The news of the Champion’s death passed quickly through the valley. It was not a surprise, for the Champion was old.
No one could remember a champion dying of old age, not even Bjorn, the oldest man in the valley.
Champions generally fell in battle, but the valley had known peace for a very long time, and the valley’s champion had seen over eighty winters.
People nodded sadly when they heard the news, but most were excited for the feast and the choosing ceremony that would follow the Champion’s burial.
Summer was waning into a golden autumn as the people of the valley gathered into the town from their outlying farms and settlements.
While some of the people on the outskirts of the valley lived in small communities, mostly compounds or small fortified settlements,
there was only one settlement large enough to be called a town. The town’s population swelled over the three days of the Champion’s funeral.
The Day of Mourning saw guests from the nearest farms join the townsfolk to support the Champion’s family in their grief.
The greatest number of visitors arrived for the Day of Burial with its solemn ceremonies.
By the Day of Remembrance, the town was bursting with people from every part of the valley.
Carts and stands sold roasted and smoked meats, breads both savory and sweet, soups, stews, ale, mead, wine and treats of every type.
Bards regaled audiences in pub and street alike with tales and songs of the former Champion’s deeds and adventures.
The people of the valley danced and sang, glorying in the proud, independent traditions of the valley.
The fourth day was the Day of Choosing, and thanks to the revelry of the day before, did not begin until after the noon meal.
As the people gathered in the town square, the air grew thick with their excitement. Soon the seven elders ascended the platform, and Tollak, the chief elder stepped forward and raised his hands for silence.
A big man with a charming smile that did not reach his eyes, Tollak rested his hands on his belt as he surveyed the crowd.
His left hand fondled the hilt of a dagger while his right jingled a bag heavy with gold coins.
“People of the Valley! We have gathered today to name our next champion. As it has been for many winters, from before the earliest of our memories, when a champion dies, another is born.
On this day, I name Ragnar, son of Bronn, son of Ragnar the Champion, as the one chosen by the four gods!”
The crowd erupted in cheers and polite clapping as a tall strapping young man of twenty winters pushed his way free of the crowd and vaulted up onto the platform.
Golden hair flowed to his shoulders and would have fallen over his face but for a red band bound around his brow.
A red cloak flowed from wide shoulders and billowed around a narrow waist and strong legs. Tollak stepped back as the youth faced the crowd, a smile spreading above his square jaw.
“My grandfather was the champion of this valley for many winters. You have sung of his deeds and battles, and thanks to him we have had peace in the valley for many winters.
Two days ago we laid our champion to rest. Today I stand here ready to take up his mantle and his sword as the new Champion of the Valley!”
The people nearest the podium roared and clapped, and the enthusiasm of Ragnar’s large family spread through the crowd.
Ragnar bounded down from the stage, ready to begin his final day of celebration with his family and friends.
“WAIT!” The voice carried the weight of many winters, but bore an authority that silenced the crowd and froze everyone in place. One of the elders stepped forward and threw back his hood.
His hands were curled around the staff that seemed to hold up his crooked frame. Tollak hurried forward and tried to grab the man’s arm, but he shook off the hand.
“The law states that one must be chosen to escort the Chosen One to the cave of the gods.
I, Bjorn, son of Siegfried, have seen more winters than any of the seven elders, and it is my duty to name the one who will go with the Chosen One.”
The crowd murmured excitedly to each other. The last Day of Choosing had been so long ago that many had forgotten this facet of the law.
Bjorn cast a piercing gaze over the crowd, his gaze seeming to land on every person in the crowd. One hand suddenly shot out and pointed out into the teeming mass of people.
“I name you, Eric son of Lief, as the Guardian to the Chosen One.”
A gasp went up from the crowd as the people nearest the slender young goatherd drew back to gape at him.
Bjorn beckoned him forward and the youth's feet seemed to obey of their own accord, albeit slowly. Ragnar leapt back up to the platform, a scowl darkening his features.
“I don’t want him to go with me! I want one of my friends to go with me. At least they’ll be useful and…”
Bjorn glared at Ragnar. “Silence boy! I am not one to be swayed with words or gold. I have named Eric as the Guardian, as is my duty. So shall it be."
With that, Bjorn left the platform and took Eric by the arm, drawing him away from the muttering crowd.