Gronnor Brok hinged up the top of his desk. Inside was an iron strongbox, wherein a silver casket was nestled among gold coins.
Inside that was the dragonfly—last and greatest treasure of the Broks.
A little thing, only five inches from the bulbs of its eyes to the tip of its whip-like tail, like a knobby twig of polished wood. It looked insignificant against the Drakhorn tarlics heaped in Otger’s partition, among them a knife that cut anything, a jug that held twice what it ought to, a mirror that reflected the back of the head of whoever looked into it. These things would fetch a fine price in the downlands. But they were trinkets. The dragonfly was worth far more than the lot, even now.
Gronnor drew from the casket a flattened ring, dull gray, open like a ‘C‘. This he squeezed around the stem of one ear. Then he set the dragonfly on his desk. He touched its back. A string of green symbols appeared there, symbols that only the one wearing the earring could see. Except for the number, the glyphs held no meaning for Gronnor. The number, though of ancient style, was of the system the karlmen still used. Each time, that number was a little smaller. Soon it would reach zero, and Gronnor knew what that would mean.
When he lifted his finger, the dragonfly woke.
First the legs unfolded. Long and slender, they tapered to tips so fine they sank into anything they touched. The body rose, the abdomen flexed, and glassy wings appeared as though they had coalesced from the air. Color bloomed. In the filtered late-afternoon sunlight, the colors were mottled brown and orange. Outside, they might be iridescent blues.
The dragonfly took flight.
Its wings blurred; the sound was a whisper. It circled Gronnor, and in Gronnor’s head the tent wheeled. When he’d first flown the dragonfly, the effect had made him nauseous. Now it took only a moment for the sensation to become part of him, the return of something precious.
The dragonfly’s sight did not replace his own or float like a vision before his eyes. It was like the sight of another eye he only now remembered he’d always had. It happened to other senses too. He experienced his surroundings in a richer and very particular way. There was the warm tower of his body, with color at the neck—a point of weakness. Weapons in the tent glowed, even a knife hidden beneath his desk. He felt them, smelled them, each according to its merits.
After its slow circle, the dragonfly settled on the desk. Its wings trembled, then went still.
Gronnor smiled, a rare contortion. Wearing the earring brought clarity and a sense of purpose. It drove from him mind the aches in his ungainly joints, and the bitter, twisted knot at the center of him that had grown from the things he had done, the things he had still to do, and the hatred the kin felt for him.
His smile faded. There was little time left for the dragonfly.
For hundreds of years the ancient weapon had served the ambitions of the Broks. The clan’s founder—a man broken from his clan for some crime—had pulled it from the hand of a skeleton in a sheltering cave. With it he had become Tash of a band of nomads, which he renamed Broken Clan, in wry recognition of his punishment. In time the Broks, as they were later known, became a power in the uplands. Other clans feared the unseen thing that struck down a warlord here, drove mad an opposing Tash there, even killed a downland king. Witchcraft, they said—but it was the dragonfly’s kiss.
With the winding down of the green number, the dragonfly’s power had waned. Gronnor’s expression hardened when he thought of how his ancestors had squandered it to settle petty squabbles. Imbeciles! The bug had given the clan greatness, but made its leaders weak. Their ambition had faded with its power.
If only he, Gronnor, had been born in the days of the dragonfly’s strength—what a kingdom, what an empire he would have forged. Now he was reduced to using it to kill old women.
The dragonfly had little hunting left in it. But enough to deal with his most pressing problem: Petra Stray-Drakhorn. He thought Karl Drakhorn’s daughter might survive the trek. He thought her dangerous—a worthy mark for the dragonfly.
But the dying bug would need a horse to carry it. Gronnor had a horse in mind.
Petra kicked at a campfire’s ashes.
The Broks who’d killed Lucan had not tried to conceal their passage. Where the trails met at Scrabble Brook, they’d left a fire to burn down, with tokeweed and bones scattered around it.
“They’ll tell the Flays where raid camp is,” she said. “And they’re a week ahead of us.”
Canuut cursed Broks and Flays to everlasting fire, while Otger silently contemplated the bones.
The valley brook had cut through the spur at that point. The tired wayfarers panted as they climbed the eastward slope of the cleft. Otger’s face was grim with the pain each step caused his legs. Cort bumped into things.
The evening sun was a hammer and Petra’s head pounded to its beat. She breathed deeply to stop the world spinning around her. Sweat made her back itch unbearably. She took off her coat.
Canuut exclaimed, “Here now, girl, you’re bleeding!”
What Petra had thought the slickness of sweat, was blood from reopened cuts. It had soaked through her shirts.
“Old fool that I am,” lamented Canuut. “I clean forgot that Jess gave me cream and bandages for your back.” He wouldn’t budge until Petra agreed to have her back seen to.
There was the question of who would apply the cream. Otger volunteered, and Petra figured Cort would have too, had he not fallen asleep with his back to a rock. But she preferred to let the grizzled trailsman do the job.
She lay face down on her bedroll with her shirts hiked up while Canuut smeared cream on her back. Compared to Tegan’s gentle fingers, Canuut’s were wood rasps. Petra had to grit her teeth. The bandaging went easier. By the time it was done, she was asleep.