A Secret of His Own
Dedicated to Ryalin
"Damn it!!" Marguerite cursed as she tripped over a piece of jungle wood and nearly fell. Her attackers were getting closer and closer. Next to her ran four Zanga warriors, the remaining members of a trading expedition of ten. Chief Jacoba had asked Marguerite to accompany his men to a meeting with another tribe that had promised to trade rare goods with the Zanga. They didn't speak the same language as the Zanga and Marguerite's linguistic skills were considered a most welcome advantage in the negotiations. Since a lot of tedious repair work was scheduled at the Treehouse, a positive answer to Chief Jacoba's request had seemed like a very good idea to Marguerite at the time. Little did she know that the fatal time-storm had made changes to the Plateau geography, changes that would turn a relatively safe passage to another tribe into a dangerous venture into Vantu territory.
Marguerite glanced back and saw with a sinking feeling that a giant Vantu was only a few meters away from them. She ran faster, but she knew that she couldn't keep up this pace for long. She jumped over a fallen tree and raced further along into the ever denser jungle. A piercing scream. Another one of the Zanga warriors had been killed by the merciless Vantus. More screams.
Every breath started to hurt Marguerite and she felt her strength seeping away. Her strides became shorter and the Vantu behind her caught up. A hard blow to her back made her tumble. The Vantu grabbed her brutally. She screamed in pain. Suddenly a shot rang out. The Vantu slumped on top of her. She tried to shove off the heavy body, but she was too weak.
More shots. Marguerite tried to see what was going on, but the jungle foliage was too dense for her to see anything. The noise seemed to indicate that the Vantus were retreating. Or was that only wishful thinking? A moment later she had her answer. A man appeared in front of her. She had erroneously expected that a member of the Treehouse family had come to her rescue, but this man she had never seen before.
"Are you hurt? Are you all right?"
The man lifted the dead Vantu warrior and Marguerite stood up. The man sounded and looked like an English gentleman, from his pith helmet and khaki shorts to the plummy vowels of his speech.
"I'm fine. Thank you for saving my life."
"It would have been a pleasure, but I have to admit that it wasn't me who fired that expert shot. Lady Roxton had the honor."
"Glad to be of service, Miss Krux," a female voice said.
Marguerite turned around. A striking looking woman appeared out of the undergrowth. She was tall, with platinum blonde hair cut in a short, but elegant do. Her eyes were very dark, at first glance giving the impression as if pupils and iris were the same color. It gave her an odd otherworldly look. She was beautiful. And she called herself Lady Roxton. This would be interesting.
"Finding my husband means so much to me." The silence hung heavy in the air. When Marguerite returned to the Treehouse with the members of the Roxton Expedition in tow, the first reaction of the Treehouse members was great joy. Not only had an expedition successfully found a way onto the Plateau, trying to rescue the members of the Challenger Expedition, but presumably they would be able to show them all the way home at last. But when Marguerite had made the introductions and said the fateful words "And this is Lady Hermione Roxton, John's wife," the joy had dissipated.
Lady Roxton appeared to be oblivious to the tense atmosphere. She joyfully embraced Roxton who had seemed utterly flabbergasted. Marguerite had watched his reaction carefully. He obviously knew her. He didn't contradict her when she called herself his wife. Instead he looked at Marguerite. With a look of what? Regret? Guilt?
"Your - husband?!" Malone was the first to find words again. Of course - the reporter would be the first one to comment, Marguerite thought wryly. "But Roxton, I had no idea that you were married."
"Well Our story is a bit complicated, isn't it, John?"
Lady Roxton laid a hand on his arm as she said this. Roxton didn't seem to enjoy the touch of her hand, but he also didn't shake it off. Marguerite had seen enough.
"Excuse me, I don't feel too well. My body is rather bruised after my encounter with the Vantus. I think I'll retire for tonight." Marguerite's voice was calm as she stood up and left the living room.
"Marguerite!" Roxton anxiously moved in her direction.
"It's all right, John. We'll talk tomorrow."
The expression on Marguerite's face told Roxton enough. Now was not the time to explain. If he COULD explain at all.
"And let me thank you again, Lady Roxton, for saving my life," Marguerite said smoothly to the woman who claimed to have a bond with John that could utterly negate the relationship they had built.
"You're more than welcome, Miss Krux," replied the beautiful woman.
Marguerite walked down the wooden stairs to her quarters. She sat on the bed, trying to sort through the muddle of emotions that the encounter with Hermione Roxton had stirred up in her. Lord John Roxton - married. Of course it was possible. A man of his social standing, of his wealth and influence. A catch for any woman. And he would have been pressured to sire an heir. No, it wasn't surprising that he had married. But what WAS surprising was that none of the gossips in London had found out about it. She'd never heard about a wife, and she'd done her best to check the backgrounds of all of the expedition members in the short time she'd had before leaving London. If he'd had a wife then - as apparently he had - London's social elite had been unaware of it. Why had the marriage been kept a secret?
Slowly Marguerite undressed. She glanced in the mirror. Her back and shoulder were showing dark purple bruises where the Vantu had hit her. If it hadn't been for Lady Roxton, she would undoubtedly be dead now. And yet Marguerite couldn't help feeling that the woman meant to harm her. That the rescue was merely a clever ploy.
Why has John never mentioned her? Marguerite wondered again, for what must have been the thousandth time. John Roxton, who had chided her time and again about her predilection for keeping secrets. Now it turned out that he had a secret of his own, a secret big enough to rival her worst. Everything in Roxton's demeanor towards her had been that of an unattached man. He had talked about love, about wanting a relationship, about them belonging together. And now a wife had appeared on the Plateau to claim him.
A knock on the wood beam next to her bed interrupted her painful thoughts.
Startled, Marguerite turned to see who had come to her room, half-expecting to see Roxton's tall form leaning against the frame. Instead, her eyes met Veronica's sympathetic ones. She instinctively flinched away from that sympathy. "Veronica! What do you want? Something wrong?"
Ignoring the defensive bite of Marguerite's words with the patience of long practice, Veronica Layton sat down next to Marguerite. "Well That woman Do you believe her?"
Marguerite didn't reply at first. With a deep sigh she turned to her blonde friend.
"You didn't hear him say she was a liar, did you?"
Veronica shook her head. "No, he didn't say a word. So maybe there's a grain of truth to what she said, or maybe he has other reasons for not denying her. But still "
Marguerite swallowed hard. "What? You think a knight in shining armor like Roxton can't have a secret? After all that may well be part of his charm for me. Haven't I always said I found people more interesting if they had a secret or two?" Marguerite hated the brittleness in her own voice.
"You have to talk to him, Marguerite. Let him explain."
Marguerite nodded. "Sure. Tomorrow he can explain all he wants. But tonight I need some rest. I barely survived a horde of nasty Vantus, thanks to Lady Roxton up there, and all that news from the old country is a bit exhausting as well. I'll go to bed, if you don't mind."
Veronica looked at her friend, uncertain whether she could leave her.
The sound of Roxton's steps ended her uncertainty. She quickly hugged Marguerite, nodded briefly to the hunter, and left Marguerite's bedroom. Roxton walked slowly towards the bed.
"Mind if I sit down?"
"I'd rather you stood."
He stood in front of her, his body tense and his expression solemn.
"So it's true." Marguerite stated the fact without any accusation in her tone.
"Yes. I was married to her."
"Was. You must believe me, Marguerite, the marriage was annulled years ago. We got married and I figured out very soon that it was a dreadful mistake."
Marguerite stared at him, eyes hard and wary. "A dreadful mistake, huh? So how come you never mentioned this marriage? You, who have always insisted on sharing secrets and everything about each other's past? And how come that woman calls you her husband now? She seems to think you're still married."
Roxton's forehead was furrowed with deep lines.
"She she claims that the annulment never took place. Some kind of bureaucratic mix-up. Which may be possible, for all I know. We got married after my brother and father died. You know what a difficult time that was for me, for my whole family. The marriage fell apart quickly and we agreed that the best course of action would be an annulment. I signed the necessary papers, assuming everything was taken care of. I left for Tibet shortly afterwards. What she told me tonight was that some signatures were missing and that they couldn't get a hold of me."
"So you're still a married man." Again her voice was cold and matter-of-fact.
"If I am, then in name only. You know that my heart belongs to you. And only you."
"Do I know that?" Her voice was thick with sarcasm. Suddenly her anger burst forth. "I trusted you!" She spat out the words. "I heard so many times from you how you hate secrets, how my bloody secrets were threatening everything. You lectured me about my untrustworthiness, about all my flaws and how I owed it to you and the others to be open and honest - and all this time you were the biggest liar of us all!"
Roxton's face reddened, but he said nothing. Her words were meant to hurt him, and hurt they did.
"I put you on a bloody pedestal, John, trying to live up to you and your great expectations, but it was all lies. Lies and deceit!!"
"I never lied to you. It just didn't come up in conversation." Goaded into speech at last, his words sounded unconvincing even to himself. This was no way to mend fences with Marguerite.
Marguerite's eyes glittered with rage, or possibly tears, and her jaw set in uncompromising lines. "Please leave. I want to be alone now."
Roxton hesitated for a moment, then turned around and left.
Suppressing a sudden desire to go after him, Marguerite threw herself on the bed and hid her face in her pillow. She fought against the tears that welled up in her eyes. No weakness, she chided herself. You can't afford to be weak now. As she so often had done in her life, she suppressed the pain of the experience and willed herself to fight. She would find out what this woman wanted from John, from them all. She would think about the rest tomorrow.
Marguerite observed the action below from the Treehouse balcony. The Roxton Expedition members had put up a tent camp within the perimeter of the electric fence. Challenger and Malone talked to Sir Giles Menkin-Jones, the man who had introduced her to Lady Hermione Roxton. The lady in question was nowhere to be seen.
"Good morning, Marguerite."
She turned around and looked at Roxton. The anger she had felt last night was replaced by a deep sadness. This was the man who taught her how to put trust in others. And now? The suffocating feeling she had had all her life crept back into her existence - you can't trust anyone, they will all betray you.
"Good morning, Roxton."
"I'm sorry about last night. I don't want us to fight." Roxton's voice expressed the pain in his heart.
"Neither do I," Marguerite replied. "But I can't just pretend that everything is all right. This is not a little white lie, John."
"I know. But-"
"Marguerite!" Veronica looked agitated. "Oh, Roxton, you're here, too. Listen, I watched Lady-," she paused for a moment, obviously having a hard time acknowledging the marital status of the hunter, "I watched that woman and she got ready for a little expedition of her own. When I asked Menkin-Jones, he said that he didn't know where she was going. That she often goes off on her own. Which they can't do anything about, as she is the head of the expedition."
"That's dangerous," Roxton said.
"Maybe." Marguerite said. "But most of all it's quite mysterious. Why is a British noblewoman walking around the jungle? After all she found what she was looking for. Or so she claims." Marguerite turned to Veronica. "How about a little expedition of our own?"
Veronica grinned. "Just what I had in mind."
"I'm coming with you," Roxton stated. Both women looked at him briefly, then shook their heads.
"You better stay here with the others. Don't forget there are nearly 20 of them here, so Challenger and Malone need your support," Veronica said.
"May I remind you both that they are a rescue party? I don't think I'm needed here. I'm coming with you."
Marguerite shook her head again. "May I remind you that this isn't the first expedition that claimed to have arrived to rescue us - and you must remember how those turned out. A healthy dose of suspicion has proven to be a good strategy in the past. Or are you willing to vouch for Lady Roxton and her friends?"
Roxton hesitated a moment too long. He realized he had lost the battle and shrugged. "Very well then, I'll stay. But we'll come after you if you aren't back by sunset."
"Good thinking, Roxton," Veronica said. "Come on, Marguerite, I want to trace that woman as fast as possible." They took weapons and a few provisions and left the Treehouse. Roxton watched them from the balcony as they walked out into the jungle. He rubbed his chin, deep in thought. He didn't like the situation, not one bit.
Veronica had no trouble tracking Lady Roxton. The two women moved quickly through the jungle, with all their senses alerted to any potential danger.
"So what did Roxton say last night? What's behind the whole marriage thing?"
Marguerite sighed. "Well, he didn't really have a good explanation. He said he was married to her, thought the marriage was annulled, but it turns out that annulment never happened."
Veronica frowned. "He's still married to her? Unbelievable. I never thought Roxton would do such a thing."
"I know. When it comes to secrets, you all are always looking at me," Marguerite replied in a sarcastic tone.
Veronica blushed slightly. "Maybe you're right. But I know one thing-Roxton loves you and you should never forget that. The two of you-" She suddenly stopped and grabbed Marguerite's arm. "She's ahead of us," she whispered to her dark-haired friend. Marguerite strained her eyes, trying to see what Veronica had detected. A good distance ahead she saw a slight movement. They had found their quarry.
Carefully they closed the distance, trying their best not to be noticed. When they reached a clearing, they hid behind a tall tree. Veronica drew in a sharp breath. She had recognized the place where Lady Roxton finally stopped.
"Good Lord!" whispered Marguerite. "It's the place where you fought Mordren. What does she want here?"
Lady Roxton stood in the middle of the clearing. She leaned her rifle on a tree trunk, then grabbed a wooden stick and started to draw something on the ground. When she had finished that task, she stood in the middle of her drawing. She opened a button on her blouse and an amulet she wore around her neck came into view.
"A trion!" Veronica whispered.
"No, it looks a little different," answered Marguerite who used her binoculars to get a better look. "There's an odd symbol in the middle of it."
Hermione took off the amulet and laid it in the palm of her right hand. She lifted her left hand to the sky and started chanting. Veronica couldn't make out the words, but she knew it wasn't English or any of the Plateau languages she was familiar with. She looked at Marguerite, hoping that her friend was able to understand. A deep fear came into her when she saw that Marguerite had blanched, a look of shock on her face.
"Can you understand her, Marguerite?" she asked urgently.
"She's calling the forces of Chaos. She's calling Mordren," Marguerite replied.
"But he's dead! I killed him!"
"Which she probably doesn't know," Marguerite whispered. "How would she know?"
Lady Roxton continued to chant. The air filled with static electricity. A crackling sound startled the two observers. The trion-like amulet in the hand of Lady Roxton started to emanate a light, at first hardly visible and then suddenly blindingly bright.
Veronica shuddered. The light reminded her of the fateful day when the Plateau had collapsed into itself.
"What the hell is she doing? I think we need to stop her!"
Marguerite lifted her rifle. "Like this?"
Veronica didn't answer, but only pointed to the other woman. A dark shadow had appeared next to Lady Roxton. A male voice cried out, yelling words only Hermione and Marguerite could understand. Suddenly the shadow was gone, as was the light.
"Damn it!" Her angry cry of frustration told Marguerite and Veronica that Hermione hadn't accomplished whatever she had set out to do here.
Lady Roxton put the amulet back around her neck, took her rifle, and left the clearing, heading back to where she had come from.
Veronica and Marguerite walked to the spot where Lady Roxton had stood a little earlier. They looked at the crude drawing on the jungle ground.
"A pentagram. Just what you need when you invite a ghost into your realm," Marguerite said.
Veronica stared at the pentagram, then turned to Marguerite. "Could you understand what she was saying? That weird chanting, what did it mean? And what did the man say?"
"That man or shadow or whatever he was, he was trying to cross over into our world. He was too weak to do it on his own and the woman was supposed to help him."
"He sounded just like Mordren. You think it's-his ghost or something?"
Marguerite nodded. "Yes, it sounded like him. And since he's dead I guess the only explanation we have is that it was his ghost. Or whatever Challenger will call it."
Veronica turned into the direction where Lady Roxton had gone. "Let's ask her what she's up to."
Marguerite grabbed her arm. "Wait! Right now we're a step ahead of her. She doesn't know that we've seen her. Let's pretend we regard her as our ticket home for a while."
"Are you sure?" Veronica frowned.
"Yes, I am. Trust me. I know how to deal with duplicitous people. Years of training "
Roxton stopped cleaning the rifle. He had spent the better part of an hour doing the necessary gun maintenance. Usually this was an enjoyable task for him, but today he found it hard to concentrate on this familiar activity. Several times he had gone to the balcony to see whether Marguerite and Veronica were back yet. He'd known he couldn't go with them, both for the reasons they gave, and even more because Marguerite so plainly didn't want him anywhere near her. She doesn't trust me right now - and I can't blame her a bit. Marguerite, you have to know I never meant to hurt you! With a deep sigh he put the rifle away and walked the few steps into Challenger's lab. A conversation with his scientist friend might be a better way to distract him from his worries about Marguerite. He found Challenger deep in thought, staring at a letter in his hand.
"What are you reading, old chap?" Roxton asked.
"What? Oh, it's you, Roxton. This is a letter from my wife Jessie. Menkin-Jones gave it to me last night. Malone got a letter, too. Not from my wife, of course." Challenger chuckled. "His was from his father."
"I see. So what does Jessie write?" Roxton asked, glad for the diversion.
"She she writes about her life without me. Her hopes that I will return soon. That the new expedition will find us and bring us home. She writes that she has never stopped believing in my eventual return."
Roxton was touched when he saw that the scientist's eyes were moist as he talked about Jessie's heartfelt words. "She's a brave woman, your wife, isn't she?"
"Yes, John, she is. I never really appreciated her enough. Always working on the next scientific discovery, never caring what she wanted or needed. I took her for granted, her support, her help in a hundred little ways. I swear to you, Roxton, if I get another chance, I will make it up to her."
"Well, it looks like we have our chance this time. The Roxton Expedition "
Challenger carefully folded the pages of his letter and put it back in the envelope. He turned to his friend. "You seem worried. Do you think that this isn't our way off the Plateau?"
Roxton rubbed his chin. "I don't know, George, just think how often we've believed the return home within our reach and how often we were disappointed. And this time "
"This time your wife leads the rescue operation."
"My wife-not really." Roxton instinctively recoiled from hearing Challenger call her by that title.
Challenger looked at Roxton intently, waiting for him to elaborate. "So the woman is lying? Is that what you're saying?"
Roxton's face was a study in frustration. "Yes. No. Well I was once married to her. Many years ago. But the marriage was annulled. Legally it never happened." "Only it wasn't annulled, is that right?"
"Yes, that's what she tells me."
"So, if you don't mind my asking, why DID you marry that woman?"
Roxton cleared his throat. It was clear that this was a very painful subject for him.
"It was soon after my brother died. My father was gravely ill. He had never gotten over my brother's death and it was as if his life force was slowly seeping away. He was worried about our family, about the fact that there were no grandchildren, no real guarantee that the Roxton bloodline would continue. He was great friends with the family from the neighboring estate. The Duke of Blanvalet was a nobleman of a very good family and he had a daughter. My father suggested that we get married. I had misgivings about it; I hardly knew the girl. The family had lived in Europe for a while and when they came back I was first at Oxford and then traveling around the world. But my father insisted and then his health got worse. On his deathbed he made me promise to marry her."
Challenger looked at his friend with pity. He could easily see how the young man who had tragically killed his brother would feel obligated to obey his dying father.
"You married her and then?"
"We married a few weeks before my father died. There was no honeymoon and no festive atmosphere. Only sadness and grief. I couldn't even bring myself to touch her. I knew after a short time that I had made a terrible mistake. A marriage without love is not uncommon among the aristocracy, but it wasn't something I wanted for myself. I talked to Hermione about how I felt and although she wasn't happy at first, she finally relented and agreed to an annulment. Family attorneys did the necessary paperwork and I left for Tibet shortly thereafter."
"But now she says that you are still married. What went wrong?"
Roxton shrugged. "According to her someone made a mistake. A missing signature."
"And all these years she knew?"
"No. She claims she found out a few months ago. And once she knew we were still married she felt a strong bond again." "And decided to mount a rescue expedition to get her long lost husband back. Well The story sounds a bit odd, but who knows. Do YOU trust her?"
"I don't know. I hardly knew her then and I hardly know her now. But what reason could she have to harm me? She agreed to the annulment after all. She understood we made a mistake."
"What does Marguerite say about the whole affair? I gather you and she have talked about it."
Roxton shifted uncomfortably. "We haven't really talked. It's a painful subject."
"Talk to her, John. The sooner you explain it all, the better."
"Explain what, John?" Hermione Roxton's cultured voice startled the two men.
"Hermione, you're back. Good. I was concerned when I heard you had gone into the jungle by yourself. You need to be more careful, this is dangerous territory," Roxton said.
Lady Roxton laughed. "Don't worry about me. I have plenty of experience handling difficult situations. And I'm an experienced markswoman."
"You're quite the Renaissance woman, it seems, Lady Roxton," Challenger complimented her. "We shall have no trouble finding our way back home with you on our side."
"Of course not," the woman replied smoothly. "Your destiny will finally be fulfilled."
"And this is where the tunnel ends. It's about 50 miles away from your Treehouse." Sir Giles Menkin-Jones pointed to a cross on a finely drawn map.
"Amazing!" Ned Malone said. "We've been to this part of the Plateau numerous times, but we never detected even a hint of that tunnel system you're describing. And you got this map from an archaeologist in Buenos Aires, you say?"
"Yes. Well, if I say we, I mean Hermione. She had heard about Professor Hartman a while ago. He researched ancient legends about sunken civilizations on a plateau in South America. Hermione was always interested in archaeology."
"So where did you two meet?" Malone asked. "Have you known her long?"
Menkin-Jones smiled shyly. "Long? Well, it depends how you define long. I met her two years ago in Shanghai. I was working at a merchant bank at the time. My family owns several banks, you know. I'm the only son, so I'm expected to take over the family business in a few years. Lady Roxton came to our bank to open an account for a Chinese friend of hers."
"So you met her as Lady Roxton."
Menkin-Jones shook his head. "No, I had no idea about her marriage then. Actually she introduced herself as Miss Blanvalet. Didn't even mention that she was the daughter of a Duke. That's the kind of woman she is, doesn't care much about rank and titles."
"And how did a banker become a member of an expedition up the Amazon?"
The young man blushed slightly. "Hermione asked me to be part of it. We never lost touch after I had helped her with Mr. Xan's financial transactions."
Malone swallowed hard. "Mr. Xan? That was the name of her Chinese friend?"
"Yes, a very influential gentleman. Our Chinese employees knew him by name. He became quite an important client for us."
Malone looked carefully at the young man. He seemed pretty harmless, but that might just be a ruse. One thing was clear - the woman who claimed to be Roxton's wife had ties to Shanghai Xan. A fact that needed to be discussed with Roxton and Marguerite as soon as possible.
The members of the Challenger Expedition conferred a few hours before dinner to discuss the facts they had learned so far. They all agreed that rescue from the Plateau with the help of the Roxton Expedition had turned into an unlikely proposition.
"Mordren, Shanghai Xan If these are Lady Roxton's allies we can't expect anything good from her," Challenger said gravely.
"I agree," Roxton responded. "Please do me one favor-don't call her Lady Roxton. That was my mother's title. Hermione doesn't deserve to be addressed by it."
Veronica and Marguerite exchanged a glance. It was clear where they all stood. United against a new enemy.
"What about Menkin-Jones?" Malone asked. "Do you think he's part of the whole scheme?"
"As you said earlier, he looks harmless enough," Challenger ventured, "but that may indeed be a false impression. The more pressing question at this point is what scheme are we talking about? What do these people want from us? I think we can safely assume that they are up to no good, but we don't know yet what they set out to accomplish."
"George is right," Marguerite said. "We need to find out what they're up to. Let's invite Hermione and Menkin-Jones to dinner at the Treehouse tonight and ask a few questions."
The mood at the dinner table was tense. The only person oblivious to this fact was Sir Giles who spent most of the meal gazing admiringly at Hermione Roxton.
The dinner had started rather harmoniously. After a few lighthearted exchanges about the culinary challenges of preparing raptor stew the members of the Challenger Expedition had asked questions about life in London. Lady Roxton and Menkin-Jones answered in great detail. It was only when Roxton asked Hermione about her life after they had parted ways years ago that the conversation became more tense.
"Well, John, if you must know, I lived in India with my parents. But let's not talk about that. It was so long ago, I've forgotten most of it."
Marguerite took a sip of water and decided not to let it go.
"Roxton in Tibet, you in India. I guess you wanted to be at least on the same continent as your husband."
"I didn't know he was my husband anymore. As far as I knew the marriage was annulled."
"So when did you find out that you were still a happy couple?"
This time she received angry glances from both Hermione and Roxton. Marguerite was unfazed.
"Was it just a coincidence? Did you investigate? Or did you want to get married to someone and needed to make sure your annulment papers were in order?"
"If you must know, Miss Krux, one of the lawyers who drafted the annulment papers years ago noticed the missing signatures and informed me about it," Hermione replied. "It's quite fascinating how much interest you take in my affairs."
"It's an interesting story," Marguerite said, with a sarcastic emphasis on the word story. Hermione's face darkened from anger.
Roxton decided to ask about another matter. "What I would like to know is why your family does business with a notorious criminal like Shanghai Xan."
"What gives you that idea?" Hermione asked.
Menkin-Jones's face turned bright red. "I told Mr. Malone, Hermione. But there must be some misunderstanding. The Mr. Xan I referred to is a Chinese businessman."
"Businessman indeed," Roxton scoffed. "If you count drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and trading in stolen goods."
"You must be mistaken, Lord Roxton. Hermione, please explain to them that Mr. Xan is an honorable man."
But Hermione had already decided to stop pretending. She stood up and stepped back from the dinner table. Her face was suddenly contorted with a hatred that made her ugly.
"It's none of your business who my associates are," she hissed. "You are just obstacles in a game that will bring me eternal life and more power than you ever dreamed of."
"But, Hermione, what are you talking about?" Menkin-Jones asked, completely bewildered at the sudden change in her.
"It is my destiny to stop the Protector and all her allies. It always was."
"Now you're showing your true face," Veronica cried out.
"Yes, now you can see for yourself what a formidable foe I am. Even as a young girl I served my purpose. Because it was I who made sure that Marguerite and Roxton never met all those years ago in Avebury."
Marguerite and Roxton glanced at each other. How often had they wondered about why they never met although they lived in close proximity to each other as children?
"It was my task to keep you apart. It was my task then and it is my task now." Hermione tore the amulet from her neck and held it her left hand, just as she had done earlier that day. She started to chant, evoking forces of evil that threatened to tear the Plateau apart. Static electricity filled the room; blinding lights zigzagged through the Treehouse. The same shadow that Marguerite and Veronica had seen in the clearing reappeared now in the living room.
"We have to stop her!" yelled Marguerite.
Roxton grabbed a gun he had hidden under the table. He pointed it at Hermione. "Stop this immediately! Or I'll kill you!" he exclaimed angrily.
"Nooo! Don't hurt her!!!" Menkin-Jones jumped up and tried to tear the gun away from Roxton. The two men wrestled for seemingly eternal moments. Suddenly a shot. Then an agonized scream. The blinding lights turned into searing heat. A howling sound tore through the Treehouse and they were all thrown to the floor.
Silence reigned in the Treehouse. It was only for a few moments, although it seemed like hours. Veronica was the first to get up from the floor. She moaned in pain. Her left arm was red with superficial burns. She looked around and saw that Malone, Challenger, and Roxton were all conscious, even if they were slow to get up. Marguerite didn't move, neither did Menkin-Jones or Hermione. She stepped closer to them.
Hermione's hand that had held the amulet looked ghastly. The skin was blackened and the trion-like amulet had seared itself deeply into the skin of her palm. Hermione's still face was contorted in rage.
Veronica drew in a sharp breath when she noticed the dark spot on Hermione's blouse. Blood. A small spot of blood in that place on her blouse, combined with the frozen snarl on her face, could mean only one thing: the shot had found its mark in her heart. Veronica felt for a pulse, but there was nothing. Challenger knelt down next to the woman to check for her vital signs as well.
He shook his head. "She's dead."
Then he turned his attention to Marguerite, joining Roxton who was already by her side, cradling her head. "She's got a rising lump on the side of her head; I think she must have hit it against the table when we were all thrown back. Her pulse is weak, but she's going to be all right I think," the hunter said. Despite his words, his face was an open book shouting his concern for the woman he loved. After he was sure that Veronica wasn't too badly hurt, Malone saw to Giles Menkin-Jones. "He's badly hurt," the journalist explained to the others. "Look at his severe burns. I doubt whether he will recuperate quickly. If at all."
Malone and Challenger carried the unconscious young man to one of the sofas in the living room. Veronica brought a few remedies to treat the burns-both her own and Menkin-Jones's. Menkin-Jones cried out in pain when they put salve on the worst afflicted areas.
Challenger turned to Malone. "I suggest you go down and see what the remaining members of the Roxton Expedition are up to. Without their leaders I hope they're going to be pretty docile."
"I'm coming with you. As long as we don't know how docile they are " Veronica trailed off.
Ned frowned. "Shouldn't you rest a bit?"
"Nonsense, the salve is already taking away the pain and I don't want us to take any unnecessary risks with those guys down there."
"There's no way to stop you, is there?" Malone asked.
"None," Veronica replied tartly.
Malone smiled briefly, then took a rifle and they both disappeared into the elevator.
Challenger focused again on Menkin-Jones. The man writhed in pain. Malone had been right, the man's burns were far worse than Veronica's. The remedies they had would not be enough to heal him.
"Oh my god!" Marguerite slowly lifted her head. Roxton helped her sit up.
"How do you feel?" he asked.
"As if I had taken on the entire Vantu tribe and lost." She noticed Lady Roxton's lifeless body. "Is she-?"
"Yes, she's dead."
"I see." She got up, supported by Roxton's arm. "That means you're a widower now."
Roxton's face darkened.
"It was a joke, Roxton."
"Not a very funny one, Marguerite."
Marguerite slowly walked over to Hermione. She stared at the body. "She tried to bring Mordren back to life. Do you think she had a chance to succeed?"
Roxton put his arm around Marguerite's shoulder and drew her closer. "I don't know. And I'm glad we will never find out now."
"I just don't understand how she can be part of the mysteries of the Plateau. She said she was responsible for making sure we didn't meet earlier. Do you think that was just a lie?"
Roxton shrugged. "I don't know."
The noise of the elevator distracted them from their conversation. Malone and Veronica had come back. "They're gone! Disappeared from sight!" Malone cried out. "They left all their provisions, their tents, their equipment. Even their weapons!"
"Their weapons? Are you saying they just ran out into the jungle without being armed?" Roxton asked in disbelief. "You must be mistaken."
"See for yourself," said Veronica, and gestured towards the elevator.
Malone handed his rifle to Roxton. The hunter looked uncertainly at Marguerite who nodded cautiously, careful of the continued pain in her head. "Go, I'm fine," she said. Thus reassured, the hunter left.
Marguerite walked to the sofa where Menkin-Jones moaned in pain. "How bad is it, George?"
Challenger sighed. "He's hurt very badly. I think the only thing we can do for him is alleviate his pain."
Menkin-Jones opened his eyes. "Where's where's Hermione?"
"Shhh," Marguerite said. "Don't talk. We'll give you medicine to fight the pain." She went into Challenger's lab to fetch a strong opiate they had received from the Zanga shaman.
"How much do you think I should give him, George?" she asked.
"I'm not sure. The shaman said that they only give very small dosages to their wounded. Maybe a teaspoon full for now. We don't want to poison him."
Marguerite nodded and poured the clear liquid on a teaspoon. Challenger lifted Menkin-Jones up slightly so he could swallow the medication. The small movement caused the man great pain. After a few minutes his breathing steadied. The pain seemed to have lessened.
He weakly touched Challenger's hand. "Hermione What happened to her?"
"She's dead. I'm sorry," Challenger replied.
Menkin-Jones's eyes filled with tears. "I don't understand what she was doing. She was like a different person tonight."
Marguerite wasn't ready to trust him yet. "You and the rest of your expedition obviously didn't come here to rescue us. It was all a ruse, wasn't it?"
"No, no, you must believe me. We were coming here to save you and bring you back to London."
"You heard what Hermione said. She wanted to harm us."
Menkin-Jones shook his head. "I can't believe she would do such a thing."
"Listen, you must tell us everything you know about her. And about Shanghai Xan. He is another one of our enemies. Tell us every little detail you know, how your journey started, who you talked to, everything. It's important." Marguerite's voice was urgent.
The man was silent for a moment. Then he started talking. He talked for nearly two hours. At the end he was just whispering and he ended his long talk with a heartfelt apology for the harm he might have caused the Challenger Expedition. While he talked he took Marguerite's hand, as if he needed a lifeline to the world of the living. When he fell silent, Marguerite continued to hold his hand. Another hour later his grip released. He was dead.
"If this was the way off the Plateau, then it isn't anymore." Roxton stared hard at the cave entrance. Only a few yards within, tons of rocks built a solid barrier.
"The rock slide is fresh," Challenger said. "Maybe a controlled explosion, maybe a small earthquake." He glanced at the map they had taken from Hermione's bag. "It looks like this was the route they took to come up here. But it's another dead end for us."
"I don't think Hermione ever intended us to leave the Plateau," Marguerite said.
"You're probably right," Roxton agreed.
"Let's go back to the Treehouse," Malone suggested. "Now that we know there's no way off any time soon, we better get back to our maintenance work. The fence really needs our attention."
"Hey, it's not even a week since I was nearly killed by Vantus and a murderous noblewoman. Shouldn't I get a few days of rest?" Marguerite protested.
Malone grinned, but didn't say a word.
Challenger smiled. "All right, Marguerite, you can take it easy for a few more days. I suggest you spend the rest of the day at the Inland Sea. As you know it's not too far from here. You have enough provisions for a night away from the Treehouse. Roxton will guard you, I'm sure."
The hunter seemed unsure at first whether to accept that offer. A look at Marguerite's happy face was all he needed to make up his mind. "Would you like that, Marguerite?" he asked.
"I could be talked into it, Lord Roxton," she replied saucily. "Thank you, George."
They bid farewell and parted ways.
The fire illuminated their campground. Marguerite was deep in thought and for a long time Roxton didn't dare to break the silence. When she reached for her canteen, he finally spoke. "Are you still angry with me?"
"Angry? No. Not really. I'm just glad we got out of it alive."
Roxton nodded. "I can't really say why I didn't tell you about Hermione earlier."
"Well, it was a long time ago."
"Yes, that's true. But that's not the reason. When I think about it now, I finally understand that I always knew something was wrong with her. She was like an evil presence in my life. I think in hindsight she probably manipulated my father as well. Her father and she visited him several times while he was sick and I'm sure they forced the idea of our marriage on him. He was a very sick man at the time, mourning William's death. He wasn't himself."
"You think they had that kind of power over him?"
"But she didn't have power over you. You saw through her quickly."
He laughed bitterly. "You overestimate me. I don't think I had a clear idea what she was. I just knew that I couldn't be in a marriage without love. I guess I had an instinct that my true love was waiting for me somewhere."
He leaned in to kiss her. Marguerite closed her eyes to enjoy the blissful moment. When their lips parted, she smiled.
"So have you forgiven me for not telling you about the marriage?" "I have forgiven you. Your pedestal is a bit stained, but I'm sure you'll save my life a few more times, so it'll get all shiny again."
Roxton laughed softly. "I don't want you to put me on a pedestal. I'm just a man."
"You're too modest, Lord Roxton. Your heroic actions have made you famous on the Plateau and all over the world."
"I don't care about fame. All I care about is you. I love you, Marguerite. Somehow I always knew I would meet you some day. And now that we're together, I will never let you go."
Marguerite leaned her head on his broad shoulder. She felt safe in his embrace, even though they were surrounded by hostile tribes, man-eating dinosaurs, and a never-ending stream of foes. It didn't matter. She was safe in his love.