The Lorelei Signal
Where Gold Grows on Trees
Written by Lucy D. Ford / Artwork by Carol Hightshoe
‟This will be the death of me,” Rimishu whimpered to herself. Shivering, she pulled her short, loose tunic close around narrow shoulders. With her bushy tail tight against her side, she trudged down the rocky path.
‟This will be a great day,” Stechor proclaimed. The Tharokene explorer stomped Rimishu‛s objections to dust under his great, clawed feet without even knowing them. Not that he would have cared what she thought. All these reptilian brutes could see was the phantom glitter of hoped-for riches. ‟Gold grows on the trees.” That was the lure Rimishu desperately held before their greedy eyes.
‟You’re taking a lot on faith,” Margoch hissed, the expedition‛s second in command.
‟Nonsense,” the famous explorer blustered. ‟We’re going to find that gold. There’s no doubt about it.”
Rimishu ducked her furry head as she stumbled on woven sandals. She had lost track of the days since the Tharokene expedition burst into her clan’s home clearing. Terrified Tamian families had scattered every which-way, but Rimishu had felt the crushing weight of a wide tail slamming the breath out of her.
Taken prisoner, she had been certain these vicious predators wanted to eat her. She would never rest beneath the Mother Tree as her ancestors did. Instead, it seemed that Stechor wanted a guide. He had heard rumors of a legendary treasure: a mysterious grove where gold grew on trees.
There was nothing she could do against the ruthless invaders. Her small claws were excellent for climbing trees, but no match for the knifelike talons of her captors. Her strength was in her wits, and it didn’t look like that was enough.
Margoch angled her scaly head to spear the little Tamian with a serpent’s cold stare. Supposedly she was a female, having mottled brown scales instead of dark gray, but it hardly made a difference. Every member of the Therakene expedition had tough, scaly skin over thick, corded muscles. Their jaws were jagged with fangs. Heavy armor and steely blades made their bulk even more intimidating.
The Tharokene female breathed a hostile snort. ‟Well, rat?” she sneered, although the Tamian people were more akin to squirrels than rats.
‟Yes, yes!” Rimishu babbled nervously. Yes to what, she didn’t say.
‟Don’t be so suspicious,” Stechor chuckled. He was older, with a haze of white over his darker scales, and a hint of limp he did his best to hide. ‟These primitives always bury treasure along with their dead. But what do the dead need with such things? Why, when I was your age I had already discovered the Caprian temple complex.”
That must have been an important achievement. Stechor constantly reminded the other Tharokene about his triumph. Rimishu glanced back, where a line of broken-horned Caprians trudged along, heavily burdened by the expedition‛s gear. Tharokene soldiers snapped at them if they lagged.
‟Every society has its burial grounds,” Stechor bragged on. ‟There’s sure to be a trove of plunder for us. Gold hanging from the treetops, they say.”
Rimishu kept her head down, but her fingers plucked restlessly at her plumed tail. Primitives. He called her people that. Just because they didn‛t tramp around the world, battering everyone else down.
The Tharokenes claimed they were scientists. That they explored the world to increase their knowledge of its wonders. Yet all they talked about was gold.
‟At least the Caprians are good for something,” Margoch retorted.
‟But Rimmi is a great help,” Stechor insisted. ‟Besides, we made a deal.”
A heavy hand fell on Rimishu‛s head. Her plumed tail went rigid. Then the menacing claws ruffled the red-brown fur between her short, rounded ears. If that was meant to reassure her, it didn’t work.
Unable to dampen the explorer‛s enthusiasm, Margoch glared down at Rimishu once again. ‟I’m watching you, rat. This had better not be a tall tale.”
‟It isn’t.” Rimishu’s round black eyes blinked rapidly. Her eager nodding was more of a fearful twitch.
What Stechor called a ‟deal” was a viper’s choice for Rimishu. She must lead the hulking invaders toward her people‛s most sacred burial ground, where the souls of her ancestors were cradled in the branches of the Mother Tree. You couldn’t call it anything less than a betrayal of her Tamian heritage.
Still, every step of this treacherous expedition gave her surviving clan that much more time to escape. Rimishu hoped the conquerors would never find them in the lush thickets of the Tamian woodlands. If she ever escaped, she hoped her people would let her explain.
They moved on, under heavy shade cast by magnificent conifers. The path was narrow and winding, well suited for little Tamians but hardly adequate for the size of Tharokenes and Caprians. So Margoch’s soldiers laid about with slashing blades, hacking down berry bushes on this side and pine branches on that. The lovely, loamy scent of the forest was polluted with the stink of bleeding sap.
Rimishu’s first hope had been to lead them in circles, confusing them in the thick woodland. But the invaders cut through her hopes along with the vegetation. Nobody could be led astray when they plowed ahead in a relentless, straight line.
A woven sandal slipped, and she stumbled. It was exhausting to keep pace with her much larger captors. Only the thought of her feeble revenge sustained her. For if there was gold in the graveyard, it wasn’t the kind they wanted. She just hoped she would survive to enjoy their disappointment.
The narrow passage eventually connected with a wider trail. Sapling trees had been allowed to sprout between the roots of the bigger trees. As they grew, they were bent and twined into archways, decked with strands of silvery bark. Ghost flowers were carved into the sides.
‟Here we go,” Stechor gloated. ‟You see?”
‟Charming,” Margosh grunted. She nodded to her soldiers. ‟Get that trash out of the way.”
Steel flashed, and hacked the archways down. Of course, Rimishu knew the Tharokenes would never fit through gates made for Tamian folk. Still, her heart ached to see their loving handiwork kicked aside.
Margoch‛s claws pinched her shoulder. ‟Hurry up, rat.” Rimishu barely kept her feet as the warrior shoved her onward.
The path curved down a steep slope and into a narrow canyon. There were no more trees, just dark rocks glinting in the shadows. The narrow space multiplied noises from the stomping, slashing expedition. The harsh breath of the toiling Caprian porters gusted feverishly around her. Through the lingering stench of cut foliage, Rimishu also smelled a faint, sweet graveyard odor. The scent of Mother Tree‛s renewal.
The lead Tharokene called, ‟I see something!”
‟Where, man. Where?” Stechor rushed ahead, shoving the soldier aside.
There was a gap in the rocks, and just beyond it a final archway. Past that, a soft glow filtered through the branches. Cruel steel flashed once more, wrecking the archway. Margoch pounded after Stechor, leaving the soldier to hiss angrily. Rimishu waited for him to tramp after them before she slunk in among the Caprians. Her throat tightened as she gazed upon the most sacred space of the Tamian people.
Thick moss coated the ground in the funeral clearing. And there, on the far side, was the Mother Tree. She was immense, impossibly straight and tall. Deeply ridged bark was tinged red as the fur of the Tamian people. Far, far above them, blunt branches spread their needles to the sky.
Her forest daughters ringed the space. Their combined mass shadowed the clearing, yet it was not dark. All about the Mother and daughters, ghost vines twined and climbed. Rooted to the bark, they wove many intricate patterns. Ghost flowers hung everywhere, papery thin petals curled into perfect orbs. Each was lit from within by an ethereal golden glow. Among them were the fruit, long spiral pods dripping with sweet juice.
For a moment, it was quiet enough to hear the whisper of tiny black bees flitting between the flowers. Then the Tharokenes stormed farther into the mossy clearing. Ghost flowers trembled with the vibrations as they spread out in their rapacious search.
Rimishu winced to hear the crack and snap of splintering bones. For on every side, small skeletons were half-buried in the moss. Any Tamian who could make the pilgrimage came to this place when their time was near. They rested in the funeral clearing, allowing their bodies to nourish the Mother Tree.
Legend said it was the souls of Tamian ancestors that lit the ghost flowers. Whatever understanding they had gained in life would sprout anew in the ghost vines’ fruit. When Tamians needed the Mother’s guidance, they came to eat the fruits. The heady juices gave them dreams of wisdom passed down from their forebears.
But Tharokenes cared nothing for wisdom. They trampled in every direction, shouting to each other as they went. Rimishu edged back as their calls took on a petulant tone.
‟Is this it?” Margoch demanded. ‟Where’s the gold?”
‟It can’t be.” Stechor grabbed the closest ghost flower with an irritable hand. Fierce claws quenched its gentle glow as he ripped it away from the vine. The fragile blossom burst in a puff of golden dust.
‟What is this?” He sputtered, and threw down the miserable wad of crumpled petals. He swiped at the glittering powder that coated his face and arm. ‟This isn’t gold!”
‟Raaa-ha-ha-ha!” Margoch threw her head back and bellowed laughter up at the ghost vines dangling their phantom gold.
The next moment her spear flashed out toward Rimishu. But the little Tamian was faster. She ducked and bolted between the legs of the shuffling porters. Startled Caprians bleated and milled about, scattering shards of bone. Rimishu vaulted up the nearest daughter tree with the speed of her panic.
‟I‛m sorry!” She wailed to all the sacred beauty her hopeless gambit had ruined.
Stechor had no false kindness now. ‟You said there would be treasure!” he raged, then sneezed. He tried to rub pollen out of his eyes but only smeared it over his face.
Rimishu should have been happy. She had tricked them all. Instead, it felt like she had set fire to the Mother Tree. Well above their reach, she hooked her claws into the bark and looked down.
‟This is our treasure.” Her voice would hardly squeak out of her throat.
‟I knew it. You liar!” Margoch roared. One of the guards hurled his spear.
Rimishu skittered aside, terrified she would lose her grip. The blade shaved the bark just below her hind foot. Heart pounding, she kicked her legs to scoot upward. Exactly how high could those monsters throw their spears?
The cursing briefly died down. Rimishu leaned around to yell, ‟We don’t have what you want! But you think you know everything. You would never believe me if I told you that. So I brought you here, to show you.”
‟You said gold grew in the trees. There has to be gold!” Stechor paced, agitated. He didn’t seem to notice the way Margoch and her soldiers were focusing their glares on him.
His gray tail slammed into the daughter tree’s trunk. It hardly even shivered. Still, Rimishu flushed with rage at these heartless invaders. With their pretense of civilization, they destroyed everything simple and true. She was also furious at herself, for letting them glimpse a beauty in death they would never understand.
‟There is no gold in Tamian lands,” Rimishu shrieked down at them. ‟This is the truth, so go back where you came from!”
‟You old fool,” Margoch hissed, whirling toward Stechor. ‟You listened to this primitive, and now you’ve led us out here for nothing!”
‟Keep your place,” the older Tharokene snarled back at her. ‟You were just a hatchling when I was in my prime. I gave you this opportunity and I can take it away. When I write the report on this fiasco —”
‟You mean, when I write it. I always do the work, while you get the glory.‟ Margoch stalked closer, raising her spear. The soldiers moved in behind her. ‟There’s an opportunity here, all right. And you’re not the one who’s in their prime!”
Battle erupted, spears jabbing and jaws tearing. Massive feet tore up the moss and crushed even more bones. The Caprians dropped their cargo and scattered, bleating terror in their own language. Rimishu ducked out of sight as the roaring and shrieking echoed up to her. Shivering, she held on. She should have known the Tharokenes would turn violent. Still, in plotting this surprise for her captors, she had never imagined it would turn out so frightening.
Something hit the daughter tree, harder this time. The impact spurred Rimishu to dare the leap across to the Mother Tree itself. Her frantic mind recalled that there was a pilgrimage trail, something only a Tamian could traverse. It led all the way up to a shrine at the Mother Tree’s crown. Rimishu started to climb, searching for the path. She didn’t know what else to do.
Surely the Mother Tree would protect her, as she had tried to protect her people. She could rest there, try to regain her courage. When it was safe, she would make her way back down.
Maybe the expedition would be gone, now that the so-called scientists knew the wealth of the Tamian people wasn’t something that could be stolen with greedy claws. Or maybe she could try to help those poor Caprians somehow.
And if the Tharokenes destroyed each other? Then perhaps even such brutes could do their part to nourish the Mother Tree.
Lucy D. Ford has been a writer all her life, but thought of it as just a fun hobby until the late 1990s. She made her first sale, a children's poem, in 2000. Since then her poetry and short stories have appeared in magazines such as Boys' Life, Ladybug Magazine, and Babybug Magazine. She is a past Regional Advisor for the Inland Northwest Region of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, International (SCBWI).
As Deby Fredericks, she has published her fantasy novels through small presses and as an independent author. Her current project is a high fantasy novella series, The Minstrels of Skaythe.