Disclaimers: See Chapter One
By Susan Zell
The next day Marguerite couldn't take her eyes from Roxton as he walked ahead of her, as if she needed constant reassurance that he was back with them. Veronica's haunting words still echoed in her head, even though it had been hours ago. The heiress was afraid that if she lost sight of him, he would disappear forever.
How they had managed to pull this one off still baffled her. But somehow they had, or at least Challenger had. She was indebted to him, to all of them. If they hadn't arrived when they did, Roxton would have died. And what happened in the cave still terrified her. There was something inside her that she didn't understand, something she couldn't control. Yet somehow it had healed John and for that she wouldn't contest it, not now, not ever.
But she also knew it wasn't over. John's behavior was off. His claims of assurance regarding his health and well being were too pat, too quick. After years of living with this man she recognized the signs of suppression and avoidance all too easily. The others glanced at him uneasily; everyone knew it. Veronica continuously looked back at her charges as she led point. Challenger and Ned were conversing very quietly behind her but she knew what their topic entailed. However, she prayed that John didn't, though how could he not.
His shoulders were ramrod straight, his gait stiff but steady. She was getting an ache in her neck just watching him. Yet no one seemed ready to call it quits. They couldn't possibly make it back to the treehouse before nightfall so why the big rush? Finally, she took matters in her own hands. She made her limp more pronounced and then declared she would go no further.
She waited for someone to broach an argument, but the only one that didn't seem relieved was Roxton. When he turned to look at her, her heart almost broke. There was fear in his eyes, something she had never seen there before. Fear for himself.
"We still have plenty of daylight left," he stated, in a voice that was almost pleading. His eyes, normally so alert and alive, were dark with fatigue and that unnamable pain
Marguerite shook her head even thought it hurt her to do so. "I can't go another step. Unless you're willing to carry me."
For an instant she saw that he was
willing to do just that, but thankfully Challenger stepped in.
"We'll make camp here."
End of discussion. Challenger's firm tone decreed it so, for which Marguerite was grateful. Roxton seemed to deflate and then announced he would collect some firewood.
As the hunter disappeared into the jungle, the remaining explorers exchanged uneasy glances. Everyone had the same concern. No one wanted to speak of what happened or what it would mean in the future, but they all knew.
Veronica moved to follow Roxton. "I'll go help with the firewood." She smiled gently at Marguerite and the heiress nodded her thanks. The rest of them began making camp. They were all grateful since it gave them something to do, but eventually the topic reared its head since neither the hunter or the huntress had yet returned.
"Does anyone else have this really bad feeling?" Ned finally asked.
Marguerite glared at him. "He's fine."
Challenger sighed. "Repressing what happened isn't going to make it go away, Marguerite."
"I know that," she snapped. "But pushing him into discussing it won't help him either."
"No, it won't. But he's still in shock and until he faces what happened, its not going to go away. Not this time."
Challenger was right. Marguerite knew that. John had been able to suppress many things that had happened to him both on and off the plateau: the death of his brother, Calista, the Kanu, but suddenly it seemed as if all that weight was about to collapse back upon him in a most horrible way. She had always dreaded this day.
"All we can do," Challenger assured her, "is to wait for it and be there for him when it happens. It won't be pretty. And it might not happen now, nor even days from now, but it will. The trauma runs too deep this time."
"Damn Osric!" Marguerite cursed. "Damn his wretched little hide!"
"You've already done that, Marguerite. He's far from Roxton and far from us. And he no longer has Roxton's soul to manipulate. He's free of Osric at last."
Roxton and Veronica returned bearing an exorbitant amount of firewood. The setting up of the rest of the camp went silently. The pitching of the tents and the making of the campfire was immersed in an uncomfortable air. Everyone carefully avoided the question of food until Ned announced he was going to collect some fruits and nuts.
Marguerite silently praised the lad. At least he understood that red meat was out of the question right now. She watched the hunter as the rest of them settled about the camp, the chores done. But Roxton wasn't satisfied. He stalked about checking and rechecking their work. Tugging on tent ropes, pounding at the stakes in the ground, checking the perimeter. She got exhausted just watching him. He was operating on last reserves. He was going to collapse soon, but he was fighting it with every fiber of his being.
She dimly wondered if Veronica had any of her mother's insomnia tea with her. She doubted it, but she certainly wouldn't mind slipping it into some of Roxton's drink. It would certainly calm him down.
She rose and wandered over to him, half-heartedly assisting him in his manic chores. He reworked a particular tent and at the end of his work, he winced. For an instant, Marguerite noticed the scars on his arms as the sleeves of his shirt slipped up slightly. The wounds were still pinkish, half healed. Scars he would carry for the rest of his life; she knew the scars inside hadn't yet fared so well.
"You don't have to do this, you know," she whispered to him.
He turned to her with eyes that held only pain, deep and resonating. "I can't," he hissed. "I can't stop, Marguerite. If I do, even for a second…" His voice trembled and he stopped, his teeth clenching hard as he swallowed back the pain of memory.
She reached out to touch him. Abruptly he spun away, moving on to manically address the next useless chore.
The veil of night was relieved by a bright full moon. Malone was on watch. Roxton had tried to volunteer but had been rebuffed by Challenger who claimed the hunter needed to rest. Roxton had not been happy about it and there had almost been an argument, but then the hunter eased off and settled himself on his bedroll, his face etched with fatigue
It had taken hours but Malone believed the big man had finally drifted off.
Unfortunately, he was right and now Roxton fell prey to nightmares. The man started thrashing on his bedroll, his skin pale and drenched with sweat. Malone rose to his feet and approached the hunter. He laid a hand on the man's shoulder to rouse him before he woke the others. He understood the embarrassment that Roxton would feel at such a thing. It would be easier if only he knew.
The hunter took in a last rattling gasp and his eyes flew open. He sat forward with a shout.
Malone caught him. "Easy. It was just a dream. You're okay."
Roxton's skin paled to an even fainter shade, almost green. He pulled himself out of Malone's grasp and ran past the perimeter of the camp. The sound of his retching came back to the journalist.
Sympathetic, Malone made a move to follow him, but a hand on his arm made him pause. Marguerite stood beside him.
"I'll check on him."
Malone hesitated but then nodded, letting her pass.
Marguerite could see Roxton's pale, hunched form just off a small glen of fallen trees a few feet from the camp. From the sound of it, the worst seemed to be over. But he still hadn't moved. His shoulders caved in around him, making him seem smaller in the darkness.
She approached warily. Not out of fear, but knowing that the proud man would resist her attempt to help him. No matter how silent she tried to be, he heard her. Just as she reached out to touch him, he stopped her with a word.
"Don't." He slipped away from her, wiping his mouth roughly with the back of his hand. He moved off toward the tangled jungle and stopped just at its edge.
He didn't want to be touched, not yet, but Marguerite knew it was necessary. She somehow sensed that without that physical contact, Roxton would slip into his own private corner of oblivion. Maybe Roxton thought that was where he wanted to be, but Marguerite knew that the longer he stayed there, the harder it would be to bring him back.
"Please," he moaned in such a plaintive voice that her heart tightened. "I can't." He flung her outstretched hand aside violently. The darkness of the jungle had been beckoning to him, so much so that he had been a moment from disappearing into it forever. If Marguerite hadn't appeared when she did…
She wasn't one to be so easily deterred. He didn't need to go through this alone. He shouldn't go through this alone. Her hand fell gently on his shoulder. His entire body flinched, tightening so hard that she thought he would curl into a tiny ball right before her eyes.
"John, we understand. There's no shame in what happened."
He turned on her then, his eyes bloodshot and wide.
"What would you know about it?" he snapped, desperate to be left alone and not caring who got hurt in the process.
She regarded him sternly. "Much more than you think, John. I've done things in my life that I'm not proud of, things I still have nightmares of and will till the day I die."
He spun away to gaze longingly into the comforting darkness once more. "What," he asked bitterly, "did you break a poor sod's heart, or steal an heirloom off a old rich duke? Yes, there's something to lose sleep over."
"Those are childish things, John, compared to the blood I've spilt. Yours was out of madness, born of either illness or horrible psychic manipulation from that wretched little creature Osric. There is no shame in that." He shifted away from her again, but he didn't leave the glen. And that gave her hope. She came beside him and touched him again. Through her hand she could feel the tremors that were threatening to overwhelm his body.
His voice was but a hiss. "It doesn't change anything, what I remember, what I felt, what I did. I almost killed you!" The last came out as gasp of torment.
"It changes it all. You could have killed me; Osric is a powerful being and yet you withstood him, John! That doesn't make you weak. Not in the slightest." Her right arm snaked around his shoulders.
"Oh God, Marguerite. I've tried to kill you twice. And I didn't feel any remorse in wanting it, only joy. I wanted your blood to spill." He tried to shift aside again, but this time she didn't let him. His shuddering grew worse. "It filled my brain. I couldn't stop it. And that man…I killed that man."
"Dammit, John! You did stop it! I'm still here. I'm still alive. And you didn't kill anyone! It was Osric. He placed all that in your mind. It's not real. Osric didn't win even that battle. Please don't let him win now."
"I can't, Marguerite. All I see is red. All I taste is blood. It's in my head. Visions. I remember everything."
He was shaking so much she could barely hold him. Her other arm wrapped around to brace him. "It'll pass, John. Those memories are not yours. You have to let them go. All you need to know right now is that I'm not leaving you."
His arms reached out to grasp her. At first she thought he would shove her away, but it was if he didn't have the strength to resist any more. He collapsed against her and sank to his knees. Marguerite followed him down. She held him tightly as his own grip on her tightened almost unbearably.
His shuddering grew worse and she realized with a shock that he was weeping, openly, harshly, a raw and terrible thing. A torrent of emotion had begun and Roxton had no choice but to ride it out.
"Shhh," she murmured as if to a small child. She held him fast to her, offering whatever strength she could pass on. She understood what it was like to bear such thoughts. There was blood on her hands as well, so red and vibrant, she saw it almost every night in her dreams. The horrors her actions caused, even if from a distance, made them no less terrible. But for such an honor bound man as Roxton, the sin of taking an innocent life was terrible beyond measure.
She had to make John understand that none of it was real, only Osric's sick game of manipulation. The blood staining him was not of his making; it was all illusion. He had not embraced this blood lust willingly. Though in truth, neither did she, but she didn't matter at his moment. Only John mattered.
His sobs had deepened so that he could barely inhale. His shuddering breaths rattled against her. Her shirt muffled them so she didn't think anyone in camp could hear them. She prayed they couldn't. John needed to get this out, now before it tore a hole in his soul even larger than the one from the death of his brother. He had buried his fears the last time this happened and none of them had forced the issue. Now, Marguerite wasn't willing to let it rest. It couldn't, not without taking part of John with it.
It was minutes before he quieted. Almost an eternity in which Marguerite suffered through the fact that she couldn't really help him through this. It had to come from him. He had to be willing to let go of what happened. She could only hold him and hope that this break in his armor would allow him to pick up the pieces and move on.
If it didn't, if he couldn't…she shuddered to think what shell of a man would come from this. Leair had said that no human had been able to withstand the reversion process. They had all gone mad and violent and eventually died or had to be put away in some other realm. Her heart turned cold at the thought. If it happened--if John couldn't bear this, what would happen to him, here on this plateau where there was no professional care? Tears welled in her eyes at the thought of him insane and a prisoner at their hands when his madness became so bad they had no choice but to restrain him.
She gritted her teeth. It wasn't going to happen that way. Leair was wrong. He had already been proven wrong. He was wrong about this as well. John Roxton was a strong man, strong in body and strong in mind. Osric would not win this final battle. She swore it.
Roxton hadn't moved in her arms in some time. He just sat there, his breathing only occasionally marred by a shuddering exhale, though she could feel his heart pounding.
Finally, he spoke. "I feel like I'm coming apart, Marguerite. I'm losing my mind." Roxton's voice was thin and reedy, like he couldn't breathe in Marguerite's grasp even though she wasn't holding him that tightly.
Marguerite laid her head on his shoulder. "No you're not. At least, no more than the rest of us. Sometimes, I think we're all crazy one way or another. We've endured so much on this plateau. The only thing keeping us sane is each other. Don't let go of that."
Memories of what he did cascaded over him again in a wave that almost smothered him. The sensations of his kills, the blood, the gore, the reveling in the act; it sickened him. He felt the bile rise up again in the back of his throat, but he fought it. It ended only in another shudder. It wasn't real; it wasn't real.
He spoke in a mere whisper. "Forgive me, Marguerite."
"For what? For sparing my life, for defeating Osric, for remaining an honorable man despite what was done to you?" She laughed, though it was far from being one of mirth. "You have nothing to be forgiven for, John. Not from me, not from anyone. Except from maybe yourself."
"The Noir were wrong. You were innocent. You proved that when you didn't harm me. Your love for me was that strong, enough to quell the will of the beast. A bloody miracle is what it was, John."
She raised his head from her chest. His face was drawn and pasty, and his eyes were glassy as if bright with fever. But, he seemed alert. He was listening to her.
"You won, John. And that is something to be counted. We'll get through this together, like we always have. Hiding these things inside you won't make them go away. You can mark my word on that. I've been there. I know."
His eyes shut tight against a well of pain at his soul and he took a shuddering breath. "I'll try. For you," he whispered.
She brushed her hand across his damp hair. His body still trembled beneath her fingers. "I expect nothing less from you, John."
He sank back down, as if lacking the strength to keep himself upright, his head lying once more on her breast, his body curling up against her. Her arms wrapped around him, comforting him, letting him know she would not leave till he was ready. Breath after quivering breath finally stilled and led to sleep. Marguerite sighed with relief, pleased that he seemed more at ease and willing to fight, for her if nothing else.
She listened to the jungle alive around her. Strange that it didn't seem to frighten her now. It was as if there wasn't anything else it could throw at them that they couldn't overcome.
She didn't even flinch when footfalls came up behind her. She turned to find Ned hesitatingly approaching, worry etched in his face. She eased it with a reassuring nod. The reporter held up blankets and Marguerite smiled. She was grateful.
With surprising gentleness, Ned laid one over Roxton's still form. He tucked the edges around Marguerite as well before wrapping another around her shoulders. Afterward, he retreated back to the camp perimeter, but Marguerite could see his shadow as he took up a position that enabled him to observe both groups under his watch. It offered her even more strength, strength she could pass onto Roxton.
Leair was wrong in thinking that John would not be able to overcome this. Marguerite knew better. Roxton was a man of steel mettle, one that had endured fires of hell far hotter than this. He would not soften and bend like weak iron. So long as they stood together against this and did not fight to withstand the pain, it would only strengthen the resolve and will of this man. She knew the others well enough to know that none of them would abandon the fight to keep them collectively as a family.
She eased her head down onto his and closed her eyes. She would not forsake this man, not ever. None of them would; their devotion was as strong as his was for them. It would help them overcome all, no matter if the demons came from within or without.
She and Roxton were bound together by more than just bounds of love. Deep in her heart she knew it. They were meant to be together. Roxton would forever be at her side. A silent … what had Leair called himself…a sentinel. Roxton had been that for all of them on this plateau. Could she be any less for him, now and for always? With that she sat back and guarded him while he slept, unafraid of the darkness around them.
Tonight she would be his sentinel.
To all those who stuck with the story throughout it's telling, thank you from the bottom of my heart. And thank you all for leaving a review either here on the various sites or for email me privately. Your encouragement was greatly appreciated!