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A Sneak Peek of Joe Abercrombie's The Wisdom of Crowds

Posted on 10th September 2021 by Mark Skinner

Joe Abercrombie's The Age of Madness trilogy has been one of the most popular fantasy sagas of the last few years and the release of the concluding part, The Wisdom of Crowds, is imminent. To whet your appetite for publication day, we've got an exciting extract from the book to share with you.   

The Little People

‘They’re here!’ Jakib was so shocked with excitement his voice cracked and went all warbly. ‘The Breakers are bloody here!’ All the days and weeks and months waiting and now he stared wildly around their little parlour with his hands opening and closing, hardly knowing what to do first.

Petree didn’t look excited. She looked worried. Sour, even. The lads had warned him he was marrying a sour woman, but he hadn’t seen it then. He’d always been a hoper. ‘You’re a hoper,’ they’d said. Now every day she seemed more sour. But this was hardly the time to be fretting about his marriage. ‘They’re bloody here!’

When he grabbed his coat he sent pamphlets scattering off the table. Wasn’t as if he’d read them. Wasn’t as if he could read, really. But having ’em felt like a fine step towards freedom. And who needed pamphlets, when the Breakers were come in person?

He went to fetch his grandfather’s sword from the hook above the fire. Hissed a curse that Petree had made him hang it out of reach. Had to go up on tiptoes to get the damn thing down and near dropped it on his head.

He felt bad when he saw her face. Maybe she wasn’t sour so much as scared. That’s what the bastards wanted, the Inquisition and the Closed Council. Everyone scared. He caught her by the shoulder. Tried to shake some of his hope into her. ‘Price o’ bread’ll go down now,’ he said, ‘you’ll see. Bread for everyone!’

‘You think so?’ ‘I know so.’

She put her fingertips on the battered scabbard. ‘Don’t take the sword.

Having it might make you try to use it. You don’t know how.’

‘I know how,’ he snapped, though they both knew he didn’t, not really, and he wrenched it from her hand, twisted it the wrong way up and the rust-spotted blade slithered halfway out of the scabbard before he caught   it and slapped it back in. ‘A man should be armed, on the day of the Great Change! Enough of us have ’em, we won’t need to use ’em.’ And before she could voice any more doubts he dashed out, letting the door clatter against the frame.

The streets were bright outside, everything glossy and gleaming and seeming new-made after the rain just fallen. People everywhere, somewhere between a riot and a carnival. People running, people shouting. Some faces he knew. Most were strangers. A woman grabbed him around the neck, kissed him on the cheek. A whore stood on some railings, clinging to the side of a building with one hand, pulling her dress up with the other to give the crowd an eyeful. ‘Half price all day!’ she screeched.

He’d been ready to fight. Ready to charge ranks of royalist spears, freedom and equality as his armour. Petree had not cared for that idea, and honestly, he’d been having some doubts of his own as the day grew closer. But he only saw a few soldiers, and they had smiles on their faces and jackets hanging open, cheering and jumping and celebrating like everyone else.

Someone was singing. Someone was crying. Someone was dancing in puddles, spraying everyone. Someone lay in a doorway. Drunk, maybe, then Jakib saw blood on their face. Maybe he should help? But he was swept along by people running. Couldn’t tell why. Couldn’t tell anything. Out onto the Sparway that cut wide through the mills of the Three Farms towards the centre of the city. He saw armed men there – polished armour, brand new and glittering. He froze at the corner, heart in his mouth, sword half-hidden behind his back, thinking they must be King’s Own. Then he saw their bearded faces, and their swaggering gait, and the banners they carried, roughly stitched with broken chains, and he knew this was the People’s Army, marching to freedom.

Workers were pouring from the manufactories to join the throng and he pushed through them, laughing and shouting himself hoarse. He clambered around a cannon. A bloody cannon wheeled along by grinning dye-women, their forearms stained strange colours. Folk sang, and embraced, and wept, and Jakib wasn’t a shoemaker any more but a fighter for justice, a proud brother of the Breakers, struggling in the great endeavour of the age.

He saw a woman at the head of the crowd, on a white horse, wearing a soldier’s breastplate. Judge! Had to be Judge. More beautiful and furious and righteous through the blurring tears in his eyes than he’d dared to hope. A spirit, she was, an idea made into flesh. A goddess, leading the people to their destiny.

‘Brothers! Sisters! To the Agriont!’ And she pointed up the road towards freedom. ‘I’ve a fancy to greet His August fucking Majesty!’

And there was another raucous wave of laughter and delight, and down an alley Jakib thought he saw some men kicking someone on the ground, over and over, and he drew his grandfather’s rusty sword, and lifted it high in the air, and joined in with the singing.

‘They’re here,’ whispered Grey.

Captain Leeb drew his sword. Felt like the right thing to do. ‘I am aware, Corporal.’ He tried to project an air of confidence. Confidence defines an officer. He remembered his brother telling him so. ‘I can hear them.’

Judging by the noise, there was a considerable number of them. A considerable number, and steadily approaching. It put Leeb in mind of the crowd’s clamour at the Contest. Hundreds of voices raised in delighted excitement. Thousands of voices. But there was a definite edge of madness to it. A touch of fury. An occasional punctuation of shattering glass, splintering wood.

Leeb would have very much liked to run away. He didn’t want anyone’s blood on his hands, especially not his own. And he wasn’t without sympathy for their cause, up to a point. Freedom and justice and so on, who doesn’t like that stuff, in principle? But he had sworn an oath to the king. Not to the king directly, of course, but, you know, he’d sworn it even so. He’d been happy to swear it when things were going well and supposed he couldn’t just unswear it the moment things turned dicey. What kind of an oath would it be then?

His colonel had assured him help was coming. From the King’s Own. Then from Westport. Then from Starikland. From ever less likely directions. But no help appeared to have arrived at all.

Leeb glanced at his men, spread out across the width of the Sparway. What a flimsy little red line they looked. Perhaps forty flatbowmen, eighty spearmen. Half of his company hadn’t come out. Somewhat looser in their oaths than he was. He’d always thought there was no more admirable quality than being a man of your word. Loyalty defines an officer. His father had often told him so. But it was starting to look as if a certain elasticity could be a useful thing.

‘They’re here,’ whispered Grey again.

‘I am aware, Corporal.’ Leeb’s mouth turned very dry as the murk from the foundry down the street was thinned out by the breeze. ‘I can see them.’

More of them, indeed, and more. Many looked like ordinary citizens, women and children among them, brandishing chair-legs and hammers and knives and spears made from mops. Others looked like professionals, armour and bright weapons glinting as the sun peeped through. Leeb’s jaw slowly dropped as he began to appreciate the sheer number of them. Plainly the Closed Council’s increasingly shrill proclamations, curfews, threats, examples had not achieved the desired effect. Quite the reverse.

‘By the Fates,’ someone muttered.

‘Steady,’ said Leeb, but it came out a squeak that couldn’t have steadied anyone. It might have unsteadied those already steady, indeed. It was painfully obvious that his brittle little line had no chance of stopping that boiling tide. No chance at all.

When they saw Leeb and his soldiers they wobbled to a halt, bunching up uncertainly, chants and cheers dying on their lips. There was an intensely awkward silence, and an inappropriate memory floated up from the depths of Leeb’s mind. The intensely awkward silence after he, drunk, had tried to kiss his cousin Sithrin at that dance and she jerked away in horror so he ended up sort of kissing her ear. This silence was like that one. But a great deal more terrifying.

What to do? By the Fates, what to do? Let them through? Join them? Fight them? Run and never stop? There were no good ideas. Leeb’s lower lip twitched stupidly, but no sound emerged. Even a least-bad idea was beyond him. Decisiveness defines an officer, but he hadn’t been trained for this. They don’t train you for the world suddenly coming unravelled. And now a rider pushed through to the front of the throng. A woman, with a tangle of damp red hair and a furious sneer. It was as if her rage was an infection, spreading instantly through the crowd. Faces twisted, weapons lifted, screams and cries and taunts burst forth, and suddenly Leeb had no choice at all.

‘Raise bows!’ he spluttered. Almost as if, running out of time to think of a better idea, he was left only with this self-evidently terrible one. His men glanced at each other, stirred uncomfortably.

‘Raise bows!’ roared Corporal Grey, veins bulging from his thick neck. At the same time, he looked at Leeb with a vaguely desperate expression. The pilot of a foundering vessel, perhaps, looking to his captain, silently asking if they really did intend to go down with the ship. Perhaps that’s why captains do go down with their ships. No better ideas.

‘Shoot!’ squeaked Leeb, chopping downwards with his sword.

He wasn’t sure how many actually shot. Less than half. Afraid to shoot at so many? Unwilling to shoot at men who might have been their fathers, brothers, sons? Women who might have been their mothers, sisters, daughters? A couple shot high, on purpose or in haste. There was a scream. Did two or three fall in the front rank of that seething mob? It made not the slightest difference. How could it?

The terrifying she-devil at the front stabbed towards Leeb with a clawing finger.

‘Kill those fuckers!’

And they charged in their hundreds.

Leeb was a reasonably brave man, a reasonably honourable man, a reasonable monarchist who took his oath to his king very seriously. But Leeb was not a fool. He turned and ran with his men. It was not a company any more, but a squealing, jostling, whimpering herd of pigs.

Someone shoved him and he fell, rolled. He thought it might’ve been Corporal Grey, damn him. They all were scattering now, tossing their weapons, and he scrambled towards an alleyway, barging past a surprised- looking beggar and nearly falling again. How could one man keep his oath when everyone else was breaking theirs, after all? An army very much relied on unity of purpose.

Run for the Agriont, that was all he could think of. He plunged through the crooked backstreets, his neck prickling with fear, his breath sawing at his chest. Damn weak lungs, he’d been cursed with them all his life. Can you name a lord marshal with weak lungs? his brother used to ask. Lungs define an officer! Adua’s foul vapours hardly helped. He sagged into a doorway, trying to suppress his cough. He’d dropped his sword somewhere. Or had he thrown it away?

‘Bloody hell.’ He stared down at his officer’s jacket. Bright red. How could it be redder? The whole purpose was to make him stand out. Like a bullseye on a target.

He stumbled from the doorway, struggling with the brass buttons, and almost straight into a group of heavyset men. Workers, maybe, from one of the foundries in the neighbourhood. But there was a wildness in their eyes, whites showing stark in their grease-smeared faces.

They stared at him, and he at them.

‘Now listen,’ he said, raising one weak hand. ‘I was just doing—’

They were not interested. Not in his duty, or his oath, or his sympathy for their cause, or his reasonable monarchism. It was not a day for the reasonable, let alone for whatever defines an officer. One of them put his head down and charged. Leeb managed to throw a single punch as he came. A harmless one, which missed the mark and bounced off the man’s forehead.

His brother had once told him how to punch, but he hadn’t really been listening. He wished he’d listened now. But then his brother hadn’t really known anything about punching, either.

The man caught Leeb in the side with his shoulder, knocked his wind out, lifted him bodily and brought him down on the wet cobbles with a stunning crash.

Then they were all on him, kicking, swearing. Slavering madmen. Furious animals. Leeb curled up as best he could, whimpering at each blow. Something hit him so hard in the back he was sick. To his horror, he saw one of them take out a knife.

It was a shock when Cal pulled the blade. Maybe it shouldn’t have been. Doors knew he carried one. He stopped kicking the officer to stare at it. Thought about shouting at him not to do it. But by then Cal was stabbing.

‘Shit,’ whispered Doors. Hadn’t planned on killing anyone when he left his spot in the mill and ran out to join the Breakers flooding down the Sparway. Not sure what he had been planning. Setting things right, maybe. Getting a fair deal for once. Not this, anyway. They all looked shocked. Cal most of all.

‘Had to be done,’ he said, staring down at the poor bastard wheezing and spitting blood and leaking red all over the street. ‘Had to be done.’ Doors didn’t see why. Wasn’t like this fool had set their wages. They could’ve given him a kicking. Taught him a lesson. Left it at that. But whether it had to be done or not, it was done now. No undoing it.

‘Come on.’ Doors turned. Left the dying officer behind. Started hurrying back towards the Sparway. Towards the Agriont. Didn’t know what’d happen when they got there, just like they hadn’t known what’d happen when they started kicking that officer.

Regrets were for tomorrow.

‘They’re here.’ Shawley watched a set run down the alley below, footsteps clapping from the fronts of the narrow buildings, and he tossed back the last of his wine and swung his legs from the window seat.

‘Who’s here?’ slurred Rill, her eyes all unfocused from the husk.

‘The Breakers, you fucking dunce,’ and he planted his hand on her face and shoved her back onto the bed. She caught her head on the headboard as she fell, and put fingers to her scalp, and the tips came away bloody, and Shawley had to burst out laughing. He’d always been quite the joker. He took his hatchet from the table and slid the haft up his sleeve. ‘Good time to settle some scores, I reckon.’ And he perched his hat on his head at just the right angle, straightened his collar in the mirror, took one last pinch of pearl dust, then trotted jauntily down the stairs and out

into the street.

There was an explosive feel to the air. A feel of things ripped up so they could be put back together a new way. A woman ran past him, screaming, or maybe laughing, and Shawley tipped his hat to her. He was known for his good manners. Then he stood out of the way so some men could dash by, gripping his axe all the while. Just in case, you understand. He wasn’t the only one with scores to settle, and Shawley had a lot of enemies. Always had a talent for making ’em.

He passed a ragged old couple stripping a dead officer lying in a slick of blood and swaggered on, keeping his head down, sticking to the back streets and the shortcuts. Always had a knack for finding his way. He’d been worried that getting through Arnault’s Wall might be a problem. Been thinking about slipping through the sewers, though it would’ve ruined the nice boots he’d stolen off that merchant. But the Sable Gate stood wide open. Must’ve been a fight there, a crowd dragging the bloody corpses of some King’s Own up onto the walls. The guts were hanging out of one. The head was off another. Shawley had no clue where it might’ve ended up. Seemed impolite to ask. He tipped his hat to a hideous woman with no more than four teeth in her head and slipped through the gate.

He could hear the violence, further on. The mad noise, spreading through the richer districts inside Arnault’s Wall. They might call it the People’s Army, and there might be a few high principles tossed about, but if you wanted his opinion, there were plenty of thugs with pretty excuses mixed in, and no small number who weren’t even bothering with the excuses, just turning a quick profit from the chaos. Evidence of their handiwork all over. Shawley stopped to filch a nice ring off a corpse that

someone had left begging. Always been blessed with sharp eyes.

He saw the house. How often had he stood outside, in the shadows, planning his revenge? Now, thanks to happy circumstances, it dropped in his lap and he just had to catch it. The gate was locked but he slipped off his coat and tossed it over the railings on top of the wall while no one was looking. He took a run up and jumped over, slipped through the wet garden where the bushes were clipped to look like birds or some such. Bloody waste of money if you wanted his opinion. Money that should’ve been his.

The dining-room window still didn’t lock properly and Shawley eased it open, slipped over the sill and dropped down silent in the darkened room on the other side. Always had a knack for treading softly. Place hadn’t changed much. Dark table and chairs, dark dresser with the silver plate gleaming. Silver plate that should’ve been his.

He heard laughter, talking, more laughter. A woman’s voice, he thought, a young woman, an older man. They’d no idea what was happening in the city yet, by the sound of it. Strange, that fifty strides from the madness it could be just an ordinary day. He padded down the corridor and peered around a door frame.

It was an odd scene given the carnage in the streets. A girl of twenty with a mass of blonde hair stood admiring herself in a mirror of Visserine glass which must’ve cost more’n Shawley’s house. She wore a half-made dress of shining fabric, two seamstresses attending to her – a young one with a mouthful of pins and an old one on her knees busy stitching at a hem. Furnevelt sat in a corner, wine glass in his hand. He had his back to Shawley, but you could see him smiling in the mirror as he watched it all done.

And Shawley realised the girl must be Furnevelt’s daughter. That was how long he’d been waiting. Should’ve just killed the old bastard where he sat, but Shawley wanted him to know. So he stepped around the door frame and tipped his hat.

‘Ladies,’ he said, smirking into the mirror, and they turned to look, puzzled. Not scared yet. That’d come. Shawley couldn’t remember her name, Furnevelt’s daughter, but she’d turned out so pretty. That’s what happens when you grow up with all these advantages. These advantages that should’ve been his.

‘Shawley?’ Furnevelt jumped from his chair, a delicious shock across his face. ‘I thought I told you never to come back here!’

‘You told me a lot of things.’ Shawley let the axe slide from his sleeve so he was gripping the haft. ‘You self-righteous old shit.’ And he hit him on the side of the head.

Furnevelt got his hand up and knocked it wide, but the blade still caught his scalp, blood flying across the room.

He made a funny little gasp, stumbled, dropped his wine glass and it broke across the floor.

One of the dressmakers screamed, pins falling from her open mouth. Furnevelt’s daughter stared, the tendons starting from her pale bare feet.

Second time, Shawley caught Furnevelt right between the eyes, axe sinking into his skull with a bang.

The dressmaker screamed again. Bloody irritating scream she had.

Furnevelt’s daughter sprinted out, fast as a ferret given she had all that half-stitched cloth about her. ‘Damn it!’ Shawley had to get her, too, to make it fair, but the axe was stuck fast in Furnevelt’s skull and however he tugged it wouldn’t come free. ‘Get back here, bitch!’

Lilott ran. There was no thought involved. She fled in terror down the hall, spurred on by the shrieks of her dressmakers. She fumbled with the locks, plunged across the gardens, crashed through the gate. She ran, clutching up the gauzy skirts of her unfinished wedding dress, her bare feet slapping at the wet cobbles.

She burst into the square. People everywhere. People shocked, joyous, curious, furious. Strange people with strange intensities of emotion twisting their pale faces into animal masks. Where had they come from?

A man stood on a packing crate, screaming something about votes. Leering labourers bellowed back at him. A woman with wild hair bounced on a big man’s shoulders, shaking a sword and swearing at the sky. Lilott had been about to scream for help, but some instinct made her bite her lip and shrink against the wall, trying to catch her breath. She hardly knew what had happened. The Breakers, she supposed. It must be the Breakers.

She once listened to one of them give a speech. Hidden at the back of a meeting in a shawl she borrowed from her maid. She had thought it such a daring thing to do, had been expecting fire and fury and, well . . . danger. But it had all sounded so reasonable. Fair pay. Equitable hours. Decent treatment. She had hardly been able to understand why everyone was so afraid of them. Later, flushed and eager, she had repeated all the arguments to her father. He had told her she had no notion of the complexities of managing a labour market, that what seemed to her eminent good sense might sound to some ears like treason, and that this was not the kind of thing the lady of taste he was raising her to be would ever need to worry about.

In that much, at least, he had been horribly mistaken.

She limped down a crowded street. The sun had gone in and a chilly gust brought a new sprinkle of rain. Someone was playing a fiddle far too fast and they danced, and whooped, and clapped, like guests at a particularly wild party, and not far away a well-dressed corpse was draped over a railing, blood dripping from its broken skull and trickling in the gutter. Was her father dead? She gave a kind of moan, had to bite her knuckle to keep from screaming.

There had been warning signs. The price of bread and meat, she heard from the cook, kept going up. Loyalty in the army, she heard from Harbin, kept going down. There had been that uprising in Valbeck. Vague worries that there might be more when the rebels landed in Midderland. News of the king’s victory had brought relief. But then came the rumours of Breakers approaching Adua. Then came the curfew, then the arrests by the Inquisition, then the hangings by the Closed Council.

She had suggested they postpone the wedding, but her father was as deaf to that as he had been to the Breakers’ arguments. He refused to put off his only child’s happiness on account of a crowd of ruffians. Harbin laughed at the notion that the capital could fall to an army of peasants, so Lilott forced out laughter, too, since agreeing with your husband-to-be was expected of a young lady. At least before the marriage. They had convinced themselves it would not happen.

They had been horribly mistaken on that score, too.

She hardly recognised the streets she had grown up in, flooded with crazed humanity, surging on invisible currents of joy and fury. She was so cold. Not exactly crying but her eyes and her nose constantly leaking, her bare shoulders clammy from the drizzle and her bare feet bruised from the unforgiving cobblestones. Her breath came in terrified whoops, her skin crawling under her half-finished, pearl-stitched bodice.

Only that morning it had felt so important that all the right guests should accept their invitations. That the words of their vows be perfect. That the hem of her dress was stitched just so. Now the hem of her dress was black with road-filth and, Fates help her, speckled brown with her father’s blood, and all the world was turned upside down and inside out. She hobbled on. Not knowing where she was or where she was heading. Some unsewn flap of her dress caught on a broken fence as she ran past and nearly jerked her off her bare feet. Someone laughed at her. Another clapped. On any other day, a desperate, barefooted girl in a blood-spattered wedding dress would have excited some attention. Today it was nothing to remark upon. The whole city had gone mad. The whole world.

Over the roofs she glimpsed the parapet of the Tower of Chains, the tallest tower of the Agriont, and she gave a moan of relief. But when she burst gasping onto the paving stones beside the moat it became a groan of horror.

She had wandered lazily across this bridge on happy summer days, among the wealthy revellers, on her way to the Agriont’s park to see and be seen, to applaud the fencers at the Summer Contest. She remembered smiling at floating ducklings following their mother in dignified single file, remembered counting the green and red and purple lily pads with Harbin, on the day he proposed. So picturesque.

The gates were sealed now. People were crushed against them, waving frantically, wailing at the towering gatehouse to be let in. An old woman in a very fine dress was scratching at the wood with her fingernails. Lilott added her voice to the rest as she staggered across the bridge. She hardly knew what else to do. ‘Help!’ she screeched. ‘Help!’

She saw a pale man with a red scarf staring past her and spun about to follow his eyes. A crowd was coming up the wide Middleway, banners bobbing over it, steel of pikes and armour glinting.

‘Oh no,’ she whispered. She could not run any more. There was nowhere left to run to. A house was on fire, smoke rolling from the upstairs windows into the spitting sky.

People began to scatter, knocking each other down, trampling each other in their mindless haste. Lilott took an elbow in the face and tottered back, tasting blood. Her foot caught in her torn dress, the parapet hit her in the knees and, with a despairing gasp, she tumbled over.

It was not that far to the moat, but even so the water hit her hard, knocked out her breath and sucked her down in a rush of bubbles. The floating glory of her dress became an instant dead weight, fabric clutching at her, dragging her down. She was beyond exhaustion. Beyond terror. Part of her wanted just to sink, but another would not let go, made her thrash, kick, struggle.

She came up coughing dirty water, wriggled through the clutching, slapping lily pads, far less picturesque at close quarters, and into the darkness under the bridge. She pressed herself to the slimy stones, hair plastered across her face, her head full of the smell of vegetable rot.

Not far away a corpse floated, face down. A hint of sodden cloth, of tangled hair. She watched it turn slowly, bump against the moss-covered wall of the moat, drift away. She wondered who it had been. She wondered who she was now. She wondered if she would live out the hour. Everything was changed.

The People’s Army was coming. Wasn’t she the people, too? When had she become their enemy? She squeezed her eyes shut, shivering in the icy water, and gave up trying to smother her own sobs. No one could have heard them over the deafening noise of the mob above. Tramping boots, clashing metal, breaking glass, rumbling wagon wheels. A demon with many voices.

‘Bread! Give us bread!’

‘Send out the Closed Council!’ ‘The Great Change is come!’ ‘Let us in, you fuckers.’

‘Let us in or we break in!’

And, louder than all, a sawing, maddened shriek. ‘Bring out His fucking Majesty!’

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