Authors: Anna Thayer
No man can serve two masters forever.
THE KNIGHT OF ELDARAN
My wonderful husband, Justin, who has been my companion,
critic, and champion in the editorial process;
Proverbs 27:17 springs to mind!
And to our delightful son, Leo
â and his new sister, due to arrive at any time!
You are, and will always be, a blessing and a joy to us.
Text copyright Â© 2015 Anna Thayer
This edition copyright Â© 2015 Lion Hudson
The right of Anna Thayer to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Published by Lion Fiction
an imprint of
Lion Hudson plc
Wilkinson House, Jordan Hill Road
Oxford OX2 8DR, England
ISBN 978 1 78264 105 6
e-ISBN 978 1 78264 106 3
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Cover illustration Â© Jacey
This book is the culmination of long years of dreaming.
So many people have worked to support me in telling Eamon's story since I first began to pen it nearly a decade ago â too many to give them all the mention that they deserve.
Huge thanks must go once again to my old friends Esther and Jonathan, whose contributions of sound-boarding and encouragement have been immense; but, in this third book especially, I owe thanks to Esther for the moving words to Ilenia's song, and to Jonathan for his tireless and exhaustive dedication to all things military. It would have been far beyond my power to write a convincing â and logical â battle narrative without him.
Though he has already won himself the dedication to this book through his dedication to it, I am enormously indebted to my husband Justin, for his editorial acumen and plot-untangling skills â especially during the times that I have been suffering from Eamon over-exposure and baby brain! This trilogy would be much the poorer without everything he has given â and given up â to help me sculpt it to its final form.
Lastly, I must mention Tony Collins, Jessica Tinker, and Julie Frederick: the first for his willingness to take a risk on and build up an unknown author; the second for her unwavering enthusiasm and plot-combing; the third for her role as final gatekeeper of all things editorial. To each of you, my
Were the skies to be fretted with consuming fire and the mountains to devastate their roots beneath; were the seas to overpower their trembling coasts and every hill and vale and field to fall to wreck and ruin; were the world to be extinguished and go out before my very eyes, still would I know the promise â and still would I hold.
Fragment of the Bellwood Letters
At the Master's command, he rose. He stood before the throned, unwitting of darkling Hands and visions of death. He felt neither the weight of cloak and blade nor the malice of staring foes. Nothing could lay any hold on him.
How he had risen!
He had once been a Gauntlet cadet, struggling to find a lost dagger in the mud and wretched dark. He had laid his palm upon a mark of glory and swearing, become an ensign imbued with the power to breach. Then as a lieutenant he had delivered a hard-sought tome to his Master. And so he became a Hand. He had returned from the Serpent's lair bearing the head of his enemy, and by that triumph rose as a Quarter Hand whose deeds caused the whole East Quarter to pour praise upon his Master.
Rising from knees to feet in that ruddy hall, he ascended higher than most men dared. Now the whole of the River Realm held but one more powerful than he. Now he was second only to the one who had seized the throne from the mottled corpse of a King.
Rising, he became the Master's Right Hand. Rising, the hopes and dues of his bloodline came full circle. All that once tarnished his mocked and defamed house was unworked, the way to glory opened.
A Goodman stood before the throne, receiving all that the Lord of Dunthruik, of the River Realm, and of the world, could offer. No fawning wretch or treacherous slave was he; this Goodman's service was mastery.
In rising, he was everything.
Yet he was also nothing. The lieutenant who breached had also surrendered his sword, turned his back upon his marked palm, and given his oath to the King. The Hand who had so earnestly championed Edelred's glory had been no Master's man. All that he had done was done for the house of Brenuin, the true house. The King would soon return to his own.
These latter thoughts strengthened Eamon's heart as he stood before Edelred. Though the Master's gaze caressed him, Eamon subdued his fledgling arrogance.
In rising he had been named the Right Hand, but long before that day he had risen to his feet before another and answered to the name of First Knight.
He would not forget it.
The Master smiled at him. “Son of Eben, sheath your blade.”
Eamon looked to the curved dagger in his hands. Its sinister writing glinted back at him. The blade was a symbol of his new authority; it was the same blade that had taken Eben's life. It felt terrible and binding as he pressed it into its scabbard.
The King's house will hold, Edelred!”
Eben's cries sounded in his mind, as though from a faraway room. Eben could never have known it, but he had been right: the house of Brenuin had held.
So would the house of Goodman.
Eamon looked up. Edelred's bold, burning face was before him. The Master watched him with delighted intensity.
“Son of Eben,” he commanded, “dismiss my Hands.”
Slowly, Eamon turned to look across the hall at the other Hands, their faces grim with new and seething wariness. Not one of them could now gainsay him. Arlaith's black look might have crippled any other, but it could not land on him. The Master was behind him; who, then, could dare stand against him?
Eamon smiled. His voice came, fell and arrogant, to his lips:
The Hands bowed, spoke to the Master's glory, and departed.
Eamon fixed his gaze upon them. How they went! Did they not go, cowed and trembling, before him and his might? For well they knew that he could pay them back for their black-hearted plots and harrying. Would he not delight in such a venture?
He closed his eyes and grappled to cast back the web-like trappings of pride and power. Vengeance was not his calling, nor was the power given to him to be used as its tool. To be an instrument of calculating wrath and spite could only bind him to the Master, as every other Right Hand had been bound before him. Such pursuit would never serve or honour the King whom he loved.
A light touch fell on his shoulder. He froze.
“Son of Eben.” The Master's whispered words were close by Eamon's ear.
Eamon turned to face him. The throned surveyed him with a look of whimsy and affection that was more terrifying than any that Eamon had yet seen.
“My Right Hand.” The Master ran his hand along Eamon's shoulder, straightening the folds and creases of the cloak upon it. “This raiment and this blade are birthrights long denied you.”
“I will not deny them, Master,” Eamon breathed. He scarcely knew what words he spoke.
“Many have said as much. Few have done so.”
“I will be loyal,” Eamon answered.
The Master laughed. “Loyal,” he repeated. Then he smiled, and his hand strayed from Eamon's shoulder to his face; power and will were in those fingers. That same hand moved across his face and, in a gesture of unimaginable gentleness, smoothed the hair upon his brow.
“Will you be loyal to me, son of Eben?” the Master asked. “Or will you love me?”
Eamon gazed at him, over-awed. The piercing grey eyes looked through him at some other whom Eamon had never been, nor could ever be. Yet how he yearned to be the object of that look!
Eamon bowed his head away from the impaling force of the
Master's gaze. “Iâ¦ I will undo what Eben did, Master. I will redeem my house.”
Edelred smiled. “So Ashway said,” he answered, withdrawing his hand.
With a tremor of joy Eamon looked up once more. But the Master's face was closed to him. It filled him with distress and then with doubled horror, for part of him ached to be all that Edelred sought.
“Come.” With that word Edelred stepped away, turning his steps from the throne and along the hall towards the great north balcony. It was the balcony on which Eamon had first seen Edelred at the majesty.
It was where he had danced with Alessia.
The Master climbed the steps and Eamon followed him, catching a glimpse of the Royal Plaza through the drapes that framed the doors. As the Lord of Dunthruik passed out onto the balcony stones, all things shrivelled and shrank before him, as though before a column of flame.
Enthralled beyond measure, Eamon followed him. He lingered among the curtains as the Master swept forward to the ledge. The stones were red-veined.
Without turning to look back at him, the Master spoke. “Gird your blade, Eben's son.”
Trembling, Eamon attached the dagger to his belt. The Master did not look at him.
“Follow me,” Edelred commanded. Then he crossed to the main sweep of the palace walls.
An archway, marked with red stones, separated the balcony from the walls. The Master stepped through it. Eamon trailed after him. He could scarcely walk, and yet he followed Edelred down the length of wall that bound the plaza. They came to stand above the palace gates.
The Master stopped. Eamon hung uncertainly behind him.
“Come and stand beside me, son of Eben.”
Slowly, Eamon stepped forward. The Master's presence drove all other sense from his flesh.
“Tell me what you see, son of Eben.”
“I see Dunthruik,” Eamon answered. It took his breath from him.
The mist cleared, and beyond the plaza and palace walls the whole city lay beneath the sudden, piercing blue of the morning sky. It was a myriad wash of stones, of red and gold, of voices. The people in the Coll and in the streets below moved about their business; Gauntlet moved among them. The stone statues of the Four Quarters gazed back at him as crisply and clearly as though he stood beneath them. Before him lay the North Quarter and the tall, distinctive towers of the university, its spires gilt with eagles. To his left was the Port Gate, and beyond it, the sea; to his right the dome of the Crown Theatre, and far beyond it, the tip of the Blind Gate. The city walls embraced Dunthruik, the parapets dotted with men in red. Beyond those walls the mountains marked the northern border; their very valleys and crags seemed as clear as his reflection in a mirror. Below the mountains lay the hills and fields and plains and the River itself, the city's lifeblood. To the south, the River coiled its way like a mighty serpent through the plains towards the city, where its mouth met the unassailable sea.
Shaking, Eamon pressed his hands against the stone before him and stared. Dunthruik was a seat of awesome power. Even if he harried every region of the River Realm and mastered the southern stretches of the River, even if he had the help of the Easters and had taken Edesfield, even if he was the last true heir of the house of Kingsâ¦
Even if he had done all those thingsâ¦ against the whole host and might of Dunthruik, what hope did Hughan have?
son of Eben
, the voice whispered.
He has none.
Yet as he stood and gazed out from the very heart of Edelred's stronghold, for the briefest of moments Eamon saw the King beside him. The vision wakened the hope that slumbered deep inside him.
The throned watched him.
“You know well, son of Eben, that the Serpent closes upon us.”
The Master's voice had taken on a strange tone: dark, burdened with emotion beyond his ken. As he met the throned's gaze he caught frayed glimpses of forgotten battles and of the Nightholt, raised high in the Master's hand.
He said nothing.
The throned gazed out across the city. “With my own hands I razed this land,” he said, “and from ashes did I raise it again, setting my name and glory over it. The Serpent would take my realm and this city, tearing stone from mortar and shedding blood from vein.”
Eamon swallowed. Surely nothing but destruction could follow when the King came?
He fixed his eyes upon the distant sky, filling them with its endless blue. Hughan was not a man of witless and unheeding violence. He was a man of compassion and justice. A man of valiance.
“The whole of the Serpent's heart is set upon the demise of my city.” The Master's voice called him from his thought. “But, son of Eben, we will break it. When he comes against me we will take his heart in our hands and rend it. No graft of his house will remain.
“After he is slain there will be much for you to learn and do.” The Master turned to look at him at last. “Until that day when the Serpent's blood has been trampled into the dust, your task, son of Eben, is to prepare this city to receive him and his sodden corpse.”
Eamon met his gaze. Visions of Hughan's body â broken, torn, and humiliated beyond all imagining â harrowed his heart, rendering him speechless.
“You will begin this day,” Edelred told him. “Take Lord Arlaith to the East Quarter and install him there. You will then be shown your quarters. And you will oversee this city as it prepares for our foe. You will report all things, and all manner of things, to me.”
Anguish gripped him, but Eamon bowed his head. “Yes, Master.”
“Lord Arlaith awaits you,” Edelred told him. “Go.”
Eamon bowed down low.
“Your glory, Master.”
Edelred did not look at him again. Eamon withdrew.
He descended from the balcony gallery and left the throne room. As the great doors pulled shut behind him, Eamon shuddered and drew a gasping breath. He glanced down at his shaking hands; they seemed pale and feeble in the light, whilst his head was awash with fire. He touched at it feverishly; it was as though his frame was not enough to endure the Master's vision andâ¦ affection.
“Might I serve you, Lord Goodman?”
Eamon turned to see the doorkeeper. The man's face bore a knowing smile.
“I am well,” Eamon answered. It took all of his strength. “Where is Lord Arlaith?”
The doorkeeper bowed. “He is here, my lord,” he answered, gesturing to one side.
A figure grimly emerged from the Hands' waiting room, its face contorted into a clenched sneer thick with malice.
“I will lead you to the East Quarter.”
Arlaith bowed, shallowly and stiffly. “His glory, Lord Goodman.”
As they left the palace gates, throngs of men bowed, all their eyes on Eamon. It only darkened Arlaith's mood.
They went in silence, exchanging neither word nor glance as they passed through the city streets. At last the Ashen rose before them and Eamon caught a glimpse of the Gauntlet ranks, drawn up to welcome their new master. In his mind his household huddled behind darkened windows to watch as the new Lord of the East Quarter arrived.
Eamon could offer no comfort to the house that was no longer his.
They reached the centre of the square and Captain Anderas's sword was the first of hundreds raised in formal salute. The lines
of men, Gauntlet, and Hands of the East Quarter were faces that he knew, whose love and respect he had earned. As he halted in the square he knew that he could show them none of his former affection; Arlaith held them now.
Eamon surveyed them all.
“I come in the name of the Master,” he began. “Let none gainsay me. I bring to you a man after the Master's heart, chosen by him.”
He faltered, feeling Arlaith's thunderous presence at his side. Was he to entrust those that he loved to a man who hated him?
He had no choice.
“I declare that this man shall henceforth be Lord of the East Quarter.”
Silence filled the Ashen.
“Declare yourself, lord,” Captain Anderas called.
Eamon pressed his eyes briefly shut, resisting the urge to respond.
“I am Lord Arlaith.”
There was a long pause as hundreds of men, men from the Quarter and from distant regions to whom the Quarter now played host, turned their gazes to the one who had once been the Right Hand. Eamon realized that for Arlaith it was a moment of utter humiliation.
“Lord Arlaith, choice of the Master, be his Hand among us.” Anderas spoke primly, his every word crystal on the air as he led a second formal salute. Bar the sound of steel rising to attention, the Ashen was silent. Arlaith stared at the men before him, hatred in his bearing and his look.