There was a lightness in Ran's step, despite the gravity of the occasion. Accustomed to heavy armour, his muscles lifted each foot easily beneath the airy burden of an undyed linen shift. Ran entered the chapel, a small structure of high ceilings and wide windows. His body, relaxed by training, showed none of the apprehension that tensed the youth's mind.

Luke stood waiting at the altar, his face serious, though his eyes smiled benevolently at his ward. Two sets of blades lay on the altar behind him-one fashioned in the design of the Sword Guard, the other emblazoned with the nation's coat of arms.

Ran stopped and knelt before his teacher.


The candidate lifted his head.

"Six years you have been my beloved student. You have proven your strength, your skill, your valour, and your integrity. No man would I more highly recommend to the Sword Guard, yet the choice remains yours alone.

"Understand that to accept the honour is to live the Code, not just to serve with absolute loyalty. An exemplar, you are on duty every minute of your life. Equilibrium is much harder for the Sword Guard to maintain; he is never off-duty to relax.

"A Sword Guard's loyalty is to the people, not the nation; thus he is free to decide his own conscience when given orders. The price is full responsibility for his every action and its repercussions, both on and off the battlefield. No soldier's morality is more harshly judged, without relieve. No knight's Order demands so much of its members.

"A member of the Sword Guard swears his loyalty first to himself and his conscience. This is the foremost oath—thus no tyrant may command the allegiance of the Sword Guard.

"I'll tell you now that you will be your own harshest judge. Your best—your only—defense will be to maintain your balance and your sense of self. The alternative is mental anguish, and some have resigned from this Order because of it. To survive, you must be the qualities we demand of you, not just act them."

Luke drew his sword and rested its tip on the tiles at his feet, his hand resting lightly on the pommel. Razor sharp, straight, double-edged, with the curious hilt reserved by decree for members of the Tanoran Sword Guard, the metal glinted in the brilliant sunlight pouring from unseen windows among the rafters.

"The Sword," Luke began, "the symbol of the Tanoran Sword Guard, is the most honourable of all weapons.

"It is first and foremost a defensive weapon. Accordingly, the Sword Guard is traditionally the last line of defense in war. It can never be ordered to attack except in defense.

"The Sword is a symbol of Honour and of Honesty,

"Of Integrity,

"Of Strength, both might and mind,

"Of Courage, to face Death,

"Of Death, impartial to all,

"Of Justice, as impartial as Death,

"Of Truth, straight and untwisted,

"Of Sacrifice, the purpose of a soldier."

Luke balanced the sword with his forefinger a moment, then lifted the blade.

"The Sword is among the hardest weapons to master. Likewise, the qualities of a Sword Guard are among the hardest to maintain. A Guard must master them both."

"My advice to you, should you choose to take it: Don't wear your honour like a mask. It must permeate the whole of you. Do not fear humiliation, because if you are indeed honourable, your honour will not shatter at your humanness. Not that you should attempt anything less than right, for that would violate the Code.

"You must not adopt a brittle façade. There is no dishonor in defeat, if you accept the defeat and choose to use it rather than to suffer it. Remember that Honour is your Integrity, and not the Face others perceive."

The sun slipped behind the horizon, its crimson rays coloring the pale walls of the chapel.

"Recite," ordered Luke.

"Prowess. Discretion. Intelligence. Courage. Loyalty. Honour. Generosity, Courtesy, Compassion, Respect. Morality. Justice. Mercy. Faith. Franchise. Humility."

"That is your topic for meditation. Until tomorrow, my friend."

He placed his hand on Ran's shoulder a moment, then left.

Ran paced the perimeter of the room, stopping finally in front of the altar. Two pairs of blades: One, a sabre and a long dagger, signature of the First Guardians, the highest order of the military. The other, a slim, straight, double-edged sword and a shorter, wider sword of the same design, with a broader cross-piece. Between them sat a cup of water and a small plate with two crackers.

The moon came out, full and bright. Ran turned his gaze towards the east window; his dark eyes caught and reflected the silver light. He stood thus for over an hour, wandering the corridors of his thoughts, then turned his focus inward and sat down.

A silver falcon flew in, shimmered into an exotic lady wrapped in white robes. Ebony curls tumbled about her face, the blackness accented by her violet eyes and the silver wire jewelry that twisted about her arms and wove through her hair.

She disappeared.

Ran's childhood friend, now eighteen, sat at a desk in the corner, poring over a large text illuminated by candle flame. A charcoal feather lay across his notes—messy scratches on cheap scholars' paper. Ran scrambled to his feet; his friend turned his head to look at him, then everything faded into nothingness. The room was as before.

Ran swayed. He'd eaten nothing for more than a day.

A man appeared in the centre of the room, dressed in a loose blue tunic and dark green trousers. Short, dark brown hair he had, and intense sapphire eyes that bored into Ran's head. He held his hands as if to entreat the dizzy candidate to come with him. Ran closed his eyes. When he opened them, the man was gone.

A turtledove flew down from the rafters, landing on the floor. Ran picked up one of the crackers, crushed it, and laid the crumbs on the tiles. He waited. Then he drifted to one of the walls and traced its carvings with his finger. When he looked back several hours later, the crumbs had vanished.

Twilight returned. The candidate paced the room once more, then returned to the alcove with the swords, facing east once more. The sun, radiant, emerged from behind the hills. As the pure light of a new day fell onto the altar, Ran slipped his right hand around the sword's hilt. The blade gleamed as he lifted it, the light, agile weapon that fit so easily to him.

He was the youngest in this lord's dominion for more than a generation.

© 2001 Fyrna Ela'eren All rights reserved.