First came the herd-scent of all the other mastodons, anxious but subsiding, but the personal smell of the matriarch almost too overpowering to stand beside. Beneath it came the grass scent, acrid and dry and aged by the exposure of a day. Then the wall of the strange musk-sweat of all the men that I call the Never-born. Twilight itself comes laden with the mint of evergreens and the cold of flint. The water of the lake bears its own aroma – silvery and heavy, with some grass-scent because of the algae it bears. Behind us, the forest was an odorous cacophony of wary waking deer and scurrying earth-tinged rodents and the small swift smells of birds which fell, in human terms, like singular strokes of a brush across a canvas.
“The mastodons will sleep though the night,” said Jerem Cozak, from atop the matriarch, “but post their own sentries. Did you know that?”
“There are many things I do not know,” I said.
He laughed, then. “I will tell you something no one knows but me. None of this was written. Tonight I will cleanse my armor by the lake, because when the matriarch bellowed truly I was terrified.”
“You mean we could have failed,” I said. “She could have gored you, and a dozen mastodons gone charging through our ranks. But we would not have succeeded in any other way.”
“Just so,” he nodded, and I guessed that he’d been preoccupying me so that I would not be overwhelmed. Sound came then, as a smilodon snarled, soft and low, across the lake, away by the edge of the forest on that side, and thirty heads turned briefly in that direction. The waters of the lake lapped the shore with quick plashes. The wind waved the grass in soft susurrations. Three different kinds of birds trilled from the timberline; six sang in the grasses closer to us; two cried mournfully and dove the waters of the lake. The army of men that I called the Never-born creaked and clanked in their awkward armor, their voices like the crashing of stones into a stream. Field mice peeped and burrowed through the tall grass, but even mastodons could not hear the fox that hunted them, though of course they smelt it.
“I have questions,” I said at last. “I’ll not let you leave again.”