This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.
Longtusk by Stephen Baxter
To my niece, Jessica Bourg
A vast sheet of ice sits on the North Pole: immense, brooding, jealously drawing the moisture from the air. Glaciers, jutting from the icecap like claws, pulverize rock layers and carve out fjords and lakes. South of the ice, immense plains sweep around the planet, darkened by herds of mighty herbivores.
The ice has drawn so much water from the oceans that the very shapes of the continents are changed. Australia is no island, but is joined to southeast Asia. And in the north, America is linked to Asia by a neck of land called Beringia, so that a single mighty continent all but circles the North Pole.
The ice is in retreat, driven back by Earth’s slow thaw to its millennial fastness at the poles. But it retreats with ill grace, gouging at the land, and all around the planet there are catastrophic climatic events of a power and fury unknown to later ages. And, retreat or not, the sites of the cities of the future — Chicago, Boston, Edinburgh, Stockholm, Moscow — still lie dreaming under kilometers of ice.
The time is sixteen thousand years before the birth of Christ. And every human alive wakes to the calls of mammoths.
Part 1: Nomad
The Story of Longtusk and the She-Cat
Who was Longtusk?
I’ll tell you who Longtusk was (Silverhair said to her daughter, Icebones). He was the greatest hero of the Cycle — and the only Bull hero in all the Cycle’s long history.
My Matriarch used to say I had a little of Longtusk’s spirit in me too. And I don’t know why you think that’s so funny, Icebones. I wasn’t always so old and frail as this…
Tell you a story? Another?
Very well. I’ll tell you how Longtusk defeated Teeth-of-Death, the she-cat.
This is a story of long ago, when the world was new and rich and cold, and there were no Lost, anywhere. The mammoths were the strongest and wisest of all the animals, so much so that the others grew to rely on their strength, and the way they remade the landscape, everywhere they went.
The mammoths were the Matriarchs of the world. Everybody agreed.
Well, almost everybody.
Teeth-of-Death was a she-cat. In fact she was the ruler of the saber-tooth cats, for she was the strongest and most agile, her teeth and claws the longest and sharpest, her mind the most inventive, her cruelty the most relentless.
Every animal feared the saber-tooth cats. Every animal feared Teeth-of-Death. Every animal save the mammoths.
The mammoths were too big, too powerful. Oh, the cats could bring down a mammoth from time to time, but only the very young or the very old or the very sick. It was not an honorable business. In fact, as they glided back and forth on their great migrations, the mammoths barely noticed the cats even existed.
This, of course, drove Teeth-of-Death insane with jealousy and hurt pride.
Now, as you know, when he was a young Bull Longtusk left his Clan and traveled far and wide: from north to south, even across the seas and the lakes and the ice. Everywhere he went he gained in wisdom and stature; everybody he met was impressed by his bearing and grace; and he had adventures which have never been forgotten.
And it was this Longtusk, Longtusk the nomad, who happened upon Teeth-of-Death.
The great cat confronted Longtusk. She said, "This cannot go on."
Longtusk had been feeding on a rich stand of willow. He looked down his trunk to see what was making so much noise, and there was the spitting, agitated cat. He asked reasonably, "What can’t go on?"
"Either you rule the Earth, or I do. Not both."
"Don’t you think there are more important things to worry about than that?"
"No," Teeth-of-Death snapped. "Ruling is the most important thing. More important than life."
"Nonsense," said Longtusk. "If it makes you happy, I hereby pronounce you the world’s most fearsome animal. There. Now we don’t have to argue, do we?" And he turned to walk away. For, you see, he was wise as well as brave, and he knew that an unnecessary fight should not be fought.
But that would not do for the she-cat.
With an agile bound she ran before Longtusk and confronted him. "No," she said. "I cannot live while I know in my heart that you do not respect me."
She was surely an intimidating sight: an immense cat with jaws spread wide, sharp teeth gaping, claws that with a single swipe could disembowel even an adult Bull mammoth — if she ever got the chance.
"You are very foolish," said Longtusk. But he faced her warily, for he knew he must meet her challenge.
And so it began. When news of the contest spread, all the animals of the world gathered around, pushing and staring.
Teeth-of-Death attacked Longtusk three times.
The first time she leaped at his face, reaching for his eyes and trunk. But Longtusk simply raised his tusks and pushed her away.
For her second attack Teeth-of-Death clambered up a spruce tree. She leaped down onto Longtusk’s back and tried to use her great saber teeth to gouge into his flesh. He could not reach her with his trunk to dislodge her. But she could not bite through his fur and skin. After a time he simply walked beneath a low tree and let its branches scrape the cat from his back, and that was that.
For her third attack Teeth-of-Death hid in a bank of snow. She had decided that when Longtusk came close enough she would leap at him again, trying to reach the soft flesh of his belly or trunk. It was a clever strategy and might have succeeded, even against a hero so strong as Longtusk, for cats are adept at such deception. But, obsessed with her ambition, Teeth-of-Death forced herself to lie still in her snowdrift for several days, waiting for her opportunity.
And when Longtusk at last came by Teeth-of-Death was cold, half-starved, exhausted.
She sprang too early, made too much noise. To fend her off, Longtusk simply swept his great tusks and let their tips gouge furrows in Teeth-of-Death’s beautiful golden coat.
They faced each other, Longtusk barely scratched, Teeth-of-Death bleeding and exhausted.
Longtusk said, "Let us reach an agreement."
Teeth-of-Death said warily, licking her wounds, "No agreement is possible."
For answer, he went to the snowdrift where she had been hiding. He scraped away the snow and the hard ice that lay beneath, revealing bare earth. Then he dug deeper, and he exposed another layer of ice, hidden beneath the dirt.
"The ice comes and goes in great waves," he said. "This old ice was covered with dirt before it had time to melt. Now the ice has come again and covered over the land. So here we have two layers of ice in the same place, one on top of each other."
The cat hissed, "What relevance has this?"
"Here is my suggestion," he said. "We will share the world, just as these ice layers share the same patch of ground. But, just like these ice layers, we will not touch each other.
"You cats eat the meat of animals. We mammoths do not hunt; we do not covet your prey—"
"Ah," said the cat. "And you eat the plants and grass and trees, which we do not desire. Very well. We will share the world, as you suggest." But her eyes narrowed.
And so it was concluded.
But when Longtusk was turning to go, the cat mocked him. "I have tricked you," she said. "I will eat the finest meat. You, however, must eat dirt and scrub. What kind of bargain is that? You are a fool, Longtusk."
And Longtusk reflected.
The she-cat thought she had won: and in a way she had. She would become the steppe’s ruling animal, its top predator. But Longtusk knew that though its food may be richer, a predator needs many prey to survive. Even a mighty herd of deer could support only a few cats, and the numbers of the she-cat’s cubs would always be limited.
But the steppe was full of dirt and scrub, as she had called it. And Longtusk knew that thanks to his bargain it was his calves, the mammoths, who would grow in number until they filled the steppe, even to the point where they shaped it for their needs.
"Yes," he said gently. "I am a fool." And he turned and walked away.
…I know what you are thinking, Icebones. Is the story true? Are any of the stories of Longtusk true? It seems impossible that one mammoth could cram so many acts of impossible heroism and matchless wisdom into one brief lifetime.
Well, perhaps some of the stories have become a little embellished with time. They are after all stories.
But I know this. Longtusk was real. Longtusk encountered great danger — and in the end, Longtusk sacrificed his life to save his Clan.
He was the greatest hero of them all.
1 The Gathering
The greatest hero of them all was twelve years old, and he was in trouble with his mother. Again.
Yellow plain, blue sky; it was a fine autumn afternoon, here on the great steppe of Beringia. The landscape was huge, flat, elemental, an ocean of pale grass mirrored by an empty sky, crossed by immense herds of herbivores and the carnivores that preyed on them. Longtusk heard the hiss of the endless winds through the grass and sedge, the murmur of a river some way to the west — and, under it all, the unending grind and crack of the great ice sheets that spanned the continent to the north.
And mammoths swept over the land like clouds.
Loose wool hung around them, catching the low sunlight. He heard the trumpeting and clash of tusks of bristling, arguing bachelors, and the rumbles of the great Matriarchs — complex songs with deep harmonic structure, much of it inaudible to human ears — as they solemnly debated the state of the world.
This was the season’s last gathering of the Clan, this great assemblage of Families, before the mammoths dispersed to the winter pastures of the north.
And Longtusk was angry, aggrieved, ignored. He worked the ground as he walked, tearing up grass, herbs and sedge with his trunk and pushing them into his mouth between the flat grinding surfaces of his teeth.
He’d gotten into a fight with his sister, Splayfoot, over a particularly juicy dwarf willow he’d found. Just as he had prized the branches from the ground and had begun to strip them of their succulent leaves, the calf had come bustling over to him and had tried to push him away so she could get at the willow herself. His willow.
In response to Splayfoot’s pitiful trumpeting, his mother had come across: Milkbreath, her belly already swollen with next year’s calf. And of course she’d taken Splayfoot’s side.
"Don’t be so greedy, Longtusk! She’s a growing calf. Go find your own willow. You ought to help her, not bully her…"
And so on. It had done Longtusk no good at all to point out, perfectly reasonably, that as he had found the little tree it was in fact his willow and the one in the wrong here was Splayfoot, not him. His mother had just pushed him away with a brush of her mighty flank.
The rest of the Family had been there, watching: even Skyhump the Matriarch, his own great-grandmother, head of the Family, surrounded by her daughters and granddaughters with their calves squirming for milk and warmth and comfort. Skyhump had looked stately and magnificent, great curtains of black-brown hair sweeping down from the pronounced hump on her back that had given the Matriarch her name. She had rumbled something to the Cows around her, and they had raised their trunks in amusement.
They had been mocking him. Him, Longtusk!
At twelve years old, though he still had much growing to do, Longtusk was already as tall as all but the oldest of the Cows in his Family. And his tusks were the envy of many an adult Bull — well, they would be if he ever got to meet any — great sweeping spirals of ivory that curved around before him until they almost met, a massive, tangible weight that pulled at his head.
He was Longtusk. He would live forever, and he was destined to become a hero as great as any in the Cycle, the greatest hero of them all. He was sure of it. Look at his mighty tusks, the tusks of a warrior! And he raised them now in mock challenge, even though there was no one here to see.
Couldn’t those foolish Cows understand? It was just unendurable.
But now he heard his mother calling for him. Grumbling, growling, he made his way back to her.
The Cows had clustered around Skyhump, their Matriarch, and were walking northward in a loose, slow cluster. They grazed steppe grass as they walked, for mammoths must feed for most of the day, and they left behind compact trails of dung.
The Clan stretched around him as far as the eye could see, right across the landscape to east and west, a wave of muscle and fat and deep brown hair patiently washing northward. Skyhump’s small Family of little more than twenty individuals — Cows with their calves and a few young males — was linked to the greater Clan by the kinship of sisters and daughters and female cousins. Where they passed, the mammoths cut swathes through the tall green-gold grass, and the ground shuddered with their footsteps.
Longtusk felt a brief surge of pride and affection. This was his Clan, and it was, after all, a magnificent thing to be part of it — to be a mammoth.
But now here was his mother, shadowed by that pest Splayfoot, and his sense of belonging dissipated.
Milkbreath slapped his rump with her trunk, as if he were still a calf himself. "Where have you been?… Never mind. Can’t you see we’re getting separated from the Family? We have to hear what she has to say."
Milkbreath snorted. "No. Pinkface. The Matriarch of Matriarchs. Don’t you know anything?… Never mind. Come on!"
So Longtusk hurried after his mother.
They joined a cluster of Cows, tall and old: Matriarchs all, slow and stately in their years and wisdom. He was much too short to see past them.
But his mother was entranced. "Look," she said softly. "There she is. They say she is a direct descendant of the great Kilukpuk. They say she was burned in a great blaze made by the Fireheads, and she was the only one of her Family to survive…"
He could still see nothing. But when he shut out the noise — the squeal of calves, the constant background thunder of mammoths walking, eating, defecating — he could hear the Matriarchs rumbling and stamping at the ground, debating, sharing information that might sustain a few more lives through the coming winter.
Longtusk spoke quietly, with soft pipings of his trunk. "What are they saying?"
"They’re talking about the changes." His mother’s small ears stuck out of her hair as she strained to listen.
"You’re too young to understand," she snapped irritably.
She growled, "To the north the ice is shrinking back. And to the south the forests are spreading, more trees every year."
He had heard this before. "We can’t live in the forests—"
"Not only that, there’s talk that the Fireheads aren’t too far to the south. And where the Fireheads go the Lost can’t be far behind…"
Fireheads and Lost. Monsters of legend. Longtusk felt cold, as if he had drunk too much ice water.
…But now, without warning, the Matriarchs shifted their positions, like clouds exposing the sun. And he saw the Matriarch of Matriarchs.
She was short, her tusks long and smooth. And her face was a grotesque mask: pink and naked like a baby bird’s wing, free of all but a few wisps of hair.
Longtusk burst out, "She’s too young!"
The Matriarchs stirred, like icebergs touched by wind.
Milkbreath grabbed his trunk, angry and embarrassed. "Wisdom comes to all of us with age. But some are born wise. Wouldn’t you expect that the Matriarch of Matriarchs, the wisest of all, would be special? Wouldn’t you?"
"I don’t know…"
"You’re so much trouble to me, Longtusk! Always wandering off or getting under my feet or fighting with your sister or embarrassing me — sometimes I wish you were still in my belly, like this little one." She stroked the heavy bulge under her belly fur.
Longtusk fumed silently.
Splayfoot came galloping up to him. His sister was a knot of fat and orange fur, with a trunk like a worm and tusks like lemming bones, and her face was rounded and smoothed-out, as if unfinished. This was her first summer, and her new-born coat of coarse underfur and light brown overfur was being replaced by thicker and longer fur — though it would be her second year before her coarse guard hairs began to appear. "You’re so much trouble, Longtusk," she squeaked up at him gleefully. She started butting his legs with her little domed forehead. "I’ll be Matriarch and you won’t. Then I’ll tell you what to do!"
He rumbled and raised his huge tusks over her head, meaning to frighten her.
The calf squealed and ran to her mother, who tucked Splayfoot under her belly. "Will you leave this little one alone?"
"It wasn’t my fault!" Longtusk protested. "She started it…"
But Milkbreath had turned away. Splayfoot burrowed at her mother’s chest, seeking her dugs. But Milkbreath had little milk. So, with a deep belch, she regurgitated grass and with gentle kisses fed the warm, pulped stuff to her daughter.
As she fed, Splayfoot peered out from under a fringe of fur, mocking him silently.
It wasn’t so long since Milkbreath had fed him that way, murmuring about how important it was for him to eat the food that had been inside his mother’s belly, for it contained marvelous substances that would help him digest. It hardly seemed any time at all.
And now look at him: pushed away, snapped at, ignored.
He stomped away, not looking back, not caring which way he went.
2 The Bachelor Herd
He came to a track.
It was a strip of bare brown ground a little wider than his own body. Where the muddy ground was firm he could see the round print left by the tough, cracked skin of a mammoth’s sole, a spidery, distinctive map.
He turned and followed the trail, curious to find where it might lead.
To human eyes the mammoth steppe would have looked featureless. It was an immense plain that swept over the north of Eurasia, across the land bridge of Beringia and into North America. But to a mammoth it was as crowded with landmarks as any human city: rubbing trees, wallows, rich feeding areas, salt licks, water holes. And these key sites were linked by trails worn by centuries of mammoth footsteps, trails embedded deep in the mind of every adult Bull and Cow, patiently taught to the calves of each new generation.
Indeed, the land itself was shaped by the mammoths, who tore out trees and trampled the ground where they passed. Other creatures lived in the shadow of the mammoths: depending on the trails they made, using the water sources they opened up with their intelligence and strength. Even the plants, in their mindless way, relied on the scattering of their seeds over great ranges in mammoth dung. Without mammoths, the steppe would not have persisted.
Longtusk stomped through his world, still angry, obsessed. But he thought over the Matriarchs’ conversation: Fireheads and Lost and huge global changes…
He had never seen the Fireheads himself, but he’d met adults who claimed they had. The Fireheads — said to be ferocious predators, creatures of sweeping, incomprehensible danger — seemed real enough, and every young mammoth was taught at a very early age that the only response to a Firehead was to flee.
But the Lost were something else: figures of legend, a deep terror embedded at the heart of the Cycle — the nemesis of the mammoths.
It all seemed unlikely to Longtusk. The mammoths were spread in enormous herds right around the world, and even the great cats feared them. What could possibly destroy them?
And besides, his curiosity was pricked.
Why were all these changes happening now? How quickly would they happen? And why did the world have to become a harder place when he was alive? Why couldn’t he have lived long ago, in a time of calm and plenty?
And, most important of all, why didn’t anybody take him seriously?
Oh, he knew that there came a time when every Bull became restless with his Family; sooner or later all Bulls leave to seek out the company of other males in the bachelor herds, to learn to fight and strut and compete. But it didn’t do him any good, here and now, to know that; and it drove him crazy when all this was patiently explained to him by some smug, pitying aunt or cousin.
After an unmeasured time he paused and looked back. Preoccupied, he hadn’t been paying much attention where he walked; now he found he’d come so far he couldn’t see the mammoths any more.
He heard a thin howl, perhaps of a wolf. He suffered a heartbeat of panic, which he sternly suppressed.
So he had left them behind. What of it? He was a full-grown Bull — nearly — and he could look out for himself. Perhaps this was his time to leave his Family — to begin the serious business of life.
Anyhow — he told himself — he was pretty sure he could find his way back if he needed to.
With a renewed sense of purpose — and with those twinges of fear firmly pushed to the back of his mind — he set off once more.
He came to a river bank.
Mammoths had been here recently. The muddy ground close to the river’s edge was bare of life, pitted by footprint craters, and the trees were sparse and uniformly damaged, branches smashed, trunks splintered and pushed over.
The water was cold. This was probably a run-off stream, coming from a melting glacier to the north. He sucked up a trunkful of water and held it long enough to take off its first chill. Then he raised his trunk and let the water trickle into his mouth.
He pushed farther along the cold mud of the bank. It wasn’t easy going. The river had cut itself a shallow valley which offered some protection from the incessant steppe winds. As a result spruce trees grew unusually dense and tall here, and their branches clutched at him as he passed, so that he left behind clumps of ginger hair.
Then, through the trees, he glimpsed a gleam of tusks, a curling trunk, an unmistakable profile.
It was another mammoth: a massive Bull, come here to drink as he had.
Longtusk worked his way farther along the bank.
The Bull, unfamiliar to Longtusk, eyed him with a vague, languid curiosity. He would have towered over any human observer, as much as three meters tall at his shoulder.
And he towered over Longtusk.
"My name," the Bull rumbled, "is Rockheart."
"I’m Longtusk," he replied nervously. "And I—"
But the Bull had already turned away, his trunk hosing up prodigious volumes of water.
The Bull’s high, domed head was large, a lever for his powerful jaw and a support for the great trunk that snaked down before him. He had a short but distinct neck, a cylinder of muscle supporting that massive head. His shoulders were humped by a mound of fat, and his back sloped sharply down toward the pelvis at the base of his spine. His tusks curled before him, great spirals of ivory chipped and scuffed from a lifetime of digging and fighting.
And his body, muscular, stocky, round, was coated by hair: great lengths of it, dark orange and brown, that hung like a skirt from his belly, down over his legs to the horny nails on his swollen pads of feet, and even in long beard-like fringes from his chin and trunk. His tail, raised slightly, was short, but more hair made it a long, supple insect whisk. His ears were small, tucked back close to his head, all but lost in the great mass of hair there.
Suddenly the ground shuddered under Longtusk’s feet, and the river water trembled.
More mammoths, a crowd of them, came spilling down the bank, pushing and jostling, clumsy giants. They were all about the same size, Longtusk saw: no Cows, no infants here.
It was a bachelor herd.
Longtusk was thrilled. He had rarely been this close to full-grown Bulls. The Bulls kept to their own herds, away from the Cow-dominated Families of mothers and sisters and calves; Longtusk had seen them only in the distance, sweeping by, powerful, independent, and he had longed to run with them.
And now, perhaps, he would.
The Bulls spread out along the river bank. Before passing on toward the water, one or two regarded Longtusk: with mild curiosity over his outside tusks, or blank indifference, or amused contempt.
Longtusk followed, avid.
For half a day, as the sun climbed into the sky, the Bulls moved on along the river bank, jostling, jousting, drinking and eating.
Their walk, heavy and liquid, was oddly graceful. Their feet were pads that rested easily on the ground, swelling visibly with each step. Their trunks, heavy ropes dangling from the front of their faces, pulled the mammoths’ heads from side to side as they swayed. Even as they drank they fed, almost continuously. They pulled at branches of the surrounding trees with their trunks, hauling off great leaf-coated stems with hissing rustles, and crammed the foliage into their small mouths.
The soughing of their footsteps was punctuated by deep breaths, the gurgle of immense stomachs, and subterranean rumbles from the sound organs of their heads. A human observer would have made little of these deep, angry noises. But Longtusk found it very easy to make out what these Bulls were saying to each other.
"…You are in my way. Move aside."
"I was here in this place first. You move aside."
"…This water is too cold. It lies heavy in my belly."
"That is because you are old and weak. I, however, am young and strong, and I find the water pleasantly cool."
"My tusks are not yet so old and feeble they could not crack your skull like a skua egg, calf."
"Perhaps you should demonstrate how that could be done, old one…"
Longtusk, following the great Bull Rockheart, was tolerated — as long as he didn’t get in anybody’s way — for he was, for now, too small to be a serious competitor. His tusks were, despite his youth, larger than many of the adults — but they only made him feel self-conscious, as if somehow he wasn’t entitled to such magnificent weapons. He walked along with his head dipped, his tusks close to the ground.
Being with the Bulls was not like being with his Family.
Even the language was different. The Cows in the Families used more than twenty different kinds of rumble, a basic vocabulary from which they constructed their extremely complex communications. The Bulls only had four rumbles! — and those were to do with mockery, challenge and boasting.
His Family had been protective, nurturing — a safe place to be. But the bachelor herds were looser coalitions of Bulls, more interested in contest: verbal challenges, head butts, tusk clashes. The Bulls were constantly testing each other, exploring each other’s strength and weight and determination, establishing a hierarchy of dominance.
This mattered, for it was the dominant Bulls who mated the Cows in oestrus.
Right now, Longtusk was at the very bottom of this hierarchy. But one day he would, of course, climb higher — why, to the very top…
"You have stepped on the hair of my feet."
Longtusk looked up at a wall of flesh, eyes like tar pits, tusks that swept over his head.
He had offended Rockheart.
The great Bull’s guard hairs — dangling from his belly and trunk, long and lustrous — rippled like water, trapping the light. But loose underfur, working its way out through the layers of his guard hair in tatters around his flanks, made him look primordial, wild and unfinished.
Longtusk found himself trembling. He knew he should back down. But some of the other males nearby were watching with a lofty curiosity, and he was reminded sharply of how the Matriarch had watched his humiliation by his infant sister earlier.
If he had no place in the Family, he must find a place here. His Family had taught him how to live as a mammoth; now he must learn to be a Bull. And this was where it would begin.
So he stood his ground.
"Perhaps you have trouble understanding," Rockheart said with an ominous mildness. "You see, this is where I take my water."
"It is not your river alone," Longtusk said at last. He raised his head, and his tusks, long and proud, waved in the face of the great Bull.
Unfortunately one curling tusk caught in a tree root. Longtusk’s head was pulled sideways, making him stagger.
There was a subterranean murmur of amusement.
Rockheart simply stood his ground, unmoving, unblinking, like something which had grown out of this river bank. He said coldly, "I admire your tusks. But you are a calf. You lack prowess in their use."
Longtusk gathered his courage. He raised his tusks again. They were indeed long, but they were like saplings against Rockheart’s stained pillars of ivory. "Perhaps you would care to join me in combat, so that you may show me exactly where my deficiencies lie."
And he dragged his head sideways so that his tusks clattered against Rockheart’s. He felt a painful jar work its way up to his skull and neck, and the base of his tusks, where they were embedded in his face, ached violently.
Rockheart had not so much as flinched.
Longtusk raised his tusks for another strike.
With a speed that belied his bulk Rockheart stepped sideways, lowered his head and rammed it into Longtusk’s midriff.
Longtusk staggered into icy mud, slipped and fell sprawling into the water.
He struggled to his feet. The hairs of his belly and trunk dangled under him in cold clinging masses.
The Bulls on the river bank were watching him, tusks raised, sniggering.
Rockheart took a last trunkful of water, sprayed it languidly over his back, and turned away. His massive feet left giant craters in the sticky mud as he walked off, utterly ignoring Longtusk and his struggles.
And now Longtusk heard a familiar, remote trumpeting… "Longtusk! Longtusk! Come here right now!…"
"There’s your mother calling you," brayed a young Bull. "Go back to her teat, little one. This is no place for you."
Longtusk, head averted, humiliated, stomped out of the river and through the stand of trees. Where he walked he left a trail of mud and drips of water.
That was the end of Longtusk’s first encounter with a bachelor herd.
He could not know it, but it would be a long time before he would see one of his own kind again.
Not caring which way he went, Longtusk lumbered alone over the steppe, head down, ripping at the grass and herbs and grinding their roots with angry twists of his jaw.
He couldn’t go back to the herd. And he wasn’t going back to his Family. Not after all that had happened today. Not after this.
He didn’t need his Family — or the Bulls who had taunted him. He was Longtusk! The greatest hero in the world!
Why couldn’t anybody see that?
He walked on, faster and farther, so wrapped up in his troubles he didn’t even notice the smoke until his eyes began to hurt.
3 The She-Cat
Startled, he looked up, blinking. Water was streaking down the hairs of his face.
Smoke billowed, acrid and dark; somewhere nearby the dry grass was burning.
Every instinct told him to flee, to get away from the blaze. But which way?
If she were with him, his mother would know what to do. Even a brutal Bull like Rockheart would guide him, for it was the way of mammoths to train and protect their young.
But they weren’t here.
Now, through the smoke, he saw running creatures, silhouetted against the glow: thin, lithe, upright. They looked a little like cats. But they ran upright, as no cat did. And they seemed to carry things in their front paws. They darted back and forth, mysterious, purposeful.
Perhaps they weren’t real. Perhaps they were signs of his fear.
He felt panic rise in his chest, threatening to choke him.
He turned and faced into the smoke. He thought he could see a glow there, yellow and crimson. It was the fire itself, following the bank of smoke it created, both of them driven by the wind from the south.
Then he should run to the north, away from the fire. That must be the way the other mammoths were fleeing.
But fire — sparked by lightning strikes and driven by the incessant winds — could race across the dry land. Steppe plants grew only shallowly, and were easily and quickly consumed. Mammoths were strong, stocky, round as boulders: built for endurance, not for speed. He knew he could never outrun a steppe firestorm.
Through his fear, he felt a pang of indignation. Was he doomed to die here, alone, in a world turned to gray and black by smoke? — he, Longtusk, the center of the universe, the most important mammoth who ever lived?
Well, if he wanted to live, he couldn’t wait around for somebody else to tell him what to do. Think, Longtusk!
The smoke seemed to clear a little. Above him, between scudding billows of smoke, the sun showed a spectral, attenuated disc.
He looked down at his feet and found he was standing in a patch of muddy ground, bare of grass and other vegetation. It was a drying river bed, the mud cut by twisted, braided channels. There was nothing to burn here; that must be why the smoke was sparse.
He looked along the line of the river. It ran almost directly south. No grass grew on this sticky, clinging mud — and where the dry driver snaked off into the smoke, the glow of the fire seemed reduced, for there was nothing to burn on this mud.
If he walked that way, southward into the face of the smoke, he would be walking toward the fire — but along a channel where the fire could not reach. Soon, surely, he would get through the smoke and the fire, and reach the cleaner air beyond.
He quailed from the idea. It went against every instinct he had — to walk into a blazing fire! But if it was the right thing to do, he must overcome his fear.
He raised his trunk at the fire and trumpeted his defiance. And, dropping his head, he began to march stolidly south.
The smoke billowed directly into his face, laced with steppe dust: hot grit that peppered his eyes and scraped in his chest. And now the fire’s crackling, rushing noise rose to a roar. He felt he would go mad with fear. But he bent his head and, doggedly, one step at a time, he continued, into the teeth of the blaze.
At last the fire roared around him, and the flames leaped, dazzling white, as they consumed the thin steppe vegetation. Only a few paces away from him grass and low trees were crackling, blackening. Tufts of burning grass and bark scraps fluttered through the air. Some of them stuck to his fur, making it smolder, and he batted them away with his trunk or his tail.
But he had been right. The fire could not reach across the mud of this river bed, and so it could not reach him.
And now there was a change. The sound of the fire seemed diminished, and he found he was breathing a little easier. Blinking, he forced open his eyes and looked down.
He was still standing in his river bed. Its surface had been dried out and cracked by the ferocious heat. To either side the ground was lifeless, marked by the smoldering stumps of ground-covering trees and the blackened remnants of grass and sedge. Near one tree he saw the scorched corpse of some small animal, perhaps a lemming, its small white bones protruding.
The stink of smoke and ash was overwhelming. The steppe, as far as he could see, had turned to a plain of scorched cinders. Smoke still curled overhead… but it was a thinning gray layer which no longer covered the sinking sun.
And there was no fire.
He felt a surge of elation. He had done it! Alone, he had worked out how to survive, and had stuck to his resolve in the face of overwhelming danger. Let Rockheart see him now! — for he, Longtusk, alone, had today faced down and beaten a much more savage and ruthless enemy than any Bull mammoth.
…Alone. The word came back to haunt him, like the distant cry of a ptarmigan, and his elation evaporated.
He turned and faced northward. The fire was a wall across the steppe, from the eastern horizon to the west. Smoke billowed up before it in huge towering heaps, shaped by the wind. It was an awesome sight, and it cut the world in two.
He hammered at the ground with his feet, his stamps calling to the mammoths, his Family. But there was no reply, no rocky echo through the Earth. Of course not; the noise of the fire would overwhelm everything else, and before it all the mammoths must be fleeing — even the greatest of them all, the Matriarch of Matriarchs, fleeing north, even farther from Longtusk.
He would have no chance to gloat of his bravery to Rockheart, or his mother, or anyone else. For everything he knew — the Family, the Clan, the bachelor herd, everything — lay on the other side of that wall of fire.
He cried out, a mournful trumpet of desolation and loneliness.
He looked down at himself. He was a sorry sight, his fur laden with mud and heavily charred. And he was hungry and thirsty — in fact he had no clear memory of the last time he’d eaten.
The sun was dipping, reddening. Night would soon be here.
The last of his elation disappeared. He had thought he had won his battle by defeating the fire. But it seemed the battle was only just begun.
There was only one way for him to go: south, away from the fire. He lowered his head and began to walk.
As he marched into deepening darkness, he tried to feed, as mammoths must. But the scorched grass and sage crumbled at his touch.
His thirst was stronger than his hunger, in fact, but he found no free-standing water. He scraped hopefully at the ground with his tusks and feet. But only a little way down, the ground grew hard and cold. This was the permafrost, the deep layer of frozen soil which never thawed, even at the height of summer. He dug his trunk into the soil and sucked hopefully, but there were only drops of moisture to be had, trapped above the ice layer.
He came across a willow. It hugged the ground, low and flat, not rising higher than his knees. He prized it up with his tusks, stripped off its bark and munched the thin, dry stuff, seeking to assuage his thirst.
He knew there were places scattered around the steppe where free-standing water lay close to the surface, even in the depths of winter, and the mammoths could crack through snow and ice to reach it. The adults knew where to find such wells of life, using a deep knowledge of the land passed on from the generations before them — but Longtusk had only begun learning about the land. Now, scraping at the mud, adrift in this blackened landscape where even the trails had been scorched out of existence, he was learning how truly helpless he was.
He walked farther. The trees grew more thickly, short, ancient willows and birches. Soon there were so many of them they covered the ground with a thick matting of branches. He was walking, in fact, on top of a forest. This dry, cold, wind-blasted land was not a place where trees could grow tall.
…He heard a hiss, deep and sibilant, somewhere behind him.
Mammoths’ necks are short and inflexible, and Longtusk had to turn all the way around — slowly, clumsily, heart hammering.
The cat gazed at him, utterly still, silent.
For an instant he felt overwhelmed, his mind reeling, his courage fragmenting. He was almost irritated. The bachelor herd, the smoke, the fire — wasn’t that enough? Must he face this new peril as well?
But he knew he was in deadly danger, and he forced himself to alertness.
The cat was a female, he saw. She seemed huge to Longtusk: not much less than half his own height, rippling muscle under a smooth sheen of brown fur. Her ears were small and forward-pointed, her nose small and black.
And her two saber teeth swept down from her mouth, stained by something dark and crusted. Blood, perhaps. She must already have made a kill, of some prey animal disoriented by the fire. He could smell rotten meat on her breath.
Perhaps she had a family to feed, a brood of brawling sharp-toothed cubs. Cubs hungry for mammoth meat.
The sun, reddened by the smoky air, touched the horizon. Shadows fled across the scorched plains, and ruddy light gleamed deep in the carnivore’s eye sockets.
And those eyes were fixed on Longtusk.
He raised his trunk and trumpeted. The sound rolled across the anechoic plains, purposeless.
The cat spread her claws, long and bright, and they sunk into the ground. Her muscles tensed in great sheets.
Fear clamored in his mind, threatening to drown out thought.
He tried to recall fragments of mammoth lore: that few mammoths are targeted by predators; that Bulls, not yet fully grown and yet driven to depart the Family — Bulls like himself — are the most vulnerable to predators like this cat; that the female cat, driven to provide for her family, is deadlier than the male.
But through all this one stark thought rattled around his awareness: that it is at sunset that the predators hunt.
She sprang. It was very sudden. Spitting, she soared through the air, a blur of muscle heading straight for his face, claws extended.
Blindly he raised his tusks.
She was knocked sideways, spitting and scratching.
…He was bleeding, he realized. There was a series of raked gashes across the front of his trunk, where a paw-swipe had caught him.
Trumpeting, he turned again.
She was crouched low, eyes on him once more, taking step after deliberate step toward him.
The mammoths evolved on open plains, where there is little cover. Under threat from a predator they adopt a ring formation, with the calves and the weak huddled at the center.
But now Longtusk was on his own, with nobody to cover his back, utterly exposed.
He broke away and fled. He couldn’t help it.
She will try to slash your trunk. Avoid this. It will cause you agonizing pain and a great loss of blood. Use your tusks. Bring them down on her head to stun her, or stab her with the sharp tips. If she gets in closer, wrap your trunk around her and squeeze until her back breaks. If she gets beneath you, step on her and crush her skull. Never forget she is afraid too: you are bigger and stronger than her, and she knows it…
It was a comforting theory, and he recalled how he had played with other calves, mimicking attacks and defenses, swiping miniature tusks back and forth. But the reality, of this spitting, stinking, single-minded cat, was very different.
And now he felt a new sharp warmth on his right hind leg. She had gouged him again. The damage was superficial, but he could feel the blood pumping out of him, weakening him. He kept running, but now he was limping.
It had been a deliberate cut. The cat was trying to shorten the chase.
He ran toward a stand of tall trees, sheltered by an outcrop of rock, their branches green-black in the fading light. Perhaps there would be cover here. He ducked into the shadow of the trees, turned -
Suddenly there was a weight on his back, a mass of spitting, squalling fur, utterly unexpected, and then stabs of sharp pain all across his back: long claws digging through his fur and into his flesh.
He trumpeted in panic. He raised his trunk and tusks, but his neck was short and he could never reach so far. The trees, he realized. Their black branches loomed above him. She must have climbed into the branches and dropped down onto him. ...
All rights belong to the author: Stephen Baxter.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.