The Blacktongue Thief (Blacktongue #1) by Christopher Buehlman



Pagran had taken up his dropped glaive and was trying to ward the corvid circling him. It bit at the glaive’s head twice, easily avoiding Pagran’s jab and not seeming to notice my missed arrow—these things don’t move predictably, and at twenty paces, an arrow doesn’t hit the instant it flies. Now the war bird grabbed the glaive-head and wrenched sideways so Pagran had to turn with it or lose the weapon. Pagran turned at just the instant the Spanth leapt fast and graceful as a panther and cut him deep just above the heel. Our leader dropped and curled up into a moaning ball. The fight on the road was over.

Shyte.

I nocked another arrow as Spanth and bird looked at me.

The bow wasn’t going to be enough. I had a fine fighting knife on the front of my belt; in a tavern fight, it would turn a geezer inside out, but it was useless against chain. At my back, I had a nasty spike of a rondel dagger, good to punch through mail, but against that sword in that woman’s hand, not to mention the fucking bird, it might as well have been a twig.

They moved closer.

I could outrun the Spanth, but not the bird.

I pissed myself a little, I’m not ashamed to tell you.

“Archer,” she said in that r-tapping Ispanthian accent. “Come out and help your friends.”



* * *



That they weren’t really my friends wasn’t a good enough reason to leave them maimed and wrecked on the White Road, nor was the fact that they deserved it. The Spanth had fished an arrow from the bloody tangle of shirt under her arm, matched its fletching to the arrows still in my side-quiver, and said, “Good shot.”

She gave me the arrow back. She also gave me a mouthful of wine from her wineskin, good thick, black wine, probably from Ispanthia like she was. Pagran, grimacing and dragging himself to lean against a tree, got nothing. Frella, who seemed within two drops of bleeding herself unconscious, got nothing, even though she looked hopefully at the Spanth while I tied her arm off with one stocking and a stick. The wine was just for me, and only because I had shot true. That’s a Spanth for you. The surest way to make one love you is to hurt them.

To speak of the injured, Jarril was still unconscious, which was good—let him sleep; no stander wants to wake up a squatter, especially one barely old enough to know the use of what he’d lost. Spear had picked up her lost hand and run into the forest like she knew a sewer-on of hands whose shop closed soon. I don’t know where the bird went, or didn’t at the time. It was like it disappeared. As for the Spanth, she was off down the road like nothing happened past a scratch and a bloody shirt, but something had happened.

Meeting that Ispanthian birder had just changed my fate.





2



The Bee and Coin


Getting Frella and Pagran back to our camp was no easy matter. I gave Pagran back his glaive to crutch himself along on and had to let Frella lean her weight on me over a mile of uneven ground. Luckily, she was skinny—fit for palisades, as soldiers say, so she was less of a burden than she might have been. My masters at the Low School would have chided me for helping those two. They would have seen that getting trounced on the White Road was the end of our none-too-jolly band and that the archers who ran away, being brother and sister, were loyal only to each other and likely to help themselves to whatever we’d left behind before scampering off to the next adventure.

What I’d left behind was my fiddle, a fine helmet I’d hoped to sell, and a jug of Galtish whiskey. I didn’t really care about the helmet, and there was barely enough burnwater left to wet my lips, but that fiddle meant something to me. I’d like to tell you it had belonged to my da or something, but my da was a sad bastard miner and couldn’t play the arse-horn after a quart of beans and cabbage. I stole that fiddle. Walked off with it while a mate argued with a music student about whether his singing at a tavern had been in key. For the record, it wasn’t, but it was a damned fine fiddle. So much so that, after our con, I paid my mate his half of its worth rather than sell it. And now it was likely off to be sold for next to nothing and the two shytes who will have taken it so far ahead of me I had little chance to catch them.



* * *



Cadoth was the first town west of the Forest of Orphans and the last town in Holt proper before you get to the yet gloomier forests and broad highlands of Norholt. You can tell how big a town is by how many gods have temples there and how big those temples are. For example, a village with one mud road, one tavern that’s really just the back of a fat man’s house, and a dying ox everyone shares at plowing time will have an Allgod church. No roof, logs to sit on, an altar with tallow candles and a niche where different gods’ statues will go depending on the holiday. Those statues will be carved from ash or hickory, with generous breasts on the goddesses and unthreatening pillicocks on the gods, except Haros, who will be hung like the stag he is, because everyone knows he screws the moon so hard she has to sink beneath the hills and rest from it.