“Thistle” (Part 1) by Scott Colby

I’m not one to do things halfway. I’m a man with standards. When there’s a job to be done, you’d better believe I’m going to do it better than anyone around me could’ve. When I want something, I always make sure I get the best, price be damned. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. So when I decided I wanted to become a Riddari, one of the guardians of knowledge in the Dreaming Lands, I sought out the most famous of all the Secret Keepers: Old Bramble.

Finding the man was no easy task. A rarely seen recluse, Bramble is none the less a bona fide celebrity (or a notorious villain who steals children, depending on who you ask), and everyone who thinks he’s anyone has some crazy story of having met the man and gleaned a bit of wisdom from him. I visited each of the eight talamhs at least three times, using Maeda Cricao as my base of rumor-chasing operations, until I finally came across a lead I could feel in my bones would get me to Bramble’s doorstep. I bought the tip from a Delledeir merchant who’d acquired the information from a Feirnann in exchange for a few rocks, who’d heard it from some family who’d been visiting from Admi’s talamh who learned it while sharing a camp along the way with a Riddari from the wind talamh. Even if my feeling of certainty turned out to be no more than the result of a Delledeir bargaining trick or just some ill-timed gas, I knew it was worth checking out. I’m immortal; I have all the time in the world. Besides, this one was far too complicated to be just another simple lie made up to impress gullible strangers.

The wind talamh was one of my least favorite places to visit. It’s so…windy. Much of it is little more than open space where the air is allowed to flow freely. I hired a ferryman with a little winged boat to move me between the scarce islands of floating rock that were the talamh’s only solid ground. He didn’t like the direction I asked him to go, claiming that he’d heard stories and that a little Lean’Aghan like me couldn’t possibly find anything of interest that far out in the wilds, but a few extra beams of sunshine in his pocket greased the wheels.

The trip was not fun. For three days nothing separated me from the never-ending sky but the paper-thin walls of my guide’s tiny boat. I couldn’t tell what the little brown dinghy was made out of, and I didn’t ask because I truly didn’t want to know. Everytime the wind would whip up and send us spiraling in a new direction my stomach would leap up into my throat, my palms would sweat, and visions of falling forever would dance before my eyes. But my guide, despite his dour unfriendliness, was quite the skilled navigator. He kept us upright and moving in the proper direction with naught but his tiller and an occasional curse.

I could’ve kissed him when I spotted our destination far off in the distance. I would’ve sprung up and danced a happy jig if I hadn’t been afraid of capsizing our vessel. As we drew closer I discovered it was exactly as the Delledeir had described: a tiny, unassuming slab of ragged brown rock with a monolithic chunk of granite sticking straight out of its top. The perfect place for an antisocial recluse to make his hideout.

My guide scowled at me when I insisted that the only way to land on Bramble’s island was to sail around it three times before trying. “Rutting hogwash!” he snarled. “Current’s bringing us right in!”

We were about to make landfall (and I was seriously beginning to doubt the accuracy of the information I’d purchase—after all, if this bit was incorrect, then maybe Bramble didn’t live there at all) when an impossibly strong gus lifted us up and hurled the little boat over the island. When my guide regained control of the vessel and I regained control of my bladder, I realized that his must be how a stone feels when a child sends it skimming across the surface of a pond.

“Just a random burst,” my guide growled as he brought us around for another try from a different angle. “Happens all the time out here.”

After four more progressively angrier attempts produced the same result, he finally capitulated and tried it my way. Three quick turns around the island later we landed without incident. I stood up arrogantly, proud that I was right and my rude guide was wrong, and then promptly fell on my face while climbing over the gunwale. The rock was just as hard as it looked. My guide just laughed and busied himself about the boat.

I dusted myself off (there isn’t much land in the wind talamh, but there’s more than enough dust and crowd constantly blowing around) and approached the granite monolith like a supplicant approaching a totem. Bramble was here; I could feel it. There was an energy about the place, an atmosphere so different from the surrounding talamh that it was almost palpable. He was here. He had to be.

Just as I’d been told, I placed my palm on the surprisingly warm granite and made one slow, clockwise circle across its face. Then I knocked five times.

Nothing happened. Behind me, my guide laughed again. I was really beginning to dislike that guy.

I was about to try it again when suddenly a voice rang out from the rock. “Who the rut is that? Hold on, hold on, I’m coming! I’m coming!”

My heart leapt into my throat when a small slab of granite slid aside and a pair of piercing blue eyes locked onto me from the darkness within. “Who the rut are you?” Bramble asked.

My response came from instinct. I’d been practicing my introduction for years. “I am but a humble Lean’Aghan who’d like to become a Riddari. I’ve come to learn from the greatest of all the secret keepers, sir.”

His eyes narrowed. “Secret keeper, am I? Pffffffffffffffffft. I wouldn’t be caught dead with those stuck up bookworms. You’ve got the wrong guy, kid.”

The slit closed with a heavy thunk, echoing the fall of my spirits. I’d come all this way, worked so hard, just to be rebuffed in just a few seconds. I couldn’t believe. I stared at the monolith blankly for what seemed an eternity, wondering what I’d done wrong. How could I have screwed up my first impression badly enough to effectively make Bramble slam the door in my face? Had I come on too strong? Was I too reverential?

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