I sat and stared at the wall, the only thing to do in this miserable dungeon in which I had been imprisoned. All of my friends were out adventuring in far-off lands, so I had no hope of rescue. All of the exits had been enchanted with unbreakable magical locks. Now the ravages of hunger and thirst were beginning to assault me, driving me deeper and deeper into insanity.
I yawned out of sheer boredom, then got up off my bed, put on my clothes, opened the bedroom door, and headed downstairs to fix breakfast.
My mom and I had moved to this new house only a day ago, and already I hated it. All of my old friends were halfway across the continent, and with summer vacation just beginning, I had no chance to make new ones until school started again in three months. Worse still, Mom had told me not to leave the house while she was at her first day of work, and I was cooped up inside on a beautiful, sunny June day. For a thirteen-year-old boy with a head full of dragons, knights, castles, and wizards, that was pure torture. I hadn't even bothered to get up out of bed until after she had left; there was nothing to do anyway.
I wanted to be out slaying dragons or fighting barbarian hordes or rescuing fair damsels from evil wizards, not sitting inside with nothing to do.
Even her promise to find me a babysitter soon so that I wouldn't have to stay by myself didn't appeal to me. My babysitters tended to turn into ogres as soon as Mom left me with them, especially now that I was old enough to go out adventuring on my own. For some reason she couldn't understand that a brave and gallant hero like me didn't need a guardian to watch over me; I could handle any monster or devil that the world could throw in my path.
I ate breakfast unenthusiastically, then sat down in the front room to watch TV. There was nothing on but soap operas and game shows. I sighed in boredom, then turned it off and headed back upstairs to my bedroom. I had an extensive library of fantasy books, so maybe one of them could console me.
Unfortunately, I had already read them all, and none of the titles seemed to catch my attention. I picked one completely at random, then lay back on my bed and began to read.
It didn't help.
After a couple of hours inside, I couldn't stand it any more. That tree house out back was calling to me. Mom had told me not to go outside, but surely the back yard didn't count. Besides, all I needed was just a few minutes, maybe up to an hour, and that would satisfy me for the day. I would be back inside long before she came home.
I made up my mind. Opening my bedroom door, I scampered down the stairs and out the back door. The warm sun felt so nice after being cooped up inside. I breathed in the fresh air for about a minute, then made my way to that tree.
It was a moderate-sized oak, big enough to hold a decent tree house but young enough to still be strong. No doubt my tiny extra weight would be negligible. The previous owners had built a tree house in its branches, conveniently leaving it to be converted into a fortress for a brave hero like myself.
There was a knotted climbing rope hanging down from the door of the tree house. I gave it an experimental tug, then once satisfied that it would support me, I started my ascent. It took only a few seconds, then I poked my head in the door and glanced around.
It was really just a square room about fifteen feet on a side. There were no furnishings, and in fact a few rotting leaves lay in the corner. There were windows in all four sides.
I pulled myself up into the room. Yes, it would make a nice fort, easily defensible from all the villains and monsters and dragons and barbarian hordes that my mind could conjure up. Now all I needed was a sword and perhaps a bow and arrow, and I would be a great hero, battling all the foul things of the world from my fortress in the sky.
I moved to one of the windows, where I had a great view of the castle that I must defend, also known as "the house." The opposite window had a great view down the hillside, looking out over the vast plains full of enemy soldiers ready to launch their invasion, an invasion that I would single-handedly repel with my unmatched fighting prowess. A third window just looked onto the upward slope of the hill, which became in my mind a great mountain full of untold dangers and a wondrous treasure waiting at the top. One day I would have to make a quest to the top of that mountain.
When I went to the other window, I froze, my eyes going wide with shock. It had a great view of the neighbors' back yard, complete with a patio, a swimming pool, and a naked girl.
She was relaxing in a lawn chair by the pool, her hair damp and her body glistening with moisture from her recent swim. She was a little older than me, maybe sixteen or seventeen, and she had a body more gorgeous than I had ever imagined (having never seen a girl naked before). Her hair, though probably normally blond, was darkened from the moisture and hanging limply about her shoulders. Though I couldn't quite make out any details of her face from here, from what I could see she seemed to be beautiful.
I had been gazing upon this goddess for only about ten seconds when she suddenly turned her head and spotted me in the tree house. Her eyes went wide for a second. I will never forget those first words that she spoke, in the most wonderful, sweet, melodious voice I had ever heard.
"Are you spying on me, you little pervert?" she asked.
I continued to stare, frozen to my spot. I didn't know what to do, having never been in this situation before. The girl, however, quickly grabbed a nearby towel and wrapped it around her body. It was a shame for such a creature to be covered, and I realized in dismay that she would probably hate me for peeking on her like that. She was the first person I had seen that was anywhere near my own age since moving here, and now I had made her my enemy.
As it turned out, I was wrong. She stood up, slipped her feet into a pair of sandals, and strode toward the fence separating our property.
"Come down here," she said.
I grudgingly scurried down the rope to the ground, then with trepidation made my way to the fence, where she was peeking over it.
"I'm sorry," I said as soon as I reached her. "I wasn't spying on you, honest. I didn't even know you were there."
"Oh that's okay," she shrugged. "I know that boys are all perverts."
Now that I had the chance to look at her up close, I could tell that my initial impression of her good looks was spot on. She had a gorgeous, thin, almost elf-like face with a tapering chin and big green eyes. Here was my princess, the damsel in distress that I would fight countless evil beings to rescue. Though she lived in a neighboring kingdom, I would gladly pledge my whole soul to protect her.
She stood a full head taller than me, and while some might claim that it was because of the difference in our ages, I figured she had some of the blood of the giants who inhabited this land in an age long ago.
"What's your name?" asked my princess.
"Kenny Grant," I replied. "What's yours?"
"Sarah Laurent. So is spying on naked girls a hobby of yours?"
"I'm not a spy!" I exclaimed. How could she ever suspect me of such treachery, after I had sworn an oath to keep her from harm?
She glanced over at my house. "Is that your bedroom window?" she asked, nodding toward the second floor.
"Uh huh," I said.
She pointed to a window across the way on her own house, facing my own. "That's mine," she said. "Do you peek on me at night when I'm changing my clothes too?"
"Of course not!" I exclaimed. "Besides, we only moved in yesterday. I've never even seen you before."
"I guess I'll have to keep my curtains closed from now on then, now that I know there's a pervert across the way."
"Well if you're going to be rude about it, I don't want to talk to you any more," I said, growing angry. Maybe she wasn't the princess I thought she was. At the very least, our two kingdoms weren't going to be on good terms any time soon.
"Wait a minute, Kenny," she insisted. "I'm sorry. I was only joking. You just caught me off my guard, that's all. There used to not be anyone home during the day in your house, so it surprised me to see you there. I like to sunbathe nude so that I don't get a tan line."
I was still mad at her, so I didn't say anything.
"So do you want to come over to my house and play with me?" she asked.
"I don't want to play any girl games," I told her defiantly.
"So we'll play boy games instead," she smiled. "Come on. My family just moved here a couple of weeks ago, so I don't have any friends yet. It gets lonely sometimes."
"Why would you want to be friends with me?" I asked, still sulking. "You're a girl, and I'm a boy."
She laughed. "So it's still like that for you, is it? Well, maybe I can cure you of that."
She wasn't making any sense now, but the truth was that I did feel much better about her. Maybe our kingdoms could be reconciled after all. She did seem to be sincere about wanting to make up with me, and despite the fact that she was older than me and a girl, I had been feeling kind of lonely too.
"Well, all right," I told her. "But I get to pick the game."
"Fine," she grinned. "I'm going to go inside to get dressed. Come over in about five minutes. Oh, and I don't want to disappoint you, but I really am going to keep my curtain closed while I'm changing."
She said it in such a cheerful tone that I couldn't fault her for her words, so I just laughed. She headed off to her castle, and I returned to mine.
Not surprisingly, I sat and stared at the clock for the entire five minutes, spending the whole time wondering and fantasizing about this princess that I had just met. Surely a woman of that beauty must have a touch of elven blood flowing through her veins. She seemed nice and friendly, unlike some princesses I had known in the kingdom I had moved from. Her name was plain enough, but perhaps she would allow me to bestow upon her a new name and title that she could use when we played together. If she was nice to me, I would tell her my real name: Kenneth Shadowbane, Champion of the Elder World.
When the time was up, I headed out the front door, then crossed over into Sarah's yard. I politely knocked on the door, and she opened it immediately, wearing a yellow tank top and khaki shorts.
"Come on in, Kenny," she smiled, then stepped aside to allow me passage into the castle. It was similar in layout to my new house, with the living room, kitchen, and master bedroom downstairs and two other bedrooms upstairs. One of those bedrooms was full of boxes right now; the Laurents hadn't finished unpacking. The other was Sarah's bedroom, to which she led me.
I was impressed. She had posters of unicorns and seascapes covering her walls, a very fantasy-like atmosphere, though admittedly a little feminine for my tastes. While she liked unicorns, I preferred dragons. Still, I was happy to meet anyone with similar interests to my own.
I peeked out the window, and saw my own bedroom window across the way. It was almost directly across, as if the builders of the two houses had meant for the occupants to be able to communicate with each other.
Sarah sat on the bed, and motioned for me to come sit down by her. I did so, and she smiled at me.
"So what kinds of games do you like to play?" she asked.
"Well... I'm kinda sorta into fantasy," I told her.
"Really? You mean like with unicorns and mermaids and fairies and stuff?"
"And don't forget dragons," I grinned.
"I see," she said with a friendly smile. "When I was a kid, my girlfriends and I would pretend to be princesses. I haven't played make-believe in years, but if you want, I'd be happy to play along. That was always the problem when I was growing up. Plenty of princesses, but no princes to rescue them."
"Then that's perfect!" I exclaimed, happy that she was willing to adopt the role.
"So do you think I'd make a good princess?"
"Of course! I thought so from the first moment I saw you."
Sarah laughed, but it was a friendly, rather than mocking, laugh. "So you like your princesses naked, do you?"
I grew red. "Um... that's not what I--"
"I'm just teasing you," she said. "When I was younger, I always called myself Princess Allura. Is that okay?"
"Allura," I repeated. "That's great. What's your kingdom called?"
"I don't know. I hadn't really thought much about it. Why don't you name it for me?"
"Well, let me think..." I said, trying to sound smart. "I'm from Elderhaven. If we assume that our two kingdoms border each other-- I mean, your property is your kingdom and my property is mine, then unless I want to redraw the maps, it would have to be Silverfen."
"You have maps?" she asked with delight.
"Well let's go back to your kingdom so we can look them over. I'd like to learn more about the world that we're going to explore together."
Happy for her enthusiasm, I followed her downstairs and out the door. We crossed over into my yard and went inside. We ascended the stairs to my bedroom, where she sat down on the bed while I rummaged through my things looking for the folder that contained all of my drawings and notes and maps.
I pulled out the main map and sat down next to her on the bed. Together we went over all of the lands I had come up with. Elderhaven, my kingdom, was tasked with guarding the Elder World, or the swiftly vanishing world of nature. The colonization of the land left little room for nature, though it still overlapped the colonized world and had plenty of impact on it. All magic came from the Elder World, after all.
Silverfen, Sarah's (or should I say, Allura's) kingdom, was a series of swamps, rivers, lakes, and waterways to the north of Elderhaven. It was so named because the moonlight on the mists of the swamp caused them to glow with a silver sheen. Both Elderhaven and Silverfen had long ago been inhabited by a peaceful race of giants, and I decided that the royal families of Silverfen must retain some giant ancestry. Silverfen was now populated by several human and elven clans, so it was natural that Allura should have a somewhat elf-like face, being probably at least half elf herself.
Sarah really got into the spirit of things, asking questions about the various lands and peoples and creatures from my imagination, and offering suggestions about parts that I hadn't completely fleshed out yet. I showed her my drawings of dragons and other monsters, and although they weren't very good, she nevertheless praised my skill.
"So what about you?" she asked after we had been talking for over an hour. "Are you a prince of Elderhaven?"
"No," I replied. "I'm the Champion of the Elder World."
"A knight, then? Are you Sir Kenneth?"
"Not a knight. My name's Kenneth Shadowbane."
"Shadowbane. Enemy of Shadows."
"Exactly," I smiled, happy that she picked up on the meaning. "I'm an enemy of the shadow monsters that have been attacking Elderhaven and Silverfen and all the other kingdoms. They're the dark side of the Elder World. They've been trying to destroy it since long before mankind ever set foot in these lands."
"I see. So you're not a prince. That's going to cause problems then."
"What kinds of problems?"
"Well, I'm not sure if my father the king will approve of our marriage then."
"Marriage?" I asked, astonished.
"Yes. Any time the brave hero rescues the fair maiden, they always end up getting married. Of course, that's just in fairy tales. I'm not sure how it is in your world."
"Well... I guess I hadn't really thought about it."
"But you are going to rescue me, aren't you?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, I plan to get myself captured by these shadow monsters you talked about. Not on purpose, of course. But then you'll have to come save me."
"Oh. I guess that makes sense."
"Of course it makes sense. It's no fun for a princess if she doesn't get to be captured by a monster or a dragon or an evil wizard or something now and then. Otherwise she'd have to sit in her castle all day, bored out of her mind."
I laughed. She really was fun to be with, I decided. I'd never known any girls who liked to play the same games I did. They always thought it was stupid to go around fighting dragons and demons and ghouls and goblins. But Sarah seemed to have no problem with it.
"But that gives me a great idea," she continued. "When I get kidnapped by the shadow monsters, my father will offer my hand in marriage to the man who saves me."
"Um..." I said. "About the marriage..." Now she was getting all romantic and mushy, which was enough to ruin my fantasies. The last thing I wanted to do was to make believe I was the groom at a wedding.
"You don't want to marry me?" asked Sarah, with a disappointed look on her face. "What's wrong? Don't you think I'm pretty?"
"Yeah you think I'm pretty, or yeah you don't think I'm pretty."
"Yeah I do think you're pretty."
"So what's wrong?"
"Well, after we get married, then I'd have to settle down and stop going out adventuring."
"It doesn't have to be that way. The Elder World would still need a Champion, and Princess Allura would never make Kenneth Shadowbane give that up."
"I don't know..."
"Oh come on, Kenny. Let's compromise. You get to fight off the shadow monsters to rescue me, and I get to marry the brave hero. Look, if we decide afterward that we don't like the way the story goes, we can always change it and pretend it never happened."
I sighed. "Oh, all right," I conceded. Actually, marrying someone like Sarah wouldn't necessarily be all that bad. It was just the whole idea of it that bothered me. Still, as long as we could change it later if it didn't work out, I could probably go along with it.
We looked over the maps and discussed the world of my imagination for the rest of the morning. At lunch time, we descended the stairs to the kitchen, and I got out some fixings for sandwiches. We ate and talked some more, and I found that she had some excellent ideas to flesh out the world that I had invented. Despite the fact that she was a girl, she actually was fun to be around.
As soon as we finished lunch, we put the dishes in the sink and headed out to the front room. I had mentioned one of my favorite fantasy movies that Sarah hadn't seen, and she wanted to watch it with me now. I retrieved it from the movie cabinet, placed it in the machine, and turned on the TV.
We watched it together, and I couldn't help but notice how nice it was to sit next to a girl like Sarah. Though I could certainly appreciate the beauty of a girl from a distance, I had never had much in common with them, and I had certainly never had any friends of the female variety.
There were a couple of scary spots in the movie, and Sarah grabbed my hand during one of them. Normally I would have objected, but there was something about her that made me not mind so much.
When the movie ended, I turned it off and put it away, then sat down next to her again. The truth was, I was hoping she would take my hand again, but unfortunately she didn't.
"So now what do you want to do?" she asked.
"Okay, if we're going to do this right, we're going to have to get used to fighting together."
"Fighting?" I asked.
"Yes. I don't plan to be the type of princess who just sits in the castle all day. I want to go out adventuring too."
"But princesses don't go adventuring. Besides, you have no training."
"I would if you teach me," she smiled. "Let's say my father the king wants his daughter to learn some self-defense in case the shadow monsters ever attack. So he's hired Kenneth Shadowbane to be my trainer."
"Hmm..." I considered the idea. It didn't really fit with my character. I was more active than that; I wouldn't stay in the castle grounds teaching a princess how to fight. On the other hand, if there was to be an alliance between our two kingdoms, a show of good faith would be in order.
"I accept your offer," I told her. "Stay here. I'll be back with weapons so we can practice."
The weapons turned out to be a couple of plastic swords. I explained that I knew they were just kids' toys, but I was saving my money to buy a real sword later. My mother had made a deal with me; while she didn't like the idea of me having a weapon like that, she also knew that since I didn't have a job, it would take me years before I could afford it. Once I was mature enough to have a job, I would be responsible enough to have the sword, so she said as long as I paid for it myself out of my own money, I could have it.
Sarah was an enthusiastic pupil. I couldn't claim to be the best teacher in the world; in fact, I wasn't particularly good with a sword, except in my mind. I planned to take fencing lessons one day, but for now I mostly just waved it around, making contact enough with Sarah's that I didn't look like a complete fool. She took to it immediately, even getting in a few good strikes. Normally I would have been humiliated to be bested by a girl like that, but she simply laughed cheerfully and kept it in good spirits.
We dueled for the better part of an hour, amazingly not breaking anything in the house. At first we made a pretense of having me show her how to fight, but eventually it just turned into a free-for-all as we battled. Only after thoroughly exhausting ourselves did we finally put an end to the game.
After it was all over and we sat together on the couch, Sarah put her arm around me. I couldn't believe how nice it felt; I had never really liked all this touchy-feely stuff, but with Sarah it was different.
"Thanks," she told me with a smile. "I'd forgotten how much fun it is to play make-believe. I wonder why it is that when we get older we stop playing like that."
I shrugged. "I don't know."
"I like you, Kenny. Even though you're thirteen, you still have the imagination of a child."
"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked. I didn't like to be called a child.
"I didn't mean it as an insult," she clarified. "There's nothing wrong with it. In fact, I think there's something wrong with the rest of the world, because they usually lose their imagination by the time they're your age. Promise me that no matter how old you get, you'll never stop playing," she insisted.
"Okay, but you have to promise me too."
She grinned. "Kenneth Shadowbane, Champion of the Elder World, I swear to you as a princess of Silverfen that I will never stop playing make-believe."
"Princess Allura of Silverfen, I swear to you on my honor as the Champion of the Elder World that I will never stop playing make-believe."
"There," she said. "Now it's settled. So let's go outside."
We left the castle and set out to explore the grounds. I showed her the tree house, and pointed out the views it afforded of the two kingdoms, the mountain, and the valley far below. We discussed our plans for fending off the barbarian hordes, and our exploration of the mysterious mountain.
We explored our two yards, turning solitary trees into great forests, the tree house into a fort at the top of a mountain pass, and her swimming pool into Lake Nightmist, the largest lake of Silverfen. Out front, the road in front of our house became the Veldrar River, which separated the civilized kingdoms of Silverfen and Elderhaven from the Land of the Shadow Monsters. Maybe one day we would cross it to take the battle back to their lands, but for now there was plenty to do in our own yards.
I was having so much fun that I lost all track of time. Afternoon was beginning to turn to evening when I saw a familiar car driving up the road. My mother pulled the car into our driveway, then parked it and stepped out. She immediately came over with a stern look. "What did I tell you about playing outside with no one home?" she asked.
I remembered then that I had planned to go back inside before she got home, so that she wouldn't know that I had disobeyed her.
"Kenny, did your mother tell you not to come outside?" asked Sarah, with a similarly stern tone of voice. That was even worse; if my mother got after me, well, I was used to that. But I didn't want to jeopardize my new friendship with Sarah.
"I'm sorry," I told them both in as humble a tone as I could muster.
"I'm sorry too," said Sarah, then turned to my mother. "You must be Kenny's mom," she said. "I'm Sarah Laurent, your next-door neighbor. I apologize for any misunderstanding. I really didn't know that you had told him to stay indoors."
"That's quite all right," said Mom. "I'm not blaming you. Sometimes he just doesn't think. I hope he didn't bother you."
"Of course not," Sarah smiled. "He's really a great kid. We had lots of fun together today, so really, there was no harm done. I know it's not my business to tell you how to raise him, but if I were you I wouldn't be too hard on him. When I was his age I hated to be cooped up in the house on a day like this too. Still do, in fact."
"I suppose you're right. It's just that I don't want him to get into any trouble while I'm not around. I don't like to leave him alone, but I have to work all day."
"Well, my parents let me stay by myself, but then, I am quite a few years older than him."
"How old are you, Sarah?" asked Mom.
"And you said you didn't mind having him play with you?"
"Of course not. I'm an only child, so it was kind of nice to have a little brother for a change."
Mom laughed. "Well then, I suppose things worked out all right in the end." Then she stared at her for a second, as if considering something.
"Sarah, do you stay home every day?" she asked.
"So you don't have a job?"
"No, but I'm looking for work."
"Well, I have an idea then. If you don't mind, and if it's all right with your parents, would you like to be a permanent babysitter to Kenny? Just until school starts in the fall, at least. I'll pay you of course."
That sounded wonderful! I had never liked babysitters, though I had had my fair share. But with Sarah, it would be different. Since we were already friends, it wouldn't be like babysitting at all. It would give me plenty of time to spend with her every day.
"I would love that!" she exclaimed with a grin. "I'm sure my parents would be more than happy with that. I'd have a job and wouldn't even have to leave the neighborhood."
"Good. I'd like to talk to them about it also, just to make sure it's okay. When are you expecting them home?"
"Any time now."
"All right. Maybe I'll stop by after dinner. If it works out, then would you mind starting tomorrow?"
"Not at all."
"Good. Come on, Kenny. Let's go home and eat supper."
"Bye Kenny," Sarah waved with a smile as Mom and I headed across the lawn to our house. I waved back, suddenly feeling very good about living here after all.