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Arden

Another Cold Night in Arden


Dexter was hiding under a pile of leaves and a downed log, waiting. There was a family of deer that foraged around here and he knew if he waited he’d get the opportunity to try to catch one.

He’d been waiting for about an hour when the stag poked his head out from behind a tree and started toward the clearing. Dexter tried not to tense up.

Just then, the snap of twigs and leafs seemed to thunder through the clearing and the stag and his family fled through the trees. Pulsifer, Steward of Arden, crashed into the clearing carrying a wicker basket and leading his horse. Dexter was disgusted. In his opinion, Pulsifer was merely the latest in a long line of incompetent Stewards. It was disgraceful that such a man would even be holding the reins to one of the Arden horses, much less having the opportunity to ride it on a daily basis.

Dexter shook his head and started to rise when he noticed something amiss. Pulsifer sat down and opened up his basket, seemingly oblivious to the odd haze that was appearing around him. As he stuffed the turkey and ham sandwich, dripping with oil and Memphis dressing, into his porcine face, arms reached out of the haze and yanked him backward.

In a moment, he was gone. The haze disappeared. Dexter rose and investigated. There didn’t seem to be any evidence of what he had seen, although there was a bottle of wine, a hunk of cheese, and an apple. He took the food and wine and headed back toward the castle. He had to talk to Galen.

* * *

According to Seneschal Jefferies, Galen was in town.

Dexter liked his brother but found him a bit stodgy. Galen always had one job or another and just plain spent too much time and energy doing his job. It was boring. Dexter had managed to get away with not having any job yet, even though he was a full-grown man now at 20 years of age.

Galen was Master of the Seas (or “Master of Disease” as Dexter referred to him) currently, so he would be down near the port. It took Dexter a while to find Galen, and it was a thirsty afternoon. Dexter dropped the empty bottle in the can at the entrance to Happy Joe’s and it clattered to a rest against the canes and umbrellas of the other patrons. Galen was sitting in the back of the room at his usual table looking over some charts and nursing a glass of Ghellah, a fancy Ghenesh liqueur he favored.

Dexter sat down next to Galen and grabbed the Ghellah. Galen looked over at Dexter admonishingly as he took a swig straight from the bottle. “What brings you into town, Dex? I thought you’d be in Arden eating nuts and berries.”

“Don’t call me Dex. I just saw the coolest thing.” Dexter finished the bottle and signaled to the nearest barmaid.

“Let me guess,” began Galen, setting down is sextant, “you saw ‘Possums screwing, didn’t you? And if you are going to start joining me, perhaps Joe can set you up some private stock as well. I have trouble getting enough of the Ghellah for myself as it is.”

“Very funny. I was hunting deer in Arden,…” Galen feigned shock while Dexter continued, “when who should walk by but fat old Pulsifer?”

The barmaid arrived and Dexter ordered a bottle of Port.

Dexter went on to describe what happened to Pulsifer and how he was sure there was more to Arden than met the eye. He was busily describing the sorts of fiends the two would find upon investigation and finishing off yet another bottle when Galen left, shaking his head and muttering. Dexter continued his story to the nearest ear, a burly sailor from some godforsaken Golden Circle shadow or other, who was for some reason a bit touchy about his homeland being referred to as “some godforsaken Golden Circle shadow or other” repeatedly.

A fight ensued.

Dexter left the restaurant late that night, alone.

The restaurant reopened a few weeks later as Bloody Joe’s.

* * *

Dexter had been unable to convince Galen to help him investigate and failed to turn up any evidence of where Pulsifer had been taken.

After about a month had passed, Martin and Dexter and about a dozen nobles were on an outing in Arden when they came upon Pulsifer. He had been hung upside down by his feet from a high branch on an oak deep in Arden. He was skinnier, as though he had gone a few months on little food, and was missing an eye.

All in all, Pulsifer was in about as poor shape as all of the other Stewards had been when they were found.

* * *

Pulsifer had a rough month in the castle infirmary, but he survived. Dexter was surprised and impressed. He tried talking to Pulsifer, but Pulsifer refused to talk about what happened to him. He claimed not to remember anything.

A new Steward was appointed, a weak, wormy man from the southern plantations by the name of Sherwood. Dexter didn’t approve. He left the castle.

* * *

Galen cursed under his breath as he slipped quietly through the woods. “Another wasted trip,” he thought. “Never really liked Arden anyway; there’s always something crawling or filthy underfoot.” Frustrated and demoralized, he leaned against a convenient tree. “Taking that shortcut was definitely a mistake.” While his patterned cloak and leathers blended well with the wood, they did little to help him see through the dark forest underbrush and avoid the painful branches and rocks. It was only getting darker and, already bruised and surprisingly tired, he wanted to camp somewhere a bit closer to town. He pushed on.

Something leapt out from the underbrush and dragged him under. He tried to struggle, but to no avail. He had just barely wriggled a knife out of his belt when he realized it was Dexter’s hand over his mouth. He paused his struggles for a moment, granting Dexter a chance to explain.

 “Don’t move and don’t make any sound,” whispered Dexter. Galen eyed Dexter suspiciously but nodded and Dexter released him. He finished readying his blade and seemed to melt deeper into the shadows near Dexter. The two waited.

Eventually Sherwood came by, riding his horse. The horses of Arden were stealthy and strong so long as they stayed within Arden’s bounds, and most couldn’t hear their approach. Dexter signaled Galen to silence a few minutes before Sherwood showed up.

Sherwood got down from his horse and walked up to an old oak tree. He began to relieve himself.

A haze started to appear in the clearing. Before Galen could do anything, Dexter sprang past him, shoving Sherwood down to the ground and back toward Galen. Almost out of reflex, Galen grabbed Sherwood and dragged him to safety. He then turned around to look for Dexter, rapier at the ready, and whatever Dexter had leapt at.

He didn’t see anything.

* * *
A week later, Dexter appeared in court. He was dirty and unkempt, wearing select scraps of some white enameled armor and buckskin pants and boots. Martin embraced him, glad to see his son again, who he had not seen since appointing Sherwood as Steward.

Dexter presented his sword to Martin and said simply, “Father, I’ve decided to take the role of Steward.”