Horus: Chapter 5
KUSEF WASN'T HAPPY. Even the sight of the burnt houses, smoldering in the sunlight, did little to cheer him up. His men had discovered a cache of Apsiu weapons in one of the buildings, presumably the hall, and that meant only one thing.
"Foolish Taipekh," he muttered as he paced by his men. "Allowing himself to be killed by humans."
He'd been losing too many of his best soldiers lately. First, only two of a group of six sent out to capture the palace runaways had returned; and one had a torn wing, so was useless. He'd immediately been dragged, protesting, to the Moru section and put to work. Now here were the weapons of Lieutenant Taipekh's unit; Taipekh and his men were nowhere to be found. The villagers must have killed them.
He didn't much care for Taipekh. The fool had had pretensions of someday taking Kusef's place. It was the way this all looked that bothered him. The king wouldn't be very happy, either.
He glanced at the surviving villagers lined up at the edge of the village clearing. There were about two dozen left; Kusef had ordered his men to spare at least a few so they could be properly questioned. No better time than the present. He stepped up to them, spreading his wings and lifting his head so his purple ear lappets swung over his shoulders. He knew the powers of intimidation. They worked well on humans.
He selected one frightened candidate and stood in front of him, nudging the villager's head up with the pommel of his sword. "You! Where is Lieutenant Taipekh?"
The villager stuttered.
Kusef snarled. "My Kana! Where are they?"
"The river," the man stammered. "We--we threw them in the river."
Kusef snorted and flicked his hand dismissively, turning away. He faced the rest of the villagers, driving the point of his sword into the ground. Several villagers flinched. Several Apsiu snickered.
"Who among you is leader?" he shouted.
A brief pause. Then one of the villagers, a man with a papyrus staff, stepped forward.
"I am," he said, in a loud clear voice.
Ah. That kind. Kusef replaced his sword and approached him, seized the staff, and snapped it in two.
The Apsiu snickered again. Kusef gave the man a challenging look but he only lifted his own head, looking Kusef in the eyes.
The Apsiu general searched for any signs of fear and found none.
His snout wrinkled with disgust. "Name," he barked.
Kusef snorted again. "Rey-yah. We search for a boy. With this sign." He pulled out a small piece of papyrus, unfolded it, and held it up, showing a drawing of an eye.
Reia said nothing.
The general growled with annoyance. Proud humans irritated him. It always took a little longer to reduce them to bawling calves, and Kusef hated wasting time. He felt himself reaching for his sword.
"Horus!" someone shouted.
Kusef's eyes widened. He turned to see one of the villagers had spoken, an Apsiu spear leveled at his throat. He held out his hands and started babbling.
"The boy. Horus. He lived here. Reia raised him. A foundling, that's all he was. With a necklace. Like that."
"Where is he?" Kusef growled.
"Gone. To the--to the south. He left several days ago."
Kusef smiled. The human gave a tentative smile back. He didn't notice the general signal the Apsiu behind him; a moment later the point of a spear protruded from his chest. He gurgled; his eyes rolled, and when the Apsiu yanked his spear free, he fell to the ground.
A noise somewhere between a moan and a whimper arose from the villagers.
Kusef turned back to Reia. This time he did draw his sword, pointing it at Reia's throat. There was a pained look in Reia's eyes from seeing the man killed, but still no fear. Kusef couldn't understand it.
"He's not a boy anymore," Reia said softly. "He's old enough to fight back, and to fight you if he has to."
Kusef sneered. "Then I'll kill him. It's no matter. You won't miss him."
Reia stared back at him. After a moment he did something that unnerved Kusef so much he had to back away a step.
"You won't kill him," he said, still in that calm, unafraid voice Kusef found so maddening. "You won't even touch him."
"How do you know, Moru?" Kusef challenged.
Reia just continued smiling. "The gods told me so."
Kusef sneered at him again. He backed away further, drew back his sword, and plunged it forward. The villagers wailed. A line of blood trickled from Reia's mouth; yet he still smiled. He tried to speak, his voice a sputtering croak.
"They also said...to watch your back."
He fell down onto his knees and slumped over, blood staining the earth dark beneath him. Kusef flicked a hand at the prisoners without casting them a second glance.
"Kill them," he ordered. "They're of no use to us."
The Apsiu cackled, practically salivating, and moved in on the villagers with their weapons drawn.
A Kana lieutenant approached Kusef and saluted, clapping an arm across his chest.
"Take my Sha along with you," Kusef said. "I won't be needing it."
"You heard me. I'll be flying back. They're already gone. If I fly perhaps I can reach the city before they do."
"But what about--"
"The rest of you go by land. We can't all fly back." He scowled when the Apsiu hesitated. "Do you challenge me, Lieutenant?"
The Kana ducked his head. "No, General. We'll go." He saluted again, hastily, and backed away. A moment later he was barking orders at the other Apsiu.
Kusef snorted, muttering to himself, and turned to leave the village when a voice spoke behind him, making the fur on his neck bristle.
He whirled around. A woman in a shiny green-gold dress, wearing a red crown and holding a staff, looked at him with an air of superiority.
He wanted to draw his sword, but could sense she must be divine. Trying to kill her would serve no purpose, and probably just hasten his own death. He grumbled but made no gestures of respect. Those he saved for the king alone.
Buto looked slightly annoyed, though only for a moment. She lifted her head higher.
"You're too late, General. Horus is gone to defeat your king."
"He is a boy," Kusef snarled, "a mere eighteen years. I could kill him easily."
"He is a god," Buto replied, "and you'll do no such thing."
Kusef bellowed and whipped out his sword, still red with Reia's blood, and swung it at the goddess. It cleaved her image in half like a rock striking the sunlit surface of water; like water her image re-formed, and she raised one hand palm up to the sky, her eyes glittering, her voice venomous.
Kusef started and squawked as a mass of snakes wriggled out of the grass and weeds all around him, hissing and slithering and winding along the ground. He hacked at several with his sword, but each one he killed was promptly replaced by at least three more. Cobras, vipers, water snakes--they all slid toward him with a purpose.
He turned and ran into the swamp, only managing to escape them when he flapped his wings and ponderously took to the sky. He rose and searched for a current; he caught the north breeze, and tried to catch his breath, shooting an angry look over his shoulder at the Delta far below him.
He spat, and secretly hoped it landed on that snake woman's head.
It took Upuat a lot less time to tell Horus all he needed to know than Horus had expected. It turned out he knew just about everything already, at least, everything that mattered. He was grateful for the others' filling him in, though.
"Set was jealous for power. He killed Osiris for the throne," Anubis said as they rode upon drier land on the west bank. "He had his Apsiu do it. At a banquet. He pretended to be friendly, and ended up throwing the body in the river." He paused, staring at the river. Horus didn't press him. From the sound of his voice Osiris's death must have pained him too.
"Goddess Isis brought you to the Delta to protect you. Set swore he wouldn't hurt her, but he said he'd kill you if he found you."
"She had to go back to the upper kingdom," Sakhmet said. "She knew Set could bring the whole land to ruin. With her there, at least his power could be checked. The people love Isis. If Set got rid of her directly, there would be rebellion."
"That's why she left you with Buto," Anubis went on. "She knew you'd be safe in the Delta, where the Apsiu wouldn't find you."
"He didn't start sending them out till recently," Upuat added. "He knew the prophecy too; you would come back in your eighteenth year."
"And take the throne from him," Anubis finished.
Horus didn't ask the obvious, namely, why Anubis wasn't crown prince.
"Everybody in the Delta calls him the Red King," he said instead. "But he rules in the land of the White Crown. Why is he called that?"
"It has nothing to do with the crown," Upuat said. "They call him that because he's a murderer. He has Osiris's blood on his hands now." He scowled. "It's only fitting he be stuck with that name."
Horus decided not to pursue this line of questioning, either. "What's the situation with the Apsiu?" he asked, again changing the subject. He needed to know their strength. If he was going to be king, he might as well start thinking like one.
"They police the city under Set's command," Maftet answered him. Her kudu tossed its head. "The city's on the west bank, walled on all sides. The Kana keep order--that is, they keep everybody in who should be in, and everybody else out."
"People live outside the city?"
"Yes." Upuat this time. "Farmers, mostly. That's where the grain and crops come from. Those who live within the city aren't usually allowed outside."
"But the city can't last long," Anubis interrupted. "Set has powers. He can control the clouds, to an extent. Most of the time he keeps the city and the surrounding area in shadow, with the clouds blocking the sunlight."
Horus frowned. "Why does he do that?"
"Perhaps it's just for spite. Anyway the sun doesn't shine. The crops wither and die a little more each day. Famine will set in unless someone stops it."
"Isis can stop it, once in a while," Sakhmet said. She was staring at the desert. "She can let the sunlight through."
"Until Set cuts it off again," Khenti Amenti, trotting behind the group, said.
Upuat nodded. "She doesn't have much control over the city. The Kana see to that. But they won't defy her outright."
"Does she live at the palace, too?"
Anubis nodded. "Set can't do anything else with her. But she's safe from the Kana. Even if they did try anything--"
Khenti cut in, "Woe betide the one who trifles with the goddess Isis."
"--she has Thoth and Sobek to watch out for her."
"Thoth and Sobek?" Horus echoed.
"Thoth is vizier," Upuat explained. "He served your father also. He serves Set now, out of necessity, but he's loyal to your mother. He would help you, if you needed it."
"Sobek is captain of the guard," Anubis said. "Not that he commands much now. Set replaced most of the palace guard with Apsiu. Sobek makes certain they don't bother Isis."
"We can trust both of them," Maftet said.
"What about the priesthood?" Horus asked. "Surely they would have the power to do something?"
Anubis shook his head. "Set took care of that almost first thing. There's a temple of Thoth in the city. He abolished the priesthood right after he took the throne. The only people who work there are scribes and minor diviners. Astrologers, dream interpreters, the like."
"As well as the secular temple personnel," Upuat said. "The craftsmen and brewers and bakers. The people can go to the temple and pray, but there's no established ritual anymore."
No wonder Set had so much power, without the priesthood to challenge him. Horus rubbed his eyes and wondered what he'd do. If the people hadn't fought back yet, they must truly be afraid of him.
"It takes about a month to get there from the Delta," Anubis said, "so we should be--"
Something shrieked behind them. Horus, Anubis, and Upuat brought their kudus around. Sakhmet had drawn her ax and was hacking at a giant crocodile, its jaws clamped on the foreleg of her kudu. Her teeth were set in a snarl; the kudu screeched with pain and fear as it tried to wrest itself free. Though Sakhmet struck at it repeatedly, the crocodile wouldn't let go, and only pulled harder. It, the kudu, and Sakhmet actually started to head toward the river.
"It'll drag her in," Anubis shouted. He pulled out his boomerang, looked at it, and called, "Upuat!"
Maftet had tried firing arrows; they pelted off the crocodile's back as if it were a shield.
Upuat charged past Horus, jumped from his kudu, and swung his sword. It buried itself in the crocodile's neck, but not deep enough. The crocodile roared and let go of the kudu to turn on Upuat.
"Horus!" Horus turned to see Anubis wrestling with something in Upuat's pack, still on the kudu. He pulled it free and hurled it through the air, and when Horus caught it he realized it was another sword, smaller than the one Upuat used now but just as deadly. He looked at it only a second before following Upuat.
He reached him and tried swinging at the crocodile's neck. Upuat thrust his sword deep in the crocodile's back; it roared and whipped its head around. Upuat was thrown backward, his sword still buried in the creature's hide. Horus stabbed at it but the wounds did nothing to stop it. It didn't come at him, but turned toward Upuat, who was still trying to get up, stumbling dizzily. The crocodile snapped at him and he almost fell over, hastily backing away from the crunching jaws.
"Upuat!" Maftet shouted.
Horus stopped swinging and looked at his sword. He looked at the crocodile. And he decided.
He tossed the sword aside, drew his lance from his shoulderstrap, and pointed it at the crocodile. He started running, letting out a yell.
Upuat's eyes went wide as he watched the lance bury itself deep in the crocodile's neck, severing its spine. The crocodile bellowed and went stiff; a crackle as of lightning appeared to pass over it. Horus yanked the lance free; the crocodile's lungs let out one last rattle and it sank to the ground, its eyes glazing over.
A sudden stillness filled the air as the others stared at the dead beast.
Horus replaced his lance and went directly to Sakhmet's kudu, kneeling beside it.
The antelope was in bad shape. Its front left leg had been mangled beyond repair; chunks of flesh were missing from its neck and shoulder; its sides were heaving and red foam bubbled from its mouth. Its eyes rolled wildly.
"It won't live," Upuat said. He stood, with Anubis and Maftet, behind Horus; Sakhmet knelt beside him and Khenti sniffed at the kudu's hind hooves. Upuat looked at the four remaining kudus, nervously moving around near the river. "You ride mine, and I'll walk in front with Horus."
Maftet tipped her head toward him. "Wait. He's doing something."
They watched. Horus bent closer and placed one hand on the kudu's leg, the other on its side. He could almost feel its fear in his fingertips. He narrowed his eyes and concentrated, trying to conjure up everything he'd been feeling when he'd first touched Reia's shoulder.
His hands grew warm. The other gods took in a breath and backed away as his hands began to glow golden, the glow spreading to the kudu. It stiffened as the crocodile had; its front leg glowed brighter, and before the others' eyes started to repair itself, muscles and sinew re-forming, pulling themselves together, reattaching to bone that had seconds before been splintered and useless. The wounds in its neck and shoulder filled in, shrank, and disappeared. The glow faded; Horus pulled back as the kudu started kicking and struggling to stand up. It did so, whistling and pawing at the ground, tossing its head; it looked livelier than it had been before, as if freshly rested. Sakhmet reached out and rubbed its muzzle; it nuzzled her hand and fidgeted, ready to go.
Upuat touched Horus's arm. Horus stood, shaking his head and rubbing his hand.
"Are you all right?" Upuat asked.
"Yes. Just a little tired. We'd better get going, while there's still sunlight."
He paused when Upuat didn't move. The wolf god just smiled slightly and shook his head in awe. Horus glanced around, and the others were looking at him as well.
"You truly are your mother's son," Upuat said in a soft voice. Horus frowned but Upuat didn't explain. He went back to the crocodile, planted his foot against it, and yanked his sword free. He retrieved the other one from the ground, tossing it to Horus.
"Here," he said. "Keep it. Next time we get in a scuffle, just hope it isn't with another crocodile like that one."
"I'd rather fight crocodiles than Apsiu, thank you," Khenti said.
"Horus is right," Upuat said to the others, climbing back atop his kudu and pulling it around. "We should make the most of the light while it lasts. We'll make camp a little further away from the river, tonight; we don't want any uninvited 'visitors' dropping in."
A grove of palms formed a suitable spot for camping out of sight of any wandering Apsiu. The group knew they tended to travel in the open, whether by desert or river; underneath the tall stand of palms they were safe even from the chance flying Apsiu.
Horus went down to the riverside with Anubis to hunt duck. Khenti Amenti flushed the birds out of the reeds and the other two hurled their throw-stick and boomerang. They both brought down one on the first try; Horus watched in amazement as Anubis's boomerang glowed blue and returned to his hand. Khenti plunged into the water to retrieve the birds. He also brought back Horus's throw-stick, dropping it at his feet.
"If you tell me to fetch, I'm rebelling," he said, trotting off to wait for the next throw.
"How does it do that?" Horus asked, pointing at the boomerang.
"Enchanted. Like your lance." When Horus looked at him he shrugged. "I could tell when you stabbed that crocodile. It must be very powerful."
Not as powerful as it used to be, Horus thought.
It was dark by the time they'd finished hunting and eating, and they spread out palm fronds they'd collected. Upuat moved to the desert edge of the grove.
"I'll keep first watch," he said, glancing at the cliffs, barely visible as distant dark blotches against the stars. "I'll wake someone up for second watch."
"I'll do it," Horus offered.
Upuat nodded. "When you do, remember, both the desert and the river must be watched, north to south. It wouldn't hurt to look up also. I have the feeling the Apsiu will try anything now to find us."
"Do you suppose they know I'm gone?"
"I'm positive they do, by now. It's just a matter of when we'll meet up with them."
They bedded down in the grove and went to sleep, Upuat keeping watch. It seemed Horus had no sooner closed his eyes than it was time for his watch. He took Upuat's place, pacing silently back and forth between the desert edge and the green edge overlooking the river. After a while the pacing became automatic, and he found himself thinking of other things as he did it.
Or perhaps it was daydreaming; for at first he didn't notice, as he approached the river, that it had grown lighter around him. He looked around, puzzled; he could make out the separate stems of the reeds by the river as if it were early morning, even better than he could with his hawk's eyes. For some reason, everything was growing brighter, as if suffused with a supernatural light.
He looked up, and took in a breath.
Far above him, hovering in the sky like a four-pointed star, was a bird, wings spread in the form of a cross. As Horus watched it swept down out of the sky, its feathers glowing like moonlight. It flew past, and Horus saw it was a heron, with long curving beak and swirling crest and tail feathers. It soared out over the river, swooped around in a half-circle, and flew again over his head.
Horus whirled around as it disappeared above the trees. "Wait!" he cried, running after it.
He pushed through the tall grass, dodged the trees, and passed into the desert on the other side, only to come to a stop. The bird had risen far into the sky again; he watched it swing around in a circle, fly lower, and fade away into the west, seeming to join the stars blinking over the distant desert cliffs.
Horus stared until his eyes watered and he was certain it was gone. He shut his eyes briefly and wondered what it meant. Was it some kind of sign? Or a messenger--sent by whom? And for what purpose? Had it been trying to tell him something?
Somehow, it seemed almost as if it had been...checking up on him.
A flapping noise. Was it coming back? He looked up again, but the bird he saw now was not the bird that had flown away. He watched as a hawk, obsidian black with ash gray around its eyes and breast, swooped down to land on the desert floor not too far in front of him. No sooner had its talons touched the ground than it started changing. Horus stepped back. He recognized this from seeing it happen with Buto. As she had, the hawk glowed bright and grew tall, taking human form but keeping the hawk head, changing into a tall, broad-shouldered man wearing a long black cape which swirled in the breeze stirred up by his appearance. The breeze vanished, and his eyes glowed red as two coals. He grinned at Horus.
Horus knew he was a god, but kept one hand near his sword.
"Good evening, Horus," the hawk god said. He stepped closer, past Horus, to peer into the grove at the others, still sleeping. Horus followed at a distance.
"They look so peaceful when they're asleep." The god cocked his head. "Ah. So you have Upuat with you. He doesn't still howl in his sleep, does he?"
"Who are you." He didn't make it sound like a question.
The god smiled at him, a chilly smile with that black hooked beak and carnelian eyes. "Horus," he chided in a mocking voice. "You keep a sword's edge in your voice as if I threaten you. I'm sorry I didn't introduce myself sooner. Lord Sokar at your service." He gave a mock bow.
Horus put his arm to his chest and bowed back. Sokar seemed more amused by this than anything else; he turned away from the sleeping group and moved back toward the desert. Horus followed again, stopping a little ways behind him and staring at his back.
"Don't worry about me upsetting Lord Upuat," Sokar said, not turning to look at him. "The two of us are old friends. If you should worry about anyone, it should be yourself."
Horus took a step forward, hand on his sword. "Is that a threat?"
Sokar grinned at him over his shoulder. "Threat? Why would I want to threaten the mighty Crown Prince Horus? I merely wished to warn you. When one worries too much about others, he often loses sight of himself. And that's an invitation for everyone to take a shot at you."
"What are you here for?"
Sokar let out a light snort. "Is this any welcome? The next time I have advice, I should keep it to myself."
Sokar studied him. "You ask too many questions. I suppose it's because you're new to this. As for advice, that's best saved for a time you'll need it more. Which means you'll see me again." He lifted his arms, spreading the cape. "Until then, learn to observe more and question less. Who knows. Maybe something you remember will save your head."
His arms seemed to join to his cape, which sprouted feathers, turning back into wings. A hawk screeched and flew away from where a god had been standing seconds before, disappearing into the west as the heron had.
Horus sighed. So far the only people who had been straightforward with him were the ones he traveled with. Delta life had been easier. At least then the only snakes he'd had to deal with crawled upon the ground instead of walking on two legs. Now he wasn't even sure which gods he could trust.
He turned wearily back to the grove, his shoulders slumped. It was time for Anubis's watch. When he went back to sleep, his eyes slowly going shut, Horus dreamed he stood alone, fighting off not Apsiu but himself. And his other self kept winning.
Anubis watched while Horus stirred in uneasy sleep. He turned east and waited for the sunrise.