The Golem Maker of the Hills
A Story by Aaron Canton
“Your name’s Grannick?” Laika tossed her ball to her golem, then looked back at the mercenary. “That’s a really cool name!”
“…thanks,” growled Grannick in his usual guttural tone. Even his voice sounded odd in his ears. When he was on missions, he could go for weeks without seeing or talking to another person. That usually suited him fine. While he had no real objection to companionship, he had never been good at idle conversation, hence him spending most of time in the wilderness. But now there was a little girl who seemed to have somehow obtained the gold he needed, and he had to admit he had no idea what to do.
Stealing the gold wasn’t an option. As long as Laika kept the golem animated, it would surely resist him, and it was so heavy that not even he could wrestle it into submission for the entire three-day trek out of the mountain. And while he knew he could threaten her to make the golem serve him, he would not terrify an innocent child. He would—
“What’re you doing all the way out here?” Laika chirped. She wore a rough brown dress, and her long blonde hair was tied in braids. Her shoes had the scuffed, ancient look of old hand-me-downs. “Are you lost?”
“No,” said Grannick.
“Just passing through?”
Laika wrinkled her forehead for a moment before gaping. “Then are you a mountain climber?” Her mouth turned up into a big grin, and the golem’s ball soared past her face unnoticed as she smiled at Grannick. “That would be so cool!”
Grannick felt a stronger sense of unease than when he’d battled the wolf. “No,” he repeated, struggling for the right words. “I’m…a mercenary. I’m looking for—”
“Bandits?” The girl gasped, then scurried to a nearby tree hanging over the mountain stream and broke off two branches before tossing one to the golem, which raised it as if it was holding a sword. “I like playing bandits. I beat Goldie two out of three times!”
She paused expectantly, and after a moment, Grannick realized he was supposed to say something. “…good job?”
Laika beamed at him before turning back to her golem. “En garde, bandit scum!” she chirped, and the two swung sticks at each other in something Grannick supposed might have been a child’s impression of how sword-fighting was supposed to work.
He waited for a few more moments, but the girl seemed absorbed in her fight, so he finally called, “Where did you get Goldie?” It wasn’t a great question, since he knew where the gold had come from, but the only other thing he could think to offer was a critique of her sword-fighting skill, and he was reasonably certain that calling out her bad form would not help him. “Did a wizard make him for you?”
“Nope! I made him!” Laika jabbed her sword forward and poked Goldie’s nose, leaving herself so open that a trained fighter could have cut her in two with a single swing, though Goldie only jumped back and held his “nose” between two golden hands. “I was out playin’ one day an’ I saw a big wagon lyin’ there! So I went to see if anyone was in it, and nobody was, but there was lots and lots of gold! And I really wanted a shiny friend. Lorelei Potrick has this doll with gems for eyes, and she’s always makin’ fun of me cause I don’t have anything like it…”
Grannick forced himself to nod occasionally. “The golem,” he interjected as soon as Laika stopped talking to take a breath of air. “How did you make him?”
Laika shrugged. “I just made it. I’m good at making stuff move around. Like…” She waved for Goldie to stop poking at her with the branch, then quickly gathered up a double-handful of mud from the river’s bank and spread it on the ground in the rough shape of a person before laying her hands over it. A faint shimmer arose from the mud, and after a few seconds, it wiggled its arms and legs, then heaved its body up and took two unsteady steps. “See?”
Grannick’s eyes were wide. He had seen a few people touched by the Strain before, but never so young and not to that extent. Golem-making was usually the province of ancient wizards with countless artifacts and charms to focus their power, not to mention acolytes to help out where needed. He doubted the girl even knew what a magic artifact was.
But Laika didn’t seem to notice his awe. “Most of the ones I make real fast fall apart quick, though. They’re boring.” She stuck out her tongue at the mud golem, which was already crumbling away. “But I bet Goldie’ll hang around longer!” She turned back to Grannick. “Wanna play catch with him?”
The mercenary looked at Laika blankly. “Um.”
She pressed her hands together. “Please? I’ve really wanted to show Goldie off to someone ever since I made him!”
Grannick moved opposite Laika as his mind worked. Something about what she said seemed off, but while he could identify a single shadow out of place on a battlefield—indicative of an ambush—talking to children was not his forte. He cursed to himself that he ought to be capable of getting past a small girl, but it had been so long since he’d interacted with children that he didn’t even know where to start. If her parents had been with her, then maybe—
But even if her parents weren’t present, they were surely in the vicinity. He’d been mountaineering for years and still found it challenging to get to this valley; there was no child alive that could reach it unassisted. If he could get in touch with them, he could explain the gold golem really belonged to his employers, and they could surely convince their daughter to give up her new toy. “I’d like to,” he slowly managed. “But we should ask your parents first. I’m sure they wouldn’t want you playing with a stranger…”
He trailed off. Laika looked down, wringing her hands together in her dress, and then Grannick realized what had disturbed him. She had made it sound like nobody knew about Goldie, not even her parents, which was odd. “Um…” he said. “I mean…”
“It’s okay.” Laika looked up at him with a fake smile. “I gotta go home for supper soon anyways. Nice meeting you, Mr. Grannick!” She hurried to Goldie and murmured a few words into its ”ear” before sprinting along the river bank, the golem following on her heels.
Grannick hesitated for a few moments before pursuing them, moving as silently as he could without losing speed. He wasn’t the stealthiest individual around, but he’d done a few infiltrations before, and he knew how to move his body so his armor didn’t clank, his footsteps didn’t scrape on the rocks, and his war hammer didn’t smack into his armor despite its best efforts. And so he ran, slipping between the plentiful rock outcroppings and the rapidly lengthening shadows, and before long he followed the girl around the bend of the mountain and stood on a ridge overlooking a meager village.
About one hundred wooden buildings had been erected between the banks and the slopes of the surrounding mountains. They were much nicer than Grannick would have expected given the remote location; he’d stayed in crude huts built by mountain-dwellers before, but these buildings were perfectly straight and had smooth, finished walls he’d never seen that far off the main trade routes. Somehow the town had managed to attract artisans to build their homes. They’d attracted actual merchants too, given the brass doorknobs, silken clothing drying on a line, and other luxury goods scattered about. And then there was an actual inn, a two-story building with a tavern and attached stables, in a town so distant from civilization he doubted it was even on a map. Compared to a city like Atalatha, or even a prominent town on a trade route, it was nothing, but it put every other rural hamlet Grannick had ever seen to shame.
But before Grannick could do more than note the village’s strange wealth and wonder if it had been obtained through trade, outside assistance, or open banditry, he saw Laika and Goldie stopping behind the most distant houses. Laika hugged her golem and then waved goodbye while Goldie slipped into a little cave formed by the mountain. Once he was hidden, Laika headed to one of the nicest houses in the village, larger than its neighbors and with a sizable shed built in the backyard. But before she knocked on the door, she had to visibly steel herself, and her smile was almost gone by the time she raised her hand.
Grannick frowned. Though he rarely dealt with children, he thought she looked much less happy to come home than he would have expected. And now that he thought about it, the girl’s golem talents might explain the village’s wealth. What artisan wouldn’t take a trip into the mountains if they might get a golem—the kind you never saw outside archmage’s laboratories—out of it? Maybe that had something to do with Laika’s unhappiness?
A few more moments passed before Grannick slowly descended towards the village. He still had no idea what to do, but it was increasingly obvious that he had to do something.