In the desert, the patrolmen headed back towards the camp. They saw the spotlights come up; they heard the gunfire and knew the battle had started and all of them wanted to get back to help their friends and serve the commander.
Turaif, a man who volunteered for patrols, saying he liked long walks strode quickly, slapping a fresh clip into his pistol as he went. In his head he went over and over the battle drills they’d learnt. Seemed such a short time ago he’d been learning not battle drills but atomic weights and half lives and the periodic table, for the chemistry degree that he’d never got to finish, after he wrote a piece for the college newspaper that got him arrested and thrown in jail.
Now Turaif was a soldier. Such a busy time in his life. A soldier, a prisoner, a student and before that…
He grinned as a dark shape loomed out of the desert. A black robed man on a horse blocked his path and looked down at him.
“The knight sends you out into the desert to spy on the road, Turaif? He doesn’t trust you to fight, perhaps?”
“Omar, you son of a goat, where did you steal that horse?”
Omar grinned and reached down to pull Turaif onto the horse behind him.
“The chief is waiting, brother. Will you ride with us?”
“You’ll get lost if I don’t.” He wasn’t Omar’s brother literally, but his grandmother had been a Bedouin and he never forgot those roots in the sand. “Are you ready to fight?”
“We are always ready. But tonight, we’re not the only ones waiting to join the battle.”
Turaif frowned. “What?”
Noor raised his radio and snapped.
“Lights off, we’re coming out.”
The spotlights went dark a second later and he sent his men up the ladders they’d had concealed in the trench. They dragged wounded up with them. The last man up each ladder pulled it up after him and they all ran for the gate. The towers gave them covering fire but more than one of the trench men fell. Those who made it came through the gate from left and right, scattered inside the camp to their posts.
Noor ran into the guardhouse. He found Madari at a firing position that had been reinforced with extra wood. Loopholes in the walls let the men at each position fire out of the interior. The windows, far too obvious for firing positions had the shutters closed over them, to keep out enemy grenades.
Madari was fielding reports over the radio, watching the situation outside through the loopholes. He gave orders and then turned to Noor, quickly suppressing his shocked look at the blood covering his second in command.
“Cleared the trench of enemy, sir. Six men taken to the infirmary, I don’t know the number of our dead.”
Madari nodded. He couldn’t expect him to stay and count. The time for counting would come later.
“They’re getting across the trench now,” Madari said, looking outside, seeing the shapes moving slow in the dark. They must have pulled up planks and started using them as bridges. A larger force moved towards the gate. The spotlights were back on, illuminating the enemy for the snipers. But they were firing back at the towers, forcing the snipers to take cover.
“You’ve not used the gun yet,” Noor said.
“I know. I’ll use it if they fall back out of range of the towers, to bring them closer.”
“Is the fence ready?” Noor asked.
“Engineers?” Madari said over the radio. “On my command.”
Madari watched, Noor beside him, Watched men approach the wire and start to fasten explosives to it.
In the machine shop, a man threw a switch and the lights over his head flickered as the camp’s generator sent electricity into the wire fence. The enemy at the wire either froze with hands locked to the suddenly electrified fence, or were thrown backwards.
Other men scrambled back in terror, some of them accidentally falling into the blood soaked trench in their haste to get away from the wire.
“Now they have no choice but the gate,” Noor said and saw Madari give a tiny grim smile. The gunshots started up again from the towers as the enemy fell back and started to regroup.
Raslan was standing up now. He’d seen the spotlights flicker and the enemy fall back from the fence and knew what it meant. Damn, Madari may not have any engineers among his officers, but he had a load of university students among his civilians, some of them studying engineering, all of them bright and ingenious and prepared to suggest things that no army private would dare to.
The enemy were moving on the gates now. How fast they got through them depended on what extra surprises Madari had for them. Raslan frowned. The approach to the gate couldn’t be mined. The men who’d emerged from that trench had used it.
However, as well as Madari had done so far, the enemy weren’t fools. A reserve force waited, in the cover of their trucks. At a run, it would take them two or three minutes to reinforce their comrades. At least fifty or sixty of them. Madari’s snipers couldn’t shoot them fast enough to thin that to a manageable number before they arrived.
He swung the binoculars around as the anti-aircraft gun boomed and an instant later, a shell exploded in the sand, well behind the enemy’s reserve position. Madari knew about the reserve too, but his gunners could only guess at the exact position. Guesses nowhere near accurate enough. A moment later another shell exploded, only a little nearer.
Raslan hoped the gunners didn’t get lucky, because that reserve force was General Dasham’s key to the camp. His force could fall on them preventing them from reinforcing the attackers and, as a bonus could capture their vehicles. Raslan grinned. The general was fifteen minutes away by his reckoning. He was nearly in Madari’s office already.
Movement to the east distracted him for a moment and he dropped to one knee, suddenly feeling like a target. He trained the glasses in that direction, squinting at the glimmer of the sun on the horizon.
Oh, shit, he thought. He saw dark shapes moving out of the cover of the dunes. How long have they been there? Shit, shit, shit. He raised his radio.
“Come in, General.”
“Go ahead, Captain. Report.”
“Don’t tell me that snooty bastard is going to lose before we get there?”
“No, not at all, but if you don’t get here quick someone is going to beat you to the rescue.”
“What are you saying, Captain.”
“The cavalry’s coming over the hill, sir.”
The gate was the only way in now and the enemy were smart enough to stay back until three of them, from the cover of the jeeps they’d brought close, fired simultaneous rockets at them.
The gates disintegrated. At the same time, the spotlights went off and every light in the buildings went out. In the machine shop, the man operating the generator looked at it, and knew if he survived this day he had a lot of work to do. He unslung his rifle from his back and kicked open the door.
The enemy charged through the gates and were met with gunfire from the north west tower and the west side of the guardhouse. The guardhouse and the west wire formed a kind of corridor and as the men piled through it became a killing ground. But they were numerous and in seconds several of them ran into the yard, some fell, but more followed. The gun boomed again.
In what had been the guard’s barracks Jahni waited with his squad. He was no sniper. He’d volunteered for the trench, but Madari had given him a different squad, and their work would be just as bloody. Close combat, hand to hand, once the enemy got inside. Now they were inside.
He didn’t need to hear the order. He knew his time had come. He ordered his men, all itching to fight, into formation and, above the terrific noise of gunfire, he screamed the charge. They piled out into the yard and into the oncoming enemy, already wreathed in the mist from smoke grenades.
Now, Jahni thought, if it could be called thought, now I make as many of them as I can pay for my dead parents and sisters.
Madari, still in the guardhouse ordered all the men, bar the snipers, to the yard. He didn’t have the luxury of a reserve and could only pray that his snipers could hold off the enemy reserve. The gunners had wasted three shells so far and the only casualties they’d inflicted were on the local scorpions and beetles. So he ordered them to leave the gun and join the fighting in the yard. Leaving men at the guardhouse firing positions to help slow down those who made it past the sniper fire, Madari and Noor charged out with the rest of the men.
The yard roiled with a confused mass of men and smoke. Men flashed by through the smoke, illuminated for a moment by the shafts of sunlight that pierced the smoke. The sun was coming up.
He saw Faraj for a second, taking deadly aim with his pistol. Their eyes met, but Faraj was too far gone in battle frenzy to identify him any further than “friendly” and turn away from him looking for a uniform to kill.
Noor had vanished into the smoke as soon as they left the guardhouse. Madari fired at a uniformed men that loomed out of the smoke at him and ran past the fallen body, on into the battle, avoiding the bodies on the ground, of his men and his enemies.
Raslan was standing again, the tension making his skin crawl all over his body. He had a better view of the battle than anyone else, except perhaps the men in the towers.
As it stood, he thought, Madari would lose. The enemy outnumbered him too much. He’d slowed them down and killed a lot of them as they tried to get in, but now they were inside, they had started to gain the upper hand. And when the reserve joined the first wave, it would all be over.
But rescue was coming and now Raslan had done his duty and advised his general of that, he could watch it happen and he could grin like a maniac as it did.
Out of the east, the rising sun behind them a group of horsemen charged. Fifty at least, maybe seventy, Raslan estimated. They charged from where they’d been in the cover of the dunes and covered the ground at a stunning pace. Raslan, squinting through his binoculars into the glow of the dawn found himself clenching a fist and gasping “Yes! Yes!” as the Bedouin aimed their horses at the reserve force. The reserve started to fire on them, but too late and, aiming into the sunrise, too inaccurately.
The Bedouin warriors, deadly accurate shots from horseback fired on the reserve and scattered them, driving them from the cover of the trucks. Raslan gasped awestruck as the charge hit the infantrymen and tore them apart.
In only two minutes it seemed, the reserve was destroyed. Half the Bedouin riders split off and spurred their mounts again, heading to the camp.
Madari staggered, panting, sweat and blood falling into his eyes. He fell against the side of a barracks hut. He had to reload his empty rifle. He had lost his pistol, knocked from his hand by a bullet graze. Looking around, wide-eyed as he reloaded, left handed, without looking, he wished he could see Jahni. To know he was alive.
A uniformed man came around the side of the barracks hut, too close, and too soon. He reacted fast and knocked the rifle from Madari’s hands, kicked him hard in the knee, knocking him to the ground. The soldier stepped back, giving himself room to use his rifle. Does he recognise me, Madari wondered. Does he know he’s about to earn a year’s pay with one shot? The soldier raised his rifle.
Kahil, find me.
Then Madari scrambled back gasping as a huge shape loomed between him and the soldier. A horseman fired on the soldier threatening Madari, killing him instantly, and then turned back, gave Madari a salute and a smile and the horse leapt away.
Madari grabbed his rifle from the ground, got the clip slapped into it. He took the pistol of the man who’d not quite earned that bonus. When he stood he could hear the whinnying and sometimes, horribly, the screaming of horses among the screams and yells of men and the gunshots. The horsemen were clearing the yard.
Cavalry. Madari wanted to laugh, felt hysterical. Where are you, Halais? Let me give you every last piece of Sergeant Baracus’s jewellery I still have and it won’t be enough to repay you. The smoke started thinning. Madari, limping as he realised how much his knee hurt, headed back into the yard.
It was ending. Cavalry. Jahni hadn’t quite been able to believe his eyes as horses poured past him, turning the advantage back to their side against the stunned enemy.
He needed to find Madari now. His mind screamed at him to do that. The battle was over. Madari had ordered Jahni not to be his bodyguard in combat, but as the fighting ended Jahni had to find him, make sure he was alive.
Fear tore at his mind. Far worse than the fear that had come as he’d fought and before that as he’d waited to fight. The fear that Madari had been killed beat that by a thousand times. He had to find him, but would only look among the living, too afraid to look for him in the bodies on the ground.
Then he saw him, walking out of the smoke, a shaft of sunlight briefly showing up his face, blackened with smoke and bloody. He was limping and staggering a little, but he was alive, safe.
Jahni ran to him, fearing he had a leg wound and would fall. Madari gasped as Jahni grabbed him into an embrace. Neither spoke, but Madari put his arm around Jahni’s shoulders and kissed him on the forehead, then pulled back quickly.
“Your leg?” Jahni gasped, scrubbing a hand across his eyes.
“I’m not shot,” Madari reassured him. He stopped talking for a moment, to listen to the messages coming over the radio. The enemy in the yard had retreated, surrender or fallen. The reserve – no longer existed.
“Jahni.” Madari cleared his throat, as his voice cracked. “Jahni, regroup the men and mop up, secure the yard, secure prisoners in the blockhouse, get wounded to the infirmary.”
Jahni nodded. He didn’t want to leave Madari again, but he would never disobey Madari’s orders. He saluted and ran off, calling out for the men.
Madari watched him go, whole and alive. You found me, he thought. But this is not paradise. He looked around as the sun rose fully and the smoke started to blow away on a cool morning breeze. Madari looked at his battlefield, his victory. Thirty minutes, he thought, less even, and so many dead. Victory tasted like blood in his mouth.
He went to the infirmary. He wanted a bandage for his hand that the bullet had trailed a path of pain across. For a moment he was frightened to go in there, fearing it would be more horrible even than the yard. Nevertheless, he steeled himself and found his way through the smoke to the guardhouse.
It wasn’t as bad as he feared and he realised that was because there’d been no time to bring many of the wounded here yet.
“Made it, sir?” A voice said from near the floor and he turned to find Noor sitting against the wall, looking pale. He had a bandage around his left calf, the trouser leg torn open to the knee.
“Javid!” he knelt by his second. “You’re shot?”
“Right through. Just the fleshy part, missed the bone. I’ll be fine. Just need to wait my turn, think I’ll be here a while.”
Madari squeezed his shoulder, happy to see him alive and thanked god his injury was minor.
“Stay strong, my friend.” He stood up and went to the Dr Al-Hijazi who stood working on an unconscious man. Needing to stay strong himself, Madari deliberately didn’t look at the man’s face. He looked at the doctor’s instead and got a glare in return as the doctor held up a piece of blood-covered shrapnel that he’d just removed from the patient. He dropped it into a bowl making a clatter.
“The battle is over, doctor, more wounded will be here very soon.”
“I’ve no doubt.” He bent over the man again. Other men occupied the rest of the beds, with the field medics working on them. The room stank of blood. A few men sat around the walls, like Noor, and helped bandage each other’s wounds.
Madari picked up the antiseptic from the tray by the doctor and poured some over his hand. Al-Hijazi glared at him.
“How much of that do you think we have?”
Madari quickly stopped pouring. He cleaned off the wound and wrapped a bandage around it. It should hurt more, he thought, but adrenaline made a fine painkiller and he barely felt anything in the hand or his knee.
He looked down at the man the doctor worked on finally and realised with a shock that he wore a uniform. A government soldier. Of course, he thought. We must take the moral high ground. Nevertheless… Men started to come into the infirmary in ever-increasing numbers.
“Doctor. The enemy wounded. Treat only those whose injuries are life threatening.”
Now Al-Hijazi’s stare could raise blisters.
“You don’t command in my infirmary, Major. And if I have to I will throw you out myself.”
“We have limited supplies. Our men must take priority. I will send the enemy wounded away soon, and they’ll get treatment then. Our men take priority, doctor. I mean it.”
He strode out, hating the harsh tone he’d used.
Raslan ran down the dune where he’d spent the last three nights as General Dasham’s Jeep drove up. One of the men drove. Raslan went to get in, but Dasham jumped out and advanced on him.
“What the hell happened?”
“The Bedouin, sir. They were hidden in the dunes to the east, waiting.”
“And you didn’t notice them. In all the time you were up there, you didn’t spot a single one of the bastards?”
“I’m sorry, sir, they’re very good at concealment.”
The blow, an open handed slap across the face, took Raslan by surprise and knocked him down. He sprawled on the ground, gasping, raised the back of his hand to his lip, tasted blood. The man in the Jeep stared and Raslan felt certain he saw a tiny sneer there.
He glared up at the general. You’ll pay for that, one day, you bastard. You’ll pay for laying a hand on me.
“Get up, you idiot,” Dasham ordered. “Get in the damn Jeep.”
Raslan stood up slowly. He didn’t make an immediate move to get in the Jeep.
“You’d prefer if I left you out here in the desert perhaps?” Dasham asked him, ignoring the fierce glare Raslan directed at him. “Perhaps you think you’ll hike over to the camp and join up with Madari instead?”
Well, why not, Raslan thought. At least he’s a winner.
“That’s where I’m going, fool. Get in. We might still get lucky. Madari might have died in the assault.”
We? There’s no ‘we’, General. Not any more.
Madari left the guardhouse and found Halais waiting for him. The two men embraced.
“Halais, I can never repay you for this. We would surely have died without you.”
“Come, Major, my men have the enemy commander prisoner. I’m sure you want to speak to him.”
They found the enemy commander just outside the gate, with a group of Bedouin men. He was only a lieutenant and Madari realised that he hadn’t been in charge an hour ago, but Madari’s snipers had seen to it that he was in charge now.
“Lieutenant.” Madari offered his hand. The young, terrified looking man stared, then took the hand nervously and shook it.
“Major. I cannot offer my surrender to these… men.” He looked around nervously at the Bedouin.
“You should. They beat you. However, I accept your surrender, Lieutenant. You’ll be held prisoner for the moment. You will not be ill-treated. When your wounded are ready to be moved they’ll be loaded onto your trucks, so will your dead. Once that’s done, the prisoners will be taken to those trucks and escorted away from here. Will you cooperate?”
The lieutenant stared at him. Yes, boy, Madari thought. I made a plan for victory, however unlikely my victory might have seemed to you, I prepared for it. I expected to win. He smiled to himself. Yes, because a commander who expects to lose somehow makes his expectation come true.
“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant said. “We will cooperate.”
“Thank you.” He looked at the Bedouin warriors. “Take him to the blockhouse. Remember he has my word that he will be treated properly.”
They escorted the lieutenant away. Madari sighed and rubbed his eyes, weariness overwhelming him. His knee had started to throb and he could barely put any weight on it now. He had to take Halais’s arm as the chief helped him back into the camp.
The yard was busy now, wounded being helped away, and the most gruesome task of all, collecting up the dead. He saw Faraj supervising them and sighed with relief at the sight of him safe. He ticked men off a mental checklist as he moved through the camp. Later he would find out who he had lost.
Some men moved among the dead collecting all of their weapons and radios. Madari thought that they would be able to keep at least a couple of the trucks and he’d have all of the Jeeps. Damn, all the weapons and equipment came at a high price.
He let Halais lead him back into the guardhouse, busy with men helping the wounded. The medics had already set up a triage centre in the mess and were sorting the men by how urgent their injuries were. Madari wanted to go and help, but Halais kept a firm grip on his arm, pulled him into his office, and on into the sitting room, pushed him into a chair.
“The men need me.”
“No. Now they need the doctor and each other. You need rest.”
Madari sighed and relented. He lay back in the chair.
“So you changed your mind, Halais.”
“A man who never changes his mind should not bother having a mind at all.”
“What now, my friend? Will you take me up on my offer to bring your tribe here to the camp?”
“What? Bring our women to live alongside a camp full of soldiers? Do you think I am a fool?” He smiled, and then went serious again. “No, we have a place we will stay.”
And you’re not going to tell me where, Madari thought. Which is wise.
“The men here today are not all my men. They come from other tribes I’ve spoken to. They’ve agreed to fight with you when they are needed. They will go home now and wait to be summoned again. Half of my men will camp here, half will stay with my people. They’ll be on a two week rotation, so all of them can train with your men.”
Madari blinked at him, barely comprehending his words now, exhaustion dragging him down. He’d had very little sleep for days, weeks now. He would close his eyes perhaps, for a moment.
Madari awoke and saw he was not alone. Someone sat near him in the shadows, their head bowed on one hand, fingers entwined in glossy black hair.
The figure looked up and Madari stared.
“Major.” Raslan said. Madari frowned. Even in the dim light, he could see bruises on Raslan’s face.
“You’re here?” Am I dreaming? “Is the general here?”
“Yes. We were… passing.”
Madari considered this unlikely, but didn’t say so. He wanted to get out and see what Dasham was getting up. But when he moved, his knee, swollen up now, protested at once. He subsided back into his chair. Raslan frowned at him.
“It’s nothing.” Raslan was making him nervous. He had an intense look in his eyes. How ludicrous is that? I’ve just been through a battle and this one man, this ally, is making me nervous?
“Sir, I wanted to ask you something,” Raslan said. “That’s why I came in here. I didn’t want to disturb you, but –”
“Ask me what?” Madari interrupted. Raslan seemed less smooth than normal, seemed agitated. Madari began to wonder just how much of the smoothness was an act. Perhaps Jahni was right about Raslan, right to mistrust him.
“I want to stay here, Major, serve you.”
“I cannot serve the general any longer. Sir, I am…” He looked down, something like shame in his eyes. “I am afraid of him.” He touched the bruise on his face and Madari got the hint.
“Raslan… I…” Madari swallowed hard as Raslan looked up again. His eyes had a hungry look in them. I am afraid of you, Raslan, Madari thought. Because you know what I want.
“Please, Major.” Raslan paused and ran his hand through his hair. “Can’t I convince you? Would you have me… on my knees?”
Madari almost jumped out of his seat, his bad knee forgotten. He felt as if he was in a room with a tiger, a thing at once beautiful and lethal.
“You have to go, Raslan. Now.”
“But –” Raslan rose and Madari backed off.
“Now! Go to Colonel Jumale if you cannot serve the general any more. But you can’t stay here.”
Raslan lost the desperate, hungry look suddenly and straightened up.
“Very well, Major. I’ll go. But I think we’ll meet again.” He held out his hand and cautiously Madari took it. “After all we are allies. Friends.” The last word must have tasted very bitter in his mouth, judging by the expression on his face.
“Yes,” Madari said. “Allies.”
Raslan pulled his hand away and strode out of the room.
A moment later Madari limped out after him. He emerged from the guardhouse into the yard to find Raslan standing at Dasham’s side and giving Jahni who stood nearby, a very evil look.
“Ah, Madari,” Dasham said. “So, old Sattan was right.”
“Hello, General.” He didn’t salute. “Yes, it seems General Sattan was right.”
“Well, congratulations on your victory. Your casualties, thirty one dead I’m told, acceptable rate of loss considering the situation.”
Thirty-one. Madari glanced at Jahni, who nodded his confirmation of the number.
“General, we have a lot of work to do,” Madari said. “If you are not staying to help I must ask you to excuse me.”
Dasham scowled, but kept his tone polite.
“Of course, I’ll leave you to clear up.” He climbed into his Jeep, Raslan got into the back seat. His expression had gone blank now and he didn’t look at or acknowledge Madari as the General gave an order to the driver. The Jeep pulled away and drove out of the gate. Madari watched it go. Jahni came to stand at his side.
“What time is it Kahil?” Madari asked.
“Seven fifteen.” Jahni said, checking his watch.
“Right. I’d like the prisoners out of the camp today, as soon as all of their wounded can be moved.”
“Thirty one.” Madari said.
“That’s not including the Bedouin,” Jahni said. “They lost five men.”
Madari closed his eyes. Of course, the general hadn’t included them.
“Kahil, you didn’t like Captain Raslan did you?”
Jahni looked uncomfortable for a moment as Madari turned to look at him.
“Not much,” he admitted. “Or, well, it’s more I didn’t trust him.”
“I’m not sure. Just a gut feeling I think?”
Like my instinct about the deserters, Madari thought, who stood and fought with us. He’d seen Sergeant Azma since the battle. Alive. Jahni trusted my instinct about them. I trust his about Raslan.
He turned and smiled at Jahni.
“Instincts are a soldier’s friends. I think we will see the General and Raslan again though.”
“Well, yes, they are our allies.”
Jahni looked back at him and shook his head. “Our allies.”
Madari nodded. Jahni understood the difference.
Madari took a step and winced. He knew it would be hours before he could ask the doctor to look at his knee. Meanwhile he put a hand on Jahni’s shoulder for support and they walked slowly towards the guard’s barracks. The bodies lay in there. Madari needed to mourn the friends he had lost today.