The caravan was attacked by desert tribesmen in the middle of the journey's fourth week.
The time had passed quickly, and nothing of ill consequence had occurred since they'd left Uman. Aliz was, it seemed, within their grasp, and the men grew complacent as the expedition drew to a close. Qadil grumbled at their careless manner, exhorting them to be vigilant, but they laughed at him and called him an old fool when his back was turned. "Misfortune visits most often at dawn or dusk," he would chide, using an expression that was far older than he was.
Sahm allowed himself to experience a cautious sort of relief, despite Qadil's constant warnings. This trip would bring him a healthy sum if the cargo sold well, and Aliz was a rich metropolis filled with all the wonders of the deep south. Gold, silks, exotic beasts, ivory, and fine eastern steel. All he needed to do was find another caravan to escort back to Uman, and he could retire for a while. Perhaps, he thought, settle on a wife. That should please his mother.
Hashim had talked of nothing but the strange woman in the passenger wagon for the past three weeks. He seemed obsessed, craning his neck none too discreetly if the wagon's flap so much as fluttered in the wind. Despite himself, Sahm found Hashim's boorish interest contagious. He often found himself stealing a glance when the lady's servants entered or emerged, but he never caught sight of the lady herself. Qadil caught him gazing at the wagon one morning, and nudged him gently with his crop.
"The watchman's eyes should gaze at the horizon," he said. Sahm had blushed in response, which brought a chuckle from Qadil.
Sahm climbed into the saddle, and absently patted his horse's flank. It was a fine animal, a gift given to him by his father on his sixteenth birthday. He'd named the horse Asianne, or "rising sun," due to the golden color of her mane. Two years later, his brother had joked that the horse was the only bride that Sahm would ever have. The jibe had angered him, though he didn't show it. He would have been angrier still had he known how true it would ring five years later.
The two rode out ahead of the caravan. The drovers had yet to harness the camels to the carts, and the cooking fire still smoldered in the chill morning air. Neither spoke. Instead, they listened to the sounds of the desert around them. They moved slowly, checking their mounts' speed, until they'd gone two hundred yards or so. They could see the wagons and carts in the distance, lining up, and they could hear the drovers whistling and clicking their tongues at their beasts as they did so. The cool breeze had gone, replaced by a sudden stillness in the air. Sahm shivered.
He glanced to Qadil, who was looking back at him. "Did you feel that, too?" Qadil asked, and Sahm nodded. The two looked back in the direction the caravan in time to see a wave of horsemen, ant-like in size at this distance, descending upon it from behind. The rear guards, their bellies full of breakfast and their eyes still sandy with sleep, had not yet noticed. Qadil muttered a blasphemous curse and dug his heels into his horse's flanks. It leapt forward with a cry as if stung. Sahm did the same, spurring Asianne to follow Qadil's lead, even as the bandits loosed a volley of arrows at the rearmost carts.
The rear guards cried out in alarm. Their voices, made small by the distance and drowned out by the pounding of his horse's hooves, were cut short as the shafts of arrows pierced them through. Qadil had been right after all, Sahm thought.