© 2018 by B. Civyl

The Good Shepherd's Keeper: Vol. I

a story by B. Civyl

Chapter TBD

The March of the Black Banners

     Dust wafted off a dirt road, clouding the air with brownish soot stirred up by a convoy of military vehicles that tore down a suburban neighborhood in southern Syria.  Overhead, the sky darkened with threatening clouds that blocked out the early morning sun.  Elijah could see flashes of lightning streak across the sky in the distance, but the low roll of thunder was drowned out by the rumble of armored vehicles: tanks and HMMWVs, APCs, supply trucks, fuel tankers – an enormous chain that stretched out over a mile in each direction.

     “You’re no different than the politicians in my country,” Elijah told Sarosh Amirmoez who sat beside him in the rear, passenger side of a HMMWV, clutching an M4 assault rifle.  Both men were dressed in fatigues with battle armament including flak jackets, canteens and ammo pouches.  Rather than a rifle, Elijah carried only a pistol strapped to his leg, an M9, black, with a magazine locked and loaded.  Between them stood a former Quds Force soldier manning a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the vehicle’s roof.

     “How is that?” Sarosh asked.  His hand tapped nervously against his thigh; his eyes drawn out the window at the occasional bystander on the side of the road.

     “You’re always pointing your finger.”  Elijah hoped the conversation would ease Sarosh’s nerves, but in reality he was really trying to calm his own.  And though his Arabic had improved dramatically, speaking in his second language took his mind off the dilapidated buildings and the torched cars on the side of the road.  “In your speech at the UN a few years back, you called Westerners idolaters and imperialists who try to force their way of life on other people.  In response, half the Assembly walked out on you.  They called you a genocidal hate monger with a dangerous thirst for nuclear weapons.”

     Sarosh turned his attention away from the window.  His eyes narrowed and his pitch deepened.  “Is there a point to this?”

     “My point is that you’re both right, at least you were.  People change, though.  Back home we don’t idolize people for their fame or wealth anymore.  It’s all about what people give back to their communities.  It’s no different with you.  When you apologized to Israel you inspired people to find forgiveness for their enemies.  You inspired humility, and the world is a better place for it.”

     Elijah could not tell if Sarosh was fully listening.  Midway through his spiel, Sarosh’s eyes left Elijah to glance out the window.  Outside, people appeared more and more frequently, standing in groups amidst the devastation of a lost war.  Elijah was not sure if the destruction was the result of the Syrian Civil War or the war between al-Khalidoun and the nation’s fallen government.

     As the convoy slowed, Sarosh craned his neck to see around the HMMWV in front of them.

     “I just wish the politicians in my own country would exhibit the same humility,” Elijah continued.  “Don’t get me wrong.  We’re getting better.  But take nukes, for example.  Everyone’s so up in arms about Iran getting nuclear weapons, and rightfully so.  Even now, your supreme leader hasn’t shown much repentance for his anti-Semitic behavior.  People are afraid that if he gets nukes, he’ll use them on Israel.”

     Sarosh turned his gaze back to Elijah.  “Nouri is not stupid.  He wants a deterrent, like your own nation.  He does not intend to start a nuclear war.  But you Americans, your government has no business talking peace when it invades countries such as Iraq on the false pretense of weapons of mass destruction.  You have more nuclear weapons than any nation in the world, and let us not forget that you are the only country to actually use them.”

     Elijah was pleased that Sarosh had become so engaging, rather than the man who groveled at his feet when they first met and took everything he said as law.  He enjoyed the back and forth conversation.  “You’re right!  And that’s exactly my point!  We’re all hypocrites!  My country’s leaders are hypocrites.  You’re a hypocrite too.”

     Sarosh looked scorned but he did not speak a word.

     “You accuse us of false pretense, but Saddam Hussein admitted himself that he deceived the world into thinking he had weapons of mass destruction.”

     “Why would he do such a foolish thing?”

     “Because he was worried about you!  He considered Iran a much bigger threat than the U.S.  He thought Bush didn’t have the balls to go through with an invasion, but with Iran he thought an attack was imminent.  So he began moving trucks to and from storage facilities to make the world think he was hiding chemical weapons.  He thought in doing so he could deter an Iranian attack.  The only problem is that Bush called his bluff and the rest is history.  So don’t pretend that you and the Iraqis were friends before the war.  You hated Iraq; that is until we removed Saddam from power and the people voted in a Shiite government.  But had you not frightened Saddam in the first place, the Iraqi invasion never would have happened.”

     Sarosh nodded but would not cede.  “In our defense, it was Saddam who began the Iran-Iraq war.  We had good reason to despise him.  But that gives you no right to blame Iran for your own aggressions.  And do not forget about the first Gulf War, or Kosovo, or Vietnam, or Korea, or any of the other conflicts your nation has involved itself in.  Your people are always at war with someone.”

     Elijah chuckled.  “And there you go pointing the finger again.”  His demeanor was placid compared to his counterpart, although he wondered if inside he was any less tense.  He kept talking, anything to keep his mind off the war zone they drove through.  “But all you’re doing is proving my point.  We’re all so damn defensive.  The second someone calls us out for our shortcomings, we immediately go on the attack.  It doesn’t bring us any closer to resolving our differences.  It only carries us further into conflict.”

     Sarosh ached one eyebrow, perhaps more amenable to Elijah’s council.

     “It’s like I said in Mecca.  It’s easier to hold others accountable than it is to let go of our pride.  But instead of going on the defensive, what if we acknowledged one another?  What if we cared enough to listen to each others’ points of view and we had the humility to say, ‘Gee, I never thought of it that way.   Maybe I was wrong too.’  Does that not lower the other person’s defenses?”

     “I suppose it does.”

     “Then when it’s our turn to share our grievances, the other party is open to listening.  That’s how you hold a meaningful dialogue, and it’s no different between two people than it is between two nations.  I promise you, if you get to speak at the UN again and you apologize to the world like you did to Israel, not only will people consider your viewpoints – they’ll applaud your candor.”

     Sarosh sighed.  “Perhaps.”  The HMMWV slowed even more.  His attention was again drawn away from Elijah.  “What is going on here?”

     Outside, more and more people congregated on the side of the road.  The further they drove, they nearer the people drew to the convoy.  Sarosh said something in Farsi to the officer in the front seat who immediately got on the radio. 

     Elijah had no idea what they were saying.

     Seconds later the HMMWV came to a stop.  Sarosh opened the door and climbed halfway out, his left foot still on the floor of the vehicle.  A voice came back over the radio, again in Farsi.  “Civilians,” Sarosh told Elijah.  “They are blocking the road.”

     Elijah looked out the window on his side.  He waved to a group of people.  Some waived back.  A woman in a black burqa offered a basket of fruit.

     “They seem peaceful enough.”

     Sarosh’s tone was deep and nervous.  “Do not get out.”  

     “We’re here to liberate them.  I don’t think they mean us any harm.”

     “It is not the people we are liberating that I am concerned about.  Al-Khalidoun is cunning.  They could have soldiers dressed as civilians.  You must trust me.  The longer we are stopped, the more danger we are in.”

     Elijah realized Sarosh was right.  He let out a huff and peered back out the window.  Outside, people were drawing nearer still, and yet it was the neighborhood that made him feel on edge, not the civilians.  For the most part they appeared welcoming.  Some reached out to touch the HMMWV as it inched forward.  Elijah pressed his palm against the window, only a thin sheet of bulletproof plexiglass between his hand and that of an elderly man in a ratty, beige robe.

     Sarosh said something in Farsi to the communications officer in the front seat.  The soldier relayed his command over the radio and seconds later Elijah heard gunfire.  He shot upright, alarmed, but Sarosh held out his hand to calm him.

     “I told them to fire warning shots to clear the civilians.  We cannot stay here any longer.  The Daraa base is not far.  We must hurry.”

     The warning shots had the desired effect.  The civilians began to back away, although they were still mere feet from the vehicle.  Soon the convoy was picking up speed, albeit slowly; still no more than ten miles per hour.

     At least we’re moving. 

     The HMMWV was quiet again for a long while.  Elijah could not think of anything else to say.  Both he and Sarosh fixed their stares out their respective windows.  The deeper they got into the city, the more distressing the scenery became.  Whole buildings had crumbled to the ground.  Others were boarded up or had yellow tape crossing the doorways.  The area looked like a battlefield.  Of course, that is because it was at one point, and time had done little to rectify the damage. 

     The people did not look much better off.  Most were women and children.  The men, it seemed, had been killed or dragged off to war.  At least, that is what Elijah figured.  The men who were present were injured – a missing leg, a patched eye, or just simply old and decrepit.  Some of the women did not look much better.  They all wore burqas, some of which were tattered and stained with dirt or dried blood.  And the children appeared malnourished.  UN humanitarian support ended when al-Khalidoun rose to power, even though they abandoned everything south of Damascus once the capital was conquered.

     We’ll come back for you, Elijah thought.  And when we do we’ll set things right.

     The convoy was picking up steam again but it was very stop and go.  They would accelerate to twenty, maybe twenty-five, and then they would come to a near stop again.  It reminded Elijah of the traffic jams on the I95 back home.  I guess that’s to be expected when you’re a mile back in the convoy.

     At one point when the HMMWV slowed again, a young boy appeared a few vehicles ahead.  He was not more than twelve, his face dirty with greasy, dark hair, a pair of torn jeans and a brown jacket that seemed to bulge around the stomach.  Elijah did not think much of the boy at first, other than the fact he was much closer to the convoy than the rest of the crowd. 

     Everyone else seemed to disperse with the warning shots, but not this boy.  As one HMMWV drove by, he held out his hand, running it down the length of the vehicle as it puttered along.  The same with the HMMWV in front of Elijah’s which contained Shafi al-Farzan and Major Menendez.  When Elijah’s vehicle approached, the boy held out his hand yet again.  His hand was small with a large smudge of dirt on his palm and a silver ring on his pinky.  As the vehicle crept past, he and Elijah made eye contact.

     Suddenly, Elijah felt a gripping uneasiness.  Something was wrong.  This boy – his eyes blue and wide – there was something behind them that was different from the other children on the side of the road.  Where others were relieved at the sight of the convoy, in this boy there was pain, anger, hatred.  Most of all, there was fear, a fear so deep and so potent that it reached through the plexiglass and into Elijah’s chest, clutching his heart like fingers around one’s throat.

     Elijah was so struck with terror that he could not speak.  As the vehicle moved past, he opened the door and leaned out, his stare still locked on the boy, awestruck, and the boy continued to stare back.  The boy, however, did not reach his hand out to the next vehicle that approached – a flatbed with metal rails and a bed full of soldiers.  Instead, he reached under his jacket, his eyes still locked with Elijah now some thirty feet away.  Then, in an instant the boy was engulfed in a light so bright and a blast so thunderous that it left Elijah deaf and blind.  The concussion nearly knocked him out of his seat.

     The explosion ripped through the side of the flatbed, tossing the front end some three feet into the air in an orange fireball that plumed black smoke.  Despite a shredded front tire, the truck sped off the instant it slammed into the ground.  It did not come to a stop until it careened into the rear of Elijah’s HMMWV, the whole front end ablaze. 

     Elijah was in shock.  He looked around in panic but everything was a blur.  His ears rung and his head throbbed.  Amidst the distortion, all he could hear was the faint rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire.  But the smell; the air was rife with the smell of ammonia and death.  He shook his head and blinked rapidly to try to clear the cobwebs.

     “Contact left!  Two hundred meters!” was the first distinct voice that Elijah could make out.

     The soldier standing in the turret next to him shifted.  RAT-A-TAT-TAT!  RAT-A-TAT-TAT!

     Elijah snapped his head to his left.  His door hung off the hinges.  Smoking hot shell casings and pieces of black bandolier rained down from above.  Not more than twenty feet away, civilian bodies lay, littering the side of the road.  Some were obviously victims of the blast, their skin and clothes seared, their flesh pervaded with shrapnel.  Others possibly dropped to the ground for cover, but Elijah could not tell.  He watched one such body stand and begin to run, only to be cut down seconds later, blood misting into the air in short sprays like that from an aerosol can.  Then he heard the violent clinking of incoming rounds pinging off the metal plated armor overhead.

     RAT-A-TAT-TAT!  RAT-A-TAT-TAT!  The machine gun above Elijah fired back.  He was amazed the soldier showed little effects from the explosion; obviously a hardened veteran.

     With his vision coming into focus, Elijah turned his eyes forward.  The driver’s door was open, the driver nowhere in sight.  The same for the passenger seat.  To his right, Sarosh was also gone. 

     More metal clinked overhead.  The machine gun above Elijah stopped and the soldier fell back into the cab.  His fatigues were stained in crimson; his cheek caved in like an open cyst. 

     Elijah shuddered.  I’ve got to get out of here!  Clearer but still disoriented, he climbed out of the vehicle and fell to his knees on the hard packed dirt.  There was no time to dawdle.  With a hand on the doorframe, he pulled himself to his feet and turned left with the intention of circling behind the HMMWV for cover.  Immediately, he was blasted in the face with a wave of heat – the flames on the hood of the burning flatbed that pressed against the HMMWV’s rear bumper.  Elijah’s route was cut off.

     More bullets pinged off the vehicle around him.  From in front, Elijah heard someone returning fire.  He was about to turn and circle around the other side, but then he noticed the driver in the truck behind him.  He was hunched over the steering wheel but appeared to be conscious. 

     Elijah shielded his face with his forearm as he ran past the flames.  He flung open the driver’s door and reached in, grabbing hold of the soldier’s fatigues and pulling him off the steering wheel.  In that instant, though, Elijah realized he was mistaken.  The driver was not conscious.  His head flopped to the side, barely still attached with a large shard of metal protruding from his jugular.  He was dead.

     Elijah cringed and looked away.  More bullets pinged near him.  He turned toward the rear of the truck, about to make a run for it.  Behind the vehicle was a trail of mangled corpses.  Some had fallen off the truck as it sped off; others were blown clear from the vehicle by the impact of the explosion.  He could not bring himself to flee in their direction.  The sight was too gruesome.  He turned around again, now facing back toward the HMMWV. 

     The landscape before Elijah blurred amidst the heat of the burning engine block.  He ran through the fumes and immediately saw one of his soldiers sprinting toward him.  It was his driver.  The soldier crashed into Elijah, nearly knocking him off his feet.  Then he shielded Elijah with his own body and began pulling him toward the front of the HMMWV, circling around the open, driver’s side doors.

     “Contact right!  One hundred meters!”

     The sound of gunshots continued to fill the air – single shots, short bursts, the occasional RAT-A-TAT-TAT! of machine gun fire coming from Shafi’s and Major Menendez’s HMMWV.

     Elijah felt a hand pulling him toward the ground.  He shrugged the hand off and spun around, looking downward.  His driver was now lying on the ground, bleeding out.  Elijah was exposed again.  More bullets pinged around him.

     “Mr. Cole!  Get down!  Get down!”

     Elijah spun around.  Sarosh leaned over the hood of the HMMWV, the butt of his M4 pulled tightly into his shoulder, his barrel facing directly at Elijah’s head.

     Elijah flung himself to the ground just as Sarosh opened fire at a target somewhere behind him.  He jerked his head around and saw grey puffs of debris ricocheting from the second story window of a nearby building.  In the window was a man with a black mask who fell backward in a spray of red.  Apparently, he was not the only one in the building because Sarosh kept firing. 

More bullets pinged off the HMMWV’s engine block. 

     Desperate to find cover, Elijah crawled for the driver’s seat of the HMMWV.  With one hand on the open door and the other on the door frame, he pulled himself upward, figuring he could shut himself behind the armor-plated door and its bulletproof window.  Before he could climb in, however, he saw two more masked men through the open, passenger side door, about eighty meters away with their weapons drawn toward he and Sarosh. 

      Elijah did not think.  Instinctively, he reached to his thigh and unholstered his pistol.  He took aim through the cabin of the HMMWV and the blur of the action came to a halt.  Time froze.  With one of the men in his sights, Elijah squeezed the trigger.

     A bright flash streaked down from the darkened sky.  CRACK-BOOM!  The thunderbolt crashed down between the two soldiers, tossing their bodies into the air. 

     Sarosh spun around at the sound of the blast.  The corpses were already black and smoke spewed from their skin.  He turned back to Elijah, staring through the windshield with a mixture of terror and awe in his eyes.  Then something caught his gaze.  “Look out!”  He took aim with his rifle again.

     Elijah lunged backward and spun around, his butt now on the ground with his back against the vehicle.  Before he could see it, he heard it – a high-pitched hissing headed his way.  A rocket propelled grenade streaked past his head, right through the open doors of the HMMWV. 

     Sarosh dove for cover as the RPG exploded some twenty meters away.  A streak of grey smoke trailed back to the doorway of the building at which Sarosh had been firing moments before.

     There was no one in the doorway now, but a second later, a figure appeared in one of the second story windows.  Gunshots rang out, both from the window as well as from the HMMWV in front of Elijah’s.  Elijah leaned forward and looked to his right where he saw the machine gunner in the vehicle’s turret returning fire. 

     He turned his attention back to the building.  Now there were two bodies in the windows, one on each the second floor and the third.  Both wore black masks.  More bullets continued to ricochet off the building, but none appeared to be hitting their marks.  Elijah took aim with his pistol and squeezed the trigger.

     CRACK-BOOM!  Another thunderbolt crashed down, this time striking the roof of the building and sending dust and debris shooting outward from the roof and walls.  The bodies inside the building disappeared but gunfire continued to pelt the outside.  Then there was a crumbling sound as the entire roof shifted in place and began to cave in.  The gunfire stopped but the crumbling continued, dust particles dribbling off the building’s walls from the roof all the way down to the foundation. 

     For a few seconds all went quiet.  Elijah wondered if the lightning had killed his attackers, but then a body appeared in the window yet again.  Elijah did not hesitate.  He took aim and fired off another round from his M9.

     CRACK-BOOM!  Another thunderbolt struck the building in the exact same location as the one prior.  This time, though, it did not merely damage the building.  It annihilated it.  In an instant, the walls disintegrated and the roof collapsed.  The entire building crumbled, sending smoke and debris billowing out from its foundation and engulfing the convoy in a cloud of grey. 

     Elijah covered his mouth with his undershirt, coughing.  He heard others around him hacking as well.  Save for a few distant gunshots, it was otherwise quiet.  The immediate danger appeared to be over.

     “SITREP!” Major Menendez shouted from somewhere in the fog. 

     Elijah heard feet scuffling but could not see anyone.  He holstered his pistol and stood up, moving toward the Major’s vehicle with one hand on the HMMWV to guide him.  He stepped carefully from the front of the vehicle, unable to see more than a few feet in front.  Finally, a couple of silhouettes appeared.

     “Ambush, sir.”  Elijah recognized the voice as one of Major Menendez’s team leaders, the husky Chief Warrant Officer Boatswain.  “We’ve got reports of the same thing elsewhere in the convoy.  Suicide bombers and combatants with rifles and RPGs.  They took out an ammunition truck a click forward and a fuel tanker two clicks back.  We should have the situation under control momentarily.”

     Elijah could not see Shafi, but he heard him translating in Farsi to the Iranian soldiers.  He looked to his right and saw Sarosh’s outline standing beside him.  The gunfire was petering out.

     “How many casualties?” Menendez asked.

     “We’re still working on that, sir, but it looks like maybe twenty-five and another thirty or so wounded.”

     Menendez turned to Shafi.  “Mr. Farzan, get the troops ready to move out.  Tell them to ditch the damaged vehicles and collect their dead and wounded.  We’ll set up a casualty collection point when we get to the FOB.”

     Shafi translated the Major’s orders while Chief Warrant Officer Boatswain stepped away, shouting to his fellow Green Berets.

     “Where’s Mr. Cole?” Menendez asked next.

     Elijah coughed.  “Right here, Major.”

     “Mr. Cole, what the hell was that?”

     “What was what?”

     “You know what – that … lightning.”

     Elijah hesitated.  “I don’t know.”  This was only partially true.  He knew he caused it.  He did not know how.  And what was he supposed to say, I smote them?  He almost did not to believe it himself.  “I guess we just got lucky,” he lied.

      “Yeah, well, I’m afraid our luck just ran out.  We’ve got a problem.”

     “Uh-oh.  What?”

     “Weather reports indicate that this storm is only going to get worse, and it’s not going to clear before we make our move on Damascus.”

     “What are you telling me, Major?"

     “Predator drones don’t fly well in inclement weather.  In order to keep them in the sky, they need to fly above the storm, but then they won’t be able to acquire their targets through the cloud cover.”

     “I thought they had infrared targeting.”

     “They do, but at that range the pilots may not be able to differentiate between the enemy and our own soldiers.  Unless ya want to risk friendly fire, we’re gonna need to postpone the attack on Mezze.”

     Elijah groaned, frustrated.  “If we do that, we can’t shut down their SAM batteries which means we can’t get air support to bomb the roads heading west into Lebanon.  We run the risk of al-Hakimi escaping.”

     “It’s either that or you endanger the lives of your men.”

     Elijah stepped away from the huddle and paced for a moment.  Visibility was slowly returning as the smoke and dust began to settle.  In the distance, Elijah saw black plumes rising from both in front and behind – the ammunition truck and the fuel tanker Boatswain referred to.  “What if we laser designate the targets?”

     “The terrain is too flat.  We’d need to get somewhere elevated to see over the battlefield.”

Elijah was quiet again as he considered the terrain around the airbase"

     “What about the neighborhoods surrounding Mezze?” Shafi translated for Sarosh.  “Are any of those buildings tall enough?”

     “Perhaps,” Menendez replied.  “But now you’re putting civilian lives in danger.”

     Elijah shook his head.  “No.  You’re right.  We can’t do that.  But what about Mount Qasioun?  Would that be high enough?”

     “High enough?  Yes, but you’re really stretching the limits of the laser designator.  The maximum effective range is …”

     “Is it possible?”

     “For someone experienced, with proper training …”

     “You’re Special Forces.  Aren’t you the most highly trained soldiers in the world?”

     The Major grinned.  “Hooah.  Mount Qasioun is heavily fortified, though.  You’ve got an army barracks at the top of the mountain and several SAM batteries both on the mountain and overlooking the Presidential Palace to the south.  How do you suppose we get a team up there?”

     “Aerial incursion,” Elijah replied matter-of-factly.

     “Now you’re putting my men in danger.”

     “No.  I’m putting us in danger.  I’m going with you.”

     Shafi looked stunned.  Elijah could hear the concern in his voice as he translated to Sarosh.

     “Forget it,” Menendez scoffed.  “My men are here to support your attack, not to babysit you.  That’s what your own security force is for.”

     Elijah would not be deterred.  “Your men will still be supporting the attack … and they won’t be babysitting me.  If anything, I’ll be protecting them.”

     Menendez dismissed Elijah, laughing.  “You must be crazy.”

     “Am I?”  Elijah pointed to the collapsed building.  “You saw what I did back there.  As long as I’m with you, your men will be safe.”

     “I thought you said that was luck.”

     “I know what I said.  Truth is I don’t know what happened back there.  All I know is this.”  He pointed skyward.  “The Big Man’s got my back.  He won’t let anything happen to me.”

     “What makes you think I should believe that?”

     “Your president believes it.”

     Shafi interrupted, speaking on behalf of Sarosh.  “Every last soldier in this army believes in Mr. Cole.  That is over 100,000 men.  If you do not believe in him then you are alone, but I do not believe that to be the case.  Deep down, if you did not believe in him, you would not be here.”

     Without a word, Major Menendez turned and faced away from the group.  He exhaled loudly and then walked toward Elijah’s HMMWV.  “Come here.”  He reached into his pocket and removed a large map which he unfolded and laid across the hood of the vehicle.  With Elijah, Sarosh and Shafi by his side, he pointed. 

     “According to intelligence, we’ve got AA encampments here, here and here, surrounding the Presidential Palace to the south.  We’ve also got ‘em here and here, on Mount Qasioun.  And those are just the stationary batteries.  We have no way of knowing if there are any mobile units in the region.  We’ve also got that army barracks here.  If ya want to launch an incursion, we’ve gotta find a way around these defenses.  Now, what I’m thinking …”

_          _          _          _          _

     Elijah, Sarosh, Shafi and Major Menendez spent the next ten minutes discussing strategy.  When all was said and done, Sarosh ordered their fleet of helicopters forward from Camp Cole to rendezvous with them at the Daraa army base.  Then they prepared to move out, but not before Elijah paid his respects to the dead.

     While the dead soldiers had already been collected, bagged and placed onto trucks, the road was still littered with civilian casualties.  A crowd of friends and families gathered in mourning; some kneeling, many standing, embraced in each others’ arms, their dreadful cries resonating through the air with the weight of thick smog.  Engrossed in conversation with Sarosh and Major Menendez, Elijah was able to tune out the piercing wails of the women grieving their lost children and the children grieving their lost mothers.  But as Elijah approached the crowd and the watering eyes of so many turned upon him, it took all his might not to begin sobbing along with them.

     Be strong for those who look upon you grievously, he heard sub-consciously, compassionate and yet steadfast in faith.

     As Elijah approached, the crowd opened up before him, allowing him access to the gruesome sight of the mangled and burnt bodies that lay alongside each other, staining the earth below them in a pool of maroon.  His first instinct was to cringe and look away, but he fought the urge, forcing himself to take in the carnage alongside those with lost loves ones.

     War isn’t pretty, but only the ugly at heart ignores the plight of those in mourning.

     Elijah knelt beside the bodies and took a deep breath, still straining against his tears.  The mourners all knelt with him.  He took two of their hands, one of an old man, the other a young girl’s.  He closed his eyes and bowed his head.  In Arabic, he asked God to accept the souls of the innocent who perished that day, and he asked that God bless the survivors with the strength to overcome their hardship.  By the time he finished, the sounds of weeping had dissipated, although he could still see anguish behind the eyes of the people.

     At the end of the prayer, the old man next to Elijah clutched his hand firmly.  “To die with the blessing of Imam Mahdi is greater than to live the life of a king.”  The man kissed Elijah’s hand.

     Elijah turned to the young girl on his other side.  Her face was long, her stare anguished.  He placed his hand behind her head and pulled her close, laying a soft kiss on her forehead.  Then he stood.  The people all stood with him.  He looked around, wishing that he could take more time with each of them personally.  After all, he blamed himself for bringing death upon them.  This never would have happened if we went around the city instead of straight through it.

     Death would have come with or without you.

     He could not bring himself to believe it. 

     Elijah backed away slowly and a small group of his soldiers emerged around him.  They positioned themselves alongside and in front, forming a wall between him and the crowd in mourning.  People reached over and under the outstretched arms of his shoulders, pleading with Elijah to return to their sides, but he could not. 

     Elijah’s emotions welled up as he looked back upon the crowd, tears now returning to their faces and agony to their cries.  He could not look anymore.  He turned his back just in time to shield his own heartbroken visage from their stares.  Then as he plodded away, his tears were interrupted for the briefest of moments when his foot struck something peculiar. 

     At first he thought it was a rock, but it was too soft – and too light.  Elijah turned his gaze downward and scouted the ground until he found the object he kicked a few feet away.  There on the dirt road, stained and seared in shades of red and black was a small, severed hand with a tarnished, silver ring on the pinky.  Elijah immediately recognized it as the hand of young boy who had blown himself up just one vehicle behind, his eyes still locked with Elijah at the time of his death.

     Elijah could not control his emotions any longer.  His knees went weak, trembling, as his body suddenly felt too heavy to carry.  Only the grasp of his soldiers on either arm kept him upright and moving back to the convoy.

     I told you war isn’t pretty.

     You told me you wouldn’t give me anymore than I can handle.

     And I have yet to break my word.