Bonus Scene: How Charles Lost His Leg
(please remember, this scene is unedited and unpolished)
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“Are you the seeker of wisdom?”
Charles looked up from the book he’d been reading. Details about the history of trade between the Kingdom of Dacia and his own Kingdom of Sogn faded to the background as he realized he was not alone. The unknown voice was very close, telling him without question that someone had managed to get into the palace—into his bedroom—undetected.
Tendrils of cold tension wove through his muscles as he swept his gaze over his surroundings. The fire in the hearth was bright enough that even without his inhuman senses, he would have been able to see every detail. His bedcovers were untouched, the papers on his desk near the large windows exactly as he’d left them. A deep breath simultaneously calmed him and drew a strange new scent to his nose. His inner beast, a hulking white bear with thick fur and black claws, growled at the realization that an intruder had violated the sanctuary of his chambers.
“I always seek wisdom.” He put the book down on the small side table and rose from his chair. The voice hadn’t offered a threat, simply asked a question. Perhaps its intentions were not hostile. “There is no greater value to a man who would be king.”
“More valuable than strength?”
The voice was strange in a way Charles couldn’t put his finger on. It wasn’t a hiss, but it was…breathy? Whining? He tried to follow the voice to the intruder, but the words almost sounded as though they’d come from his own head. “Strength is good for any man, but a king must have more than that. I am strong enough.”
“But not wise enough?”
If his ears couldn’t be trusted, then he would rely on his other senses. He inhaled deeply through his nose, drawing in as much of the intruder’s scent as he could. There. The chalky scent of feathers. A bird. He inhaled again. And beneath the feathers, the barest tinge of blood.
“There is no end to the pursuit of wisdom.” Charles kept his back as close to the wall as he could as he edged around his bed, following the scent to the window. He kept his eyes open, but paid attention only to the information his nose was bringing him.
“And what is wisdom worth to you?”
“Wisdom is priceless.” A shadow flickered over his window ledge, a break in the silver moonlight bathing the stone sill. He stopped, stared at that brush of shadows.
“And what would you pay for ultimate wisdom?”
Charles’ heart skipped a beat. His attempt to identify the intruder momentarily forgotten, he answered the question immediately. “Anything.”
Something black coming from the opposite direction of the window caught the corner of his eye. He jerked his head in time to see a large, black bird alight on one of his bedposts, wicked talons closing around the polished mahogany in an iron grip. The glossy black feathers that flowed over its head like an oil spill caught the firelight in shards of yellow and red, its beady black eyes glittering with orange flame as it focused on Charles.
“Anything. You say that with such conviction. No hesitation.”
The bird’s beak didn’t move. Charles kept his muscles loose, ready to move if the intruder offered any threat. There were stranger things in the Kingdom of Sogn than talking birds, and despite the content of their current conversation, he knew just how quickly violence could erupt.
“I stand behind my convictions. Tell me who you are and how you came to speak to me of ultimate wisdom? Do you ask me what I would pay because you have wisdom to offer?”
A different voice spoke this time, the tone almost a match for the first. “There is wisdom to be had for someone who is determined enough to pay the high price.”
Again, it seemed as if the intruder was speaking from inside Charles’ head, a voice like the wind through pitch-black feathers. He held still, scenting the air again. Following the scent of raven, he caught another black bird perched on his window sill.
His latest avian guest watched him with an eerie intensity that only a predator was capable of. “There is a mountain a day’s journey from here. It is surrounded by a graveyard of giants, their final resting places marked only with boulders placed in rows. Climb the mountain if you dare, and find the well near the summit. The water within contains wisdom the likes of which none of your kind has ever known. Drink from it, and you will be the wise man you strive to be.”
The bird looked over Charles’ shoulder at the looming bookcase stuffed with texts of every size, but Charles didn’t turn, didn’t take his attention from the two birds. He took a step back to more easily keep them both in his line of vision. “And the price to be paid for such wisdom?”
The raven perched on his bedpost raised its wings. That was the only warning Charles had before it swooped down, landed on his shoulder with care not to press its talons through the thick wool of his blue tunic. Charles’ beast chuffed, and he had to stifle the instinct to beat the bird off his shoulder, forced himself to remain still and wait for its answer.
“The well belongs to a giant. A cruel, miserly creature who seeks to keep all the wisdom for himself. For centuries he has kept the secret of his well, drinking from it every day and sharing none of it even with his fellow giants. He has lived well on his knowledge, is sought by many of his people for his council. But arrogance has poisoned his spirit. He let his arrogance drive him to commit a great crime.”
The bird on the windowsill took flight, landed on Charles’ other shoulder. Again, he fought back the urge to swipe at it, to knock it away. It clung to him with its talons, the pressure against his flesh even though his clothes making him painfully aware of what sort of damage those talons could inflict.
“The giant has kidnapped and maimed a creature that was never meant to belong to him. The dragon, Sigrunn. The giant used his wisdom to catch her unaware, and he cut off her legs and cast her down into his well. Sigrunn is mighty, but the well is too narrow for her to fly free, and though she can leap high into the air, without her legs, she cannot catch the edge of the well to climb out. She is a prisoner, doomed to wallow in the well, eating only those who come seeking to steal from its waters.”
“And you want me to save this dragon. Get her out of the well?” Charles’ mind was already spinning with possibilities, devising machines that could be used to lever such a beast from the small stone confines of a well. Or there were beasts that had the strength for such a task. His own brother, Torben, could likely tow the dragon out if ropes were bound properly to each…
The birds dug their talons into his shoulders just enough to shatter his thoughts, drag him back to the present.
“Sigrunn will free herself when she has the means to do so,” the first one said evenly.
There was something about the way it had said that simple line that chilled Charles’ blood. “And what means does she require for this escape?”
The second raven peered down at the lower half of Charles’ body, its eyes glittering like a dark hearth of dying embers. “Legs.”
Charles’ stomach turned sharply, bile coating his throat. An image of what the birds were asking for filled his mind’s eye, and his legs throbbed with imagined pain. “You would have me give the dragon my legs.”
“Only one. One leg, freely given, and with the intent to allow Sigrunn her freedom. It is what she needs to regenerate, to become whole again after what was done to her. In exchange for your sacrifice, you will have your drink from the giant’s well. You will have all the wisdom you desire.”
One leg instead of two. Was that better? Charles started to close his eyes, then forced himself to keep them open.
Ultimate wisdom. One leg that benefits only me, against wisdom that would benefit my entire kingdom. I could have a new leg made, perhaps by a dwarf, or a fey silversmith…
In the end, there was only one answer. “I will pay the dragon’s price,” he said quietly.
The ravens unfolded their wings, feathers alternating between reflecting the moonlight and catching the fire before them.
“Tomorrow we will lead you to the well. Drink from it, and when you are done, sit on the edge with one leg hanging inside the well. That will be your offering to Sigrunn.”
It was a small pleasure to Charles that the birds did not feel the need to remind him of what happened to men who broke their word, men who gave up honor for greed. It was a mark of respect that offered him some calm. “Tomorrow then.”
Without another word, the ravens flew away, disappearing into the night. Charles watched them go, half-heartedly mapping their path as if it would help him discern their origin, but his mind was already on tomorrow and the quest that awaited him.
“I’ll bring Torben,” he murmured to himself. “He will carry me home. After…”
He stopped, refused to dwell on the sacrifice he’d agreed to. Part of his mind balked at letting his brother witness what was to come. His younger brother would blame himself for what was going to happen to Charles. Their father had taught him from a very young age that Torben’s massive size meant more than birth order, and despite being the younger brother, Torben had always been in charge of protecting Charles and anyone else smaller than himself. Which was everyone. Torben would see Charles’ injury as a personal failing.
But if Charles told him ahead of time, his younger brother would never agree to it. No, he had to keep it to himself, had to do this without Torben’s knowledge. It was the only way. He shook his head, thrusting out his chin to the moon. Torben would be upset, but it would pass. And someday, somehow, Charles would make it up to him.