Title: The Lady of the Lake
Authors Notes: Thanks to the members of TLW board, who kept me sane while we were without ff.net. The ghost story told in this is based on the ghost story "The Golden Arm," told originally (I believe) by Mark Twain.
The Lady of the Lake
"I don't see why we have to go traipsing all the way across to the west side of the plateau just because Veronica remembered some story her parents told her over a dozen years ago," Marguerite Krux complained, her arms folded defiantly across her chest.
"Marguerite, I thought you'd be interested in exploring a possible way off the plateau," Ned Malone said in surprise.
"And you never know, there could be some precious stones there that you haven't discovered yet," John Roxton teased with a smile. Marguerite glared at Roxton, her expression showing she was not convinced. "Besides," Roxton added with a shrug, "nobody said you have to come. Everyone else is going because they want to go. You can always stay behind in the treehouse."
"Stay here by myself to die of boredom while you have all the fun out there?" Marguerite asked in disbelief. "Oh no, I don't think so. I'll get my things." She turned on her heel and walked into her bedroom leaving the two men staring after her.
"You know, sometimes I'm convinced there is no way to please that woman," Ned mused aloud.
"Oh, I don't know about that," Roxton responded with a grin.
Ned smiled and shook his head as he realized how masterfully Roxton had just manipulated the situation with Marguerite. Observing Roxton's desire and determination to worm his way into the heiress's heart, Ned could understand how Roxton had earned his reputation as a world-renowned hunter.
The inhabitants of the treehouse were preparing to journey to the west side of the plateau in search of a possible passage off of the plateau. Veronica had been looking through some of her father's old journals and had come across his account of a story several natives of the plateau had told him about a cave that led off of the "land of the giant lizards."
Roxton, Ned, Veronica, and Challenger had immediately decided to travel to the cave to see if there was any truth behind the natives' legend. Marguerite, however, was less than thrilled with the idea of the two day hike and had tried to talk her companions out of making the trip. However, Roxton's words had seemingly convinced her to make the journey with them, and now the other explorers waited while Marguerite packed her knapsack for the excursion.
Eventually Marguerite was ready and the explorers left the treehouse and began their hike. After several hours, Marguerite insisted that they take a break and the others agreed with her. Roxton scouted ahead of the group for a little ways, then came back and reported he'd found a small stream nearby without any sign of predators that would be a good place for a rest. When they reached the stream Marguerite immediately took off her boots and sat at the edge of the stream, dangling her feet into the cool water while she ate her lunch.
Veronica quickly ate her lunch and then began urging the others that they should continue their journey. "We've only been here 15 minutes, Veronica," Marguerite said. "It's hot, it's been a long hike, we need to take this rest while we can get it."
"I agree," Challenger said. "We don't know when the next time we'll have a chance to stop will be - we should take full advantage of this rest."
"Is something wrong?" Ned asked Veronica quietly as the others went back to their lunches.
"I just want to keep moving," Veronica said. "The sooner we get there, the better." Ned wasn't convinced, but he let the matter drop, knowing Veronica wasn't going to tell him anything more for the moment.
45 minutes later even Marguerite agreed that it was time to get back on the trail, and everyone gathered up their packs and the explorers continued on their journey.
Several hours later the sun was setting and darkness was beginning to cover the land as the explorers came across a small clearing in the woods they were hiking through. "We should stop here for the night and set up camp," Roxton said to the group.
Veronica glanced around at their surroundings. "I think we should keep moving," she insisted. "We still have enough light to get through these woods before we make camp."
"Are you serious?" Marguerite asked. "It'll take over an hour to get through these woods, we are not waiting that long to camp. This clearing is the perfect spot, there's no reason to keep going tonight and trying to find somewhere else to spend the night."
"Marguerite's right," Ned said, hating to take someone else's side over Veronica's, but knowing that Marguerite was right. "This is as good a place as any to stay. It's not safe for us to try to get through the woods in the dark."
"Is there something wrong, Veronica?" Challenger asked, seeing the somewhat nervous expression on the young woman's face.
Veronica sighed. "Well, it may be nothing, but according to the Zanga, these woods are haunted and it's not safe for anyone to try to pass a night here."
"Haunted?" Marguerite scoffed. "You want us to hike in the dark because of some Zanga legend? Please. We'll be fine here. And I'm sure Ned can protect you from any ghosts that might come along," she added mockingly as she walked past Veronica and Ned and into the clearing to begin setting up camp. Veronica glared at the heiress's back and silently followed the others to help with their campsite.
Once camp had been set up and the explorers had eaten, Ned suggested that they tell ghost stories around the campfire before bed. "Ghost stories?" Marguerite snorted. "Isn't that a little childish?"
"Not at all," Ned protested. "I've got a really good one, and this is great atmosphere for them."
"What's the matter, Marguerite?" Roxton teased. "Worried you might be too scared to sleep? Don't worry, I'll be right here if you need me."
"Hardly," Marguerite said. "Besides," she added, rolling her eyes, "there's no such thing as ghost."
"Oh, really?" Veronica countered. "What about the time-?"
"So, Malone, let's hear that ghost story you've got," Roxton said, cutting off the beginning of what was sure to be another argument between the two women.
"Okay, but I think first I want to hear more about the Zanga legend about these woods," Ned said, looking to Veronica eagerly. "Why do they think it's haunted?"
Veronica sighed. "Well, according to the stories I was told, when there's a full moon like there is tonight, the ghost of a young man appears in these woods. He's the ghost of a young warrior who lost his beloved, his family, everything he held dear in this world to a rival tribe. His loss drove him mad and he drowned himself in a lake about five minutes to the west of this clearing. It's said that he targets women who've known great suffering like his own and leads them to their death in the lake.
"I've never actually seen it, nor has Assai, but there have been several Zanga women that died in these woods under mysterious circumstances. I have no idea if there's any truth to the story, but the people who told me about the ghost seemed very convinced that it was real."
"Please," Marguerite sniffed. "A tortured ghost leading people to their deaths? Ridiculous."
"The Zanga don't think so," Veronica shot back.
"Malone, I think it's your turn," Challenger said, quickly jumping in to the conversation. "Let's hear that ghost story of yours."
"Okay, this story was told to me by my father when I was little, and if I remember correctly, it scared the hell out of me," Ned recalled with a smile. "It's called "The Golden Arm."
"Well, Marguerite, sounds like your kind of story already," Roxton said with a grin.
Marguerite pointedly ignored him, turning her back on him as she settled in to listen to Ned's story.
"Once there was a man who had a wife named Anna," Ned began. "Anna was a beautiful and kind woman, completely normal except for one small detail. Anna's left arm was made out of gold, all the way from her shoulder to her fingers.
"Anna was very fond of her arm, and so she made her husband promise her that when she died, he would bury the golden arm with her. Eventually, Anna fell ill and died, and her husband buried her with her golden arm.
"However, the thought of the golden arm began to eat away at him, until it was all he thought about. He thought it was a waste for it to lie in the coffin with Anna, so he decided he would go to the cemetery and get the arm for himself."
"Smart man," Marguerite murmured.
"So that night he went to the cemetery, dug up Anna's grave, and pulled out the golden arm and brought it home with him. On his way home it began to rain and the wind howled fiercely, but he ignored it, his thoughts focused solely on the golden arm he held.
"When he got home, he placed the golden arm in the bed with him, unwilling to let it out of his sight now that it was in his possession. The wind continued to howl outside, but now the man thought he could hear a voice in the wind, crying,
"W-h-e-e-r-e's M-y G-o-o-l-l-d-e-n A-r-m?"
Veronica felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up at the plaintive wail of Ned's voice, and unconsciously she wrapped her arms around her knees, shivering slightly.
"The man began to shiver and pulled the covers up over his head, trying to block out the sound of the voice, but it did no good," Ned continued in a hushed voice. "He could hear the voice, louder now, coming down the road. "WHERE'S MY GOLDEN ARM?"
"Then, he heard the voice on the porch. "WHERE'S MY GOLDEN ARM?"
"It was at the front door," Ned continued breathlessly. "WHERE'S MY GOLDEN ARM?"
"The wind was howling like a hurricane now and the front door banged open. The man trembled with fear and pulled the covers tighter over him. He could hear the voice moving up the stairs. The door to his room creaked open and he heard it enter the room."
Marguerite, Veronica, and Challenger listened breathlessly to Ned now, completely engrossed in the tale.
"He heard the voice by his bed. "I'M STANDING BY THE BED!" the voice cried.
"I'M PULLING DOWN THE QUILT!" And the man felt the quilt being pulled down.
"I'M GETTING IN THE BED!"
The man was so scared, he could neither speak nor move. And………"
Marguerite, Veronica, and Challenger leaned forward towards Ned anxiously. "IT GRABBED HIM!" Ned lunged forward at his audience, even as Roxton stole up behind Marguerite and grabbed her shoulders.
Veronica and Challenger gasped, but Marguerite screamed and jumped when Roxton's hands touched her. Everyone laughed as they realized what had happened. Everyone but Marguerite, that is.
She held one hand to her heart as she tried to get her breathing back to normal. "That's not funny, you bastard!" she cried, shoving him away from her. "You almost gave me a heart attack!"
"Were you scared, Marguerite?" Roxton asked, his eyes twinkling. "I thought you didn't believe in ghosts. Looks like Malone's story really got to you. Don't worry, Marguerite, there's plenty of room in my tent for you," he said with a smile.
"In your dreams," she shot back.
"How'd you know?"
Marguerite glared daggers at him. "I'm going to bed," she announced with a haughty toss of her head. "I'll see you all in the morning." And she stormed off to bed without another glance at her companions.
"Well, Malone, looks like your talent lies not only in writing stories, but in telling them as well," Roxton said with a smile.
"I agree," Challenger said. "Well done, Malone. A truly frightening tale."
Veronica agreed. "You definitely had me scared."
"Well, I don't know that anything can follow that," Challenger said. "So I think I'll be going to sleep now. Wake me up when it's my turn for watch," he said to Roxton.
Roxton nodded. "Goodnight, Challenger." The others said their goodnights as well, and Challenger went into his tent.
"I think I'm going to go to sleep, too," Veronica said. "Of course, right now I'm not sure if I'm more afraid of the ghosts or Marguerite," she joked.
Ned and Roxton laughed. "Definitely a hard choice," Ned agreed. "I'm gonna get some sleep, too, but I'll take second watch," he offered to Roxton.
Roxton said goodnight to them and told Ned he'd wake him for his shift in a few hours. Gradually the explorers fell asleep and Roxton settled in to keep watch over his friends for the next few hours.
Several hours later, Marguerite was awakened from a sound sleep. Without fully understanding what was happening, she felt something calling to her. She rose silently from her bed and slipped out of the tent, instinctively knowing the correct direction to travel in. Looking straight ahead, she walked steadily towards the surrounding woods, not stopping when Ned called softly to her.
"Marguerite?" Ned stood in front of Marguerite to stop her when she didn't acknowledge him. "Marguerite, where are you going?" he asked her. She didn't answer, nor did she even seem to be looking at him, her eyes staring straight ahead at something Ned couldn't see. "Marguerite. Marguerite, what's wrong with you?" he asked, grabbing her by the shoulders.
She looked at him then, but her eyes still looked empty as she spoke. "Let me go, Ned," she said urgently. "He's calling me. I have to go to him."
"Marguerite, what are you talking about? Snap out of it!" Ned said. "You're not making any sense." Marguerite struggled to get past Ned and finally slipped from his grasp. "Marguerite, stop!" Ned cried, grabbing her shoulder from behind. "Where are you going?"
Marguerite whirled around with a stone in her hand and struck Ned on the temple. With a soft moan he crumpled to the ground and lay still. Marguerite dropped the stone next to him and continued on her journey.
She could feel something pulling at her, urging her on, and she continued walking, her thoughts and attention focused solely on the force that was driving her. "Come to me," she could hear the voice saying. "I'm where you belong."
Roxton was awakened by Veronica's cry of alarm. "Ned! Ned, oh my God!"
Roxton hurried out of the tent, Challenger right behind him. The two men hurried over to where they saw Veronica crouched over Ned's motionless body. "Good lord, what's happened?" Challenger asked as they reached Veronica.
"I don't know," she said. "I woke up for watch and when I came out here, Ned was unconscious."
"Looks like he was hit in the head with this," Roxton said, picking up the stone that lay beside Malone.
"That's not all," Veronica said quietly. She looked up at Roxton. "When I woke up, Marguerite wasn't in the tent. She's missing."
Roxton paled. "Whoever knocked out Malone must have taken her," Challenger said soberly.
Ned groaned and they all turned their attention to him as his eyelids fluttered. "Ned, Ned can you hear me?" Veronica called softly.
Ned moaned and opened his eyes, his hand flying up to the bump on his forehead. "Malone, do you remember what happened?" Roxton asked immediately. "Do you know who hit you and took Marguerite?"
"Took Marguerite?" Ned repeated groggily as Veronica helped him to a sitting position. "Nobody took Marguerite, she left on her own."
"Ned, what are you talking about?" Veronica questioned. "Somebody knocked you out and Marguerite's not in our tent."
"I know," Ned said. "I was out here on watch and Marguerite came walking out. She was acting very strangely, however. She didn't respond when I asked where she was going, and when I finally stopped her she told me I had to let her go because he was calling her."
"Who was calling her?" Roxton asked, his brow furrowed in confusion.
Ned shrugged. "She just said "he." But like I said, it was very peculiar. Her eyes were all out of focus and she barely looked at me. Then when I tried to stop her as she walked away she turned around and hit me with something. Next thing I knew, I was waking up on the ground with all of you around me."
Roxton rose to his feet, his countenance extremely concerned. "We have to find her," he said to the group. "Let's split up and look for her, we can each take a different direction."
Veronica shook her head. "That's not a good idea. Ned just regained consciousness, and besides, I think we should stick together in these woods. There's just something wrong with this place, whether you guys want to admit it or not."
"Fine, fine," Roxton said impatiently. "Let's get started."
Marguerite continued walking towards the energy that was leading her on, never once thinking to question the source of this force or what she herself was doing. She walked out past the edge of the forest she had been travelling through and found herself several yards away from a large lake.
"Marguerite, here I am," the voice called softly to her. "Come to me. It's where you belong."
"Yes," Marguerite said dazedly. "It's where I belong."
A man appeared at the far side of the lake, seemingly standing on the surface of the water as he stared at her. Even at such a distance, Marguerite could see the electric blue of the man's eyes, and soon these eyes filled her sight and her mind until she could see nothing else.
"I'm waiting for you, Marguerite," the man called. "Come to me now."
"Yes." Marguerite nodded and began walking steadily towards the edge of the lake.
She had just put her feet into the water when she thought she heard a slight noise at the edge of her consciousness. She stopped in her tracks and tried to concentrate on the noise. It was faint at first and the words didn't seem to make any sense to her, but then, suddenly, she understood.
"Marguerite!" Roxton called at the top of his lungs. "Marguerite, where are you? Marguerite, answer me, please! Marguerite!"
Warm brown eyes replaced the icy blue ones that had so transfixed Marguerite and she felt she could see Roxton's image before her now instead of the man on the lake. "John," Marguerite whispered. And then, louder, "John!"
In the woods with the others Roxton stopped in his tracks. "Marguerite? Marguerite! I hear her," he said to his companions.
"Roxton, are you sure?" Challenger asked. "I didn't hear anything."
"Neither did I," Veronica agreed. "Are you sure you're not just, well, hearing things, Roxton?"
Roxton shook his head vehemently. "No. No, I know I heard her. She's this way," he said, pointing to the left of their position. "Let's go!" He hurried through the forest and with a wary look at each other, the others followed after him.
Out on the lake the man was infuriated. How could that woman have broken his hold over her? No one had ever broken his spell before. And he wasn't going to let this woman be the first.
"Marguerite," he called to her. "Marguerite, look at me. I'm here, I'm waiting for you. This is where you belong, Marguerite."
Slowly, Marguerite turned to face him, once more under his control. "Yes, that's right," he called softly, seductively. "You know I'm right. You know you belong with me, Marguerite. Only I understand you. Only I can love you as you are. The others don't know you, they don't understand you. They will never care for you the way I do. Come to me now, Marguerite."
Marguerite nodded and began walking into the water once more. She walked in up to her knees, up to her waist, her step never faltering even as the water came up to her shoulders. She only stared straight ahead at the cold blue eyes that urged her on and pulled her to him.
Roxton reached the edge of the woods with his companions right behind him just in time to see Marguerite's dark head disappear beneath the surface of the lake. "Marguerite! No!" Roxton cried, panicked. He threw off his hat and vest and ran to the edge of the lake and jumped in.
"Oh, my God, look!" Veronica cried, pointing across the lake. Ned and Challenger looked where Veronica's finger was pointing and could only stare in shocked silence.
Ned was the first to recover his voice. "Is, is that what I think it is?" he asked in a hushed tone.
Veronica nodded slowly. "The Zanga legend was true," she whispered. "There is a ghost in these woods."
Challenger looked completely baffled. "There has to be a rational explanation for all of this," he murmured to himself. However, he could not think of one as he stared at the almost transparent man standing on the surface of the water.
The man on the lake glared at Roxton as he saw the hunter trying to make his way to Marguerite. He would not let this foolish man ruin his plans, either.
Suddenly, Roxton felt something grab him around the ankles and try to pull him down under the water. He struggled, kicking his legs against whatever pulled him, but the force was too strong. His head was pulled under the water and he looked around to see what it was that was holding him. His eyes widened when he saw that plants growing on the bottom of the lake had reached up and wrapped themselves around his legs. They began to tug harder and harder, and Roxton found he couldn't make it back to the surface. These damn things were going to drown him!
Roxton reached down into his boot and pulled out his hunting knife. He began savagely hacking away at the vines encasing his legs, and soon he had freed himself. He pushed himself upwards, gasping for air when he broke the water's surface. He looked around frantically for Marguerite, but could see no sign of her.
"Roxton! Are you all right?" Challenger called from the edge of the lake.
Roxton nodded. "Stay out of the water!" he called back to them as he saw Veronica walking to the edge. "Just tell me if you can see Marguerite anywhere!"
"The last time I saw her she was about ten feet to your right," Veronica called back. "But Roxton, be careful. The Zanga legend about the lake is true," she told him, pointing at the ghostly apparition floating above the water's surface.
Roxton felt a chill run down his spine at the sight of the ghost, but pushed his feelings aside to concentrate on Marguerite. He began swimming in the direction Veronica had specified, but felt the water resisting him, pushing him back with every stroke he took. The normally placid lake became rough and small waves washed over Roxton. He sputtered and spat water from his mouth as he heard cruel laughter from across the water.
"Dammit, I am not going to let you take her away from me!" Roxton screamed at the man.
"Give up now," the ghost told him. "I haven't lost a victim yet, and I don't intend to start with Marguerite. She's already lost to you."
"No! No, I don't believe you, you bloody bastard!" Roxton said determinedly. Taking a deep breath, he ducked underneath the water and swam with all his strength towards where Marguerite was. He couldn't see more than a foot in front of his face, but instinctively he knew where she was and soon he reached her side.
Her eyes were closed and she was floating limply in the water, her body anchored to the bottom by the same plants that had attacked Roxton earlier. Pulling his knife once more, Roxton viciously chopped away at the plants until Marguerite's body was free. Wrapping an arm around her waist, he pulled her to the surface so she could get some much-needed oxygen.
Marguerite stayed limp in his arms, however, and Roxton could see that she wasn't going to start breathing again without some help. "Roxton, catch!" he heard Ned cry. A rope landed a few feet in front of him, and Roxton grabbed onto it with one hand, his other arm holding Marguerite close to his side.
Ned, Veronica, and Challenger pulled the rope and Roxton and Marguerite began to move closer to the shore. "NO!" the ghost howled. The water around them became extremely choppy and large waves began breaking over them. Roxton almost lost Marguerite's body in the tumult once or twice, but he held on tightly, refusing to let go of his precious cargo.
Finally they reached the shore's edge, and the others pulled an exhausted Roxton and an unconscious Marguerite onto dry land. Roxton dropped to his knees, spitting out water and wiping it off of his face, while Challenger and Veronica laid Marguerite on her back and began attempting to resuscitate her. Challenger did chest compressions while Veronica forced air into Marguerite's oxygen starved lungs.
After what felt like an eternity to Roxton, Marguerite began to cough, and Veronica and Challenger helped her to a sitting position as she vomited water. Roxton crawled over to her side and knelt next to her, taking her hand in his.
"John?" she called, her voice sounding panicky.
"I'm right here," he said softly. "Don't worry, you're safe now," he assured her. "I won't let you go."
Marguerite smiled groggily at this and leaned back against him. "I'm glad," she whispered, as her eyes closed and she returned to unconsciousness.
The explorers decided that it wasn't safe to stay by the water's edge and that they would move back to their camp for the remainder of the night. At first light they would pack up camp and move on, deciding then whether or not Marguerite would be well enough to continue the journey to the caves.
Back at camp Roxton volunteered to stay by Marguerite's side while she slept. Challenger said he'd take the watch and Veronica went into Ned's tent with him to dress the wound on his forehead.
Several hours after they'd returned to camp, Marguerite began to stir on her cot. Roxton, who was dozing on the floor by her cot, was immediately wide awake as he crouched next to her. "Marguerite? Marguerite, can you hear me?" he called softly.
Marguerite's eyes opened and she smiled slowly when she saw Roxton in front of her. "John, what's going on?" she whispered. "What are you doing in my tent?"
"Do you remember what happened tonight?" he asked her gently.
Marguerite's brow furrowed in thought a moment as she tried to remember the events of only a few hours earlier. Recognition dawned on her face and she sat up quickly, grabbing Roxton's arm. "The lake!" she cried. "I was being called towards the lake, pulled there. I couldn't stop it. It was that ghost Veronica told us about. And I walked right into the lake. And he was trying to kill me. I was going to drown!" Her words were rushed and panicky and Roxton sat next to her on the cot, pulling her into his arms and holding her close to his side as he tried to soothe her.
"Shh, it's all right now," he assured her, one hand gently caressing her hair. "You're safe now, I promise."
He held her for a few moments until her body stopped shaking, and then she pulled out of his arms. "How did I get out of there? I remember waking up and knowing I had to go to the lake. And then Ned tried to stop me and I - Oh, God, poor Ned! I hit him with a rock! Is he all right?"
"He's fine," Roxton assured her. "Knocked out for a little bit, but he'll be okay. Besides, I'm sure he doesn't mind too much - Veronica's playing nursemaid right now," he said with a grin.
Marguerite managed a weak smile. "Oh, I can't believe I did that to him. It's amazing that boy isn't brain damaged by now," she mused to herself. She sighed. "Well after I hit poor Ned, I went down to the lake. I remember hearing your voice briefly, but then I was in the water and the next thing I knew I was on dry land with all of you around me. How did I get out of the water?"
"I cut away those nasty little plants around your ankles and the others threw us a rope and pulled us out," Roxton told her, deliberately glossing over the difficulty involved in her rescue.
"So you dove in there, with a ghost, and pulled me out?" Marguerite asked, an expression of wonder on her face.
"Well, someone had to do it," Roxton told her with a grin. "Malone was still recovering from that bump on his head, and Veronica had to watch over Malone, and Challenger, well -"
Marguerite cut him off, leaning up to kiss him softly. When she pulled away a moment later she smiled up at him. "Thank you," she said softly.
"Anytime," he told her honestly. "So," he began, taking her hands in his, "do you remember anything else about what happened? How did that ghost get you down there?"
"I'm not entirely sure," Marguerite admitted. "It was like he was in my head, calling to me, and I couldn't not listen to him. He told me to come to him, and I went. I don't think I had any control over any of my actions. He told me to come to him, that he was where I belonged, that he was the only one who could ever understand me or love me," she finished quietly. "It felt like he was telling the truth, that I had to drown myself in the pond, that that was the right thing for me to do. I felt like the bottom of the lake was where I belonged."
She looked down, blinking back tears as she remembered the hopelessness that had washed over her at this realization. Roxton gently tipped her chin up with his finger so she had to look at him. "He was wrong," he told her sincerely as he looked into her eyes. "He was wrong about all of it, Marguerite."
She smiled shakily. "Thank you," she whispered.
He smiled and pulled her into his arms again, pressing a soft kiss against her forehead. "I think it's time for you to get some rest," he told her quietly.
"I guess you're right," she agreed, reluctantly moving out of his arms.
Roxton's arms, however, did not let her go, and he pulled her to him again even as he began to lie down on the cot. "Roxton, what are you doing?" she hissed when they were both lying on the cot together. "In case you've forgotten, this is my tent and my cot. You have your own. Don't you think you should go there?"
Roxton shook his head. "No," he said seriously. "Because this is where I belong. Here, with you in my arms."
A smile spread across Marguerite's face as she realized the truth in Roxton's words. Yes, this was where he belonged, she thought, as she snuggled up against his side. But more importantly, she realized, this was where she belonged.