Dragon Rider

Read an Excerpt From Taran Matharu’s Dragon Rider

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Dragon Rider, Taran Matharu’s debut adult fantasy novel, out now from Harper Voyager.

Jai lives as a royal hostage in the Sabine Court—ever since his father Rohan, leader of the Steppefolk, led a failed rebellion and was executed by the very emperor Jai now serves.

When the emperor’s son and heir is betrothed to Princess Erica of the neighboring Dansk Kingdom, she brings with her a dowry: dragons. Endemic to the northern nation, these powerful beasts come in several forms, but mystery surrounds them. Only Dansk royalty know the secret to soulbonding with these dangerous beasts to draw on their power and strength. This marriage—and the alliance that forms—will change that forever.

But conspirators lurk in the shadows, and soon the Sabine Court is in chaos. With his life in danger, Jai uses the opportunity to escape with the Dansk handmaiden, Frida, and a stolen hatchling. Hunted at every turn, he must learn to cultivate magic and become a soulbound warrior if he has any chance of finding safety, seizing his destiny… and seeking his revenge.

They served candies before the battle started. Men sweated beneath their armour in the fields while the royals of the Sabine Empire popped sugared cherries in their mouths, laughing and pointing from their raised thrones.

Jai’s belly rumbled at the sickly-sweet scent wafting through the grand pavilion. The open-ended tent was built upon a platform, one so tall that, even kneeling as he was, he could see the entire Sabine legion arrayed at its front and the enemy massing on the low, grassy ridge at the horizon.

Jai turned his head and went back to rubbing the feet of the man who had killed his father. The feet of the old emperor. The wizened shell of a once-great ruler, swaddled in silk and kashmere. A man who had founded the Sabine dynasty, and an empire that stretched from the Silver Sea to the Great Steppe. 

Leonid the Great. The Lion of the Sabines. He had handed his rule on to his son years ago, for now he, the elder, was half-blind and senile. Leonid sat apart from his descendants here, no more than an afterthought, brought to the battle out of obligation. His progeny owed him everything yet treated the man as a relic. If Jai did not hate him so, he might have pitied the old man.


Jai looked up and saw a skeletal finger crook. He let the wrinkled feet fall into the perfumed water of the bowl, bowing his head as he stood beside the smallest of the three thrones. The old man within was hunched and stared ahead with unseeing eyes. 

Those once-great hands were knotted with arthritis such that they could hardly brush his long, threadbare hair from his deep-lined face.

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Dragon Rider
Dragon Rider

Dragon Rider

Taran Matharu

‘Tell me what your young eyes see,’ Leonid said, in the half-croak Jai had come to know so well.

It was the croak that instructed him when he washed the man’s back. Chided him when he was slow. Or droned on and on as the old man recounted former glories. Jai was Leonid’s constant companion and had been for almost ten of his seventeen years.

‘They’re gathering now,’ Jai whispered, gazing beyond the arrayed legion. ‘There’s nowhere left for them to run.’

The old man let out a grunt of acknowledgement, one that turned into a hacking cough. Jai was swift to crouch and rub Leonid’s back, feeling the knuckles of the old man’s spine beneath the soft kashmere of his gown.

It would not be long before the old man passed on to the Beyond. Until then, Jai would be a dutiful servant. Not that he had any choice in the matter.

‘These barbarians were fools not to surrender,’ Leonid sighed once he had settled again. ‘We face them with only one of our eight legions today and still they have no chance.’

‘What was their alternative?’ Jai asked, measuring each word with care. ‘To lose their ancestral lands and be subjects to a foreign empire?’

He asked it not impertinently, but in the way Leonid preferred: as a student might question his teacher.

‘To live,’ Leonid replied. ‘And live free. Now…’

A horn rang out, reverberating through the great tent, and silenced even the voices of the emperor and his son, who had been chattering above on their thrones as if at the amphitheatre.

It was the horn of the enemy upon the hillside. The last of the Kuddites.

Even from leagues away, the day was clear enough for Jai to make them out, hastily preparing for battle.  Children clutching at the legs of their parents, even as they were pushed back to what Jai knew would be the grasping hands of the elderly and frail.

Swarthy men and women gathered at the front ranks, clutching what weapons they had. There were blades enough, but scattered among them were pitchforks, scythes, even makeshift clubs. These were farmers tools. Not a jot of armour to be seen. This was no army, but the remains of a civilisation. One that had been chased from their homelands to the very edge of the Silver Seas; the waters just out of sight beyond the hillside. The Kuddite army had been slaughtered in battle but a month before, and the survivors taken as fettered, as was custom.

Now, all that was left was the civilians. Those who had refused to be subsumed by the Sabine Empire, preferring migration than to be under the yoke. But the Sabines were insatiable and would not allow them to escape.

This was the Kuddites’ last stand. The end of a culture. Of a way of life. There was something so brave in their refusal to accept defeat. Brave, yet utterly foolish, for any who took up arms against the Sabines were fair game to be claimed as spoils.

Fools, just like Jai’s father.

‘Speak,’ Leonid croaked.

‘They gather for a charge,’ Jai whispered. ‘There are many of them. More than the legion’s five thousand. Perhaps ten times more.’

Leonid waved away Jai’s words with a blue-veined hand.

‘No army can defeat a Sabine legion, let alone this untrained rabble.’

Jai resisted the urge to retort that his father’s army had, once. Instead, he watched the royals, who leaned forward, excited for the upcoming entertainment. There was a nonchalance to the way they were draped over their thrones, with servants surrounding them, fanning their brows, rubbing their bejewelled fingers. It was no more than a show for them. Like the baiting of a cave bear, or the rhyming of a bard.

Then the roar of the charge and the thunder of feet. Jai did not want to watch, but his eyes belonged to Leonid and so he turned them to the battle.

The Sabine legion seemed to hardly move. A dark, fragmented wave of Kuddites broke upon the bulwark of their gleaming front line. Even at almost a mile away, he could hear the clash of steel and the wails of pain and fury. The sound rose and fell with the breeze, but never quieted.

Beyond the front line’s clash Jai could see little of the horror, just the backs of men pressing forward. He could only imagine, drawing on what he had read in Leonid’s diaries, or overheard from drunken soldiers when boasting had ended and the lament of lost friends begun.

Inside the pavilion it was strangely silent and a full minute ticked by as they all listened to the barrage of battle before the chatter of the royals and nobility returned. All the while, Jai willed the Kuddites to break the line.

Finally, a twitch of Leonid’s impatient hand stirred Jai’s lips as well.

‘They fight,’ was all he said. ‘The First Legion stands strong.’

‘A poor tactic,’ Leonid grunted. ‘Where is the encirclement? Why no cavalry? My son has grown complacent.’

He leaned forward, as if his, cataracted eyes could somehow see better that way.

‘Do the men fight well?’

Jai had no answer for him. His eyes had been drawn elsewhere.

A great shadow now swept across the arrayed legion such that, almost as one, thousands paused, their faces turned to the heavens.

And then, a roar. Deep and guttural, reverberating deep in Jai’s stomach. Fear overtook him. A visceral, animal instinct that froze his body, his heart hammering, despite every thought telling him to run.

Yet somehow old Leonid showed no fear. Instead, he spoke mildly, barely audible over the excited cries of the pavilion’s occupants.

‘Ah. My future granddaughter is here.’

It landed at the pavilion’s front not with a thud, but with such grace that Jai barely heard anything. Yet he did feel the gust of its great wings, billowing the fabric ceiling and clouding dust.

This was the first dragon he had ever seen. Indeed, it was likely the first dragon any Sabine had ever seen, even Leonid himself. This must be—if the stories held true—one of the last of its kind.

At first he only saw its shape, surrounded by a dust-haze of its own making. A serpentine neck and languorous wings that folded into its back like a cloak. A tail, curling beneath itself in the tight space between the back ranks of the legion and the platform of the tent. The dragon was as large as three warhorses nose to tail.

Jai took in its colour. Emerald scales that gleamed like burnished armour, smooth but for the row of spikes that studded its back down to the spur at its tail’s tip. A horned head completed the sight, one with a long snout and a hint of sharp teeth at the edges of its mouth, its lips curling wolfishly.

It was all so much to take in that Jai hardly noticed the rider straddling the beast’s back. Only when they leaped onto the platform of the tent did he tear his eyes away.

The figure was lithe, clad in a white muslin dress that clung to her legs as she stalked closer to the thrones. Her face and hair were covered by a thin veil, and though Jai might have guessed the visitor was a she by the grace of her movements—a curl of waist-length golden hair that had come loose from behind the gauze confirmed it.

A bejewelled hand tucked the strand away as she approached  the emperor’s throne. The seat of Constantine the Blessed. Or, as most knew him… Constantine the Cruel.

She came to a stop before the two thrones of the emperor and prince, silent as the cries of battle drifted on the wind.

Beside the emperor, guards twitched hands closer to their hilts, and murmuring began when she did not kneel. Even Prince Titus had to bow before his own father, yet the girl stood unabashed, her head slowly turning in curiosity at the spectacle of the raised thrones before her.

‘We bring you a gift, Emperor Constantine,’ she called out.

Her voice was loud and hard, accented with what Jai knew to be the lilt of the Dansk. The people of the Northern Tundra; a kingdom unconquered by the Sabines. Apparently they had chosen to marry into the dynasty rather than fight it.

Constantine motioned with his hands to the guards on either side of him and the tension in the room eased with the emperor’s sudden smile.

‘What gift is that, Princess Erica?’ Constantine replied, leaning forward to look closer. ‘Perhaps the early pleasure of your company? We had not expected you for some weeks yet.’

‘Victory,’ was the girl’s reply.

As if by some unseen command, the dragon lifted its head to the sky. The great mouth opened, revealing a tooth-filled maw that could swallow a man whole. The sight stoppered Jai’s throat.

Then, a roar.

Adapted from Dragon Rider by Taran Matharu, published by Harper Voyager. Copyright © 2024 by Taran Matharu Ltd. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

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