“Calm yourself, both of you.” The woman raised her hands, one palm toward each. “This is a gift, not a curse.”
Her words drained some of the wild beating in Safia’s heart, like a palm placed on a thrumming tuning fork. Still, she could not bring herself to glance toward Kara, too ashamed, as if her presence somehow fouled the good memory of Lord Kensington. Safia’s mind went back to the day she was taken from the orphanage, a terrifying, hopeful day. Reginald Kensington had chosen her above all the other girls, a mixed-blood child, taken her home, put her in her own room. Kara and Safia had instantly bonded. Had they, even at that young age, recognized a secret bond, an easy comfort of family? Why hadn’t Reginald Kensington ever told them of their secret sisterhood?
“If only I’d known…” Kara gasped out, reaching out to Safia.
Safia looked up. She read no blame in her friend’s eye; the anger of a moment ago had been snuffed. All she saw was relief, hope, and love.
“Maybe we did know…” Safia mumbled, and leaned into her sister’s embrace. “Maybe we always knew down deep.”
Tears flowed. And just like that, they were no longer just friends—they were family.
They hugged for a long moment, but questions eventually pulled them apart. Kara kept Safia’s hand in her own.
The hodja finally spoke. “Your shared story goes back to Lord Kensington’s discovery of the statue at the tomb of Nabi Imran. His remarkable find was significant to us. The statue dated from the founding of Ubar, buried at a tomb tied to a woman of miracles.”
“The Virgin Mary?” Safia asked.
A nod answered her. “As guardians, one of our number had to get close, to examine the funerary object. It was said that the keys to the Gates of Ubar would reveal themselves when the time was right. So Al-maaz was sent.”
“Al-Maaz,” Safia said, noting the pronunciation was slightly off.
“Almaaz,” the hodja repeated more firmly.
Kara squeezed her hand. “All the women here are all named after jewels. The hodja’s name is Lu’lu. Pearl.”
Safia’s eyes widened. “Almaaz. My mother’s name was Diamond. The orphanage thought it was her family name al-Maaz. So what happened to her?”
The hodja, Lu’lu, shook her head with a weary frown. “Like many of our women, your mother fell in love. In investigating the discovery of the statue, she allowed herself to get too close to Lord Kensington…and he to her. They both were lost to each other. And after a few months, a child grew in her womb, seeded the natural way of all women.”
Safia frowned at the strange choice of words but didn’t interrupt.
“The pregnancy panicked your mother. It was forbidden for one of us to bear a child from a man’s loins. She fled Lord Kensington. Back to us. We cared for her until she gave birth. But after you were born, she had to leave. Almaaz had broken our rule. And you, a child of mixed blood, were not pure Rahim.” The old woman touched her teardrop tattoo, the ruby symbol of the tribe. Safia had no tattoo. “Your mother raised you as best she could in Khaluf on the Omani coast, not far from Muscat. But the accident left you an orphan.
“During all this time, Lord Kensington never gave up his search for your mother…and the possible child she carried. He scoured Oman, spent fortunes, but when one of our women wish to be unseen, we are not found. The blood of Biliqis has blessed us in many ways.”
The old woman glanced down to her staff. “When we learned you were orphaned, we could not abandon you. We found where you were taken and passed the information to Lord Kensington. He was heartsick to hear of Almaaz, but as the desert takes, it also returns. It gave him back a daughter. He collected you and pulled you into his family. I suspect he planned on waiting until you both were old enough to understand the complexities of the heart before revealing your shared blood.”
Kara stirred. “On the morning of the hunt…my father told me that he had something important to tell me. Something that, on my sixteenth birthday, I was woman enough to hear.” She swallowed hard, voice cracking. “I thought it was only something about school or university. Not…not…”
Safia squeezed her hand. “It’s all right. Now we know.”
Kara glanced up, her eyes full of confusion. “But why did he still pursue Ubar? I don’t understand.”
The hodja sighed. “It is one of many reasons we are forbidden from men. Perhaps it was a whisper across a pillow. A bit of history shared between lovers. But your father learned of Ubar. He sought the lost city, maybe as a way of being closer to the woman he lost. But Ubar is dangerous. The burden of its guardianship is a heavy one.”
As if demonstrating, the old woman hauled herself up with considerable effort.
“And what of us now?” Safia asked, standing with Kara.
“I will tell you along the way,” she said. “We have far to travel.”
“Where are we going?” Safia asked.
The question seemed to surprise the hodja. “You are one of us, Safia. You brought us the keys.”
“The heart and the spear?”
A nod. She turned away. “After two millennia, we go to unlock the Gates of Ubar.”
The Gates of Ubar
DECEMBER 4, 5:55 A.M.
A S THE skies brightened to the east, Omaha slowed the van at the top of the pass. The road continued down the far side…if the rutted, stone-plagued track could be called a road. His lower back ached from the constant bump and rattle of the last ten miles.
Omaha braked to a halt. Here the road crested the last pass through the mountains. Ahead, the highlands dropped to salt flats and gravel plains. In the rearview mirror, fields of green heather spread, dotted with grazing cattle. The transition was abrupt.
To either side of the van lay a moonscape of red rock, interrupted by patches of straggly, red-barked trees, bent by the winds flowing over the pass. Boswellia sacra. The rare and precious frankincense trees. The source of wealth in ages past.
As Omaha braked, Painter’s head snapped up from a light drowse. “What is it?” he asked blearily. One hand rested on the pistol in his lap.
Omaha pointed ahead. The road descended through a dry riverbed, a wadi. It was a rocky, treacherous course, meant for four-wheel-drive vehicles.
“It’s all downhill from here,” Omaha said.
“I know this place,” Barak said behind them. The fellow never seemed to sleep, whispering directions to Omaha as they wound through the mountains. “This is Wadi Dhikur, the Vale of Remembrance. The cliffs to either side are an ancient graveyard.”
Omaha popped the van into gear. “Let’s hope it doesn’t become ours.”
“Why did we come this way?” Painter asked.
In the third row of seats, Coral and Danny stirred, slumped against each other. They sat straighter, listening. Clay, seated beside Barak, merely snored, head craned back, lost to the world.
Barak answered Painter’s question. “Only the local Shahra tribe know of this route down the mountains to the desert. They still collect frankincense from the trees around here in the traditional manner.”
Omaha had never met anyone from the Shahra clan. They were a reclusive bunch, almost stone age in their technology, frozen in tradition. Their language had been studied at length. It was unlike modern Arabic, almost a reedy singsong, and contained eight additional phonetic syllables. Over time, most languages lose sounds, becoming more refined as they mature. With the additional syllables, the Shahri language was considered to be one of the most ancient in all of Arabia.
But more particularly, the Shahra called themselves the People of ’Ad, named after King Shaddad, the first ruler of Ubar. According to oral traditions, they descended from the original inhabitants of Ubar, those who fled its destruction in A.D. 300. In fact, Barak might be leading them down the very path to Ubar that the People of ’Ad had once used to flee its destruction.
A chilling thought, especially shadowed by the entombed graves.
Barak finished, “At the bottom of the wadi, it is only thirty kilometers to reach Shisur. It is not far.”
Omaha began their descent, in the lowest gear, creeping at five miles per hour. To go any faster risked sliding out in the loose shale and rocky scree. Despite the caution, the van skidded all too often, as if traveling on ice. After half an hour, Omaha’s hands were damp on the wheel.
But at least the sun was up, a dusty rose in the sky.
Omaha recognized that hue. A storm was coming. Due to strike the area in a few more hours. Already winds off the sands blew up the wadi, blustering against the less-than-aerodynamic van.
As Omaha rounded a blind bend in the riverbed, two camels and a pair of robed bedouin appeared ahead. He hit the brakes too hard, fishtailed the rear end, and struck broadside into a precariously stacked set of stone slabs alongside the road. Metal buckled. The slabs toppled.
Clay startled awake with a snort.
“There goes our collision deposit,” Danny griped.
The two camels, loaded and strapped with bales and overflowing baskets, gurgled at them, tossing their heads, as they were walked past the stalled van. It looked like they were carrying an entire household on their backs.
“Refugees,” Painter said, nodding to other similarly laden camels, mules, and horses moving up the dry watercourse. “They’re fleeing the storm.”
“Is everyone okay?” Omaha asked as he fought the gearshift knob, punching the clutch. The van lurched, rocked, and finally began to roll again.
“What did we hit back there?” Coral asked, staring at the toppled stones.
Danny pointed to other similar stone piles that peppered the graveyard. “Triliths,” he answered. “Ancient prayer stones.” Each was composed of three slabs leaned against one another to form a small pyramid.
Omaha continued down the road, wary of the stacked stones. This was made more difficult as “traffic” grew thicker the lower down the riverbed they traveled.