Round 12 – Zakiyah
"Well, well, well," drawled an all-too-familiar voice from the doorway. "I’d say it looks like at least some of your itches have been scratched."
Oh, no. Oh no no no no no Malone slowly turned his head to look back at the doorway, hoping the voice had been some kind of hallucination. A very scantily clad Marguerite stood just inside the room, her lips curved in a Mona Lisa smile and her grey eyes sparkling with unconcealed amusement. He swallowed, his throat suddenly very dry. He felt himself blushing furiously. "Marguerite," he croaked. "This uh this isn’t what it uh looks like "
"Oh, I’d say it’s exactly what it looks like," Marguerite disagreed, stepping closer.
Nearly incoherent from mortification, Malone reflexively crossed his legs, then hastily uncrossed them as the movement caused the blanket to shift, exposing part of his thigh. He looked up at Marguerite beseechingly. " uh please "
Marguerite walked to the head of the bed, drawing the knife that dangled from her belt. "Relax, Malone, I’m here to rescue you. Unless you don’t want to be rescued?" she added with barbed sweetness.
"NO! I mean, yes, please! I mean " He closed his eyes briefly, wishing the ground would open and swallow him whole. "Help?" he whimpered.
The bindings around his left wrist slackened suddenly. "Got it," Marguerite said with satisfaction. "These are tough, but I should have your other arm loose in a minute."
Malone hastily freed his left arm and grabbed onto the blanket, securing it over himself as best as he could and ignoring Marguerite’s form as she leaned over him. Moments later his right arm was free as well. "Thank you," he breathed, tucking the blanket even more securely around his naked form. "Thank you, thank you, thank you..." He was still scarlet, and he didn’t dare look at Marguerite’s face, afraid of the mockery he would see there.
Had he but known it, Marguerite wasn’t paying any attention to him as she quickly hunted around the room. It only took her a few seconds to find what she was looking for. "Here," she called, tossing Malone his clothes. "Hurry up and get dressed."
Dressed At that moment it was the most beautiful word Malone had ever heard. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, then stopped as Marguerite’s continued movements caught his eye. He blushed again. "Uh, Marguerite "
She turned back to him inquiringly. "Yes?"
"Could I have a little privacy?"
A little smirk hovered at the corner of Marguerite’s mouth. "Now you’re getting shy? I’d think after all this you’d be a little less—inhibited?" Her expression spoke volumes.
Malone winced. She’s never, ever, ever going to let me forget this. "Please?"
Marguerite considered for a moment, then shook her head. I could say more, but time is pressing. "Oh, all right, but hurry up. We need to get out of here before your little playmate – or was it playmates? Whichever, before the Amazons come back from their wargames." She ostentatiously turned her back and marched over to the doorway, keeping a careful eye on the outside. He seems to be okay and mobile, which is more than I expected – or feared. If things remain this quiet, smuggling him back to the tunnel shouldn’t be hard but maybe I should hunt around here for a cloak or something to wrap him up in, just in case?
Heaving a sigh of relief, Malone struggled into his clothes as fast as he could. In his haste, he never noticed knocking over the candle Hestia had left on the low table beside the bed. He’d shoved his feet into his boots and was buckling his belt when the soft crackling noise finally caught his attention.
"What the ?" He looked over at the sound just in time to see his discarded blanket go up like a torch, igniting the bed and the wall behind it.
Alerted by his exclamation, Marguerite turned and saw the beginnings of a raging inferno. Her eyes widened. "Damnit!"
"Better leave the torch here, George. I think I see daylight ahead," Roxton warned.
Challenger silently propped the torch against one stone wall and eyed his companion thoughtfully. To the casual eye Roxton was in full hunter mode, every muscle taut and ready for action, all his senses on alert, all his energies focused on the task at hand. However, Challenger had known him too long to be fooled now; he could hear the concern and the hints of guilt in the hunter’s overly controlled tones. I’d better keep a close eye on him; in this mood, he’s far too likely to try something rash if he thinks the others are in danger. "Ready," he said quietly, keeping his thoughts to himself.
"I’d be surprised if the other end isn’t guarded. Be prepared," Roxton muttered before moving forward.
They were scarcely twenty feet from the tunnel exit when a slight sound to their right alerted them to the fact that they were not alone. Almost faster than the eye could follow, Roxton whirled around, slamming the person against one wall of the cave with one arm and the weight of his body while bringing his pistol up to rest against the man’s temple.
Man? Challenger wondered, blinking.
"What the ?" Roxton ground out, equally confused.
The man coughed once, trying to get his breath back. "Peace!" he gasped.
"Good heavens. It’s a Zanga!" Challenger exclaimed.
Roxton let the man go and lowered the pistol with a grunt of apology, but he did not holster his gun. "How did you get here?"
"I am Kai," the Zanga introduced himself. "Veronica freed me, and Marguerite asked me to wait here and watch for you."
"You’ve seen them? What about Malone?" Challenger inquired eagerly.
"Where are they? Are they all right?" Roxton demanded, equally excited.
"Marguerite asked that I guard here and stop you when you came."
"She what?" Roxton was incredulous. His gun hand rose a few inches. "I don’t believe you."
"You must have misunderstood. We’re here to rescue our friends," Challenger said placatingly.
Kai shook his head stubbornly, although his eyes never left the gun. "No, I didn’t misunderstand. She told me a message to tell you."
"What is it?" Roxton growled.
Kai closed his eyes, trying to remember the exact words. The language these explorers spoke was not the Zanga tongue, making his task harder. He could hear the dark-haired man shift impatiently. Finally, when he was sure he had it right, he opened his eyes again to look directly at Roxton. "She said, ‘John, please stay in the tunnel. Veronica and I think we can get Malone out without causing a fuss. Don’t make things harder for us. Keep an eye on the village. You’ll know if we fail. I trust my knight in shining armor.’ That was all." He held his breath, hoping he’d gotten it right. The last words in particular made no sense to him.
Roxton exhaled a long, shaky breath and lowered his gun once again.
"Knight in shining armor?" Challenger echoed. "What on earth is she talking about?"
Roxton knew. "You weren’t there George, but I remember." Unbidden, memories of when she’d first called him her knight in shining armor flooded his mind. He could still feel her blood on his hands, and the wrenching combination of wonder and fear as her glassy eyes had met his and those words tumbled from her lips. So many meanings in those simple words She was doing the right thing then, despite the risk. She trusts me. She’s asking me to trust her. He sighed. He wanted nothing more than to go charging to the rescue – and she knew it, or she would not have left him that message. "We stay here for now." Turning away from the other men’s puzzled looks, Roxton fixed his eyes on the village, brooding in silence.
Why couldn’t they have left Ardo in the cell with Kai? Veronica fumed silently as she surveyed the situation. The Zanga was in the middle of a group of half-a-dozen other men. They were all sitting on the ground in the village square, their legs hobbled. The square itself was thronged with at least twenty cheering, whistling Amazons, egging on the two combatants in the middle ring. A regal figure sat in a carved chair watching it all. A golden mask shaped like the crescent moon concealed half her face, but Veronica recognized her easily. Selena. I’d better be really careful; she’ll recognize me as easily as I do her.
She studied the situation for several minutes, biting her lip. It’s impossible. There’s no way I can get Ardo free without someone noticing – and if someone notices, I’m dead. She scowled in frustration. My only chance is to follow whoever claims him, and hope I can ambush her once she’s out of sight of the others. She snorted quietly. With my luck, he’ll be like Malone, and claimed by at least two of them! She winced, trying to think of a better plan.
An acrid odor assailed her nostrils, and she abruptly looked away from the fight. Is that ?
"Fire!" shrieked one of the Amazons, pointing an arm at the great clouds of thick black smoke rising from another part of the village.