It was late the next morning before a messenger came to Railon in his quarters to announce that men were ready to go with him as he had requested. As soon as this news reached him, Railon leapt up from his seat prepared to go. He had been anticipating the messenger since the onset of dawn, and was rather disappointed to hear that the promised party had taken what he considered an excessively long time to prepare themselves. But now that the message had finally come, Railon succeeded in greeting the man civilly, and then marched out of the room.
In the courtyard of the building where he had taken up residence, Railon found ten riders, still mounted and heavily armed. A glance toward the open outer gate of the building revealed another ten, prepared as the others. The natives were riding camels, and they had brought one for him. Exchanging a greeting with the man who approached him as the captain of the band, Railon pulled himself aboard the proffered mount in one motion. Turning about to face the captain, he said in the man’s own language “It is time we were off.”
At the signal from the captain, all the riders turned as one and formed a line out through the gate and into the open space beyond, where they reformed into two lines side by side. Railon had been crowded out to the back of the line, but he did not mind this; if the men wanted him to there was plenty of time yet to retake the lead before battle was joined, if they had the good fortune to find the enemies they were searching out at all, for it was a wide and practically featureless country near the border with Naibern. That is, featureless beyond the plentiful oases which sustained the roaming people who had brought the first reports of trouble, and which might also serve as a staging point for the invading force, if an invading force it really was. Perhaps it was only a raiding party after the livestock, but however large or small the party proved to be, Railon felt he owed to himself and his goodwill toward others to bring battle to them and stop their depredations. To do this he had been lent one score of riders.
The riders were well prepared. Each carried a small bow which he could evidently shoot from his mount’s back, in addition to a bundle of throwing spears and a sword at his side. They rode without armor or helms, a choice which made riding both swifter and more comfortable, but also meant they could all be killed in a minute by a group of skilled archers. This, however, was a risk they preferred to take.
The party drew a few scattered cheers as they rode through the city, but for the most part they passed without notice. Their appearance drew an admiring look from the keeper of the city’s south gate, but that was all; he simply opened the gate without asking questions, as these were the Taljun’s warriors who obviously had business elsewhere. Once outside the city, the riders reformed into rows of ten while Railon rode around to the front to speak to them again.
“Hear me now. We do not know how soon we will come upon the enemy, nor how many they are. From this spot we will ride in one line, each giving two lengths of his mount between himself and the next man. We will make camp once near midday and again at dusk to rest ourselves. Now let us cover some ground before we pause!”
Railon turned his mount about so that it was facing away from the city and started off. A moment later riders appeared on each side as the men began forming into the extended line he had ordered. Soon he was not in the center of the line, and neither was the Quaffdi captain, who Railon could make out several yards to his left. This, Railon noted, was evidently a practice the Quaffdis had adopted to facilitate the spreading of messages and maintaining of order in the ranks.
They rode for about two hours before Railon suggested to the riders closest to him that it was the proper time for that day’s pause. They had ridden far in those first two hours, far enough even that the city they had departed from had long disappeared below the horizon. No one had yet seen an enemy, a fact which Railon had anticipated; he felt that they were unlikely to meet any Naiberns until they came to the first of the southern oases, which was at least a whole day’s ride farther on, or so Railon believed.
At this time Railon began to devise plans which he might use to gain victory with the twenty riders at his command. If the Naiberns were already to be found as far beyond the border as the first oasis he and his riders came to, then they would be the vanguard of an invasion and the troops under his command would be outnumbered by several times. If however, it was only a raiding party stealing the livestock to sustain the army behind them, the odds were likely to be even at their worst and Railon’s best attack would be to have his riders stay back and pick off the Naiberns with arrows. He fervently hoped that the latter was the truth, for in his heart he was beginning to wish to turn back toward the west and see his homeland again.
Accordingly, the riders formed up and made a simple camp a few yards beyond the point where he had first suggested it, where there was a large dune which would provide height for the watchman and shade for the others. The men arranged their mounts in a large ring, on the inside of which they lay down and spread themselves toward the center of the circle, their long hoods draped over their faces to ward off insects attracted to their beasts and themselves. It was agreed that the midday rest each day should be no more than an hour long.
Consequently, when the stipulated hour had passed, Railon and the natives mounted without incident and set out once more in their picket line formation. They rode on without interruption for another two hours, but at the end of that period, one of the riders on the western side of the line, which was Railon’s half, suddenly stopped and began to wave his free arm vigorously, which eventually brought all the others to a halt as they each noticed that their companions had stopped.
Railon, eager to know why the man had not given a shout which would have stopped the whole line neatly in a few moments, turned his own mount and rode out alongside the man who had first signaled, closely followed by everyone on the far side of the line. Railon almost unconsciously reverted to the native language and asked “Why did you stop?”
“I saw a man not a mile off. I cannot be sure if he saw me, but I think he did, for he turned back and disappeared before I signaled you.”
Railon swore under his breath and replied “It seems they followed me. I came this way not a week ago, so I know as well as you do that they are less than two days from us if they have a scout this far out today. We must tread carefully now. Close the line. Hold your bows ready. Form into columns. We can stay in our own tracks and so make those of this scout easier to spot.” Indicating the man had originally stopped the line, he added “You and I will ride in front. Give the signal the instant you notice his tracks.”
All the riders were now grouped together mere feet away from Railon, so it was work of only a moment to form into column lines and be ready to move forward again. This time they moved at a walk rather than the trot they had been maintaining well since departing the city.
The rider’s judgement was sound; they had not gone more than a mile before the man signaled that the enemy’s tracks were in sight. Once alerted of this, the whole party stopped as one while he and Railon determined exactly which direction the tracks were leading.
“Straight on.” Railon said after a minutes intense staring and riding back and forth over the nearest few yards more than once. “At least, as far as can be seen from here. Keep an eye out for him all of you. But perhaps we’ve had the good fortune to fall upon the trail of a poor tracker. A good one would never go straight back without trying to conceal his direction.” At Railon’s signal, they began to move forward again.
Only a mile further on Railon suddenly ordered a halt again. “Yes, the man is a foolish tracker. I can smell the oasis now; I’m sure it is straight ahead. Silently now.” At his wave, they moved forward another few yards - and suddenly found themselves at the top of a dune from which the oasis around which the Naiberns had camped was visible.
At first glance, Railon could see that it was a large camp; certainly not one that could be captured easily with only twenty men. A longer glance brought to his mind the thought that he and his band were probably outnumbered by as many three or four to one. Such numbers puzzled Railon, for such a group was too large to be an efficient raiding party and far to small to actually be an invasion force. A moment later his earlier thoughts returned and he recalled that this was only the advance guard, sent out in numbers large enough to deal with advance defensive forces such as his own.
In their current position, he and his men were at the top of a height several yards outside the camp, and so Railon thought there was a good chance that they had not yet been spotted by the main body and remained in relative safety. Therefore he ordered that they should halt where they were and take shelter as they had previously done. Only this time four watchmen were assigned rather than one.
Going to the side of the native captain, Railon asked him “Can your men make a good fire?”
“We have nothing to make a fire with.”
Railon paused, astonished that he had failed to think of such an obvious response. “No matter. Tell your men to get some sleep now, and dream of home, for some of them will not survive to see the sunrise. We are outnumbered at least three to one.”
“But we have our bows, and surprise.”
“That we do. However they may be carrying bows themselves, and they may be wearing armor. Your men are not. However we cannot turn away. It is our duty to your people to attack this force before they reach the capital. We shall attack at dusk.”
“Why dusk, rather than the midst of night?”
“I have taken part in many campaigns before this one. In the dead of night the guards will be more alert and the soldiers will be sleeping lightly, because that is the usual time for a night attack. At dusk, just before we lose the light of the sun, we can hit the watchmen just before they change over, and the rest of the force will be at their slowest. Before we attack, we will wheel around to the west so as to be coming out of the sunset and harder to see.”
“The plan is sound. We will do it.”
And then, on the spur of the moment, Railon added a wrinkle to his simple plan. “Send five of your men around to the east. They are to wait there until they hear the sounds of battle. We shall also leave five men here. Perhaps we can convince the enemy he is surrounded.” At an acknowledgement from the captain, Railon returned to his own mount and lay down. As he watched, the native captain chose out five men and gave them their orders. These men prodded their camels upright again and had soon disappeared toward the east without asking questions.
It was some time later when Railon was shaken awake by the native captain. Startled, he looked around hurriedly for any sign of danger. But he saw no one but the riders he had come with. The captain prodded him again. “Come, it was you who said we were to attack at dusk.”
On his feet, Railon asked “Are you sure you can trust those you sent away?”
“Do you think I would send any man i did not trust with my life out of my sight so close to an enemy camp? I chose each man myself!”
“Very well then. “Give men ten men and we will be off. And hit the watchman the moment you see our attack begin.” As the captain acknowledged this last command, Railon and his men started off toward the west.
Five minutes later, they were in position, at the minute the sky was just beginning to take on a darker shade. Seeing this, Railon told his men to nock arrows. “Hit the watchman, and then fire at will at every man you see.”
With a collective nod, the natives fired at the nearest watchman, who fell without a sound and did not get up. A moment later, Railon saw the watchman facing the north side also fall silently. By this time the men with him had already begun to fire at every man they saw. As a result, men could be seen falling dead all over the camp.
The attack had been going on unnoticed for several minutes before Railon caught the sound of a man calling out to a friend, who apparently was not answering. Drawing his sword, Railon said “The game is up. It is astonishing that we have not been noticed before.” At his signal, the natives stowed their bows and took up javelins, of which they each carried five in tall quivers suspended from their saddles. Pointing toward the camp with his blade, Railon cried “Forward! And take no prisoners!”
At these words the riders charged, making a noise like packs of wolves and dogs each trying to outdo the other for sheer noise. As he rode, Railon saw the riders from the north and the east break cover and join in the charge and the howling.
The attackers made straight for the two main campfires, killing most of those sitting around them and scattering the ashes and flames in every direction in an attempt to light some of the tents. Then they broke ranks and began to deliberately destroy the tents, stabbing at them repeatedly as they tried to kill anyone who might be inside.
This had been going on unabated for several minutes before Railon finally heard one of his own riders die. By this time, the fires having been scattered, it was very difficult to see. However, the moon had come up almost immediately that night, so that there was just enough light to avoid killing one’s friends in the darkness.
“Form ranks!” Railon shouted in desperation. “Close in!” As he said this, he thought “The man is a good commander after all. He must have ordered his men to ignore our attack at first, so that we have ridden straight into his trap.” By this time, two more of Railon’s riders had been killed. Furious at his helplessness, Railon told himself “This is not how I go on. I will not wait here to be killed by an unknown enemy. For Gairadane I’ll go down fighting!”
Spurring his mount forward, he cried “Charge!” , driving his mount straight into the enemy ranks, thrusting and swing in every direction. The mass of his enemies was so tightly packed that he scored a hit with every blow. He soon began to feel better about the situation. But then his mount suddenly died under him and he fell, still trying to attack the enemy. In less than a minute he was beaten senseless by the mass of Naiberns surrounding him.