The closer I came to the mortal city, the more I realized I was completely out of my element. Perhaps it was the gradual fading of the Aiemer as I walked further and further from the fairy gate my mentor had closed behind me. Perhaps it was the brick and mortar monstrosities looming bigger and bigger on the horizon. Or perhaps it was the traveling merchant who sicced his ferocious hound upon me when I surprised him by stepping soundlessly from the woods. The terrible beast chased me deep into the swamp outside the city before finally giving up and turning back.
In that swamp I stayed for several weeks, taking shelter beneath the collapsed branches of some sort of cypress. My new little home was cramped and muddy and wouldn’t have been much good for entertaining company, but it kept me out of the rain (mostly) and the harsh sun (mostly). In the Dreaming Lands, I simply would’ve willed the land into providing me with shelter. Having to actually find it was an odd experience, but one that I felt proved I could make it in this strange realm.
I spent my days wandering as close to the road as I dared, careful to keep myself hidden in the dense foliage, watching the endless stream of merchants and adventurers moving up and down the road and listening closely for any mention of events that might fit my mission. I may not have been in the city, but I was sure I was close enough that I’d know if anything interesting were to happen. Truth be told, the snippets of conversation I heard almost bored me to tears. I didn’t think Bramble was interested in Besnia’s three-legged cow or how the fishing had turned sour in Hanter’s Creek. If he was, he’d sent the wrong person. Some of the wilder stories about the nearby mah’saiid ruins were entertaining, but they were obviously just fantasy and rumor.
I slept little, so at night I took in the stars. The night sky in the Dreaming was often transient and fleeting, quickly replaced by Diuntyne or daylight or some strange combination thereof, but there in the swamp the world actually gave me time to admire the heavens, the way the stars slowly danced around each other and the moons. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that the Dying Lands did this one better than the Dreaming, but it certainly was fantastic to watch.
One Diuntyne, after a long day of skulking and eavesdropping and various other clandestine activities, I found a group of trappers had taken up residence in my lean-to. Two men, two older and one younger. They’d lit a small fire beside my shelter and set a piece of unidentifiable meat above it on some sort of metal contraption they turned every few minutes. The lifeless corpses of several small, furry creatures hung limply from a line strung between two nearby trees, staining the mud below red with dripping blood. I gagged and looked away from the macabre scene, shutting my eyes tight. I’d read about the brutality of the Duine, but I’d always assumed such commentary to be the result of the author’s To’Sidhe’Lien bent, repressed or otherwise. No combination of ink and parchment could’ve prepared me for the gruesome reality.
Something hard and sharp pressed into my back between my shoulder blades. I knew I’d been caught. I kept my eyes closed and stayed stock still, hoping in vain that whoever it was would just go away.
“Stand up,” a rough voice commanded. I did as instructed, slowly so as not to startle the fellow and his blade. “What business ‘ave ye here?”
“Th-this is my home,” I stuttered. “I l-live here.”
“Yer home, eh?” I’d studied the Duine languages and spoke many fluently, including the local Nefazo tongue, but the speaker’s harsh inflection and obvious lack of proper speech education made him difficult to understand. “Ye weren’t here last we come through two moons ago. Or two moons ‘afore that. Been trappin’ these swamps fer years and ain’t never seen ye before.”
“I-I’m new to the neighborhood,” I replied, trying hard to keep my bladder from overreacting.
“Oh, new to the neighborhood?” he said mockingly. “Well let me be the first to extend a warm welcome, ye rutting pile of habback sh-”
“Rody!” an even deeper and rougher voice interrupted. The old man at the camp was on his feet now, the firelight flickering across the impressive girth of his bare chest and bulging stomach. “What’s ‘at ye got over there? Ain’t a lawman, is it? If’n it is, ye let him go!”
“Naw, Pap!” Rody responded. “Jes’ some smart ass thinks he owns our camp!”
“I was just borrowing it,” I sputtered meekly. The blade pressed closer, ending my attempts to reason with Rody.
“Well, bring him here,” Pap replied. “Let’s ‘ave a look at him.”
Rody shoved me forward so hard I almost fell. “If I see ye so much as thinkin’ ’bout runnin’ I’ll gut ye where ye stand.”
The thought of myself strung up on the line with the rest of the creatures unlucky enough to have crossed these hooligans was almost enough to make me throw up. I stumbled down the bank and across the water as quickly as I dared, desperately seeking to reach the seemingly more reasonable Pap as soon as I could without making Rody suspect I was thinkin’ ’bout runnin’.
“Close enough,” Pap muttered when I reached the fire. The man was truly huge, about my height, his skin like leather and his linen pants fit to burst. One of his eyes had been replaced with a milky ball of glass I couldn’t help staring at. The third trapper, who was even younger than he looked from afar, stayed seated and picked at his fingernails disinterestedly. Rody stayed behind me, out of sight but constantly reminding me of his presence by slowly dragging his blade across my back like some sort of demented painter would a brush. These were rough, hard men, men who lived short lives in an unforgiving wilderness. For the first time, I legitimately wished I’d never set out to find Bramble.
“What’s ye name, sonny?” Pap asked, his thumbs hitched inside his belt.
I didn’t understand why he was comparing me to daylight, but I answered nonetheless. “Thistle.”
The boy beside me laughed. “Stupid name,” he squeaked.
“Ye be a strange one, Thistle,” Pap replied thoughtfully, appraising me up and down. “Ye look like us, mostly, but ye move differently, like a slow summer breeze. Ye face is different. Taller. Long toes, even longer fingers.”
I knew all this, of course. The differences between we Lean’aghan and the Duine, specifically these lij, were subtle and easy to miss if one wasn’t paying attention. Some Riddari wondered if we were related somehow…and then those whimsical theories were laughed away by their fellow Secret Keepers, and they focused again on hard facts and figures.
“I know what ye are, Thistle,” Pap droned on. My heart leapt into throat chest, beating against my flesh as if trying to escape. Many Duine thought poorly of my race. “Ye’re one o’ them mah’saiid!”
I took a deep breath and rolled my eyes, thoroughly insulted. “I am not mah’saiid. They are a disgrace upon my kind-”
Rody silenced me with a quick cuff to the back of my head. “Just what a mah’saiid would say if’n he didn’t want to admit he was mah’saiid.”
Pap and the boy nodded wisely. “Bind his hands, Rody. We know what’s to do with ye mah’saiid. None of us is fool enough to go trouncin’ through yer ruins like a bunch of nervous nallions, but we knows a man who is. An’ he pays good copper for anythin’ mah’saiid.”