354 years. That’s how long Rowan had been watching and waiting for the next guardian to appear.
He’d become the guardian quite by accident.
He was wandering through the woods, as he always did. He was prone to rambling about, with no destination to speak of. His mind was lost in daydreams about the most recent pretty girl in the region to have caught his eye. His face was turned up to enjoy the tops of the trees, and thus he nearly tripped over the figure lying prostrate before him. At first he took it to be a corpse, but upon turning it over to check for loot he was surprised by a wheezing release of breath from the poor fellow.
He squatted beside the figure for a moment, pondering what to do next. The man, as he saw it was a man by this point, was wearing what appeared to be a collection of thick old rags quilted together into a cloak. It was large and billowing, and the hood was pulled down low over the man’s face so that it almost functioned as a cowl.
The man wheezed again, this time slowing moving his lips. It appeared he was trying to speak, so Rowan leaned down and placed his ear as close to the man’s lips as he could. There was another indiscernible wheeze from the man, with the faint whisper of mumbled words that Rowan couldn’t quite make out.
The man shuddered once, then twice, and then was very still. Rowan thought perhaps he was dead, but regardless there was nothing he could do for the poor chap. They were miles and miles from the nearest village, days journey even if Rowan could build a litter to drag the man. He decided the most sensible thing to do would be to take the man’s cloak.
He reached down to roll the man onto his side when, with a terrible suddenness, the man’s hand grabbed Rowan’s wrist. The old man’s eyes shot open and stared at Rowan with startling intensity. Rowan pulled backwards to make a run for it, but the old man’s grip was surprisingly strong.
“Hark! It must be kept safe until the appointed time!” The old man had suddenly found his voice, breathless and weary thing that it was.
The old man’s gaze burned into Rowan with an intensity that made his ears feel warm and his palms sweat.
“You must heed the ancient words. ‘Without the Token, all will be lost.’ It must be kept safe until the appointed time!”
The old man’s grip tightened for a moment, and then he was gone. The man’s body remained, but whatever spirit had animated him had fled.
Rowan pulled the man’s hand from his wrist and jumped backward behind a tree, trying to get distance between the body and himself in case there were more surprises in store.
He watched and waited, peering from around a tree to be sure the old man was truly dead this time. It would be foolish to allow what had just happened to keep him from taking the cloak, the cold season was coming on, and the cloak looked warm.
Finally, Rowan steeled his nerves enough to approach the body. He pulled the cloak from the corpse, which was already stiffening, and threw it over his own shoulders. It was even warmer than he’d hoped.
He began checking about his person for pockets of hidden treasures and perhaps even money. He found the cloak was filled with pockets, and odd objects the likes of which he’d never seen before: a tiny mug, smaller than any Rowan had ever come across; a marble in the likeness of a human eye, hard and smooth; a feather, of a brighter orange than Rowan thought possible; and a string of beads, each bead the rich color of freshly spilled blood.
Rowan thought that was all the pockets, but then, nearly by accident, as he was adjusting his collar, he found one more pocket over his heart, but on the inside of the cloak. He reached his arm inside and found a single coin. It was a deep, striking black. Blacker than anything Rowan could even imagine. It seemed as if the light around it was sucked into the coin.
Rowan examined the coin in awe. It was unnatural. He found it impossible to look away. He placed it in the palm of his left hand, closed his hand tightly around the coin, and closed his eyes. A surge, fast as a bolt lightning, shook his entire body, and he found himself lying on his side, hours later, but with new memories in his head. He knew that no matter what befell him, it was of the utmost importance that he kept this coin safe until another guardian came to replace him. He didn’t know how he would identify the next guardian, or what the coin might need protecting from. He just knew that he would keep it with him, and continue his wandering as he always had, but with a new purpose.
Since then, he had not slept. Not a nap, or a doze, or a nodding off. He’d spent the last 354 years waiting. He was old in his bones, even though the coin slowed the aging process considerably, 354 years was still such a very long time. He was tired, and weary, and ready to make up for 354 years without rest.