In the first light of the dawn, the air is freezing and the grass is slippery with frost.
Makhmat Bisvov steps carefully down the path, picking his way over the stones. He breathes in deeply and lets it out in a small cloud, rejoicing in the sight of the steam. For an instant it hangs in the air, a little reminder that he’s still alive, that he can experience the joy of such small things.
The village is small, a straggle of huts on either side of the mountain path. Bisvov has been here before, but that was years ago, when the people were full of hope and optimism. Now they – those that are left – hardly look at him and his men, and when they do, their faces are mistrustful and full of foreboding.
Bisvov sighs. Try as he might, he can’t blame them. What has happened isn’t their fault, but they’re the ones who are paying for it. With their sons and their husbands, and there’s still no end in sight.
He passes a young woman milking a large goat. Both the goat and the girl look up at him with silent hostility, the faces equally pinched and suspicious. He nods and smiles, but there’s no answering smile from the girl. He hadn’t expected any.
At the door of the chief’s house he glances over his shoulder. The girl is still staring after him.
The chief’s house is small and dark, with earthen walls hung with old, brown, threadbare rugs. The chief himself is at the door, and steps aside, ushering Bisvov inside. There are three low stools around an ornate old hookah set in the middle of the floor, and one of them, in the furthest and darkest corner, is already occupied.
“Salam,” Bisvov says, nodding. The man in the shadows doesn’t answer for a moment, and then, reluctantly, stands.
He’s tall, quite a lot taller than Bisvov, has a full beard and long black hair spilling from under his balaclava. His hands are huge, his shoulders humped and powerful, and the jacket of his camouflage fatigues is stretched tight over his chest.
“Bisvov,” he says, his voice neutral. “You asked for this meeting, so here I am.”
“Ruslan,” Bisvov replies formally. “It’s good of you to come.”
“Let’s sit down.” The chief sounds flustered. The two uniformed men both glance at him, at his wispy grey beard and sunken cheeks. “Let’s sit down and talk.”
“Thank you, Ataman.” Bisvov sits, keeping himself as straight as he can, but even slouched opposite, the other man is bigger, and dominates the room. The chief’s wary, timid eyes keep darting towards him.
“Why did you want this meeting, Bisvov?” Ruslan’s eyes are dark holes under his heavy brow. He wears a green silk scarf round his neck, and pulls at the end with the hand that has a leather glove on it, the hand that lacks three fingers. “It’s neither convenient nor safe for us to be here.”
“My village is loyal,” the chief protests, irrelevantly. Despite the chill, he’s sweating slightly, and Bisvov wonders why he’s so nervous. After all, neither he nor Ruslan is armed; that was the condition for the meeting.
“How long have we known each other, Ruslan?” Bisvov tries to look into the eyes of the bigger man, but the room’s too dark. “A long time, isn’t it? Three years? Four?”
“You know perfectly well. We first met in that damned train station.”
Bisvov’s mind flashes back an image of the train station as he had seen it last: blazing carriages, torn rails, platforms littered with spent cartridges and shattered glass. And he sees Ruslan as he had seen him then, lit by the red glow of the fire, screaming orders at his men. That had been a close call, with the Federal helicopters blattering overhead, machine-gunning anything that moved.
“Yes. And after that we were colleagues, weren’t we, for a while? Things were different then.”
“How does it matter?” Ruslan’s voice is a growl. “You chose your way, I chose mine. That’s all there is to it.”
“But your way isn’t ours. You must see that this…this jihad of yours…isn’t the way we should be fighting this war. It’s not the way we are, in this country.”
Ruslan laughed. “You’ve lost touch,” he said. “Things are changing. Your way isn’t working any longer; it hasn’t worked for a good long time now.”
“Is yours working, then? Listen to me, Ruslan: your jihad is splitting the people apart. The Federals will roll over us when we’re busy fighting each other. You know how many groups have already defected to the other side.”
“We can do without those cowards. Bisvov, your time’s over, and you should know that. You’ve had your chance, and you’ve lost. Why else are we sitting in these mountains here, and the Federal mercenaries are patrolling the streets of the cities?”
“We can fight back again, if we’re united.” Bisvov keeps his voice down with an effort. “But what you’re doing is ruining all the unity we ever had. Your militia, and the Arab Brigade.”
“The Arabs are guests, honoured guests. They’re volunteering themselves for our fight, unlike some of our people I could name.” Ruslan glances at the chief for some reason. The old man is looking more uncomfortable than ever, his hands fidgeting and eyes darting about. Bisvov again wonders what’s wrong with him.
“The people hate the Arabs,” Bisvov points out. “You know that the villagers say they misbehave with the women, tell them to cover up and so on. That’s not our way.”
Ruslan shrugs. “They’ve got a right to their views, that’s all I can say. The people have to pay a price for freedom.”
“Ruslan.” Bisvov rubs his face tiredly. “I called this meeting to tell you this: I can’t stop you from carrying out your jihad, but you don’t do it in my territory. If you want your jihad, you and your militia had better go elsewhere.”
“Your territory.” Ruslan grins, a flash of white teeth in black beard. “What do you mean by ‘your’ territory?”
“This province. My militia’s been placed in official charge of it, by order of the President himself. I’m responsible for what happens here.”
“We don’t recognise the President, not any longer. We obey only the Emir, and he says I’m in charge.”
“We’ll argue about that another time,” Bisvov says. “But you’ve to move out, or I’ll have to take measures to force you out.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen, my friend.” Ruslan’s hand moves, quickly, and suddenly the room’s full of armed men. Bisvov is pulled to his feet, and pushed against the wall before he can react. “We’re the ones in charge here.”
“It wasn’t my doing.” The chief’s eyes are wide with terror, his lips trembling. “They told me they’d hurt my family. I swear it.”
“I believe you, Ataman.” Bisvov shakes his head. “You’re making a bad mistake, Ruslan.”
“We’ll see who’s made the mistake.” Ruslan says something to one of the others in a language Bisvov doesn’t know. He glances at the other men in the room. Unmistakable Semitic features. The Arab Brigade.
Two of the Arabs hold his arms, pressing him back against the wall, while another pats him down quickly. “Laa,” this third man says, stepping back and shaking his head.
“No weapons?” Ruslan seems faintly surprised. “You’re too trusting for your own good, my friend.”
Bisvov shrugs as far as he can with his arms pinioned. “I trusted you, because I thought you were a man of your word. I’m sorry to see you aren’t.”
“Sometimes there are more important things than merely keeping one’s word. The emirate is more important than my word.” Ruslan jerks his bearded chin at the chief, and the old ataman scurries out. “We must have freedom of action in this territory. We have big plans, and you can’t be allowed to interfere.”
“What kind of big plans?”
Ruslan shakes his head. “Big plans. None of your business.”
“So, what happens now? What are you planning to do with me?”
“You’ll make a good bargaining chip for your militia to behave itself. We won’t need to hold you long, three or four days. After that you can’t stop us anyway.” Ruslan gestures to his men, and they drop Bisvov’s arms. “You’ll stay here for the time being. The ataman is being very hospitable.”
“Let the poor old bastard’s family go.” Bisvov says. “You’ve got me, haven’t you?”
“In a few days,” Ruslan says, chuckling. “In a few days, we’ll let all of you go.”
Bisvov paces the room, counting off the paces, eight steps either way, six if he takes long strides, but the floor’s cluttered with the stools and the hookah. The pacing is soothing, and keeps his mind focused. One of the Arabs, a short man with a chin beard, is on guard, leaning casually against the wall.
“What’s your name?” Bisvov asks. No response. The man’s grey eyes don’t even blink.
“You speak our language, don’t you?” Still no reply. “How about English?” Bisvov asks in that language, but the man might have been a statue. Only his finger moves, slipping round the trigger of his rifle, and Bisvov steps back.
“Have it your own way,” he mutters, and resumes his pacing.
Through the half-open door, he can see sunlight and a patch of sky. It must be late morning already, and his deputy will have begun wondering what’s happened to him. Bisvov hopes he has the sense not to come in with an armed team. The last thing the movement needs is internecine warfare. Things are bad enough already.
He pauses by the stone shelf. It bears the stub of a candle, an essential in these parts because there has never been any power supply, and an old hourglass which might have been once a valued heirloom from someone who’d visited the great cities of the north. Bisvov turns it over and watches morosely as the sand trickles down. There’s a book at the back of the shelf, too, but it’s a Koran, and written in Arabic, which he can’t read.
The inner door opens and a girl enters. Her head’s partly covered with a scarf, but her face and lower arms are bare, and the Arab guard says something sharply. The girl ignores him.
Bisvov recognises her. It’s the same young woman who’d been milking the goat earlier. She has a glass of milk and offers it to him. “My father asked me to bring this to you,” she says in a low voice.
“Thank him from me. And thank you too.” The girl isn’t pretty, but she looks distinctly friendlier now. “Your father is the ataman, I take it?”
“Yes, and he asks your pardon again.” The girl watches as Bisvov drinks the milk. It’s thick and has a strong smell, but his throat is dry and the liquid’s welcome. “He says that it isn’t the way to treat a guest, but he had no choice.”
“Please tell him I understand.” Bisvov gives the glass back. “Do you know if any message has come from my men?”
“No, I don’t know anything about that.” The girl throws a quick glance back over her shoulder at the guard. “I’ll bring you something to eat in a while.”
“It’s all right,” Bisvov says. “I’ll manage.” He watches as she leaves, and notices the guard’s eyes following her out as well.
Time crawls by, very slowly.
It’s evening when Ruslan returns. The guard has changed at noon, the new man as unresponsive as the first, and girl has just come in to light up the candle.
“What’s your name?” Bisvov asks her, as she begins expertly packing the funnel of the hookah from a little copper box. “I don’t smoke, you know.”
“Alla,” she says, not looking at him, her fingers busy with the hookah. “My father asked me to fill it. There are people coming.”
“That’s right.” Ruslan enters, ducking his head to avoid hitting it on the lintel. “Somebody from your group, and I, of course, and a couple of village elders. We’ll have a regular summit meeting.”
“What are the elders for? It seems to me that you take decisions pretty much by yourself.”
Ruslan is about to say something, when the guard motions. “Send him in.”
Zelim, Bisvov’s deputy, enters, looking around. Seeing Bisvov, he steps quickly forward. “Are you all right?”
“Well, I haven’t been physically harmed, if that’s what you mean.” He looks at Ruslan, and back at Zelim again. “You didn’t come alone and unarmed, I hope?”
“No, I’ve got men positioned around the village, Are you expecting trouble?”
“Ask Ruslan. If trouble comes it won’t be from me.”
The big man raises his hands, palms out. “If there’s going to be trouble, it won’t be from my side. This is a genuine meeting I called.”
The ataman enters, with a couple of other elderly men, probably members of the village council. The three uniformed men watch as they take their places round the hookah. Alla lights the hookah and leaves hurriedly, pulling her scarf further over her hair.
“We’re here,” Ruslan says, “to work out some kind of compromise. We don’t want to harm anyone, but we don’t want our freedom of action restricted either. Am I clear on this?”
“We don’t want any trouble,” one of the old men mumbles. Hookah smoke fills the room with an aromatic haze.
“You won’t have any if you just give us a free hand.”
As Ruslan rumbles on, Bisvov finds his attention wandering. The candle on the shelf is already guttering slightly, and the shadows are crowding around it. It looks to him as though the shadows on the shelf form a skull. He watches it in fascination; the eye sockets are deep and black, the curve of the dome broken at the apex, the jaw grinning ferally. He knows it’s his imagination more than the shadows, but he can’t look away.
He grows aware that everyone’s looking at him, and the room has fallen silent. “Yes?” he asks.
“He says you’re to stay in custody for four days,” Zelim explained. “After that he’ll let you go and withdraw his men from the province.” He coughs. “We have the men ready to get you out,” he says.
Bisvov stares at him thoughtfully and then at Ruslan. “I don’t want a fight. I’ll remain in their custody…for now.”
When he looks back, it’s just an ordinary shelf with a book, a candle, and an old, old hourglass. The skull is gone.
“What are you planning, Ruslan?”
Bisvov and the big man sit together over a plate of lamb stew and bread. “What’s the big thing you’re planning?”
“Why would you want to know?”
“If it’s something my force can aid in, I might consider joining you.”
“I don’t think you will.” Ruslan sits back, his hands, the good one and the gloved one, gathered beneath his chin, and regards Bisvov with some amusement. “Your scruples won’t let you.”
“My scruples? What on earth are you planning? Tell me.”
“All right,” Ruslan shrugs. “It’s not as though your pathetic little band can actually stop us, even if you tried. I just don’t want complications.” He leans forward over the remains of the stew. “Here’s what…” He speaks for a long time.
Bisvov sits back, staring at him. “You’re crazy,” he says incredulously. “Tell me you’re joking.”
“Why would I joke? I’ve got the men and the material to hit them where it really hurts. Why on earth would I joke?”
“Do you even know what they’d do to the people afterwards? Not to you or to me; to the people, like the ataman here and his daughter.”
“There’s always a price to be paid.” Ruslan wipes his beard. “You know that as well as I do. Besides,” he adds, “it’s too late to stop it now. It’s set to roll.”
“When?” Bisvov asks.
“The day after tomorrow evening.” There’s no mistaking the relish in Ruslan’s voice. “The operation begins the day after tomorrow.”
Bisvov wakes instantly, sitting up so quickly that the figure bending over him draws back with a soft gasp of surprise. He peers at it in the darkness, astonished. It’s the girl, Alla.
“What do you want?” he asks.
“The Arabs are gone,” she says in his ear. “They’re holding a meeting, but they’ll be back. If you want to leave, you have to go now.”
Bisvov wastes no time, pulling on his uniform jacket and boots. The room is dark and cold, and the blankets they’d given him delicious with warmth, but he’s long since abandoned physical comfort as a dangerous luxury. “What time is it?”
“Just past midnight. They’re over in old Uncle Salman’s house down the hill, so you’d better not go that way.”
“Thank you,” Bisvov says. “But you’re taking a risk telling me this, aren’t you?”
The girl shrugs. “When they come back I’ll be in bed and asleep like everyone else. It’s not my fault that they left you unguarded, now is it?”
Bisvov grins and leaves quickly. It’s even colder out than in, and the dew is already freezing hard. He can hear voices from further downhill, and slips quickly up the path, sticking to the shadows.
Once in the forest he whistles, low and modulated. As he’d expected, Zelim appears within moments.
“They let you go then? Or you ran away?”
“You think they’d let me go? They’re in a meeting, so I left.” Bisvov takes Zelim by the arm. “Something really bad’s going to happen,” he says. “The bastards are going to attack a school.”
“A school?” Zelim asks incredulously. “Are they fucking crazy?”
“So crazy they don’t even know how mad they are.” Bisvov walks up the path with long, urgent steps, so quickly that Zelim has to trot to keep up. “They’ve planned it out to the smallest detail, apparently. It’s going to be worse than Beslan, much worse.”
“Can we stop them?”
“Not if half of what he said about his forces is correct. He’s got us outnumbered five to two, even without his Arab Brigade.” Bisvov turns to Zelim. “I’m going to Malcolm,” he says.
“Malcolm?” Zelim says, surprised. “The mercenary? He betrayed us once already.”
“Yes, he did. But we’re on the same side on this thing. These madmen must be stopped.”
“What makes you think Malcolm will agree to meet you at all? He’ll suspect a trap.”
“He’ll meet me, because he knows there won’t be a trap. There’s unfinished business between us, the kind that isn’t settled by traps.” Bisvov pauses. “Are you coming along?”
“What else can I do?”
“I never thought to see you again,” Malcolm says.
“I could say the same about you.” The big African mercenary has acquired new scars since Bisvov has last seen him, deep slashes across his right cheek and arm. “Mortar?”
“Mortar,” Malcolm grunts. “What do you want, Makhmat?”
The two of them are in a wrecked armoured personnel carrier abandoned by the side of the highway at the foothills. The corpses of its crew have long since been removed, but there’s still a faint odour of burning, and Bisvov is reminded strongly of the skull. It’s evening outside, the temperature dropping fast.
“Listen carefully, Malcolm. We haven’t time to spare.” Quickly, Bisvov tells all he knows. “They’ll be moving out tomorrow evening and attacking the day after tomorrow,” he says. “I don’t know which school, that’s the bastard part of it. It could be any one within a hundred kilometres of the border.”
“Then we have to strike them tomorrow…at this village of yours?”
“Right. They’re in the village, and you’ll have to hit them while they’re in the village.” Bisvov squeezes his eyes shut, at the thought of the old ataman, of the girl, Alla, and even of her big wary-eyed goat. “I don’t see anything else you can do.”
“This must be really hard for you,” Malcolm says, a soft note in his voice. “Really hard. I don’t wonder you’re crying.”
“Crying?” Bisvov wipes at his eyes, and looks at the moisture on his fingers with astonishment. “It’s nothing. Just hit the village and hit it hard.”
“You understand that this doesn’t change anything between us?”
“I’ll still kill you the next time I see you,” Bisvov agrees. He rises, not offering his hand. “I’m going, Malcolm.”
“Thanks,” Malcolm says, staring after him, but the smaller man has already vanished into the deepening night.
“Went off all right, did it?” Zelim, who’s been standing discreet guard, trots alongside his commandant. “Malcolm didn’t suspect you were luring him into a trap, was he?”
“Well…I just thought of something. Suppose you were deliberately fed that tale and allowed to escape, so that you’d do something like this.” Zelim raises a hand. “I’m not saying that’s what’s going on, sir, but this Ruslan is as twisted as a snake, and one’s got to wonder.”
“What would he get out of that?”
“Uh, he could ambush the mercenaries when they hit the village, and also discredit our group as traitors. Sort of killing two birds with one stone. It’s just a thought, but it could happen. Couldn’t it, sir? Sir?”
The image of a skull on a shelf floating through his mind, Bisvov doesn’t answer.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011/13