Redwall Digest - Chains of Love

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- Long Fall from the Heavens
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Chains of Love
- Highwing -

Willowmere was, Jans had decided, quite the most beautiful mousemaid he'd ever set eyes upon.  Or, failing that, she was most firmly in the top ten.

Lord Urthblood's latest campaign had brought the badger's army to a region southwest of Noonvale, not far from the western seacoast.  The fight had been a ferocious one, but had at last vanquished the last surviving wildcat brother of the Ferral Clan which had been terrorizing the Northlands.  The price of victory had been high, but none of the enemy clanbeasts had emerged from the battle alive.  Jans and his manacled stoat partner Broggen were still very much alive, however, and were most definitely in the mood to celebrate that fact.

Pursuit of their foes had brought them into a region where a small woodlander village and a colony of foxes and weasel types lay separated by a rocky plateau.  While there was a history of strife between these two communities, they had coexisted in relative peace for several generations now, and the coming of the Badger Lord's tumultuous campaign had upset the routine of vermin and goodbeast alike in these parts.  Never before had these mice, moles, ferrets, hedgehogs, stoats, otters, foxes, weasels and squirrels witnessed war on the scale that Urthblood practiced it, and the mighty warrior's presence unsettled them all.

And so they were in no frame of mind to refuse the badger's fighters whatever amenities they might desire.  It had become almost a tradition, after major battles such as this one, for Urthblood's troops to mingle with the locals and "unwind" in whatever fashion suited them, so long as they didn't offer any affront to their hosts.  While some contented themselves with food, drink, song, dance, and other such innocent diversions, others sought the kind of feminine comfort that any red-blooded malebeast would desire.  And Jans, after clamping eyes on Willowmere, decided that she was the mousemaid for him.

There was just one problem: Wherever Jans went, Broggen went too.  They were, after all, chained at the wrists.  Thus ...

"Ditch the stoat."

"What?"

"Don't get me wrong, Jans, I do find you quite dashing, and you really know how to flatter a maid.  I would gladly ... you know ... get to know you better ... "  Willow cast her bewitching, green-eyed gaze toward Broggen, who was looking on with his usual blank-faced, amiable expression.  "But if you think I'm gonna get up close and personal with you, while that beast's peering over our shoulders ... "

"He won't watch!  I swear!"

"Honest truth, I won't," Broggen quickly concurred, displaying an upheld paw of pledge to the mousemaid.  "I'll close my eyes, an' ev'rything!"

"It's not just watching I'm worried about."  Willow firmly folded her arms across her chest.  "I'm sorry, Jans, but if the stoat stays, then I don't!"

"I can't just cut him free!  I've got an obligation to Lord Urthblood to watch over Broggs here at all times, an' keep 'im outta trouble.  A blood oath, a life debt!  I thought you respected me for my dedication?  What kind of honorable and noble warrior would I be if I just let my responsibilities slide whenever it suited my convenience?"

"You'd be the kind of honorable and noble warrior who gets to hear me whispering into his ear all night long," Willow replied.  "I'm sorry, but I'm not about to embark on anything quite so bizarre as what you're proposing."  She looked at Broggen again.  "I mean ... what would he DO?  While we're ... you know ... keeping away the night chill?  Play tiddlywinks?"

Something about her last statement gave Jans hope that Willowmere had not closed the door on his proposal altogether, and he perked up.  "He'd be no problem!  On my honor as honorable beast of honor, he wouldn't!  Please, Willow, my dear, my sweet - you are truly the most beautiful mousemaid I have ever laid eyes upon.  Do not sunder my heart!  Do not send me away unfulfilled in expressing my love for you!  I am a soldier, and could fall in battle tomorrow!  Would you want that on your conscience, that you could have eased the burdens of my soul in my final hours upon this earth, and did not?  Nay, I could not let you make such a mistake!  We must rendezvous this very night, under the warm summer moon, in that glade where first we met and you stole my heart away!  Do not let our love go forever unrequited!"

Willowmere could not help but grin at such flattering balderdash.  "Tell you what.  I'll agree to meet you tonight in the glade, but only if you find a partner for your partner as well.  If you and I are going to be busy with each other, I want him kept busy too."

Jans stroked his chin fur.  "Hmm, a foursome.  That would work ... "

"It had better work," Willow warned, "or you can count me out!"

"But, Jansy mate," Broggen protested, "where'm I gonna find a stoatmaid in a village o' woodlanders?"

"Just take a stroll across the plateau," Willowmere said, "to the vermin colony across the way.  There's several stoat families there, with daughters who are of the right age.  You should be able to find one who'll go for this.  Your buddy's not entirely bad-looking, for a stoat.  And the way that badger of yours is stomping about the place, practically putting this region under martial law, he's got that lot so intimidated they'd probably throw a stoatmaid at you just to keep on that big red brute's good side!  Shouldn't be too hard."

And with that, she turned and walked away, making sure to put a little extra wiggle in her tail that Jans would be sure to notice.  The chained mouse and stoat warriors were left alone in the settlement's central square.

"Broggsy, mate, you know what this means."

"Ayup.  Um ... what does it mean, Jansy?"

Jans looked his comrade in the eye.  "It's time for us to go stoatmaidhunting."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The place could barely be called a tavern.

Jans and Broggen had crossed the short plateau that separated the woodlanders' settlement from the vermin colony.  A smaller group of fighters could have housed themselves in one camp or the other, but Urthblood's ever-travelling army had grown so large in recent seasons that it spilled over into both communities.  This was probably for the best anyway, since the badger's forces included creatures of both vermin and woodlander persuasion.  And so, while Captain Abellon's mice and Captain Saybrook's otters and Captain Tillamook's hedgehogs and Captain Bremo's shrews and Lady Mina's Gawtrybe squirrels and Foremole's Tunnel and Trencher corps entertained themselves amongst those of their own kind, the rats and weasels and foxes of the army made themselves at home on the other side of the divide.  And if they were not entirely welcome there, none of the local populace were in any frame of mind to protest, after seeing what these soldierbeasts were capable of doing.  It also helped that Urthblood had chosen to recruit from this side of the plateau first, seeking even more weasels and foxes for his burgeoning military might, and his hulking presence alone was enough to intimidate anybeast with half a brain in its head.

The mouse-stoat duo saluted Urthblood and his swordfox chieftain Machus as they entered the vermin settlement, then veered off toward the social center of the colony - a rickety collection of boards and logs that looked as if it might blow over in a strong wind.  The sound of much raucous laughter and off-key singing emanated from within, so Jans and Broggen figured it was as good a place to start as any.

Within they met the weasel captain Mattoon sitting at a table near the door.  Mattoon waved them over.  "Hey, what're you two doin' here?" the officer asked.

"Same thing you are, at a guess," Jans answered.

Mattoon smirked.  "What, you decided you want a bit o' romance more challengin' than a simple mousemaid, Jans?  Mebbe a tight li'l vixen, or a ratmaid ... "

"I got m'self a mouse, mate," Jans growled.  "It's Broggs here I'm shoppin' for now."

Mattoon shook his head.  "Ain't as many eligible stoatmaids 'round here as you might think, I'm 'fraid, an' Cap'n Bandon's already snatched up th' juiciest one fer 'imself.  Mebbe if you'd be willin'  t' settle fer a weasel or ferret, you might 'ave a better chance ... "

Broggen made a face.  "Rather stick to me own kind, thank you very much, Cap'n sir."

"Then good luck," Mattoon said, his tone indicating they were likely to have anything but.

"No stoatmaid for Broggsy means no mousemaid for me," Jans grunted, "so we'd better have some luck ... for both our sakes."

"Ah, one o' them deals, eh?"  Mattoon waved at the barkeep, who was himself a burly stoat, who looked like he could probably snap Broggen in two without any great effort.  "Well, y' might's well start with Gurtcher there.  He knows ev'rybeast in this hamlet, an' he's already set up most o' th' lads with entertainment of th' kind ye're lookin' fer.  'Ceptin' our pore rat comrades - t'weren't no rats livin' here, so they'll all hafta keep their own company t'night, harr harr!  Too bad, though - rats are complainers enuff even when they ain't frustrated.  Ah, well ... "

"Um, thanks, Cap'n."  Jans led the way over to the bar and the pair shouldered their way through a group of carousing ferrets to lean on the counter, which sagged noticeably under their elbows.  It took some effort through the general melee, but they finally managed to catch the eye of barkeep Gurtcher.  "Howdy, friend," Jans greeted.  "My comrade here was wonderin' if you might know of any stoatmaid hereabouts who'd have an interest in providin' a nighttime's worth of companionship for a fine warrior such as himself?"

Gurtcher's gaze went to the heavy iron chain binding the mouse and stoat at the wrist.  "Lose a bet?" he asked Jans wryly.

"In a manner of speaking.  It's a long story.  Um, about those stoatmaids ... ?"

"Yeah, I know a few," Gurtcher rumbled in a rumble that would have done Urthblood himself proud.

"And ... ?" Jans prompted hopefully.

"And," the big stoat muttered, "they've all already paired up with fighter stoats from yer army."  Gurtcher gave Broggen a quick once-over.  "Yer buddy's actually handsomer than most of 'em.  Too bad you wasn't in here earlier - he prob'ly coulda got 'imself some maid t' drool over 'im without too much trouble."

"Drool?"  Broggen grimaced.  "No thanks, matey ... "

"He was bein' figgertive, Broggs."  Jans ran his searching gaze around the chaotic tavern, hoping against hope to find that one stoatmaid that Gurtcher might have overlooked ... and there she was, making her way across the crowded floor with a metal serving tray of mugs balanced upon one paw.  No attempt had been made to soften the edges of her square face or hide her brawny muscles under feminine trappings; she looked as formidable as any fighter in Urthblood's army.  The mouse warrior pointed.  "What about her?  She taken too?"

"Y' mean Trembula?  Naw, she ain't taken.  She's my daughter."

"Oh.  Uh, no offense, sir ... "

"None taken.  An', if'n you wanna take a stab at winnin' her affections fer yerselves, be my guest.  I won't stop ya.  But, be warned, she ain't overly fond of unwanted advances, if'n y' catch my drift."

The barstoat's warning was accentuated by a sudden loud clang that sounded like a dull gong.  Jans and Broggen turned to see Trembula standing over a sprawled stoat soldier, the metal tray in her paw now bearing an undeniable head-shaped dent.

"Try 'n' paw me like I'm a sack o' goods, will ya?!" she shouted.  "Well, that's what that'll get ya!"  Indignantly Trembula spun on her heel and headed back to the kitchens, leaving the stricken stoat's drinking companions guffawing boisterously over his unconscious form.

"I ... see whatcha mean," Jans said to Gurtcher.  "Do tell, if you can - what is the quickest way to your fair daughter's heart?"

Gurtcher raised his eyebrows.  "Ye're still interested, after what you just seen?"

"How could Broggs not be?  A maid of such grace, such assured manner, such confidence!  Why, I'll bet every eligible bachelor stoat in this village is falling over themselves to win her paw!"

Broggen regarded the comatose stoat lying on the floor.  "They's a-fallin', sure 'nuff ... "

"Long servin' shifts'll do that to yer.  Pore missie gets a bit cranky when she's gotta spend so much time on her footpaws.  But I got no choice 'cept to work her hard, ever since the wife died from honeywort fever an' all our sons got drafted in th' wildcat's army."  Gurtcher shook his head.  "If there's any way t' Trembly's heart in th' way you mean, nobeast 'round here's ever found it.  Not sure she's got a romantic bone in her body.  But, like I said, if ye're feelin' foolish an' brave ... be my guest!"

"Thank you, kind sir!  I'll take that as your fatherly permission!"

"Take it any way y' want.  Now, are you two drinkin' anything?"  The question's tone said that declining was not an option.

"Oh, not fer me, matey," Broggen said, not picking up on the larger stoat's prompt.  "I get inta all kindsa trouble when I indulge ... "

Jans slapped a silver trinket down on the counter.  "Two ales fer me an' a tall glass of water fer my friend, if you'd be so kind.  Please have Trembula - what a nice name, isn't that a nice name, Broggs, has a certain lilting beauty to it - please have your daughter bring them to us.  We'll be at that little corner table over yonder."

Gurtcher smoothly pocketed the piece of jewelry.  "Comin' right up, gents!"

Jans led Broggen over to the tiny corner table where they squeezed themselves into their seats.  It was just as well that the table was so small, since the pair had only so much slack in their wrist chains with which to work.  Broggen leaned over to the mouse.  "Well, Jansy, looks like we might hafta go without this time ... "

"What're you talkin' 'bout, Broggs?  Wouldn't you like to have that vision of beauty snugglin' up alongside you this night?"

"Huh?  You mean Trembula?  She's kinda ... I dunno ... male-ish, if'n y' ask me ... "

"Oh, hush up now.  Beggars can't be choosers, y' know."

"Well, I s'pose I could make a night o' her.  But she seems t' be havin' none of it, in case you ain't of noticed ... "

"Nonsense!  Could you think of a better opportunity to try out that reflexology thing I was showin' you?  A poor stoatmaid, bein' run ragged on her footpaws - she'll be wrapped around yer pinky paw by sundown if'n you play yer cards right, Broggs matey!  Shhh - here she comes now!"

As Trembula approached the tiny table with their three drinks, Jans pulled Broggen up and swiped off his beret as he performed an exaggerated bow toward the stoatmaid.  "Ah, refreshment for the eyes as well as the throat!  My lovely dear, you look like you could use a brief spell off your poor bedraggled feet.  Please, I implore you, take a rest in my seat here - I'm quite content to stand for such a worthy cause!"

Trembula frowned at the mouse, then at the stoat, then at the chain linking them together.  "What's with that?" she inquired as she set the drinks on the table.

"Oh, this?"  Jans jingled the chain.  "A long and tragic and heroic tale, that is.  Perhaps later you can hear it in its entirety.  But for now, please accept this chair for what I'm sure is a much-deserved break ... "

"My break's not 'til sundown," she grumbled in a voice not entirely unlike her father's.  "Me pater needs me waitin' these tables - can't do it 'imself while he's tendin' bar."

"Oh, just for a moment!" Jans urged, taking her by the arm as she turned to go.  He managed to gently urge her down into the empty chair and deftly avoid her swinging fist all in the same motion.  "At least let me partner here massage those aching footpaws for you!  He's very good at it ... "

"Massage my feet?" Trembula echoed.  It was not an offer she'd ever received before from any patron of her father's establishment.

Broggen had caught on to Jans's ruse and had already dropped to one knee, taking one of the stoatmaid's footpaws in his double grasp.  "Jansy's right, ma'am - I get lotsa compliments on my technique.  Just gimme a few moments 'ere, an' you'll feel like y' just got outta bed!"

He began to slowly but firmly knead and explore Trembula's unshod sole, trying to remember everything Jans had taught him.  There was a science which said that certain spots on the bottoms of creatures' footpaws were linked to various other parts of the body, and that the proper stimulation of the right areas could aid breathing, relax strained back muscles, relieve headaches, unkink stressed tails, unknot leg cramps, soothe the innards and provide countless other benefits and effects.  All it took was the knowledge of which part of the footpaw corresponded to which other part of the body.

It should be noted here that the mousemaid Willowmere had already been the recipient of several such massages from Jans ... which was the main reason she was entertaining the notion of entertaining him for the night, even if it meant a couple of stoats coming along for the bargain.

Broggen started out with the more obvious areas, treating Trembula to a regimine that was sure to relax her from her ears to her tailtip.  As he saw the tension flow out of her and a smile lift the corners of her mouth (making her appear, on the whole, and good deal less threatening), he readied himself for a more audacious bit of massage.

"Good, ain't he?" Jans commented as he looked on.  "This one's got th' magic touch, that's what we all tell 'im.  An' if he can make yer footpaws feel that good, just imagine what he could do with some o' yer other parts!"

At that moment, as Broggen pressed home on the desired spot, Trembula stiffened and sat up straighter, blushing slightly about her face and ears.  "Ahey ... uh ... ohhh ... "

Jans leaned in for the kill.  "If you wanna see what I mean, meet with us t'night, after yer dad lets you off work here."  He added a wink and a nod for effect.

Trembula jumped to her feet, ignoring the fact that only one of her paws had been massaged.  "Meet with ya tonight, huh?  An' I s'pose you mean fer all night?"

"Wellll ... " Jans twiddled his whiskers innocently.  "If y' wanna see th' full range of all Broggs here can do, it could very well be an all-night affair, yes ... "

She narrowed her gaze from the mouse to the amiably-smiling stoat and back again.  "Tell y' what.  If you fellas wanna get me lyin' down, I'm game.  But, it's gonna cost ya ... "

Jans patted his breast pocket, and his face fell.  He'd used his last piece of silver paying Gurtcher for the drinks, and all he had left were a few bronze bits.

"Oh, don't you worry," Trembula grinned slyly him.  "It ain't that kinda payment I got in mind.  This's somethin' I know you can afford ... "

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Trembula sat at the side table, watching with barely-concealed glee as the manacled mouse and stoat scrambled this way and that across the tavern floor, struggling to keep up with all the orders from their comrades-in-arms and deliver all the drinks to the right parties.  They'd ended up sprawled on their faces more than once, their linked paws doing little to help them in their frantic endeavors.  Gurtcher found the spectacle of these two cumbersome warriors trying to play barmaid too entertaining to get worked up about the ale they were spilling in their occasional falls.  Of course, that didn't stop the burly barstoat from yelling at Jans and Broggen for their wasteful clumsiness.  He had his reputation to uphold, after all.

Jans groaned as they made their way back to the kitchens for the umpteenth time, arms full of empty mugs and plates and bowls.  "Never thought I'd hafta work my tail off like this for some tail!"

"Yeah, but Willow's got such a nice tail," Broggen opined.

The mouse warrior threw a glance at Trembula and her father.  "At least they're havin' a good time over there.  Look at 'em, laughin' it up at our expense!  The indignity!"

"Hey, Jansy, over here!" Captain Mattoon yelled from behind them.  "Need another round fer me an' me mates, 'fore you go an' disappear back there!"

"Aye, sir!" Jans barked, reversing his direction toward the officer.  Unfortunately, Broggen was slow on the uptake, and the two ended up crashing into each other.  Again.  Mattoon and his fellow weasels guffawed and smacked their tabletop in amusement.

Trembula looked toward Gurtcher.  "Should we let 'em off now, Father?"

"Naw.  I'm havin' too much fun watchin' this show!"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It seemed an eternity, but at last Gurtcher decided that Jans and Broggen had waited their fair share of tables and endured enough ridicule from their comrades-in-arms.  He excused them, and gave Trembula an early night off.  She left at the side of the chained warriors.  "So, what did you two have in mind?  You both looking for a fun time with me tonight?"  Trembula glanced toward Jans, intrigued by such a possibility.  "'Cos between that foot massage and that show you just put on in there, I'd say you've earned it.  Ain't seen my pater grin like that in better'n a season."

"Oh, no," Jans quickly corrected her.  "I got a mousemaid all lined up fer me already.  Broggs here'll have you all to himself."

"Oh."  Trembula seemed almost disappointed, but still enticed.  "I ain't never seen two mice doin' it.  That alone might make this whole thing worth it ... "

"The whole idea was for Broggs to keep you busy enough so that you won't be watchin' us, but if you wanna sneak a peek, that's up t' you."   Jans raised the chain and rattled it.  "Whatever happens, you an' Broggs'll never be farther from me than this," he added with a grin.

"Okay.  So, where're we goin'?"

"Back 'cross th' plateau, t' where my dearest Willowmere eagerly awaits her valient squire's return!"

Trembula hesitated.  "Y' mean, to th' woodlanders village?  My kind ain't exactly welcomed there, y' know ... "

"Don't you worry yer pretty head, m'dear," Jans assured her.  "You'll find no trouble, I guarantee.   Things're different hereabouts now.  In case you haven't heard, Lord Urthblood's in town ... "

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~ 

Trembula received her fair share of stares from the woodlanders as she was escorted into their village by Jans and Broggen, but the stoatmaid made every effort to be as nonchalant about it as her two guides were.  As the sun was setting, they made their rendezvous with Willowmere at the edge of the glade on the settlement's outskirts, Jans bearing the picnic dinner he'd promised his date as part of this tryst.

The mousemaid was waiting for them leaning against a tree with her paws folded across her chest.  She smiled knowingly as the three of them approached.  "See, I knew you could do it if you put your minds to it.  Lemme guess - you roped her in with that famous footpaw massage of yours?"

"I did, actshully," Broggen admitted.

"No gal can resist," Jans winked at Willow, "as you can attest firstpaw."

"I dunno 'bout you, sweetie," Trembula said to Willowmere, "but I tend tables all day, every day, an' after what this 'ere stoat did t' me aching footpaws, there was no way I WASN'T leavin' with him!"

Jans's smiled broadened to its most ingratiating.  "Willowmere, please allow me to introduce Trembula, daughter of Gurtcher and the loveliest stoatmaid to be found on the other side of the plateau!  Trembula, this is Willowmere, quite the most beautiful mousemaid in the Northlands ... an' I should know, since Lord Urthblood's had me trampin' from one end of 'em to the other in his campaigns.  How's about a nice pawshake, ladies?"

The two females smiled at each other and shook paws.  "So, I guess we're going to be getting to know each other very well tonight," Willow said slyly.

"Looks like.  You up fer this, mousey?"

"Hah!  Just try 'n' keep up with me, if you can, stoat!"

"Um ... okay, now that we've made all the introductions," Jans took Willow by the arm, and motioned for Broggen to do the same with Trembula, "what say we stake out a nice spot for ourselves and get comfortable, eh?  I wrangled us a nice dinner, and some fine wine too, an' then ... well, we'll see where th' night takes us, huh?"

On their way into the glade, they passed the mouse captain Abellon.  Jans snapped to attention and saluted his superior, as did Broggen; the stoat, being chained to Jans, also served directly under Abellon.  The double salute was a bit tricky with their linked wrists, but they'd long ago learned how to work around such things.  "Evening, Cap'n!"

The mouse commander grinned at the foursome as he returned the salute.  "At ease, Jans ...  Broggs.  I was beginnin' to wonder whether you two were gonna take this R'n'R leave seriously.  Better late than never, lads!"

"Um, permission to proceed, sir?" Jans asked.

"Oh, by all means.  And, ah, I'll tell the rest o' th' squad t' make sure not to disturb you.  Most of 'em have already had their entertainment, so you've got this glade to yerselves.  I found a nice little secluded nook down by the streambank 'neath the crooked oak, protected by thorn hedges ... if privacy's what ye're lookin' for."

"Um ... yes, sir.  Tell the boys that if the hedge is a-rockin', don't come a-knockin'!"

"Will do.  Just make sure you're in marchin' condition come morning.  You know Lord Urthblood - he could order us t' move out at a moment's notice, an' I don't need you two walkin' funny.  Other than that ... have fun!"

"Yessir!"  Jans saluted again as Abellon sauntered away, then returned his attention to the two females.  "Now then, how does a nice private nook down by the stream sound to you ladies?"

There were no objections.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Now this's verra strange ... "

The four creatures had finished their dinner and most of the wine, and now lay back upon the luxuriously soft grass under the summer stars.  In the Northlands, even in summer the nights could have a hint of a chill to them ... which played into Jans and Broggen's plans perfectly.  Now, Willowmere and Trembula snuggled close to their respective males on either side to share their body warmth.  The stoatmaid, looking to generate a little more heat, was playfully exploring Broggen's tunic.  As she quickly discovered, the garment would not be removed easily.

"I ain't nevva seen a shirt like this b'fore ... "

"Naw, we hadta have 'em special-made fer us," Broggen explained.  "Since Jans an' me're chained at th' wrists, our tunics button up our sides an' along th' underside o' th' sleeves so we c'n pull 'em on over our heads an' then button 'em from th' side."

"That was a very sad story about your friend Brigger," Willow put in from beside Jans.  She too started investigating her mate's button arrangement.  "And a very brave and noble sacrifice for you to've made, Jans.  So much dedication to show a friend ... I find that very ... attractive in a beast.  Oops!  I'm very much afraid I've gone and unbuttoned your tunic!"

Jans sat halfway up, making sure his shirt slipped partway open.  "Oh, drat!  Now it's all askew!  I'll hafta take it all th' way off before I'll be able to put it on again properly.  Would you mind lending me a paw, my dear?"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Once the garments were off - of Willowmere and Trembula as well as Jans and Broggen - it would be some time before they were put on again.

The four lay side by side in the afterglow of their passionate exertions, sublimely drowsy but not yet ready for sleep.  Jans, in fact, was ready for quite something else, and whispered his suggestion into Willowmere's ear.

"Again?!" the former mousemaid exclaimed.  "You are quite the warrior, aren't you?  But I've got a better idea.  You just lie there on your back, relax all your muscles, and try not to hurry it.  I've got an idea I want to show you."

And so she showed him.

Broggen and Trembula looked on in curious fascination by the light of the half-moon and the stars.  "Gee, I never thought o' that b'fore," the stoat soldier remarked.  "Hey, Jansy, does that feel good?"

"Whaddya ... think?" Jans gasped, his body doing things he never would have suspected it was capable of.  When the moment of release came some time later, it impressed even him.

"Hey, Jansy," Broggen said, "you got some o' that in yer ear."

"What was that, Broggs?  I got somethin' in my ear."  Jans looked to Willowmere, his pupils returning to normal.  "Where the FUR did you learn to do something like that?"

"Ah'd dell yah," Willow replied, "buh mah dongue's doo dired ... "

Broggen regarded Trembula hopefully.  "Hey, I don't s'pose you'd do that fer me too?"

"Naw," she smiled.  "Ye're gonna do that fer ME!"

As the two stoats got busy, Jans ran a paw across his chest.  The hammering of his heart was gradually subsiding.  "Good thing there's a stream right nearby, 'cos we're ALL gonna need a good wash come mornin'!"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

And so morning found all four exhausted and happy beasts waist-deep in the gently flowing stream.

Jans and Broggen had no choice but to bathe alongside each other, but Willowmere opted to snuggle against the male mouse as they rinsed their fur.  "Brrr!  This stream's cold!  Mind if I cozy up to you to stay warm while I wash?"

"Not at all.  And, um, I can think of a way to keep you even warmer ... "

"Oh really?"  The two mice embraced and started kissing ... and soon they were doing far more than that, Willow wrapping all four paws around Jans's back while he held her off the streambottom by her legs.  Trembula, now out of the water and up on the mossy bank, looked on in near astonishment.

"Standin’ up?!" she muttered.  "That's a new one on me!  I swear, those two are randier than any rabbit I've ever met!"

"Hey, easy there, you two," Broggen said, standing in the stream within paw's reach of the amorous mice.  "Ye're gonna kill all th' fish!"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The call to move out came sooner than anybeast had expected.

"Captain Abellon, have your division ready to be underway by noontide.  Tratton has landed a dreadnought along the shore northwest of here, probably to take slaves and perhaps to establish a new beachhead.  We must convince him that this is a bad idea."

"Yes, Lord Urthblood!  I'll have everymouse assembled in the village square within the hour."

It was not just Urthblood's mice who formed up for marching in the village center.  As word of the move-out spread throughout the ranks, the Badger Lord's otters, hedgehogs, moles and squirrels congregated there, over two hundred strong.  But it was the rats and weasels returning from the other side of the plateau who flooded the square until it threatened to burst.  With this living tide came Trembula, who'd only just reached home to begin her shift at the tavern after her mostly sleepless night.

Broggen was not hard to find, his long-necked countenance sticking up well above all the mice around him.  Trembula found Willowmere already there, crying on Jans's shoulder.  The female stoat joined her voice to Willow's in imploring their lovers not to be gone so soon.  Jans and Broggen were not the only soldiers of Urthblood's army to receive spectacular public farewells from their newfound romantic consorts, but theirs was perhaps the most unique.

"Say you don't have to go!" Willowmere begged of Jans.  "We ... we were only just beginning!"

"Oh, Willow, my dear, my heart yearns to stay with you more than words can say, but I am a soldier, and it is a soldier's lot to march when our commander orders it.  I can no sooner disobey Lord Urthblood than I could forget you."

"But ... you will remember me?" she smiled tearfully.

"My every waking moment."

Trembula hugged Broggen until he thought his neck would snap.  “When will ye be back?”

“Soon as we can ... an’ not a moment later, Trem,” Broggen vowed.  “Like Jansy says, it’s our soldierly duty t’ go where Lord Urthblood says, when he says.  Sometimes it’s real tough ... like now.”

“Then why do you do it?” Willow demanded.

“For nights like last night,” Jans replied.  “We’re fighters, an’ me ‘n’ Broggs have had more’n one close brush with death.  We know that every battle could be our last, but we do what we do anyway to make the lands safe for honest creatures.  And now we have something else t’ carry us through our rough moments.  The memory of last night will sustain us for twenty seasons’ worth of scrapes an’ skirmishes ... an’ give us reason t’ make it out of ‘em alive, knowin’ you two’ll be waitin’ here for us.  And that’s a gift not just anybeast could’ve given us.”

“So ... you will be back?” Willow pressed, unable to be assured of this enough.

“The crags of the Boldred Mountains and the currents of the Roaringburn and the desolate vastness of the wastelands to the south and the winter snows of the fiercest Northlands winter all conspiring together would not be enough to keep us away,” Jans swore.  “We will return to you, and count the days with heavy anticipation until that moment comes.”  He planted a tender kiss on Willowmere’s cheek.  “I mean, truthfully ... how could we not?”

“What he said,” Broggen echoed, hugging Trembula close to him.

“Marchers!  One, two three, four ... forward march!”

Willowmere and Trembula jogged alongside the enormous living snake that was the troop column, waving and calling to their favored soldiers for as long as they could.  But at last the army was gone, and the two females knew that unless they intended to follow it all the way to the coast they would have to let it go on without them.

A sadness fell over the pair as they stood on a grassy ridge watching the column vanish into the distance.  For a long time they held their hopeful, hopeless stances in silence, not daring to speak.  Finally, though, Willow turned to Trembula and said, “Wanna come back to my place for some vittles?  I make a mean cucumber and yellow cheese salad.”

“Why, yeah.  That’d be nice.  I’m so used t’ servin’ otherbeasts, it’d be somethin’ to be treated m’self.”

“My pleasure.”

The two strolled back toward Willowmere’s settlement arm in arm.

Never dreamed I’d be calling a stoat my friend, the mouse thought to herself.

Never imagined any mouse’d be invitin’ me t’ share a meal with ‘em, the stoat ruminated.

“Hey, you know what?” Willow said.  “We oughtta stay in touch - you know, just ... stay in touch.”

“That’d be good,” Trembula agreed.

Jans and Broggen were gone, but they had left behind far more than memories of one passionate night under the summer stars. 

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