Round 13 - DNash (with a little help from Zakiyah)
Selena stood and began shouting orders. "Fetch water! We can’t allow the blaze to spread." She turned to a tall, sturdy woman next to her. "Hali, take the men back to the cells. The festivities will have to wait."
"Yes, Selena," the dark-haired Amazon nodded.
While most of the women scattered to battle the fire, Hali corralled the men. "On your feet, you lot!" she ordered. Awkwardly, the men rose. "To the cells. You know the way. Now move!"
The line of men shuffled toward the prison building where Veronica had found Kai. Excellent, the blonde thought. Using the chaos around her to help shield herself from discovery, she followed them.
That was when she heard the gunshot.
"You know, Malone," spat Marguerite, "you might try thinking before acting once in a while!"
"It was an accident!" protested the reporter.
The heiress just shook her head. "Why doesn’t that surprise me? Come on. We have to get out of here." Trusting him to have at least what little sense it took to follow her, she ran from the room. Malone was close on her heels, his headache temporarily forgotten in the desperate need for escape.
They weren’t a dozen steps from the hut when the whole thing erupted in flames.
"My god!" exclaimed Malone.
"We’re not out of the woods yet. Keep running!"
"Huh?" Ned looked around, and his eyes widened in terror. Once again, he was racing after Marguerite as Amazons appeared from nowhere, all of them heading in their direction.
"A man!" shouted a solidly-built, red-headed Amazon. In one hand she carried a large bucket of water, but with the other she was pointing at the fleeing Malone. None of her sisters heard her cry, intent as they were on the fire. The lone woman looked around, spotted Marguerite. "Psyche!" she shouted, believing the heiress to be the maladroit teenager whose clothing she wore. "Stop him!"
Marguerite ignored her and continued to run.
The Amazon couldn’t believe her eyes. Was Psyche running away? She knew the girl was awkward and young, but she’d never thought her a coward. Then understanding struck; it wasn’t Psyche. One of her sisters rushed by, and she handed off her bucket to the woman who continued to run with it toward the blaze. Then she drew a knife from her belt and poised to throw it.
Malone caught the movement from the corner of one eye. "Marguerite, look out!"
It was warning enough. Marguerite dove to the ground out of the line of the oncoming blade. She rolled, pulling her pistol from her boot. A split second to aim, she fired, and dropped the Amazon with one shot.
"Gunshot?" queried the startled Challenger.
"So much for staying here," replied Roxton. He turned to Kai. "Wait for us." The Zanga man nodded, happy to comply. "Come on, George."
They had been waiting a few yards back out of sight of the tunnel’s opening. Now they rounded the last bend and stood at its mouth. Pandemonium assaulted their senses. Smoke and shouts filled the air with equal force. The two men squinted through the thick haze, trying to spot any sort of reference point in the confusion.
"There!" said Challenger, pointing. Roxton followed the line of his finger.
"Marguerite and Malone!" he exclaimed. The two were trying to remain out of sight behind an overturned cart. The body of an Amazon—whether dead or merely unconscious, he couldn’t tell—was secreted with them. "But where’s Veronica?"
At that moment, Marguerite spotted them. "Get back, you idiots!" she yelled. She waved them back, then used the same empty hand to shove Malone in their direction. "Go!" she ordered him.
"Go! You stick out like a sore thumb. I’ll find Veronica," the heiress said, guessing at the reason for his reluctance. She pushed him again. "Don’t make me tell you again!"
Torn with indecision, the reporter finally gave in. He made a mad dash across the open area toward the tunnel.
Marguerite watched until he was safely with the other men. Tucking her gun back into its hiding place, she grabbed a discarded bucket and disappeared into the turmoil of the village.
"We have to go after her!" exclaimed Roxton. It took both Challenger and Malone to stop him.
"We can’t," the reporter insisted. "Marguerite’s right. We’d stand out a mile. Any one of us would be spotted instantly."
"I’m not going to stand here and do nothing!"
"We don’t have to," Challenger said. His eyes were alight with inspiration. "When we get out of here, we’re going to have to seal this tunnel behind us. The Amazons are distracted now, but they’ll have the fire under control before much longer. We must find a way to block their access through the tunnel, or they’ll come after us immediately."
"How are we going to do that?" asked Malone.
"We find the weakest point and make it collapse."
Despite his concern for Marguerite and Veronica, Roxton was intrigued. "Why, George, you make it sound so simple," he said dryly.
"First, we need to make certain those two women we found are out of harm’s way."
Malone was becoming more puzzled by the moment. He’d been unconscious when he’d arrived at the village and had no idea where the tunnel they were in led. Now Challenger was talking about finding some women in it? "What are you talking about?"
"No time to explain. Come with me."
"I’ll wait here and keep an eye out for the others," said Roxton.
Challenger simply nodded and, lighting a fresh torch from the nearly expired first one, led Malone back along the passage.
Marguerite was thinking fast. From her present location, she had a fair view of the blaze and the women scrambling to douse it. She took several moments to determine the pattern in what appeared at first to be chaos. The operation was surprisingly orderly, she discovered. There was a constant flow of women from the fire to the village well and back, never leaving one end of the line unmanned.
So, she thought, if the Amazons are all busy with the fire, where are their captives? Logically, they’d have to be in the prison. Leaving behind the bucket, she made her way to the prison building. Veronica met her just outside its door.
"Did you find Ned?" were the first words out of the blonde’s mouth.
"I’m fine thanks," replied Marguerite with a touch of irony. "And yes, I found him." She decided to keep the details of that discovery to herself; she could always use the information later, at a more profitable time. "He’s safe in the tunnel with Roxton and Challenger."
"Good." Veronica almost allowed herself to relax at this news. She held up Malone’s gun. "I found this inside in a weapons locker, but his ammo pouch wasn’t there."
"I’ll take it. It might be useful."
The blonde handed over the weapon; firearms weren’t her preference anyway. "Now we just have to get Ardo and the rest of the men out of here. They’re inside," she added at Marguerite’s inquisitive look, giving a nod toward the prison building. "I say we go now while the Amazons are distracted by the fire. We won’t get a better opportunity."
"Challenger!" shouted Roxton from the mouth of the tunnel. "I hope you’re ready back there!"
Near panic was clear in the hunter’s voice. Challenger took a second to wonder at it, but he didn’t pause in his preparations. Malone, on the other hand, went to find out what it was all about.
The sight was impressive, almost terrifying. Sprinting for their location were over half-a-dozen men, Veronica, Marguerite with her gun drawn, and ten angry, soot-covered, sword-wielding Amazons.
"Oh my god!" the reporter exclaimed. He hurried back to Challenger’s position several yards back into the tunnel. "This better work," he informed the inventor. "We’re about to have company."
"Has Veronica found Ardo?" asked Kai hopefully. The Zanga man was helping Challenger although he understood little beyond the older man’s theory. Still, he tied the small cloth pouch carefully, making sure not to spill the black powder inside it, and handed it to Challenger.
"Yeah. And a whole bunch of other people, too," Malone answered.
A single rifle shot reverberated along the stone walls of the tunnel, sending dirt and gravel raining down on the trio. Challenger smiled. "Excellent," he said. The inventor turned to Kai. "Take this torch and go to the other end of the tunnel—the cave where you took shelter from the storm," he said, lighting an extra torch taken from Marguerite’s belongings. He handed it to the Zanga. "Wait for us there."
Kai nodded and hurried away.
"Here they come!" came Roxton’s shout.
Suddenly, the tunnel was overflowing with fleeing men. Challenger and Malone shouted directions, yelling at them to keep going. At the tunnel mouth, Roxton was laying down covering fire until the last possible moment. With Veronica and Marguerite inside, he aimed two more shots over the heads of the onrushing Amazons before running after Marguerite.
Poised and waiting, Challenger watched as first the men, then the two women sprinted past him. Then Roxton appeared, rifle in one hand and the other hand holding his hat firmly on his head. The hunter reached Malone and Challenger and without slowing down shouted, "Now!"
Malone took off after him down the tunnel as the inventor lit the fuse. Then Challenger ran too. An explosion followed by a deep rumbling assaulted his ears, and the ground shook under his feet. Challenger blinked back tears at the dust gritting his eyes, but kept the fleeing Malone in sight at the edge of his torch’s light.
"Come on, Professor!" the reporter shouted, daring a quick glance over one shoulder.
They burst out into the jungle, a cloud of dirt, dust, and pulverized rock inches behind them.
Veronica caught Malone, pulling him to one side out of the way of the erupting debris. "Whoa! I’ve got you."
"George, are you all right?" Roxton asked the winded inventor.
Challenger nodded. He leaned on his rifle, catching his breath.
"We need to get away from here," said Veronica, not releasing her hold on Malone. Now that she had him safe, she wasn’t letting him go until they were back home in the treehouse.
"It’s all right. The tunnel’s quite inaccessible now," said Challenger confidently. "It will take them a long time to dig through should they even bother to try."
A look of horror spread across the blonde woman’s face. "There were people in there!" she exclaimed. "Two of the Amazons. We found them—"
But Roxton cut her off. "We found them, too, right where you left them. We got them out and hid them just outside the entrance long before we collapsed the tunnel. Well done, by the way," he added with a smile at Challenger.
"If you found them," said Marguerite, "you found my things. Where are they?" She was as relieved as Veronica to hear their erstwhile attackers were safe from harm, but she didn’t let it show. Instead, she hid behind her usual mask of self-interest.
"I have them," said Kai. He and Ardo stood to one side of the group. All the other men had fled, presumably back to their own villages. The Zanga man stepped forward and handed Marguerite her bag, belt, ammo pouch, and boots.
"Thank you," said the heiress with honest gratitude. "I don’t want to wait to get to the treehouse to get back into my own clothes."
"I don’t know," Roxton said with a sly smile. "I think the look suits you."
She shot him a sardonic glare, but inside she was pleased. "You would."
"Yes, I would," Roxton agreed, with a softer smile. "Actually, I’m just happy to see you in one piece. The last time I acted as your knight, you wound up rather worse for wear."
"That wasn’t your fault, John," Marguerite reminded him quickly, realizing from his words that he must have received her message. She briefly chewed her lower lip, considering her next words. "Thank you for not coming after me today. I know that must have been difficult for you."
"It was," he admitted. "But I knew you wouldn’t have asked if it hadn’t been important – and that Malone and Veronica couldn’t have been in better hands."
She looked down and smiled, deeply touched and somewhat flustered by his words. She knew he meant them, and that they were also an apology. She’d almost forgotten their quarrel in the danger of the last few hours, and she was content to let it go now. "What, the Amazons’?" she joked lightly, with a warm smile.
Roxton grinned at her, noting the soft gleam of affection in her grey eyes. "Yes – the feistiest Amazon of them all." He gestured grandly to the nearby underbrush. "Would my lady appreciate an escort to the changing room?"
Marguerite laughed. "Why of course – just so long as the brave knight promises not to peek."
Roxton raised his eyebrows. "Peeking would hardly be chivalrous of me," he replied, carefully not making any promises.
Marguerite noticed the omission – and silently let it pass.
Veronica looked to the Zangas. "Can you get home safely from here on your own?" she asked.
"Yes," Kai replied with a nod that caused his dark hair to fall over his eyes. He pushed it back with a graceful sweep of his hand. "We will be fine now. Thank you, Veronica." He turned to the whole group, making eye contact with each in turn. "Thank you, all."
Malone sighed heavily as he sat down at the large table in the treehouse’s common room. "It’s so good to be home!" His head still ached and he was bone tired, but that was unimportant now. He was clean, clothed, fed, and safe from libidinous Amazons; that was all that mattered. A fresh evening breeze blew gently through the room, and he breathed it in contentedly.
Veronica set a cup of tea down in front of him. "It’s cinnamon; it’ll help your head," she explained. She took a seat nearby. "How’s it doing, anyway?"
"It’s been better, but it’s been worse." He gave a self-deprecating smile; his propensity for getting hit on the head was becoming a running joke among them. He only wished it wasn’t such a painful running joke.
"You’ll be fine," said Challenger from where he was relaxing on the divan. "You just need a couple of days without any excitement."
"That sounds wonderful," Marguerite said, catching the last of the exchange as she and Roxton emerged from the kitchen. She wasn’t entirely sure how they’d been stuck doing the dinner dishes, but for once she hadn’t complained. Everyone had had a rough day—Or two, she reminded herself—and she was frankly too tired to argue about little things like dishes. Besides which, it had given her some moments of relative privacy with Roxton. She concealed a secret smile at the memory before flopping unceremoniously into an armchair while Roxton joined the pair at the table.
"Challenger," Veronica began, glancing over at the inventor, "just how did you collapse that tunnel?" She knew she was chancing a lecture, but her curiosity needed to be satisfied.
"Elementary, my dear," the inventor replied. "It was simply a matter of finding the weakest link in the chain. Or in this case, the weakest point in the tunnel. Supply sufficient force to that point, and it will collapse. Using powder from the extra shells in Marguerite’s ammunition pouch, I fashioned a crude sort of bomb. Placed in just the right spot, it was more than enough to do the job."
"And with the weakest point gone, whatever was relying on it collapsed as well," added Veronica, understanding dawning.
"And so on, and so on," the inventor said proudly.
"Thanks for telling me you used my bullets," the heiress piped up sarcastically. "Good thing I didn’t have any life-saving to do tonight."
"No, Marguerite," said Roxton, his tone a mix of appeasement and irony. "You’ve done your fair share of that for today."
"I’m glad someone recognizes that," came her jokingly haughty reply.
Challenger smiled to himself. Good to see that all is well between them again.
They sat in companionable silence for a while, glad simply to be sitting still with no chores to do, no battles to fight, and no rescues to mount.
The gentle wind that had been wafting through the treehouse picked up suddenly, blowing out one of the hanging lanterns and sending another swinging violently. Everyone looked up in surprise.
Roxton caught the swinging lantern carefully while Veronica moved to the balcony and looked out into the falling dusk. "Storm’s coming in," she announced. She began lowing the storm shades. The three men moved to help her. Marguerite picked up a nearby book and opened it to the first page.
"Don’t help or anything, Marguerite," muttered Ned as he lowered and secured a shade. He hadn’t meant his voice to travel as far as it did, but gusting wind carried his words to the lounging heiress.
"What was that?" demanded Marguerite of the reporter.
"Nothing," he said. He regretted his words immediately. He hadn’t wanted to start a fight; he was just a bit grumpy from weariness and his lingering headache. "Just talking to myself."
Marguerite knew he was lying, but she wasn’t inclined to pursue the matter. Instead, she opted for a little retribution. "Watch that lamp, Malone," she said as the reporter nearly bumped into a lantern. "We wouldn’t want a repeat of what happened in the Amazon village."
Veronica looked at her quizzically. "Why? What happened?"
"Who do you think started that fire? And I can assure you it wasn’t intentional. Honestly, Malone," the heiress continued breezily, "if anyone ever had any doubts about you being a natural blond, I think I can lay them to rest."
Malone’s eyes widened. "Marguerite, you didn’t—"
"Didn’t what?" she asked with false innocence. "I was referring to your natural air-headedness in knocking over a lit candle in a tinder-box of a building. What did you think I meant?" Her barely suppressed smirk was evidence she knew exactly what the reporter had thought—indeed, that she’d planned it that way.
Rain began pattering gently on the roof and shades.
"Nothing," said Ned, blushing furiously. "Nothing at all."