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Week #13: Creative Writing Challenge – Can You Keep a Secret?

April 5, 2021

Write a story that either starts or ends with someone asking, “Can you keep a secret?”

“Can you keep a secret?” The steward asked me at the bottom of the gangway. We were about to set sail and I didn’t have time for this crap.

“Of course I can keep a secret Travis, or your sovereign wouldn’t have asked me to go to Isla Tamodo in the first place.” I snapped back at him, while keeping one eye on the last of the cargo being hauled onto the foredeck.

The steward waved to a stack of barrels on the dock and a hooded figure maneuvered silently from behind them. “Your journey will be accompanied by this woman. She’s a reader and will help you find what you seek. Her real identity shall not be known to your crew and her safe return with the idol will be necessary for your payment. Do you understand?” The steward explained rather formally.

“Listen, I can’t have another mouth to feed on this trip. I’m already at my max and I especially don’t need anyone who can’t sail or pull their own weight. No offense ma’am.” I replied curtly.

With that, she pulled the hood back from her face revealing bright green eyes, clear golden skin and hair shimmering in soft mahogany tones past her shoulders. I sucked in a breath as my heart nearly stopped, silently berating myself, and went to bow. “Stop that you dolt.” She hissed. “No one’s supposed to know that I’m here, remember.”

I stood in silence for a moment surveying her. In response to the questioning look in my eye, she continued. “No one on your crew has been to the palace and no one knows my face. You know I have sailing experience and can pull my own weight in a fight. And, you know the mission is hopeless without a reader.” She met my slowly softening glare.

“Welcome aboard… Should I just call you Leah then?” I asked.

“Leah will be fine. And it’s good to see you Alex,” she replied with a soft smile, and then she swept passed me up the gangway. I followed her with my eyes as she started prowling toward the aft cabins.

The steward cleared his throat, pulling my attention back to him. “Good luck,” he said and chuckled as he turned and walked back down the busy dock.

I cursed the steward as I looked toward my ship and sighed. This was going to be interesting.

I introduced Leah to the crew, saying that her services would be necessary once we reached Isla Tamodo. Until then she would be pulling her own weight like any other member of the crew. That was enough for them. I told Matilda, my second mate, to make sure that Leah was put in appropriate quarters and added to the second watch. If she was going to be part of the crew, she was going to be one of the crew.

I headed to the helm and guided the Talisman out of the harbor. I watched as the crew unfurled and set the mainsail, followed by the jib, the staysail, and the foresail. The sails went up quickly as the crew pulled on ropes, climbed the masts, and repeated orders from my first, second, and third mates. I had a crew of about 20 and they were the best. Everyone knew what needed to be done. They respected each other and as a result, worked well together. I was curious to see how Leah would fit in.

Matilda was in charge of the second watch crew who were manning the staysail. As the wind picked up later that afternoon, I heard Matilda order Leah up the mast and into the rigging to put a reef in the sail. Leah didn’t hesitate in strapping in and scrambling up the mast. Leah had always been light on her feet and quickly climbed higher and higher. My heart skipped a couple of beats as a piece of hair escaped her braid and flew free in the breeze. When Leah finished putting the reef in the sail she lifted her head up to the sun and let the wind wash over her face. She glanced down and her eyes found mine immediately. She gave me a wide grin, knowing that she had easily just solidified her place among the crew.

That night after dinner I had Matilda send Leah to my office under the pretense of having to fill out some additional paperwork for the latecomer.

Leah arrived at my door wearing soft brown trousers tucked into finely made boots and a nicely fitted hemp work shirt that did nothing to hide her figure. Her hair was in a french braid reaching the middle of her back. She was just as beautiful as the last time I had seen her almost 2 years ago. My heart did a little flutter as she looked over my office and over me. Leah didn’t have the look of a typical sailor, but she’d likely get closer given some time on board. Her rich clothes probably wouldn’t make any of the crew suspicious, especially after her display of skills that afternoon. The Talisman tended to run as a meritocracy.

“Come in and have a seat. And close that door please.” I told her while trying in vain to make my heart slow down.

She looked comfortable and content, like the ship was already her home. She had always been calm and collected out on the water and she belonged in the rigging with her face soaking in the sun and breeze like that afternoon.

I broke the silence finally. “Leah.” I paused. This was going to be harder than I thought. “What are you doing here?” I practically whispered.

She sighed. “It’s like the steward said. I’m a reader apparently. I only started showing signs after you left Terica.” I gave her a quizzical look.

“Okay okay… I heard my parents talking about finding the idol to restore Daniel’s health and they mentioned the Talisman. And I thought that it would be a good opportunity to practice my gifts, so I asked the steward if we could arrange it somehow.” Leah continued.

Something about what she said rang hollow. It was how carefully she chose her words. Then it dawned on me. “Wait a minute. Do your parents know that you’re here with me Leah?” I demanded.

She looked sheepish and I knew there was going to be trouble. I continued, “You mean to tell me that the King and Queen of Terica have no idea that their only daughter, the Princess of Terica, is currently on board a ship sailing for Isla Tamodo with a crew of people she doesn’t know and me?”

Leah shrugged, like that was the farthest worry from her mind.

“Okay, explain to me just how much trouble I’m in. Did you leave them a note, or just runaway?” I was angry. How could she not realize how much danger this put me and my crew in.

“Hang on Alex. It’s not like that.”

“Then tell me what it’s like.”

“Well, like I said, I asked the steward if there was anything we could do. He arranged to tell my parents that I was going to spend the summer season in Antipwa with my cousin learning governmental policy there. My father was beside himself with hope for my interest in politics and my cousin is going to cover for me. They don’t expect me back for another 4 months.” Leah grinned conspiratorially.

I breathed a deep sigh. “Why are you here Leah? Really?” I asked.

There was a long silence before she met my eyes. “Alex, why did you leave Terica two years ago?”

Ah, now we were getting to it. “I turned you into a competent fighter and a fantastic sailor. I did what Travis asked me to, but I had other jobs that had already been on hold for too long, and besides, there wasn’t anything else to teach you.” I explained.

“So it had nothing to do with that night on the quay and what I said to you?” Leah asked earnestly.

I flashed back to that night in my head. Leah had been my student, even though I wasn’t much older than her, and she was beautiful and funny, and so smart and sassy. Our year of lessons was full of getting to know one another and flirting and kissing in dark corners; all that in addition to teaching her how to sail and how to fight. I was nuts for her, but hadn’t really thought through the situation until that night on the quay. I never thought of her as a princess. She was just Leah. As we sat watching the fishing boats come into harbor with their lanterns swaying, Leah had started talking about how we could still see each other after her lessons were finished and how to introduce me to her father; about the small lies we might have to tell until the King and Queen got to know me better. I stayed silent for most of the rest of the night, but come morning I sent word to the steward telling him that Leah was well trained and business called me away from Terica. It would never have worked.

I hadn’t been back until the steward sent word asking if I would be willing to take a special trip for the King and Queen.

Before I could answer, she continued. “It’s fine Alex. I actually don’t want the real answer to that question. As far as I’m concerned it’s in the past. I’m here now because I care about my brother. I want him to live, but I also don’t want to be the ruler of Terica if he dies. I do have the skills of a reader and will be helpful in finding the idol when we get ashore, I promise. Until then, I’m just glad to be out on the water and one of the crew again.” Leah paused as if trying to find the right words to say. “I really am sorry I put you in this position.”

Leah got up to go. “I’ll do whatever you need me to do. No special treatment. You’ll hardly know I’m here.” And with that she strolled out of my office.

I thought I had gotten over her in the last two years, but as she closed the door behind her, all I wanted to do was take her in my arms and beg her forgiveness for the coward that I was. Leah sounded like she was over me, so what could I do besides give her what she wanted. She’d be a member of the crew and nothing else.

At least that’s what I thought that first night, and I made it about a week before I realized that she was never going to be just another member of the crew.

To keep the crew entertained on calm nights we had music and dancing after dinner on the deck. Under the stars my crew danced and sang and drank their allotted liquor.

“Play a slow one Vance! The captain needs to dance with the new girl. It’s tradition!” someone yelled.

I spotted Leah across the deck and made my way over. It was tradition aboard the Talisman to either spar with or dance with newcomers. I couldn’t refuse or it would look weird. She was just another member of the crew. I smiled as I walked, thinking that Leah might prefer to spar than to dance.

As I approached, Leah looked up from a conversation with Matilda. I bowed formally and stretched my hand out. “Would you honor me with this dance?” I asked. Leah looked toward Matilda who acknowledged that my request was genuine. Leah took my hand and followed me to the dance floor. My heart hammered in my chest as I pulled her close. The rest of the ship faded away as we twirled across the worn wooden deck. We didn’t speak a word. As the music slowed I came to my senses and released Leah back to Matilda and her newly acquired friends on board.

“Do ya know that she beat Marcus knot tying yesterday?” It was Terrance, my first mate. He continued on as if I had responded, “Don’t know where you found her, but she’s a real addition to the second watch team. Reminds me of your skills with the ropes. Don’t let that one get away Cap.” He finished and went to grab a bit more rum.

For the rest of the night I snuck glances at Leah, and more than once I found her glancing right back.

Another couple of weeks passed and we were making progress toward Isla Tamodo. Sometime in the next week, weather willing, we would spot land. I started to prepare the crew for what we would face on the island. The limited information I knew came from what the King and Queen had gleaned from the court Historian and Navigator.

Isla Tamodo was a small island with white sand beaches surrounding a jungled interior. The island was said to house several cave systems, one of which held the idol. It was said that the idol could cure any sickness if it was held while chanting the correct string of phrases. Apparently the King and Queen had already tracked down the correct phrases with the help of the court Historian. The cave we were looking for had three guardian carvings at the entrance. Also, the island itself was a source of magic, making any scientific navigational tools inaccurate. Having Leah to “read” the signs, if she was any good, would probably be a huge help in finding the cave, and then navigating through a hostile island back to the Talisman. Magical islands didn’t usually like it when you took their toys.

I called several meetings with my top officers and with Leah to work out details and strategies for our incursion onto the island. I had each of the four watches practice their swordplay, self defense, and hand to hand combat maneuvers just in case we ran into trouble. Leah quickly established herself as an exceptional fighter, as I knew she would. The crew was coming to depend on her expertise and they trusted her.

A week later, just as the sun rose over the horizon, we spotted Isla Tamodo in the distance. It grew larger and larger until we could see its inviting beaches and the start of its densely jungled interior.

I was at the helm looking for a good place to anchor when Leah approached me. She stood silent for a moment and then pointed a finger. “There is safe.” She indicated a small bay, sheltered on one side with a headland jutting out into the surf and on the other some rocky boulders. Leah stayed next to me for a few minutes as I adjusted our heading. I finally looked at her. “Stay alive out there tomorrow, Leah.” She winked at me and said, “I knew you still cared.” And then she strode off. It took every ounce of effort not to follow her and demand an explanation, hold her close, steal a kiss. I didn’t even know how she made me feel so confused all at once.

We anchored in the small bay and put our little dinghy in the water the next morning. Only 6 others would be joining Leah and I onto the island. The rest of the crew would be standing ready to make a quick getaway as soon as we returned with the idol.

As soon as the keel of the dinghy scraped sand Leah bounded out of the bow and waded through the surf. She kneeled on the dry sand and picked up handfuls to watch the grains run through her fingers. Leah had explained to us all that the first thing she needed to do was learn the workings of the island, touch it, listen to it, be it. Without the island accepting her or ignoring her, we didn’t have any hope of finding the idol.

Leah’s eyes closed and stayed closed for what seemed like hours. The rest of us went about securing the dinghy and surveying the jungle, which now seemed much bigger and more foreboding than it had from offshore on the Talisman.

“Got it.” Leah exclaimed loudly. “So just a reminder about how this works, so we’re all on the same page.” She waited a moment for the rest of us to gather around. “I’ll be sampling while we go. Don’t make any unnecessary noises, step in my footprints, pause when I do, move when I do. When we get to the cave, only the Captain and I enter. The rest of you take up defensive positions around the statues. No matter what happens, do not move. The island will try everything it can to scare you. Its capacity to do real harm is limited, but don’t mistake that for safety. Questions?”

Everyone looked to me, so I said solidly, “Leah is in charge here. You will follow her orders, even if they don’t make sense. I trust her with my life and so should you.” I got a quick volley of nods from the rest of them and a silently mouthed “thank you” from Leah.

With that, Leah started walking into the jungle and we all followed her. The jungle was dense, but as soon as Leah started touching leaves and taking in deep breaths of thick humid air, there was a path that appeared. Sometimes when the way was unclear, Leah dropped to her knees with her palms against the dirt and closed her eyes. It was as if Leah had asked the island for help and it had acquiesced.

After 2 hours of traipsing through the jungle behind Leah we came upon the three statue guardians and the cave in a clearing. The statues were arranged in a semicircle around the mouth of the cave, and to my surprise, they were facing the cave entrance. It was like they were keeping something in instead of keeping something out. The whole clearing sent shivers along my spine. The crew took up their agreed upon posts under the shadows of the statues and Leah and I approached the cave.

“Alex, wait.” Leah said as she grabbed my shoulder. I faced her and saw fear in her eyes. “You may see things inside the cave that aren’t real. The magic here feeds on fears; my fears, your fears, general fears. They’ll get worse the closer we get to the idol. Don’t respond in any way. Stay beside me and don’t let go of my hand.” I took her outstretched hand and squeezed her fingers in what I hoped was a reassuring way.

We started walking and the darkness swallowed us up more quickly than I thought possible. I couldn’t see anything in the dark, but Leah must have been able to read the walls and led us down through the cave. There was a sudden but gentle glow from ahead of us, illuminating a large cavern. At the opposite end was a podium with a small statue atop it. It was smaller than I imagined, and would fit nicely in my pocket. We started towards it slowly.

I heard Leah’s sharp intake of breathe and her hold on my hand tightened. Before I could consider what was happening to her, I found myself aboard the Talisman. We were in the middle of a massive storm. The masts had already broken and the hull was taking on water. A huge wave washed across the deck, sweeping Matilda overboard into the froth. Before I thought to cry out I felt pressure on my hand and was back in the cavern next to Leah. This is what Leah must have meant about it feeding on fear.

We kept walking, each of us pausing every couple of steps to endure another fear vision. It was slow progress toward the idol and I was starting to lose my cool. I had seen my ship sink, my crew get sucked overboard, my family back in Terica murdered, but I wasn’t prepared for the last vision as we stepped up to the podium.

It was Leah in the vision. She had a knife in her belly and she was covered in blood. She looked up at me with fading green eyes and said, “You’re a coward Alex. I will never love you.” And then she pulled the knife out of her own belly and shoved it into mine.

I doubled over, gasping for breath. I felt a clammy hand in my own and straightened up to see Leah looking at me with wide eyes and tears streaming down her cheeks. Her other hand was slowly heading towards my cheek, as if checking to see if it was the real me. I caught her fingers before they made it to my face and brought them to my lips. Leah shuddered, pulled her hand from mine, and looked away. I gently grabbed Leah’s chin and turned her face towards mine.

“Leah, I love you. I’ve loved you since the first day I saw you on the dock for our lessons and I’ve thought about you every day since I left Terica. I’m so sorry. I hope you can forgive me someday.” I said with a rush of breath. Leah looked at me with wide eyes, her tears having already dried. Before she could respond I continued, “We have a lot to talk about, I know, but can we get out of here alive with that idol before you lay into me?”

Leah heaved a frustrated sigh as she turned toward the podium and mumbled under her breath, “Men have the worst timing”.

Quickly Leah snatched the idol and dropped to the ground with her palms pressed flat to the stone. She chanted phrases I didn’t understand.

Suddenly she rose, grabbed my hand and started to run. “What’s happening?” I managed to get out. “Less questions, more running.” Leah yelled at me as rocks started to crumble from the ceiling.

We sprinted up the sloping tunnels toward the entrance, breathing hard. As we emerged into the light we saw the stone statues raise their arms towards us. Leah and I froze. Leah stared up into the face of the middle statue. “Alex, take the crew, follow the path, get to the beach.” Her eyes never left the statue. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t just leave her there. “Alex, go.” She gritted out, like she was using the rest of her energy somewhere else. “Captain, follow your own orders.” Leah commanded. With that I ran toward my crew who had stayed at the bases of the statues like they’d been told. I repeated Leah’s orders and we ran.

At the edge of the clearing I looked back. Leah mouthed “I love you” before she flung her palms to the ground and the world exploded. I heard myself screaming and hands were pulling me through the jungle toward the beach. When we finally fell onto the sand, the island was silent, as if waiting for something.

“Orders Captain?” My third mate asked.

“Take four in the dinghy back to the Talisman. Secure the idol. Three stay here in case Leah survived and can make it to the beach. Pick us up in the morning and we return to Terica.” I said stoically.

The third mate nodded, silently signaled to those who would join him and they made their way back to the ship.

I sank into the sand. I didn’t understand the magic of the island and I didn’t understand Leah’s own magic. Maybe she was just trying to teach the island a lesson with a show of force. Maybe she survived. She knew my protocols; If there was no immediate danger, a small contingent would wait for a crew member that had been accidentally or purposefully left behind. She had 24 hours to make it back to the beach.

I waited. And I waited. And I waited until I saw Leah’s limping figure emerge from the jungle’s edge. And then I ran.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Karen permalink
    April 6, 2021 12:14 pm

    More please!

  2. Yael Kisel permalink
    April 15, 2021 3:30 pm

    Yes, this needs to be longer – what happens next!?!

    • mlwattsupp permalink*
      April 19, 2021 5:39 pm

      I’m not sure what happens next, but I could see myself working on this and turning it into some kind of novella!

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