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Книга The Jewels of Aptor. Содержание - Chapter V

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“Our aquatic friends may have had something to do with that,” said Geo. “Iimmi, you say her veils were pulled off. Tell me, do you remember if she were wearing any jewelry or not?”

“She certainly wasn’t,” Iimmi said. “She stood there in only her dark robe, her throat as bare as ivory.”

“She wasn’t going to bring the jewel to Aptor where those monsters could get their hands on it again,” said Urson. “But Geo, if Jordde’s the spy, why did he throw the jewel in the sea?”

“Whatever reason he had,” said Geo, “our friends have given it to me now.”

“You said Argo didn’t know whose side these sea creatures were on, Leptar’s or Aptor’s,” said Iimmi. “But perhaps Jordde knows, and that’s why he threw it to them.” He paused for a moment. “Friend, I think you have made an error; you tell me you are a poet, and it is a poet’s error. The hinge in your argument that Snake is no spy is that Argo must have dubious motives to send you on such an impossible task, without protection, saying that it would be meaningful only if all its goals were accomplished. You reasoned, how could an honest woman place the life of her sister below the value of a jewel…”

“Not just her sister,” interrupted Geo, “but the Goddess Argo Incarnate.”

“Be patient,” said Iimmi. “Only if she wished to make permanent her temporary condition, you thought, could she set such an impossible task. There may be some truth in what you say. But she herself would not bring the jewel to the shores of Aptor, though it was for her own protection. Thanks to you, all three jewels are now in Aptor, and if any part of her story is true, Leptar is now in more danger than it has been in five hundred years. You have the jewels, two of them, and you cannot use them. Where is your friend Snake who can? Both Snake and Jordde could easily be spies and the emnity between them feigned, so that while you focused on one, you could be misled by the other. You say he can move into men’s minds? Perhaps he clouded yours.”

They sat silent for the lapsing of a minute.

“Argo may be torn by many things,” continued Iimmi. “But you, in watching some, may have been deluded by others.”

Light from the river quivered on the undersides of leaves. Urson spoke now. “I think his story is better than yours, Geo.”

“Then what shall we do now?” asked Geo, softly.

“Do what the Goddess requests as best we can,” said Iimmi. “Find the Temple of Hama, secure the stone, rescue the young Goddess, and die before we let the jewels fall into hands of Aptor.”

“From the way you describe this place,” muttered Urson, “that may not be far off.”

“Still,” mused Geo, “there are things that don’t mesh. Like why were you saved too, Iimmi? Why were we brought here at all? And why did Jordde want to kill you and the other sailor?”

“Perhaps,” said Iimmi, “the god Hama has a strange sense of humor and we shall be allowed to carry the jewels up to the temple door before we are slaughtered, dropping them at his feet.” He smiled. “Then again, perhaps your theory is the correct one, Geo, and I am the spy, sent to sway your reason.”

Urson and Geo glanced at each other.

“There are an infinite number of theories for every set of facts,” said the Negro. “Rule number one: assume the simplest; that includes all the known conditions to be true until more conditions arise for which your theory no longer holds. Rule number two: then, and not until, change it.”

“Then we go on into the jungle,” Geo said.

“I guess we do,” said Urson.

“Since we’ve got this job, we’ve got to trust ourselves and do it right. Let’s see if we can put one more of those things around your neck before we’re through.” He pointed to the two jewels hanging at Geo’s chest. Then he laughed. “One more and you’ll be all the way up to me,” and he rattled his own triple necklace.

Chapter V

Light lowered in the sky as they walked beside the river, keeping close to the rocky edge and brushing away vines that strung into the water from hanging limbs. Urson broke down a branch as thick as his wrist and as tall as himself and smote the water with it, playfully. “That should put a welt on anyone’s head who wants to bother us.” He raised the stick from the water and drops ran along the bark, moving sparks at the ends of dark lines.

“We’ll have to turn into the woods for food soon,” said Iimmi, “unless we wait for animals who come down to drink.”

Urson tugged at another branch, and it twisted loose from fibrous white pulp. “Here,” he handed it to Iimmi. “I’ll have one for you in a moment, Geo.”

“And maybe we could explore a little, before it gets dark,” Geo suggested.

Urson handed him the third staff. “There’s not much here I want to see,” he muttered.

“Well, we can’t sleep on the bank. We’ve got to find a place hidden in the trees.”

“Can you see what that is through there?” Immi asked.

“Where?” asked Geo. “Huh…?” Through the thick growth was a rising shadow. “A rock or a cliff?” he suggested.

“Maybe,” mused Urson, “but it’s awfully regular.”

Geo started off into the underbrush, and the others followed. Their goal was further and larger than it had looked from the river. Once they passed across a section of ten or twelve stones, rectangular and side by side, like paving. Small trees had pushed up between some of them, but for thirty feet, before the edge sank beneath the soft jungle floor it was easier going. Suddenly the growth became thin again and they were at the edge of a relatively clear area. Before them loomed the ruins of a great building. Six girders cleared the highest wall, implying an original height of eighteen or twenty stories. One wall was completely sheared away and fragments of it chunked the ground. The revealed dark caves of broken rooms and cubicles suggested an injured granite hive. They approached slowly.

To one side a great metal cylinder lay askew a heap of rubbish. A flat blade of metal transversed it, one side twisting into the ground where skeletal girders shown beneath ripped plating. A row of windows like dark eyes lined the body, and a door gaped in an idiotic oval halfway along its length.

Fascinated, they turned toward the injured wreck. As they neared, a sound came from inside the door. They stopped, and their staves leapt a protective inch from the ground. In the shadow of the door, ten feet from the ground, another shadow moved, resolving itself into an animal head, long, muzzled, gray. Then they could see the forelegs. It looked like an immense dog, and it was carrying a smaller animal, obviously dead, in its mouth. It saw them, watched them, was still.

“Dinner,” Urson said softly. “Come on.” They moved forward again. Then they stopped.

Suddenly the beast sprang from the doorway. Shadow and distance had made them completely underestimate its size. Along the sprung arc flowed a canine body nearly five feet long. Urson struck up at it and knocked it from its flight with his stick. As it fell, Iimmi and Geo were upon it with theirs, clubbing its chest and head. For six blows it staggered and could not gain its feet. Then, as it threatened to heave to standing, Urson rushed forward and brought his stave straight down on the chest: bones snapped and tore through the brown pelt, only to have their blue sheen covered a moment later by a well of blood. It howled, kicked its hind feet at the stake with which Urson held it to the ground, and then stretched out its limbs and quivered. The front legs stretched, and stretched, while the torso seemed to pull in on itself, shrinking in the death agonies. The long mouth, which had dropped its prey, gaped open as the head flopped from side to side, the pink tongue lolling, shrinking.

“My God,” said Geo.

The sharp muzzle blunted now and the claws in the padded paw stretched, opened into human fingers and a thumb. The hairlessness of the underbelly had spread to the entire carcass. Hind legs lengthened, joints reversed themselves, and bare knees bent as human feet dragged themselves through fragments of brown leaves over the ground and a human thigh gave a final contraction, stilled, and then one leg fell out straight again. A shaggy, black-haired man lay still on the ground, his chest caved and bloody. In one last throw, he flung his hands up to grasp the stake and pull it from his chest, but too weak, they slipped down as his lips curled back from his mouth revealing a row of perfectly white, blunt teeth.

Urson stepped back, and then back again. The stave fell, pulled loose with a sucking explosion from the ruined mess of lung. The bear man had raised his hand to his own chest and seized his triple, gold token. “In the name of the Goddess,” he finally said.

Iimmi walked forward now, picked up the carcass of the smaller animal that had been dropped, and turned away. “Well,” he said, “I guess dinner isn’t going to be as big as we thought.”

“I guess not,” Geo said.

They walked back to the ruined building, away from the corpse.

“Hey, Urson,” Geo said at last to the big man who was still holding his coins, “Snap out of it. What’s the matter?”

“The only man I’ve ever seen whose body was that broken in that way,” he said slowly, “was one whose side struck into by a ship’s spar.”

They decided to settle that evening at the corner of one of the building’s ruined walls. They produced fire with a rock against a section of slightly rusted girder. And after much sawing on a jagged metal blade protruding from a pile of rubble, they managed to quarter the animal and rip most of the pelt from its red body. With thin branches to hold the meat, they did a passable job of roasting. Although partially burned, partially raw, and without seasoning, they ate it, and their hunger ceased. As they sat huddled by the wall, ripping red juicy fibers from the last bones with their teeth, night swelled through the jungle, imprisoning them in the shell of orange flicking from their fire.

“Shall we leave it going?” asked Urson.

“Fire keeps animals away,” Iimmi said.

On leaves piled together now they stretched out by the wall of the broken building. There was quiet—an insect hum, no un-namable chitterings, except for the comforting rush of the river’s water.

Geo was first to awake, his eyes filled with silver. The entire clearing had been flooded by white light from the huge disk of the moon that sat on the rim of the trees. Iimmi and Urson beside him looked uncomfortably corpse-like, and he was about to reach over and touch Iimmi’s outstretched arm when there was a noise behind him, like beaten cloth. He jerked his head around, and was staring at the gray wall by which they had camped. He looked up at the spreading plane that tore off raggedly against the night. Fatigue had washed into something unpleasant and hard in his belly that had little to do with tiredness. He stretched his arm in the leaves once more and put his cheek down on the cool flesh of his shoulder.

The beating sound came again and continued for a few seconds. He rolled his face up and stared at the sky. Something crossed on the moon. It seemed to expand a moment, spread its wings, and draw them in again.

He reached out, his arm over the leaves like thunder, and grabbed Iimmi’s black shoulder. Iimmi grunted, started, then rolled over on his back, and opened his eyes. Geo saw the black chest drop with expelled breath, the only recognition given. A few seconds later the chest rose again. Iimmi turned his face to Geo and raised his finger to his lips. Then he turned his face back up to the night. Three more times the flapping sounded behind them, behind the wall, Geo realized. Once he glanced down again and saw that Iimmi had raised his arm and put it over his eyes.

They passed years that way. Then a flock suddenly leapt from the wall. Some of them fell twenty feet before their wings filled with air and they rose again. They circled wider and before they returned, another flock dropped off into the night.

As they fell this time, Geo suddenly grabbed Iimmi’s arm and pulled it down from his eyes. The figures dropped through the dark like kites, sixty feet above them, forty feet, thirty; then there was a thin, piercing shriek. Iimmi was up on his feet in a second, and Geo beside him, their staffs in hand.

“Here it comes,” breathed Iimmi. He kicked at Urson, but the big man was already on his knees, and then feet. The wings beat insistently and darkly before them as they stood against the wall. The figures flew toward them and at the terrifying distance of five feet, reversed. “I don’t think they can get in at the wall,” said Iimmi.

“I hope the hell they can’t,” Urson said.

The figures dropped to the ground, black wings crumpling to their bodies in the moonlight. In the growing hoard of shadow in front of them, light snagged on a metal blade.

Then two of the creatures detached from the others and hurled themselves forward, swords arcing suddenly above their heads.

They swung their staffs as hard as they could, catching both beasts on the chest. They fell backwards in a sudden expansion of rubbery wings, as though they had stumbled into billowing dark canvas.

Three more now leapt over the fallen ones, shrieking. As they came, Urson looked up and jammed his staff into the belly of a fourth monster who was about to fall on them from above. One got past Iimmi’s whistling staff and Geo had to stop swinging and grab a furry arm. He pulled it to the side, overbalancing the huge, sailed creature. It dropped its sword as it lay for a moment, struggling on its back. Geo grabbed the blade and brought it straight from the ground up into the gut of another of the creatures who spread open its wings and staggered back. He wrested the blade free, and then turned it down into the body of the fallen one; it made a thick sound like a crushed sponge. As the blade came out again and he hacked into a shadow on his left, a voice suddenly sounded, but inside his head.

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