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Chapt. 23: Return to Margaid
By Michael Jesse
Jack was confined to his quarters for the remainder of the voyage for assaulting a fellow crew member and endangering the "cargo" by opening the cages. Day after day he lay in his hammock in the tiny, closet-like room with its one little window and listened to the sound of Riona's sad songs of death. Her voice was soft compared to Verdu's and Jack had to strain to hear it sometimes over the slapping of the waves against the ship's hull.
When they reached Margaid and sailed up the river to the center of the city crowds gathered on both shorelines cheering for MacWilde. Then Jack heard MacWilde's voice:
"Greetings, citizens of Margaid!" he called. "Thank you for this welcome." The window in Jack's room was just big enough for him to put his head out and when he turned to look toward the voices he could see MacWilde standing on a platform, his yellow hair blowing in the breeze.
"Citizens, we have been to the edge of the world again and have captured many more of the creatures."
"Let us see the monsters!" someone yelled.
"Where are they?" came another voice.
"Patience, my friends," MacWilde's soothing but powerful voice came again. "My men have worked hard and risked their lives in this adventure. And indeed some died. So tonight these good men will be in your taverns for a hot meal and a few pints, spending some of their paychecks, won't you boys?" (Here there was a cheer from the crew) "And in these next few days look forward to a show in the Arena, but in the meantime have a look at this!" Here MacWilde held aloft a large heavy object as the crowd cheered. Jack strained to see better, but when he realized what the object was he pushed himself away from the window and slumped to the floor, dizzy and sick to his stomach. He crawled a few steps and with a sudden convulsion of his stomach he threw up onto the wooden planks of the floor. The crowd continued to cheer and Jack knew what they were cheering about. It was Verdu's horns that MacWilde had held in his hands.
Jack did not want to see any more. He went back to the hammock and tried to will himself to fall sleep and wake up at home in the red sofa bed with Laura next to him. Eyes squeezed shut, he concentrated on every detail he could remember of the playroom. He pictured his mother standing in the doorway with the blue wooden tray she always used to bring them soda and crackers and soup when they were sick. He could hear her moving around the room, humming as she tidied up.
"Mama?" he whispered, his eyes still tightly closed.
"Are you awake, dear?"
"Yes!" he cried and sat up looking around expectantly. He was still on the ship in the little room, and Laura was still gone. He fell back in the hammock and cried quietly until he was distracted by hunger. It was early morning and the ship was docked. He wondered if MacWilde and all the men had left the ship and forgotten about him. Finally, a key turned in the heavy lock and the door opened to reveal Liam bringing him breakfast. Jack scarfed it down without discussion.
"I don't suppose ye stopped to think ye might get me into trouble stealing me keys like that," Liam said, though he seemed not to be angry.
"It was important," Jack said, unwilling to apologize.
"Ye're just lucky ye caught me by surprise," Liam said. "I'll kick ye're backside if ye try that again. But no harm done as it turned out. In fact, I'm here with the message that the captain sends for ye."
Jack shrugged, chewing his food. "Maybe I don't want to answer his orders anymore."
"Suit yourself," Liam shrugged. "Nobody's forcing ye nor nothing like that. But the Arena is where yer animals have been moved to and MacWilde just wants your help with them."
"Help doing what?"
"I dinna. I'm just doing what they pay me to do which is mostly running from here to there with a message or instructions or whatever they want me to deliver and then back again for another job. MacWilde and Procktor don't say ‘Liam what do ye think we should do?' They just say ‘Liam, go do this' or ‘go do that' and that's how I earn me pay, sooch as it is. So all I can really tell you is ‘MacWilde sends for ye,' and if ye din wanna come, ye din wanna come."
Jack thought of Riona, a widow now with a baby coming, and he thought of MacWilde's promise that he would go back for Laura. "Okay," he said to Liam. "Let's go."
They walked the short distance from the pier toward the Arena. It was all so familiar and yet it seemed like it had been a very long time since Jack had walked these streets.
"Don't miss this once in a lifetime opportunity!" a smooth voice rang out above. Jack looked up at the balcony where the giant ornate megaphone still stood pointing out at the city. "SEE Capt. Olaf MacWILDE and the CREATURES from the VERY EDGE of the WORLD. Buy your tickets NOW!"
Liam led the way to a side door and produced his keys from his pocket. He dangled the keys in front of Jack. "Ye want to try taking these from me again? Have a go, mate. I'm ready for ye this time."
Jack just stared back at him, weary and no longer afraid. Liam unlocked the door and led the way down to the basement level where again Riona and the other ruah were locked up in cages. When Riona saw Jack she came closer to the bars. "It's good to see you," she whistled quietly, looking very sad and eying Liam distrustfully.
Jack started to say, "I'm sorry about Verdu," but he was unable to make any sound on his flute because he had no breath. He was trying to hold back a sob and squinted his eyes tightly shut but he could not hold his tears. Riona put her front leg through the bars and cradled the back of his head as he pressed his forehead against her face. But her eyes were on Liam and her angry stare challenged him.
"Uh, listen, Jack," Liam mumbled. "I'll, uh, just wait for ye upstairs."
When Liam had gone, Riona kissed Jack's head and then began to whistle a children's lullaby. The melody was comforting but the words were about death. "All God's children are mortal," the song repeated, but when we die we go back into The Spirit like a drop of water falling into a bucket that is already full to overflowing with abundance. When she finished the song Jack sat up and looked into Riona's kind, green eyes. He wiped his eyes and managed to use his flute to ask, "what's going to happen now?"
Riona laughed darkly. "I was going to ask you that."
"I just don't know . . . I don't know what to do," Jack started to say, but lost his breath as the tears came again.
"Just calm down, dear," Riona said, stroking his hair with her thick toenails. "It's okay. Everything will be fine. But we need information and you're free to move around. You can find out things for us, can't you?"
"I guess," Jack said. "I mean, yes! And I'm gonna find something out right now!"
With new resolve, Jack marched back up the stairs and found Liam chatting with the guard at the door. "Let's go see him," Jack growled.
Liam led the way up several flights to a level just below the grand balcony. They heard MacWilde's voice coming from down the hallway.
"What the bloody hell do you mean by that?" he was shouting. "That wasn't what we agreed to!"
There was silence as Jack continued walking down the hallway and then he heard MacWilde's voice again, now suddenly very close. "Well you know what you can do with your bloody contract."
A door burst open and Jack was nearly run over as MacWilde came storming out. As the door slowly swung shut, Jack saw Procktor sitting at a large desk in front of glass-fronted cabinets containing many paper scrolls. He made a subtle gesture that Jack almost didn't notice, but Liam bustled inside in response for his next assignment.
Jack followed MacWilde down the hallway, hurrying to catch up.
When MacWilde finally noticed him his expression changed.
"Good to see you, lad," he said slapping Jack on the back and nearly knocking the wind out of him. They were at the doorway to another room and Jack followed MacWilde inside. One wall of the room was an open balcony looking down over the Arena. It reminded Jack of the dressing rooms he'd seen on a field trip to an old theatre building. Several chairs were clustered around a large wooden table piled up with MacWilde's things and among them Jack saw something familiar. It was Verdu's horns.
"Oh God," he gasped and looked away. Jack felt queasy but fought it off and glared at MacWilde, wanting to hate him. "Nice souvenir," he said bitterly.
"Son, I know you cared about Verdu and I want you to know I respected him also and certainly didn't want him to die. But once he was dead the only sensible thing to do was to harvest the rack. It's not just a souvenir, Jack. This is actually quite valuable."
"I bet you butchered him and served him to your crew for dinner."
"I did no such thing," MacWilde responded indignantly. "After all, he died of infection. The meat would have been tainted. But we did preserve the hide and hooves, and–"
"I don't want to hear any more," Jack shouted covering his ears with his hands. Despite his rage, Jack remembered what mattered most to him. "When we were on the ship," he said, willing his anger into a compartment, "you promised you'd go back for Laura as soon as we landed."
MacWilde bent down and took Jack by the shoulders with his large hands.
"I know I did, Jack, and I intend to keep that promise. I'd set out today if I could, but . . . well, you see I've lost control of my ship for the moment."
"What . . . what do you mean?"
"Procktor and his bloody contract," MacWilde growled. He stood up again and began pacing around the room. "I should never have agreed to it in the first place. I've generally financed my own expeditions, but I needed cash this time and thought I could do business with him man to man. But he's not a man. He's a bloody, soulless VEST whose only loyalty is to the faceless shareholders he's always harping about. And I hope he heard me too!" This last part MacWilde shouted out the doorway.
He sat down in a chair by the table and put his elbows on his knees, looking at Jack face to face. "But I'll get clear of this in just a little while, son. When these animals are sold, I'll have the cash to get my ship released and hire a crew again. And then, my boy, you and I will be sailing back together to find Laura!"
MacWilde beamed as if expecting applause, but Jack didn't know what to feel. "You have to sell the ruah in order to go get my sister?"
"I'm afraid so, but it shouldn't take long."
"I know but . . . you have to sell them?"
"Jack, I know they're important to you. But they'll be well cared for. They'll have good lives — probably better than in the wild."
"But you can't do that," Jack insisted. "Riona is going to have a baby and she's already lost her husband and–"
"I'll make you a deal," MacWilde said, holding up one finger. "I won't sell Riona — or her baby — not if I can help it anyway. If I can get enough money from the rest of them I'll hold onto her and we'll take her back with us when we go look for Laura. We'll set her free together. How would that be, son? Would that make things all right?"
Jack looked back at MacWilde's sincere blue eyes. He didn't know what he should do. He wanted to save Riona and get back to Laura, but could he betray the others if it was the only way?
Jack did not have to answer. They were interrupted by a hubbub of voices at the doorway and into the room spilled several young men in expensive-looking vests and a strikingly attractive woman with bright red hair piled tall on her head. Jack was not yet particularly interested in the opposite sex, but there was something captivating about this woman that made him stare at her with his mouth open.
"Olaf, darling, this is SO exciting," she exclaimed, dropping a pile of papers on the table. "Public interest is simply through the roof." Everyone began settling in chairs around the table and the red-haired woman beamed a quick smile at Jack, enchanting him. "Who's your little helper, Olaf?"
"Oh this is Jack," MacWilde said. "The lad works with the animals. He's quite good with them too. Son, this is Miss Marketta Sayles. She's a genius — and a beauty as well, which is a fine combination in my book."
"Oh you charmer!" Marketta squealed at MacWilde and then reached over to Jack and squeezed his arm. "And I'm SO glad to meet you, Jack. Love your shirt! So you work with these wild creatures, how exciting!"
"Now Olaf darling," Marketta went on and when she looked away from him Jack felt the empty vacantness where her attention had been. "We must move rapidly while public interest is at a peak. Our team proposes a two-phase approach."
Here she spread onto MacWilde's desk the posters she'd brought along. "Phase one will be a show here in the Arena. Capital Ventures is already selling tickets and there's no doubt we can sell out the house. People are intensely curious, but they did already see one of these animals before. The novelty of their strange appearance and musical sounds will wear off so we really need to try to make this more of a performance. I believe you indicated earlier that they seem quite trainable?"
"In the right hands they are," MacWilde said pointing at Jack, "and this young man has the magic touch with them."
"Now is that SO?," Marketta gushed, bestowing once again on Jack the full force of her magnetism. He melted under it, wanting her attention and yet being repulsed by his desire.
"The ruah are very intelligent," Jack began.
"Ruah. Yes, that's what they call themselves. Or at least that's as close as I can make it sound in English. But here's how it sounds in their language." He played two notes on his flute — the first one windy and breathy and the second note much deeper and ending in a hum.
There were chuckles among the vests but Marketta glanced at them and they stopped. "So these . . . ruah talk to you, Jack? And you talk to them?"
"Yes, because they–"
"It's quite compelling," MacWilde interrupted. "In fact we should use it in the show. Jack can imitate their calls on his flute and it makes them so curious they respond to it. I swear he could make every member of that audience believe that those animals are carrying on a conversation with him."
"How clever!" Marketta said, patting Jack's arm. "I look forward to seeing your act."
He was momentarily flummoxed by the touch of her fingers, but started to say, "It's not an–"
"And what's more," MacWilde went on, "Jack actually lived among these animals for a couple of days when we were over there. We were docked close to shore but there was a violent storm during the night and the poor fellow was swept off the ship. The next morning we didn't even know he was missing and moved on down the shoreline on the hunt. When we finally realized he wasn't on the ship we assumed he'd drowned but it turned out he made it to shore and was stranded for days before we found him again by pure luck. And all that time he'd been living among these animals like he was one of them."
"What a fantastic story!" Marketta exclaimed. "We can really use that in the promotions — the ‘Beast Boy' or something."
"I like that," one of the vests said.
"Great idea, Marketta," said another.
"I'm not a beast boy!" Jack blurted.
"Oh, of course you're not," Marketta cooed, taking his cheeks in her hands and bringing her face close to his. "You poor thing. That must have been terrifying."
Jack found it difficult to think with her eyes so close to his, swallowing him up with her attention. "It wasn't . . .so bad . . . really," he stammered.
"What a brave boy you are!" she said with such seeming sincerity, her eyes welling up with tears of empathy that made him love her and long for her to keep looking at him exactly this way forever.
But then she turned her head to speak to one of the men in vests, saying, "develop a story line based on this. Make it longer than a couple of days but otherwise it's almost written for you. And Olaf my dear, I simply must have you on stage. Don't say no to me or it will break my heart."
MacWilde seemed no more able to resist her than Jack and quickly agreed, though Jack figured that the prospect of being on stage was not something that MacWilde would mind much.
But a thought occurred to Jack. "So are you saying that if the ruah can put on a good show that Capt. MacWilde would make money without selling them?"
"We'd all make money, sweetheart, including you."
"And they could stay together and not be sold?"
"If the performances are good enough," Marketta said. "Do you think you can get them to put on an entertaining show?"
Jack smiled. "I think I can do that."
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