In Joe Abercrombie's spellbinding Half a King, Yarvi gets raised to a throne, only to be cast down into slavery and exile. But what's Yarvi up to in the sequel, Half the World? Find out, in our excerpt from the new book, on sale Feb. 17.
'If in doubt, kneel.' Rulf's place as helmsman was the platform at the South Wind's stern, steering oar wedged under one arm. 'Kneel low and kneel often.'
'Kneel,' muttered Thorn. 'Got it.' She had one of the back oars, the place of most work and least honour, right beneath his ever-watchful eye. She kept twisting about, straining over her shoulder in her eagerness to see Skekenhouse, but there was a rainy mist in the air and she could make out nothing but ghosts in the murk. The looming phantoms of the famous elf-walls. The faintest wraith of the vast Tower of the Ministry.
'You might be best just shuffling around on your knees the whole time you're here,' said Rulf. 'And by the gods, keep your tongue still. Cause Grandmother Wexen some offence and crushing with stones will seem light duty.'
Thorn saw figures gathered on the dock as they glided closer. The figures became men. The men became warriors. An honour guard, though they had more the flavour of a prison escort as the South Wind was tied off and Father Yarvi and his bedraggled crew clambered onto the rain-slick quay.
At sixteen winters Thorn was taller than most men but the one who stepped forward now might easily have been reckoned a giant, a full head taller than she was at least. His long hair and beard were darkened by rain and streaked with grey, the white fur about his shoulders beaded with dew.
'Why, Father Yarvi.' His sing-song voice was strangely at odds with that mighty frame. 'The seasons have turned too often since we traded words.'
'Three years,' said Yarvi, bowing. 'That day in the Godshall, my king.'
Thorn blinked. She'd heard the High King was a withered old man, half-blind and scared of his own food. That assessment seemed decidedly unfair. She'd learned to judge the strength of a man in the training square and she doubted she'd ever seen one stronger. A warrior too, from his scars, and the many blades sheathed at his gold-buckled belt. Here was a man who looked a king indeed.
'I remember well,' he said. 'Everyone was so very, very rude to me. The hospitality of Gettlanders, eh, Mother Scaer?' A shaven-headed woman at his shoulder glowered at Yarvi and his crew as if they were heaps of dung. 'And who is this?' he asked, eyes falling on Thorn.
At starting fights she was an expert, but all other etiquette was a mystery. When her mother had tried to explain how a girl should behave, when to bow and when to kneel and when to hold your key, she'd nodded along and thought about swords. But Rulf had said kneel, so she dropped clumsily down on the wet stones of the dock, scraping her sodden hair out of her face and nearly tripping over her own feet.
'My king. My high . . . king, that is—'
Yarvi snorted. 'This is Thorn Bathu. My new jester.'
'How is she working out?'
'Few laughs as yet.'
The giant grinned. 'I am but a low king, child. I am the little king of Vansterland, and my name is Grom-gil-Gorm.'
Thorn felt her guts turn over. For years she had dreamed of meeting the man who killed her father. None of the dreams had worked out quite like this. She had knelt at the feet of the Breaker of Swords, the Maker of Orphans, Gettland's bitterest enemy, who even now was ordering raids across the border. About his thick neck she saw the chain, four times looped, of pommels twisted from the swords of his fallen enemies. One of them, she knew, from the sword she kept at home. Her most prized posession.
She slowly stood, trying to gather every shred of her ruined dignity. She had no sword-hilt to prop her hand on, but she thrust her chin up at him just as if it was a blade.
The King of Vansterland peered down like a great hound at a bristling kitten. 'I am well accustomed to the scorn of Gettlanders, but this one has a cold eye upon her.'
'As if she has a score to settle,' said Mother Scaer.
Thorn gripped the pouch about her neck. 'You killed my father.'
'Ah.' Gorm shrugged. 'There are many children who might say so. What was his name?'
She had expected taunts, threats, fury, but instead his craggy face lit up. 'Ah, but that was a duel to sing of! I remember every step and cut of it. Headland was a great warrior, a worthy enemy! On chill mornings like that one I still feel the wound he gave me in my leg. But Mother War was by my side. She breathed upon me in my crib. It has been foreseen that no man can kill me, and so it has proved.' He beamed down at Thorn, spinning one of the pommels idly around and around on his chain between great finger and thumb. 'Storn Headland's daughter, grown so tall! The years turn, eh, Mother Scaer?'
'Always,' said the Minister, staring at Thorn through blue, blue narrowed eyes.
'But we cannot pick over old glories all day.' Gorm swept his hand out with a flourish to offer them the way. 'The High King awaits, Father Yarvi.'
Grom-gil-Gorm led them across the wet docks and Thorn skulked after, cold, wet, bitter, and powerless, the excitement of seeing the Shattered Sea's greatest city all stolen away. If you could kill a man by frowning at his back, the Breaker of Swords would have fallen bloody through the Last Door that day, but a frown is no blade, and Thorn's hatred cut no one but her.
Through a pair of towering doors trudged the South Wind's crew, into a hallway whose walls were covered from polished floor to lofty ceiling with weapons. Ancient swords, eaten with rust. Spears with hafts shattered. Shields hacked and splintered. The weapons that once belonged to the mountain of corpses Bail the Builder climbed to his place as the first High King. The weapons of armies his successors butchered spreading their power from Yutmark into the Lowlands, out to Inglefold and half way around the Shattered Sea. Hundreds of years of victories, and though swords and axes and cloven helms had no voice, together they spoke a message more eloquent than any Minister's whisper, more deafening than any master-at-arms' bellow.
Resisting the High King is a very poor idea.
'I must say it surprises me,' Father Yarvi was saying, 'to find the Breaker of Swords serving as the High King's doorman.'
Gorm frowned sideways. 'We all must kneel to someone.'
'Some of us kneel more easily than others, though.'
Gorm frowned harder but his Minister spoke first. 'Grandmother Wexen can be most persuasive.'
'Has she persuaded you to pray to the One God, yet?' asked Yarvi.
Scaer gave a snort so explosive it was a wonder she didn't blow snot down her chest.
'Nothing will prise me from the bloody embrace of Mother War,' growled Gorm. 'That much I promise you.'
Yarvi smiled as if he chatted with friends. 'My uncle uses just those words. There is so much that unites Gettland and Vansterland. We pray the same way, speak the same way, fight the same way. Only a narrow river separates us.'
'And hundreds of years of dead fathers and dead sons,' muttered Thorn, under her breath.
'Shush,' hissed Rulf, beside her.
'We have a bloody past,' said Yarvi. 'But good leaders must put the past at their backs and look to the future. The more I think on it, the more it seems our struggles only weaken us both and profit others.'
'So after all our battles shall we link arms?' Thorn saw the corner of Gorm's mouth twisted in a smile. 'And dance over our dead together into your brave future?'
Smiles, and dancing, and Thorn glanced to the weapons on the walls, wondering whether she could tear a sword from its brackets and stove Gorm's skull in before Rulf stopped her. There would be a deed worthy of a warrior of Gettland.
But then Thorn wasn't a warrior of Gettland, and never would be.
'You weave a pretty dream, Father Yarvi.' Gorm puffed out a sigh. 'But you wove pretty dreams for me once before. We all must wake, and whether it pleases us to kneel or no, the dawn belongs to the High King.'
'And to his Minister,' said Mother Scaer.
'To her most of all.' And the Breaker of Swords pushed wide the great doors at the hallway's end.
Thorn remembered the one time she had stood in Gettland's Godshall, staring at her father's pale, cold corpse, trying to squeeze her mother's hand hard enough that she would stop sobbing. It had seemed the biggest room in the world, too big for man's hands to have built. But elf hands had built the Chamber of Whispers. Five Godshalls could have fit inside with floor left over to plant a decent crop of barley. Its walls of smooth elf-stone and black elf-glass rose up, and up, and were lost in the dizzying gloom above.
Six towering statues of the tall gods frowned down, but the High King had turned from their worship and his masons had been busy. Now a seventh stood above them all. The Southerners' God, the One God, neither man nor woman, neither smiling nor weeping, arms spread wide in a smothering embrace, gazing down with bland indifference upon the petty doings of mankind.
People were crowded about the far-off edges of the floor, and around a balcony of grey elf-metal at ten times the height of a man, and a ring of tiny faces at another as far above again. Thorn saw Vanstermen with braids in their long hair, Throvenmen with silver ring-money stacked high on their arms. She saw Islanders with weathered faces, stout Lowlanders and wild-bearded Inglings. She saw lean women she reckoned Shends and plump merchants of Sagenmark. She saw dark-faced emissaries from Catalia, or the Empire of the South, or even further off, maybe.
All the people in the world, it seemed, gathered with the one purpose of licking the High King's arse.
'Greatest of men!' called Father Yarvi, 'between gods and kings! I prostrate myself before you!' And he near threw himself on his face, the echoes of his voice bouncing from the galleries above and shattering into the thousand thousand whispers which gave the hall its name.
The rumours had in fact been overly generous to the greatest of men. He was a shrivelled remnant in his outsize throne, withered face sagging off the bone, beard a few grey straggles. Only his eyes showed some sign of life, bright and flinty hard as he glared down at Gettland's Minister.
'Now you kneel, fool!' hissed Rulf, dragging Thorn down beside him by her belt. And only just in time. An old woman was already walking out across the expanse of floor towards them.
She was round faced and motherly with deep laughter lines about her twinkling eyes, white hair cut short, her coarse grey gown dragging upon the floor so heavily its hem was frayed to dirty tatters. About her neck upon the finest chain, crackling papers scrawled with runes were threaded.
'We understand Queen Laithlin is with child.' She might have looked no hero, but by the gods she spoke with a hero's voice. Deep, soft, effortlessly powerful. A voice that demanded attention. A voice that commanded obedience.
Even on his knees, Yarvi found a way to bow lower. 'The gods have blessed her, most honoured Grandmother Wexen.'
'An heir to the Black Chair, perhaps?'
'We can but hope.'
'Convey our warm congratulations to King Uthil,' scratched out the High King, no trace of either warmth or congratulation on his withered face.
'I will be delighted to convey them, and they to receive them. May I rise?'
The first of Ministers gave the warmest smile, and raised one palm, and tattooed upon it Thorn saw circles within circles of tiny writing.
'I like you there,' she said.
'We hear troubling tales from the north,' croaked out the High King, and curling back his lip licked at a yawning gap in his front teeth. 'We hear King Uthil plans a great raid against the Islanders.'
'A raid, my king?' Yarvi seemed baffled by what was common knowledge in Thorlby. 'Against our much loved fellows on the Islands of the Shattered Sea?' He waved his arm so his crippled hand flopped dismissively. 'King Uthil is of a warlike temper, and speaks often in the Godshall of raiding this or that. It always comes to nothing for, believe me, I am ever at his side, smoothing the path for Father Peace, as Mother Gundring taught me.'
Grandmother Wexen threw her head back and gave a peal of laugher, rich and sweet as treacle, echoes ringing out as if she were a chuckling army. 'Oh, you're a funny one, Yarvi.'
She struck him with a snake's speed. With an open hand, but hard enough to knock him on his side. The sound of it bounced from the balconies above sharp as a whip cracks.
Thorn's eyes went wide and without thinking she sprung to her feet. Or half way there, at least. Rulf's hand shot out and caught a fistful of her damp shirt, dragging her back to her knees, her curse cut off in an ugly squawk.
'Down,' he growled under his breath.
It felt suddenly a very lonely place, the centre of that huge, empty floor, and Thorn realised how many armed men were gathered about it, and came over very dry in the mouth and very wet in the bladder.
Grandmother Wexen looked at her, neither scared nor angry. Mildly curious, as though at a kind of ant she did not recognise. 'Who is this . . . person?'
'A humble halfwit, sworn to my service.' Yarvi pushed himself back up as far as his knees, good hand to his bloody mouth. 'Forgive her impudence, she suffers from too little sense and too much loyalty.'
Grandmother Wexen beamed down as warmly as Mother Sun, but the ice in her voice froze Thorn to her bones. 'Loyalty can be a great blessing or a terrible curse, child. It all depends on to whom one is loyal. There is a right order to things. There must be a right order, and you Gettlanders forget your place in it. The High King has forbidden swords to be drawn.'
'I have forbidden it,' echoed the High King, his own voice dwindled to a reedy rustling, hardly heard in the vastness.
'If you make war upon the Islanders you make war upon the High King and his Ministry,' said Grandmother Wexen. 'You make war upon the Inglings and the Lowlanders, upon the Throvenmen and the Vanstermen, upon Grom-gil-Gorm, the Breaker of Swords, who it has been foreseen no man can kill.' She pointed out the murderer of Thorn's father beside the door, seeming far from comfortable on one great knee. 'You even make war upon the Empress of the South, who has but lately pledged an alliance with us.' Grandmother Wexen spread her arms wide to encompass the whole vast chamber, and its legion of occupants, and Father Yarvi and his shabby crew looked a feeble flock before them indeed. 'Would you make war on half the world, Gettlanders?'
Father Yarvi grinned like a simpleton. 'Since we are faithful servants of the High King, his many powerful friends can only be a reassurance.'
'Then tell your uncle to stop rattling his sword. If he should draw it without the High King's blessing—'
'Steel shall be my answer,' croaked the High King, watery eyes bulging.
Grandmother Wexen's voice took on an edge that made the hairs on Thorn's neck prickle. 'And there shall be such a reckoning as has not been seen since the Breaking of the World.'
Yarvi bowed so low he nearly nosed the floor. 'Oh, highest and most gracious, who would wish to see such wrath released? Might I now stand?'
'First one more thing,' came a soft voice from behind. A young woman walked towards them with quick steps, thin and yellow haired and with a brittle smile.
'You know Sister Isriun, I think?' said Grandmother Wexen.
It was the first time Thorn had seen Yarvi lost for words. 'I . . . you . . . joined the Ministry?'
'It is a fine place for the broken and disposessed. You should know that.' And Isriun pulled out a cloth and dabbed the blood from the corner of Yarvi's mouth. Gentle, her touch, but the look in her eye was anything but. 'Now we are all one family, once again.'
'She passed the test three months ago without one question wrong,' said Grandmother Wexen. 'She is already greatly knowledgable on the subject of elf relics.'
Yarvi swallowed. 'Fancy that.'
'It is the Ministry's most solemn duty to protect them,' said Isriun. 'And to protect the world from a second breaking.' Her thin hands fussed one with the other. 'Do you know the thief and killer, Skifr?'
Yarvi blinked as though he scarcely understood the question. 'I may have heard the name . . .'
'She is wanted by the Ministry.' Isriun's expression had grown even deadlier. 'She entered the elf ruins of Strokom, and brought out relics from within.'
A gasp hissed around the chamber, a fearful whispering echoed among the balconies. Folk made holy signs upon their chests, murmured prayers, shook their heads in horror.
'What times are we living in?' whispered Father Yarvi. 'You have my solemn word, if I hear but the breath of this Skifr's passing, my doves will be with you upon the instant.'
'Such a relief,' said Isriun, 'Because if anyone were to strike a deal with her, I would have to see them burned alive.' She twisted her fingers together, gripping eagerly until the knuckles were white. 'And you know how much I would hate to see you burn.'
'So we have that in common too,' said Yarvi. 'May I now depart, oh, greatest of men?' The High King appeared to have nodded sideways, quite possibly off to sleep. 'I will take that as a yes.' He stood, and Rulf and his crew stood with him, and Thorn struggled up last. She seemed always to be kneeling when she had better stand and standing when she had better kneel.
'It is not too late to make of the fist an open hand, Father Yarvi.' Grandmother Wexen sadly shook her head. 'I once had high hopes for you.'
'Alas, as Sister Isriun can tell you, I have often been a sore disappointment.' There was just the slightest iron in Yarvi's voice as he turned. 'I struggle daily to improve.'
Outside the rain was falling hard, still making grey ghosts of Skekenhouse.
'Who was that woman, Isriun?' Thorn asked as she hurried to catch up.
'She was once my cousin.' The muscles worked on the gaunt side of Yarvi's face. 'Then we were betrothed. Then she swore to see me dead.'
Thorn raised her brows at that. 'You must be quite a lover.'
'We cannot all have your gentle touch.' He frowned sideways at her. 'Next time you might think before leaping to my defence.'
'The moment you pause will be the moment you die,' she muttered.
'The moment you didn't pause you nearly killed the lot of us.'
She knew he was right, but it still nettled her. 'It might not have come to that if you'd told them the Islanders have attacked us, and the Vanstermen too, that they've given us no choice but to—'
'They know that well enough. It was Grandmother Wexen set them on.'
'How do you—'
'She spoke thunderously in the words she did not say. She means to crush us, and I can put her off no longer.'
Thorn rubbed at her temples. Ministers seemed never to mean quite what they said. 'If she's our enemy, why didn't she just kill us where we knelt?'
'Because Grandmother Wexen does not want her children dead. She wants them to obey. First she sends the Islanders against us, then the Vanstermen. She hopes to lure us into rash action and King Uthil is about to oblige her. It will take time for her to gather her forces, but only because she has so many to call on. In time, she will send half the world against us. If we are to resist her, we need allies.'
'Where do we find allies?'
Father Yarvi smiled. 'Among our enemies, where else?'
Copyright © 2015 by Joe Abercrombie. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.