I am beginning to get very anxious: father has obviously been trying to delay my leaving Bree as long as possible, always devising new tasks for me or claiming the Watch cannot lose another man just now for whatever reason. I know he means well, but do not think I should delay much longer. I feel as if I am being given a choice to make which will determine the course of the rest of my life. Something tells me that if I do not set out very soon I shall never do so. Which is not to say I would be doing anything “wrong,” necessarily, if I did remain in Bree. I’m afraid I cannot explain it any better than that at present; it is just a feeling I have.
The past few days have been full of the usual business of keeping the peace and (when father is not watching) preparing for my journey to the Blue Mountains. Yesterday I was sent to investigate a “situation” at Pierson’s Farm, a short ways south of Bree-town. The landowner insists his crops are being raided by brigands, but there is nothing to show that for certain. Besides, short of setting an ambush for the robbers at his farm by night, I don’t really see what the Watch can do for him, and we simply don’t have the men for that kind of thing. I suggested he and his son learn something in the way of archery in order to better defend themselves if they do get into trouble, and had to leave it at that.
There was a very bizarre thing which happened to me just this morning that I probably ought to record here, although I have no idea whether it will prove important later or not. I was at the jail around the first hour practicing my spear- and shield-work on the training dummies there. Many other Watchmen were present as well, since the early morning is often the only opportunity we have during the day to train, and it is invigorating, besides. Anyway, I had just finished some parrying exercises (from which my wrist was becoming exceedingly sore), when I noticed a woman watching me intently. She was seated on a bench inside the small garden area just to the northwest outside the jail-yard gate. Since I needed a rest anyway, I decided to store my weapons and speak to her. She rose quickly, as soon as I had opened the iron gate and continued to watch me expectantly as I strode over.
“Good morning,” I said, loudly.
She hadn’t moved toward me at all, and appeared to be eyeing my right hand. At my greeting, she raised her eyes to mine and smiled. But it was not a kind smile. As I closed the distance between us, I began quickly assessing her appearance. Her hair and her eyes were brown with nothing notable about them. Her face was certainly fair to look upon while the simple dress she wore hid most of her features. Her arms were folded in front of her and she carried no gear. There was little else to read on her, save that her face seemed to me hard, as if she had done much travel under the sun and in the wind. She spoke no word to me.
“Can I help you?” I asked, a bit uncomfortable with the silence. I was already reproaching myself for having walked weaponless outside of the jail-yard. Bree is not a dangerous place by any means, but Watchmen have been known to be attacked by ruffians in certain spots, such as Beggar’s Alley, and especially of late. Nor would it have been the first time someone from the Watch or the Guard had been ambushed and then robbed after being lured into complacency by a pretty face. This time, however, the woman answered me.
“How’s your wrist?” she asked. Her voice was clear and pleasant to hear, but it also carried a tinge of scorn.
“Perfectly fine,” I lied. I could already feel my forearm muscles cramping painfully. Had I been asked to, I could scarcely have handled a broom with any effect at that point.
“Hm,” was all she answered at first. I had the uncomfortable feeling she knew I couldn’t so much as make a fist with my right hand by now.
“You’ll want to practice couching your spear,” she said, “rather than trying to get more range by holding it so far down the shaft. You gain range but lose flexibility.”
I admit I was speechless for a moment. She raised her eyebrows at me and I tried to recover my tongue.
“I wasn’t expecting combat advice…”
“From a woman? And why not? You’ll also find that grip makes it much harder to parry, makes it very difficult to extract the blade if you actually manage to land a blow, and also tends to tire your wrist over-quickly.”
“I was going to say: I wasn’t expecting combat advice on such a fine and quiet morning,” I finished with a smile. “I have not seen you within the hedges of Bree-town before, so perhaps you are not aware that even our womenfolk have been known to take up arms when our need is dire.”
“I know it well,” she said. “And, while you may not have seen me here before, nevertheless here before I have been. I am a Bree-lander by birth – my home was in Archet.”
“Was?” I asked. At this point I was determined to learn more about this stranger before I was required to divulge anything useful about myself.
“Was,” she repeated. “Now my home is anywhere my business takes me. Today, it takes me to Bree.”
“And what might your business be?”
“That’s no concern of yours,” she answered.
“Indeed? As a member of the Bree-town Watch, let me assure you it can become my business very quickly.”
“Oh, don’t try to get all official with me,” she replied with a scoff. “I’m here selling wares at Three Farrow. Is that enough for you?”
“I suppose so. And staying at the Pony?”
“Yes, at the Pony. Mystery solved?” she asked sarcastically.
“No,” I said, frowning, but still with a smile. “I believe this must be the first time I’ve ever met a lone woman, roaming the Bree-land selling whatever kind of wares while bearing no sign of a caravan nor any manner of defense.”
“And this isn’t your first time either. You have been less than observant.” Her eyes darted to her right. Following her look, I finally noticed a muscular horse standing beside a house; the steed had been almost completely obscured by a large bush.
“That is a magnificent animal!” I exclaimed, truly impressed. I also noted the varied gear strapped to the saddle, including a compact but very richly carved crossbow.
“Yes, she is.”
“That is no horse of Bree,” I said. “What land does she call home?”
“The land of Rohan. Now, listen…”
“You have come all the way from Rohan?”
“Yes, and I need you…”
“Are all of the steeds in that land like to this one?”
“I haven’t all day to stand about chatting with you, Watchman,” she said, placing her hands on her waist.
“Piersyn,” I said.
“Listen, Watchman,” she continued, completely ignoring me, “we’ve decided to extend to you our invitation…”
“Invitation to where?” I asked.
“Would you stop asking questions and listen to me? It’s not where, it’s what. We’ve decided to extend to you the invitation to use our trading network. You are planning on leaving Bree soon, are you not?”
“Yes, but how could you…”
“Never mind that. All you need to know is, when you need gear befitting an adventurer, you will be able to find our representatives at every major trading post in Eriador.”
I opened my mouth, then shut it again.
“What?” she asked.
“May I ask a question?”
She sighed. “Yes, ask me your question.”
“What need would I have of your people? Why would I need new equipment?”
The woman laughed aloud. “You’ll realize the need quickly enough, if you ever learn to wield that splinter of yours properly,” she said. “Also, you won’t last long enough to forge a hero’s legend in that,” she pointed at my doublet. “I doubt that leather would turn so much as a kitchen knife.”
I looked down at my clothing with no response to her observation. She moved to her horse and drew something out of the saddlebag.
“As I was saying, when you do realize the need, look for this token,” In her hand, she revealed a curious circular emblem. The circle itself was wrought of fine gold into some flowing script I could not read. Inside the circle, I saw a small sword and a red quill crossed over an anvil of jet.
“You can find us in any market throughout the northern world,” she continued, then looked to mount her horse.
“Let me…” I began, as I started to position myself to assist her onto the horse. But she swung herself atop the beast before I had hardly begun to move.
“No need,” she said, tossing her hair out of her face.
“And for whom would I look? What is the name of this organization?” I asked, trying to learn whatever I could as the conversation appeared to be rapidly drawing to a close. The woman stopped and looked down at me with a grave expression, as if deciding whether or not to trust me with whatever she was about to say. When she spoke, her voice was little more than a whisper, as if she feared someone might overhear her, even though hardly anyone was awake at that hour.
“We are The Artisans’ Circle,” she said, “And we can help you.”
“And for whom should I look? You? What is your name?”
She smiled and, in the same hushed, almost fearful voice said, “No, I think not.”
Then she spurred her horse and galloped off toward the South Gate.