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He was alone in the jungle, rifle slung casually over one shoulder. A thick mist wove its way around the massive trunks of the jungle giants all around him. Absolute silence reigned. No screech of birds, no monkey chatter, no dinosaur roars, no trickle of water, not even the gentlest whisper of wind. The only sound was the muffled crunch of his own footsteps. In the lush, vivid jungle, the quiet was anomalous and sent an eerie chill racing down his spine. A sudden, loud crack - so intense he could feel it in his bones - reverberated across the plateau. He turned, instinctively knowing where the sound had originated. Terror gripped his stomach as he muttered, "the Treehouse," and took off in a dead run.
He raced through the open fence gate into the Treehouse compound and stopped short in horror. The tree that had sheltered them so faithfully had dropped one of its mighty branches, ripping part of the Treehouse structure to the ground and leaving the remainder tilting crazily in the tree, ragged and incomplete. The branch end smoldered still, adding smoke to the fog already shrouding the scene. Even through the thick air, he could see two bodies on the ground. Heart in his throat, he approached them, praying for a miracle even as he checked them for any sign of life.
From the position of the bodies on the ground and the evidence he could see around them, Roxton had fallen first, but Marguerite was the first to die. She had obviously tried to drag the hunter to safety, and when overcome by the arrows, had defended him the only way she had left - protecting his fallen body with her own. Her once lavender blouse was mottled and soaked with a red so dark it was almost black. Her grey eyes were open and sightless, and her skin was cold to the touch; death had been relatively swift, but her twisted and agonized features bore witness to the pain she had suffered. Beneath her, Roxton was warm, but still too still. He hadnít been gone long, but the hunter had followed Marguerite into death, just as he had followed her in life.
Grief-stricken, he rose to his feet, blinking away tears as he searched for the others. Perhaps they had managed to survive this disaster. Not finding them below, he entered the elevator, grateful beyond expression when the mechanism worked. The great room was a shambles, remnants of the attack everywhere; arrows stuck in the walls and furniture, war-feathers scattered on the floor, here and there a smudge of bright war-paint. He called for the others, eyes tearing again at the mixture of mist and acrid smoke, and thought he heard an answering sound from the lower level. He carefully made his way down the twisted, broken staircase.
Challenger was sitting at his workbench, carefully monitoring a bubbling mixture in a broken flask, indifferent to the chaos around him and to the fact that part of his scalp was missing. "Must get this absolutely right, or it will be useless," he muttered to himself.
The war whoops from the attacking Comanches grew ever louder, but the scientist ignored them as easily as he ignored the efforts to attract his attention. Grabbing the scientist by both shoulders, he forced him around and stared into his mad, mad eyes. "Whereís Veronica?" he demanded. "Whereís Veronica?"
"Whereís Veronica?" Malone raved feverishly as he struggled to rise from the bed.
"Hold him still, damn it!" Roxton snapped in frustration, trying to secure a flailing arm.
"Iím trying!" Marguerite huffed back as best she could, which wasnít very well given that she was sprawled across Maloneís legs. Her slender weight was not really sufficient to keep the delirious man still. Her tan skirt twisted annoyingly around her legs, and the lavender fabric of her blouse strained at one shoulder from the awkward angle she was trying to maintain. "Hurry it up! Youíre the one with experience in tying people to beds, after all," she added snidely.
Roxton hoped his flush was concealed by his efforts to finish the knot. Is she ever going to let me forget that incident at the Amazon village? He grunted as Malone tried to wrench his arm away once more. Of course not; sheís Marguerite. In which case, might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. "Iím used to a more cooperative subject," he shot back, and had the satisfaction of seeing Margueriteís jaw drop. Gotcha! Despite his anxiety over Maloneís condition, he couldnít help but grin at her expression.
Before she could think of an appropriate comeback, Malone thrashed again. This time Marguerite was thrown off entirely, landing on the floor with a cry. Malone tried to sit up, ignoring the fact that one of his arms was tied to the bed, and Roxton hastily flung himself on top of his friend to keep him down. "Marguerite?!?" he called worriedly, trying to hold onto Malone and spot the heiress at the same time.
"Just keep him there!" Marguerite snarled from somewhere nearby. He caught a glimpse of her rising from the floor and heading to Maloneís other side. A moment or two later, she moved to the foot of the bed.
Roxton tried to follow what she was doing, but Maloneís struggles grew even more frantic. "Whatever youíre doing, hurry up and give me a hand! If he keeps this up, I think he might hurt himself."
"No kidding," Marguerite grunted, her voice strained with effort. "Still, just goes to show you: if you want something done right, youíd better do it yourself." She groaned again, and Roxton felt the bedframe creak. At the same time, Maloneís struggles grew markedly less effective. "There! All secure. You can get up now," she finished sweetly.
Roxton cautiously eased himself off of Malone and looked towards Marguerite. The dark-haired woman was standing at the foot of the bed, inspecting her handiwork. Malone was now securely trussed to the bed, unable to rise. "Seems you know a trick or two in tying people up yourself," he commented wryly.
Marguerite shot him a dirty look, then winced at the movement and gingerly touched her left cheekbone. "Letís just say Mr. Houdini knew more about knots than séances, and I picked up a few things from him while he was in London," she muttered. "That, and once you learn how to lace a tight corset, you can tie up anything."
Roxton refused to be diverted by Margueriteís talk of Houdini and corsets. Crossing the space between them in a few strides, he gently took her chin in one hand and tilted her head to get a better look at her cheek. A red mark showed vividly against her pale skin. "Are you okay?"
"Iíll be fine. I never knew Malone had it in him," Marguerite joked weakly. "Heís got a pretty good backhand for a baseball player." Her grey eyes met his concerned ones with a rueful expression.
"Veronica no must get loose " Malone muttered feverishly, drawing their attention back to the sick man.
"Shh, Neddy-boy. Veronicaís fine," Roxton said soothingly. Making his way back to his friendís bedside, he sat on the stool next to the bed and patted the reporterís shoulder awkwardly.
"Huh. You mean Veronicaís well out of this. She would go to the Zanga village just before Ned got sick." Margueriteís shrewish words were belied by her actions as she retrieved a cloth from the washbasin on the bedside table, wrung it out, and handed it to Roxton. "And whatís keeping George?"
"Veronica needed to tell the Zanga weíre all safe from Saros, and that Ned is back. As for Challenger, itís not like he can move very quickly," Roxton reminded her as he laid the damp cloth on Maloneís forehead. The delirious man moaned softly, but stopped struggling as much, soothed by the cool cloth and the rumbling tones of his friendís voice.
"I know," Marguerite sighed. After the celebration of Maloneís return from the spirit realm, the resident inventor had ducked down into his laboratory "just to check on a few things". Unfortunately, he had managed to slip on the spilled results of one of his experiments - an attempt to synthesize a better oil for the various gears and mechanisms around the Treehouse. The subsequent fall had been spectacular - and bequeathed Challenger a twisted knee that left him able to do little more than hobble. "Iíd better go check on him."
"I can go," Roxton said, starting to rise.
Marguerite waved him off. "No, you stay. Iíll help Challenger. Malone seems to find you more comforting than me anyway." With a wry smile, she hurried out of the room.
Sighing, Roxton turned his attention back to the restless, sweat-soaked figure on the bed. "The more fool you, Malone. You could have a beautiful woman fussing over you instead." He peered anxiously at the patches of strange white rash that had broken out on Maloneís arms and face, dabbing at them carefully with the cool cloth. "Awfully inconsiderate of you to get sick like this, old boy. We just got you back, and already youíve got us playing nursemaid."
The reporter fitfully tossed his head, murmuring broken syllables that might have been Veronicaís name.
"Yes, Veronicaís likely to have something to say about this, too," Roxton answered as if Malone had actually asked a question. He knew it really didnít matter what he said; Malone was only responding to the tone of his voice, not the content of his words. Keeping up a flow of soothing chatter was the important thing. "So letís get you better as fast as you got sick, so that youíre well by the time she returns. Sheís spent too many weeks worried about you already." He swallowed. "We all have."
"Indians attacking cavalry hide the women " Malone muttered in response.
Both of Roxtonís eyebrows rose. "Indians, eh? Itís all right, Neddy-boy. The fortís secure." He smiled slightly as Maloneís ramblings brought something to mind. "Did I ever tell you I met the famous Buffalo Bill Cody? He and my father knew each other; I never really knew how." Roxtonís face darkened as painful memories of his once-happy family assailed him, but he kept his tone light. He went on, speaking more to himself than to the semi-conscious reporter.
"My father took us to see one of the London performances of his wild west show, and not only did we get to meet him beforehand, but he came to our London house for dinner. Not a grand dinner, mind you; but a dinner between friends. How he and my father laughed - and the stories they told!" His smile grew brighter as warm images from that time overcame the sadder, later remembrances. "After dinner, we wound up re-enacting the battle against Yellow Hand in the drawing room - he said my brother and I whooped like a whole horde of Indians all by ourselves. Then he told us stories of his days with the Pony Express, when he wasnít much older than me, and about Wild Bill Hickok, and a number of other strangely-named people - would you Americans really call someone Teaspoon?" Roxton chuckled. "Now mind you, I doubt now anyone could have lived through half the adventures he said heíd had, but at the time I believed every word. What a storyteller." He daubed Maloneís forehead again with the cool cloth, glad to see that the reporter was continuing to quiet down, calmed by the flow of words even through the distortion of his fevered mind. "Of course, once you publish your journals, I expect youíll have quite the reputation of a storyteller yourself. Our adventures here certainly make the American West seem tame. Still, allís serene for the moment, so just rest and get better, okay?"
A loud shout and a crashing noise jerked Roxton from his reverie and set Malone thrashing again. "I spoke too soon," Roxton muttered, trying to soothe him. "Easy, Malone. Iím sure itís nothing. Just relax, and Iíll go see what it is, hm?" Giving Malone a harried glance and deciding heíd be all right unsupervised for a moment, Roxton hastily rose to his feet and went in search of the commotion.
Once out of Maloneís room, Marguerite allowed herself the luxury of letting her worry show. He became so ill so quickly! He was fine last night, and none of us thought anything of him sleeping in a little this morning. Veronica would never have left if sheíd suspected anything was wrong. If anything happens to him now, just when we got him back - no! She paused in the great room, absently noticing that Challenger was nowhere in sight. Could this be some side effect of his return? Maybe he really wasnít meant to come back to us. No, I wonít think that. She shrugged her shoulders irritably, and then her lips quirked up in a wry grimace. I refuse to believe that you can get sick from being dead. We just need to get his fever down, thatís all - and hope Veronica doesnít dawdle at the Zanga village. Iím sure sheíll recognize whatever illness Malone has, and know what to do for it. Itís probably just some horrible jungle fever, perfectly normal. She blinked as she realized what sheíd thought. A horrible-looking but easily cured and completely harmless jungle fever, she amended quickly.
She started down the stairs to Challengerís laboratory. "George? Did you find anything in Summerleeís journals or the Laytonsí records that might help fight Nedís fever?"
"Yes, there was one plant both the Laytons and Summerlee mention that sounds like just the thing; it reduces fever and acts as a sedative. Itís supposed to be particularly good in high fever cases where the patient suffers from delirium. Arthurís notes say the Zanga call it sticky-claws, but he speculated it might be related to gallium aparine, also known as goosegrass, if not an actual variant. I know weíve got some of it stored up here somewhere " Challengerís voice floated back to her.
Up here? Marguerite glanced over the stairway railing and saw Challenger balanced on top of a stepstool, rummaging around one of the top shelves with one hand while gripping onto the shelf with the other to improve his balance. She sprinted down the rest of the stairs and raced to help him. "Challenger! You shouldnít be up there!"
The red-headed scientist looked down at her with a vaguely bemused expression before turning back to his search. "Nonsense; Iím perfectly fine now that Iím here. Granted, getting up here was rather tricky, and I wonít refuse a hand down, but first I need to find - ah! Here it is!" He grabbed a medium-sized jar and waved it triumphantly, shifting his grip on the shelf as he twisted to face Marguerite again. With no warning, the shelf pulled out slightly, and Challengerís grin of success turned into a frantic expression as he gyrated madly, trying to regain his balance. Marguerite reached up to try and brace him, but to no avail; the shelf shifted a little more, the scientistís bad leg gave out from under him, and Challenger, Marguerite, and half-a-dozen jars and bottles tumbled to the floor with a smash.
"AGH!" Challenger reflexively grabbed his knee, blinking back the red sparks across his vision caused by the wrenching pain from the injured and newly aggravated joint. When the initial shock of the pain passed, he realized that he was partially lying on something soft and warm, and that other parts of the ground were wet, crunched, and poked him through his clothes. Soft? Why is the ground soft?
"FWALLENFER! FET OFF ME!!!" Margueriteís muffled voice shrieked even as Challenger reached the obvious conclusion. He rolled away as best as he could, assisted by a shove from the squashed heiress. "Sorry, Marguerite," he gasped.
"Ugh!" Marguerite sat up and massaged her jaw gingerly, glaring at the red-headed man. First Malone hits me on the face and throws me off the bed, and now Challenger follows it up with a knee to the jaw and flattens me in the bargain! Could this day get any better? "I said you shouldnít be up there," she snapped, then immediately softened as she saw the pained expression on the older manís face. "George? Are you all right?"
"Oh no," Challenger moaned, looking at the mess of unidentifiable liquids, dried plant parts and shattered clay and glass pieces all around them. The pain of his knee throbbed in sickening counterpoint to horrified realization. "The sticky-claws! Theyíre ruined!"
Marguerite took in the situation in a glance, and shook her head in disgusted dismay. "Along with everything else that fell," she agreed unhappily.
"I should have waited," Challenger groaned in self-recrimination. "Now weíll have to try something else - assuming I can find another treatment in the notebooks, and assuming we have any - "
"Wait, George. Itís not that bad," Marguerite interrupted, alarmed at the way he was blaming himself. "You said sticky-claws, right?"
" Yes," Challenger replied, startled out of his dismal thoughts by Margueriteís unexpected question.
"I think I remember that one, and if itís the one Iím thinking of, we should be able to get more fairly easily. Was there a sketch of it?" She looked over at Challenger, who was still sitting on the floor, and scowled at his dumbfounded expression. "What?" she demanded irritably. "If you had spent three days camping out with Veronica and the Zanga, relegated to harvesting the one plant that stuck and clung to everything, youíd remember it too!" She glared at him, her expression both annoyed and defensive.
A sudden commotion on the stairs saved Challenger from trying to think up an answer that would both be truthful and soothe the aggravated woman. "Challenger! Marguerite! Are you all right?" Roxton asked as he swiftly made his way towards them, his boots crunching loudly on the debris-strewn floor.
"Had a bit of a fall," Challenger said sheepishly, "and Iím afraid Iíve caused a mess. Hopefully itís not an irreparable one." He grimaced and hissed in pain as Roxton helped him rise.
"So I see," Roxton replied, practically picking Challenger up bodily as the older manís knee obviously could not bear any weight without severe pain. He helped his friend to the chair at the scientistís makeshift desk. "What happened?"
Challenger flushed, the red of his cheeks clashing with the copper in his hair, momentarily at a loss for words. How could I have been so foolish?
"Well? Arenít you going to help me up?" Marguerite demanded before Challenger could speak, diverting both menís attention to her. "And George, what about that picture?"
"It should be right here," the scientist answered, rummaging through the open books on top of his desk as Roxton moved to help Marguerite.
"Youíre sure youíre all right?" he murmured quietly as he helped the dark-haired woman to her feet. He gently ran one hand over her hair, brushing away bits of dried plant material and bits of broken containers.
"Iím okay, but feeling a bit battered," she muttered in response before giving him a quick smile. At Roxtonís puzzled look, Marguerite shook her head. "Never mind. Iíll explain later."
"Here it is! Marguerite, is this the plant?" Challenger called out.
Marguerite examined the picture carefully. "Definitely," she said firmly, "and I was right about its availability too: ĎThe plant can be harvested nearly year-round, although the natives prefer to gather the earliest growth in the spring.í I think Veronica said something about the new growth being less bitter, or something like that."
"Can you find it again?"
Marguerite nodded again, but with a little less certainty. "I think so. There was lots of it around the area where we were, one of the regular herb-gathering spots for the Zanga. Iíve been there with Veronica several times. Thereís kind of a crude permanent waystation there in a cave; I think some of their hunting parties use it, too."
Startled, Roxton narrowed his eyes in thought. "Itís a very narrow cave entrance, just barely wide enough to let a man pass, but opens up to a large space, with a small firepit in one corner and a smokehole chipped out above it?"
"Yes, thatís it!"
He raised both eyebrows. "I know it. Thatís just a couple of hours from here."
Marguerite scowled. "I knew it was close enough for us to be able to come back and get clean and rest in real beds, but no, Veronica said it was too far and weíd lose too much time going back and forth," she complained, aggrieved all over again at the memory of her harvesting trips there.
Challenger choked back a laugh, and Roxton smothered a grin. "Well, it wouldnít be very practical," the hunter said mildly. He had to smother a second grin at Margueriteís disgusted look.
"I still think she did it on purpose " Marguerite pressed her lips together and frowned.
Maloneís voice drifted down into the laboratory, raised in incoherent babbling, and the sound wiped all thought of humor and aggravation from everyoneís minds. "Itís early afternoon now. There should be enough time to get there and harvest enough of the sticky-claws to last for a few days, and with luck, get back here before nightfall," Marguerite said with only a token grimace at the thought of the hike ahead.
"Wait, wait - youíre not going, I am," Roxton protested.
Marguerite gave an exasperated sigh. "Roxton, Iím the one who has harvested this plant before. I know what to look for and how to deal with it."
"Iím not that bad with plants - and Iíll take the picture to help me." Roxton refuted stubbornly.
"And if you pick the wrong one?" Marguerite challenged, irate. "What good would that do Malone?"
"You should both go," Challenger interrupted before the arguing pair could degenerate into bickering. "I can take care of Malone while youíre gone."
The two stopped arguing to stare at Challenger in surprise. "Are you sure, George? You really shouldnít be on that leg much." Roxton frowned in concern.
"The safest and fastest way for Malone to get the herb he needs is if you both go to get it," Challenger said with irrefutable logic. "If you help me up to the main level, I should be able to manage, particularly if you bring me Arthurís old walking stick."
Marguerite and Roxton exchanged a long look. "I guess Malone canít give you too much trouble now that heís tied down," Marguerite concurred dubiously. "Particularly not if you give him a weak infusion of Veronicaís sleeping tea. It wonít help the fever, and I wouldnít want to risk a full dose, but a little should calm him until we get back."
"Good thinking, Marguerite. Weíll make sure youíre settled and have everything you need moved into Maloneís room before we leave," Roxton agreed, nodding his head.
"Donít worry about me. Just get that herb and get back here," Challenger said grimly as Maloneís shouts grew louder.
"Just as soon as I change into trousers," Marguerite said, her tone brooking no contradictions. "I am not going to go harvesting sticky-claws in a skirt. Iíd never be able to walk home if I did."
"I hope Challenger is doing all right," Roxton muttered for the tenth time as he used his knife to sever the stem of a long strand of sticky-claws. Gingerly, he coaxed the long sticky stem out from the surrounding plant life and wrapped it around a bundle of its fellows.
"Iím sure heís fine, John. We left him with everything he needed," Marguerite reassured him once again. Despite the scientistís repeated assurances that he was perfectly capable of looking after everything, Marguerite had taken time to brew the infusion and bring both it and a large pitcher of water to Maloneís room, while Roxton had brought in a bowl of fruit and a dish of nuts for the scientist to snack on, as well as a stack of Challengerís notebooks to help keep him occupied. By the time they had left the Treehouse, the infusion had already started to take effect, and Challenger was safely ensconced in a chair by Maloneís bedside with everything likely to be needed conveniently to hand. "In fact, Iím sure heís far more comfortable than we are." Considering that the two of them were currently waist-deep in a patch of dark green, tangled, stickery undergrowth, it wasnít a difficult inference to draw.
"I suppose youíre right," the hunter sighed. He irritably swiped the back of his leather-gloved hand across his forehead, trying to blot away the stinging sweat from his eyes. This is just as hot and sticky a job as Marguerite claimed. Sticky-claws indeed; they should have just called it scratch-weed and been done with it! His arms felt horribly scratched and itchy even underneath the protection of his shirtsleeves. I would never have believed how tiring this could be. Iíve felt less exhausted after a full day on safari. Even tracking those man-eating tigers in that Indian swamp was less of a struggle. I wonder how those villagers managed, after we left? Iím still not sure we got all the cubs, and if we didnít, and their mama taught them her hunting tricks Vivid memories of that time filled his mind, and images of the Indian mangrove swamps and tigers floated before his eyes even as he absently gathered up yet another stem.
From the corner of her eye, Marguerite watched Roxton wipe his forehead and then struggle with yet another length of sticky-claws. The hunter was flushed and miserable-looking. Poor John, this really isnít his forte. Heís more than a match for your average dinosaur, but it looks like sticky-claws are more than he can handle. "Weíve gathered quite a bit," she said casually. "Why donít you go take these bundles to the spare pack, and Iíll keep working here." They had stashed their packs in the branches of a small tree, well away from the snarled sticky-claws and the other vegetation it threaded through. As Marguerite had pointed out, the last thing they wanted was a stray bit of sticky-claws between their backs and their backpacks on the journey home.
Margueriteís voice broke through Roxtonís visions of tiger-hunting. Startled out of his meandering thoughts, he straightened up with alacrity, vaguely embarrassed by his lack of focus. "All right. Do you think we have enough?"
"We might," Marguerite hedged. Actually, she was fairly certain they didnít, but John really looked like he needed a break. "Even if we donít, Iíd rather not have to hang onto such a large bundle while wading through this stuff," she added with more truthfulness.
"True enough." Roxton took Margueriteís bundle of wound stems from her and fought his way back out of the tangled thicket, struggling with every step.
Marguerite winced sympathetically as she saw the bits and pieces of leaves and stems stuck all over Roxtonís blue shirt and tan pants. Itís going to take at least an hour to get all of the bits off of us, and I donít think John will want to wait that long, she thought unhappily. Knowing him, heíll only agree to take time to remove the bits on our backs and shoulders, so our packs wonít drive the stickers into our skin. Which means trudging back home through the jungle with prickles stuck all over the rest of us. Wonderful. Malone, you had better appreciate this! Her throat tightened a bit at the thought of the sick man. And if you even dare mention the fact that I spent hours up to my rear in prickles for you, Iíll kill you myself. Not that Iím ever going to let you find out. I suppose John might mention it if I donít think of a way to convince him not to without letting him know that I donít want Ned to know, or why Skimming over examining the reasons why she didnít want Malone to know with the ease of long practice in avoiding uncomfortable thoughts, she split her attention between gathering more sticky-claws, pondering possible ways to convince Roxton not to mention this little gathering trip to Malone once the reporter was well again, and keeping an eye and ear on her surroundings.
The only good thing about the sticky-claws is that thereís no way a raptor can sneak up on you when youíre in the middle of a big patch - and should a T-Rex wander by, all Iíd have to do is duck, and it would never see me in all this mess. Of course it would probably take me a good ten minutes to get back up on my feet again, unless I wanted to snatch myself bald, even with my hat for protection! At least this time sheíd known not only to wear her hat, but to braid and coil her hair underneath it as much as possible. There were still too many flyaway strands likely to catch on the sticky-claws for Margueriteís liking, but it was far better than the first time sheíd encountered these obnoxious plants!
Grumbling inwardly, Marguerite continued to gather sticky-claws until she realized she once again had a good-sized bundle of the plants. Surprised, she looked out beyond the thicket in the direction Roxton had gone. What the ? John should have been back long before now, unless Iíve been gathering these a lot faster than I think I have. "John?" she called, seeing no sign of the hunter. Carefully making her way to the edge of the thicket, she called again, louder this time. "Roxton?!?"
A rustling noise from just behind a stand of nearby trees caused Marguerite to drop her sticky-claws and grab for her pistol. Sheíd barely managed to free her gun from its holster - fouled of course with yet more sticky-claws - when she caught a glimpse of familiar blue cloth and sighed with relief. "Itís about time!" she sighed loudly. "What took you so long?"
Roxton emerged fully from behind the trees and came towards Marguerite, carrying both packs in one hand, his rifle slung rather haphazardly over his shoulder. "Sorry," he mumbled.
As he neared her, Marguerite felt a cold frisson of fear travel up her spine. She kept her voice calm and controlled. "John, what happened to your hat?"
"Huh?" Roxton reached up and patted his head, seeming surprised when he encountered his hair, not his hat. "Must have fallen off, I guess when did that happen?" He stood in atypical passivity, only watching as Marguerite stepped to his side.
Putting her pistol away, Marguerite stripped off one of her gloves. After tucking it into her belt, she reached up with her bare hand and felt Roxtonís forehead. As she expected, it was hot to the touch. Unfastening the buttons on his right cuff and pushing up the material, she was dismayed but unsurprised to see patches of whitish rash. "Well, so much for the worry that Malone got sick from being dead," she joked mordantly. "Or if he did, whatever he brought back with him is definitely catching."
At the sight of the white rash, a bit more clarity returned to Roxtonís eyes - along with a great deal of alarm. "Iíve got whatever Malone has. Thatís why itís so hard to think," he said slowly.
"Youíre acting about as dopey as Ned did when he finally emerged from bed this morning," Marguerite agreed grimly. "If you follow the same course he did, youíre not going to be able to stay on your feet very much longer. Weíd better get you to that cave. Do you think you can walk that far?"
His head was spinning and he was utterly exhausted, but Roxton could still understand both the question and the peril of their situation. "I think so." He reeled slightly, and felt Marguerite slip an arm around his waist for support. He draped an arm across her shoulders, idly wishing he were in a better position to enjoy the experience.
"Lean on me," she instructed, taking the packs from his hand. She stuffed the remaining bundle of sticky-claws into the oiled canvas pouch inside her pack, glad to see that Roxton had put the other bundles there as well. I think weíre going to need every little bit of this plant, if this keeps up!
Once she had the sticky-claws secure, she awkwardly slung both packs over one arm, not wanting to disrupt Johnís somewhat unsteady balance by placing them on her back. Besides which, if I put them on, Iíll be digging sticky-claws out of my back for weeks. She started leading him away, helping him balance and providing support when he needed it.
"Iím sorry, Marguerite," Roxton apologized as they walked along. He tried to maintain a normal pace, but was aware their progress was poor.
"For what?" she asked curiously. I hope I can find that cave; if itís where I think it is, it isnít far, thank goodness. She kept her doubts well-hidden, knowing Roxton needed her confidence and calm as much as he needed her physical assistance.
"For getting us into this mess. For getting sick."
"You didnít do it on purpose, Roxton. And at least you havenít hit me today, which is more than I can say for Malone and Challenger," she said wryly, trying to keep his spirits up.
Roxton blinked at her owlishly. "Challenger hit you?"
"When he fell. Just see that you donít follow either of their examples." Of course, if you get as delirious as Malone, thereís no telling what you might try. She smiled up at the hunter in spite of her worry.
The hunter tried to smile in return. "I wonít, I promise."
They plodded on in silence for a time. Roxton was exerting all his concentration on remaining lucid and mobile, and Marguerite was too busy finding the way and supporting him to chatter. She knew she wasnít the best navigator out in the wild, but she was fairly certain she recognized some of the local landmarks as they slowly made their way into a rockier area. The cave was just a few more minutes away, even at their slow pace. Feeling Roxton falter once again, she spoke up to encourage him. "Once we get to the cave, youíll get to be the test subject for sticky-claws tea. Lucky you, huh? Iím sure it will taste awful, but it should help you get better."
"Yeah," Roxton laughed weakly. "Medicine always tastes bad. Except for the licorice tea my nanny used to give William and me for sore throats; that tasted really good. Never understood why all medicine couldnít be like that."
With an iron will, Marguerite repressed the shiver at hearing Roxton voluntarily mention his dead brotherís name. "That would be nice," she agreed lightly.
Roxton stopped abruptly and tried to turn around. He would have fallen if Marguerite hadnít helped support him. "Wait - my hat. We have to go find my hat," he protested.
"No, John. We need to go to the cave. Itís just a little further. Iíll go back for your hat later, I promise," Marguerite said soothingly. Heís rapidly growing irrational, just like Malone did. Please, John, hang on until I can get you to a safe place!
"But " Roxtonís vision was fogging over. He leaned heavily on Margueriteís shoulder, trying to fight back the dizzy exhaustion that plagued him.
"John, please," Marguerite pleaded.
Roxton brought his gaze back to Margueriteís face, startled by her tone and her words. "Okay, Marguerite," he agreed softly, and was rewarded with a bright smile.
Marguerite never thought sheíd be so happy to see a cave entrance. She had to leave the packs and Roxtonís rifle outside in order to help the rapidly-fading hunter navigate the narrow passage. By dint of alternately coaxing and pulling, she managed to get him inside the cave at last. Once there, he sank to his knees, utterly spent.
"Iím so tired," he muttered. "Sorry."
It was hard to judge how he looked in the dim light from the cave entrance and the smokehole, but Marguerite didnít like the defeated slump of his shoulders. "Itís all right, John. Just stay here and rest, and Iíll get our packs, okay?"
He tried to rise to his feet again and failed, slipping instead into a sitting position. "Donít seem to have much choice."
Marguerite laughed shakily. "No, you donít, so just sit there at your ease and enjoy watching me set up camp. Itís not something youíre likely to experience again." Giving him one more worried glance, Marguerite ducked back out of the cave long enough to retrieve their belongings.
When she came back inside, she was alarmed to see that Roxton was lying on the ground, curled up on himself. Dumping the packs next to him, she knelt and gently touched his shoulder. "John?" He was radiating an incredible amount of heat, and shivering noticeably.
"Cold," he moaned. Two bright red spots on his cheeks accentuated the rest of his faceís pallor.
Heís got chills his fever is climbing. "Sh, I know. Iíll get you warm." She opened the packs, hoping Roxton had over-prepared in his usual fashion. Sure enough, she found two blankets in Roxtonís pack. She pulled them out and carefully tucked them both over his shivering form. That will help somewhat, but I need to get this cave warmer. I need to build a fire.
Fortunately, the Zanga used this cave often enough to make the effort of stocking and maintaining a pile of firewood worthwhile, and John always packed a small bundle of tinder in a waterproof pouch along with several of Challengerís homemade matches. Working quickly, she started a fire in the firepit. Once it was established enough not to need constant feeding, she bustled between firepit, packs, and Roxton, heating water and brewing the sticky-claws tea in the small pan Roxton had brought, setting out what supplies they had and checking inventory, and keeping a sharp eye on Roxtonís condition. She was glad to see he had also packed a small medical kit, a lightweight and portable collection of useful items that had come in handy on numerous occasions in the past. Mostly it was bandages and ointments and powders for putting on wounds, but it included a soothing ointment that might help the rash, and bandages could be put to lots of uses, including cool compresses.
Even at her busiest, she kept looking back at the prone hunter, deeply worried. At least heís not hallucinating yet or if he is, heís being awfully quiet about it. What am I going to do if he gets violent? Whatever happens, I canít let him leave this cave. In his condition, he wouldnít last an hour out there.
At last she judged the sticky-claws tea was ready. She poured it into the cup that fit over the cap of her canteen, dubiously eyeing its dark green color and cautiously sniffing the liquid. Gingerly, she touched her tongue to it, and shuddered at the taste. Bitter and sour both, and somehow salty to boot. It tastes too horrible to be anything but medicine! Bringing the cup of liquid back to Roxton, she gently shook his shoulder, trying to rouse him. "John? John, wake up. I need you to drink this."
To her relief, there was sense in Roxtonís eyes when he opened them. "Marguerite?" he croaked.
"Yes, itís me. I need you to drink this tea. It should help reduce your fever." She helped him sit up against her and guided the cup to his lips.
Roxton took a careful sip and grimaced dramatically. "It tastes terrible."
"I expect it does. Why should my medicine be any different from my cooking? Drink it anyway."
A wheeze that might have been a laugh came from Roxtonís chest before he obediently drank the rest of the cupís contents in a single gulp, then sipped at the water Marguerite poured into the cup to help him get the terrible flavor out of his mouth.
"I canít drink any more," he murmured when he saw her refill the water cup yet again.
"You need to. You need to stay hydrated. Just one more cup," Marguerite urged.
He sighed, but felt unable to resist. He sipped halfheartedly at the cup, then closed his eyes and relaxed more fully against Marguerite. He could feel the heat of her body radiating against his back. "Youíre warm," he whispered. "Iím still so cold "
Marguerite tightened her hold around Roxton. "Youíll be warm soon. Just rest. Sleep if you can."
She held him until she felt his body relax totally and his breathing evened out. Only then did she gently ease him down to the dirt floor of the cave, wincing as her cramped arms and numbed legs protested loudly. "Looks like it worked, at least as a sedative," she said softly, brushing back his sweat-dampened hair from his forehead. "Now letís hope it works as well for your fever." She kissed his cheek gently before getting to her feet. The fire needed tending, and there was a lot more yet to do - but first, the most important thing, just in case. Sighing, she reached for a roll of bandages.
Malone was quiet, still lost in fevered dreams, but kept calm by the weakened sedative tea. It was Challenger who was fidgeting, rifling through books and journals, unable to concentrate. He kept glancing outside, where the daylight was rapidly fading. With a sigh, he moved to change the cool cloth on Maloneís forehead.
"Iím sure everythingís all right," Challenger told the unconscious man. "Marguerite did say theyíd be back before nightfall if everything went right, but Iím sure thereís just been a slight delay. And itís not entirely dark yet. Iím sure weíll hear them at any moment now."
Even as the last words left his mouth, Challenger heard the sound of the elevator. A relieved grin spread across his face. "See! I told you theyíd be back!" He rose to his feet with some difficulty and hobbled towards the main room, leaning heavily on Summerleeís walking stick. "Thank goodness youíre back! Did you have any trouble finding the sticky-claws?" he called ahead as he heard the mechanism rumble to a halt.
"Sticky-claws?" Veronicaís voice came back to him, causing the scientist to pause in surprise before continuing into the great room. Rounding the corner, he saw Veronica, Assai, and Jarl.
"Welcome back, Veronica. Itís good to see you again, Assai, Jarl. To what do we owe the honor?" Challenger was startled into automatic, inane courtesy.
"We accompanied Veronica in order to ask Roxton to hunt with us," Jarl explained. "Our chief wishes to hold a great celebration in honor of Maloneís return and Sarosí defeat. Kai and Noshi are with me; we hope to set out at dawn. Is Roxton not here?"
"What do you need with sticky-claws? We have some on the medical supply shelf in the laboratory," Veronica wanted to know.
"Not anymore," Challenger admitted with a grimace. "Maloneís sick, and from his symptoms, I thought sticky-claws might help, so Roxton and Marguerite went to harvest some. I didnít expect you back tonight; I thought you were them."
"Sick?" Veronicaís voice sharpened in alarm. "How is he sick? What are his symptoms?" Behind her, Jarl and Assai exchanged unhappy looks. Jarl in particular looked very uneasy.
"He has a high fever, and a white rash. It came on very suddenly. We had to tie him down to his bed; he was quite delirious."
"Marsh fever?" Assai said at once.
"Sounds like it," Veronica agreed, heading for Maloneís room with Assai right behind her.
Jarl assisted Challenger back to Maloneís room. By the time they reached it, Veronica and Assai were deep in consultation over Malone.
"Yes, itís marsh fever," Assai said as soon as they entered the room. Jarlís anxious face immediately relaxed into a relieved expression.
"What is marsh fever?" Challenger asked impatiently.
"Itís a relatively common childhood illness amongst the Zanga, highly contagious but not usually serious," Veronica explained. "Once you have it, most people never catch it again. We all had it as children," she added, nodding at Assai and Jarl. "It can be more dangerous if an adult catches it; itís more likely to cause high fever and hallucinations. As long as we keep Malone cool and quiet, he should be all right in a few days." She frowned. "I wonder how he caught it?"
"Some of the Zanga children have it right now," Jarl volunteered, shrugging. "It is the right time of year."
Challenger sighed, immensely relieved. "So how do we treat it?"
"You were right; sticky-claws is very helpful," Veronica smiled at the scientist.
"And ape-menís-hands and blueflowers," Assai said, nodding. "A tea made of all these things will help Malone recover."
"Ape-menís-hands?" Challenger asked, startled.
"Itís a Zanga herb," Veronica explained. "It has hairy leaves. We have some - or at least I know we did. What happened to the sticky-claws we had stored?"
Flushing, Challenger related the accident in the laboratory. "Fortunately, Marguerite remembered the plant and where to find it at the Zanga gathering grounds. She and Roxton left this afternoon to go gather more."
"Why did she go all the way there?" Assai wanted to know. "It grows many places."
Veronica looked vaguely guilty, and Challengerís eyes widened. Mother of Science - Marguerite was right! Veronica did make her camp out on purpose! "I think Marguerite didnít know that," he said diplomatically. "If it does grow nearby, then perhaps we wonít have to wait until they get back. Just as well, as it looks as if they might not return tonight, and I donít think we want to wait until morning." Marguerite is going to be so angry when she finds out she had to travel all that way for nothing. I think Iíll do my best to be in the laboratory when Veronica explains it to her.
"If you will operate the lift?" - Jarl glanced quickly at Assai to see if he used the right word, and continued when she nodded - "I will go down to Kai and Noshi and we will find some before the light fails. We will have to make camp in any event." Although he understood Veronica lived in a tree quite happily, it still seemed profoundly unnatural to him. His fellow hunters were even more dubious, preferring to remain on the ground instead of visiting the Treehouse. The magical fence around Veronicaís home would keep the beasts away from their camp well enough.
"Thank you for your offer, Jarl, but Iíd better go. I know where a patch of sticky-claws is. And after that, Iíd better check and see what was lost in your lab accident. I hope the blueflowers are safe; they arenít available at this time of year." Before leaving Maloneís side, Veronica touched her hand to the side of his neck, frowning at his high temperature. Ned, I just got you back! Donít worry, I wonít let you remain sick. Youíll be well soon, I promise. Weíll get you well, blueflowers or no blueflowers.
Assaiís eyes darkened with sympathy at the sad expression on her friendís face. "I will stay up here and help with Malone," she announced. "Donít worry, Veronica. Itís just marsh fever. Everyone gets it."
Veronica smiled at her friend, grateful for her support. "I know, Assai. Everything will be just fine."
It was a very long night, and it didnít look like it would come to an end any time soon. Marguerite managed to finish removing all of the bits of sticky-claws from Roxton by the time the light from outside the cave faded into twilight. The moon was shining through the smokehole by the time she finished picking all the bits of prickles off of herself. Tossing the scraps of vegetation into the fire, she absently sucked on one abused fingertip and then shook out her hands, trying to relieve the strain. Iíd forgotten how much this stuff hurts to remove, she mused. Itís not the individual pieces, but the cumulative effect. I feel like I donít have any skin left on my fingertips!
She stood up and stretched in an attempt to work the kinks out of her neck and shoulders, then moved to the cave entrance. She stood there for a few minutes, enjoying the fresher air blowing in from the narrow passageway. Although the smokehole let out enough of the smoke to be safe, there was a dim haze in the cave, and her eyes were watering in protest. Of course itís just the smoke, she reassured herself, brushing away the moisture on her cheeks and firmly setting her jaw. At least the smell of the smoke helps mask any other odors, she thought with bleak humor. I never thought Iíd be wishing for a chamber pot!
The sticky-claws tea had worked almost too well. Sheíd given John several doses, coaxing him into downing a few sips whenever he drifted awake enough to drink. Roxtonís temperature wasnít nearly as high now, although he was still noticeably fevered. He was also sunk in a deep torpor, rousing completely only once so far, in response to an imperative call of nature. Heíd been extremely befuddled, and utterly confused by the bandage-hobbles sheíd tied around his ankles in her earlier fear that he might try to run or fight in a delirious fit. Sheíd reluctantly untied him and tried to help him out of the cave once sheíd understood his need, but even unfettered, he couldnít negotiate the twisting, narrow passage. Eventually sheíd had to give up and guide him into the deepest part of the cave, turning her back to give him as much privacy as possible, blushing hotly all the while. At least Roxton probably wonít remember it. I guess even a fever can be good for something. She shivered, suddenly drowning in memories of another time: of sudden fevers and rapid declines; of strong young men and women abruptly dropping like flies and dying by the score; of white masks on every face; of towns and cities and an entire war brought to a shuddering, terrified halt. No, she told herself firmly. This isnít 1918. This isnít the influenza. John wonít die. John canít die. I wonít let him. I survived the Spanish flu; he can survive this. He can survive anything.
A groan from within the cave brought her attention back to her patient. Roxton was stirring. She hurried over to him and lightly touched his brow, dismayed to find him warmer again. He obviously needed another dose. Maybe I didnít make that last batch of tea strong enough? Iíd better make this next batch stronger. "John, itís all right," she crooned. Her dark hair fell forward over her shoulders, shadowing her face.
His eyes flickered open and focused on her face. Recognition flared in his eyes, followed by relief. "Marguerite?"
"Iím here. How are you feeling?" Her voice was very tender. She brought her hand down from his forehead to his cheek, cupping it in a soft caress.
"I thought youíd left me," he rambled disjointedly, bringing one hand up to cover the one resting on his cheek.
"No, Iíve been here the entire time. Do you think you can drink some more tea?" Given his rising temperature and his disorientation, Marguerite judged it was time to feed him another dose.
"Yes," Roxton answered softly after a moment, then grabbed her hand desperately when she started to move away. "Donít leave me!"
Marguerite patted the hand gripping hers with her free one, trying to reassure him. She didnít like the fear she saw in his eyes; it was too close to the fear that was eating away at her own strength. "Iím not going anywhere, John. Iím just going to start some tea steeping, and then Iíll come right back, okay?"
His grip did not loosen. "Promise?"
"I promise, John. I just need to get you the tea. You need it in order to get better. And I need you to get better." Marguerite bit her lip; she hadnít meant to say that last part.
"You need me?"
Marguerite couldnít resist the pleading tone in his voice, or the plaintive look in his normally confident gaze. "Of course I need you," she admitted with a shaky attempt at a smile. "Who else would stay up all night roasting coffee for me? Who else would fight a duel with himself in order to rescue me? Who else would - " She broke off, horrified to realize there were tears brimming in her eyes, threatening to spill over. Iíve gone completely maudlin! If I keep this up, Iíll tell him I love him and Iím not ready for that. She sniffed loudly and scrubbed at her cheeks with her free hand. "Who else would aggravate me by worrying more about saving a silly old hat than he does about saving his own skin?"
Roxton tried to sit up, to get closer to her, but couldnít manage it. "Donít cry, Marguerite," he said with a catch in his voice.
"Iím not crying," she denied emphatically.
"Good." He relaxed again, and finally let her hand go.
Marguerite took advantage of her freedom to prepare more of the sticky-claws tea, aware of Roxtonís eyes following her every move. As soon as the tea was done, she returned to his side, gently lifted his head onto her lap, and helped him drink.
"It still tastes terrible," Roxton commented faintly when he had drained the contents of the cup.
Marguerite just nodded as she poured more water from the canteen into the battered tin container. She hid a frown as she noticed how light the canteen was. My canteenís almost out of water, and Johnís is pretty low, too. Iíll need to fetch more as soon as itís light. "Did you expect any differently?" she asked, to distract him in case he had noticed her experimental heft of the canteen.
"No," Roxton admitted around a yawn.
"I think itís helping, though. Your fever isnít as bad as Maloneís. Youíll be right as rain in no time," Marguerite encouraged.
"Mm." Roxton could feel exhaustion pulling at him, drawing him back down into darkness. He briefly fought its pull. "Did you find my hat?"
Marguerite gurgled a laugh. "Not yet, John. Iíll find it in the morning."
"Thatís good. I need my hat." Roxton closed his eyes, unable to keep them open any longer, and sighed faintly in appreciation as Marguerite ran a cool cloth over his face and neck. Marguerite "Marg..rite?"
Roxtonís mumble was scarcely audible, and Marguerite leaned in closer to catch his words. "Yes, John?"
"Need you, too."
Marguerite gasped, her eyes widening as she studied his face. It only took her a moment to realize that the hunter was unconscious once again. She swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat at his unexpected words. "Yes, you need me for now," she sniffled, trying to chuckle. "You need me to help you get well - and I will. Youíll be well." She lovingly cradled his head on her lap, rocking slightly as she wrestled with this new idea, memories of the worldwide pandemic, and her own personal fears. Even if John had not needed her constant care and attention, she knew she wouldnít have been able to sleep. Instead, she continued to watch over him as she waited for the dawn.
Having spent half the night helping care for Malone, Veronica woke later than usual the next morning, feeling vaguely restless. She immediately went to check on Ned, and was reassured by Assaiís brilliant smile and low-voiced report of good progress. Even from the doorway she could see the reporterís color was much better. He still had the fever, but now that heíd had multiple doses of sticky-claw, blueflower, and ape-manís-hands tea, his condition was much more stable. Theyíd been able to remove the restraints from the reporterís arms and legs late last night, much to everyoneís relief. He should be waking up - really waking up - by the end of the day, Veronica thought happily. She indicated to Assai that she would start fixing breakfast, and tiptoed out of the sickroom, a happy smile on her face. Nedís going to be just fine!
Despite her happiness at his improved condition, Veronica was aware of a nagging dissatisfaction as she continued towards the great room. With a sigh, she faced up to what had been bothering her since the night before. I never should have played that trick about gathering sticky-claws on Marguerite, she admitted inwardly. Well, maybe it was okay the first year; she was so unpleasant then, and sheíd almost sold me to Jacoba! I was still angry about that, and the Zanga respected me more for making Marguerite suffer in retribution for her crime, even if she herself didnít know she was being punished. But I never should have made her do it again. I just She scowled and admitted it to herself. I just didnít want to admit to Marguerite that I had been that petty. I should never have let it go on so long. Now she and Roxton have had to go all that way for something that grew just over the next hill. And theyíve probably been worried out of their minds about Ned the entire time.
Veronica was no longer fooled into thinking Marguerite didnít care deeply for all of them, although she remained somewhat uncomfortable dealing with such a complete shift in her understanding of the older woman. It was very hard for her to reconcile the cold, grasping manipulator who had blithely bartered her to the Zanga chief, relentlessly tormented Ned, and constantly pursued her own welfare above all with the courageous woman who had risked both death and possible possession by Saros in order to bring Ned back to them. Veronica was guiltily aware that she was still inclined to automatically assume the worst about Marguerite, because assuming the best meant facing up to the fact that the best might have been there all along if sheíd just cared to see it. Sheís going to be furious with me, and with reason. And maybe even a little hurt, because I let it go on so long.
On impulse, she continued past the kitchen area, down through Challengerís laboratory, and into the storage areas where many of her parentsí expedition items were stored. The Layton Expedition had been a large group when they had arrived on the Plateau, and they had come stocked for a long stay. Since the arrival of the Challenger Expedition, some of the stores of items like ammunition, extra guns, and bolts of cloth had proved very useful, and she had shared them freely with her new friends. But she was still very protective of things she associated directly with her parents.
Now she opened a trunk she knew contained clothes that must have been worn by her parents at some time, although she couldnít now remember ever seeing them in these particular items. Still, Abigail Layton had been the only woman on the Expedition, so the blue blouse Veronica raised from the trunk must have once belonged to her. I know Marguerite has complained a lot recently that she doesnít have many shirts left, and those she does have always seem to lose buttons around the top. I know sheíd appreciate having a new blouse that isnít missing anything! She hesitated a moment, then tucked the blouse under one arm and closed the trunk. It wonít make up entirely for what I did, but maybe this will help Marguerite understand how sorry I am. Besides which, itís the right thing to do. I think Mother would approve.
Returning to the main floor of the Treehouse, Veronica set the blouse down on top of the sewing basket that sat next to the chair Marguerite most often claimed in the great room. Smiling in satisfaction, she entered the cooking area and began breakfast preparations, making sure to prepare extra. Not only did she have her Zanga friends to feed, but she fully expected to see Roxton and Marguerite before long. They would undoubtedly be hungry after their long trip.
Time passed. Veronica finished preparing breakfast and carried a generous portion of fruit and porridge down to Jarl, Kai, and Noshi, exchanging casual pleasantries about the day ahead and the hunting prospects in this part of the jungle. She returned to the Treehouse to find Assai in the kitchen, preparing more tea for Malone and nibbling on a piece of fruit. As she joined her friend in front of the hearth, Challenger limped from his room, dressed for the day but with his red hair still rumpled from sleep.
"I heard the elevator," he explained as he used the walking stick to support himself. "Have Roxton and Marguerite returned?"
"No, that was just me," Veronica admitted, "but Iím sure theyíll be back soon." She glanced out beyond the balcony and was surprised by the position of the sun. "In fact, I would have expected them back before this. Roxton wouldnít have waited for much more than first light before heading out."
"Marguerite is with him," Challenger pointed out dryly.
For a moment Veronica was tempted to dismiss the matter, but her earlier thoughts about Marguerite came back to her, and she shook her head. "True, but Marguerite wouldnít delay with Ned needing the medicine they had with them."
Challenger nodded thoughtfully, raising one hand to absentmindedly stroke his short beard. "I must admit I was a little surprised they didnít make it back last night. You donít suppose they ran into trouble, do you?"
Veronica shrugged, now very uneasy. "Itís the Plateau. Trouble can always find you, if youíre unwary or unlucky enough."
"The gathering ground is a relatively safe place," Assai said reassuringly, seeing her friendís distress. "They might simply have been delayed."
"By what? There hasnít been any bad weather to slow them down. No, I think something might be wrong." Guilt twisted Veronicaís insides. If anything has happened to them because of my stupid prank, Iíll never forgive myself! "Weíd better start searching for them."
All at once Challenger went rather pale. "You donít suppose no." He shook his head, the color returning to his cheeks as swiftly as it had left.
Veronica raised an eyebrow. "What is it, Challenger?"
"For a moment, I was worried that perhaps they, too, might have contracted this marsh fever Malone has," the scientist explained. "But Iím perfectly well, and Iíve been exposed more than they have, so itís unlikely."
Now it was Veronicaís turn to go pale, and Assai gasped. "Oh no! How could we not have thought of this?" the Zanga beauty wailed.
"What? As I said, itís not likely " Challenger was confused.
Veronica shook her head adamantly, inwardly berating herself for a fool. "No, Challenger. Itís very likely. Marsh fever is far too contagious. How could I have been so stupid as to forget Roxton and Marguerite have never had marsh fever either?"
"But I donít have it!" Challenger practically shouted, increasingly frustrated and alarmed by the reactions of the two women.
"Youíre too old!" Veronica and Assai snapped back in unison.
"What?" the red-haired scientist huffed, drawing himself to his full height, a deeply offended expression on his face.
Taking a deep breath, Veronica tried to calm herself enough to explain. A terrible sinking feeling of grim certainty had taken a hold of her bones and churned her stomach. "Challenger, for some reason marsh fever never affects really small infants or those adults past a certain age, no matter how large the outbreak or if theyíve never had it before. I donít know why, I just know itís true." She didnít bother to elaborate that to the Zanga, Challenger was old. As curious as he was about most things, she was pretty sure it was one fact heíd be happier not knowing.
"Thatís fascinating. I can think of several epidemiological factors that might come into play to cause such a disparity, but I wonder which are in effect here?" The scientistís eyes glowed with the delight of a new puzzle, but that gleam quickly faded as he realized the implications. "Roxton and Marguerite - theyíre of the right age to be susceptible to the fever?"
"Yes," Assai confirmed without a momentís doubt.
"Weíve got to go after them right away. If theyíve got it, thereís no telling what might have happened to them," Veronica said in a clipped voice, worry creasing her brow.
"Take the hunters with you. I will stay here with Challenger and help tend Malone," Assai suggested.
"Thanks, Assai," Veronica acknowledged gratefully. She moved rapidly around the room, collecting her carrying bag and stuffing it with a few useful items. She hastily added some of the herbs for the fever tea; if Roxton and Marguerite did have the fever, sheíd need to get them drinking the tea right away.
"They still might be fine " Challenger suggested half-heartedly, worry also evident on his face, " but in case theyíre not, youíd better hurry. Be careful, Veronica."
"I will," she reassured him. "Iíll be back as soon as Iíve found them. Please take care of Ned." With a last look at her concerned friends, Veronica stepped into the elevator, a look of fierce determination on her face. Iíll find them no matter what it takes!
Marguerite roused from a half-doze, opening her heavy eyes and looking around in some confusion. She was lying next to John, one arm thrown across his chest, her head pillowed on his shoulder. Bright light spilled in from the cave entrance. I must have dozed off after giving John that dose of tea at dawn. I only meant to rest for a few minutes before going out for water. She checked Roxtonís condition, relieved to find the hunter still sleeping heavily, and that his fever was not as high. I guess making that last dose extra-strong worked. I donít want him rousing while Iím searching for water. She disliked the thought of leaving him alone for even a short time, but sheíd used the last of the water this morning, and they needed more. She rose to her feet, groaning as various muscles protested. I hate sleeping on the ground!
Swiftly gathering up both canteens, Marguerite made her way out of the cave and into the morning light. The strong sunlight made her eyes water in protest, and she stayed just inside the cave entrance for several minutes, letting her eyes adjust while she scanned the surroundings for any sign of threat. It was earlier than she had thought; birds were chirping, and the golden light was sharply angled. Early morning, maybe an hour past dawn, she guessed, not used to this time of day. What a perfectly revolting time to be up and about - and no chance of coffee, either. She was very tired from her all-night vigil; both her body and her mind could have used the stimulant provided by her favorite hot beverage.
Seeing nothing more alarming than the early morning itself, Marguerite ventured out from the cave and looked around. She remembered there was a stream not too far away from this cave, but she couldnít remember off the top of her head just what direction it was in. Shrugging, she looked to see which way the ground sloped and headed the way she thought might be Ďdownhillí. After all, water runs downhill. She walked along, pistol in hand in case she needed it, listening for the sound of running water.
Her first guess proved to be fruitless, but her second guess soon rewarded her with the sound sheíd been listening for, and Marguerite grinned in triumph. Pushing through the underbrush, she found herself on the bank of a fairly substantial stream. Several thick, low-hanging branches from nearby trees shaded most of its surface, giving the water a dark, mysterious look. She stepped forward, only to quickly draw back as the soft mud of the bank squished unpleasantly beneath her boots. The ground hereís really soft; Iíll need to be careful. The last thing I need today is to slip and give myself a mudbath. Looking around once again for any signs of danger, she carefully made her way to the waterís edge, her boots leaving deep tracks.
Once at the waterside, she frowned as she realized her mere weight on the edge of the stream was causing the mud of the bank to dissolve into the water. She carefully walked up and down a few paces, only to find the same problem. Sheíd never be able to fill the canteens from the edge of the stream without getting as much silt as liquid into them. Scowling in frustration, she was suddenly inspired by the largest of the low-hanging branches over the stream and the relative shallowness of the water near the bank. Holstering her pistol, she waded out carefully. The water only reached the ankles of her boots before she reached a spot where she could get a good handhold on one of the branches. With a heave and a groan, Marguerite pulled herself up until she was straddling the branch.
While waiting for the water to clear from her disturbance, she carefully examined each canteen, making sure the straps were secure. Once she was satisfied, she removed the cap from one, tucked it into her pocket, and then lowered the canteen on its strap until it was in the stream. At first the empty container merely floated on top of the water, bobbing along until it could go no further because of the strap. Eventually enough water flowed into the opening to cause it to sink further into the stream, filling ever more quickly. Marguerite was careful not to let it sink too far, lest it accidentally scoop mud from the bottom. Not the fastest way to fill a canteen, but at least thereís no mud in it, she thought in triumph as she pulled the now-filled container back up to her branch.
She was in the middle of filling the second canteen when she heard a rustling in the underbrush by the stream, accompanied by a chittering sound. Startled, she lost her grip on the strap, but spared it no thought as the canteen floated a short way before sinking into the clear water. All her senses were concentrated on detecting any threat. What the ? Dinosaur, maybe? And I canít run in that stream; Iíd make a racket that would bring whatever it is in a hurry, and Iíd be more likely to slip and fall than make it to safety! Fully alarmed, Marguerite quickly weighed her options and impulsively climbed higher into the tree, trying to make as little noise as possible. Fortunately the interlacing branches over the bank were both sturdy and well-spaced for climbing. Within a few seconds she was lying full-length on a relatively high branch that belonged to an entirely different tree than the one sheíd started in, mostly screened from view by the leaves and branches below. She tried not to pant as she watched for any activity on the banks.
A minute passed, then two, and Marguerite was starting to wonder if sheíd overreacted when the underbrush by the nearest bank rustled again. A moment more, and a relatively small dinosaur emerged, blinking its huge dark eyes and squinting in the light. Delicate hand-like appendages on its front limbs held the body of some small furry creature. It looked around carefully and then moved down to the stream, its striped body and distinctively ringed tail blending in well with the early morning shadows.
Marguerite held back a laugh. She recognized this normally nocturnal creature from catching glimpses of it a few times, always at dusk or moonlit nights. They were cunning, curious creatures that had driven Challenger to distraction when they started dismantling the machinery around the windmill. At first he couldnít figure out Ďwhoí had done it - and then heíd had to invent a way to keep the persistent saurian meddlers away. They were surprisingly intelligent, and obviously fascinated by anything shiny or with moving parts. Iíve never seen one in daylight before, but if itís what I think it is, itís harmless. I think Challenger said they were some kind of troodon unknown to modern paleontology. I remember how furious he was when Malone dubbed them "raccoon-o-saurs" - particularly when John agreed with him! Now what is it doing - washing its food? Fascinated, Marguerite watched as the creature daintily dipped its meal into the stream several times before starting to eat it.
It happened almost too fast for Marguerite to follow. A whistling shriek, a terrified squeal, a sudden mad dash, a choked-off cry - and the raccoon-o-saur was dead, neck and head dangling limply from between the jaws of a raptor, body trailing half-in and half-out of the stream. Another raptor seized the lower half of the dead dinosaur, and the two immediately dragged the carcass back into the undergrowth, snarling and fighting over their meal. Three more raptors prowled the bank, looking for scraps.
Up in the tree, Marguerite remained frozen, heart pounding as she realized just how close sheíd come to being lunch. If Iíd tried to fill the canteens from the bank, or if I hadnít climbed up when I heard the raccoon-o-saur, Iíd probably be dead. She shivered. As it is, I donít think they have any idea Iím here. I can - oh, no! She watched helplessly as one of the raptors sniffed her tracks, obviously interested in the scent. The other two caught its excitement as it followed her trail down to the stream, raising its head to look up and down the waterís course. Marguerite could almost sense the creature thinking. It knows my tracks lead to the water, but not away, and that theyíre fresh donít let it spot me!
Whistling a hunting call, the lead raptor started down the stream. The other two followed it, hunting along the banks for any sign of more prey - Marguerite included. She held her breath as they disappeared from sight, leaving their two feeding fellows still noisily devouring their meal.
If they donít find anything else along the way, thereís a good chance theyíll be back - and that raccoon-o-saur wonít hold the other two long, either. Sheíd seen raptors feed on smaller creatures a time or two, and she knew it wouldnít take them long to finish the poor creature. Theyíd gobble every scrap of such a relatively small kill, and then go hunting for seconds. I canít risk making a break from it here. If nothing else, if I leave tracks away from the stream, theyíll follow them - and the last thing I want to do is to lead them back to the cave! While they couldnít get in, theyíre more than capable of lying in wait and trapping us there.
Marguerite looked around frantically, seeking some way of escape. These tree branches go along quite a ways. If Iím careful and quiet, I should be able to get far enough away by climbing along them to throw them off my trail. She took a deep breath. Better try this now, while the other two are still making enough noise to cover any sounds I might make. As noiselessly as she could, she rose from her prone position and started making her way along the tree branches, away from the danger.
Roxton drifted back to consciousness. Like every other time heíd awakened enough to remember, he was thirsty, aching, itching, and groggy. "Marguerite?" he moaned.
Unlike every other time heíd awakened, there was no reply, no Marguerite immediately by his side, offering him comfort and support. He weakly raised his head, searching for her with eyes that refused to focus properly. "Marguerite?" he called again.
Where is she? Where am I? He fought for clarity. Iím ill. Weíre in a cave. Where is Marguerite? She wouldnít leave me. Groaning, he rolled to his side, then forced himself to his hands and knees, driven to try and rise by her continued absence. She wouldnít leave me. She must be in trouble. Have to find her.
Just the effort of crawling to the cave wall left him light-headed and nauseated, but he couldnít stop. She needs me. Have to get up. Have to find her! Placing one hand on the ground for leverage and the other on the wall for balance, he tried to get to his feet. He actually made it and managed to take a single step before fainting. His head struck the wall of the cave as he fell.
Veronica had pushed an incredibly fast pace, but the Zanga were used to the hunt, and they had made excellent time. Their sun-bronzed bodies moved easily as they loped through the jungle, moving silently by habit and leaving little sign of their passage. As they approached the gathering area, Jarl and Veronica debated quietly in Zanga about what to do.
"We should continue to follow their trail," Veronica argued.
"Yes - if all else fails. But we are very near the quillaja now. If one or both of them felt unwell, this is where they would go to camp and care for themselves. We could save valuable time by checking there first."
"Roxton knows of the quillaja," Kai spoke up in support of his hunt-leader. "He has stayed with us there before."
Noshi nodded his agreement. The big Zanga rarely spoke unless absolutely necessary.
Veronica forced herself to listen to her friends, beating back the instinct to simply pursue the trail as quickly as possible. Fear and guilt still burned within her. "Marguerite was there, too, although itís anyoneís guess if she could find it on her own." She nodded. "Youíre right. Letís check there first, and then come back to the trail if we donít find them."
The four veered off from the explorersí trail and took a more direct path to the cave. Veronica kept a sharp eye out, hoping to see some other sign of her friends. When they entered the clearing in front of the cave entrance, she let out a happy cry. "Look!" There were a number of tracks on the ground in front of the cave entrance, all with the distinctive tread marks of European boots. "Roxton! Marguerite! Are you here?"
There was no answer to Veronicaís call except the chattering of a few birds.
"They have definitely been here," Jarl said, smiling reassurance. "Perhaps they are still within." He started towards the cave.
Veronica had a sudden thought. She took Jarlís arm, bringing him to a halt. "Wait. Let me go in alone. If theyíre not there, we donít want to muddle any trail they left. If they are there they might not recognize you."
"What? Oh, if they are both fevered. Yes. But what of you? If they both have the sickness, they might not know you either."
"Iíll take that chance. You three stay outside, and watch the entrance. If either of them comes running out, stop them. Donít come in unless you hear me call."
"And if you do not return?" Jarl wanted to know, frowning.
"Then be very careful if you decide to come after me," Veronica replied with a half-smile, "and try not to hurt them."
Jarl scowled in concern, then sighed and gripped Veronicaís shoulder in a sign of support. "Have a care, then. Assai would consign me to the nether gods if you came to harm."
"Iíll be careful." Veronica returned the grip and did her best to look confident.
She approached the cave cautiously, calling out her friendsí names and doing her best to avoid obscuring any tracks. Squeezing her way into the narrow entrance, she waited until her eyes adjusted to the relative gloom before moving the rest of the way into the cave.
A low fire glowed in the firepit, well on its way to burning itself out. A thin haze of woodsmoke filled the cave, dulling the air. Familiar packs were strewn on the floor, and Veronica recognized the blankets lying near the fire. "Marguerite? Roxton? Itís me, Veronica!" she called again.
Stomach tight with anxiety, Veronica moved into the cave. Once out of the entrance, the light from the passage helped illuminate the interior, including the crumpled figure along one wall. "Roxton!" She dashed to the hunterís side. Her heart was in her throat as she felt for a pulse, only returning to its rightful place once she found the steady beat. The hunterís skin was hot with fever, a white rash covered most of his arms and chest, and a thin trickle of blood had dried where it had run down his temple. Heís got marsh fever all right. But how could this have happened? Veronica wondered wildly, touching the dried blood on Roxtonís skin. Did Marguerite go mad with fever and hit him over the head? Her fingers found a tender lump on Roxtonís skull, just above the hairline, which might account for his unconsciousness - but then again, so might the fever.
After assuring herself the unconscious man was not seriously injured beyond what she had already discovered, she eased him into a more comfortable position. Heís feverish and dehydrated, and I donít like the look of that lump; we need to give him some of the tea I brought and then get him back to the Treehouse as soon as we can. But what happened here? Where is Marguerite? Eyes fully adjusted now, she scanned the cave from where she was crouched by Roxtonís side, but the dark-haired woman was nowhere to be seen.
Sheís not here but she left plenty of tracks. Examining the ground, Veronica quickly realized that Roxton had crawled to his current location from the tangle of blankets near the fire. It looks like he tried to stand, and fell, she thought with relief. Marguerite didnít do this. I donít think Marguerite was here when it happened. But why would she leave Roxton? She rose from Roxtonís side and looked around carefully. Judging from the state of the cave and the things Veronica found by the fire, Marguerite had been nursing Roxton fairly effectively. The blond womanís eyebrows rose in surprise as she determined the limp green mess in the small pot was the remnant of boiled sticky-claws. Sheís been giving him sticky-claws tea! How did she know to do that? Oh, of course - she was here to gather them for Malone, so naturally she would know to try them on Roxton when he became ill! But where IS she?
She looked around again, aware that something was niggling at the back of her mind. Wait, wait - where are the canteens? She checked again, carefully looking through the packs and examining underneath the blankets. The canteens are missing. She must have used up all the water making the tea for Roxton. She must have gone to fill the canteens! She slumped a little in relief, then tensed up again as she realized the timing was all wrong. Even if she went for water, she should have returned before now. Even if Roxton fell immediately after she left, she should have been back here before the blood dried. She felt the knot of dread that had been with her since her first realization of her friendsí danger grow even tighter. Sheís in trouble.
"Veronica?" Jarlís voice filtered into the cave, reminding the young woman that her friends were waiting outside, with no knowledge of what sheíd found.
"In here! Iíve found Roxton, but Marguerite is missing! Be careful of the tracks!" she called back.
In moments, Kai, Noshi, and Jarl had joined Marguerite in the cave. "Is he alive?" Kai asked, looking at the still form of the hunter.
Veronica ran a distracted hand through her blonde curls. "Yes, but heís got marsh fever and a lump on the head. We need to give him some tea, and then make a litter so we can get him back to the Treehouse as soon as we find Marguerite. From what Iíve found here, I think Marguerite must have gone for water, but I think sheís been gone too long."
"We will follow her trail," Jarl said at once, turning to give orders to his hunters. "The stream is not far from here; hopefully we will find her there. Noshi, start work on a litter. Kai, build up the fire and tend to Roxton."
"Yes, Jarl," Kai agreed. Noshi merely nodded and headed back out of the cave in search of poles for a litter.
Veronica gave Kai the dried ingredients for the tea Roxton needed, and her extra water skin. "Look after him carefully, please. Marguerite will be very unhappy with us if we let anything happen to him," she asked him softly.
"A fate to be avoided," Kai said with both veracity and feigned lightness. "I will do my best to make sure she is pleased when you return with her."
Veronica mustered up a smile at his well-intentioned effort to reassure her, and then hastened from the cave.
Margueriteís trail was relatively easy to follow. She had started off in the wrong direction at first, but she hadnít gone very far before turning and heading the right way. It was impossible to tell for certain exactly how fresh the tracks were, but Veronica thought they were not recent enough. Her pace increased as she grew ever more certain that something must have happened to her friend. Beside her, Veronica was aware Jarlís face was growing grimmer with each new piece of evidence indicating they were following a trail that was hours old, not minutes. He knew what that must mean as well as she, and his dourness only reinforced her despair.
Please, let it be that she simply fell, or came down with the fever, or just lost her way, the Plateau-raised blonde implored silently. Please, let her be alive. Please, let me find her and bring her home.
They heard the stream before they saw it; Marguerite had approached a different part of it than the Zanga usually visited. Shoving through the undergrowth with little care for the noise she was making or the welts she was raising on her bare skin, Veronica abruptly stopped short as the bank of the stream came into view. An icy chill went through her, and her lips trembled as she realized what she was seeing. "Oh no. Oh please, no."
Jarl pushed his way through the vegetation to stand at her side. He, too, stopped in horror.
The climbing sun had dried what must have been mud at the time, leaving a plain record of what had been at the stream early that morning. There, plain to see, were Margueriteís boot tracks, sunk deeply into the ground. There, next to them, obscuring some of them, were raptor tracks. Lots of them.
With a moan, Veronica stumbled forward, reading the signs, praying she was wrong. Margueriteís tracks led down to the waterís edge, as did the raptorsí. A huge patch of torn and muddy earth distorted the signs nearest the water, making it impossible to distinguish any one set of tracks from another, but there was no mistaking the darker splotches now baked into the earth. Blood. Broken underbrush and rusty brown streaks showed on the nearest bushes, but there was no sign of a body. Not that the raptors would have left any, given how large the pack had been, and how small the quarry
A hand touched her shoulder, startling her out of her dazed disbelief. "Oh, Veronica. I am so sorry," Jarl said, deep sympathy showing on his face and in his voice.
Veronica swallowed hard. "Maybe it wasnít her. Maybe it was some other creature."
Sorrowfully, Jarl shook his head. "I see no other tracks, and there is no sign Marguerite ever left this place. Her tracks only go down to the waterís edge, not away. As badly torn as the ground is, we would still see some tracks if she had ever walked away from this stream."
"Maybe she waded in. Maybe she crossed to the other side." Gulping, Veronica pushed away Jarlís hand and strode down to the streamís edge, frantically searching for any indication that Marguerite might not have that she had somehow escaped. There was no sign of boot prints on the far bank, but a glint of sunlight on metal near the streamís edge caught her eye. Heedless of the water and mud, Veronica waded out into the stream, reached down, and pulled up a canteen by its sodden leather strap. There was no sign of its cap. Horribly, the vision of how it must have been flashed into Veronicaís mind: Marguerite crouching by the stream, filling the canteen, overtired from tending to Roxton; the sudden shriek of the raptors as they leapt from cover and onto their helpless victim; Marguerite screaming, dropping the canteen to reach for her gun, too late
Veronicaís tears dropped into the stream unnoticed as she hugged the canteen to her chest, her blonde hair falling forward as she her bent her head, lost in grief.
The journey back to the Treehouse had been a nightmare. Not because anything happened, but because nothing did, leaving Veronica nothing to distract herself from her black grief and her terrible guilt. Over and over, the same thoughts kept whirling through her mind: This is my fault! Margueriteís dead! How am I going to tell the others? Oh God, how am I going to tell Roxton? Heís so sick already; this will kill him! Marguerite, Iím so sorry! This shouldnít have happened! You never should have been there, never would have been there if I hadnít been so mean! I canít believe youíre gone, and itís all because of me! This is my fault! She was dimly aware of the sorrowful, sympathetic glances from Jarl as he walked beside her, and from Kai and Noshi as they carried the litter, but nothing could reach through the bleak haze that surrounded her. She didnít deserve their sympathy.
Now they were nearing the Treehouse, making their way through the electric fence, and every step just increased the dread and hopelessness in Veronicaís heart. How am I going to tell them? How can I even face them, when my own pettiness led Marguerite to her death? As they reached the elevator, Veronica hesitated, trembling, almost overwhelmed with the urge to run as far away as she could from this tragedy she had inadvertently precipitated. Then she shook her head, blinking back tears. No. They need to be told. Itís only fitting that I have to be the one to tell them. I deserve that pain.
There was not enough room in the elevator for the litter, but Noshi solved that problem by silently scooping up the unconscious Roxton into his arms, cradling him like an infant. If she hadnít been so lost in her grief, Veronica would have been astonished by the big, dark-haired nativeís strength, and his courage in stepping into the lift. As it was, she could only stand numbly and work the controls once Jarl had joined them inside. Kai remained below, his long face and dark eyes plainly showing his own emotion as he watched the elevator start to rise.
Veronicaís hands curled into fists as the lift ascended, driving her nails ever more deeply into the flesh of her palms as they neared the top. She didnít feel it. I have to tell them. I have to tell them. I have to tell them Margueriteís dead. The lift reached the top of its run and stopped with a thump, revealing the great room, Challengerís eager face as he looked up from where he was seated on a chair with his leg propped up, Assaiís anxious face as she hurried into the room.
"Thank Heavens, you found them," Challenger beamed, but his smile quickly turned into a frown as he took in Roxtonís condition and the terrible expression on Veronicaís face. He struggled to his feet, his alarm growing as Veronica just stood there even as Jarl and Noshi carefully negotiated their way out of the elevator, Roxton still and limp in the big Zangaís arms. "Good lord, is Roxton all right? Whereís Marguerite?" he added in a rush, staggering nearer the lift.
"Margueriteís dead." Veronicaís words were not loud, but they echoed through the room nonetheless. Assai gasped, her eyes immediately darting to Jarlís face and reading the truth there. Challenger stumbled to a halt, his blue eyes shocked, his expression going blank.
"Dead?" Challenger repeated, wanting to reject the word even as it left his lips.
"Sheís dead," Veronica confirmed, feeling oddly numb now the moment was here. It didnít feel real. She said it again, just to try and convince herself it was happening. "Margueriteís dead." It didnít work. Softly, wondering at the numbness, she said it all: "Margueriteís dead, and itís my fault." Nothing. No feeling, no reaction. "Sheís dead, and itís my fault. Sheís dead, sheís dead, sheís never coming back "
All at once she felt Challengerís arms around her, drawing her into a tight embrace. "Sh, Veronica. I know." The scientistís voice was strained and rough with emotion. "Margueriteís dead."
Hearing Challenger say it broke the strange numbness she was feeling, and all at once Veronica felt her whole body wracked with sobs. With a despairing cry, she buried her face in the older manís shoulder, feeling nothing but the pain of loss as the tears streamed down her face. "I want her back!" she wailed helplessly.
Challenger patted Veronicaís back awkwardly, feeling unaccustomed tears stinging in his own eyes and murmuring whatever comforting phrases he could think of. He looked over Veronicaís head towards Assai, relieved to see the Zanga woman had quietly taken charge of getting Roxton to his room. Inwardly, his mind was reeling. Marguerite dead? I canít believe it. How??? How did it happen? And why does Veronica think it is her fault? Mustnít ask her now. Oh Marguerite - how you will be missed!
Marguerite pushed her hair back out of her eyes with a frustrated cry. "Could this day get any better?" She was hot, sticky, bruised, covered with plant debris for the second day in a row, and utterly exhausted. Fueling her aggravation was the increasing panic and worry at having left Roxton alone for so long.
Her escape from the raptor pack had worked so well in the beginning. Sheíd had some difficulty making her way from branch to branch along the course of the stream; her boots were not ideal for such activity, and her palms had quickly chafed against the rough bark of the various trees. But it had been worth it, to know there was no way the raptors could track her, no possibility of laying a trail back to the helpless hunter. Sheíd continued going from branch to branch until the stream below had made several turns, and her original watering spot was long lost to view. Only then had she started looking for a way down.
That had proven to be the first difficulty. Sheíd somehow managed to work her way up to a place where there were plenty of branches to travel across, but no trees with lower or downward-bending branches. She had been forced to continue along, trying to find a tree with branches that descended to the ground, or at least to a safe jumping height. Sheíd been about to turn back and take her chances closer to the raptor attack site when she finally spotted a possible descent point. Clambering over to the likely tree, she had sighed in relief as she found it really did have branches radiating out in a spoke pattern practically all the way to the ground. It was rather like descending a spiral staircase until one of the Ďstairsí had broken off beneath her weight, dumping her ignominiously to the ground fifteen feet below.
She rubbed her aching backside, remembering the fall. Stupid branch; who knew it was rotten? Good thing I fell into that small thicket. It helped break my fall, although now Iím scratched all over. I suppose it could have been much worse; I didnít break anything, though for a while I thought I was never going to be able to breathe again.
When sheíd finally managed to get her wind back, sheíd looked around, expecting to find the stream nearby. That was when Marguerite had run into the second difficulty. The stream had been nowhere in sight. Sheíd listened carefully, but she hadnít been able to hear it, either. Sheíd set off looking for it, only to get turned around somehow. Not only had she not been able to find the stream, but she hadnít been able to find her way back to the tree sheíd fallen from, either. It hadnít taken her long to realize she was completely lost.
Now sheíd been stumbling around for what she was sure were hours, frantically searching for anything even remotely familiar-looking, in between bouts of hiding from various menaces she knew were stalking the area. She hadnít been able to move very quickly with her bruises and aches, but she should have come across something familiar by now! She couldnít even really tell how long it had been since sheíd left the cave; the jungle canopy above mostly hid the sun, making it difficult to judge the time. She hoped it really hadnít been as long as she thought it had, that her frustration and fatigue were fooling her into thinking it was late afternoon, not mid-morning. I canít be lost! John needs me! John, I need you - how I wish you were with me right now!
As if in answer to her thought, Marguerite suddenly saw something she thought she recognized. No. It canít be. Can it? She hobbled over as fast as she could and knelt down to touch it with trembling fingers. Lying there on the ground, tangled up with a length of sticky-claws, was an object sheíd recognize anywhere - Johnís hat. She picked it up and hugged it, sticky-claws and all. How can this be? I must be miles from everyone and everything! Confused, she looked up and realized she recognized precisely where she was - practically right next to the tree where they had hung their packs, just the day before.
She blinked her eyes, bewildered. How could I have thought I was lost? How did I miss seeing that tree, or that large rock over there that has always reminded me of a sleeping lion? I donít understand how I could have failed to see it! None of this makes sense. Iím so tired She hugged the hat tighter, frightened, and then scowled as the sticky-claws prickled against her chest. She stopped hugging the hat and pulled it away from her chest, intending to pick off the sticky-claws from both her blouse and Johnís hat. Her hand froze in mid-motion as she looked down at her chest.
Morbidly fascinated, she pushed up one of the sleeves of her blouse. Small patches of white rash showed all the way to her elbow. The rash seemed to multiply even as she watched.
Iíve got the fever, she realized. Thatís why I didnít recognize where I was. Thatís why Iím so tired. Fear gripped her. I have to get back to the cave right away, or Iíll never make it. Shivering violently, she climbed back to her feet. Just concentrate. You can make it, Marguerite. You have to. John made it yesterday; you have to make it today.
John had me to help him, her doubts whispered treacherously as she forced herself into motion.
And I have me to help me, too, she answered those thoughts.
A lot of good that will do you. Youíre so feverish you didnít even recognize where you were until just now. If it werenít for Johnís hat, youíd still be convinced you were hopelessly lost.
John always says this hat is lucky. And itís not as if Iíve never had me and only me to look after me before, she argued back. Between me and Johnís hat, Iíll be fine. Defiantly, she held the hat more tightly and focused her attention on the trail.
Her mind tried to wander several more times, but Marguerite kept gripping Johnís hat and forcing herself to concentrate, and at last the cave entrance came into view. She staggered to it and squeezed her way through, practically collapsing with relief once she was safe in the cave at last. The cave was dark except for a few coals still glowing fitfully in the firepit and the weak light from the smokehole. She squinted and then opened her eyes wide, trying to see. Something wasnít right. A moment later she surged forward, aches and exhaustion forgotten in the wave of sheer terror that shook her. "John!" she screamed. "John! Where are you?"
There was no sign of Roxton anywhere in the cave.
Heís gone, heís gone, how could he be gone? I left him right here! She scrambled around frantically, patting the ground, not trusting her eyes, more frightened than she could ever remember being. But touch only confirmed what sight had already told her; the hunter was not here. She bit back a hysterical sob, visions of a delirious and helpless John wandering out of the cave tormenting her.
Drawing a shuddering breath, Marguerite bit her lip until the pain caused her to stop panicking. Wait. Think. Johnís gone but so is everything else. John was in no condition to pack up all the belongings and walk away on his own. Someone must have taken him, and all our things. She stopped biting her lip as the obvious answer leapt to mind. The Zanga. Some of the Zanga must have found him and taken him back to their village for help. That must be what happened. She bit her lip again, feeling the pain of her previous bite and using that to help her force away the darker alternatives that tried to crowd into her thoughts. So Johnís safe. Now I have to worry about me.
She let out a bleak chuckle. I should worry, too. I have no blankets, no food, only what water I still have left in my canteen. I have the remnants of a fire, but odds are I wonít be able to coax it back into full flame, much less feed it often enough to keep it going. Thanks to Johnís hat, I have sticky-claws but I have no pot in which to boil water, and I canít just eat them. Iíd probably poison myself if I did, not to mention all the prickles Iíd get in my tongue. And if I canít drink the sticky-claws tea, Iíll probably get like Malone and go completely mad.
She sniffed audibly, trying not to let the tears come. Iím only crying because Iím sick. And because Iím scared. But tears wonít help me. I have to help myself. Any minute now Iíll get up, and go over to the woodpile, and try and find enough small pieces to use to coax that fire back to life. I probably have enough tinder in the dead leaves in my hair alone. Iíll figure out a way to use the cup from my canteen to heat water in the fire, and Iíll even figure out how to hold the red-hot cup long enough to add sticky-claws and drink the brew. Iíll survive somehow. I always do. Iím always alone in the end, but still I go on.
She snuffled again, and spoke aloud to the darkness. "Iím glad youíre safe, John. I guess you didnít need me after all. But wherever you are, I just want you to know " She mustered a watery smile, and defiantly tossed her aching head before bringing the hat up to her lips and kissing the brim in a salute.
" I brought back your hat, just like I promised."
Night settled over the Treehouse, bringing darkness but not peace. Assai had practically forced Veronica to drink a cup of sedating tea that afternoon, and the emotionally overwrought blonde had spent several hours in desperately-needed sleep. Sheíd refused to take more when sheíd woken, though, claiming to be all right. Neither Challenger nor Assai really believed her, but there was much to be done, and they really did need every able-bodied hand they could muster. Both Roxton and Malone required careful tending and constant supervision, there were medicines to be made and meals to prepare, firewood to be brought up for the kitchen stove The bustle and necessity helped provide Veronica a focus, and sheíd thrown herself into the available tasks single-mindedly.
Now Challenger sat at the great-room table, pressing the fresh sticky-claws for their juice, which Veronica claimed was even more effective than the tea for the late stages of marsh fever. Noshi had brought the press from the kitchen to the table, allowing Challenger to perform this task without having to stand. All he had to do was fill the small compartment on the top of the press with fresh sticky-claws, close the lid, work the handle until the juice stopped flowing from the spout into the bowl theyíd placed beneath it, then clean out the pulp and start the process all over again. The press was one of Challengerís more minor inventions, but he found operating it now oddly satisfying. It was a way to be useful, and like Veronica, he needed to be useful tonight.
Good thing Marguerite and Roxton gathered so many sticky-claws; it takes a lot of them to produce a decent amount of juice, Challenger mused. A stab of grief shot through him once again at the thought of Marguerite. He tried to push it aside, much as heíd done earlier in the day when confronted with Veronicaís emotional collapse, but this time his emotions refused to subside so easily.
Emotions. I never thought I really had them, except for my love for Jessie, and even that always took second place to my work. I thought I never had time for emotions, for people; that they were distractions at best and interferences at worst. It took being stranded here for me to realize just how important they are. His mouth twisted, and he raised a shaking hand to cover his eyes. Now I wish I had never learned. Maybe then Margueriteís loss wouldnít hurt so much. He shook his head. No, I think thatís a false conclusion. It would have hurt every bit as much; I just never would have acknowledged it.
A groan rose from Roxtonís room, followed by the tones of Veronicaís voice. Challenger awkwardly rose from the table, wanting to be nearby in case either Roxton or Veronica needed him.
Roxton drifted into awareness of sensation: of softness beneath him, the rustling sound of wind in thatching, feverish aches, parched throat, itching skin and a dreadful headache. He groaned and opened his eyes.
"Roxton? Can you hear me?" Veronicaís voice was quickly followed by Veronicaís face, swimming into focus somewhere above him. How did she get into the cave?
"Veronica ?" he rasped.
Veronica kept a smile on her face, although her heart broke all over again as she looked at his tired features, so peaceful at this moment. "Yes. I need you to drink this."
A gentle hand helped support his head, and a cup was raised to his lips. He sipped the liquid, surprised when it was neither as bitter nor as sour as he expected. He managed to find a bit more coherency despite the throbbing pain in his head. "Treehouse?"
"Yes, youíre back at the Treehouse." Veronica answered, understanding his one-word query. She continued to speak, hoping to fill the silence with enough words that Roxton would not ask the obvious question. "We brought you here this afternoon. Youíre going to be fine, although youíll need a few more days to get over the marsh fever."
"Fever?" He automatically sipped more as Veronica brought the cup to his lips once again.
"You and Malone both have marsh fever. Youíll be well again in a few days."
Malone we went for medicine for Malone. Scattershot memories of the reporterís sickness, hiking to the Zanga gathering grounds, falling ill, and the Zanga cave came back to him, although he still could not remember how he had returned to the Treehouse. "Marguerite?"
Veronica never let the smile she wore waver, not even for a split-second. She knew she was not a good liar, so she took care to make sure every word she said was the truth. "She doesnít have marsh fever, Roxton. You donít have to worry about her. She did a wonderful job taking care of you. Now you just need to concentrate on getting better."
"Good." Roxtonís eyes drifted closed as Veronicaís words soothed the anxiety within him. "Marguerite doesnít like to be sick " Awareness faded again. He thought he heard Challengerís voice, and Veronicaís hushed reply, but he couldnít understand what they said, and then the darkness returned.
Challenger leaned against the doorframe to Roxtonís room, stunned by what he had just heard. As soon as he was fairly certain the hunter was unconscious again, he fixed Veronica with a shocked stare. "He doesnít know?"
Veronica made hushing movements, and quickly crossed to where Challenger stood. "No, he doesnít." Seeing Challengerís continued shock, Veronica threw up her hands. "He was unconscious when we found him, Challenger, and this is the first time heís been conscious enough to speak. Heís still too sick to tell."
Challengerís eyes narrowed. "You think if he knew, he might not get well."
"I think itís a possibility it might cause him to relapse, or worse. You know how he is was about Marguerite, and heís still very weak."
Challenger remembered Roxtonís recent desperate actions when Marguerite had been in danger, and the manís terrified fury when sheíd been missing in the jungle after an argument between them had led to Margueriteís quasi-abduction by Olmec. He met Veronicaís gaze, and saw the same unspoken thought that rose in his mind. "Very well," he agreed reluctantly. "But weíre going to have to tell him soon."
"Weíll see how he is in the morning," Veronica replied sadly. "If heís stronger then, Iíll tell him."
Midnight came and went. Challenger finally went to bed, as did Assai. Jarl volunteered to keep watch on Roxton, leaving Veronica to keep vigil in Maloneís room.
She examined the sleeping reporter wistfully, noting subtle changes in his face that had nothing to do with the fever, changes that had emerged in the three years since he first appeared in her life. His cheekbones were slightly more prominent now. His hair was a brighter gold, bleached by the strong tropical sun, and his skin was a touch darker. But it was the character written into the sleeping face that stood out to her most; the slight laugh-lines forming around his eyes and the good-humored twist of his lips, evident even in repose. Heís changed so much but heís still the same Ned heís always been where it really matters; in his open and caring heart.
"Hey. You look sad," Maloneís voice startled Veronica out of her reverie. His blue eyes were open and fixed on her face. "I hope itís not because of me. I feel much better, really."
Veronicaís face broke out into a relieved smile. "Ned! Youíre awake! Really awake!"
"I guess so," the reporter replied, bemused. He sat up carefully, surprised at how tired such a simple action made him feel. "I feel like Iíve been run over by a Triceratops, but thatís a lot better than the last time I remember being awake. What happened to me?"
"You had marsh fever, but it looks like the fever has broken." Veronica quickly checked Maloneís temperature with a tender caress and confirmed that his skin felt normal. "You just need to drink a lot of liquids and rest for another day or so, and youíll be as good as new."
"Thatís great," Malone replied, reassured. "I donít like being sick."
The familiar phrase sent a spasm of sorrow shooting through her, but Veronica passed it off quickly. "I donít like it when youíre sick either, Ned." She absentmindedly poured him a mug of diluted sticky-claws juice, determined to keep her sadness under control. Ned doesnít need to know just yet.
"Well then, that makes two of us." Malone drank from his cup, puzzled by Veronicaís behavior. Even still weak and recently awakened from a days-long fever, he could tell something was wrong. The combination of pensiveness and vivacity in the beautiful blonde was jarring, to say the least. "Did anyone else catch it?" he hazarded a guess.
Veronica started. "Roxton," she said after a moment.
"Huh. Bet heís a worse patient than I am," Malone said, only half-joking, and was startled when Veronica flinched again.
"Heís been mostly unconscious, actually."
"Oh," Ned responded noncommittally, not sure why she should make such a distinction. He had no memory of his raving delirium. Why is she acting so strangely? Something must be very wrong. "But he will get better, right?"
"He should get over the fever all right." Veronica tensed even more, but did her best to keep a pleasant expression on her face.
Malone was too tired to keep guessing. Draining the last of his drink, he rested the empty mug on his lap and reached for Veronicaís arms with both hands. "Then whatís wrong, Veronica? Youíre a terrible liar. Youíre trying to hide something from me. Tell me what it is."
Veronica tried to evade Nedís perceptive and open gaze, darting her eyes around the room. They fastened on his empty mug, and she stiffened all over. "Thatís hers," she said incoherently.
What is going on??? "What is whose?" Malone asked carefully.
"The mug. Thatís Margueriteís favorite, the one she always uses. The one sheís used since she first came here." Tears welled up in Veronicaís eyes again for what seemed the hundredth time, and she dimly wondered if she would ever be able to stop crying. "Itís the one sheís never going to be able to use again. Sheís dead, Ned, and itís my fault."
Malone didnít have much strength yet, but he had more than enough to pull Veronica from her chair and onto his bed, and hold her while she wept against his chest. Gradually he coaxed the story from her, subduing his own sorrow in order to help her with her pain, but letting her see his tears, too.
"Itís not your fault, Veronica," he told her when her sobs had quieted a little. Seeing her resistance, he tried again. "Is it my fault?"
"Of course not!" she hiccupped.
"Iím the one that got sick. Iím the reason they had to go out for sticky-claws in the first place. Does that make me responsible?"
"No, but - "
"Challenger is the one who dropped the jar of dried sticky-claws, forcing Roxton and Marguerite to go collect more. Is it his fault?"
"No " Veronicaís sobs were gone, but tears still trickled down her cheeks.
"Listen to me." Maloneís voice was pitched higher with emotion, almost breaking in its intensity. Something compelled Veronica to listen to him, as she had not been able to listen to Assai, Jarl, or Challenger earlier. "There are raptors all over this Plateau. We run the risk of dying every day weíre alive. Marguerite could have been killed anywhere. It just happened today." He reached out and touched her face. "Itís a tragedy - but itís not anyoneís fault. It just is. And I think she wouldnít want you to blame yourself, any more than sheíd want Roxton to blame himself for getting sick while they were out collecting the sticky-claws, or Challenger for falling, or even me for falling ill in the first place. I think weíll all blame ourselves a little, but I think thatís wrong." Two tears trickled down his cheeks, and Veronica reached up to brush one away. "I think we should just mourn our friend."
This time, the sobs brought release and some measure of comfort, not a greater sense of guilt. Veronica cried until she finally dozed off, cradled against Maloneís side, his shoulder damp with her tears, the mug lying forgotten between them. Malone continued to weep for a while longer, overwhelmed by this utterly unexpected loss and the depth of the emotional pain it brought them both. At last he too fell asleep, emotionally and physically depleted.
Maloneís frantic gasping jerked Veronica awake. All the candles had burned out long ago, and the pre-dawn light strengthening outside only dimly lit his room. "Ned?" she called, frightened by the rapid heartbeat she felt pounding through his chest.
"Marguerite," he moaned, his blue eyes open but eerily unfocused. "Sheís at the cave. You have to go to her. She wonít last much longer on her own. Sheís sick."
"Ned? Ned! Wake up, Ned! Itís just a nightmare!" Veronica shook him, trying to bring him out of it. Has the fever returned? His body was covered in a cold sweat, but his temperature felt normal.
The blue eyes stared right through her, but Veronica was abruptly sure they saw her just the same. "No! Sheís there! Veronica, you have to believe me. Sheís sick, she needs our help. Sheíll die if you donít go, and the guilt will destroy us; you most of all. Please, Veronica, promise me youíll go right now," he pleaded hoarsely.
"Of course, Ned, whatever you say. I just have to get you some tea first," Veronica tried to placate him.
"You donít mean it. You wonít go, but you must! Veronica, please! Please!" Malone insisted. One of his hands grasped her arm in an astonishing grip. She was startled to see that the other hand held Margueriteís mug so tightly she thought the cup must shatter at any moment. "Please, promise me!"
It was the only way, and something in his demeanor made her swear as he asked. "I promise, Ned. Iíll do it. Iíll go right now. Just lie down, please."
Malone stared at her for a moment more, then nodded shakily. "You wonít break your promise." He lay back down on the bed and went limp, the mug dropping from his hand onto the wooden floor with a clatter and rolling underneath his bed.
Veronica checked his heart rate and breathing, but both were returning to normal. To all appearances, Ned was once more in a healthy if deep sleep. The blonde Plateau-dweller rose from the bed, shaking. I must be crazy for even thinking of doing this but Iíve seen stranger things on the Plateau, and whatever just happened is important, I know it. Besides, I promised Ned, and heís right; I wonít break that promise. Iíll do this for Ned, and for Marguerite, and for me. Even though I wonít find anything, Iíll know I tried, and maybe that will help us all find some peace.
She slipped silently out of Maloneís room. Stopping only long enough to grab a waterskin and her traveling bag, she stepped into the elevator and rode it down. She was out beyond the electric fence moments later, moving at a ground-eating loping run she could maintain for miles.
Theyíll worry when they find out Iím gone, but maybe Malone can explain it to them, she thought as she ran out of sight of the Treehouse.
Memories of Marguerite accompanied Veronica the entire way to the Zanga cave, happy memories, poignant memories, memories that still made Veronica shake her head angrily even as she had to laugh. Memories of Marguerite and Ned, teasing and bullying him, defending him. Memories of Marguerite and Challenger, goading the scientist, helping him. Memories of Marguerite and Summerlee, complaining about him, opening up to him. Memories of Marguerite and Roxton, arguing their way into love. Memories of Marguerite and herself, infuriating each other, protecting each other caring for each other. Marguerite, I finally believe you meant it when you said you felt like you were losing a sister, because now I know Iíve lost a sister too. Sisters fight, and sisters disagree, but sisters are always there. I canít imagine what our lives are going to be like without you in them, what my life will be like.
Despite her words to Malone, Veronica almost turned back when she came into sight of the cave entrance. Part of her felt ridiculous for coming all this way. Another part of her wanted to keep that faint, ridiculous spark of hope Maloneís words had caused alive. An even greater part of her didnít want to have to face the trip home alone, to face the questions the disappointment. But she had promised. She slowly walked forwards and entered the cave.
A smell assailed her nostrils as soon as she made her way inside, and Veronicaís heart nearly stopped. After so many days, she knew that smell, the smell of the sickroom. It could be left over from Roxton, yesterday but the smell should have dispersed more than this! Scarcely daring to hope, Veronica stood just inside the cave and called out, straining her eyes to see. "Ma-Marguerite?"
A low moan came from near the darkened firepit. Veronica walked to the firepit, somehow unable to move quickly. For the second time in two days, everything felt very unreal. "Marguerite? Is that you?"
Another step, and Veronica could see the figure well enough to recognize her. Dirty, disheveled, shivering in the grip of high fever, covered in patches of white rash, there was still no mistaking her. Veronica plunked to her knees beside her friend, nearly overcome as she recognized the suspicious, cold expression in the glazed grey eyes.
"Who are you? Donít come any closer. I have a gun." Marguerite pointed an object at her, but Veronica had no fear of Roxtonís hat.
"Marguerite, itís me. Itís Veronica."
Suspicion turned to confusion, and Marguerite hugged Roxtonís hat much as Veronica had hugged Edward the Lion when she was a child. "Veronica?" She looked at the blonde woman quizzically, obviously trying to remember something. "Are you American?"
Veronica let out a laugh that was half a sob. "No, Marguerite. Iím " She cleared her throat and said it with utter sincerity. "Iím your friend."
Margueriteís expression turned wistful. "I donít have any friends."
The blonde blinked back happy tears. "Yes you do. You have Ned, and George, and Arthur, and John, and you have me, Veronica. You have all of us, and we have you. And when I donít return to the Treehouse, our Zanga friends will track us here, and theyíll help me bring you home."
"Home. That sounds nice " Margueriteís eyes drifted closed.
Swiftly, Veronica did what she could for Marguerite to make her more comfortable, and then just held her friend, waiting for help to arrive.
It had been a week since Veronica and the Zanga had returned with Marguerite, and in that time everyone had slowly recovered his or her health and strength. Challenger was now able to walk with only a slight limp, and had delved into an entirely new round of experiments, trying to determine the effective agents of sticky-claws. Veronica was exhausted from tending so many invalids, and more than ready for a break. Sheíd been overheard mumbling that it was too bad she couldnít catch marsh fever again, as sheíd like to be waited on for a change! Malone was back to his usual self, although he had absolutely no memory of the nightmare or vision that had sent Veronica out on her quest. Heíd quizzed her for every detail, joking wryly that this was the first time heíd had to interview someone else to find out what heíd done. Roxton wasnít quite back to full strength, but was close enough to it to spend most of his time trying to coddle Marguerite. Marguerite was still on the road to recovery, tiring easily and needing more color in her cheeks, but happy to be out of bed and no longer covered with scratchy white patches.
The Zangasí help had been invaluable during this time. Jarl and Noshi had taken care of the outdoor chores and hunting while the men were sick, while Assai had spent almost every hour of the day in someoneís sickroom, and Kai had run back and forth between the Zanga village twice to deliver messages and ask advice of the Zanga shaman. They had finally bid their Zanga friends farewell only that morning, promising to visit in two weekís time for the delayed celebratory feast. Now the five friends simply sat in the great room, enjoying each otherís company and the peace that had returned to the Treehouse.
"Are there any other childhood diseases we should be wary of?" Challenger asked Veronica. "Iíd hate to be caught unawares again."
"A few, but none so dangerous as marsh fever," Veronica replied, looking up from her paint palette.
"Itís odd that we all managed to come down with it at once, after living on the Plateau for three years," Malone pointed out, pausing in writing in his journal. He had a lot of thoughts to record about the last week, not to mention capturing his rapidly-fading memories of the spirit world.
"Odd? Downright inconvenient, if you ask me," Marguerite chimed in from her seat on the couch. She carefully set another stitch in the alteration she was making on her new blue blouse. "It would have been a lot easier if we could have taken turns, six months apart."
"What about not catching it at all?" Roxton tweaked gently from where he sat next to Marguerite. The heiress made a face at him.
"Actually, it might not be such a coincidence," Veronica admitted, putting down her paintbrush.
Marguerite looked curious. "What do you mean?"
"The Zanga shaman sent word through Kai about marsh fever. It seems that it wasnít always called that."
"So? What else was it called?" Malone wanted to know.
Veronica shivered slightly. "When it first appeared amongst the Zanga, it was known as Sarosí Touch."
An uncomfortable silence settled on the Treehouse as the explorers absorbed that information.
"Creepy," Malone joked at last, trying to lighten the mood.
"A veritable ghost tale," Roxton agreed, playing along with Maloneís attempt.
"Yes, well, Iíve had just about enough of ghosts, spirits, sicknesses, and the whole lot of Plateau weirdnesses. Frankly, I could use a nice, ordinary, mundane vacation," Marguerite complained.
"Thereís always the celebration at the Zanga village," Challenger reminded her.
"Thank you George, but I was thinking more along the lines of Brighton Beach," Marguerite grumbled.
"How about the Inland Sea?" Roxton suggested, with a fond look.
"What? Are you serious?" Marguerite turned to look at him, surprised.
Roxton was a little surprised at himself, but getting some time with Marguerite was something heíd been thinking about for days, ever since a loud commotion in the great room and Challengerís shouting Margueriteís name had dragged him out of his sickbed. He still felt a chill at the memory of the sight of her, limp and pale in Noshiís arms, badly disheveled, and clutching his hat in one hand. For a terrible few minutes, Roxton had been convinced she had been hurt trying to recover his hat for him. It was only after the others had carried Marguerite off to her room that George had told him she was ill with marsh fever - and that everyone had thought sheíd been killed by raptors the day before. The shock of learning of her close escape from death was only topped by Margueriteís later admission that instead of endangering her, his hat had probably helped save her life. He smiled at the thought, incredibly grateful she had been spared. She was still with him. "Why not? I know there are some samples George has wanted from there, and you could use a little salt air and sunshine. We could put some color back into your cheeks, and then collect the samples." Roxton ran one finger down Margueriteís cheek before gently tapping her on the nose. Maybe while weíre there, you and I can manage some time together, just the two of us. There are so many things I want to tell you, show you, share with you.
Challengerís eyes gleamed as he immediately decided to elaborate on Roxtonís idea. "An excellent plan," he endorsed, "but Iím afraid youíll have to do it without me. I have some work on my ideas for Treehouse plumbing that Iíve been meaning to get to for some time. Malone, do you think you could lend a hand?"
"Of course," the reporter answered, his eyes dancing at Challengerís not-so-subtle effort to give Marguerite and Roxton some private time together.
"And Iíd really like to spend a day or two here at the Treehouse, just putting things back into order and enjoying some peace and quiet," Veronica added, also trying not to smile.
"Then I guess itíll just be you and me." Roxton waggled his eyebrows at Marguerite, grinning from ear to ear. "Does that sound like enough of a vacation?"
Margueriteís grey eyes softened, touched at everyoneís thoughtfulness. "Just so long as you donít make me do a forced march," she teased him back, and then turned to face the others. "And just so long as none of you get involved with any more spirits or sicknesses while weíre away. I want to find all of you in one piece when we get back!"
The room dissolved into laughter. "Iíve had enough of those myself," Malone agreed, chuckling. "Weíll promise to behave if you will."
Underneath the cover of her friendsí mirth, Marguerite gave Roxton a sultry look that immediately had him feeling better than well. "I might promise to behave," she said softly, so that only he could hear. "But would you really want me to?"
"Never," he answered wholeheartedly.
Authorís Notes: For the curious, the "raccoon-o-saur" described in this story is my own speculation on the possible appearance and behavior of a species known today as Stenonychosaurus inequalis. Marguerite couldnít have known that particular name, as this dinosaur was only identified in the fossil record in 1932. Anyone wanting more information about the Spanish Flu should try reading Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It by Gina Kolata - itís an excellent book!