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.