The Totems of Abydos - By John Norman

Chapter 1

It was near sunset when Horemheb left the village. He had with him his staff, a small sack of meal, and the parchment, from the raised impressions of which, beneath his fingers, might be traced the sayings. The brethren took look little note of him as this journey was not unprecedented with Horemheb, even at this fearful time of day.

In a short time, Horemheb had found the string stretched amongst the trees, it tied from tree to tree, at a height convenient to his hand, it marking the trail he would follow. He touched the string and, sometimes, when there would be a stirring in the brush near him, the sound of a body moving in the darkness through the undergrowth, the sound of a branch moving overhead, perhaps tossed by the wind, perhaps depressed by the tread of a small foot, he would stop and clutch the string. It was the string, it seemed, that protected him from the night of the world, a tiny string tied between trees in the darkness, but in Horemheb there was a darkness within a darkness, and within the interior darkness he had groped for a string, but had never found it.

Horemheb continued his journey, not leaving hold of the string.

He did not fear that he would be followed, nor did it much matter to him if he might be. Rather we may suppose he would have pitied any who might have been tempted to follow him, and, indeed, had he been younger, he might have remonstrated with them, not for his sake, for he was lonely, but for theirs, to return to the safety of their walls, to the hearths of the village. When he was younger he had been tempted to call others after him, of course, not only for the comfort which they might afford, or, more selfishly, for the dangers they might share, but in the hope that they, if not he, might discover what lay at the end of the string, that they might come with him to the place where the sting ended, where the rocks were, and the platform, and that they might tell him what they had seen.

It was no secret to the brethren, of course, as it seemed to be to Horemheb, what lay at the end of the string. Many was the time in the bright daylight hours, when all is warm and cheerful, that they had followed out its length, and come to the place where the platform was, a place not much different from other places, and seen how empty it was, and how meaningless, with only the wind there, and stirring leaves, and small, soft sounds from amongst the rocks.

To be sure, the brethren would never follow Horemheb from the village at night. In the darkness were many shapes, and not all benign, and, often enough, of a moist, dewy morning, had the evidence been clear that even near the string had prowled stealthy, hungry ones, the sort which were reluctant to traverse the cleared area outside the fence.

Horemheb stopped.

There had been a stirring near him, a shifting, like a sudden swirl or eddy in dry water, and then a rippling of branches. It was not likely to have been a stealthy one. Of such a one Horemheb, nor even the younger and more acute of perception, would have been likely to detect the approach, until its closure, which would have taken but the fraction of an instant, but scarcely, it was said, half the beat of a heart. It was said one would not even have time to be afraid. That was supposed to be comforting, one supposed. But that thought frightened Horemheb, not having time enough to be afraid. He would not have liked that. It was better to have had time enough to be afraid, for that, too, was, like the string, something to understand, and grasp. But Horemheb took comfort in the thought that even within the grasp of a stealthy one, helpless within its embrace, one would surely have an instant, or part of an instant, of understanding, if only so fleeting an understanding, of what had occurred. That was important. Horemheb would want to understand. Surely that would be most terrible, not to know, not to understand, what had occurred. How terrible to perish like a flower or a blade of grass, to have been so beautiful, and so alive, and not to have known it, and then to perish, unaware even of the