Horus: Chapter 10
HE WAS RUNNING, running through the city at night with his breath burning in his throat, as if afraid to look back over his shoulder and see why he might be running. The alleys kept opening up before him, buildings looming up on both sides; the streets were nothing but a maze. He couldn't see any places he recognized. Whenever he felt he was beginning to remember where he was, the scene changed so he stayed always lost. He was trapped. He couldn't find a way out.
He glanced upward as he ran. The sky was pitch black, not just from the night, but from the clouds roiling over his head, lowering over the city as if to cover it like a suffocating blanket. All he wanted to do was find a way out from under those clouds before they ensnared him like a web ensnaring an insect. His heart hammering against his breastbone, he staggered out of an alley and nearly tripped over his feet trying to stop. His breath caught in his throat.
The palace stood before him, hideously tall, going on forever in every direction. The royal throne sat upon the top step. It wasn't gold, as he knew it was. It glittered carmine in a flash of lightning.
He started backing away.
Something shot out of the sky, crashing into the red throne and--just for an instant--setting it alight like a thousand suns. Then the throne cracked and exploded; he put his hands to his face to shield his eyes from the debris which turned immediately to ash, fluttering to earth in a pathetic pile. He uncovered his eyes again to look at it, the golden glow dying away and the darkness once more taking its place.
A chill wind rose in the east. It scattered the clouds, picking up the ashes and carrying them away, over the city wall and into the west. The land grew lighter. He looked up again to see both the sun and the moon in the sky, hovering over the city like two eyes staring down at him, and he started to believe he recognized whose eyes they reminded him of...
"Hsst. Lord Pendua."
Pendua opened his eyes. The room was as dark as before, but through a crack under the door he noticed a flickering light as of a lamp held close. He stared at it.
"Hsst," the voice came again. "Lord Pendua?"
He got on all fours so as not to trip over anything that might be in there with him, and crept toward the door. He recognized the voice, with its rough edge, as being Apsiu, so part of his mind told him to be careful. What would an Apsiu be doing down at his cell?
He put his head near the floor and spoke. "Who's out there?"
A shuffling sound. "Lord Pendua. My name is Tarua. I am Apsiu, Kana, like Lord Kusef."
"Why are you talking to me?"
"Please, keep your voice down," the Apsiu whispered. "I'm only supposed to be checking up on you. I've come to tell you I believe in your cause."
Pendua said nothing.
"I understand if you don't wish to speak, so just listen. I heard of what you did from the other Kana. They hate you. They call you Moru, worthless one. They are loyal to the king, but he's killing us all."
Pendua bent closer.
The Apsiu must have heard his movement, for he continued. "You know as well as I do that the crops are dying. The Kana keep the people from complaining. But they're leading us all to our death. This isn't what Maat ordained for us. Someone must stop Set."
Pendua felt his skin prickle. This Apsiu couldn't be insinuating what he thought he was....
"I thought you might be the one to stop it, as everyone else is too afraid; but, as you're in here, that can't be done. We can't wait any longer. Someone must act, and it will have to be me."
"What are you thinking?" Pendua asked, keeping his voice neutral.
"I'll go speak with him tonight," Tarua whispered, as if excited by the idea, "in his quarters. Both Kusef and Mahai are busy elsewhere. I can do to Set exactly as he did to Osiris."
"What?" Pendua gasped. Something scraped against the door; he looked down and, in the faint gleam of light, could see the blade of a dagger slip under the door. He touched it, cutting his finger; drawing away, he heard it being pulled back outside.
He moved forward again, placing his hands against the door.
"Tarua, don't do this!"
"Someone has to restore Maat," Tarua retorted.
Pendua balled his fist. "Yes, Tarua, but not you! I can't explain, but it's not your place to do it!" A vision of the throne, with a shaft of sunlight striking it, filled his head even as he spoke.
"It's the place of whoever dares first," Tarua said. "And so far I suppose I'm the first to dare. Now keep your voice down. I'd let you out, but it would jeopardize every--"
"Tarua, listen to me. You can't do this. You'll be killed. I know you will!"
The Kana's tone was defensive. "This is the best blade a Kana can carry. It can pierce the thickest armor with ease; I've tried it myself on the best armor we have. All I have to do is stab him once. Without a king, Kusef and Mahai will start a fight among themselves, and you humans will have the chance you're looking for, the chance to revolt. Leave it to me. You felt the bite of this blade; now Set will as well. Goodbye, Lord Pendua. I'll see you again soon."
Before he could speak, Pendua heard him move away, saw the light fade away after him. He listened till the silence echoed in his ears before sitting down, staring at the blackness with only his heartbeat for company.
Goodbye, Tarua, he thought. I'll see you in Amenti.
Kusef was busy somewhere probably yelling at his men, and Tarua didn't know where Mahai was. There were Set's guards to contend with; he would get only one chance before they'd come in after him. Which was why he knew he had to make this work.
He didn't need to keep his dagger hidden, as almost all Kana carried weapons wherever they went. He ran his fingers nervously over the hilt at his side as he approached Set's quarters. The two guards didn't give him much trouble, one disappearing inside to get Set's permission to let Tarua enter. He came back out, and Tarua went in. The door closed behind him. He tried not to fidget or look too nervous. He had to keep his hand away from his dagger.
"Tarua, Semek says your name is." Set was removing his armbands as he spoke. Outside the sky was growing darker, and once in a while a hyena or jackal call would rise from the desert.
Tarua forced the stammer out of his voice. "Yes, Majesty."
"You know you were recommended to me once for a promotion."
Tarua swallowed. "No, Majesty."
"No? Then the news must not have reached you." He turned to look at Tarua with a chilly smile. "Well. You're here for a reason. Talk, before I lose interest."
Tarua struggled to think of something to say. Set put his armbands in a cedar box sitting on a table.
"I...I'm unclear on what's intended to be done with the human Pendua. Your Majesty has the power to deny a trial, if Your Majesty should so choose."
"Why would I want to do that?" Set mused aloud. He put the box away and reached back to undo his pectoral, searching for the counterbalance. "You should know what an oversight like that would do to upset the people. As long as they're kept inside the city walls and believe they have some sort of justice system they should be happy enough. We wouldn't want them getting too upset."
He'd turned away again, removing his pectoral and placing it in another box. Tarua saw his chance, and stepped forward carefully, not hearing the soft shhhhk of his dagger being drawn and raised.
"I'm not certain why you're so concerned about this Pendua anyway, he being a human and all. They are Moru to you, though I don't see why you all concern yourselves so much with petty differences like--"
He turned. Tarua plunged the dagger forward. It flashed like a ray of light and instantly connected with Set's chest. Tarua felt the shock of impact through his wrist and arm up to his shoulder.
And the blade slipped. It struck Set's black armor and skidded sideways, sparking and letting out a chink sound. The flash cleared from Tarua's eyes and he saw with surprise and horror that the dagger had left not even a scratch.
He felt panic.
Set's hand shot out, grasping Tarua's neck and slamming him into the wall. The dagger clattered harmlessly to the floor. Tarua gasped and choked for air. Set's eyes narrowed slightly. He didn't look surprised; he looked annoyed.
"Foolish," he said mildly. He shouted at the door. "Karu!"
One of the guards entered the room, saw Set pinning Tarua against the wall, and saluted.
"Call Kusef and have him come here, please," Set told him, and he saluted again and left.
Tarua tried clawing at his throat, to no avail. Set's hand gripped him like the jaws of a crocodile. The room started to look fuzzy around him, and he began to feel faint.
"That was a foolish thing to do, Tarua," Set rebuked him, as if scolding a child for stealing sweets. "You think I don't know when someone has plans on his mind? As if you really just wanted to talk to me."
The Apsiu let out a rasping sound.
"Oh, you can't breathe, can you?" Set said in mock dismay. "Let me clear your throat for you a little bit."
He let go of Tarua's neck. Tarua sucked in a breath as he slid to the floor, lights flashing before his eyes. Set turned away from him as Kusef arrived with the guards behind him.
"I might be willing to go lightly on mere treason," Set said. "Then again, maybe not. Your punishment is just certain to be much harsher than Pendua's. Kusef. Have Karu and Semek here take this Apsiu away. At daybreak I want him hung from the city wall and shot."
Tarua moaned and went pale. Kusef grinned and saluted. "It'll be done, Majesty, just as you wish, and better."
Set shot him a look. "Don't feel the need to improve on my plans, Kusef. You'll do as I tell you, and nothing more."
Kusef bowed his head a little meekly. "Yes, Majesty."
Set waved a hand and Kusef and the guards dragged Tarua, in a half-faint, from the room. Set stood silent as he watched them go. He didn't say anything, but his fingernails gouged harsh lines in the wood of his pectoral box.
People crowded the streets, craning their necks to see what was going on. At dawn the two Kana standing atop the city wall near the gate had blown their trumpets. This was only done when something important was going to happen. Some of the younger people had never heard the trumpets before.
At first they assumed someone was approaching the city, and several citizens stood upon their rooftops staring over the wall. But no one appeared in the north; they noticed a commotion arising from the palace, and went that way.
A band of Apsiu came marching down the steps, spears and axes aloft. General Kusef led them, carrying a ceremonial battleax almost as tall as himself. It took the people a moment to figure out what was going on. Between the Kana, almost blocked from view, walked another Apsiu, obviously in disgrace; his black ear lappets had been shredded, and his hands bound in front of him. Worst of all someone had taken a knife to his wings; the membrane hung as mangled and shredded as his lappets. His head was bowed and his face lined with pain and humiliation. He didn't seem to care about his wings.
The troop of Kana marched through the city to the top of the wall. They stopped again, facing the city, one unrolling a papyrus and the others tying the rope around the prisoner's ankles. The Kana with the papyrus read aloud.
"By order of His Majesty, King Set, Lord of the Two Lands, life, strength, and health," he shouted, "this prisoner, Lord Tarua, formerly of the Kana, charged with high treason and collaboration, is to be executed by shooting with arrows."
The murmuring grew louder and the city people looked at each other, their eyes widening.
The Kana let the scroll snap shut. The others finished tying Tarua's ankles. The whole time he kept his eyes closed, and no one doubted he was praying.
A trumpet blared. The two Apsiu standing to Tarua's sides took his arms and made him kneel, turning and lowering him over the edge of the wall, head first.
The citizens fell silent. Tarua was lowered to the middle of the wall, still quite high from the ground. His eyes stayed shut, even more tightly now as if he were afraid of what he'd see. Kusef and several captains, who'd stayed below in the clearing, handed their weapons to the attending lieutenants, retrieving large bows. Each fitted an arrow to his bow, looking up and taking aim at the prisoner.
Some of the people covered their eyes. Many others watched with their mouths gaping.
The Kana pulled back on their bowstrings. Tarua took in a breath.
And the rope snapped.
Several people screamed. Kusef's eyes went wide. Tarua's eyes stayed shut, his face twisted with fear, as he plummeted to the earth.
The rope, and Tarua with it, jerked to a stop. A gasp arose from everyone gathered. They could plainly see the frayed and broken end still in the air, but it was as if an invisible hand had grabbed it, breaking Tarua's fall instantly.
Tarua turned slowly upright in the air. He'd curled into a fetal position after the first fall, and his arms hid his face. Whatever had broken his fall now lowered him gently to the ground. As soon as his feet touched the earth he lifted his head and opened his eyes, peering around him with astonishment.
Kusef and the rest of the Kana looked just as stunned.
People started turning their heads as a new commotion arose. Hastily they began to clear a path from the palace, most bowing their heads, some kneeling and prostrating themselves in the dust.
Kusef frowned and tried to see who was coming. As soon as he did he felt a brief stab of panic.
Striding purposefully through the crowd, head held high, came Isis, gauzy robes flowing around her, the golden vulture crown surmounted with ostrich plumes sparkling upon her head. She kept her face calm, but her eyes flashed like lightning. Trailing behind her was Thoth and a retinue of goddess attendants, all in full court regalia. Kusef and the Kana immediately dropped their heads as she approached, stopping in the middle of the clearing.
"Release him!" she ordered.
Kusef fidgeted nervously. "Noble Goddess, we have orders from--"
"I don't care who you have orders from," Isis cut him off. She looked at each one of the Apsiu, and Tarua as well. Tarua was the only one who met her eyes. She turned back to Kusef with a commanding look.
"Release him, and let him leave the city."
Isis lowered her head and frowned. The sun flashed in the east and for just a moment it seemed as if her eyes, like the inset lapis eyes of her hawk pectoral, were glowing. The Kana all stepped back, murmuring and making signs against the evil eye--all, that is, except Kusef, who just went pale.
"Set may be your king in name, Kusef," Isis said coldly, "but I'm your queen by right. You'll do as I say, and let him go."
Kusef stared at her just a second longer before turning to his men. "Cut him loose," he muttered. An Apsiu drew a knife and cut the rope from Tarua's wrists and ankles. Tarua stood up shakily, rubbing his wrists and glancing furtively at the goddess. Kusef jerked his head at him and he moved away, one tattered wing stretching feebly.
"General." Isis's voice was as cold as the night desert. "Give Tarua back his dagger."
Kusef scowled. He pulled Tarua's dagger from his belt and put it in the Apsiu's hand. "Here, Moru," he growled in Tarua's ear. "And if you come back, I'll kill you personally."
"No more threats," Isis said. "Now let him leave."
The general nodded at the Kana guarding the gate. They pulled the ponderous doors open with a loud creaking. The city people peered at the fields beyond with longing.
Tarua looked back at Isis.
"Go north," she said softly. Her eyes told him everything.
Without a word, the Apsiu turned away and left the city, stumbling away across the irrigation canals.
Kusef, the Kana, and all the people turned to look back at Isis. She and her retinue had departed already, heading back to the palace. The people ahead of her knew to duck out of the way. They could see the fury burning in her eyes like blue fire.
Thoth touched Isis's arm as she stormed past the guards and into the palace. She sensed a thought make its way into her mind.
Goddess, don't act hastily.
"Haste is foolishness," she said aloud. "I know, Thoth, but I've had this on my mind a long time now."
Mahai met her at the entrance to the central hall, attempting to hold her back. "Goddess, His Majesty wishes not--"
Her eyes flashed blue at him before she could stop it. "Get out of my way, Mahai, before I turn your wings into hand fans."
Mahai paled and stepped out of her way. She held up her hand and the doors creaked.
In the hall, Set looked up to see the great double doors swing open, nearly bowling over the two Kana standing at attention. Isis entered, leaving Thoth behind. The chastened guards shut the doors.
"What in the Duat do you think you're doing?" she snapped as she came up before him.
He kept his voice neutral. "I'll assume I know what you're talking about."
"You assume nothing! What was that you were trying out there?"
"You stare out your window too much, Isis, else this would never have bothered you."
"It shouldn't have been happening in the first place!"
Set turned away, crossing to the middle of the room. "Tarua is a traitor. He was being executed for treason."
If he'd been looking at her, he would have seen her eyes widen with surprise, then flash with anger again. She moved to stand in front of him, blocking his way to the throne.
He nearly scowled.
"You know the law of the city," she said icily. "No executions. Especially public ones!"
"I make the law," Set hissed, jabbing at his chest. "I keep the order."
"No." Isis's voice was calm now, soft. "You destroy it when it suits you best."
"You keep that in mind."
"I don't have to." She lifted her head in that superior gesture that made him want to tear her limb from limb as he had Osiris. "You're the one who should keep it in mind, Set. In fact I think you already do."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Set snapped, whirling around on her.
She nodded at him. "That armor you wear. All the time. You're not doing that for show."
He practically snarled. "We can find a better place and time for this conversation, Sister--"
"There is no better place or time!" Isis retorted. "You're afraid, Set. You have been since you took the throne. That's why you wear that armor. No matter how many Apsiu you have that's your only true protection. You don't want someone stabbing you in the back like you did Osiris so you use magic to make sure it won't happen. I'd say you heightened the odds in your favor. Just as you always have."
Set had stood fuming during her speech, but as soon as she mentioned their dead brother's name he'd surged forward, drawing his hand back. Isis didn't even bat an eye as he approached, and she met his stare with one that was as cool as his was furious.
"What are you going to do, Set?" she asked mildly.
He hesitated before lowering his hand and backing away, scowling. "Get out."
She didn't offer any further argument, and he was glad for that; one more self-righteous smirk of hers and he might break his promise. She turned to the doors instead, raising her hand before the Kana could open them. The guards backed hastily away to avoid being hit. In the central court Thoth and her ladies stood waiting.
She nodded and they entered. They all passed Set without looking at him, heading for the stairway and disappearing upstairs.
Set said nothing as he sullenly watched them go. He wasn't certain what might come out of his mouth.
Pendua. Are you hungry?
Pendua shot up, striking his head on a shelf and scattering its contents about the room. He grunted with pain and sat down flat on the floor. Stars flashed in front of his eyes.
Pendua! Are you hurt?
He looked around before realizing the voice was in his head. But it wasn't his voice. It was that of a woman, soft in the back of his mind.
He paused. "Am I going crazy?" he asked aloud.
No, the voice answered; then, from outside, "Pendua."
The same voice. He crept to the door and touched it. "How are you doing that?" he asked, feeling as if he were suffering a bad hangover. Maybe being all alone in this little cell was finally getting to him.
"Doing what?" A pause. Oh. You mean this. Another pause, this one more mental than actual. Forgive me. It comes naturally to my kind, so of course you'd be surprised.
"Your kind?" Pendua got out; then, as realization dawned, he slowly backed away from the door, fear starting to creep up into his chest.
Please, don't be afraid.. "It's me, Goddess Nephthys. I've come to offer you food."
He tried to keep his thoughts blank, for fear she'd read them, though of course it would be to no avail. Goddess Nephthys, sister of Isis and wife of Set. Though no one could tell the latter from outward appearances. She rarely appeared at any great festivals or public processions; the people who dared to say anything said she was probably afraid of Set. Anyone who would kill his own brother was someone to be feared, even by closest family--especially by family. Some said the only reason Isis didn't fear him also was because he'd sworn by Maat not to hurt her, and any oath made by Maat was unbreakable, even if made by the basest netherworld fiend.
None of this gave Nephthys any reason to not fear him, however, and from the softness of her voice Pendua sensed she wasn't supposed to be there. He wasn't certain how to address her, not even being able to see her; he bowed his head in case she could see him. "Forgive me, Goddess, for not recognizing you when I should."
"It's all right. You've been down here for hours. Are you hungry?"
Pendua hesitated. Yes, he was hungry--famished, even. He would have the luck to be locked in a food cellar that contained only dishes and baskets and other nonedibles. Before he could tell her so, however, something started to glow on the floor in front of him. He watched as a clay plate appeared, topped with bread, figs, and a cup of beer. He didn't ask how she'd done it, or how he could still see the food before him even in the dark; he reached for the bread and tore it apart, eating ravenously.
He didn't hear another word from her until he'd finished; as soon as he sat back the plate and cup disappeared, and he was in darkness again.
"I have to go now," Nephthys whispered. "I hope whatever happens to you, it doesn't take long."
He heard her moving and thumped on the door. "Wait!" he whispered. He sensed a pause and went on. "Help me. Help me out of here. I know someone outside; she could be in trouble. I have to get out. You have to help me."
I can't. Abruptly, in his head. Then, "I can't. It's too dangerous, not only for you. If you were to go missing Set would know where to look. He has spies, even in the temple. He could find every person you've spoken to on the outside and do the same to them as he tried to do to Tarua."
So he caught him. Pendua didn't want to know what had happened to the Apsiu after they'd last met. He assumed it was bad enough.
I go now. He sensed reassurance as Nephthys left him. Keep calm and quiet. You must be brave. Isis tells me things will change soon. Very soon now.
The cliffs rose to a high escarpment north of the city, hundreds of feet above the desert, before dropping off sharply and suddenly and receding back into the west.
As the sun rose, setting the city walls ablaze in pink and gold, nine shadows--six gods, a wolf, and two Apsiu--stood atop the cliff, looking down into the south at the destination lying before them. Their destination.