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  FICTION -- VOICES OF THE RUAH

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Chapt. 26: A Plan

By Michael Jesse

Jack walked with Capt. MacWilde through the streets of Margaid from the Arena to the shipyards. MacWilde's ship was still anchored at the city's main dock, but farther up the river away from the bustle of the city proper, three tall sailing ships were under construction at the Margaid shipyards. Even the smallest was twice the size of MacWilde's ship. Jack had so far only seen them from a distance and now gazed in awe as he realized how big they really were. MacWilde, however, made a display of being unimpressed.

"Pleasure boats!" he laughed dismissively. "My old girl is more seaworthy right now, neglected though she may be, than these pretentious, painted ladies."

As they approached the ships, MacWilde was soon surrounded by the old men and young boys who worked at the shipyards. He was well known in the city and easy to spot in a crowd. Never one to let such an opportunity pass, the captain regaled the dockworkers with stories Jack had already heard, and though these tales were allegedly biographical he noticed that significant details had already been modified since the last time he'd heard them.

After the men had enjoyed a few good laughs, MacWilde gestured over to the biggest of the ships and remarked, "she's a real beauty, boys. Would you mind giving an old sailor a tour?"

"Um, we're really not supposed to let anyone on board, sir," one of the men said hesitantly, but an older man swatted him on the back of the head.

"Are ye daft, ye sod? This h'ain't just anyone, but Cap'n MacWilde hisself." The other men barked their agreement and soon they were on deck. MacWilde feigned great interest as the carpenters and shipbuilder's apprentices showed off their work. Jack was impatient to get back to the Arena but he could tell the captain was up to something.

"How's the work going down below deck?" MacWilde asked casually and soon the men were leading the way down the stairway into the hold. Jack heard a clanging noise as they descended and soon saw the cause. Two men were at work assembling iron cages that lined both sides of the ship below deck.

"Oh no," Jack whispered, unheard by the men who were boasting about how many animals the cages were designed to contain. "They say it's best to pack 'em in tight next to one another," one man explained. "Keeps 'em from runnin' about or fallin' down when the ship rocks, so they say."

The rest of the visit was a blur in Jack's mind but soon after they were headed back to the Arena along with two young dockworkers carrying what MacWilde had come for — a mast salvaged from an older ship that had been retired.

MacWilde led Jack ahead at a faster pace than the boys carrying the mast and when they were out of earshot he said, "I suspected as much. I told Procktor I was through with this business so it looks like he's just going to send someone else."

"But they can't find it without you, can they?"

MacWilde laughed darkly. "It's a continent, boy. Now that I've told them it's there I doubt they'll have much trouble finding it."

Back at the Arena, Jack hurriedly told Riona what they'd witnessed at the shipyards as MacWilde gave instructions to the workmen on where to set up the mast. After it was bolted to the floor at the center of the main stage he paced off the distance to other key points on his ship so that the ruah could practice hoisting the sails in more or less the same fashion as they would on a real ship.

Like the main sail of MacWilde's ship, the giant flag of Margaid was too heavy for anyone to lift alone — not even MacWilde himself. The ruah practiced in pairs, pulling the lines with their teeth, holding it taut with their feet in alternating movements that became more efficient as they practiced.

The captain stood watching with his muscular arms folded in front of him. "This is the craziest damn thing I've ever done in my life. Did you double-check those doors?"

"Yep," Jack said. "It was like you said. They only lock from the outside to keep people from sneaking in, but if you're inside there's no lock and you can push them open in case of a fire or something."

Because the ruah now appeared so tame, the fence that had once lined the stage had been taken down and there would be nothing to stop them from bolting to the doors when they were ready to make their move.

Although Riona had been deeply involved in planning for the escape and making sure everyone was prepared, she'd spent every spare moment at Verdu's horns, playing the same sad songs her grandmother played. But they were hopeful as well because in them there was never any doubt that someday Irenia and Riona would see their husbands again. Someday within the Spirit, by and by.

On the day of the performance, workmen moved Verdu's horns to the Speaker's Stand and placed them in front of the great megaphone overlooking the city. Stagehands went down their checklist of preparations, a set designer fussed with stage decorations that did not quite suit him and waiters and busboys busily worked amid the luxury booths of the first class section where dinner and drinks were served.

MacWilde and Jack took Riona — on a leash as required — up to the platform where she was to play her beautiful songs through Verdu's horns at the great megaphone, which had been specially polished for the occasion.

The tarp that had shielded the Arena stage from the balconies across the river had been removed and from the platform they could now see out across the walls to the dock where The Liberty stood ready, and beyond where the winding river led down to the sea. It was the first time Jack had seen from this vantage point and the distance didn't seem nearly as far as it did from the ground. His heart filled with hope and eagerness to find Laura again.

"Captain, we can do this!" he said, but MacWilde gestured for him to be quiet and pulled him by the arm well away from the megaphone.

"It wouldn't be very strategic to announce our plans to the entire city," MacWilde said quietly, his hands on his knees facing Jack.

Jack felt his face flush with embarrassment. "Could they really hear me?"

"Probably not from where you were, but it was a bit too near for unguarded talk. Now, what were you trying to say?"

"Why can't we just do it right away?" Jack asked urgently. "We have to get there before those ships do and warn everyone."

"And find Laura."

"Yes!!" Jack nearly yelled, forgetting caution, tears in his eyes.

"Son, take it from me those ships won't be ready to sail for at least a week. We need at least one live performance under our belts as a dress rehearsal. If things go smoothly tonight we might plan to do it during the next show. We're only going to get one shot at this and if we show our hand and don't succeed we won't get a chance like this again."

At a nudge from Riona, Jack held up his flute and translated the conversation.

"The captain is right, dear," she said. "He is . . . a wise man and I shall be in his debt if we succeed."

MacWilde bowed. "Madam, you can never be in my debt for no act in my power can undo the harm I've caused you."

Riona smiled sadly. "Perhaps not, but in The Spirit there is forgiveness. And you, sir, are putting more at risk than one day of action. What will you do afterwards? You will be a criminal here."

MacWilde shrugged and smiled up at the one sliver of sunlight that made it down to them from the tops of the cliffs. "I've had my fill of Margaid. I'll go someplace where I can see the sky — but first things first. Let's see how tonight goes and make our plans from there."

As they came back down the stairway they heard voices and through the arched doorway saw Marketta with a well-dressed man and woman standing in front of the ruah cages.

". . . for breeding purposes," the man was saying. "I want the best that you have." He wore the tall hat and tails common among the men of Margaid but even Jack could tell from the man's bearing and tone of voice that he was of the 'higher addresses.' The woman with him — his wife it would appear — was so thin Jack wondered how her frail white neck bore the weight of her hair, which was taller than Marketta's and the color of spring grass.

"Of course, your lordship," Marketta fawned. "Please choose any that you wish."

"I'll take that female with the yellow mane and tail," the man replied pointing at Celia. He paced in front of the bars and stopped in front of Thaland . "And for the male I rather like this tall fellow. What a proud bearing he has, and fine horns. They should produce excellent offspring, don't you think?"

"You have an exquisite eye, my lord," Marketta gushed.

"What's going on," Riona whistled quietly to Jack, but Marketta heard the sound and saw them in the doorway.

"And here is our star, Miss Riona."

"Ahh, the one who will give birth if I am correct," the man said. "She's a fine looking animal."

With the grace of a princess and the balancing skills of a juggler, the waifish young woman twirled expertly on her bejeweled, nine-inch heels as her stack of hair arced wide and swayed back in place. "Ooooh, Percy," she cooed in a little-girl voice. "Can we order the puppy too?"

"It is not for sale!" MacWilde's voice echoed from within the stone stairway.

The man chuckled politely as if someone had made a droll comment at a dinner party. "Why Captain MacWilde, I would recognize you anywhere. How good to finally meet you."

"Olaf, mind your manners." Marketta joked awkwardly, "this is Lord Weldy, one of Capital Venture's most cherished patrons."

MacWilde flashed a strategic smile. "Grand to make your acquaintance, Lord Weldy. Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm keeping Riona and her baby — and for that matter I'm not actually prepared to part with any of them just yet. We've got a few performances lined up that will be absolutely fantastic, and then perhaps later we'll be considering transactions. I promise you, sir, you shall have the first option, but as of today they're just not for sale."

The man's look of amusement faded. "Good Captain, as we teach our children in the elementary grades, everything is for sale. The only points in question are the appropriate price and the legal seller. Regarding the latter, unless I am quite mistaken, sir, that is not you."

"What the hell does–"

Marketta stepped between the two men. "Olaf dear, please this one time in your life be quiet. Your lordship, is quite correct. Capital Ventures controls the entire stock from this shipment and of course, additional shipments are planned in the near future."

"I am not interested in the next shipment. I am interested in this shipment, and you may be assured I shall exercise my full economic rights in this matter."

"Goodness, that won't be necessary," Marketta babbled in abject deference. "I'm sure we can accommodate whatever combination of items you may desire."

Lord Weldy smiled again. "Splendid. I'll send a team to pick up the breeding pair tomorrow morning — I realize you need them for tonight's performance — I am a reasonable man, after all. And we will await your notification as to when the foal is birthed and sufficiently weaned to separate it from its mother. I have hired an experienced man to supervise training of the beasts." From his vantage point in the doorway, Jack had not seen the fourth person in the room, but now he stepped forward. He was clean and wearing new clothing, but Jack recognized him immediately, as did the captain.

"Well, hello Spider," MacWilde said. "So you're an experienced animal trainer now, are you?"

"I go by me proper name now, if ye don't mind," Spider replied with a mixture of proud defiance and embarrassment, "and meanin' no disrespect, Cap'n, but while you was laid up f'three days an' nights, 'oo d'ye think was tendin' these beasts for ye?"

"You tended one of them so well he died."

"That one deserved what he got," Spider hissed.

"That will be enough, Edmund." Lord Weldy commanded. "Madam, please see to the transactions indicated. I bid you good day." He strode from the room like a military officer, followed immediately by his newly-hired servant and his emaciated wife, who took hurried little steps on her tall shoes. Marketta dashed after them, calling out cheerful assurances that all arrangements would be taken care of.

"Edmund??" MacWilde whispered incredulously to himself as Riona let out a piercing whistle of exasperation.

"Will someone please tell me what's going on?"

Jack explained everything that had been said and MacWilde watched her face change from irritation to anger to fury as the story went on.

"I will bite that woman's face off," she snarled, baring her substantial teeth, and Jack believed her. "No one is taking my child! And no one is taking Thaland or Celia either. We're getting out of here — tonight!"

Some of the others had been close enough to hear and quickly the whole room was in an uproar of protest. Thaland and the other duelers were making a tremendous racket that MacWilde feared would draw too much attention.

"Tell them to quiet down!" he told Jack, but no one could hear Jack's flute. Finally, Riona gave a sharp and commanding whistle that brought silence to the room, and all eyes on her.

"That's better," she said calmly. "This is not the time to let our emotions control us or we will fail. I expect every one of you — especially you boys — to channel all of that anger and energy on fulfilling your assignments flawlessly. We only have one chance and it is tonight. We have a good plan, but it depends on all of you to do what you are supposed to do. And that includes behaving like happy, tame animals who pose no threat to these saviens. If one of them wants to pet you on the head, let him do so. Don't let your eyes betray what is in your heart. Now . . . Peace of the Spirit."

There was a murmur of response.

"I said Peace of the Spirit."

"Peace of the Spirit," all repeated with conviction.

"That's better. Now, there isn't much time before the performance begins. You all know your parts in the show and you know your more important roles in our larger plan. We don't need to rehearse any longer. Instead, I'd like you all to sit quietly and prepare yourselves to act when the moment of our fate arrives."

The ruah quietly dispersed to their own little portions of the cage. Jack and MacWilde went upstairs and watched from backstage as people began to filter into their seats. From the doorway they could see across the stage to the three-tiered theatre and bleacher seating. The best seats were upholstered and roomy, with waiters in white jackets preparing trays of drinks and food. The general seating was more bleacher-style and had food stands, while beyond all of that was the grassy mound built within a fence around the rear of the arena for the cheapest tickets.

Out of long habit, Jack looked at the face of each girl near Laura's age but he no longer imagined finding her in the crowd. Now, he pictured her standing on the beach with Irenia, watching proudly as The Liberty approached the shore.

"Get back in here, Jack," MacWilde said. "You're practically on stage. And strap on your horns." The captain wore a new white tunic with tails and a red scarf-like tie, the cost of which he had grumbled about. His white top hat was modest compared to the much taller hats favored by the men of Margaid, but Olaf MacWilde needed nothing to enhance his stature.

"Can't I do it without these?" pleaded Jack, holding out the fake horns he was supposed to wear as "Beast Boy."

"Just put on those bloody horns!"

"Yes, sir." Jack adjusted the strap under his chin and pulled it tight enough to stay on when he ran around the stage and rode on Thaland's back in the finale.

At last it was time. With a flourish of music echoing from the Speaker's Stand the announcer introduced MacWilde, who strode casually onto the stage as if he did it every day. After a brief (for him) recounting of his journey, MacWilde dramatically introduced "The Beast Boy Who Talks To Animals." Jack ran nervously onto the stage holding out his flute. MacWilde had told him to pause for a count of ten to let the audience look at him and to encourage the applause and show who was in charge, but Jack remembered none of this and immediately started playing his part.

The tumblers went first, delighting the crowd by their music and their acrobatics. Celia and the girls had wanted to change the words of the traditional nursery rhyme to a new set of words that made fun of the saviens, since they wouldn't understand it anyway, but Riona had rejected the idea, wanting to make sure everyone remained focused on the task at hand.

The next round was the hornball exhibition, which to the ruah was not even a real hornball contest but more like a warm-up before a game, yet the crowd was again amazed.

As the ruah left the stage MacWilde stood still in the spotlight and let time pass until the audience became quiet and expectant. "We come now," he said slowly, "to a part of the performance that I must warn you is not for the timid. These creatures fight with their horns and when they clash amongst themselves it can be quite a spectacle, as you are about to see. But as you watch this, picture yourself facing one of these creatures in the wild, as I did."

Thaland led three other young males onto the stage, all four of them trumpeting a battle song in their deepest notes. It was not much compared to how Verdu would have played it, but the audience was impressed. When they reached their positions on the stage, the ruah paired off in a line and bowed at each other. And then with the precision of dance and martial arts the ruah began fighting with a clatter of wood against wood.

While this part of the performance was going on, Jack and MacWilde again led Riona on a leash up to the Speaker's Stand where she was to play Verdu's horns. The timing of this was part of their plan because it gave them a chance to monitor any activity outside of the Arena just before the next act, which was when the escape would take place.

Jack had found the view from the Speaker's Stand breathtaking even during rehearsal, but now the Arena was packed and beyond the walls people lined up on balconies. He was grateful that the audience was focused on the action below and that by the time attention shifted up to the platform he would be in the background watching as Riona played.

She had situated herself in front of Verdu's horns, her eyes shining in anticipation. The horns had been mounted a little too high and Jack was helping her adjust to them when he heard MacWilde's voice ring out.

"What in blazes?!"

Jack looked up in surprise to see the captain's angry face scowling at something beyond the Arena walls. Jack followed his stare and saw at once what was wrong.

MacWilde's ship was gone.

Go to Chapt. 27 >>