The weathered old knight slowly hobbled along the freshly snow-covered field. A thin layer of fine white powder lightly covered the ragged grass and crunched slightly as he carefully paced up and down the inspection field. At his age, he knew the risks and dangers of slipping on the snow and ice, but his pride made it impossible for him to ask anyone for help. He’d be damned and dead before he’d be confined to a wheeled chair like some of the healers advised.
Lord Mourningblade may have become an elderly man, at the ripe old age of eighty-two, but his pride and spirit was just as strong as it ever had been – and he wasn’t going to show any weakness at this point to his graduates!
All along the field, lined up in perfect rows and standing firm and proudly at attention, were this year’s candidates for inclusion into the Order of the Rose. Knights of the people, sworn to uphold the laws and protect the weak and innocent, without bias to rank, wealth, status, or influence, the Order of the Rose was one of the most prestigious and well respected of all the orders of knighthood – and these were the finest applicants to the Order.
Hobbling up and down the rows of young men and women standing proudly at attention, Lord Mourningblade occasionally hummed or hawed at the squires assembled before him. A good lot these were – exceptional in many ways, with some of the greatest potential that he’d seen in years. It was just a shame, a damn shame, that the best and the brightest was going to be doomed to become such a total failure.
Never before in his life had he considered judging the applicants unfairly, but this year he was tempted to do so. Sorely tempted. Stroking his well-manicured beard with his hand, he finally stopped at the end of the columns and rows and stared unabashedly at the young lady standing tall and proud there. The High Lady Elissa, Third Child of the House of Thunder, was a very beautiful young woman – and also the top ranked squire for this year’s squadron of cadets.
“Lady Elissa,” Lord Mourningblade slowly nodded his head towards her and slowly turned to walk away with troubled eyes. Going only a few steps, he stopped and then called out over his shoulder, “Milady, walk with an old man this evening. There are a few things I would like to discuss with you before you’re free for the night.”
“Of course, Milord!” Snapping her the heels of her boots to attention, the young blonde-haired beauty saluted briefly and then quickly strode forward to walk a single step behind the old lord. “You wished to speak with me,” she asked, being careful to stay polite and respectful even though she was nearly consumed with curiosity. The final test for the cadets was scheduled to take place tomorrow and it could greatly affect their standings. At the moment, she was first, but that could change at any time in the battle to come tomorrow; if the Lord Mourningblade had any advice for her to help her maintain her ranking, she was anxious to hear what he had to say.
Instead of answering, the old lord simply continued to hobble around – seemingly aimlessly – while lost in his own thoughts. Taught to respect those of higher rank, and to honor those with more age, wisdom, and experience, Lady Elissa tried her best to remain patient while she followed behind Lord Mourningblade. For almost an hour – well past what should have been her free time for self-study and supper – the older knight laboriously paced circles around the massive courtyard. It wasn’t until his fourth complete lap before he stopped and looked back over his shoulder to make certain she was still there.
Sighing slightly to himself, almost as if he was hoping that she’d given up and left already, Lord Mourningblade coughed a few times and cleared his throat. “Lady Elissa, do this old man a favor and hear him out. I have troubles weighing on my mind, and I feel that I would be remiss if I didn’t try and address the situation somewhat. Just keep in mind, what I say, I say as a friend of your father’s and as a friend to you; not as a Lord nor a Knight of the Rose.
“I fear my thoughts are darkened, and I must say what I mustn’t.” Staring deeply into her pale blue eyes, the old lord looked troubled; divided by his duty as a knight and his friendship to the Lady’s family.
“Lord Mour… No, allow me to correct that.” Shaking her head from side to side slightly, Lady Elissa’s long blonde hair waved and rippled rhythmically behind her as it cascaded freely down almost to her knees. “Uncle Moo-Boo,” she addressed him by the nickname that she’d bestowed upon him so many years ago when she was just a child and couldn’t say his name properly. “Uncle Moo-Boo, you know if there’s anything you ever wish to tell me, I’ll listen.”
Gently the old knight reached out and rubbed his leathery old hand against her soft and gentle face. “Allow me to begin by saying how proud I am of you, Little Lissa. You’ve exceeded all expectations; both mine and your fathers.” Smiling lightly, he called her by the familiar youth-name he knew oh so well.
“Thank you.” Elissa couldn’t help but smile at the older gentleman’s praise and gentle touch; she truly did regard the older knight almost as an uncle.
“And that’s what makes what I’m going to say next, so hard to do,” Lord Mourningblade said, slowly. “On the marrow, skip the competition. Be sick. Oversleep. Lose in the first round. Whatever it takes, do not win the contest tomorrow.”
“Wha…” Elissa blinked back tears. To first be praised and told that she’d done well, and then be told to lose on purpose? She didn’t understand at all. “Uncle Moo?”
“I cannot speak any more on the matter, and I should not have spoken what I have,” Lord Mourningblade slowly shook his head from side to side. “All I can do is follow what my heart demands, and it demanded that I make such a request from you. Your points are high, you’ve held yourself with the highest pride and greatest honor. No matter the outcome of tomorrow’s trials, you have already proven yourself worthy to join the ranks of the Order.”
“But…” Elissa was completely baffled; never would she have expected the Lord Mourningblade to say such things to her. “Shouldn’t a knight always try their hardest? Fight with all their strength, heart, and courage in all contests or battles?”
“They should,” Lord Mourningblade agreed slowly, “and a Knight Commander should always encourage those under their tutelage to do their utmost; it’s why I speak to you as your Uncle Moo-Boo and not your Lord Commander that I ask such a thing.
“But, I can say no more. I have followed my heart, perhaps even when I shouldn’t. Now, you must follow your own.” Coughing slightly, the old lord slowly and deliberately turned his back to show that the conversation was finished. “You’re dismissed. Do what you feel you have to do.”
Without looking back, he slowly strode off, leaving Elissa standing alone in the gentle snow to try and sort out what she was going to do when tomorrow finally came.