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  FICTION -- VOICES OF THE RUAH

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Chapt. 2: The Road to Margaid

By Michael Jesse

"How much farther, d'ye think, Da?"

The boy's voice had come from the front of the cart.

"Coople of miles," said a second, older voice. "We'll be there by first bell. ‘Tis a big day for ye, Liam, and no mistake. If ye've a mind to doze a bit more, now would be the time."

Laura slowly sat up and peered over the battered wooden planks that made the front edge of the cart to see the silhouettes of a man and a boy, and out in front a worn-out horse plodding along in the early light of dawn. She poked Jack awake and put her hand over his mouth when he started to say something.

Motioning for him to follow, Laura crept quietly to the back of the cart and behind a hay bale.

"We've gone through the portal. I think we're in Earth's past."

"Or on another planet?" Jack suggested.

Laura shook her head like a teacher disappointed in a dullard student. "Just look at the stars, Jack. This is still Earth. The question is when?"

"I'm actually more worried about when -- and how -- we get back," Jack said, not wanting to disappoint his more adventurous sister. "How do we get back?" "Don't worry, we'll get back," Laura assured him. "I've read a lot of stories about this sort of thing. Meantime, though, we mustn't tell people we're from the future. Just pretend we belong here until we bounce back to our own time." "Okay . . ." Jack said, not feeling as confident as his sister, "but when we get home I want to go downstairs for a while."

In the growing light they could now see that the dirt road followed a broad, slow-moving river that gently meandered out to sea, and from the sea a ship had sailed into the mouth of the river and was moving upriver rapidly with the wind. It had a single, rectangular sail, like a Viking ship and at its helm stood a man built like a comic book superhero. His hair and beard were blond and his arms were bare to the shoulder. The ship rapidly overtook the plodding cart and passed them.

Forgetting all else, Jack jumped up and leaned out on the side of the cart to get the best view. "Awesome!" he declared, a bit too loudly for someone trying not to be noticed. He was still staring, wide-eyed, at the ship through gaps in the trees when he felt the cart come to a complete stop. For some time he had been accustomed to the rhythm of horse's hooves and the creaking wheels and now he was acutely aware of the silence. He turned his head towards the front of the cart and there, looking back at him, were the man and boy about whom he'd completely forgotten.

Jack stared back at them, speechless. Laura rolled her eyes, put on an innocent smile and cheerfully announced, "Pretty morning, isn't it?" She was wearing a cotton nightgown that could pass for a dress, while Jack wore sweatpants and his plaid robe over a Superman t-shirt.

The man smiled back and Laura could tell he had not had the benefit of good dental care. "Aye, 'tis a loovely morning," he said. "But me horse would appreciate it if ye'd get off and lighten the load. Either tha' or pay for your passage as is coostimary."

"Oh, well I'm afraid we haven't any money on us at the moment," Laura said as politely as she could, "but I have twenty-five dollars in my dresser drawer back home. Could we pay you later?"

The man chuckled. "You may keep your ‘doolers,' or whatever that was you just said, but if you have any kevlers on you, now that would be worth discussing."

At this, the boy next to him — his son, surely — burst into laughter and this made the father chuckle, too. He looked Jack and Laura up and down, his eye pausing for a long moment on Jack's Superman insignia. "Would that be some kind of uniform, young lad?"

Jack pulled his robe closed. "Well," he said. "It's a . . . it's just a–"

"It's a school uniform," Laura quickly said. "My brother and I are from . . . a land far away and–"

"What's it called? I might have heard of it."

"I don't think you would have."

"I've heard of lots of places," the man said. "Haven't been to many, but I heard of em."

"Indiana," Laura said. "We're from a land called Indiana."

The man scrunched his brow, thinking of this. "Can't say I'm familiar with that one. South of here I'd guess though, down the coast?"

"Um, why yes," Laura said. "You're very good at geography, aren't you, sir?"

The man appeared to enjoy this compliment of his worldliness but the boy was unimpressed. "See, Da," he said. "You should have sent me off to a school like that one so I could be smart enough to travel about the countryside with neither money in me pockets nor shoes on me feet."

The father and son had a good laugh together and it gave Laura a moment to think. When the mirth subsided she put on a sad expression and said, "well you see, sir, we were traveling with our parents, but something terrible happened and we were separated from them. You see, our father–"

"The Prince," Jack put in. "Our father is the Prince of Indiana."

Laura shot a warning glance at him and tried to go on. "It's mostly an honorary title. So we were traveling and–"

"We sailed up here in a huge ship," Jack interrupted. "But there was a really bad storm and the ship rammed against the rocks and broke open and sank to the bottom of the sea and we had to swim, but there were sharks and we had to out-swim them and they snapped at our heels but we beat them off and made it to shore . . . and . . . that's why we . . . don't have any money."

There was a long silence after Jack stopped talking. Laura could not think of any way to salvage the story so instead she spent the time imagining her brother tied to a chair with tape over his mouth the way they do in gangster movies.

"My brother tends to exaggerate," she finally said.

The man laughed. "Well, it was a pretty good story, true or no, is that not right, Liam?"

"I liked the part about the sea monsters. What did you call them?"

"Sharks," Jack said. "Don't you have sharks?"

Laura swatted him on the arm, but Liam and his father were playing along. "Course we have sherks," Liam, insisted. "They chased you did they? Da, our sherks got loose again."

"Good thing it wasn't the fire-breathing ones, ey Liam?"

They both laughed uproariously at this and when he caught his breath and wiped his eyes the man made a little bow and said, "I'm Willem Bundles and this is me eldest son, Liam. We work a farm down in Luvia and we're heading up to Margaid, where I am presuming the two of you are headed also, am I right?"

Laura held her nightgown out on both sides and bent her knees in a curtsy. She had always wanted to curtsy, but the right moment had never come up before. "My name is Laura," she said primly, "and this is my annoying little brother, Jack."

"Since you be strangers here, so you say, perhaps you didn't know that we frown on stowaways," Mr. Bundles said. "By rights you should have paid five dingles apiece for your transportation, plus chipped in for the tolls. ‘No road is free' as the saying goes."

"We're very sorry, Mr. Bundles," Laura said. "We didn't mean to cheat you. We'll get off here."

"I didn't say ye had to get off, lass. Ye're welcome to ride with us to Margaid wi' no need for payment in kevlers, doolars nor tall tales required. Today is a big day and I'm of a mind to be generous."

"Da, coming up behind," Liam said. Another horse-drawn cart was lumbering up the hill and the road was too narrow to pass at that point.

"Right, we'd best be moving," Mr. Bundles said. "The day's getting on and we've important business to tend to, don't we Liam?"

"That we do," replied the son, grinning, as Mr. Bundles slapped the reins against the backside of the sagging horse, which reluctantly began moving again. No longer needing to hide, Jack and Laura leaned against the rough, plank boards that made up the front of the cart, directly behind Liam and Mr. Bundles.

"If it would not be rude to ask," Laura said. "Why is it a big day? You both seem pretty happy about it."

Mr. Bundles patted his son on the shoulder. "Liam's me oldest and today is his 13th birthday."

"Happy birthday, Liam," Jack and Laura both said.

"So, are you going to town for your birthday to, like, buy stuff?" Jack asked, wondering what toys and games kids in this place played with that didn't require electricity or batteries.

"We might," Liam said proudly. "Depends on what kind of position I get. Some of them give you part of your pay up front, don't they Da?"

"Not many, but some do," his father replied. "But that's not important. We're not so bad off we need you to be paid today. You'll be bringing in a paycheck and that's what matters."

Jack was astonished. "You're getting a job? At thirteen?"

Liam glared over his shoulder, annoyed. "Yes at thirteen. I suppose you'll be telling us that in the Kingdom of Indiana they all do it at nine?"

"No way," Jack said. "More like 21."

Liam and his father both burst out laughing.

The cart slowly came to the top of a hill and made its way past the ridge that had thus far blocked the view to the left. At the same time the deep, pine woods came to an end and, as they emerged into the bright sunshine the children saw for the first time where the road was taking them. Blocking half the sky, though it was still some distance away, stood an enormous mountain, impossibly tall — like a wall at the end of the world. The river and the road led directly toward it and passed into a narrow canyon separating two nearly-vertical cliffs. Laura, who had won first prize for her science fair project on erosion, could tell that the river that now meandered so calmly past them must have once been a roaring waterfall, for it had sliced the mountain cleanly in two. As her eyes adjusted to the direct sunlight, Laura began to notice that both sides of the canyon were covered by an intricate pattern of lines and squarish holes that did not look like natural formations. She gasped. "Are those . . . are those windows?"

"Welcome to the great City of Margaid, young lass," said Mr. Bundles. "I wager ye've nothing the like of this back in your Indiana kingdom."

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