Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2018 finalist, Arhana Aatresh! Arhana finished 7th grade this past school year. The story submitted is called “The Hidden Cup.” One of our judges said: “[Arhana] set her characters on a path to make choices between personal and global stakes, which is a key to any great story.” Enjoy!
“Prak!” the woman cried. “Prak! Take her and run!”
Prak ran and snatched their crying three-year-old daughter and began to run down the stairs of their two-story hut. The woman, Melea, sprinted after them.
A raging fire was consuming the forest. The small family ran out the door, just as the blaze began to demolish their hut ― their livelihood and existence. Suddenly Melea tripped, falling among tree branches. Prak only realized their tiny company was missing a member after they had run far ahead. He turned around and watched in horror as his wife struggled to free herself from the branches, the deadly fire advancing on her. Prak quickly set his daughter down and knelt down to speak to her.
“Alupa,” he spoke urgently, “Run. Run far away from here. If someone finds you, tell them your name. You will live a better life. I need to help your mother.”
Alupa watched, stunned, as her father raced to help her mother. She turned and ran as fast as she could. Not until she heard a faint cry of, “Alupa, we always love you. Be safe,” did her step falter. A torrent of tears silently flooded her face as she continued to flee, refusing to look back, fearing what her gaze would reveal. After what seemed like ages, the three-year-old collapsed. She lay there sleeping until a man in black appeared and took her aboard his sedan chair, far away from sight.
Twelve Years Later
Why do I have to hold an umbrella over his head? How did I become a lowly laborer just because my parents died? Alupa thought and sighed. Well, I guess I am doomed to servant life, she gloomily reflected.
Alupa and her master were journeying from southern Thailand across Cambodia east to Vietnam to visit his sister, who had fallen ill. They were traveling through the ancient ruins of Angkor, covered in lush greenery.
Exhausted from walking for days under the glare of the intense sun, Alupa only focused on placing one foot in front of the other. However, something caught her eye ― a stone tablet partially concealed in the wild undergrowth. Finally, curiosity got the better of her. She inconspicuously handed the umbrella she was holding to another servant girl and walked over to the stone tablet, all the while stealing glances at her master and hoping he wouldn’t notice. Alupa picked up the tablet and gasped. A message in Khmer, the native language, was engraved in it! Out of the little traveling troupe, only she could understand the lingo. Alupa scanned the tablet and realized it was a clue! It said, “To the west, you shall find the artifact ― the solution to the problem. Peace shall be restored. The towering tree whose branches bless the temple marks the spot. Once there, you shall face a difficult choice. Beware.”
Alupa glanced up, only to be greeted by a beggar girl’s dirty, ragged face.
“I can read Khmer, too. What do you think it means?” she inquired once Alupa recovered from her shock of the tablet and the girl’s sudden appearance.
The girls began a conversation; Alupa learned her name was Lakuda and that she too was an orphan. They were very similar, regarding their backgrounds and personalities, and both wanted to accomplish something in their lives. The girls decided to follow the clue. What was there to lose? However, the problem of Alupa’s master remained.
“I know what to do,” Alupa assured Lakuda. She whispered her plan to the beggar girl.
Alupa walked up to her master and began talking to distract him while Lakuda ravaged through the supply store. Lakuda signaled to Alupa, marking the conclusion of her raid, so the servant girl concluded her speech.
“You have mistreated me for the twelve years I’ve served you in my fifteen-year life. I need a chance to see the world. I renounce my servanthood.”
Lakuda sprang up from her hiding place with the supplies, watching Alupa’s master become red and purple in the face, flustered and stuttering at the sudden rebellious soliloquy, and the other servants, who eyed Alupa with envy and admiration.
Alupa didn’t wait for him to respond, and she and her friend ran off to the west, away from the master and his life.
Half a Day Later
After traveling west for almost a day, Alupa and Lakuda discovered a hidden burrow for shelter. They slept there for the night and continued their journey the next day ― May 17, 1819. The sweltering heat bogged down the girls, who felt as if the trip had lasted weeks. However, as the girls began to be drained of hope of reaching their destination, they noticed a towering tree and a temple. The tree had covered the temple, and its roots spread like tentacles around the building. Alupa jumped.
“Lakuda!” she exclaimed. “Look at the tree and the temple!”
The friends inspected the sight, convinced it was what the clue was referring to.
“Now we can start the excavation!” Alupa rejoiced.
“Wait. In our supply store, we don’t have anything to dig with,” Lakuda pondered.
Alupa considered the situation and suddenly had an epiphany. “Who said we won’t have anything to dig with?”
With their supplies, the girls proceeded to construct a sturdy makeshift shovel, using a knife to strip the bark from surrounding trees to build a handle. As Lakuda had been a beggar for most of her life, she had gained many useful skills that were helpful in constructing the shovel. Suddenly, they heard a clang of metal, shouts, and a scream, which was probably Lakuda’s frightened yelp, as they stripped of bark; Alupa almost cut herself with the knife in surprise. They both whirled around but didn’t see anything of concern and turned back to their work. After an hour of work, the girls gazed proudly at their completed contraption and began their attempts to extricate the artifact from the ground.
After hours of tireless labor, the girls had not struck or seen anything and were almost devoid of optimism. Night was falling, so the duo decided to recharge for returning to their tiresome task.
As they lay under the twinkling stars, Alupa sighed and turned towards her friend.
“Lakuda?” Alupa softly called.
“Hmm?” her friend murmured.
“Why, exactly, are we working towards retrieving this artifact? I know that tablet promised adventure, but I don’t see an attainable goal in sight.”
Lakuda diverted all her attention to her friend and paused for a moment before responding. “Alupa, the tablet promised more than adventure. Remember its words? ‘Peace shall be restored.’ Finding this artifact can positively change someone’s, many people’s, lives!”
A minute passed before Alupa spoke. “What happens once we find the artifact?”
However, Lakuda had already drifted off to sleep; Alupa followed suit.
A loud noise and a few shouts jarred the girls awake. They explored the area around their “camp” to spy for intruders and noticed people in the distance scrambling in the bushes. Dismissing this, they quickly devoured a meal. They set back to their tedious task, but both kept the thought of the end goal in their mind as motivation. Suddenly, during her shift, Alupa felt the shovel strike something hard.
Alupa leapt in surprise and hollered, “Lakuda! I think I found the box with the artifact!”
Lakuda sprang up at the news, and the girls cleared away all the dirt, lifting the box. It was locked, so Lakuda hit it with their shovel and jumped on it; the chest opened easily. The friends’ eyes were instantly drawn to the glittering jewel-encrusted cup, but they also noticed a message in Khmer under it. It read, “What you choose shall be your fate. Restore peace or bear riches. The choice is yours…”
“Well,” Alupa remarked, “To whom will this cup be restoring peace? We might as well―”
“You know the sounds we have been hearing and the people we have been seeing ever since we have reached this area?” Lakuda interrupted. “Maybe they’re fighting over the cup. If they are not fighting over it, maybe they know whose this is.”
Although her wise words demonstrated the integrous choice, the friends felt hesitant about the plan. All of their lives, the girls had faced and suffered poverty, hunger, and cruelty. Lying in front of them was the answer to all of their problems. The girls awkwardly stared at each other, knowing what the other was thinking.
“But, I guess it would be acceptable if we, perhaps…” Lakuda stammered, “But then, the mission…”
Alupa broke her thoughts.
“We know this can solve our problems. However, we set out on this mission. The clue is correct in describing this as a difficult choice. Someone out there needs peace, and this cup is the answer. You were the one who motivated me to keep going with the goal with peace in my mind! Without it, war may rage forever. We will complete our mission. Who knows what will happen when we reach the warring tribes? That’s the point. We will take the risk and not the cup.”
Both girls were stunned by her unanticipated and empowering speech, but they understood what she meant. They were choosing their path and possibly saving people’s lives. With these thoughts, they fell asleep after a day’s work.
In the morning, the girls woke to the bird’s tweets. They gathered their supplies and the cup, enthusiastically setting out to find a tribesperson. However, in a clearing, they found hundreds of fighting tribespeople, swords clanging and their faces grim and fierce. The friends continued past the scene and stumbled upon someone hiding in the underbrush.
“Have you seen this cup before?” Alupa inquired in Khmer while revealing the artifact to the man.
The man’s solemn face suddenly looked as if he had seen a phantom, but then he instantly looked cautious and wary.
“Follow me,” he responded. “I will take you to our leader.”
The girls glanced at each other and followed him down a winding path.
The tribesman and the girls walked into a hut where the leader sat in a chair, his head in his hands.
“Look what these girls found, Master,” the tribesman spoke.
The leader looked up and stared at the cup. He then sprang up and examined the artifact more closely.
“This is it!” he exclaimed.
He turned to the girls and explained, “We have been fighting with another tribe over this cup, which we believe they stole. However, they are accusing us of the same thing!”
Then he became wary like the other tribesman had and signaled to the men in the room to command the small army to retreat from battle. Once every tribe member had gathered in the clearing outside the hut, the leader began to speak again.
“As we know, our great ancestors crafted this cup, which has been passed down through generations. We discovered that it has been in these girls’ possession. It has maintained peace between the neighboring tribe and ourselves until it disappeared twenty years ago. These girls must have stolen it!” he yelled.
The men let out a raucous cry and advanced upon the girls.
“Wait!” Alupa cried, trembling with fear. “We did not steal the cup! We were not even alive twenty years ago! We found the artifact in a box under a tree covering ruins.”
She handed the box to the leader, who read the engraving in it and gasped.
“I know who hid this—my father! On his deathbed, he told me. ‘Son, your leadership will be tested. You shall choose the violent or peaceful path. It is all in your control.’ Then he died,” the leader sadly confessed.
“Well then, we should be leaving. Thank you for everything,” Lakuda sarcastically stated.
“We have not been hospitable though. In fact, we were the opposite,” the leader spoke, apparently not detecting any sarcasm. “I apologize for judging you so quickly. In fact, you look famished.”
The girls refreshed themselves, ate, and revealed more about themselves to the tribe. The leader proceeded to walk to the middle of the clearing and began speaking.
“These girls have shown immense bravery and made a difficult choice. As they have no home, I would like to welcome them to the tribe.”
Alupa and Lakuda gasped, and cried, “Thank you so much! Of course. We accept.”
From that day onwards, Alupa and Lakuda lived in peace with the tribe and led an accustomed life, but they never forgot their adventures, as well as what they learned.
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