loud in the quiet room. “Of such small joys are my days lightened, Morley. Yet surely there was something of wisdom in the musings of the mice?”

I returned his smile, pleased to have my words and my self thus welcomed. “Aye. There were those, Osric included, who made their usual halfhearted mutterings against you.” I named their names, and his face darkened, but he said nothing. “Your counselor Raphael defended you, of course, sufficiently strongly that Osric and company sought their diversion elsewhere.”

The King spat on the rushes. “And another loyal counselor defended you against that diversion. Morley, I counsel you to exercise your considerable wit more judiciously lest you find yourself again in need of aid.”

I fought down the outrage that arose at that warning, for I had done nothing to justify that censure, and the injustice of the accusation stung me. “Sire, I—”

Peace, Morley.” The tone was quiet, but the command in it was firm enough to stop my protest before it escaped my throat, where it caught, tangled and blocking my breath for a moment. In the silence, the second boot yielded with a suddenness that propelled the squire backwards onto his rump, and the King shot him an annoyed glance. “I was not accusing you, but rather warning you. Were I you, I should watch my steps upon returning to my chamber this night.”

I bowed, bells jingling, to conceal the sudden flush in my cheeks, and made sure to swallow the lump in my throat before I spoke. “A wise suggestion, Sire.”

“And one whose wisdom I shall ensure by seeing you home in good company.” He gestured at the squire, who had picked himself up and set the boots against the wall by the bed. Bowing, that worthy clapped a hand upon my shoulder and steered me towards the door.

“Good night, my Fool.”

I stopped at the door. “Good night, my liege.” I bowed again, bells jingling, and the squire and I sought my chamber in companionable silence. He left me at the door, with a slight nod that might have passed for a bow if one were feeling charitable.

My room was a tiny afterthought left behind when the architect mismeasured that part of the palace. As I set my key in the lock, I heard a heavy footfall from behind me. Fatty again? I whirled to face the sound, preparing wearily to defend myself, but instead, found myself facing an old man, unkempt grey hair spilling over sloping shoulders draped in stained, threadbare robes. The cautionary hand he held open towards me gave me pause, and I put aside the blade I’d drawn without thinking, watching his seamed face. There was evidence of long study in the lines graven about his eyes by years of squinting under inadequate light, and traces of soot from cheap candles deepened those lines in the weak lamplight; the deep set of those wide-spaced eyes hinted at wisdom. In contrast to the rest of his appearance, those eyes were sharp and hard as tempered steel, and I forced myself to alertness despite my fatigue.

“I would speak with thee, Morley.” His voice was rich and self-assured, but pitched low and holding none of the condescension of most who addressed me. He had an odd, antique sort of accent, with a richness that warmed my musician’s ears after the dull sameness of Court speech. Though we’d just met, I found myself liking him, and the voice of caution spoke more faintly at the back of my mind.

“I’m afraid you have the advantage of me, m’lord. You are...?”

“Merely a simple scholar, Orgrim by name, with an offer that should interest you. Is there somewhere we might talk?”

I indicated my chamber with a wave, and he accepted with a graceful nod. Humble though the tiny room was, it was home and I showed him in with all the misplaced pride of a host. I urged him to make himself comfortable in my one chair, too large for me by half, and seated myself on my bed. A child’s bed, but large enough for me and a comfortable enough nest when my life was too much to bear. I turned my gaze upon the scholar. “Well, Milord Orgrim. What brings you in search of the King’s Fool?”

Those sharp eyes focused on me with surprising intensity, seeking something, then the intensity subsided as swiftly as it had appeared. Orgrim’s voice was soothing, erasing my momentary apprehension at this appraisal. “Perhaps ’tis I who am the fool, Morley, but I feel certain we can aid each other.”

I allowed myself a look of polite interest, stifling a yawn that nearly escaped me. “How so?”

Again, that disturbing intensity crossed his face before vanishing into the depths of those eyes. Those unpredictable flashes of inner fire made it seem as if Orgrim had spent so long with his dusty scrolls that he’d forgotten how to mask his emotions against the scrutiny of those accustomed to courtly life, but it might only have been that I was so tired, and was looking for shadows where there were none. “You see,” he went on, ignoring my yawn, “it may be within my power to help you achieve normal size and appearance.”

I blinked in shock, now very much awake, torn between the need to hear him out and the rage that arose at the thought this was just some new and particularly cruel joke at my expense. I’m sure in that moment that despite what I’d learned in my year at Court, my emotions stood as clear on my face as Orgrim’s had so recently done. I took a deep breath and mastered myself well enough there was no trace of anger when I spoke. “If I heard you right, then you mock me, and I have no taste for such jokes.” My hand clenched on my dagger’s hilt until my knuckles hurt, but he ignored that provocation and his voice was calm in reply.

“You do me an injustice, friend jester. I am quite serious. I believe I can help you in this manner, else I should never have been so cruel as to mention the possibility. Are you willing to explore this possibility with me?”

The sincerity in his voice was so real, and I so badly wanted to believe, that I almost missed his last words. There were tears in my eyes at the vision he dangled before me, and a knot of uncertainty the size of a mace head formed in my gut as I strove for a reply. My teeth had clenched so tight I could do naught but nod. And again, lest he had missed it.

A satisfied look descended, erasing that intensity I had noted before, and rising, he moved the few steps necessary to cross the room and kneel at my feet. He placed a firm yet gentle hand on my shoulder, and the compassion now in his eyes was such that all my tautness fled from me in a great gasp and all wariness vanished. I began weeping, great racking sobs torn from the depths of my being. He knelt and pulled me to him, holding my head on his shoulder until I regained control. Then squeezing my shoulder once more, he left me with the promise he’d return the next day and urged me to be patient until then. I vowed I would, lying through my teeth.

Later, I lay in bed, too tired to think straight, yet far too anxious to sleep. Fighting off a cloying sense of unreality, I belatedly began feeling a growing fear, for only powerful magic could bring about the change Orgrim had proposed, and magic had been gone from our lands for many generations. Indeed, the dark tales from the past that formed the bleaker of my songs made it clear why our ancestors had bloodily cleansed themselves of any taint of magic before undertaking the Exodus. But the dread in those songs warred with an unreasonable sense of hope and the cynical pragmatism that had kept me alive for so long. At last, it was my bladder that dominated and forced me to seek the castle privies, for I’d long since learned that the size of my room opposed the use of a chamber pot. I wrapped my robes about me, slid into my boots, and left the room. So lost in thought was I that I ran full into the tall figure that slid from the shadows to block my way.

Distractedly, I looked up to see who confronted me, framing an apology all the while. I never succeeded, for before I’d completed that chain of thought, the man I’d failed to see seized me from behind and a third forced a gag between my teeth. The first man clutched a rag over my nose and held it there until I inhaled, smelling the sting of some drug and tasting its bitterness at the back of my throat. It was as if something heavy had crashed down upon my skull. Amidst the whirling sparks, I felt the strength draining from my limbs and collapsed, striking the floor hard enough to feel the pain wash over me despite the numbing effects of the drug. As my mind fled somewhere far away, I heard words echoing in the expanding, pain-shot void that was my head.

“We’ll show the little rat, won’t...”

***

I awoke to find myself supine, wrapped in a darkness so thick my first thoughts were of blindness caused by the drug or by striking my head on the floor. Despite the pain, I brought a hand up to my eyes and probed at the blood that had caked there. I hadn’t imagined falling, and the blackness crowded even closer, a tangible pressure on my skull. I felt icy fear run down my spine and loosen my bowels, but I fought it hard, squeezing my eyes shut for what little comfort that gave and forcing my breathing to slow. I was increasingly aware of my bladder’s fullness.

The gag was no longer in my mouth, so I inhaled, not without some difficulty. Stale incense and a residue of torch smoke clung to the air, slowly dispersing in the sluggish draft I now began to perceive. Thick silence hung about me, silence so intense I feared for my hearing too and had to struggle to draw breath. The sound of my own gasping breaths reassured me, and the darkness pressed less heavily. I began mustering my resources, the same ones I’d learned as a child sleeping in the forest, burdened with the sure knowledge that there were wolves and perhaps other, more horrible things, beyond the fire’s light where I could not see them. Nonetheless, a scuttling sound in the dark brought the fear back stronger than before, for here there was no fire, and no foster father to reassure and protect me. It was several moments before I could force myself to breathe once again.

The scuttling noise had ceased, which was in some ways worse than had it continued. After all, something I could not see was now watching me. I cleared my throat and swallowed hard to return my heart to its accustomed place, and the sound echoed. A small, enclosed space? As the thick atmosphere swallowed the first echoes, the scuttling noise came again, now moving away from me. Sweat sprang out on my brow and trickled in a clammy stream across my temples, for I still lay upon my back.

Once more I slowed my breathing, and my thoughts began to clear. There was an almost physical tearing sensation as I forced away the last of the drug’s grasp upon my mind, and a calmness descended upon me. Someone had intended to “fix me”, but since I still breathed, it was obvious that the fix had stopped short of murder. Their twisted idea of humor? The thought comforted me. I lay still, hoping my awakening senses could offer me some clue as to my whereabouts. I shivered, coming to realize that I was cold.

All at once, a distant gong sounded, muffled by a considerable depth of intervening stone; that changed the silence from stifling to merely enveloping, for it meant I was near or perhaps even within the palace. The gong rang twice more before stopping—three bells in the morning if it was indeed the same night. From the direction of the gong, overhead as nearly as I could tell, I must have been somewhere in the lower reaches of the castle. The crypt perhaps? Or mayhap the dungeon, though the silence made that unlikely.

Despite the urging of my bladder, I lay still a little longer, the cold seeping into my bones and beckoning the darkness to follow. It was stone that supported me, probably a long, low slab if I was correct as to my location. I was still unable to see, but my thoughts were now clear, apart from a slight buzzing in my ears and a warm muzziness that had taken root behind my forehead. I had been rendered unconscious often enough in my youth to recognize my state, and it felt much like that but with a difference I could not place. That slight movement of the heavy air returned, reminding me there was at least one exit to this room. All that was required was that I bestir myself and seek it out. That took more effort than I’d expected, and I was scarcely able to roll onto my side before a sweeping dizziness took hold of me and carried the world beyond my grasp for a time. I rested, waiting for it to return.

I continued trying to move once the world was back, resting each time the vertigo tore at me, and at last managed to sit up, shivering, my legs dangling over the side of my resting place. I sat there until the spinning faded and left me lightheaded but able to maintain my equilibrium. Then I encountered another problem.

When I tried to slip from my perch, I found myself unable to do so. My feet swung against the slick sides of the stone, an unknowable distance above some hypothetical floor, while some instinct of self-preservation screamed an adamant refusal. I could not force myself to step blindly into space, though chill sweat streamed down my sides from the force of my efforts. No matter how I tried to convince myself otherwise, a nausea clutched at me and told me I was poised at the brink of some bottomless abyss.

The dark can do strange things to one’s mind.

I have no clear idea of how long I sat there, sick, dizzy, sore, my world narrowed to that part of my world that was within the length of my dangling feet; I can remember no sounding of the bells, which tells me in hindsight that I sat there for less than an hour. But a solution came to me at last, brought to mind by the increasingly desperate pressure of my bladder. I smiled at the thought of an unorthodox but effective tool for gauging my height above the floor, and the surge of amusement at the inelegance of the solution restored my morale more than anything save a light could have done. I parted my robes, aimed at the floor that lay somewhere below me and to the side, and relieved myself.

Had there been any appreciable delay before the sound from the floor, my nerve would have broken and I would no doubt have remained there to this day. As it was, the time between the urge and the splashing on the stone was so short I could not have been more than two or three feet above the floor. My own height! Thus relieved—and now confident enough to contemplate such wordplay—I seized firm hold of my courage and slid off the opposite side of the stone slab, dropping to the floor but going to my knees as the lightness rose once more in my head. On hands and knees, I made my way in the opposite direction from the puddle I’d created until I encountered a wall. Cold and slimy though it was, I’d never welcomed any touch quite so much. With the wall as my guide, I found my way with little difficulty to an open door that gave onto a steep flight of stairs.

I crawled up those stairs, so eager to escape my prison that I ignored the damage I did to my knees in the process. My mind dimmed and my head began to buzz again, but I kept on doggedly, brushing against the wall to keep my path straight. At last, my groping hand encountered a fresh rush mat instead of cold stone, and I raised my head a great distance to meet the faint but welcoming light of a distant torch.

The combination of relief at my returned sight and joy at my return to the world of the living so overwhelmed me that I swooned like any Court lady at the sight of a mouse. In my own defense, the blow to my head contributed more than any true weakness, but that makes me no more proud to recount this.

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