Madari stood by the window of a hotel room and swept his binoculars around the airport terminal building, several hundred yards away. On the horizon, the first hints of dawn showed, but not enough to give much light yet.
“The power is still on,” he said, seeing lights in the terminal building and air traffic control tower. “And if the lights are anything to go by then the remaining defenders are only in the terminal and the tower. I don’t see anything in any other building.”
According to the most recent intelligence, just over one hundred men still held the airport, several dozen having deserted overnight. The last desperate defenders had abandoned all the hangers and other airside buildings and held only the terminal building and the control tower. The easiest course would be to start lobbing shells and rockets into it, but the rebel leaders wanted the terminal taken largely intact. Madari’s force had a strength of one hundred and thirty seven men, which didn’t give him anywhere near the classical three to one advantage usually required to break a siege. This, Madari thought, will take some guile.
“Ishaq,” he said, turning back to his officers. “You will take your squad and start the attack on the fire exit on the north wall of the terminal. Use all available cover and make it look good.”
It had to look good, because it would only be a distraction. It would appear they were trying to come in there and, Madari hoped, many of the defenders would be despatched to hold them off. Others would stay put by the most obvious target, the main entrance to the terminal.
“Faraj, your squad will secure the air traffic control tower. Both attacks will begin simultaneously.”
“Yes, sir.” Faraj nodded, a determined look on his face. Taking the tower was crucial, Madari knew. They couldn’t claim to hold the airport until they also held the tower. Madari would trust only one of his best men to lead that assault. He smiled a little. Perhaps he’d chosen Faraj because he knew the Captain had the same education in military history as him, would carry in his head the proper way to attack what could essentially be a “keep”.
“The tower is the most likely place to still have civilian staff, probably held against their will, so check your targets.”
Faraj looked serious and nodded.
“The same goes for all of you.” Madari looked around at the officers. “Pass this on to your squads. The airport closed three days ago and the intel says all the civilian staff have left, but we cannot be certain of that. Again, check your targets. And remember, aviation staff could be in uniform. Double check your targets.” He looked around at their tense faces. “Shooting airline pilots is bad luck.”
It wasn’t much of a joke, rather bad taste, to be honest, Madari thought, but it provoked a few smiles.
“Meanwhile, the rest of us.” He smiled, thinking again about keeps and castles. “We will be making our way in through the secret passageway.”
They moved into position while they still had the darkness to cover them. Madari led nearly one hundred of the men, silent and ghostly, around the building. Pausing to cut through a fence, they gained access to the airside territory of the airport.
As they moved through the darkness, Madari looked up at a jet liner that sat by a departure gate, silent, looking ghostly in the dim light, like a huge animal sleeping.
“That’s a 747,” a quiet voice said. Yassin, Madari recognised. “From this angle it looks huge.”
“It is huge,” someone else pointed out. Moshen. Even when they whispered, Madari knew their voices. A voice closer to him, Noor, spoke.
“Think Idris can fly that?”
Madari smiled in the darkness. “I don’t think so.”
“That’s good,” Noor said, “because the idea of hanging under there is not appealing.”
Madari had to hold himself in to keep from laughing, knew the laughter would have nothing to do with the joke.
“Let’s try not to damage it,” Noor went on, looking up at the livery on the plane’s tail. “It belongs to Gulf Air; they’ll send us a bill.”
Madari glanced to his side to see Jahni, not reacting to the banter, his face set, eyes focused ahead. Today Madari would keep Jahni at his side in combat. Not so Jahni could protect him, but because if this was their last battle before either victory or death, then he wanted to go through it with Jahni at his side.
They came to their target and found it unguarded. Suitcases, bags, trunks and crates all lay around the hanger, abandoned by the baggage handlers when they fled. A heavy door stood between Madari’s squad and the machine that the baggage handlers loaded the luggage onto, the conveyor belt that reunited passengers with their bags.
Madari sighed. He’d give anything now to have such a mundane experience again. To catch a plane, delayed of course, arrive at an airport strangely like every other airport he’d ever been to, wait an eternity for his bag, go looking for a taxicab. How long ago it seemed since he’d done something so ordinary. That could be so close again now. In a few days, he could be just a normal man again, put his uniform back on, and sleep in his own bed.
However, he first had to get through this day. While the attackers waited, Yassin and Darak stuck plastic explosive to strategic points on the door, pressed in fuse wire and signalled everyone to back off and take cover. Madari glanced at his watch, synchronised with every other squad leader’s, every man’s. Their lives, perhaps their deaths synchronised.
In the distance, gunshots started. Ishaq’s squad attacking the north door, far away. Nearer, from around the corner of the building, more gunfire, Faraj starting his attack on the tower.
Give them a moment, Madari thought, still looking at the hands of his watch. Wait until the men inside start racing for the north door.
Darak touched exposed wires together and with three rapid bangs the plastic destroyed the hinges and lock of the door. Smoke rose, making them cough. Waving it away, Madari ordered the lead squad through the door, fast but cautious, using what cover they had. The area beyond was as abandoned as the hanger had been. The baggage carousel sat unmoving and silent. The conveyer on this side was hidden from the baggage reclaim area by a curtain of wide rubber strips over the holes the belt ran through. The room beyond looked dark. Jahni and Darak each took one of the holes through into baggage reclaim. They lay down on the belt, moved the rubber strips aside just enough to peek through.
In the distance the gunfire continued, punctuated by small explosions from grenades.
“Looks deserted,” Darak reported.
“Concur,” Jahni snapped.
“Lead the way, Lieutenants,” Madari said, his voice sounding tight as he gave the order, as he fought to keep his fear and excitement under control.
Once into baggage reclaim they had a straight run through to customs and passport control and then arrivals. A right turn and the check in area would lie ahead of them. And so would the men defending the terminal entrance. Madari’s men had to get past them, to reach the stairs that led to the departure lounge. According to the reconnaissance, the defenders were camped and concentrated in departures. A strange location for a battle, Madari thought, but life offered many challenges.
He climbed onto the baggage carousel and set out to storm the castle.
The men followed the leaders, the baggage reclaim room filling up with them while the advance group jogged through into the deserted customs hall beyond, also in darkness. The advance group stopped at the exit from customs into arrivals. Madari caught up to them and moved to the south side of the entrance. From that angle, he could see through arrivals, and onto the concourse and the main entrance doors into the terminal. There was just enough light to make out the shapes of men by those doors, and the makeshift barricade they had assembled, using chairs and tables from cafes and restaurants, seats from the departure lounge, desks from offices.
The stairs to departures lay at the far end of the concourse, past the long bank of check-in desks that faced the entrance. Madari’s men had to get to those desks, use them as cover to attack the defenders of the doors.
The agitation of the defenders was clear. Radios crackled, men shouted, the movement Madari could see was fast, jerky. Arguments were going on, perhaps some officers wanted to reinforce their colleagues fighting off the attack on the north wall fire exit. Others insisted they needed to stay here in case of a second attack.
Madari glanced back at his own men, who stood in ranks now in the customs hall. Silent, waiting for orders. The only sound that gave away their presence, that of a hundred men all breathing in the same room. Nobody fidgeted, or played nervously with the action of his rifle, or clicked worry beads. They just waited, poised.
I am so proud of you all, Madari thought. Before the sun comes up you will make me prouder still.
He signalled with his pistol and the officers and men moved into position, ready to begin the plan Madari had made earlier. No further instruction needed, as soon as they were in place they executed the plan.
Moshen signalled his squad, which had moved out of customs, into the arrivals lounge and taken cover positions behind benches, pillars and garbage cans. They opened fire.
The defenders screamed and yelled and several of them fell as the fire from Madari’s men took them unawares, from the rear. Not very noble, Madari thought, a bandit’s tactic, but an effective one. He signalled and led the rest of the men, in a long, fast moving single file. Between the customs hall entrance and the check-in desks, they had to pass across the front of a coffee house, with little cover, especially now all the chairs and tables had been taken away for the barricade. Only the suppression fire from Moshen’s squad allowed them to move through the exposed area without being decimated. Even so he heard screams and knew some men fell, heard others returning fire. He didn’t look back. He had to stay strong.
A second later, he ducked down into cover behind the southernmost check in desk and kept on moving as the men followed. A small glance back that he did allow himself now, told him Jahni was still right behind him. Glad of that he moved on. The desks were divided from each other by the conveyor belts that took the checked bags through tunnels to the loading area. They could have attempted to come up those tunnels, but he didn’t have a clear layout of them in the intelligence, and the confined space could too easily become a death trap if the defenders caught them in there and started tossing in grenades.
Staying low, head below the level of the desk he climbed over the first unmoving belt, on to the next and the next. The men behind him scrambled over them too, until they were spread out in a long line, almost to the furthest desk, the northernmost. The desks gave cover, but some of the defenders fired blind at them anyway, bullets smashing though the wood and plastic fascias, scattering paper and unprinted tickets, destroying computer terminals and printers, and sometimes hitting men, who fell dead or injured.
At last, all the men had taken cover behind the desks. Moshen’s men remained in arrivals, to cut off the defender’s escape route that way.
“Now!” Madari ordered
The men behind the desks rose as one and opened fire.
They still crouched, but rested rifles and pistols on the desk to steady their shots, picked the defenders off with the accuracy of men trained to conserve ammunition and make every shot count. Even in the dim light they targeted dark shapes with such lethal skill that the gunfire from the defenders by the doors quickly began to falter. The men still alive to fire started to take cover instead.
“Sir!” Jahni elbowed Madari and nodded to the right. Madari saw the figures appearing at the top of the north staircase that led up to the departure lounge.
“North stairs!” Madari yelled and the next ten men after him turned their rifles in that direction. Several bodies rolled down the steps. The others at the top retreated into cover.
The defenders at the main doors started to break. Some of them threw down weapons, lay face down, hands up yelling their surrender. Some tried to run for the stairs. None of the ones who tried that made it. Horrible to shoot men running away, Madari felt sick to do it. But every man and every rifle that made it upstairs into departures made Madari’s job harder. Crashes sounded as men pulled at the barricade, desperate to escape through the main doors. Glass smashed as they broke the doors open. Then silence, broken only by the cries of the wounded.
Madari didn’t need to give a cease-fire order; his men stopped firing when there was nobody else to shoot.
“Moshen, secure the doors, take prisoners,” Madari ordered over his radio. A few men behind the desks covered Moshen’s squad as they ran to the door, but they met no resistance. Some secured prisoners, checked wounded, others started shoving furniture back against the doors. Everybody stays inside now, Madari thought. Everybody stays inside, until I tell them to leave.
He switched frequencies on the radio.
The sound of gunfire and Faraj’s muffled voice answered him.
“We’re up the stairs. There’s four of them still in the control room, and I think they have civilians in there.”
“Convince them to surrender if you can. Tell them we already took the terminal. Out.”
Madari’s men still had their own stairs to take. He wondered if he might get some help with that. Switching the radio again, he called Ishaq. The sounds of gunfire and explosions from the north side of the terminal had fallen silent.
“Sir?” Ishaq’s voice came through, making Madari sigh with relief to hear it.
“Report your status, Captain.”
“No further resistance from inside, they’ve retreated.”
Madari nodded. Of course, they’d worked out it was only a distraction and retreated up to departures.
“Can you get inside?”
“I think so, sir, there’s no sign of anyone.”
Madari nodded, seeing in his mind the plans for the airport. He hadn’t actually expected Ishaq’s squad to make it inside, but now they had, he would use them.
There were three fire exit doors upstairs on the north wall, all leading down emergency stairs to the final exit to the outside. Whoever came up those stairs would find the three exits from departures linked by a long narrow corridor.
If Ishaq split his squad into three, one could come out of the door near the top of the main staircase up from the concourse and harry the men blocking the top of that staircase, trapping them between that squad and the attackers coming up the stairs. And any who escaped to run back towards the departure lounge would have to pass the middle door. Would not pass the middle door.
No, two squads, he thought, leave the third door. It came out into the departure lounge itself. Too exposed.
He thought all of this in an instant, mind buzzing with adrenaline. While snapping out the orders fast to Ishaq, he looked down the line of men still waiting behind the desk, making the most of the short rest. A few kept their weapons trained on the staircase. At the far end of the line, he could see Noor, currently helping an injured comrade. Noor stayed far from Madari now, under orders. The defenders might use grenades and Madari didn’t want the two commanders taken out in one blast. If he fell, Noor would come to the front and take his place.
As he finished the orders to Ishaq, his eye fell on Jahni, on his pale face. Though his jaw was set, eyes glittering with determination, strain, fear showed in the tightness of the skin around his eyes. He would not show that fear though. He led too, Madari thought. By example. The men looking to him to know how to be a soldier. Nevertheless, he was as afraid as any of the others.
Madari closed the radio connection after ordering Ishaq to move at once, and then reached to squeeze Jahni’s shoulder for a moment, making him turn from watching for targets up the stairs. Jahni didn’t smile, just looked at him wide-eyed.
“Let’s go. Pass it down the line, ready to move.”
Jahni nodded and turned to speak. The order rippled down the line, the men tensed, everyone prepared to move out. Madari looked at their tense faces and knew many of them he would not see alive again. Taking a defended staircase led to carnage. If the number of defenders at the top remained small, and with the surprise of Ishaq’s squad, then weight of numbers would win the day, but it would not be pretty. Especially if the defenders had grenades.
They rose and charged, some running out of the exits at the end of the bank of desks, others sliding over the counters, all heading to the stairs, yelling now, tension boiling over at last. They came under fire at once and some men fell before they even reached the bottom of the stairs. Others had to jump over them and the bodies of defenders who had made a run for the stairs earlier.
Madari’s foot found the first step, almost stumbled and then he was climbing, using his pistol now, preferring that to the rifle when running. He could feel Jahni at his side. Jahni wasn’t touching him but Madari felt sure he had senses that only emerged in combat. Senses that let him feel the presence of the man he called his best soldier, the man he called his best friend.
“Grenades!” Someone yelled, as the small round shapes came bouncing down the steps. Jahni shoved Madari hard against the handrail, pushing him aside as one rolled past them. Explosions came, some on the stairs, flinging men back down them or over the handrail. Some came from underneath the stairs, the grenades kicked through the gaps between the treads. The stairs shook and Madari grabbed at the handrail to keep his balance, Jahni hanging onto his arm, steadying him.
The noise of the explosions made Madari almost deaf, muffling the screams. He yelled anyway. On! On! He climbed, still feeling Jahni at his side, firing, wishing for more light, picking his targets. And the resistance faltered, thinned. More grenades rolled past and the staircase shook again, but the gunfire almost ceased. The noise didn’t though, muffled as it was, Madari could still hear plenty of gunfire coming from the top of the stairs. He grinned. Ishaq. His squad had fallen on the defenders from behind. The small group, which should have been enough to defend the top of a staircase, began to fall.
Madari’s foot touched the top step and then he stood on the landing. The defenders were trapped between his men and Ishaq’s. They would all be dead in minutes. He gave a half grimace half grin.
Faraj kicked the door and then sprang back, but no gunfire came out of the control room. The door had slammed closed a few minutes before, after the gunfire ended, and he had an idea why. A voice from inside confirmed it, a man’s voice, quavering, cracking.
“They’re out of ammunition!”
Angry voices shouted out to Faraj’s squad, denying this, but no gunfire followed to prove the claims.
“Surrender and you won’t be harmed!” Faraj called. “Throw your weapons out.” Empty or not, he wanted to secure the weapons. He would prefer that to going in with guns blazing. There was at least one civilian in there, probably more. He had to protect the equipment too. If that was destroyed, who knows how long it would take to reopen the airport. And if the airport was closed how long before Janan and Mehdi came home. He shook himself out of that train of thought. No time to think of his wife and son now. Focus.
“Throw out the weapons! Now!” He yelled it, voice harsh, using a crude threatening tone that did not come naturally to him. “I will count to three. One.”
Voices sounded from inside, arguing.
The weapons came out, pistols, rifles, even knives. One rifle slid off the landing and fell down the spiral stairs, clattering as it dropped. Perhaps it bounced at the bottom, but Faraj didn’t know, because he led most of his squad inside, enough of them to fill the small control room and intimidate the occupants. Four soldiers, the only ones still alive from the defenders of the tower sat or knelt. Three had their hands up. One held his bleeding shoulder.
“Search them,” Faraj ordered. “Take care of him.” He nodded at the wounded one. As his men moved cautiously to the prisoners, Faraj turned to two men crammed under an equipment console. They were young men, in now grubby white shirts and dark blue slacks. Their faces were dirty, their hair lank.
“You are air traffic controllers?” Faraj asked as he helped one of them out from under the console. The man’s arm trembled under his hand. Another of Faraj’s men helped the second man out .
“They forced us to stay!” Faraj recognised the voice of the one who had shouted out about the ammunition before. “After everyone else evacuated, they made us stay.”
“Sir?” The other looked up at Faraj, a somewhat awestruck expression on his face. “Is it over?” Faraj glanced at the soldiers that his men had now secured.
“Not quite yet. Soon. But you’re safe. It isn’t safe to leave yet, but I will protect you here until it is.” He turned from them, to his men. “Have the medic check them, and make sure they have water. Keep them here.”
The man nodded and moved past Faraj to the civilians. Faraj walked back out of the room onto the landing at the top of the staircase, where he took out his radio and called Madari.
Madari received Faraj’s message while crouched behind the counter of the information desk, with Jahni and Darak. Bullets hit leaflet holders on the counter above him, making them leap off the desk, scattering their contents. His men had advanced through the security checkpoint relatively easily, but the departure lounge was a big open space, lined by shops and cafés and getting through them became a series of running battles, shop by shop, as the defenders fell back to the next cover position.
Madari glanced around the side of the information desk, as Jahni knelt up and started firing at men who were getting too close. Darak joined him.
“Noor, where are you?” Madari called over the radio.
“Perfume shop.” Noor’s strained reply came through. Gunfire sounded over the connection, glass shattering, and Noor cursed.
“I’m fine, sir,” Noor replied. “Major, I think they’re falling back towards the departure gates.”
Damn, Madari couldn’t allow that. If they got into there they could hole up in any of the smaller gate lounges, or they could get out, and escape altogether. The second he wouldn’t mind too much, but the first he could not allow, because then it would take hours to get them out.
A bullet smashed through the front of the desk, and splinters of wood struck Madari’s face as it passed to bury itself in the wall behind them. Instinctively he hit the floor and Jahni was bending over him a second.
“Are you hit?”
“No.” Madari sat up again. “But we can’t stay here. We have to stop them getting through to the departure gates.”
Darak, still firing over the desk called down to him.
“What if we blocked the entrance with something? It’s not that wide.”
It wasn’t, but what could they block it with?
“What are you suggesting, Lieutenant?”
“I’ve got an idea,” Darak said. “Get ready to attack.” With no more explanation, he slid out from behind the counter, ran back the way they had come, using the lounge’s seats as cover.
“Major.” Noor’s voice came over the radio. “They are definitely moving towards the gates.”
Madari cursed his position, he could not see enough from this angle.
“Jahni,” he said, gestured with his pistol, at a small clothing boutique. It looked almost untouched by the battle. “Go!” They ran, firing their rifles as they went, bullets whizzing past far too close. Then they dived, skidded into the cover of the shop. Madari slid feet first into some kind of display stand, knocking it flying. A life-size, but flat, cardboard flamingo fell on top of him and he batted it aside, rolled onto his stomach, gun ready for anyone who’d followed them in. Hearing a burst of cursing, he turned to see Jahni having trouble with a rack of dresses that had fallen down onto him. After a moment, Jahni emerged from a mass of coloured silk, the half crazed look he’d worn for the last hour now a fully crazed glare.
Madari resisted the urge to laugh, fearing giving in to the hysteria that lurked deep inside. Cool, he ordered himself, stay cool. He looked across the lounge, in a much better position now to see the battle. Noor was right; the defenders that weren’t battling his men in the various shops had started to move in a group towards the departure gates. A high, though quite narrow doorway led through there, where they’d have a million places to hide.
They were falling back towards it in classical fashion, moving from one bank of seats to the other, groups taking turns to lay down suppression fire while the others moved. And at this rate, they would make it. Madari’s group was too broken up fighting small groups to lay down enough fire to pin them. One more bank of seats and then they could make a break for the archway.
Jahni flopped down beside Madari, rifle ready. “Do we charge?”
Madari frowned. That was an option, to charge into the group of defenders, but they’d suffer heavy casualties on the way.
“It may be too late anyway, they’re–”
A roar interrupted him, an engine, and, bizarrely, a screech of tyres. A car, a BMW hurtled across the departure lounge.
“What the hell?” Jahni said, “Who’s that?”
“It’s Darak,” Madari answered, grinning hugely. He remembered now, seeing the BMW sitting by a display stand, the newest model on show. Now Darak was aiming it straight at that archway. He turned off at the last second, and the car skidded sideways on the slick floor, jamming itself broadside into the archway. It hit several defenders on the way as they tried to flee before the car blocked their escape.
Most of the others scattered, some of them firing on the car. Madari saw the figure inside it vanish from sight and he hoped that Darak had just ducked as the gunfire shattered the windows. No time to think about that. Now was the time to charge, and he yelled it, screamed it.
His men answered the order, and they came from every direction. The two groups were well matched in numbers and weapons, but Madari’s men surely had the advantage of ferocity. The soldiers fought because they’d been ordered to, but the guerrillas fought for their freedom, their ideals, and to finally end this long nightmare.
It turned into hand to hand in close quarters. Punches flew, bayonets and knives flashed. Madari lost sight of everyone but the man in front of him, the man he fought for his life against, until he thrust his knife under the soldier’s ribcage. Blood flowed over Madari’s hand, as he shoved the man away hard and the knife slid out. Another took his place and on it went and on and on.
Until it stopped. Until the defenders that remained were falling to their knees and waving their arms in the air in surrender. The fighting in the centre of departures stuttered to a stop. Some gunfire and fighting went on in the shops around the edges of the lounge, and some of Madari’s men broke away from the surrendering group, to help the others still fighting.
“Disarm them,” Madari ordered hoarsely. He cleared his throat, trying to get his voice back. “Find the most senior officer still alive.”
Turning away from that group, he ran over towards the car and pulled open the door. The car was empty. A second later, Darak popped up from the other side, grinning.
“I’m fine, sir,” he assured Madari. “Kahil.” He grinned at Jahni who arrived at Madari’s side at that moment, making Madari’s knees tremble with relief at the sight of him. Darak slapped the roof of the car hard. “Now that’s what I call a hell of a test drive!”
Madari scowled at him. “Enough jokes, Lieutenant, get over here and help secure the prisoners.” Darak sobered and climbed over the hood of the car. “Lieutenant,” Madari said, stopping him as he moved towards the prisoners. “Nice work.” Darak grinned again, saluted and hurried on. Madari turned to head across to where the fighting continued.
“Wait.” Jahni took Madari’s arm, spoke quietly to him. “You’re bleeding.”
He was, from several small cuts, but most heavily from a deep one on his upper arm. Though he wanted to move, run across to the shops where his men still fought, he waited while Jahni bound the wound. Jahni had cuts and bruising too, but nothing serious that Madari could see.
“Come on,” Madari said, as soon as Jahni finished the temporary dressing. “We’re not finished yet.”
Only a matter of time now though. The small fights in the shops started to end as the soldiers saw their comrades had already surrendered. In addition, seeing them being held, but not shot, gave them the incentive to surrender and live another day.
Resistance crumbled one shop at a time. Madari ran to several with Jahni at his heels and even fired shots or threw punches in a few of them. Gradually the gunfire stopped. The last pocket of fighting was in a tiny booth selling newspapers and books, the two men holed up inside it apparently having an endless supply of ammo.
“They’re not giving in,” Yassin told Madari as he ducked down behind a bank of seats beside the young officer.
“A grenade might persuade them otherwise,” Jahni suggested in a grim voice. Madari frowned. It would. So on the other hand would be the threat of one. He glanced around on the floor and grabbed a spray can of something from the toiletries store that stood nearby, drifts of talcum powder on its floors and countertops.
Madari lobbed the spray can, in an over-arm throw and yelled “Grenade!” as it fell into the booth. A half-second later two men came diving out, seeing only a dark metal cylinder falling into their cover. Of course, it failed to explode and they looked back, puzzled, realising after a second that they’d been fooled. Too late though, Madari’s men fell on them and disarmed them.
Madari looked around. And then… nothing. No more fighting. All of the defenders dead, wounded or disarmed. Faraj held the tower. They had done it. They had taken the airport. It was over.
An overpowering smell, sickly sweet, hit him and he turned to see Noor approaching, the apparent source of the odour.
“What the hell happened to you?” Jahni asked, putting a hand over his mouth and nose.
“Perfume shop, lots of broken bottles, perfume and aftershave flying everywhere. I think I swallowed at least a pint of it.” He grimaced, and then smiled again. “That will teach me to go looking for a gift for my wife in the middle of a battle.” He winked at Jahni. “Let’s call it the sweet smell of victory, eh, Kahil?”
Madari looked around at his victory, at the bodies of comrades and enemies on the floor or draped over seats and countertops. Wounded men cried out for help. For a moment, his eyes burned and he found it impossible to speak. Then he saw Darak heading his way and guessed the lieutenant would start the chant and he decided he couldn’t stand it, not now, with the price the victory had cost in blood.
Knees weak now, he found himself unable to keep from dropping onto a seat. Orders, he had to give orders, make sure of victory, make sure the place was fully secure before he reported it as such.
“Captain.” He looked at Noor. “Form search parties, check every room in the building make sure all the exterior doors are secured.” Noor nodded his acknowledgment.
“Lieutenant,” Madari said to Darak as he approached, heading off any chanting. “Help the medics, take a work party, help them set up a triage area. Get the wounded there. You remember where the airport medical facilities are?” When Darak nodded Madari went on, tone short, almost snappish. “Get the doctor in there and give him any assistance he requires. Yassin, I want a squad to start collecting up the bodies. Don’t forget the ones downstairs. Use a departure gate lounge as a morgue. Lieutenant, I want all of them identified. Ours and theirs, do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Yassin nodded, his face sober.
Enough for now. Much work remained, but those were the first jobs to complete. Madari felt on his belt for his radio and couldn’t find it. Must have lost it in the fight. Jahni handed him his.
“Thank you, Lieutenant. Faraj, are you receiving?”
“Here, sir.” Madari heard relief in the voice, a sigh releasing tension he must have held in since the gunfire stopped.
“We’ve taken the terminal. Any change to your status?”
“Nothing, sir. The two civilians I have here are getting quite agitated. They’ve been here for days.”
“Keep them there until I confirm we are fully secure. Stand by for further orders. Out.”
He closed the connection and gave the radio back to Jahni, then stood up.
“Come on, Lieutenant. I need to find a telephone, ready to report when we are secure.”
Jahni glanced at the bank of payphones, mounted on the wall near them. Madari saw them and laughed, still restraining that inner hysteria. Another thing that had once been part of life and that he’d almost forgotten. Money.
“I think we need to find one in an office. I’m afraid I don’t have any change on me.”
Morning light flooding the terminal. It shone on the men resting wearily on seats and the floor. Madari leaned over the counter top of the information desk, which he’d made his command post, preferring to be out here rather than in an office. A list lay in front of him, of their men that had died and another list of wounded. Too hard now to think about the names, he noted them, but tried not to see the faces that went with them. He needed focus, needed his strength, so for now he put the list aside and straightened up.
Not all the men lay here resting, of course, some guarded the prisoners, others the terminal’s many exits. Some patrolled outside. Others helped the medics. A forage party was busy scrounging up food and drink from the various food outlets as lunchtime approached.
Several of the senior officers stood around Madari, or sat nearby waiting for his next orders. When the men had eaten and slept, Madari decided, he would set them to cleaning up the mess. Work would serve to distract them while the fighting continued in the city. While they waited for orders. Madari had reached General Sattan on a prearranged phone number and had been ordered to stand by until contacted again. To hold the airport until further notice.
Noor approached, a couple of men with him, carrying trays of food for the officers. The smell that had announced his presence earlier had vanished, and in fact, he looked remarkably clean compared to everyone else’s bloodstained and dirty appearance.
“Lunch,” Noor said, putting the tray down on the counter top. The other officers cleared the tray in seconds, making him smile. Faraj gave food to the two civilian men he’d brought in from the air traffic control tower.
“I’ll get you some coffee soon, sir,” Noor said to Madari, which made Madari smile in his turn.
“Thank you, Javid. Ah, Javid, I notice that I can no longer smell you from twenty feet away.” The officers laughed and Noor rolled his eyes.
“The showers are working,” he said, jerking a thumb back towards the bathroom facilities. “And I took these clothes from one of the shops.”
Madari nodded. “All right. But speaking of taking things from shops, make sure the men know we are not here to loot the place.”
The officers looked more serious then, nodding. Food was one thing, Madari thought, and anything the doctors might need. Even clothing, if it had been destroyed. However, it would not be honourable to walk out of here laden down with stolen goods.
“Hey, that’s not fair,” Yassin said from where he sat nearby, grinning. “Darak stole a car.” Darak, sitting beside him, dug him in the ribs with his elbow.
“He’s not taking it home.” Madari said, almost stern, but with a hint of amusement in his voice. Natural to relax a little now, let the tension drain. It was not over yet, but perhaps soon. Perhaps…
The phone on the desk rang making them all jump and then stare at it. Madari unfroze and slowly moved his hand to it, picked up the receiver.
A few moments later, he put the phone down and turned to the expectant faces of his men. He walked out from behind the desk, Jahni following him. Stepping up onto a bank of seats he looked around, all the men staring up at him, coming to their feet. Now, he thought, now my voice must hold, must not crack. He spoke.
“Our side holds the television and radio stations, the royal palace, the main railway station, all the electricity sub-stations, and,” he paused, for the drama, and his smile gave it away. “The defence ministry. Gentlemen, we won.”
The departure lounge erupted in cheering and foot stamping. Men embraced each other, some even wept for the end of their long campaign, for the news that meant very soon now, they would go home to their families. Madari watched them for a long moment, smiling, not stopping the tears that ran down his own face. Then he stepped down off the seats and found himself engulfed in embraces from each of his officers, one after another. Even those who’d never have been so bold before were caught up in the moment. Jahni had long had licence to embrace him of course and he took his turn, a tight hug that felt all too brief to Madari.
As the high of the moment faded, the laughter and cheering calmed down. Madari climbed back up onto the seats and held up his hand.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, please.” They quietened and waited for him to speak. “We are not relieved of duty yet. We still have orders to hold this facility until further notice. Please maintain your discipline and stay alert.” Serious looks and nods greeted this. “We could be here for several days, so we must get the place into order for that stay. Work parties will be assigned later. For now, rest, eat. You have earned it, my dear friends.”
The chant started as a murmur this time, and not from Darak, the usual instigator, but seemed to come from the throats of all the men at once.
“Madari! Madari! Madari!”
For the last time, Madari thought. This will be the last time I hear this from these men. He allowed it to go on for a while longer and then raised a hand again. The chant stopped instantly and that made him very proud of the discipline of these men, most of them civilians until he had turned them into soldiers. Whatever the path a man had been on before, a turn onto a new one could make him someone else entirely. Every man held so much potential inside him, just waiting for the opportunity to shine. And shine they had.
Madari spoke again, because this could be the last chance he had to say this. Many of them could be gone soon. Events could move fast the next few days.
“Thank you, all of you, for your loyalty, your service. I am so proud of each of you, your bravery, your honour, your discipline. For the rest of your lives you can be proud to remember what you achieved. It’s been an honour to serve with all of you and with those who sacrificed their lives for our cause.”
Their serious faces looked back at him, all silent now as they remembered their fallen comrades.
“Never forget their names.” Madari’s words were quiet, many of the men probably didn’t hear them, and perhaps he said them mostly to himself. He nodded at the men, dismissing them to relax and rest again, and then climbed down, Jahni giving him his hand to help him down. The exhaustion starting to catch up to him now made his knees shake, and he sank down onto a seat.
“Javid, you mentioned coffee?”
By evening Madari’s men had cleared much of the mess from the departure lounge and the concourse downstairs, loading the biggest pieces of debris into large wheeled bins. Men who only a few hours before wielded rifles, now wielded brooms to sweep up the remaining debris.
Madari had ordered the security shutters pulled down on those shops that had them, to put temptation out of sight. Some of the shops had already been stripped before the battle. The men searching the prisoners for weapons had come back with all sorts of small high value items, designer sunglasses, expensive fountain pens, cameras and the like. Madari had all those locked in an office. His men had discipline, but even Madari felt tempted by the tobacco shop with its selection of fine cigars. He’d allowed the men to take a few cartons of cigarettes from there, since a lot of nicotine deprived men would not make the next few days very pleasant, and then ordered that locked up too.
Now he lay on his back on a bank of seats, knees bent up, and an arm across his eyes, trying to catch a few minutes of sleep, like a tired traveller waiting for a delayed connection. He would go to see the doctor again soon, he decided, check how the medics were getting on. He’d dropped in a several times already, to ensure they had everything they needed. Al-Hijazi said that some of the wounded men really needed to be in a hospital, but Madari had not received the all clear to move them yet. Sporadic pockets of fighting continued around the city.
After that he’d check on the prisoners, ensure they were secure, and being treated properly. A smile flickered across his face. Last time he’d looked in Noor had distributed books, magazines and packs of playing cards to them and many sat around quietly with these items, while others slept. A smart man, Noor, practical thinker. Madari would miss him. That train of thought led him to places he feared to go. Normality lay only days away now. He would go back to his regiment, and the other officers would go back to theirs. Jahni would go back to the Southern Rangers, so far away, so…
“Sir.” Jahni’s voice interrupted his thoughts and made him start slightly. He moved his arm to see Jahni looking down at him, eyes wide. “Faraj is on the telephone, from the air traffic control tower. He says they got a radio message, a plane asking for permission to land.”
“What?” Madari frowned. “No, the airport is closed. Is it an emergency?”
“Ah, not exactly,” Jahni said. “It’s the king.”
Madari sat up so fast his head swam for an instant. He swung his legs onto the floor.
“Faraj says he’s sure it’s him, he spoke to him, recognised the voice.”
“The king…” Madari’s voice became a whisper, stunned. The king. The man this had all been for. Coming here.
“Sir? Should we let them land?”
“By all means!” Madari laughed, that hysteria very close to the surface now. “Absolutely. Tell Faraj to give them permission.” He laughed again as he stood up. Jahni looked at him oddly, but hurried back to the telephone at the information desk and spoke into it rapidly.
“Captain!” Madari shouted at Noor, who was nearby, supervising the men restoring the tables and chairs to one of the cafés. Noor hurried over. “The king is about to land in his plane. Please gather all the men not on guard duty and bring them outside.”
Noor stared at him for a moment and then grinned.
“Of course. Arrange it.”
Noor rushed off, giving orders into his radio. Jahni came back to Madari.
“It will be about twenty minutes. Sir, has Faraj met the king before then?”
“Many times. He was at school with the king’s younger brother, they are still friends.”
“Faraj’s family must be very rich.”
“Very.” Madari smiled at him. “Perhaps you should start being nicer to him, Kahil.”
“I am nice!”
Madari laughed at the indignant tone, and then sobered himself. “Right. Follow me.”
The wind blew the smell of the desert, hot burnt air, across the tarmac. Madari stood beside his officers as the Lear jet manoeuvred near to the terminal. Then it sat, the engines cycling down, the door still closed.
The men lined up in two ranks by the door into the terminal. Madari had them leave their weapons inside, since times were still tense and he didn’t want to alarm anyone. His radio crackled.
“Sir,” Yassin’s voice came through, still in the terminal. “Several cars just arrived at the main entrance, limousines some of them. Ah, General Sattan and others are getting out. Do we let them through?”
Madari’s face twitched in an annoyed frown for a moment. He’d hoped his men would get the glory of this moment, but the plane must have called ahead to advise they were landing and the generals had come running.
“Send them through, Lieutenant.”
He waited again, silent, hands behind his back until he heard voices behind him and turned. As he moved, the back of his hand brushed against the back of Jahni’s and he saw Jahni’s eyes widen for a second. An accidental touch he wondered. Or unconsciously seeking a small reassurance, a sharing of strength?
A group of men came out of the doorway that led into the terminal, General Sattan led them and the group included – Madari grimaced – General Dasham. Why did he have to be here to sour the whole thing? No, he would not allow that man’s presence to ruin it. After all, Madari had won, hadn’t he? Dasham had wanted the camp, but Madari had held it until the end.
“Major.” Sattan shook Madari’s hand. “Congratulations on your victory. Decisive, very decisive.”
“Thank you, sir. My men deserve the credit.”
“Oh, save some of it for yourself, Major, you deserve it.” He clapped Madari heartily on the shoulder.
“Thank you again. Sir, I have wounded men and prisoners that need moving from here.”
“Ah, yes, I’ll deal with that after we get his majesty safely to the palace,” Sattan waved a hand at a young man with him, who made a note on a pad. While Sattan and most of the other senior men approached the king’s plane, Dasham stopped beside Madari, and spoke quietly.
“How are your hands, Madari?”
“Almost entirely healed.” Madari held up one hand, with its distorted, but fully re-grown fingernails. Dasham frowned and leaned slightly closer.
“I know for a fact you’re as mad as a scorpion, Madari. Just like your grandfather. Got the desert in your head. And what the Russians did to you –”
Madari turned such a fierce glare on him it made Dasham think better of finishing the sentence. He glared back and leaned close, whispered now.
“I’m watching you, Madari, I warn you, you be very careful what you say and do around the king. One wrong move and I’ll put you on your back, Major.” He spat the last word.
Madari’s reply was even quieter, but Dasham heard it. “I may be flattering myself, General, but if you do that, I suspect you’ll be dead before I hit the ground.” Dasham looked around at Madari’s men. They were unarmed, but every one of them looked as if he could and would follow through on Madari’s threat.
Dasham harrumphed and strode on after Sattan’s party. Jahni moved close to Madari again.
“What was that about?”
“Oh, just a little chat with an old friend.” Madari turned to watch the plane now, the generals clustered around the door. He would stay here, beside his men, he decided, not join the gaggle of generals, who reminded him suddenly of small boys crowding around the window of a sweet shop. Discipline should be accompanied by dignity. If the king wished to speak to Madari, then he would. Madari would not go and tug on his sleeve, craving a glance.
The door of the plane opened and a man in a dark suit came out first, emerging before the steps had lowered fully to the ground. Assessing the area, Madari thought, as the man checked around, ignoring the generals talking at him. He spoke into a radio and a moment later another man, also dark suited and bulky, emerged, quickly followed by a man wearing traditional, although fairly casual clothes. He won’t want to draw too much attention, Madari thought, until he’s safely in the palace. Right now, he could be any man on the street. However, he is not any man. He is the king.
King Atuallah. The man King’s Men had plotted to restore. The man Madari had been arrested, tortured and jailed for. The man in whose name he’d waged a guerrilla war. The man whose name meant gift of God and for whom Madari had given so much away.
“He’s not very tall is he?” Noor’s words shook Madari from staring as the king descended the steps and began to speak to the generals.
“Captain!” Noor subsided into silence, seeing Madari was in no mood for it. Madari still stared and now the king was walking towards them, towards the guard of honour the men formed. Madari turned to them.
“Attention!” They snapped to it. The breeze fluttered their clothes, but they remained still, frozen. Atuallah approached Madari, hand outstretched.
“Major Madari. Good to meet you.”
Madari took the hand offered him and bowed his head.
“An honour, sir.” He looked up again as the king released his hand. “May I present my officers and men, sir?”
Atuallah looked around at them, smiling, nodded to Faraj. “I know they have fought bravely and I look forward to hearing more details later. But everything now is still in such a rush.”
“Don’t let me delay you, sir.” Madari felt mortified for a moment. He’d wanted to remain dignified, not thrust his presence on the king. The man had important matters to deal with.
“I have a few moments.”
Madari saw Dasham scowl at that, didn’t want the king dwelling too long on Madari’s achievements, presumably. A story his grandfather had told him many time popped into Madari’s head suddenly. How Ahmed had presented to his king, Atuallah’s grandfather, a captured enemy flag and the broken dress sword of the opposing commander. He’d described how he’d wrapped the flag around the sword pieces and, standing before the king, had unrolled the flag with a dramatic flourish letting the broken sword clatter on the floor.
Madari had loved the story as a boy, each embellishment making him happier. Only years later did Rahama tell him that although the gesture had been real, some of the details, like the falling blade of the sword cutting off the toe of a rival colonel, were not entirely accurate.
Still, Madari wished sometimes for the days of such glorious gestures. He took a step towards the king, causing the bodyguards to move closer too, tense.
“Sir, I…” He paused, uncertain. “I have nothing I can present as a tribute to your majesty.” Atuallah seemed surprised, but then he spoke.
“Those sashes you are all wearing. They have become known as the symbol of your company, I believe.”
“Yes, sir, since we have no uniforms –”
“I would be honoured to accept that from you.”
Madari stared for a moment, amazed, and then he quickly untied the sash and held it out, in both hands. The faded dye and the blood and dirt on it made him feel ashamed of such a poor tribute.
“It is a rag.”
“It is the symbol of the Knight of the North. You honour me with it.” Atuallah took the sash, and then he put a hand on Madari’s shoulder, leant close. “Your name is Faris, isn’t it?” He spoke in a voice quiet enough that only the two of them could hear.
“Thank you for everything you have done, Faris. You are my knight. You are my friend.”
“Sir,” Dasham said, “if we leave now we can have you in your palace before dark.”
For a second, Madari felt certain he saw the king roll his eyes.
“That man has no sense of occasion,” Atuallah whispered. He straightened up. “Feel free to come with us to the palace, Major.”
That made Dasham scowl and even Sattan frown, but Madari knew at once that it was a test. Atuallah didn’t need his counsel at the palace. He had plenty of advisors. All Madari could do there would be bask in the victory. The king wanted to know whether Madari cared more about glory than duty. Cared more for riding in a limousine through cheering crowds, than finishing his job here.
“Thank you, sir, but my orders are to hold the airport until I am relieved.”
Atuallah nodded and smiled. “Of course. Thank you again, Major.” He turned and went on into the terminal, walking slowly through the honour guard, the men still at attention, looking at them, and then nodding at Ishaq who stood at the door. Ishaq saluted, smart as a whip, though he had awe in his eyes, and led the king through the terminal.
Dasham looked smug, apparently having missed the point of the test. As he walked past Madari, he muttered the words “tribute” and “mad as a scorpion” again. Jahni must have heard them, Madari saw him tense up. But he didn’t speak.
Then all the generals and their hangers-on had vanished inside the terminal and Noor let out a long sigh of relief.
“At ease,” he ordered the guard of honour and they relaxed. Noor grinned. “His majesty won’t forget that one for a long time, I’ll bet. Permission to dismiss the men, sir?”
“Proceed, Captain. It’s dinner time, we need to feed the wounded and the prisoners.”
Noor snapped orders and the men marched back inside, still with work to do. Madari turned away from the door, looking up into the sky, dark blue now, as the sun sank behind the building. A few stars had come out and the moon would be up soon.
He brushed a hand over his waist and frowned, feeling naked for a moment. Not to have his sash any more meant that this was truly over. A few days of work, of clearing up and then…
The sound of someone’s feet scuffing on the tarmac behind him made him turn to see Jahni waiting there, the only man who had not gone back into the terminal.
“We survived,” Jahni said. Madari knew what he would say next. “What now?”
“I’m sorry, Kahil, I don’t have a different answer than I had before.”
Jahni didn’t answer just gazed back at him.
“We have…” Madari began and paused. Jahni stared at him then, eyes wide, waiting for something, some hope to hang onto. However, Madari shook his head, not able to offer him any.
“We have a few days.”