The Gauntlet ~ by Susan Zell
The room was crowded. Tribune
assumed his newly acquired position as emperor with a satisfied flourish as he sat once more upon his throne. He regarded
his new servants fiddling around behind him, trying to pick up the remains from the fight and stay out of sight of their new
emperor. He sneered at them and then regarded his human allies. "It will take someone like
to me to control them."
"Which leaves just
one question," Challenger replied with a grin.
quickly responded, folding her arms across her chest. "Who will control you?"
Leaning across Veronica, Ned regarded the one person whom he knew could
do the job. "Marguerite?"
|"Well...if I must...I must."
The dark haired heiress gave a small, resigned sigh and shrugged her shoulders. "Well, if I must,
I must." With a flick of her wrist, she cracked the whip and its end snapped with precision around Tribune's wrist, eliciting
a round of laughter from the explorers.
"In that case, I offer you my hospitality prior to your return journey
to your quaint little treehouse in the jungle," Tribune
offered with a gracious hiss, carefully removing the
whip's tender kiss from around his arm. He presented a delicious
leer in Marguerite's direction. The woman was certainly a spitfire and a worthy queen regardless of the fact she was a mere human.
Marguerite returned his attention with her head held high and purposely stepped closer to Lord John Roxton.
his head in wonder. A pity, he thought.
far too kind," Veronica stated, hard pressed to keep the sarcasm from her voice. In spite of of all that had transpired, it was still hard to trust a lizard.
Challenger was sorely tempted
to decline the offer. While Tribune had been fairly
civil to them of late and had worked in tandem with Roxton in the arena, one could never be sure when his loyalty would fail and place them all in great danger. But in the effort of promoting their continuing friendship, especially now since Tribune was in a position of great power again on the plateau, it would be wise to accept.
"Thank you, Tribune,"
he replied. "A rest would be appreciated. We can start for home in the morning."
"Yes, I for one
would like to clean up a bit," Roxton added. He was filthy and tired. He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "Not to mention hungry," he muttered.
remembering Roxton's animated response to prison food. "Of course, I will arrange to have a bath prepared. Centurion, see to it!" Tribune commanded one of the servants. "Prepare rooms and a * proper * meal for our guests."
"At once, my emperor." The servant
swiftly left to comply.
|"Roxton...held up the manicaled wrist...Challenger, can we get thi off?"
Roxton carefully tugged on the gauntlet around his arm and held up the manacled wrist with the
dangling chain. "Challenger, can we get this off as well?" It was good that he was now separated from Tribune and his unhealthy
appetites, but he wanted to be free of all reminders of being a gladiator again. It was getting overly tiresome to be thrust
continually into that role. He spared Marguerite a quick, scathing glance.
"Yes, there should be plenty of tools around here to work the lock free."
"Good. The sooner the better."
eyed him curiously. Roxton was acting a mite strange. "Then let's head
to Malone's workshop. I'll get it off straightaway."
group retired, leaving Tribune to his various new duties as emperor. Soon Challenger
had Roxton sitting on a chair, carefully unlacing the protective leather
gauntlet around his right arm and the iron manacle that lay beneath. His suspicion
was soon confirmed. The skin around the manacle had been rubbed raw from
the constant strain applied during the numerous battles. Tribune's tough, leathery
skin had protected him from such damage, but human skin wasn't nearly so durable. No wonder Roxton had looked so uncomfortable.
He glanced up at Roxton who merely shrugged.
"Just get it off please," he told the Professor.
away, old boy."
Picking up the chisel and hammer, he
began tapping away at the lock. Roxton winced with each tap
as the harsh iron rubbed the tender skin anew. Finally something
snapped inside the cuff and Challenger managed to ease open the manacle.
The flesh underneath looked even worse, bruised and bloody.
exhaled with a hiss. "Much better," he said, gingerly rubbing the area around
There was a sharp intake of breath beside him as
Marguerite saw the damage for the first time.
|"He glanced at her with hardened eyes..."
He glanced at her with a hardened eye. "Small price to pay for your victory, eh Marguerite."
Despite the fact that her little strategy had worked, he hadn't liked the disregard she had demonstrated manipulating their
lives in the balance for the greater good.
Marguerite flinched. However, his anger was not unexpected. Roxton felt
betrayed, regardless of how things had turned out. She had
been thinking on her feet and upon reflection knew that some
of her decisions weren't quite the masterstrokes she had intended.
But at least Roxton was alive. She had to hope that
in time, he might forgive her.
"Too high a price if
you ask me," Veronica commented. "What were you thinking, Marguerite,
passing Ned off as Challenger. If Centuria had discovered your ruse--."
"But she didn't and everything
worked out for the best," Marguerite pointed out.
time," Ned said, remembering just how close he had come to being found
Challenger had arrived in a nick of time.
You presume far too much sometimes," Challenger told her sternly.
She stepped away from them, suitably chastised. It hurt to know they all
had so little trust in her. Hadn't she demonstrated by now
that she was capable of providing for their well-being under
duress? Her resourcefulness was an asset. They treated it as
a curse. She tried to shrug their remonstrations off. There was
only one person whose opinion she cared about anyway.
need to clean this up, John," Challenger said worriedly, indicating the man's
Roxton rubbed his eyes tiredly, feeling the
sandy grit within them. "I'll take care of it when I wash up.
Right now, all I want is a bath and to get some rest."
Challenger hesitated and then nodded. "Understood."
A centurion was waiting for them outside the workshop. Their rooms were
ready. He led them down a hall and gestured to five rooms down
a single hall. Roxton entered his and was relieved to see an
adjoining room with a heated bath. He had to give the lizard
culture some credit. They were civilized in luxurious amenities
that was for sure. It was just too bad that they were still bordering on
barbarity in all other areas.
He dipped a hand into
the opaque water. It was milky white and laden with scents and
oils. Not really his type, but right now, he wasn't choosy. Just so long as it was hot and cleansing.
|"He stripped out of the gladiator garb...naked, he took stock of himself..."
He stripped out of the rest of his leather, gladiator garb and shed his boots and pants. Naked,
he glanced down in disgust as he took stock of himself for the first time. Numerous red welts, surrounded by discolored and bruised skin, covered his chest. His muscular arms were caked with dirt and beneath that were contusions that darkened his flesh even more.
Some of the gladiators had gotten in some good hits with their weapons though luckily none of them had been with the sharp edge of their blades and axes. Thank goodness for small favors.
and a sharp, stabbing twinge reverberated through him. His bones literally ached. Slowly, he stepped toward the bath, the hot water beckoning. Sitting on the edge of the sunken bath, he eased himself in.
The fiery heat of the water lanced into his body and he hissed through his teeth. The fire penetrated deep into his sore muscles and the broken skin at his wrist, bringing fresh pain but then gradually it ceased. He slid the rest of the way into the water, his breath escaping in soft, quick exhales as he jockeyed for a comfortable position.
He sank beneath
the hot water and doused his head. Rising back to the surface, he reached for the soap and began lathering his hair. He could feel the grit of sand in his scalp and between his fingers as he scrubbed roughly. After a minute, he submerged again and rinsed. He came up sputtering slightly and slicked back his hair. He had to admit this new length was far easier to deal with than his previous longer hair. He ran the soap across his body, grimacing at how tender his flesh was. The thick, rich lather slid down his chest and into the steaming water to bob gently against his skin.
Finally satisfied with his state of cleanliness and too exhausted now to move, he reclined, letting his body relax, laying his head back against the rim of the tiled bath. His eyes slipped closed just relishing the moment. It had been a long time since he had had a real bath. For over a year now he had bathed in cold lakes and streams and even in a damn bucket on an occasion or two. This, on the other hand, was an absolute luxury, a reminder of his time as a lord in England, a life that seemed so distant now.
"Marguerite, eat your heart out," he moaned.
John. Don't you think perhaps we all got baths in our rooms?"
Her melodious voice startled him and he started, water
splashing as he jerked upright into a sitting position. He was damn lucky he didn't reflexively stand up. "W-what are you doing here?" he stuttered. "Get out."
"Tsk, tsk. I'm here to take care of your wrist. Challenger said it needed
some medical attention. A salve and a bandage." Marguerite
held up the items as she continued to approach.
"Well, let Challenger or Malone do it," he said, glancing
furtively at the door for rescue. She still wore the royal
purple silk dress that Centuria had picked out for her, though
she had at least shed the armor portion of it. It made her look
less severe and harsh. On the other hand, she now looked incredibly sexy and
demure. Roxton wasn't sure which was worse for him. He decided that right now
neither of them would do the trick. His anger at her still burned.
all busy at the moment. I can take care of it easily enough." She settled
herself gracefully beside the edge of the sunken bath. She looked at him.
The portion of his chest that was above the water showed the price he had paid
for her hasty scheming. Suddenly her face lost all trace of its haughtiness.
"Besides, I owe you," she said quietly.
studied her. "I'm astounded you can admit it." He didn't mean to
sound so callous, but it had just come out that way, all too reminiscent of the
betrayal he still felt at her hands.
twisted with a trace of sorrow. "I know when I've hurt someone," she whispered.
"Do you?" he
"Yes, in more ways than one."
Roxton grunted. "You really are something, Marguerite. You play with lives
as easily as you would move pawns on a chessboard." He raised
his head, mouth set in a hard line, and stared at her intently.
"I don't like being a pawn," he warned
her, his tone low.
She stiffened. "It wasn't as if I
planned any of this you know. It all happened so
"Yes, but so long as you came out sitting on top."
Now Marguerite's face grew rigid. "I had planned on all of us being
there. How was I to know that Centuria had as little
disregard for us as she had for Tribune?"
"Because she's a lizard," he retorted in a rough voice. "You above
all should know that."
"You'd say that about Tribune as well?"
a second," he assured her. "I wouldn't turn my back on him in this lifetime."
"But you did so in the arena."
"It's not like I had a choice, Marguerite. Thanks to you." He raised
his hand out of the water and pointed an accusing finger
at her. It was the hand that had been marred by the
|"She took his large hand gently in her own small one."
Marguerite immediately relented. She took his large hand gently in her own small one. She half
expected him to jerk it away. She was relieved when he didn't. "I came here to say I'm sorry, John. I knew you would want
to fight for your life in the arena rather than be executed with no chance of saving yourself. It was the only thing I could
think of and it was the first thing that slipped out. Please
believe me, I never meant to see you hurt."
there mulling over her words. There was truth in them. It didn't eliminate
all of his anger at her, but it did allow him to see her side of it. She
knew him far too well. That was a dangerous thing, especially where Marguerite
was concerned. He shouldn't be so transparent with his feelings and habits
around her. She had a way of using them against him at her whim. But he couldn't
help himself. He wanted her to see that his feelings for her were honest
and heartfelt, not a passing fancy nor a rich lord's attempt to have a quick
fling in the middle of a world that offered little in terms of his masculine
He leaned back with a weary sigh. "One of these
days, Marguerite, you're going to be put
to the test regarding you and me."
She offered a half
smile as she picked up a clean cloth to dab at his abraded wrist.
"Perhaps. And when that day comes I hope I live up to your expectations." She
tried valiantly not to let her smile fall. If only he knew what was in her past,
and she knew that he would still accept her in spite of it, then she would feel
secure in letting this man love her. But sadly that day was a long way off.
winced slightly at her touch. Then he smirked despite it, pinning her with eyes
that nearly smoldered. "Even when you're trying to be nice, it hurts like hell."
That elicited a laugh from her, small and genuine. "Why, John, what a wonderful
metaphor for our relationship."