Tip of the Spear
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Picture this:

Five men coming up the trail to the village, their shadows sharp as knives. Outsiders from the looks of it, notes the teacher—moving slowly, as if under the eye of God.

No—not all from the outside. There’s the two at the front, identical in stature, taking turns to lead, almost as if racing. That old Hazara pride is recognisable in their step, even at this distance: they walk with their chests squared, at ease with the thin air.

There’s the smaller figure behind them, struggling to keep up. A quiet doggedness in his stride, like his body can’t keep peace with his feet. His brother behind him—for one can tell the kinship of men from the way their bodies talk—nipping his heels with his toes, trying to set the pace. Both men are new to the highlands—they’ll collapse before the night’s end.

And the last man: thin, tall and harder to read. He’s slouching under his cloak, lagging behind his compatriots, though with a firmness that belies intent. A deliberate holding of slackness—like the fine gait of a wolf.

A glimmer in the moonlight. They are carrying rifles. Kalashnikovs, from the weight, and perhaps heavier guns in their packs. The teacher tenses: the war moves further upland by the day. But if his countrymen have lent them their trust, there is nothing more he can say. And perhaps a certain level of overpreparation cannot be faulted for, in times such as these.

A movement, down the trail. Something is behind the men, moving with animal intent. In the darkness, it appears to him like a swarming of flies—or it’s just the motion of their shadows, flitting across the moonlit rocks.

He stamps out his cigarette and returns to his cot. A frivolous game to play at his age, guessing at half-truths. There’ll be light in the morning soon.

The men arrive at dawn. Two of them, at least. The first is visibly foreign—a Pakistani, from the looks of it, tall and well-fed—though his dressing does well to hide it. The other is young, his face still that of a boy’s. Their weapons and packs are nowhere to be found.

“We need help,” explains the tall man haltingly. His accent is harsh, picked up from the roads. His eyes glance at the men the teacher has brought—the headsman’s two sons, armed with little more than antique Garands—and he quickly decides they are not a threat.

“Up the trail,” he says. “There’s one of us that fell. We’ll pay if your men can carry him.”

The teacher shakes his head, gesturing to the younger man. “What’s your name? Where in the mountains are you from?”

“Ismael—after the poet, sir. We’ve come from the city, but my brother and I grew up near the pass.” The boy’s face is sallow with sweat. “He is down the trail, watching the scientist.”

The boy flinches at his own loose tongue. If the Pakistani is displeased, he does not show it.

“There was a fifth man,” observes the teacher.

“He couldn’t make it too, sir. They told us to get help.”

The teacher motions to the village boys behind him, who sling away their rifles. “A stretcher—or a sheet. And a flask of hot tea.” They nod, hurrying off.

To Ismael, the teacher says: “You are lucky to have come. The mountains are not what they have been, as of late.”

The boy bows. “May God walk with you, sir.”

“But before you leave, a question.” He pauses, spits. “This war, your part in it. Has it reached us, at last?”

The Pakistani answers, stepping smoothly in front of his partner. “This war continues, whether we decide to or not. Rest assured that we will compensate for your trouble.”

“Then answer this plainly—whose side are you on?”

He watches the men carefully. The Pakistani merely laughs.

“Between you and me, old man, I think we’re on the side of the vultures.”

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