It rained the day reality came crashing in on me with the arrival of the armoured transport at our boundary marker. The guard commander was a stereotypically tall and dashing example for girls looking for a fairy tale prince to fixate on – all dark eyes and perfect teeth, skin hinting at an exotic parentage. He did an admirable job of maintaining his expression when he saw what he had been sent to collect. A man equally as practical as my father he smoothly offered me his long uniform cloak and suggested wearing the hood up to protect me from the weather when I left the house.
I said goodbye to the little ones, thanked Pishon and his wife for their quiet kindness, and nodded to Mother who would always be angry with me. Little Hannah I embraced fiercely, holding her to me and kissing the top of her head as she sobbed into my shoulder. Father was the hardest to leave. The thought of never seeing him again turned me back to the frightened little boy he had discovered in the forest. Anyone could have found me there. Anyone – or no-one. Instead Maoilios had given me a home and a name and had accepted me. I don’t think there is any shame in admitting that I needed the impressive soldier’s arm to guide me to the transport as my eyes swam with tears, Father’s last words echoing in my head, “Whatever else you might be, whatever you might become, you will always be my son and I am thankful for the privilege of knowing you.”
“Are you ok? We don’t have to do this all now. We can leave this and catch up again later in the week. You’re in charge, no rush.”
“Oh, don’t worry I’m fine, fine. Old memories … just surprised myself with them I guess. No one left to hurt with my ancient history. Where was I? Leaving home, another unknown future.”
With the low background rumble of the vehicle’s track mechanisms around us the soldier introduced himself as Moshen Ibn al Haq, ceremonial aide to the Laird’s Chamberlain, and the man entrusted to collect the potential brides. Ibn al Haq had been the first point of contact for all the tearful farewells to date and must have been well used to dealing with stressed teenagers by the time he met me. I was aware of him speaking to his navigator, telling him to plot a course away from habitation. The plan for this journey, it seemed, was now to camp each night rather than make use of the available way-stations. His instructions over, the man sat quietly and gave me time to collect myself.
It seemed like an age but I eventually looked about me – I was in a comfortable but enclosed compartment, no windows. The soldier said nothing as I finally removed his cloak and investigated my surroundings. We were the only passengers in a little personal haven – a couple of fixed seats with entertainment and information screens, a fridge stocked with a range of food and drinks in the basic but functional kitchen area and a ornate day-bed that may not have seen much sleep as there was a bedroom with facilities to the rear of the room. It looked like we might be in for a long journey through the rough lands to the capital. I wasn’t sure if I would be left on my own or if the urbane soldier would stay with me. Still, I’d been brought up to have manners, after my brief wordless exploration it only seemed polite to make him a drink and ask if he was hungry. Over that first meal I asked him what he had been told about me, certain I’d seen a moment of shock when he realised I was not a girl.
He hadn’t known.
It seemed that the Imam had developed a couple of blind spots in his praise for my intellectual potential and the gentleness of my character. To the Chamberlain’s office, starting from the completely mistaken assumption, it appeared that the Kirk was dutifully giving up its rights to a promising chantress rather than being pleased to be rid of a potential danger. The doctor had formally confirmed the all-important qualifications of virginity and unmodified condition before reporting on my excellent state of health, and then given a flattering description of my elegant proportions, the softness of my skin, the beauty of my eyes. Nowhere had he mentioned the damage I had done to myself or the glaring discrepancy in my twenty-third chromosome.
This loyal and trusted soldier had been expecting to meet some tall blue eyed houri. While he accepted that I was certainly tall and blue eyed we passed some time after lunch, and pushed the on-board library to its limit, before agreeing that if, technically, the term Hur’In could applied to both male and female then theoretically I could be a valid candidate for a virtuous companion. Ibn al Haq might have been intrigued by me, and enjoyed our little debate about my status, but he wasn’t so sure that he could count on all his men to have quite such an intellectual response if they discovered me.
Amazing, the small things your future can turn on. I had been one of the few to ask if he wanted anything rather than demand and pout and sulk at being treated like a commodity. One of the few to have a conversation with him rather than treat him as an errand boy. After the necessary mental adjustment it seemed that he had decided he quite liked me. He wasn’t going to abandon me; he wasn’t going to report me to the Chamberlain – or even tell his own men – but he did have someone he needed to call. Whoever the call was to he said couldn’t risk using the standard military comm. system. He was going to wait till we stopped for the night when he could get away from the transport and use an encrypted phone that he kept for emergencies. Whatever the outcome of the call, he promised me he would get me to the capital.
During a rest break for the drivers he briefly excused himself to make sure that his men were ok, returning after he had swapped his dress uniform for the same fatigues as the rest of his detachment. The dark cloak stayed with me, he said I would need it if I should need to leave the compartment.
I don’t think either of us realised it then, but at some point that first afternoon we started to become friends.
We passed the time to sundown in conversation. I was fascinated by his life as a career soldier – skirmishes on the borders, adventures in the ruins of the old west – and was surprised to learn he was only ten years older than me. I asked his thoughts on the girls he had already collected. Overall he hadn’t been very impressed by them but then said what did he know, he wasn’t the one looking for his fourteenth wife. I didn’t feel that I had that much to say that would be of interest to him. Still he asked me about life in the village, asked my opinion of things and generally treated me as an adult. He seemed easy to get on with. So easy in fact that when his questions became intimate I had no issue with answering them … though he did have to explain some of the terms to me first. While I was familiar with seeing basic heterosexual acts it was clear that, whatever my urges, I was largely innocent of the detail when it came to the ‘abomination’ condemned by the Imam.
Though his phrasing was couched in general terms I got the impression that his knowledge was not just academic. What kind of place was the capital that someone could have such experience and still be an accepted member of the establishment? Someone with such enticing eyes, and a smile that seemed wasted with me as its only audience. I suppressed that train of thought even as I became aware of its birth. I was trying to get away from trouble not invite more of it.
The transport stopped for the night. Travel after sundown was avoided where possible. No way to recharge batteries dependent on solar panels if we got into trouble and too many hidden dangers on the rough roadways in the dark. I hid in the bedroom as Ibn al Haq, my new friend Moshen, left through the armoured door to see where his men had made camp. A sharp hint of pine in the cool air coming through the open door, a murmur of voices greeting the commander and then silence as Moshen locked the door behind him.
It seemed like a very long wait before the door opened again. To pass the time I checked the contents of my small bag – some changes of clothes, toiletries, oils for my skin and the all important shaving kit. The extra pair of vambraces was a surprise, a present from Maoilios I guessed. Much longer than my first pair of bracers they fit from wrist to elbow, the black leather was soft and I remember the lining was lambskin – he must have started making them as soon as my travel date had come through. I had put them on and was admiring the intricate tool work on them, not crying quietly into the leather, when Moshen returned. As I said, he’d been through this – or something like it – a number of times before me. After a long moment with my back to him he reached out to tousle my hair and pressed a handkerchief into my hand with no comment.
The men had set up a perimeter and were settling in for the night. There had been some grumbling about missing the comfort of the way-stations, nothing that had lasted longer than a look from their senior officer. Moshen would go back out after the men had eaten and make his call, after that he said he would sleep in the main room and leave me in peace in the bedroom. We ate again but neither of us had much of an appetite. Finding the gift had been a sharp reminder that I was further away from home than I had ever been, and my new friend had some worry on his mind.
Finally, as I cleaned up, he told me that he wanted to take photos of me in case he needed to send proof of his news to whoever he was calling. I think it was easier for me to strip than for him to broach the subject. Even so, I resisted the idea of removing the vambraces. Despite his assurances that the detail would not be important compared to the headline news I was concerned what this anonymous someone would think if they saw quite what I’d done to my wrists. We compromised on the smaller cuffs – they covered the worst damage, and wearing them had been enough when the doctor had visited after all.
Suddenly shy, and trying desperately not to imagine what he might be thinking of me, I couldn’t look at the camera. Whatever the differences between an out of the way village and the corruption of the capital he must have grown up with the same stories as me. Man was made in God’s image; to capture the naked human form was a sin, an insult to the perfection of God. Uncomfortable at asking me to stand so and so he got his evidence then gently covered my nakedness with his cloak, his eyes full of apology for what he had done. He urged me back into the bedroom where I curled up in the folds of the heavy cloth and he disappeared again into the night.