A cry escaped her, wrenching everything from her body: strength, sight, hope, even the will to live, leaving her empty.
S AFIA WOKE to music and warmth. She lay on a soft blanket, instantly awake, but she languished in the moment. She listened to the soft stringed cords from a lute, accompanied by the soft piping from a reed instrument, haunting and lonely. Firelight danced across the roof overhead, limning the drapes of vines and flowers. The tinkling water added counterpoint to the music.
She knew where she was. There was no slow waking back to the present, only a vague muzzy-headedness from the codeine she had ingested. She heard voices speaking softly, occasional dazzling flashes of laughter, a child playing.
She slowly sat up, earning a grumpy complaint from her shoulder. But the pain was dull, more a deep ache than a sharp twinge. She felt inordinately rested. She checked her watch. She had been asleep only a little more than an hour, but she felt as if she had slept for days. Relaxed and rested.
A young woman stepped toward her, kneeling down, a mug warmed between her hands. “The hodja wishes you to drink this.”
Safia accepted the tea with her good arm. The other lay in a sling across her belly. She sipped gratefully and noticed a conspicuous absence. “Kara? My friend?”
“When you finish your tea, I’m to take you to the hodja. She waits with your sister.”
Safia nodded. She sipped her tea as quickly as its steaming heat would allow. The sweet tea warmed through her. She placed the mug on the ground and crawled to her feet.
Her escort offered a hand to help, but Safia declined, feeling steady enough.
Safia was led to the far side of the sinkhole cavern and down another tunnel. With a lantern in one hand, her guide walked her assuredly through the maze of passages.
Safia addressed her guide. “Who are you all?”
“We are the Rahim,” she answered stiffly.
Safia translated. Rahim was the Arabic word for “womb” Were they some bedouin tribe of women, Amazons of the desert? She pondered the name. It also held an undercurrent of divinity, of rebirth and continuity.
Who were these women?
Ahead a light appeared, glowing from a side cavern.
Her escort stopped a few steps away and nodded Safia forward.
She continued, feeling for the first time since waking a tingle of unease. The air seemed to grow thicker, harder to breathe. She concentrated on inhaling and exhaling, riding through the moment of anxiety. As she stepped nearer, she heard sobbing, heart-deep, broken.
Safia pushed aside her fears and hurried to the cavern. She found Kara collapsed on a rug in the cavern. The elder hodja knelt at her side, cradling Kara. The old woman’s green eyes met Safia’s.
Safia rushed over. “Kara, what’s wrong?”
Kara lifted her face, eyes swollen, damp-cheeked. She was beyond words. She pointed an arm toward a large stone with a fire behind it. Safia recognized the chunk as slag glass, molten sand that had hardened. She had found such pieces around lightning strikes. They were revered by ancient peoples, used as jewelry, sacred objects, prayer stones.
She didn’t understand until she spotted the figure in the glass. “Oh, no…”
Kara croaked, “It’s…it’s my father.”
“Oh, Kara.” Tears welled up in Safia’s eyes. She knelt on Kara’s other side. Reginald Kensington had been like a father to Safia, too. She understood her friend’s grief, but confusion shattered through. “How? Why…?”
Kara glanced at the old woman, too overwhelmed to speak.
The hodja patted Kara’s hand. “As I’ve already explained to your friend, Lord Kensington is not unknown to our people. His story leads here as much as the story of you two. He had entered sands forbidden on the day he died. He had been warned, but chose to dismiss it. And it was not chance that brought him to those sands. He sought Ubar, like his daughter. He knew those same sands were near its heart and could not stay away.”
“What happened to him?”
“To tread the sands around Ubar is to risk the wrath of a power that has lain hidden for millennia. A power and place we women guard. He heard of the place, was drawn to it. It was his doom.”
Kara sat up, clearly having heard all this already. “What is this power?”
The hodja shook her head. “That we don’t know. The Gates of Ubar have been closed to us for two millennia. What lies beyond those gates has been lost to the ages. We are the Rahim, the last of its guardians. Knowledge passed from mouth to ear, from one generation to another, but two secrets were never spoken after Ubar was destroyed, never passed to our line by the surviving queen of Ubar. So great was the tragedy that she sealed the city, and with her death, those two secrets died: where the gates’ keys were hidden and what power lies under the sand, at the heart of Ubar.”
Each word spoken by the old woman raised a thousand questions in Safia’s mind. The Gates of Ubar. The last of its guardians. The heart of the lost city. Hidden keys. But some inkling reached through to her.
“The keys…” she muttered. “The iron heart.”
The hodja nodded. “To lead to Ubar’s heart.”
“And the spear with the bust of Biliqis, the Queen of Sheba.”
The elder bowed her head. “She who was the mother of us all. The first of the royal house of Ubar. It is only right she adorns the second key.”
Safia reviewed the known history of Ubar. The city had indeed been founded around 900 B.C., the same period during which the historical Queen of Sheba lived. Ubar prospered until the collapse of a sinkhole destroyed the city around A.D. 300. It had a long reign. But the existence of the ruling house was well documented.
Safia questioned this fact. “I thought King Shaddad was the first ruler of Ubar, the great-grandchild of Noah.” There was even a reclusive clan of bedouin, the Shahra, who claimed to be descendants of this same king.
The old woman shook her head. “The line of Shaddad were administrators only. The line of Biliqis were the true rulers, a secret hidden from all but the most trusted. Ubar gave its powers to the queen, chose her, allowed her to birth her line strong and sure. A line that continues to this day.”
Safia remembered the visage on the bust. The young women here bore a striking resemblance. Could such a line remain pure for over two millennia?
Safia shook her head, incredulous. “Are you saying your tribe can trace their lineage all the way back to the Queen of Sheba?”
The hodja bowed her head. “It is more than that…much more.” She lifted her eyes. “We are the Queen of Sheba.”
K ARA FELT sick, nauseous—but not from withdrawal. In fact, since her arrival here in these caves, she felt less jagged, the shakes slowly subsiding, as if something had been done to her head. But what she now suffered was a thousandfold worse than the lack of amphetamines. She felt crushed, heartsick, worn thin, devastated. All this talk of secret cities, mysterious powers, ancient lineages meant nothing to her. Her eyes stared at the remains of her father, his mouth frozen in a rictus of agony.
Words of the hodja had locked up her brain.
He had sought Ubar, like his daughter.
Kara recalled the day of her father’s death, the hunt on her sixteenth birthday. She had always wondered why they had traveled all the way out to that section of the desert. There was good hunting much closer to Muscat, why fly out to Thumrait Air Base, travel overland in Rovers, then start their pursuit on sand cycles. Had he used her birthday as an excuse to hunt those lands?
Anger built in her chest, shining out of her like the flames behind the chunk of glass. But it had no focus. She was angry at these women who had held this secret for so long, at her father for throwing his life away on a deadly quest, at herself for following in his footsteps…even at Safia for never making her stop, even when the search was destroying Kara from the inside. The fire of her fury burned away the dregs of her sickness.
Kara sat back and turned to the old hodja. She interrupted her history lesson with Safia, her words bitter. “Why was my father searching for Ubar?”
“Kara…” Safia said in a consoling tone. “I think that can wait.”
“No.” Anger put command in her voice. “I want to know now.”
The hodja remained unimpressed, bowing before Kara’s fury like a reed in the wind. “You are right to ask. That is why you are both here.”
Kara frowned from lips to brow.
The woman glanced between Kara and Safia. “What the desert takes, it also gives back.”
“What does that mean?” Kara snapped back.
The hodja sighed. “The desert took your father.” She waved toward the gruesome stone. “But it gave you a sister.” She nodded to Safia.
“Safia has always been my dearest friend.” Despite her anger, Kara’s voice flared with emotion. The truth and depth of her words, spoken aloud, struck her bruised heart with more impact than she would have imagined. She tried to shake them away, but she was too raw.
“She is more than your friend. She is your sister in both spirit…and flesh.” The hodja raised her staff and pointed it at the body entombed in glass. “There lies your father…and Safia’s.”
The hodja faced the two stunned women.
“You are sisters.”
S AFIA’S MIND could not grasp what the woman was saying.
“Impossible,” Kara said. “My mother died when I was born.”
“You share a father, not a mother,” the hodja clarified. “Safia was born from a woman of our people.”
Safia shook her head. They were half sisters. The peace she had experienced upon waking moments ago had shattered. For ages, she had known nothing about her mother, only that she had died in a bus accident when Safia was four. Nothing was known about her father. Even among the vague memories of her childhood before the orphanage—foggy glimpses, scents, a whisper in the ear—there had never been a male figure, a father. All she had left from her mother was her name, al-Maaz.