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I was raised for battle. And as the first daughter of a warrior family, I’ve earned my reputation the hard way. Yet now I fight alongside uncivilized male Northland dragons who think a female is only good for breeding and waiting back home in the cave. But it’s the foolish and foolhardy who would try to stop me, Rhona the Fearless, from doing what I do best—destroying the enemies of my kind.
So the smartest thing wily barbarian Vigholf the Abhorrent can do for me is stay out of my way as we risk all on a deadly mission in enemy territory. I don’t care if he’s fascinated by me, even though he is as attractive as he is resourceful. He’s having far too much fun putting me in difficult situations and testing my sense of duty to the limit. And I’m going to enjoy challenging his insufferable confidence, outwitting his schemes, and making him surrender in the wildest ways . . .
Praise for the Dragon Kin Series
“Aiken’s patented mix of bloodthirsty action, crazy scenarios and hilarious dialogue have made this series a truly unique pleasure.”—RT Book Reviews (4½ Stars)
“A chest thumping, mead-hall rocking, enemy slaying brawl of a good book.”—All Things Urban Fantasy
“Laugh-out-loud funny—I loved it!”—Thea Harrison, New York Times bestselling author
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THE DRAGON WHO LOVED ME
By G. A. AIKEN
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 G.A. Aiken
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShe watched them move through the trees. They nearly blended in, but not quite. Not to her eyes.
For these enemy dragons, the Irons, trying to sneak into their camp had become a weekly occurrence. Not that she could blame them. After five years of a standstill war in this valley called Euphrasia, both sides had become tired of it all. The constant but ineffectual skirmishes, the occasional attempts to poison each other's water supply. When would it end? When would this war become something they all talked about in the past tense?
Rhona the Fearless certainly didn't know. She was merely a soldier in Her Majesty's Army. She received her orders from commanders and made sure those orders were executed. She killed whenever necessary, and protected those who needed it. What she didn't do was play politician. She was never involved in decisions that affected anything beyond the general safety of her troops. As a sergeant that was all she needed to be responsible for, and she was good at what she did.
Then again, she was one of the Cadwaladr Clan. Lowborn warrior dragons of the Southlands who many said were born to kill. To destroy. Rhona's mother, Bradana the Mutilator, would say those many were right, and to prove it, she expected all her offspring to become elite Dragon-warriors of Her Majesty's Army. And almost all Bradana's offspring did. Except her youngest daughters, triplets who had a few more years of battle training ahead of them before they were ready, and Bradana's eldest. Except for Rhona.
Ahhh, nothing like thinking of a mother's disappointment to keep one warm during watch in the Valley's winter months. Yet those were deep, slightly bitter thoughts for another day. Right now, she had to deal with what was at hand—Iron dragons.
She'd grown up hearing tales of the Irons. Steel-colored fire breathers with white horns that curved toward their mouths who believed they should rule all under the banner of the one and only god they worshipped—Chramnesind, the Sightless One. In their estimation, the entire world should be their empire and all others—dragon, human, or otherwise—should be their willing slaves, bowing down before the Overlord Thracius, sacrificing only to Chramnesind. It was a philosophy Rhona's kind didn't much like. They barely tolerated having a queen and Elders, much less an overlord. So the Southland Dragon Queen's armies and the Northland Hordes, once great enemies, had joined forces to stop Thracius and his soldiers. There was just one thing none of them had planned on: that the Irons had a huge army. More dragon soldiers than Rhona had ever seen before at one time. And fresh troops kept coming. Did they have a dragon factory pumping out full-grown soldiers, ready for battle? Rhona had begun to think so. For while the Southlanders and the Northlanders had battle skills on their side, the damn Irons had numbers and the regimented, disciplined attacks of their troops.
Thankfully, though, those currently trying to sneak in didn't have large numbers on their side. There were about ten of the enemy dragons against Rhona and her triplet sisters. The siblings had been heading to the safety of the nearby Hesiod Mountains, where the Southland and Northland dragons had set up a stronghold, when Rhona had spotted the Irons. Now the siblings stood next to trees, the four of them blending in as Rhona had been taught to do by her mother when she was still too young even to fly. It was a skill she'd passed on to her siblings.
While the Irons moved closer, Rhona raised her hand and readied to give the signal. Her sisters gripped their weapons and shields tighter, a small identical smile on each of their faces as they eagerly awaited her next order. And Rhona was moments from giving that order, her arm about to slash down in an arc, when something big and not remotely subtle crashed through the trees. A small group of Lightnings must have caught sight of the Irons as well, about three of the purple-haired and purple-scaled bastards tearing from the opposite direction, pushing the enemy dragons right into Rhona and her sisters.
Rhona waited another beat, then gave the order. Her sisters moved quickly, silently. Unlike the Lightnings, there was no inelegance. No stomping or crashing like their Cadwaladr cousins either. Rhona had trained her sisters to move with methodical precision from the day they'd fought their way out of the egg. And that's what they did now, cutting into the contingent of enemy soldiers.
Edana, as always, struck first. Her broadsword slammed through the snout of the first dragon charging right into her. She cut through nostrils and bone, right into brain, twisting her blade once before yanking it out. Nesta spun around Edana and used her mace to crack the faceplate of the next Iron, following that up by ramming the tip of her tail into his skull while simultaneously cracking the breastplate of another and finishing him off with her mace. Breena, however, enjoyed the close-up kill. And although she had a sword, ax, and mace on her, she still used her long, curved slashing knife to finish off the job once she'd tackled her victim to the ground. Breena reminded Rhona the most of their mother.
While the triplets did what they did best, the Lightnings rushed forward—to help. To help the poor weak females.
Because after five bloody years, the Northlanders all still seemed to think that having females on the battlefield was too great a risk. A risk to the females, of course. Poor pathetic females that they were. Although after several bar fights with quite a few of Rhona's female cousins and siblings at the heart of them, the Lightnings were now smart enough to keep that sentiment primarily to themselves. Except in situations like this when they felt females were in "grave danger."
Yet Rhona didn't rush in to help anyone. She knew her sisters could handle themselves. So, she waited. And, as she had come to expect lately, three Irons silently slipped through the trees on the opposite side of the fracas while the rest battled it out. These were the Elite Iron warriors. Much better trained than the foot soldiers. Smarter, faster, and excellent at ambushes.
It was too bad they made this particular move with a Cadwaladr nearby, though. As smart, fast, and sneaky as the Iron Elites might be, they still hadn't been raised by a mother who'd taught Rhona to fly by sneaking up behind her while she quietly stood on the highest mountain in the region, grabbing her by her still-developing wings and flinging her off while yelling, "Whatever you do, luv ... don't look down!"
No. You'd have to be a lot craftier if you hoped to sneak by one of the Cadwaladr Clan.
Gripping her favorite spear, Rhona followed after the three Elites until she was only a few feet away from them. That's when she allowed her tail to drag, just a little bit, behind her. The three males stopped and so did Rhona. She knew she shouldn't enjoy this. As a soldier of Her Majesty's Army, she should simply do her job and get back to her siblings. But she so rarely had any fun these days.
The one closest to her spun around and Rhona shoved her spear into his eye. While he screamed, she pulled the weapon out and used it to block the sword aimed for her neck. She slammed the sword to the ground and head-butted the one who wielded it. She ducked as another sword swung at her head, then slashed her tail across his face. While that one stumbled away and tried to wipe the blood from his eyes, Rhona was shoved back by the other. She hit the ground but quickly rolled to her claws, raising her spear, ready to strike.
The Iron charged forward, swinging his blade in an arc. Rhona leaned back, the blade slashing at the breastplate of her armor, but doing little more than denting the metal. But the Iron had overcompensated in his haste, his body stumbling forward. Rhona helped him along by wrapping her tail around the claw holding his sword and yanking him down.
Rhona didn't waste time doing anything fancy once she had him on the ground. Instead she rammed her spear into the back of his neck to finish him off. Once done, she quickly moved back. Good thing too. The one whose face she'd slashed realized he hadn't been hurt that badly and was now on the attack. She warded off his blade with her spear, but while she moved back, she didn't have time to step elegantly over the bodies of the two others. She tripped, falling. The Iron took the advantage, coming in quickly to run her through. But Rhona shoved her tail into the ground, halting her descent, and with a good shove, she was back on her claws, her spear up and ready to strike.
But then she was falling again. A big, purple claw slamming against her chest and forcing her back.
Rhona hit the ground hard, the breath knocked out of her. But she didn't allow herself to sit there. She forced herself up, her spear still gripped by her talons. She watched the Iron come toward her and she lifted her spear, waiting for the strike. Then she saw the giant warhammer coming from overhead. The Iron saw it, too. Caught hold of Rhona's spear and yanked her and it forward. The hammer, so heavy it would not be easily stopped, kept coming, and Rhona quickly leaned back. But she was unable to move her spear in time and, to her absolute horror, that big, inelegant hunk of Northland steel crashed into her favorite weapon, breaking the shaft in half.
Rhona stumbled back, part of the wood shaft still clutched in her claw. The Iron fell to the ground and the Lightning turned on him, bringing his warhammer up, over, and into the head of the enemy dragon. The Iron's scream begging for mercy quickly silenced, the Northlander slowly faced her. Dark grey eyes gazed at what was left of her weapon, and then he said with all seriousness, "And this is why females shouldn't be out here trying to fight. That could have just as easily been your head."
Vigholf the Abhorrent slammed the head of his warhammer into the ground and leaned against the handle.
Poor thing. She looked positively devastated by the damage to her cute little spear. Gods, a spear? He hadn't used one of those since he'd started training at the age of six winters. His father, a bastard of a Northlander, didn't believe that his sons should wait until they were a little older. He believed they should be able to kill with their own claws and weapons before they could even fly. In case, according to Olgeir the Wastrel, "I ever need to throw one of you little bastards into the fighting pit to make a bit of coin." But Vigholf had grown out of that spear by the time he was ten winters, moving on to a mace, then a sword, and finally his favorite weapon, the warhammer. He had two hammers. One that he could use whether in his natural form or as human, the entire thing extending with a good slam to the base. The other hammer, which he used only when dragon, had a head big and heavy enough to crush a dragon's skull with a single blow. Sometimes, if Vigholf was in a bit of a rush, he'd work his way through a battalion by swinging his hammer from side to side until every soldier was dead or broken enough that the rest of his troops could finish them off.
But a spear? Only a female would use that for anything other than first-wave attacks by an entire legion.
Since she was still just sitting there, staring at him, stunned by nearly being killed, Vigholf held his claw out to her. "Come on, Rhona. Let's get you inside."
She took his claw and he helped her rise. But halfway up, she stopped and whispered something, her pretty brown eyes downcast. Vigholf leaned in, thinking she'd been hurt during the skirmish—and that's when the treacherous little bitch head-butted him!
Gods-damn Cadwaladrs! None—absolutely none—of them could be trusted!
Vigholf released her and brought his claws to his forehead.
"What was that for?"
She was up now, the broken staff of her spear pressed into his throat. "If you get between me and a kill again, you overbearing ox, I'll tear out your eyes!"
"I was trying to help, you unbearable she-demon!" he snapped, fighting his desire to shove her back to the ground.
"Well, don't! Don't help! Don't assist! Do nothing!"
She reached down and swiped up the other end of the spear. "My father made me this," she told him, holding the pieces up to him. "My father!"
"Oh, Rhona." Another Cadwaladr female, one of the pretty triplets, stepped forward. "Your spear. What happened?"
"I was trying to help!" he cut in.
"Shut up!" She cleared her throat, looked down at the ground. Vigholf knew what she was trying to do. Get control. She was Rhona the Fearless after all. The perfect soldier. Or so she believed. In her female mind, soldiers didn't lose control, they didn't get angry, they didn't shout unless it was to relay an order. And all of that was true—in battle. But Rhona was like that all the time.
To be honest, he was enjoying seeing her lose control for once. Even if it was just a little bit.
Wanting to see her pissy for a few seconds longer, Vigholf helpfully added, "I'll have another adorable little spear made just for you."
Brown eyes locked on him. "And you can take that spear and shove it up your—"
"Rhona!" all three triplets cried out, their green eyes wide, their attempts not to laugh weak.
Snarling, black smoke snaking from her nostrils, Rhona the Fearless stalked off.
"Bring those bodies back for the commanders," she ordered over her shoulder.
"You're very adorable when you're angry," he told her.
"She's going to kill you while you sleep," one of her sisters—Edana, maybe?—warned once Rhona was out of earshot. "Daddy made her that spear."
"We're relatively sure she slept with it," another said.
"And you went and broke it. While getting between her and a kill and taunting her." Another observed. "It's like you wish for an early death."
"I was really trying to help. You lot shouldn't be—"
"If you say as females we shouldn't be out here—"
"—we'll cut off your legs while you sleep—"
"—and let the forest animals have 'em for dinner."
One of them patted his chest—Nesta? Gods, who knew—"We like you, Lord Abhorrent. Don't make us regret that."
And having been curious about the answer for the last five years, Vigholf asked, "Rhona likes me too, yeah?"
"Gods, no!" one said, laughing, dragging two of the bodies away by their back claws.
"And if I were you, I'd stay away from her until she gets over the loss of that spear," said another. Vigholf honestly couldn't tell the three She-dragons apart. "Otherwise, she just might take those pretty grey eyes."
"I'm a Northlander," he reminded them. "I don't have pretty eyes."
The triplets laughed.
"At least you have them, Lightning. Keep getting between me sister and her glory in battle and you won't for long."
Vigholf grinned, watching the three females drag six of the bodies away.
"You better get her a new spear," a low voice muttered behind him.
Vigholf glanced over at his cousin Meinhard. "Why?"
"Because I don't feel like leading you into battle because you're missing your eyes."
"She wouldn't hurt me. She's too nice."
Meinhard studied the bodies the female had left behind. "I think, cousin, that she'd cut your throat, then go have ale with her kin and not give you another thought."
"The Babysitter?" It was his nickname for Rhona the Fearless, who seemed to make it her lot in life to watch out for anyone under the age of one hundred and fifty.
"Babysitter to those she cares about." Meinhard grabbed hold of several bodies by their tails. "But a cold-blooded soldier to those she doesn't. And the gods know, Vigholf, that female doesn't care about you."
"Wrong. Right now she hates me. That is a form of caring, which could easily, with some skill, turn to love and eventually adoration."
Excerpted from THE DRAGON WHO LOVED ME by G. A. AIKEN Copyright © 2011 by G.A. Aiken. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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