Horus: Chapter 15
KUSEF TOOK THE scroll and spread it flat upon the table, securing the corners with small clay weights. He cocked his head with curiosity.
"I assume you know what you're looking at," Set, in the shadows at the side of the room, said mildly.
Kusef frowned and cocked a shoulder. "It looks like a layout of the temple of Thoth, Lord-King."
Set pushed himself away from the wall and came forward. "For once you're right."
"But Majesty, what does the temple have to do with anything?"
"You have been preparing your men, haven't you?" Set asked with a frown.
Kusef gave a hasty nod. "All my troops are at Your Majesty's disposal. We've secured the city. I have lookouts posted on every wall, in case the Moru try to sneak around us. There's no way they can get in without us knowing. Whenever Your Majesty gives the word, we'll attack."
"Keep what you have of your patience," Set said, ignoring the Kana's look of chagrin. "I believe you'll need it. Horus isn't stupid enough to try sneaking into the city, nor is he cowardly enough, though I wouldn't put it past his friends. When he comes back, it'll be face to face."
"Does Your Majesty want me to post more men at the gate?"
"No. 'My Majesty' wants you to study these plans. And this."
He spread out another papyrus on the tabletop, placing his staff along its top edge to hold it down so the carved Apsiu's snout pointed at the first sentence. Kusef turned his attention to the scroll and read the vertical lines of hieratic scribbled in black and red.
He frowned again. "The temple. Your Majesty wishes us to destroy it?"
"The temple's the last stronghold of the people." Set was staring out over the balcony. "Without it they won't be tempted to gather and spread treasonous ideas like our erstwhile companion Pendua. I'm hoping its destruction will look simply like one of many casualties of war."
Kusef's mouth twisted in a slow grin. He liked the idea of getting rid of those temple humans, especially the uppity Hekanakht with his irksome no-weapons policy. "Leave it to me, Majesty. I'll see to it it gets done exactly as you wish."
"I certainly hope so." Kusef hesitated at the chill in Set's voice. "It had better be done without fail, unlike a certain other task I gave you."
Kusef averted his eyes and scuffed the floor with his foot. He cursed Isis inside with every abomination he could think up, and several he couldn't.
"I want this carried out immediately after I take care of Horus. Make it look like the army is destroying a den of rebels and conspirators, which it is." Set flicked a hand. "That's all, Kusef. Make sure to let your men in on what I've told you."
"Yes, Lord-King." Kusef bowed, taking the scrolls, and turned to leave. At the door he nearly ran into Mahai, who was leading in a human. Kusef scowled at the other Apsiu, whose nostrils briefly flared as if with distaste. They let each other pass and Kusef disappeared down the hall.
Set turned at the sound of Mahai's voice. His chief advisor stood with his hand upon the arm of a human, who, on seeing Set, ducked his head and kept his eyes on the floor, shaking.
Set looked at him with mild interest. "Who's this?"
"Great King, this is Merisu, blacksmith to the Kana. He has befriended people in the temple and gained their trust. He's provided us with useful information before. He claims he now has something to tell about Prince Horus."
Set cocked his head, arms crossed. He nodded. "Go on."
Mahai nodded at the mortal. Merisu shuffled his feet nervously, wringing his hands and managing to raise his eyes only to the level of Set's knees. "M-Majesty," he stammered. "I--uh--be-before Prince Horus left the city, I s-saw him at the temple of Th-Thoth."
Set nodded again when he paused.
"Um... He spoke there with another god, who looked much like he did, only darker."
He paused again. Set said nothing but Merisu could sense his growing impatience, so he plunged on without further thought.
"This other god...he--told Horus he'd better watch his eye, that he didn't know why but it was important. He knew Your Majesty would find out."
Set looked at Mahai, who slightly lifted one shoulder. He turned back to Merisu.
"Thank you, Merisu," he said. "We'll take this news into consideration. You've been a great source of help to us."
Merisu dropped and prostrated himself. "Thank you, Majesty. Thank you," he babbled.
Set turned and gave his dismissive hand gesture again. Mahai took Merisu's arm and pulled him to his feet, escorting him to the door and into the care of the guards. He shut the door and turned back to Set.
"Watch his eye," Set murmured, playing absently with his ceremonial dagger, its pommel carved of rock crystal. "Sokar must know what he's talking about, else he wouldn't give advice. He rarely gets involved as it is."
"What do you believe he meant, Majesty?"
"It's pretty obvious it's his weakness," Set said, staring outside. "Everybody has one. I shouldn't be surprised he does also. The eyes," he mused aloud. "That's a pretty strange place to have a weakness."
"Does Your Majesty wish us to investigate the meaning of this?"
"No." Set turned away from the balcony to look at him. He continued twirling the dagger slowly in one hand. "Leave this to me. If Horus has a weakness, I won't have him find out just how serious it is until we're face to face. When I can make use of it," he added, his voice ominous.
Mahai bowed. "Your Majesty knows best, as always."
Set's lip curled. "Flattery was never one of your strong suits, Mahai, and never one of my favorites. Come. I'm going to inspect these troops of Kusef's. Let's see if they're really as battle ready as he claims."
Mahai bowed again and together they left his quarters.
Hetepet had explored the palace top to bottom in her short time there. She knew the courtyards and gardens especially well, as Isis spent much time there or in her quarters. The cheetahs and gazelles knew her already, and came straight to her for treats whenever she entered the gardens. Being one of Isis's handmaidens wasn't as busy as she'd thought it would be; lately the goddess seemed preoccupied, and dismissed her ladies early. Hetepet knew Horus had left the city, had watched him and his party go; she knew this was the reason Isis was so worried. She was worried as well. Horus had been the city's only possible salvation. Without him, Set could--and might--do whatever he wanted.
Whatever Set wanted for the city couldn't be good.
She patted one of the cheetahs absently, barely hearing its purr, and left the garden, passing through the north court and into the inner court, into the hypostyle hall at the entrance. She wished she could leave the palace, just for a moment, just to see how Hekanakht was doing. He would have noticed she'd been missing her lessons by now. But she'd told herself she wouldn't leave unless it was of the utmost urgency. Thoth must have put her here for a reason. She had to find out what it was.
I wish I'd find out soon!
She sighed to herself--wishing was of no real use--and turned to go back into the inner court.
She gasped and jumped back when she ran straight into a large Kana warrior dressed in full battle armor. He glared at her fiercely, purple lappets swinging; she ducked her head and backed away as he and his men--four of them--stomped past, swords clattering, out of the palace. She could hear them descending the steps, and let out her breath shakily, leaning against a column and sliding to the floor.
That had been close, though she wasn't sure why. She hadn't actually been doing anything wrong--just looking around--but in this place, with the Kana for company, she felt anything she might do would be under suspicion. She'd have to limit her wandering from now on.
She started to stand up--only to see something lying nearby, something cylindrical. Puzzled, she reached out to pick it up, and stiff papyrus crinkled in her hand.
Hetepet leaned back and unrolled it. A second scroll fell out, and she unrolled it as well and looked at it.
It was a sketched layout of the temple. Red ink marked the entrances, even the ones most people didn't know existed. Hetepet was certain only she, Hekanakht, and a few other scribes knew of them. So how could the Kana?
And why would they want to know, anyway?
She put it aside and examined the second one. She couldn't help but feel a slight thrill of pleasure to find that it was filled with lines of writing. Writing! Her eyes scoured over the hieratic characters. If she could read this thing for Hekanakht, no way he'd keep her stuck practicing basic lettering with the twelve-year-old boys.
She stood, taking it into the relative privacy of the north court, sitting on a stone bench and studying the first characters. Letters, words, and sentences slowly formed in her head. Her excitement grew as more of the message came untangled before her eyes. At last those lessons were doing some good.
That excitement started to wane, however, slowly being replaced by dread as she read on and the full meaning of what she was seeing made itself clear. This was no simple story or missive, not even a magical incantation. These were plans, corresponding to the second scroll and its diagram. These were orders for the destruction of the temple.
She took in a breath and let the scroll snap shut. Destruction! The temple! It was the only place they had left. Worse yet, her brother lived there!
Placing the scrolls together again, she hurried into the hall and set them where she'd found them, where the Kana had dropped them. She couldn't let the Apsiu know she'd seen them, not if she hoped to warn her brother in time. She turned to the entrance.
I suppose this is a matter of the utmost urgency now.
Her heart fluttering, hoping the Kana hadn't yet headed for the temple, she ran out of the palace and turned south. She prayed Hekanakht was still there.
Five ships sailed rapidly but sedately down the river, heading north and toward the city. On the lead ship, Horus stood in the prow, slitting his eyes against the wind and watching the course before them. Upuat and Sobek prowled both sides of the ship, watching for the possible hippopotamus, even this far from the bank; Anubis manned the giant rudder oars, pulling the tillers side to side to steer the ship. As they neared the sharpest bend before the city the crews started crowding toward the front, the Apsiu growing restless. Horus could see them milling around anxiously, and turned his attention back north.
"It should come into sight soon," he said.
Sobek, standing nearby, nodded.
"God Ra said he's ready for us. Are we ready for him?"
"The only way to tell, Prince, is once we start fighting. But the Moru have fought before, for their freedom. They still can't fly, but I believe they're an equal match for the Kana."
Horus stared at the people occasionally dotting the fields on both sides of them. He could see the city walls emerge now from a clump of palms, hazy in the heat. Several humans looked up to watch the boats pass. Horus's face lit up and he waved at the Moru near the mast. They started to bring down the sail. Anubis, watching, steered the boat toward the right bank.
"What are you doing?" Upuat called, sounding alarmed.
Horus pointed at the humans. "Looking for extra recruits."
A fair group had gathered on the east bank by the time the ships pulled in. "I'll take care of this," Sobek said, jumping from the boat to a skiff the people had sent out. He started talking to them, pointing at the city, the ships, then the sky. The people looked up at the sky with longing; Horus could guess what Sobek had told them. Then one of the farmers, evidently just elected spokesman, bowed and said something back. He pointed down the river also, and bowed again.
Sobek crossed his arm to his chest and the skiff was pushed away from the shore. On reaching the boat he climbed back aboard by way of a rope that had been thrown down, and nodded at Horus.
"Send in the other ships to pick them up, and they'll come. Anything to save their crops." He looked out at the withering fields. "The women will spread word along this bank from here to the city, and the men will send out their skiffs for us to pick them up."
Horus nodded. "Tell Antakh to take command of the other ships. We'll be heading for the west bank and rallying people there. We'll rejoin just north of the city."
Sobek nodded and moved to the back of the ship to hail Antakh's crew. Within moments the lead ship was moving back out into the middle of the river, toward the west. Horus watched as the other four ships grew smaller behind them.
Convincing the western farmers to join them was no more difficult. The boat had no room to carry them but the crew saw them gathering away from the marshy bank, trailing north. Sobek waved them to continue; the Moru rigged the sail, pulling in the paddles they'd been rowing, and moved away from the bank again. It wasn't too long before the other ships, settled lower in the water under their added weight, joined them, Antakh saluting from the prow of his ship.
"Those people must've been surprised boarding with a bunch of Apsiu," Khenti commented.
"Do we have enough weapons to arm them all?" Horus asked.
"I believe we do," Upuat said. "Antakh would know for sure. If not, I'm certain they'll fight with whatever they've got."
Khenti said, "If you could call down the birds to fight for us, we'd be set!" He winced and ducked his head. "Sorry. Bad choice of words."
They fell silent but for the gentle billowing of the sail. As they approached and started to pass the city they could see small dark forms moving back and forth upon the walls, more so than usual.
"Kana," Upuat said softly.
"They're armed," Sakhmet added.
The ships passed to the north and pulled in closer. The Kana atop the walls noticed them and started hefting their swords and axes, their derisive hoots echoing over the water.
The crews remained silent, watching the Kana mass atop the city walls. The sky clouded over and an unnatural stillness fell over the land. Even the water lapping at the wooden sides of the boats seemed muted, faraway.
Horus broke the silence, staring at the white walls growing slowly closer. His voice was soft in the still air.
"This looks like war."