Bjorn guided Eric away from the town square and down a side street. They pushed through the doors of the Thirsty Dragon Inn and sat at a small table in the back corner.
Eric was just beginning to recover from his shock and questions began to tumble from his lips.
“Why am I the Guardian? I don’t have any useful fighting skills and I’m not very big. What am I supposed to do? Who’ll take care of my goats? I… I… I…” Eric fell silent.
Bjorn’s weathered face creased into a gentle smile. “The mantles of Champion and Guardian are both very important.
The law states that the chief elder must choose the Champion based on the will of the gods, and Tollak has chosen Ragnar. It falls to me to choose a Guardian.
The Guardian must protect the Champion on the journey to the mountains, both from enemies and from the elements. As a goatherd, you are skilled in the wild.
You can hunt, scout for predators and live easily without the comforts of the town.”
Bjorn paused as the barmaid approached their table. “What can I get you boys?”
“Ah, Sonya, child, can you bring us two pints of ale?”
“Of course, Elder Bjorn.” Sonya smiled at him, and then at Eric before hurrying off for the bar. Eric felt himself turning red.
He had always been sweet on Sonya, but could never quite work up the nerve to talk to her.
The few times she had spoken to him, he hadn’t been able to string words together into coherent sentences. He shook his head, trying to banish the memories.
“But I can’t protect Ragnar from enemies? He’ll probably have to protect me?”
Bjorn shook his head, but remained silent as Sonya returned with two pints of ale. She set the tankards on the table, and then placed a wooden platter in front of Eric.
His stomach rumbled as his eyes took in the half loaf of bread covered in melted goats’ cheese. The intoxicating aroma of garlic and rosemary wafted up into his face.
He turned towards Sonya, trying to find words to thank her, but she had already bustled off towards the kitchen.
He turned back to Bjorn, who was watching Eric with twinkling eyes over the rim of his tankard. He set his ale down with a sigh.
“Do you know why I chose you to be the Guardian? Not the only reason, of course, but the most important?” Eric shook his head numbly. Bjorn nodded at the bread in front of Eric.
“I’d start eating that if I were you. Not only does it look delicious, but I think the lass might be upset if you didn’t."
His eyes twinkled as Eric turned red again and hurriedly began eating a piece of the bread. “Two weeks ago, I saw several boys making fun of little Tatyana.
Later I found that she had been dancing in the middle of the street and talking to herself, and the boys had decided to entertain themselves at her expense."
Eric sat, still as stone, a half-eaten piece of bread inches from his mouth. Bjorn sipped his ale and continued.
“Before I could intervene, another young man stepped into the ring of bullies and stared them down.
All four of those fools were bigger than you, but you put yourself between them and Tatyana and stood your ground until they left.
Then you walked her back to the inn and made sure that her big sister Sonya was there to take care of her.” Bjorn hoisted his tankard again and Eric slowly resumed eating.
“I didn’t think anyone saw that.”
Bjorn nodded. “Another reason I named you Guardian. The Guardian must be fiercely loyal, driven by duty, brave enough to confront his fear and stand for right even against terrible odds.
Also, he will get little glory or recognition for his service. I have spoken to many people in the town and the valley concerning you.
Everyone who has ever dealt with you has confirmed for me that you have those traits in abundance.”
Eric focused intently on the bread, embarrassed by the praise. Bjorn finished the last of his ale and lowered his tankard, smacking his lips.
“After you finish your meal, you should go see Gunnar the blacksmith. I asked him to make you some things for your journey."
Bjorn struggled to his feet, gripping his long staff hard with a gnarled hand.
Eric started to rise to help the Elder to his feet, but Bjorn pressed him back into his seat with a hand on his shoulder. “I’m fine, son, enjoy your meal. Then go see the blacksmith.”
Eric nodded. “Yes sir.” He watched Bjorn walk slowly across the inn’s dining room and disappear out the front door.
He devoured the cheese covered bread and finished his pint of ale in a few minutes and headed for the bar, fishing in his pouch for a few coppers.
He looked up to find Sonya observing him with a small smile playing on her lips.
“You don’t need to pay for the bread or ale, Eric.” He blushed furiously and looked down, searching for words. She laid a gentle hand on his arm, making him flinch and glance up in surprise.
She graced him with an even bigger smile, half amused, half grateful. “Yana told me what you did for her the other day. How you rescued her from those boys. Thank you.”
Eric could only stammer and mumble, his face burning. “Thanks… I mean… welcome… I’m glad to… anyone would have done the same.”
Sonya’s smile softened. “Thank you all the same. Yana loves you, thinks you’re wonderful. Not very many people will stop and talk to her and treat her like you do."
She removed her hand from his arm and put both hands on her hips. “Now you better get to the blacksmith like Elder Bjorn said. Go on now.” she said with mock severity.
Eric turned and fled from the inn, missing the exasperated smile that spilt Sonya’s face as she shook her head.
Gunnar son of Aldric was a huge, hairy bear of a man with a reputation as a kind and honest man who wasted few words.
When Eric walked into his shop, Gunnar was swinging a massive hammer in one heavily muscled arm as he forged the blade of a scythe.
He glanced up at Eric and nodded at him as he continued hammering the glowing metal. After half a dozen more blows, the blacksmith lifted the metal with tongs and plunged it into an oil bath.
He beckoned Eric over to a workbench where he pulled back a blanket to reveal a trio of knives. The largest had a blade nearly a foot and a half long, curved forward with a wide belly.
Eric had a similar knife, but it was old and not remotely as fine a tool as this. His eyes shifted to a matching pair of knives with wicked five inch blades and rings on the pommels.
He raised his eyebrows as he looked up at Gunnar. Gunnar stroked the knives lovingly with his giant fingers. “Made from my best steel. My best work. Cobbler has the sheathes."
He carefully rewrapped the knives in the thick blanket, handing it to Eric. Eric gaped at him as he took the bundle carefully.
“I… I can’t afford these.” He doubted he could afford these if he had a year’s pay available.
Gunnar shook his head. “Bjorn” was all he said. He looked Eric in the eyes and clapped him on the shoulder, nearly bowling the young man over. “Good luck.”
The cobbler had even more gifts for him.
Not only did the cobbler give him a thick leather rucksack and a solid leather belt with a pair of sheathes for the large blade and one for the small blade,
but he measured Eric for a new pair of boots as well. He promised that they would be finished in three days, and that there would be a sheath for his last knife built in to one of the boots.
The cobbler too refused any offer of payment.
As Eric hiked home with all of his treasures in the new leather rucksack, he shook his head. He had never imagined himself as anything but a simple goatherd.
He had no idea how he was going to be the Guardian.