Rainpace only had to follow his nose to find where Coyote had gotten to.
“What is that stink?” Rainpace demanded, retreating from the entrance of the riverbank den. He tried to protect his nose behind both hands, holding back the leather hide door-flap with one elbow.
There was a flash of Coyote’s feral grin, and then he lunged forward, snatching up a handful of Rainpace’s tunic and jerking him forward, so that the hide door flapped closed behind them. “I thought you didn’t want to know what I was up to?” he smirked, making a sweeping gesture at the collection of clay jars and stone jugs that were stacked in the back of the shallow den behind him.
“I didn’t.” Rainpace eyed the jugs, jars, and a makeshift rack of branches from which hung a variety of lengths of sinew and leather thongs. Rainpace kept his hands pressed over his nose and breathed through his mouth, trying not to choke on the vicious stink. “And I still don’t!”
Coyote seemed immune to the smell. He had been busy mixing something in a small stone mortar bowl when Rainpace had entered; he went back to that, crushing what looked like a mix of herbs. “Which is, of course, why you are here. Come to see what wicked trick I’m going to spring next?”
Rainpace squatted down beside his friend. He spotted a small wooden bowl of a congealed grey jelly. He reached for it, took a judicious sniff, then gratefully rubbed a layer of the goose-fat and nosedeaf herb mixture under his nose. After the first few careful breaths, the numbing nosedeaf did its magic, and Rainpace couldn't smell a thing. It made breathing in the narrow, fetid cave a whole lot easier.
"Just wondering where you'd disappeared to," Rainpace spoke carefully, not willing to own up to the truth. "For all I know, Silvermane hunted you down and got payback for putting those grass snakes in her quiver. Thought maybe I'd find you with both knees broken, and your tail stuffed down your throat."
Coyote looked up from his busywork, and grinned his fox-sly grin. "That was a good one, wasn't it? Love it how they piss when you spook 'm."
Rainpace snorted and reached after the nearest basket. He shook it gently, trying to determine what might be buried in the sand it held. "Not as good as when you coating her leg-bracers with nettle juice. Whatever did you dilute it with to get those blisters to turn blue?"
"Family herbal secret," Coyote replied breezily. "I know Nightstom was crotchety over the loss of that new leather, but what does an elf who refuses to wear shoes need with leg-sleeves, anyway? I never did understand the point of those. The blue rash was wicked, wasn't it?"
"Wicked?" Rainpace put down the sand basket and reached after the next. It contained a half dozen dried mice. He picked one out and put the rest down. "Coyote, I fear you're going beyond wicked. You're getting downright mean. And that quickly stops being funny."
"Pffff!" Coyote shrugged the concern off. "You worry too much. It's Silvermane! C'mon, it doesn't matter what you do to her, the results are always funny!"
Rainpace nibbled on his dried mouse. "The hornet nest in her pillow? That was not funny."
Coyote smirked at his friend. "How was I to know she would bring home a furmate? Poor Pathmark's nose sure did swell up, didn't it? But Silvermane's angry-dance? Funny. Rib-cracking funny. Truly so -- I laughed myself out of the tree and hurt myself. See, bruises." Coyote patted his side, where there were, indeed, some dark bruises.
Rainpace tossed aside the last, crunchiest bit of mouse and gave his closest friend a look of sour exasperation. "Did the long, wet spring drive you mad-in-the-head? I don't understand your obsession this season. You've been after Silvermane's hide like a deerfly. What'll take to distract you from this string of pranks? Fresh blood?"
Coyote's sly grin faded, just long enough for his close friend to glimpse something deeper in his smoky-green eyes. "Paybacks are sweet," Coyote said, with something not-so-humorous lurking beneath his easy manner.
"You really don't like her, do you?" Rainpace asked soberly.
Coyote shrugged the question off. "Silvermane has her uses. And I adore that snarly face she gets when she's all mad, when her nose wrinkles up just so and she waves her fists around and goes red."
"Mmmm hmmm." Rainpace nodded safely. "This would have nothing to do with that nasty bite Silvermane gave your mother this past winter, when Starskimmer invited Silvermane to come join her furs to warm up?"
The smoke-green eyes regarded him coolly, as narrow as a tree-cat's. "Of course it doesn't. Nothing at all to do with that," Coyote replied, in the same breezy tone he'd used moments before. But neither of the friends were fooled.
"Of course not," Rainpace said sagely. "I'd never consider otherwise."
Coyote bent back to his work, turning some bit of dried herb to a fine powder. Rainpace went back to examining the den curiously. Coyote routinely changed lairs, as finicky about his hide-outs as a she-wolf was about where to birth her pups. There was a fascinating assortment of odds and ends to be had -- Coyote had an eye for oddities, and squirreled things away as avidly as a raven. Among the other bits of gathered flotsam and jetsam, Rainpace saw what looked like a round hummingbird. It dangled from a long, thin, near-invisible string of silk thread, its still wings outstretched. Rainpace reached a hand up to touch it. Coyote snatched at his wrist before his fingertips could brush it.
"No touchies," Coyote said. The feral grin was back.
Rainpace eyed the dangling hummingbird suspiciously. "It looks like you skinned it, kept the head, and stuffed it. What in Barkmoss's name is it?"
"Volatile," Coyote replied, at his most smug. "Skunk's stink-glad. Fermented. I dressed it up before it really began to swell. Won't take much at all to make it burst."
Rainpace winced and slid a knowing glance toward his close friend.
"Bait?" he asked miserably.
Coyote's grin was radiant. "Hook, line and sinker!" He put aside his mortar and pestle, and began to crawl toward the den's door. "C'mon, brother-mine. I need you to help me pace my next prank out."
There was a rustle of bracken underfoot just down the trail. Coyote grabbed Rainpace and pulled him down behind the bulk of a fallen tree, where they would have ample cover while still keeping good vantage on his trap.
"Look. You don't have to do this. You've gotten your paybacks in full for what she did to your mother--" Rainpace whispered urgently.
**Hush!** Coyote clapped a hand over Rainpace's mouth, just in case his sharp command didn't work. The breeze was in their favor. It carried Silvermane's scent to them as she approached, down her favorite trail toward her favorite bathing spot along the river. She stank of blood and offal -- apparently the night's hunting had been good. **Smell that? She'll be belly-heavy with meat.**
**Coyote, when will enough be enough for you?** Rainpace sent in exasperation.
**First blood sounds just about right,** Coyote retorted cheerfully. **Unfortunately, this prank isn’t designed with that in mind, so Silvermane will just have to keep living in fear of what I'll devise for her next.** There was another soft crunch of a footstep, and a flash of snow-white hair through the thick green leaves. **Here she comes! You know the plan. Sit tight and don’t make a peep. There's no way she can catch me, so she's apt to try and take it out of your hide instead, if she realizes you're in reach.**
**Coyote--** Rainpace protested.
Whatever his friend was going to say went without saying as Silvermane stepped into full view. She wore long fingerless gloves and high-rising boots-without-a-boot, both in brilliant green and purple. Her brief wrap-around skirt was the same emerald green, while her sleeveless halter was bright purple. Her upper arms, midriff, and thighs were as bare as her feet, and all of her was spattered with blood and gore from the night's hunt. Coyote held his breath for a moment, fearing she might pass up the bait -- but he had specifically chosen one of the little migratory brightwings that was the garish green and purple that Silvermane loved so well, and when the huntress hesitated in her step, Coyote knew he had her.
Silvermane stopped, head cocked to one side as she gazed upward toward the motionless, glittering featherball that had caught her eye. Unsuspecting, she raised a hand to touch it...
The bloated stink-gland had ripened for three days, and its fermenting gases had stretched the delicate hide as taut as the finest drumskin. It only took the slightest hint of permission to make the stink-gland explode.
**Juicy!** Coyote sent with delight. **You could even hear that baby blow!**
The stench that rippled over them was nearly palpable. Rainpace was covering his nose with both hands again, and the scars on his face stood out a deeper color as his face paled. **Ancestors,** he moaned. **That'll never wash off!**
The blast had been at face-level for Silvermane. The huntress was bent over now, retching up a bellyful of venison. Coyote felt Rainpace's grip on his arm as he rose up; he shook his friend's hand off and cheerfully walked down toward his prey.
"Oh my! What is that cat-piss stink?" he called out, stopping two wolf-lengths away from her, where a small scuff of forest loam was scattered across the trail. Coyote turned on the gloat , letting it drip like honey from his words. "That's really wretched, whatever it is! Something must have died and bloated up something fierce!" He fanned his hand in front of his face. "Now, poor cub, I know you think yourself just another she-wolf, but this is too much! Whatever did your father tell you about not rolling in everything stinky you come across? Tsk tsk--"
There wasn't time for a third tsk. Silvermane sprang for him, her lips writhing and her jaws wide. Coyote had been prepared for the attack. He ran. Coyote knew from experience that no one in the tribe could match him in a sprint, but Silvermane was putting that confidence to the test. She was snarling as she chased after him, no doubt with murder in mind.
Coyote grinned wildly as he ran. He had marked his starting spot. He counted each stride, sure and certain of his pace, feeling the anticipation grow with each breath he drew in. Ten paces. Twelve. Fourteen. Fifteen--
Coyote stumbled and fell. Silvermane saw her quarry go down and roared in triumph. She leaped after him, hands outstretched, ready to sink her claws into him and rip--
Coyote rolled over just in time to see her step right into his snare. The sinew-line sang closed around her leg; the half-bent sapling whipped upright; Silvermane was jerked right off her feet and yanked high off the ground. She yelped. Her weight served as enough counterbalance to drop her back down again, but not far enough. The huntress swung there, bobbing up and down wildly, upside down, her skirt hanging around her ribcage and her flanks gleaming bare in the moonlight.
Coyote lay flat on his back, crossing his arms behind his head and using his hands as a pillow.
"Oh, look," he beamed up at her, as Silvermane writhed more than a wolf-length above him. "Danglies."
Silvermane snarled at him, then began to growl thunderously. She clawed at the air and contorted herself to reach after the sinew-rope that held her up, but her bone knife had fallen out of its sheath, and she could not seem to get enough of a grip on the sinew to pull herself up.
"It's well and truly greased," Coyote told her, proud of his own handiwork. The view from where he lay was truly unprecedented. **Oh look,** he sent, as deadpan as he could manage, casting his send out exclusively to those in the tribe he knew would most appreciate the moment.
**Silvermane is making her angry face at me. Again!**
"I'll kill you," Silvermane hissed.
Coyote made a face of his own. "Oh no! I'm terrified. Petrified. What shall I do?"
"I think she's squirmed enough, don't you?" called Rainpace, hanging back a safe distance yet. "You've had your laugh. Let her down."
Coyote got to his feet, savoring another success. "But I can't do that," he said, mockingly innocent. He circled Silvermane as she hung there; she was rotating in slow swings of the rope.
"You heard her. If I try to let her go from this rabbit snare, she'll kill me! Tsk. I'd better just go back to the Holt and get help. I'm sure there's someone who'll be happy to come rescue her." He rubbed his nose dramatically. "If they can get past the stink, that is."
"It's a good hike back to the Holt," Rainpace protested. "You've had your fun. Clear out of here. Silvermane -- I can cut you down -- but I'm only going to do it if you'll promise not to attack me for my kindness. Understand?"
Her answer was a snarl in Rainpace's direction. Coyote found that funny. He turned toward his friend, a laugh on his lips, ready to quip another joke at Silvermane's expense--
His movement took him just within the edge of Silvermane's reach. She raked a hand out at him, tangling her fingers in his shoulder-length hair. Coyote yelped and tried to jerk away, but her grip held. Worse yet, she used him as an anchor, yanking herself closer. Coyote flung up his hands, trying to wrestle her away, even as he felt her teeth sink into his right ear.
"Owwww!" Coyote yelled, shoving her away with all of his strength.
There was a sound like tearing gristle, and Silvermane swung away from him, her face smeared with fresh blood.
Coyote staggered back, pressing a hand against the side of his head. Blood pulsed against his hand and down his neck, warm and wet. "You bit me!"
Silvermane spat out something pink and meaty. She pointed at the tree that her rope was anchored too. "Untie me!" she barked at Rainpace.
Rainpace looked at Coyote, then looked at Silvermane. Without debate, he went to where the line was secured, drew his knife, and sliced Silvermane free.
She fell and rolled to her knees. Silvermane kicked her legs free of the snare-rope, then rose to her feet, pricklish in her affronted dignity. She gave Rainpace a fierce look, then turned toward Coyote.
One hand still pressed against his injured ear, Coyote held his ground and glared at the huntress as she advanced on him. Silvermane had to look up at him -- her chin hardly reached his shoulder. Coyote was poised on the balls of his feet, ready for her in case she struck at him. He hoped she'd try -- now that the first shock of pain from his ear had passed, he was mad, and he had no doubt he could pummel the smaller wolfrider into the ground if she wanted to scrap.
Instead, Silvermane looked him up and down slowly. Then she gave him nearly a smile. Coyote’s blood was still smeared on her lips and chin.
"I think this was your best prank yet," she said smugly.
"Don't worry. I'll give you even better next time," he growled back at her.
She looked him over again, then turned away dismissively. Her back straight and her chin high, Silvermane strolled off on her way, as if unaffected by the terrible fermented skunk-stink that wafted after her.
"How bad is it?" Coyote asked Rainpace, watching warily as Silvermane walked out of view among the trees. Coyote lifted his hand so that his friend could inspect the wound, and was dismayed by how wet with blood his fingers were.
Rainpace gave a low whistle. "She tore off a big chunk of your ear."
Coyote wiped his bloody hand on his breeches, and stared measuringly into the trees after her.
"All right. Here's how it'll be. You know how she likes to-- hey, yowwww!"
Coyote yelped as Rainpace grabbed him by the wounded ear and twisted. "Absolutely not!"
Rainpace snapped. "Listen to me, if only for this once! No! This stops here! You go at her again, she'll tear off an even bigger piece of your hide, and this'll keep escalating like a snowball rolling down a hill! You said you'd be satisfied with first blood. So here you are! You’ve got it! You're done pulling tricks on Silvermane!"
"Let go of my ear!" Coyote cried, contorting in an attempt to ease the pain of his friend's ruthless grip.
"I let go only when you tell me you agree. It's over!"
"Are you nuts? She tore a big chunk out of my ear! I'm not letting her get away with--" Coyote choked off his words as Rainpace twisted even harder. "Aayaah! STOP that!"
"I let go when you call it quits," Rainpace said firmly.
Tears of pain were flooding Coyote's eyes. He winced and squirmed, then finally conceded. "All right. All right. Quits. Done. She and I, we're even. Are you satisfied?"
Slowly, Rainpace let his hold go. He looked his friend in the eye, then finally nodded. "I know better than to trust you out of my sight," he grumbled. "Come on. I'll walk you back to the Holt, and have Cloudfern look at that wound. Bite wounds are quick to fester."
"Think it'll be much of a scar?" Coyote groused as they headed for home.
Rainpace gave a bark of a laugh. "She took a chunk out of you that I don't think'll be growing back!"
Coyote winced as he explored the wound with his fingers. "It's a trophy, all right. Should make for a good story, at least." He chuckled to himself, thinking of the visuals and memory of a sheer, rotten stink which would be traded along with that tale. "Should make for a good story for years to come."
Rainpace gave his life-long friend an amused, sidelong glance. "Coyote, you’re not only wearing a story on the side of your head, but you're wearing a new name! Bet you a basket of crunchy mice that the tribe will be calling you One-Ear before the end of the moon."
Coyote fingered the painful notch that had been bitten out of his ear, then chuckled. He knew what his new tribe-name would be, and it wasn’t going to be One-Ear. It was just a matter of whispering the right suggestions into the ears of the right tribemates, and a new tribename would be a done deal. "I'll take you up on that bet!" he announced smugly, thinking he could already taste his winnings.