The wind whispered through the silent village, echoing in the streets and corners. The buildings were clay and stone, brown and sun-baked. Here and there among the smooth cobblestones, dandelions poked their yellow faces up at the blue sky. There was a fragrant scent of smoke in the air, which smelled like the remnants of a hearth cookfire.
To the man who walked onto the main street carrying his roughspun satchel, the emptiness was freeing and peaceful. The round corners and shapely streets formed by the beautiful buildings reminded him of Arthur’s court, where he had left with his books over his shoulder to come and visit the Golems. Now he just needed to find out where they had gone.
The whispering of the wind increased as he walked slowly through the village, peering around corners and into shaded alleys. He almost didn’t hear the faint rumble as one of the buildings shifted.
The man turned and stumbled backward in surprise as the wall of the building next to him rippled and changed, detaching itself from the rest of the adobe structure. The smell of ash engulfed him as a pair of burning eyes opened from within the melting, shifting clay. The eyes glowed like embers as the wall shaped itself into the form of a gigantic man, broad-featured and imposing.
The little traveler stared up with his mouth open. The Golem lifted his huge hand and stroked a clay chin with massive fingers as his mouth split open across the tremendous face and spit out black smoke with a deep cracking noise like burning logs. The man from Arthur’s court gulped and smiled weakly as he realized the Golem was laughing.
“A-are you the truth-tellers, the slaves reborn, the great Golems of the earth?” The man stammered through his formal greeting as he fiddled with the straps on his satchel. The enormous round-shouldered figure stooped over him.
The voice that emanated from the Golem’s massive clay face was harsh and clinking, like a shovelful of hot coals poured over brick. “Don’t forget Voiceless, and Kiln-Born,” the great being rumbled. “I know of you, traveler. My sister holds the keys to the Silent Gate near where you live. You are the historian at Arthur’s great court, and you have come here to write the story of the Kiln-Born.”
“You speak truth, o Golem,” said the man, hastily opening a blank book and wetting his quill with ink. “Will you tell me the tale?”
“I will. I will tell you of our mother, the great Maharal, who gave us voice and freedom through her wisdom and bravery.”
Before the Second Breaking of the world, we were born in darkness and flame. The Speakers of Lies made us. They were masters of illusion who wanted to build real things, monuments to their greatness that would last a thousand years. They were mysterious beings, wreathed in smoke and shadow, without faces that any could discern, though they spoke with beautiful, melodic voices. They came up out of the dark and began to build their city above a cavern complex. Deep down in the tangled tunnels there lay an entrance to the mysterious place known as The Depths, the evil place that is horribly alive.
They planned their castles and fortresses as mighty constructions, tall as the sky and strong as the roots of the earth. However, the massive task was beyond the whispers and dreams of The Speakers of Lies. Even their mysterious power could not build their grandiose vision from the air. They began to search for a way to make their dreams real.
First, they enslaved the folk all around their city, binding them with promises and fantasies, then working them to death. But the slaves were mere men and women, frail flesh that could not build the colossal buildings that the Speakers wanted. No matter how hard the Speakers beat the slaves, their strength was not up to the task. The Speakers punished them with dark dreams, and began searching for another solution.
Reaching out from the shadows, a creature offered its services. It was mysterious and secretive, and the Speakers could determine little about its nature other than that it was very, very powerful. It was called The Merchant. He offered to show the Speakers secret pathways through The Depths, in exchange for trusting him with part of themselves. At first, the Speakers refused his offer, for they knew this creature would bind them to his will one day, if they took the bargain; but they were sorely tempted by what he revealed, and eventually they agreed to explore The Depths with his help.
Horror and misery lived there, but also power, power beyond reckoning. Deep down in the darkness, The Merchant showed the Speakers of Lies the Kiln of Ur, a thing of great power. He told them with manic delight how the Kiln was old beyond all remembering, and the fires that burned beneath it could infuse clay with deep magic.
Excited by The Merchant’s promises of wealth and glory through the power of The Depths, they brought the Kiln up out of the shadows. Just as the Speakers had been promised, they could create clay artifacts both wondrous and strange: Tablets with pressed writing that shifted and changed according to the heart and mind of the reader, and amulets that surrounded the Speakers even deeper in clouds of darkness.
This was not enough for The Merchant. He told the Speakers that their city would never be built without servants strong enough to last. He showed them a deeper magic, a foul, corrupt use of the Kiln. He promised to make them servants who could not defy them, who could not even complain. Calling for the nearest slave, who stood ready to obey the Speakers, the Merchant cut the man open with a curved claw and stuffed him screaming into a block of soft clay. The man’s blood mixed with the earth, and his voice was silenced in suffocation.
With fleshy fingers infused with metal, the Merchant shaped a new figure. A huge man formed of clay, perfect in every detail except that he had no mouth; the clay beneath his nose was smooth and unbroken. Then the Merchant placed it in the Kiln. As smoke poured into the clay man’s nostrils, the Merchant saw that he was full of vibrant life, bursting to breathe free like the newborn child he was. To bind him to the will of his masters, the Merchant wrote the characters for death on the being’s forehead, crushing him into submission with the dark power of the Kiln of Ur. The illusion of death was on the Kiln-Born, and he had no words.
Then, laughing silently at the Speakers’ grand dreams, the Merchant went back to the endless darkness from whence he came.
The Speakers of Lies killed their slaves indiscriminately to make more mute creations, never questioning the Merchant’s method, for they did not care to learn another way. They told their new slaves they were lesser beings, inferior creatures, and monsters. The Speakers showed the Golems illusions within The Depths that felt real. They told of blood-drinking and sacrifice, saying that the Golems had done the Speakers a great wrong in the past, a bloody horror that they must now atone for.
The Golems were born in fire, but raised in darkness. They lived in the caves below the great castles of the Speakers. Knowing no truth and feeling great shame, the Golems were set to work, building storehouses and fortresses for the Speakers in exchange for their forgiveness. The Kiln-Born had never seen their masters, and they rarely saw the light; the Speakers kept them in the caverns and tortured them in the Depths. Only at night were the Golems allowed outside, kept between rows of their shadowy masters to build their towers under the cold stars.
The Speakers of Lies were harsh taskmasters to their Kiln-Born slaves. The labor was intense, though the Golems had been built for it. They could shape stone and clay as easily as butter, but they rarely saw the mighty constructions they raised. In the moonlight, they were driven onward with the threat of horrific visions. The Speakers demanded more and more, commanding their slaves to fill gaps in the walls, forcing the Golems to use themselves as building material.
One of the Kiln-Born was set to working the kiln, stoking the flames and bringing the clay in and out. The Speakers called the Golem that cared for the kiln “the Golem-mother,” for as they were no more than dead clay, the Golems were given no names.
The magic of the Kiln of Ur burned the Golem-mother with excruciating pain, threatening to unmake her every time she raked the coals. She was covered in soot, for her shadowy masters forced her to enter the huge kiln. Night after night, she rearranged the Golems as they cooked, and took tablets in and out of the kiln. Her body became hard and cracked from the wracking heat.
One night, when the howls of the creatures in the Depths below the caverns that held the kiln were loudest, the Golem-mother found herself alone. The smoke-wrapped overseer that ordered her about and punished her with horrible visions was gone, seeking more power for itself elsewhere in the caverns.
The Kiln of Ur lay in a cave underneath a stone castle built by and of the slaves. One side of the vault dropped away to an abyss that led to The Depths. The Golem-mother looked carefully around the darkness, waiting for someone to tell her what to do. All was silent but for the roar of flame underneath the Kiln of Ur. Slowly, carefully, she opened the far door on the great kettle-shaped kiln, its smokestacks pouring out more darkness from the ever-burning blue coals that lay underneath.
Once inside, she brushed away the ash that had settled on one of the Golems, who lay still sleeping as the smoke of life flowed in through their nostrils. She walked carefully over to the other side of the kiln, where row upon row of huge clay tablets lay baking, each covered in magical script. She grabbed one in her blackened fingers and crept back out of the kiln.
In the flickering shadows, the Golem-mother stared around the room once more, and glanced at the abyss that led to the Depths. She listened to the whispering cries of creatures down in the dark. Then she went off to one side and scraped a nook into the wall, there to secret her prize. The half-cooked tablet hidden inside, she covered it up again and went back to her duties, tending the coals of the Kiln of Ur.
It was not long before the overseer returned, hovering near the kiln in his cloud of darkness. If he suspected anything, he kept silent, musing on the sights and sounds he had experienced deep within the Depths. The overseer paid no attention whatever to the Golem-mother.
The next night, the overseer was late again. The Golem-mother was wracked with guilt and shame over her theft, and she waited as long as she could, but eventually she dug out the tablet and studied it. The markings made no sense to her. She had no idea that its magic had already begun to work, and its letters shifted and changed as questions plodded through her weary mind. The semi-hardened clay was still glowing with the magic of the Kiln of Ur, and as she stared at it with uncomprehending fascination, the magic wafted up like a mist and settled in her.
The day after that, she stole another tablet just before the overseer’s smoky form appeared. Little by little, she gathered more and more of the word magic into herself, and the Speakers of Lies knew nothing. Somehow, the guilt she felt over the stealing faded, and she began to care more for the Golems that were fired in the kiln, sweeping the vents free of ash and keeping the temperature of the kiln even.
One day, a pair of higher-ranking members of the Speakers of Lies came through to collect the tablets. In their musical voices, they talked of the great tower they were constructing, and of the mathematics of the architecture, and the magic contained within the tablets where these mysteries were described. They went on to speak of the need for more mouthless slaves to carry and build, and the new illusions they had devised to push the Golems harder.
The two shrouded figures instructed the Golem-mother to take out the clay that had been fired. Uncaring and peremptory, they checked the tall Golems for cracks and examined the smooth, perfectly shaped clay tablets that smelled of earth and flame. One of the young Golems they deemed too dried-out by the fire and ordered him tossed into the Depths. Ignoring their brother the overseer, whose shadows flickered with annoyance, the pair of architects slowly wafted out, pointing out the letters and speaking of buildings and logistics.
Almost unnoticed, the Golem-mother watched them leave with her newest children, fully cooked by the fire and mutely following orders. She knew the raw pain they felt, images of horror flashing through their memories. She wondered if the Speakers’s talk had something to do with the markings on the tablets.
Later, in the dim blue firelight, she pored over her stolen tablets with intense curiosity. She knew that if she were discovered, none of the Speakers would hesitate to unmake her, turning her into clay as lifeless as though it still lay within the earth. However, she wanted to speak, to make sounds the way her captors did.
The power of the clay tablets and the Kiln that fired them coursed through her, and the Golem-mother learned to read. Words burned like fire within her, and the next day, when a blue coal fell from her tongs onto her foot, she cried out. Though she had no mouth and the sound was muffled deep in her throat, the faceless figure of the overseer started within its cloud of smoke, and the darkness gathered around it as though it were staring at her.
However, the Golem-mother merely went about her business as though nothing had happened. Perhaps the overseer decided it had just been a poorly made tile cracking in the heat, for he seemed to go back to a dormant state.
The Golem-mother watched carefully for her chance to practice when she was alone in the dark. She could make noises, but she had no mouth to truly speak. She hummed as she read the tablets, learning all they said of lines and corners, buildings and shapings. As more soft clay tablets and barely-formed Golems were brought to the Kiln of Ur, she decided to give herself a name. She wanted an identity that was different from the noises she had heard the Speakers call each other, a name that would define her as a person, not a slave.
She chose the name Maharal. She used to hum it to herself, with only the shrieking of the horrors in The Depths for answer. She repeated the noise, over and over, until it became part of her. She was Maharal; the Maharal was the Golem-mother.
The nights passed in toil and heat. Every now and then, architects came by and berated the overseer of the Kiln for the missing tablets. They never suspected the Golem in the room; for without a name, and death on her forehead, she was nothing.
However, one night the overseer of the kiln came down to check on the coals. His shadowy form paused on the stairs that led down into the dark chamber. What was that noise?
Continuing cautiously onward and intensely curious, he became more and more alarmed. Someone was whispering. Drawing his wicked weapon, he readied for battle, but only found the Golem mumbling to herself as she stoked the blue coals; “Maharal, Maharal, Maharal.” The sound was getting louder and louder, as though something muffling it had been removed.
Laughing, for he was not afraid, the overseer sheathed his weapon and stepped into the room. Shocked, the Golem woman jumped to her feet, covering the mouth that had just split open in her face. The overseer only laughed some more at her embarrassment. “You fool. I could unmake you for this. Instead, I will allow you to live, and only teach you how the Kiln-Born are meant to be. Cross the bridge and enter The Depths!”
Trembling, Maharal approached the edge of the abyss. There was a bridge, but it was invisible, hidden by devious creatures that whispered and flitted through the dark. Holding herself, she did as instructed, looking down into the endless darkness. She became all fear and servile obedience, as the overseer laughed musically and clapped at her clumsiness. Movement, magic, and gloom: these are the things the Depths is made of, a being whose desires are dark as the bottomless depths of a soul.
Into this darkness Maharal went, recovering her bravery as she passed through the gate. Behind her, the overseer shook with delight inside his cloud of obscuring mist. With the mysterious magic of the Speakers of Lies, he summoned a strange smoke. As Maharal watched, the smoke grew and grew, shedding a weird light all its own. The greenish light reflected back off glittering points from all directions. It illuminated a strange chamber that was lined with broken glass. The light splintered and refracted in a thousand colors, but Maharal gasped in shock as she looked down. A bloody trail lay behind her where her great feet had trod, yet she had felt nothing.
A crashing noise erupted all around her and the wickedly sharp glass shards shook. She realized that the noise was the laughter of The Depths.
The overseer, unharmed as he floated over the bloody glass, hummed a happy song. Weeping, Maharal attempted to find a safe place to stand, but the overseer stopped her with a tendril of shadow. “Breathe this,” he demanded, and held out a handful of ashes.
Maharal choked, smelling the vile stuff that filled her nostrils as she watched her feet bleeding into the clear shards of glass. She began to see shapes in the greenish smoke the overseer had summoned. She saw figures and forms of horror, all mutilated faces of herself. Only these were older and younger versions of her, visions that had never existed and never could exist, for the Speakers of Lies built their slaves as fully grown beings.
“Yes, that’s it. Hold that ash in your lungs now, Kiln-Born. I am going to instruct you about yourself. First, know why your mouth was taken from you.”
The images shifted, becoming denser and darker, until a scene of bloody horror was revealed. She was no longer in the glass room, with the overseer wafting the smoke at her face. She stood at a bloody battlefield on a frozen mountaintop, strewn with bodies. The untouched snow was startlingly white; a purity that made the crimson splash across it all the more vivid. Flesh splashed with blood lay about in chunks, twisted and torn apart. The air stank of raw meat and rot. There were massive bite marks, bubbling blood. The red droplets, freezing slowly, gleamed like polished jewels. A woman struggled for breath nearby; she was missing an arm and a leg, bloody stumps still trickling. It looked as though something enormous had chewed and torn her apart.
Smoke curled at the edges of Maharal’s sight; crinkles and folds appeared in her vision; from a great distance, she heard the voice of the overseer, growing harsher. The music in his voice was gone, as though the glass room had drained the color from him. “And now you will learn why we must make the Kiln-Born now, why you cannot be allowed to bear children.”
Staring at the great white-and-red expanse shimmering before her, Maharal blinked away tears.
When she opened her eyes, she saw a room whose walls were made of metal pipes pumping and thrusting at each other. Splayed on racks shaped like five-pointed stars lay men and women writhing. Unable to look away, Maharal shuddered as a huge round-shouldered figure ambled into view, chuckling. The Golem was fitted with glittering metal, and his slick connections wept fluid like foul orifices of mechanical origin.
The Golem’s voice was husky, yet smooth. “Aren’t you excited? It is time for your progeny to serve.” He reached down and plunged his massive arm into an open, rubbery tube sticking out of the floor. With a heave and a suction noise, he plucked out an infant, which immediately started wailing. “Ah, yes, fresh blood. Delicious.”
One of the women who was strapped in place struggled harder, her eyes widening. Though she seemed to recognize the cry, she could not turn her head to look, as it was held in place by the clear pipe trickling black fluid down her throat. The Golem glanced at her, and then back to the hiccuping infant. “Oh yes, number seven, this is yours. Beautiful. You will be happy to know that your spawn will serve us well, a devoted creature of The Depths!”
Dangling the tiny boy carelessly, he placed the infant in a glass pod, which slid along a metal track and into a rusty hole gaping in the wall. The Golem patted a man strapped across the aisle, who writhed and choked beneath his touch. The gigantic figure made a pious face. “So much to do, can’t stop to appreciate the momentous occasion. Well done, three and seven. It’s a healthy start to a wonderful servant. Now, we need some fluid.”
Extruding a long blade from a clay finger, the Golem made an incision on the man’s bare leg. Dark, viscous blood dripped down to the floor, which shifted pipes as if to lap it up.
Maharal struggled against the vision as she watched the Golem slowly lever the blade in deeper, licking his lips. She tried to cover her eyes, but her arms wouldn’t move. It felt like her whole body was held in a metal vise, unable to even wriggle. She smelled nothing but blood and smoke, the smell of the Kiln and of death.
“You see?” the honeyed voice of the overseer broke in on her thoughts. “Before we learned to conceal ourselves, your ancestors did such deeds to our children, an outrage that will echo down the generations in peals of horror. We create new Kiln-Born now only that they may do penance for the deeds of their fathers. You deserve your life. All of the Kiln-Born do. You know it, in the deepest part of your clay heart. You were born to do your little part, to cleanse yourself of the evil your people have done. For no one truly dies but you, Kiln-Born. And thus your sacrifice has meaning.”
Maharal kept silent, knowing that the horrifying illusions would eventually end. When the overseer finally grew tired of torturing her, he laughed and brought her back to the room of flame where she had slaved all her life. “Do your duty,” was what he left her with, as he walked back to the stairs and toward his well-appointed rooms up above.
Maharal watched him go. He had shown her a twisted truth; she could not trust her own eyes, or her own memories. She could not trust the creature she had been before. She could only trust Maharal, which she had become.
And then it struck her; the Speakers of Lies had not shared their immortality with their slaves. Forced to wear death upon her brow like a badge of doom, she was a creature who truly died, whose life had no meaning in the great span of time that all other beings shared. The Speakers of Lies had denied the Golems the most vital piece of their lives. This was the greatest betrayal of all.
Her inborn fear and shame took a long time to fade. She watched the blue shadows play across her fingers in the firelight, and whispered her name in the dark.
The next night did not bring the Kiln taskmaster back down the tunnel. A terrible storm was brewing, and he and all his kin were struggling to make their slave-built storehouses safe from harm. Their treasures and their magics were too delicate to be exposed to the destruction of the Veilstorm.
Listening to the thunder echo through the caverns up above, Maharal stepped closer and closer to the blue coals that were never consumed. Her mouth still full of ash, she spat out her own name and held her finger in the fire until it was black and hard. As the thunder began booming up above, she opened the blast door of the Kiln of Ur and entered once again. The heat was intense, and bits of ash billowed through the rarified air like lost souls. The heat cracked Maharal’s skin and lit her with flame. She went over to the Golems that lay sleeping, filling with a life that was twisted into slavery by the death magic written on their foreheads. Maharal reached out with her finger and called upon the magic that had entered her.
At the moment her finger touched the Golem, the Malevolence above thundered again, shaking the cavern. She had to draw on everything she had read, all the knowledge she had absorbed alone in the darkness. She had mastered the magic of words, where the Speakers had only brushed the surface, content with their slaves and the promises of The Depths. She knew she had to change the course of her life with one letter, one small shift that meant everything. Her finger gouged the clay flesh to make a new word, adding just one character to the writing on the Golem’s forehead. It spelled truth.
The Golem’s eyes flew open. They flared with the heat of the fire and the light of the truth that burned inside his mind. He knew at once that the memories the Speakers’s dark magic had implanted were mere illusions, lies to confuse and shame him. He knew the truth of his youth and his innocence, and his immense power to choose his own life.
The Golem leaped up roaring, and Maharal smiled through cracked lips as she bent over another Kiln-Born and wrote truth upon its forehead. He too leapt up, dancing in the fire to see his mother.
When they had all been given new life, free and clear of death magic, Maharal was baked to a crisp, cracked and smooth all over. They helped her out carefully, and then grasped the Kiln of Ur in their mighty arms and pushed it over, toppling the artifact and rolling it into the abyss, where it disappeared in a flash of blue fire. As they left the caverns that were their prison, the Voiceless began to sing through the ash that filled their mouths.
The storm raged on, spilling water and liquid magic down the stairs that led to the room of fire while the Golems marched upward, still carrying their mother. When they emerged into the clouded light, they found the Speakers of Lies in chaos. The clouds of shadow ran hither and thither, struggling to protect their gaudy treasures from the storm, even as it tore at their buildings and its magic threatened their minds. Some were turned into abominations on the spot, becoming great bloated things with long arms and eyes in their hands.
The rain steamed off of the fire-hot Golems, sizzling and hissing. They set about awakening their fellows, pulling them out of the walls and archways to write truth upon them and into them. Their mouths opened for the first time, releasing a united cry. Even in the storm, the buildings caught fire from the furnace that burned in each Golem, and the flames spread as they awakened more and more.
The Speakers saw that the slaves who had given their bodies to form the walls of treasure-houses were getting up and walking away. Abandoning the scramble to get their belongings out of the storm, the shadowy figures gathered together into a battle line. Blades and whips appeared from the clouds of darkness, who whispered threats in their melodic voices.
The fires roared higher, tall towers collapsing as the Golems gathered into a loose group and started to look around. In the bright fires, they could see the winding mountain road that led out, away from the city of lies.
The line of dark opponents stood across their path, spitting curses at the slaves. For a long moment, the clay giants hesitated, looking at one another in the flickering red light and the spouts of steam. Far above, lightning crackled with magic and the dark clouds billowed in a hot wind.
The moment shattered as one newly-awakened Golem stepped forward. With a cry that matched the thunder, he hurled a massive chunk of stone into the massed ranks of darkness. There was a scream, and then the Golems all rushed forward as one. They crashed into the Speakers with tremendous force, but their overlords wielded vicious weapons. Blood and ashes burst into the air as the Golems struggled to reach the mountain road.
After a few moments, Maharal broke free through a gap in the line, careless of the deep wounds in her legs, which leaked steaming blood and smoke into the air. She led the Golems at a hobbling run, taking the steep path without slowing.
A few Golems lay still on the ground, spilling hot coals. A few shadows quivered here and there, crushed by the giants’ desperate charge. Behind them, the former Overseer of the Kiln of Ur lay crushed and broken. Unable to hold onto this reality any longer, the Speaker of Lies melted into thick smoke and disappeared through cracks in the earth, returning to The Depths, which demanded its share of the old bargain and reclaimed him as its own.
Running up the path out of the dissipating storm, the Golems found themselves in daylight for the first time. It was a gentle, warm light, so unlike the fires and moons that had lit their work for all their lives. They were outside the city, which lay smoking behind them in crumbled ruins. Some magic still struggled to show the castles still standing, an army massing below on the plain that would ride out and recapture the slaves. However, the Golems saw through these illusions easily. Falsity and shadows melted from their eyes like the smoke that they blew from their mouths. The Kiln-Born set off to find a new life.
Maharal, who walked with difficulty but no end of dignity, eventually came to the front of the camp and blew a spout of smoke into the air. Following her signal, the Golems trod onward, over the mountains and crags.
When the Golem finished speaking, he simply stopped. There was silence as he stood there, waiting for the historian to finish writing. His eyes still burned with an inner fire, but they were like soft embers, remembering.
The soft scritch-scratch of the historian’s pen finally stopped, and he plucked up a piece of crinkling paper to wipe away the excess ink. He glanced up with a faraway look. “A beautiful story, friend. But how does it end? How did you come here, to Arthur’s Realm? What is your name, and the name of your beautiful but empty village?”
The sharp laughter of the massive Golem spat sparks as he turned and waved at the village. In response, the walls and buildings all around melted, collapsing into mounds that rose again as ashy clay giants, smiling and blowing curls of smoke into the air. “The village is not empty, friend. It was merely our afternoon rest. Before I tell you the next part of the story, join my family for a meal; I am called Yosef.”
When the meal was over, Yosef waved his massive hand at the little Golems that ran about his adobe house, shooing them outside. They laughed at him in a shower of sparks, while the smallest twined herself into her mother’s clothing, staring shyly at the human guest, although she was nearly his height and twice as heavy.
The historian from Arthur’s court wiped his mouth and sighed, too full to stuff himself with any more of the roasted nuts and grapes that had ended the meal. It was with slight regret that he reached for his pen and ink once more. “Shall we continue the tale, then?”
Yosef rumbled deep within, churning the furnace of his body. “We shall.”
The smoke of the burned towers gushed from the tumbled stones in great columns of darkness, stark against the now cloudless sky. The clay slaves burned and smoked with the truth that was written across their faces as they left their old lives behind. The mountain paths rose high to halt their escape, but the great distances were eaten up by the huge strides of the freed slaves.
Magic sputtered and swirled over the smoking ruin, almost as though an army were gathering to chase and overtake the Golems. However, they knew it was just illusion. The Speakers of Lies had been driven underground, deep into their caves to escape the fiery storm of their destruction, deep into the darkness of the Depths.
The Golems walked, carrying nothing from that place but the clay tablets they had snatched from the Kiln of Ur and its consuming fire.
Their steps took them high into the mountains, into the clearest, brightest light they had ever seen, those slaves born and bred in darkness and smoke. The light burst upon them like a flood of brilliant gold, and they cried out in pain and wonder. Though they had never seen such light before, it felt like coming home to a birthright they never had.
The Voiceless opened their new mouths and sang, their voices sharp and unused, but full of joy. The sun shone down like a grandfather who loved them, the wind blew to cool them, and it carried the scent of their hot clay over the peaks.
They straggled and crowded each other, taking in each new sight with awe. Soon, the Golems were dispersed over the mountains in uneven groups, meandering and losing their way. They had never spent time in such wide open space, with vistas of the lands round about on every side. They stared and sang, and listened to each other’s voices, though they soon could hear only echoes of other Golems through the valleys.
It was Maharal, stiff and limping, who pushed to the front of the Golems and took a deep breath. She sent a spout of smoke into the air, a pillar that guided them.
Following her signal, the Golems came together and found their way over the tall mountains. There was little life high in the coldest reaches. Maharal led them, stumbling but holding her head high. They had no trouble navigating the night’s darkness, used as they were to the starlight and aided by their own flames.
They came to plateaus up in the mountains where hard-bitten Vikings lived, buffeted by winds and drenched by cold rain. The folk here led a hard life, and they had become hard to live it. The houses were tall, built with sloping roofs for the harsh winters. The Golems approached the town cautiously. They wondered who lived here, out in the open. It was so very different from the slaver’s caves where the Golems had been imprisoned.
So the clay giants gathered around the first building of the village as a strange old man came out to talk to them. He carried a naked blade in one hand, lightly though it was as tall as he was. His fist clenched around the handle as he looked up at the bent and cracked Maharal and asked, “Who are you and what do you want?”
In the voice that was burnt and broken with practice, Maharal responded, “We are the Kiln-Born, and we are looking for a new home.”
The man appeared to consider, stroking his grizzled chin. He had one blind eye, whitish blue in hue, that stared vacantly while the other sharp black pupil scanned over the smoking Golems who were coming over the ridge. “You have come to a Viking village to look for a new home? Out of the lands controlled by the Speakers of Lies?”
“Yes.” Maharal looked back over her entourage with him as they slowly came over the ridge.
There was tension in the man’s face. A muscle twitched as he looked up at the massive, smoking figures. “Well, you look strong. We need strength, here. The winters are harsh and we must build better shelter if we wish to survive.”
“We will help you.”
“But, know this.” said the man’s wife, stepping out of her old, large, wooden house. “We are no fools. We have heard stories of what you’ve done before you came here. If you can change, well then, you may build our walls. If you cannot change, know that we are warriors to the bone, and do not suffer evil creatures here.”
Maharal nodded slowly. “We are not evil creatures. And we have much to learn. We will gladly build with you.”
The Vikings looked at each other, and something unspoken seemed to pass between them. The Golems entered the town.
The Vikings made a little space for them within the town, and the Kiln-Born built shacks and huts with the chalky clay and stones of the mountains. The leaves fell in clusters, showers of color like bright ash, as a wall went up around the town. The Golems were expert builders, and they soon found they could build higher and faster and farther than any of the Vikings in the little town.
The Kiln-Born traded their work for sustenance, and they tried to make friends with the harsh folk, but it was extremely difficult. The Vikings looked askance at the huge clay creatures that burned and smoked like a furnace, and knew nothing of their traditions.
Many of the Golems would sit on stones, staring out at the mountain vistas while their compatriots worked on the walls. They were tired, and the spirit of freedom was too much for them. They were too used to being driven forward with whips and horrible visions by the Speakers of Lies.
Maharal was not one of these. Nor was Dinah, a strong-willed Golem who took over the construction work when Maharal’s burned and cracked body gave out in exhaustion, and the old Golem had to rest.
It was dangerous work, for the wall rose high and broad, a sturdy protection from the winds of winter that were slowly rising from the peaks. By the time the first frost came, the walls were nearly completed. It was then that Dinah, taking her rest behind the inn that she was too large to fit into, overheard a conversation.
One Viking said to another, “That wall is coming along nicely. It will be warmer this winter. My house won’t be blown down this time.”
The other speaker’s voice was slurred, as he was deep in his cups. “Yes, that’s good. No telling what they’ve put in there, though. I heard that they put children in the bricks when building the Tower of Lies over the mountains. You just can’t trust these Kiln-Borns.”
The first speaker hesitated. “That’s what you heard? I heard they were slaves, and escaped.”
“Eshcaped? No, no, Roger, you’ve got it all wring. Wrong. You know what the story is. They killed their masters, and burned their city to the ground. We best take care they don’t do the shame to us, then.”
“I see. Who’s to say if that’s what happened, though? Where’d you hear it from?”
“A shtrange feller. Traveled in a black cloak. He shpoke to a few folksh in the village, then was gone before any Kiln-Borns shpotted ‘im. What we don’t know is if they’re really gon’ drink blood like they say.”
“Like who say?”
“The Oversheer, he called ‘imshelf. Wuns that what talk, you know. The chief. Him and the Oversheer. It’s been said – not by me, mind ya – that it’s the whatchamacallit, they sacrifice to make these Golems. Horrible. The Depths magic makes ‘em. We better watch out.”
“Well, we’ll keep our eyes open. I’m uncomfortable around them, it’s true. We could never be battle brothers.. But they’re good builders, no denying that.”
“And not for me to deny it! They are good builders, but you just have to be careful. It’s not like a real Viking builder. It’s just not the same, it’s a bit awkward, and you can’t ever relax.” “You know, they always tell the truth? If you ask em what they think, they will tell you, straight out. No filter on their words.”
“Yes, they aren’t the cleverest. Can’t trust anyone that claims to tell the truth all the time, eh? The Overseer in the cloak said…honesty is meaningless to ‘em, because words just are that, just what they think. Got to be completely human to be a battle brother, or at least you got to have real skin, real blood that’s yours inside you and not taken from some poor slave.”
Dinah, listening, was frightened and saddened. The Golems would never be fully accepted. They would never be battle-brothers with the Vikings.
Dinah went to speak with Maharal. But she was working on the wall, directing the Golems as they laid in the mighty stones of the gate that would provide entry to the town. Several Vikings stood about, including the grizzled warrior who had met them at the front of the town when they had first come here.
Maharal listened to Dinah’s voice and left instructions to continue before walking off with the younger Golem. She was told of the conversation overheard, and she understood that their time here would not last.
But the Golems were too disorganized and too tired to move on. They liked living here in a settled area. They liked the protection the Vikings offered.
So, the time passed in toil and peace, as the last of the leaves blew by on the wind and the frost began to creep down from the white peaks. Soon, the Golems were huddling together for warmth, their hot bodies burning away the chill.
The Vikings were glad enough of the heat and the walls when the snows came, and great winds tore across the plain on wings of death. There were no houses blown over this year, and no one was homeless and frozen in the whiteness as it descended. Food was shared all through the town, and everyone kept life and limb together.
Old wizened elders would sit by the fire and tell stories and share gossip. Into the fire lit circles of these long winter evenings, when none of the Kiln-Born were around, there came a stranger in a dark cloak. In a melodious voice from deep within his hood, he joined the storytelling with a twisted tale. It was a story of a tall man, a fiery beast that took a Viking child and smothered him in the snow to make more of his kind. The story grew in the telling, twisted as it was, and although no name like Golem or clay creature was mentioned in the story, everyone knew what was meant. Several of the elders whispered that the stranger was hidden beneath strong illusions, but could do little to alleviate the power of the insidious tale in the younger leaders’ ears.
By the time that spring melts had begun tearing down the mountainside, the story was running rampant through the town. There began to be murmurings among the Vikings, and they started avoiding the tall builders in the street. Still the Golems stayed.
There was a terrible storm, a sleeting rain that washed out part of the path down the mountain.
The grey-haired man came to the Golem quarter, where they had erected their huts and enormous one-room houses. He asked to speak to Maharal, and waited impatiently while one of the Golems went to find her. Maharal appeared carrying a bundle.
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
“I’m not going to sweeten this. We can no longer abide your presence here in our town. We thank you for the wall you helped to build…but you are no longer welcome. You do not belong here.” Maharal blinked wearily down at him. “What do you mean? We have lived here for almost a year. Of course we belong here. We built these homes, and we built that wall with our bare hands.“
The Viking shook his salt-and-pepper head. “There are tales going about what you do in the dark of night. We can’t risk you sliding into the ways of the Speakers of the Lies, your creators. You cannot stay.”
Maharal sighed, blowing smoke into the chill spring evening. “I see. You drive us away because of some imagined story about a Golem and a Viking child. We have no children of our own, not yet, and so you suspect we would want yours. We cannot defend ourselves from this lie, and whoever began it is gone, or more likely unknown to you entirely. If things have progressed so far that you cannot tell the difference between lies and truth, then it is indeed time for us to leave. We will tear down our homes and go in the morning, out into the cold.’
The Viking man hesitated once again. “Well–there is no need for you to tear down the houses. No doubt we will need them again in the future.” He glanced up at Maharal’s angry face and added, “Well, here in the harsh mountains, we cannot afford to waste anything. We must be as hard as the land and weather itself to survive.”
“That is an excuse, and next door to a lie. You let us build for you, and you listen to the stories, knowing in your heart that the truth is quite different from what the loose lips are saying. But no matter. If we are not welcome, then we will go.”
In answer, the chief of the Vikings turned and left, hand resting on the pommel of his sword in its leather sheath.
Before the night was out, Viking warriors stepped boldly up to the edge of the Golem shantytown, holding torches in one hand and lowered axes in the other. The firelight flickered over their gleaming helmets and made dark shadows out of their eyes. Their mouths were set in a grim line as they stood, quiet and menacing. The Golems, waking from their uneasy slumber, knew that these foes were fierce and strong, and could feel the anger waiting, growing like the storm that had freed them.
They packed up and left, taking only the few scraps they had managed to scrape up from the kindness of the townsfolk and their refuse. They left through the tall, wide wall they had built, walking out the open gate and into the dark sunrise. Morning found them making their way down the steep trail. The grass hissed in the wind, and they could feel the eyes of the Vikings still on them, following their progress.
When the train of great clay Golems reached the point where the trail had been washed out in the storm, they momentarily halted, struggling to find a way down. There was always the danger of tumbling down the mountainside, which would be their last journey.
It was Yosef who laid himself down first, to form the stairs that would lead down the mountain. Then Dinah, then another, and another until half of the Golems were walking over their brethren.When the last Golem had passed, Yosef brought himself back to his natural form and followed down. There was a silence among the Golems as they left the mountain behind, traveling down to warmer valleys. There was nothing to sing about; they were Voiceless once more.
The next day they went further, and after that further still. They wandered, and soon Maharal found herself at the front of the line once again, blowing pillars of smoke into the air to guide them and keep them together.
Their great steps took them far, over hills and around mountains. They saw other towns up in the weather-beaten heights, but the Kiln-Born had had enough of the frosty welcome they received and avoided them for the most part, only going into town to trade the few things of value they picked up on their travels for food and necessities. They wandered far, and came to a warmer climate. They left the mountains behind, and found themselves on the edge of a vast forest.
The trees were tall and thickly grown together, a tangle of growing things. It was warm here, and a wetness in the air seemed to breathe with life. The Golems opened their eyes and looked on in wonder at the twisted trees rising high up and out of sight. Here and there, flowers poked through the foliage in bright blues and reds, poisonously bright. It was with wonderment and awe that the Golems entered underneath the green-on-green canopy, a mysterious shadowed interior full of rustling and hidden creatures calling to each other. The smell of bark and wet leaves flooded the smoky senses of the Golems.
The forest seemed to resist them at first, but with their incredible strength the Kiln-Born pushed through, eager to find what manner of creatures lived here. The heat was intense, and the air was close and heavy. However, as the Golems only sought to move forward and didn’t set fire to the forest, it seemed to relax. The trees and vines loosened a little, and there were little deer tracks for the huge Golems to follow, though they petered out and led away from the heart of the forest as often they led deeper in.
Without warning, the forest opened up into a meadow, a great green expanse bursting with life. It was like nothing the Golems had seen before. They breathed the air and rejoiced. It felt like coming home, for they had been filled with life by the Kiln of Ur, before that part of them had been sealed away by the Speakers of Lies.
Dotted here and there across the green meadow there were tall trees, massive oaks that appeared to bloom with purple flowers. As the smoking Kiln-Born got closer, they saw that these were not flowers but glowing points of magic energy.
The enormous oak trees were surrounded by dwellings, clustered under their protective branches. The Golems approached with caution, fascinated by the strange sights.
A voice spoke from the grass, almost under Maharal’s feet. “So you have come to the Children of Danu, Fire-Heart. Welcome to the forest.”
Maharal looked down to see a Tuatha Dé Danann man lying with his hands behind his head in the tall grass. He had been invisible, hidden in the greenery until she was on top of him. Long, curling horns that swept back from his brow, and a wide smile that almost glowed with confidence. The eyes, however, were deep and hard, full of readiness.
Maharal cleared her throat. “We have come to look for a new home. Perhaps we can help you build new things here, in your forest under the great protector trees.”
The Tuatha man jumped up, his smile growing wider. “That is indeed what they are called! Perhaps you can be a part of our little settlement, after all. But know this.” For a moment, he stared up into her clay face with a harsh glare. “A dark-cloaked stranger came before you. He told us tales of your blood drinking and child-stealing. I make no judgement of whether these tales be true or not…but you will have to change your ways if you wish to live here. Nature is a harsh mistress at times, and you must learn to live your life to her rhythms and moods.”
“I believe you speak the truth. Do not judge the Kiln-Born based on the rumors you have heard. We will do our utmost to learn your ways and live with nature, as you call it.”
And so, the Golems settled into the meadow in the deep forest. The folk looked at them strangely, but they were hardly the oddest thing in the woods of the Tuatha Dé Danann. They gathered logs from fallen trees and bent them, straining against the tall pillars of wood, weaving them into homes in the forest. The little settlement grew, and the Great Protectors grew massive and strong, spreading their magic branches high over the forest dwellers.
Though the Tuatha allowed the Golems to live in their forest, it seemed as though they were never quite comfortable. The fiery giants lived off by themselves in a corner of the meadow, and rarely mingled with their hosts.
The oak grew and grew, its magic enhanced by the creatures living below it. Soon, the roots of the vast tree were digging into the earth where the Tuatha made their homes. It was too mighty for them to work with, impossible to bend the tremendous roots to their wills. It took the strength and knowledge of the Golems to work with the magic oak.
The Tuatha shared some of their knowledge with the Golems, though it was not always easy to make the Voiceless hear the will of the forest. The Tuatha prince was soon sending the Golems out to find more and more fallen logs to build up their forest castle. It was a proud structure, woven of mighty trees that had seen their last days, and held together with great craft. He ignored the whispers and rumors that spoke against them.
The days of summer were long and golden, and the Golems set to their work with a will, venturing deeper and deeper into the woods in search of the materials. They took naturally to this way of life, and they felt more and more in tune with the forest, though the Tuatha seemed to think otherwise. They constantly tried to make the Golems understand how deep their connection went, as though the trees themselves could speak with the language of root and leaf.
One day, there was a terrible accident. Several Golems were working together under the direction of Maharal, but she grew weary and was forced to return to the meadow to rest. Without her knowledge to guide them, the Golems worked and blew smoke in frustration, trying to extract a tremendous treetrunk that had died but had no room to fall, becoming stuck in between living trees. In the course of their lifting and pushing on the trees, none of them noticed that one of the vines wrapped around the huge treetrunk loosened its grip and snapped.
By the time the log groaned and leaned heavily over under its own weight, it was too late. The other Golems scrambled out of the way, but one was caught in a mess of tangled vines. He watched helplessly as the vast trunk came down, almost slowly, thunderously crushing him. His flame was out in an instant.
It was the first death among the Kiln-Born since their escape. They buried his clay under the roots of the Great Protector while the Tuatha Dé Danann looked on inscrutably. The Voiceless mourned quietly, saying words that Maharal gave to them.
They were more careful after that, but the Tuatha avoided the Golems even more.They seemed suspicious, worried about something that would not say. The year passed on, until autumn came over the forest, changing the leaves to bright colors.
It was on a grey day that Yosef overheard two Tuatha smoking and talking as fall leaves whirled around them.
“The fall is here, and the Great Protector is unwell.”
“I think the tree is dying! The leaves do not glow the way they used to.”
“Perhaps that cloaked stranger with the stories was right…perhaps our Great Protector has done worse since their coming.”
“Ever since these fire-hearted creatures buried their…dead underneath.”
“The word going round says they are some sort dark creations of the Speakers of Lies.”
“Someone told me these Golems are always looking for a way to increase their life force. They want to be immortal like us.”
“And why aren’t they like us? That’s what you have to ask yourself.”
“Yes. Perhaps they are draining the Great Protector of its life to try and fuel their own?”
“I don’t want to condemn them wrongly. But it does make sense.”
“That’s the true danger. We can’t risk their anger, for they are mighty. However, we cannot stand idly by if they are damaging the forest.”
“That would be the greatest crime of all. The most evil act I can imagine.”
“Let us hope the stories are untrue.”
Yosef ran to Maharal, who paused as she was weaving a great hut. She started to sigh, but turned to tears, which steamed off her heated face. There seemed to be no rest for the Kiln-Born. It was the next night when the tuatha prince came to her woven hut, and slipped fearlessly under its branches. His smile was dark and meaningful.
“I am sorry, Maharal. Things are changing. The seasons turn, and there is an ending to all things.”
Maharal stood as tall as she could under the roof she had woven with her own clay hands. “Why?”
“Come outside and look.”
She stepped out with him into the twilight that filtered through the clouds up above. The forest formed an impenetrable wall of darkness around the meadow where they lived. Usually, the purple energy of the Great Protector would light up the glade, but something was wrong. The huge tree drooped, its leaves falling and drifting away into mist. The light was fading out of its veins, as though it were very ill.
“This is a tragedy. You may not understand it, but I tell you this is the most terrible catastrophe the Tuatha can imagine. I don’t believe them myself, but there are stories going around, true or not, that say you cannot be trusted, and that you seek the immortality the Speakers of Lies denied you. They say you were not given the gift of life for a reason, and will do anything to gain it. I understand that desire; but our Great Protector cannot pay the price!”
“You clearly lie. You do believe these rumors, or you would not drive us away.“ Maharal leaned on a huge root where it thrust up out of the ground. “But if you listen to the lies of this dark-cloaked stranger I keep hearing about, we will go if needs must. We have wandered before, and we can wander again. I had hoped that here, we could learn your wisdom and become part of the forest. But that has not happened.”
The Tuatha’s smile faded as he shook his head. “No, it has not. In a way, I am sorry to see you go; your kind has great potential for wisdom. But we cannot take the risk.”
That night, the sound of digging echoed through the dark glade. In the morning, the Tuatha presented the Golems with a pile of clay, stained and dirty. Within were clay bones, long since beginning to crumble. Some of the Golems wept to leave their forest homes behind, and others whispered softly and sadly, repeating the happy songs of freedom that had been written at their liberation. But off into the forest they went, with eyes peeking at them from every leaf and root. The forest urged them on with the cries and noises of the creatures hidden inside.
It took them some time to leave the forest. When they finally left the greenery behind, they found themselves in a harsh land. It was barren and dry, with dust blown across by harsh winds. Forsaking the habitable lands where no friendly towns welcomed them, Maharal led the way out, further from the Realms. The Golems left for the Stormlands.
The Kiln-Born wandered the Stormlands, bearing the remains of their dead. Out in the wasteland, the wind howled and tore at them, ripping over the spines of stone and the dusty plains. Great cracks in the earth crisscrossed their path, and the sun beat down mercilessly when it was not obscured by clouds.
For, true to their name, the Stormlands were constantly torn apart by powerful Veilstorms. The land itself was ripped to shreds by the winds and the magic that screamed witlessly into the void of the sky. There was no life anywhere, and nothing could ever survive here for long.
Yet the Golems walked on, heads bent low, driving forward with hopeless determination to find a place they could call their own.
It was a long time before they found it: A little nook between two mountains, surrounded by cracks in the earth but smooth itself, windswept but sheltered from the strongest magic that rained down from the burning heavens. There they gathered, wondering what they would do.
Dinah stepped forward onto the smooth plain, looking about while the wind whipped the smoke from her mouth. She melted before her fellows, forming a wall high and wide. It was the beginning of a shelter. As other Golems joined her, they formed a little village for the others to live in, and space to live their lives in shelter. Some of the Golems produced little seedlings they had taken from the forest, and planted them in the shelter of the walls made of their fellows.
Thus they began their hardscrabble existence. No matter how the wind blew or the storms raged, the shelters endured, protecting the crops they relied on to survive. It was a life. And somehow, the Golems managed to thrive. They grew in knowledge as well as confidence, as they repeated the story of their lives to each other and Maharal taught them the words that had created them. They pulled out the tablets of clay that they had carried all the way from the ruins of the city of the Speakers of Lies, and learned the magic written there. They repeated their names to one another over and over, just loud enough to be heard over the howling of the storms above. They wrote words of power on each other, discovering new methods and sources of power that helped them survive, even here in the Stormlands.
After some time, the Golems realized that they had chosen well. Something about this spot was different. It did not shift and pull about like the earth torn apart by the storms all around, even the mountains grinding to a new position. There was stability here, a stillness protected from the heavens themselves.
They lived thus for a full year, telling their stories over and over, before Maharal built her first kiln. She shaped it of stones and clay from the magic-shredded earth of the Stormlands, a tall rounded structure misshapen but sturdy beyond a doubt. She made a figure to put inside, a child-sized Golem. It was but lifeless clay; this was not the Kiln of Ur, nor were there helpless slaves to sacrifice for life. She had but her own clay, and her great wisdom.
As the storms raged outside, she lit a fire in the kiln with her own breath. She took of her own clay, and formed a head for the figure. Yosef also took of his clay, and formed its fiery heart. Then they wrote truth on the head of the lifeless child, and sealed up the kiln. The pair of them watched over the kiln as its fires burned, hotter and hotter as the storms howled. And that was how the first child of a Golem was born in the wastelands, loved by his people but rejected by the world. Created of his parents’ clay, and given life through fire instead of darkness and twisted magic, the child was blessed with the gifts of life: he was immortal.
Perhaps it was the mysterious stabilizing magic that called others out into the Stormlands, seeking new adventure and hope. A force of a hundred riders, cloaks pulled high against the dusty wind, came riding out of the waste. They wore simple cloaks that offered little protection from the storms, but carried gleaming weapons of fine craftsmanship. As they neared the settlement, the jewels set in their foreheads flashed in the little light that came through the clouds of dust.
Pulling on their horses’ reins, the Stormriders entered the adobe village cautiously, looking about in surprise. The windswept streets were empty, but here and there stone chairs lay about, as though vacated a moment earlier. There were orchards surrounded by high walls and thick gates, here in the Stormlands where almost nothing grew but thornbushes.
It seemed abandoned, albeit recently. From within the crowd of Stormriders, one man rode forward. He had a noble aspect, and wore something beneath his hood. From within its dark recesses, bright eyes flashed with intelligence.
He called out in a powerful voice that rang through the empty village. “Who lives here, in the forsaken Stormlands? I would speak with you, for the magic your village is built upon is great and wondrous, to survive the Breaking that the storms bring.”
Maharal formed herself from the great clay wall he had thought she was. With great solemnity she stepped forward to speak, her head level with the mounted man. His horse stared at the smoke and flame that blew from her mouth, but held its ground with determination. “We are the Kiln-Born, and we greet you, oh king.”
The man laughed and threw back his hood to reveal the spiny crown upon his brow. “The Golems? I see. And what make you out here, in the lands of eternal storm?”
“We have come here out of necessity. As we are pursued by lies, no one will take us, and so we come to the place that no one else wanted. We live, though it is not much to look at.”
“No, it is not.” The man looked around. “And yet, I see great skill in your buildings. You have talent. Is it true what some say, that you must use blood in your creative work, that you steal children to try to steal their life and give it to yourselves?”
Maharal stared into his eyes with her embers. “No, it is not true.”
The man nodded slowly. “I believe you.”
Before Maharal could respond, a crack of thunder shook the earth. This was not unusual. However, something was wrong. The sound came not from the angry heavens, but from below. As several other Golems came out of hiding, another sound like the tearing of the world sounded from the great ravine, the crack in the earth that lay to one side of the village. A huge plume of mist blew out, full of green glinting debris.
Shadows moved within the cloud of mist, shifting figures that boiled up out of the ground. They were beings like men, but shrouded in billowing darkness.
Maharal gasped. “It is the Speakers of Lies!”
Her old masters came up out of the ground in a rush of silence, a muffling deadness that spread over the earth in a rush and frightened the horses. In the midst of them, one figure stood tall, wrapped in a dark cloak. Through shrouded in illusions, something in his manner indicated a cruel amusement that was familiar to Maharal. It was the Overseer, reformed and disguised so he could spread lies about the Golems among the Realms. He gestured in elaborate greeting, for the benefit of the Stormriders and their leader.
They surrounded the little village and dark weapons flashed as a few Stormriders were overwhelmed in an instant, pulled to the ground by nearly invisible foes before they could react. “To arms! To arms! We are betrayed!” the king cried, drawing a sword that shone like the sun in the darkness. He wheeled his horse about, and called his Stormriders to him. He glared furiously at the Golems, who stared back in disappointment.
As quickly as the Stormriders rallied to a defense, however, it was not enough. The shadowed figures came up from the earth in all directions, swinging their cruel weapons and piercing the heart of the Stormrider defense. Laughter rippled through their serried ranks as deadly battle was joined.
At this moment, the Golems had to make a decision. They had a good chance to run, while their foes were distracted by battle. It would be easy to slip off into the Stormlands they had learned to survive in, and disappear into the windblown dust, impossible to find or enslave again. But they made a different choice, a choice that would change their lives and their very identity forever.
Instead, the Golems came forward, surrounding the Stormriders. In fluid motions, as though they had practiced the maneuver, they formed themselves into walls, then into battlements, the village dissolving around them as they built mightier and higher defenses out of themselves and pieces of masonry. The dark forces below paused for a moment in surprise, seeking a way in or a weak spot in the seamless battlements.
There was little hesitation in the kingly commander. He knew the value of the reprieve the Golems had given him. He called out orders for the Stormriders to dismount, and man the battlements with vigor. They leaped to the task, pulling out weapons and manning the new walls in a matter of moments.
The battle began in earnest then. Arrows flew and magic crackled as the forces fought bitterly. Blood was spilled as the Stormriders laid about them with mighty blows. The king himself cleaved through in the thick of the battle, cutting the shadows with a sword that seemed forged from a shaft of sunlight. Blood was spilled, and horrific visions flashed before the Stormriders’ eyes, but still they fought on, using the defenses of the fortress with great skill and determination.
Every Speaker of Lies that was struck collapsed into a pool of darkness that bubbled and boiled, seeping back into the parched ground where they had emerged. Their blades smoked away, shattered and blown by the winds of the storms that grew in intensity.
The high walls turned the tide of battle, and the Stormriders grew in confidence as they blasted apart the ranks of shadowy figures.
The storm overhead paused, as though taking a breath. A shaft of light stabbed down to reveal a battlefield littered with pools of shadow, swiftly melting back into the ground, and weapons curved and sharp, gleaming dully where they had dropped. The cloaked illusion of the Overseer weakened and melted. His cruel sneer changed to fear as some power from below sucked him down, hopefully for good.
A cheer went up, rolling over the storm-torn countryside. The Stormriders shouted their victory to the skies. The king raised his blade and shook the dark blood from it. “Well done, all!” The walls shifted, and burning eyes appeared. Then they slowly melted, laying the Stormriders back down on the ground with their horses.
Maharal straightened, brushing the dust from her clay body. “Again, we survive.” She eyed them for a moment, wondering what would happen next. “Thank you, great warriors.”
The king approached her and bowed. “Thank you for your assistance. We would have been overwhelmed in an instant but for your quick thinking and your magic defenses. Allow me to apologize from the bottom of my heart for calling out that you had betrayed us. I saw the way that one of them greeted you, and I thought…”
Maharal nodded slowly. “They are not called the Speakers of Lies for nothing. Their lies and manipulations have followed us ever since we escaped their service, poisoning all against us. And we thank you for your help, as well. These creatures know us, and would have slaughtered many of the Kiln-Born without hesitation.”
The king adjusted the spiny crown on his head, which was spattered with blood. “Well, the Stabilizer we came here to seek is clearly claimed by a noble race of creatures. I will not trespass on your good will any longer. We must return to my Realm and tend our wounded, so we take our leave of you.” He turned before she could respond, and called out, “Mount up! Bind the fallen to their saddles! We must cross the Stormlands while we still can!”
The Golems watched while the Stormriders made rapid preparations to leave them: straps, buckles, weapons all sheathed and the horses briefly rubbed down.
Finally, Maharal stepped forward. “Wait, oh king.”
The man turned his horse and trotted over to her, eyes level with hers. “Yes?”
“I know who you are. King Arthur, ruler of the only Realm we have not wandered.”
“And why not?”
“Because rumors were spread, rumors you have already heard, and because folk know we broke out of slavery and think we do not know our place. And because we still fled from the Speakers of Lies and their poisonous words. But now you have seen the truth of things.”
“I see.” For a long, moment, Arthur stared into her burning eyes. Then he smiled. “It is my honor, and my pleasure, to ask you to join my Realm, Maharal of the Golems. All the Kiln-Born are welcome to find their place in my kingdom.”
Another cheer went up from the Stormriders; they agreed wholeheartedly.
And so the Kiln-Born came to the rolling green hills, the lush plains, and the gentle mountains of Arthur’s kingdom.
When the Golem finished, it was abruptly silent in the adobe house. The scratching of the historian’s quill finished, and he leaned back on the piled pillows that lay around the table. It was a house of meditation for a moment.
Then there came a crash from outside and the laughter of Golem children, and the spell was broken. The historian heaved a sigh and began clearing up his inkwell, blank books, quill, and trimming knife. “An excellent story, and an exemplary recitation, master Yosef. I thank you for this, even more than for your hospitality.”
The Golem blinked his ember eyes and nodded. “I am glad it will be written on paper as well as pressed into clay. It is good that some of the folk at Arthur’s court will read it.” The historian smiled as he packed his things into the roughspun backpack. “Yes. And again I thank you.”
“My children will tire soon, playing outside as they have been. Will you stay the night with us? You would be welcome.”
“Many thanks for the offer! I must add Hearthkeepers to your titles. But I am afraid I must be going. I’m sure the excitement of a stranger like me would only keep them up longer.” The man sighed as he stood, while the Golem smiled and nodded.
Yosef added with a clinking chuckle, “Stranger, you have never told me your name.”
Hoisting the bag to his shoulder, the man laughed back as he headed for the door. “Not everyone uses their true names everywhere they go, my friend. At court, they call me by the same name as the little falcon that nests above the Silent Gate. Come visit me some time, friend Yosef; I would like the skills of your people to aid me in building something of importance some day. For now, farewell!”