Horus: Chapter 3
IT HAD BEEN days since Horus left. Reia tried telling himself not to worry, the trip was bound to take time; but time was something of which they had so little. Every morning when he awoke, he would leave the simple mudbrick structure that formed his house and ask the fishers and the herders to keep an eye out for Horus. Each day they returned they told him the same thing: No, Horus was nowhere to be seen.
He wondered if they might lie to him. None of them, after all, liked Horus very much. However, he was the chief of the village, and he doubted they'd do such a thing.
"Gods," he muttered. "You're seeing snakes in every shadow."
He headed back for the village after talking with the herdsmen for the second time that day. He looked up at the sky. Early afternoon. How far away were those cliffs, any--
"Reia! Lord Reia!"
He winced. "Lord" was hardly a fitting title, when all he had to show for his authority was his papyrus staff.
Still, the herdsman running through the reeds and splashing through the marshy spots didn't seem interested in decorum. Reia didn't like the look on his face. It was one of fear, his eyes wild, his mouth twisted. He stumbled out of a stand of weeds and came running for the hill.
Reia took a step forward, looking down at him. "Dua? What's--"
He heard a thunk, and Dua staggered to a halt. A thin line of blood appeared at the corner of his mouth; his eyes rolled back, and he fell forward. Reia shuddered to see the long handle and stone blade of an ax protruding from his back.
A shrill scream split the Delta air, and another, and another. Even before Reia heard the splashing and crunching of hooves he knew what it was. He turned back to the village, yelling as loudly as he could.
Immediately the village boiled to life. Reia had been training the people as best he could for something such as this; he wasn't a soldier, nor did he pretend to be, so he hoped it was good enough.
Women ran out and snatched up the children, taking them to the meeting hall in the middle of the village. This was the biggest building there and, they hoped, the easiest to defend. The men grabbed whatever weapons they could find--flint-edged sickles, fishing spears, axes, knives--and retrieved shields they'd been keeping sitting against the sides of the outer houses of the village. They'd never had need of shields before; Reia had overseen their preparation from the hides of the cattle the herdsmen raised. They weren't very strong, but they'd have to do. Just as the village's makeshift defense, the men forming a wall of the shields, would have to do.
As Reia neared the top of the hill--the men had agreed to take up positions at the outside, moving in toward the meeting hall as the fighting grew worse--he got his first glimpse of an Apsiu. A Kana with blue ear lappets--one of the lieutenants--came crashing through the papyrus atop a beast that looked much as he did. Reia knew these beasts were called Sha; they were large and fierce looking, but actually skittish and clumsy. It was the Apsiu atop them that were to be feared.
He knew the Apsiu had been created in the image of the king of the south, possibly by him, as well, with their squared-off ears and curving snouts. The bigger ones had tusks protruding from their lower jaws. The Kana all had wings--huge, leathery bat wings. They didn't use them to fly much, but they could fly. Reia had heard a story once of an Apsiu swooping down on a village from above. He thanked the gods these ones were riders.
The Apsiu lieutenant pulled back on his Sha's reins, bringing it to a halt. He caught sight of Reia and threw up one hand, howling and brandishing a wicked-looking ax with bronze blade. Reia quailed inside. He'd never heard of them fighting with metal weapons before.
Other Apsiu--about a dozen in all--came barreling through the reeds to join their leader at the bottom of the hill. They all wore black ear lappets--the common soldiers who made up the majority of the Kana class. They hooted derisively at the villagers lining up with their shields. The lieutenant held up his other hand to still them.
"Am'a antai!" he shouted, in the coarse guttural tongue of the Apsiu. He pointed at Reia, and a bloodlust entered his eyes. "Antai gh'aa. Antai gh'ai!"
He howled and twirled the ax. The others followed suit. Reia backed away. He couldn't speak Apsi, but he knew the word kill when he heard it. As soon as he turned he could hear them charging up the hill after him, the ground quaking beneath the thudding hooves of the Sha. One actually came up beside him; he could see the foam dripping from its mouth, hear the rasping wheeze of its breath in its chest, when something slammed into his shoulder. The Apsiu howled triumphantly and galloped on, swinging a bloody ax. Reia ran on a ways before realizing his legs were growing weak, his vision blurring. He stumbled and tripped, falling face first to the ground. Somewhere above him he could hear the noise of the Apsiu meeting the villagers, shouts, and the ringing of metal on stone. Other Apsiu rode past without even looking at him. He didn't know why; as the sound of fighting grew further away, he felt more and more tired. He barely noticed when a stray Sha, its rider missing, trotted by, a wounded Apsiu catching up and pulling himself atop it, riding out of his range of hearing. He couldn't hear anything from the village anymore.
After what seemed like ages Reia tried to sit up, but something pressed down hard on his shoulder and he couldn't. He rolled over instead, and found himself staring into the sky far overhead, pale blue with no trace of cloud. After another eternity his shoulder began to ache but he barely noticed it. Far away, he thought he heard a bird cry, but perhaps it was only in his mind.
Am I dying? He blinked at the sky and thought about it. It wasn't as bad as he'd thought; he wondered if he would be able to see his ka leaving his body and flying away to join the sun god on his journey to Amenti. Perhaps it already had; for here came someone now, a god, the golden uraeus sparkling on his brow, with the fierce face of a hawk lit from behind by the sky, and holding a shaft of sunlight in his hand, ready to do battle with the serpents of the Duat, reaching out to welcome Reia aboard his boat...
"God Ra," Reia whispered, smiling weakly.
The god spoke, shaking his head. "No." His voice echoed like a boom of thunder. Reia's smile vanished. The god was denying him passage aboard the boat; he would be left behind, with no relatives to provide for his shade, no tomb to occupy, wandering the western desert as a ghost forever.
The western desert...
The ache in his shoulder came back.
The god leaned closer, his face hidden in shadow, his voice still echoing.
At first Reia thought he had spoken, to the god, for why would a god call a mortal Father? Then he realized the god had spoken to him, in a voice that was deeper but still familiar, a voice he'd been listening to for almost two decades...
"Horus?" he whispered.
The figure above him nodded. It wasn't the face of a young man, and there was no sidelock of youth; but the eyes, though those of a hawk, held a familiar look, and the small wadjet pendant still hung from his neck.
Reia smiled again. Everything around him looked fuzzy, indistinct. "I knew there was something different...about you."
"You're hurt." Reia felt him grasp his arm; he was pulled up, and a searing pain tore through his shoulder. He grimaced, but all the haziness vanished, his head cleared; Horus supported his back and examined the deep ax wound in his shoulder while Reia looked around.
"What happened?" he asked weakly.
"An Apsiu attack," Horus said. "I came into the village just as it was ending. The people killed them all. Except one. He escaped through here, so they told me."
"It's safe. One person was killed. They're removing the bodies but keeping the weapons. They killed the Sha also, though there was no reason for that. They said they're evil brutes. They're just pack animals." He looked at Reia's wound uneasily. "You've been hurt. I'll take you up to the hall, and a physician--"
Reia winced and slumped back to the ground. Horus nearly panicked; he lifted Reia's head again, pulling him up, pressing a hand to his wound in what he knew was a pathetic attempt to stop the bleeding. "Father?" he said; then, louder, "Father--!"
He gasped. His hand was glowing. He started to pull it away, but the glow spread to Reia's shoulder, enveloping his arm, his head, his body. Reia took in a breath; power surged through his arms and legs, strengthening them; the gash in his shoulder stopped bleeding and started to shrink, until the skin had closed over it completely, not even leaving so much as a scar. The glow disappeared. His eyes opened, brighter and more full of life than they'd been in years. He sat up on his own to examine himself, even as Horus sat back on the ground, feeling drained and exhausted.
Reia looked at his hands. "Horus." He flexed his fingers. "They don't even hurt." He stood up, leaning on the staff; he dropped it and lifted his feet several times. None of his joints felt stiff, as they had before; he could stand easily without use of the staff at all. Even his vision was better; he could see several children at the far side of the village, tugging on the bright blue lappets of the fallen Kana lieutenant before they were shooed away by women who systematically began stripping the Apsiu's armor. He laughed, not so much at the scene itself than at how clear and bright everything was; he hadn't felt this good in ages! He turned to talk to Horus, only to find him still sitting on the ground, one hand to his head.
"Horus?" he asked; he took Horus's arm and helped him to his feet. "Are you all right?"
"I--think so," Horus murmured, shaking his head dizzily. "I just--feel sort of tired." He looked up at Reia, and realization dawned. "Your wound. It--"
"It's gone." Reia flexed his arm and smiled. "You healed it. There really is something to you." He looked at Horus's hawk features and his smile faded a little. Something akin to the villagers' old fear showed in his eyes. "Though I probably should have realized long ago."
Horus turned away. He recognized the look in Reia's eyes, and it hurt to see it where he least expected it. Reia touched his arm and smiled again, this time apologetically.
"Come," he said. "Tell me what you found."
"The temple," Horus said, his eyes brightening. "I found it. But it must be magic, because at first it wasn't there, and then..."
"What's this in your hand?" Reia touched the lance.
"God Harakhte gave it to me." At the mention of the god's name Reia made a protective sign in the air. "He told me it was his gift for my quest."
"Your quest." Reia looked at him. "Your birthright in the south. Did he tell you of it?"
Horus nodded. "He did. It's the throne--the throne of Kemet. He said it's mine, and I have to take it."
The color drained from Reia's face. "Take it? From--from the Red King, you mean?"
Another nod. "He said it's my destiny." He shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. "Whatever that means."
"Whatever that means?" Reia echoed. He took Horus by the shoulders. "It means you're to be king! And you must be, if the gods have said so." He got an uneasy look and glanced back at the village. "And he must know, too, to be sending out all these Apsiu. He's always been afraid of an uprising. Now he has to be afraid of you. And frightened men often do desperate things."
"If I'm his only real threat, why does he send them to attack the villages?" Horus asked. "Why is he so afraid of an uprising?"
"Because of who he is and what he did." Reia shuffled one foot and bent to pick up his staff. "He's not the rightful king. His brother, Lord Osiris, King of Amenti, was the true ruler. The Red King took his place."
"How--" Horus started to ask, when a villager, still carrying a shield, appeared nearby, waving an Apsiu battleax. He shouted for Reia to come back into the village to oversee the disposal of the bodies.
"I'll be with you shortly," Reia called, waving him on and turning back to Horus.
"I have to get back to my people." He smiled wistfully. "As you have to get back to yours." He took Horus's hands in his own. "I wish you as much luck and more than any of the gods can give."
"I don't want to leave you behind," Horus said.
Reia shook his head, his smile never wavering. "You have to. I belong here, while you belong--" He cut himself off with a shrug. "While you belong on the throne of Kemet."
Horus looked at the ground.
"Don't be afraid of it, Horus," Reia said softly. "This day was written out long before either of us was born, before King Osiris went to rule in the West, before this world as we know it even existed. The will of the gods can't be changed. You have to take your place. It's the law of Maat."
Horus didn't speak for a moment. He turned to Reia with his eyes brimming, but blinked and the tears went away. "It wouldn't matter if God Ra himself were my father," he said. "The Delta is where I grew up, and no matter where I end up living this will always be my real home." He and Reia embraced. "Goodbye, Fa--"
"Reia," Reia interrupted him, holding up a finger. Another smile. "Your real father waits for you elsewhere."
Horus nearly bit his tongue. "Reia," he said, and it sounded unnatural. He shut his eyes and drew himself up. The energy he'd lost healing Reia was starting to flow in his arms and legs again; he felt himself growing stronger, though he still felt tired. He opened his eyes. "If I ever get a chance, I'll try to return, or send a message downriver."
Reia's expression told him he believed this was the last time they'd see each other. Yet he nodded at Horus's promise. His eyes widened a little bit, and he stared over Horus's shoulder. Horus turned to see the kudu that had taken him to and back from Harakhte's temple, standing at the edge of the clearing. It pawed the soft earth, whistling once.
"I believe that's for you," Reia said in a soft voice. He and Horus embraced again, then Horus went to the kudu and climbed up. Reia shook his head. "Oh!" He ran to catch up with Horus.
"Keep your eyes open on your way out of the swamp," he called up, jogging alongside the kudu. "There are probably more Apsiu, and even with your lance I doubt you could take them all on." Horus nodded. "And look out for Buto. You might want to speak with her, if she shows up. She may have something important to tell you."
"I will," Horus said. "Goodbye. Be in peace."
"Goodbye, Horus." Reia stopped and waved after him, watching the kudu trot off into the swamp. "May the river be your guide, the sun your companion during the day, and the stars your companions at night!"
Horus traveled much the same way he had before, only riding the kudu this time. He made sure to keep the setting sun on his right and not be tempted into following river branches which might lead the wrong way. In the evening he stopped and waded into the water to flush birds from the reeds. On his first try a large ibis went flapping into the sky. Horus aimed his throw-stick, considered, and let it go. He tried again and startled a flock of ducks. He brought down one. No use wasting good food.
As night fell he let the kudu graze on a small hillock which may or may not have been the remains of an old village while he plucked and dressed the bird, cutting it with a sharp rock, sticking it on a spit and placing it over the fire he'd built. He turned it slowly and listened to the night noises. The Delta was not so wide here as where he lived; once in a while he thought he could hear the cry of a jackal or the laugh of a hyena, far out in the desert.
He poked at the kindling he'd used to start the fire on what little wood he could find. The desert was where he might have to go. If the Apsiu were patrolling the river, he'd have no choice. Visiting the temple of Harakhte was the only time he'd been in the desert, and that had been easy only because he hadn't had far to go. He would never survive alone in Deshret, the Red Land, the desert along both east and west sides of the river; he was too used to Kemet, the Black Land, the fertile growing areas lining the water. As most of the people in the country lived along the river, the kingdom itself was called Kemet. The river that sustained them all was under the command of the god Hapi; many of the people called the river itself Hapi. Horus felt a certain kinship for it, as he'd practically been raised on it; the threat of crocodiles or snakes or hippos didn't frighten him very much. He'd seen crocodiles many times, and he'd never once been attacked by one. Desert animals, however; that was a different story.
He removed the bird from the spit to let it cool. The kudu settled itself down in a tuft of grass to sleep. Horus sighed and let his mind drift, thinking of all that had happened to him lately.
So he was a god. It was too weird to think about directly, but it was true. His healing of Reia had proven it; everyone knew the gods were charged with a life force called sa, an energy that ran through divine beings alone much as blood ran through humans. They could infuse other, mortal, people with it, but in mortals it acted only to repair what had been damaged or to give renewed strength. It was self-sustaining only in gods, who could feel the drain themselves if they lost too much at one time. Healing a mortal wound such as Reia's had taken nearly everything Horus had, but it had replenished itself already. He supposed healing a mortal would always be easier than healing a god.
He wondered. Did every god have such healing powers? Did they work on both mortals and deities? Could gods heal themselves?
It was too much, too soon, to think about. He turned his thoughts back to his quest.
Reia had told him of the former king, Osiris, the First of the Westerners, judge and ruler of the dead, who ruled in this world no longer. Who was this Red King, Osiris's brother, who had taken the throne? How had he done it--by deposing Osiris? Was that why Osiris had gone to the West--had he been killed somehow? And how did Horus fit into all this? Why was he to take the throne?
It all confused him so much. He absently tore a piece of meat off the duck, dusted it of soot, and ate it. Things had been so much easier simply as Horus, son of Reia, living in the Delta. Now he wasn't even sure who he was.
If he was a god, who were his parents?
"Might a simple lady ask to share your fire?"
Horus started out of his thoughts and looked up. Then he stood up, reaching for his throw-stick.
A shadow loomed on the other side of the fire. Something reared up from the ground; a cobra appeared, its hood spreading, forming two eye shapes on both sides of its head. As it moved closer the Red Crown upon its head became visible.
It spoke again, its voice feminine, soft and sibilant.
"Shame, Horus. Trying to kill your caretaker with a mere stick. Better to try that lance God Harakhte gave you, if you wish to do the job right."
Horus flushed and lowered the stick. He crossed his arm over his chest and bowed; the snake seemed to shed its hood, growing taller and thinner, until a woman wearing the Red Crown and a dress the color of snake's scales, holding a staff with a head the shape of a papyrus umbel, stood before him.
"Goddess Buto." He bowed again. "I was told to look for you, though I wasn't prepared for your--" he stumbled, trying to think of something diplomatic to say "--sudden appearance."
Buto smiled and tilted her head graciously, accepting his apology. He gestured to his seat, but she shook her head and approached the fire.
"I can't stay long. I haven't much to tell you that you don't already know. I simply wished to see you off from my land, and to wish you luck in the south. My sister, Nekhbet, will watch over you there, as I did here."
"Thank you, Goddess."
"I do have one piece of advice for you, however." She stepped toward him, reaching out and fingering the wadjet pendant hanging around his neck. She smiled faintly.
"The necklace your mother left you," she said, "that was left with her by your father, the All-Seeing. You'll meet her, and him, soon, though he dwells in the West. But you must watch yourself, Horus, or the Red King will get you first."
"The Red King," Horus prompted.
"His name is Set," Buto said, "and he rules Upper Kemet as the Kana rule over the Moru. The people dislike him, but they fear him also. No one will act without a leader of their own. You will be their leader. If you can dethrone Set, the people will gladly make you king. And you must dethrone him, else the upper kingdom and eventually the Delta with it will shrivel and die, all Kemet's people going the way of the setting sun. Lord Osiris ruled well; he rules no more. The people hate his brother. But everyone is so afraid none speak his name." She paused. "There is power in a name, Horus. Remember that."
"Harakhte told you you would have allies on your quest. So you will know them when you meet them, I give you their names: Upuat, Anubis, Sakhmet, Maftet, Khenti Amenti. Be prepared to meet them soon."
Horus nodded again.
Buto smiled and stepped back. She made a gesture with her hand, tracing in the air the shape of an ankh, the sign of life. Her finger left a brief glowing image before her, as if she had written it out with a fiery coal. "Ankh. Udja. Seneb." She traced out the hieroglyphs for the other words as well. "Life, strength, health. I leave you now, and wish you luck." Horus turned to his fire as her image started to shimmer, slowly changing back into the form of a snake. She raised a hand.
He looked at her again. Buto continued to smile even as her form changed, becoming more serpentine, less human. Her voice, when it came to him, was sibilant once more, soft and hissing.
"Watch your eye."
"What?" Horus asked, confused. But the snake had slithered away, leaving not one mark upon the ground to prove her existence.
He slept fitfully, his dreams pervaded by strange images. It seemed he kept seeing that ibis he'd nearly killed, only when he raised his arm to hurl his stick at it it would turn to him and call his name, and he would find himself unable to move, remembering Buto's statement that there was power in a name. But this bird had taken his name from him, and when he looked up to shout at it he met its eyes--and they were the sun and the moon.
As a result of the dreams he was tired when he got up, gathering his hooks, throw-stick, and lance, harnessing the kudu, and riding on. He nearly dozed but forced his eyes to remain open. There was no telling what might pop out at him.
He trailed closer and closer to the river, until he could see it through the tall stands of swaying papyrus. The marsh--and the Delta--disappeared behind him. Far off he heard the splash of some large animal diving into the water; the kudu shied and he decided to ride closer to the palms growing on drier ground. They formed a sort of wall dividing the green area from the desert spread out far beyond; Horus eyed the distant cliffs that even from here looked so unlike the rock surrounding the temple of Harakhte. He hoped the trees could provide cover in case he needed to escape to the desert.
For several days, the journey went on thus, with little change.
He stopped to climb the date palms and retrieve their fruit whenever his diet of duck and fish grew too monotonous.
He thought about the Delta he'd left behind, and Reia.
He hid with the kudu in the papyrus when he thought he'd heard thick, guttural talking out in the desert.
Most of all he simply watched the land go by. The days had grown so uniform he stared at the river for hours before realizing the sun was setting, or the kudu was growing tired, or there had been a noise somewhere--
Or in front?
Instantly his senses were alert. His eyes scanned the grass ahead, the trees to the right, the papyrus to the left. He looked over his shoulder. Nothing.
He prodded the kudu to move on, but still felt uneasy. He could hear no unnatural noises but he had the feeling of being watched. He wished he'd been listening more closely for that first sound. Had there really been a sound at all? He kept looking over his shoulder, just in case. He should have been more prepared.
He turned back to look in front of him.
Just in time to see a sword come swinging at his face.