By now he thought, or at least hoped, that he had pretty well convinced Rostov and Karel of his innocence in that regard. Indeed, he had eagerly and repeatedly volunteered to assist them in the search for the Prince, if only they would let him.
Kebbi, on hearing this, to keep up appearances at least, had hastened to volunteer also.
Murat wished very strongly that he could do something to make amends to Kristin.
HAVING driven his canoe solidly into shore, on the right bank of the river at a safe distance above the falls, Adrian tied up the craft and stowed the paddle. Then he made his way forward cautiously along the muddy bank, until he had come close enough to the falls to get a good look at the obstacle he now faced.
This was going to mark the end of his boating. Gazing down through a continuous mist of rising spray, the boy estimated that the drop was twenty meters in all. Not quite direct and straight, rather a complex of falls and rapids; but still more than deadly enough to eliminate any thought of riding or sending the canoe over it. But there might still be a chance-
Moving forward carefully along the bank, the Prince discovered that the rudiments of a path did make the descent beside the falls. Someone or something came up and down here with fair regularity. Patches of soil between the rocks composing the steep slope had been worn free of vegetation, but the bare spots were packed too hard to reveal any distinct tracks.
Again there was no sign of human habitation. Shading his eyes as he stood on the brink, Adrian gazed out into the distance. As far as he could follow its course toward the hazy horizon, the river below the falls was but little different from the river above. The same flat meanders resumed down there, the brown stream curving between the same dense walls of jungle, and the jungle extended away from both banks of the river, into the misty distance. No doubt about it, he was going to need the canoe if he could get it down there in one piece.
About to turn back to retrieve his canoe, he paused, taking one more look.
Kilometers away, some threads of smoke were rising, suggesting human presence.
Keep going downstream, certain Tasavaltan folk who were wise in the ways of the wilderness had taught him, and sooner or later you’ll come to a place where someone lives.
Lugging the canoe up on shore, he dragged it to a place beside the brink, on the upper end of the descending riparian path. From here, getting down without a burden would be simple enough for an agile youth, but carrying his boat with him was going to pose a problem. Dragging the thin hull over the rough rocks was not going to do, of course; he would have to carry it cleanly.
After some meditation, and an earnest struggle with his memory, the Prince managed to recall a weight-subtracting spell he had learned for fun from a book he had discovered in his Teacher’s library. Now the canoe, which had been barely liftable for a wiry twelve-year-old, became something like a manageable burden.
Once he’d got the canoe bottom side up, and himself beneath it in the proper balancing position, the job wasn’t too bad. But using the lifting spell was tiring in itself, and Adrian had to stop, put down his burden, and rest several times before he was halfway down the rough descending stairs formed by uneven rocks.
When he was halfway down, he realized that someone or something was watching him. Eyes, inhuman eyes as he now realized, were focused on him from the jungle that clung to the steep slope only a few meters away.
Even as Adrian stood poised on a rock, uncertain how to react, several of the creatures came out of the greenery far enough for him to get a good look at them. From the first glimpse he had no doubt that these were the carnivorous apes he’d heard about. They were only about half the size of adult humans, lanky and almost humanoid, though moving easily on all fours in places where the footing was difficult. Their faces were not far from human, though their foreheads sloped back sharply, and their heads looked too small to contain truly intelligent brains.
Adrian set down the canoe, as carefully as he could, and pulled out the wooden paddle, the best semblance of a weapon he had available, from where it had been wedged under a seat. If worst came to worst, he’d edge his way backward, and risk a plunge into the falls. And it seemed likely that the worst was coming-club in hand, he thought he might have succeeded in standing off one of the beasts, but now there were six or eight of them confronting him.
The creatures showed their fangs and chittered at him threateningly. Surrounded on three sides by apes, and with his back to the waterfall, Adrian was on the verge of a near-suicidal plunge. The beasts closed in on him slowly, making noises that sounded like demented speech, waving their forelimbs and baring small, sharp carnivorous teeth. Their pale skins were half naked, half covered in patches of coarse fur, spotted green and brown, in a pattern that gave the beasts good camouflage against the background of the jungle.
The Prince, his mind working now in some territory beyond fear, wondered if they were accustomed to ambushing unwary travelers at this place, which seemed made to order for the tactic.
His instincts reached for magic. But there was very little in the way of magic that Adrian could perform to protect himself against animals. His most successful trick of raising an elemental was going to be no help to him now; for one thing, his energy had been temporarily depleted by the lifting spell, and for another, he sensed that the potential for raising an elemental in this particular spot was quite low.
The apes were closing in, and the boy was on the point of hurling himself desperately into the water, when something came crashing through the jungle.
Rescue, or at least a powerful distraction, had arrived in the shape of a bulky, shaggy, gigantic dog, now bounding out into the open. At first glance Adrian was almost ready to take the creature for a small bear; it looked as heavy as a big man.
Snarling and growling, the hulking, gray-furred dog charged the enemy and broke their semicircle. One of the simians, shrieking almost like a human, was killed outright by the dog’s first rush, and another was caught by one leg and mangled a moment later.
This second victim, in its struggle to pull free, caught and tore one of the dog’s ears with its teeth.
The remaining apes, who had not been prepared for this kind of opposition, were routed, at least for the time being.
Stooping, Adrian picked up several small rocks, which he hurled in rapid succession after the creatures as they retreated. He thought that he hit one of them at least.
Meanwhile the dog, giving its heavy gray fur a great shake, trotted growling through one last circle of the narrow and sharply sloping field of combat, as if formally establishing its dominion. Then the enormous male creature turned, sat down facing Adrian, and once more gave voice to the howl that the Prince had grown so accustomed to hearing during the days since he had left the City.
Adrian, his hands trembling and his knees now snaking in a delayed reaction to the danger, sat down also. “Here,” he called, almost automatically. “Come here, boy.”
Joyfully, in clumsy-looking bounds, the beast came to him with its tail wagging.
Probably, the Prince thought as he hugged and petted the shaggy bulk, there were a few other dogs in the world as big as this one or even bigger. But he could not recall ever having seen one quite this size. The massive neck bore no collar, nor any sign that it had ever worn one. There was no other mark, mundane or magical, of ownership.
Taking the torn ear gently in his fingers, he murmured a spell or two, doing what he could to stop the bleeding and promote healing; he was no great healer, but fortunately the wound appeared less serious than he had thought it would be.
“Wish I had something to feed you, dog-but at least you don’t look like you’re starving.” Rather the opposite, in fact.
Now Adrian noticed that the beast’s forepaws had a curious appearance, almost as if the forepart of each paw was incompletely divided into fingers. Or, he thought, as if the digits had once been truly divided in that way, and had now almost entirely reverted to the true canine form. The division in its present state was not complete enough to be at all useful; there was no way these paws were ever going to be used as hands.