Captain Stone was sitting on a crate near the door to his cabin, what fingers he had on his left hand wrapped around a pipe that was black against the night. The torches could only do so much to light their surroundings, and Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t see every detail of the man’s profile in that darkness. The stars above guided them on their route, but the moon was barely a crescent, and dim at that, so the torches were the best they could hope for.
“Captain Stone,” Rumpelstiltskin began, seeing the outline of the gruff sea captain flickering in the torchlight, “how long have you been sailing these routes?”
“I’ve already told you that, imp.” He grumbled before letting out a puff of smoke into the briny air above him.
“Well, tell me again.” Rumpelstiltskin leaned forward on his barrel to prop himself up on his knees. “I forgot.”
“You forget quite a bit,” Captain Stone commented, almost growling as he shifted on his crate and took another drag from his pipe, the embers flaring and lighting up his weathered face. When he let out that lungful, Captain Stone peered at the imp out of the corner of his eye. “You ever wonder how you could be so careless with your memories?”
“I’m careless with more than just my memories, Cap’n.” Rumpelstiltskin grinned at his older friend, earning a chuckle from his gravely throat.
“Isn’t that just the truth,” Captain Stone murmured, pointing at the sky with a pipe leaking out fumes of burnt tobacco. “I’ve been on these routes long enough to call those stars my friends, imp. They’ve gotten me out of more scrapes than I can count.”
“Well, you have less fingers than a usual person, so I imagine that’s not so hard,” Rumpelstiltskin teased, a glare coming from the sea captain.
“You watch your words, Rumpelstiltskin,” he growled. “I can always choose another cabin boy, or do without. Been on these seas long enough to handle my own ship.”
“Then why do you have a crew?” Rumpelstiltskin’s voice was so genuine it confused his captain. “What purpose does Merry and all of them serve if you can handle the Drifter all on your lonesome?”
“Jus’ because I can sail alone doesn’t mean I’d want to.” Captain Stone placed his lips on his pipe once more, taking a slow drag and breathing out the smoke with his next words. “Gets awful lonely out here on the waves, and the stars never talk back.”
“And you’re too lazy to do it on your own.”
“As good a reason as any, imp,” Captain Stone surrendered, letting out a soft chuckle as he leaned his back against the exterior walls of his quarters. “I’ve reached a point in my life where I can afford to hire other people to break their backs, and I can nurse my own aches and bark my orders in relative peace.”
“That doesn’t get boring? Don’t you ever want to jump in the fray and be a real sailor?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, rocking along with the swells of the waters beneath them. Shaking his head as he patted his pipe against his palm, Captain Stone looked to the starboard side and sighed.
“From time to time—and I do, imp. Sometimes, I do miss being a simple sailor. Being a captain comes with… certain responsibilities, and my men are counting on me to make it all worth their while.”
“Especially Merry,” the Captain answered quickly, wagging his empty pipe toward the imp. “The man’s first-rate, but Lord knows he has a mouth on him.”
“That’s why I like him.”
“I, as well, imp, but that kind of insubordination has a way of leaking into fellow sailors.”
“I heard that,” a man interrupted behind them, and Rumpelstiltskin peered over the cabin door to see Merry smirking above the wheel of the ship. Already the brawny, dark-haired man’s part in the conversation was over—just a snippy comment to let them know they were not alone—so neither Rumpelstiltskin nor Captain Stone gave it further thought. Even though the night crew was milling about and maintaining the ship, it was as if the captain was alone with his cabin boy.
“So why don’t you do anything about the insubordination? Doesn’t that kind of thing lead to mutiny?” Rumpelstiltskin asked after resettling on his barrel, the captain shrugging as he took a pouch from his belt and withdrew another pinch of dried tobacco.
“Hasn’t become a problem, yet,” Captain Stone explained, nodding toward the imp for further proof. “And I would never have hired a cabin boy just because he was on the run with his cat, even a few years earlier. I must be going soft in my later years.”
“Your belly is quite soft.”
“Told you to watch yer words, imp,” Captain Stone warned once more, but his focus was on the pipe he was holding up to the torch above his left shoulder.
Once he was satisfied, the captain retrieved the pipe and set the mouthpiece against his chapped lips, taking in air to let the tobacco turn to embers behind his cupped hand. After a series of puffs, Captain Stone dropped the pipe and then turned his attention to the starboard side once more. From his profile it was difficult to watch, but Rumpelstiltskin managed to see the man’s face crinkle up, his crow’s feet becoming more pronounced in the flickering torchlight.
“What’s wrong?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, leaning forward so much he fell off his barrel. The imp nursed his new, temporary bruise for a moment, but once he noticed that Captain Stone had not reached out or even reacted, Rumpelstiltskin realized something important must have happened. Standing up, the imp bounded over to the railing and looked to the horizon, trying to find the mystery among the dark waves that had stolen his captain’s attention.
There was the shadow of an island a few miles away, the jagged outline of trees barely visible in the moonlight, but nothing was too mysterious about an island in the dark.
“Is it that island?” Rumpelstiltskin asked the obvious, but when he turned back to the captain, he saw more than just confusion. “Have you never seen an island like that before?”
“No, imp. I’ve never seen an island like that.”
“What’s so special about it?”
“Simply put, it’s not supposed to be there.” Captain Stone picked himself off his crate and lugged his heavy body over to the railing next to Rumpelstiltskin, who didn’t know why this was such a big deal.
“Maybe you’ve just never sailed this way before, Cap’n.”
“No excuses there, imp,” Captain Stone replied, tapping his pipe against the railing as he thought. “Been on this route dozens of times. Would have seen it.”
“You can’t be sure of that,” Rumpelstiltskin added, projecting his ludicrous perspective onto the captain’s statement, but the gruff sailor would not be moved.
“I can, Rumpelstiltskin. Nothin’s wrong with my memory,” Captain Stone replied, biting his lip before yelling up at the man in the Crow’s Nest. “Pickery, you useless sack of manure, what fresh hell are you doing up there?”
“What do you mean, Cap’n?”
“You’re just gonna ignore that island out there?” Captain Stone shouted, and Rumpelstiltskin heard Pickery gasp from his perch at the top of the ship.
“Captain… we aren’t supposed to see land for another week, at least. I—I didn’t think to look,” Pickery tried to make excuses, and Rumpelstiltskin turned back to Captain Stone for his furious reaction. Sailors not doing their job was cause for more than just a temper tantrum, but Rumpelstiltskin was shocked to find the captain mulling over his scout’s words.
“That’s fine, Pickery,” he muttered, just loud enough for his sailor to hear from his perch. “You were right to think that.”
“So…” Rumpelstiltskin began, waiting for the captain’s attention before realizing it wasn’t coming. “Did you want to explore the island? It sounds like an adventure…”
“It sounds like much more trouble than its worth,” Captain Stone replied before knocking his pipe against the railing and letting ashes fall to the waves. “We’ll ignore it.”
“But… but…” Rumpelstiltskin wanted to argue, but the captain had already turned away and was heading back to his cabin.
“Keep course, Merry. We’ll pretend it’s not there,” Captain Stone said to his man at the wheel, who had been paying attention to the drama but had the right mindset not to question his captain’s orders.
“Will do, Cap’n.” Merry accepted his orders, but Rumpelstiltskin wasn’t finished. Rushing up to Captain Stone just as he pulled open the door, the imp yanked on the hem of his coat. He tried to seem determined when the captain peered over his shoulder.
“Who knows what’s on that island, Captain?”
“Exactly,” the man replied before heading into the relative dark below decks, the door slamming shut inches from Rumpelstiltskin’s face. The imp’s sense of childish wonder was bruised by that sudden rejection, and he decided to pout on the crate where Captain Stone had just been sitting.
“It’s the right choice, Rumpelstiltskin.” Merry had been the one to interrupt his pouting, and the imp looked toward the wheelman with a scowl. “There’s always tales of sailors landing on islands and never leaving. The captain just wants to make sure we’re not one of those stories.”
“Not all those stories are bad, Merry.”
“Enough of them are,” the sailor replied before clearing his throat and nodding at the door beneath him.
“Go to your hammock and try to forget. It’s better that way.”
“Aren’t you curious what’s on that island?” Rumpelstiltskin watched the sailor sigh and look to the dark shape on the horizon.
“Of course, but I’m young and full of vigor,” Merry replied, laying his forearm across the top of the wheel. “I’m bound to make foolish decisions like investigating an island that’s not supposed to be there.”
“But doesn’t that sound like fun?”
“Yes, it does, imp, which is exactly why Captain Stone doesn’t want it,” Merry answered, yawning as he looked away from the island and focused on the imp who was about to throw a fit. “Fun is for children and fools. Captains are running a business, and the first order of a business like that is making sure the crew stays safe… or at least safe enough.”
“I don’t much mind not being safe,” Rumpelstiltskin replied to the floorboards, but Merry had no knowledge of the imp’s invulnerability.
“Which means you’re a child, a fool, or both,” Merry replied, a wry smile on his face when Rumpelstiltskin looked back. “You do give the impression of that third option.”
“I wish you would stop making fun of me…”
“I only do it out of envy,” Merry commented, looking off into the distance with a heavy heart. “And I’m sure the captain does, too.”
“You really think so?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, but Merry was too smart to continue the conversation.
“Go to sleep, imp. Let the island become a memory,” he said, his final words on the subject, and Rumpelstiltskin huffed at his defeat.
Realizing there was little to do on the deck at this time of night, the imp walked over to the hatch leading to the lower decks, promptly falling down the stairs once the ship rocked over a larger wave.
Although he groaned after the dozen impacts, the imp was unharmed, so he got back to his feet and then wandered through the underbelly of the ship until he could find his empty hammock swinging in a circle. After failing to catch the rough material for a few seconds, Rumpelstiltskin finally grabbed hold and then began the awkward climb into its embrace. His grunts earned the bleary-eyed attention of a half-asleep sailor nearby, but eventually the imp was in his hammock and being rocked to sleep by the waves of a calm sea.
What frustration he experienced over the mysterious island only kept him awake for so long, and soon he was dreaming of ways he could lead an innocuous mutiny against Captain Stone so they could investigate every odd island that appeared on a more interesting horizon. The captain was a good fit as a cabin boy in Rumpelstiltskin’s fantasy, and he seemed much happier for the lack of responsibility.
Those dreams were interrupted by the impact of Rumpelstiltskin’s face against the floor, and the dazed imp climbed to his feet to see every sailor in Captain’s Stone crew rushing to the stairs. Deciding that this was odd—even for his very odd life—Rumpelstiltskin followed the sailors to find all of them looking over the starboard side of the ship. There was no real way for Rumpelstiltskin to break through the crowd, so he instead sprinted back to the wheel, where Captain Stone and Merry were alone and looking into the distance.
“What’s going on?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, but soon he could peer through the gap between the captain and his sailor, and what he saw made his childish spirit soar.
Just a hundred yards away was the shoreline of the island from the night before, and Rumpelstiltskin was giddy about that turn of events. While the imp was asleep, Captain Stone must have changed his mind—or Merry might have changed it for him—and now Rumpelstiltskin could have the adventure he had mulled over throughout his dreams. Jumping forward and gripping the railing with knobby fingers, Rumpelstiltskin looked up at the captain and found the man wearing his usual glower.
“So when do we go to shore?”
“We don’t, imp,” Captain Stone replied, dashing the imp’s hopes against the rocks. Confused by the sudden turn, Rumpelstiltskin looked to Merry on Captain’s Stone other side.
“But then why did you change course so we could go to the island?”
“We didn’t.” Merry did not stop staring at the island. “Or, at least, I didn’t. I swear, Cap’n, the island moved this way.”
“You don’t have t’swear, Merry,” Captain Stone replied, his hand shaking as he dragged fingers through his scraggly, grey and black beard. “I believe you without bringing the Lord into it.”
“The island moved?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, his face brightening even more at the idea. Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t understand why his friends’ faces were filled with horror, but nothing this exciting had happened for months. “I didn’t know islands could do that.”
“They can’t, Rumpelstiltskin,” Merry answered, which made Rumpelstiltskin feel better for his ignorance. Deciding that exploration was now the only way forward, Rumpelstiltskin grunted and then headed to the lifeboats down at the other end of the ship.
“Well, I’m going to go explore, then,” Rumpelstiltskin declared, but he was only halfway down the deck when he felt someone pull on the collar of his shirt. None of the sailors along his way had done anything but stare, but Rumpelstiltskin turned around to see Captain Stone glaring down at him.
“No yer not, imp. It’s too dangerous,” he stated plainly, but Rumpelstiltskin swept his arm in front of him and took Captain Stone’s hand off his collar.
“There’s clearly something on that island that wants to meet us, and I’m not going to let it wait any longer. Maybe the island wants to meet us.” Rumpelstiltskin pondered the idea, a wide grin on his face as he walked back to the rowboat. “Wouldn’t that be such a great story?”
“Rumpelstiltskin, this is not a debate.” Captain Stone stomped the deck for emphasis, but the imp only laughed at his display.
“You’re right. I’m just going to go, and you should come with me,” Rumpelstiltskin said, just able to reach the knots of the rope that held the rowboat in place against the side of the ship. When he turned back to face their captain, Merry was standing beside the stockier man.
“Rumpelstiltskin, who knows what’s on that island?” Merry asked, which made the imp hunch forward and grip the air in front of him.
“Exactly.” He loved having the chance to turn the captain’s previous words of warning into encouragement. “I want to be the one to know, and so do you, Merry! And so do you, Cap’n!”
“I don’t want to know what’s on that island, imp,” the captain replied, but Rumpelstiltskin straightened up and wagged a finger at him.
“Yes, you do, Cap’n. You’re just looking out for the safety of your men, which I can respect,” the imp said with an exaggerated wave toward his chest, bowing with the effort. When he stood back up, he pointed back at the island off the side of the ship. “But there’s something out there and it’s going to keep chasing us until we find out what it is.”
“If we sail now—”
“It might chase after us and run the ship aground,” Rumpelstiltskin argued, his hands on his hips as he looked down his nose at the captain. It was a feat considering their relative size, but the imp accomplished it, just the same. “And just how safe would your crew be if an island runs into your ship?”
“I doubt an island could match our speed, imp.” Captain Stone crossed his arms, but the imp saw the flicker of doubt in his steel-grey eyes.
“And yesterday you didn’t know they could move at all,” Rumpelstiltskin said, puffing out his chest in victory. “So what makes you so certain it can’t move faster than us?”
“He’s… got a point, Cap’n,” Merry commented, earning the captain’s ire and a sidelong glare.
“No, he doesn’t, Merry, and you’re about to get lashes in his stead.”
Despite his authority, Merry shrugged off his captain’s threat and nodded at the island.
“No, I’m not. Because the three of us are about to get in that rowboat and find out why this island is so hell-bent on getting us to explore it,” Merry ventured. Rumpelstiltskin thought he might have to walk off the plank Captain Stone mentioned in his worse threats, but Merry squared up and gestured toward their leader with a flick of his wrist. “C’mon, Cap’n. You were just talking last night about how you miss being a simple sailor, even if it was just hints. Stop thinking like a captain for one minute and think about what you’d do if you were just a man.”
“I’m not just a man anymore, Merry. Been a captain too long,” Captain Stone replied, but the soft nature of his tone was enough to give Merry more confidence.
Walking up to Rumpelstiltskin’s side, the sailor drew the rope from the knot holding the rowboat in place, and then beckoned Captain Stone toward the splash beneath them.
“Now’s your chance to take a break,” Merry said, and it was an anxious moment as the crew watched their captain to see how he would react.
This could have been the moment Merry pushed too far and ended up in the waves, or the moment their twisted imp was left stranded on a migrating island, but instead, it was the moment their stocky captain heaved himself over the side and climbed down a rope leading to the rowboat knocking against the side of the hull.
“Keep the ship ready to leave at a moment’s notice, lads,” Merry commented as he gestured for Rumpelstiltskin to follow after Captain Stone. As the imp crawled over the railing and shimmied down the rope, he heard Merry’s further instructions to the rest of the crew. “And don’t you dare steal Captain Stone’s ship. You know only one man should ever be the Drifter’s captain, even when he decides to explore a magical island.”
“That’s more than enough, you dog,” Captain Stone called after the obstinate sailor, but Merry was all grins when he rolled over the edge and rappelled down with the aid of the rope. Once he was settled on the far bench, Captain Stone growled at his subordinate. “Fer all that, you’re going to be the one rowing.”
“I assumed that, Cap’n.” Merry gathered the oars, and Rumpelstiltskin could tell Captain Stone wanted to berate the man further but wouldn’t.
Although he lapped cerulean seawater into his mouth and promptly spat it out—only wanting a taste since he had forgotten the specific feel of it—Rumpelstiltskin soon hunkered onto his own bench and looked at the island growing in front of him. To the accompaniment of Merry’s stifled grunts, they approached the island, and while Rumpelstiltskin’s grin grew ever wider, he realized that Captain Stone must have been having a very different reaction. However, he could only see the stocky captain’s back, and so he lunged forward so he could see the man’s profile.
Although his disposition immediately soured upon seeing the imp’s crooked nose and beady, black eyes, Rumpelstiltskin could have sworn he saw the hint of a smile on the captain’s face. Just knowing that made the imp realize this was the right decision, and he was haughty and full of confidence as they rolled into the surf teasing the island’s shore. A wave almost overtook them and turned them over when they were so close, but the rowboat shifted just enough, and Merry soon climbed out of the boat so he could push them into the sand.
Knowing that was too great an effort for one man, Captain Stone and Rumpelstiltskin jumped out to help him, though the captain was the only one to contribute to the effort. The imp’s feet barely touched the white sand beneath, and he did his best to act inspiring. In addition, that was only when he wasn’t accidentally gargling seawater, so by the time they were on the beach and looking at the interior of the island, Rumpelstiltskin felt like he had yet to be much of help.
However, the imp mused, that would change now that he could lead the expedition.
“Let’s go, gentlemen,” Rumpelstiltskin declared, taking great strides with his tiny legs, and he could hear the grown men chuckling behind him.
“Don’t remember a proper time I could have ever been called one of those,” Merry replied, drawing a hearty sigh from their captain.
“Even as a babe, gentle was nothing I could have hoped for,” Captain Stone added, causing the imp to turn around to look at the drenched men, who had a fresh coating of dry sand clinging to their lower bodies.
“You’re always gentle to me,” Rumpelstiltskin said before turning around, not realizing the effect those words would have.
Filled with warmth, Merry and Captain Stone followed after Rumpelstiltskin, who tromped into the tropical flora of the island without much trepidation. Once they were past the tree line, however, the seamen would not allow Rumpelstiltskin to rush headlong into danger, so they used their longer strides to advance ahead of the childlike imp they had come to know and love.
Rumpelstiltskin lamented his loss of position, but when the shadows of the thickets to their sides became menacing, he didn’t quite mind having two musclebound men standing between him and whatever was lurking there. Something about this island was disturbing, but Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t place a finger on it. Everything seemed so vibrant and colorful, but beyond the calls of birds from somewhere else on the island, there was nothing to interrupt his thoughts. When they reached the crest of a hill, Captain Stone turned and looked to Merry with a grunt, earning a nod in return.
“Oh, no, did you say something and I didn’t realize?” Rumpelstiltskin asked in alarm, but Captain Stone shook his head and looked forward.
“No, imp. We just noticed something you didn’t,” he commented, leaving Merry to turn back and explain.
“There’s no wildlife, here.”
“What are you talking about?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, pointing to the canopy of the forest above them. “I heard some birds talking to each other.”
“But you haven’t seen ‘em.” Captain Stone waved at their surroundings, biting his lip all the while. “I’ve been trying and there hasn’t been one. Haven’t seen no crabs, no birds, no mice, no snakes. There’s not even a bug to slap off our necks. Just the appearance of a forest. Just trees and bushes and a path that’s too convenient.”
“A path?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, his confusion overwhelming until he looked down and saw the dirt beneath him. It was faint, but there was a path underfoot that was wide enough for two sailors to walk abreast. Then he realized that was how they already been acting, and that became a whole new source of confusion. “But where did it come from?”
“That’s what we noticed, imp, and now you’re caught up.” Merry turned to their captain with a sigh. “So what do you wanna do? Do you want to go back and call it a wash?”
“Imp wanted to explore,” Captain Stone replied, taking heavy steps forward while nervously rolling around his pipe in his right hand. “Only right to see it through.”
“And what if we regret it?” Merry asked, earning a scoff.
“We’re men of the sea, Merry.” Captain Stone swept his left hand in front of him so he could move an errant frond out of their way. “If we don’t earn our regrets honestly, that would be its own regret.”
“Aye, Cap’n.” Merry surrendered with a shrug before turning back to Rumpelstiltskin with a nod. The imp took his cue and rushed after the sailor, surprising the man by taking hold of his hand and interlocking his fingers with Merry’s. Although it was odd for a grown man to hold hands with an imp, Merry did not raise the issue, and they continued after their captain.
It was a sweltering day, and even the leaves of the trees and bushes beside the path seemed to be sweating along with the sailors. Without the nuisance of mosquitos or wildlife to contend with, hiking through a tropical jungle was almost a nice way to exercise, but anxiety gnawed at them with each passing minute. That they were alone on this island only gave rise to the suspicion that something bad was about to happen, and the hidden nature of that something frayed their nerves. Even Rumpelstiltskin was affected despite his invulnerability, and he wondered if Sir Death would have a way to explain this island if the imp called to him.
However, Rumpelstiltskin didn’t want to distract the reaper when he was likely doing something important, so he shored up his confidence and let go of Merry’s hand so he could rush forward. He didn’t realize how that recklessness might affect his friends, but the imp was desperate to get to the next act of this adventure. Delaying it further would only make him feel queasy and more nervous, and so he ran along the path, praying that the end of the worn path would at least provide some answers. Merry and Captain Stone yelled after him, of course, but Rumpelstiltskin made his tiny legs carry him as fast as they could, and by the time he was out of breath, he didn’t quite mind.
For when he was heaving and propping himself, bent over and clutching his knees, Rumpelstiltskin had reached a clearing that might provide some explanation. He was sure Captain Stone wanted to reprimand him for his reckless sprint, but the older man was so surprised by the pyramid in the tropical clearing that he could only imitate Rumpelstiltskin, catching breath his stocky body needed much more than his immortal companion.
“Well, at least we’ve got somewhere to look.”
Merry had interrupted their heaving, and Rumpelstiltskin turned back to see the athletic man breathing just a little harder than usual. Forgetting to be tired, Rumpelstiltskin followed the sailor’s lead and turned back to the pyramid, seeing nothing more than a pile of stone built by someone with a penchant for geometry. There was no opening in the twenty-foot tall structure, just a staircase leading to the apex, which had some sort of altar on top.
“What do you think is on that thing, Merry?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, unaware that he was already taking steps toward the construct.
“Careful, imp.” Captain Stone was still bent over, but he had recovered slightly from his unexpected exercise. With a sharp intake of breath, the captain straightened his posture and then approached his cabin boy. “We don’t know what traps are lying in wait for us.”
“Well, we won’t know until we spring them,” Rumpelstiltskin said with a smile, running away from his captain despite the man’s frantic spurt of a grunt. Although he understood Captain Stone’s concern—he only suspected the imp’s true nature—Rumpelstiltskin did not want either of his friends to find their way up the pyramid to encounter some otherworldly curse. Whatever the island’s architect had in store, it was unlikely that it would overcome the hex determining Rumpelstiltskin’s destiny.
However, each much-larger-than-they-should-be-step held no true danger for any who would dare approach. After a minute of running up the steps and rushing headlong against gravity’s whims, Rumpelstiltskin was at the altar he had spied from the ground. It stood just above the height of the imp’s sternum, which meant it was only the height of Captain Stone’s hips once he joined Rumpelstiltskin on the top of the pyramid.
“I swear, imp, you stop when I tell you to stop, or so help me even the Lord won’t save you,” Captain Stone threatened, but Rumpelstiltskin knew it was empty. He only sneered over his shoulder for a moment before returning his gaze to the altar, which was decorated in ancient runes. Or, at least, that was what the imp surmised, as the wind had eroded away the finer details, only leaving the suggestion of some ancient written word.
The only thing Rumpelstiltskin could clearly see was a bracelet set at the center of the altar, the centerpiece a blue jewel that seemed to be touching the inner circle of the stone groove that held it in place.
“You’ll save me before any Lord does,” Rumpelstiltskin replied, still looking over the jewelry on the altar.
“What do you think it is?”
“Captain, what’s going on up there?” Merry called from far away, leaving Rumpelstiltskin to assume that climbing the pyramid was too daunting a task for the sailor. He assumed, because Rumpelstiltskin did not turn back to look at Captain Stone, who yelled down at Merry instead of paying attention to the boy at his side.
“I’m stopping the imp from being stupid. Stay down there,” he commanded, but he should have never looked away.
While Captain Stone was talking to Merry, Rumpelstiltskin had reached forward and removed the bracelet from its groove, and he was looking over the piece in his hand just as Captain Stone realized what he had done. After fiddling with the device for a moment, Rumpelstiltskin could see the centerpiece with the jewel could rotate in place, which by itself was enough to amaze.
“Rumpelstiltskin… you fool,” Captain Stone said, but the imp merely turned to smile back, the bracelet already on his wrist with the gem touching his leathery skin. In that moment, all care for the imp was tempered by the fact that he was such a fool, and Captain Stone desired nothing more than to knock some sense into Rumpelstiltskin. So, it was no real surprise when he tried to slap the imp and chide him for his behavior.
It was a surprise, however, when Rumpelstiltskin flinched and the captain’s open palm sailed through his head.
“What the…” Captain Stone murmured, but then the ground beneath them shook, and Merry called out from the base of the pyramid.
“Uh, I hate to be the coward, but all that shaking makes it seem like we need to get back to the ship!” he yelled, but it would be a moment before Captain Stone or Rumpelstiltskin could listen. The imp was still looking up in fear, and it did not take long for the creases on Captain Stone’s face to wrinkle with shame.
“I’m… I’m sorry, imp. I didn’t mean that,” Captain Stone began, the shaking ground not enough to undermine the importance of his apology. “I… I reacted poorly, but we have to—”
“I’m sorry,” the imp interrupted, looking down and away from his captain. It broke Captain Stone’s heart to see it, but Rumpelstiltskin felt the full effect of the slap even without it making contact with his cheek. “I didn’t mean to make you worry. I just—”
“It’s alright, Rumpelstiltskin,” Captain Stone said, warily placing his hands on the imp’s shoulders and expecting them to pass through. However, they made contact, and the captain realized Rumpelstiltskin had quite the treasure on his wrist. Once the imp lifted his shame-filled gaze, Captain Stone realized they did not have the time for a full conversation. “It’s alright, but we need to move. You know I was just scared, right?”
“Good, I’ll make it up to you, then,” Captain Stone said, peering over the imp’s shoulder to see Merry staring at them in indignation. “You can keep that bracelet, there, but we have to get to the Drifter. It’s dangerous here.”
“I know,” Rumpelstiltskin said, feeling like he should kick the dirt at his feet. However, when he tried, his toes dragged through empty air and he was distracted from the captain’s apology.
Immediately, whatever wonder he felt at that turn was replaced by fear for his friends, so he grabbed the captain’s hands and pulled him down the stairs of the pyramid. There were a few bounds where they faltered, but the illusory nature of the island somehow compensated for their missteps. Soon they were on the ground, and Merry did not say a word before bounding back to the path and, hopefully, the shore where they had left the rowboat.
Captain Stone and Rumpelstiltskin ran after him, the imp releasing the man’s hand from his grip so they could focus on their journey, and they saw the island shifting around them. Trees bent every which way, bushes became blurs, whatever sounds the fake birds were making became warped, shriller or deeper depending on how long they lasted. Rumpelstiltskin didn’t understand why any of it was happening, but he knew they needed to reach the ship, and he was grateful to see Merry already pushing the rowboat into the surf.
All three of them pushed the rowboat into deeper water, and once they were beyond the first crashes of waves, the sailors hauled themselves into the boat. Rumpelstiltskin didn’t quite have the strength to pull himself into the safety of the rowboat, but he gripped the side and treaded water until either Merry or Captain Stone would notice. Because of their alarm, it took them a little longer than the imp would have preferred, but eventually Captain Stone let go of his oar and turned back, growling at Rumpelstiltskin’s imposition.
“C’mere, imp,” he said, trying to take hold of Rumpelstiltskin’s hand, but the almost-slap on top of the pyramid flashed back through the imp’s head and his fear manifested itself through the bracelet. Captain Stone’s hand flickered through his flesh, but what was most alarming was that Rumpelstiltskin fell completely beneath the waves.
At first, the imp panicked, but as he sank to the sand ten feet beneath the rowboat, Rumpelstiltskin realized that he was not drowning. Everything was placid while looking up at the reflective, shimmering surface of the water, and if not for the horror on his captain’s face, Rumpelstiltskin would have felt oddly at peace.
However, there was Captain Stone’s face to contend with, and Rumpelstiltskin further realized that whatever the captain had done at the top of the pyramid, it was a reaction he could not have controlled. It was borne out of concern—not intended for any real harm—and the captain’s visible anguish allowed Rumpelstiltskin to see how much the man really cared. This salty, stocky, swearing man of the sea had no family. Only a crew, and in that way, he was always alone.
In that moment, Rumpelstiltskin realized why Captain Stone had taken him as a cabin boy in the first place. On that dock, chased by men who intended to hurt him, Rumpelstiltskin had been a soul alone in the world and Captain Stone had seen his cruel fortune, forging an instant bond. A bond that, in this moment, Captain Stone thought was being broken, and Rumpelstiltskin no longer felt any degree of fear. He only wanted to relieve the captain of his pain, see him smile and chuckle once more.
Lifting his wrist, Rumpelstiltskin turned the centerpiece of his bracelet and felt his body become tangible. The riptide almost took his body, but the air in his lungs buoyed him to the point that Captain Stone’s arm could break through the shimmering surface and wrap around Rumpelstiltskin’s body. With a herculean effort, the captain pulled them both back into the rowboat, and Rumpelstiltskin sputtered out seawater, almost as a way to excuse his tardiness in returning to a man who cared a great deal for him.
“I’m sorry,” Rumpelstiltskin started, but one look from the heaving, soaked captain was enough to stop him.
“Nothing to be sorry for, imp. We both did something we shouldn’t have,” he implied, but Merry did not know what had taken place on the top of that pyramid.
“All three of us did. Look,” he prompted, and the others looked along his pointed arm to see the island shimmering behind them. It violently shook within their vision for a moment, but eventually it became translucent and then faded from existence, causing Merry to place his oar on his lap. “It’s like a dream.”
“Maybe…” Rumpelstiltskin muttered, looking down at his wrist and finding the bracelet that clearly had everything to do with it. “Maybe it was, and someone made it real.”
“How would they have done that?” Merry asked as he turned back to them, but Captain Stone gripped Rumpelstiltskin’s wrist before he could show off the bracelet glimmering there.
“We’ll never know,” Captain Stone said, looking down at the imp with a heavy sigh. “We’ll never know what happened on that island.”
“We’ll never know,” Rumpelstiltskin repeated, realizing in that moment that Captain Stone was right. There was no one to ask, and he doubted even Sir Death could have an answer. In dismay, Rumpelstiltskin looked back at the island and then had a moment of clarity. A smile appeared on his face as he realized he did not need an answer—that the story itself and living through it was all he could have wanted—and he wondered if his friends might feel the same. Looking up at Captain Stone, he saw the older man looking toward the faded illusion, and Rumpelstiltskin let out a contented grunt at the slight glimmer he found.
They had been stone before that day and would be again, but while looking after the faded island, there was the reflection of a vibrant sea in Captain Stone’s eyes.