Zamorra and the Squirrel

Zamorra crouched in arid semi-darkness, her heart pounding in anticipation and her palms damp with sweat. In one hand she held a timeglass, and in the other she grasped a crank handle attached to a large gear. She had just wound the gear; she could feel the tension of its mechanisms tugging against her grip on the crank.

Zamorra released the gear and flipped the timeglass. As the gear started to turn, the silence of the cave was so complete that Zamorra could actually hear the first few grains of sand clinking to the bottom of the timeglass.

Zamorra blew out a long lungful of air, forcing herself to breathe slowly, even as her heart beat faster. A curl escaped her hairband and she brushed it away from her eyes in nervous excitement. As she watched the sand flowing through the glass, butterflies kept fluttering up to turn loops beneath her ribcage.

As the sand in the timeglass neared the end of its course, Zamorra wiped her hands on her slacks. The upper bulb of the glass emptied and the last granules of sand fell to rest in the lower bulb. Zamorra’s hands flashed to the crank handle, halting the gear in place once again.

The gear had ten numbers engraved in a circle around its face. It had stopped with the number three aligned with a marking in the gear’s housing.

Zamorra lifted her eyes to the wall of the cave behind the gear. Ten small repositories had been hewn into the red rock there. Zamorra reached into the third cavity, noticing as she did that her hand was trembling slightly. She withdrew a small bundle and sank to the floor, cradling the object in her hands.

It was thick canvas sailcloth wrapped around a copper key. On the inner surface of the sailcloth, the following was written:

Let grandest tree arrest your eyes

From Ahana to Maukeki as turnstone flies

The circling sun shall be your guide

Clever minds shall know the proper time

Attend to your feet dear friend—

—for you shall mark where treasure lies

Zamorra closed her eyes and leaned back against the cave wall. She had been chasing the treasure of Ahsakard for so long, and she finally held the last clue to its location.

Zamorra made her way out of the cave, already working through the riddle. She paused in the entrance, shielding her eyes against blinding sunlight.

Zamorra gazed at the sea of red sand before her. A wasteland the color of dried blood stretched for as far as her eyes could see. If she squinted, she could just make out shadows on the horizon. Zamorra knew those shadows were the dark and indomitable peaks of the Black Mountains on the far side of the desert.

Let grandest tree arrest your eyes

From Ahana to Maukeki as turnstone flies

Ahana and Maukeki were two cities in the Old Kingdom, which lay beyond the Black Mountains. The Black Mountains were the reason that the Old Kingdom was wrapped in mystery, the reason that so few people actually travelled there.

There had been a pass through the Black Mountains, many centuries ago. It had been a conduit for trade, exploration, and diplomacy. Such was its importance, that the throne city of the empire had been built at the very top of the pass, nestled among mountain peaks. From Ahaniana, a city unparalleled in splendor, emperors and empresses had ruled the lands on both sides of the mountains. When the great earthshake destroyed the pass, the entire empire had fallen along with Ahaniana. Economy, society, culture itself had all come crashing down. Thus, the second age had ended, and the third age—the Age of the Two Kingdoms—had begun.

With the pass gone, there was no crossing the mountains. The only way to reach the other side was to travel by sea around Drummer’s Cape. As dangerous as the Black Mountains were, the ocean was far more terrifying to Zamorra.

“But I have little choice,” Zamorra murmured as she turned her gaze westward. “I will make for the coast.”

 

͠

 

Zamorra fiddled with a jade bead in her hair as she looked out at the water. Endless water. Waves crashed against the port bow where Zamorra stood, causing the ship to rock and dip. She shot an uncomfortable glance over her shoulder to make sure the craggy shoreline was still within sight. Zamorra knew a lot of people who didn’t believe that the sea was filled with dangerous monsters, who thought that sailors were nothing more than a bunch of superstitious fools. But Zamorra knew better. The ocean was a deathtrap. She knew what happened to ships that ventured too far out into the deep.

Zamorra licked her lips nervously and shook her head. There were more productive things she should be thinking about.

Let grandest tree arrest your eyes

From Ahana to Maukeki as turnstone flies                                                                                                          

The first part of the riddle was simple enough. Zamorra needed to travel a direct route between Ahana and Maukeki, looking for the grandest tree along the way. Once she found the tree, she would be ready for the next step.

The circling sun shall be your guide

Clever minds shall know the proper time

Zamorra presumed that the proper time would somehow be marked by the sun’s passage. But how it would be marked, and what she was supposed to do when the proper time came, remained a mystery.

Attend to your feet dear friend—

—for you shall mark where treasure lies

Just thinking about the last line of the riddle made Zamorra giddy with excitement. She could only hope that the riddle would become clearer when she was at the right location. She needed to focus on the first step—finding the tree—before worrying about the rest.

Shouts and exclamations from behind Zamorra caused her to turn. The other passengers were gathered in a little knot on the other side of the deck, pointing excitedly. Zamorra smiled. The Two Kingdoms held many wonders, but few could match Drummer’s Door.

A natural wall of rock extended far into the ocean, as if the mountains themselves were stretching a colossal arm out to sea. Erosion had formed an archway in the rock wall that was so vast, three of the king’s war brigants could comfortably sail abreast through it. It was dangerous to sail all the way around the rock wall, so every ship travelling between the Two Kingdoms passed through Drummer’s Door.

Zamorra craned her head upward to look at the underside of the arch as the ship passed below it. The entire deck was momentarily bathed in shadow. Presently, the bow broke into sunlight once more, and Zamorra’s smile widened. She had just entered the Old Kingdom.

 

͠

 

Lush greenery and the scent of wild lavender were everywhere. There was just enough of a breeze to keep the heat at bay and tug gently on Zamorra’s tunic. A delicate layer of mist clung to everything like an old, threadbare blanket. Zamorra paused to pluck an apple from a tree, polishing the fruit on her tunic before taking a bite. Closing her eyes, she chewed slowly, enjoying the tart sweetness. When Zamorra opened her eyes, she almost choked.

“The grandest tree!” Zamorra cried out, gulping down her mouthful of apple and dropping the rest.

Zamorra put a hand to her mouth. The tree ahead of her had to be the one in the riddle! The tree was awesome, majestic, grand—even in death. All that was left of it was an ancient stump, standing proudly in a little meadow, but the stump itself was the size of a house.

Zamorra crept into the meadow in reverent wonder. Moss clung to the stump’s rotting sides. The remains of the old trunk lay beside the stump like a felled warrior, curving off into the grass and mist. The tree’s ghost was enough to fill Zamorra with awe. The thought of its grandeur when it had yet been living was truly humbling.

Let grandest tree arrest your eyes

Zamorra cocked her head, thinking, breathing, taking in every detail of the tree and its surrounding meadow.

The circling sun shall be your guide

Zamorra glanced upward.

Clever minds shall know the proper time

According to the sky, the day was nearing noon.

Attend to your feet dear friend—

—for you shall mark where treasure lies

Zamorra dropped to her hands and knees and began inspecting the ground. Slowly, she crawled around the stump, sifting through the dirt with her fingers, unsure of what she was searching for. Upon making a full circuit, Zamorra frowned and sat cross-legged in the tall grass, knowing she was missing something.

Let grandest tree arrest your eyes

From Ahana to Maukeki as turnstone flies

Zamorra tugged a shoot of lavender out of the ground beside her and twisted it through her fingers as she stared at the old tree. She nudged a little rock aside with her foot, feeling the base of her neck start tingling as she did. Zamorra froze, staring at the rock. As turnstone flies…

The author of the riddle could have chosen any bird to insert into the verse. Why the turnstone? Zamorra knew that turnstones had gotten their name because they had a habit of literally turning over stones to look for food underneath.

Zamorra was back on her hands and knees, feeling in the grass for rocks, stones, anything that she could overturn and look beneath. Several curls of her hair fell across her face, and as she tossed her head to throw them out of her way, a small boulder caught her eye.

Zamorra stood and walked toward the rock. Putting her weight against it, she discovered that it was far lighter than it appeared. As Zamorra heaved the stone over, she realized that it had been hollowed out on the inside.

And on the ground beneath the rock—was a sundial.

The circling sun shall be your guide

Zamorra felt her heart start beating faster. Her breathing became shallower. The butterflies started doing their loops again. These were the moments Zamorra lived for.

The sundial didn’t have numbers around its edge. Instead, tiny crystalline animals were set into the sundial’s face.

Clever minds shall know the proper time

Zamorra knew what she was looking for as she scanned the crystal figures. And there it was—a little bird where the three should have been. So, three o’clock was the proper time. Zamorra still had a couple hours to wait. And then…

Attend to your feet dear friend—

—for you shall mark where treasure lies

Zamorra looked down at her comfortably well-worn boots. There was still something that she was missing. Walking back to the apple tree with a furrowed brow, Zamorra picked another apple and sat down in thoughtful silence.

When the sundial’s gnomon marked three in the afternoon, Zamorra was ready and waiting.

Attend to your feet dear friend—

—for you shall mark where treasure lies

Hesitantly, Zamorra looked down at her boots again, then over to the sundial. She closed her eyes and inhaled. Opened her eyes. Exhaled.

Attend to your feet

Zamorra looked at her boots, then at the sundial, then back at her boots. Her shadow stretched away from her feet, perfectly parallel with the shadow of the gnomon.

All of a sudden, several things clicked in Zamorra’s mind.

You shall mark where treasure lies

Zamorra started walking.

You shall mark where treasure lies!

Zamorra’s steps came faster and faster, as she followed the direction marked by her own shadow. She left the meadow, crossed a stream, and crested a hill. When she saw what was on the other side of the hill, Zamorra stopped.

There was a valley filled with a wild lavender field, swishing and swaying in the breeze.

Mists crept among the lavender like whispered secrets.

And in the middle of the valley, rising from the misty, purple field, was a bench covered by a low arbor.

Tiny hairs stood on end all the way down Zamorra’s spine as she stepped into the field. She could feel the treasure of Ahsakard! It was here!

Ahead of Zamorra, the arbor was impassive and silent. The ghost of once-white paint clung to the structure’s wood like an almost-forgotten memory. Leafy vines had claimed the posts and roof as their own.

The lavender sighed and brushed against Zamorra’s legs. Her excitement was making it hard for her to breathe. Reaching the arbor, Zamorra crouched to run a finger lightly over the seat of the bench. As she felt old paint fleck off and crumble at her touch, she noticed a lockbox attached to the underside of the seat. Zamorra withdrew the copper key from her pouch and effortlessly slid it into the keyhole. Holding her breath, Zamorra turned the key.

The door fell open and a small, heavy parcel wrapped in sailcloth rolled into Zamorra’s waiting hands.

Zamorra lifted herself onto the bench. For a moment, she just sat there, clutching her prize.

Finally, with shaking hands, Zamorra unwrapped the sailcloth, letting it fall away to reveal a tiny sand squirrel, impossibly heavy and carved entirely of gold.

Zamorra let out a breath. She had just become unthinkably wealthy. With the price that Ahsakard’s golden squirrel would bring, Zamorra could have anything she wanted. She could buy her way into nobility. She could purchase her own ship and hire a crew. She could build her own castle. Zamorra felt light-headed.

Of course, all Zamorra really wanted was to stay on the dusty road and court the mysteries of the Two Kingdoms. And of course, she had only found one piece of the treasure of Ahsakard. Twenty-one identical sand squirrels were still out there somewhere.

Zamorra pondered the golden squirrel. It was beautiful in its simplicity. Unassuming curves subtly heralded the mastery of the hand that had carved them. Zamorra’s father, a painter, liked to say a discerning artist can do more with a few strokes than most can do with an entire canvas.

Zamorra’s life wasn’t simple, but she lived it in a simple way. There was beauty to be found in simple things. Perhaps someday, Zamorra would desire lands and titles. Today, she just wanted to be swept away by the next adventure. She didn’t chase treasure for the sake of the treasure, but for the sake of the chase. The beauty was always in the chase, and Zamorra had plenty of chasing ahead of her.

 

 

Cover photo by Léonard Cotte on Unsplash

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