Jahni looked up as he heard the bell calling the men to prayer. Then he dropped his head down onto his forearms again, where they rested across his knees.
He’d heard the call to prayer several times now. Idiots, they shouldn’t let prisoners hear it, any more than Ghaith should have said “afternoon” to him. And then he worried that he had no more reaction than that to it. He worried that he had not in fact prayed since he arrived here.
Well who was he kidding? He hadn’t prayed for months now. Washed in preparation, yes. Said the words, yes. Knelt and stood and prostrated himself in the same routine he had done since childhood and it meant nothing to him. He did it because the others expected it, but he felt nothing.
It had no meaning to him. When men said, “If God wills it”, he wanted to growl and ask if it had been God’s will that Jahni’s family be slaughtered. Had he ever really believed? Now he wished he did believe. Not because he could seek comfort in prayer, but because if he did then he would have the strength to do what he knew he should.
He raised his head and, chin resting on his hands, and through half closed eyes looked at his sash. It still lay on the floor, where Ghaith had dropped it and defiled it with the mud on his boots. Then Jahni looked at the small barred window, set high in the wall. About six and a half feet from the ground. Easily high enough for a man five feet nine to…
Jahni put his head down again. He could – he should – climb up to that window, secure the sash to the bars, then tie the other end around his neck and finish it. The information he carried would help the enemy when they forced it out of him. He knew the names of sympathisers, locations and strengths of guerrilla bands, supply routes. Eighteen months ago, he might have arrogantly claimed he could resist torture and would reveal nothing. He knew better than that now.
So he should finish it, to spare himself the suffering and for the good of the cause. For the safety of his fellow rebels and their sympathisers. And yet he sat here and just looked at the thing that gave him the means to do that and did nothing.
Because he had no faith. If he thought he would join his family in paradise and that one day he would see Faris there, if he truly believed that, then perhaps he would have the courage to do it. But he was afraid. Not, as Madari claimed to be, afraid of hell, but of oblivion.
He’d risked death many times now in the fighting, had even been reckless sometimes. But then he’d fought with Madari, and he’d protected Madari. For him, Jahni would risk oblivion. So why not for the rebellion? Wasn’t he a soldier of the king? A soldier for the cause.
No. He knew that, deep inside. Yes, he loved his country and he hated the usurpers that had dethroned the king. Yes, he wanted to see them defeated. But in his heart, he knew who he fought for. And he knew deep inside what he feared more than torture and more than death and oblivion. Most of all, he feared never seeing Madari again.
The feelings he had for Madari confused him sometimes. He found himself dreaming of and wanting things he knew he shouldn’t even think about and couldn’t allow himself to believe Madari would welcome. Such urges he suppressed as hard as he could. But even without those feelings, their friendship was stronger, deeper than Jahni had shared with any man. Their connection made the idea of a future that didn’t include them standing side by side unthinkable to Jahni. And, he felt sure, to Madari too.
Love. A word he’d only thought of in connection with his family before and, fleetingly, about a couple of women. Now he knew he loved Madari. And not only him, but Noor, a man who offered friendship easily, and even Faraj, someone far more difficult to touch, yet worth the effort. Love and brotherhood. He had lost one family and found another.
So one thing comforted him now. Not prayer, not God. One thought.
Madari would come for him. Perhaps he shouldn’t. Jahni, however valuable his information or his fighting skills, was only one man. But he will come, Jahni knew it.
Madari will come for me.
Madari stared for a second, and then scrambled inside the truck. Someone followed him, but he didn’t look back to see who. Definitely empty, no inner compartment or anything, just one small empty truck and no Jahni.
Madari turned, feeling his hands start to shake, knowing he must be pale. Noor had climbed in after him, the others stood outside, staring.
“It’s a decoy,” Noor said. Though his eyes were wide, his voice stayed calm. Calmer than Madari believed his own would be. “They must be moving him on another route, damn!”
“That doesn’t make any sense!” Faraj called from outside. “The…” he glanced to one side. “Our contact would know that, would –”
“It’s not a decoy,” Madari said, his voice calmer than he expected, as the realisation hit him. “It’s a trap.”
“A trap?” Noor frowned. He waved his hand around the interior of the truck. “Then why isn’t this thing full of soldiers?”
“Not a trap for us.” Madari didn’t go on, because he saw the uniformed soldier kneeling down beside Faraj, two men covering him. Not that it mattered much. They had just played right into the government’s hands.
The message from Sattan had been genuine, but someone had given the general false information. To test him. By acting on the message, they had confirmed Sattan was passing information to the rebels. They had condemned him. And Jahni? Perhaps the enemy had no plans to move him at all.
Now… Madari took a couple of deep breaths. Now he had to think straight. Not only for Jahni, but also for Sattan.
He made his choice quickly. He had ten men here, himself included. One he sent back to camp, to try to get a message to Sattan, warn him. That one would go in the captured jeep. Three teams of two would go in their own jeeps to contact the spies on the roads, in case Jahni was actually moved, by a different route. The spies were Bedouin; possibly they could raise ambush parties quickly.
And that left himself and Faraj and Noor and the captured soldier. And it left him with a horrible choice.
“You know about the prisoner on your base?” Madari said to the soldier.
They stood in the shadows behind the truck, the soldier on his knees, Faraj and Noor covering him. He didn’t answer the question, only glared.
“Do you know where he is being held?”
Still no reply. None of Madari’s people knew the layout of that base, and where the holding facilities were. If Jahni’s captors didn’t move him then that left only one choice. To attack the base itself. How, Madari hadn’t decided yet. It would take more than a guerrilla raid, to go up against such a large and well-defended facility. It would take every man he had, in a mass attack. It would be an act of all out war.
And he didn’t have the authority for that, to escalate the conflict in that way, and slaughter dozens of men for the sake of rescuing one. So he needed information from the soldier in front of him. Something to give them an edge, a way to get in there and rescue Jahni without a full-scale assault.
The soldier still glared back at him, silent and defiant. After a moment, Madari crouched down, bringing himself head to head with the prisoner. When he spoke, he kept his voice low, the tone almost sympathetic.
“Your bravery is commendable. But think of this. Your superiors sent you out here knowing we would ambush your convoy. And they didn’t warn you, did they?” A reaction flickered in the man’s eyes, covered quickly by a scowl. “They sacrificed you and your friends. Why defend them? Give us the information and I will let you live. You have my word.”
“The word of a… a bandit? A terrorist? I will die before I tell you anything.”
Madari ran a hand through his hair and passed it across his eyes. There had to be a way. Some way apart from… He tried another tack.
“Back at my base, I have gold.” It took a huge effort to keep any tone of pleading out of his voice. “Enough to make you wealthy. You can take it and leave the –”
“Sir!” Faraj protested. “We need that money for supplies!”
The soldier glanced up at Faraj, the interjection possibly convincing him that Madari told the truth about the gold. But it didn’t help. He turned back to Madari, glaring again.
“Kill me now. I will tell you nothing.”
Madari stood up and walked around the side of the truck. His hands shook and he couldn’t make them stop. They needed that information. Blundering in there blind would be suicide. If he wanted Jahni back, he had to have that information.
“Sir?” Noor’s voice came from behind him. “I don’t think he’ll tell us. He’s pretty angry. If we want that information we’ll have to –”
He stopped as Madari swung around to face him. “Yes, Captain?”
Noor took a step back, and hesitated before going on. “He will talk, if we force him to.”
“Force him.” Not a question, more an echo. Madari’s voice sounding faint and distant to his own ears.
“I know how to use the truck battery to –” Noor broke off as Madari grabbed his shirtfront and shoved him against the side of the truck.
“Major!” Noor struggled for a moment but subsided.
“You want me to torture a man, Captain? You want me to torture a man?”
“You don’t have to,” Noor said, in a low voice. “Idris and I will take care of it.”
Madari’s grip on Noor’s shirt grew tighter. “Do you not know me at all, Captain? How could you believe I would allow that?”
“I know you very well now, Major,” Noor said, his gaze still locked on Madari’s. “I know what you want. You want Kahil back. Nothing is more important to you than that. Nothing.”
Nothing. He is right. Madari knew it and it frightened and disgusted him. His honour and reputation had always been so important to him. Yet he would throw both away to get Jahni back. And not simply to keep him from revealing information, not simply to save him from torture and death. No, his motives were more selfish than that. If he lost Jahni then his honour and reputation could do nothing to fill the void at his side and in his heart.
“Sir? It’s not only about him. His information…”
Madari almost snorted. That meant so little now, he realised. With General Sattan perhaps arrested already, they might not even bother to interrogate Jahni. Sattan knew everything Jahni did and much more besides. Of course, if Sattan received a warning in time, then he could escape, and Jahni would still be useful to the government…
“Information.” He stepped back, letting Noor go. “Yes. Of course. His information.” He put his head in his hands for a moment, fingertips buried in his hair, and felt it tickle the scar tissue around his distorted fingernails.
Could he do this? Leave another man with the same nightmares he suffered. Nightmares. Nightmares he couldn’t imagine facing without Jahni to drag him out of the darkness.
“Sir?” Noor’s voice made Madari look up again. The question, unspoken, showed on Noor’s face.
Jahni sat up, startled awake as the door opened. A soldier came in with a tray of food, and a beaker of water, which he placed on the floor well away from Jahni. Very thirsty and hungry Jahni scrambled across to the tray at once, drank the water quickly and started tearing into the bread that constituted his whole meal.
So intent was he on the food, that for a moment he didn’t notice that Ghaith stood in the doorway, smirking. Jahni ate more quickly, expecting Ghaith to come in and take the rest of the bread off him at any moment.
But, Ghaith just watched, still with a revolting smirk on his face. Then something seemed to catch his eye and he pushed away from the doorframe and walked into the cell. Jahni grabbed the other piece of bread and scrambled away, back towards the wall. But Ghaith didn’t approach Jahni. Instead, he stooped and picked up the sash from the floor.
“Well, that was careless of me.” He looked at the sash, then at the barred window and then at Jahni. The smirk reappeared.
“No guts, Lieutenant?”
Jahni didn’t rise to the provocation, but produced some in return.
“Strange that you mention guts. I’ve been thinking about yours. Imagining them spilled on the ground and fought over by wild dogs.”
Ghaith laughed. “You’d do it, wouldn’t you? Slit me open?”
“In a heartbeat.” Jahni told him, voice low and serious.
Ghaith laughed again. “Of course you would.” He tucked his thumbs in a couple of belt loops and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. “You and me, Lieutenant, we’re the same aren’t we?”
Jahni stared at him, totally disgusted.
“In no possible way…” But Ghaith spoke right over Jahni, not listening.
“You know why old Ziyahd found me useful? Because I would do anything he asked me to.” He grinned at Jahni. “And I’ll bet your precious Major finds you useful for the same reason.” Then he laughed, sneering. “Of course when I say ‘anything’, I would have drawn the line at sucking his cock. So there’s where we’re different.”
“Fuck you!” Jahni snarled, jumping to his feet. “Didn’t draw the line at fucking the prisoners, did you?” He glanced at the still open door. “Do your fellow soldiers know about that? Know you picked out the best looking man in the camp?”
Ghaith scowled now and strode towards Jahni, who stood his ground.
“I may not be allowed to kill you, Lieutenant.” He spat the last word, as if it tasted bad. “But I’ve got news for you. You’re not taking a little trip to the capital after all. They’re coming to chat to you right here.” He backed off a step and unshipped his truncheon. “And I’ve been given orders, to start softening you up.” He raised the truncheon and brought it down hard.
Jahni lifted his still manacled arms to defend himself, and the truncheon slammed into his forearm, making him yell out in pain. He turned, trying to get away as the truncheon fell again, on his shoulder this time, the pain so bad it knocked him to his knees. Movement above him told him the truncheon was coming at him again and he dropped all the way to the floor, curled tight into a ball. Ghaith yelled and Jahni heard the footsteps of more men pounding into the room.
Faris will come for me. He clung to that as the beating went on, as he concentrated on trying to stay alive. Faris will come. And I will be alive when he does.
Madari’s team had taken the truck and the soldier and got off the main road onto a small track that led god knows where, then drove off that, and parked.
One last time Madari asked, almost begged the man to tell them what they needed to know. Gave them both one last chance to avoid what came next. The soldier spat at him.
After that, he could only walk away from the truck, from the nightmare. He walked along the track, the strong wind that had blown up snatching at his clothes, climbed a small rise in the ground and sat down. Perhaps he’d be lucky, perhaps he’d be far enough away not to hear, perhaps the truck would muffle the sounds, the wind blow them away. But he knew he didn’t deserve that mercy.
The first scream came after a few minutes and his gut clenched as if he’d been punched. When he heard the next, he almost jumped up and ran back, to order them to stop.
The third scream made him slap his hands over his ears, desperate to shut it out, and to shut out the echo inside his own head, of his own screams. He despised himself utterly. He despised the weakness, the sin, which had brought him to do this. Despised the desire he had chosen to sacrifice his honour to.
Even with his hands over his ears, he could still hear the screams. The wind blew fine sand into his face, until he buried his face in his hands.
Make it stop, he begged in his mind. Make him talk. He would do anything for this to be over, to find Kahil, rescue him and… What then? Because he knew now things could not be the same. He would not be the same. He’d lost too much. Perhaps Jahni would hate him when he knew what Madari had done. No. Jahni’s loyalty was unconditional. Madari wouldn’t have to ask his forgiveness. Jahni wouldn’t even think he had anything to forgive.
How long the screams went on, Madari didn’t know, didn’t dare to look at his watch and check the time, too afraid of how quickly it could be running out. How long could it take to break the man? How long had it taken Sevchenko to break him? He still didn’t know if that had been hours or days.
He lifted his eyes to the sky. To the clouds scudding across it. His hands and now his whole body trembled.
“Please!” He spoke aloud. “Make it stop. Make him tell us what we want. Let me save Kahil and I… I swear I will…” He swallowed, spoke in a shaking voice, not truly sure if he was praying or not, or just appealing to the universe in general. “Let me save him and I will send him away.”
He would give up Jahni, if it meant saving him from death. Life without him seemed unthinkable, but better to know he lived, even somewhere else. If Jahni’s capture was a punishment, as he’d thought before, then Madari had to change, he had to deal with the desires that had brought it about. He had to make a sacrifice.
“I swear, I will send him away.”
The screaming stopped.
The soldier gave them what they needed. It didn’t even take long, Noor told Madari, his voice reassuring, as he suggested that what Madari had said to the soldier, about him and his friends being sacrificed, had made an impact.
“What do we do with him?” Faraj asked, gesturing inside the truck. He had a bitter tone in his voice, his face pale and sick looking, and in his eyes, resentment.
The soldier lay on his side, shaking. Hatred burned in his eyes when he looked at them. They couldn’t kill the man, Madari knew, not after this. They would release him, to return to his unit, to go home and dream about what Madari allowed to happen to him. And for as long as he lived, to be a witness to Madari’s dishonour.
“Sir?” Noor said.
“We’ll leave him on the road,” Madari said. “Get the battery back in. We have to move.” He turned away from the accusations in the soldier’s eyes and found the same ones in Faraj’s.
They left the soldier, with water, his hands and feet unbound, on a stretch of road that while not busy, saw enough traffic that he would be picked up by nightfall, only a couple of hours away now.
“Where now?” Noor asked from the driver’s seat of the truck.
“Sheik Elahi’s.” Madari’s order made Faraj glance up from where he sat beside Madari on the long passenger seat of the truck. He’d not spoken since asking what they did with the soldier. He didn’t speak now; Madari went on before he could. “He may have news of Sattan.”
“If he’s still at home. He might have already left, since hearing about Kahil’s capture.” Noor speculated.
The Sheik’s home lay only an hour away and they arrived to find him still there, but that he would not be for much longer apparently.
“My son is coming from Az-Ma’ir,” he told them, as they ate a hasty meal, standing in the kitchen, Madari and his men very hungry now. “He has taken his family out of the country and now he’ll take me and my guards.” He waved a hand at the two well-built young men. “I know Lieutenant Jahni is a brave man, but –”
Madari nodded. “I understand, sir. You are making the right choice.”
He’d had no news about Sattan he told them. And all of their other contacts at the defence ministry seemed to be unreachable.
“Whatever is going on in the capital, it is serious. Perhaps Amir, my son, will be able to tell us something when he arrives.” He cocked his head, listening. “I think I hear him coming now.”
Madari listened too, expecting to hear a car, but then he heard the sound Elahi meant. His heart leapt and a plan formed in his mind in an instant. Elahi started to move to the door, but Madari ran out ahead of him, to the back of the house. And he stood and grinned fiercely, a hand raised to shield his eyes from the whipped up sand.
It descended out of the dimming twilight sky and Madari felt as if he were watching a magic chariot descend from heaven. He wanted that helicopter. With it, they could bypass all the security on that base and fly Jahni out of there.
Elahi arrived at Madari’s side and a moment later, when a young man climbed out of the helicopter, ran to greet him with an embrace. Noor and Faraj came to stand by Madari and perhaps they saw the hungry look he gave the helicopter, because they seemed to think the same way as him at once.
“I can fly that,” Faraj said. “It’s been a couple of years, but I can fly it.”
“I love it,” Noor said. “They’ll never expect it. Guerrillas making an air attack? I love it.”
Of course, the helicopter didn’t belong to them and Sheik Elahi intended to escape the country in it. Madari had to wonder if he had the right to ask him to delay while they made a raid. A raid, which could of course fail and result in the helicopter’s destruction.
He glanced around, seeing the two guards had come outside too. We could take it, Madari felt certain, if Elahi says no. He’s no fighting man. His guards are trained and armed, but no match for Noor and Faraj. Amir, an unknown quantity, Madari couldn’t recall if the young man was military or not.
And if we do that, he thought, if we attack an ally, a friend, and steal his helicopter? Then we truly are the bandits we look like. No, I have dishonoured myself enough for one day.
Elahi walked up to them with his son, who wore western style casual, though expensive looking, clothes. The Sheik had a serious and worried expression.
“General Sattan has been arrested. Amir says that several of the Defence Ministry buildings are locked down and nobody is being allowed to leave.”
“Damn,” Noor said, shaking his head. Madari barely reacted. He should, he knew that. The news could be potentially disastrous for the rebellion. But it seemed too distant. All he could think about now was the helicopter and how they could use it to save Jahni.
“We should leave, quickly, father,” Amir said. “It may take them some time to get names from General Sattan, but who knows what they will find in his papers and phone records?”
“Sir.” Madari took a breath as Elahi and Amir turned to him. “I would like to borrow your helicopter.”
“What?” Amir looked started. Elahi only nodded slightly, as if he’d expected it.
“To try to save Lieutenant Jahni?”
“We know where he is, but getting in to get him, on the ground, we have no chance, but from the air –”
“Out of the question!” Amir said, folding his arms. “There’s no time, we must leave –”
“We have other means of leaving,” Elahi said, looking thoughtful. “The cars.”
“It will be a lot harder to get across the border in a car than with the chopper,” Amir argued.
“We would return it afterwards,” Madari said, “You have my word on that.”
“Assuming it doesn’t get blown out of the sky!” Amir remained unconvinced.
“We will only take it for a few hours,” Madari said, looking Elahi directly in the eye now, appealing to him. “Please. This is the only way to retrieve the Lieutenant.”
Elahi looked back at him. Madari knew that now Sattan had been arrested, then part of the justification for why they must rescue Jahni had gone. Sattan knew everything Jahni knew and more. Elahi knew that.
“If I say no, Major?” Elahi’s asked, his voice soft.
“Then we will have to find another way,” Madari said. He meant it. He had to mean it, if he had even a scrap of honour left.
“You will still try, even if it will be suicide?”
“Yes. I will still try.”
Elahi nodded. “One of you is a pilot?”
“Amir, give him the keys.”
“Now.” A hard edge came into his voice and, although glaring and clearly reluctant, Amir obeyed his father, dropping the keys into Faraj’s outstretched hand.
“My role in the rebellion is over, Major,” Elahi said. “At least here in Qumar, I will do what I can outside, of course. But Lieutenant Jahni is too valuable a soldier to lose, I think.”
“Thank you.” Madari pressed a hand to his chest and bowed his head to Elahi, truly grateful. “I suggest we agree a rendezvous, away from the house. We will meet you there later. If we don’t come –”
“Then I will assume the mission has failed,” Elahi said, looking steadily at Madari. “I will assume the helicopter is destroyed, and that you are captured or dead, Major. What else could I assume?”
Madari understood that Elahi’s words held him to his vow to return the helicopter. He could still escape if they didn’t return it, but if the helicopter were not destroyed, but not returned, then he would escape with the knowledge that Madari was a liar and a thief. One witness to his dishonour was more than enough for Madari.
“Thank you,” Madari said again. He held out his hand and Elahi took it. When they let go, Madari looked at the helicopter and he smiled. “Sir, do you have any rope here?”
“Rope?” Noor said, looking at the helicopter and then at Madari, his eyes wide. “You know I said I love this plan? I changed my mind.”
Jahni looked up from where he lay on his back on the floor. Ghaith stood over him, sneering. The two of them were alone in the room.
“I’m going to enjoy it, Lieutenant, when the interrogators start their work on you. I’ll watch every minute of it.”
Jahni didn’t answer, too exhausted and in pain even to move. His body was a mass of bruises and pain in his chest made him fear broken ribs. But they hadn’t injured him seriously; he knew that, they had to leave him alive for the KGB bastards that would arrive soon.
Ghaith kicked him in the side and he did move this time, rolled away from the boot, moaning. He had no strength left, and now he feared Ghaith. The memory of what Ghaith had done to Faraj preyed on his mind. If he tried that now against Jahni, then Jahni hadn’t the strength to fight him off.
He’d called Ghaith a pervert, but knew that Ghaith hadn’t raped Faraj for sexual satisfaction, but to break him. To shatter the defiance Faraj had displayed. And now Jahni, who had been even more defiant, lay helpless at his feet. When Ghaith had sent the other soldiers away Jahni had started to tremble, fearing what the sergeant had planned for him. So far he’d just continued to beat him and toss him around the cell, but –
The alarm started to scream outside the cell, cutting off Jahni’s thoughts.
“What the hell?” Ghaith ran to the cell door and banged on it. “What’s going on?”
Jahni heard keys rattling as someone outside unlocked the door. Gunshots sounded, making Jahni gasp and try to sit up, groaning for a moment at the pain in his chest and side. Noise came from outside, he couldn’t identify it, it sounded like a vehicle or something. Then automatic fire. Jahni grinned.
He’s coming for me.
Ghaith had run out into the corridor. Jahni tried to stand, but only got as far as his knees and sank down again. Damn, he had to get up, he had to be ready, Madari needed him ready to move.
Ghaith ran back inside and now the gunfire sounded closer, in the corridor outside the cell.
“Come here, Lieutenant.” Ghaith grabbed Jahni around the neck and dragged him to his feet. Jahni gasped, tried to get his feet under him, to support his weight. The pain in his ribs flared and he cried out, black spots danced in his eyes. No, not now, he thought, I will not pass out. Ghaith’s arm around his neck stopped him from pulling in a deep breath and his head spun.
A figure flashed across the open door. Only a half second, but Jahni felt certain he recognised Noor.
Ghaith fired a shot out of the door, the sound roared in the confined space, leaving Jahni’s ears ringing. No more gunfire came from outside now. That noise outside still sounded, though more distant. A dark figure moved into the doorway and stepped into the light, pointing a pistol.
“Faris.” Jahni choked out.
“Stay back!” Ghaith yelled. “I’ll blow his fucking head off! I promise you, Major!” He jammed his pistol against Jahni’s temple.
Jahni knew they hadn’t the time for a stand off, soldiers would be rushing to reinforce the guards of the cellblock and Jahni guessed the raiding party must be small. He found strength from somewhere, the last reserves of it still in him, and lashed out with feet and elbows, slamming into Ghaith’s shins and belly. As Ghaith yelled and doubled up Jahni used the manacles on his wrists, and smashed the metal cuff into Ghaith’s nose. Ghaith roared and at last loosened his hold on Jahni. Jahni’s knees gave out at once, but as he fell, he pushed Ghaith away from him.
A shot echoed in the stone cell. And another and one more.
“Two in the chest, one in the head.” Jahni whispered it like a mantra as Ghaith’s body slumped to the floor, his face twisted into a grimace, eyes wide and staring. Right now, Jahni really wished he still believed in hell. He lashed out and kicked the body. One last time, for Faraj.
Then Madari knelt beside him and Jahni looked into his face, his dark eyes that looked terrified now. Madari looked Jahni over and grimaced.
“Can you stand?”
“Not… Sure…” Jahni said, shakily. “No, don’t think so.”
Noor ran in and between them, they heaved Jahni to his feet.
“We have to move fast,” Madari said. “I’m sorry if we hurt you, Kahil.”
“Okay, just… move.” Jahni gritted his teeth then moaned as they lifted him, and his feet dragged on the floor as they moved out of the cell. Vision cloudy, he could barely see the bodies on the floor that they manoeuvred him past. Then cold night air hit his bare skin and he heard Madari speaking into a radio. Seconds later, light stabbed down at them and a rushing wind came from above.
A helicopter? Jahni would have laughed if he didn’t think he might puncture a lung. Where the hell had Madari found a helicopter?
Gunshots, automatic fire, came at them and they dropped to the ground. Noor knelt up and returned fire with his rifle. Jahni doubted he could hit much in the dark. The light from the chopper cut off now the pilot had pinpointed them on the ground. Madari grabbed at something and Jahni saw that ropes hung down from the helicopter. A second later Madari started manoeuvring rope around Jahni’s waist and chest like a harness.
“Keep still!” Madari snapped as Jahni tried to shuffle around to make it easier for him. He obeyed and then sat and waited as Madari shouted at Noor and threw one of the rope harnesses to him, took up the suppression fire while Noor got into it. Madari put his own on last, crawled back to Jahni and then lifted the radio again.
Jahni cried out at the pain as the helicopter ascended, pulling them off the ground and the harness took his weight. Just as their feet left the ground, Madari took Jahni in his arms and Jahni understood why a moment later as they swung helplessly in the air and Noor crashed into the pair of them. Madari gasped at the impact and Noor swore, but Madari kept the injured Jahni from being hurt further.
They climbed higher. Gunfire came from the ground and they couldn’t do anything to avoid it, only hope it missed. Jahni heard Noor’s voice yell over the roar of the wind and the noise of the helicopter rotor blades.
“I hate this plan!”
Jahni laughed. He loved this plan. The darkness started to close in on him now, pain and exhaustion claiming him, and his head slumped against Madari’s shoulder. Madari raised a hand to hold it in place, perhaps thinking Jahni had fallen unconscious. But he hadn’t. Not quite yet.
“I knew you would come for me,” Jahni said. He hadn’t the strength to shout it, so doubted Madari heard over the noise that filled the world. “I knew you would come.”
His eyes closed.
When Jahni’s eyes opened again, Noor and Faraj were helping him off the helicopter. They must have landed and got aboard after the escape he supposed, but had no memory of it. The chains on his wrists and ankles had been cut off, though the manacles and fetters themselves were still in place. Madari stood talking to a man that Jahni recognised, after a hazy moment, as Sheik Elahi.
“What’s happening?” Jahni asked.
“We’re giving the Sheik his chopper back,” Noor said. “We only borrowed it. Come on. Let’s get you in the car.”
They helped him towards a car, a Mercedes, which must also be Elahi’s he guessed, and manoeuvred him into the back seat. Too exhausted to ask anything else Jahni laid his head against the headrest and watched Madari and Elahi embrace then Elahi and three other men climb into the helicopter. Madari retreated, stood by the car and watched the helicopter take off. He waved as it vanished into the darkness.
“We’d better move quick, sir,” Noor said.
“Yes. Javid, you drive the car. Idris, the truck.”
Jahni twisted round to look out of the back window as Faraj ran back towards a small army truck that stood behind the Mercedes. Then he winced and turned back. His pain wasn’t too bad, but he felt light-headed and dizzy and suspected he’d been given a painkilling injection while unconscious. A moment later Madari slid into the seat beside him and Noor took the driver’s seat and started the car.
“Here.” Madari shook out a blanket and wrapped it around Jahni. The car moved off and Jahni groaned as it bumped over rough ground. Madari took Jahni in his arms, held him securely, to keep him from bouncing around.
“Try to sleep, Kahil. We’ll be home in a couple of hours.”
“The helicopter?” Jahni said, still feeling dizzy and wishing he knew the whole story.
“Belonged to Sheik Elahi. He needs it to fly out of the country,” Madari explained, in a quiet voice. “He loaned it to us to get you out first.”
“Wish we could have kept it,” Noor said. He sighed. “I didn’t like the dangling under it part. But we could have used it.”
“We had to give it back, Captain. I gave my word.”
“I know.” Noor sighed again. “I know. Still, he did give us this car, and it’s a beauty.” He sounded more cheerful.
“You gave it back, because you promised you would?” Jahni’s voice had dropped to barely more than a whisper as he spoke to Madari.
“Yes. Hush, Kahil.” Madari raised his hand and stroked Jahni’s hair in a soothing motion. “Rest. I’ll tell you all about it later.”
“Noble.” Jahni sighed out the word. “Faris.” He didn’t mean it as a name when he said the word, but the meaning behind it. Knight.
“Noble?” Madari’s voice only a whisper too. “I wish that were true.”
Jahni couldn’t resist the darkness any longer. His body felt limp and heavy against Madari’s and his head dropped once again to Madari’s shoulder. As his eyes closed, the last thing he saw was Noor’s eyes in the rear view mirror, looking directly at him.
The sun had risen by the time they reached the camp, and the men who filled the yard stared at the Mercedes and the army truck. Madari smiled. Soon they would have more vehicles than they could actually use.
“Help me get him out, Javid,” Madari ordered, as Jahni started to stir and wake up. “We need to get him straight to the infirmary.”
The door behind Jahni opened then and Darak looked into the car. Madari smiled to see him safe. He’d have to check that all of the men from the original rescue party had returned safely.
“Sir, what…” Darak trailed off when he saw Jahni. His jaw dropped. “Kahil?” He stared at Madari. “You got him?” He looked at Noor and then at Faraj climbing out of the truck. “Just the three of you got him out?”
“I’ll explain later, Lieutenant,” Madari said. “But he’s hurt. We need to get him to the doctor. Help me, please.”
Jahni moaned as they manoeuvred him out of the car, and then looked around, blinking, Darak hanging onto his arm keeping him on his feet.
“They got him!” Darak yelled to the men starting to gather around, as Madari climbed out of the car after Jahni.
“Madari!” Darak yelled, pumping the air with his fist. “Madari!”
A couple of men nearby joined in the second time and then more and they shouted it over and over.
“Madari! Madari! Madari!”
Madari stared as the men chanted his name. “Darak,” he said. “This isn’t really…”
“Darak,” Jahni said, voice still weak, but lucid. “He killed Ghaith.” Darak turned to Jahni, staring, as the chant went on. Jahni grinned and nodded. “Ghaith captured me. The major killed him.”
“The infirmary now,” Madari said quietly to Noor, who took Jahni’s arm from the staring Darak.
“The commander killed Sergeant Ghaith!” Darak yelled and a ragged cheer burst from the men. A few, Bedouin, or other men who’d not been prisoners here during Ghaith’s time, looked puzzled, but then joined in when the chant started again.
“Madari! Madari! Madari!”
Faraj came over and took Jahni’s other arm from Madari, who, despite knowing they needed to get Jahni to the doctor, felt frozen in place. They moved away, leaving Madari standing beside Darak. Men stood aside to let them through.
Madari regained his senses and started to follow. The chant went on and as he walked, the men nearest reached out, to touch him on the shoulder, or the back or arm, smiling at him.
He smiled back, though still felt as if he walked through some kind of dream. Is this what it felt like to be Ahmed? Is this how it feels to be… a legend? The Knight of the North. He laughed, exhaustion and adulation mixing and making him feel crazed. And one triumphant thought filled his mind above all the others.
I brought him back. I brought him back.
Noor walked across the yard in the cool night air. A tall figure stood by the west wire, looking out over the desert.
“Got a light, Idris?”
Faraj turned from his contemplation and after a moment he touched his cigarette to Noor’s until Noor got his alight.
“Thanks.” Noor stood beside him, not speaking. After a moment, he reached out and took Faraj’s hand. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Faraj stiffen, but he didn’t withdraw his hand.
“Can’t sleep?” Noor asked. The two of them and Madari had slept all day, recovering from their long day and night and the rescue. Jahni still lay in the infirmary, enjoying the attention apparently, as men came to him to ask him to relate the story of the rescue. Noor felt certain he would be adding many flourishes to it. Noor and Faraj had resisted most of the requests to tell their side of it. At least anything before their borrowing the helicopter from Sheik Elahi.
“What we did to that soldier…” Faraj started to say, but didn’t finish.
“We did what we had to do. If we hadn’t Kahil would be either dead or being tortured right this moment.”
“He let us. He let us torture a man.”
Noor glanced at him, his eyes stayed fixed on the horizon.
“Commanders have to make hard choices, Idris, you know that.”
“He didn’t make that choice as a commander, Javid.” Faraj turned his gaze from the horizon and looked at Noor. “You know that, don’t you?”
Noor didn’t answer, just went on smoking, eventually Faraj turned away and only then spoke again.
“Do you think he’d have made the same choice for anyone else?”
“You have to ask that, Idris? You of all people?”
“If you mean for me… Well perhaps you are right. But in my case it would be out of guilt.” He finished his cigarette and tossed it away. “Do you think guilt was the motivation for saving Jahni?”
Noor didn’t answer. He let go of Faraj’s hand and turned away to walk back to the guardhouse.
Madari sat on a chair beside Jahni’s bed in the infirmary. Jahni slept soundly, under sedation. He’d be in the infirmary for several days the doctor said, and would have to rest after that. He would hate that enforced idleness. Perhaps, Madari thought, smiling for a moment, he could spend the time hemming the edge of the newly cut sash that lay across the foot of his bed.
Madari couldn’t rest, not after sleeping all day. Now he sat up awake, not only to watch over Jahni, but because his thoughts strayed south, to the capital, to General Sattan, and perhaps to many of their sympathisers at the Defence Ministry. To what those men could be going through that very moment.
So he stayed awake in a vigil for them. And if he was awake, he might as well be here, beside Jahni.
Madari reached out and stroked the edges of the bandages on Jahni’s wrists, which had been rubbed raw by the manacles. The soft rough cloth tickled his skin.
A thought he’d been avoiding forced its way to the front of his mind. The memory of the promise he’d made. That if he could save Jahni, he would send him away.
Yet he felt as if a different man had made that promise. A half crazed man in the desert. How could he send Jahni away? His best soldier. His best friend. Jahni would simply turn around and refuse to go anyway. And Madari could never order him to leave. Could never order him to abandon his place at Madari’s side.
If he didn’t honour that promise, what did that make him? But had it really been a promise or only a desperate plea? Yes, he had done an appalling thing, allowing his men to torture that soldier, but he had kept his promise to return the helicopter to Elahi, despite the temptation to keep it. Surely that at least put him back on the road to redeeming himself? Surely?
His hand had moved from the bandage and rested on the back of Jahni’s hand, his thumb stroked gently over the skin.
“How is he?” The soft voice startled Madari and he jumped in his chair, pulling his hand away from Jahni’s. Looking up, he saw Noor standing in the doorway.
“Captain. I didn’t see you.” His heart pounded and he took a shaky breath.
“I’m sorry,” Noor said. Madari nodded. Strange how in combat the gunfire and explosions didn’t bother him nearly as much as a sudden sound in the quiet.
“He’s fine.” Madari nodded at Jahni. “He’s sleeping. The doctor says he’ll be his old self soon.”
“Well he’s a tough one.” Noor smiled. “The heart of a lion.”
Madari stood up and walked over to him, as it seemed Noor wasn’t going to come into the room, but stay standing by the door.
“Javid,” he said quietly. “Javid, I am sorry, for what happened, for what I asked you to do.”
“You didn’t ask. I suggested it.”
“Then I gave you permission, it was –”
“Perhaps.” Madari said. “But still… wrong.”
Madari looked at him surprised. Noor frowned.
“You think I don’t know it was wrong? I may be practical, Major, I may know when I have to do what is necessary. But don’t think that means I don’t know right from wrong.”
“Of course not, Captain. I didn’t mean to imply that you don’t.”
Noor nodded and turned to look into the room, at Jahni sleeping in the bed.
“Kahil is a handsome young fellow, isn’t he?”
Madari looked at him, startled. “What?”
Noor looked back at Madari.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?”
“Javid, you can always –”
“Permission to speak freely. Sir.” He repeated the words and emphasised the ‘sir’ heavily.
“Permission granted, Captain,” Madari said, making his voice as formal as Noor’s.
“Then I will say this once and I will never repeat it. In fact if you asked me, or even ordered me, to repeat it I will swear I never said it.”
Madari studied him. His expression was so serious it made Madari nervous.
“Go ahead, Captain.”
“Your relationship with Kahil has reached a point where it can be – where it is being – misinterpreted.”
Madari didn’t speak, but he took a step back, not nervous now, but afraid. He should be angry, not afraid, he thought. But what right did he have to be angry?
“Misinterpreted?” He couldn’t help but echo the word, but didn’t want an explanation. He knew exactly what Noor meant, and that ‘misinterpreted’ was a generous word, a word that let him keep some dignity in Noor’s eyes.
“I understand.” He said it quietly, knowing this would never, could never, be mentioned again. At least not in this way. If Noor ever felt he needed to say anything on this subject again, then it would not be so diplomatic.
After a moment’s silence, Noor turned to Madari and smiled his usual cheerful grin again, as if the conversation they had just had, simply had not taken place.
“Good to know Kahil will be well again soon. Oh, I meant to mention. Kahil’s cot is still in your sitting room. Would you like me to move it back to the barracks, ready for when the doctor releases him from here? I’ll do it now if you like?”
He held Madari’s gaze and Madari knew the answer he had to give.