Authors' Notes: We've played fast and loose with the traditions and beliefs associated with the Candomblé and Macumba religions, bending them and adapting them to suit our needs for the fictional tribe of the Matozoíde. All of our research links are at the end. Sadly, our best and favourite site vanished from the web while we were
between rounds. Let this be a lesson to all of us to finish our fics in a timely manner. ::sigh::
Round 8 - DNash
Challenger lay in impotent frustration. The ice pack against his leg had grown soft and slightly damp from condensation. Fortunately it seemed to be made of some sort of oilskin, so it hadn't yet leaked. He hoped someone would return and remove it before it did. He'd considered removing it himself, but his hands were too weak and clumsy to manage it. Despite the unpleasant sensation of wet and chill, he took some comfort in it. It was his only way of telling time. The candles still burned so evenly that he could discern no change in their height. He found it puzzling, but he put his puzzlement aside. There was nothing he could do without facts, and he had none.
That man, Domblé , he thought. He said Roxton would return soon, but he hasn't and it's been at least an hour or more. And that acolyte he said would come with food hasn't appeared either. Strange.
He was tired of his horizontal view of the cave, and he always thought better in an upright position. Mustering his strength, he once more pushed himself up on one elbow. He'd nearly managed to roll onto his side in preparation for sitting up, when a clattering noise startled him and he lost his precarious balance and fell back onto the bed. Immediately hands were on him. His first instinct was to fight, but he lacked the strength. He cursed inwardly and was about to shout for help when caught sight of his "attacker".
He was robed in fur, as Domblé had been, but this fellow was little more than a boy. Challenger guessed he couldn't be more than twelve or thirteen. He relaxed as he took in the fearful expression on the boy's face.
"It's all right," Challenger said, hoping the boy would understand English. "I won't fight you."
The boy's wide brown eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"You understand me?"
"Good. I promise you I won't fight."
Reluctantly, the boy released his hold and backed away a step.
True to his word, Challenger lay still. He hadn't the energy for anything more. His glance went past the boy to the tray on the ground behind him. That was what had made the noise he'd heard earlier; the cup and bowl must have banged against one another in the boy's haste to set down the tray. Liquid from both had slopped over the sides and pooled together.
"You must be the acolyte Domblé mentioned."
The boy nodded.
"Can you speak?"
Now the boy looked puzzled, but not by the question itself. Rather, he seemed uncertain how to answer.
"Are you physically able to speak?" Challenger tried.
A nod and a smile this time.
"But you don't speak."
He shook his head.
Challenger made a leap of logic. "You're an acolyte. Have you taken a vow of silence?"
Another smile. Another nod.
"I see." The were several scenarios that leapt to Challenger's mind, but trying to get answers from a boy sworn to silence was more than he was willing to face at present. Instead, he tilted his head, indicating the tray on the floor. "Is that for me?"
The boy nodded yet again and retrieved the tray. He was about to set it on the bed next to Challenger, but hesitated as if unsure how to proceed.
Seeing his dilemma written on his expressive young face, Challenger spoke up once more. "Maybe I can help." Bracing his hands to either side of his hips under the layers of covers, he slowly inched himself up. He was breathing heavily by the time he reached a sitting position. The bedclothes slipped down, but fortunately not far enough to reveal anything beyond the scientist's battered and bandaged chest and abdomen.
Now the acolyte appeared to be in familiar territory. He rounded the bed and sat on its edge next to Challenger, balancing the tray on his lap. He carefully helped the injured man to drink from the bowl, which contained a hot, heavily seasoned meat stock. When that was gone, he traded the empty bowl for the mug, raising it to Challenger's lips.
The mug contained cold, clear water, and Challenger drank it down thirstily. "Thank you," he said as the boy replaced the drained mug on the tray.
The boy smiled. He produced a scrap of soft cloth and used it to delicately mop a drop of water from the corner of Challenger's mouth.
Challenger fought his internal annoyance at once again being treated like a child, but common sense overruled his objections. He had no more strength than a child; it only made sense that he be handled accordingly.
Apparently satisfied, the acolyte tucked his cloth away, took hold of his tray, and stood.
"Wait!" Challenger had to get some answers from this silent boy somehow. There was no way to know when Domblé or Roxton might return.
The boy paused and turned inquisitive eyes on the scientist.
"There was a man with me before, a friend of mine. Do you know who I mean?"
The boy shook his head.
"What about Domblé ? Do you know him?"
This time he nodded eagerly.
"Can you tell me where he is? When he'll return?"
The boy frowned and cocked his head to one side.
Challenger realized his mistake immediately. "Do you know where he is?"
"Do you know when he'll be back?"
"Is there someone besides Domblé I could speak with?"
The boy's eyes grew wide and fearful. He shook his head vehemently, nearly upsetting the dishes on his tray. He looked like he wanted to run away, but duty or training held him there
Challenger hastened to reassure him. "All right. All right. I'll simply wait for Domblé or Roxton to come back," he said quickly. It appears to be my only option at this point anyway, his mind added dryly. "Thank you for the food," he added.
The boy nodded and seemed to take Challenger's words as a dismissal. He turned and quickly fled before the injured man could ask any more questions.
Alone once more and with nothing to distract him, Challenger became aware suddenly of how tired he was. The exertion of simply sitting upright for so long had taken its toll on his abused body. He sank back onto the bed and just managed to pull up the covers with one shaky hand before falling into an exhausted sleep.
Morning dawned cold and clear. Finn, still wrapped in the blankets she'd worn since Veronica had woken her for her watch, shuffled to the sleeping woman and nudged her with a booted foot.
"Hey, Vee, wake up," she said.
The older blonde woke with unusual reluctance. She opened her eyes to seen Finn staring down at her. "Morning already?" she asked, although the answer was obvious.
"Yeah. You said wake you at first light, remember?"
Veronica nodded. "Yes." She sat up and pushed back the covers, shivering as the first rush of cold air hit her. "I'm awake now," she muttered and climbed to her feet. She was having trouble gathering her wits this morning. Must be the cold, she thought, stretching.
Finn watched her, a bit worried when Vee didn't wake like her usual, alert self. "You okay?"
Veronica nodded. "Just the cold," she echoed her thoughts aloud. "I'll get us some breakfast while you pack up."
"Okay." The younger woman knelt by Veronica's makeshift bed. She didn't want to let go of her protective covering, but had trouble keeping the blankets around herself as she worked to roll up her friend's bedroll.
Veronica stoked up the tiny fire with their few remaining twigs. As she searched her pack for rations, she caught sight of Finn's awkward struggle. She laughed. "It would be easier if you rolled yours up first," she teased.
"It's too cold without," complained Finn, not giving up.
"You'll warm up the more you move, and you can't hike wearing blankets."
"I can try."
Finn sighed, defeated. Between the blankets around her and the ones she was fighting with, she was already uncomfortably warm. "All right, all right." She shrugged free and shortly had both bedrolls ready for packing. By then she was warm enough that she didn't even bother to put on the fur cloak Veronica had loaned her for their snowy trek.
Veronica chuckled to herself as she brewed tea for them both in a small pot. Normally vegetarian, necessity sometimes dictated otherwise and she warmed strips of dried iguanadon by the fire. She looked up at the mountain looming above them, and her mirth faded to grim determination.
Finn noticed her staring and came to stand beside her, her own pale eyes following Veronica's gaze. The mountain was beautiful in the growing light. Its peak glittered like a field of tiny diamonds under the sun's early morning glow. The sky was a crystal clear pale blue. It was going to be a gorgeous day.
"I've never seen the mountains before," Finn said softly, her breath misting in the cold air. "There was always too much smog in New Amazonia to see very far--and that was only once we were able to go above ground again. They sure are pretty."
"Pretty and potentially deadly," said Veronica. "The sun will heat the snow and melt it."
"But that's good! That'll make it easier to walk, and not nearly so cold."
Veronica turned dark eyes on her companion. "It won't melt it all, Finn. Just enough to make it wet and loose."
Understanding crept into Finn's mind. "More avalanches?" she guessed.
"Then we better get going fast!" declared the young woman resolutely. She turned to the fire. Using a corner of Challenger's shirt to protect her fingers from the heat of the pot's handle, she poured out the tea into the waiting tin mugs. "Here." She thrust a mug into Veronica's hands, then claimed the softened dinosaur jerky and passed a strip of it over, too. "Eat up so we can get going."
Finn's actions shook Veronica from her momentary reverie. She sipped the tea, its warmth infusing itself into her chilled body.
Less than fifteen minutes later, they'd eaten and packed. With all signs of their camp gone, and the women were on the move once more.
"The snow stopped falling pretty soon after you fell asleep," Finn informed Veronica. She shifted her pack under her fur cloak, trying to find the most comfortable position. "So there should still be some trail left."
"Assuming nothing else has passed this way and obscured it."
Finn shot the older woman a sidelong glance as they hiked. "Since when did you become the pessimist in the group?"
Veronica realized Finn was right and gave the girl a wry smile. "Sorry. I'm just worried."
"So am I, but we'll find them."
If Marguerite closed her eyes, she could almost imagine she was in a luxurious Parisian spa. The water that surrounded her was just hot enough to make her skin tingle, and the steam that rose from it enveloped her senses like a warm blanket. Even the stone ledge on which she sat was smooth enough for her to imagine it was hand-hewn marble. The only thing that spoiled the illusion was the presence of a man in the hot spring with her.
Well, she thought, not so much 'spoils'. In fact, I'd say it improves the atmosphere tremendously.
Roxton looked at Marguerite across the pool. Her eyes were shut and she was smiling. He couldn't help but smile, too. She was obviously feeling better for their soak in the hot spring. He watched her, dutifully keeping his eyes above the level of the water. He enjoyed the chance to observe her without her knowledge. Her dark curls hadn't dried, but they no longer hung in heavy, dripping ropes over her smooth, white shoulders. Instead they seemed almost buoyant in the warm, moist air. The color had returned to her cheeks, and she looked as relaxed and content as he'd ever seen her. I wonder if she has any idea how beautiful she is, he thought dreamily.
"Penny for your thoughts, Lord Roxton."
He started and immediately looked away, his smile vanishing in embarrassment. He'd been caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar. "Uhhh "
Marguerite cracked open one eye and smirked at his obvious discomfort. Until that moment, she had only guessed he was staring at her. Now she was positive her guess was correct. "They must be worth more than a penny to elicit that reaction," she teased, opening both eyes fully.
Roxton took refuge in an entirely unrelated topic. "We need to get out of here. Challenger's bound to be worried about us both by now."
Marguerite's smile faded. "You know where he is? Is he all right?"
"He's in one piece," John hedged. At Marguerite's worried frown, he continued. "He was hurt pretty badly in the fall that separated us from you. But the men who found us have patched him up. I'm sure he'll be fine. He was sleeping when I left him."
"Just sleeping?" Concern was clear in her voice.
"Just sleeping," he reassured her. "He's probably woken up by now, and wondering where I am. Are you feeling well enough for a bit of a walk?"
Marguerite wasn't listening anymore. Something John had said was niggling at her mind, but she couldn't quite place what it was.
She started. "What?"
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine." Her mind caught up with what he'd said. "I'm sure I can make it to wherever you left George, assuming you can find the way back. I was only cold before, not hurt. You, on the other hand " She raked his naked body with concerned eyes.
John flushed, and not from the heat of the pool. He shifted uncomfortably under her gaze, effectively obscuring her view through the now turbulent water. "I'm all right, and I can find Challenger. Don't worry about me," he said gruffly.
A voice spoke, startling both of them. "You will not be leaving yet."
The pair in the hot spring turned as one to face the two female elders who had brought them there.
"No," agreed Marguerite, the first to find her voice. "First we'll need to dry off and dress. I don't suppose you brought us towels?"
"Impudence!" snapped the woman on the left.
The woman on the right seemed more amused than angry. "Patience," she chided her companion. "She has spirit, and she's worthy of some respect. Otherwise she would not have received the mark."
Marguerite had forgotten about the strange markings on her wrists, but now she lifted both hands from the water and stared at them. They were still there, the blue spirals the women had spotted earlier. She had no idea what they meant or how they'd gotten there, although she had a good idea who was responsible. Yemanjá.
Both elders' eyes widened in surprise and they stared at Marguerite. The dark-haired woman felt as if their gazes were boring into her, seeing past her flesh and bones and into her soul.
"Stop it!" she cried suddenly, tearing her own eyes away from the strange pair and turning her back on them both.
"Marguerite?" asked Roxton worriedly. He had seen nothing but the women staring at one another. His first instinct was to go to her, to try to calm her down and comfort her. But he didn't move, their naked state and the unwelcome visitors causing him to hold back. "Are you all right?" he demanded for the second time in as many minutes.
Marguerite's reply was as calm as it had been the first time, but now there was a coolness in her tone. "I'm fine, thank you, John." She had just realized what it was in his words that had started her brain spinning earlier. She brushed a moist curl back from her face and turned a defiant look on the elders, pinning them with a challenging glare. "We have a friend nearby whom we need to see. Roxton says the men have been looking after him." She was gratified to see the angry woman's face pale at her words. The other elder's expression became suddenly unreadable.
For his part, Roxton remained quiet and perfectly still, paying very close attention. He didn't know where Marguerite was going, and he wanted to be ready to follow should she require backup. He marveled at her ability to appear so serene and strong in their current bizarre circumstances.
The old women looked at one another in silence, and Marguerite got the distinct impression there was some unspoken communication between them. It wouldn't surprise me, she realized as she watched them. That's the way they looked at me a moment ago. She was glad they had turned their searching gazes on one another; she didn't want to be on the receiving end of one again.
Finally, the more pleasant of the elders turned to look at the pair in the hot spring. "I am Tereza," she said. She indicated her twin. "This is my sister, Luisah. You have questions, as do we. I recommend continuing this discussion in more appropriate surroundings."
"Agreed," replied Marguerite. "Now about those towels?"
Tereza smiled very slightly and pulled two large squares of roughly woven cloth from inside her robes. She held them out. Marguerite rose from the pool and stepped out. Water cascaded from her as she emerged, and her skin pebbled in the cooler air. She took the towels from Tereza, returning her smile with a matching one of her own.
"Thank you." Marguerite wrapped a towel around herself and turned to Roxton. "John?" she said, offering the other to him.
Keeping a wary eye on the elders, he reached up and took the cloth. He wrapped it about his waist as he stood, just managing to retain what little modesty was left to him at that point. Gripping the two ends together in one hand, he stepped from the pool and stood next to Marguerite. "What about our clothes?" he asked the women.
As if on cue, a barefoot young woman wearing the toe-rings that appeared to be the signature of this strange group entered the cavern. She bore two long robes in her arms.
Luisah took them from her and handed both to Marguerite. "Your own things will be returned in due course," she said flatly. As she spoke, the young woman collected up their discarded coverings and disappeared back the way she had come. Roxton fought back a sigh of relief when she left Marguerite's pack untouched.
"We'll await you in the tunnel," Tereza informed them. Then she and Luisah followed the girl out.
Immediately John went to the pack. "At least they didn't take anything else." He knelt and used his free hand to give the bag a once over.
"Oh yes," replied Marguerite dryly, "a gun is far more useful than clothing."
Roxton rose again and was about to respond when his scathing remark died on his lips. He turned to her just as she tossed her wet towel aside. He caught a full view of her body, from the back of her head all the way down to her heels, before she slipped into the fur robe Luisah had given her. Instantly he spun back around so she wouldn't know he'd seen her, and so she wouldn't see the effect she'd had on him. "They uh both have their protective qualities," he all but stuttered, trying frantically to regain his composure and self-control.
He started at the touch of her hand on his arm, then looked over one shoulder at her. Her robe was done up and tied around her slim waist, and she held the other robe in one hand.
"Finish drying off and put this on," she continued. "Our hostesses are waiting."
The signs of passage left by the trio of explorers were undeniably obscured by the previous night's snowfall, but Veronica found enough traces to keep her and Finn going for a good distance. The sun was reaching its zenith when the pair finally ran out of visible trail.
Veronica stood, ankle deep in snow, and glared at the obvious signs of an avalanche. It had been a huge fall, much larger than the one she and Finn had heard in the darkness last night. They must have made it through here before the avalanche, she thought, fighting back her fear. The possibility that her friends had been lost, buried until some distant thaw released their frozen bodies, was unacceptable; she refused to even entertain the idea. If we can just get across this, we'll find their path again.
Unaware of Veronica's thoughts, Finn put her hands on her hips and whistled in awe. "Damn," she breathed, surveying the fallout ahead of them. "How the hell are we going to get across that?"
"Very, very carefully," answered Veronica tersely. "But we can't do it now." She hated to admit it--it felt too much like conceding defeat before the match was even half played--but she knew that trying to traverse the area in the middle of the day was beyond foolish and well into the realm of blatant stupidity.
"But, Vee, we can't stop now!" exclaimed Finn. She was about to suggest they try going around instead, but stopped herself abruptly. There was no way around without going miles out of their way, and even then there was no guarantee they would be able to get back to their current elevation once they reached the other side. "So what do we do?" she asked instead, looking around for somewhere to rest and shelter should they be stuck there overnight.
Veronica didn't answer right away. She was considering their options, which were abysmally few.
"Perhaps I can help you," said a voice from off to their left.
Startled, both women drew their weapons, spinning to face the intruder.