Once upon a time, flowers lived long lives. They are now known to be fleeting, for the most part. They bud. They bloom. They grace the world with their beauty. And then they die. But it was not always so. They lived long lives indeed. Longer than creatures with many legs. Longer than creatures with four legs. Longer than creatures with two legs. And sometimes, even longer than the long-lived beings of the deep.
In those days, there were doctors of teeth already, just as there are now. And in those days, the doctors of teeth were avoided by most, just as they are now. The doctors did their best, just as they do now, the good ones that is. One such doctor of teeth did his best, but failed to root out the deep infection that had taken hold in his patient’s mouth, an infection that had seeped from the teeth to the gums to other teeth, and then began creeping to the patient’s brain and his heart. The man—the patient—was past middle age but not yet old. He died of that infection. A painful and bloody death.
“Alas! We are doomed to die as caterpillars, never having become butterflies.” Lickspittle shook his head. He gazed up and shook several fists at the sky.
Sobersides sighed gravely. “Perhaps tomorrow morning.”
The thief fell from the tower’s upper window. She had lost her precarious grip on the pitted brick. She remembered that she should roll herself up into a loose ball to protect her head and neck. But by the time she remembered, she had already struck the first branch of the tree in the orchard below. Then she struck another and another. Scratched and thrashed and bounced about, she finally reached the ground, thankful that the soil was soft. She lay there for far too long a moment. The breath had been knocked out of her. And she feared moving for fear she might discover that she could not.
No one calls me Hildegard. I insist that all who meet me and know me call me Gard. I was once a wanderer, but I truly am a guard now. This is the tale of how and when my watch began. For I have set myself the task of watching over a child, my sister’s child, a strange child. My hope is that hers will be a good strangeness. My fear is that it will be a wicked strangeness. She does not care for me, my niece, for I broke a promise I made to her many years ago.
“Can you turn into anything?” the little girl asked.
“Not anything. A mouse. A fly. Nothing bigger than myself. There are constraints to my powers. “
The tiny man looked down at his chest and said, “You wouldn’t understand.”
“What’s your name?”
“Must I tell you?”
Razim noticed eyes peeking through the gatehouse window as he and Sidregar passed through the unbarred outer gates and into the trough, the space between the lofty inner and outer walls of the royal capitol. In the trough, merchants, travelers, and beggars could camp the night free from harassment by thieves and other harm, before entering the inner gates in the morning. But this night the trough was bare of tents and of all but the most destitute-looking persons. Razim led his brother to the inner gate and noted that they were lined with iron spikes. Strangely, there were no guardsmen on duty. He peeked through the slats of wood.
The gate swung open with a high wail. Razim swapped curious looks with Sidregar. They paced into the city, scanning the streets for an open inn. The streets were empty. The hour was late indeed, but unless the populace was exceptionally well-behaved, Razim would have expected some patrolling guardsmen, a drunk or two staggering through an alley, children sneaking about. The city seemed abandoned, like much of the country surrounding it, yet they had heard no news of any trouble as they approached this kingdom.
“Why didn’t they lock the gates?” Razim asked.
Sidregar sighed, his breath misting before his face. He tightened the wool scarf around his neck.
“Because the danger is already inside.” He pointed to a sign on the side of the Dropwing Inn, below the board that proclaimed the inn full.
Razim leaned to his right to read it. “Beware of Ogre.”