New York Times bestselling author Steven Erikson continues the beloved Malazan Book of the Fallen with The God Is Not Willing, first in the thrilling new Witness sequel trilogy—publishing November 9, 2021 with Tor Books. We’re thrilled to share an excerpt below!
Above Laederon Plateau, Northwest Genabackis, Teblor Territory
The ascent had taken six days. By midday on the seventh they reached the top of the escarpment flanking the near-vertical wall of ice that had been on their left for the past two days. The face of that wall was ravaged by past melts, but at this height winter still gripped the mountains, and the winds that spun and tumbled down from high above were white with frost, bleeding rainbows in the sharp sunlight.
The escarpment’s summit was a sloping, ragged ridge, barely level enough for the four Teblor to stand. The wind howled around them, tearing at loose weapon straps and furrowing the furs they all wore. That wind periodically shoved at them, as if incensed by their audacity. These heights and this world did not belong to them. The sky was too close, the air too thin.
Widowed Dayliss of the Teblor drew her wolf-skin cloak closer about her shoulders. Before them, the slope fell away in a steep, rock-studded descent to a mass of broken ice and sand and snow that skirted the shore like a defensive wall.
From where they stood, they could see beyond that saw-toothed barrier, out to the lake itself. Buckled ice rose like islands, shattering the level snow-covered surface of the lake. Some of those islands were piled high as fortresses, as if a hundred tyrants warred to rule this vast empire of frozen water.
No one was yet ready to speak. Widowed Dayliss lifted her gaze and squinted northward, where the lake presumably came to an end. But all was white in that immense distance. Hovering like vague clouds above this whiteness were the higher peaks, the highest of the range, and the sides facing south were bared of snow. The sight of that alone was appalling. Widowed Dayliss turned to the young warleader standing upon her right.
It still startled her to find a Rathyd accompanying them, as if a thousand years’ worth of feuding and murdering meant nothing, or at least not enough to keep this warleader from venturing among the Uryd, from seeking out warriors to accompany him to this place.
Everything was changing. She studied him for a moment longer, and then said, ‘Your people could see, then.’
Elade Tharos was leaning on his two-handed bloodsword, its point jammed into the glassy ice that filled a crack in the stone at his feet. ‘In the high summer camps,’ he said, nodding. ‘The White Faces were white no more.’
There had been few Uryd, having heard Elade’s tale, who came to comprehend the significance of this news. Life’s pace was slow, the measured beat of seasons. If it had been colder this past winter, why, it had been warmer the winter before that. If the thaw came in fits and starts; if strange draws of warm air swept down from the northern heights; if snow fell for day upon day, deep enough to bury a Teblor; if the forests themselves now climbed higher upon every mountain side, while trees much further down died to summer droughts and pestilence… why, just as one chooses a different high pasture each summer, so too would the ways of the Teblor shift and adapt and accommodate.
This news, they muttered, was not a thing to fear. Oh, perhaps the Rathyd—those few settlements left, in their hidden, remote places, cowering from the hungry slavers of the south—had taken to suckling fear from a beaten bitch-dog, and would now start at shadows in the sky…
Such words should have darkened Elade Tharos’s visage. Instead, he had smiled, teeth bared in a silent snarl. Drawing a breath, long and slow, he had then said, ‘The slaver-children are all dead. Or did you disbelieve even these rumours? Has my name no meaning here? I am Elade Tharos, Warleader of all the Sunyd and Rathyd. Warleader of the free and the once-enslaved. The heads of a thousand slaver-children now mark our victorious trail back to our homelands, each one riding a Sunyd or Rathyd spear.’ He paused, contempt a feral gleam in his grey eyes. ‘If I must, I will seek out a few Phalyd warriors for this journey north…’
And that had done it. After all, what tale would Elade Tharos bring to the hated Phalyd? ‘The Uryd fled into their huts and would not hear me…’ Even without comprehension, there was now no choice, for pride was every warrior’s master.
This Rathyd warleader might be young, but he was no fool.
‘The eternal snows have been shed,’ said Karak Thord. ‘In itself an impossible thing.’ His mien was troubled, but he was not staring at the distant mountains. He was staring at the lake. ‘The question, then, of where they went, has here been answered.’ Karak turned to Elade. ‘And this drowned valley? Has it ever been thus?’
‘No, Karak of the Uryd. A river once, yes, that ran clear and cold over rounded stones and pebbles and sand. A place where gold was gathered in the shallows. To cross, no deeper than one’s hip.’
‘When was that?’ Karak Thord asked.
‘In my father’s time.’
There was a snort from the other woman among them. ‘Have you pried his memories, Warleader, to glean what century it was when he last visited this place?’
‘No, Tonith of the Uryd, I have not, for he is dead. Understand, my family line has long held the gift of gold-gathering. We travelled the deepest reaches of the range, in ways no other Teblor had. All the gold traded among the Teblor was found by my family.’ He paused for a moment, and then shrugged. ‘I was to have followed, of course, and so my education began early. Then the slavers came and we were driven from the south, we who escaped. And when at last we thought ourselves safe, why, a raiding party came upon us. There, my father was slain.’
Widowed Dayliss studied the warleader again. Her mouth was suddenly dry. ‘The raiders, Warleader, they were Uryd.’
‘They were,’ he replied with little inflection.
Karak Thord was now staring at Elade with wide eyes. ‘My kin…’
‘Just so,’ said Elade. ‘It was not difficult to learn of their names—after all, do not the Uryd still sing of Karsa Orlong, Delum Thord and Bairoth Gild?’ He levelled his gaze on Dayliss. ‘And you, Widowed, whose child was born of Bairoth’s seed. Are you not now among the new believers of the Shattered God?’
‘You know too much of the Uryd,’ she replied, a blade’s edge now hovering beneath her words.
Elade shrugged. Seeming to dismiss them all along with the subject of their conversation, the warleader fixed his attention once more on the frozen lake. ‘Look well,’ he said. ‘Before us is not a lake, but an inlet. Beyond the Godswalk Mountains, where tundra once stretched, there is now a sea. High lands to the west keep it from the ocean. To the east, it stretches across a third of the continent.’ He halted abruptly and tilted his head. ‘What do I know of this continent? More than any of you, I am sure. You imagine us in a small world, these mountains and valleys, the flatlands directly south and beyond that, a sea. But it is not the world that is small, it is Teblor knowledge of it.’
‘But not for you?’ Tonith Agra’s tone was harsh, whispering of a fear she would mask with contempt.
‘The once-slaves had much to say. All they knew serves to enlighten. And, I have seen the maps.’ He now turned entirely round. ‘The ice-wall holds back the sea. We have climbed with it at our side these past two days. We have seen its cracks, its rot. We have seen the ancient beasts once trapped in it, knots of foul fur studding the cliff’s face. More emerge with every spring, drawing in the condors and crows and even the Great Ravens. The past offering up a bounteous feast for the carrion-eaters. And yet,’ he added, ‘to see it is to see the future. Our future.’
Widowed Dayliss had understood the significance of the bared mountain peaks. The world’s winter was dying. She had understood, as well, the purpose of this journey. To see where the meltwater had gone. To see why it had not come into the lower ranges, where drought still plagued them every summer. Now she spoke the truth. ‘When this ice-dam breaks—’
But Warleader Elade Tharos was not one to yield to her the utterance. ‘When this ice-dam breaks, warriors of the Uryd, the world of the Teblor ends.’
‘You said a sea,’ Karak Thord said. ‘Against that, where can we flee?’
Now Elade Tharos smiled. ‘I have not simply come among the Uryd. I have been elsewhere, and before I am done, I will have all of the Teblor clans with me.’
‘With you?’ Tonith asked. ‘What would you have us avow? The great Rathyd Warleader, the Liberator of the Sunyd and Rathyd slaves, the Slayer of a Thousand Children of the South! Elade Tharos! Why yes! Now he will lead us into a war against a flood that not even the gods could stop!’
He cocked his head, as if seeing Tonith Agra for the first time. For certain, there had been few words between them since they’d left the Uryd settlement. ‘Tonith Agra, your fear shows its pattern beneath skin too thin, and every word you speak is its brittle beat.’ He held up a hand when she reached for her bloodsword. ‘Hear me, Tonith Agra. Fear stalks us all, and any warrior who would deny that is a fool. But listen well. If we must feel terror’s icy wind, then let us have it at our backs.’
Widowed Dayliss made a sound—even she could not describe what it meant. Then she slowly shook her head. ‘You feel yourself in the Shattered God’s wake, don’t you? In his shadow. The Rathyd whose father fell to Karsa’s bloodsword. Or Delum’s, or Bairoth’s. So now, you would step out from that shadow. And the glory of what you will lead will push the Shattered God into the ditch.’
Elade Tharos shrugged. ‘Here is the glory I seek, Widowed Dayliss, and if the Shattered God is to play a role in it, then it will be at the end of my bloodsword. Tonith Agra has the truth of it—we cannot wage war against a flood. The water will come. Our lands will drown. But the drowning of Teblor lands is only the flood’s birth. Do you not understand yet?’
She nodded. ‘Oh, I do, Warleader Elade Tharos. That flood will come down from our ranges. It will inundate all the lands of the south. Where dwell the slaver-children. It will destroy them all.’
He shook his head. ‘No, it won’t. We will.’
Abruptly, Karak Thord’s weapon was out. He faced Elade Tharos and then knelt, raising his bloodsword between them, parallel to the ground and resting on his upturned palms. ‘I am Karak Thord of the Uryd. Lead me, Warleader.’
Smiling, Elade touched the blade. ‘It is done.’
A moment later, Tonith Agra did the same, and despite the clash so recently unveiled between them, the warleader accepted her without a qualm, without even a moment’s hesitation.
Widowed Dayliss looked away, although she knew that the Rathyd had now turned to her and was waiting expectantly. She neither would nor could deny him. A savage heat burned in her veins. Her heart was pounding. But she held her tongue, long enough to peer into the distant south.
‘Yes,’ Elade Tharos murmured, suddenly close at her side. ‘Before the water, there shall be fire.’
‘Perhaps it was my husband who killed your father.’
‘It was not. With my own eyes, I watched Karsa Orlong cut him down. I alone among the Rathyd men survived the attack.’
‘Do you?’ he asked. ‘Tell me, where is this Shattered God? Has Karsa Orlong returned to his homeland? Has he come to gather up his blood-kin, his new followers? Has he begun the great war against the children of the south? No. None of these things. Tell me, Widowed Dayliss, why do you cling to such false hope?’
‘Bairoth Gild chose to stand at his side.’
‘And died for the privilege. I assure you,’ Elade said, ‘I shall not be so careless with my sworn followers.’
She snorted. ‘None shall fall? What manner of war do you imagine, then? When we journey south, Warleader, will we not paint our faces black, grey and white?’
His brows lifted. ‘To chase our own deaths? Widowed Dayliss, I intend for us to win.’
‘Against the south?’ The others were listening, watching. ‘You say you have seen the maps. So have I, when Karsa’s first daughter returned to us. Elade Tharos, we cannot defeat the Malazan Empire.’
Elade laughed. ‘That would be an over-reach of even my ambition,’ he said. ‘But I tell you this: the imperial hold on Genabackis is weaker than you might think, especially in the lands of the Genabarii and Nathii.’
She shook her head. ‘That distinction makes no difference. To bring our people south, to find a place in which to live that is beyond the floods to come, we shall have to slay them all. Malazan, Nathii, Genabarii, Korhivi.’
‘True, but it is the Malazans alone who have bound all of those people into a single foe, upon the fields of battle. Where we will meet them and crush them.’
‘We are raiders, Elade Tharos, not soldiers. Besides, we are too few.’
He sighed. ‘Your doubts do not discourage me, and I will welcome your voice in the council of war. Are we too few? Yes. Will we be alone? No.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Widowed Dayliss, will you make the vow? Will you hold high your bloodsword to take my touch? If not, then our words must end here and now. After all,’ he said with a soft smile, ‘we are not yet in a council of war. I would rather, in the time of your doubts, that you gave your voice to all of those who share them yet would remain silent.’
She drew her weapon. ‘I will,’ she said. ‘But understand me, Elade Tharos. The daughters of Karsa Orlong have journeyed from our lands to where their father, the Shattered God, will be found. They have done so many times.’
‘Yet he does nothing.’
‘Elade Tharos,’ she replied, ‘he but draws a long breath.’
‘Then I shall look forward to hearing his war-cry, Widowed Dayliss.’
I think not. But she held her silence. And then settled down on one knee and held up her wooden blade. ‘I am Widowed Dayliss, of the Uryd. Lead me, Warleader.’
The sun had reached its highest point in the day. From the vast frozen inlet of the mist-shrouded inland sea, groaning sounds broke the silence. The thaw was beginning. From the wall of ice, now on their right, there was the drumming rush of water, somewhere behind the green and blue columns of ice. It was the same sound they had noted with each after.noon during the climb, when the warmth was at its peak.
In the ranges of the south, the clans would be pleased at this onrush of seasonal run-off. This summer, they would say, the drought shall end. Do you see? There was nothing to worry about at all.
Soon, she knew, such petty matters would lose their relevance. When the warleader came among them. Bringing with him the promise of retribution against the hated children of the south. Bringing with him the promise of war.
When he at last touched her blade and voiced the words of acceptance, she straightened and held out a hand. ‘Let us consider this our first council of war.’
Karak Thord said, ‘Dayliss, this is hardly—’
‘But it is,’ she cut in. She met Elade’s eyes. ‘Warleader. There is a secret we four must now agree upon, a silence we must vow to not break.’
‘What secret?’ Tonith demanded.
She held her gaze on the warleader. ‘Deliver to all the clans of the Teblor the promise of a war against the children of the south. Speak of retribution. Speak of vengeance for all the crimes done upon our people by the slavers and bounty hunters. Speak of the new settlements that sought to encroach upon our territories. Tell them of your past victories. Win them over, Warleader, with words of blood and glory.’
Tonith stepped between them. ‘What of the flood? That revelation alone is enough!’
‘Many will choose not to believe our words,’ Dayliss replied. ‘Especially among the most distant clans, who are perhaps content in seasons that have not changed, and so know nothing of travails or scarcity.’
None spoke for a time. But the shifting of the ice began to find its voice once more.
Elade Tharos then nodded. ‘I am prepared to do as you suggest. But to win over all of the clans, I cannot stand alone.’
‘That is true. And that is why we three shall be with you, Warleader. Rathyd, Sunyd, and Uryd. This detail alone will make them listen to us.’
Karak Thord grunted. ‘Could we find us a Phalyd, why, the mountains would shake in wonder.’
Elade Tharos turned to him. ‘Karak of the Uryd, I have a Phalyd among my followers. Thus, it shall be Rathyd, Sunyd, Uryd and Phalyd.’ He faced Widowed Dayliss again. ‘Wisdom. Let us then avow silence and hold fast to this secret. Until such time that we are all four agreed that it must be revealed.’ He looked to the others in turn, and each one nodded. Even Tonith Agra.
Only then did they begin their descent.
While the water drummed through unseen caverns behind gleaming walls of ice, and the sun’s growing heat made the rocks steam.
Excerpted from The God Is Not Willing, copyright © 2021 by Steven Erikson.