A flashy new scene from THE FLAME OF BATTLE

Here’s an excerpt from an upcoming scene in THE FLAME OF BATTLE, where Rjupa, a young woman, and Queen Saehildr are encamped for the night, waiting for the dawn, when they’re going to meet with the man who killed the Queen’s daughter.

That night Rjupa couldn’t sleep, missing Skeggi, as always, but something else prickled at the edge of her mind. She picked up her blankets and moved close to her dragon, who was stretched out full length on the ground, down to the tip of her toes. Her dragon lifted her head and snuffled at Rjupa. Good thing she wasn’t as superheated as some of the other dragons. Rjupa gently ran her hand over the dragon’s nose, and the dragon slowly closed its eyes in contentment, like a cat. She rolled herself up in her blanket and curled up next to its legs, using one of them as a pillow for her head.

She was starting to drift off again, finally, when a small scuff woke her up again. She cursed to herself and rolled. Somebody had gotten up to sneak to somebody else’s blanket or were off to take a piss. They could have waited until I’d fallen asleep, she grumbled to herself, with all the logic of a half-asleep person.But when she opened her eyes partly … they sprang open the rest of the way.

A dark figure, wrapped in a cloak, moved stealthily through the camp, a knife glimmering in her hand.

Rjupa tensed – but realized it was Queen Saehildr herself who was carrying that knife and sneaking out of the campsite, moving as softly as a moth in the air.What is she doing? Rjupa, now awake, unrolled herself from her blanket and stealthily followed. Her dragon opened one golden eye and then closed it again.

It wasn’t hard to slip out unseen, since the three dragonriders had encamped their dragons a short distance from the rest of the Skalans. Rjupa was thankful she didn’t have to trip over sleeping people and bedrolls in her pursuit of the Queen. And Rjupa was worried. More than just worried, as the Queen’s hearts-hurt had been especially deep as any mother’s grief she’d seen. Thora would have wanted her friends to care for her mother after her death, and to see Queen Saehildr walking out of the campsite into the dark forest with a bare dagger in her hand made Rjupa immediately fear the worst.

Into the dark woods they went. The shadows closed in overhead, and Rjupa was on full alert for every little sound.

Suddenly the Queen turned, her eyes wide, and saw Rjupa. She made a terrifying sight, there in the faint starlight that drifted through the leaves, her upraised dagger gleaming.

“Come out, you who follows me, if you dare.” The Queen’s voice, low, was like the voice of a feral animal, ready to fight all the hounds that held it at bay.Rjupa took a breath and, pushing her courage to the sticking point, stepped forward into a patch of starlight so the Queen could see her. “Please, your majesty. Skala needs you. We all grieve for your daughter, but we still need a queen to lead us. Don’t do this to yourself.”

The Queen’s eyes grew cold. “My mind is made up. Do not turn me from this path.”

A frission of fear made cold sweat pop out over Rjupa’s body. “Your majesty, please,” she whispered, walking forward. “Listen. I wanted to end my miserable existence many times when I was Iron Skull’s thrall, when he used me to his own sickening ends. I stayed my hand, and then some kind goddess showed mercy on me by bringing me to you. I could not live with myself if I did not stay your hand, even in the depths of your grief.”

The Queen frowned in puzzlement for a long moment, but then her gaze turned down to the dagger she held. She half-laughed, then, as if surprised by an understanding, and sheathed it. “Self-slaughter never entered my mind, child. I apologize for the confusion. I have a different mission, one of revenge, and I cannot tarry here.”

Relieved, Rjupa said, “Let us carry out your mission for you. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?”

The Queen shook her head. “My mission is personal. Tell nobody that I have gone. I will be back before dawn.” With that, she turned and was gone.

Rjupa returned back to her blanket and dragon, shaking, and it was a long time before she could go back to sleep.

The next morning, however, Rjupa found Queen Saehildr sleeping next to her dragon as if she’d never left her blanket. Nothing on her face betrayed the anguish that she’d been showing only hours ago.

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