The Riddle of Solomon
By D. J. Niko
Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2013 D. J. Niko
All rights reserved.
Northwestern edge of the Rub' al Khali Desert Saudi Arabia
The sheer sandstone cliffs of the Tuwaiq Escarpment rose like rocky stalagmites from the sandy expanses of central Arabia, casting long shadows on the parched wasteland below. The morning sun made the landscape glow like the gold of pharaohs and gave definition to the softly sculpted dunes beneath the gaze of the escarpment. In the distant horizon, the crests and valleys of the sand sea dissolved into an umber fog.
Sarah Weston halted her horse and surveyed the terrain. Through the fine mist of sand that hung in the air, the massifs to the east appeared slightly hazy, as if reflected in an antique mirror. She knew why. This part of the Rub' al Khali Desert was subject to the shamal winds, at times harmless and other times annihilating everything in their path. All but the hardiest nomads steered clear of this place, where gales rose without warning—and without mercy.
Sarah felt a whisper of a breeze flutter her white gauze turban, which warded off the cruel July sun that baked the land at temperatures often exceeding a hundred and twenty degrees. She used the end of the turban to wipe the cocktail of perspiration and fine sand from her face. The tiny grains scratched at her fair skin, a familiar sensation.
The conditions couldn't have been more different than those of her privileged British upbringing. The house parties at her family's country manor, the banal company, her father's notoriety and influence, her mother's tragic end, her own brief career among the learned men of her alma mater, Cambridge University—all were ruins from a distant past. And that was the way she liked it.
She took in the vastness of the remote, inhospitable place she had come to love. She was awed by the vast wilderness of sand and rock that held so many secrets of early civilization and was humbled by the impermanence of the desert, which shifted and drifted like a capricious nymph who could be captured briefly but never possessed.
In this harsh terrain, she had worked for seven months as the lead archaeologist in a dig jointly funded by Rutgers and King Saud universities to excavate Qaryat al-Fau, the ancient Kindite city lost in the shifting sands of the Rub' al Khali. She was brought on board by cultural anthropologist Daniel Madigan, who'd put together the expedition seven years ago and had uncovered significant new sections of this once-great commercial center that had thrived in the first through fourth centuries of the Common Era.
Today, however, they had strayed from the site. The al-Fau expedition was operating with a pared-down crew for only two hours a day due to the heat, so they had time on their hands. At the beginning of the summer, Sarah and Daniel had quietly begun digging two miles north of al-Fau, in the desolate place known to Bedouin nomads as Valley of the Wind.
Their foray here was prompted by a blip in their satellite imagery, which suggested the possibility of a debris field buried beneath the sands. As it happened, their timing was fortuitous: a few months ago, a vicious sandstorm had howled through the valley. The ferocious shamal had blown away huge dunes, scattering the sand to all points of the compass. It was how the desert regenerated itself.
And how it revealed its secrets.
Daniel rode next to Sarah. He shifted the black baseball cap covering his shoulder-length mahogany waves streaked with just enough gray to hint at his forty-three years. He looked at his partner through dark green aviators and spoke in a musical Tennessee accent. "Pretty hot out here for an English girl. You doing all right?"
"I could do without the sauna. Otherwise, never better."
"Well, all right. Ready to collect some specimens?"
"Let's do it."
It was the first time since they'd uncovered the bones, strewn across a good half-mile of desert, that they were ready to take up some specimens for study. There were hundreds of them—porous, broken, half- buried in sand. Some were cameloid, some human, all remarkably well preserved in the dry, bacteria-free environment of their desert tombs.
Was it a caravan or an army? The questions swirled in Sarah's head, ratcheting up her excitement as they began to piece together a theory.
They dismounted in unison. Daniel reached inside his saddlebag and pulled out a pair of two-way radios, their only means of communication with each other and with the two crew members at the main camp. He tossed one to Sarah.
She stroked the neck of her gray Arabian mare and clipped the radio to the waistband of her army-green expedition pants, which she had tucked into weathered leather riding boots.
The plan was to walk south, where the cliff passage narrowed to form a sort of trough. It was there that most of the bones lay. She could envision the camels and their riders, trapped in the passage as great columns of sand rose, stamping out their cries of desperation and devouring them without mercy. It had been the way of the desert for eons, this ruthless claim over all creatures that walked its sands. It was a showdown no man could win—not then, not now.
Inside the natural hollow surrounded by limestone massifs, the sand had been blown into ripples by the incessant winds. So symmetrical and evenly spaced a draftsman could not have drawn them with more precision, the ripples undulated across a flattened piece of desert whose hardened crust yielded with a crunch underfoot. Sarah glanced behind her at her footprints, regretting her imprint on the perfection of nature.
From the sand sprouted the occasional clump of tumbleweed, the lone life form clinging to the arid badlands. One plant, separated from its roots, tumbled across the golden expanse as a hot breeze blew through. Sarah tasted the slightly salty grit between her teeth.
When they arrived at the study site, Daniel slipped off his backpack and tossed it onto the ground. "I reckon we don't have much time. Looks like the wind's picking up." He gestured toward the pit they'd dug to contain a cache of excavated human bone fragments. They had already reconstructed the majority of a male arm. "I'll finish up here if you want to work on the saddle."
A few days before, they'd spotted a wooden knob, barely darker than the desert itself, peeking out from the sand about fifty feet away from the bone pit. They had brushed enough of the sand away to expose the back of an acacia saddle frame with a piece of black rope still attached.
Daniel had examined the frayed rope end, sand falling away as he ran his thumb across the plaits. Goat hair, he'd proclaimed. It was their first clue that the caravan was centuries old. Goat hair rope, which took an inordinate time to weave, had not been used by desert dwellers for generations.
Today, Sarah's mission was to expose a larger section of the gray woven cloth attached to the frame. Like the bones, it was preserved as if it'd been buried yesterday. She kneeled in front of the object and removed her brushes and trowel from her backpack.
The camel wool felt coarse. The fibers were thick and the weave tight, as if the fabric was meant to support weight. A row of red embroidery decorated the gray wool. The color was vivid and the designs were rather complicated, leading her to believe this wasn't a caravan of common nomads.
By Daniel's evaluation, the textile was Sabaean. He was an expert on the people of southern Arabia and had recognized the stitch as one used by highly trained embroiderers, perhaps ladies of the court, before the Common Era. Sarah did not question his insight. There was no doubt something about it looked regal.
A gust of wind hissed through the passage. Sarah held on to her turban and shifted her gaze downward, avoiding the assault of sand granules. Daniel was right: their time here was limited. She picked up the pace, brushing away the sand until she found what she was hoping for: a flap made of the same fabric, indicating a saddlebag. A bulge beneath told her the cargo was still inside. Her pulse quickened.
She brought the radio to her mouth and clicked it on. "Danny, you ought to see this."
"On my way." His voice crackled on the other end.
She reached inside. Her hand came across a round object whose surface felt porous and pockmarked. She pulled it out and held it in the palm of her hand. It was a clay pot, coated with a red slip and no bigger than a man's fist, with tiny rolled handles and a thin neck into which was stuffed a stopper made of the same clay. She turned it slowly and noticed a faded imprint on the earthen surface.
Daniel squatted beside her. "Looks like you've struck gold."
"Look at this." She turned the imprint toward him.
He removed his glasses and squinted at the image. "Human-headed, winged lions ... the cherubim of antiquity. I'll be damned."
"If we needed more proof this is an ancient caravan, here it is."
"The shape of this pot is Canaanite," he said, the word dancing across his tongue. "Probably something they traded for."
She weighed the pot by slightly bouncing her hand. "It's rather heavy for its size. Perhaps there's something inside."
He winked. "One way to find out."
Sarah pulled the stopper, but it was tightly wedged. She twisted it alternately clockwise and counterclockwise until it gave way. She looked down the pot's dark throat. "Can't see anything." She brought it to her nose and sat upright when she inhaled the unexpected scent.
She turned to Daniel. "It's sweet." She sniffed again, taking in a perfume redolent of fig blossom. It was so unmistakable she could imagine the taste of it. "Honey. Definitely honey."
Daniel extended a hand, and she placed the pot in it. He sniffed too, then tipped the pot until a small bead of golden, viscous liquid appeared on the rim. He smiled at her. "A brilliant discovery, Dr. Weston."
"Yes, it is." A deep voice thundered behind them.
They both jerked their heads toward the voice.
Behind them stood four men on camelback, dressed in long, black, high-collared thobes with sarongs beneath and sleeveless woolen kibr coats belted twice around the waist. Red-checkered keffiyeh scarves covered their heads and shoulders. The two men in the back held rifles and the reins of Sarah and Daniel's horses. Daniel's horse, a spirited black stallion, reared in protest.
"You have no business here," the leader said in Arabic. He raised a hand, and the marksmen pointed their weapons at the perceived intruders. "These lands are ours. And so is everything in them."
Daniel stood slowly and addressed the man in Arabic. "The Al Murrah are peace-loving people. Why do you threaten us?"
"We are protecting our heritage."
"But we're scientists. We can help you identify the origin and chronology of these remains."
"We don't need you. We know what we need to know." He and another of the men dismounted. "Your science will never reveal the whole truth. Now kneel next to her."
Daniel dropped to his knees.
"Put your hands behind your head. Both of you."
Sarah glanced at the two marksmen, whose weapons were still trained on them, and then at Daniel. His face was tight, his jaw clenched. Perspiration trickled down his temple, carving a river through the sandy film covering his tanned skin. She watched as the two tribesmen hoisted the saddle, groaning.
Clumps of sun-baked sand fell away as the saddle emerged from its sandy grave. They stuffed the honey pot inside the saddlebag and lifted the saddle onto one of the camels.
"This is criminal," Sarah said. "This is not yours to take. It belongs to the people."
The leader pierced her with his glare and pointed a brown, dust-caked finger at her. "In this country, women speak only when spoken to. Do not ever question the authority of a man. You are not worthy."
Her face flushed. Though she knew the rules of the land, she had trouble playing the role of the submissive female. It was the kind of injustice she could not stomach. She opened her mouth to speak.
The tribesman clenched his fists. She harbored no illusions: he would do it.
She closed her mouth, biting her lip so hard she could taste the metallic tang of her own blood. She cast a furtive glance at Daniel. He was looking straight ahead, expressionless, seemingly oblivious to her plight.
The tribesman turned to Daniel. "Take nothing else from this place. Or we will be back ... with more than a warning."
He mounted his camel and gave the departure sign to the rest of his crew. They rode away in haste, horses in tow. The hooves of the animals raised great plumes of dust as they galloped across the sandy plains toward the massifs to the east.
Daniel stood and exhaled loudly. "What the hell was that, Sarah? You know better than to irritate these guys."
"I know what women can and can't do here. Speaking is not a crime."
"You and I know that, but they're old school. They could have killed you."
She could debate all day about Saudi Arabia's marginalization of women, but it wasn't an argument she could win. She let it go. "Who were they, anyway?"
"Al Murrah. They're nomads. Camel herders." He shook his head. "Al Murrah descended from Bedouin nobility and are, usually, honorable people. My guess is these guys are part of a clan, some sort of militant faction. There's one in every tribe."
Sarah watched them disappear behind the cliffs, the cloud of dust suspended behind them. "Do you think this was the caravan of some of their ancestors?"
"Those brutes couldn't care less." He spat on the ground. "Probably selling the stuff and using the money to fund weapons."
Sarah stood. Her loose chambray shirt whipped like a flag in the gathering wind. "How far did you get at the bone pit?"
"Maybe we ought to call it a day." He pointed a thumb at the cliffs behind which the camel riders had disappeared. "I suggest we avoid pissing them off."
"I'm not leaving here without those bones. Besides, your friends at King Saud won't be happy if we come home empty-handed."
He gave her a tight-lipped smile, the lines around his eyes deepening. "One of these days your stubbornness will get you into a lot of hot water."
She took his comment as an acquiescence. She repacked her bag and slung it over her shoulder. "Let's go, then. Our specimens await."
"As a matter of fact," he said as they walked, "I had just located the phalanges when you called. They were surprisingly intact. Such small bones usually scatter."
"The beauty of preservation in sand. I wonder what else is buried in this valley."
At the dig site, the larger arm bones were already unearthed and classified, ready to take back to the lab. The rest—the metacarpals and phalanges—lay in situ, encrusted in the amber-colored sand.
"Let's just bag what we have and head back." Daniel radioed to the main camp and asked one of his crew to pick them up at the edge of the valley, which was as far as a vehicle could go. He clipped the radio onto his belt and began collecting the prepared specimens.
Sarah stared at the sand pit containing the hand bones. Something caught her eye: a faint glimmer of white, its shape vaguely suggesting a corner. "Wait a minute." She waved him over. "Did you see this?"
He came for a look. "Those are the phalanges I was telling you about."
"No." She kneeled and wiped the area with a brush, revealing a flat, white surface. "This is no bone."
Another gust blasted through the valley, blowing the sand upward in violent swirls. Sarah's eyes stung from the assault. She pulled the end of her turban across her face and continued working as the wind whipped.
"Sarah, we have to get out of here." He looked at the ominous cloud of dust being raised around them. "Things could get ugly."
"Not without this," she said, still digging.
"I mean it, Sarah."
"Why don't you grab a tool and help? It could go faster."
He huffed. "Damn you, Sarah Weston. How do you talk me into these things?"
"You'll thank me later."
Daniel took up another brush and helped her expose more and more of the white object.
"There it is! It's alabaster. An alabaster box."
"Leave it," he shouted over the wind. "We'll come back for it."
"No way. It may not be here then. Are you willing to risk that?"
As the shamal hissed in her ears, Sarah brushed furiously to reveal the full span of the lid. And there it was, as sure and solemn as a promise: the same winged lion insignia that was stamped on the pot of honey.
Daniel looked at her, wild eyed.
Excerpted from The Riddle of Solomon by D. J. Niko. Copyright © 2013 by D. J. Niko. Excerpted by permission of Medallion Press, Inc..
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