We are now only one week away from the release of A Plague of Dragons! I'm so excited to be part of this anthology project with my five other, immensely talented writing buddies (Michael K. Rose, Katie Salidas, David Jones, Alexia Purdy, and Jason LaVelle). There will be plenty of online events and what not in the coming days and weeks, so be sure to keep a look out for those over on my Facebook page. Also, in case you haven't heard already, five of us authors will be present at Phoenix Comicon this year with copies of A Plague of Dragons as well as all our other books, so I hope to see you there as well.
If you receive my newsletter, then you got an early, sneak peek at Chapter One of Flame and Form, and if you like my Facebook page, then you've seen the snippets I've been posting once a week. Since the release date is just around the corner, I'm posting the first chapter right here (plus a little bit more from Chapter Two ;)), for you to enjoy as you await the main release. Happy reading and don't forget! You can still pre-order your copy today.
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AND NOW, A SNEAK PEEK AT FLAME AND FORM - A NOVELLA OF THE OTHERWORLD ...
Brienne drained the last, bitter remnants from her tankard and set the empty vessel down before her. The tavern was crowded with raucous locals, farmers by the most part, enjoying a drink to celebrate the final days of their harvest. Late afternoon light worked its way through the two dirty windows facing the street. A small fire in the hearth, a few lit candles scattered on scarred tables and a half dozen cracked, sooty lanterns hanging along the walls merely enhanced the shadows rather than driving them away. The perfect setting for those trying to blend in.
Despite her relative certainty she would not be noticed, Brienne pulled the hood of her thick cloak farther down her face, not wanting to give away her gender. She wasn’t particularly afraid of any of these men, and her skill with a blade, be it sword or knife, would surely protect her against those used to swinging a scythe or pushing a plow. But she didn’t need the extra attention and could do with an evening of rest. Besides, she hoped to rent a room in this very tavern tonight, for clouds carrying early snow swelled on the horizon, and she was tired of camping beneath trees whose leaves had all but fallen for the fast-approaching winter.
“Another ale for you, sir?” a serving maid asked.
Brie smiled beneath her hood, shaking her head in refusal.
The young woman gave a slight duck of her chin and took the empty cup away, sweeping up the coins Brienne had dropped on the counter. Once the tavern worker disappeared back into the kitchen, Brienne stood. She was tall, even for one of the Faelorehn, so it was easy for others to think her a man. If she kept her hair and face hidden, at least. An easy enough task. The tavern keeper was wiping down the long counter, so Brie headed in that direction, wondering whether or not she should try to pitch her voice low and keep up the facade of being male. She never got the opportunity, however. Before she could even take one step, the front door banged open, and a young man came tumbling in, his trousers caked with mud up to his knees, his shirt and vest torn. He took several gasping breaths as the patrons stared silently at this unexpected intrusion.
“Dr-Draghan!” he rasped, throwing his arm out behind him.
The sudden hush grew even more profound, just before the tavern burst into shouts and bodies scrambling to flood out into the street. Brienne stayed exactly where she was, not moving an inch until the entire place had emptied. Even then, she took a few moments to gather her bearings before joining the rest of the villagers out in the square.
Had the young man really said draghan? What in the name of the gods and goddesses was a draghan doing in Eile? From what she understood of such creatures, which she would admit was very little, was that they didn’t possess the mental capacity to figure out how to pass through a dolmarehn to sneak into her world. Perhaps it was some other large beast the youth had mistaken for a draghan. Or worse yet, one of the Morrigan’s dreaded faelah.
Not wanting her mind to go in that direction, Brienne cast another look at the open door and worried her lower lip between her teeth. She should stay in the tavern, but curiosity was gnawing at her and not joining the rest of the crowd would seem suspicious. Taking a deep breath, she headed toward the door and ducked out into the late afternoon light. The townsfolk, many more than the number which had occupied the tavern, stood in a large crowd, their gazes fixed on the road leading south from the village.
“I see them now!” the same young man from before shouted. “They’re coming over the rise!”
People jostled to get a better view, not taking care to avoid the mud puddles. A large wagon, most likely meant to transport hay, creaked down the rutted road and came to a stop in the wide town center. The villagers had moved just enough out of the way to let the driver and his team of draft horses pass, their eyes and attention fixed on the large creature tied down with chains in the back.
Brie caught her breath as gasps and small screams skittered about the crowd. It was a draghan. One of the legendary winged, fire-breathing reptiles from Firiehn. Not for the first time in her life, Brienne’s extra height gave her an advantage. She did not have to shove people aside or stand on her toes to see the monster, so she could study it from a safe distance. The beast was black as soot, but sparked with undertones of bronze where the torchlight played against its scales. About the size of the draft horses pulling the cart, Brienne was surprised the wheels hadn’t splintered beneath its weight. A triangular head decked in a crown of dark horns rested against powerful forearms ending in claws of a similar color. She couldn’t get a good look at its wings, for they were folded close to the monster’s body, held in place by the chains, its tail similarly curled and held close. Instinct told her the creature was injured, perhaps badly. Its eyes were shut, and its breathing was labored. She would bet all the money she carried with her the chains were not even necessary to keep it in place.
The voices of the crowd started to rise again, but before the men could even begin their inevitable demand that the creature be destroyed, she knew where this situation was headed. If they didn’t kill it outright, it would be sent to the Morrigan as tribute. That’s how things were done in and along the fringes of the war goddess’ territory. And this creature would keep her pacified for a very long time. Pity crashed into Brienne’s heart like a blacksmith’s hammer striking hot iron. She had been born into her servitude; had never known freedom but craved it with every fiber of her being. This draghan, by its very nature, was a wild creature never meant to be enslaved. If it became the property of the Morrigan, its spirit would be crushed.
One of the bystanders, a hunter or warrior from what Brienne could tell by his height and build, lifted a huge battle axe and roared above all the chatter, “Kill it before it regains its strength and flames us all!”
“No! Let us release it and make sport of it!” another interjected. “We managed to muzzle it with chains, and it is injured. The beast will not make it far. The man or woman to bring it down can have the head and hide!”
“Don’t be absurd!” one of the women cried. “Bring it to the Morrigan! If she discovers we had such a treasure and just wasted it, she will force us all into her army. Or worse, extract our glamour and discard us like husks.”
That set the crowd into a chorus of nervous rumbling, everyone shouting their own chosen demise for the draghan, each suggestion worse than the one before.
Brienne had seen enough suffering, enough death. She had been with the Morrigan long enough to know that people, and creatures, were not always what they seemed. Villains might be draped in expensive silks with alabaster skin and music in their voices. And those who wished to help you, or those simply wanting to protect the ones they loved, might appear on the outside as monsters.
She shot her gaze back toward the draghan and jumped in surprise to find its eyes had opened. The one she could see was a molten gold color, bright with intelligence and what might have been rage. But there was also a spark of fear there. Brienne narrowed her own eyes, holding the draghan’s regard a bit longer, and let her glamour feather outward. Her magic wasn’t as impressive as most in the Morrigan’s army, but she could sometimes filter out emotions. Anger, resentment, pride ... and hopelessness. It was that final bitter feeling, one she was so very familiar with, that snapped her into action.
“So much for keeping a low profile,” she muttered as she stepped forward, her right hand going for the pommel of the sword hanging at her side.
The mood of the crowd had shifted while she’d been considering the draghan. Apparently, a decision had been made, and that decision involved delivering the beast to the Tuatha De Danann goddess who terrorized their lands.
“But who will take it to the Morrigan? We are all busy with the harvest!” one man managed to shout over the general clamor.
“I cannot go, my children are sick!” a woman put in.
One by one, the villagers cried out with some excuse or another, age-old terror coloring their words. They feared the goddess who watched over their territory, but they feared her wrath more.
Brie wrapped her fingers around the grip of her sword and drew it in a long, dramatic arc that was more for show than anything else. The people closest to her shouted in surprise and jumped back, knocking into those standing beside them.
“I will take the creature!” she cried out above the noise. “I will deliver this draghan to the Morrigan.”
The conversation ceased as every pair of eyes in the village square turned to study this cloaked stranger. Brienne kept her hood up. If she could manage getting away without leaving them with a face to remember, she would be grateful.
“Why should we believe you?” one of the men asked. He had been the one to drive the wagon into town. “How do we know you do not wish to take it into the next town to demand a bounty?”
Shouts of ascent skittered through the crowd.
For a small moment, Brienne hesitated. What was she doing? Did she really want to risk leaving these people with a memory they could easily report to any of the Morrigan’s henchmen should they come searching for her? She loosened the iron grip she held on her sword, letting the tip sink further to the ground. Before she sheathed the weapon she glanced at the draghan once more. It was watching her, those ember-hued eyes wary and almost desperate.
Brie, you know more than anyone what it is to be enslaved. Can you really go on living with yourself if you allow it to happen to another creature, when you had the chance to stop it?
Brienne squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. She could convince them she meant what she said, that she’d bring this creature to the Morrigan. It meant they would remember her if her enemies came questioning, but she would just have to take that risk.
“Here goes,” she hissed to herself, as she reached up and pulled back her hood.
The crowd gasped, several people in front of her taking a step back.
“You should believe me,” she said softly, her pale blue eyes surveying the crowd, “because I am bound in service to the goddess of war.”
The woman closest to the cart lifted a hand, as if to run it over the side of her face, then snatched it away. Brienne fought the urge to do the same. She was used to the stares and looks of pity. The questions were always in the eyes of those who saw her ravaged face, though. Had the scars come from a wild animal? A horrific fire? Had her husband or lover taken his anger out on her and burned her face with a torch? No. The truth wasn’t as noble as any of that. She had refused a direct order from the Morrigan, and she had been thrown into the fire as punishment. Somehow, she had rolled out with damage done to only one side of her body, a few of the faelah in the camp adding a few more ugly marks by raking their claws at her as she rolled to put the flames out. That had been two years ago, but the agony still felt fresh.
“Dear gods . . .” one of the men murmured, pulling his young sons close and backing away.
“If this is not enough to convince you,” she added, gesturing to her damaged skin, “there is also this.”
She flung her cloak free of her left shoulder and reached up to pull her collar down, just enough to reveal the top of a disc-shaped tattoo staining the pale skin between her breast and collar bone.
More gasps from the crowd.
“Morrigan’s get!” an old woman hissed.
“Faeduihn!” another added.
Brienne shot her pale eyes in the direction of that accusation. Her soul may have been stained because of her association with the goddess of wrath and ruin, but she knew the dark glamour had not infected her yet. She didn’t correct them, however. If she could get them to fear her, or at least believe her claims, the better her chances of escaping with the injured draghan.
“As you have said, my mistress desires creatures such as this. I will take it off your hands, so that you might get back to your own work.”
After a long moment of near silence, and a few quietly exchanged words between them, the cart driver said, “Very well. But we want this thing out of here tonight.”
Brienne fought the urge to release a heavy sigh. Instead, she nodded once.
“I can leave right now.”
Brienne drove the draft horses a mile or so south of town. Her own horse, the one she had stolen from camp when she’d made her escape a week before, secured to the back of the cart. When they came to a crossroads she turned them left, choosing a path that would eventually take them back into the northern mountains, but hopefully, clear of any curious villagers or spies of the Morrigan. The sun had set, and they had maybe a half an hour before full dark settled in. She didn’t like the idea of making camp so close to the village, but they really had no choice.
Movement to her right caught Brie’s attention. A large white wolf with a ruddy tail and ears darted in and out of the scraggly wood before approaching them. The horses, already on edge because of the cargo they carried, snorted and pulled at their harnesses. Brienne only grinned.
Scout out a safe, secluded place to settle in for the night if you can, Mynne, she sent to her spirit guide.
The wolf cocked her head to the side, a habit she had picked up since losing both her eyes to the Morrigan’s soldiers. It had been part of Brienne’s punishment, a wound which had hurt her more than the burns had. In the end, Brie could harbor some gratitude, however. At least they hadn’t killed Mynne.
I believe there is a meadow of sorts up ahead, the wolf sent back through their mind connection. A place travelers often use for resting. It is surrounded by thick trees and a few standing stones. No one should bother us this night.
Within fifteen minutes, the team of horses had moved the hay cart clear of the road and into the shallow hollow of the small meadow. Brienne pulled on the reins and pushed the brake lever forward before hopping down to survey the area. It was wide, but mostly flat and protected by trees and stones on three sides. So long as no one happened by them in the night, they should have nothing to fear.
Brienne glanced up at the sky, wondering if those clouds would shed freezing rain or snow. Or perhaps nothing at all.
Best get this fire started then, if you wish for it to burn through the night, Mynne sent.
Brienne pursed her lips, then turned to eye the hay cart. She had been avoiding checking on the draghan. The beast had been so silent and motionless during their time spent on the road. She feared it had either died or was readying itself for an attack. Now that there was only one Faelorehn woman to challenge it, she wouldn’t be surprised if the creature sprang suddenly to life, spewing fire and swiping deadly claws. The very thought sent shivers of bone-melting dread through Brienne. Fire was a necessity of life, but ever since almost dying by it she had harbored some anxiety whenever it came time to kindle a flame, whether it be to light a candlewick or start a bonfire. Nevertheless, she would accomplish this task just as she had every night since her escape. After observing the draghan for several minutes, Brie concluded the creature was of no immediate threat. In fact, the cold weather was probably affecting it more than anything else.
Brienne spent ten minutes gathering what firewood she could find, grumbling over the fact that most of it was soaked through from a recent rainstorm. After several attempts with her flint and knife, she couldn’t get the damp leaves and twigs to catch, so she rummaged in her saddlebags for a section of old cloth, hoping it might work better as kindling. The dry wool and linen caught, but the green wood stubbornly resisted the licking flames.
“Cursed spirits!” she hissed, balling her half-frozen fingers into fists. “Mynne, I might need you to sleep close tonight and hope the clouds don’t drop ice upon us.”
The white wolf sniffed and inclined her head. Of course. It might be better not to have a fire anyway.
Brienne couldn’t argue with that. If the Morrigan’s generals considered her valuable enough to track down, then a fire would only draw attention to their location. She rocked back into a half crouch, one knee pressed into the damp earth, her elbow resting on the other, and peered back at the draghan.
“I am sorry we don’t have better cover, or a source of heat,” she said, regret tainting her words.
She only hoped the creature could withstand the chill. Or maybe it would succumb. That might actually be a sort of mercy. She hadn’t been able to get a good look at the beast’s wounds, but she didn’t doubt their existence. Perhaps even infection had settled in and that was why the draghan hadn’t moved.
As if in open defiance of those very thoughts, the monster decided at that moment to emerge from its delirium just long enough to crack open one eyelid. The iris melted into molten scarlet rimmed with deep red and focused in on her, the full attention of the draghan sending a nervous twinge through Brie’s body. The creature slowly lifted its head.
Brienne stepped back, afraid she had offended the beast in some manner. Had it heard her internal musings? Had she angered it? She held up her palms as it narrowed both eyes in her direction. The draghan drew in a deep breath and exhaled, a stream of heat and flame the color of a distant, pale blue star careened toward her. Brienne gasped and leapt aside, old, instinctual fear pumping adrenaline through her blood. The stream of fire slammed into her pathetic pile of wood with a hissing crackle of sound. The draghan kept up the jet until the once damp pile of logs and branches danced with orange and yellow flames.
With an exhausted huff, the creature let its head drop back against the cart bed, the chains weighing it down clanking ominously.
Brienne blinked, shocked at what had just occurred, her chest rising and falling as she tried to subdue her panic. She eyed the fire, the wood no longer smoking.
Mynne trotted up beside her, almost making her jump out of her skin.
Looks like you won’t freeze to death after all.
Brienne nodded out of habit, then returned her pale gaze to the draghan. The beast was utterly still, its eyes closed in pain once more. Only the tiny rise and fall of its flank told her the creature lived. When it first lifted its head and spit fire in her direction, Brienne had thought the draghan meant to turn her to ash. But that had not been the creature’s intent at all. Now it lie still, the cold of the night even more oppressive now that she had the heat of the fire to warm her numb fingers.
“But I fear the draghan will,” she murmured, in response to Mynne’s comment.
That can’t be helped, Mynne offered. You’ve done what you can for the monster. Removing it from the clutches of the Morrigan was the best thing you could ever have done for it, even if it should now perish.
Her spirit guide was probably right, but guilt ate away at her anyway. The draghan had clearly used up what little energy it had left to help her. There had to be something else she could do.
Brienne glanced around the clearing, now barely able to make any colors out in the dark. But she knew exactly where the fallen trees had been on her earlier hunt for firewood. She went back to her horse, now secured to a tree far away from the draghan, and pulled out her small axe.
What are you doing? Mynne questioned, her head tilted to the side as she tried to listen to Brienne’s movements.
“I’m going to try to help,” was her response.
Two hours later, Brie had managed to build a moat of larger logs around the wagon. The draft horses, still in their harnesses, had been secured to a massive oak near her own horse. She checked her ring of firewood, adjusting it so that it would be as close to the cart as possible without the risk of setting it on fire. She had taken some of the burning branches from the draghan’s fire and managed to get a few places smoldering. By the time her own exhaustion knocked her off her feet, a ring of flames encircled the trapped beast.
“I’m sorry I cannot do more for you tonight,” she said to the creature, “but I hope the fire takes off some of the chill. Tomorrow, I will see what I can do about the chains. I simply do not have the energy or the strength now.”
And that was the truth. Her fingers and toes were like icicles and spots swam before her eyes.
In response to her voice, the draghan opened one of its eyes again, a dark, slitted pupil rotating in her direction.
Brienne tried a smile, but her lips felt numb.
“Until the morning, then,” she promised, collapsing onto the sleeping roll she’d tucked beneath the wagon.
Despite her apprehension about being surrounded by flames, Brie settled down quickly, her exhaustion stronger than her unease. Besides, the logs were already burning down to hot coals, and soon, they would simply radiate heat until going out completely in a few hours’ time.
Mynne joined her after giving the draghan a suspicious glare, curling up beside her familiar within the wall of smoldering coals.
Brienne welcomed the familiar warmth of her spirit guide, her only source of comfort in a world that had so far offered her only cruelty.
As she waited for sleep, she thought of the draghan again and how it watched her with those smoldering citrine eyes. Of the way it had used its strange and potent flames to start a fire she could not. The creature was a stranger in this world, and clearly, it had been treated badly. As far as the draghan knew, she could be just as terrible as those who had chained it to a wagon to offer up as a sacrifice, yet, it had helped her just now. Brienne set her jaw, thinking of the men and women under the Morrigan’s control who had used and abused her.
I won’t let that be your fate, she vowed. If you survive this night, I will find a way to return you to your home.
* * *
THANK YOU FOR READING!
Flame and Form will be available on March 31st in the Plague of Dragons anthology. Flame and Form is intended for a mature reading audience (age 18 and up) and is a complete novella at 33,000 words (for reference, novels are a length of 50,000 words or more).