Summer on the River ((Jared))

The day was hot and humid, the kind of day that started hot and just kept on getting hotter. The air was heavy and hard to breathe, pressing down upon the forest until every thing save the occasional bird was quiet and still. To the west, thunderheads rose bruised purple and black. It would rain by tonight.

The only creature that seemed to be fine with the oppressive heat was Aggie. The small mousemaid was not only happy in the heat, but seemed to thrive in it a bit.

She stood thigh-deep in the great River Moss, her dress blooming out around her like a flower as she waded, fishing with a simplified fishing rod.

Aggie had managed to loose her way to Redwall Abbey two nights ago, but hadn't seen anyway of getting back on course when there seemed to be no one else in the forest to ask directions from. And she certainly couldn't climb a tree in her state.  As if to remind her of that fact, the baby kicked inside her, awake by the cold water and it's mother's movement.

Agnes patted the mound of unborn child gently, and tugged grinned when there was a tug on the line.

With a little effort, she pulled the fish– a nice fat bass-- out of the water and waded toward shore, and her camp.

Out of breath but satisfied, she sat on the bank and got ready to clean her fish, quietly singing a little nonsense song while she did.

She didn't mind being on her own for a while, but after a few days and hide nor hair of anyone else, she was getting lonely and edgy, twitchy at every little noise.

A very faint thunderclap rolled over the woodland, and she glanced up at the sky. It was clear blue yet. "Ohhh, dat storm's comin' quick, it is..." she sighed, talking to herself and the baby. "Hope it innt a big bad wone..."

Her soft chatter, seeming the only noise save for the stream, was just enough to cover the footsteps of anyone approaching, if they were quiet.

Larina Skyleaf jumped playfully through the trees and forest edges that lined the banks of the river. Although a native of Mossflower, Larina had spent the last few months of her life in the far-off Eastern islands, but she had returned to Mossflower just at the right time in June for her mother’s birthday, which was, in fact, today. She was just thinking of leaving the trees and walking the rest of the way to Redwall Abbey when she found out that she could most definitely use a bath, as the hot day was covering her fur, face, and tail with sweat, leaves, and branches. It was still a few miles to the Abbey, and she of course knew better than to meet her parents all covered in the heat of the day. So she left the trees and jumped down onto part of the eastern bank of the River Moss, and began to look around for a cool and shallow spot to bathe, humming Redwall folk songs to herself quietly. Looking off into the sky ahead of her, she could see undoubtedly the hints of a coming thunderstorm. This meant that if she was going to take a bath in the River, she would have to be quick. Very quick.

She walked a couple of miles or so and eventually happened upon Aggie, and she stopped singing and swiftly ducked behind a rosebush so as not to be seen. But her friendly and curious nature got the better of her. The small mousemaid did look friendly and like a woodlander, after all, and Larina knew, being a woodlander herself. After clearing her throat, she stood up and came out from behind the rosebush to test the water of the river with one of her squirrel claws. It was just the temperature that she needed, so she retreated behind the rosebush again and began to undress to get ready to bathe, keeping her head and shoulders above the flowers so she could greet Aggie. “Hello there! Bright, wonderful day, isn't it? My name is Larina Skyleaf, and yours?” Trying to strike up a conversation was going to be tricky and hasty considering how fast the storm was approaching the River.

Aggie smiled when she first saw the other maid, testing the water to see how cold it was, but let her speak first, and went about getting the fish ready for the fire. Out of the corner of her eye, Aggie watched the squirrel, something her father had taught her to do at a young age. She looked young, certainly no older than Aggie herself, and probably younger. Friendly. Not sneaky. Not a threat. Perhaps even willing to point her in the right direction. And even if not, it would be nice to have a bit of company. There was only so much talking she could do to her baby.

When the young lady did introduce herself, Aggie had just put the fish over the fire, and she twisted on her knees to see her, one hand resting on her belly. "Agnes," she replied, pushing a lock of hair out of her eyes. "An' oui, th' day's wonederful." Her accent was thick, similar to something of the low southlands, but altogether something else entirely. She glanced at the girl carefully, taking in the general dampness of her new companion. "Yall been travelin taday, yea?"

"It's very nice to meet you, Agnes. And yes, this day is indeed wonderful. Goodness, I don't think I've ever seen a day this warm in my entire life!" Larina answered, smiling brightly as she slipped out of her trousers and placed them with her brown cloth blouse and slippers behind the bush. Then she bent down to open her travel bag and grabbed a towel; then, after wrapping it around her undergarments, she slowly walked towards the water and sat down at the bank.  She then removed the towel and slid into the cool water, and bending down so she could sit in the water with only her head and shoulders showing, she began to wash the sweat off her back and arms. "I really hope you don't mind me taking a bath here, but I'm on my way to Redwall Abbey because today is my dearest mother's birthday, and I needed a quick bath. This day has been making me sweaty and dirty. But I honestly didn't realize there was somebeast else here. I'm truly sorry if I intruded on something you were doing."

"Yes, I have been traveling today, by ship from the Eastern Islands to Mossflower. What about you, Agnes?" Larina asked, choosing her words carefully and trying not to probe into the mysterious mousemaid as she bent her head into the water and wet her ears. "What are you doing out here all by yourself? It is not safe out in these woods, you know."

Goodness, she was a bright, talkitive thing. It was nice, to have someone enthused to see her, let alone seeing anyone else in this part of the woods. Aggie watched with a grin as she went about picking her way modestly to the water.

On the coals of her fire, the fish sizzled and she tended it automatically. The smell was lovely, and her stomach gave a little gurgle. She had been starving since she'd gotten pregnant, and the distraction almost made her miss what the squirrel was saying. Her ears flicked up at the mention of Redwall.

However, Aggie waved the at notion that the woods dangerous, and all her apologies about bathing by her camp. "Pfffft. Ah don' min'. It's no' my river, an' we're all ladies hea'. An' dis fores', it ain' so dangerous." She had a bow, anyway, in the case that it did get dangerous.

Aggie let a little quiet pass between the two of them, before asking, "Ah heard ya mention da Abbey…Gar ici, Ah been lost lookin' fer dat place fer two an' a half days. Ya min' if Ah come wit'?"

Larina smiled and continued humming her Redwall folk songs to herself as she washed, keeping a careful, watchful, but unsuspicious eye on Agnes, a curious spark in the squirrelmaid’s eyes at her skill of cooking. As she dived under the water to wash the rest of her body down, just before her ears sunk beneath the water, she managed to hear Agnes ask if she could come with her to the Abbey. She surfaced after a few minutes of washing down the rest of her body, still smiling playfully. “Of course, you can come with me to Redwall, Agnes. Anybeast is welcome. The Abbey is a safe haven, a peaceful haven, a place of rest, comfort, and home for all goodbeasts. But what the heck, the Abbot can describe its goodness much better than I can. Either way, like I said, anybeast is welcome.”

“I know this is not my river, nor my forest but I just thought…….…since you were the only one here, I thought I would have interrupted your private thoughts or something like that?” Finished with her bath, Larina stood up, grabbed her towel, and began to dry herself as she walked back towards the rosebush.

With one of her paws dry, she reached out to the rosebush and plucked off one of the flowers, taking care to avoid those sneaky and sharp thorns. Admiring it intently, she giggled to herself as she had a sudden thought, then said, stroking the rose’s petals affectionately, “I should really bring some of these back to my Jared……I know he’d love these. Anyway!” she turned to Agnes as she packed the rose away in a secret pocket in her bag. She then took her clothes back and began to change back into them. “The path to Redwall from this River is only about three, maybe two miles and perhaps even less if we move at a decent pace.” She explained to Agnes.” If we start till after you’re done eating your fish, we’ll be there perhaps an hour before lunchtime!” Slipping back into her slippers, she walked over to Agnes and sat down on the opposite side of the fire. “That fish looks delicious and very well-cooked! Did you catch that yourself?” Larina seemed so intent on the fish that she didn’t even notice that Agnes was, as she should have seen when first laying eyes on her, that the mousemaid was pregnant.

"Oui, Ah did," Aggie replied, grinning at the girl. She was a sweet thing, this girl. So helpful and kind. "Liddle bit a line an' a good hook, an' ya c'n live real nice on de river." A limp little breeze puffed past them, mingling the strong sweet smell of roses and burning wood. It was lovely, but it served to remind Aggie that she was starving, and her stomach growled audibly. She snorted a laugh and reached for a small canvas pack by her lean-to.

Like her, it had seen almost a full turn of seasons of wandering, and it showed it. Small and stuffed to the brim, it looked to be made out of stiff ships canvas and oilcloth. Here and there it had been repaired or patched, and one of the straps was fraying. A buckle was missing from the front. Agnes reached down into the depths and pulled out two tin plates and a pair of forks.

"_Gar ic_i, liddle podna," she started, pulling the fish out of the fire. "Ah'll share dis fish, in exchange fo' tekin pudgy ol' me ta de Abbey wit ya, yea?" A lock of hair was flicked out of her bright blue eyes. Her tone was one of bright, friendly bossiness and she had a crooked, almost maternal smile on her face. Even if Larina had come away with out Aggie in tow, she would have been fed. It was part of Aggie's up bringing, to feed guests in her home. Or, in this case, fellow travelers sharing the road with her. "Ah wouldn' dream'a lettin ya go hungry. "

Larina adjusted herself in front of the fire, taking care to let her fur dry off any stray drops of water that still clung to her fur, but at the same time not get too close so as to accidentally be burned by Agnes' fire. With her stray fur blowing contently in the light breeze, Larina relaxed and gratefully accepted the tin plate and fork from Aggie, and then looked longingly at the well-cooked fish, a hungry spark noticeable behind the friendly and curious nature of her eyes. “You would share your self-caught fish with me? Oh, that's very nice of you, I'd be honored to eat it with you, Agnes. And, of course, I will bring you to the Abbey afterwards, provided we leave while the day is still young. I don’t mind showing you the way. I’ll even introduce you to the Abbot, the creature in charge of the Abbey. My parents wouldn't start my mother’s birthday party without me present, because I am their only child, and I wouldn't miss this for the world.”

While she waited for Aggie to serve the fish, Larina dug into her leather pack, which was slightly bigger than Aggie’s, although not as filled to the brim and not as worn down with use and experience. Larina removed the same rose she had picked from the rosebush, and again began to stroke its petals affectionately, sighing romantically. “I wish Jared Sandeye were here……..I know he wouldn't want to miss my mother’s birthday, either, but he had some business over at the Eastern Islands that was extremely urgent, so I had to come here without him. Honestly, I don’t know what he does at the Eastern Islands sometimes. But just imagine how romantic it will be, when I give this rose to him when I see him again! Oh, I'm rambling, aren't I? Sorry, Jared Sandeye is…...." Here, Larina blushed and giggled somewhat nervously. "Jared Sandeye is my.....well.....my mate...." Larina couldn't help but giggle at the thought of the romance that would surround her and her mate when they met together again on the shores of Maraul.

Larina’s curiosity was getting the better of her, so before she could stop herself, she began to ask, “So, Agnes, where are you from?” she asked, as she rolled up her sleeves to the elbows to dry her still-wet forearms. “How did you come to be here in Mossflower Forest all by yourself?”

Though normally talkative herself, Aggie could always be called upon to listen. And this little thing seemed nearly fit to burst with her happiness. She watched her toy with the rose she had harvested, stroking it's petals and sigh at it. Larina seemed thrilled beyond words with herself right now, and her mate, who from the tone of the maid's voice was the most wonderful man she'd met. Ah, to be young and in love, as the older watchmen used to say. And they would know, Aggie supposed. They'd seen it all. She herself was more like them, now, a bit jaded when it came to love and mates and marriage. She'd seen enough affairs and maids in hysterics over sailors and conmen to think that all love was true, and that the men were all saints. But her little friend was nearly glowing, and Aggie saw no reason to say a word of her opinion on the subject.

Though, Aggie couldn't say she wasn't young, really. And she was in love, too. Just a different kind of love, she decided, absently patting her belly and feeling the baby kick in return. A smile flickered over her mouth, a combination of happy from her energetic company and the –for now-- contented feeling of carrying.

"Congratulations on ya an' yer mate," Aggie grinned, slicing the fish in half and dropping them on the plates. "He soun's lak a dashin' fellah." She passed one of the plates to Larina, digging with her other hand into her pack again. Out came a beaten tin cup, and that was passed along to the squirrel maid as well.

Once her guest was seen to, Aggie shifted a little, trying to get more comfortable. Anymore it seemed she needed a full on strategy to move from one position to the next, and staying comfortable didn't last long. Still, her legs were falling asleep and her heels were digging into the backs of her thighs. With a groan, she leaned to the side and stretched her legs out in front of her. She wobbled a little, almost loosing her balance, but came to rest with her legs stretched out in front of her. "Ufff," she sighed, righting her still-damp dress.

Aggie was reaching for her own plate when Larina spoke again, and in response, Aggie answered automatically, "Bayou Black," though Aggie knew that she wouldn't know where that was. "Reeal deep south'a," she added, balancing her plate on her bump with one hand and pointing the way she came with the other. Squinting off in that direction, she explained, "Gar ici, if'n yous went dat way fer 'bout tree seasons, ya'd be real close."

It struck her then, with speaking it aloud, just how far from home she really was, and it tightened a cord in her heart, and a tremor of something like fear twitched within her. It felt like the first time she wandered too far to see her house. She knew where it was and how to get there, but just looking back and not being able to see it made her feel impossibly small and unprotected.

Aggie swore lowly in astonishment and grinned, a little bit shocked and happy, a little bit sad and homesick. "Ah didn' really realize how far Ah'd walked."

Larina giggled romantically and returned the rose to her bag as she accepted the beaten-down tin cup from Agnes. “Actually, Jared and I have been married for almost a year now, and he only said he would be staying behind at the Eastern Islands for a few hours – he’ll probably be coming here once he’s done. And I have to agree with you, Agnes, he is a dashing fellow. Just wait ‘till you see him: Jared Sandeye is so handsome, your heart will melt!” Larina giggled again, this time in excitement. She then allowed Agnes to place her half of the fried fish on her plate, then picked up her fork and took her first bite. The well-cooked fish was indescribably tasty and it sent a ripple of new energy through her newly-washed and energy-deprived body. “Wow, this is so delicious, Agnes!” she said after she swallowed. “Eating food you cooked yourself is always the best!”

Larina listened intently as Agnes described her home and where she was from, and even looked down the forest path at the direction she pointed. “So you’re from around here. That means you’re local. I’ve never been to nor heard of Bayou Black. You will have to tell me more about it. I’m from Redwall Abbey myself, born and raised.” She began to explain, picking at her fish again to prepare for another bite.

“The Abbey is more due northwards from here, directly down the road from this river. I’ll show you.” She then took another bite of fish, chewed it, swallowed it, and then said, “Jared Sandeye is from the Eastern Islands, from a lesser known island known as Maraul. This island is so far out on the Eastern Sea that it doesn’t show up on anything but the most advanced world maps. It’s not an easy place to get to, but it’s what Jared Sandeye has called home, just like the Redwall Abbey is what I have called home, and Bayou Black for you.” Larina smiled at her new friend, and put down her plate to adjust her blouse so that the sleeves would not slip off and reveal her garments underneath. She looked back up to smile at Agnes again, but the smile quickly slipped off her face like running water as the mousemaid said painfully, **  "Ah didn' really realize how far Ah'd walked."**.

Larina suddenly felt as if she had asked the wrong questions. “I…..I’m sorry, Agnes, I….I didn’t mean to offend you. Don’t worry, I…I won’t ask you another question ever again, I swear. I’m so, so sorry, Agnes…..I….I didn’t mean to offend you, not at all. Can you please forgive me, Agnes?” Trying not to probe, Larina’s eyes filled with remorse and longing for forgiveness, staring at her friend hopefully. 
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Around this same time, Jared Sandeye was traveling on foot through Mossflower Forest. About an hour ago, he had washed up on the shores of Mossflower on his Eastern ship, the Edoran, named after his deceased older brother who had been murdered by corsair searats when Jared was only 12 years old. Jared had not come to Mossflower because his business with the Eastern Islands was finished, but because his business needed to be continued, and the only way to do so was to go to Mossflower. Perhaps, if he had time, he would attend Larina’s mother’s birthday at Redwall Abbey.

Jared walked leisurely down the path, twirling his switchblade expertly and playfully between his left fingers. He turned a corner and found the river, and far down on one side of the bank were sitting a squirrelmaid he recognized as his mate, Larina, and a pregnant mousemaid he didn’t recognize at all. Not wanting to be seen, but wanting to surprise Larina, Jared grinned to himself as he suddenly had an idea. He disappeared and hid up in the largest and thickest oak tree he could find, blending in amongst the leaves and branches, smiling to himself at the prank he was about to pull on his love.

Aggie twitched at the sudden reaction her homesickness had on the girl. Huh. Fickle thing, she was. It reminded Agnes strongly of her young cousin. For a moment, all she could see in her mind's eye was her round little face, scrunched up someplace between anger and tears. But it passed, and Aggie shook her head and smiled. "Arrete toi, cher, stop dat righ' dere," her voice was gentle, and she wasn't in the least offended. "Y'all ax any question ya lak, an' if'n it's too much Ah'll say so. But non. Ah'm fine. Jus' homesick an' such."

She pointed to Larina's fish with her fork and in a motherly tone, told her, "Now eat, befo' it gets cold." Aggie followed her own advice, because her body and her baby were both reminding her that she was hungry. Even if it was rude to start eating before your guests did. But she was pregnant, so surely that gave her a bit of leeway.

Idly, as she ate, Aggie picked up the stick she'd been stoking the fire with and fiddled with it. Upon further inspection, though, it would turn out to be not just a stick, but a carefully-milled crossbow bolt. It had seen better days, though, and so Aggie had culled it from her quiver and made it useful in other ways. Aggie sighed. It was nice, she decided, to have company. Walking for three seasons, with companions few and far between, and companions that were talkative and generally not out to nick your stuff even fewer and farther between, had been decidedly lonely. It had been good for honing her father's training, though, on listening. He was a city boy, yes, but he was a Watchman, too, and had often told her that listening to your surroundings was most important. And the forest had gotten just a little quieter. Someone was passing by. It took a moment, but then the birds started to call cautiously to one another again, and the woods song reached it's proper volume once more. Probably nothing. She glanced over at where her crossbow and quiver sat with her coiled-up bedroll, ready to be packed. It was probably nothing. But still, she decided. Better safe than sorry.

"Tell me abou' yer abbey, oui?" Aggie asked, one corner of her mouth lifting in a curious grin, the momentary worry gone. "Ah've nev'r heard it from somwon who lives dere."

"Oh, all right, then. I'll watch my mouth, don't worry." Larina said innocently. She returned to her fish, and took a couple more bites in silence. Finally, she said with as much courage as she could muster, "OK, I'll tell you about the Abbey. It's an enormous, perfectly red stone building (hence the name Redwall Abbey). Heck, even I don't know how tall it is. Anyway, the Abbey is a safe haven, a place of peace, fellowship, home, love, and just about everything else that exists for all creatures of goodness and righteousness. The Abbot or Abbess will not hesitate to let anybeast live in the Abbey provided that they follow the customs of peace and service in return. Oh, gosh, I could go on forever about the Abbey; there is so much to tell about it! So much on the inside, on the outside, and-"

"And everything in between!" cried a young male voice hidden amongst the leaves of an oak tree standing behind Larina. Larina put down her plate and cup to investigate the oak tree that stood nearest to her. But before she could push away the branches to see what was behind it, somebeast jumped out at her and wrapped their arms around her waist. Larina screamed, but only in amusement, because even through the mass of fur that obscured her face, she knew exactly who it was that had tackled her. She fell to the ground on her back and rolled her "tackler" all the way into the river. Then she released and let him fall into the shallow part of the river, where he quickly stood up, shaking the cold water off of his soaked clothes, and yet, laughing just as playfully as Larina was.

Freed from the prank, Larina put her paws on her hips. "That was not funny, Jared Sandeye! That was not funny at all!" Despite how surprised she felt, she knew that Jared Sandeye was just being himself. Although he was not much of a prankster at all, he did love having a little fun every now and then.

Larina sighed and helped her mate out of the river, his bangs having fallen over his face due to being wet, and his clothes completely drenched. Larina dug in her pack and gave her towel to Jared, and turning to Agnes, she said, "Agnes, meet my mate I told you about: Jared Sandeye. Isn't he just handsome?"

Actually, Agnes was far, far too annoyed with him to think he was handsome just yet. She knew something was off when the birds quieted before. When he spoke and then rushed out of the trees, Aggie didn't even think. Assuming this was a threat, she gracelessly lunged for her crossbow. Her balance was off, and she fell hard on her elbow, but she managed to roll to her back and swing the up in time to see Sandeye standing in the shallows, laughing. Obviously, this had been done for a little lark, and while that made her feel a little better– she wouldn't have to deal with idiot highway robbers, at least-- she still had to remind herself that it wouldn't be prudent to let her anger show. Because she was. Perhaps it was merely the fact that she had been mostly on her own for three seasons, and wasn't used to sneak-attacks to her camp being anything more than a way to play with someone. Or the way it had been drilled into her head as a youngling that sneaking around like a thief would get you injured one day, no matter who you were sneaking up on.

Instead of shouting or lecturing though, Aggie swallowed her anger and slowly picked her self up from the ground. The baby kicked and squirmed inside her, woken by her accelerated heartbeat and the erratic movement. With her free hand, Agnes brushed herself off and pushed her hair back out of her eyes, and then pressed it to her hip. It felt like she might have bruised it a little. As she came forward to meet this dripping young lad, she brought her crossbow up and rested it on her shoulder thoughtlessly, with the grace of someone who'd been trained to use it from a very young age.

Her free hand came out to shake his, and she smiled politely. "Yer lucky Ah didn' hav dis ting loaded, podna."

Jared stepped carefully out of the water, pushing his bangs off of his face and laughing with Larina. “OK, Larina, now you owe me a new pair of clothes,” Jared scolded playfully. He was not angry at Larina for pushing him into the water. But turning away from the ladies, he quickly (and carefully) removed his wet shirt and wrung the water out of it as best he could. He then retreated behind the same rosebush that Larina had previously used for her bath, and removed the remainder of his clothes till he was standing only in his underwear. Jared then stayed behind the rosebush so he could dry his fur off, and was introduced to Agnes by Larina herself, both of them standing on the other side of the bush; although her comment about him being handsome made him blush very deeply.

"Yer lucky Ah didn' hav dis ting loaded, podna."

“Yeah, I guess I am!” Jared replied amusedly. “My name is Jared Sandeye, just like Larina said. It’s an honor to meet you, Agnes.” As a sign of respect that he had learned growing up in the East, he bent down, shook and then politely kissed the paw that was offered to him. As soon as he stood up straight, he nervously adjusted his somewhat dry fur, still blushing.

"Blast this heat," Lysistra muttered, "I'm tempted just to stop and bathe, blast the consequences!" The pine marten walked along the banks of the river, stopping occasionally to splash some water on her brow. Any other day, she wouldn't have hesitated to just stop and bathe in the cool water, but since the pursuant had shown up, everything became a little bit riskier.

Lysistra was not sure what to make of this. She hadn't even realized she had been being followed at first, but the evidence was piling up. First there were the noises she had heard, the distant break of a trig, the rustle of clothing that was not her own. Then there was the fire she had seen on the ridge, too close for comfort. Finally then, the distant figure she had seen the past few days, always seemly staring back. There was no way that it was mere coincidence that the figure was always nearby.

The maid was similarly lost on why anybeast would be following her. Sure, she was a bit of thief, but she hadn't stolen anything for a while. She killed some beasts, but only in duels and fair fights, she wasn't a murder. Nothing had happened lately, her recent trades had been fair. Hardly a huge threat to the well being of the general populace, Lysistra thought. Perhaps there was somebeast with a personal vendetta against her, but who it could be escaped her grasp, most who crossed her were dead or long gone. Whatever the reason for this beast following her, Lysistra was not about to be caught bathing and defenseless by this pursuer. She would have to make it quick.

Lysistra double checked to make sure there was nobeast nearby, glancing around the woods for her follower. She slipped out of her breeches and short tunic, so that she was in her undergarments. The marten was well aware that she had no towel, so she wouldn't be able to dry off fully, but she did have a fresh change of clothing. She carefully took off her earrings and the simple silver ring she wore, slipping them both into a pocket her travel bag. Hopefully they would be safe from prying eyes.

Taking a quick glance at the water to make sure all was well, Lysistra took a small leap into the river. Her graceful form slipped easily into the river, her lithe body almost letting her match an otter. The dirt that had accumulated on her fur from travel was washed away, and one could see just how beautiful a maid she was. The water was refreshingly cool, the marten felt refreshed and alive. For once in long time, her cares truly lifted from her mind. She turned over on her back, floating on the surface of the river. Unbeknownst to her, she had drifted out a little into the current, and was being taken downstream at a leisurely pace.

As much a Lysistra loved the cool waters, she knew she needed to keep moving. She had no idea how far behind her that other beast was, and she had already risked to much time. Turning over again, Lysistra dove deep into the water and headed for shore. Rising quickly to the top, she surfaced gracefully, throwing back the fur from her eyes with a skillful toss of her head. It was only when Lysistra had stepped out onto the back, dripping wet, that she realized she was not alone.

Lysistra had surfaced behind the bush, right next to Jared. The squirrel was not only quite attractive, but also in a state of undress. Lysistra blushed profusely, her cheeks turning a rosy color. She felt very exposed, her graceful body covered only by her own undergarments. "I'm sorry sir," Lysistra apologized, her voice rather timid from embarrassment, "I must have floated a bit from where I started."

Jared was just about to dig into Larina's knapsack for any clothes of his that she might have brought with her….when he heard a voice behind him; a female voice.

"I'm sorry sir," "I must have floated a bit from where I started."

Jared slowly stood up straight, and came face-to-face with the beautiful pine marten Lysistra. He blushed as furiously as she did, and his words fell over each other in his mouth. "Um….uh..uh.I'm sorry, madam.....uh?I-I didn't bean..or MEAN to.....uh.......be-be unclothed like-like this. Did, did you say....you, uh, bloated....or FLOATED! Did you say you FLOATED a....a bit...f-from where you started? Uuuh..." Here he extended a paw in welcome, while using his other paw to grab Larina's bag to cover up his undergarments. "My name is....is Jared Sandeye, of the Eastern Islands. And yours?"

Not only was Lysistra partially clothed, but he was as well, and he had expected to be the only creature on the River at this time. He only hoped that Lysistra had not come from the East to hunt him down. But then again, she didn't appear to be much of a threat, did she? She was just an innocent creature, taking a bath to escape the heat. He only hoped that Larina wasn't seeing this. While waiting for Lysistra to reply, he slowly craned his head to the left so he was looking over the rosebush. Larina and Agnes were deep in conversation and feasting on their fish, so Jared was OK for now. Or so he hoped....He didn't want Larina to think that another female creature was trying to compete for his affections......

"My name is….is Jared Sandeye, of the Eastern Islands. And yours?"

Trying to retain as much dignity as she could, Lysistra took Jared's outstretched paw in her own in greeting. "My name is Lysistra… Lysistra Darkmoon," she replied, "I'm from Mossflower, I think. It is nice to meet you, Jared." Lysistra smiled sweetly, though still blushing, and shifting her weight from leg to leg awkwardly. She noticed Jared glancing off into the bush and took a peek in that direction. She couldn't see anything from where she was, but she heard the voices of the other females. Probably one of them was his partner, Lysistra thought. A pang of jealousy struck her, though she ignored it.

"Um, I don't know if you would... well, welcome any company?" Lysistra asked hopefully, "I've been traveling alone for a while, it gets lonely. I mean, if you don't mind. I'll get dressed first." She said the last sentence with a wry smile. Her clothing shouldn't be too far away, she didn't think she could have floated that far. There also the matter of her pursuer. Not exactly something she wanted to mention. They would welcome her if they found out some beast was following her.

"My name is Lysistra…Lysistra Darkmoon. "I'm from Mossflower, I think. It is nice to meet you, Jared."

As Jared shook Lysistra's paw, he smiled, but at the same time blushed much deeper. Embarrassments aside, he bowed respectfully to Lysistra, trying to smile as politely as he could. When he pulled himself up, he found that he finally had the courage to speak in proper sentences, since proper introductions had now been made. Not only that, but his deep blush had faded as well. "Lysistra…...If you don't mind me saying, madam, I would like you to know that I think that Lysistra is a very beautiful name. You're from Mossflower? I'm from an island far out on the East, unusually far out, I might add."

"Um, I don't know if you would… well, welcome any company?" "I've been traveling alone for a while, it gets lonely. I mean, if you don't mind. I'll get dressed first."

"Of course I'd welcome company! I'm not alone by myself, after all. But hey, the more, the merrier, right? Tell you what; I'll go with you to get your stuff. Just give me a sec." Hastily, he pulled a pair of boy's trousers out of Larina's travel pack and quickly pulled it on. "It's a little too hot out here; I hope you don't mind if I go shirtless. I mean, I used to do it a lot when I was growing up at home." He didn't say all of this as any attempt to show himself off to Lysistra, he just wanted to cool himself down a little bit. Coming from the East, he had met a totally different climate change in the Forest.

Jumping quickly into a tree behind him, Jared stared off in the direction he had seen Lysistra come by means of the stream.  "OK, let's see, you came down this way. If you can remember almost exactly how far away you left your things, I'll go with you to fetch them, how about it?" Jared hopped down and held out his left arm at a formal right angle to the pine marten, almost as if he were asking her to dance.

"So, Lysistra Darkmoon, shall I escort you to your clothing and your personal possessions?"

"Lysistra…...If you don't mind me saying, madam, I would like you to know that I think that Lysistra is a very beautiful name."

"Thank you," Lysistra said, blushing, "I was born in Mossflower, but I'm not really sure where my parents were from."

"So, Lysistra Darkmoon, shall I escort you to your clothing and your personal possessions?"

Lysistra took the proffered arm in her own with a shy smile. "Yes, I would like that! It is just down this way," she pointed with her free paw in the direction where she had last seen her personal belongings. As they walked, she attempted to stop herself from staring at the shirtless Jared, with limited success. She had never seen a beast with such muscle structure that wasn't some kind of dumb thug. It really was a pleasant change. "So, um, what do you do? I mean, who are you back in the east?" she asked, hoping to strike up conversation.

Smiling, Jared gladly led Lysistra down the river bank, arm-in-arm with the beautiful pine marten. Unlike her, he was never shy about meeting new creatures whenever he got the chance. However, he did nothing to stop the wave of embarrassment that filled him as the maid tried to restrain herself from staring at his shirtless body. He brushed it off, and, when the opportunity for decent conversation arose, he did not hesitate to take it.

"What do I do in the East?" He repeated as they walked upstream. "Well, I'm a blacksmith, a metalworker. I do all sorts of weapons and things, forging swords, spears, shields, axes, all manner of metal-based weapons. I also do jewelry and architecture every now and then. See this?" He pointed out the golden wedding ring on his left index finger. "I forged this ring myself. My mate, Larina Skyleaf, has one exactly identical to this. Both of them were forged for our wedding less than a season ago. We don't have any children yet, since our marriage is still fresh in our minds, although we do plan to."

He smiled at Lysistra cheerfully, his face glowing with friendliness. But before he could stop himself, the question that had been nagging at him the whole walk suddenly fell out of his mouth. "Er…..Miss Darkmoon, if you, uh, don't mind me asking, why do you keep staring at me? Do I have something on my face, or what? Is there a leaf on my nose?" He reached up to touch his nose with his free paw, but there was nothing there. His brow furrowed in concern. "Do you think there's something wrong with me, Lysistra?"

Meanwhile.....

Larina swallowed the last of her fish and turned around to talk to Jared......only to find that he wasn't there. Knowing that he had left her bag behind the rosebush, she immediately stood up to fetch it and withdrew Jared's wet trousers. She dug into the bag for the dry trousers, but they were gone.

Well, wherever he is, at least he took his clothes with him. He may not have taken his shirt, but Larina didn't mind. Jared could take care of himself, and she knew that. She only hoped that he hadn't walked off with some other beautiful squirrelmaid or something…......Pushing the thought out of her mind and putting on a brave smile, she brought her bag back with her to Agnes and sat back down in front of the fire. "Well, Agnes," she said cheerfully, "my fish is done. What do you suggest we do now? Shall we go to the Abbey, with or without Jared?"

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