The slender trail weaved steeply upwards. On all sides mountains clawed at the dusk. The village dwindled before him; earth and stone structures increasingly basic, derelict, and abandoned. Not even the black shaggy goats strayed this far.
The path narrowed again so the English visitor’s warrior escort was forced to walk behind. Guttural Pashto words and rough pushes guided him, ‘Move, English.’
Unusually, the ursine warrior didn’t wear a keffiyeh. Its absence revealed a ruin of a face, missing its left cheek-bones, eye, and jaw-line. He did not wear an eye-patch. His comrades had whispered his name while they shared the local warlord’s fire with the English that afternoon; Malook, the gentle one.
His gentleness had been stabbed out by a traitor while he slept, said his comrades. The stake had been driven up through his jaw, out through his eye but missed Malook’s brain. He had throttled his assailant before the man could tug the weapon free to strike again. Malook was the most feared and savage warrior in the Sulaiman Mountains. Nothing left to live for but hate.
Ahead a final hunched building squatted between the slope and the trail. In front of its entrance stretched what the English took for a matted snow leopard kill. The carcass rose at their approach to unleash a swarm of accusatory growls in the direction of the English. The dog’s agitation grew to a paroxysm of fury before a lean bearded man pulled a curtain back from the dwelling, emerged, and kicked it to silence.
The man turned to the approaching stranger, ‘You are The British?’
‘Yes’ the man answered in Pashto.
‘No wonder the dog hates you.’ The bearded man motioned him through the curtain with a lowered rifle.
A labouring fire skulked in the middle of the dirt floor. Two piles of rags and sheets, which passed for beds, were the only furnishings. The warrior Malook dropped onto one of them. Another man, clean-shaven in a new mountain coat and good boots slouched against a wall. His fist closed over something attached to a heavy gold chain at his neck. He opened weary eyes to take in the English’s entrance and he nodded.
‘That’s Andrei,’ said the bearded man. ‘It’s not his real name. He’s Russian.’
‘What’s your name?’ asked the English.
‘Nothing you need to know. If we ever meet outside this hut, I will kill you. Call me that.’
The bearded man held up one hand. The top joint of every digit was missing. ‘It’s fitting; I’ve killed five of your American friends.’
‘What happened to your hand?’
‘Suicide bombing mission,’ said Killer, ‘faulty detonator. It saved my life but cost me five fingers. I’m blessed.’
The English sat. Killer put out his hand. ‘Show me your camera. Is it for news reporters?’
‘For film makers,’ said the English. The camera was the only thing the guards had left him when he had been made to strip on the warlord’s carpet earlier. His two companions, his rucksack, the hard-come-by present he had brought with him, his food, the photos of his family, had all been discarded in the warlord’s home at the far end of the village. He only needed the camera.
He ignored Killer’s hand and put the camera to his eye, ‘you could be in my film.’
By the wall Andrei started, the hand left the symbol at his neck as he raised an arm in front of his face.
‘Put it down,’ said Killer, drawing a knife. ‘The warlord says we cannot kill you or destroy your camera – he wants you to tell this story – but we can cut you.’
‘He didn’t want me in his film, the louse,’ laughed Malook, ‘cut him anyway.’
‘It could be a famous story,’ the English lowered the lens, ‘if it’s true. When do I go to the shrine?’
‘It’s not a shrine,’ said Killer, ‘it’s a barn. It only became a shrine after the women went there; after they spread their tales. You go when the Iranian, who is there now, returns.’
‘Why would an Iranian visit the boy?’
‘The Iranians are our new allies. This one supplies us with many weapons. He listened to the same whispers as you, but he is a clever man, this Iranian, he needed to see for himself. He has paid a lot of gold for that privilege. Also Andrei is before you.’
‘You?’ The English turned to the Russian, ‘why are you here?’ The symbol on the chain featured a long bar with three short cross beams. It screamed religion. The English didn’t recognise it but he guessed and that answered his question.
‘Andrei doesn’t speak Pashto,’ said Killer.
‘I speak English,’ said Andrei.
Killer spoke over him. ‘Andrei is a necessary evil. He brings in the tankers from Russia for us.’
‘Us?’ queried The English, ‘for the Taliban, you mean?’
‘Of course,’ Killer said, adding, ‘The Russians murdered my father. They drove a tank over him, when I was no older than the child you’ve come to see. We kicked them out, back over the Friendship Bridge to Uzbekistan. We hated them; they hated us more, now they bring us oil.’
‘To sell to the same Government you are trying to overthrow.’ The English smiled at the absurdity.
Malook grunted, ‘We sell them oil, they give us money, we use their money to buy guns, with the guns we kill them.’
‘But they need oil,’ Killer shrugged. ‘Andrei’s tankers come openly through the Hairatan border crossing and over the Amu Darya River. He is smart, he knows who to bribe, who to threaten, who to punish, who to kill, to keep the tankers rolling. He is evil; perhaps he thinks the boy will offer him redemption.’
Malook said, ‘Let us hope not, eh!’
‘Why is this child different,’ asked the English. ‘What makes him special?’
‘Nothing,’ said Killer.
‘He has marks here,’ said Malook, touching the inside of each wrist, ‘and here.’
‘There, that’s what makes him special,’ said Killer, ‘Malook hates everything and everyone, but he likes the child.’
‘He makes me calm inside,’ confessed Malook.
‘How old is he?’ asked the English.
Killer counted on his cropped fingers, ‘the women found him alone in the barn eight days ago. They told the warlord that a grey wolf lay with his head beside him and tried to protect the child before they beat it off with sticks. His mother had run away from the women’s care three days before that and she bore the child in the barn. She left him when she needed to steal food for herself, so nine to ten days, 11 at most.’
‘Who is the mother?’ asked the English.
‘Maryam, a local beauty from a devout family,’ said Killer. ‘She was kept confined by the women of our tribe in preparation to be married to the warlord’s youngest son. Maryam says the child’s father was a crippled boy who was sent to Kabul to be a martyr, many months ago – ’
‘Allah preserve him,’ recited Malook, more habit than conviction.
‘The women who guarded her, say this is not possible; they kept too close a watch. They say the child is “a pure boy” born without sin; that he is The Little Prophet returned to Earth. Allah asked him to come again to end our misery and lead Islam to power.’
‘Words,’ said the English, ‘that may preserve the women’s own skins, because they failed to keep Maryam pure.’
‘Words,’ agreed Killer, ‘but they have spread far and fast. When did you hear?’
‘Five days ago.’ The English had heard rumours, but others, had heard them too. They sought him out on assignment in the Mountains on the Pakistan border and tasked him with finding this child. Some said that the boy was Al-Masih, others said he was destined to become the Kaliphah that prophecy told would unite all Islamic lands.
‘So you believe he will return your land to Sharia?’ asked the English.
‘Sharia is shit,’ spat Malook.
‘Malook is right but even Sharia is better than the puppet you Russians left behind,’ Killer scolded Andrei, before turning back, ‘and far better than the corruption you left us with, English.’
‘Democracy takes work,’ offered the English.
‘Democracy doesn’t work,’ concluded Killer.
The English laughed at that, ‘A lot of Americans may agree with you,’ he said. ‘And now Trump is sending more troops here. Are you worried?’
‘We are not bothered by the Americans. We fought 100,000 of their troops; they could not defeat a people,’ said Killer. ‘Do you know the biggest threat to us? Why Andrei, who loathes us, supports us? What haunts even Malook’s dreams?’
The English shook his head.
‘ISIS!’ Killer swore, ‘Allah curse their sons. ISIS is in Nangarhar Province. I was in the mountains there a year ago. We had a stronghold in the Tora Bora; 18 veteran Taliban warriors, well-armed, in fortified caves. Their camp was all but impossible to approach unseen. We spoke to them on the radio, “All is fine,” they said. Then, minutes later, they radioed back, “Black Banners,” they yelled. We were there in 30 minutes. Everyone was dead or gone. We found bits of them in the passes for nearly three months. ISIS is the ghost in the night.’
There was the sound of stones and steps outside on the trail. A bearded head peered around the curtain, ‘The Iranian has taken his leave,’ it said.
‘And?’ whispered Killer.
‘He thinks he has been blessed,’ laughed the beard as other steps continued away out of earshot. ‘The midwives have a new tale of an eagle that roosts on the barn every night to guard the child. This boy has a way of looking at them. He touched this Iranian on his forehead. The man’s eyes will still be shining when he reaches Tehran. He will return with guided missiles for us, not mere rocket launchers, I tell you.’
Killer shook his head in wonder. ‘Return him safe then. The Russian is waiting.’
‘No,’ said the voice as the man ducked out of the hut, ‘The English is next. We need his film seen in the West.’
Andrei had understood some of this and spoke to the English in his own language, ‘I bring them oil that fuels their war with weapons, but your camera contains more power it seems.’
‘That depends on the story it tells,’ said the English.
‘A faithful and convincing story I hope,’ said the man whose name may have been Andrei, ‘the Son of God born to a woman called Mary in this, the world’s most barbaric, war-ridden hell-hole.’
‘It hardly seems likely,’ said the English.
‘Pah, you thought he should have been reborn in Cambridge, perhaps?’ Andrei‘s words were bitter. ‘You think anyone there would have noticed; anyone would have cared; anyone would have believed?’
‘No,’ The English shook his head, agreeing, ‘you are right.’
‘Here, it could change everything. Here, people need convincing that Allah has not forgotten them. He sent them Russian tanks, American drones, British democracy. They fought back with ancient Khyber rifles, with tribal knives, with IEDs that caused more casualties to their own people than their invaders. They suffer a corrupt government maintained by an inept army surviving only due to US air strikes. Three years ago Allah inflicted ISIS upon them; ISIS, who attack everybody; ISIS, who fight over any valley, each cave, every rock.’
The English said, ‘It must feel like the whole world is at war in their mountains.’
‘Yes, and for nearly 40 years,’ fumed Andrei, rising off his wall. ‘Can you imagine that? At long last they half-hear whispers that Allah has sent them the Little Prophet. The whispers swell into rumours: His holy messenger is not sent to the West, or to Judea, or to the new economies of the East. He has come here, where he is most needed. If you scavenge for bones in these mountains, survive on scraps in mangled villages, then learn that your sons are destined for martyrdom in Kabul, imagine how much you need Allah to send you a messiah.
The Russian stood over the English, his fist jerking on the symbol at his neck with every beat of his tirade. ‘This is surely the greatest story you will ever tell.’
‘Hush now, Andrei,’ whispered Killer in Pashto, making calming gestures and persuading the Russian back to his wall with his rifle. ‘Or you will be too scary for our child. What has got him so fiery?’ he asked the English.
‘I think he believes; or wants to believe.’
‘Needs to believe,’ Killer corrected. ‘The war-mongering Iranian pays so much gold, he has to believe; the harpy midwives believe so hard they are turned into cooing angels; Andrei feels his Russian oil is transmuted by some holy miracle into faith; the local warlord wants to fire out messages, rather than bullets; furious Malook hopes to find calm.’
‘And you?’ prompted the English.
The bearded man gave a jackal laugh. ‘I don’t believe.’
‘What about the wolf, the immaculate conception, this story of the eagle?’
‘None are convincing,’ said Killer. ‘But, I will tell you who does believe.’
‘All those who want the child dead: jealous neighbouring warlords, ISIS, who have sent threats but no assassins yet, the Afghan Army, who cannot have Allah siding with the people. When the Americans hear, will they send holy men or hellfire missiles do you think?’
The question went unanswered; instead…
‘I believe,’ said the English.
‘You, a stinking Britisher, who gave up on God to worship football and American technology; why would you believe?’
‘Because only a messenger from Allah could persuade such brutal, murderous and unforgiving fighters to build him a shrine and keep him from harm, rather than stoning him and his mother to death, as I would have expected.’
‘Hah,’ Malook grinned horribly, ‘he is wiser than he looks, this English.’
‘He might tell a good story after all,’ admitted Killer. There was the sound of footsteps outside. ‘Here comes your escort to the barn, English.’
‘Tell the world the truth, English,’ called Andrei. ‘A People’s faith rests on your camera. Make it do its work.’
The English pulled back the curtain and the dog growled.
‘Tell me, English, what makes you stink so?’ asked Killer, ‘The dog smelt you coming from way off and you have stunk out our hut.’
The English gave what he hoped was a comradely smile, ‘I bought a present for the child when I was sent to find him. I was not alone it seems: the Iranian came with gold, the Russian brings in valuable oil, and I brought the child a rare scent. I was following an ancient tradition.
‘Unfortunately the warlord’s men refused to let me bring it up the mountain, so, before I set off with Malook, I doused myself in the scent, it’s called frankincense.’
The English hoisted his heavy camera and departed.
* * * * *
A few minutes later there came the sound of running steps, racing uphill towards the hut, and an urgent call. Killer and Malook pulled open the curtain and Andrei stirred.
One of the warlord’s men was bustling up the track. ‘Where is The English?’ he shouted.
‘Gone to the barn; he will be there by now.’
‘He is not what he seems.’
‘Not English?’ Malook asked, stunned. Killer took off up the track to the barn. Andrei stumbled after him.
‘English yes!’ wheezed the out-of-breath runner, ‘but we felt something was wrong. We tortured his companions; his guide just confessed that The English is ISIS, he’s a bomb-maker for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He came two years ago from Syria.’
‘Come on,’ roared Malook, turning to chug uphill, ‘we must follow Raham Dil.’
‘The dog should have smelt the C-4,’ gasped the runner. ‘Raham Dil knows the scent of plastic explosive surely. It’s in the man’s camera.’
There was a sudden burst of light in the east.