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 -”
“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.