Path of the Storm
Summary: The explanation of the Protector begins... from a myriad of surprising sources.
Note: Many thanks to incredible beta-readers (santacrux and sassyrox) with wonderful logic points and grammar repairs and PATIENCE!
Disclaimer: Borrowed the characters. Utilized some of the mythos suggested in "TLW Summary".
In brief: Episode 1 of Season 4
"Mother?" Her voice hung as a whisper in the pressing darkness.
"See," came a breathy response, tingling a long forgotten memory.
Warmth penetrated the darkness. "Mother!"
Veronica twisted toward the sound. Her eyes struggled against the black, the color tangible and cold as it stung her face. A pinprick of light shot into her eyes, forcing them to close.
In her mind the light revealed itself as a lamp on a desk. The smell of coffee inundated her senses. As she breathed it in, her thoughts strayed to Malone. A coffee cup took shape on a desk, its aged wood barely discernible beneath stacks of old books and weathered scrolls. Directly in front of her a chair was pushed back revealing its tattered upholstery. An old-fashioned stylus lay upon a stack of paper turned facedown. Next to that, lay a page of handwritten text, words and lines scrawled in heavy black pen. Her head ached as she strained to read.
A History of the Plateau
By Arthur Summerlee
The Fourth Caste - Chapter 3
And so the rift between those three factions grew. The religious caste would have discovered themselves powerless in the troubling matters erupting in the senate. The politicians, meanwhile, recognized an opportunity to finally expand outside their island. More of this space rock and its mysterious metal was needed. The caste of scientists shouted down the senators, as fear and rationality blended to explain what they had witnessed during the "night of the veil". It is at this point that we must acknowledge the lack of documented evidence for this period of history. Most of the scrolls, artwork, etc. were lost in the island's destruction. Those pieces which left the island with the religious caste have been ravaged by time. But the cultural memory of "the night of the veil" is without precedent; its story replicated in the oral traditions of myth, poetry, literature and the recorded history of the Protector.
What has been pieced together from this fragmented library was the victory of the politicians over the two other castes. This "victory" resulted in the formation of a new caste: warrior. These citizens in their red robes would eventually leave the island nation and scour the world for more of the metal...
The cold intensified, her shivering shattering the vision in her mind.
"V!" Finn screamed from somewhere nearby. "V! Veronica!"
Then there were no more screams. No sounds at all. No darkness. Only the bright light of the plateau's noon sun high overhead.
Calloused fingers tightened around her arms. From beneath his tattered hood, one of the men leered as his hands slid down her waist to her thigh. Kicking at him only made it easier for him to seize her ankle. Another figure gripped the other one. These four were joined by 3 more.
Marguerite screamed again. Roxton had been next to her. He'd hear. She screamed again. "Roxton!" It was lost in an echo as they carried her into a cave.
Her kidnappers' incessant whispers took on a rhythm. Torchlight slithered across the rocky ceiling. Below her came the sound of water, its cool odor contrasting with the stench of the unwashed wool robes. The men slammed her down hard upon a slab of rock. Her horror intensified as she recognized the cave. Those shared tender moments from not so long ago darted from her mind. "You've got the wrong girl! Listen!"
One of them growled as his voice thundered out several words in an unknown language. From beneath his cloak he produced a dagger, brandishing it for Marguerite and his gods to see. A ruby stone in its hilt flickered with the torchlight.
The sacrifice forced words through her growing hysteria. "Listen to me!"
One of them slapped a filthy hand over her mouth and shoved her head back. The dagger hovered over her as figures circled the slab, chanting a sing-song of words. Some of the sounds became words in her mind, but they dissolved in fear as the dagger inched down toward her chest.
Suddenly behind her came grunts and a loud thud which shook the very walls of the cave. Marguerite realized they must have pulled out the rock blocking the hole where the woman's body had been. Her body.
Their chant grew louder. Marguerite knew with the silence would come her death. Her mind identified more words. "Your magic has opened the door and brought the beasts." She easily picked out another word. "Morrighan."
"I am not Morrighan, you idiots!"
She twisted toward the familiar voice. "Roxton!" Instead stood a young man at the cave's opening, a sword edged with blood brandished before him, his face covered with mud and shadowed by the hood from his robe.
"Back away." Without another pause he stabbed the closest priest.
Her feet were free. Twisting, she bit hard into one of the hands clamped on her wrists. The man stumbled back screeching. Rolling toward the other priest, Marguerite slid off the slab and onto the stone floor, wrenching her wrist from his hold. The dagger sliced the air next to her. With an oath, she drove a fist into the groin of the head priest. As he bent in pain, the knife came down at her again.
"No, father!" The young man punched him, sending the priest tripping on his own robe into the wall. "Morrighan!"
Marguerite took the outstretched hand. Her rescuer continued to speak but she only understood a few of the words. My love...safe. Once outside the cave, the two headed into a field, wild flowers engulfing them. Marguerite realized they were running toward a forest. The closer they got, the stranger the place appeared. No gigantic ferns protruded halfway up the trees; and the trees... some were merely barren of leaves, not stripped and torn and devoured by over-grown reptiles and bugs. These trees were stout and round. Oak trees. Pulling her hand away, Marguerite stumbled to a stop. "England," she whispered.
His breath ragged, the man shed his robe. Patches and symbols of brown and blue-dyed mud covered his face and arms. He gripped her elbow and pulled her to her feet. "We can't stop now."
Marguerite glimpsed the long fingers clasping her arm. They were covered with blood. "You're hurt!" Without thinking, she spoke his language.
"We must make it to the forest. Your people are there."
Slipping her arm around his waist, she felt him lean against her. "My love," he lamented with an emotion she'd never have credited to one so young.
A cool breeze wrapped about them as they stepped into the shadows of the forest. "You've got to stop." She guided him to the base of a huge oak then eased him into a spot among its moss covered roots.
"My love," he whispered into her ear.
She smiled and nodded, lifting his shirt from the wound in his side. Blood caked around a deep gash as fresh blood bubbled out. "Oh, God," she whimpered, looking for these "people".
A fever shook him, covering his face in a cold sweat. "My love," his fingers tilted her face toward his. "My love."
Marguerite inhaled sharply. Gently she rubbed the mud from his thin cheeks and gazed into the face of a young John Roxton.
"No!" A woman burst from the trees. "Don't follow me!" she called behind her. Other figures blended back into the grey mist. The woman slid to her knees beside the dying man. Muddy symbols decorated her face and arms. "My only." She kissed him gently. "What are you doing here? Everything was planned."
The rescued woman swallowed her explanation.
"We were safe!" Morrighan wailed into the sky.
His eyes opened slightly, then tightened in pain. "Michael saw you taken. I could not let them kill you." His hand sought hers. She laid her head upon his chest listening to his heart's slowing beats.
His bloodied fingers entwined in her hair. "Until next time, my love. I will dream of you even in the womb." His final breathe rolled the tears across her cheek.
Marguerite looked away, chewing her lips recalling all the times John Roxton had come for her. "Why... Why did he save me?"
Her own grey eyes glared back at her as the black-haired woman rose. "You must go."
The mob of cloaked figures approached the forest. They moved cautiously, their swords drawn and ready.
"Everyone, return to the glen," she called into the white streaked shadows. "It is over for now. We have lost." Nondescript forms melded into the forest without protest. Morrighan focused her pain at Marguerite. "Turn and run into the forest!" A dirty finger pointed to the east. "You will be folded into the creator's robe and returned."
Marguerite couldn't will herself to move. The body of John Roxton lay three feet from her and a part of her stood next to it; a younger version, the mud symbols on her face distorted from tears. "Come with me," she stammered.
"I cannot." Morrighan's voice softened as an appreciative smile appeared.
"But they'll kill you."
"Yes." She studied the young man's face, absorbing each detail. "I must die soon or we might miss each other. It has happened before."
"There!" came shouts from the priests now running toward their prey.
"Go!" Morrighan ordered again.
Marguerite turned and ran. Behind her, the priests bellowed in joy as they caught the witch again. Suddenly the heat of the jungle slapped her face.
His accent was thick, English learned from a bar not a school. "Captain Roxton." The Spaniard eyed his captive. "And alone."
The soldier's companion leaned in, caution showing in his eyes. "I would never have taken him for such a fool, Lieutenant."
The roar of a T-Rex tore through the air followed by the scream of its victim. Both men glanced around, their eyes widening as though perceiving their location for the first time.
"It is true!" hissed the one with the pistol pointing at the Englishman's heart. Again they gaped at their unholy surroundings. "His woman is a witch."
"I've often shared that very thought, gentleman," Roxton located the source of the scream and inched in the opposite direction. "Now, you have the wrong man so I suggest you look somewhere else."
"Move again, Captain, and you'll be limping back to the docks."
Quickly Roxton tried to attach textbook pictures to the uniformed men before him. "I don't believe either of us wants that, Lieutenant."
"Really, Captain Roxton. You act as though you do not recognize me. I still bear the scars from our last encounter."
Abruptly he pieced together his family history. Spaniards. Captain Roxton. It was 1642 for these soldiers. But this was not Port-Au-Prince.
"Bravo, my Captain. You're correct as usual," a woman stepped from behind a tree, two pistols in front of her. Several black strands had fallen loose from her bun and twitched about her face as she spoke. "They are stupid enough to walk into our trap."
Roxton snatched up his rifle and pointed it at the lieutenant. "I'll wager I'm a better shot than you are."
The soldier noticed the Captain's weapon for the first time; it's sleek and shiny metal threatening as the sun glinted off it. It was no musket, English or otherwise. Roxton observed him scrutinize the rifle, calculating his chances.
"I'm not worth your life, Lieutenant. We can continue this another day. Lower your weapons."
"Now," snapped the woman. She walked deliberately to her man's side, the aim of her pistols locked on the Spaniards.
The Spaniards dropped their weapons onto the dirt.
"That way," the woman ordered. She pointed them in the direction where the T-Rex would be finishing his meal.
"I have a better idea." He didn't want them dead. They might have witnessed what happened to Marguerite. "Gentlemen, remove your helmets." Two good raps from his rifle butt left them crumpled on the jungle floor.
Captain Roxton's woman shook her head as she tossed the soldier's pistols away. "Even the English Crown appreciates dead Spaniards."
"M-Ma..." The English Lord almost spoke her name. Those familiar grey eyes smoldered as she stopped inches from him. Before he could react the woman kissed him.
Roxton went rigid with the click of the pistol now pointing at his gut. "Who are you?" she demanded, quickly stepping outside his arm's reach. "Where is Captain Roxton?"
Once again his rifle dropped onto the ground as the Englishman raised his hands slowly in the air. His attempt at a smile only angered her.
"You have until the count of three." She pointed the second pistol at his chest.
"Now just a moment, Mar...madam. You're not going to believe this but..."
Acute pain tore through him. His hands gripped his stomach waiting for the warm blood from the pistol shot. "Why?" he tried to ask, but there was no air in his lungs to speak with. Roxton peered down at his hands; there was no blood, no bullet wound, but still he doubled-over in agony. In front of him, the woman sank to her knees, the pistols slipping from her hands. All around them the jungle erupted with deafening screams. Something clawed its way inside him. He added his scream to the woman's.
Finally darkness smothered him.
"What are you doing?" Challenger demanded. A strange instrument descended from a panel in the ceiling. "Where am I?" The scientist strained harder against the binders on his wrist and ankles. They tightened against his efforts.
A panel in front of him slid open with a hiss. A masked figure stood in the doorway, firing a beam of light over the scientist's head. Challenger winced at the piercing mechanical scream that filled the room. The figure rushed in; the door closing, rather sealing itself behind him. From the corner of his eye he saw the red streak of light again.
A hand slapped a mask onto his face. Cold air jarred him. "What is going on? What kind of weapon can fire a light beam?" The skin on his face tightened as the edges of the mask affixed themselves, preventing him a good shouted inquiry since the figure appeared to ignore him. Challenger realized his hands and ankles were free.
"Can you hear me, Professor Challenger?"
"Yes." His intellect overpowered his fear. There must be earphones and a microphone in the mask. He spoke carefully and clearly into the unfamiliar device. "I can hear you."
"Put this on, sir." The mysterious figure tossed a long cloak upon his chest. "You have to step into it." He attached something to the panel by the door.
Challenger heard another hiss, this time identifying it as similar to the sound of a vacuum. It grew cold and his skin turned clammy. Quickly he stepped into the jumpsuit, following the figure's gestured instructions. As he pulled the zipper up to his chin, the hood slid over his head and attached itself to the mask.
A flurry of words and numbers from other voices streamed into his ears. "My good man, I must know what is going on!"
"We have to hurry, sir. My people can't hold them off for much longer." Cautiously they stepped into the hallway.
Walking was cumbersome as they made their way down an antiseptic hallway. Another door slid open. Similarly outfitted people joined him and his rescuer. Challenger realized the floor was covered with other figures that didn't move.
"This him?" The voice held a tinge of awe.
There was no way of identifying who was speaking. Only height broke up the similarly dressed forms.
"Who cares!" snapped someone else. "Let's get the hell out of here!"
They rushed to one of the stone columns lining another white wall. Each figure pressed a metal symbol to it and disappeared. Challenger recognized the trion pendant that hung from Veronica's necklace. His rescuer locked his arms around him then pressed his own trion into the column.
The figures slid onto a hard stone pavement in the middle of a cluster of unassuming metal buildings. They removed their masks, revealing men and women laughing in relief. The arms around him slackened their hold and pulled back Challenger's hood, then his own. The rescuer's thick head of red hair shimmered in the bright sun. He tugged off his mask and took a deep breath of air. "Professor." He pointed at the device still affixed to Challenger's face.
It stung when he removed it. "Where am I? While I am grateful for the aid, I must understand what has just happened, young man."
"No time for explanations, Professor." He stepped out of his suit. "We need to get you home."
Challenger fingered the strange material as he stripped off his own suit. "You mean back to my own time," he harrumphed.
A smile stretched across the younger man's face followed by soft laugher as he rubbed the back of his neck. "Whatever you say, professor."
A slim woman gestured toward the closest building, her blonde ponytail swinging back and forth. The plain exterior indicated it to be a warehouse, but Challenger knew the inside would be nothing short of extraordinary. When the lights revealed it contents, the scientist's expectations fizzled in confusion. A stone arch, a very familiar stone arch waited in the room's center.
"If you'll please step through, sir."
The woman guided him toward it with a determined push. "We're on a tight schedule, professor. The Protector will be sending for you in 9...8..."
Indignant, the scientist drew himself up to his full height. "Just a moment, young woman."
His red-headed-rescuer shoved him beneath the arch. "You really are as cantankerous as they wrote in the textbooks."
Around him the jungle raged. Unceasing screams and roars filled the air. A single thought struggled through his pain-clouded mind: the field was too exposed. Slowly the man eased himself to his knees, his arms still wrapped about his ribs. His words garbled through clenched teeth, "Madam, we must retreat to someplace less open." Gasping against the nausea, he took a deep breath. "Madam!" No one answered. Staggering to his feet, he looked about. They were gone. The Spaniards, the beautiful brunette... they were all gone. Every muscle of his body protested as he bent down and retrieved his rifle then Marguerite's.
Three raptors bolted from the jungle. Abruptly they scattered in different directions, roaring with pain. Roxton could only guess they were in agony; he knew he was. Walking stiffly at first, the hunter searched for Marguerite's tracks around the log. Next to his own were her boot prints then nothing. Her tracks led to the log then nothing.
"Marguerite!" A creature darted out then back into cover so quickly he couldn't identify it. "Marguerite!" The exertion left him on his knees, clutching his head. "Marguerite." He only managed a whisper.
"Roxton!" She swayed as the jungle humidity peeled the English cold from her skin. Before her the man clung to the decayed log, eyes tightly closed, lips curled in pain. "John!"
She barely heard his voice as she ran. The memory of the youth dying tore at her fears. What if what happened in the past was happening now. She ran faster. "John!" Panting, her hands slid over his, trying to pry them back. "Where are you hurt?" she asked, hearing her own sobs.
He laid a quivering hand against her cheek. "I'll be alright." Forcing a deep breath, he spoke again. "Keep an eye out. The animals have gone mad."
Easing him to her, she laid his head in her lap. His skin was hot to the touch. Positioning her rifle next to her, she shifted him slightly to loosen the canteen from his shoulder. With a groan, he curled back into a ball. Her eyes examining the trees around them, Marguerite sprinkled water onto his neck then gently spread the cool liquid down his back.
The roar of a T-Rex shattered the air just to their left. She gripped the rifle in her free hand, the other remained stroking his back and arms, calming herself as well as him.
Behind them a tree cracked as something slammed into it. The tension returned to his muscles. "We've got to get back to the tree house."
Marguerite realized his fever was gone. "Can you walk?"
"I'd rather walk now than try to run if one of our crazy friends decides to come out again."
"Come on then." Marguerite slipped an arm around his chest.
Groaning, he went from the ground to sitting on the log to standing.
Marguerite assessed the man with a roll of her eyes. "You're not going anywhere."
"Put my rifle over my shoulder." Even this slight weight forced him back onto the log.
"John," she protested.
He extended his arm to her. The woman stooped and took his weight as he stood. "Are you sure I can't offer you a cane?" she wheezed, shifting his weight as Roxton's legs strained forward.
"If I tell you to run, you let go of me and run."
She knew there was no arguing with that self-sacrificing tone. "You don't have to worry about that. Now move your butt, Lord Roxton, before I simply leave you here."
Cold engulfed him. He wiggled into the mass of a fallen tree's roots. Then the world went pitch black.
The soft voice spoke again. "Relax." The blackness oozed over him. "I know you." The cold caressed his face, gently closing his eyes. "Stay still. I know you."
He didn't fall asleep; it was as though he ceased to exist for... minutes, hours. Nothing gave away the passage of time.
Then the ground shook as a herd of triceratops lumbered past him. His ears rang with their cries. Malone shoved past the roots. Before him raged chaos. Dinosaurs ran in circles, trampling each other, trying to go nowhere and everywhere. Malone pressed against the trunk of the fallen tree and edged toward the forest away from the melee. Slowly he slid from the broken tree branches to a stack of rocks. A raptor burst out of the forest its glazed eyes not seeing him, its cry deafening as it ran. Daring to step away from the protection, he studied the pile of stone. At last someplace he recognized. Only a few miles now.
A different scream cut through the dinosaur bellows. "No!"
Malone gave up his cover and ran toward the cry. Three women huddled next to a stone arch. A few feet from them the raptor tore apart a man, then bolted away leaving behind the gore and the meat. Another man knelt on the dirt frantically digging through a backpack. His shaking hands produced a box of bullets. Ned ran to him and shoved the box back in. "Forget it. That pistol won't dent anything around here."
"Who are you?"
Malone heard the British accent and thought of Roxton's impending joy at a fellow countryman. "Introductions later. We've got to get to safety." He turned to the women. The two younger eased their much older and frail companion to her feet.
The man shoved his backpack at the smaller of the women. "Vanessa, take this. I'll get her." Clumsily he scooped up the elder form, juggling her small frame until her face disappeared against his shoulder.
Malone took point. "Everybody runs. Shelter is about three miles down this path." His rifle at the ready the reporter ran, slowing slightly to keep pace with the strangers behind him.
"What do you mean she's just gone?"
Veronica explained herself again. "There was a-a..." The only word she could use felt too simple. "Darkness, Professor." Her arms crept around herself. "Intense and cold. Like nothing I've ever experienced before. When itwas gone, Finn was gone too." She walked to where she had last seen the girl from the future. "Here. She was here. I heard her call my name then, when I could see again, she was gone." Arms stretched out, she fanned the air. "Just gone!"
"We must go look for her." Challenger snatched a rifle from the extras racked next to the elevator. He jumped back as the machine's wooden car began to descend. "Finn?"
"George!" a familiar voice shouted.
"Marguerite," he acknowledged to himself. "Are you alone?" he called down.
"No!" she yelled over the drone of the machine. "Roxton is with me!"
The elevator's rhythmic rise matched Challenger's pacing. "Did you see Finn out there?"
Veronica pushed past the man. "Is Roxton hurt?"
"Only my ears." Trying to stand by himself, Roxton found himself stumbling into Veronica.
"What happened?" she demanded, helping him to a bench.
Marguerite dropped their rifles and backpack by the door. "You won't believe it."
George frantically pointed at the elevator. "We can share our experiences later. Right now we've got to find Finn." He looked back at the spot Veronica had stated she'd last stood. "She wouldn't just leave. She could be hurt or..."
Roxton struggled to stand. "How long has she been gone?"
"Stop it!" Veronica easily shoved the feverish man back onto the bench. "Both of you."
Marguerite wrestled the rifle from Challenger, sliding it back on the rack. "No one's going into that jungle. It's a madhouse. Roxton and I barely got here without..."
"Help us!" A scream followed the plea.
Three rifle shots sounded.
Veronica slapped her blonde hair from her face as she darted to the railing. The man with the rifle fired again. "Ned?"
Marguerite took position next to her, rifle up. Even then it was too late. The pack of raptors tore a small woman into pieces. "Ned, the fence is off!"
Challenger sent the elevator down.
Roxton fired at the beasts over and over. "They're just tearing her apart. They're not eating."
Marguerite took careful aim. One of the raptors bellowed as the bullet struck it in the eye, but it continued to tear into the human flesh. "In the name of all that is holy, what is going on?"
Roxton kept his aim until he heard the elevator start its upward movement, then he too turned from the grisly scene. "It's nature, Marguerite."
She slammed her rifle on the table top. "No, nature dictates eating a kill." She heard his struggled breathing. "There's something else going on here."
"Ned." Veronica announced him quietly.
Roxton grabbed the other man's arm and steered him and his frail bundle toward the bench at the table. "Is she hurt?"
"No, she is not," a calm voice stated. "You may set me down, Mister Morris."
Morris gently lowered the petite form until she stood straight, examining the place around her. "You sure you don't want to sit down? Because I do." The man dropped onto the hard wooden seat, covering his face with his hands. "Kathy," he whispered.
Marguerite set a cup of water next to him. "Was that the girl...?"
He nodded, his shoulders shook slightly.
"Where is this place?" the older woman inquired curtly. She too was British, her words meticulously enunciated.
Veronica spoke quietly trying to respect the man's grief. "You're in my home."
She turned to face the girl, her wrinkled hands folded around each other, positioning before her waist. "So you are Veronica." Her face was calm but her dark eyes narrowed as they inspected the jungle girl. "I am your Grandmother."
Veronica staggered back a step, her mouth open in surprise. "My grandmother?"
"Yes." Her immediate curiosity satisfied about her granddaughter, the woman turned to survey the room. "Your father built this."
"Y-yes, he did."
At last some emotion played on the frozen features. "There is something very similar, though much smaller, situated in a large oak tree in the backyard of my home."
Giving into her surprise, Veronica stepped closer. "You're my father's mother?" She scrutinized the woman as intently as the other had her. The woman's frown pronounced the wrinkles around her mouth. The tight bun revealed a few brown strands amongst the grey hair.
The aged woman glanced behind her at the pile of items near the elevator. "Vanessa, where is my backpack?"
Vanessa lingered by the rail, staring down at the horror below.
Slowly the woman turned around. Fresh blood was splattered across her khaki pants and shirt. The backpack hung over one shoulder; she let it slip to the floor. "Jack. Kathy. This wasn't supposed ta happen. No one mentioned danger like this."
Marguerite moved to Vanessa's side. Scooping up the backpack, she tossed it to the older woman's feet. As of now, she disliked Veronica's grandmother, whichever side of the family she came from. "Come on. Let's get you changed into something else."
She stepped away from Marguerite. "No. I want to understand what's out there. What killed Kathy?"
Roxton looked to Challenger to answer, but his focus remained on the elevator and Finn. There was no scientific awe when Roxton replied. "Those creatures are dinosaurs."
"Dinosaurs?" Morris stirred, lifting his head, wiping the dampness off his cheeks. "But they're extinct. I-I read where some scientists even call 'em fairy tale monsters."
"Not here," Malone shrugged.
At once Marguerite turned toward the voice. "I'd almost forgotten about you." A smile grew on her face as she reached him. She inspected the young man with a seldom shown emotion on her face. "All body parts present. Maybe a little leaner." Hugging him, the normally distant woman laughed into his ear. "I'm glad you're back. No matter what I do, your coffee is better than mine."
The reporter returned her laughter. "You can't burn the water, Marguerite. Ruins the taste every time."
Suddenly Roxton stood next to him, giving the man a hard slap on his back, "Welcome back, Neddie-boy."
Challenger joined his friends, foregoing his anguish for a brief moment. "At least you're home, Ned. It's good to have you back, my boy."
While a smile drifted over her face as she listened to her friends, Veronica's attention remained on the woman claiming to be her grandmother. Her "grandmother" rummaged through the backpack, finally pulling out a rectangular tin box. Shaking it slightly, she assured herself of its contents. Upon noticing her granddaughter's suspicious glare, she allowed it slip back into the backpack.
Challenger stepped toward the elevator, snatching his hat off its peg. "Marguerite, you stay here and sort things out. Roxton, Malone, Veronica and I will break into two teams and search the area for Finn."
Roxton shook his head, holding Malone back with a firm grip of his shoulder. "I think she's gone, George." He observed the panic in his old friend's face and suddenly recognized how close Challenger and Finn had grown during the past weeks. "I think she's gone back to her own time."
Challenger resisted the idea. "No. Impossible. How was she transported? And why?" He adamantly shook his head as he shouldered a rifle. "That makes no sense. During this darkness Veronica described, she probably went looking for me or you and Marguerite."
"No. She'd never have left Veronica while that was going on." Roxton massaged his ribs and returned to the table for a cup of water. "I think we need to stop and sort out what's happened." Wearily he collapsed onto a chair.
"No!" Challenger shouted, adding a small backpack of ammunition and a water canteen to his shoulder. "We must search for Finn."
"George," Roxton pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and dipped it in the cup. He rubbed the cool water along his neck. "She's gone. I'm pretty sure she's gone back to her time."
Challenger slammed the backpack onto the floor. "Why? Why are you so sure?"
With an exhausted groan, Roxton dunked the handkerchief again. Small fingers pried it from his hand and pressed it against his forehead. He leaned back, resting against Marguerite, closing his eyes.
"John, your fever's back."
He nodded. "George, let me get this out, before I pass out."
Marguerite ordered all parties to a chair or bench around the table.
Arms crossed, Veronica leaned against the cooking island. Her eyes flitted between Malone and the woman proclaiming kinship.
"Close enough." Marguerite approved her handiwork with a deliberate assessment of everyone. "First, I think introductions are in order. You have met Ned Malone." The young man nodded at the strangers. He sat at the other end of the table opposite Roxton. "I am Marguerite Krux. You've figured out this is Veronica Layton. Lord John Roxton," she performed a theatrical gesture at the man seated in front of her. "And the man pacing near the elevator is Professor George Challenger." She pointed at the three strangers seated together facing the others.
The younger woman spoke first. Her expression, now calm, turned anxious as she stated her name. "Vanessa Flanders."
The man next to her downed a cup of water. Jet black hair lay plastered to his forehead from sweat. "Daniel Morris." His thick neck suggested the rest of him was just as muscular.
The older woman placed her still folded hands on the table. "As I said..."
"Yes, we know," Marguerite interrupted testily. She really didn't like the woman. "You're Veronica's grandmother. But you're not mine. So what do the rest of us call you?"
"The rest may call me Lorraine. You will call me Mrs. Layton."
Roxton's quiet laughter earned him a pinch on his neck. Marguerite rested her hands once more on his shoulders. "Alright, now that we have names, let's hear what befell each of us in the jungle. Veronica, explain what happened to you."
The sun tipped the trees, adding its heat to the anxiety of all parties. Veronica recalled her panic when Malone had left them. And now she'd lost Finn. Guilt settled into her mind about the girl from the future. As she spoke she tried to keep her voice level. "It was as though the past sprang up around us. Finn, Challenger and I found Maple-White and brought him here. He acted as though he'd never met Challenger. The next moment came the sound of an airship and we rushed to the balcony," her eyes lingered on Malone, "then the bulk of the airship filled the sky. Maple-White got away and escaped down the elevator. Not two feet from the fence, we saw a raptor attack him. Challenger realized the electric fence was off." Anger edged her words. "And you decided you had to find the break in the line and fix it!"
The professor didn't accept her challenge, continuing his vigil at the elevator.
"Finn and I saw Challenger disappear. Then..." The memory sent her pacing around the table. "Then something surrounded us. Prodded us. I could feel almost..." She tucked her hair behind her ears, remembering. "It was like cold fingers combed through my hair." Veronica ceased her pacing, anxiously twisting her arms in front of her chest. "Then I heard a voice. It was... sounded like... I've only an old memory." Turning she faced an audience enwrapped in her words. "It was my mother's voice. She said the word 'See'. Then I saw a desk with papers on it. But Finn's scream broke my concentration."
"You didn't say she screamed," interrupted Challenger, the frustration welling in his voice again.
"It felt like forever before I could turn around. Then it was bright sunlight. And Finn was gone."
This time the professor's voice was accusatory. "You didn't say she..."
"George, what happened to you?" Marguerite called over her shoulder.
"Maybe I shall just go look for her by myself." The man retrieved the backpack with ammunition and stepped into the elevator.
Marguerite stormed to his side, snatching the backpack from his shoulder. "You're not going anywhere. None of us are until the insanity out there settles down! If Finn did leave the tree house, she has the good sense to hunker down and wait for whatever is going on to blow over. Stop being a self-centered idiot and asking us to risk our lives by going out there. You know she'd never have left Veronica! She's gone! And if you'd listen with the rest of us, maybe we can figure out what happened to her. Think with your head, not your heart. She needs George Challenger the pragmatist. Just stop and listen." She hurled the backpack onto the floor sending some of its contents scattering across the floor. "Can this day get any better?" she growled through clinched teeth, dropping to her knees to scoop up the shells and rags.
A gentle tug of her arm helped her to her feet. Challenger took her hand then patted it gently. "Your suggestion is a valid one, Marguerite. We can deal with this mess later." He waved away the shells littering the floor. "Let's hear what everyone has to say."
Challenger followed her quietly to the table, sitting on the bench with his back to Veronica. "The impossible happened," he began. "I must have been struck on the head by something and dreamt..."
"What happened to you?" Marguerite exhaled, weary of the scientist's perpetual skepticism.
The learned professor gazed at the worn tabletop. Despite everything he'd witnessed thus far on the plateau, personally relating flights of fancy unnerved him. "I was strapped to a gurney in a room with white painted metal walls. Hovering over me was a mechanical arm attached to the wall. A young man dressed in white fired a weapon of some sort and shattered this arm-like tool. We escaped to join others." He rubbed the bridge of nose trying to sort the amazing from the plausible. "They each had a trion like yours, Veronica. When they touched it to a pillar, we all appeared in a building complex of some sort. They shoved me through a set of doors and in the room was an arch marked with the shape of your trion. Someone said the protector was sending for me, I stepped through it and was here at the arch on the plateau. I admit I noticed the dinosaurs' behavior to be somewhat irrational." He heard Marguerite's snorted protest. "Alright, I grant you the creatures were frantic. In my concern for everyone, I hastened to the treehouse."
"That was some dream, George," Marguerite smiled, sympathizing with the absurdity of the story. "Roxton and I paused next to a log in a small clearing. Someone shot at us and the ever cautious hunter," the hunter saluted the sarcasm with his water cup, "suggested we hide behind it instead of making for the trees, which would have been the most intelligent action. One moment I'm next to him, the next, I'm snatched up by robed figures, hauling me into a cave." She shuddered at the memory. "Filthy hands slammed me onto a slab and one of them dangled a dagger over me. I was about to be a sacrifice until a young man came to my rescue. With a broadsword he forced them to release me and then we took off running. Eventually we made it to a forest. Unfortunately the young man was gravely wounded." Marguerite heard the sob in her voice and covered it with a cough. "I truly believe I was in England, say, around 900 AD. I'm guessing at that time because of the dialect they spoke. The young man died as a woman joined us. They did seem to know each other. When the men in the odorous garments showed up again, she refused to come with me, so I turned and ran and found myself near the log where I'd left Roxton."
"And what did this young man and his woman look like?" Veronica's grandmother inquired in a tone that suggested she already knew the answer.
Roxton cut off Marguerite's reply with a dubious laugh then quickly launched into his narrative. "While Marguerite was apparently in England, I was here, being hounded by two 17th century Spanish soldiers mistaking me for my very distant relative, the pirate who eventually became the first Lord Roxton. They were about to shoot me, when a very lovely pirate stepped out of the bushes and got the drop on them. I was asking who she was when something ripped into my insides. I think I opened my eyes but there was only darkness... and pain. I heard the woman scream. Bloody hell, I heard myself scream." He grew agitated at the recollection. "The cold clawed at me, pulling and poking." Marguerite's hands gripped his shoulders. He could hear her sharp intake of air. "I don't know how long this went on. Eventually, I heard the jungle erupt in noise and opened my eyes. It was light and everything in the jungle was bloody screaming like I wanted to. And the Spaniards and the lady were gone. "
Drained, Roxton's head lolled back against her. She finished for him. "Then I found him and we made our way here."
Challenger bristled at Roxton's lack of explanation. "And that's what you have to go on in your theory that Finn has returned to her own time?"
"George, it was like this darkness tore into everything on this plateau. The creatures out there, those Spanish soldiers, they all had their insides rummaged like someone was looking for something."
Marguerite eyed the strangers. "Or someone."
"Those Spanish soldiers and the lady were gone," Roxton repeated. "They weren't supposed to be here and after the darkness, they were gone."
"So you're saying Finn wasn't supposed to be here?"
"Look, all I'm saying is this mishmash of creatures was here when we got here. One of your experiments brought Finn here. You. And just like the people brought by these time distortions she vanished."
"So this darkness, with its poking and prodding, was looking for Finn to return her to her time?" Challenger was on his feet.
"Hold on." Malone stood slowly. "Professor, I think my experience can add a little more credence to Roxton's theory. I was..." Malone looked directly at Veronica, "coming home. A sudden wind turned the sand into pellets so I looked for shelter of some sort. There was a fallen tree a few feet away and I climbed into the roots." It was his turn to stare self-consciously at the others. "Then I heard a voice. She told me: 'Relax. I know you'. Then it went dark." He gave Roxton an embarrassed shrug. "Then it was sunny and the dinosaurs were trampling each other and running wild."
"So you weren't picked apart by this darkness?" Marguerite prodded.
"No. A voice said 'I know you' and it was like I fell asleep. When I opened my eyes, it was crazy. I got worried about the tree house and all of you, so I knew I had to get back here. I hugged the rocks making for the trail until I heard a scream and I ran to that arch..."
"And found us," Veronica's grandmother stated.
"And why were you there?" Veronica tossed a handful of kindling into the kitchen fire. It sparked, sending out reddish stripes into the twilight.
"And how did you get there?" Marguerite added, her expression darkening as even more questions flooded her thoughts.
"Jack could've explained things better." Morris made the sign of the cross. "But you, Mister Malone, you know what happened there."
From the corner of his eyes, Malone glimpsed the blood streaked across Vanessa's shirt. "Jack was attacked at the arch by a raptor."
"His fate was like Kathy's," Morris whispered. Again he made the sign of the cross.
"Professor, you said you arrived back on the plateau at an arch," Malone considered.
"Yes," Challenger acknowledged testily. He did not like to repeat himself.
"You," Veronica looked at the faces of the strangers at her table. "None of you know how you got onto the plateau?"
"I can't tell you how, but this is what he used to transport us from Avebury to here."
"Avebury," Roxton straightened. "You were at Avebury?"
"Just around the stones." Reaching into his pocket he removed a trion. Reluctantly he slid it onto the table.
Veronica snatched it up immediately. "Another one!" Without directly comparing it to her own, she recognized differences. "This one is painted red."
Challenger leaned over her shoulder. "No, that looks more like oxidation."
"And it's heavier," Veronica added, laying it in Challenger's palm who requested Malone's penknife. As the scientist set upon it, Veronica returned her focus to the strangers. "Where did you get this?"
Lorraine patted her flushed checks with a handkerchief. "It belonged to the gentleman called Jack White. At least that was how he introduced himself." The starched pristine linen waved at the persons on either side of her. "These two plus Kathy showed up the next day." She locked eyes with Veronica. "They offered to take me to meet my granddaughter. Morris was to act as guard, Kathy to be my companion. Vanessa, I believe, was Mister White's personal secretary."
"And none of you know how Jack White used this to travel from Avebury to here?" Veronica pressed, accepting the trion's return from Challenger. Morris reached for it, but the woman closed her fingers around it. The man mentally assessed his odds of getting it back. Slowly he dropped his hand back on the table.
"So the granddame here is from outside London." Marguerite stated. "Where are you two from?"
"I'm from inside London." Morris wiped his face with his shirt. "I was in the King's army 'til the war ended. Then started workin' for meself. I found the money's much better. I offer my skills to whoever can pay. A month ago Jack shows up and offers me a lot of money to come on this trip to watch his back."
Vanessa picked at the drying blood on her blouse. "I'm here 'cause Jack wanted company. He said the trip would be easy and quick. He didn't mention dinosaurs," she shuddered.
Marguerite shifted from behind Roxton, closer to her rifle lying on the kitchen counter. "And what is this purpose of this trip?"
Morris had been in similar situations in his days as a soldier. He leaned back displaying his hands palms down on the table. "We was here to kill somebody."
"Who?" Malone shouted. He had brought them into the house. Brought them to his friends.
Carefully the mercenary shrugged. "I have no idea. Jack was in charge. He said to bring her," he nodded toward the older woman, "as a diversion. He said everybody would be wonderin' about her... not us."
"So you came to kill one of us," Challenger accused, incredulous.
"I put them odds as pretty good, considerin' the old lady's connection."
"Jack didn't expect ta die so soon," Vanessa shrugged. "He didn't share much."
"Well, you'll excuse us if we don't believe any more bloody words that come out of your mouths." Marguerite grabbed her rifle from the counter. "All three of you need to stand up and back away from the table." Holding an aim on Morris, she ordered them toward the railing. "Ned, check our new friends for any weapons they haven't mentioned."
Morris moved slowly, nonchalantly toward to the railing. "Ya needn't get so ticked-off. I was truthful with ya."
Marguerite curtsied slightly. "And that makes all the difference. Oh and we forgive you." She raised the rifle. "Malone!"
Ned stepped away from Morris, providing Marguerite an easier shot. "Your choice, Morris."
Morris smiled appreciatively at Marguerite. "You'll find a knife in me left boot, Mister Malone. Another one on me belt."
Veronica's grandmother remained seated. "You seriously cannot believe I would carry a weapon, let alone conceal one on my person."
"Veronica, check your granny."
"Marguerite," she protested "you can't really..."
"And what if it's Malone they're after?" she urged, her unspoken terror that it was Roxton.
Without another word, Veronica helped the woman to her feet and checked her boots, belt and pockets.
"Your father would never have allowed this," Mrs. Layton reproached flatly.
"My father would never have been duped into traveling with murderers."
"No, he made a far graver mistake. He traveled with a woman who supposedly loved him but took him to a distant hell. He trusted a woman who as good as murdered him! A woman who took him away from me!"
"Stop it!" Marguerite shouted. This type of tension was her every day before the plateau. "One thing at a time. You two can argue when I know all the weapons are in our hands. Veronica, check Vanessa now."
Visibly shaken by her supposed grandmother's disdain, Veronica silently patted down Jack White's shapely personal secretary.
"Ned," Roxton strained against the fatigue. "Check along the inside of his belt."
Malone cursed as his fingers felt the small knife near the small of the man's back hidden in a leather strip attached to the belt.
"Oops," Morris laughed. "Had it for so long, I forget that it's there."
Eyes narrowed, Malone extended his hands. "Just hand me the belt, Morris."
"And what about me pants?" he complained.
"Use your hands," Marguerite smirked. "That way we know where they are."
"This is intolerable," Mrs. Layton huffed returning to her seat on the bench.
Vanessa continued to pick at the blood trail on her shirt. "This shirt smells. I have another one in me pack." She looked around her, brushing the flakes off her fingers. "May I..."
"I'll fetch it," Veronica offered. "Supper will be fresh fruit and bread. Luckily Finn and I got up early and picked..." she stopped speaking. At the mention of Finn, Challenger's expression saddened. His eyes looked into the jungle as though imagining her approach past the huge green fronds shading the trail.
Malone moved into the kitchen. Everything was the same. He knew where the plates were. The cups. What had felt like a lifetime, he remembered was only three months. Veronica brushed against him as she filled the water pitcher. From a drawer he produced a long carving knife. "I should go ahead and cut up the fruit. Marguerite seems a bit trigger happy today."
Veronica laid several papayas, guavas and pineapples on a serving plate. "Well, she was right about one thing: you were missed."
"Now that we've enjoyed our feast," Lorraine Layton winced at the pile of fruit before her. "I would like to show you something, Veronica. Is there somewhere...?"
Marguerite still stood to one side, rifle aimed at Morris. "No one's going anywhere, Lorraine."
"Just as well. I won't have to repeat myself. Will someone fetch me my backpack from the pile near the elevator?"
Malone dabbed his fingers in a water bowl and wiped the pineapple juice on his napkin. Only the guests and Roxton sat at the table, everyone else stood across from them, nibbling on the cut fruit. "Which one is it?"
"The black one on top."
He picked-up the small but heavy pack. "This it?" He unbuckled it and glanced inside. "What do you need from it?"
Snorting her irritation, the woman pushed away her plate. "You'll find a tin box. Please allow me to open it. The box should be flat on the table. There are some very precious items contained within it."
Its weight and the slight rattle made him suspicious. He selected a corner of the table away from the visitors to place it. The top required several tugs to remove it.
Veronica gasped at what was inside.
Even Marguerite reacted to Veronica's unusual loss of composure. "Ned, what is it?"
Beneath a pocket watch was an aged photograph. Malone set aside the scratched and dinged timepiece. His calloused fingertips lifted one of the photo's corner, then gently he slipped his entire hand under it. Almost reverently he eased it on the table before Veronica. "It's your parents," he whispered.
"On their wedding day," Challenger added, crowding next to them.
The yellowed photo showed a striking blonde woman in a mutton sleeved Victorian wedding gown, a bundle of calla lilies lying in one arm, the other held by the groom. The man looked dapper in his crisp black suit, parts of it greyed from time. Their joyous expressions were catching as everyone viewing the photo smiled.
"She's beautiful, Veronica," Ned declared, brushing the tears from their daughter's check.
"There's another one," Challenger pointed out, removing the next aged photo and sliding it delicately beside the first one. This one included more people from the wedding party. A young man stood next to her father. Next to him was the woman claiming to be his mother, her smile not as wide nor as happy as the others. On the bride's side stood a middle-aged woman grinning, not at the camera, but at the happy couple.
"Having known your mother," Mrs. Layton explained coolly, "I expected trust to be an issue. I knew I'd need proof of my lineage."
Challenger leaned over the photo, blocking everyone's sight for a moment. "That's..." His voice registered the same surprise that was on his face. "That's Anna Summerlee."
"Arthur's wife?" Marguerite scoffed. She continued to hang back, training the rifle on Morris. Now the suspects were narrowed down to two.
"I knew the woman." Challenger announced, "I'm absolutely confident that is Anna Summerlee."
The reporter stated the obvious. "Summerlee never mentioned knowing..."
"I recall Summerlee did a year's sabbatical in America." The scientist squinted as he tried to remember. Personal facts were something Jessie kept track of. "Damn. I can't remember the year, but I know Anne refused to uproot the family. Something about the girls being in school."
Pulling her eyes from the photographs, Veronica gazed at Lorraine Layton. "You are my grandmother."
Mrs. Layton looked away. Her face showed no joy, only satisfaction. "Examine the back of the watch."
Veronica's trembling hands reached out, but instead Ned scooped up the device. "Let me. Sometimes these things are tricky to open."
"Thank you," the granddaughter whispered.
Ned read the inscription on the back aloud. "Tom, For you to pass on with the love I pass on to you."
"My father gave that to him when Tom went off to university." Pride sounded in her voice. "Tom graduated near the top of his class. He had so many offers to teach and further his studies. But after he met your mother, it all changed. He was off on some expedition to the Orient."
Suddenly a faint tune echoed around the main room. It was "Greensleeves". Malone had opened the watch. The tune played uninterrupted until finally he pressed the tiny button on the side of the watch. Everyone jumped at the silence. He wore a sad smile as he presented it to Veronica. Inside the lid was another inscription. Veronica peered at the fancy script. "May the Protector settle you away from harm. Love Always Abigail."
"I don't think it was proper for your mother to have an heirloom engraved with her private message, but there you have it. I would call that sufficient evidence to prove who I am."
Marguerite contemplated the watch and the woman. "Why do you have the watch? If his wife engraved it, I can't imagine him leaving it behind."
"The watch was in a trunk that was never loaded onto the ship. I went to the dock and claimed it, thinking upon his return he'd be pleased to have it back." She gave the room a contemptuous once over. "Of course he never returned. Now that I have legitimized my identity, it has been a difficult day and I wish to rest." The woman looked her years as she gathered the two photos and pocket watch and returned them to the tin. Quickly she folded her arms about the treasure box.
"May I...?" Veronica reached for the battered tin.
"No." Her word was curt and final.
Veronica dropped her hands to her side. The empty fingers tightened into a fist, her nails digging into the flesh. From behind her, Ned slipped his hands over hers until her fingers clutched his instead of the emptiness she felt.
Roxton slowly came to his feet. "Where will our guests sle...?"
Marguerite handed her rifle to Challenger. "Mrs. Layton can stay in my room. I'll sleep in the storage room." Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Roxton about to speak. "Forget it, Lord Roxton. You need to sleep in a bed. You two," she gestured at Morris and Vanessa like the threat she saw them as. "You both will stay in Summerlee's room. There are no branches close enough for anyone to reach. And we can tie them up. And lash the door locked."
Roxton waved his hands in surrender. "And there you have it."
"So let's move it, people!" Marguerite's gaze turned again on Morris. The man's eyes were narrowed in emotion, but they didn't see his jailers, they fixed on the old woman. His was the wrong expression, a blend of anger and hatred; it was betrayal. This man felt betrayed by a woman he'd only known for twenty-four hours. That emotion was too deep. Something was amiss.
The lashed knots as locks proved useless. After they tied Morris' wrists to a chair and Vanessa's hands to one of the bed posts, it quickly became apparent they needed to stand watch. After Marguerite threatened to also tie Roxton to his bed, she took the first three hour shift, followed by Malone, then Veronica volunteered for the last.
Ned dallied in the hall as everyone took to their beds and Marguerite settled in the main room for her shift. "Mrs. Layton?" He rapped lightly on the door frame of Marguerite's room.
A muffled acknowledgement answered him.
"It's Ned Malone. I just wanted to see if you needed anything."
The curtain slid back a few inches. "I'm fine, Mister Malone. Thank you for your concern." She dropped back the curtain.
"Mrs. Layton. I..."
The weary woman jerked the curtain completely to one side. Like everyone else, she was sleeping in the clothing she'd worn all day. "What do you really want, Mister Malone?"
"A favor," he began.
"For saving my life this afternoon?"
The young man shrugged. "If you want to see it like that. I was hoping you could, just for the night, let me, let Veronica," he heard himself rambling and pushed out his remaining words, "borrow the wedding picture of her parents." Ned tried to look into her eyes but the growing anger he saw caused him to turn away. "Never mind. I'm sorry I intruded. Sleep well."
"Just a moment, Mister Malone." The curtain slid closed for a moment, then opened ever so slightly. "Here. She can keep the wretched thing."
"Thank you." He stepped back holding the photo behind him in case she changed her mind.
A pale sinewy hand shot out from the side of the curtain, gripping his arm. "You know, you'll end up just like my Tom."
"And if I died defending her as Tom Layton did, defending my family, it would be a small gesture of the love I feel for your granddaughter."
Lorraine's hand snaked back behind the curtain. "I hope you feel that way when Death comes for you."
"It already has once before and I still came back to her."
Marguerite paused as she poured herself another cup of water. Her thoughts refused to focus on the task at hand, straying instead to the pieces of a puzzle she hadn't known existed until now. She took several steps toward the bedrooms, then paused to listen again. If the mysterious voice Ned heard was the same that Veronica heard, then Abigail Layton knew Ned Malone. At the very least knew of Ned Malone. The wind picked up with the thunder, plucking leaves from branches and scattering them along the roof. There was no denying that Abigail Layton knew Anna Summerlee and through her, knew the husband. If both Ned and Arthur were connected to Abigail Layton, then what about Challenger, Roxton and herself? Frowning at the question, she returned to the kitchen. A familiar cough greeted her there.
"George. Why aren't you asleep?"
"You realize I could have taken a shift. That would have meant only a two hour shift for everybody. We'll all need our wits about us tomorrow."
Marguerite winced at the resignation in his voice. "I thought you'd appreciate a little time alone, George."
"Why? Finn's not dead."
"And I'm not suggesting that."
"Then I don't need time to grieve, Marguerite."
The woman emitted a bitter laugh as she sat down, placing the pistol by her cup. "Grief isn't exclusive to the emotions we experience at someone's death, George. People die all the time and no one grieves for them. Grief is about loss. And you can lose someone without them dying. Trust me... I've left enough people behind that I know plenty about grief and loss."
"I would imagine you would." Fidgeting with the fruit bowl on the table, Challenger lost himself in thought for a moment. "Sometimes you remind me of Jessie, but then I realize you're not nearly as strong as she is."
"Thanks a lot." She eyed the water cup, wishing it contained something stronger.
"When Arthur was here, there was someone to share the discoveries of this plateau. After he left, I realized my focus centered upon experiments and labs. I'm not anthrophobic or contemptuous; it just takes so much time to understand a person, which is time away from my experiments, my contemplation. With Finn, I rediscovered the wonderment of science. Of course that girl was pig-headed, academically lazy, and illiterate, but new things excited her. Watching her as she suddenly understood how a pterodactyl flew was the wonderment. That's Jessie for me; she humanizes science. She enjoys it; I punish it until it yields to me. Some scientists describe themselves as married to their field of study. I may devote considerable time and energy to my experiments, but I'm married to Jessie." He let out a long sigh full of age and loneliness. "And right now I miss both of them terribly."
"I'm sorry, George." She regretted the words immediately. They were too clichéd, belittling the depth of his expressed emotions.
Challenger stopped at the top of the stairs to his lab, a pinprick of candlelight broke the dark below him. "You know, it must tear Roxton apart to look at you and know you'll leave him if you get off this plateau." His words tightened in his throat. "That day he'll grieve for you... and I doubt he'll see its end." The scientist returned to his lab.
Malone checked the starless skies again. He felt anxious, having grown accustomed to the night sky and its stars. He knew many of their names now. Perhaps not the ones Challenger or Roxton would use, but he knew what the Trantri tribe called the constellations; the Curat's word for the moon. From downstairs, Abigail Layton's clock made four anemic chimes. He'd missed that clock and the repeated fuss everyone made to keep the dilapidated thing going.
He started at the darkened figure in the hall. The pistol he'd raised quickly returned to his side as she stepped into the lantern's light. "I'd forgotten about you and your internal clock."
Veronica laughed softly slipping her knife into its sheath on her hip. "Can't help it. I've always been aware of time. You know," she reflected, inspired by the thought of a grandmother. "As a little girl, I'd sit and feel it pass. I don't know if I could tell by the shadows moving or just the air moving, but I could," she shrugged, "can feel time on the plateau."
Malone digested her words. He knew they were important to understanding her. "How do you feel about having a grandmother?"
Veronica grimaced. "Let's talk about something else. As a matter-of-fact, you should be getting some sleep."
"About sleeping," Malone considered as he relaxed against the railing. Lightning flashed in the sky, illuminating a vine reaching from a branch to the tree house. Its clap of thunder broke the night's sounds. The dinosaurs had calmed slightly; their cries fewer and without the rage. "I can't believe Marguerite gave up her room and bed to sleep on the floor in the storage room. And without anyone asking first."
Locking her hands on the worn wooden rail, Veronica leaned precariously forward, searching the black sky for the threatening clouds. "I have a feeling if you check the storage room, she won't be there. She's most likely on Roxton's floor."
"Roxton's floor," the reporter echoed.
"One of the changes since you've been gone."
"Huh." A devilish grin worked its way across his face. "Just the floor."
Folding her arms as she turned around, she answered his innuendo with a strong clearing of her throat. "Would you like to check with Marguerite?"
"Oh, heck no. I like the shape of my nose."
A long sigh ended her laughter. "Finn. Mordren. The Protector. My trion. So much has happened." She touched a scar on his forearm. "Anything new with you?"
"Just this." Malone leaned down and kissed her. Softly. Gently. "See you in the morning. Oh, I left something for you on the table."
Veronica dropped onto the bench. So many thoughts crowded into her mind. She noticed the photo, but her eyes snapped back to the reporter, walking away, hands in his pockets. She listened as the curtain to his room swooshed closed. She heard the thump of his boots on the floor. Somewhere she heard Finn saying, "The ball's in your court now, V."
"Roxton," someone whispered.
Recognizing the voice, he controlled his reflexive reach for the pistol next to his pillow. Swinging his legs off the bed, he signaled for quiet from Malone. The young man pointed toward the kitchen and disappeared into the hallway shadows.
Pulling his shirt from the bedpost, he tugged it on. Sliding his boots into the hall, he returned and scooped Marguerite onto the cot.
"What time is it?" she managed to ask without moving her lips.
He brushed the hair from her face. "Too early. Close your eyes. You still need more beauty sleep."
Still half-asleep, she swatted at him, but he'd already made it out of the room.
Roxton eased awkwardly into the chair at the table, pulling his last boot on. "I feel like I went nine rounds with Jim Jeffries yesterday." With a groan reflective of those aching muscles, he accepted the cup of water from Veronica.
"I wanted to talk to you two before waking the others." Veronica fidgeted in her chair, trying to force herself to remain seated.
"Yeah," Malone stretched and yawned. "I think I'd just gotten to sleep." The rain distorted anyone's guess of the morning hour. Outside, the clouds still wore the dark grey of twilight behind the dense showers. There were no cries or roars. Just the rain.
"Quite a homecoming, huh, Neddie-boy," Roxton observed, shaking his head thinking about yesterday. "Still, good to have you back."
Malone folded his arms on the table, grinning. "It's good to be back."
"We've..." Veronica's cold tone dissolved the camaraderie. "We've got a few things to discuss. Not to belittle Marguerite's experience and Challenger's intellect but I wanted to talk with just you and Malone first." Elbows on the table, she rested her chin on her folded hands, trying to compose her thoughts. "First, do you truly believe Finn has been returned to her own time?"
"I do." From the corner of his eye, Roxton identified the one or two things Finn had added in the room. "Like I said yesterday, I think whatever that darkness was... It sent...would that be the word... or transported her back." The hunter shrugged his frustration. "This is more Challenger's area of expertise. I think that darkness returned everything that wasn't supposed to be here. Yeah, I know dinosaurs are extinct, but they were here when we got here. And we brought Finn to our time. So like the Spaniards and the lady, even Maple-White, Finn was returned to where she was supposed to be. Think about it, the darkness only appeared on the plateau. Whatever George and Marguerite encountered, there wasn't the darkness. Maybe these time things are random, but that darkness yesterday was not."
"I agree," Veronica stated emphatically. "I'm not sure if the professor is convinced yet. But we don't have time to argue with him or go looking for Finn if she's not on the plateau." She played her words back in her mind. "I don't mean to sound callous, but I feel she's gone." It had been easy to like Finn. They got along right away, not like it was with Marguerite. After three years with Marguerite, their relationship should have been something more, but it was barely friendship.
Roxton glanced toward the staircase to the lab. "I think he's accepted it. The scientist in him saw the logic, his heart just refused to heed it. With everything else, I never noticed they had grown that close." He tried to rationalize his guilt. "We're talking about George Challenger for God's sake. He seldom shows an interest in people. Maybe I just never looked for it."
"So," Malone returned to their original discussion, "since they didn't mention anything about this darkness, our guests arrived after it. As a matter-of-fact, they must have barely missed running into Challenger." Opening one of his journals, Malone urged, "You need to tell Roxton all of what you saw, Veronica."
"Yesterday," she checked the darkened hallway behind Roxton. "I'm sure that was my mother's voice. Don't ask me how. I just know it." The woman took a deep calming breath. "Yesterday I mentioned seeing a desk with papers on it. Well, that was only a half truth. I could read one of the pages. It was titled 'A History of the plateau.' By Arthur Summerlee."
"Are you saying Summerlee's alive?" Roxton stammered. "After all this time?"
Veronica slid the journal to him. "This is the best I could reconstruct of what I read."
Roxton read it once, then again. "I don't even know what this means."
"I remember reading in the paper back home about a continent called Atlantis. Got me curious enough to follow-up with a little more research." The reporter ticked off a dubious list of facts. "It was supposed to be a missing continent. It sank..."
"Honestly, I don't care." Roxton slammed shut the journal. "This doesn't answer any questions about yesterday. It doesn't tell us anything about those arrivals back there who, may I remind you, are supposed to kill one of us."
"I've thought about what you and Marguerite said yesterday." Malone glanced at Veronica, noting the dark circles under her blood-shot eyes, her skin pale from exhaustion. "If this darkness was probing, looking for something..."
"Someone," he corrected. Again Roxton glanced over his shoulder at the darkened hallway. He considered each of the strangers in the rooms. "The search was for someone. Think about it, this voice said it knew you, Malone, and you didn't get your insides rearranged."
Veronica looked from Malone to Roxton. "Why didn't it know you, Roxton?"
The Lord of Avebury considered his ancestor and what would have happened if he had been there in addition to his mistress. "I wish I knew. When you see your mother, ask her."
A sound from Challenger's lab brought them to their feet. Malone led them to a farther corner of the balcony. "Veronica, there's so much we don't know right now. But we do know the group with your grandmother arrived well after the darkness. Challenger stated he arrived back on the plateau at the arch. But they didn't see him. It took me maybe ten minutes to get from the tree to the arch. And I didn't hear any shots fired."
Veronica waved Malone quiet. All three listened for a moment.
"So, let's make the leap and assume this darkness was looking for them." The reporter continued. "If it had found them, it would have returned them to wherever they came from."
Roxton folded his arms. The humidity from the rain had dampened with sweat the fresh shirt he wore. "And now we're faced with what to do with them. "
Malone straightened. "And that's something we all should agree upon."
"Before we release them from Summerlee's room, I want to..." Veronica's thoughts tumbled over themselves. "My mother... what is the Protector?" Her fingers ran nervously along the outline of the trion around her neck. "Do you think they're one and the same?"
"The protector," Malone offered hesitantly. "I heard the words 'the Protector' mentioned but not limited to a protector of the plateau. It was much broader and was always referred to as a she."
"Broader, Ned? What do you mean?" Veronica heard in her mind her mother's voice again... 'See'.
"The Curat tribe had a word. It meant protector of the world." Malone winced at the skepticism forming on Roxton's face. "They were really the only ones who had a mythology attached to her. Something else," Malone stared down at his boots. "We've got to consider about our guests. What if this Jack was the only assassin? And the others might be inno..."
"No," Roxton snapped. "Morris knew about it. I think we can agree Vanessa was his girlfriend so she was privy to it. We can't accept either of them as innocent. I'm sure Marguerite's going to make a case against your grandmother."
"Why?" Veronica demanded. "I know I haven't spoken with her much, but that woman is my grandmother."
"So? We treat her differently because she's your grandmother?" Roxton turned away, his thoughts preventing him from looking either in the face. In case they guessed those thoughts. "Veronica, just because someone is related to you doesn't make them incapable of harming you." His voice softened as he tried to speak temperately. "Say what you want about Marguerite, but she can read people. It's how she's survived all these years. And I watched her last night. She wasn't convinced by your grandmother..."
"No," Veronica cut him off angrily. "Family doesn't do that to one another."
Roxton frowned. His family, his mother had thrown him out when he needed her the most. He knew exactly what family was capable of. "You have no idea what family will do. Good and bad. You can't exclude your grandmother from the list."
A loud listless groan arose from the kitchen area. They turned to see Marguerite collapse into a chair. "There's no coffee," she whined.
Malone left Roxton and Veronica glaring at each other. Patting Marguerite on her back, he tried unsuccessfully not to laugh. "Sorry. I'll start it right now."
She leaned forward and pressed her forehead against the cool wood of the table. "Tell me when it's ready."
The pile of breakfast dishes teetered precariously in the sink. Marguerite nursed her third cup of coffee. Hers was the only contented face among the group.
"We have a problem," Roxton began. "One or more of you have been sent to kill one or more of us." He folded his arms, studying each person, examining their posture, their expressions, looking for anything that might reveal precisely who, so they wouldn't have to... "And we have no idea what to do with you."
As if in answer, thunder shook the tree house. Around them the rain pounded plants, trees, dirt. Malone set the water bucket by the sink. "No one's going out in that. Even the dinosaurs have taken refuge," Malone observed. "Listen. No roars, no screams. Just rain." He filled the sink and left the dishes to soak.
Challenger peered at the sky. "Fascinating. The monsoons aren't due for another three months and while we are accustomed to the daily showers..." Another clap of thunder sent the scientist stumbling back a few steps. "They're nothing like this."
Morris joined Challenger at the rail. "I hate rain." He shoved his hands in his pockets. "You spend the next two days tryin' to get your weapons cleaned and dry."
Peeling another banana, Vanessa ate slowly, savoring each bite. "I've never had so much fruit in me life." On her first toss, the peel landed in the garbage pail. "Jack and I went to Brighton Beach a coupla months ago. We bought ice cream there and they had peaches you could top it with. I'd never had peaches. Came from America."
"Hey, there wouldn't be a deck of cards around here?" Morris flexed his fingers. "I'll even play solitaire if no one else is interested." Raising his hands in the air, Morris locked his eyes on Roxton's face. "Unless you're gonna shoot us now."
Vanessa dropped her third banana back into the bowl. "What? None of us got answers. Miss Veronica, you gonna shoot your own grandmother?"
The granddaughter rolled her eyes. "No one's going to shoot anybody."
Marguerite let out an unladylike snort as she passed Mrs. Layton. "Not at the moment."
"Marguerite, you're not helping things." Challenger grunted, disappearing into his lab. A moment later he returned with a worn deck of playing cards bound in string. "I believe they're all there," he observed, handing it to the guest.
Morris picked at the knot until it gave way. "Any takers?" After no response, he returned to the table. A quick shuffle later, he laid out a solitaire board.
"Vanessa," Marguerite touched a card Morris had neglected to move. "What did you and Jack talk about when you were at Brighton?"
The woman laughed. "We didn't do much talkin'." She noticed the disapproving look from Mrs. Layton. "We went there for the fresh air. Lots of walkin' and swimmin' in the ocean."
Marguerite leaned over Morris and pointed to another card the man had missed. "There wasn't a time when you weren't breathing in that fresh air... maybe when you ate?"
"I do remember one day we'd spent - uh – outside. I had a nice stew cookin' all afternoon. We took it down to the dock. There was some other families there and we all shared our meals. As the kiddies got sleepy, there was an old mother who told a bunch of stories and fairy tales. She told one I'd never heard... something about a knight, his beloved and death. I remember this 'cause as we're walkin' back to the house, well Jack was a little drunk, and he kept goin' on about that story bein' all wrong." She shook her head in recollection. "He just kept complainin'. On and on. I just thought it a bit odd that he kept goin' on about a silly fable."
"I know that one." Relaxing onto the bench, Marguerite tapped her lips trying to recall how it went. "That's one you don't hear too often. Let's see, Once upon a time..."
"Oh good Lord, Marguerite," Challenger interrupted. "You aren't really going to waste our time with that rubbish."
Malone stretched in his chair. "You got something else to do, Professor? Maybe a hike to the windmill?"
Rain dripped from nearby leaves onto the floor. Roxton snapped off the vine and tossed it over the railing, then returned to the table. He wedged himself between the corner of the bench and Marguerite.
"I'll just do the shortened version, George," she offered, drumming her fingers on the table top. "Once upon a time there were two great kingdoms side-by-side on a vast island. One of the castles rested at the center of rich farm land; the other castle set midst cliffs and rocks next to a turbulent sea. These two peoples had been at war since memory and soon memory was all they'd be, so few were their young. At last the two kings met in a great hall in the castle by the sea, their advisors behind them, all murmuring of peace. They settled on a marriage. One of the sons to one of the daughters. They would meet and choose amongst themselves. The kings were weary and old and ready for the excuse of a treaty. So into the hall came the sons and daughters of the two royal families. The royalty studied and examined and shook their heads, quickly returning to their families... until two remained. Love at first sight those watching whispered as the maiden and the knight walked toward each other. 'My lords,' he spoke, 'I will take this honor, if the lady will but take me.'
"She was the ward of the king, the daughter of his general who died in battle but 5 years ago. 'I will have you as my king commands, my people need and I desire with all my heart.' The great hall erupted in applause from all save one... the king's second born had only known war and enjoyed it too much to allow it to end.
"The knight remained at the side of his beloved discovering how little they had in common and how much joy they shared in that knowledge. Finally in the late afternoon, he took his leave only to face the prince and his men who locked the knight in the dungeon below.
"The maiden stole from the castle to the knight's king and told him what had befallen her beloved. But instead of coming to her aid they packed what they could carry and fled the enemy's land. The maiden could only return to her room with no hope of her lover's rescue.
"As the days turned to weeks, the knight observed from his cell's narrow window as his king returned with war machines instead of tents and trade goods. He knew he would be the first to die in this latest war. His jailers had boasted the next day's sun would begin their victory. He waited the night for his death, his thoughts not on the glory of battle but of the soft lips he had only kissed once. Midnight brought the sound of a key in the lock. It was but the third time he'd seen her, yet even in this blackest night he felt her love surround him. No words passed as he followed her through hallways and up stone stairs. Finally a door stood open before them; a cold wind carried the smell of the sea.
"The prince blocked their way. In but a second, he thrust his sword at the knight. But its blade found the chest of the maiden. 'You cannot part us.' With a great blow, the knight slammed the prince into the stone walls, his broken form slipping down his own blood onto the floor.
"'He cannot part you from me,' the knight swore over and over. His kingdom had great healers who knew herbs and magic. He but had to reach them. Into his arms he lifted her and ran into the coming dawn. The arms he clutched grew cold, too cold from merely the night. In grief he fell to his knees, holding his beloved, unwilling to part from her.
"A fellow soldier walked by. 'Kill me,' he begged.
"The solder said, 'No, you are too fine a knight. Come help us defeat the enemy.'
"The knight doesn't move, doesn't let his beloved go.
"As the army drew closer to the castle and away from him, a group of women and children fled the castle.
"'Kill me,' he begged.
"One of the women was the girl's cousin. 'No, you are why she is dead. You must suffer a life without her,' replied the woman, running to the shelter of the rocks.
"As the soldiers readied their weapons in the great field behind him, a strange man came walking through the dust left from the animals and men and war machines filling the battlefield.
"'Kill me,' the knight begged.
"The man pushed back his hood revealing the face of Death. 'Why should I? You're a knight so you'll be joining me soon enough.'
"'Let it be now,' the knight whispered. 'Kill me.'
'''I am feeling generous,' Death smiled relishing the numbers he'd be gathering soon. 'What is one or two more to me today? I shall not kill you but return the maid's soul to you. Yet you must consider this: once you have been denied death, then you shall live forever. Together, always together. Here shall be your graves, but you shall never fill them. What say you?'
"'Yes,' he stammered, love clouding his judgment.
"'Yes,' sounded a raspy voice from the corpse he held.
"Death watched as the lovers kissed; he laughed heartily, for he knew nothing of true love and thought he had bestowed a torment not a gift. Waiting upon their graves together, the couple aged and withered but alive they remained in each others' arms, never knowing the touch of death... only the caress of love.
"And to this day they sit at their graves in eternal love."
Malone stretched in his chair, wiping his eyes as though half asleep. "I've never heard that one. Well told. The Brothers Grimm would be proud."
"Well, it's ridiculous." Challenger grumbled. "After a period of time, there'd be nothing left for them to hold. And imagine the enfeebled mind of someone hundreds of years old. And did they eat? You have to have some sort of nourishment..."
"Good grief, George," Marguerite rolled her eyes. "It's a fable. A fable of true love."
Scratching her head, Vanessa's face pinched in thought. "That's real sweet, Miss Krux, but that ain't the version I heard from Jack. Later that night, he told the tale like his mother told him. He said it was passed down for generations, a regular piece of folklore. He'd been pretty drink that night and he repeated that tale over and over." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Funny, his words never changed. They were the same each time he told it. And he musta repeated it seven times." Her eyes assessed Marguerite. "Only he didn't start with 'once upon a time', he starts it with 'back when Stonehenge was new'."
Her eyes closed in concentration as she recited the tale. "There was two clans, one lived in a beautiful land where they had everything they wanted as they wove the spells to bind the world and time; the other clan existed outside the beautiful land where time and the world drifted apart, wanton and distorted as us, its people. The other clan's magic reset time, pressing it back upon the world before it reached the doors to the beautiful land. As the outside world aged and warped, as time's rogue waves twisted the world, the second clan begged for admittance to the beautiful land. Just to rest. Just to be equals again. But the first clan refused their pleas for they knew these others and their magic had become as warped as the land they lived in. Their magic no longer held the power to bind, it only relished the power of time. These others finally exclaimed, 'We will guard the entrances no more, we will abandon the doors and let time's calamity into your beautiful world.'
"The first clan gathered in terror. The queen calmed them, explaining they could stop the eruptions at their doors. They would create a buffer between the two worlds which would hold time's ripples. And so through their magic they did, a place where the imbalance of the world, where time itself flowed and ebbed, in and out of darkness.
"Now... the other clan realized they weren't necessary anymore; they were abandoned to our world. And soon... they battered the doors, craving the more powerful magic of the beautiful world. Over and over the battles broke out between the two clans, fierce and costly to their world and ours. In a desperate gamble, the queen delivered to the others a key that will allow them entry if among them was magic greater than hers. 'Here is the key to the door of the land,' she told them, 'come, come in when you can use it.' From then on, every winter's solstice, the others gathered from across the world at the doors and all, old and young, would test their magic upon the key. The doors ne'er opened.
"Years pass, then at one of the gatherings a child is born, her wail echoed around the stones as the sun disappeared, its last ray overcome by the darkness. The mid-wife carried the babe to the clan leaders for them all to see. She was marked, this little baby. And from then on the clan waited, waiting for her magic to grow, her strength to peak, knowing she would open the door. Every year her small fingers held the key to the door. It shuddered but wouldn't open. The others would leave to let another year pass.
"The maid's twelfth birthday approached and as always the first clan lay siege to the doors, ready if they should have to fight back the others. On that day, as the sun yielded to night, the girl touched the key to the door. It opened.
"There was no victory for either side through the many days of slaughter. Magic can draw blood as easily as any sword. In desperation the queen constructed a special door only she could command. She sent through her general and his brothers and their sons, with orders to seize the girl and return to the queen; for she knew what the mark foretold - not only of power, but of eternity. As the battle raged between the clans, the general disobeyed his ruler and didn't flee with the girl to the archway where his queen waited. He returned to the battle to fight with his men, leaving but his youngest son to guard the maid, ordering him, 'If we lose the fight, you will kill her, for the door must seal and she must not open it again. Her people cannot come inside.'
"The general's warriors lost that day, as one by one they were slaughtered. His youngest son sat beside the maid watching cousins, then uncles, then his father fall. Somehow the queen managed to close the door, yet the victors were not concerned for they still possessed the key and the one who could power it.
"Cries of triumph found their way to the cave. The boy and the maid listened to the joy carried by the wind. The maid knew what he was about to do. She voiced one request: hold her hand so she didn't die alone. The boy knelt beside her as he entwined their fingers. Then, as his father had instructed, he plunged the knife into her heart. Still gripping her tightly, the boy waited for his death as the others approached the cave.
"It was his eldest brother who entered first, bringing the stench of battle and death. 'No,' he denied. 'We should ne'er have listened to our father. We should have taken the maid to our queen. Now our family is shamed and our people doomed. This maid was marked with the curse of life. Over and over will she live. Again and again will she help her people to open the doors. My brother, youngest of us all, you must shoulder the burden and stop her. You must follow her in death and life. Protect us from her.' His strength waning, he dropped to his knees before his brother.
"'But I have no magic,' the youth cried out.
'"Use the gift our mother gave you: the purest heart. Through this you can love, even some other as this maid.' His gloved hand pressed gently on her blood soaked chest. 'And in that heart find forgiveness for me.' With a swift yank, he freed the knife from the maid, then he plunged it into his brother's chest. 'Her blood is yours. I curse you to her.' Yanking the blade from his brother, he returned it into the maid. 'His blood is yours. I curse you to him.' The youngest brother fell dead across the small frail form, still clutching her hand.
"On a single funeral pyre the others burnt the two youths, leaving their fingers still locked. They would learn patience for they knew she would return.
"And return she does, to seek the door and with her magic allow entrance to the others. And near is always the boy, as he attempts to stop her with the only tool he has against her magic: a pure heart and the eternal love that has grown for her within it.
"And that's where Jack ended it." Vanessa reached for her water cup.
Challenger nodded. "Better. At least in this version they receive new bodies."
"So why," the reporter questioned, "did the queen want the little girl in her realm?"
"Because," Mrs. Layton explained, "the queen knew the maid would be reborn and if she could reach the girl, then she could control her magic. Maybe even steal the magic of rebirth."
Chuckling his skepticism, Challenger scratched the day's beard on his chin. "You certainly read a lot into this tale, madam."
Mrs. Layton shrugged off his misgivings, turning toward Roxton. "You seemed rather surprised by the story, Lord Roxton. I heard this when I was near Avebury one spring on a class trip. I thought it part of the local lore. Something most school children would know."
"I never attended local schools, madam." He had heard it once. One of the stable boys recited it for William years ago; Roxton had hidden in one of the horse stalls, listening.
It was different hearing it on the plateau.
Different after having met the Spanish woman.
Different when thinking about himself and Marguerite.
Marguerite's continued aid to Morris' solitaire games brought out the cribbage boards. Mrs. Layton refused the offer to participate in such a low-brow game so the woman departed the table, moving her chair away from the noise to a nook near the kitchen hearth. Vanessa admitted she didn't understand the rules and joined Mrs. Layton. The two made an odd couple; the prim woman in rigid posture contrasting with the slouching, legs crossed "assistant". Marguerite fought the temptation to play, positioning herself at an advantage to observe all the players. That left Malone, Roxton and Morris alternating boards. After losing every game and quickly, Ned, who considered himself a decent card player, quickly realized he was playing against competitors out to win, not enjoy the game. Then again, each one won the game they were the dealers in.
After a while, Malone disappeared into the lab, returning with Challenger and several candles. Two he added to the three already on the table, one he set next to Veronica. "This rain just won't let up." He lit the candle, watching the shadows form around her. "You need company?"
"No, I want to finish this." She smiled absently, pointing at the paper on her artist's board.
"Come on, Malone!" Challenger sat down irritably. "You said you needed another player."
"You know," he whispered, "I used to believe it was Marguerite who cheated. Now, I'm leaning toward Roxton." With a wink and a smile, Ned returned to the game.
The candle provided her just enough light to continue her sketching. How many sketches of Malone had she done after his departure and through the weeks he was gone? This was only her first of Finn. There would be many more as she'd try to capture all her friend's moods and expressions. This was how she grieved. Veronica let go a long sigh; she did want to speak with Ned. Actually she'd decided she wanted to kiss him again. Another sigh escaped her. She couldn't help but look glance over at him. He was...
A frowning narrow form suddenly blocked her view. Still in her khaki skirt and top from yesterday, her grandmother stood before her, wrinkled hands folded around each other, her dull brown eyes shattering Veronica's thoughts of Malone.
"Perhaps we need to advance from the staring part of the reunion to the conversation portion." She didn't wait for her granddaughter to respond, instead walking to her side, craning to see the drawing. "This must be the elusive Finn."
A reply still wasn't allowed as the woman continued. "Both your parents were very accomplished artists. Tom mostly limited his talents to architectural plans, but I have sketches he'd completed while at university. One he framed for me as a Christmas gift. It hangs over the mantle in my bedroom."
Veronica leaned her board against the chair, checking it faced away from the mist carried by the storm's wind. "I have several drawings my mother did of the plant life here. I thought they were very good."
"Your mother wasn't bad. I have one or two of her drawings in a drawer at my home. I recall your mother started a botany class at university. Your mother didn't finish but did illustrate some articles for a few professors."
Veronica held her breath, resisting any urge to comment on the woman's tone, her use of "your mother" instead of her name. Even if they were lies, someone was talking about her parents as living people. "Why didn't you come with them to South America?" She stood, offering her elder the chair and taking a place on the bench near the damp air.
"I wasn't invited." Mrs. Layton sat stiff in the chair, her hands clenched in her lap. "They traveled for almost four months unchaperoned and unmarried to the Orient to negotiate with some criminal. I should have accompanied them, but I was told it was too dangerous. Tom divulged so little about her. Only that he loved her. That was his answer for any concern of mine." There was no attempt to mask the bitterness in her voice. "That he loved her so much he would give up everything to be with her. That wasn't how it was done. Who was she to ask that of a promising young man? To go live in a desolate place like South America. I would never have presumed..." The woman lapsed into a silence of painful memory.
"How did you find out my father had died?"
"A telegram," she fumed, looking away. "How modern."
"How did you know my name?"
"I received a single letter from him. Imagine my surprise when it was postmarked Avebury. He stated they had arrived safely and were building their home. Your mother had delivered a baby girl and they had chosen to name her Veronica. I have no idea as to the origin of the name. He didn't write about seeing me again in London for a visit nor did he invite me to visit them. I knew I'd lost him then." Smoothing the wrinkles in her skirt, she continued, unsuccessfully hiding her caustic tone. "Of course twelve years later, I found out I had truly lost him."
Abruptly she rose, "I am tired. I wish to rest."
Veronica quickly stammered out another question. "Did they..."
"Miss Krux." Mrs. Layton demanded attention through her close proximity to Marguerite. "Please walk me to my cell. I wish to lie down."
Veronica caught the stare of her grandmother. No emotion showed on either woman's face.
"Did you tuck the woman in?" Roxton found Marguerite in his room, sitting on the rickety chair. Though her eyes fixed on the thick blanket of rain outside the window, he knew that wasn't what she saw.
"You can't blame her. Coming from England to this place, the humidity, the rain, I can imagine it'd be a hard adjustment on someone of her years. I know Summerlee felt his age here." She finally looked at him. "There have been plenty of times I wanted a nap."
"Me too." The Englishman chuckled, leaning on the window sill. A thick branch over the window offset much of the rain. Only a light haze drifted into the room.
"So has anyone come up with a plan yet? Are we going to send them off into the jungle with no weapons? Hurl them into a volcano?"
"No one knows what to do, Marguerite."
"Well, you know they've probably come to kill Veronica. If we went to the Zanga with the three of them, Assai would deal with it."
"May I ask you a question?"
"I just gave you my suggestion," she snapped.
"I don't want to know your plan for our visitors' fate." He turned around to face her, observing her keenly as he spoke next. "I want to know what the young man looked like who rescued you from that cave."
She inhaled sharply, her eyes darting around the room. Quickly she bolted toward the door. "I guess I should offer my suggestion to Veronica..."
Roxton grabbed her arm and pulled her back into the chair. "Let me tell you about the pirate lady I saw. She was beautiful with her black hair and grey eyes." He fingered an out-of-place strand about her face. "Eyes like yours set in a face like yours. Even that annoying little grate to her voice was there, just like yours when you're angry." He leaned in closer. "And something I neglected to mention, she walked up to me like we were old friends. It wasn't until she kissed me that she realized I wasn't her Captain Roxton."
"So? You told me you resembled your ancestor."
"Marguerite, there's family resemblance and then there's..."
Again she stood, trying to escape to the door. "Oh, good grief, Roxton. You believe that embellished tripe Vanessa spouted? It was a story. A legend... of which there are many about Avebury."
"What did he look like?" he demanded in a low voice, spinning her back around to face him.
The expression she wore twisted with anger and fear. "You," she flashed. "He looked like you. You before you'd shot your brother. You before you heard the shot from your father's study. You." She wrenched herself from his hold. "And before you ask your next question, yes, I looked into my own eyes. And what I saw then was no different from what I see now in the mirror." She pressed her palms hard against her eyes. "Something trying to get out." When she dropped her hands away, her eyes were red, her face was pale. "I always wondered what you saw in me. Now I've an answer; it isn't me, but some predestined bond. Well, isn't that romantic."
He didn't try to stop her as she fled the room and him.
Ned was the last person she expected to see. "I saved you two eggs. They need to be cooked. Come on. I'll scramble 'em for you." He stepped into the narrow room. Trunks and suitcases, most belonging to the Layton expedition, a few to the Challenger expedition, lined the walls. The woman sat on a quilt spread over a portion of the floor. Malone extended his hand. "Everybody is locked up or tucked in. And I'll have you know I had to hide those eggs from Challenger. Did no one feed him while I was gone?"
"Since Arthur left, you're been the best cook of us all." Her smile turned into an exasperated sigh as the man didn't budge from his spot. "You won't leave me alone if I don't come with you."
He pulled her to her feet. "And Roxton won't leave me alone until you come to the kitchen and eat."
"Well, you tell Lord Roxton," she vented, "That..."
Malone nudged her forward into the pitch black of the narrow hall. The rain had quit, but the clouds lingered covering the stars.
"What time is it?" Marguerite barked, indecisive on whom to unleash her anger. A soft touch moved along her hip. "I'm moving. You don't have to get pushy."
"What?" Ned asked, surprise edging his question.
Abruptly fingers dug into the material of her skirt and her flesh. They tried to pull her to the right. She flung herself to the left. "Ned!"
Malone felt the arm reach past him. Quickly he slammed himself into Marguerite and in front of the intruder.
Marguerite hit the wall, an oath smashed out of her. As she grabbed Malone to steady herself, her fingers slipped on the warm blood flowing down his arm. "Roxton!"
Too many people crammed into the small space. A myriad of voices demanded who shouted? What was wrong? Who was awake at such an hour?
"Everyone shut up!" Marguerite screamed as she and Malone sank to the floor.
Veronica thrust a lantern into the darkness. "Ned!" Immediately she realized their guests were out of their rooms.
Roxton deliberately and loudly chambered a round into his rifle. "You two, back into your room. You too, Mrs. Layton." He aimed at the clump of persons standing in front of a door that should have been lashed closed. At their feet were pieces of rope. Cut.
Without protest, Morris backed his fellow prisoner into their cell. Lorraine returned to her room, almost stepping on Malone.
Veronica stooped over Ned.
"It's just a cut. You don't have to make such a fuss," he winced, allowing the two women to help him to his feet.
"George, get some more rope," Roxton ordered, his rifle still aimed. "I have a feeling the ones we used to tie them up have also been cut." From the corner of his eye he saw Marguerite retrieve a knife from the floor. "Looks like we missed one," he mumbled through clenched teeth. Suddenly his eyes fell on the blood on her shirt. "You alright?"
"Marguerite," he slackened his grip on the rifle, turning to the woman. "I..."
She displayed the knife, her cold voice interrupted him. "Is this one of yours?"
"No," he stated, defeated.
"I'd better check with Malone. He might have picked this up on his travels."
Veronica let the cold water flow down his arm into a bowl.
"See, I told you it's just a scratch."
Marguerite continued to scrub at the blood stain on her blouse. "If it's just a scratch how come there's so much blood on my shirt? I'm never going to get all this out."
"You're welcome for me saving your life."
"You can't say for certain it was me they were..."
"You said someone grabbed you..."
"But they could have been moving me out of the way to get to you..."
"Honestly." Veronica dropped the cloth into the basin and uncorked the antiseptic. "Next time let's hope they do a better job so you two won't have anything to argue about."
"This is gonna hurt," Malone inhaled sharply. He took the opportunity to clutch her hand.
"Big baby," Veronica teased. Taking another cloth she gently dabbed it along the cut. "Stitches..." she proposed.
"Are not needed." His fingers relaxed but continued to hold hers.
The water only made the stain worse. "I'm going to change." Marguerite filled a bowl with water and carried it to her temporary quarters. Sitting it on an old crate, the woman dipped her hands and covered her face. The cold water mixed with her tears. Angrily she yanked off her shirt and hurled it on the floor. There was always something coming between them. Some stupid thing she'd say; an inane comment he'd make. Dinosaurs. Cannibals. Amazons. She managed a quiet laugh before more tears started. How could she be mad at Roxton for asking the questions she was asking herself? Vanessa's story was a fable, like an English lord falling in love with a ... what was she? Marguerite let go an exasperated laugh. What wasn't she? Folding the linen rag, her trembling fingers dipped it in the water, cleansing her arm, then her face.
"Veronica said you'd probably need this shirt from the laundry." Roxton placed the neatly folded garment next to the bowl.
"Thank you." She kept her back to him. Apologizing for her took planning, otherwise she'd garble the words and make things worse.
"You missed a spot." He slipped the cloth from her hand and ran it along the back of her arm. "Let me lift your hair," he whispered. Slowly he rubbed along the back of her neck, moving down her back. For a moment the feel of the cloth vanished, then she felt it again as it slipped beneath the back of her camisole. The cool sensation moved along her spine.
"Roxton," her voice was a hoarse whisper. "I'm sorry."
The tips of his fingers replaced the cloth, touching her cool damp skin.
"Hey," Malone paused in the doorway, "Veronica wants everyone in the main area."
"Lovely," the woman hissed. "Malone's back and he brought his rotten timing."
Chuckling, Roxton brushed his lips against her temple. "I'll have a talk with the lad about the fine art of knocking."
The man paused outside Summerlee's door.
"Lord Roxton, please!" Vanessa called again.
Cautiously Roxton eased the door open, letting his eyes adjust to the dark, ready for an ambush. Both prisoners still sat bound in the two chairs.
"Lord Roxton, Please. I can't…" she looked hysterically about her. "Please. Untie me. There's a lot more no one's told ya."
"Shut up, Vanessa," Morris growled, jerking his bonds as he tried to reach her. "Shut up!"
"I'll explain everythin'. At least what I know. I just want to go home." Her plea continued in a sob. "Please."
"You believe her?" Marguerite snorted, her hand on his arm holding the English lord back.
"Lies are better than nothing," he whispered.
Carefully circling her chair, Roxton stooped slightly and untied the knot that bound her to the chair. He left her hands tied.
"If you believe her, Lord Roxton," Morris snarled, "you're not as smart as I thought you were."
Roxton pulled Vanessa to her feet, then prodded her out of the room and down the hallway.
Marguerite paused in the doorway, listening to the remaining prisoner's breathing. Each breath was deliberate, not in anger but in thought. "You ready to talk?" she wondered aloud.
"I'm workin' up to it." His voice became a whisper. "Watch her."
Marguerite joined the others in the main room. Vanessa was already in a chair, talking.
"Babbling," Challenger griped at Malone. He sat down after Veronica shushed him again.
"I didn't have nothin' to do with that stabbin'," Vanessa declared.
"Then who stabbed Malone?" Veronica asked folding her arms as she leaned over the frantic woman.
"You searched me yourself. I didn't have a knife," she insisted using her whole body. "Did you check Morris? Kathy told me he hides things in places decent folk would never check."
"Vanessa," Roxton consoled. "Why don't you start at the beginning when you met Jack White."
"That's a good idea. When I first met Jack. Yeah." Vanessa relaxed, smiling at the memory. "He shows up at the pub I work at. I'm a servin' girl." Quickly she assessed the expressions around her. "A waitress. Then when the pub closes, I cleanup. I know what you're thinkin' but I'm no prostitute. My momma told me about the Ripper and..."
"Jack White," Roxton interrupted. "When did you two meet?"
"Oh, yeah. Sorry. I got a case of the nerves. One night I seen this nice lookin' man..."
Marguerite quit listening to Vanessa's high pitched prattle. Her thoughts drifted back to something else: the tin box. Everyone's attention had been diverted by the photographs. No one had actually examined the box. She knew the potential of a box for hiding things.
From the corner of his eye, Roxton caught Marguerite's silent exit from the main room. A firm tap on Malone's shoulder sent him following her.
The pseudo-retired thief heard Ned's footsteps behind her. She motioned for him to dim the lantern he held. Barely drawing the curtain back, Marguerite allowed just enough light into her room to reveal what she was looking for. Mrs. Layton slept quietly on the bunk. Marguerite doubted she was actually asleep, but if she remained still, there was no need to bring her into the main room yet. The tin box sat on the makeshift vanity. All of her things had been stacked or shoved to one side, permitting the tin a place of its own. Lifting it carefully and keeping it level, Marguerite carried it into the main room.
Vanessa's unceasing whine continued. Challenger contemplated aloud to himself how the woman breathed while talking nonstop. The scientist glanced at his watch again.
Marguerite yanked open the tin, removing the remaining photo and pocket watch.
Vanessa's narration of her fourth date with Jack trailed into silence as she realized her audience had turned their attention to something on the table.
"Ned," Marguerite glanced around the room. "Where's the knife?"
The reporter retrieved it from a cabinet beneath the gun rack.
Marguerite held out the tin box."Put it in here."
Malone placed it diagonally. Behind him came a gasp from Veronica. It fit with little room to spare. "But we'd have seen..."
"Take it out," Marguerite directed, her lips closing in a tight frown. Turning the empty box upside down she dropped it several inches onto the solid wooden tabletop. Tapping the bottom for added measure as she lifted it, something thunked onto the tabletop. Lying on the false bottom were two pieces of paper. "Now we know where the knife was."
Malone retrieved the old telegraph. "Lorraine Tom is gone." The reporter read. "Killed defending Veronica and me. Hard to go on, but I have my duty. I know you loved him too. Your good friend Abigail."
"Your good friend," Marguerite echoed, livid.
Challenger unfolded the other paper. It was a drawing. He read the inscription. "May our daughters be as lovely as their mother and godmother. Love Tom."
Veronica whispered her angst. "She's not my grandmother."
A shadow blended into the dark night. As did the brown blanket wrapped around her. No one noticed her slip from the hallway to the gun rack by the elevator.
"She's not my grandmother!" Veronica accused, betrayed and hurt.
"No, I am not," the godmother spat. A twitter of laughter followed her words. "And thank God for that." The cocking of a pistol followed her words. "No one move. You have your wrists loosened yet, Vanessa?"
"Yes." The girl stood next to her chair smirking at the fools in front of her. "Malone has your knife," she warned.
"Yes." Lorraine took careful aim at her closest target: Veronica. "Toss it gently to the side, Mr. Malone. You've been nothing less than a gentleman, don't change now."
The knife clattered on the wood floor near Vanessa. She snatched it up and slung it over the railing. Grabbing a lantern from the table, she joined Lorraine near the elevator, removing a pistol for herself. The scant lantern light drifted across Lorraine Layton. Her hair hung down past her shoulders, now the color was mostly brown, the grey only visible underneath. Without the frown, her wrinkles disappeared into the well-groomed face of someone barely fifty, not in her sixties.
"Who are you?" Marguerite asked, stalling, hoping a plan would occur to one of them.
"Allow me to answer that." Morris stepped from the black hallway rubbing the rope burn around his wrists. "Lorraine Layton, or at least her family, was a keeper; someone who keeps, houses Amazon boys. Amazon boys such as myself and your father, Miss Veronica."
Roxton tilted his head, listening to the mercenary. Morris' cockney accent had given way to the proper King's English. His eyes caught a glimpse of Marguerite, calmly and keenly observing the situation about her. This was her world: deceit and masks. He didn't like it very much.
"What the devil is an Amazon boy?" Challenger demanded.
"The legends are true about the Amazon tribe abandoning their male babies. But as far back as anyone remembers, the Protector has taken us in. We become her agents, her eyes, ears, and muscle. Some of us leave to get educated in the outside so we can look for them."
"Them?" Ned repeated.
"Oh, do explain," Lorraine sneered. "I'd love to hear your version, the version you were indoctrinated in."
"I believe I'd rather hear yours." Morris edged closer to a rifle propped against the kitchen island. "How does one sugarcoat evil?"
"Let's ask her." Lorraine turned her pistol toward Marguerite. "Come here, Miss Krux."
Roxton blocked her with his arm. "No."
"Vanessa, my dear." Lorraine continued her aim on Marguerite. "Kill Mister Malone."
"Don't, Marguerite," the young man ordered.
"Such a fine virile young man," Lorraine tsked her fake regret. Vanessa took a step closer insuring she wouldn't miss.
"No." Marguerite pushed Roxton's arm away. "Thanks for trying." Pausing beside Malone, she gently touched his chest. "Take care of everyone for me." Malone tried not to react as he felt her fingers slip into his pants' pocket and remove the penknife he always carried there.
In a swift motion, Vanessa rushed forward and yanked Marguerite toward the elevator, sending her stumbling forward.
Lorraine Layton took advantage of the distraction and jerked her new hostage to her, twisting one arm behind her back.
"Ow." Marguerite grimaced and turned as the woman's grip dictated. "You're nobody's grandmother, Mrs. Layton."
"That's Miss Layton to you," the woman scowled. "Time to go, Vanessa."
They backed into the elevator. Vanessa slid the lantern inside. Grabbing all the rifles and gun belts, she tossed them onto the elevator's floor. Holding her pistol out before her, she smiled. "We don't need anyone followin' us." She took aim at John Roxton.
Morris walked deliberately in front of the English Lord. "No!" The impact of the bullet slammed him into the Roxton's arms.
"Roxton!" Marguerite exhaled slowly. As the elevator descended, she watched Roxton lower the wounded man to the floor. "Ladies, I have a feeling we're not going to have a pleasant trip."
The elevator reached the ground. "The pleasantness of our journey, Miss Krux, will be entirely up to you. A short walk down the trail followed by more tedious years on this plateau or a short walk down the trail followed by a quick return to England." Miss Layton shoved her forward. "The choice will be yours."
The choice left Marguerite speechless.
Vanessa wielded the lantern before her like another weapon. It offered little help against the dark night. "What about them dinosaurs?"
"Listen," Lorraine hissed. "You hear anything? Maybe the rain calmed them down. Or they're sleeping. I'm no scientist."
Those paltry guesses did little to allay her terror. Vanessa stepped aside, allowing Marguerite to go first. "Still, we shoulda waited until mornin'."
"Quit your whining, girl. The rain's stopped. The trail's well traveled. We're almost home."
"It's just a flesh wound." Gingerly Morris lifted his arm. Blood colored his shirt sleeve.
Roxton turned toward the elevator. "You three stay with him." Quickly he countered their unspoken arguments. "Ned, you've only one good arm. Veronica, you and George need to take care of our guest."
The resistance came from the guest. "No. I've got to go with you. I just saved your life. You owe me that." As they helped him to his feet, he faced Veronica. "I'll need you to return my trion, Miss Veronica."
"Yours?" It hung around her neck with its brother.
"Yes, ma'am." He looked self-consciously from one face to the next. "I don't know how much I can tell you. Whatever I say is probably too much." Morris only saw Veronica. "Somehow they'd infiltrated our home."
"They. Them again," Malone interrupted angrily.
Morris remained fixed on Veronica. "Your mother couldn't keep you there. Since you father was gone, she didn't know whom to trust. When you wouldn't stay with the Amazons, well, you should know they were always with you. Four of them, every hour of the day and night, were always stationed around the tree house, like points of a compass. Even the queen took a shift. You were never alone."
Veronica sensed the truth in his words and removed the trion from around her neck.
"When we leave home, she…" He stammered for a word. "Calibrates a trion for each of us. Your father had one."
"He really was an Amazon boy?" Veronica whispered.
"Yes. Your mother came to London. He was in school there and was one of us selected to guard her, guide her through London. As I heard it, it was love at first sight. He never left her side after that moment. That was why she could calibrate his trion for Lorraine. He was always with your mother and didn't need it anymore. Lorraine and her family had proven themselves loyal, so it was decided to give her one in case there was an emergency. We didn't realize Lorraine had turned on us. A few years ago four boys never entered the school they were supposed to attend. I discovered their bodies buried in the forest behind her house. She'd joined the others and fled. I've been on her trail ever since. Sorry, I let things play out. Her family had helped us boys for generations. We had to know for sure about Lorraine. Those were the orders from..."
"Veronica." She jumped at Roxton's touch of her arm. "I can't wait any longer. They'll gain too much ground."
Veronica handed Morris the chain and its pendant. "Did you know my father?"
He dropped it in his pocket. "No ma'am. But he was the best of us." The Amazon boy followed Roxton to the elevator snatching up his backpack. He could tell by its weight his pistol and ammunition were still there.
Roxton grabbed his gun belt from the elevator floor then sorted his rifle from the others. "It was Marguerite or me they wanted," he stated to the others as the elevator started down.
"It was you," Morris corrected. "Vanessa's a lousy shot."
Slipping on leaves, tripping over branches, Marguerite tried to slow them down without getting herself shot.
"You got that trion thing?" Vanessa aimed toward every sound from the jungle.
Marguerite let Lorraine shove her, only instead of forward she fell to the ground.
"Get up. Now." She prodded her with a kick on her butt. "You think your English lord is behind us, my dear?"
"You better hope not."
Roxton checked on the man behind him. He kept the lamp low, dangling it just below his knee. "You know these two. Will they kill her or take her with them?" They had enough of a head start; there wasn't a need for silence or darkness yet.
"You know where they're heading?" Morris loaded his pistol as they quickstepped over the damp rotting muck of the jungle floor.
The English Lord slowed, turning to the man, waiting for different directions.
"Oh, we're going to that arch, but we're going because of the trilithon that's there."
The hunter stepped up the pace. "There's not a trilithon there. I spent hours at the stones by Avebury and there's nothing like it near that arch."
Morris chuckled. "You'll see it when you see it, Lord Roxton."
The jungle sweated from the day's rain. Drops dribbled from leaves, drenching them. The three women were soaked by the time they arrived at the arch. Marguerite dropped onto a nearby rock. "You can't use that arch. According to your fable, only The Queen can open that door. Or what was it Challenger said: The Protector sent him through it. His rescuers had trions and they couldn't send him through the arch."
Mrs. Layton nodded, taken aback by Marguerite's sagacity. "Very good. No wonder they want you in one piece. You might… Well, you're perceptive enough to sympathize…"
A roar echoed off the rocks around them. Vanessa spun toward its source. "Can we get the hell outta here?"
"Oh, Vanessa, I'm so sorry. I can only carry one person back with me."
Before she comprehended the words' meaning, Vanessa felt the bullet in her chest. Her will to lift her pistol disappeared as she dropped to jungle floor.
Marguerite leapt on Lorraine Layton, struggling for the pistol. The two stumbled into a rock, then struck the ground. Marguerite's fist halted mid-air as the pistol's muzzle pressed against her thigh.
"Roll off me. Keep your hands in the air." Miss Layton scrambled to her feet. "On your stomach."
"Can't look me in the eye and shoot me?" As she lay on the ground, Marguerite slipped the penknife from her waistband.
"Your choice." Lorraine squinted as she approached a stack of stones to the left of the arch. The pile was dense and high. A casual observer wouldn't have seen it. Off to one side, shadowed by huge tree limbs, their moss coating blending into the jungle, were two stones standing upright with a small stone connecting their tops. From her angle on the ground, Marguerite saw the narrow opening of mere inches, but it was a trilithon.
"Have you considered that choice I gave you?" From her pocket Lorraine Layton produced a chain with a trion dangling.
The penknife lay open in Marguerite's fist. "I -I-"
"Do you want to return to England?" The woman's eyes narrowed, the smile she wore wasn't the prim matriarch's. This one tasted temptation. "England, Marguerite. Think of it. Remember it. Cool evenings. Shops. The symphony. People who would know you and appreciate you."
Roxton had put the lantern out when they heard the shot. He held Morris back in the darkness. They could see the trion between Lorraine's fingers. But he had to hear Marguerite's answer
Marguerite lifted herself on her elbows. "Someone..." Her voice trembled with emotion. She slowly came to her knees. "Someone who would take care of me? Actually care for me?"
"Yes, my girl." Lorraine took a step closer to her, stooping slightly. "Someone, many who will adore you."
"I can get all that here. Thank you." Lunging forward, she drove the blade into the woman's thigh.
An unladylike word on her lips, Lorraine aimed her pistol.
Morris fired. Veronica's godmother crumpled beside her intended victim.
Roxton ran forward, helping a shaken Marguerite to her feet. Morris squatted down beside Lorraine, holding the older woman's wrist for a moment then dropping it onto the dirt. The Amazon boys were avenged.
Marguerite gazed from Vanessa to Lorraine. "Who are these people?"
Unable to provide answers, Roxton placed his arm around her shoulder. To his surprise, she leaned into it, sliding against his chest.
"And what the bloody hell did they want?"
Cautiously, he guided her closer until she turned to him, locking her arms around him.
"They came for you, didn't they?" Her fingers twisted the back of his shirt.
He offered no answer.
Morris handed Layton's stolen pistol to Roxton. "You can't afford to lose these out here. And Miss Veronica might like this since it was her father's." He added the trion to Roxton's open hand. "Well, I must be leaving." An impish grin crossed his lips. "Wish Mister Malone all the luck in the world. I like him. I think Tom would have too."
Marguerite took a small excited step from Roxton. "Wait. Morris. You can take one person back, right?"
Roxton's arm dropped from her, his eyes lowered to the dirt and blood below him.
"Yes ma'am. Only one."
"Roxton?" She tapped his chest. "George? Do you think... His wife... Don't you think he might..."
The man pulled her to him and kissed her.
"Excuse me, folks." Morris gave them another minute before clearing his throat. "I really need to be leaving. And sorry about the Professor, but I've only maybe a fifty-fifty chance of arriving and not facing a rifle aimed at my gut. I hate to drop him into those kind of odds."
"Then don't go," Marguerite shrugged. Roxton's arms remained locked around her, unwilling to risk letting go. "You're welcome to stay with us."
"Tempting as that sounds, I'd never get a moment's peace from Miss Veronica."
"Why would you say that?"
The Amazon boy grinned.
She looked up at Roxton. "Who are these people?"
"I'll explain on the way back." Lord Roxton extended his hand to a trusted friend. "Thank you."
Morris leaned forward. His voice barely a whisper. "Remember that story. They'll always be coming for her. And you better always be in the way. I'd hate for us to have to deal with her."
Roxton watched the regret twist in the man's eyes.
The Amazon boy held his trion up in one hand and locked his cocked pistol in his other. "You both need to leave."
Marguerite's mouth dropped open. "Does everybody have one of those things? Who are these people?"
Returning to her side, Roxton handed her the spare pistol and nudged her toward the trail.
A quick glance over her shoulder and Marguerite brought them to a stop. "He's gone." Around them the jungle bristled with activity as the smell of fresh blood wafted through the night air.
Roxton regarded the woman before him. She had stayed with him. He wanted to stroll home, her hand in his, maybe his arm around her shoulder. She could have returned to England, but she stayed. He wanted to walk like a man without a care in the world with the woman he would do anything for. He was ready to leave this place. He could now risk leaving this place. It was time to get back to England. "I'll take point."
"And you better start talking."
"So, he thought Tom Layton would like me."
The two sat on the bench, leaning back, their elbows propped on the railing. "That's what he said. You take that however you want to."
"Hey, Malone." Veronica paused at the top of the stairs struggling to carry a box that Challenger continued to shout for. "A little help, please."
Roxton slapped the younger man on the back as he rose. "And good luck with it."
That night they introduced Malone to Finn. Veronica propped her sketch against the fruit bowl and described the girl from the future in detail, using words to paint the black and white drawing into color. Everyone shared stories, even Marguerite described her attempts to teach her the King's English.
As they adjourned to their respective bedrooms, Malone repeated for at least the twentieth time, "I wish I had met her."
Roxton laid on his bed listening to the noise around him. Malone plopped on his bed next door, pulling his boots off; whistling in a low breath the tune Veronica had claimed was Finn's favorite. Challenger puttered around in his lab for a few more minutes before retiring and beginning his mostly subdued snores. Only silence ever came from Veronica's room. He guessed she stripped off her clothes and crawled into bed. On the opposite wall Marguerite began her nightly routine of pillow beating and annoyed tossing and turning on the grass-stuffed mattress in a losing battle to get comfortable. Finally she'd drift into a fitful sleep. Once he had heard her call his name.
His sleep was as poor as Marguerite's. After countless nights, the jungle sounds never offered him a rhythm he could listen for and use to lull himself to sleep. And there were the dreams… nightmares mostly. Sometimes he'd just be sitting around a campfire with William and Pierson Rice. Their jokes and laughter would wake him, leaving him sweat covered from hearing his brother's voice.
Tonight's was an old dream; one that hadn't surfaced since he was eleven. The boy stood in the mouth of a cave watching the brave knights fight. One-by-one those wearing the Roxton family crest fell. As three of the enemy converged on William, four more brought his father to his knees before they whacked off his head. Then the mob rushed for him. He turned to the little girl sitting in the dark, her hands and feet tied. She was one of the neighbors' children, the only daughter of the Duke whose estate was next to their own. He'd met her once at a party for her brother. He took her small hand in his, the grey eyes staring at him showing with no fear. Her fingers clutched his. Then he stabbed her. Then he woke up screaming. Every time the dream was the same. After several weeks, his mother considered consulting a physician, but his father emphatically rejected any possibility that his son was "odd"... or that anyone would say so. The entire family had breathed a sigh of relief when the Duke and his household decided to reside permanently in London. After hearing the stable boy's telling, William had shamed him from sharing his dream again, claiming he'd lied and had heard the story. His brother declared he was just being scared like a little baby, not something he dreamt first. After awhile the story and the dream seeped deep into his subconscious. Forgotten.
The English Lord sat on the side of the bed, shaking, trying to push the dream as far from his thoughts as possible. Snatching his dirty shirt from the floor he wiped the beads of sweat from his face and chest.
Tonight he didn't care about the potential repercussions the morning could bring. He needed to sleep. Grabbing his pillow and sheet, Roxton tiptoed into Marguerite's room and lay on the floor next to her bed.
The dried grass crunched as she rolled onto her side. Her hand drifted onto his shoulder.
After a few minutes he fell into a deep restful slumber. This time his dream was little more than a sound, a soft voice promising him forever.