Perchance to Dream
An older story reposted here…
Summary: Old friends come to the explorers' aid against an old enemy.
Note: This was written in response to the TLWFIX Special Edition Challenge, so inspiration is credited to Carolyn and Nalissa2. And many thanks to the incredible beta-readers who came to a procrastinator's aid with wonderful logic points and grammar repairs.
Disclaimer: Borrowed the characters.
In brief: sometime into Season 4
"Well, what do we have here?"
"Careful, George," Roxton called, nodding his head at the black haired woman he allowed to pass.
Caution forgotten in his curiosity, Challenger lifted the tarp covering the barrels. Just to his left, Malone caught a glimpse of the barrels' contents. Quickly he readied his rifle and scanned the woods surrounding the narrow field. "Roxton, it's gun powder!"
Veronica spun around, knife-drawn, facing the jungle. Even Tribune drew his sword and backed away from the jungle.
"Gun powder," Roxton hissed. "Everybody, it's a trap!" His eyes caught sight of Marguerite as he searched the trees behind the barrels. He motioned frantically. "Get back! Get back!"
The explosion hefted him from the ground and hurled him back toward the forest. Screams abruptly died in the dense grey smoke. As his head cleared, Roxton rolled to his side. Tiny holes dripped blood from his chest and face. Someone must have added gravel into the barrels.
There was nothing. No sounds from the jungle. No calls from his friends.
Attempting to stand, Roxton crumpled in pain. A piece of a barrel protruded from his leg.
A fragrant smell wafted past as a breeze left the jungle. The grey smoke swirled like ghosts.
If it hadn't been so quiet, he'd never have heard the familiar whisper of his name.
Dragging his legs, Roxton crawled toward the voice.
"Marguerite?" His rifle slipped from his bloodied hands. "Marguerite!"
Struggling over the dirt and rubble, he soon found her hand. It was cold. The fingers already stiff. "Marguerite." Her name was little more than a sob.
"Are you alright?"
He hauled himself the last few inches to her still form. A broken slat protruded from her abdomen. Grey soot coated her face. Blood filled the laugh lines about her closed eyes. He couldn't look at her. His strength left him and he collapsed next her. "I'm fine," he whispered kissing her fingers.
"John," she breathed. Then there was silence.
"Don't leave me alone, Marguerite." He leaned his face against her shoulder. A noise floated down. Before he could question its source, hideous pain tore through his head.
Roxton sat up in bed, gasping and clutching his face. Reluctantly he dared to examine his hands. The liquid on them was sweat. Eyes-wide he leapt from his bed and ran to Marguerite's room. The curtain was drawn back. Though she exhaled sharply, she was there. In her bed. In one piece. Roxton stumbled back against the wall. The dream's terror still mastered him. He wrapped his trembling arms around his chest. If in London, a stiff drink would have been called for. But experience had taught him, liquor only postpones the pain, not ends it. Pausing in his room to wipe the sweat from his face and hands, he staggered into the main room.
"You all right?" Malone stepped out of the shadows of the kitchen. "Here. You look like you could use this." He handed Roxton a cup of water.
The English Lord managed a slight smile. "Thanks. Just couldn't sleep."
Malone poured another cup for himself. "I know what you mean. Must be the rain."
"And thunder," Roxton rationalized.
"You know, during the War I stayed in a barracks that had a tin roof. Thought I'd never get any sleep. Finally I counted the raindrops hitting the damn thing."
The two rambled on until the rain and the night had ceased.
"Malone said you two were up all night." She assessed the man with a hard stare. "You look it."
The steam rising from the jungle cleansed him of his night terrors. "Why thank you, Marguerite. You could stand a few more hours of beauty sleep, yourself."
Her lips formed a smile as she snatched his unfinished breakfast plate from before him.
"I'm not finished!"
"Challenger and Malone are expecting you by the windmill. You're late."
Shoving his chair from the table, Roxton stomped to the elevator. Snatching his hat and rifle, he departed without another word.
Marguerite dropped the plate into the basin, then collapsed onto the counter. The wood felt cool against her forehead. The rainy season had begun three weeks ago. Roxton and Malone ventured out several times for fresh meat and fruit; otherwise the five of them had remained cooped up in the tree house. Day and night. Amazing how a dwelling built to accommodate a dozen people seemed so small after three weeks, two days and six hours of constant rain. Marguerite had grown so irritated with her friends she was killing them in her dreams.
"Marguerite?" Veronica downed a cup of water.
"Just going stir crazy."
"Well, it's stopped raining. We'd better get outside and gather whatever we can find."
The dark haired woman straightened. With a sigh she dropped into a chair. "Give me a minute."
"I'll meet you at the fence. I'll check if there's anything left of our garden."
The woman observed Veronica stumble at the elevator. The jungle girl usually slept through anything, but there were bags beneath her eyes, as well.
The wet leaves clung to her boots. "Do you think it's over?"
Veronica moved onto another blackberry bush. "Probably the worst." She studied the grey clouds overhead as they swirled over each other. "It'll dissipate over the next few days." Pulling a thorn from her finger with her teeth, Veronica watched Marguerite squat down like an old lady. "Honestly, Marguerite, you'd think you'd never been through a rainy season here on the plateau."
Marguerite let go a long sigh. "I'm just not sleeping. I keep having these weird dreams."
Veronica's eyes narrowed. "What kind of weird dreams?"
Marguerite gave up and knelt on the wet ground. "Oh, I don't know. Just dreams. One of them..." The berry Marguerite plucked had a tail. Screaming she hurled it over her head. Veronica sliced it mid-air with her knife. The two halves squirmed across the leaves.
Veronica cut the head off and tossed it into a thick bush. "Are you crazy?" she chided. "That was a..."
"I know," Marguerite waved away her offer of help. "I know. The deadliest snake in the jungle."
The experienced jungle girl brushed a few leaves from her friend's sleeve. "Well, not quite, but..."
Marguerite snatched up her backpack and slung it over her shoulder. "We've enough berries. Let's go before it rains on me too."
Veronica easily caught up with her. "What were you saying about a dream?"
"Nothing." Marguerite paused, adjusting the straps of her backpack. "I'm just tired of being damp. The air just, well, it just stinks." The meager light disappeared above them. "And now it's going to rain." She looked up. "Could this day get any bet..." A T-Rex blocked the sun. Its huge head bobbed over them as it sniffed the air. Overgrown shrubs and leaves masked the remainder of its huge body.
Veronica motioned for Marguerite to remain still.
The other woman's eyes darted her reply.
Neither dared breathed.
The creature's head lowered slightly. Its neck twisted until the left eye locked on the two women.
"Forget this!" Marguerite screamed.
Both women bolted. Behind them, the T-Rex broke from the trees. If they stopped to fire, they'd be eaten. If they changed directions, they'd be caught in the snarl of vines and bushes, and be eaten. They ran.
The T-Rex leaned forward as it ran. Its hot smelly breath bathed them. Marguerite's boots sank in the layers of wet slimy leaves. Its roar sprayed them.
"Come on!" Veronica grabbed her arm.
Marguerite slipped from her hold. Shoving herself up, she tried to regain her balance.
"Roll!" Veronica screamed, trying to reach her.
The T-Rex leaned even further down, preparing to gulp up the prey struggling on the ground in front of him.
Leaves suddenly filled the air. The two women bounced on the slimy leaf stew as the huge beast slid on the damp mess and plummeted onto the ground. For a moment none of them moved. The T-Rex shook its head dazed, snapping haphazard at the ground. Veronica grabbed Marguerite's shoulders and dragged her away. The dinosaur rolled to one side trying to use its great neck to lift its bulk from the ground.
Panting, Marguerite shook her head in disbelief. "It tripped?" Behind her came laughter.
"It tripped." Veronica gazed at the great beast struggling to regain its balance.
Nervous chuckles erupted from Marguerite. "You know, if there'd been a banana peel, he'd have brought down the house."
The creature lurched to one side, claws digging into the dirt.
"I'll explain later. Let's just get out of here."
"I find that very difficult to believe," Challenger sputtered.
Veronica held her hand up. "Trust me, Professor, I saw it. Hard to imagine, but it happened."
Malone set the cup of wine in front of Marguerite. "You're saying a T-Rex tripped." The last word was lost in his snicker.
Roxton leaned back in his chair, chuckling. "That must have really embarrassed the ol' boy."
"And how do you know it was a male, Roxton?" Challenger still didn't believe their story.
"I'd say it was obvious." Marguerite returned her glass to the table before the wine spilt from her laughter. "Only a male would trip over his own big feet like that."
"It did seem surprised," Veronica giggled.
"Impossible," Challenger snorted.
Veronica gave up trying to convince the scientist and turned her attention to Marguerite. "When are you going to explain about slipping on a banana peel?"
Roxton, Malone, and Challenger froze. Their looks grew distance. Suddenly the tree house was filled with hysterical laughter. Challenger protested how preposterous the whole idea was, but he couldn't escape the image of a T-Rex slipping on a banana peel and landing on its ...
"What is so funny?" Veronica demanded.
"It's a standard gag in vaudeville." Malone attempted to explain as he gasped for breath. "A guy slips on a banana peel and falls on his behind." The explorers broke into laughter again.
Veronica winced. "You find humor in someone else's injury?"
"No. It's part of the joke. Of the routine." Malone and Roxton recounted old jokes to the girl. Soon they were acting the parts of the six "Musical Mascots". By the end of their rendition, Veronica was laughing more at them than the "classic" routines.
"Good Lord," Challenger glanced at his pocket watch. "It's after ten." Stretching, the man moaned his age. "I've got an experiment to check on before retiring. If the rain continues to subside, we'll need to get back to the windmill first thing in the morning. Without the rain to keep all the jungle denizens under cover, we're going to need our electric fence active again. And from what we saw today, the lightning damage was extensive."
Veronica elbowed Malone, pointing toward Marguerite. She lay on the pillow covered wooden bench, asleep.
Roxton leaned over her, gently saying her name.
The woman let out a soft moan, then turned away.
"Let her sleep." Veronica handed him a linen sheet. "She'll be fine."
He tucked a corner of the sheet under her shoulder. Following Veronica toward the personal quarters, Roxton whispered, "Good night, all."
Malone blew out the lamp on the table. Moonlight snaked through the leaves then landed on the floor, its white body undulating across the wood. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
A scream answered it.
Roxton spun on his heels and rushed to the cry's source.
One leg hung off the sofa, the woman clutched the sheet against her cheeks. Looking around, she appeared lost in a nightmare.
Roxton squatted next to her, brushing the black strands of hair from her face. "Marguerite." His voice was soft and level. "Wake up. Look at me."
Her dark eyes focused on the worried faces around her. "Oh, boy." Her rigid muscles relaxed. "It was that stupid dream again. I'm sorry."
Challenger leaned over Roxton, touching her forehead with the back of his hand. "No fever. What dream?"
She caught Roxton's hand as it caressed her hair. Instead of knocking it away, she covered it with her own trembling fingers. "It's a ridiculous dream I've been having. There's an explosion..."
Her friends echoed the word. "Explosion."
Challenger straightened studying the others. "What kind of explosion?" he urged Marguerite.
Malone answered. "Barrels of gun powder."
"In a clearing," Veronica added in an edgy voice.
"There's a tarp over them," Roxton continued.
"That I lift up," Challenger finished in a whisper.
Marguerite twisted around to stare at the faces of her friends. "Well, this is ludicrous. We can't all have the same dream."
"Does anyone else recall Tribune being there?" Malone backed into a chair.
"Now it's getting creepy," Veronica winced.
Roxton sat on the edge of the bench. "I've had that dream every night for I don't know how long. It's why I haven't had a decent night's sleep for about three weeks."
Malone pushed a smile. "And why I might have been a bit crabby."
"A bit," Marguerite snorted.
They stared at her.
"Alright, we've all been irritable."
"This is amazing." Challenger's eyes lit with excitement. "What are the odds of all five of us having the same dream?"
"Is it the same?" Marguerite pressed. "I mean, we all witness the explosion, then..."
"My dream ends there," Challenger shrugged.
"I see Roxton crawling through the smoke for a few feet." Malone clutched his abdomen. "Then I wake up with an incredible pain in my stomach."
"The same goes for me," Veronica shuddered. "But I see him reach Marguerite. Then I wake up..." Her hand hesitantly reached for her throat. "Gasping for air, like my throat's been..."
Malone took the distance between them in a single step. He caught her hand and held it in his own. She hid her trembling from everyone but him.
Marguerite looked away, brushing at her cheeks. "I see Roxton crawl next to me. He takes my hand and then I wake up..."
"With a pain in your abdomen," Roxton finished for her, the image vivid in his mind. "I think I say something, then suddenly my head..." Gentle fingers stroked his hair. "Blinding pain and I'm awake."
Challenger leaned on the table's edge, marveling. "Extraordinary. All of us are having the same dream."
"But why, Professor?" Malone would always be a reporter with questions. "Why do we all have the same dream?"
"But it's really not the same dream." Veronica gazed into the sheet of rain surrounding the treehouse. "It ends differently for each of us."
"It ends for each of us when we die," Marguerite pointed out, shoving the sheet off her.
"So it seems," Challenger acknowledged. "But as to why, I'd hazard to guess it's our constant proximity to each other. Why for the past two..."
"Three," the others corrected.
The Professor smiled. "The past three weeks we've been stumbling over each other. According to Freud dreams are based on real life. They're symbolic for feelings we can't vocalize. Well, I'm sure we've been on each others nerves so much that we're ready to kill each other. Symbolically, of course," he hastily added.
"Not that I'm disagreeing with the ultimate release this dream might grant our subconscious," Marguerite enjoyed the few times she could speak on Challenger's level. "But why are we all having the same scenario?"
"She's right, Professor." Veronica pointed to the stack of weapons by the elevator. "Roxton's choice to dispatch one of us would be with a rifle."
Marguerite scooted closer to the hunter on the sofa. She sensed his entire body tense at Veronica's assessment.
"I'd use a knife. Malone would..." She broke into a wide grin. "Malone would never hurt any of us. And you..."
"I understand what you're saying, my dear," Challenger interrupted. "But..."
"So where does the gun powder come in?" Malone looked at Veronica.
"Well," Marguerite sighed. "That would explain why Tribune was in the dream."
"Okay," Malone nodded, "I'll give you that. But this doesn't explain why all of us are having the same dream."
Challenger waved them silent. "I suggest we all get some sleep. Maybe now that the dream's been shared amongst us, it'll be gone. Besides, if previous years' patterns hold true, the rain will limit itself to the night for the next few days and then be over. After all these listless days, we'll relish some good hard work."
"Worth a try," Malone acknowledged. "I sure could use a whole night's rest."
She watched him from the doorway. One arm circled his head, the other lay across his chest.
Marguerite jumped, almost pulling the curtain down. "I don't have a lot of confidence in Challenger's theory that we won't have that nightmare again."
"I know what you mean. I don't know what's worse: the dream or the terror when you wake up."
Marguerite walked to the chair near the foot of his cot. "I was hoping you wouldn't mind if I sat here for awhile. If you're not..."
"The bed would be more comfortable."
She paused in front of the rickety chair. Malone had lashed the back twice in the past month. Roxton mostly used it to hold his dirty laundry. "Oh, I wouldn't want you to give up your own bed."
"I'm not offering. I thought maybe close proximity might reassure our sub-conscious..."
"And we won't have the dream," Marguerite finished, her lips twisting into a sly grin.
To Roxton's surprise, she lay next to him. "This is a very good idea, Lord Roxton." Gingerly her leg crossed his. A small hand laid upon his heart, which he fought to control. With a contented sigh, she relaxed into his arm, her hair covering his shoulder.
"You comfortable? If you get chilled I can..."
"Don't move that sheet, buster."
Lifting his head slightly he kissed her hair. "Sweet dreams."
"Good night, my love."
He closed his eyes and let go a long contented sigh through his smile.
Malone steadied himself on the doorframe as he wheeled into Roxton's room. "Roxton! Wake up! Veronica can't find Marguer..."
Roxton motioned for his silence.
"Oh, huh." Malone lifted the last suspender over his shoulder. "She was afraid Marguerite had gone for a walk or something during the night." His voice faded.
"Tell Veronica," Roxton smiled, "I can lay my hands on Marguerite pretty quickly."
"You tell her that," Marguerite threatened, her eyes still closed, "and I'll burn your coffee from now on by roasting it over your journals."
Malone took a deep breath. "Okay. I'll -I'll tell her you're back in your room after having slept in Summerlee's room. She doesn't go in there."
The woman stretched leisurely alongside the English Lord. "You see, you'll make a fine fiction writer, yet."
The young man backed out of the room with an obedient "Yes, ma'am."
Roxton lifted the black hair from her face. "I believe you frightened the lad."
"Good." Marguerite lightly tickled his chest as her arm stretched out. "Maybe if someone had taught you how to handle delicate situations the rumor mill would have been less full of the exploits of John Roxton."
"That's dashing John Roxton to my admirers."
Marguerite slapped his abdomen as she rose. "You are incorrigible, Lord Roxton,"
He responded with a slap of his own. Marguerite spun around, her hands on her bottom. His face broke into a mischievous grin. "And you are stunning when you sleep."
The barb vanished from her lips, but she backed toward the door. "Thank you for the loan of the shoulder. I still had the dream, but the waking terror never came."
"You're welcome. Anytime."
Veronica's hard glare challenged Marguerite. "Well?"
"I was just listless."
She tossed the forks onto the table. "Oh, I don't care about that. Did you have the dream?" It was obvious from the grey circles beneath her eyes that she did.
Marguerite slid the utensils to the appropriate place settings. "Yes."
"Add my name to the list." Roxton carried the platter of eggs from the counter to the table.
"Me too." Malone sat beside Marguerite on the bench, unable to look her in the eye without smiling. A kick to his ankle put a stop to that.
Challenger took his place at the head of the table. "Oh, all right. I admit I had the dream again. But that still doesn't..."
"George, give it up." Marguerite held her plate up as Roxton doled out scrambled eggs. "Neither Freud nor science can explain everything away. And I for one do not wish to hear you try this morning."
"Well, there's no need to be rude." Challenger glanced at the faces around the table. Their expressions were the same. "Very well. I suggest we finish our meal and go straight away to the windmill."
"Quietly." Marguerite added, rubbing her temples.
"Whoa." Veronica circled what was left of the windmill. "You didn't say it was this damaged."
Marguerite's heart sank as she recalled what might have been her last hot water shower. "Look at this mess." The debris that was the windmill lay stacked in two piles. "We might as well start from scratch."
Challenger cleared his throat, but didn't give anyone a chance to reply. "If I may be permitted to speak. Yesterday Malone and Roxton separated the remnants into two piles. The one on the left is little more than firewood. The other stack we can use to rebuild." He picked up several iron rings. "Fortunately the lightning didn't strike these directly..."
Turning toward their supplies, Marguerite bolted for the empty glue bucket. Veronica started too late, getting there in time for Marguerite's victorious smirk. "Not enough glue to coat the leather straps."
Veronica made a grab for the bucket.
Marguerite jumped back still smiling. "I'll be back." She gave her friend an empathic tsk. "I'll take my time. Come looking for me in about ten minutes." As she walked away Marguerite thought she heard a most unladylike term from Veronica.
"Where's she off to?" Roxton leaned his rifle against the platform.
"She's off for some tree sap."
Roxton picked up a pair of padded gloves. "Count on Marguerite to figure out the non-sweaty work."
"No! Get away!" Marguerite's shouts came from the direction she had just taken. "Go away!"
Jerking the gloves off, Roxton snatched up his rifle and charged past Veronica.
"Go! Get away, I said!"
The jungle girl followed close behind.
Roxton dropped to one knee beside a huge tree, rifle at his shoulder.
Veronica crouched beside him, knife drawn.
Using her rifle as a club, Marguerite loomed over a squirming form cowering on the ground.
Roxton took to his feet, taking position beside her. "Are you alright?"
"Of course, she's alright!" a familiar voice shouted.
Veronica returned her knife to her boot. "Tribune. Of course."
Marguerite hoisted her rifle again. "Make him go away, John!"
He grabbed her rifle. "It's just Tribune. Calm down."
She tried to wrestle the weapon back from him. "Roxton, are you crazy? It's..."
"Tribune." Malone holstered his pistol. "I guess we shouldn't be too surprised you're here."
"I happened to be in the neighborhood and I..."
"That's crap!" Marguerite wagged her finger at him. "You had the dream."
Tribune at last dared to drop his arms from his face. "My kind do not dream. We experience self-awareness. We indulge in self-relief."
"You dream like the every other sentient species," Challenger growled, irritated at the interruption. "Now will someone please tell me what all the shouting is about?"
"You have got to be kidding." Marguerite waved her hands in the air. "The dream, Challenger. With him here, it can come to pass."
"George, you can't call it utter nonsense anymore." Roxton shook his head. "Not with Tribune having the same dream."
"Self-relief," Tribune corrected.
Challenger winced disliking speculation. "I will admit it is most peculiar that we are all experiencing the same dream."
Marguerite snatched back her rifle. "If I shoot him now, the dream can't come to pass."
"Now, Marguerite." The lizard-man stepped sideways, placing himself behind Veronica.
Challenger glanced at the windmill remnants barely visible through the jungle foliage. "We'll never get any work done if this matter isn't resolved. I've been considering what each of us has related about the dream. Tribune, let's hear your 'self-relief'."
"Honestly, I'm not sure what..."
Marguerite took aim.
"The six of us walk into a clearing," Tribune quickly responded.
"Challenger lifts a tarp which is covering a bunch of barrels full of gun powder." Marguerite shouldered her rifle. "There's an explosion..."
"And there is no more in my self-relief."
Malone shoved his hands in his pockets. "Do you wake-up with an intense pain somewhere?"
Tribune glanced down at his chest. "Yes." He laid his hand over his heart.
"Uncanny," Challenger observed, talking more to himself than the others around him. "I have a question. Is anyone's dream from their personal perspective?"
One at a time each answered no.
"Everyone back to the windmill. I want to try something."
Marguerite stormed behind Tribune complaining. "If you knew you died in your dream, didn't it occur to you that by coming here you would fulfill the requirement for the dream?"
"I still say our quickest solution is to kill him."
Malone eyed Tribune as they gathered around Challenger. "For once I'd have to agree with her."
Tribune straightened and hissed.
"Alright." Challenger stationed himself by the left pile of debris. "Let's assume this represents the barrels of gun powder. Everyone, from your dream, place yourself where you are when I lift the tarp."
One after another they took their place in the phantom clearing. Malone stood maybe three feet from Challenger. Veronica was near his side. Tribune stopped between Marguerite and Challenger. Roxton waited near what he determined to be the distance from Challenger to the edge of the dream jungle.
"Excellent." The scientist watched his friends closely. "Now at this precise moment in the dream, where would you say the point-of-view for the dream is?"
Five arms pointed toward the opposing debris pile. Slowly Challenger added his.
Veronica approached the spot as though looking for something. "It's almost as if we're watching through someone else's eyes."
Marguerite backed away. "As if we're viewing someone else's dream."
"Quite. But who?" Challenger fixated on the imaginary point, studying it as though it held answers to his questions. "John."
Roxton jumped at his name being called.
"The rest of us describe receiving wounds that are fatal to us as a result of the explosion. You describe your death as though a secondary event, one not resulting directly from the explosion."
The hunter rubbed his chin, trying to recall details. "I hear something then a..." His face lined with the strain of recollection. "It's a dream, Challenger. I can't remember it all."
Challenger slapped Roxton on his back. "Yes, you can. Let's get back to the treehouse and get started."
"This from the man who calls séances fraudulent. You believe hypnotizing Roxton will help him accurately recall a dream?" Marguerite stood between Roxton and Challenger. "Freud's critics point out the numerous effects the hypnotizer can have on the subject. The questions, even the tone of voice..."
Challenger eased her to one side. "Oh, really, Marguerite. That's true only for those who don't know how to hypnotize someone."
She squeezed between the two men again. "And you do?"
"Yes." This time he pushed her aside. "Sit down, Roxton."
"John." Marguerite knelt beside him. "This isn't a parlor trick. Hypnosis can elicit strange feelings and fears from people. It opens them to suggestions which can destroy a mind."
"I'll be all right. I trust Challenger. He won't make me cluck like a chicken."
"Most certainly not," the scientist smarted indignantly.
"Maybe flap his arms," Malone suggested.
"Marguerite's correct about one thing. There will be no tomfoolery. Everyone stand over there." The scientist pointed toward the balcony. He and Roxton sat on facing chairs in the shadows of the main room's center.
Malone leaned near Veronica's ear. "It'd be more interesting to hypnotize Marguerite."
"Quiet. Please." Challenger removed his watch from his vest pocket. "Roxton. I want you to relax. Focus on the watch." The gold-piece gently swung back and forth on its chain. "Listen only to me. You don't hear anything but my voice." Challenger guided the watch, maintaining an even arc. "Only my voice."
Several minutes passed. Roxton's eyes closed tightly yet his face was so relaxed he appeared ten years younger.
Finally Challenger dropped the watch into his lap. "Marguerite. Call his name."
"John." Her voice was hoarse.
"Roxton. Wake up!"
The man didn't stir.
"That's amazing," Tribune admired.
"John, I want you to recall the dream you've been having each night. Tell me what you see."
"There's a clearing. You step from the jungle directly in front of me. I step from my right."
"How can that be?" Veronica wondered aloud
"Remember the dream is through a third person's eye." His expression tense, Malone edged closer.
"You say 'What do we have here?' Malone walks a little past you then turns to my left. Veronica ignores the tarp, watching the jungle. I say, 'Be careful, George.' Marguerite walks past me." A slight smile crossed his lips. "Malone shouts, 'It's gun powder, Roxton.' I say 'Everybody, it's a trap.' To my left a fuse is lit. The spark disappears under the tarp." He begins shaking. "There's an explosion!"
"George, that's enough," Marguerite protested.
The scientist waved her back. "Go on, Roxton. What do you see next?"
"The barrels shatter sending chunks of wood through the air like artillery shells. The smoke is thick. I can't see clearly for a few seconds. I see myself try to rise. A piece of metal has sliced my leg. I can't stand. I call for Marguerite. 'Marguerite!' A breeze from the jungle starts to clear the smoke. I see Veronica slumped next to a tree; blood is pouring from her neck and side. Malone is riddled with shards of wood. A large piece protrudes from his stomach. 'Marguerite!' She doesn't answer me." Roxton's speech quickened. "I don't see Challenger. Only blood. Goo. I see a leg that must be Tribune beneath a stack of debris. 'Marguerite!' She answers me. I almost don't hear her. I crawl toward her voice. I reach her hand. She asks me if I'm alright." Roxton reached out for something.
Marguerite placed her hand on Challenger's shoulder. Her fingers dug into his flesh. "That's enough, George."
Roxton continued, his hands gripping Marguerite's invisible hand. "I'm getting closer to her. I'm staring down at her and me. She's covered with blood. She exhales my name. I say 'Marguerite, don't leave me alone.' Another voice replies. It says, 'Don't worry, Lord Roxton, you won't be without Miss Smith for much longer.' I see the tip of a pistol point toward my head. I hear the click of a trigger. I don't look up..."
"Wake him up, Challenger!" Marguerite's scream matched his. She caught him as he fell off the chair.
"Roxton!" Challenger gripped his chin, twisting his face toward him. "Listen to my voice. Wake up. Open your eyes."
Clutching the side of his head, Roxton opened his eyes.
"It's all right, John." Marguerite clasped him in her arms. "We're all here."
"It's Avery Burton," he wheezed, his trembling hands locking over Marguerite's. "I recognized the voice."
Challenger stood. "Burton. I believe we all remember, Mister Burton." Taking pity on Roxton, he turned toward the others. "Let's give him a moment to compose himself."
Veronica, Malone and Challenger moved toward the ramp to Challenger's lab.
"Tribune." Veronica tugged his arm.
The emperor stared at the couple on the floor. "She has actually developed feelings for that human."
Malone pulled him along. "There's no accounting for taste."
"John." She pried his hand from the side of his head. "It's over."
"For now," he panted. "I don't think the dream will stop until..."
"We die," she finished for him. Her fingers entwined in his, preventing him from reaching for the blood his mind still told him coated his face. "Next time I try and stop you from being Challenger's guinea pig, I hope you'll listen."
"At least we know."
"Yes. It's so comforting to know your killer's name."
Roxton focused on the dilemma before him. The terror had to depart from him. "We need to figure out what's really happening here." The trembling abated. "We've got to figure out why we're seeing this dream. Is it a warning?" The English Lord sat up, wiping the sweat from his brow. "It's got to be a warning of some kind." With a groan he stood. "And with a warning, we should be able to stop this." He looked down.
Marguerite remained on the floor. Slowly she looked up at him. "You going to help me up?"
She caught his wrist. Easily he pulled her to her feet. He didn't let go. "Don't leave me alone, Marguerite."
His words surprised her. She pressed against him, his arms encircling her. "I'm not going anywhere, John."
He stared at the emptiness stretching out in front of him. "Not even in London?" He felt her stiffen; heard her silence. "Lie to me, Marguerite."
Her hand slid up his neck to his cheek. "It's been a long time since I've lied to you, John. I just can't tell you everything."
Roxton flashed a sad smile as he let go of her and turned toward the lab.
"Not even in London," she promised.
Roxton reached behind him and took her hand. "Let's figure out how to survive this."
"So you think this is Burton's dream?" Malone scooted his chair closer to the others.
Challenger eyed his books then let go a long sigh. "I must confess I'm at a loss as to how to deal with this."
"What if this isn't Burton's dream," Marguerite proposed. Roxton pulled a chair over for her. He remained behind her, a hand resting on her shoulder. "What if this is what Burton sees when he kills us."
Veronica leaned forward. "You mean this is a prophecy. That somehow we're witnessing our future deaths through Burton's eyes."
Marguerite studied the skeptical faces around her. "What's wrong with that theory? At least it's something."
"This much we do know." A tremor still lingered in Roxton's voice. "Burton is out there alive. And he wants us dead."
Challenger nodded. "I won't argue with that."
"We need to take our story to a shaman," Veronica stated.
Marguerite laughed. "Well it can't be in Assai's village. Since Malone's return from the spirit world, they go fishing every time he comes to the village."
The reporter looked away embarrassed.
"I think Marguerite's right." Veronica shrugged at the surprise in the other woman's face. "It happens. This could be a prophecy. We need to go to the Cassandra."
"Cassandra as in the king of Troy's daughter who warned..."
Veronica rolled her eyes at Challenger's sometimes useless knowledge. "The Amazons always have a Cassandra. She lives in a cavern beneath the village."
"Like the Oracle of Delphi," Marguerite exclaimed.
"Yes, I've heard that term used in their village."
"The Oracle of Delphi was a major temple of the ancient Greeks. A person would visit there and have their questions answered. It was supposed to be very accurate. But records..."
"Now you're starting to sound like Challenger," Malone laughed.
Her mouth dropped open, mortified at the comparison. Roxton's soft laughter came from behind her.
"The Amazons may not be too thrilled to see us," Malone considered.
Veronica rubbed her tired eyes. "There's no other choice."
"If we're going, let's get going." Tribune tapped on the cage that held Challenger's white mice. "I'll just pack a couple of these for a snack."
Challenger let loose an audible gasp as he rushed to the aid of his lab mice. "You can't eat these. They're important elements of several experiments I'm running."
Tribune looked unimpressed. "No matter, this'll do fine." His hand drifted to the glass jar that held a beetle.
"Arthur!" Challenger snatched the jar out of the lizard's reach.
"You name your food." The lizard gave a disdainful snort. "You humans and your emotions. I guess I'll just pick something up along the road."
They broke into teams. By noon, Veronica, Malone, and Tribune started for the Amazon village. Roxton, Marguerite, and Challenger had a stop to make that would keep them half a day behind the others.
"So does this tell you anything?" Marguerite plopped against a huge boulder in front of the fissure.
Challenger squatted next to what had been its opening. The lava long since hardened into an orange crease in the soil. "It's been over a year. There's no way you could follow a trail even if we discovered where he got out."
Roxton unrolled a map of the plateau. This was his. It held information beyond the mere geological high-points. "Hold this, please."
Marguerite slid down and took one end of the dried dinosaur hide.
Roxton pointed to a spot. "We're here."
"Oh, this is very good." Squinting, Challenger leaned closer to the map, then abruptly straightened. "There's a glare on the map. I can't quite make-out what the fine print says."
Roxton resisted a smile. "I've noted all the tribes in the area. You want to know the distance from Point A to Point B, George. I want to know what might stop me from getting there."
"Everybody has a hobby."
"I'll bet you have a map that points to all the potential gem mines."
Her smile vanished. "You still think of me like that, Lord Roxton."
"I was only teasing, Marguerite."
"If I did have a detailed map, it would note all the places we can't use to get off this plateau." The woman marched toward the long shadow of a nearby tree. "I'll be waiting in the shade until you're done."
Roxton let go a long sigh.
"Don't worry about her," Challenger consoled. "You've said far worse and she forgot about it soon enough." He pointed at the map's center. "The treehouse. There are the Zanga. The Amazons. The Horta. I can't quite make out the word next..."
"Kartas. I added his name since that's his village, I believe."
"Of course." The older man leaned back a bit more, compensating for 'the glare'. "Why do you have a question mark there?"
"After our friends with the blow darts departed, I followed their trail for a ways. That's where I stopped." Roxton pointed once more to where they stood on the map. "Let's say that lava flow cut off Burton from his route off the plateau. If he got out anywhere along these caves..."
"How long are you two going to be?" Marguerite tugged at the top of the map.
"I thought you were waiting in the shade." Roxton forced a charming smile.
"We have two days worth of walking ahead of us. I'd like to get started."
"You're right, of course. I just needed to get the fissure's position marked on my map. I can consider Burton's possible tribal encounters over the campfire tonight." He rolled up the map and stuck it back in his backpack.
Marguerite shrugged her shoulders trying to adjust her pack.
"Allow me." The English Lord loosened the straps.
"This won't make up for what you said to me."
"And it shouldn't. But you will let me know when I'm close, won't you?"
"Roxton won't go around the cannibal territory."
Veronica shoved a low hanging branch from her face. "And Roxton makes bad choices like anyone else."
Tribune chuckled. "So you two are a mating pair now."
The two forms in front of him halted and glared back at him. "No," they barked in unison.
"Ah. This is so sweet. I didn't know."
Malone let the branch go.
"Oww! That was very inconsiderate."
"Veronica!" A tall blonde woman waved at them from across a narrow stream.
"Is that an Amazon warrior?" Tribune assessed her with a guttural hiss. "My people have traded with them in the past. Perhaps I should open up those trade routes again."
"Yes," Malone pointed out. "Roxton maintains they make the finest swords he's ever seen."
"Veronica." She extended her hand. Two more warriors joined them. "We've been waiting for you."
"Waiting?" Veronica questioned, surprise showing on her face. "How did you know we were coming?"
"And by this route?" Malone added.
None of the Amazons glanced his way. They answered his question as though it was Veronica's. "I am Antigone, second -in-command of the Amazon warriors. Queen Selena sent us. There's another team waiting for Marguerite and her males."
Tribune stepped forward. "I am the Emperor..."
One warrior took position behind them as the other disappeared down the trail. Antigone took point. "We'd better get started if we want to reach the fortress by nightfall."
"Things haven't changed," Malone noted as they walked in the twilight. But the fortress they came upon had. Stone towers replaced the wooden ones. A wider expanse separated the fortress and the jungle. Off to one side was a vast field with crops growing. Between the fortress and the field were houses. And men.
A young male strolled by and smiled. "Good evening, Antigone."
The warrior smiled back. Finally acknowledging Malone and Tribune, Antigone's voice held an air of command. "Veronica is to meet with the Queen. Males are not allowed into the center."
Past the opened fortress doors, Malone spied a four foot wall that now surrounded the palace and several smaller buildings.
"Arrangements have been made for you in the village." Another young man appeared beside the fortress doors. "This is Jason. He is my chosen. You will be staying at my house. Your friends are not likely to travel at night. There is no moon and they will not hazard the cannibals until tomorrow. Veronica will stay in the palace with Queen Selena."
"I'll see you two in the morning." Veronica leaned close to Malone, casting an uneasy expression toward Tribune. "Keep an eye on him."
"I am at your command."
"Funny." The jungle girl's voice dropped to a breathy whisper. "Careful. You never know what Queen Selena might convince me to command." Veronica disappeared into the fortress chuckling.
Malone took a deep breath and exhaled. "So, Jason, when are you and Antigone going to marry?"
"Amazons don't marry, Malone. They choose their mate. Only now, if is for a lifetime."
The males followed the worn path to the rows of houses.
"There was a great battle between your village and the Amazons." Malone recalled. "Is this how you resolved your differences?"
"Many from my village chose this. The women would not give up their ways. Most of us here were tired of the fighting, the raids. We'd attack them and ... We-we were ashamed of what we did. The women also." He opened a door to reveal a large room. A fire glowed on one side. "They remain in their fortress. We remain here. Most of us are farmers."
"And when," Tribune pointed at the bed, "Do you mate? Must you wait for one of them to get in the mood?"
"We're only human. Neither of the sexes waits long." He broke into a wide smile, much like the one Malone spied on Roxton occasionally. "I've two cots by the fire. One of you is welcome to the bed."
"We wouldn't think of imposing. We'll..."
"Speak for yourself, Malone." Tribune tested the mattress. "This'll do nicely."
At noon shouts came from the tower. Marguerite, Roxton, Challenger and their escorts emerged from the jungle.
Malone trotted out to meet them. "Boy, am I glad to see you three."
"Things have certainly changed around here," Challenger observed.
"You won't believe the half of it," Malone stated.
Veronica met them at the fortress doors. "Queen Selena has invited us all to their noon meal."
Malone paused in the doorway. "Does that really include all of us?"
Veronica took his arm. "Yes, it does. Come on, grumpy."
The Queen met them at the entrance to the 'center'. She addressed Challenger. "It is good that you are well."
Challenger bowed. "And you are as lovely as ever, your highness." He accepted her offered hand and accompanied her into the dining hall of the palace.
Straw mats covered with cushions circled low tables laden with food. A woman led Malone, Roxton, and Tribune to a separate table in the back.
"I guess men aren't an oddity anymore," Malone sighed watching Veronica and Marguerite being seated at the table with the queen.
"Unless you're Challenger," Roxton smirked.
Tribune grunted as he plopped onto a pile of cushions. "Why does he get to sit up front?"
"He and the queen have a history," Roxton explained, his eyebrows lifted in innuendo.
"Ah. Perhaps I've missed a side to your intrepid scientist."
Shortly the hall filled with female warriors. At Selena's signal everyone dined. There were fruits and vegetables and meat Roxton would have sworn was venison.
Two hours into the festivities a black cloaked figure appeared in the doorway behind the queen's table. A single bell rang. Young girls rushed to the tables, clearing them of plates and platters. The warriors rose and moved away allowing the girls to lift and remove the tables from the room. They quickly returned for the cushions and mats.
Roxton stretched his legs and pushed himself up. "I guess this is our cue as well."
A near-by warrior motioned him back from the door. "You are allowed to stay."
Tribune folded his arms across his chest. "Marguerite or Veronica must have explained who I am."
One by one each warrior removed a spear from the two racks on either side of the door. Each stood along the walls, their spear tips held at a forty-five degree angle from the floor. A young girl carried a tray of candles next to a middle-aged woman who jabbed them onto the spear-points. A very old woman followed them, lighting each one. Soon the walls were washed with shadows. The odor of sage and lavender replaced the smell of food.
Veronica and Marguerite joined the men. The warriors lining up behind them had forced them further into the room.
Roxton tried to smile. "This certainly is creepy."
Marguerite took his hand. "Don't worry, I'll protect you."
He recalled their past encounters involving her birthmark. "Somehow, that's not too comforting."
"Will you two be quiet?" Veronica's days with the Amazons had taught her to respect for their ways.
Another cloaked figure now stood in the doorway behind Selena. She headed a line of eight women. The last wore a cloak and gown of pure white. As the procession circled the room, she paused in front of the explorers. "Hello, Ned."
Malone stepped forward. "Phoebe!" He reached for her. Marguerite and Veronica caught his arms. He gave them a curious look, but didn't try to break away. "I had hoped to see you. I asked about you in the village. None of the men knew you. I was worried something had happened to you."
The three who had lit the candles took position around her. "Mistress," they chorused, then removed Phoebe's robe. Malone gasped. The young woman was pale, so white the veins showed on her skin.
Veronica clutched his hand. "Ned. This is the Oracle. This is the Cassandra."
Phoebe's sad expression gave way to a slow, self-conscious smile then she turned and walked to the center of the room. Her once muscular frame was gaunt. Her step was slow and labored.
"What happened to her?" Malone whispered, turning as pale as the Cassandra.
Marguerite still held his arm. "According to their religious tradition, when her twin died, she had a part of herself in the underworld. The old Cassandra ordained Phoebe as her successor. It's very common, Ned."
Roxton leaned next to Marguerite. "What exactly is going on?"
"The Cassandra has agreed to tell us of our dream."
Six ancient women clothed in black shifts lugged a huge copper bowl to the room's center. A seventh carted a large vile. Three came to her aid as she hefted the jar and poured its black viscous liquid into the bowl.
"Is that oil?" Roxton whispered.
"Listen to me," Marguerite demanded in a low voice. "This ceremony is usually held in the caverns, but males are strictly forbidden. There's a pesky pain-of-death clause. The Cassandra herself wanted you males to attend, but I'm sure that didn't sit well with the other priestesses. From here on, none of you say another word. In the times of the Greeks that liquid was said to be the blood of male sacrifices. Lest one of you would like to volunteer, I suggest you all zip it."
Veronica shot Marguerite a characteristic half-smile. True or not the last part was a nice touch.
The Cassandra circled the bowl. The candlelight reflected a sickly yellow off her skin. Her words hinted at Roxton's college Latin, but they slurred in a rhyme that had to be an incantation. Her pace quickened. She faced the bowl as she moved, her hand hovering over the black ooze.
"Sister!" The Cassandra plunged her arm into the liquid.
Roxton watched intently. The muscles of her arm tightened as though she grasped something.
"Sister! Come to me from the depths. Bring me the past. Show me the future. Come share my mortal coil."
The liquid undulated up her arm coating the white skin.
"Sister." It was the same voice... but different. "I bring you the sight. Ask your questions."
One of the ancient women walked toward the explorers. Her withered hand pointed at Malone.
"Be careful," Marguerite warned.
Ned stepped forward. The woman motioned him toward the bowl.
"Ask your question," her haggard voice commanded.
Malone knelt beside the bowl. Casting his regret from his heart, he looked into the lifeless eyes of the Cassandra. "We want to know the meaning of a dream."
"Hello, Ned." The Cassandra smiled with thin brown lips. "We know of your dream. We sent it. You must heed its warning." Her eyes stared down at him but didn't see. "It's sister dream haunts the other. We bargained balance with the Fates. One dream will come to pass. One dream cannot be changed. One dream will come to pass. One dream escapes its destiny. One dream will come to pass. Take heed, Ned. We have tried all that is in our power. Heed our warning, Ned."
The liquid slithered down her arm to its container. A long breath escaped her. The seven black clothed women caught her as she dropped to the floor.
Ned didn't stir. A withered hand gripped Roxton's arm. "You all must leave now."
"Come on, Neddie-boy." Roxton pulled him to his feet.
"What did we just see, Roxton?"
"We can talk about it outside." Marguerite pushed them toward the door. "This place is going to be cleansed and we don't want to be here."
Deliberately, Veronica guided them into the warm afternoon sun of the courtyard.
"What did we just see?"
All eyes turned toward Marguerite.
"Now you want me to be weird." Rolling her eyes, she contemplated the Cassandra's words. "Okay. This is my best guess. First-of-all, these dreams are for Ned's benefit not ours. Saving the rest of us is just incidental to saving Ned. The Cassandra is granting us a chance to change our fate. Apparently we were going to die in that trap Burton lays for us, but the Cassandra sent Ned - all of us, the dream. Since she can't tip the balance of Fate too far, she delivered a similar dream to Burton warning him of his potential demise... probably by our hands."
"You got all that from that creepy, repetitious warning?" Roxton doubted.
"All right, I might have embellished a little. But we all got the gist."
Ned shook his head. "This still doesn't tell us what to do."
"Sure it does." Roxton's expression hardened. "We have to make Burton's dream come to pass before ours."
"Kill him before he kills us," Tribune interpreted.
"And how do you propose to do this? It's a big plateau." Marguerite gestured at the world behind them.
Roxton shielded his eyes with his hand as he addressed Veronica. "How much support can we request from the Queen?"
"The Cassandra instructed her to grant any reasonable requests. I'd say she'd present you most of her warriors if you asked."
"I don't want her fighters. I want her trackers. We've got to find Burton."
"Like I said: it's a big plateau."
"I think I understand what Marguerite is saying." Malone moved to the shade offered by the building. "Why don't we wait for Burton to find us?"
"Won't work. We don't know Burton's dream. His death may not involve all of us. What if he's chasing Veronica and she takes him out with a knife toss. There are too many possibilities working against us." Roxton looked into the faces of his friends. "We have to get there first and take him out."
"We don't have much of a choice." Challenger rubbed his lips. "I don't relish seeking someone out to kill him."
"One dream will come to pass," Malone quoted.
"I suppose there's no choice," Challenger acknowledged, uncomfortable with the thought of following the rules of a prophetess.
Antigone sat by the fire, Jason at her side. "I believe it's a sound plan, Veronica."
The jungle girl smiled at Roxton. It had been his plan, but she had presented it as hers to Queen Selena. "If the teams start tomorrow, we may have a trail within a week."
"And as long as the six of us don't travel together we should avoid our death scenario." Marguerite added her plate to the stack in front of her.
Antigone stood, appraising her chosen as she stretched. "Veronica, unless you or Marguerite want to stay..."
Jason smiled at his guests. "In which case I can go to a neighbor's."
"No!" Veronica knocked her chair over as she jumped up. "I'm going to get some sleep. We've got some long days ahead of us."
Roxton raised his eyebrows in a dare to Marguerite.
Marguerite leaned back in her chair, tossing her hair from her shoulders. "Any men in the village not chosen?"
The English Lord's eyes narrowed. His pleasant grin tightened
"I know of two."
"Marguerite!" Veronica glared down at her.
"Oh, I'm just kidding."
The Amazon shrugged. "It's no problem to check."
"Drop it," Roxton growled.
Antigone spun around to face Roxton. Jason stepped between them. "Come, Antigone. Samuel and Hippolyta are away with the trade group. We can borrow her house for the night." His hand slid down her arm, prying the fingers out of a fist. "Come," he whispered.
Veronica held open the door for them. "Let's go, Marguerite."
Only the dying fire's light lingered in the room. The door opened silently. Roxton slipped out. With an angry sidelong glare at the fortress, he continued down the path toward the field.
The hunter jumped at her voice. "What are you doing here?"
Marguerite sat on a fallen log, fumbling with her hat. "Waiting for you."
Some of the irritation left his face. "And how did you know I'd come outside?"
Pushing herself off the log, Marguerite continued toward the field. "I knew you were angry and when you're angry, you pace. Or chop wood. And since there is no room inside, I knew you'd come outside eventually."
He caught up with her. "You could have been waiting a long time."
"And I would have."
Marguerite felt his smile. She always did. From his first smirk in Challenger's study to the one just now, she could conjure each in her mind.
"You know, I need to have another heart-to-heart with Malone." He slipped her arm through his.
"Really? What about?" A breeze carried the smell of flowers.
"He swore that he and the twins didn't get that far before Veronica interrupted. After what I saw this afternoon, you must admit, something about him impressed those two women."
"True. A man must be extraordinary for a woman to come back from the dead to save him." A small animal darted out of the crop fields into the jungle. "Rest assured, Lord Roxton, if I pass on before you, I shall haunt you where ever you go."
"You would never know a moment's peace."
"And how would that be so different from now?"
"Because a ghost can't do this." She kissed him lightly. Before she could step away he caught her in his arms.
"As a ghost you'd have lots of company in Avebury. Many of my ancestors decided to stay on after death. Perhaps you should just plan on living a long life with me and we can eventually haunt Avebury together." His hand followed the line of her face, lingering on her lips. She kissed the calloused fingers. "You would be the most beautiful ghost those halls have ever seen. The most beautiful woman..."
She stretched to kiss him, her eyes closing.
Everything went dark.
There was just enough pre-dawn light to cast shadows. "Roxton!"
"They've got to be somewhere." Veronica knelt at the front step of the house scrutinizing the vast array of footprints. "I knew I should have made her come back to the fortress with me."
"Alarm!" Jason bolted out of a patch of bushes. "Alarm!"
Malone passed her as they ran. Jason dragged Roxton's limp form out of the brambles and leaves. Veronica took his head in her lap. Ned charged through into the jungle looking for Marguerite.
Challenger handed her his canteen, then his handkerchief. Dousing it with water, Veronica pressed it against his cheeks. "Come on, Roxton. Wake up. You have to wake up."
Challenger sighed with relief and knelt beside him. "Can you remember what happened?"
"No. Yes. Where's Marguerite?" Groaning, he attempted to stand. "She was with me. We were walking..."
Malone stumbled out of the jungle.
"Did you find her?" Veronica regretted the question since no one was with him.
"No. But you need to see this. She must have put up quite a fight."
Jason and Challenger helped Roxton to his feet. They followed Malone through the brush to a small clearing around a huge tree. Footprints covered the ground: boot prints - small like Marguerite's, soft-soled shoes, and footprints of a lizard man. And blood.
"Tribune?" Veronica snorted. "Now we know where he went to as well. I knew he couldn't be trusted. Why do we..."
Roxton yanked away from Challenger and followed the trail a few feet. Abruptly he turned and trotted past them. "We've got to get going. They have at least a five hour head start."
Antigone stopped him near the house. "We agreed to help you find Burton."
"And who do you think snatched her last night? A love-sick wood nymph?"
"I'm trying to make you understand she's bait."
"And I'll take it." Roxton disappeared into the house.
Veronica shut the door behind her. "If you'd shut up and calm down, you'd hear that Antigone has a pretty good plan to stop Burton and get Marguerite back." Veronica blocked his way to the door.
Roxton slammed his hat on. "We don't have time to listen..."
The jungle girl shoved him into a chair. "She's my friend too. First Summerlee, then Ned, then Finn. I won't loose Marguerite. I love her too, Roxton."
Dipping the handkerchief into a water pitcher on the table, he pressed it against the back of his head. "What does Antigone have in mind?"
"She's awake, sir."
Marguerite rolled to her side and tried to lift her head.
"Drink this." A young woman pressed the rim of a cup against her lips. Before she could push the foul-smelling liquid away, she was swallowing it.
"Tastes bad, but the thickness in your head will go away quick." The girl emitted a fearful squeal. Marguerite heard her run from the tent.
"Well, well. Nice to see you awake. I was concerned they had used too much when they tried to quiet you."
Sitting up, she didn't bother to open her eyes before responding. "Mister Burton. Or is it Applegate again?"
"Miss Smith. Or Miss Krux? Or have you managed to become Lady Roxton yet?"
Fluffing her hair, Marguerite broke into a sly smile. "No need to rush into that until we get off this damned plateau."
"Ah. Well, my associate may have killed that plan. Like he killed Lord Roxton."
Tribune slipped into the tent. He hissed and gave a lizard's version of a smile. "You humans are so frail. A simple knock on the head and goosh."
"Goosh." Burton broke into a sinister laugh. "I like that. Goosh."
"No matter." Marguerite gave an unperturbed shrug. "If I ever get back to London, I'll just need a witness that we were married by some missionary. A witness like you, Burton."
"Ah, Miss Smith, I have no idea how to get off this plateau. And for the past year, I have tried. It's just with this slight infirmity, I can't travel quickly." The burns on his hands only hinted at what his clothing covered.
Marguerite openly stared at his hands as she walked up to him. "Couldn't outrun the lava. That must have hurt." Her voice was anything but sympathetic. "If you'd have agreed to take us back that tragedy might have been averted. Anyway, you learned a valuable lesson: never throw a grenade in an active volcano fissure."
Even Tribune winced at her callous tone.
Burton stared at her for a moment. "This plateau has taught me quite a bit. For one thing I've learned of its healing plants. My village raided a tribe called the Horta. They have an incredible knowledge of the plant population on this plateau. Alas, my tribesmen slaughtered most of them but a few came back as slaves and were convinced to share their knowledge. This particular plant doesn't make scar tissue vanish, but my muscles are just fine. Even stronger than they were."
"That's quite a discovery. Could make you very wealthy off the plateau."
"And so it shall." The servant girl tiptoed back into the tent. He leaned down, listening to her few words. "I've something to attend to. Be right back."
"I trust you'll be bringing lunch."
Tribune laid his hand over his heart. "You shame my fellow cold-blooded brethren. Marguerite, that was priceless."
"You better start explaining what's going on, buster."
"I must say you took Roxton's death rather well."
"If I thought for one moment you had really killed him, I'd be flaying you for a pair of boots and matching handbag."
The lizard inhaled though his teeth. "You do know how to excite a male."
"I'm still waiting to hear why you brought me here."
"Sorry, lunch isn't ready." Burton returned with two tribesmen. He tied the tent flap shut behind them. "Pity. The condemned should always have a last hardy meal."
Leaning against the table, Marguerite folded her arms. Her eyes darted about the room looking frantically for a weapon. "And why do you want to kill me?"
"Oh, please. This little village I joined has a very effective shaman. He told me my dream was somehow tied into a dream you and your friends were having. Loosely translated, he described them as dueling prophecies."
"But with Roxton out of the way," Tribune pointed out, "You have nothing to fear."
"Oh. That's right. I told you the esteemed Lord Roxton killed me." From a pouch on his belt, he produced a long knife. "I lied. It's my dear Miss Smith."
At Burton's signal, his men raised their spears at Tribune. They prodded him into a corner.
Marguerite straightened, backing around the table. "You can't be serious. You're the one who tried to kill us." He followed. "But I'm not one to hold a grudge." Marguerite whirled toward the tent flap. Burton ripped her sleeve and forearm with the blade.
"I just can't have you out there, since you're destined to kill me."
Marguerite shot a pleading look at Tribune.
"Oh, I wouldn't expect too much from that one." Burton laughed. "You see Tribune and I have a deal. I captured this creature and his scouting party near our village. Since he possessed no trade goods, the chief decided they were a threat and should die." Burton reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small leather bag. "Then he showed me the contents of a little pouch he was carrying. He lead us to a cave containing three barrels of gun powder and swore he knew the whereabouts of all the ingredients to make more."
"Those barrels were left over from another mad conqueror's foiled scheme," Marguerite noted. She turned her anger on Tribune. "Isn't that the one that cost Summerlee his life?"
"Pity," Tribune remarked, his attention focused on the poisoned spear tips near his chest.
"Now Tribune supplies the gun powder and I the cannon. Once my men have conquered your village of Amazons, I'll have the best smithies on the plateau at my disposal."
"Why would anyone want to conquer this place?"
"Something to do while I try and find a way off."
"Look at me, Miss Smith. Do you know how much pain I was in? I have every right to be mad." Diving across the table, he slashed across her thigh.
"That hurt!" She backed slowly to the opening.
"It doesn't have to. I just want to kill you."
"How does all this involve Roxton, Malone, and the rest of us?"
"You can thank Tribune for that. He convinced me your little group might get in my way. He agreed to lead you all into my trap."
Holding her bloodied arm, Marguerite broke into a knowing smile. "Which you, Tribune, know is going to be for you as well as us. You know Burton's trap is going to kill you."
Burton's eyes narrowed. "What is she talking about? What are you talking about?"
"Our dream, Burton. The one your shaman told you about. In ours, Tribune is there and he dies with us. Tribune is having that dream just like me and Veronica and Roxton. Tribune knows your intended trap is for him as well as us."
"What!" The man spun around to face Tribune.
Marguerite grabbed her moment and bolted under the flap's tie.
With an angry bellow, Burton threw the knife.
"They're camped just two hours from here."
"How many?" Roxton glanced past Antigone. Forty-one Amazon warriors and ten men gathered behind her. Their leather armor coated them head to toe. "The scouts count close to sixty men. Swords and blow guns."
"Blow guns," Malone repeated. "I wonder if Burton sent those men who nearly killed us with the poison darts?"
"You can ask him, if you get to him before I kill him."
"John," Challenger tried to calm him, "She's all right. I seriously don't think Tribune would allow any harm to come to her. In his own way, he's very fond of her."
Roxton offered no answer. He addressed Selena directly. "Are your warriors ready?"
The Queen addressed her people. "If these men come armed, this close to our territory, then they look to conquer. We shall stop them. They shall not reach our homes!"
"We shall prevail," the warriors cried in unison.
Not another word was spoken. The army broke into units which broke into teams. The faster runners would circle the invader's camp and attack from the north. The other teams moved silently east and west. Roxton, Malone and Veronica traveled with the main unit directly toward the camp.
"God's speed," Challenger called. He and the remaining men would give them an hour's head start then follow with bandages and medicines.
Burton's few sentries fell quietly to Antigone's arrows. "This Burton is a poor general."
"Most conquerors are," Roxton whispered.
Antigone calculated the sun's position in the sky. There was no doubt that her warriors to the north, east and west were in position. She motioned for those around her to spread out.
Four cooking fires and huge pots sat in the camp's center. Several women and children tended them. Amazons never harmed women or children. Antigone's eyes shifted to the men eating near their tents.
Roxton saw her first. Marguerite stumbled out of a tent. A knife lodged in her shoulder. Two short steps and she collapsed on the ground. The English Lord leapt from his cover, his rifle raised. The two men that approached her dropped from two bullets.
"Men," growled Antigone, then joined Roxton in the charge.
Out of the jungle the warriors swarmed on the camp. The few tribesmen who managed to grab a blowgun found the leather armor easily deflected their darts.
"Fight, you coward!" Antigone shouted as she knocked a blowgun from a man's hand. With a sword, he didn't last long.
Roxton grabbed Marguerite and pulled her beside a tent.
"What took you so long?"
Propping her up next to him, he examined her wound. "Had to wait for everyone to get dressed."
Marguerite's attempt to smile was lost in her warning cry. "In front of you."
Roxton grabbed a pistol and fired. "I've got to pull this out."
"And it's going to hurt. To your left."
Still holding her, he fired at the tribesman sneaking up. Switching the pistol to his other hand, he pulled the knife out.
"Right!" she screamed.
He fired again as she slumped into his arm. "It didn't go all the way through." Producing the handkerchief from his pocket, he pressed it hard against the wound. "You're going to be fine, Marguerite. Do you hear me?"
Twisting around, Roxton fired.
The Greek god of Chaos ruled the battlefield. The element of surprise now gone, Burton's tribesmen fought for their lives. The archers Antigone stationed took out man after man. Roxton had to get Marguerite to safety. Then he would find Burton.
"That wasn't in the deal!" Tribune tossed Burton headlong out the tent and into the melee. The archers quickly pinned them both behind logs.
"Marguerite, will you stay put?" He wrapped her in his jacket.
"John, you can't kill him."
Dodging two other men, Roxton launched himself on Burton. They rolled in the dirt, as each man struggled for the upper hand.
Near the cooking fires, Malone kicked a tribesman off him. The man grabbed a sword and dove for an unarmed Malone. Veronica's knife suddenly protruded from his chest. She winked at Malone as she retrieved her weapon. "You can serve me at the victory banquet."
Burton twisted for the knife hidden in his boot. Roxton punched him in his face. An elbow to his cheek left the English Lord dazed. Burton shoved him against the hard dirt. His fingers locked around Roxton's throat and squeezed. Gasping for air, Roxton caught the wrist of Burton's other hand. The knife dangled inches above his heart.
A cooking pot tumbled over, its contents spilling across the dirt. Startled, Burton responded to the sound. He took in the scene in front of him. He had seen it many times. Veronica snatched a child out of harms way. Malone grabbed the child from her and ran to deposit the little girl to safety. Another cooking pot spilt its stew. The flames sparked as they devoured the food. Burton knew there was someone over him, staring down on him. Roxton's face grew red as furiously Burton's fingers tightened around his windpipe and finish the job.
Burton felt the jabs of the multiple darts in his back. He barely had time to turn around before the poison took its toll. Looking up, he gazed into the eyes he had dreamt through for so many nights. "I thought I'd killed you."
"Think again. Once you reach Hell." Marguerite dropped to her knees.
Roxton shoved Burton off him. "Marguerite!" He caught her wrist before she fell on the darts she still held. Prying them loose, he tossed them into a fire. He leaned her back against him, putting pressure on her bleeding shoulder. "Well, you did it again."
Even through her pain, her voice expressed irritation. "Now what?"
"Saved my life."
His features blurred. "It's a life worth saving."
"Keep your voice down." Veronica glanced back at a sleeping Marguerite.
"I'm just saying, there's no need to destroy those three barrels of gun powder."
"Even if for one moment, I believed you, Tribune, which I don't, it's too late. Challenger and Malone left over two hours ago and are going to blow them up."
Even from miles away, the boom tore through the room.
"Blew them up."
The lizard hissed at his misfortune. "Well, just so the trip isn't a total loss, I'll seek an audience with Queen Selena. Roxton's correct about the craftsmanship of those swords."
Roxton stopped in the doorway.
Averting his eyes, Tribune quickly stepped to one side as the hunter entered the house. The two said nothing to each other and hadn't spoken since the battle. The lizard had explained himself to Veronica who had somehow managed to keep Roxton off him. Tribune knew humans, though. Their anger would eventually fade. And their morals would force them to help him again. He took one last look at Marguerite and left for the fortress.
"What was he doing in here?" Roxton snapped, laying his rifle on the table.
"Saying good-bye. I hope. And Marguerite's doing fine today." Veronica didn't know men, but she knew how to temper Lord John Roxton.
"Just one more scar," Marguerite whispered, pushing herself higher on the pillow. "I'll never be able to wear those gowns I have stored back in London."
He sat on the side of the bed. "When you enter a room no one notices your gowns."
Behind them, Veronica smiled. It was a difficult line to pull off, but Roxton did it with panache. Even she felt a little weak in the knees. "I'm going to the fortress to see if they decided whether to cook Tribune for the banquet tonight." She shut the door behind her.
Marguerite touched the bruise on his cheek. "That had to hurt."
He smiled, absently smoothing her hair.
"I haven't had the dream. And I've certainly slept enough." Marguerite shifted uncomfortably, the image of Roxton bleeding and crawling across the dirt to reach her would never go away.
"Challenger has officially declared it over. Malone asked to see Phoebe to thank her, but was refused."
"Hopefully the Cassandra will continue to keep an eye on that boy. He certainly can use it." She winced as Roxton checked the bandage on her shoulder. "At least now we can have more pleasant dreams."
"And what would your pleasant dreams be?" Roxton took her other hand and held it.
"You tell me yours first."
"Well," he brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. "You sure? It involves a lot of hand-holding. There's kissing. A little dancing. Maybe..."
"I haven't heard with whom, yet. Keep going."
As always, Lord John Roxton did as she asked.