Part 6: First Blood

Chapter 1

Jahni woke as soon as he heard the soft cry. He blinked around for a moment, confused. Then he remembered. Tonight they slept as guests in a tent in the Bedouin camp.

The cry had come from his left side. Madari lay there, the blanket that had covered him thrown off. His hands pushed at some terror invisible to anyone but him. He cried out again, louder.

Jahni reached out and took Madari’s hand, moved closer and started to talk, to whisper in Madari’s ear, speaking of safety, security. Though aware of some movement around him, the other men in the tent woken too by Madari’s nightmare, he ignored them, concentrated only on calming Madari quickly, before the Bedouin guards came to investigate. He knew Madari did not want to show any weakness to the men whose co-operation he had still not finished negotiating.

“Faris, wake up,” Jahni whispered. “Wake up now. You’re safe. Wake up.” In a moment Madari’s dark eyes flickered open and fixing on Jahni’s face. Jahni smiled. “You’re safe. I’m here.”

Recognition followed a second later and Jahni moved back a little, aware their faces were only inches apart and others might still be watching them. He kept hold of Madari’s hand though, because Madari gripped it tight, like a man who feared being carried away by a flood. He still trembled, Jahni could see and feel the shudders.

“I’m here,” Jahni said again. Still in that voice, the voice he could only imagine came in his genes from his mother, from the soothing tone she used to calm him, or his sisters, if they had a bad dream.

He wondered if his ability to wake at the slightest sound of distress from Madari came from her too. Women could wake at the slightest sound from their child couldn’t they? He almost laughed. This is my commander, not my child. I’m not his mother, I’m his… He wondered about the right word. Friend certainly, he knew he had that privilege, even though outside of these moments some formality remained between them. Bodyguard? Merely a job description. Guardian. Better perhaps. It made him smile anyway. It had a mythic quality to it. Shadow some of the other men said. Because I’m always at his heels. Well that’s not true. He did not dog Madari’s heels twenty four hours a day. In fact since they took the camp the distance between them had increased, more formality had come into their conversations. Which must be right and proper, Jahni supposed. They were not simply fellow prisoners any more. But he missed it, the closeness they’d had. The small snatched moments of it, like on watch, or in a moment like this, such moments felt like a tease to Jahni.

Madari sighed and rubbed a hand over his face, wiped his eyes dry.

“Feel better, sir?” Jahni asked, carefully formal, again aware of the other men there. Aware of the possibility of… misunderstanding.

“Thank you, yes.” He let go of Jahni’s hand and started to rearrange his blanket, covering himself up again. Jahni leant up on one elbow, glanced around. The others started settling down again. Noor had apparently not even woken. The tent could be flattened by a herd of stampeding camels, Jahni thought, and Javid would sleep through it.

Outside he could hear the occasional bleating of a goat, and the soft voices of the men on guard. Somewhere a child cried, perhaps also having a nightmare.

“Kahil, what date is it?” Madari asked. Jahni turned back to look down at him.

“I lose track,” he admitted. “Early May I think.”

“Over a month now we have been negotiating with Halais and I feel as if I am getting nowhere. We come here, we exchange gifts, make a lot of small talk and have what seems to be a party, and so far all we have got out of them is one goat.” He ran his hand over his face again. “And they overcharged us for that.”

Jahni smiled. “She’s a good goat.”

“She ate a pound of plastic explosive.”

Jahni laughed. “Darak shouldn’t have left that lying around.” He laughed again. Everyone walked very softly around the goat now and volunteers to milk her were in short supply.

“Halais has given us intelligence,” Jahni said, sobering. And they had used it. Darak had left plastic explosive lying around because they had been training with it and making bombs. They had already gone on three successful sabotage missions since the one to steal weapons. They had destroyed telephone lines, an electricity cable and damaged a road, all of which served military bases. Nothing dramatic, training missions really, the civilians, freshly trained and still scared of their own rifles, joining the officers for the first time. Jahni knew Madari had his next target in mind already. A bridge. Just a small bridge. But over a very deep gorge, cut by flash floods. And on the other side of the gorge a military base holding several hundred men, who, according to Halais, were used increasingly often to quell civil unrest.

Many reports came in now about unrest all over the country. They got news from Halais and from radio stations over the border and even the BBC World Service. The information the A-Team took out with them, about the Russians, was being broadcast outside and despite being blocked within the country had started to circulate.

“Intelligence is good,” Madari agreed. “But we need supplies and allies. Fighting men.” He looked up at Jahni. “I’m not used to negotiating like this. Am I getting it wrong? Am I wasting my time?”

Jahni shook his head. “No, I think you’re going about it the right way. I’ve seen my father in business negotiations. He doesn’t press, and I don’t think you should here. I think if you do they will back off.”

Madari smiled, nodded in agreement and Jahni felt his chest swell. He listens to me, he thought, our commander thinks my counsel is worth listening to.

“We should sleep now,” Madari said. “We need to get away early in the morning. Goodnight, Kahil. I’m sorry I woke you.”

“No problem.” Jahni watched Madari’s eyes close. He made a choice with his next words and saw the smile flicker across Madari’s face as he spoke quietly. “Goodnight, Faris.”


“Faris,” Halais said, shaking Madari’s hand as their hosts prepared to see them off. Madari had just invited Halais to call him by his given name. A token of friendship, Jahni thought, an attempt to make them closer. “A fine name for a warrior. Your father had certain expectations of you.”

“My whole family had,” Madari said.

“And you live up to them,” Halais went on shaking Madari’s hand. “A knight indeed.” He grinned. “Perhaps I shall call you the Knight.”

“You honour me,” Madari said. He hid pain, Jahni could see, as the long handshake went on. It showed in tension around his eyes. Halais’s handshake hurt him, but he would not admit that. The Bedouin chief, a big man, massively strong, had a crushing handshake, Jahni knew from experience. He liked Halais and his sons, Ghulam and Abdul, but right now Jahni just wanted to pull Madari away.

“My friend The Knight. The Knight of… the north.” Finally Halais let Madari’s hand go and Jahni saw Madari breath a tiny sigh of relief. “The Knight of the North,” Halais said again and smiled, pleased as if he liked that. Jahni rather liked it too.

Madari’s men start to gather by their truck now. Noor appeared with a grin on his face, leading two nanny goats. Jahni wondered how much they had set him back. He also hoped that the goats wouldn’t mind the bumpy ride back too much. They weren’t animals known for stoic restraint when annoyed or uncomfortable.

In a moment, the men and goats all aboard, they set off, waving to the children who chased the truck for a moment before it pulled away from them and headed for the main road.

“The Knight of the North?” Noor said to Madari, after chatting to one of the other men for a few moments. He grinned. “A good name.”

Madari sighed. “I suppose.” He didn’t look convinced. “Well done on getting the goats, Captain.”

“Thank you, sir,” Noor said. “And I talked to some of the women. I think, if I follow their instructions just right, we may be able to make cheese.”

Madari laughed. “Good, I have been missing pizza.” Noor laughed too, stroked the head of one of the goats, while she started trying to eat his sash.

“Oh, I got something too,” Jahni said, rummaging in his pack. “I traded some cigarettes to Abdul, and he gave me…” He took a pair of sunglasses out of his pack and held them out to Madari who sat beside him. “For you, sir.”

Madari looked at him, surprised. “You should keep them for yourself, Lieutenant.”

“I got them for you, sir,” Jahni said, lowered his voice, so only Madari would have been able to hear him. A few days ago Madari had complained of his head aching after being out in the sun all day. Sunglasses would help that, Jahni knew. The commander needed to be in top shape. The brain doing all the planning shouldn’t be distracted by a headache.

Madari bowed his head to Jahni and took the sunglasses. “Thank you, Lieutenant, you are too kind.”

He put the glasses on and smiled. “How do I look?”

“Very cool, sir,” Noor said, with a grin. “Very cool.”

Madari laughed and looked at Jahni again. “Thank you, Kahil.”

“You’re very welcome.” Again he made a choice with his next word, considered the place, the wide awake presence of others. “Sir.”


They arrived at the base before noon, found Faraj waiting at the gate. As the truck drove into the yard Faraj ran after it. The men disembarked and lifted out the goats.

“Major!” Faraj took Madari’s arm and Madari saw at once that Faraj looked pale and seemed agitated.

“What’s wrong, Captain?”

“Mahran is back.”

The man they’d sent with their messages, to contact their families. Madari glanced around to see men walking or sitting reading letters. Over by the jeeps and trucks stood a rather old and battered sedan car.

“That’s good news,” Madari said.

“Yes. No. He has to talk to you,” Faraj said. “At once.”

Madari frowned. “What’s wrong, Idris?”

Faraj glanced around at the other men. His eyes fixed on Jahni and he turned back to Madari with pain in his eyes. Madari felt cold suddenly.

“Not here,” Faraj said, almost pleading. “Please, come to your office.”

Madari nodded once. He turned to the others. “Captain Noor, accompany me please.” Noor looked up, surprised by the serious tone. He passed the ropes to lead the goats to another man.

“Give them some food and water,” he ordered and came to Madari. Madari saw Jahni looking at him, puzzled. He turned away and hurried to the guard house.


“You are absolutely certain?”

Mahran, sitting across the desk from Madari, nodded.

“I wish I wasn’t. But I spoke to the neighbours, they told me everything.”

Madari leant his elbows on the desk, locked his hands together and rested his forehead on them. Behind Mahran’s chair Faraj and Noor stood, both with arms folded.

“We must tell him at once,” Noor said. “He will already have been talking to the other men, he will be wondering why he doesn’t have a letter or message.”

Madari looked up again, then he stood up.

“Javid, will you bring him, please.”

Noor nodded and left the room. The three men left were silent for a moment.

“Mahran,” Madari said after a moment, “Sayeed,” he changed it to, remembering the young man’s name. “I will tell him, but he may want to ask you questions, about what the neighbours told you. Will you be able to answer him?”

Mahran looked up, frightened for a moment, then resolute. “I will try, Major.”

A knock at the door brought Mahran to his feet as Noor came in with Jahni. Jahni looked around. His face, already serious, now became worried.

“Kahil,” Madari said, “Please sit down.” That must terrify him, Madari thought, that I want him to sit in the presence of the three senior officers.

“I… I’d prefer to stand, sir,” Jahni said, very jumpy now, Madari could see. With one hand he gripped his sash convulsively.

Well, it served no purpose to drag this out. It would be horrible enough.

“Kahil, you recall that Mahran had instructions to visit any families who did not respond to his letters and that he couldn’t reach by phone.”

Jahni looked at Mahran, who looked away. Jahni frowned. “You couldn’t reach my family?”

“Kahil.” Madari put a hand on each of Jahni’s shoulders, turning his attention back, keeping it fixed on Madari. “When he couldn’t make contact he travelled to their home. Kahil, I’m very sorry to have to tell you this…”

How could he do this? How could he tear Kahil’s heart right out of his chest? He wanted to run, he wanted to hide away.

“Your family are dead.”

Jahni didn’t react. Madari understood why. The words had simply not gone in, they were too impossible to believe. He took a shaking breath and went on.

“The neighbours told Mahran what happened. Government soldiers came to the house. The neighbours think your father had been protesting about your arrest, trying to…”

“My father?” Jahni’s said, voice barely above a whisper.

“Yes, he was trying to get you freed. The soldiers came and, Kahil I’m sorry, the neighbours said they heard screams and… later gunfire.”


His face still showed no reaction. I just have to keep explaining, Madari thought, until he understands. The other men in the room existed only as blurred shapes in his peripheral vision. Now, at this moment he could see only Jahni’s face, Jahni’s eyes.

“The soldiers killed them, Kahil. Do you understand me?”

“I…” Jahni looked down then back up, his eyes still baffled. “My sisters?”

“Yes, I’m -”

“My mother?”


“My father?”

“Yes. I’m so sorry, Kahil.” Had it started to sink in? Perhaps not, Jahni still looked uncomprehending.

“Are you sure it was them?” Jahni asked, as if Madari had witnessed the atrocity himself.

“Kahil,” Mahran said, making them both turn to him. Madari took a hand off one of Jahni’s shoulders, but left the other in place. “I talked to your neighbours. The soldiers set the house on fire. They would not let anyone near. The next day when it was safe the neighbours were able to go in and…” He trailed off, looking afraid of going on, perhaps regretting even starting to speak. But he gathered himself and continued. “They retrieved the bodies and -” He gulped. “They gave them a proper burial. Everything was done correctly. They said they wish… They beg your forgiveness that they could do no more for them than that. The soldiers warned them if they made any trouble -”

“My… my sisters are… They’re just children…” Jahni’s voice whispered faintly, as if he spoke to them from a deep well.

“I’m sorry,” Mahran said, anguish sketched broadly across his face. “I have something.” From his pocket he drew a small scarf, lilac coloured, with a pattern picked out in gold thread.

“Your sister Nida, she loaned this to one of the neighbour’s daughters, on the day… The day it happened.” He held the scarf out to Jahni, who took it mechanically, looked at it without apparent comprehension. He looked up at Madari and stepped away from him, stared down at the scarf again. He moved slowly backwards and turned away from the other men. They all looked at each other with pained faces and sympathetic eyes.

Madari cleared his throat, getting rid of the lump in it.

“If you want to go and visit their graves, Kahil, then we’ll arrange that at once.” He turned to the others. “One of us would have to go with him, of course, I don’t want -”

Then he flinched as a scream interrupted him, a dreadful, barely human sound.

“My god!” Faraj gasped, visibly shaken by the scream. Madari ignored him. He almost ran to Jahni, who had turned around. All colour had drained from his face, leaving it bone white. He opened his mouth to scream again as Madari approached him, but made no sound this time. He collapsed forward abruptly, eyes closing, falling into Madari’s arms. Jahni’s weight bore Madari down to his knees and he let himself fall the rest of the way to the floor, ended up sitting. Jahni sprawled across his lap, only Madari’s arms around him keeping him from falling onto his face on the floor.

“I’m here, Kahil,” Madari said, bending close to him, speaking into his ear as Jahni’s body shook violently against him.

Madari looked up at the others. Mahran stared. Faraj’s eyes were wide, a hand over his mouth.

“Out.” Noor grabbed the arms of Mahran and Faraj. “Leave them alone.” He almost dragged them out of the door and closed it behind them leaving Madari alone with Jahni.

Madari had recognised the scream. Because he’d heard himself scream that way so many times as he screamed out of a nightmare and into Jahni’s arms. Well now came his turn to talk softly, to offer comfort for this nightmare Jahni could not wake up from. He didn’t have the voice, the hypnotic, soothing voice. His own voice cracked. But he could say the words, he could hold Jahni and he could hope that would be enough. He stroked Jahni’s arm gently.

“I’m here, Kahil, I’m here.”


Madari’s legs had fallen asleep and he thought Jahni had too, he had been quiet for the last fifteen minutes. The hour before that he had been incoherent and close to insane as grief and shock and rage poured out of him until he fell into exhausted silence.

Madari moved a little, trying to find a more comfortable position for his cramped legs. Jahni stirred in his arms, his face still turned away. Madari had been unable to make him turn it up from the ground.

“Shh,” Madari said, stroking Jahni’s hair, trying to soothe him back to sleep. Jahni went still again, but a moment later he spoke, his voice quiet now, under control, but faint, a whisper.

“I should have gone home.”

“Kahil, it happened four months ago,” Madari said. “You would have been too late.”

“I know. I mean I should have escaped, long before we took the prison. I had plans. I could have done it.” He stopped as his voice choked off.

Madari looked down at him. He probably could have. Clever and resourceful and without fear, if anyone could have escaped Jahni could. He could have made it out. But he chose to stay.

“Why did you not try? Why did you stay?”

Jahni didn’t answer right away. After a moment he moved, out of Madari’s arms, and rolled onto his back on the floor, uncaring of dirt and dust, eyes red and bleak. He looked at Madari.

“You know why I stayed, Faris.”

His eyes stayed fixed on Madari, waiting for… For what? Madari felt afraid suddenly. Afraid he could not be the man Jahni expected him to be.

He stayed for me. To help me. He knew I needed him. He stayed for me and he lost his family, when if he had left he might have saved them. God, oh god, what did I ever do to deserve such loyalty, such friendship, such love?

He wanted to take Jahni’s hand, but he felt afraid of that too. In this moment it would mean something else, something beyond the comfort his friend needed now.

When Jahni moved again, came close to him, the fear mounted, not fear of Jahni, fear of himself, of his reaction to this man. But Jahni had started weeping again and he simply laid his head on Madari’s lap, facing away from him. When Madari put a hand on Jahni’s shoulder Jahni took the hand and held it, but made no other move. He still trembled, but that subsided slowly and his breathing became even as he finally slept.


The light had almost completely faded when Noor knocked softly on the door of Madari’s office. He heard Madari call out in a quiet voice for him to enter, and awkwardly, because of the tray he carried, he pressed the handle with an elbow and went inside.

Madari still sat on the floor, Jahni lay, apparently asleep, with his head cushioned on Madari’s knees. Noor moved quietly, glad he had changed from his boots into sandals. He put the tray on the desk and took two cups of tea from it. Kneeling by the two men he handed one cup to Madari.

“Thank you, Javid.” Madari sipped the hot tea and sighed.

“How is he?” Noor asked, looking down at the sleeping Jahni.

“He’s been asleep for a few hours now. He was…” He shook his head and didn’t go on. Noor could guess, still hearing, like an echo, Jahni’s scream of anguish and denial.

“You should have tried to get him into the bedroom.” Noor frowned at the state of Jahni’s dusty clothes. And they could hardly be comfortable, either of them.

“I, um, didn’t want to wake him,” Madari said, and drank more of his tea. Noor sipped his own.

“Poor Kahil,” Noor said and laid a hand on Jahni’s shoulder. “Do you think he’ll be alright?”

“He’s very strong.”

“Yes.” Noor said and smiled. “Heart of a lion. Still can’t forget him going for Ghaith. A man with that much courage -”

He stopped as Jahni stirred under his hand and in a moment sat up blinking and rubbing his eyes.

“Would you like some tea?” Noor offered.

“Yes,” Jahni said. He didn’t look at Noor when Noor handed him the teacup, just held his hand out and let Noor place the cup into it. His gaze never left Madari.

“Kahil,” Madari said. “What I said before, I mean it, if you want to visit their graves you can -”

“No.” Jahni cut him off. “No.” His voice wasn’t hysterical, rather quite flat. He drank the tea in long gulps then stood up. The other two followed him, Madari wincing and groaning, his legs cramped from the hours sitting on the hard floor, Noor guessed. Jahni held out his arm to Madari to help him up.

“It’s time for prayers,” Noor said. He looked at Jahni. Everyone at the camp knew about Jahni’s family now. It would be hard for him to be surrounded by all that pity, Noor knew. But support too. The officers and the men thought well of Jahni. He shouldn’t be afraid to be among his comrades and draw strength from them.

“Will you come to prayers, Kahil?” Madari asked.

“Yes,” Jahni said, his voice still flat. “I will go with you.”

“Then you should get something to eat and get some rest,” Noor suggested. Jahni still didn’t turn to look at him when he spoke.

“No. I haven’t done my workout today. I will do that.”

They both stared at him and glanced at each other.

“Kahil, I would think it is all right if you -” Madari began, but the brief burst of the alarm calling the men to prayer interrupted him. Jahni opened the door, standing straight, at attention, Noor thought frowning.

“Sir,” Jahni said to Madari, and seemed to notice Noor’s presence at last. “Captain.” Nodding respectfully to them both as he held the door for them. They looked at each other again. Noor saw fear in Madari’s eyes.

Kahil’s still in shock, Noor thought. He’ll be okay eventually. He’d better be, he’s one of our best men, his practical side pointed out. He felt slightly ashamed of thinking in those terms. He knew Madari worried for Jahni as a friend, not only as one of his key men. Noor did too, but he also had to be the practical man he knew his commander, with his abstract, strategist’s mind could not always be. Madari had a certain… sensitivity too, Noor believed, and he felt Jahni’s pain as his own. Noor had to be able to stay at least a short distance back from that and keep his head clear.

“After you, Major,” Noor said and saw another look of pain cross Madari’s face as he walked out of the held open door. Jahni followed them out and the three men headed to the rec room for prayers.

Chapter 2

“What is wrong with Lieutenant Jahni?”

Madari turned to see Halais, who had just emerged from his tent. Madari turned back to look across the camp, at Jahni exercising in the early morning light. Push ups. He’d done fifty-eight so far. Madari had counted.

“Lieutenant Jahni is well, Halais. What makes you think there is something wrong?”

“He is not the same man as when you were here before. He does not play cards, or trade anything. He does not even laugh.”

Madari looked down. No, Jahni did not laugh. Not any more. Not once in the two weeks since receiving the news about his family. He did his work, he trained. He trained very hard. But he didn’t laugh. He barely even spoke.

Jahni started doing one armed push ups on his right arm.

“He has had some bad news.” Madari looked at Halais. Should he tell the Bedouin this? Was it his place to? But he read only apparent genuine concern in Halais’ eyes. His sons got on well with Jahni, Madari knew. Perhaps Halais himself shared their regard for the Lieutenant. And if he did, then perhaps that gave Madari a chance to move these negotiations on before they all died of old age.

“His family were murdered by government soldiers. His father made too much trouble about Jahni being arrested, imprisoned. The soldiers came to warn him off. Now Kahil’s mother and father, his sisters are all dead.”

Halais stared as Madari went on.

“His sisters were aged fifteen and thirteen. The neighbours heard screaming from the house. Do I have to spell it out for you what the soldiers probably did to those children?”

Halais turned away, face twisted in disgust. Madari felt disgusted too, at himself for using that horror as a means to push Halais to where Madari wanted him to be.

“Those are the men I fight, Halais.”

Halais looked back at him, Madari turned away, looking across the camp at Jahni, doing push ups on the left arm now.

“This will be my last visit here,” Madari said.

“Your last visit?” Halais sounded astonished.

Madari turned back to him. He put steel into his voice.

“Your hospitality is appreciated, but I can no longer waste time with you, sir. If you do not wish to work with me, then I no longer have the time to spare to come here. I have men to train. Missions to plan.”

Halais scowled at Madari. He might strike me, Madari thought. He’s not used to being spoken to this way. If he hits me he’ll knock me half way across the camp, he has fifty pounds on me at least. I’m breaking the rules. Ahmed said don’t push them. Well Ahmed isn’t here. Ahmed didn’t have a squad of civilians to turn into guerrillas.

“Major,” Halais began, in a low voice and then laughed. “I thought about striking you down for using that tone of voice with me. But if I did, I suspect that young man,” he nodded across at Jahni, “would ensure I regretted my action.”

“I am sorry if I insulted you,” Madari said, softening his tone. “Perhaps finding out about Jahni’s family has given me a new sense of urgency, but I can no longer spare a moment away from my duty. From fighting creatures like the ones who left him,” he also nodded at Jahni, “alone in the world.”

“Alone?” Halais raised his bushy eyebrows. “Alone, is not I think accurate in this case. Without family, yes, but I do not think he is alone while he is a friend of The Knight of the North.” He laughed as Madari let an impatient expression flicker across his face. “I see you are thrilled with the name, Major.”

More people moved around the camp now, including children, their voices high, laughing. A small girl Madari recognised as the daughter of Abdul, Halais’ eldest son, ran up to Halais and hugged his legs.

“Hello, Grandfather!”

Halais patted her head then watched the child run off laughing. He turned back to Madari.

“Tell me what supplies you need, Major.”


Madari worried about him, Jahni knew. For two weeks he’d been giving Jahni concerned looks. He wondered if he’d given Madari those same looks and if the Major hated them as much as Jahni did. Still the concern was better than the pity in the eyes of the other men.

And Madari continually asking him how he felt was better than the way conversations stopped when Jahni approached groups of people. Either they were talking about him, or about their own families and the subject of families apparently should not be raised anywhere within earshot of Lieutenant Jahni.

He sighed and looked out across the desert. Nearly dark now, the dunes vanishing into dusk. He snuggled down in his seat in the back of the car he rode in, back from the Bedouin camp to the base. The car Mahran had brought back had become Madari’s staff car. Less conspicuous than the trucks or Jeeps, they used it travel around while not on missions.

Yassin drove and Madari sat in the front seat. Faraj and Darak sat beside Jahni in the back. Faraj glanced at Jahni when he sighed and Jahni gave him a weak smile as reassurance. Faraj looked away, not appearing that assured. He glanced at his watch.

“Sir,” Faraj said, addressing Madari. “We should stop, for prayers.”

Madari glanced back.

“Yes, thank you, Captain. I lost track of time.”

Yassin pulled over and they got out. He popped the trunk and went to take out prayer mats.

“How much longer till we reach home?” Madari asked.

“About three hours, sir,” Yassin said.

“We’ll eat after prayers then set off,” Madari said. The men unrolled their prayer mats. Jahni didn’t look at his as he unrolled it. He watched Madari, who laid his mat down at the front of the group. He turned his back to them, prepared to become their Imam, briefly, instead of their commander.

Did he know what he’d just said? Jahni thought. Did he hear himself say it?

Home. He called the base ‘home’. Could that just be a shorthand way to refer to the place he currently lived or did he really think of it that way? Why would he think of it as home? He had a house, still intact according to the message Mahran had brought back for him. Jahni’s home no longer existed. Could he ever think of the base as home?

The prayers came automatically to Jahni. He spared no conscious thought for them. His mouth, his body, mechanically performed the words and movements.

And they meant nothing. He’d sought comfort in prayer the last two weeks, but had received none. Of course not, he thought, I never put my soul into my prayers before, how can I expect that God will suddenly listen to me?

The only place he found comfort was with Madari, talking to him, even just sitting quietly with him. Because Madari gave him a purpose. He had no other now. Serve Madari. Protect Madari. He’d failed to protect his family, his home. But now Madari gave him not just purpose but a home. Not the base, but Madari’s side. Nowhere else could be Jahni’s home now.

A lump rose in Jahni’s throat. His eyes filled with tears. No, he would not weep here, not in front of the others. Only Madari had seen him cry. He wouldn’t show weakness, couldn’t take any more pity.

He choked down the tears. His voice grew hoarse as he prayed. No, he thought, I’m not praying. I’m performing a ritual, a routine, nothing more. Did they pray? My family? Did they pray as they were murdered? Screams filled his head. Did they beg for mercy? He’d heard his sisters scream before, but only the childish shrieks of play. He’d never heard them scream in pain and terror. He’d never heard his mother or father scream. Yet now all their screaming voices filled his head.

His home filled his vision. A house that had grown smaller as he grew bigger. A place filled with the smell of bread and coffee. A place he’d hurried to from school and then rushed out of again, to find his friends. A place he’d never appreciated properly. He’d been accused, when a teenager, of treating it like a hotel. Yet he would give up twenty years of his life to be there now, seated at the dinner table, teasing his sisters, being lectured by his father, being pressed to eat more by his mother.

His head spun as the smells of blood and cordite replaced the bread and coffee. The words he spoke stuck in his throat and they made him gag. They mean nothing, part of him screamed. They are useless. A choked sob escaped him and tears broke from his eyes.

Hot, too hot. He pulled at his collar and had to get away from the other men, from their pity that sucked the life out of him. He wanted to run, but could only walk, stagger, around behind the car. Hidden from their eyes he dropped to his knees and vomited. He felt as if he was vomiting up words, prayers, forced out of him as if they were poison. Because he had no soul.


After the prayers finished Madari found Jahni sitting with his back against the side of the car, staring into the darkness.

“Kahil? Are you alright?” Madari asked and then winced. He’d said that so many times the last two weeks, Jahni must be sick to death of it.

Jahni looked up at him, his face pale, rather green. Madari had heard him retching. He sat down beside Jahni and passed him a water bottle. Jahni rinsed his mouth, then turned away and spat.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Jahni said, turning back, sipping the water now. “I’m sorry I disrupted the prayers. I felt sick.”

“No need to apologise. Do you feel better?”

“A little. Must have been something I ate.”

“Yes.” Madari wondered about the stew they’d eaten at Halais’s camp before setting out. Who knows how many times that had been reheated.

Jahni put his head back against the car, closed his eyes and breathed deeply. The air had cooled now, Madari hoped that would make him feel better.

“We’re going to eat and then I thought we’d take some rest before going on.”

Jahni opened his eyes. “Don’t delay on account of me.”

“Riding in a car will not help if you are feeling nauseous,” Madari said, trying to sound severe. “Besides I rather like the idea of a night under the stars. The night sky in the desert can be very beautiful.”

Jahni didn’t answer. Madari didn’t push him. He just hoped the fresh air would help Jahni, that the stars would help him.

“Come and try to eat something if you can. Or at least have some tea. We have sugar.” He knew Jahni liked his tea sweet. Jahni gave a small smile.

“I’ll be there in a moment, sir.”

Reluctant to leave him, but hearing a clear signal in those words Madari rose. He squeezed Jahni’s shoulder and walked back to the others, who were preparing food.

“Is Kahil okay?” Darak asked, concerned.

“He felt sick,” Madari said. “But he’s feeling a little better. He’ll join us in a moment. Make some tea please.”


They reached the base just after dawn the next morning, having set off in the middle of the night. Madari headed straight for his office. He had not lied about the sense of urgency he had mentioned to Halais. He needed to make sure all the details were in place for the raid on the bridge, scheduled for two days from now.

One detail worried him. He had assigned Jahni to go on the raid and now started to doubt that choice. The incident at prayers the night before disturbed him. Perhaps as he said, the sickness had been caused only by something Jahni ate. On the other hand Jahni had been working very hard, both at his duties and at physical training. Perhaps too hard. Hard enough to make himself ill.

Did he sleep properly? Madari wondered. Almost certainly not. But would leaving him off the mission make him feel worse?

He looked down at his list of assignments for the mission and made his decision.


Perimeter guard, Jahni thought. He would rather be on the bridge setting charges as Madari supervised.

But this was important, guarding the road to the army base. It would hardly do for anyone to sneak up on them.

He lay on his belly on a rock at the side of the road. In the darkness his body and the rock became one. Still, he told himself. Complete control, complete discipline.

Looking across the road he could see enough movement to pick out where Moshen lay. Can he see me? Jahni wondered, or am I better than him? He wanted to be better, a better soldier than any of the other men. Better even than Faraj or Noor.

I will be Madari’s best man.

Jahni repeated this vow every day now. He would become Madari’s most valuable soldier. Strong, efficient, disciplined.

He had only more thing he had to do to prove himself. And his chance was coming. He saw it in the dim glow of headlights up the road as they crested a slope and headed down it, towards the bridge. He smiled grimly as he heard Moshen speak over the radio, reporting to Madari.

“Vehicles approaching.”

“How long?” Madari asked. “How many?”

Moshen paused, working it out, Jahni guessed. Jahni worked it out faster, already thinking about it before Madari asked the question, anticipating the question.

“Two vehicles. Five minutes till they reach our position.” Jahni reported. “Seven before they reach yours.”

“We need ten minutes. Slow them down.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jahni grinned. He jumped down from his rock, joined Moshen in the middle of the road. Each man carried a bag. Jahni reached into his and pulled out a handful of caltrops, made of bent and welded together nails. The points scraped his hands, he ignored the pain. Moshen put on leather gloves before he started scattering caltrops across the road too. Jahni threw another couple of handfuls, like a farmer sowing seeds, he thought.

“Enough,” Moshen said after a moment. “Let’s fall back.”

They retreated a hundred yards down the road towards the bridge and waited as the headlights came closer. Jahni double checked the action on his rifle. He took off the safety. The sound of the engines grew loud enough to identify. Jeeps.

Any second, any second, any second… Now!

The headlights went wild as the Jeeps reached the scattered caltrops, and their tyres blew out, sending the vehicles skidding across the roads, sparks flying from their wheel rims. One of them crashed into the very rock Jahni had been lying on. The other managed to skid to a halt, sliding sideways into the first. Men started yelling.

Moshen started firing, Jahni heard him yell as he sprayed bullets towards the Jeeps. Jahni waited. Moshen’s shots were short, Jahni saw. The yelling from the Jeeps increased and the soldiers in them started to jump out. Jahni heard the words “return fire”

And then he opened fire. He waited until he could see the men who had jumped clear of a Jeep, but had not yet taken cover.

Control. Discipline. Moshen had fired blind, but Jahni picked his target. He aimed at the centre of a bulky dark shape and pulled the trigger, loosing off a short burst. He didn’t even notice the rifle kick back against his shoulder, because his mind focused only on the dark figure that fell now. On the ground. Still. He gasped.

I did it.


More targets and more bursts, until he had to duck back as the gunfire from the soldiers became too intense. He glanced back. More rocks and boulders provided cover all the way back to the bridge. He and Moshen could retreat slowly, giving Madari time to get the charges set.

“Fall back, twenty yards,” Jahni said into his radio. “I’ll cover.”


He saw Moshen run, heading to the next rock big enough to hide behind. Jahni sprayed rifle fire to pin down the soldiers until Moshen was safe.

“Here I come. Cover me.”

Jahni retreated, staying as close to the rocks he could, running fast, a few rounds coming close, but not close enough as Moshen provided covering fire.

They did this over and over, moving back to their unit, the soldiers following them, but unable to get close. Jahni had counted them out of the jeeps. Eight. By the time they approached the bridge only four still pursued. He had seen one fall to a shot from Moshen, but knew he had taken out the other three.

“Thirty seconds out!” Moshen called into the radio, to Madari. “What’s your status?”

“Ready. Come on the run!”

They didn’t need telling twice. They ran, reached the bridge in half a minute and ran across it. On the other side the unit waited, in cover. Jahni glanced back, the soldiers were close, charging after them. His rifle was empty and he hadn’t time to reload. Instead he pulled out his pistol and stopped, crouched down by the bridge handrail. He fired at the soldier leading the group. The man staggered and fell, face down on the bridge roadway.

“Get off the bridge!” Noor’s voice, louder than Madari could manage. And the order wasn’t just for Jahni. The last three soldiers hesitated and then turned tail and ran back the way they came. Jahni ran, pistol in one hand, carrying his rifle by its handle in the other.

“Everybody down!” Noor yelled as Jahni hurtled past him, diving into cover. He slammed down the plunger of the detonator and the bridge exploded in a roaring fireball. A shock wave knocked over any man not already lying down and debris rained down. After a moment Jahni sat up, coughing on dust and sand.

“Major?” He called. He couldn’t hear his own voice. Damn, his ears sounded like a bell tower. He looked around and saw Madari sitting up, looking startled by the blast but unhurt. Jahni hurried to him, helped him stand. His face and hair were coated with dust, he rubbed an arm across his eyes, smearing the dust.

The two of them looked at the still expanding cloud of dust where the bridge had been. No sign of movement came from the other side and Jahni wondered if the soldiers had been killed in the explosion. He looked back at Madari when Madari pulled on his sleeve. The major pointed back at their truck, mouthed something, “go”, Jahni guessed. He nodded in reply, still deafened. Gradually all the stunned men gathered themselves and their equipment and with much pointing and poking to attract attention they headed out. Men would come from the base soon to investigate the explosion. Madari’s team needed to be gone.

They piled into the truck, tossing gear in haphazardly, and most of them sitting on the floor. As the truck pulled away Jahni saw Noor writing on a piece of paper. In a moment he turned the paper to show Madari. The words “too much” in Arabic were followed by BOOM!! written in English, inside a jagged outline, a crude cartoon explosion. He grinned. Madari laughed, Jahni saw and, somewhere through a lot of pops and whistles, he heard it too.

“Yes!” Madari must be shouting, as a man does when he can’t hear himself, Jahni thought. “Too much.” He mimed an explosion with his hands. Then his face changed, became sober. Did he just remember that men died? Jahni wondered. Madari turned to look at Jahni.

Yes. And he just remembered that I killed them.


Jahni knew Madari would summon him, or come to him. It surprised him that the summons did not come until late the day after the raid. Perhaps Madari wanted to wait until their ears had fully recovered from the blast, which took until after dusk.

He knocked on the door to Madari’s office and when Madari’s voice came, telling him to enter he marched in and stood at attention in front of the desk.

“Reporting as ordered,” Jahni said, saluting.

Madari stared at him, then bit his lip, shook his head. “At ease, Lieutenant.”

Jahni relaxed his posture, stood with his hands behind his back.

“I wanted to talk about the raid last night.”

“Yes, sir.”

“We’ve had the debriefing of course, but I wanted to…” He stood up and came around the desk. For a moment his hand hovered above Jahni’s shoulder, but then he moved it away. “I wanted to talk to you personally, Kahil.”

Jahni knew what Madari wanted to talk about of course. Jahni had thought about the subject all day. He’d not dreamt of it. When they came home, he’d slept soundly, dreamless. The blood on his hands didn’t keep him awake. In a strange way, it soothed him. Catharsis, his mind supplied the word. He felt at peace, had got it over and done. The first time.

“Was my work satisfactory?” Jahni asked. Madari frowned at him.

“Yes, it was,” Madari said. “But you killed men, Kahil, for the first time. If you need to talk about that -”

“No.” Jahni said. He turned to look into Madari’s eyes. In the rather dim light they looked nearly black. He saw the concern there, the pain Madari thought Jahni must be feeling reflected in them. “Sir, I really don’t need to. I’m fine. Please don’t worry.”

“Kahil,” Madari said, raising his hand again and laying it on Jahni’s shoulder this time. “I do worry about you.”

“It’s okay.” Jahni insisted. He really wanted Madari not to worry about him. Madari has too much pain already, Jahni thought. I don’t want to burden him with mine. He tried hard to reassure Madari. “It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I just did what I’ve been trained to do. I don’t know why I was so worried about it. I’m not upset. In fact I feel… well satisfied.”

“Satisfied?” Madari’s voice had a tinge of shock in it.

“Satisfied I did my job well. I did do well, didn’t I?”

“Yes, Kahil, you did. You’ve been training so hard of course. For the mission and just, well generally. That’s something else that worries me.” He squeezed Jahni’s shoulder. “I don’t want you to work too hard and make yourself ill.”

“I want to be able to do my very best for you, sir. I want to be your best soldier. Your very best.”

“You know you are valuable to me, Kahil. But as more than a soldier. Please, let me be your friend, let me talk to you as a friend. About those men and about your family.”

“Faris,” Jahni said, looking down. In his dreams, he would spend all day talking with Madari, talking away all of their pain and then at night he would… help him sleep peacefully. However, life didn’t work that way. He looked up again. “I don’t want to talk about them. I want to act. I want to fight. Do you know why I’m not upset that I killed those men? Because for all I know those soldiers were the ones that killed my family.”

Madari stared at him. “That’s… unlikely.”

“I know,” Jahni admitted. “So that’s why I have to go on fighting. That’s why I have to kill as many of them as I can. Because one day the men I kill just might be the right ones.”