SAFIA WOKEto 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
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
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.
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
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.
“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?”
Each word spoken by the old woman raised a thousand questions in Safia’s mind.
“The keys…” she muttered. “The iron 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 900B.C, the same period during which the historical Queen of Sheba lived. Ubar prospered until the collapse of a sinkhole destroyed the city aroundA.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?”