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Книга The Jewels of Aptor. Содержание - Chapter III

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“What of the jewels, and of Hama?” inquired Geo. “Is he a god of Aptor under whom these forces are being marshaled? And are these jewels sacred to him in some way?”

“Both are true, and both are not true enough,” replied the priestess.

“And one more thing. You say the last attempted invasion by Aptor into Leptar was five hundred years ago? It was five hundred years ago that the religion of Argo in Leptar purged all her rituals and instituted new ones. Was there some connection between the invasion and the purge?”

“I am sure of it,” declared the priestess. “But I do not know what it is. However, let me now tell you the story of the jewels. The one I wear at my neck was captured, somehow, from Aptor during that first invasion. That we captured it may well be the reason that we are still a free nation today. Since then it has been guarded carefully in the temple of the Goddess Argo, its secrets well protected, along with those few chronicles which mention the invasion, which ended, incidentally, only a month before the purges. Then, about a year ago, a small hoard of horror reached our shore from Aptor. I cannot describe it. I did not see any of what transpired. But they made their way inland, and managed to kidnap Argo herself.”

“You mean Argo incarnate? The highest priestess?”

“Yes. Each generation, as you know, the youngest daughter of the past generation’s highest priestess is chosen as the living incarnation of the white Goddess Argo. She is reared and taught by the wisest priests and priestesses. Her youngest daughter, when she dies, becomes Argo. At any rate, she was kidnaped. One of the assailants was hacked down; instantly it decayed, rotted on the floor of the convent corridor. But from the putrescent mass of flesh, we salvaged a second jewel from Aptor. And before it died, it was heard to utter the lines I quoted to you before. So, I have been sent then, to find what I can of the enemy, and to rescue or to find the fate of my sister.”

“I will do whatever I can,” said Geo, “to help save Leptar and to discover the whereabouts of your sister priestess.”

“More than my sister priestess,” said the woman softly, “my sister in blood. I am the other daughter of the last Argo: that is why this task fell to me. And until she is found dead, or returned alive…” here she rose from her bench, “…I am the White Goddess Argo Incarnate.”

Geo dropped his eyes as Argo lifted her veil. Once more that evening she held forth the jewel. “There are three of these,” she said. “Hama’s sign is a black disk with three white eyes. Each eye represents a jewel. With the first invasion, they probably carried all three jewels, for they are the center of their power. Without them, they would have been turned back immediately. With them, they thought themselves invincible. But we captured one, and very soon unlocked its secrets. I have no guards with me. With this jewel I need none. I am as safe as I would be with an army, and capable of nearly as much destruction. When they came to kidnap my sister a year ago, I am convinced they carried both of their remaining jewels, thinking that we had either lost, or did not know the power of the first. Anyway, they reasoned, they had two to our one. But now, we have two, and they are left with only one. Through some complete carelessness, your little thief stole one from me as I was about to board when we first departed two months ago. Today he probably recognized me and intended to exact some fee for its return. But now, he will be put to a true thief’s task. He must steal for me the third and final jewel from Hama for me. Then we shall have Aptor, and be rid of their evil.”

“And where is this third jewel?” asked Geo.

“Perhaps,” said the woman, “perhaps it is lodged in the forehead of the statue of the dark god Hama that sits in the guarded palace somewhere in the center of the jungles of Aptor. Do you think your thief will find himself challenged enough?”

“I think so,” answered Geo.

“Somewhere in that same palace is my sister, or her remains. You are to find them, and if she is alive, bring her back with you.”

“And what of the jewels?” asked Geo. “When will you show us their power so that we may use them to penetrate the palace of Hama?”

“I will show you their power,” said Argo, smiling. With one hand she held up the map over which she had spoken. With the other she tapped the white jewel with her pale fingernail. The map suddenly blackened at one ege, and then flared. Argo walked to a brazier and deposited the flaming paper. Then she turned again to Geo. “I can fog the brain of a single person, as I did with Snake; or I can bewilder a hundred men. As easily as I can fire a dried, worn map, I can raze a city.”

“With those to help,” smiled Geo, “I think we have a fair chance to reach this Hama, and return.”

But the smile with which she answered his was strange, and then suddenly it was completely gone. “Do you think,” she said, “that I would put such temptation in your hands? You might be captured, and if so, then the jewels would be in the hands of Aptor once more.”

“But with them we would be so powerful…”

“They have been captured once; we cannot take the chance that they be captured again. If you reach the palace, if you can steal the third jewel, if my sister is alive, and if you can rescue her, then she will know how to employ its power to manipulate your escape. However, if you and your friends do not accomplish all these things, the trip will be useless; and so perhaps death would be better than a return to watch the wrath of Argo in her dying struggle, for you would feel it more horribly than even the most malicious torture of Aptor’s evil.”

Geo did not speak.

“Why do you look so strangely?” asked Argo. “You have your poetry, your spells, your scholarship. Don’t you believe in their power? Go back to your berth, and send the thief to me.” The last words were a sharp order, and Geo turned from the room into the night’s darkness.

Chapter III

Geo walked down into the forecastle, still deserted except for Urson and Snake. “Well?” asked Urson, sitting up on the edge of his berth. “What did she tell you?”

“Why aren’t you asleep?” Geo said heavily. He touched Snake on the shoulder. “She wants to see you now.”

Snake stood up, started for the door, but then turned around.

“What is it?” Geo asked.

Snake dug into his clout again and pulled out the thong with the jewel. He walked over to Geo, hesitated, and then placed the thong around the older boy’s neck.

“You want me to keep it for you?” Geo asked.

But Snake turned around and was gone.

“I wonder what they do?” said Urson. “Or did you find out. Come on, Geo, give up what she told you.”

“Did Snake say anything to you while I was gone?”

“Not a peep,” answered Urson. “I came no nearer sleep than I came to the moon. Now come on, what’s this about?”

Geo told him.

When he finished, Urson said, “You’re crazy. Both you and her.”

“I don’t think so,” Geo said. He concluded his story by recounting Argo’s demonstration of the jewel’s power.

Urson fingered the stone on Geo’s chest. “All that in this little thing? Tell me, do you think you can figure out how it works?”

“I don’t know if I want to,” Geo said. “It doesn’t sound right.”

“You’re damn straight it doesn’t sound right,” Urson reitereated. “What’s the point of sending us in there with no protection to do something that would be crazy with a whole army. What’s she got against us?”

“I don’t think she has anything against us,” Geo said. “Urson, what stories do you know about Aptor? She said you might be able to tell me something.”

“I know that no one trades with it, everyone curses by it, and the rest is a lot of rubbish not worth saying.”

“What rubbish?”

“Believe me, it’s just bilge water,” insisted Urson. “Do you think you could figure out that little stone there, if you had long enough, I mean? She said that the priests five hundred years ago could, and she seems to think you’re as smart as some of them. I wouldn’t doubt if you could work it.”

“You tell me some stories first,” said Geo.

“Oh, they talk about cannibals, women who drink blood, things neither man nor animal, and cities inhabited only by death. Sailors avoid it, save to curse by.”

“Do you know anything more than that?”

“There’s nothing more to know,” shrugged Urson.

“She said the stories you’d tell would not be one tenth of the truth.”

“She must have meant that there wasn’t even a tenth part of the truth in them. And I’m sure she’s right. You just misunderstood.”

“No, I heard her correctly,” Geo assured him.

“Then I just don’t believe it. There are half a dozen things that don’t match up in all this. First, how that little four-armed fellow happened to be at the pier after two months just when she was coming in. And to have the jewel still, not have traded it, or sold it already…”

“Maybe,” suggested Geo, “he read her mind too, when he first stole it, the same way he read ours.”

“And if he did, maybe he knows how to work the things. I say let’s find out when he comes back. And I wonder who cut his tongue out. Strange one or not, that makes me sick,” said the big man.

“About that,” Geo started. “Don’t you remember? He said you knew the man it was.”

“I know many men,” said Urson, “but which one of the many I know is it?”

“You really don’t know?” Geo asked, quietly.

“You say that in a strange way,” Urson said, frowning.

“I’ll say the same thing he said,” went on Geo. “What man did you kill?”

Urson looked at his hands for a moment, stretched the fingers, turned them over in his lap like meat he was examining. Then, without looking up, he said, “It was a long time ago, friend, but the closeness of it shivers in my eyes. I should have told you, yes. But it comes to me, sometimes, not like a memory, but something I can feel, as hard as metal, taste as sharp as salt, and the wind brings back my voice, his words, so clearly that I shake like a mirror where the figure on the inside pounds his fists on the fists of the man outside, each one trying to break free.

“We were reefing sails in a flesh-blistering rain, when it began. His name was Cat. The two of us were the two biggest men aboard, and that we had been put on the reefing team together meant that this was an important job and one to be done well and right. Water washed our eyes, our hands slipped on wet ropes. It was no wonder my cloth suddenly flung away from me in a gust, billowing down in the rain, flapping against half a dozen ropes and breaking two small stays. ‘You clumsy thing’ bawled the mate from the deck. ‘What sort of fish-fingered sailor, are you?’

“And through the rain I heard Cat laugh from his own spar. ‘That’s the way luck goes,’ he cried, catching at his own cloth that threatened to pull loose. I pulled mine in and bound her tight. The competition that goes rightly between two fine sailors drove a seed of fury into my flesh that should have bloomed as a curse or a returned jibe, but the rain rained too hard, and the wind was too strong; so I bound my sail with silence.

“I was last down, of course, and with only a few lads below on deck, when I saw why my sail had come loose. A worn mast ring had broken, caused a main rope to fly and my canvas to come tumbling. But the ring also had held the nearly broken aft mast together, and in the wind, a split twice the length of my arm pulled open and snapped to again and again like a child’s noise clapper. There was a rope near, and inch thick line coiled on a spike. Holding myself to a rat line by not much more than my toes, I secured the rope and bound the base of the broken pole. Each time it snapped to, I looped it once around and pulled the wet line tight. They call this whipping a mast, and I whipped it till the collar of rope was three feet long to the top of the cleft and she couldn’t snap any more. Then I hung the broken ring on a peg near by so I could point it out to the ship’s smith and get him to replace the rope with a metal band.

“That evening at mess, with the day’s incidents out of my mind and hot soup in my mouth, I was laughing over some sailor’s tale about another sailor and another sailor’s woman, when the mate strode into the hall. ‘Hey, you sea scoundrels,’ he bellowed. There was silence. ‘Which of you bound up that broken mast aft?’

“I was about to call out, ‘Aye, it was me,’ when another man beat me by bawling, ‘It was the Big Sailor, sir!’ That was a name both Cat and I were often hailed by.

“ ‘Well,’ snarled the mate, ‘the captain says that such good thinking in times so hard as these should be rewarded. He’s seen the job and approved.’ He took a gold coin from his pocket and tossed it on the table in front of Cat. ‘There you go, Big Sailor. But I think it’s as much as any man should do.’ And then he turned and clomped from the mess hall. A cheer went up for Cat as he pocketed the coin; I couldn’t see his face.

“The anger in me started now, but without direction. Should it go to the sailor who’d called out the name of the hero? Naw, for he had been down on deck, and through rain and darkness probably he could not have told me from my rival anyway at that distance. At Cat? But he was already getting up to leave the table. And the first mate, the same first mate of this ship here, friend, that we’re on now, he was out stomping somewhere on deck.

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