The Uncrowned Queen

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A Matter of Masons

Ardeen, Twenthieth of Tinne

(Thursday, July 27th)

Durial, the Warding Range

The Warden King quickly discovered that letting go of his bottled grief did not solve any particular problem. Kæl found himself sitting on the Throne of Divisions the next morning, feeling as out of place as ever before. Indeed, one might wonder what good speaking of the dead and crying for them had done. But, he felt more present in the matters of state than he had before; while his heart still hung in his chest like a chunk of broken steel, the young king was able to finally free a part of his mind from the all-consuming, subconscious business of sorrow and actually focus on what was going on around him.

That morning, he had made a step - as internal it was - toward an acceptance of his fate. He had finally decided that the doubting Bronzeblades, Oakthanes, and Emberfists would see a difference in their Warden when they came searching for a reckoning at the Council only six days away. And a reckoning they would certainly seek, according to Tiern, who was speaking now:

“...There’s dark mutterin’s, my King. My old ears only hear whispers, but it’s enough to know that there are voices wi’ power an’ wealth who would use the eastern interlock’s collapse as sufficient cause to argue your abdication,” the laird shifted uncomfortably on his feet at the very mention of a mutiny against the Throne.

“And what of you, Laird Tiern?” Kæl focused hard on modulating his voice - calm, collected, deep - and schooled his expressive features - detached, focused, impassive.

The young king sat properly in his throne, his boots planted quite firmly beside one another on the granite floor beneath him. His arms rested straight on the cool stone of his throne, his hands draped across the ends to reveal the intricately carved rings he wore – silver on both of his thumbs to represent himself, gold on his middle finger in memory of Teárlan, and rare silver-black haimatite on his left middle finger in memory of Cille. He was not dressed as regally as he would have been for a truly formal court, but his gray tabard was still quite fit for a king. The Granite Helm glinted across and alongside his brow and the Warden King tried not to fidget uncomfortably beneath its weight.

Kæl made every effort to keep his shoulders back and his broad chest pushed out, as if he were in a seated version of military attention. As if, perhaps, he actually believed that he had every right to sit in his cousin’s throne, as if he was completely assured of himself.

It all felt like a lie, but Alwyn had long insisted that if one pretended long enough, a lie could become reality. Kæl sincerely hoped that this was true, else he would play quite the fool. But, Alwyn’s council had never been in error before, so the young Warden had decided that there was no harm in trying to put his best boot forward.

It seemed to be having a mostly positive effect, from what he could gather in the faces before him. Llu hadn’t stopped squinting up at him thoughtfully, sometimes nodding gently as if to himself, when Kæl made a particular move with his hands or asked a certain question. Báine - who he couldn’t quite see, since the little Chronicler was only in his peripheral vision - was scratching away madly in her enormous tome of blank pages, whenever he opened his mouth. And Tiern had drawn his shoulders back, proud and stout, when he met Kæl’s schooled gaze.

Although, Tiern had not apparently pulled himself to his full height until now. At Kæl’s question, a fierceness flashed through the laird’s bright eyes and he puffed himself out in a subconscious display of unquestionable resolution. The strike of metal against metal rang through the open chamber, as the Laird of the Bronzeblades smacked his armored fist proudly into his chest-plate.

“I stand with my Warden, Your Majesty. As do all the Bronzeblades of the Ferric Hills,” Tiern’s beard all but quivered with the force of his sincerity. “You need never doubt that, sire.”

“We don’t,” Kæl dipped his head graciously toward Tiern. “But, the loyalty of your Kin may well be mute, if we cannot resolve the issue of the eastern interlock. A Warden who cannot find the means to rebuild the Range can be rightfully called into question.”

The statement might have seemed self-effacing, but Kæl saw Alwyn nodding his head in approval in the periphery of his right eye. The movement was circumspect to be sure, but it bolstered Kæl’s confidence enough for him to continue calmly:

“You bring more masons to us, Laird Tiern?”

“I do,” Tiern’s wild hair looked even more feral as he nodded his head vigorously. “Fourscore journeymen, ten apprentices, and one master.”

“And what of the master’s credentials?”

Tiern was quite unsuccessful in disguising a sudden grimace. There was a pause, then a short puff of resignation.

“He passed his Master’s Trial only a moon ago.”

Kæl resisted the urge to reach up and pinch the bridge of his nose. He did squint down at Tiern, however, and tapped the fingers of his right hand once, twice, against the runes carved into the stone beneath his palm. It wasn’t Tiern’s fault, though, that one utterly inexperienced master was all that he could offer.

“We would speak to this master mason,” Kæl tapped his fingers again; to his surprise, Tiern looked rather startled by the request. “He is waiting in the Summoning Room, is he not?” one charcoal eyebrow arched toward the curve of stone resting just above it.

“He...he is, Your Majesty,” Tiern’s chest puffed in and then out, as if he was at a loss for what to say; after a few seconds, he sighed heavily and threw his hands up in the air beside him. “He cannot speak or hear, Your Majesty. An’ I fear he knows nothin’ of the elegancies of court.”

“Neither do you, if you flap your hands before your king,” Kæl reprimanded gently, but there was enough of a smile about his lips for Tiern to relax after a moment of wide-eyed dismay.

“My apologies, my Warden,” Tiern bowed respectfully and clenched his hands at his side - not in defiance, but in an effort to remind himself to keep his frustration reigned in.

“This is, however, an informal gathering, though it is held in the Judgment Hall and recorded for Memory,” Kæl finally lifted his right hand and and rubbed it across his scruff; it was torture, sitting so still for so long. “Surely, your Master knows the Silent Speech?”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” the Dvären laird confirmed immediately.

“Then we see no issue in requesting his presence,” Kæl waved his hand dismissively and then set it back down across the arm-rest. “As we have already said, this is a mostly informal court, among kin. We will speak to him in the Silent Speech and we will disregard any breach of etiquette that the Master may make, for this one time.”

Tiern bowed again, Kæl’s implied command understood - if the sole master mason of the Bronzeblades was going to participate in the reconstruction of the Warding Range, then his presence in formal court, however infrequent, would be required. The intricacies of court was something the poor mason would have to learn, and quickly, if he was not to make a fool of himself, Tiern, or his Warden in the Council that was less than a week away.

As the guards at the entrance to the throne room heaved the tall iron doors open, Kæl propped his elbows more firmly on his armrests and clasped his hands together in front of his chest. In a formal court, he would not use the Silent Speech himself - that would be Alwyn’s duty, if necessary. But, the young Warden meant to extend courtesy and respect to Tiern’s master mason, and there would be no harm in using the voiceless language himself for this first meeting. As it was, Kæl had always quite liked the hand-language of the Dvär, and had often used it with Teárlan. He had not used it since his death, however, and those of his counselors gathered by the Throne would know what it cost him to finally “speak” it now. They would also recognize the subtle message he was trying to send – that he had accepted, or was at least trying to accept, his losses.

A diminutive form trotted obediently down the long, narrow walkway, a little too fast for the dignity required of meeting a king. But, the round face that politely refrained from looking up him was quite earnest and once the mason had drawn abreast of Tiern, he bowed appropriately, if clumsily.

“Please tell the young Master that he may look at us,” Kæl unclasped his hands and let them hang loosely above his lap, as he addressed Tiern. “We would speak with him ourselves.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the laird nodded and after a few brief flickers of his fingers, the master mason turned wide gray eyes up at his king.

You honor us with your presence, Master Mason,” Kæl’s hands wove his words in front of him and he couldn’t help a brief smile at the look of awe, respect, and appreciation that brightened the surprisingly beard-less face below him. “Welcome to Durial. Hail and well met. Please, give us your name, so that we may address you accordingly.”

I am Alf, son of Althjof, of the Bronzeblade Kin, Your Majesty,” the young master mason answered back, slowly at first, but as he eyed Kæl carefully for any sign of displeasure - and found none - his fingers flew faster. “It is indeed my own honor to even walk the halls of the mighty Range and to speak with the Warden King.”

Kæl dipped his head regally at Alf with a faint smile of approval that the sharp-eyed mason caught. The young Dvär was clearly shy and not used to speaking to those so far above his own station, but his shoulders straightened under the kindness of Kæl’s approval.

Tell us, Master Alf, have you studied the prints and plans of Durial?” Kæl suspected he knew the answer -Tiern was a thorough man.

Yes, sire,” Alf signed back immediately.

Have you seen or studied the notes of the late master masons?”

I have,” Alf nodded his head as he signed and only after he let his hands drop did he realize his mistake and added a belated (and bemused), “Sire.”

Do you know what went wrong in the eastern interlock?” Kæl watched Alf carefully for his response.

The mason - who was little, even for a Dvär - did not answer immediately. The Warden did not push him; Alf would answer in time and hurrying him for an answer would simply frighten the skittish young master. This was also a question of the greatest importance, which would determine whether or not Kæl would truly have to go back into Damsen and seek the help of the cantankerous Kivi Journeyman.

Tiern had come to the Range immediately after the cave-in, fully prepared to provide what help he could give to his new king. But, because of all the funeral arrangements, ceremonies, and condolences, Tiern hadn’t had an opportunity to tell Kæl much of anything about the masons that he had brought with him. For a few moments, at least, Kæl had hoped that he wouldn’t have to take Myrdhin up on her advice, but as Alf answered, he realized that he may have little other choice.

I must regretfully admit, sire, that I do not know what went wrong. My review of the materials I have been given does not offer a ready explanation. I am an experienced mason, but Master Torcall had almost a hundred years more of master-craft than I can claim,” Alf paused and his eyes searched Kæl’s face nervously for any sign of anger or disappointment.

Kæl was disappointed, but he didn’t want to undermine Alf’s confidence.

Please speak freely, Master Alf. You are wise to tell us your limitations so honestly.”

The mason’s chest - which was covered in a neat leather apron - rose and fell as if in deep relief. After a brief pause to gather his thoughts, Alf continued.

I can find no fault in the Masters’ plans,” Alf’s face was earnest, as he continued speaking to his king in the only way they could. “I have also taken the liberty to inspect what I could of the eastern interlock and its rubble. I do not possess the skill necessary to determine what went wrong and how to avoid a collapse from happening again, when we rebuild.”

Is it possible that the eastern interlock could be rebuilt without the fear of another collapse?”

Yes, sire, that is possible. But it is not well-advised,” Alf’s hands were steady and his eye-contact was firm; he was certain in his reply. “Without knowing what went wrong the first time, it would be foolish to rebuild again. I fear...” he paused, his fingers faltering.

What does your intuition tell you, Master?” Kæl leaned forward slightly, intent on watching Alf’s small hands for his answer.

I fear, sire, that the fault may not have lain with Master Torcall...nor even with the Sluagh,” Alf’s eyes were wide and something like uncertainty tinged his gaze, but he continued to sign to Kæl, determined to obey his Warden’s command. “I fear that the fault may lay with the interlock’s original builders.”

“Nonsense!” Dag huffed, but Kæl threw up his hand and shot his Captain of the Warden’s Guard a harsh look.

“It was once said that reclaiming this Range was ‘nonsense’,” the young Warden pulled his shoulders back until they were resting, rigid and proud, against the back of his throne. “Yet, look at where we sit,” he spread his hands open wide, inviting the gazes around him to take in - yet again - the incredible majesty of their hard-won home. “There is not a being in Kelair, Captain, that does not make wrong judgments.”

Dag bowed his head respectfully in acknowledgment of the point so made. For himself, the younger Warden heaved an internal sigh and stared thoughtfully off into the distance, just beyond Alf’s narrow right shoulder.

The Stonesmith maid’s brilliant halo of hair and piercing eyes came to mind, then. There was no confusing the matter - she was a fire and a tempest, and an unbending knee. Her words had cut deep - “Perhaps in time, Your Majesty, I can come to trust you enough to explain myself further. But, today is not that day, nor was it the day that I chose to rebuild Damsen over yon Range.”

She had defied him, had put her hands upon him, and had treated him as if the crown he now wore on his head was nothing more than a woven braid of posies. Her refusal to help the Range confused him, as Kæl had never encountered such a lack of loyalty from one of the Dvär.

What was it that the Stonesmith had said? “You can fall through the ice on your own, but you cannot save yourself.” Kæl stroked his chin and turned those Northern words over in his mind for a long moment, before he focused on Alf again.

The throne room had gone still. Kæl could feel the tips of his ears turn red in embarrassment. He hadn’t meant to drift into his own thoughts in the middle of a conversation.

Master Alf, thank you for your council and for your wise accounting of your skills. You will serve our kingdom well...” Kæl paused for dramatic effect and held Alf’s eyes meaningfully for several long seconds. “But, we must ask one last question, before releasing you to return to your own valuable time: could you work without conflict with another master mason?”

Assuredly, sire. It would be my great honor and pleasure,” Alf replied instantly, eagerly.

Kæl couldn’t help a dry smile as he added the all-important punchline:

Even a daughter of Harmaa? A master mason of the Stonesmiths?”

Alf’s gray eyes grew wide, until they seemed to dominate the totality of his expression. For a moment, the little mason just quivered in his very boots and Kæl began to worry that he had given the master Dvär too much of a shock.

Alf’s answer, however, was everything Kæl had hoped for and none of what he had expected.

A true master mason? A Mestari of the Stonesmiths? Sire, a Stone-Master of Hjälm would be the highest honor to the Warding Range. I would willingly rank myself as a mere apprentice again, for the opportunity to work under the chisel and mallet of a Stonesmith mason.”

Well. That settled that. Almost, anyway - Kæl wasn’t quite sure Alf comprehended the full details of what he was getting so excited over.

Even if this master were a woman? A maid of your own age?” Kæl was guessing here, but based on the lines on Kivi’s face and the lack of others, he guessed her to be a contemporary of himself and of Alf.

If she is a Master of the Stonesmiths, it matters not,” Alf waved a dismissive hand between his words. “Male or female, it makes no difference. Except for among her own Kin, she would have no parallel in all the world, Sire.”

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