“Why are we sneaking away to the station like this?” It was so early it was still dark. The sky above was clear with a few late stars and the eastern sky was beginning to colour. Mist sat in the dips in the fields. Both of them were dressed for the early morning chill. He wore a light coat with a scarf wrapped around his neck below the red hair. She wore a shawl flicked around her shoulders and unsecured by anything but it’s own weight.
“I don’t want anyone to see us and stop us,” he answered as he set a brisk pace. “In all the time you were being told you were Karen, you never went further from here than Hainbury or Market Tonbury. I’m wondering if that was deliberate.”
“Deliberate?” She had shorter legs than he did so she was having to work harder to keep up.
“Yes,” he looked down at the dark head hurrying along beside him, “I’m wondering if someone doesn’t want you going too far away in case you’re recognised as being not Karen.”
“A deliberate campaign of keeping me misidentified?” She considered that then said, “So in my real identity I’m a threat to someone?”
“Someone linked to that taint we’ve both noticed,” he agreed, “someone who doesn’t want to be interfered with. Which is why,” they’d reached the station now and he led the way onto the platform, “We’re buying our tickets from the ticket machine and not the station master.” He suited his actions to his words and got them both tickets to the city. “It’s also why we’re going to wait for the train where we can’t be locked in or seen from the road.”
“You think they’d stop us getting on the train or even get us off?”
“Possibly not by force,” he agreed as he led her down the platform away from buildings and the entrance to the platform. “It could be done by distraction or some other non-violent method, but force is an option. Here comes the train.” She followed his gaze up the line to see headlights shining on the rails from beyond the curve. As the yellow nosed front of the train came into the platform he swore softly. “George Greenup’s just come onto the other platform – he’s seen us and he’s waving. If you haven’t seen him, don’t look and just get on the train. Looks like we might have trouble at the next station.”
“What are we going to do?” She looked up at him, head cocked to one side. “Unless there’s someone actually at the next station I doubt anyone could get there in time to board the train, assuming George does call someone about us. There would be time to intercept us at the next three stations though, and if Hainbury and Market Tonbury mark the limits of the taint’s influence, that’s how far we have to worry about.”
“I have an idea. We need to move back to the carriage behind us though.” He took her by the hand and led her through the door into the seating area. Early morning travellers dozed or read, some even dozed while trying to read, but none of them paid any particular attention to the red haired man and the dark haired woman moving down the aisle.
Neither of them spoke until they reached the vestibule at the far end of the carriage. “What’s the plan?” To her eye there was nothing in the vestibule to hide behind or in. She’d seen bigger built in wardrobes.
“We’re going to hide in plain sight and I’ll need you to stay close to me, close enough you hardly have to straighten your arm to touch me.” He held her hand tightly. “For this first part we just need to be in contact to be a unit.” He began to mutter something in a language she didn’t recognise.
When he finished he whispered, “Quietly now,” and led her through the connecting section and into the next carriage.
No-one seated in their new carriage looked up when they came through the connecting door and no-one looked up when the two of them stepped into one of the two toilet cubicles together. When she reached for the door to lock it he stopped her. “We don’t want to give them any reason to think there’s anyone in here. Leaved the door unlocked.”
“I thought we were supposed to be hiding.” She was confused.
“We are. We’ve already started.” He looked about them. “These toilets are smaller than I remember them.” He looked back at her. “I’m not a mage but like a lot of people I’m capable of learning and doing two or three simple spells. While I was overseas, while I-. Well, I learnt how to do a bit of invisibility. I’ve already put an ignorance and avoidance on us. Now I’m going to bend the light around us. We have to be close because I can only cover a small space but we can move as long as we move together. Okay?”
“How close?” She looked up at him for an answer, noting that there wasn’t much space between the basin and the bowl.
“Put your arms around me.” He caught her look. “This is necessary. Just do it, please.” When she’d complied he put his arms around her in turn, making sure his hands didn’t land anywhere that might be considered as taking advantage of the situation. At least if they were knocked from side to side in this space it would be his elbows that took the damage and not hers.
The train came to a stop and the carriage doors opened. More than one person got on because they could hear a voice saying, “This is ridiculous. The up-train will drop the papers off and we won’t be there to get them so all the deliveries will be late. And if those Racklin kids get to them before we get back, there’ll be newsprint from one end of the village to the other.”
Another voice murmured something then the first voice answered, “Yes, I know. Orders are orders. I know I don’t need to understand everything, but sometimes I wished I did.” Then they heard the door into the seating section of the carriage open while footsteps came towards them.
The toilet door was pushed partly and the red haired man inside would have made eye contact with the middle aged man who opened it but for the spell that hid him. He felt the girl in his arms hold her breath but the searcher held the door open for less than a three count before letting the door close and checking the toilet cubicle on the other side of the aisle. The girl didn’t exhale again until they heard the connecting door to the next carriage close and then she did so quietly into his coat.
They travelled like that through six more stations, two beyond Hainbury just to be on the safe side. The door was opened three more times in what seemed to be a systematic search of the train by teams but it appeared that they were not seen. When they did emerge, they timed it so they blended with the people getting on the train at Runner’s Green. No-one in the seating section looked askance at them and they were able to get seats together. It was a much more comfortable ride than in the toilet cubicle.
It was half past seven when they arrived at the train terminus in the middle of the city. He led her unerringly through the station to the Underground platforms, consulted the destination boards and took her to the deepest of the three sets of platforms. They got on a train leaving the city, went one stop and got off. He led her up the steps out of the station, looked around to get his bearings and then strode confidently along the street. They crossed a main road and headed into a tangle of backstreets and after three turns and two more street crossings he stopped them outside a white two storied building, starkly recent in between two sets of terraces.
“This is a prayer hall,” she ventured quietly.
“Yes, it is,” he agreed. “If I’m going to go to the Church Knights muttering about taint and conspiracies to keep you from knowing who you really are, I think I want a letter of introduction from someone respectable, don’t you?”
“I suppose so,” she agreed uncertainly.
“Well, the someone respectable works here. Come on.” He stepped up to the door and knocked briskly.
A man with a neat beard and moustache opened the door and looked the red haired man up and down. “How may I help you?” He seemed dubious that he could.
“Peace be unto you.” The red haired man paused as if expecting a response but went on when he didn’t receive one. “I am here to see Hajji Razzaq ibn Abdullah. Please tell him that Asim al-Ahmar is here. The young lady is travelling under my protection because she was tricked into believing she’s my sister.”
“Please wait here.” The man closed the door.
Nearly five minutes later the door was thrown open and a short, round-faced man wearing glasses threw open the door. “Asim!” He threw his arms around the red haired man. “It is so good to see you again! Come in. Come in.” He looked at the dark haired young woman beside him, “And this young lady must be your sister of whom you spoke so often.”
“Actually, she’s not.” The red haired man almost sighed. “That’s partly why we’re here. I need your help.”
“Then you must most certainly come in and tell me all about it.” With that the small man ushered them inside, past the man who’d first opened the door, and into a small office. After he’d served them coffee and biscuits he sat down at the desk and said, “Good. Now we can talk.”
“When I got home, after I was allowed to go home given all the issues with the Kara Amida affair,” the red haired man told his friend, “I was told that my sister, Karen, had been savagely attacked and as a result had needed some facial reconstruction surgery and had amnesia. I was then introduced to this young lady.” He indicated the girl sitting beside him. “Everyone assured me she was Karen but that never quite gelled. Then two days ago we found Karen’s body – she’d been at the bottom of a well for four years.”
“I am so sorry my friend,” the Hajji was sympathetic. “So now you are here because you want to find your sister’s killer and to know who this young lady is?”
“Yes.” The red haired man agreed. “The police in charge of the investigation hadn’t manage to correctly identify her in four years. I have no great confidence in their ability or willingness to do so now.”
“We’ve both noticed an occasional trace of taint,” added the dark haired girl, “and this morning there was an attempt to find us on the train.”
“Oh, ho!” Their host chortled. “I’ll warrant I know why they couldn’t find you. Asim here can hide a patrol from a pack of ghilan if he has the time and the warning.” He sobered up. “So, you want an introduction to the Church Knights?”
“Yes please.” The red haired man raised an eyebrow, “You came to that rather quickly.”
“My position was envisaged by His Holiness the current Caliph’s grandfather, blessed be his memory, as a person for Muslims in a strange land to gain help from when they ran into matters of taint and black sorcery far from home. We’ve always had quite good relations with the Church Knights on that point. The problem we face now though is that when this post was first established there were ten or twelve reports a year of which maybe one in twenty turned out to have anything to it.” The small man took a deep breath and went on, “Now we receive eighteen or twenty reports a month and one in six has substance to it. It is true that there are more Muslims in this country these days, but it worries me that the proportion of matters of true concern is rising. As well, secularisation of the Christian population in this country means that I am receiving reports now from non-Muslim youths of both sexes brought to me by their Muslim friends because they don’t know who else to turn to.” He shook his head. “Something is going on, my friends, and neither I nor the Church Knights care for it at all.”
“I didn’t come home expecting to land in another ghul-hunt,” said the red haired man.
“Not a ghul-hunt, Asim. I fear this will be much worse.”
“Excuse me,” interrupted the dark haired girl, “but why Asim? Isn’t your,” she turned to the Hajji, “his name, excuse me, Rhys?”
“Oh yes,” explained the little man with a chuckle, “but despite what happened to the rest of his squad, he was never officially seconded to or embedded in the Army of the Caliphate so he needed a nom d’guerre. Asim is a good name and al-Ahmar simply means ‘the red’. Please, finish your coffee while I write your letter.”
As their host wrote away in a flowing elegant script, the girl turned to her companion and remarked, “That sounds rather different to the official story of what happened to you.”
“The official story is inaccurate for a number of reasons,” Rhys smiled back at her. “All of them good ones from someone’s point of view.”
The letter didn’t take long to write but the fountain pen ink had to dry while the Hajji wrote out the covering envelope. They finished their coffee, like civilised people, then the Hajji folded the letter, put it in the envelope and sealed it in. As he handed the envelope to his friend he made a short remark in his own language. Both of his guests blushed.
Rhys was the one who realised what that meant. “You understand Persian?” He spoke in that language with an accent that was understandable but meandered around the Caliphate and outside it.
“I speak Persian.” She smiled. “I speak Persian! That’s something else we know about me!” She turned to the Hajji and asked in her educated Baghdadi accent, “Did you truly mean it when you said that he should he should marry me?”
“Oh yes,” the little man smiled. “He’s at an age and time of his life that he should marry and you have been living under his protection, albeit as his sister. You seem well matched and it would tidy things up appropriately.”
“With your position here, you’d be a licensed celebrant wouldn’t you?” Rhys had switched back to English.
“Of course. Who else would conduct weddings for our congregation?” The Hajji was still smiling.
“Well, if we go through with it, then I expect friends’ rates on your fee.” Rhys spoke like a man driving a bargain.
“Naturally!” The two men shook hands and then the Hajji added, “And if things are arranged in a hurry, I know a butcher who can get you a whole lamb or a calf for spit roasting at short notice.”
The two men continued to banter with each other all the way back to the front door. When they were outside again the dark haired girl asked Rhys, “Did you two just arrange our wedding?”
“Possibly.” Rhys looked down at her. “We didn’t discuss what you’d wear though. Perhaps his wife could help you if you’ve no-one else?” She punched him in the arm.
After a few minutes of walking she asked, “Are we going back to the station?”
“No,” he looked both ways before stepping out to cross the road, “we’re going to catch a bus.”
A short time later the bus dropped them on the Embankment and they started walking downstream. They passed a bridge over the river and then the historic buildings came into view. She stopped and asked, “We’re going to the Episcopal Palace?”
“To part of the episcopal complex, not the Palace itself,” Rhys clarified. “I believe their office is in the old parish church.”
“The Church Knights’.”
“Of course, the letter of introduction.” She smiled at him. “Why didn’t I realise they must have an office here?”
He shrugged. “It would make just as much sense for their office to be at the Abbey or one of the Cathedrals.”
She grew more and more apprehensive the closer they got to the Episcopal Palace. Finally, less than a block away, she stopped and grabbed his arm. “Rhys, do we really need to have a Church Knight come with us? Can’t we just go to the missing person people on our own?”
He put his hand over hers before he answered. “If we go to the police and talk about taint they’re just going to send us back here. And frankly, if I’m going to bring up the lack of proper investigation into your identity by the local police I want to have someone impressive backing me up.” He leaned forward and looked at her more closely. “You’re making me think that there’s more to your memory not coming back than simply amnesia. All right, I’m going to take you to get another cup of coffee, but first I’m going to blindfold you and spin you around, okay?”
“What?” She was flabbergasted.
“It’ll be fine, trust me.” He smiled at her.
“Okay.” She smiled back but she didn’t sound at all sure.
This story continues here. It got too big for one LJ post.