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Horus: Chapter 7


HORUS, ANUBIS, AND the others spent several days creeping along under the trees, and later out in the desert, after Khenti Amenti swore he'd caught sight of a Kana flying south over the river. The rest of them didn't see it, and, as Upuat pointed out, Khenti wasn't the most reliable witness, but they couldn't be too careful. The western cliffs receded even further into the distance, so they were forced to travel as close to the green area as they could. They built fewer fires, and relied more on eating the fruit they found growing on the trees than on ducks they could hunt down. They were still in pretty good shape, considering, but were also growing tired of constant hiding at the merest shadow cast by a vulture flying over.

They arose before dawn one day to get an early start. Anubis served as outrider, traveling ahead of the others, looking out for possible danger. The other four, plus Khenti, rode behind, still half asleep. As it had been several days since Khenti had seen the Apsiu, they rode a little slower and tried not to worry as much. The Kana must be long gone by now; he hadn't even appeared to have seen them. They doubted a whole troop would go flying over. However, if Set got desperate enough...

Anubis stopped. The others did the same, all eyes and ears now alert. Khenti sniffed the air.

"What is it?" Upuat whispered.

"An oasis," Anubis said, pointing. "Look."

They did. Far ahead lay a green area out in the middle of the desert, studded with small rock outcroppings covered with plant life. It looked like an island set in the sand.

"We might be able to camp there, if we reach it tonight," Upuat said. "Let's go."

They prodded their kudus on in the direction of the oasis, already thinking of the shade and food the place would provide, as well as fresh water. Even the kudus seemed to anticipate their arrival, as they picked up their pace without being goaded on.

They reached the oasis by midafternoon, passing from parched desert to virtual jungle in a matter of moments. Palm trees dangling with vines towered over their heads as they made their way further into the interior. Once they heard a bird cry, and from the echo they could judge that the area ahead of them lay in a steep valley or ravine formed by the rock.

"I can hear water," Sakhmet said. "A waterfall, I think."

"That would be right," Upuat said.

"I hear something else," said Anubis, a note of anxiety rising in his voice.

They paused atop a leafy ridge, listening. Far below them came the sounds of settlement, shouts and hoofbeats and the noises of people at work.

"Somebody beat us to the place," Khenti murmured.

They dismounted and moved to the edge of the ridge. Horus parted the foliage and peered down.

The side of the ravine sloped steeply below him, enclosing one side of a large clearing in which were rough mudbrick and grass houses. The place was a hive of activity, with small figures coming and going, carrying baskets, sheaves of palm fronds, and fowl, driving goats and geese along, squawking at children to get out of the way. It would have been a perfectly normal domestic scene but for one thing.

"Apsiu," Anubis whispered.

Every last resident below was an Apsiu, males and females and children. Their beasts of burden were oxen and the Sha which resembled themselves. Horus, Anubis, and the others stared in disbelief. They'd stumbled upon an Apsiu settlement.

"They could be unfriendly," Anubis whispered, backing away.

Upuat shook his head. "They're all Moru. Flightless ones. Nonviolent."

"Where there are Moru, there are Kana."

"That one has wings," Horus said, pointing out one at the far edge of the village.

The wolf god shook his head again. "His wings are deformed. Still Moru. It doesn't matter how the flightlessness comes about; the result is always Moru, drone, slave, useless, nonflyer, below contempt. I see no Kana anywhere." He frowned. "It's odd."

Horus froze. Far below, one of the Apsiu carrying palm fronds on his shoulders had spotted them, stopping and staring up into the trees. Horus sensed the others tensing around him. The Moru called out, and in the village the rest of the Apsiu were ceasing work, all turning to look up. Within several moments all activity in the village had stopped.

"This isn't good," Khenti whispered.

"They already know we're here," Horus said. "There's no point in hiding anymore."

He took hold of his kudu's reins and led it down the ridge. Upuat and Anubis shared an uneasy glance before following, Khenti, Sakhmet, and Maftet behind them.

When Horus reached the village the Apsiu were still staring at him, none even having moved. The only Apsiu Horus had ever seen before were Taipekh's dead Kana in his own village. These Moru were slightly smaller but still strongly built. All the males wore ear lappets, most of which were a neutral undyed color, though some wore green, and here and there was another hue. To Horus they resembled cows eyeing an intruder in their field. They looked about as dangerous, although several carried flint sickles and hoes.

Horus and the others stopped some distance from them, at the edge of the clearing.

For a while nothing happened. Horus stood still and wondered if he should say something, when the Apsiu started shuffling their feet and moving aside. One with gray lappets came forward, carrying a tall staff topped with a carved ram head. He executed a short bow, tapped the staff against the ground, and spoke.

"Ma'si hema t'aa," he said; then, "Ma'si t'ia, Janaa." He bowed again.

Horus frowned.

The Apsiu shuffled one foot, his eyes shifting, looking mildly uncomfortable. "Ma'si t'ia, Janaa," he repeated, bowing a third time.

Horus looked at Anubis. Anubis shook his head and shrugged, whispering, "I don't know Apsi."

Horus turned back to the Apsiu and shrugged. "We don't understand."

The Apsiu's eyes lit up and he smiled. "To speak this?" he asked, in a rough but clear voice. "To understand?"

Horus had to search for his voice in his surprise. "Yes, we do," he said. "We understand."

The Apsiu bowed again. "To be called Janaa," he said. "To welcome strangers to village. To ask names?"

"Horus," Horus said. He indicated the others. "Anubis, Upuat, Maftet, Sakhmet, Khenti Amenti."

Janaa dipped his head. "To welcome. To take you to Leader Antakh." He turned, waving at them to follow, and went back through the village.

As Horus and the others followed, the Moru moving out of their way, Anubis took his brother's arm and started whispering.

"Antakh!" he exclaimed, with excitement. "I've heard of him. I wasn't even sure he was real!"

"Who is he?" Horus asked.

"A long time ago an Apsiu raised among humans led a Moru revolt," Upuat whispered. "He was born Kana but couldn't fly. He was supposed to have led the Moru to freedom and started a settlement of their own." He glanced around him. "From the looks of it, I'd say the story is true."

"So some of these winged ones could actually be flyers," Sakhmet whispered. "They could be Kana."

"If they were raised here they wouldn't know the difference," Maftet said. "Antakh's people weren't supposed to have a caste system."

"Though they did name him leader," Upuat added, "because they'd lived as slaves for so long and needed guidance."

Their talk trailed off as they found themselves coming closer to a house raised on stilts above the others. Janaa signaled them to stop, ascending a set of rickety-looking wooden steps up to the house and disappearing within. A moment later he reappeared, trotting down the steps and bowing at the bottom.

The others looked up. The hanging palm fronds forming the door parted and an Apsiu came out, looking down at them with what appeared to be interest. The first thing they noticed about him were his purple ear lappets, signifying highest rank. The second thing they noticed were his wings--large, perfectly formed bat wings which stretched up and out gracefully before folding up again behind his back. He came down the steps, two Apsiu with red lappets--one winged, one not--following, carrying intricately designed battleaxes which seemed to be more for show than use. The other Apsiu bowed their heads; when he nodded at Janaa, Janaa tapped his staff to the ground and they looked up again, but didn't leave.

The Apsiu in purple approached Horus and his group, crossing his arm to his chest. A little surprised at seeing the familiar gesture, Horus returned it.

"My name is Antakh," the Apsiu said. He looked first at Horus, then at the others. "I welcome you to our village, Prince Horus, and ask that you and your comrades rest here before continuing on your journey."

Something fluttered in Horus's chest. He again sensed the others shuffling behind him, stunned. How did this Apsiu know who he was?

Antakh smiled slightly, seeing the look on his face, and tipped his head. "You weren't expecting us to know you. We, however, have been expecting you for a long time now. Come, and I'll show you."

He turned and walked away into the jungle behind the raised house. Janaa, the captains, and Horus's group followed, a crowd of Apsiu trailing behind them.

As they went further into the jungle Antakh and his captains drew long swords. Upuat, beside and slightly behind Horus, tensed; Horus stopped him from drawing his own sword when he saw the Apsiu start hacking away at the undergrowth, clearing a path. They trudged on for several minutes before Antakh, Janaa, and the captains stopped and moved aside, looking back at Horus and gesturing for him to come forward.

Horus did so. Antakh spread his arms, though Horus needed no indication of what he was seeing. He just needed to convince himself it was real.

Half lost in the jungle, crumbling and covered in vines and weeds, lay the ruins of a massive wall, the cracks between its bricks plainly showing.

But that wasn't all. There were paintings on the wall, chipping and flaking in the humid climate. There were no hieroglyphs, but everyone, Horus especially, could easily tell what the pictures meant.

There was a picture of a god and a goddess, the god with the tall White Crown of the south and the goddess with the vulture headdress of a queen. There was a picture of the god lying on a funeral bier, the goddess standing nearby, her hands raised to the sky. There was a picture of the goddess in the swamp, with a baby, facing a large snake wearing the Red Crown. And there were other pictures, scenes of a boy fowling in the swamp, a group of gods traveling on antelope, a young man being crowned by a hawk-headed god, a crocodile attacking a kudu, the group of gods reaching an Apsiu settlement...

"It's here," Horus whispered. "It's all here."

He stepped up to the wall and touched the face of one figure, a familiar figure carrying a broken papyrus staff, facing a Kana warrior with a large sword colored red. Horus's heart twisted in his chest; he felt something block his throat, making it difficult to breathe. Yet whoever had painted these scenes depicted the doomed villager with a smile on his face, even as Kana soldiers dispatched his people behind him.

Horus felt Upuat's hand on his shoulder. "They're all dead," he murmured. "Because of me."

"Because of Set," Upuat said. "But the Kana didn't defeat them. See how their chief smiles."

Horus turned to Antakh. "Who built this?" he asked, stepping toward him. "How does it end? What happens to everyone?"

Antakh looked up at the wall. "There's a story about the first time the gods contacted humans. Lord Thoth, god of wisdom, imparted to them prophecies and knowledge. They took what they learned and built this wall as a record of what would happen. But the humans entered a dark age not long after the gods had left them. They forgot all they'd learned and returned to a semisavage state until Lord Osiris came to bring them civilization. This wall was forgotten as well, and the jungle took it back. No one knows it's here but Lord Thoth and us."

He looked at Horus, and Horus could see the expression in his eyes change.

"As to how it ends, that I can't tell you. The wall was never finished; the scene you see of our village is the next-to-last one there is, and the last scene is damaged, so we can't tell what it means."

"Can you make out anything in it at all?"

Janaa raised his hand. "To see Kana along river. To think they wait there."

Antakh nodded at the wall. "Janaa thinks the scene depicts Kana troops patrolling the river. There's also part of a picture of the western cliffs, though we can't make it out clearly. We think it means you should take to the cliffs to avoid the Kana."

"The cliffs," Anubis murmured. "That'll make for difficult traveling."

"We've explored the nearby cliffs, to an extent," Antakh said. "We could point out the nearest passage up into them, and you could be on your way."

He looked back at his people, the Apsiu crowding around in the woods watching them.

"If you stay here in the village," he continued, "we can provide you with a place to rest and refresh your antelope, and when you leave we can supply you with enough food and goods to sustain you through the cliffs until you reach the upper kingdom. The wall spells out your destiny. Everything we have is yours to help you achieve it."

Horus bowed. "We thank you for your hospitality. We'll stay the night, and depart in the morning."

Antakh smiled and nodded. "I know you and your comrades are rather short on time and can't stay as long as you'd like," he said, "but I hope we can make the time you do spend with us as enjoyable as possible." He started back for the village. "Please follow me. We'll see to it that your mounts are taken care of, and that all of you are fed and entertained. You'll want for nothing. As I said, all we have is yours."

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