SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1The Stillness (with a nod to the Brothers Grimm)
Disclaimer: Borrowed the characters. Borrowed and paraphrased a few lines.
Thanks to Lora for the helpful suggestions.
In brief: Sometime into season 4…
Marguerite looked up from her sewing. "Is that Assai?"
Roxton laid aside his rifle and oil cloth. He glanced over the railing as he switched off the electric fence. "And Jarl and Averoni."
"Did I hear Assai?" Veronica came up from the lab still holding one of Challenger's test tubes.
The arrival of the elevator answered her question.
"Veronica!" The oldest daughter to Chief Jacoba hastened to her friend. "Veronica. I have terrible news." She waited as the remaining tree house inhabitants entered the main room. Warm greetings were set aside as they recognized fear on Assai's face.
"The rebels have returned," Veronica guessed, grabbing her goddaughter from her father. "Did they try to kill Averoni?" The infant snuggled in her arms.
"No. Much worse. I wouldn't have dared to come up here if you hadn't been in the village two days ago."
"Assai." She cooed at the infant. "We were happy to watch you and Averoni while your warriors sought the traitors."
"No," Jarl interrupted. His daughter stirred anxiously at her father's tone. "The Stillness is back."
Malone had never seen Veronica pale with fear. He moved to her side, hesitantly touching her arm. "Are you all right?"
"The Stillness," she breathed.
"Yes." Assai's acknowledgment was little more than a whisper.
"When was your first case?"
"Five days ago. One of the village grandmothers took ill. We weren't sure what it was until yesterday when the stillness set upon her."
Intrigued, Challenger took off his smelly apron and tossed it down the stairs to his lab. "First case? What are we talking about here?"
"The Stillness!" Jarl snapped.
Veronica returned the baby to her father. "The Stillness is a plague. It hasn't been on the plateau in twenty-five years."
"Several years ago a village five days to the west was rumored to have a case. Surrounding villages rose up and burnt the buildings to the ground... with the people in them." The horror on Assai's face didn't betray whether her village had been one of those that had attacked.
"What of your people? Has word gotten out?" Veronica gasped.
"No," Jarl cradled his child to him. "All of our village have gone to the caves in Tarangea. It is a sacred site few outside the Zanga would trespass. The shaman has given all men and women a sleeping draft. The children will stand guard over their elders."
Frustrated, Challenger waved his hands in the air. "Someone please explain this Stillness!"
"The Stillness strikes only adults," Veronica began.
"Those before the rite are not effected," Assai added trying to provide more detail.
"The rite being..." Malone echoed.
"Puberty," Marguerite explained.
Challenger waved them both silent. "Go on, Veronica."
"Men are effected first and succumb more quickly."
"That is why the draft," Assai again interrupted.
"A sleeping draft?" Roxton questioned.
"Yes. If the sufferer remains motionless from the beginning, they survive longer."
Challenger grew exasperated with the piece-meal information being given him. "Now, everybody sit down. I want the exact details...."
"No!" Assai yanked him to his feet. "There isn't time! You may have two days before you're crippled by the Stillness. That is why we came to you. There isn't enough time for any Zanga warriors to reach the Frecheona."
Challenger was too stunned at her outburst to speak. Roxton asked the obvious question. "And what's at the Frecheona?"
"The cure." Veronica eyed the room, mentally determining what they'd need. "We have to act quickly. Assai, you stay here with the baby."
"No. Only I've been to the fields and know the exact location of the plants. Jarl will stay. Besides the traitors may have followed us. We hurried..."
"That's fine. Marguerite, you stay behind with Jarl."
"Now wait a minute." She shouldered the rifle Roxton had handed her. "I am not staying. I am not babysitting. I..."
Veronica gripped her by the shoulders and stared into her face. "The Stillness causes your muscles to seize up. First your fingers, your toes, your legs, your arms, on and on until your lungs then your heart. It is slow and painful. The more muscle mass the faster it spreads. That's why men fall victim first. One of us," she gestured at the three women in the room, "has to stay. Assai knows the way. I'm a faster runner than you. And run I'll have to, to get the cure back to you and the village."
Marguerite scrutinized Roxton then Malone. "Are you saying they...?"
"I'm saying they may not have the two days it will take us to get there."
"Then they stay and drink this sleeping draft!"
"No, Marguerite." From behind, Roxton laid his hands on her arms. She leaned against him, already hearing his words. "We have to go to protect Assai and Veronica. You know that."
His tender tone made her ache. "Then let's move it, people!"
Malone glanced back. The tree house was quickly hidden by the forest. "You know, I'd like to be a fly on the wall to observe Marguerite alone with the baby."
"You might be surprised," Roxton defended, a smile creeping across his lips. The same thought had already crossed his mind.
Their pace was quick. They carried only minimal supplies, having refused even Challenger's request of certain instruments. "I still think," the scientist panted, "you're ignoring the potential value of my..."
"George." Roxton took point. "If we survive, we can go back and perform every bloody scientific experiment your heart desires."
Veronica patted him on the back. "We promise."
All conversation ceased as the others kept up with Lord Roxton. He had left his most precious valuable behind too. And was determined to get back to her alive.
Averoni lay in her basket enthralled at her aunt Marguerite's tale.
Her "aunt" tucked her half-completed sewing into a large basket by her bed. "And the prince had done such a slipshod job of slaying the dragon, that the great beast rose up again. Now that the princess was fully awake, she snatched the wounded prince's sword and kicked its fire-breathing a...anatomical bottom part."
The baby laughed as the woman waved a feather about.
"And, of course, the prince and princess lived happily after." She leaned over and kissed the fair princess on her forehead. "The end."
Frowning, Marguerite setup. She had gotten a whiff of the air close to the infant. "Jarl. The baby needs changing."
Irritated at his lack of response, she repeated herself much louder. "That was our agreement. I feed and watch her and you change the diapers." Annoyed and concerned at the continued silence, Marguerite carted the smelly baby in her basket into the main room. "Jarl. Didn't you hear me? I said..." She halted. The warrior's arms were clasped to his chest, spasming from his attempts to move them. He wobbled as his legs threatened to give out beneath him.
"I'm sorry." His voice was strained. His lips barely moved.
She slid the basket onto the table. Pulling a chair up behind him, she pushed him down. "Why didn't you say something earlier?"
"I don't want to leave you alone."
"And do you know what Assai will do to me if you die? Her father has never forgiven me for that little misunderstanding over Veronica. I don't think I could handle another blood oath from that family."
His head bowed, he managed a quiet, "You are right."
"Come on. Let's lay you on a bed and get one of these sleeping drafts down you."
"But that will leave you alone."
"And that is nothing new for me."
"John, we've got to stop for at least a few hours sleep." Challenger rose slowly from the log he had collapsed against. The full moon offered so much light torches were unnecessary.
Roxton felt the stiffness in his legs as well. It only made him want to run faster.
"If not for me, than Assai."
Alarmed Veronica turned to examine her friend. Everyone had been so focused on the trail, no one noticed her limping. Her hands were balled into fists. A tiny trickle of blood showed on her palms. "Assai!"
"I am all right. Everyone. There is no need to rest for me. If we are not successful my body will be locked into an eternal rest. There is no time to wait."
Challenger stood. "She's right. Let's go."
Roxton lowered his rifle. "No, you're right. An hour's rest at least. But we need a plan. Assai, you give Veronica specific directions on how to get to those plants. Just in case, mind you. George, you'll stay behind with Assai when she can't go any further."
Malone delicately pried the rifle from Challenger's hands. "He's asleep, Roxton. You can fill him in latter."
He gave them two: two hours to sleep and have their muscles tighten and stiffen just a little more.
"The weirdest thing is I can't move my toes." Malone laughed at himself.
Veronica laughed too, but the lines in her face were from fear. The men were decaying rapidly. Which meant Marguerite was alone by now in the tree house. Roxton's expression told her he had the same thought.
"Let's go, people. At this rate, we'll be there by nightfall."
"Or we'll be dead," Challenger offered, glad he hadn't brought any of his equipment.
Marguerite watched Averoni through exhausted eyes. It wasn't sitting in the chair all night that had left her stiff. She was infected. Which meant the others were too.
With dawn on the plateau came the hunting. Everything woke hungry. Even her stomach growled for food. She pried her fingers from the rifle across her lap. Her thoughts of food vanished with a sound. The noise hadn't come from the baby. There it was again. A branch waving against the roof? There was no wind. Sounds came from two separate places. Now three.
A Zanga rebel landed with a thud on the floor. Rotting leaves and bugs followed him down through the hole he had made in the roof. Marguerite twisted herself and the rifle to the left then fired. He fell where he had landed. Her arms seized from the sudden tension. She shoved herself and her chair onto the floor and fired through the roof. A scream followed the warrior as he tumbled to the ground. The third man swung down from the roof through the hole his companion had made. Marguerite tried to point the rifle at him but her arms wouldn't oblige. Rolling to one side she scrambled to her feet and threw herself between him and the baby. His dagger swung down and caught on the rifle her hands still clutched. With a yell, he struck out again. This time he dislodged the weapon from her hands.
The clatter of the weapon on the floor distracted him. Marguerite kneed him in the groin. As he bent in surprise and pain, she brought her knee to his chin, then came down on him with her still balled fists over and over until he dropped to the floor. He groaned and tried to rise. Marguerite balanced an iron fruit bowl between her fists and dropped it on his head. The man's eyes finally stayed shut. Panting, she listened for any more intruders.
There was no choice to her decision. She couldn't trust him to remain unconscious or tie him up and expect him to stay that way. Wedging the broom between her immobile arms, Marguerite hitched the bristles to his waistband and shoved him along the floor to the railing. He fit easily between two slats. She pushed him off the tree house. The other body was disposed of similarly.
Averoni broke the silence with a yell demanding breakfast.
Her arms spasming against her chest, the milk pouches stored down a flight of stairs in the cool of Challenger's lab, Marguerite collapsed into a chair by the table. "Can this day get any better?"
After a few minutes her fingers relaxed and straightened. It took almost an hour but the baby was feed and rocked back to sleep with her elbows. Another hour passed before Marguerite felt the thickness leaving her arms. They remained stiff, but at least she could straighten them out.
If she was to survive, it was time to take the draft.
"Promise me," Roxton had pleaded. "When the time comes you'll go into the lab, slide with the baby into the storage compartment. No one would find you there. Take the draft..."
"No one would be able to follow the sound of a wailing baby? Oh, right," Marguerite had countered. "I'll be fine. You just get back with those leaves or roots or whatever it is that will cure this thing."
He had kissed her good-bye in front of the others. They were as surprised as she was. Their acts of affection were usually low-key. But this kiss...
Averoni broke into a big smile as if reading her aunt's thoughts.
"Has aunt Veronica ever mentioned kissing uncle Ned?"
The baby gurgled a reply.
"Well, your aunt Marguerite has certainly kissed her share of men. Maybe I shouldn't have said that in front of you. The point being, kissing Lord John Roxton is different from any of the others. It's like... like a cool breeze enveloping you. The world just vanishes."
Averoni's dark eyes fluttered.
"Whoa." The smile didn't leave her face. "You better stop talking, Marguerite, or this little baby is going get an early education."
Challenger's mind never permitted him to be silent for long. His wife claimed he just liked to hear himself speak. He maintained it was a result of so many years of verbal explanation to countless lab assistants. "I can't believe your people never tried to grow this plant near the village. Just in case, mind you."
Assai shot Veronica a pained look.
"They did, Professor." Veronica's attempts to help her friend walk were brushed off. "The plant always died. They brought back soil. They carried the water from the stream in the area where it grows. They tried everything."
The scientist continued through clinched teeth. "Perhaps it's something in the air. Maybe a bug indigenous to the area. If the plant flowers, then it may require a particular flying insect to pollinate."
He rambled on. No one really listened; they were too focused on lifting their leg for their next step.
Marguerite loaded the table with containers of water, clean diapers, the remaining two goat milk pouches, hopefully everything she would need to make it through the next day and a half. There was enough milk for the rest of this day and night. Averoni could live off water for the twelve hours that followed. By then her godmother would be back. Slowly Marguerite sat down and evaluated her food stocks and plan. It was all she could do. Her leg cramped. The wail she let out was answered with another.
"Oh, Averoni, I'm sorry. Let's get you fed." She wanted to add, "While I can," but even she wasn't ready to be that pessimistic.
"Now that our tummies are full," Marguerite had managed to eat a few bites of fruit, "it's time to play the keep the babysitter awake game." She flashed an exaggerated smile over the infant. "We still might have very bad men out there that want to kill Averoni and Marguerite and Jarl, so," she laid the rifle across her lap, her two pistols by the basket, "So now we wait. We could tell another fairy tale, but I'm afraid I'd fall asleep on you. Let's see." She spied Malone's journals stacked on a nearby shelf. "I haven't read one of these in a while. They usually make for interesting fiction."
Struggling to her feet, she limped and stretched for the books. Easing within reach, she snatched the top one and staggered back to the table. Averoni laughed at her aunt's motions. "Marguerite isn't going to be able to do that again." Her left calf muscle was on fire. Rubbing it did nothing. Pounding on it didn't help. "Okay, let's read. 'July second. We walked along the dried streambed for most of the day. Summerlee described to me the flora of the area." Marguerite laughed. "Boy, Malone isn't kidding." She skipped ahead several pages. "It's all description of the plants we saw that day." She flipped to the end of his text. "At least some these damned pages have pictures. Oops, sorry, Averoni. Let's not repeat that word for your mother."
A T-Rex bellowed somewhere in the distance. It's victim's screech soon followed.
Marguerite sat up too quickly. The room spun for a moment.
Roxton's legs gave out beneath him. He dropped to his knees in agony.
Malone caught him as he swayed. "We've got to stop and rest."
"Do you actually think resting will make a difference?" He used Malone's shoulder to lift himself to his feet.
"Well, how about we stop for lunch?" Veronica suggested. Her legs felt as though she'd been running for days.
Roxton stood, but couldn't let go of Malone without falling. "It's too early for lunch."
"Well, I, for one, could use something in my stomach." Challenger heard something and glanced about, trying to reach for the pistol at his hip.
Tilting her head, Veronica glanced at Ned. They both turned, searching for the source.
Assai stood a few feet behind them weeping. Her muscles quivered so badly, they wouldn't allow her to even fall down.
"Oh, Assai!" Veronica ran to her.
"Help me lie down, Veronica. Please. Please, let me lie down."
Roxton pushed Ned away. "Go help her." He staggered back against a tree for support.
Ned lifted the petite woman into his arms.
"Let me put a blanket down." Veronica dug through Ned's pack for his canteen. She felt her own tears as she spread out the blanket.
"Over here," Challenger directed. "More shade."
Ned sensed her stiffening as he gently laid her on the blanket.
She struggled to get each word out. "You must go on."
Veronica knelt beside her. "We're not leaving you."
Challenger straightened her arms and legs the best he could. "She can't go on." He pointed towards Roxton. "Neither can he. And to be honest, neither can I. You two..."
"No." Veronica rose slowly, massaging her legs as she straightened. "I'll go. Someone needs to be able to fire a gun."
"I can still do that," Roxton wheezed.
"But for how much longer?" Veronica helped ease him down into a sitting position. "No. I go on alone from here."
All the men argued the obvious points.
"No." She backed away from them. "I can travel faster alone. And time is all we've got to work with now."
Roxton tried to push himself up.
"Stay down." Veronica knew his weak spot. "If I don't hurry, that's," she pointed to Assai, "going to be Marguerite."
Silently he slid down to the ground.
"Get a fire going." She moved close to Ned. "Stack as much wood as you can next to you. Get everyone around that fire and wait. Do you hear me? Wait."
Ned nodded silently.
Veronica ran the few steps to him, kissed him, then vanished into the jungle.
Several things came to everyone's mind, but no one had the strength to say them.
The baby's laughter startled her awake. "How long was I asleep?" She smelt the air, then glanced down at the contented smile of Averoni. "That long, huh."
Changing the diaper took twenty minutes. "All right, Averoni, this is serious. Aunt Marguerite has got to stay awake."
A pencil wedged into the binding of Malone's journal prevented her from closing it. She pulled it out and smiled. "I'll record our day in Malone's journal and read it aloud as I write."
Averoni turned her head and frowned, her cubby fingers slapping the spinner toy on the side of her basket. Her Uncle George had made that.
"Okay, that doesn't thrill me either." With the heel of her hand she dug into a leg muscle. "I know. Let's rewrite another Grimm tale. Maybe if I write and talk I can stay awake."
Unnaturally she wrapped her fingers about the pencil. "Once upon a time, you must always give a nod to the classics. Once upon a time in a kingdom far away there lived a king with two strapping young sons."
"Strapping. Not a child friendly word. How about virile?" She wrote the word over it. "Still too mature, isn't it?"
Averoni didn't seem to mind.
"Strong. Another classic word. There lived a king with two strong sons. This king was old." She waved the pencil in the air. "Umm. Did Aunt Veronica ever show you a picture of your Uncle Arthur? I would except for the obvious reasons. Anyway, that's what the old king would look like." She returned to the journal.
The king was old and knew that soon one of his son's would inherit the kingdom. This worried the elderly man for he feared if there wasn't enough wealth for both his sons they might go to war over the kingdom. His sons, Prince John and the younger Prince Edward, were very close and swore to their father this would never happen. But the father was old and had witnessed many other kingdoms fall to ruin because of sibling rivalry.
One day this king came to the conclusion that if he had enough gold then the son who did not rule could still live in a castle with servants and be very contented all his life. So the king thought and thought until he had an answer. He would hold a conference for wizards and alchemists. Surely one of those would have the formula for turning lead into gold. His sons scoffed at his idea, but they loved him dearly and dropped their dissension.
Soon came the first day of the conference. The great hall was filled as the wise and magical figures mingled among themselves. Outside, the townspeople set-up booths to sell food and crafts. Except, near the end of the line of tables was one that offered neither food nor wears, but displayed weird contraptions of all sort. Why one of these machines had a blade that dropped down and sliced food perfectly.
"And who do we have here?" one of the mages inquired as he tapped and handled every device.
The miller smiled proudly. "These are my inventions. I am a man of science. I do not lend much credence to alchemy."
Another fellow joined his friend at the table. "Really. And who are you?"
"I am Challenger, the miller."
A third man came around. "I've heard of you. Your mill is the most productive in several kingdoms. It's said you use magic to turn your wheel."
"That's utter nonsense, good sir. I merely..." and the miller told of his pulley and gears only to be laughed at by the crowd gathering around him
"That's nonsense, my good man. Best to admit you've used magic. Makes more sense." The vegetable chopper almost cut off his finger.
Soon the mages were swapping stories of great magical deeds, totally ignoring the miller's inventions.
"So you made how many flakes of gold?" the miller mocked.
"Five, miller. And I've met no man who has made more."
"Really," the miller scoffed. "When one uses white magic, the world opens up to you." He was repeating back what he had just heard the wizards speak of, though tweaked enough to be original. "I cast a spell on my daughter that allows her to spin straw into gold."
The professionals around him burst into uproarious laughter. "And you've humbly remained a miller?"
"No. You all should know with white magic you cannot use it for yourself. She has the ability to spin seven times. She has spun four times now, helping the poor and misfortunate."
The laughter died down. What he said rang true of white magic. One of the men raced to the platform upon which the king stood with his sons. "Sire, the miller's daughter can spin straw into gold."
The oldest son watched his father's eyes narrow then widen with excitement. "Bring me the miller."
"Now, father," the son laughed. "You can't believe this. Not only is it impossible, but everyone knows the miller is a braggart."
Two guards shoved the miller to his knees before the royal family.
"Tell me what you told these gentlemen, miller."
Challenger gazed up afraid to speak. It wasn't only his life, but now his daughter's. "I was merely jesting with these good men. Sire, someday magic will be recognized for the idiocy it is and science will take mankind beyond magic's wildest promises."
Marguerite rested her hand, turning to smile at Averoni. "He was a very educated peasant."
"You," the King glared. "You have boasted once too often. Either you are hoarding your daughter's gift for yourself or you have lied to your king. Either way you are a dead man. Unless..."
"Unless my daughter spins for you," Challenger whispered.
"What did you say?"
"My daughter will spin for you."
The king flashed a contented smile. "Fetch me the miller's daughter."
"Neddie-boy," the prince nudged his brother. "I'm going to get that poor woman away from there. Father's joke on the miller will get out of hand. These people will tear her apart when they discover she can't spin straw into gold."
"What do you want me to do?"
But the brother already ran for his horse. The giant stead and its master raced to the stream and the miller's shack.
At the ruckus from their arrival, a beautiful young maiden stepped out of the mill. She raised a sword and pointed it towards the stranger. "You can have no business here. My father won't be back until nightfall. Be off with you."
The prince's green eyes traveled from the tip of her sword to the black hair that hung free about her shoulders. He was smitten. "You're father has announced to the town and King that you can spin straw into gold. Now come, girl, let me get you away from here before the king's guards come for you."
"My father may have an ego, but that has never spilled upon me."
"He claimed it was from a spell he cast upon you."
The woman plopped upon a stack of grain sacks. "That sounds like him."
From the road thudded the sound of horses and men.
"Come girl, let me get you away."
"Sir, I do not know you, but I know men and there is no way I'm getting on that horse." Her eyes saw past him to the dust stirred by the approaching horses. "Well, maybe I could ride a little way. You could drop me off in the forest." She extended her hand towards the dark rider. "Wait. If I go with you what will happen to my father?"
Somberly the man shook his head.
"I will stand with him." She stepped away from her savior and awaited the king's guards.
"I thought she'd never leave." Malone bent over attempting to rub the cramps out of his legs.
Roxton laughed at himself and Ned. "I'm glad this day finally came: Marguerite was right. We should have remained at the tree house and drank the draft."
Malone straightened. "Too bad she's not around to hear you say that." He limped about, stretching his legs and arms.
"Indeed." Roxton's smile faded. "Give it up, Ned. The cramping doesn't go away."
His arms dropped to his side. "I guess you're right."
"Gentleman," Challenger wet his handkerchief and wiped Assai's face. "May I suggest we execute the tasks Veronica gave us before it's too late."
Roxton saw Assai upon the blanket. Her muscles had grown so taunt, she couldn't move. Her mouth hung open slightly as she struggle to breath with lungs that didn't want to give. This was the stillness.
Ned followed his friend's stare. "God have mercy on us all," he whispered and stooped slowly to pick up a branch.
"You weren't very successful," his brother observed.
"Brilliant of you to notice. I noticed your delaying tactic was a bust too."
The king took his place between his sons. "Miller, what is your daughter's name?"
The man faced his daughter. Her hands were bound as were his own. "My darling, Marguerite, can you ever forgive me?"
"Marguerite. I order you in the name of your King to follow."
Prince John took his father's arm. "Sire, you can't be serious. This is ludicrous. No one can spin straw into gold. We are away from the crowd. End your joke now."
"There is a price to be paid for lying to your king, John. And this man shall pay it."
"So be it, father. But you have no right to harm or frighten his daughter."
The procession made it's way silently along corridor after corridor. Always going down. Always going deeper into the castle's bowels.
Abruptly the king stopped before a thick wooden door. Its hinges were of rusty iron and as long as a man. It took two servants to shove open the great door. Someone cut the ropes binding her wrists. "In you go, girl." Three torches lit the small room, revealing straw piled against the walls. In its center stood a spinning wheel.
Her father dropped to his knees before the king. "Sire, I beg you. This is madness. Magic is folly and so was my statement to those charlatans. Please, if you must punish someone, let it be me. Release my daughter."
The king was moved by his appeal. "If your daughter spins all this straw into gold then you will receive a fair share of her accomplishment."
"Sire, you're not listening to me."
A guard pulled him away. "Your room is that way."
The last face she saw as the heavy door closed was Prince John.
Poor Marguerite set at the wheel for hours. In vain, she attempted to spin the hard straw into strands of gold. The straw sliced her hands and fingers. Finally she gave into despair as the tears fell and she couldn't see. "Father, how could you?"
A narrow opening appeared near the top of the door. "Mistress Marguerite. Here." A hand struggled through.
The woman ran to it wrapping her cold fingers around those of the apparition. "Help me, please."
"I tried, remember."
"You." Her hand dropped away. "And what is a prince doing down here?"
"It's my dungeon. I have just as much right to be here as anyone else."
"Very funny. If you were any kind of prince you'd get me out of here."
"You keep forgetting, I tried."
"So why are you here?"
"To try and get you out. Again."
"I'm working on it. Be patient."
The tiny panel slid closed. "Wait. Don't leave me here. Alone."
A few minutes turned to an hour.
Marguerite ceased her pacing. She was covered with straw and bugs. "I'm going to die in the morning."
"Now why do you say that?"
Relieved she whirled towards the door, but its peephole was not open. "Who said that?"
A small man removed himself from the straw. His face was green like a toad; his skin was not skin at all but scales, and his teeth were sharp and numerous. His bald green head was covered by a simple cap and he wore an outfit of patched brown wool.
"What are you?"
"Just another townsfolk coming to gawk at the girl who can spin straw into gold."
"You're not from this town. You are more of a dragon." She walked up to him and stared down. "Maybe an overgrown lizard would be more descriptive."
"No need to get personal. Let's just say I dwell in the fringe areas of the kingdom." He dropped onto a bale of straw and folded his arms. "Well, let's see it."
"I can't spin straw into gold. There's nothing to see. So please go away."
"You know, I like you."
"Terrific. Be sure and sit on the family side for tomorrow's hanging."
"I might be able to help you out of this jam." He eyed her up and down. A long forked tongue wet his lips. "Got anything of value to trade?"
Her hand touched her collar, then slid down to her wrist. "This bracelet. My father forged it for me. It's made of cooper. Supposed to slow down aging or something like that."
"It'll do." He slipped it on his wrist. As if by magic it conformed to fit him perfectly. "Start handing me that straw."
"Really, Marguerite, there's nothing free in this world."
She passed him handful after handful of straw.
Meanwhile, Prince John joined his brother in the stable. "Why are we here? Edward, I need a key to that door."
"Then this is why you're here." A beautiful woman stepped out of the shadows holding a wooden box. "All the duplicate keys to the palace are in here."
"Who are you?"
Edward took the box from her. "This is Veronica. She's the royal hunter's daughter."
Prince John stepped back stunned. "No. It can't be. The last time I saw you... Well you've certainly gotten b..."
"Bigger," Edward corrected jealous of the look the hunter's daughter gave his brother. "You certainly are pre-occupied with this maiden Marguerite," he observed pointedly.
"Honor, princely duty," the older brother defended.
"More like lust and love." Veronica added quickly, "Sire,"
"This kind of stuff besmirches the family name. And I'm still waiting to hear how that box of keys is going to help us get Marguerite out of that dungeon."
Veronica lifted the hem of her skirt and slid a dagger into her boot. Both men watched closely, but for very different reasons.
Her aunt cleared her throat. "Averoni, your mother will explain them in a few years."
"One of these will fit the lock," Edward explained. He was the more scholarly of the two.
"Neddie-boy, it's only four hours until dawn. There must be four hundred bloody keys in that box."
Veronica shoved the box at him. "Then let's get started."
Four hours and two hundred and ninety-six keys later the lock opened.
The two brothers shoved with all their might. Finally the door yielded. It opened upon a room sparkling like the first light of dawn.
"What the hell?" muttered Prince John.
"How did you do that?" his brother gasped.
"Oh, just got on a roll. Couldn't stop." She brushed past Prince Edward. "I go home now, right."
The king blocked her way. "My dear girl." He fixated on the gold strands, on his new wealth and the girl who created it for him.
"Bring me the miller," the king ordered through his smile.
"Father," Prince John leaned over his shoulder. "We should let this poor girl and her father go home."
"Nonsense. After such a long night, we are obliged to give them breakfast and soft beds before their journey."
"They only live about two meters south of the castle," Prince Edward pointed out.
"Yes. Yes, but in the heat of the morning it is an exhaustive walk."
The miller rushed into the room. "Marguerite! Are you all..." He tripped over a pile of golden strands. "My dear." He eyed the room's contents. "Is there something you've been neglecting to tell me all these years?"
"Not now, father," she hissed.
"Come," the king ordered. "Let us break the fast!"
"Your hands are bleeding." Prince John caught one of the maiden's wrists. "This needs to be tended to."
The pair slipped past the servants setting the huge table in the main dining hall.
None of the staff acted surprised to the see prince in the kitchen. He led her to a corner containing a small table and a built-in bench. "Let me get some water and clean those cuts."
"Sire." She refused the offered seat. "It is not your place to see to me. Join your family in the great hall and one of the serving girls can help me."
"No." He interrupted. "They're busy. Everyone but a prince has a routine they must follow. Please. The cook is quite a task master. Allow me the honor."
"You mock me, sir."
He openly studied her. "It is an honor and a privilege, Mistress Marguerite."
"Marguerite," she heard herself whisper, irritated at her tone. His eyes convinced her to sit.
The cool water relieved much of the pain. She let her hands float in the water and her soul in his eyes.
"When are you going to tell me how you did that?"
She jerked her hands away. "Is that what this act of kindness is? Merely satisfying your idle curiosity."
"No, no, no." He took her hands and dabbed the water off. "You may keep your secret."
Without speaking another word, he wrapped her hands.
"We should join our families, sir."
The meal went on until lunch which went on until dinner. Delicacies of meats upon platters, cakes layered on china plates were carried in and removed by dozens of servants. Marguerite and the miller had never seen the like. They laughed with the king and his younger son Edward. Occasionally the older prince would speak a word or two, but his eyes saw nothing of the feast. They only saw Marguerite.
"Okay, Averoni. Be truthful. Too hokey?"
Averoni waved her blanket, excited at the smile her aunt flashed.
"If you say so, then we'll leave it in. Our editor may force us to remove it later." She shrugged. "But I like it. Shall we continue?"
Veronica felt the sun cooling on her shoulders. At least three hours had passed. She had to be close. The hills were on her left. The rock formation that resembled a crocodile loomed on her right. She followed the smell of water. Weariness taunted her thoughts with images of the plants wilted. Assai dead. Ned...
There it was. The pungent odor. It grew stronger with each step. Several of the long pink tinted leaves mingled with the other plants along the stream. They waved in the late afternoon breeze. She wanted to rest just a few minutes, but knew that could be a lifetime for Assai. Crossing the stream, then a few more feet, the jungle opened to a field of blue flowers and long green leaves edged with a pinkish color. Assai had instructed her to pick the ones with the least amount of pink coloring.
They had dumped everything out of their packs and given them to Veronica. For an hour she harvested the leaves. Hearing Challenger's voice contemplating why these leaves over the others. Hearing Roxton urging them to pick faster, as he glanced about for the ever impending trouble. Ned would just smile at her. Veronica stumbled to her knees. She needed his smile. Or better yet, Marguerite's scathing voice and barbs concerning who was doing all the work since Veronica was lying down.
If she took the cure now, she'd sleep for at least an hour. Assai said some slept longer. Some never woke-up. Her five packs were full. She would take the cure with her friends. If they could wait then so could she.
"I would have you spin one more night."
Both brothers took to their feet. "Father!"
"I will brook no further comment. Guards."
They escorted Marguerite deep into the castle to yet another room. A bigger room. Piles of straw lined the walls.
"You can't be serious."
"Spin for me tonight and your father will be appointed the Royal Wizard and Advisor. Or you will both die." The king ordered the door closed. He turned and suddenly stood face to face with his oldest son.
"This is not like you, father." His tone was cold and angry.
"It is not like you to question me, John."
"It is not like you to torture women."
The last face she saw as the heavy door closed was Prince John.
Marguerite collapsed on a stack of straw. "Can this day get any better?"
"I'd like to think so."
Startled, Marguerite slid onto the floor stopping at the little Lizard-man's feet.
"You look beautiful tonight." He set on the stool by the spinning wheel. "There's something different about you." His toothy smile dropped to a frown. "Ah, I believe there's someone else."
Brushing the straw off her skirt, Marguerite snorted. "Hard to believe there could be more of you."
"Oh, I was referring to the dashing prince. I must say, if I was female..."
Marguerite waved her hands. "No, please, the image is too much for me."
"Well, if we're going to get all this done, we'd best get started."
"You'll help me?" Marguerite rose to her knees before the little man. They looked eye to eye. "I don't know how to thank you."
His forked tongue jetted out from his mouth. "Got anything for trade?"
"I've... I've only this locket." She unlatched the chain and held the oval charm out to him, "It was my mother's." Her fingers closed over it. "It's all I have of her."
"Well, if that's all you've got and you won't trade, then I'll be off."
"Wait." She laid it in his out-stretched hand.
"All right." The necklace disappeared into one of his pockets. "Let's get started."
"Everybody warm and cozy?" Ned crouched slowly. His attempt to gently straighten his legs out left him on his back staring up at the stars.
"So are you trying to be a contortionist or acrobat, Neddie-boy?" Roxton sipped water from his canteen.
"You know, that hurt."
"Yes, I do." They laughed at each other.
"Challenger?" Ned lifted himself up on his elbows. "Challenger?"
The scientist woke with a snort. "I'm just resting my eyes."
"Assai," Roxton urged.
His hand had not let go of her wrist. He felt the slow irregular pulse. "She's still with us." His eyes closed to rest a bit longer.
"Ned?" Roxton rolled awkwardly onto his back. "Do you think she's all right?"
"Are you kidding? Even on a bad day, Veronica can outrun a pack of raptors." The fire's warmth relaxed his muscles slightly. "Even on a bad day like today."
"I'm sure you're right, Ned."
His younger brother tried in vain to calm him.
"I agree. I've never seen this side of father. But you've no right to confront him, John. He is your king before your father."
"And when would my king ever use such measures on his people? No. He must be bewitched."
"You say that word and you know who will be blamed."
"Damn." He took his fury out on the wall. "Edward, I've never felt this way about a woman. If I come to her aid, I'll defy father."
"Hey, maybe she spun all that straw into gold."
His brother's optimism could sometimes be as infuriating as his father's greed.
"Optimism? Do you think that's too big of a word for a child?" Marguerite set the question aside. Averoni was asleep. She was doing this for herself, now, to stay awake. Truth be known, she had forgotten how much she loved fairy tales. As a child, the housekeeper had sometimes read to her. Then she grew old enough to devour all of them on her own. Over and over she'd read them. She'd read them by whatever author and in whichever language. Those days were so long ago, but right now as death hardened her limbs it seemed only yesterday. "Where was I?"
Veronica thought she was running. Her legs acted otherwise. What had taken three hours to cross before now had taken almost five.
The fire roared in the distance. Someone was still able to tend it.
The man lifted himself to his elbows. "Veronica!"
"Ned, you're alive. What about the others?"
Roxton didn't move. He only spoke. "Present."
Challenger let go of Assai's wrist. "We're both still here."
"Assai." She pulled a leaf from one of the backpacks. "I thought the worse."
Challenger smiled. "We've been talking about Averoni and what Marguerite is probably teaching her." He tried to wink at the woman. "Had to scare her into not giving up."
"Women eat one of the leaves; men two." She tore the leaf into small pieces. "You boys get comfortable. It knocks you out for an hour or so." Assai's mouth barely opened. Veronica slid a small piece onto her tongue. "Come one, Assai, chew this."
Challenger dragged himself around the fire. "Here. We each must consume two of the leaves."
Ned nibbled a piece of the bitter greenery. "This tastes as bad as it smells."
"Eat it anyway," Challenger snapped, trying not to spit out his bite.
"If this doesn't work, any regrets, Challenger?" Ned swallowed another piece.
"Too many to list, Malone."
"How about you, Roxton?"
The Lord of Avebury quickly shoved down the first leaf. Crunching up the second in his fist, he shoved it in his mouth. "That Marguerite would die alone."
Malone didn't add his. She was coming towards them.
Veronica handed Malone a canteen. "This may help."
"Did you get the leaf down Assai?"
"Yes. And I should stay... "
Malone grabbed her hand as she moved away. "No, please. Stay here, Veronica."
"Ned, this cure will work."
She laid down beside him. His fingers clumsily touched her hair. Reaching up, her fingers entwined around his. They were cold and swollen. She realized he was asleep. "Come back to me, Ned. You always have. This time better not be the exception."
Sleep overcame them all.
He mouthed the words: "How did you do that?"
She bit her lip before answering in a similar manner. "I can't tell you."
"This is extraordinary." The king walked through the room, gapping at the golden strands where there had been straw. "Absolutely extraordinary."
"May, we leave now, sire?"
"Come, my dear child, you haven't slept in two days. Accept my hospitality. I've had a room prepared for you. A nice hot bath is being poured as we speak." He draped an arm around Challenger as they left the dungeon. "After all, it's the least I can do for the Royal Wizard and his family."
"I prefer Royal Scientist, sire."
His family trudged behind.
Prince John addressed his brother quietly. "I don't like this."
The room was as big as her family cottage, including the mill. Several young ladies helped peal off her frock and skirt. Marguerite sighed as the steam from the bath enveloped her. She sat there until the water grew tepid.
The maids crowded in a corner, giggling. "Could someone please hand me a towel?"
"Your towel, my lady."
A splash followed as Marguerite sank back into the tub. "Your highness. I'm sorry, is this your room?" She noticed he wore his sword.
"No, My lady. Just checking on my guest."
"If you check on all your lady guests in such a manner, this must be a very popular place to stay."
He laid the towels and dressing gown on a stool near the tub.
"You are going to turn your back, aren't you?" As he did, she stepped out the water, quickly drying herself off and slipping on the robe. "You may turn around now."
The smile he wore caused her to search the opposing wall for a mirror.
"I hope you don't mind if I join you for lunch."
"Not at all. What are we having?" She paused seeing the small table. A tray of bread and meats set in the center.
"Not as grand as yesterday, but I hate wasting food."
"Much nicer, I think." She checked the bed for her skirt and frock. "Where are my cloths?"
"Your maids are in the dressing room with a gown. One of them took your things down to the kitchen, I believe she said to be boiled."
"Really," Marguerite snapped. "You spend two days with straw up to your elbows and see how clean you are."
"Are you ready to tell me how you did it?"
"Trying to seduce me for information?"
He smiled. "No. Just merely trying to seduce you."
"I'd better get dressed."
"Does that mean I'm losing the war?"
"Just the battle. I'm chilled."
Most of the food was wasted again. Neither one showed an appetite, instead they talked. Spinning straw into gold was never mentioned as they spoke of people and traveling. The Prince told of the lands he had visited. Marguerite described the villages they had stayed in before the habitants ran them and her father's inventions out.
Marguerite interrupted his story. "Why do you keep looking out the window?"
"I'm just watching the sunset."
The food had long since been cleared away. Marguerite ambled to the window. Light streamed around her. She forgot how tired she was in the warmth of the sun and his gaze. The sun's rays stretched into the evening's dark. The heavy gown almost caused her to trip as she spun around. "You believe your father will have me spin again."
"No." He looked from the window to the door. "I'm not sure. I've never seen him like this. He's usually so kind and gentle."
There was no knock for admittance. The king entered the room with several guards behind him. "Well, my dear. I trust you got some sleep."
"Actually, I was just about to kick your son out and hit the bed."
"Your last night, my dear. And your cruel enchantment by your father will be over." He looked smugly at his guards. "You should thank me."
"John, my son, step aside."
"No, father. You have over stepped your bounds." His hand lay upon his sword hilt.
"I? I am king. I have no bounds. That dungeon can hold you as well as her."
Stunned by his father's threat, the prince still didn't budge from Marguerite's side.
"I'll tell you what, my dear. Spin tonight and you may chose either of my sons to marry."
Marguerite studied the king's guards. The prince would know them. Be friends with them. She placed her hand upon his and eased the sword into its scabbard. "I will spin."
The prince pulled her away from the king and guards. "You do whatever it takes. Get that bloody straw into gold."
"How do you know I'll pick you?"
He kissed her. "And besides," he whispered, "Veronica will kick your ass if you choose, Edward."
Veronica set-up. The fire blazed to life. Stars were fading into the deep blue of dawn. "What time is it?"
Roxton stood by the fire, tossing in more kindling. "Somewhere around six, I'd guess."
She stretched and yawn, then realized what a pleasure that act was. "It worked."
His smile was slight. "Yes, it did."
"Hey," Malone eased himself up. "I feel pretty good."
"As do I," Challenger looked surprised.
"Veronica?" Assai's arm stretched for her friend.
"Assai!" Veronica rushed to her. "Oh, Assai. I was afraid..."
"Me too," she smiled.
"Here, drink this." Challenger held the canteen to her lips. She took it from him. "Thank you. I think I can manage."
"I hate to break this up, but may I remind you we have quite a few people needing this cure who are thirty-six hours away."
"I'll stay here with Assai." Challenger finally stood erect. "You three go on. We'll head for the tree house as soon as we can."
"Roxton," Veronica removed four leaves from one of the packs, gently rolling them then placing them into her hip pouch. "You and Ned head for the Tarangea caverns. They're a lot closer. Head east as fast as you can. I'll make for the tree house."
"No." Roxton fought the buckle to his holster belt.
"There's no discussion on this." She turned and was gone.
"Oh great. I can't let go of the pencil." Careful not to poke Averoni in the eye, Marguerite fed her the last of the milk. She changed the diaper and tried to toss it out of nose range. That effort didn't move it much. The baby squirmed as she laid her back in the basket. "I know, little one. You want to be held." Her lips quivered from pain and frustration. "I can't risk it. I might drop you or pass out."
The baby screamed until she exhausted herself and fell asleep. Marguerite wrote and spoke aloud to her.
They took the miller's daughter to another, even bigger room. Straw lay so thick, its dust made it difficult to breath. As they heaved the door close, Marguerite saw only the face of darkness.
She took stock of the room and its harvest. She was lost. Even if the little lizard man appeared there was nothing to trade. "I have nothing left."
"Nothing?" he sighed.
Marguerite jumped to her feet. "How do you do that? Just appear out of nowhere?"
"We all have secrets, don't we, my dear." His tongue flicked in and out several times. "Do you really have nothing else to trade?"
"I have this dress. Velvet and brocade." She spun around for him.
"Not my color, sorry. I'm more interested in what's beneath it."
"You have got to be joking."
"I guess I am. You'd slit my throat in the night."
Marguerite feigned shock. "Me?"
"I hate to just abandon you, my dear. I'll tell you what. In one year and three months I shall be one hundred years old."
"Congratulations. My life will end when I'm twenty-eight."
Now it was the lizard man's turn to feign an emotion.
"All right," Marguerite corrected herself, "thirty-two."
"Since I cannot have you, I want your first-born son. Three months after you have married you will find yourself with child. I will come one year from then to claim the boy."
"It'll be a birthday present to myself."
She thought of what the prince had said. "Do whatever it takes." She knew they'd never marry, their stations being far too different. In a year and three months she and her father would be in another town.
"Fine. In fifteen months you may have my son."
"Splendid." He set at the spinning wheel. "Now be a dear girl and start handing me the straw."
Morning brought what had become the usual greeters.
The king entered the room applauding her effort. Her father followed, his attire indicating his night was not spent in a dungeon. Several guards came along, then the two princes.
Edward slapped his brother's back. "I told you. I told you she'd do it."
"And so she did," the king laughed. "And now my promise to you, Mistress Marguerite. Which of my sons shall you choose in marriage?"
Her words echoed in her ears. There could be no marriage, for there might follow a son. "I would choose neither, my king." She performed a low curtsey. "I am a woman. I know of forced marriages. My father tried it several times."
Challenger rubbed his cheek remembering. "Yes. Yes I did."
"My dear," the king kissed her check warmly. "If I have frightened you, forgive me. I would never have had you killed. Actually, well, the gold is an added bonus, truth-be-known, it was for my son that I did this. You were the first woman who had touched him. I had to keep you close."
"I would not impose my will on anyone."
Prince John walked forward. He knelt before her. "Then would you enter into a marriage where the man pledges his love, his heart and all that he is to you."
Marguerite was speechless.
The prince took advantage of the moment by kissing her. "Well?"
"I still have secrets. A very big one as a matter-of-fact."
"No one's going to come in and drag you off to spin. There are no more excuses, Marguerite."
She swallowed. Her mouth was so dry it was hard to speak. "I love you."
"Oh, no you don't." Veronica dodged the T-Rex's charge. "You're nothing to what I'd face from Lord John Roxton."
Veronica continued to run.
The wedding was the next morning. She wore the gown her prince's mother had worn.
Marguerite brushed at the stains on the paper. She realized they were her own tears.
And as the lizard-man had predicted, Marguerite and the prince had a child. But not a son. A little girl named Averoni after her best friend and soon to be the young prince's new bride. She was a beautiful girl with her mother's eyes and father's spirit. Unfortunately she also had their combined tempers.
Everyday at dusk, Marguerite sat at the window seat, scrutinizing the forest surrounding the castle. Everyday Veronica watched her from the stables. The occasion of Averoni's three month birthday was to be marked with a large dinner. Marguerite shooed the maids and nanny from the room. She set in the rocker, clutching her sleeping daughter, staring into the forest.
"You want to tell me what's going on?" Veronica sat on the window seat and followed her friend's gaze.
"You can't or you won't."
"I haven't even told John."
Veronica had learned to read her friend. "Then it means trouble and you'd better tell me."
Her fear supplied the courage to reveal her story.
"What the hell was it?" Veronica winced.
"A troll? I don't know."
"A troll? My dear, I am not a troll."
Veronica pulled the dagger from her boot and stood between Marguerite and the creature.
"Eeeww, feisty. I like that. Unfortunately I cannot stay. I'm arranging my own birthday dinner."
"Veronica, wait." Marguerite laid Averoni in her cradle. "Sir, you have no business here."
"Now, Marguerite. Lest you forget."
"It's a girl. You demanded my first son. This is a girl."
"Really." He peered over the cradle. "Sure you're not just dressing him funny?"
"Hardly," Veronica spat.
"I like you," the lizard man smiled.
She waved the dagger towards him "The feeling is not mutual. Now leave."
"Just a moment. That child is mine. And if you don't give uh - her to me then I shall take your life instead."
Marguerite stood. "Go ahead."
"Hm. I'll tell you what. Let's compromise. Since this disagreement arose from a slip-of-the-tongue of but a single word, let's focus on another word. You guess my name and I'll leave forever." He nodded at the two women. "Now that seems fair."
Veronica took a step closer. "Get out of here."
"If not your life then, Marguerite, perhaps the next time your prince is out hunting..." He grinned and showed the full extent of his teeth. The forked tongue darted around his lips. "Hunting accidents are so tragic."
"Kill him," Marguerite hissed.
Veronica's dagger lodged in the window seat. The creature had inhuman speed. "And I'm strong too. So don't try it. Now back to our deal. Guess my name and I'm out of your life forever. You have three days."
"I didn't agree... Peter. David! Will!" she screamed after him.
The lizard leapt to the ground and disappeared into the darkness.
"Veronica, what am I to do?"
"What's wrong? What are you to do about what?" The prince retrieved his daughter from her cradle. "Are ready, birthday girl?"
Veronica took Averoni. "Start by telling him, Marguerite."
The prince's eyes narrowed at her suggestion.
"We'll be at dinner." Veronica and Averoni left for the celebration.
Marguerite forced a smile. "Remember that whole spinning straw into gold thing?"
Prince John sat on the window seat, his long legs stretched out. "Yes."
"Remember how you always wondered how I did it?"
"It wasn't that long ago, Marguerite."
She inhaled deeply. "Well, this little lizard creature man appeared in the rooms and for trade he spun the straw into gold. The first night I gave him my bracelet. The next my locket. The next our first born son. The creature has come to take our son, but since we had a daughter he agreed to another deal. If we guess his name he'll leave us alone."
The prince remained calm. "I must not have heard you right."
"Now remember, first of all, I thought your father was going to kill me. You told me to do whatever it takes to get that straw spun. And I never thought I'd actually marry you."
The prince stared at the floor. "You're right." He covered his eyes with his hand, which slide over his nose then his mouth. Finally he wagged his finger in the air. "But why didn't you tell me this before?" he shouted.
"I was afraid you'd be honor bound to tell your father. I was terrified he'd annul the marriage."
"I wouldn't have told him. I'm not that goody-goody."
His wife made a rude noise.
The prince took to his feet, pacing around the empty cradle. "We'll just tell him no. What can he do?"
"He said he'd kill me or you. Which ever of us is an easier target."
"He will not reach you. And me..."
She halted his pacing with a hand on his heart. "My love, he isn't human. He dodged Veronica's dagger with ease. For pity's sake, he can spin straw into gold. He's magic. Or something. He's not going to just go away."
He embraced her and felt her trembling. "You said we have to guess his name."
"Do you know where he lives? Where he's from?"
"When I first met him he mentioned living on the edge of the kingdom."
"Well, it's someplace to start."
"John, we only have three days."
"We'll dine with father this evening. I don't want him to suspect anything. We'll have Edward and your father start listing names. When will this creature be back?"
"Tomorrow at dusk."
At dusk Marguerite, Challenger and Prince Edward bombarded the creature with names. They began at sunset and stopped with its rising.
"No, my friends, but it has been fun."
Edward blocked him from the window. "And how do we know that one of these really isn't your name?"
"You don't. But trust me you'll know. It suits me." He jumped to the ground and again disappeared into the dark.
Prince John joined them at breakfast with a long list of names gathered from the countryside. They spent the day writing out more lists of obsequious names. At dusk, the three began their readings. Prince John hung in the shadows, watching, planning. If there was no other choice, he would gladly die for his Marguerite and Averoni.
Veronica too hid in the room's shadows, but her thoughts didn't linger on dying. She knew the kingdom better than any person other than her father. Neither of them recalled ever seeing a creature such as this. Layton and his daughter studied their maps over and over. Veronica noticed it first. There was a discrepancy between several of the maps on the eastern border of the kingdom, as though some lost world. "It's a swamp that intersects the two kingdoms. Neither side wants it. Sometimes map makers attach it to our kingdom; sometimes..."
"Have you ever been there?"
"Never myself. Its waters are putrid with slime and swamp gas. Very dangerous place."
"And probably where our creature is."
"Should we tell the prince?"
"We just want to find out his name not fight a war. You know how he gets over Marguerite."
"Yes. I've seen it in your Edward several times."
One after another, the Zanga men and women awoke from the awakening potion. Immediately their children fed them the leaves.
Roxton rested on a boulder watching the reunions. Ned collapsed next to him. "I am tired."
"Don't get too comfortable. We've got to get back to the tree house." He slid down the boulder and shouldered his rifle.
"Veronica is almost there by now."
Lord Roxton took several steps forward.
Ned appeared in front of him, blocking his path. "We've been walking twenty-four hours straight. We're both exhausted and worse: we're sloppy. Weren't you the one who told me sloppy will get you killed out there?"
The hunter stepped around him.
"John, if you leave now you'll only get us both killed."
Roxton turned around, inspecting him through blood-shot eyes. "You know, I think that's the first time you've called me by my given name."
Malone flashed a self-conscious grin. "I'll call you whatever you want if you'll sleep for a few hours."
They left the horses a few miles back. Layton had reinforced their boots with more leather. They hiked through several miles of gunk before noticing a narrow trail of smoke in the treetops.
"A chimney?" she questioned.
"Only one way to find out."
An entrance appeared at the base of a decaying tree. Light oozed out several large cracks in the tree trunk.
"Is that singing?"
"Maybe to someone."
They risked going close to one of the cracks. Layton lifted his daughter for a better view.
"That really is singing. Oh my God, there are females."
Out of the crowd emerged Marguerite's savior. In place of the simple coat and pants he had worn was a leather waistcoat. It looked like armor. He silenced his friends. "Once we've the prince's child, no one will stand in our way. This kingdom will be ours! We can leave this infernal swamp and once more rule this land."
"But sire, there are so few of us."
"But after we've feasted on the flesh of our enemies..." Veronica almost gave herself away with a gasp.
Finally the speech ended, but no name.
Layton's legs and arms trembled from the strain. She'd have to come down. A female lizard sauntered up to the leader. "What ya doing for the rest of the day, Rumplelizardskin?"
At last the territory was familiar. Veronica paused in the clearing for water. It couldn't be more than four hours.
"Are you sure?" Marguerite and the prince asked together.
"Positive." She handed the slip of paper to her friend. "That's his name."
"Well," Marguerite smirked. "He said we'd know when we found it."
The prince and Marguerite waited alone for the lizard man.
At dusk he swung into the room. "Oh, Marguerite."
"Yes." She set the candelabra on the table.
"Ah. You must be Prince John. How nice to finally me you."
The prince bowed slightly. "And how nice to meet you, Rumplelizardskin."
"Why, thank you." The creature paused. "You said..."
"Rumplelizardskin," Marguerite repeated.
His eyes darted about the room looking for a cradle.
The prince drew his sword and placed its end at the nap of Rumplelizardskin's neck. "This deal is over. I won't kill you because of what you did for Marguerite. But if I ever see you again, all debts are paid."
Rumplelizardskin bowed. "A pleasure." He disappeared onto the ground.
"Hey. Remember me?"
"Ah, Miss Veronica. Who could forget someone as lovely as you?"
Her curtsey twisted into a kick. The creature fell onto his back. Prince Edward drove a lance into his heart.
"Your brother really is too honorable. Maybe you should be king."
"That really isn't funny."
Marguerite laughed to herself. "Yes, it is." Her vision was so blurred she couldn't see the clock. She laughed again, a little louder. It wouldn't matter since she hadn't wound it in days.
"Roxton. I'm going to haunt you." The room spun as she struggled for the water jug. "I'm going to walk the halls of your castle asking where the hell are you?"
Averoni's cry was little more than a whimper. Marguerite struggled to keep the water pouch at the infant's lips. After Averoni, she sipped two swallows before the muscles in her throat refused anymore. "I'm sorry, Averoni. I'm so sorry. I can't do this anymore."
Her legs locked sending her to the floor. "I'm going to haunt Avebury. And people will ask who is that ghost with the pencil?" She lay there laughing. Her fingers refused to let go of the stupid pencil.
Veronica observed the small scavengers scurrying under the electric fence. The stench of the half-eaten bodies had every meat-eater in the area stalking nearby. Checking around her once more, she bolted to gate. The latch hidden in the gatepost turned off the switch. She threw herself behind the fence. A raptor attempted to follow her in. It's teeth locked on the top cable. She couldn't reach the latch to switch the electric fence back on. The raptor quickly snapped the cord. Its pack joined it at the fence. In seconds they were all through. Veronica didn't move. They glanced her way but their interest lay in the rotting bodies.
"Jarl?" she breathed. None of the colors on their wraps matched those of his family.
Quickly she bypassed the security and brought the elevator down. There was a sack of lime in Challenger's lab. That would take care of the stench on the ground.
It wasn't much improved upstairs.
An infant's cry answered her.
"Averoni!" The cocking of a pistol froze her in her path.
Marguerite's left arm was propped on a fallen chair. Her pistol pointed at the intruder. "No, Rumplelizardskin. My prince and I sent you away." Her eyes were unfocused. Her lips were cracked and the words they spoke were gruff.
"Marguerite. It's Veronica. Look at me. Listen to my voice. Veronica."
"My prince's brother loves you so."
"I'm sure he does." Veronica eased toward her friend. "I'm taking the pistol." She pried the weapon from her quivering hand.
"Would you get the pencil next?"
The Zanga warriors cleared the grounds of what little remained of the traitors. Veronica added a pile of soiled diapers to the burial detail.
"Do you think they'll actually bury what's left?"
Veronica clutched Ned's old journal to her. "No, they'll take them somewhere else and scatter 'em. The Zanga won't consider those warriors deserving of a burial."
Over the past day and a half, Averoni had graduated from water to goat's milk to mother's milk. She lay contented in her father's arms asleep, clutching his fingers. "I don't know how to thank you. All of you," Assai spoke as the chief's daughter. "We owe you our lives and the very existence of the Zanga people." The serious expression transformed into a wry smile. "Tell Marguerite I'm sure my father will forget her previous indiscretion against him."
Challenger appeared from Marguerite's room.
"Her muscles are relaxed, but she was so dehydrated and..." The faces around him turned crestfallen. "And it's just going to take her a little longer to get better."
Assai kissed Veronica and Ned. "Tell her what I said. And thank Roxton for us too. When all are well, we'll have a feast to mark our debt and express our thanks."
Ned switched on the repaired fence as the Zanga disappeared into the jungle.
Veronica sat across from Challenger. "How is she, really?"
"I'm not a doctor, Veronica." His tone softened. "She was in bad shape when you got here. I still can't believe that little baby was in such good health. What Marguerite must have gone through to keep Averoni fed, I can't imagine."
"I think I can." She laid Malone's journal on the table.
"She read my journal?" Ned sputtered incredulous.
"No, silly. She wrote in it. You both have to read this."
Roxton paced off the distance of the small room from several angles. He rearranged the trinkets on the shelves, then put them back as she had them.
"Marguerite," he pleaded. "Please. Wake up for me." He sat on the edge of the bed. "I'm so amazed. So proud. I could never have kept the baby and Jarl alive." He touched her cheek. It was cold. "You've got to wake up and tell me how you did it."
"I think I might have a clue."
He noticed the journal in the Malone's hand. "Not now, Ned." He wiped his eyes. "I'm not in the mood to read about the Stillness or anything else you've got written down."
"This was on the table. Veronica couldn't figure out why Marguerite was clutching a pencil of all things. She was writing in here," he tapped the journal, "to keep herself awake to take care of Averoni."
Roxton raised an eyebrow as he accepted it.
"She wrote a fairy tale." Ned shook his head in surprise. "And she's really pretty good."
"She ought to be. She's been writing fiction all her life."
"The last few pages get pretty hard to read."
"Oh, she must have passed out before she finished it. Veronica wrote a last line. So did Challenger. I couldn't resist either."
Roxton still chuckled through his third reading.
He scooted the chair up to the bed. Laying the journal beside her, he placed her hand beneath his on the cardboard cover. "I think you made Ned jealous. He's very unsure of himself when it comes to writing fiction. That's probably why he can't quite capture you in his writings." The man laughed at his joke. Gently he moved her hand to her side and opened the journal to the last page.
"Everyone has written something. I'd guess you could call it an ending line." He inhaled sharply. "I know you're going to be furious that we all read it. But there's very little privacy here, as we both know too well."
He held the book out as though she could see the page. "Let me read what they wrote. Veronica's line is: Veronica and her father moved their cottage to the edge of the swamp to protect the kingdom from any other threats. Of course Challenger put: And as the miller became the royal scientist, the kingdom enjoyed prosperity from all his inventions. Then Ned wrote: Upon his marriage to the royal hunter's daughter, Prince Edward built his castle on the kingdom's fringe and founded a dynasty of protectors who to this day protect the kingdom from the map maker's lost world. Rather wordy but he's a professional.
"And I wrote, well, you may never have called her a princess, but I'm sure her prince knew her as one. So I wrote: The prince and princess lived happily ever after." He closed the book and set it aside. "Now how can that happen if you don't get better?" He kissed her lightly on the forehead. "Maybe you should have written a take on Sleeping Beauty."
A long breath escaped from her.
Her prince froze. "Marguerite?"
They heard the strain in his voice. Veronica took to her feet followed by Ned. Challenger grabbed their arms. "Leave him alone."
"Marguerite?" His voice quivered in panic. He touched her face and her hands. She was so cold. He glanced back towards the main room. But he couldn't call them. Not yet. Roxton pressed her hand between his. "Marguerite."
"John. I keep hearing laughing."
Surprise and joy quickly suppressed, years of conditioning kicked in. He responded to the needs of the moment. "Are you cold?"
He pulled another blanket over her. "We're going to start slow." With his fingers he dabbed water on her lips.
Clumsily she licked the drops off.
"Okay, up you come." He tipped a cup against her lips granting her a few sips. "That's all you get."
She said something else, but all he caught was "mud".
"Damn. I should have thought of this before." He wrapped her in the blankets. "I just don't think straight when it's about you. A lot of people have told me that lately. Repeatedly." Lifting her into his arms, he walked into the main room. "Ned, get the fire under the water tank going. Keep it filled."
Veronica pushed herself up from the table. "She's..."
"Cold. Stay with me, Marguerite. Keep talking."
"Of course!" Challenger rushed to the shower stall. "We'll need lots of hot water. I'll check the pipes."
Veronica started the shower. "Still too cold."
"I don't care. That water's been in the sun so it's warmer than she is." He shed the blankets from her and stepped in.
"I'll get some towels."
The water slowly warmed. "Marguerite. Come on." She held her beneath the steady stream. "Talk to me."
"Your boots are getting wet."
"Nothing new. Keep talking." He lowered himself to the floor, settling her in his lap. Hot water covered them both. "You're not talking."
Veronica's hand snaked under the shower testing the temperature. "Marguerite," she teased. "I read your fairy tale."
The woman stirred. "What?"
Veronica's characteristic half-smile appeared. "We all read it."
"I don't remember..."
"Spin tonight and you may chose either of my sons to marry." Veronica quoted.
Roxton felt her move. "No. No. My favorite was: She let her hands float in the water and her soul in his eyes."
Her hand swatted at the water on her face. "Oh. No."
Ned appeared next to Veronica. "Well, as a fellow writer I appreciated the parody. Especially the young Prince Edward playing second fiddle to his older brother."
"Prince John, wasn't it?" Veronica smirked.
"No one was supposed to see that," she moaned, her words becoming clearer. Color returned abruptly to her checks. "Give it back."
"Not a chance," Roxton smiled. "That journal goes into hiding with that piece of paper I found. You recall that, don't you, Marguerite?"
She struck him on his chest. "Don't you say another word, Roxton."
Veronica closed the shower curtain. "We'd better go check the water level. I have a feeling they're going to be in there quite a while."
Ned joined her in the elevator. "And the prince and the princess lived happily ever after."