This is something very different from what I usually do on this blog. It is a short story set in the world of The Banner Saga games, and was originally a submission for Stoic's call for short stories a couple of months ago. Sadly, it was rejected, and so I decided to publish it here in case anyone might be interested in reading the first piece of fan fiction I've written in 17 years or so, and the first piece of fiction I published online in roughly a decade.
My goal here was to bring the sensibilities and the tone of medieval Icelandic Sagas to the world of The Banner Saga. I was heavily inspired by my recent reading of several Sagas while writing this story, and tried to imitate some stylistic and formal aspects. Most of all, I tried (and probably failed) to capture some of the dry and often sardonic wit which I admire so much about the dialogue of the best Sagas, as well as the economical and subtle characterisation of protagonists, their motivations and inner lives.
Needless to say, the world described here is not my original invention and the story, set shortly before the events of the first game, draws on the history and lore of the series. That said, all of the characters are my own, and they exist in a geographical niche that wasn't explored in the games.
There was a man called Kveld who spent his days on his farm in Setterlund. People called him Kveld Yoxhead because he was stubborn and hard to deal with. On his last day, Kveld wandered his land, and eventually rested at his son Grim’s burial mound at the top of the hill. From there, he could see his home in the distance and the surrounding land, which had sustained him for most of his life.
He was getting on in years and was more easily tired than in his youth, and so he remained at his son’s grave for a while, and lost track of time. When he came to, he saw that the sun was already high in the sky and was alarmed. He had promised Ketil to meet him at midday, and so Kveld lifted himself off the ground and went on his way.
When he reached Ketil’s farm, it seemed to him as if the sun had barely moved in the meantime, and he doubted his ageing eyes and memory. He saw Ketil’s family and servants standing in the fields, shielding their eyes and pointing up to the sky.
“If my memory serves, you were supposed to be here at midday,” Ketil said and was angry.
“It seems to me the sun is still at its high point, as is its usual custom at midday,” Kveld responded.
“Customs are held in little regard by you, Kveld, and now the same looks to be true of the sun. It has been this way for two hours at least, and I am at a loss to explain it.”
“I do not begrudge anything its deserved rest,” Kveld said. “Creatures more youthful than the sun have need of it from time to time.”
Kveld stayed at Ketil’s home for several hours, although it was difficult to tell the passing of time. Still the sun refused to move, and it became clear to all that this was no trick of the light. People were beginning to be fearful, and even Ketil’s sons were oppressed by the sign.
“This is a strange and great new thing, and I’m afraid nothing good will come of it,” Ketil said. “It pains me to think that you are sent into exile beneath an ill omen like this.”
“I will ease your mind, then. I’m not leaving,” Kveld said.
“Ulf will have your head and call it justice if you do not, you stubborn old fool,” Ketil said and became angry again.
“Killing me will make a fool of Ulf rather than me. Was the verdict not clear? I must leave before the setting of the sun today. As long as the sun does not move, neither will I. Ulf would be reckless to disregard the chieftain’s words.”
Ketil remained silent for a long time.
“Have you talked to Droplaugr about this?” he asked eventually.
“She still expects me to leave today. I will have to go and tell her.”
“Whether you leave or not, take this yox I prepared for you. It carries grain and other things you might find useful. I have a feeling that if you do not leave, you will live in exile in your own home, and you will need everything I can give you.”
Kveld thanked him for the gift and left.
There was a young woman called Droplaugr. She’d been married to Kveld’s son, and her staying with Kveld even after her husband’s death was taken as a great offence by her family, and as a welcome source of rumors by other men in the nearby village of Dalur.
Droplaugr had been waiting for Kveld that day and had grown impatient.
“Where have you been so long, father-in-law?” she asked when he’d finally found his way back. “The sun has stopped, and I thought I must be going mad.”
“I have told you, do not call me that anymore,” Kveld replied, while he unloaded Ketil’s gifts from the yoxen’s back.
“Very well. In that case I will call you Old Yoxhead like the others. I see you have found a companion for yourself.”
“A gift from Ketil for my way into exile. But I’m not leaving. Everything is changed now.”
“You’re still much the same. I do not want you to go, but it might take more than the sun stopping its course to keep my father and brothers from taking revenge once they see you haven’t left.”
“Whatever will happen will happen. If this isn’t a sign for me not to go, then what is it?”
“The gods are dead, surely you are old enough to remember that? Dead gods don’t deal in signs.”
When everything was said, Kveld and Droplaugr remained outside looking up to the sky, waiting for something to happen. The sun didn’t resume its course, and neither was the end of the world upon them. It was a quiet and uneventful day.
Eventually they grew tired and went to bed, but the brightness of the sun kept them awake. After hours of restlessness, a thick cloud drifted across the face of the sun, and Kveld finally fell into a disturbed and uneasy sleep.
A few hours later, Kveld was woken by voices outside. He rose and took his axe and shield with him outside.
“I knew you’d still be clinging to this place. We caught the whiff of old fart a mile away,” Ulf said. With him were twelve men armed with spears, swords, bows and axes.
“Can you be sure it wasn’t the smell of your own men, recalling what happened to Björn’s skull just a few weeks ago?” Kveld retorted.
“I’ll see to it that your fate will be much worse than Björn’s if you don’t conform to the chieftain’s verdict. You are an outlaw now and I could kill you on the spot. In fact, I’m putting my honor on the line even talking to you, after what you did to Björn and my sister.”
At this, Droplaugr appeared, spear in hand.
“You know I am here of my own free will. And if Björn let himself be slain by an old fart, he has no one but himself to blame.”
“Björn was your foster-father, too. You shamed your kin by not calling for revenge.”
“No one will harm this man, unless you want your sister’s blood on your hands as well.”
Ulf was at a loss.
“And neither will you come back with us to Dalur?”
“Not unless you swear you will not force me into a second marriage without my consent.”
“Father will never agree to it. I do not want to be responsible for kin-slaying, but this situation demands action. I fear it will lead to nothing good if you do not leave immediately, Kveld.”
“The day still drags on a bit,” Kveld said. “As a sign of my good intentions, I swear that I will leave as soon as the sun sets.”
“Damn you, Old Yoxhead,” Ulf called, and his head was the color of hot blood. “You will not get out of this by abusing the word of the law. It must be true what people say about your mother lying with the beasts in the barn. One day my sister won’t be here to protect you, and that damned sun will shine on your corpse.”
No one raised their weapons, and soon Ulf and his men left.
Days passed, marked only by the ebb and flow of uneasy wakefulness and shallow sleep. Soon Droplaugr gave up every attempt at sleep and instead grew accustomed to keeping watch.
“No one will be able to ambush us as long as the sun remains high in the sky,” she said.
“It’s an evil time for thieves and murderers,” Kveld replied. “But it is not right that you should keep watch all the time while I’m asleep.”
“I have been visited by strange and troubling dreams, father-in-law,” Droplaugr said. “I saw a sun behind the sun. It was black and cracked, and a great darkness seeped from it like tainted egg-yolk that poisoned rather than nourished. I do not wish to see it again.”
“A wise man might tell you what those dreams mean, but I’m afraid I’m just an old fool who wouldn’t mind some darkness after all this glaring of the sun.”
That day, they set out to Ketil’s home. They were afraid that Ulf might seize their home and land while they were gone, since an outlaw’s possessions were forfeit, but there was nothing to be done, and no men to guard it while they were gone.
Ketil was asleep when they arrived but was glad when he woke up and saw who had come.
“I was worried about you, Kveld. These were strange days, if days they can be called. Men don’t know when to work and sleep, the beasts are restless, and the birds have stopped singing.”
Kveld told Ketil what had occurred with Ulf and his men and asked him to join him on his way to Dalur to speak to the chieftain.
“We need men to protect us. Besides, the chieftain will listen to me when you and your sons are there as well.”
Ketil agreed, and they made preparations for their brief journey north.
“Do you ever wonder what the stars are up to?” Ketil asked on the way.
“I suspect they’re at their allotted places,” Kveld replied.
“Or perhaps they are thrown into disarray and shine a strange light on us. I believe I can feel it enflame my dreams with a cold heat like a blade’s bite.”
“The stars are less fickle than that. They will remain constant long after we are gone.”
The people of Dalur welcomed them with wary eyes. Between Kveld and Droplaugr, and Ketil and his men, they held much renown as well as notoriety, and no one dared stand in their way. They made their way to the chieftain’s hall, and people murmured that it was improper for an outlaw to approach the chieftain, but that it was even more improper for the sun to rest in the sky.
“I have heard, Kveld Yoxhead, of your refusal to go into exile,” the chieftain said. “The news saddens me, for I do not want to see you killed. Why did you come here, outlaw?”
“I am here to seek your protection, and the law’s,” Kveld responded. “The sun has not yet set, and according to the law, I am not yet a full outlaw.”
This was met with much murmuring and shouting, and the chieftain convened with those knowledgeable in the law.
Eventually, the chieftain said:
“It is a great irony that Kveld Yoxhead, who has shown nothing but disdain for the customs of our people throughout his long life, should use the word of the law to escape the consequences of said disdain. And yet, we know that in dark times such as this, it is more important than ever to abide by the law. We have decided that no man shall slay Kveld as a common outlaw, or lay claim to his property, until the sun sets. Any man who defies this will be considered to have killed him unjustly. However, until that time, Kveld is forbidden from entering Dalur, and no man shall trade with him or provide gifts to him or any kind of help, or have him as a guest, or be his guest, under pain of outlawry.”
There was a great uproar from the crowd, and no one was satisfied by the decision. Kveld suspected there were men here who would rather kill unjustly and disregard the chieftain than let Kveld get away, and so they left the village quickly.
Weeks passed, or perhaps months. Ketil came by Kveld’s farm several times with offers of gifts and assistance and words of friendship, but Kveld refused to accept anything or have him as a guest, even though he was in dire need of the things Ketil offered.
“At least take some of my men to defend yourself against Ulf, for surely he would rather be held accountable for your slaying than suffer you to live.”
“I will not let you become an outlaw because of my actions,” Kveld replied. “You will not come here again.”
“You foolish old Yoxhead,” Ketil shouted. “I fear Droplaugr is right; a darkness is coming like a great wave from the north, and it will wash away all laws and customs, and it will be better to have been outlawed and lost all renown than to have died of pride and stubbornness. Even now, these distinctions are being bleached by the sun, and will not matter much longer.”
“The sun may turn out to be my end, but I am not afraid of any darkness,” Kveld replied. “My great-grandfather Odd was said to be a shapeshifter, and he drew all his strength from the night. I welcome this new nightfall.”
After Ketil had left in anger and frustration, Droplaugr approached Kveld.
“Ketil spoke the truth, and I’m afraid you made a grave mistake. The laws will come to their end, and now that you pushed away your only friend, nothing will be left to protect you from Ulf’s revenge apart from my presence. We have been tied to one another, and the last knot has just been tied. I would have preferred to accompany you into exile over an existence in this changeless twilight state. There is still time to leave.”
“My father built this house. I have shared it with my wife for many years. I have raised and buried our son here.”
“Then you will drag me along with you like a yox pushed over a cliff. I regret staying with you after Grim died. I’m afraid I am to blame for all of this.”
“I allowed you to stay. I killed your foster-father when he tried to take you away. I don’t regret any of it.”
When Kveld awoke, Droplaugr was nowhere to be seen. He wandered around the house and the farm, calling her name. One of the yoxen was gone. It was too bright outside, and the sun seemed to drain his strength, so he returned inside and waited for something to happen.
Several hours later, Droplaugr returned with the missing beast, and several sacks of hay and grain.
“I have traded with Ketil, and he was very generous,” she said. Kveld wanted to scold her for going to Ketil without telling him, but Droplaugr paid no mind and instead said: “I have also brought rumors. Ketil told me there are news of war in the north, and of a caravan fleeing west from Skogr. It is said that it has been overrun by the Dredge.”
“We will see,” Kveld said, and did not touch the sacks Droplaugr had brought.
Time passed much as it always had since the stopping of the sun, until one day Droplaugr saw a stream of men passing in the far distance when she went outside to feed the beasts.
“It seems to me that the people of Dalur are fleeing south. We should go and join Ketil while there is still time.”
Kveld argued against this but was eventually swayed.
“We will go but will come back as soon as the worst is past,” he said. But as they were preparing to head out, a group of men swiftly approached, and they returned inside. Kveld armed himself, and Droplaugr got her spear and bow ready. It was Ulf and ten of his men. They looked battered and bloody.
“What do you want?” Kveld shouted.
“Sister. The Dredge have ambushed Dalur. Father was killed, as were Hrafn and Njal. We must flee now, and I implore you one last time to come with me. You will be treated well, and I will forgive you your trespasses.”
“I will come,” Droplaugr called, “as long as you swear on the gods’ graves not to hurt the old man.”
“I cannot swear to that, sister,” Ulf said. “That old fart has caused us too much headache already, it would be a great stain on our name to let him live now.”
With that, he ordered his men to attack the farm house. As the warriors approached, Droplaugr fired her first arrow, and it hit Ulf’s battered shield with such force that it was split in the middle and wounded his hand. Ulf dropped to his knees, screaming and clasping his hand.
“This is all you will get from me today, brother,” Droplaugr shouted. “Take it and leave.”
His men tried to force their way into the house, but Kveld pushed them away with his shield and pierced the foot of the first attacker with his spear. Two men dragged the hurt warrior away from the door. Droplaugr’s second arrow found another target, biting deep into a man’s shoulder.
The warriors retreated and hid behind the trees and rocks. One of them, his face smashed by Kveld’s shield, was trying to stifle the flow of the blood from his mouth with his beard.
“What,” Kveld called, “are you tired already of my hospitality? I have plenty more blows as parting gifts, if only you’d let me indulge my generosity.”
The men then made a fire, and Ulf called:
“It pains me to do this. I give you this choice: you can either burn with the damned Yoxhead, or let him die and come out.”
And with that, the men approached to set fire to the house. Kveld and Droplaugr flung spears and shot arrows to keep them away, but the attackers kept out of their sight as best they could, and soon the stench of smoke stung Kveld’s nose.
“This fire warms my old bones nicely,” Kveld called. “I wish it would burn hotter still.”
“Come, father-in-law,” Droplaugr called to Kveld. “If we leave now, I’ll try to protect you. I think even now, Ulf will not hurt me.”
“Ulf, friend, is it afternoon already?” Kveld called.
“The sun still hasn’t moved, if that’s what you ask,” Ulf replied angrily.
“If the sun doesn’t move, neither will I,” Kveld said to Droplaugr.
“And if you don’t move, neither will I,” Droplaugr said and shut the door.
“It’s only proper that I die here and now. I am an old man. You have no need of me, and no ties that bind you to me. Go, and make the best of your life.”
But Droplaugr didn’t move, and the air soon became too thick to breathe as the flames ate away at the house.
“Damn you and that fool of a son who married you,” Kveld grumbled and pushed open the door. They heard the screaming of men despite the roaring of the fire. Outside, giant creatures of stone had swarmed the farm. Ulf lay dead on the ground among the corpses of several of his men. The rest of the warriors flew before the Dredge attackers.
Kveld and Droplaugr stayed inside the burning house as long as they could. They could not see their enemies through the black smoke, but soon had no choice but to leave. Drawn by the fleeing men, the small group of Dredge had moved on without taking notice of the two survivors.
They stood there for a while and watched the farm burn to the ground.
When the fire had died down, they searched the ruins for anything that might have survived, but the fire had been thorough. When they looked into the barn, they saw that Ulf’s men had killed the yoxen.
They decided to seek out Ketil and left for his farm. But when they arrived, the farm lay abandoned.
“It must have been urgent danger that drove him away,” Droplaugr said. “Otherwise he wouldn’t have left without coming to you first. We should follow him, he must have fled southwest.”
Kveld looked back once more in the direction of his land, and he watched the pillar of smoke still rising from the ashes of his home in the distance.
“It’s a new day,” Droplaugr said, and with that, they left.