I, Aidan the Divine, am, well divine. My name was given to me by the Dragon Queen herself! I’m a delight! Cheerful. Charming. And a mighty warrior who is extremely handsome with a very large and well-hidden hoard of gold. I am also royal born, despite the fact that most in my family are horrendous beings that don’t deserve to live. And yet, Branwen the Awful—a low-born, no less—either tells me to shut up or, worse, ignores me completely.
SHE SAYS . . .
I’ll admit, I ignore Aidan the Divine because it annoys him. A lot. But, we have so much to do right now, I can’t worry about why he keeps staring at me, or why he always sits so close, or why he keeps looking at me like he’s thinking about kissing me. We have our nations to save and no time for such bloody foolishness . . . no matter how good Aidan looks or how long his spiked tail is. Because if we’re going to win this war before it destroys everything we love, we’ll have to face our enemies together, side by side and without distractions. But if we make it out alive, who knows what the future will hold . . .
“A hot-hot series.” —Library Journal
“This potent story mix is wacky and fun-filled, with plenty of humor and blood-thirsty action.” —RT Book Reviews on Feel the Burn
“A chest thumping, mead-hall rocking, enemy slaying brawl of a good book.” —All Things Urban Fantasy on The Dragon Who Loved Me
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Seven winters later ...
The broken spear caught her on her right side, knocking her off her war horse. She landed hard on the blood-soaked ground but allowed herself no time to get her breath back. She forced herself to her feet and quickly blocked the damaged spear with her armor-covered forearm.
She swung at her attacker with her free hand, her fist slamming into his chest, sending him flying back into the wave of soldiers coming toward her.
She reached over her shoulder and grabbed her halberd. A long poleax that she liked using because the head was made up of an ax, a spear, and a steel point. To her it was like three weapons in one.
Impaling the first man she saw, she jerked her weapon to the side, tossing her victim off and readying herself for the next attack.
They surrounded her and she took a quick moment to size them all up. She crouched a little lower, adjusted her stance a bit more ... then she struck.
She slashed the tip of her weapon across several throats, lowered it, turned it slightly, and then thrust the tip into the sockets where some of the Zealots had eyes, but she pushed it in far enough to tear through skull and brain.
The remaining soldiers moved in, and she dragged her weapon closer, lengthened her stance, and anchored the end of the staff against the inseam of her foot. Turning it, she thrust up with the ax head and into the groin of one soldier, sending his bowels pouring onto the ground. She yanked the weapon out and used the ax head to cut legs off at the knees.
She felt a breeze, a change of energy around her, and quickly lifted the staff while lowering the head. She blocked the oncoming blade attack and twisted her weapon to disarm her attacker before slamming the staff end against his head and knocking him out.
She then swung the weapon up and over, letting the momentum turn her around to face those behind her.
She moved in time to avoid a blade aimed for her head and thrust her weapon at her attacker's inner thigh, piercing flesh and tearing open an artery. With a twist of her hands, she brought the weapon over her left forearm, jabbed it forward, and impaled the man next to her before he could strike. Did the same in the opposite direction and impaled a soldier on her right.
She blocked another attack from the front and brought the man down to the ground, holding him there with her foot against his throat while she used her halberd to dispatch the last two of those who'd attacked. Once they were dead, she impaled the man under her foot and finished off the one who'd just started to come around from his bash on the head.
Letting out a breath, Branwen the Awful, Captain of the First and Fifteenth Companies of the Dragon Queen's Armies and Colonel of the Ninety-Eighth Regiment of the Southland Armies, slammed the end of her halberd against the blood-soaked ground and took a moment to look over the carnage she'd caused on this mountainside.
Her troops were in the valley below fighting the ones they now just called the Zealots — those who were loyal unto death to the eyeless god, Chramnesind.
As she stood there, staring, she instinctively knew someone was coming up behind her. Turning only at the waist, Brannie brought the weapon up and through the head of the blood-soaked priest who stood behind her. As her weapon tore through the top of the priest's head, she had to jerk her body slightly to the left to avoid the spear that came through the back of the priest's head, almost skewering her in the process.
"Sorry!" Aidan the Divine called out. The gold dragon winced a bit when he realized how close his spear had come to impaling her. "Just trying to help."
That's what he always said. "Just trying to help!" He should have that branded on his bloody forehead.
"Yes, I know," Brannie replied. "But I didn't need your help."
"Everyone needs a little help now and again."
Yanking her weapon from the priest's head, Brannie secretly enjoyed the way blood splattered across that pretty face and right into those bright gold eyes.
Aidan said nothing as he attempted to wipe the blood away, but then he gave her that wide smile again, showing Brannie those annoying dimples. Or, as her uncle Addolgar called them, "Pits in the face."
Turning away, she took a step, but then heard, "Aren't you going to thank me?"
"Not even a thank-you kiss?"
She faced the gold dragon. Like her, he was in his human form, shoulder-length gold hair perpetually falling in front of his gold eyes and nearly blocking the sight of those sharp cheekbones. Brannie stepped close to him and put her fist under his nose. She didn't hit him, just held her chain mail–covered fist there and asked, "What about a thank-you punch to the face?"
"Is that my only option?"
She chuckled, even though she didn't want to. Bastard.
Branwen didn't know when it had happened or why, but somehow she'd become friends with Aidan the Divine. An actual royal from the House of Foulkes de chuid Fennah. A far cry from Brannie's low-born Cadwaladr Clan roots.
But for these past long years as they'd been fighting against the Zealots, they'd become close despite his royal hatching and her lack of one.
It amazed her even more that she liked him despite his affiliation with the Mì-runach. Dragons loyal only to the queen, the Mì-runach were nothing more than a hit squad who killed on command.
Brannie didn't have the luxury of running around, killing randomly, and only listening to the queen. As an officer and a dragoness, she had to think about all sorts of things before and after her troops got neck-deep in battle.
She didn't respect the Mì-runach, but she had come to — grudgingly — respect Aidan the Divine. And, over the years and in their own way, they'd become somewhat close.
Which was why she knew something was really wrong by the sudden look on Aidan's face, his eyes widening in panic. His mouth opened like he wanted to say something. And all of that meant only one thing — Aidan's idiot brethren were up to something again. Something that would only make her angry. Before Brannie could figure out what, though, she heard a distinctive noise. A noise she had better not be hearing.
Mouth open, Brannie spun around and glared up at the dragon oaf eating her horse!
Human body shaking, teeth gritting, Brannie felt her rarely unleashed rage explode.
"What have you done?" she bellowed.
Caswyn the Butcher, in his enormous dragon form, gazed down at her as he kept chewing. The front half of her beautiful, loyal horse hanging from his snout.
"Wha?" he mumbled around his meal.
Her human hands tightened on the staff of her weapon and she raised it. She slammed the end of the weapon against the ground and it grew to its full height for use when she was in her dragon form. She was so angry right now, her human form wasn't even overwhelmed by the now-enormous weapon. She simply pressed the tip of her halberd against a main artery in the dragon's neck.
Caswyn stopped chewing, eyes wide, her poor horse's front hooves still sticking out of his maw. Still twitching.
They were still twitching!
But before she could embed her weapon into the idiot's neck and end him for such an affront, Aidan jumped between them. Protecting his idiot friend and getting in her way!
"Perhaps we should think about this?" Aidan gently suggested, as was his way. The only Mì-runach she knew who tried to use reason rather than brute force.
"No," she snapped. "Move."
"You're not thinking this through."
"Get out of my way before I kill you both."
"He didn't mean it!"
"I don't care! I will have his head!"
"He was dying anyway," Caswyn mumbled around the hooves.
"It's just a bloody horse," Uther noted, his blood-covered human form coming at her from the opposite side.
But he stopped when the tip of Brannie's sword now pressed against the artery in his neck. She'd pulled it from her scabbard without making a sound and so quickly, the males had no time to react. As Branwen well knew, it was her speed that had always kept her alive.
Of course, at the moment, she really wasn't in danger. These dragons, no matter their form, would never hurt her. Not because they fought on the same side. Not because she outranked them, no matter which army she represented. Not even because she was faster and a better fighter than any of them. But because she was the "baby cousin" of Éibhear the Despicable. Their brother in arms. As brethren of the Mì-runach, they protected each other's kin as they would their own. So she knew that none of these males would ever harm a hair on her head, which only meant she could kill them quickly and leave their bleeding corpses to the wild animals of these mountains.
It seemed fair enough for what Caswyn had done, and for Uther sticking up for the idiot.
Of course, Éibhear wouldn't be happy, but what did he expect when he allowed his Mì-runach brethren to roam around free, doing stupid, stupid things?
"Could you both do me a favor?" Aidan asked his friends. "And stop talking?"
When neither male responded, Aidan faced Brannie, and opened his mouth to speak ... but the sound of crunching that came from Caswyn as he slowly began to chew on her precious horse's hooves made him stop, his head dropping forward in silent defeat.
Talwyn, only daughter of Fearghus the Destroyer and Annwyl the Bloody, buried her ax into a brawny chest and forced her enemy to the ground. Once she had him there, she yanked her weapon out and slammed the blade into the man's head, ignoring the spray of blood that splashed across her face.
She turned and looked through the battle raging around her until she locked eyes with her twin brother.
"What did you say?"
"I said get Mum!"
"Why is she my responsibility?" Talwyn wanted to know before cutting off the leg of a man standing next to her.
"She's our mother."
"Then why don't you do it?"
Her brother, covered in blood, looked away from the corpse he was trying to raise. "I'm busy."
"Busy failing. You can't raise human dead. Accept it!"
"It takes practice!"
"Oy! You two!" General Brastias — or, as Talwyn used to call him when she was a little girl, Uncle Bra-Bra — motioned to both of them. "One of you idiots get your mother. No one watches her back!"
"Does anyone need to watch her back?"
Brastias grabbed one of their enemies by the neck and bent him over at the waist. He buried his sword into the back of the man's exposed neck, killing him instantly. And not once did he take his disapproving gaze off Talwyn.
Always her! Why not Talan? How come her mother's care always fell to her?
She cut the throat of another soldier coming at her and quickly looked over and through the battling crowd, trying to find her oh-so-precious mother.
One would think the ruler of the entire Southland regions could take care of her bloody self.
But after all these years of war, somehow Talwyn had become the overseer of all things that involved Queen Annwyl of the Garbhán Isle. Or, as she was more commonly known, Annwyl the Bloody, the Mad Bitch of the Southlands.
Talwyn just called her "Mum." Mostly.
Finally spotting the queen, Talwyn saw that her mother was doing what she still did best. Killing anything near her that did not wear her colors.
The queen brought one sword down on her opponent, cutting into him from the shoulder through the torso at an angle, until he was in two pieces. She turned and slashed her sword again, taking a head. Turned once more and slashed. Turned and slashed. Over and over, cutting a swath through the battling men.
Her mother wasn't like most queens. She didn't stay in the safety of her castle and get information relayed to her from messengers on horseback. No. Talwyn's mother was always knee-deep in the muck and blood and body parts. She hated her nickname, but the woman had truly earned it.
Talwyn sneered. What were her brother and uncle so worried about? If there was one being in this world who could take care of herself, it was Annwyl the Bloody.
She was about to tell the worried males just that when her mother suddenly stood tall, ignoring the enemies at her feet, begging to be finished off so that they could go to their god as a martyr.
That was usually something Talwyn's mother took great joy in providing to her enemies, and Talwyn didn't think she'd ever seen her stop in the middle of a bloodbath.
So why was she stopping now?
Annwyl lifted her head, gaze scanning above the heads of the soldiers battling before her. What was she searching for? It wasn't prey. They were all around her.
"Mum?" Talwyn called out. "Mum!"
Her mother either didn't hear her or ignored her completely, something she was known to do when she was in one of her rage-fits. But when that was happening, Annwyl the Bloody was usually hacking at anything that moved. Not standing and staring.
Annwyl's head cocked to the side. Did she hear something? What could she hear that Talwyn couldn't?
"Talan," she called to her brother. "Something's wrong."
Talan finally left his now-rotting corpse — once dead, the Zealots seemed to decay faster than most humans, an annoyance to the queen, who really enjoyed planting the heads of her enemies on her castle walls — and moved to his sister's side.
"What's she doing?" he asked, using magicks to send a small passel of Zealots flying in the opposite direction with a quick twitch of his hands.
"I have no idea." Talwyn went up on her toes to get a better look.
What disturbed Talwyn more than anything? That none of the Zealots were trying to kill her mother. None attacked. Suddenly Annwyl the Bloody was invisible to them. The woman they wanted dead more than anything else in this world for bringing forth what they called the Abominations — Talwyn and Talan, specifically — was the one woman they were suddenly not paying any attention to.
"We better get her."
Talwyn agreed and followed her brother, briefly pausing once or twice to hack at a few attackers with her short sword. But as they neared Annwyl, the queen's head twitched to one side ... then another. Like Talwyn's dog. She almost laughed until her mother suddenly charged off.
Talwyn and Talan ran after her, no longer bothering to fight the soldiers coming at them. They just pushed them aside and kept running, trying to catch up with their fast-moving mother.
If this was anyone else, Talwyn would be less concerned. But their mother was known for her "bouts of rage," as their father put it. He was just being kind, though. Saying their mother had bouts of rage was like saying that a typhoon was a "little storm."
The twins also knew that their mother's rage could be coming from her frustration. She'd expected this war would have ended long ago. She'd had more legions, more supplies, and more seasoned generals and soldiers than the enemy. But Talwyn's father had tried to warn her. Fighting Zealots was different. And all of Salebiri's loyalist troops were Zealots. So loyal to their eyeless god that many of them had purposely had their eyes removed during some ceremony. Yet, even without eyes, the Zealots still fought amazingly well and did constant damage to Annwyl's troops.
Then, in the last year, the Zealots tried a new tactic. Scorched earth.
They'd been destroying the Southland territories, burning down farms, towns, even cities. They'd done even more damage than the dragons when, several centuries ago, the dragons and humans had an all-out war.
Apparently Salebiri's Zealots told the people whose land and lives they were destroying not to worry, "our god will replace all that you have lost once the whore is dead."
Annwyl being that whore, of course.
The name-calling didn't bother Annwyl as much as the suffering of her people. Knowing they'd lost their homes and livelihoods tore at the queen more than she could say, but she kept pushing forward.
Annwyl knew the gods well enough to know that the eyeless god would never hold true to his word. With or without their land, her people would never be safe under the rule of Chramnesind. So she fought on.
And, now, they were nearing the City of Levenez. The seat of power of Salebiri and his female.
Talwyn still wondered if Duke Roland Salebiri knew the true identity of his wife. The one he called Ageltrude, but that the rest of them knew as Vateria Domitus. A cousin to the Rebel King of the Quintilian Provinces and most hated bitch of the free world.
Excerpted from "Bring the Heat"
Copyright © 2017 G.A. Aiken.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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