Cold Counsel

Slud of the Blood Claw Clan, Bringer of Troubles, was born at the heart of the worst storm the mountain had ever seen. Slud’s father, chief of the clan, was changed by his son’s presence. For the first time since the age of the giants, he rallied the remaining trolls under one banner and marched to war taking back the mountain from the goblin clans.

However, the long-lived elves remembered the brutal wars of the last age, and did not welcome the return of these lesser-giants to martial power. Twenty thousand elves marched on the mountain intent on genocide. They eradicated the entire troll species—save two.

Aunt Agnes, an old witch from the Iron Wood, carried Slud away before the elves could find them. Their existence remained hidden for decades, and in that time, Agnes molded Slud to become her instrument of revenge.

Chris Sharp’s new epic fantasy Cold Counsel is available from Tor.com Publishing.

 

 

PROLOGUE

There were strange portents the night he was born. He came at the heart of the longest storm the mountain had seen, tearing from his mum’s belly as her wails were swallowed by the roar of the wind. They say that the babe climbed out red claws first, with arms too long and savage for a newborn, and a full beard already grown on the slab of his chin. He didn’t cry, instead producing an odd burst of grunts before a spurt of diarrhea spilled out of him along with a wicked little chuckle that echoed about the cave. His mum bled out while he laughed in her arms, and even his father, chief of the clan, appeared shaken by the ferocity of his son’s arrival. He named the boy Slud—an old trollish word for “bringer of troubles.”

That same night, a hunting party of lowland goblins was found frozen stiff among the scraggly trees that climbed toward the high slopes. The goblins hadn’t eaten for days, so desperate for food that they were foolish enough to trespass into the land controlled by the Blood Claw Clan. The trolls just carried their rigid little bodies higher and thawed them out for dinner. Still, the centers stayed frozen, and they had to crunch them like ice. More than one troll broke a tusk, and story tells that the cook-fires burned a sickly green, and that despite the freeze the meat was rancid.

The clan did not sleep well that night either, and by the following dusk, two of the oldest and wisest of the troll-hags were found dead in their earthen beds. None dared suggest it at the time, but all suspected that the baby was somehow responsible. And the strange tales that surrounded him only grew from there.

In absence of his mother, a wet nurse was brought in, but she hurried out with a scream moments after and would not return to the duty again. She claimed to have found little Slud suckling from the full udders of a mountain goat. The sighting was not confirmed, though hooved tracks were found in the snow leading away from the mouth of the cave.

Another time, the lad’s own uncle, Olek, swore he saw a golden eagle regurgitating meat into the babe’s open maw, just before striking it with a spear. He brought the feathery carcass back to his cave and hung it, spread-winged, over the mantle of his cook fire for “good luck.” It didn’t work—he dropped dead from some noxious ailment of his bowels a week later, and still the storm blew on.

It would take a full month before the wind subsided and the snows ceased. By then, the whole mountain was buried. In some places, drifts covered entire stands of hundred-year-old pines. Only on the highest, steepest peak, where the Blood Claws had long made their home, could anyone venture outside. Slud was found perched on a rock ledge having crawled out from the deep tunnels—surveying the white expanse that stretched below like a ruler over his kingdom. When the Chief found him, and reached out to take the babe back to the warmth of the cave, Slud bit off the first digit of his father’s pointer finger and swallowed without chewing. His father was called Chief Nine-Claws after that.

By the time the snows finally thawed and the day burned brightly again, something had come over Nine-Claws. Some speculated that it was due to the loss of his troll-hag, others that it came from being cooped up too long in the caves with his weird son—but the Chief emerged from his den that spring with a bonfire in his belly, and the want of blood on his tongue. For the first time since the lost age when giants still roamed the land, an entire troll clan marched downslope to ravage and conquer. Within a year, the Blood Claws had established such dominance over the mountain that word of their terror had spread throughout the goblin Horde and traveled all the way to the high-courts of the elves.

Tales of giantlings on the march in the highlands did not sit well with the noble Fae who remembered the wars of old. Still, they waited to act, preferring to let the powerful clans of the lowland goblins do the dirty work. The Moon Blades outnumbered the Blood Claw war party by more than a hundred to one, but none suspected that Nine-Claws might unite the other dwindling troll bands beneath his red-soaked banner. The Moon Blades broke against the guerilla tactics and sheer ferocity of what waited for them on the higher ground. The few goblins who returned from the battle, wide-eyed and muttering, only spread the legend of the troll army further. This time, the high-elves did not ignore the threat.

They came twenty thousand strong: wizards, heavy infantry, expert bowmen and a cavalry corps. The drums and horns of the elves carried across the land and shook the trees. It was not meant to be a battle for victory, but a campaign for the extinction of what little remained of the troll race. Nine-Claws, and those who had rallied around him, fought fiercely and exacted a brutal toll, but they never stood a chance. The few that fled or hadn’t fought were hunted down, slaughtered in their bogs, dens, and caves, before the bodies were burned by elf-fire. Neither babies nor the infirmed were spared. Nine-Claw’s severed, signature hand, and the monstrous, burning blade it had wielded, were the only things to escape the flame. They were taken back by the High King and put on display in the golden halls of the Sidhe.

Though it was not known at the time, two trolls eluded the elf hunting parties. An ancient troll-hag who lived alone in a forgotten vale within the Iron Wood had climbed the mountain that last night. She had carried many names over the ages, though none who still lived knew what to call her. She found Slud in the back of his cave with an odd smile on his face—as if he’d been waiting for her all along. Even as the elves drew closer at her heels, the grey, withered witch plucked the boy from his bed and carried him deep into the mountain through forgotten tunnels. The story of Slud was lost for a time, and the elves wouldn’t know for many years that they had failed to complete their task…

But that would prove to be just the beginning of the legend of Slud Blood Claw.

 


CHAPTER ONE
Witch of the Iron Wood

Heavy fog clung to wet earth beneath the trees. Thick-trunked conifers climbed high, and the dense canopy of needles and branches blocked the light even on the rare day when it broke through the clouds. It was a forest of gloom and chill, never fully dry, and the dappled light never held sway for long against the lurk of the shadows. Aside from the prevalent centipedes, spiders and snakes, even the animals tended to give this section of the forest a wide berth. The ponderous creaking of the trees was at most times the only sound to be heard, dotted occasionally with the squawking of a passing raven or the far off howling of wolves.

Slud’s feet sank into muck with every step, following the same worn trail from the woods, through the bog, to the river, and back, every day for almost two decades. For more than half those years, fetching the water had taken him a full afternoon of heaving and cursing his way back up the hill to the hut. He’d grown large and strong since then—able now to carry the burden with ease.

He stopped at the root-strewn bank, and swung the pine beam off his shoulder before lowering the oak barrel that dangled at the far end into the water. It filled, and he braced his legs to counter the heavy pull of the current. As always, he looked downstream and imagined where the river might take him were he to follow its path, and as always, he was brought back to the moment when the fullness of the barrel threatened to carry him in.

His knees went to the mud and the beam returned to his shoulder. With a grunt, he braced the wood against the thick pad of scar tissue in the crevice of his nape, and stood. A spill of water soaked the bank as the beam bent. He breathed in the pain, just as Aunt Agnes had taught—the discomfort gave him strength now.

His dark grey-green skin was a crowded tapestry of scars. Burns and lashings when he had failed in his lessons and countless “battle wounds” from the ceaseless weapons drills she had put him through, but many others were self-inflicted. The meat of his palms were dotted by the raised circles from willful jabs with a sharp stick, and the fine white razor cuts were so numerous down his arms that they’d become a work of art.

The wet thud of his heavy footfalls sounded again through the woods, and for a moment even the creaking of the trees hushed before his approach. Sometimes, it seemed like the land itself was waiting for him to do something; the feeling that eyes were upon him never fully went away. He broke focus and scanned the fog, but of course no one was there. No one ever came to this forgotten crease of the mountain, and he knew that his aunt was back in the hut, preparing for his return.

Agnes had been growing angrier. Every day her temper seemed to flare a bit hotter, and her once ponderous movements now carried an erratic edge. That morning, she’d lashed out with a claw and raked his cheek when he’d accidentally dropped a bowl of swamp onions in the fire. Just to spite her, he’d plucked the smoldering bulbs from the coals and eaten them, one after the other, before belching up ash. Agnes had laughed then, but she’d carried the hint of menace throughout the day. It would soon be time for Slud to go, though he did not know where.

The ache in his shoulder and burn in his thighs brought him back to the climb. Each step out of the bog was a test of exertion and he was just reaching the steepest stretch of trail. His leg pounded into rock as he lifted himself past the tumble of a little stream. The barrel bounced cruelly behind him, and another spill leapt out to join the tiny waterfall. He took a long inhale through his crooked nose and let the pain settle before huffing it back out between jutting tusks. He stepped again, and rose to the next shelf.

The bog viper that had coiled there unraveled in an instant. Its jaws unhinged and attached to the top of his foot before retracting and striking once more. Slud looked down at the startled beast as its long black body skittered back and hovered to deliver another dose. He breathed in the new sting and raised the damaged foot high. The snake got in one last bite to his heel before he crushed it into the earth with enough force to launch its skull out of its snout.

Yellow liquid dribbled from the four bloody holes in the top of Slud’s foot. He gritted his teeth and exhaled slowly—stooping to peel his attacker from the rock. The foot was already starting to go numb, but he breathed it in again, unhurried and unworried. With a grunt he rose tall once more, slung the viper across his unoccupied shoulder, and kept climbing.


Aunt Agnes picked Slud’s dead skin from beneath her nails from when she’d clawed him that morning and dropped the scrapings into the iron pot that rested in the fire. The little grey flecks vanished into the muddy brew and an unmelodious hum rose from her belly as she pondered what else to add. In an unlikely burst of movement, her bent and withered form crossed the room to dig through the cluttered shelves with a rough clanking of pottery and glass. Her hand emerged clutching a half-drunk bottle of spoiled pine-ale. She swiveled to dump the leftovers into the pot, and hummed again.

The hum stopped short. From outside, she heard the stomping of the troll lad. Back so soon? He’s grown strong. She cocked her ear as he mounted the steps to the door with a hitch in his gate. But is he ready?

He swept back the drapery of old wolf furs that served as a door and ducked to carry the sloshing barrel over the threshold with a final grunt. Still clutching the water, he stood to the high ceiling with a loud crack in his shoulder. His beard and hair were slick with sweat, but his breath remained steady. From beneath the heavy brow, he set his dark gaze upon Agnes with the same challenge that she’d seen in him as a babe. It was like the mountain itself was looking at her—untamed, uncaring, and immovable. All of her work and teaching had been in service of bringing that to the surface; molding him into the force he was born to be.

“Why do you limp? Is the water so heavy that bones break?” she asked, trying to sound stern, though her tired voice betrayed her. She was ashamed in that moment of the weakness that had gripped her form. “Give a splash to the pot, and stir.”

Slud leaned toward the fire and tilted a heavy spill to the contents of the pot with a loud hiss and a plume of steam. But rather than putting the barrel down in the corner as he’d been taught, he brought his maw to the rim and gulped loudly.

“I did not tell you to drink!” she snapped. “Do you wish the lash again?”

He ignored her for a last few gulps, and then dropped the barrel at his feet. “Slud’s mouth was dry.” His voice was a low grumble, like boulders grinding together.

It was only then that she noticed the mature bog viper that was strung over his shoulder, leaking blood across his back. She’d seen a bite from such a snake down a cave bear in minutes. “Are you bit?”

“Yeah, bu’ Slud bit back.”

She stepped closer and dropped her eyes to the fresh punctures in his foot. “Two bites?”

“Tree.” He smiled. “Slud’s heel’s da last ting it saw er tasted.”

“Sit down before you fall, boy,” she suggested with gentle hands coming to his aid and a swell of mother’s love returned.

“Slud’s good,” he said, shaking her off. He dipped a finger into the boiling brew and stirred with a slow inhale through his nose, just like she’d shown him. The clawed digit came back out steaming with brown sludge. He licked it off with a frown. “Tastes like shit.”

“Tell me what you feel of the venom?” she pressed, unable to mask the worry.

“Slud’s foot tingled n’ den stopped. Slud’s mouth was dry, n’ den he drank. Now, Slud’s hungry,” he looked back at the gurgling pot, “but dis, he don’ wanna eat.”

Aunt Agnes clapped her gnarled hands together with glee. “Unfazed by the strongest poison, yes, yes!” She appraised him with pride—he’d been molded well, twice the height of the tallest horse and made of dense muscle, thick bone and sinew. Even among the trolls of the ancient world, she’d rarely seen his physical match. But it was what he contained within that made him truly special.

She grabbed the snake’s tail and pulled. “Now we shall see how you fare against charms, yes? All your strength will be useless if a few whispers from the elves make you their puppet.” She squeezed the viper’s mangled head as its blood spilled into the brew before she hung it on the meat rack for later. Just about done. Then we see how strong you really are.

Agnes moved quickly again, crossing the room to retrieve the final ingredient that she’d gathered on her far walk that morning. She was giddy for the fast approaching chance to unveil her true form after it had been hidden away for so long. She’d forgotten how it felt. More clanking at another shelf, and she came away with an earthen jar covered in tight-wrapped leather. She gave it a shake and heard a displeasured screech within as she returned fireside.

With a finger-blade, she sliced the leather covering and buried her hand inside the jar—coming back out with a terrified little pixie in her grip.

“Where’d ya get dat?” asked Slud, smacking his lip against a tusk.

“It’s no matter, boy. Pay attention and listen.”

The pixie shouted an angry hex at Agnes, but she chuckled as she flicked it in the head and flipped it over to pluck the papery little dragonfly wings out of its back. She handed one to Slud. “Chew it up and spit into the pot.” She jammed the other into her own mouth and started chewing as the pixie screamed in her hand.

Agnes had eaten pixies before, but the wings were far from the best part. She spit the mashed pulp into the brew and motioned for her adopted son to do the same. Afterwards, his eyes lingered on the writhing little figure.

To test his speed, she flung the squirming morsel rag-dolling toward him. His long arm shot out like the viper he’d just killed, and the claws of his thumb and forefinger pierced the pixie. He held it up and examined it closely as it cursed and shook. It looked like a tiny naked elf, dirty and skinny, with a crop of hair that looked like moss. He opened his mouth wide and tossed it between his tusks. A smile bloomed across his wide face as he chewed with a sharp pop and a crunch.

Agnes stirred the brew with a wooden ladle and raised a full steaming spoonful toward him. “Now this, yes?”

The smile faded, but he took the ladle as directed.

“Swallow it down. And then another scoop after.” She clapped her hands with an eager smile and backed towards the cramped little room where she slept. Her nest of pine needles and sticks jutted from the opening. As always, no light escaped from within. Slud had never been passed the doorjamb.


Slud wasn’t sure if it was a lingering effect of the poison, but it seemed like Aunt Agnes was going weird on him again. He hadn’t seen those rotten teeth break into a genuine smile in years. Seeing her withered old body bound around the room with such enthusiasm looked wrong. She clapped her hands again and martialed her best attempt at a laugh, but it came out sounding more like a hiss.

“Eat up now,” she reminded before slipping into the darkness of her hole.

Slud didn’t like it. He was already snake-bit and exhausted, and had no patience for one of her tests right now, but he took a meaty slurp of the ladle anyway. The day’s potion was thick with root and mushroom and Slud hated the flavor of both. He ground it up in fist-sized molars and choked it down. She dosed him with mushrooms in every draft of tea and soup he ate, and the crazy it brought out of him had become as normal as sanity. The roots were much stronger. She usually only made him drink that tea once a year on his supposed “birthday,” but he’d always been strapped down for those unpleasant trips. He took another slurp, finishing the ladle. As he dipped it back in the pot for more, a long, low wail sounded within her room.

A violent rustling of the nest loosed a flutter of dried oak leaves. Slud took a third slurp of the crud and eyed the hot poker at his feet—if he had to fight, he would lead with that, and then go for the wood axe in the corner. More than once, she’d sprung at him with claws or a blade to teach him to stay always ready, and she’d proven time and again that she wasn’t afraid to give him a good scar if he let down his guard. From her darkened hovel he heard the tingling of little bells, cut by another keening moan, though this time the voice was not his aunt’s, and it carried a lusty tone that raised the hackles on his neck.

The fourth slurp emptied the ladle again and he dropped it back in the pot, taking up the poker instead. He jabbed the red-hot tip into the first fang hole in the top of his foot and breathed it in nice and slow. The lance of agony cut through the poison and drugs in his system, and he felt his body come alive. He exhaled with the second jab, and his attention moved back to the murk beyond the doorway where a faint golden light had begun to gather.

He glanced down again to jab the third hole with another inhale, and this time, when he looked back to the door, a golden woman stepped to the light of the cook fire. Except in pictures drawn by her hand, Slud had never seen a woman outside of Agnes, and the breath shot out of him in a gasp. She was naked and perfect—skin, hair, even her eyes shone gold. They bored into him with hunger and power.

“What‘re ya?” he muttered, stepping back and lifting the poker.

She smiled plump golden lips and took a step closer. Slud wasn’t sure if it was the roots kicking in, but when she moved, the firelight flickered across her skin and made it look like she was wreathed in flame. “I am Gullveig, the Golden Goddess. Kneel at my feet and I will teach you the magick of the flesh.”

Her words tickled across his mind and seemed to echo about the room. His knees started to buckle, but he jammed the hot poker into the fourth hole and found his footing again. For a moment, his head cleared, though his eyes couldn’t help but travel down her body.

“Why resist that which you desire?” She slid toward him around the fire. “You have been strong for so long; surrender to your reward.”

The room was awash in colors and light that Slud hadn’t noticed before. Now the shadows were radiant, and even the gloom of Agnes’s nest was no match for his true-seeing gaze. The walls, the ceiling, even the cramped air itself, were alive, breathing and expectant in that moment. The golden woman was the center of it all, the sun that the world revolved around. A spike of longing rose through Slud and his knees started to shake as a cold sweat rolled down his brow.

“Give me a brood to sprout from my belly, and I shall remind this world of a forgotten age when giants ruled,” Gullveig said. “Bow to me; drink of the Golden Goddess.”

A tremble shot through Slud, threatening to pull him down. Instead, he set his wounded heel into the coals and cauterized the last bite in freeing pain. “Slud kneels fer none, witch! He’ll show dis worl’ what was lost hisself!” He swung the poker and it connected with the side of her beautiful head.

“Yes!” she hissed as a spurt of black blood sprang from her temple. Slud lost control, hitting her again and again, driving her to the earthen floor with brutal abandon. “Yes,” she choked out a last time as he rounded the pot and kicked her once flawless body into the fire.

Gullveig flailed and screamed, and the pot went over with a clatter. The golden woman was instantly engulfed in flame as if she’d been made from pine needles and tinder. Sparks flew dangerously about the hovel and a heavy black smoke rose up toward the hole in the ceiling—too thick to pass as a choking wave spilled back down into the room. Slud coughed and covered his eyes as he stumbled back to the wall with enough force to shake the hut. Through the smoke he thought he saw a golden mist rise up from the coal bed and drift back toward Agnes’s room. There were no other remnants of the witch, Gullveig, who’d been there only seconds before.

Though he could not trust his ears, again he heard the keening from the nest—this time, agony had replaced the lusty joy therein. The rustling of the sticks resumed, and again the shadows seemed to sink in around the room and come to rest. Slud rubbed his eyes and spied the barrel before him. He fought his way through the smoke and dunked his head in the cold water. The jolt snapped him back to the moment as he remembered the wood axe in the corner. Agnes’s tests were rarely over when they seemed and the heavier effects of the drugs in his system would soon set in.

As he looked up this time with a sloppy fling of water, it was his Aunt’s familiar, withered form that came to the threshold. She gripped a wolf fur around her wrinkled shoulders like she was ashamed to be seen, even frailer and more bent than she’d been before the coming of the Golden Goddess. She shivered violently, her voice almost too weak to hear.

“Good, my boy… You’re ready.” She shrank back toward the darkness of her room. “But now you need to run, and your Aunt Agnes needs to rest.”

Excerpted from Cold Counsel copyright © 2017 by Chris Sharp
This selection was originally published on the B&N Sci-fi and Fantasy Blog

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