Tip of the Spear
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2.

There are five strangers around the fire. The Pakistani, his face keen as a knife. The engineer, a squat Pashtun man with a doggish jaw, chewing nervously on his cigarette. His companion, whom Ismael called the scientist: bespectacled, nursing his head in his hands. Flanking them are the two Hazara boys, warming their hands at opposite ends of the flames.

The teacher is present, as is the headsman. A bull of a man, with a gaze like one too, though with a simplicity of intent that belies his insight. He’s younger than his father was when he inherited the post, though he’s aged since the fighting started: dark lines around the eyes, grey stripes around the temples.

There is a meal between them: a serving of aash garnished with mint leaves, long since gone cold. Modest, by the village’s standards, for fresh meat has been hard to get as of late.

The headsman has been regaling the room with local history and pithy observations of the land; though the Hazara boys remain unresponsive. The scientist only looks at the floor. Meanwhile, the engineer and Pakistani regard him with stony eyes. Sensing resistance, he clears his throat. “I hear you’re in a hurry to get through the pass.”

The engineer nods to the Pakistani, who proceeds to explain:

“Here is what I will ask of you. Tonight, my people will camp in the caves, up where the treeline stops. We will not require provisions, but we will have need of fresh water. Allow us to finish our tasks undisturbed. In a week, we’ll continue up the ridge to the other side.”

“To the mujahideen?” The headsman laughs. “You’re lucky you stopped here. A group like you, travelling by night like rats. Why, they’d shoot you before you reached the next trailhead!”

“We will take care of it—” says the Pakistani.

“With all due respect—” the headsman raises a hand. “You clearly do not know these hills well. This war has changed us all.”

The engineer murmurs. “He’s right, lieutenant. Even Command was not aware that there’d be people here.”

The Pakistani slackens, defeated. The engineer continues:

“If I may explain: the mujahideen have something our commanders want. A man, though you wouldn’t know it at first sight. Gaspar, if you please?” He gestures to the bespectacled man beside him. He kicks out a canvas bag from under his seat and produces a device—a radio, or something pretending to be one. Too many lights and wires to count.

“The fakir?” The headsman leans forward. “You know about the fakir?”

The scientist twists a wire somewhere, and groans. Faint cracklings of a voice spring to life. Notes of a dhikr, in a voice clear and high, held somewhere between exultation and song: No sword but the Zulfiqar, and no youth but Ali’s…

“That’s the man,” says the engineer. “They say he can work miracles, that he’s untouched by bullets. They say he communes with the voices of God. The mujahideen uses him to rally the villages. It is of our commanders’ utmost importance that we locate him, and separate him from his growing influence.”

“He’s a man of words—nothing more,” scowls the headsman.

“Words can have power, too.”

Heads turn to meet the teacher. He reaches across the fire to take the device from Gaspar. The voice stops abruptly as the device leaves his hands. Hands devoid of warmth, notes the teacher, even in the fire’s light.

“I don’t know what to make of your account,” the teacher says. He turns the bundle of plastic and wire over in his hands. “You carry yourselves like men of science, yet you speak like men of war. Your leader tells me that you are on the side of the vultures. Yet you speak as if working for a greater good.”

The engineer smiles, sheepish. “If what I’ve been saying comes to you as idealistic, then I’ve been sorely misunderstood.”

“We’ll set up camp in the caves by dawn,” says the Pakistani gruffly. “All we ask is for your villagers to keep clear. And a guarantee of safety, if you can spread the word. A token of appreciation, for the trouble.” He hands a small envelope across to the headsman, who waves it back exasperatedly.

“The goats will graze where they want,” says the headsman. “The other villages will do as they please. We’ll discuss protection later.”

“Thank you,” says the Pakistani. He holds his hand out for the device; the teacher returns it to him. He motions for his men to rise.

When they’re gone, the headsman turns to the teacher. “What do you think? Learned men, like yourself—you must be glad to have some company at last.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t know,” the teacher laughs. “It’s been far too long to tell.” He peers out of the window, where the sky beckons. Clouds gather like a veil near the top of the ridge, sending wisps down its flanks, half-shapes rolling in the fog. The lieutenant and his team will have to move quick before the chill sets in.

The headsman takes in the sight, whistling.

“First the war, now fakirs and foreigners,” he grumbles. “We’re living in the end times, my friend.”

From beyond the valley, the wind howls.


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