The Sheikh and the Runaway Princess(Desert Rogues, Book 4)(11) by Susan Mallery
She turned toward the noise and gasped. There, on the edge of the marketplace, was a low stone wall. On the other side, a lazy river flowed around a bend and disappeared from view.
“Water?” she breathed, barely able to believe what she saw.
“We have an underground spring that supplies all our needs,” he told her, urging his horse through the crowd. “On the east side of the city, it returns underground, here it provides irrigation for our crops.”
Sabrina was stunned. In the desert, water was more valuable than gold, or even oil. With water, a civilization could survive. Without the precious commodity, life would end very quickly.
“I read several references to a spring in some of the diaries,” she said, “but no one mentioned a river.”
“Perhaps they weren’t allowed to see it, or chose not to write about it.”
“Maybe. How long has it existed?”
“Since the first nomads founded the city.”
She jerked her attention away from the flowing river and focused again on the marketplace. “These people can’t all be nomads. By definition, they would want to spend some portion of the year in the desert.”
“True enough. There are those who live permanently within the city walls. Others stay for a time and move on.”
Walls? Sabrina searched the far edges of the marketplace for the beginnings of walls. It was only then that she noticed they appeared to be riding through a giant courtyard. She turned in the saddle to glance behind them. Nearly a quarter mile away were massive stone walls.
“It’s not possible,” she breathed, amazed by the sheer size of the city.
“And yet it exists.”
They approached an inner set of walls. She raised her gaze to study the thick stone, taking in the massive wooden arch that was actually a frame for the largest set of double doors she’d ever seen. They had to be at least fifty or sixty feet high.
She longed to jump down from the horse and study the doors.
“How old are they?” she asked, barely able to speak through her excitement. “When were they built? Where did the wood come from? Who were the craftsmen? Do they still work? Can you close them?”
“So many questions,” Kardal teased. “You haven’t seen the most magnificent part yet.”
She was about to ask what could be better than those incredible doors when they moved through the arch. On the other side of the inner wall was a second courtyard. Sabrina glanced around with great interest. The walls continued to circle the city, probably surrounding it completely. How big was the walled city and how long was the wall? Two miles? Ten? Were there—
She raised her head and nearly fell off the horse. Kardal reined the animal to a halt and let Sabrina look her fill. In front of them stood an awe-inspiring twelfth-century castle.
Sabrina tried to speak and could not. She wasn’t sure she was even breathing. The structure rose to the sky like an ancient cathedral, all towers and levels, complete with arrow slits and a drawbridge.
A castle. Here. In the middle of the desert. She couldn’t believe it. Not really. And yet here it was. As she continued to study the design, she recognized that it had been built in sections, modernized, added to and modernized again. There were western and eastern influences, fourteenth-century windows and spires, along with eighteenth-century towers. People walked across the main bridge. She could see shapes moving inside.
A real live, to-scale working castle.
“How is this possible?” she asked, her voice breathy with shock. “How has it stayed a secret all these hundreds of years?”
“The color, the placement.” Behind her Kardal shrugged.
Sabrina studied the sand-colored stones used to build the castle and noticed the low mountains rising up on either side of the city. It was possible, she supposed, that the city could not be seen from the air. At least not with the naked eye or conventional photography.
“Other governments must know about the city,” she murmured, more to herself than to him. “They’ve seen it from satellite photos, infrared.”
“Of course,” Kardal murmured from behind her. “However, it is to everyone’s interest to keep our location a secret.”
They stopped just in front of the entrance to the castle. As Sabrina glanced around, she recognized descriptions from the diaries she’d read. She was absolutely right in the middle of the City of Thieves. She felt almost dizzy from excitement. There was so much to study here; so much to learn.
“I will dismount first,” Kardal said, easing himself off the horse.
Sabrina waited for him to help her down. It was only then that she noticed they’d gathered a crowd. She felt disheveled and dirty, but fortunately very few people were paying attention to her. They were busy watching Kardal and murmuring to themselves.
As he walked around the horse to help her, several men in traditional dress bowed slightly. Sabrina swallowed against a sudden lump in her throat. She had a bad feeling about this.
“Why are they watching you?” she asked. “Did you do something wrong?”
He grinned up at her, then put his hands on her waist and pulled her off the horse. “What a suspicious mind you have. They’re simply greeting me. Welcoming me home.”
“No. That would mean waving as you rode by.” She glanced at the collecting crowd. “This is more than that.”
“I assure you, this is very common.”
He started to lead her up the stairs toward the entrance to the castle. The crowd parted as they walked and everyone bowed. Sabrina stopped suddenly.
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