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Chapt. 4: Captain MacWilde and the Creature

By Michael Jesse

Jack and Laura followed the residents of Margaid, who quickly organized themselves into polite queues at each of the Arena's six entrances. Laura watched as those ahead of them paid so she could figure out what combination of Mr. Bundles' coins to hand over for their admission. Holding hands to keep from being separated, the children pushed their way through the crowd and found themselves inside what looked like a medieval football stadium. Most of the seats in the front section were empty, but burly men stood guard at each aisle and most of the crowd hurried past them to the sections farther back.

"We'll never see anything from back here," Laura complained, nearly shouting in Jack's ear to be heard over the operatic voice of a stout man at the megaphone who was performing a stirring ballad about Mulvee's Mustache Wax.

While Laura craned her neck to see the stage, Jack was watching several ragged, dirty children prying a loose board up from the plank seating.

"What're you lookin' at, mate?" demanded one of the vandals, a boy about Jack's age. The plank was now loose and first one and then another of the children slipped through the gap and disappeared.

"If ye want th' best view i' th' house, come wi' us," said the boy to Jack as he climbed in the hole himself. "Unless ye'r big sister won't let ye, tha' is." He smirked and disappeared.

Jack peered down the hole and saw the children below on the ground, running up towards the stage under the bleacher seating.

"Laura, c'mon," Jack called and before she quite realized what he was doing Jack was halfway into the hole himself.

"Jack you come back here!" Laura commanded, but he was already at the bottom waving for her to follow.

With a groan, Laura slipped through the gap herself and climbed down the wooden crossbars that held up the structure of seats. She barely trusted elevators, yet now because of Jack, she was under the weight of hundreds of people crowded together on wooden bleachers that she doubted ever had to pass a building inspection. When she finally caught up with him they were underneath the front section of seats. Laura wanted to punch Jack in the arm and drag him out of there but she knew he'd get stubborn if she embarrassed him in front of the other boy, with whom Jack was now chatting, as if he did this all the time.

"Hey, Laura," he said breezily as she ran up. "It's about time you got here. This is Dexter."

"Hi babe," Dexter said with a grin.

Laura reconsidered the punching option, but before she could act on it they were interrupted by a voice at the Speaker's Stand. It was the same woman as before, but now Laura could see her. She carried on her head a stack of pink hair so tall that Laura squinted to see if perhaps hidden wires held it aloft. "Friends," she said and Laura instantly felt the same emotional tug as if they shared a connection no one else must know about. "Please join me in welcoming back to our proud city the fearless Captain Olaf MacWilde!"

Everyone in the Arena shouted "macWILD! macWILD!" and stamped their feet. Laura felt a wave of panic as the bleachers shuddered above her.

"Jack," she said hoarsely. "We have to go."

But he ignored her or perhaps did not hear above the tumult of the crowd as a tall man with a well-groomed yellow beard strode onto the stage, beaming in the adulation he was receiving and affecting in turn a series of facial expressions imitating humility, bashfulness and surprise.

"That's him!" Jack nearly shouted. "The man we saw on the ship."

As she watched between the well-dressed legs of the First Class section, even Laura had to agree MacWilde was an impressive figure, particularly compared to the pale, skinny men of Margaid. He wore tall black boots and a matching leather tunic, but his muscular arms were exposed, and he seemed to flex them as he struck a pose.

"Hear me, citizens," he finally began, and though he did not stand very close to the megaphone, his booming voice carried easily through the hushed arena. "I have voyaged farther than any man alive, and I suppose I have faced more dangers as well." He paused, dutifully accepting another burst of applause. Jack and Laura were utterly transfixed, as was most of the crowd, while around them under the bleachers Dexter and his crew picked the pockets of the higher addresses.

"I have come here today to share with you an amazing discovery," MacWilde went on, as behind him a curtain slowly opened. "For I have discovered a new land across the salty sea — rich, green land entirely unpopulated except by exotic animals such as the one I am about to show you."

At a nod from MacWilde, his men yanked off the curtain revealing a large cage with an animal inside. As one, the audience gasped because no one had ever seen such a creature before — except Jack and Laura. It was the size of a pony, but with horns growing from its forehead that curled gracefully into eight branches. It stood still as a statue, its large eyes wide with fear, and made no sound until one of the men on the stage banged a stick against the metal bars. Startled, the animal squawked through its horns like a badly played clarinet.

"Yes, ladies and gentlemen," MacWilde said to the crowd as the unhappy animal fell silent again, "that . . . almost musical sound you heard did indeed come from this beast. As those of you in the closer rows may notice this little fellow has no visible nostrils and those horns of his each has a little hole in it near the end. They're hollow, though still quite hard as my men discovered as they struggled to hold onto him. He breathes through them – quite remarkable really. He's a bit nervous right now, being on stage for the first time, but when he calms down you may hear some rather pleasant sounds come out of him."

As MacWilde spoke, the ushers invited those seated in the more expensive seats to form a line snaking behind the cage for a closer look. Without hesitation, Jack crawled through the bleachers and slipped into the line, finding it easy to cut in because the Margaideans' headgear made it difficult for them to look down. Laura followed, annoyed, and wiggled her way up behind her brother.

"What are you doing?"

"I want to see it."

A wiry, sour-faced man with a long stick stood next to the cage and periodically used the stick to poke the animal from behind, making it squawk again.

"That's not nice!" Laura shouted, but Jack elbowed her.

"Don't get us kicked out," he said. "I want to try something. He pulled from his pocket his wooden flute and put it to his lips, playing a few notes that were similar to what he'd heard earlier.

The animal looked immediately at him, tooted a series of notes in response, and trotted up to the bars. Jack played again and soon they were passing a little melody back and forth. It was a brief exchange because people in line behind them pushed Jack and Laura past the cage where an usher monitoring the queue eyed them with suspicion. Laura knew they didn't look like they belonged in the First Class section and before the man could reach out and grab Jack's shoulder she pulled her brother out of reach and led him in a dash through a nearby doorway. Their escape was short-lived, however, for that is where they ran into Captain MacWilde himself.

Go to Chapt. 5