Thursday, April 17, 2014
The strong mercenary felt a shiver of unease prickle the back of his neck. His well-honed senses told him that he was being watched, and experience told him that there was usually only one explanation... assassins...
Falling behind his companions as they strode confidently towards the town inn, the tall and broad shouldered mercenary carefully scanned the area around him. Inexplicable tingling indicated that whoever wanted him dead stood mere feet from him, hiding in a shadow. His brows furrowed as he stared intently at the shadow. No matter how hard he looked, there was nothing there.
“Something wrong, Cam?” One of his companions asked him curiously, also staring into the shadow, but not finding anything worth looking at.
“I'm not sure...” He murmured vaguely, stepping closer to the shadow so that he could sweep his arm through it. His hand brushed against the wall, proving that there was nothing there after all. With a shrug, he turned to join his friends, one eye over his shoulder in case he had missed something.
Wow... A woman mentally exhaled in awe as she stared at him. She was squatting defensively, nearly two feet under where his hand had been, her breathing silent from long habit. He's so tall! And gorgeous...
Shaking his head, he quickly disappeared into the inn. The woman felt bereft without him, and wondered who he was and what he was doing in this small town. He and his companions had the look of hired soldiers about them, but to her knowledge, there was no work for such men around here.
I should slip inside the inn and listen in on their boasting. She told herself, then shook her head and muttered aloud: “No... he's so tall that he's almost a giant. There's no way that he would be interested in me...”
With a sigh of disgust, she stood up and brushed any possible dirt from the building off her backside. At just shy of 4 and a half feet tall, she looked like a child instead of the fully grown woman that she was. Her loose clothing more than hid her small curves, and with her hair in a braid and tucked under a cap, she looked like a boy. If people could see her, that was.
She looked down at her hands, but as expected, there was nothing there to see. It was a strange gift that had confused her as a child, often making her wonder if she was a ghost. Whenever she was nervous – as far back as she could remember – she would simply disappear. Her mother had done a great job of making her feel safe and loved, and so may not have even known about this gift, but she had died many years ago.
From the age of 10, Alyssa had had to take care of herself. At first, she simply ran the farm that her mother had left her, but then one day, her neighbors came over to check up on her. When they couldn't find her, they assumed that she must be dead, claimed all of her animals, and divided up her property. Alyssa simply stood there, frozen in horror wondering why no one could see her when she was standing right in front of them. She tried several times to clear her throat and tell them to leave her alone, but her voice refused to work.
She had no where to go, but after a few days passed, she grew hungry enough that she had to leave in search of something to eat. Thankfully, she knew how to use a sling shot and was able to hunt small animals. Even so, she turned invisible whenever people came close to her, and so she became convinced that she was nothing more than the ghost they said she was – those people that could feel her presence but not see her.
“Ghosts don't eat!” She reminded herself with a derisive scoff. With an extraordinary amount of will power, she made herself visible. A sigh of relief betrayed the fact that was still half afraid that she didn't exist after all. Letting go, she faded to nothing once more.
Inside the inn, the mercenary tried his best to ignore his misgivings and drink his ale, but the prickling along his spine just wouldn't go away. When the door opened again, he scrutinized the man who burst in as if he owned the place. His feeling of being watched increased dramatically, but there was no one with the clearly peaceful man to explain the sensation.
“Innkeep! A bottle of your best wine and something hot to fill my stomach!” The man demanded, obviously a Lord of some sort.
The mercenary snapped his gaze to his best friend. “Ben...?”
“You're unusually quiet, Cam,” Ben stated. Their three friends nodded in agreement.
Cameron shrugged, and then decided to lie. “I'm just trying to figure out what our next job is going to be.”
“Ah, no worries!” Ben roared confidently. “A job will fall in our laps sooner or later.”
“One always does,” Ivan agreed with a grin.
“A job, eh?” The Lord inquired with interest. He was already sitting at a table with a mug of ale as he waited for his food. “You wouldn't happen to be interested in guarding a caravan, would you?”
Ben tapped Cameron on the chest with a smug smile. Cameron choked back a wry laugh and cleared his throat. “What size caravan?”
“Not very big at all,” the Lord assured them. “Just five wagons.”
Cameron looked to the floor as he thought this over. The sense of uneasiness he felt shifted to the door leading to the kitchen, which then opened to reveal a maid carrying a tray of food. The sensation faded a little as the door swung shut behind her. She delivered the tray to the Lord, flirting shamelessly as she did so.
The moment she went back towards the kitchen, Cameron smiled and continued the conversation. “Where is the caravan going?”
“To the Imperial City, just 10 days west of here.”
Cameron looked around at his companions. They were all eager to accept the job, but left the decision up to him because he had proven to have the best sense of danger. If he felt that something was off about the Lord or this job, they'd respect his decision to decline the offer.
“How much are you willing to pay us?” Cameron asked.
“10 gold apiece.”
“10 gold!” Ben roared incredulously.
Cameron narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Why so much?”
The Lord laughed boisterously. “There's nothing nefarious going on, I assure you. I simply am willing to pay generously to ensure that my wine gets to its destination intact and on time.” His mood changed completely and he sighed morosely. “My last shipment was attacked by bandits. My men are strong, but they're farmers. I could use some skilled swords for hire.”
The maid appeared from the kitchen with a pitcher of ale, and Cameron noticed that the shiver along his spine got stronger again.
“More ale for you fine men?” The maid flirted, winking at Cameron. He couldn't help but notice that she had plump breasts arranged specifically to draw the eye. They all held up their mugs in a silent gesture of acceptance.
“Do any of you plan to wash up tonight?” She asked, unconsciously stroking her neck with the back of her free hand. “We have tubs out back that can be prepared for you.”
“I wouldn't mind a bath,” Ben informed her with a lusty grin.”
“Oh,” she giggled, twirling her blonde hair around a finger. “I think somehow that you are not referring to a bath, but rather the fun that can be had after it.”
Ben tilted his head side to side, grinning.
“There are two of us maids to be had, but we each cost a silver piece. However, for that price, we will also help you bathe,” she informed him with a grin.
“I'll go first!” Ivan volunteered, getting to his feet as he downed the rest of his ale.
“My sister Bruna will help you,” the maid replied, pointing towards the kitchen where her mirror image stood watching them.
“Gertrude and I are twins,” Bruna stated needlessly.
“And the most beautiful girls in town!” The innkeeper boasted proudly. He was continually grateful that these two attracted plenty of customers and did an excellent job as maids, though he did have daughters to clean up if they got too busy providing extra services.
Ben and Hurron were locked in a form of minor combat; the fine art of arm-wrestling. The winner crowed in triumph before jumping up. “I volunteer too!”
Ben sighed grumpily, waving at Hurron as he followed Gertrude.
The Lord chuckled heartily. “I see you lost a couple of your men! Does this mean that your group declines my offer?”
Cameron shook his head. “Not at all, they simply trust me to decide for all of us. Let me get this straight, you want us to defend your caravan of wine from bandits until we reach the Imperial City, in exchange for 10 gold pieces each?”
“That's correct,” the Lord confirmed.
“Then we have a deal,” Cameron stated with a nod.
“Excellent! We depart two hours after sunrise, er...”
Ben laughed, getting to his feet and bowing to the Lord. “That's Cam the Red, and I'm Ben the Bloody. On my right is William the Glutton, and those two that just left are Ivan the Horrible and Hurron the Insane.”
The Lord glanced at each of them for a moment before staring at the door where the two companions had disappeared. One could almost see him wondering how anyone obtained the moniker of Insane. A bit nervously, he cleared his throat. “And I am David, Lord of Oakland Vineyard. Pleased to meet you.”
“I wonder if there is any more food to eat while we wait our turn for a bath?” William asked, interrupting Cameron's response.
“One moment,” the Innkeeper murmured in response. “Lilah!”
“Yes father?” A young woman answered, poking her head through the kitchen doorway just long enough to hear him.
“More food for our guests!”
“Yes father,” she replied, rushing to obey.
Cameron smiled at Lord David. “We'll be ready on time, but where shall we meet?”
“My place,” he said, giving them direction. With a frown, he bit his lip. “One thing is bothering me... why are you called the Red? I notice you do have a reddish tint to your dark blond hair, but not enough to...”
Cameron shrugged, but Ben burst out laughing. “It's because he frequently turns red with the blood of our enemies!”
“And Bloody was already taken,” Cameron added with a wry smile.
“Here's your food!” Lilah announced with a smile.
“Mmm...” William groaned. “Any chance you'd be willing to sit on my lap and feed me?”
“I know what you want, sir, and my body is not for sale!” Lilah stated indignantly.
William sighed in defeat. “I was afraid you'd say that...” he said just before she turned and walked back to the kitchen.
The room fell silent as each man ate his food. The Lord finished first, excusing himself so that he could return home and get some rest. Ben pushed his unfinished plate away when one of the twins beckoned to him from the doorway. This left Cameron alone with William, and the lingering sense that someone was watching him.
“I get the next one!” William called out
Cameron chuckled. “That just means more ale for me!”
The clock chimed, prompting the innkeeper to walk around locking the place up. “I'll be heading to bed soon, so if you need anything, now's the time to ask.”
“Just one more refill,” Cameron replied, holding up his mug.
The innkeeper nodded. “The five of you are sharing the attic, which is plenty spacious, but I'd appreciate it if you all took care not to stomp around.”
Cameron nodded in understanding. Once the innkeeper had left, he teased William. “Did you hear that? No lumbering around like an ox!”
“Ha Ha,” William retorted, rolling his eyes.
“Which one of you wants a bath next?” Gertrude asked.
“I do,” William stated. He stood and followed her, watching as her hips swayed enticingly.
Now alone, Cameron stood to pace the room. He felt crazy, but his senses insisted that there was someone sitting in the corner watching him.
“My father said that you wanted a refill,” Lilah stated as she emerged from the kitchen. Cameron nodded and gestured to his cup. She lifted the cup but paused before filling it. “Would you consider joining me for a romp in the hay?”
Cameron frowned in confusion. “I... thought your body wasn't for sale...”
“It's not, but occasionally I like to choose a lover,” she clarified. Setting the empty mug and full pitcher on the table, she stepped closer to him. “I don't choose just anybody, but there's something about you...” she whispered, rising up onto her tiptoes and pressing her lips to his.
Cameron smiled, taking her hand in his. If he were honest, she wasn't really his type, being average in height with reddish brown hair and icy blue eyes, but at the moment, he preferred her to the two who had just serviced his companions. “I'm at your service.”
Lilah led him through the kitchen and out a door which led to the barn. She pointed at a ladder. “The loft should give us plenty of privacy.”
Meanwhile, Alyssa was torn between following them or not. She wasn't prone to watching people have sex, but she felt like it was hard to breathe without him. Her body felt drawn to him as if they were magnets. Without wanting to, her feet took steps in the direction he went.
In the kitchen, she heard a couple of girls giggling. “Lilah got the handsome one. Bruna and Gertrude are going to be so mad! I think they were planning to do him together!”
They passed her on their way to clean up the tables. Alyssa could only guess that Cam the Red had gone out the other door. She pilfered some buttered buns as she went, grateful that they disappeared the moment she touched them.
The barn is as good as anywhere to sleep tonight anyway, Alyssa thought as she entered the barn. Soft rustling confirmed her suspicion that the lovers had indeed come this way. She slowly climbed the ladder, taking care to ensure that it didn't squeak as she ascended.
The lovers were currently fully dressed, laying on several bales of straw as they kissed. Each shifted frequently as they stoked and petted the other. Lilah moaned softly, pushing her body into his, allowing him to unlace her bodice.
“Before we go any further,” Cameron whispered huskily. “I probably should wash up. I've been on the road for days...”
Lilah hummed in thought. “Well, it won't be warm, but we do have a cistern to catch and store rainwater on the roof of the barn. It has pipes that lead to troughs in the barn, and one of the pipes is over there. We women often come up here to wash in private when the inn is full and we don't want to be leered at.”
“That'll do just fine,” Cameron informed her with a smile.
Lilah held his hand and led him to a round washing tub that was just barely big enough for him to sit in. Lilah correctly guessed that he didn't want to sit in the tub and would prefer to stand as she scrubbed him up and rinsed him off. A simple twist of a valve allowed water to drain into the tub while Lilah helped Cameron out of his clothes.
Not knowing they planned to come this way, Alyssa sat just a few feet from the tub. She'd been quietly eating her pilfered food, and now tried her best to ignore them. She had actually seen male nudity before because – not knowing that she was there, plenty of men had washed up after a long day of working in the fields or after hunting near a river or pond. This wasn't a new sight for her, and yet...
Oh my... her eyes were round and her mouth hung open in shock. She tried to block her vision with a hand, but her fingers separated to let her see anyway. That thing's huge!
Lilah gasped in delight. “My goodness! You certainly are blessed!”
Cameron chuckled. “So I've been told.”
Turning the valve to stop the water, Lilah busied herself by first stripping, and then gathering up a wash cloth and a small bar of soap. They took turns washing each other, then rinsing each other, before playfully rubbing each other with a towel. The towel was then tossed on the straw bales to prevent scratches.
Alyssa blushed all the way to her toes – as far as she could tell – when he lay her on the bales and buried his face between her legs. She squeezed her eyes shut and covered her ears as she finished chewing her food. I'm sorry I followed you!
During the course of her life, she'd come across people having sex in the woods or even in alleyways, but it was usually quick and to the point. She'd expected him to push up Lilah's skirt and maybe expose his buttocks as he thrust into his lover, but this was something completely different! I didn't know that people did things like that!
Meanwhile, despite her hands in her ears, Alyssa could clearly hear Lilah's moans of pleasure. Little gasps and sighs that gradually turned into higher pitched squeals. Alyssa couldn't help but open her eyes at that point, watching as she was scooped up and then settled onto his lap.
A long time passed as Alyssa alternated closing her eyes with opening them and watching. Why don't I just leave? She wondered, but didn't because she felt literally stuck in place. Almost like she was tied to him. Her hands remained firmly pressed to her ears, but eventually, curiosity got the better of her and she gave into the impulse to watch them.
Lilah looked as if she was staring right at Alyssa, though a quick check assured her that she was still invisible. The look in Lilah's eyes was strange, like she was utterly overcome with bliss despite being on her hands and knees like a dog. A glance up proved that Cam the Red had a similar look in his eyes, and that he was also staring vaguely in her direction as he continually thrust into his lover.
I wonder what that feels like, Alyssa mentally told herself as she tilted her head to the side and stared into Lilah's eyes. Guttural grunts – peppered by squeals from Lilah – drew her attention back to the man that fascinated her so much. I wonder what it would be like to give him such pleasure...
Her heart skipped a beat at that thought.
With a roar, the couple collapsed onto the towel covered bales of straw. Lilah panted heavily. “That was amazing!”
“Yes,” Cameron agreed, one arm holding her close. He panted lightly, as if he was used to such arduous exercise. His gaze drifted toward the tub for a moment before going to the ladder.
“Something wrong?” Lilah asked.
“Not really. I just can't shake the feeling that someone is watching me.”
Lilah giggled. “It's probably my youngest sister. She's only 12 and still can't understand why anyone would do such a thing.”
“Tell her that I'll be happy to show her when she's older,” Cameron murmured with a chuckle.
Lilah giggled again, and then sighed happily. “I wish I could lay here with you all night.” She kissed him twice, savoring each one thoroughly. “But I can't.”
“Why not?” Cameron wondered, stroking her back.
“If my father caught us, he'd probably whip us both until we bleed,” Lilah stated with a shrug.
“He wants us to save our virginity for marriage so that we can attract better husbands.”
“I thought only the nobility did that,” Cameron replied, puzzled.
“Usually,” Lilah confirmed. She stood up and looked around for her dress.
Cameron sighed. “Then I suppose that I should return to my friends.”
“Before you go, might I know your name?” Lilah asked formally, hopeful that he might want to be her lover again in the future.
“Cameron,” he replied with a devilish grin as he pulled on his pants, and then gathered up his belongings.
“Cameron,” Lilah stated dreamily as Alyssa mentally rolled it around and around.
All too soon, Alyssa was alone in the barn loft, the urge to follow him diminishing the farther away he got. She sighed in relief as the quiet settled on her skin. With a sensation like ice melting, she became visible.
“I guess I get to bathe too,” she murmured to herself, then rushed to do so. Eventually, she settled down and went to sleep.
“Hurry up and milk the cows before our guests wake up and want their breakfast!” A strong matronly voice commanded.
Alyssa jolted awake, a tingling alerting her that her invisibility reflex had activated. She looked around to make sure that all her belongings were still in her bag, and that it was on hand. She slipped it over her shoulder, and then giggled when she noticed that the straw bales flickered with invisibility too. If she touched them with her bare skin, they disappeared, but if only a part of her that was covered contacted them, they appeared. It was funny, even though she was used to this happening. Slowly getting up in order to remain quiet, the bales reappeared and stayed visible the moment she stopped touching them.
She naturally moved as silently as possible as she descended the ladder and then walked into the kitchen. Pilfering food was a long habit whenever she wasn't able to hunt; mmm, meat pie! The small pastry disappeared into her hand before anyone could notice one missing. She watched Lilah pour fermented milk into a cup from an earthen jug, and then grabbed the cup when Lilah's back was turned.
“Hey! Lana! Did you take the cup I had?” Lilah demanded in outrage.
“No. Why?” Lana asked curiously.
“Well Lilliana doesn't care for fermented milk, so it had to be you,” Lilah insisted.
“But I didn't!” Lana protested.
Alyssa hastily followed the brusque matron out to the dining area. Cameron was just coming down the stairs, his friends following him. He looked every bit as glorious now as he had the previous night. He hesitated on the last stair, looking around the room suspiciously.
“We have to hurry, we have barely an hour until we're supposed to meet with Lord David,” Ben reminded him.
Cameron nodded, shaking off the uneasy feeling he had. He sat down and quietly brooded until their food arrived. His friends gave him questioning looks as they chatted, finding his silence unusual.
Meanwhile, Alyssa had consumed her freshly baked but cooled meat pie and cup of fermented milk. She waited until no one was looking, and then very carefully set the cup on an empty table. Another look around ensured that no one was looking in this direction as she removed each finger – one by one. After it appeared on the table, she retreated to a corner to sit in an empty chair by the warm fire.
“Can I get you anything else?” Lilah asked sweetly.
They each asked for things like extra butter or their favorite breakfast drink. Lilah nodded and turned to retrieve the requested items. She stopped short.
“That's weird...” she muttered, walking to the table to pick up her cup. An inspection proved that it had traces of fermented milk in it, and thus was likely to be the cup that went missing. “How did that get here?”
“What do you mean?” Cameron asked curiously.
She smiled at him affectionately, then shrugged. “Just that I poured this for myself not 10 minutes ago, and when I turned my back for just a moment, it vanished.”
“I think it was there when we came down the stairs,” Ben replied. “Someone must have played a prank on you.”
“Must have,” Lilah murmured. She carried the cup back into the kitchen, shaking her head in disbelief the entire way.
William the Glutton nudged Cameron before tilting his head after Lilah a couple of times. Cameron simply nodded, not bragging or gloating in the slightest. William harrumphed in satisfaction. “I thought so. She seemed to have her eye on you right before you disappeared for over an hour.”
Alyssa dozed off as they ate, snapping back awake when they stood up to leave. She had no idea why, but she couldn't just let him leave without her. Utterly invisible, she followed them to the public stables to retrieve their horses, and then jogged to keep up with them on the way to Lord David's. Thankfully, they didn't go too fast since he lived close by.
“Just in time!” David greeted them cheerfully. “We just have to secure the cargo, and then we're off!”
Alyssa realized that there'd be no way she could keep up with them. Her heart constricted painfully with the thought that he was about to leave her behind. Her heart raced as panic coursed through her veins. I need to be with him!
“There! That should do it!” David announced when the cargo was secured to his satisfaction. He gestured for everyone to wait where they were as he went to say goodbye to his wife.
This gave Alyssa the ability to sneak closer to Cameron as she desperately tried to think of a way to stay with him. Cameron was searching the ground as if trying to find something he dropped. A frown marred his handsome face while his eyes seemed to follow her.
When she got as close to him as she dared, she realized that there was plenty of room for her to sit on top of the cargo if she was careful. It took her quite some time to climb into the cart and settle so that no one would hear her, but she managed to do so just in time.
David grinned at his men – both hired and not – and then boomed joyously: “Let's move out!”
His men nodded, cracking whips to signal the horses to get going. The men soon settled into a good pace, and then started telling jokes and bantering lightly. Alyssa was lulled into a light sleep by the motion of the wagon.
“What's wrong?” Ivan the Horrible asked nervously.
“I'm not sure,” Cameron replied uncertainly. “I've had an uneasy feeling ever since we stayed in that inn the other night, but now...”
“What?” William the Glutton prompted curiously.
“Now, it's gotten worse. Now I feel an imminent sense of...”
He didn't even have to finish his sentence before his companions leapt to their feet.
“Excuse me, my Lord, but if Cam the Red senses danger, then we'd better get ready to defend ourselves!” Ben exclaimed.
Alyssa perked up from the rock she was leaning on at the edge of their campsite. She was directly in front of Cameron so that she could stare at him as much as possible. Danger? She looked around to find someplace that she could be out of the way no matter what happened. A tall tree with branches low enough for her to reach seemed like her best choice.
She wasn't nearly as carefully as she would normally be because she didn't have time. Leaves rustled as she settled into place. She held still until they stopped moving.
“What was that?” Ben asked.
Cameron shrugged. “I don't know, but I think that was the cause of my unease, not the imminent danger.”
Alyssa nearly gasped as she saw riders in the distance. She was sorely tempted to call out a warning, but Hurron the Insane spotted them just then. She exhaled in relief, then pulled a small crossbow out of her bag. It fit in her hand easily and worked extremely well on small game. She'd stolen it from a blacksmith a long time ago, and had even learned to modify regular arrows to use as bolts when she needed to replace ones she lost.
The group of riders proved to be 20 heavily armed bandits. They somehow knew that the cargo was expensive wine, and would stop at nothing to steal it for themselves. David was busy praying to every God he knew as he shot arrows at the riders.
Hurron demonstrated why he was called the Insane by running out to greet the bandits with only his sword in hand. Miraculously, he managed to deflect all arrows as he raced towards a horse, cut the tendons in his back legs, and then scalped its rider as the horse fell to the ground. After that, he zipped around like a fearless demon, striking men down so fast that they couldn't defend themselves.
“Hey Hurron!” William called out as he killed a bandit. “Save some for the rest of us!”
With Lord David and his five farmers shooting arrows to cover them, the five mercenaries had little trouble slaying the marauding bandits. Alyssa slowly felt her heart start to beat normally again, her panic receding with the realization that Cameron would be fine. Then her heart stopped again.
There's a bandit behind him that no one else has noticed!
At this range and with the diminutive size of her crossbow, she had no idea if it would even hurt the bandit, but she had to try. With a prayer, she took aim and fired at the bandit just before he could behead Cameron. Her bolt hit its mark, causing the target to stumble and gasp in pain.
Cameron turned around and killed the bandit before Alyssa had time to reload. Clutching her heart, she panted softly to stop herself from crying out in relief. He could have died if not for me!
A few minutes later, the battle was over and the men were reclaiming as many arrows as they could. Cameron examined the bandit that almost killed him, biting his lip with a concerned frown. There was no denying it, the bandit probably would have succeeded if he hadn't been hit by a bolt and alerted Cameron to his presence with a gasp.
“Which one of you used the crossbow?” Cameron asked. “I owe you my life!”
Everyone looked at each other curiously, but could only shake their heads. Cameron puckered his lips in puzzlement, and then replayed the scene in his mind as he tracked foot prints. Something just didn't add up.
“He was coming at me from this direction, and the bolt was in his back, so...” He pointed at the tree Alyssa was still sitting in. “The bolt had to come from that direction.”
“No one was over there,” Ben stated, shaking his head.
Cameron scoffed. “And no one used a crossbow either, but here's a bolt to prove that someone did.”
Everyone looked just as baffled as he felt. Lord David shook off the eeriness first. “No matter, I'd say that you boys earned your pay today, so...” He pulled out his purse and doled out 10 gold coins to each of them. Ivan the Horrible looked ready to faint.
“So much... never have I held in my hand so many gold coins at one time...”
“I think our record was eight,” William the Glutton added speculatively.
“You earned it!” David assured them.
“We should probably break camp and move on before anyone comes looking for them,” one of David's men suggested.
“Good idea,” Cameron agreed, striding to the tree in determination. Lowering himself onto one knee, he bent his head in prayer. “To whatever spirit saved my life, I give my sincerest thanks.” He placed a single gold coin on the ground at the base of the tree, and then set the bolt on top of it.
“Are you crazy?” Hurron the Insane asked incredulously. “If you don't want the coin, I'll take it!”
“And risk offending what might be a God?” Cameron asked.
“When you put it that way...” Hurron muttered.
They went to gather up their belongings and pack their saddlebags when the branches of the tree rustled softly. Cameron wasn't the only one who looked over their shoulder to see what had happened. Another shiver went up his spine.
“Holy Mother of us all!” Ben exclaimed, the hair on the nape of his neck standing up. “They're gone!”
Alyssa was tempted to giggle. She had jumped from the tree and landed on the bolt and coin, so now they were invisible too. She quickly tucked the items in her bag, and then walked as fast as she could without making a sound.
The men all made ready to leave in record time, more than one of them spooked by the strangeness of the situation. Alyssa hopped into the wagon just as the signal to move out was given, settling herself comfortably. The rocking soon had her sleeping soundly.
That night when they made camp, Alyssa stretched and then slipped out of the wagon. She was wide awake and had nothing better to do than watch Cameron as he ate and talked with his companions. All too soon, they settled down to sleep, Hurron taking first watch. She grew bolder than ever by sneaking all the way over to his bedroll. Previously, she hadn't dare get any closer to any of them than the perimeter of their camp.
Soft snoring assured her that he was sound asleep. She grinned at him happily, wishing that she could lie down next to him and sleep in the warmth of his arms. Or at least pretend to sleep since she wasn't tired in the slightest.
“Cameron,” she whispered so softly that he wouldn't be able to hear her even if he was awake. The urge to run her hand through his hair was almost unstoppable, so she backed away until she could silently run out of camp.
Cameron sat up abruptly, startling Hurron. “What's wrong?”
Hurron stared at him in bafflement. “I don't know, you tell me.”
“Didn't you just say my name?” Cameron asked.
“No..... Why would I?” Hurron asked.
“Is it my turn to take watch?” Cameron wondered.
Hurron shook his head. “Go back to sleep.”
Cameron frowned, looking all around the campsite. “Where'd it go?”
“What?” Hurron asked, clearly wondering if maybe Cameron should take on the moniker of Insane.
“The... never mind,” Cameron muttered, then settled himself to sleep more. Only sleep wouldn't come. An hour or so later, the strange feeling that he was being watched returned, and suddenly, he could relax.
Cameron snuggled up to his bed partner, ready to sleep now that he was sated.
“Oh wow!” The paid lover exclaimed. “You might think that I'm supposed to tell all my clients this, but that was probably the best I've ever had!”
Cameron chuckled. “Thank you.”
“But... did you have the weird feeling that we were being watched?” She asked.
Cameron shrugged. “I've felt that way for months now. I think I have a guardian spirit or something. It even saved my life.”
His lover chuckled. “Really?”
Cameron nodded, his eyes closed as sleep overtook him.
“Lucky you,” she murmured, also sleepy.
Alyssa sighed in frustration. Why do I always follow him to his sexual adventures? Why can't I just leave him alone at those times? She sat against the wall in the corner, unable to leave the room until someone opened the door.
On the rare occasion that he had a room all to himself, she usually let him sleep in peace, but for some strange reason, the moment he asked another woman to share his bed, she just couldn't stop herself from following them. This is perverse and I'm terrible! Alyssa berated herself. Even so, she loved to watch Cameron sleep.
Snores erupted from both lovers, sounding like a badly off key duet. Alyssa wished that she could leave the room and find somewhere to bathe and get something to eat, but waking them would be the worst thing possible. Maybe I can sneak out the window...
They were on the second floor of an inn, but that shouldn't be a problem for her. She slowly tested the window to see if it was likely to make any noise. It did, but it was soft enough that it shouldn't wake anyone, so she took a risk and opened it all the way. A moment later, she was outside sliding the window shut again, and almost screamed when she realized that Cameron was looking straight at her; his eyes catching the dying light of the candle.
A quick glance reassured her that she was still invisible, and so all he saw was a window shut itself. With her heart in her throat, she dropped down to the ground, stumbling on some small bushes, and then ran towards the barn. Unable to shake the feeling that she was being watched, she looked back to see Cameron looked around suspiciously. He slowly turned his head towards the barn, correctly assuming that it was the only place to hide. With a shrug, he shut the window and went back to bed.
“Oh Gods! That was close!” Alyssa exhaled in a whisper. A thorough investigation proved that she was well and truly alone. The moment this knowledge was certain, her invisibility ended as abruptly as it often started.
There was no effort involved when the strange power decided to activate or deactivate, just a mild tingling. It was only when she chose to activate or deactivate her invisibility that she felt worn out by the amount of sheer will it took. The strange thing was that it had started when she was a frightened child, but now that she was no longer afraid of everyone she saw, it was increasingly becoming a nuisance.
“If only Cameron could see me...” she sighed wistfully, grateful to find that there was a hand pump-style well to provide her with water. She would at least be able to wash up a little before sneaking around to find food.
Once clean, or at least as clean as she was going to get, she slung her bag over her shoulder and slowly made her way out of the barn. At this time of night, there shouldn't be anyone to see her, even if she didn't turn invisible at the slightest hint that someone was around. Tucking her wet braid into her cap, she looked around cautiously before every step she took. If she didn't draw attention to herself, she might actually be able to see herself as she rummaged through the larder.
A sound made her freeze like a deer, but a careful glance around found nothing, plus, her power didn't activate. “Probably a squirrel or something...”
Finally making it to the door to the inn's kitchen, she very slowly opened it. It made a soft squeak, but there was no one in the kitchen to hear it. With a sigh of relief, she closed the door and looked around. The low light from the hearth helped her see clearly, and the first thing she saw was a basket of eggs on the counter.
“I love eggs!” She whispered aloud because she could. Suddenly a sound provoked her ability, and she suppressed a groan of frustration that someone was coming her way just when she was about to eat for the first time since morning.
Cameron slowly walked down the stairs, peering into every nook and cranny. “I could swear there was a boy...” He eventually gave up the search with a shrug. “Probably the innkeeper's son up to no good...”
Alyssa waited until he trudged back up the stairs and she reappeared before daring to breathe. “Phew...” she sighed. “That was strange... Did he actually... see me???” She whispered, her heart roaring in her chest at the implication that she had somehow managed to not turn invisible when some one was looking at her.
So... does that mean that I only turn invisible when I know people can see me? I always thought that it happened automatically whenever a person looked my direction, whether I knew it or not. Hmm...
Pocketing several eggs for later, Alyssa helped herself to some fermented milk – which was exceptionally thick and tart, almost too thick to drink, but still delicious. She also slathered butter on a slice of bread before topping it with a prized piece of meat. A moan of pure pleasure escaped her mouth as she ate her first bite.
From the stairs, Cameron watched in silence. I knew there was a boy! I wonder how he managed to hide so well earlier, and more importantly, why do I get the same feeling from him as I do from the guardian spirit that's been following me around?Could he have really been in my room earlier when I saw the window close?
“I wonder what it would be like to sit down and eat with others like a real person,” Alyssa muttered softly, enjoying the chance to talk to herself while she could. “What would it be like to talk to someone? To have a real conversation?”
Throaty giggles escaped her. “I bet they would shriek and scream and run from the ghost!”
She spun around in circles, whispering: “No one can see me, no one can hear me, no one knows that I'm here. I watch you while you're sleeping!”
The humor of the her song evaporated abruptly, making her sob softly as she put her head in her hands. “No one knows. No one knows. No one knows!”
“I know,” Cameron stated, peeking at her from the bend in the staircase.
Alyssa gasped in surprise, jumping backwards and hitting a chair behind her, which made her fall to the floor. Cameron raced to help out, but by the time he got around the table between them, there was nothing to see.
“Where did you go?” Cameron demanded. Searching everywhere, but there was nowhere to hide. “Where are you?!”
Alyssa huddled in terror in the corner of the room, praying that his search didn't have him literally feel every nook and cranny in the room. He saw me! He saw me!
“Little boy, at least tell me your name!” Cameron cried out in frustration, turning in circles as he wondered where the child could possibly have gone.
He thinks I'm a boy! Alyssa mentally growled, her eyes narrow.
“Sir, I must insist that you do not shout in my kitchen!” An old woman – probably the cook – cried out angrily from a room just off the kitchen.
“My apologies,” Cameron muttered. “I just thought I saw someone.”
“Meh... every now and then, a ghost comes to visit in the middle of the night. I've learned to ignore them, and so should you. Now go back to bed!” The old woman insisted.
“Yes Ma'am,” Cameron replied obediently and took one last look around before retreating up the stairs. In his room, he sat on the edge of his bed for a moment to think things through. “Oh great... not only am I apparently haunted by a spirit, but now I can see him too. I think I must still be sleeping...”
Ah! It's so much better when they camp in the forest! At least here I can hunt to feed myself. ...And there're no women...
Alyssa caught a plump bird and cooked it over a small fire that didn't produce enough smoke to attract attention. After she ate, she rushed back to the camp in case they had decided to leave while she was gone. Thankfully, they hadn't. I don't know what I would do if they left without me!
“I know I am insane, but still...” Hurron muttered unexpectedly.
“Still what?” Ben asked curiously.
“I thought I saw a boy out hunting, but no matter how much I tried to get close enough to say hi and invite him to our camp to share our dinner and chat, I couldn't find him. I thought that maybe I was just imagining things, but...” Hurron shrugged.
“I've seen a lone boy hunting from time to time too. If I didn't know better, I'd swear he was following us,” William stated.
“Same here,” Ivan added with a nod.
“Probably just a ghost,” Cameron muttered sadly.
“Well maybe, but...” Hurron pulled a small crossbow bolt out of his pocket. “I found this where I saw him hunting.”
Alyssa suppressed a sigh of frustration. Sure, the one bolt I couldn't find...
Cameron perked up and held out his hand. “Let me see that.” Hurron handed it over without protest and then grabbed a hunk of bread leftover from the last town they were in.
“It's the same as the one that saved my life...” Cameron whispered.
“Really?” Ben asked with interest. “I guess that settles it. It's the spirit that's been following you for some time now.”
Cameron nodded in agreement, then shook his head. “No, that doesn't make sense. Why would a spirit need to hunt? And if it is a spirit that likes to hunt, how does he use real crossbow bolts?”
“Well, what other explanation is there?” Ivan asked. “Do you think that a real live little boy is somehow following us everywhere we go?”
Cameron shook his head. “I don't know.”
“If so, how?” William questioned.
Cameron simply shrugged.
Not easily! Alyssa mentally answered. Thankfully, the group traveled only slightly faster than walking pace, even though they had horses, because they had nowhere in particular to go, and no hurry to get there. They also didn't want to tire their horses, saving their energy for when it was truly needed. She was able to keep up by walking fast or jogging lightly when she had to.
“Well... In any case, we should probably make camp here for a few days. After that, there'll be a festival a town over where we can probably pick up some work,” Ben suggested.
“Good idea,” everyone else agreed.
Perfect! I don't have to worry about them leaving for a while! Alyssa got to her feet and silently brushed the dirt from her backside. I can take a bath in that pond and enjoy this beautiful and warm weather. She walked away softly, tempted to hum from sheer happiness. Her companions may not know she existed. Hell, they didn't even know she was a girl! But at least she felt like she was a part of something. Almost like a family...
Cameron felt the presence getting farther away again. It came and went when they were stopped often enough that he knew that it wasn't simply leaving for good. Even so, he got inexplicably nervous whenever the presence was gone. He got up and looked around.
“You know... I think I might like to hunt for a while,” he murmured. His friends nodded in understanding. They knew that if he wasn't going to actually hunt – they currently had enough to eat – then it was probably code for wanting to be alone long enough for some self satisfaction.
Alyssa stared at her reflection in the pond for a few minutes. She was in awe of her reflection, not because she thought she was beautiful, but because it was rare to see herself. She reached out to touch it, but stopped short of making ripples to ruin it.
“I love being able to see myself,” she told the pond. “You have no idea what it's like!”
Looking to the sky, she held her sides and giggled. “And now I'm talking to water!”
Her clothes came off one piece at a time, falling in a heap on top of her bag. She stared at them, a small frown marring her face. “Hmm, I should probably wash everything I have while I have time.”
Picking up her shirt, she held it to her chest and giggled. “I wonder what it would be like to dance with someone! Da da da dada dada da dada dada dada da da!” She sang and hummed and she pretended to dance with a real person. Her shirt had no substance, unfortunately, so she quickly gave up.
“I'll wash you when I'm done!” She announced as she dropped her shirt back onto the pile.
A bird cawing made her stop and look around for a moment, before shrugging and resuming her walk into the pond. Her foot barely touched the water when a prickling ran up her spine. She turned to look around again.
“You're a girl!” Cameron blurted out incredulously.
Alyssa gasped as a distinct tingling let her know that she was now invisible.
“Wait!” Cameron shouted. “You can't be a ghost! You wear real clothes! You eat food!” He held up her belongings and shook them to prove his point. Sighing in frustration, he dropped the clothes and swept his arms out in front of him. A quick glance at the small sandy patch proved that there were real footsteps, and that they hadn't gone anywhere. The lack of ripples in the pond meant that she hadn't dived underwater.
Gauging where she must be standing, he grasped her arms in his hands. “I knew it! You're real!”
Alyssa gasped again, and then struggled to be free. “Let go of me!”
“Wait, don't be afraid. I'm not going to hurt you,” Cameron assured her. “I just want to talk to you.”
Alyssa forced herself to calm down; struggling against his strength was useless anyway. “Talk...?”
“Yes. I have so many questions! For example, why can't I see you?” Cameron asked enthusiastically.
“I really don't know. It just happens when other people are around. It always has, ever since...”
“Since what?” Cameron wondered.
“Since my mother died...” Alyssa replied sadly. All these years later, and it still hurt to think about.
“Oh... Then... Are you a ghost?”
“Not as far as I can tell,” Alyssa said, trying to shrug. “Ghosts don't eat...”
“Or bathe,” Cameron added with a soft chuckle. “How old are you?”
“I may have lost track of time over the years, so I can't be certain, but I think I'm 21.”
“You can't be!” Cameron stated in shock, dropping his hands as he realized that he was holding onto a naked woman against her will, even though he couldn't see her. “You're so tiny!”
“You're just that tall!” Alyssa responded defensively. “And I am so! I was born in the 10th year of King Cornelius' reign.”
“Oh... well then... yes, you're 21. Um... how...” Cameron shifted awkwardly. “How long have you been following me?”
Alyssa blushed. “Um... since I first saw you... about 6 months now...”
“And what is your name?”
“Alyssa? That's pretty...” Cameron murmured, wondering what happened to all those questions he wanted to ask. He suddenly felt inexplicably shy. He took a deep breath and reached out to take hold of her arm again. This time, he slid his hand down until he held her hand. “Will you, um... Well, will you stay here if I go away for a few minutes so that you can get dressed. That way I'm not forcing you to have a conversation with me while naked.”
Alyssa blushed so hard her whole body burned. “I'd... forgotten... about that...” She squeezed his hand. “Um... will... will you... ummm...” She felt tears of embarrassment sting her eyes, but this was important to her, so she persevered. “Will you give me my first kiss?!”
Cameron laughed, strangely embarrassed himself. “I, uh, I would, but... uh... I don't know where your mouth is.”
Alyssa exhaled in disappointment. “Oh...”
“Wait,” Cameron murmured, trying to think of a solution. “What if I got to my knees. Then you would be able to kiss me.”
“I think I would like that,” Alyssa whispered, feeling like she was dreaming. She used her free hand to pinch herself, and then squeezed his hand in hers.
Cameron got to his knees, looking where he thought her face might be. Her hands started shaking as her breath escaped her in soft gasps. She took a deep breath and then dared herself to just do it. Placing a hand on his face, she leaned forward until her lips were softly touching his.
A moan of longing rumbled in his throat. Confusion raced through his head, prompting his eyes to close. His heart started hammering in his chest. What is wrong with me?! He wondered. It's not like it's my first kiss!
He opened his eyes to discover a pair of green eyes looking into his. He pulled back in surprise. “I can see you!”
She looked every bit as surprised as him. In awe, she looked down at her body. “I felt... I felt like my heart was opening up and... It felt like sunshine burst through me!” She held up a hand, smiling when it went invisible – though the rest of her body wasn't.
“It takes me no effort now!” She announced with a cheer. Without thinking, she threw her arms around him and hugged him tight.
Cameron cleared his throat. “Uh...” Is now a good time to remind her that she's naked?
“Thank you so much!” Alyssa gushed, tears streaming from her eyes. She rained light little kisses all over his face.
Cameron laughed merrily. “But I didn't do anything!” He wrapped his arms around her, savoring the feel of her; she made him feel happier somehow.
Alyssa gasped, suddenly remembering that she really was naked and pressing her body into his. “Ah! Um...” She pushed against him until he let her go, and then ran into the pond, swimming until she was fully covered. “I'm sorry! I'm not used to people seeing me! Never in my whole life has it mattered if I was clothed or not around others...”
Cameron chuckled softly. “I was wondering if that would make a difference to you. I've traveled a lot, and some women are raised to keep everything covered at all times, while others practice mixed bathing and social nudity. I was starting to think that you were from that culture. I was raised in an area where women weren't supposed to be naked ever, not even with their husbands, so it is sometimes strange to me how open other societies are.”
“Actually, I was,” Alyssa replied, nervously tucking a strand of wet hair behind her ear. It was normally a light brown color, but at the moment, it looked much darker. “My mother used to take me bathing or swimming in the river with all the other farmers in the community. Every week, we'd all gather to bathe and talk and share food. It was right after the ceremony to honor the Gods, so everyone was there unless they were sick. But that was a long time ago...”
“Anyway, as I said, I will leave you alone for a bit so that you can finish your bath and get dressed,” Cameron reminded her.
“No! Please don't go!” Alyssa protested. “I don't like being alone. I mean I like that I can see myself when I am alone, but I don't truly like being by myself. It's nice to have someone to talk to.”
Cameron looked to the sky as he thought about what to do. “Hmm... well, how about this?” He turned his back to her and sat next to her pile of belongings.
“Tell me about you,” Alyssa murmured.
“Don't you already know everything there is about me?” Cameron asked curiously, assuming that she must have gotten to know him pretty well over the last 6 months. A thought occurred to him that made him blush. “I mean, you've seen everything...”
Alyssa cleared her throat in embarrassment. “Well, maybe not quite everything. I know nothing about your past. For example, what made you decide to travel around as a sword for hire?”
“It snows almost year round where I come from, and... my culture is very strict. I was constantly in trouble as a child because I could never just do as I was told. So... I left. I had to earn a living somehow, and I was always very good at fighting... It just seemed like the natural thing to do,” Cameron explained with a shrug.
Alyssa's desire to know everything about him was at war with the way her body was reacting. She wanted nothing more than to snuggle into his arms and press her ear to his chest to listen to his heart beating. Memories of him with others burned her cheeks and made it hard for her to speak. She literally choked on her words, coughing to clear her throat.
“Are you alright?” Cameron asked in concern, turning to look at her.
She nodded, clearing her throat again. “Could you, um... b-b-b-bring my soap to me?”
“Why not?” Cameron asked without expecting an answer. “I could certainly use a bath too.” He rummaged through her bag until he found her soap, and then set it aside while he stood and stripped. It felt strange to him to be stripping in front of her now that he knew she was there. He ignored the feeling of embarrassment, grabbed the bar of soap, and turned towards the pond.
Alyssa was standing with her hands over her eyes, which made Cameron laugh. He waded over to her, gently taking one of her hands in his and placing the soap in it. She smiled faintly.
“Thanks...” she murmured, looking up into his eyes. The desire to kiss him again grew overwhelming. She placed a hand on his cheek, amazed that he met her halfway. Their kiss sent a thrill throughout her entire body, making her purr happily.
Faint bickering caught her attention, making her disappear as a reflex. She clung to Cameron and looked over his shoulder to see what was going on. The bickering got louder.
“I'm telling you, there's a pond over here!”
“No, it's over there!”
“See, it's right there!”
“Oh, so it is.”
Ben spotted Cameron, who was now looking at his friends too. “Hey Cam! I see that you decided to bathe too.”
Cameron felt Alyssa shift around behind him, as if she was using him to shield her body from view, though he knew that no one could see her. Therefore, he also knew that probably no one would believe him if he said that he wanted to be alone with her. The irony of the situation made him laugh.
“Yeah. It seemed like the perfect time to do so.”
They all stripped down, tossing their clothes in a pile atop of his – which were piled on hers. Then they boisterously entered the pond, splashing each other and Cameron playfully. Cameron used his size to his advantage by getting his waves to spray farther.
Alyssa held onto his neck so tightly that he had a hard time breathing. This prompted him to get out of the pond earlier than he normally would have. They let him go without complaint because he was winning all their fierce battles.
“I'll see you back in camp,” he informed them as he rummaged through the pile of clothing. Alyssa let go of him, then stood staring at him in shock when she realized that he hadn't gone invisible with her.
I just assumed that everything I touched... Wait! What if that doesn't work any more?!
She hesitantly took hold of her bag when he uncovered it, and to her relief, it disappeared. With a sigh, she slipped the soap she was clutching into her bag, and then walked away so that she could get dressed in private. When she was done, she wandered around, lost in thought until a rabbit caught her attention.
Her crossbow made quick work of the fat rabbit, which would feed her more than one meal. She reclaimed her bolt and then gathered the rabbit into her arms. “I give thanks to the Gods for the sustenance I receive.”
Normally, she would simply skin, cook, and eat the rabbit in private, but she didn't want to be alone anymore. Instead, she carried it to Cameron. He sat alone in their camp, staring blankly at a low fire.
“Alyssa?” Cameron asked, looking around.
When she stood right in front of him, she closed her eyes and willed herself to become visible. It worked as easily as breathing, which made her smile. She squatted in front of him.
“I brought you something. I figured that it can be roasted for dinner tonight, and in that way, we can share a meal,” Alyssa explained, sitting next to him.
Cameron nodded in agreement, taking the rabbit so he could prepare it for cooking. They talked about their childhoods as Alyssa stared at his mouth. She blushed as she remembered the way his kiss made her feel.
“Alyssa?” Cameron inquired with a smirk of amusement.
“Cameron...” she whispered softly. She got to her knees so that she could press her lips to his.
Cameron moaned in longing, tugging on her lightly to pull her onto his lap. Holding her close with her straddling him, he slipped his tongue into her mouth. Her breath caught in her throat as fire seemed to run through her veins.
“You did not!”
“I did so!”
“No you didn't”
“I won fair and square!”
“You're both wrong!”
Cameron groaned in disappointment. Already, she was gone. Well, he could still feel her on his lap, but he couldn't see her.
Alyssa slipped off his lap, sitting beside him.
“Do you have to disappear?” Cameron asked.
“Well, it just sort of happens,” Alyssa whispered.
The bickering continued for some time as the rabbit roasted, and was normal for this rowdy group. Eventually, they were too busy eating to argue anymore.
Cameron could feel Alyssa sitting next to him, helping herself to the food on his plate. It was somewhat exciting to know she was there when no one else did. Especially when she ruffled his hair.
That night, as Cameron rolled out his bedding, he wondered where and how Alyssa normally slept. He was surprised to realize that she sat on his bed just as he was getting ready to lie down. With a look around, he slowly pulled his blanket over them, half afraid that it was going to disappear. To his relief, it didn't.
Rolling onto his side, he felt her snuggle up to his chest. Holding her close, they both drifted to sleep.
Cameron sat up abruptly. “I sense danger!” He was immediately concerned for Alyssa's safety, but even though he couldn't see her, and he could no longer feel her head resting on his shoulder, he knew that she was still close to him. “Alyssa,” he whispered. The tingling of his senses that he associated with her slowly moved away until he was fairly certain that she was climbing a tree.
Shifting his attention, he noticed Ben – who had taken first watch – pointing. “I'm pretty sure there are bandits trying to sneak up on us.”
The others roused, pulled from slumber by their own sense of urgency. From her perch in the tree, Alyssa could see the bandits better than her companions could. She wondered if she could do anything to help them, and decided to fire a warning shot.
“OW! My eye!” A man roared, shattering the silence.
Sorry! I only meant to graze your head! Alyssa apologized silently.
“Let's get out of here!” Another man suggested when a small bolt lodged in his shoulder. These bolts weren't big enough to kill them, but they were clearly a warning that the bandits weren't prepared to ignore. The six men quickly fled the area, leaving the mercenaries safe and a bit disappointed that they were cheated out of a fight.
“I'll take over the watch,” Cameron volunteered, certain that he wouldn't be able to sleep now anyway.
Ben nodded, knowing that Cameron was the best one to sense it if the bandits returned. Everyone else took some time to calm down, but eventually drifted back to sleep. Loud snores filled the night air – sounding much like the bullfrogs singing in the background.
Alyssa finally decided to come down from the tree, falling asleep with her head in Cameron's lap. He stroked her hair, glad that she was with him. With her unique ability, she made an excellent addition to their team.
More than that, though, she was like a ray of light, illuminating his soul. This scared him almost as much as he was eager to explore the feeling thoroughly. I think I might actually love her...
“Who's Alyssa?” Ben asked curiously.
“What?” Cameron asked, looking up from the food they'd just been served by the innkeeper.
“Alyssa,” Ben repeated. “You've mumbled her name in your sleep the last couple of nights. Is she a previous lover?”
Cameron looked away in an attempt to hide a blush. “No, she's...” He wondered if they would believe him if he said that she was sitting on his lap and sharing his meal. “She's my invisible guardian, I guess you could say.”
“The one with the small crossbow?” Hurron asked.
“Yes,” Cameron confirmed solemnly.
“I thought she was a boy,” Hurron murmured before taking a drink of ale.
“I did too,” William added, his mouth already full of food.
“So then,” Ben continued. “If you've learned her name and gender, does this mean you know whether she is a ghost or perhaps a Goddess?”
Cameron frowned in thought. “She's... real... as far as I know. She's a real person who simply cannot be seen unless...” he shrugged. “She trusts someone, I guess.” It's either that or she has to kiss them...
Ivan scoffed. “Trust? Why would she trust you, but not us?”
Hurron heckled Ivan, slapping him on the arm. “Why should she trust you?! You're likely to drag her off to a private corner!”
“I would not! Not unless she was willing, of course,” Ivan defended himself. “I do still have a gold coin...”
Alyssa giggled. She'd always found these men amusing. They acted like brothers, though she knew they weren't. They'd simply come together and formed a deep bond of friendship.
Their loud heckling stopped abruptly, Ben shivering noticeably. “I didn't think she was right here with us.”
“That's a bit creepy...” William mumbled, looking around for the source of the giggling.
If he thinks that's creepy... Alyssa laughed mischievously, then softly sang: “No one sees me, no one hears me, no one knows I'm there, but I'm always watching, I watch you when you're sleeping...”
William and Ivan jumped to their feet while Ben and Hurron slid their chairs backwards. “She's literally right there!” Hurron exclaimed, pointing at Cameron. “I may be Insane, but I know when I hear real voices!”
This statement was enough to draw the attention away from Alyssa.
“You mean to say that you hear voices that aren't real?” Ben asked with interest.
“Well yeah,” Hurron stated as if it should have been obvious.
“How do you know they're not real?” Ivan asked, tilting his head to the side.
“Because they always tell me to do silly things. One time, they told me to get naked, cover myself with honey, and run through the town shouting: 'I'm a giant bee and I'm going to sting you!' Needless to say, that was the first time that my parents ever explained to me that the voices weren't real and that I shouldn't do what they tell me to.”
Alyssa giggled again. “I think I remember hearing about that. You didn't happen to be a member of Moongrove, did you?”
Hurron narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Wait... Alyssa of Moongrove... Weren't you that girl that died mysteriously after your mother was found dead, beaten and raped by a stranger that was just passing through.
Alyssa scrambled to jump off Cameron's lap, crying out as she ran away. “She didn't deserve that!” She ran all the way to the barn, hiding in the darkest corner of the loft. Huddling in a ball, she buried her head in her knees, wrapping her arms around herself protectively.
“I didn't remember that, I didn't remember that,” she chanted repeatedly as she rocked back and forth. Terrible scenes of what she had witnessed that night flooded her mind, answering some of her deepest questions. Eventually, she calmed down and accepted that it was time to put the tragedy behind her.
Meanwhile, Cameron wasn't sure if he should follow her.
“Nice!” Ben cheered Hurron on sarcastically. “I don't suppose that it occurred to you that she wouldn't want to hear that said so bluntly.”
“What?” Hurron wondered, clearly not understanding what he did wrong. “I was already considered insane by the time it happened. Her mother was found dead, and everyone just assumed that she must be dead too. They went to her farm to find her, but she wasn't there. Moongrove was a close knit community, so had they found her, someone would have taken her in and cared for her. Instead, they took in the animals and divided her property so that it wouldn't crumble to ruins.”
“Did it never occur to anyone that she might have just been a scared little girl in hiding?” Cameron wondered, not really expecting an answer.
Hurron shrugged. “Well, no one ever saw her again, so I guess her being dead just made more sense.”
“I'm surprised that no one thought that maybe she was abducted by that stranger,” Ivan murmured in speculation. “I mean the mother turned up dead and the daughter simply disappeared...” He shrugged. “I suppose that either way, they probably didn't want to think about what had happened to her and simply prayed that she was dead instead.”
Cameron felt his blood run cold at the thought of the possibilities. He stood up abruptly. “I'm going to bed.” His friends merely nodded in acceptance and wished him good night.
This inn had plenty of rooms, and since they all had money left over from their last couple of jobs, they had asked for separate rooms. The fact that there were a bevy of beautiful ladies available only added honey to the pot. Each man beckoned to the one that pleased him most, and then retired to their beds as well.
Cameron paced his room for nearly an hour in indecision. His arms ached to hold Alyssa, to offer her comfort and wipe away her tears... Yet, he had no idea how to help her forget the horrible memories she must suffer from.
There was a soft knock on his door. He answered it, hoping that it was her even though he didn't sense her presence. It turned out to be a soft and cuddly woman.
“Would you like my services tonight?” She asked.
Cameron shook his head. “No thank you, I'm not in the mood.”
She nodded in acceptance. “Sorry to hear that. May you have pleasant dreams.”
Cameron watched her walk away, his senses tingling. A thorough scan of the hallway revealed nothing out of the ordinary, however... As he suspected, an invisible hand rested on his arm a full minute later. He stepped backwards, allowing Alyssa into his room before he finally closed the door.
“You didn't have to do that,” Alyssa murmured, appearing suddenly the moment they were alone. “I know how much you love those women.”
“What kind of a man takes his pleasure when he knows a friend is suffering?” Cameron wondered.
“Friend...” Alyssa whispered softly, looking towards the floor. She smiled as the word brightened her soul. “I haven't had a friend in so very long.”
Cameron brushed a hand along her cheek. “And maybe...”
Alyssa looked up into his eyes hopefully.
“Lover?” Cameron suggested hesitantly.
“Lover,” Alyssa repeated with a shy smile. “I'd like that.”
Cameron pulled her into a hug and simply held her for a long time. For the first time in her life, Alyssa wished that she was taller. She longed to be able to look him in the eye and kiss him. A glance around the room made her smile.
In front of the bed was a step stool to help guests climb into bed if they needed. It was perfect for her to stand on, raising her a foot off the ground. At this height, she was only a little shorter than him.
Cameron smiled at her silent request, closing the distance between them so he could kiss her. Their kisses started softly, then grew ever deeper until they nearly devoured each other. Their clothing seemingly evaporated, prompting Cameron to lift her into his arms and gently lay her on the bed. Alyssa sighed happily as he showed her exactly what it felt like to be loved by him.
The next morning, Cameron brushed her hair out of her face and kissed her forehead. She responded by moaning sleepily. One hand guided his face to hers for a kiss.
“Good morning,” she murmured with a smile.
“Morning... Listen, I was wondering if you could try to stay visible at breakfast. I'd love to see you as we eat.”
Alyssa smiled, touched by his words. “I can try...”
They took their time getting dressed, kissing frequently and giggling for no apparent reason. When they were ready, Cameron took hold of her hand and led her out of their room and down the stairs. The rest of their companions were already eating breakfast, their mood cheerful and well rested. Alyssa took deep breaths to remain calm in an attempt to stay normal.
“Come on,” Cameron beckoned softly when she hesitated.
“They're looking at me,” Alyssa muttered nervously, which was true. Their jaws all hung open in astonishment. Cameron tugged on her hand, which prompted her to take another step forward. They reached the last step just as the door to the kitchen swung open.
Alyssa disappeared with a soft squeak. The young maid carried a tray full of drinks, smiling when she noticed Cameron. Cameron sighed in disappointment.
“You're awake!” The maid stated. “I'll get you something to eat in just a moment.”
“I have a big appetite,” Cameron informed her so that she would bring him enough to share.
The maid nodded, handing out the drinks she'd brought the others. Cameron took a seat, asking for both juice and fermented milk to go with his breakfast. “No problem, I'll be right out with that!”
Cameron sat in his seat, waiting a moment for Alyssa to sit on his lap before he scooted closer to the table. He looked around at his friends. “We should really ask around today for anyone that might be hiring.”
“Never mind that!” Ben insisted fervently. “We could see her!”
“For just a moment, and then she was gone,” William added.
“I guess maybe she trusts you after all,” Cameron replied with a shrug.
The maid reappeared with his food, setting everything in front of him with a proud flourish. “I hope this is enough to satisfy your big appetite,” she said with a flirty grin. “And after you finish, I can help you bathe and get ready for your day.”
“Sorry,” Cameron declined. “You look a bit too young for my tastes.”
She sighed in disappointment. “Yeah, I get that a lot, but I promise, I'm older than I look!” Cameron simply shrugged. “Alright then, enjoy your breakfast!” She spent a moment flirting with the others before retreating back to the kitchen.
Hurron surprised them all by changing the previous subject. “You know, I spent quite a bit of time thinking last night, and it occurred to me that...”
“What?” William asked with interest.
“Well, we all left our homes for different reasons, and then we sort of fell together at some point. Until now, we've been working for no reason in particular, roaming around taking jobs as they appeared, but really... What is the point of all this? Now that we have a small group of people who work well together, why don't we focus our efforts on something that matters?”
Hurron – being undeniably crazy most of the time – wasn't prone to making sense. So to hear him say something so profound was shocking. His friends gaped at him in surprise.
“Like what?” Alyssa asked out of curiosity. She picked up the cup of fermented milk, which disappeared the moment she touched it.
Hurron stared where he figured her eyes were. “Like building a home.”
Alyssa took a deep breath as she thought this over, exhaling a soft sigh. As she did so, she appeared before them. “Hmm... Like having an actual bed to sleep in at nights, and a cow to provide milk?”
Hurron nodded enthusiastically. “I remember that my favorite part of childhood was chasing the sheep and goats around as they grazed.”
“My favorite part was the candle ceremony to honor the moon,” Alyssa informed him.
Hurron rolled his eyes. “Bah! A bunch of people stripping naked and carrying a candle through the forest to the sacred grove. It was dull and boring!”
Alyssa laughed. “But didn't you feel part of something bigger? More important?”
Hurron shrugged indifferently. “I didn't then, but I think that's because the voices kept telling me to come play with them. Maybe I would now.”
“Wait just a minute!” Ivan burst out. “You mean to tell me that as children, you both participated in a ceremony to honor the moon in which you stripped naked as a community?” He looked around to see if anyone else found this unusual. He returned his gaze to Hurron. “And you thought it was boring???”
“As a child, yes,” Hurron stated honestly. “As a young man, the ceremony was a bit more interesting, but it wasn't sexual at all, if that's what you're thinking. That was a different ritual.”
“What ritual?” William asked, his interest piqued.
“Spring fertility rites, summer marriage rites, fall harvest celebrations,” Hurron explained.
“I left before I was old enough to witness that part of those rituals,” Alyssa murmured. “I didn't realize that's what happened after the children were sent away.”
Hurron snorted a laugh. “Then you missed the best part about growing up in Moongrove!” Alyssa shrugged noncommittally.
“So, are you saying that you want to go home?” Ben asked Hurron.
Hurron tilted his head side to side as he thought this over. “Maybe I am.”
“What about you?” Cameron asked Alyssa, stroking her hair. “Would you like to go home?”
Alyssa purred in response to his touch. “I don't know. Maybe...”
“Then I guess it's something to think about,” Cameron replied. A look around let him know that they were all thinking about the possibilities. Who would have thought that Hurron would make such a sensible suggestion!
“I'm so nervous!” Cameron admitted.
“You're nervous?!” Alyssa exclaimed in surprise. “I'm the one who still has trouble being visible in front of others!”
“You're doing really well though,” Cameron assured her with a smile.
Alyssa returned his smile, nearly swooning before she managed to respond to his original statement. “Why are you nervous?”
Cameron shrugged. “It's... stupid...”
“Is it Moongrove?” Alyssa asked, puzzled. They had been living here for almost a year now, and everyone accepted and welcomed them like family. It was so strange when she thought about it, because she'd spent so many years believing that all people would hurt her if they knew she was there. Yet some of her neighbors openly wept when they realized that she was alive after all.
Even Hurron was welcomed back with open arms. He hadn't been asked to leave in the first place, most people accepting of his insanity, but he had felt the need to wander. After leaving, he'd eventually realized that what he really wanted was others who were like him enough that they could almost understand him, and that meant finding warriors; something that was in short supply in the peaceful community of Moongrove.
In Moongrove, the entire community shared the land. It was true that some people actually owned it – such as Alyssa owned what she inherited from her mother – but everyone worked together. Bigger families helped out smaller families, and everyone shared the prime grazing land. The elders often moved into the central part of the community to allow the younger couples to take on more responsibility as they started their families, but everyone had a part in the community.
For someone who was raised in an area that relied on hunting, ice fishing, and huddling together in gender separate dwellings, Moongrove was hard to get used to. Alyssa stroked Cameron's face when he failed to answer her question. He shook his head and smiled at her.
“No, Moongrove's been great! I like our neighbors, and even William seems to have settled down happily...” As the gluttonous one, he was usually the one most driven to move on to new places and try new things. Moongrove was actually perfect for him in many aspects.
Cameron shook his head again. “No, it's... my parents. I sent them an invitation, but I haven't heard back from them. What if they don't come? Or worse! What if they do?”
Alyssa laughed. “Why does that make you nervous?! They'll be happy to see you, of course!”
“But what if I'm a disappointment to them?” Cameron murmured, looking away from her.
“Oh Cameron...” Alyssa exhaled in sympathy. She wrapped her arms around him and held him tight. Nothing she could say would help him as much as simply meeting with his parents would, so she said nothing.
Several days later, Ben spotted some travelers as he tended to part of the communal gardens. He waved as he called out in greeting. “Hi, can I help you?”
An older couple, two women, and a man just barely an adult, waved in return. In thickly accented speech, the older man asked: “I'm looking for my son, Cameron. He invited us to –”
“You're Cam's family?!” Ben exclaimed with a grin. “He's going to... I don't know, pass out from shock or something! Hey Mervin! Can you take over my chores? I've got to bring these guests home!”
A man just barely in ear shot waved in understanding. “No problem, I've got it!”
“Follow me,” Ben ordered, beckoning them with his hand. On the way, he kept a constant stream of chatter that was too fast for the foreigners to follow. At one point, he paused for a moment to wave. “Hey William! How are the grapes today?”
William waved back. “Growing beautifully! They're going to make excellent wine. In the meantime, I have some early grain to turn into ale.”
“I look forward to it!” Ben stated, grinning in anticipation. He then resumed his walk.
A woman shrieked playfully and ran up to Ben so that she could hide behind his back. “Ivan's such a scoundrel!” She giggled, implying that this wasn't such a bad thing. “Oh! Here he comes!”
Ivan loudly rustled some bushes before he came into view. “Hi Ben, have you seen – Oh hello! Who have we here? I don't think I've ever seen such a pretty shade of blonde,” Ivan said as he grinned at the two women suggestively. “Are either of you free for the next few hours?”
“Ack!” The woman hiding behind Ben shrieked indignantly, revealing herself. “How dare you?! You promised the next few hours to me!”
“Ah Lizzie! There you are!” Ivan gave her an unashamed shrug and a grin. “I thought I'd lost you.”
“You almost did with that statement!” Lizzie stated as she crossed her arms.
“Aww, don't be mad...” Ivan pouted, then abandoned his cajoling to simply lift her over his shoulder. “Later Ben.”
Lizzie shrieked before resuming her giggling while pretending to struggle.
The older woman gasped incredulously. “Are all people around here so scandalous?”
Ben shrugged, a comical expression of “I don't know” on his face. “Maybe...” he drawled. “But I'm sure that Ivan wouldn't have flirted if he had known these two lovely ladies were Cam's sisters.”
“Is Cameron so fearsome then?” One of the sisters asked. His entire family perked up at the prospect. In their culture, men had to be legendary to survive, and the strongest were treated like near royalty.
“You could say that!” Ben answered with a wide grin. “He's practically a giant and almost as strong as an ox! Which apparently runs in your family. I've never seen a woman over six feet tall before!”
“Ha!” The two women snorted. “We're surprised to find so many short men around here. Some of them look like little dolls!”
“Inga, Elsa! Not so rude!” Their mother chided.
“Well,” Inga stated defensively. “Compared to our husbands, even this man seems absurdly short!”
“Uh-huh!” Elsa nodded in agreement. “And they talk to us so disrespectfully! 'Are you free for a few hours?' Imagine!”
“Then model respect and show them how it's done!” Their mother insisted.
“Yes mother,” they both capitulated with a sigh.
“And don't worry, I'll protect you,” their younger brother reminded them. They each rested a hand on him gratefully.
“Anyway...” Ben cleared his throat, pointing to a tall and beautifully tended hedge in front of them by about 10 yards. “We're almost there.”
Hurron ran out the opening of the hedge, then prepared to run flat out. “She's going to kill me!” He shouted at Ben once he spotted him.
“Why?” Ben asked as Hurron raced past him.
“I listened to the voices!” Hurron called out, quite a distance away already.
“Hurron!” Alyssa roared angrily. “Come back here so I can shoot you!” She aimed her crossbow at his back from where she stood in the opening of the hedge, but couldn't get a clear shot with Ben in her way. The sight of the strangers made her squeak in alarm and disappear.
“No worries, Liss,” Ben assured her. “There's no reason to be alarmed.”
“Sorry, I can't help it,” Alyssa cried out in embarrassment.
“Where did she go?” The entire family asked in astonishment.
“Did the tiny woman shrink?” Inga wondered, her eyes wide at the possibility.
“No she...” Ben wondered how to explain her unique condition.
“I say we force the entire pot down his throat,” Cameron stated, coming up behind Alyssa. He knew to hold a hand out in front of him until he located her, and then picked her up so that he could stand in the opening of the hedge and see if she'd managed to shoot Hurron.
“Mother...” Cameron whispered, his face turning white. “Father...”
“Seriously?!” Alyssa squealed in excitement, shifting around in his arms until he dropped her. She reappeared as she landed on her feet. “You made in it time!” She rushed to hug them, going overboard and hugging each one twice.
Inga and Elsa examined her in fascination. “You're like a doll, tiny woman.”
Cameron laughed. “I've thought so once or twice myself. I didn't expect all of you to come!” He grinned, touched by the way Alyssa accepted them without question. Mostly...
“Man! Are all people where you're from such giants?” Alyssa asked, trying to calculate the distance between the top of her head and the top of Elsa's.
“Didn't I tell you?” Cameron asked to remind her that he had.
“Yeah, but still!” Alyssa shrugged. Tugging on one hand from Inga and one from Elsa, she beckoned them to follow her. She turned her head to toss an instruction to Ben over her shoulder. “If you see Hurron again, catch him and drown him in the pot of porridge that he utterly ruined!”
Ben boomed laughter from the bottom of his heart. “What did he do to it?”
“He poured a pound of salt in it!”
Cameron chuckled in amusement at the sight of a woman not even 5 feet tall dragging two women well over 6 feet by the hand. “Alyssa, wait. Shouldn't I introduce everyone before you sit them down to lunch?”
“Why? I know all I need to. Mother, father, brother, sisters,” Alyssa stated, hugging each one again.
Cameron chuckled again, blocking the entrance to their home by leaning on the tall hedge. “Yes, but they do have names. Olga and Lief are my parents, Erik is my brother, and Inga and Elsa are my sisters. More importantly, everyone, this is my bride to be, Alyssa.”
“You can't be serious!”
“She's far too tiny!” Various members of his family protested. They'd come in response to his wedding invitation, and so expected him to have a woman suitable according to their customs. This was an even bigger shock than the invitation had been!
“How will she bear you sons?” Olga asked, her eyebrows puckered in concern. “They would certainly harm her during birth!”
Alyssa paled and slapped a hand over her mouth. Groaning, she swayed woozily. Cameron caught her before she could fall, then took her crossbow from her belt so that it couldn't accidentally go off and shoot anyone.
“Is this true?” Alyssa asked in a near whisper.
“I don't know,” Cameron answered, shaking his head helplessly.
“Of course you don't!” Olga replied. “Men never think of such things! It is up to us women to discourage our sons and brothers from choosing unsafe marriage partners.”
“Unsafe?” Cameron asked darkly, offended.
“Yes. It is not safe for her to carry your sons. Even just coming to term endangers her life,” Olga informed them, her voice sympathetic.
Leif nodded in agreement. “Considering her size, I would be surprised if you even managed to plant a child in her in the first place,” he said, trying to delicately imply that their genitalia would be incompatible.
Alyssa groaned again. “Suddenly I don't feel so well...”
Cameron blushed and looked away from his parents. “Actually, I think we've managed that part just fine.”
“Oh dear...” Olga clucked fretfully. “Then I suppose there's no help for it.” She stroked Alyssa on the cheek. “Welcome to our family, little one. I'm sorry if we seemed a bit harsh.”
Alyssa smiled at her gratefully. “It's fine. I understand.” She slapped a hand over her mouth again and pushed against Cameron, who understood her signal and set her on the ground. She started running, turning invisible as she did so.
“Where did she go?” Olga gasped the question.
“To the outhouse, probably,” Cameron replied with a shrug. “Come on, I'll show you our house.”
Three days later, under the rising full moon, Cameron and Alyssa pledged their lives to each other. Surrounding them were their family and friends, along with the entire community. The ceremony was simple, but infused with love and humor. Alyssa made a point of having a step stool placed in front of her by an attendant so that she could step on it and be closer to eye level with her husband to be. The train of her creamy dress touched the ground, almost making her appear taller than she really was.
In her hands here fresh flowers picked by Hurron as an apology. They matched her dress, which was decorated amply with lace handmade by several women that had been friend's with her mother. Some of it was even made by her mother, started a long time before Alyssa was even old enough to think about weddings or ornate dresses.
Soon the vows were made, and the couple kissed before joining hands and jumping over a waiting broom. It symbolized the first of many leaps of faith to be made during their lives, and the broom itself would be kept on display in a place of honor in their home. With a great cheer, it was time to celebrate!
Cameron carried Alyssa to the table where they would feast, and set her in a specially decorated chair. When they'd eaten their fill, Cameron called for everyone's attention. He knew it was time to dance, and didn't want to embarrass his wife with how awkward it would be for them.
With a gallant flourish, he produced hand carved shoes he'd made just for her. They were tall and wide enough to provide plenty of balance. They'd been embellished with a beautiful pattern, which was then painted for emphasis. After sanding and polishing, they now shone as if imbued with an inner light.
“I love you no matter what size you are,” Cameron promised, ruffling her hair. “But I figured that this might make it easier for us to dance.” He had shaped them to fit her feet perfectly, and now knelt before her so that he could slip them onto her feet – replacing the cloth slippers she had been wearing – making sure to wind a decorative ribbon up each of her calves before tying it in place.
“Wow...” She exhaled in awe. With these on, her head was easy to tuck under his chin, which mean that she could rest it on his shoulder during the slow dances. “I love them!”
Cameron led her to the space prepared specifically for dancing, happy that she could walk in her new shoes without problem. Those who had volunteered to provide music for the night quickly assembled and began to play just as they were ready to dance. The whole event seemed magical!
Eventually, the guests grew tired of dancing, and the couple was given permission to return home. With a kiss, Cameron carried his wife to bed, holding her close as his eyes drifted shut. He groaned softly.
“I hate to ask this, but... I'm so exhausted from this long and extraordinary day! Can we have our wedding night tomorrow instead?”
Alyssa giggled. “I was going to suggest the same thing!”
Chuckling, Cameron kissed her head, both of them falling to sleep.