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Arden

The Little Sister of Arden

It was the year 520. Dexter had been Steward in Arden for almost three hundred and fifty years. He had been spending more time in Arden lately out of a general disdain for the women who thought they could take the place of his mother and their progeny. If not for Galen and his father's infrequent visits, Dexter would have been cut off from the rest of the world entirely.

It is widely believed that it is at this time in his life that Dexter developed his winning personality.

* * *

There had been an incursion into Arden.

A host of beasts of all manner and shape had broken into Arden in the North. They had been fierce and many of the hounds and Rangers had been lost. Dexter himself was bloody from the fighting. The beasts had been lead by a shadow sorcerer who was able to get them to Arden, although he did not seem to be able to control them within Arden.

Dexter had released the Hunt to find him in Shadow and brought him back to Arden for interrogation. The interrogation was going slowly, and there were beasts trickling into Arden on a daily basis from the remnants of the sorcerer's forces.

Dexter was summoned by a group of Rangers who had come across one of the beasts, a three-headed monstrosity with vicious claws and poisonous tentacles. He only hoped that they would hold out long enough for him to arrive.

Unfortunately for them, he was distracted by the appearance of a 12 year old girl.

* * *

Dexter's first thought was for her safety. Well, technically his first thought was that he should lance her, but his second thought was for her safety. He dismounted and looked about for beasts as the third thought entered his head. This was his half-sister.

Assured that there were no beasts around, Dexter blew his dog whistle in three short bursts and crouched down. "What are you doing way out here, little thing?"

"'m not little. I'm practically a teenager. And I'm tough," responded the spunky little girl, sticking her chest out. She had what appeared to be some sort of green fairy costume on as near as Dexter could tell, although she seemed quite proud of it.

"You're Carrie, right?"

Caitlin smiled, "You're such a goof, Uncle Dex. You know my name is Caitie. I'm a Girl Ranger." She showed off what Dexter had initially thought was a leaf, but was actually a yellow paper medal pinned to her chest.

"What's that, then?"

"'s like a Ranger, but for girls. I'm going to live in the forest with you and run and play and deer and squirrels." Caitlin suddenly looked vulnerable. She started to dig a hole with her foot.

Dexter looked her up and down. "Well, all right, but none of this 'Girl' Ranger stuff. You'll be a full-fledged Ranger..."

"Yay!" squealed Caitlin, jumping up and down.

"...when you're old enough. For now you're a Ranger-in-training. We used to have a midget Ranger about your size. If I recall correctly, she was killed by a giant scorpion, so her uniform should still be good. I think it ought to fit you, come on."

"ew..."

* * *

Dexter met the king at the empty field out just beyond the city limits known as "Pete's Field." It was just inconvenient enough to both Arden and the Castle that neither could really be bothered there. It was the perfect spot for a game of catch.

Martin tossed the ball. "Caitie's been distant lately. She disappears for hours at a time."

Dexter tossed the ball back. "Yeah, I know, I've deputized her."

Martin ran to fetch the ball. "What?"

"She showed up in Arden saying she was a 'Girl Ranger' and wandering near a battle with a hideous beast. I figured the only appropriate thing to do was deputize her."

Martin shook his head and tossed the ball where only Dexter could catch it. "I would say that I hope you know what you're doing, but I guess we both know about that."

Dexter threw the ball back. He assumed that Martin meant that he knew that Dexter knew what he was doing. It was assumptions like that that made their relationship work so well.

* * *

Caitlin was learning how to make arrows. She loved working with the Rangers on tasks like this. Especially since they let her fire her arrows at a target afterwards. Dexter walked up behind her. She was doing a pretty good job, but just didn't have the knack of how the arrowhead fits in yet.

She got up and started at seeing Dexter behind her. "Oh, Uncle Dex--I mean, Steward." She winked at Dexter. He had had a long talk with her and she had agreed to call him Steward whenever she was wearing her Ranger uniform. She liked wearing the uniform. It was the first real uniform she had ever worn. Assuming you didn't count trying on other people's uniforms. Which she didn't.

"Let's see you shoot that thing, Caitlin."

Caitlin picked up her bow and nocked the arrow. "You can call me Catie, you know." She fired the bow and hit the target pretty near to the bull's eye.

"'Caitie' doesn't sound like the name of a Ranger to me. I think a real soldier even would want to be called Caitlin, or by her rank." Dexter looked at the arrow. "I think you should stop practicing with these."

"What?" Caitlin was upset at this. She liked archery. "Why?"

Dexter held up the arrow. "This arrow doesn't fly straight."

Caitlin looked at it. "Yeah, so? I hit the target didn't I?"

Dexter sighed. "You're compensating. It's not good to get in the habit of compensating for bad equipment. It causes problems when you get good equipment." Dexter picked up a wooden sword. "Have you been practicing your swordplay?"

Caitlin smiled. "Yessir. I bet I can take you now, too." She picked up her own wooden sword, which was lighter and shorter than the normal ones. She was only 12 after all.

"Ok," said Dexter, "Maria, tie my hand." Maria was used to this. She was the Ranger who was secretly assigned to keep an eye on Caitlin, and she was the one who always tied Dexter's right hand behind his back when they sparred.

Caitlin smiled and bent her knees, flexing. As soon as Maria stepped back, she lunged. She moved her sword quickly, in short bursts, hoping to take advantage of the difficulty Dexter must have moving such long arms and such a heavy sword. She was sure it would work eventually, but Dexter just kept parrying stroke after stroke.

Caitlin overextended a lunge and Dexter pushed her with his right shoulder. She flew past him as he brought the big sword around with his left. She just barely managed to bring her sword around to parry, but didn't set it right and now her hands were stinging something fierce.

She tried to buy time by being all defensive, but that turned out to be a mistake. Dexter was able to trick her into backing into a tree and, unable to retreat, she took a pounding. She was determined to beat Dexter some day. She just needed to grow up a bit.

* * *

Caitlin was suspicious. She had been riding with the Rangers for a year now, and she was pretty sure that they were secretly protecting her. Her group had never really gotten into any big fights, never really went all that far into Arden, and consisted entirely of women and ugly men.

So she was excited when she spotted the tracks. Farmers were always complaining about horrible beasts raiding their farms, and it usually turned out to be nothing. Just farmers looking to be paid for their "losses," but these were some big tracks. Big and reptilian. She was afraid that if she pointed them out, her compatriots would turn back and just call for reinforcements, so she just suggested that they head in the same direction as the tracks and loosened her scabbard.

The six of them rode into a clearing. Caitlin was looking at the two paths that were large enough for it to have taken when she heard a scream behind her.

* * *

Caitlin turned around to see a grisly image. A giant komodo dragon had Gunther's leg and horse in its mouth and was shaking him vigorously. She tried to remember what she knew about komodo dragons while she pulled out her sword. Something about not running in a straight line? She kicked her horse into a charge. No, that was crocodiles... or was it alligators? As she rode past, she hacked at the thing's side.

Gunther was writhing on the ground. He was ugly, but he was nice. The thing started chewing on his horse while the other four Rangers dismounted and drew their weapons. The horses fled into the woods. Amelia and Brenna rushed the thing's hindquarters, inadvertently getting in the way of Caitlin's return charge. Caitlin had to swing around and try to come at it from the front. As she brought her horse around Donald and Iresa, who were bouncing arrows off the thing's thick hide, she saw the thing smash Amelia into the ground with the Gunther's still barely living horse, which it still had clutched in its slimy maw. It dropped the horse.

Caitlin charged the beast and managed to slash its left eye open before she was forced to veer off in order to avoid overrunning Brenna, who now had hold of the dragon's tail and was trying to climb up the dragon, dagger clutched in her teeth. Unfortunately, this left no one occupying the dragon and it made a sudden lunge. With a quick snap, the dragon bit off Iresa's head, chest, and left arm and the rest of her flopped to the ground. Donald drew his sword and braced himself.

Caitlin tried to bring her horse around, but she had run into the woods while trying to avoid Brenna and Caitlin had to slow her down just to get her pointed in the right direction. By the time she got her horse back into the clearing, Donald's arm was flailing limply at the thing from inside its mouth and Brenna was lying dead at its feet. This was all going so wrong. She had wanted to see some action, but not like this. She dismounted and threw up, running over to check on Amelia while the thing concentrated on Donald. Amelia was badly hurt, and probably would never walk again, but was valiantly blowing on her dog whistle.

Caitlin turned to face the thing, her face a mask of grim determination. Now it was personal. By every story she had ever read, now she would soundly defeat the beast to avenge her friends. She charged at it, using quick, short stabs to pierce its hide over and over again. A foul black ichor flowed out of the side of the dragon and it turned to face her. "That was for Brenna," she shouted, leaping in to try to take the other eye.

Apparently the komodo dragon had never read those stories. It caught her right arm in its powerful jaw and snapped Caitlin's forearm. She began to feel woozy and hot, but she had enough presence of mind to ram her left hand into the monster's wounded left eye, causing it to release her arm. She tucked her arm under and scurried to the tree line. Finding Iresa there, she drew Iresa's longsword in her left hand and turned around, kneeling on the ground and ready to take the beast's lunge. It charged toward her.

A shadow passed over Caitlin as Dexter leapt over her, smashing into the charging beast. He quickly forced his way past the thing's head and grabbed it around the neck with his left arm. The beast started thrashing about, trying to dislodge him, but Dexter's grip was too tight. He managed to bring his right hand around and hack at the side of the thing's head with the sharp kukri he held. Caitlin was treated to a view of an ugly struggle, managing to stay awake just long enough to see the thing fall over and lie still.

* * *

Caitlin woke up two days later. She felt very weak. Dexter was sitting next to the bed.

"What happened?" whispered Caitlin.

"You were attacked by a giant komodo dragon and, all things told, you did pretty well. You managed to keep Amelia alive, which is a bonus, and the thing is dead now and you aren't. That's called winning."

Caitlin tried to sit up and winced in pain. "It doesn't feel like winning."

"Everything feels like winning," replied Dexter. "When you lose, you don't feel anything. Anyway, if anyone asks, like for instance father, you spent the last two days camping in the woods and had a splendid time. I'm pretty sure that if anyone finds out about your little adventure that you won't be allowed in Arden for quite some time. Now, get some rest." Dexter got up and left.

Caitlin fought back the tears. She couldn't believe her friends were dead. And she was in such pain. This was definitely the worst day of her life.

Her nurse walked into the tent. He was young, maybe about 20 or so, smooth shaven, and cute as a button. Maybe this wasn't the worst day...

* * *

Caitlin stayed with the Rangers for a while after that. In time, though, she tired of it. It takes a certain disposition to love Arden, and it would be a very rare teenage girl who would possess such a disposition. She always had a better relationship with Dexter than any of his other half-siblings, though, although it's hard to say whether she ever realized it.