Geoff Hart is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) with more than 35 years of experience as a writer, editor, information designer, and French translator. During this time, he's published more than 450 articles, most available via his Web site (, as well as the books Effective Onscreen Editing, Writing for Science Journals, and Write Faster With Your Word Processor. A popular speaker at the STC annual conference and STC chapter meetings, Geoff has given presentations and workshops in North America, the U.K., India, and China on topics ranging from writing and editing to information design, cross-cultural communication, and workplace survival skills. He currently works as a freelance French translator and scientific editor, specializing in authors for whom English is a second language. In his spare time, he writes fiction and has sold 63 stories.

Jester by Geoff Hart

Content warning: Although this story deals with body dysmorphia, it is not intended to be a parable or metaphor for the challenges that "trans" individuals face. Please don't read more into it than is merited from my purpose in telling this story. That being said:

It's been two centuries since the Exodus, during which humans fled across a great ocean to escape the magical catastrophe that destroyed their old world. In the new world, they've begun to rebuild their civilization, but in a world where magic has been banned to prevent recurrence of that disaster. Morley, a dwarf, has found precarious safety as the court jester in Ankur. But safety is not acceptance, and he's at best shunned, feared and tormented at worst. When a mysterious sorcerer offers Morley a chance to be normal, he accepts without hesitation. But powerful magic always carries a price, and Morley finds the payback may be far costlier than he'd expected—it may even cost him his world. In this sequel to Chords, we learn more of the history of the post-Exodus world, what the true stakes are should magic re-enter the world, and what price Morley is willing to pay for acceptance.




Chapter 1: A walk in the woods

Ankur's not so foul as some cities, and provides my livelihood at Court. Yet it's still a city, with foul air and far too many people. When my distaste grows too much, I'm forced to leave for a time and seek my peace in the woodlands of my youth. Far from those who, appearances notwithstanding, are more my kin than the beasts of the woods. To most, the forest's uncomfortable at best, when it ignores them and their sojourn's brief; when it doesn't ignore them, it's cruel and unforgiving. Yet it's the only place where what I appear to be means naught—where what lies within is all that matters. There's an acceptance here, entirely nonverbal, that renews me and grants me for a time the reserves of strength I need to face those who judge me solely by my veneer. Such escapes help me endure my lot.

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

The deer I'd been following and hoped to see veered from the trail, as if it were avoiding something. Kneeling to investigate, the reason became obvious: a blood trail, and the deep, forked impressions of a boar's feet in the spongy, fragrant earth. Boars were unpleasant company at the best of times; wounded, they were best avoided. I gritted my teeth and paid closer heed to my surroundings, for someone was hunting here illegally; no forester would have let a wounded animal escape to die alone and in agony in these woods. Yet I saw no human footprints paralleling the wounded beast's path. If not the hunter's responsibility, then it became mine. Though no longer a forester, years of training weren't something lightly set aside.

A boar, even wounded, was nothing to face lightly, and I had only a short spear and my belt knife, more suitable for discouraging brigands than facing the fiercest animal in these woods. Casting about, I found a solid branch perhaps two hands-span long and an inch thick to serve as a cross-hilt, and grubbing in the rich loam beneath a nearby spruce, found the tree's roots. I cut loose a couple feet of root, and stripped the bark and rootlets and soil until naught remained but the slick, elastic root surface. Exerting my strength, I lashed the homemade crosspiece to my spear, and leaned on it to test its strength. It sagged, but didn't slide down the shaft under my weight. With time, the roots would dry and tighten; in the meantime, I hoped their grip would suffice.

Without further delay, lest my courage fail, I followed the boar's trail. Of the emotions that warred in my breast, anger predominated: this wasn't what I'd come here to seek, yet it had found me, and there was no hope of peace until I fulfilled my responsibility to the animal.

I forced the anger away, for I needed all my concentration to avoid stumbling across the beast, and the blood trail weakened as the wound scabbed over. There was little wind, and what there was gusted unpredictably from several directions. After perhaps an hour, spear cradled in both hands, ready to ground and brace against a charge, I found the boar resting on his side deep within a pine thicket. He snorted as a stray breeze carried my scent, and staggered to his feet, defiance glowing in bloodshot, piggy eyes. Bristly, coarse grey hair grew in irregular patches across his body. He was larger than a hunting dog and brawnier, his head level with my own. A chest wound had stained and splashed him with gore, and that wound reopened as I watched. Bright blood trickled, falling to glue together the browning pine needles. His breathing came raggedly, pierced with a gurgling whistle; he'd been hit in a lung. I hurt in sympathy. 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.

This boar was a giant of his kind, and outweighed me by a hundred pounds or more. My spear seemed unequal to the contest against curved tusks long as my hand 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. It was no encounter I anticipated with any glee; indeed, had he been unwounded, I'd have fled up the nearest tree without a second thought and waited for him to leave. But he was wounded enough to miss a step as he gathered his legs beneath him, and I'd faced a wounded boar before. The whole matter became moot as he broke the standoff with his charge.

Even wounded as he was, I had to be quick. As he came at me, I dropped my pack, then grounded and braced the spear. 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 bending under the impact and trying to spring from 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'd 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 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, but this wound was mortal. 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 effort to free it. That done, I wiped the blade on his ugly pelt, then did my best to wipe the blood from my hands with the clean litter that covered 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 concerns.

I followed the boar's back trail, easy enough given how quickly the blood increased as I neared the site of the original confrontation. My path took me towards the village that lay at the forest's edge, and led me to a clearing. The greenlit afternoon silence stole my breath, and the pale sunlight that shone through the spring's new leaves was magical, so despite my caution, it took a moment before I noticed the clearing's occupants. When I did, my reverie vanished and I crouched under cover of some bushes.

Through the leaves, I saw an attractive women of middle years, long brown hair flowing unbound around her shoulders. She knelt across the clearing from me, eyes warily scanning the walls of early-spring growth that enclosed the glade. I remained still, and escaped her notice. She wore 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 his tan confirmed he was wounded, had any doubt remained.

My anger faded. These were no poachers—rather, unfortunates who'd blundered across the boar's path and been attacked before they could climb a tree. 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's a poor path for one such as me, 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 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 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 wasn't 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'd 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 on 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 awakened 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 through 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've 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'm 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 recognition. But I had more important things to concern me.

His voice was steady. "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 properly." His face grew ashen as he struggled to rise and failed. "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. There was 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'd pushed away my envy.

"If you'll lie still, I can help." Then, apologetically. "It 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 slow welling of fresh blood. The boar had touched neither artery nor tendon, and despite the blood loss, it looked more the sort of wound to provide a fine scar than something that would lame him in his old age. If the boar had surprised them, he must have been fast indeed to have escaped 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 no harm." My choice of words startled 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 was no stranger to wounds and surgery.

I spoke reassuringly to the woman. "If you'd help him, bring fresh water. There's a stream perhaps twenty yards that way. Mind that the water is fresh, and bears no scum or debris." I pointed without taking my eyes off the wound, and handed her my spare water skin. She left, and from the corner of my eye, I saw his obvious concern. "Fear not. The boar's dead, and I saw no sign 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 or debris embedded in the wound. "Would that my first thrust had slain him and spared you the effort!"

By now, the woman 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, but better that by far than river water."

We shared a smile, then I washed the wound thoroughly, careful to ensure that I'd missed nothing and watchful for any new bleeding. This time, I saw a suspicious puckering of the flesh. Looking closer, I found and removed a long splinter that had come to rest in flesh 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 she returned, I'd cleaned the wound as best as possible under the circumstances and begun stitching it closed with some fine thread 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, more brusquely than I'd intended, avoiding her question. I hadn't intended to give offense, but bitterness was always close to hand for me. 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 a bandage. It wasn't 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 your leg ought to hold you 'til 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 bandage was tight, then 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. "Can we not reward you for your help?"

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'd 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 didn't exert his full swordsman's strength, neither did he draw back in revulsion nor grasp my hand limply as he might have with a child.

Now I remembered why he'd seemed so familiar. He was one of the King's advisors, and as ambassador for Ankur, he'd traveled widely. The lady, of course, would be his wife Margrethe. 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 fit within 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; the respect was equally natural for one who'd played a key 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 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 I needed more 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 the King's entourage returned to Ankur.