I turned dejectedly toward the boat. It was gone. My guide had already taken it several hundred yards off into the sky. I was stranded. No doubt he was having a hearty laugh at my misfortune.
I don’t think he realized he was doing me a favor. With nowhere to run, I had to face my failure head on. I whirled back toward the monolith and pounded angrily on the stone. A few moments later the narrow slit whooshed open again. “Eh? Still here?”
“I’ve been tracking you for years, sir,” I said as firmly as I could. There was a slight whimper in my voice, but I fought to keep it under control. “I spent a small fortune. I crawled through the armpit of every talamh hunting for clues. I chased a few dozen false leads. I will not be turned away without a proper audience.”
He rolled his eyes. “Typical. There’s one every millennium or so. When are you young bucks going to learn that there’s a damn good reason people like me make ourselves so hard to find? It ain’t because we want to lead you on a merry chase that tests your mettle and builds your character. In your case, I couldn’t give a lij’s ass about either of those things. Did it ever dawn on you that I didn’t actually want to be found?”
“It did, sir. But I thought it worth trying anyway.”
“Hmmph. Well, then you’re smarter than most of the other fools and maybe also a bit dumber to boot.”
The slit slammed shut again. Before I could protest I heard another click, rather like that of a lock, and the entire face of the monolith faded away. In its place was a short, unassuming man with leathery skin and deep, knowledgeable eyes. His white linen tunic and loose pants fluttered in the breeze, and he leaned heavily on a thick walking stick.
“But as it stands I happen to have a little task just perfect for someone that stubborn. Come on in, kid.”
I nearly tripped over myself to obey. The rock reappeared behind me with a rather ominous click, leaving us in the dark. Bramble lit a lamp on the wall, casting an eerie glow over the inside. Surprisingly we were in a long hallway, built of wood rather than stone, with a long red carpet running down the middle. Doors lined the walls as far as my eye could see.
“Come on, stop staring!” Bramble beckoned. He was already several yards away, and moving quickly. “What did you say your name was again?”
I hurried to catch up with him. I noticed that each door had a slightly different knob, many shaped like the faces of what I could only assume were various types of Feirnann. They were wild, animal-looking things, and I could’ve sworn their eyes followed me as I passed. “I didn’t. I don’t have one yet.”
“Ah, right. Lean’Aghan. Rutting annoying custom. Pick something I can call you.”
I spat out the first thing that came to mind. “Call me Thistle!”
Bramble sighed heavily. “Kill me and take my rutting job, why dontcha? Shove the hero worship or I’m dumping you in the middle of Nightmare’s palace. In the scary end, where he keeps his collection of really sharp things.”
Bramble wasn’t at all what I’d expected. Where was the sage, compassionate trainer of the world’s greatest warriors? The most learned scholar of all things Duine? The crotchety old man I’d found was downright crude. It had to be an act, a test of some sort, a trick to try to rile me up. I wasn’t going to fall for it. I kept my mouth shut and walked just a step behind him and to his left, my eyes locked on the floor.
“I am too old for this shit,” he continued. “Tassel, when you get to be my age, you’ll understand the value of staying the rut away from everybody. Helps keep you focused on the things that are really important.”
We stopped in front of a door with a rather ugly knob shaped like a goat with six rolling, curling horns and three eyes above a nasty set of fangs. “Here we are, Tussle! Ready for your first assignment?”
I was speechless. I figured there’d be some training involved, or at least a bit of conversation. We’d barely known each other for five minutes, and already he was sending me away on some errand?
“Eh? You look like you ate someone what didn’t agree with you. Speak up, Thimble!”
I barely choked back the urge to correct him. He was supposed to call me Thistle, damn it! But I knew it was just another cheap trick for trying to make me angry. “Sorry. I—are you sure I’m ready for something like this?”
He closed his left eye and sized me up with his right. “Can you walk straight? Talk straight? See straight?”
“Then you’re perfect! I need eyes in a certain area–eyes that aren’t going to be watched in turn, least not by anyone that matters, and since nobody gives a rut about you Lean’Aghan…”
I was used to that. All of the other Fae, the ones with names and castes, treated we Lean’Aghan like dirt. But it was different hearing it from the lips of someone I idolized.
The doorknob bleated angrily when Bramble took hold of it. “Quiet, beasty!” he warned it, added a quick whack to its jaw with his walking stick. It quickly stopped protesting. Bramble turned the knob and shoved the door open, revealing rolling hills, a pristine river…and an obviously mortal city, a ramshackle collection of brick, mortar, and wood that was a real stain on the surrounding landscape.
“That’s Terre Haute. You’re to wait there for something very interesting to happen. When it happens, you follow it. But you keep your distance, see? That’s the important part, Tattle-my-boy: you follow it but you do not, under any circumstances, reveal yourself to anyone involved. You follow it until you can’t follow it anymore and then you contact me.”
I was suddenly very afraid. The mortal realm was a place of legend, an untamed frontier of strange creatures with even stranger customs. They aged. They died. It all lead to a lot of selfishness and short-sighted decision making. I didn’t want to go.
“But how will I know when this very interesting thing happens? And how will I contact you?”
Bramble sighed again and took firm hold of my arm. His grip was surprisingly strong. “You’ll know. And now that you’re working for me, just ask a raven. Little monsters will smell me on you and act accordingly.”
Before I could protest further he shoved me headlong through the door and into the Dying Lands. I landed in a heap on the grass, looking back just in time to watch the door close between the trunks of two trees knotted together in a sort of heart shape. The door had disappeared before I could so much as stand.
I stood, brushed myself off, and eyed Terre Haute nervously. If waiting and watching was what Bramble wanted, then that was what he’d get.