The Blacktongue Thief (Blacktongue #1) by Christopher Buehlman


He would be looking at the shield.

Now that the maybe-Spanth was closer, I could see the rosy blush on the wood rim peeking over the stranger’s shoulder marking the shield as one of springwood. A tree we cut so fast during the Goblin Wars it was damned-near extinct—the last groves grew in Ispanthia, under the king’s watchful eye, where trespassing would get you a noose, and trespassing with a saw would get you boiled. Thing about springwood is, if it’s properly cured and cared for, it’s known to stay living after it’s been cut and heal itself. And as long as it’s alive, it’s hard to burn.

Pagran wanted that shield. As much as I hoped he’d move his cupped palm down like he was snuffing a candle, I knew he would jab his thumb forward and the attack would start. Three scarred brawlers stood beside Pagran, and I heard the other two archers shifting near me—one superstitious young squirt of piss named Naerfas, though we called him Nervous, kissing the grubby fox pendant carved from deer bone he wore on a cord around his neck; his pale, wall-eyed sister shifted in the leaves behind him. I never liked it that we worshipped the same god, they and I, but they were Galts like me, born with the black tongues that mark us all, and Galtish thieves fall in with the lord of foxes. We can’t help ourselves.

I pulled an arrow with a bodkin point, good for slipping between links of chain mail, and nocked it on the string.

We watched our captain.

He watched the woman.

The ravens screamed.

Pagran jabbed the thumb.

What happened next happened fast.

* * *

I pulled and loosed first, feeling the good release of pressure in my fingers and the bite of the bowstring on my inner arm. I also had that warm-heart feeling when you know you’ve shot true—if you haven’t handled a bow, I can’t explain it. I heard the hiss of my fellows’ arrows chasing mine. But the target was already moving—she crouched and turned so fast she seemed to disappear behind the shield. Never mind that it wasn’t a large shield—she made herself small behind it.

Two arrows hit the springwood and bounced, and where my own arrow went I couldn’t see. Then there went Pagran and his three brawlers, Pagran’s big glaive up in the air like an oversized kitchen knife on a stick, Frella’s broadsword behind her neck ready to chop, two others we’ll just call Spear and Axe running behind. The Spanth would have to stand to meet their charge, and when she did, I would stick her through the knee.

Now things got confusing.

I saw motion in the trees across the road.

I thought three things at once:

A raven is breaking from the tree line.

The ravens have stopped shouting.

That raven is too big.

A raven the size of a stag rushed onto the road.

I made a little sound in my throat without meaning to.

It’s an unforgettable thing, seeing your first war corvid.

Especially if it’s not on your side.

It plucked Spear’s foot out from under her, spilling her on her face, then began shredding her back with its hardened beak. I woke myself out of just watching it and thought I should probably nock another arrow, but the corvid was already moving at Axe, whose name was actually Jarril. I tell you this not because you’ll know him long but because what happened to him was so awful I feel bad just calling him Axe.

Jarril sensed the bird coming up on his flank and stopped his run, wheeling to face it. He didn’t have time to do more than raise his axe before the thing speared him with its beak where no man wants beak nor spear. His heavy chain mail hauberk measured to his knees, but those birds punch holes in skulls, so what was left of Jarril’s parts under the chain mail didn’t bear thinking about. He dropped, too badly hurt even to yell. Frella yelled, though. I glanced left and saw Pagran bent over, covered in blood, but I think it was Frella’s—she was bleeding enough for both of them, spattering the ground from a vicious underarm cut that looked to run elbow to tit.

As the Spanth switched directions, I caught a glimpse of her naked sword, which was definitely a spadín. Sharp enough to stab, heavy enough to chop. A good sword, maybe the best short sword ever made. And she could use it. She moved like a blur now, stepping past Frella and booting her broadsword out of reach.

Spear, her back in tatters, was just getting up on all fours like a baby about to try walking. Beside me, Nervous cried out, “Awain Baith,” Galtish for “death-bird,” and dropped his bow and ran, his older sister turning tail with him, leaving me the only archer in the trees. I had no shot at the Spanth, who kept her shield raised toward me even as she lopped Spear’s hand off below the wrist. Funny what the mind keeps close—I glimpsed the shield closer now and saw its central steel boss was wrought in the shape of a blowing storm cloud’s face, like the kind on the edge of a map.