The rays from the afternoon sun blanketed the vast fields of wheat and barley as Dobrius passed by on the road. He whistled the tune of “Old Man Henry” as he walked, twirling a twig of wheat between his teeth.
The Van’dar farm, his destination, came up on his left. It was one of the largest farms in Jabar Valley, covering most of the northern region and butting up against the Wall of the Ancients. Dobrius looked longingly at the Wall in the distance. Oh, how I would love to go beyond it, he thought. But that was impossible, of course. Or so his mother told him. “I forbid you to leave,” she would always say. He would counter by telling her how unfair it was, then stalk off to shoot pumpkins.
Dobrius turned down the dirt path leading to the main farmhouse. He was halfway down the path when a screech caused him to turn around in surprise.
A figure, covered in tan clothing with a cloth mask and dark-colored goggles shielding his face, rode a reptilian creature with green and brown scales down the highway. His cloak whipped in the wind behind him as the creature waddled at a surprising pace. The reptile made a hissing sound as it leapt over a boulder. Old man Poepa and his trusty “steed”.
Poepa turned his head and took a long look at Dobrius. Then he raised a hand and gave the lad a two-finger salute.
Dobrius nodded in return and followed Poepa and Rose, Poepa’s lizard, with his eyes until a cloud of dust concealed them. Oh to be free like him, Dobrius thought. The stories Poepa told of the outside world always packed the Torgath Inn as he sat in front of the fireplace rocking in an old, creaky chair. He didn’t come often, about as frequently as the merchants from Arks Portas or Durango, and he didn’t bring physical wares to trade or sell, but he brought an invaluable currency - stories. I best be hurrying. I don’t want to miss any of Poepa’s stories. He turned his attention back to the matter at hand.
He approached the door to the large farmhouse at the center of the Van’dar farm and knocked. No one came to the door. He knocked again, louder this time.
“I’m coming!” a voice shouted from within. A moment later the door swung open and there stood Elise, the angelic-like girl he dreamed about. Her dark brown hair was tied back and flowed behind her shoulders. Her bosom heaved in the dark blue dress she wore. She put her hands on her hips and gave him a distinctly non-angelical stern look, green eyes boring holes into him. “Dobrius al’Kar, what are you doing making such a racket at this time of day?”
Dobrius snapped his gaping mouth shut. Maintain eye contact, he thought. No need to make her angrier. “But…but,” he stammered, “it’s afternoon.” He pointed to the sun in the western sky.
“Exactly. I was enjoying a nice cup of tea until you started banging on the door.”
“Who is it, Elise?” a female voice came from further within the house.
Elise turned her head. “Just Dobrius, mother. I’ll be back in a minute.” She turned back to Dobrius, stepped outside, barefoot, and shut the door behind her. “Thanks for playing along,” she said.
Dobrius gaped at her. “Oh…I…you’re welcome,” he said. I thought she was serious, he thought. One could never tell with women.
“What do you say we get out of here?” she asked, winking at him before breezing by.
“Well, um, I have work to do.” Dobrius touched his tool belt and turned to face her. “One of your father’s golems needs repairing.”
Elise continued on her path down the steps of her home. She twirled her dress and gave him a sly look. “I’ll come with you.”
“Uh…” He looked, hurriedly, down her body and stared at her feet. “You’re not wearing shoes.” He met her eyes.
She cocked her head to one side and gave him a no-nonsense look. “I grew up on this farm, Dobrius, I can walk barefoot around it if I want. You can protect your city-slicker feet if you want. I’m not as delicate as you believe.”
Oh, don’t worry, I don’t think that, he thought. But all he said was “I know.”
“Well what are you waiting for? Let’s go. Which one is it?”
“Bronson, over in quadrant three.”
“Old Bron, eh? What’s this, the tenth time you’ve fixed him?”
Elise shook her head. “I keep telling father to get rid of the old hunk of rust, but he doesn’t listen to me. ‘You’ll understand one day, Elise, when you grow up, that you don’t just throw things out when they stop working,’” she said in a deep voice, mocking her father.
Dobrius cleared his throat. “Yes, well…fixing your father’s golems helps keep a roof over my head, so I really don’t mind.”
Elise blinked. “Oh, I forgot about that.” It was her turn to study Dobrius’ feet.
“Poepa just passed by,” Dobrius blurted, hoping to change the subject away from finances.
“Oh?” Elise asked, perking up.
Dobrius puffed up his chest. “Yep, he was heading toward town. Want to come with me, after I fix Bron?”
“Of course!” Elise said, twirling again in her blue dress and ending facing the direction of the third quadrant. “Let’s hurry or we’ll miss half his stories.”
“You’re talking to the best mechanic in the valley,” Dobrius boasted. “We’ll be done in flash.”
The two trudged through the field of knee-high wheat toward the barley fields. That was where the golems would be working at this time of year. Indeed, they exited the wheat and beheld the mechanical work-men.
The golems towered over men, standing ten feet tall. Their ancient gears ground, groaned and whirred as they wielded massive rakes to hoe andchurn the soil in preparation for planting. Their blue eyes glowed in their metal skulls as they focused on their task. They did not pay the newcomers any mind.
“There’s Bron,” Elise said, pointing toward an immobile golem near the center of the work crew.
Dobrius nodded. “Thanks.” Sure, he would’ve figured that out himself - Bron was the only golem not moving - but he appreciated her trying to help. She would make a good wife in a couple years when she turned eighteen. She’ll probably marry some rich merchant’s son, he thought. That would be fitting for the daughter of one of the wealthiest families in the river valley. She was practically royalty, or at least what Dobrius assumed royalty was like - the river folk didn’t have kings or queens. He knew only what he’d heard in Poepa’s stories.
They approached Bron, and Dobrius circled him once while Elise looked on. “What’s the problem this time, big guy?” He made note of the hanging head and the limp arms. He froze when he looked in the eye sockets. They no longer glowed. “That can’t be,” he said.
“What is it?” Elise said.
“His eyes. They aren’t glowing.”
“But they always glow, don’t they? Even if the golem is broken?”
Dobrius could only nod.
“Then what does that mean?”
Dobrius didn’t answer. He removed a tool from his belt, a long, thin rod of metal shaped like a crowbar but with a special cross-shaped head on one end. He fit the head into a matching design on the back of Bron and turned the rod several times. A screw slowly retracted from Bron’s back and fell into Dobrius’ hand. He repeated the measure four times, then he dropped the screws to the ground and removed the back plate. Dread gripped his heart at the thought of what he suspected he would find.
“His core is gone,” Dobrius said, his voice deadpan.
“Gone?” Elise repeated. “But how?”
“I…I…” Dobrius had never been trained for this eventuality. The core of a golem couldn’t be removed, every mechanic worth his salt knew that. To even try to remove the core from a golem would result in the person being killed by a jolt of massive energy. He’d seen it happen to another boy during his apprenticeship. “I don’t know,” he admitted, backing away from the golem.
“You can’t just leave him here like this, his back exposed,” Elise reminded him.
Dobrius shook his head.
Elise came and stood in front of him. She put her hands on his shoulders and shook him. “Snap out of it, Dobrius. You’re the mechanic here. Now is not the time to panic.”
He looked down to where one of her dainty hands gripped his shoulder. I wish she would keep her hand there forever, he thought fleetingly. But, she was right. Deep down he knew she was right. But still…who could have removed the core without dying? “We have to go town. Tell Master Martin.”
Elise nodded. “Now you’re thinking.” She smiled, clearly trying to reassure him. “I’ll go with you.”
Dobrius nodded but something caught his attention before he turned around. Footprints. Big footprints. He pointed. “There.” He didn’t wait for Elise and went toward the footprints. He knelt and ran his hand around the edge of the first print. Something had walked up to this point, stopped, and then turned and walked back the way it had come. “These are golem footprints,” Dobrius said. “But they came from…” he lifted his eyes. “The forest.”
“Could it be a lumber golem?” Elise asked.
Dobrius shook his head. “A lumber golem would have no business leaving the forest.”
“Then what kind do you think it was?”
Dobrius met her eyes. “I don’t know, but I intend to find out.” He rose and headed toward the forest.
“Dobrius, wait!” she called. “What about going back to town?”
“No time,” he called back. “These footsteps are fresh. I don’t want to lose the trail.”
“What are you going to do if you find it?” she asked.
“Find some answers, hopefully,” Dobrius said. “One way or another,” he muttered to himself. He fingered the hilt of one of his pistols, safely holstered and hanging from his belt.
He passed the forest’s edge. A rustling from behind caused him to turn. Elise had hiked up her dress and was following him, barefoot. Fool girl, he thought, not daring to share the thought aloud. “Go back home,” he said, half plea, half order.
“I’m not letting you go off alone to get your fool self killed by some rogue golem. I’m coming and that’s final.” She reached where he stood and let go of her dress, then put her hands on her hips. Already her feet were covered in dirt. She paid them no mind but instead glared at him, as if daring him to tell her again to turn back.
Dobrius sighed and turned back to the tracks. “Okay, you can come with me.”
“How nice of you to allow me to accompany you,” she said sardonically.
He bit his tongue. Fool, he thought again, this time, referring to himself.
“Give me your knife,” she said.
He quirked an eyebrow at her.
She widened her eyes and motioned to his belt. “Give me your knife. Please.”
He sighed and withdrew his skinning knife from its sheath. He flipped it and caught it by the blade. He extended it toward her hilt first.
She snatched it from his hand with delicate precision and proceeded to grab the bottom of her dress and slice through the fabric.
He gaped. That dress was worth a month’s rent for his mother and him. “What…” was all he could blurt out.
She paid him no mind, but continued slicing. Ribbons of blue fabric fell around her like a wreath. When she was finished, she handed the knife back to him, hilt first. “I can’t exactly go tromping through the woods in a dress now, can I? The last thing I need is to be getting snagged on tree branches and end up tripping. Or do you want me to get hurt?”
He swallowed, shook his head and took the knife from her, re-sheathing. Women, he thought. He turned back toward the trail.
They walked through the woods in silence. Dobrius kept his eyes on the giant tracks that he felt sure could only be created by a golem. As they went, he could hear a water fall. “We’re near Glistening Falls,” he said quietly, looking back at Elise.
She merely nodded impatiently, legs covered in dirt and…was that blood?
“You’re bleeding,” he observed.
She looked down and gave her leg a dismissive glance. “It’s nothing. I’ve had worse climbing trees behind the house. Keep moving.”
Several minutes later the tracks led them to Silver Lake, the destination for the water that flowed down the Glistening Falls from lakes high in the Barrier Mountains. Dobrius halted. The tracks disappeared behind the waterfall. “Stay here,” he hissed.
She stepped forward, as if to follow him.
He pointed at her and then the ground and put on his sternest expression. “I mean it, Elise. Stay here until I can be sure it’s safe.” He softened his expression. “I just don’t want you getting hurt.”
“How chivalrous,” she said before rolling her eyes. “Fine, if it will assuage your concerns and help you better focus, I’ll stay here.”
I wish she would have decided to do that before we entered the forest, he thought.
Dobrius withdrew his pistol, checking to make sure all three barrels were loaded. Then sliding his short sword from its sheath, he crept toward the waterfall. There must be a cave back there, he thought.
Indeed, when he reached the damp stone next to the waterfall he found a pathway leading to a cave hidden behind it. He had never ventured to this part of the woods, so he was unfamiliar with this particular cave, though he knew they were a common feature among waterfalls throughout the river valley. He followed the path into the cave.
It was gloomy, as expected, but as his eyes adjusted to the darker conditions he noticed a blue glow coming from further in the cave. Could that be the missing core? he wondered. He crept down the damp stone corridor toward the source of the light. He came to a corner moments later and peeked around.
A golem stood over a body, its blue eyes gleaming in the darkness. It appeared to be looking down at the body.
Dobrius could not tell whether the person was alive or dead. Nor did he care. This monstrosity needed to be stopped. He stepped out from around the corner and pointed his tri-shooter at the golem. “Stop right there,” he ordered.
The golem’s head jerked up. “Oh, hello,” he said in a mechanical voice.
Dobrius stared in shock. Golems weren’t supposed to speak. Yes, they possessed the capability to speak, but they never did. He cleared his throat. “Is that…are they…dead?” he asked, trying to keep his voice from cracking. A shiver ran up his spine as he tried to remain steadfast and brave.
The golem looked down again. “Yes, I am afraid all life signs have ceased from this man.”
“Did you kill him?” His finger rested against the trigger.
“Of course not,” the golem actually sounded surprised. “I was following some persons of interest when I happened upon this body hidden behind the waterfall.”
“A likely story. How do I know you aren’t lying to me?”
“I swear on my maker,” the golem said, putting a fist to its chest.
Dobrius snorted. “I don’t know who your maker is, so that does me a fat lot of good.” He paused. “What’s your name?”
“I haven’t seen you around here, Stormhammer, and I’ve seen all the golems in the river valley at least once. Where are you from?”
“Oh, I’m not from here, sir. I journeyed from Arks Portas. I’m a constable there.”
“A constable? Like upholding the law and stuff?”
“Of course. You don’t have constables here?”
“We do, but they’re human, not…mechanical.”
“I did think it odd the golems here served in the fields.”
“One of the golems had its core removed. Do you know anything about that?”
Stormhammer’s eyes narrowed, the light diminishing. “No, but I suspect it to be the work of the criminals I am following.”
“Who are these criminals?”
“They are murderers and thieves down from the Dark Shale. They serve…well…I don’t know who they serve. But I tracked them here.”
Dobrius removed his finger from the trigger of his pistol and holstered it. He slid his sword back in its sheath. He tipped his head up. “Mind if I look at the body?”
Stormhammer took a step back and gestured. “Be my guest. What is your name?”
“It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance, Dobrius.”
“Yeah, sure,” Dobrius said dismissively as he approached the body. Who knew golems would speak so properly? He and Elise would get on swell. Dobrius knelt down. “Can you shed any more light? Or light a torch or something?”
“One moment.” Stormhammer’s chest plate slid aside with a whir, revealing his blue core which was protected by a clear glass-like material.
Dobrius shielded his eyes for a moment, then studied the corpse. “A huntsman,” he said. He touched the broach on the man’s vest indicating he belonged to the Order of the Stag, the woodsmen and hunters that protected the forests from poachers, hunted for food and kept the river valley safe from dangerous predators. “How did you die?” he asked the corpse, knowing he would receive no reply.
“He received multiple wounds to the back. They appear to be caused by arrowheads, though I could find no evidence of arrows within the cave. He bled to death.”
Dobrius took Stormhammer’s word for it, judging by the drying pool of blood beneath the body. He didn’t recognize the man, but then there were dozens of huntsmen and he didn’t often venture far into the woods to meet them. He stood up. “We have to head back to town and tell the constable what we found.” He hesitated. “Can you carry the body?”
“Certainly,” Stormhammer said. “Though we would be contaminating the crime scene.”
“Well, by the time we got back, coyotes or wolves could have gotten to him, so we either need to bring him or one of us needs to stay and stand guard.”
“I believe it would indeed be prudent to bring him.” Stormhammer bent down and lifted the huntsman. “Lead the way, Dobrius.”
Dobrius and Stormhammer exited the cave.
Elise, still in the spot where Dobrius had left her, laid eyes on Stormhammer and screamed louder than the waterfall from behind which the duo had emerged.
Dobrius held up a hand to assuage her fears. “It’s okay!” he shouted over the din. “He’s friendly.”
“He’s carrying a body!” Elise shouted back. She took a step back.
Dobrius sighed. It wasn’t what it looked like. “He’s on our side!” He continued walking toward her.
She didn’t back up any further, but she didn’t take her eyes off Stormhammer either.
For his part, Stormhammer had stopped several feet away. “I do believe I have scared the young lady.”
Dobrius rolled his eyes and looked over his shoulder. “What gave it away? Let me handle this.” He continued walking until he was a foot away from Elise. “Listen,” he whispered, “he’s a constable from up north and he’s investigating a murder. He didn’t kill that man.”
“A constable? A golem as a constable?” Elise said, doubt heavy in her voice.
“I wondered the same thing. But, oddly, I believe him.”
“He didn’t show you a badge?”
“I didn’t ask,” Dobrius said, feeling a bit foolish.
Elise glared at him for a few moments, then peered around him and directed her fiery gaze at Stormhammer. “I don’t trust him.”
“He’s done nothing to hurt us,” Dobrius argued. “He could have killed me in that cave, but he didn’t. Let’s at least see him to town and let him talk with the authorities there.”
She sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. “Fine. But if we end up dead, Dobrius, so help me I’ll make the underworld even worse for you.”
“Yes, dear,” he said without thinking. Why did I say that? I’m not courting her. He wondered if his face was as red as it felt.
Elise gave him an odd look, but said nothing, only turned around toward the way they’d come.
Dobrius faced Stormhammer and beckoned to him. “Let’s go,” he said. He then walked ahead of Elise.
“Oh no you don’t,” Elise said, laying a hand on Dobrius’ shoulder and spinning him around. “I don’t want to be the first victim of the monster. You stay behind me.”
He refrained from sighing. He felt as if that was all he’d spent that day doing. He gave a slight nod. “Of course.” M’lady, he thought.
Elise led the way through the woods. Several minutes later the trio exited near the same field Dobrius and Elise had been at earlier.
Something seemed off. Dobrius took a mental count of the golems. “Bron is missing,” he said.
“He was broken,” Elise observed. “Where would he have gone?”
“Who is this Bron?” Stormhammer inquired.
“A broken harvester golem,” Dobrius replied absentmindedly. “Elise, I guess your father must have come along and carted him back.” He left out the fact there were no cart tracks, but there were footprints leading toward the road.
“I see no evidence of a cart in the vicinity,” Stormhammer said, poking a cart-sized hole in Dobrius’ speculation. “There are, however, footprints consistent with a golem’s heading toward the road.”
“Thanks for pointing that out,” Dobrius said dryly. “Come on, let’s see where he went.”
They followed the footprints of the broken-not-broken golem to the road. There they merged with the tracks from regular foot traffic and were lost. Dobrius checked the other side of the road but the tracks did not continue. “North or south,” he said. “Take your pick.”
“I would say considering the fact we must take this body to your village, and your village is to the south, we should go south,” Stormhammer said.
“That’s logical, I guess,” Dobrius said. Where the heck is that golem going,, and how is it moving without a core?