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Light My Fire
By G.A. AIKEN
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 G.A. Aiken
All rights reserved.
Elina Shestakova of the Black Bear Riders of the Midnight Mountains of Despair in the Far Reaches of the Steppes of the Outerplains—or just Elina for those who are lazy—carefully made her way up the mountain toward her destiny.
It was, of course, not a destiny she wanted for herself. This had not been her plan for her life. But she didn't have a choice, did she? The leader of her tribe, Glebovicha, had ordered her to take on this task. Glebovicha had said it was to help Elina get a reputation she could be proud of among their tribe. Even, perhaps, all the Tribes of the Steppes that were under the rule of the Anne Atli herself. But Elina had no delusions about any of this.
Her life was over no matter which choice she made, so she might as well string this pathetic existence out as long as she could manage. And who knew? Perhaps the end would be quicker and much less painful than if she'd told Glebovicha to go to hell with her ridiculous task.
So Elina continued to climb that mountain. Devenallt Mountain, it was called. Deep in the heart of Southland territory. Said to be the mountain home of the Southland dragons' feared queen.
It was a big, imposing place, but Elina had been taught to climb bigger mountains from the time she could stand. Her people, the Daughters of the Steppes, or as others called them, Terrors of the Outerplains, were a war-loving people. At one time, the Steppes had been broken into random territories of always-fighting marauders. It had been a nasty way to live, and the females of those tribes had ended up on the worst end of it all, often ripped from one tribe to another, forced to leave their children and families behind so they could be the concubines of some male they didn't know.
Then, four, maybe five, thousand years ago, a female warrior named Anne Atli had been born. The first Captain of the Riders, she'd had a way with horses, and she'd possessed skills with weaponry that put her above all others. She eventually took all the power, destroying any who challenged her. And she did it again and again until finally, she united the tribes under her banner and turned the attention of the warriors from each other, to those who attacked the Steppes to raid and plunder.
Since then, the Daughters of the Steppes had ruled the land and the Anne Atli, Mother of the Steppes Riders, ruled them all. It was a title and name that was not given to the next in line by birth, but to the one willing to take it for her own and keep it while still honoring the woman who had begun it all.
Of course, Elina was not willing to take anything. She'd never be willing. She had no interest in ruling the Steppes. She had no interest in being a warrior. But each of the tribes under Anne Atli's banner still cared about its individual reputation, and "having you around, doing nothing," Glebovicha had told Elina, made the rest of their tribe look weak. Something Elina doubted considering Glebovicha's personal reputation. She was a feared tribal leader, and Elina was one of many in the tribe. But Glebovicha hated her. Violently, it seemed. So she'd sent Elina off to challenge and kill the one they called the White Dragon Queen.
So here Elina was now ... climbing a mountain very like the big ones that surrounded the Steppes. Those, it was said, had dragons in them, too, but Elina had never met one. In truth, she'd be happy never to meet a dragon. She could have gone her entire life having never met a dragon and been quite happy about it.
That was no longer an option, though. So she climbed. And she kept climbing. For days. Even setting up a tent against the mountainside at night so she could sleep. Thankfully, she did not turn in her sleep. That would have been ... unfortunate.
On the fifth day, Elina finally reached the top of Devenallt Mountain. She pulled herself up over the final rock face and stayed on her knees, taking in deep breaths as she thanked whatever horse god might be listening.
It was bright out. Midday. So that big, dark shadow that slowly covered her was a bit ... off-putting. She hoped it was a cloud. A big, nightmarish cloud that foretold a horrible storm. But she knew ... she knew it was no cloud that covered her.
Shoulders sagging, she looked behind her.
It was big. So very big. And black like the diamonds from the Steppes dwarf mines. All of it black. Its scales. Its talons. Its eyes. Its long mane. All except its fangs. They were quite white ... brilliantly so.
They stared at each other for what felt like forever. Then, it finally spoke. Spoke like a man.
"What are you doing here?" it asked.
Elina tried not to show her surprise. She'd been raised to believe that all dragons were nothing better than animals. Like a jungle cat or a bear. Just bigger and able to breathe fire—so definitely to be avoided. But this one wasn't some mindless animal. He spoke the common language with a Southland lilt. She'd met quite a few Southlanders as she'd traveled through the territories of these decadent and lazy people. Yes, he spoke just like the human male Southlanders.
Elina slowly got to her feet and faced the dragon.
"I've come to kill the White Dragon Queen," Elina announced, struggling to speak in a language that was not her own.
The dragon blinked, a few times. "Really?" he finally asked.
"Huh," he said after a few seconds, then slowly turned and began to walk away as silently as he'd come. Elina was surprised. Perhaps the Dragon Queen's subjects weren't as loyal as her people thought. Perhaps they wanted this queen dead. Well, it didn't really matter to Elina. She had a task to die trying to do. Not a positive thought but, sadly, an accurate one.
So Elina secured her traveling pack on her shoulders and picked up her spear. And that was when the dragon's long black tail suddenly whipped out and wrapped itself around her waist, pinning her arms to her body.
Shocked, Elina didn't even yell, didn't fight, though the spear was still clutched in her hand. And the dragon walked on with Elina securely tucked into his tail ... and he was humming.
She had to admit, she found the humming annoying.
Celyn the Charming of the Cadwaladr Clan loved his job! As far as he was concerned, he had the best job in the queendom.
Though he'd admit, his siblings mocked him. While they went off to battle, spending months in muck and killing every bloody thing, every bloody day, Celyn was one of Her Majesty's Personal Guards. He trained every day just like his siblings. Lived the life of a military dragon just like his siblings. And he killed when necessary—unlike his siblings, who killed whenever they felt like it.
And yet few of them took Celyn seriously because he wasn't face-first in the blood and brains of a battle. But he didn't need to be. Because he had the best job ever!
He glanced back at the human female he had trapped with his tail. He hadn't seen a human who looked like her before. Such interesting features. Long, white-blond hair that reached down her back and framed an oval face. Pale skin covered razor-sharp cheekbones beneath bright, bright blue eyes that were narrow like a house cat's. Full pink lips and a cleft chin rounded out that face. She was definitely someone Celyn would take the time to chat up if he'd met her at the local pub. But he hadn't. Instead, she'd been at the top of Devenallt Mountain. The queen's mountain.
Devenallt Mountain was the seat of power of the Southland Dragon Queen, Rhiannon the White, and the only humans who came here were ones who were invited by Her Majesty or were brought here to be eaten. A practice they'd stopped when the queen's offspring—and Celyn's royal cousins—began mating with humans. To the queen, it seemed tacky to eat the brethren of those her children loved. Celyn, however, didn't have a preference. He was just as happy with a good cow, and there was always more meat on those bones anyway.
Still, having a human show up and openly admit she was there to kill the queen ... that was unusual. But Celyn liked unusual.
Celyn had known the woman was climbing the mountains for days. All the guards had. It was their job to protect the queen, and that meant knowing who was in the queen's territory at all times. Yet after she hadn't fallen to her death the first day, all the guards had wanted to see how far the human would get. They had bets going. Celyn had been certain, though, that she'd make it as soon as he'd watched her set up that tent against the mountainside and spend her first night there—so they'd left her alone ... and waited. He had been on duty when she'd reached the top, so he'd confronted her first. Softly. No need to blast her with flames or unleash a roar of rage to make her piss herself. He left that sort of thing to his siblings. Celyn preferred a gentler approach.
Yet he'd never expected her to admit that she was here to kill his queen. Again, his siblings would have killed her right then. But Celyn knew his queen. She was his aunt-by-mating and they amused each other. She loved to be entertained.
And he was very certain this woman was going to be the best entertainment his queen got today.
The White Dragon Queen sat on her stone throne, her massive head resting on the talons of her left claw, the elbow of her forearm resting against the arm of the stone throne she sat upon. One talon on her right claw tapped against the other arm of the throne. Her excessively long tail snaked around the back of the throne to the front, where the tip tapped against the stone floor in time with the talon on her right claw.
Studying Elina, the queen finally asked, "Could you ... repeat that?"
Elina blew out a breath and gripped her spear a little tighter. The spear the black dragon had allowed her to keep. She'd thought he was being foolish until she'd seen the size of the Dragon Queen ... and all the other dragons standing around her court ... staring. Gods, Elina had never seen beings so big before—or known there were so many.
"I am here to ..." She cleared her throat. "... take your life, queen of the dragons, and bring your head back to my noble people."
The white dragoness nodded slowly. "Aye. That's what I thought you said."
A deadly silence followed, and Elina prepared herself to meet with her ancestors on the other side. But then one of the old dragons standing behind the queen suddenly snorted. And once he snorted, the rest of the dragons burst into hysterical laughter, while the Dragon Queen waved at the old dragon behind her.
"Elder Clesek!" she said around her incessant giggles.
"I'm sorry, my queen. I just ... I can't ..." He burst into further laughter and the rest of the Queen's Court laughed with him.
Elina glanced behind her, but the black dragon who'd brought her in was gone. After a whispered conversation with the queen, he'd deserted Elina. Not that she blamed him. Perhaps he didn't want to view her messy death.
"My dearest girl," the queen said around the others' laughter, "who hates you so much that they'd send you here ... to face me?"
"It is a quest of honor."
"One you thought of yourself ?" she asked. And when Elina did not answer, the queen nodded. "If you'd thought of all this yourself, it would have been bloody stupid. But for someone to send you to me? It's just cruel. Someone clearly wants you dead."
Elina sighed. "This I know."
"Then why did you come here? Why did you not run? Start a new life somewhere else?"
"I am Daughter of Steppes," she replied, automatically knowing she wasn't getting the Southlander language quite right. They seemed to use too many words; it was hard to remember all that needed to be there.
"I do not run," Elina went on. "If I am to meet my death at your claw, then I will meet my death."
"Daughter of the Steppes? You are from the Outerplains?"
"The Rider tribes that raid the valley territories of the Northlands, Quintilian Provinces, and Annaig Valley. Your people are greatly feared. Tell me, little human, what is your name?"
"I am Elina Shestakova of the Black Bear Tribe of the Midnight Mountains of Despair in the Far Reaches of the Steppes of the Outerplains."
The queen blinked several times before she asked, "That entire thing is your name?"
"It was one I was given at birth."
"Kind of cursed coming and going, weren't you, sweetness?"
The old dragon leaned forward and said, "My lady, perhaps we should end this quickly rather than drawing it out unnecessarily, now that we know the truth of her situation."
The queen looked at the dragon. "Whatever do you mean?"
"It seems cruel to toy with her."
The queen frowned, shocking Elina with her ability to show emotion despite all those scales. The queen looked over her court, her expression now confused. Finally, she exclaimed, "Wait ... do you all think I plan to eat her?"
The old dragon behind the queen gave the smallest of shrugs. "Don't you?"
"No! I don't do that anymore. It seems unacceptable ... with the grandchildren and all. Besides ... look at the poor thing." And they all did. The size of the dragons was harrowing enough, but really it was the expressions of pity that had Elina's stomach curdling in horror. It shouldn't, though. She often received that same expression from other tribe members.
"You poor, poor thing," the queen said again.
The black dragon who'd brought Elina here suddenly returned, barely glancing at her as he passed. It was the same way Elina glanced at a mouse that ran past her in the woods outside the tribes' territories.
"My queen," the black dragon began, his voice low, "you wanted me to let you know when Lord Bercelak was nearing the mountain."
"Yes, yes. We'll have to get her someplace safe."
The black dragon glanced again at Elina and back at the queen. "Someplace safe?"
"Aye. And we must keep this information away from Bercelak."
The black dragon shook his head. "No."
"I am your queen."
"Yes. But you adore me. Your Bercelak ... not so much. And he hits."
"Oh, honestly! Are you afraid of your own uncle?"
"Yes! I am. Hence the whining in my voice."
"Take her, Celyn. Someplace safe."
"Don't auntie me, Celyn the Charming! And how did you even get that name? You clearly don't deserve it!"
"You gave it to me."
"That was obviously a mistake on my part."
"You never make mistakes, my queen. You told me that yourself."
Slowly, the queen looked over at the black dragon and, in return, he slowly grinned, flashing a number of exceptionally large fangs. The largest fangs Elina had ever had the misfortune of seeing.
"Take her," the queen ordered, "someplace safe. And do it before I am forced to get my ass off this throne so that I can throttle you to death!"
The black dragon gave a small bow. "As you command, my queen."
"Oh, stop it, Celyn."
She heard the black dragon chuckle, his big body slowly turning. He studied Elina a moment, then walked off. After he passed, Elina looked down in time to see his tail circling her waist.
"Not—" was all she managed to get out before his tail lifted her up and carried her out of a side exit to the chamber. As they moved, Elina could hear the queen call out, "Bercelak, my love! I'm so glad you're home!"
"Why," another low voice demanded from the queen's throne room, "do you all look guilty? What are you hiding from me, Rhiannon?"
Celyn landed outside Garbhán Isle, the seat of power of the human Southland queen. He dropped the female he held in his tail and shifted to human. He glanced back at the woman and warned, "Don't try to run away."
"Run away?" she repeated in that thick Outerplains accent. "Run away to where, dragon? You cannot outrun failure. Disappointment. Misery. So why even try?"
Celyn, reaching for a set of clothes that was left outside the city for the many dragons coming and going, paused for a moment, again glancing back at the human female. "You're a fun, perky girl, aren't you?" he joked.
She shrugged. "I am known as annoyingly cheery among my tribe. A curse I cannot escape."
Unwilling to even think too much on that bit of information, Celyn quickly pulled on chain-mail leggings, a chainmail shirt, and leather boots. Once dressed, he took the spear from the woman's hand and tossed it on the pile of other weapons. Then he grabbed hold of the woman's arm and led her past the city gates. The guards nodded at him and he nodded back.
"So," she suddenly asked, "will my execution be long and painful or quick and brutal?"
Excerpted from Light My Fire by G.A. AIKEN. Copyright © 2014 G.A. Aiken. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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