Alicia has been proofing my final manuscripts for a while now, usually offering more value than I pay for by picking out more than simple typos and line errors. While toiling away in my proofreader dungeons she's also been working on her own first novel and I'm very happy to have an extract below. I'm about a qurter of the way through and I think it a triumph. She worked on this book for four years and you can see the care taken in every line. The characterisation, the scene setting and world building, the intricate weaving together of narrative arcs. It earns the hastag #triumph. I have an advance copy, but I'm going to buy one for myself anyway because she earned that too.
The Disputed Territory, Western Orthia
Morning broke with a shattering horn blast and screaming headache. Barely able to peel his eyes open, Ran groaned and pulled a blanket over his head to block out the cold light of day. His breath stank and his stomach rolled uneasily, not helped by the thought of what waited outside. He was due his traditional morning vomit, but this time it was not only fuelled by the overpowering stench of death and excrement, but a roaring hangover. The thought did him no favours and he fought the bile burning the back of his throat.
Another furious blast of horns cut through Ran’s head with the grace of a blunt axe and his eyes tore themselves open, heedless of the protests from his headache. There was something wrong with that call. It wasn’t the standard rouse played to wake the troops at sunrise—it was a desperate and hurried call to arms.
Ran sat up fast and the tent spun around him. Frantic shouts and the clash of steel banished the fog in his mind and he scrambled to pull his boots over yesterday’s socks.
‘Ranoth! Up, now!’ Duke Ronart bellowed and threw back the dividing curtain. ‘Get your blade, boy!’
‘What’s going on?’ Ran stumbled to his sword belt as his father’s massive hand collected him by the arm and shoved him through the tent’s rear door.
The grey light of an overcast day blinded him and he collided with an unseen soldier rushing past. Ronart’s grip tightened and dragged him into a run. Ran pumped his legs hard to keep up, blinking to clear his reluctant eyes and shift the dizziness from his vision.
His father charged on like an enraged bull, roaring orders and shoving soldiers aside as if they weighed nothing. There was nothing Ran could do but follow and hope his father didn’t lose hold of his arm.
‘Father, what’s happening?’ he shouted into the storm of men and horses tearing through the camp.
‘They mounted an attack! A fucking dawn attack! I’ll have their general’s guts for breakfast when I’m done, then I’ll ride across the bloody border and raze Wodurin to the fucking ground!’
‘The Woaden are attacking? How did they get this close?’ Ran couldn’t believe it. It made no sense. How had they crossed the lines without anyone noticing?
Cold realisation washed through him and he shivered.
Had Captain Denover failed to hold the advance at the Ford? Had the lines broken because Ran had lost the Hill?
The duke stopped and rounded on Ran, his hands squeezing his son’s shoulders so hard he thought the bones might pop from the joints. ‘I don’t know. Look Ran, you have to get out of here. I can’t have you here if this goes to shit. You understand me? I should never have brought you here, not this late in the campaign. You have to go…’
‘But I can stay, I can—’
A howl of rage filled the air and the duke stabbed his sword into the space beside Ran’s head. Ran spun away as a spray of blood hit the side of his face and he staggered back from the gurgling corpse of a Woaden soldier. Ronart’s sword had skewered the attacker’s throat, and blood flooded down the front of the man’s armour as his sword arm fell limp at his side.
Ran’s meagre challenge of his father’s decision died in his throat. With a flick, Ronart freed the body from his blade and resumed his grasp on Ran’s arm. He didn’t argue or resist. Instead he found himself silently praying to whatever gods were listening that he and his father might make it through this alive.
A vanguard of Orthian soldiers swarmed them as they hurried forwards, dirt and blood muting the shining silver shield etched on their armour; the crown, scythe and pickaxe of his father’s arms completely covered in muck.
‘Sir, this way!’ A marshal shouted and the group veered right, following the marshal and cutting a path through the chaos to the rear of the Orthian camp.
Ran glanced back at the battle and his breath caught in his throat. Imperial soldiers teemed through the encampment, swooping on it like ravenous vultures on a carcass.
The Orthian troops struggled to form a counter attack under the assault, scrambling to retreat and conserve their strength and numbers. Duke Ronart was right—the end of a campaign was a mess. The tired, battle-worn soldiers caught in the onslaught dropped quickly and without much of a fight. Many frantically glanced his way before turning on their heels and bolting into the woods and Ran’s heart skipped a beat.
The men looked at him, at his father, and saw their leaders not simply retreating, but fleeing. They didn’t see a duke taking his son to the rear of the fight—they saw a duke making a break for safety while leaving his troops for dead.
‘Father, stop!’ Ran snapped away from his father’s grip and the duke shuddered to a halt, keen eyes scanning the fight. ‘They’re fleeing because we’re running!’
Through the mud and blood, soldiers deserted in droves, scrambling to the relative safety of other camps dotted along the ridge. The controlled retreat formations, drilled endlessly in the fields near Usmein, collapsed into frantic sprinting. If they had any hope of forcing the Woaden back into the Disputed Territory, they had to bring the retreat under control, and quickly. They had to, or the Imperial Army would spread into Orthia and devour it from within.
‘Fuck me, Tenner sound the retreat horns and get them to pull back like soldiers, not piss-weak children!’ The duke seethed and cursed furiously at the failure of his troops to hold their composure.
Ran tightened his belt and pushed his dark, tangled hair from his eyes. ‘We can turn them back, Father, we just need to form the lines again.’ His study of hundreds of years of battle tactics and wars across Coraidin bubbled to the surface of his mind amidst the disaster of the attack.
‘No, Ran. You have to go.’
‘No, Father, you need—’
Duke Ronart shook his son violently and Ran swallowed his objection. ‘You can’t be here, son. Not my heir; not here, not today. I won’t do to you what was done to my brother. You need to get back to Usmein and raise the alarm. Get the court in order and sort out your mother and sisters. I’ll turn this herd of cats around, but you have to get home.’
Ronart glanced around as if searching for his next move in the chaos and blood. Soldiers roared around them, the deafening crash of blades shattering the morning amongst the screams of frantic horses. The stench of voided bowels hit Ran like a punch in the face, his eyes watering and his stomach lurching.
‘Fuck’s sake, I haven’t a squad to spare.’ Ronart whistled and waved at a soldier, aged in his twenties, holding the reins of a few wide-eyed horses. ‘You! Report!’
‘Brit Doon, sir!’ The soldier gave a sharp salute. ‘Watcher, Duke’s Guard.’
Ronart propelled Ran towards the soldier and the waiting horses. ‘Take him to Usmein as quick as these beasts will carry you. Do not stop, not for anyone or anything. By the gods, I’ll use your skull as an ale mug if he doesn’t make it.’
The soldier gave another salute and without a word, grabbed Ran by the knee and hoisted him into the saddle. The mount shied and threw its head, the chaos too much for it to abide. Despite his terror, Ran’s blood ran cold at the idea of leaving his father in the thick of a battle. The Empire had never broken the lines like this, not in all the decades since the war began. And sons weren’t meant to abandon their fathers when things turned sour and the fate of the duchy hung in the balance.
‘Aye there lad, let’s do as the duke orders, eh?’ Brit Doon said and Ran jerked from staring at the fight to see him already atop another of the horses. Brit gave him a quick, reassuring smile and snatched the reins of Ran’s horse. ‘I don’t fancy my skull filled with ale I’m not alive to drink.’
The watcher kicked his steed and shouted above the battle’s roar. The horses didn’t need any extra encouragement and flew into a barely controlled eastward gallop. The last Ran heard of the fight was the hiss of an arrow over his head and the thwack of several more hitting the dirt beside the horse’s flashing hooves. After that, there was nothing but his breath and the hammering beat of his frenzied heart.
Brit forced Ran to ride until he thought his body would collapse in on itself, pushing the horses to the edge of what was considered a reasonable pace if you wanted the beasts to survive. They kept off the road, travelling the quiet lanes and tracks that farmers used to move between their fields and villages. At nightfall, Ran hoped they might rest awhile, but Brit wasn’t interested. He led the horses onward, leaving Ran to doze in the saddle.
‘We should stop,’ Ran suggested for the fourteenth time since sunset. The hard ride from Signal Hill the previous day had left him saddle-sore and extraordinarily fatigued, and he ached to rest, even for a moment. His backside had gone numb, along with the insides of his thighs. His ankles burned from holding the same angle in the stirrups and he hadn’t felt his toes in a long while.
‘You heard the duke. No stopping.’ Brit spat in the dirt and ducked under a low hanging branch.
Ran screwed his face into a frown. Surely his father hadn’t meant for them to ride through the night! ‘The horses need a break. If they snap an ankle in the shadows–’
‘They’re fine at a walk,’ Brit cut him off without even turning his head.
This time Ran swallowed his dissent and glared into the evening. The cold bit into his hands despite the gloves he found in the saddlebags and the north wind had begun to cut through the fabric of his trousers. If he did eventually convince Brit to stop for the night, there was no guarantee he could actually climb down or walk away from the horse. He might manage it at a crawl, but only with his elbows—there was no sensation left in any of his fingers. They would stop soon, even if Ran had to order the soldier to do so.
‘Here, this is a decent place to camp. There’s probably a stream nearby,’ Ran suggested, taking one last stab at subtlety before he had to resort to pulling rank and issuing an outright order. He was a prince of the realm and a captain, after all.
The watcher coughed and spat. ‘Can’t stop here. No one stops here. Besides, Duke’s orders. No stopping.’
Ranoth narrowed his eyes at Brit’s swaying back in the dim moonlight. ‘What are you talking about? There’s nothing here but trees and hills.’
‘Why’d you reckon that is?’ Brit glanced back at the prince. ‘Not bad land around here. Not too rocky even though we’re near the quarries and the gold mines are off to the south there. Not bad here at all, but there’s nothin’. Just these trackways and the road to the Territory.’
Passing through the area on his way to the front, Ran hadn’t taken much notice of the surrounding countryside. To him, one farm seemed identical to the next, and for miles and miles, that’s all he’d thought there was to see. Now it was dark and the only faint light fell from the moon, filtered through bands of high cloud and treetops. If anyone lived nearby, their location would be marked by the glow from a farmhouse hearth, or the soft sounds of grazing animals, or working dogs barking in the distance. A bird or two, owls by their screeching, lifted off from nearby branches. Besides the whisper of their wings in the cool air, there was nothing.
‘There’s a house!’ Ran pointed at a shadowy structure of large square stones on a cleared hill crest a few hundred yards from the road. He jerked on the reins and kicked his horse harder than the animal deserved. Why spend a freezing night in the saddle when succour was so close?
‘Oi!’ Brit’s curse echoed in the silent valley. ‘What’re you doing?’
‘Getting us a bed!’ Ran shouted back without looking. Even a pile of hay in the barn would be enough. The tenants would surely lend the duke’s son some hospitality, especially on such a frigid night. A chill in the air promised the road would be icy by morning.
At a short stone fence before the house, he swung down and stumbled through a weathered gate jammed open on the path. No light shone from the uncovered window, and Ran reasoned the owner was likely preparing for bed in another room. He rubbed his numb hands together and reached to bang on the door.
‘No!’ cried Brit.
Ranoth’s fist hit the timber panel with a boom.
The door fell inward, splintering on the flagstone floor and the air in his lungs vanished. The impact should have echoed with an almighty crash, but Ran heard nothing. Stunned and wide eyed, he dropped to his knees and stared.
Human skeletons filled the room beyond from floor to ceiling.
There was no telling if a hearth or more rooms lay further in. Mounds of bones and skulls clogged up every available space, brilliant white and dull, dusty grey in the moonlight.
‘Shit…’ whispered Ran.
‘Come back towards me, lad.’ Brit’s hushed command reached him and he obliged, shuffling backwards.
‘What is this place?’ His voice broke.
‘Come on! This is no place to have a chat!’
Deep in the shadows of the house, the hollow eyes of a thousand skulls scrutinised his retreat. Did they wonder where he was going? Did they think he’d come to join them in their lonely countryside tomb? Ran knew the souls once dancing in those black voids were with the Dark Rider in the Underworld, but the fact didn’t ease his hammering heart or settle his quivering lips. The eyes of the dead glared, unmoved by his fear, and Ran gave a startled squeak when the gate pressed into his back, barring his way.
He blinked and she appeared—white blonde hair and skin as pale as the moon, translucent enough to see through to the heaps of skeletons. She lay unmoving across the doorway, between the threshold and the bones, long naked limbs pressed against the floor, her back exposed to the bitterly cold air through the fabric of a shredded shift. Her dead eyes stared into the space between them, unseeing, empty.
A shiver prickled across Ran’s skin. His heart hammered against the wall of his chest and his throat contracted around a scream, choking him as his mouth gaped at the body in the house.
He squeezed his eyes shut.
She’s in my imagination… She’s not real… Get a grip on yourself…
His eyes opened and hers blinked, now clear and blue. She paid no attention to Brit, the soldier was close to losing his wits as he screamed at Ran to get out of the yard. He had seen the ghost and the bones and was howling curses, promising to feed Ran his sword if he didn’t move. But his voice sounded far away, as if he were shouting across a yawning abyss.
‘Go,’ said the dead girl, blue lips moving in a whisper.
A cold hand reached inside Ran’s head and wrapped bony fingers around his mind. He shuddered and winced, pain lancing through his eye sockets.
‘Go, before they find you. They take all they find. Run…. Run! RUN!’
Ran’s jaw and body tensed then the grip on his consciousness eased and the girl’s eyes faded back to stone dead. Without warning her body lurched to the right, jerking and scraping across floor as if dragged by some unholy beast, before disappearing into the house.
Ran finally found his voice and screamed.
His legs scrabbled against the cold dirt of the pathway and a pair of hands snagged the back of his coat. He struggled but the grip was tighter, stronger, and his arms were unfit to fight the doom waiting in the house of bones.
‘Stop flapping about and get over the fence! By the Dark Rider’s balls, let’s go!’ The hands heaved him over the low wall and dumped him on the ground. He looked up and Brit gripped his jacket by the collar. ‘Up, now!’
Ran didn’t need to be told twice. He sprinted wildly for his unimpressed horse and collected the reins, his weariness banished by fear. Brit sprang into the saddle and spurred his mount, not waiting to see if Ran followed.