The Golem Maker of the Hills
A Story by Aaron Canton
A bitter wind howled through the mountain pass and shook the few trees hardy enough to grow on the rocky heights. The ancient ridges, narrow enough that wagon convoys had to proceed single file, dropped off so abruptly on the cliff side that a single errant step could send a man screaming to his death. The only wildlife were the sure-footed goats which could climb the mountain slopes and the wolves which chased them down, the one too fleet of foot for most human hunters to pursue, the other far too dangerous. Even the sun could be lethal there when it melted the icy snowcaps in the springtime and sent massive drifts plunging to sweep away anyone in their path.
Grannick looked around and allowed himself a contented sigh. Cities were fine, on occasion, but only in the wilderness did he truly feel at home.
The mercenary continued rappelling down the cliff face as the sun reached the horizon, noting as he did so he probably had only half an hour of daylight before he’d have to make camp on the frigid rock. There were no inns or taverns anywhere within three days’ walk, but he had a waterproof tent, enough food and water for four more days, and a war hammer that could reliably bring down beasts and monsters alike. Neither hunger nor thirst nor wild animal would drive him from the mountain before he’d finished his mission. And if finished early, well, he still might stay for a couple extra days. Just for a little break before going back to Viscosa and turning in his prize.
He had been preparing to set up camp on the ridge above when he noted the faint depression in the rocky trail, a groove in the pebbles and dirt on the path which could have come from the wagon he was looking for. So he’d knelt, ignoring the sharp rocks jabbing into his leggings, and examined the rut as closely as he could; there seemed to be a pattern in the tracks which matched the Vanarl clan’s wagon wheels he’d examined back in town. Another groove, even fainter, was spaced one wagon-width away, and its markings ran all the way to the edge of the ridge. There they had vanished, but when he had looked over the edge, he could see a few broken tree trunks sticking out of the cliff at odd angles…exactly as would be expected if something heavy had fallen through them and crashed to the valley below.
Vanarl, the merchant who had rushed up to Grannick in the Renzeya Adventurers Guild and pleaded for help, had said his caravan had been carrying a massive amount of gold when a sudden squall hit them and spooked the animals. Though only one wagon had vanished during the storm, it would still have been laden down with enough treasure to smash right through bushes and trees as had happened on the cliff face. And so Grannick had abandoned thoughts of making camp for the night, instead driving a piton into the ground with his war hammer, tying a thick rope around it, and starting the long rappel down. After all, experience had taught him that lost treasure could have fallen into the hands of wandering monsters or even bandits within hours of its separation from its guards, and if it had, he needed to start the pursuit immediately. Waiting until the next day wasn’t an option.
That had been over an hour ago, and now at last his climb was almost at an end. He descended several more feet to a small tree growing up and out of the rock wall, sticking out from the cliff at an angle that made it impossible to see around and would tangle his rope if he tried to drop through it. A quick brace against the cliff wall and a few blows of his hammer, however, smashed through the nearest branches and gave him a clear view of the valley floor immediately below him, including an open space large enough for him to land in—and, several feet next to it, the broken frame of the wagon. Grannick smiled and lowered himself past the remains of the tree and dropped the last few feet to the ground. He stretched his fingers, slightly sore from the coarse rope, then turned towards the wagon…at which point he saw the slavering wolf step out from behind it.
Grannick’s heart sped up slightly as he hefted his hammer, focusing on the wolf with his conscious attention while in the back of his mind automatically analyzing the situation. The cliff wall was behind him, so he couldn’t dodge backwards. The wolf’s belly was thin enough to indicate hunger, but not so thin as to show weakness. His left arm was slightly sore where he’d banged it on a rock during his climb and would be a fraction of a second slower than usual. Even the shadow of the cliff was worthy of his attention; it was now deep enough that Grannick would have to be careful not to move into a dark spot where he wouldn’t see the wolf coming.
Those thoughts, and hundreds more, flashed through his mind as he extended his hammer in a motion made smooth and sure by experience. The wolf sprang forward just as he swept his hammer, and the two collided with a smashing sound that reverberated through the valley. Then the wolf fell, its skull smashed, and Grannick walked past it without even looking down to check the body. He’d felt the impact running up his weapon, and it had told him, with absolutely certainty, that his single attack had been lethal.
The fight ended in less than five seconds.
It took Grannick a similar length of time to observe there was no gold in the pile of shattered wood and iron that had once been a wagon. But there was a path leading away from the wagon, trampled plants and footprints visible in the dirt despite the coarse, rocky nature of the thin soil on the valley floor. Whoever had made those footprints had been very heavy. Or, Grannick thought, had been carrying something that made him so.
As Grannick pursued the footsteps down a rough incline and towards a rushing mountain stream, he kept one hand on his war hammer. Virtually anything could have taken the gold: local tribes of goblins, or thieves, or even another band of mercenaries. But his hand didn’t grow sweaty where it gripped his war hammer, his heart barely quickened, and when he looked around, it was with a calm, easy gaze. There was no enemy he was likely to find in the woods, he thought, that he couldn’t beat with his war hammer or—if necessary—his fists. He’d fought monsters and men so often, battle was second-nature to him. There was no fight he couldn’t win.
Then a bush to the side of the path rustled, and Grannick turned to see a little golden figure tumble out of it. It looked almost exactly like a real person, but its entire body was the lustrous yellow tint of gold. As it trotted towards the stream, Grannick saw on its shoulder one of the Vanarl clan’s seals which had been stamped into each gold bar before transport. Grannick’s eyes widened, but he quickly caught himself and raised his war hammer. This was a mage’s work; a wizard had obviously come across the gold and animated it so it could walk itself out of the mountains with no need to be carried. There was an arcanist about who Grannick would have to deal with if he was to recover the property. He’d fought wizards before, and while they could be challenging opponents, he knew how to beat them. His hammer and his knives—
Then the bushes parted again, and a young girl who couldn’t have been older than ten years old chased after it. “Goldie, wait!” she called, and the gold golem obediently stopped. “You forgot to carry me with you!”
Grannick watched, stunned, as the golem—one of the best Grannick had seen, moving with fluid motions that looked completely lifelike—bent down and waited for the little girl to climb on its shoulders.
Then the girl glanced back and saw Grannick. “Hi, mister!” she chirped. “I’m Laika! And this is Goldie, my best friend!” She waved, and the golem did too. “Do you like him?”
Grannick stared at the duo, and though he was still holding his war hammer, he knew that for the first time in years he was looking at a problem it couldn’t solve.