**You're crazy,** Nightstorm sent, staring aghast at Notch in violet-eyed wonder. **You are crazy. Crazier than crazy. You are raving, howling, foaming, moon-mad, bee-under-the-tail insane!!**
Notch gave her a lazy smile in return, for all the world as though accepting a fond compliment. **Yes, honey-sweets, but that's beside the point. Point is -- are you going to sit here like a demure little cubling, or are you going to follow me?** Then, challenge issued, he laid down his spear and began to stalk forward silently toward the oblivious marshbeast bull.
Nightstorm grimaced. She looked past Notch toward the grove beyond them. A single capnut tree dominated the grove, with gnarled apple trees growing beneath its limbs like grouse chicks around a hen. Late afternoon sunlight filtered golden through the leaves, with motes of dust floating through the stripes of light like pollen. The air was heady with the perfume of sweet, over-ripened apples, and the ground beneath the grove was littered with fallen fruit. Even the honey bees buzzed lazily about their work in the late autumn heat.
In the center of the grove, the marshbeast bull was a tall, powerfully muscular beast. He stood with his shaggy dark hide dappled with sunlight, one hind leg cocked and his lethargic ears only occasionally twitching after the hornets which buzzed around his sagging head, attracted by the bounty of fallen fruit. The grand old bull was a beast in his prime, and even the full wolf pack would think twice about taking him on. What with that span of horns so wide and deep he could scoop up a pair of wolves and their riders with an easy toss of his head, hunting a bull like this one meant more danger to the hunters than the prey. The shaggy creature looked big enough to shrug off any number of hunters without breaking a sweat, Nightstorm thought with a shiver.
Still... standing as he was, hipshot in the sun, the old bull looked asleep on his feet. His hanging ears and loose lips gave him a mournful, comic expression.
**Coming? Or are you scared?** Notch cast back at her dismissively.
Nightstorm screwed up her courage. She took a deep breath, and then cast aside her quiver and bow, following Notch on his challenge. **You are crazy,** she retorted, **And it's catching!**
**That's my darling girl,** Notch purred back to her. **Just follow me. I never let the opportunity to play with a drunk bull pass me by. Trust me. This'll be fun!**
Nightstorm slipped through the grove at Notch's heels. She kept a wary eye on the marshbeast bull. It paid them no heed, no more aware of them than it was of the wasp that had landed on its bulbous nose. From the piles of dung spotting the grove, the bull had spent the last few days here, feeding on the windfall. It had been an unusually long and hot summer, and the apples had fermented in their skins while still on the bough. Nightstorm didn't know how many apples it took to inebriate a massive bull like this one, but clearly, several days of feeding on this grove diet had done the trick, and this bull looked like he might have cider floating through his veins instead of blood.
**Looks as docile as a fawn, doesn't he?** Notch mused with possessive pride. **He may be drunker than a skunk sunk in a pot of mead, but he could still turn aggressive on us. Be sure to keep the tree trunks solidly between yourself and him. If he charges, climb straight up as fast as you can; don't worry about me, I'll lead him off.**
Nightstorm restrained a superstitious shudder. She knew from painful experience how wildly Notch’s easy promises tended to backfire. **Why in Zerran’s hope are we doing this, again?** she grumbled.
**Because it’s fun! And it’ll make a great story to tell the others when we get back to the Holt tonight.**
**Yes, and your stories are always so much better when experienced second hand,** she retorted.
Notch paused long enough to glance back over his shoulder at her, giving her his lazy, confident grin. **Then whyever are you following me, dearheart?** he sent with a wink. **You need more than the occasional thrill, sweetness, and you know I’m the wolf’s son who’ll provide. Now – up this tree here. Those branches right there should provide us with exactly what we need.**
Notch scrambled up the capnut tree as deftly as a squirrel, and Nightstorm followed in his shadow. The tree flanked the drowsing bull by some distance, but one of its stout branches overhung the beast’s body. Notch climbed around to that branch and began to crawl out across it, until the bull’s humped shoulders were right beneath him.
Nightstorm had reached the base of the branch. She sat there, her heart in her throat, as she saw Notch swing his legs over the side. **You foaming-crazy fool--** she cast at him fiercely as he dropped astride the marshbeast’s back.
Notch landed. One of the marshbeast’s ears ticked up from its lazy droop, and there was a ripple of shudder a down its shoulder, as if twitching off a deerfly. But if the cider-drunk marshbeast was aware of the strange weight on its back, it gave no other sign.
Notch waved Nightstorm on. **Don’t leave me waiting!**
The artist took a deep breath, then scrambled silently out across the branch. When she’d reached her tribemate, she lowered herself carefully down, hanging until the very last moment. Then she dropped astride the bull just behind Notch. She was ready for an explosion to follow – but the powerful body beneath her was rock-still. She grabbed for Notch’s waist and hung on, feeling her heart hammering in her chest as if it might hammer its way through her ribs.
**There, there,** Notch sent, patting her arm with amusement. **It’s no shame to be scared. Just don’t clutch me so tight that I can’t draw breath. Ease up, kitten, easy up a little!**
The marshbeast beneath them felt as solid as stone; after a lifetime of riding astride the sharp spine of a wolf, the beast seemed impossibly broad. The bull’s rich musky scent was overpowering, and Nightstorm felt her nose twitch with a sneeze. She released Notch long enough to rub the back of one hand against her nose hard to dislodge that tickle, then hugged him tightly again.
**Now what?** she asked Notch.
The shrug of his tanned shoulders was eloquent. **Beats me. That’s up to the bull. This old fellow is hopelessly skunked, isn’t he?** Notch tapped his heels against the bull’s sides once, twice, three times. The bull simply shifted his massive weight from one hind haunch to the other, but gave no sign of noticing its riders.
Notch snorted at that, then waved his arms experimentally. Not even a flicker of life from the droopy ears, or a twitch of half-closed eyelids on that sagging head. Notch laughed aloud, then barked sharply like a coyote calling for its mate and cubs. Still no response.
“I want some of what this old bull’s been nipping on,” Notch said aloud. “Must be really good stuff!”
The bull still failed to respond to the two pests that had dropped onto his back. Nightstorm look up wistfully at the oak branch they’d dropped from, wishing it were in reach. She was accustomed to climbing much higher trees, but suddenly, the distance between the bull’s back and the safety of the ground looked impossibly far away.
“Well, this was a waste,” Notch muttered. He pulled free from Nightstorm’s embrace and nimbly pushed himself to his feet and stood on the bull’s back. He jigged up and down, spun in a tight dance step, then sat down gracelessly on the bull’s hump to face Nightstorm as if the beast were offering him a ready-made cushion. “We might as well call for the pack. A cubling could take down this brute—
Notch’s reckless dance had raised a cloud of dust and dander from the bull’s thick pelt. Nightstorm felt the warning tickle but this time couldn’t restrain herself. She sneezed, a small, pert “achoo!” And as soft and apologetic as the sound was, it was apparently the perfect spark to set off an explosion.
The bull’s massive head shot up, both ears suddenly erect. The powerful mountain beneath them jerked, lurched, and then surged forward with murderous speed. Caught by surprise, Notch yelped and toppled over the side as the bull hurtled into motion.
Nightstorm squeaked and snatched up two handfuls of hump-hair as the marshbeast exploded forward in a lumbering, vicious gallop. It was like riding a boulder as it crashed down a mountainside. The grove surged past and then was behind them. Bracken and brush was crushed underfoot. Saplings bent and snapped. Trees seemed to pick up their roots and dive aside out of the path of the bull’s headlong flight rather than risk being trampled. The bull bellowed in a deafening roar that left Nightstorm’s ears ringing.
**Let go! Let go!** Notch’s sending blazed in her mind. **Quick! Tumble right off!**
**Are you insane?** Nightstorm shot back. Beneath her, she felt the relentless power of the bull curve as the bull began to circle back toward the grove. **If I let go, he’ll stomp me!**
**He’d have to catch you first. Tumble off – I’ll distract him!** Notch promised.
**No you won’t! You’re tucked up safe and sound somewhere, laughing your fool head off for having gotten me to do this in the first place!** Nightstorm retorted, with that sudden, sure knowledge. She was about to die, and Notch would still be wiping tears of amusement from his eyes when he carried her broken body back to the tribe. **This is all your fault!**
**Just jump!!** Notch sent, his mindtouch all desperation and nothing of cheerful humor. **You can do it! Just hurry!!**
**But I don’t want to get stomped!** she answered that plea. But Nightstorm was suddenly aware of the golden leaves of the apple grove whipping past above her, and she was aware of the sudden, looming dark heart of the ancient oak in the grove’s heart, framed before her by the bull’s massive, branching horns.
**Jump!** Notch shouted at her with the most force that she’d ever felt from him in a sending before; it seemed she could even hear his voice in her ringing ears. Nightstorm caught another glance of the capnut tree, massive and obstinate in front of the marshbeast’s nose, and with sudden, certain knowledge of a collision, she let Notch’s sending sweep her off the bull’s back.
It was a long, long way to fall. She hit the ground, and it seemed as if the earth beneath her shook with the explosion of her landing. Nightstorm rolled in the direction of Notch’s sending, with a sensation of thundering and falling branches and bits of bark and moss raining around her. Then Notch was there, scooping her up in both arms and running for shelter. She tried to get her feet under and help him in that flight, but she couldn’t catch her balance before Notch was ducking aside, dragging her down with him beneath the stout trunk of an apple tree. He pushed her down among the gnarling roots, half-covering her with his own body as something did rock the tree and rain down a battering of apples upon them. Nightstorm yelped and took what shelter she could find, her face and bare arms splattered with something wet and sticky.
Over-ripe apples continued to fall around them, followed by a drift of orphaned leaves. Above her, Notch was panting for breath, and his scent reeked with acrid fright. Then he released her and eased his head around the tree trunk to see what had happened to the bull.
“Foxsly’s bow,” she heard the trickster breath out.
Nightstorm risked a glance herself, and gaped at what she saw. The marshbeast bull had run head-first into the capnut tree. Part of the great span of its antlers had been snapped, and the other had caught an apple bough. The young apple tree was half uprooted, and the bull’s great weight was dragging at it so that it leaned drunkenly in toward the old capnut tree. The bull itself lay crumpled at the scarred trunk of the capnut tree, muzzle pointed straight up, the entire head twisted at an angle impossible to match with the rest of the beast’s twitching body.
“Just look at this,” Notch said, laughing for joy at the sight of it. “Just look! He’s gone and broken his own neck!”
Nightstorm tried to stand, and found her knees still shaking too badly with fright. She sat down heavily and just stared at the dead old bull. “I don’t believe it,” she breathed.
“Oh, just wait until the rest of the tribe sees this. Talk about stories to tell,” Notch grinned with pride. He gave her a grin and wink before tilting back his head howling, with the basso tone that promised meat and fresh kill and come and get it hot off the hoof. **The tribe’ll be trading this story for years to come!**
**You’re moon-mad crazy,** Nightstorm sent at him, her exasperation mixed with wry amusement. **You’re absolutely moon-mad crazy.**
**And so are you, my violet-eyed sweetling,** Notch returned. He hugged her against him with one arm, then nuzzled her cheek, which was splattered with bits of burst apple and sticky cider. **We’ve proof right here to show for it. And besides – wasn’t it fun? I promised you some fun, and you can’t say you didn’t have it.**
Nightstorm laughed and flung both arms around Notch, unable to deny that he was right.