The Golem Maker of the Hills
A Story by Aaron Canton
The next morning was bright and sunny, though the mountain chill remained in the air and hit Grannick as soon as he stepped out of the inn. Rather than complaining, though, he stretched and tilted his head so the wind played over his face and helped rouse him. That, at least, was familiar; the inn with its draft-proof walls, luxurious mattress, and fine mulled wine he’d had with his dinner had seemed like another world.
“Do you need anything else, sir?” asked the innkeeper, a slight man named Nerril. “Breakfast? Perhaps you’d like to borrow some archery equipment to go goat hunting?”
Grannick looked back at him. “I don’t need anything right now. But if you could gather everyone in the town square in an hour, I’d appreciate it.”
Nerril frowned. “Why?”
“It is for…” Grannick trailed off, and for a moment he wondered how someone good at this, like Laika, would respond. “A surprise,” he finally said. “One that everyone in the village needs to see.” He smiled, trying to match Laika’s energy. “Nobody will want to miss it.”
Nerril still looked confused, but Grannick saw a hint of intrigue on the man’s face as well. “All right. I’ll tell my staff,” he said, then hurried back inside. A moment later, Grannick heard him call, “Madelor, get up! Meeting at the town square in an hour!”
For a moment, Grannick was reminded of his first real battle, when he’d gone up against a massive boar, survived its attempts to gore him, and ultimately smashed its head in. Like then, his heart rushed, and a fiery exuberance spread through him. He chuckled quietly, then caught himself and hurried off to tell others about the meeting.
Over seventy people were in the town square by the time the hour was up, Maltra—though not Laika—among them. There were also about twenty golems made of stone, mud, grass, and even one of marble present. The mayor walked up to Grannick before the latter man took the stage. “Mr. Aldermair,” he said. “I heard you called a meeting. Do you mind me asking what for?”
“I wanted to talk to the whole town about the golems I’m ordering,” said Grannick. He leapt onto the stage despite the heavy armor he was wearing, earning a few claps and whistles from the crowd.
Maltra frowned, and Grannick again felt a foggy confusion creeping over him, but he pushed past it. Laika, he guessed, would just start talking to people without getting sidetracked, and he would do the same. So he turned away from Maltra and called, “Everyone! I’d like to talk to you about the golems of this town! I—”
The crowd immediately applauded, and Grannick saw a few other children cheering on their parents’ shoulders. He winced and held up a hand. “I am a mercenary who hunts bandits,” he said. “But there is only one of me, and there are a lot of bandits.” He paused as a few people laughed. “So I want to buy some golems to help me. I was thinking…fifty or so.”
A hush fell over the crowd, and then the applause and cheers returned, even louder than before. Maltra’s suspicion fled from his face, replaced by naked greed, and he smiled unctuously as he climbed on stage and then bowed. “We are at your service,” he said. “And would be happy to provide you with all you might need for your duties.”
Grannick nodded. “However, I cannot stay long. There are too many bandits. And I must leave soon to fight them.” He paused, wishing he knew how to make his thoughts fit together better when he spoke, but he plunged on like he was sure Laika would do. “How long will it take you to fill my order? If longer than a week, I must—“
“We can do it in three days!” said Maltra, earning another round of gasps and whistles from the crowd. “Of course, there will be an express fee, but for an order of that size, I’m sure a sizable discount could be arranged.”
“Yeah, Laika’s real fast!” shouted a kid from the front row. “She can make a mud golem in two seconds!”
So the townspeople didn’t know what Laika was going through, Grannick thought. They believed she could whip up golems in a few moments, like she’d shown Grannick, and didn’t know that she took so long to make a saleable golem that she was working fifteen-hour days. “That works,” he said. “But first, can I talk to Laika again? I have, uh, a few more questions.”
“Of course, of course!” said Maltra, beaming. “Anything you say, sir!”
He left and returned ten minutes later with Laika stumbling behind him. Her hair had been styled into more elaborate braids, and she was now wearing a fancy blue dress, but the dark circles under her eyes were visible. When they got to the stage, Maltra nudged her, and after a moment, she pressed her hands together and managed to chirp, “Hi, Mr. Grannick! What would you like to know?”
There was forced cheer in her voice, and Grannick wondered if Maltra had threatened to increase her workload if she made him look bad. A white-hot rage coursed through him again, but he kept his hands off his war hammer and said, “I want golems to help me hunt bandits. If I asked you for fifty golems, could you make them for me?”
Laika looked down, looking small and exhausted. But when she spoke, it was with a bright, “Yes, sir!”
“Is that more than you usually make?” He looked back at Maltra. “What kind of orders does she usually—”
“I can do it,” interjected Laika, shooting a quick glance towards the smiling Maltra as she spoke. “I do orders like that all the time.”
“You do?” Grannick frowned and tried to look confused, which wasn’t hard. “How long does it take you to make each golem? I’ve heard that archmages spend weeks on a single one.”
Laika opened her mouth but then hesitated, and then Grannick saw a glimmer in her eyes like she knew what he was doing. “Not me,” she said at last, speaking a little more strongly. “I can make one golem an hour.”
Nobody spoke for a few moments, and then the crowd began to murmur as a few people worked out how many hours per day Laika would have to work to meet the deadline her father had set. For the benefit of the rest, Grannick added, “But your father said you could turn out this order in three days. If you do one an hour, won’t you be working…?” He took a few moments to do the math himself. “About seventeen hours a day for the next three days?”
The crowd started to look uneasy. Maltra’s smile slowly faded into a grimace, and then he said, “Well, she doesn’t usually work those kinds of hours…but you’re a special customer who needs our help to keep us all safe. After all, we wouldn’t want bandits to get through while we were waiting for more golems, would we? Now—”
Grannick turned away from him and looked at Nerril. “What was the most golems this town ever sold in a day?”
Nerril hesitated. “Well, three months ago there was that trade caravan that got lost and stumbled into our valley. When those merchants learned about us, they all wanted one…think they took home about twenty or so. Left the very next morning.” He paused, then turned to Maltra. “Wait. You said Laika could make one golem every few minutes. Now you’re saying she needed twenty hours for that order?”
“No, no.” Maltra forced a laugh. “The one-hour is just for the very best, hardiest golems she makes, the kind that this mercenary would need. For common, conventional golems she really does need just a few minutes—”
“But Mr. Maltra,” said Laika, “You told me I’m not supposed to make golems fast anymore because they fall apart too quick and you can’t sell them. You said that all my golems need to last for at least three months, and you know I need at least an hour to make a golem last that long.”
Maltra’s face had gone pale, but Grannick didn’t give him a chance to recover. “Laika,” he said. “How many hours a day do you spend building golems?”
“Fifteen, Mr. Grannick,” she said, eliciting gasps from the crowd. “Mr. Maltra says if I spend less time on it then I’m letting everyone down.”
“Now, dear, don’t tell stories,” Maltra hastily interjected, before turning to the others. “You know my ward has a very fanciful imagination. She told you all last year that I was overworking her, but you all saw that wasn’t true—”
“You told us it wasn’t true, and we believed you because you’re the mayor!” shouted an elegantly dressed woman. “But now you yourself said she needs an hour to make each golem and that you’ll have her do fifty in three days!”
“Liar!” screamed someone else.
Maltra hurriedly glanced between Laika, Grannick, and the crowd before settling on the latter. “Look, even if…even if the situation isn’t ideal, we can all see how essential my girl is for our economy. Without her, we’d still be a ramshackle collection of huts. Now we have a proper smithy, a full inn, two taverns, a cleric—”
“We didn’t know you were making your daughter work sixteen-hour days to get those things!” shouted an older man. “What’s wrong with you?”
The crowd surged forward against the stage, forcing Maltra to back up. He grabbed at his daughter, but Grannick stepped between them. “You should go,” said Grannick. “I don’t think they want you as mayor anymore.”
Maltra scowled, but when he advanced on Grannick, the hulking mercenary let his hand drop a few inches closer to his hammer, and the mayor’s face lost all color. He turned and rushed away.
Then Grannick realized Laika was hugging him. “Thank you, Mr. Grannick!” she said, leaning her head against him as if tempted to go to sleep. “Mr. Maltra says I have a duty to make golems for the town, but…”
“He was wrong,” said Grannick.
Laika was quiet for a moment. “Mr. Grannick? If I stop making golems, is the town going to be hurt?”
Grannick paused, wishing he’d thought further ahead. “I don’t know. I—”
Grannick and Laika both turned to see a collection of well-dressed individuals Grannick guessed were the merchant class in town. Nerril was there, as well as a broad-shouldered man with soot-stained hands who was probably the smith, a woman Grannick had briefly seen that morning running the general store, and a few others.
“We wanted to apologize,” continued Nerril, looking at Laika. “We didn’t know how your father was treating you.”
“And we also wanted to say you don’t need to worry about golems anymore,” said the blacksmith. “We’ll be fine if you stop.”
“Really?” Laika asked. “Mr. Maltra said the town would collapse.”
The shopkeeper shook her head. “We’ll use the golems you already made to carve a road out of the mountains; they should last long enough for that. The inn, smithy, everything else you earned for us, we can use them to make this town into a base for whoever wants to come here. There’s always trade caravans coming over these mountains. A proper town with an inn, shops, a doctor, and everything else people might need will have plenty of business.”
Laika brightened and then straightened up as if a load had been removed from her shoulders. Grannick couldn’t help but smile. “That’s great!” she said. “That’s really, really great!”
The merchants apologized a few more times, which Laika accepted, and then the crowd dispersed. Laika stayed with Grannick, though, and after a few moments she asked him, “Where should I go now, Mr. Grannick? My parents are dead, and Mr. Maltra won’t want me anymore.”
Grannick hesitated for a long moment. “Would you like to come with me?” he asked at last.
Laika’s mouth dropped. “Really?”
“Yes.” Grannick knelt so he was level with Laika. “I was sent into these mountains to find the gold from that wagon. But you found it first, so you deserve a share of the reward. I can take you back to the city with me so you can get it, and then we can find a place for you to stay.” There were mages Grannick knew of that might want a talented apprentice and a few nobles who might appreciate the chance to have an heir with talents besides squandering the family estate. Social situations still weren’t his strong suit, but with Laika helping him, he was sure he’d find her something.
“Yay!” Laika hugged Grannick again. “Although…does that mean I have to give up Goldie?”
“Yes,” said Grannick. “It belongs to someone else. But don’t worry. In the city, there’s all kinds of toys and other things you could make golems out of, if you wanted. I could help you look.”
Laika was silent for a few moments, and Grannick worried she was upset over the loss of her favorite toy, but then she nodded. “I want a really good toy in exchange for Goldie, though.” she said. “Promise?”
Grannick grinned. “Promise.”
As Laika ran off to get her golem, Grannick rose. For the first time in ages, he realized, he felt good while within the boundaries of an inhabited settlement.
Maybe other people weren’t so bad after all.
* * * * *
“You have no idea how grateful we are,” Vanarl said from across the table. The merchant’s face was the picture of contentment, and he’d just set down a tip for the waiter that was more than the price of his actual meal. “Losing all that gold would have been catastrophic for my branch of the guild. Believe me, when we have any future jobs, you’ll be the first name we think of.”
Grannick grunted his approval, paused, and then said, “Thanks.” He was sitting at ease on a rough chair in the Renzeya Adventurers Guild and drinking a mug of ale. “Anytime.”
Vanarl nodded, then inclined his head as someone made a squeaking sound near the top of the staircase. “And how is she doing?”
“Laika?” A smile came unbidden to Grannick’s face. “She’s good. Thanks for understanding—”
Before he could say anything else, a gleeful squeal sounded, and Laika slid down the stairs on a few carpet squares which had been golem-ized and were gamely gripping onto Laika with their edges. They also hovered just above the stairs, courtesy of a spell cast by one of the more magically inclined adventurers who frequented the guild. “Wheee!” squealed Laika. “Yay!”
“She seems to be fitting in well,” said Vanarl. “I suppose it’s a more hospitable environment than her home, anyways.”
Grannick had debated adopting Laika himself, but he knew it was impossible; he routinely went on missions into war zones, bandit strongholds, and environments so inhospitable they made the mountain valley look like pleasant farmland, none of which were any place for a young girl. So when he’d stopped at the Adventurers Guild and notified the couriers he’d completed his mission for Vanarl, he’d also mentioned to Cedric Renzeya himself that he had a little girl with him and needed to rent her a room for a few days while he worked out what to do with her.
But Laika was so excited during her stay in the guild—spending hour after hour listening to the other adventurers tell their stories, playing with children of the other warriors who sometimes stopped in to see their parents, or curled up with the journals of heroes who had left copies of their memoirs in the guild’s extensive library—that she didn’t want to leave. When Cedric Renzeya had seen her using a little golem to sweep out her room so she didn’t have to ‘waste time’ that could be spent playing, he’d broached the idea of having her stay permanently. Grannick, who could find no flaw in the arrangement, had agreed.
The most notable signs of Laika’s presence in the guild were the new golems wandering around. While Renzeya had pledged to never force Laika to make golems, he’d also given her access to various unusual stones, metals, and plants in case she wanted to practice, so she usually spent an hour or two a day making golems out of new things and seeing what they could do. The golems in turn were put to work at various little jobs around the guild, from sweeping out the rooms, to caring for an ill adventurer with a contagious disease that might have infected a human caretaker, to guarding the door. The latter task was handled by two iron behemoths who had been trained to knock down any intruder and to bow and bang their staves in unison when Renzeya or Laika herself came in to make for a more dramatic entrance.
Grannick also noted that a few new books about swashbuckling pirates had found their way into the guild library, and the backyard now frequently featured ”sparring practice” where Laika and a half-dozen other children dueled with golems while the actual warriors of the guild—most of whom had been charmed by Laika’s cheerful attitude and helpful nature—shouted advice and encouragement. “Yes,” she said. “She’s doing well. And she—”
“Mr. Grannick! Mr. Vanarl! Hi!” Laika scurried over. “Thank you again for the gift! I love my new dress!” She glanced down at the brilliant blue fabric of her outfit, which had been enchanted by a mage in Vanarl’s merchant guild to always sparkle and glimmer even in the worst lighting—their way of showing their appreciation, Vanarl had said, for Laika’s help in securing the gold and bringing it back to him. “It’s really pretty!”
“Thank you,” said Vanarl, smiling at her. “It’s good to see you again, Laika.”
Laika beamed and turned back to Grannick. “Are you gonna stay long? Miss Naphkator’s been teaching me some really cool sparring moves, and I wanna show you!”
Grannick nodded, and Laika’s smile somehow got even wider. “Thanks, Mr. Grannick!” she called before scurrying off. “You’re amazing!”
Vanarl chuckled. “I don’t remember you ever staying in town longer than you needed to before,” he said. “And for that matter…the job I mentioned, with that bandit ‘king’ in Warus I need you to stop before he intercepts our next shipment. I suppose you don’t need to leave for a few days since our convoy’s been delayed anyways, but…waiting around like this isn’t like you, is it?”
He trailed off, and Grannick shrugged. “I guess not. I’ve never really got along with other people. But…I’m learning that some of them are worth getting along with.”
He grinned and raised his glass, listening to the merry hubbub of the guild around him, as well as the happy laughter of the greatest golem-maker in the land.