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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'spitiful 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 themnow 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 theiryears 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...
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