Again, most of the characters in this story were created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and others by the creators of the TV show
Spoilers:This story contains minor spoilers for a couple of episodes, including The Games and Absolute Power (from season one), among slight references to others.
Acknowledgements:I thank Lex, Susan, Antea, Debbie, and Danielle for proofing and critiquing. It's amazing how much you can miss by reading it yourself–no matter how many times. Any remaining errors are mine alone.
A couple of days after returning from the lizardmen's capital city, the tree house residents were out gathering the material needed to repair the roof from a particular tree that Veronica said would provide the best thatch. Roxton's ax handle broke and he headed back toward the tree house for a replacement. Probably a couple hundred yards down the trail, he heard sounds behind him, and swung around, yanking one of the pistols from the leather harness around his chest, then sighing in annoyance and relief as the dark-haired woman appeared. He jammed the weapon back into its leather nest.
"What excuse did you use this time?" he demanded.
Marguerite halted a half dozen feet from him. "What?"
"You always manage to come up with some reason why you shouldn't or couldn't participate in manual labor. Did you break a fingernail?"
She stared at the hard anger on his face, something she had seen all too frequently lately. She thought she might know the reason behind it, but she also knew she had to get the air cleared, one way or another. He might not believe her, but at least he would hear her side of it. "I want to know why you have been treating me like a–a pariah since we came back from the lizard city."
"Why? I should think that would be obvious. I value my life, even if you don't."
"How can you say that! I've always–"
"Yes, indeed, you've always'! You've always done whatever benefits Marguerite Krux, first and foremost, and if, in the process, it happens to be of use to the rest of us, fine. All you care about is your own skin and whatever precious baubles happen to come out of it! You always manage to keep on the good side of all factions, so that whatever the outcome, you end up on top!"
"That's not true!"
"Isn't it? You sold Veronica to Jakoba. Don't lie. We all know about it."
Marguerite swallowed. She had tried to forget that episode and had hoped everyone else had too. "That was a mistake on my part." Her voice was lower, and she cast her gaze off to the side, away from his anger. What was that?
"The mistake was that your greed then caused us to lose our best chance of ever getting off this hellish place!" His voice was hoarse with rage.
Her eyes jerked back to him, the movement she had noticed in the brush forgotten. "How was I to know that moving those damn rocks would–"
"The point is, my love, you were as interested in getting those gems as you were in escaping. Even more!"
Marguerite opened her mouth, closed it again, staring at the fury on his face, in his eyes. He had been angry with her on other occasions, but not like this. The little epithet–was it meant only in sarcasm? She took a breath. "Then tell me what's wrong now."
"Wrong? Good God, Marguerite! I can't believe you don't know. You nearly got me killed in the arena, just so your precious neck would be safe."
"No! That's not true!"
"Not true? I was there, dearest. I was there. I've got the bruises and aches to prove it." He held out his right arm to display the still livid ring around his wrist caused by the manacle that had chained him to Tribune during the fray.
Marguerite made a motion with her hands, barely preventing herself from bringing them together to wring in anguish. "I didn't know what else to do! Centuria had just ordered her guards to kill you! I couldn't–"
"And so you thought, oh, how amusing. Roxton and Tribune fighting each other in the arena. Should be good for quite a few laughs."
"Dammit, no!" She reached out and caught his hand. "When Centuria ordered Tribune's death–I'm not sure why I reacted as I did. God knows we don't owe him anything. I remembered how he sent you to the arena last year to fight Solomon. It just seemed–ironic. I really didn't give a damn what happened to him in the end. Malone was safe for the moment. I would have time to help him later. But you–my God, John! Do you think I could have stood there and watched the guards murder you?"
He stared at her a long moment, his jaw working as his teeth ground together. Her eyes seemed to be sparkling–with tears? Tears of contrition or tears of anger? God, if he could only believe her. He wanted so very much to believe her, to just pull her into his arms and tell her everything was all right. He could not–not right now. The moment in Centuria's chambers when Marguerite had blithely condemned him to the gladiator's combat was far too fresh in his mind. Had she had another choice? He didn't much give a damn.
"Just think," he said dryly, "Think of the feast you could have enjoyed, the delicacies prepared from my brains, my guts, my–" He glanced down his own body.
"Did anyone ever tell you, Lord John," Marguerite retorted, her eyes blazing now, for he could not know that she had experienced that very nightmare while dining with Centuria, "that you are a son of a bitch?"
"It's been mentioned," he replied in a low, savage voice, jerking his hand free from the tingling grip of her fingers.
For long seconds they stared at each other in silence, the irrational anger simmering. Abruptly, Marguerite asked, "Why did you call me dearest'?"
He blinked. "I didn't!"
She started to respond, but a movement to his left caught his attention, and he swung that way, reaching for his pistols. Marguerite's scream rang in his ears, and Roxton started to turn back toward her, catching a glimpse of her slim body slumping to the ground, of the man holding the club towering over her, just as his own world exploded and faded into nothingness.
Marguerite became aware of the soft fingers on her face. "John?" she murmured, and struggled to open her eyes. Coincident with forcing her lids open came the glare of light and the stabs of agony through her skull. She moaned aloud.
"Shh, lie still, Marguerite."
The voice was feminine, familiar. Not Veronica, for it had a tinge of an accent. Marguerite blinked several times to force away the water that was streaming from her eyes. A face formed above her, a kind, concerned face. "Assai?" How could she be in the Zanga village?
"Don't try to move," Assai urged. "You have a terrible bump on your head."
Marguerite lifted a hand–or tried to lift a hand–to touch her face. Something weighed on her arm, and she looked at it. A heavy metal band encircled her wrist, and attached to it was a long chain, a chain secured to a sturdy post driven into the ground next to where she was laying.
"What the hell is going on?" She lifted herself up onto her elbows, an effort that was surprisingly difficult and caused her head to throb.
Assai, who Marguerite saw now was similarly chained, her wrist attached to an identical post, picked up a gourd and held it to Marguerite's lips. Marguerite drank greedily of the water, tepid as it was, suddenly aware of just how dry her mouth and throat were. Her vision clearing now, Marguerite looked around. They were in a veritable forest of short posts in the center of a circle of huts and hide tents. Three other women were secured to posts in this area. She saw rough-clad men moving about the tents, pretty much paying no attention to the females at the moment.
"Where are we, Assai?" She did not dare ask the other question yet.
"Slavers," the young native woman responded bitterly.
No other explanation was necessary at this time. In their months on the plateau, Marguerite had heard a great deal about the slave traders who captured inhabitants and sold them to various unscrupulous persons: the mine owners at the perimeter mountains; the tribes who held slaves to accomplish crude labor; and the men who collected beautiful young women. There had been some hints that Veronica's parents had become victims of this vicious trade.
After a moment, Assai continued. "Jarl and I were returning from visiting relatives who live near the great falls. The slavers attacked–we had no chance. There were too many of them."
"The men are being kept in that stockade over there," the young woman replied, looking over Marguerite's shoulder.
Marguerite swiveled her head around. She had not noticed it previously, but just beyond the largest of the huts was a line of posts, probably a dozen feet high, lashed securely together with leather thongs. The side toward them was probably twenty feet wide. She swallowed. "John Roxton?"
Assai touched the shoulder of the dark-haired woman with her free hand. She and Veronica had held a number of conversations about Marguerite, and had usually come to the conclusion that they did not understand her. Veronica related the courage and often brilliance Marguerite displayed in moments of danger, but often said that the others were still unsure how far they could trust her. Veronica thought, and Assai had to concur from her own observations, that Lord Roxton loved Marguerite. Neither was entirely positive whether the sentiments were fully returned.
"I saw him being carried into the stockade," Assai said quietly.
Marguerite looked around, her heart thudding with dread. "Carried?"
Assai smiled gently. "If he had been dead, they would have left him for the raptors."
Marguerite turned her head away to hide the relief she was experiencing. "Who are these other women?"
Assai shook her head slightly. "Just whoever they might catch unawares. There is always a market for young women." Her lips tightened in fear, tinged with bitterness. "This has been going on for centuries."
"I know," Marguerite replied softly. "And not only here. Who are our captors?"
"I don't know the leader's name. He resides in that largest hut over there. I'm pretty sure the tribe is called the Begai."
"It's a tribe of slave catchers?"
"As far as we know. They actually reside over near the big mountain, where their families are. This must be their slaveholding camp."
"It looks somewhat permanent," Marguerite mused. "Did your people know of its existence?"
Assai made a face. "We were always warned never to stray too far in this direction. The slavers never invaded our region before this. They must have been unable to capture victims in their usual range."
"About a year ago," Marguerite said slowly, "Some slavers attempted to grab Veronica right at the tree house."
"I remember! She told me about that. She was quite surprised–and grateful that you and the others were able to rescue her and drive them off."
"Challenger said that more than likely the slavers had an order for a specific type of woman–young and blonde like Veronica. They never came back, thank God." Until now? Why?
John Roxton leaned his head back against the rough wood, closing his eyes in an attempt to ease the throbbing inside his skull. Didn't help much, so he lifted his head and opened his eyes to look at his sole companion. "Did you get any indication of their plans for us?"
Jarl shrugged slightly. "The mines, more than likely. I've always heard there is a ready market for strong men to work in the mines."
"More than likely the men are worked to death and require frequent replacement," Roxton said. "Where are these mines?"
Jarl shook his dark head. "In the mountains. They are well guarded, so we never attempted to find them."
"So they are mining something valuable?"
"Gold, silver. Gems."
Roxton frowned. "What the hell value are such things here?" He had seen jewels and precious metals adorning the clothes and accoutrements of some tribes, but the requirement had never seemed that high–they were valued as ceremonial and decorative items, not for the worth they might have in the outer world.
"Assai's father told me he believes they are taken to the outside world."
"Outside! You mean they know a way off the plateau?"
Jarl shrugged again. "I don't know."
They fell silent. Roxton looked around their prison, which consisted of tightly bound logs buried, apparently, deeply into the earth and extending a dozen feet high. A door was cut into one side, just now securely closed. All around the perimeter, iron rings were fastened securely into the wood, and it was to two such rings that both men were chained now. He glanced down at his wrist and the manacle that covered the redness that had just begun to start healing. Seemed as though he had spent a lot of time in chains lately. This one, at least, he could not blame on Marguerite.
Well, perhaps in a sense he could. If she had not come charging after him, precipitating the argument that had distracted him. Roxton closed his eyes again, seeing again the expressions that had flitted across her lovely face as he had accused her of all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors. Anger, anguish, pain.
He sighed heavily. He had been too hard on her, he knew. She had not really behaved any differently in the lizard city than any number of other times, including the first time they had encountered the lizards, shortly after arriving here on the plateau. At that time she had ingratiated herself with Tribune with the express purpose, she said later, of engineering their freedom. She claimed that Roxton's instigation of the uprising among the slaves had sabotaged her plans. He had not called her a liar, and he knew why: deep inside him was that spot that desperately wanted to believe her.
He had to admit that later, when they stumbled into the strange settlement known as Paradise, where the inhabitants retained their youth and serenity by eating fruits from a special tree–and fed that tree with the life essence of captured humans–Marguerite had curried favor with the leader, betrayed him, and helped her friends to escape. Who knew what might have happened had she not done that?
For some reason, this time had been the proverbial straw. He had been stunned to hear Marguerite offer him to Centuria for the lizard empress's personal amusement. Perhaps she was right when she said that if she had not done that, the palace guards would have cut him down then and there. Centuria had been capable of such viciousness, no doubt. Still the rage in him had boiled over, even when she came to the dungeon in what he knew now was an attempt to explain. He had not given her that chance.
A scraping sound brought him alert, and he and Jarl watched as the stockade's gate swung open, and three men entered. The leader was a brawny fellow with short blond hair and a snarling countenance decorated by tattoos over his forehead. All three were roughly clad in leather and crudely woven cloth decorated with metal studs, and were armed with short swords stuck in their belts. Two held back near the gate while the leader strutted over to stand above the two prisoners, his narrowed gaze on Roxton's face.
"Good, you're awake. I expect to get a pretty good price for you. Strong men are always in demand." He dropped down to his haunches, still staring at Roxton. "Do you remember me?"
Something nudged at Roxton's memory, but he couldn't bring it to the fore. "Should I?"
The other man stared at him a long moment, then swiftly rose to his feet and stepped back to one of his comrades, grabbing a long strap of leather the man held. He swung this sharply toward Roxton's face. The movements had been so sudden that Roxton barely had time to get his unfettered arm up in an effort to protect himself. The leather cut across his forearm, the end snapping at his cheek. Seeing the slaver's arm draw back for another blow, Roxton hurled himself over, presenting his shoulder to the strap. He could not suppress the grunt of pain as the sharp edge of the whip cut through his shirt into his skin. Even as the strap fell a second time, Roxton knew this was one reason his leather pistol harness had been removed.
"Do you remember me now!" the slaver snarled.
Carefully Roxton lowered his arm and looked toward the man towering over him. He could feel blood seeping from the stinging wounds on his shoulder and back. "Beating me isn't going to help my memory," he said softly.
For a moment he thought the whip was going to be lifted again, and he tensed himself. Instead, the blond man took a step back. "You cost me a small fortune," he growled. "A wealthy man was going to pay me in silver and gems for a golden-haired virgin. You and your mate and the others drove us off with your fire-breathing sticks."
"I remember." At the end of a very harrowing day, when it seemed Challenger was going to be lost after being struck by a strange bolt of lightning, a band of slave catchers had attempted to grab Veronica. Fortunately–for whatever reason–Challenger had had an omniscient vision of the event and warned them in time that they were able get down to the ground and help her. He now knew why this man's face seemed faintly familiar. John Roxton had not really gotten a close look at him that day, but he remembered the malevolent glare cast in his direction as the band had been driven off.
"I am Dirkon," the man said, tossing the strap back to his man and dropping to his haunches again. "You cost me plenty, but we'll make it up now. Between what I get for you and for your woman, we'll make it up. She's a little older than most, but fair to look at, and there'll be high bidding."
"Don't suppose you'd be willing to fight for her, man to man," Roxton said, matching Dirkon's steely glare with one of his own. "I win and you set her free."
Dirkon's head cocked and his eyes narrowed. "What about you?"
"I'm here for the duration, I expect."
For just an instant, Roxton thought that Dirkon might seriously consider the offer. He certainly was mulling it over in his mind. But then the slaver got to his feet. "I don't need to fight you to keep you. I have you. In two days there will be an auction for mine workers. You two will go early. Then I'll still have your women." He whirled and stomped through the open door, followed by his men, and the gate was closed behind him.
"Here's the other pistol," Malone said, leaning down and picking up the weapon from the brush alongside the trail.
"What the hell happened here?" Challenger wanted to know, his somber gaze on the young woman pacing around the area. She held a black hat; Challenger had the other hat in his hand.
"Slavers," Veronica said in a cold voice. "No one else would have carried them off alive–except possibly cannibals, and these aren't cannibal tracks."
Malone moved toward her. In each hand he now held one of Roxton's pearl-handled pistols. "Are you sure? They haven't been in this area since last year."
"Damn it!" Challenger looked down at the tan hat he held, and was suddenly reminded of a few months ago when he had come upon Veronica and Marguerite while they searched for the fallen men. Marguerite had been clutching this hat for dear life. "We never should have hesitated!"
"My fault," Veronica murmured.
Their first thought when Marguerite had hastily followed Roxton was, of course, that she was using it as an excuse to get away from the physical work of cutting the fronds for the roof–even though Veronica had to admit that Marguerite had labored as diligently as the others that morning. When neither returned within a reasonable time, Malone had voiced concern. Veronica, however, thought they should wait.
"They might be making up," she pointed out. All of them had noticed Roxton's coolness toward Marguerite since the return from the lizard city. Malone had at one point gone so far as to try to explain to Lord Roxton that in his opinion Marguerite had actually been helping them all along, but the older man was in no mood to listen.
So they had waited, continuing to gather the material for the roof, until finally, after about two hours and the three of them had really amassed quite enough for the repairs and then some, Challenger voiced his concern. It was not like Roxton to shirk work for anything–even for Marguerite. Nor would he wish to cause his comrades to worry.
So they had gathered up as much as they could carry in their arms and headed home, halting when Veronica spotted the hat in the middle of the trail. Now the story was clear. Both Roxton and Marguerite had been ambushed and carried off.
"Never mind," Challenger said. "Let's get back to the tree house for supplies and get moving. Looks like there were at least a half dozen men. They cannot have hidden their trail very well."
"They didn't," Veronica affirmed. "At least not at the start."
Her worst fears were corroborated about an hour later when they encountered a broad shallow stream. The slavers had entered that stream with their captives and walked in it, hiding their tracks. The only thing to do was to follow the waterway and check the banks, and all three knew it would be unwise to split up and go different directions. So with Malone and Challenger on one side–because of their lack of tracking skills, together they would be more apt to spot any signs–and Veronica on the other, they walked upstream first. The only reasoning for this direction was that Veronica stated she had once heard of some transient settlements in this direction; she did not know for certain that they were slaver camps.
Marguerite shifted her position and grunted softly in discomfort. The ground was hard, the sun was hot, and her head still ached from the blow that had dropped her. Cautious probing had revealed a very nice lump, but no broken skin. Assai had told her, with a wry smile, that she herself had been "fortunate," in that she had not been struck, but simply overpowered. Jarl, however, had been rendered unconscious because he continued to struggle to protect his wife.
"I felt as you did," Assai said softly. "I was so afraid he was dead. He was so still as they carried him. I kept telling myself they would have dropped him if he was dead, but I did not experience any relief for my love until I saw him move and heard him make a sound just before they put him in the stockade."
But I haven't seen my love yet, Marguerite fretted, then chuckled mentally. My love? Roxton would laugh himself silly if he could have heard that thought. She would not sure why the phrase had come to her just that way–echoing Assai perhaps. She was not in love with Lord John Roxton. She valued him as a friend and had on occasion contemplated his strong body as a lover, but love him? Marguerite was unsure if she knew what it would feel like to love someone, anyone.
They had seen the camp leader leave his hut and go into the stockade with a couple men some time back, and emerge after ten or fifteen minutes looking angry and ugly to return to his abode. He had not come to talk to the women, although a couple of his men had wandered toward them once, then seemed to think better of it. Assai commented that she thought that the men were under orders to leave the women be, because if any were virgins they would bring a higher price, and certainly they would not want any of the women marked by bruises.
But what about the men?
John Roxton would not cower before the slaver, Marguerite knew, and the brawny leader looked like the type who would not tolerate any back talk. She could only hope that Roxton had sense enough to at least remain silent.
Hearing a sound, Marguerite looked around. Two empty poles were between her and the next captive woman, and that young woman was sobbing into her hands. Probably not even a woman, Marguerite mused; she appeared to be closer to fourteen or fifteen, with long, rather drab blonde hair but with a pretty face and bright blue eyes, clad in a knee length garment of homespun. Even in her adolescence she had a fairly ripe figure–which would attract a buyer easily.
"Don't cry," Marguerite heard herself say gently. "It will be all right."
The girl looked up, eyes red and swollen. "I want to go home." She spoke in a different language, one that Marguerite had not heard before, but understood immediately. Obviously the girl had not comprehended the English words, but heard their comfort.
"Where is your home?" Marguerite inquired in the girl's language.
The blue eyes widened, her fear and discomfort forgotten for the moment. "Who are you? How do you know my words?"
"My name is Marguerite. Sometimes–sometimes I can understand other people's words. What is your name?"
"Enna. My people live by the great lake. It is a fishing village. I think they killed my brother."
"I'm so sorry. Was he with you?"
The girl nodded, eyes filling with tears again. "He would not stop fighting."
"Don't give up hope, Enna. We have friends who will be seeking us."
Little more could be said, Marguerite realized, and with a smile of encouragement, she turned away from the girl. The other captive women had watched and listened to the exchange, but it was doubtful any understood. Assai was dozing, her head on her arm, long black hair spread over her shoulders and spilling into the dust.
Marguerite knew that Challenger, Malone, and Veronica would come hunting for them as soon as they realized she and Roxton were missing. They could be up in the trees on the bluff above the camp right now. Marguerite looked up there, saw nothing, and knew she was only attempting to encourage herself, just as she had offered encouragement to the girl.
The slavers had taken captives from all over the plateau for years and had never been tracked down and caught. Certainly other tribes had attempted to do that. The Zanga, Assai's tribe, had tales of how their members had been carried away, never to be seen again. The captors knew how to elude pursuers, plus they had a reputation as vicious fighters which deterred some weaker, smaller tribes. Would Veronica's knowledge, extensive as it was, be enough, Marguerite wondered? Or would she end up in some wealthy man's household as a servant–or worse–while John was sent to the mines?
Marguerite reached over to touch Assai's arm as she saw the door of the largest hut open and the leader emerge. Assai lifted her head and they watched that man speak to several of his men, who promptly picked up their weapons and headed out into the jungle. To seek more captives? To watch for pursuers? At least it cut the number of men in camp by about a third.
Then the leader strode in their direction, and Marguerite realized he was coming to her. He stopped, arms akimbo, and glared down at her. "Do you remember me?"
She studied his tattooed face. "You attempted a raid on our settlement." It all came back quickly, the horrifying day they all thought George Challenger must surely die, and then the attack by the men who tried to grab Veronica–which Challenger seemed to know ahead of time.
"I do not forget," he growled. "I am Dirkon. I vowed vengeance. And now I have it. You and your man will make up for the fortune I lost that day."
Marguerite studied him a moment, then glanced around. "Must get lonely here for you–all these lovely women and you can't touch any of them for fear of lessening their value."
"I can if I wish," he sneered.
She lifted her chin and subtly moved her shoulders, so that her breasts pressed again the fabric of her shirt. "But if you took a woman, all your men would want one." She allowed a small, teasing smile to touch her lips, and was aware of Assai's astonished, and somewhat horrified, stare.
Dirkon's narrowed eyes raked over her form, and she saw how his throat moved with a swallow. Two men had noticed the exchange and moved closer, watching and listening. Their leader glanced around and saw them, then looked at Marguerite again. "You don't seem to be pining for your man."
She shrugged. "There are many men. Some are better than others." This last she lowered her voice to a husky purr. She allowed her gaze to move slowly over his body. "But then again, my man is very powerful."
The slaver's lips tightened. "We shall see." He whirled and stalked toward the stockade, followed by the two men.
"Marguerite!" Assai whispered loudly. "What are you doing?"
Marguerite let out a long breath, and drew her knees up to clutch to her chest. "I don't know."
"You shouldn't toy with him. He might–he might take you to his hut."
"I hope to God he does," Marguerite murmured, then her eyes widened. "Look!"
Both Roxton and Jarl were being led out of the stockade. Marguerite saw Jarl's eyes frantically search the area, and come to rest on his beloved young wife. Assai gave him a quick nod to let him know she was well. Roxton stared straight ahead, no matter how hard Marguerite willed him to look in her direction. She saw the dark marks on his shirt. He had been whipped!
The two men were taken to a pile of rough logs, where each was handed a crude metal axe. Several of Dirkon's men were summoned, and about a half dozen stood in a circle around the captives with drawn swords. Roxton and Jarl were commanded to cut the wood.
Marguerite could not hear what John Roxton said, but she knew it could not have been what Dirkon wanted to hear, for that man seized a strap being carried by another man, and lashed Roxton's back twice. Her own body seemed to feel the pain as he stumbled and went to his knees under the force of the strap.
"John," she breathed. "Please don't. Don't fight him. Not now."
Oddly, this time he did look in her direction, almost as if he had heard her words. More than likely, Marguerite decided, he realized for himself that resistance was futile at the moment. He was still angry, she could tell. Probably angry at himself for allowing them to be surprised and captured. Lord John Roxton considered himself the guardian of the band; he had suffered mightily with the loss of Summerlee a few months ago and had not forgiven himself, she knew.
Roxton straightened, picking up the tool that had dropped from his hand, and with a black glance at the slaver, began hacking at the wood. Jarl followed suit. Dirkon watched a moment, then grinned and strolled back to the women.
"You see who is the strongest now?" he jeered.
"It certainly seems that way," Marguerite concurred, with a smile. "But of course, you have all those men to help you."
"Pah! I could break him easily, with just my hands."
"I'm sure you could," she replied, and allowed just a tiny amount of a taunt into both her tone and her smile.
Dirkon leaned toward her, eyes blazing. "I could show you right now who is the strongest. You have never known a man like me!"
"I know." Marguerite dropped her gaze for just an instant, then brought her eyes up again, raking over his powerful form. "But I hope you will allow me time to recover further so that I may appreciate you fully. I am still weak from the blow–and I would not wish you to be less than satisfied with me."
He straightened, folding his arms over his chest, staring at her. Marguerite could almost read his thoughts: he was trying to determine whether she was serious or not. He was a vain man, she was certain. The tattoos on his face and body were more elaborate than any other of his men, his sword shinier, with a polished stone handle. He was the leader for a reason. He would not wish to leave himself open to ridicule by falling for the wiles of a captive woman who then tricked him.
"What is your name?" he asked then.
She smiled. "Marguerite." She said it like a caress, voice throaty, eyes on his face. The flush on his skin was slight, but it was there.
"Akul," he said, turning to a nearby man. "Take Marguerite to the abode next to mine. See that she has food and water. And stand guard at the door."
John Roxton allowed himself surreptitious peeks toward the women chained to the small forest of posts. The relief he had experienced with the first glance that assured him she was alive and at least somewhat well began to turn into simmering rage as he saw her interact with Dirkon–the smiles, the body movements–he didn't need to hear the words. God damn the bitch! She was at it again!
Jarl looked at him in alarm, and a couple of the guards started as his axe head slammed with extra force into the wood, so Roxton took a couple of deep breaths. He was not going to help his own cause by losing his head–and it appeared he would be on his own now.
"Why shouldn't Marguerite look after her own skin? Are you sure you have any human blood at all?"
Tribune's rather astonished comments echoed in his brain. Times like these when John Roxton wondered why he was so besotted with the damn woman. And he knew he was, and had been for a long time. The damnedest part was that he knew he would never feel the same way about her if she was any different than she was!
Fire and steel. That's what he had told her that evening in the tree house during their first days here, a woman of fire and steel. The kind of woman he had unknowingly been searching for all his life. Though he had dallied with barmaids and young ladies of high society, with other men's wives and with fortune hunters–women he knew were as interested in his title and estate as him, whatever his supposed charms–leading them on as long as he cared, there had not been one single female of his acquaintance in whom he had the slightest interest of a lifetime commitment. He had become bored with them, often usually after they yielded so quickly to him.
He had heard of Marguerite Krux before that night she had sauntered so boldly down the aisle of that all-male bastion, the London Zoological Society, to offer her financial services to the proposed expedition. Men had spoken her name with lust, and a little fear, in their faces; women usually displayed distaste and envy. She was a wealthy, independent woman with a past–although no one seemed to know exactly what that "past" was.
Roxton knew now, many months later, that he had lost everything, his heart and his soul, a few nights later when the formidable Miss Krux entered Challenger's study and announced her intention to accompany the expedition. She had responded to his scoffing words with action, and proof that she was indeed capable of surviving in a man's world. On the ocean voyage and the trek up the river, he had learned more, and he had learned less. The mystery about her drew him to her, and cast him out at the same time.
There had been times when he thought–hoped–she might have feelings for him. An occasional glance, a few words, sometimes an action, indicated the possibility she could care. Yet that fence, that high iron fence, wrapped in barbed wire, was forever surrounding her. Someone somewhere had taught her to fear and distrust–and John Roxton often wished he could have that man's throat under his powerful fingers.
He could not help it. His axe lowered and he straightened, staring across the compound, as he saw Dirkon release the manacle from Marguerite's wrist, and he watched her saunter–no, sashay was a better word, with hips swaying tantalizingly–alongside another man toward a hut, as Dirkon watched almost with his tongue hanging out.
"Back to work!" The lash whistled through the air and slashed against his back. He grunted with the pain, and lifted the axe, allowing himself one more glance in the direction of the woman. Had she actually paused ever so slightly and looked back toward him, perhaps hearing the song of the lash? No, she was blithely going towards her new and more comfortable quarters.
Marguerite stepped into the dim interior of the hut, the stench of stale perspiration, dirt, and long-time human habitation without proper cleaning assailed her nostrils. As her eyes adjusted, she saw the narrow bed with the thin mattress and a chair leaning against one wall–probably due one leg being shorter than the others. That was the extent of the furnishings. The floor was hard packed earth. The only window was high and very small, with no covering.
She turned and smiled at her guard. "May I leave the door open a while, please?"
As most men did under that dazzling smile, he immediately relented, seating himself cross-legged just outside the door. Marguerite stood in the open doorway and looked out toward the women. Assai was staring in her direction, and even from the distance of a hundred feet or so, Marguerite could see the question on Assai's face. Marguerite nodded, moving her head very slightly. After a moment, Assai duplicated the movement, and turned back. At least the young native woman understood.
She was unsure where Dirkon had gone after sending her off, not having dared to look around–except for the briefest of glances when she had heard the sibilant song of the lash, and then she wished she had not, for she saw John Roxton's body jerk in reaction to the stinging pain. She wished she could tell him her plans–but then again, she was quite unsure of her plans. As usual, she was reacting to the moment.
She had hoped the Dirkon would accompany her to the hut, but now she was glad he had not. She needed time to find a weapon before he showed up to accept what he thought she was offering. None appeared immediately available–no bottles, knives, or anything else. It was quite possible that the slaver would invite her to his more spacious abode, and there might well be something useful there she could get her hands on. But Marguerite Krux tried never to leave anything to chance if she could help it.
Veronica heaved a sigh of relief when she found the signs. She had been on the verge of suggesting they retrace their steps, since they had walked at least five miles along the stream, and the water was starting to get deeper and swifter, approaching rapids ahead. She knew it would be unlikely that the slavers would have waded any further. Then she spotted the dried mud on a rocky bank.
"I think I know, now," she told the others as they pushed through the jungle. "I remember a couple of years ago seeing an abandoned camp about six or seven miles from here. It's probably what they use while gathering slaves."
"Just so they didn't have buyers waiting in camp," Challenger commented grimly. "If that's the case, our friends might be long gone–and under much stronger protection."
"Think good thoughts," Ned Malone muttered.
They walked swiftly and in silence. After awhile, the ground began to rise ahead of them and Veronica mentioned that the camp she had in mind was built below a low bluff–which would be a good vantage point for them to survey the situation.
"Of course," Challenger stated. "It must be Dirkon and the Begai."
"Who?" His companions spoke almost in unison.
"Never mind. Suffice it to say the leader is a very dangerous man. We must be cautious and plan our strategy well."
When they reached the low bluff overlooking the camp, the trio lay down in the brush, peering down at the scene below them. "There's Roxton," Malone whispered. "Chopping wood. That looks like Jarl with him!"
"It is," Veronica affirmed somberly. "Assai is over there with the women."
"But where's Marguerite?" Challenger wondered softly, his eyes scanning the compound.
"There," Veronica pointed. "The small hut to the left of the larger one. She's in the doorway."
"Now what the hell is she doing there?" Malone glanced at each of his companions.
Veronica's smile was tight, knowing. "She's Marguerite, isn't she?"
Marguerite had been watching the bluff as much as she dared, casting surreptitious glances in that direction, certain that if rescue came, it would come from there. It was the best vantage point to survey the camp, and possibly to launch an attack. She caught a glimpse of some movement first, then the brief flash of the lowering sun off metal. Immediately after seeing this, she scanned the occupants of the camp. No one else appeared to have noticed it, thank heavens.
It was time to act. The pile of wood that Roxton and Jarl were working on was dwindling, and very likely they would be returned to the stockade as soon as the task was completed, put in chains, and thus be unavailable to offer any assistance.
Marguerite leaned out the door. "Please. Would you ask Dirkon to come to me? I–I need him." She lowered her lashes demurely. She needed to get the camp leader under her control somehow. If she could render him unconscious, hold a blade at his throat–
The sentry looked at her for a long moment, then grinned broadly, getting to his feet. He went to the larger hut next door and as soon as he was out of sight, Marguerite stepped out of the doorway onto the ground, and looked directly toward the bluff for a long moment, as long as she dared. She could only hope they were getting the message.
Dirkon swaggered out of this doorway and toward her. "Heard you wanted to see me."
"I'm feeling much better," she purred, putting her hands behind her and thrusting her shoulders back. His gaze went just where she expected them to.
Over his shoulder she could see Roxton and Jarl, and she saw John Roxton turn his head and stare toward her. All of his guards were watching as well. In fact, one of the guards broke away and strode swiftly across the compound to his leader.
"What are you doing?" he demanded as he neared.
"Go back to your duties," Dirkon snapped.
The man was not to be dismissed. He clutched his sword still, and glowered. "You keep telling us to leave the women alone–and now you are going to take this one?"
"I can do whatever I want. Get back to where you belong." Dirkon turned to face the insubordinate man, fists on his hips. "I am the leader here!"
Several other men, perhaps gaining courage from the actions of the first, were walking toward the scene. Marguerite thought she saw more movement on the hill, but she did not dare keep her gaze fastened there. Instead she carefully, slowly began to put some distance between herself and the slavers. If Challenger and Malone wanted to open fire, she wanted to be well out of the way. Across the way, both Roxton and Jarl had lowered their axes, watching the scene along with their two remaining guards.
Abruptly Dirkon whirled toward her. "Where are you going, woman!"
Marguerite immediately feigned nervousness. "I was frightened. I thought there was going to be a fight."
"Hah! These fools know better than to challenge me!" Dirkon looked back over his shoulder toward the men. "Go back to your duties!"
The rifle shot split the air like thunder, and one of the men near Dirkon screamed, staggered and fell. Almost immediately another man was hit, stumbling to his knees. After that, the camp exploded into wild turmoil, filled with screams and shouts as Dirkon attempted to rally his stunned men.
Marguerite broke and started running across the compound. She saw that all of the women were huddled close to the ground near their posts, but she did not stop for them. Both Roxton and Jarl had dropped down to a crouch when the firing started, and Roxton started to get up when he saw her racing toward them. The men who had been guarding the workers had deserted their posts, running either for cover or toward their shouting leader.
"Stay down!" Marguerite yelled. "They are on the bluff. We need to stay out of the line of fire."
"Damn it, you think I don't know that?" Roxton growled, grabbing her hand and pulling her down beside him. "What the hell were you doing?"
She did not have an opportunity to reply as Veronica suddenly dashed out of nearby brush. She was holding both of Roxton's pistols, and she shoved them into his hands. Immediately he leaped to his feet and started across the compound, firing at any of the slavers he saw, but heading for Dirkon, who was screaming orders, still trying to direct his panicked men.
Challenger and Malone entered the compound from different spots on the bluff, rifles spurting flame. Malone headed immediately toward the women, fearing that the slavers might decide to move among them to use the captives for cover. He reached that point just as that strategy apparently occurred to two of the slavers. A quick accurate shot from his rifle downed one, but the other got past and charged toward him, sword held high.
With no time to cock the rifle, Malone shifted it swiftly in his hands, seizing the warm barrel to use it as a club. The man shrieked as he neared, and just as he passed by Assai, that young woman kicked him in the leg, throwing him off stride and giving Malone the extra instant he needed to swing the rifle, slamming into the side of the man's head. He fell like a lead weight.
Malone pulled his pistol and used it to fire into the chain that secured Assai, then did the same for the other women. Assai rallied the captives and led them toward the bluff, aware that the best thing they could do now was to get out of the way. She saw Veronica and Marguerite heading toward the brawl that was now occurring near the huts, where Jarl, Challenger, and Roxton had gotten into hand-to-hand with several slavers, including Dirkon.
Marguerite picked up the sword of a fallen man as she passed him, and continued running across the compound, barely aware that Veronica was beside her. Her eyes were on the two men grappling near the small hut where she had been just minutes ago. Dirkon had a short knife and was attempting to use his strength to overpower Roxton long enough to drive the blade home. Roxton's back was against the rough wall, and Dirkon's leverage was beginning to give him the edge, the gleaming blade pushing nearer and nearer Roxton's throat.
Barely aware of the turmoil around her, and completely unaware that Veronica's accurately thrown knife downed a man who had swung toward Marguerite with a raised sword, Marguerite flew through the melee and plunged the blade of her sword into Dirkon's back.
With a scream, the Dirkon staggered, fell to his knees, and then onto his face in the dirt. Almost immediately his demoralized men, those who had not yet been killed or otherwise injured, took off running for the surrounding woods.
John Roxton grabbed Marguerite's arm and jerked her toward him. "What the hell's the matter with you! God damn it! You had no business doing something so stupid! You could have been killed!"
She pulled loose, and took a step back, her face flushed with exertion and anger. "Well, damn it, next time I'll just let the bastard kill you."
They glared at each other for a long moment, until Challenger delicately cleared his throat. "I think we'd better consider moving out of here before those men get organized and decide to return. Don't forget, several of them are off in the woods somewhere and could have heard the shots."
They spent that first night in a cold camp in the woods, with the men standing sentry duty lest some of the slavers decide to hunt them down. It was decided to take the other captive women to the Zanga village to rest and recuperate and then Zanga warriors would escort them back to their homes. By mid afternoon the following day, the tree house dwellers were back home.
Challenger retreated immediately to his lab to check on an experiment begun the previous morning when he had thought he would be away only a few hours. Malone set out to record the experience in his journal, while Veronica started preparing a late lunch, and Marguerite insisted that Roxton remove his shirt so she could reapply the salve that an elderly Zanga woman had prepared for his wounds.
"Damn it, that hurts!" he snarled when she touched her fingers gently to a slash mark.
"You didn't whine like that when old Baba did it!"
"Baba didn't have the touch of a sledgehammer."
"Well maybe you'd prefer the cuts got infected so you could die of blood poisoning!"
"Might be preferable to this torture!"
Veronica peeked out of the kitchen area and saw how Malone was studiously keeping his head bowed over his journal. She also saw the way Marguerite's fingers were trembling as she tenderly applied the unguent to the wounds, and how Roxton's fists were clenched as he leaned onto the table.
"Would anyone care for tea?" Veronica asked solicitously. For half an instant she thought neither of the combatants had heard her, then Roxton jerked his head around.
"No! Thanks. I've got to go get a clean shirt and clean my rifles." He jumped up and away from the fingers that had been tormenting him.
"No you don't!" Marguerite cried. "I'm not finished. Come back here! You can't put a shirt on yet anyway! It'll get all smeared with the salve, and then who has to wash it?" Carrying the pot of salve she followed him toward the stairways.
"I don't need anymore of your damn salve!" Lord Roxton hurled back over his shoulder as he headed downstairs.
Veronica carried the pot of tea to the table where Malone was working and filled his cup. He looked up, and both listened as the diatribe continued for another minute or so, then suddenly ceased. Veronica found her own cup, filled it and sat down across from the journalist. The silence lingered for several minutes.
"Awfully quiet," Ned said then, his mouth barely suppressing a grin. "Think I ought to go check and make sure they're okay?"
"I think," Veronica returned, and she could not hold back her own smile, "That we ought to just sit here and enjoy our tea. I think whatever capturing going on down there right now has nothing to do with slavers."
p.s. You may notice a slight similarity between my final scenes and the final scene ofVoodoo Queen when Marguerite was tending Roxton's burn wound. I actually wrote this weeks before that episode was run–honest! Great minds on the same track