Halthor pushed his hair out of his eyes and resumed the exhausting work of planing. The apprentice turned journeyman carpenter, Halthor Sigridsonne was not pleased with the fact that the lumber he was to be using for the queen's chamber in the hall was warped. While he could have set one of the junior journeymen to work on planing the lumber, the auburn haired man needed a break from the endless labor of laying planks for the wainscotting of the room. He had reached the point where the pile of usable material was dwindling. Thus, the work to make the subpar material better.
'Sigridsonne's a lazy man," a voice drawled behind him, "Look at him doing an apprentice's job and not bothering with his own work. I don't see why you keep him." Halthor frowned at the red pine and pressed harder against the wood as he shaved it smoother. The king's steward kicked a block of excess wood laying on the ground towards Halthor before he continued. "You should fire him. He is better suited to a serf's lot than this work," the man said loftily, "His own father rejected him. The man has all the grace of a bull and his visage disturbs the eye."
Aleric, Halthor's master, made a noise of disagreement but said nothing. Aleric never said anything when the steward spoke. Privately, Aleric insisted that Halthor take up the mantle of master of his craft. It was a long running discussion between them. Aleric, with his thirty years of experience, insisted that Halthor was more than adequate at his work to strike out on his own. Halthor insisted, however, that he was not half as good as he should be to go on his own. Aleric could have pressed the issue. He could have declared Halthor a master of his craft and kicked him out of his home.
Aleric, however, had a fondness for Halthor. It didn't hurt that Sigrid, Halthor's late mother, was once Aleric's sweetheart when they were young. Halthor's father was a brutal man. When Halthor was but eight years of age, he watched as his father came home from the tavern drunker than he had ever seen him. The man screamed about how Sigrid was the reason why he didn't have more money. He raged about other things, things that Halthor's unfortunate mother had no influence over though she was blamed for it. That was the day that Halthor watched his father beat his mother to death over the fact that her father, a somewhat prosperous merchant, left a pittance to her when he died.
Halthor ran when his father turned to face him. Aleric found Halthor running for the temple of the Good Mother with his face white with terror. Aleric took him in. When Halthor's father came to demand the return of his son, Aleric declared that Halthor was now his apprentice and that he could not be released from his oath of service. While Halthor had made no such oath, Aleric maintained that it was made when the court of the guilds came together and Halthor's father demanded his son's return. When all eyes fell on young Halthor, he looked between his red haired father and fair haired Aleric. And he chose Aleric.
Aleric treated Halthor as though he were his own son. Now that Aleric's hair had more white in it, the builder was of the mind that Halthor needed to take up the master builder's mantle so that he could take over Aleric's business when the day came that he died. Aleric's gentle reproof of Halthor's reluctance was an almost daily discussion had out of habit now. Lost in his reverie of his history with the master builder, Halthor missed when the king's man had left. He stood amidst wood shavings and dust. Aleric walked up to him and ran a hand over the board. While it was not as smooth as it would be when polished, it was a dramatic improvement over what it was to begin with.
Aleric did not lift his hand when Halthor made ready to make his next pass. Halthor looked up. Aleric looked down at the wood with such an expression of sorrow that Halthor was troubled. "The king's man demands that you leave or he will give the work to another," Aleric said quietly. Halthor looked down at the board before him. "I can not cast you out," Aleric said, "But..." Halthor straightened.
"I understand," he said. Halthor knew with out this project, Aleric would be with out work for the season. He would possibly be forced to beg for food. Despite Aleric Builder's skill, he was a poor man for the last several years. Aleric suspected it was because the head of the guild was offended when Halthor rejected his daughter. It all was nothing compared to the immediate problem, though, and Halthor put it out of mind. "I will go west," Halthor said, "The nobles of the border domains would be eager to have the work of one who had served the king." Aleric looked from the board to Halthor's face.
"I'm sorry," he said. Halthor straightened. "Return in a year's time," Aleric said, "It should be long enough that this man's ire will have turned to someone else." Halthor gave a dry humorless laugh. As he brushed the dust off of his apron, the auburn haired man wondered where he would get the coin to acquire tools or pay for his journey west. Aleric's gaze moved from Halthor's face to the doorway beyond him. His air of regret was suddenly washed away with wary attention as he stiffened.
Halthor turned. Dressed in a dark green tunic with embroidery over it in silks of a similar color, the king of Ranyth looked as though he was suffering jaundice. His skin seemed yellowed against the green he wore and his eyes were limpid pools of grey that were set in a face that looked perpetually ill. At his shoulder, the servant who had visited earlier was speaking in a tone that sounded far more uncomfortable than it had when he was last in the room. The thin man who ruled Ranyth walked through the sawdust strewn room with a look of keen attention. "You," he said when his gaze settled on Aleric, "Master Builder, have done fine work. The hidden chamber, has it been completed?"
Aleric bobbed a bow. "Yes, your Majesty," he said, "the door was finished this morning." The king made an imperious motion forward. Aleric lead the king and his lone servant to the cunningly hidden door in the wall. As he pushed a panel of the wainscotting in, a door that came to hip height opened. The king looked at the door and nodded with approval. He murmured quietly with Aleric and looked into the chamber that was scarcely large enough for a child to sit within. In the midst of that quiet discussion, the attention of all three men turned to Halthor.
They closed the door into the chamber and crossed the room. Aleric thought that the king and his man were going to continue out of the room. When they stopped beside Halthor, Aleric's gut clenched. The king's servant was known as a liar and for a moment, Aleric feared that the king would order Halthor's execution for some offense that was naught but wind. "I need a man to go to my cousin in the south," he said looking at Halthor.
"I am ever in your Majesty's service," Halthor said cautiously. The king pulled a pendant on a fine chain from beneath his tunic. As he lifted it over his head, he spoke.
"This is the sign of my service that you bear and the message you bring to my cousin," he said, "There is one who speaks of dissent. You are to go to my cousin, Olerand, and give him this token. Keep it safe until you reach him. The priests of the Dark One have become bolder over the last several months. Be wary of them. You shall be given coin for your journey and provisions."
Halthor said nothing, trying to reason why the king was personally giving him this duty. As the king held out the necklace, Halthor bowed his head. A stag worked in gold with a crystal caught in the antlers hung from the chain. As the king placed it upon Halthor, the journeyman builder felt some measure of heat pass through him, as though he had stepped out into the summer's heat though it was late in winter. "Keep it secret and safe," the king said. Halthor straightened.
"Why me?" he asked out loud in confusion before realizing he had spoken. The king's expression turned grave.
"Because the stone chose you," he said, "It is the High One's will. In the end, even kings serve the gods." Halthor slipped the pendant beneath his necklace, noting how it felt warm against his skin. "Kneel," the king of Ranyth commanded. Halthor knelt in the sawdust and bowed his head. As the king's thin hand was set upon his head, Halthor felt a ripple of power roll over him like warm water. "Be you blessed in the name of Sigurt, father of the Shining Ones and Lord of All Light."
Halthor looked up at the king as he removed his hand from Halthor's head. "Know that you carry the crown's greatest treasure upon you. Guard it with your life until you reach he who wards my heir," the king commanded. Halthor nodded. With that, the king turned and walked from the room. Halthor looked over at the hidden chamber and questioned its reasoning and set a hand against the pendant beneath his tunic.