Home > The Wheel of Osheim (The Red Queen's War #3)(2)

The Wheel of Osheim (The Red Queen's War #3)(2)
Mark Lawrence

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” The man started to hop from one bare foot to the other. “Hot! Hot! Hot!” An infidel, tall, very white, with the golden hair of the distant north across the sea. “Fuck. Hot. Fuck. Hot.” Pulling on a boot that must have spilled out with him, he fell, searing his bare back on the scalding sand and leaping to his feet again. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” The man managed to drag on his other boot before toppling once more and vanishing head over heels down the far side of the dune screaming obscenities.

Tahnoon stood slowly, sliding his saif back into its curved scabbard. The man’s curses diminished into the distance. Man? Or demon? It had escaped from hell, so demon. But its words had been in the tongue of the old empire, thick with the coarse accent of northmen, putting uncomfortable angles on every syllable.

The Ha’tari blinked and there, written in green on red across the back of his eyelids, the succubus stretched toward him. Blinked again, once, twice, three times. Her image remained, enticing and deadly. With a sigh Tahnoon started to trudge down after the yelping infidel, vowing to himself never to worry about the scandalous nine-yard thobes of the al’Effem again.

ONE

All I had to do was walk the length of the temple and not be seduced from the path. It would have taken two hundred paces, no more, and I could have left Hell by the judges’ gate and found myself wherever I damn well pleased. And it would have been the palace in Vermillion that I pleased to go to.

“Shit.” I levered myself up from the burning sand. The stuff coated my lips, filled my eyes with a thousand gritty little grains, even seemed to trickle out of my ears when I tilted my head. I squatted, spitting, squinting into the brilliance of the day. The sun scorched down with such unreasonable fierceness that I could almost feel my skin withering beneath it. “Crap.”

She had been gorgeous though. The part of my mind that had known it was a trap only now struggled out from under the more lustful nine tenths and began shouting “I told you so!”

“Bollocks.” I stood up. An enormous sand dune curved steeply up before me, taller than seemed reasonable and blazing hot. “A fucking desert. Great, just great.”

Actually, after the deadlands even a desert didn’t feel too bad. Certainly it was far too hot, eager to burn any flesh that touched sand, and likely to kill me within an hour if I didn’t find water, but all that aside, it was alive. Yes, there wasn’t any hint of life here, but the very fabric of the place wasn’t woven from malice and despair, the very ground didn’t suck life and joy and hope from you as blotting paper takes up ink.

I looked up at the incredible blueness of the sky. In truth a faded blue that looked to have been left out in the sun too long but after the unchanging dead-sky with its flat orange light all colours looked good to my eye: alive, vibrant, intense. I stretched out my arms. “Damn, but it’s good to be alive!”

“Demon.” A voice behind me.

I made a slow turn, keeping my arms wide, hands empty and open, the key thrust into the undone belt struggling to keep my trews up.

A black-robed tribesman stood there, curved sword levelled at me, the record of his passage down the dune written across the slope behind him. I couldn’t see his face behind those veils they wear but he didn’t seem pleased to see me.

“As-salamu alaykum,” I told him. That’s about all the heathen I picked up during my year in the desert city of Hamada. It’s the local version of “hello.”

“You.” He gestured sharply upward with his blade. “From sky!”

I turned my palms up and shrugged. What could I tell him? Besides any good lie would probably be wasted on the man if he understood the Empire tongue as poorly as he spoke it.

He eyed the length of me, his veil somehow not a barrier to the depth of his disapproval.

“Ha’tari?” I asked. In Hamada the locals relied on desert-born mercenaries to see them across the wastes. I was pretty sure they were called Ha’tari.

The man said nothing, only watched me, blade ready. Eventually he waved the sword up the slope he’d come down. “Go.”

I nodded and started trudging back along his tracks, grateful that he’d decided not to stick me then and there and leave me to bleed. The truth was of course he didn’t need his sword to kill me. Just leaving me behind would be a death sentence.

Sand dunes are far harder to climb than any hill twice the size. They suck your feet down, stealing the energy from each stride so you’re panting before you’ve climbed your own height. After ten steps I was thirsty, by halfway parched and dizzy. I kept my head down and laboured up the slope, trying not to think about the havoc the sun must be wreaking on my back.

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