The woman’s voice was neither loud nor strong. In fact, it was disembodied and gave the impression of wafting from everywhere at once. Yet its impact upon the Triune was something to behold.
Crelor’s mouth, already open to say more, snapped shut. He stood crumpled in shock as though he had suffered a blow.
Everyone in the assembly craned their necks, peering into the shadows around them.
For the first time in a while, complete silence claimed the Triune - not a whisper could be heard - and into this silence Master Teidus’ proclamation sounded triumphant.
“All stand for Her Highness, Queen Eranel of Albradan!”
The Triune complied even before the Queen emerged from the shadows. She sat upon a throne borne by four Riders.
Two women walked alongside her, five others followed her in train.
Everyone bowed deeply as she passed.
The Queen’s garb was far from regal. A simple white shift covered the wasteland of her body. Her posture was stooped and protective, as though she suffered greatly at the slightest movement. The skin of her face was drawn and waxen, her lips colourless. Her hair hung wispy about her like a golden nimbus.
Only her pale-blue eyes held life and light. They brimmed with awareness and indomitable will.
“Eranel, what in the world are you doing here?” asked Crelor.
She ignored her brother’s question; instead, she gestured for her bearers to carry her onto the dais and towards the Chosen, until she was as close as was physically possible.
The Blades lowered her throne as delicately as they could.
“So you are the wonder of the age.”
Her smile lit her ravaged face like dawn and her eyes burned with silver fire.
Illiom did not know how the others were responding to the Queen’s sudden arrival, but she found herself standing and bowing before her. Not because she was a Queen – she had never given her much thought before this day – but because of her poignant state and the absolute beauty of her being. Never in her life had Illiom seen anyone burn with so much presence.
Illiom felt that her very soul was suffused with the light of Eranel’s gaze, as her own eyes filled with unexpected tears.
“I am so glad that you are here at last,” the Queen said.
Her eyes darted over their faces, searching for something, and Illiom saw tears mirrored in her emaciated features.
“Eranel, you must not...”
The Queen raised her hand and her brother’s supplication dissolved before that gesture.
“Be still, brother. I have no energy to quarrel with you.”
For a while longer she studied the Chosen, inspecting each one carefully. Then at a gesture from her, the Blades turned the palanquin so she could face the rest of the assembly.
“I well knew there would be controversy over my decision, so I have come in person to make it completely understood that this is my wish. Albradan is in grave danger, I am certain everyone here understands that by now. These Chosen are our only hope. If you cannot feel this, then trust at least in your Queen’s discernment. Do not hinder them, any of you, or you will incur my wrath.”
She paused long enough for her words to penetrate deeply before releasing the gathering.
“You may sit.”
When everyone had resumed their seats, she continued.
“I understand your concerns, Lords and Ladies of the Triune. It is not seemly for untitled folk to be given, so effortlessly, powers that many of you have striven long and hard to acquire. For this reason, I will do the only thing that I can to resolve this situation.”
The Queen extended an open hand.
“Can someone fetch me a sword?”
One of her Riders leaped up the stairs towards the nearest exit and returned promptly, holding a sword by the blade. She dropped to one knee as she proffered the weapon to her Queen.
Eranel took the blade gingerly and placed it upon her lap. She signalled for Master Teidus to approach, then turned to the Chosen.
“I wish to bestow upon you, the seven Chosen, a title that will make you uncommon in the eyes of this respected assembly, and all the offices of Albradan.”
She ignored the stifled cries and murmurs that arose around the Delve.
“I endow you with the title of Lords and Ladies, thereby admitting you to the membership of this Triune.”
“You cannot be serious, Eranel!”
Crelor’s angry shout rang out through the hall.
The members of the Triune held their breath.
Eranel sighed. She did not look at him as she admonished him.
“Brother, do not force me to have you removed – this is already more taxing than I can bear. Teidus, one more interjection from Wardmaster Crelor and he is to be removed and barred from this gathering.”
She returned her focus to the task before her.
“Chosen, in order to achieve what I intend, I must ask you to pledge an oath of pure service to me, as is necessary from anyone about to become entitled. Please approach me one at a time so that I may speak the words that must be spoken and bless you with this blade.”
One by one, the Chosen approached the Queen of Albradan and knelt before her. For each, she repeated the same ritual words that made them noble in the eyes of the palace.
When it was her turn, Illiom walked the short distance to kneel before the Queen. Though she felt only the greatest respect for this magnificent being, her knees trembled as though she was terrified.
Eranel transfixed her with a penetrating stare, softened only by a tenuous smile.
“Do you, Illiom Stone of the Sevrock Mountains, swear allegiance to the Crown and the Kingdom of Albradan?”
“I do, my Queen.”
“Do you swear to protect those in need of protection and to stand firm against those who would do injustice to the Realm, to the Crown or to any citizen of these lands?”
“I do,” Illiom repeated.
Without moving her eyes from the Queen’s beautiful, wasted features, Illiom saw the Queen’s brother storm up the stairs and leave the Triune. A few others followed him.
“Then bear these blows and no other,” continued the Queen, resting the flat of the blade lightly upon Illiom’s right shoulder.
“In remembrance of the oaths given and received,” she declared, and moved the weapon to the other shoulder. “In honour of the lineage that hereby commences with you, with respect to your duties and obligations...”
Eranel raised the blade and tapped Illiom gently on the crown of her head.
“In weal or woe, be always true, Lady Illiom of the Chosen. Arise now; arise in service to the Crown of Albradan.”
Illiom stood and bowed low to her undisputed Queen.
When the last of the Chosen had been so accepted into the fold of the Triune, Eranel collapsed into her chair. The Rider who had fetched the sword for her now relieved her of the weapon.
“It is done,” Eranel announced weakly. “No one can dispute my command ... for it falls well within the confines of law. Even if I were to die, your role and your powers will survive me.”
Breathing laboriously, she spoke in halting sentences, with long pauses between words.
Master Farant hurried to her side, but she stopped him with a gesture.
“Lord Talamus, please convey to the Chosen ... the reach of their new powers ... I suggest that this Triune end now and reconvene later ... no earlier than three days from now, after all have had time to rest. Also, enough time for the changes that I have brought about to be fully implemented ... and for my wishes to become clear in everyone’s minds and hearts. Now, take me back to my chambers ... I need rest.”
The Riders carefully lifted her palanquin.
“All stand for her Majesty, Queen Eranel,” Master Teidus’ voice intoned as the warriors bore her away.
As soon as the Queen was gone, the Triune degenerated once more into chaos. Everyone had an opinion that they seemed inclined to express simultaneously. Teidus had quite a task restoring order, but once he had succeeded, he simply announced that the proceedings would reconvene in three days’ time, and surrendered the staff.
He approached the Chosen.
“Please, do not leave, not just yet. As Her Majesty requested, Lord Talamus will instruct you regarding your new status.”
While others were taking their leave or gathering in tight clusters to discuss developments, the Chosen gathered around Lord Talamus, a rotund man of middle years and a seemingly mild disposition.
“In essence, with the granting of these titles, our Queen has taken the unprecedented and extraordinary step of elevating you to the status of peers with everyone else in this Triune.”
The Lord pulled at his goatee thoughtfully.
“While I understand Her Majesty’s motivation for doing so, I should warn you that this will not be a popular move. I fear that in taking this course, the Queen may have won more enmity than sympathy for your cause. In any case, for better or for worse, the deed is now done. My scribes will draw up your titles on the morrow.”
Illiom glanced around to see how the others were responding to these developments. She noted Scald’s calculating look and Undina’s confusion. Azulya’s brow was furrowed with concentration.
“The full scope and reach of your titles will be explained to you when you receive your documents. For now, however, you will need to understand what the Irrefutable Power of Summons entails. Essentially, it endows you with the full reach of the Queen’s own power to summon before you anyone within the Realm. The power is restricted to the Queen’s mandate, which, in this case, is that you do whatever is needed to investigate and avert the crisis threatening the Realm – a very loose restriction, as you will appreciate. The only person exempt from it is Her Majesty herself. Everyone else is - how shall I put it - fair game. Furthermore, if the need to enforce this power arises, you may call upon the considerable resources of the Black Ward, which are now at your disposal should you need to persuade anyone recalcitrant to heed your summons.”
The business of the day done, the weary Chosen joined the last departing members of the Triune and left the Delve.
They walked in silence as they wove their way back down through the palace and, bidding one another good night, they parted ways.
Illiom and Tarmel covered the rest of the distance quietly. Illiom would have welcomed the opportunity to talk with the Rider, but did not know how to go about doing so.
She toyed briefly with the idea of inviting him to join her for a glass of wine, but decided against it. It would be unseemly. The hour was late, the palace was quiet; the last thing she wanted was for him to misconstrue her intentions.
They parted in the hallway and Illiom was alone once more.
She brooded over what had transpired for what felt like an eternity, before sleep claimed her.