Exclusive extract from THE DRAGON HOUSE


Aradhrim heard the commotion in the door-yard outside and glanced up from the papers strewn on the table in front of him. The longhouse had no windows through which to see, but there was nothing wrong with his hearing. He picked out the sounds of half a dozen horses, the animals blowing as if they’d been ridden hard, accompanied by muffled voices calling back and forth.

More messengers, no doubt. Arennor was all a-stir with the news, but as yet none of the northern clans had sent word that the war band had been sighted. That both concerned and irritated him in more or less equal measure. He had only the second-hand word from the Gatekeeper that King’s Gate had fallen to the war band, then they had vanished into the plains like phantoms. His own people had seen nothing; indeed he feared that even now, a goodly number of them believed that the war band were phantoms, with as much power to harm as the night-wraiths from children’s stories.

Except he had seen what the war band could do – or more accurately, their Speakers. He could understand such skepticism of the imperial Council, but his own people should not have forgotten. Not even after a thousand years.

He sighed, and stared down at the papers again. Correspondence from his subordinates in Mesarild, reports from his legion commanders, and pages of closely-written notes in his adjutant’s compact, precise hand. His eyes were stinging from the lamp-smoke and weariness; no matter how he rubbed at them, within a minute or two the neat lettering was swimming out of focus again. Not that he needed to see read it; the figures were already carved into his memory. One hundred and fourteen dead from the garrison at Saardost. Seventeen more expected to join them. Forty one clansmen. He was still waiting for a tally from King’s Gate, but if what the Gatekeeper had said was borne out, he’d lost near on half the Sixth Legion.

Slaine’s stones.

Aradhrim shut his eyes and pinched his brows hard. More men than the Empire had lost in a single engagement since Samarak, and still the war band was advancing into Arennor. It would fall to him and his people to stop it.

The door creaked behind him, but he didn’t turn to see who was waiting. Only his steward would disturb him, and Gryf guarded his chief’s privacy as assiduously as rich men guarded their daughters’ virtue. Not even his adjutant was admitted to his presence without Gryf’s approval.

‘Was that news from the Westermarch?’ he asked, without looking.

‘No, my chief,’ said his steward’s rasping voice. ‘A guest, come up from Mesarild.’

Were it simply a matter of hospitality Gryf would have attended to it himself; he’d been steward to Aradhrim’s household for too many years to need to trouble his chief with mere questions of courtesy. And a messenger from Mesarild could mean only one thing: the despatches Aradhrim had sent from Saardost had reached their intended recipient, the Emperor.

He frowned down at the table with its burden of papers. For a moment the ranger in him wished he could simply sweep them all into the hearth and be done, both with them and the responsibilities of which they were a reminder. As a rule, the clans had little time for anything that tied words down like hides stretched out to cure; their language was a living, breathing thing that thrived in the souls of the people who spoke it. Scratchings on parchment were for lawyers and merchants and folk for whom meaning twisted about unless it was imprisoned in ink. Folk for whom a man’s word was not enough.

Pushing himself away from the table he turned to face his steward. Gryf was a spare, sinewy fellow, like a twist of dried meat. He still wore ranger’s buckskins beneath the fur-trimmed mantle that signified his status in the household, and his hair gathered into a horsetail on the back of his neck, though his braids had long since turned grey.

‘From Mesarild, you say?’ Aradhrim forced his tone to be lighter than he felt. ‘I had best see him, then.’

Gryf inclined his head. ‘He awaits you in the hall, my chief.’

Outside the wind was gusting, a grey sky spitting sullen patters of rain. Aradhrim strode quickly from his private quarters to the clan longhouse that housed the guests and the hall where feasting was held in happier times, and let himself in.

A man was waiting by the hide chairs next to the firepit at the end of the hall. To Aradhrim’s surprise, he was no messenger, but the Emperor himself. Broad and bulky as ever, he was dressed in once-rich but now somewhat shabby travelling clothes in sober hues, well spattered with mud from the road. Two of his personal guard waited discreetly in the shadows, their expressions carefully closed.

‘Be welcome, sire,’ Aradhrim said, closing the doors behind him. ‘This is . . . unexpected.’

Theodegrance tossed his riding gloves onto the table and sat down. ‘I received your despatches,’ he said gruffly. ‘We need to talk.’

‘As I recall, I tried to talk to you four months ago, and you did not hear me.’

‘That was then. The situation in the desert has changed.’ The Emperor snatched irritably for the uisca flask on the table and slopped generous measures of spirit into two cups. ‘Sit down, man. Drink with me. I can’t think when my mouth is dry.’

Aradhrim raised an eyebrow at the rules of hospitality being flouted in his own hall, but he sat. He’d known Theodegrance for too long and – whatever their current disagreements – liked him too well to take any sort of offence at his blunt informality.

Sitting  back heavily in his chair, the Emperor thrust his muddy boots towards the fire. He took a deep gulp of his uisca before speaking, as if he needed the spirit for courage.

‘A man should never be afraid to admit he was wrong, Aradhrim,’ he said at last. ‘Especially to his friends. My father taught me that, though at the time I was too young and prideful to realise there was a lesson in it.’

Another swig of spirit, swallowed slowly as he contemplated the contents of the cup. Aradhrim waited, knowing there was more to come.

‘This is what you warned me about, isn’t it? The Wild Hunt, all of it. Aren’t you going to tell me you told me so?’

‘No,’ Aradhrim said. ‘What would be the point?’

‘Personal satisfaction, maybe?’ The Emperor poured himself more uisca. ‘You disobeyed my orders when you brought the Ninth up from Yelda.’

‘With the greatest of respect, sire, they were the wrong orders.’

The Emperor’s lips twitched, but he didn’t argue. He stared into the fire-pit a while, then sighed and rubbed a hand across his face. ‘How many?’

‘All told? Forty thousand, give or take. We held them at Saardost, but that was only a fraction of them. They sent their main force south through King’s Gate, and carved the garrison there to pieces.’

‘And the Hunt?’

‘No sign, but not all the clans have sent word yet.’

Theodegrance clicked his tongue against his teeth. ‘I need you in Mesarild.’

Aradhrim stared at him, half-doubting what his ears had just heard. ‘I cannot leave my people now.’

‘The Cult is mobilising in Gimrael in huge numbers. Kierim has sent for aid, and I must plan a response.’

‘As I must here in the north. I am the Lord of the Plains, sire. These people are my responsibility.’

‘And the twelve provinces are mine,’ Theodegrance fired back. ‘Whatever else you may be, you are the Empire’s Warlord above all else.’

Aradhrim frowned. He had been afraid it would come down to this, eventually. The gold signet ring on his left hand felt twice as heavy as it ever had before, the weight of obligation that it signified dragging at him like a lead gauntlet.

‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘I am a clansman. First, last and always.’

The Emperor’s lips pursed. ‘You swore me an oath of fealty when you joined the Council, do you remember?’

Of course Aradhrim remembered. Eleven years ago, and it still felt like yesterday. Surrounded by the redstone columns of the Council chamber and under the horrified eyes of the other Lords – and his ancestors’ watchful shades – he had offered a traditional short spear as a pledge of loyalty, despite knowing that weapons were forbidden in that place. Polished wood gleaming, carved bull’s-horn charms swinging and tapping together. For several long seconds they were the only things moving in the room, before the porridge-faced matron who sat for Syfria had leapt to her feet and begun bellowing for the guards.

But Theodegrance had understood. He’d waved the woman back to her chair, dismissed the looming guards with a nod, and stepped down from his own seat on the dais to grasp the shaft of the spear between Aradhrim’s hands. And thus it was done, in the old way, the only way that mattered to a man with the plains wind in his lungs. Dressing it up with seals and parchments couldn’t make it any more binding on him.

‘I have not forgotten,’ he said.

Shrewd brown eyes flicked up to his face. ‘Will you break it?’

That question had plagued him since he’d taken the decision to abandon Saardost Keep. In truth, it had occupied his mind ever since Firstmoon, when Duncan had brought him word that Nimroth had grown restless: when the threat came, where would his allegiance lie? With his Emperor, or with his people? For all the civilised trappings of his role as the Empire’s war leader, he was a ranger to his bones. Surely Theodegrance understood him well enough by now that he knew it too.

‘I will never break faith with you, sire,’ Aradhrim said, ‘but if you ask me to choose between my people and my seat on the Council, you surely know what the answer will be.’

Theodegrance threw back the last of his uisca and rolled the spirit around his mouth before he swallowed, frowning down into the silver cup as if an unpleasant truth lurked in the bottom. ‘I had a feeling you would say that,’ he said heavily. ‘I’m caught between two fires, Aradhrim. I need your help.’

‘And my kin need their chief. A war band is loose on the plains, for all I know with the wit and the will to summon the Wild Hunt again. I don’t know where, and I don’t know when they will strike, but they must be stopped.’

‘So must the Cult.’

Aradhrim exhaled sharply. ‘I hear you, sire, but you cannot ask me to make this choice.’

‘Without military support from the mainland, Kierim could be deposed. If he is, the Cult will force secession from the Empire. Then they’ll close Zhiman-dar to our ships, strangle all our trade through the Inner Sea.’

Even a plains ranger like Aradhrim understood enough about commerce to know the Empire was built on the backs of its shopkeepers, just as much as its soldiers. Spices, hardwoods, many fruit crops, silk, all originated on the southern continent. Salt and exotic leather goods, lamp oil, even the fireworks for the Empress’ birthday had come north through Zhiman-dar, and the returning merchantmen carried salt meats and wheat and fine paper, bright steel and delicate cotton lawn, to markets in Gimrael and beyond. Webs of commerce tied the Empire together in ways that law and even language could not.

‘If Gimrael secedes, so be it,’ he said. ‘The Empire will survive without nutmeg and natron, but if the north falls, there is nothing to stop the Hunt reaching Mesarild itself. What of trade then, if there is no-one left to trade with?’

The Emperor shook his head. ‘It won’t come to that.’

‘Frankly, sire, I am not prepared to take that chance again.’ Standing up, Aradhrim twisted off the heavy signet ring and laid it on the table next to his untouched cup of uisca. Orange firelight danced over the carved gold as if the ring itself was aflame.

Theodegrance stared at it, lips pursed. Some trick of the light made his face seem heavier, more deeply lined than usual.

‘Sire, is it now?’ he mused. ‘You never used to be so formal.’

Aradhrim said nothing. He did not relish having to explain why such formality was necessary, why he could not allow his abiding respect and affection for the other man come between him and what he had to do. The decision was painful enough already.

‘You taught my youngest boy to ride, and how to hunt with a bow from the saddle. Do you remember?’

‘I remember. How is Prince Theon?’

‘He wants to be a ranger when he grows up, to the despair of his tutors – and his mother.’

Aradhrim’s lips twitched as he hid a smile. ‘There are worse ambitions to have at thirteen.’

The other man grinned, but there was no humour in it. It resembled the bared teeth of an animal at bay, and quickly faded. On the table between the two of them the ring glowed like a coal that neither one wanted to pick up, but could not be left there in case it burned down the house.

At last Aradhrim broke the silence. ‘I am still your friend, Theo,’ he said. ‘I always will be. But here and now I can give you no other answer. The Empire can appoint another Warlord, but Arennor needs her chief.’

Sighing, the Emperor set down his empty cup. ‘I had a feeling you’d say that.’ He picked up the Warlord’s signet and bounced it in his palm. ‘I’m sorry it’s come to this.’

‘As am I, but . . .’ Aradhrim didn’t finish the sentence; he didn’t have to. It could be no other way, and both of them knew it.

‘Aye, well.’ Theodegrance tucked the ring into his pocket. ‘I’ll send for Garimair to replace you. Goddess willing, he’ll take up the reins again.’

Aside from Kierim, Garimair knew the desert best of all the current Lords, and that made him the most suitable – perhaps the only – choice for a new battle chief for the Empire. But Aradhrim remembered how his predecessor in the role had come to it the last time, after Samarak, with death in his eyes and the sword in his fist still dripping.

‘And what if he’s not?’ he asked.

‘Then he’s not.’ Theodegrance’s mouth tightened. ‘Though I’m not sure the Empire can afford for him to refuse.’