"Challenger!" Veronica exclaimed, running to the two fallen explorers with Malone at her heels.
Marguerite scrambled to Roxton's side, absently helping Challenger sit up as a way to get him off of the prone hunter's chest. "Are you all right?"
"Oh, yes, fine I think," Challenger answered dazedly, not realizing Marguerite hadn't directed her question to him.
Roxton coughed twice, then sneezed repeatedly as he gingerly rose to a sitting position. "I'm all right, except for the damned dust," he managed between sneezes.
Unconvinced, Marguerite started brushing the leaf-and-twig detritus off of his blue shirt and brown vest as a way to surreptitiously check him over. "Honestly, George, were you trying to get yourself killed?" she scolded.
"That was quite a fall," Veronica agreed, kneeling next to Challenger and gently placing a restraining hand on his shoulder when he looked as if he was about to try and stand.
"Perhaps I did get a bit carried away," Challenger admitted, recovering from the surprise of his fall and growing alarmed at Roxton's continued paroxysms. "Are you sure you're all right, Roxton?"
"Here." Malone offered Roxton his handkerchief. He couldn't repress a grin as the hunter snatched it from his hands, giving him a grateful look before burying his face in the cloth. Realizing that his friend was more annoyed by his uncontrollable sneezing (and the attention surrounding it) than anything else, Malone attempted a diversion. "What were you saying about a temple, Challenger?"
The red-headed scientist's face lit up with renewed enthusiasm. "There's a Greek temple of some kind just ahead, in what looks to be a state of perfect preservation. Or possibly it's Roman, I'd have to get closer to be sure."
"What would a Greek temple be doing here on a South American plateau?" Malone wondered.
"We've had pyramids and castles here, not to mention knights, Amazons, and giants," Marguerite pointed out acerbically. "Why not Greeks? Or maybe it's just the Plateau's own version of Inigo Jones and the Palladian movement."
"Who?" Veronica muttered quietly to Ned.
"No, it looked quite ancient; or at least the glimpse I got suggested great age," Challenger disagreed.
Roxton sneezed once more and mopped his streaming eyes with the handkerchief before looking up at the others. "Ancient or modern, let's not forget that we've seen one example of classical architecture on the Plateau: Tribune's people." His voice was stuffy and a bit hoarse, but no further sneezes followed his words.
"Oh great, just what we need, another encounter with the lizardmen," Malone groused. He absently rubbed his elbow, which still ached occasionally when the weather changed.
"Did you see any signs of people?" Practical as always, Veronica didn't care about the type of architecture, just whether there might be potential enemies nearby.
"No." Challenger thoughtfully stroked his short beard. "I suppose it could be lizardmen architecture, but it didn't strike me that way at the time. It did appear abandoned, whatever it is."
"But you said it was in perfect condition," Marguerite pointed out. "That hardly sounds abandoned."
Challenger harrumphed and glared at Marguerite, unable to explain the apparent contradiction. "I only had a very brief look," he pointed out.
"Well, whatever it is, we won't find out anything just sitting here." Roxton got to his feet, sniffling slightly as he stooped over to retrieve his dusty, rather battered hat. "Let's go have a look - carefully," he added, setting his hat back on his head and manfully suppressing yet another sneeze.
The explorers set off again, Veronica and Roxton in the front with Challenger right on their heels, and Marguerite and Malone bringing up the rear. The way quickly grew steep, but not impassable, and before long they reached a verdant clearing at the summit. As one, the explorers stopped at the edge of the trees, partly out of innate caution, but mostly out of sheer astonishment. Within the clearing, white marble shone brightly in the sunlight, framed by lush greenery of low-growing plants and a few trees. A rectangular temple-like building stood apparently untouched by time, its fluted marble columns crisp and perfect, its triangular roof unblemished. Even from the edge of the clearing the explorers could see exquisite detail work in one of the pediments beneath the roof. Olive trees lined a flagstone path that led from one end of the temple to a circular, tiled pool with a fountain pouring waters into one end in a musical cascade. The pool was walled in by yet more marble and surrounded by a colonnade. Only here was any decay evident; what should have been a perfectly round colonnade surrounding the pool was instead incomplete, part of it obviously having fallen away over the steep side of the clearing. A statue of a woman stood near one ragged edge, looking out over the drop-off with both arms outstretched, reaching for something beyond the lip of the cliff.
"Wow." Malone was the first one to break the stunned silence. His fingers positively itched for his pencil and notebook. What a journal entry this will make!
"Amazing," Challenger breathed in agreement. The beauty and tranquility of the scene was mesmerizing, touching the scientist's pragmatic soul even though he couldn't help analyzing what he saw. "It's definitely Greek, but I can't tell from what period."
"Have you ever seen anything like this on the Plateau?" Malone asked Veronica.
Eyes wide with wonder, Veronica shook her head. "No, never."
"Doesn't look like anyone's around," Roxton commented, trying to keep his mind focused on priorities, and not on the scenery or on his stuffed-up sinuses.
"It's so peaceful." Marguerite's voice was soft, almost subdued, and entirely lacking her usual bite.
Roxton eyed Marguerite askance, a little unsettled by her reaction. "Let's hope looks aren't deceiving. Tranquility would be a nice change of pace, but I'm not counting on it just yet. Keep your eyes open."
"Agreed. I don't want to miss any details." Challenger settled his hat a little more firmly on his head and stepped forward into the clearing.
"Particularly not if they're the kind of details that shoot back," Malone quipped, lingering behind a moment and checking his pistol.
Roxton rolled his eyes, but was secretly pleased that he wasn't the only one keeping an eye out for trouble amidst all this beauty. "Very funny, Malone."
As the explorers walked over the low, green growth towards the temple structure, a pleasant fragrance rose up from the trampled plants. Veronica stopped and crouched down to examine the growth.
"What is it?" Roxton wanted to know. Of all the explorers, he was the only one who couldn't smell anything, and so he had no idea of why Veronica had stopped.
After a moment, she looked up at her friends with a smile. "It's thyme. And this - I think this is chamomile." She held out bits of two plants, then looked down and plucked a third type of growth. "I can't be sure about this one, but it looks and smells like some kind of miniature mint."
"An herbal garden?" Challenger asked, peering down at the growths beneath his feet with renewed interest.
Veronica looked around, rising to her feet again for a better view. "Maybe once a long time ago, but it's all tangled together with no rhyme or reason. It's wild now."
"Or maybe the gardener just likes the random effect," Malone speculated.
"Keep an eye out for any other signs of cultivation," Roxton advised, thinking wistfully of the green-apple scent of the chamomile lawn at Avebury, and wishing he could experience what this mix must smell like. Maybe by the time we leave here, I'll have my sense of smell back. "Now let's check out the rest of this clearing."
After a thorough walkaround, it was clear that not only were there no humans present, but that there hadn't been any for quite some time. The herbal undergrowth clearly showed where they'd walked, and there were no other signs of passage. Somewhat reassured, the explorers spread out a little. Marguerite and Challenger headed towards the temple with Roxton keeping an eye on them. Veronica chose to re-examine the plants and herbs in the clearing, and Malone sat down on one of the marble benches along the path to the pool, where he could both watch Veronica and start noting down the details of their find in his journal.
"I'll be with you in a minute," Malone called after Roxton, Marguerite, and Challenger as they started along the path to the temple entrance. "I just want to jot down my initial impressions of the exterior before I lose them."
"As you like, Malone. Just don't forget to keep an eye out," Roxton advised, taking advantage of Challenger and Marguerite's momentary preoccupation with the carvings near the roof to double back and make sure someone would be keeping his mind on business. Although he'd been heartened by Malone's earlier words, it hadn't escaped his attention that the reporter had lagged behind during most of the initial survey of the clearing, and he wanted to make sure Malone's priorities were still straight.
Malone hid an inward sigh. "Of course."
"Good man." After clapping Ned lightly on the shoulder, Roxton hurried after Challenger and Marguerite.
"Eight columns on the sides, and four in the front and rear. Judging from the major figures in the frieze, I would say this looks like a temple to Apollo," Challenger stated, squinting up against the sun at the marble figures occupying the pediment.
"Maybe, but if it were Apollo, I'd expect those birds to be swans, his sacred bird. And whatever they might be, those birds certainly aren't swans," Marguerite argued, gesturing towards the corners of the triangular space, which were filled with small, long-billed, birdlike shapes.
Catching up to them in time to hear the end of Marguerite's statement, Roxton shaded his eyes and looked up. "They look more like woodpeckers," he rumbled. Lowering his head, he immediately wished he hadn't, as he felt the first stirrings of his blocked sinuses threatening to clear. Hastily he grabbed for his vest pocket, making sure he had both his own handkerchief and Malone's ready to hand, just in case. He took a deep breath, carefully let it out, and was relieved when nothing happened.
"Hmph. Perhaps a more minor deity, then, or a temple dedicated to some feat. Maybe Heracles and the Stymphalian Birds?" Challenger craned his neck, trying to get a better look, and nearly tripped on the first of the four steps to the temple entrance.
"Maybe," Marguerite agreed doubtfully, "but then why the water, and who is the female figure? She's just as prominent as the male."
"Could be Hippolyte," Roxton joked, remembering another of the labors of Heracles.
Marguerite shot him a quelling look. "Haven't you had enough trouble with Amazons already?"
"Besides, the shape and insignia are all wrong," Challenger added hastily, wanting no reminders of his own misadventures with the Plateau's Amazon tribe. "Well, perhaps the interior of the temple will tell us more."
"Or these caryatids will." As they passed between the front four columns and into the portico, Marguerite pointed at the two statuary columns flanking the entrance to the interior chamber of the temple. Each of the figures was easily ten feet tall. One was male, the other female, with their heads turned towards the other and a slight smile upon their lips. Both wore flowing, idealized draperies; colored draperies, the vivid hues of blue and brown clearly distinguishable even in the relatively dim light of the portico. For a moment Marguerite thought it might actually be cloth, before common sense reasserted itself. "They're painted," she pointed out somewhat unnecessarily.
"Most extraordinary," Challenger enthused. "These must be the patrons of the cella."
Roxton was sure his clogged ears hadn't heard that right. "The cellar?"
"The cella, the sacred inner chamber of the temple," Marguerite clarified. She stepped forward, studying the male figure carefully. "A spear, but no shield," she said regretfully.
"Too bad; it might have had identifying carvings on the interior like the ones at the Parthenon. The cella should hold some answers." Challenger strode forward, undeterred by the shadowy interior.
Biting back an exclamation of annoyance, Roxton hurried after the scientist. "Hang on, George, you might need a torch "
Marguerite hesitated briefly, looking at the figures again. Something about them and the other carvings on the temple tickled a memory in the back of her mind, but she couldn't bring it into focus. Shrugging, she continued on into the cella.
The sacred chamber was much dimmer than the outdoors, but nowhere near dark. Light filtered in from small rectangular openings all around the roofline. The room itself was surprisingly bare, only containing a few stone benches, an empty niche in one wall, a small carved face over a basin on the wall opposite the niche, and a large metal tripod on a raised platform at the far end of the room. Challenger was already poking and prodding at the tripod, muttering to himself. Roxton had removed his pack and was rummaging through the contents. Marguerite suppressed a surge of disappointment at the lack of anything interesting - or valuable - in the ancient temple, beyond what had walked in on their own two legs moments earlier. Not that she'd ever let them know she thought them valuable. "Well, it doesn't look there there's much in here for me," she joked wryly.
Startled, Challenger immediately left off of his examination of the tripod. "On the contrary, Marguerite, I'd say there's quite a lot here for you. Just look back the way we came."
Marguerite turned around and her jaw dropped slightly. Greek characters almost covered the entrance wall. "My, my," she murmured.
"Can you translate them? I've seen no other indications of who this temple might have been dedicated to, or what its purpose was." Challenger gave Marguerite a rueful look. "And as much as I hate to admit it, my Greek is rather rusty these days."
Marguerite frowned at the wall. "From what I can see, it's very archaic, and of course the light in here could be better. Still, I should be able to translate it, given a little time."
A faint golden glow spread slowly across the wall. "And a little more light," Roxton added, coming up behind her with a lit candle-lantern in his hand. He handed it to Marguerite with a smile.
She returned his smile with an appreciative one of her own. "Thank you, that will - Roxton?" She stopped her sentence halfway through, startled by the alarmed look that abruptly passed over the hunter's face.
Roxton grabbed for his handkerchief and placed it over his face barely in time. "ATCHOO!" The explosive sneeze was quickly followed by a tremendous amount of nose-blowing.
"What is it?" Marguerite turned to Challenger.
"'M fine," Roxton gasped between bouts of sinus-clearing. He kept his handkerchief firmly over his face, not wanting to reveal that his nose was running like a faucet turned on full blast.
"I think it's just an after-reaction to the dust and pollen he breathed in earlier," Challenger agreed ruefully. "There was a lot of loose pollen in that tree I climbed. Roxton must be mildly allergic to it."
Relieved, and not wanting to show it, Marguerite dismissed the situation with a frustrated wave of her hand. "Well, maybe you should take him outside and see if that helps. I can't make any progress translating this with all that racket going on."
Glad to avoid one of Marguerite's bouts of temper, Challenger nodded. "Quite." Hastily grabbing Roxton's pack, he escorted the semi-helpless nobleman out of the temple.
Sighing, Marguerite set down the candle-lantern long enough to divest herself of her own pack, then turned back to her work.
Outside the temple, Roxton's condition gradually improved, but the scientist was taking no chances. He managed to get Roxton comfortably seated on one of the benches beneath the olive trees, and kept a careful eye on him until the snorting and sniffling ceased. "Better now?" he asked, handing Roxton another handkerchief.
Mopping his eyes and nose with the proffered cloth, Roxton managed a sheepish nod. "Aside from the embarrassment, yes," he admitted frankly.
"Embarrassment? Nonsense," Challenger scoffed. "It was a perfectly normal physiological reaction to your earlier exposure to an allergen. It happens all the time." Thinking about it a moment more, Challenger's blue eyes twinkled sympathetically. "Although I do recall a similar situation happening to me once, in front of a lecture hall of students no less. I believe it took me a week before I was comfortable in front of them again."
Roxton chuckled, appreciating Challenger's attempt at sympathy. "I can imagine." He took a deep breath and looked around, appreciating anew the beauty of the setting and finally sampling the herby, pleasant fragrance that scented the air. "That does smell nice."
"Good. If you can smell again, then the worst of the congestion should be past," Challenger noted.
"I hope so." Taking another look around, Roxton frowned, his hazel eyes narrowing as he realized the peaceful scene was missing something. "Where's Malone?"