The Golem Maker of the Hills
A Story by Aaron Canton
The man who answered the door at Laika’s house looked nothing like the girl. He had brown hair that was going silver with age, a sharp, angular jaw, and piercing grey eyes that focused on Grannick with an unsettling intensity. “Howdy,” said the man with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “You here for a golem?”
“…maybe?” Grannick hesitated, realizing from the man’s exasperated look that this wasn’t the right answer. “I mean, I heard golems might be useful but don’t know much about them, so…?”
That seemed to satisfy the man, who gave a sharp nod and pushed the door open all the way. Grannick found himself escorted into a comfortable living room with a big settee, two easy chairs whose like Grannick would have had trouble finding even in Viscosa itself, and a roaring fireplace which completely shut out the evening’s chill. The rural cabins Grannick had slept in before had always been drafty if not overtly leaky, but this one felt completely solid. “This is a nice house,” he managed.
“Thank you.” The man gestured for Grannick to sit on the couch, which he did, wincing as his armor dug into it. “A testament to my girl’s skill. This used to be a one-room cabin before she found her gift.” He waved his arm towards the window, which looked out towards the inn and a smithy. “So did most of the village. But when you have multiple caravans coming weekly…well, it does good things to the town economy.” He stuck out a hand. “Anton Maltra. Mayor.”
“Grannick Aldermair. Mercenary.” Maltra raised an eyebrow at that, and Grannick hurried on. “I’ll admit, I was surprised to see so much merchant activity given the remote location…”
“Most of our trade’s with other mountain villages,” said Maltra. “There’s lots of old mining paths around these parts which helps keep everything connected. So if the people in Hastral, the town a day to the west, want golems, they’ll all come over here, and we’ll trade favors…We make them so many golems, they fix up so many houses, or trade us so many goods, or whatever we need.”
Grannick slowly nodded. “Will you build a road next? So actual merchants can get here?”
For a split second, the mercenary thought he saw a frown on Maltra’s face. “Maybe,” he said. “But there’s something to be said for not being on everyone’s maps. We prefer nobody getting in our business.”
Grannick remembered how reluctant Laika had looked upon returning home, and his sense of unease grew. “Speaking of business,” he said. “What kinds of golems can I get?”
“Any you want.” Maltra grinned. “And for you, we wouldn’t even ask much. You said you’re a mercenary, right? We had a few problems with this one village, about a week north, selling us defective goods. If you could go over there and…recover our golems until they’re properly paid for…we’d be happy to trade you whatever kind of golem you’d like.” He leapt to his feet. “Come—I’ll show you for yourself.”
He led Grannick out back to what the mercenary had assumed was a shed. Upon entering the room, though, he saw it was full of tables laden with every conceivable material. There were rocks, minerals, plants, even animal furs and skins. And in the middle was Laika, sitting cross-legged and slowly placing stones into the approximate shape of a person.
“Laika!” called Maltra. His voice sounded calm, even kind, but his eyes maintained their hard, almost cruel glare. “This customer wants to see how you make golems.”
Laika turned, and her eyes—which looked much more tired than when Grannick had met her, though not even an hour had passed—widened. “Mr. Grannick?” she asked.
Grannick looked at Maltra, who had given him a sidelong glance. “We met up the valley. She was—” Laika’s face suddenly paled, and though Grannick didn’t know what that meant, he cut himself off anyways. Then Laika interjected, “Getting more materials for the Hastral order, Mr. Maltra.”
Grannick frowned. Though he rarely spent time with children, he knew they didn’t generally address their parents by their last name. “Mr. Maltra?” he repeated.
Maltra frowned for a moment before sighing. “Laika’s parents passed away two years ago. It’s the village custom for the mayor’s family to take in orphans, and we did so, but she still thinks of her deceased parents as her ‘real’ mother and father. Of course, I’m hoping that will change soon.” His face said that it had better change soon, and the tense undercurrent in his voice concurred. “I hope you didn’t bother Mr. Grannick.”
“I didn’t,” said Laika before Grannick could comment. “I just needed to get some river quartz—”
“We should have plenty of that.” Maltra frowned, and this time he didn’t bother to hide it from Grannick. “Dear, we’ve been over this. You have a wonderful gift which is of such benefit to our village…and those with gifts have an obligation to share them. If you spend your time rushing over the mountains for raw materials which we already have, then you can’t make as many golems for the people who need them.”
Grannick frowned. “How many does she make in a day?”
“Well, she can do a simple one every few minutes, but those fall apart quickly. To make one durable enough to sell, she usually needs an hour, and she does about fifteen or so of those in a day.” Maltra saw Grannick’s shock and smiled genially. “Worried about being last in the queue? Don’t be. If you agree to help us with the ‘recovery’ job I mentioned earlier, I’ll bump you to the front of the line.”
Grannick, who hadn’t cared about the queue at all, tried to think of what to say. “The mountain villages need fifteen golems a day? When will they have enough?”
“Laika’s golems tend to last for about two or three months,” said Maltra. “After that they stop working, and their owner usually wants to buy another, so we’re expecting to be busy for the foreseeable future. Of course, if Laika takes longer. she can make them last for longer periods of time, and we’ll make sure she takes as long as she needs with yours to ensure it works for years.”
That meant Maltra was deliberately having Laika make weaker golems so they would fall apart and the village could sell more, even if it trapped his adopted daughter in a never-ending cycle. “I suppose she has a lot of golem toys?”
Laika again paled, but Maltra was watching Grannick and missed it. “She really doesn’t have time. There’s so many golems to make for the benefit of the village and the…the family.” He chuckled. “Don’t worry; she won’t put off yours because she wants to make a toy for herself. She’s very conscientious and understands that family comes first. Right, dear?”
“Right,” murmured Laika. She had been assembling the stone golem while they were talking, and Grannick saw it was now in the rough shape of a human. Then she took a deep breath and pressed her hands over the stones; after a long moment—longer than the mud golem outside had taken—it began to glow.
A hot rage creeped through Grannick, but the only response he could think of was to pulverize Maltra, and he was relatively certain that wouldn’t help. “I’m not a mage,” he drawled, “but I know some mercenaries with magic, and they told me that if someone overuses a gift like that, they could get hurt.”
Maltra waved his hand airily. “I won’t let it come to that,” he said. “I consider her to be my daughter, after all. Besides, she likes making golems. Now!” He clapped his hands. “What kind of golem do you want?”
Again, Grannick felt like he should say something, but his thoughts felt leaden and slow. “I don’t…”
“Well, you can put up in the inn for a couple days while you think about it.” Maltra ushered Grannick out, and the mercenary realized Maltra wanted his ward to get back to golem-making without being distracted. “Any stone, any gems, anything. Get our property back from that village which cheated us, and we’ll make you any type of golem you want.”
Before he could respond, Grannick found himself out in the backyard with Maltra closing the shed door behind him. He took a long breath and almost turned to go back inside but stopped short. He didn’t know of anything he could do. All his basic plans—killing Maltra, grabbing Laika and fleeing, smashing up the place until Maltra agreed to treat Laika better—would probably terrify Laika, not to mention make it impossible for him to convince her to give him her gold golem. But if he didn’t do anything, a young child would continue to work fifteen-hour days in a stuffy shed so her father could add another floor to his house.
Ironically, he thought, Laika would probably be better at this than he was. She was outgoing and gregarious; if she was the adult and he was the trapped kid, she could surely talk Maltra into doing the right thing and letting him go. She’d even been willing to talk to him, a total stranger, so…
Then he paused. Maltra was bad, but he wasn’t the only person in the village. There were others who might help. If he could use Laika as inspiration and talk to them like she had talked to him, he might have a chance. And while this wasn’t anything like the challenges he was used to, he wasn’t going to walk away from it. Laika needed him as much as any of the merchants he’d served as a bodyguard or the nobles whose keeps he’d defended from monsters did.
And he would come through.
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