Closer to Hoelbrak, I could have found more sympathisers, more appreciation of my talents. But what is glory if not hard won? I was not needed in Hoelbrak. Regardless of whether they realised it or not, I was needed at home.
I am Magna, daughter of Magnus Dredgebane. He is of the Bear, as are my brothers, and my father’s parents. My mother, Ida Ericson, and her parents, and my sister, are all of the Wolf. I answer to Raven. Closer to Hoelbrak, this is perfectly respectable. In a distant homestead of bears and wolves, however, it was not much appreciated. I am Magna the Crow.
Homecoming (Day 4)
The homestead lay two and half weeks south of Hoelbrak, built on a small rise where a spring of freshwater rose through the rock and pooled. It was beyond the main trails and far from other norn hunting grounds. Far from everything, apart from the dredge. With over a month of travelling there and back, it was closer to three months since I had last visited, although I was too old now to expect fanfares and celebration. That treatment was reserved for strong norn, norn who killed their foes with steel and claw.
As I returned, leading Yakson and his cart behind me, I was glad to see the stone wall nearing completion – before leaving, the dredge had taken to trying to burn us out – although there was a new, gaping hole in the roof of the main hall. Rounding the hill towards the entrance, I saw my sister Malin working in the blasted wreck of a gateway; the stone was black with ash and splinters of wood still littered the ground.
Malin’s reddish mahogany hair was tied back into a high ponytail and her brow beaded with sweat as she hacked at a large tree trunk, carving away planks suitable for repairs. Tall and well built, she was unfortunate to have my father’s square jaw and mother’s hooked nose. The muscles across her bare arms and shoulders rippled with each axe strike. She looked up at my arrival and stepped away from her work for an embrace while my yak and cart trundled past.
“Long night?” I asked.
“Three nights! First they tried to sneak in – hah! – sneak up on a wolf? On the second night they bombarded the walls and on the third they broke through, only to have me single-handedly break their charge in the gateway! It was glorious, and I dare them to try again tonight!” Her sloped shoulders and the bags under her eyes told a different story.
“I am glad to be back, then! I killed a patrol five days past, but it was hardly noteworthy.”
“Did your toys do most of the killing for you?”
I glowered. “Taunt me again when you are finished battling the tree. Where is mother?”
“Inside.” Malin stepped out of the way and picked up her axe once more. “The boys went into the mines to find the latest ringleader. They will not be back tonight.”
I steeled my expression but Malin surely knew that I was relieved. Father in particular objected to my tinkering with guns and grenades, claiming that the devices stole my glory.
He was not going to react well to my new sentry guns. But I had built them from scratch and had every right to claim every dredge that they killed as my own. We are norn, and will we never be defeated in our home lest a Dragon rise beneath us. But, as it was, the dredge were wearing us down; we were few against many. It is stupid and not brave to turn away help, whether from my devices or otherwise.
Inside the wall, the damage was more severe than I had first imagined. One of the outhouses was collapsed into ruin and another burned black. The hole in the roof I had spotted was merely the tip of the iceberg; I walked around to see the entire far wall of the house had been torn away. My mother was picking through the wreckage, looking for any food that might be salvageable from what had been the pantry. She had grey hair swept back with a bandana and stood almost a whole foot taller than me – although I was only a depressing eight foot five. She was no weaker for her age either, or for the stump where most of her right arm had once been.
Spotting my approach, Ida grunted a greeting. “Hail, Crow. What news from the north?”
“There is to be another Great Hunt soon,” I replied, slipping my large rucksack from my shoulders and carefully putting it down. “I also saw Gullik Oddsson at one of the moots in Hoelbrak and heard his story of Ascalon. I could not say how much might be true… but he is an impressive storyteller. You have never seen a crowd of drunk norn so quiet!”
“All right, enough swooning. Did you get all of the supplies we need?”
“Of course.” I gestured first to the cart. “But it will not be enough to replace everything.” I gestured at the mess at Ida’s feet and she nodded.
“Yes. Clever things, set up on the slope across the river there,” she pointed, “and rained rocks and fire upon us. I left Malin here to look pretty while I climbed up and dealt with it, but it will take time to rebuild. You can make yourself useful, for a change.”
I could not help but laugh at the back-handed compliment. “Yes, mother. Where should I start?”
“Tell Malin to stop wasting time with the gate – it will only be destroyed again anyway – and put this wall back together. It will be cold tonight without it.”
Already mid-afternoon, the damage was far too extensive. “If the dredge attack again, we will not spend the night inside anyway,” is what I said.
Ida grunted. “Your sharp tongue is not as useful as a sharp sword.”
I pulled my pistol from its holster and spun it around my finger. “This will have to do.”
My mother snorted, unappreciative. “Those charr toys have won them nothing.” It was actually an asuran and not a charr model, with a hole through the grip and a small crystal array inside that drew from the traces of metal present all throughout the earth and shaped them into perfect bullets. It had a small store inside but the process was a little slower than reloading a cartridge, although the upside was that I was not going to run out of shots in a prolonged battle. The pistol on my left hip was of charr design though; it had a longer and wider barrel and was designed for launching a variety of grenades and rockets.
Of course, it was not worth explaining any of this to my mother. I simply said, “The charr have won nothing with swords and bows either. Now, I have some defences to set up while you help the elders heroically cook us dinner.” Ida spat then and glared but I held her stare. Finally, her face dropped and her voice softened.
“My mother died peacefully soon after you left, and your grandfather was finally killed over a month ago, his head mounted on a pike outside the mine entrance to the northeast. Your father went hunting for revenge but found only corpses, as the dredge had fled from the old fool. Nor have they used that tunnel since, so Bear only knows what feats were achieved in that tunnel. I am eldest now.”
I bowed my head out of respect for the dead and muttered a prayer to the spirits. Ida turned away with a grunt and stormed inside through the missing wall. With a sigh I holstered my pistol and shouldered my pack once more, returning to my sister at the gate.
“Yes, almost,” Malin replied, not looking up as she kept hacking at the log.
“Good. Do you remember the shields I used to make?”
Now Malin stopped. “Yes, with the lightning charge. You would do that to the gate?”
“Yes. Call when you are done.”
Malin snorted, alarmingly similar to Ida. “Real norn do not need your devices or magic.”
“We apparently need a wall and a gate though,” I said, although quickly moved on lest Malin abandon her work and suggested the wall be dismantled. “You had your fight last night, and tonight is my turn.”
Laughing, Malin put down the axe and lined up the planks on a frame, pulling hammer and nails from her belt. “Very well, little sister. But you do not win glory by letting others do your killing.”
“I will not have to kill a single dredge, and that is why it will be glorious.” My sister shook her head in disagreement but did not say any more. I walked up the rough-cut steps onto the wall and pulled out the first of my sentry guns from the straps on the side. It was already calibrated – I had been using them to protect the supply cart while I slept – and just needed standing somewhere and activating. I had made it myself and so it was not pretty, but it worked and was cleverly designed to be as thin as possible on the front to make it more difficult to shoot down.
It was also reliably accurate in the dark. I did not put it directly above the gate – I had another tool for defending that – but farther around. I flicked a switch and it whirred to life, the head pivoting around and the barrel twitching up and down. Satisfied, I continued around and set up the other two that I had constructed. Satisfied, I set to unloading the cart and tending to the yak while my sister finished the gate, attaching it to the old hinges still fitted to the wall.
She took over my work unpacking and I continued hers. It was simple really; with an extra long nail that protruded out on both sides in each corner, I tied copper wire around them on both sides to make a frame. I then screwed a large bolt through the centre of the gate and screwed the charge pack onto this on the inside. This was then wired into the frame. The device itself was “black-box” technology – what the asura call anything that they do not want to explain – but the electric on the outside of the gate jumped from the frame to the centre bolt, creating a static field on that side. It was not limitless, however, and I did not activate it straight away.
With that, my preparations were complete. By now the sun was low on the horizon, and there was a cold chill in the air. All that was left was to eat, and to make sure that I had everything I wanted on my utility belt and not buried in my pack. I could only hope that the dredge would swarm, more than before, and be slaughtered against my defences.
Dredge Magnusbane (Days 4 and 5)
I did most of the talking over dinner as, unlike my mother, Malin was genuinely interested in my travels. And so I told her of the tame hunting grounds around Hoelbrak, and of the moots and Gullik Oddson – and my mother had accused me of swooning – and of my travels farther afield. My trips to Rata Sum and the Black Citadel irked my mother enough that she finally commented.
“You travel half way around the world and don’t leave the safety of these great cities? What kind of hunter are you?”
“I was there to study. I came back to hunt. When father fails – again – to root out the dredge completely, I will go and do the task that he has never been able to.”
“A bold claim, little crow. But you cannot kill dredge with books or scrolls. Honestly, you could have brought back another keg of ale for all of the space wasted with your texts!” Ida continued berating me and I shook my head. She was old and stubborn and would never understand. Not until I made true on my claims.
I only had to hope this time was not the time when my father returned triumphant. It was all for nothing, otherwise.
My efforts during the night did nothing to warm my mother and sister to me. I stayed up until dawn while they slept and, true to my word, did not have to kill a single dredge. I sat by a fire wrapped in my black bearskin cloak, a book on my lap aptly titled Outdated Siege Weapons the Humans still haven’t Invented, by Ballistae Black of the Iron Legion.
By dawn I had almost finished it, so uninterrupted was my night.
Malin scoffed when she climbed the wall and saw no corpses around the homestead. “Your toys have scared them off!” She sounded disappointed, but certainly looked better for the full night’s rest.
“More like they defend their mines from father,” I muttered, equally disheartened. I had never wanted a norn to fail his hunt as much as I did right then.
Mother had nothing to say on the matter, preferring to moan about the cold night she had suffered and demanding the side of the main hall was fixed. So my sister took Yakson and the cart into the forest for more lumber and I set at the stock we already had, measuring and shaping planks. It might not have been as thrilling as building turrets or siege weapons but it was important and respectable work. I even enjoyed it after my sister returned around noon, deferring to me in this task despite being a reasonable carpenter herself.
And then we heard the horn blast. Little did we know then, it heralded all hell arriving at our doorstep.
“That is Joren’s horn.” Malin finished hammering in the nail she was working on with two deft strikes and moved for the gate. Ida recognised it too and emerged from the hall to see. I was curious too; Joren was the youngest of the Magnussons, and the relative I loved the most.
But he would not have bothered with the horn if he was returning safely home.