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Welding Souls and Spirits

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The aftermath of an attack was the part Lawrence liked least. He thought he was practical in his assessment of the Arabs and accepted their need to loot the trains and bodies. He thought he knew their habit of taking clothing from those they had killed was the result of an intriguing belief, common to nearly all the tribes, that to do so would prevent the dead having their revenge.

So why did he feel so uneasy at the sight of his ignoble savages swarming over the skeleton of the train like locusts? And why did he have to turn away when he saw Ali sighting along a pistol that he had pulled from a dead man's pocket?

He turned away, he told himself, because he needed to gather details for the report Allenby would require and couldn't afford to stand around gawping. It was, after all, easier to write a full dispatch for one of his men to carry than to make his way across the desert to the debatable civilisation of Cairo. Or maybe he just couldn't face leaving the harsh sanctuary of the desert.

He sighed and made his way to the wreck of the train, casually stepping over the sprawled, bloodstained body of a Turkish soldier who had fought too hard.

Ammunition. A good enough find if the Turkish bullets had not been more dangerous to their wielders than their targets. Lawrence made a mental note to ensure that particular truck was destroyed. The next truck held grain, and the next, and the next. This was a cargo that could actually be useful to his men and camels, making the journey back to Akaba more leisurely.

Lawrence stopped checking the trucks as he approached the front of the train and the two crippled locomotives. One, with twisted axles and separated boiler, was beyond repair but the other could probably be patched up and so would have to be the recipient of one of the packets of gun cotton he carried with him.

"The men are complaining that we should have waited for a passenger train, with more reward." Ali's voice was quiet as he obliquely warned Lawrence that the commonplace adulation was unlikely to be forthcoming.

Lawrence turned to face his friend. "You seem to have found loot enough." They were out of sight of the men, shielded by the bulk of the engines, and Lawrence rested his hand on the pistol tucked into the sash at Ali's waist. "I thought you didn't trust Turkish weapons."

Ali stared at him for a moment, eyes hard. "It is English."

"English?" Without waiting for permission, Lawrence pulled the pistol from Ali's sash. It wasn't modern but wasn't excessively old. From the 1870s, he judged, and the barrel was indeed stamped with the mark of a London firm, though it was difficult to read it underneath the elaborate chasing. "A duelling pistol. Decorative only. It should have a pair somewhere."

"You approve now?"

There was a hint of anger under the sarcasm and Lawrence glanced up sharply. "It's not my place to approve or disapprove. Sharif." Ali's eyes wavered at the pointed formality. "But I suggest we take what grain we want, blow the engines and leave."

"The prisoners should be left here?"

Lawrence tucked the pistol back at Ali's waist and his hand rested on the grip as he spoke quietly. "With water. As you know."

"Foolish." The were standing so close that Lawrence could feel the rush of breath on his cheek, though he didn't recall moving closer. His hand was still at Ali's waist and he could feel the heat of the man, burning through his clothing.

"Oh yes," Lawrence agreed, looking up to lock his gaze with Ali's. "Foolish indeed."

They stayed in place, the only stillness in the constantly shifting desert.

"Foolishness has its place," Ali finally whispered.

"And its time."

"And neither is here."

"No," Lawrence agreed but still his hand rested at Ali's waist and he couldn't pull away from the fire of the other man.

It was Ali who eventually stepped away, leaving Lawrence to wipe his palm, sticky with sweat, on the fabric at his hip. "We must blow the engines," Lawrence said, his voice remote. "And there's a truck of ammunition that should be destroyed. I have gun cotton ready in my packs."

"Tonight," Ali whispered harshly as he turned away, allowing a feather touch of his hand against Lawrence's. Louder, he added, "I'll get the camels loaded. You destroy what you can."

The men had finished tearing the train apart in search of something worth keeping and were milling disconsolately around the engines. One or two wore Turkish jackets, stained with blood, and a few more kept pistols desultorily trained on the scant dozen prisoners.

Lawrence's Ghazala was easy to pick out, standing a good foot taller than the other camels and obedient enough to come when called, letting Lawrence at his packs. He tossed a canteen, filled that morning, to the prisoners. "That must last you until the Turkish patrol reaches you. Be sparing." He repeated it in German until he was sure they had understood him, then threw the pack of gun cotton with the longer fuse to Majoud, the Harith who showed the most understanding of explosives. "Place that to blow the ammunition truck. Don't light the fuse until we're ready to go."

Nodding and grinning, Majoud backed away and Lawrence tucked the other pack under his arm. He was unwilling to venture too close to the front locomotive which had taken the brunt of the mine and was spitting steam alarmingly. From the look of it, the blast from the second locomotive would be enough to confirm its demise.

It only took a few minutes to place the explosive and then Lawrence glanced up to make sure the men were ready to ride. Ali raised his hand, Lawrence lit the fuse and then he was striding - not running - towards Ghazala. Majoud lit his fuse and quickly mounted his camel.

"Ready?" Ali's camel was circling restlessly and Lawrence grinned as he swung onto Ghazala without bothering to kneel her.

"It's a twenty minute fuse. There's no rush."

Ali laughed shortly. "Tell them."

The Turks were scurrying anxiously to find shelter from the blast.

Lawrence shrugged. "Better than them hanging around to get blown to smithereens." He tapped Ghazala into walk. "Come on then. Are you getting lazy?"

Ali kicked his camel into a jolting trot. "I will not race you. Ghazala may be old but she can still outpace any of the others."

Lawrence was still grinning as he urged Ghazala into a gallop and, with his men streaming out behind him, led them into the antiseptic freedom of the desert.

The grain had not been a necessity. They were a scant twenty miles from Batra, thirty from Aba el Lissan, and either would be an easy stage. However, the camels, ridden hard over the past week, would appreciate a more leisurely journey with plentiful fodder. There was also the fact that Lawrence took a certain pride in provisioning his army from the Turkish supplies. The men had picked up on this and were beginning to share his fierce independence.

"You are more Bedu than the Bedu themselves," Ali told him in amusement that evening as they camped by a Howeitat well. "I should never have started you in our clothing."

Lawrence stretched luxuriously from his sprawl on the sand, easing muscles that had been cramped into the cross-legged riding position for much of the past week. "I'd be dead of heat and exhaustion if I had to wear Army clothes."

"You wouldn't be here if you wore English clothes." There was no doubt in Ali's voice. "They like you because you are almost one of us. You wear our clothes, speak our language, eat our food. They would not let you lead them if you were otherwise."

Lawrence propped himself up on an elbow and studied Ali. "Would you?"

Ali smiled and Lawrence felt the familiar surprise at seeing such a gentle expression on a face that seemed designed for fierceness. It was a surprisingly comfortable feeling. "Only a fool would try to be English in the desert. I would never follow a fool."

Lawrence let himself reach out and rest his hand on Ali's, the skin hard and dry under his calloused fingers. "Are you sure?" he asked, his voice seeming too loud and harsh.

Ali's eyes slid shut. "You are often foolish but you are never a fool," he whispered.

Lawrence's grip tightened convulsively. "We can't. Not here. Not now."

Ali's hand twisted under his, the thumb caressing the side of his hand. "They would not - do not - care. This... It is not unusual." His frustration was obvious.

"I know." Lawrence was breathing heavily and he knew that later he would laugh at himself for being so caught up with desire just from the touch of hands. "But..." But what? "I can't." He tried to pull his hand away and Ali tightened his grip. His eyes shot open and the force of the stare held Lawrence more than the grasp of his hand.

Finally, with a sigh, Ali let go. "Not here."

"Akaba. When we reach Akaba." Lawrence started to reach again for Ali's hand but stopped short. "I'm sorry." Ali made no reply. "We'll leave the men at Guweira tomorrow and go on to Akaba. It's only seventy miles. Tomorrow."

The touch of Ali's hand on his cheek was gentle. "Tomorrow."

It was dusk when they rode into Akaba and Lawrence was greeted immediately by an uncomfortably hearty English accent.

"Lawrence, old chap! Thank God you finally got here!"

Lawrence swung easily down from his mount. "Bourne." He nodded a curt greeting to the pilot as he handed Ghazala over to the care of one of the waiting camel-herds. "What are you doing here?"

"Allenby wants to see you."

"Couldn't he send a letter?" Lawrence was heading towards his tent, Ali following and Bourne scurrying to keep up.

"No idea and I'm not going to badger the old man about his communication methods." Bourne laughed a little too vigorously and Lawrence frowned. "I say, glad you showed up at last. I've been here all day and I can't make out a word these wogs are saying. Not one of them speaks blasted English."

Lawrence risked a glance at Ali who, to his irritation, was looking amused. "Not very surprising," Lawrence commented quietly. "English is not a particularly common language out here. Nor particularly useful."

"Well, no, but I mean to say - English!"

"Yes." Lawrence blinked and his mouth tightened. "So, when does Allenby want to see me?"

"He was rather frothing at the mouth when I left. Suggest we get going as soon as possible." He glanced at the sky. "The kite's all ready so we should be able to make it tonight, if you're quick changing out of your frock."

Lawrence paused for a moment. "I don't have any other clothes here."

"Oh." Nonplussed, Bourne resettled his cap under his arm. "I didn't bring any spares myself." He considered Lawrence. "Still, the old man didn't mention a dress code. Considering how long it's taken to track you down, he probably wouldn't object if you were in purple taffeta!"

Lawrence managed a faint smile as they reached his tent. "Indeed. Now, if you'll excuse me for a few moments, I need to speak to Sharif Ali ibn el Kharish."

"Ah. Right." Bourne appeared startled by Ali's titles and Lawrence was willing to bet that Bourne had dismissed him as 'just another wog'.

"Debriefing after this week's raids," Lawrence added smoothly. "You know how it is..."

"Right. Of course. I'll be, er, waiting by the kite. Be quick, there's a chap. We really can't wait more than ten minutes."

Lawrence could feel his smile fading. "Jolly good." He managed to fend off the groan until the tent door fell shut behind them, offering at least the illusion of privacy.

"Tell him you're busy tonight and can't make it." Ali's eyes and teeth shone in the gloom as he smiled.

"Damn him. Him and Allenby both." Lawrence's breathing was heavy as his fingers played over Ali's collar. "I need you."

Ali pulled Lawrence's hand to his mouth and dropped a quick kiss on the palm. "Go."

Brighton was waiting at the entrance to HQ. He glanced at Lawrence with frustration. "Really, couldn't you have changed into uniform? Come on, Allenby's desperate."

"Sorry, sir. Didn't have it with me." Lawrence jogged to keep up with Brighton's quick strides.

"Really." Brighton's disbelief was obvious and Lawrence had trouble keeping a smile from his face. "Oh well. He just needs to speak to you. He's seen you in the dress before so I don't imagine it'll shock him too much."

"There are trousers of a sort underneath, sir," Lawrence offered.

"I really had no curiousity about your undergarments, Lawrence."

"No, sir. Sorry, sir."

"I never trust you when you apologise."

"No, sir." Lawrence gave up fighting the smile.

"Good God, Lawrence, couldn't you have left the fancy dress behind for once?" Allenby demanded.

"Didn't have a uniform, sir," Lawrence explained briefly.

"Oh well, at least you've finally made it. Where've you been?"

"We were targeting the Hejaz railway between Ma'an and Ghadir el Ha. We took out four locomotives, sir."

"Good work. That's what I need to speak to you about. We've heard the Turks are planning to retake Akaba. We'd have no problems repelling them, of course, but it would be a nuisance to have men tied up there when they could be more useful elsewhere." He paused. "I don't suppose your Arabs...?"

"They don't really have the mentality for sieges, sir. They'd get rather bored."

"Hmm. It'd be even more of a waste to have them tied up, anyway. Damn useful having them all over the place."

"Yes, sir."

"So, we need to distract the Turks from Akaba."

"More focus on cutting the Hejaz railway. Make them think we're trying to split their forces."

Allenby nodded sharply, apparently unsurprised by Lawrence's quick grasp of the situation. "Exactly. We'll need it cut in several places."

Lawrence studied the large map spread out on the table. "Between Shedia and Shahm. South of Hallat Ammar." He glanced up. "And we could take Mudawara."

Allenby shook his head. "No. We don't need it and it would be the devil to keep hold of."


"Lawrence!" Brighton barked.

"Sorry, sir," Lawrence apologised quickly. He was aware he didn't sound particularly contrite but he couldn't be bothered with the deceit. "But listen. A smashed train there would embarrass the Turks, true. But Mudawara has the only well in the dry sector here below Maan. Without that water, the train service will be destroyed."

Brighton leaned over Lawrence's shoulder to study the map. "He's right, sir," he said. "Destroyed might be a bit strong but crippled, certainly." He paused. "The Turks would be bound to try to retake it, though."

"But if we can keep it for any length of time..." Allenby mused. "Very well, Lawrence. Your main objective is blowing the line but if you can take Mudawara without casualties, you have my blessing. Take it and we'll sort out Egyptians to man it."

"It would be best if all three cuts were made at the same time," Lawrence said. "It would make it look more co-ordinated. Four days time?"

"Can you get your men there in time?"

Lawrence smiled slightly. "There'll be no problem with that, sir. May I leave now?"


At the airstrip, Lawrence grabbed the first pilot he found.

The man laughed in his face. "Not a chance. Too dark to take off, never mind trying to land in the middle of nowhere."

"You don't understand. I need to get to Akaba."

"Then get on a camel and ride there. You're not going by plane tonight."

"I have-" Lawrence stopped. "I have an attack to organise."

The pilot sighed. "Look, if I could take you, I would. But it's simply too dark. Come back first thing in the morning and I'll be waiting for you."

Etiquette dictated that Lawrence at least put in an appearance at the mess that evening. Etiquette would have been damned but it was the only place to get a meal and, living in the desert, one learned to eat where and when one could. Objectionable company was no excuse for starving.

Brighton had offered to arrange for him to borrow a uniform but Lawrence had declined. Studying himself in the mirror, he was starting to regret it. He had no qualms about wearing robes but these robes had spent a week blowing up trains and showed it. The thought of digs about 'dirty Arabs' made him feel sick.

He pulled himself up straight, wrapped the ends of his headcloth about his shoulders and made his way to the mess.

The reaction wasn't the same as the first time he strode into the mess fresh from the desert. He was known, now. People wanted to shake his hand and congratulate him and welcome him back to civilisation and pat his back and offer him trousers and get him drinks and...

Lawrence spared a last, desperate glance behind him before he was swallowed into the crowd.

It spat him out two hours later, exhausted and nauseous. After months of rancid mutton fat, barely cooked dough cakes and mounds of rice, he'd been looking forward to the food at least. He hadn't remembered it being so stodgy and overcooked, with flavours unbalanced and confused. The wine had been bland, the bread flavourless, the dessert inedible. The only thing he had enjoyed had been the plentiful, clean water and his glass, constantly in need of refilling, had been a source of amusement.

Lawrence schooled his face into impassivity and tried not to run to the sanctuary of his room.

'His' room. Whichever officer lived here normally hadn't bothered removing his possessions and Lawrence was left with the strange impression that he should know the stern-faced woman in the photograph by the bed and that the picture of two fidgety-looking children on the dressing table should fill him with paternal pride.

It didn't take long to strip off his robes and lay them over the back of the narrow, wooden chair. He turned away from the uncomfortably humorous contrast between the robes and the too-English children.

The bed was too soft. The sheets were too thick. The sounds were wrong. The smells were disturbing. The room was too light and too dark at the same time, with shafts of light from the corridor outside lancing in around the badly-fitting door.

He turned away, kicking off the sheets and facing the wall, longing for the touch of the wind on his skin, for the feel of the sand beneath him.

Hardly aware of the movement, he trailed one hand down his arm, tracing the path of an almost-healed knife wound. Ali had tended it, laughing with relief as he did so, and Lawrence had felt embarrassed at the tenderness lavished on what was little more than a scratch.

His touch traced higher, gently caressing the side of his neck and making him shiver, before dipping down to follow his collarbone.

It had been over a week since Ali's mouth had followed this track.

Eyes closed, Lawrence twisted on to his back. He rested his hand around his own throat and let his thumb follow the line of his jaw in a rough caress. He tried to lean into the touch but it didn't work and, frustrated, he moved his hand further down his chest.

Over a week.

It was pointless to be paying such attention to his own body.

Was Ali doing the same?

He caught his breath at the thought. Where would Ali be right now? In his tent? In Lawrence's tent? Or would he be out in the desert, lying naked on his robes as the wind, chilled by the night, touched his body.

Lawrence swallowed and his hand drifted downwards, seemingly of its own accord.

In his mind, Ali did the same, all the time smiling at him with that familiar, gentle heat.

Lawrence's caresses were becoming more vigorous and his face twisted with the tangled emotions this act always brought. But in his mind, it was Ali's hand driving him on, Ali's hand smoothing the sweat on his chest, Ali's hissed imprecations as he came.

He lay panting, listening to the noise of his fellow officers blundering back from the mess. Even though their senses would be too dulled by drink to hear, he tried to control his breathing.

Back at Akaba, the men would be seated round a fire, talking and quarrelling and just being. Ali... He smiled. Fantasies aside, Ali would be with them, listening to their grumbles and deciding which were serious and which could be ignored.

There was, Lawrence decided, a fierce purity in this relationship which admitted of friendship and of sex but expected no more.

Dawn had barely brightened the horizon when Lawrence reached the airstrip but the pilot from the night before was as good as his word, leaning against an aged Bristol. "Joyce," he said, reaching out his hand.

Lawrence shook it. "Lawrence."

Joyce grinned. "I know. There aren't many Englishmen walking around dressed like that. Akaba, is it?"

"Yes. Akaba."

"Need a hand?"

"No. Thank you."

Joyce shrugged and in moments was settling into the cockpit. Lawrence followed him, swinging on to the wing and sparing a moment to wonder if the dramatic billowing of his robes was coincidence or if he'd become so used to manipulating them that he did so automatically, before stepping into the plane. He switched his attention to wrapping the robes about hs legs and settling his headcloth beneath him, where it would be safe from being blown away.

"Here." The pilot handed him a helmet and goggles. "I'd never live it down if I managed to blind the famous Major Lawrence."

"Thank you," he murmured.

There were last-minute checks, yells to ground personnel and then the propeller was swung, the engine roared into life and they were bumping towards the runway. He glanced behind him to see Joyce concentrating on the plane and ignoring his passenger. It was strangely reassuring. Lawrence shut his eyes and slid further down in his seat to avoid the buffeting wind.

He was on his way.

He had to get his men in position by the day after tomorrow.

He would, of course, lead the attack on Mudawara himself. There were three hundred Ageyl in Akaba who were experienced in combat, which took care of the troops for that.

For Shahm and Hallat Ammar, it would be necessary to bring troops from Guweira, where the majority of the men were quartered, which meant the two leaders of those expeditions would have to leave as soon as possible. Sharif Zaal could be trusted with Shahm, using some of his own Howeitat. For Hallat Ammar...

By right, it would be Ali's. He had the most experience of mining the railway and he knew the area. Damn it, he deserved the chance to get some glory of his own, rather than being always in Lawrence's shadow.


There was always that 'but'.

Lawrence knew he was adored, revered, that he had an intuitive grasp of strategy and tactics. He also had a strong suspicion that, when it came to actually putting his plans into action, he'd be lost without Ali. Support and opposition, conscience and compass. Could a raid without Ali beside him possibly be successful?

And besides, there was Prince Zaid, Feisal's young half-brother, who was desperate for a chance to show what he could do. Balanced by a steadying influence, he would do well. He had an analytical approach to combat that was a necessary contrast to the overly-emotional men around Lawrence.

Yes, Lawrence decided. Give Zaid the opportunity to prove himself to his brother. Ali would understand.

An hour after he landed, Zaid and Zaal were on their way to Guweira and Lawrence was giving his orders to prepare for the march.

He was, yet again, thankful for the nomadic lifestyle of the Arabs. A British troop would have been horrified at being expected to be moving within four hours. For the Arabs, it was a leisurely departure.

So leisurely, in fact, that he could snatch five minutes of privacy with Ali.

As soon as the darkness of the tent enclosed them, his fingers were tangled in Ali's hair and their bodies were pressed close together as lips and tongues touched with a fierce reverence.

"Soon," Lawrence whispered hoarsely. "Oh God, it must be soon."

Ali pulled away and his lips touched Lawrence's forehead. "Soon."

They rested like that for a moment, Lawrence's head bowed and Ali offering benediction. Eventually, Lawrence sighed. "Forgive me, Ali. I kept you from command again. You should be in Zaid's place."

"I know." Ali stroked Lawrence's hair. "I should be angry with you." He closed his eyes and the words seemed to be dragged from him. "But I can't."

"I'm sorry," Lawrence repeated.

Ali smiled into his skin, though there was no humour in his eyes. "I can't be angry with you. You have bewitched me. I am, it seems, a slave to you."

"No." Lawrence jerked away to stare into Ali's eyes. "Never a slave."

"What else would you call it? I can deny you nothing."

"Then I am your slave, too."

"Very well. Call off this attack."

Lawrence stared at him, aghast. "I - I can't do that. It's necessary to hold Akaba."

Ali smiled gently and kissed the palm of Lawrence's hand. "I would have called it off for you." With that, he was gone, leaving Lawrence staring after him.

The first day's travel took them through some of the harshest desert, where they were so swarmed by flies that the camels took the decision to travel as quickly as possible, galloping with groans and grunts of protest. They rested during the hottest part of the day and journeyed on again in the late afternoon before halting for the night in a grove of tamarisk trees, in front of a cliff glowing deep red in the sunset.

Ali and Lawrence slept next to each other, as was their custom, but there was a wider gap between them than normal. Lawrence couldn't say that he'd lain his bedroll further away on purpose but there was no denying the width between them. Ali said nothing but his face, as he rolled to look away, was hard.

Lawrence woke early but Ali was up before him, his bedroll already fastened in place on his camel. They didn't speak as they ate breakfast. Lawrence could think of nothing to say.

Dawn was breaking as they rode between two great pikes of sandstone to a long, tamarisk-covered slope, the beginning of the Valley of Rumm. Even the hardened Howeitat confessed the valley was beautiful but Lawrence glanced at Ali's set face and paid no attention to the red stone, the increasing richness of the brushwood or the plots of cheerful, pink sand.

They rode for hours while the cliffs grew higher and more magnificent around them, until a gap in the cliff-face caught even Lawrence's attention. A crevice, perhaps three hundred yards across, opened into one of the highest cliffs and led to an oval amphitheatre. Darkness filled the central section but the sun's dying glare splashed vivid red across the lobes and highlighted a narrow track, pale with use, which zigzagged up to a number of springs.

Lawrence caught his breath and instinctively turned to share the wonder with Ali. Ali was looking at him with the same expression of awe. For a moment, they stared at each other as if at strangers and then Lawrence moved his camel closer to Ali's and they discussed which end of the amphitheatre to camp as if there had been nothing unusual about the day.

They camped in the left-hand lobe, nearer the springs and amongst a tangle of cracks and crevices that gave at least the illusion of privacy. Lawrence and Ali laid their bedrolls in a small corner, just large enough for two and protected by a narrow, twisting passage. Lawrence laid his bedroll so close to Ali's it almost overlapped.

Ali's grin awoke an answering smile in him.

That night, as the two of them talked, Lawrence laughed as he hadn't laughed for months.

And, when they finally slept, he took comfort in Ali's closeness.

Lawrence woke while the stars were still visible. He lay still for a long moment, staring up at the sky and judging how long it would be until the men would rouse. There was time, he decided, to investigate the pool that had been mentioned the night before.

He moved swiftly and silently up the path to the springs, a ten-minute climb that lent little difficulty. The sound of the waterfall was easily heard and he moved towards a jutting bastion of cliff, trailed with long runners of autumn leaves. On the rock-bulge above were clear-cut Nabathaean inscriptions and, with faint memories of his long-gone life as an archaeologist, Lawrence traced the engravings with his fingers.

He was still smiling wistfully as he followed the run of the water to a shallow, frothing pool in a crevice that dripped with moisture. Thick ferns and grasses of bright green made it a paradise five feet square and he breathed deeply, enjoying the respite from the bone-dry air of the desert.

Lawrence undressed quickly and lay his clothes on a rock to air before stepping into the little basin. He lay there quietly, letting the clear, dark red water run over him, washing away the dirt of travel and war, and gloried in the moment of peace.

As he lay, he was startled by the sudden appearance of a grey-bearded, raggy man on the path opposite. The man squinted at him through rheumy eyes for a long moment then sagged on to Lawrence's clothes. He leaned forward and gave a gummy smile, almost terrifying in its innocence. "The love is from God; and of God; and towards God," he murmured.

Lawrence said nothing but his eyes widened.

"The love is from God; and of God; and towards God," the man repeated.

"All love?" Lawrence whispered.

"The love. The love is from God," the man rasped, heaving himself back to his feet.

"Friendship is love," Lawrence murmured to himself. "That is all it is."

The man ignored him as he hobbled back along the path and Lawrence was left staring after him.

The pool, originally so deliciously cool and refreshing, was suddenly eerie with lurking shadows. Just the rising sun, Lawrence told himself, but he shivered as he stepped out and he dressed quickly. The path back down to camp seemed suddenly full of obstacles and he tripped twice. By the time he reached the bottom, he was sweaty and scraped and his heart was pounding.

At the bottom, Ali was waiting for him with a cup of coffee. "We ride in ten minutes," he said. Although he looked, he said nothing about Lawrence's state.

The next evening saw them camped a day away from Mudawara. A single campfire flared brightly but Lawrence sat some distance away, picking idly at his ubiquitous dough cakes.

Ali sat by the fire with the men and the crackling light played with his features. One moment he was the arrogant, ruthless tribesman whom Lawrence had first encountered at the well. Then a change in the pattern of light turned him into the gentle, caring friend Lawrence had learned to rely on. Another change and he was the man who drove Lawrence to the sensual indulgence his conscience reviled.

Ali looked up and Lawrence instinctively glanced away.

A few minutes later, Ali seated himself beside Lawrence. "You are worried."

"Yes," Lawrence admitted. He risked a quick glance at Ali but the sharif was studying the men around the fire.

"They are good men. Experienced fighters."

"They are. Very good."

"So you are not worried about Mudawara."

Lawrence studied his fingers and remained silent.

"It is not healthy to go into battle with problems on your mind. It is distracting." Lawrence just caught the flash of his teeth as Ali smiled. "Distractions in battle have a tendency to be fatal."

Lawrence paused and considered. "There was an old man," he began. "At Rumm. He said..." Lawrence gestured sharply. "It doesn't matter what he said. But I found it disturbing."

"Mysterious old men with obscure utterances." Despite the mockery in his words, Ali's voice was sympathetic. "They are the result of rotten grain and too many years. Best ignore him, Aurens."

"He said... It was, I think, something I needed to hear. Though I didn't want to hear it." He frowned slightly. "I still don't. But I need to." He looked up. "What do you think of religion, Ali?"

There was a single breath of laughter from Ali. "I am Muslim and beyond that, I don't think of it. Though if your mysterious old man has made you think of converting to our faith, we would be glad of it."

Lawrence managed a smile. "No. Nothing like that." He sighed. "I just need to think, Ali."

Ali nodded thoughtfully. "Then I will leave you to think. But Aurens? Mudawara. Have your thinking done by then."

That night, Lawrence was unable to sleep. No matter what position he lay in, his fingertips always seemed to brush the edge of Ali's robe.

Mudawara awaited them. They would reach the wells at sunset tomorrow, two or three miles from the station. They would reconnoitre the station in the night and, circumstances willing, attack at dawn. Maybe he would be killed and the problem would be solved that way.

But he knew he didn't really want to die and that he would fight like hell to avoid it.

Which meant he would have to come to some conclusion.

He frowned into the darkness. The love is from God; and of God; and towards God. Just the senile mutterings of an old fool but it had terrified him at the time and it still scared him. Strange that he should be so wary of love when his parents' lives pointed so much to the power of it.

Or perhaps it wasn't so strange. A baronet who left his wife and daughters so he could live in sin with a parlourmaid was not a good example for a man who wanted love to combine with his life, not overthrow it.

And yet, hadn't his life already been overthrown? He couldn't go back to being an unremarkable archaeologist, not now he had tasted the freedom and savagery of the desert. Was it so hard to go from having an entire people overthrow his life to a single man?

Silly question. It evidently was or he wouldn't be lying here worrying about Ali when he should be worrying about the attack.

He rolled away from Ali and curled up, resting his head on his hands.

They dawdled the following morning, taking time to eat and wash. Lawrence shaved, by now used to the amusement it produced and welcoming the warmth of Ali's smile.

"It would be dreadfully bad manners to attack while improperly dressed," he commented.

"Shocking," Ali agreed.

Lawrence had to pause while he fought the smile that curled the corners of his mouth.

Their journey took them over the mud-flat to a plain of firm limestone rag, carpeted with weather-blunted flint. From there, they moved into low hills and shallow, broken valleys and dusk saw them arriving at the Mudawara well, an open, stagnant pool with a thick mantle of green slime.

"The Turks threw in dead camels to foul the water," Ali told Lawrence. "But it is drinkable again."

Barely, Lawrence thought, feeling sick at the idea of drinking the water. Yet it was all they would get until they took Mudawara so he hardened himself to fill his water-skin. When he broke the skin of slime, the water showed black and stank of rotten meat.

"We will drink in Mudawara tomorrow," Lawrence said, before steeling himself to take a swallow of the putrid water.

"God willing," Ali said.

Lawrence's gaze met Ali's but neither said anything more.

When it was fully dark, Lawrence and Ali crept towards Mudawara. It took half an hour to reach the last crest, where the Turks had dug trenches and stoned up engrailed sangars. In front and below lay the station, its doors and windows splashed with the careless light of cooking fires and lanterns. It seemed close but was still too far for the Stokes guns to operate so they wormed closer, searching for places they could site the guns

"Nothing," Ali hissed.

"We'll go closer."

Ali paused before replying. "Not too much closer. They'll see us."

"They won't."

"There's too large a price on your head for you to be careless."

Lawrence smiled. "And on yours. But they're drunk and lazy. Look at them. Safe and snug in their station."

"They have cause to be complacent. Look at the buildings."

The station was very long, with stone buildings so solid that they might be proof against even the explosives intended for the railway let alone the Stokes guns. Lawrence frowned. "And they have more men than they should. Could they have been warned?" He looked to where he knew Ali waited but the night was too dark for the other man to be visible.

"It is possible. But they look like they're travelling. Look at the number of camels."

"Damn. Whatever we do, it has to be done tomorrow."

"Four hundred of them. Three hundred of us. But we are Bedu. That evens the odds."

Lawrence knew Ali was grinning, happy at the prospect of a fierce fight, so Lawrence didn't mention the thickness of the station walls or the lack of placements for the Stokes guns or the fact that any assault they mounted would be seen in plenty of time for the station to come to full readiness. "We've seen enough. Let's get back."

The camp was dark, though there were men awake who talked quietly. No campfires this close to the enemy. Lawrence and Ali found their way to their bedrolls and seated themselves, cross-legged.

"What do you think?" Lawrence asked.

"It would be a hard fight," Ali conceded reluctantly.

"Too hard, perhaps." Lawrence sighed. "Even if our numbers were equal..." His voice trailed off. "But it would cripple the Turks if we took it."

"Would it be worth the deaths?"

"If we could be sure Allenby would hold it... Maybe." He paused. "No. No, it wouldn't." Allenby wouldn't sacrifice the forces required to hold it. He was focused on long-term strategy, not short-term tactical gains. And that, Lawrence supposed, was all for the good. But it was frustrating.

"You have till morning to decide."

Lawrence glanced at the sky, still black, with no sign of the approaching dawn. His voice was subdued as he spoke. "There's no decision to make."

The pressure of Ali's hand on his face was soft yet inexorable and Lawrence turned towards the warm humanity. "No?" The word was nothing more than a breath, dancing over Lawrence's skin.

He smiled, an expression so full of pain he was grateful the night hid it from Ali. "You asked me to call off the attack. It's late but... Will you still accept it?"

"I'll accept whatever you give me." Words that should have echoed with bleakness but they were gentle, forgiving, salving wounds Lawrence didn't know he had.

He gripped Ali's wrist, knowing his fingers were too hard and desperate. "Even love?"

An indrawn breath and a pause. And, finally, lips on the back of his hand. "I have always accepted that." Lips touching his own and Ali's body pressing him back into the sand.

And, eventually, through sobbing breaths and half-stifled cries of pleasure, the blissful surrender.

The aftermath of an attack was the part Lawrence liked least. He thought he was practical in his assessment of the Arabs and accepted their need to loot the trains and bodies. He thought he knew their habit of taking clothing from those they had killed was the result of an intriguing belief, common to nearly all the tribes, that to do so would prevent the dead having their revenge.

So why did he feel so uneasy at the sight of his ignoble savages swarming over the skeleton of the train like locusts? And why did the sight of Ali, rummaging through the wreckage, fill him with so much happiness he found it hard to breathe?

Smiling, he ran down to examine the destruction.