Part 9: A Day and a Knight

Chapter 1

~~ Fajr ~~

The ringing of the small alarm clock by his cot woke Madari and he fumbled around on the floor to find it and shut it off. He sat up slowly and rubbed his eyes. His mouth tasted metallic and furred and he quickly reached for the water jug that sat beside the clock. Eyes still too fuzzy to look for the glass that went with it, he drank from the jug itself, until the furry feel at least vanished. But the water tasted of metal too. Everything did now.

Up, he told himself and shoved aside the blankets, stood up and stretched, letting his fingers brush the ceiling. Every morning now he did that. A kind of ritual. A reassurance that the world was real. That he was awake. Hard to tell sometimes, with his head full of twilight even at noon.

The whole of this part of the day had a ritual quality too. After he made his bed, he went into the bathroom and showered, dried off, dressed. Then he rolled out his cream coloured prayer mat and laid it on his bedroom floor. A green stripe told him which end was the top and, without conscious thought now, he aligned it with the small picture on the wall that told him the direction of Mecca. Finally, he stepped onto the mat with his clean bare feet and began to recite his prayers.

The other men would be in the rec hall now, going through the same ritual, saying the same words, but Madari had taken to saying at least his morning prayer in private, preferring solitude for at least an hour after he woke. An hour while he gathered himself to face the world and appear as strong as the men had to believe him to be.

When he completed the prayer he rolled up the prayer mat, put it on a chair, then slipped on a pair of sandals and walked out to the ready room. He had a small stove there and an ibrik, to brew his coffee. Coffee certainly helped him to face the world. Lately he needed more than ever. The doctor clicked his tongue about that, but he didn’t have a better alternative.

Coffee had a ritual. Boiling the water, adding the coffee, boiling it up three times. No sugar to add, they had none just now. Once he had a small cup made, he wandered to the window to watch the new sunlight stealing over the desert. Strangely beautiful the desert seemed to him. So hostile, so lifeless. What could a man find in the desert except his own soul? Revealed to him when the desert tested him to his limits.

The voices of the men shook him from his thoughts as the day guards took their positions, greeting the men returning from night patrols. The Bedouin men came in from their camp outside the wire. They had started taking their meals with the soldiers, but still slept outside. Madari heard them laughing and bantering with his men as they entered the camp.

Breakfast. He rarely felt hungry enough in the morning to bother with it. Coffee would usually suffice. Nothing tasted good anyway. Not for a long time. Surely he’d once enjoyed food?

He smiled. Yes, he had. Breakfasts on winter mornings, in London, when he lived there as a student, in a rooming house, home to himself and eight other Arab students, young men from various countries. The landlady, Mrs McLeish, used to say that she preferred them, since they said their prayers, didn’t drink and didn’t associate with loose women. She’d been right about two of those at least.

Although much of her catering was uninspired, in the winter she made porridge that he remembered to this day. Remembered how it helped keep him warm when, he left the house bundled up to the eyeballs. The frosty mornings had quickly lost the romantic appeal they held for a young man who’d never experienced them before arriving in London.

Perhaps, if God willed it, one day he’d go back to London. To that house in Kentish Town, if it still stood. If Mrs McLeish still stood. He suspected she did. Women like her lived to be ninety at least. She’d reminded him of his grandmother.

A knock on his office door brought him back to the present and he walked in there, calling out to tell them to enter. It would be Noor, with the morning report. Part of the ritual.

Noor came in, smiling, carrying a sheet of paper in one hand and a small plate in the other.

“Good morning, Major. A fine day. I brought you some breakfast.”

Madari suspected that Noor had orders from Dr Al-Hijazi to bring breakfast along with the report. The plate held some bread and cheese and a few dates. Madari thought he could manage that.

“Thank you, Captain. Sit down.”

They sat on opposite sides of the desk and Madari pulled the small plate towards him and tore a piece off the bread.

“Anything to report during the night?”

“Nothing much. An aircraft flew over, slightly west of us, at,” he glanced at the paper, “two forty seven, but the guards think it was only a small one, and certainly travelling too slowly to be a jet. Probably just a civilian off course.”

Madari nodded, and ate his bread. It had been quiet lately. Their missions had taken them further afield than ever, as the military presence in this part of the country diminished. Pulling back towards the capital, it seemed. The guerrilla war had gone well, despite the setback of losing several of their people from the Defence Ministry. General Sattan remained a prisoner somewhere and a day did not pass that Madari didn’t think about him and pray for him.

“There was a fight in the barracks.”

“What?” Madari stared at Noor, then picked up the sheet of paper Noor had put on the desk, to find the fight noted, but no names. “Who?”

“Two of the civilians, and a couple of their friends joined in. None of the officers were involved, except for breaking it up.”

“Who?” Madari repeated.

“I’ve dealt with them,” Noor said. Madari sighed. Seemed he wasn’t getting the names. Noor obviously considered the matter closed and not worth Madari getting involved.

“What was it about?”

“A card game.”

Madari frowned. “I don’t like the men gambling.”

“Hard to stop it entirely.” Noor shrugged. “I keep a lid on it. Nobody can stake anything he can’t physically put on the table. So no cars, houses.” He gave a cheeky smile. “Wives.”

“Javid, really.” Madari clicked his tongue at Noor. However, he accepted the compromise. If Noor thought he could control it, Madari trusted him. “Anything else?”

“Two men on sick call this morning. Nothing serious. Faraj is still in the infirmary.”

Madari glanced up. “Yes. I will check on him later. Right, organise a mission briefing for ten o’clock, please.”

“Yes, sir.” Noor left and Madari stayed at the desk for a few moments, eating slowly. When he finished, he looked at his watch. Almost seven thirty. Time to face the world.


Sunglasses helped, hiding the dark circles under his eyes. He still had the sunglasses Jahni had given him, although repairs after a small accident meant one of the arms didn’t fold down any more. But they helped. He draped his kuffiyah around his shoulders, the winter sun not hot enough for him to need to cover his head until noon approached.

When they were on missions, it felt good sometimes to have everything but his eyes wrapped against the wind and the cold night. To hide his face behind the scarf and the sunglasses and be just a man. Just Faris. Not Madari! Madari! Madari!

Last of all he took down his sash from a hook on the bedroom wall and tied it around his waist.

How faded it looked now. Greyish in places, with marks that would not come out. The dye leeched by the sun and washed out in the laundry. His name was written on the edge of it, in indelible ink. Many of the men did that, wanting their own particular sash back after those on laundry duty did their best to get out the dirt and bloodstains. Sentiment, but he could hardly condemn something he knew he was prone to himself.

Straighten up, shoulders back. He strode out into the morning sunshine to be Madari! Madari! Madari!

The first person he encountered had originated that chant and had started it up again after other successful missions since. Another ritual now.

“Good morning, Darak.” Lieutenant Darak carried a bucket of food scraps, and wore a helmet. “Going to feed the goats?”

“Yes, sir. Good morning, sir.”

Madari followed him as he walked to the pens that held the goats. One was an entirely normal looking pen, made with some of the plastic coated wire scavenged from the old prisoner compound fence. The four goats that lived in it had chewed off some of the plastic coating. Darak went into the pen and filled a small trough with the food. The goats at once butted his legs to shove him out of the way and he left them to their breakfast and moved on to the other pen.

This pen held the reason that he wore a combat helmet to feed the goats. Isra, the goat who months ago had eaten a pound of plastic explosive that Darak himself had left lying around. Subsequently, by common consent, he’d been appointed her guardian, having to feed, milk, and generally care for her.

She’d stopped giving milk some time ago and bringing in a billy goat to act as a stud might have had messy consequences. However, Darak seemed fond of her and, since he was an explosives specialist, Madari suspected he was just fascinated with her continued survival.

Madari watched as Darak cautiously entered the sandbag-lined pen and quickly emptied the rest of the bucket into her food trough, before beating a hasty retreat as she trotted over and plunged her nose into it.

“She looks well,” Madari commented as they watched the animal eat.

“She’s fine.” Darak shook his head. “I don’t think she can possibly be dangerous now, I mean after all this –”

A loud bang made them both instantly duck down, behind the sandbags, but after a moment they realised it was only someone slamming a car door. Darak grimaced.

“Sorry, sir.”

Madari shook his head, smiling. They poked their heads back up to see Isra still eating peacefully.

“All I can think is she’s totally digested the explosive,” Darak said. “Her stomach acids broke it down and destroyed it. Or…” He stopped and Madari glanced at him.


“Or somehow she’s absorbed it into every cell in her body and now she is in fact a biological explosive device, just waiting for something to trigger her.”

“Yes,” Madari said slowly, looking at Darak. “Ah, Jalal, have you been talking to the chemistry students again?” Some of the more scientifically inclined among the students-turned-guerrillas wiled away their downtime by testing the limits of people’s credibility, with bizarre theories.

Darak laughed. “Samir Chleeh says if he ever gets back to the university he’s going to write a paper on her.”

“I’ll put that on my ‘to read’ list.” Madari stood up and Darak did so too. Men had started to gather in the yard, for a morning training session. He saw Jahni heading there from the barracks, part of a group of several men.

“Excuse me, sir,” Darak said. “I need to get back to the kitchen. I’m on clean up duty.”

“Oh.” Madari looked back at him. “Yes. Don’t let me detain you, Lieutenant.”

Darak saluted, and then hurried away taking off his helmet. Madari glanced down at Isra again. Still eating. She had no problem with loss of appetite, even if she was a biological explosive device.

Madari looked up again, because he felt the gaze, knew whose it was. Jahni looked away a second after Madari’s eyes met his.

A biological explosive device? Why should Darak be surprised by that? There were billions of those on the planet, walking around calling themselves humans and, just like Isra, waiting for something to trigger them off.

Madari strode over to watch the training session starting. Split up into groups the men did weapons training, physical training, and drill. Madari moved between the groups, checking the men’s performance, watching the officers doing their jobs.

Jahni led the group doing PT. He shouted at them and pushed them hard. Madari didn’t linger too long at Jahni’s group though, no longer than at any of the others, perhaps a shorter time even. For a month now, he had learnt to be cautious. Had learnt how he could make it through a night without calling out for Kahil. Had learnt to be lonely.

After an hour, he remembered he had a stint in the laundry to do. He still took his turn on the rota for the routine jobs. Often he enjoyed it. The men were more relaxed around him than usual. They spoke of their families and their lives outside, of their hopes for what they wanted to do afterwards, if God willed it. He got to know them then, man to man, as friends.

Today though he worked quietly, the others left him to his thoughts after he answered their attempts at conversation in a distracted tone. His mind felt scattered, fragmented, and barely able to concentrate even on the simple work at hand.


Ten o’clock came and the men and officers going on the next mission gathered in the briefing room. Madari let Noor lead the session, not only because of his own poor concentration today, but conscious of helping the younger officer develop his command skills. Noor was a fine officer with so much potential. Back in the army, Madari would have recommended him for promotion by now, to a command of his own. He couldn’t do that here, but he would still do whatever possible to hone the man’s abilities, to stand him in good stead for his career if they all lived through this.

Jahni stood by a window and stayed quiet much of the time. His contributions were short and terse and to the point. But he paid attention, his gaze fixed on Madari when he spoke. This didn’t help Madari’s concentration much.

He wanted more sleep. Better sleep. Yes, well, he also wanted the campaign to be over and a promotion to General and a big house made of diamonds and a bed made of clouds… Yes, all of those things would be nice too, but with no immediate prospect of any of them, he drank more coffee instead.

~~ Dhurh ~~

Madari joined the men for prayers at noon. The chorus of their voices filled the stifling air of the rec room, while the hand-operated ceiling fans hung idle. He stood at the end of a row of men, near the back. Rarely did he go to the front of the ranks of men, and even less rarely did he go into the middle of the crowd. Not only because consideration of status had no place during prayers, but because he always felt better nearer the door, without too many people between it and him, trapping him.

He’d noticed Jahni always stood at the back now. The reason for that escaped Madari and he’d not asked. How could he ask without it sounding foolish? What could the reason be? Not claustrophobia like Madari himself. Covering the door perhaps, still security chief even as they prayed.

Madari could feel someone’s gaze on him often during prayers, wondered if that was Jahni, but couldn’t turn to look. But of course, it must be him. Who else? Watching me. He’s watching me now, he thought, feeling it. My guardian. But I don’t need guarding here, do I? Surrounded by my friends?

Lunch after the prayers were finished, and again he carefully sat at the end of the long communal table, preferring not to be trapped in by the men. Jahni sat near, the guardian not letting his charge stray far. Not close enough to talk to though. The others talked, sometimes about the business of the camp, sometimes about their missions, or of the rumours they picked up, speculation on how much longer they would be fighting. Madari listened while he ate slowly, and with little pleasure, as usual. He spoke little and followed his food with a mug of coffee.

Men scattered to their work after lunch and Madari too had a task to perform. A daily task now, temporary, but important. He went to the infirmary and walked into the small ward to find only one bed currently occupied.

Faraj had been injured in a mission a week ago now. A mission that had been less than completely successful. They’d carried out the sabotage they intended, but an unexpected patrol sent them into a less than orderly retreat, cut off from their vehicles.

As he lay in bed at night and waited for the smothering, dreamless sleep he endured now, Madari saw over and over the moment a grenade exploded only a couple of meters from Faraj, ripping shrapnel into his leg and throwing him screaming to the ground.

Time had slowed then, as other men hauled Faraj up and dragged him along, his left leg trailing and bleeding behind him. Only when they’d managed to get away from the patrol, finding shelter in a deserted house by the road, had Madari been able to look at the cruel wounds peppering Faraj’s flesh.

Noor examined them with him, then turned from looking into the face of the pale and trembling Faraj and spoke quietly.

“It could take us a day to get back to camp, even if we can get a vehicle. By that time, the wounds will have festered and the doctor will probably have to cut the leg off. If blood poisoning doesn’t kill him first.”

And Madari knew what it meant he had to do.

Though Faraj was undoubtedly brave, it took four men to hold him as Madari, using their very basic first aid kit, removed each piece of grenade shrapnel. Faraj bit down on a piece of folded cloth to keep from screaming and alerting the government soldiers searching for them. Jahni, on his first mission since his capture, held Faraj’s head, bent over him, and talked to him continually, in that voice that Madari knew so well. Sometimes at moments the pain seemed less, the eyes of the two men locked, and Faraj seemed hypnotised by Jahni’s voice. At other times, as Madari dug out the jagged metal and Faraj thrashed and sobbed, Jahni’s tears splashed unnoticed onto Faraj’s face.

Unnoticed by Faraj that is, but Madari recalled every moment and every detail of the ordeal. When he finished extracting the shrapnel, Madari left others to finish dressing the wounds, while he went out behind the house and threw up. He recalled standing there shaking, and desperately needing Jahni to come to him, to hold him and talk to him in that voice. But Jahni did not come. Madari felt guilty for expecting him to. For expecting him to leave Faraj, who needed more comfort than Madari at that moment. And then he’d felt a surge of anger as he’d wondered if Noor was in fact deliberately keeping Jahni inside, away from Madari.

As Madari sat down by Faraj’s infirmary bed Faraj looked up at him, turning his gaze from the window, apparently only just noticing Madari had come in.

“Hello, sir.”

“Idris. How are you today?”

“Better, sir.”


Their conversation had started this exact same way at every visit. As if they had a script.

“Do you have everything you need?”

“Yes, sir, thank you.”

The formality ached like a bad tooth. Madari sat quiet for a moment, looking at his hands, and then noticed something lying on the bed.

“Is that your sketchbook?” He picked up the handmade book of paper, between two crude cardboard covers, bound with string. “May I look?”

“Yes, sir. Go ahead.”

Madari leafed through the pages, at the sketches some in pencil, some in ink. Faraj had a talent for drawing. He’d told Madari art had been his favourite subject at school, but that it was hardly encouraged in his military family. Madari understood that. Ahmed had watched the young Madari like a hawk for any sign he had inherited his father’s poetic sensibilities.

The faces of his men looked back at Madari as he turned the pages. Some of them were the faces of dead men. Other pictures showed the camp, or the landscape around it. A sketch of the goat pens and their residents made Madari smile. He knew Faraj didn’t show his drawings to many people. Perhaps because of that bias against the artistic in his family. Perhaps because the more religious among the men would question his drawings of people and animals.

The most recent picture made Madari stop smiling. It showed a rather shadowy form, a woman, her face unclear, only some vague pencil marks where eyes and mouth should be. And in her arms a child, probably a boy, hard to say, the face equally vague. But Madari knew the child was a boy. Knew his name and that of the woman who held him.

“I can barely see their faces in my mind any more.” Faraj said, in a voice barely above a whisper. He turned his face from Madari to the window again. Madari reached out and put a hand over Faraj’s, squeezed it gently. He knew he could offer Faraj the chance to leave, even if only temporarily, to go and visit his wife and son and then try to get back. However, there would be no guarantee he could return, could even get back into the country, and Madari knew this man too well to expect him to leave his post.

If they hadn’t saved Faraj’s leg, if the doctor had cut it off, then Faraj would probably be with his family now. More than one of Madari’s men had lost a limb after a mission, four after the battle for the camp alone. The resistance network had smuggled those men out of the country and reunited them with their loved ones.

Madari could hardly wish that on Faraj, but right at that moment he wished Faraj a long way from here, safe with his wife and son, hating the toll their work took on him. Their work and the things Madari had asked him to do.

He sat for almost an hour with Faraj and they spoke only occasionally. Nevertheless, despite the awkwardness Madari stayed with him, hoping it helped him. After some time Dr Al-Hijazi came over and gave Faraj some pills, watched him take them. Madari waited until he finished and stood up.

“May I speak with you, Doctor?” He nodded to Faraj. “Good day, Idris.” Faraj gave a short nod back, but didn’t speak.

Madari followed the doctor to his office.

“He seems very low spirited,” Madari said.

“He will be physically recovered in another two weeks, I think.”


“All of the men are…” Al-Hijazi hesitated. “Emotionally exhausted. In more normal circumstances, I’d order them to take leave, but, of course that is impossible. Most of them have work to do to distract them, but Captain Faraj currently has nothing to do but think about our situation. He will be better when he is able to resume physical activity.”

Madari hoped so. The value he placed on Faraj went far beyond his worth as a soldier. He’d known him since he’d come into the Royal Guard, fresh from Sandhurst, as arrogant and spiky as Madari had been at the same age. Some of his corners had been knocked off since, but the officer that had emerged was one Madari felt proud to have helped to train.

He wanted to see Faraj go on and fulfil that promise. While he made an excellent guerrilla fighter, it didn’t come as naturally to him as it did to someone like Jahni. Faraj belonged in a uniform. He was one of the men who wore their sashes almost all of the time. Though, Madari frowned, trying to remember if he’d seen him doing that lately. No, he seemed to have stopped doing that.

A knock at the doctor’s door made them look up. One of the men looked in and spoke to Madari.

“Excuse me, Major. You have visitors.”

Chapter 2

Visitors were hardly an every day occurrence around here, so Madari hurried to his office. A man stood guard at the door and nodded to him as he passed.

The visitors surprised him. A Bedouin man, who introduced himself as Zahrat. Not one of the warriors, but an older man Madari recognised from Halais’s tribe, and with him a young woman. Madari suddenly had a very bad feeling and the man’s words confirmed his fears, after a polite but terse greeting.

“Major, I have a complaint.” He waved a hand at the young woman. “This is my daughter, Samina. She is unmarried, but she is with child and one of your men is responsible.”

Madari stared at the woman for a moment, his worst fears confirmed. She didn’t look back at him, her eyes cast down and her arms folded across her stomach, but unable to hide the bulging shape there. After a moment, Madari caught her father’s scowl and looked away. He bit his lip and reined in the various questions that tried to escape him, since some of them would probably get him killed. ‘Are you sure?’ being the top choice of things not to say.

“Does she…” Again he stopped himself. ‘Does she know his name?’ would be another sure-fire invitation to lethal retaliation. “Has she given you his name?” He managed, more diplomatically after a moment. If she had, then Madari hoped like hell the name did not belong to a man already married.

“Yassin,” Zahrat said. “She says he said he is an officer.”

Yassin. Damn. He’d hoped it wouldn’t be one of the officers. Had hoped he could trust them to behave. It wasn’t the worst name she could have given, but it came close.

He strode to the door and opened it; spoke to the man guarding it.

“Find Lieutenant Yassin.” The guard started to move, but then Madari snapped, “Wait.” He glanced back in the room for a moment and stepped outside. He didn’t like to do this, but he needed to be certain. “Bring one of the other men, too. Someone around the same age as Yassin. Have him come into the room first please.” The guard frowned; looking puzzled, but nodded and hurried off. Madari went back into the office.

“Yassin will be here in a moment.”

They didn’t answer and Madari sat at his desk again. He wondered about Zahrat’s intentions. What exactly would he want from Yassin? Or from Madari? Was he here for compensation or vengeance? Madari thought briefly about the pistol that lay in the top drawer of the desk. Loaded of course. Not that he wanted to start waving a loaded gun around, especially not with the girl in the room.

A knock at the door broke a long awkward silence that Madari estimated lasted about a week.

“Enter,” Madari called, relieved.

The door opened and a man entered. Not Yassin, but Kuresi, one of the ex-medical students who had become part of Dr Al-Hijazi’s staff. He glanced at the visitors and they looked back at him. Zahrat scowled, but Samina simply turned away again, with no sign of recognition.

“You wanted to see me, sir?” Kuresi asked.

“Ah,” Madari hesitated, then opened a drawer and took out some paper, wrote on it quickly as he spoke. “Take this message to the doctor for me, please.” He folded the paper and handed it to the baffled looking Kuresi.

“Yes, sir.”

The medic left again. Madari saw Zahrat looking at him with narrowed eyes, not fooled by that little charade and probably adding it to a list of insults to be answered.

Another knock on the door, which Kuresi had left open, and Madari saw Yassin waiting outside. He beckoned and Yassin came in. The expression on his face and the answering one on the girl’s gave Madari all the confirmation he needed.


She burst into tears and Zahrat rose threateningly. Madari jumped to his feet.

“Sir, this is my officer, I will deal with him now.”

“Honour demands –”

“I know what it demands. I will speak with him alone.”

“I will not let this go unanswered, Major.”

“Nor will I. Please, will you go to our mess hall for some refreshment? And if your daughter wishes she may see our doctor, to check on her health and that of her child.”

Zahrat scowled then snapped at his sobbing daughter to follow him. She did, still looking back at Yassin as she left the room. Yassin, pale and shaken, sank into the chair she had vacated, without waiting for permission. But sitting without permission was the least of the things Madari wanted to discuss with him now. He strode around the desk and slammed the door shut, making the walls shake and Yassin flinch.

“Sir,” Yassin said, looking at Madari, when he bent close, one hand on the desk and one on the back of Yassin’s chair. “Sir, I –”

“You fool!”

Yassin flinched again as if a landmine had just exploded a few feet away.

“Sir –”

“Be quiet! Do you know how delicate our alliance with the Bedouin is? Do you know how long it took to get them to join us? Do you know how touchy they are?”

“Sir, I’m sorry, I –”

“Be quiet! Do you think I went through months of negotiations only so you could destroy it all because you cannot control yourself?”

Yassin looked away, flushed, shame in his eyes. For a moment, Madari felt like a hypocrite, yelling at a man for sexual impropriety when he personally harboured desires far more sinful. But no, he had managed to keep himself under control, he had every right to be angry. He straightened up.

“What do you intend to do about this, Lieutenant?”

Yassin looked lost, shook his head.

“I don’t know.”

“Of course you know. You know the only way you can make this right, the only way to save her honour and yours. You have my permission to get married.”

Yassin stared. “Married? But I, I barely know her.”

Madari snorted. “You know her rather too well, Lieutenant.”

Yassin shook his head, a look so miserable on his face that Madari did feel pity for him. However, actions had consequences and a man had to face them if he was to call himself a man. If he left her pregnant and unmarried, dishonoured, the scandal could destroy the alliance with Halais’s tribe. The Bedouin took these things very seriously.

“Can I have some time to think about it?” Yassin asked.

“An hour,” Madari said. Such a short time, to decide a man’s whole future. He hated to force him to make such a choice so quickly, hated to sacrifice Yassin’s future to the good of the alliance, but that had to be Madari’s priority.

Yassin nodded and stood up. “Thank you, sir. I’ll see you in an hour.” He turned to go.

“Yassin,” Madari said, made his voice less harsh, more sympathetic. “I know this is hard, but remember, she is carrying your child. Do you want your child to be nameless?”

Yassin didn’t answer, just bit his lip and turned away, then left the office. Madari flopped tiredly into his chair and rubbed his eyes. Coffee. He needed more coffee. A moment later, he was in his sitting room, brewing it.

~~ ‘Asr ~~

The bell rang for afternoon prayers and Madari went to the rec hall again. Yassin stood at the other side of the room and Madari hoped he prayed for guidance and strength.

As usual, Jahni stood at the back and left quickly when the prayers finished. Madari followed him out. No, he thought. Not following. Just happen to be going in the same direction. To supervise more training.

This afternoon the men trained in hand-to-hand fighting. Of course the young men were highly competitive about it and Madari felt sure he saw money and cigarettes change hands among those not actually grappling at that moment. Well Noor said he had any gambling under control, so Madari didn’t officially notice anything.

They practiced on mats they’d dragged outside, into the winter breeze, the rec room being too stifling once the men started working hard and sweating. He joined the session himself, needing to stay in shape. Noor partnered up with him, as he usually did, since he was the only one Madari trusted not to go easy on him. He didn’t dare to partner up with Jahni of course. Not only because Jahni very likely would indeed go easy on him, but for other reasons, other potential problems.

Madari knew very well what the problem would be as, after a bout with Noor, he sat panting on a mat and watched Jahni, who stood, drinking from a canteen. Jahni had his shirt off and water drops from the canteen dripped onto his tanned and well-muscled chest and shoulders. Scars from the wounds Ghaith had given him during his imprisonment still marred his skin in places.

Jahni poured the rest of the contents of the canteen over his head, so the water dripped off his hair, glinting in the sunlight. He’d recently shaved off the short beard he’d been wearing and looked younger for it. Madari had wanted to ask why he’d shaved, but it would be too foolish a question to actually speak aloud. Jahni shook his head, sending water droplets flying.

“Up you come,” Noor said, giving Madari his hand and pulling him to his feet. “Go again?”

“No…” Madari said, managing to look away from Jahni and back at Noor. “No, I have to, um, work to do. Thank you, Captain.” He walked away quickly.

A moment later, he closed the door behind him and lay on his bed. Then he sat up again and pulled his shirt off, dropped it on the floor. He needed to close his eyes for a few moments. He often needed a rest at this time of day lately. The stifling heat made it hard to rest though and he drifted uneasily around the edges of sleep. Images, half dream, half memory, came to him. His wedding. His wife, her face not dim, like the pictures of Faraj’s wife and child, but clear and sharp, like a new photograph.

Waking again, he frowned. Wedding? He had not thought of that for a very long time. Yassin’s dilemma had put that in his mind, surely. Had he ever mentioned his marriage to Jahni? He couldn’t remember. They had talked of so many things, and yet so many things they had never spoken of. Could never speak of. He closed his eyes again.

Only kiss you in my dreams.

Can a dream be a sin? A man can’t control what he dreams about. If he never does anything to make the dream a reality then how can it do any harm? He could almost feel it, Jahni’s hand stroking down his neck and chest, his warmth and weight beside Madari, his mouth touching Madari’s own, lips and…

Madari sat up abruptly, swinging his legs off the bed. No. That is not a dream. Lying on a bed with eyes closed does not make it a dream. A dream may not be a sin, but such thoughts, waking thoughts surely were.

He rubbed his hands over his sweating face. He needed a shower. It would be a cold one at this time of day. That would definitely be for the best.


The shower and another cup of coffee made him more alert, more in control. He remembered Yassin. At least two hours, nearer three, had passed now. The sun had sunk low in the sky.

He found Yassin in the armoury, cleaning weapons. Some of them looked clean already, but clearly, he needed something to do, away from everyone else.

“They’ve gone,” Yassin answered when Madari asked about the Bedouin. “I thought about it and I’ve agreed to marry her.” His face didn’t change as he spoke, remained set in a serious expression.

“Her father is satisfied?” Madari asked.

“Yes. He is arranging it. They’ll return in a few days and we’ll be married and then –” He gulped. “Then I will send her, with a letter, to my parents. They will take care of her until I return home, if God wills it.”

Madari went up to him and put a hand on his shoulder.

“You are doing the right thing, Lieutenant. For your child.”

“Yes, sir.”

He wondered if Yassin was at all convinced that Madari gave a damn about the child, and not just the alliance. Could he say anything to make the young man feel better? Jahni had once complimented him that he always knew the right thing to say, but not now he didn’t.

“It may not be the ideal start to a marriage, Yassin. But many marriages do start this way.”

“Many marriages are unhappy,” Yassin said in a low voice.

Madari sighed. “Yes they are.” What could he give in the way of reassurance, anyway? His own marriage had not been unhappy exactly, but loveless certainly. “But your child will be happier than they would have been otherwise.”

“Yes.” Yassin nodded. He gave a small smile. “The child. The doctor examined Samina. He says her baby is strong. It should be born in about four months. I just hope, well, that I at least get to see the child one day.”

Madari squeezed his shoulder again, not sure how to answer that. In the end he didn’t. He let go of Yassin’s shoulder and eventually spoke again.

“She is… She is a pretty girl.”

Yassin smiled again. “Yes. And she’s, well she was kind. I… well at the time, sir, the fighting still scared me so much. I felt sure I would die soon, I just felt so afraid and she was so kind.” He broke off, perhaps feeling he’d said too much. Madari understood him though, and didn’t disapprove. He nodded.

“Well, we will have to see what we can do for your wedding. Try to celebrate it somehow.” He laughed. “I never imagined us having any weddings here.”

Yassin smiled wider now. “I only wish my parents could be here. My mother has been nagging me for a while to get married and make her a grandmother! At least she will be happy to have the baby to help take care of.”

“I will write them a letter too, for you to send with yours.”

“Oh, thank you, sir. I don’t think there’ll be a problem about it though. They’ll be good to her, I know it.”

“Ah. Good. Well, it is time for dinner, Lieutenant, please join me.”

~~ Maghrib ~~

So he sat with Yassin at dinner and talked until after the meal they left to wash for sunset prayers, as darkness began to drape the camp.

After prayers, Madari stayed in the rec room to sit for a while, talking to men, most for a few moments at a time at most. He read for a while. A radio played music in the background and men, their days work done played games or chatted and laughed together.

Such a normal day. He could almost have been back at the barracks, dealing with the normal business a commander dealt with between missions. Perhaps one day soon he would indeed be having normal days like this, but wearing his uniform again. For so long he’d missed his uniform. Now he thought that when, if, he got back into that, he would miss his sash instead. Glancing around he saw some of the men wore theirs. Not all of them. Some wore them only on missions; others wore them all of the time. Like Jahni.

He realised he’d not see Jahni since sunset prayers. He must be out setting up the night patrols. Working hard as usual. Too hard. If they had been back at the barracks and been a normal military unit Madari would order the men to go on leave. That couldn’t happen here, but at least a few days like this one gave them a break. Perhaps the wedding would also be a welcome break in the routine. They would have as much of a celebration as they could manage.

A man came up to Madari and saluted.

“Lieutenant Jahni’s compliments, sir. Night patrols are deployed.”

Madari frowned, but nodded. “Thank you. Dismiss.” The man left and Madari sighed. He had hoped that Jahni would join him. This was one of the few times and places they got to talk together now. A public setting which meant their topics of conversation were restricted, but better than nothing. The nearest they got to being alone was in his office with the door left wide open, while they sat on opposite sides of his desk. Jahni had taken a few days to understand, Madari not daring to explain this new distance he’d put between them, but in the end he seemed to get the idea.

Noor laughed, making Madari glance over at the table where his second sat with several other men. The laugh sounded loud and vulgar and annoyed Madari. He stood, dropping his book onto the chair and strode over to the table. The men fell silent.

“I am retiring for the night, Captain.”

Noor glanced at the wall clock and Madari followed his gaze. It was only a little after eight p.m. but what was the point of staying here waiting for someone who wasn’t coming?

“Right, Major. Goodnight, sleep well.”

Madari wanted to slap him for those last two words.


Madari entered the infirmary quietly, to avoid disturbing the sleeping Faraj. He tapped on the door of Al-Hijazi’s office and stepped inside.

“Ah, Major.” The doctor looked up from paperwork he was writing up. He glanced at his watch.

“I know, it is early,” Madari said. “I’m tired.”

“Right.” The doctor opened a drawer of his desk and took out a pill bottle. Madari poured himself a glass of water from a jug on the table. Al-Hijazi handed him a pill and Madari washed it down with the rather flat and warm water.

“Are you still getting side effects?”

“It is hard to concentrate,” Madari said. “And that strange taste is still in my mouth.”

“Drowsy during the day still?”


“If the side effects are too bad you will have to stop taking them.”

Madari shook his head. He hated the sleeping pills, but nothing else suppressed the dreams, kept him from screaming out. Screaming out for Kahil. He had to take them. Somewhere, somehow, he had made a deal. The pills helped him stick to that deal.

“I can deal with the side-effects.”

“All right, Major. I will take your word for that. Goodnight.”

Madari turned to the door.

“Faris.” The doctor’s voice, quiet now, made him turn back. “Give me your word on one more thing. That when this is over you will seek professional help. Pills cannot cure you, you understand that.”

“I have never been a believer in psychiatry, doctor. If a man has friends –”

“Friends certainly may be all you need to deal with the normal bumps in the road of life. But not for what you have been through, Major.” He paused a moment, then spoke more quietly. “Nevertheless, I know Lieutenant Jahni is a great comfort to you.”

“I –” Madari was taken aback a moment. “Yes, he and –”

“You would not have recovered as much as you have without him. He is a source of strength to you.”

Madari nodded and moved away from the door. He sat down opposite the doctor, feeling very weary. “Yes.” He sighed and ran his hands through his hair. A source of strength, but a weakness too. A temptation. “Yes, he is.”

“Major.” Al-Hijazi leaned forward. “Do not let concern for appearances deprive you of that strength. Trust yourself and let him help you.”

Madari stared. He knows. How can he know?

“Doctor, are you certain you are not a psychiatrist?”

Al-Hijazi laughed and sat back. “I am not. However, I am your doctor and I see you every day. One qualification they insist on for surgical training is that one should not be blind.”

Madari laughed nervously at the joke, then the doctor spoke again, his face more serious.

“However, Lieutenant Jahni is not a professional. He cannot maintain the detachment professionals are trained to maintain, for their own sake. You could put too much of a burden on him.”

“I understand, Doctor. When this is over, if I survive, I will do what you recommend.”

Both men stood and Madari offered the doctor his hand. Smiling. Doctor’s orders, he thought. Doctor’s orders to spend more time with Jahni. He almost laughed. Perhaps spending time with him would mean he spent less time thinking about him, the two seemed to be in inverse proportion.

“Goodnight, Doctor. Until tomorrow.”

“Goodnight, Major.”

~~ ‘Isha ~~

Madari washed and, repeating the morning ritual, but this time in the dim light from a lamp by his bed, he unrolled his prayer mat and said his evening prayer.

The sleeping pill had started taking effect before he finished and he had to control himself carefully to keep from yawning. Once he finished the prayer, he quickly rolled up the mat and put it away, then undressed and got into bed.

The onset of sleep came blessedly quickly tonight despite the memories stalked him. Faraj sobbing as Madari extracted shrapnel from his flesh with hands that only pure will kept from shaking. The soldier screaming for mercy in that truck while Madari bargained with the desert. But the memories soon vanished into darkness that came over him like a sandstorm, wiping his mind blank.


The explosion at two-fifty six in the morning woke him even from his heavy, drugged sleep. It would probably have woken him if he’d been dead. He almost fell off his cot as the roar died away, to be replaced by the alarm. A shell it had to be. He dragged a shirt over his head and ran, barefoot, out into the yard, holding his pistol in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other.

The floodlights from the towers illuminated the men rushing about, getting into defensive positions. Officers yelled orders. Madari grabbed Noor as he saw him run past.

“Which direction are they coming from?” He shouted over the noise of the alarm.

Noor shook his head. “I don’t know. The towers can’t see them.”

“Air attack?”

“Sir!” Madari glanced round to see Darak at his side, a wild look in his eyes, which made Madari scowl. Darak should be calmer, ready to lead his squad. He held up a hand to tell the lieutenant to wait and turned back to Noor.

“No sign of aircraft,” Noor reported.

“Then where the hell did it come from?”

“Sir!” Darak shouted again. “Sir. It’s Isra. It was Isra, I mean.”

Madari and Noor both turned to stare at him.


Darak pointed and Madari realised where the explosion had been, where small fires crackled as men ran to put them out with buckets of water.

The goat pen. The one that had been lined with sandbags. The sandbags lay scattered across the yard now, ripped apart. Other things were scattered across the yard too. Altogether stickier things. The other goats in their separate pen stood crammed into a corner, bleating pitifully.

“Bloody hell!” Noor said, an expression he’d undoubtedly picked up from Faraj. “The bloody goat exploded!”

“It…” Madari had to wait a moment before he could speak. Darak’s face was distressed. He’d been fond of the animal. Madari put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you sure? It could have been a shell that hit there.”

Noor spoke on his walkie-talkie again for a few minutes then turned to Madari.

“The towers and patrols confirm it, there’s no sign of attack.” He spoke into the radio again. “Kill the damned alarm!”

The men started to falter in their rushing about as the alarm stopped and then a moment later rang in three short bursts to signal all clear. Noor still gave orders over the radio and Madari soon heard officers shouting orders to stand down. As the truth of what had happened started to spread, Madari heard laughter among the men. He wanted to laugh too, but he hoped that was down to the relief that they were not in fact under attack.

Darak had moved away, closer to the pen, staring at the destruction. Madari walked up to him and put his hand on Darak’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Jalal. I know you were fond of her.”

Darak nodded, didn’t speak.

“Go to bed. We’ll clean, ah, things up in the morning.”

“Yes, sir, in a moment, sir.”

Madari patted Darak’s shoulder. He marvelled at the self-control that kept his voice so steady and level.

“Goodnight, Lieutenant.”

He turned away, walked back towards the guardhouse, watching the ground and being extremely careful where he put his bare feet. He passed Noor, still talking over the radio.

“Get those floodlights off. Are we made of electricity?”

Noor caught Madari’s gaze and rolled his eyes, but said nothing to Madari, just raised his hand in a goodnight gesture as he went on giving orders to get everyone back to their barracks. Madari nodded to him and walked on.

He only looked up from checking the ground as he walked when he almost bumped into someone.


He stood by the guardhouse door. Taking up a guard position, or waiting for Madari? Madari looked up into his face and their eyes met.

The floodlights went off.

In the sudden blackness, Madari gasped when he felt Jahni move close, felt him put a hand on Madari’s shoulder, perhaps orienting himself in the darkness.

I can only hold you in the darkness.

Did he simply misjudge the distance, Madari wondered, as Jahni’s body pressed against his, just for a moment, just long enough for Jahni to whisper into Madari’s ear, his breath stirring Madari’s hair. Words spoken in a soft voice before he moved away again. Gone.

“I miss you.”