‘How is the old man now?’ the Ameer asked, turning to face him.
‘Not so good.’ The doctor hesitated before he continued, unsure what the fate of the bearer of bad news would be. ‘He is slipping away fast.' He looked apologetic. 'We have tried everything but there has been too much internal damage. Maybe I could have done something if I had the facilities of a full-fledged hospital available to me. Right now, here . . .’ His voice trailed away.
‘I want to see him.’
‘OK.’ The doctor helped the Ameer to his feet and began to walk him outside. Halting at the door the Ameer rid himself of the doctor’s supporting hands, took a deep breath, straightened his back and stepped out unaided. He was enough of a leader to know that in this part of the world any show of weakness was unacceptable. He was smart enough to know that weakness was a clear invitation for the enemy to close in for the kill; Allah knew that a man like him had enough enemies. Commanding his body to ignore the pain he followed the doctor to the hut across the alley.
When he reached the hut the Ameer could hear moans of pain, and the smell of spirit and blood assaulted him as he went inside. There were two men hovering around the frail, elderly mullah. More than half of Hamidi’s upper body was drenched in blood. He seemed to be just about holding on to life. Miraculously his face had been left untouched by the American missiles.
At a glance from the Ameer everyone left the room, except the doctor who maintained vigil from the door.
‘How is it going?’ There was a trace of affection in the Ameer’s voice as he gingerly sat beside Hamidi and took one of his hands in both his own.
‘Not so well.’ Hamidi's voice was almost drowned out by his wheezing, rattling breath.
The Ameer had to lean forward to catch the pain-laden whisper. ‘We will soon have you up and about,’ he said, trying to sound encouraging.
‘No, you will not.’ The mullah gave a weak smile.
Just then a sudden bout of coughing seized him. Flecks of blood spotted his lips and beard. Picking up a wad of cotton from the bedside table, the Ameer gently wiped his mouth clean. It was an uncharacteristic gesture from the cold, cruel warlord.
Hamidi acknowledged it with a grateful smile. ‘But there are no regrets, my son. We have had a long and eventful journey, have we not?’
‘Yes, we have, and by the grace of Allah it has been a glorious one.’
‘Do you remember how it all began?’
‘Of course I do. Can I ever forget?’
‘That’s good. Don’t ever let go of the past. Remember that we are what we are because of what lies behind us.’ Another burst of blood-sputtering coughing interrupted Hamidi. After it had subsided he drew a deep breath, and added, ‘You will remember what Allah wants from you? You will not stray from the path, will you Jalal?’
‘Of course not.’ The Ameer’s fingers pressed Hamidi's fragile hand reassuringly.
‘I promise you.’
‘Good. Do not let these treacherous army bastards get away with this betrayal. Remember that Pakistan was established exclusively so that the sharia and the rule of Allah the Magnificent could be implemented.’
‘Ameen. And so it shall be.’ The Ameer's face was taut with anger. ‘If they think they can play fast and loose with us they are mistaken. Don’t worry, I am going to make the traitors pay for siding with the crusaders.’
‘You must, but be very careful. Remember there is too much at stake. Everything we have worked for is now almost within our grasp.’ Hamidi was tiring fast. His breath was becoming heavier and harsher. Another bout of coughing wracked the old man. More drops of blood sprayed out from his mouth; the internal hemorrhaging had intensified. His hand, clasped between the Ameer’s larger ones, betrayed the pain throbbing through his body.
‘Can I ask you a favour?’ the mullah murmured. ‘One final favour, for an old friend?’
The Ameer looked deep into his eyes, a hint of sadness lining them, as though he knew what Hamidi was going to ask for. ‘Of course,’ he replied softly..
Hamidi smiled weakly. ‘You know me well my son.’
‘How could I not? You have been like a father to me . . . the only father I have ever known.’ There was an unexpected depth of affection in the glance they exchanged. ‘Are you sure?’ the Ameer asked. Even voicing the thought was hurtful for him.
‘Yes. I am sure.’ Hamidi’s voice was fading. ‘There is no point in delaying the inevitable and prolonging the agony my son. Let me go now.’
The Ameer threw a quick glance at the doctor, desperately seeking some hope but saw none reflected there. He turned to the mullah and gave a reluctant nod. There was gratitude in the smile he got in return. Leaning forward, he gently raised the old man in his arms and held him close. ‘Sleep well. I shall miss your guidance and support.’ His grip on Hamidi tightened briefly before he freed his right hand, reached for the pistol stuck in his waistband, and placed it against the dying man’s heart.
Mullah Ismail Hamidi looked into his former student Jalaluddin's eyes, meeting death as he had always lived his life: head-on, without flinching.
The doctor manning the door winced as the solitary pistol shot crackled through the room.