Gwalchmei saw them first. Or at least, evidence of their presence. He saw the glint of sun off metal in the rocks close to the road they were traveling. In the narrow place just a short distance ahead. He gave a furtive hand signal to Squire, to alert him.
"Hold there, travelers! We would have words with you." The place was filled with echoes. The voice seemed to come from everywhere.
"Show yourselves then. Disembodied voices make poor conversation."
"Oh, you do not want to see us, travelers. It is not good to see us. At all. Just leave your pack animals and ride."
"But these animals bear all we have. If we leave them we will have nothing. This is a hard land and not our home. We would starve for knowing how to live off this land."
"Well starve then, trader. But if you wish to live beyond this day, you will do as we command."
"You sound a boy. I do not listen to the rants of children."
Suddenly the road before them was filled with half a dozen young men. Boys, really. Adolescents. Two more appeared on the road behind, as if to cut off retreat. They were armed with a variety of knives and daggers. Their leader, the biggest of the boys, appeared on a large boulder off to the right and slightly up the hill which narrowed the way. He had a scimitar in his hand.
"It is no child that wields this!" He thrust his scimitar into the air.
"Go home, boy. This is no activity for children."
"Children!!! You think us children? There's a score of traders such as you who know us not to be children! Or, at least, it was the last they knew."
As he spoke, the leader descended from the rock and took up station at the front of the group which blocked their way forward. Gwalchmei dismounted, as did Squire. Gwalchmei handed his reins to Squire, who then turned the animals around to face the rear, and the two urchins who guarded against their retreat.
"A score, you say? They must have been old men, or perhaps women."
There was a distance of thirty feet between Gwalchmei and the leader. Close enough for lowered voices to be heard.
In a voice only the leader might clearly hear, Gwalchmei said, "Take your band and go to your homes, that you may live to be old men. You know not what danger you face."
"There is no danger from you, trader. Unless you intend to strangle us with those rags you wear."
Gwalchmei and the leader stood staring at each other, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Suddenly, a loud voice bellowed.
"What of the danger you face from ME????"
The leader whirled around to see the figure of a large Arab man getting down from a horse, scimitar in his teeth and a great dagger in his free hand. He whirled back around to find himself facing a trader with two long swords, one in each hand, taking a strange stance, indeed, but one which spoke of skill and ability beyond his ken. He whistled sharply and his band fled up the hill, past the same boulder on which the leader had stood.
"We will be back, trader. This has not ended." The leader's voice seemed to once again come from everywhere.
"Come back when you are grown to a man and fair game."
Gwalchmei turned to face the Arab man who had scared away the pack.
"Ha, Ha, Ha. We meet again, Man of the West."
They walked toward each other and embraced.
"Habeeb! Habeeb. Welcome, and well met."
"It is good to see you, Welshman. I am so glad you didn't have to hurt those children."
"But for you, Habeeb. But for you. They were not going to be easy to scare off, but that you came up behind them and did the job in my stead."
"I know this place. I knew what danger might lie here. I went around behind the hills and came up from the other end of this narrow."
"Why have you been following us? Why have you not joined us before now?"
"I am torn, Man of the West. This land is my home. It is all I have ever known. And yet, I would know more of the world. There is this thing in me that wants to see everything, know everything, feel everything. But to do those things, I must leave everything I know and love behind me. It is a hard choice to make. My guess is ... now I have made it. May I go with you, Gwalchmei? To your Wales?"
"Habeeb, my friend. Wherever I go, wherever I am, there is a place for you, as well. Squire and I would be honored to have you join us. Is that not so, Squire?"
"Aye, M'Lord. It will be an honor, indeed. Allow me get your horse, sir."
"Hold, Squire. Before you take steps. You serve no man any longer. You are not a servant. Not mine. Not his. Half our purse is yours, as well as the lands I've purchased on your behalf. If you get his horse, you do so as his equal. And mine."
Squire slowly walked to Habeeb's horse, picked up the reins, and led the horse back to the group. He handed the reins to Habeeb. He saluted with an open hand, backs of his fingers touching his forehead, and then a clenched fist over his heart. Habeeb returned the gesture with a bow and fingers that touched heart, then lips, then forehead.
"If you don't mind, M'Lord, I'll just continue as I have. At least for a while. Once upon a time my name was Alfred Cynog. It is almost beyond memory since that name has been spoken. I have been a Squire for so long it has become my name. I know no other way."
"You do so by choice, Squire. That is the difference. Choice."
Gwalchmei turned to face Habeeb.
"Wales, is it? You wish to see Wales?"
"Yes, Gwalchmei. I do. I have heard that the Welsh have a weapon, a bow, that stands as tall as a man. This bow is so strong that only the mightiest of men may draw it and the arrow is as long as my leg. I would see such a weapon. I would like to draw such a bow."
"Yes, Habeeb. It is true. If that is your wish, then see it, and draw it, you shall."
"And tell me, Welshman, is it true you have snow that stays on the ground for days on end? I would see such snow. I would truly like to see such snow."
"Yes, Habeeb, that also is true. But Habeeb. I would advise caution in expressing your wishes. You may acquire that which it is you seek."
You should know I saw this encounter with the band of robbers much differently than it ultimately worked out. Gwalchmei has become something of a pacifist - or at least disenchanted with the notion of killing another human being. I foresaw a melee with Gwalchmei using less than lethal tactics to incapacitate, temporarily, the robbers. Hilt smacks to the head, whacks with the flat of his sword instead of the edge, etc. But, the robbers, instead, became children, which made them even less desirable a target for Gwalchmei's blade and Habeeb, who had been following, prevents a skirmish, rather than joining one in progress, which was my original vision. I love it when the story wants to be something other than what I thought it might. It usually works out better that way.