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Heroine

Chapter 2

January 1920.
Six Months Ago


For well over a week they had been in the cave, moving carefully through the massive mountain and its confusing network of wide and narrow passages. They had felt a series of small earthquakes, one causing a potential exit to be blocked by stone and hard packed dirt. Still, it was early on and only now, upon reflection, did the explorers wonder if that had been the right passage out of the caves, allowing them to escape into the glory of the South American Amazon jungle.

Professor Summerlee wheezed slightly and reached behind him, pushing his hands against the ache of his slightly arthritic back. “We’ve walked for miles. Shouldn’t we have seen something by now?”

“There are just too many damn cave openings.” Malone lifted his torch to get a better look down the darkened area where they were traveling, “This one looks like the others.” He glanced at Marguerite who was walking beside him and studying the disk in her hand, “Are you sure that glorified compass is working right?”

“Yes.” she said, staring where the needle directed. Marguerite had not kept “the key” from her sight since she liberated it from the temple where it was originally concealed. “We’re doing okay.’ she insisted, glancing at the journalist from out of the corner of her eye. Marguerite was well aware of Malone’s unconvinced expression. It was at times like this - when she saw his doubt and the skepticism on the faces of the others - that she wished she had just walked through that temple cave-opening on her own, and never looked back. “If we had already been here, taken this route, we would know it. Roxton’s been marking our course with a piece of chalk ...”

“Oh, is that what I was supposed to be doing?” Lord Roxton asked, switching his own torch from one hand to the other. He then chortled when his companions scowled at him. “Just joking.” he assured and lifted the white, filmy rock hidden in his palm.

Challenger looked about them, at the darkness and cobwebs, and sighed. They had viewed the same dingy scenery for days and it didn’t look as if it was going to change anytime too soon. Roxton quite correctly had told him, when they were packing for this trek, that they needed to take enough food and supplies to last a month. They had no idea just how long they would be in the catacombs before they saw daylight again. Initially skeptical Challenger was glad he had acquiesced to the hunter’s expertise. “This looks like as good a place as any to camp.” Challenger pulled the timepiece from his pocket, “It’s late. Let’s make a fire.”

A relieved Summerlee watched his learned friend gingerly place his own over-loaded backpack on the cave floor. “First-rate suggestion, old man.” he enthused, “I’ll make tea and serve it with the finely aged raptor meat in my knapsack.” Dismayed groans greeted his announcement. After an entire week of dried fruit, scraps of lizard and three tins of oily over-salted nuts his companions’ reactions did not surprise the botanist. Pushing spectacles gently back into place Summerlee said, “Well, my friends, if you prefer something a bit different ….”

“Yes?” Marguerite chuckled good-naturedly, predicting what Summerlee was about to suggest.

“Maybe that T-Rex egg Challenger is hiding in his pack …?”

“That’s enough, Arthur.” Challenger warned.

With a chuckle of his own, Roxton leaned his rifle against the side of a large boulder. “We’ll get that egg to the England, Challenger. Don’t you worry.”

“I should say so.” Challenger grumbled slightly, crouching to pick up a few small puffs of dried brush and slivers of long dead wood from the cave’s floor. “If nothing else survives *that* must.”

Roxton, his expression growing serious, bit back on a retort. He knew how important it was for Challenger to prove himself correct in this venture but nothing was more crucial, in his book, then all of them making it back to civilization in one piece. Without realizing he was doing it, Roxton looked over to where Malone and Marguerite were gathering whatever they could to make a fire. He focused on the heiress, ‘Nothing is more important,’ his inner mind spoke, ‘then getting *her* back home alive and well.’

Crouching, Marguerite started when Malone began to violently sneeze. “Are you all right?” she asked, noting how flushed the journalist appeared in the torchlight. She thought he had been exceptionally moody the last few days, keeping to himself and scribbling in his journal, but decided he was merely having second thoughts about his decision to leave the plateau – and a certain blond jungle beauty.

As much as the young couple appeared to care for one another they were traveling down two different paths. That’s what Malone had told them. Besides, he reasoned, he had Gladys waiting at home for him. He missed her. Marguerite nodded at the time but she didn’t really believe Ned. She was sure when Challenger eventually put together the funds for a second journey to the plateau that Malone would be the first to volunteer. Yes, he and …. Marguerite glanced over at Roxton, who was helping Summerlee prepare the fire. She felt a twinge of regret.

Malone coughed.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Marguerite questioned.

“I’m fine. There’s just a lot of dust in here.” Ned stood and walked away from her. It was a lie but the reporter figured if he told them he thought he might be coming down with some kind of jungle fever he would never hear the end of it.

A couple hours later, with a distracted Roxton staring thoughtfully into the fire in the middle of the small space they occupied and the others sacked out and sound asleep, Marguerite - her back leaning hard against an earthen wall - stared at shadows. Darkened images not only occupied the cave walls but also her conscience. Had she made a mistake, dragging the men in here with her, thinking that this was the way back home? Every fiber of her being told Marguerite they were on the right track but something else, a flicker of intuition, screamed that she was making the biggest mistake of her life.

Yet, there had been other times when she was unsure and moved on instinct alone. Sometimes it worked well but other times … Marguerite looked down at the booted feet stretched out before her. In a secret compartment in one of her boot heels was hidden half of a supposed sacred medallion, with the depiction of a snake biting its own tail. Master Xan had called it an Oroborous and Marguerite remembered the stories about this trinket well.

Instinct told her to steal it from him. Marguerite needed the medallion as leverage. With it she could regain something more precious to her than any amount of diamonds or gold. Once she knew for sure who she was, when she was able to satisfy a deep and all consuming hunger, she would be able to move on again. And that’s all she really wanted to do … live her life. Marguerite looked at her backpack where she had positioned it next to the wall. On top of it lay the compass and inside was a nice stash of jewels. She wanted to live her life, of course, but it would be extra nice to live that life comfortably.

Xan told her the other half of the Oroborous was supposed to be on the plateau somewhere but Marguerite had never found it. Sometimes she felt she should have told the others the true reason why she funded The Challenger Expedition, especially when it seemed they might not be able to leave, but she held back. Angered, they could have made her life an even bigger hell than it was here. They might even have used it against her – and hated her. A mercenary part of Marguerite said their opinions did not matter but a more vulnerable side cried that it *did* matter – and she did not want to hurt them.

She looked at the still, covered lump that was Arthur Summerlee. He had been particularly kind to her. How could she betray him now?

With a sigh, Marguerite closed her eyes and shook her head. There were so many strange and conflicting thoughts in her head these days. ‘You’re turning into a soft touch.’ She thought and, although she would never tell her cohorts, she was not so sure that was an altogether bad thing.

Marguerite felt movement beside her.

“Okay?” he asked.

She opened her eyes and looked at Roxton, now sitting next to her, his back leaning against the same wall she was propped near. “I’m fine.” Marguerite said and glimpsed over at the other men as they slept. “But I think Malone is sick.”

Roxton, drawing his knees up and leaning his arms against his legs, looked over at the snoozing reporter, “Are you sure?”

“No. But we need to keep an eye on him.”

Roxton smiled with good humor and looked at her profile, “I think it would please Ned to know that you’re so worried about him.”

“I’ll deny it.” Marguerite said, “Besides, I’m just concerned that if one of us comes down under the weather then the rest of us will have to carry his load of supplies. I know I don’t need the extra goods on my back.”

Roxton inwardly chuckled but said nothing.

Marguerite side glanced at the hunter, “So, what *are* you doing here?”

“With you?” He shrugged, “You just looked like you might want some company.”

Marguerite knew it was the perfect opportunity to rebuff his lordship. Lately – thinking she did not know it - Roxton had been giving her long, meaningful stares. It made Marguerite uncomfortable. Sometimes she thought she liked it better as it was during the beginning of their stay on the plateau. At least then, when Roxton sized her up as nothing more than a mere conquest or “trophy”, she knew where she stood with him. But later as they lived, fought and laughed together he suddenly became as introspective as Marguerite herself. She began to wonder if Lord Roxton had secrets of his own … and if his feelings for her might be a part of what he was keeping private.

Normally, cornered with such a dilemma, Marguerite would push him away without hesitation. She had done so many times, including after visiting that “perfect” society that cannibalized its own people to feed themselves and a deadly fruit tree. When they returned Roxton appeared ready to say something that they both would regret. Having time to think on the trail, on their way back to the treehouse, Marguerite saw what they had almost did for what it was. Roxton was merely lonely for a woman, any woman, and Marguerite Krux, drunk on devil-wine, had eagerly revealed much more of herself than she ever should.

She was a pretty convenience, with a nice figure, who appeared as wanting (or wanton) as he. That wasn’t LOVE. It was being handy and, she was sure, Roxton eventually figured it out on his own. He had teased her on occasion afterwards but never outright approached her again. Marguerite told herself she was glad. She simply had too much to contend with. Yet sometimes when she saw Roxton looking at the appealing native girls at the Zanga village and accepting their kindness with a smile far too big for his face, Marguerite felt a deep regret. As foolish as he looked, grinning like a Cheshire cat, she wished he was smiling at her.

But now, lost as they were inside this mountain, and hoping to come out on the other end, into the sunshine and the heart of the Amazon jungle, Marguerite wasn’t so eager to push his company away.

“You know, if we don’t soon see the light of day you may be the *only* friend I have in these passages. Challenger and Summerlee are keeping their reservations to themselves but Malone …”

“It’s Veronica. Not you, Marguerite.” Roxton assured, “I heard them arguing the night before we left. He’s having second thoughts about leaving her behind.”

Marguerite looked up at Roxton. She suspected as much. “Did he tell you this?”

“Not directly. But it’s not too hard to decipher.” Roxton lowered his long legs, “Once we get back he’ll have a change of attitude. There are a lot of diversions out there in that big, wide world. And some of them are very pretty.”

“Gladys?”

Roxton nodded, “Or some other young lady.”

“Do you have a diversion of your own waiting for you back in England, Roxton?” Marguerite heard herself ask.

He looked down at the heiress, meeting her steady gaze. She had never asked him that before. “No, not really.”

“*How* not really?”

Roxton shrugged and smiled, “I won't deny that there are a few very attractive ladies out there that think they have my number. But I’ve never met the woman with whom I felt I could spend the rest of my life.” He then looked down, into Marguerite’s eyes, and got lost for a moment. “Maybe some day,” he whispered, “if I’m lucky I’ll find a lady who challenges me and makes me feel like … if ever I lost her I would not be able to make another move or take another breath.”

“That’s … um ….” Marguerite knew she should have looked away from him then but instead felt herself drawing closer to Roxton, “… very romantic.” She could feel the warmth of his breath on her cheek as he closed in a few inches closer to her, “It’s maybe a little too flowery for someone like you, Lord Roxton.” She focused on his mouth; at the soft lips which were preparing, oh so slowly, to claim hers, “You are a rugged hunter, after all …” She spoke breathlessly, anticipating his next move. “ … and shouldn’t speak like the writer of ladies novels …” Marguerite moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue.

Unable to resist, Roxton slipped his arms around her and felt encouraged when Marguerite’s hands ran slowly up his chest to rest against his collar.

They kissed gently but with consequence. Roxton was about to pull away and say something he had wanted to impart to the beautiful, enigmatic heiress for weeks ...

When suddenly the ground, as it had earlier in the week, began to shake beneath them.

“Roxton?” Marguerite looked up and around them, alarmed.

This time the earthquake was far more powerful than before. Roxton could hear a loud and terrifying report, as if the walls surrounding them were ready to give away, and it did not take the awakened Challenger’s shout of: “Save yourselves!” to know that this time they were in far more trouble than before, when the quake had only blocked up one of many outlets.

A stolen pathway meant nothing when balanced against their lives.

“Summerlee!” Malone shouted as the dust about them kicked up furiously.

With time only to react, Roxton grabbed Marguerite and pushed her down flat on the cave floor. He then covered her with his own body, holding her close, riding out the insane shaking about them. If something was going to happen he would get the full brunt of impact before her. He clutched her slim body and was aware that she was doing the same to his.

Another loud crack, accompanied by an explosion of filth and rubble, was heard as a wall came down.

Roxton heard Marguerite cry out.

“... my fault!” Then lower, “Forgive me …”

And then there was darkness.

*~~~*