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Heroine

Chapter 4

 
Challenger led the way, using his own compass as a guide. They had gone north, from beginning to end, while traveling the higher elevations of the catacombs but found nothing. Now it was time to move east through the middle ground. If the previous option failed then south, passing into the lower tunnels, was always an alternative -- but a successful outcome was highly unlikely.

They would rest often, taking catnaps, but not one of them could sleep deeply or dreamlessly despite the fact they were all profoundly fatigued.

One evening, as she lay before the fire, Marguerite heard the fitfully sleeping Challenger growl, “… that bald pate of yours ….” and knew at once who it was he was dreaming about. Challenger was feeling guilt, she knew. It was Challenger’s dare that brought Professor Summerlee to the plateau in the first place. The two would often verbally spar but Marguerite always suspected there was a friendship and deep respect there, despite the often heated words between the two men. She almost asked Challenger about his friendship with Summerlee’s once but then changed her mind. On his own, when they returned to civilization, the professor would bestow whatever honor he felt necessary. Who was she to put words in Challenger’s mind and mouth with regards to Summerlee?

Later, when releasing her personal memoirs to the ever-eager London Daily Gazette, Marguerite would say that leaving Arthur Summerlee behind was her *only* real regret. Yet she knew, in her heart, there *were* other very painful doubts and misgivings; too many to express in a way the general newspaper reading public could understand.

Marguerite would never mention how, seventy two hours after leaving Summerlee, she – the angry and grief stricken woman she was - had berated the ailing Malone for his sluggishness. She wanted the stubborn fool to admit he was sick but the journalist refused to budge. Malone apologized, alleging exhaustion and sorrow. No one disputed the claim. After all, they were all tired and disillusioned. Later, as the days passed and there was no complaint from their young friend, both Marguerite and Roxton forgot about the possibility of an illness. Their struggle for survival in that dark, dank and inhospitable place was paramount.

Also missing from The Gazette but written in her own personal journal was when Marguerite experienced extreme moments of soul numbing anxiety. Often times she felt so lost during their underground journey that her soul screamed for a release; any relief from the uncertainty which overwhelmed her. But then Marguerite would look over at the men, particularly Lord Roxton, watching their resolve and knew she could not give up. She not only needed their support, they needed hers. They would each put on a fašade of stubbornness until the very end.

And besides, all hardships and sacrifice aside, Marguerite still believed they were on the right track. If only her key from the temple hadn’t been destroyed! For awhile she thought of it as a lucky charm, a magical anchor of sorts, and perhaps it had been. Nothing in their world had been quite right since it was shattered.

*~~~*

Nearly three weeks into their journey, running out of food and having been cut off from daylight for too long, they all were all stricken with signs of acute apprehension. Like Challenger before her, Marguerite was suffused with a hidden guilt. They were all here because of her discovery. She longed for reassurance but could not find a voice within herself that measured up to the task. When the scenery did not change and their supplies were lessoning by the day *belief* just wasn’t enough.

One evening, near the end of their trek, they rested briefly and she watched Roxton take a sip from his canteen, being very careful not to drink too much, because they didn’t have any water to spare. She couldn’t stop watching him, the way his throat moved, his adam’s apple bobbing slightly, in the orange torchlight as he swallowed. Sensing eyes on him, Roxton who was leaning against the stone wall, looked at Marguerite and lifted the canteen, assuming she was thirsty.

“No.” she whispered, quickly glancing away from him, embarrassed she had been seen staring too long. Marguerite then looked at Malone who was going through the last backpack which contained food, “How is it?” she asked him.

“There’s not much.” He answered, looking up at her as he knelt on the ground, “Maybe enough for a few more days, if we eat only once.”

“We should have brought more.” Marguerite’s bottom lip stiffened, looking for fault but not verbalizing it as she might have if they were still in the treehouse. Such a lovely place it had been too, with running water, food and fine company. There was laughter and harmony in the treehouse. Even though Marguerite had never quite opened herself up to her companions, and where fate had deposited her, she could now appreciate their camaraderie and the oasis Veronica’s home had provided.

Challenger, who had been looking down the dark passageway where they were traveling, said: “We would have more food and water if we hadn’t left so much of it for …” *Summerlee* He stopped and shook his head back and forth. “That is to say …”

“It’s okay, George.” Roxton concurred, “We understand and I don’t think there is one of us here who hasn’t thought the same thing.”

They could not bring themselves to mention him by name. All were feeling remorse but, as it turned out, Summerlee was correct in his statement that he could not continue with them. They never would have been able to carry him through the catacombs. There were some passages that were so small, low and narrow that the explorers had been forced to crawl on their hands and knees, pushing and pulling themselves through impossible spaces. A large man with a crushed foot would have been left stranded.

“I miss his cooking.” Malone whispered, distracted as he tied up his backpack again. He then coughed and gasped a little.

Marguerite looked hard at Malone, noting how he briefly shivered. His condition had not improved since the evening she noticed he was first ill. In the torchlight Malone was terribly pale. His eyes were glassy and his skin was glistening. She wondered if they all appeared as he did. Marguerite took a quick look at both Challenger and Roxton. Neither appeared particularly well after their long trek in the dark, but the two men's complexions did not come near to the sallow exterior of the reporter. “Ned,” she said as he stood, “Are you all right? You look …”

"Never better, Marguerite.” He said too quickly, “Don’t worry, you won’t have to leave me behind.” Malone said before he realized the words had left his mouth.

Roxton and Challenger stared at him, suddenly aware of his fears.

“You don’t think we would *really* leave you, do you?” Marguerite asked, sounding as gentle as possible.

“The others wouldn’t.” Malone couldn’t stop himself, “But *you* might. They’ve been listening to you a lot lately, Marguerite. Your compass. Your direction. Your decisions …. Even if they *are* all wrong.” He glanced at Roxton and Challenger, “What you say is what they do.” Malone’s breathing became uneven, practically bordering on a suppressed hysteria. He had been holding it all in for too long.

“Malone, don’t.” Challenger urged, “We’re all exhausted and frightened …”

The journalist swallowed hard. “I’m glad Veronica stayed on the plateau. I wouldn’t want her in here!” He looked directly at Marguerite and, raising a shaking hand, pointed an accusing finger at her. He said: “But you … *you* deserve this! Summerlee *didn’t!*”

The others were stunned speechless for a moment.

“I’ll …” Marguerite acquiesced, “I’ll go find firewood.” Unable to stand it anymore and not having the energy to contest his claim, she turned from Malone and walked, hiding an expression of overpowering distress and grief. She traveled a short distance down the tunnel, away from the men.

“Malone,” Roxton looked from the strangely diminished and departing Marguerite to the reproving reporter, “What in the hell is the matter with you?! You can’t blame Marguerite. We all agreed to come through these caverns.” Roxton’s voice was deep and fuming, practically threatening, but restricted.

Lord Roxton did not know why he felt an overwhelming urge to defend her. Marguerite had never asked for his protection. As a matter of fact, for awhile it seemed she did not even like occupying the same space as he while on the plateau. Roxton recalled instances when they found themselves standing alone on the balcony or in the common room and she made a point of leaving, not wanting to be alone with him. Roxton tried to tell himself he didn’t care -- but he did. And he’d be damned if he would allow someone, even if it was a friend, accuse her of a disservice.

“We’re lost.” Malone exclaimed, “We are all going to die in here.”

“No,” Challenger insisted, “The way is close. I’m certain. We just need to be patient for a little longer, Ned.”

“You’ve said that before. How *much* longer, George?” Malone insisted, gritting his teeth, perspiration dotting his forehead.

Challenger, becoming aware that something was not quite right with their young comrade, said: “Soon.” Then instructed the distraught Malone to sit down and rest. They all needed a brief respite. “Drink.” He instructed and handed him a canteen.

Taking his torch, Roxton turned and walked down the darkened tunnel to find Marguerite. He discovered her about ten meters away, leaning against a boulder, her back to him. He could hear her sniffing and saw Marguerite raising a hand to brush something from her face. “Everything is fine, Marguerite. Malone had a moment but he’ll be okay.” Roxton walked slowly up behind her and inserted the torch into a tight crevice in the stone beside them.

“I shouldn’t have let him get to me.” She whispered, sounding deceptively resilient, and turned about slowly. Like the rest of them, Marguerite’s face was pale and streaked with grime. What was unusual was the small glimmer of vulnerability that shown in her expression.

Roxton would be lying if he said he didn’t find it appealing. “We’re all on edge.” he offered, “And being together so long in this dark place … We’re just getting on each others nerves. Malone didn’t mean what he said.”

“But he was right.” Marguerite cleared her throat slightly and folded her arms tightly under her breasts, “If we die in here …”

“We won’t.”

“But if we *do*, Roxton … it will be *my* fault. I was so sure this was the right way! I’ve accused Challenger of arrogance in the past but look what I’ve brought us to!”

“Sh.” Roxton put his arms around her and was surprised when Marguerite not only stayed in his embrace put but melted into him, soaking in his comfort. “We’re not going to die, Marguerite.” He swore, “And if you were as bad as you make yourself to be, you would never have come back for us, giving us the opportunity to leave the plateau with you. And we *did* have that choice, you know. It’s like I told Malone. We could have stayed behind but …’

“ … you *believed* in me.” She pulled away fractionally and looked up at him, “Of all the *stupid* times for you to do that!”

Both chuckled mildly and he pulled Marguerite close again, holding her slight form against his chest. She had lost weight since they started their journey through the caverns, as had they all. When they got home the first thing Roxton planned to do, after a long hot bath, was to eat a nice juicy beef steak with potatoes and carrots. The next thing he would do, he thought as he stroked Marguerite’s back and the fall of her long disheveled hair, was to start over. He had some rather definite ideas where he would like to begin.

“This is nice.” Marguerite whispered while closing her eyes and feeling soothed for the first time in weeks.

They all needed each other. Marguerite was learning that lesson now, Roxton thought, and Malone needed a refresher course on the reality.

Marguerite’s hand crawled slowly up Roxton’s chest and rested on his shoulder, indicating she did not want him to let her go yet. He was more than happy to grant her wish.

‘I would follow you anywhere.’ Roxton thought unexpectedly. ‘And I’m delirious.’ He nearly chuckled again. When had she become so important to him? When had she stopped being the royal pain in the posterior he so thought she was when they started their plateau adventure? Was it when he had observed her vulnerability in the cave with the hallucinogenic fungus? Or maybe it was when he saw her, so proud a beautiful in her blue wedding gown, as King Gwaine’s betrothed. Yes, these were significant moments. But Roxton knew it was not a single *one* of these events. He grew closer to Marguerite by watching her day in and day out. Her physical beauty was undeniable but the way she handled herself, that air of gentility smoldering under a very thin veil of civility … Sometimes he feared she might physically explode when her ire was peaked ... and he loved that about her. That poise under pressure then an unpredictable …

“John,” she whispered, “I just want you to know one thing …” Marguerite looked up at him, her expression soft and exposed as he gazed down.

Their eyes locked in an unmistakable sign of familiarity.

“Yes?” he asked, noting her hesitation.

“Roxton! Marguerite!” The demanding and panicked call came from Challenger.

Shaken, Lord Roxton grasped the torch, pulling it from the crevice, and the couple ran back to the main cave.

Malone, lying prone on the cave floor, was thrashing about. His arms and legs were flailing without control. His mouth was frothing and an odd animal-like noise sounded between his parted lips.

“What’s wrong with him?” Marguerite questioned with fear, taking the torch Roxton quickly pushed into her outstretched hand.

“He’s convulsing!” Challenger shouted, placing a length of wood between Malone’s lips, preventing him from biting his tongue.

Roxton, holding him down, could feel the heat radiating from the young journalist’s body. “He’s burning up!”

“Water, Marguerite!” Challenger ordered, harried.

With a mad dash, Marguerite picked up Roxton’s canteen and tossed it at Challenger. She then ran to where her own lay and also brought it to the scientist.

Malone took a few gulps of the tepid water, spitting out most, but slowly he stopped shaking as the water in Marguerite’s canteen was poured over his fevered brow. Finally, easing into comfort, he stopped shaking altogether and fell into a deep sleep.

“That explains a few things.” Challenger breathed out and sat back on his legs, “I wonder how long he’s been ill.”

“I suspected he was sick before the big earthquake.” Marguerite said quietly.

“And you didn’t bother to let the rest of us know?” Challenger asked, perturbed.

“She told me.” Roxton quickly interrupted, “But too much was happening, George. You know that as well as any of us. We should have paid more attention, I know. But after Summerlee …”

“You’re right.” Challenger nodded, “I suppose none of us were thinking clearly.” He then looked up at the lone female of their expedition, “I apologize, Marguerite. It’s not your fault.”

“Forget it.” She said, feeling a grain of hidden relief, and crouched down to touch Malone’s warm face. “But what are we going to do? Ned’s in no shape to travel. We can’t leave him.” Then a bit more urgently, “We *won’t* leave him.”

Roxton looked up and nodded at Marguerite, comprehending.

Malone had feared this. He had also said the others would do what Marguerite said. What Malone didn’t understand through his debilitating sickness was that Marguerite, as ruthless as she could sometimes be, was not a monster. She felt guilt, responsibility and tenderness as much as - and possibly even more than - the rest of them. Her friends and companions, mankind itself, meant more to her than precious gems.

And that was something Roxton himself had learned about the woman while traveling through these caves. Fire and steel, he thought, hid compassion, understanding and love. The decision to leave Summerlee behind, at the professor’s own insistence, had been exceptionally hard but necessary. But it would not be done again. Not one of them could possibly take such heartache again and that included the usually practical but currently wounded Marguerite Krux.

“No.” Roxton said, assuring her. “No, we won’t leave Malone behind.”

“How much water do we have?” Challenger asked, inadvertently licking his own parched lips.

“One full canteen for *all* of us.” Marguerite replied.

They would make do.

*~~~*

Six hours lapsed.

They took turns watching the deeply sleeping Malone and sipped very carefully from their canteen. They also ate, tentatively tearing off small pieces of dry raptor meat between their teeth, chewing slowly.

With a low fire smoldering gently before her, Marguerite leaned back against a stone wall and allowed her thoughts to drift. She took her turn at watching Malone while the men stretched out before the blaze. Both Roxton and Challenger had tilted their hats over tired eyes so it would block out the glare of their fire. Marguerite could smile at that. ‘You’d swear there was a ball of radiant sunlight up above.’ she mused then sadly, looking upward, wondered if they would ever see the sun again.

Marguerite noted a strip of dirty white bandage around Roxton’s head. She had changed it a few times since the rock had struck him. The gash on his scalp was deep and not healing well. She wanted to sew on it and had the materials but, considering how filthy their surroundings were, Roxton declined. He told her to continue cleaning it as best she could and he would carry-on wearing the bandage.

“When we get home,” he had promised, “I’ll have it looked at by a doctor.”

“Coward.” Marguerite whispered with a mixture of anger and amusement.

Attempting distraction, Marguerite at first looked at the unconscious Malone then glanced at the backpack beside his left arm. Knowing how he felt about her and seeing him write furiously in his journals lately, she was curious. Marguerite glanced once again in the direction of Roxton and Challenger then reached into Malone’s bag. She pulled out his private writings – which would eventually become public she reasoned - and thumbed through the pages. She did not see anything unusual at first, mostly atmosphere and hopes for his future, but slowly as the fever came upon him, Marguerite observed how Malone’s handwriting became uncontrolled and his perception skewed.

**Monster are in the dark.”* He wrote a few days ago, *“Dark beastly, angry monsters … With teeth that bite and grind and torture … but she is pretty and encouraging to the eye and she leads those who will follow to their deaths … Fiend. Fiend. Fiendsss. And no one could know. How could they know? How could she know?”**

“Malone …” Marguerite looked from his strange scribbling to the man’s now peaceful face, “Such terrible things are in your mind. Why?” she wondered.

Marguerite was about to read further when she saw, out of the corner of her eye, a very thin line of powder, dust from the stone ceiling twenty feet above, float down beside her. She looked up, fearful for a moment that this was a sign of another earthquake, but knew it was different in some weird and wonderful way. She then heard a noise unlike anything she had ever heard before whilst traveling through the catacombs …

*clink*clink*clink*

Unthinking, Marguerite shoved Malone’s journal into her own backpack and crawled over to where Challenger lay. “George.” She shook his arm, “Wake up.” When he stirred she said, “Listen.”

Roxton, also awake, paid attention as well. “What is that?” he asked.

“Metal against stone.” Challenger replied before several small chunks of rock fell in front and around he and his friends.

The men and woman sprang away immediately to where Malone was laying, covering him as a portion of the ceiling fell in.

Light. Sunlight. It hurt their eyes.

Marguerite, along with her companions, squinted and looked up. Faces were looking down upon them from above. “Hello?” she called to them, making the first move.

“Who are you people?” One of the men called with a British accent.

“The Challenger Expedition.” Roxton called back.

“Lord John?” the man asked.

Roxton looked to Marguerite and Challenger then up again, “Yes.”

“Are Professors Summerlee and Challenger with you?”

Roxton paused a moment, “Challenger, Mr. Malone and Marguerite Krux are here.”

“I don’t believe it.” A man on the opposite side of the opening exclaimed, “It’s really them. After nearly six months …” he then called down, “We’ve been commissioned by The London Zoological Society to find you. Hold on! We’ll send down a latter and some men!”

“We’re going home.” Malone, awake and balancing his weight on his elbow looked upward and smiled, his eyes taking no mind of the too bright sunshine.

Marguerite, dazed and still not quite grasping the significance of what was happening, gasped as she looked at Malone. In the light of day he was a living skeleton, with dark circles under his eyes and a pasty white complexion. But still, it was true. They had been rescued. They were going home! Malone would get the care he needed and so would Roxton … and Marguerite laughed. It was unbelievable but true … They had been rescued!

She saw the filthy mess that was Lord Roxton staring at her, his face split wide with a smile. He knew what he wanted to do and, quite honestly, so did Marguerite.

Excited, not seeing the man and woman getting lost in each other, Challenger slapped Roxton on the back then fell on his knees. He spoke enthusiastically to the pleased yet exhausted journalist. “Yes, *home* Malone, HOME!” Challenger looked briefly to his left, where the open tunnel was situated; remembering those they had left behind. He would come this way again. He would return to the plateau and visit Veronica once more, help her find her parents, and … and he would honor Summerlee. ‘No my friend,’ Challenger thought, ‘You did *not* depart in vain. I swear it.’

Suddenly, with a few quick strides, Roxton and Marguerite met one another - coming together urgently - their arms moving to grasp and holding one another close. They kissed thoroughly and passionately, deliriously relieved.

‘We were just caught up in the thrill of victory …’ Marguerite would vaguely recollect at a later time but at this moment, with ladders, ropes and men descending around them, she wanted to feel Roxton’s lips on hers and his arms embracing her body as only he could.

They were going home. London and all the strings Marguerite needed to clip, bind and tie awaited her but, with the wealth of gems she had hidden in her pack, not to mention the added status of now being known as a heroine ... all would be well.