Home > The Wheel of Osheim (The Red Queen's War #3)(9)

The Wheel of Osheim (The Red Queen's War #3)(9)
Mark Lawrence

We exited in disordered confusion, to stare at the vast column of fire rising in the distance. A column of fire so huge it rose into the heavens before flattening against the roof of the sky and turning down upon itself in a roiling mushroom-shaped cloud of flame.

For the longest time we watched in silence, ignoring the screams of the servants clutching their faces, the panic of the animals, and the fried smell rising from the tents, which seemed to have been on the point of bursting into flame.

Even in the chaos I had time to reflect that things seemed to be turning out rather well. Not only had I escaped the deadlands and returned to life, I had now very clearly saved the life of a rich man and his beautiful daughters. Who knew how large my reward might be, or how pretty!

A distant rumbling underwrote the screams of men and animals.

“Allah!” Sheik Malik stood beside me, reaching only my shoulder. He had seemed taller on his camel.

That old Jalan luck was kicking in. Everything turning up roses.

“It’s where we found him,” Mahood said.

The rumbling became a roar. I had to raise my voice, nodding, and trying to look grim. “You were wise to listen to me, Sheik Mal—”

Jahmeen cut across me. “It can’t be. That was twenty miles back. No fire could be seen at such—”

The dunes before us exploded, the most distant first, then the next, the next, the next, quick as a man can beat a drum. Then the world rose around us and everything was flying tents and sand and darkness.

TWO

I could have lost consciousness only for a moment for I gained my senses in time to see a dozen or more camels charging right at me, maddened by terror, eyes rolling. I lurched to my feet, spitting sand, and dived to one side. If I’d had a split second to think about my move I would have gone the other way. As it was, almost immediately I slammed into someone still staggering about while the rumbles of the explosion died away. Both of us followed my planned arc but fell short of the point I would have reached unimpeded. I did my level best to haul my screaming companion out from underneath me to use as a shield but just ended up with two handfuls of gauze and a camel’s foot stamping on my arse as it thundered by.

Groaning and clutching my rear, I rolled to the side, discovering that I appeared to have stripped and possibly killed one of the sheik’s daughters. The moonlight hid few details but with her hair in disarray I couldn’t tell which of the four it was. Figures closed on me from both sides, the sand settling out of the night as they came. Somewhere someone kept shrieking but the sound came muffled as if the loudness of detonation had reduced all other noise to insignificance.

The sheik’s elder sons pulled me to my feet, keeping an iron grip on my arms even after I’d stood up. A grey-haired retainer, bleeding from the nose and with the left side of his face blistered, covered the dead daughter with his tunic, leaving himself naked from the waist up, hollowchested and wattled with the hanging skin old men wear. The sons were shouting questions or accusations at me but none of them quite penetrated the ringing in my ears.

The sand cleared from the air within a minute or so and the moon washed across the ruin of our camp. I stood, half-dazed, with Jahmeen’s knife to my throat, while Mahood shouted accusations at me, mostly about his sister, as if the destruction of the camp were as nothing compared to the baring of two breasts. However fine. Oddly I didn’t feel scared. The blast had left me somehow separated, as if I floated outside myself, an unconcerned observer, watching the surroundings as much as I watched Mahood’s raging or Jahmeen’s hand around the hilt of the blade at my neck.

It looked as if a hurricane had blown through leaving no tent standing. Those of us who had been inside when the night lit up were largely unharmed. Those who had been outside showed burns on any exposed flesh facing the direction of the explosion. The Ha’tari on patrol had fared better, though one looked to be blind. But the tribesmen who had been sitting around their prayer pole, unveiled in the darkness, had been burned as badly as the servants.

The camels had taken off but many of the caravaneers had gathered around the base of the nearest dune where the wounded were being treated, leaving me with the two brothers and three retainers out on more exposed sands. It was damnable cold in the desert night and I found myself shivering. The brothers might have thought it from fear, and Jahmeen grinned nastily at me, but some cataclysms are so terrifying that my habitual terror just ups and runs, and right now my fear was still lost somewhere out there in the night.

It wasn’t until Sheik Malik approached from the dunes with two Ha’tari, leading half a dozen camels, that I suddenly settled back into myself and started to panic, recalling his light-hearted talk of gold-plating the balls of any man who laid hands on his daughters.

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