Summary: During unusually hot and humid weather, tempers fray in the heat and two of the party find themselves in a sticky situation.
"Just how did I get talked into this again?" Marguerite grumbled to herself as she placed yet another berry into the sack she carried. Sweat trickled down her face and she irritably brushed it away with the back of her hand.
She hadn't meant her comment to be overheard, but very little escaped Veronica's acute hearing. "I seem to recall that you volunteered rather than work on the windmill with Challenger, Roxton and Malone," the blonde replied with barbed sweetness. I certainly didn't ask you to come along, she thought, but kept the thought to herself. Personally, she had been hoping for a few hours alone from everyone - especially Marguerite.
Marguerite gave her a sour look, but refrained from making a biting comment in return. "At least the sun isn't as bright here," she admitted.
It was the third day of a stifling heat wave, and the uncongenial conditions were taking their toll on the entire group. While hot and humid weather was hardly uncommon on the plateau, the unusual lack of wind made the heat that much worse. Without any cooling breezes reaching the treehouse, even sleeping was almost impossible - and sharing living space with four other irritable people was quickly growing intolerable. Even Malone, normally the most optimistic of the explorers, was snappish and out of sorts. Veronica half-suspected Challenger had proposed today's work expedition to the windmill not because of the lack of wind, but because it was the most likely ploy to get him away from Marguerite, by far the most irritable and irritating of the expedition members under any circumstances.
Sighing, Veronica straightened up and stretched as she tried to work the kinks out of her back. Looking around, she was surprised to note that Marguerite was right - it wasn't as bright. Looking up, the few patches of sky she could see through the canopy of branches overhead were a light blue, almost white.
"Hey. It looks like it might be clouding up," Veronica said with a smile.
"Well, it's about time we got a break in this miserable weather," Marguerite complained. "Another few days of this, and I'd be cooked to death." She took off her hat and fanned herself with it. Or I'll drop dead of exhaustion, she added to herself. She never had been able to sleep well in hot weather, and between the stifling conditions of the treehouse and the numerous fights she'd had with the others - particularly Roxton - she'd hardly been able to rest at all. Just thinking about Roxton brought a smile to her lips, a smile that faded as she remembered the fight they'd had the night before. The recollection curdled her mood all over again. "Of course, with the way things work on this plateau, we'll probably get drenched in some tropical monsoon."
Veronica gritted her teeth. "Trust you to look on the bright side," she said sarcastically.
"Well, you know I'm right."
Taking a deep breath, Veronica opened her mouth to give Marguerite a piece of her mind, then threw up her hands in frustration. "Whatever. I'm going to go up to the top of the hill and see whether there really is a storm front moving in. I know a clearing there where I should be able to get a good look at the sky. I'll be back in a few minutes."
"Fine," Marguerite replied, walking over to a tree and leaning against it. "I'll wait here."
"Don't get too comfortable. We still have a lot of berries to pick before we go home." Smiling at her parting shot, Veronica disappeared into the woods.
"That's what you think." With a self-satisfied smirk, Marguerite settled down for a well-deserved break.
Roxton finished coating the last bit of canvas and placed his brush back in his bucket with a sigh. "About finished there, Malone?"
"Just about." The reporter added a few more brushstrokes, and nodded at his handiwork. "That should do it."
The two men exchanged tired grins of satisfaction. Left untreated, the canvas of the windmill vanes rotted very quickly in the climate of the plateau. Coating it with Challenger's concoction prevented mold and mildew from destroying the canvas, but it was a hot, smelly job that had to be done with tedious regularity. In deference to the heat of the day and the mess of the job, both men had stripped off their shirts long ago. Drips and dabs of the oily compound that had splashed them were indistinguishable from the sheen of sweat that covered both their bodies.
"How long do you think it will take for the canvas to cure enough to be handled?" Malone asked, wiping sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
"In this heat? Probably less than an hour." Roxton took a sip from his canteen. The water was revoltingly warm.
"Time enough for a swim?"
Roxton considered for a moment, then nodded, a mischievous gleam crossing his tired face. "A little extra curing time won't hurt anything, either." Raising his voice slightly, he called out to Challenger. "How are you doing with the generator, George?"
Only half-visible behind his equipment, Challenger was too absorbed by his beloved mechanisms to look up at the two men. "Everything looks to be in fairly good order. I just want to make a few more adjustments "
Malone rolled his eyes, and Roxton shook his head. "How about making those adjustments after a swim?"
The invitation - and the thought of cool water - was enough to get Challenger's full attention. He blinked at them, visibly debating with himself. "Well "
"Come on, Challenger - a swim will do you good," Malone coaxed.
"Don't want to overheat that brain of yours," Roxton added.
Shrugging his shoulders, Challenger gave in to temptation with a smile. "A little break might do us all some good."
The three men quickly gathered up their things and headed off. "Good thing Marguerite and Veronica are elsewhere," Malone teased. "We don't have to worry about them showing up at the pond unexpectedly." An unfortunate coincidence of timing the previous week had left Challenger very jumpy.
"Yes," Challenger replied, going a bit pink. "I must confess I'm glad to know they're safely occupied elsewhere."
Veronica reached the summit of the hill, panting slightly from the heat but enjoying the relative tranquility of her surroundings. It had taken her longer than anticipated to get here; the climb seemed much steeper in the overly warm weather. The small clearing was a beautiful spot. She had come here with Assai and the other Zanga often, particularly in the spring when a flower special to the Zanga bloomed in abundance. A fallen log near the hill's edge provided a perfect view of the lower hillside and a wide swath of sky. Resting one foot on the log, she looked and listened. There was no wind and no visible storm front, but the sky was thickening from blue to grey. Rain was more than likely by the end of the day, but there was no immediate hurry.
Taking a moment longer just to enjoy looking around, a glint of red on the ground by a nearby tree caught her eye. Walking closer, Veronica could see that it was a Zanga armlet, carefully decorated with red and yellow stitched designs and shiny stones, one of its ties frayed and broken. It looked like Assai's work. She stopped in her tracks and looked again. What was that doing there? How could it have gotten there? She moved slowly forward and peered at it thoughtfully. Well, what could it hurt if I took a closer look?
As she reached down to pick it up, she heard a soft noise overhead. She jerked her head up just in time to see a net come crashing down on her. The weight of it knocked her to her knees.
"Hey!" she cried, struggling to free herself. To her dismay, the strands of the net were coated with some incredibly sticky substance that adhered instantly to her skin, hair and clothes. She managed to draw her boot knife and get to her feet just as half a dozen men emerged from the far side of the clearing.
"Ho, boys, we caught a feisty one!" one of them shouted gleefully.
"You don't know how feisty," Veronica growled, trying to bring her knife to bear on the part of the net trapping her knife-hand. As two of the men approached her, she lunged, trying to tangle one of them in the sticky netting while she slashed at the other. One man dodged backwards, leaving her with a single target. The impact nearly jarred the knife from her hand, but the man's scream told her she'd scored a hit. He fell to the ground, writhing in agony.
With angry shouts, the rest of the men quickly moved in to subdue her. The fact that they tried to avoid the sticky net gave Veronica some leeway, but it wasn't nearly enough to overcome the odds. Within moments, she was disarmed and pinned back against a tree. She screamed in frustration as her knife was wrenched from her grip.
"Feisty is right," snarled the man who'd taken the knife. "Almost too feisty, I'd say."
"Don't worry, that'll be taken care of soon enough," laughed another.
"Let me GO!" Veronica raged, trying to lunge again. The man who had laughed seized some of her hair where it stuck through the net and used the leverage to slam her head back against the tree trunk. The impact caused bright lights to flash in front of her eyes.
"Enough," the largest of the men snapped, and the others immediately quieted. "It's a good thing this is the last one we need because she's made a right mess of things. Etwe, Haas, you two get her out of the net and bring her along to the camp. Be damned sure you've got her secured before you loose all the netting. Lind, how bad is Skold?
"He's pretty bad, Isab. We should get him back to camp right away."
Isab swore viciously. "If he weren't Elweis' nephew, I'd say leave him here for the raptors. His stupidity deserves as much. All right, get him as fixed up as you can, and we'll take him back. Etwe, Haas, you think you can manage to bring this one in on your own, or do I need to stay and baby-sit?"
The two men flushed. "We won't fail, Isab," one replied, still fingering Veronica's knife.
Although still dizzy from the blow, Veronica's hopes rose momentarily. With just two of them, maybe I can figure out a way to escape.
"You better not, Haas," Isab replied, looking at him sourly. "Better yet, see if you can't get the job done before Lind finishes up with Skold. I'd prefer not to take any chances. Jero, help me rig up a litter." With another angry stare at all concerned, Isab strode off followed by the man called Jero.
"Give me the oilskin, Etwe," Haas commanded, then leaned in so his face was just inches from Veronica's. "You're going to regret being such a handful," he hissed, then deliberately licked his lips. "If you're nice and cooperative while we work, I might forget how angry I am. Otherwise "
"What?" Veronica snapped defiantly.
His smile was chilling. "Oh, go right ahead. I like doing it the hard way." At that moment the other man brought up a large oilskin, and Haas stepped away to mutter in the man's ear. They both leered at her.
Head spinning and feeling suddenly weak, Veronica closed her eyes briefly before returning their looks with a fierce glare. Great, she thought to herself. Just great.
Down at the bottom of the hill, Marguerite was growing restless. On the one hand, she was enjoying her illicit rest period. On the other hand, she was resting up against a tree in the middle of a berry patch - not exactly a fascinating place to be - and her thoughts were not comfortable companions. Time alone gave her the opportunity to reflect on the heat and on her recent behavior. She knew the weather had brought out her worst temper. Not that anyone else had been much better, but still Marguerite's conscience rarely plagued her but it was speaking to her now, and she didn't much like what it had to say. With an effort, she wrenched her thoughts away from the last few days. I thought Veronica said she was only going to be gone for a few minutes, she thought querulously.
A distant shout brought her immediately upright, one hand automatically reaching for her gun. "What the Veronica? That had better not be you playing tricks on me," she called. Straining her ears, she heard other, fainter shouts, and then a sound that chilled her to the core - a female voice, screaming in rage.
She didn't hesitate. Spitting out a curse, she hurried off in the direction she'd seen Veronica go. "Could this day get any better?!?"
Although Marguerite wasn't much of a tracker, knowing the general directionof where Veronica had intended to go helped her. She'd learned a few things from both Roxton and Veronica, which stood her in good stead now. The trail quickly grew steep, and Marguerite wished she dared use both hands, but she wasn't going to holster her gun. At least I wore trousers today, she thought gratefully. Fortunately, the steep terrain also retained more marks of Veronica's passage. No animal tracks - or human tracks - following hers, at least not that I can see, she mused, trying to keep a sharp lookout. Whatever she ran into, it must have been up at the top. She huffed irritably, worry and frustration creasing her forehead. She didn't want to acknowledge the fear that had settled into her stomach. Of course, I could be worrying over nothing. Who's to say that was Veronica I heard? Even as she thought it, Marguerite shook her head. Of course, even if it weren't, she'd have gone to investigate it. I swear she's almost as bad as Malone!
And who's rushing off to do the same? a little voice in the back of her mind pointed out.
That's different, she told herself. I'm going because I know Veronica's in trouble, or likely to be. The thought brought her up short, and a wry, bitter smile twisted her lips. Not that anyone would ever believe that. I don't even believe it.
Then why are you doing it? the nagging voice asked again.
"Never you mind," Marguerite mumbled, then realized she was talking to herself. "Great. I knew this place would drive me crazy! Damn this plateau!" She took a deep breath and steadied herself. It was hardly the first time she'd found herself alone and facing possible danger, but over the past two years, she'd grown accustomed to having others around to help. "Well, as long as I'm talking to myself come on, Marguerite. Shut up and keep your mind on business!"
She continued up the hill, trying to be as quick and as quiet as possible. It seemed to take forever to reach the top, and she was working hard at not gasping by the time she reached the summit. Just before cresting the hill, she heard the murmur of voices. Crouching down, she carefully made her way forward, keeping behind whatever cover was at hand, until she could see movement in the clearing ahead.
At first, all she could see was a group of rough-looking men milling about, apparently involved in various tasks. Two were putting the last touches on a litter, one was bent over an obviously wounded man, and another two were taking turns wetting cloths with something in a skin and applying the mixture to a net piled next to a tree. Shifting slightly for a better look, Marguerite groaned silently to herself as she caught a glimpse of golden hair tangled in the net. Oh, Veronica, she thought dismally. Six of them, and you're well and truly caught. It was unlike Veronica to be still, and for a moment she feared the younger woman might be unconscious or badly hurt. A sudden struggle by the net and a stream of curses relieved her mind somewhat, but it still didn't change the fact that the odds were decidedly bad. She had six shots in her pistol and several reloads, but Marguerite had no illusions about her ability to take them all on single-handedly - particularly when they had a hostage. The best thing she could do was to wait and watch for a better opportunity. Damn it, she swore silently, infuriated by her own helplessness.
Roxton was up to his hips in water as he crept up on his unsuspecting target, his brown eyes narrowed as he took the few final, necessary steps. Just another few moments "Got you now, Neddy-boy!" he whooped, as a sweep of his arms sent a massive wave of water splashing over his friend's head. Sputtering with laughter, Malone whirled around and responded in kind, and the two men were quickly lost to sight in a fury of whitewater.
Relaxing in the shallows while keeping an eye out for any dangers, Challenger laughed at their antics. Despite the fact that Roxton was nearly twice Malone's age, the two of them sounded like a pair of schoolboys as they shouted mock insults and did their level best to half-drown each other. They're making so much noise I'm sure even the raptors would be scared off if it weren't too hot for raptors, he thought lazily. Between the laughter and the soothing waters of the pond, Challenger could feel the tensions and temper of the past week leach away from his soul just as surely as the excess heat was being leached from his body. An unwonted fondness softened his normally sharp gaze as he looked on the two men that were almost like family to him. Despite the dangers and frustrations that this plateau offered up on a daily basis, he knew the time he'd spent here was beyond price. Not only for the scientific discoveries, although they were incalculable, but for the relationships he'd found with these people. Roxton Malone Poor old Summerlee, once an adversary, then a colleague, now a desperately missed friend Veronica, so fierce and innocent all at the same time Even Marguerite, with her intricate puzzlebox personality of sly intelligence and unfathomable motivations They were all dear to him. They might quarrel and bicker, but he wouldn't trade their company for all the intellectual societies in the world.
I hope Veronica and Marguerite are having as much fun as we are, he thought charitably, and then laughed to himself. Given those two, though, I would have to say that is an unlikely theory. Still, they'd probably be better off for a good water fight - or anything else to clear the air between them!
The glare of the sunlight dimmed a bit, and Challenger looked up. To his surprise, he saw the sky was clouding up. Looks like we'll get more than one kind of air-clearing, he mused. He thought about calling out to the other two men and hurrying them along, then relaxed. The weather wasn't changing that quickly, and the rest of the work would be more pleasant with a bit of cloud cover. For now, he could just sit and enjoy the day.
Veronica tugged futilely at her bonds as Etwe first rubbed an oily cloth on her shoulder - and the strand of netting across it - and then drew the strand away, pinching her skin through the cloth of the rag. Before starting their work, the men had been very careful to tie her hands around the tree behind her, and hobble her ankles. Now they were taking their time, rubbing the oil - and the cloth - all over her, and every touch made Veronica want to shudder with revulsion. They hadn't touched her anywhere too private - yet - but she knew it was coming, and her eyes burned with impotent rage.
"Aren't you done yet?" The leader, the man called Isab, strode over to them, and Etwe turned away from Veronica to join Haas in re-oiling his rag.
"Sorry, Isab, but all her struggling has created a right tangle, and you know we have to be careful with the oil," Haas equivocated.
Isab grunted and eyed the pair and Veronica suspiciously, but there was no denying that Veronica was still more than half-ensnared in the net. "Well, we can't wait any longer - not if we want to get Skold back to the camp before he's bled white. You two finish up here, dispose of the net over the side of the hill, and bring this pretty one to the camp as fast as you can. No unnecessary delays." He gave them a significant look. "I trust you understand me?"
Haas and Etwe nodded. "Yes, Isab."
Something in their demeanor displeased the burly man, and he clouted them both before continuing. "We're breaking camp tomorrow morning at first light, now that we've got what we came for. We'll want to be well out of the area before the Zanga can get too organized. We've been here too long as it is. If you cause us any problems, I'll flay the hide off of both of you," Isab warned.
Shaken, the two men nodded again, and Isab stumped off. "Let's get moving!" he roared.
Within moments, the other men had left the clearing, Isab leading the way and the other two healthy men carrying the litter.
Watching their departure, Veronica's spirits lifted a little. True, she was still bound and tangled in the net, but two adversaries were still better odds than five, and they hadn't found the two knives hidden in the sheath in the back waistband of her skirt. If they left her arms tied behind her when they released her from the tree Then she caught the looks the two men were giving her now that their leader was gone, and her stomach clenched.
"We'd better hurry with that net, now that he's gone," Etwe commented slyly.
"Yeah. Wouldn't want to disobey orders," Haas agreed with mock innocence.
Their laughter made Veronica want to throw up. All she could do was continue to struggle as their hands, less personal but more eagerly efficient, returned to the task of oiling her skin and removing the net strands.
At the edge of the clearing, Marguerite was torn between elation at the departure of most of the men, and rage at the words and actions of the two left behind. She couldn't hear everything, but she'd heard that kind of laughter before, and Veronica's struggles were all too plain. Part of her wanted to jump out right away, but she knew she had to wait. Sound carries too well here, she fretted, racking her brains for a plan. If I heard these beasts yelling from the bottom of the hill, their companions will certainly hear a gunshot for at least half a mile, and probably more. I need all the time I can get for them to get as far away as possible, but Veronica might not have that much time. I've got to muffle the sound somehow which means I've got to get close. Very close.
A plan formed in her mind. Yes, that could work, should work. It was going to take careful timing and more luck than she'd like, and she didn't dare wait too little or too long; but it was a plan. Suddenly, Marguerite's throat was very dry, and she swallowed nervously at the thought of what would happen if it didn't work. Unfortunately, her normally agile brain wasn't coming up with any better alternatives.
Marguerite kept working on the plan even as she slowly made her way around the edge of the clearing and closer to the two men. She kept hoping that she'd get an even better idea, but nothing came to her. When she got close, she mentally steeled herself and stopped worrying about it. She settled down and concentrated instead on picking the right moment to get as close as possible without being seen. Time dragged as she waited and hoped for an opportunity.
"Almost free now," she heard one of them say. "Just a bit more to go around the fun parts, and that pretty golden hair."
"We could always leave the hair for later," the other suggested. Apparently this meant something to them, for they both laughed heartily.
Marguerite recognized her moment. Now! She rose to her feet and quickly strode towards the pair, chest thrust forward and the open sack of berries the only thing apparent in her hands. She saw Veronica's eyes widen, and quickly shook her head, warning her to silence.
She was within five feet of them before one of them heard her. "Huh?" he grunted, turning to face her.
"Berries, gentlemen?" said the dark-haired beauty in front of him. Momentarily stupefied at her presence, and more than a little distracted by the amount of chest displayed by her clothes, he allowed her to step one last, fatal step closer. Thrusting the berry sack against his chest, Marguerite pulled the trigger of the revolver hidden behind it. The muffled report wasn't very loud, but the man fell backwards to lie in a heap.
The second man had turned at Marguerite's words. Snarling, he lunged for the woman, no weapons in hand, but counting on his superior height and weight to knock her over and bear her to the ground. Even as he collided with her, he felt an unyielding pressure thrust against his side. The last thing he heard was more of those strange, muffled explosions, and the world went dark even as he and his opponent fell together.
"Marguerite, look out!" Veronica cried, seeing the other man rush her. She tried to kick out at him, but was too hampered by her bonds. She heard a second muffled gunshot as the man reached Marguerite, and then a third, and the two fell together. A muffled cry escaped the heiress as they crashed into the ground. Furiously, Veronica pulled at her bonds, but they remained as stubborn as ever. "Marguerite!"
Marguerite groaned as she shoved the mortally wounded man off of her and shakily got to her feet. "Coming, coming. Ugh, my blouse is a mess!" she complained. The lavender fabric was thickly splattered all down one side with blood and berry juice.
Veronica blinked, stunned. "You're worried about your blouse?" she asked incredulously.
"Well, I don't have too many left at this point," she muttered, still a bit dazed from the action and her fall. Marguerite shook her head to clear it, and then quickly checked to make sure neither of the two men was going to cause any more trouble. Certain that they would not, she turned and hurried over to Veronica. Taking care of the easiest bit first, she slashed the bonds that tied Veronica to the tree with her utility knife. "Veronica, are you all right?"
" Yeah." Veronica was surprised at how shaky her voice sounded. All at once she felt as if she could barely stand.
The change in her voice did not escape Marguerite. "Just let me get that net off," she soothed. Seizing the net in both hands, she pulled, only to stop at Veronica's shriek.
"OW! No, Marguerite! It's stuck!" Her shakiness disappeared in outrage, and she glared at the older woman. "I think you just pulled out half my hair!"
"Well, how was I supposed to know?" Marguerite snapped back. Fortunately, she had grabbed a part of the net that had already been oiled, so her hands had not stuck to the cords. "This part isn't sticky!"
Memory banished Veronica's temper. "They were using oil and rags," she said quietly. "The oil unsticks the net."
Marguerite glanced at her sharply, and then remembered the skin bag she had seen the men using and looked around. "Do you see it? Ah, there it is." She picked up the skin of oil, glad to see that it had not spilled much in the altercation, and looked for a rag. Seeing none, she shrugged and poured some oil into her palm, coated her hands, then poured more oil into her palm. "Let's see if this works."
Carefully, Marguerite shook some oil onto a part of the net stuck to Veronica's hair, then touched it with a fingertip. When it did not stick, she used the rest of the oil in her hand to thoroughly coat the bit of net and the hair it was stuck to, and then disentangled them.
"There, this should be pretty straightforward, if messy," she announced. Already her arms and clothes were liberally daubed with oil. "If I splash oil on your hands, do you think you can get some of this off yourself? I really don't want to stay here any longer than necessary, just in case the others decide to come back."
"It's worth a try," Veronica agreed. Holding her hands up for oil, she was surprised to see that they were trembling. She flushed, somehow ashamed.
"Veronica." Marguerite's voice was unexpectedly gentle. Surprised, she looked at the dark-haired woman. Marguerite's normally grey eyes were dark with both knowledge and understanding, and showed no trace of mockery. "It isn't all right, but it will be," she said softly.
"Really?" She sniffled, and was horrified to feel tears burning in her eyes. "I mean, nothing really happened; I don't know why I'm shaking like this."
"I do." For a brief moment, Marguerite's expression went utterly bleak, and then she smiled. "It's okay. Now give me those hands."
Gratefully, Veronica reached out, and Marguerite poured plenty of oil on her palms. They both set to work, Marguerite concentrating on Veronica's hair, leaving Veronica to take care of the strands still stuck to her body.
Silence stretched between them for a few minutes, broken only by Veronica's requests for more oil and Marguerite's curses as the oilskin slipped and time and again. Finally, Marguerite's lips quirked up in a smile.
"So, Veronica, how did you manage to get stuck in this sticky situation?"
As a joke, it wasn't particularly good, but the two women dissolved into relieved laughter.
Malone stretched out on the bank of the pond next to Roxton and Challenger, appreciating the relief from glare brought by the hazy clouds. "How long do you think it will take for our clothes to dry?"
"Well, it might not have taken too long if we hadn't soaked them during our water fight," Roxton admitted ruefully.
"Yes, washing them beforehand was supposed to give them time to dry while we had our swim," Challenger stated, amused by their sheepish looks. "Still, in this humidity, they probably would still be fairly wet."
"As opposed to drenched." Malone shook his head at the drops of water still falling from his clothes, hanging from a nearby tree branch. "Maybe I should wring them out again."
"Go ahead, but I don't think it will do much good."
Malone half-rose, then stopped, struck by the appearance of the small puddles of water on the ground beneath his shirt. Rainbow-hued drops swirled on the surface, skittering about in an apparently random fashion, dancing around each other, almost touching, then moving apart. "Hey, look at that!"
Curious, both Roxton and Challenger turned and looked where Malone was pointing. "Pretty," Roxton offered after a moment.
"What could be causing it?"
"I believe those rainbow drops are traces of the oil you were using to coat the windmill canvas," Challenger observed.
"But what causes them to move like that? And why are they beads and not streaks?"
"Ah. The individual beading of the oil is a result of surface tension, and the fact that oil doesn't really dissolve much in water. The greater density of the water causes the oil to float to the top in individual clumps, which are held together by surface tension as discrete entities or drops. Their individual cohesive forces are greater than any adhesive forces currently acting on them. If a greater force brought the oil drops together, or some other agent lowered the surface tension, or even just with enough time, you'd have one large pool of oil floating on top of the water."
"Huh." Malone's face took on the abstracted look he got when he was in the midst of writing in his journals. "Just like Veronica and Marguerite."
Both men looked at him. "What?"
Malone blinked and came out of his writer's trance, the thought he'd been reaching for just out of range. "Well, you know."
After a moment, Roxton chuckled. "I suppose they are like oil and water, at that." A soft smile lit his face as he thought about the fiery, willful heiress. Briefly, the memory of their argument the night before dimmed his smile, but lying here, he realized that he wasn't really angry. In fact, he couldn't even remember what they'd been arguing about. They had both been surly and out of sorts with the heat. If the weather didn't break, he'd offer to take her down to this pond this evening and stand guard while she cooled down, as an oblique apology. It was a much better idea than letting the heat get the best of them both. Of course, an evening together at the pond might result in a different kind of heat His smile returned full force as he allowed his mind to consider the possibilities.
The metaphor Malone was trying to make went deeper than that. Surface tension - air - discrete entities - oil - water - For a moment he felt he was on the verge of some important insight, and if he could just grasp it, he would be forever wiser for it. Then the moment passed, and he shrugged. "A bit cliché, but yes, something like that."
It took longer than Marguerite liked, but eventually Veronica was freed from the net. Both women were more or less coated with oil, and Marguerite made a moue of distaste as she tried scrubbing it off her hands with some leaves. The stuff was incredibly slippery. "I'd better be able to get this off my hands and out of my clothes," she grumbled.
"I'm sure it will wash out," Veronica replied, inspecting her own oily condition with distaste. "At least you don't have it in your hair."
"Much," Marguerite agreed sourly.
Marguerite shrugged, uncomfortable with the look of gratitude and warmth on Veronica's face. "You're welcome."
"I mean it. I didn't expect you to come after me."
Marguerite bristled reflexively. "Well of course not."
"No - I don't mean it like that," Veronica hurried to explain. "I don't know how you found the clearing, and I don't know why you decided to come looking for me at all, but I'm really glad you did. And then what you did - attacking those two men - I well, I I didn't expect anyone to save me. I didn't expect to be saved." Her voice trailed off into silence.
Now thoroughly embarrassed and uncomfortable, Marguerite shook her head. "I heard the shouts, and I knew where you were going. Your trail wasn't that hard to follow." She shrugged again, twisting a lock of her hair between her fingers and then frowning when she remembered the oil. "As for the rest, it was just lucky that most of them left, or I wouldn't have been able to do much." Veronica tried to interrupt, but Marguerite continued on. "And speaking of the other men, we should really get moving. I did my best to keep the gunshots quiet, but we don't want to wait around here and find out they heard them anyways."
Veronica blinked. Why wouldn't Marguerite understand how important this was? It was as if she didn't want to be thanked.
Seeing the look of confusion on the other woman's face, Marguerite hesitated, then nerved herself. She walked over to Veronica and gave the young woman an awkward hug, knowing that she needed the contact and the reassurance. "I'm just glad you're safe, and that I was able to help," she murmured. "You would have done the same for me." She felt Veronica's arms tighten around her convulsively. An unfamiliar prickling warmth stung Marguerite's eyes.
After a moment, the two women let go and smiled at each other. "I won't forget this," Veronica said softly.
"Yes, well, if I'd have returned to the treehouse without you, the others would never have let me forget it. Particularly Malone. Now let's get moving!"
Veronica reclaimed her boot knife from the dead Haas, and Marguerite slung the oilskin strap over one shoulder, commenting that Challenger might find the oil interesting. Making one final survey of the clearing, one last item caught Veronica's eye. Memory returned in a rush, and she gasped.
"What is it?" Marguerite exclaimed, whirling around and reaching for her gun.
"The bracelet!" She picked up the item from where it had been abandoned. "This is what lured me into the trap in the first place. It's Zanga work - I think it might be Assai's! Those men said they had other women !"
Marguerite looked torn. She opened her mouth to say something, and then closed it again as they both heard the sound of approaching footsteps - many, in a hurry. The two women exchanged a glance and dove for cover.
"It's really starting to cloud up now," Challenger observed as they approached the windmill. "Still no wind, though."
"That's good for us," Malone sighed. "I remember the last time we tried to put the vanes back up when there was a wind going."
Roxton chuckled at the memory, although it hadn't been funny at the time. "So do I." He squinted up at the sky, which was now a uniform grey. Instead of being cooler, it felt even more humid than before. "Odd weather. When do you think it will break?"
"The clouds might just be an effect of the extremely high humidity, but they're thickening much more rapidly than I predicted. It could rain at any time, but it might not rain at all." Challenger turned around, trying to evaluate it. "My barometer's back at the lab, so I can't be certain, but if this does decide to break, it could be very sudden, with almost no warning. We should finish up quickly, just to be safe."
"Yes. There could be lightning - and if so, the last place we want to be standing is right next to the windmill, or the generator."
The three men hurried onwards, their carefree mood forgotten. "I hope Veronica and Marguerite are on their way back," Malone muttered.
"I'm sure they'll be fine. Veronica knows this plateau and its weather far better than we do."
A shout from behind told the women that they'd been spotted. Cursing, Marguerite drew her pistol, only to have it nearly slide out of her grasp. She grabbed it with her other hand to hold it steady. Beside her, Veronica drew her belt knives and nearly lost one to the same oily effect. Before either one could recover and find a target, another shout split the air.
The blonde woman heaved a sigh of relief. "It's the Zanga!"
"Thank goodness," Marguerite breathed. "I'm not sure I could have held my gun steady for a shot with all this stupid oil on my hands."
Laughing a little, Veronica went forward to greet the leaders of the large party of warriors emerging from the brush. "Jarl, Kai, Ravis, it's good to see you."
"We are glad to see you safe. Several women from our village have disappeared over the last two days. We fear that Isab and his ilk have returned."
At the sound of that name, Veronica shuddered. "He has." She turned to Jarl. "Assai ?"
"Safe at Zanga village," Jarl assured her, "but her cousin Liai is one of the missing. You know of Isab?"
"I take it that was the big guy?" Marguerite asked.
"That's what he was called."
"What happened?" Jarl demanded. Seeing the state of Marguerite's blouse, he stepped forward in concern. "Are you injured?"
"We're fine." Marguerite and Veronica took turns relating the recent events in the clearing. Both women glossed over how Marguerite had managed to dispatch the two men, Marguerite because she preferred it, and Veronica because she sensed Marguerite was uncomfortable with the topic.
"I heard Isab say they were planning to break camp tomorrow morning," Veronica told the warriors. "They were carrying an injured man when they left. From what they said, it sounded as if their camp couldn't be too far away."
"Then we still have time to rescue the others. This is wonderful news."
"Yes," Veronica agreed.
" We ?" Marguerite questioned softly, raising an eyebrow.
"You'd just leave them?"
At Veronica's glare, Marguerite gave an exasperated sigh. "Veronica, my hands are so oily I can barely hold on to my gun, and you nearly dropped one of your knives. Let's at least get cleaned up before we go charging off!"
Veronica had to admit Marguerite had a point. "True "
Kai interrupted before she could say anything else, his face marred by a worried frown. "Oil?"
Marguerite showed the warriors the remains of the net, which they had shoved back into the scrub after they'd removed it from Veronica, and the contents of the oilskin. Several of the Zanga sniffed the oil carefully, and then quickly stepped back. "Icroso," Ravis said, and the other men nodded.
"What is icroso?" Marguerite demanded. "And who is this Isab, anyway?"
"Twelve years ago, in a season much like this, Isab and his band came to Zanga territory and captured several women. We managed to rescue one, but Isab and the others vanished and were not seen again. The girl we rescued told us she had been tangled in a sticky net and that the men used a strange oil to free her. The oil still covered her skin when we found her. Our shaman called it icroso. The girl we rescued seemed fine at first, but in a short time she became giddy, as if she had drunk too much mango wine. She did not seem to care what happened to her, and felt no pain from her injuries. Eventually we had to restrain her; we were afraid she was going to hurt herself."
Marguerite and Veronica exchanged worried glances. "And how long did this last?" Marguerite asked nervously. "I mean, she did recover, right?"
Ravis nodded. "Some time after we restrained her, she fell into a deep sleep, so deep that we could not awaken her. When she awoke, she was herself again."
"But you see we cannot risk taking you into battle. You have both been exposed," Jarl added.
"Maybe if we wash it off right now, it won't affect us," Veronica suggested. She desperately wanted to help her friends.
"We should wash it off as fast as we can, but we can't risk going with them, Veronica," Marguerite argued.
"You just don't want to risk yourself," Veronica started angrily, then trailed off as she remembered how Marguerite had just rescued her at considerable risk to her own safety.
The older woman's eyes went opaque as some powerful emotion flitted across her face, too quickly for Veronica to read, and then she gave her a tight smile. "I just don't want to risk what might happen to the Zanga, or those women, if we try to come along and we start acting strangely."
The words were reasonable, and calmly said, but Veronica could sense the repressed emotions behind them. Startled, Veronica realized that she might have actually hurt the other woman's feelings. It wasn't an idea she was used to. Since when did Marguerite care what she - what any of them - thought of her? Yet what Veronica had said had obviously stung, and she felt her cheeks flush with unaccustomed guilt. "You're right. I'm sorry," she apologized. "I just "
Marguerite's smile warmed a touch. "I know."
"You should not be left alone," Jarl said, glancing at the other warriors. "I will stay with you and make sure you return to the treehouse safely."
"Whoa. That's not necessary," Veronica protested. "You're needed to rescue the others!"
"We are enough to do what must be done, even without Jarl," Ravis contradicted.
"And Assai would never forgive me if I left you alone and something happened to you," Jarl said firmly.
"There's a lot of that going around," Marguerite murmured, too quietly for the others to hear, then straightened her shoulders. "Fine, then. Let's go."
"Good luck. Bring everyone home safely," Veronica told the others, and then the three set out, leaving the warriors to follow Isab's trail.
Finding a stream was relatively easy, thanks to Veronica and Jarl's combined knowledge of the area, but finding a way to remove the oil was something else again. Water on its own simply beaded up and ran off, leaving just as much oil as before. The sun disappeared behind the clouds for good as they tried to come up with an idea. After some debate, Jarl went off to try and find some soaproot plants, but only on the condition that they both promised to remain waiting at the stream until his return. In the meantime, Marguerite and Veronica scrubbed themselves with the soft mud of the streambed in an attempt to remove as much of the oil as they could.
"I've heard that mud is supposed to be good for your skin, but this is ridiculous." Marguerite scowled as she rubbed mud over her hands and arms. "I don't think this is doing any good."
"It doesn't seem to be working," Veronica agreed. "What do you mean, mud is supposed to be good for your skin?"
Marguerite laughed. "There are exclusive spas for the wealthy in Europe where people go just to be wrapped in hot mud and towels from head to toe. It's supposed to soften the skin and prevent aging."
"You're kidding me."
"Does it work?"
"Not that I've noticed, but it certainly feels nice."
Veronica tried to imagine the fastidious Marguerite covered in mud and liking it – even paying for it - and promptly burst out laughing.
"What's so funny?"
"I can't imagine you paying to get muddy!"
Marguerite looked at her mud-covered body, and chuckled ruefully. "It does seem rather unlikely when you put it like that." A giggle escaped her lips. Appalled - she never giggled - Marguerite slapped a hand over her mouth, and then realized what she'd done. "Ew!"
The sight of Marguerite trying to wipe the mud from her face and only making it worse sent Veronica into gales of hysterical laughter that left her unable to remain standing. Slipping to her knees in the streambed, she pointed one shaking hand at Marguerite, speechless with mirth.
For a moment, Marguerite felt angry, but Veronica's laughter was infectious, and suddenly all the anger and irritation she'd been carrying around just slipped away. Scooping up a handful of muddy water, she rinsed off her face. "Oh, you think that's funny?" she asked mischievously, and flicked a few murky droplets over at Veronica. "Want to try it yourself?"
"N-no," Veronica gasped out, still giggling. "I th-think I'll leave that f-for when I go t-to Europe."
Marguerite looked at Veronica in surprise. She'd never heard the jungle girl ever talk about leaving the plateau before. Suddenly suspicious of her own good mood and Veronica's mirth, she started to rinse the mud from her skin. "Veronica, do you feel all right?" she asked, trying to keep her voice normal.
"I feel great," Veronica answered brightly.
"That's what I was afraid of. I think the oil's starting to affect you."
Marguerite's words sobered Veronica somewhat, enabling her to stop her laughter, but she could still feel a bubble of hilarity rising inside her, just waiting to burst forth. "Oh. Oh, I think you're right." Despite herself, another giggle escaped her.
Marguerite sighed. "We'd better get rinsed off and be ready to go as soon as Jarl returns. I don't think the soaproot is going to help us now."
All at once, the darkening skies opened up, and rain came pouring down on the two women. "That's one way to rinse off!" Veronica whooped, and burst out laughing again.
A smile played over Marguerite's lips, which she quickly repressed. Jarl had better hurry, because I don't think we can wait too much longer.
A torrential rain started just as the men approached the treehouse. By the time they reached the elevator, their still-damp clothes were sodden once again.
"You were right about the lack of warning, George," Roxton commented, taking off his hat and shaking water droplets from it.
"Yes, it was quite sudden," Challenger agreed.
"I wonder if the girls have made it back yet," Malone said hopefully. As the elevator reached the top, he bounded out, calling Veronica's name. Challenger and Roxton followed him out and started lowering the storm screens around the treehouse.
"She's - they're not here," Malone reported after a moment.
Roxton looked momentarily disturbed, but continued lowering the storm screen by the balcony. "I'm sure they've taken shelter somewhere. Veronica knows this plateau better than any of us, and you know how Marguerite hates hiking in the rain."
"And the sun, and the fog, and " Malone teased, causing Roxton to smile.
"Yes, that's one way in which our dear Marguerite is quite reliable."
From his perch in the tree, Jarl watched the raptors hiss and shrill their disapproval of the sudden rain. Unfortunately, after their initial protests, the beasts continued to circle the tree, trying to figure out a way to get to him. Worry gnawed at him, but there was nothing he could do; he would have to wait until the raptors lost patience and went searching for an easier meal. Which could easily be Veronica and Marguerite, he realized. Gods, keep them safe!
"Veronica, come on! We can't stay here!" Marguerite yanked on Veronica's arm, hauling her bodily up the bank. Below them, the relatively placid stream had already started to swell and grow angry in the pounding rain. Worse, the once-stable bank had quickly turned into a treacherous, slippery slope.
Marguerite slipped and cursed as she slid back several feet. Veronica's arm was wrenched from her grasp, and she hoped the increasingly dazed blonde had the sense to stay put. She struggled to regain her footing, and was surprised when a strong hand grabbed the strap of the oilskin bag she'd slung diagonally across her body and pulled her back up. Blinking water out of her eyes, Marguerite saw that it was Veronica. The laughter had fled from her face, replaced by determination. She looked almost normal again - except for the hectic brightness of her eyes.
Working together, the two women reached the top of the bank and pulled themselves over the edge. "Are you all right?" Veronica asked.
"Yes. What about you?"
"I don't know. I feel incredibly energetic and really good, like I could run all the way back to the treehouse. But I didn't recognize how dangerous a place the stream was until you started pulling me up the bank, and I almost let you fall." She shook her head, her unease clearly visible. "Right now I think I'm in control, but I thought that down there, too."
"I'm feeling it too, but we have to keep fighting it." Marguerite took a deep breath, trying to ignore the incredible surge of energy dancing through her veins. "I don't think we can wait for Jarl any longer. We've got to try and get to the treehouse, or at least someplace safer than this."
"Is that a good idea?"
"I don't know, but you remember what the Zanga said. The girl got increasingly giddy, and then she fell asleep and they couldn't wake her up. If we both fall asleep out here, we're dead. I think we should use this energy we're feeling to try and make it someplace before that happens." She couldn't help it - another one of those giggles escaped her, more than half-hysterical with the fear that was rising as quickly as the euphoria. "Of course, just because it makes sense to me right now doesn't mean it really makes sense." If I can't trust what I'm thinking, what can I trust? Marguerite wondered in despair. All her life, even when things were at their worst, she'd been able to count on her wits if nothing else. Now, her primary weapon and best defense was under attack, and she was terrified.
The look on Marguerite's face frightened Veronica, even though she could not give a name to the expression. She touched the other woman's arm and nodded slowly. "It's a good plan, Marguerite. You help me, and I'll help you, and we'll make it. Let's head for the treehouse, and if we find some other shelter on the way, we'll take it."
"That rhymes," Marguerite chuckled.
Veronica took Marguerite's hand in hers. "C'mon."
The two hurried off into the driving rain.
Malone sat at the table looking at his journal, pen in hand, but not really seeing the mostly-blank page in front of him. He was aware instead of the relative silence of the treehouse, still except for the sound of the rain on the rooftop. Challenger was down in his lab, and Roxton was sitting in a chair next to the balcony storm screen, cleaning guns as he kept an eye out on the plateau. A day ago Malone would have welcomed such peace as he welcomed the relief from the heat. But this silence isn't truly peace, he realized, it's absence. In its own way, it was as much a sign of tension as the angry words and quarrels of the day before.
Tension Challenger's words by the pond came back to him, and with them a faint glimmering of the idea he had tried to put into words earlier in the day. Bringing his focus back to the journal page in front on him, he was startled to realize he'd written something down. "Oil and water," he read to himself. Frowning in concentration, he started to write, then sighed in frustration as the awareness of silence once again sent his thoughts scattering like those drops of oil.
From his chair, Roxton heard Malone mutter something to himself and then fall silent. He wasn't fooled by the journalist's pretense of writing any more than he thought Malone believed his pretense of cleaning his guns. Or, for that matter, Challenger's pretense of working in his lab. The older man had already come upstairs twice in response to distant rumbles of thunder, obviously hoping it was the rumble of the elevator.
On one level, the hunter knew it was ridiculous. Veronica was one of the most competent women he'd ever met. She had survived eleven years alone on this plateau, through much worse things than a little rainstorm. She could kill a raptor with a single thrown knife, and even discommode a T-Rex. She could outrun what predators she couldn't kill, and outthink what she couldn't outrun. In fact, she was the least likely of any of them to need help - himself included. While Marguerite didn't have Veronica's plateau skills, he knew from experience that the woman was a born survivor. Time and again she'd managed to save herself from danger without any help from any of them, and her quick thinking had more than once saved all their lives. Of course, sometimes her quick thinking endangered all of their lives! He suspected that before coming here she'd survived things at least as dangerous as anything the plateau had to offer. Certainly the few hints and pieces he'd picked up about her past suggested a life that might very well make even his adventurous, thrill-seeking past seem tame in comparison.
On a deeper level, though, it didn't matter how competent and capable he knew them to be. The fact remained that two of their number were out there somewhere on the plateau, and that until they returned to the treehouse, part of him - part of all of them - would worry. It wasn't even the fact they were women. If it were Malone and Challenger out there, he'd be doing much the same thing as he was doing now, if not actually packing up to go look for them. Challenger and Malone frequently lacked something in the common sense department. He had no doubt that if they were here and the men were the ones out in the jungle, Veronica and Marguerite would be engaged in similar "tasks," with both of them hoping to hear the sound of the elevator.
He sighed and set down the gun in his hand, abandoning even the pretense of working. That was the truth, but it wasn't the entire truth, he admitted to himself. He'd be worrying about any of them, but he recognized the aching source of the extra anxiety inside him. Marguerite. Even in the earliest days, there had been an attraction between them he'd done little to resist. They were both experienced adults, no strangers to physical passion, and they both knew the risks and the pleasures of the games they'd played - or at least he'd thought they did. The plateau kept playing tricks on them, though. First stranding them here, then challenging them every day, bringing them emotionally closer even as constant interruptions and dangers kept them from acting completely on the desire that raged between them. Every day, every adventure had wrought its alchemical effect. He couldn't pinpoint the moment when physical attraction had metamorphosed within him into something far deeper, a need for her that defied simple definition. He couldn't even say for certain if she felt anything more for him than she had at the first, although he thought he sometimes saw a similar sea-change in her eyes. He just knew that when they were together, it was right somehow, and when they weren't, something was wrong, no matter how right everything else might be.
"Any sign of the rain letting up?" Malone's voice jerked Roxton out of his thoughts. He picked up the gun he'd been working on even as he pulled back a corner of the storm screen and checked the sky. If anything, it was even darker, and he realized it was evening. It would be full dark in an hour or so.
"No," he replied, and went back to work cleaning his gun and worrying.
"Do you have any idea where we are?" Marguerite giggled.
Veronica blinked and realized she was running. No, they both were running, hand in hand. Why were they running? It was a lot of fun she felt like she could run forever. Marguerite's breathless laughter broke into her thoughts, and she slowed, remembering the question. "Um " She looked around. "When did it get dark?" she wondered.
At her words, Marguerite stopped entirely, laughing so hard her whole body shook. "It happens every day!" she gasped. "Or every night!" She freed her hand from Veronica's and twirled around, her arms outstretched. "I like the night!"
Something about the night disturbed Veronica, but before she could pinpoint what, she became absorbed in Marguerite's gyrations. "That looks fun!" She started spinning around in imitation, and quickly got lost in the sheer joy of it, spinning until something crashed into her. Flailing wildly, she fell into a tangled heap.
"Ow," Marguerite complained from somewhere nearby. Veronica realized they had crashed into each other, and she was currently sprawled next to the other woman. "That was a lot more fun when Roxton and I did it."
"Fell down. Into the cave." Marguerite cackled and shifted to look at Veronica, her grey eyes blazing with manic mirth. "Of course, what we were doing before that was even more fun!"
"What were you doing?"
"Kissing," she giggled, then sighed. "We were going have more fun than kissing, but then we fell."
"More fun than kissing?"
"Much more fun."
"Oh." Veronica pondered that for a moment. "Kissing Ned is fun."
"What's more fun than kissing?"
"When there's more than kissing." Marguerite's chuckle was positively wicked.
"Oh." Thoughts of kissing Malone drifted through Veronica's head, and she smiled happily. "I wish Ned was here right now. I'd kiss him."
"Yeah. Me too."
"No, you wouldn't!" Veronica was outraged, but couldn't help laughing. "You'd kiss Roxton."
"That's what I meant," Marguerite protested, also laughing.
"Oh. That's okay then."
"It's more than okay."
"Except they're not here."
"Yeah." Marguerite's forehead creased into a tiny frown at the thought. Something about him not being with her, something about Roxton - it was something important.
"Why aren't they here?" Veronica asked suddenly.
"They're at the treehouse." The thought was taking shape. "We should be at the treehouse."
Images of Malone and the treehouse washed over Veronica. All at once, a wave of exhaustion swept over her, leaving her shaking - but momentarily clearing her mind. "Oh no! What are we doing here? Where are we?" She looked around frantically, and after a few moments realized they were in the windmill clearing. "We must have come in the right direction." She tried to think how they had come here, but all she could remember were a few hazy memories that made very little sense.
Beside her, Marguerite flopped over onto her back and looked up at the sky. Abruptly, she started giggling.
"Marguerite! Snap out of it!"
"We need to get up and go to the treehouse." Veronica rose to her knees, balancing unsteadily.
"Uh-huh. I was just looking at the stars to see if I could find my way."
Veronica looked up at the sky and laughed. Her mind started to go fuzzy again, but she fought it back with the surge of energy the laughter seemed to bring. "Marguerite, there are no stars. It's raining."
"I know! That's what's so funny!" Marguerite chortled.
"Marguerite! We need to go now!" Veronica reached over and shook Marguerite by the shoulders, trying to stay focused. "Please. I don't know how much longer we have. I'm getting tired."
Veronica's words and obvious distress penetrated Marguerite's euphoric daze. Fighting for clarity, she dimly realized their predicament and bounced to her feet, still filled with that strange energy. "Oh damn. Can you stand?"
Veronica made it to her feet with Marguerite's somewhat overenthusiastic assistance. "I don't know whether to laugh or sleep," the blonde smiled, weaving slightly.
"Laugh now, sleep later," Marguerite suggested, snickering.
Veronica noticed that Marguerite's focus was fading. Her own mind felt clearer, but she was so tired "Help me along, Marguerite. It's only a short ways to go. It would be stupid to fail now." The last thought made her chuckle.
Marguerite joined in her laughter, but obligingly supported Veronica and helped her towards the treehouse. "You going to kiss Ned when we get there?"
Veronica giggled. "He'll be happy to see us."
"Happier still if you kiss him."
"True." Laughter warred with fatigue, giving her just enough control to keep them moving in the right direction. "You going to kiss Roxton?"
"He'll yell at us." Marguerite stopped walking, bringing Veronica to a halt as well. "Maybe we shouldn't go."
"He'll yell because he's happy to see us," Veronica soothed, trying to get Marguerite walking again.
Marguerite stepped forward, laughing again. "Funny way of showing it."
Dinner had been a quiet meal, with all three men preoccupied with their thoughts. Each in turn had striven to reassure the others that of course Marguerite and Veronica were holed up somewhere safe, waiting out the storm. All of them had agreed there was no point in waiting up now that it was dark, that naturally the two women had taken shelter for the night and would not come back until the morning. They all knew this, and yet here they all sat in the common room, oil lamps and candles lit against the darkness, pretending they weren't still hoping to hear the elevator.
"I think I might sit up a while and read over my journals," Malone commented to no one in particular.
"Mmm," Roxton commented noncommittally, carefully cleaning the barrel of the rifle balanced between his knees. "I've a fair bit of work yet to do myself."
Challenger had had enough. "Oh for heavens' sake, you two. They're not coming back tonight. Why don't you head off to bed? If they don't return within an hour or two after daylight tomorrow, we'll go out to look for them, and you'll want to be well-rested."
"Mm-hmm. And what about you, George? Ready to call it a night?" Roxton asked knowingly, not looking up from his task.
Challenger colored slightly. "Oh, well, I thought I'd take care of a few things in the lab first "
Before anyone could reply to this, the elevator rumbled to life. For a moment no one moved; they'd all been fooled by distant thunder at least once. Then the sound of laughter reached their ears, and all three men quickly scrambled to their feet.
"Veronica?" Malone called hopefully.
The elevator rose to the top and stopped. Marguerite and Veronica stood inside, half-supporting each other, absolutely soaked to the skin, and giggling madly. The women looked as if they'd been through a war. Marguerite's clothes were ripped in several places, Veronica had several welts showing vividly against her tanned skin, and they were both liberally splashed with mud.
Relief hit Roxton like a blow, swiftly followed by anger as he realized the two women must have been traveling after dark. They both knew better than that! "What the bloody hell have you been up to?" he demanded, striding forward to get a better look at them and make sure they were all right.
At the same moment, Malone moved towards the elevator, beaming. "I'm glad you're back."
Both men stopped short as Marguerite suddenly shrieked with laughter. "I told you so," she stuttered through her glee.
Next to her, Veronica gave a sleepy chuckle. "So did I."
"What on earth ?" Challenger wondered softly to himself.
The two women staggered out of the elevator, still laughing, Marguerite obviously supporting most of Veronica's weight. "Here, Malone," she called, and pushed Veronica towards the startled journalist.
Veronica staggered two steps and would have fallen if Malone hadn't caught her. The blonde woman blinked owlishly up him, smiling strangely.
"Marguerite?" Roxton called, puzzled by her odd behavior and disturbed by the wild light in her eyes. She still hadn't stopped laughing. Then he saw the dark stains all along one side of her blouse and froze for an instant, blood draining from his face. "Oh God. Where are you hurt?" Crossing the distance between them in a few strides, he turned her towards him with one hand and gently ran his other hand over her side, looking for the injury.
Marguerite swatted his hand away, laughing even harder. "Hey! Watch the hands! That tickles!"
"It's not hers," Veronica said softly around a huge yawn.
"Then again, tickling can be nice," Marguerite added, giving Roxton a suggestive look.
While Roxton and Malone exchanged stunned looks, and the two women continued to giggle, Challenger walked up to both women, looked into their eyes, and felt their wrists. "Look at their pupils - totally dilated," he said quietly. "And Marguerite's pulse is racing at an incredible rate. Let's get them sitting down."
"Pushy," Marguerite bantered back, as Roxton and Challenger tried to shepherd her towards a chair. "I've got something for you, George, and I definitely have something for John, but it should wait a minute. Hey Veronica!"
"Hm?" Veronica looked up from the couch where Malone had just placed her.
"You've got something to give to Malone."
"What?" Malone asked, confused. Then his breath stopped utterly as Veronica abruptly pulled him down and kissed him deeply, her fingers tangling in his hair. "Veronica!" he gasped when he finally freed himself.
"Happy?" Marguerite chortled.
"Happy," Veronica agreed before her eyes fluttered shut.
Marguerite dissolved into incoherent snickers. Taking advantage of her distraction, Roxton guided her further into the room. He could feel her body shake with tremors that had nothing to do with her laughter. Thoroughly alarmed, he turned her head to look into her eyes. "Marguerite, what happened to you?" he asked softly, unable to keep the fear completely out of his voice. Behind him, he could hear Malone calling Veronica's name with increasing urgency.
Some thought or emotion flickered in Marguerite's eyes, and her expression lost its wild animation even as she staggered and almost fell. "Icroso."
"What?" Now she's babbling in another language? he wondered to himself.
Marguerite struggled for coherency. She was suddenly and completely exhausted, more tired than she could ever remember being, and she wasn't quite sure where she was or how she'd gotten there. She could feel John's hands on her shoulders, helping support her, and she could hear Malone calling to Veronica. We're at the treehouse, she realized vaguely.
"Challenger, she won't wake up!" Malone called out, patting Veronica's face in a futile effort to rouse her.
Challenger started towards Malone and Veronica, only to stop short as Marguerite spoke again. "You can't wake her that way," she mumbled. "Challenger, take this." Marguerite fumbled with the strap of a skin bag she carried, trying to remove it.
"What do you mean, we can't wake her?" Malone demanded, as Roxton helped Marguerite remove the bag and hand it to Challenger.
Marguerite clutched her head in both hands, overwhelmed by all the voices and the need to communicate. So tired "Don't touch the oil, unless you want a good laugh," she said slowly, enunciating each word with care. Carefully, she brought her hands down and looked for Challenger, trying to convey how important this was. She could tell all three men were worried, and she wanted to help them, but the room was spinning crazily, fading around the edges. "It'll be all right," she heard herself say, and then the world disappeared.
"Marguerite!" Roxton managed to catch her underneath both arms as she fell. She was utterly limp against him, her eyes closed. He hoisted her into his arms. "Marguerite?"
"What's wrong with them?" Malone demanded, distractedly shaking Veronica's shoulder, still trying to wake her.
"I don't know, but perhaps this bag holds some answers," Challenger replied, turning the skin over in his hands. He could hear liquid sloshing inside. "Marguerite said something about oil "
"In case you hadn't noticed, George, she wasn't making a whole lot of sense," Roxton observed sharply, worry roughening his voice and words.
"I'll take this down to the lab and examine the contents," Challenger said decisively. "In the meantime, you should get them dried off and into bed. Whatever's wrong with them, being cold and wet won't help matters." He hurried back down to his lab.
"But " Malone trailed off, not sure what to say next.
"Just do your best, Malone," Roxton replied, correctly interpreting Malone's reluctance, "and worry about the rest when she wakes up." Turning, he headed off to Marguerite's room. "You'd better wake up," he told her softly. "I can't wait to hear the names you're going to call me." Laying her down on her bed, he gently kissed her forehead before starting to strip her out of her wet clothes.
Someone was calling her name. Groaning, Marguerite slowly opened her eyes, then immediately wished she hadn't. How can eyelids hurt? she wondered to herself. Every muscle in her body ached fiercely, and for a moment she seriously considered whether breathing was worth the pain of the effort.
"Sleeping Beauty awakes at last," a familiar voice drawled near her ear. Focusing her eyes with an effort, she saw Roxton sitting in a chair next to her bedside, relief, concern and humor warring on his unshaven face. "Veronica's been awake for a long time."
"Veronica can't possibly hurt as much as I do," Marguerite rasped.
"Here, drink this. It should help." Roxton brought a cup of liquid to her lips and helped support her upright enough to drink it. The brew tasted unfamiliar, but felt wonderfully soothing to her parched throat. When she had finished, he gently eased her back down onto the bed and lightly brushed a few errant strands of hair away from her face. "I'm not surprised you're aching. According to Jarl, you and Veronica covered enough ground in a few hours to make it halfway across the plateau."
She frowned at his words, trying to remember what had happened. "I don't remember any of that. I don't even remember how we got to the treehouse." A sudden thought made her eyes widen, and she tried to sit up. "Jarl! You've seen him? Does he know what happened to the others?"
Roxton put one hand on her shoulder to kept her from rising even as he brought his other hand down from her hair to cup her cheek for a moment. "Shh, easy now. Yes, he made his way here looking for you the morning after your return, and he returned later with Assai to check up on you. She made the tea. The Zanga were able to rescue all the women, and from what Jarl said, they'll never have to worry about Isab again." He worked to keep his voice steady. Jarl's tale had been a chilling one. Even after the fact, hearing all the dangers Marguerite had faced made his blood run cold, and she'd been so still for so long. It took every ounce of control he had to keep from hugging her to him, just to reassure himself that she was safe and all right at last.
"Thank God," Marguerite murmured. Roxton silently agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment.
"The Zanga are quite grateful," Roxton continued, "and attribute your intervention - and survival - as a sign of great powers. From what Jarl was able to make of your trail and from what he told us about the drug, you made it back here through a combination of incredible luck, sheer tenacity, and, probably, divine provenance." He continued to smooth back her hair with one hand, and Marguerite sighed as the gentle touch seemed to soothe some of the pain away. "When you got here, you weren't coherent. We didn't know what had happened to you or what was wrong. You had us all scared for a while." The humor had fled from his face, leaving a warmer expression, one that made her heart skip a beat. "Marguerite, I "
A thump on the doorframe caused them both to jump, and Marguerite groaned, only partially because of thepain of the movement. Malone stuck his head into the room, his face beaming. "Hey! She's awake?"
"I am now," Marguerite grumbled.
"Great! Just wait right there!" The journalist vanished.
"Where does he think I'm going?" Marguerite wondered, still glaring at the door. "I am not getting out of bed today!" She heard Roxton laugh. The warm sound brought a small smile to her own lips in spite of her continuing aches.
"She's awake?" Challenger entered the room, his expression both anxious and hopeful.
"Hello Challenger, nice of you to knock," Marguerite greeted him by way of a reply.
A broad smile split the scientist's face. "Thank goodness," he told her, unoffended by her sarcastic words. "We were all most concerned. How do you feel?"
"Yes, I'm not surprised. You overexerted yourself completely while under the influence of the oil, but you should be all right with day or two of rest. That oil you brought back is fascinating stuff." His smile grew abstracted. "From my initial observations, I would guess that it has both euphoric and stimulating qualities, but I haven't figured out how it causes such remarkable results."
"You can keep it. Just don't bring it anywhere near me," Marguerite shuddered.
A commotion at the door heralded the arrival of Malone, carrying Veronica in his arms. Marguerite's eyebrows rose.
"Marguerite, you're awake," Veronica said, giving her a warm smile.
"So everyone keeps telling me. This is new," she replied, nodding at Malone and Veronica's position in his arms.
Veronica shrugged. "I must have twisted my knee somehow when we were not ourselves, but I don't remember how or when. I won't be walking much for the next few days."
"She really shouldn't be out of bed yet either, but she insisted on seeing you," Malone added with a mildly disapproving look at the woman he held.
"I just had to make sure you were all right."
Touched, and not wanting everyone to see it, Marguerite shrugged her shoulders minutely. "Yes, well, I'm about as well as you are. We'll both be fine."
"Thanks in no small part to you," Malone stated. "From what Veronica says, you were quite heroic."
"Yes indeed," Roxton murmured, "quite the heroine."
Marguerite squirmed, then winced at the pain. The others were immediately concerned.
"We should really let you rest," Challenger said. "I'll bring you some more of Assai's tea a little later." With one last smile at her, he left the room.
"You should be back in bed as well," Malone chided Veronica. "And since I'm the transportation "
"Feel better soon," Veronica told Marguerite as Malone turned to leave the room.
"You too," Marguerite called after her.
Roxton made no move to leave the chair by her bedside. Marguerite gave him a quizzical look.
"I figure I'll stay a little while longer, just in case your highness needs anything," he teased her gently.
Marguerite hid a tender smile at his continued concern. "Fine, but you're going to be bored. I'm going to go back to sleep." Gingerly snuggling down lower beneath the covers, she suddenly noticed she was wearing her nightgown. How did that happen? She tried to dismiss it. After a minute of silence, though, she had to know. "Roxton "
"How did I get into my nightgown?"
Roxton licked his lips in a way that instantly roused all of Marguerite's suspicions. His eyes were full of mischief. "Well, Marguerite "
Out in the hallway, Veronica and Malone exchanged relieved looks. "I'm so glad she's all right," Veronica confided. "She was unconscious for so long "
"Yeah," Malone agreed, thinking of his own long vigil by Veronica's side. "So were you." Veronica had remained sunk in an unconscious stupor for almost fifteen hours after her return to the treehouse, only awakening around noon the next day. That had been far too long for Malone's peace of mind, even with Jarl's reassurances - and that was almost a day ago. Challenger had speculated something about the differences in Veronica's physical conditioning and Marguerite's, and how the effort of keeping up with her must have taken a greater toll on the older woman. However, his theories about the temporary effects of lactic acid buildup - or whatever it was he'd said - hadn't comforted anyone. As more time had passed and Marguerite had remained unconscious, all of them had started to fear the worst. Unconsciously, he tightened his arms around Veronica.
"I'm fine, Ned, except for the knee."
"If they'd have hurt you--" Malone started.
"They didn't," Veronica finished. "Thanks to Marguerite."
Looking into her eyes, Malone nodded, his face serious. "We have a lot to be thankful for." And I have a lot to add to my description of Marguerite in my journal, he thought. I never would have expected her to do something like that. All at once, the thought that had eluded him at the pond and again that evening in the treehouse came clearly to his mind. We're really not all that different. It's just the surface tensions that divide us - Marguerite from Veronica - all of us from each other. When it really counts, the surface tensions can't keep us apart. We all come together.
An outraged squeal rose from Marguerite's room, followed by Marguerite's voice saying "You did what?!?"
Malone smiled and felt Veronica snicker. Of course, some surface tensions seem to be more durable than others'! Still smiling, he carried Veronica back towards her room, content in the knowledge that everything was more or less back to normal.