Round 14 - DNash
This was it! Challenger staggered and with both hands reached out to steady himself in the open doorway. The rumbling sounded close--dangerously close, and yet the shaking beneath his feet and above his head was only enough to send him slightly off-balance and scatter a few loose stones from the walls and ceiling. What on earth was going on?
The rumbling grew ever louder and he was certain he heard voices mingling in it. Male and female voices, both. Shouting but whether in fear or panic or something else entirely, it was impossible to determine. He had to move quickly. The shaking subsided with the noise of the protesting stones, revealing more voices but nothing clear. Daring a moment's hesitation more, he ducked back into the room and pulled the rifle from under the bed. With no one to stop him, there was no one to see him, and so no reason to worry about keeping the weapon concealed. And it might serve him equally well as a crutch or a cudgel in his current state.
His only question now was which way to go. Grasping at the thinnest strands of logic, he turned left outside the door and on unsteady legs headed, he hoped, towards friends and safety.
"This was not what I bargained for!" exclaimed Veronica. It was the last breath she had to spare for words before the swell reached them, sweeping her and her companions off of their feet in a shock of warm salty water. Fia had warned her that they were close, but she'd not said close to what or what would happen when they reached it, or if they didn't. Veronica's worry had been focused on the men pursuing them. The idea that Fia was leading them towards a deluge had never crossed her mind despite the other's comment that the passage they had just emerged from was usually filled with water. Now she struggled to hold her breath as she was tossed about by a swift-moving torrent. She tried to control her movements, but normally a strong swimmer, she was hampered by the unfamiliar clothing that had so recently protected her in her unexpected slide.
Her lungs began to burn and she blinked against the greenish tinted water. Was that--? Yes! With a surge of strength, Veronica kicked forward, snagging the flailing Finn and pulling them both to the crest of the fast-moving deluge. The noise of the water was incredible as the pair broke the surface. Like a hundred waterfalls against a raging sea. Finn spluttered for air, spitting out salt water. With one arm wrapped around the younger woman's torso, Veronica gasped in a breath, eyes seeking any safe place, somewhere to shelter from the roiling flood. Instead they found themselves abruptly hurtling through the air as the torrent of raging waters plunged over a precipice and into a deep pool. The two bedraggled blondes landed on Fia, who was inexplicably laughing as she bobbed on the surface of the rising water.
God! It was still rising! Where was it all coming from? "Fia!" she shouted, doubting the girl would hear her and surprised when she indicated with a wave of her hand that she had. She no longer held the many-armed statue and Veronica wondered if had sunk or washed away.
Finn's voice in her ear drew Veronica's attention back to her immediate companion.
"I'm okay! Let me go, Vee!" Finn yelled again. Veronica did and the two treaded water while Fia swam confidently towards them. The water was growing calmer around them although it continued to rise. A ledge came into view above them and Veronica pointed to it. Finn nodded in understanding. They would aim for its relative safety and if nothing else, surely the rising water would have to slow as it spread across the flat stone surface.
As Fia reached them, a face appeared peering over the ledge.
Veronica managed a stunned exclamation as the water brought them within a foot of the overhang before calming and ceasing its insane climb.
"Veronica! Finn!" He reached out a hand and one by one pulled them from the water. "Fia, the elders are injured," he said as he helped her to her feet. He pointed to where the two old women lay and Fia let out a cry of distress.
"Măes!" She hurried to them and knelt. Roxton knew he should help her, but he had more urgent concerns. He turned to his soaking companions. "Are you two all right?"
"Wiped out and wet, but okay," gasped Finn, her voice rough from the salt water.
"Fine," Veronica answered more succinctly. She regained enough composure to look around. "Isn't this--?"
"Yemanjá's cavern," Roxton confirmed. His face was pinched with worry that sent a lance of fear straight to Veronica's gut.
"She fell in during the earthquake. She must be in the pool. Do you see her? Did you see her?" His voice was sharp with barely repressed panic.
His only answer was a look back to the water. The waterfall had returned to its previous lighter flow, but the gently-churning surface remained opaque and impenetrable to his gaze, and as frightening as in its earlier fury.
She should have been terrified. But this was familiar territory for Marguerite, if more than a little unnerving. Yemanjá's ancient, beautiful face floated in the water before her. The lines of her honey-brown skin were deepened by a smile and her long silver hair flowed about her. Marguerite was instantly reminded of tales of mermaids, although the stories she'd been told were always of young women.
Yemanjá laughed. A rippling of sound like raindrops from the broad leaves of the jungle canopy. I can appear young to those who seek such things. The wise see beyond such veils.
Does that make me wise, then? asked Marguerite, a touch of sarcasm and weariness in her mind's voice.
The goddess's smile grew soft, fond. Beyond your years, my daughter. You have fulfilled your debt to me. You are free to go.
Wait! Marguerite's exclamation startled both of them. That man. John--Aganju--called him Domblé.
Yemanjá ceased smiling. What of him?
What indeed? What did Marguerite want to know about the misogynistic madman who had threatened her and Roxton, done who knew what harm to Tereza and Luisah, and rent the Matozóide tribe so terribly asunder? He had looked so small when at last she had seen his face. Or perhaps her fear had simply dwarfed him in respect to the gun he had wielded. Finally, she asked, What will you do with him? For she was positive that Yemanjá held him now as she held Marguerite in her watery domain.
He will be given a choice. All will be given the freedom to choose, as you were given when first we met.
All? Did she mean what Marguerite thought she meant? She must. I understand.
See? Yemanjá smiled again and her voice became playful. You are wise. Then she grew once more serious, although there was still the glint of a smile in her seaweed-green eyes. You have done all I asked. All I hoped. My love and I are free to meet once more. We can now tend to our people and help them to rebuild what was lost.
The twins--! Marguerite's calm was cut through with concern for the old women. They were injured. By Domblé.
I know. The goddess grew wistful. One must continue alone. Good-bye, Marguerite. I will always remember you.
As suddenly as she had appeared, Yemanjá was gone. Marguerite was alone in the deep water. Without a clue which way was up.
At least this time she knew what to expect.
But she was wrong. Instead of the darkness, instead of the water she breathed suddenly burning her lungs and choking her as it had last time, she found herself buoyed up on a gentle current and in a moment her head broke the surface. She exhaled the saltwater painlessly and took in a deep refreshing breath of damp, salty cave air.
"Marguerite!" The voice, the tone were unmistakable. She turned, pushed off from the stone wall behind her, and swam easily to the ledge where, just a foot or so above the water, Roxton waited on hands and knees to pull her out.
She choked back a happy sob, glad the salt water on her cheeks would hide any tears of relief. "John?" She looked up into his eyes, uncertain who she would find there.
"It's me, Marguerite. Only me." He gave her a reassuring smile which she shakily returned.
She nodded once. "Good."
He embraced her, stunned and laughing, and she clung to him. Her body trembled with the shock of reaction and the remnants of the fear that she'd lost him forever.
"Hey, Marguerite." It was Finn, breaking the tender moment as usual. "What happened to your clothes?"
Marguerite glanced down at what little she could see of herself around Roxton's embrace and his fur robe. Yep. Finn was right. Somewhere in Yemanjá's waters, she had lost her own robe. She was naked as the day she was born. Marguerite rolled her eyes ceilingward. "Oh for heaven's sake! Not again!"
Challenger had the sinking feeling that he was lost. The voices he'd heard had grown alternately louder and fainter with each twist and turn until he had not the slightest idea where he was or where he'd been or where to go. He took comfort in the fact that every tunnel he had followed held lit torches--a testament that someone must inhabit them with reasonable frequency.
He stumbled and caught himself with his free hand against the stone wall. He wouldn't be able to go much farther. That was the one unfortunate certainty he could rely on. One more turn, he told himself. One more and I'll stop for a rest. Legs shaking like a marathon runner who'd just crossed the finish line, he followed the tunnel he was in until a passage opened on his right. Hearing a noise like laughter, he turned down a tunnel that curved so he could never see more than a few steps ahead. He continued on, around one final bend
and found himself in a vast cavern with sparkling walls, an underground waterfall, and--"Roxton! Marguerite! Veronica! Finn!" His legs chose that unflattering moment to give out on him and he fell to his knees, his grip on the rifle the only thing keeping him from landing on all fours.
"Challenger!" Finn hurried to him and knelt beside the scientist. "Gimme that," she ordered, taking the weapon and setting it aside. "Lean on me." She helped him get an arm around her shoulders and steady himself.
Roxton was momentarily torn. Instinct warred with instinct as he continued to hold Marguerite's naked form to him both for the sake of her modesty as well as his own need simply to have her near when he had come so close to losing her.
She freed one of her arms from his bear hug and batted at him. "Let me go, John. I'm fine. Go help Challenger."
"I--" Still he held onto her. Until Veronica came to the rescue.
"Here." She unbuttoned the two man's shirts she wore over her usual leather top and handed the wet garments to Marguerite. "They're Ned's," she explained for no good reason. Then added, "It's better than nothing, right?"
Roxton released Marguerite so that she could slip on the nested shirts, carefully averting his eyes until she spoke. The pale cotton was thin and the soaking had turned it nearly as sheer as gauze even with the double layers. "Almost," said Marguerite wryly as she buttoned them up. "But it'll do."
Satisfied for the moment, Roxton went to Challenger and Finn. "Are you all right, old boy?"
"I'll be better once we're away from here. There's a madman on the loose. That Domblé fellow--"
Marguerite cut him off. "He's gone. He's answering to Yemanjá now."
"I hope she makes him pay dearly." Fia's tone was dark with anger.
In all the chaos, Marguerite had forgotten the girl. Now she and the others turned to look at her where she stood beside the ailing twins. Yemanjá's voice echoed in Marguerite's memory. One must continue alone.
Fia's next words confirmed it. "Măe Tereza is dead."
Despite Challenger's earlier desire to get far away from the Matozóide as quickly as possible, it was another day before the explorers were finally ready to be on their way. Admittedly, now that the threat was past, his scientific instincts had begun to reassert themselves and his curiosity about the cave-dwelling tribe was piqued. But even he couldn't deny that now was not the time to indulge in anthropological investigation. Later, once he was feeling up to snuff again, once the tribe had had time to settle itself into some semblance of order again He shook his head. Enough of that. At least he had his clothing back at last! A bit worse for wear--one couldn't be overcome by an avalanche and fall through a mountain and expect one's garments to come out entirely intact--but mended and serviceable. All, that is, except for his boots, which they still wouldn't let him wear. Challenger could admit to himself, if to no one else, that part of his continuing eagerness to leave revolved around his tender feet; his cold, battered toes and aching arches longed for the comfort of his familiar boots. He was still too weak for his liking, however. His recent exertions had worn him out, but he refused to make the others stay here any longer on his account. It would take time to get back to the Treehouse, and it would be him that held them back, but he was determined to go. Nothing to be done, he reminded himself stoically. I'll manage. We'll all manage. In the meantime, he took the minutes offered to sit and rest while the others packed up their belongings.
Roxton took stock of everything. Fia had enlisted some of Domblé's former acolytes, those eager to help now that they were reunited with the tribe's females for the first time in their memories, to fetch and return those things Domblé has ordered taken from the explorers. Marguerite's pack was likewise returned as well as the gear and boots Veronica and Finn had left with the women when they'd been drawn into their fight. Some of their gear was lost or destroyed, but the important things were still here: their guns and ammunition; the majority of their clothing; some food supplies, supplemented by what the tribe had given them.
"Still no matches," muttered Marguerite. She ceased searching her pack for them and rose to her feet. And she'd lost yet another blouse. There would have to be a trading trip to the Zanga village in the near future so she could acquire fabric to make a new one. Or indeed several.
"Are we ready to go yet?" Finn asked. She was as impatient as ever to be on her way. Sure, this had been a cool diversion, but she was ready to be back out in the sunshine and fresh air. She'd had enough of caves and crazy women. Besides, she was dying to know if there was still snow outside. Now that was seriously cool! Snow!
"I will lead you to a tunnel that will take you out to the surface," said Fia.
Marguerite turned to the girl, concern in her pale eyes. "How is Luisah?" The surviving twin was being tended by one of the young men who had skill at healing, and so was absent from the gathering.
"She will recover and she will lead."
Fia nodded once. "Alone. But maybe not for too long. Now that the Matozóide are reunited, we hope our scattered brothers and sisters will begin to return. Perhaps an elder male will come back to lead by her side, as it was before. As we have been taught."
Veronica stepped forward and held out a hand to Fia, who took it in a firm grasp. "I'll tell Ardo what's happened. Word will spread across the Plateau. It may take a while, but I'm sure that eventually many of your people will return."
"I trust it will be so. And if I lose faith," she added with a hint of amusement, "I will have Asya to bolster me. Even now she is praying to the orixás for our people's return."
With their gear sorted out and everyone loaded with whatever he or she could manage, the explorers followed their guide to the surface. The tunnel's mouth put them out several yards below the edge of the snowfield. Looking upwards, they could see the deceptively smooth surface glittering in the cold, clear air.
"I leave you here. Safe journey to your home," Fia said. And with a wave, she disappeared back inside the mountain.
The explorers took time to put on stockings and boots in preparation for their descent.
"You know," began Challenger, laboriously lacing his boots. "I'm certain there's something philosophical to be said at this juncture, but for the life of me I can't think what it would be."
Roxton chuckled. "And yet you still manage to find something to say, eh, George?"
"Oh well," the scientist spluttered, "there's always something. Isn't there? Fascinating tribe, really. Even though I only saw a small sample of it. We must remember to come back again to visit them. See how they're getting on. That religion of theirs that you were telling me about, Roxton. The orixás, was it? Fascinating! All poppycock of course. Undoubtedly there are a number of scientific explanations for what you and Marguerite experienced. Still, I am intrigued." Laces tied, he looked up to find his friends were several paces ahead already, cautiously working their way downhill. "Well," he muttered and rose to his feet. They wouldn't really leave him behind, but nevertheless he called out. "One moment!"
They halted in their descent and waited until he reached them.
"Ready to go now, Challenger?" asked Veronica with a smile.
"Yes, quite." Yet he turned a wistful eye up towards the snow. "I only wish we'd recovered some proper samples of the ice pack."
Roxton groaned and Marguerite had to restrain herself from smacking the scientist. "George, if you say one word about trying to recover your damned sample stakes, I will shoot you where you stand."
Challenger only chuckled and looked at her with a sanguine expression on his face. "That won't be necessary, Marguerite."
Roxton took up the lead with Marguerite and Challenger behind and Veronica and Finn bringing up the rear.
"Challenger's sure in a good mood," said Finn to her companion. "Considering all the weirdness that went down, I'm surprised."
"He's in a good mood now," Veronica countered. "Just wait until he finds out what you did to his trousers."
"Huh?" Finn looked down at the pants she wore and remembered. She shot Veronica an impish smile. "He'll forgive me for cutting off the extra length."
"It's not extra for him. But I suppose you're right." It was Veronica's turn to look mischievous. "It's Marguerite you're going to have to look out for."
Finn's eyes went wide. "Crap!" She skipped ahead to catch up with the pair she and Vee were discussing. Her voice carried up the hill to Veronica who had to laugh when she heard it. "So, Marguerite, can I carry your pack for you?"
Marguerite eyed her with suspicion, but decided enquiries could wait. "All right. Here." She took it off and slung it at the young woman who caught it with a grunt. "Thanks. Challenger, you'll be all right with Finn nearby, won't you?"
"Certainly." The twinkle in his eye suggested he knew precisely where she was going.
Marguerite jogged a few paces ahead and caught up with Roxton. "I thought you might like some company," she said in a conversational tone.
"That's very thoughtful of you, Marguerite." He smiled at her in that way that made her heart skip a beat. That way that told her he knew without a doubt that she was up to something.
She dug a hand into her pocket and fingered the gold ring within it. "I have something of yours." She pulled it out to return it to him.
"Keep it," he said, not glancing at what she held, knowing full well what it was.
"It's not doing me any good. You hang onto it for me." He paused long enough to look down into her eyes and she almost gasped at what she saw in his. The god, Aganju, was gone, but there was a depth in John's gaze that he usually kept veiled. "Put it with your other trinkets."
The gold was warm and heavy in her hand and she weighed it. "Trinket?" she challenged, raising one dark, arched eyebrow at him.
A tiny smile quirked the corner of his mouth. "Or treasure. It all depends on how you think of it. I know what it means to me." It was something very meaningful indeed and he ardently hoped she would understand and make the choice he wanted her to make.
Finally, she nodded once. "All right." She pocketed the ring once more. "I'll look after it for you. For now."
His voice was low. "That's all I ask. For now."
Marguerite shivered and it had nothing to do with cool mountain air. They continued to gaze into one another's eyes and Marguerite wished for a moment for a connection with Roxton like the one she had briefly shared with Luisah and Tereza. But no. Yemanjá's mark was gone. A ghost of an itch tingled in her wrists where the blue spirals no longer were and she scratched absently at it.
"What's the hold-up?" demanded Finn as she and Challenger reached them.
The moment shattered, Marguerite shook herself back to normal.
Roxton answered for them both. His tone was off-hand enough to mislead the others, but Marguerite knew there was more to it. "I had something in my eye, but it's gone now." He took the lead once more and Marguerite met him stride for stride.
She spoke in a tone meant for his ears only. "Oh, I don't think it's gone. I can still see it."
"Oh, you think so?" Roxton's voice feigned confusion, but the irrepressible twinkle remained.
"Well," she conceded. "Not all of it. But I have a good idea, yes."
He shot her a sly smile. "Good. It's a start. Now, let's go home."
Authors' Note: Both Candomblé and monotheistic Shivaism are real religions, but in wildly different forms than those we created for this story. No offense meant to anyone. This is what fiction is for.
Reference Links: As we mentioned a few rounds ago, our favourite reference site went away while we were writing this story. Here is a list of the other sites we used.
Contact info: Email the authors of this fic: Zakiyah & DNash.