Thanks to the generosity of the folks at Ace, here's an extract from Mark Lawrence's forthcoming The Wheel of Osheim. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
All the horrors of Hell stand between Snorri Ver Snagason and the rescue of his family, if indeed the dead can be rescued. For Jalan Kendeth, getting back out alive and with Loki’s key is all that matters. Loki’s creation can open any lock, any door, and it may also be the key to Jalan’s fortune back in the living world. Jalan plans to return to the three w’s that have been the core of his idle and debauched life: wine, women, and wagering. Fate however has other plans, larger plans. The Wheel of Osheim is turning ever faster, and it will crack the world unless it’s stopped. When the end of all things looms, and there’s nowhere to run, even the worst coward must find new answers. Jalan and Snorri face many dangers, from the corpse hordes of the Dead King to the many mirrors of the Lady Blue, but in the end, fast or slow, the Wheel of Osheim always pulls you back. In the end it’s win or die.
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.
“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.
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.
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 black-robed, 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 gesticulating and death threats, or possibly reasoned discourse—the two tend to sound the same in the desert tongue—all five returned, a white-robe in the middle, a checked robe to each side, the Ha’tari flanking.
The three newcomers were bare-faced, baked dark by the sun, hook-nosed, 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.”
I laughed with him, mostly in relief: I’d been about to declare myself the son of a cardinal. Perhaps I had sunstroke already.
Mahood returned with a camel for me. I can’t say I’m fond of the beasts but riding is perhaps my only real talent and I’d spent enough time lurching about on camelback to have mastered the basics. I stepped up into the saddle easy enough and nudged the creature after Sheik Malik as he led off. I took the words he muttered to his boys to be approval.
“We’ll make camp.” The sheik lifted up his arm as we joined the head of the column. He drew breath to shout the order.
“Christ no!” Panic made the words come out louder than intended. I pressed on, hoping the “Christ” would slip past unnoticed. The key to changing a man’s mind is to do it before he’s announced his plan. “My lord al’Hameed, we need to ride hard. Something terrible is going to happen here, very soon!” If the veils hadn’t thinned because of some ongoing slaughter it could only mean one thing. Something far worse was going to happen and the walls that divide life from death were coming down in anticipation . . .
The sheik swivelled toward me, eyes stone once more, his sons tensing as if I’d offered grave insult by interrupting.
“My lord, your man Tahnoon had his story half right. I’m no demon, but I did fall from the sky. Something terrible will happen here very soon and we need to get as far away as we can. I swear by my honour this is true. Perhaps I was sent here to save you and you were sent here to save me. Certainly without each other neither of us would have survived.”
Sheik Malik narrowed his eyes at me, deep crows’ feet appearing, the sun leaving no place for age to hide. “The Ha’tari are a simple people, Prince Jalan, superstitious. My kingdom lies north and reaches the coast. I have studied at the Mathema and owe allegiance to no one in all of Liba save the caliph. Do not take me for a fool.”
The fear that had me by the balls tightened its grip. I’d seen death in all its horrific shades and escaped at great cost to get here. I didn’t want to find myself back in the deadlands within the hour, this time just another soul detached from its flesh and defenceless against the terrors that dwelt there. “Look at me, Lord al’Hameed.” I spread my hands and glanced down across my reddening stomach. “We’re in the deep desert. I’ve spent less than a quarter of an hour here and my skin is burning. In another hour it will be blistered and peeling off. I have no robes, no camel, no water. How could I have got here? I swear to you, my lord, on the honour of my house, if we do not leave, right now, as fast as is possible, we will all die.”
The sheik looked at me as if taking me in for the first time. A long minute of silence passed, broken only by the faint hiss of sand and the snorting of camels. The men around us watched on, tensed for action. “Get the prince some robes, Mahood.” He raised his arm again and barked an order. “We ride!”
The promised fleeing proved far more leisurely than I would have liked. The sheik discussed matters with the Ha’tari headman and we ambled up the slope of a dune, apparently on a course at right angles to their original one. The highlight of the first hour was my drink of water. An indescribable pleasure. Water is life and in the drylands of the dead I had started to feel more than half dead myself. Pouring that wonderful, wet, life into my mouth was a rebirth, probably as noisy and as much of a struggle as the first one given how many men it took to get the water-urn back off me.
Another hour passed. It took all the self-restraint I could muster not to dig my heels in and charge off into the distance. I had taken part in camel races during my time in Hamada. I wasn’t the best rider but I got good odds, being a foreigner. Being on a galloping camel bears several resemblances to energetic sex with an enormously strong and very ugly woman. Right now it was pretty much all I wanted, but the desert is about the marathon not the sprint. The heavily laden camels would be exhausted in half a mile, less if they had to carry the walkers, and whilst the sheik had been prodded into action by my story he clearly thought the chance I was a madman outweighed any advantage to be gained by leaving his goods behind for the dunes to claim.
“Where are you heading, Lord al’Hameed?” I rode beside him near the front of the column, preceded by his elder two sons. Three more of his heirs rode further back.
“We were bound for Hamada and we will still get there, though this is not the direct path. I had intended to spend this evening at the Oasis of Palms and Angels. The tribes are gathering there, a meeting of sheiks before our delegations present themselves to the caliph. We reach agreement in the desert before entering the city. Ibn Fayed receives his vassals once a year and it is better to speak to the throne with one voice so that our requests may be heard more clearly.”
“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.
In time the crowd around the cooking pots thinned and a line of bearers carried the products of all that labour into the largest tent. A gong sounded and the brothers stood up around me. “Tomorrow we’ll see Hamada. Tonight we feast.” Mahood, lean and morose, tapped his pipe out on the sand. “I missed many old friends at the oasis meet tonight, Prince Jalan. My brother Jahmeen was to meet his betrothed this evening. Though I feel he is rather pleased to delay that encounter, at least for a day or two. Let us hope for you that your warning proves to have substance, or my father will have lost face. Let us hope for our brothers on the sand that you are mistaken.” With that he walked off and I trailed him to the glowing tent.
I pushed the flaps back as they swished closed behind Mahood, and stood, still half-bowed and momentarily blinded by the light of a score of cowled lanterns. A broad and sumptuous carpet of woven silks, brilliantly patterned in reds and greens, covered the sand, set with smaller rugs where one might expect the table and chairs to stand. Sheik al’Hameed’s family and retainers sat around a central rug crowded with silver platters, each heaped with food: aromatic rice in heaps of yellow, white, and green; dates and olives in bowls; marinated, dried, sweet strips of camel meat, dry roasted over open flame and dusted with the pollen of the desert rose; a dozen other dishes boasting culinary mysteries.
“Sit, prince, sit!” The sheik gestured to my spot.
I started as I registered for the first time that half of the company seated around the feast were women. Young beautiful women at that, clad in immodest amounts of silk. Impressive weights of gold crowded elegant wrists in glimmering bangles, and elaborate earrings descended in multi-petalled cascades to drape bare shoulders or collect in the hollows behind collarbones.
“Sheik . . . I didn’t know you had . . .” Daughters? Wives? I clamped my mouth shut on my ignorance and sat cross-legged where he indicated, trying not to rub elbows with the dark-haired visions to either side of me, each as tempting as the succubus and each potentially as lethal a trap.
“You didn’t see my sisters walking behind us?” One of the younger brothers whose name hadn’t stuck—clearly amused.
I opened my mouth. Those were women? They could have had four arms and horns under all that folded cloth and I’d have been no wiser. Sensibly I let no words escape my slack jaw.
“We cover ourselves and walk to keep the Ha’tari satisfied,” said the girl to my left, tall, lean, elegant, and perhaps no more than eighteen. “They are easily shocked, these desert men. If they came to the coast they might go blind for not knowing where to rest their eyes . . . poor things. Even Hamada would be too much for them.”
“Fearless fighters, though,” said the woman to my left, perhaps my age. “Without them, crossing the barrens would be a great ordeal. Even in the desert there are dangers.”
Across from us the other two sisters shared an observation, glancing my way. The older of the pair laughed, full- throated. I stared desperately at her kohl-darkened eyes, struggling to keep my gaze from dipping to the jiggle of full breasts beneath silk gauze strewn with sequins. I knew by reputation that Liban royalty, be it the ubiquitous princes, the rarer sheiks, or the singular caliph, all guarded their womenfolk with legendary zeal and would pursue vendettas across the centuries over as little as a covetous glance. What they might do over a despoiled maiden they left to the horrors of imagination.
I wondered if the sheik saw me as a marriage opportunity, having seated me amid his daughters. “I’m very grateful that the Ha’tari found me,” I said, keeping my eyes firmly on the meal.
“My daughters Lila, Mina, Tarelle, and Danelle.” The sheik smiled indulgently as he pointed to each in turn.
“Delightful.” I imagined ways in which they might be delightful. As if reading my mind the sheik raised his goblet.
“We are not so strict in our faith as the Ha’tari but the laws we do keep are iron. You are a welcome guest, prince. But, unless you become betrothed to one of my daughters, lay no finger on them that you would rather keep.”
I reddened and started to bluster. “Sir! A prince of Red March would never—”
“Lay more than a finger upon her and I will make her a gift of your testicles, gold-plated, to be worn as earrings.” He smiled as if we’d been discussing the weather. “Time to eat!”
Food! At least there was the food. I would gorge to the point I was too full for even the smallest of lustful thoughts. And I’d enjoy it too. In the deadlands you starved. From the first moment you stepped into that deadlight until the moment you left it, you starved.
The sheik led us in their heathen prayers, spoken in the desert tongue. It took a damnable long time, my belly rumbling the while, mouth watering at the display set out before me. At last the lot of them joined in with a line or two and we were done. All heads turned to the tent flaps, expectant.
Two elderly male servants walked in with the main course on silver plates, square in the Araby style. Sitting on the floor I could just see a mound of food rising above the dishes, roast mutton no doubt, given the slaughtering earlier. God yes! My stomach growled like a lion, attracting nods of approval from Sheik Malik and his eldest son.
The server set my plate before me and moved on. A skinned sheep’s head stared at me, steaming gently, boiled eyes regarding me with an amused expression, or perhaps that was just the grin on its lipless mouth. A dark tongue coiled beneath a row of surprisingly even teeth.
“Ah.” I closed my own mouth with a click and looked to Tarelle on my left who had just received her own severed head.
She favoured me with a sweet smile. “Marvellous, is it not, Prince Jalan? A feast like this in the desert. A taste of home after so many hard miles.”
I’d heard that the Libans could get almost as stabby if you didn’t touch their food as they would if you did touch their women. I returned my gaze to the steaming head, its juices pooling around it, and considered how far I was from Hamada and how few yards I would get without water.
I reached for the nearest rice and started to heap my plate. Perhaps I could give the poor creature a decent burial and nobody would notice. Sadly I was the curiosity at this family feast and most eyes were turned my way. Even the dozen sheep seemed interested.
“You’re hungry, my prince!” Danelle to my right, her knee brushing mine each time she reached forward to add a date or olive to her plate.
“Very,” I said, grimly shovelling rice onto the monstrosity on my own. The thing had so little flesh that it was practically a grinning skull. The presence of a distinctly scooped spoon amid the flatware arranged by my plate suggested that a goodly amount of delving was expected. I wondered whether it was etiquette to use the same spoon for eyeballs as for brain . . .
“Father says the Ha’tari think you fell from the sky.” Lila from across the feast. “With a devil-woman giving chase!” Mina giggled. The youngest of them, silenced by a sharp look from elder brother Mahood.
“Well,” I said. “I—”
Something moved beneath my rice heap.
“Yes?” Tarelle by my side, knee touching mine, naked beneath thin silks.
Goddamn! There it was again, something writhing like a serpent beneath mud. “I . . . the sheik said your man fell from his camel.”
Mina was a slight thing, but unreasonably beautiful, perhaps not yet sixteen. “The Ha’tari are not ours. We are theirs now they have Father’s coin. Theirs until we are discharged into Hamada.”
“But it’s true,” Danelle, her voice seductively husky at my ear. “The Ha’tari would rather say the moon swung too low and knocked them from their steed than admit they fell.”
General laughter. The sheep’s purple tongue broke through my burial, coiling amid the fragrant yellow rice. I stabbed it with my fork, pinning it to the plate.
The sudden movement drew attention. “The tongue is my favourite,” Mina said.
“The brain is divine,” Sheik al’Hameed declared from the head of the feast. “My girls puree it with dates, parsley and pepper then return it to the skull.” He kissed his fingertips.
Whilst he held his children’s attention I quickly severed the tongue and with some frantic sawing reduced it to six or more sections.
“Fine cooking skills are a great bonus in a wife, are they not, Prince Jalan? Even if she never has to cook it is well that she knows enough to instruct her staff.” The sheik turned the focus back onto me.
“Yes.” I stirred the tongue pieces into the rice and heaped more atop them. “Absolutely.”
The sheik seemed pleased at that. “Let the poor man eat! The desert has given him an appetite.”
For a few minutes we ate in near silence, each traveller dedicated to their meal after weeks of poor fare. I worked at the rice around the edge of my burial, unwilling to put tainted mutton anywhere near my mouth. Beside me the delicious Tarelle inverted her own sheep’s head and started scooping out brains into her suddenly far less desirable mouth. The spoon made unpleasant scraping sounds along the inside of the skull.
I knew what had happened. Whilst in the deadlands Loki’s key had been invisible to the Dead King. Perhaps a jest of Loki’s, to have the thing become apparent only when out of reach. Whatever the reason, we had been able to travel the deadlands with less danger from the Dead King than we’d had during the previous year in the living world. Of course we had far more danger from every other damned thing, but that was a different matter. Now that the key was back among the living any dead thing could hunt it for the Dead King.
I was pretty sure Tarelle and Danelle’s sheep had turned their puffy eyeballs my way and I didn’t dare scrape away the rice from my own for fear of finding the thing staring back at me. I managed, by dint of continuously sampling from the dishes in the centre, to eat a vast amount of food whilst continuing to increase the mound on my own plate. After months in the deadlands it would take more than a severed head on my plate to kill my appetite. I drank at least a gallon from my goblet, constantly refilling it from a nearby ewer, only water sadly, but the deadlands had given me a thirst that required a small river to quench and the desert had only added to it.
“This danger that you claim to have come to warn us of.” Mahood pushed back his plate. “What is it?” He rested both hands on his stomach. As lean as his father, he was taller, sharp featured, pockmarked, as quick to shift from friendly to sinister with just the slightest movement of his face.
“Bad.” I took the opportunity to push back my own plate. To be unable to clear your plate is a compliment to a Liban host’s largesse. Mine simply constituted a bigger compliment than usual, I hoped. “I don’t know what form it will take. I only pray that we are far enough away to be safe.”
“And God sent an infidel to deliver this warning?”
“A divine message is holy whatever it may be written upon.” I had Bishop James to thank for that gem. He beat the words, if not the sentiment, into me after I decorated the privy wall with that bible passage about who was cleaving to whom. “And of course the messenger is never to be blamed! That one’s older than civilization.” I breathed a sigh of relief as my plate was removed without comment.
“And now dessert!” The sheik clapped his hands. “A true desert dessert!”
I looked up expectantly as the servers returned with smaller square platters stacked along their arms, half expecting to be presented with a plate of sand. I would have preferred a plate of sand.
“It’s a scorpion,” I said.
“A keen eye you have, Prince Jalan.” Mahood favoured me with a dark stare over the top of his water goblet.
“Crystallized scorpion, Prince Jalan! Can you have spent time in Liba and not yet tried one?” The sheik looked confounded.
“It’s a great delicacy.” Tarelle’s knee bumped mine.
“I’m sure I’ll love it.” I forced the words past gritted teeth. Teeth that had no intention of parting to admit the thing. I stared at the scorpion, a monster fully nine inches long from the curve of the tail arching over its back to the oversized twin claws. The arachnid had a slightly translucent hue to it, its carapace orange and glistening with some kind of sugary glaze. Any larger and it could be mistaken for a lobster.
“Eating the scorpion is a delicate art, Prince Jalan,” the sheik said, demanding our attention. “First, do not be tempted to eat the sting. For the rest customs vary, but in my homeland we begin with the lower section of the pincer, like so.” He took hold of the upper part and set his knife between the two halves. “A slight twist will crack—”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the scorpion on my plate jitter toward me on stiff legs, six glazed feet scrabbling for purchase on the silver. I slammed my goblet down on the thing crushing its back, legs shattering, pieces flying in all directions, cloudy syrup leaking from its broken body.
All nine al’Hameeds stared at me in open-mouthed astonishment.
“Ah . . . that’s . . .” I groped for some kind of explanation. “That’s how we do it where I come from!”
A silence stretched, rapidly extending through awkward into uncomfortable, until with a deep belly-laugh Sheik Malik slammed his goblet down on his own scorpion. “Unsubtle, but effective. I like it!” Two of his daughters and one son followed suit. Mahood and Jahmeen watched me with narrowed eyes as they started to dismember their dessert piece by piece in strict accordance with tradition.
I looked down at the syrupy mess of fragments in my own plate. Only the claws and stinger had survived. I still didn’t want to eat any of it. Opposite me, Mina popped a sticky chunk of broken scorpion into her pretty mouth, smiling all the while.
I picked up a piece, sharp-edged and dripping with ichor, hoping for some distraction so that I could palm the thing away. It was a pity the heathens took against dogs so. A hound at a feast is always handy for disposing of unwanted food. With a sigh I moved the fragment toward my lips . . .
When the distraction came I was almost too distracted to use the opportunity. One moment we sat illuminated by the fluttering light of a dozen oil lamps, the next the world outside lit up brighter than a desert noon, dazzling even through the tent walls. I could see the shadows of guy ropes stark against the material, the outline of a passing servant. The intensity of it grew from unbelievable to impossible, and outside the screaming started. A wave of heat reached me as if I had passed from shadow to sun. I barely had time to stand before the glow departed, as quickly as it came. The tent seemed suddenly dim. I stumbled over Tarelle, unable to make out my surroundings.
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.