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The ShortRead: Joe Abercrombie

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ShortRead of 25th June

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Half A King

Authors: Joe Abercrombie

What's the story:

When Game of Thrones started whipping up a storm on HBO, it successfully banished the stale notion that fantasy stories are for closet goths. So when George R.R. Martin praises an author for their latest work of swords and thrones, you best take it seriously.

A Sunday Times best seller, Joe Abercrombie's gritty work of fantasy will sit well with fans of A Song of Ice and Fire; a young prince swears to regain a throne he never wanted, but must first overcome cruelty, chains and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea - all with only one good hand.

Betrayal, blood and more than a few twists, Half A King is set to be your new commute escape.

Release date: 3 July

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Extract

They hardly looked dead.

Only very white, laid out on those chill slabs in that chill room with shrouds drawn up to their armpits and naked swords gleaming on their chests. Yarvi kept expecting his brother’s mouth to twitch in sleep. His father’s eyes to open, to meet his with that familiar scorn. But they did not. They never would again.

Death had opened the Last Door for them, and from that portal none return.

‘How did it happen?’ Yarvi heard his mother saying from the doorway. Her voice was steady as ever.

‘Treachery, my queen,’ murmured his Uncle Odem.

‘I am queen no more.’

‘Of course . . . I am sorry, Laithlin.’

Yarvi reached out and gently touched his father’s shoulder. So cold. He wondered when he last touched his father. Had he ever? He remembered well enough the last time they had spoken any words that mattered. Months before.

A man swings the scythe and the axe, his father had said. A man pulls the oar and makes fast the knot. Most of all a man holds the shield. A man holds the line. A man stands by his shoulder-man. What kind of man can do none of these things?

I didn’t ask for half a hand, Yarvi had said, trapped where he so often found himself, on the barren ground between shame and fury.

I didn’t ask for half a son.

And now King Uthrik was dead, and his King’s Circle, hastily resized, was a weight on Yarvi’s brow. A weight far heavier than that thin band of gold deserved to be.

‘I asked you how they died,’ his mother was saying.

‘They went to speak peace with Grom-gil-Gorm.’

‘There can be no peace with the damn Vanstermen,’ came the deep voice of Hurik, his mother’s Chosen Shield.

‘There must be vengeance,’ said Yarvi’s mother.

His uncle tried to calm the storm. ‘Surely time to grieve, first. The High King has forbidden open war until—’

‘Vengeance!’ Her voice was sharp as broken glass.

‘Quick as lightning, hot as fire.’

Yarvi’s eyes crawled to his brother’s corpse. There was quick and hot, or had been. Strong-jawed, thick-necked, already the makings of a dark beard like their father’s. As unlike Yarvi as it was possible to be. His brother had loved him, he supposed. A bruising love where every pat was just this side of a slap. The love one has for something always beneath you.

‘Vengeance,’ growled Hurik. ‘The Vanstermen must be made to pay.’

‘Damn the Vanstermen,’ said Yarvi’s mother. ‘Our own people must be made to serve. They must be shown their new king has iron in him. Once they are happy on their knees you can make Mother Sea rise with your tears.’

Yarvi’s uncle gave a heavy sigh. ‘Vengeance, then. But is he ready, Laithlin? He has never been a fighter—’

‘He must fight, ready or not!’ snapped his mother. People had always talked around Yarvi as though he was deaf as well as crippled. It seemed his sudden rise to power had not cured them of the habit. ‘Make preparations for a great raid.’

‘Where shall we attack?’ asked Hurik.

‘All that matters is that we attack. Leave us.’

Yarvi heard the door closing and his mother’s footsteps, soft across the cold floor.

‘Stop crying,’ she said. It was only then that Yarvi realized his eyes were swimming, and he wiped them, and sniffed, and was ashamed. Always he was ashamed

She gripped him by the shoulders. ‘Stand tall, Yarvi.’

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, trying to puff out his chest the way his brother might have. Always he was sorry.

‘You are a king, now.’ She twisted his crooked cloak-buckle into place, tried to tame his pale blonde hair, close-clipped but always wild, and finally laid cool fingertips against his cheek. ‘You must never be sorry. You must wear your father’s sword, and lead a raid against the Vanstermen.’

Yarvi swallowed. The idea of going on a raid had always filled him with dread. To lead one?

Odem must have seen his horror. ‘I will be your shoulder-man, my king, always beside you, my shield at the ready. However I can help you, I will.’

‘My thanks,’ mumbled Yarvi. All the help he wanted was to be sent to be sent Skekenhouse to take the Minister’s Test, to sit in the shadows rather than be thrust into the light. But that hope was dust now. Like badly-mixed mortar, his hopes were prone to crumble.

‘You must make Grom-gil-Gorm suffer for this,’ said his mother. ‘Then you must marry your cousin.’ He could only stare into her iron-grey eyes. Stare a little upward as she was still taller than he. ‘What?’

The soft touch became an irresistible grip about his jaw. ‘Listen to me, Yarvi, and listen well. You are the king. This may not be what either of us wanted, but this is what we have. You hold all our hopes now, and you hold them at the brink of a precipice. You are not respected. You have few allies. You must bind our family together by marrying Odem’s daughter Isriun, just as your brother was to do. We have spoken of it. It is agreed.’

Uncle Odem was quick to balance ice with warmth.

‘Nothing would please me more than to stand as your marriage-father, my king, and see our families forever joined.’

Isriun’s feelings were not mentioned, Yarvi noticed. No more than his. ‘But . . .’

His mother’s brow hardened. Her eyes narrowed. He had seen heroes tremble beneath that look, and Yarvi was no hero. ‘I was betrothed to your Uncle Uthil, whose sword-work the warriors still whisper of. Your Uncle Uthil, who should have been king.’ Her voice cracked as though the words were painful. ‘When Mother Sea swallowed him and they raised his empty howe above the shore, I married your father in his place. I put aside my feelings and did my duty. So must you.’

Yarvi’s eyes slid back to his brother’s handsome corpse, wondering that she could plan so calmly with her dead husband and son laid out within arm’s reach. ‘You don’t weep for them?’

A sudden spasm gripped his mother’s face, all her carefully arranged beauty splitting, lips curling from her teeth and her eyes screwing up and the cords in her neck standing stark. For a terrible moment Yarvi did not know if she would beat him or break down in wailing sobs and could not say which scared him more. Then she took a ragged breath, pushed one loose strand of golden hair into its proper place, and was herself again.

‘One of us at least must be a man.’ And with that kingly gift she turned and swept from the room.

Yarvi clenched his fists. Or he clenched one, and squeezed the other thumb against the twisted stub of his one finger.

‘Thanks for the encouragement, Mother.’

Always he was angry. As soon as it was too late to do him any good.

He heard his uncle step close, speaking with the soft voice one might use on a skittish foal. ‘You know your mother loves you.’

‘Do I?’

‘She has to be strong. For you. For the land. For your father.’

Yarvi looked from his father’s body to his uncle’s face. So like, yet so unlike. ‘Thank the gods you’re here,’ he said, the words rough in his throat. At least there was one member of his family who cared for him.

‘I am sorry, Yarvi. I truly am.’ Odem put his hand on Yarvi’s shoulder, a glimmer of tears in his eyes. ‘But Laithlin is right. We must do what is best for Gettland. We must put our feelings aside.’

Yarvi heaved up a sigh. ‘I know.’

His feelings had been put aside ever since he could remember.

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