Home > The Wheel of Osheim (The Red Queen's War #3)(5)

The Wheel of Osheim (The Red Queen's War #3)(5)
Mark Lawrence

“And are we still aiming for the oasis?”

The sheik snorted phlegm, a custom the locals seem to have learned from the camels. “Sometimes Allah sends us messages. Sometimes they’re written in the sand and you have to be quick to read them. Sometimes it’s in the flight of birds or the scatter of a lamb’s blood and you have to be clever to understand them. Sometimes an infidel drops on you in the desert and you’d have to be a fool not to listen to them.” He glanced my way, lips pressed into a bitter line. “The oasis lies three miles west of the spot we found you. Hamada lies two days south.”

Many men would have chosen to take my warning to the oasis. I felt a moment of great relief that Malik al’Hameed was not one of them, or right now instead of riding directly away from whatever was coming I would be three miles from it, trying to convince a dozen sheiks to abandon their oasis.

“And if they all die?”

“Ibn Fayed will still hear a single voice.” The sheik nudged his camel on. “Mine.”

A mile further on it occurred to me that although Hamada lay two days south, we were in fact heading east. I pulled up alongside the sheik again, displacing a son.

“We’re no longer going to Hamada?”

“Tahnoon tells me there is a river to the east that will carry us to safety.” I turned in my saddle and gave the sheik a hard stare. “A river?” He shrugged. “A place where time flows differently. The world is cracked, my friend.” He held a hand up toward the sun. “Men fall from the sky. The dead are unquiet. And in the desert there are fractures where time runs away from you, or with you.” A shrug. “The gap between us and whatever this danger of yours is will grow more quickly if we crawl this way than if we run in any other direction.”

I had heard of such things before, though never seen them. On the Bremmer Slopes in the Ost Reich there are bubbles of slo-time that can trap a man, releasing him after a week, a year, or a century, to a world grown older while he merely blinked. Elsewhere there are places where a man might grow ancient and find that in the rest of Christendom just a day has passed.

We rode on and perhaps we found this so-called river of time, but there was little to show for it. Our feet did not race, our strides didn’t devour seven yards at a time. All I can say is that evening arrived much more swiftly than expected and night fell like a stone.

I must have turned in my saddle a hundred times. If I had been Lot’s wife the pillar of salt would have stood on Sodom’s doorstep. I didn’t know what I was looking for, demons boiling black across the dunes, a plague of flesh-scarabs . . . I remembered the Red Vikings chasing us into Osheim what seemed a lifetime ago and half-expected them to crest a dune, axes raised. But, whatever fear painted there, the horizon remained stubbornly empty of threat. All I saw was the Ha’tari rear-guard, strengthened at the sheik’s request.

The sheik kept us moving deep into the night until at last the snorting of his beasts convinced him to call a halt. I sat back, sipping from a water skin, while the sheik’s people set up camp with practised economy. Great tents were unfolded from camelback, lines tethered to flat stakes long enough to find purchase in the sand, fires built from camel dung gathered and hoarded along the journey. Lamps were lit and set beneath the awnings of the tents’ porches, silver lamps for the sheik’s tent, burning rock-oil. Cauldrons were unpacked, storage jars opened, even a small iron oven set above its own oil burners. Spice scents filled the air, somehow more foreign even than the dunes and the strange stars above us.

“They’re slaughtering the sheep.” Mahood had come up behind me, making me jump. “Father brought them all this way to impress Sheik Kahleed and the others at the meet. Send ahead, I told him, get them brought out from Hamada. But no, he wanted to feast Kahleed on Hameed mutton, said he would know any deception. Desert-seasoned mutton is stringy, tough stuff, but it does have a flavour all its own.” He watched the Ha’tari as he spoke. They patrolled on foot now, out on the moon-washed sands, calling to each other once in a while with soft melodic cries. “Father will want to ask you questions about where you came from and who gave you this message of doom, but that is a conversation for after the meal, you understand?”

“I do.” That at least gave me some time to concoct suitable lies. If I told the truth about where I had been and the things I had seen . . . well, it would turn their stomachs and they’d wish they hadn’t eaten.

Mahood and another of the sons sat down beside me and started to smoke, sharing a single long pipe, beautifully wrought in meerschaum, in which they appeared to be burning garbage, judging by the reek. I waved the thing away when they offered it to me. After half an hour I relaxed and lay back, listening to the distant Ha’tari and looking up at the dazzle of the stars. It doesn’t take long in Hell before your definition of “good company” reduces to “not dead.” For the first time in an age I felt comfortable.

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