Something strange was coming. The chill in my old bones would not leave as I stood my post, protecting the city. The usual trickle of people awaited entrance as my companions inspected belongings and welcomed each person in turn. My eyes caught a young man who held a doll on one arm, allowing her to sit. As they approached, the doll’s eyes glanced in my direction, and she smiled slowly. By the time the others looked, she resumed a proper doll’s stoic gaze forward.
Only one person noticed my shock. It was Nathel. “Bert, is something wrong?” he asked quietly.
I shook my head. He wouldn’t believe me. “Nothing. I just thought the doll was prettier than others I seen.” I forced a smile.
Nathel laughed. “Yeah, she looks almost like she could start moving any moment.” He nodded as he watched the others inspect the man for anything suspicious. It was strange enough he was travelling without any baggage, and stranger still that he was unarmed, and carried only a doll and stick that reminded me of a wand.
Had it been my call, I would have had him held. It wasn’t my place, however. Nathel waved to let them pass, and I watched them go. The doll looked back at me and winked.
A cold chill ran down my spine. We just let someone very dangerous in. I forced a cough and excused myself. As such an elderly guardsman, nobody thought anything wrong with it as I walked into the city. I limped my way through the streets, tailing the man and his doll as they meandered about.
They stopped at many stalls, and the man chattered with various shopkeepers. Finally, he bought a single apple and stopped to speak with one of the guards nearby. The guard led them as they walked toward the park. Now and then, when nobody was looking, the doll looked back at me, then spoke quietly to the man who held her, before she resumed her seat.
I felt myself bristle each time. This pair frightened me. They looked absolutely harmless at first blush, but the more I watched, the more the man moved with the grace of an assassin. The doll’s gaze was devilish. I pretended to gaze elsewhere every time the doll looked back, but I knew it was silly. She knew my face, and by now, I was sure she knew I was suspicious of the two of them.
Once at the park, they entered at a casual pace. I continued to follow at a distance.
They arrived at a well, and the man kissed the doll’s head and waited for the guard to leave. Once it was only the two of them near the old stone well, he looked in my direction as he set the doll lightly on her feet on the well’s wall.
The man called out to me. “Come out, old man. We know you followed us.”
A lump formed in my throat, and I limped into the open. My leg erupted with pain, and I nearly fell. “Yeah. I admit it.” I sighed.
He chuckled. “Just trying to make sure your city is safe, I’m sure.”
“Especially since I’m a stranger carrying a naughty doll.” His eyes narrowed, and I absently tugged at the collar of my uniform. Something about this encounter was making my knee ache all the more, and it took every ounce of my strength to keep upright. The man spoke again, and it seemed he moved far too quickly, that he was suddenly right in front of me. “Go back to your post and forget you saw us.” His tone was icy and carried a threat, like a foreign prince with a horrible weapon among his army.
The pain was almost unbearable. I collapsed, and by the time I woke again, both man and doll were gone. His threat resounded in my mind, and I rose carefully to return to my post.
The rest of the day went by with no problem, and I went home that night to my empty house. My daughter was married and lived in a city far away. My wife was long-dead. I paid a neighbor woman to do my laundering, and cooked simply. My life was an act of existence, rather than living. I went to bed without bothering to feed myself, and woke early as I felt a heavy weight on my chest.
As I opened my eyes, I saw that doll and stared. Pain returned to my knee like a hammer smashing it. “Go.” I begged through my pain.
The doll began to laugh. Her hair was fluffy, and her dress was full of frills, laces, and puffed out. She looked very endearing and sweet. Her eyes were large and filled with glee, and her tiny mouth curled in happiness. “No! My friend wanted me to play with you.” She giggled.
“You’re trouble.” I groaned as I tried to dislodge her by rolling over.
The doll simply shifted to my hip. “Mmhm.” she agreed in a high, sweet voice, much like a child’s. “Very much trouble, but I am your guest, and you should offer me sweets.”
I furrowed my brows. “Ugh. Why did you come here? I have no sweets.” I tried to pull my blanket over my head. I was still exhausted.
“That doesn’t matter, because I am your guest. If you don’t have any sweets, I suppose it can’t be helped.” She frowned. “At least get out of bed and stop being so rude, though.” She huffed and turned, then slid from my bed. “Get up, you boring old man.”
With irritation, I threw my blankets off to reveal my nude form as I walked to the hook my clothing rested on. I dressed, and glanced to one side in time to catch the red-faced doll covering her eyes, her mouth open in shock. My knee still ached, and I was surprised I was able to walk so ably. I walked past her out of the room and headed to my kitchen. May as well feed her something, I thought.
As I sliced an apple for her and removed the bruises and seeds, the man returned. His wand was covered in blood, as was his arm. The doll rushed out to him.
“He sleeps in the nude! How could you send me here when you knew that!” She accused as she clung to his leg. The man laughed and sat, then took one of the slices of apple from the plate.
“It’s fine, little one. You were the one who sat on top of him when he was sleeping.” He glanced at me. “Though you could have shown better taste around a lady, sir.” He narrowed his eyes at me, and I glared back.
“Whose blood is that?” I asked.
“A dead person’s.” He looked surprised that I asked. “It’s really of no concern.”