Light My Fire

By: G.A.Aiken

“WHERE ARE YOU TAKING ME? TO THE GALLOWS?” SHE ASKED.

“You need to stop talking that way. I’ve never met anyone so ready to die,” the dragon complained.

“I am always ready to die. At any time.”

He stopped. “Why?”

“Why what?”

A female who had dark hair and eyes like the fool before her stepped in. “I’ll let them know you’re bringing her.” Then she ran off laughing.

The dragon gave a short snarl before facing Elina. “Why do you want to die?”

“I have no desire to die.”

“Then why do you seem so ready for it?”

“To die with honor. If you cannot avoid death, then you must die with honor. Do you not plan to die with honor, dragon?”

“No,” he said plainly, dark eyes staring at her. “I plan to fight death all the way, dragging those trying to kill me along for the ride.”

“I would agree with you, dragon . . . except I am guilty of trying to kill your queen.”

“But you didn’t do a very good job. Perhaps if you were better at it, I’d feel more inclined to take your head myself. But at this point, it would feel like stepping on a squirrel. Annoying. Sad. And a little messy.”




For you, Ma





Chapter One

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.