Marguerite came back to consciousness slowly, senses coming back in piecemeal fashion. She was first aware of touch; of softness beneath her, the firm comfort of a cushion-covered surface supporting her body, of a softer, silken surface against her cheek, of dampness soothing her dry lips. Groggily, she licked her lips in reflexive response to that dampness, and vaguely recognized the taste of wine. A vision formed behind her eyelids, of the dark-haired woman holding a clay chalice brimming with that self-same liquid, her brow furrowed with concern. Marguerite's eyes fluttered open, sending silver light spilling into the room.
She was in the cella, staring up at the kingfisher-frescoed ceiling. Shifting her head, she realized she was lying on the same cushioned bench she'd rested on ever since she'd been trapped in this place. So far she could see no cause for the alarm that was slowly surging through her system, except that she had no memory of how she came to be here. She didn't remember setting the silk-covered pillow underneath her head, or covering herself for warmth with the blue-dyed chiton. She didn't even remember lying down. In fact, she wasn't sure what the last thing she remembered was. She was incredibly tired, and felt so very weak. She wasn't even sure she could sit up. At least her throat didn't feel so horribly dry
Marguerite sat up with a terrified gasp, proving that she was at least capable of that much motion. The blue-dyed chiton slipped down to puddle in her lap, leaving her sitting in her own usual clothes. The world rocked and spun around her, but she managed to stay upright. Her skin broke out in an exhausted sweat. "What ?"
You are awake. Good. I was worried. The voice in her head, combined with the upheaval of her sudden movement, made Marguerite feel nauseated. She swallowed convulsively and again tasted the sweet residue of wine - or was it honey?
Do not fear. The voice in her head was gentle, as if it knew how very ill Marguerite felt. Yes, you were revived with wine, well-watered wine, with a good dollop of honey. You were very far gone from us. But you did not choose to drink the wine. Because it was not your choice to drink, you are still free to leave the temple. If a bodiless voice could smile, this one did.
A dry chuckle wheezed from Marguerite's throat. "Talk about fine print."
As you say.
"But - but I still don't understand." Marguerite took a quick breath, appalled at how difficult it was just to talk, but needing to ask. "How did you bring me wine? I mean, you're not really here, are you?"
The voice in her head sighed, a truly strange sensation that left Marguerite shuddering uncontrollably. Oh, I am here. I cannot leave. I am always here in the temple with you, in a way. I - it is difficult to explain.
The voice in her head fell silent, and Marguerite felt her eyelids fluttering closed, pulled shut by their own intolerable weight. She half-thought she felt a soft hand lightly stroking her sweat-dampened hair back from her forehead. She reeled, and her hands convulsively closed in an instinctive attempt to grab onto anything that might help keep her upright. She felt soft wool between her fingers, and somewhere she found the strength to re-open her eyes.
Arthur and Adrienne were still by the fire, sitting again, as they had not been the last time she remembered seeing them. Marguerite deliberately did not look over to the corner, to see if he was still there too. To her knowing eyes, both Arthur and Adrienne were plainly concerned, staring over at her with their uniquely individual expressions of caring showing blatantly on their faces. Which is to say Summerlee looked worried and Adrienne looked angry.
Questions I need to ask them questions. I have to help my friends. Wearily, Marguerite moistened her lips. "Have have Roxton and Challenger found Veronica and Malone?"
"Yes, my dear," Arthur answered immediately. "Thanks to you."
That didn't make any sense. "Thanks to me how?"
That seemed to surprise them both, if Marguerite was any judge. "You mean you don't remember?" Adrienne asked at last.
Marguerite frowned, surprised at the question, and surprised Adrienne could ask it. "No."
"Then we can't tell you," his voice came oilily to her ears, making her feel even sicker.
Marguerite ignored him with an effort. She was sure there was an answer there she should pursue, but she was so very tired. She needed to hoard her limited resources and focus only on the most critical issues. Unconsciously, her fingers relaxed their grip on the chiton covering her lap and started stroking the soft wool instead. "When will they return to the temple?"
"Two days from now," Adrienne said angrily. "If all goes well."
"They are prepared," Summerlee soothed the angry Frenchwoman.
Two more days of this what day is it now? Marguerite realized she had no idea how long she'd been unconscious. "What day is it now? I mean, how long have I been here?"
"Four days, my dear."
It is late in the afternoon of the fourth day, the voice said inside her mind.
Sighing, Marguerite lifted a shaking hand and rubbed her eyes, trying to remember Arthur's and Adrienne's earlier suggestions about questions she should ask. Her head pounded with a vicious headache and her ears rang with a high, persistent buzz. All she wanted to do was close her eyes, but she had to go on. She forced her increasingly dry lips to form words and ignored the growing blurriness of her vision. "Once they get here, what do I need to do in order to break the curse?"
Malone was a very worried bird.
When he'd seen his friends yesterday, he'd been so sure help and rescue were right around the corner. Then Veronica had come, and he'd nearly lost himself again in the mad fight and flight that had followed. He still couldn't remember most of their escape, how long or where they'd flown. Eventually he'd come back to his human awareness enough to realize they were far from their usual territory, and he started leading Veronica back to their regular haunts. They'd reached the edges of their territory just before dark, and Malone had been dismayed to see no sign of the two men.
Now the morning sun warmed his feathers. It was almost time to fly, to start the morning hunt and begin another day. Veronica was with him, at least in body; he'd yet to see any signs of her returning human awareness. But where were Roxton and Challenger?
Veronica gave one last preen of her feathers and cocked her head, looking about for any signs of danger. Seeing none, she trilled a hunting call and launched herself from the branch.
Malone found himself automatically answering her call with one of his own. He lifted himself into the air, wings pumping strongly, and streaked after her. Letting the bird part of himself worry about the flying, Malone kept enough awareness to look for signs of humans as they soared through the jungle. He was relieved to see that Veronica was headed back to their usual stream, but dismayed to still see no signs of his friends.
Determined to find them, Malone did not follow suit when Veronica landed on their customary branch overhanging the stream. Instead, he fought the male bird's instincts and tried to circle around the stream area, hoping to see something that indicated that his friends had been here, that he hadn't just imagined their presence the previous day. As before, fighting for control had a noticeably negative effect on his flying ability. Malone dipped and wavered erratically, floundering in his efforts to stay airborne and circumnavigate the stream.
A series of alarmed shrieks almost sent him tumbling. Just in time, his bird instincts took control. The male kingfisher skimmed the earth, his left wingtip actually grazing the ground as he worked to regain altitude. That was his mate crying out in alarm! There was danger! He continued climbing, soaring upwards to see what the danger was. He glimpsed his mate sitting on the same branch she'd landed on, her beak gaping as she shrilled her warning cry. He looked around in every direction, but could not see the cause of her fright. Frantically, he winged towards her, determined to protect her and their territory.
As he approached his mate, something about her behavior made him pause. Bringing himself to a hover just a few feet away, he stared at her, increasingly bewildered by her actions. She fluttered her wings madly, screaming piteously, but did not rise from the branch. He called out to her, encouraging her to rise, to flee with him away from whatever danger threatened, but she still did not join him in the air.
A movement in the bushes not ten feet away brought him winging around to meet the threat. Two humans rose from the bushes where they'd been concealed, trailing ominous-looking appendages that rippled in the slight breeze. They rumbled menacingly.
"It looks like your goo worked, Challenger," Roxton congratulated the scientist in a low voice. "But we still have to catch the other one. Will that stuff hold?"
"Oh yes, the birdlime will hold the first bird quite securely," Challenger assured him. "Now all we have to do is net the other one, or trick it into landing on one of the other treated branches." He swung his improvised weighted net gently, ready to cast it as soon as he felt comfortable with the range.
"That may be easier said than done," Roxton muttered, watching the kingfisher as it darted through the air in distress, moving almost faster than his eye could follow. He had some experience hunting with nets in Africa and South America, but never for such small, agile quarry, and never when the stakes were this high. He'd always been more interested in shooting his quarry, not capturing it alive like that crazy Texan he'd traveled with once about ten years ago. He tried to ignore the futile wish that he'd listened more to Buck's yammerings about live traps and focused his concentration on the bird. "Unless, of course, it decides to attack us again."
As if it understood the hunter's words, the still-free kingfisher chose that moment to charge the ginger-haired man. Startled, Challenger instinctively brought his hands up in defense, accidentally throwing the net upwards in a spinning half-arc. The male kingfisher caught a glancing blow from one edge of the net, sending him spiraling to the ground near the scientist's feet. "Yes!" Challenger exulted, admiring the fallen net and his captured prey.
Nearly hysterical with rage and fear, the female kingfisher doubled her efforts to free herself. Screaming in pain, she wrenched one foot partially free of the sticky goo that held her to the branch, pulling loose half-a-dozen belly feathers as she did so.
"Whoa there!" Seeing they were about to lose their birdlimed catch, Roxton carefully tossed his net over both bird and branch to secure the capture.
"Excellent, we've caught them both!" Challenger shouted excitedly. "I'll just get the cage, and the solvent for the birdlime "
"Challenger, look out!" Roxton called, making a desperate dive for the fallen net. It was in vain. The scientist's movement jarred the net just enough that the struggling bird succeeded in worming its way free of the edge. Dazed, frightened, and in utter fear for his life, the male kingfisher streaked away into the jungle.