Jahni lay in bed, morning light piercing his curtains, trying to summon the strength to get up and take a shower. Or perhaps a bath, to ease the muscles that ached from three days of intense training for the strike on the terrorist camp.
And he hadn’t even been doing the riding training! He was amazed not to be dealing with a dozen transfer requests from the men learning to ride now for the mission they’d fly out to tomorrow.
Perhaps he’d sleep for a while longer and then maybe go to the sauna for a long steam and a massage to get the aches out of his muscles. The men going on the mission had today to rest, before they reported before dawn tomorrow to board the plane that would take them north.
Just as he had closed his eyes again, his phone began ringing on his nightstand. If he’d been a praying man he’d have prayed as he reached for it. Prayed that it wasn’t an emergency call. Please, not now. Not a plane hijacking, or a call to flush a nest of terrorists here in the city.
“Jahni,” he said, his voice hoarse and sleepy.
“Good morning, Captain.” A man’s voice he didn’t recognise. Certainly nobody from the unit. “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
“Who is this?” Jahni asked, rubbing his eyes.
“My name is Mr Younis. I work in His Majesty’s private office. We’ve met at the palace on two occasions, though I’m sure you have no reason to recall me.”
He didn’t. One of those forgettable grey men who quietly arranged things for the king. Not a celebrity like Captain Jahni of the Royal Guard. He grimaced. What would it be like to be one of those grey men? Did they long for a life like his?
“What can I do for you, Mr Younis?”
“I would like to arrange a meeting with you, Captain. The matter of the seizure of your father’s business was recently brought to the attention of His Majesty and he has requested that I expedite the release of the proceeds of the sale to you.”
In his sleepy state the bureaucratic speech almost went right over Jahni’s head, but he managed to grasp the essence of what Younis had just told him and sat up in bed abruptly.
“My father’s money?”
“Yes, sir. His Majesty has instructed me to make arrangements to see that you are paid back as quickly as possible.”
This couldn’t be real, could it? Had one of the letters from Faris’ lawyer finally hit the right desk after all these years?
“I see.” Jahni had no idea what else to say.
“His Majesty had instructed me to advise that you will also receive the entire amount in your father’s personal and business accounts at the time of the seizure and that you should be compensated for a further amount, to be determined by taking the average of the net profits of the business for the five years prior to the seizure and adding that amount for each full year that has passed since.”
“I… don’t know what to say.”
“I’m not quite finished, sir.”
“What more can there be?”
“The land on which your family home was built was also seized. That was never sold on and the deed for the land remains in the treasury and will be returned to you. No insurance claim was ever made for the destruction of the house, however a policy existed with up to date premiums. I am currently in negotiation with the insurance company to make a suitable settlement.”
This time Jahni didn’t speak at all, forcibly reminded of the day he’d gone with Madari to visit the graves of his parents and sisters and had seen the rubble that remained of their home. He hadn’t even thought about the house and the land for many years.
“Are you still there, Captain?”
“Uh, yes. I’m sorry. This is just rather a lot of take in. I really never expected to see the money again. A lawyer has been working on it, but…” He’d let the lawyer go on doing that because it kept Faris happy, but he’d lost hope about it years ago. “How much money are we actually talking about here?”
“It’s a substantial amount, and the figure is not finalised yet, as the insurance claim is still to be settled. Also the compensation for lost profits is still negotiable. That’s why I want to organise a meeting, with you and your legal representative.”
“I… yes, of course.” He’d engage Madari’s lawyer, he supposed. He deserved to see this finally settled. “I won’t be available for the next few days, so some time after that?”
“That will be fine, Captain. In a week perhaps? That will give me time to conclude the negotiation with the insurance company. Meanwhile, have your lawyer contact me directly and I’ll pass him the full details in preparation for the meeting.”
After he hung up, Jahni lay down again, staring up at the ceiling, seeing nothing. After all this time! Why now? What had made it happen? The subject had come up at the party the other night. Had Colonel Rahama said something? But he’d known about it for years. Could a reminder have spurred him into action. Sophia? But what influence did she have on the king? What about Madari himself? He’d been to the palace for a meeting a couple of days ago, to brief the king on the planned mission. Had he mentioned something then? It couldn’t be simple coincidence, surely.
He laughed suddenly. Well, now he could make a large donation to Sophia’s worthy charity after all. That should please Faris.
Madari grinned at Jahni when their convoy of vehicles arrived at the co-ordinates he’d specified. Jahni stared at the dozens of horses waiting for them.
“I told you I had it in hand.”
“You’ll have to tell me one day how you did it,” Jahni said, climbing out of the Land Rover and stretching. Other Land Rovers and trucks stopped and men began to climb out.
“Get everyone kitted up, and dressed,” Madari said, striding off towards the man in charge of the horses. Other Bedouin men started to hand over reins to the dubious-looking soldiers, as the soldiers donned long robes, most of them black like the nomads. If they were spotted, then they could hopefully pass for a tribe travelling over the mountain to fresh grazing land on the other side.
The men laughed and joked about which of them should be impersonating Bedouin women for the trip, but their disguises worked well, the voluminous robes hiding their body armour and weapons. Saddle bags took their helmets and the contents of the small packs they carried.
Seeing the preparations well underway, Jahni put on his own robes and walked to join Madari, who stood talking with an elderly man, a good six inches shorter than him, with skin like leather.
“Kahil, this is Amran. A cousin of Halais.”
“My respects, sir,” Jahni said, bowing his head as the man looked at him with sharp eyes squinted almost closed by a life in the sun.
“Captain Jahni. My cousin has spoken highly of you.”
“He honours me, sir.” They shook hands, but cut it short, with business pressing.
“I decided to miss the tribal council,” Amran said, turning back to Madari. “Lot of old men talking. Besides a man with a new wife shouldn’t stray far from home.” He smiled in a ‘pleased with himself’ manner.
“My congratulations,” Madari said, while Jahni boggled at the thought of the old man being a bridegroom. “And my thanks for organising the horses we needed.”
“It wasn’t easy,” Amran said. “But money talks. Try to bring all of them back in one piece.”
“You have my word.”
“I’ve chosen your guides. They’ll take you to where you can leave the horses and then lead you on foot the rest of the way.” He looked at the sky. “You’ll have to go within the hour to get to the stopping point before dark.”
Madari and Jahni glanced around at the men. Most were mounted now, the officers obviously more comfortable and easy on the horses than the more dubious looking men they circulated among.
“I will leave men here to guard our vehicles,” Madari said as he put on the robes Jahni handed to him. “If some of your people are staying, there is food and drink in the trucks.” His black robes fluttered in the breeze and Jahni found himself smiling at the sight of him in them.
The Knight of the North had come home.
The last arrangement made, they set out. A mile or two of near desert scrub land led them into the foothills of the northern mountains.
Thirty men on horses were impossible to conceal and they didn’t try, relying on their disguise to fool anyone watching. The hills were near deserted of course, but Jahni knew that if he was in charge of that camp, he’d have long range patrols to warn of anyone coming too close.
They took a route that most nomads would be expected to take; a steep, sometimes even treacherous path, but wide enough for the surefooted horses to negotiate. Another, narrower path led more directly to their target, the chief guide explained, but that would make it obvious where they were heading. This route would circle around above the camp and allow them to make their way down to it on foot.
Madari glanced back at the men strung out behind them on the path. The sun was sinking now and the shadows of men on horseback stretched long over the harsh rock.
“Our tribe,” he said to Jahni, who nodded.
Jahni thought of them exactly that way. Tribe meant family, and for Jahni there was no family but Madari and the unit. His brothers. And speaking of family, he still had a question to ask. He’d had no chance to tell Madari about the return of his money on their flight, and it wasn’t something he wanted to shout over the noise of the engines anyway. Now he had an opportunity.
“Faris.” He glanced around to make sure they weren’t overheard, and leaned across to Madari. “Did you talk to the king about my father’s money?”
Madari frowned. “What? No? What makes you ask that?”
“I’m getting it back.” He smiled at Madari’s amazed stare. “I got a phone call yesterday from a man on the King’s staff. I’m getting all of it back.”
“My God! Kahil, congratulations!” Madari grinned, pure delight on his face. “It must be a fortune! I suppose my lawyer’s letters finally got through.” His voice softened as he said the last part. Jahni still doubted the coincidence, but didn’t pursue that yet. “So, do you have any plans for the money?”
“Not yet,” Jahni said. “It still seems unreal.”
“When the money is in your bank account and the bank manager is falling over himself to be nice to you, then it will seem real.”
“Yes.” He smiled at the thought of that. It would be like when he paid in eighteen month’s worth of back pay. But that had been years ago. Between his car, and paying back Madari for the flat, there wasn’t much of that left and the bank manager had gone back to being merely polite.
“You could buy a house,” Madari suggested.
“In a fashionable district? Something more suitable for a Royal Guard officer?”
“Property is always a good investment. And you are a Royal Guard officer.”
Jahni shrugged. He found it hard to imagine himself in a sizeable town house, with domestic staff maybe. Faris would probably start up again with his suggestions that Jahni get married. Of course, there was the plot of land where his home had been and the insurance settlement that should be enough to rebuild a house. He could do that, live out of town.
Live in the place his family died.
No. He’d sell the land.
“I like my flat.” They rode on in silence for a while.
“There’s no hurry to do anything, of course. Take advice about it.”
“I suppose I’ll have to change my will,” Jahni said and in the dimming light, caught a grimace flickering across Madari’s face.
“Of course. That would be sensible.”
There wouldn’t be much to change. He only had Madari to leave his money to. The flat would revert to him too. There were a few charitable bequests in the will; he could increase the amounts on them. Glancing up the mountain, where he would soon fight, he thought it would be ironic if he died tonight. If he never saw the inheritance he’d waited so long for.
“I thought you’d be more excited about it,” Madari said. “It’s a lot of money. You’re rich.”
Jahni laughed. “Well, I don’t know about rich.”
“Invested properly, it can give you a comfortable income.”
“I already have an income.”
True, it would allow him to live a lifestyle more like most of his fellow Royal Guard officers, but did he want to? It seemed a frivolous way to use the money, fritter it away. Of course, not all Royal Guard officers had lavish lifestyles. Madari had some expensive hobbies, like the falcon and the horses and… he shouldn’t call Sophia a hobby. But he didn’t spend a lot of money on entertaining, or fancy clothes. And that damn Volvo would have to fall apart before he finally replaced it.
“I’m still thinking about what I’ll do with it,” he said. “One thing about this does bother me though.”
“The old regime were the ones who stole the money, yes? So the king really is under no obligation to return it.”
Madari shrugged. “I don’t know if that’s true. The money went into the national treasury. It’s not as if they took it and spent it all on drink and women.”
Jahni smiled at what he suspected was an attempt to cheer him up, but grew serious again a moment later.
“Perhaps that’s true. But still, I don’t think there’s really any legal case for the King having to give me that money back when he didn’t steal it.”
“Then he’s decided to do so on grounds of fairness. It’s the right thing to do.”
“Yes. Especially if he wants to ensure my continuing loyalty.”
Madari turned to him, staring. “That’s…” He lowered his voice when the word came out near a shout. “That’s absurd. If you’re suggesting it’s effectively a bribe, well, I’m shocked you could think that about the King. He knows you’re loyal. He knows he doesn’t have to pay you to continue to be loyal.”
“I think the King is a more cynical man than you, Faris. He doesn’t trust that people will do the right thing out of principle alone.”
“I’m not naïve, Kahil, but I know you don’t need to be bought off.”
“The King doesn’t know me the way you do.”
A flush rose in Madari’s cheeks, and he fixed an intense stare on the path ahead. Jahni held in a laugh. No, the king certainly didn’t know him the way Madari did. That would be quite… inappropriate.
They reached the place they’d leave the horses just as the light finally died, the sun dropping behind the mountains.
Madari ordered them to set up camp, knowing that they had to keep up their pretence of being a tribe of Bedouin on a journey, in case they were observed. Besides, the raid would not be for several hours yet and the men could take this time to eat and rest before they went into action.
They quickly established a camp. No tents, but blankets and bedrolls arranged around some fires to heat their food and keep off the chill of the night. Here in the mountains the harsh rocks gave up the heat of the day quickly.
Madari sat with their Bedouin guides, discussing their role in the night’s work. Two of them would guide the soldiers the rest of the way, while the others remained with the horses. As they talked, they ate, a simple meal of bread, cheese and cold meats, and a dense cake full of dried fruit. If anyone was observing them it would be something of a giveaway to be seen eating Army field rations. The ate what their guides would eat on such a journey.
Madari took his leave after the meal, strolling to look down into the sea of blackness that was the desert, and then at the sky. A clear night, moonless, the stars bright in the infinitely black sky. It had grown very cold now and he considered going to get his gloves from his pack, but for now, folded his arms, putting his hands into the wide sleeves of his robe.
“I don’t see the stars looking quite like that very often,” Jahni said, stepping up to his side. “Living in the city, with all that light.”
“Perhaps you should build a house out in the desert with your inheritance,” Madari said.
Jahni nodded. The small cloud of his breath showed twice in the chilly air before he spoke again. “Perhaps out in your village?”
The shiver that ran through Madari had nothing to do with the cold. The distance between their homes – their beds – was a barrier, just like their uniforms, the law and Sophia. If they were close enough for a short walk through the darkness, keeping to the shadows… so close, always calling to each other.
“That might not be a good idea.”
“I’m kidding.” Jahni didn’t smile. “I might spend a little of it. But I’m probably just going to invest it. You know… for the future.”
“The Guard does offer a good pension. Don’t deprive yourself now against your old age, when you will be well provided for anyway.”
Hard to imagine Jahni as an old man. Or at least as a retired man. Easier to imagine him in his forties, still handsome, with some distinguished grey hairs, wearing the uniform of a general. Think about that, not about the way he fills out the black battledress he’s wearing under the robe. Figure-hugging, flattering his fit, strong body…
“Well, who knows if I’ll get to the point of retiring,” Jahni said, with a shrug. “If I left the Army before then, I might need money.”
“You’d be provided for if you were invalided out,” Madari said. “And I can’t see you leaving for any other reason.” His smile at Jahni was a nervous one, trying to lighten the mood, fearing Jahni’s serious mood, fearing how closely their words skirted difficult subjects.
“Can’t you?” Jahni said. Despite the softness of his voice, it held a challenge. Madari flushed and hoped the darkness hid the rush of colour to his face. “Between your money and mine…” Jahni said, and trailed off.
Enough to live on, he meant, Madari knew. Perhaps at home, perhaps abroad. A simple lifestyle perhaps, no lavish home. But together…
“I think you should get some rest,” Madari said, cutting off the subject. No choice but to do so. They were already literally in dangerous territory. Foolish to go there metaphorically too.
They had discarded the robes now, left the horses behind and were slipping through the shadows. Silence too concealed them. This close to the enemy camp they had adopted radio silence and restricted themselves to long-memorised hand signals to communicate. Sound bounced from the rocks here in the mountains, travelled through chasms and cracks.
Jahni followed their guides, Madari close behind him and the men strung out in a line beyond that. They had a fair idea of the layout of the camp from the intel Halais had given them and every man carried copies of the maps, but they knew little of the terrain immediately beyond the perimeter of the enemy camp. Jahni wanted his men to come in from all sides at once, and hoped there was more cover than darkness for them.
Despite the cold, Jahni’s blood sang with excitement. His mouth was dry with the fear he still felt every time he prepared to fight, but that he had long ago learnt to control. He wanted to laugh as he recalled what he’d said earlier to Madari. Leave the Army? For any reason but injury or retirement? What an absurd idea.
He knew what he’d been thinking, that they could make a life together somewhere, probably abroad. But that was mere fantasy, brought on by the sudden appearance of his inheritance. He was unsettled that was all. This – soldiering – was his life. This was what he lived for.
The guides gestured and one turned back as they stopped. He pressed a finger to his lips and pointed.
It lay ahead of them, the enemy camp. Dark shapes of small buildings, nestled into a depression in the ground. No lights, or fires. No sign of movement.
The men all knew their roles and Jahni glanced at Madari for confirmation to begin. It bothered him that Madari was so close to the action here. He’d wanted to leave him further back down the trail, but Madari wouldn’t hear of it. He had to coordinate, he said, and could hardly do so if he couldn’t see.
Madari mouthed the word “Go” and picked up his night vision binoculars. At Jahni’s signal the rest of the men pulled night vision goggles over their eyes. Starlight had been enough for most of the men to make their way along the trail, leaving off the heavy and uncomfortable goggles for as long as possible, but now they needed to see as if it were day.
They moved out, surrounding the enemy camp, moving silently. With radio silence they had to rely on timing to co-ordinate the action. They had ten minutes to move into place and then the action would begin.
“I don’t see any movement at all,” Madari said quietly, watching the camp, speaking to Jahni, who stood ready to move out as the last of the groups left, leaving only Jahni’s group. “But be careful.”
Jahni rolled his eyes and spoke quietly. “Careful? We’re making a raid on an enemy base. If we were careful, we’d be back home hiding under our beds.”
“You know what I mean,” Madari said. “And don’t be insubordinate.”
“What are you going to do? Set your new friend the Pope onto me?”
Madari clicked his tongue in irritation at that. The banter calmed Jahni though. Not to the point of relaxation and complacency, but it pushed the fear a little further away.
“Okay, time.” Jahni signalled his men and they moved off among the rocks, towards their positions. One last look at Madari, and a wink. “Say a Hail Mary for us.”
Madari did pray. Not a Hail Mary, but still, he murmured a short prayer as he always did when he sent men into action. The two men who remained with him made no remark about their commander’s whispering. Perhaps they were praying too.
He glanced at his watch, pressing in the button to make the face glow. Almost time. The minute hand crept onwards and he heard the first explosion, gasped and looked for it. A flashbang, tossed into a building. Other men would use smoke grenades, all in the cause of taking as many prisoners as they could without a fight. But there’d soon be gunshots. He knew that.
More grenades exploded. Madari saw his men moving in, dark shapes, frighteningly insectile, with their goggles and gas masks. But… something was wrong.
“Sir,” one of his guards said, also looking down into the camp. “Sir, shouldn’t they be shooting back by now?”
Yes, the enemy should indeed have reacted. They should be rushing from their beds, either in panic, or ready to fight for their lives. But Madari saw none of that. Unless they were already cowed enough that they were refusing to emerge from the huts… but nobody stayed in an enclosed space with a smoke grenade when there was a way out.
Damn. Damn! He lifted his radio, the need for radio silence over.
“L4,” Jahni’s call sign tonight. “Report.”
Jahni’s back slammed up against a rock as he turned from the blast of a stun grenade into one of the small houses. He leaned back against the rock face as Madari’s voice came through his helmet radio.
“No opposition so far,” Jahni reported. The men had run into houses they’d sent grenades into when nobody came out and so far nobody had fired a shot, because nobody had found anyone to shoot at. “We’re checking every building. They could be hiding.”
“Get men around the perimeter,” Madari snapped. Jahni understood why, suddenly fearing the enemy could have retreated to the rocks around the camp and were just waiting to start firing on his men. “And don’t show any lights!”
“Aye, sir.” He snapped orders into his radio to the men. No lights for sure. Don’t give anyone an easy target. With their night vision equipment they needed no lights and had to use that advantage. Despite that, his back itched at the thought a sniper could be targeting him right that second. Control that fear. He’d felt it before, in battles when the enemy were all around and you might never see the man who killed you.
He strode off to the centre of the camp, where a fire team was securing the largest building. By the time he arrived, they were coming out, shaking their heads and reporting no opposition. The men on the perimeter searching the rocks also reported back with no sign of ambush.
Twenty minutes after they entered the camp, Jahni radioed Madari with what they’d all guessed ten minutes ago.
“It’s deserted. They’re gone.”
The sun was peeking over the mountain as Madari picked his way down a rocky track into the camp. Jahni had insisted he stay outside until they’d completed a thorough search. But after an hour, had called back to confirm that the camp was indeed entirely deserted.
“It looks like they pulled out,” Jahni said, leading him towards one of the small houses. “The place is cleaned out. No weapons anywhere, they obviously took those with them.”
They approached a hut that a man guarded, still wearing his gas mask. That surprised Madari until the breeze shifted and he caught a smell of putrefaction. It stopped him in his tracks, involuntarily and he felt a wave of nausea. The loud buzzing of flies came on the breeze too.
“No,” Jahni said, “well not human. Goats and a couple of sheep. Just remains, heads and…” He stopped, looking at Madari’s face. “Live animals would be too much trouble to take away with them, so they butchered them for the meat and took that for their journey.”
Madari nodded, deciding he didn’t need to see the remains, he’d accept Jahni’s assessment. “And had no time or no inclination to clean up what was left.”
“Looks that way.”
“How long ago would you say they left?”
“Going by the rate of decay in there.” He nodded at the hut. “At least three days.” The breeze shifted again, carrying a fresh waft of the stench and Madari walked away, fearing he was about to see his last meal again. Jahni followed.
“Okay, get that cleaned up,” Madari said. “Bury or burn the remains. But don’t touch anything else. We may have no prisoners to show for this, but there could be a treasure house of intelligence here.”
Just looking around now gave him some. The neatness of the camp, with no garbage strewn about. The latrines and washing facilities as well set up as you’d find on any military camp. It had been an orderly withdrawal. All this told Madari that they were not dealing with amateurs here, but with men who’d planned and learnt exactly how to do this.
“Sir,” Lieutenant Raian approached them. “There’s something you need to see.”
He didn’t elaborate, just turned away and led them to a hut. Madari expected him to take them inside, but instead he lifted his flashlight to show them something painted on the wood beside the door. Words. No, not words. A name. A name Madari had seen before.
Sword of God.
The man – and he felt sure now that it was a man and not the name of a group – who had sent an assassin to kill him in his own bed. An assassin who’d failed, but whose leader was still out there somewhere. And perhaps had been here.
“Captain,” he said to Jahni. “I just want to repeat what I said before. Nobody touch anything else. I want a team up here from Military Intelligence. I don’t only want this place searched, I want it treated as a crime scene. Fingerprints taken.” He glanced around at the shapes of his men moving around in the dawn light. “Let’s try not to leave too many of ours here.”