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Night came. The light drained away behind the western sea, and the cloudy sky turned from gray to black. The freshening wind began to blow in from the waves, and decent folk retreated indoors to warm hearths and dry beds away from the salt air. Lamps along the docks guttered. Merrick walked the streets alone, and unseen.


Manderia, oldest of cities, had stood for time out of mind. It extended back into the history of the world, seemingly immutable, as though it had always stood. In the worn stone foundations, eyes that knew what to look for could find remnants of the buildings of five hundred years ago. An intrepid historian armed with spade and lantern might dig down into the soil beneath the cobbles and find ruins even older, as well as a line of charred and blackened earth from some cataclysmic fire long ago.


Merrick's eyes saw it all as it had been, superimposed over the alleys and streets of the modern city. He could, if he wished, walk the streets of years gone by, and from time to time, he did so- if only to protect his sanity. Lunice, upon first meeting the older man, had seen madness in his eyes. Later, she had come to trust him, if not entirely like him, and had never mentioned it again. Merrick wondered if she still remembered.


A long, high hedge followed the street on one side, forming an impenetrable wall of foliage against the willow trees beyond. It was the western edge of Moore Park, or should have been, according to geography. Merrick had been behind the wall of green and ivy, and had seen things which did not exist in Moore Park, and never had. There was a narrow path that could sometimes be found, walking in the right streets at the right time. It led into the hedge-wall, and beyond into the nighted willow groves. And in the grove, in that hill which was made not by the hand of man or the ravages of nature, she would be waiting for him.


Part of him ached to go to her, for good or ill. To speak with her and look into dark eyes again, even if it meant his own returned madness and displacement.


He would not. The time was not ready. He was not ready.


"Captain?"


He turned around.


"Wekli," he said. "Don't call me captain. I'll tolerate that from the others- while on duty- but if you and Lunice start doing it, I'm apt to go right off my chair and start believing it. So don't."


"Sure thing, Captain."


"I'm going to have that elf-woman tan your hide."


'Sounds like fun."


Merrick shook his head. "Shut my mouth. What brings you out here, Wekli."


The ranger half-smiled. "It's my patrol. I'm a watchman now, Captain."


"Oh, bloody hell. Of course." Merrick sighed. "I'm sorry. I was a thousand miles away."


"And staring at those vines and bushes."


"Yes."


Wekli waited. Merrick dug a smoke from his vest and pretended not to notice.


Wekli leaned forward. "Well?"


"Hmm? Well what?"


"Why were you staring at the wall, Merrick?"


Merrick flicked a match alight. "Thinking of the past. That's all."


"Sure." Wekli went and stood beside Merrick, but- being not a smoker- did not bring out a pipe or pouch himself. Instead, he looked out at the hedge-wall himself, an frowned. "Odd thing to be looking at. It looks..."


Merrick raised his eyebrows.


Wekli shook his head. "I don't know what it looks like. Something strange about it...as thought I had a dream once..." He seemed to shake off whatever enchantment had taken hold of him. "I don't know what I'm talking about. I swear I haven't felt right since the weather changed." He raised his sleek head to the wind. "This isn't normal weather for summer, Merrick."


"I know."


"It doesn't even feel normal, even unseasonably normal. I can smell the changes in the wind. Nothing smells right. If the wind were right, a storm would be building on the horizon- and don't tell me it is, please! I've had that conversation at least six times today. I'm just turning my wheels in mud here. Sorry."


"You're fine." Merrick put an arm around Wekli's shoulders. Well, almost fine. I'm not the herbalist you are, but I'd say by your color you aren't getting enough nutrients today. "




Wekli raised an eyebrow. "Oh aye?"


"Aye indeed. But there's an easy cure. I recommend two pints of bitter, followed by a glass of mead at the Seven Stars."


"And that will make me feel better, will it?"


"Nope!" Merrick grinned. "But you won't care, either."


He led the younger man away.


The figure watching from behind the hedge-wall stepped back into the darker shadows, and was gone.

------
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.


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The following comments are for "Manderia - 18"
by Beckett Grey





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