Round 8 - Zakiyah
The cave was much deeper than Veronica expected, and while it was clearly a natural formation, it was also quite clearly being used and maintained by someone. At the very edge of the light available from the cave entrance, Veronica found traces of several footprints and clear indications that someone had tried to sweep them away. She knelt down for a better look, straining her eyes in the dim light, and then caught her breath as a thin line of light on the bottom of one wall caught her eye. The line wouldn’t have been visible from any other angle than this.
"Should I light a torch?" Marguerite murmured, her voice pitched to carry to Veronica’s ears and no further.
Startled, Veronica looked up to see Marguerite only a few feet away, her gun drawn, obviously on alert. I didn’t even hear her approach. Luck or skill? With Marguerite, I can never tell! Veronica shook her head, both in response to Marguerite’s question and in puzzlement over the heiress. She could never predict the other woman. She was just glad Marguerite was showing her calm, competent side instead of her usual temperamental attitude. There’s danger here, I’m sure of it. "Someone’s been covering up tracks here," she whispered. "I think "
Veronica never got a chance to finish her sentence. The slight bit of light suddenly exploded into a bright glare as part of the wall seemed to disappear. The two women squinted against the brightness as a figure charged towards them, whooping a war cry. "Psyche, no!" another voice called out, and a second figure charged after the first.
The surprise of the attack was nearly total, and it might have gone badly for the two women if the first attacker hadn’t stumbled just as it reached them. Marguerite ducked its flailing attempt to right itself and skewer her all at once, and swung a fist in the general direction of its head. The second attacker was momentarily fouled up by the gyrations of the first, giving Veronica time to rise and meet the charge. She used the momentum of the attacker’s rush in her defense, slamming the figure into a wall.
It was over in a matter of moments. Marguerite straddled her attacker, keeping the fallen figure pinned, while Veronica had a firm hold of her assailant. Blinking in the strong light, Veronica finally recognized the figures. "Amazons?" she exclaimed.
"Looks like it to me," Marguerite agreed, remembering her one encounter with the female warrior civilization. "Hold still," she added irritably as the woman she was pinning to the ground started to struggle. "I don’t want to have to hit you again."
"Kala! Are you all right?" the woman on the ground cried, ignoring Marguerite’s warning.
"Hush, Psyche!" Veronica’s prisoner admonished, twisting her head to try and look at the women who had vanquished them. "Look, I don’t know who you are, but you’re women, and you’re obviously warriors, so you have no need to fight us. We " She finally managed to catch a glimpse of Veronica, and her face abruptly twisted in hatred. "You!" she shrieked, struggling wildly. "Traitor!"
Marguerite raised an eyebrow as she watched Veronica secure her grip on the brawny Amazon. "Traitor?" she asked no one in particular.
"Kala, what ?" Psyche called, forgetting to struggle against Marguerite in her confusion.
"I should have known when I saw that man and his weapons! Veronica! Traitor! Whore! Death is your portion! I will rip your lying guts out myself!" Kala raged, still trying to free herself from Veronica’s grasp.
As Kala’s words sunk in, Veronica slammed the Amazon against the wall again and increased the pressure on one of Kala’s arms. "Man? Weapons? You’ve seen Malone?"
"They’re Betrayers? No!" Psyche gasped, then started screaming and struggling.
"Nice to know we’re remembered fondly," Marguerite muttered sarcastically as she grabbed a fistful of Psyche’s dark hair and used the leverage to bang the Amazon’s head against the ground, stunning her momentarily. "I said I didn’t want to hit you again, not that I wouldn’t," she explained to the now-quiet Amazon. "Now what’s all this about us being betrayers?"
Kala’s frenzy only increased, and reluctantly Veronica did what needed to be done. Shifting her stance slightly, she tightened a choke hold around Kala’s neck. The Amazon coughed and gasped for a few moments, then slumped as her consciousness faded away.
"Kala! Oh, no! No!" Psyche protested, regaining her voice.
Marguerite saw tears forming in the Amazon’s eyes. Huh. This one’s just a kid – can’t be more than sixteen. "Relax, she’ll be fine," Marguerite said as reassuringly as she could manage.
Apparently it wasn’t enough, because the Amazon started to cry. "It’s all my fault! It’s always my fault!"
Kneeling over Kala’s now-prone form, Veronica shot Marguerite’s captive a disbelieving glance, then did a double take as Marguerite spoke again.
"What nonsense," the dark-haired woman said gently, a wealth of compassion and understanding in her tone. "It was a great setup. You tripped, that’s all. It was bad luck. It could have happened to anyone."
"But it always happens to me!" Psyche wailed. "I’m always messing up! I’m bad luck on two legs! I’m cursed!" Her face scrunched up, and she stopped fighting Marguerite, struggling instead with the sobs that threatened to overcome her.
Marguerite chuckled, a friendly, understanding sound. "Oh my dear – Psyche, isn’t it? Psyche, you’re not cursed. You’re just young. Trust me, it will get better as you get older."
Psyche twisted her head as far as she could in order to see Marguerite, a stunned expression on her face. Unknown to the young Amazon, her expression was a mirror image of Veronica’s. "H-how do you know?"
"It’s obvious," Marguerite smiled. Carefully keeping a secure grip on the Amazon with one hand and the weight of her body, the heiress used her free hand to smooth back a lock of hair from Psyche’s face. "I bet you’ve grown a lot in the last six months, haven’t you? Am I right?"
"Uh-huh," the Amazon admitted, wide-eyed.
"You’ve just outgrown your coordination, that’s all. It’ll come back, and you’ll be smarter and better than ever for it. It’s one of the advantages of getting older." Marguerite’s lips quirked in a wry smile.
Psyche started crying again, this time from hysterical relief. "Really?"
"Really. Just give it time."
Still sobbing, the Amazon now dissolved into hysterical babbling. "Oh, thank the goddesses! It really will go away? I can’t stand the thought of failing my sisters, after they adopted me and took me in when no one wanted me, and they were proud of me, but then Selena and Hippolyta had their big fight and some of us came here, and then I couldn’t do anything right " The words were barely intelligible, but Marguerite seemed to understand them well enough, soothing the girl and subtly directing questions about what she heard. Veronica could only listen in amazement as Marguerite coaxed practically the entire history of this offshoot of the Amazon tribe from the sobbing teen.
"Better now?" Marguerite said at last when Psyche’s sobbing had quieted to occasional sniffles.
"Yes," Psyche answered shakily, still looking as if she might start crying again at any moment.
"You see there’s been no real harm done. We’re not here to hurt your sisters. We’re just here to rescue one of our friends and go home. Just the same as you would do if one of your sisters were in trouble." Marguerite’s voice was soothing, hypnotic.
"But you’re Betrayers," Psyche hiccuped.
Shaking her head, Marguerite gave Psyche another soft smile. "I don’t even know what that is, Psyche. What do you mean by that?"
Psyche colored a bit. "I’m not really sure, I guess," she admitted. "It’s what we call those Amazons who stayed in the village and made an alliance with the men and surrounding villages against the headhunters." Psyche lowered her voice a bit. "Is she really Veronica?" she whispered, glancing over at the blonde woman still kneeling over her friend.
"Yes, she really is." Marguerite chuckled. "Why?"
"I’ve heard a lot about her. She was adopted by the sisters, just like me, but she was so good at everything. Then she left, and later she came back and was the first Betrayer." She shivered slightly. "She’s a monster. They say she killed a lot of the sisters when she came back."
"Veronica doesn’t intentionally hurt anyone without reason," Marguerite chided gently. "See, she didn’t even kill your friend, even though your friend was trying to kill her. Does she look so terrible?"
"No," Psyche admitted. "I thought she’d be bigger."
Marguerite smothered a laugh. "Yes, well that just goes to show you that it’s important to think for yourself and not believe every story you hear, particularly when you only hear one side." Her expression grew momentarily distant, and then she looked down at the Amazon with a hint of regret. "But you can believe me when I tell you that we’re only here to rescue our friend, and not to hurt your sisters, and that I’m very sorry for this. Remember it’s not your fault, and it will be okay."
Psyche and Veronica both gave the dark-haired woman puzzled looks. Before either could form a question, Marguerite’s fist shot out and connected forcefully with Psyche’s chin, knocking the young Amazon senseless. Sighing, Marguerite rose to her feet, brushing her hands against her jodhpurs. "Well, that was useful," she said calmly.
Veronica opened and closed her mouth a few times, at a loss for words. "Why did you do that?" she asked at last.
Marguerite favored her with a cool look. "She didn’t have anything else useful to tell us," she shrugged.
"No, I mean " Veronica shook her head, bewildered. "You were so nice to her. You made her feel better. You did all that just to get information?!? I can’t believe it."
If anything, Marguerite’s expression grew even icier. "Believe what you want. We needed information. Now we have it. Now all we need is their clothes."
"I didn’t mean " Veronica cut her attempt to explain short, distracted by Marguerite’s last words. "We need what?"
The wintry chill did not leave Marguerite’s gaze as she stared at her companion. "They’ve got Malone. You’re apparently public enemy number one. If you’re still serious about going in there after him, knowing what we know now, our best chance will be to go in disguise." The irritation in her tone clearly said she thought Veronica was being unreasonably stupid. "We’d stand out like this, but if we dress in those clothes and keep to cover, we might just be able to sneak in there, get Malone, and get out before anyone’s the wiser." She glanced down again at Psyche’s fallen form, her gaze lingering on the Amazon’s long dark curls. "If she’s as much of a bad-luck magnet as she thinks she is and I wear her outfit, people might actually go out of their way to avoid me," she added thoughtfully.
Startled, Veronica looked at Psyche again and realized that from behind there was a passing resemblance between Marguerite and the fallen Amazon, a similarity in their pale skin and long dark hair. No one would mistake the one for the other from the front, particularly not in good light, but Veronica shook her head, irritated with herself for being distracted. "I all right. That makes sense."
"Of course it does." Marguerite’s voice was still cool, but her posture relaxed slightly as she realized the other woman wasn’t going to continue to question her actions. "I’ve got some rope in my pack. We’ll need to keep these two safely out of the way – maybe farther back down this passage " She turned away, already thinking of the next few steps, and missed the assessing glance Veronica gave her.
Their preparations did not take long. Veronica had no trouble fitting into Kala’s garments; if anything they were rather large for her. By keeping her own clothes on underneath and by dint of a few clever adjustments by Marguerite, they managed to make it work. Marguerite struggled to get herself into Psyche’s clothes, particularly the top; the young Amazon was nowhere near as chesty as the older woman. However, whoever had made the outfit had obviously anticipated further changes in Psyche’s body; both the skirt and the top were adjustable. The heiress grumbled a lot, but she managed, remarking that at least the Amazon’s boots were a comfortable fit.
They drug the two unconscious and mostly stripped Amazons farther back into the cave where a side branch came to a dead end. Veronica did not miss how Marguerite carefully wrapped a blanket from her pack around the unconscious young Amazon, or how she smoothed back the girl’s hair once before they concealed both Amazons under the other blanket.
"Yes?" Marguerite did not look up from stowing her clothes in her pack. She grimaced as she added her ammo belt and holster to the bag. There was absolutely no place to hide it given her current outfit; she was pushing her luck by carrying her revolver tucked into the top of one of the borrowed boots. It was uncomfortable, but Marguerite was willing to put up with a little discomfort in order to remain armed. Why couldn’t the girl have carried a belt pouch or something? she fussed inwardly, then became aware of Veronica’s continued silence. Sighing, she lashed the pack closed and set it in the deepest shadows before turning to face the blonde. "What is it?"
Judging from the impatient, defensive look on the older woman’s face, Marguerite was in no mood for questions. Veronica nodded to herself. It will wait. Malone first but once he’s safe, I’m going to ask you a few questions, Marguerite! I don’t believe that was all an act, any more than I believe you thought you’d really find Malone the other night. Why do you pretend so hard that you don’t care? If I understood that, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to trust you. Ignoring all the questions battering around inside her skull, Veronica briefly checked the hang of her knife on the new belt and met Marguerite’s imperious grey eyes. "Let’s go."
The two women started down the hidden passageway to the new Amazon enclave, carefully closing the camouflaging curtain behind them.
Roxton and Challenger trudged back to the clearing, discouraged at their lack of success. There had been no sign of the missing reporter.
"Maybe Marguerite and Veronica have had better luck," Challenger said hopefully as they approached the designated meeting spot.
"Maybe," Roxton agreed with as much spirit as he could muster. He was irritated by his failure to track the missing man, but there was no point in taking it out on Challenger. He scowled as they entered the clearing and saw no sign of the two women. "They’re not here," he said unnecessarily.
Challenger checked his pocket watch. "We’re a little early."
"It’s not like Veronica to be late."
"She is with Marguerite," Challenger replied wryly.
"True," Roxton agreed with a half-smile. Reluctantly giving credit where credit was due, he added, "She wouldn’t hold up a search for Malone, though."
The two men settled down to wait. Time seemed to crawl, and Roxton had to fight the impulse to ask Challenger the time every five minutes. The appointed meeting time came and went with no sign of Veronica and Marguerite.
Roxton shrugged, feeling a little prickle of anxiety work its way up his spine. "I don’t like this," he muttered.
"It could be a good sign," Challenger pointed out. "Maybe they found something."
"That’s not what I meant." Roxton got to his feet and gripped his rifle in both hands, bringing it up to his shoulder. "The jungle just went totally quiet. Something’s coming."
"Marguerite and Veronica?" Challenger offered, but brought his rifle up as well. He’d learned to respect the instincts of the expedition’s hunter and guide.
"Too big – or too many," Roxton said tersely, now able to distinguish enough noises to tell it was not their missing companions. He glanced around quickly, but the clearing offered no real shelter. "Get ready – whatever it is, here it comes!"