The small size of the attackers had not been due to mere distance; the bandits were of a tribe of Halfling nomads that roamed the deserts, and who rarely entered the cities of men. Tales had been told of these savages in many of the caravans that Sahm had escorted, but until that day he had not seen them in the flesh. They road their desert ponies with a deftness and skill that made Sahm's trained horsemanship seem clumsy by comparison, and the taught strings of their bows sang like crickets in the dawn as they loosed shaft after shaft at the fleeing caravan. Their nut brown skins were covered by sand-colored desert robes, cinched at the waist by black silk sashes.
"They file their teeth to points," Sahm had been told by a merchant who had purportedly been the only survivor of a Halfling raid. "They take anyone that they don't kill into the deep desert and feast upon the marrow in their bones. They feed whatever remains to their blood-hungry ponies, and use the sinew from their victims to string their bows. If ever you should face them, run and hide! Or, best yet, play dead! There is no hope for you otherwise."
Sahm had considered what the man had said, and had ultimately rejected it as a fanciful tale. Now, riding low with his bow in one hand and Asianne's reins in the other, he wasn't so sure. Qadil was two lengths ahead of him, his sword drawn and his robes fluttering behind him. The old man could fight, Sahm knew, but would this foe be too much for him?
Three of the Halfling ponies broke off from the attacking force and headed towards Qadil and Sahm. There was a piercing war cry from the tiny warriors that sounded eerily like an eagle's shriek. At fifty yards distance, two of them rose in their saddles, raised their bows, and fired arrows. Sahm jinked Asianne to the left as one of the arrows sailed by. He rose up in his own saddle, aimed at the oncoming riders, and fired back. Too high, the arrow flew well past the Halflings and shattered against the stone-like ground.
The remaining Halfling was armed not with a bow, but with a lance. It was obvious that he and Qadil were headed for one another, and naught but the gods could alter their course. At the last moment, the Halfling lowered his lance, plunging it into Qadil's horse, as the old man's saber cut through the air above the raider's head. The haft of the lance snapped audibly, and Qadil's horse stumbled and fell, raising a plume of dust high into the air. The old man rolled several yards, limp and apparently dead, leaving Sahm to confront the Halflings on his own.
As the three ponies passed Qadil's limp form at a gallop, Sahm brought his own horse to a sudden stop. With a graceful leap, he dismounted, smacking Asianne upon her rump, and sending her galloping towards the caravan alone. He could hear the Halflings turning about behind him, their bow strings twanging. A small arrow flew through his billowing robes before skittering upon the ground nearby. Sahm ran to the only cover he could see, Qadil's dying horse. The animal's breath came in pained gasps, and its blood fueled the thirsty ground beneath it.
Another small arrow whistled towards him, thunking into the belly of the dying animal. Its agony was such that it didn't seem to notice this new pain. Sahm, crouching behind the horse's bulk raised his bow in the direction of the Halflings and let fly an arrow. This time, his aim was unencumbered by Asianne's motion, and the shaft hit one of the Halfling archers in his chest. The little man cried out in pain and surprise, and he fell from his saddle onto the ground. His pony, now without a master, veered off and slowed to a trot, even as the remaining two increased their pace towards Sahm.
He had time enough for one last shot before they were upon him. Sahm drew another arrow and fired his bow at the remaining archer. The distance was short, perhaps thirty yards, and he could see the raider's eyes widen with shock as the arrow punched through his neck, spraying crimson blood into the air behind him. The Halfling dropped his own bow and brought his horse to a halt before sliding out of his saddle and onto the rocky ground. The Halfling who had killed Qadil's horse (as well as Qadil, or so it seemed, for he remained motionless in the dirt several yards away), rode his pony straight for Sahm. He had discarded his broken lance in favor of a small black scimitar, the edge of which glinted brightly in the rising sunlight. Sahm ducked as the Halfling's pony leapt over the horse's corpse. He heard the sound of the bandit's blade slicing through the air above his head, just before the desert pony hit the ground behind him and continued onward.
Sahm turned to follow the enemy with his gaze, his hands already drawing and loading another arrow into his bow reflexively. He drew the bowstring back, adjusted his aim, and fired. Like the two arrows before it, this one struck home, lodging itself in the Halfling's turned back. The small black scimitar flew from his grasp, even as he slumped in his saddle. The pony continued onward, oblivious to the fact that its rider was dead.
Qadil was bloody and bruised, but otherwise alive. A wide gash had been opened across his forehead, and blood had washed into his eyes. "Sahir?" Sahm ventured, reaching out a hand to roll his friend over.
Coughing, Qadil allowed Sahm to roll him onto his back. He opened his blood-filled eyes, then blinked them rapidly to try and clear his sight. "Did I get him?" he asked, a wry smile on his lips.
"You took his head clean off, sahir," Sahm lied, his hands deftly checking Qadil's limbs for broken bones. "I fear that he took your horse in payment."
"Better my horse than myself." Qadil sat up painfully. "What of the rest?"
"Dead, but for the half-dozen that swarm about the caravan." Sahm looked over Qadil's shoulder at the wagons. They were beset with raiders from all sides, and shouts and war cries echoed across the shallow valley.
Qadil used his hand to wipe the blood from his face, wincing at the pain when he discovered that his palms had been torn by his impact with the rocky ground. "Bring me my blade, Sahm," he instructed, "then go along without me and do what you can to save the wagons. Without that cargo, we aren't liable to be paid."
Sahm stood and fetched Qadil's saber from the dirt nearby, patting the old man on the shoulder. "Will you be well, sahir?" he asked.
"Yes, yes, of course," Qadil said, waving his hand dismissively. "Get moving! I'll join you when I'm able."
Sahm began to run towards the wagons, his breath burning in his lungs. Running wasn't something he often did, seeing as Asianne had always been there for him on these long ventures into the wilderness. His boots weren't made for it, and he stumbled several times on the rough, rocky, uneven ground. Somehow, he managed to avoid sprawling over the stony earth. The screams of the wounded and dying, paired with the sounds of his own panting, were all that he could hear.