Home > The Wheel of Osheim (The Red Queen's War #3)

The Wheel of Osheim (The Red Queen's War #3)
Mark Lawrence


In the deepness of the desert, amid dunes taller than any prayer tower, men are made tiny, less than ants. The sun burns there, the wind whispers, all is in motion, too slow for the eye but more certain than sight. The prophet said sand is neither kind nor cruel, but in the oven of the Sahar it is hard to think that it does not hate you.

Tahnoon’s back ached, his tongue scraped dry across the roof of his mouth. He rode, hunched, swaying with the gait of his camel, eyes squinting against the glare even behind the thin material of his shesh. He pushed the discomfort aside. His spine, his thirst, the soreness of the saddle, none of it mattered. The caravan behind him relied on Tahnoon’s eyes, only that. If Allah, thrice-blessed his name, would grant that he saw clearly then his purpose was served.

So Tahnoon rode, and he watched, and he beheld the multitude of sand and the vast emptiness of it, mile upon baking mile. Behind him, the caravan, snaking amid the depths of the dunes where the first shadows would gather come evening. Around its length his fellow Ha’tari rode the slopes, their vigilance turned outward, guarding the soft al’Effem with their tarnished faith. Only the Ha’tari kept to the commandments in spirit as well as word. In the desert such rigid observance was all that kept a man alive. Others might pass through and survive, but only Tahnoon’s people lived in the Sahar, never more than a dry well from death. Treading the fine line in all things. Pure. Allah’s chosen.

Tahnoon angled his camel up the slope. The al’Effem sometimes named their beasts. Another weakness of the tribes not born in the desert. In addition, they scrimped on the second and fourth prayers of each day, denying Allah his full due.

The wind picked up, hot and dry, making the sand hiss as it stripped it from the sculpted crest of the dune. Reaching the top of the slope, Tahnoon gazed down into yet another empty sun-hammered valley. He shook his head, thoughts returning along his trail to the caravan. He glanced back toward the curving shoulder of the next dune, behind which his charges laboured along the path he had set them. These particular al’Effem had been in his care for twenty days now. Two more and he would deliver them to the city. Two more days to endure until the sheikh and his family would grate upon him no longer with their decadent and godless ways. The daughters were the worst. Walking behind their father’s camels, they wore not the twelve-yard thobe of the Ha’tari but a nine-yard abomination that wrapped so tight its folds barely concealed the woman beneath.

The curve of the dune drew his eye and for a second he imagined a female hip. He shook the vision from his head and would have spat were his mouth not so dry.

“God forgive me for my sin.”

Two more days. Two long days.

The wind shifted from complaint to howl without warning, almost taking Tahnoon from his saddle. His camel moaned her disapproval, trying to turn her head from the sting of the sand. Tahnoon did not turn his head. Just twenty yards before him and six foot above the dune the air shimmered as if in mirage, but like none Tahnoon had seen in forty dry years. The empty space rippled as if it were liquid silver, then tore, offering glimpses of some place beyond, some stone temple lit by a dead orange light that woke every ache the Ha’tari had been ignoring and turned each into a throbbing misery. Tahnoon’s lips drew back as if a sour taste had filled his mouth. He fought to control his steed, the animal sharing his fear.

“What?” A whisper to himself, lost beneath the camel’s complaints. Revealed in ragged strips through rents in the fabric of the world Tahnoon saw a naked woman, her body sculpted from every desire a man could own, each curve underwritten with shadow and caressed by that same dead light. The woman’s fullness held Tahnoon’s eye for ten long heartbeats before his gaze finally wandered up to her face and the shock tumbled him from his perch. Even as he hit the ground he had his saif in hand. The demon had fixed its eyes upon him, red as blood, mouth gaping, baring fangs like those of a dozen giant cobras.

Tahnoon scrambled back to the top of the dune. His terrified steed was gone, the thud of her feet diminishing behind him as she fled. He gained the crest in time to see the slashed veil between him and the temple ripped wide, as if a raider had cut their way through the side of a tent. The succubus stood fully displayed and before her, now tumbling out of that place through the torn air, a man, half-naked. The man hit the sand hard, leapt up in an instant, and reached overhead to where the succubus made to pursue him, feeling her way into the rip that he’d dived through headfirst. As she reached for him, needle-like claws springing from her fingertips, the man jabbed upward, something black clutched in his fist, and with an audible click it was all gone. The hole torn into another world— gone. The demon with her scarlet eyes and perfect breasts—gone. The ancient temple vanished, the dead light of that awful place sealed away again behind whatever thinness keeps us from nightmare.

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