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

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

I’d escaped the succubus by luck rather than judgment. I’d had to bury my judgment pretty deep to allow myself to be led off by her in any event. True, she’d been the first thing I’d seen in all the deadlands that looked alive—more than that, she’d been a dream in flesh, shaped to promise all a man could desire. Lisa DeVeer. A dirty trick. Even so, I could hardly have claimed not to have been warned, and when she pulled me down into her embrace and her smile split into something wider than a hyena’s grin and full of fangs I was only half-surprised.

Somehow I’d wriggled free, losing my shirt in the process, but she’d have been on me quick enough if I hadn’t seen the walls ripple and known that the veils were thin there, very thin indeed. The key had torn them open for me and I’d leapt through. I hadn’t known what would be waiting for me, nothing good to be sure, but likely it had fewer teeth than my new lady friend.

Snorri had told me the veils grew thinnest where the most people were dying. Wars, plagues, mass executions . . . anywhere that souls were being separated from flesh in great numbers and needed to pass into the deadlands. So finding myself in an empty desert where nobody was likely to die apart from me had been a bit of a surprise.

Each part of the world corresponds to some part of the deadlands— wherever disaster strikes, the barrier between the two places fades. They say that on the Day of a Thousand Suns so many died in so many places at the same time that the veil between life and death tore apart and has never properly repaired itself. Necromancers have exploited that weakness ever since.

“There!” The tribesman’s voice brought me back to myself and I found we’d reached the top of the dune. Following the line of his blade I saw down in the valley, between our crest and the next, the first dozen camels of what I hoped would be a large caravan.

“Allah be praised!” I gave the heathen my widest smile. After all, when in Rome . . .

More Ha’tari converged on us before we reached the caravan, all blackrobed, one leading a lost camel. My captor, or saviour, mounted the beast as one of his fellows tossed him the reins. I got to slip and slide down the dune on foot.

By the time we reached the caravan the whole of its length had come into view, a hundred camels at least, most laden with goods, bales wrapped in cloth stacked high around the animals’ humps, large storage jars hanging two to each side, their conical bases reaching almost to the sand. A score or so of the camels bore riders, robed variously in white, pale blue or dark checks, and a dozen more heathens followed on foot, swaddled beneath mounds of black cloth, and presumably sweltering. A handful of scrawny sheep trailed at the rear, an extravagance given what it must have cost to keep them watered.

I stood, scorching beneath the sun, while two of the Ha’tari intercepted the trio of riders coming from the caravan. Another of their number disarmed me, taking both knife and sword. After a minute or two of gesticu-lating and death threats, or possibly reasoned discourse—the two tend to sound the same in the desert tongue—all five returned, a whiterobe in the middle, a checked robe to each side, the Ha’tari flanking.

The three newcomers were bare-faced, baked dark by the sun, hooknosed, eyes like black stones, related I guessed, perhaps a father and his sons.

“Tahnoon tells me you’re a demon and that we should kill you in the old way to avert disaster.” The father spoke, lips thin and cruel within a short white beard.

“Prince Jalan Kendeth of Red March at your service!” I bowed from the waist. Courtesy costs nothing, which makes it the ideal gift when you’re as cheap as I am. “And actually I’m an angel of salvation. You should take me with you.” I tried my smile on him. It hadn’t been working recently but it was pretty much all I had.

“A prince?” The man smiled back. “Marvellous.” Somehow one twist of his lips transformed him. The black stones of his eyes twinkled and became almost kindly. Even the boys to either side of him stopped scowling. “Come, you will dine with us!” He clapped his hands and barked something at the elder son, his voice so vicious that I could believe he’d just ordered him to disembowel himself. The son rode off at speed. “I am Sheik Malik al’Hameed. My boys Jahmeen.” He nodded to the son beside him. “And Mahood.” He gestured after the departing man.

“Delighted.” I bowed again. “My father is . . .”

“Tahnoon says you fell from the sky, pursued by a demon-whore!” The sheik grinned at his son. “When a Ha’tari falls off his camel there’s always a demon or djinn at the bottom of it—a proud people. Very proud.”

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