The snow has come to dust the desert again making it appear as though the old cleric was right about at least one thing. This was just one component of the man’s last stand, about a dozen or so prophecies vomited forth under the fading effects of morphine. This was the end and the priest had known that it was as much. Ashad knew it just by looking at those rolling eyes and swollen tongue.
One of the others had sworn that Allah would save the priest, that they would need their Imam for the coming assault and there would be no way that Allah would desert them this close to the end of the campaign. In his cracking man-boy voice he had shouted back at the wounds that had finally sentenced the Imam to this end, screaming that Allah and that The Cause would not fail them now. There would be retribution and those responsible would bathe in the blood of their heretic children.
Having no room for rage in his belly, Ashad stood and left the cave to stand in the gathering snow. The last of the medicine had been run out with the attempts to heal the Imam, somewhere he had known that this was not practical and that they would need the drugs when they returned to fighting. That is if they could first survive what was staring them in the face. As it was the tiny band of fourteen men was on the verge of starvation, destruction and failure.
Bracing against the sudden shock of the winter night and the pain of breathing in the frigid air, Ashad realizes suddenly that there were over seventy of them not twenty-four hours before. This sudden single catastrophe had removed them from the fighting, Allah willing some of the survivors would live long enough to see vengeance for these deaths.
Ashad had been standing at the door for nearly an hour until the ice-crusted gray blanket was pushed aside to reveal Mien’s somber face. Tightening the headdress and scarf against the cold, the older man moved quietly across the gravel surface separating the two until Ashad could see the flash of Mien's eyes as they moved.
“The Imam.” Mien says, measuring the syllables carefully so that the rest of the sentence is of no use to either man. “Our young zealot was wrong about the Imam’s chances for survival.”
“Allah willing, we will survive the night.” Ashad replies.
“Indeed.” Stamping his feet into the ground Mien shivers suddenly while speaking rhetorically. “How did they know? Damn them all, how did they know?”
“They have small planes, with no men in them that have very powerful cameras in their bellies. I saw one shot down at the beginning of the struggle.” Looking out toward the horizon, Ashad begins to wonder if one of the tiny beasts is watching them as they speak now, guiding the infidels to yet another air strike. Then again there are only fourteen, thirteen now with the death of the Imam. Perhaps they are not significant enough of a target for the infidels to care. Perhaps without the Imam they are no longer considered a threat. “I wonder if without the Imam, if they will bomb us again?”
“No. The others, they behaved very similarly.” The older fighter had been alive throughout the campaign to expel the last infidels to invade these lands, his body scarred deep enough that Ashad considers a miracle Mien’s soul did not bleed to death. In particular, there is a scar that comes up from the side of his jaw and crosses the corner of Mien’s left eye. It is something that Ashad knows is associated to a knife, and something that they had done to Mien while he had been in captivity some time ago. “They would strike with bombs and planes and then come with the helicopters. Very large helicopters, like huge bloated whores with wings on their backs and rockets for breasts.”
“Helicopters. I see.” Quizzically gazing at the older man, Ashad asks what has become a very well worn question. “We do not have any more of the batteries? The special batteries for the missiles?”
“No.” The answer is almost a struggle for Mien to produce. He knows that without more of the batteries to power the missile’s seeker heads they do not stand a chance if the infidels come for them here. Instead of continuing on, he chooses instead to list the functioning armaments that they do have. “There are the rifles, and of course the rocket grenades, two cases plus three launchers. We are blessed to have the heavy machine gun as well my friend. I say that despite a limited quantity of ammunition these are all still valuable tools. Allah willing, we will be prepared.”
“Indeed, Allah willing. Perhaps Allah would be kind enough to next bless us with some warm footwear?” Ashad’s tone is one of lighthearted joking and the two men share a moment of quiet laughter. The sandals that Ashad wears have been fashioned from recycled truck tires. Steel belt and tread have been cut to a shape vaguely resembling the outline a human foot and laced with nylon string taken from parachute line. They are effective shoes, albeit extremely cold and somewhat drafty.
“You should not say such things.” Mien speaks after the glow of happiness has faded and died in ensuing silence, carefully threading his way between chastising the boy and allowing him to lose sight of their situation. “We are lucky to have what we do, and our young friend would certainly not like to hear such a thing from you.”
“I apologize, Mien. Allah willing I will not do such a thing again.” The younger fighter speaks earnestly enough to satisfy the requirements of the elder. He sighs thoughtfully and turns to watch light from the full moon spill through now breaking clouds.
“Indeed.” Perking suddenly, Mien faces toward the horizon and then pivots on the loose stone surface to walk back toward the entrance of the cave. Without question or hesitation Ashad follows as in the distance the sound of rotors can be heard reverberating through the canyon walls.
“Over there, I saw it fall over there.” Mien whispers through the air at the shape near his elbow, the instructions received the man darts off through the snow-dusted trees toward their objective. “Quickly now, while the others hold the helicopters off.”
Somewhere in the distance comes the sound of another airburst rocket grenade exploding above the frozen forest floor. This is followed in short order by the staccato sound of the heavy machine gun. Ashad smiles at Mien through the darkness as the other man moves off toward their target, a shape that had fallen from the rear of one of the helicopters as it had passed overhead.
Moments earlier, several members of the group including Mien and Ashad had hidden beneath a rocky ledge jutting from the ground. As the other half of their group fired and herded the helicopters toward their position they waited until the metal beasts had flown just overhead.
Then, springing from their hiding places, they fired the rocket grenades toward the back end of the closest machine. Forced to juke off course it had spilled something from the rear, something that had vaguely resembled a man. Ashad had not wanted to count on having such good fortune as finding the the body of a slain infidel, let alone the enormous boon that would be represented by a live soldier.
There are only three of them now, Mien having sent another quartet to higher ground in the east to protect their open southern flank. If the infidels are to come now while they are in the relative open of the valley floor there will most certainly be some form of reckoning for the four of them this night. Ashad’s morale is buoyed by the sense of paternal pride that Mien has displayed by selecting him from the other men to accompany him by his side during this most dangerous maneuver.
Under his breath he prays the words taught him by the Imam when he was just a child, asking for the guidance of Allah and for the wisdom of His Prophet Muhammed to not fail in his given duty.
Stopping almost silently on the bed of pine needles coating the forest floor, Ashad and Mien rest tensely on the balls of their feet after hearing a signal come from Mohamed just a few yards away. The trio begins to flank left and Ashad’s heart leaps into his throat as this maneuver can mean but one thing: the enemy that fell from the helicopter is alive.
The three men pick their way toward the target. Careful not to step on anything that could give away their position. All of them are aware of how dangerous some of the infidels can be, how fiercely they will fight to accomplish their goals.
Another signal from the scout floats through the trees, which causes Mien to sprint toward their objective. This action is something odd to Ashad as they had briefed that this particular signal meant to break to the right, not advance. For a moment he hesitates, allowing the older man to sprint several meters forward of where he is standing.
Realizing the depth of Mien’s genius to have changed the signals at the last second Ashad takes off quickly toward the path of his leader. They run a few meters apart through the trees until Ashad hears something that sounds very much like a hammer tapping quickly on thick steel. The sound comes again, only this time Mien pirouettes like a man possessed and falls to the ground.
Gasping, Ashad raises his rifle and is about to fire when he hears the sound again and witnesses Mohamed fall in response. Raging now, Ashad begins to scream while at a full run toward the enemy fighter. Jerking the trigger brings the comforting impact and cacophony that the rifle always produces when asked. Rounds chew at the soil, digging a line of smaller craters toward the now visible form of the enemy. He is wearing the typical armor that the cowards always wear. Not caring if he lives or dies Ashad stops firing long enough to steady his aim while observing his enemy raising the silenced machine pistol in his direction.
The enemy is quicker with the tiny rifle than Ashad could expect, already aimed and ready to fire. Praying silently Ashad closes his eyes and pulls the trigger of his own rifle only to listen to the stereo sound of two hammers falling on an empty chamber. Realizing that he has been given a reprieve by none other than Allah, Ashad deftly flips the rifle in mid-air to grasp the barrel and wield the weapon as a club.
With the enemy attempting to reload his weapon, Ashad winds up and swings the rifle with all of his might to smash the butt stock into the enemy’s wrist. The man moans loudly at the shock and sudden crack issued from the impact, the weapon falling from the mangled hand and barrel first into the dirt.
“Whore!” Ashad screams while pushing the rifle into the side of a wound on the man’s side where the ribs have torn through the skin. He knows this to be terrifically painful and presses harder at the sign of agony on the part of the enemy fighter. “I should slaughter you where you lie.”
“I...I’m going to...” The enemy manages before Ashad again presses down onto the man’s chest, only this time until the sickly sound of it pulling apart could be clearly heard. “I’m going...”
“Going to do what? Kill? Kill what? Kill me? Now that is amusing. Look at you, you’re bleeding everywhere and cannot even move your arms.” Feeling nothing but the desire for revenge course through him, Ashad raises his foot and drives it into the man’s face, taking perverse joy in the sound of snapping bones and cartilage. “Your Pashtun is horrible.”
The enemy had been wearing a dark green helmet with the clear plastic visor down; the force of Ashad’s blow some minutes ago has shattered the plastic. Shards of the visor material coated in blood coat the area where the man’s nose once was, that is until Ashad had dispensed suitable justice for Mien’s slaughter. His breathing had become labored after Ashad had carefully cut his boots and armor off and then bound the man like a pig just before slaughter. The enemy is bleeding from at least four different wounds and is making the sounds that come just before death.
“Mien!” One of the others, Khumin cries out through the trees. From the sound of his voice and other noises Ashad can tell he is within several meters and accompanied by the rest of their group.
“Praise Allah, Mien is dead.” Ashad returns after giving the all-clear signal.
“No.” Khumin is roughly the same size as Ashad but much older. Despite Khumin's far greater combat time he bears another mark of which both of the men are aware, the newcomer automatically assumes a more deferential role as a result. “It cannot be.”
“It is, and we have this thing.” To emphasize the prize that they have collected Ashad pulls the man’s face from the dirt. “This thing to thank for his death.”
“Ashad.” Even in the low light provided by the full moon streaming through the broken clouds Ashad can make out the sorrow breaking in waves across the man’s face. “They are coming again, the radio says.”
"The radio?” Aghast with disbelief Ashad reaches out to grab the other fighter by the softer parts of his neck. Hissing, he nearly spits into the face of Khumin who is now slowly choking only to think better of it and releases him with a shove. “You used the radio?”
“No…I swear. The enemy is looking for this man.” Pawing at the pain blooming in his neck, Khumin manages to reply from a crouch. “Many helicopters. Many are coming.”
“Fine then, I will execute this one here and now. We will leave him to be consumed by the rats.” Ashad says with no uncertain amount of displeasure. Thrusting the boots and body armor into Khumin’s arms, Ashad gestures over his shoulder at the nearly lifeless body of the enemy soldier. “Take these with you. Tell two of the others to return here to me and we will stay to draw them away from you. The rest of you shall slip into the hills and Allah willing, link up with our other forces.”
“Allah willing, I shall do as you command.” With this parting, Khumin begins to run toward the position of the remaining fighters.
“Khumin, what has happened to Ashad?”
“He is no more. The infidel was carrying a grenade, he did not see it until too late.” The voice is heavy with fatigue and still hoarse from running for so long through the thin air of the mountains. “Perhaps our departed Imam was right.”
“Khumin?” The younger man, cut across the brow and bleeding slightly appears as if stung suddenly by the words. “Surely you are not suggesting?”
“That the violence we have committed ourselves to will be our undoing.” Wincing as yet another bomb finds itself to the ridgeline housing their cave the elder fighter examines the motes of dust and rock filtering down from the ceiling. Khumin notes that the infidels may well simply drop so many bombs that the cave will eventually be exposed, despite it now being many hundreds of feet underground. “Perhaps there are no virgins, no Elysium fields.”
“And what of our leader then? What of those martyred in the defense of our faith?” Now agitated, the young zealot’s voice rises at the end of the sentence into a shout. “If Allah had not shown me in the past how strong your faith I would not believe the words coming from your mouth now.”
“Mecham, be calm now. Let me tell you something.” Slowly sliding from the low crouch that he had been in, Khumin lowers himself to sit on the floor. “I was born in the West. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On the eastern coast of the United States.”
“When I was a child, growing up in what the Infidel’s call the City of Brotherly Love, other children and I would play a game. Perhaps you played this same game in Khandahar as a child, Mecham. You certainly, with Allah’s continued blessing, play it now.”
“It was called ‘war,’ Mecham.” His throat irritated by the dust stirred by yet another impact above them, Khumin coughs and takes a moment to drink from a battered metal canteen. A very worn and faint but still recognizable hammer, sickle and star logo is barely visible on the rim. “No one won that game, Mecham. We all simply returned to our parents and our homes. When they came, I returned as a boy to help defend my family’s village.”
“I watched as they slaughtered whole families as retribution for our killing of one officer. The Russians, they went home, but our people remained dead. The game was over, Mecham, but no one returned.”
“They are with Allah, brother. They were killed defending our faith,” Mecham replies weakly after several seconds of silence.
“What I learned that winter, was that we will not win this time or any other. War has no end.”
“Then why do you fight?” Mecham replies meekly, almost undetectable despite the near silence between the impact of bombs above their heads.
“Because brother Mecham, the winter my family was killed my soul perished as well. I am simply waiting for this body to catch up to it. But I am glad that at least some part of me is enjoying the benefits of this suffering.” Smiling broadly, Khumin looks the boy in the eye and sees that the boy has somehow aged in the preceding minutes. The youth is gone, slowly fading like autumn twilight and being replaced by the hardness of a winter wind. “Allah willing, we will be reunited before too long.”
“Kali 67, roger cleared hot.”
“Punch them fuckers in number fifteen.”
“Fifteen didn’t take GPS last time.”
“So fuckin’ try it again. Goddamn Walsh. What I gotta come over there and plug ‘em in for you?”
“Doors coming open. Fifteen’s good.”
“Oooh, shit, piss and goddamn what a miracle that jay-dam. You see that Griff? Good hit. Good hit.”
“Yeah, saw it on FLIR.”
“Temple this is Kali 67. Good impact there, last one did it. Collapsed the top of the ridgeline into the valley that time. Anybody trying to come out of there is goona need a shovel.”
“We've got a number three and four fire light and a master caution.”