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The Blacktongue Thief

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The Blacktongue Thief

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Author: Christopher Buehlman
Publisher: Gollancz, 2021
Tor, 2021
Series: Blacktongue: Book 1

1. The Blacktongue Thief
2. The Daughters' War

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags:
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(14 reads / 9 ratings)


A traveller walks down a forest road alone.

A thief waits by the roadside.

But today, Kinch has chosen the wrong mark. Galva is a knight, a survivor of the brutal goblin wars, and patron of the goddess of death. She is searching for her missing queen, whom no one has seen since her city fell to giants.

After Kinch's attempt to rob Galva goes horribly wrong, his fate becomes locked to hers. Thief and knight must traverse lands where goblins hunger for kynd flesh, krakens hunt in dark waters, and the gods only laugh when you ask them for help.

Yet far worse are the dangers that lie in wait at their journey's end...



The Forest of Orphans

I was about to die.

Worse, I was about to die with bastards.

Not that I was afraid to die, but maybe who you die with is important. It's important who's with you when you're born, after all. If everybody's wearing clean linen and silk and looking down at you squirming in your bassinet, you'll have a very different life than if the first thing you see when you open your eyes is a billy goat. I looked over at Pagran and decided he looked uncomfortably like a billy goat, what with his long head, long beard, and unlovely habit of chewing even when he had no food. Pagran used to be a farmer. Frella, just next to him in rusty ring mail, used to be his wife.

Now they were thieves, but not subtle thieves like me. I was trained in lock-picking, wall-scaling, fall-breaking, lie-weaving, voice-throwing, trap-making, trap-finding, and not a half-bad archer, fiddler, and knife-fighter besides. I also knew several dozen cantrips--small but useful magic. Alas, I owed the Takers Guild so much money for my training that I found myself squatting in the Forest of Orphans with these thick bastards, hoping to rob somebody the old-fashioned way. You know, threaten them with death.

It pays surprisingly well, being a highwayman. I was only a month in with this group, and we had robbed wagons with too few guards, kidnapped stragglers off groups with too many, and even sold a merchant's boy to a group of crooked soldiers who were supposed to be chasing us. Killing never came easily to me, but I was willing to throw a few arrows to keep myself out of the shyte. It's the way the world was made. I had more than half what I needed for my Lammas payment to the Guild to keep them from making my tattoo worse. The tattoo was bad enough already, thank you very much.

So there I was, crouched in ambush, watching a figure walking alone down the White Road toward us. I had a bad feeling about our potential victim, and not just because she walked like nobody was going to hurt her, and not just because ravens were shouting in the trees. I had studied magic, you see, just a little, and this traveler had some. I wasn't sure what kind, but I felt it like a chill or that charge in the air before a storm that raises gooseflesh. Besides, what could one woman have on her that would be worth much split seven ways? And let's not forget our leader's double share, which would end up looking more like half.

I looked at Pagran and gave him a little shake of my head. He looked back at me, the whites of his eyes standing out because he'd mudded himself, all but his hands, which he left white to make handcanting easier. Pagran used a soldier's handcant he'd learned in the Goblin Wars, only half like the thieves' cant I learned at the Low School. His two missing fingers didn't help matters. When I shook my head at him, he canted at me. I thought he said to repair my purse, so I checked to see if money was falling out, but then I realized he was saying I should check to see if my balls were still attached. Right, he was impugning my courage.

I pointed at the stranger and made the sign for magicker, not confident they would know that one, and I'm not sure if Pagran did; he told me there was a magicker behind me, or at least that's what I thought at first, but he was actually telling me to put a magicker in my arse. I looked away from the chief bastard I was about to die with and back at the woman about to kill us.

Just a feeling I had.

To walk alone down the White Road through the Forest of Orphans, even on a pleasantly warm late-summer day in the month of Ashers, you would have to be a magicker. If you weren't, you'd have to be a drunk, a foreigner, a suicide, or some sloppy marriage of the three. This one had the look of a foreigner. She had the olive tones and shaggy black hair-mop of a Spanth. With good cheekbones, like they have there, a gift from the old empire, and there was no telling her age. Youngish. Thirty? Built small but hard. Those sleepy eyes could well be a killer's, and she was dressed for fighting. She had a round shield on her back, a gorget to save her throat a cutting, and if I didn't miss my guess, she wore light chain mail under her shirt.

The blade on her belt was a bit shorter than most. Probably a spadín, or bullnutter, which would definitely make her Ispanthian. Their knights used to be the best horsemen in the world, back when the world had horses. Now they relied on the sword-and-shield art of Old Kesh, known as Calar Bajat, taught from the age of eight. Spanths don't take threats well-I was all but sure if we moved, it would be to kill, not intimidate. Would Pagran think it was worth bothering? Money pouches hung on the stranger's belt, but would Pagran order the attack just for that?


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 ofspringwood. A tree we cut so fast during the Goblin Wars it was damnednear 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, "Baith awayn," 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.

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.


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 seweron 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.

Copyright © 2021 by Christopher Buehlman


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