Though we had found dry land, it was some days before we found the first of the flagstones that marked the Greenway. Without the sight of those stones, we had simply pressed on in a northerly direction, trusting that the narrowing of the hills would guide us, as wine through a funnel, closer to the old road. Soon the land rose before us, the rolling hills of the South Downs, and we veered to the left, eventually finding a paving stone sitting in the low grass. In our meanderings crossing the fens of the Gwathló near Tharbad, we had drifted a fair distance east, it seemed, and thus missed our chance to use the ruins of the bridges that still forded the river at the old city; but now, we’d made our way back to the path.
We were making our way through the Vale of Andrath, passing between ancient Cardolan fortifications that were still in good repair, as the first moon of autumn rose over the South Downs to our right. I was musing to myself how it seemed a shame to have fortresses and barracks in such good condition be left unused, when Darrien gestured towards where a small group of men and women was approaching from one of them. It seemed that the keep was serving as shelter for someone, but we couldn’t know if these were the first civilized men of Bree-land we would meet, or a threat. “Be friendly but wary,” I advised, spurring my horse to ride out in front. “Lady Shadryn, you may wish to encourage Mushiebottom to a less visible location, as people may not know how to react to such a thing.” By now, I had forgotten to be self-conscious about its name, or even to gnaw over her criticism that it reminded me of; it was just a thing to say, now. At least most of the time.
At first the meeting was somewhat cordial. They were guarded, but showed no sign of reaching for weapons, and they welcomed us to Bree-land. “Don’t think as there’s many folk what come up this way most times, but this year we seen, what, three companies just this month?” one of the women said in a tone so rustic it made the Rohirrim seem like scholars.
“So many?” I asked in a light, conversational tone. “Making way for Bree, were they?”
“Well, one weren’t so much a company as one fellow, looked like you but bigger, but had that tree like you got,” she said, pointing to the White Tree on my tabard. “Didn’t say much, that one, but he did make way towards Bree,” she pointed up the Greenway with her bow. “Dunno so much ‘bout the other fellers where they was going. Might be as they were…” At this, one of the others was nudging her, and she swatted him away irritatedly. “Might be as they were headin’ west towards the…” The man was whispering in her ear now, and she turned and looked straight at Shadryn with entirely too much interest for my comfort. I heard a familiar rustle of feathers as Darrien loosened the arrows in his quiver with a casual gesture; clearly he had noticed the same thing I had. Radolf, for his part, seemed to be too caught up in ogling one of the Bree-land lasses to notice anything; there may even have been some winking going on between them, and flirtatious smiles.
“So, anyhow, where was you lot heading?” the woman asked in a tone that was deliberately trying to seem innocuous, quite ineffectively.
Shadryn started to say something, but I cut her off quickly. “We were hoping to avoid Bree, Miss. Too much hustle and bustle. We make to follow the line of the South Downs,” I gestured with one hand in such a way as to position it to reach for my sword while looking like I was only pointing, “on our way east. With luck we can make the High Pass before the snows close it in. Do you think we might reach the mountains before winter?”
They were shuffling about, but it seemed clear to me that they hadn’t decided whether to take action against us. While the woman nattered on about the roads east, clearly trying to buy time while that was decided, I turned my ear to pick up snatches of conversation from the others. I could pick up only fragments of their murmuring, but it soon was clear that someone who’d passed by earlier had given a description of Lady Shadryn, and mentioned a reward. I could only assume it was the Corsair that had gotten away from the ambush at the edge of Dunland, though these people spoke of him traveling with others, and only one had escaped us. The reward must have been enough to tempt these ne’er-do-wells, but they held back from action, not so much out of fear of our prowess — they outnumbered us nearly three to one, and only soldiers generally realize how many untrained brigands it took to match one skilled man in armor — but, I surmised, out of concern that their employer might disapprove of a ‘side job’. I could not discover what name this employer had, though, strangely, someone seemed to be referring to him as a shark. How could people this far inland even have heard of such a creature native to the depths of the sea? I didn’t dare imagine any of these blackguards had read ancient tales of the shipwrights of Númenor.
“…though if you make for the Red Horn Pass, might be more likely you’d beat the snowfall,” the woman was going on, and still the group hadn’t reached any consensus about whether to act. I decided it was best to not give them the chance. As Darrien was watching me, I gave a subtle gesture with my reins, then a twitch of the legs, then pointedly looked north. He peered at me a moment, then nodded, as understanding of my meaning came to him. I turned towards the woman while pointing my elbow first at Radolf, then Shadryn, before lowering my arm, and started to speak in as voluminous a way as I could, asking the woman for details about the road east, what manner of inns we might find, dangers along the road, and even what sort of music they had here in the northlands, all calculated to keep them too busy to reach a consensus. Meanwhile, Darrien was finding cause to meander towards Radolf and then Shadryn to whisper directions to them.
At last, when I was sure they were all prepared, I interrupted myself in the middle of a lengthy tale of our journey, actually a fragment from a story I’d once read of Isildur’s travel to the Stone of Erech, and suddenly spurred my horse into swift movement, charging right towards the startled woman. While she and her companions darted out of the way of my rearing horse, I heard Darrien, Radolf, and Shadryn spurring their horses into a gallop north. I turned to watch, and for a moment I stared at the sight of Mushiebottom loping at a pace to match even Shadryn’s steed as she outpaced the soldiers; then with a tug on the reins I pulled my stallion to circle around the scattering brigands and charged to meet up with the others.
Behind us, they tried to gather up and chase us, but if any had horses, they weren’t nearby. Surprised by our gambit, they only managed one volley of arrows, one of which solidly struck me in the back, but did not pierce my armor, instead leaving only a blistering bruise that Darrien would later compare to the one he’d endured during the training exercise that had led to my promotion.
By the time I called a halt to our hurried ride and led our horses to a small pond to recover from their exertion, I thought I could see the smoke from cook-fires rising from a hazy shape on the darkening horizon. Bree was not more than a day away.