Horus: Chapter 1
REIA WORE THE simple white linen kilt of a common villager, but the long papyrus staff he carried denoted what power he had. It wasn't much; his tiny Delta village contained only about a hundred or so people, living atop the earthen hillocks scattered randomly between meandering rivulets and branches of the river. His people plied the water in their little papyrus skiffs, grazing cattle in the drier spots, growing what few crops they could, hunting wildfowl and catching fish in the marshes. The only people they ever saw were Delta villagers like themselves; any sign of outsiders was something to look out for, as outsiders, in times like these, could mean nothing but trouble.
Reia was worried about this. He looked down at his sandals as he walked. One of the herdsmen, a trustworthy fellow from the sound of it, had reported a band of Apsiu far off beyond the marshes. He hadn't seen them himself; a man bringing goods to barter from a village further south had reported them to him. And these hadn't been the docile Apsiu Moru, the nonflying caste; these had been Kana warriors, traveling with their weapons drawn and their raucous chatter filling the air. Now the herdsman had been worried. A visit from a bunch of Apsiu Kana was something Reia wanted to avoid too.
He hoped the trader was mistaken. Apsiu Kana could be visiting for only one reason. Reia knew what that reason was. He'd been hoping the day wouldn't come. Perhaps it hadn't, yet; perhaps he was just worrying too much.
He glanced to the side, hearing laughter. A group of small children giggled as they raced by, batting a leather ball back and forth between them with sticks. Reia smiled. He could still remember his own boy being that young, steering a skiff up and down the streams, spearing fish and occasionally even jumping in for a swim. For some reason, the crocodiles never tried to attack him. The other villagers had noticed this and other oddities about the boy, and had kept their distance from him, whispering theories among themselves and making furtive gestures against the evil eye. Reia knew they had nothing evil to fear. His boy was something else altogether.
He'd found the boy deep in the swamp, snuggled tight in a small papyrus raft, wrapped in warm furs. The boy hadn't cried but had smiled and giggled and waved his arms. Reia had stopped to pick him up, and a small pendant, of silver inlaid with lapis, had nearly fallen from around his neck. It was in the shape of an eye.
Immediately a chill had fallen over the swamp, and all the marsh noises Reia had heard earlier seemed to fade out. He froze as a form appeared before him, from out of the reeds, a giant cobra with hood flared gliding his way. Upon its head it wore a crown, the Red Crown of the lower kingdom, from back when there had been a king to rule them all. Reia had felt his blood turn cold as the river when the cobra reared up, its hood flaring wider. The snake was so big it stared him right in the eyes, and Reia himself was taller than most of the other villagers. Then a voice had filled his mind, echoing deep within his brain, as if all the earth had spoken at once.
Stay, it said, in a woman's voice, both soft and commanding. Reia's muscles, which had been tensed for flight, relaxed. He recognized a goddess when he saw one, and it was always best to obey their commands.
I am Buto. The cobra swayed in one direction, as cobras do, and then back toward Reia. Its eyes--her eyes, Reia realized--never left his. You hold my charge in your hands.
Reia looked at the baby. The boy laughed and waved again, this time at the snake, as if greeting an old friend. The silver eye necklace shone in the sun. Reia swallowed, his throat tight.
"I had no idea," he apologized, gingerly holding out the baby and hoping the thing wouldn't strike. "I'll put him back, if you like, Great Goddess."
The snake's head swayed from side to side. He is yours to take care of, she said, from now until his eighteenth birthday. He has been entrusted to me, and now I entrust him to you. Raise him as your son. It is fitting for a child to have a father. This one had a father, who has flown to the West. The snake paused, her tongue licking the air, as if offering a silent prayer for the dead. Reia seized his chance to speak. He dipped his head respectfully, as, still holding the baby, he couldn't bow.
"Pardon to the great Lady of the North, but who have I been entrusted to take care of? What's this charm around his neck? And what will become of him on his eighteenth birthday?"
The snake flicked her tongue at the air again before answering. His name is Horus, she said, and that is all you need to know of him, other than that his father in the West watches over him, and his mother entrusted him to me. Whosoever disappoints me in the task of caring for this child disappoints her as well.
"I swear by Maat not to disappoint you," Reia hastened to say, forgetting to add a respectful title.
Buto appeared not to have heard. His necklace is indeed a great charm, she went on, swaying slowly, a charm of his father, the All-Seeing. To it I give my name, as Wadjet, the Eye of Horus. He must never lose it. It is part of his birthright.
Reia removed the necklace and tucked it safely in the waist of his kilt.
As for what becomes of him in his eighteenth year, the cobra said, her voice still echoing in Reia's head, that is the will of the gods, which none may alter. In his eighteenth year he must visit the temple of his namesake in the hills to the west and receive that which will enable him to claim his full birthright, as the gods have ordained.
"Birthright?" Reia stammered. "The Goddess of the North speaks again of a birthright. What could it possibly be, that the gods themselves have ordained it?"
It awaits him in the south, the goddess answered him, and her hood folded up, disappearing, as she lowered herself to the ground once more. The chill that had settled over the swamp started to lift. And that is all I may tell you, except that Horus must leave in his eighteenth year. It is his destiny. And the cobra turned and slunk away, vanishing into the reeds before Reia could find his voice. When he finally did, he called out.
"Goddess, wait!" His voice echoed off some palms standing in a grove to the left. "What awaits him in the south? What does the eye do? Who's his mother? Goddess? Goddess!"
The only response was his own echo, and the regular noise of marsh wildlife, which had started up again upon Buto's disappearance. The cobra hadn't even left so much as a ripple in the water to prove her ever being there.
But Reia had looked at the baby, still laughing and pointing in the direction Buto had disappeared, and had known everything he'd seen was real.
He shook his head and snapped out of his reverie. The children had gone on by now, back to the village proper, their laughter still occasionally reaching him over the clumps of reeds sprouting all around him. He sighed. The sun was getting low, growing fat and orange on its journey toward the land of the dead. If he didn't get going Horus would get home before he did and start worrying. He turned to head back to the village.
Something glinted in the underbrush.
Reia froze in midturn, scanning the reeds. His eyes locked onto those of something crouching not too far off, staring back at him. Reia once again felt his blood turn to water.
A wolf stood at the edge of the reeds, looking at him intently. There was nothing menacing about it; its look was one more of focused curiosity than malevolence or even hunger. What had frightened Reia was the tall gleaming ostrich plume atop the creature's head. The symbol of truth, of judgement, of Maat. The symbol of the underworld, Amenti.
"Khenti Amenti," Reia breathed, his voice no more than a whisper. As soon as he'd said it the wolf turned and ambled off into the swamp, the feather bobbing in the breeze. For a moment Reia could see just the feather fading away in the dim light, until it, too, disappeared, as Buto had done so long ago.
Reia heard her voice in his head again, as if she spoke to him.
Horus must leave in his eighteenth year. It is his destiny.
Any visit from a god was more important than just a visit. The wolf god's appearance must have been a sign. A sign that the time he'd hoped would never come was now upon him. Nevertheless, that other thing Buto had told him was true as well: That is the will of the gods, which none may alter. Especially not someone as lowly to them as Reia.
He set off for the nearest branch of the river. He had to find Horus.
As few of the villagers would go anywhere near him, Horus had long ago become used to being by himself. His days consisted mostly of paddling up and down the Delta streams, fishing or fowling when it suited him or whenever he and Reia wanted something else to eat besides bread. Reia expected to find him on one of the streams or rivulets and he did. Through the tall stalks of papyrus he could see him, sitting so close to the stem of his small skiff that Reia was afraid it would tip over. He stepped over a particularly marshy spot and brushed several stalks aside to get a better look.
Horus was almost grown now, taller than Reia even, though he still wore the sidelock of youth all boys wore at his temple. He stared down into the water as if he could see every pebble and every grain of sand on the bottom. Even as a youth he had always been quiet and introspective, preferring climbing trees to look out over the marsh over playing games with the other children. Reia supposed it came from spending so many lonely hours adrift on the river with only the fish and ibises and marsh ducks for company. Horus never complained, though. It was what came with being considered an outcast. If that was what the gods had ordained for him, no one could do anything to change it.
Horus's head moved very slightly, to look up and ahead of him. Reia looked and froze when he saw the two glittering eyes of a crocodile, barely visible above the surface of the water. His heart started knocking against his ribs like the disks on a sistrum rattling back and forth. Horus merely watched as the crocodile turned and slipped away through the reeds. He returned to staring at the water. Reia waited until he was certain the crocodile was gone; when a sufficient amount of time had passed, he pushed the reeds aside and stepped into the shallow water, watching out for snakes.
"Horus," he called.
Horus turned to look at him. He stood and took hold of a long pole balanced against the edge of the skiff, sinking it into the riverbed and pushing the boat forward. When he'd reached the bank Reia carefully stepped aboard, shaking the water from his sandals. He motioned Horus to take them downstream a ways, where the rivulet grew broader and deeper and there was less vegetation nearby for their voices to echo off. Horus steered them out into the middle of the stream before pulling the long stick back in and letting the boat drift. He sat and looked at Reia, waiting for him to speak.
Reia looked out over the water. He traced a finger along the edge of his kilt. "I received some news today," he said quietly. "Villagers further south have spotted a band of Apsiu."
"Apsiu?" Horus echoed.
Reia raised an eyebrow. "You have heard of them, haven't you?"
Horus shrugged one shoulder. "I've heard the name, but I don't know much about them."
"The less you know the better. However I suppose I'd better tell you about them. They're this--race--that lives mostly in the south. In the cities. They serve as guards and soldiers there, so I've heard. There are two kinds--classes, I should say. The Kana are the winged ones. The warrior caste. They're the ones serving in the cities and the ones that were spotted beyond the Delta. The Moru are the flightless ones. They serve the Kana as slaves."
Horus got a look of mild disgust. "They enslave their own people?"
Reia nodded. "Barbaric, I know. And not because the Moru are criminals. Simply because they can't fly. Those born without wings aren't taught with the Kana. They're treated little better than cattle. It's been so long since they knew freedom, they probably believe they're cattle."
"What about crippled ones?" Horus asked. "There have to be some with wings that can't fly."
"True. They're treated the same as the Moru. Those that are born crippled are raised as Moru. Those that are crippled later on--a torn wing, perhaps--are enslaved as well. They're no good in battle. At least, that's what the Kana think. The Moru have never really been given a fighting chance." Reia closed his eyes briefly. "However, you must wonder what any of this has to do with you. The answer is it's you the Apsiu are looking for."
"Me?" Horus's eyes widened. "But what for?"
"I can't tell you. I'm not sure. But there's something you must do before they reach the Delta."
Horus stared at him a moment before drawing himself together and nodding. "Go on. I'm listening."
Reia looked out over the water again. A marsh bird screeched as they drifted past and shot up out of the reeds, flapping off. "You already know I'm not your true father. The village people know. They always have, since you first came." He stared down into the prow of the boat. "I don't know who your real parents are, though I suspect. When I found you in the swamp the goddess Buto appeared before me. She told me I was to raise you until your eighteenth year, when you would leave to claim your birthright in the south. She never told me what it was, though only the deserts and the cities lie to the south, so it must be important."
Horus didn't speak. Reia went on before he could.
"She told me to hold onto this for you." He pulled out the little pendant from where he kept it tucked and held it out. Horus took it and turned it this way and that, watching the light bounce off the silver and blue. It looked like a stylized eye, with what seemed to be feathers sprouting from the inner corner. He looked up at Reia.
"She told me it's called a wadjet," Reia explained. "A gift from your father. You must always wear it."
Horus put it on.
"You must leave the village," Reia went on, "and find the temple of your namesake, to receive something that will help you claim your birthright. Only then can you head south."
Horus looked confused. "There are no temples around here. What did she mean? Who's my namesake?"
Reia shrugged. "I don't know. All she told me was that the temple is to be found in the hills to the west. You'll have to go into the desert. There, I suppose, you'll find it, or at least you'll find something."
Horus shook his head, as if to clear it. "The Apsiu. How can you be so sure they're after me? Does it have something to do with this--birthright of mine?"
"I believe that's it. They come from the south, where you'll be going. Like I said, it must be important, else he wouldn't bother sending them out."
Reia paused. He glanced to the side and made a quick gesture against evil ears overhearing. "He who rules in the south of Kemet. The Red King."
Horus fell silent. He'd heard only vague things about the king ruling far to the south, in Upper Kemet. No one liked to speak of him, and no one did without numerous signs against evil. Horus supposed he must have done something horrendous to be held in such ill repute by his own people, though his rule hardly reached the Delta and Lower Kemet at all.
What Horus couldn't understand was why Reia called him the Red King. Kemet had two kingdoms, and two crowns: the White Crown and the Red Crown. The Red Crown was of Lower Kemet, the Delta, the land of Buto. The king ruled in Upper Kemet. Why should he be called the Red King?
"You'd better go soon," Reia was saying. "The sun is setting. You could go now and avoid the heat, or set out tomorrow morning."
Horus shook his head. "I'll go now. The sooner I find this temple, the sooner I can head south, and stop these Apsiu from pestering the villages."
"They do more than pester, I'm afraid. But you're right. Perhaps you can be gone before they arrive. Come back to the village with me, and I'll pack you some food to take along with you. You may have a long walk ahead of you, looking for a temple that shouldn't exist."