Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Weekly Story #33: Olafson's Medal

This time, a little goofball story about island castaways. For a while I thought about tying it in with a novel-in-progress that is also set on a deserted island, but decided I couldn't do it without rehashing everything. Even now, I keep picturing the Captain as an oddball version of Jean-Luc Picard, and the First Mate as Riker.

 

OLAFSON'S MEDAL

The mutiny began and ended in almost an instant, with the Captain and the First Mate being led at gun- and sword-point to one of the lifeboats and cast adrift on the open sea. The wind blew with a wintery chill. The stars sparkled in grand clusters before the Milky Way. The Captain said nothing. Even with the fastest boats, they were about a month from the nearest known land. The First Mate wondered how long it would take before he breathed his last.

He didn't want to believe it was true. He'd thought the crew was loyal, that he and the Captain had given them the best ship they could hope for. When the Captain asked "Why," the mutineers answered that the Captain had broken his promise. What promise, they wouldn't say.

Now the Mate could only mutter to himself, "Scoundrels. Vicious animals. Must have planned it from the beginning." So he and his Captain were left to die, and a band of pirates was on the loose. "What are we going to do?"

"Don't worry," the Captain said. "We're close."

"Close? Close to what?"

But the Captain didn't explain further.

Eventually, while staring at the crescent moon, the First Mate drifted off to sleep.

He woke when the boat jolted against something, and the Captain cried, "We made it! Just as I thought!" The Captain sprang to his feet and jumped out of the boat ahead of the Mate. They had run aground on sand in a small bay, with thick woods behind the beach, all lit by a bright sun. Waves whispered gently around the boat. The Captain ran to the top of one of the dunes and called back to the Mate, "Come on! We're safe!"

The First Mate lowered his foot into the water, let it sink into the sand, and staggered out of the boat. "Where are we?"

"Some uncharted isle. Well, almost uncharted. If my estimates are correct, at the time we were so unceremoniously expelled from our ship, we were only a short distance from an island that has only ever appeared on one Spanish map from a hundred years ago. The Spaniards described it as a place of incredible bounty and beauty. Oh, those bastards think they've killed us, but they've only blessed us!"

"It certainly is beautiful," the Mate said. "Not sure I see the bounty."

"We just need to explore a little." The Captain headed toward the forest. "This way!"

The Mate followed him through the trees. This island definitely seemed abundant with life. Many insects big and small buzzed among the shrubs, many rodents climbed the trees, and many birds of many colors flew over the canopy. When the Mate stopped to relieve himself, he nearly did so on the head of a black snake, but it just flicked its tongue at him and slithered away without any agitation.

"Ah, here we are." The Captain reached up and twisted a bulbous yellow fruit from one of the trees.

"Captain, are you sure that's a good idea?"

"If we're stuck on this island, we don't have many options. And there's only one way to find out." The Captain took a large bite. "Not bad. Try it."

The mate received it and took a bite of his own. It had a consistency somewhere between an apple and a potato, and somewhat of a tangy aftertaste. "All right. I suppose we can manage."

The two combed most of the island before nightfall, enjoying various fruits and berries along the way, and drinking from the streams. There were no major hills, and no mountains or valleys. The streams flowed out from a lake in the center. As the sun set, they gathered sticks to use for kindling and to build lean-tos by the lakeshore. The First Mate caught some fish for them to eat.

"So the Spaniards found this island?" the First mate said, tossing aside the remains of his fish. "But no one else?"

"None that I can find. It shows up on no other maps. They wanted to keep it away from prying eyes and destroyed whatever evidence they had. Before we set sail, I happened to acquire one of the surviving maps."

"How did you get it?"

"Cards."

"Aha. Well, I suppose it's just a good thing those would-be pirates haven't found it. But if we're the only ones who know about this island, how will anyone find us?"

"All in good time," the Captain said. "All in good time."

The First Mate had difficulty sleeping. Part of it was the discomfort of lying down on bare dirt beside a tree with only some sticks to protect him from the elements. The other part of it was the nagging questions he had about this island. Why did the Spanish not only abandon it, but try to erase it from memory? And how was anyone supposed to find him and the Captain and rescue them if no one knew where it was?

One thing occurred to the Mate first thing the next morning. "Captain," he called out, still lying in his lean-to, "that map of yours. The one that told you where this island would be. Where is it?"

"It's in my quarters, back on the ship," the Captain said from his own lean-to.

The Mate crawled out into the open. "And how well hidden is it? Would any of those pirates know it's there?"

"It's among my other papers, not that hard to find. But you'd have to know it's there."

"I'm just thinking," the Mate said, "there's a chance they might find that map, and come here looking for that 'bounty and beauty.'"

"Perhaps they will."

"You don't seem altogether concerned. If they find us, they might finish the job they started. Do you value your life?"

"Of course I do. But I don't think they'll kill us. It won't be possible to kill us." The Captain crawled out and sat up. "Because we'll have the treasure of this island."

The Mate shifted closer. "Treasure? This is the first I've heard."

"I play my cards very carefully. You see, the map came with a journal by a captain… oh, some Spanish name or another. They found something on this island that made whoever wielded it impervious to harm, as they learned when a tree fell on someone's head, but only ruffled his hair."

"And you believe this fairy tale?"

"I won it from the man's own grandson." The Captain lifted himself to his feet. "He said the crew came to believe the enchantment was demonic in nature." He put his boots on and went to the lakebed. "And in their superstition, they left it here, so no one would be 'corrupted' by it. Or, rather, they left it…" He gestured toward the lake. "Here."

The Captain waded in through the shallow waters, searching below, as if browsing for trinkets at a market. He bent down, reached into the water, and picked up a small disc, a medal made of still radiant gold.

"Right here, to be precise. Olafson's medal."

"Olafson? Doesn't sound too Spanish."

"No, the journal suggests it and other artifacts were left here by Vikings." The Captain carried the medal back to the shore. "And if so, they must have been some powerful Vikings. Hit me, Mate."

"Hit you?"

"We have to make sure it works, don't we? Grab a stick and whack me."

The First Mate picked up a tree branch. The Captain stood smiling with the medal in his fingers. But the Mate could never strike him. It was ludicrous. It would leave him little better than those mutineers back on the ship. "You can't ask me to—"

"This is an order," the Captain said. "I am still your captain, aren't I?"

He was, and the First Mate would sooner have died than disobey a direct order. That, at least, did put him above those treacherous pirates.

The First Mate gripped the stick with both hands, swung with all his strength, and hit the Captain across the shoulder.

Or, rather, a small distance away from the shoulder. Just before the stick would have made contact, it cracked, and half of it flew off, as if bouncing off of some invisible barrier. The Captain himself was unchanged, still smiling, still holding the medal. "Was that supposed to hurt?"

"Incredible," the Mate said.

"Let the pirates come," the Captain said. "Once they see I am invincible, they'll have no choice but to obey me again. They'll wish they listened to me when they had the chance."

The Mate followed his Captain through the woods to forage again for food. He couldn't deny anything about the medal, but something about the Captain bothered him. What did he mean by the crew members 'listening' to him? Somehow it sounded different from referring to regular captain's orders. The mutineers said he'd broken a promise. What could it have been?

More importantly, how much could the Mate himself rely on the Captain's invincibility?

Over the next week, the Mate began to reconstruct a possible scenario. One in which the Captain tantalizes some of the lower-ranked crew members with stories of an island containing a secret treasure. A treasure he has no intention of sharing with anyone—probably not the Mate, either. At some point, the crewmen realize the Captain's true intentions. In their anger, they start a mutiny. One that envelops the First Mate as well, despite his ignorance.

But now wasn't the time to suspect the Captain. The important thing was keeping their bellies full, so each day the two of them went through the woods scrounging for fruit. The Captain kept the medal in his pocket. The First Mate kept an eye on him.

On the eighth day, a ship appeared over the horizon. The First Mate watched it approach. The sails now had crude skulls-and-crossbones painted on them, but otherwise, he knew his own ship when he saw her. The pirates must have found the map and the journals.

The Captain grinned confidently.

The ship rolled in a little farther, then sent out a skiff. It was manned by four of the former deckhands, led by the leader of the mutiny, a man named Darby. He differentiated himself by wearing a red hat with a large feather in it. He must have assumed the role of captain.

"Welcome to our island," the Captain said. "How may we help you?"

Darby pulled out his flintlock, aimed at the captain's head, and fired.

The Mate jerked away at the burst, but the Captain remained standing. The bullet hit a tree instead.

"By God," Darby said, his arm going limp. "How?"

The Captain took the medal out of his pocket. "I assume you're here for this?"

The men behind Darby murmured among each other. Olafson's medal was now common knowledge, it seemed. Darby hostered his gun and took a step forward. "Then that's the treasure."

"The very same," the Captain said.

"The treasure you promised us when we started this damn voyage."

The First Mate moaned. "I had a feeling…"

"If I can't kill you…" Darby pointed his gun at the First Mate. "Turn it over or I put a bullet in his brain."

The Mate put his hands up and froze. "I swear I didn't know—"

"Shut up, I'm talking to him. C'mon, Captain. What're you going to do?"

"Now, there's no need to get aggressive." The Captain strolled across, and stopped right between Darby and the First Mate. "Now, since you're not the one with the enchanted artifact, you're not exactly in a position to make demands, are you? Take me and my first mate back onto your ship, or you get nothing."

"Nothing, eh? Sounds like what we're getting anyway."

"Are you? You have the only existing map to this island. You can come back here any time you want. Seems like a perfect safe haven to me." The Captain twirled the medal in his fingers. "Who knows? There might be even more treasure the Spanish never found."

Darby nodded, checked back to his crew, then looked back at the Captain. "That's a thought. I just still want the medal." Darby tossed his gun to the Captain.

It landed in the Captain's arms, and in the confusion, the medal dropped to the sand.

The First Mate shoved the Captain aside and scooped up the medal. At the same time, Darby had grabbed his gun again. Just as the First Mate brought himself upright, he found the barrel of a gun pressed to his chest. Darby fired..

The First Mate felt nothing. As the noise faded, he looked down, expecting blood pouring from his heart. Instead a black char radiated from the spot where Darby had aimed. The gun lay on the ground, its barrel split wide open. Darby was clutching his hand, now dripping blood, as his men clustered around him.

"Sorcery…" Darby said. "Vile sorcery…"

"Whatever it is, I'm not letting you have it," the Mate said. "Take me back to England, and end your aspirations of piracy, and I promise I'll forget all about your little mutiny. You'll all go free as soon as we reach land."

"Splendid!" the Captain said. "Just what I was thinking. Great minds, and all that."

"Who said I was bringing you?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Mr. Darby," the Mate said, "I'm to understand that he told you about this island and promised you a share in the treasure?"

"He did." Darby groaned in pain. "And then conveniently 'forgot' not long after."

"Just a slip of the mind," the Captain said.

"In that case, here." The Mate pressed the medal into the Captain's hands. "It's what you came for. I think you should keep it. Mr. Darby, shall we go?"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Darby said. "I don't care anymore. Let's go. Men, don't we have bandages on the ship?"

The First Mate followed the would-be pirates onto the skiff, with the Captain running after them. "Wait, what about me? You can't tell me you trust those criminals!"

"At this point," the First Mate said, "I trust them about as much as I trust you. Enjoy your treasure."

The First Mate and the crew cast off, leaving the Captain alone on the island.