About two kilometers out from the village, about it Cadmus dismounted and led Ameera off the road. They picked their way down to the riverbed and forded through ankle-deep water to the east side. Now he took the AK-47 from the saddle strap and looped it over his shoulder, letting it hang before him, approved one hand resting on the polished wooden grip as he went. He folded out the stock and locked it. He put the safety off and slid the action to automatic and laid his finger along the trigger guard.
He broke with the trees and looked out over the slowly rising yellow plains, petting Ameera’s nose gently. The dark brown hills on the other side of the valley rose up before him like rumpled blankets. The clouds behind and to the east were bright with morning sunlight but the sun was still behind the mountains. Cadmus checked his watch. 6:37 AM. He decided to sit and wait.
Twenty minutes later the first spear of direct sunlight shot over the horizon and made him squint one eye. He got up and mounted Ameera again, riding up the hillside some ways until he was moving just under the crest. Below him the shadow of the hillside slowly crept down the valley floor. Anyone looking up in his direction would be blinded by the rising sun at his back, and it gave him all the clearer picture of what was happening down there.
He saw something. Stopping Ameera he laid the rifle in the crook of his left arm and waited. Movement, among the boulders below. Just for a brief moment he’d seen something from the corner of his left eye. An animal? He replayed the image in his mind, seeing the way it moved. No, he decided. The top of a human head. A head of brown hair or a brown hat.
He dismounted into a crouch and moved with the rifle stock at his shoulder, picking his way so as not to dislodge pebbles from the dry slope. He stopped to listen a few times and when he was close to the outcropping he heard low voices. He crawled to the back of a boulder and got up on a knee. He picked out a few words of murmured Pashto and stood, glancing silently around the side of the boulder with his rifle ready but not pointed.
Mujahideen fighters, four of them. One injured with a grimace on his face, on the ground with red bandages covering the stump of his right arm. A young man with no beard kneeling before him with a canteen of water. Two older men with rifles, prone on an outcropping of rock surveying the valley below.
Cadmus walked into the open and stood waiting for them to see him. It took a long time. Then he deliberately scuffed a foot on the rock and the young man looked up with a cry.
“Relax,” Cadmus said in Pashto as they reached for their guns. The older men squinted up at him.
“Cadmus?” said one. They seemed to deflate with relief. Cadmus recognized the eldest man. He had a thin, almost skeletal face and a white beard and piercing green eyes, all under the typical pakol cap.
“Tabaan,” said Cadmus, nodding. He approached, letting the rifle swing down. “No rear guard?”
“We didn’t have time for caution,” Tabaan said indignantly.
Cadmus pointed his chin down at the valley floor. “What happened in Tangi? The Soviets?”
Tabaan nodded sharply. “They were looking for Massoud.”
“They find him?”
Tabaan was shaking his head. “He moved up the valley a few days ago to recruit men from the other villages. It’s unlucky. If he had been here we would have easily defeated them, by God.”
Cadmus frowned. “Perhaps. Perhaps they would have finally gotten him.”
Tabaan glared at him. “We have to retake the village. Are you here to help us?”
“Not exactly.” Cadmus joined Tabaan and the other fighter, easing himself down to peer over the lip of the outcropping. They had a pretty good view here all the way down to Tangi village. They were shielded by a few dry scrubs and some rocks.
“My wife is still down there,” said Tabaan. “Along with the other women and girls. I don’t want to imagine what the Russians will do to them. And they captured many of our men as well.
Cadmus nodded, his mouth a flat line. “The boy named Saif. Is he still there? The orphan?”
Tabaan nodded. “He was when they attacked. Maybe he was killed. I didn’t see him during the fighting.”
“How many Russians?” Cadmus saw the village, black smoke pouring up from it. He reached inside his rucksack and retrieved his binoculars, painted tan with slits cut in the lens-caps to mitigate reflection. He glassed the valley below.
“Maybe fifteen,” said Tabaan. “But they have a tank.”
Cadmus saw it as he scanned over the broken buildings. A squat green ugly thing with a red star painted on the side.
“A T-55. That’s a problem.”
Tabaan was nodding. “Big problem.”
“Well. It can’t do much without support. If we can kill all the other guys we can get it without much trouble.”
Tabaan looked skeptical.
“Any backup? Other Soviets?”
“They attacked first from the sky with MiGs, dropping many bombs. Then they came up the valley road with a column of eight tanks. While the tanks pushed in they landed helicopters and dropped many soldiers. Then when they realized Massoud had moved up the valley they carried down northward, leaving just the one tank and some men to guard the village.”
Cadmus was nodding. “Nothing we haven’t seen before. So they could radio the rest of the column if we don’t get them fast. We’ll have to be a bit sneaky. What kind of equipment you got?”
They showed him. Still that indignant pride, especially as his expression hardened. Tabaan and the other older man, Khabir, each had a bolt-action Enfield rifle with one magazine each, and that was it. Cadmus hefted Tabaan’s gun and immediately felt it was too light. His heart sank and he inspected both rifles more closely. One was marked ‘E?FIELD 1852’ and sticking his finger in the barrel he found it had no rifling. The other gun was rifled, at least, but it too was a fake.
“Khyber Pass copies,” he said with a shake of his head and a half smile.
Tabaan looked at Khabir and both men shrugged.
“I don’t suppose you have an RPG?” Cadmus turned his attention back to the village and stared through the binoculars again. There was an uncomfortable silence. “No? I guess I’ll just kill all these Russians myself.”
He continued to scan the valley below, looking for the best way to approach the village. At length Tabaan said, “We must do this. For the sake of our families. I must see that my wife is safe. Even if we were armed with nothing but sticks we would accompany you. God will protect us.”
“I thought you might say…” Cadmus said absently. “…something along those lines. So it’s a good job I brought more than just a gun, a machete, and a huge set of balls.”
Khabir scowled at him. “What did you bring?”
The first shot rang out as Cadmus was belly crawling through a patch of brambles, about fifty meters from the clay-brick wall of the village. Too early. He hesitated with a sardonic eyebrow cocked as the sound rolled across the valley floor and back again like a marble in a bowl. It was a little anti-climactic as moments like this go, as there seemed to be no reaction at all for a while. As he crawled on he wondered if Khabir had hit anything and he thought probably not. They had left Khabir up on the outcropping with the worse of the two Enfield copies and advised him to cause a distraction.
Khabir had wanted the better gun. How was he supposed to snipe with a gun this inaccurate? But Cadmus had assured him that either way he wouldn’t hit a thing from up there. That wasn’t the point of him shooting, anyway.
Cadmus, Tabaan, and the boy Wahid had crawled around to different spots and would be sneaking into the village to perform the real attack. Tabaan and Wahid he had left behind on the east side to approach with the sun at their backs and Cadmus had gone around to the opposite side of the village. He had left his pistol with the boy and gone on with only the AK and machete. It had taken them nearly an hour to get into position.
Finally he reached the wall and looked for a space with some houses obstructing his sightline with the Soviets. He slowly peered over the wall and seeing nothing, vaulted it. He proceeded down a narrow cobbled alleyway. Most of the buildings all around had been reduced to foundations or rubble.The smoke seemed to be pouring from a central white house next to where the tank had been.
Around the back of a shop Cadmus encountered a Soviet soldier in brown khaki pants and blue striped sleeveless shirt, taking a piss. His head was shaved and sweat glistened on the sunburned nape of his neck as Cadmus approached at a crouch.
Cadmus put a hand over the man’s mouth and thrust the point of the machete in the right side of the neck at the carotid artery, the blade just grazing over vertebrae and cleaving his windpipe directly in half. The point burst out the other side of the neck wet with blood and Cadmus pushed it out through the front just below the adam’s apple, completing his cut of both carotid arteries and the esophageal passage. Just as his father had taught him. Just as, with any luck, he would one day teach the boy Saif.
There was barely a sound as the Soviet twitched. Just a squeak from his throat. In the better part of two seconds, his shirt was soaked red from collar to belt, and the blood spilled down his pants, spattered on his boots. Cadmus’s left arm slathered hot and sticky to the elbow.
He quietly set the man down and carried on. He went in the back of the shop and eased open the shutters a crack, peering out to get a view of the main street. He could see the tank, but it wasn’t moving. There were a couple of Soviet soldiers standing next to it. The big V12 diesel engine was loud even here. Maybe that was why they hadn’t noticed Khabir shooting. That and he’d probably missed very wide. Two of the Soviet officers were watching four of the infantrymen straining with a wooden beam, using it as a prybar to shift some rubble from a collapsed house. Cadmus opened the shutters an inch more and cocked his head.
Dirt stained hands reaching up from beneath the rubble. There was a woman trapped in the collapsed building and they were trying to get her out. Well. The more distractions the better, he thought.
Then there was a hard snapping sound with a metallic edge, and a puff of dust leapt up from the T-55’s turret. That one got their attention. The soldiers dropped the beam, thoughts of the trapped woman abandoned, and lifted their rifles. The officers were ducking for cover behind the tank as the turret began to swivel towards the east.
Cadmus ducked back out into the alley with his AK against his shoulder, cheek cuddled against it as he looked down the sights. The bloody machete he held in his left hand, clamped against the gun’s curving magazine. He checked the door to an adjacent house and eased his way in, checking all four corners. He knelt at a broken wall with his hand resting on it, listening, eyes staring into the distance.
He heard a smattering of Russian as the soldiers jumped into action, taking cover from Khabir’s shooting. Footsteps clattering as they entered the next room of the house he was in. Their voices loud, too loud, in the tiny dark space. A huge explosion from outside as the tank fired its main gun. Dust plumed down from the ceiling and a clay dish fell from a shelf to shatter. Cadmus heard two voices.
He looked at the wall beside him for the first time.
It was covered in white handprints. All shapes and sizes, but mostly small. Children’s hand prints, in white paint. His own handprint there beside them where he’d rested it, in blood. He lifted a finger to almost touch where a tiny thumb had pressed, then stopped short.
He stood silently and stepped into the room.
Both the soldiers looked up at him, but they actually seemed to think he was one of theirs for a moment. One of them looked away again immediately, taking cover by the window. The other, taking in his machete and unfamiliar fatigues, was in the process of lifting his gun as he jauntily stepped towards them.
“Hey, what the — ” the nearest one said.
Cadmus shouted in Russian, pointing at the window. “Look out!”
For an instant they tensed and began to look away from him. In that moment Cadmus dropped his gun and let it swing from his shoulder as he changed the machete over to his right hand and chopped over his left shoulder. He took the nearest man in the face, cleaving down through his cheek into his jaw and dislodging a spray of teeth and blood, leaving the lower jaw broken and hanging. Cadmus lunged for the second man and slammed the machete down like a hammer at the hand that was lifting the gun.
The blade bit in and scraped down the grip, shearing away four of the fingers and sending the AK clattering to the floor. Cadmus gripped the howling man by the front of his shirt and hurled him to trip over the first man, who was dead or in shock on the floor.
“No. Please!” The man lifted his uninjured arm as Cadmus’ machete crashed down once, twice, three times. Battering clean through his forearm on the second strike and burying itself in his face on the third, the man squealing in pain, then silenced.
Cadmus spun and again lifted his rifle to cover the door, wondering if he had been heard by the others. He backed into the doorway he had entered through, waiting and listening again, ready to escape out the back.
The clatter of automatic rifle fire, none of it directed at him. Yelling outside. Nothing.
He went to the window and looked out. The two Russian officers were still taking cover behind the tank, pistols clumsily in hand, peering up over as if to see what was happening. Their sides were to him. They were standing very close to each other. He waited for a long few seconds to get his angle perfectly right and for one man to lean and yell something in the ear of the other.
Then he squeezed off one bullet and the AK-47 barked sharply in the closeness of the room. A puff of red and a faint splatter on the tank’s armour, and the officers both slumped in the dusty road, falling practically in each others laps. Blood in their hair, on their collars.
Cadmus grinned and backed out into the other room, watching the corners again and waiting for a sign of trouble. He looked at the butchered corpses on the floor. “Waste not, want not,” he said in English.