This is the next instalment of my novel about three sisters fighting to be reunited in the midst of a war, set in a world where women are more powerful than men, some of which I am publishing on here. If you missed the first instalment check it out here!
As they trudged through the desert the desolation of the area shocked her, though she had known it already. There was not a person or living thing in sight bar the two of them. The horizon contained an unfettered expanse of dust and dirt, nothing more. A haze of heat was blurring her view of the sky meeting the desert in a perfect line of blue meeting beige. No Taliban at least, and no explosives down here anymore – they had been cleared indefinitely and no one had been here since.
This area had seen no serious fighting in a long time, because Camp Bastion hadn’t been used since the war had become sparse and specialised, with special regiments and contracted mercenaries being used in particular areas. There were many of these other fighters around still, or there was the last she knew, but the majority were in the provinces of Kandahar and Kabul; near the borders of Pakistan where the Taliban had reams of reserve fighters. Or, they were fighting near the harsh terrain of the Hindu Kush Mountains up to the North East of the country. So Alex had known that they were unlikely to encounter much this way anymore, the vastness of the Dasht-i-Margo (Desert of Death) just took a person by surprise, even if they had seen it before.
You could have heard a pin drop as the two women marched onwards in a sullen manner. Her and Alice didn’t need to talk as they went, they could drop the odd jibe or whatever, but generally making noise on patrol was a fine way of attracting unwanted attention, hence they were used to not speaking whilst making time. They would make a habit out of light banter when they were settled somewhere for the night, as that was the time of the day that you didn’t want silence.
They were aiming for Lashkar Gah, which was due south of their current position. If Alex found who she was looking for then her rough plan to get out of here, if nothing was apparent in Lashkar Gah, was to head down the old road out of Afghan to check out the border crossing into Iran; and hopefully reach Zabol airport not far in. That was her thinking, but in truth she had no idea what was going on at the Iranian borders, and if the airport was even running. She had had no word on methods out of the country for months. They weren’t abandoned. There must be valid reason why they had been left here without resources and without communication. Whatever Alex did next, she knew she had to find out what was going on.
Maybe there were a few small platoons left in Lashkar Gah. Hopefully someone was around with an active communication kit, someone who knew the deal with why the pre-planned return flight had never come. Her sister would bloody know. If only she could ask her. Her sister had probably ordered it, whatever the reason was. I mean, she would have stayed anyway as her individual mission wasn’t complete, but that wasn’t the point was it. Her sister didn’t know that. Yet.
Alice was a way ahead of her now, and had begun checking her surroundings in the manner they were trained in as she went, as if it mattered anymore. Alex got the feeling that it really didn’t. Alice probably knew that, she must be bored.
Alex was bored too, and her mind began to drift. When she had been six years old her, her four year old sister Grace, and an eleven year old Rose, had gone to play in the woods, Rose had been quite mature for her age at the time. The woods were quite close to their childhood home actually, but she hadn’t been by herself yet at the time, and hadn’t known the way properly.
She and Grace had followed Rose blindly on the way there. They had then played happily together for hours, running together and making dens in various different twisted trees whose branches were big enough to have grown in a distorted way; thus making the perfect shape to be fashioned via imagination into either a home or a dug-out. They had waved between playing furiously serious war games and chasing fairies in an absent-minded fashion. Between pretending they each had their own house to look after, and between pretending they were each all-powerful brigadiers manning their own army battalions, fighting against each other in an all-encompassing fashion. No creature, tree, or mushroom was left alone in these wars; each could be a key player in who won and who lost. Except that they had soon found out that squirrels didn’t make for good troops – they didn’t follow orders. Grace had continued to try though, endlessly grabbing them with a gentle touch and returning them to the flanks to make them be cavalry for the fairies.
At all times the wood had felt magical; soft blooms of white wild flowers had reached as high as she was tall, and she could hurtle through them feeling them brush past her face and arms, hearing her sisters softly laugh in the background as they did the same. She had been truly free from all else but that moment. She ached to feel the blooms brush her face as she thought about it, instead of walking on a grubby road to nowhere. All she had here was sand and dust.
Her favourite part of the wood had been the bluebell meadow, in a beautiful clearing. She would run through them in endless circles until she was tired out, and then fall down and lie amongst the flowers, with the bluebells delicately hanging over her face. The pretty lilac colour of the petals would shine in the slivers of sunlight that shone through the trees. Rose would sit on the side and take it all in; watching the way the petals blew and danced.
The pleasure her and sisters had felt in the wood on that day had gone on for so long that it had felt like days. Eventually it had begun to darken and they all knew it was time to go home. “Only, lets have one last game,” her sister had said to her and Grace before they had left. “The fairies are more likely to come out at night – we have to hide out in two different trees for a while. Just a little while. Then you’ll see the soft glow of their wings properly. It will be so pretty,” Rose had told them in a confident manner.
Alex and Grace, having been less wise than their sister, trusted Rose and unquestionably let her push them up into the wide fork of a tree, one that was quite high. They would get the best view from there apparently. Alex now knew that Rose had known that they were both scared of heights, and that they wouldn’t climb down by themselves. She hadn’t known at the time though, and had believed Rose’s promise that she would come back to get them in a little while, after the fairies had been.
“I won’t fit in the same tree as you,” she had said when they had asked why she didn’t just join them in their tree. At first they were excited by the thought of seeing the glowing wings, and they’d waited with anticipation. They had waited and waited, getting sleepier and sleepier. Dusk came and went without any fairies, and Rose didn’t come back.
Absolute darkness fell, and still Rose didn’t come back. By this point, Grace had been terrified. Wide awake from fright, and too scared to move, they had perched there together in silence with their arms wrapped tightly around each other, and the blackness of the woods suffocating them.
They witnessed the magic of the woods turn sour by night, getting scary and twisted. Deformed even. Fairies had become spirits, whooshing past her ears to haunt her. The shadows of tree branches had waved in the soft breeze, causing silhouetted forms of monsters to taunt them, reminding them that they could reach out and snatch them both clean from their tree if they wanted too. Grace had squeezed her tightly from sheer fright this entire time; never had her grip loosened.
At some point in the night, after what had seemed to be hours, her Mother and a group of her friends had finally appeared out of the darkness. The sight of those lanterns coming through the trees had given her such an immense feeling relief that it would never leave her. Even now, she could recall it.
Her and her sister had been lifted from the tree and carried home together in their mother’s strong arms, and when they got back they had both ran to their dad; sitting in his lap together. Grace had been crying, silent racked sobs. She hadn’t wanted to make a noise for fear Rose heard her cry. Their dad hadn’t said anything; he’d just gently let her cry till she slept. Rose had been grounded for days. She had later said that she was teaching them to be fearless, to prove a point that they weren’t really scared of heights, and that they were capable of finding their own way home. Alex’s six-year-old mind had just felt betrayed at her big sister’s desertion.
As she continued to walk the Afghanistan road that same feeling of desertion was returning, it had been her sister that had put her here once again, and once again she had made a promise to bring her home. It had started truly one year ago, when her and Rose had gone to their father’s grave, as they do every year together as a family, to pay their respects. Grace was absent as she had already been in Afghanistan, and, as Alex had found out at the Graveyard that day, she had been taken hostage by Islamists, by the Taliban. The following day Alex had left for Afghanistan, at her sister’s request.
Her sister had been at the airfield, and had seen her onto the RAF plane that she had been due to take to Afghanistan with the members of the British Army that she was accompanying. Alice had been amongst them. Only Alex had had family there, the other girls had all marched onto the plane dutifully, having been off leave, and on duty as soldiers, for days already.
Her and Rose had hugged fiercely for what seemed to be forever. Her sister had then placed cold hands onto Alex’s warm cheeks and said to her, in a firm whisper; “This is not me putting you in a tree again Alex. I am not sending you to fend for yourself. You will be coming home. I promise you, I will bring you both home.”
She had looked her straight in the eyes as she said that, and Alex had seen the longing honesty there, in the deep green eyes that were their mother’s; she had seen the truth in her sentiment sparkling in the depths of the swirls, and she had trusted her. Yet again, she had trusted her; she had got on the plane.
“And Alex… Grace…” Rose had called at the last second before the door closed. Alex could have sworn she had glimpsed a rare vulnerability in Rose at that instance.
“I know.” Alex had replied. “I’ll bring her home.”
Right now, as she continued down the deserted road behind Alice towards Lashkar Gah, she didn’t know anything. She didn’t know why replacement troops hadn’t arrived, or why supplies had stopped coming. Or why Signals troops with communication abilities hadn’t been sent. Or medical supplies – the last Combat Medics, usually a male choice of army profession, she had seen had been months and months ago. She didn’t know why her sister had just left her here without any help whatsoever. She kicked the dust beneath her feet as she continued walking, causing soft clouds to explode upwards; the rain had stopped as quickly as it had come, and the ground was now bone dry again.
The piercing coldness had made its way up her thin lower extremities at an unbearable speed. Her once naturally curved figure was now skeleton like, with the cavernous space enhancing her small form. Before long the cold had spread from her blackened, dirty, toes to the tips of her pale slender fingers; which, when they moved, looked as delicate as a bird’s wings fluttering, and they didn’t suit having to hold a weapon. The pain in her shoulder had lessened with the lowered temperatures, having been replaced by a strange numbness. Her shoulder was dislocated where it had been smashed against the hard desert floor. The pain had been excruciating, and the memory was still vivid. She stopped breathing properly at the thought.
She coughed the anxiety out in an attempt to regulate her breathing again. She had previously been held in Lashkar Gah, which had been hot, and practically five-star hotel quality in contrast. Unfortunately, about three weeks ago the extremists that were holding her hostage had discovered that her sister Rose was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and in a bid to get a large cash-injection from the government had moved her somewhere ‘more secure’. By ‘more secure’ they meant cold, Grace noted bitterly, extremely Goddamn cold.
Laid flat on her back on the frigid cave floor, with her arms shackled, she recalled the moment that she had come close to escape, in the midst of the transportation from one side of Afghanistan to the other.
It was a couple of days ago now. After what had seemed to Grace like days of travelling without food or water, the battered vintage-green Russian four-by-four had stopped in an extreme remote area. A moment of stillness preceded a violent attempt to drag her from the truck’s flatbed onto the ground. They’d succeeded after only small resistance from a tired Grace, and the dust had risen up as she’d landed heavily. She recalled the surprise of looking up through this dust cloud and seeing the white of frozen ice caps in the horizon – they had stopped at the base of a snow-brushed mountain. The three women who were her keepers had then begun arguing loudly about something; the subject was something that Grace hadn’t understood. The women, dressed in the khaki-coloured loose robes of the Taliban, had become increasingly irate with each other, their gestures got more exaggerated as they edged closer and closer to each other. One had even had her hand on the intricate ivory hilt of her knife.
It was clear that they were no longer paying her any attention. She’d managed to stand up fairly easily after noticing this, her hands still tied, leaning against the back of the truck for balance. It had been like that game kids play where they lean on each other back to back to stand up without their hands. She used to play it with Alex. She’d done it this time without them clocking her, and had then waited a millisecond before turning to run towards the open desert, her bare feet had kicked sand up behind her as she scrambled away.
She’d soon turned in towards the base of the mountain at hope of not being seen. They of course had seen her escape, but still she managed to avoid them, by hiding in the shadowed recesses at the mountain base, as she ran for about a mile or so. She had heard their engine before she saw it, the rough growling getting gradually louder behind her. She had heard the thud as the ringleader leaped from the passenger seat with skill onto floor, whilst the jeep was still moving. The woman grabbed her viscously from behind, her hands digging into anything they could hold, and she was slammed against rocks on the mountainside. The woman then had lifted Grace up by the neck, cutting her breathing short. Razor-sharp nails had dug into her soft skin, and blood had begun to run down her neck. The women had stared at each other in absolute silence; Grace seeing deep into the villainous coffee eyes that held her gaze unrelentingly. The only sound was the awkward wheezing of Grace’s breath.
The smell of spiced perfume had lodged in her throat as the woman had lent in close to her face, to taunt her, and she’d felt the grip of her sweaty hand tighten round her neck. She’d even discerned the faint odour of gunpowder from the bullets they’d been making that morning in the truck, and it hadn’t mixed well with the spiced perfume. It was enough to make a person gag.
Grace thought at the time that she’d been held up against the rock for nearly an hour, with its rugged surface continuously digging into her back. With hindsight she realised that it was no longer than 2 minutes. Without warning, she had eventually been thrown to the floor with considerable force. That was when her left shoulder had been dislocated due to being allowed to take the brunt of the fall. Screaming with pain, she had allowed herself to be put back on the truck, the woman lifting her on with ease. They’d then driven the truck back to what Grace gathered was the meeting point. Two men, slaves by the look of it, had been stood where the truck was previously, and they’d had the reins of three between them in their hands. The ponies, Grace soon found out, were for them to climb the mountain on. Journeying up a steep incline on a pony, seated in front of one her captors, with her hands tied and shoulder dislocated whilst half naked had not been pleasant. It had been agonising. That was how they had reached this freezing prison, she thought, with a burning frustration at her entrapment.
Grace attempted to change the tack of her thoughts, by focusing on the future, and survival tactics. She considered changing her position upon the floor in order to remove her exposed legs from the ice-like rock, but failed to produce the energy boost needed to do so. A thin veil of a scarf had been put over her but it wasn’t even close to being enough for the ridiculous temperatures at this altitude.
The cold had entered her bones by the feel of it. It was embedded so deeply that the memory of what it felt like to be warm, to be comfortable, was long gone. She without doubt had lost appreciation for the fact that they had ripped her entire uniform from her, when she was initially captured, leaving her with only a filthy long sleeved base-layer top and black female boxer-type underpants on. She knew that she was getting too skinny through lack of nutrition because she could see the outline of ribs poking out from underneath her top. It wasn’t a nice sight.
But then, neither was anything else regarding her appearance, she noted. Her once smooth blonde hair was matted like old straw – it had always been a dark blonde but now it was a grimy brown colour. It had grown to her backside in the eighteenth months since she was captured; she tried to comb it with her fingers, but she just couldn’t get the dirt out.
Out of habit, she let her eyes roam the walls for any hope of escape. She entertained the opportunity that there could be a loose stone, or a hidden shaft. Her alert green eyes could be seen dimly through the darkness, like cat eyes in a road, as they flicked around the space with persistence. They were inherited from her mother. Her mother was an imposing woman who would fight her way out of any situation – even this one. She failed to find anything that may suggest escape. Given that her arms were shackled to a cave wall there wasn’t a whole lot of scope to use an escape route anyway, even if she did find something. However, with an evident lack of anything else to do, she continued her visual search. Her eyes were now well adjusted to the pitch-black hue of her prison.
As she arrived at parliament a charity group that campaigned for masculinism was protesting outside. There were maybe a hundred men, waving placards for equal rights, pay and job opportunities. She stooped out of the car in a refined manner, and wilfully ignored the shouts as she marched past the wall of resentment.
“What about the 700 million young boys in forced marriage around the world Prime Minister? Isn’t that a question you should answer?” A young man shouted from over the barrier that had been erected. His banner read free the slaves.
Rose just gave him a nod and kept walking. It was an important issue but with everything going on economically and internationally it just wasn’t on her list of top affairs right now. The fact of the matter was that most men were happy with the status quo and were put off by the word ‘masculinism’ – they weren’t ready to fight for equal rights as they thought they had them already. Rose didn’t think they did – there was definitely room for improvement. There was yet to be a Male president of the United States, or a male pope, or a male Archbishop. Only 25% of her cabinet was male. All these things needed addressing and modernising. Just not right now. Right now she needed to figure out how to answer a load of questions that she didn’t have the answers to.
Entering the room felt magical. It always made her tingle to come and sit on the soft green leather in the House of Commons, with her despatch box taking pride of place in front of her, sat upon the large solid-wood table separating herself, and her opposition. As Prime Minister she was talking her place in history, and this made that feel real.
The house was loud, and chaotic, as per usual. Herself and her fellow frontbenchers entered together, discussing any last minutes tips they might have on what questions she would get asked today. They were to be all the normal kind so they told her – no deviations. No surprises.
“Order! Order” The Speaker of the House shouted above the din, in a thunderous tone. She was sixty-five years old this month, and despite her grey hair and aging features she was astonishingly formidable. Her black Speaker’s robe sat across her broad shoulders in an intimidating manner, and her white blouse could be seen underneath. “Questions to the Prime Minister. Ms Gladenhall.”
Ms Gladenhall promptly rose. “No. 1 Ms Speaker” She said, stating the number of her question. Each question was numbered and replies were then allowed by anyone as long as they were on the same subject.
“Prime Minister” The speaker gave Rose permission to stand.
“Thank you Ms Speaker.” Rose gave a brief courteous nod her way, before beginning the statement she‘d written late last night. “Ms Speaker with Remembrance Day next week I am sure the whole house will join me in remembering all those who have sacrificed their lives to defend our country and the freedoms we all hold dear. This time of year once again reminds us of the incredible job that the armed forces do to ensure our safety and security, and with combat troops coming home from Afghanistan we’ll all want to pay particular tribute to the 4583 soldiers that lost their lives, and to all those that got injured, over the long course of this campaign.” A murmur of agreement went around automatically, and many a ‘here here’ could be heard. “Ms Speaker in addition to the duties of this house I shall have additional duties in the form of meetings and briefings later in the day.”
She sat abruptly after saying that last formality. She was aware that she’d missed out the usual ‘this morning I was…’ line, as she didn’t like to lie if it wasn’t strictly necessary. Cleary she hadn’t been here this morning. No one had noticed the omission.
Ms Gladenhall, an attractive blonde-haired labour MP in her mid-thirties, rose again to frame her question. She adjusted her black pencil skirt before speaking: “Can I firstly associate myself with the comments of the Prime Minister, and remember that the contributions of the women and men came from all across the United Kingdom.” A murmur went around, and lots of nodding. Everyone in the house had a red poppy pin on her or his jacket somewhere – a sea of remembrance.
She continued, “two weeks ago a steel works in my constituency of Gateshead threatened to close their doors if they were unable to find a buyer. With their assets dripping consistently since the crash and a risk of thousands of jobs lost if they do shut, does my Right Honourable friend agree that the present government should find a way to maintain this factory in its present state, and regulate its running to prevent the loss of profits so badly needed for our economical recovery?”
Standing to respond, Rose placed her notes onto the dark wood despatch box in front of her before beginning her reply. “Firstly let me agree with the Right Honourable Lady, the steel industry has to be maintained in as much of its present form as we can manage, despite the crash, in order to boost our exports and chances of recovery. We will be in discussion with the Celsa Group at some point this week regarding their immediate plans to rectify this problem, and obviously we will do all that we can to help them keep their doors open and furnaces on, because the steel industry is so vital to our economy at the moment.”
The Speaker’s voice boomed out: “The leader of the opposition, Ms White.” Immediately cheers rose up from the opposite side of the house, which was full to bursting as ever. There were 427 seats in the chamber of the House of Commons, for 646 MPs. It resembled a human zoo with all the animals in one cage. Rose wished badly that she could roll her eyes, but didn’t as she had never agreed with that sort of petty gesture in the House.
“Ms speaker let me first join in with the sentiments regarding our armed forces, it has been 137 years now since the start of the First World War and never so prominent a time to echo our thanks to everyone that serves to keep our country safe.” Loud cheers rose from Miss White’s cronies on the front bench, and she smiled, too sweetly, towards Rose in response.
“Now, Prime Minister may I ask you a sensible question?” Laughs went around the House rather rapidly at this jibe. “We have information that says you have had to sell our fleet of military planes and helicopters to China in order to recuperate some of our massive financial deficit, and in order to bail out the banks that went bankrupt only six months ago. You are, in effect, dismantling our entire armed forces in a manner akin to the demilitarization of Germany post World War Two. How then, does one plan to bring the remaining twenty percent of our army home if we no longer have any means of doing so?” She lowered herself confidently down onto the soft leather behind her as she finished her question, her petit frame seeming lost in the plumpness of the ancient bench.
Rose groaned internally. Damn the bloody tip-offs. If she failed to answer this question, if she dodged it, then she would be slaughtered. Social media and the papers would act in a manner akin to a gang of rabid dogs ripping apart their prey. “The United Kingdom can no longer afford to continue its role in the Middle East. Fifty years ago the Labour government got us involved in somebody else’s war, and we have been battling it ever since. We haven’t controlled it, and we haven’t succeeded in a victory of any kind. We are now bankrupt for reasons that we, as the ruling political party, should have recognised and prevented. For that I am sorry.” Rose paused, and cast down her eyes briefly. A politician should never apologise for anything.
“The reason that we failed to prevent the banking crisis is because we were too busy fighting a battle that has spiralled into a Third World War. Our country just cannot do this anymore. It is with deep regret that I, and my fellow Conservatives, have had to dismantle all but twenty percent of the eighty percent of our army and RAF that has already returned home. All equipment and weapons will be sold, if it has not already been so. The Royal Navy will be retained for defensive and humanitarian purposes, and a war ship has been dispatched to fetch the combat troops still fighting in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. This method is longer than what would wish for, but it is currently the only option available. We will retain the other twenty percent of our forces, which are currently fighting, upon their return. This will leave us with a combined Army and RAF of forty percent its current size to deal primarily with domestic issues. Trident will be retained as we deem it beyond doubt that it will be needed at some point in our lifetime. This, along with our Navy, is the way in which we will defend Britain for the foreseeable future.”
The House was silent. Rose had never heard the like in her years as an MP. You couldn’t hear a breath of air let alone a pin drop. Not a single person knew what to say. Even Ms White was just sat there, aghast. Her mouth was hanging open like she was trying to catch flies; her hand was still motionless on her head, where it had been about to brush back her shiny mass of luminous red hair.
Finally, after an age of noiseless shock, the Speaker came to life, and regained her voice; “I believe that that will do for Questions today. The House may disperse.” With that she left the room. Everybody slowly followed, as a quiet hushed murmur started to spread.
Rose just sat there till everyone had left except a few of her closest colleagues. She nodded to her cabinet an assertion that she was fine, and watched them file out. Only when they had gone did she lean forwards, and place her head in her hands.