Round 7 - Zakiyah
You'd think Yemanjá could have done a better job getting me to John and Challenger, Marguerite thought bitterly, struggling to keep her teeth from chattering. Particularly since I'm now supposed to be in her debt for taking me to them! She was so very cold. Between the frigid temperature of the air, her drenched clothes, and her soaked hair, she was shivering so badly it was all she could do to keep her grip on the torch.
The passage she was in looked as if it went on forever. She had no idea of how long she'd been walking, searching for some sign of her missing friends - or of any sign of habitation. She'd seen no other torches in her slow progress through the cave. Worse, when she'd decided she'd gone far enough and turned around to try the other branch, she'd somehow become lost. She was sure she should have reached the section where Yemanjá had left her by now, but there was no sign of it. I couldn't have missed it, could I? she wondered to herself. I can't have missed seeing those other torches, and I don't remember there being any other passages for me to have gone down by mistake. But I should have reached the torches already, even though I'm not moving very fast. She'd had to stop several times, crouching down and putting her head between her knees when dizzy spells had threatened to overwhelm her. She thought she might have blacked out entirely once, but she couldn't be sure. At least her torch showed no signs of burning out, although its meager flame didn't provide enough heat to help warm her.
Another, stronger shiver wracked her frame, and she stumbled, falling to the ground. The torch flew out of her hand but fortunately did not go out, continuing to burn cheerfully even while lying on the stony earth. Her pack was flung forward by the force of her fall, riding up her back and knocking against her head. One of its straps tangled in her hair and yanked it painfully.
"Ow! Damn it!" Marguerite swore, getting back onto her knees and shoving irritably at her pack. A moment later she froze as her eyes widened in realization. My pack! Of all the stupid I just slung it over my back when I started out and felt dizzy that first time. Why didn't I think of it sooner? Breathing that water must have addled my wits! Hastily removing the pack from her shoulders, the shivering woman fumbled with the straps holding it closed, her fingers clumsy with cold. At last she managed to wrench it open and pull out her spare blouse and her expedition blanket. "It's not much, but anything's better than staying in these wet clothes," she said aloud to herself, stuttering slightly with chills. "Well, anything but wandering around in the altogether," she amended as she started to struggle out of her drenched garments. The air striking her newly bared flesh made her even colder.
After what seemed an eternity, Marguerite finally managed to rid herself of all of her sodden clothes and dress herself in the few spare items she'd brought - the blouse and a pair of underwear. Wishing that she'd brought an entire other outfit - complete with a fur coat and fleece-lined boots, neither of which she actually had on the Plateau - she shrugged and wrapped the blanket around herself the best that she could, winding up with something that looked a little bit like a roman toga. "Not elegant, but better than nothing," she muttered as she belted her gun holster around her waist, both to have the weapon to hand and to help hold the blanket in place. She hesitated a minute, trying to decide whether to re-don her soggy boots or go barefoot on the cold ground, then shrugged and stuffed her boots into her pack with the rest of her wet things. Finally ready, she slung her pack back over her shoulders, then bent down to retrieve the torch only to have the world waver and spin as she straightened up with it in hand.
Oh, I wish this would stop, she thought dimly as she struggled to remain upright. Maybe if I just lay down for a minute or two no. I have to keep moving. I have to find John and Challenger. Resolutely she opened her eyes and took a shaky step forward, then another, then still another, focusing only on each step until she was sure she wasn't going to fall. After a few minutes, the dizziness faded, and Marguerite smiled. There. That wasn't so bad, and I don't feel quite so cold anymore, just so tired what's that? The smile slipped from her face as she realized she was hearing the sound of running water, faintly but quite distinctly. When did that start? I don't remember hearing that before - although I wouldn't have heard much of anything just now, the way my ears were ringing. One thing's for sure - I have to be in a different part of the passage than I started in. A sudden, irresistible urge to yawn interrupted her train of thought, and Marguerite blinked rapidly, trying to keep her focus. I'd better keep moving, or I'm going to fall asleep right here. I'll look for the water; maybe a drink will help me wake up.
The sound of running water grew louder with every step she took, and it wasn't long before Marguerite saw light ahead. She turned a corner and suddenly found herself in a large, well-lit cavern. A small stream ran right across the middle of the sandy floor in a shining silver ribbon, emerging from a crack in the rock and reflecting the light from the torches ensconced on the walls before disappearing down yet another tunnel. A simple wooden table stood against one wall; bowls of various sizes and materials rested on top of it. At least I won't have to drink from my hands, Marguerite thought in relief. And there are obviously people around here somewhere - maybe they've seen John and Challenger. Walking to the platform, Marguerite selected a small wooden bowl and then moved to kneel by the glimmering waters. She planted her torch upright in the sand and then dipped the bowl into the stream.
As the bowl filled, Marguerite became aware of markings all along the streambed. At first they simply looked like places where the water had once coursed, but something about the regularity and flow of the pattern made her look at them further even as she raised the bowl to her lips and drank. The shocking cold of the water made her sputter. She could feel its icy touch make its leaden way inside her, meshing with the outer cold of the chamber and her still-wet hair, leaving her feeling numb. No more of that! She set the bowl down next to her, all the while still puzzling over the markings. Runes! she realized. These aren't just water-traces; they're some kind of runes! Furrowing her brow, she struggled to puzzle out their meaning. Maybe it was just her exhaustion, or maybe the water of the stream really had washed some of the runes away, but unlike most languages she'd encountered Marguerite was only able to translate a few bits and pieces. beginning the source of life water and earth opposite and equal must be joined journey beginning and end The runes blurred, and Marguerite realized she couldn't keep her eyes open any longer. She wasn't cold at all anymore; instead a delicious warmth crept over her. I'll just rest for a few minutes maybe it will make more sense then
As she slumped down, Marguerite knocked both the torch and the bowl into the stream. The torch continued to burn even as it and the bowl were borne swiftly away, floating on the surface of the stream, leaving the oblivious woman alone by the water's edge.
Roxton quickly discovered that sounds must carry well in these caves. He had expected to find the source of the voices and the water-sounds close by, but he followed the passage quite a ways through several twists and turns without finding the speakers. The noises did become louder, though, and gradually he was able to make out some of what they were saying.
" is the one?"
" sign "
" the other "
" leave her here, and we will see what the may ther "
What on earth are they talking about? Roxton wondered in frustration. "Her"? Could they mean Marguerite? He anxiously increased his pace as much as his battered body would allow. In his haste, he accidentally banged the toes of one foot against an unevenness in the rocky ground. A stifled oath escaped him as he staggered and leaned against one wall, grimacing as the pain slowly subsided. That hurt! He flexed his toes gingerly. Fortunately it isn't anything serious. I'm going to have to be more careful. I never thought I'd be missing my boots more than my clothes! Snorting softly at the thought, Roxton moved forward more cautiously, noticing with disappointment that he could no longer hear anyone speaking. Great; they've probably moved on. I have to hurry if I want to try and catch them, but I can't go too fast or I'll just hurt myself again. I can't afford to get hurt; it'll slow me down even more, and I need to find Marguerite.
Time passed swiftly as Roxton made his slow, steady way along the seemingly endless tunnel. As he approached yet another bend in the passage, he noticed the light streaming from whatever was beyond the corner was brighter than the scant illumination of the section of the cave he was currently in. Good; more light means I'm more likely to find people. And people mean answers. Stubbornly ignoring the rapidly-increasing tremors indicating that he was reaching the limits of what little strength he'd regained, he eased forward.
A moment later, Roxton forgot all about his bruised toes, battered body, and physical pains. He found himself in a large cavern, well-lit by torches and with a spring running right through the middle of it - but he only had eyes for what lay by the water. "Marguerite!" He broke into a stumbling run, kicking up sand with every step, and heedlessly plunked to his knees beside her. Marguerite's eyes were closed, and her hair was wet and disheveled. Her skin was icy cold to the touch, but Roxton's questing fingers quickly found a pulsebeat. Pulling her into his lap, pack and all, he hissed as her soaked, sandy, clammy hair slapped soggily against his bare chest. He tried to rouse her, patting her face repeatedly. "Marguerite? Marguerite, wake up!"
To his infinite relief, Marguerite's eyelids fluttered and then opened in response to his efforts. Grey eyes regarded him hazily but with recognition in their depths. "J-John?" she muttered. "About time "
"Past time," he agreed, not really understanding what she meant but too overwhelmed at finding her to care. "You've had me worried sick. What on earth are you wearing? What happened to you?" he babbled.
"Me too," Marguerite mumbled. "You're okay?"
Roxton took a deep, calming breath as he brushed some of the damp hair from her forehead. "Yes, I'm fine, now that I've found you."
A faint smile rewarded John's words. "Challenger?"
"He's okay too."
Marguerite's eyes drifted closed again. "Good, then I can sleep "
Terror knifed through him. "No! No, Marguerite, you can't sleep - wake up!" He shook her roughly. The experienced hunter was all too familiar with the dangers of cold and sleep - and Marguerite was dangerously chilled. Even her imprisonment by the ice-creatures not so long ago hadn't left her this badly off; her body wasn't even shivering anymore. He raised his hand, hesitating, reluctant to slap her but willing to do whatever it took to keep her conscious and with him. "Marguerite!"
Thankfully, before he had to decide whether to strike her for her own good, Marguerite's eyes opened once more at the sound of her name. "What?" Recognizing some of his frantic urgency, she visibly struggled for a little more awareness. "Why can't I sleep? I'm tired."
"Because if you fall asleep now, you might never wake up! Marguerite, you're freezing to death - I've got to get you warmed up, and you've got to try and stay awake."
She giggled at his absurd statement, her anxiety and alertness both fading. "No, I'm not freezing - I'm warm, finally. Let me rest."
Roxton grabbed one of Marguerite's hands and placed it against his chest. "No, no, no - Marguerite, you're not warm, you're so cold your body's stopped trying to fight it - feel how warm I am compared to you, and I'm cold - now wake up!" he shouted frantically.
Marguerite's eyes widened as her hand came into contact with Roxton's bare skin; it was painfully hot, almost unbearable. "You're burning up or I'm that cold," she gasped, finally grasping what Roxton had been trying to tell her. Despite the pain, she tried to draw nearer to him.
John exhaled, a little relieved that she understood the danger at last. Raising the freezing woman up a trifle, the hunter pushed impatiently at the straps of the pack she carried on her back. "Can you sit up a bit? I need to get this off of you, get you as close to me as possible."
Marguerite did the best she could to help, appalled at how much energy it took. At last the pack was off, and she could huddle against him. "Of course you're only hugging me for survival purposes," she quipped faintly.
Roxton chuckled a little and dropped a kiss on the top of her head, holding her tightly. "Of course," he agreed. He was glad to feel her starting to shiver as her body attempted to fight the cold, but the tremors also highlighted the general impracticality of trying to warm her all on his own. I need to get her back to the room; there's a brazier there, and all the furs and blankets, and Challenger might have some ideas how to help her, too. "Do you think you can walk?"
"I d-don't k-know," Marguerite stuttered. She was feeling colder, not warmer, but hoped that was a good sign.
"Can you try - ?" Roxton stopped as Marguerite's hand seized his in an unexpectedly strong grip.
"I t-think w-we've got big-ger problems," she said, staring at the loose ring of fur-clad young women surrounding them. Not one of the youngsters spoke a word, but then again, with all their spears leveled at Roxton and Marguerite, they really didn't need words to make their point.
The little fire crackled and hissed cheerfully, the only sound to be heard in the snow-muffled night. Veronica stared across the fire at the drifting flakes, both fascinated and frustrated by their intricate, relentless fall. Part of her appreciated the beauty of the sight, one she'd rarely seen before. Another part of her knew that the longer the fall continued, the less chance there was that she and Finn would be able to find any sign of their missing friends.
A faint whimper distracted her attention from the snowfall, and Veronica turned to look at Finn. All she could see of the other woman was a little bit of blonde hair sticking out from underneath the blankets. The comical sight made the older blonde smile, a smile that quickly vanished as a louder whimper reached her ears. "Finn?" she called quietly, not quite sure what to do. She didn't want to wake her unnecessarily, but at the same time, these were not happy sounds she was hearing. After yet another unhappy cry, she reached over and poked what she guessed to be Finn's shoulder. "Finn, it's all right," she said soothingly.
Finn abruptly sat up with a startled squeak, her blue eyes wide with fright. For a moment she didn't seem to recognize her surroundings, and then her shoulders sagged. "Vee?" she said in a small voice.
"Yes, it's me," Veronica replied at once. After a split-second of hesitation, she went on. "I think you were having a bad dream."
Finn shuddered, wrapping her arms loosely around herself as she tried to shove the images out of her mind. "Yeah, you could say that. I hate the cold." Her tone was unusually vehement.
Veronica blinked, a little startled to hear her own sentiments echoed so forcefully by the younger woman, particularly given that they contradicted her earlier enthusiasm about the snow. "Me too. I guess we're not used to it."
Still caught up in the images and the feelings evoked by them, and at least partially still asleep, Finn's disagreement was automatic. "No, brings back bad memories." Too late, she saw the sudden interest sparked in her friend's eyes, and silently cursed. Unwilling to discuss it or even think about it if she could help it, she cast around for some kind of distraction and immediately found one. "It's snowing!"
"Yes." Veronica's voice reflected her ambiguous feelings about the weather - but not her intense curiosity about the unexpected glimpse into Finn's history. She'd spent too many years coping with the minefields inherent when trying to find out about Marguerite's mysterious past to make that mistake.
"Cool - oh. Oh, no. This is going to make finding the others that much harder, isn't it?"
"Probably, particularly if it doesn't stop soon."
"We won't let it stop us, though, right Vee?" The question was as much an effort to boost Veronica's spirits as her own.
Veronica smiled at the younger woman, grateful for the confidence. "No, Finn, we won't let it stop us."
The two women sat together, watching the snow fall.
"W-what do you think they're w-waiting for?" Marguerite whispered to Roxton, frustrated. She'd tried communicating with the women, with no success. They remained silent and still, reacting only to further threaten Marguerite and Roxton with their spears when the couple tried to move.
"I don't know," the hunter murmured in her ear. "I've only met one person here so far who would talk at all, and he wasn't exactly going out of his way to answer any questions." He frowned as Marguerite continued to shake uncontrollably, and tried to keep from shivering himself. We can't stay here - I need to get her warmer! Sitting here on the ground holding her isn't going to be enough - and it's not doing me any favors, either. Sitting on the frigid ground and holding a wet, chilly Marguerite, with only a single animal skin wrapped around his waist protecting him from the cold, was slowly but surely draining him of what little warmth and energy he had left. He tried rocking back and forth a little, both to try and warm up and to comfort Marguerite, only to be confronted with yet another angry spear-jab in his direction. "Whatever they're waiting for, they bloody well better hurry up," he growled.
"Be silent, if you wish to live," a new voice answered his complaint in heavily-accented English.
The ring of spear-women parted enough to admit two newcomers. Both women were much older than the others; their long hair was streaked with white, and their faces were lined with age. Looking back and forth, Marguerite wondered if the cold had finally seeped into her brain, or if there really were two identical old women now standing in front of them. The younger women all lowered their spear-tips, although they did not put the spears down.
One of the old women pointed menacingly at Roxton, then glared at her companion. "He is here!" she hissed.
"Yes, but he shows respect," the other one answered in a gentler voice. "Look at his feet."
Startled, Roxton glanced down at his chilled and battered toes, then at the feet of those around him, only now noticing all of the others were barefoot, too. Maybe it's a good thing my boots went missing with the rest of my clothes. He tried not to gawk as he realized that several of the women wore metal rings around their toes.
"That may be so," the angry elder conceded grudgingly. "But what of her? What of them?" Her gesture went from pointing at Marguerite, to a wave that encompassed the couple huddled together on the floor of the cavern, to a wild fling of the arm that seemed to include the entire cavern. "What of all this?"
"I believe it is well," was the calm reply as the woman regarded Marguerite thoughtfully. She crouched down suddenly, utterly ignoring Roxton's protective scowl. "Show me your hands," she commanded.
Confused, the dark-haired woman hesitated, then extended both of her hands, trying to control their trembling. She hated the idea that these women might think she was afraid. I'm just cold, she thought defiantly.
The woman took her hands in a strong but gentle grip, then gradually turned them, peering at her wrists. A moment later she gave a satisfied snort. "There. The mark."
The angrier of the two crowded forward, also staring at Marguerite's wrists. The blue veins in them were more visible than usual, branching out like rivers into her icy hands. At the base of each wrist, however, was something new - a blue spiral, the one on her right wrist running clockwise, the one on her left wrist counterclockwise. The marks gleamed in the light of the cavern. "The mark," the other woman agreed, sounding disgruntled but much less angry. The evaluating look she turned on Roxton and Marguerite held a surprising measure of respect before she turned back to her companion. "This bears discussion."
"Yes. In the meantime, bring them."
Roxton couldn't help groaning as he tried to get himself and Marguerite onto their feet. The cold had stiffened up his bruises a great deal even in the short time they'd been in the cavern, and he was finding it hard to move. Moments later his groan turned into an angry cry of protest as Marguerite was lifted away from him and many hands seized his arms, hauling him upright. "Leave her alone!" He struggled futilely against the young women holding him, then froze as several spears were pointed in his direction once again.
"Roxton, no! I'm all right," Marguerite gasped hastily. It wasn't entirely true; she could barely stand, and some of the hands gripping her were far from gentle - but she wasn't going to let him know that if she could help it. It was only at this moment that she had a chance to see the battered condition the hunter was in. She seethed with anxiety for him, and would not chance him risking himself further.
"He acts to protect her," one of the two older women said, sounding surprised. Both elders had moved, and in the confusion surrounding the moment, Roxton was no longer sure which was which.
"She acts to protect him," the other of the pair replied, sounding equally startled. The two stared at the couple, mirror images reflecting a myriad of emotions, then continued onwards.
Roxton and Marguerite were forcibly escorted out of the cavern and down the tunnel where the stream also exited. A raised path allowed them to keep their feet dry. After a short walk, the path diverged from the water, and they found themselves in another large cavern, this one lined with benches - and a number of boots. If the boots belonged to the women, however, they did not stop to put them on. Instead they continued marching the couple down yet another tunnel. Marguerite, feeling weak and cold but more alert, was starting to wonder if she ought to risk a question when the group abruptly halted in front of a curtained archway.
"You will wait in here and recover, with the aid of Yemanjá's blessing," one of the elders stated, regarding Marguerite.
"Do not attempt to leave here, or the consequences will be most unfortunate," the other elder said, staring at Roxton.
The two women drew aside the curtain, and Roxton and Marguerite were propelled into a dimly-lit, misty chamber. Roxton stumbled and nearly fell as the shove aggravated his bruises.
"Are you all right?" Marguerite demanded as the curtain closed behind them, leaving the two alone.
"I'm fine. What about you?"
"S-still cold, but definitely more awake," Marguerite replied ruefully. She felt a little lightheaded again, but she thought it might be due to the change in temperature if it was real? "Roxton, is it warmer in here, or is it just m-me?"
"It's not just you," he reassured her at once, staring into the center of the room. An incredulous smile lit his features. "I believe my lady's bath has been drawn."
"What?" Marguerite turned to look, and paused in astonishment. Most of what she had thought was floor was actually a large pool of water, steam rising from its surface. "Is that ?"
The hunter strode to the edge, stooped over, and dipped a finger into the water. " a hot spring, yes." Carefully straightening up, he extended a hand to his shivering companion. "Come on. Time for a swim."
A half-smile brightened her face as he deliberately echoed the playful, teasing words he'd spoken before at the shore of the Inland Sea. "What? W-without a bathing costume?" she replied.
Despite exhaustion, injury, and cold, Roxton laughed, feeling happiness well up within him. She's going to be all right. "I could promise not to look," he chuckled.
"That might help," Marguerite answered as lightly as she could, surprised to find that on some level, she meant it. She hadn't been body-shy around others for longer than she could remember - and certainly hadn't been shy around John when they'd first met. But as they'd grown closer, particularly over the past year, she'd been confounded by a new nervousness she couldn't entirely explain. Oh for goodness' sake - stop being such a ninny! she scolded herself.
Roxton's smile faded as he sensed some of the conflict she would not voice. "Marguerite "
Marguerite shivered and banished the last of her missishness, reaching instead for her gun-belt. "Not a word, Roxton - not to anyone. We both n-need a hot bath. Just remember - I won't peek if you won't."
Roxton sighed, deliberately turned his back, and reached for the knot holding his animal-fur around his waist. Knowing that the slight tremble in his fingers had nothing to do with the cold, he still strove to match Marguerite's tone. "Deal."