/ Language: English / Genre:sf_history


Jean Auel

Jean Auel's fifth novel about Ayla, the Cro-Magnon cavewoman raised by Neanderthals, is the biggest comeback bestseller in Amazon.com history. In The Shelters of Stone, Ayla meets the Zelandonii tribe of Jondalar, the Cro-Magnon hunk she rescued from Baby, her pet lion. Ayla is pregnant. How will Jondalar's mom react? Or his bitchy jilted fiancée? Ayla wows her future in-laws by striking fire from flint and taming a wild wolf. But most regard her Neanderthal adoptive Clan as subhuman "flatheads." Clan larynxes can't quite manage language, and Ayla must convince the Zelandonii that Clan sign language isn't just arm-flapping. Zelandonii and Clan are skirmishing, and those who interbreed are deemed "abominations." What would Jondalar's tribe think if they knew Ayla had to abandon her half-breed son in Clan country? The plot is slow to unfold, because Auel's first goal is to pack the tale with period Pleistocene detail, provocative speculation, and bits of romance, sex, tribal politics, soap opera, and homicidal wooly rhino-hunting adventure. It's an enveloping fact-based fantasy, a genre-crossing time trip to the Ice Age.

Jean M. Auel, Джин М Ауел


(Earth Children – 5)

Chapter 1

People were gathering on the limestone ledge, looking down at them warily. No one made a gesture of welcome, and some held spears in positions of readiness if not actual threat. The young woman could almost feel their edgy fear. She watched from the bottom of the path as more people crowded together on the ledge, staring down, many more than she thought there would be. She had seen that reluctance to greet them from other people they had met on their Journey. It's not just them, she told herself, it's always that way in the beginning, but she felt uneasy.

The tall man jumped down from the back of the young stallion. He was neither reluctant nor uneasy, but he hesitated for a moment, holding the stallion's halter rope. He turned around and noticed that she was hanging back. "Ayla, will you hold Racer's rope? He seems nervous," he said, then looked up at the ledge. "I guess they do too."

She nodded, lifted her leg over, slid down from the mare's back, and took the rope. In addition to the tension of seeing strange people, the young brown horse was still agitated around his dam. She was no longer in heat, but residual odors from her encounter with the herd stallion still clung. Ayla held the halter rope of the brown male close, but gave the dun-yellow mare a long lead, and stood between them. She considered giving Whinney her head; her horse was more accustomed to large groups of strangers now, and was not usually high-strung, but she seemed nervous too. That throng of people would make anyone nervous.

When the wolf appeared, Ayla heard sounds of agitation and alarm from the ledge in front of the cave-if it could be called a cave. She'd never seen one quite like it. Wolf pressed against the side of her leg and moved somewhat in front of her, suspiciously defensive; she could feel the vibration of his barely audible growl. He was much more guarded around strangers now than he had been when they began their long Journey a year ago, but he had been little more than a puppy then, and he had become more protective of her after some perilous experiences.

As the man strode up the incline toward the apprehensive people, he showed no fear, but the woman was glad for the opportunity to wait behind and observe them before she had to meet them. She'd been expecting-dreading-this moment for more than a year, and first impressions were important… on both sides.

Though others held back, a young woman rushed toward him. Jondalar recognized his younger sister immediately, though the pretty girl had blossomed into a beautiful young woman during the five years of his absence.

"Jondalar! I knew it was you!" she said, flinging herself at him. "You finally came home!"

He gave her a big hug, then picked her up and swung her around in his enthusiasm. "Folara, I am so happy to see you!" When he put her down, he looked at her at arm's length. "But you've grown. You were just a girl when I left, now you're a beautiful woman… just as I always knew you'd be," he said, with slightly more than a brotherly glint in his eye.

She smiled at him, looked into his unbelievably vivid blue eyes and was drawn by their magnetism. She felt herself flush, not from his compliment, although that's what those standing nearby thought, but from the rush of attraction she felt for the man, brother or not, whom she had not seen for many years. She had heard stories of her handsome big brother with the unusual eyes, who could charm any woman, but her memory was of a tall adoring playmate who was willing to go along with any game or activity she wanted to play. This was the first time as a young woman that she was exposed to the full effect of his unconscious charisma. Jondalar noticed her reaction and smiled warmly at her sweet confusion.

She glanced away toward the bottom of the path near the small river. "Who is that woman, Jondй?" she asked. "And where did the animals come from? Animals run away from people, why don't those animals run away from her? Is she a Zelandoni? Has she Called them?" Then she frowned. "Where's Thonolan?" She took a sharp intake of breath at the look of pain that tightened Jondalar's brow.

"Thonolan travels the next world now, Folara," he said, "and I wouldn't be here if it weren't for that woman."

"Oh, Jondй! What happened?"

"It's a long story, and this is not the time to tell it," he said, but Ayla watched from the foot of the path while people surrounded him, welcoming him with smiles, hugs, kisses, pats, handshakes using both hands, and many words. She noticed a hugely fat woman, a brown-haired man whom Jondalar hugged, and an older woman that he greeted warmly and then kept his arm around. Probably his mother, she thought, and wondered what the woman would think of her.

These people were his family, his kin, his friends, people he had grown up with. She was a stranger, a disturbing stranger who brought animals and who knew what other threatening foreign ways and outrageous ideas. Would they accept her? What if they didn't? She couldn't go back, her people lived more than a year's travel to the east. Jondalar had promised that he would leave with her if she wanted-or was forced-to go, but that was before he saw everyone, before he was greeted so warmly. How would he feel now?

She felt a nudge behind her and reached up to stroke Whinney's sturdy neck, grateful that her friend had reminded her that she was not alone. When she lived in the valley, after she left the Clan, for a long time the horse had been her only companion. She hadn't noticed the slack in Whinney's rope as the horse moved closer to her, but she gave Racer a bit more lead. The mare and her offspring usually found friendship and comfort in each other, but when the mare came into season it had disturbed their usual pattern.

More people-how could there be so many?-were looking in her direction, and Jondalar was talking earnestly with the brown-haired man, then he waved at her, and smiled. When he started back down, he was followed by the young woman, the brown-haired man, and a few others. Ayla took a deep breath and waited.

As they approached, the wolf's growl became louder. She reached down to keep him close to her. "It's all right, Wolf. It's just Jondalar's kin," she said. Her calming touch was a signal to him to stop growling, not to appear too threatening. The signal had been difficult to teach him, but worth the effort, especially now, she thought. She wished she knew of a touch that would calm her.

The group with Jondalar stopped a little distance back, trying not to show their trepidation, or to stare at the animals that openly stared at them and held their place even when strange people approached them. Jondalar stepped into the breach.

"I think we should start with formal introductions, Joharran," he said, looking at the brown-haired man.

As Ayla dropped both halter ropes in preparation for a formal introduction, which required contact with both hands, the horses stepped back, but the wolf stayed. She noticed the glint of fear in the man's eye, although she doubted that this man was afraid of much, and glanced at Jondalar, wondering if he had a reason for wanting formal introductions immediately. She looked closely at the unfamiliar man and was suddenly reminded of Brun, the leader of the clan that she grew up with. Powerful, proud, intelligent, competent, he had feared little-except the world of the spirits.

"Ayla, this is Joharran, Leader of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, son of Marthona, former Leader of the Ninth Cave, born to the hearth of Joconan, former Leader of the Ninth Cave," the tall blond man said with seriousness, then grinned, "not to mention Brother of Jondalar, Traveler to Distant Lands."

There were a few quick smiles. His comment relieved the tension somewhat. Strictly, in a formal introduction, a person could give the entire list of their names and ties to validate their status-all their own designations, titles, and accomplishments, and all their kin and their relationships, along with their titles and accomplishments-and some did. But as a matter of practice, except in the most ceremonial of circumstances, just the primary ones were mentioned. It was not uncommon, however, for young people, especially brothers, to make jocular additions to the long and sometimes tedious recitation of one's kinships, and Jondalar was reminding him of past years, before he was burdened with the responsibilities of leadership.

"Joharran, this is Ayla of the Mamutoi, Member of the Lion Camp, Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth, Chosen by the Spirit of the Cave Lion, and Protected by the Cave Bear."

The brown-haired man crossed the distance between himself and the young woman, and held out both hands, palms up, in the understood gesture of welcome and open-handed friendship. He did not recognize any of her ties, and he wasn't entirely sure which were most important.

"In the name of Doni, the Great Earth Mother, I welcome you, Ayla of the Mamutoi, Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth," he said.

Ayla took both his hands. "In the name of Mut, Great Mother of All, I greet you, Joharran, Leader of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii," then she smiled, "and Brother of the Traveler, Jondalar."

Joharran noticed, first, that she spoke his language well, but with an unusual accent, then he became conscious of her strange clothings and her foreign look, but when she smiled, he smiled back. Partly because she had showed her understanding of Jondalar's remark and let Joharran know that his brother was important to her, but mostly because he could not resist her smile.

Ayla was an attractive woman by anyone's standards: she was tall, had a firm well-shaped body, long dark blond hair that tended to wave, clear blue-gray eyes, and fine features, though of a slightly different character from those of Zelandonii women. But when she smiled, it was as if the sun had cast a special beam on her that lit each feature from within. She seemed to glow with such stunning beauty, Joharran caught his breath. Jondalar had always said her smile was remarkable, and he grinned, seeing that his brother was not immune to it.

Then Joharran noticed the stallion prance nervously toward Jondalar, and he eyed the wolf. "Jondalar tells me we need to make some… ah… accommodation for these animals… somewhere nearby, I presume." Not too near, he thought.

"The horses just need a field with grass, near water, but we need to tell people that they shouldn't try to get close to them in the beginning unless Jondalar or I am with them. Whinney and Racer are nervous around people until they get used to them," Ayla said.

"I don't think that will be a problem," Joharran said, catching the movement of Whinney's tail, and eyeing her. "They can stay here, if this small valley is appropriate."

"This will be fine," Jondalar said. "Though we may move them upstream, out of the way a little."

"Wolf is accustomed to sleeping near me," Ayla continued. She noticed Joharran's frown. "He's become quite protective and might cause a commotion if he can't be close by."

She could see his resemblance to Jondalar, particularly in his forehead knotted with worry, and wanted to smile. But Joharran was seriously concerned. This was not a time for smiles, even if his expression gave her a feeling of warm familiarity.

Jondalar, too, had seen his brother's worried frown. "I think this would be a good time to introduce Joharran to Wolf," he said.

Joharran's eyes flew open in near panic, but before he could object, she reached for his hand as she bent down beside the meat-eater. She put her arm around the large wolf's neck to settle an incipient growl-even she could smell the man's fear; she was sure Wolf could.

"Let him smell your hand first," she said. "That's Wolf's formal introduction." The wolf had learned from previous experience that it was important to Ayla for him to accept within his pack of humans the people she introduced to him in this way. He didn't like the smell of fear, but sniffed the man to become familiar with him.

"Have you ever really felt the fur of a living wolf, Joharran?" she asked, looking up at him. "If you notice, it's a little coarse," she said, leading his hand to feel the animal's rather shaggy neck fur. "He's still shedding and itchy, and he loves to be scratched behind the ears," she continued, showing him how.

Joharran felt the fur, but was more aware of the warmth, and suddenly realized this was a living wolf! And he didn't seem to mind being touched.

Ayla observed that his hand was not as stiff, and that he actually attempted to rub the place she indicated. "Let him smell your hand again."

When Joharran brought his hand around toward the wolf's nose, he widened his eyes again, with surprise. "That wolf licked me!" he said, not sure if it was in preparation for something better-or worse. Then he saw Wolf lick Ayla's face, and she seemed very pleased about it.

"Yes, you were good, Wolf," she said, smiling, as she fondled him and roughed up his mane. Then she stood up and patted the front of her shoulders. The wolf jumped up, put his paws on the place she had indicated, and as she exposed her throat, he licked her neck, and then took her chin and jaw in his mouth with a rumbling growl, but great gentleness.

Jondalar noticed the gasps of astonishment from Joharran and the others, and realized how frightening the familiar act of wolfish affection must seem to people who didn't understand. His brother looked at him, his expression both fearful and amazed. "What's he doing to her?"

"Are you sure that's all right?" Folara asked at nearly the same time. She could no longer keep still. The other people were making indecisive nervous movements as well.

Jondalar smiled. "Yes, Ayla is fine. He loves her, he would never hurt her. That's how wolves show affection. It took me a while to get used to it, too, and I've known Wolf as long as she has, ever since he was a fuzzy little cub."a

"That's no cub! That's a big wolf! That's the biggest wolf I ever saw!" Joharran said. "He could tear her throat out!"

"Yes. He could tear her throat out. I've seen him tear a woman's throat out… a woman who was trying to kill Ayla," Jondalar said. "Wolf protects her."

The Zelandonii who were watching breathed a collective sigh of relief when the wolf got down, and stood by her side again with his mouth open and his tongue hanging out the side, showing his teeth. Wolf had that look that Jondalar thought of as his wolf grin, as though he was pleased with himself.

"Does he do that all the time?" Folara asked. "To… anyone?"

"No," Jondalar said. "Only to Ayla, and sometimes me, if he's feeling particularly happy, and only if we allow it. He's well behaved, he won't harm anyone… unless Ayla is threatened."

"What about children?" Folara asked. "Wolves often go after the weak and the young."

At the mention of children, looks of concern appeared on the faces of the people standing nearby.

"Wolf loves children," Ayla quickly explained, "and he is very protective toward them, particularly very young or weak ones. He was raised with the children of the Lion Camp."

"There was a very weak and sickly boy, who belonged to the Lion Hearth," Jondalar contributed. "You should have seen them play together. Wolf was always careful around him."

"That's a very unusual animal," another man said. "It's hard to believe a wolf could behave so… unwolflike."

"You're right, Solaban," Jondalar said. "He does behave in ways that seem very unwolflike to people, but if we were wolves we wouldn't think so. He was raised with people and Ayla says he thinks of people as his pack. He treats people as though they were wolves."

"Does he hunt?" the man Jondalar had called Solaban wanted to know.

"Yes," Ayla said. "Sometimes he hunts alone, for himself, and sometimes he helps us hunt."

"How does he know what he should hunt and what he shouldn't?" Folara asked. "Like those horses."

Ayla smiled. "The horses are part of his pack, too. You notice they are not afraid of him. And he never hunts people. Otherwise, he can hunt any animal he wants, unless I tell him not to."

"And if you say no, he doesn't?" another man asked.

"That's right, Rushemar," Jondalar affirmed.

The man shook his head in wonder. It was hard to believe anyone could have such control over a powerful hunting animal.

"Well, Joharran," Jondalar said. "Do you think it's safe enough to bring Ayla and Wolf up?"

The man thought for a moment, then nodded. "However, if there is any trouble…"

"There won't be, Joharran," Jondalar stated, then turned to Ayla. "My mother has invited us to stay with her. Folara still lives with her, but she has her own room, and so does Marthona and Willamar. He's gone on a trading mission now. She has offered her central living space to us. Of course, we could stay with Zelandoni at the visitors hearth, if you'd rather."

"I would be pleased to stay with your mother, Jondalar," Ayla said.

"Good! Mother also suggested that we wait with most formal introductions until we get settled in. It isn't as though I need to be introduced, and there's no point in repeating everything to each one when we can do it all at once."

"We're already planning a welcoming feast for tonight," Folara said. "And probably another one later, for all the nearby Caves."

"I appreciate your mother's thoughtfulness, Jondalar. It would be easier to meet everyone at once, but you might introduce me to this young woman," Ayla said.

Folara smiled.

"Of course, I was planning to," Jondalar said. "Ayla, this is my sister, Folara, Blessed of Doni, of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii; Daughter of Marthona, former Leader of the Ninth Cave; born to the hearth of Willamar, Traveler and Trade Master; Sister of Joharran, Leader of the Ninth Cave; Sister of Jondalar…"

"She knows about you, Jondalar, and I've already heard her names and ties," Folara said, impatient with the formalities, then held out both hands toward Ayla. "In the name of Doni, the Great Earth Mother, I welcome you, Ayla of the Mamutoi, Friend of horses and wolves."

The crowd of people standing on the sunny stone porch quickly moved back when they saw the woman and the wolf start up the path along with Jondalar and the small group accompanying them. One or two took a step closer while others craned their necks around them. When they reached the stone ledge Ayla got her first view of the living space of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii. The sight surprised her.

Though she knew the word "Cave" in the name of Jondalar's home did not refer to a place, but to the group of people who lived there, the formation she saw was not a cave, not as she had thought of one. A cave was a dark chamber or series of them within a rock face or cliff or underground with an opening to the outside. The living space of these people was the area beneath a huge overhanging shelf jutting out of the limestone cliff, an abri, that provided protection from rain or snow, but was open to daylight.

The high cliffs of the region were once the floor beneath the surface of an ancient sea. As the calcareous shells of crustaceans who lived in the sea were discarded, they built up on the floor and eventually became calcium carbonate-limestone. During certain periods of time, for a variety of reasons, some of the deposited shells created thick layers of limestone that were harder than others. When the earth shifted and exposed the sea floor to eventually become cliffs, the weathering processes of wind and water cut into the relatively softer stone more easily, gouging out deep spaces, and leaving ledges of the harder stone between.

Although the cliffs were also riddled with caves, which was common for limestone, these unusual shelflike formations created shelters of stone that made exceptionally good living sites and had been used as such for a great many thousands of years.

Jondalar led Ayla toward the older woman she had seen from the foot of the path. The woman was tall and dignified in her bearing as she waited patiently for them. Her hair, more gray than light brown, was pulled back from her face into one long braid, which was coiled at the back of her head. Her clear direct appraising eyes were also gray.

When they reached her, Jondalar began the formal introduction. "Ayla, this is Marthona, former Leader of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii; Daughter of Jemara; born to the hearth of Rabanar; mated to Willamar, Trade Master of the Ninth Cave; Mother of Joharran, Leader of the Ninth Cave; Mother of Folara, Blessed of Doni; Mother of…" He started to say "Thonolan," hesitated, then quickly filled in, "Jondalar, Returned Traveler." Then he turned to his mother.

"Marthona, this is Ayla of the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi, Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth, Chosen by the Spirit of the Cave Lion, Protected by the Spirit of the Cave Bear."

Marthona held out her two hands. "In the name of Doni, the Great Earth Mother, I welcome you, Ayla of the Mamutoi."

"In the name of Mut, Great Mother of All, I greet you, Marthona of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, and Mother of Jondalar," Ayla said, as they joined hands.

Marthona heard Ayla's words, wondered at her strange speech mannerism, noted how well she spoke in spite of it, and thought it was either a minor speech defect or the accent of a completely unfamiliar language from a very distant place. She smiled. "You have come a long way, Ayla, left all you knew and loved behind. If you had not, I don't think I would have Jondalar back home. I am grateful to you for that. I hope you will soon feel at home here, and I will do all I can to help you."

Ayla knew Jondalar's mother was sincere. Her directness and honesty were genuine; she was glad to have her son back. Ayla was relieved and touched by Marthona's welcome. "I have looked forward to meeting you since Jondalar first spoke of you… but I have been a little afraid, too," she replied with a similar directness and honesty.

"I don't blame you. I would have found it very difficult in your place. Come, let me show you where you can put your things. You must be tired and would like to rest before the welcoming celebration tonight," Marthona said, starting to lead them toward the area under the overhang. Suddenly Wolf started whining, yelped a little "puppy bark," and stretched his front paws out with his back end and tail up in a playful posture.

Jondalar was startled. "What is he doing?"

Ayla looked at Wolf, rather surprised as well. The animal repeated his gestures, and suddenly she smiled. "I think he's trying to get Marthona's attention," she said. "He thinks she didn't notice him, and I think he wants to be introduced."

"And I want to meet him, too," Marthona said.

"You don't fear him!" Ayla said. "And he knows it!"

"I watched. I didn't see anything to fear," she said, extending her hand toward the wolf. He sniffed her hand, licked it, and whined again.

"I think Wolf wants you to touch him; he does love attention from people he likes," Ayla said.

"You do like that, don't you?" the older woman said as she stroked him. "Wolf? Is that what you called him?"

"Yes. It's just the Mamutoi word for 'wolf.' It seemed like the right name for him," Ayla explained.

"But, I've never seen him take to anyone so fast," Jondalar said, looking at his mother with awe.

"Nor have I," Ayla said, watching Marthona with the wolf. "Maybe he's just happy to meet someone who's not afraid of him."

As they walked into the shade of the overhanging stone, Ayla felt an immediate cooling of temperature. For a heartbeat, she shivered with a chill of fear, and glanced up at the huge shelf of stone jutting out of the cliff wall, wondering if it could collapse. But when her eyes grew accustomed to the dimmer light, she was astonished by more than the physical formation of Jondalar's home. The space under the rock shelter was huge, much larger than she had imagined.

She had seen similar overhangs in the cliffs along this river on their way here, some obviously inhabited, though none seemed quite as sizable as this one. Everyone in the entire region knew of the immense rock shelter and the great number of people it housed. The Ninth Cave was the largest of all the communities that called themselves Zelandonii.

Clustered together at the eastern end of the protected space, along the back wall and freestanding in the middle, were individual structures, many quite large, made partly of stone and partly of wooden frames covered with hides. The hides were decorated with beautifully rendered pictures of animals and various abstract symbols painted in black and many vivid shades of red, yellow, and brown. The structures were arranged in a west-facing curve around an open space near the center of the area covered by the overhanging stone shelf, which was filled with a confusion of objects and people.

As Ayla looked more closely, what at first had struck her all at once as a melange of rich clutter was resolving itself into areas dedicated to different tasks, often near to related tasks. It only seemed confusing initially because so many activities were going on.

She saw hides being cured in frames, and long shafts of spears, apparently in the process of being straightened, leaning against a crosspiece supported by two posts. Baskets in different stages of completion were stacked in another place, and thongs were drying stretched between pairs of bone posts. Long skeins of cordage hung from pegs pounded into crossbeams above unfinished nets stretched across a frame, and loosely woven netting in bundles on the ground. Skins, some dyed various colors including many shades of red, were cut into pieces and nearby, partially assembled articles of clothing were hanging.

She recognized most of the crafts, but near the clothing was an activity that was entirely unfamiliar. A frame held many strands of thin cord vertically, with a design partially formed from the material woven horizontally across them. She wanted to go over and look closer, and promised herself she would, later. Pieces of wood, stone, bone, antler, and mammoth ivory were in other places, carved into implements-ladles, spoons, bowls, tongs, weapons-most of them with carved and sometimes painted decorations. There were also small sculptures and carvings that were not implements or tools. They seemed to be made for themselves or some purpose of which she wasn't aware.

She saw vegetables and herbs hanging high from large frames with many crosspieces, and lower to the ground, meat drying on racks. Somewhat away from other activities was an area scattered with sharp stone chips; for people like Jondalar she thought, flint-knappers who made tools, knives, and spear points.

And everywhere she looked, she saw people. The community that lived under the spacious rock shelter was of a size to match the space. Ayla had grown up in a clan of less than thirty people; at the Clan Gathering, which occurred once every seven years, two hundred people came together for a short period, a huge assembly to her then. Though the Mamutoi Summer Meeting drew a much greater number, the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, alone, comprised of over two hundred individuals living together at this one place, was larger than the entire Clan Gathering!

Ayla didn't know how many people were standing around watching them, but she was reminded of the time she had walked with Brun's clan into that congregation of clans and felt all of them looking at her. They had tried to be unobtrusive, but the people who were staring as Marthona led Jondalar, Ayla, and a wolf to her living place weren't even polite about it. They didn't try to look down or glance away. She wondered if she would ever get used to living with so many people living close by all the time; she wondered if she wanted to.

Chapter 2

The huge woman glanced up at the movement of the leather drape stretched across the entrance, then quickly looked down as the young blond stranger emerged from Marthona's dwelling. She was sitting in her accustomed place, a seat carved out of a solid block of limestone, strong enough to support her massive bulk. The leather-padded stone seat had been made especially for her, and was located exactly where she wanted it: toward the back of the large open area under the enormous overhanging cliff that protected the settlement, but within sight of almost the entire communal living space.

The woman appeared to be meditating, but it wasn't the first time she had used the place to quietly observe some person or activity. The people had learned not to intrude upon her meditations, unless it was an emergency, especially when she wore her ivory chest plaque with the plain, undecorated side facing out. When the side that was carved with symbols and animals was showing, anyone was free to approach her, but when she reversed the plaque to the blank side, it became a symbol of silence and meant that she did not wish to speak and did not want to be disturbed.

The Cave had grown so accustomed to her being there, they almost didn't see her, for all her usually commanding presence. She had cultivated that effect carefully and had no compunctions about it. As spiritual leader of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, she considered the welfare of the people her responsibility and used every means her fertile brain could devise to carry out her duty.

She watched the younger woman leave the rock shelter and head toward the path that led to the valley, and noticed the unmistakably foreign look of her leather tunic. The old donier was also aware that she moved with the resilience of health and strength, and a confidence that belied her youth and the fact that she was among complete strangers in their living place.

Zelandoni got up and walked toward the structure, one of the many such dwelling places of various sizes scattered within the limestone abri. At the entrance to the dwelling that divided the private living space from the open public area, she tapped on the stiff rawhide panel next to the drape-closed entry and heard the padded strides of soft leather footwear approaching. The tall, fair-haired, surprisingly handsome man pulled back the drape. Eyes of an unusually vivid shade of blue looked surprised, then warmed with pleasure.

"Zelandoni! How nice to see you," he said, "but mother isn't here right now."

"What makes you think I'm here to see Marthona? You're the one who's been gone five years." Her tone was sharp.

He was suddenly flustered and at a loss for words.

"Well, are you going to leave me standing out here, Jondalar?"

"Oh… Come in, of course," he said, his brow knotting into a habitual frown, erasing the warm smile. He stepped back, holding the drape aside as she entered.

They studied each other in silence for a time. When he'd left, she had just become First Among Those Who Served The Mother; she'd had five years to grow into the position and she had grown into it. The woman he knew had become immensely fat. She was two or three times the size of most women, with huge breasts and broad buttocks. She had a soft full face crowded by three chins, but her piercing blue eyes seemed to miss nothing. She had always been tall and strong, and she carried her great size with grace, and a demeanor that asserted her prestige and authority. She had a presence, an aura of power about her that commanded respect.

They both spoke at once. "Can I get you…" Jondalar started.

"You've changed…"

"I'm sorry…" he apologized for what seemed like an interruption, feeling oddly constrained. Then he noticed just the slightest hint of a smile, and a familiar look in her eye, and he felt himself relax.

"I am glad to see you… Zolena," he said. His brow smoothed out and his smile returned as he focused his compelling eyes full of warmth and love on her.

"You haven't changed that much," she said, feeling herself respond to his charisma and the memories it evoked. "No one has called me Zolena for a long time." She appraised him again carefully, "You have changed, though. Grown up some. You're more handsome than ever…"

He started to protest, but she shook her head at him. "Don't make objections, Jondalar. You know it's true. But there's a difference. You look… how can I say it… you don't have that hungry look, that need that every woman wanted to satisfy. I think you have found what you've been searching for. You are happy in a way that you have never been."

"I never could keep anything from you," he said, smiling with an excited, almost childlike delight. "It's Ayla. We plan to mate at this summer's Matrimonial. I suppose we could have had a mating ceremony before we left, or along the way, but I wanted to wait until we got home so you could slip that thong over our wrists and tie the knot for us."

Just talking about her had changed his expression, and Zelandoni had a momentary sense of the almost obsessive love he felt for this woman called Ayla. It concerned her, raised all the protective instincts she felt for her people-particularly this person-as the voice, surrogate, and instrument of the Great Earth Mother. She knew the powerful emotions he had struggled with growing up, and finally learned to keep under control. But a woman he loved that much could hurt him terribly, perhaps even destroy him. Her eyes narrowed. She wanted to know more about this young woman who had captivated him so completely. Just what kind of hold did she have on him?

"How can you be so sure she's right for you? Where did you meet her? How much do you really know about her?"

Jondalar sensed her concern, but something else, too, something that worried him. Zelandoni was the highest ranked spiritual leader of all the zelandonia, and she was not First for nothing. She was a powerful woman and he didn't want her turning against Ayla. The greatest concern he-and, he knew, Ayla, too-had had during their long and difficult Journey to his home was whether or not she would be accepted by his people. For all her exceptional qualities, there were some things about her that he wished she would keep secret, though he doubted that she would. She could have enough difficulties-and probably would have from some people-without incurring the enmity of this particular woman. Quite the opposite, more than anyone Ayla needed the support of Zelandoni.

He reached out and held the shoulders of the woman, needing to persuade her, somehow, not only to accept Ayla but to help her, but he wasn't sure how. Looking into her eyes, he couldn't help remembering the love they once had shared, and suddenly he knew that, as difficult as it might be for him, only complete honesty would work… if anything would.

Jondalar was a private man about his personal feelings; it was the way he'd learned to control his powerful emotions, to keep them to himself. It was not easy for him to talk about them to anyone, not even someone who knew him as well as she did.

"Zelandoni…" His voice softened. "Zolena… you know it was you that spoiled me for other women. I was hardly more than a boy, and you were the most exciting woman any man could hope for. I wasn't alone in wetting my dreams with thoughts of you, but you made mine come true. I burned for you, and when you came to me, became my donii-woman, I couldn't get enough of you. My first manhood was filled with you, but you know it didn't end there. I wanted more and as much as you fought it, you did, too. Even though it was forbidden, I loved you, and you loved me. I still love you. I will always love you.

"Even afterwards, after all the trouble we caused everyone, and mother sending me to live with Dalanar, when I came back, no one ever came close to you. I hungered for you lying spent beside another woman, and I hungered for more than your body. I wanted to share a hearth with you. I didn't care about the difference in age, or that no man was supposed to fall in love with his donii-woman. I wanted to spend my life with you."

"And look what you would have gotten, Jondalar," Zolena said. She was moved, more than she imagined she could be anymore. "Have you taken a good look? I'm not just older than you. I'm so fat, I'm starting to have trouble getting around. I'm still strong or I'd have more, and will as time goes on. You are young, and so good to look at, women ache for you. The Mother chose me. She must have known I would grow to look like her. That's fine for Zelandoni, but at your hearth, I would have been just a fat old woman, and you would still be a handsome young man."

"Do you think I would have cared? Zolena, I had to travel beyond the end of the Great Mother River before I found a woman who could compare with you-you can't imagine how far that is. I would do it again, and more. I thank the Great Mother that I found Ayla. I love her, as I would have loved you. Be good to her, Zolena… Zelandoni. Don't hurt her."

"That's just it. If she's right for you, if she 'compares,' I couldn't hurt her, and she wouldn't hurt you, could not. That's what I need to know, Jondalar." ;

They both looked up as the drape over the entrance was moved aside. Ayla came into the dwelling carrying traveling packs, and saw Jondalar holding the shoulders of an enormously fat woman. He pulled his hands away, looking disconcerted, almost ashamed, as though he was doing something wrong.

What was it about the way Jondalar was looking at the woman, about the way his hands had held her shoulders? And the woman? In spite of her size, there was a seductive quality to the way she held her body. But another characteristic quickly asserted itself. As she turned to look at Ayla, she moved with a sense of assurance and composure that was a manifest sign of her authority.

Observing small details of expression and posture for meaning was second nature to the young woman. The Clan, the people who raised her, did not speak primarily with words. They communicated with signs, gestures, and nuances of facial expression and stance. When she lived with the Mamutoi, her ability to interpret body language had evolved and expanded to include understanding the unconscious signals and gestures of those who used spoken language. Suddenly Ayla knew who the woman was, and realized something important had transpired between the man and the woman that involved her. She sensed she was facing a critical test, but she didn't hesitate.

"She's the one, isn't she, Jondalar?" Ayla said, approaching them.

"I'm the one what?" Zelandoni said, glaring at the stranger.

Ayla stared back at the woman without flinching. "You're the one I must thank," she said. "Until I met Jondalar, I didn't understand about the Mother's Gifts, especially Her Gift of Pleasure. I had only known pain and anger, but he was patient and gentle, and I learned to know the joy. He told me about the woman who taught him. I thank you, Zelandoni, for teaching Jondalar so he could give me Her Gift. But I am grateful to you for something much more important… and more difficult for you. Thank you for giving him up so he could find me."

Zelandoni was surprised, though she showed little sign of it. Ayla's words were not at all what she expected to hear. Their eyes locked as the woman studied Ayla, searching for a sense of her depth, a perception of her feelings, an insight to the truth. The older woman's comprehension of unconscious signals and body language was not dissimilar to Ayla's, though more intuitive. Her ability had developed through subliminal observation and instinctive analysis, not the expanded application of a language learned as a child, but was no less astute. Zelandoni didn't know how she knew, she just knew.

It took a moment before she became aware of something curious. Though the young woman seemed to be entirely fluent in Zelandonii-her command of the language was so good, she used it like one born to it-there could be no doubt she was a foreigner.

The One Who Served was not unfamiliar with visitors who spoke with the accent of another language, but Ayla's speech had a strangely exotic quality, unlike anything she'd ever heard. Her voice was not unpleasant, somewhat low-pitched, but a little throaty, and she had trouble with certain sounds. She recalled Jondalar's remark about how far he had gone on his Journey, and a thought crossed Zelandoni's mind in the few heartbeats that the two women stood confronting each other: this woman had been willing to travel a great distance to come home with him.

Only then did she notice that the young woman's face had a distinctly foreign look and tried to identify the difference. Ayla was attractive, but one expected that of any woman Jondalar would bring home. Her face was somewhat broader and shorter than that of Zelandonii women, but nicely proportioned, with a well-defined jaw. She was a shade taller than the older woman, and her rather dark blond hair was enhanced with sun-lightened streaks. Her clear gray-blue eyes held secrets, a strong will, but no hint of malice.

Zelandoni nodded, and turned to Jondalar. "She'll do."

He let out a breath, then looked from one to the other. "How did you know this was Zelandoni, Ayla? You haven't been introduced yet, have you?"

"It was not hard. You still love her, and she loves you."

"But… but… how…?" he sputtered.

"Don't you know I've seen that look in your eyes? Don't you think I understand how a woman who loves you feels inside?" Ayla said.

"Some people would be jealous if they saw someone they loved looking at someone else with love," he said.

Zelandoni suspected that the "some people" he was thinking of was himself. "Don't you think she can see a handsome young man and a fat old woman, Jondalar? It's what anyone would see. Your love for me is no threat to her. If your memory still blinds you, I am grateful enough."

She turned to Ayla. "I wasn't sure about you. If I had felt you weren't right for him, it would not matter how far you have traveled, you would never mate him."

"Nothing you could do would stop it," Ayla said.

"See?" Zelandoni said, turning to look at Jondalar. "I told you if she was right for you, I couldn't hurt her."

"Did you think Marona was right for me, Zelandoni?" Jondalar said with a touch of irritation, beginning to feel as though between them, he had no right to make up his own mind. "You never objected when I was promised to her."

"That didn't matter. You didn't love her. She couldn't hurt you."

Both women were looking at him, and though they bore no resemblance to each other, their expressions were so similar, they seemed to look alike. Suddenly Jondalar laughed. "Well, I'm glad to know the two loves of my life are going to be friends," he said.

Zelandoni raised an eyebrow and gave him a stern look. "Whatever makes you think we are going to be friends?" she said, but she smiled to herself as she left.

, Jondalar felt a strange set of mixed emotions as he watched Zelandoni leave, but he was pleased that the powerful woman appeared willing to accept Ayla. His sister had been friendly toward her, too, and his mother. All the women that he really cared about seemed ready to welcome her-at least for now, he thought. His mother had even told her she would do whatever she could to make Ayla feel at home.

The leather drape across the entrance moved and Jondalar felt a tingle of surprise when he saw his mother, since he had just been thinking about her. Marthona entered, carrying the preserved stomach of some middle-size animal full of a liquid that had seeped through the nearly waterproof container enough to stain it a deep purple. Jondalar's face lit up with a grin.

"Mother, you brought out some of your wine!" he said. 'Ayla, do you remember the drink that we had when we stayed with the Sharamudoi? The bilberry wine? Now you'll get a chance to taste Marthona's wine. She's known for it. No matter what fruit most people use, their juice often turns sour, but mother has a way with it." He smiled at her and added, "Maybe someday she'll tell me her secret."

Marthona smiled back at the tall man, but made no comment. From her expression, Ayla sensed that she did have a secret technique, and that she was good at keeping secrets, not only her own. She probably knew many. There were layers and hidden depths to the woman, for all that she was forthright and honest in what she said. And for all that she was friendly and welcoming, Ayla knew that Jondalar's mother would reserve judgment before fully accepting her.

Suddenly Ayla was reminded of Iza, the woman of the Clan who had been like a mother to her. Iza also knew many secrets, yet, like the rest of the Clan, she didn't lie. With a language of gestures, and nuances conveyed by postures and expressions, they couldn't lie. It would be known immediately. But they could refrain from mentioning. Though it might be understood that something was held back, it was allowed, for the sake of privacy.

This was not the first time she had been reminded of the Clan recently, she realized. The Ninth Cave's leader, Jondalar's brother Joharran, had reminded her of Brun, her clan's leader. Why did Jondalar's kin remind her of the Clan? she wondered.

"You must be hungry," Marthona said, including both of them in her glance.

Jondalar smiled. "Yes, I am hungry! We haven't eaten since early this morning. I was in such a hurry to get here, and we were so close, I didn't want to stop."

"If you've brought all your things in, sit and rest while I prepare some food for you." Marthona led them to a low table, indicated cushions for them to sit on, and poured some of the deep red liquid into cups for each of them. She looked around. "I don't see your wolf-animal, Ayla. I know you brought him in. Does he also need food? What does he eat?"

"I usually feed him whatever we eat, but he also hunts for himself. I brought him in so he would know where his place is, but he came with me the first time I went back down to the valley where the horses are, and decided to stay. He comes and goes on his own, unless I want him," Ayla said.

"How does he know when you want him?"

"She has a special whistle to call him," Jondalar said. "We call the horses with whistles, too." He picked up his cup, tasted, then smiled and sighed with appreciation. "Now I know I'm home." He tasted again, then closed his eyes and savored. "What fruit is this made from, mother?"

"Mostly from those round berries that grow in clusters on long vines only on protected south-facing slopes," Marthona explained for Ayla's benefit. "There's an area several miles southeast of here that I always check. Some years it doesn't grow well at all, but we had a fairly warm winter a few years back, and the following autumn the clusters were huge, very fruity, sweet but not too sweet. I added a little elderberry, and some blackberry juice, but not much. This wine was a favorite. It's a little stronger than usual. I don't have much left."

Ayla sniffed the aroma of fruit as she held the cup to her lips to taste. The liquid was tart and tangy, dry, not the sweet taste she had expected from the fruity smell. She sensed the alcoholic character she had first tasted in the birch beer made by Talut, the Lion Camp's headman, but this was more like the fermented bilberry juice made by the Sharamudoi, except that that had been sweeter, as she recalled.

She hadn't liked the harsh bite of alcohol when she first experienced it, but the rest of the Lion Camp seemed to enjoy the birch beer so much, and she wanted to fit in and be like them, so she made herself drink it. After a time, she got more used to it, though she suspected that the reason people liked it was not as much for its taste as for the heady, if disorienting, feeling it caused. Too much usually made her feel giddy and too friendly, but some people became sad, or angry, or even violent.

This beverage had something more, however. Elusive complexities altered the simple character of the fruit juice in an extraordinary way. It was a drink she could learn to enjoy.

"This is very good," Ayla said. "I not ever tasted anything… I never tasted anything quite like it," she corrected herself, feeling slightly embarrassed. She was completely comfortable in Zelandonii; it was the first spoken language she had learned after living with the Clan. Jondalar had taught her while he was recovering from the wounds of the lion mauling. Though she did have difficulty with certain sounds-no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't get them quite right-she seldom made mistakes in phrasing like that anymore. She glanced at Jondalar and Marthona, but they hadn't seemed to notice. She relaxed and looked around.

Though she had been in and out of Marthona's dwelling several times, she had not really looked at it closely. She took the time to observe more carefully, and was surprised and delighted at every turn. The construction was interesting, similar but not the same as the dwellings inside the Losadunai cave, where they had stopped to visit before crossing the glacier on the high plateau.

The first two or three feet of the outside walls of each dwelling were constructed of limestone. Fairly large blocks were roughly trimmed and placed on either side of the entry, but stone tools were not suitable for finely shaping building stone easily or quickly. The rest of the low walls were made up of limestone as it was found, or roughly shaped with a hammerstone. Various pieces, generally close to the same size-perhaps two or three inches wide, not quite as deep, and three or four times longer than they were wide-but some larger and some smaller pieces-were ingeniously fitted together so that they interlocked into a tight compressive structure.

The roughly lozenge-shaped pieces were selected and graded for size, then arranged side by side lengthwise so that the width of the walls was equivalent to the length of the stones. The thick walls were constructed in layers so that each stone was placed in the dip where the two stones under it came together. Occasionally smaller stones were used to fill in gaps, especially around the larger blocks near the entry.

As they were layered up they were corbeled inward slightly, cantilevered in such a way that each successive layer overhung the layer below by a little. Careful selection and placement were done so that any irregularities in the stone contributed to the runoff of moisture on the outside, whether it was rainwater blown in, accumulated condensation, or ice melt.

No mortar or mud was needed to plug holes or add support. The rough limestone offered purchase enough to prevent sliding or slipping, and the mass of stones was held by its own weight and could even take the thrust of a beam of juniper or pine inserted into the walls to support other building elements or shelving structures. The stones were so cunningly fitted together that no chink of light showed through, and no errant blasts of winter wind could find an opening. The effect was also quite attractive, with a pleasing texture, especially seen from outside.

Inside, the stone windbreak wall was all but hidden by a second wall made of panels of rawhide-untreated leather that dried stiff and hard-attached to wooden posts sunk into the dirt floor. The panels began at ground level but extended above the stone walls vertically to a height of eight or nine feet. Ayla recalled that the upper panels were lavishly decorated on the outside. Many of the panels were also painted with animals and enigmatic marks on the inside, but the colors seemed less bright because it was darker inside. Because Marthona's structure was built against the slightly sloping back of the cliff, underneath the overhanging shelf, one wall of the dwelling was solid limestone.

Ayla looked up. There was no ceiling except the underside of the stone ledge some distance above. With the exception of occasional downdrafts, smoke from fires rose over the wall panels and drifted out along the lofty stone, leaving the air essentially clear. The cliff overhang protected them from inclement weather, and with warm clothing the dwellings could be quite comfortable even when it was cold. They were fairly large, not like some of the cozy, easy to heat, fully enclosed, but often smoke-filled little living spaces she had seen.

While the wood and leather walls offered protection from wind and rain that might blow in, they were designed more to define an area of personal space and provide some measure of privacy, at least from eyes if not ears. Some of the upper sections of the panels could be opened to admit light and neighborly conversations, if desired, but when the window panels were closed, it was considered courteous for visitors to use the entry and ask for admittance, not just call out from outside or walk in.

Ayla examined the floor more closely when her eye caught sight of stones fitted together. The limestone of the huge cliffs in the region could be broken and often sheared off naturally, along the lines of its crystal structure, into large rather flat fragments. The dirt floor inside the dwelling was paved with irregular sections of the flat stones, then covered with mats woven out of grasses and reeds, and rugs of soft fur.

Ayla turned her attention back to the conversation between Jondalar and his mother. Taking a sip of the wine, she noticed the cup in her hand. It was made of a hollow horn, bison, she thought, probably a section cut off not too far from the tip since it was rather narrow in diameter. She lifted it up to look underneath; the bottom was wood, shaped to fit the smaller, slightly lopsided, circular end, and wedged in tight. She saw scratch marks on the side, but when she looked more closely, she was surprised to find that it was a picture of a horse from side view, perfectly and delicately engraved.

She put the cup down, then inspected the low platform around which they were seated. It was a thin slab of limestone resting on a supporting bentwood frame with legs, all lashed together with thongs. The top was covered with a mat of some kind of rather fine fiber, woven with intricate designs that suggested animals and various abstract lines and shapes, in gradations of an earthy reddish color. Several pillows made of various materials were arranged around it. The leather ones were of a similar shade of red.

Two stone lamps rested on the stone table. One was beautifully carved and shaped into a shallow bowl with a decorated handle, the other was a rough equivalent with a depression that had been quickly pecked out of the center of a hunk of limestone. Both held melted tallow-animal fat that had been rendered in boiling water-and burning wicks. The roughly made lamp had two wicks, and the finished one, three. Each wick shed the same amount of light. Ayla had the feeling that the rougher one had been made recently for quick additional lighting in the dimly lit dwelling space at the back of the abri, and would see only temporary use.

The interior space, divided into four areas by movable partitions, was orderly and uncluttered, and lighted by several more stone lamps. The dividing screens, most colored or decorated in some way, also had wood frames, some with opaque panels, usually the stiff rawhide of uncured leather. But a few were translucent, probably made of some large animal's intestines that had been cut open and dried flat, Ayla thought.

At the left end of the back stone wall, adjacent to an exterior panel, was an especially beautiful screen that appeared to be made of the shadow skin-the parchmentlike material that could be removed in large sections from the inner side of animal hides if it was left to dry without scraping. A horse and some enigmatic designs, which included lines, dots, and squares, had been drawn on it in black and shades of yellow and red. Ayla recalled that the Mamut of the Lion Camp had used a similar screen during ceremonies, although the animals and markings on his were painted only in black. His had come from the shadow skin of a white mammoth, and was his most sacred possession.

On the floor in front of the screen was a grayish fur that Ayla was sure came from the hide of a horse in thick winter coat. The glow of a small fire, which seemed to come from a niche in the wall behind it, lighted the horse screen, emphasizing its decorations.

Shelves, made of thinner segments of limestone than the paving and spaced at various intervals, lined the stone wall to the right of the screen and held an array of objects and implements. Vague shapes could be seen on the floor in a storage area below the lowest shelf, where the slope of the wall was deepest. Ayla recognized the functional use of many of the things, but some had been carved and colored with such skill, they were objects of beauty as well.

To the right of the shelves, a leather-paneled screen jutting out from the stone wall marked the corner of the room and the beginning of another room. The screens only suggested a division between the rooms, and through an opening Ayla could see a raised platform piled high with soft furs. Someone's sleeping space, she thought. Another sleeping space was loosely defined by screens, dividing it from the room they occupied and from the first sleeping room.

The draped entrance was part of the wall of wood-framed hide panels opposite the stone wall, and on the side across from the sleeping spaces was a fourth room, where Marthona was preparing food. Along the entry wall near the cooking room, freestanding wooden shelves held artfully arranged baskets and bowls, beautifully decorated with carved, woven, or painted geometric designs and realistic depictions of animals. Larger containers were on the floor next to the wall, some with lids while others openly revealed their contents: vegetables, fruits, grains, dried meats.

There were four sides to the roughly rectangular dwelling, though the outside walls were not perfectly straight nor the spaces entirely symmetrical. They curved somewhat unevenly, tending to follow the contours of the space under the overhanging shelf, and made allowances for other dwellings.

"You've changed things around, mother," Jondalar said. "It seems roomier than I remember."

"It is roomier, Jondalar. There's only three of us here now. Folara sleeps in there," Marthona said, indicating the second sleeping space. "Willamar and I sleep in the other room." She motioned toward the room against the stone wall. "You and Ayla may use the main room. We can move the table closer to the wall to make room for a bed platform, if you like."

To Ayla, the place seemed quite roomy. The dwelling was much larger than the individual living spaces of each hearth-each family-in the semisubterranean longhouse of the Lion Camp, although not as big as her small cave in the valley, where she had lived alone. But, unlike this living area, the Mamutoi lodge was not a natural formation; the people of the Lion Camp had made it themselves.

Her attention was drawn to the nearby partition that separated the cooking space from the main room. It bent in the middle, and she realized it was two translucent screens connected in an unusual way. The wooden poles that made up the inside of the frame and legs of both panels were inserted in circles of transversely cut hollow bison horn. The rings formed a kind of hinge near the bottom and top that allowed the double screen to fold back. She wondered if other screens were made the same way.

She looked into the cooking space, curious about the facilities. Marthona was kneeling on a mat beside a hearth circled with stones of similar size; the paving stones around it were swept clean. Behind the woman in a darker corner lit by a single stone lamp were more shelves that held cups, bowls, platters, and implements. She noticed dried herbs and vegetables hanging and then saw the end of a frame with crosspieces to which they were tied. On a work platform beside the hearth were bowls, baskets, and a large bone platter with pieces of fresh red meat cut into chunks.

Ayla wondered if she should offer to help, but she didn't know where anything was kept, or what Marthona was making. It was less than helpful to get in someone's way. Better to wait, she thought.

She watched Marthona skewer the meat on four pointed sticks and place them over hot coals between two upright stones, notched to hold several skewers at once. Then, with a ladle carved out of an ibex horn, the woman scooped liquid out of a tightly woven basket into wooden bowls. With a pair of springy tongs made of wood bent all the way around, she fished a couple of smooth stones out of the cooking basket and added another hot one from the fire, then brought the two bowls to Ayla and Jondalar.

Ayla noticed the round globes of small onions and some other root vegetables in the rich broth, and realized how hungry she was, but she waited and watched to see what Jondalar did. He took out his eating knife, a small, pointed, flint blade inserted into an antler handle, and speared a small root vegetable. He put it in his mouth and chewed a moment, then took a drink of the broth from the bowl. Ayla took out her eating knife and did the same.

The soup had a delicious and flavorful meaty broth, but there was no meat in it, only vegetables, an unusual combination of herbs, to her taste, and something else, but she didn't know what. It surprised her because she could almost always distinguish the ingredients in food. The meat, browned over the fire on skewers, was soon brought to them. It also had an unusual and delicious flavor. She wanted to ask, but held her tongue.

"Aren't you eating, mother? This is good," Jondalar said, spearing another piece of vegetable.

"Folara and I ate earlier. I made a lot because I keep expecting Willamar. Now I'm glad I did," she smiled. "I only had to heat the soup for you, and cook the aurochs meat. I had it soaking in wine."

That was the taste, Ayla thought, as she took another sip of the red liquid. It was in the soup, too.

"When is Willamar coming back?" Jondalar asked. "I'm looking forward to seeing him."

"Soon," Marthona said. "He went on a trading mission, west, to the Great Waters, to get salt and whatever else he could trade for, but he knows when we plan to leave for the Summer Meeting. He'll certainly be back before then, unless something delays him, but I expect him any time now."

"Laduni of the Losadunai told me they trade with a Cave that digs salt from a mountain. They call it Salt Mountain," Jondalar said.

"A mountain of salt? I never knew there was salt in mountains, Jondalar. I think you are going to have stories to tell for a long time, and no one will know what is Story-Telling and what is true," Marthona said.

Jondalar grinned, but Ayla had the distinct feeling that his mother doubted what she had been told, without actually saying so.

"I didn't see it myself, but I rather think this story is true," he said. "They did have salt, and they live quite far from salt water. If they had to trade or travel a great distance for it, I don't think they would have been so liberal with it."

Jondalar's grin grew wider, as though he'd thought of something funny. "Speaking of traveling great distances, I have a message for you, mother, from someone we met on our Journey, someone you know."

"From Dalanar, or Jerika?" she asked.

"We have a message from them, too. They are coming to the Summer Meeting. Dalanar is going to try to persuade some young zelandoni to go back with them. The First Cave of the Lanzadonii is growing. I wouldn't be surprised if they start a second Cave soon," Jondalar said.

"I don't think it will be difficult to find someone," Marthona commented. "It would be quite an honor. Whoever goes would truly be First, the first and only Lanzadoni."

"But, since they don't have One Who Serves yet, Dalanar wants Joplaya and Echozar to be joined at the Zelandonii Matrimonial," Jondalar continued.

A quick frown flickered across Marthona's face. "Your close cousin is such a beautiful young woman, unusual, but beautiful. None of the young men can keep his eyes away from her when she comes to the Zelandonii Meetings. Why would she choose Echozar when she could have any man she wanted?"

"No, not any man," Ayla said. Marthona looked at her and saw a glint of defensive heat. She flushed slightly, and looked away. "And she told me she'd never find anyone who would love her as much as Echozar."

"You're right, Ayla," Marthona said, paused a moment, then, looking directly at her, added, "There are some men she can't have." The older woman's eyes glanced fleetingly at her son. "But she and Echozar do seem… mismatched. Joplaya is stunningly beautiful, and he is… not. But appearances don't count for everything; sometimes they don't count for much at all. And Echozar does seem to be a kind and caring man."

Though she hadn't really said it, Ayla knew Marthona had quickly understood the reason Joplaya had made the choice she did; Jondalar's "close cousin," the daughter of Dalanar's mate, loved a man she could never have. No one else mattered, so she chose the one that she knew truly loved her. And Ayla understood that Marthona's objection was minor, prompted by a personal sense of aesthetics, not some outraged sense of propriety, as she had feared. Jondalar's mother loved beautiful things, and it seemed appropriate for a beautiful woman to join with a man who matched her, but she understood that beauty of character was more important.

Jondalar didn't seem to notice the slight tension between the two women, he was too delighted with himself for remembering the words he was asked to pass on to his mother, from someone he had never heard her mention. "The message I have for you is not from the Lanzadonii. We stayed with some people on our Journey, stayed longer than we planned, though I hadn't planned to stay at all… but that's another story. When we left, their One Who Serves said, 'When you see Marthona, tell her Bodoa sends her love.'"

Jondalar had hoped to get a reaction from his self-possessed and dignified mother by mentioning a name from her past that she had probably forgotten. He meant it as playful banter in their friendly game of words and implied meanings, saying without saying, but he didn't expect the reaction he got.

Marthona's eyes opened wide and her face blanched. "Bodoa! Oh, Great Mother! Bodoa?" She put her hand on her chest, and seemed to have trouble catching her breath.

"Mother! Are you all right?" Jondalar said, jumping up and hovering over her. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to shock you like that. Should I get Zelandoni?"

"No, no, I'm fine," Marthona said, taking a deep breath. "But I was surprised. I didn't think I'd ever hear that name again. I didn't even know she was still alive. Did you… come to know her well?"

"She said she was almost a co-mate with you and Joconan, but I thought she was probably overstating, perhaps not remembering accurately," Jondalar said. "How come you never mentioned her?" Ayla gave him a quizzical look. She didn't know he hadn't quite believed the S'Armuna.

"It was too painful, Jondalar. Bodoa was like a sister. I would have been happy to co-mate with her, but our Zelandoni talked against it. He said they had promised her uncle that she'd return after her training. You said she is One Who Serves? Perhaps it was for the best, but she was so angry when she left. I pleaded with her to wait for the season to change before trying to cross the glacier, but she wouldn't listen. I'm happy to know she survived the crossing, and glad to know she sends her love. Do you think she really meant it?"

"Yes, I'm sure she did, mother. But she wouldn't have had to go back to her home," Jondalar said. "Her uncle had already left this world, and her mother as well. She did become S'Armuna, but her anger caused her to misuse her calling. She helped an evil woman to become leader, though she didn't know how evil Attaroa would become. S'Armuna is making up for it, now. I think she has found affirmation of her calling in helping her Cave overcome the bad years, though she may have to become their leader until someone can grow into it, like you did, mother. Bodoa was remarkable, she even discovered a way to turn mud into stone."

"Mud into stone? Jondalar, you do sound like a traveling Story-Teller," Marthona said. "How can I know what to believe if you are going to tell such incredible tales?"

"Believe me. I'm telling the truth," Jondalar said with perfect seriousness and no subtle word games. "I have not become a traveling Story-Teller who goes from Cave to Cave embellishing legends and histories to make them exciting, but I have made a long Journey and seen many things." He glanced at Ayla. "If you had not seen it, would you have believed people could ride on the backs of horses or make friends with a wolf? I have more things to tell you that you will find hard to believe, and some things to show you that will make you doubt your own eyes."

"All right, Jondalar. You have convinced me. I will not question you again… even if I do find what you say hard to believe," she said, and then smiled, with a mischievous charm that Ayla had not seen before. For a moment, the woman looked years younger, and Ayla understood where Jondalar got his smile.

Marthona picked up her cup of wine and sipped it slowly, encouraging them to finish eating. When they were done, she took the bowls and skewers away, gave them a soft, damp, absorbent skin to wipe their personal eating knives before they put them away, and poured them more wine.

"You've been gone a long time, Jondalar," she said to her son. Ayla had the feeling she was choosing her words carefully. "I understand you must have many stories to tell about your long Journey. You, too, Ayla," she said, looking at the young woman. "It will take a long time to tell them all, I would think. I hope you do plan to stay… for some time." She looked significantly at Jondalar. "You may stay here as long as you like, though it may feel crowded… after a while. Perhaps you will be wanting a place of your own… nearby… sometime…"

Jondalar grinned. "Yes, mother, we will. Don't worry, I'm not leaving again. This is home. I'm planning to stay, we both are, unless someone objects. Is that the story you want to hear? Ayla and I are not mated yet, but we will be. I already told Zelandoni-she was here just before you came in with the wine. I wanted to wait until we got home so we could be joined here and have her tie the knot, at the Matrimonial this summer. I'm tired of traveling," he added with vehemence.

Marthona smiled her happiness. "It would be nice to see a child born to your hearth, perhaps even of your spirit, Jondalar," she said.

He looked at Ayla and smiled. "I feel the same way," he said.

Marthona hoped he was implying what it seemed, but she didn't want to ask. He should be the one to tell her. She just wished he wouldn't try to be so evasive about as important a matter as the possibility of children born to her son's hearth.

"You might be pleased to know," Jondalar continued, "Thonolan left a child of his spirit, if not his hearth, with at least one Cave, maybe more. A Losadunai woman named Filonia, one who found him pleasing, discovered she had been blessed soon after we stopped. She's mated now and has two children. Laduna told me that when word got around that she was pregnant, every eligible Losadunai man found a reason to visit. She had her pick, but she named her first, a daughter, Thonolia. I saw the little girl. She looks a lot like Folara used to, when she was little.

"Too bad they live so far away, and across a glacier. That's a long way to travel, although on the way back, it seemed close to home." He paused thoughtfully. "I never did like traveling that much. I would never have traveled as far as I did, if it hadn't been for Thonolan…" Suddenly he noticed his mother's expression, and when he realized whom he had been talking about, his smile faded.

"Thonolan was born to Willamar's hearth," Marthona said, "born of his spirit, too, I'm certain. He always wanted to keep moving, even when he was a baby. Is he still traveling?"

Ayla noticed again an indirectness to the questions Marthona asked, or sometimes didn't ask but made clear nonetheless. Then she recalled that Jondalar had always been a little disconcerted by the directness and frank curiosity of the Mamutoi, and she had a sudden insight. The people who called themselves the Mammoth Hunters, the people who had adopted her and whose ways she had struggled so hard to learn, were not the same as Jondalar's people. Although the Clan referred to all the people who looked like her as the Others, the Zelandonii were not the Mamutoi and it was not only the language that was different. She would have to pay attention to differences in the way the Zelandonii did things, if she wanted to fit in here.

Jondalar took a deep breath, realizing this was the time to tell his mother about his brother. He reached over and took both of his mother's hands in his. "I'm sorry, mother. Thonolan travels in the next world now."

Marthona's clear, direct eyes showed the depth of her sudden grief and sadness over the loss of her youngest son; her shoulders seemed to collapse from the heavy burden. She had suffered the loss of loved ones before, but she had never lost a child. It seemed harder to lose one that she had raised to adulthood, who still should have had the fullness of life before him. She closed her eyes, trying to master her emotions, then straightened her shoulders and looked at the son who had returned to her.

"Were you with him, Jondalar?"

"Yes," he said, reliving the time, and feeling his grief afresh. "It was a cave lion… Thonolan followed it into a canyon… I tried to stop him, but he wouldn't listen."

Jondalar was fighting for control, and Ayla remembered that night in her valley when his grief overwhelmed him while she held him and rocked him like a child. She didn't even know his language then, but no language is needed to understand grief. She reached over and touched his arm, to let him know she was there for him without interfering in the moment between mother and son. It was not lost on Marthona that Ayla's touch seemed to help. He took a breath.

"I have something for you, mother," he said, getting up and going to his traveling pack. He took out a wrapped packet, then, thinking about it, took out another.

"Thonolan found a woman and fell in love. Her people called themselves Sharamudoi. They lived near the end of the Great Mother River, where the river was so big, you understand why she was named for the Great Mother. The Sharamudoi were really two people. The Shamudoi half lived on the land and hunted chamois in the mountains, and the Ramudoi lived on the water and hunted giant sturgeon in the river. In the winter, the Ramudoi moved in with the Shamudoi, each family of one group had a family of the other they were tied to, mated in a way. They seemed to be two different people, but there were a lot of close connections between them that made them each a half of one people." Jondalar found it difficult to explain the unique and complex culture.

"Thonolan was so much in love, he was willing to become one of them. He became part of the Shamudoi half, when he mated with Jetamio."

"What a beautiful name," Marthona said.

"She was beautiful. You would have loved her."


"She died trying to give birth to a baby who would have been the son of his hearth. Thonolan couldn't stand losing her. I think he wanted to follow her to the next world."

"He was always so happy, so carefree…"

"I know, but when Jetamio died, he changed. He wasn't happy and carefree anymore, just reckless. He couldn't stay with the Sharamudoi anymore. I tried to persuade him to go home with me, but he insisted on going east. I couldn't let him go alone. The Ramudoi gave us one of their boats-they make exceptional boats-and we went downstream, but we lost everything in the great delta at the end of the Great Mother River, where it empties into Beran Sea. I got hurt, and Thonolan almost got sucked into quicksand, but a Camp of Mamutoi rescued us."

"Is that where you met Ayla?"

Jondalar looked at Ayla, then back at his mother. "No," he said, pausing for a moment, "after we left Willow Camp, Thonolan decided he wanted to go north and hunt mammoth with them during their Summer Meeting, but I don't think he really cared. He just wanted to keep going." Jondalar closed his eyes and breathed deep again.

"We were hunting a deer," he picked up the story again, "but we didn't know the same deer was being stalked by a lioness. She pounced about the same time that we threw spears. The spears landed first, but the lioness took the kill. Thonolan decided to go after it; he said it was his, not hers. I told him not to argue with a lioness, let her have it, but he insisted on following her back to her den. We waited a while, and when the lioness left, Thonolan decided to go into the canyon and take a piece of the meat. The lioness had a mate, and he wasn't going to let go of that kill. The lion killed him, and mauled me pretty bad, too."

Marthona frowned in concern. "You were mauled by a lion?"

"If it hadn't been for Ayla, I'd be dead," Jondalar said. "She saved my life. She got me away from that lion, and treated my wounds, too. She's a healer."

Marthona looked at Ayla, then back at Jondalar with surprise. "She got you away from a lion?"

"Whinney helped me, and I couldn't have done it if it was just any lion," Ayla tried to explain.

Jondalar understood his mother's confusion. And he knew the explanation wasn't going to make it any easier to believe. "You've seen how Wolf and the horses mind her…"

"You're not telling me…"

"You tell her, Ayla," Jondalar said.

"The lion was one I found when he was a cub," Ayla began. "He'd been trampled by deer and his mother had left him for dead. He almost was. I was the one who had chased those deer, trying to get one to fall into my pit-trap. I did get one, and on the way back to the valley, I found the cub and took him back, too. Whinney wasn't too happy about it, the lion scent scared her, but I got both the deer and the lion cub back to my cave. I treated him, and he recovered, but he couldn't take care of himself alone, so I had to be his mother. Whinney learned to take care of him, too." Ayla smiled, remembering. "It was so funny to watch them together when he was little."

Marthona looked at the young woman and gained a new understanding. "Is that how you do it?" she said. "The wolf. And the horses, too?"

Now it was Ayla's turn to stare in surprise. No one had ever made the connection so quickly before. She was so pleased that Marthona was able to understand, she beamed. "Yes! Of course! That's what I've tried to tell everyone! If you find an animal very young, and feed him and raise him as though he were your own child, he becomes attached to you, and you to him. The lion that killed Thonolan, and mauled Jondalar, was the lion I raised. He was like a son to me."

"But by then he was a full-grown lion, wasn't he? Living with a mate? How could you get him away from Jondalar?" Marthona asked. She was incredulous.

"We hunted together. When he was little, I shared my kills with him, and when he got bigger, I made him share his with me. He always did what I asked. I was his mother. Lions are used to minding their mothers," Ayla said.

"I don't understand it, either," Jondalar said, seeing his mother's expression. "That lion was the biggest lion I have ever seen, but Ayla stopped him in his tracks, just short of attacking me a second time. I saw her ride on his back, more than once. The whole Mamutoi Summer Meeting saw her ride that lion. I've seen it, and I still have trouble believing it."

"I am only sorry that I wasn't able to save Thonolan," Ayla said. "I heard a man's scream, but by the time I got there, Thonolan was already dead."

Ayla's words reminded Marthona of her grief, and they were all wrapped in their own feelings for a while, but Marthona wanted to know more, wanted to understand. "I'm glad to know he found someone to love," she said.

Jondalar picked up the first package he had taken from his traveling pack. "On the day that Thonolan and Jetamio were mated, he told me you knew he would never return, but he made me promise him that someday I would. And he told me when I did to bring you something beautiful, the way Willamar always does. When Ayla and I stopped to visit the Sharamudoi on our way back, Roshario gave this to me for you-Roshario was the woman who raised Jetamio, after her mother died. She said it was Jetamio's favorite," Jondalar said, giving the package to his mother.

Jondalar cut the cord that tied the leather-wrapped package. At first, Marthona thought the gift was the soft chamois skin itself, it was so beautiful, but when she opened it, she caught her breath at the sight of a beautiful necklace. It was made of chamois teeth, the perfect white canines of young animals, pierced through the root, graduated in size and symmetrically matched, each one separated by graduated segments of the backbones of small sturgeons, with a shimmering, iridescent mother-of-pearl pendant that resembled a boat hanging from the middle.

"It represents the people that Thonolan chose to join, the Sharamudoi, both sides of them. The chamois of the land for the Shamudoi, and the sturgeon of the river for the Ramudoi, and the shell boat for both of them. Roshario wanted you to have something that belonged to Thonolan's chosen woman," Jondalar said.

Tears traced their way down Marthona's face as she looked at the beautiful gift. "Jondalar, what made him think I knew he wasn't coming back?" she asked.

"He said you told him 'Good Journey' when he left, not 'Until you return,'" he said.

A new freshet of tears welled up and overflowed. "He was right. I didn't think he'd be back. As much as I denied it to myself, I was sure when he left that I would never see him again. And when I learned that you had gone with him, I thought I had lost two sons. Jondalar, I wish Thonolan had come home with you, but I'm so happy that at least you are back," she said, reaching for him.

Ayla couldn't help shedding her own tears watching Jondalar and his mother embrace. She began to understand now why Jondalar couldn't stay with the Sharamudoi when Tholie and Markeno had wanted them to. She knew how it felt to lose a son. She knew that she would never see her son again, but she wished she knew how he was, what happened to him, what kind of life he lived.

The drape at the entrance moved aside again. "Guess who's home?" Folara cried, rushing in. She was followed more calmly by Willamar.

Chapter 3

Marthona hurried to greet the man who had just returned, and they embraced warmly.

"Well! I see that tall son of yours is back, Marthona! I never thought he would turn out to be a traveler. Maybe he should have become a trader instead of a knapper," Willamar said, slipping out of his backpack. Then he gave Jondalar a hearty hug. "You haven't shrunk any, I notice," the older man said with a big grin, looking up at the full six-foot-six-inch height of the yellow-haired man.

Jondalar grinned back. It was the way the man had always greeted him, with jokes about his height. At well over six feet, Willamar, who had been as much the man of his hearth as Dalanar, was not exactly short himself, but Jondalar matched the size of the man to whom Marthona had been mated when he was born, before they severed the tie.

"Where's your other son, Marthona?" Willamar asked, still grinning. Then he noticed her tearstained face and realized how distraught she was. When he saw her pain reflected in Jondalar, his grin faded.

"Thonolan travels the next world now," Jondalar said. "I was just telling mother…" He saw the man blanch, then stagger as though struck a physical blow.

"But… but he can't be in the next world," Willamar said with shocked disbelief. "He's too young. He hasn't found a woman to make a hearth with." His voice rose in pitch with each statement. "He… he hasn't come home yet…" The last objection was almost a keening wail.

Willamar had always been fond of all of Marthona's children, but when they mated, Joharran, the child she had borne to Joconan's hearth, was nearly ready for his donii-woman, almost a man; that relationship was one of friendship. And though he had quickly grown to love Jondalar, who was a toddler and still nursing, it was Thonolan, and Folara, who were the children of his hearth. He was convinced Thonolan was the son of his spirit, too, because the boy was like him in so many ways, but in particular because he liked to travel and always wanted to see new places. He knew that in her heart, Marthona had feared that she would never see him again, or Jondalar either when she learned that he had gone with his brother. But Willamar thought that was just a mother's worry. Willamar had expected Thonolan to return, just as he himself always did.

The man seemed dazed, disoriented. Marthona poured a cup of liquid from the red flask, while Jondalar and Folara urged him to sit down on the cushions by the low table.

"Have some wine," Marthona said, sitting beside him. He felt numb, unable to comprehend the tragedy. He picked up the cup and drank it down, without seeming to know that he did, then sat staring at the cup.

Ayla wished there was something she could do. She thought of getting her medicine bag and making a soothing and relaxing drink for him. But he didn't know her, and she knew he was getting the best kind of care he could at this time: the attention and concern of people who loved him. She thought about how she would feel if she suddenly found out Durc was dead. It was one thing to know she would never see her son again, but she could still imagine him growing up, with Uba to love and take care of him.

"Thonolan did find a woman to love," Marthona said, trying to comfort him. Seeing her man's heartache and need had pulled her out of her own distress to help him. "Jondalar brought me something that belonged to her." She picked up the necklace to show him. He seemed to be staring into space, unaware of anything around him, then he gave a shudder and closed his eyes. After a time, he turned to look at Marthona, seeming to remember that she had spoken to him, though he could not recall what she said. "This belonged to Thonolan's mate," she said, holding it out to him. "Jondalar said it represents her people. They lived near a big river… the Great Mother River."

"He did get that far, then," Willamar said, his voice hollow with anguish. ,

"Even farther," Jondalar said. "We reached the end of the Great Mother River, went all the way to Beran Sea, and beyond. Thonolan wanted to go north from there and hunt mammoth with the Mamutoi." Willamar looked up at him, his expression pained and puzzled, as though he wasn't quite understanding what was said. "And I have something of his," Jondalar said, trying to think of a way to help the man. He picked up the other wrapped package from the table. "Markeno gave it to me. Markeno was his cross-mate, part of his Ramudoi family."

Jondalar opened the leather-wrapped package and showed Willamar and Marthona an implement made out of an antler of a red deer-a variety of elk-with the tines above the first fork detached. A hole about an inch and a half in diameter had been made in the wide space just below the first fork. The tool was Thonolan's shaft straightener.

Thonolan's craft had been the knowledge of how to apply stress to wood, usually heated with hot stones or steam. The tool was used to gain better control and leverage when exerting pressure to straighten bends or kinks out of the shafts so the spears he made would fly true. It was particularly useful near the end of a long branch where a hand grip was not possible. When the end was inserted through the hole, additional leverage was gained, making it possible to straighten the tips. Though it was called a straightener, the tool could be used to bend wood around, to make a snowshoe, or tongs, or any other object that required bent wood. They were different aspects of the same skill.

The sturdy, foot-long handle of the tool was carved with symbols and with the animals and plants of spring. The carvings represented many things, depending on the context; carvings and paintings were always much more complex than they seemed. All such depictions honored the Great Earth Mother, and in that sense the designs on Thonolan's straightener were made so that She would allow the spirits of the animals to be drawn to the spears made with the tool. There was also a seasonal element represented that was part of an esoteric spiritual aspect. The beautifully made depictions were not simply representations, but, Jondalar knew, his brother had liked the carvings because they were beautiful.

Willamar seemed to focus on the pierced antler tool, then he reached for it. "This was Thonolan's," he said.

"Yes," Marthona said. "Do you remember when Thonolan bent the wood to make the support for this table with that tool?" She touched the low, stone-slab platform in front of her.

"Thonolan was good at his craft," Willamar said, his voice still strange, distant.

"Yes, he was," Jondalar said. "I think part of the reason he felt so comfortable with the Sharamudoi was that they did things with wood that he never imagined could be done. They bent wood to make boats. They would shape and hollow out a log to make a canoe, a kind of boat, then bend the sides to widen it. They could make it bigger by adding strakes-long planks-along the sides, bending them to follow the shape of the boat, and fastening them together. The Ramudoi were very skilled at handling boats in the water, but both the Shamudoi and Ramudoi worked together to make them.

"I considered staying with them. They are wonderful people. When Ayla and I stopped to visit with them on the way back, they wanted both of us to stay. If I had, I think I would have chosen the Ramudoi half. And there was a youngster there that was really interested in learning flint-knapping."

Jondalar knew he was babbling, but he was at a loss of what to do or say, and was trying to fill the emptiness. He had never seen Willamar so shaken.

There was a tapping at the entrance, but without waiting for an invitation, Zelandoni pushed the drape aside and came in. Folara followed her, and Ayla realized the young woman had slipped out and summoned the woman. She nodded approval to herself; it was the right thing to do. Jondalar's sister was a wise young woman.

It had worried Folara to see Willamar so upset. She had no idea what to do except to get help. And Zelandoni was the donier: the giver of Doni's Gifts, the one who acted as the intermediary of the Great Earth Mother to Her children, the dispenser of assistance and medication, the one you went to for help.

Folara had told the powerful woman the essence of the problem; Zelandoni glanced around and took in the situation quickly. She turned and spoke quietly to the young woman, who immediately headed for the cooking area and started blowing on the coals in the fireplace to get them started again. But the fire was dead. Marthona had spread the embers to cook the meat evenly and hadn't gotten back to rekindle and bank the fire to keep it alive.

Here was something Ayla could do to help. She left the scene of grief and quickly went to her pack near the entrance. She knew exactly where her tinder kit was, and as she snatched it and headed for the cooking area, she thought of Barzec, the Mamutoi man who made it for her after she had given each hearth of the Lion Camp a firestone.

"Let me help you make a fire," she said.

Folara smiled. She knew how to make fire, but it was upsetting to see the man of her hearth so distressed, and she was pleased to have someone there with her. Willamar had always been so strong, so steady, so self-possessed.

"If you get some kindling, I'll start it," Ayla said.

"The fire-starting sticks are over here," Folara said, turning toward the back shelf.

"That's all right. I don't need them," Ayla said, opening her tinder kit. It had several compartments and small pouches. She opened one and poured out crushed, dried horse dung, from another she pulled out fluffy fireweed fibers and arranged them on top of the dung, and from a third she poured out some shaved slivers of wood beside the first pile.

Folara watched. During the long Journey, Ayla obviously had learned to have fire-making materials easily at hand, but the younger woman looked puzzled when Ayla next took out a couple of stones. Leaning close to the tinder, the woman her brother had brought home with him struck the two stones together and blew at the tinder, and it burst into flame. It was uncanny!

"How did you do that?" Folara asked, completely astonished.

"I'll show you later," Ayla said. "Right now, let's keep this fire going so we can get some water boiling for Zelandoni."

Folara felt a rush of something like fear. "How did you know what I was going to do?"

Ayla glanced at her, then looked again. Folara's face showed her consternation. With one brother's return after a long absence, bringing tame animals and a unknown woman with him, then learning of the death of the other brother, and seeing Willamar's unexpected and disturbing reaction, it had been a tense, exciting, and anxious day. After the stranger appeared to create fire by magic and then seemed to know something that no one had told her, Folara began to wonder if all the speculation and gossip about Jondalar's woman having supernatural powers could be true. Ayla could see she was overwrought and was fairly sure she knew why.

"I met Zelandoni. I know she's your healer. That's why you went to get her, isn't it?" Ayla asked.

"Yes, she's the donier," the young woman said.

"Healers usually like to make a tea or a drink to help calm someone who is upset. I assumed that she asked you to boil water for her to make it with," Ayla carefully explained.

Folara visibly relaxed; it was perfectly reasonable.

"And I promise I'll show you how to make fire like that. Anyone can do it… with the right stones."


"Yes, even you," Ayla said, smiling.

The young woman smiled, too. She had been dying of curiosity about the woman and had so many questions she wanted to ask, but she hadn't wanted to be impolite. Now she had even more questions, but the foreign woman did not feel so unapproachable. In fact, she seemed rather nice.

"Would you tell me about the horses, too?"

Ayla gave her big pleased grin. She suddenly realized that although Folara might be every inch a tall and beautiful young woman, she hadn't been one for too long. She'd have to ask Jondalar how many years Folara counted, but Ayla suspected that she was still quite young, probably close in age to Latie, the daughter of Nezzie, who was the mate of the Mamutoi Lion Camp's headman.

"Of course. I'll even take you down to meet them," she glanced toward the low table where everyone was gathered, "maybe tomorrow, after everything is calmed down. You can go down and look at them any time you want, but don't get too close by yourself until the horses get to know you."

"Oh, I won't," Folara said.

Recalling Latie's fascination with the horses, Ayla smiled and asked, "Would you like to ride on Whinney's back sometime?"

"Oh! Could I?" Folara asked, breathless, her eyes open wide. At that moment, Ayla could almost see Latie in Jondalar's sister. She had developed such a passion for the horses that Ayla had wondered if she might try to get a baby horse of her own someday.

Ayla went back to her fire-making as Folara reached for the waterbag-the waterproof stomach of some large animal. "I need to get more water. This is almost empty," the young woman said.

The coal was still glowing, barely alive. Ayla blew on it a little more, added shavings, then the small kindling that Folara had given her, and finally a few of the larger pieces of wood. She saw the cooking stones and put several into the fire to heat. When Folara returned, the waterbag was bulging and seemed quite heavy, but the young woman was obviously used to lifting it and filled a deep wooden bowl with water, likely the one that Marthona used for making tea. Then she gave Ayla the wooden tongs with the slightly charred ends. When she felt they were hot enough, Ayla used the tongs to pick up a hot stone. It sizzled and sent up a cloud of steam when she dropped it in the water. She added a second, then fished out the first one and replaced it with a third, and then more.

Folara went to tell Zelandoni the water was nearly ready. Ayla knew she must have told her something else as well from the way the older woman's head jerked up to look at her. Ayla watched the woman haul herself up from the low cushions, and thought of Creb, the Clan Mog-ur. He'd had a lame leg and it made it difficult for him to get up from low seats. His favorite place to relax had been a bent old tree with a low branch that was just the right height to sit on and get up from easily.

The woman came into the cooking room. "I understand the water is hot." Ayla nodded toward the steaming bowl. "And did I hear Folara correctly? She said you were going to show her how to start a fire with stones. What kind of trick is that?"

"Yes. I have some firestones. Jondalar has some, too. The only trick is learning how to use them, and it's not hard. I'll be happy to show you any time you would like. We had planned to, anyway." Zelandoni looked back toward Willamar. Ayla knew she was pulled two ways.

"Not now," the woman said under her breath, shaking her head. She measured some dried herbs into the palm of her hand from a pouch tied to a belt around her ample waist, then dropped them into the steaming water. "I wish I had brought some yarrow," she mumbled to herself.

"I have some, if you'd like," Ayla said.

"What?" Zelandoni said. She was concentrating on what she was doing and hadn't really paid attention.

"I said I have some yarrow, if you want it. You said you wished you had brought some."

"Did I? I was thinking it, but why would you have yarrow?"

"I am a medicine woman… a healer. I always have some basic medicines with me. Yarrow is one. It's good for stomachaches, it relaxes, and it helps wounds heal clean and fast," she said.

Zelandoni's jaw would have dropped open if she hadn't caught it halfway down. "You're a healer? The woman Jondalar brought home is a healer?" She almost laughed, then closed her eyes and shook her head. "I think we are going to have to have a long talk, Ayla."

"I would be happy to talk to you anytime," she said, "but do you want the yarrow?"a

Zelandoni thought for a moment. She can't be One Who Serves. If she was, she would never leave her people to follow some man to his home, even if she did choose to mate. But she may know a little about herbs. A lot of people learn something about them. If she has some yarrow, why not use it? It has a distinctive enough odor so I can tell if it's right. "Yes. I think it would be helpful, if you have some handy."

Ayla hurried to her traveling pack, reached into a side pocket, and took out her otterskin medicine bag. This is getting very worn, she thought as she carried it back. I'm going to have to replace it soon. When she got to the cooking room, Zelandoni looked with interest at the strange container. It appeared to be made of the entire animal. She had never seen one like it, but there was something about it that seemed authentic.

The younger woman lifted the otter head flap, loosened the drawstring tie around the neck, then looked inside and withdrew a small pouch. She knew what it contained from the shade of color of the leather, the fiber of the drawstring closure, and the number and arrangement of the knots on the dangling ends. She untied the knot that closed it-it was a kind of knot that was easy to loosen if you knew how-and handed the pouch to the woman.

Zelandoni wondered how Ayla knew that she had the correct herb without smelling it, but when she brought it to her nose, she knew it was right. The donier poured a little into her palm, looked it over carefully to see if it was just leaves, or leaves and flowers, and if there was anything else in it. It appeared to be pure yarrow leaf. She added a few pinches to the wooden bowl.

"Should I add another cooking stone?" Ayla asked, wondering if she wanted an infusion or a decoction-steeped or boiled.

"No," the donier said. "I don't want anything too strong. He only needs a mild infusion. He's almost over the shock. Willamar is a strong man. He's worried about Marthona now, and I want to give some to her. I need to be careful with her medicine."

Ayla thought she must be giving Jondalar's mother regular doses of some medicine that she was watching carefully. "Would you like me to make some tea for everyone?" she asked.

"I'm not sure. What kind?" the older healer asked.

"Just something mild that tastes good. Some mint, or chamomile. I even have some linden flowers to sweeten it."

"Yes, why don't you. Some chamomile with the linden flowers would be nice, gently calming," Zelandoni said as she turned to go.

Ayla was smiling as she removed more pouches from her medicine bag. Healing magic, she knows it! I haven't lived near anyone who knows medicines and healing magic since I left the Clan! It's going to be wonderful to have someone to talk to about it.

Ayla had originally learned healing-at least herbal medicine and treatments, if not matters of the spirit world-from Iza, her Clan mother, who was recognized as a worthy descendant of the foremost line of medicine women. She had learned additional details from the other medicine women at the Clan Gathering to which she had gone with Bran's clan. Later, at the Summer Meeting of the Mamutoi, she had spent a considerable amount of time with the mamutii.

She discovered that all Those Who Served The Mother were conversant with both medicines and spirits, but not equally skilled. It often depended on an individual's own interests. Some mamutii were particularly knowledgeable about medications, some were more interested in healing practices, some in people generally and why certain ones would recover from the same illness or injury and others would not. And some cared only about things of the spirit world and the mind, and were not much interested in healing at all.

Ayla wanted to know everything. She tried to absorb it all-ideas about the spirit world, knowledge and uses of counting words, memorizing legends and histories-but she was particularly and endlessly fascinated with anything related to healing: medicines, practices, treatments, and causes. She had experimented with different plants and herbs on herself the way Iza had taught her, using knowledge and care, and learned whatever she could from healers she had met on their Journey. She thought of herself as someone with knowledge, but who was still learning. She didn't fully realize how much she knew or how highly skilled she was. But the one thing she had missed more than anything since leaving the Clan was having someone with whom to discuss it all, a colleague.

Folara helped her make the tea and showed her where things were. They both carried steaming cups out for everyone. Willamar was obviously in a better state of mind and asking Jondalar the details of Thonolan's death. He had just begun to retell the circumstances of the cave lion attack when they all looked up at the tapping sound from the entrance.

"Come in," Marthona called.

Joharran moved aside the drape and looked a little surprised to see everyone gathered together inside, including Zelandoni. "I came to see Willamar. I'd like to know how the trading went. I saw Tivonan and you drop a big pack, but with all the excitement and the feast tonight, I thought we should wait until tomorrow to have a meet…" he was saying as he approached. Then he noticed that something seemed wrong. He looked from one to the other, and finally to Zelandoni.

"Jondalar was just telling us about the cave lion that… attacked Thonolan," she said, and, seeing his horrified look, realized that he didn't know about the death of his youngest brother. It wasn't going to be easy on him, either. Thonolan had been well loved. "Sit down, Joharran. I think everyone should hear about it all together. Shared grief is easier to bear, and I doubt that Jondalar wants to repeat this too many times."

Ayla caught Zelandoni's eye, tilted her head toward the first calming drink that the woman had prepared, then toward the second tea that she had made. Zelandoni nodded at the second, then watched as Ayla silently poured a cup and unobtrusively handed it to Joharran. He took it without even noticing as he listened to Jondalar summarize the incidents leading up to Thonolan's death. Zelandoni was becoming more intrigued by the young woman. She had something, perhaps something more than a little knowledge of herbs.

"What happened after the lion attacked him, Jondalar?" Joharran asked.

"He attacked me."

"How did you get away?"

"That's Ayla's story to tell," Jondalar said. All eyes suddenly turned to her.

The first time Jondalar had done that, told a story up to a point and then turned it over to her without warning, she had been very disconcerted. She was more used to it now, but these people were his kin, his family. She was going to have to talk about the death of one of their own, a man she never knew, who obviously had been very dear to them. She felt her nervousness in the pit of her stomach.

"I was riding on Whinney's back," she began. "Her belly was full with Racer, but she needed exercise, so I rode her a little every day. We usually went east, because it was easier, but I was tired of going the same way all the time, so for a change I thought I'd go west. We went to the far end of the valley where the cliff wall began to level out. We crossed the little river, and I almost changed my mind about going in that direction. Whinney was pulling the pole drag and it was a steep slope, but she's surefooted and climbed up without too much trouble."

"What's a pole drag?" Folara asked.

"It's just two poles attached at one end to Whinney's back, with the other ends dragging the ground, and a sturdy carrier between the poles behind her. That's how Whinney helped me carry things back to my cave, like the animals I hunted," Ayla said, trying to explain the travois she devised.

"Why didn't you just get some people to help you?" Folara wanted to know.

"There were no people to help me. I lived alone in the valley," Ayla said.

The assembled group looked at each other in surprise, but before someone else could ask another question, Zelandoni interjected, "I'm sure we could all ask many questions of Ayla, but we can do that later. Why don't we let her finish telling us about Thonolan and Jondalar now." ;

There were nods of agreement, as they all turned their attention back to the stranger.

"As we were going past a canyon, I heard the roar of a lion, and then a scream, the scream of a man in pain," Ayla continued. They were hanging on her every word, and Folara couldn't be quiet.

"What did you do?"

"I didn't know what to do at first, but I had to go find out who had screamed. I had to try to help, if I could. Whinney took me to the canyon. I got down behind a rock and slowly tried to look in. Then I saw the lion, and heard him. It was Baby. I wasn't afraid anymore and went in. I knew he wouldn't hurt us," she said.

This time it was Zelandoni who couldn't keep still. "You recognized a lion's roar? Went right into the canyon of a roaring lion?"

"It wasn't just any lion. It was Baby. My lion. The one I raised," Ayla said, trying to make an important distinction. She glanced at Jondalar, and he was grinning in spite of the seriousness of the events she was relating. He couldn't help it.

"They already told me about this lion," Marthona said. "Apparently Ayla has a way with other animals, not just horses and wolves. Jondalar says he saw her ride the back of this lion, just like the horses. He claims others have seen it, too. Please continue, Ayla."

Zelandoni thought she'd have to look into this connection with animals. She had seen the horses by The River, and knew Ayla had a wolf with her, but she'd been seeing to a sick child in one of the other dwellings when Marthona led them to her place. They weren't in evidence at the moment, and she had put them out of her mind for the time being.

"When I got to the back end of the canyon," Ayla continued, "I saw Baby up on a ledge with two men. I thought both of them were dead, but when I climbed up and looked, I realized only one was dead. The other was still alive, but without help, he wouldn't be for very long. I managed to get Jondalar down off the ledge and tied him to the pole drag."

"What about the lion?" Joharran asked. "Cave lions don't usually let anything come between them and something they've killed."

"No, they don't, but this was Baby. I told him to go away." Ayla saw his look of stunned disbelief. "Just like I used to when we hunted together. I don't think he was hungry anyway, his lioness had just brought him a deer. And he didn't hunt people. I raised him. I was his mother. People were his family… his pride. I think the only reason he attacked the two men was that they had encroached on his den, his territory.

"But I didn't want to leave the other man there. The lioness wouldn't think people were family. There wasn't room for him on the pole drag, and no time for a burial. I was afraid Jondalar would die, too, if I didn't get him back to my cave. I noticed a steep scree slope at the back of the ledge, with a rock holding it back. I dragged the body there and used my spear-I used big thick Clan spears then-to pry the rock out of the way so the gravel would cover him. I hated to leave him like that, without even a message to the Spirit World. I'm not a mog-ur, but I used Creb's ritual and asked the spirit of the Great Cave Bear to help guide him to the Land of the Spirits. Then Whinney and I brought Jondalar home."

There were so many questions Zelandoni wanted to ask. Who or what was a "grrrub," which was what the name Creb sounded like to her. And why the spirit of a cave bear instead of the Great Earth Mother? She hadn't understood half of what Ayla said, and found the other half hard to believe. "Well, it's a good thing Jondalar wasn't hurt as bad as you thought," the older healer said.

Ayla shook her head. What did she mean? Jondalar was nearly dead. She still wasn't sure how she saved him.

Jondalar could guess what Ayla was thinking from her expression. It was obvious Zelandoni had made some assumptions that needed to be corrected. He stood up. "I think you need to know how badly I was mauled," he said, lifting his tunic and untying the waist thong of his summer leggings.

Although men seldom went entirely naked, even on the hottest days of summer, and neither did women, showing one's bare body was not a concern. People often saw each other when they went swimming or took sweat baths. It wasn't his exposed manhood that people stared at when Jondalar bared himself, it was the massive scarring on his upper thigh and groin.

The wounds had healed well; there was evidence that Ayla had actually sewn pieces of his skin together in places, Zelandoni noted. She had made seven individual stitches in his leg: four knots along the deepest wound and three more to hold torn muscles in place. No one had ever taught her, it was the only way she could think of to keep the gaping gashes closed.

Jondalar had given no hint that he had sustained such a serious injury. There was no limping or favoring of that leg, and except for the scars themselves, the muscle tissue underneath appeared fairly normal. There were other scars and marks on his body around his right shoulder and chest from the scratches and gashes made by the lion, and another apparently unrelated scar on his rib. It was evident that his long Journey had not left him unscathed.

They all understood now how severely Jondalar had been hurt, and why he had to be tended to immediately, but only Zelandoni had any idea how close to death he was. She flushed to think how seriously she had underrated Ayla's ability as a healer and was embarrassed to think of her rather offhand remark.

"I am sorry, Ayla. I had no idea you were so skilled. I think the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii is fortunate that Jondalar has brought such a well-trained healer with him," she said, noticing Jondalar's smile as he covered himself again, and a small sigh of relief from Ayla.

Zelandoni was even more determined to learn more about this stranger. This animal association had to mean something, and someone that skilled as a healer had to be brought within the authority and influence of the zelandonia. A stranger like that could wreak havoc within the orderly life of her people without some control and supervision. But since it was Jondalar who brought her, she would have to take it slowly. There was much to learn about this woman first.

"It seems I have you to thank for the return of at least one of my sons, Ayla," Marthona said. "I am happy to have him and grateful to you."

"If only Thonolan could have returned, it would indeed be a joyful occasion. But Marthona knew when he left that he would not return," Willamar said, then, looking at his hearth mate, "I didn't want to believe you, but I should have known. He wanted to see everything, and go everyplace. That alone would have kept him traveling. Even as a small child his curiosity was too great."

The comment reminded Jondalar of a deep concern he had long felt. Perhaps now was the appropriate time.

"Zelandoni, I need to ask you, is it possible for his spirit to find his own way to the spirit world?" Jondalar's habitual worried frown matched Joharran's. "After the woman he mated died, Thonolan wasn't himself, and he did not go to the next world with the proper assistance. His bones are still under that pile of gravel on the eastern steppes, he had no proper burial. What if his spirit is lost, wandering in the next world with no one to show him the way?"

The large woman frowned. It was a serious question, and one that had to be handled with delicacy, especially for the sake of Thonolan's grieving family. "Didn't you say something about some hurried ritual you performed, Ayla? Tell me about it."

"There's not much to tell," she said. "It was the ritual Creb always used when a person died and their spirit left this world. I was more concerned about the man who was living, but I wanted to do something to help the other one to find his way."

"She took me to the place later," Jondalar added, "and gave me some powdered red ochre to sprinkle over the rocks of his grave. When we left the valley for the last time, we went back to the canyon where Thonolan and I were attacked. I found a very special stone that came from the pile that buried him. I brought it with me. I hoped it might help you to find his spirit if it still wanders, so you could help him find his way. It's in my pack, I'll get it."

Jondalar got up, went to his pack, and quickly returned with a simple leather pouch attached to a length of thong so that it could be worn around the neck, although it showed little sign of such usage. He opened it and shook two objects out of it into his palm. One was a small chunk of red ochre. The other appeared to be a small, sharp-edged piece of ordinary gray rock shaped somewhat like a flattened pyramid. But when he picked it up and showed the bottom unseen surface, there were gasps and looks of surprise. That facet was lined with a thin layer of milky blue opal, shimmering with fiery red highlights.

"I was standing there, thinking of Thonolan, and this rolled down the gravel slope and landed at my feet," Jondalar explained. "Ayla said that I should put it in my amulet-this pouch-and take it home with me. I don't know what it means, but it felt-it feels-as if Thonolan's spirit is somehow connected with it."

He handed the stone to Zelandoni. No one else felt inclined to touch it, and Joharran actually shuddered, Ayla noticed. The woman studied it carefully, giving herself time to think and consider what to say.

"I think you are right, Jondalar," she said. "This is connected with Thonolan's spirit. I am not sure what it means, I need to study it more, and ask the Mother for guidance, but you were wise to bring it to me." She was silent for a while, then added, "Thonolan's spirit was adventuresome. Perhaps this world was too small for him. He may still be traveling in the next world, not because he's lost, but because he may not be ready to find his place there, yet. How far east were you when his life on this world ended?"

"Beyond the inland sea at the end of the great river, the one that begins on the other side of the highland glacier."

"The one they call the Great Mother River?"


Zelandoni was silent again. Finally she spoke. "It may be, Jondalar, that Thonolan's quest could only be satisfied in the next world, in the land of the spirits. Perhaps Doni felt it was time to call him, and let you return home. What Ayla did may have been enough, but 1 don't quite understand what she did, or why she did it. I need to ask some questions."

She looked at the tall, handsome man she had once loved, still loved in her own way, and the young woman sitting beside him who had managed to astonish her more than once in the short time since she arrived. "First, who is this 'Grrrub' you speak of, and why did you appeal to the spirit of a cave bear and not the Great Earth Mother?"

She could see where Zelandoni's questions were leading, and because they were direct questions, she almost felt compelled to answer. She had learned what a lie was, and that some people could say a thing that wasn't true, but she could not. The most she could do was refrain from mentioning, and that was particularly difficult when she was asked a direct question. Ayla looked down and stared at her hands. There were black smudges on them from making the fire.

She had been sure that eventually it would all come out, but she had hoped to spend some time with Jondalar's people first, to get to know some of them. Perhaps it was just as well. If she was going to have to leave, it would be better to do it before she grew to like them.

But what about Jondalar? She loved him. What if she had to leave without him? His child was inside her. Not just the child of his hearth, or even the child of his spirit. His child. It didn't matter what anyone else believed, she was convinced, she knew it was his child, as much as hers. He had started it growing inside her when they shared Pleasures-the Gift of Pleasure given to Her children by the Great Earth Mother.

She had been afraid to look at him, avoiding it for fear of what she might see. Suddenly she looked up, directly at him. She had to know.

Chapter 4

Jondalar smiled and nodded his head imperceptibly. Then he reached for her hand, gave it a little squeeze, and held it. Ayla could hardly believe it. It was all right! He understood and he was telling her it was all right. She could say whatever she wanted about the Clan. He would stay with her. He loved her. She smiled back, her big wonderful smile, full of love.

Jondalar, too, had seen where Zelandoni's questions were leading, and much to his own surprise, he didn't care. At one time he had been so concerned about what his family and his people would think of this woman, and what they might think of him for bringing her home with him, he almost gave her up, almost lost her. Now, it didn't matter. As much as he cared about them, as glad as he was to see them, if his own family wouldn't accept her along with him, then he'd leave. It was Ayla he loved. Together, they had much to offer. Several Caves had already asked them to stay and live with them, including Dalanar's Lanzadonii. He was sure they could find a home-somewhere.

The donier knew something had passed between Ayla and Jondalar, some kind of approval or affirmation. It made her curious, but she had learned that observation and patience often satisfied her curiosity better than questions.

Ayla turned to look at Zelandoni to answer. "Creb was mog-ur of Bran's clan, the one who knew the spirit world, but he was more than just mog-ur. He was like you, Zelandoni, he was First, The Mog-ur of the whole Clan. But to me, Creb was… man of my hearth, though I wasn't born there, and the woman he lived with, Iza, was his sibling, not his mate. Creb never had mate."

"Who or what is the Clan?" Zelandoni asked. She noticed that Ayla's accent got thicker when she spoke of them.

"The Clan is… I was… adopted by the Clan. They are the ones who took me in when I was… alone. Creb and Iza took care of me, raised me. Iza was mother, only mother I remember. And she was medicine woman, healer. Iza was First, too, in a way. She was most respected of all medicine women, as her mother and her grandmother had been, all the way back in unbroken line to beginning of Clan."

"Is that where you learned your healing skills?" Zelandoni asked, leaning forward on the cushions.

"Yes. Iza taught me, even though I wasn't her true daughter, and didn't have her memories like Uba did. Uba was my sister. Not a true sibling, but still my sister."

"What happened to your real mother, your family, the people you were born to?" Zelandoni wanted to know. Everyone was curious, fascinated, but they let her ask the questions.

Ayla sat back and looked up, as though trying to find an answer. Then she looked at the large woman who was regarding her so intently. "I don't know. I don't remember. I was young, Iza guessed that I could count five years… although they didn't have counting words like Zelandonii. The Clan named the years beginning as babies. The first was the birthing year, then the nursing year, the weaning year, and so on. I put it into counting words," she tried to explain. Then she stopped. She couldn't explain everything, tell her whole life with the Clan. It would be better to just answer the questions.

"You don't remember anything about your own people?" Zelandoni pressed.

"I only know what Iza told me. An earthquake had destroyed their cave, and Brun's clan was looking for a new one when she found me beside a river, unconscious. They had been without a home for some time, but Brun allowed her to take me with them. She said I must have been attacked by a cave lion because there were four claw marks on my leg, with the wide spacing of a cave lion, and they were… running, poisoned, corrupted," Ayla tried to find the right words.

"Yes, I understand," the donier said. "Festered, suppurant, perhaps to the stage of morbid corruption. Cat claws tend to do that."

"I still have the scars. That's how Creb knew the Cave Lion was my totem, even though it's usually a man's totem. I still dream sometimes of being in a small dark place and seeing a big cat claw coming," Ayla said.

"That's a powerful dream. Do you have any other dreams? About that time in your life, I mean?"

"One that's more frightening, but hard to explain. I never quite remember it. It's more a feeling, a feeling of an earthquake." The young woman shuddered. "I hate earthquakes!"

Zelandoni nodded knowingly. "Any others?"

"No… yes, but only once, when Jondalar was still recovering, and was teaching me to speak…"

Zelandoni thought that was a peculiar way to phrase it and glanced at Marthona to see if she had noted the odd expression.

"I understood some," Ayla said. "I had learned many words, but I was having trouble putting all together, then I dreamed of my mother, my real mother. I saw her face, and she spoke to me. The learning was easier after that."

"Ahhh… That's a very important dream," the One Who Served commented. "It's always important when the Mother comes to you in your dreams, whatever form She takes, but particularly when She takes the form of your own mother speaking to you from the next world."

Jondalar recalled a dream he had had of the Mother when they were still in Ayla's valley. A very strange dream. I should tell Zelandoni about it sometime, he thought.

"So, if you dreamed of the Mother, why didn't you appeal to her to help Thonolan find his way in the next world? I don't understand why you called upon the spirit of a cave bear and not the Great Earth Mother."

"I didn't know about the Great Earth Mother until Jondalar told me, after I learned your language."

"You didn't know about Doni, about the Great Earth Mother?" Folara asked with amazement. None of the Zelandonii had ever heard of anyone who did not recognize the Great Mother in some name or form. They were all mystified.

"The Clan honors Ursus, the Great Cave Bear," she said. "That's why I called on Ursus to help guide the spirit of the dead man-I didn't know his name then-even though he wasn't Clan. I did ask the Spirit of the Cave Lion to help, too, since he was my totem."

"Well, if you didn't know Her, then you did what you could, under the circumstances. I'm sure it helped," Zelandoni said, but she was more concerned than she showed. How could any of Her children not know the Mother?

"I have a totem, too," Willamar said. "Mine is the Golden Eagle." He sat up a little straighten "My mother told me that when I was an infant, an eagle picked me up and tried to carry me away, but she grabbed me and held on. I still show the scars. The zelandoni told her that the Golden Eagle spirit recognized me as one of his own kind. Not many people have personal totems, not among the Zelandonii, but if you have one, it is thought to be lucky."

"Well, you were lucky enough to get away," Joharran said.

"I guess I was lucky enough to get away from the cave lion that marked me," Ayla said, "and so was Jondalar. I think his totem is the Cave Lion, too. What do you think, Zelandoni?"

Ayla had been telling Jondalar that the Cave Lion spirit had chosen him ever since she could talk to him, but he had always avoided any comment about it. It seemed that individual totems weren't as important to his people as they were to the Clan, but it was important to her. She didn't want to take any chances.

The Clan believed that a man's totem had to be stronger than a woman's totem, for her to have children. That was why her strong male totem had upset Iza so. In spite of her powerful totem, Ayla did have a son, but there had been difficulties, beginning in pregnancy, during his birth and, many believed, afterward. They were sure he was unlucky-that his mother had no mate, no man to raise him properly, confirmed it. The difficulties and misfortune were blamed on the fact that she was a woman with a male totem. Now that she was pregnant again, she wanted no problems for this child that Jondalar had started, not for her or the baby. Though she had learned a great deal about the Mother, she had not forgotten Clan teachings, and if Jondalar's totem was a Cave Lion like hers, then, she was sure, it would be strong enough for her to have a healthy baby, who would have a normal life.

Something in Ayla's tone of voice caught Zelandoni's attention. She looked closely at the young woman. She wants Jondalar to have a Cave Lion totem, the woman realized, it is very important to her, this totem. Totem spirits must have greater significance to these Clan people who raised her. It probably is true that the Cave Lion is his totem now, and it won't hurt him if people think he's lucky. He probably is to have gotten back at all!

"I believe you're right, Ayla," the donier said. "Jondalar can claim the Cave Lion as his totem, and claim the luck. He was very lucky you were there when he needed you."

"I told you, Jondalar!" Ayla said, looking relieved.

Why does she or this Clan put so much importance on the Spirit of the Cave Lion? Or the Cave Bear? Zelandoni wondered. All the spirits are important, those of animals, even those of plants, or insects, everything, but it is the Great Mother who gave birth to them all. Who are these people? This Clan?

"You did say you lived alone in a valley, didn't you? Where was this Clan that raised you, Ayla?" the donier asked.

"Yes, I'd like to know, too. Didn't Jondalar introduce you as Ayla of the Mamutoi?" Joharran said.

"You said you didn't know the Mother, but you greeted us with a welcome from 'The Great Mother of All,' which is one of the names we give Doni," Folara added.

Ayla looked from one to the other, then at Jondalar, feeling a touch of panic. There was a hint of a grin on his face, as though he was rather enjoying the way Ayla's truthful answers baffled everyone. He squeezed her hand again, but didn't say anything. He was interested in how she would respond. She relaxed a bit.

"My clan lived at the south end of the land that extended far into Beran Sea. Iza told me just before she died that I should look for my own people. She said they lived north, on the mainland, but when I finally did look for them, I couldn't find anyone. The summer was half over before I found the valley, and I was afraid that the cold season would come and I wouldn't be prepared for it. The valley was a good place, protected from winds, a small river, lots of plants and animals, even a small cave. I decided to stay for the winter, and ended up staying for three years, with only Whinney and Baby for company. Maybe I was waiting for Jondalar," she said, smiling at the man.

"I found him in late spring; it was near the end of summer before Jondalar was well enough to travel. We decided to make a small trek, explore the region. We made camp each night in a different place, going farther from the valley than I had gone before. Then we met Talut, the headman of the Lion Camp, and he invited us to visit. We stayed with them until the beginning of the next summer, and while I was there, they adopted me. They wanted Jondalar to stay, too, and become one of them, but even then, he was planning to return."

"Well, I'm glad he did," Marthona said.

"It seems you are very lucky, to have people so willing to adopt you," Zelandoni said. She couldn't help but wonder at the strange story Ayla was telling. She wasn't alone in her reservations. It all seemed rather farfetched, and she still had more questions than answers.

"At first, I'm sure it was Nezzie's idea-she was Talut's mate. I think she convinced him because I helped Rydag when he had a bad… problem. Rydag was weak in…" Ayla didn't know the correct words and was frustrated. Jondalar had never taught them to her. He could have given her precise words for various kinds of flint, and specific words for the processes of shaping it into tools and weapons, but medicinal and healing terminology was not a part of his normal vocabulary. She turned to him and spoke to him in Mamutoi. "What is your word for foxglove? That plant I always collected for Rydag?"

He told her, but even before Ayla could repeat it and attempt to explain, Zelandoni was sure she understood what had happened. As soon as she heard Jondalar say the word, she knew not only the plant, but its uses. She had a good idea that the person Ayla was talking about had an internal weakness with the organ that pumped blood, the heart, that could be helped by the proper extraction of elements from foxglove. It also made her realize why someone would want to adopt a healer who was skilled enough to know how to use something as beneficial, though potentially dangerous, as that plant. And if that someone was in a position of authority, as a headman's mate would be, she could understand how Ayla might be adopted so quickly. After listening to Ayla tell essentially what she had guessed, she made another assumption.

"This person, Rydag, was a child?" she asked, to confirm her final speculation.

"Yes," Ayla replied, feeling a moment of sadness.

Zelandoni felt she understood about Ayla and the Mamutoi, but the Clan still left her perplexed. She decided to try a different approach. "I know you are very skilled in the healing ways, Ayla, but often those who become knowledgeable have a mark of some kind so people will recognize them. Like this one," she said, touching a tattoo on her forehead above her left temple. "I see no mark on you."

Ayla looked closely at the tattoo. It was a rectangle divided into six smaller rectangles, almost squares, in two rows of three each, with four legs above that, if connected, would have made a third row of squares. The outline of the rectangles was dark, but three of the squares were filled in with shades of red, and one with yellow.

Although it was a unique mark, several of the people she had seen had tattooed markings of one kind or another, including Marthona, Joharran, and Willamar. She didn't know if the marks meant something in particular, but after Zelandoni had explained the meaning of hers, Ayla suspected they might.

"Mamut had a mark on his cheek," Ayla said, touching the place on her cheek. "All the mamutii did. Some had other marks, too. I might have been given one, if I had stayed. Mamut started training me soon after he adopted me, but I was not fully trained before I left, so I was never marked."

"But didn't you say you were adopted by the woman who was the mate of the headman?"

"I thought Nezzie was going to adopt me, and she did, too, but at the ceremony, Mamut said Mammoth Hearth, not Lion Hearth. He adopted me instead."

"This Mamut is One Who Serves The Mother?" Zelandoni asked, thinking, so she was training to be One Who Serves.

"Yes, like you. The Mammoth Hearth was his, and for Those Who Serve The Mother. Most people choose the Mammoth Hearth, or feel they have been chosen. Mamut said I was born to it." She flushed a little and looked aside, feeling rather embarrassed to be talking about something that had been given, which she hadn't earned. It made her think of Iza and how carefully the woman had tried to train her to be a good Clan woman.

"I think your Mamut was a wise man," Zelandoni said. "But you said you learned your healing skills from a woman of the people who raised you, this Clan. Don't they do anything to mark their healers, to give them status and recognition?"

"I was given a certain black stone, a special sign to keep in my amulet when I was accepted as a medicine woman of the Clan," Ayla said. "But they don't make a mark like a tattoo for medicine woman, only for totem, when a boy becomes a man."

"How do people recognize one when they need to call upon a healer for help?"

Ayla hadn't thought about that before. She paused to consider it. "Medicine women don't have to be marked. People know. A medicine woman has status in her own right. Her position is always recognized. Iza was the highest ranked woman in the clan, even higher than Bran's mate."

Zelandoni shook her head. Ayla obviously thought she had explained something, but the woman didn't understand. "I'm sure that's true, but how do people know?" : •

"By her position," Ayla repeated, then tried to clarify. "By the position she takes when the clan goes somewhere, the place she stands when she eats, by the signs she uses when she… talks, by the signals that are made to her when she's addressed."

"Isn't that all so awkward? This cumbersome use of positions and signs?" Zelandoni asked.

"Not for them. That's the way people of the Clan talk. With signs. They don't talk with words as we do," Ayla said.

"But, why not?" Marthona wanted to know.

"They can't. They can't make all the sounds we do. They can make some, but not all. They talk with their hands and their bodies," Ayla tried to explain.

Jondalar could see the bewilderment of his mother and kin growing, and Ayla getting more frustrated. He decided it was time to cut the confusion.

"Ayla was raised by flatheads, mother," he said.

There was a stunned silence.

"Flatheads! Flatheads are animals!" Joharran said.

"No, they're not," Jondalar said.

"Of course they are," Folara said. "They can't talk!"

"They can talk, they just don't talk the way you do," Jondalar said. "I can even talk their language a little, but of course Ayla is much better. When she said I taught her to speak, she meant it." He glanced at Zelandoni; he'd noted her earlier expression. "She forgot how to speak whatever language she knew when she was a child, she could only speak the Clan way. The Clan are flatheads, flatheads call themselves the Clan."

"How could they call themselves anything, if they talk with their hands?" Folara asked.

"They do have some words," Ayla repeated, "they just can't say everything. They don't even hear all the sounds we make. They could understand, if they started young, but they're not used to hearing them." She thought about Rydag. He could understand everything that was said, even if he couldn't say it.

"Well, I didn't know they called themselves by any name," Marthona said, then she thought of something else. "How did you and Ayla communicate, Jondalar?"

"We didn't, at first," he said. "In the beginning, of course, we didn't need to. Ayla knew what to do. I was hurt and she took care of me."

"Are you telling me, Jondalar, that she learned from flatheads how to heal that cave lion mauling?" Zelandoni said.

Ayla answered instead. "I told you, Iza came from the most respected line of medicine women in the Clan. She taught me."

"I find all this about intelligent flatheads very difficult to believe," Zelandoni said.

"I don't," Willamar said.

Everybody turned to look at the Trade Master.

"I don't think they are animals at all. I haven't for a long time. I've seen too many in my travels."

"Why haven't you said something before?" Joharran asked.

"It never came up," Willamar said. "No one ever asked and I never thought about it that much."

"What changed your mind about them, Willamar?" Zelandoni asked. This brought out a new aspect. She was going to have to put some thought into this startling idea Jondalar and the foreign woman had presented.

"Let me think. The first time I began to doubt they were animals was many years ago," Willamar began. "I was south and west of here, traveling alone. The weather had changed quickly, a sudden cold snap, and I was in a hurry to get home. I kept going until it was almost dark, and camped beside a small stream. I planned to cross in the morning. When I woke up, I discovered I had stopped right across from a party of flatheads. I was actually afraid of them-you know what you hear-so I watched them closely, to be prepared in case they decided to come after me."

"What did they do?" Joharran asked.

"Nothing, except break camp just like anyone would," Willamar said. "They knew I was there, of course, but I was alone, so I couldn't give them much trouble, and they didn't seem in a big hurry. They boiled some water and made something hot to drink, rolled up their tents-different from ours, lower to the ground and harder to see-but they packed them on their backs, and left at a fast jog."

"Could you tell if any were women?" Ayla asked.

"It was pretty cold, they were all covered. They do wear clothes. You don't notice it in summer because they don't wear much, and you seldom see them in winter. We don't tend to travel much then, or very far, and they probably don't, either."

"You're right, they don't like to go too far from home when it's cold or snowy," Ayla commented.

"Most had beards, I'm not sure if they all did," Willamar said.

"Young men don't have beards. Did you notice if any of them carried a basket on her back?"

"I don't think so," he said.

"Clan women don't hunt, but if the men go on a long trek, women often go along to dry the meat and carry it back, so it was probably a short-range hunting party, just men," Ayla said.

"Did you do that?" Folara asked. "Go along on long hunting trips?"

"Yes, I even went along once when they hunted a mammoth," Ayla said, "but not to hunt."

Jondalar noticed that everyone seemed more curious than closed-minded. Though he was sure many people would be more intolerant, at least his kin seemed interested in learning about flatheads… the Clan.

"Joharran," Jondalar said, "I'm glad this came up now, because I was planning to talk to you anyway. There's something you need to know. We met a Clan couple on our way here, just before we started over that plateau glacier to the east. They told us that several clans are planning to get together to talk about us, and the problems they've been having with us. They call us the Others."

"I'm having trouble believing they can call us anything," the man said, "much less have meetings to talk about us."

"Well, believe it, because if you don't, we could be in some trouble."

Several voices spoke at once.

"What do you mean?"

"What kind of trouble?"

"I know of one situation in the Losadunai region. A gang of young ruffians from several Caves started baiting flatheads-Clan men. I understand they started out several years ago by picking on just one, like running a rhino down? But Clan men are nothing to fool with. They're smart and they're strong. A couple of those young men found that out when one or two got caught, so they started picking on the women. Clan women don't fight, usually, so it wasn't as much fun, no challenge. To make it more interesting, they started forcing Clan women to… well, I wouldn't call it Pleasures."

"What? "Joharran said.

"You heard me right," Jondalar affirmed.

"Great Mother!" Zelandoni blurted.

"That's terrible!" Marthona said at the same time.

"How awful!" Folara cried, wrinkling her nose with disgust.

"Despicable!" Willamar spat.

"They think so, too," Jondalar said. "They are not going to put up with it much longer, and once they realize they can do something about it, they are not going to put up with much from us at all. Aren't there rumors that these caves used to belong to them? What if they want them back?"

"Those are rumors, Jondalar. There's nothing in the Histories or the Elder Legends to confirm it," Zelandoni said. "Only bears are mentioned."

Ayla didn't say anything, but she thought the rumors might be true.

"In any case, they aren't getting them," Joharran said. "This is our home, Zelandonii territory."

"But there's something else you should know that could work in our favor. According to Cuban-that was the man's name…"

"They have names?" Joharran said.

"Of course they have names," Ayla said, "just like the people in my clan. His name is Cuban, hers is Yorga." Ayla gave the names the true Clan pronunciation, with the full throaty, deep, guttural sounds. Jondalar smiled. She did that on purpose, he thought.

If that's how they speak, I certainly know where her accent comes from, Zelandoni thought. She must be telling the truth. She was raised by them. But did she really learn her medicine from them?

"What I was trying to say, Joharran, is that Cuban…" his pronunciation was much easier to understand "… told me that some people, I don't know which Caves, have approached some clans with the idea of establishing trading relations."

"Trading! With flatheads!" Joharran said.

"Why not?" Willamar said. "I think it could be interesting. Depends what they have to trade, of course."

"Sounds like the Trade Master talking," Jondalar said.

"Speaking of trading, what are the Losadunai doing about those young men?" Willamar wanted to know. "We trade with them. I'd hate to have some trading party come down off the other side of that glacier and walk into a party of flatheads with revenge on their minds."

"When we… I first heard about it, five years ago, they weren't doing much," Jondalar said, trying to avoid making reference to Thonolan. "They knew it was going on, some of the men were still calling it 'high spirits,' but Laduni became really upset, just talking about it. Then it got worse. We stopped to visit the Losadunai on our way back. The Clan men had started going out with their women when they were gathering food, guarding them, and those 'high-spirited' young men weren't going to provoke the Clan men by going after the women then, so they went after a young woman of Laduni's Cave-all of them-forced a young woman… before First Rites."

"Oh, no! How could they, Jondй?" Folara said, bursting into tears.

"Great Mother's Underground!" Joharran thundered.

"That's just where they should be sent!" Willamar said.

"They are abominations! I can't even imagine a strong enough punishment!" Zelandoni fumed.

Marthona, unable to say anything, had her hand on her chest and ‹ looked appalled.

Ayla had felt deeply for the young woman who had been assaulted and had tried to ease her anguish, but she couldn't help but notice how much more strongly Jondalar's kin had reacted to the news of a young woman of the Others being attacked by the gang than they had when they learned of the attacks on Clan women. When it was Clan women, they were offended, but when it was one of their own, they were outraged.

That, more than anything that had been said or done, made her understand the extent of the chasm that separated the two peoples. Then she wondered what their reactions would have been-inconceivable as the idea was to her-if it had been a gang of Clan men… flatheads that had committed such an abominable act on Zelandonii women?

"You can be sure the Losadunai are doing something about those young men, now," Jondalar said. "The young woman's mother was crying for blood retribution against the Cave of the leader of those degenerate men."

"Ahhh, that's bad news. What a difficult situation for the leaders," Marthona said.

"It's her right!" Folara proclaimed.

"Yes, of course, it's her right," Marthona said, "but then some kin or another, or the whole Cave, will resist and that could lead to fighting, maybe someone getting killed, and then someone wants revenge for that. Who knows where it would end up? What are they going to do, Jondalar?"

"Several Cave leaders sent runners with messages, and many of them got together and talked. They've agreed to send out trackers, find the young men, separate them to break up the gang, and then each Cave is going to deal with their own member individually. They will be severely punished, I imagine, but they'll be given a chance to make restitution," Jondalar explained.

"I'd say that's a good plan, especially if they all agree to it, including the Cave of the instigator," Joharran said, "and if the young men come peaceably, once they've been found…"

"I'm not sure about the leader, but I think the rest of them want to go home, and would agree to anything to be allowed back. They looked hungry, cold, and dirty, and not too happy," Jondalar said.

"You saw them?" Marthona asked.

"That's how we met the Clan couple. The gang had gone after the woman, they didn't see the man around. But he had climbed up on a high rock to scout game and jumped down when they attacked his woman. Broke his leg, but it didn't stop him from trying to fight them off. We happened upon them then; it was not far from the glacier we were getting ready to cross." Jondalar smiled. "Between Ayla, Wolf, and me, not to mention the two Clan people, we chased them off in a hurry. There's not much fight left in those boys. And with Wolf and the horses, and the fact that we knew who they were, when they had never seen us before, well, I think we put a scare in them."

"Yes," Zelandoni said thoughtfully. "I can see how it would."

"You would have scared me," Joharran said with a wry smile.

"Then Ayla convinced the Clan man to let her set his broken leg," Jondalar continued. "We camped together for a couple of days. I made him a couple of sticks to lean on and help him walk, and he decided to go home. I was able to talk to him a little, though Ayla did most of it. I think I became something like a brother to him," he said.

"It occurs to me," Marthona said, "that if there is a possibility of trouble with-what do they call themselves? Clan people?-and they can communicate enough to negotiate, it could be very helpful to have someone like Ayla around who can talk to them, Joharran."

"I've been thinking the same thing," Zelandoni added. She had also been thinking about what Jondalar had said of the fearful effect Ayla's animals had on people, though she didn't mention it. It could be useful.

"That's true, of course, mother, but it's going to be hard to get used to the idea of talking to flatheads, or calling them something else, and I'm not the only one who's going to have trouble," Joharran said. He paused, then shook his head as if to himself. "If they talk with their hands, how do you know they're really talking and not just waving their arms around?"

Everyone looked at Ayla. She turned to Jondalar. "I think you should show them," he said, "and maybe you could talk at the same time, the way you did when you were talking to Guban and translating for me."

"What should I say?"

"Why not just greet them, as if you were speaking for Guban?" ; he said.

Ayla thought for a time. She couldn't really greet them the way Guban would. He was a man, and a woman would never greet anyone the same way a man would. She could make a greeting sign, that gesture was always the same, but one never made only a greeting sign. It was always modified depending on who was making it and to whom it was being made. And there really was no sign for a person of the Clan to greet one of the Others. It had never been done before, not in a formal, acknowledged way. Perhaps she could think of how it would be done if they ever had to. She stood up and backed into the clear area in the middle of the main room.

"This woman would greet you, People of the Others," Ayla began, then paused. "Or perhaps one should say People of the Mother," she said, trying to think of how the Clan might make the signs.

"Try Children of the Mother, or Children of the Great Earth Mother," Jondalar suggested.

She nodded and started over. "This woman… called Ayla, would greet you, Children of Doni, the Great Earth Mother." She said her own name and that of the Mother in verbal sounds, but with the inflection and tonal quality of the Clan. The rest was communicated with signs in formal Clan language and spoken in Zelandonii.

"This woman would hope that at some time you would be greeted by one of the Clan of the Cave Bear, and that the greeting would be returned. The Mog-ur told this woman the Clan is ancient, the memories go deep. The Clan was here when the new ones came.

They named the new ones, the Others, the ones who were not Clan.

The Clan chose to go their own way, to avoid the Others. That is the Clan way and Clan traditions change slowly, yet some of the Clan would begin to change, would make new traditions. If that is to be, this woman would hope that the change would harm neither Clan nor Others."

Her Zelandoni translation was spoken in a soft-voiced monotone, with as much precision and as little accent as she could. The words told them what she was saying, but they could see that she was not making random hand wavings. The purposeful gestures, the subtle motion of the body indicating a movement, lifting the head in pride, bowing in acquiescence, even raising an eyebrow, all flowed together smoothly with graceful intention. Though the significance of each motion was not clear, that her movements had meaning was.

The total effect was startling, and beautiful; it sent a shiver down Marthona's back. She glanced at Zelandoni, who caught her quick look and nodded. She, too, had felt something profound. Jondalar noticed the discreet byplay; he was watching those who were watching Ayla and could see the impression she was making. Joharran was staring in rapt attention with a frown creasing his forehead; Willamar had a slight smile and was nodding approval; Folara's smile was unabashed. She was so delighted, he had to smile, too.

When she was done, Ayla sat down at the table again, lowering herself to a cross-legged position with an elegant ease that was more noticeable after her performance. There was an uneasy silence around the table. No one knew quite what to say, and each felt they needed time to think. Finally Folara felt compelled to fill the void.

"That was wonderful, Ayla! Beautiful, almost like a dance," she said.

"It's hard for me to think of it that way. It's the way they talk. Although I remember that I used to love to watch the storytellers," Ayla said.

"It was very expressive," Marthona said, then looked at her son. "You can do that, too, Jondalar?"

"Not like Ayla can. She taught the people of Lion Camp so they could communicate with Rydag. They had some fun at their Summer Meeting with it because they could talk to each other without anyone else knowing it," he said.

"Rydag, wasn't that the child with the bad heart?" Zelandoni asked. "Why couldn't he talk like everyone else?"a

Jondalar and Ayla looked at each other. "Rydag was half Clan, and had the same difficulty making sounds that they do," Ayla said. "So I taught him and the Lion Camp his language."

"Half Clan?" Joharran said. "You mean half flathead? A half flat-head abomination!"

"He was a child!" Ayla said, glaring at him in anger. "Just like any other child. No child is an abomination!"

Joharran was surprised at her reaction, then recalled that she had been raised by them and understood why she would feel offended. He tried to stutter an apology. "I… I… I'm sorry. It's what everyone thinks."

Zelandoni stepped in to calm the situation. "Ayla, you must remember, we haven't had time to consider everything you have said. We have always thought of your Clan people as animals, and something half human and half animal as an abomination. I'm sure you must be correct, this… Rydag was a child."

She's right, Ayla said to herself, and it isn't as if you didn't know how the Zelandonii felt. Jondalar made that clear the first time you mentioned Durc. She tried to compose herself.

"But, I'd like to understand something," Zelandoni continued, searching for a way to ask her questions without offending the stranger. "The person named Nezzie was the mate of the headman of the Lion Camp, is that correct?"

"Yes." Ayla could see where she was leading and glanced at Jondalar. She felt sure he was trying to repress a smile. It made her feel better; he knew, too, and was taking some perverse delight in the discomfiture of the powerful donier.

"This child, this Rydag, was hers?"

Jondalar almost wished Ayla would say yes, just to make them think. It had taken a lot for him to overcome the beliefs of his people, bred into him since childhood, practically with his mother's milk. If they thought a woman who had given birth to an "abomination" could become the mate of a headman, it might shake that belief a bit, and the more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that for their own good, for their own safety, his people had to change, had to accept the fact that the Clan were people, too.

"She nursed him," Ayla explained, "along with her own daughter. He was the son of a Clan woman who was alone and died shortly after his birth. Nezzie adopted him, just as Iza adopted me when I had no one to take care of me."

It was still a shock, and in some ways even more startling because the headman's mate had voluntarily chosen to care for the newborn who could have been left to die with its mother. A silence descended upon the group as each one paused to consider what had just been learned.

Wolf had stayed behind in the valley where the horses were grazing to explore the new territory. After a time that was appropriate to him and for his own reasons, he decided to return to the place that Ayla had made him understand was home, the place he should go when he wanted to find her. Like all of his kind, the wolf moved with efficient speed and such effortless grace, he seemed to be floating as he loped through the wooded landscape. Several people were in Wood River Valley picking berries. One man caught a glimpse of Wolf moving like a silent wraith between the trees.

"That wolf is coming! And he's by himself!" the man shouted. He scrambled out of the way as fast as he could.

"Where's my baby?" a woman cried in a panic. She looked around, saw her toddler, and ran to pick her up and carry her away.

When Wolf reached the path that led to the ledge, he ran up it with the same supple, fast-moving pace.

"There's that wolf! I don't like the idea of a wolf coming up here, right onto our ledge," another woman said.

"Joharran said we should allow him to come and go as he wants, but I'm going to get my spear," a man said. "Maybe he won't hurt anyone, but I don't trust that animal."

People backed out of the way to give him a wide berth when Wolf reached the ledge at the top of the path and headed directly for Marthona's dwelling. One man knocked over several spear shafts when he bumped into them in his hurry to put plenty of clearance between himself and the efficient, four-legged hunter. The wolf sensed the fear of the people around him and didn't like it, but he continued toward the location Ayla had indicated he was to go.

The silence within Marthona's dwelling was shattered when Willamar, catching sight of the entrance drape moving, suddenly jumped up and shouted. "There's a wolf! Great Mother, how did that wolf get here?"

"It's all right, Willamar," Marthona said, trying to calm him. "He's allowed in here." Folara caught her eldest brother's eye and smiled, and though Joharran was still nervous around the animal, he could give her a knowing smile back.

"That's Ayla's wolf," Jondalar said, getting up to ward off any hasty reactions as Ayla rushed to the entrance to settle the animal, who had been more scared than Willamar to be greeted by such loud, frantic noise in the place he had been shown to come. Wolf's tail was between his legs, his hackles were raised, and his teeth were bared.

If Zelandoni could have, she would have jumped up just as fast as Willamar. A loud, menacing growl seemed to be directed specifically at her, and she shook with fear. Even though she had heard about Ayla's animals and seen them from a distance, she was terrified by the huge predator that had entered the dwelling. She had never been so close to a wolf; in the wild wolves usually ran away from groups of people.

She watched with amazement as Ayla fearlessly hurried toward Wolf, stooped down, put her arms around him, and held him, speaking words, only some of which she understood, seeking to calm the animal. The wolf first became excited, and licked the neck and face of the woman while she fondled him, then did indeed calm down. It was the most unbelievable demonstration of supernatural powers she had ever witnessed. Just what kind of mysterious ability did this woman possess to command that kind of control over such an animal? She felt gooseflesh raise at the thought.

Willamar had calmed down as well, with the encouragement of Marthona and Jondalar, and after seeing Ayla with the wolf.

"I think Willamar should meet Wolf, don't you, Ayla?" Marthona said.

"Especially since they are going to be sharing the same dwelling," Jondalar said. Willamar gaped at him with an amazed look of disbelief.

Ayla stood up and walked toward them, signaling Wolf to follow closely. "The way Wolf gets acquainted is to become familiar with your scent. If you hold out your hand to let him smell it…" she started to say, reaching for his hand.

The man pulled it away. "Are you sure about this?" he said, looking at Marthona.

His mate smiled, then held out her hand toward the wolf. He smelled her hand, then licked it. "You gave some of us quite a fright, Wolf, coming in unannounced before you had met everyone," she said.

Willamar was still a bit hesitant, but he could hardly do less than Marthona had, and put his hand forward. Ayla introduced Wolf in the usual manner, saying for the man's benefit, as the wolf took in his scent, "Wolf, this is Willamar. He lives here with Marthona." The wolf licked him, then gave a little yip.

"Why did he do that?" Willamar asked, drawing his hand back quickly.

"I'm not sure, but perhaps he smelled Marthona on you, and he warmed to her very quickly," Ayla suggested. "Try petting or scratching him." As though Willamar's tentative scratching only tickled, Wolf suddenly curled up and vigorously scratched behind his own ear, bringing smiles and chuckles at his rather undignified posture. When he was through, he went straight to Zelandoni.

She eyed him warily, but stood her ground. She had been terrified when the wolf appeared at the entrance of the dwelling. Jondalar was more aware of her reaction than the others. He had seen her petrified fear. They had been concerned about Willamar, who had jumped up and shouted, and hadn't noticed the quiet terror of the woman. She was just as glad they hadn't. One Who Served The Mother was thought of as fearless, and in fact, that was generally true. She couldn't remember the last time she had felt such alarm.

"I think he knows he hasn't met you, Zelandoni," Jondalar said. "And since he's going to be living here, I think you should be introduced to each other, too." From the way he looked at her, she guessed that Jondalar knew how frightened she had been, and acknowledged it with a nod.

"I think you're right. What is it that I'm supposed to do, give him my hand?" she said, thrusting it toward the wolf. He sniffed, then licked, then, with no warning, took her hand with his teeth and held it in his mouth with a low growl.

"What's he doing?" Folara said. She hadn't officially met him, either. "He only used his teeth with Ayla, before."

"I'm not sure," Jondalar said with a note of concern.

Zelandoni looked sternly at Wolf, and he let go.

"Did he hurt you?" Folara asked. "Why did he do that?"

"No, of course he didn't hurt me. He did it to let me know that I have nothing to fear from him," Zelandoni said, making no attempt to scratch him. "We understand each other." Then she contemplated Ayla, who returned her gaze. "And we have a lot to learn about each other."

"Yes, we do, I'm looking forward to it," she replied.

"And Wolf still needs to meet Folara," Jondalar said. "Come here, Wolf, come and meet my little sister."

Responding to the playfulness in his voice, Wolf bounded toward him. "This is Folara, Wolf," he said. The young woman quickly discovered how much fun it was to pet and scratch and handle the wolf.

"Now it's my turn," Ayla said. "I would like to be introduced to Willamar," she said, then, turning to the donier, "and Zelandoni, although I already feel that I know you both."

Marthona stepped forward. "Of course. I had forgotten that you haven't formally met them. Ayla, this is Willamar, Renowned Traveler and Trade Master of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, Mated to Marthona, Man of the Hearth to Folara, Blessed of Doni." Then she looked at the man. "Willamar, please welcome Ayla of the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi, Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth, Chosen by the Spirit of the Cave Lion, Protected by the Cave Bear," she smiled at the animal, "and Friend of Wolf, and two horses," she added.

After the incidents and stories that Ayla had just told, Jondalar's kin understood the meanings of her names and ties more and felt they knew her better. It made her seem less of a stranger. Willamar and Ayla grasped both hands and greeted each other in the name of the Mother with the phrases of the formal introduction, except that Willamar referred to her as "mother" rather than "friend of Wolf." Ayla had noticed that people seldom repeated introductions exactly, often adding their own variation.

"I look forward to meeting the horses, and I think I'm going to add 'Chosen by the Golden Eagle' to my names. After all, it is my totem," he said with a warm smile, and squeezed her hands before he let go. She smiled back, a big, dazzling smile. I am happy to see Jondalar after all this time, he thought, and how wonderful for Marthona that he brought a woman back to mate. It means he plans to stay. And such a beautiful woman. If they are of his spirit, imagine what her children will look like.

Jondalar decided that he should be the one to formally introduce Ayla and Zelandoni. "Ayla, this is Zelandoni, First Among Those Who Serve The Great Earth Mother, the Voice of Doni, Surrogate of She Who Blesses, the Donier, Giver of Help and Healing, Instrument of the Original Ancestor, Spiritual Leader of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, and Friend of Jondalar once known as Zolena." He said the last with a smile. It was not one of her usual titles.

"Zelandoni, this is Ayla of the Mamutoi," he began, and at the end added "soon to be mated to Jondalar, I hope."

It's a good thing he said "I hope," Zelandoni said to herself as she stepped forward with both hands extended. This mating hasn't been approved yet. "As the Voice of Doni, Great Earth Mother, I welcome you, Ayla of the Mamutoi, Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth," she said, taking both of Ayla's hands in hers and naming what to her were the most important titles.

"In the name of Mut, Mother of All, who is also Doni, I greet you, Zelandoni, First Among Those Who Serve The Great Earth Mother," Ayla said. As the two women faced each other, Jondalar fervently hoped that they would become good friends. He would never want either as an enemy.

"And now I must go. I hadn't planned to stay so long," Zelandoni said.

"I have to go, too," Joharran said, leaning over to brush his mother's cheek with his, then getting up. "There's a lot to do before the feast tonight. And, Willamar, tomorrow I want to hear how the trading went."

After Zelandoni and Joharran left, Marthona asked Ayla if she wanted to rest before the celebration.

"I feel so dirty and hot from traveling. There is nothing I'd like better right now than to go for a swim, to cool off, and wash. Does soaproot grow nearby?"

"It does," Marthona said. "Jondalar, behind the big rock upstream along The River a short distance from Wood River Valley. You know where that is, don't you?"

"Yes, I know. Wood River Valley is where the horses are, Ayla. I'll show you the place. A swim does sound good." Jondalar put an arm around Marthona. "And it's good to be home, mother. I really don't think I want to travel again for a long time."

Chapter 5

"I want to get my comb and I think I still have some dried ceanothus flowers left, to wash my hair," Ayla said, opening her traveling packs. "And the chamois skin from Roshario to dry off with," she added, pulling it out.

Wolf was bounding toward the entry and back to them again, as though urging them to hurry.

"I think Wolf knows we're going swimming," Jondalar said. "I sometimes think that animal can understand language, even if he can't speak it."

"I'll take my change of clothes so I have something clean to put on, and why don't we spread out the sleeping furs before we go," Ayla said, putting down her towel and other things, and pulling loose the ties of another bundle.

They quickly made a sleeping place and set out the few other possessions they had with them, then Ayla shook out the tunic and short pants she had been keeping aside. She examined the outfit closely. It was made of soft, supple buckskin, cut in a simple Mamutoi style, but was undecorated, and though clean, it was stained. Even with washing, it was difficult to get stains out of the velvety-textured nap of the leather, but it was the only thing she had to wear to the feast. Traveling limited the amount one could take, even with horses to help with transport, and she had wanted to bring other things that were more important to her than changes of clothing.

Ayla noticed that Marthona was watching her and said, "This is all I have to wear tonight. I hope it will be all right. I couldn't bring much with me. Roshario gave me a beautiful decorated outfit made in the Sharamudoi style out of that wonderful leather they make, but I gave it to Madenia, that young Losadunai woman who was attacked so brutally."

"That was kind of you," the woman said.

"I had to lighten my load anyway, and Madenia seemed so pleased, but now I wish I had one like it. It would be nice to dress for the feast tonight in something a little less worn. Once we get settled, I'll have to make some clothes." She smiled at the woman and looked around. "It's still hard to believe we're finally here."

"It's hard for me to believe, too," Marthona said, then after a pause, "I would like to help you make some clothes, if you wouldn't object."

"No, I wouldn't object at all. I'd appreciate it." Ayla smiled. "Everything you have here is so beautiful, Marthona, and I don't know what is appropriate for Zelandoni women to wear."

"Can I help, too?" Folara added. "Mother's ideas about clothes are not always what younger women like."

"I'd love to have help from both of you, but this will have to do for now," Ayla said, holding up her worn outfit.

"It will certainly be fine for tonight," Marthona said. Then she nodded to herself, as though making a decision. "I have something I would like to give you, Ayla. It's in my sleeping room."

Ayla followed Marthona into her room. "I have been saving this for you for a long time," the woman said as she opened a covered wooden box.

"But you just met me!" Ayla exclaimed.

"For the woman Jondalar would someday choose for a mate. It belonged to Dalanar's mother." She held out a necklace.

Ayla caught her breath with surprise, and with some hesitation took the proffered necklace. She examined it cautiously. It was made of matched shells, perfect deer teeth, and finely carved heads of female deer made from ivory. A lustrous yellowish orange pendant hung at the center.

"It is beautiful," Ayla breathed. She felt particularly drawn to the pendant, and she looked at it carefully. It was shiny, polished from being worn and handled. "This is amber, isn't it?"

"Yes. That stone has been in the family for many generations. Dalanar's mother made it into this necklace. She gave it to me when Jondalar was born and told me to give it to the woman he chose."

"Amber is not cold like other stones," Ayla said, holding the pendant in her hand. "It feels warm, as though it has a living spirit."

"How interesting that you should say that. Dalanar's mother always said this piece had life," Marthona said. "Try it on. See how it looks on you."

Marthona guided Ayla toward the limestone wall of her sleeping room. A hole had been dug out of it, and wedged into the hole wast he round end that grew out of the horn core of a megaceros, then extended and flattened out into the typical palmate antler. The tines of the projecting antler had been broken off, leaving a slightly uneven shelf with a concave scalloped edge. Resting on top and leaning against the somewhat forward sloping wall, but nearly perpendicular to the floor, was a small plank of wood with a very smooth surface.

As Ayla approached, she noticed that it reflected with surprising clarity the wooden and wickerware containers across the room, and the flame burning in a stone oil lamp near them. Then she stopped in amazement.

"I can see myself!" Ayla said. She reached out to touch the surface. The wood had been rubbed smooth with sandstone, dyed a deep black with oxides of manganese, and polished with fat to a high sheen.

"Haven't you ever seen a reflector?" Folara asked. She was standing just inside the room, near the panel at the entrance, dying of curiosity to see the gift her mother was giving to Ayla.

"Not like this. I've looked in a still pool of water on a sunny day," Ayla said, "but this is right here, in your sleeping room!"

"Don't the Mamutoi have reflectors? To see how they look when they dress for some important occasion?" Folara asked. "How do they know if everything is right?"

Ayla frowned in thought for a moment. "They look at each other. Nezzie always made sure Talut had everything on right before ceremonies, and when Deegie-she was my friend-arranged my hair, everyone made nice comments," Ayla explained.

"Well, let's see how the necklace looks on you, Ayla," Marthona said, putting it around her neck and holding the back closed.

Ayla admired the necklace, noting how well it lay on her chest, and then she found herself studying the reflection of her face. She seldom saw herself, and her own features were more unfamiliar than those of the people around her whom she had met only recently. Though the reflecting surface was reasonably good, the lighting inside the room was dim, and her image was somewhat dark. She appeared rather drab, colorless, and flat-faced to herself.

Ayla had grown up among the Clan thinking of herself as big and ugly because, although she was thinner-boned than the women of the Clan, she was taller than the men, and she looked different, both in their eyes and her own. She was more accustomed to judging beauty in terms of the stronger features of the Clan, with their long broad faces and sloped-back foreheads, heavy overhanging browridges, sharp prominent noses, and large, richly colored brown eyes. Her own blue-gray eyes seemed faded in comparison.

After she had lived among the Others for a while, she didn't feel that she looked so strange anymore, but she still could not see herself as beautiful, though Jondalar had told her often enough that she was. She knew what was considered attractive to the Clan; she didn't quite know how to define beauty in terms of the Others. To her, Jondalar, with his masculine and therefore stronger features and vivid blue eyes was far more beautiful than she.

"I think it suits her," Willamar said. He had strolled over to add his opinion. Even he hadn't known Marthona had the necklace. It was her dwelling that he had moved into; she had made room for him and his possessions, and she made him comfortable. He liked the way she ordered and arranged things, and he had no desire to poke into every nook and cranny or bother her belongings.

Jondalar was standing behind him, looking over his shoulder, grinning. "You never told me grandam gave that to you when I was born, mother."

"She didn't give it to me for you. It was meant for the woman you would mate. The one with whom you would make a hearth, to which she could bring her children-with the blessing of the Mother," she replied, taking the necklace from around Ayla's neck and putting it into her hands.

"Well, you've given it to the right person," he said. "Are you going to wear it tonight, Ayla?"

She looked at it, frowning slightly. "No. All I have is that old outfit and this is too beautiful to wear with that. I think I'll wait until I have something appropriate to wear with it."

Marthona smiled and nodded slightly in approval.

As they were leaving the sleeping room, Ayla could see another hole cut into the limestone wall above the sleeping platform. It was somewhat larger and seemed to go into the wall rather deeply. A small stone lamp burned in front, and in the light behind it she could make out from her view a part of the full rounded figurine of an amply endowed woman. It was a donii, Ayla knew, a representation of Doni, the Great Earth Mother, and, when She chose, a receptacle for Her Spirit.

Above the niche, she noticed on the stone wall above the sleeping place, another of those mats, similar to the one on the table, made with fine fibers woven into an intricate pattern. She wished she could examine it closely, find out how it was made. Then she realized that she probably could. They weren't traveling anymore. This was going to be her home.

Folara rushed out of the dwelling after Ayla and Jondalar left and hurried to another one nearby. She had almost asked if she could go with them, then she caught her mother's eye and the bare shake of her head, and it made her realize that they might want to be alone. Besides, she knew her friends would be full of questions for her. She scratched on the panel of the next structure. "Ramila? It's me, Folara."

A moment later a plump, attractive, brown-haired young woman pulled back the drape. "Folara! We were waiting for you, but then Galeya had to go. She said to meet her by the stump."

They both walked out from under the overhang, talking animatedly together. As they approached the tall stump of a lightning-struck juniper tree they saw a thin, wiry young woman with red hair hurrying toward it from another direction, struggling to carry two wet and bulging, fairly large waterbags.

"Galeya, did you just get here?" Ramila asked.

"Yes, have you been waiting long?" Galeya said.

"No, Folara came for me only a few moments ago. We were just walking here when we saw you," Ramila said, taking one of the bags as they started back.

"Let me carry your waterbag the rest of the way, Galeya," Folara said, relieving her of the other bag. "Is this for the feast tonight?"

"What else? I feel like I've done nothing but carry things all day, but it will be fun to have an unplanned gather. I think it's going to be bigger than they thought, though. We may end up in the Gather Field. I've heard that several of the nearby Caves have sent runners offering food for the feast. You know that means most of their Cave want to come," Galeya said. Then, stopping and turning to look at Folara, she said, "Well, aren't you going to tell us about her?"

"I don't know much yet. We're just starting to get acquainted. She is going to live with us. She and Jondalar are promised, they're going to tie the knot at the Summer Matrimonial. She's kind of like a zelandoni. Not exactly, she doesn't have a mark or anything, but she knows spirits, and she's a healer. She saved Jondalar's life. Thonolan was already traveling the next world when she found them. They had been attacked by a cave lion! You won't believe the stories they have to tell," Folara chattered on excitedly as they walked back along the stone front porch of the community.

Many people were busy with various activities related to the feast, but several stopped to watch the young women, especially Folara, knowing she had spent some time with the stranger and the returned Zelandonii man. And some were listening to her, in particular an attractive woman with very light blond hair and dark gray eyes. She was carrying a bone tray of fresh meat and affecting not to notice the young women, but she was walking in the same direction and staying close enough to hear. She had originally intended to go another way entirely, until she heard Folara talking.

"What's she like?" Ramila asked.

"I think she's nice. She talks a little funny, but she comes from very far away. Even her clothes are different… what little she has. She only has one extra outfit. It's very plain, but she has nothing for dressing up, so she's going to wear it tonight. She said she wants some Zelandonii clothes, but she doesn't know what's appropriate, and she wants to dress right. Mother and I are going to help her make some. She's going to take me down to meet the horses tomorrow. I might even ride one. She and Jondalar just went down there, to go swimming and bathing in The River."

"Are you really going to get on the back of a horse, Folara?" Ramila asked.

The woman who had been listening didn't wait to hear the answer. She had stopped for a moment, then, with a malicious smile, hurried away.

Wolf ran ahead, stopping now and then to make sure the woman and man were still following him. The sloping path down from the northeast end of the front terrace led to a meadow on the right bank of a small river that was nearing its confluence with the main stream. The level grassy lea was surrounded by open, mixed woodland that grew more dense farther upstream.

When they reached the meadow, Whinney whickered a greeting and some people who were watching from a distance shook their heads in amazement when the wolf ran straight to the mare and they touched noses. Then the canine struck a playful pose with his tail and back end up and his front end down, and yipped a puppy bark at the young stallion. Racer lifted his head in a neigh and pawed the ground, returning the playful gesture.

The horses seemed particularly happy to see them. The mare approached and put her head across Ayla's shoulder, while the woman hugged the sturdy neck. They leaned against each other in a familiar posture of comfort and reassurance. Jondalar patted and stroked the young stallion, rubbing and scratching the itchy places Racer presented. The dark brown horse took a few paces forward, then nuzzled Ayla, wanting contact with her, too. Then they all crowded close together, including the wolf, welcoming each other's familiar presence in this place of so many strangers.

"I feel like going for a ride," Ayla said. She looked up at the position of the sun in the afternoon sky. "We have time for a short one, don't we?"

"We should have. No one will gather for the feast until it's almost dark." Jondalar smiled. "Let's go! We can swim afterward," he said. "I feel as though someone is watching me all the time."

"Someone is," Ayla said. "I know it's just natural curiosity, but it would be nice to get away for a while."

Several more people had gathered to watch from some distance. They saw the woman leap with ease onto the back of the dun-yellow mare, and the tall man seem to do little more than step up to mount the brown stallion. They left at a fast pace, the wolf following along with ease.

Jondalar led the way, first upstream a short distance to a shallow crossing of the tributary, then continuing upstream along the opposite bank of the small river a little farther until they saw a gorgelike narrow valley on their right. They rode north away from the stream and up the length of the confined vale along a rocky dry streambed that became a runoff creek in wet weather. At the end of the gorge was a steep but climbable trail that eventually opened out onto a high windy plateau that overlooked the waterways and countryside below. They stopped to take in the commanding view.

At an elevation of some six hundred fifty feet, the plateau was one of the highest in the immediate area and afforded a breathtaking panorama, not only of the rivers and valley floodplains, but across to the landscape of rolling hills of the highlands on the other side. The limestone Gausses above the river valleys were not level plateaus.

Limestone is soluble in water, given enough time and the right acidic content. Over the long ages rivers and accumulated groundwater had cut down through the limestone base of the region, carving the once flat floor of the ancient sea into hills and valleys. The existing rivers created the deepest valleys and the steepest cliffs, but though the stone walls that reared up and constrained the valleys often had a uniformity of height in any one section, they varied in elevation from place to place, following the pattern of hills above.

At a cursory glance, the vegetation of the dry, windy, high Gausses on both sides of the primary river all seemed the same, similar to the open plains of the continental steppes to the east. Grass was most prevalent, with stunted junipers, pines, and spruces clinging to exposed areas near streams and ponds, and brush and small trees growing in the dips and dells.

But depending on where it grew, the plant life could be surprisingly different. The sparse tops and north-facing sides of the hills favored a more arctic herbage that flourished where it was cold and dry, while the south-facing slopes were greener and richer in lower-latitude boreal and temperate-climate plants.

The broad valley of the main river below was more lush, with deciduous trees and evergreens lining the banks. Showing a paler shade of green than they would later in the season, the freshly leafed-out trees were mostly the small-leaved varieties like silver birches and willows, but even conifers such as spruces and pines showed light-colored needles of new growth at the tips. The junipers, and occasional evergreen oaks, were more mottled with their spring color appearing at the ends of branches and twigs.

At times along its course, the waterway meandered through the middle of verdant meadows in the level floodplains, with the tall grass of early summer turning to gold. In other places the curves and loops of The River's course narrowed the stream and forced it to flow against the stone walls, closer to the cliffs on first one side and then the other.

In places where the conditions were just right, the floodplains of some rivers, especially tributaries, supported small mixed forests. In protected areas, especially on south-facing slopes away from the wind, chestnut, walnut, hazelnut, and apple trees grew, many stunted, and nonbearing in some years, but providing a welcome bounty in others. Along with the trees were a variety of fruit-bearing vines, bushes, and plants, including strawberries, raspberries, and currants, with some grapes, gooseberries, and blackberries, a few raspberry-like yellow cloudberries, and several varieties of round blueberries.

At even higher elevations, fragile tundra vegetation prevailed, especially the high massif to the north, which was cloaked with glacial ice, though it brandished several active volcanoes-Ayla and Jondalar had found hot springs in the region when they traveled through it several days before they arrived. Lichens clung to rocks, herbs hovered only inches above the ground, and dwarfed shrubs lay prostrate across the frigid land over a base of permanently frozen subsoil. Mosses in variegated colors of green and gray softened the landscape in wetter regions, along with reeds, rushes, and certain grasses. The diversity of vegetation throughout the region made for a richness of variety and choice, and encouraged a like richness of animal life.

They continued along a trail that turned northeast across the elevated field to the edge of a steep cliff that overlooked The River, which was now flowing almost precisely from north to south as it washed against the wall of limestone below. On relatively level ground the path crossed over a small stream, then took a northwestern turn. The creek continued to the edge and dropped down the face of the scarp. They drew to a halt when the trail began a gradual descent down the other side and turned back. On the way back they urged the horses to a gallop and raced across the high open field until the animals slowed of their own accord. When they came to the small stream again, they stopped to let the horses water, along with Wolf, and got down to get a drink themselves.

Ayla had not felt so wonderfully free riding the horse since she first climbed on the back of the mare. There were no encumbrances, no travois or traveling packs, not a saddle blanket or even a halter. Just her bare legs against the horse's back, the way she had originally learned to ride, transmitting signals to Whinney's sensitive skin-unconsciously at first-to guide the animal in the direction she wanted to go.

Racer had a rope halter; it was the way Jondalar had trained the stallion, though he'd had to invent both the device to hold the stallion's head and the signals to tell the horse where he wanted to go. He also felt free in a way that he hadn't for a long time. It had been a long Journey, and the responsibility of getting them home safely had weighed heavily on him. That weight was gone, along with his traveling packs, and riding the horse was nothing short of fun. They both felt exhilarated, excited, unaccountably pleased with themselves, and they showed it with their delighted smiles as they walked along the stream a few paces.

"That was a good idea, Ayla, going for a ride," Jondalar said, grinning at her.

"I think so, too," she said, smiling back the way that he always loved.

"Oh, woman, you are so beautiful," he said, putting his arms around her waist and looking down at her with his intensely blue and vibrant eyes showing all his love and happiness. The only place she had ever seen a color to match his eyes was on top of a glacier in the deep wells of meltwater.

"You are beautiful, Jondalar. I know you say that men are not called beautiful, but you are to me, you know." She put her arms around his neck, feeling the full force of the natural charisma that few could resist.

"You can call me anything you want," he said as he bent down to kiss her, and suddenly hoped it would not stop there. They had grown accustomed to their privacy, to being alone in the middle of the open landscape, away from curious eyes. He was going to have to get used to being around so many people again… but not just now.

His tongue gently prodded her mouth open, then reached for the softness and warmth inside. She explored his in return, closing her eyes to let herself feel the sensations he was already beginning to arouse. He held her close, enjoying the feel of her body next to his. And soon, he was thinking, they would have the ceremony to join together and form a hearth to which she would bring her children, the children of his hearth, perhaps the children of his spirit, and, if she was right, even more than that. They might even be his children, the children of his body, started with his essence. The same essence he could feel rising in him now.

He pulled back and looked at her, then with more urgency kissed her neck, tasted the salt on her skin, and reached for her breast. It was fuller, he could feel the difference already; soon it would be full of milk. He untied the belt around her waist, reached inside to hold the firm round weight, and felt the hard erect nipple in his palm.

He lifted her top and she helped him pull it off, and then she stepped out of her short pants. For a moment, he just looked at her standing in the sun, and filled his eyes with the womanliness of her: the beauty of her smiling face, the firm muscularity of her body, the large, high breasts and proud nipples, the slight rounding of her stomach, the dark blond hair of her mound. He loved her so much, wanted her so much, tears came to his eyes…

Quickly, he unfastened his own clothing and laid them out on the grass. She took a few paces toward him, and when he stood up, she reached for him as he enfolded her in his arms. She closed her eyes as he kissed her mouth, and her neck and throat, and when he filled his hands with her breasts, she filled hers with his rearing manhood. He dropped to his knees, tasting the salt of the skin of her neck and running his tongue from her throat to her cleavage, holding both breasts, and then as she bent over slightly, he took a nipple in his mouth.

She held her breath, feeling the jolt of excitement reach all the way to her place of Pleasures inside, and another when he changed to the other nipple and suckled hard, while he massaged the first with his knowing fingers. Then he pressed her breasts together to get both in his mouth at once. She moaned and gave herself up to the sensations.

He traced each hard, eager nipple again and dropped lower, to her navel, then to her mound, flicked his warm tongue into her slit, and tickled the small knob within. Fierce sensations raced through her as she arced toward him and a cry escaped her lips. With his arms wrapped around her rounded bottom, he pulled her toward him pushing his tongue in and out of her slit over her hard nodule.

Standing there, her hands on his arms, her breath coming in short moaning gasps as she felt every warm stroke, she felt the tide rise inside her, pressing against her until suddenly it released with a spasm, and another, and another of delight. He felt the warmth and wetness, and savored the taste that was distinctly Ayla.

She opened her eyes and looked down at his mischievous smile. "You caught me by surprise," she said.

"I know," he said, grinning.

"It's my turn now," she said with a laugh, giving him a little shove that toppled him over. She covered him with herself and kissed him, noting the slight taste of herself. Then she nibbled his ear and kissed his neck and his throat, while he smiled with delight. He loved it when she had fun with him and joined him in playfulness when they felt in that mood.

She was kissing his chest and his nipples, and running her tongue through his hair and to his navel, and then lower still until she found his full, ready member. He closed his eyes when he felt her warm mouth cover him, letting the feeling fill him as she moved up and down, creating suction along the way. He had taught her, ash e had been taught, the ways to please each other. For a moment he thought of Zelandoni, when she was young and known as Zolena, remembering when he thought he'd never find a woman like her. But he had, and suddenly he was so overwhelmed, he sent a thought of gratitude to the Great Earth Mother. What would he do if he ever lost Ayla?

His mood suddenly changed. He had enjoyed being playful, but now he wanted the woman. He sat up, pulled her up on her knees to face him, and sat her on his lap with her legs on either side of him. He took her in his arms and kissed her with an intensity that surprised her, then held her tight. She didn't know what had changed his mood, but her love for him was as strong and she responded in kind.

Then he was kissing her shoulders and neck, and caressing her breasts. She felt his need upon him so hard, it almost raised her up. He was nuzzling her breasts, trying to find her nipples. She lifted up a bit, arched her back, and felt the sensations race through her as he suckled and nibbled. She felt his hard, fiery rod under her and raised up a little higher, and without thinking, she found herself guiding him into her.

It was almost more than he could bear as she lowered herself on him, taking him into her warm, wet, eager embrace. She lifted again, leaned back, while he held her close with one arm to keep one nipple in his mouth while he massaged her other one, as though he couldn't quite get enough of her full womanness.

She was guiding herself on him, feeling the Pleasure fill her with every stroke, breathing hard and crying out. Suddenly the need was stronger upon him, building with each lift and plunge. He let go of her breasts, leaned back on his hands, and raised up, lowered, and raised again. Both cried out as waves of intense Pleasure grew with each thrust, until with a glorious flood of shuddering release, they peaked in a culmination of delight.

A few more strokes and he lay back on the grass, felt a small stone under his shoulder and ignored it. Ayla lay forward, on top of him, her head resting on his chest, and stayed there for a while. Finally she sat up again. He smiled at her as she rose up and disengaged. He would have liked to stay close longer, but they did have to get back. She walked the few feet to the small stream and squatted down to rinse off. Jondalar rinsed off as well.

"We are going to be swimming and washing as soon as we get there," he said.

"I know. That's why I'm not being too careful."

For Ayla, cleansing herself, if it was at all possible, was a ritual taught to her by Iza, her Clan mother, though the woman had wondered if her strange daughter, so tall and unattractive, would ever have reason to use it. Because Ayla was so meticulous about it, even using freezing icy streams, it had become a habit for Jondalar as well, though he hadn't always been so fastidious.

When she went to get her clothes, Wolf approached her, head lowered and tail wagging. When he was young, she'd had to train him to stay away from them when they shared Pleasures on their Journey. It had annoyed Jondalar to have the wolf bother them, and she hadn't liked being interrupted, either. When it wasn't enough to tell Wolf, quite forcefully, to go away when he came sniffing around to see what they were doing, Ayla had been required to tie a rope around his neck to keep him away, sometimes quite a distance away. Eventually he had learned, but he always approached her cautiously afterward until she signaled him that it was all right.

The horses, patiently grazing nearby, came at their whistles. They rode to the edge of the plateau and stopped again to look down at the valleys of the primary river and its tributary, and the complement of limestone cliffs that paralleled their courses. From the high field they could see the confluence of the small river flowing from the northwest and the main stream as it approached from the east. The smaller river flowed into the primary just before the larger river turned south, while it was still moving down a west-flowing section of its course. To the south, at the end of a series of cliffs, they saw the geologic block of limestone that contained the tremendous overhanging ledge of the Ninth Cave, with its long front terrace. But as Ayla looked down at the home of the Ninth Cave, it was not the remarkable size of its overhanging shelter that held her attention, but another most unusual formation.

Long before, during a formative orogeny, a period of mountain building when impressive peaks were folded and raised at the leisurely pace of geologic time, a pillar of igneous rock broke away from the place of its volcanic birth and fell into a stream. The wall of stone from which the pillar had come had taken the shape of its crystal structure as fiery magma cooled into basalt, forming itself into great columns with flat sides meeting at angles.

As the rock that broke loose was moved along, pushed by torrential floods and dragged by glacial ice, the columnar piece of basalt, though bashed and battered, retained its basic shape. The pillar of stone was eventually deposited on the floor of an inland sea, along with deep layers of accumulated sediments of marine life that were creating limestone. Later earth movements raised the sea floor, which eventually became a land of rounded hills and cliffs along river valleys. As water, weather, and wind eroded the great faces of vertical limestone into the shelters and caves used by the Zelandonii, they also exposed the erratic, the battered piece of basalt from a distant location shaped like a column.

As if its sheer size weren't enough to make the site unique, the huge abri was made even more unusual by the strange long stone embedded near the top and jutting out of the front of the huge limestone overhang. Though buried deeply into the cliff at one end, it was weathering out at such an angle that it seemed about to fall, making a distinctive landmark that added a striking element to the extraordinary rock shelter of the Ninth Cave. Ayla had seen it when she first arrived and, with a shiver of recognition, felt she had seen it before. "Does that stone have a name?" she asked, pointing to it. "It's called the Falling Stone," Jondalar said. "That's a good name for it," she said. "And didn't your mother mention names for those rivers?"

"The main river doesn't really have a name," Jondalar said. "Everyone just calls it The River. Most people think of it as the most important river in the region, even though it's not the biggest. It flows into a much larger one south of here-in fact, we call that one Big River-but many of the Zelandonii Caves live near this one, and everyone knows it's the one that's meant when someone says The River.

"The little tributary down there is called Wood River," Jondalar continued. "Many trees grow near it, and there is more wood in that valley than in most. It's not used by hunters much." Ayla nodded in tacit understanding.

The valley of the feeder stream, flanked on the right by limestone cliffs and on the left by steep hills, was not like most of the open grassy valleys of the main river and its other nearby tributaries. It was dense with trees and vegetation, especially upstream. Unlike more open areas, woodlands were not prized by hunters, because hunting was more difficult. Animals were harder to see with trees and brush to hide behind and use for camouflage, and those that migrated in large herds tended to prefer valleys with sizable fields of grass. On the other hand, the valley did provide wood, for constructions, and implements, and for fire. Fruits and nuts were also collected, and several other plants that were gathered for food and other uses, along with smaller animals that fell to snares and traps. In a land of relatively few trees, no one disdained the value of Wood River Valley's contributions.

At the northeastern edge of the Ninth Cave's terrace below, which also offered a view of the two river valleys, Ayla saw the obvious remains of a good-size fire. She hadn't noticed it when she was there, she had been more concerned with following the trail down to the horse's meadow in Wood River Valley.

"Why is there such a large hearth at the edge of the terrace, Jondalar? It can't be for warmth; is it used for cooking?"

"That's a signal fire," he said, then continued when he noticed her puzzled expression. "A big balefire can be seen for quite a distance from that spot. We send messages to other Caves with the fires, and they pass the messages on with their signal fires."

"What kind of messages?"

"Oh, many kinds. They are used a lot when herds are moving, letting hunters know what's been seen. They are sometimes used to announce events or gathers, or some other kind of meeting."

"But how does someone know what the fire means?"

"It's usually arranged in advance, especially when it's the season for certain herds to move and a hunt is planned. And there are certain fire signals that mean someone needs help. Any time that people see a fire burning there, they know to take notice. If they don't know what it means, they will send a runner to find out."

"That's a very clever idea," she said, then added a thought. "It's something like the Clan signs and signals, isn't it? Communicating without words."

"I never thought of it that way, but I suppose you're right," he said.

Jondalar went back a different way from the one they had come. He headed toward The River Valley along a switchback trail that traversed a zigzag down the steeper incline near the top, then turned right through grass and brush on the more gradual slope. It came out along the edge of the flat lowlands of the right bank of The River and cut directly across Wood River Valley to the horse's meadow.

On the way back, Ayla felt relaxed, but she didn't have the exhilarating sense of freedom that she'd had on the ride out. Though she liked everyone she had met so far, there was still the big feast, and she was not anticipating meeting the rest of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii tonight. She wasn't used to so many people all at once.

They left Whinney and Racer in the grassy lea and found the place where the soap plant grew, but Jondalar had to point it out. It was one Ayla was not familiar with. She studied it carefully, noted similarities and differences, and made sure she would know it in the future, then got her pouch of dried ceanothus flowers.

Wolf jumped into The River with them but didn't stay in long after they stopped paying attention to him. After a long swim to soak away the dust and grime of traveling, they crushed the root of the plant and some water in a depression of a flat rock with a rounded stone to release the saponin-rich foam. They rubbed it on themselves and, laughing, on each other, then dove under to rinse off. She gave some ceanothus to Jondalar, then applied some directly to her wet hair. The plant was not as soapy, foaming up only a little, but it smelled sweet and fresh. By the time she rinsed again, the young woman was ready to get out.

After drying with the soft skins, they spread them out and sat on them, sunning themselves. Ayla picked up the comb with four long teeth that had been carved out of mammoth ivory, which was a gift from her Mamutoi friend, Deegie, but when she started combing her hair, Jondalar stopped her.

"Let me do that for you," he said, taking the comb. He had developed a fondness for combing her hair after she washed it, taking pleasurable delight in feeling the thick mass of wet hair dry into soft, springy tresses. And it made her feel unaccustomedly pampered.

"I like your mother and your sister," Ayla said, sitting with her back to him while he combed, "and Willamar, too."

"They like you, too."

"And Joharran seems like a good leader. Do you know you and your brother have the same frown lines?" she asked. "I had to like him, he looks so familiar."

"He was smitten by that beautiful smile of yours," Jondalar said. "Just as I am."

Ayla was quiet for a time, then showed the direction her thoughts had taken with her next comment. "You didn't tell me there were so many people in your Cave. It's like a whole Clan Gathering lives here," she said. "And you seem to know them all. I'm not sure if I ever will."

"Don't worry. You will. It won't take you long," he said, trying to work out a particularly irksome tangle. "Oh, sorry, did I pull too hard?"

"No, it's fine. I'm glad I finally met your Zelandoni. She knows medicine; it will be wonderful to have someone to talk with about it."

"She's a powerful woman, Ayla."

"That's obvious. How long has she been Zelandoni?"

"Let me think," he answered. "Not long after I left to live with Dalanar, I think. I still thought of her as Zolena then. She was beautiful. Voluptuous. I don't think she was ever thin, but she is growing to look more and more like the Great Mother. I think she likes you." He stopped combing for a moment, paused, then started to laugh.

"What's so funny?" Ayla asked.

"I was listening to you tell her how you found me, and about Baby and all. She'll be asking you more questions, you can be sure. I was watching her expression. Every time you answered a question, she probably wanted to ask you three more. You just made her more curious. You do it every time. You are a mystery, even to me. Do you know just how remarkable you are, woman?"

She had turned around, and he was looking at her with loving eyes.

"Give me a little time and I'll show you how remarkableyou can be," she answered, a lazy, sensuous smile spreading across her face. Jondalar reached over to kiss her.

They heard a laugh and they both jerked around.

"Oh, did we interrupt anything?" said a woman. It was the attractive light-haired, dark-eyed woman who had listened to Folara tell her friends about the newly arrived travelers. Two other women were with her.

"Marona!" Jondalar said, frowning slightly. "No, you are not interrupting anything. I'm just surprised to see you."

"Why should you be surprised to see me? Did you think I had left on an unexpected Journey?" Marona said.

Jondalar squirmed and glanced at Ayla, who was looking at the women. "No. Of course not. I guess I'm just surprised."

"We were just out taking a walk when we happened to see you there, and I admit, Jondalar, I couldn't resist wanting to make you feel a little uncomfortable. After all, we were Promised."

They hadn't been formally Promised, but he didn't argue with her. He knew he had certainly given her the impression that they were.

"I didn't know that you would still be living here. I thought you might have mated someone from another Cave," Jondalar said.

"I did," she said. "It didn't last, so I came back." She had been eyeing his hard, tanned, naked body in a way that was familiar to him. "You haven't changed much in five years, Jondalar. Except for a few nasty scars." She turned her gaze to Ayla. "But we really didn't come here to talk to you. We came to meet your friend," Marona said.

"She'll be formally introduced to everyone tonight," he said, feeling protective of Ayla.

"That's what we heard, but we don't need a formal introduction. We just wanted to greet her and make her welcome."

He could hardly refuse to introduce them. "Ayla, of the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi, this is Marona of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, and her friends," he looked more closely, "Portula? Of the Fifth Cave? Is it you?" Jondalar asked.

The woman smiled and blushed with pleasure to be remembered. Marona frowned at her. "Yes, I'm Portula, but I'm Third Cave now." She certainly remembered him. He had been chosen for her First Rites.

But he recalled that she had been one of those young women who had followed him around afterward, trying to get him alone, even though they were forbidden to associate for at least a year after First Rites. Her persistence had spoiled somewhat his memory of a ceremony that usually left him with a warm glow of fondness for the young woman involved.

"I don't think I know your other friend, Marona," Jondalar said. She seemed to be a little younger than the other two.

"I am Lorava, Portula's sister," the young woman said.

"We all became acquainted when I was mated to a man from the Fifth Cave," Marona said. "They came to visit me." She turned to Ayla. "Greetings, Ayla of the Mamutoi."

Ayla stood up to return the greetings. Although it normally wouldn't have bothered her, she found herself feeling slightly disconcerted to be greeting unfamiliar women with no clothes on, and wrapped her drying skin around her, tucking it in at the waist, and put her amulet back around her neck.

"Grrreetings, Marrrona, of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonyee."

Ayla said, her slightly rolled r's and peculiar throaty accent marking her immediately as a stranger. "Grrreetings, Formula of the Fifth Cave, and Grrreetings to her Sister, Lorrrava," she continued.

The younger woman tittered at Ayla's funny way of talking and then tried to hide it, and Jondalar thought he noticed a trace of a smirk on Marona's face. His brow wrinkled in a frown.

"I wanted to do more than greet you, Ayla," Marona said. "I don't know if Jondalar ever mentioned it, but as you know by now, we were Promised before he decided to leave on this great Journey he suddenly had to make. As I'm sure you must know, I wasn't very pleased about it."

Jondalar was trying to think of something to say to ward off what he felt sure was coming, Marona letting Ayla know that she was very unhappy by giving her an earful of his faults, but she surprised him.

"But that was in the past," Marona said. "To be honest, I haven't thought about him in years, until you arrived today. Other people may not have forgotten, however, and some of them like to talk. I wanted to give them something else to talk about, to show them that I can greet you appropriately." She motioned toward her friends to include them. "We were going to go to my room to get ready for your Welcome Feast tonight, and we thought you might like to join us, Ayla. My cousin Wylopa is there already-you remember Wylopa, don't you, Jondalar? I thought it would give you a chance to get acquainted with some women before all the formal meetings tonight."

Ayla noticed some tension, particularly between Jondalar and Marona, but under the circumstances that wouldn't be unusual. Jondalar had mentioned Marona, and that they had been almost Promised before he left, and Ayla could imagine how she would feel in the woman's place. But Marona had been straightforward about it, and Ayla did want to get to know some of the women better.

She missed women friends. She had known so few women her own age when she was growing up. Uba, Iza's true daughter, had been like a sister to her, but Uba was much younger, and while Ayla had grown to care for all the women of Brun's clan, there were differences. No matter how hard she tried to be a good Clan woman, some things she could not change. It wasn't until she went to live with the Mamutoi and met Deegie that she came to appreciate the fun of having someone her own age to talk to. She missed Deegie, and Tholie of the Sharamudoi, too, who had quickly become a friend that Ayla would always remember.

"Thank you, Marona. I would like to join you. This is all I have to wear," she said, quickly putting on her simple, travel-strained outfit, "but Marthona and Folara are going to help me make some clothes. I'd like to see what you wear."

"Perhaps we can give you a few things, as a welcoming gift," Marona said.

"Would you take this drying skin back with you, Jondalar?" Ayla said.

"Of course," he said. He held her close for a heartbeat and brushed her cheek with his, then she left with the three women.

As Jondalar watched them go, his troubled frown deepened. Though he hadn't formally asked Marona to be his mate, he had led her to believe they would be joined at the Matrimonial of the upcoming Summer Meeting before he left, and she had been making plans. Instead he left with his brother on a Journey and just hadn't shown up. It must have been difficult for her.

It wasn't that he had loved her. There was no doubt she was beautiful. Most men considered her to be the most beautiful and desirable woman at the Summer Meetings. And though he didn't entirely agree, she certainly had her ways when it came to sharing Doni's Gift of Pleasure. She just wasn't the one he desired most. But people said they were perfect for each other, they looked so good together, and everyone had expected them to tie the knot. He more or less did, too. He knew he wanted to share a hearth with a woman and her children someday, and since he couldn't have Zolena, the one woman he wanted, it might as well be Marona.

He had not really admitted it to himself, but he had felt relieved when he decided to go with Thonolan on a Journey. At the time, it seemed the easiest way to extricate himself from his involvement with her. He had been sure she would find someone else while he was gone. She said she had, but it hadn't lasted. He had expected to find her with a hearth full of children. She didn't say anything about children at all. It was surprising.

He had no idea he would find her unmated when he returned. She was still a beautiful woman, but she did have a temper and a vicious streak. She could be very spiteful and vindictive. Jondalar's forehead knotted with concern as he watched Ayla and the three women walking toward the Ninth Cave.

Chapter 6

Wolf saw Ayla walking along the path through the horse meadow with the three women and raced toward her. Lorava squealed at the sight of the large carnivore, Portula gasped and looked around in panic for a place to run, and Marona blanched in fear. Ayla glanced at the women as soon as she saw the wolf and, noting their reactions, quickly signaled him to stay.

"Stop, Wolf!" she voiced aloud, more for the benefit of the women than to halt the animal, although it did reinforce her signal. Wolf stopped in his tracks and watched Ayla, alert for a sign that he could approach her. "Would you like to meet Wolf?" she said, then, seeing that the women still showed fear, she added, "He won't hurt you."

"Why would I want to meet an animal?" Marona said.

The tone of her voice made Ayla look more closely at the light-haired woman. She noted fear but, surprisingly, an inflection of disgust and even anger. Ayla could understand the fear, but the rest of Marona's reaction seemed inappropriate. It was certainly not the response she was used to seeing the animal evoke. The other two women looked at Marona, then seemed to follow her lead, showing no indication that they wanted to get close to the wolf.

Wolf's stance had become more wary, Ayla saw. He must sense something, too, she thought. "Wolf, go find Jondalar," she said, giving him a signal to go. He stayed a moment longer, watching her, then bounded away as she turned to walk up the path toward the enormous stone shelter of the Ninth Cave with the three women.

They passed by several people on the path, and each one showed an immediate reaction to seeing her with the women. Some cast speculative glances or bemused smiles, some seemed surprised, even startled. Only young children seemed to pay no attention to them. Ayla could not help but notice, and it put her a bit on edge.

She studied Marona and the other women, though not obviously, using the techniques of women of the Clan. No one could be more inconspicuous than Clan women. They could quietly fade into the background and seem to disappear, and they gave the impression that they were not aware of anything around them, but that was misleading.

From the time they were very young, girls were taught never to stare or even look directly at a man, to be unobtrusive, and yet they were expected to know when one needed or wanted her attention. As a consequence, Clan women learned to focus carefully and precisely, and with a glance absorb significant information from posture, movement, and expression very quickly. And they missed little.

Ayla was as adept as any of them, though she wasn't as aware of this legacy of her years with the Clan as she was of her ability to read body language. Her observations of the women put her on guard and made her think again about Marona's motives, but she didn't want to make any assumptions.

Once they were under the stone ledge they headed in a different direction from the one she had gone before and entered a large dwelling more toward the middle of the space. Marona led them in and they were greeted by another woman who seemed to be waiting for them.

"Ayla, this is my cousin, Wylopa," Marona said on their way through the main room and into a side sleeping room. "Wylopa, this is Ayla."

"Greetings," Wylopa said.

After the rather formal introductions Ayla had had to all of Jondalar's close kin, this offhand presentation to Marona's cousin, with no welcome though it was her first time in this dwelling, struck Ayla as odd. It was not consistent with the behavior she had already come to expect from the Zelandonii.

"Grrreetings, Wylopa," Ayla said. "This dwelling, is it yourrrs?"

Wylopa was surprised at Ayla's unusual enunciation and was so unused to hearing any language other than her own, she had some trouble understanding the stranger.

"No," Marona interjected. "This is the home of my brother and his mate, and their three children. Wylopa and I live here with them. We share this room."

Ayla glanced quickly around at the space set off by panels, similar to the way Marthona's dwelling was divided.

"We were going to fix our hair and faces for the celebration tonight," Portula said. She glanced at Marona with an ingratiating smile, which became a smirk when she looked back at Ayla. "We thought you might like to get ready with us."

"Thank you for asking me. I would like to see what you do," Ayla said. "I don't know Zelandonii ways. My friend Deegie used to fix my hair sometimes, but she is Mamutoi, and lives very far away. I know I will never see her again, and I miss her. It's nice to have women friends."

Portula was surprised and touched by the newcomer's honest and friendly response; her smirk warmed to a real smile.

"Since it's a feast to welcome you," Marona said, "we thought we would give you something to wear, too. I asked my cousin to gather some clothes for you to try on, Ayla." Marona looked at clothing that had been placed around. "You've found a good selection, Wylopa." Lorava giggled. Portula looked away.

Ayla noticed several outfits spread out on the bed and floor, primarily leggings and long-sleeved shirts or tunics. Then she looked at the clothing the four women were wearing.

Wylopa, who seemed older than Marona, was wearing an outfit similar to the ones laid out, worn quite loose, Ayla noticed. Lorava, who was rather young, had on a short sleeveless leather tunic, belted around the hips, cut somewhat differently from the ones spread out. Portula, who was fairly plump, wore a full skirt made of some kind of fibrous material and a loose-fitting top with a long fringe that hung over the skirt. Marona, who was thin but shapely, had on a very short sleeveless top, open in front, profusely decorated with beads and feathers, with a reddish fringe around the bottom that stopped just below her waist, and a loincloth skirt, similar to the kind Ayla had worn on hot days on her Journey.

Jondalar had shown her how to take a rectangular strip of soft leather, pull it up between her legs, and tie it on with a thong around her waist. Letting the long ends hang down both front and back, and pulling them together at the sides, made the loincloth resemble a short skirt. Marona's, she noticed, was fringed on both front and back ends. She had left an open space on both sides, showing a long, bare, shapely leg, and tied the thong low, barely over her hips, causing the fringe in front and back to sway when she walked. Ayla thought Marona's clothes-the very short top that did not meet in front and could never be closed, and the skimpy loincloth skirt-looked small for her, as though they had been made for a child, not a woman. Yet she was certain that the light-haired woman chose her clothing purposefully and with great care.

"Go ahead, pick something out," Marona said, "and then we'll fix your hair. We want this to be a special night for you."

"All these things look so big, and heavy," Ayla said. "Won't they be too warm?"

"It cools off at night," Wylopa said, "and these clothes are supposed to be worn loose. Like this." She lifted her arms and showed the loose blousy fit.

"Here, try this on," Marona said, picking up a tunic. "We'll show you how it's supposed to be worn."

Ayla removed her own tunic, then her amulet bag from around her neck and put it on a shelf, and let the women slip the other tunic over her head. Even though she was taller than any of the four women, it hung down to her knees and the long sleeves fell below her fingertips.

"This is too big," Ayla said. She didn't see Lorava, but she thought she heard a muffled sound behind her.

"No, it's not," Wylopa said, smiling broadly. "You just need a belt, and you're supposed to roll up the sleeves. Like I did, see? Portula, bring that belt, so I can show her."

The plump woman brought a belt, but she wasn't smiling anymore, unlike Marona and her cousin, who smiled excessively. Marona took the belt and wrapped it around Ayla. "You tie it low, like this, around your hips, and let it blouse out, and then the fringe hangs down. See?"

Ayla still felt there was far too much material. "No, I don't think this one fits right. It really is too big. And look at these leggings," she said, taking the pair that was beside the tunic and holding them in front of herself. "The waist comes up much too high." She pulled the tunic off over her head.

"You're right," Marona said. "Try on another one." They picked out another outfit, slightly smaller and very intricately decorated with ivory beads and shells.

"This is very beautiful," Ayla said, looking down at the front of the tunic. "Almost too beautiful…"

Lorava snorted strangely, and Ayla turned to look at her, but she was facing away.

"But it's really very heavy, and still too big," Ayla continued, taking off the second tunic.

"I suppose you might think it's too big if you're not used to Zelandonii clothes," Marona said, frowning, then she brightened with a self-satisfied smile. "But perhaps you are right. Wait here. I think I know something that would be just perfect, and it was just made." She left the sleeping room and went into another part of the dwelling. After a while, she returned with another outfit.

This one was much smaller and lighter in weight. Ayla tried it on. The tight leggings came halfway down her calf but fit correctly at the waist, where the front overlapped and tied with a sturdy flexible thong. The top was a sleeveless tunic, with a deep V cut down the front, laced together with thin leather thongs. It was a little small, and Ayla could not lace it together tightly, but with the thongs loosened, it wasn't bad. Unlike the others, it was a simple, undecorated outfit, made of a soft leather that felt nice against her skin.

"This is very comfortable," Ayla said.

"And I have just the thing to set it off," Marona said, showing her a belt woven out of various colored fibers into an intricate pattern.

"This is beautifully made and very interesting," Ayla said as Marona tied it low around her waist. She felt satisfied with the outfit. "This one will do," she said. "I thank you for your gift." She put on her amulet and folded her other clothes.

Lorava choked and coughed. "I need some water," she said, and dashed from the room.

"Now, you must let me fix your hair," Wylopa said, still smiling broadly.

"I promise to do your face after I do Portula's," Marona said.

"And you said you'd fix my hair, Wylopa," Portula said.

"You promised to do me, too," Lorava said from the entrance to the room.

"If you are over your coughing spell," Marona said, giving the young woman a hard look.

While Wylopa combed and fussed with her hair, Ayla watched with interest as Marona decorated the faces of the two other women. She used solidified fats mixed with finely powdered red and yellow ochres to add color to mouths, cheeks, and forehead, and mixed with black charcoal to emphasize the eyes. Then she used more intense shades of the same colors to add carefully drawn designs of dots, curved lines, and various other shapes to their faces in a way that reminded Ayla of the tattoos she had seen on some people.

"Let me do your face now, Ayla," Marona said. "I think Wylopa is done with your hair."

"Oh, yes!" Wylopa said. "I'm finished. Let Marona do your face."

While the face decorations of the women were interesting, Ayla felt uncomfortable with the idea. In Marthona's dwelling, there was a subtle use of color and design that was very pleasing, but Ayla wasn't sure she liked the way the women looked. It seemed too much, somehow.

"No… I don't think so," Ayla said.

"But you have to!" Lorava said, looking dismayed.

"Everyone does it," Marona said. "You would be the only one without it."

"Yes! Go on. Let Marona do it. It's what all the women do," Wylopa said.

"You really should," Lorava urged. "Everyone always wants Marona to paint her face. You're lucky she's willing."

They were pressing her so hard, it made Ayla want to resist. Marthona had not said anything to her about having to get her face painted. She wanted to take the time to find her way and not be pushed into customs she was not familiar with.

"No, not this time. Perhaps later," Ayla said.

"Oh, go ahead and do it. Don't spoil everything," Lorava said.

"No! I don't want to have my face painted," Ayla said with such firm resolve, they finally stopped pressing her.

She watched them dress each other's hair in intricate plaits and coils, placing decorated combs and pins attractively. Finally, they added facial ornaments. Ayla hadn't really noticed the holes at strategic locations in their faces until they put earrings into their earlobes and pluglike ornaments into their noses, cheeks, and under the lower lips, but she saw that some of the painted decorations now accentuated the ornaments that had been added.

"Don't you have any piercings?" Lorava asked. "You'll just have to get some. Too bad we can't do them now."

Ayla wasn't sure if she wanted to be pierced, except perhaps in the earlobes so she could wear the earrings she had brought with her all the way from the Summer Meeting of the Mammoth Hunters. She watched the women add beads and pendants around their necks and bracelets on their arms.

She noticed that the women glanced from time to time at something behind a dividing panel. Finally, a little bored with all the combing and decorating, she got up and wandered over to see what they were looking at. She heard Lorava gasp when she saw the piece of blackened shiny wood, similar to the reflector in Marthona's dwelling, and looked at herself.

Ayla was not happy with the reflection she saw. Her hair had been dressed into braids and coils, but they seemed to be in odd unattractive placements, not in the pleasing symmetrical order of the other women. She saw Wylopa and Marona looking at each other, then look away. When she tried to catch the eye of one of the women, they avoided her. Something strange was going on, and she didn't think she liked it. She certainly did not like what had been done to her hair.

"I think I'll wear my hair loose," Ayla said as she began to take out the combs, pins, and bindings. "Jondalar likes it that way." When she had removed all the paraphernalia, she picked up the comb and pulled it through her long, thick, dark blond hair, springy with a fresh-washed natural wave.

She adjusted her amulet around her neck-she never liked to be without it, though she often wore it under her clothes-then looked at herself in the reflector. Maybe someday she'd learn to fix her own hair, but for now she liked it much better the way it fell naturally. She glanced at Wylopa and wondered why the woman hadn't seen how peculiar her hair had looked.

Ayla noticed her leather amulet bag in the reflector and tried to see it the way someone else might. It was lumpy with the objects it contained, and the color was much darker from sweat and wear than it had been. The small decorated bag had originally been intended as a sewing kit. Now, only dark quill-shafts remained of what had once been white feathers decorating the rounded bottom edge, but the ivory-beaded design was still intact and added an interesting look with the simple leather tunic. She decided to let it show.

She remembered that it was her friend Deegie who had persuaded her to use it as her amulet when she saw the plain and grimy pouch Ayla had worn before. Now this one was old and worn. She thought she ought to make a new one soon to replace it, but she would not throw this one away. It held too many memories.

She could hear activity outside and was getting very tired of watching the women adding insignificant little finishing touches to each other's face or hair that had no visible effect that she could discern. Finally there was a scratch on the rawhide panel beside the opening of the living structure.

"Everyone's waiting for Ayla," a voice called. It sounded like Folara.

"Tell them she'll be out soon," Marona answered. "Are you sure you won't let me paint your face a little, Ayla? After all, it is a celebration for you."

"No, I really don't want to."

"Well, since they're waiting for you, maybe you should go ahead. We'll be along in a while," Marona said. "We still have to change."

"I think I will," Ayla said, glad to have an excuse to leave. They had been inside for a long time, it seemed to her. "Thank you for your gifts," she remembered to say. "This is really a very comfortable outfit." She picked up her worn tunic and short pants and went out.

She saw no one under the overhanging shelter; Folara had gone ahead without waiting for her. Ayla quickly veered toward Marthona's dwelling and left her old clothing inside the entrance. Then she walked rapidly toward the crowd of people she saw outside, beyond the shadow of the high stone shelf that protected the structures nestled beneath it.

As she came out into the light of the late afternoon sun, a few people nearby noticed her and stopped talking to gape. Then a few more noticed her and stared, jostling their neighbors to look, too. Ayla slowed down and then stopped, looking back at the people who were looking at her. Soon all the talking stopped. Suddenly, into the stillness, someone let out a stifled guffaw. Then another person laughed, and another. Soon everyone was laughing.

Why were they laughing? Were they laughing at her? Was something wrong? Her face reddened with embarrassment. Had she committed some terrible blunder? She looked around, wanting to run away but not knowing which way to turn.

She saw Jondalar striding toward her, his face an angry scowl. Marthona was hurrying toward her, too, from another direction.

"Jondalar!" Ayla called out as he approached. "Why is everyone laughing at me? What's wrong? What have I done?" She was speaking in Mamutoi and didn't realize it.

"You are wearing a boy's winter underwear. Your belt is one that is worn by a young man during his puberty initiation, to let people know he is ready for his donii-woman," Jondalar said in the same language she had spoken. He was furious that Ayla had been made the butt of such a cruel joke on her first day with his people.

"Where did you get those clothes?" Marthona asked as she approached.

"Marona," Jondalar answered for her. "When we were at The River, she came and told Ayla that she wanted to help her dress for the celebration tonight. I should have guessed she had some vicious plan in mind to get back at me."

They all turned around and looked back under the abri toward the dwelling of Marona's brother. Standing just inside the shadows of the overhang were the four women. They were holding their sides, leaning against each other, laughing so hard at the woman they had tricked into wearing completely inappropriate boys' clothing, that tears were streaming down their faces, smearing their careful makeup with red and black streaks. Ayla realized they were taking great pleasure in her discomfort and embarrassment.

As she watched the women, she felt a flush of anger rise within her. This was the gift they wanted to give her? To welcome her? They wanted people to laugh at her like this? She understood then that everything they had laid out for her was inappropriate for a woman. It was obvious to her now that it all had been men's clothing. But it wasn't only the clothes, she realized. Was that why they had made her hair look so peculiar? So people would laugh at her? And had they planned to paint her face to make her look laughable, too?

Ayla had always rejoiced in laughter. When she lived with the Clan, she was the only one who laughed with pleasure, until her son was born. When people of the Clan made a grimace that resembled a smile, it was not a sign of happiness. It was an expression of nervousness, or fearfulness, or it signaled a threat of possible aggression. Her son was the only baby who smiled and laughed as she did, and though it made them uneasy, she had loved Durc's happy giggles.

When she had lived in the valley, she had laughed with delight at the antics of Whinney and Baby when they were young. Jondalar's ready smile and rare uninhibited laughter had made her know she had met her own kind in him, had made her love him more. And it had been Talut's welcoming smile and hearty bellow that encouraged her to visit the Lion Camp the first time they met. She had met many people in their travels, and had laughed with them many times, but she had never been laughed at before. She had never learned that laughter could be used to hurt. This was the first time laughter had caused her pain and not joy.

Marthona, too, was not happy with the nasty trick that had been played on the visitor, the guest of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, whom her son had brought home to mate with him and become one of them.

"Come with me, Ayla," Marthona said. "Let me get you something more appropriate. I'm sure we can find something of mine that you can wear."

"Or something of mine," Folara said. She had seen the whole incident and had come to help.

Ayla started to go with them, then stopped. "No," she said.

Those women had given her the wrong clothes as "gifts of welcome" because they wanted to make her look outlandish, different, to show she didn't belong. Well, she had thanked them for their "gifts" and she was going to wear them! It was not the first time she had been the object of stares. She had always been the odd one, the ugly one, the strange one, among the people of the Clan. They had never laughed at her-they didn't know how to laugh like that-but they had all stared at her when she arrived at the Clan Gathering.

If she had been able to stand being the only one who was different, who did not belong, the only one who was not Clan at the entire Clan Gathering, she could certainly stand up to the Zelandonii. At least they looked the same. Ayla straightened her back, clamped her jaw shut, jutted out her chin, and glared at the laughing throng.

"Thank you, Marthona. And you, too, Folara. But this outfit will do just fine. It was given to me as a gift of welcome. I would not be so discourteous as to cast it aside."

She glanced behind her and noticed that Marona and the others were gone. They had returned to Marona's room. Ayla turned back to face the large gathering of people who had assembled and started walking toward them. Marthona and Folara looked at Jondalar, stunned, when she passed by, but he could only shrug and shake his head.

Ayla caught a familiar movement out of the corner of her eye as she proceeded. Wolf had appeared at the head of the path and was running toward her. When he reached her, she patted herself and he jumped up and put his paws on the front of her shoulders, then licked her throat and took it gently in his jaws. There was an audible commotion from the crowd. Ayla signaled him down, then indicated that he should follow her, closely, the way she had taught him at the Mamutoi Summer Meeting.

As Ayla moved through the group, there was something about the way she walked, something about her determination, something about her defiant look in the face of those who laughed, and something about Wolf walking at her side, that silenced them. Soon, no one felt like laughing anymore.

She walked into the midst of a group of people whom she had met before. Willamar, Joharran, and Zelandoni greeted her. She turned around to find Jondalar right behind her, followed by Marthona and Folara.

"I have not yet met some of the people here. Would you introduce me, Jondalar?" Ayla said.

Joharran stepped forward instead. "Ayla of the Mamutoi, Member of the Lion Camp, Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth, Chosen by the Spirit of the Cave Lion, and Protected by the Spirit of the Cave Bear… and Friend of horses and a wolf, this is my mate, Proleva of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, Daughter of…"

Willamar grinned as formal introductions were made to close kin and friends, but his expression was in no way derisive. Marthona, more and more amazed, observed with greater interest the young woman her son had brought home with him. She caught Zelandoni's eye, and a knowing glance passed between them; they would discuss this later.

Many people looked at her more than once-especially men, who began to notice how well the garments and belt fit the person wearing them, in spite of what they meant to them. She had been traveling for the past year, walking or riding a horse, and her muscles were firm. The close-fitting boy's winter undergarment emphasized her lean, muscular, well-formed body. Since she hadn't been able to lace the thongs together in front across her firm but rather ample breasts, the opening exposed her cleavage, somehow more enticing than the more familiar naked breasts they often saw. The leggings showed off her long, shapely legs and rounded buttocks, and the cinched belt, in spite of what its design symbolized, accented her waist, only slightly thickened with the early stages of pregnancy.

On Ayla the outfit took on new meaning. Although many women did wear facial ornaments and paint, her lack of them only served to highlight her natural beauty. Her long hair, tumbling loosely in the disarray of natural waves and ringlets that caught the last rays of the setting sun, was an appealing and sensuous contrast to the well-groomed coiffures of the other women. She seemed young and reminded adult men of their own youth and their first awakening to the Great Earth Mother's Gift of Pleasure. It made them wish they were young again and that Ayla was their donii-woman.

The outlandishness of Ayla's clothing was quickly forgotten, accepted as somehow appropriate for the beautiful stranger with the low-pitched voice and exotic accent. It was certainly no more strange than her control over horses and Wolf.

Jondalar noticed people watching Ayla and heard her name mentioned in the undercurrent of conversation. Then he overheard a man say, "That's a remarkably beautiful woman Jondalar has brought home with him."

"You'd expect him to bring a beautiful woman," a woman's voice replied, "but she has courage, too, and a strong will. I'd like to get to know her better."

The comments made Jondalar look at Ayla again, and suddenly he saw the way she looked, not the incongruity of the costume. Few women could claim such an exceptional shape, especially women of her age, who usually had had a child or two to slacken youthful muscle tone. Few would choose to wear such a close-fitting outfit even if it had been appropriate. Most would prefer looser, more concealing, and for them more comfortable clothes. And he did love her hair worn loose like that. She is a beautiful woman, he thought, and courageous. He relaxed and smiled, remembering their afternoon ride and the stop on the high field, thinking how lucky he was.

Marona and her three confederates had returned, still laughing, to her room to repair the damage to their face paint. They had planned to make their appearance later, dressed in their best and most suitable clothing, expecting to make a grand entrance.

Marona had exchanged the loincloth skirt for a long graceful one of very soft pliable leather with a long fringed overskirt, which she wrapped around her waist and hips and tied, but she wore the same decorated short top. Portula had been wearing her favorite skirt and top. Lorava had only the short tunic dress with her, but the other women had loaned her a long fringed overskirt and several extra necklaces and bracelets, and fixed her hair and painted her face much more elaborately than she had ever worn it before. Wylopa, laughing as she removed the decorated shirt and trousers made for a man, had changed into her own highly decorated trousers, dyed an orangy shade of red, and more deeply colored tunic with a dark fringe.

When they were ready, they left the dwelling and walked together to the open front terrace, but when people noticed Marona and her friends, they pointedly turned their backs on them and ignored them. The Zelandonii were not a cruel people. They had laughed at the stranger only because they were startled by the idea of a grown woman wearing a boy's winter underwear and puberty belt. But most of them were not pleased about the crude prank. It had reflected badly on all of them, made them seem to be discourteous and inhospitable. Ayla was their guest and would very likely soon be one of their own. And besides, she had carried it off so well, it showed her mettle, made them proud of her.

The four women saw a large group crowded around someone, and when several people left, they could see Ayla at the center, still wearing the clothes they had given her. She hadn't even changed! Marona was shocked. She had been sure one of Jondalar's kin would have given the newcomer something more appropriate to wear-that is, if she dared to show her face again. But her plans to show up the strange woman that Jondalar had brought back with him, after leaving her in the lurch with nothing but an empty promise, had instead shown what a spiteful and mean-spirited person she was.

Marona's cruel joke had turned back on her, and she was fuming. She had coaxed and cajoled her friends into joining her, promising them they would be the center of attention, telling them how much they would shine. Instead, everyone seemed to be talking about Jondalar's woman. Even her strange accent, at which Lorava had nearly laughed out loud, and Wylopa had had difficulty understanding, was called exotic and charming.

Ayla was the one getting all the attention, and Marona's three friends were sorry they had allowed themselves to be persuaded. Portula, in particular, had been reluctant. She had agreed only because Marona had promised to paint her face, and Marona was known for her intricate facial designs. Ayla had not seemed so bad. She was friendly, and now she definitely was making friends… with everyone else.

Why hadn't they seen how the boy's outfit showed off the newcomer's beauty when she put it on? But the women had seen what they expected to see, the symbolism, not the reality. None of them could have imagined wearing such garments in public, but they didn't matter to Ayla. She had no emotional or cultural sensitivity toward them or what they represented. If she thought about them at all, it was only to notice how comfortable they were. Once the shock of the laughter had subsided, she forgot about it. And because she did, everyone else did, too.

A large block of limestone with a fairly flat top surface occupied a space on the terrace in front of the great abri. It had broken off the end of the overhanging shelf so long before, no one remembered a time when it wasn't there. It was often used when someone wanted to get the attention of people who had gathered in the area, because when a person stood on it, it raised them a few feet above the level of the crowd.

As Joharran jumped up onto the Speaking Stone, an expectant hush began to descend on the gathering. He held his hand out to Ayla, to help her up, then to Jondalar to invite him to stand beside her. Wolf jumped up without an invitation and stood between the woman and man of the only pack he had ever known. Standing together on the rock elevated above the others, the tall handsome man, the beautiful exotic woman, and the huge magnificent wolf made a stunning scene. Marthona and Zelandoni, who were standing side by side, looked at the trio, and then at each other for a moment, each filled with her own thoughts that would have been hard to put into words.

Joharran stood, waiting until the crowd noticed them and quieted. Looking out at the people, he was sure the entire Ninth Cave was looking back at him. Not a single person seemed to be missing. Then he recognized several people from nearby Caves, and then several more. He realized the gathering was much larger than he had anticipated.

Most of the Third Cave were on the left, and the Fourteenth Cave were beside them. Toward the back on the right were many people from the Eleventh. There were even a few from the Second Cave and some from their kin across the valley that separated them, the Seventh Cave. Interspersed among the others he noted a few people from the Twenty-ninth, and even a couple from the Fifth. Every Cave in the neighboring vicinity was represented, and some had come quite a distance.

Word has spread fast, he thought, runners must have gone out. We might not need to have a second gathering for the larger community. Everyone seems to be here. I should have realized they would be. And all the Caves upriver along the way must have seen them, too. After all, Jondalar and Ayla traveled south sitting on the backs of horses. There may be a lot more people at the Summer Meeting this year. Maybe we should plan a big hunt before we leave, to help with provisions.

When he had everyone's attention, he waited a beat more while he collected his thoughts. Finally, he began.

"As leader of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, I, Joharran, wish to speak." The last few voices stilled. "I see that we have many visitors tonight, and in the name of Doni, the Great Earth Mother, I am pleased to welcome all of you to this gathering to celebrate the return of my brother Jondalar, from his long Journey. We are grateful that the Mother watched over his steps as he walked in strange lands, and thankful that She guided his wandering feet back home again."

Voices of concurrence called out. Joharran paused, and Ayla noticed his brow furrow in that same familiar way that Jondalar's so often did. She felt the same warm glow of affection for him that she had the first time she noticed that likeness.

"As most of you may know already," Joharran continued, "the brother who started out with Jondalar will not return. Thonolan walks the next world now. The Mother called a favorite back to Her." He looked down at his feet for a moment.

There was that reference again, Ayla thought. It was not necessarily considered lucky to have too many talents, too many Gifts, to be loved so much that one was considered favored of the Mother. She sometimes missed Her favorites and called them back to Her early, when they were still young.

"But Jondalar did not return alone," Joharran continued, then he smiled at Ayla. "I don't think many people would be surprised to learn that my brother met a woman on his Journey." There was a titter of laughter and many knowing smiles from the crowd. "But I must admit that I didn't expect even Jondalar to find someone quite so remarkable."

Ayla felt her face redden when Joharran's words became clear. This time her embarrassment was not because of ridiculing laughter, but the result of his praise.

"Proper introductions to each individual here could take days, especially if everyone decided to include all their names and ties." Joharran smiled again and many people responded with nods and knowing looks. "And our guest would never remember everyone, so we decided to introduce our visitor to all of you, and let each of you introduce yourselves as you have the opportunity."

Joharran turned and smiled at the woman standing on the raised stone with him, but then he looked at the tall blond man and his expression became more serious. "Jondalar of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, Master Flint-Knapper; Son of Marthona, former Leader of the Ninth Cave; born to the Hearth of Dalanar, Leader and Founder of the Lanzadonii; Brother of Joharran, Leader of the Ninth Cave, has returned after five years from a long and difficult Journey. He has brought with him a woman from a land so distant, it took a full year just to make the Journey back."

The leader of the Ninth Cave took both of Ayla's hands in his. "In the name of Doni, the Great Earth Mother, I present to all the Zelandonii, Ayla of the Mamutoi, Member of the Lion Camp, Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth, Chosen by the Spirit of the Cave Lion, and Protected by the Spirit of the Cave Bear," then he smiled, "and as we have seen, Friend of horses and this wolf." Jondalar was convinced the wolf smiled, as though he knew he had been introduced.

Ayla of the Mamutoi, she thought, remembering when she was Ayla of No People and feeling a great swelling of gratitude toward Talut and Nezzie and the rest of the Lion Camp for giving her a place to claim. She struggled to hold back the tears that threatened. She missed them all.

Joharran dropped one of Ayla's hands, but, holding up the other, faced out toward the assembled Caves. "Please welcome this woman who traveled so far with Jondalar, welcome her to this land of the Zelandonii, the Great Mother Earth's Children. Show this woman the hospitality and respect with which the Zelandonii honor all their guests, especially one of the Blessed of Doni. Let her know we value our visitors."

There were sidelong glances in the direction of Marona and her friends. The joke wasn't at all funny anymore. It was their turn to feel embarrassed, and Portula, at least, turned crimson when she looked up at the foreign woman standing on the Speaking Stone wearing a Zelandonii boy's underwear and puberty belt. She hadn't known the clothing she was given was inappropriate. It didn't matter. The way she wore it made it entirely proper.

Then Ayla, feeling a need to do something, took a small step forward. "In the name of Mut, Great Mother of All, whom you know as Doni, I greet you Zelandonii, Children of this beautiful land, Children of the Great Earth Mother, and thank you for welcoming me.

I thank you, too, for accepting my animal friends into your midst; for allowing Wolf to stay with me inside a dwelling." Wolf looked up at her at the sound of his name. "And for providing a place for the horses, Whinney and Racer."

The immediate reaction of the crowd was startled surprise. Though her accent was quite noticeable, it wasn't the way she spoke that astonished the people. In the spirit of the formality of the introductions, Ayla said the name of her mare the way she had originally given it to Whinney, and they were stunned by the sound that had come out of her mouth. Ayla had made such a perfect horse's whinny that for a moment, they thought it was a horse. It was not the first time she had surprised people with her ability to imitate the sound of an animal-a horse was not the only animal she could mimic.

Ayla had no memory of the language she had known as a child; she could not remember anything about her life before the Clan, except a few vague dreams and a mortal fear of earthquakes. But Ayla's kind had an inherent compulsion, a genetic drive nearly as strong as hunger, for verbal speech. When she was living alone in the valley after she left the Clan and before she had learned to speak again from Jondalar, she developed verbalizations for herself to which she attributed meaning, a language only she, and Whinney and Racer to some extent, could understand.

Ayla had a natural aptitude for reproducing sounds, but having no verbal language and living alone, hearing only the sounds made by animals, she began to mimic them. The personal language she devised was a combination of the baby sounds her son had begun to make before she was forced to leave him, the few words spoken by the Clan, and onomatopoeic mimicking of the sounds made by animals, including bird whistles. Time and practice had made her so proficient at imitating their sounds, even the animals could not tell the difference.

Many people could imitate animals, it was a useful hunting strategy if the mimic was good enough, but she was so good, it was uncanny. That was what caused the moment of consternation, but the people, who were used to a certain element of banter from speakers when the occasion wasn't entirely serious, became convinced she had made the sound as a gesture of humor. The initial shock gave way to smiles and chuckles as they relaxed.

Ayla, who had been a bit apprehensive at their first reaction, noticed the easing of tension and relaxed in turn. When they smiled at her, she could not help but smile back, one of her glorious, beautiful smiles that seemed to make her glow.

"Jondalar, with a filly like that, how are you going to keep the young stallions away?" a voice called out. It was the first open acknowledgment of her beauty and appeal.

The yellow-haired man smiled. "I'll have to take her out riding often, keep her busy," he said. "You know that I learned how to ride while I was gone, don't you?"

"Jondalar, you knew how to 'ride' before you left!"

There was a burst of laughter; this time, Ayla realized, the laughter was meant in fun.

Joharran spoke up when it settled down. "I have only one more thing to say," he said. "I want to invite all the Zelandonii who have come from neighboring Caves to join the Ninth Cave in the feast we have prepared to welcome Jondalar and Ayla home."

Chapter 7

Marvelous aromas had been emanating from community cooking areas at the unoccupied far southwestern end of the abri all day, stimulating everyone's appetite, and a number of people had been busy with last minute preparations before Joharran began to speak. After the introductions, as the throng pressed toward the far end, Jondalar and Ayla were urged ahead, although the crowd was careful to allow space around the wolf, who followed a step behind the woman.

The food was attractively arranged on platters and in bowls of shaped bone, woven grass and fiber, and carved wood and displayed on long, low tables made of blocks and slabs of limestone. Bent wood tongs, carved horn spoons, and large flint knives were conveniently nearby, ready to be used as serving implements. Most people brought their own eating dishes, though there were extras for those who needed them.

Ayla stopped to admire the display for a moment. There were whole roasted haunches of young reindeer, plump grouse, platters of trout and pike, and, even more prized during the early summer season, servings of still scarce vegetables: young roots, fresh greens, new shoots, and tightly coiled young ferns. Edible sweet milkweed flowers added a pleasing decoration to many of the dishes. There were also nuts and dried fruits from the previous autumn's harvest, and containers of rich broth with chunks of reconstituted dried aurochs meat, roots, and mushrooms.

The thought struck Ayla that if they still had such prized food left after living through the rigors of the long winter, it spoke well, indeed, for their ability to organize the collection, preservation, storage, and distribution of adequate provisions to maintain the several Caves of Zelandonii throughout the cold season. The two hundred or so people of the Ninth Cave alone would have been too large a community for a less productive region to sustain year-round, but the exceptionally rich environment, as well as the large number of unusually convenient and serviceable natural shelters, encouraged the growing population of several Caves.

The home of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii was a high limestone cliff whose face was carved by weather and wear into an enormous, overhanging shelf that went from slightly south of due east to almost southwest in a long, shallow, south-facing curve that followed The River. The jutting overhang sheltered an area six hundred fifty feet in length and almost one hundred fifty feet in depth, offering nearly one hundred thousand square feet of covered living space. The stone floor of the abri beneath, layered with centuries of packed dirt and stone rubble, extended as a terrace or front porch somewhat beyond the edge of the huge rock ledge.

With so much space available, the members of the Ninth Cave did not fill up the entire protected area with living structures. No one made a purposeful decision to do so, but perhaps intuitively to lay claim and declare boundaries distinct from the adjacent area where the craftspeople of the vicinity tended to congregate, the residential dwellings of the Ninth Cave were clustered at the eastern end of the abri. Since they had plenty of room to spread out, the site immediately to the west of the dwellings was used for the community workplaces. Southwest of that, and continuing toward the end, was a large unoccupied space for children to play and for people to gather outside of their dwellings yet still be protected from inclement weather.

Though none of the others approached the size of the Ninth Cave, there were many other Zelandonii Caves along The River and its tributaries, most of them living, at least in winter, in similar sheltered limestone abris with capacious front porches of the same material. Though the people didn't know it, and their descendants wouldn't even think in such terms for many millennia, the location of the land of the Zelandonii was halfway between the North Pole and the equator. They didn't need to know it to understand the benefits of their middle-latitude position. They had lived there for many generations and had learned from experience, passed down through example and lore, that the territory had advantages in all seasons, if one knew how to utilize them.

In summer, people tended to travel around the larger region that they thought of as Zelandonii land, usually living in the open in tents or lodges constructed of natural materials, especially when gathering together into larger groups and often when visiting or hunting or harvesting quantities of vegetable produce. But when they could, they were always happy to find a south-facing stone shelter to use temporarily, or to share the shelters of friends and kin, because of their distinct advantages.

Even during the Ice Age, when the leading edge of the nearest mass of ice was only a few hundred miles to the north, clear days could get quite hot at middle latitudes in the warm season. As the sun passed overhead, seeming to circle the great mother planet, it rode high in the southwest sky. The great protective overhanging cliff of the Ninth Cave, and others that faced south or southwest, cast a shadow beneath it in the heat of midday, offering a respite of enticing cool shade.

And when the weather began to chill, heralding the severe season of intense cold in periglacial territories, they welcomed their more permanent and protected homes. During the glacial winters, though sharp winds and temperatures well below freezing prevailed, the bitter cold days were often dry and clear. The shining orb hung low in the sky then, and the long rays of the afternoon sun could penetrate deep into a south-facing shelter to lay a kiss of solar warmth on the receptive stone. The great limestone abri cherished its precious gift, holding it until evening, when the nip of frost bit deeper, then it gave back its warmth to the protected space.

Proper clothing and fire were essential to survival on the northern continents when glaciers covered nearly a quarter of the earth's surface, but in the land of the Zelandonii passive solar heat made a significant contribution toward warming their living space. The huge cliffs with their protective shelters were a significant reason the region was among the most heavily populated in all that cold ancient world.

Ayla smiled at the woman responsible for organizing the feast. "It looks so beautiful, Proleva. If the wonderful smells hadn't made me so hungry, I would just like to look at it."

Proleva smiled back, pleased.

"That is her specialty," Marthona said. Ayla turned, somewhat surprised to see Jondalar's mother; she had looked for her before she stepped down from the Speaking Stone but couldn't find her. "No one can put together a feast or a gathering like Proleva. She's a good cook, too, but it's her skill at organizing the contributions of food and help from other people that makes her such an asset to Joharran and the Ninth Cave." ;

"I learned from you, Marthona," Proleva said, obviously delighted at the high praise from the mother of her mate.

"You have more than outdone me. I was never as good at making feasts as you have become," Marthona said.

Ayla noticed the very specific reference to making feasts and recalled that Marthona's "specialty" had not been organizing feasts and gatherings. Her organizing skills had been utilized as the leader of the Ninth Cave before Joharran.

"I hope you let me help you next time, Proleva," Ayla said. "I would like to learn from you."

"I'd be happy to have your help next time, but since this feast is for you, and people are waiting for you to start, can I serve you some of this young reindeer roast?"

"What about your wolf-animal?" Marthona asked. "Would he like some meat?"

"He would, but he doesn't need tender young meat. He would probably be happy with a bone, if there is one with a little meat left on it that isn't needed for soup," Ayla said.

"There are several by the cooking fires over there," Proleva said, "but do take a slice of this reindeer and some daylily buds for yourself first."

Ayla held out her eating bowl to accept the piece of meat and ladle of hot green vegetables, then Proleva called another woman to come and serve the food and walked with Ayla toward the cooking hearths, staying on her left side, away from Wolf. She led them to the bones piled to one side of a large hearth and helped Ayla pick out a broken long bone with a shiny knob at one end. The marrow had been extracted, but pieces of brownish drying raw meat were still clinging to it.

"This will do fine," Ayla said, while the wolf eyed her with tongue-lolling anticipation. "Would you like to give it to him, Proleva?"

Proleva frowned nervously. She didn't want to be impolite to Ayla, especially after Marona's trick, but she wasn't eager to give a bone to a wolf.

"I would," Marthona said, knowing it would make everyone less fearful to see her do it. "What should I do?"

"You can hold it out to him, or you can toss it to him," Ayla said. She noticed that several people, including Jondalar, had joined them. He had an amused smile on his face.

Marthona took the bone and held it out toward the animal as he approached, then with a change of mind, she tossed it in the general direction of the wolf. He jumped up and grabbed it in the air with his teeth, a trick that drew appreciative comments, then he looked at Ayla expectantly.

"Take it over there, Wolf," she said, signaling him as well, indicating the big charred stump at the edge of the terrace. The wolf carried the bone like a prized possession, settled himself near the stump, and began to gnaw on it.

When they went back to the serving tables, everyone wanted to give Ayla and Jondalar samples of special treats, which she noticed had a different variety of tastes from the ones she had known in her childhood. One thing she had learned on her travels, however, was that whatever foods the people of a region liked best, while they might be unusual, they generally tasted good.

A man, somewhat older than Jondalar, approached the group that surrounded Ayla. Though Ayla thought he appeared rather slovenly-his unwashed blond hair was dark with grease, and his clothing was grimy and needed repair-many people smiled at him, particularly the young men. He carried a container, similar to a waterbag, over his shoulder. It had been made from the nearly waterproof stomach of an animal and was full of liquid, which distended its shape.

By the size of it, Ayla guessed the container had probably come from the stomach of a horse; it did not appear to have the distinctive contours of a waterbag made from a ruminant with a multiple-chambered stomach. And by the smell, she knew it did not contain water. Rather, the odor reminded her of Talut's bouza, the fermented drink that the headman of the Lion Camp made out of birch sap and other ingredients-which he liked to keep secret but usually included grains of some kind.

A young man who had been hovering near Ayla looked up and smiled broadly. "Laramar!" he said. "Have you brought some of your barma?"

Jondalar was glad to see him distracted. He didn't know him, but had learned the man's name was Charezal. He was a new member of the Ninth Cave who had come from a rather distant group of Zelandonii, and quite young. He probably hadn't even met his first donii-woman when I left, Jondalar thought, but he had been fluttering around Ayla like a gnat.

"Yes. I thought I would make a contribution to the Welcome Feast for this young woman," Laramar said, smiling at Ayla.

His smile seemed insincere, which aroused her Clan sensitivity. She paid closer attention to the language his body spoke and quickly decided this was not a man to be trusted.

"A contribution?" one of the women asked with a hint of sarcasm. Ayla thought it was Salova, the mate of Rushemar, one of the two men whom she regarded as Joharran's seconds in command, as Grod had been Brun's in the Clan. Leaders needed someone they could rely on, she had decided.

"I thought it was the least I could do," Laramar said. "It isn't often that a Cave can welcome someone from so far away."

As he lifted the heavy bag from his shoulder and turned to put it down on a nearby stone table, Ayla overheard the woman mutter under her breath, "And even less often that Laramar contributes anything. I wonder what he wants."

It seemed obvious to Ayla that she was not alone in mistrusting the man. Others did not trust him, either. It made her curious about him. People with cups in hand were already gathering around him, but he made a point of singling out Ayla and Jondalar.

"I think the returned traveler and the woman he brought with him should get the first drinks," Laramar said.

"They can hardly refuse such a great honor," Salova murmured.

Ayla barely heard the scornful comment and wondered if anyone else did. But the woman was right. They could not refuse. Ayla looked at Jondalar, who pointedly emptied the water from his cup and nodded toward the man. She emptied her cup as they walked up to Laramar.

"Thank you," Jondalar said, smiling. Ayla thought his smile was as insincere as Laramar's. "This is very thoughtful of you. Everyone knows your barma is the best, Laramar. Have you met Ayla yet?"

"Along with everyone else," he said, "but I haven't really been introduced."

"Ayla, of the Mamutoi, this is Laramar of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii. It is true. No one makes barma better than his," Jondalar said.

Ayla thought it seemed a rather limited formal introduction, but the man smiled at the praise. She handed Jondalar her cup to free both of her hands and held them out to the man. "In the name of the Great Earth Mother I greet you, Laramar of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii," she said.

"And I welcome you," he said, taking her hands, but holding them only briefly, almost as if he was embarrassed. "Rather than a formal one, let me offer you a better welcome."

Laramar proceeded to open the container. First he unwrapped a waterproof piece of cleaned intestine from a pouring spout that had been made of a single vertebra from the backbone of an aurochs. Extraneous material around the tubular bone had been carved away and a groove cut around the outside. Then it had been inserted into a natural opening of the stomach and a strong cord tied around the skin that encircled the bone so that it was pulled into the groove, to hold it in place and make a watertight connection. Then he pulled out the stopper, a thin leather thong that had been knotted several times at one end until it was big enough to plug the central hole. It was much easier to control the flow of liquid from the flexible bag through the natural hole in the center of the solid section of spine.

Ayla had retrieved her cup from Jondalar and held it out. Lara-mar filled it somewhat more than half-full. Then he poured some for Jondalar. Ayla took a small sip. "This is good," she said, smiling. "When I lived with the Mamutoi, the headman, Talut, used to make a drink similar to this out of birch sap and grains and other ingredients, but I must admit, this is better."

Laramar looked around at the people nearby with a smirk of satisfaction.

"What is this made of?" Ayla asked, trying to get the taste.

"I don't always make it the same way. It depends on what's available. Sometimes I use birch sap and grains," Laramar said, being evasive. "Can you guess what's in it?"

She tasted again. It was harder to guess ingredients when they were fermented. "I think there are grains, perhaps birch sap or sap from some other tree, and maybe fruit, but something else, something sweet. I can't tell the proportions, though, how much of each is used," Ayla said.

"You have a good sense of taste," he said, evidently impressed. "This batch does have fruit, apples that were left on a tree through a frost, which makes them a little more sweet, but the sweet you are tasting is honey."

"Of course! Now that you mention it, I can taste honey," Ayla said.

"I can't always get honey, but when I can, it makes the barma better, and stronger," Laramar said, this time with a smile that was genuine. There were not many with whom he could discuss the making of his brew.

Most people had a craft, something in which they developed the skill to excel. Laramar knew that he could make barma better than anyone. He considered it his craft, the one thing he could do well, but he felt that few gave him the credit he thought he deserved.

Many foods fermented naturally, some on the vine or tree on which they grew; even animals who ate them were sometimes affected. And many people made fermented beverages, as least occasionally, but they were inconsistent and their product often turned sour. Marthona was often cited for making an excellent wine, but it was considered by many a minor thing, and of course, it wasn't her only skill.

Laramar could always be counted on to make a fermented brew that became alcoholic, not vinegary, and his was often very good. He knew that it wasn't a minor thing, it took skill and knowledge to do it well, but most people cared only about his end product. It didn't help that he was known to drink a lot of it himself and was often too "sick" in the mornings to go hunting or to participate in some cooperative, sometimes unpleasant, but usually necessary activity that needed to be done for the Cave.

Shortly after he poured the barma for the guests of honor, a woman appeared at Laramar's side. A toddler was hanging on her leg that she seemed to be ignoring. She had a cup in her hand which she held toward Laramar. A flicker of displeasure danced across his features for a moment, but he held his expression carefully neutral as he poured her some barma.

"Aren't you going to introduce her to your mate?" she said, obviously directing her question to Laramar, but looking at Ayla.

"Ayla, this is my mate, Tremeda, and the one hanging on her is her youngest boy," Laramar said, complying with her request minimally, and somewhat reluctantly, Ayla thought.

"Tremeda, this is Ayla of the… Matumo."

"In the name of the Mother, I greet you, Tremeda of…" Ayla started, putting down her cup so she could use both hands in the formal greeting.

"I welcome you, Ayla," Tremeda said, then took a drink, not bothering with trying to free her hands for greetings.

Two more children had crowded around her. The clothing on allt he children was so ragged, stained, and dirty, it was hard to see the minor differences that Ayla had observed between young Zelandonii girls and boys, and Tremeda, herself, looked little better. Her hair was uncombed, her clothes stained and dirty. Ayla suspected that Tremeda indulged too heavily in her mate's brew. The eldest of the children, a boy, Ayla thought, was looking at her with an unpleasant expression.

"Why does she talk so funny?" he said, looking up at his mother. "And why is she wearing boy's underwear?"

"I don't know. Why don't you ask her?" Tremeda said, drinking the last of the liquid in her cup.

Ayla glanced at Laramar and noticed that he was fuming with anger. He looked ready to hit the youngster. Before he could, Ayla spoke to the boy. "The reason I have a different way of speaking is that I come from far away and grew up with people who don't talk the same way as the Zelandonii. Jondalar taught me to speak your language after I was already grown. As for these clothes, they were given to me as a gift earlier today."

The youngster seemed surprised that she had answered him, but he didn't hesitate to ask another question. "Why would someone give you boys' clothes?" the boy said.

"I don't know," she said. "Perhaps they meant it as a joke, but I rather like them. They are very comfortable. Don't you think so?"

"I guess so. I never had any as good as those," the boy said.

"Then perhaps we can make some for you. I'd be willing if you will help me," Ayla said.

His eyes lit up. "Do you mean it?"

"Yes, I mean it. Will you tell me your name?"

"I'm Bologan," he said.

Ayla held out both her hands. Bologan looked at her in surprise. He had not expected a full formal greeting and wasn't sure what to do. He didn't think he had a formal designation. He had never heard his mother or the man of his hearth greet anyone using their names and ties. Ayla reached down and took both his grimy hands in hers.

"I am Ayla of the Mamutoi, Member of the Lion Camp," she began, and continued with her full formal designation. When he didn't respond with his, she did it for him. "In the name of Mut, the Great Earth Mother, also known as Doni, I greet you, Bologan of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii; Son of Tremeda, Blessed of Doni, mated to Laramar, Maker of the Most Excellent Barma."

The way she said it made it sound as if he really did have names and ties to be proud of, like everyone else. He looked up at his mother and her mate. Laramar was not angry anymore. They were smiling and seemed rather pleased at the way she had named them.

Ayla noticed Marthona and Salova had joined them. "I would like some of that Most Excellent Barma," Salova said. Laramar seemed more than pleased to oblige.

"And me too," Charezal said, getting his request in first as other people started crowding around Laramar, holding out their cups.

Ayla noticed that Tremeda got another cupful, too, before she moved off, followed by the children. Bologan looked at her as they were moving away. She smiled at him and was pleased to see him smile back.

"I think you've made a friend of that young man," Marthona said.

"A rather rowdy young man," Salova added. "Are you really going to make him some winter underwear?"

"Why not? I would like to learn how this is made," Ayla said, indicating the clothing she had on. "I may have a son someday. And I might like to make another outfit for myself."

"Make one for yourself! You mean you are going to wear that?" Salova said.

"With a few variations, like a slightly better-fitting top. Have you ever tried one on? It is very comfortable. And besides, it was given to me as a gift of welcome. I'm going to show how much I appreciate it," Ayla said, a touch of her anger and pride showing.

Salova's eyes opened wide as she looked at the stranger Jondalar had brought home, suddenly conscious of her unusual enunciation again. This woman is not someone to anger, she thought. Marona may have tried to embarrass Ayla, but Ayla has turned it back on her. Marona will be the one who ends up being humiliated. She'll cringe every time she sees her wearing that outfit. I don't think I would want Ayla mad at me!

"I'm sure Bologan could use something warm to wear this winter," Marthona said. She had not missed a bit of the subtle communication between the two younger women. It's probably just as well for Ayla to begin establishing her place right away, she thought. People need to know she cannot be taken advantage of easily. After all, she will be mating a man who was born and raised among the people who are the responsible leaders of the Zelandonii.

"He could use something to wear anytime," Salova said. "Has he ever had anything decent? The only reason those children have anything at all is that people take pity on them and give them their castoffs. As much as he drinks, have you noticed that Laramar always manages to have enough barma to trade for whatever he wants, especially to make more barma, but not enough to feed his mate and her brood? And he's never around when something needs to be done, like spreading rock powder on the trenches, or even to go hunting.

"And Tremeda doesn't help," Salova continued. "They are too much alike. She's always too 'sick' to help with food gathering or community projects, though it doesn't seem to bother her to ask for a share of someone else's efforts to feed her 'poor, hungry children.' And who can refuse? They are indeed poorly dressed, seldom clean, and often hungry."

After the meal, the gathering became more boisterous, especially after Laramar's barma appeared. As darkness came on, the revelers moved to an area closer to the middle of the space under the huge rock shelf that roofed the entire settlement, and a large fire was lit barely under the edge of the overhead shelter. Even during the hottest days of summer, nighttime brought a penetrating chill, a reminder of the great masses of glacial ice to the north.

The bonfire threw heat back under the abri, and as the rock warmed, it added to the comfort of the surroundings. So did the friendly, if constantly changing, crowd gathered around the recently arrived couple. Ayla met so many people that, in spite of her exceptional memorizing skill, she wasn't sure she would remember them all.

Wolf suddenly appeared again about the same time as Proleva, carrying a sleepy Jaradal, joined the group. The boy perked up and wanted to get down, much to his mother's obvious dismay.

"Wolf won't hurt him," Ayla said.

"He's very good with children, Proleva," Jondalar added. "He was raised with the children of the Lion Camp, and was especially protective of one boy who was weak and sickly."

The nervous mother stooped to let the boy down while keeping an arm around him. Ayla joined them, putting her arm around the animal, primarily to reassure the woman.

"Would you like to touch Wolf, Jaradal?" Ayla asked. He nodded his head up and down solemnly. She guided his hand toward Wolf's head.

"He's tickly!" Jaradal said with a smile.

"Yes, his fur is tickly. It tickles him, too. He's shedding; that means some of his hair is coming out," Ayla said.

"Does it hurt?" Jaradal asked.

"No. It just tickles. That's why he especially likes to be scratched now."

"Why is his hair coming out?"

"Because it's getting warmer. In winter, when it's cold, he grows a lot of hair to keep warm, but it's too hot in summer," Ayla explained.

"Why doesn't he put a coat on when it's cold?" Jaradal pressed.

The answer came from another source. "It's hard for wolves to make coats, so the Mother makes one for them every winter," Zelandoni said. She had joined the group shortly after Proleva. "In summer, when it gets warm, the Mother takes their coats off. When Wolf sheds his fur, it's Doni's way of taking off his coat, Jaradal."

Ayla was surprised at the gentleness in the woman's voice as she talked to the small boy, and the look of tenderness in her eyes. It made her wonder if Zelandoni had ever wanted children. With her knowledge of medicine, Ayla was sure the donier would know how to dislodge a pregnancy, but it was more difficult to know how to start one or to prevent a miscarriage. I wonder how she thinks new life starts, Ayla thought, or if she knows how to prevent it.

When Proleva picked up the boy to take him to their dwelling, Wolf started to follow. Ayla called him back. "I think you should go to Marthona's dwelling, Wolf," she said, giving him a "go home" signal. His home was anyplace that Ayla had laid her furs.

As the chill darkness overwhelmed the region beyond the palliative of firelight, many people left the main celebration area. Some, especially families with young children, retired to personal dwellings. Others, mostly young couples but older people as well and occasionally more than two, were in the shadows around the edges of the fire, involved with each other in more private ways, sometimes talking, sometimes embracing. It was not uncommon to share partners at such events, and as long as all the parties were agreeable, no ill will resulted.

The occasion reminded Ayla of a celebration to Honor the Mother, and if it honored Her to share Her Gift of Pleasure, She seemed to be well honored that evening. The Zelandonii were not so different from the Mamutoi, Ayla thought, or the Sharamudoi, or the Losadunai, and even the language was the same as the Lanzadonii.

Several men tried to entice the beautiful stranger into sharing the Great Mother's pleasurable Gift. Ayla enjoyed the attention, but she made it plain that she had no desire for anyone except Jondalar.

He had mixed feelings about all the interest she was getting. He was pleased that she was so well received by his people, and proud that so many men admired the woman he had brought home, but he wished that they would not be so openly eager to take her to their furs-especially that stranger called Charezal-and he was glad that she showed no inclination for anyone else.

Jealousy was not well tolerated by the Zelandonii. It could lead to discord and strife, even fighting, and as a community, they valued harmony and cooperation above all else. In a land that was little more than a frozen waste for a large part of the year, willing mutual assistance was essential for survival. Most of their customs and practices were aimed at maintaining goodwill and discouraging anything, such as jealousy, that might jeopardize their amicable relations.

Jondalar knew he would have trouble hiding his jealousy if Ayla chose someone else. He did not want to share her with anyone. Perhaps, after they had been mated for many years and the comfort of habit occasionally gave way to the excitement of someone new, it would be different, but not yet, and in his heart he doubted if he could ever willingly share her.

Some people had started singing and dancing, and Ayla was trying to move in their direction, but everyone around her crowded in close, wanting to talk. One man in particular, who had been hovering around the edge of the group most of the evening, now seemed determined to speak to her. Ayla thought she had noticed someone unusual earlier, but when she tried to focus on him, someone else would ask her a question or make a comment that distracted her.

She looked up as a man handed her another cup of the barma. Though the drink reminded her of Talut's bouza, this was stronger. She was feeling a bit giddy and decided it was time to stop. She was familiar with the effects such fermented drinks could have on her, and she did not want to get too "friendly" the first time she met Jondalar's people.

She smiled at the man who had given her the cup in anticipation of politely refusing him, but the shock of seeing him froze the smile on her face for a moment. It quickly became an expression of genuine warmth and friendliness.

"I am Brukeval," he said. He seemed hesitant and shy. "I'm a cousin of Jondalar." His voice was quite low-pitched, but rich and resonant, very pleasing.

"Greetings! I am called Ayla of the Mamutoi," she said, intrigued by more than his voice or demeanor.

He did not quite resemble the rest of the Zelandonii she had met. Rather than the usual blue or gray eyes, his large eyes were quite dark. Ayla thought they might be brown, but it was hard to be sure in firelight. More startling than his eyes, however, was his general appearance. He had a look that was familiar to her. His features had the cast of the Clan!

He's a mixture, both Clan and Others. I'm sure of it, she thought. She studied him, but only with glances. He seemed to bring out her Clan woman training and she found herself being careful not to stare too directly. She didn't think he was an equal mixture of half Clan, half Others, like Echozar, to whom Joplaya was Promised… or her own son.

The look of the Others was stronger in this man; his forehead was essentially high and straight, sloping back only a little, and when he turned she could see that while his head was long, the back of it was round and lacked the protruding bony occipital bun. But his browridges, which overhung his large deep-set eyes, were his most distinctive feature, not quite as imposing as men of the Clan, but definitely prominent. His nose was quite big, too, and though more finely modeled than Clan men, it had the same general shape.

She thought he probably had a receding chin. His dark brown beard made it hard to tell, but the beard itself made the man seem similar to the men she had known as a child. The first time Jondalar had shaved, which he usually did in summer, it had been a shock to her, and it had made him appear very young, preadolescent. She had never seen a grown man without a beard before that. This man was somewhat shorter than average, slightly shorter than her, though he was powerfully built, burly with heavy muscles and a deep barrel chest.

Brukeval had all the masculine qualities of the men she had grown up with, and she thought he was quite handsome in a comfortable way. She even felt a slight tingle of attraction. She was also feeling tipsy-definitely no more cups of barma for her.

Ayla's warm smile communicated her feeling, but Brukeval thought there was an engaging shyness about her, too, in the way she glanced aside and looked down. He was not used to women reacting to him with such warmth, especially beautiful women who were with his tall, charismatic cousin.

"I thought you might want a cup of Laramar's barma," Brukeval said. "There have been so many people around you, all wanting to talk, but no one seemed to think you might be thirsty."

"Thank you. I actually am thirsty, but I don't dare have any more of that," she said, indicating the cup. "I've already had so much, I'm dizzy." Then she smiled, one of her full, glowing, irresistible smiles.

Brukeval was so entranced, he forgot to breathe for a moment. He'd been wanting to meet her all evening, but had been afraid to approach her. He had been casually spurned by beautiful women before. With her golden hair gleaming in the firelight, her firm and remarkably shapely body shown off becomingly by the soft clinging leather, and the slightly foreign features giving her an exotic appeal, he thought she was the most extraordinarily beautiful woman he had ever seen.

"Can I get you something else to drink?" Brukeval finally asked, smiling with a boyish eagerness to please. He hadn't expected her to be so open and friendly to him.

"Go away, Brukeval. I was here first," said Charezal, not entirely in fun. He had seen the way she smiled at Brukeval, and he had been trying all evening to entice Ayla away, or at least extract a promise that she would meet him some other time.

Few men would have been so persistent in trying to interest a woman chosen by Jondalar, but Charezal had moved to the Ninth Cave only the year before from a distant Cave. He was several years younger than Jondalar, had not even reached manhood by the time the man and his brother left on their Journey, and was not aware of the tall man's reputation as someone who had an incomparable way with women. He had learned only that day that the leader had a brother. He had, however, heard rumors and gossip about Brukeval.

"You don't think she's going to be interested in someone whose mother was half flathead, do you?" Charezal said.

There was a gasp from the crowd and a sudden silence. No one had openly made such a reference to Brukeval in years. His face distorted with a venomous look of pure hatred as he glared at the young man in a barely controlled rage. Ayla was stunned to see the transformation. She had seen that kind of rage from a man of the Clan once before, and it frightened her.

But this was not the first time someone had poked fun at Brukeval like that. He had felt especially sensitive to Ayla's predicament when she was laughed at for wearing the clothes Marona and her friends had given to her. Brukeval had been the butt of cruel jokes, too. He had wanted to run to her, protect her, as Jondalar did, and when he saw the way she stood up to their laughter, tears had come to his eyes. As he'd watched her walk so proudly and face them all down, he had lost his heart to her.

Later, though he ached to talk to her, he suffered agonies of indecision and hesitated to introduce himself. Women didn't always respond favorably to him, and he would rather have admired her from a distance than see her look at him with the disdain some beautiful women did. But after watching her for some time, he finally decided to take a chance. And then, she had been so nice to him! She had seemed to welcome his presence. Her smile had been so warm and receptive, it made her even more beautiful.

In the silence after Charezal's remark, Brukeval watched Jondalar move up behind Ayla, hovering protectively. He envied Jondalar. He had always envied Jondalar, who was even taller than most. Though he had never taken part in the sport of name-calling, and had in fact defended him more than once, he felt that Jondalar pitied him, and that was worse. Now Jondalar had come home with this beautiful woman that everyone admired. Why were some people so favored?

But his glare at Charezal had upset Ayla more than he could know. She hadn't seen an expression like that since she left Brun's clan; it reminded her of Broud, the son of Brun's mate, who had often looked at her like that. Though Brukeval was not angry at her, she shuddered at the memory and wanted to get away.

She turned to Jondalar. "Let's go. I'm tired," she said under her breath in Mamutoi, and realized that she really was-exhausted, in fact. They had just completed a long, hard Journey, and so much had happened, it was hard to believe they had arrived only that day. There had been the anxiety of meeting Jondalar's family and the sadness of telling them about Thonolan's death; the unpleasantness of Marona's joke as well as the excitement of meeting all the people of this large Cave; and now Brukeval. It was too much.

Jondalar could see that the incident between Brukeval and Charezal had distressed her, and he had some idea why. "It has been a long day," he said. "I think it's time for us to go."

Brukeval seemed upset that they were leaving so soon after he had finally gotten up courage to talk to her. He smiled hesitantly. "Do you have to go?" he asked.

"It's late. Many people have already gone to bed, and I am tired," she said, smiling back at him. Without that malevolent expression, she could smile at him, but it lacked the earlier warmth. They said good night to the people nearby, but when she looked back, she noticed Brukeval glaring again at Charezal.

As she and Jondalar walked back toward the dwellings and Marthona's place, Ayla asked, "Did you see the way your cousin was looking at Charezal? It was filled with hate."

"I can't say I blame him for being upset at Charezal," he said. Jondalar had not exactly warmed to the man, either. "You know it's a terrible insult to call someone a flathead, and even worse to say someone's mother is one. Brukeval has been teased before, especially when he was young-children can be cruel."

Jondalar went on to explain that when Brukeval was a child, whenever someone had wanted to tease him, they called him "flat-head." Though he lacked that specific characteristic of the Clan that had given rise to the epithet-the sloped-back forehead-it was the one word that was all but guaranteed to make him react with fury. And to the young orphan who had hardly known her, it was worse to refer to his mother in a way that meant the most despicable kind of abomination imaginable, half animal, half human.

Because of his predictable emotional response, with the casual cruelty of children, those who were bigger or older often teased him by calling him "flathead" or "son of an abomination" when he was young. But as he grew older, what he lacked in stature, he made up for in strength. After a few battles with boys who, though taller than him, were no match for his phenomenal muscular power, especially coupled with untempered rage, they stopped the hated taunts, at least to his face.

"I don't know why it should bother people so much, but it's probably true," Ayla said. "I think he is part Clan. He reminds me of Echozar, but Brukeval has less Clan. You can see it is not as strong-except for that look. That reminded me of the way Broud looked at me."

"I'm not so sure he's a mixture. Maybe some ancestor came from a distant place and it's only chance that he bears some superficial resemblance to f… Clan people," Jondalar said.

"He's your cousin, what do you know about him?"

"I don't really know much for sure, but I can tell you what I've heard," Jondalar said. "Some of the older people say that when Brukeval's grandmother was barely a young woman, she somehow got separated from her people while traveling to a Summer Meeting that was quite far away. She was supposed to have her First Rites at that meeting. By the time she was found it was the end of summer. They say she was irrational, hardly even coherent. She claimed she had been attacked by animals. They say she was never quite right again, but she didn't live long. Not long after she returned, it was discovered she had been blessed by the Mother, even though she had never had First Rites. She died shortly after giving birth to Brukeval's mother, or perhaps as the result of it."

"Where do they think she was?"

"No one knows."

Ayla frowned in thought. "She must have found food and shelter while she was gone," she said.

"I don't think she was starving," he said.

"The animals that attacked her, did she say what kind they were?"

"Not that I've heard."

"Did she have any scratch or bite marks or other injuries?" Ayla continued.

"I don't know."

Ayla stopped as they were approaching the area of the dwellings and looked at the tall man in the dim light of the crescent moon and the distant fire. "Don't the Zelandonii call the Clan animals? Did his grandmother ever say anything about the ones you call flatheads?"

"They do say she hated flatheads, and would run away screaming at the sight of one," Jondalar said.

"What about Brukeval's mother? Did you know her? What did she look like?"

"I don't recall much, I was pretty young," Jondalar said. "She was short. I remember that she had big, beautiful eyes, dark like Brukeval's, brownish, but not really dark brown, more hazel. People used to say her eyes were her best feature."

"Brownish, like Guban's eyes?" Ayla asked.

"Now that you mention it, I guess they were."

"Are you sure Brukeval's mother didn't have the look of the Clan, like Echozar… and Rydag?"

"I don't think she was considered very pretty, but I don't recall her having browridges, like Yorga. She never did mate. I guess men weren't too interested in her."

"How did she get pregnant?"

She could see Jondalar's smile even in the dark. "You are convinced that it takes a man, aren't you? Everyone just said the Mother Blessed her, but Zolena… Zelandoni once told me that she was one of those rare women who was Blessed immediately after First Rites. People always think that's too young, but it happens."

Ayla was nodding in agreement. "What happened to her?"

"I don't know. Zelandoni said she was never very healthy. I think she died when Brukeval was quite young. He was raised by Marona's mother, she was a cousin of Brukeval's mother, but I don't think she cared much for him. It was more an obligation. Marthona used to watch him sometimes. I remember playing with him when we were little. Some of the older boys picked on him even then. He has always hated it when someone called him a flathead."

"No wonder he was so furious at Charezal. At least now I understand. But that look…" Ayla shuddered again. "He looked just like Broud. As long as I can remember, Broud hated me. I don't know why. He just hated me and nothing I ever did could change it. For a while I tried, but I will tell you, Jondalar. I would never want Brukeval to hate me."

Wolf looked up in greeting when they entered Marthona's dwelling. He had found Ayla's sleeping furs and curled up near them when she told him to "go home." Ayla smiled when she saw his eyes glowing in the light of the one lamp Marthona had left burning. He licked her face and throat in eager welcome when she sat down. Then he welcomed Jondalar.

"He's not used to so many people," Ayla said.

When he went back to Ayla, she held his head between her hands and looked into his shining eyes. "What's the matter, Wolf? A lot of strangers to get used to? I know how you feel."

"They won't be strangers for long, Ayla," Jondalar said. "Everyone already loves you."

"Except Marona and her friends," Ayla said, sitting up and loosening the ties of the soft leather top that was meant to be winter underwear for boys.

He was still disturbed over the way Marona had treated her, and so was she, it seemed. He wished that she hadn't had to be put through such an ordeal, especially her first day here. He wanted her to be happy with his people. She would soon be one of them. But he was proud of the way she had handled it.

"You were wonderful. The way you put Marona in her place. Everyone thought so," he said.

"Why did those women want people to laugh at me? They don't know me, and they didn't even try to get acquainted."

"It's my fault, Ayla," Jondalar said, stopping in the middle of unlacing the ties around the upper portion of his footwear that was wrapped around the calf of one leg. "Marona had every right to expect me to be there for the Matrimonial that summer. I left without explanations. She must have been terribly hurt. How would you feel if you and everyone you knew expected you to mate someone who didn't show up?"

"I would be very unhappy, and angry at you, but I hope I wouldn't try to hurt someone I didn't know," Ayla said, loosening the waist ties of her leggings. "When they said they wanted to fix my hair, it made me think of Deegie, but I combed my own hair when I looked in the reflector and saw what they did. I thought you told me the Zelandonii were people who believed in courtesy and hospitality."

"They do," he said. "Most of them."

"But not everyone. Not your former women friends. Maybe you should tell me who else I should watch out for," Ayla said.

"Ayla, don't let Marona color your opinion about everyone else. Couldn't you tell how much most people liked you? Give them a chance."

"What about the ones who tease orphan boys and turn them into Brouds?"

"Most people are not like that, Ayla," he said, looking at her with a troubled expression.

She exhaled a long sigh. "No, you're right. Your mother is not like that, or your sister, or the rest of your kin. Even Brukeval was very nice to me. It's just that the last time I saw that expression was when Broud told Goov to put a death curse on me. I'm sorry, Jondalar. I'm just tired." Suddenly she reached for him, buried her face in his neck, and let out a sob. "I wanted to make a good impression on your people, and make new friends, but those women didn't want to be friends. They just pretended they did."

"You did make a good impression, Ayla. You couldn't have made a better one. Marona always did have a temper, but I was sure she would find someone else while I was gone. She is very attractive, everyone always said she was the Beauty of the Bunch, the most desirable woman at every Summer Meeting. I guess that's why everyone expected us to mate," he said.

"Because you were the most handsome and she was the most beautiful?" Ayla asked.

"I suppose," he said, feeling himself flush and glad for the faint light. "I don't know why she isn't mated now."

"She said she was, but it didn't last."

"I know. But why didn't she find someone else? It's not like she suddenly forgot how to Pleasure a man, or became less attractive and desirable."

"Maybe she did, Jondalar. If you didn't want her, maybe other men decided to look again. A woman who is willing to hurt someone she doesn't even know may be less attractive than you think," Ayla said as she pulled the leggings off one leg.

Jondalar frowned. "I hope it's not my fault. It's bad enough that I left her in such a predicament. I would hate to think I made it impossible for her to find another mate."

Ayla looked at him quizzically. "Why would you think that?"

"Didn't you say that maybe if I didn't want her, other men…"

"Other men might look again. If they didn't like what they saw, how is that your fault?"

"Well… ah…"

"You can blame yourself for leaving without explaining. I'm sure she was hurt and embarrassed. But she has had five years to find someone else, and you said she is considered very desirable. If she couldn't find someone else, it's not your fault, Jondalar," Ayla said.

Jondalar paused, then nodded. "You're right," he said, and continued removing his clothing. "Let's go to sleep. Things will look better in the morning."

As she crawled into her warm and comfortable sleeping furs, Ayla had another thought. "If Marona is so good at 'Pleasuring,' I wonder why she doesn't have any children?"

Jondalar chuckled. "I hope you are right about Doni's Gift making children. It would be like two Gifts…" He stopped as he was lifting his side of the covers. "But you're right! She doesn't have any children."

"Don't hold the cover up like that! It's cold!" she said in a loud whisper.

He quickly got into the sleeping roll and snuggled his naked body next to hers. "That could be the reason she never mated," he continued, "or at least part of it. When a man decides to mate, he usually wants a woman who can bring children to his hearth. A woman can have children, and stay at her mother's hearth, or even make her own hearth, but the only way a man can have children at his hearth is to mate a woman so she can bring her children to it. If Marona mated and didn't have any children, it could make her less desirable."

"That would be a shame," Ayla said, feeling a sudden stab of empathy. She knew how much she wanted children. She had wanted a baby of her own from the time she watched Iza give birth to Uba, and she was sure that it was Broud's hatred that had given her one. It was his hatred that had caused him to force her, and if he hadn't forced her, no new life would have started growing inside her.

She didn't know it at the time, of course, but looking closely at her son had made her understand. Brun's clan had never seen a child like hers, and since her son didn't look quite like her-like the Others-they thought he was a deformed child of the Clan; but she could see he was a mixture. He had some of her characteristics and some of theirs, and with a sudden insight, she had realized that when a man put his organ in that place where babies came from, somehow it made new life start. It wasn't what the Clan believed, and it wasn't what Jondalar's people or any of the Others believed, but Ayla was convinced it was true.

Lying next to Jondalar, knowing she was carrying his baby inside her, Ayla felt a pang of pity and sorrow for the woman who had lost him and, perhaps, could not have children. Could she really blame Marona for being upset? How would she feel if she lost Jondalar? Tears threatened at the thought, and a flush of warmth at her good fortune washed over her.

It was a nasty trick, though, and it could have turned out far worse than it did. Ayla couldn't help getting angry, and she hadn't known what they would do when she decided to face them all down. They all might have turned on her. She might feel sympathy for Marona, but she didn't have to like her. And then there was Brukeval. His Clan look had made her feel friendly toward him, but now she was wary.

Jondalar held her until he thought she was asleep, trying to stay awake until he was sure. Then he closed his eyes and slept, too. But Ayla woke up in the middle of the night, feeling a pressure and needing to relieve herself. Wolf silently followed her to the night basket near the entrance. When she got back into bed, he curled up next to her. She felt grateful for the warmth and protection of the wolf on one side and the man on the other, but it was a long time before she fell asleep again.

Chapter 8

Ayla slept late. When she sat up and looked around, Jondalar was gone, and Wolf, too. She was alone in the dwelling, but someone had left a full waterbag and a closely woven, watertight basin so she could freshen herself. A carved wooden cup nearby held a liquid. It smelled like mint tea, cold, but she was in no mood to drink anything at the moment.

She got up to use the large basket that was beside the door to relieve herself-she definitely noticed an increased frequency of need. Then she grabbed her amulet and quickly pulled it off to get it out of the way before she used the basin, not to wash herself, but to hold the results of her queasy stomach. Her nausea seemed worse than usual this morning. Laramar's barma, she thought. Morning-after sickness along with morning sickness. I think I'll forgo the drink from now on. It's probably not good for me right now anyway, or the baby.

When she had emptied her stomach, she used the mint tea to rinse out her mouth. She noticed that someone had placed the bundle of clean but stained clothes she had originally planned to wear the night before near her sleeping furs. As she put them on, she recalled leaving them just inside the entrance. She did intend to keep the outfit Marona had given her, partly because she was determined to wear the clothing again on principle, but also because it was comfortable and she really couldn't see anything wrong with wearing it. Not today, though.

She tied on the sturdy waist thong that she had worn while traveling, adjusted the knife sheath into its comfortably familiar place and arranged the rest of the dangling implements and pouches, and slipped her amulet bag back over her head. She picked up the smelly basin and carried it out with her, but she left it near the entrance, not quite sure where to dispose of its contents, and went to look for someone to ask. A woman with a child, who was approaching the dwelling, greeted her. From somewhere in the depths of her memory, Ayla came up with a name.

"Pleasant day to you… Ramara. Is this your son?"

"Yes. Robenan wants to play with Jaradal, and I was looking for Proleva. She wasn't at home, and I wondered if they were here."

"No one is in the dwelling. When I got up, everyone was gone. I don't know where they are. I'm feeling very lazy this morning. I slept rather late," Ayla said.

"Most people did," Ramara said. "Not many people felt like getting up early after the celebration last night. Laramar makes a potent drink. It's what he's known for-the only thing he's known for."

Ayla detected a tone of disdain in the woman's comments. It made her feel a little hesitation about asking Ramara where there was an appropriate place to dispose of her morning mess, but there was no one else nearby, and she didn't want to leave it.

"Ramara… I wonder if I could ask you, where can I… get rid of some… waste?"

The woman looked puzzled for a moment, then glanced in the direction that Ayla had inadvertently looked, and smiled. "You want the toilet trenches, I think. See over there, toward the eastern edge of the terrace, not out front where the signal fires are lit, but toward the back. There's a path."

"Yes, I see it," Ayla said.

"It goes uphill," Ramara continued. "Follow that a little way and you will come to a split. The left trail is steeper. It continues up and will take you to the top of this cliff. But take the right path. It curves up around the side until you can see Wood River below. A little beyond is a level open field with several trenches-you'll smell it before you get there," Ramara said. "It has been a while since we dusted it, and you can tell."

Ayla shook her head. "Dusted it?"

"Sprinkled it with cooked cliff dust. We do it all the time, but I don't suppose all people do," Ramara said, bending over and picking up Robenan, who was getting restless.

"How do you cook cliff dust? And why?" Ayla asked.

"How you do it is to start with cliff rock, pound it into dust, and heat it in a hot fire-we use the signal fire hearth-then strew it in the trenches. Why is because it takes away a lot of the smell, or covers it up. But when you pass water or add liquid, the dust tends to get hard again, and when the trenches fill up with waste and hardened rock dust, you have to dig new ones, which is a lot of work. So we don't like to dust them too often. But they need it now. We have a big Cave, and the trenches get used a lot. Just follow the path. You shouldn't have any trouble locating them."

"I'm sure I'll find them. Thank you, Ramara," Ayla said as the woman left.

She started to pick up the bowl, had another thought, and ducked inside to get the waterbag so she could rinse out the woven basin. Then she picked up the smelly thing and started for the path. Gathering and storing food for such a large Cave of people is a lot of work, she thought as she headed along the trail, but so is taking care of the waste. Brun's clan just went outside, the women in one place, the men in another, and they changed their places every so often. Ayla thought about the process Ramara had explained and was intrigued.

The heating, or calcining, of limestone to get quicklime and using it to decrease the smell of waste products was not a practice she was familiar with, but for people who lived in limestone cliffs and used fire continuously, quicklime was a natural by-product. After cleaning a hearth of ashes, which would invariably include the accidentally accumulated lime, and dumping them on a pile of other waste materials, it wouldn't take long for the deodorizing effect to be noticed.

With so many people living in one place, more or less permanently except during the summer when various groups of them were gone for periods of time, there were many tasks that required the effort and cooperation of the entire community, such as digging toilet trenches or, as she had just learned, roasting the limestone cliff rocks to make quicklime.

The sun was near its zenith before Ayla returned from the trench field. She found a sunny place near the back path to dry and air out the woven bowl, then decided to check on the horses and refill the waterbag at the same time. Several people greeted her when she reached the front terrace, some of whose names she recalled, but not all. She smiled and nodded in return, but felt a trifle embarrassed about those she couldn't remember. She took it as a failure of memory on her part and made a decision to learn who everyone was as soon as possible.

She remembered feeling the same way when members of Brun's clan let it be known that they thought she was somewhat slow because she couldn't remember as well as Clan youngsters. As a result, because she wanted to fit in with the people who had found and adopted her, she disciplined herself to remember what she was taught the first time it was explained. She didn't know that in the process of exercising her native intelligence to retain what she learned, she was training her own memorizing ability far beyond that which was normal for her own kind.

As time went on, she grew to understand that their memory worked differently from hers. Though she didn't fully understand what they were, she knew that people of the Clan had "memories" that she did not have, not in the same way. In a form of instinct that had evolved along a somewhat divergent track, the people of the Clan were born with most of the knowledge they would need to survive, information that over time had been assimilated into the genes of their individual ancestors in the same way that instinctive knowledge was acquired by any animal, including the human one.

Rather than having to learn and memorize, as Ayla did, Clan children only had to be "reminded" once in order to trigger their inherent racial memories. The people of the Clan knew a great deal about their ancient world and how to live in it, and once they learned something new, they never forgot; but unlike Ayla and her kind, they did not learn new things easily. Change was hard for them, but when the Others arrived in their land, they brought change with them.

Whinney and Racer were not where she had left them in the horse meadow, but were grazing farther up the valley, away from the more well-used area that was close to the confluence of Wood River with The River. When Whinney saw her, the mare dropped her head, flipped it up, and described a circle in the air with her nose. Then she arched her neck, lowered her head, and, with tail outstretched, ran toward the woman, eagerly happy to see her. Racer pranced alongside his dam with his neck proudly arched, ears forward and tail up, high-stepping toward her in a smooth-striding canter.

They nickered greetings. Ayla responded in kind and smiled. "What are you two so happy about?" she said, using Clan signs and the language of words she had invented for herself in her valley. It was the way she had talked to Whinney from the beginning, and the way she still talked to the horses. She knew they didn't entirely understand her, but they did recognize some of the words and certain of the signals, as well as the tone of voice that conveyed her delight in seeing them.

"You certainly are full of yourselves today. Do you know we've reached the end of our Journey and won't be traveling anymore?" she continued. "Do you like this place? I hope so." She reached out to scratch the mare in the places she liked, and then the stallion, then she felt around Whinney's sides and belly, trying to determine if she was carrying a foal after her tryst with the stallion.

"It's too early to tell for sure, but I think you are going to have a baby, too, Whinney. Even I don't show that much yet and I've already missed my second moon time." She examined herself the same way she had checked out the mare, thinking, my waist is thicker, my belly is rounder, my breasts are sore and a little bigger. "And I get sick in the morning," she continued saying and signing, "but only a little when I first get up, not like before, when I was sick all the time. I don't think there's any doubt that I'm pregnant, but I'm feeling good right now. Good enough to go for a ride. How would you like a little exercise, Whinney?"

The horse flipped up her head again, as if in reply.

I wonder where Jondalar is? I think I'll look for him and see if he wants to ride, she said to herself. I'll get the riding blanket, too, it is more comfortable, but bareback for now.

With a practiced, fluid movement, she grabbed the end of Whinney's short, stand-up mane and leapt onto her back, then headed toward the abri. She directed the horse with the tension of her leg muscles, without thinking about it-after so long, it was second nature-but she let the mare go at her own pace and just rode. She heard Racer following behind, as he was accustomed to doing.

I wonder how long I'll be able to jump on like that? I'll need to step up on something to reach her back when I get big, Ayla thought, then she almost hugged herself with pleasure at the idea that she was going to have a baby. Her thoughts strayed back to the long Journey they had just completed, and to the day before. She had met so many people, it was hard to remember them all, but Jondalar was right: most people were not bad. I shouldn't let the few who are unpleasant-Marona, and Brukeval when he behaved like Broud-spoil good feelings toward the rest. I wonder why it's easier to remember the bad ones. Maybe because there aren't many.

The day was warm; the hot sun warmed even the steady wind. As Ayla neared a small tributary, not much more than a trickle, but quick and sparkling, she looked upstream and saw a little waterfall coming down the rock face. She felt thirsty and, remembering that she had wanted to fill the waterbag, turned toward the water glinting down the side of the cliff.

She got off her horse, and they all took a drink from the pool at the bottom of the falls, Ayla from cupped hands, then she filled the waterbag with the cold, fresh liquid. She sat there a while, feeling refreshed and still a bit indolent, picking up small pebbles and idly tossing them into the water. Her eyes scanned the unfamiliar terrain, unconsciously noting details. She picked up another stone, rolled it in her hand, feeling the texture, looking at it but not seeing it, then tossed it.

It took a while for the character of the stone to penetrate her consciousness. Then she scrambled around to find it again, and when she picked it up-or one like it-she looked at it more carefully. It was a small, grayish-gold nodule, with the sharp angles and flat sides of its inherent crystal structure. Suddenly she reached for the flint knife she carried in the sheath on her belt and struck the stone with the back of it. Sparks flew! She struck it again.

"This is a firestone!" she shouted aloud.

She hadn't seen any since she left her valley. She looked closely at the stones and pebbles on the ground in and near the streambed, and spied another piece of iron pyrite, and then another. She picked up several as her excitement grew.

She sat back on her heels, looking at her small pile of similar stones. There are firestones here! Now we won't have to be so careful with the ones we have, we can get more. She could hardly wait to show Jondalar.

She gathered them up and a few more that she noticed, then whistled for Whinney, who had strayed off toward a patch of succulent green. But just before she made ready to mount, she saw Jondalar striding in their direction, Wolf at his side.

"Jondalar!" she called out, running toward him. "Look what I found!" she said, holding out several of the pieces of iron pyrite as she ran. "Firestones! There are firestones around here. They're all over this stream!"

He hurried toward her, beaming a great smile, as much in response to her exuberant delight as for the remarkable find. "I didn't know they were so close, but then I never much paid attention to this kind of stone, I was always looking for flint. Show me where you found them."

She took him to the little pool at the foot of the waterfall, then trained her eyes on the rocks of the streambed and along the sides of the diminutive waterway. "Look!" she said triumphantly. "There's another one," pointing at a stone on the bank.

Jondalar knelt down and picked it up. "You're right! This will make a difference, Ayla. It could mean firestones for everybody. If they are here, there may be other places nearby that have them, too. No one even knows about them yet, I haven't had a chance to tell anyone."

"Folara knows, and Zelandoni," Ayla said.

"How do they know?"

"Remember the calming tea Zelandoni made for Willamar when you told him about your brother? I made Folara nervous when I used a firestone to start the fire that had gone out, so I promised her I'd show her how they worked. She told Zelandoni," Ayla said.

"So Zelandoni knows. Somehow she always ends up knowing about things first," Jondalar said. "But we'll have to come back and look for more, later. Right now, some people want to talk to you."

"About the Clan?" she guessed.

"Joharran came and got me this morning for a meeting, before I really wanted to get up, but I made him let you sleep. I've been talking about our meeting with Cuban and Yorga. They're very interested, but it's hard for them to believe the Clan are people and not animals. Zelandoni has been analyzing some of the Elder Legends more closely-she's the one who knows about the history of the Zelandonii-trying to see if there are any hints about flatheads… the Clan… living around here before the Zelandonii. When Ramara said you were up, Joharran wanted me to get you," Jondalar said. "He's not the only one with a lot of questions."

Jondalar had brought Racer's rope halter with him, but the frisky young stallion balked a bit, still feeling playful. With some patience, and scratching of itchy places, the horse finally acquiesced. The man mounted and they started back through the open woodlands of the small valley.

Jondalar pulled up to ride beside Ayla and, after some hesitation, remarked, "Ramara said when she talked to you this morning, that she thought you were sick, perhaps not used to Laramar's barma. How are you feeling?"

It's going to be hard to keep secrets around here, Ayla thought. "I'm fine, Jondalar," she said.

"He does make a strong brew. You weren't feeling too well last night."

"I was tired last night," Ayla said. "And this morning, it was just a little sickness, because I'm going to have a baby." From his expression, she suspected he was concerned about more than her morning sickness.

"It was a full day. You met a lot of people."

"And I liked most of them," she said, looking at him with a little grin. "I'm just not used to so many at one time. It's like a whole Clan Gathering. I can't even remember everyone's name."

"You just met them. No one expects you to remember them all."

They dismounted in the horse meadow and left the horses at the foot of the path. As she glanced up, Ayla noticed the Falling Stone silhouetted against the clear sky, and for a moment, it seemed to emanate a strange glow; but when she blinked, it was gone. The sun is bright, she thought. I must have looked at it without shading my eyes.

Wolf appeared out of the high grass; he had followed them in a desultory way, exploring small holes and chasing interesting scents. When he saw Ayla standing still, blinking, he decided it was time to properly greet the alpha leader of his pack. The huge canine caught her off guard when he jumped up and put his paws on the front of her shoulders. She staggered a bit, but caught herself and braced to hold his weight as he licked her jaw and held it in his teeth.

"Good morning, Wolf!" she said, holding his shaggy ruff in both hands. "I think you're feeling full of yourself today, too. Just like the horses." He dropped down and followed her up the path, ignoring the gawks of those who had not seen that particular display of affection before, and the smirks of those who had and were enjoying the reaction. Ayla signaled him to stay with her.

She thought about stopping at Marthona's dwelling to leave the full waterbag, but Jondalar continued beyond the dwelling area and she walked with him. They passed by the work area toward the southwest end of the overhang. Ahead, Ayla saw several people standing and sitting near the remains of the previous night's bonfire.

"There you are!" Joharran said, getting up from a small block of limestone and coming toward them.

As they got closer, Ayla noticed a small fire burning at the edge of the large blackened ring. Nearby was a deep basket, which was filled with steaming liquid upon which floated bits of leaves and other vegetal material. It was coated with something dark, and her nose detected the scent of pine pitch, which had been used to keep it watertight.

Proleva ladled some into a cup. "Have some hot tea, Ayla," she said, extending the cup to her.

"Thank you," Ayla said, taking the cup. She took a drink. It was a nice blend of herbs, with just a hint of pine. She drank more, then realized that she would have preferred something solid. The liquid was making her stomach queasy again, and her head was aching. She noticed an unoccupied stone block and sat down, hoping her stomach would settle. Wolf lay down at her feet. She held the cup in her hand without drinking and wished she had brewed some of the special "morning after" drink she had developed for Talut, the Mamutoi headman of the Lion Camp.

Zelandoni looked at Ayla closely and thought she detected some familiar signs. "This might be an appropriate time to stop for a bite to eat. Are there any leftovers from last night?" she said to Proleva.

"That's a good idea," Marthona said. "It's after midday. Have you had anything to eat yet, Ayla?"

"No," she said, feeling rather grateful that someone thought to ask. "I slept very late, then I went to the trenches, and up Wood River Valley to check on the horses. I refilled this waterbag at a little creek." She held it up. "That's where Jondalar found me."

"Good. If you don't mind, we'll use it to make more tea, and I'll get someone to bring food for everyone," Proleva said as she headed toward the dwellings at a brisk pace.

Ayla glanced around to see who was at this meeting and immediately caught Willamar's eye. They exchanged smiles. He was talking to Marthona, Zelandoni, and Jondalar, whose back was to her at the moment. Joharran had turned his attention to Solaban and Rushemar, his close friends and advisers. Ayla recalled that Ramara, the woman with the little boy with whom she had spoken earlier, was Solaban's mate. She had met Rushemar's mate the night before, too. She closed her eyes to try to remember her name. Salova, that was it. Sitting still had helped; her nausea had quieted.

Of the others who were there, she remembered that the gray-haired man was the leader of a nearby Cave. Manvelar was his name. He was talking to another man, whom she did not think she had met. He glanced apprehensively at Wolf now and then. A tall, thin woman who carried herself with a great deal of authority was another Cave leader, Ayla recalled, but she could not remember her name. The man beside her had a tattoo similar to Zelandoni's, and Ayla guessed he was also a spiritual leader.

It occurred to her that this group of people were all leaders of one kind or another in this community. In the Clan, these people would be the ones with the highest status. Among the Mamutoi, they would be the equivalent of the Council of Sisters and Brothers. The Zelandonii did not have dual leadership of a sister and brother as headwoman-headman for each Camp as the Mamutoi did; instead some Zelandonii leaders were men and some were women.

Proleva was returning at the same brisk pace. Though she seemed to be responsible for providing food for the group-she had been the one they turned to when food was wanted, Ayla noticed-she was obviously not the one who would bring and serve it. She was returning to the meeting; she must have considered herself an active participant. It appeared that the leader's mate could be a leader, too.

In the Clan, all the people at this kind of meeting would be men. There were no women leaders; women had no status in their own right. Except for medicine women, a woman's status depended on the rank of her mate. How would they reconcile that if they ever visited each other? she wondered.

"Ramara and Salova and some others are organizing a meal for us," Proleva announced, nodding toward Solaban and Rushemar.

"Good," Joharran said, which seemed to be a signal that the meeting was back in session. Everyone stopped chatting with one another and looked at him. He turned to her. "Ayla was presented last night. Have all of you introduced yourselves?"

"I wasn't here last night," said the man who had been talking with the gray-haired leader.

"Then allow me to introduce you," Joharran said. As the man stepped forward, Ayla stood up, but signaled Wolf to stay back. "Ayla, this is Brameval, Leader of Little Valley, the Fourteenth Cave of the Zelandonii. Brameval, meet Ayla of the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi…" Joharran paused for a moment, trying to bring to mind the rest of her unfamiliar names and ties. "Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth." That's enough, he thought.

Brameval repeated his name and his function as he held out his hands. "In the name of Doni, you are welcome," he said.

Ayla accepted his hands. "In the name of Mut, Great Mother of All, also known as Doni, I greet you," she said, smiling.

He had noticed the difference in the way she spoke before, and even more now, but he responded to her smile and held her hands a moment longer. "Little Valley is the best place to catch fish. The people of the Fourteenth Cave are known as the best fishers; we make very good fish traps. We are close neighbors, you must visit us soon."

"Thank you, I would like to visit. I like fish, and I like to catch them, but I don't know how to trap them. When I was young, I learned to catch fish with my hands." Ayla emphasized her comment by lifting hers, which were still held by Brameval.

"Now that, I would like to see," he said as he let go. The woman leader stepped forward. "I would like to introduce our donier, the Zelandoni of River Place," she said. "He was not here last night, either." She glanced at Brameval, raised her eyebrows, and added, "The Eleventh Cave is known for making the rafts that are used to travel up and down The River. It's much easier to transport heavy loads on a raft than on the backs of people. If you are interested, you are welcome to come and visit."

"I would be most interested to learn about the way you make your floating river craft," Ayla said, trying to remember if they had been introduced and what her name was. "The Mamutoi make a kind of floating bowl out of thick hides fastened to a wooden frame, and use them to carry people and their things across rivers. On our way here, Jondalar and I made one to cross a large river, but the river was rough, and the small round boat was so light, it was hard to control. When we attached it to Whinney's pole drag, it was better."

"I don't understand 'winnies pole drag.' What does that mean?" the leader of the Eleventh Cave asked.

"Whinney is the name of one of the horses, Kareja," Jondalar said, getting up and coming forward. "The pole drag was devised by Ayla. She can tell you what it is."

Ayla described the conveyance and added, "With it Whinney could help me bring the animals I hunted back to my shelter. I'll show you sometime."

"When we reached the other side of that river," Jondalar added, "we decided to attach the bowl boat to the poles instead of the woven platform because we could put most of our things in it. That way, when we crossed rivers, the boat would float and nothing got wet, and attached to the poles, it was easier to control."

"Rafts can be a little hard to control, too," the woman leader said. "I think all watercraft must be hard to control."

"Some are easier than others. On my Journey, I stayed for a while with the Sharamudoi. They carve beautiful boats out of large tree trunks. The front and back come to points, and they use oars to steer them where they want to go. It takes practice, but the Ramudoi, the River People half of the Sharamudoi, are very good at it," Jondalar said.

"What are oars?"

"Oars look something like flattened spoons, and they use them to push the boat through the water. I helped to make one of their boats and learned to use oars."

"Do you think they would work better than the long poles we use to push the rafts through the water?"

"This talking about boats can be very interesting, Kareja," the man who had stepped forward said, interrupting. He was shorter than the woman and slight of build. "But I haven't been introduced yet. I think I'd better do it myself." Kareja flushed slightly, but made no comment. When Ayla heard her name, she recalled that they had been introduced.

"I am Zelandoni of the Eleventh Cave of the Zelandonii, also known as River Place. In the name of Doni, Great Earth Mother, I welcome you, Ayla of the Mamutoi, Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth," he said, holding out his hands.

"I greet you, Zelandoni of the Eleventh as One Who Serves She Who Is The Mother of All," Ayla said, grasping his hands. He had a powerful grip that belied his slight build, and she sensed not only his wiry strength, but an inner force and surety. She also detected something else in the way he moved that reminded her of some of the mamutii she had met at the Mamutoi Summer Meeting.

The old Mamut who had adopted her had spoken of those who carried the essence of both male and female in one body. They were thought to possess the power of both genders and were sometimes feared, but if they joined the ranks of Those Who Served The Mother, they were often believed to be especially powerful and were welcomed. As a result, he had explained, many men who found themselves drawn to men as a woman would be, or women who were attracted to women as a man, were drawn to the Mammoth Hearth. She wondered if the same was true with the zelandonia and, judging from the man who stood there, guessed it might be.

She noticed the tattoo above his temple again. Like Zelandoni Who Was First, it consisted of squares, some outlined, some colored in, but he had fewer and different ones were filled in, and some additional curved markings. It made her aware that everyone there, except for Jondalar and herself, had some kind of facial tattoo. The least conspicuous was Willamar's, the most ornate decorated the face of the woman leader, Kareja.

"Since Kareja has already bragged about the achievements of the Eleventh Cave," the donier added, turning to acknowledge the Cave's leader, "I will only add my invitation to you to visit, but I would like to ask a question. Are you also One Who Serves?"

Ayla frowned. "No," she said. "What makes you think so?"

"I have been listening to gossip." He smiled with his admission. "With your control over animals," he said, motioning toward the wolf, "many people think you must be. And I recall hearing about mammoth hunting people to the east. It was said that Those Who Serve eat only mammoth and they all live in one place, perhaps at one hearth. When you were introduced as 'of the Mammoth Hearth,' I wondered if any of that was true."

"Not quite," Ayla said, smiling. "It is true that among the Mammoth Hunters, Those Who Serve The Mother belong to the Mammoth Hearth, but that doesn't mean they all live together. It is a name, like the 'zelandonia.' There are many hearths-the Lion Hearth, the Fox Hearth, the Crane Hearth. They indicate the… line a person is affiliated with. One is usually born to a hearth, but can also be adopted. There are many different hearths at one Camp, which is named after the founder's hearth. Mine was called the Lion Camp because Talut was of the Lion Hearth, and he was the headman. His sister, Tulie, was headwoman-every Camp has both a sister and brother as leaders."

Everyone was listening with interest. Learning how other people organized themselves and lived was fascinating to people who primarily knew only their own way.

"Mamutoi means 'the mammoth hunters' in their language, or perhaps 'the children of the Mother who hunt mammoths,' since they also honor the Mother," Ayla continued, trying to make it clear. "The mammoth is especially sacred to them. That's why the Mammoth Hearth is reserved for Those Who Serve. People usually choose the Mammoth Hearth, or feel they are chosen, but I was adopted by the old Mamut of the Lion Camp, so I am a 'Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth.' If I were One Who Served, I would say 'Chosen by the Mammoth Hearth' or 'Called to the Mammoth Hearth.'"

The two Zelandonia were poised to ask more questions, but Joharran interrupted. Although he was also intrigued, he was more interested at the moment in the people who had raised Ayla than the ones who had adopted her. "I'd like to hear more about the Mamutoi," he said, "but Jondalar has been telling us some interesting things about those flatheads you met on your trip back. If what he says is true, we need to start thinking about flatheads in a completely different way. To be honest, I'm afraid they may pose a greater threat than we ever thought."

"Why a threat?" Ayla asked, immediately on her guard.

"From what Jondalar tells me, they are… thinking people. We have always thought of flatheads as animals little different from cave bears, perhaps even related to them; a smaller, somewhat more intelligent type, but an animal," Joharran said.

"We know some of the hollows and caves around here were once cave bear dens," Marthona put in. "And Zelandoni was telling us that some of the Elder Legends and Histories say that sometimes cave bears were killed or chased away so that the First People could have homes. If some of those 'cave bears' were flatheads… well… if they are intelligent people, anything is possible."

"If they are people, and we have treated them like animals, hostile animals," Joharran paused, "I have to say that, if I were in their place, I would be considering some way to retaliate. I would have tried to get back at us a long time ago. I think we need to be aware of the possibility that they may."

Ayla relaxed. Joharran had stated his position well. She could understand why he thought they might be a threat. He might even be right.

"I wonder if that's why people have always insisted that flatheads are animals," Willamar said. "Killing animals is one thing, if it's necessary for food or shelter, but if they were people, even a strange kind of people, that's something else. No one wants to think that their ancestors killed people and stole their homes, but if you convince yourself that they are animals, you can live with it."

Ayla thought that was a surprising insight, but Willamar had made wise and intelligent comments before. She was beginning to understand why Jondalar had always spoken of him with such affection and respect. He was an exceptional man.

"Bad feelings can lie dormant for a long time," Marthona said, "many generations, but if they have Histories and Legends, it gives them long memories, and trouble can flare up. Since you know so much more about them, I wonder if we could ask you some questions, Ayla."

She wondered if she should tell them that the Clan did have stories and legends, but they didn't need them to remember their history. They were born with long memories.

"It might be smart to attempt to make contact with them in a different way than we have in the past," Joharran continued. "Perhaps we can avoid problems before they materialize. We might consider sending a delegation to meet with them, perhaps to discuss trading."

"What do you think, Ayla?" Willamar said. "Would they be interested in trading with us?"

Ayla frowned in thought. "I don't know. The Clan I knew were aware of people like us. To them, we were the Others, but they avoided contact. For the most part, the small clan I grew up with didn't think about the Others most of the time. They knew I was one and not Clan, but I was a child, and a girl child at that. I was of little significance to Brun and the men, at least when I was young," she said. "But Brun's clan didn't live near the Others. I think that was lucky for me. Until they found me, no one in his clan had ever seen a young one of the Others; some had never seen an adult, even from a distance. They were willing to take me in and take care of me, but I'm not sure how they would have felt if they had been chased away from their homes, or harassed by a pack of rough young men."

"But Jondalar told us some people had contacted the ones you met on the way about trading," Willamar said. "If other people trade with them, why can't we?"

"Doesn't that depend on whether they really are people and not animals related to cave bears?" Brameval interjected.

"They are people, Brameval," Jondalar said. "If you ever had close contact with one, you'd know. And they're smart. I encountered more than the couple that Ayla and I met when I was on my Journey. Remind me to tell you some stories, later."

"You say you were actually raised by them, Ayla," Manvelar said. "Tell us something about them. What kind of people are they?" The gray-haired man seemed reasonable, not one to jump to conclusions without learning as much as he could.

Ayla nodded, but paused for a moment to think before she replied. "It's interesting that you think they are related to cave bears. There is a strange kind of truth in that; the Clan believe they are, too. They even live with one, sometimes."

"Hhmmmf!" Brameval snorted, as if to say, "I told you!"

Ayla directed her comments to him. "The Clan venerates Ursus, the Spirit of the Cave Bear, much the way the Others honor the Great Earth Mother. They refer to themselves as the Clan of the Cave Bear. When the Clan has their big Gathering-like a Summer Meeting, but not every year-they have a very sacred ceremony for the Cave Bear Spirit. Long before the Clan Gathering, the host clan captures a cave bear cub, who lives with them in their cave. They feed him and raise him as one of their own children, at least until he gets too big, then they build a place for him that will keep him from running away, but they still feed and pamper him.

"During the Clan Gathering," Ayla continued, "the men compete to see who will have the honor of sending Ursus to the World of the Spirits to speak for the Clan and carry their messages. The three men who have won the most competitions are chosen-it takes at least that many to send a full-grown cave bear to the next world. While it is an honor to be chosen, it is very dangerous. Often the cave bear takes one or more of the men with him to the Spirit World."

"So they communicate with the world of the spirits," said Zelandoni of the Eleventh.

"And they bury their dead with red ochre," Jondalar said, knowing his words carried a deep meaning to the man.

"This information will take some time to comprehend," the leader of the Eleventh Cave said, "and a great deal of consideration. It will mean many changes."

"You're right, of course, Kareja," said the First Among Those Who Served.

"Right now, we don't need much thought to consider stopping for a meal," said Proleva, glancing back toward the eastern end of the terrace. Everyone turned and looked in the same direction. A procession of people was coming with platters and containers of food.

The people at the meeting broke into small groups to eat. Manvlar sat beside Ayla, opposite Jondalar, with his dish of food. He had made a point of introducing himself the night before, but with the throng surrounding the newcomer, he hadn't tried to get better acquainted. His Cave was nearby, and he knew he'd have time later. "You've had several invitations, but let me add another," he said. "You must come and visit Two Rivers Rock; the Third Cave of the Zelandonii are close neighbors."

"If the Fourteenth Cave are known as the best fishers, and the Eleventh Cave for making rafts, what is the Third Cave known for?" Ayla asked.

Jondalar answered for him. "Hunting."

"Doesn't everyone hunt?" she asked.

"Of course, that's why they don't brag about it, just because everyone hunts. Some individual hunters from other Caves like to talk about their own prowess, and they may be good, but as a group, the Third Cave are the best hunters."

Manvelar smiled. "We do brag about it, in our own way, but I think the reason we have become such good hunters is our location. Our shelter is high above the confluence of two rivers, with wide grassy valleys. This one," he said, waving a hand that held a meaty bone toward The River, "and another called Grass River. Most of the animals we hunt migrate through these two valleys, and we've got the best place from which to watch for them at any time of the year. We've learned to judge when certain ones will likely appear and we usually let everyone else know, but we are often the first ones to hunt them."

"That may be true, Manvelar, but all the hunters of the Third Cave are good, not just one or two. They work hard to perfect their skill. All of them," Jondalar said. "Ayla understands that. She loves to hunt, she is amazing with a sling, but wait until we show you the new spear-thrower we developed. It throws a spear so much farther and faster, you won't believe it. Ayla is more accurate, and I can throw a little farther, but anyone can hit an animal from twice or even three times as far as you can with a spear thrown by hand."

"I would like to see that!" Manvelar said. "Joharran wants to arrange a hunt soon to add provisions for the Summer Meeting. That may be a good time to demonstrate this new weapon, Jondalar." Then, turning to Ayla, he added, "Both of you are joining the hunt, aren't you?"

"Yes, I'd like to." She paused to take a bite, then, looking at the men, she said, "I have a question. Why are Caves numbered the way they are? Is there some order or meaning to the numbers?"

"The oldest Caves have the lowest numbers," Jondalar said. "They were established first. The Third Cave was established before the Ninth, and the Ninth before the Eleventh or Fourteenth. There is no First Cave anymore. The oldest is the Second Cave of the Zelandonii, which isn't too far from here. Manvelar's Cave is the next oldest. It was established by the First People."

"When you taught me the counting words, Jondalar, they were always said in a particular order," Ayla said. "This is the Ninth Cave, and Manvelar, yours is the Third Cave. Where are the people from the Caves with numbers in between?"

The gray-haired man smiled. Ayla had picked the right person to ask for information about the Zelandonii. Manvelar had a longstanding interest in the history of his people, and had acquired quite a store of information from various members of the zelandonia, traveling Story-Tellers, and people who had heard tales that were passed down from their ancestors. Members of the zelandonia, including Zelandoni herself, sometimes asked him questions.

"Over the years since the First People established the founding Caves, many things have changed," Manvelar said. "People have moved or found mates in other Caves. Some Caves grew smaller, some bigger."

"Like the Ninth Cave, some grew unusually large," Jondalar added.

"The Histories tell of sickness that sometimes claimed many people, or bad years when people starved." Manvelar picked up the story again. "When Caves get small, sometimes two or more join together. The combined Cave usually takes the lowest number, but not always. When Caves get too big for the size of their shelter, they may break off to form a new Cave, often close by. Some time ago a group from the Second Cave broke off and moved to the other side of their valley. They are called the Seventh Cave because at that time there was a Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth in existence. There is still a Third, of course, and a Fifth, up north, but no longer a Fourth or Sixth."

Ayla was delighted to learn more about the Zelandonii and smiled her gratitude for the explanation. The three of them sat companionably together for a while, eating quietly. Then Ayla had another question. "Are all Caves known for something special, like fishing or hunting or raft-making?"

"Most of them," Jondalar said.

"What is the Ninth Cave known for?"

"Their artists and craftspeople," Manvelar answered for him. "All Caves have skilled artisans, but the Ninth Cave has the best. That's partly why they are so large. It is not just the children born, but anyone who wants the best training in anything from carving to tool-making wants to move to the Ninth Cave."

"That's mainly because of Down River," Jondalar said.

"What is 'Down River'?" Ayla asked.

"It's the next shelter just downriver from here," Jondalar explained. "It's not the home of an organized Cave, although you might think so from the number of people who are usually there. It's the place where people go to work on their projects, and to talk to other people about them. I'll take you there, maybe after this meeting-if we get away before dark."

After everyone had eaten, including the servers, the children of several of the people, and Wolf, they relaxed with cups and bowls of hot tea. Ayla was feeling much better. Her nausea was gone and so was her headache, but she noticed her increased need to pass water again. As the ones who had brought the meal were leaving with the largely empty serving dishes, Ayla noticed that Marthona was standing alone for a moment and walked over to her.

"Is there a place to pass water nearby?" she asked quietly. "Or do we have to go back to the dwellings?"

Marthona smiled. "I was thinking about the same thing. There's a path to The River near the Standing Stone, a little steep near the top, but it goes to a place near the bank that is used mainly by the women. I'll show you." Wolf followed them, watched Ayla for a while, then discovered a scent more interesting and left to explore more of the bank of The River. On the way back, they passed Kareja heading down the path. They nodded to each other in mutual understanding.

After everything was cleared away, and Joharran made sure everyone was there, he stood up. It seemed to be a signal to resume discussions. Everyone looked at the leader of the Ninth Cave.

"Ayla," Joharran said, "while we were eating, Kareja brought up a question. Jondalar says that he can communicate with flatheads, the Clan, as you call them, but not like you can. Do you know their language as well as he says?"

"Yes, I know the language," Ayla said. "I was raised by them. I didn't know any other language until I met Jondalar. At one time I must have, when I was very young, before I lost my own people, but I didn't remember it at all."

"But the place where you grew up was very far from here, a year's travel, isn't that right?" Joharran continued. Ayla nodded. "The language of people who live far away is not the same as ours. I cannot understand you when you and Jondalar speak Mamutoi. Even the Losadunai, who live much closer, have a different language. Some words are similar, and I can grasp a little, but I can't communicate beyond simple concepts. I understand the language of these Clan people is not the same as ours, but how can you, who come from so far away, understand the language of the ones who live around here?"

"I understand your doubt," Ayla said. "I wasn't sure myself when we first met Cuban and Yorga if I would be able to communicate with them. But language with words is different from the kind of language they use, not only because of the signs and signals, but because they have two languages."

"What do you mean, two languages?" asked Zelandoni Who Was First.

"They have an ordinary common language that each clan uses every day among themselves," Ayla explained. "Although they use hand signs and gestures for the most part, including postures and expressions, they also use some words, even though they can't make all of the sounds that the Others can. Some clans speak words more than others. The common everyday language and words of Cuban and Yorga were different from those of my clan, and I couldn't understand them. But the Clan also has a special, formal language that they use to speak to the World of the Spirits, and to communicate with people from other clans who have a different ordinary language. It is very ancient and no words are used, except some personal names. That was the language I used."

"Let me make sure I understand this," Zelandoni said. "This Clan-we're talking about flatheads here-not only have one language, they have two, and one of them is mutually intelligible with any other flathead, even someone who lives a year's Journey away?"

"It is rather hard to believe, isn't it?" Jondalar said with a wide grin. "But it is true."

Zelandoni shook her head. The rest looked just as skeptical.

"It's a very ancient language, and people of the Clan have very long memories," Ayla tried to explain. "They don't forget anything."

"I find it difficult to believe that they can really communicate much with only gestures and signs, anyway," Brameval said.

"I feel the same way," Kareja said. "As Joharran said about the Losadunai and the Zelandonii comprehending each other's languages, perhaps we are talking about only simple concepts."

"You gave a little demonstration in my home yesterday," Marthona said. "Could you show all of us?"

"And if, as you say, Jondalar knows some of this language, perhaps he could translate for us," Manvelar added. Everyone nodded.

Ayla stood up. She paused, gathering her thoughts. Then, with the motions of the ancient formal language, she signed, "This woman would greet the man Manvelar." She spoke the name aloud, but her speech mannerism, her peculiar accent, was much stronger when she said it.

Jondalar translated. "Greetings Manvelar."

"This woman would greet the man Joharran," Ayla continued.

"And you, too, Joharran," Jondalar said. They went through a few more simple statements, but he could tell they were not getting across the full extent of the comprehensive, if silent, language. He knew she could say more, but he couldn't translate the full complexity.

"You're just giving me basic signs, aren't you, Ayla."

"I don't think you can translate more than basic signs, Jondalar. That's all I taught the Lion Camp and you. Just enough so you could communicate with Rydag. I'm afraid the full language wouldn't mean much to you," Ayla said.

"When you showed us, Ayla," Marthona said, "you did your own translation. I think that would be more clear."

"Yes, why don't you show Brameval and the others that way, by using both languages," Jondalar suggested.

"All right, but what should I say?"

"Why don't you tell us about your life with them," Zelandoni suggested. "Do you remember when they first took you in?"

Jondalar smiled at the big woman. That was a good idea. It would not only show everyone the language, it would also show the compassion of the people, that they were willing to take in an orphan child, even a strange orphan child. It would show that the Clan treated one of ours better than we treated them.

Ayla stood for a moment, gathering her thoughts; then in both the formal sign language of the Clan and the words of the Zelandonii, she began. "I don't recall much of the beginning, but Iza often told me how she found me. They were looking for a new cave. There had been an earthquake, probably the one I still dream about. It destroyed their home, falling stones inside the cave killed several of Brun's clan, and many things were damaged. They buried their dead, then left. Even if the cave was still there, it was unlucky to stay. The spirits of their totems were unhappy there and wanted them to leave. They were traveling quickly. They needed a new home soon, not just for themselves, but because their protective Spirits needed a place where they would be content."

Though Ayla kept her voice neutral and told the story with signs and movements, the people were already caught up in her tale. To them, totems were an aspect of the Mother and they understood the disasters that the Great Earth Mother could wreak when she was not happy.

"Iza told me they were following a river when they saw carrion birds circling overhead. Brun and Grod saw me first, but passed by. They were looking for food, and would have been glad if the carrion birds had spotted prey killed by a hunting animal. They might be able to keep a four-legged hunter away long enough to take some of the meat. They thought I was dead, but they don't eat people, not even one of the Others."

There was a grace and easy flow to Ayla's movements as she spoke. She made the signs and gestures with practiced ease. "When Iza saw me lying on the ground beside the river, she stopped to look. She was a medicine woman and interested. My leg had been clawed by a big cat, she thought probably a cave lion, and the wound had festered. At first, she thought I was dead, too, but then she heard me moan, so she examined me closer and discovered that I was breathing. She asked Brun, the leader, who was her sibling, if she could take me with them. He did not forbid it."


"Yes!" came responses from the audience. Jondalar smiled to himself.

"Iza was pregnant at the time, but she picked me up and carried me until they made camp for the night. She wasn't sure if her medicine would work on the Others, but she knew of a case where it had before, so she decided to try. She made a poultice to draw out the infection. She carried me all the next day, too. I remember the first time I woke up and saw her face, I screamed, but she held me and comforted me. By the third day, I was able to walk a little, and by then, Iza decided I was meant to be her child."

Ayla stopped there. There was a profound silence. It was a moving story.

"How old were you?" Proleva finally asked.

"Iza told me later that she thought I could count about five years at the time. I was perhaps the age of Jaradal, or Robenan," she added, looking at Solaban.

"Did you say all that with the gestures, too?" Solaban asked. "Can they really say so much without words?"

"There is not a sign for every word I said, but they would have understood essentially the same story. Their language is more than just the motions of the hands. It is everything; even a flicker of an eyelid or a nod of the head can convey meaning."

"But with that kind of language," Jondalar added, "they cannot tell a lie. If they tried, an expression or posture would give them away. When I first met her, Ayla didn't even have a concept for saying something that is not true. She even had trouble understanding what I meant. Though she understands now, she still can't do it. Ayla can't lie. She never learned how. That's how she was raised."

"There may be more merit than one would realize in speaking without words," Marthona said quietly.

"I think it is obvious from watching her that this kind of sign language is a natural way of communicating for Ayla," Zelandoni said, thinking to herself that her motions would not be so smooth and graceful if she was faking. And what reason would she have to lie about it-could it be true that she can't tell a lie? She wasn't entirely convinced, but Jondalar's arguments had been persuasive.

"Tell us more about your life with them," Zelandoni of the Eleventh said. "You don't have to continue with the signs, unless you want to. It is beautiful to watch, but I think you have made your point. You said they buried their dead. I'd like to know more of their burial practices."

"Yes, they bury their dead. I was there when Iza died."

The discussion continued all afternoon. Ayla gave a moving account of the ceremony and ritual of the burial, then told them more about her childhood. People asked many questions, interrupting often to discuss and request more information.

Joharran finally noticed it was getting dark. "I think Ayla is tired, and we're all hungry again," he said. "Before we break up, I think we should talk about a hunt before the Summer Meeting."

"Jondalar was telling me they have a new hunting weapon to show us," Manvelar said. "Perhaps tomorrow or the next day would be a good day to hunt. That would give the Third Cave time to develop some plans to offer about where we should go."

"Good," Joharran said, "but now, Proleva has arranged another meal for us, if anyone is hungry."

The meeting had been intense and fascinating, but people were glad to be up and moving around. As they walked back toward the dwellings, Ayla thought about the meeting, and all the questions. She knew she had answered everything truthfully, but she also knew she hadn't volunteered much beyond what was asked. In particular, she had avoided any mention of her son. She knew that to the Zelandonii he would be thought of as an abomination, and though she could not lie, she could refrain from mentioning.

Chapter 9

It was dark inside when they reached Marthona's dwelling. Folara had gone to stay with her friend Ramila, rather than wait alone for her mother, Willamar, Ayla, and Jondalar to return. They had seen her during the evening meal, but the discussions had continued on a more informal basis, and the young woman knew they were not likely to return early.

Not even a faint glow from dying coals in the fireplace could be seen when they pushed aside the entry drape.

"I'll get a lamp or a torch and get a fire start from Joharran's," Willamar said.

"I don't see any light there," Marthona said. "He was at the meeting and so was Proleva. They probably went to get Jaradal."

"How about Solaban's?" Willamar said.

"I don't see a light there, either. Ramara must be gone. Solaban was at the meeting all day, too."

"You don't have to bother getting fire," Ayla said. "I have the firestones I found today. I can have one going in a heartbeat."

"What are firestones?" Marthona and Willamar said almost in unison.

"We'll show you," Jondalar said. Though she couldn't see his face, Ayla knew he was grinning.

"I will need tinder," Ayla said. "Something to catch a spark."

"There is tinder by the hearth, but I'm not sure I can find the fireplace without stumbling over something," Marthona said. "We can get a fire start from someone."

"You'd have to go in and find a lamp or a torch in the dark, wouldn't you?" Jondalar said.

"We can borrow a lamp," Marthona said.

"I think I can make enough spark lights to find the fireplace," Ayla said, taking out her flint knife and feeling in her pouch for the firestones she had found.

She entered the dwelling first, holding the nodule of iron pyrite in front of her in her left hand and her knife in the right. For a moment she felt as though she were entering a deep cave. The darkness was so intense, it seemed to push back at her. A quick chill shook her. She struck the firestone with the back of her flint blade.

"Ooohhh," Ayla heard Marthona say as a bright spark lit up the charcoal black interior for an instant and then died.

"How did you do that?" Willamar asked. "Can you do it again?"

"I did it with my flint knife and a firestone," Ayla said, and struck the two together to show that she could, indeed, do it again. The long-lived spark allowed her to take a few steps toward the fireplace. She struck it again and moved a little closer to it. When she reached the cooking hearth, she saw that Marthona had found her way there, too.

"I keep my tinder here, on this side," Marthona said. "Where do you want it?"

"Near the edge here is fine," Ayla said. She felt Marthona's hand in the dark, and the soft, dry bits of some kind of fibrous substance it held. Ayla put the tinder on the ground, bent over close, and struck the firestone again. This time the spark jumped to the small pile of quick-burning material and made a faint red glow. Ayla blew at it gently and was rewarded with a little flame. She piled a bit more tinder on it. Marthona was ready with some small bits of wood, and then bigger kindling, and in what seemed hardly more than a heartbeat, a warm fire lit the inside of the dwelling.

"Now, I want to see this firestone," Willamar said after lighting a few lamps.

Ayla gave him the small nodule of iron pyrite. Willamar studied the grayish-gold stone, turning it over to see all sides. "It just looks like a stone, with an interesting color. How do you make fire with it?" he asked. "Can anyone do it?"

"Yes, anyone can," Jondalar said. "I'll show you. Can I have some of that tinder, mother?"

While Marthona got more tinder, Jondalar went to his traveling pack for his fire-making kit and removed the flint striker and fire-stone. Then he made a small pile of the soft fibers-probably cattail or fireweed fibers mixed with a bit of pitch and crumbled dry rotted wood from a dead tree, he thought. It was the tinder his mother had always preferred. Bending close to the quick-catching tinder, Jondalar struck the flint and iron pyrite together. The spark, not as easy to see next to the burning fire, still landed on the pile of starting material, singed it brown, and sent up a whiff of smoke. Jondalar blew up a small flame and added more fuel. Soon a second fire was burning in the ash-darkened circle surrounded by stones that was the hearth of the dwelling.

"Can I try it?" Marthona said.

"It does take a little practice to draw off a spark and make it land where you want, but it's not hard to do," Jondalar said, giving her the stone and the striker.

"I'd like to try, too, when you're done," Willamar said.

"You don't have to wait," Ayla said. "I'll get the flint striker from my fire-starting kit and show you. I've been using the back of my knife, but I've already chipped it and I'd rather not break the blade."

Their first attempts were tentative and awkward, but with Ayla and Jondalar showing them the technique, both Marthona and Willamar began to get a feel for it. Willamar was the first to get a fire going, but then had trouble doing it a second time. Once Marthona made a fire, she had mastered the technique, but with practice and advice from the two experts, mixed with much laughter, it wasn't long before both of them were drawing sparks from the stone and making fires with ease.

Folara came home to find all four of them smiling with delight on their knees around the hearth, which held several little fires. Wolf came in with her. He'd grown tired of staying in one place all day with Ayla, and when he found Jaradal with Folara, who encouraged him, he couldn't resist joining them. They were pleased to show off their acquaintance with the curiously friendly predator, and the association made him less threatening to the other people of the Cave.

After Wolf greeted everyone appropriately and drank some water, he went to the corner near the entrance that he had claimed as his own and curled up to rest after a wonderfully tiring day with Jaradal and some of the other children.

"What's going on?" Folara said after the excitement of greetings, when she noticed the hearth. "Why do you have so many fires in the fireplace?"

"We've been learning to make fire with stones," Willamar said.

"With Ayla's firestone?" Folara said.

"Yes. It's so easy," Marthona said.

"I promised to show you, Folara. Would you like to try now?" Ayla said.

"Have you really done it, mother?" Folara asked.

"Of course."

"And you, too, Willamar?"

"Yes. It takes some practice, but it's not hard," he said.

"Well, I guess I can't be the only one in the family who doesn't know how," Folara said.

While Ayla was showing the young woman the finer points of making a fire with stones, with advice from Jondalar and the new expert, Willamar, Marthona used the existing fires to heat cooking stones. She filled her tea-making basket with water and began to slice some cold cooked bison meat. When the cooking stones were hot, she put several in the teapot basket, bringing forth a steaming cloud, then added a couple along with a bit more water to a container made of willow withes tightly interwoven with fibers attached to a wooden base. It contained vegetables that had been cooked that morning: daylily buds, cut pieces of the green stems of poke, elder shoots, thistle stems, burdock stems, coiled baby ferns, and lily corms, flavored with wild basil, elderberry flowers, and pignut roots for added spice.

By the time Marthona had a light supper ready, Folara had added her small fire to the ones still burning in the hearth. Everyone got their own eating dishes and cups for tea and sat on cushions around the low table. After the meal, Ayla brought a bowl of leftovers and an extra piece of meat to Wolf, poured herself another cup of tea, and rejoined the others.

"I want to know more about these firestones," Willamar said. "I've never heard of people making fire like that before."

"Where did you learn to do that, Jondй?" Folara asked.

"Ayla showed me," Jondalar said.

"Where did you learn, Ayla?" Folara said.

"It wasn't anything I learned or planned or thought about, it just happened."

"But how could something like that 'just happen'?" Folara asked.

Ayla took a sip of tea and closed her eyes to recall the event. "It was one of those days when everything seemed to go wrong," she began. "My first winter in the valley was just beginning, the river was turning to ice, and my fire had gone out in the middle of the night. Whinney was still a baby and hyenas were nosing around my cave in the dark, but I couldn't find my sling. I had to chase them off by throwing cooking stones. In the morning, I was going to cut wood to make a fire, but I dropped my axe and it broke. It was the only one I had, so I had to make a new one. Luckily, I had noticed that there were flint nodules in the heap of stones and animal bones that had piled up below the cave.

"I went down to the rocky bank by the river to knap a new axe and some other tools. While I was working, I put my stone retoucher down, but my mind was on the flint and I picked up the wrong stone by mistake. It wasn't my retoucher, it was a stone like this, and when I hit the flint with it, I got a spark. It made me think of fire, and I needed to make a fire, anyway, so I decided to try to make it with a spark from the stone. After a few tries, it worked."

"You make it sound so simple," Marthona said, "but I'm not sure I would have tried to make a fire like that, even if I had seen a spark."

"I was alone in that valley, with no one to show me how to do things, or to tell me what couldn't be done," Ayla said. "I'd already hunted and killed a horse, which was against Clan traditions, and then adopted her foal, which the Clan would never have allowed. I'd done so many things I wasn't supposed to do that by then I was ready to try any idea that came to me."

"Do you have many of these firestones?" Willamar asked.

"There were a lot of firestones on that rocky beach," Jondalar answered. "Before we left the valley for the last time, we gathered as many as we could find. We gave a few away on our Journey, but I tried to save as many as I could for people here. We never found any more of them along the way."

"That's too bad," the Trade Master said. "It would have been nice to share them, perhaps even to trade them."

"But we can!" Jondalar said. "Ayla found some this morning, in Wood River Valley, just before we went to the meeting. It's the first time I've seen any since we left her valley."

"You found more? Here? Where?" Willamar asked.

"At the foot of a little waterfall," Ayla said.

"If there are some in one little place, there may be more close by," Jondalar added.

"That's true," Willamar said. "How many people have you told about these firestones?"

"I haven't had time to tell anyone, but Zelandoni knows," Jondalar said. "Folara told her."

"Who told you?" Marthona asked her.

"Ayla did, or rather I saw her use one," Folara explained. "Yesterday, when you came home, Willamar."

"But, she didn't see it herself?" Willamar asked, a grin starting.

"I don't think so," Folara said.

"This is going to be fun. I can't wait to show her!" Willamar said. "She is going to be so astounded, but she won't want to show it."

"It will be fun," Jondalar said, also grinning. "It's not easy to surprise that woman."

"That's because she knows so much," Marthona said. "But you've already impressed her more than you realize, Ayla."

"That's true," Willamar said. "They both have. Have you two got any more surprises tucked away that you haven't told us about?"

"Well, I think you're going to be amazed by the spear-thrower we're going to demonstrate tomorrow, and you can't imagine how good Ayla is with a sling," Jondalar said. "And though it might not mean too much to you, I've learned some exciting new flint-knapping techniques. Even Dalanar was impressed."

"If Dalanar was impressed, I have to be," Willamar said.

"And then there's the thread-puller," Ayla said.

"Thread-puller?" Marthona said.

"Yes, for sewing. I just couldn't learn how to pull a tiny cord or a sinew thread though a hole that was punched with an awl. Then I had an idea, but the whole Lion Camp helped to make the first one. If you like, I'll get my sewing kit and show you," Ayla said.

"Do you think it would help someone whose eyes can't see the holes as well as they once could?" Marthona asked.

"I think so," Ayla said. "Let me get it."

"Why don't you wait until tomorrow, when there's more light. It's not as easy to see in firelight as it is in sunlight," Marthona said. "But I would like to see it."

"Well, Jondalar, you have certainly caused some excitement around here," Willamar said. "Just your return would have been enough, but you brought back much more than yourself. I've always said travel opens new possibilities, advances new ideas."

"I think you're right, Willamar," Jondalar said. "But I'll tell you truthfully, I'm tired of traveling. I'm going to be content to stay home for a long time."

"You're going to the Summer Meeting, aren't you, Jondй?" Folara asked.

"Of course. We're going to be mated there, little sister," Jondalar said, putting his arm around Ayla. "Going to the Summer Meeting isn't really traveling, especially after the Journey we made. Going to the Summer Meeting is part of being home. Which reminds me, Willamar, since Joharran is planning an extra hunt before we go, do you know where we can get disguises? Ayla wants to hunt, too, and we both need them."

"I'm sure we can find something. I have an extra set of antlers, if we go after red deer. Many people have skins and other things," the Trade Master said.

"What are disguises?" Ayla asked.

"We cover ourselves with hides, and sometimes wear antlers or horns so we can get closer to a herd. Animals are leery of people, so we try to make them think we're animals," Willamar explained.

"Jondalar, maybe we could take the horses, like the time Whinney and I helped the Mamutoi hunt bison," Ayla said, then looked at Willamar. "When we're on horseback, animals don't see us, they see the horses. We get very close, and with the spear-thowers, even with just two of us, and Wolf, we've been very successful."

"Using your animals to help hunt animals? You didn't mention that when I asked if you had any more surprises tucked away. Did you think that wouldn't be amazing?" Willamar said with a smile.

"I have a feeling even they don't know all the surprises they have in store for us," Marthona commented, then, after a pause, "Would anyone like a little more chamomile tea before going to bed?" She glanced at Ayla. "I find it very soothing and relaxing, and you were put through quite an interrogation today. These Clan people have much more to them than I ever imagined."

Folara's ears pricked up at that. Everyone had been talking about the long meeting, and her friends had been after her to give them a hint, assuming she would know. She had told them that she didn't know any more than anyone else, but she managed to imply that she just couldn't say what she knew. At least now she had some idea about the subject of the meeting. She listened closely as the conversation continued.

"… they seem to have many fine qualities," Marthona was saying. "They care for their sick, and their leader seemed to have the best interests of his people foremost. The knowledge of their medicine woman must have been quite extensive, if Zelandoni's reaction is any indication, and I have a feeling she will want to know more about their spiritual leader. I think she would have liked to ask you many more questions, Ayla, but held back. Joharran was more interested in the people and their way of life."

There was a settling in, a moment of silence. Gazing at Marthona's beautiful home in the subdued mellow light cast by the fire in the hearth and the oil-burning lamps, Ayla noticed more aesthetic details. The dwelling complemented the woman and reminded Ayla of the feeling of elegance with which Ranee had arranged his living space in the Lion Camp longhouse. He was an artist, a fine carver, and he had taken the time to explain to her his feelings and ideas about creating and appreciating beauty, for himself and in homage to the Great Earth Mother. She felt that Marthona must have some of the same feeling.

Sipping warm tea, Ayla watched Jondalar's family as they relaxed quietly around the low table, and she felt a sense of peace and contentment she hadn't known before. These were people she could understand, people like her, and at that moment it struck her that she truly was one of the Others. Then she had a sudden picture of the cave of Brun's clan where she grew up, and the contrast astounded her.

Among the Zelandonii, each family had individual dwellings with screens and walls separating the living units. Voices and sounds could be heard from within the dwellings, which by custom were ignored, but each family had visual privacy. The Mamutoi had also defined areas within the Lion Camp's earthlodge for each family, with drapes that assured visual privacy, if it was desired.

In the cave of her clan, the boundaries of each family's living space were known, even if not defined with anything more than a few strategically placed stones. Privacy was a matter of social practice; one did not look directly into the hearth of one's neighbor, did not "see" beyond the invisible boundary. The Clan was good at not seeing what they were not supposed to see. Ayla recalled with a wrenching ache the way even those who loved her had simply stopped seeing her when she was cursed with death.

The Zelandonii also defined the spaces within and outside the dwellings, with places for sleeping, cooking and eating, and various work projects. Within the Clan, areas for different activities were not as precisely located. Generally, sleeping places were made and a hearth located, but for the most part, the division of space was a matter of custom, habit, and behavior. They were mental and social divisions, not physical ones. Women avoided places where men were working, men stayed away from the women's activities, and work projects were often done where it was convenient at the time.

The Zelandonii seem to have more time to do things than the Clan, Ayla was thinking. They all seem to make so many things, and not just necessary things. Maybe it's the way they hunt that makes the difference. She was lost in thought and didn't hear a question that had been put to her.

"Ayla?… Ayla!" Jondalar said loudly.

"Oh! I'm sorry, Jondalar. What did you say?"

"What were you thinking about that you didn't even hear me?"

"I was thinking about the differences between the Others and the Clan, and I was wondering why the Zelandonii seem to make more things than the Clan did," Ayla said.

"Did you come up with an answer?" Marthona asked.

"I don't know, but maybe different ways of hunting might have something to do with it," Ayla said. "When Brun and his hunters went out, they usually brought back a whole animal, sometimes two.

The Lion Camp could count about the same number of people as Brun's clan, but when they hunted, everyone who could went out, men, women, even some children, if only for the drive. They usually killed many animals and brought back only the best and richest parts, and saved most of the meat for winter. I don't recall a time that either starved, but by the end of winter, the clan was often left with only the leanest and least filling food, and sometimes had to hunt in spring when animals were thin. The Lion Camp ran out of some foods, and were hungry for greens, but they seemed to eat well even in late spring."

"That may be something to mention to Joharran, later," Willamar said, yawning as he got up. "But right now, I'm going to bed. We're likely to have a busy day tomorrow, too."

Marthona got up from the cushions when Willamar did and carried the serving dishes into the cooking room.

Folara stood up, stretching and yawning in a way that was so similar to Willamar, Ayla smiled at the resemblance. "I'm going to bed, too. I'll help you clean those dishes in the morning, mother," she said, wiping out her wooden eating bowl with a small piece of soft deerskin before putting it away. "I'm too tired now."

"Are you going hunting, Folara?" Jondalar asked.

"I haven't decided. I'll see how I feel later," she replied, heading for her sleeping room.

After Marthona and Willamar went into their sleeping space, Jondalar moved aside the low table and spread out their sleeping furs. As they settled into them, Wolf came to sleep beside Ayla. He didn't mind staying out of the way when people were around, but when Ayla went to bed, he felt his place was beside her.

"I really like your family, Jondalar," Ayla said. "I think I'm going to like living with the Zelandonii. I was thinking about what you said last night, and you're right. I shouldn't judge everyone by a few unpleasant people."

"Don't judge everyone by the best, either," Jondalar said. "You never know how people will react to something. I'd take them one at a time."

"I think everyone has some good and some bad," Ayla said. "Some have a little more of one than the other. I always hope people will have more good than bad, and I like to believe most do. Remember Frebec? He was really nasty in the beginning, but in the end, he turned out to be nice."

"I have to admit, he surprised me," Jondalar said, snuggling close to her and nuzzling her neck.

"You don't surprise me, though," she said, smiling as she felt his hand between her thighs. "I know what you're thinking."

"I hope you're thinking the same thing," he said. As she reached up to kiss him, she returned the gesture. "And I think maybe you are."

The kiss was long and lingering. They both felt their desire grow, but there was no rush, no need to hurry. They were home, Jondalar thought. Through all the difficulties of the long and dangerous Journey, he had brought her home with him. Now she was safe, the dangers were over. He stopped and looked down at her, and felt so much love for her, he didn't know if he could contain it.

Even in the soft light of dying fires, Ayla could see the love in blue eyes that were a rich shade of violet in the firelight, and she felt herself fill with the same emotion. When she was growing up, she never dreamed she would find a man like Jondalar, never dreamed she would be so lucky.

He felt a catch in his throat and bent down to kiss her again, and knew he had to have her, to love her, to join with her. He was grateful to know that she was there for him. She always seemed ready for him, to want him whenever he wanted her. She had never played coy games with him, the way some women did.

Marona came to his mind for a moment. She had liked to play those games, not as much with him, but with others. And suddenly he was grateful that he had gone off with his brother on an unknown adventure instead of staying and mating with Marona. If only Thonolan had lived…

But Ayla was alive, though he had come close to losing her more than once. Jondalar felt her mouth open to his searching tongue, felt the warmth of her breath. He kissed her neck, and nibbled her ear-lobe, and ran his tongue down to her throat in a warm caress.

She held herself still, resisting the tickling sensation and letting it become internal spasms of expectation. He kissed the hollow of her throat and detoured to one side toward an erect nipple, circling it, nibbling it. Her anticipation was so intense, she almost felt a sense of relief when he finally took it in his mouth and suckled. She felt the jolt of excitement in the depths of her being, and at the place of her Pleasures.

He was ready, he was so ready, but he felt himself fill even more when he heard her soft moan as he suckled and gently bit first one nipple and then the other. The urge suddenly came upon him so strongly, he wanted her that instant, but he wanted her to be as ready as he was. He knew how to bring her there.

She could feel his eager desire, and it fired her own. She would have been happy to open herself to him at that moment, but when he pushed down the top cover of their sleeping roll and moved lower, she held her breath, knowing what was coming and wanting it.

His tongue circled her navel for only a moment; he didn't want to wait, and neither did she. As she kicked off the top cover, she felt a moment's hesitation at the thought of the others in their sleeping places nearby. Ayla wasn't used to being in a dwelling with other people and felt a little constrained. Jondalar seemed to have no such compunctions.

The unease slipped from her mind as she felt him kiss her thigh, press her legs apart and kiss the other, and then kiss the soft folds of her womanhood. He savored her familiar taste, licked slowly, and then found her small, hard nodule.

Her moan was louder. She felt flashes of Pleasure like lightning blaze through her as he sucked and massaged her with his tongue. She didn't know she was so ready. It came on her quicker than she expected. Almost without warning, she was there, feeling peaks of Pleasure and a overwhelming desire for him, for his manhood.

She reached for him, pulled him up to her, and helped him to enter. He penetrated deeply. With the first stroke, he struggled to hold back, to wait a little, but she was ready, urging him, and he gave himself up to it. With joyous abandon, he plunged, fully, once more, and then again, and then he was there, as she was, feeling the waves of Pleasure mount up and spill over, again and again and again.

Jondalar rested on top of her, a moment she had always savored, but then he remembered that she was pregnant and he worried that his weight was too much. She felt an instant of disappointment when he moved away so soon.

As he rolled off to the side, he wondered again if she could be right. Was this how that baby had started inside her? Was it his baby, too, as Ayla always insisted? Had the Mother given her children not only this wondrous Gift of Pleasure, but was it Her way of Blessing a woman with new life? Could that be why men were created, to start the new life inside a woman? He wanted Ayla to be right, he wanted it to be true, but how would he ever know?

After a while, Ayla got up. From a travel pack she took a small wooden bowl and poured some water into it from the waterbag. Wolf had retreated to his chosen corner near the entrance and greeted her with his usual tentative approach after their Pleasures. She smiled at him and gave him the signal that he had done well; then, standing over the night basket, she cleaned herself as Iza had taught her when she first became a woman. Iza, I know you doubted that I would have need of the training, she thought, but you were right to teach me the cleansing rituals then.

Jondalar was half-asleep when she went back to bed. He'd been too tired to get up, but she'd air out and brush off their sleeping roll to clean it in the morning. Now that they were going to stay in one place for a while, she would even have time to wash their furs, she thought. Nezzie had shown her how to do it, but it took time and care.

Ayla rolled over on her side and Jondalar cuddled up behind her, resting on his side. They were nestled together like two spoons on edge, and he fell asleep holding her, but she was unable to nod off, although she was comfortable and satisfied. She had slept much later than usual that morning, and as she lay awake, she began thinking about the Clan and the Others again. Recollections of her life with them and her stays with various groups of Others kept coming to her mind, and she found herself making comparisons.

The same kinds of materials were at hand for both peoples, but the uses to which they had been put were not quite the same. Both hunted animals, both gathered foods that grew, and both used hides, bones, vegetal materials, and stones for clothing, shelter, implements, and weapons, but there were differences.

Perhaps the most noticeable was that while Jondalar's people decorated their environment with paintings and carvings of animals and designs, the people of the Clan did not. Though she didn't quite know how to explain it, even to herself, she did perceive that people of the Clan expressed the beginnings of such decoration. Red ochre in a burial, for example, that imparted color to the body. Their interest in unusual objects that they collected to put in their amulets. Totem scars and color markings made on the body for special purposes. But the primeval people of the Clan created no legacy of art.

Only Ayla's kind of people did; only people like the Mamutoi and the Zelandonii, and the rest of the Others they had met on their Journey. She wondered if the unknown people to whom she had been born decorated the material objects in their world, and she believed they did. It was the ones who came later, the ones who shared that cold ancient world with the Clan for a time, the ones they called the Others, who were the first to see an animal in a moving, living, breathing form and reproduce it as a drawing or a carving. It was a profound distinction.

The creation of art, the delineation of animals or purposeful markings, was an expression of the ability to make abstractions-the ability to take the essence of a thing and make of it a symbol that stands for the thing itself. The symbol for a thing has another form as well: a sound, a word. A brain that could think in terms of art was a brain capable of developing to its fullest potential another abstraction of great significance: language. And the same brain that was capable of creating a synthesis of the abstraction of art and the abstraction of language would someday form a synergism of both symbols, in effect, a memory of the words: writing.

Unlike the day before, Ayla opened her eyes very early the next morning. No red coals glowed in the fireplace and all the lamps were out, but she could discern the contours of the limestone shelf high overhead, above the dark wall panels of Marthona's dwelling, in the faint reflection of first light, the initial lightening of the sky that heralded the coming of the sun. No one else was stirring when she quietly slipped out of the furs and made her way in the not quite pitch-dark to use the night basket. Wolf lifted his head the moment she got up, whined a greeting of happiness, and followed her.

She felt a little nauseated, but not quite enough to vomit, and had an urge for something solid to calm her unsettled stomach. She went to the cooking room and started a small fire, then took a few bites of the bison meat that was left on the pelvic bone serving platter from the night before, and a few soggy vegetables from the bottom of the cooking-storage basket. She wasn't sure if she felt better or not, but she decided to see if she could make a stomach-settling tea for herself. She didn't know who had made the tea for her the day before, but wondered if it was Jondalar and thought she'd make one of his favorite morning teas as well.

She got her medicine bag from her traveling pack. Now that we're finally here, I can replenish my supply of herbs and medicines, she thought as she looked at each package and thought about its uses. Sweet rush can help an upset stomach, but no, Iza told me it could cause a miscarriage, and I don't want to do that. While she was considering the possible side effects, her mind supplied another bit from her extensive store of medicinal knowledge. Black birch bark can help prevent a miscarriage, but I don't have any. Well, I don't think I'm in danger of losing this one.

I had a much harder time with Durc. Ayla remembered when Iza went out to get fresh snakeroot so she wouldn't lose him. Iza was already sick by then, and she got cold and wet and it made her worse. I don't think she ever recovered completely, Ayla thought. I miss you, Iza. I wish you were nearby so I could tell you that I did find a man to mate. I wish you had lived to meet him. I think you would have approved.

Basil, of course! That can help prevent miscarriage, and it makes a nice drink. She put that package aside. Mint would be good. It settles nausea and helps stomachaches and tastes good. Jondalar likes it, too. She kept that pouch out, too. And hops, that's good for headaches and cramps, relaxes, she thought as she put it beside the mint. Not too much, though, hops can make you drowsy.

Milk thistle seeds might be good for me right now, but they need to be steeped a long time, Ayla thought as she continued going through the limited supply of medicinal herbs she had with her. Woodruff, yes, it smells so good. And it calms the stomach, but it's not too strong. And chamomile, I could use that instead of mint, it's good for upset stomachs, too. It might taste better with the other herbs, but mint for Jondalar. Marjoram could be good, but no, Iza always used the fresh tops for stomach problems, not dried.

What else was it that Iza liked to use fresh? Raspberry leaf! Of course! That's what I need. It's especially good for morning sickness. I don't have any leaves, but there were raspberries at the feast the other night, so they must grow nearby. It's the right season, too. It's best to pick the leaf when the berries are ripe. I should make sure I get enough for when I go into labor. Iza always used it when a woman was delivering. She told me it relaxed the mother's womb and helped the baby come out more easily.

I still have some linden flowers left; that's especially good for a nervous stomach, and the leaves are sweet and make a nice-tasting tea. The Sharamudoi had a wonderful big old linden tree nearby. I wonder if any linden trees grow around here? She saw movement out of the corner of her eye and looked up to see Marthona coming out of her sleeping area. Wolf also looked up, then stood up expectantly.

"You're up early this morning, Ayla," she said in a soft voice, so as not to disturb those who were still sleeping. She reached down to pat the wolf to acknowledge him.

"I usually am… if I don't stay up late the night before, feasting and drinking strong beverages," Ayla replied in an equally quiet tone and with a wry smile.

"Yes, Laramar makes a potent drink, but people seem to like it," Marthona said. "I see you have a fire going already. I usually try to bank the fire at night so I have coals to start one in the morning, but with those firestones you showed us, I could get lazy. What are you making?" . ,

"A morning tea," Ayla said. "I like to make a wake-up tea for Jondalar in the morning, too. Can I make some for you?"

"When the water is hot, I have a tea mixture that Zelandoni wants me to take in the morning," Marthona said, starting to clean up the remains of the late supper from the night before. "Jondalar told me about your habit of making him morning tea. He was determined to make a tea for you to drink when you woke up yesterday. He said you always had a hot cup ready for him, and for once, he wanted you to wake up to tea. I suggested that he make mint, since it tastes good cold, and it seemed you might sleep late."

"I wondered if it was Jondalar who made that. But were you the one who left the basin and water?" Ayla asked. Marthona smiled and nodded.

Ayla reached for the bentwood tongs used to pick up cooking rocks, took a hot stone from the fire, and dropped it into the tightly woven tea basket full of water. It steamed and hissed and sent up a few preliminary bubbles. She added another, and after a while, she removed the stones and added more. When the water was boiling, both women infused their individual tea mixtures. Though the low table had been moved closer to the entry to make room for the extra sleeping furs, there was ample room for the two women to sit companionably around it on cushions, sipping their hot beverages.

"I've been wanting a chance to talk to you, Ayla," Marthona murmured softly. "I often wondered if Jondalar would ever find a woman he could love." She almost said "again," but caught herself. "He always had many friends, was well-liked, but he kept his real feelings to himself and few people knew him well. Thonolan was closer to him than anyone. I always thought he would mate one day, but I didn't know if he would ever allow himself to fall in love. I believe he has." She smiled at Ayla.

"It's true that he often keeps his feelings to himself. I almost mated another man before I realized that. Even though I loved Jondalar, I thought he had stopped loving me," Ayla said.

"I don't think there is any doubt. It's quite obvious that he loves you, and I'm happy he found you." Marthona took a sip of tea. "I was proud of you the other day, Ayla. It took courage to face people the way you did after Marona's trick… You know she and Jondalar had talked of mating, don't you?"

"Yes, he told me."

"Though I would not have objected, of course, I will admit that I'm glad he didn't choose her. She is an attractive woman and everyone always thought she was perfect for him, but I didn't," Marthona said.

Ayla rather hoped Marthona would tell her why. The woman stopped and took a drink of her tea.

"I would like to give you something a little more appropriate to wear than the 'gift' Marona gave you," the older woman said when she finished her drink and put the cup down.

"You have already given me something beautiful to wear," Ayla said. "Dalanar's mother's necklace."

Marthona smiled as she got up and went quietly into her sleeping room. She returned with a garment draped over her arm. She held it up to show Ayla. It was a long tunic in a pale, soft color rather like the whitened stems of grass after the long winter, beautifully decorated with beads and shells, sewings of colored thread, and long fringes, but it was not made of leather. On close inspection, Ayla saw that it was made of thin cords or threads of some fiber crossed over and under each other, rather like basketry in texture, but very tightly woven. How could anyone weave such fine cords like that? It was similar to the mat on the low table, but even more fine.

"I have never seen anything like this," Ayla said. "What kind of material is it? Where does it come from?"

"I make it; I weave it on a special frame," Marthona said. "Do you know the plant called flax? A tall, thin plant with blue flowers?"

"Yes, I'm familiar with a plant like that, and I think Jondalar said it was called flax," Ayla said. "It's good for severe skin problems, like boils and open sores and rashes, even inside the mouth."

"Have you ever twined it into cordage?" Marthona asked.

"I may have, I don't recall, but I can understand how it could be. It does have long fibers."

"That's what I used to make this."

"I know that flax is useful, but I didn't know it could be used to make something as beautiful as this."

"I thought you might be able to use it for your Matrimonial. We'll be leaving for the Summer Meeting soon, at the next full moon, and you said you didn't have anything to wear for special occasions," Marthona said.

"Oh, Marthona, how nice of you," Ayla said, "but I do have a Matrimonial outfit. Nezzie made it for me, and I promised her I would wear it. I hope you don't mind. I brought it with me all the way from the Summer Meeting last year. It is made in the Mamutoi style, and they have special customs about the way it should be worn."

"I think it would be most appropriate for you to wear a Mamutoi Matrimonial outfit, Ayla. I just didn't know if you had anything to wear, and I wasn't sure if we'd have time to make something before we leave. Please keep this anyway," Marthona said, smiling as she gave it to her. Ayla thought she seemed relieved. "You may have other occasions when you will want to wear something special."

"Thank you! This is so beautiful!" Ayla said, holding it up and looking at it again, then in front of her to see how the loose garment would fit. "It must take a long time to make."

"Yes, but I enjoy it. I've worked out the process over many years. Willamar helped me to make the frame I use, and Thonolan, before he left. Most people have a special craft of some kind. We often trade the things we make, or give them as gifts. I'm getting a little old to do much of anything else now, but I don't see as well as I once did, especially the close work."

"I was going to show you the thread-puller today!" Ayla said, jumping up. "I think it would make it easier for someone who doesn't see as well to sew. I'll get it." She went to her travel packs to get her sewing kit and saw one of the special packages she had brought with her. Smiling to herself, she took it back to the table, too. "Would you like to see my Matrimonial outfit, Marthona?"

"Yes, I would, but I didn't want to ask. Some people like to keep it a secret and surprise everyone," Marthona commented.

"I have a different surprise," Ayla said as she unpacked her Matrimonial outfit. "But I think I will tell you. Life has begun inside me. I am carrying Jondalar's baby."

Chapter 10

"Ayla! Are you sure?" Marthona asked with a smile. She did think it was a rather strange way of saying that the Mother had Blessed her-carrying Jondalar's baby-even if it probably was the child of his spirit.

"As sure as anyone can be. I have missed two moon times, I feel a little sick in the mornings, and I'm aware of some changes in me that usually mean pregnancy," Ayla said.

"How wonderful!" Jondalar's mother said. She reached over and gave Ayla a hug. "If you are already Blessed, it brings luck to your mating, or so people claim."

Sitting at the low table, the young woman untied the leather-wrapped package and tried to shake the wrinkles out of the tunic and leggings that had been carried across a continent through every season for the past year. Marthona examined the outfit and quickly saw past the creases as she realized what magnificent garments they were. Ayla would most definitely stand out at the Mating Ceremonial wearing this.

First of all, the style was utterly unique. Both men and women of the Zelandonii, with some differences and variations related to gender, usually wore rather loosely bloused pullover tunics, belted at the hips, with various embellishments of bone, shell, feather, or fur and fringes of leather or cordage. Women's clothing, particularly the clothes they wore for special occasions, often had long hanging fringes that swayed as they walked, and a young woman quickly learned how to make the dangling decoration accentuate her movements.

Among the Zelandonii, a naked woman was an ordinary sight, but fringes were considered very provocative. It wasn't that women didn't usually wear clothing, but removing clothes to wash or change or for whatever reason in their close-knit society with relatively little privacy was hardly given a thought. On the other hand, a fringe, especially a red fringe, could give a woman an allure so tantalizing, it could drive men to extremes, on rare occasions even violence because of a particular association.

When women took on the role of donii-women-when they were making themselves available to teach young men about the Great Earth Mother's Gift of Pleasure-they wore a long red fringe dangling around their hips to denote their important ritual status. On hot days of summer, they often wore little more than the fringe.

While donii-women were protected by custom and convention from inappropriate advances and, in any case, they tended to stay in certain areas when they wore the red fringe, it was believed dangerous for a woman to wear such a fringe at any other time. Who could tell what it might drive a man to do? Though women often wore fringes of colors other than red, any fringe invariably had some erotic implications.

As a result, the word "fringe," in subtle innuendo or crude jokes, often carried the double meaning of pubic hair. When a man was so captivated by a woman that he couldn't stay away from her or stop looking at her, it was said that he was "snared by her fringe."

Zelandonii women wore other decorations or sewed them to their clothing, but they particularly liked to wear fringes that moved sensuously when they walked, whether they decorated a warm winter tunic or a naked body. And though they avoided explicitly red fringes, many women chose colors that contained a strong hint of red.

Ayla's Mamutoi outfit had no fringes, but there was no doubt that a tremendous amount of effort had been put into making it. The leather, which was of the finest quality, was a rich, earthy, golden yellow hue that almost matched the color of her hair, the result primarily of yellow ochres mixed subtly with reds and other colors. The hide had probably come from deer of some variety, or perhaps saiga antelope, Marthona thought, though it wasn't the usual velvety soft buckskin of a well-scraped hide. Instead, although it was very soft, the leather had a burnished, shiny finish that was somewhat waterproof.

But the quality of the basic garments was only the beginning; it was the exquisite decoration that made the outfit so extraordinary. The long leather tunic and the lower part of the leggings were covered with elaborate geometric designs made predominantly of ivory beads, some sections solidly filled in. The designs began with downward pointing triangles, which developed horizontally into zigzags and vertically into diamonds and chevrons, then evolved into complex geometric figures such as rectangular spirals and concentric rhomboids.

The ivory beaded designs were highlighted and defined by many small amber beads in shades both lighter and darker than the leather, but of the same tone, and with embroideries of red, brown, and black. The tunic, which fell to a downward-pointing triangle at the back, opened down the front, with the section below the hips tapering so that when it was brought together, another downward-pointing triangle was created. It was tied closed at the waist with a finger-woven sash in a similar geometric pattern made of red mammoth hair with accents of ivory mouflon wool, brown musk ox underdown, and deep reddish-black woolly rhinoceros hair.

The outfit was stunning, a magnificent work of art. The workmanship in every detail was excellent. It was evident that someone had secured the finest materials and utilized the most skillful and accomplished artisans to create the finished outfit, and no effort had been spared. The beadwork was a good example. Though Marthona saw them only as a huge number, more than three thousand ivory beads made from mammoth tusk were sewn onto the garments, and each small bead had been carved, pierced, and polished by hand.

Jondalar's mother had never seen anything like it, but she knew immediately that whoever had directed the outfit to be made commanded great respect and held a very high position within the community. It was clear that the time and labor that went into the making of it were incalculable, yet the outfit had been given to Ayla when she left. None of the benefits of the resources and work would stay within the community that made it. Ayla said she had been adopted, but whoever had adopted her obviously possessed tremendous power and prestige-in effect, wealth-and no one understood that better than Marthona.

No wonder she wants to wear her own Matrimonial outfit, Marthona thought, and she should. It won't hurt Jondalar's prestige, either. This young woman is certainly full of surprises. Without question, she is going to be the most talked about woman at the Summer Meeting this year.

"The outfit is striking, Ayla, really quite beautiful," Marthona said. "Who made it for you?"

"Nezzie did, but she had a lot of help." Ayla was pleased by the older woman's reaction.

"Yes, I'm sure she did," Marthona commented. "You've mentioned her before, but I don't recall exactly who she is."

"She's the mate of Talut, the headman of the Lion Camp, the one who was going to adopt me, but then Mamut did instead. I think it was Mamut who asked Nezzie to make it."

"And Mamut is One Who Serves the Mother?"

"I think he may have been First, like your Zelandoni. Anyway, he was certainly the oldest. I think he was the oldest Mamutoi alive. When I left, my friend Deegie was expecting, and her brother's woman was almost ready to give birth. Both children would be counted his fifth generation."

Marthona gave a knowing nod. She knew that whoever had adopted Ayla had a great deal of influence; she hadn't realized he was probably the most respected and powerful person of all his people. That explained a lot, she thought. "You said there were certain customs associated with wearing this?"

"The Mamutoi do not think it's appropriate to wear a Matrimonial outfit before the ceremony. You can show family and close friends, but you are not supposed to wear it in public," Ayla said. "Would you like to see how the tunic looks?"

Jondalar grunted and turned over in his sleep, and Marthona glanced in the direction of their sleeping furs. She lowered her voice even more. "So long as Jondalar is still asleep. We do not consider it appropriate for him to see you in your Matrimonial clothing until the ceremony."

Ayla slipped off her summer tunic and picked up the heavy, ornately decorated one. "Nezzie told me to wear it closed like this if I just want to show someone," Ayla whispered as she tied it closed with the sash. "But for the ceremony, it should be open, like this," she said, rearranging the garment and retying the sash. "Nezzie said, A woman proudly shows her breasts when she is joined, when she brings her hearth to form a union with a man.' I'm not really supposed to wear it open before the mating ceremony, but since you are Jondalar's mother, I think it's right for you to see."

Marthona nodded. "I am very pleased that you showed me. It is our custom to show Matrimonial clothing before the occasion only to women, intimate friends or family, but I don't think anyone else should see yours just yet. I think it would be…" Marthona paused and smiled, "interesting to surprise everyone. If you like, we can hang it in my room so the creases can straighten out. A little steam would help, too."

"Thank you. I've been wondering where I could put it. Can this beautiful tunic that you gave me stay in your room, too?" Ayla paused, remembering something else. "And I have another tunic I would like to put somewhere, one I made. Would you keep that for me?"

"Yes, of course. But put your outfits away for now. We can do it after Willamar wakes up. Is there anything else you'd like me to keep?" Marthona said.

"I have necklaces and things, but they can stay in my traveling packs, since I'll be taking them with me to the Summer Meeting," Ayla said.

"Do you have much?" Marthona couldn't resist asking.

"Only two necklaces, including the one from you, an armband, two spiral shells for my ears, given to me by a woman who dances, and two matched pieces of amber that Tulie gave me when I left. She was the headwoman of the Lion Camp, Talut's sister, and Deegie's mother. She thought I should wear them on my ears at my mating, since they would match the tunic. I would like to, but my ears are not pierced," Ayla said.

"I'm sure Zelandoni would be happy to pierce them for you, if you want," Marthona said.

"I think I would. I don't want any other piercings, at least not yet, but I would like to wear the matched ambers when Jondalar and I are mated, and the outfit from Nezzie."

"This Nezzie must have been quite fond of you to have done so much for you," Marthona commented.

"I certainly was fond of her," Ayla replied. "If it hadn't been for Nezzie, I don't think I would have followed Jondalar when he left. I was supposed to mate with Ranee the next day. He was the son of her brother's hearth, although she was more like a mother to him. But Nezzie knew Jondalar loved me, and she told me that if I really loved him to go after him and tell him so. She was right. It was hard to tell Ranee I was leaving, though. I did care for him, very much, but I loved Jondalar."

"You must have, or you would not have left people who held you in such high regard to come home with him," Marthona said.

Ayla noticed Jondalar shifting around again and stood up. Marthona sipped her tea, watching the young woman as she refolded her Matrimonial outfit, then the woven tunic, and put them in her traveling pack. When she returned, she motioned toward her sewing kit, which was on the table.

"My thread-puller is in that," Ayla explained. "Perhaps we can go out in the sunlight after Jondalar's morning tea is ready, and I'll show it to you."

"Yes, I would like to see it."

Ayla went around to the cooking hearth, added wood to the fire, then some cooking stones to heat, and measured out some dried herbs in the palm of her hand for Jondalar's tea. His mother was thinking that her first impression of Ayla was right. She was attractive, but there was more to her than that. She seemed genuinely concerned about Jondalar's welfare. She would make a good mate for him.

Ayla was thinking about Marthona, admiring her quiet, self-assured dignity and regal grace. She felt that Jondalar's mother had a great depth of understanding, but Ayla was sure that the woman who had been leader could be very strong if she had to be. No wonder her people hadn't wanted her to step down after her mate died, the young woman thought. It must have been difficult for Joharran to follow after her, but he seemed comfortable in the position now, as far as she could tell.

Ayla quietly placed Jondalar's cup of hot tea near him, thinking she would have to find some of the twigs he liked to use to clean his teeth, after he chewed the ends. He liked the taste of wintergreen. She would look for the evergreen that resembled willow the first chance she had. Marthona finished her tea, Ayla picked up her sewing kit, and both women slipped quietly out of the dwelling. Wolf followed them.

It was still early when they reached the stone front terrace. The sun had just opened its brilliant eye and peeked over the edge of the eastern hills. Its bright glare gave the rock of the cliff a warm ruddy glow, but the air was refreshingly cool. Not many people were moving about yet.

Marthona led them toward the edge near the dark circle of the signal fire. They sat on some large rocks that had been arranged around it, with their backs to the blinding radiance that was climbing through the red-and-gold haze to the cloudless blue vault. Wolf left them and continued down to Wood River Valley.

Ayla untied the drawstring of her sewing kit, a small leather bag sewn together around the sides and gathered at the top. Missing ivory beads that had once formed a geometric pattern and frayed threads of embroidery betrayed the heavy use of the worn pouch. She emptied the small objects it contained into her lap. There were various sizes of cords and threads made of plant fibers, sinew, and animal hair, including several of the wool of mammoth, mouflon, musk ox, and rhino, each wound around small bone phalanges. Several small, sharp blades of flint used for cutting were tied together with sinew, as was a bundle of awls of bone and flint that were for piercing. A small square of tough mammoth hide served as a thimble. The last objects were three small tubes made of hollow bird bones.

She picked up a tube, removed a diminutive wad of leather from one end, and tipped the contents into her hand. A small tapering shaft of ivory slid out, with a point at one end-similar to an awl, but with a tiny hole at the other end. She handed it carefully to Marthona.

"Do you see the hole?" Ayla asked.

Marthona held it away from her. "I can't really see it well," she said, then brought it closer and felt the small object, first the sharp point, then along the shaft to the opposite end. "Ah! There it is! I can feel it. That's a very small hole, not much bigger than the hole of a bead."

"The Mamutoi do pierce beads, but no one at Lion Camp was a skilled bead-maker. Jondalar made the boring tool used to make the hole. I think that was the most difficult part of making this thread-puller. I didn't bring anything to sew, but I'll show you how it works," Ayla said, taking it back. She selected the bone phalange that held sinew, unwound a length, wet the end in her mouth, deftly poked it through the hole, and pulled it through. Then she handed it to Marthona.

The woman looked at the threaded needle, but saw more with her hands than with her aging eyes, which could still see objects that were far away quite well, but not nearly so well as those that were near. Her frown of concentration as she examined it suddenly brightened to a smile of understanding. "Of course!" she said. "With this I believe I could sew again!"

"On some things, you need to make a hole with an awl first. As sharp as you can make it, the ivory point won't pierce thick or tough leather very easily," Ayla explained, "but it's still better than trying to get the thread through a hole without it. I could make holes, but I just couldn't learn how to pick up the thread through the hole with the point of an awl, no matter how patient Nezzie and Deegie were."

Marthona smiled in agreement, then looked puzzled. "Most young girls have that trouble when they are learning; didn't you learn to sew when you were young?"

"The Clan doesn't sew, not in the same way. They wear wraps that are tied on. A few things are knotted together, like birch bark containers, but they have rather large holes to pull through the cords that are tied together, not like the fine little holes that Nezzie wanted me to make," Ayla said.

"I keep forgetting your childhood was… unusual," Marthona said. "If you didn't learn to sew as a girl, I can see how it would be difficult, but this is a remarkably clever device." She looked up. "I think Proleva is coming this way. I would like to show her, if you don't mind."

"I don't mind at all," Ayla said. Glancing at the sunny terrace in front of the overhang, she saw Joharran's mate and Salova, Rushemar's mate, coming toward them, and noticed that many more people were up and moving about.

The women greeted each other, then Marthona said, "Look at this, Proleva. You, too, Salova. Ayla calls it a 'thread-puller.' She was just showing it to me. It's very clever, and I think it will help me to sew again, even if I can't see close very clearly anymore. I'll be able to do it by feel."

The two women, who had both constructed many garments in their lives, quickly grasped the concept of the new implement and were soon discussing its potential with excitement.

"Learning to use this will be easy, I think," Salova said. "But making this thread-puller must have been difficult."

"Jondalar helped with this one. He made the fine boring tool to drill the small hole," Ayla explained.

"It would take someone with his skill. Before he left, I remember that he made flint awls and some boring tools for piercing beads," Proleva said. "I think Salova's right. It might be hard to make a thread-puller like this, but I'm sure it would be worth the effort. I'd like to try one."

"I'd be happy to let you try this one, Proleva, and I have two others, of different sizes," Ayla said. "The size I choose depends on what I want to sew."

"Thank you, but I don't think I'll have time today with all the planning for the hunt. Joharran thinks this Summer Meeting is going to be especially well attended," Proleva said, then smiled at Ayla, "because of you. The news that Jondalar has returned and brought a woman back with him is already running up and down The River, and beyond. He wants to make sure that we bring enough to feed the extra people when we sponsor a feast."

"And everyone will be excited to meet you, to see if the stories about you are true," Salova said, smiling. She had felt the same way.

"By the time we get there, they won't be true," Proleva said. "Stories always grow."

"But most people know that, and don't believe half of the stories to begin with. I think Jondalar and Ayla will manage to surprise a few people this year," Marthona said.

Proleva noticed a rare expression on the face of the former leader of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, a sly and rather self-satisfied smile. She wondered what Marthona knew that no one else did.

"Are you coming with us to Two Rivers Rock today, Marthona?" Proleva asked.

"Yes. I think I will. I would like to see a demonstration of this 'spear-thrower' Jondalar has been talking about. If it's as clever as this thread-pulling device," Marthona said, and recalling her fire-making experience of the night before, "and other ideas they've brought back with them, it should be interesting."

Joharran led the way around a steep section of rock that was close to The River, which made everyone walk single file. Marthona followed behind him, and as she looked at the back of her eldest son, she was feeling rather pleased to know that she not only had a son walking in front of her, but for the first time in many years, her son Jondalar was behind her. Ayla followed Jondalar, with Wolf on her heels. Other people from the Ninth Cave trailed them, but left a gap of several paces behind the wolf. More people joined them as they passed by the Fourteenth Cave.

They came to a place along The River between the shelters of the Fourteenth Cave on their side and Eleventh Cave on the other side where the waterway broadened out and foamed around rocks jutting out of the water. The River was easily fordable there, shallow enough to wade across, and the location that most people used to get to the other side. Ayla heard people refer to it as the Crossing.

Some of those who wore foot coverings sat down to take them off. Others were barefoot like Ayla, or apparently didn't care if their footwear got wet. The people from the Fourteenth Cave held back and allowed Joharran and the Ninth Cave to start across first. It was a courtesy to him, since Joharran was the one who had suggested a last hunt before they left for the Summer Meeting and was nominally the leader.

As Jondalar stepped into the cold water, he was reminded of something he had wanted to tell his brother. "Joharran, wait a moment," he called. The man stopped. Marthona was beside him. "When we went with the Lion Camp to the Summer Meeting of the Mamutoi, we had to cross a rather deep river just before we reached the place where the Meeting was held. The people of Wolf Camp, who were hosting the Meeting, had put piles of rock and gravel in the water to make stepping-stones so people could cross the river without getting wet. I know we sometimes do, too, but their river was so deep, you could fish between the stones. I thought it was a clever idea and wanted to remember to tell someone when I got back."

"This river runs fast. Wouldn't it wash the stones away?" Joharran asked.

"Their river was fast, too, and deep enough for salmon and sturgeon, other fish, too. The water flowed through the spaces between. They said the rocks washed out when it flooded, but they built new stepping-stones every year. It was good fishing off the rock piles near the middle of the river," Jondalar explained. Other people had stopped and were listening, too.

"Perhaps it's worth considering," Marthona said.

"What about the rafts? Wouldn't stepping-stones get in the way?" a man asked.

"It's not deep enough here for the rafts most of the time. People usually have to carry them and whatever is on them around the Crossing anyway," Joharran said.

As Ayla waited while the discussion continued, she observed that the water was clear enough to see rocks on the bottom and an occasional fish. Then she realized that the middle of the stream offered a unique view of the area. Looking ahead, south, on the left bank of The River, she saw a cliff with shelters that was probably the place they were going, and just beyond it, a tributary joining the mainstream. Across the smaller river was the start of a line of steep cliffs that paralleled the main river. She turned and looked the other way. Upriver, toward the north she could see more high cliffs and the huge rock shelter of the Ninth Cave situated on the right bank at the outside of a sharp bend.

Joharran started out again, leading the long line of people that were headed toward the home of the Third Cave of the Zelandonii. Ayla noticed some people waiting ahead, waving at them. She recognized Kareja and the Zelandoni of the Eleventh among them. The line lengthened as they fell in behind. As they drew near the high cliff ahead, Ayla got a better look at the huge rock wall, one of many spectacular limestone cliffs in the valley of The River.

It had been carved, by the same natural forces that had created all the rock shelters in the region, into two and in places three levels of terraces stacked one above the other. Halfway up the massive rock ahead was a shelf more than three hundred feet long in front of a sheltered opening. It was the main level for the ordinary living activities of the Third Cave, and most of the dwellings were located there. The terrace offered the protection of a rocky ceiling to the abri below, while it in turn was sheltered by a overhanging cliff above.

Jondalar noticed Ayla observing the great limestone cliff and stopped for a moment to let her catch up with him. The path wasn't as narrow and they could walk abreast. "The place where Grass River joins The River is called Two Rivers," he said. "That cliff is Two Rivers Rock because it overlooks the confluence."

"I thought it was the Third Cave," Ayla said. :

"It is known as the home of the Third Cave of the Zelandonii, but its name is Two Rivers Rock, just like the home of the Fourteenth Cave of the Zelandonii is called Little Valley, and the home of the Eleventh Cave is River Place," Jondalar explained.

"Then what is the home of the Ninth Cave called?" Ayla said.

"The Ninth Cave," Jondalar said, and noticed her frown.

"Why doesn't it have another name like the others?" she asked.

"I'm not sure," Jondalar said. "It's just always been the Ninth Cave. I suppose it could have been called something like 'Two Rivers Rock,' since Wood River joins The River nearby, but the Third Cave already had that name. Or it might have been 'Big Rock,' but another place is called that."

"There are other names it could have been called. Something about the Falling Stone, maybe. No other place has such an unusual object, does it?" Ayla asked, trying to understand. It was easier to remember things if they were consistent, but there always seemed to be exceptions.

"No, not that I've ever seen," Jondalar said.

"But the Ninth Cave is just the Ninth Cave and doesn't have any other name except that," Ayla said. "I wonder why."

"Maybe it's because our shelter is unique for so many reasons. No one has seen or even heard of a single rock shelter as big, or one that has so many people. It does overlook two rivers, like some others, but Wood River Valley has more trees than most other valleys. The Eleventh Cave always asks to cut trees for their rafts from there. And then, as you said, there is the Falling Stone," Jondalar said. "Everyone knows of the Ninth Cave, even people from far away, but no single name really describes it all. I guess it just came to be known for the people who live there, the Ninth Cave."

Ayla nodded, but she was still frowning. "Well, naming it for the people does make it unique, I suppose."

As they neared the home of the Third Cave, Ayla could see a clutter of tents, lean-tos, frames, and racks in the space between the base of the cliff and The River. A random scatter of hearths-the dark circular lenses of former fires and a few with burning flames-were interspersed among the structures. It was the main working area of the Third Cave's outside activities and included a small dock along the bank of The River to secure rafts.

The territory of the Third Cave encompassed not only the cliff, but the area below the stone terraces all the way to the edge of the water of both rivers and in some places beyond. It wasn't owned by them. People, particularly from the other nearby Caves, could walk into another Cave's territory and use its resources, but it was considered polite to be invited or to ask first. Such tacit strictures were understood by adults. Children, of course, could go anywhere they wanted.

The region along The River between Wood River just beyond the Ninth Cave on the north and Grass River at Two Rivers Rock on the south was considered a cohesive community by the Zelandonii who lived there. In effect, it was an extended village, though they didn't, quite, have a concept for that kind of settlement or give a name to it. But when Jondalar was traveling and referred to the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii as his home, it was not only the many people of that particular stone shelter that he thought of, but the entire neighboring community.

The visitors began ascending the trail toward the main level of Two Rivers Rock but stopped when they reached the lower level to wait for a person who wanted to join the meeting. While they were standing there, Ayla looked up and found herself reaching for the nearby wall to steady herself. The top of the cliff overhung so far that as the eye followed the massive stone walls up, it gave her the feeling that the cliff itself was bending over backward along with the viewer.

"That's Kimeran," Jondalar said, grinning, as the man greeted Joharran. Ayla looked at the stranger, who was blond and taller than Joharran. She was struck by the subtle body language of the two men, who seemed to regard each other as equals.

The newcomer eyed the wolf with apprehension, but made no comment as they continued up to the next level. When they finally reached the main level, Ayla had to stop again, halted this time by the spectacular view. Her breath caught in her throat. The stone front porch of the Third Cave's rock shelter commanded an expansive vista of the surrounding countryside. Somewhat upstream along Grass River, she could even see another small watercourse that joined the secondary.

"Ayla." She turned around when she heard her name. Joharran was behind her, with the man who had just joined them. "I want to introduce you to someone."

The man took a step forward and held out both hands, but his eyes glanced warily at the wolf beside her, who was looking at him with attentive curiosity. He seemed to be as tall as Jondalar and, with his blond hair, bore a superficial resemblance to him. She put her hand down to signal the animal to stay back as she moved forward to greet him.

"Kimeran, this is Ayla of the Mamutoi…" Joharran began. Kimeran took both of her hands in his as the leader of the Ninth Cave continued with her names and ties. Joharran had noticed the man's anxious look and understood exactly how he felt. "Ayla, this is Kimeran, Leader of Elder Hearth, the Second Cave of the Zelandonii, Brother of Zelandoni of the Second Cave, Descendant of the Founder of the Seventh Cave of the Zelandonii."

"In the name of Doni, the Great Earth Mother, you are welcome to the land of the Zelandonii, Ayla of the Mamutoi," Kimeran said.

"In the name of Mut, Mother of All, also known as Doni and by many other names, I greet you Kimeran, Leader of Elder Hearth, the Second Cave of the Zelandonii," Ayla said, then smiled and repeated his complete introduction. Kimeran noticed her foreign accent and then her lovely smile. She was truly beautiful, he thought, but could he expect any less from Jondalar?

"Kimeran!" Jondalar said when they finished the formal words. "It's good to see you!"

"And you, Jondalar." The men grabbed each other's hands, then gave each other a rough but affectionate hug.

"So you are leader of the Second now," Jondalar said.

"Yes. For a couple of years. I wondered if you'd make it back. I heard you had returned, but I had to come and see for myself if all the stories about you are true. I think they must be," Kimeran said, smiling at Ayla, but still keeping a cautious distance from the wolf.

"Ayla, Kimeran and I have been friends for a long time. We went through our manhood ceremony together, got our belts… became men at the same time." Jondalar smiled and shook his head at the memory. "We were all about the same age, but I felt that I stood out because I was taller than everyone. I was so glad when I saw Kimeran coming because he was as tall as me. I wanted to stand near him so I wouldn't be so noticeable. I think he felt the same way." He turned back to the man, who was also smiling, but his expression changed at Jondalar's next words. "Kimeran, I think you should come and meet Wolf."

"Meet him?"

"Yes, Wolf won't hurt you, Ayla will introduce you. Then he'll know you as a friend."

Kimeran felt disconcerted as Jondalar walked him toward the four-legged hunter. It was the biggest wolf he'd ever seen, but the woman obviously wasn't afraid. She went down on one knee and put an arm around him, then looked up and smiled. The wolf's mouth was open, his teeth were bared, and his tongue was hanging out the side. Was that wolf sneering at him?

"Put your hand out so Wolf can smell it," Jondalar urged.

"What's that word you called him?" Kimeran said, frowning and avoiding the gesture. He wasn't at all sure he wanted to offer his hand to the animal, but people were standing around watching, and he didn't want to seem afraid, either.

"It's the name Ayla gave him, it's the Mamutoi word for 'wolf'."

When Ayla took his right hand, Kimeran knew he was committed. He took a deep breath and allowed her to bring that important appendage close to the mouth that was full of sharp teeth.

Kimeran was surprised, as most people were, when Ayla went through the process of showing him how to touch the wolf, and he was startled when Wolf licked his hand. But when he felt Wolf's living warmth, the man wondered why the animal stood still for the touching, and once the initial wonder was over, he found himself paying more attention to the woman.

What kind of power does she have? he wondered. Is she Zelandoni? He was particularly aware of the zelandonia and their unique abilities. She speaks in perfectly clear and understandable Zelandonii, but She has a manner of speaking that is strange. It is not exactly an accent, he thought. She almost seems to swallow some of the sounds. It isn't unpleasant, but it does make you take notice of her… not that you wouldn't anyway. She has a foreign look, you know she's a stranger, but a beautiful, exotic stranger, and the wolf is a part of it. How does she control a wolf? He took on a look of wonder, almost awe.

Ayla had been watching Kimeran's expressions and saw the look of wonder. She glanced away when she felt herself starting to smile, then she looked up at him. "I've taken care of Wolf since he was a little pup," she said. "He was raised with the children of the Lion Camp. He's used to people."

Kimeran felt a flush of surprise. It was almost as though she knew what he was thinking and gave him an answer to his questions before he even asked.

"Did you come alone?" Jondalar asked when Kimeran could finally stop looking at the wolf, and Ayla, and turned his attention back to him.

"More are coming. We got word that Joharran wanted to organize a last hunt before leaving for the Summer Meeting. Manvelar sent a runner to the Seventh, and they sent one to us, but I didn't want to wait for everyone and came ahead," he said.

"Kimeran's Cave is that way, Ayla," Jondalar said, pointing down the valley of Grass River. "Can you see that small tributary?" Ayla nodded. "That's the Little Grass River. Continue along Grass River beyond the tributary to reach the Second and the Seventh Caves. They're related, and live across a rich meadow from each other."

The two men began talking, reminiscing and catching up, but Ayla was distracted again by the panoramic scene. The Third Cave's spacious upper terrace gave the inhabitants many advantages. It was Well protected by its large overhang from unpleasant weather, yet it offered an extraordinary view.

Unlike the wooded valley near the Ninth Cave, the valleys of both the Grass and the Little Grass Rivers were rich, luxuriant grasslands, but different from the broad meadows of the floodplain of The River. A variety of trees and brush lined the banks of the primary river, but beyond the narrow gallery forest it was an open field of essentially shortgrass that was favored by ruminant grazers. Directly across The River toward the west, the broad floodplain led to a series of hills that climbed up to a grass-covered highland.

The valleys of both the Grass and the Little Grass Rivers were wetter, almost swampy at certain times of year, which supported the tallgrass varieties of grass that grew higher than a man in places, and were often mixed with herbaceous forbs. The wide variety of plants invited many different types of grazing and browsing animals that preferred specific kinds or parts of the various grasses and leafy herbs as they migrated seasonally across the landscape.

Since the main terrace of Two Rivers Rock overlooked the valleys of both The River and Grass River, it made an ideal location from which to monitor the itinerant herds. As a consequence, over time the people of the Third Cave gained not only great skill in tracking the movements of herds, but knowledge of the seasonal changes and weather patterns that signaled the appearance of the various animals. With that edge their proficiency as hunters grew. Though every Cave hunted, the spears of the hunters of the Third Cave living at Two Rivers Rock brought down more of the grazers and browsers that migrated through the grassy floodplains of the river valleys than any of the others.

The primacy of the Third Cave's hunting knowledge and skill was known by most of the Zelandonii, but especially acknowledged by their nearest neighbors. They were the ones to whom the others turned for insight and information whenever anyone planned to go hunting, particularly when a major, community-wide, group hunt was considered.

Ayla looked toward the left, south. The grassy valleys of the two rivers, which joined just below, opened out between high cliffs. Enlarged by Grass River, The River flowed southwest close against the base of the tall cliffs, around the rocks of a deep bend, and out of sight, heading for a larger river farther south and eventually to the Great Waters some distance to the west.

Then Ayla looked right, to the north, back the way they had come. The upstream valley of The River was a broad green meadow with the sparkling shimmer of sunlight reflecting off the meandering waterway glinting through the junipers, silver birches, willows, and pines, even an occasional evergreen oak, that marked its course. Upstream on the opposite bank, where The River made a sweeping turn toward the rising sun, the high cliffs and the immense overhanging shelter of the Ninth Cave could be seen.

Manvelar strode toward them, smiling in welcome. Though the gray-haired man was not young, Ayla noticed that he walked with vitality and confidence. She found it difficult to judge his age. After greetings and a few formal introductions, Manvelar led the group to an unoccupied section on the main level somewhat north of the living area.

"We're preparing a midday meal for everyone," Manvelar announced, "but if anyone is thirsty, there's water and some cups here." He indicated a couple of large wet waterbags propped up against a stone, with a few woven cups stacked nearby.

Most people accepted the offer, though many had brought their personal drinking cups. It was not uncommon to take one's own cup, bowl, and eating knife in a pouch or carryall of some kind even when going on short trips or visiting friends. Ayla brought not only her own cup, but a bowl for Wolf. People stared with fascination as the magnificent animal eagerly lapped up the water she gave him, and several smiled. It was somehow comforting to realize that the wolf, who seemed bound to the woman with an inexplicably mysterious tie, could be so ordinary as to need a drink of water.

They settled down with an air of pleasant anticipation, some people sitting on stones, some standing, waiting for things to get started. Manvelar delayed until everyone was quiet and ready, then he acknowledged a young woman who had been standing close to him.

"We've had watchers, both here and at Second View, for the past two days," he said.

"That's Second View, Ayla," Jondalar said quietly. She looked where he indicated. Across the confluence of Two Rivers and its wide floodplain was another small rock shelter jutting out sharply from an acute corner at the beginning of the line of cliffs that paralleled The River as it continued downstream. "Although it's separated by Grass River, the Third Cave considers Second View to be a part of Two Rivers Rock."

Ayla looked again toward the place called Second View, then Took a few steps to look over the edge down at the water. From her perspective, she could see that at its mouth, Grass River broadened out into a small fan-shaped delta as it approached the larger waterway. On the right bank of the smaller river, at the base of Two Rivers Rock, a path heading east, upstream, forked off toward the flowing water. She noticed that the offshoot trail led to the bank of Grass River at one edge of the delta where it was wide and shallow, but back from the turbulence of the confluence of Two Rivers. It was where the Third Cave crossed Grass River.

On the other side, a path continued across the valley formed by the floodplain of both rivers for about a quarter of a mile to the jutting corner abri. Small and high, it didn't offer much shelter beneath it, but a rocky path led to the top, a stone platform from which there was an alternative view of the valleys of both rivers from the opposite side of Grass River.

"… Thefona arrived with information just before you came," Manvelar was saying. "I think there are a couple of possibilities for a good hunt, Joharran. We've been keeping track of a mixed herd of about eight giant deer with young moving this way, and Thefona has just spotted a good-sized herd of bison."

"Either one would do, whichever we could be most assured of getting. What would you suggest?" Joharran asked.

"If it was just the Third Cave, we'd probably wait for the giant deer at The River and pick off a couple at the Crossing, but if you're looking for a substantial kill, I'd go for the bison and drive them into a surround," Manvelar said.

"We could do both," Jondalar said.

Several people smiled. "He wants them all? Was Jondalar always so eager?" someone remarked, Ayla wasn't sure who.

"Eager, yes, though not usually for hunting animals," a woman's voice retorted. A chorus of chuckles and laughter followed.

Ayla caught sight of the speaker. It was Kareja, the leader of the Eleventh Cave. Ayla recalled meeting her and being impressed, but she didn't like the tone of her comments. It seemed as if she was making fun of Jondalar, and Ayla had too recently been the object of similar-sounding laughter. She looked to see how he was reacting. A flush of color tinted his face, but he made a wry grin. He's embarrassed, Ayla thought, and trying not to show it.

"I guess that did sound a little eager, and I know it seems as if we can't do it all, but I think we can. When we were living with the Mamutoi, Ayla, on her horse, helped the Lion Camp drive bison into a surround," Jondalar tried to explain. "A horse can run faster than any person, and we can direct the horses where we want them to go. We can help drive those bison, and head them off when they try to break away. And you'll see how easy it would be to bring down a giant deer with this spear-thrower. Probably more than a couple. I think you will all be surprised at what this can do." He held up the hunting weapon as he spoke. It was a rather flat, narrow wooden shaft that seemed far too simple to do all that the returned traveler claimed for it.

"You're saying you think we can do it all?" Joharran asked.

The gathering was interrupted by people of the Third Cave bringing food. After a leisurely midday meal, further discussion revealed that the location of the bison herd was not far from a previously built surround that could be repaired and made serviceable. They planned to spend a day repairing the corral trap, and if they could get it ready, and if the bison didn't wander away, they would hunt the bison the morning after, but they would also watch the giant deer. Ayla listened carefully when the talk turned to the strategic planning of the hunt, but she did not volunteer herself and Whinney to help. She would see how things worked out.

"Well, let's see this wonderful new weapon, Jondalar," Joharran finally said.

"Yes," Manvelar said. "You've made me very curious. We can use the practice field in Grass Valley."

Chapter 11

The practice field was near the foot of Two Rivers Rock and consisted of a central runway of dirt that had been trampled bare from heavy use. Even the grass around it was flattened by the many people that had been standing and walking on it. One end of the run was marked by a large section of limestone that had once been an overhanging ledge, which had fallen some unknown time before. Its formerly sharp edges were rounded with the wear of time and climbing feet. At the other end four hides were wrapped and tied around bundles of dry grass that poked through several previous spear holes. On each of the hides, the shape of a different animal was painted.

"You'll have to move those targets farther away, at least twice the distance," Jondalar said.

"Twice the distance?" Kareja asked, eyeing the wooden implement in his hands.

"At least."

The object Jondalar held had been carved from a straight piece of wood and was about the length of his forearm from the ends of his extended fingers to his elbow. It was narrow and flat, with a long groove down the center and two leather loops near the front. A backstop at the rear had a tapering prong extending from it, a hook that fit into a hole carved into the butt of a light spear.

Out of a rawhide quiver, Jondalar took a flint point that was attached to a short length of wood with sinew and glue, made of boiled hooves and scraps of hide. The rear end of the short shank tapered to a rounded point. The object appeared to be a disproportionately short spear, or perhaps a kind of knife with an unusual handle. Then he pulled out of a holder a long shaft that was fletched at one end with two feathers like a spear but had no point at the other. There was a murmur of curiosity from the crowd.

He inserted the tapered end of the shank that was attached to the flint point into a hole that had been carved into the front end of the much longer shaft, and held out a two-piece, rather graceful, spear. There was an exclamation of understanding from some, but not all.

"I've made a few changes since I first developed this spear-throwing technique," Jondalar said to the assembled group. "I keep trying out new ideas to see how they work. This detachable spear point turned out to be a good one. Rather than the long shaft splintering every time a spear lands wrong or breaking when an animal you've hit runs away, with this," he held up the spear and separated the two pieces again, "the point will pull out of the shaft and you don't have to make a whole new spear."

There was an interested murmur from the crowd in response. It took time and effort to shape a spear shaft to make it straight so that it would fly true when it was thrown, and there wasn't a hunter there who hadn't broken one at the worst possible time.

"You may notice that this spear is somewhat smaller and more lightweight than normal spears," Jondalar continued.

"That's it!" Willamar exclaimed. "I knew there was something about that spear that was different, besides the fact that it's made in two parts. It somehow seems more graceful, almost feminine. Like a 'Mother' spear."

"We discovered that a lighter spear will actually fly better," Jondalar said.

"But will it pierce?" Brameval said. "It may not go as far, but I've found that a spear needs some heft. If it's too lightweight, it bounces off a thick hide, or breaks the point."

"I think it's time for a demonstration," Jondalar said, picking up his holder and quiver and moving back toward the fallen rocks. He had brought spare shafts and additional detachable points, but they were not all the same. Some were tipped with flint, though each point had a slightly different shape, others were made of a long piece of carved bone, shaped to a sharp point with a base that was split to facilitate attaching to the shorter intermediate shaft. He fitted a few more spears together in readiness while Solaban and Rushemar dragged a target farther away.

"Is this far enough, Jondalar?" Solaban shouted.

Jondalar glanced at Ayla. The wolf had stationed himself beside her. She held her spear-thrower and had a long quiver on her back with extra spears already put together. She smiled at him and he smiled back, but it was a nervous smile. He had decided to begin with a demonstration and then explain and answer questions.

"It will do," he said. It was well within range, quite close, in fact, but it would do for his first demonstration. He could be more accurate as well. He didn't have to tell them to stand out of the way. They were all loping back, more than happy to stay clear of a spear cast with the unfamiliar implement. He waited for them to return, and while they were all looking on with expressions ranging from expectant to doubtful, he prepared to throw.

Holding the spear-thrower horizontally in his right hand, with his thumb and index fingers through the two front loops, he quickly slapped a spear into the groove. He slid it back so that the hook of the thrower, which also acted as a backstop, fit into the hole in the fletched butt end, and without hesitation he launched the spear. He did it so quickly, many people hardly noticed the way that the back end of the thrower raised up while he held on to the front with the aid of the loops, effectively adding the length of the spear-thrower to the length of his arm and thereby gaining the advantage of the additional leverage.

What they did see was a spear fly with twice the usual speed and land in the middle of the deer painted on the hide with such force that it penetrated clear through the bundle of grass. To the observers' surprise, a second spear followed the first with nearly as much force, landing close to the same hole. Ayla had followed Jondalar's cast with one of her own. There was a stunned silence, and then a babble of questions.

"Did you see that!"

"I didn't see you throw, can you do it again, Jondalar?"

"That spear nearly went through the target, how did you throw it so hard?"

"Hers went through it, too. What gives them such force?"

"Can I see that thing? What do you call it? A spear-thrower?"

The last questions came from Joharran, and Jondalar gave him the implement. His brother looked it over carefully, even turning it over and noticing the simple carving of a giant deer on the back. It made him smile. He'd seen a similar carving before.

"Not bad, for a flint-knapper," he said, indicating the carving.

"How do you know I did it?"

"I remember when you thought you might be a carver, Jondalar. I think I still have a plate you once gave me with a carving like that. But where did this come from?" he said, handing the thrower back. "And I'd like to see how you use it."

"I worked it out when I was staying with Ayla in her valley. It's really not difficult to use, but it does take practice to gain control. I can throw farther, but Ayla is more accurate than I am," Jondalar explained as he picked up another spear. "Do you see this small hole that I carved into the back end of this spear?"

Joharran and several other people crowded near to see the rounded indentation.

"What's the purpose of that?" Kareja asked.

"I'll show you. See this hooklike projection at the back of the thrower? They fit together like this," he said, inserting the point of the hook into the hole. He adjusted the spear so that it lay flat on the thrower, with the two feathers of the fletching on either side, then he put his thumb and index finger through the leather loops, and held the spear and the thrower together in a horizontal position. Everyone was crowding around, trying to see. "Ayla, why don't you show them, too." Ayla went through a similar demonstration.

"She is holding it differently," Kareja said. "She has her first two fingers through the loops, Jondalar is using his thumb and forefinger."

"You are very perceptive, Kareja," Marthona remarked.

"This works best for me," Ayla explained. "Jondalar used to hold it this way, but now he prefers to hold it his way. Either way is fine. You can hold it whatever way is most comfortable for you."

Kareja nodded, then said, "Your spears are smaller and lighter than usual, too."

"At first we used bigger spears, but Jondalar came up with these smaller ones after a while. They are easier to handle and better for accuracy," Ayla said.

Jondalar continued with the demonstration. "When you throw, notice how the back of the spear-thrower raises up, giving the spear an extra push?" With the spear and thrower in his right hand, he took hold of the spear with his left to show the movement in slow motion without letting the spear drop. "That's what gives it the extra force."

"When that spear-thrower is fully extended, it's as though your arm is half again as long," Brameval said. He hadn't said much before, and it took Ayla a moment to recall that he was the leader of the Fourteenth Cave.

"Would you throw the spear again? Show us once more how it works?" Manvelar said.

Jondalar pulled back, took aim, and let fly. The spear punched through the target again. Ayla's spear followed a heartbeat later.

Kareja looked at the woman Jondalar had brought home and smiled. She hadn't known Ayla was so accomplished. It rather surprised her. She had assumed the quite obviously attractive woman would be more like Marona, the one he had chosen before he left, but this woman might be worth getting to know better.

"Would you like to try it, Kareja?" Ayla asked, offering her spear-thrower.

"Yes, I would," the leader of the Eleventh Cave said, smiling broadly. She took the thrower and examined it while Ayla got another spear shaft with a detachable point. She noticed the bison carved on the bottom and wondered if Jondalar had made it, too. It was a decent carving, not exceptional, but adequate.

Wolf wandered off while Ayla and Jondalar showed people the techniques they would have to practice in order to effectively use the new hunting weapon. While some managed to make some good distance throws, it was obvious that accuracy would take more time. Ayla was standing back, watching, when she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned to see Wolf chasing something. When she caught a glimpse of it, she took her sling out of a pouch, along with a couple of smooth, rounded stones.

She placed the stone in the pouch of leather in the middle of the sling, and when the ptarmigan in full summer plumage flew up, she was ready. She hurled it at the plump bird and saw it drop. A second ptarmigan flew up, and a second stone from Ayla's sling brought it down. By then, Wolf had found the first one. She intercepted him as he was carrying it off and took it out of his mouth, then picked up the second and carried them both by their feet. Suddenly she realized it was the right season and started looking around in the grass. She spied the nest and, with a grin of delight, picked up several eggs as well. She would be able to cook Creb's favorite dish, ptarmigan stuffed with its own eggs.

She was pleased with herself as she walked back with Wolf at her side and didn't notice until she drew near that everyone had stopped practicing and was staring at her. Some were smiling, but most people looked surprised. Jondalar was grinning.

"Didn't I tell you about her skill with a sling?" Jondalar said. He was feeling smug, and it showed.

"But you didn't say she used the wolf to flush out game. With her sling and the wolf, why did you need to come up with this thing?" Joharran said, holding up the spear-thrower.

"In fact, it was her sling that gave me the idea for it," Jondalar said, "and she didn't have Wolf then, though she had hunted with a cave lion."

Most people thought Jondalar was joking, although looking at the woman holding a couple of dead ptarmigan, with the wolf at her side, they weren't sure what to believe.

"How did you develop this spear-thrower, Jondalar?" Joharran asked. It had been his turn to try, and he still had the thrower in his hand.

"Watching Ayla throw a stone with that sling made me wish I could throw a spear like that. In fact, my first tries were with a kind of sling, but then I realized I needed something stiffer, less flexible. Eventually, I came up with this idea," Jondalar explained. "But at that time, I didn't know what you could really do with one. It takes practice, as you can guess by now, but we have even learned to use them from horseback. Now that you've had a chance to try them, maybe we should give you a real demonstration. Too bad we didn't bring the horses, but at least I can give you a better idea of their range."

Several spears had been retrieved from the targets. Jondalar picked one up, took the thrower from Joharran, and walked back a few feet. He sighted toward the targets, but instead of aiming directly for the hay bundles, he gave it as hard a cast as he could. The spear sailed over the bundles, going more than half again the distance before landing in the distant grass. Sounds of amazement could be heard.

Ayla went next, and though she didn't have quite the power of the tall, muscular man, her spear fell only a little short of Jondalar's. Ayla's physical strength was greater than that of most women; it was the result of her upbringing. The people of the Clan were stronger and more robust than the Others. For her to keep up with them, to simply perform the ordinary work that was expected of Clan women and girls as she grew up, she had had to develop stronger bones and more muscle power than was normal for her kind.

As the spears were gathered, the people talked about the new weapon they had just seen. Casting a spear with a spear-thrower did not appear to be much different from throwing a spear by hand. The difference was in the results. It flew more than twice as far and with much greater force. That was the aspect most discussed, because it was immediately understood how much safer it would be to throw a spear from a greater distance.

Hunting accidents, while not common, were also not rare. More than one hunter had been maimed or killed by a pain-maddened, wounded animal. The question was how long and how much effort it would take to gain, if not the level of expertise displayed by Jondalar and Ayla, at least enough skill to use the spear-thrower competently. Some seemed to feel that they already had adequate techniques to hunt effectively, but some, especially the younger ones who were still learning, were more interested.

At first glance, the new weapon seemed so simple, and in fact it was. But it was based on principles that, although understood intuitively, would not be codified until much later. The spear-thrower was a handle, a unique detachable handle that utilized the mechanical advantage of leverage to add impetus to a spear, making it fly much farther and faster than a spear thrown with just an arm.

People had been using handles of various kinds for as long as they could remember, and any handle would amplify the force of muscles. For example, a sharp chip of stone-flint, jasper, chert, quartz, obsidian-was a cutting tool when held in the hand, but a handle multiplied the force that could be applied to the edge, increasing the effectiveness of the knife and giving the user more control.

But the spear-thrower was more than a new use of principles that were innately known. It was an example of an inborn characteristic of people like Jondalar and Ayla that made their survival more likely: the ability to conceive of an idea and turn it into a useful object, to take an abstract thought and make it real. That was their greatest Gift, though they didn't even recognize it for what it was.

The visitors spent the rest of the afternoon discussing strategies for the upcoming hunt. They decided to go after the herd of bison that had been sighted, since there were more animals in that group. Jondalar mentioned again that he thought they could hunt both the bison and the giant deer, but he didn't press the matter. Ayla said nothing, deciding to wait and see. The visitors were fed another meal and urged to stay the night. Some people chose to stay, but Joharran had some things he wanted to prepare before the hunt, and he had promised Kareja to stop for a short visit with the Eleventh Cave on the way back.

It was still light, though the sun was falling in the west when the Ninth Cave started down the path. When they reached the relatively flat stretch of land near the bank of The River, Ayla turned and looked up again at the multiple levels of shelflike shelters of Two Rivers Rock. Some people were waving at them with a beckoning "come-back" gesture that was used by many people. She noticed that the visitors waved back with a similar motion; theirs meant "come-and-visit."

Walking near the bank, they followed the cliff around to the right, back toward the north. As they continued upstream, the rock wall on their side of The River became less and less high. Near the lowest part at the bottom of a slope they saw a stone shelter. Slightly farther back and up the slope, perhaps one hundred twenty feet away, was a second abri, but stretching more or less continually along the same terrace level. A small cave could also be seen nearby. The two shelters, the cave, and the long terrace constituted the living site of another community in this densely populated regional settlement-the Eleventh Cave of the Zelandonii.

Kareja and the people of the Eleventh Cave had left Two Rivers Rock before the Ninth, and the leader was standing beside Zelandoni of the Eleventh as the group approached, waiting to greet them. Seeing them together, Ayla noticed that Kareja was taller than Zelandoni of the Eleventh. It was not that she was so tall, Ayla realized as they drew near, but that he was rather short. As he greeted her, she noticed again his strong grip. But she sensed something else about him. The man had certain mannerisms that had confused her when she first met him and came across quite strongly as he greeted and welcomed the visitors.

Suddenly she perceived that he did not appraise her the way most of the Zelandonii men did, whether overtly or with more subtlety, and she understood that this man did not look to women to satisfy his personal needs. When she was living with the Lion Camp, she recalled listening with much interest to a discussion about people who carried the essence of both male and female within them. Then she remembered Jondalar saying that such Zelandoni often made excellent healers, and she couldn't help but smile. Perhaps he would be another person with whom she could discuss practices and techniques of healing and medicine.

His smile in return was friendly. "Welcome to River Place, the home of the Eleventh Cave of the Zelandonii," he said. Another man, who was standing to the side and slightly behind him, was smiling at the Zelandoni in a warm and loving way. He was rather tall and had nice regular features that Ayla thought would be considered handsome, but he moved in a way that struck her as womanly.

The Zelandoni turned to look at the tall man and signaled him forward. "I'd like to introduce my friend, Marolan of the Eleventh Cave of the Zelandonii," he said, then continued the rest of the formal introduction, which seemed somewhat longer than usual, Ayla thought.

While he was speaking, Jondalar moved up beside her, which made her feel better when she was in a new situation, and she had been in many since they had returned to the land of his people. She turned to smile at him, then turned back to take both hands of the man. He was not as tall as Jondalar, she noted, but somewhat taller than her.

"In the name of the Mut, the Great Mother of All, also known as Doni, I greet you, Marolan of the Eleventh Cave of the Zelandonii," she concluded. His smile was cordial and he seemed interested in talking, but they had to step aside to make room for others that the leader and the Zelandoni of the Eleventh Cave were welcoming, and some people moved between them before they could exchange any conversational pleasantries. There would be time to talk later, she thought.

She glanced around to examine her surroundings. Although the location was higher than the bank, and somewhat back from the edge of the water, it was still rather close to The River. She commented on it to Marthona.

"Yes, they are close to The River," the woman said. "Some people think they could be subject to flooding. Zelandoni says there are some hints about it in the Elder Legends, but no one living now, not even the oldest, has any memory of floods here. They do take advantage of their location, though."

Willamar explained that because of their immediate access, the people of the Eleventh Cave made good use of The River's resources. Fishing was a principal activity, but more important, the Eleventh Cave was known for water transport. "River rafts are used to carry substantial amounts of whatever needs to be transported-food, goods, or people," he said. "The people of the Eleventh Cave are not only the most skilled at poling the rafts up and down The River, for themselves, and for neighboring Caves, but they make most of them."

"That's their skill," Jondalar added. "The Eleventh Cave specializes in making and using river rafts. Their home is known as River Place."

"Isn't that what those logs are?" she asked, pointing to several constructions made of wood and logs near the edge of the water. They weren't unfamiliar. She had seen something like them before and tried to remember where. Then it came to her. The S'Armunai women had used a raft. When she was trying to find Jondalar and following the only trail that led away from the site of his disappearance, she had come to a river and seen a small raft nearby.

"Not all of them. The one that looks like a big raft is their dock. The smaller platforms tied to it are rafts. Most Caves have a place near the water to secure rafts, some not much more than a simple piling, others have more elaborate docks, but none are quite like theirs. When somebody wants to travel or transport something, either up or downriver, they go to the Eleventh Cave to make arrangements. They make fairly regular runs," Jondalar said. "I'm glad we're stopping here. I've been wanting to tell them about the Sharamudoi and their wonderfully maneuverable river craft that are shaped out of logs."

Joharran had overheard. "I don't think you'll have time to get into much of a discussion about river craft right now, unless you want to stay behind. I'd like to get back to the Ninth Cave before dark," he said. "I told Kareja I'd stop because she wanted to show you around, Ayla, and I'd like to make a trip upriver by raft after the hunt to meet with some of the other leaders about the Summer Meeting."

"If we had one of those small Ramudoi dugout boats, a couple of people could paddle upriver and wouldn't have to worry about poling a heavy raft," Jondalar said.

"How long would it take to make one?" Joharran asked.

"It takes a lot of work," Jondalar acknowledged. "But once it's made, it could last a while."

"That won't help me now, will it?"

"No. I was thinking of what a help it might be later."

"Perhaps, but I need to get upriver in the next few days," Joharran said, "and back again. If the Eleventh Cave is planning a trip, it would be easier, and much faster coming back, but I can walk if I have to."

"You could use the horses," Ayla said.

"You could use the horses, Ayla." Joharran gave her a wry grin. "I don't know how to make them go where I want."

"A horse can carry two people. You could ride behind me," she said.

"Or me," Jondalar said.

"Well, maybe sometime, but right now I think I'll find out if the Eleventh Cave is planning a trip upriver soon," Joharran said.

They hadn't noticed Kareja approach. "In fact, I have been thinking about making a run upriver," she said. They all looked up. "I'm going to the meeting, too, Joharran, and if the hunt is successful…" even if it was considered likely, no one ever presumed that any hunt would be successful; it would be bad luck, "… it might be a good idea to take some meat to the site of the Summer Meeting and cache it nearby beforehand. I think you are right that the Meeting will be particularly well attended this year." She turned to Ayla. "I know you can't stay long, but I wanted to show you our place and introduce you to some people." She didn't exactly ignore Jondalar, but she directed her comments to Ayla.

Jondalar looked more closely at the leader of the Eleventh Cave. She had been one of the most derisive of those who had teased him about his hunting suggestions and claims about their new hunting weapons, though now she seemed quite impressed with Ayla… after she had shown her skill. Maybe he should wait before bringing up the new kind of boats, and maybe Kareja wasn't the one he should talk to about them, he thought, wondering who their foremost raft-maker was now.

He tried to remember what he knew about Kareja. She'd never had many men interested in her, he recalled. Not because she wasn't attractive, but she hadn't seemed particularly interested in men and didn't encourage them. But he didn't recall her being interested in women, either. She had always lived with her mother, Dorova. Jondalar wondered if she still did.

Her mother had never chosen to live with a man, he knew. He couldn't remember who the man of her hearth was, or if anyone ever knew which man's spirit the Great Mother had chosen to make Dorova pregnant. People had wondered about the name she had chosen for her daughter, mostly because it resembled the sound of the wordcourageous . Did she think Kareja would need courage? It did take courage to be the leader of a Cave.

Ayla knew the wolf would draw attention and bent down to reassure him with strokes and words of comfort. She drew comfort from him as well. It was hard to be the focus of so much constant scrutiny, and it was not likely to diminish soon. She was not exactly looking forward to the Summer Meeting for just that reason, even though she was anticipating the Matrimonial that would make her Jondalar's mate. She took a deep breath and let out a surreptitious sigh, then straightened up. Giving Wolf a signal to stay close, she joined Kareja and walked toward the first of the living shelters.

It was similar to all the other shelters of stone in the region. Relative differences in the hardness of the limestone had caused the cliffs to erode at dissimilar rates, creating spaces in between terraces and overhanging ledges that were protected from precipitation above yet open to daylight. With the addition of structures built to block wind and fire to provide warmth, the spaces in the limestone cliffs provided very advantageous living conditions even during Ice Age winters in periglacial regions.

After meeting several people and introducing Wolf to a few, Ayla was led to the other stone shelter, the one in which Kareja lived. She met the leader's mother, Dorova, but no other relatives. Kareja did not appear to have a mate or siblings, and she made it clear that she wanted no children, saying that taking care of her Cave was responsibility enough.

Kareja paused and seemed to be studying Ayla, then she said, "Since you are so knowledgeable about horses, I want to show you something."

Jondalar was a little surprised when the leader headed toward a small cave. He knew where they were going, and people didn't usually bring unknown visitors to their sacred places on their first visit. Near the entrance of the cave's single gallery was a series of cryptic lines, and inside were several crude engravings that were rather difficult to see. On the ceiling, however, was a large, finely engraved horse, and more markings at the end.

"That is a remarkable horse," Ayla said. "Whoever made it must know horses well. Does that person live here?"

"I don't think so, though her spirit may still linger," Kareja said. "It has been here a long time. Some ancestor made it, we don't know who."

The last thing Ayla was shown was the dock with two rafts tied to it, and a working area where another raft was being built. She would have liked to stay longer and learn more, but Joharran was in a hurry and Jondalar had said he had to make some preparations as well. Ayla didn't want to stay by herself, especially on her first visit, but she did promise to return.

The party continued north upstream along The River to the foot of a small rocky escarpment where there was a small rock shelter.

Ayla noticed that rock debris tended to accumulate along the edge of the cliff overhang. The accumulation of talus created a wall of loose, sharp-edged gravel below the lip of the abri.

There was some evidence of use. Several panel screens stood behind the talus, and one that had fallen down. An old sleeping roll, so worn that most of the fur was gone, had been tossed against the back wall. The black circular remains of a few fireplaces were evident, two of them encircled by stones and one with two forked sticks planted in the ground across from each other, used, Ayla was sure, to support meat spitted for roasting.

Ayla thought she saw a few wisps of smoke coming from one hearth, and she was surprised. The place seemed to be abandoned, yet it looked as though it had been used recently.

"What Cave lives here?" she asked.

"No Cave lives here," Joharran said.

"But all of them use it," Jondalar added.

"Everyone uses this place occasionally," Willamar said. "It's a place to get out of the rain, or for a group of youngsters to gather, or for a couple to be alone at night, but no one lives here permanently. People just call it 'The Shelter.'"

After stopping at The Shelter, they continued up the valley of The River to the Crossing. Looking ahead, Ayla again saw the cliffs and distinctive overhanging shelter of the Ninth Cave on the right bank at the outside of the sharp bend. After crossing, they followed a well-worn path beside The River along the base of a slope with thinning trees and brush.

They again walked single file as the trail narrowed between The River and a sheer vertical cliff. "This is the one called 'High Rock,' isn't it?" Ayla said, slowing down to let Jondalar catch up.

"Yes," he said as they approached a fork in the path just beyond the sheer wall. The fork headed back the way they had come but angled up.

"Where does that path go?" she asked.

"To some caves that are high up in that steep wall we just passed," he said. She nodded.

After a few yards, the trail going north led to a valley oriented in an east-west direction that was enclosed by cliffs. A small stream ran down the middle of the valley into The River, which at that point was flowing almost exactly north to south. So narrow that it was very nearly a gorge, the valley nestled between two steep embankments: High Rock, the vertical cliff just passed on the south, and a second mass of rock of even more grand proportions on the north.

"Does that have a name?" Ayla asked.

"Everybody just calls it Big Rock," Jondalar said, "and the little stream is called Fish Creek."

As they looked up the path that ran beside a stream, they saw several people walking down. Brameval was leading the way, approaching them with a big smile. "Come and visit, Joharran," he said when he reached them. "We'd like to show Ayla around and introduce her to a few people."

Jondalar could tell from his expression that his brother really didn't want to stop again, though he knew it would be very impolite to refuse. Marthona, too, could read his expression and jumped in, not willing to let her son make a blunder that might antagonize a good neighbor just because he thought he had to hurry back. Whatever his plans, they weren't that important.

"Of course," she said. "We'd love to stop for a while. We can't stay long this time. We have to get ready for the hunt, and Joharran has some things he must do."

"How did he know we were passing by just now?" Ayla asked Jondalar as they walked up the path that ran beside Fish Creek and approached their settlement.

"Remember that fork in the path that headed up to caves in High Rock?" he said. "Brameval must have had a watcher up there, and when he saw us coming, he just ran down and told him."

Ayla saw a crowd of people waiting for them and noticed that the sections of the huge blocks of limestone that faced the creek held several small caves and abris and one immense rock shelter. When they reached it, Brameval turned around and held out his arms in a gesture that encompassed the entire place.

"Welcome to Little Valley, the home of the Fourteenth Cave of the Zelandonii," he said.

The spacious abri was fronted by a large terrace that was accessible from either side by means of a gradual ramp into which a narrow path of shallow steps had been carved out along the wall. A small hole in the cliff wall above had been slightly enlarged and could be used as a lookout or a smoke hole. A portion of the front opening of the stone shelter was protected from the elements by a wall of piled limestone shards.

The visitors from the Ninth Cave were invited into the primary living site of the small valley community and offered a cup of tea, which was already made. Chamomile, Ayla determined after taking a taste. Wolf was obviously curious to explore this new stone shelter-probably no more so than Ayla-but she kept him at her side. Everyone knew of the wolf who obeyed the woman, of course, and many had already seen him, but from a distance. It was obvious to her that it was more unnerving to have him inside their home.

She introduced Wolf to Brameval's sister and their Zelandoni while the others looked on. Even though the Ninth Cave were close friends with the Fourteenth, everyone knew it was the stranger, Ayla, who was the focus of attention. After the introductions, and a second round of tea, there was the uncomfortable silence of strangers not quite knowing what to do or say next. Joharran was looking with longing toward the path that led out, toward The River.

"Would you like to see the rest of Little Valley, Ayla?" Brameval said when it became apparent that Joharran was getting anxious to go.

"Yes, I would," she said.

With some relief, the visitors from the Ninth Cave and several people from the Fourteenth filed down the steps carved along the wall, as children jumped off the front. While the large shelter was the main home of the Fourteenth Cave, two other small rock shelters next to each other at the foot of the south-facing cliff were also used.

They stopped at a small shelter just a few feet away. "This is the Shelter of the Salmon," Brameval said, leading the way into a small, nearly circular enclosure about twenty feet across.

He pointed up. Ayla looked and saw sculptured in low relief on the vaulted ceiling a life-size salmon almost four feet long, carved with the hooked jaws of a male swimming upstream to spawn. It was part of a more complex scene, containing in addition a rectangle divided by seven lines, the forelegs of a horse, and other enigmatic markings and engravings, along with a negative handprint picked out of a black background. The entire vault had substantial areas of solid red and black color used to accent the engravings.

They made a rather quick tour of the rest of Little Valley. In the southwest, opposite the large rock shelter, was a rather spacious cave, and in the south a ledge opened in front of a small abri, which was extended into the cliff wall by a gallery cave some sixty-five feet long. To the right of the entrance of the cave, on a small natural terracette, two aurochs were carved with vigorous outlines, and the suggestion of a rhinoceros.

Ayla was quite impressed with all the natural sites in Little Valley and was quite open about showing it. Brameval and the Fourteenth Cave were proud of their home and were delighted to show it off to someone who demonstrated her appreciation. They were also getting accustomed to the wolf, especially since Ayla was careful to keep him under control. Several people encouraged the visitors, or at least Ayla, to stay for a meal.

"I would like to," Ayla said, "but not this time. I'd love to come back, though."

"Well, before you go, I'll show you our weir," Brameval said. "It's on the way to The River."

He led the rather large group that had gathered, including the visitors, to a permanent dammed fish trap that had been constructed in Fish Creek. The waterway that ran through the narrow valley was a salmon-spawning stream, where adult fish returned every year. By making various adaptations, the weir was an effective way to catch many of the other varieties of fish that also found the small stream tempting. But most prized were the huge salmon, up to five feet in length although four feet was more common for an adult male.

"We also make fishing nets to catch fish, especially from The River," Brameval said.

"The people I grew up with lived near an inland sea. Sometimes they went to the mouth of the river that flowed near their cave and used nets to catch sturgeon. They were happy when they caught females because they particularly liked the roe, the tiny black fish eggs," Ayla said.

"I've tasted sturgeon roe," Brameval said, "when we visited the people who live near the Great Waters of the West. It's good, but sturgeon don't often come this far upstream. Salmon do, of course, and their eggs are good, too, they're bigger and bright-colored, almost red. I prefer the fish to the eggs, though. I think salmon like red. Did you know male salmon get red when they're swimming upstream? I'm not as familiar with sturgeon. I understand they can get quite big."

"Jondalar caught one of the biggest sturgeon I've ever seen. I think it was longer than two of him," Ayla said, turning to smile at the tall man, and with a twinkle in her eye she added, "It gave him quite a ride."

"Unless you are planning to stay here, I think Jondalar will have to tell that story later," Joharran interjected.

"Yes, later," Jondalar said. The story was a little embarrassing, and he wasn't eager to tell it, anyway.

They continued talking about fishing as they walked together back toward The River. "When people like to fish by themselves, they often use a gorge. You know how it works, don't you?" Brameval asked. "You take a small piece of wood, sharpen it at both ends, and tie a fine cord in the middle," he was eagerly explaining, using his hands as he talked. "I usually attach a float and tie the other end to a pole. Fasten an earthworm around the gorge and dangle it in the water, then watch it. When you see a nibble, with luck, a quick jerk will pull the gorge so that it's horizontal across the throat or mouth with the two points stuck in either side. Even youngsters can get quite good."

Jondalar was smiling. "I know. You taught me when I was young," he said, then looked at Ayla. "Don't get Brameval started talking about fishing." The leader looked slightly embarrassed. "Ayla fishes, too, Brameval." The man smiled at the woman. "She can catch fish with her bare hands."

"Yes, she told me," Brameval said. "It must be difficult."

"It takes a lot of patience, but it's not hard," Ayla said. "I'll show you sometime."

After leaving the narrow gorge of Little Valley, Ayla noticed that the huge mass of limestone called Big Rock, which formed the north side of the Fourteenth Cave's small vale, soared up steeply, but unlike High Rock, it did not crowd close to The River. After several yards the path widened out as the tall limestone walls that lined the right bank pulled back from the edge of the water until a large field separated the stone walls from the flowing river.

"This is called the Gather Field," Jondalar said. "It's another place that's used by all the Caves around here. When we all want to get together for a gathering, like a feast or a meeting to let everyone know something, this place is big enough to hold us. We sometimes use it after a big hunt to dry the meat for winter. I suppose if there was a stone shelter here or a usable cave, it would have been claimed, but anyone can use it now. Mostly in summer, when a tent is a good enough shelter to stay in for a few days."

Ayla looked across at the limestone wall. Though there were no usable abris or deep caves, the face of the cliff was split by ledges and crevices where birds nested.

"I used to climb that wall a lot when I was young," Jondalar said. "There are all kinds of lookout perches and a spectacular view of The River Valley."

"The youngsters still do," Willamar said.

Beyond the Gather Field and just downstream from the Ninth Cave, another ridge of limestone cliffs crowded close to The River. Here, the forces that had eroded the stone of the cliff had created a rounded bulging appearance that rose to the top, and like all the limestone cliffs and overhangs, the warm yellowish natural color of the stone was streaked with shades of dark gray.

The trail climbed up a rather steep slope from The River to a sizable level terrace that extended beyond a row of substantial rock shelters, separated in places by sheer rock walls that had no protective overhangs. From the south, several simple structures of hide and wood were seen under the bulging overhang of rock shelters. They were constructed in the pattern of a longhouse, with a row of hearths down the middle paralleling the cliff wall.

Two fairly large stone shelters at the northern end of the terrace, about fifty yards apart, were almost contiguous with the enormous overhanging rock shelter of the Ninth Cave, but because of the way the cliff curved, the shelters did not face south, which Ayla felt made this place less desirable. She looked down at the southerly end of the terrace of the Ninth Cave beyond a spring-fed stream that ran off the edge of the stone porch, and she realized that this ledge was somewhat higher in elevation.

"Which Cave claims this place?" Ayla asked.

"No Cave really claims it," Jondalar said. "It's called Down River, probably because it's just downriver from the Ninth Cave. The runoff of the spring that rises out of the back wall has worn through the stone porch that makes a natural division between the Ninth Cave and Down River. We made a bridge to connect the two places. The Ninth Cave probably uses it more than any other, but all of the Caves use it."

"What do they use it for?" Ayla asked.

"For making things. It's a place to work. People come here to work on their crafts, especially crafts that use hard materials."

Ayla noticed then that the whole terrace of Down River, but especially within and around the area of the two northernmost abris, was littered with a refuse of ivory, bone, antler, wood, and stone from knapping flint and making tools, hunting weapons, and various implements.

"Jondalar, I'm going on ahead," Joharran said. "We're almost home and I know you want to stay here and tell Ayla all about Down River."

The rest of the people of the Ninth Cave went on with him. It was dusk, and would soon be dark.

"The first of these stone shelters is used mostly by those who work flint," Jondalar said. "Flint leaves a lot of sharp pieces when you work it. It's best to keep them in one place." Then he looked around and saw that the debitage of chips and flakes, left behind in the process of making knives, spear points, scrapers, the chisel-like tools called burins, and other weapons and tools out of the hard siliceous stone, was all over. "Well," he smiled, "that was the original idea."

He told her that most of the stone tools made here were taken to the second rock shelter to be attached to handles made out of other materials such as wood or bone, and many of those would then be used to make other things out of the same hard materials, but there were no hard and fast rules about what was made where. They often worked together.

For example, the worker who shaped flint into a knife blade often collaborated closely with the one who made the handle for it, perhaps chipping a bit more off the tang of the blade to fit into the handle better, or suggesting that the haft be modified or thinned for better balance. Or the shaper of a bone spear point might ask the flint-knapper to sharpen a tool or suggest a way to rework it to make it easier to use. Or the carver who decorated the handle or shaft might want a special chisel point, and only a skilled and experienced knapper could detach a burin-spall off the end of the flint implement at just the right angle to get the desired result.

Jondalar greeted a few crafters who were still around the second stone shelter at the north end of the terrace, working on some project, and introduced Ayla. They eyed the wolf warily, but went back to work after the animal and the couple passed on.

"It's getting dark," Ayla said. "Where will those people sleep?"

"They could come to the Ninth Cave, but they'll probably light a fire and stay up late, and then spend the night in one of those sleeping lodges under the first shelters we passed," he explained. "They're trying to finish before tomorrow. If you recall, there were many more crafters here earlier today. The rest have either gone home or are staying with friends at the Ninth Cave."

"Does everyone come here to work on projects?" Ayla asked.

"Every Cave has a work site like this near their living area, usually smaller, but whenever crafters have a question or an idea to work out, they come here," Jondalar said.

He went on to explain that it was also where a young person was taken who had developed an interest and wanted to learn something about a particular craft. It was a good place to discuss things, such as the quality of flint from various regions and the best uses for each variety. Or to exchange views about techniques about anything: how to cut down a tree with a flint axe, or remove suitable pieces of ivory from a mammoth tusk, or cut a tine off an antler, or bore a hole through a shell or a tooth, or shape and pierce beads, or rough out an approximate shape for a bone spear point. It was the place to discuss acquiring raw material and to plan trips or trading missions to get it.

And not least, it was a good place to just talk about who was interested in whom, who was having problems with a mate or a mate's mother, whose daughter, son, or hearth-child had taken a first step, or spoken a new word, or made a tool, or found a good patch of berries, or tracked an animal, or made a first kill. Ayla quickly got the idea that it was a place for both serious work and friendly camaraderie.

"We'd better get going before it's too dark to find our way," Jondalar said, "especially since we don't have torches. Besides, if we are going hunting tomorrow, there's a few things we will need, too, and we'll be off early."

The sun had already set, though the last glimmerings of light colored the sky overhead when they finally headed down toward the bridge over the runoff creek from the spring. They crossed over to the end of the shelter of stone that was the home of Jondalar and his people, the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii. As the path leveled out, Ayla noticed that the light from several fires ahead was reflected off the underside of the limestone overhang. It was a welcoming sight. For all the protection of the animal Spirits that helped to define her, only people knew how to make fire.

Chapter 12

It was still dark when they heard a light tap on the doorpost. "The zelandonia are preparing the hunting ceremony," a voice said.

"We'll be right there," Jondalar said quietly.

They were already awake, but not dressed. Ayla had been fighting down a bit of nausea and trying to decide what to wear, not that she had much to choose from. She would have to make herself some clothes. Perhaps she would be able to get a hide or two from their kill today. She looked again at the sleeveless tunic and calf-length leggings, the boys' underwear Marona had given to her, and made a decision. Why not? It was a comfortable outfit, and it would probably be hot later today.

Jondalar watched her put on the clothing Marona had given her, but didn't say anything. It had been given to her, after all. She could use it for anything she wanted. He looked up when he saw his mother coming out of her sleeping place.

"Mother, I hope we didn't wake you," Jondalar said.

"You didn't wake me. I still feel an edge of excitement just before a hunt, even though I haven't gone hunting for years," Marthona said. "I suppose that's why I like to be involved in the planning and the rituals. I'm going to the ceremony, too."

"We both are," Willamar said, stepping out from behind the screen that divided their sleeping room from the rest of dwelling.

"I'm coming, too," Folara said, her sleepy-eyed, tousled head looking around the edge of her screen. She yawned and rubbed her eyes. "I just need a little time to get dressed." Suddenly her eyes opened wide. "Ayla! Are you wearing that?"

Ayla looked down at herself, then stood up straight. "This was given to me as a 'gift,'" she said with a touch of defensive belligerence, "and I intend to wear it. Besides," she added with a smile, "I don't have many clothes, and this is easy to move in. If I tie a cloak or a fur around me, it will be warm in the chill of the morning, but later, when it gets hot, it will be cool and comfortable. It really is a very practical outfit."

There was a moment of awkward silence, then Willamar chuckled. "You know, she's right. I would have never thought of wearing winter underwear as summer hunting clothes, but why not?"

Marthona studied Ayla carefully, then gave her a shrewd smile. "If Ayla wears that outfit," she said, "people will talk. Older women will disapprove, but under the circumstances, some will feel she's justified, and by this time next year, half the young women will be wearing the same thing."

Jondalar visibly relaxed. "Do you really think so, mother?"

He hadn't known what to say when he saw Ayla putting on the clothes. Marona had given them to her for the sole purpose of causing her embarrassment, but it occurred to him that if his mother was right-and Marthona was seldom wrong about such things-it would be Marona who would be not only embarrassed, but not allowed to forget it. Every time she saw someone wear such an outfit, it would remind her that her spiteful trick had not pleased anyone.

Folara was looking dumbfounded, glancing from her mother to Ayla, then back to Marthona again.

"You'd better hurry if you're coming, Folara," the older woman chided. "It will be daylight soon."

Willamar lit a torch from the banked fire in the cooking room while they waited. It was one of several they had prepared after they had walked into a dark dwelling, the night Ayla taught them how to make fire with flint and iron pyrite. When Folara came out, still trying to tie her hair back with a strip of leather, they moved the leather drape aside and slipped out quietly. Ayla bent down to touch Wolf's head, a signal in the dark for him to stay close, as they walked toward several bobbing firelights in the direction of the stone front porch.

Quite a number of people were already congregated on the front ledge when the residents of Marthona's dwelling, including the wolf, appeared. Some were holding stone oil lamps, which shed just enough light in the dark for them to find their way but burned for some time; others held torches, which gave more light but burned out faster.

They waited a while longer until a few more people joined them, then the whole group started toward the south end of the abri. It was difficult to distinguish individuals or even see where they were going when they started out. The torches carried by some lighted the space around them, but made everything beyond the glow of the light seem blacker.

Ayla kept her hand on Jondalar's arm as they walked along the stone ledge, past the uninhabited section of the Ninth Cave's cliff overhang to the gully that separated the Ninth Cave from Down River. The small creek that ran through the trench-the runoff of the fresh spring welling up out of the back wall-was a handy source of water for the craftspeople when they were working, and during bad weather an extra source for the Ninth Cave as well.

The torchbearers stood at either end of the bridge that led up to the stone shelters of Down River. In the flickering light, each person walked carefully on the logs that were lashed together and laid across the small gully. Ayla thought the sky was beginning to turn from true black to the deep midnight blue of predawn, the first sign that the sun would soon be breaking. But stars still filled the night sky.

There were no fires burning in the two large shelters of Down River. The last of the crafters had long since retired to the sleeping lodges. The hunting party passed by the lodges, then continued down the steep path to the Gather Field between High Rock and The River. From quite a distance away, they could see the large balefire in the middle of the field and people around it. When they drew near, Ayla noted that, like the torches, the fire lighted the space around it, but made it difficult to see beyond. Fire was wonderful to have at night, but there were limitations.

They were met by several of the zelandonia, including the One Who Was First Among Those Who Served The Mother, the Zelandoni of the Ninth Cave. The large woman greeted them and told them where they would stand for the ceremony. As she walked away, her broad silhouette almost blocked the light from the fire, but only for a moment.

More people were arriving. Ayla recognized Brameval in the firelight and realized it was a group from the Fourteenth Cave. She glanced up and was aware that the sky had definitely become deep blue. Then another group of people carrying torches appeared, Kareja and Manvelar among them. The Eleventh and Third Caves had arrived. Manvelar motioned to Joharran, then approached him.

"I wanted to tell you, I think we should go after the giant deer today rather than the bison," Manvelar said. "When the watchers came up last evening, after you left, they said the bison have moved away from the surround trap. It won't be easy to chase them into it now."

Joharran looked disappointed for a moment, but hunting always did require flexibility. Animals roamed where they chose for their own needs, not for a hunter's convenience. A successful hunter was adaptable.

"All right, let's tell Zelandoni," he said.

At a signal, everyone moved to an area between the fire and the rear of the field, facing the back wall. The closeness of the fire and the crowd of people raised the temperature, and Ayla savored the warmth. The exercise of walking to the Gather Field, at a fairly good pace in spite of the darkness, had served to keep her warm enough, but standing around waiting had caused her to begin to feel the chill. The wolf pressed against her leg; he was not happy having so many strange people so close. Ayla knelt down to reassure him.

The reflection of the large fire behind them danced on the rough vertical surface of the rock. Suddenly a loud wailing sounded and the staccato of drums. Then she heard another sound and felt the hair rising at the nape of her neck and a shiver down her spine. She had heard a sound like that only once before… at the Clan Gathering! She would never forget the sound of a bullroarer. It was the sound that called in the spirits!

She knew how the sound was made. It came from a flat, oval-shaped piece of wood or bone with a hole at one end by which a cord was attached. Spinning the object around by the cord produced the eerie, wailing roar. But knowing how it was made in no way changed the effect it had; a sound like that could come only from the Spirit World. That wasn't what gave her the chill, however. What was hard to believe was that the Zelandonii would have a ceremony that called in the spirits the same way the Clan did.

Ayla crowded close to Jondalar, wanting the assurance of him near her. Then her attention was caught by a movement in the fire's reflection on the wall that was more than firelight. A shadow in the shape of a giant deer with large palmate antlers and a hump on his withers had flickered through it. She turned around and looked back but didn't see anything, and wondered if she had imagined it. She turned back to face the wall, and the antlered deer flickered through again, then a bison.

The bullroarer tapered off, but another sound had begun, at first so low that she was barely conscious of it. Then the low wailing chant increased in pitch and a heavy rhythmical booming began. The wailing interweaved in counterpoint to the swelling sound that reverberated off the back wall as both grew louder. Ayla's temples throbbed to the steadythrum, thrum, thrum , and her heart pounded in her ears at the same tempo and just as loud. It seemed that her limbs had turned to ice, and her legs refused to move; she was petrified. She broke out in a cold sweat. Then, abruptly, the pounding stopped and the wailing began to form words.

"O Spirit of the Giant Deer. We praise you."

"We praise you…" Voices around her repeated the phrase, but they were not quite all together.

The chanting background grew louder.

"Spirit of Bison, we want you near. We praise you."

"We praise you." This time the hunters spoke in unison.

"The Mother's Children want you here. We call you."

"We call you."

"Immortal Soul, no death you fear. We praise you."

"We praise you." The voices were louder now.

"Your mortal lives are drawing near, we call you."

The tone was growing high-pitched, expectant.

"We call you." The voices were louder still.

"Give them to us and shed no tear. We praise you."

"We praise you."

"The Mother wills it, do you hear? We call you."

Now it was demanding.

"We call you. We call you.We call you !"

They were shouting. Ayla's voice had joined the rest, though she wasn't even aware of it. Then she noticed a large figure taking form on the rough wall. A barely visible dark figure was moving in front of the wall, somehow causing the shape of a giant deer to take form. A mature male with large antlers that seemed to breathe in the dawning light.

The hunters kept repeating in a low, monotonous drone in rhythm with the deep booming drum, "We call you. We call you. We call you. We call you."

"Give them to us! Shed no tear!"

"The Mother wills it. Hear! Hear! Hear!" the voices nearly screamed. Suddenly a light seemed to turn on, and a loud wailing cry was heard that ended in a death rattle.

"She hears!" the chanting voice said abruptly. All sound suddenly ceased. Ayla looked up, but the deer was gone. Only the first bright beam of light of the sunrise remained.

There was no sound or movement at first. Then Ayla became conscious of breathing and shuffling movements. The hunters appeared dazed and were looking around as though they had just awakened. Ayla heaved a great sigh, then knelt down again and hugged the wolf. When she looked up, Proleva was there, handing her a cup of hot tea.

Ayla murmured her thanks and sipped the tea gratefully. She was thirsty, and no longer feeling the nausea of morning sickness, she realized, though she wasn't sure when it had stopped. Perhaps on the hike to the Gather Field. She and Jondalar, with Wolf close by, walked with Joharran and his mate back to the fire, where the hot tea had been made. They were joined by Marthona and Willamar, and Folara.

"Kareja says she has a disguise for you, Ayla," Joharran said. "We can pick it up when we pass by the Eleventh Cave."

Ayla nodded, not quite sure how a disguise would be used to hunt giant deer.

Then she looked around to see who else was in the hunting party. She recognized Rushemar and Solaban and was not surprised. She would expect to see the leader's advisers, the ones Joharran always turned to for assistance. She was startled to see Brukeval, then wondered why. He was, after all, a member of the Ninth Cave. Why shouldn't he hunt with them? She was even more surprised to see Marona's friend Portula. But when the woman saw her, she flushed, stared for a moment, then turned away.

"I don't think Portula expected to see you wearing those clothes," Marthona said quietly to Ayla.

The sun was climbing the great blue vault, and the hunters set out quickly, leaving behind those who were not joining the hunt. As they headed toward The River, the warm sun dissipated the somber mood wrought by the ceremony, and the conversation, held in quiet whispers earlier in the morning, reached a more normal tone. They spoke seriously but confidently about the hunt. Their mission might not be assured, but the familiar ritual had addressed the spirit of the giant deer-and the bison, just in case-and had focused everyone's attention on the hunt, and the phantom manifestation on the back wall of the Gather Field had reinforced their spiritual bonds with the world beyond the material one.

Ayla felt a dampness in the air from a morning mist rising near the water. She glanced to the side and caught her breath at the sheer unexpected beauty of a momentary natural phenomenon. Twigs and leaves and blades of grass, highlighted by a beam of light, sparkled with the brilliance of every rainbow color, caused by the refraction of sunlight through the prisms of droplets. Even the symmetrical perfection of a spider's web, whose sticky strands were designed to capture that predator's quarry, had snared instead jeweled drops of condensed moisture along its slender threads.

"Jondalar, look," she said, calling his attention to the display. Folara stopped, too, then Willamar.

"I would take that as a favorable sign," the Trade Master said, smiling broadly before moving on.

Where The River widened, the water foamed and tumbled over its pebble-strewn bed, but parted around larger rocks, unable to entice them to join in the playful dance of Whitewater and shimmering ripples. The hunters started across The River at the broad shallows, stepping from stone to stone through the deeper middle. Some of the large rocks were brought there by a more turbulent stream of a different season during past years, and some were carried there recently to fill in the gaps left by nature. As Ayla followed the others, her thoughts turned toward the upcoming hunt. Then, just as she was about to start across, she suddenly stopped.

"What's wrong, Ayla?" Jondalar asked with a concerned frown.

"Nothing's wrong," she said. "I'm going back to get the horses. I'll be able to catch up before the hunters reach Two Rivers Rock. Even if we don't use the horses for hunting, they can help carry the kill back."

Jondalar nodded. "That's a good idea. I'll come with you," he said, then turning to Willamar. "Will you tell Joharran we've gone back for the horses? It won't take long."

"Come on, Wolf," Ayla said as they headed back toward the Ninth Cave.

But the way Jondalar went was not the way they had come. After reaching the Gather Field, instead of taking the steep path up to Down River and on to the Ninth Cave across the stone ledges, he led them along a lesser-used and somewhat overgrown trail along the right bank of The River in front of the shelters of stone. Depending on the bends and turns the waterway took across its floodplain, the path was sometimes beyond a grassy field that was between the ledge and The River and sometimes close to the stone front porch.

There were several paths leading up to the shelters along the way, and one Ayla recalled using when she'd had to relieve herself after that long meeting about the Clan. The memory prompted her to use the place again; she had to pass water more frequently now that she was pregnant. Wolf sniffed her water; he seemed more interested in it lately, and she wondered if he could tell she was expecting.

A few people noticed them walking back and waved or beckoned. Jondalar was sure they were curious about why they had returned, but he didn't respond. They'd find out soon enough. When they reached the end of the line of cliffs, they turned into Wood Valley, and Ayla whistled. Wolf raced ahead.

"Do you think he knows we're going to get Whinney and Racer?" Ayla said.

"I wouldn't doubt it," Jondalar said. "I'm always amazed at what he seems to know."

"Here they come!" Ayla said, her voice full of happiness. She realized she hadn't seen them for more than a day and had missed them. Whinney nickered when she saw Ayla and went straight to her with her head held high, but she lowered it over the woman's shoulder while Ayla hugged her neck. Racer let out a loud neigh and pranced toward Jondalar with his tail high and his neck arched, then presented his favorite scratching places to the man.

"I've missed them, but I think they've missed us, too," Ayla said. After some greeting scratchings and strokings, and nose touchings with Wolf, she suggested they go up and get riding blankets and Whinney's harness for the pole drag.

"I'll go," Jondalar said. "We'd better get going if we're planning on hunting today, and everybody will be asking questions. I think it will be easier for me to say we have to hurry. If you do it, someone may take it wrong, since they don't really know you yet."

"And I don't really know them," Ayla said. "That's a good idea. I'll check the horses over and make sure they're all right. Bring the carrying baskets, too, and a water bowl for Wolf. And maybe the sleeping rolls. Who knows where we'll be staying tonight. You should probably bring Whinney's halter, too."

They caught up with the rest of the hunting party just as they were reaching Two Rivers Rock. They had ridden along The River, splashing along the edge of the left bank after crossing.

"I was beginning to wonder if you'd make it back before we started," Kareja said. "I did stop off and pick up a disguise for you, Ayla." Ayla thanked her.

At the Two Rivers confluence, the hunting party turned into Grass Valley. Kimeran and some people from the Second and Seventh Caves, who were joining them but had not gone to the ceremony at the Gather Field, had waited upstream. When the rest of the hunters reached them, they stopped for a strategy meeting. Ayla and Jondalar got down from the horses and moved closer to listen.

"… Thefona said the bison were moving north two days ago," Manvelar was saying. "It looked as if they would be in a good position by today, but they changed direction and headed east, away from the surround. Thefona's one of our best. She can see farther than anyone, and she's been watching that herd for some time. I think they will be in a good position to chase into the trap soon, but probably not today. That's why we thought the megaceros would be a better choice. They watered upriver from here, and now they're browsing on leaf greens near the tall grass."

"How many are there?" Joharran asked.

"Three mature does, a yearling buck, four spotted young, and a stag with a good-sized rack," Thefona answered. "A typical small herd."

"I was hoping to get several animals, but I don't want to take them all. That's why I wanted the bison. They travel in bigger herds," Joharran said.

"Except for giant deer and reindeer, most deer don't travel in herds at all. They like trees and more wooded places, where it's easier to hide. You seldom see more than a few bucks, or a doe or two and the young, except during the season when the males and females come together," Thefona said.

Ayla was sure Joharran knew that, but Thefona was young and proud of the knowledge she had gained as watcher. Joharran had allowed her to recount what she had learned.

"I think we should leave the stag, and at least one of the does, and her young one if we can be sure it's hers," Joharran said.

Ayla thought that was a good decision. Again, she found herself impressed with Joharran and observed him more closely. Jondalar's brother was nearly a head shorter than him, but his stocky, powerful build left no doubt that he was the equal of most men in strength. Leadership of the large and sometimes unruly Cave sat well on his shoulders; he exuded confidence. Brun, the leader of her clan, would have understood him, she thought. He, too, had been a good leader… unlike Broud.

Most of the Zelandonii leaders she had met seemed well suited to their position. Caves usually chose their leaders well, but had Joharran been unable to fulfill the position, the Cave would have simply shifted toward a more adequate leader. Without formality, there were no rules needed to dispossess a leader; he simply would have lost his following.

But Broud had not been chosen, she realized. He was destined to be the next leader from the moment he was born. Since he was born to the mate of a leader, it was believed he would have the memories for it. And perhaps he did, but in different proportions. Certain qualities that could contribute to leadership, such as pride, an ability to command, and to elicit respect, were accentuated in Broud. Brun's pride had come from the achievements of his clan, which also earned him respect, and he directed well because he paid attention to others, then decided. Broud's pride was exaggerated to hubris; he liked telling people what to do but did not listen to seasoned advice, and he wanted respect for his own exploits. Though Brun had tried to help him, Broud would never be the leader Brun had been.

As the meeting was breaking up, Ayla spoke quietly to Jondalar. "I'd like to ride ahead and see if I can find the bison. Do you think Joharran would mind if I asked Thefona where she last saw them?"

"No, I don't think so, but why don't you mention it to him," Jondalar said. ;

They both approached the leader, and when Ayla told him her plan, he said he had been going to ask Thefona the same thing. "Do you think you can locate those bison?" he asked.

"I don't know, but they didn't seem to be very far, and Whinney can run much faster than a person can," Ayla said.

"But I thought you said you wanted to hunt the megaceros with us," Joharran said.

"I do, but I think I can scout ahead and still meet you where the deer are in time to join you," she said.

"Well, I wouldn't mind knowing where those bison are," Joharran said. "Let's go ask Thefona where they were."

"I think I'll go with Ayla," Jondalar said. "She isn't familiar with this region yet. She might not understand Thefona's directions."

"Go ahead, but I hope you make it back in time. I'd like to see those spear-throwers of yours in action," Joharran said. "If they do half of what you say they can, it could make a big difference."

After talking with Thefona, Ayla and Jondalar took off at a gallop with Wolf loping behind, while the rest of the hunters continued to follow Grass River upstream. The countryside of Zelandonii territory was a dramatic land carved in high relief, with steep cliffs, broad river valleys, rolling hills, and elevated plateaus. The rivers sometimes meandered across meadows and fields with a gallery of trees along their banks, and at other times flowed beside high rock walls. The people who lived there were accustomed to its varied landscape and moved through it comfortably, whether it meant climbing a steep hillside or scaling a nearly vertical cliff, jumping across slippery stones to cross a river or swimming upstream against its current, walking single file between a wall of rock on one side and a rushing river on the other or spreading out on an open plain.

The hunters broke up into small groups as they moved through the nearly waist-high but still green grass of the open field of the valley. Joharran kept watching for the return of his brother and his strange entourage-the foreign woman, two horses, and a wolf-hoping they would get back in time to join the hunt, though he knew it would not make much difference. With so many hunters and so few animals, there was little doubt they would be able to get the ones they wanted.

It was midmorning before the stag with prodigious antlers was sighted, and the hunters stopped to discuss deployment of those in pursuit. Joharran heard hoofbeats and turned around. With inadvertent but perfect timing, Jondalar and Ayla returned.

"We found them!" Jondalar said in an excited whisper when they had dismounted. He would have shouted if he hadn't noticed that the giant deer were very close by. "And they've changed direction again. They're heading toward the surround! I'm sure we could encourage them to move that way faster."

"But how far away are they?" Joharran asked. "We have to walk. The rest of us don't have horses to ride."

"Not very far, the surround was made by the Third Cave. It isn't that far from here. You could get there without too much trouble," Ayla said. "If you'd rather hunt bison, you can, Joharran."

"Actually, big brother, you could hunt both," Jondalar said.

"We're here now, and a deer in your sight is worth much more than two bison in a distant surround," Joharran said. "But if this doesn't take too long, we may try for the bison later. Now, do you want to join the hunt?"

"Yes," Jondalar said.

"I do," Ayla said at nearly the same time. "Let's tie the horses to that tree over there, by the stream, Jondalar. Maybe I should tie a restraint on Wolf, too. He can get excited about hunting and may want to 'help,' but that could be a problem for the other hunters, or he could get in the way if he's not sure what to do."

While the decisions were made about tactics, Ayla studied the small herd, especially the stag. Ayla remembered the first time she saw a fully developed, mature megaceros stag. This giant deer was much the same. Somewhat taller than a horse at the withers, though certainly not as big as a mammoth, they were called giant deer because they were the most imposing of all the varieties of deer. But it wasn't the size of the animal itself that made them so impressive, it was the size of their antlers. Each one of the massive, palm-shaped, deciduous horns that emerged from their heads grew larger each year and in a mature male could reach twelve feet in length.

Ayla visualized the length of one antler as two men the size of Jondalar, with one standing on the other's shoulders. The size of their antlers precluded the forested habitat that was often preferred by many of their cousins; the megaceros were deer of the open plains. Although they ate grass, especially the green tops of the tall grass varieties, and grazed more than other deer, they also browsed on young brush and trees and leafy herbaceous plants near streams when they could.

Once giant deer reached their full growth, though their bones no longer enlarged, the enormous growing antlers added to the illusion that megaceros stags increased in height and breadth with each season. Support of such huge racks required the deer to develop massive shoulder and neck muscles, which did increase slightly over time to accommodate the greater weight of the enlarging antlers, and to evolve a distinctive hump on their withers where muscles, tendons, and connective tissue bunched together. It was a genetic manifestation of the species. Even the females had a marked, though smaller, hump. Such enormous musculature, however, made the heads of the megaceros seem small, and those males that sported immense racks had heads that appeared disproportionately petite.

While the leaders were discussing tactics, the disguises were taken out, then Joharran and several others passed around skin bags of grease. Ayla crinkled her nose in distaste at the smell.

"It's made from the musk glands in the legs of the deer, and mixed with fat from just above the tail," Jondalar told her. "It covers our scent in case the wind shifts suddenly."

Ayla nodded and began smearing the greasy mixture on her arms and underarms and her legs and groin. While Jondalar was putting on his deer disguise, Ayla struggled with hers.

"Let me show you," Kareja said. She was already in hers.

Ayla smiled gratefully as the woman showed her how to wear the capelike hide covering with a deer head still attached. She picked up the antlers that were fastened to a separate headpiece, though she didn't understand what the extra wooden parts were for.

"This is heavy!" Ayla said, surprised at the weight when she put on the antler headwear.

"And they're small ones, from a young buck. You don't want that big stag to think you are competition," Kareja said.

"How does it stay balanced when you move?" Ayla said, trying to shift the antlers to a better position.

"That's what these are for," Kareja said, using the wooden supports to prop up the ungainly headdress.

"No wonder the megaceros have such big necks," Ayla said. "They need muscles just to hold these things up."

The hunters approached with the wind blowing in their faces, which carried the human scent away from the deer's sensitive noses. They stopped when they could see the animals. The giant deer were browsing on the tender young leaves of low-growing brush.

"Watch them," Jondalar said softly. "See how they eat for a while, then look up? Then they move a few steps forward and start to feed again. We're going to copy their motions. Take a few steps toward them, then dip your head, just as though you were a deer who had just seen some juicy new leaves and stopped to take a bite. Then look up. Stand perfectly still while you are looking up. Don't look at him directly, but keep your eye on that big stag, and don't move at all when you see him looking at you.

"Now we're going to spread out in the same pattern they make. We want them think we're just another herd of deer while we get close to them. Keep your spears out of sight as much as possible. Hold them upright behind your antlers while you move, and don't move too fast," he explained.

Ayla listened intently to the instructions. This was interesting. She had spent years watching wild creatures, especially carnivores, but also animals she hunted. She had studied them closely, absorbing every detail. She taught herself to track them and finally taught herself to hunt them, but she had never pretended to be an animal before. She first watched the rest of the hunters, then carefully observed the deer.

Growing up learning to understand the gestures and movements of the Clan gave her an edge. She had a keen eye for detail, for the smallest movements made by the animals. She saw how they shook their heads to rid themselves of buzzing insects and quickly learned to imitate the movement. She unconsciously timed the movements, judging how long they kept their heads down and how long they looked around. She was excited by this new way to hunt, and intrigued. She almost felt like a deer as she moved forward with the hunters toward their quarry.

Ayla picked out the animal she planned to aim for and was slowly moving toward it. At first she thought she might try for a fat doe, but she decided she wanted antlers, so she changed her mind and chose the young buck instead. Jondalar had told her that the meat would be divided among all the people, but the hide, antlers, sinew, and whatever else might be useful belonged to the hunter who killed the animal.

When the hunters were almost in the midst of the deer, she saw Joharran give a prearranged signal. The hunters gripped their spears in readiness; Ayla and Jondalar adjusted theirs in their spear-throwers. She knew she could have cast her spear long before, but most of the hunters did not have spear-throwers, and her throw would have frightened the rest of the deer away, before the others were close enough to hurl theirs.

When Joharran saw that everyone was ready, he gave another quick signal. Almost as one, the hunters flung their spears. Several of the huge deer threw up their heads, startled into flight before they realized they were already hit. The proud stag bugled a call as a signal to run, but only one doe and her calf followed him. It was so fast, so unexpected, the rest staggered as they strained to take a step and fell to their knees as he leapt away.

The hunters went to check their kills, to humanely dispatch any animals that might still be alive, and to verify which one should be credited to whom. Each person's spears were marked with decorations that clearly identified to whom they belonged. All the hunters knew their own weapons in any case, but the distinguishing symbols left no doubt and avoided disputes. If more than one hunter's spear found the same mark, they tried to determine which one had made the kill. If it was not obvious, the kill was claimed by both and would be shared.

It was quickly acknowledged that Ayla's smaller, lighter spear had found the young buck. Some of the hunters knew that the young male had been browsing on a low bush somewhat away from the rest of the deer and on the opposite side of their approach. Not an easy target, and apparently no one else had attempted it, at least no other spear had found it. People talked about not only the long-distance weapon, but her skill with it, and wondered how much practice it would take to match her. Some were willing to try, but others looked at the successful hunt and weren't sure they needed to make the effort.

Manvelar approached Joharran and several others of the Ninth Cave, including Jondalar and Ayla. "What did you find out about the bison?" he asked.

The planning and preparations for the hunt had built up an eager anticipation, but stalking the deer and dispatching them had been so quick and efficient, it had left the hunters with a measure of excess energy that had not been used up.

"The herd was moving north again, toward the surround," Jondalar said.

"Do you really think that they might get close enough to it so we can take advantage of the surround today?" Joharran asked. "It's still early, and I wouldn't mind getting a few of those bison."

"We can make sure they do," Jondalar said.

"How?" Kareja asked. Jondalar noticed there wasn't as much sarcasm in her tone as there had been the day before.

"Manvelar, do you know where the surround is? And how long would it take the hunters to get there from here?" Jondalar said.

"Yes, but Thefona can tell you that better than I," Manvelar said. The young woman was not only a good lookout, she was a good hunter. She came forward when Manvelar mentioned her name and beckoned her. "How far is it to the surround?"

She thought for a moment, looked up at the position of the sun in the sky, then said, "If we set a good pace, we could get there not much after the sun is highest, I think. But the last time I saw them, the bison weren't that close to the surround."

"When we found them, they were heading in that direction, and I think we can speed them up, with the help of the horses and Wolf," Jondalar said. "Ayla has done it before."

"What if you can't? What if we get there, and there are no bison?" Kimeran asked. He hadn't been around Jondalar much since his return, or Ayla, and though he'd heard many stories about his friend and the woman he'd brought back with him, he hadn't been exposed to as many of the surprises they had brought with them as some of the others. He hadn't seen them ride the horses until that morning and wasn't at all sure about them.

"Then we will have nothing to show for our efforts, but it won't be the first time," Manvelar said.

Kimeran shrugged, and smiled wryly. "I suppose that's true," he said.

"Does anyone else have any objections to trying for the bison? We can just settle for the deer," Joharran said. "We need to start butchering them, anyway."

"That's not a problem," Manvelar said. "Thefona can lead you to the surround. She knows the way. I'll go back to Two Rivers Rock and organize some people to get started with the butchering, and send a runner to the other Caves to come and help. We'll need more help if you are lucky with the bison hunt."

"I'm ready to try for the bison."

"I'll go."

"Count me in."

Several people volunteered.

"All right," Joharran said. "You two go ahead and see what you can do about getting those bison started toward the surround. The rest of us will get there as fast as we can."

Ayla and Jondalar headed for the horses. Wolf was particularly glad to see them coming. He did not like being physically restrained. Ayla did not confine his movements often, and he wasn't used to it. The horses seemed to adjust to it more easily, but their activities were more often controlled. They mounted the horses and rode off at a fast pace, the wolf loping alongside them, leaving the people on foot watching as they quickly disappeared in the distance. It was true. Horses could certainly travel faster than people.

They decided to go to the surround first, so they could judge how far away the bison were from it. Ayla was fascinated with the circular trap and took a little time to inspect it. It consisted of many small trees and logs, filled in mostly with brush, but also with whatever they could find, such as bones and antlers. The surround had originally been constructed some years before, and it had moved somewhat from its original place. None of the trees from which it was made were sunk into the ground. Rather, they were lashed together, fixed firmly to each other, so that when some creature crashed into it, it wouldn't break through. The fencing had some give, some elasticity, and would instead move with the blow; sometimes, with an extremely hard thrust, the entire structure shifted.

It took a great deal of effort on the part of many people to cut down trees and branches and haul them to a logical site, especially on a largely treeless grassland, then erect a fence that could withstand the crush of heavy animals milling around inside it and the occasional assault by one maddened with fear. Each year the parts that had fallen down or rotted away were repaired or replaced. They tried to keep it sound for as long as they could. It was easier to repair than entirely rebuild, especially since there were more than one, at various strategic locations.

This surround was located in a narrow valley between a limestone cliff on one side and steep hills on the other that was a natural migration route. At one time a river had flowed through it, and a runoff stream still filled the dry bed occasionally. Hunters used it only sporadically; animals seemed to learn quickly if a particular route was consistently dangerous and tended to avoid it.

The ones who had come to repair the trap had also set up a portable fencing of panels that funneled the animals driven into the valley toward an opening in the surround. Usually hunters had time enough to establish a cadre of people to stand behind the panels to harass any animals that attempted to bolt away back toward the trap. Since this was a rather unplanned, spontaneous hunt, no one was there yet. But Ayla did notice that some scraps of leather and cloth, pieces of woven belts, and grass wands, long bunches of grass fastened to sticks, were tucked into the frames of the panels or held down with stones.

"Jondalar," she called to him. He rode up to her. She had picked up a grass wand and a piece of leather. "Anything that flutters or moves in an unexpected way tends to spook bison, especially when they're running, at least that's what happened when we were driving bison toward the Lion Camp's surround. These must be used to shake at animals heading toward the surround, to keep them from breaking away. Do you think anybody would object if we borrowed a few? They could be useful when we're trying to drive the herd this way."

"You're right. That is what they're for," Jondalar said, "and I'm sure no one would mind if we borrow some if it will help us get those bison here."

They left the valley and headed toward the place where they had last seen the herd. The trail trampled by the slowly moving animals was easy to find, and they were a little closer to the valley than they were earlier. There were about fifty bison in all, males, females, and young. They were starting to come together to form the huge migratory herd that would develop later in the season.

At certain times of the year, bison congregated in such huge numbers, it was like watching a sinuously moving river of dark brown spiked with large black horns. At other times, they broke up into smaller groupings, sometimes not much more than an extended family, but they preferred to form herds of some size. On the whole there was safety in numbers. While predators, especially cave lions and packs of wolves, often brought down a bison from a herd, it was usually one that was slow or weak, which allowed the healthy and strong to survive.

They approached the herd slowly, but the bison hardly noticed them. Horses were not animals that posed a threat, though they did give Wolf a wider berth. They were aware of him, but didn't panic; they merely avoided him, sensing that a single wolf could not take down an animal the size of a bison. Male bison were typically six feet six inches at the top of the hump on their shoulders and weighed a ton. They had long black horns and a beard that jutted forward from heavy jaws. Females were smaller, but both were quick and agile, able to climb steep slopes and leap over substantial obstacles.

They could gallop, tail up and head down, in long strides across even rocky landscapes. Bison didn't mind water and could swim well, drying off their thick fur by rolling in the sand or dirt. They tended to graze in the evening and relaxed to chew their cud during the day. Their hearing and sense of smell were acute. Full-grown bison could be violent and aggressive, and were difficult to kill with teeth and claws or with spears, but one bison provided fifteen hundred pounds of meat, plus fat, bones, skin, hair, and horns. Bison were proud and noble animals, respected by those who hunted them and admired for their strength and courage.

"What do you think would be the best way to get them started?" Jondalar said. "Usually the hunters let them go at their own pace, and try to guide them slowly toward the surround, at least until they get close."

"When we hunted on our Journey here, we usually tried to get an animal to bolt away from the herd. This time we want them all to keep going in the same direction, toward that valley," Ayla said. "I think riding up behind them and shouting would get them going, but if we wave these things at them, I think it would be a help, especially for the bison that tries to dash away. We don't want them stampeding in the wrong direction. Wolf always liked to chase them, too, and he got good at keeping them together."

She looked up at the sun and tried to estimate when they might arrive at the surround, and wondered how close the hunters were. Well, the important thing is to get them moving toward the trap, she thought.

They moved around to the side opposite the direction they wanted to start them going, then, looking at each other, they nodded and, with a loud yell, urged the horses toward the herd. Ayla was holding a grass wand in one hand and the scrap of leather in the other, both hands free because she didn't use a halter or a rein to direct Whinney.

It had been an entirely spontaneous gesture the first time she got on the back of the horse, and she made no attempt to guide her. She simply clung to the horse's mane and let the animal run. She felt a sense of freedom and excitement as though she were flying like the wind. The horse slowed and headed back to the valley on her own. It was the only home she knew. Afterward, Ayla couldn't stop riding, but in the beginning the training was unconscious. Only later did she realize that she had been using the pressure and movement of her body to signal her intent.

The first time Ayla hunted large game, by herself, after she left the Clan, she drove the herd of horses that used the valley she had found toward a pit-trap she had dug. She didn't know the horse that happened to fall into her trap was a nursing mother until she noticed some hyenas stalking the foal. She used her sling to drive the ugly creatures away, rescuing the young horse more because she hated hyenas than because she wanted to save the animal, but once she had saved it, she felt obliged to care for it. She had learned years before that a baby could eat what its mother ate, if it was softened, and cooked a broth of grains to feed the young filly.

Ayla soon came to realize that in saving the horse, she had done herself a favor. She was alone in the valley and became grateful for the company of a living being to share her lonely life. It wasn't her intention to tame the horse and she never thought of it in those terms. She looked upon the horse as her friend. Later, she became a friend who allowed the woman to ride on her back and who went where Ayla wanted her to go because she chose to.

Whinney left to live with a herd for a while, when she came into her first season, but came back to Ayla after the herd stallion died. Her foal was born not long after the woman found the wounded man, who turned out to be Jondalar. The young colt became his to name and train, finding his own means. He invented the halter to help him direct and control the young stallion. Ayla found the device useful to use on Whinney when she needed to keep her restrained to a specific area, and Jondalar used one if he needed to lead Whinney. He seldom tried to ride the mare since he didn't fully understand the signals Ayla used to guide her, and the horse didn't understand his. Ayla had a similar problem with Racer.

Ayla glanced at Jondalar, who was dashing after a bison, guiding Racer with ease, shaking a grass wand in the face of a young bull to get him stampeding along with the others. She saw a frightened cow veer off and started after her, but Wolf got there first and drove her back. She smiled at the wolf; he was having a wonderful time chasing the bison. They had all-the woman, the man, the two horses, and the wolf-learned to work together, and hunt together, on their year-long Journey following the Great Mother River in their passage across the plains from the east.

As they neared the narrow valley, Ayla noticed a man standing off to the side, waving at her, and breathed a sigh of relief. The hunters had arrived. They would keep the bison heading in the right direction once they were stampeded into the valley, but a couple of bison at the head of the herd were trying to swerve away. She leaned forward, an all but unconscious signal to Whinney to go faster. As though she knew what was in the woman's mind, the mare raced to cut off the bison reluctant to enter the narrower way. Ayla yelled as Whinney neared, shaking the grass wand and flapping the piece of leather in the canny old cow's face, and managed to turn her back. The rest of the bison followed.

The two people on horses and the wolf kept the bison stampeding together and heading in the same direction, but the valley narrowed as they approached the restricted opening of the surround, which slowed them down as they crowded each other. Ayla noticed a bull trying to bolt to get away from the press behind them.

A hunter stepped out from behind a panel and attempted to stop him with a spear. The weapon found its mark, but it wasn't a mortal wound and the momentum kept the bison going. The hunter jumped back and tried to get out of the way by ducking back behind the panel, but it was a flimsy barrier against the mighty bull. Enraged by the pain of the wound, the huge shaggy animal ignored the panel and knocked it aside. The man fell with it, and in the confusion, the bison trampled him.

Ayla, watching in horror, had her spear-thrower out and was reaching for a spear when she saw one thud into the bison. She threw her spear also, then urged Whinney forward, disregarding the danger of the other stampeding animals, and jumped off the horse's back even before she stopped. She pulled the panel out of the way and knelt beside the man who was lying on the ground not far from the fallen bison. She heard him moan. He was alive.

Chapter 13

Whinney was prancing nervously, sweating heavily, as the rest of the bison swept by and into the surround. When the woman reached for her medicine bag from one of the carrier baskets, she stroked the horse for a moment to comfort her, but her mind was already focused on the man and what she might be able to do for him. She wasn't even aware when the gate to the surround was closed, trapping the bison inside, or when some of the hunters began to methodically dispatch the ones they wanted.

The wolf had enjoyed chasing the animals, but even before the gate was closed he had suddenly stopped running after them and begun searching for Ayla. He found her kneeling beside the wounded man. Some people began to form a circle around her and the man on the ground, but with the wolf there, they kept their distance. Ayla was oblivious to the people watching her as she began to examine him. He was unconscious, but she could feel a slight beating in his neck, under his jaw. She opened his clothing.

There was no blood, but a large blue-black smudge was already forming on his chest and abdomen. Carefully, she felt his chest and stomach around the darkening bruise. She pressed in once. He flinched and made a cry of pain, but did not wake up. She listened to his breathing and heard a soft gurgling, then noted that blood dribbled from the side of his mouth and knew he was injured internally.

She looked up and saw Jondalar's piercing blue eyes and his familiar frown of concern, and then a second, nearly identical frown, with a questioning look. She shook her head at Joharran.

"I'm sorry," she said. "That bison stepped on him." She looked down at the dead animal beside him. "His ribs are broken. They are piercing his lungs and I don't know what else. He is bleeding inside. I'm afraid nothing can be done. If he has a mate, someone should send for her. I'm afraid he will walk the world of the spirits before morning."

"Nooooo!" came a cry from the crowd. A young man pushed his way forward and threw himself down beside the man. "It's not true!

It can't be true! How does she know? Only a Zelandoni knows. She's not even one of us!"

"It's his brother," Joharran said.

The young man tried to hug the man on the ground, then turned the wounded man's head to try to make his brother look at him. "Wake up, Shevonar! Please wake up," the young man wailed.

"Come on, Ranokol. You're not helping him." The leader of the Ninth Cave tried to help the young man up, but was fought off and pushed away.

"It's all right, Joharran. Let him stay. A brother has a right to say farewell," Ayla said, then, noticing the man starting to stir, she added, "A brother might cause him to wake up, though, and he will be in pain."

"Don't you have some willow bark or something for pain in your medicine bag, Ayla?" Jondalar said. He knew she was never without a few basic medicinal herbs. Hunting always posed some danger, and she would have anticipated that.

"Yes, of course, but I don't think he should have anything to drink. Not with such severe injuries inside." She paused, then said, "But, maybe a poultice would help him. I could try it. First, we need to get him to someplace comfortable, and we'll need wood for a fire, and water to boil. Does he have a mate, Joharran?" she asked again. The man nodded. "Then someone should go for her, and for Zelandoni, too."

"Of course," Joharran said, suddenly aware of her strange accent, though he had all but forgotten it until then.

Manvelar stepped in. "Let's get some people looking for a place to take this man, where he can be comfortable, away from this hunting field."

"Isn't there a small cave in that cliff over there?" Thefona said.

"There's bound to be one somewhere nearby," Kimeran said.

"You're right," Manvelar said. "Thefona, why don't you get some people and go look for a place to take him."

"We'll go with her," Kimeran said, and called over the people from the Second and Seventh Caves who had joined the hunt.

"Brameval, perhaps you could organize a few people to get wood and water. And we'll have to make something to carry him. Some people brought sleeping rolls, we'll get some for him, and whatever else he needs," Manvelar continued, then he called out to the hunters, "We need a good runner, to take a message back to Two Rivers Rock."

"Let me go," Jondalar said. "I can take the message, and Racer is the best 'runner' here."

"I think you're right about that."

"Then maybe you could go on to Ninth Cave to get Relona here, and Zelandoni, too," Joharran said. "Tell Proleva what happened. She'll know how to get everything organized. Zelandoni should be the one to tell Shevonar's mate. She may want you to explain to Relona what happened, but leave it up to her."

Joharran turned to face the hunters that were still standing around the wounded man, most of them from the Ninth Cave. "Rushemar, the sun is high and getting hotter. We have paid dearly for this day's kill, let's not waste it. The bison need to be gutted and skinned. Kareja and the Eleventh Cave have started, but I'm sure she could use some help. Solaban, maybe you could take a few people and help Brameval get wood and water, and whatever else Ayla needs, and when Kimeran and Thefona find a place, you can help move Shevonar."

"Someone should go to the other Caves and let them know we need help," Brameval said.

"Jondalar, can you stop on your way back and let them know what happened?" Joharran asked.

"When you get to Two Rivers Rock, tell them to light the signal fire," Manvelar said.

"Good idea," Joharran said. "Then the Caves will know something is wrong and will be expecting a messenger." He went to the woman, the foreigner, who would likely be a member of his Cave one day, and probably a Zelandoni, and was already contributing every way she could. "Do what you can for him, Ayla. We'll get his mate and Zelandoni here as soon as we can. If there is anything you need, ask Solaban. He will get it for you."

"Thank you, Joharran," she said, then turned to Jondalar. "If you tell her what happened, I'm sure Zelandoni will know what to bring, but let me check my bag. There are a couple of herbs I'd like if she has them. And take Whinney with you. Then you can use the pole drag to bring things here, she's more used to it than Racer. Zelandoni could even ride here on it, and Shevonar's mate on Whinney's back, if they're willing."

"I don't know, Ayla. Zelandoni's pretty heavy," Jondalar said.

"I'm sure Whinney can handle it. You just have to come up with a comfortable seat." Then she looked at Jondalar with a wry expression. "But you're right, most people aren't used to using horses for traveling. I'm sure the women would rather walk, but they will need tents and supplies. The pole drag will be good for that."

Ayla removed the carrying baskets before she put the halter on Whinney and gave the rope attached to it to Jondalar. He fastened the other end of it to the back of Racer's halter with enough lead so she could follow, and started out. But the mare was not accustomed to trailing behind the stallion she had borne. He had always followed her. Even though Jondalar was sitting on Racer's back, guiding him with a rein attached to his halter, Whinney stayed slightly ahead of them, yet she seemed to sense which way the man wanted to go.

Horses were willing to do the bidding of their human friends, Ayla thought, smiling to herself as she watched them leave, so long as it didn't upset their own sense of the proper order of things. She saw Wolf was observing her when she turned around. She had signaled him to stay when the horses left, now he was waiting patiently.

Her ironic inner smile at the behavior of the horses was quickly dispelled when she looked at the man lying where he fell. "He'll need to be carried, Joharran," she said.

The leader nodded, then called on some people to help. They improvised a carrying device by first binding together a couple of spears to make a sturdy pole, then fastening pieces of clothing across two of them. By the time Thefona and Kimeran returned with news of a small shelter nearby, the man had been carefully moved to the stretcher and was ready to be carried. Ayla called Wolf to her as four men each lifted one end of a pole.

When they arrived, Ayla helped several people who had begun cleaning out the hollowed-out space at ground level in the nearby limestone wall, protected by a small overhanging ledge. The dirt floor was littered with dried leaves and debris blown in by the wind, and dried hyena droppings left sometime before by the scavenging carnivores who had used the place for a lair.

Ayla was pleased to find that water was close by. There was a smaller cave at the back of the sheltered depression and just inside it was a spring-fed pool of fresh water that ran off in a ditch that had formed along the cliff wall. She told Solaban where to set up a fireplace with the wood he and Brameval, and a few others, had brought.

When Ayla asked, several people volunteered their sleeping rolls, which were piled on top of each other to create a slightly raised bed. The injured man had awakened when they moved him onto the stretcher, but was unconscious by the time he arrived at the shelter. He moaned in pain when they moved him to the bed and awoke again, grimacing and struggling to breathe. Ayla folded another bedroll and propped him up on it to try to make him more comfortable. He tried to smile his thanks, but coughed up blood instead. She wiped his chin with a piece of soft rabbit skin, an item she usually kept with her medicinals.

Ayla went through the limited supplies in her medicine bag and tried to think if there was anything she might have forgotten that would help allay his pain. Gentian roots might help, or a wash of arnica. Both could relieve the internal pain of bruises and other aches, but she had neither with her. The fine hairs on the fruit of hops could be used as a sedative to help him relax, just by breathing the air near them, but they were not readily available. Maybe something in smoke would help, since swallowing liquid was not going to be possible. No, it would probably make him cough, which would be worse. She knew it was hopeless, it was just a matter of time, but she had to do something, at least for his pain.

Wait, she thought. Didn't I see that plant from the valerian family on the way here? The one with the aromatic roots? One of the Mamuti at that Summer Meeting called it spikenard. I don't know the name in Zelandonii. She looked up at the people around her and saw the young woman that Manvelar seemed to have a lot of respect for, the lookout from the Third Cave, Thefona.

Thefona had stayed to help clean out the small shelter she found and was still there, watching Ayla. The foreign woman intrigued her. There was something about her that made people pay attention to her, and she seemed to have gained the respect of the Ninth Cave in the short time she had been there. Thefona wondered how much the woman really knew about healing. She didn't have any kind of tattoo marks like the zelandonia did, but the people she came from might have different ways. Some people tried to fool others about what they knew, but the stranger didn't seem to be trying to impress anyone by bragging or talking big. Instead, she did things that were genuinely impressive, like the way she used that spear-throwing thing. Thefona had been thinking about Ayla, but was surprised when the woman called her name.

"Thefona, may I ask you something?" Ayla said.

"Yes," Thefona said, and thought, She does have a strange way of talking. Not her words, but the way they sound. Maybe that's why she doesn't talk much.

"Do you know much about plants?"

"Everyone knows something about plants," Thefona said.

"I'm thinking about one whose leaves resemble foxglove, but it has yellow flowers, like dandelions. The name I know it by is 'spikenard,' but that's a Mamutoi word."

"I'm sorry. I know some food plants. I don't know much about medicine plants. You would need a Zelandoni for that," Thefona said.

Ayla paused, then said, "Would you watch Shevonar, Thefona? I thought I noticed some spikenard on my way here. I'm going back the way we came and look for it. If he wakes up again, or if there is any change at all, would you send someone to find me?" Ayla said. Then she decided to add an explanation, though explaining her actions as a medicine woman was not something she usually did. "If it is what I think it is, it could be helpful. I've used the mashed roots as a poultice to help mend bone fractures, but it is easily absorbed and has soothing powers. If I mix it with a little datura and maybe some pulverized yarrow leaves, I think it might help ease his pain. I want to see if I can find it."

"Yes, of course I'll watch him," Thefona said, pleased, for some unknown reason, that the foreign woman had asked for her help.

Joharran and Manvelar were talking to Ranokol in quiet tones, but even though they were right next to her, Ayla hardly heard them. She was concentrating on the wounded man and watching the water heating-far too slowly. Wolf was lying on the ground nearby, with his head between his paws, watching her every move. When the water began to steam, she added the spikenard roots so they would soften enough to be pounded into a mash for a poultice. She had been glad to find comfrey as well. A wet dressing of the fresh crushed roots and leaves was also good for bruises and fractures, and while she didn't think it would mend Shevonar's injuries, she was willing to try anything that might ease his pain.

When it was ready, she plastered the warm mashed root directly on the almost black bruise that was spreading down his chest to his stomach. She noticed his abdomen was getting hard. His eyes opened while she was covering it with a piece of leather to keep it warm.

"Shevonar?" she said. His eyes seemed aware, but puzzled. Perhaps he didn't recognize her, she thought. "My name is Ayla. Your mate," she hesitated, then remembered her name, "Relona is on her way here." He took a breath and winced with pain. It seemed to surprise him. "You were hurt, Shevonar, by a bison. Zelandoni is on her way, too. I am trying to help until she gets here. I put a poultice on your chest to draw out some of the pain."

He nodded, but even that was an effort.

"Do you want to see your brother? He's been waiting to see you."

He nodded again, and Ayla got up and went to the men waiting nearby. "He's awake. He'd like to see you," she said to Ranokol.

The young man quickly got up and went to his brother's bed. Ayla followed, along with Joharran and Manvelar.

"How are you feeling?" Ranokol said.

Shevonar tried to smile, but it turned into a grimace of pain as an unexpected cough brought up a drool of red out of the corner of his mouth. A look of panic filled his brother's eyes, then he noticed the plaster on his brother's chest.

"What is this?" Ranokol said, his voice taut, almost a squeal.

"It is a poultice for his pain." Ayla's voice was normally rather low-pitched, and she said the words slowly and calmly. She understood the panic and fear of the man's brother.

"Who told you to do anything to him? It's probably making him worse. Get this off him!" he screamed.

"No, Ranokol," Shevonar said. The voice of the injured man could hardly be heard. "Not her fault. Helps." He tried to sit up, then collapsed, unconscious.

"Shevonar. Wake up, Shevonar! He's dead! Oh Great Mother, he's dead!" Ranokol cried, slumping down on the bed beside his brother.

Ayla checked Shevonar's pulse, while Joharran pulled Ranokol away. "No. He's not dead, yet," she said. "But he doesn't have long. I hope his mate arrives soon."

"He's not dead, Ranokol, but he could have been," Joharran said angrily. "This woman may not be zelandoni, but she knows how to help. You're the one who is making him worse. Who knows if he'll wake up again to say his last words to Relona."

"No one can make him worse, Joharran. There is no hope for him. He may go anytime. Don't blame a man grieving for his brother," Ayla said, then moved to get up. "Let me make some tea, to settle everyone."

"You don't have to, Ayla. I will. Just tell me what to make."

Ayla looked up and saw Thefona, and smiled. "If you just get some water boiling, I'll get something for all of us," she said. Then she turned back to check on Shevonar. He struggled with every difficult breath he took. She wanted to make him more comfortable, but when she tried to move him, he moaned in pain. She shook her head, surprised that he was still alive, then reached for her medicine bag to see what she had to make tea. Perhaps chamomile, she thought, with dried linden flowers or licorice root to sweeten it.

The long afternoon wore on. People came and went, but Ayla didn't notice them. Shevonar regained consciousness and asked for his mate, then slipped back into a restless sleep several times. His stomach was distended and hard, and the skin was almost black. She felt sure he was trying to hold on just to see her again.

Somewhat later, Ayla picked up her waterbag to get a drink, found it empty, then put it down and forgot about her thirst. Portula had come into the small shelter to see how things were. She still felt self-conscious about her part in Marona's trick and tried to stay out of the way, but she saw Ayla pick up the waterbag, shake it, and find it empty. Portula hurried to the pool, filled her own waterbag, and returned with the cold water.

"Would you like a drink, Ayla?" she asked, holding out her dripping waterbag.

Ayla looked up and was surprised to see the woman. "Thank you," she said, holding out her drinking cup. "I was a little thirsty." Portula stood there for a moment after Ayla was through, looking uncomfortable. "I want to apologize to you," she finally said. "I'm sorry I let Marona talk me into playing that joke on you. It was not a very nice thing to do. I don't know what to say.

"There really isn't anything to say, is there, Portula?" Ayla said. "And I did get a warm and comfortable hunting outfit. Though I doubt that was what Marona intended, I will get use out of it, so let's just forget about it."

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Portula said. "There isn't anything anyone can to do help. I'm surprised he is still with us. He asks for his mate when he wakes up. Joharran told him she is on her way," Ayla said. "I think he's holding on for her. I only wish I could do more to make it easier for him, but most medicines that alleviate pain have to be swallowed. I've given him a skin soaked with water to wet his mouth, but with his injury, I'm afraid if he drank anything, it would make it worse."

Joharran was out in front of the shelter looking south, the way Jondalar had gone, anxiously waiting for his return with Relona. The sun was falling low in the west, and darkness would follow soon. He had sent people to collect more wood so they could build up a large bonfire to help guide them; they were even taking some from the surround. The last time Shevonar woke, he eyes were glazed, and the leader knew death was near.

The young man had put up such a brave struggle to cling to a last shred of life, Joharran hoped his mate would arrive before he lost the battle. Finally, in the distance he saw movement, something approaching. He hurried in that direction and was relieved to see a horse. When they were closer, he went to Relona and guided the distraught woman to the stone shelter where her mate lay dying.

As she drew near, Ayla gently touched the man's arm. "Shevonar. Shevonar! Relona's here." She moved his arm again. He opened his eyes and looked at Ayla. "She's here. Relona's here," she said. Shevonar closed his eyes again and shook his head slightly, trying to make himself wake up.

"Shevonar, it's me. I came as fast as I could. Talk to me. Please talk to me." Relona's voice cracked in a sob.

The injured man opened his eyes and fought to focus on the face bending near. "Relona," he said. It was barely audible. The start of a smile was erased by an expression of pain. He looked again at the woman and watched her eyes fill with tears. "Don't cry," he whispered, then closed his eyes and struggled to breathe.

Relona's eyes were pleading when she looked up at Ayla, who looked down, then back up, and shook her head. She glanced around in panic, desperately searching out someone else who would give her another answer, but no one would return her gaze. She looked back at the man and watched him strain to take a breath, then saw blood spill from the corner of his mouth.

"Shevonar!" she cried, and reached for his hand.

"Relona… wanted to see you once more," he gasped, opening his eyes. "Say good-bye before I walk… the spirit world. If Doni allows… will see you there." He closed his eyes and they heard a feeble rattle as he tried to draw in a breath. Then, a low moan grew louder, and though Ayla was sure he was trying to control it, the sound increased. He stopped and tried to take a breath. Then, Ayla thought she heard a muted popping sound from inside him as he suddenly cried out in an agonizing scream. When the sound died away, he breathed no more.

"No, no. Shevonar, Shevonaaar," Relona cried. She laid her head on his chest and heaved great sobs of sorrow and grief. Ranokol was standing beside her with tears running down his cheeks, looking bewildered, dazed, at a loss. He didn't know what to do.

Suddenly they were startled by a loud and eerie howl at close quarters that sent shivers down their backs. As one, they looked at Wolf. He was standing on all four legs with his head thrown back, wailing a spine-tingling wolf song.

"What's he doing?" Ranokol said, quite upset.

"He is grieving for your brother," said the familiar voice of Zelandoni. "As we all do."

Everyone was relieved to see her. She had arrived with Relona and several others, but had stayed back to observe when Shevonar's mate rushed ahead. Relona's sobs turned to a wailing moan, a keening of her grief. Zelandoni joined her in her anguished lament, then several others. Wolf howled along with them. Finally, Ranokol broke down sobbing and threw himself across the man on the bed. An instant later he and Relona were clinging together, rocking and keening their sorrow.

Ayla thought it was good for both of them. To alleviate his pain and anger, she knew Ranokol needed to let his grief out, and Relona had helped him. When Wolf howled again, she joined him in a howl so realistic, many thought at first it was another wolf. Then, to the surprise of those who had kept a vigil for the man in the shelter, from a distance they heard another wolf howl, joining in the keening wolf song of grief.

After a while, the donier helped Relona up and led her to a fur that had been spread on the ground near the fire. Joharran helped the man's brother to a place on the other side of the hearth. The woman sat there rocking back and forth, making a low moaning sound, indifferent to everything around her. Ranokol just sat staring blankly at the fire.

The Zelandoni of the Third spoke quietly with the huge Zelandoni from the Ninth Cave, and shortly after returned with a steaming cup of liquid in each hand. The donier of the Ninth Cave took one cup from the Third and urged it on Relona, who drank it without objection, as though she didn't know, or care, what she did. The Third's other cup was brought to Ranokol, who ignored the proffered drink, but after some urging he finally drank it. Soon both of them were lying on the furs near the fire, asleep.

"I'm glad to see her quieted," Joharran said, "and him, too."

"They needed to grieve," Ayla said.

"Yes, they did, but now they need to rest," Zelandoni said. "And so do you, Ayla."

"Have something to eat first," Proleva said. Joharran's mate had come with Relona and Zelandoni and a few others from the Ninth Cave. "We roasted some bison meat, and the Third Cave brought other food."

"I'm not hungry," Ayla said.

"But you must be tired," Joharran said. "You hardly left his side for a moment."

"I wish I could have done more for him. I couldn't think of anything to help him," Ayla said, shaking her head and looking dejected.

"But you did," said the older man who was the Zelandoni of the Third. "You eased his pain. No one could have done more, and he wouldn't have held on to life without your help. I would not have used a poultice in that way. To ease aches or bruises, yes, but for internal injuries? I don't think I would have thought of it. Yet it did seem to help."

"Yes. It was a perceptive way to treat him," the Ninth's Zelandoni said. "Have you done that before?"

"No. And I wasn't sure it would help, but I had to try something," Ayla said.

"You did well," the donier said. "But now you should have something to eat, and rest."

"No, nothing to eat, but I think I will lie down for a while," Ayla said. "Where's Jondalar?"

"He went out with Rushemar and Solaban, and a couple of others to get more wood. Some went along just to hold torches, but Jondalar wanted to be sure there would be enough to last the night, and this valley doesn't have many trees. They should be back soon. Jondalar put your sleeping furs over there," Joharran said, showing her the place.

Ayla lay down, thinking to rest a while until Jondalar came back. She was asleep almost as soon as she closed her eyes. When the fuel collectors returned with the wood, nearly everyone was asleep. They put it in a pile near the fireplace, then went to the sleeping places they had chosen. Jondalar noticed the wooden bowl she usually took with her and used to heat small amounts of water with hot stones for medicinal teas. She had also constructed a makeshift framework of antlers, shed the previous season, to support a waterbag directly over a flame. Although the deer bladder held water, it seeped a little, which prevented it from catching on fire when it was used for heating water or cooking.

Joharran stopped his brother to talk for a few moments. "Jondalar, I want to learn more about those spear-throwers. I saw that bison fall from your spear, and you were farther away than most. If we'd all had that weapon, we wouldn't have had to get so close, and Shevonar might not have been trampled."

"You know I'll show anyone who wants to learn, but it does take practice," Jondalar said.

"How long did it take you? I don't mean to be as good as you are now, but to gain enough skill to really hunt with it?" Joharran asked.

"We've been using the spear-throwers for a few years now, but by the end of the first summer, we were hunting with them," Jondalar said. "It wasn't until the Journey back that we got good at hunting from the backs of the horses, though. Wolf can be a help, too."

"It's still hard to get used to the idea of using animals for anything besides meat or fur," Joharran said. "I wouldn't have believed you could if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. But it's that spear-thrower I want to know more about. We'll talk tomorrow."

The brothers bade a good night to each other, then Jondalar went to where Ayla was sleeping and joined her. Wolf looked up. He watched her breathing quietly in the glow from the fire, then looked back at the wolf. I'm glad he's always there watching out for her, he thought, and stroked his head, then he slipped in beside her. He was sorry Shevonar had died, not only because he was a member of the Ninth Cave, but because he knew how hard it was on Ayla when someone died and there was nothing she could do. She was a healer, but there were some wounds no one could heal.

Zelandoni had been busy all morning, preparing the body of Shevonar to be carried back to the Ninth Cave. Being near someone whose spirit had left the body was very disturbing for most people, and his burial would involve more than the usual ritual. It was considered very bad luck if someone died while hunting. If they were alone, the bad luck was obvious, the misfortune had been accomplished, but a Zelandoni usually performed a cleansing ritual to ward off any possible future effects. If two or three hunters went out and one of them died, it was still considered a personal matter, and a ceremony with the survivors and family members was adequate. But when someone died on a hunt that involved not just one Cave but the whole community, that was serious. Something on a community level had to be done.

The One Who Was First was thinking about what might be needed, perhaps a prohibition on the hunting of bison for the rest of the season to assuage the ill fortune might be required. Ayla saw her relaxing with a cup of tea near the fire, sitting on a stack of several thickly stuffed pads that had been brought for her on Whinney's pole drag. She seldom sat on low cushions, finding it more and more difficult and cumbersome to get up as she grew more corpulent with each year.

Ayla approached the donier. "Zelandoni, can I talk to you?"

"Yes, of course."

"If you're too busy, it can wait. I just wanted to ask you something," Ayla said.

"I can spare a little time now," Zelandoni said. "Get a cup for tea and join me." She motioned to Ayla to sit on a mat on the ground.

"I just wanted to ask you if you know of anything more that I could have done for Shevonar. Is there any way to heal internal wounds? When I lived with the Clan, there was a man who had been accidentally stabbed with a knife. A piece broke off inside and Iza cut in and removed it, but I don't think there was a way to cut in and fix Shevonar's wounds," Ayla said.

It was obvious how much it bothered the foreign woman that she had been able to do so little for the man, and Zelandoni was moved by her concern. It was the sort of thing a good acolyte might feel.

"There is not much that can be done to help anyone who has been stepped on by a full-grown bison, Ayla," Zelandoni said. "Some lumps and swellings can be lanced to drain, or small objects cut out, slivers or that broken piece of the knife that your Clan woman removed, but that was a brave thing for her to do. It is dangerous to cut into the body. You are creating an injury that often is bigger than the one you are trying to fix. I have cut in a few times, but only when I was sure it would help and there was no other way."

"That's how I feel," Ayla said.

"It's also necessary to know something about what the inside of the body is like. There are many similarities between the inside of a human body and the inside of an animal's body, and I have often butchered an animal very carefully to see what it looks like and how they are connected. It's easy to see the tubes that carry blood from the heart, and the sinew that moves the muscles. Those things are very similar in all animals, but some things are different, an aurochs's stomach is different from a horse's, for example, and many things are arranged differently. It can be useful and quite interesting."

"I have found that to be true," Ayla said. "I've hunted and butchered many animals, and it does help to understand about people. I am sure Shevonar's ribs were broken, and splinters had penetrated his… breathing sacs."


"His lungs, and I think his… other organs. In Mamutoi, I would say 'liver' and 'spleen.' I don't know the words in Zelandonii. They bleed heavily when damaged. Do you know which ones I mean?" Ayla said.

"Yes, I do," the First said.

"The blood had no place to go. I think that's why he turned black and got so hard. It filled him up inside until something burst," the young woman said.

"I examined him, and I agree with your assessment. The blood filled his stomach and some of his intestines. I believe part of the intestines burst," the donier said.

"The intestines are the long tubes that lead to the outside?"


"Jondalar taught me that word. They were damaged on Shevonar, too, I think, but it was the blood filling him up inside that made him die."

"Yes. The small bone in his left lower leg was also broken, and his right wrist, but those would not have been fatal, of course," Zelandoni said.

"No, and I wasn't so concerned about those breaks, I just wondered if you knew of anything else that I could have done for him," Ayla said, her earnest face full of concern.

"It bothers you that you couldn't save him, doesn't it?"

Ayla nodded and lowered her head.

"You did everything you could, Ayla. We will all walk in the world of the spirits someday. When Doni calls us, young or old, we have no choice. Not even a Zelandoni is gifted enough to stop it, or even to know when it will happen. That is a secret Doni shares with no one. She allowed the Spirit of the Bison to take Shevonar in exchange for the bison we took. It is a sacrifice She sometimes demands. Perhaps She felt we needed to be reminded that Her Gifts should not be taken for granted. We kill Her creatures so that we may live, but we need to appreciate the Gift of Life She has given us when we take the lives of Her animals. The Great Mother is not always gentle. Sometimes Her lessons are hard."

"Yes. That is what I have learned. I do not think the Spirit World is a gentle place. The lessons are hard, but valuable," Ayla said.

Zelandoni did not reply. She had found that people often kept talking to fill the gap if she did not respond immediately, and she learned more from her silence than she would have from asking questions. After a time, Ayla did continue.

"I remember when Creb told me that the Spirit of the Cave Lion had chosen me. He said the Cave Lion was a strong totem, who would offer powerful protection, but that strong totems are hard to live with. He told me if I paid attention, my totem would help me, and let me know when I've made the right decision, but he said totems test you to make sure you are worthy before they give you something. He also said the Cave Lion would not have chosen me if I was not worthy," Ayla said. "Maybe he meant able to bear it."

The donier was surprised at the depth of understanding Ayla's comments showed. Were the people that she called Clan really capable of such perception? If she had said the Great Earth Mother instead of the Spirit of the Cave Lion, the words could have come from a Zelandoni.

Finally, The One Who Was First continued. "Nothing could be done for Shevonar, except to ease his pain, and you did that. Using a poultice was an intriguing approach. Did you learn that from your Clan woman?"

"No," Ayla said, shaking her head. "I've never done that before. But he was in so much pain, and I knew with his injuries I couldn't give him anything liquid to drink. I thought of using smoke. I've burned mullein to make a smoke that alleviates certain coughs, and I know plants that are sometimes burned in sweatlodges, but I was afraid that it might make him cough, and with his damaged breathing sacs, I didn't want to do that. Then I noticed the bruising, though it was more than that, I think. The bruise on his skin turned almost black after a while, but I know that certain plants can ease the pain of bruising when put on the skin, and I happened to notice some on the way here from the hunting surround. So I went back and got some. It seemed to help a little."

"Yes, I think it did," the donier said. "I may try that sometime myself. You do seem to have a natural, inborn sense about healing,

Ayla. And I think it's telling that you feel bad. Every good healer that I know is always bothered when someone is lost. But there was nothing more you could have done. The Mother decided to call him, and no one can thwart Her will."

"You're right, of course, Zelandoni. I didn't think there was any hope, but I wanted to ask anyway. I know you have much to do, and I don't want to take any more of your time," Ayla said as she got up to leave. "Thank you for answering my questions."

Zelandoni watched the young woman as she started to walk away. "Ayla," she called. "I wonder if you would do something for me."

"Of course, anything, Zelandoni," she said,

"When we get back to the Ninth Cave, will you dig up some red ochre? There is an embankment near The River by the big rock. Do you know where that is?"

"Yes, I saw the ochre when Jondalar and I went swimming. It's very bright red, more red than most. I'll get some for you."

"I will tell you how to purify your hands, and give you a special basket for it when we get back," Zelandoni said.

Chapter 14

It was a somber group of people that returned to the Ninth Cave the next day. The hunt had been eminently successful, but the cost had been too dear. As soon as they arrived, Joharran turned Shevonar's body over to the zelandonia, to prepare it for burial. It was taken to the far end of the shelter, near the bridge up to Down River, to be ritually washed and dressed in his ceremonial clothing and jewelry by Zelandoni, Relona, and several others.

"Ayla," Zelandoni called as she was walking back to Marthona's dwelling. "We're going to be needing that red ochre you said you would get for me."

"I'll go get it right away," Ayla said.

"Come with me. I'll give you a special basket and something to dig it with," the woman said. Zelandoni led her to her dwelling and held the drape aside so Ayla could enter. She had never been inside the donier's home before, and she looked around with interest. Something about it reminded her of Iza's hearth, perhaps the many drying leaves and other parts of plants that were hanging from cords strung across the back end of the main room. There were several raised beds against the wall panels in the front part, though she was sure that was not where the large woman slept. There appeared to be two other rooms partitioned off. Glancing through the opening, she saw that one of them appeared to be a cooking area. She guessed the other might be a sleeping room.

"Here's the basket and the pick for collecting the red earth," Zelandoni said, giving her a sturdy container stained red from use and an adzelike digging tool firmly attached to an antler handle.

Ayla left Zelandoni's dwelling carrying the basket and pick. Zelandoni walked out with her and started toward the south end of the shelter. Wolf had found a place where he liked to rest on the stone porch, out of the way, but where he could watch the activities. When he saw Ayla, he immediately ran to her. The donier stopped.

"I think it might be wise if you kept Wolf away from the body of Shevonar," she said. "For his own protection. Until the man is safely buried in sacred ground, his life spirit is floating free and very confused. I know how to protect people, but I'm not sure how to defend a wolf, and I am concerned that Shevonar's elan might try to inhabit this animal. I have seen wolves go mad, and foam at the mouth. I believe they are trying to fight off something, maybe something evil or a bewildered spirit. The bite of such an animal will kill like a deadly poison."

"I will look for Folara and ask her to watch him when I bring the red ochre," Ayla said.

Wolf followed along behind her as she walked down the path toward the place where she and Jondalar had gone swimming and cleaned themselves shortly after they arrived. She filled the basket nearly full, then started back up the path. She saw Folara talking to her mother and explained Zelandoni's request. The young woman grinned, delighted to stay with the wolf. Her mother had just asked her to come and help prepare the body. It was not something she wanted to do, and she knew Marthona would not refuse Ayla's request.

"It may be best to keep him inside Marthona's dwelling. If you want to go out, I have a special rope that can be put around his neck in a way that won't choke him. Wolf doesn't like it much, but he'll put up with it. Come with me and I'll show you how to put it on him," Ayla said.

Then she walked to the far end of the ledge and gave the red ochre to the First. She stayed to help clean and dress the body of Shevonar. Jondalar's mother soon came to help as well-she had done it many times before-and told Ayla that Folara had invited several young people to their dwelling, and Wolf seemed content to be with them.

Ayla was intrigued by the clothing they put on the dead hunter, though she was reluctant to mention her interest at the time. The outfit consisted of a loose, soft tunic made of the furs of different animals, and hides tanned and colored in various shades that were sewn together into intricate patterns and accented with beads, shells, and fringes. The tunic was bloused and belted at the hips with a colorful band of woven fabric. The leggings, though less elaborate, matched the tunic, as did the calf-high foot coverings, which had a fringe and an edging of fur attached to the tops. Necklaces made of shells, beads, various animal teeth, and ivory carvings had been placed around his neck and artfully arranged.

Then the body was laid out on blocks of limestone, on top of a large, somewhat flexible blanket-size mat of grasses woven with designs that were colored with red ochre. Long cords were strung through each end, which, Marthona explained to Ayla, could be pulled together so that the mat would envelop him. The lengths of cordage would then be wrapped around the shrouded body and tied. Beneath the mat was a strong netting made of flax cordage, which could be slung from a pole like a hammock so that he could be carried to the sacred ground and lowered into the grave.

Shevonar had been a spear-maker, and his tools for making them were placed beside him, along with some finished spears and the parts of some he had been working on, which included wooden shafts, ivory and flint points, and the sinew, cords, and glue used to attach them. The sinew and cords were used to fasten the points to the shafts, and to bind sections of shorter pieces of wood together to make longer spears, which were then cemented with resinous pitch or glue.

Relona had brought the things from their dwelling, and she sobbed with grief when she placed Shevonar's favorite shaft-straightener within easy reach of his right hand. It was made of an antler of a red deer, the stem part, from the horn core at the head to the first branching tines. After the tines had been cut off, a good-size hole was bored through the wide end where the antler had begun to branch out. Ayla recognized that it was similar to the tool Jondalar had brought back with them that had belonged to his brother Thonolan.

Depictions of animals, including a stylized mountain sheep with large horns, and various symbols had been carved into the device. She recalled Jondalar saying that they lent potency to the shaft-straightener so that the spears made with it would fly straight and true, and would have a compelling attractiveness to the animal at which they were aimed, to make a clean kill. That they also added a pleasing aesthetic touch was appreciated.

While Shevonar's body was being prepared under the supervision of Zelandoni, Joharran was directing others to construct a temporary shelter with a rooflike covering made of a thin layer of thatched grasses supported by poles. When the body was ready, the shelter was placed over him, then walled with quickly made movable panels. The Zelandonia entered the shelter to perform the ritual that would keep the free-floating spirit close to the body and within the shelter.

When they finished, everyone who had touched or handled or worked close to the man whose life-force had left his body had to be ritually cleaned themselves. Water was the element that was used, and flowing water was considered best for this particular cleansing. They were all required to immerse themselves completely in The River.

Whether they undressed or were fully clothed didn't matter. They followed the path down to The River bank below the stone shelf. The Zelandonia invoked the Great Mother, then the women went upstream a ways, and the men downstream. All of the women removed their clothing, but a few of the men jumped in, clothing and all.

Jondalar had helped build the burial shelter. He and the others who had erected the shelter around the body were also required to be purified in The River. Afterward he walked with Ayla back up the path. Proleva had arranged to have a meal ready for them. Marthona sat with Jondalar and Ayla, and Zelandoni joined them after a while, leaving the grieving widow with her family. Willamar came looking for Marthona and sat with them, also. While she was with people with whom she felt comfortable, Ayla thought this would be a good time to ask about the clothing they had put on Shevonar's body.

"Does everyone who dies get dressed in such special clothes?" she asked. "It must have taken a lot of work to make Shevonar's outfit."

"Most people want to wear their best clothes for special occasions, or when they first meet people. That's why they have ceremonial clothes. They want to be recognized and make a good impression. Since people don't know what to expect when they reach the next world, they want make the right impression there, and they want whoever they meet to know who they are," Marthona said.

"I didn't think clothes went to the next world," Ayla said. "It's the spirit that goes. The body stays here, doesn't it?"

"The body returns to the womb of the Great Earth Mother," Zelandoni said, "the life spirit, the elan, returns to Her spirit in the next world, but everything has a spirit form, rocks, trees, the food we eat, even the clothes we wear. The elan of a person doesn't want to return naked, or empty-handed. That's why Shevonar was dressed in his Ceremonial clothes, and given the tools of his craft and his hunting weapons to take with him. He will be given food, too."

Ayla nodded. She speared a rather large piece of meat, took one end in her teeth, then, holding the other end, cut off the piece in her mouth with her knife and put the rest back on her scapula bone plate. She chewed for a while with a thoughtful expression, then swallowed.

"Shevonar's clothes were beautiful. So many little pieces all sewn together into a pattern like that," she commented. "Animals and designs, it almost seemed to tell a story."

"In a way, it does," Willamar said, smiling. "That's how people are recognized, distinguished from each other. Everything on his Ceremonial outfit means something. It has to have his elandon, and his mate's, and of course, the Zelandonii abelan."

Ayla looked puzzled. "I don't understand those words. What's an elandon? Or a Zelandonii abelan?" she asked

Everyone looked at Ayla with surprise. They were such commonly used terms, and Ayla spoke Zelandoni so well, it was hard to believe she didn't know them.

Jondalar looked a bit chagrined. "I guess the words never came up," he said. "When you found me, Ayla, I was wearing Sharamudoi clothes, and they don't have quite the same way of showing who a person is. The Mamutoi have something similar, but not the same. A Zelandonii abelan is a… well… it's like those tattoos on the sides of Zelandoni's and Marthona's forehead," the man tried to explain.

Ayla looked at Marthona, then Zelandoni. She knew all the zelandonia and the leaders had an elaborate tattoo made up of squares and rectangles of different colors, sometimes embellished with additional lines and swirls, but she'd never heard a name for the mark.

"Perhaps I can explain the meaning of the words," Zelandoni said.

Jondalar looked relieved.

"I suppose we should start with 'elan.' You do know that word?"

"I heard you use it today," Ayla said. "It means something like spirit or life-force, I think."

"But you didn't learn this word before?" Zelandoni asked, scowling at Jondalar.

"Jondalar always said 'spirit.' Is that wrong?" Ayla said.

"No, it's not wrong. And I suppose we do tend to use 'elan' more when there is a death, or a birth, because death is the absence or end of elan, and birth is the beginning," the donier said.

"When a child is born, when a new life comes into this world, it is filled with elan, the vital force of life," the One Who Was First said. "When the child is named, a Zelandoni creates a mark that is a symbol for that spirit, that new person, and paints it or carves it on some object-a rock, a bone, a piece of wood. That mark is called an abelan. Each abelan is different and is used to designate a particular individual. It might be a design made of lines or shapes or dots, or a simplified form of an animal. Whatever comes to mind when the Zelandoni meditates about the infant."

"That's what Creb-The Mog-ur-used to do, meditate, to decide what a new baby's totem was!" Ayla said, surprised. She wasn't alone.

"You are talking about the Clan man who was the… Zelandoni of your clan?" the donier asked.

"Yes!" Ayla said, and nodded.

"I'll have to think on that," the large woman said, more astounded than she wanted to let on. "To continue, the Zelandoni meditates, then decides on the mark. The object with the mark on it, the symbol object, is the elandon. The Zelandoni gives it to the baby's mother to keep safe until the child is grown. When they pass into adulthood, the mother gives her children their elandons as part of their coming of age ceremony.

"But the symbol thing, the elandon, is more than just a material object with designs painted or engraved on it. It can hold the elan, the life-force, the spirit, the essence of each member of the Cave, much the way a donii can hold the Mother's spirit. The elandon has more power than any other personal item. It is so powerful that in the wrong hands it can be used against a person to create terrible afflictions and adversity. Therefore, a mother keeps her children's elandons in a place known only to her, and perhaps her mother, or her mate." Suddenly Ayla realized that she would be responsible for the elandon of the child she was carrying.

Zelandoni explained that when the elandon was given to a child who had reached adulthood, that person would hide it in a place known only to the new adult, often quite far away. But an innocuous object, like a stone, would be picked up from close by as a surrogate and given to a Zelandoni, who customarily put it in a crack in a stone wall of a sacred place, perhaps a cave, as an offering to the Great Mother. While the thing that was offered seemed insignificant, its meaning was much greater. It was understood that Doni could trace the surrogate back to the original symbol thing, and from that to the person to whom it belonged, without anyone, not even a Zelandoni, knowing where the elandon was hidden.

Willamar tactfully added that the zelandonia as a whole were highly respected and considered trustworthy and beneficial. "But they are very powerful," he said. "For many people a touch of apprehension is part of the respect they command, and any individual Zelandoni is only human. A few have been known to misuse their knowledge and abilities, and some people fear that given the opportunity, one of those might be tempted to use a powerful object like the elandon against someone they disliked, or to teach a person a lesson if they felt they had been wronged. I have never known it to happen, but people do like to embellish stories."

"If anyone disturbs a person's symbol thing, it could make a person sick, or even die. Let me tell you an Elder Legend," Marthona said. "In the past, it is said, some families used to put all their symbol things together, in the same place. Sometimes even entire Caves put them all in one place.

"There was one Cave that put all their symbol things together in a special little cave in the side of a hill near their shelter. It was considered such a sacred place that no one would dare to disturb them. One very wet spring, an avalanche washed down the slope, destroying the cave and everything in it. The people blamed each other and stopped being cooperative. Without each other's help, life became very difficult. The people scattered, and the Cave died. So people learned that if someone disturbed all the elandons, or even if they were dislodged by natural shifts caused by water, wind, or earth movements, the family or Cave had serious problems. That is why each person needs to hide her own symbol thing."

"It is all right to put surrogate stones together," Zelandoni added. "The Mother appreciates them, and She can trace them back, but they are just little tokens, not the real elandons."

Ayla was delighted with the "Legend." She had heard people talk about the Elder Legends, but she didn't realize they were stories told to help people understand things they needed to know. They reminded her of stories that old Dorv used to tell to Brun's clan in the winter.

Then the donier continued. "The abelan is a symbol or mark or pattern that always has life-force associated with it. It is used specifically to identify or characterize someone or some group. The Zelandonii abelan identifies all of us and is the most significant. It is a symbol made of squares or rectangles, often with variations and embellishments. It may be different colors, or made of different materials, or even different numbers of squares, but it must have the basic shapes. Part of this is a Zelandonii abelan," she said, pointing to the mark tattooed on the side of her forehead. Ayla noticed that three rows of three squares were part of the design.

"The squares tell anyone who sees it that my people are Zelandonii. Because one can count nine of them, the mark also identifies me as a member of the Ninth Cave. There is more to this tattoo, of course," she continued. "It also marks me as a member of the zelandonia, and declares that I am considered by the other Zelandonia as First Among Those Who Serve The Great Earth Mother. Although no longer as significant, a part of it is also my own personal abelan.

You will notice that Marthona's tattoo is different from mine, although parts of it are the same."

Ayla turned to examine the former leader's tattoo. Marthona tilted her head to show it better. "There are the nine squares," Ayla said, "but the mark is on the other side of her forehead, and there are other marks, more curved. Now that I look at it, one of them seems to have the shape of a horse, from the neck, across the back and down the hind legs."

"Yes," Marthona said. "The tattoo artist was very good and captured the essence of my abelan. Though more stylized so that it could work with the whole pattern, it is very close to the mark on my elandon, which is a horse, but simplified like that."

"Our tattoos tell you something about each of us," Zelandoni said. "You know that I Serve The Mother because mine is on the left. You know that Marthona is or was a leader of her Cave because hers is on the right side of her forehead. You know we are both Zelandonii, because of the squares, and that we are of the Ninth Cave."

"I think Manvelar's tattoo had three squares, but I don't remember if I could count up to fourteen squares on Brameval's forehead," Ayla said.

"No, you couldn't," Zelandoni said. "Caves are not always identified by the number of squares, but a person's Cave is always identified in some way. Brameval's tattoo has fourteen dots in a certain shape."

"Not everyone has tattoos," Ayla said. "Willamar has a small one on the middle of his forehead, but Jondalar doesn't have one at all."

"Only people who are leaders have tattoos on their foreheads," Jondalar said. "Zelandoni is a spiritual leader, mother was a Cave leader. Willamar is the Trade Master. It is an important position, and his advice is often asked, so he is also considered a leader."

"Though most people would rather show who they are with their clothes, like Shevonar, some people have tattoos on other places, their cheeks or chins, even hands, usually someplace that shows and is not covered up by clothes. Not much point in putting an identifying mark where no one can see it. The other tattoos often show something a person wants to be recognized for, but usually it's a personal achievement, not a primary tie relationship," Marthona said.

"Among the Mamutoi, the mamuti-that's like zelandonia-have tattoos on their cheeks, but not squares. They use chevrons," Ayla said. "They start with a diamond shape, which is like a square turned so that it points up and down, or half of that, a triangle-they particularly like downward-pointing triangles. Then they repeat the pointed shape, like one point nestled inside another. Sometimes they connect them and make zigzags. All those symbols have meanings, too. Mamut was just starting to teach them to me the winter before I left."

Zelandoni and Marthona caught each other's eyes and nodded a slight acknowledgment. The donier had talked with the former leader about Ayla's abilities and suggested that she, perhaps, ought to consider affiliating with the zelandonia in some way. They both agreed that it might be better for her and everyone else.

"Then Shevonar's tunic has his mark, his abelan, and the Zelandonii abelan," Ayla stated, as though learning a lesson by rote.

"Yes. He will be recognized by everyone, including Doni. The Great Earth Mother will know that he is one of Her children who lived in the southwest region of this land," Zelandoni said. "But that is only part of the design on Shevonar's Ceremonial tunic. The entire outfit has meaning, including the necklaces. Besides the Zelandonii abelan, part of the pattern includes the nine squares that identify his Cave, and other patterns that define his lineage. There are symbol marks for the woman he mated, the abelans of her children born to his hearth. His craft, spear-making, is represented, and of course, his own symbol mark. His abelan is the most personal, and personally powerful element of all. His Ceremonial outfit, which are his burial clothes now, are, I suppose you could say, a visual display of his names and ties."

"Shevonar's Ceremonial outfit is particularly nice," Marthona said. "It was created by the old pattern-maker, who is gone now. He was very good."

Ayla had thought the clothing of the Zelandonii was very interesting, some of it quite beautiful-particularly Marthona's things-but she'd had no idea of the complexity of the meanings associated with it. Some things had seemed too ornate for her taste. She had learned to appreciate the pure form and usefulness of the things she made, just as her Clan mother did. Occasionally she varied the pattern in a basket she was weaving, or showed off the grain of the wood in a bowl or cup she carved and sanded smooth, but she had never added decorations.

Now she was beginning to understand how the clothes and jewelry that people wore, as well as their facial tattoos, characterized and identified them. Shevonar's ensemble, for all that it was highly decorated, was one that she felt had a balanced and pleasing pattern. She was surprised, however, when Marthona said that it had been created by an old man.

"Shevonar's clothes must have taken a lot of work. Why would an old man spend so much time making clothes?" Ayla asked.

Jondalar smiled. "Because the old man's craft was designing Ceremonial and burial clothing. That's what a pattern-maker does."

"The old man didn't make Shevonar's Ceremonial clothes, he planned how they would go together," Marthona said. "There are so many aspects to include, it takes a special skill and an artistic eye to put them together in a pleasing way. But he could arrange to have the clothes made. Several people had worked closely with him for many years, and the team was in great demand. Now, one of them plans the clothing, but she isn't as good, not yet."

"But why would the old man or anyone else do it for Shevonar?" Ayla asked.

"He traded for it," Jondalar said.

Ayla frowned. It was obvious she still didn't quite understand. "I thought people traded with other Camps or Caves. I didn't know they traded with people in their own Cave."

"But why not?" Willamar said. "Shevonar was a spear-maker. He was known for his well-made spears, but he couldn't arrange all the elements and symbols he wanted to show on his Ceremonial outfit in a way that pleased him. So he traded twenty of his finest spears for that outfit, and he prized it greatly."

"It was one of the last the old man made," Marthona said. "After his eyes no longer allowed him to practice his craft, he traded Shevonar's spears, one by one, for other things he wanted, but he saved the best one for himself. His bones are now buried in sacred ground, but he took that spear with him to the spirit world. It was one that had both his and Shevonar's abelans on it."

"If he is especially pleased with his handiwork," Jondalar explained, "along with the abelan of the person it is being made for, a spear-maker sometimes incorporates his own symbol mark within the design carved or painted on it."

Ayla learned during the hunt that certain marks on spears were very important. She knew that every spear carried a mark of its owner, so that there would be no doubt who had killed which animal. She didn't know that it was called an abelan, or that it was so important to the Zelandonii. She had seen one dispute resolved because of the marks. Two spears had found the same animal, but only one was imbedded in a vital organ.

Though each spear bore the owner's symbol mark, she had heard the hunters talking about the spear-makers. They always seemed to know who made which spear, whether or not it bore the mark of the one who made it. The style of the spear and the decorations on it declared the maker.

"What is your abelan, Jondalar?" she asked.

"It's not anything specific, it's just a mark. It looks like this," he said. He smoothed out the dry dirt nearby, and with his finger drew a line, then a second line that started parallel with the first line, but converged to a point at the end. A small line joined the two lines near the pointed end. "I always thought that when I was born, the Zelandoni couldn't think of anything that day," he said, then looked at the First and grinned. "Or maybe it's the tail of an ermine, white with a black tip. I always liked those little ermine tails. Do you think my abelan could be an ermine?"

"Well, your totem is a Cave Lion," Ayla said, "just like mine. I think your abelan can be anything you say it is. Why not an ermine? Ermines are feisty little weasels, but pretty in winter, all white except for their black eyes and the black tips of their tails. Actually, their brown summer coats are not bad, either." She thought for a moment, then asked, "What is Shevonar's abelan?"

"I saw one of his spears near his resting place," Jondalar said. "I'll get it and show you."

He quickly got the spear and showed her Shevonar's symbol mark. It was a stylized representation of a mouflon, a mountain sheep with large curved horns.

"I should take that with me," Zelandoni said. "We'll need it to make a copy of his abelan."

"Why do you need to make a copy?" Ayla asked.

"The same symbol that marked his spears, clothing, and other possessions will mark his grave post," Jondalar said.

As they walked back toward their dwellings, Ayla thought about the discussion and drew a few conclusions on her own. Though the symbol object, the elandon, itself was concealed, the symbol mark, the abelan, that had been made on it was known not only to the person it symbolized, but to everyone else. It did possess some power, especially for the one to whom it belonged, but not for someone who might want to misuse it. It was too well-known. Real power came from the unknown, the esoteric.

The following morning, Joharran rapped on the post beside the entrance to Marthona's dwelling. Jondalar pushed the drape aside and was surprised to see his brother.

"Aren't you going to the meeting this morning?" he asked.

"Yes, of course, but I wanted to talk to you and Ayla, first," Joharran said.

"Come in, then," Jondalar said.

Joharran stepped in and let the heavy entrance drape fall back. Marthona and Willamar came out of their sleeping room and greeted him warmly. Ayla was putting leftover food from breakfast into the wooden bowl she had designated as Wolf's. She looked up and smiled.

"Joharran told me he wanted to talk to us," Jondalar said, looking at Ayla.

"I won't take much time, but I've been thinking about those spear-throwing weapons of yours. If more of us had been able to cast a spear from the distance you did, Jondalar, we might have been able to stop that bison before it trampled Shevonar. It's too late to help him, but I want the rest of the hunters to have that safety measure. Would you, both of you, be willing to show everyone how to make one of those, and how to use it?"

Jondalar smiled. "Of course we will. That's what I was hoping all along. I could hardly wait to show how they work, so everyone could see their advantage."

All of the residents of Marthona's dwelling, except Folara, walked with Joharran to the meeting area near the south end of the huge abri. By the time they reached it, a good number of people had already arrived. Messengers had been sent to the Zelandonia of the Caves that took part in the hunt to meet and talk about the burial ceremony. Besides the spiritual leader of the Ninth, the Zelandonia of the Fourteenth Cave, the Eleventh, the Third, the Second, and the Zelandoni of the Seventh were there. Most of those to whom the people looked for leadership also made an appearance, as well as several others who were interested.

"The Spirit of the Bison has claimed one of us in return for her own," the large donier said. "It is a sacrifice we must make if she demands it." She looked at the people, who were nodding their heads in acknowledgment. Her commanding presence was never so evident as when she was with other Zelandonia. Then it became apparent that she was First Among Those Who Served The Mother. As the meeting continued, a couple of the Zelandonia got into a small difference of opinion about a minor point, and the First was allowing the dispute to run its course. Joharran found his mind straying from the talk about Shevonar's burial to a consideration of where to set up practice targets. After talking to Ayla and Jondalar, Joharran decided to encourage his hunters to make spear-throwers and start practicing even before they left for the Summer Meeting. He wanted them to become skilled in Jondalar's new weapon as quickly as possible. But not today. He knew there would be no using of weapons this day. This was the day the spirit of Shevonar, his elan, would be guided to the next world.

Zelandoni's mind was also occupied with other thoughts, though she appeared to be seriously considering the points of view being offered. She had been thinking about Jondalar's younger brother ever since she was given the stone with the opalescent face from his grave far to the east, but she had been waiting for an appropriate time.

She knew that both Jondalar and Ayla would have to be involved in the process, and making contact with the next world was fearsome enough under any circumstances, especially for those who were not trained to deal with it-it could be dangerous even for those who were. It was safer when there were many people around during the ceremony to aid and support those who would be making the contact directly.

Since he was killed during a hunt that involved most of the nearby Caves, Shevonar's burial would have to be a major ceremony that would include and invoke the protection of the entire community. This might be a good time to make an attempt to enter more deeply into the spirit world to search for Thonolan's vital force, Zelandoni thought. She glanced at Ayla and wondered how the foreign woman would react. Ayla continually surprised the donier with her knowledge, her competence, and even her commendable attitude.

The old donier had been flattered when the young woman came to her to ask if there was anything more she could have done for Shevonar, especially considering the skill she had shown. And it was surprisingly appropriate for the young woman to suggest that Jondalar take a stone from his brother's burial place, considering that she was unfamiliar with their practices, Zelandoni thought. The stone that had presented itself to him was certainly unique. It seemed entirely ordinary, until one turned it over and saw that bluish, opalescent face with the fiery red points.

That opalescent blue is undoubtedly an aspect of clear, she thought, and red is the color of life, the most important of the Mother's Five Sacred Colors. That little stone is clearly an object of power. Something will have to be done with it after we are through with it.

She was only half listening to the disagreement, when it came to her that the unique stone from Thonolan's grave was rather like a surrogate stone. With it, the Mother could trace Thonolan's elan. The best and safest place for it would be in a crack of a sacred cave near the surrogate stones of his family. She knew where almost all of the surrogate stones of the Ninth Cave were, and many of those from other Caves. She even knew the hiding places of some actual elandons besides her own.

There had been a few unusual circumstances that had required her to step in and assume the duties of a parent and take responsibility for the elandons of some children, and she'd had to hide the symbol things for a few people who were incapable, either mentally or physically, of hiding their own. She never spoke of those, and would never for any reason try to take advantage of her knowledge. She was well aware of the dangers, to herself as well as the person the elandon represented.

Ayla's mind was beginning to wander, too. She wasn't familiar with Zelandonii burial customs, and she was quite interested, but the present discussion, which seemed rather interminable, was beyond her grasp. She didn't even know some of the esoteric words they used. Instead she was thinking about some of the things she had learned recently.

It had been explained that people were usually buried in sacred ground, though burial grounds changed after they acquired a certain number of graves. Too many lingering spirits in one place could give them too much power. Those who died at the same time might be kept together, or if they were especially close, but there was not one single burial ground. Instead, burying was done in small areas scattered throughout the landscape.

Whatever place was chosen, the burial area was marked by posts set in the ground around the graves at close intervals and at the head of each grave. The posts were carved or painted with the abelans of the people who were buried there, symbols that proclaimed the danger of entering the area. Spirits of the dead who no longer had a body to inhabit might lurk within the confines staked out, but could not go beyond the palisade. The zelandonia made the exorcistic fence so that the spirits who could not find their way to the spirit world would not be able to cross the boundary and steal the body of someone still walking in this world.

Without powerful protection, those who entered within the fenced area were in grave danger. Spirits began to gather even before a corpse was laid to rest, and they had been known to attempt to gain possession of the body of a living being and wage war with the person's own spirit for control. It was usually known by the drastic change of the person, who might do things that were out of character, or see things that were not seen by others, or cry out for no apparent reason, or become violent, or seem unable to comprehend the world around them and withdraw into themselves.

After many years, when the poles had fallen down of their own accord and rotted into the earth, and vegetation had grown over the graves and refreshed the gravesite, the sacred ground was no longer considered hallowed, no longer dangerous; the spirits were gone. It was said the Great Earth Mother had claimed Her own and given the place back to Her children.

Ayla, and the others who had been musing, immediately brought their attention back to the discussion when they heard the voice of the First. Since the disputing Zelandonia could not seem to work out their differences, the powerful donier decided it was time to step in. She made a decision that included aspects of all the points of view and explained it in a way that made it seem the only possible way. Then they went on to talk about the safeguards that would be needed for those who would be bringing Shevonar's body to the sacred burial ground so they would be protected from the lost and wandering souls.

There would be a feast to fortify everyone so that each person's own spirit had the strength to fight off the lost souls, and of course, everyone looked to Proleva to organize it. In addition, they talked about the food that would be placed in the grave, along with weapons and tools. The grave food would not be eaten, but the spirit of the food would nourish the free-floating spirit to give him strength to find his way. Everything possible was done so the departing soul would have no reason to turn back or linger too long.

Later that morning, Ayla went out with the horses, riding on Whinney with Racer and Wolf following behind. Then she combed them, while checking them over to make sure everything was well with them. She was used to spending every day with the horses, but since they had arrived, she had been with Jondalar's people most of the time, and she missed the animals. The way they greeted her, with such enthusiastic affection, she thought they probably missed her, and Jondalar, too.

She stopped by Joharran's home on the way back and asked Proleva if she knew where Jondalar was.

"He went with Joharran, Rushemar, and Solaban to dig a pit for Shevonar," the woman said. Proleva had much to do, but at the moment was waiting for some others and had a little time. She had been wanting to get to know this woman with so many talents who would soon be joined with her mate's brother, and asked, "Would you like some chamomile tea?"

Ayla hesitated. "I think I should go back to Marthona's, but I'd love to have some tea with you another time."

Wolf, who had enjoyed the outing as much as the horses, had followed Ayla in. Jaradal, spying the animal, came running toward him. The wolf poked his nose at the youngster, wanting to be petted. Jaradal chuckled delightedly and rubbed Wolf's head.

"I have to tell you, Ayla," Proleva said, "I was very concerned at first when Jaradal said he had touched your animal. It's hard to believe that a meat-eating, hunting animal like that can be so gentle with children. When Folara brought him in here and I saw Marsola crawl all over him, I couldn't believe it. She pulled his fur, poked at his eyes, even grabbed his jaw and looked inside his mouth, and Wolf just lay there like he loved it. I was absolutely amazed. Even Salova was smiling, though when she first saw her baby girl with that wolf, she was terrified."

"Wolf has a special fondness for children," Ayla explained. "He grew up playing and sleeping with them in the earthlodge of the Lion Camp. They were his litter-mates, and grown wolves are always protective and indulgent toward the young of their pack. He seems to think all young children belong to his pack."

As Ayla and Wolf made their way toward Marthona's dwelling, something about Proleva was nagging at the back of her mind. It was the way she held herself, the way she moved, the way her loose tunic fit. Suddenly it came to her, and she smiled. Proleva was pregnant! She was sure of it.

When Ayla went into Marthona's dwelling, no one was there. It made her wish she had stayed and had tea with Proleva, though she wondered where Jondalar's mother was. She wasn't with Proleva, maybe she went to see Zelandoni, Ayla thought. They seemed close, or at least respected each other. They were always talking or giving each other knowing looks. If she went to look for Marthona there, it would give her a reason to call upon the donier, whom she definitely wanted to know better.

Of course, I really don't have to find Marthona, and Zelandoni is very busy right now. Perhaps I shouldn't bother her, Ayla thought, but she had been feeling at loose ends and wanted something meaningful to do. Maybe I could help. At least I could offer.

Ayla went to the dwelling of Zelandoni and tapped lightly on the panel near the entrance drape. The woman must have been standing nearby. She pushed aside the drape within a heartbeat or two.

"Ayla," she said, looking rather surprised to see the young woman and the wolf. "Is there something I can do for you?"

"I was looking for Marthona. She isn't at home and she wasn't with Proleva. I wondered if she might have come here," Ayla said.

"No, she's not here."

"Well, I'm sorry to have bothered you. I know how busy you are. I shouldn't have taken up your time," Ayla said.

"It's perfectly all right," the donier said, then she noted that the young woman seemed tense, but eager, and somehow hopeful. "Did you want Marthona for anything special?"

"No, I was just looking for her. I thought she might need help with something."

"If you are looking for something to do, perhaps you can help me," Zelandoni said, holding the drape open while she stepped back. Ayla's big, pleased smile made the older woman realize that was the real reason she had come.

"Is it all right for Wolf to come in?" Ayla said. "He won't disturb anything."

"I know he won't. I told you we understood each other," the donier said, holding back the drape to allow the animal in after Ayla. "The red ochre you collected for me needs to be ground into powder. There's the mortar," Zelandoni said, showing her a red-stained stone with a saucerlike depression formed by years of use, "and here's the rock for grinding. Jonokol will be here soon and will need it to assist me in making a post with Shevonar's abelan. He is my acolyte."

"I met a man named Jonokol at the welcoming feast, but he said he was an artist," Ayla said.

"Jonokol is an artist. He is also my acolyte. I think he is more artist than acolyte, though. He has no interest in healing, or even finding his way to the spirit world. He seems content to remain an acolyte, but he is young yet. Time will tell. He may yet feel the call. In the meantime, he is a fine artist, and he makes an excellent assistant," Zelandoni said, then added, "Most artists are also zelandonia. Jonokol has been since he was very young, when he first showed talent."

Ayla was glad to grind the red iron oxide into powder, it was a way to be of help without special training, but the repetitious physical activity left her mind free to think. She wondered about the zelandonia, and why artists, like Jonokol, would be brought into the group when they were so young; they couldn't possibly know anything about what it was or meant. Why would artists need to be part of the zelandonia?

While she was working, Jonokol came in. He looked at Ayla, and then the wolf with some surprise. Wolf lifted his head up, then glanced at Ayla, tensing to rise if she signaled. She motioned a sign that meant the man was welcome. The wolf relaxed, but continued to be watchful.

"Ayla came over to help, Jonokol," Zelandoni said. "I understand you have met."

"Yes, the first night she was here. Greetings, Ayla," Jonokol said.

Ayla finished grinding the red lumps into fine powder and gave the mortar, grinding stone, and the red powder to Zelandoni, hoping the woman would give her something else to do, but it soon became evident that they were both waiting for her to go. "Is there anything else you would like me to do?" she finally asked.

"Not right now," the donier said.

Ayla nodded, then signaled to Wolf and left. Marthona was still gone when she returned to the dwelling, and with Jondalar away, she didn't know what to do. I should have stayed and had tea with Proleva, she thought. Then she decided, Why not go back? Ayla wanted to get to know the accomplished and admired woman. After all, they were going to be related; she was the mate of Jondalar's brother. Maybe I could even bring a nice tea, Ayla thought, something with dried linden flowers to add a nice fragrance and a little sweetening. I wish I knew if a linden tree grew nearby.

Chapter 15

The men were nearly finished digging the grave pit, and glad of it. The Zelandonia had invoked strong protection for them before they left to make the ground ready to receive the body of Shevonar, including pouring red powdered ochre over their hands, but each of them still had trembled privately when they crossed the invisible barrier marked by the carved and red-painted posts.

The four diggers wore large leather hides with no shaping and totally devoid of decoration, sort of a blanket with a hole through the middle for their heads. A face-covering hood went over their heads with holes cut out for their eyes but not their mouths or noseholes-bodily openings that invited the entry of a spirit.

The covering was intended to hide their identity from any spirits that might be lurking nearby looking for a living body to inhabit; there could be no abelans, no symbols or designs of any kind to announce who was encroaching upon the sacred ground and disturbing the spirits. They did not speak, for even the sound of their voices could give them away. Digging a grave trench was not a job that was easy to delegate, and Joharran had decided that since he was the one who was responsible for organizing the ill-fated hunt, he ought to be one of the diggers. He had chosen his two aides, Solaban and Rushemar, and his brother Jondalar, to assist him. Though the four men knew each other well, they sincerely hoped it was not apparent to any lingering elans.

It was hard work chopping up the hard ground with the stone mattocks. The sun was high overhead, and they were sweaty and hot. It was difficult to breathe inside the leather hoods, but not one of the strong, fearless hunters even considered removing them. Any one of them could face up to a charging rhinoceros and dodge aside at the last moment, but it took far more courage to brave the unseen dangers of the hallowed burial ground.

None of them wanted to stay in the enclosure haunted by spirits any longer than necessary, and they worked as fast as they could, scooping out the dirt loosened by the mattocks. The shovels they used were made of the large flat bones, scapulas or pelvises, of the bigger animals with one side tapered, then smoothed with a round stone and river sand to a fairly sharp edge to make shoveling easier. The opposite end was attached to a long branch. The dirt was placed on leather hides similar to the ones they wore, so it could be pulled away from the edge of the pit to make room for the many people who would be crowding close.

Joharran nodded to the others when the last few shovelfuls of loose earth were pitched out of the hole. It was deep enough. They gathered up the tools and quickly left. Still not speaking, they walked far away from the living areas to a place that had been selected earlier, one seldom frequented by people.

Joharran thrust the pick end of the mattock into the ground, then the diggers dug a second hole, smaller than the first, took off the hoods and coverings and threw them into it, then carefully filled the dirt back in. The digging tools would be returned to the special place they were kept, but the diggers were careful not to let any part of the tools touch any part of their own naked bodies, except for their ochre-reddened hands.

They went directly to a special small cave near the valley floor in the cave-pocked limestone cliffs. A carved post with the Zelandonii abelan and other markings was planted in the ground in front of it. They went in, replaced the burial digging tools, and quickly left, grasping the post with both hands and murmuring a few sounds under their breaths asking for the protection of the Mother as they went. Then they followed a snaking path to another cave in the highland, the one used primarily by the zelandonia for ceremonies involving men and boys.

The six Zelandonia of the Caves that took part in the tragic hunt were waiting for them outside the cave, along with several acolytes. They had water, heated almost to the boil with hot rocks, and several varieties of saponin-producing plants, generally referred to as soap-roots. The foamy lather turned red from the ochre powder used to protect their hands and feet. Hot water, almost too hot to stand, was poured over their stained appendages into a small hole dug in the earth. The ablution was performed a second time, making sure no trace of red remained. They even cleaned under their fingernails with small pointed sticks. Then they washed a third time. They were inspected and, if necessary, washed again, until each Zelandoni was satisfied.

Then each man took watertight baskets of warm water and more soaproots and washed his entire body, including his hair. Only when they were finally declared purified, and were allowed to don their own clothing, did they breathe easier. The One Who Was First gave each of them a cup of hot, bitter-tasting tea, instructing them to first rinse out their mouths, spit it out in a special hole, then drink the rest. They rinsed and swallowed hurriedly and left quickly, relieved that this part was over. None of them liked being so close to such powerful magic.

Jondalar and the other men walked into Joharran's home, talking softly, still conscious of their close contact with the world of the spirits.

"Ayla was here looking for you, Jondalar," Proleva said. "She left, then came back with some delicious tea. We talked a little, but then several people came to talk about the burial feast. She offered to help, but I told her next time. I'm sure Zelandoni has other plans for her. She left not long ago. I have to go, too. There's some food and hot tea for you in the cooking room."

"Did Ayla say where she was going?" Jondalar asked.

"To your mother's."

"Thank you. I'll go see what she wanted."

"Have a bite to eat first. That was hard work," Proleva said.

He ate quickly, washed it down with some tea, then started out. "Let me know when the zelandonia are ready, Joharran," Jondalar said as he left.

Everyone was sitting around the low table, drinking Marthona's wine, when he went into his mother's dwelling.

"Get your cup, Jondalar," she said. "I'll pour you some. This has been a difficult day, and it's not over yet. I thought we should all try to relax a little."

"You look all scrubbed and clean, Jondalar," Ayla said.

"Yes, and am I ever glad that's over. I want to do my part, but I hate digging in hallowed ground," Jondalar said, and felt a shudder.

"I know how you feel," Willamar said.

"If you were digging, why are you so clean?" Ayla asked.

"He was helping to dig the burial pit," Willamar explained, "and he had to be completely purified after digging in the sacred burial ground and disturbing the spirits. The zelandonia use hot water and lots of soaproot, and foam up several times."

"That reminds me of the hot pool of the Losadunai. Remember,

Jondalar?" Ayla said. She noticed that his expression had changed to a suggestive smile, and she recalled one pleasurable afternoon with him in the natural hot spring. She looked away, trying not to smile back. "Do you remember that cleansing foam they made using rendered fat and ashes?"

"Yes. It really foamed up and made things cleaner than anything I've ever seen," he said. "It even took all taste and smell away." His smile had grown, and she knew he was teasing her with double meanings. He had said then, when they shared Pleasures, that he couldn't even taste her. But it was an interesting experience to feel so clean.

"I was thinking," Ayla said, still avoiding Jondalar's amorous glances and trying to be serious, "that cleansing foam could be very good for purifying. Some Losadunai women showed me how to make it, but it can be tricky, and doesn't always work. Maybe I should try to make some to show Zelandoni."

"I can't imagine how fat and ashes can make someone clean," Folara said.

"I wouldn't believe it myself if I hadn't seen it," Ayla said, "but when you mix them together in a certain way, something happens and you don't have fat or ashes anymore, but something else. You have to add water to the ashes, cook it a while, then let it cool before you strain it. It becomes very strong, it can even give you blisters if you are not careful. It is like the part of fire that burns you, but without heat. Then you add melted fat to it, about the same amount of fat as there is liquid, but both the fat and the strained liquid must have the same feeling of heat as the skin at the inside of your wrist. If you've done everything right, when you mix it around, it makes a foam that can clean almost anything. You rinse the foam away, and it takes dirt with it. It can even take grease away."

"Why would someone decide to put fat and ash-water together in the first place?" Folara asked.

"The woman who told me about it said it was an accident the first time she did it," Ayla explained. "She'd been cooking or rendering some fat over a firepit when it started to rain very hard. She ran to get under cover. When she went back, she thought the fat was ruined. It had overflowed into the firepit that had been full of ashes and had filled up with rain. Then she saw the wooden spoon she'd been using to stir it. It had taken a long time to carve and was a favorite of hers, so she decided to retrieve it. She reached through a slippery foam that she thought was ruined fat to get the spoon, and when she went to clean the foam off, she discovered it not only rinsed away easily, but it left her hand and the spoon clean."

Ayla didn't know that the lye leached from wood ashes, when mixed with fat at a certain temperature, caused a chemical reaction that created soap. She didn't need to know why the process made a cleansing foam, she just knew that it did. It wasn't the first time, and it wouldn't be the last, that a discovery was made by accident.

"I'm sure Zelandoni would be interested," Marthona said. She had been aware of the byplay between her son and the young woman. Jondalar wasn't as subtle as he thought, and she was trying to help Ayla keep the discussion in a more serious vein. After all, they would be going to a funeral soon. It was hardly the time to be thinking about Pleasures. "I made a discovery like that once when I was making wine. Afterward, my wine always seemed to turn out well."

"Are you finally going to tell your secret, mother?" Jondalar said.

"What secret?"

"How you make wine that always turns out better than anyone else's wine, and never goes to vinegar," Jondalar said with a grin.

She nodded her head with a look of exasperation. "I don't think of it as a secret, Jondalar."

"But you never would tell anyone how you did it."

"That's because I was never sure if what I did really made a difference, or if it would work for anyone else," Marthona said. "I don't know why I did it the first time, but I watched Zelandoni do something similar with one of her medicinal drinks, and it seemed to give it a potent magic. I wondered if it might add some magic to my wine, too. It does seem to work," Marthona said.

"Well, tell us," Jondalar said. "I always knew you did something special." :

"I watched Zelandoni chew some herbs when she made a certain medicine, so the next time I crushed the berries for wine, I chewed some and spat the juice into the mash before it began to ferment. It think it's strange that something like that should make a difference, but apparently it does."

"Iza taught me that there are some medicines and some special drinks that must be chewed with the mouth to make them work," Ayla said. "Perhaps mixing the berries for wine with a little of the juices from the mouth adds some special ingredient." She had never thought of it before, but it was possible.

"I ask Doni to help make the fruit juice into wine, too. Maybe that's the real secret," Marthona said. "If you don't ask for too much, sometimes the Mother will give you what you want. When you were little, it never used to fail for you, Jondalar. If you asked Doni for it, you always seemed to get what you really wanted. Is that still true?"

Jondalar reddened slightly. He didn't realize anyone else knew, but he should have guessed Marthona would. "Usually," he said, looking away from her direct stare.

"Has She evernot given you what you asked for?" his mother pressed.

"Once," he said, squirming with discomfort.

She watched him, then nodded. "Yes, I imagine that was too much even for the Great Earth Mother to let you have. I don't think you're sorry now, are you?"

Everyone looked puzzled by the rather cryptic conversation between mother and son. Jondalar was noticeably disconcerted. Ayla watched them, then it suddenly came to her that Marthona was talking about Zelandoni, or rather Zolena, the young woman she had been.

"Did you know digging in hallowed ground is one thing only men do, Ayla?" Willamar said, changing the subject to cloak the awkward moment. "It would be too dangerous to expose the Blessed of Doni to such dangerous forces."

"And I'm glad, too," Folara said. "It's bad enough to have to clean and dress a person whose spirit is gone. I hate having to do that! I was so happy when you asked me to look after Wolf earlier today, Ayla. I invited all my friends over, and told them to bring their little sisters and brothers. Wolf met a lot of people."

"No wonder he's so tired," Marthona said, glancing toward the wolf, who was in his sleeping place. "I'd go to sleep after a day like that."

"I don't think he's sleeping," Ayla said. She knew the difference between his resting and sleeping postures. "I'm sure you are right, though. He is tired. He does love little ones, but they wear him out."

They all turned with a start at a gentle knock on the panel beside the entrance, though they had been expecting it. "The zelandonia are ready." It was Joharran's voice. The five of them inside quickly swallowed the last of their wine and went out. Wolf followed them out, but Ayla tied him with the special rope to a firmly planted stake not far from Marthona's dwelling to keep him away from the burial ceremony that everyone would be attending.

Many people had already gathered around the burial shelter. There was a soft hum of conversation as people greeted each other and talked, but in low voices. The wall panels had been removed and Shevonar's body was exposed for all to see, lying on the grass-mat shroud and netted hammock that would be folded around him later to carry him to the burial place. But first he would be carried to the Gather Field, which was large enough for all the people from the six Caves in the region that had taken part in the hunt to come together. Jondalar had gone off with his brother and several others shortly after they reached the area. Marthona and Willamar knew their parts in the forthcoming rituals and hurried to take their places. Ayla didn't know what to do and was feeling at a loss. She decided she would stay in the background and observe, and hope she wouldn't do anything that might embarrass her or Jondalar's family.

Folara introduced the foreign woman her brother had brought back to some of her friends, several young women, and two young men. Ayla was talking to them, or at least trying to. They had already heard so many stories about her, they were awestruck and either tongue-tied with shyness or babbling to overcompensate. She didn't hear her name being called at first.

"Ayla, I think they want you," Folara said when she noticed Zelandoni coming toward them.

"You'll have to excuse her," the donier said to Ayla's young admirers, a bit abruptly. "She needs to be in front with the zelandonia." Ayla followed the woman. Behind her, the young people were even more impressed. When they were out of hearing range of the youngsters, the woman spoke softly to Ayla. "The zelandonia don't eat at a burial. You will walk with us, but then you will join Jondalar and Marthona at the head of the line to get your food for the feast."

Ayla didn't question why she would be walking with the fasting zelandonia but eating with Jondalar's family, though she thought about it later. She had no idea what was expected of her. She could only follow when they started across the bridge up to Down River and continued on to the Gather Field.

The zelandonia did not eat because it was necessary to fast to communicate with the next world, which would be necessary during the burial. Afterward, the First planned to make an extended metaphysical excursion to contact the elan of Thonolan. It was always difficult to travel to the next world, but she was accustomed to it now and knew what she had to do. Fasting was a part of the life of the zelandonia, and she sometimes wondered why she continued to grow in size, when often she did not eat. Perhaps she made up for it the next day, but it did not seem to her that she ate more than others. She was aware that many people felt that her tremendous size contributed to her presence and her mystique. Her only objection was that she was beginning to find it more difficult to move comfortably. Bending over, climbing a slope, and sitting on the ground or, rather, getting up again were all harder, but the Mother seemed to want her to be substantial, and if it was Her wish, the donier was willing.

From the food being spread out near the high wall at the back, far away from the place where the body was placed, it was evident that many people had been working very hard to prepare it. "This is like a small Summer Meeting," Ayla heard someone say, and thought, If this is small, how big is a Zelandonii Summer Meeting? With something close to two hundred people from the Ninth Cave alone, plus the people from five other Caves, all of them rather populous, Ayla knew she would never be able to remember all of them. She didn't think there were even enough counting words for them all. She could only think of them as something like a herd of bison when they came together for mating or migrating.

When the six Zelandonia and the six leaders of the Caves arranged themselves around the burial shelter, which had been taken down, carried to the field, and erected again, people began to sit down on the ground and grow quiet. Someone had filled a large plate with choice portions from the feast, including a whole shank of bison. The One Who Was First picked it up and held it high for everyone to see. Then she placed it beside Shevonar's body.

"The Zelandonii hold this feast in your honor, Shevonar," she said, addressing the dead man. "Please join us in spirit so that we may wish your elan Good Journey as you travel to the next world."

Then the rest of the people lined up to take their portions. Most of the time, when there was a feast, people fell into line at random, but this was a formal public occasion, one of the few times when there was a specific order. People lined up according to their understood but seldom displayed status in order to announce their place in this world to the spirits of the next, and to assist the elan of Shevonar in making the difficult transition.

The grieving mate, Relona, and her two children were first, since it was Shevonar's funeral, followed by his brother, Ranokol. Joharran and Proleva and Jaradal filed behind them, then Marthona and Willamar along with Folara, Jondalar-the highest-ranking members of the Ninth Cave-and Ayla.

Ayla didn't know it, but she had presented quite a problem. As a foreigner, her status in the Cave should have been last. If she and Jondalar had been officially Promised in a recognized ceremony, it would have been easier to place her among Jondalar's high-ranking family, but their upcoming mating was only understood, and her acceptance into the Cave was not even formally sanctioned yet. When it came up, Jondalar made it clear that wherever Ayla was placed, he would stay with her. If she was placed last in line, then he would stand last in line.

A man's status originally came from his mother, until he mated. Then, it might change. Normally, before a mating was officially authorized, the families, and sometimes the leaders and the zelandonia, engaged in Matrimonial negotiations, which involved many aspects. For example, gift exchanges were agreed upon; whether the couple would live with his Cave, her Cave, or some other Cave; and the setting of a bride price since her status was considered the most valuable. One of the important aspects of the negotiations was the status of the new couple.

Marthona was convinced that if Jondalar stood at the end of the line, it could be misunderstood, not only by the Zelandonii, but by the spirits of the next world, to mean that he had lost status for some reason, or that Ayla's position was so low, his status could not be negotiated any higher. That was why Zelandoni insisted that she walk to the feast with the zelandonia. Even as a foreigner, if she was recognized as one of the metaphysical elite, it gave her prestige, ambiguous though it was. And though the zelandonia did not eat at a burial feast, she could be shifted into the line with Jondalar's family before anyone could object.

Though some people might realize that a subterfuge had been perpetrated, once it was done, her place was proclaimed to both this world and the next, and it would be a little late to change it. Ayla herself was completely unaware of the small deception exercised on behalf of Jondalar and her, and in fact, those who engaged in it felt it was an insignificant transgression. Both Marthona and Zelandoni, for different reasons, were convinced that Ayla was genuinely a person of high status. It was just a matter of making it known.

While the family was eating, Laramar came around and poured some barma into their cups. Ayla remembered him from the first night. She had come to understand that while the beverage he made might be appreciated, the man himself was often disparaged, and she wondered why. Ayla watched him as he poured liquid from a waterbag into Willamar's cup. She noticed that his clothing was decidedly dirty and frayed, worn through where it could have been patched.

"Can I pour some for you?" he said to her. She allowed him to fill her cup and, without staring directly, observed him more closely. He was an ordinary-looking man with light brown hair and beard, and blue eyes, not tall or short, and not fat or thin, though he did have a potbelly and generally a musculature that seemed softer, not as defined as that of most men. Then she saw that his neck was gray with grime, and she was sure that he seldom washed his hands.

It was easy enough to get dirty, particularly in winter when water often had to be melted from ice or snow, and using fuel for water to wash with was not always wise. But in summer, when water was available and soaproot plentiful, most people she knew preferred to be reasonably clean. It was unusual to see anyone quite so filthy.

"Thank you, Laramar," she said, smiled, and took a sip, though seeing the one who produced the brew made it less appetizing.

He smiled back. She had the feeling he didn't smile often and the distinct impression that this smile was insincere. She also noticed that his teeth were crooked. That wasn't his fault, she knew. Many people had crooked teeth, but it did add to his generally disagreeable appearance.

"I was looking forward to your company," Laramar said.

Ayla was puzzled. "Why were you expecting my company?"

"At a burial feast, strangers are always at the end of the line, after everyone who belongs to a Cave. But I noticed you were at the front," he said.

Marthona was annoyed for a moment, and Ayla caught the fleeting look on her face. "Yes, she probably should have been at the back near you, Laramar," the woman said, "but you know, Ayla will soon belong to the Ninth Cave."

"But she's not Zelandonii, yet," the man said. "She is foreign."

"She is Promised to Jondalar, and her status among her own people was quite high."

"Didn't she say she was raised by flatheads? I didn't know the status of flatheads counted for more than a Zelandonii," he said.

"To the Mamutoi she was a healer and a daughter of their Mamut, their Zelandoni," Marthona said. The former leader was becoming irritated. She did not like having to make explanations to the lowest-ranked man of the Cave… especially when he was right.

"She didn't do much to heal Shevonar, did she?" Laramar said.

"No one could have done more for him than Ayla did, not even the First," Joharran said, coming to her defense. "And she did help relieve his pain so he could hold on until his mate arrived."

Ayla noticed that Laramar's smile had become malicious. He was taking great pleasure in upsetting Jondalar's family and putting them on the defensive, and it had something to do with her. She wished she understood what it was about, and planned to ask Jondalar when they were alone, but she was beginning to understand why people spoke of Laramar with such reproach.

The zelandonia were beginning to gather around the burial shelter again, and people were taking their plates to a far corner of the Gather Field and scraping the remains onto a pile of leftovers. The midden would be left, and once the people were gone, the discarded meat and bones would be taken by various scavengers, while the vegetal matter would decay back into the ground. It was a common method of disposal. Laramar walked with Jondalar's family to the refuse heap, Ayla was sure it was to cause them a little more chagrin, then went his own way with a distinct swagger.

After people had gathered around the burial shelter again, the One Who Was First picked up the tightly woven basket of red ochre that Ayla had powdered. "There are Five Sacred Colors. All other colors are aspects of those primary colors. The first color is red," the large donier began. "It is the color of blood, the color of life. Some flowers and fruits show the true color of red, but they are ephemeral.

"Red seldom stays true for long. As blood dries it darkens, becomes brown. Brown is an aspect of red, sometimes called old red. The red ochres of the land are the dried blood of the Great Mother Earth, and though some can be almost as bright as new red, they are all old red.

"Covered with the red of blood from your mother's womb, you came into this world, Shevonar. Covered with the red earth of the Great Mother's womb, you shall return to her to be born again into the next world as you were born into this one," the First said as she sprinkled the body of Shevonar liberally from head to toe with the powdered red iron ore.

"The fifth primary color is dark, sometimes called black," Zelandoni said, making Ayla wonder what the second, third, and fourth Sacred Colors were. "Dark is the color of night, the color in deep caves, the color of charcoal, after fire has burned the life out of wood. Some say charcoal black is really the darkest shade of old red. It is the color that overcomes the color of life as it ages. Just as life becomes death, red becomes black, dark. Dark is the absence of life; it is the color of death. It does not even have an ephemeral life; there are no black flowers. Deep caves show the color in its true form.

"Shevonar, the body your elan inhabited has died and will go into the black under the ground, will return to the dark earth of the Mother, but your elan, your spirit, will go to the world of the spirits, will return to the Mother, the Original Source of Life. Take with you the spirit of this food we have given you to sustain you on your Journey to the spirit world." The large, impressive woman picked up the dish of food that had been left for him, held it up to show, then put it down beside him and sprinkled it with red ochre powder.

"Take with you your favorite spear to hunt the spirit animals for sustenance." The donier put his spear beside him and sprinkled it with red ochre. "Take with you your tools to make new spears for the hunters of the next world." She put his spear-shaft straightener under his hand, stiffened with rigor mortis, and sprinkled it with the red powder. "Do not forget the skills you learned in this world, make use of them in the next world. Do not grieve for your life here. Spirit of Shevonar, go freely, go confidently. Do not look back. Do not linger. Your next life awaits you."

The grave goods were arranged around him, the food in its containers was placed on his stomach, then the grass-mat shroud was wrapped around him and the cords that were threaded through the ends at head and foot were pulled tight, making it look like a cocoon. The long cords were then wrapped around him, which kept everything together and gave the body and its accoutrements a lumpy definition. The netting was pulled up and attached to either end of a pole, which had recently been a small, straight tree. The bark still on the tree helped to keep the hammock with its macabre bundle from sliding.

Then the same men who had dug a pit in the sacred burial ground lifted the body of Shevonar and carried it between them. Joharran was at the front with the pole resting on his left shoulder, and Rushemar slightly behind him and on the other side rested it on his right. Solaban was at the rear on the same side as Joharran, but the pole rested on padding on his shoulder, since he was not as tall as Jondalar, who followed him.

The One Who Was First led the way toward the sacred burial ground. The men carrying the body followed her, and the rest of the Zelandonia placed themselves around the pallbearers. Relona with her two children and then Ranokol walked behind the swaying hammock. The rest of the people fell in behind in the same order they had assumed for the feast.

Ayla again walked with Marthona near the front. She noticed Laramar watching her as he headed toward the last of the people of the Ninth Cave, which put him in front of the leaders of the Third Cave. Although Manvelar tried to keep a slight distance behind the Ninth to create a gap that would separate the two Caves, Laramar, along with his tall, bony woman and her large brood of children, slowed down enough to keep the gap in front of him. Ayla became convinced that he did it on purpose to give the impression that he was the first of the Cave behind him rather than the last of the one ahead, though of course everyone knew his status and to which Cave he belonged.

The long line of people followed the path in single file as it narrowed in front of Big Rock, then used the few well-placed flattish stepping-stones to traverse Fish Creek, which ran down the middle of Little Valley. As the path closed in again in front of High Rock, they stayed in line until they reached the Crossing, but instead of continuing south after gaining the opposite bank, as they had done before to go to Two Rivers Rock, they turned left back toward the north and followed another trail.

No longer constrained by a narrow track between river and rock wall, they spread out and walked two or three abreast through the level field of the floodplain, then began to climb the slope of the rolling hills Ayla had seen across The River. The sun was descending in the west, nearing the tops of the cliffs behind when they came to an outcrop and a small, secluded, fairly level depression. The procession slowed and then stopped.

Ayla turned and looked back the way they had come. The view swept down a field of fresh summer green that stopped at the shadow cast by the sun setting behind the steep cliffs. The natural soft yellow of the limestone, streaked with the black wash of leached-out impurities, was darkening to deep purple, and a somber gloom cloaked the water flowing at the foot of the stone ramparts. It stretched across The River to shroud the row of brush and trees that lined its bank, though the tops of the tallest trees still threw an abbreviated silhouette beyond the creeping darkness.

Seen from this perspective, the wall of stone, fringed at the top with grass and an occasional bush, displayed a unified moody grandeur she hadn't expected, and she tried to identify the places whose names she had learned. Toward the south, crowding close to the water's edge, the sheer walls of High Rock and Big Rock straddled Little Valley. The cliffs that pulled back to create the recessed rear wall of the Gather Field led then to the sculptural relief of the shelters in the cliff of Down River and then, just as The River took a sharp turn to the east, the huge overhanging stone ledge that housed the Ninth Cave.

As they started to move again, Ayla noticed several people carrying torches. "Should I have brought a torch, Willamar?" she asked the man walking beside her. "It will probably be dark before we return."

"It's supposed to be dark," Marthona said; she was walking on the other side of Willamar, "and there will be many torches there. When people leave the burial ground, they will light torches to find their way, but they will not all go in the same direction. Some will go one way, some another, some will go down to The River, and some uphill toward a place we call Lookout. As Shevonar's elan and any other spirits that are near watch us go, they may try to follow us. We need to confuse them so that if they manage to get beyond the boundaries, they won't know which lights to follow."

As the procession approached the burial ground, Ayla noticed the moving light of flickering fire from behind the outcrop and an aromatic scent detectable from quite a distance away. They moved around the obstruction toward a circle of lit torches that produced as much smoke as light. Drawing closer, she saw the boundaries, a circle of carved poles just beyond the torches that surrounded and defined the sacred area.

"The torches have a very strong smell," she commented.

"Yes. The zelandonia make special torches for burials. It keeps the spirits contained so people can enter the burial ground without danger, or perhaps I should say without as much danger," Marthona explained. "And if there is a smell, the torches make it easier to bear." The Zelandonia of the six Caves placed themselves at equidistant intervals around the inside of the circle, offering another layer of protection. The One Who Was First stood at the head of the grave pit, then the four pallbearers with their sad burden carried the hammock into the area encircled by the torchlight. The two men in front walked around the right side of the hole they had dug until they faced the First and stopped, leaving the other two men at the foot. The four men waited silently, holding the body in the burial hammock hanging over the grave. Other family members and the leaders of Shevonar's Cave filled up the area within the torchlit circle, the rest of the people crowded around the outside of the boundaries created by the carved poles.

Then the Zelandoni of the Ninth Cave stepped forward. She paused, and for a moment all was still. Not a single sound was made by the entire throng. Into the silence came the distant roar of a cave lion, followed by the cackle of a hyena, which seemed to set the mood. The next sound she heard was eerie and high-pitched. Ayla was stunned. She felt a shiver down her back; she was not alone.

She had heard the otherworldly music of a flute before, but not for a long time. Manen had played the instrument at the Mamutoi Summer Meeting. She recalled that she had performed the traditional burial rituals of the Clan for Rydag, the boy who reminded her of her own son, because they would not allow the child of mixed spirits that Nezzie had adopted to have a Mamutoi burial. But Manen had played his flute in spite of them as she moved through the silent, formal sign language to implore the Great Cave Bear and her totem spirit to take Rydag to the next world of the Clan.

She found herself remembering Iza's burial, when Mog-ur had made those signs in his modified one-handed way over her grave. Then Ayla recalled his death. She had gone inside the cave after the earthquake and found him with his skull crushed by falling stones, lying on top of Iza's burial cairn. She made the signs for him, since no one else had dared to go into the cave with the earthquake still rumbling aftershocks.

But the flute evoked another memory. She had heard the instrument before she ever heard Manen play his flute. It was during the ritual Cave Bear Ceremony at the Clan Gathering. The mog-ur of another clan had played a similar instrument, though the high-pitched warbling sound that symbolized the spiritual voice of Ursus had a different tonal quality from the one Manen had played and the one she heard now.

She was distracted from her thoughts by the First, who began to speak in a rich, resonant voice: "Great Earth Mother, First Progenitor, You have called Your child back to You. He was called in sacrifice to the Spirit of Bison, and the Zelandonii, Your children who live in the southwest of this land, ask that this one life be enough. He was a brave hunter, a good mate, a maker of fine spears. He honored You well in this life. Guide him back to You safely, we beseech You. His mate grieves for him, her children loved him, the people respected him. He was called to serve You while in his prime. Let the Spirit of Bison be satisfied, O Doni, let this one be enough."

"Let it be enough, O Doni," the rest of the Zelandonia intoned. It was repeated again by the people of all the gathered Caves, more or less in unison.

The measured beat of something pounding on something began. The sound was slightly dulled-or at least not as crisp-because several instruments were playing together. The objects consisted of skins stretched very tight over one side of circular hoops, with a handle to hold it. The eerie sound of the flute joined in, weaving in and around the steady beat of the drums. The evocative tone seemed to encourage the emotional release of tears. Relona began to cry and keen her misery and grief once more. Soon all the people were wailing and keening, with tears in their eyes.

Then a voice joined in, a full sonorous contralto singing without words but fitting into the rhythm of the drums and blending with the flute, sounding almost like an instrument. The first time Ayla heard anyone sing was when she went to live with the Mamutoi. Most of the Lion Camp sang, at least along with a group. She had enjoyed listening to them and tried to join in, but singing was something she couldn't seem to do. She could hum in a kind of monotone, but she could not carry a tune. She recalled that some people were much better singers than others, and had admired them, but she had never before heard so rich and vibrant a voice. The voice belonged to Zelandoni, the One Who Was First, and Ayla was overwhelmed.

The two men who held the pole in front shifted around to face the two men behind, then they lifted the pole from their shoulders and began to lower the swaying burial hammock. The grave pit was not very deep, and the small tree pole was longer than its length. By the time both ends of it were on the ground, the body was already resting on the bottom of the hole. They untied the slack cords of the netting and dropped them in as well.

They dragged the hide upon which the earth from the grave had been piled closer to the hole again, and wedged the tree pole upright into the grave below the foot, using some of the loose dirt to support it. Another, shorter pole was placed at the head of the man, one that had been carved and painted with red ochre in the shape of Shevonar's abelan. His identifying mark would indicate the place where he was buried and act as a warning that his body was laid to rest there and that his elan might still be nearby.

Relona walked forward stiffly, trying to stay in control of herself. She went to the pile, then, almost angrily, grabbed some dirt in each hand and threw it into the grave. Two older women helped each of her two children to do the same, then picked up handfuls themselves and dropped it on the wrapped body. Then all the people came forward, each taking a couple of handfuls of earth and tossing it into the grave. By the time everyone had passed by, adding their dirt, the hole was filled in and loose earth was heaped into a mound.

A few went back to add a little more. Then, suddenly, Relona fell to her knees, and tears nearly blinding her, she threw herself on the soft earth over the grave, heaving great sobs. Her eldest child walked back to her and stood there crying, knuckling his eyes to wipe away tears. Then the youngest, looking lost and bewildered, ran to the grave and pulled on her mother's arm, trying to make her get up and comfort her.

Ayla wondered where the two older women were and why no one tried to help and console the children.

Chapter 16

After a while, Ayla saw the mother begin to respond to the young child's fearful sobs. Relona pushed herself away from the grave and, without even brushing herself off, took her daughter into her arms. The older one sat down and wrapped his arms around his mother's neck. She put an arm around him, too, and all three sat there crying together.

But the sound of these sobs seemed to have a different tone, Ayla thought, not so much of despair, but of mutual sadness and comfort. Then, at a signal from the First, the zelandonia and several others, including Ranokol, Shevonar's brother, helped them all up and led them away from the grave.

Ranokol's pain at the loss of his brother had been as great as Relona's, but he expressed it differently. He kept wondering why Shevonar had to make the sacrifice and not him. His brother had a family, and he didn't even have a mate. Ranokol couldn't stop thinking about it, but he didn't want to talk about it. He would have avoided the burial ceremony altogether if he could have, and throwing himself on the grave was the last thing he wanted to do. He just wanted to leave as soon as he could.

"We have returned Shevonar of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii to Your breast, Great Mother Earth," Zelandoni intoned.

All the people who had gathered together for the burial of Shevonar stood surrounding the grave, and Ayla sensed an anticipation. They were expecting something to happen and were focusing on the great donier. The drums and flutes had continued to play, but the sound had become part of the environment and Ayla hadn't noticed it until the tone of the music changed, and Zelandoni began to sing again,

"Out of the darkness, the chaos of time,

The whirlwind gave birth to the Mother sublime.

She woke to Herself knowing life had great worth,

The dark empty void grieved the Great Mother Earth."

The people responded in unison, some singing, some just saying the words.

"The Mother was lonely. She was the only."

Then the One Who Was First sang alone again.

"From the dust of Her birth She created the other,

A pale shining friend, a companion, a brother.

They grew up together, learned to love and to care,

And when She was ready, they decided to pair."

And the people responded again, with the next line.

Around Her he'd hover. Her pale shining lover."

Ayla realized this was a familiar and understood story song that everyone knew and had been waiting for. She was already caught up in it and wanted to hear more. She listened while Zelandoni continued to sing the first part and the people responded with the last line.

"She was happy at first with Her one counterpart.

Then the Mother grew restless, unsure in Her heart.

She loved Her fair friend, Her dear complement,

But something was missing, Her love was unspent."

"She was the Mother. She needed another."

"She dared the great void, the chaos, the dark,

To find the cold home of the life-giving spark.

The whirlwind was fearsome, the darkness complete.

Chaos was freezing, and reached out for Her heat."

"The Mother was brave. The danger was grave."

"She drew from cold chaos the creative source,

Then conceiving within, She fled with life-force.

She grew with the life that She carried inside.

And gave of Herself with love and with pride."

"The Mother was bearing. Her life She was sharing."

"The dark empty void and the vast barren Earth,

With anticipation, awaited the birth.

Life drank from Her blood, it breathed from Her bones.

It split Her skin open and sundered Her stones."

"The Mother was giving. Another was living."

"Her gushing birth waters filled rivers and seas,

And flooded the land, giving rise to the trees.

From each precious drop more grass and leaves grew,

And lush verdant plants made all the Earth new."

"Her waters were flowing. New green was growing."

"In violent labor spewing fire and strife,

She struggled in pain to give birth to new life.

Her dried clotted blood turned to red-ochred soil,

But the radiant child made it all worth the toil."

"The Mother's great joy. A bright shining boy ."

Ayla's breath caught in her throat when she heard those words. They seemed to tell the story of her and her son, Durc. She remembered struggling in pain to give birth to him and afterward, how it was all worth it. Durc had been her great joy. Zelandoni continued in her magnificent voice.

"Mountains rose up spouting flames from their crests,

She nurtured Her son from Her mountainous breasts.

He suckled so hard, the sparks flew so high,

The Mother's hot milk laid a path through the sky."

"His life had begun. She nourished Her son."

This story seems so familiar, Ayla thought. She shook her head as though trying to make something fall into place. Jondalar, he told me some of this on our Journey here.

"He laughed and he played, and he grew big and bright.

He lit up the darkness, the Mother's delight.

She lavished Her love, he grew bright and strong,

But soon he matured, not a child for long."

"Her son was near grown. His mind was his own."

"She took from the source for the life She'd begun.

Now the cold empty void was enticing Her son.

The Mother gave love, but the youth longed for more,

For knowledge, excitement, to travel, explore."

"Chaos was Her foe. But Her son yearned to go ."

Ayla's mind kept nagging at her. It's not just Jondalar, she thought. I feel as if I know this, or at least the essence of it. But where could I have learned it? Then something clicked. Losaduna! I memorized all kinds of things he taught me! There was one story like this about the Mother. Jondalar even recited parts of it during that ceremony. It wasn't exactly the same, and it was in their language, but Losadunai is close to Zelandonii. That's why I was able to understand what they said so fast! As she listened, she concentrated on bringing the memory of the Mother's story back and began to feel a sense of the similarities and differences.

"He stole from Her side as the Great Mother slept,

While out of the dark swirling void chaos crept.

With tempting inducements the darkness beguiled.

Deceived by the whirlwind, chaos captured Her child."

"The dark took Her son. The young brilliant one."

"The Mother's bright child, at first overjoyed,

Was soon overwhelmed by the bleak frigid void.

Her unwary offspring, consumed with remorse,

Could not escape the mysterious force."

"Chaos would not free. Her rash progeny."

"But just as the dark pulled him into the cold,

The Mother woke up, reached out and caught hold.

To help Her recover Her radiant son,

The Mother appealed to the pale shining one. "

"The Mother held tight. And kept him in sight ."

Ayla began to smile as she started anticipating the next verse, or at least the essential meaning of it. The Mother Earth tells Her old friend, the Moon, the story of what happened to Her son next, Ayla thought.

"She welcomed him back, Her lover of old,

With heartache and sorrow, Her story She told.

Her dear friend agreed to join in the fight,

To rescue Her child from his perilous plight."

And now the listeners say it their way, Ayla said to herself. That's how the story is supposed to be told. First the Losaduna, or the Zelandoni, narrates it, then the listeners answer or repeat it another way.

"She told of Her grief. And the dark swirling thief. "

Then it's Zelandoni's turn again.

"The Mother was tired, She had to recover,

She loosened Her hold to Her luminous lover.

While She was sleeping, he fought the cold force,

And for a time drove it back to the source."

"His spirit was strong. The encounter too long."

"Her fair shining friend struggled hard, gave his best,

The conflict was bitter, the battle hard pressed.

His vigilance waned as he closed his great eye.

Then darkness crept close, stole his light from the sky."

"Her pale friend was tiring. His light was expiring. "

"When darkness was total, She woke with a cry.

The tenebrious void hid the light from the sky.

She joined in the conflict, was quick to defend,

And drove the dark shadow away from Her friend."

"But the pale face of night. Let Her son out of sight."

"Trapped by the whirlwind, Her bright fiery son,

Gave no warmth to the Earth, cold chaos had won.

The fertile green life was now ice and snow,

And a sharp piercing wind continued to blow."

"The Earth was bereft. No green plants were left."

"The Mother was weary, grieving and worn,

But She reached out again for the life She had borne.

She couldn't give up, She needed to strive,

For the glorious light of Her son to survive."

"She continued the fight. To bring back the light."

"And Her luminous friend was prepared to contest,

The thief who held captive the child of Her breast.

Together they fought for the son She adored.

Their efforts succeeded, his light was restored."

"His energy burned. His brilliance returned."

The Great Mother Earth and the Moon have brought the Sun back, but not all the way; Ayla was again anticipating.

"But the bleak frigid dark craved his bright glowing heat.

The Mother defended and would not retreat.

The whirlwind pulled hard, She refused to let go.

She fought to a draw with Her dark swirling foe."

"She held darkness at bay. But Her son was away. "

Was the Zelandonii version longer than the Losadunai story? Or did it just seem that way? Maybe singing the story makes it seem longer, but I really like the singing. I wish I understood it more. I think the songs change sometimes, the singing of some verses doesn't sound the same as other verses.

"When She fought the whirlwind and made chaos flee,

The light from Her son glowed with vitality.

When the Mother grew tired, the bleak void held sway,

And darkness returned at the end of the day."

"She felt warmth from Her son. But neither had won."

"The Great Mother lived with the pain in Her heart,

That She and Her son were forever apart.

She ached for the child that had been denied,

So She quickened once more from the life-force inside."

"She was not reconciled. To the loss of Her child."

"When She was ready, Her waters of birth,

Brought back the green life to the cold barren Earth.

And the tears of Her loss, abundantly spilled,

Made dew drops that sparkled and rainbows that thrilled."

"Birth waters brought green. But Her tears could be seen ."

I really like this next part, but I wonder how Zelandoni will sing it, Ayla thought.

"With a thunderous roar Her stones split asunder,

And from the great cave that opened deep under,

She birthed once again from Her cavernous room,

And brought forth the Children of Earth from Her womb."

"From the Mother forlorn, more children were born."

"Each child was different, some were large and some small,

Some could walk and some fly, some could swim and some crawl.

But each form was perfect, each spirit complete,

Each one was a model whose shape could repeat."

"The Mother was willing. The green earth was filling."

"All the birds and the fish and the animals born,

Would not leave the Mother, this time, to mourn.

Each kind would live near the place of its birth,

And share the expanse of the Great Mother Earth."

"Close to Her they would stay. They could not run away."

"They all were Her children, they filled Her with pride,

But they used up the life-force She carried inside.

She had enough left for a last innovation,

A child who'd remember Who made the creation."

"A child who'd respect. And learn to protect."

"First Woman was born full-grown and alive,

And given the Gifts she would need to survive.

Life was the First Gift, and like Mother Earth,

She woke to herself knowing life had great worth."

"First Woman defined. The first of her kind."

"Next was the Gift of Perception, of learning,

The desire to know, the Gift of Discerning.

First Woman was given the knowledge within,

That would help her to live, and pass on to her kin."

"First Woman would know. How to learn, how to grow."

"Her life-force near gone, The Mother was spent,

To pass on Life's Spirit had been Her intent.

She caused all of Her children to create life anew,

And Woman was blessed to bring forth life, too."

"But Woman was lonely. She was the only."

"The Mother remembered Her own loneliness,

The love of Her friend and his hovering caress.

With the last spark remaining, Her labor began,

To share life with Woman, She created First Man."

"Again She was giving. One more was living."

"To Woman and Man the Mother gave birth,

And then for their home, She gave them the Earth,

The water, the land, and all Her creation.

To use them with care was their obligation."

"It was their home to use. But not to abuse."

"For the Children of Earth the Mother provided,

The Gifts to survive, and then She decided,

To give them the Gift of Pleasure and sharing,

That honors the Mother with the joy of their pairing. "

"The Gifts are well-earned. When honor's returned."

"The Mother was pleased with the pair She created,

She taught them to love and to care when they mated.

She made them desire to join with each other,

The Gift of their Pleasures came from the Mother."

"Before She was through. Her children loved too."

"Earths Children were blessed. The Mother could rest."

Ayla waited for more, but when there was only silence, she realized the Mother's Song had come to an end.

People straggled back to their Caves in twos and threes. Some would not return to their homes until the middle of the night, some made plans to stay with friends or relatives. A few acolytes and Zelandonia remained behind at the gravesite, completing some of the more esoteric aspects of the ceremony, and would not be back until morning.

Several people went home with Relona and her children and stayed overnight in her dwelling, most sleeping on the floor. It was thought necessary for many people to surround her. The elans of deceased mates had been known to try to return to their homes before they understood that they no longer belonged to this world. The grieving mates were susceptible to invasion by the roaming spirits and needed the protection of many people to ward off malign influences. Older people in particular were sometimes tempted to follow their mates' elans to the next world shortly after one of them died. Fortunately, Relona was young yet and had young children who needed her.

Ayla was one of those who stayed with the new widow, and Relona seemed pleased that she did. Jondalar had planned to stay as well, but by the time he completed the last of his ceremonial duties, it was quite late, and when he looked inside the dwelling, there were so many people sprawled out, he couldn't see any room to squeeze in his large frame. Ayla waved at him from the other side of the room. Wolf was with her, and probably because of him, she had a little more room around her, but when he tried to step around people to reach her, he woke a few up. Marthona, who was closer to the entrance, told him to go home. He felt a bit guilty about it, but was grateful. Overnight vigils to ward off wandering spirits were not something he enjoyed. Besides, he'd had enough dealings with the spirit world for one day, and he was tired. He missed having Ayla beside him when he crawled into his sleeping roll, but he fell asleep quickly.

When she returned to the Ninth Cave, the One Who Was First went immediately into her dwelling. She would soon be making another Journey to the next world and wanted to meditate, to prepare for it. She took off her chest plaque and turned it around to the plain undecorated side. She did not want any interruptions. She would not only try to guide Shevonar's spirit to the world beyond, she planned to search for the elan of Thonolan as well, but for that she would need both Jondalar and Ayla.

Jondalar awoke with a strong urge to make some tools. Although he might not have expressed it as such, he was still feeling uneasy about all the arcane events he'd recently been involved with. Flint-knapping was not only his craft, it was something he enjoyed, and getting his hands on a solid piece of stone was a good way to forget about the ambiguous, intangible, and vaguely ominous spirit world.

He took out the pack of flint that he had quarried from the Lanzadoni flint mine. Dalanar had looked over the material that Jondalar had extracted from the outcrop, which contained the superior-quality flint that the Lanzadoni were known for. He made specific suggestions regarding what pieces to take with him and helped him trim away excess material, so that all he'd had to carry with him were workable blanks and cores. Horses could carry a great deal more than people, but flint was heavy. There was a limit to the amount of stone that could be taken, but when he examined the flint he had, he appreciated again just how fine it was.

He selected two of the trimmed stones and put the others back, then brought out his leather bundle of flint-working tools. He untied the cords and laid out several bone and antler hammers and retouchers, and his hammerstones, then picked up each tool and inspected it carefully. Then he wrapped them back up, along with the flint cores. By midmorning he was ready to find a place to work his flint, somewhat out of the way. Chips of flint were very sharp and could be quite erratic in the way they flew. Serious workers of the stone always chose to stay away from the areas where people regularly walked, especially away from the bare feet of running children and their often harried mothers or distracted caretakers.

Pushing aside the entrance drape, Jondalar walked out of his mother's dwelling. Looking toward the ledge, he noticed that the sky was overcast and gray. A dreary drizzle kept almost everyone under the rock shelter, and the large open area near the dwellings was in full use. There were no particular times for pursuing individual crafts and interests, but it was the kind of day that many chose to work on their various projects. Windbreaks of panels, or hides strung over cords, were put up to keep out wind and any rain it might blow in, and several fires provided additional light and warmth, though cold drafts made warm clothes essential.

He smiled when he saw Ayla coming toward him. When they met, he greeted her with a touching of cheeks and noticed her womanly scent. It made him remember that he hadn't slept with her the night before. He felt a sudden desire to take her back to bed and do more than sleep.

"I was just going to Marthona's to look for you," she said.

"I woke up with an urge to work the stone I got from Dalanar's flint mine, to make some new tools," he said, holding up his familiar leather bundle. "But it looks like everyone wanted to work on something this morning." He glanced toward the crowded and busy work space. "I don't think I'll stay here."

"Where will you go to work?" Ayla asked. "I thought I'd see to the horses, but I might come by later and watch."

"I think I'll go Down River. There are usually a lot of toolmakers there," he said. Then, thinking about it, he added, "Do you want me to help you with the horses?"

"Not unless you want to," Ayla said. "I'm just going to check on them. I don't think I'll ride today, but I may take Folara with me and see if she wants to try sitting on Whinney. I told her she could sometime, and she said she'd like to."

"It might be fun to see how she does, but I really would like to work on some tools today," Jondalar said.

They walked together as far as the working area, then Jondalar went on toward Down River, while Ayla and the wolf stopped to look for Folara. The drizzle had turned to a steady rain, and while she waited for it to let up, she found herself watching first one person and then another as they worked on their various projects. She had always been fascinated with different crafts and skills and was easily distracted. It was a busy but relaxed atmosphere. Certain aspects of every craft required intense concentration, but repetitive elements allowed time to chat and visit. Most people were pleased to answer her questions, show her their techniques, and explain their methods.

When Ayla saw Folara, she was in the middle of stringing a loom with Marthona and not able to come to a good stopping place easily, though she would have liked to go. Ayla wouldn't have minded staying to see how the stringing was done, but she felt the horses needed attention. She promised Folara they would visit the horses another time, and when the rain let up, she decided to go out before it started again.

Whinney and Racer were in fine fettle and delighted to see her and Wolf when she found them, quite a distance back in Wood River Valley. They had discovered a small green meadow in the middle of the forested glen, with a clear spring that had formed a pond and a place under some trees to stand when it rained. The red deer that were sharing it with them broke away at the sight of the woman and the wolf at the same time that the horses neighed and ran toward them.

Those deer have been hunted, Ayla thought. They might have stopped and eyed Wolf, but it's not likely that full-grown deer in their prime would run from a single wolf. The wind is taking my scent right to them, and I think they have found more to fear from human hunters.

The sun had come out, and she found some of the previous year's dried flower heads of teasel and used the prickly herb top to curry the horses' coats. When she was done, she noticed Wolf stalking. She reached for her sling, which was tucked into her waist thong, and a pebble from the rocky edge of the pond, and when he scared up a couple of hares, she got one of the large rabbits with her first try. She let Wolf get the other.

A cloud cast a shadow over the sun. She looked up and noticed the placement of the sun in the sky, and realized that the time had passed quickly. Things had been so busy the past few days, she felt good having no demands on her or her time. But when it started to sprinkle, she decided to ride Whinney back to the Ninth Cave. Racer and Wolf followed. She was glad she had when the rain came down in earnest just as she arrived at the shelter. She led the horses up to the stone front porch and walked them past the living area and down toward the more unused area.

She passed by some men sitting around a fire, and though she didn't recognize the game, from their actions, she guessed they were gambling. They stopped and watched her as she walked by. She thought they were very rude to stare at her the way they did, ands he made a point of showing better manners by avoiding looking at them. But she did have the Clan woman's skill of glancing unobtrusively yet taking in a great deal of information with quick glimpses. She noticed that they were making comments to each other, and she thought she smelled barma.

Farther on, she saw some people in various stages of curing hides, both bison and deer. They probably found the usual work area too crowded, too, she thought. She brought the horses almost to the end of the ledge, near the small stream that separated the Ninth Cave from Down River, and thought that it could be a good place to build a shelter for them before winter. She'd have to talk to Jondalar about it. Then she showed them the trail that led down to the bank of The River and left them to see what they would decide to do. Wolf decided to go with the horses when they started down the trail. Raining or not, they preferred grazing near The River to staying up on the barren ledge just to keep dry.

She thought about going on to see Jondalar, then changed her mind and went back to where they were working on hides. People were glad for an excuse to take a break, and for some of them to talk to the woman that a wolf followed and from whom horses didn't run away. She noticed that Portula was there. The young woman smiled at Ayla, still trying to make friends. She seemed genuinely sorry for her part in Marona's trick.

Ayla had been wanting to make some clothing for Jondalar, herself, and the expected baby, and remembered that she had killed a young giant deer buck. She wondered where it was, but while she was here she decided she could at least skin the hare that was hanging from her waist thong to make something for the baby.

"If there's room, I'd like to skin this hare quickly," Ayla said to the group in general.

"There's plenty of room," Portula said. "And I'd be glad to let you use some of my tools, if you need them."

"I would, Portula, thank you for offering. I do have many tools, I live with Jondalar, after all," Ayla said with a wry smile. Several people smiled back knowingly. "But I don't have them with me."

Ayla liked the feeling of having people around her all busily engaged in tasks at which they were skilled. What a difference from the lonely days in her cave in the valley. This was more like her childhood in Brun's clan with everyone working together.

She quickly gutted and skinned the hare, then asked, "Do you mind if I leave these here for now? I need to go Down River. I'll pick them up on my way back."

"I'll watch them," Portula said. "If you want, I'll take them back with me when I go, if you're not back yet."

"That would be very nice of you," Ayla said. She was warming to the young woman, who was obviously trying hard to be friendly. "I'll be back later," Ayla said as she left.

After she walked up the log bridge that crossed the creek, she saw Jondalar with several others under the shelter of the first abri. The place had obviously been used to knap flint for a long time. The ground was thick with the sharp-edged chips and flakes left from the process of knapping flint. It would not be wise to walk there with bare feet.

"There you are," Jondalar said. "We were just getting ready to go back. Joharran was here and said Proleva has organized a meal using meat from one of the bison. She does that so well and so often, people are going to get too used to it, I'm afraid. But everybody has been busy today, and she decided it would be easier. You can walk back with us, Ayla."

"I didn't realize it was so close to midday," she said. As they started toward the Ninth Cave, Ayla saw Joharran ahead of them. She hadn't seen him coming this way. He must have passed by me when I was talking to Portula and the others, and skinning that hare, she thought. She noticed him heading toward the rude men who were sitting around the fire.

Joharran had seen Laramar and some others, gambling, when he was hurrying to tell the craftspeople at Down River about the meal that Proleva had arranged. He recalled thinking how lazy they were, gaming while everyone else was busy, probably using wood someone else had collected, but when he saw them on the way back, he decided he ought to tell them, too. They were members of the Ninth Cave, even if they didn't contribute much.

The men were deep in conversation when he approached and didn't see him coming. As he drew near, he overheard one of them saying, "… What can you expect from someone who says she learned how to heal from flatheads? What can those animals know about healing?"

"That woman is no healer. Shevonar died, didn't he?" Laramar agreed.

"You weren't there, Laramar!" Joharran interrupted, trying to keep his temper under control. "As usual, you couldn't be bothered to join the hunt."

"I was sick," the man said defensively.

"Sick from your own barma," Joharran said. "I'm telling you, no one could have saved Shevonar. Not Zelandoni, not the most skilled healer that ever lived. He had been trampled by a bison. What man can bear the full weight of a bison? If it hadn't been for Ayla, I doubt that he would have survived until Relona arrived. She found a way to ease his pain. Ayla did as much as anyone could. Why are you spreading malicious rumors about her? What has she ever done to you?" They stopped talking when Ayla and Jondalar and several others walked past.

"Why are you sneaking around listening to private conversations?" Laramar countered, still defensive.

"Walking up to you in full daylight is hardly sneaking, Laramar. I came here to tell you that Proleva and some of the others have prepared some food for everyone, so you could share it," Joharran answered. "What I heard was said out loud. I couldn't exactly close my ears." Then he directed his comments to the others. "Zelandoni is convinced that Ayla is a good healer, why not give her a chance? We should be glad to welcome a person with such good skills, you never know when you might need them yourselves. Now, why don't you all come and eat?" The leader looked at each man directly, letting them know that he recognized and would remember each one, then he walked away.

The tight little group broke up and followed him toward the other end of the ledge. Some of them agreed with Joharran, at least as far as giving Ayla a chance to prove herself, but a few didn't want to or could not overcome their prejudice. Laramar, though he had been agreeable with the man who had been talking loudly against her, really didn't care one way or the other. He tended to go along with whatever way was easiest.

As Ayla walked with the group from Down River toward the work area, staying under the protective overhanging shelf when it started raining harder again, she thought about all the different talents and abilities that people enjoyed exercising to occupy themselves. Many people liked to make things, although the choice of materials they worked with were quite varied. Some, like Jondalar, liked to work with flint to craft tools and hunting weapons, some liked working with wood, or ivory, or bone, some liked working with fibers, or hides. It came to her that some, like Joharran, enjoyed working with people.

As they got closer and her nose detected wonderful cooking odors, Ayla realized that cooking and working with food was also a task some people enjoyed. Proleva's penchant for organizing community gatherings was obviously something she enjoyed, which was probably the reason for this impromptu feast. Ayla thought about herself and what she liked to do best. She was interested in many things and enjoyed learning how to do things she had never done before, but more than anything else, she loved being a medicine woman, a healer.

The meal was being served near the large area where people were working on their projects, but as they approached, Ayla noticed that an adjacent area was being set up for a task that may not have been quite as enjoyable but needed to be done. Several nets for drying the meat they had hunted had been stretched out a couple of feet above the ground between upright posts. There was a layer of soil on the stone surface of the abri and its front porch, shallow in some areas, but deep enough to support posts in others. Some uprights were permanently wedged into cracks in the stone or supported by post holes dug into the soil. Piles of rocks were often added for additional bracing.

Other similar constructions, obviously made for the same purpose, were simply pegged and lashed together, making them essentially portable food drying racks. They could be lifted up and leaned against the back wall to get them out of the way when not in use. But when meat or vegetables needed to be dried, the portable frames could be placed anywhere on the floor they wanted. Occasionally meat was dried for preservation near the place it was killed, or on the grassy floodplain below, but when it rained, or just because people wanted to work closer to their homes, they developed ways to support drying cords or netting.

A few small tongue-shaped pieces of meat were already hanging on the drying racks, and small, rather smoky fires were burning nearby, to keep away insects and incidentally to add a flavor to the meat. Ayla thought that after they ate she would offer her help to cut up the meat to dry. She and Jondalar had just selected their food and were deciding where to eat when she saw Joharran stalking toward them with a rapid stride and a grim expression.

"Jondalar, does Joharran seem angry to you?" she asked.

The tall man turned to look at his approaching brother. "I think so," he said. "I wonder what happened?" He would ask later, he thought.

They glanced at each other, then strolled over to join Joharran, Proleva, her son, Jaradal, Marthona, and Willamar. They were greeted warmly, and a place was made for them. It did seem obvious that the leader was not happy about something, but he did not seem to want to talk about it, at least not with them. They all smiled in welcome when Zelandoni decided to join them, too. She had spent the morning in her dwelling, but came out when people gathered to eat.

"Can I get you something?" Proleva asked.

"I have been fasting and meditating today, preparing myself to search, and still limiting my food," Zelandoni said, and looked at Jondalar in a way that made him very uncomfortable. He was suddenly afraid that his association with other worlds was not over yet. "Mejera is getting something for me. I asked Folara to help her. Mejera is an acolyte of Zelandoni of the Fourteenth Cave, but she is not happy with her and wants to come here with me, to be my acolyte. I have to consider it, and of course, ask if you would be willing to accept her into the Ninth Cave, Joharran. She's quite shy and diffident, but definitely has some ability. I wouldn't mind training her, but you know I have to be particularly careful with the Fourteenth," Zelandoni said, then she looked at Ayla.

"She was expecting to be selected the First," the donier explained, "but the zelandonia chose me instead. She tried to stand up to me and force me to step down. It was my first real challenge, and even though she was the one who backed down, I don't think she has ever really accepted their choice, or forgiven me."

She addressed everyone again. "I know she will accuse me of luring her best acolyte away if I accept Mejera, but I have to consider what is right for everybody. If Mejera isn't getting the training she should have to develop her talents, I can't worry about someone's hurt feelings. On the other hand, if one of the other Zelandonia would be willing to train her and can form a bond with her, perhaps I can avoid another confrontation with the Fourteenth. I'd like to wait until after the Summer Meeting before making a decision."

"That seems wise," Marthona said just as Mejera and Folara joined them. The young acolyte was holding two bowls, and Jondalar's younger sister carried her bowl plus a waterbag. She had put some eating implements in her carrying pouch. Mejera gave a bowl of clear broth to the First, glanced gratefully at Folara, smiled timidly at Ayla and Jondalar, and then looked down at her food.

There was a moment of uneasy silence, then Zelandoni spoke. "I don't know how many of you know Mejera."

"I know your mother, and the man of your hearth," Willamar said. "You have some siblings, don't you?"

"Yes, a sister and a brother," Mejera said.

"How old are they?"

"My sister is a little younger than me, and my brother is about his age," Mejera said, indicating Proleva's son.

"My name is Jaradal. I am Jaradal of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii. Who are you?"

He said it with such careful precision, as he had obviously been taught, everyone had to smile, including the young woman. "I am Mejera of the Fourteenth Cave of the Zelandonii. I greet you, Jaradal of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii."

Jaradal smiled with self-importance. She obviously understands boys his age, Ayla thought.

"We are remiss. I think we should all make proper introductions," Willamar said. The introductions were made, and everyone greeted the shy young woman warmly.

"Did you know the mate of your mother wanted to be a trader before he met her, Mejera?" Willamar said. "He went on a few trips with me, then he decided he didn't want to spend so much time away from her, or you, after you were born."

"No, I didn't know that," she said, pleased to learn something about her mother and her mother's mate.

No wonder he's a good trader, Ayla thought. He has a way with people. He can make anyone feel comfortable. Mejera seemed a little more relaxed, but still a bit overwhelmed by all the attention. Ayla understood how she felt.

"Proleva, I saw some people starting to dry meat from the hunt," Ayla said. "I'm not sure how meat is divided, or who is supposed to preserve it, but I'd like to help if it's appropriate."

The woman smiled. "Of course you can help, if you want. It's a lot of work, we'd welcome your help."

"I know I would," Folara said. "It can be a long, tedious job, unless there are a lot of people working on it. Then it can be fun."

. "The meat itself and half the fat is for everyone to use as theyn eed," Proleva continued, "but the rest of the animal, the hide, horns, antlers, and all, belongs to the person who killed it. I think you and Jondalar each have a megaceros and a bison, Ayla. Jondalar killed the bison who sacrificed Shevonar, but that one was given back to the Mother. We buried it near his grave. The leaders decided to give both Jondalar and you another one. Animals are marked when they're butchered, usually with charcoal. By the way, they didn't know your abelan, and you were busy with Shevonar, so someone asked Zelandoni of the Third. He made a temporary one for you so your hides and other parts could be marked."

Jondalar smiled. "What does it look like?" He was always conscious of his own enigmatic abelan and curious about the name marks of others.

"I think he saw you as protective or sheltering, Ayla," Proleva said. "Here, I'll show you." She took a stick, smoothed the dirt, and drew a line straight down. Then she added a line starting near the top and slanting down somewhat on one side, and a third line matching it on the other side. "It reminds me of a tent or shelter of some kind, something to get under if it was raining."

"I think you're right," Jondalar said. "It's not a bad abelan for you, Ayla. You do tend to be protective and helpful, especially if someone is sick or hurt."

"I can draw my abelan," Jaradal said. Everyone smiled indulgently. The stick was given to him, and he was allowed to make the drawing. "Do you have one?" he said to Mejera.

"I'm sure she does, Jaradal, and she will probably be happy to show you. Later," Proleva said, gently reprimanding her son. A little attention was all right, but she didn't want him to get in the habit of demanding attention from the adults around him.

"What do you think of your abelan, Ayla?" Jondalar said. He wondered about her reaction to being assigned a Zelandonii symbol.

"Since I didn't get an elandon with an abelan marked on it when I was born, at least not that I can remember," Ayla said, "it's as good a mark as any. I don't mind using it as my abelan."

"Did you ever get any kind of mark from the Mamutoi?" Proleva asked, wondering if Ayla already had an abelan. It was always interesting to learn how other people did things.

"When I was adopted by the Mamutoi, Talut cut a mark on my arm to draw blood so he could make a mark with it on the plaque he wore on his chest during ceremonies," Ayla said.

"But it wasn't a special mark?" Joharran said.

"It was special to me. I still have the scar," she said, showing the mark on her arm. Then she added a thought that occurred to her: "It's interesting how people use different ways of showing who they are, and who they belong to. When I was adopted by the Clan, I was given my amulet bag with a piece of red ochre in it, and when they name a person, the mog-ur makes a line in red from the forehead to the end of the nose. That's when he tells everyone, especially the mother, what the baby's totem is, by making the totem mark with salve on the infant."

"Are you saying your people of the Clan have marks showing who they are?" Zelandoni said. "Like abelans?"

"I guess they are like abelans. When a boy becomes a man, the mog-ur cuts the mark of his totem on him, then rubs in a special ash to make it a tattoo. Girls are not usually cut on the skin, because when they grow up, they will bleed from the inside, but I was marked by the cave lion when he chose me. I have a four marks from his claws on my leg. That's the Clan mark for a cave lion, and that's how Mog-ur knew he was my totem, even though it's not usually a female totem mark. It is a man's, given to a boy who is destined to be a strong hunter. When I was accepted as the Woman Who Hunts, Mog-ur made a cut here," she put her finger on her throat, just above the breastbone, "to draw blood and used it to mark over the scars on my leg." She showed the scars on her left thigh.

"Then you already have an abelan. That's your mark, those four lines," Willamar said.

"I think you are right," Ayla said. "I don't feel anything about the other mark, maybe because it's just a mark of convenience, so that people will know who to give some hides to. Even though my Clan totem mark is not a Zelandonii sign, it is a mark that is special to me. It meant that I was adopted, that I belonged. I would like to use it as my abelan."

Jondalar thought about what Ayla said about belonging. She had lost everything, she didn't know to whom she was born, or who her people were. Then she had lost the people who raised her. She had referred to herself as "Ayla of No People" when she'd met the Mamutoi. It made him realize how important belonging was to her.

Chapter 17

There was an insistent tap on the panel beside the entrance drape. It woke Jondalar, but he lay in his sleeping roll, wondering why someone wasn't answering it. Then he realized that no one but him seemed to be home. He got up and called out, "Be there in a moment," while he was putting on a few clothes. He was surprised to see Jonokol, the artist who was Zelandoni's acolyte, only because the young man seldom paid a visit without his mentor. "Come in," he said…

"The Zelandoni of the Ninth Cave says it is time," Jonokol said.

Jondalar's brow creased. He didn't like the sound of that. He wasn't entirely sure he understood what Jonokol meant, but he had a good idea, and he wasn't looking forward to it. He'd had his share of the other world. He didn't really want to have to deal with that place again.

"Did Zelandoni say what it was time for?" Jondalar asked.

Jonokol smiled at the tall man's sudden nervousness. "She said you would know."

"I'm afraid I do," Jondalar said, resigning himself to the inevitable. "Can you wait until I find something to eat, Jonokol?"

"Zelandoni always says it's best if you don't."

"I suppose you're right," Jondalar said. "But I wouldn't mind a cup of tea to wash my mouth out with. I'm still tasting sleep."

"They may have some tea for you to drink," Jonokol said.

"I'll bet they do, but I don't think it's mint, and that's what I like first thing in the morning."

"Zelandoni's teas are often flavored with mint."

"Flavored, yes, but it's probably not the main ingredient."

Jonokol just smiled.

"All right," Jondalar said with a wry grin. "I'll come right away. I hope no one minds if I go to pass water first."

"It's not necessary to hold your water," the young acolyte said, "but bring something warm to wear."

When Jondalar came back, he was both surprised and pleased to see Ayla waiting with Jonokol, tying the sleeves of a warm tunic around her waist. Jonokol had probably told her to bring something warm, too. Watching her, it occurred to him that the night before last was the first time he had not slept with Ayla since he was captured by the S'Armunai on their Journey, and it left him feeling rather unsettled.

"Hello, woman," he whispered in her ear when he rubbed her cheek with his in greeting, then embraced her. "Where did you go this morning?"

"To empty the night basket," Ayla said. "When I came back I saw Jonokol and he said Zelandoni wanted us, so I went to ask Folara if she would keep Wolf. She said she'd find some children to keep him occupied. I went down to check on the horses earlier. I heard some other horses nearby. I wonder if we should build a surround of some kind to keep them."

"Perhaps," Jondalar said. "Especially when it's time for Whinney's Pleasures. I'd hate to have a herd try to capture her, Racer would probably try to follow her."

"She'll have her foal first," Ayla said.

Jonokol listened, interested in hearing about the horses. They had obviously gained knowledge in their association with them. Ayla and Jondalar left with Jonokol. When they reached the stone front porch of the Ninth Cave, Jondalar noticed that the sun was quite high.

"I didn't know it was so late," he said. "I wonder why someone didn't get me up sooner?"

"Zelandoni suggested that you be allowed to sleep since you may be up late tonight," Jonokol said.

Jondalar took a deep breath and blew it out of his mouth as he shook his head. "Where are we going, by the way?" he said as they walked beside the acolyte along the ledge toward Down River.

"To Fountain Rocks," Jonokol said.

Jondalar's eyes opened wide with surprise. Fountain Rocks-a cliff that featured two caves and the immediate area around it-was not the home of any particular Cave of Zelandonii; it was much more important than that. It was one of the most sacred places in the entire region. Though no one lived there regularly, if any group could call it home, it was the zelandonia, the Ones Who Served, for this was a place blessed and sanctified by the Great Earth Mother Herself.

"I am going to stop for a drink of water," Jondalar said emphatically as they approached the bridge over the creek of fresh spring water that divided the Ninth Cave from Down River. He wasn't going to let Jonokol talk him out of quenching his thirst, even if he had let the man dissuade him from having his morning cup of mint tea.

Near the streamlet a few feet from the bridge, a post had been pounded into the ground. A drinking cup made of cattail leaves torn into strips and woven watertight was attached to it with a cord; if it wasn't attached, it was often lost. The cup was changed periodically as it became worn, but as long as Jondalar could remember, one had been there. It had been learned long ago that the sight of the fresh sparkling water invariably inspired thirst, and while a person could bend over and reach in with hands to get a drink, it was much easier to have a cup handy.

They all had a drink, then continued along the well-used trail. They forded The River at the Crossing, and at Two Rivers Rock turned into Grass Valley, crossed the second river, then followed the path alongside it. People from other Caves waved and greeted them as they passed by, but made no attempt to delay them. All the zelandonia of the area, including the acolytes, had already gone to Fountain Rocks, and everyone had a good idea where the two people with Zelandoni's acolyte were going.

They also had some idea why. In the tight-knit community, word had gotten out that they had brought back something that might help the zelandonia to find the wandering spirit of Jondalar's dead brother, Thonolan. Though they knew it was important to help guide a newly liberated elan to its proper place in the world of the spirits, the idea of entering the next world before they were called by the Mother was not something most people wanted to do. It was fearful enough to think about helping Shevonar's elan, who had just passed on and was probably nearby, but to look for the spirit of someone who had died far away and a long time ago was something they didn't even want to contemplate.

Not many, except for the zelandonia-and not all of those-would have wanted to trade places with Jondalar or Ayla. Most people were happy to let the Ones Who Served The Mother deal with the world of the spirits. But no one else could do it; only they knew where Jondalar's brother had died. Even the One Who Was First knew this would be an exhausting day, though she was intrigued and wondered if they would be able to find Thonolan's roving spirit.

As Ayla, Jondalar, and Jonokol continued upstream, an imposing outcrop of rock loomed ahead on the left. The massive rock stood out with such prominence that it seemed almost a monolith, but a closer look revealed that it was only the first spur of a progression of cliffs that pulled back in a line at right angles to Grass River. The stately stone at the head of the cliffs reared up from the valley floor, rounded to a bulge in the middle, narrowed toward the top, then abruptly flared out into a flat-topped jaunty cap.

Moving around to the front and looking straight on at the rock that extended out ahead, one could, with a little imagination, envision in the cracks and rounded shapes, the cap as hair, a high forehead below the cap, a flattened nose, and two nearly closed eyes enigmatically looking over a slope of scree and brush. To those who knew how to look, the subtly anthropomorphic front view was understood to be a hidden face of the Mother, one of the few visages of Herself She ever chose to show, and even that was well disguised. No one could ever look directly upon the face of the Mother, not so much as a likeness of it, and even mysteriously disguised, Her face held unspeakable power.

The row of cliffs flanked a smaller valley with a creek down the middle that ran into Grass River. The source of the small stream was a spring that bubbled out of the ground with such energy, it created a small fountain with a deep pool surrounding it in the middle of a wooded glen. The common name was Fountain of the Deep, and the small waterway running from it was called Fountain Creek, but the zelandonia had other names for them, which most people also knew. The spring and pool were the Birth Waters of the Mother, and the creek was the Blessed Water. They were known to have great powers to heal and particularly to help women conceive, if used correctly.

A path over twelve hundred feet long climbed up the side of the stone wall well beyond the leading spur to a terrace not far from the top, with a small rock overhang that sheltered the mouths of two caves. The numerous cavities in this region of limestone cliffs were sometimes called "caves," but were thought of as hollowed-out spaces in the rock and often referred to as "hollows" as well. Conversely, an especially long or deep cave was sometimes referred to as a "deep." The opening to the left on the small terrace penetrated the rock only twenty feet or so, and was used as a living space for those who stayed there from time to time, usually zelandonia. It was generally known as Fountain Hollow, but some referred to it as Doni's Hollow.

The cave on the right led to a deep passage that went four hundred feet into the heart of the huge cliff, with chambers, alcoves, niches, and other passages leading off the main corridor. This was the place that was so sacred that its esoteric name was usually not even voiced. The site was so well-known, and so revered, it wasn't necessary to declare its sanctity and power to the mundane world. If anything, those who knew its true meaning preferred to understate it, not make an issue of it in ordinary existence. That was the reason people referred to the cliffs simply as Fountain Rocks, and why the cave was called the Deep Cave in Fountain Rocks or, sometimes, Doni's Deep.

It was not the only sacred site in the region. Most caves had some measure of sanctity attached to them, and some places outside of caves were also blessed, but the deep cave in Fountain Rocks was one of the most exalted. Jondalar knew of a few others that equaled Fountain Rocks, but none was more important. As they continued up the cliff with Jonokol, Jondalar felt a combination of excitement and dread and, as they approached the terrace, a frisson of fearful anticipation. This wasn't something he really wanted to do, but for all his apprehension, he did wonder if Zelandoni could find the free spirit of his brother, what would be expected of him, and how it would feel.

When they reached the high terrace in front of the caves, two more acolytes met them, a man and a woman. They had been waiting just inside the mouth of the deep cave on the right. Ayla paused for a moment and turned around to see where she had come from. The lofty stone porch overlooked Fountain Creek Valley and part of Grass Valley with its river, and the panorama was impressive, but somehow, when they entered the passage, the closer views within the dark cavity were more daunting.

Especially in daytime, stepping into the cave brought an immediate transformation, a shift in perspective from an open, expansive view to a close, narrow corridor, from stone-reflecting sunlight to disquieting dark. The change went beyond the physical or external. Especially to those who understood and accepted the inherent power of the place, it was a metamorphosis that went from easy familiarity to apprehensive fear, but also a transition into something rich and wondrous.

Only a few feet of the ingress could be seen from the light outside, but as eyes became accustomed to the diminished light at the entry, the rock walls of the constricted passage suggested the way into the shadowy interior. A small vestibule just beyond the opening held a lighted stone lamp resting on a projecting piece of the wall, and several unlit lamps. In a natural stone niche below it were torches. Jonokol and the other young man picked up a lamp, then a thin, dry stick, which they held to the flame of the burning lamp until it ignited. With it, they each lit the moss wicks that were resting against the edge of the bowl of a lamp, opposite the handle, soaking in the slightly congealed fat. The woman lit a torch and beckoned to them.

"Watch your footing," she said, holding the torch lower to show the uneven floor and the wet, glistening clay that filled in some of the spaces between the rocks that were jutting up. "It can be slippery."

When they started into the passage, picking their way carefully across the uneven floor, there was still a suggestion of light from the outside. It diminished quickly. After something more than a hundred feet the darkness was complete, held back only by the soft glow of small flames. A sigh of moving air strayed down from the stalactites suspended from the ceiling, bringing a chill of fear as the tiny lights of the lamps flickered. They knew that once into the depths, if the fire went out, a blackness more complete than the darkest night would obscure all vision. Only hands and feet on cold, damp rock could show the way, and might lead only to a dead-end passage rather than the way out.

A deeper black on the right, no longer reflecting the small flames off damp stone walls, indicated that the distance to that side had increased; perhaps a niche or another passageway. Behind them and ahead, the tenebrious gloom was palpable, the blackness almost suffocatingly thick. The wisp of air was the only manifestation of a corridor that led back to the outside. Ayla wished she could reach for Jondalar's hand.

As they proceeded, the lamps the acolytes carried were not the only light. Several shallow, bowl-shaped stone lamps had been placed on the floor at intervals along the dark corridor, casting a light that seemed amazingly bright in the darkness within the cave. A couple of them were sputtering, however. They either needed more fat to melt into the bowl or a new moss wick, and Ayla hoped someone would tend to them soon.

But the lamps gave Ayla an eerie sense that she had been in this place before, and an irrational fear that she would be again. She didn't want to follow the woman in front of her. She had not thought of herself as one who feared caves, but there was something about this one that made her want to turn around and run, or touch Jondalar for reassurance. Then she remembered walking the dark corridor of another cave, following the small fires of lamps and torches, and finding herself watching Creb and the other mog-urs. She shivered at the memory and suddenly realized that she was cold.

"You might want to stop and put on your warm clothing," the woman in front said, turning back and holding up the lamp for Ayla and Jondalar. "It's rather cold deep in a cave, especially in summer. In winter, when it's snowy and icy outside, it actually feels rather warm. The deep caves stay the same all year."

The stop for something as ordinary as putting on her long-sleeved tunic had steadied Ayla. Although she had been ready to turn around and run out of the cave, when the acolyte started walking again, Ayla took a deep breath and followed her.

Although the long passageway had seemed narrow and the temperature had become progressively colder, after another fifty feet the rocky corridor closed in even more. A greater humidity in the air was verified by a sheen of moisture reflected off the walls, the stalactite icicles projecting down from the ceiling, and their stalagmitic mates growing up from the floor. At slightly more than two hundred feet into the dark, damp, and chilly cave, the floor of the passageway ascended, not blocking the way, but making it difficult to proceed. It was tempting to turn back here, to think this was far enough, and many a faint-heart had. It tested determination to continue beyond this point.

Holding the torch, the woman in front climbed up the rocky incline to a small, constricted opening higher up. Ayla watched the wavering light as she climbed, then breathed deeply and started up over sharp stones until she reached the woman. She followed her through a narrow aperture, scrambling over more rocks to get through the opening that descended into the heart of the stone cliff.

The nearly subliminal passage of air in the first section was noticeable now only for its lack. After the confined gap, no movement of air could be detected at all. The first indication that someone had come this way before was three red dots painted on the left-hand wall. Not long afterward, Ayla saw something else in the flickering light of the torch the woman in front held. She couldn't quite believe her eyes and wished the acolyte would stop for a moment and hold the light closer to the left wall. She stopped and waited for the tall man behind her to catch up.

"Jondalar," she said in a quiet voice, "I think there is a mammoth on that wall!"

"Yes, there is, more than one," Jondalar said. "I think if there wasn't something that Zelandoni felt was more important to do right now, this cave would be shown to you with the proper ceremony. Most of us were brought in here when we were children. Not young children, old enough to understand, but still children. It's frightening, but wonderful, when you see this place for the first time, if it's done right. Even when you know it's all part of the ceremony, it's exciting."

"Why are we here, Jondalar?" she asked. "What is so important?"

The acolyte in front had turned around and come back when she noticed that she wasn't being followed anymore.

"Didn't anyone tell you?" she said.

"Jonokol just said Zelandoni wanted Jondalar and me," she said.

"I'm not absolutely certain," Jondalar said, "but I think we're here to help Zelandoni locate Thonolan's spirit and, if he needs it, to help him find his way. We're the only ones who saw the place where he died, and with the stone you wanted me to pick up-Zelandoni said that was a very good idea, by the way-she thinks we may," Jondalar said.

"What is this place?" Ayla asked.

"It has many names," the woman said. Jonokol and the other acolyte had caught up with them. "Most people refer to it as the Deep Cave in Fountain Rocks, or sometimes Doni's Deep. The zelandonia know its sacred name, and most people do, too, though it is seldom mentioned. This is the Entrance to the Womb of the Mother, or one of them. There are several others that are just as sacred."

"Everyone knows, of course, that entrance implies exit," Jonokol added. "That means the entrance to the womb is also the birth canal."

"So that means this is one of the birth canals of the Great Earth Mother," the young male acolyte said.

"Like the song Zelandoni sang at Shevonar's burial, this must be one of the places from which the Mother 'brought forth the Children of Earth,'" Ayla said.

"She understands," the woman said, nodding toward the other two acolytes. "You must know the Mother's Song well," she said to Ayla.

"The first time she heard it was at the burial," Jondalar said, smiling.

"That's not entirely true, Jondalar," Ayla said. "Don't you remember? The Losadunai have something like it, except they don't sing it. They just say the words. The Losaduna taught it to me in their language. It's not exactly the same, but it's similar."

"Maybe that's because Losaduna can't sing like Zelandoni," Jondalar said.

"Not all of us sing it," Jonokol said. "Many just say the words. I don't sing, and if you ever heard me, you'd know why."

"Some of the other Caves have different music, and some of the words are not exactly the same, either," the young male acolyte said. "I'd be interested in hearing the Losadunai version some time, especially if you can translate it for me, Ayla."

"I'd be glad to. Their language is very close to Zelandonii. You might be able to understand it, even without a translation," Ayla said.

For some reason, all three acolytes suddenly noticed her unfamiliar accent. The older woman had always thought of the Zelandonii-the language and those who used it-as special; they were the People, they were Earth's Children. It was hard to grasp the idea that this woman could think that people who lived all the way across the plateau glacier on the highland to the east could have a language that seemed similar to their own. The foreign woman must have heard many languages of people who lived far away that were very much different from Zelandonii to think so.

It struck them all how different the background of this foreign woman was from theirs, and how much she knew about other people that they didn't. Jondalar, too, had learned much on his Journey. In the few days since he had been back, he had already shown them many things. Perhaps that was the reason for Journeys, to learn new things.

Everyone knew about Journeys. Almost all young people talked about making one, but few actually did, and even fewer of those went very far, at least not that came back. But Jondalar was gone five years. He'd traveled far, had many adventures, but more important, he brought back knowledge that could benefit his people. He also brought ideas that could change things, and change wasn't always so desirable.

"I don't know if I should show you the painted walls as we pass by. It might spoil the special ceremony for you, but you are bound to see at least part of them, so I suppose I could hold up the light and let you see them a little better," the woman in front said.

"I would like to see them," Ayla said.

The acolyte in front held the torch up high so the woman Jondalar had brought home with him could see the paintings on the walls. The first one, the mammoth, was painted showing a side view, the way most portrayals of animals that she had seen were made. The hump on the head followed by a second hump high on the withers, but slightly lower down the sloping back made it easy to recognize. That configuration was the distinctive feature of the great woolly beast, even more than its curving tusks and long trunk. It was painted in red but shaded in reddish brown and black to show the contours and precise anatomical detail. It was facing the entrance and was so perfectly made that Ayla half expected the mammoth to walk out of the cave.

Ayla didn't quite understand why the painted animals looked so lifelike, or fully appreciate what it had required, but she couldn't resist looking closer to see how it was done. It was an elegant and accomplished technique. A flint tool had been used to cut a fine, distinct outline of the animal with exacting detail into the limestone wall of the cave, paralleled by a painted black line. Just outside of the engraved line, the wall had been scraped to show the light ivory-tan natural color of the stone. It highlighted the outline and the colors with which the mammoth had been painted, and contributed to the three-dimensional quality of the work.

But it was the paint within the outline that was so remarkable. Through observation and training from those who first conceived of the idea of taking a living animal and reproducing it on a two-dimensional surface, the artists who had painted the walls of the cave had gained a surprising and innovative knowledge of perspective. The techniques had been passed down, and though some artists were more skilled than others, most of them used shading to convey the sense of lifelike fullness.

As Ayla moved past the mammoth, she had the eerie sensation that the mammoth had also moved. She felt impelled to reach for the painted animal and touched the stone, then closed her eyes. It was cold, slightly damp, with the texture and feel of any limestone cave, but when she opened her eyes, she noticed that the artist had used the stone wall itself to advantage in the incredibly realistic creation. The mammoth had been placed on the wall in such a way that a rounded shape of the stone became the fullness of the belly, and a concretion of stalactite adhering to the wall that suggested a leg was painted as the back of a leg.

In the flickering light of the oil lamps, she noticed that when she moved, she saw the animal from a slightly different angle, which changed the way the natural relief of the stone appeared and threw shadows to a slightly different position. Even standing still, watching the reflections of the fire move on the stone, she had the impression that the animal painted on the wall was breathing. She understood then the reason that the mammoth had seemed to shift when she moved, and knew that if she hadn't examined it carefully, she could easily be convinced that it had.

She was reminded of the time at the Clan Gathering when she had to prepare the special drink Iza taught her to make for the mog-urs. The Mog-ur had shown her how to stand in the shadows so she would not be noticed, and told her exactly when to move out of them, which made it seem that she suddenly appeared. There was method to the magic of those who dealt with the world of the spirits, but there was magic, too.

She had felt something when she touched the wall, something that she couldn't quite explain or understand. It was a hint of that certain strangeness she had occasionally felt ever since she had inadvertently swallowed the leavings of the mog-urs' drink and followed them into the cave. From that time on, she occasionally experienced disturbing dreams and sometimes unsettling sensations even when she was awake.

She shook her head to rid herself of the feeling, then looked up and saw that the others were watching her. Smiling diffidently, she pulled her hand away from the stone wall quickly, afraid she had done something wrong, then looked toward the woman who held the torch. The acolyte said nothing as she turned to lead the way along the passage.

The lights from the small flames glinted faintly off damp walls with eerie hints of reflections as they moved quietly in single file along the corridor. There was a tingle of apprehension in the air. Ayla was sure they were going into the very heart of the steep limestone cliff and was glad to be with other people, sure she would get lost if she were alone. She trembled with a sudden flash of fear and foreboding, and a sense of what it might be like to be in a cave alone. She tried to shake off the feeling, but the chill in the dark, cool cave was not easy to dispel.

Not far beyond the first one there was another mammoth, then more mammoths, then two small horses, painted primarily in black. She stopped to look at them more closely. Again, a line perfectly defining the shape of a horse was engraved in the limestone, highlighted by a line painted in black. Within the line, the horses were painted black, but as with the rest of the paintings, the shading gave them a surprising realism.

Ayla noticed then that there were paintings on the right wall of the passage as well, some facing out and some in. Mammoths predominated; it seemed that a herd of mammoths was painted on the walls. Using the counting words, Ayla counted at least ten on both sides of the passage, and there may have been more. As she was continuing down the dark corridor, looking at the paintings momentarily lighted as she passed by, she was brought to a halt by the arresting scene of two reindeer greeting each other on the left wall. She had to see them better.

The first reindeer, facing into the cave, was male. He was painted in black, with the definitive shape and contours of the animal accurately rendered, including his huge antlers, though they were suggested by the arcing shapes rather than precisely painted with all their points. His head was lowered, and to Ayla's wonder and surprise, he was tenderly licking the forehead of a female. Unlike the majority of deer, female reindeer also had antlers, and in the painting as in life, hers were smaller. She was painted in red and her knees were bent so she could lower herself to accept his gentle caress.

The scene manifested a genuine sense of tenderness and caring, and it made Ayla think of Jondalar and herself. She had never thought of animals being in love before, but these seemed to be. It nearly brought her to tears, she was so moved. The acolyte guides allowed her to spend some time. They understood her reaction; they, too, were moved by this exquisite scene.

Jondalar was also staring in wonder at the painted reindeer. "That's a new one," he said. "I thought there was a mammoth there."

"There was. If you look closely at the female, you can still see some of the mammoth underneath," the young man in the rear explained.

"Jonokol made that," the woman in front said.

Both Jondalar and Ayla looked at the artist acolyte with new respect. "Now I understand why you are Zelandoni's acolyte," Jondalar said. "You are extraordinarily gifted."

Jonokol nodded to acknowledge Jondalar's comment. "We all have our Gifts. I am told you are an extraordinarily gifted flint-knapper. I look forward to seeing some of your work. In fact, there's a tool I've been trying to get someone to make for me, but I can't quite seem to explain it to any of the toolmakers so they understand. I was hoping Dalanar would be coming to the Summer Meeting so I could ask him."

"He is planning to come, but I'll be glad to give your idea a try, if you like," Jondalar said. "I enjoy a challenge."

"Perhaps we can talk tomorrow," Jonokol said.

"Can I ask you something, Jonokol?" Ayla said.

"Of course."

"Why did you paint the deer on top of the mammoth?"

"That wall, that place, drew me to it," Jonokol said. "It's where I had to put the reindeer. They were in the wall and wanted to come out."

"It is a special wall. It leads beyond," the woman said. "When the First sings there, or a flute is played, that wall answers. It echoes, resonates to the sound. Sometimes it tells you what it wants."

"Did all these walls tell someone to make paintings on them?" Ayla asked, indicating the paintings they had passed by.

"That's one reason this deep is so sacred. Most of the walls talk to you, if you know how to listen; they lead you places, if you are willing to go," the woman acolyte said.

"No one ever told me this before. Not in exactly this way. Why are you telling us now?" Jondalar asked.

"Because you will have to listen, and perhaps go through, if you are going to help the First find the elan of your brother, Jondalar," the woman said, then she added, "The zelandonia have been trying to understand why Jonokol was inspired to make these figures here. I'm beginning to get an idea." The woman smiled enigmatically at Jondalar and Ayla, then turned to walk deeper into the cave.

"Oh, before you go on," Ayla said to the woman, touching her arm to detain her. "I don't know what to call you, can I ask your name?"

"My name isn't important," she said. "When I become Zelandoni, I will be giving it up anyway. I am the First Acolyte to the Zelandoni of the Second Cave."

"Then, I suppose I could call you Acolyte of the Second," Ayla said.

"Yes, you could, although the Zelandoni of the Second has more than one acolyte. The other two are not here. They have gone ahead to the Summer Meeting."

"Then perhaps First Acolyte of the Second?"

"If it pleases you, I will respond to that name."

"What should I call you?" Ayla asked the young man who brought up the rear.

"I've only been an acolyte since the last Summer Meeting, and like Jonokol, I still use my own name most of the time. Perhaps I should give you a formal greeting and introduction." He held out both his hands. "I am Mikolan of the Fourteenth Cave of the Zelandonii, Second Acolyte of the Zelandoni of the Fourteenth Cave. And I welcome you," he said.

Ayla took his hands in hers. "I greet you, Mikolan of the Fourteenth Cave of the Zelandonii. I am Ayla of the Mamutoi, Member of the Lion Camp, Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth, Chosen by the Spirit of the Cave Lion, Protected by the Cave Bear, Friend of the horses, Whinney and Racer, and the hunter, Wolf."

"I seem to have heard that some people to the east refer to their zelandonia as the Mammoth Hearth?" the woman acolyte said.

"You are correct," Jondalar said. "They are the Mamutoi. Ayla and I lived with them for a year, but I'm surprised anyone here has heard about them. They live far away."

She looked at Ayla. "If you are a daughter of the Mammoth Hearth, that explains some things. You are zelandoni!"

"No, I am not," Ayla said. "The Mamut adopted me to the Mammoth Hearth. I wasn't called, but he was starting to teach me some things before I left with Jondalar."

The woman smiled. "You would not have been adopted if you were not meant to be. I am sure you will be called."

"I don't think I want to be," Ayla said.

"That may be," the First Acolyte of the Second said, then turned and continued leading them into the heart of Fountain Rocks.

Ahead, they began to see a glow, and as they approached, it grew almost brilliant. After the total darkness of the cave with only a few small lights, their eyes had adapted, and any greater illumination was all but dazzling. The corridor opened out and Ayla saw several people waiting in an enlarged area. It seemed almost crowded, and as she reached the area, and recognized people she had met, she realized that everyone there was zelandonia, except for Jondalar and her.

The large woman from the Ninth Cave was sitting on a seat someone had brought in for her. She got up and smiled. "We've been waiting for you," said the First. She gave both of them a hug that was held at a slight distance, and Ayla suddenly understood that it was a formal embrace, a greeting one gave to close associates in public.

One of the other Zelandonia nodded to Ayla. She responded with a nod to the short and slightly built man she identified as Zelandoni of the Eleventh, the one who had impressed her with his strong grip and self-confidence. An older man smiled at her, and she smiled back at Zelandoni of the Third, who had been so kind and supportive when she was trying to help Shevonar. She recognized most of the others only as people she had met and greeted.

A small fire had been made on top of some stones that had been brought in for the purpose-they would be taken back out when they left. A partially filled waterbag was on the ground beside a good-size wooden cooking bowl full of steaming water. Ayla watched a young woman use a pair of bentwood tongs to fish out a couple of cooking stones from the bottom of the cooking bowl, then add more from the fire. The steam billowed out as the hot rocks touched the water. When she looked up, Ayla recognized Mejera and smiled at her.

Then the One Who Was First added some material from a pouch. She's making a decoction, cooking it, not just steeping a tea, Ayla thought. There is probably some root or bark in that drink, something strong. The next time hot stones were added, the billowing steam filled the air with a strong aroma. The mint was easy to detect, but she smelled other odors and flavors, which she tried to identify, and suspected that the mint was there to cover the taste of something less pleasant.

A couple of people spread a heavy leather covering on the damp and rocky floor near the seat that the First had occupied. "Ayla, Jondalar, why don't you come over here and make yourselves comfortable," the large woman said, indicating the leather. "I have something for you to drink." The young woman who was tending the potion in the cooking bowl brought out four cups in preparation. "It's not quite ready yet, but you might as well relax."

"Ayla has been enjoying the wall paintings," Jonokol said. "I think she might like to see more of them. It might be more relaxing than sitting there waiting until that drink is ready."

"Yes, I would like to see more," Ayla added quickly. She found herself suddenly feeling rather anxious about drinking some unknown decoction that she knew was intended to help her find some other world. Her past experience with similar drinks had not been especially agreeable.

Zelandoni observed her closely for a while. She knew Jonokol well enough to understand that he would not have made the suggestion without good reason. He must have noted that the young woman was showing some distress, and she did seem to be agitated.

"Certainly, Jonokol. Why don't you show her the painted walls," the First said.

"I'd like to go with them," Jondalar said. He wasn't feeling very calm himself. "And maybe the torch carrier could come with us."

"Yes, of course," said the First Acolyte of the Second, picking up the torch she had put out. "I'll need to relight it."

"There is some fine work on the wall behind the zelandonia, but I don't want to bother them," Jonokol said. "Let me show you something interesting down this corridor."

He led them down a passageway that turned off to the right from the main one. Immediately on the left, he stopped in front of another panel of reindeer and a horse.

"Did you do these, too?" Ayla asked.

"No, my teacher did. She used to be Zelandoni of the Second, before Kimeran's sister. She was an exceptional painter," Jonokol said.

"She was good, but I think the student has outdone the teacher," Jondalar said.

"Well, for the zelandonia, it is not so much the quality, although it is appreciated. It is the experience. These paintings are not just for looking at, you know," the First Acolyte of the Second said.

"I'm sure that's true," Jondalar said with a wry smile, "but for me, I think I like the looking more. I must admit, I'm not exactly waiting eagerly for this… ceremony. I'm willing, of course, and I think it may be interesting, but for the most part, I'm happy to let the zelandonia have the experience."

Jonokol grinned at his admission. "You are not alone in that feeling, Jondalar. Most people would rather stay firmly in this world. Come, let me show you something else before we have to get serious."

The artist acolyte led them to another area on the right side of the passage, where many more stalagmites and stalactites than usual had formed. The wall was covered with the calcareous formations, but on top of the concretions had been painted two horses that incorporated them to create the effect of a long shaggy winter coat. The one behind was leaping in a very animated way.

"These are very lively," Ayla said, quite intrigued. She had seen horses behave in similar ways.

"When boys first see it, they always say this one in back is 'leaping for Pleasure,'" Jondalar said.

"That is one interpretation," the woman acolyte said. "That could be a male attempting to mount the female in front, but I believe it is purposely ambiguous."

"Did your teacher paint these, Jonokol?" Ayla asked.

"No. I don't know who made them," Jonokol said. "No one does. They were done long ago, when the mammoths were painted. People say they were made by the ancestors, the forebears."

"There is something I want to show you, Ayla," the woman said.

"Are you going to show her the vulva?" Jonokol said with some surprise. "That is not usually shown on a first visit."

"I know, but I think we should make an exception for her," the other acolyte said, holding up the lamp and leading the way to a place not far from the horses. When she stopped, she lowered the torch to throw light down on a very unusual formation of rock that extended out from the wall and parallel to the floor, but raised up from it.

When Ayla first looked, she noticed an area of stone that had been enhanced with red, but it was only after looking carefully that she understood what it was, and then perhaps only because she had assisted more than one woman who was giving birth. A man might have recognized it before a woman. By accident-or supernatural design-the concretion had naturally formed an exact replica of a woman's sexual organ. The shape, the folds, even a depression that matched the entrance to her vagina, everything was there. Only the red color was added, to highlight it, to make sure they could find it easily.

"It is a woman!" Ayla said, astonished. "It is exactly like a woman! I have never seen anything like it."

"Now do you understand why this cave is so sacred? The Mother herself made this for us. It is proof that this cave is the Entrance to the Mother's Womb," said the woman who was training to serve the Great Earth Mother.

"Have you seen this before, Jondalar?" Ayla asked.

"Only once. Zelandoni showed it to me," he said. "It is remarkable. It is one thing for an artist like Jonokol to look at a cave wall, see the figure that is in it, and bring it to the surface for everyone to see. But this was here just as it is. The added color only makes it a little easier to see."

"There is one more place I want to show you," Jonokol said.

He went back the way they had come, and when they reached the enlarged area where everyone was waiting, he hurried past and turned right, back into the main corridor. At what appeared to be the end, on the left was a circular enclosure, and on the wall were concave depressions, the reverse of rounded-out bumps. In some of these, mammoths had been painted in a way that created an unusual illusion. At first glance, they didn't appear to be depressions; instead, they took on the characteristic of a mammoth's stomach, rounded outward. Ayla had to look twice, then reach to touch to convince herself that they actually were concave, not convex, dips and not bumps.

"They are remarkable!" Ayla said. "They are painted so that they seem to be opposite of what they are!"

"These are new, aren't they? I don't recall seeing them before," Jondalar said. "Did you paint them, Jonokol?"

"No, but I'm sure you'll meet the woman who did," he said.

"Everyone agrees, she is exceptional," the woman acolyte said. "As is Jonokol, of course. We are lucky to have two artists who are so talented."

"A few small figures are just beyond here," Jonokol said, looking at Ayla, "a woolly rhinoceros, a cave lion, an engraved horse, but it's a very narrow passage and hard to reach. A series of lines marks the end."

"They are probably ready for us. I think we should go back," the woman said.

As they turned around and were heading back, Ayla glanced up on the right wall, opposite the chapel-like enclosure with the mammoths and back along the corridor a short way. A strange feeling of uneasiness came over her. She was afraid she knew what was coming. She had felt it before. The first time was when she made the drink from the special roots for the mog-urs. Iza had told her it was too sacred to be wasted, so she wasn't allowed to practice making it.

She had already become disoriented, first from chewing the roots to soften them, then from the other preparations she had drunk during that night of special ceremony and celebration. When she noticed that there was some liquid left in the ancient bowl, she drank it so it wouldn't be wasted. The potent concoction had become stronger from soaking, and the effect on her was devastating. In her confused state, she had followed the light of the fires into the honeycombed depths of the cave, and when she'd come upon Creb and the other mog-urs, she hadn't been able to go back.

Creb was changed after that night, and she was never the same, either. That was when the mysterious dreams started and the waking moments of strange feelings and enigmatic visions that took her to some other place and sometimes came as warnings. They had been stronger and more prevalent on their Journey.

And now, as she stared up at the wall, the solid stone suddenly felt tenuous, as though she could see through it or into it. Instead of the firelights barely glinting off the hard surface, the wall was soft and deep and utterly black. And she was there, inside that menacing, nebulous space, and couldn't find her way out. She felt exhausted and weak, and she hurt deep inside. Then suddenly Wolf appeared. He was running through the tall grass, racing to meet her, coming to find her.

"Ayla! Ayla! Are you all right?" Jondalar said.

Chapter 18

"Ayla!" Jondalar said, louder.

"What? Oh, Jondalar. I saw Wolf," she said, blinking her eyes and shaking her head to try to overcome her dazed confusion and vague sense of foreboding.

"What do you mean, you saw Wolf? He didn't come with us. Remember? You left him with Folara," Jondalar said, his forehead creased with fear and concern.

"I know, but he was there," she said, pointing to the wall. "He came for me when I needed him."

"He has before," Jondalar said. "He saved your life, more than once. Maybe you were remembering."

"Maybe," Ayla said, but she didn't really think that was it.

"Did you say you saw a wolf there, on that wall?" Jonokol said.

"Not exactly on it," Ayla said, "but Wolf was there."

"I do think we need to go back," the woman acolyte said, but she was staring at her with a speculative expression.

"There you are," Zelandoni of the Ninth said when they returned to the widened area of the corridor. "Are you feeling more relaxed now and ready to proceed?" She was smiling, but Ayla had the distinct impression that the large woman was impatient and not entirely pleased.

After her vivid memory of the time when she drank some liquid that altered her perceptions, and her moment of displacement when she saw Wolf in the wall, Ayla was, if anything, feeling less inclined to drink some kind of beverage that would put her into some other kind of reality, or next world; but she didn't feel that she had a choice.

"It's not easy to feel relaxed in a cave like this," Ayla said, "and it frightens me to think about drinking that tea, but if you think it is necessary, I am willing to do what you want."

The First smiled again, and this time it seemed genuine. "Your honesty is refreshing, Ayla. Of course it is not easy to relax here. That is not the purpose of this place, and you are probably right to have some fear of this tea. It is very powerful. I was going to explain to you that you will feel strange after you drink it, and its effects are not entirely predictable. The effects usually wear off in a day or so, and I don't know of anyone who has been harmed by it, but if you would rather not, no one will hold it against you."

Ayla frowned in thought, wondering if she should refuse, but though she was glad she had been given the choice, it made it harder to say no. "If you want me to, I am willing," she said.

"I'm sure your participation would be helpful, Ayla," said the donier. "Yours as well, Jondalar. But I hope you understand, you also have the right to refuse."

"You know I've always been uncomfortable with the spirit world, Zelandoni," Jondalar said, "and in the last couple of days, what with digging graves and everything, I've been much closer to that place than I want to be until the Mother calls me. But I was the one who asked you to help Thonolan, and I can do no less than help you in any way I can. In fact, I'll be just as glad to get it all over with."

"Then why don't you both come over here and sit down on this leather pad, and we'll proceed," said the First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother.

When they sat down the young woman ladled the tea into cups. Ayla glanced at Mejera and smiled. She smiled back, shyly, and Ayla realized that she was quite young. She seemed nervous, and Ayla wondered if it was the first time for her to be participating in this kind of ceremony. Probably the zelandonia were using this occasion as a teaching experience.

"Take your time," they were told by Zelandoni of the Third, who was assisting the acolyte in handing them the cups. "It tastes strong, but with the mint, it's not too bad."

Ayla took a sip and thought "not too bad" was a matter of opinion. Under any other circumstances, she would have spit it out. The fire in the hearth was out, but the beverage was rather hot, and she thought that whatever else was in it actually made the mint taste bad. Besides, this wasn't really a tea. It had been boiled, not steeped, and boiling never did bring out the best qualities of mint. She wondered if there weren't other, more compatible, innocuous, or healing herbs that might blend with the primary ingredients in a pleasanter way. Licorice root, perhaps, or linden flowers added later, after it was boiled. In any case, it wasn't a taste to savor, and she finally just drank it down.

She saw that Jondalar had done the same, and so did the First. Then she noticed that Mejera, who had boiled the water and ladled the beverage, had also drunk a cup.

"Jondalar, is this the stone you brought with you from Thonolan's burial?" the First said, showing him the small, sharp-edged, ordinary-looking gray stone with one iridescent blue opal face.

"Yes, it is," he said. He would recognize that stone anywhere.

"Good. It is an unusual stone, and I'm sure it still carries a trace of your brother's elan. Take it in your hand, Jondalar, and then hold hands with Ayla so that the stone is held by both of you. Move close to my seat and with your other hand, take my hand. Now, Mejera, you move up close to me and take my hand, and Ayla, if you will come a little closer, you and Mejera can hold hands."

Mejera must be a new acolyte, Ayla thought. I wonder if it is her first time for something like this. It's my first time with the Zelandonii, although that time at the Clan Gathering with Creb was probably similar, and of course, what I did with Mamut was. She found herself recalling her last experience with the old man of the Lion Camp who interceded with the spirit world, and it did not make her feel better. When Mamut found out she'd had some of the special Clan roots that the mog-urs used, he wanted to try them, but he was unfamiliar with their properties and they were stronger than he had thought. They were both nearly lost to the deep void, and Mamut warned her against ever using them again. Though she did have more of those roots with her, she didn't plan to take them.

The four who had consumed the drink were now facing each other, holding hands, the First sitting on a low padded stool, the rest sitting on the leather mat on the ground. The Zelandoni of the Eleventh brought an oil lamp and placed it in the middle of them. Ayla had seen similar lamps but found herself quite intrigued by it. She was already beginning to feel some effects from the drink as she stared at the stone that held fire.

The lamp was made of limestone. The general shape, including the bowl-like section and the handle extension, had been pecked out with a much harder stone, like granite. Then it was smoothed with sandstone and decorated with symbolic markings etched in with a flint burin. Three wicks were resting against the side of the bowl opposite the handle at different angles, each with one end sticking out of the liquid fat, and the rest of the absorbent material soaking in it. One was quick-starting and hot-burning lichen that melted the fat, the second was dried moss twisted into a sort of cord that gave good light, and the third was made of a dried strip of a porous fungus that absorbed the liquefied fat so well, it kept burning even after the oil was gone. The animal fat that was used for the fuel had been rendered in boiling water so that the impurities fell to the bottom, leaving only pure white tallow floating on top after the water cooled. The flame burned clean, with no visible smoke or soot.

Ayla glanced around and noted, somewhat to her dismay, that a Zelandoni was putting out an oil lamp, and then she saw another going out. Soon all the lamps were out, except for the one in the center. Seeming to defy its diminutive size, the light from the single lamp spread out and lit the faces of the four people holding hands with a warm golden glow. But beyond the circle deep and utter darkness filled every cranny, every crack and hollow, with a black so complete, it felt thick and stifling. Ayla began to feel apprehensive, then she turned her head and caught the bare glimpse of a glow coming from the long corridor. Some of the lamps that had guided their way must still be lit, she thought, and let out a breath that she didn't know she was holding. She was feeling very strange. The decoction was taking effect quickly. It seemed as though things around her were slowing down or that she was going faster. She looked at Jondalar and found him staring at her, and she had the strangest sense that she almost knew what he was thinking. Then she looked at Zelandoni and Mejera, and felt something, too, but it was not as strong as her feeling with Jondalar, and she wondered if she was imagining it.

She became conscious of hearing music, flutes, drums, and people singing, but not with words. She wasn't quite sure when or even from where it originated. Each singer maintained a single note, or series of repetitive notes, until he or she ran out of breath, and then would take a breath and start again. Most singers and the drummers repeated the same thing over and over, but a few exceptional singers varied their song, as did most of the flute players. Beginning and ending at each person's own choosing meant that no two people started or stopped at the same time. The effect was a continuous sound of interweaving tones that changed as new voices began and others ended, with an overlay of divergent melodies. It was sometimes atonal, sometimes closely harmonic, but overall a strangely wonderful, beautiful, and powerful fugue.

The other three people in her circle were singing as well. The First, with her beautiful, rich contralto, was one who varied her tones in a melodic way. Mejera had a pure, high voice, and a simple, repetitive set of tones. Jondalar also sang a repetition of tones, a chant he had obviously perfected and was happy with. Ayla had never really heard him sing before, but his voice was rich and true, and she liked the sound. She wondered why he didn't sing more.

Ayla felt that she should join in, but she had attempted to sing when she lived with the Mamutoi and knew she simply didn't know how to carry a tune. She never learned as a child, and it was a little late to learn now. Then she heard one of the men nearby who just crooned in a monotone. It reminded her of when she was living alone in her valley and used to hum a similar monotone at night while she rocked herself to sleep, the leather cloak that she had used to hold her son to her hip crumpled up into a ball and held close to her stomach.

Very softly, she began to hum her low-pitched monotone and found herself rocking very slightly. There was something soothing about the music. Her own humming relaxed her, and the sounds of the others gave her a comforting, protected feeling, as though they were supporting her and would be there for her if she needed them. It made it easier for her to give in to the effects of the drink, which was having a strong influence on her.

She became acutely aware of the hands she was holding. On her left, the hand of the young woman was cool, moist, and so softly compliant, the grip was slack. Ayla clasped Mejera's hand but felt almost no return hold; even her grasp was young and shy. In contrast, the hand on her right was warm, dry, and slightly callused from use. Jondalar held her hand with a firm grip, as she held his, and she was extremely conscious of the hard stone held between them, which was slightly disconcerting, but his hand made her feel secure.

Though she couldn't see it, she was sure the flat opal side was against her palm, which meant that the triangular ridge on the side opposite was in his. As she concentrated on it, the stone seemed to be warming, matching their body heat, adding to it, feeling as though it were becoming a part of them or they a part of it. She remembered the chill she'd felt when she first entered the cave, and that the cold intensified as they got farther into its depths, but at the moment, sitting on the padded leather and dressed in her warm clothes, she did not feel cold at all.

Her attention was caught by the fire in the lamp; it made her think of the pleasant heat of fire in a hearth. She stared at the small flickering flame, became fixated on the bit of incandescence to the exclusion of everything else. She watched the small yellow light as it fluttered and trembled. With every breath she took, she seemed to control the flame.

As she watched closely, she saw that the light wasn't entirely yellow. To keep still while she studied it, she held her breath. The small fire was rounded in the middle, with the brightest yellow part starting near the end of the wick and tapering up to a point. Inside the yellow was a darker area that began below the end of the wick and narrowed into a cone as it rose up within the bit of fire. Below the yellow, at the bottom where the flame began, the fire had a hint of blue.

She had never looked at the fire of an oil lamp with such intensity before. When she started breathing again, the lambet fire seemed to be playing with the lamp, moving to the meter of the music. As it danced over the glossy surface of the melted tallow, its light reflecting from the fuel, the flame grew more radiant. It filled her eyes with its softly glowing luminescence until she could see nothing else.

It made her feel airy, weightless, carefree, as though she could have floated up into the warmth of the light. Everything was easy, effortless. Sme smiled, laughed softly, the found herself looking at Jondalar. She thought about the life that he had started growing inside her, and a sudden flood of intense love for him welled up and overflowed. He could not help but respond to her glowing smile; as she watched him begin to smile back, she felt happy and loved. Life was full of joy, and she wanted to share it.

She beamed at Mejera and was rewarded with a tentative smile in return, then turned to Zelandoni and included her in the beneficience of her happiness. In a dispassionate corner of her mind that seemed to have distanced itself from her, she seemed to be watching everything with a strange clarity.

"I am getting ready to call Shevonar's elan and direct him to the spirit world," the One Who Was First interrupted her singing to say. Her voice sounded far away, even to her own ears. "After we help him, I will try to find the elan of Thonolan. Jondalar and Ayla will have to help me. Think about how he died, and where his bones are resting."

To Ayla, the sound of her words was full of music that grew louder and more complex. She heard tones resonating from the walls all around her, and watched as the huge donier seemed to become a part of the reverberating chant she sang again, a part of the cave itself. She saw the woman's eyes close. When she opened them, she seemed to be seeing something that was far away. Then her eyes rolled back, showing only whites, and closed again as she slumped forward in her seat.

The young woman whose hand she was holding was shaking. Ayla wondered if it was from fear or if Mejera was simply overwhelmed. She turned to look at Jondalar again. He seemed to be looking at her and she started to smile, but then she realized that he, too, was staring into space, not seeing her at all but something far away inside his mind. Suddenly, she found herself back in the vicinity of her valley again.

Ayla heard something that chilled her blood and set her heart racing: the thundering roar of a cave lion-and a human scream. Jondalar was there with her, inside her, it seemed; she felt the pain of a leg being mauled by the lion, then he lost consciousness.Ayla stopped, her blood pounding in her ears. It had been so long since she had heard a human sound, yet she knew it was human, and something else. She knew it was her kind of human. She was so stunned that she couldn't think. The scream pulled at her -it was a cry for help.

With Jondalar's presence unconscious, no longer dominant, she could feel the others there. Zelandoni, distant but powerful; Mejera, closer but vague. Underlying everything was the music, voices and flutes, faint but supporting, comforting, and the drums, deep and resounding.

She heard the growling of the cave lion and saw its reddish mane. Then she realized Whinney had not been nervous, and she knew why… "That's Baby! Whinney, that's Baby!"

There were two men. She pushed aside the lion she had raised and knelt to examine them. Her main concern was as a medicine woman, but she was astonished and curious as well. She knew they were men, though they were the first men of the Others she could remember seeing.

She knew immediately that the man with the darker hair was beyond hope. He lay in an unnatural position, his neck broken. The toothmarks on his throat proclaimed the cause. Though she had never seen him before, his death upset her. Tears of grief filled her eyes. It wasn't that she loved him, but that she felt she had lost something beyond value before she ever had a chance to appreciate it. She was devastated that the first time she saw people of her own kind, one was dead.

She wanted to acknowledge his humanity, to honor him with a burial, but a close look at the other man made her realize that it would be impossible. The man with the yellow hair still breathed, but his life was pumping out of him through a gash in his leg. His only hope was to get him back to the cave as quickly as possible so she could treat him. There was no time for a burial.

She didn't know what to do. She didn't want to leave the man there for the lions… She noticed that the loose rock at the back of the blind canyon looked very unstable-much of it had piled up behind a larger boulder that was none too stable itself. She dragged the dead man to the back of the blind canyon near the slide of loose rock…

When she finally got the other man wrapped into the travois, she returned to the stone ledge with a long sturdy Clan spear. She looked down at the dead man and felt sorrow for the fact of his death. With the formal silent motions of the Clan, she addressed the World of the Spirits.

She had watched Creb, the old Mog-ur, consign the spirit of Iza to the next world with his eloquent flowing movements. She had repeated the same gestures when she found Creb's body in the cave after the earthquake, though she had never known the full meaning of the holy gestures. That wasn't important-she knew the intent…

Using the sturdy spear as a lever, in much the same way as she would have used a digging stick to turn over a log or extract a root, she prised free the large stone and jumped hack out of the way as a cascade of loose rock covered the dead man…

When they neared an opening between jagged rock walls, Ayla dismounted and examined the ground. It held no fresh spoor. There was no pain, now. It was a different time, much later. The leg was healed, a large scar was all that remained of the wound. They had been riding double on Whinney. Jondalar got down and followed her, but she knew he didn't really want to be there.

She led the way into a blind canyon, then climbed up on a rock that had split from the wall. She walked to a rockslide at the back.

"This is the place, Jondalar," she said, and, withdrawing a pouch from her tunic, gave it to him. He knew this place.

"What is this?" he asked, holding up the small leather bag.

"Red earth, Jondalar. For his grave. "

He nodded, unable to speak. He felt the pressure of tears and made no effort to check them. He poured the red ochre into his hand and broadcast it on the rocks and gravel, then spread a second handful. She waited while he stared at the rocky slope with wet eyes, and when he turned to go, she made a gesture over Thonolan's grave.

They arrived at the blind canyon strewn with huge, sharp-angled boulders and started in, drawn to the slope of loose gravel at the far end. Time had passed again. They were living with the Mamutoi now, and the Lion Camp was going to adopt her. They had gone back to her valley, so Ayla could get some of the things she had made to give as gifts for her new people, and were returning.Jondalar stood at the foot of the slope, wishing there was something he could do to acknowledge this burial place of his brother. Perhaps Doni had already found him, since She called him back to Her so young. But he knew Zelandoni would try to find this resting place of Thonolan's spirit and help guide him to the spirit world, if she could. But how could he tell her where this place was? He couldn't even have found it without Ayla .

He noticed Ayla had a small leather pouch in her hand, one similar to the kind she wore around her neck. "You have told me his spirit should return to Doni," she said. "I don't know the ways of the Great Earth Mother, I only know of the Spirit World of the Clan totems. I asked my Cave Lion to guide him there. Maybe it is the same place, or maybe your Great Mother knows of that place, but the Cave Lion is a powerful totem and your brother is not without protection."

She held up the small pouch. "I made an amulet for you. You, too, were chosen by the Cave Lion. You don't have to wear it, but you should keep it with you. I put a piece of red ochre in it, so it can hold a piece of your spirit and a piece of your totem's, but I think your amulet should hold one more thing."

Jondalar was frowning. He didn't want to offend her, but he wasn't sure if he wanted this Clan totem amulet.

"I think you should take a piece of stone from your brother's grave. A piece of his spirit may stay with it, and you can carry it back in your amulet to your people."

The knots of consternation on his forehead deepened, then suddenly cleared. Of course! That might help Zelandoni find this place in a spirit trance. Maybe there was more to Clan totems than he realized. After all, didn't Doni create the spirits of all the animals? "Yes, I'll keep this and put a stone from Thonolan's grave into it," he said.

He looked at the loose, sharp-edged gravel sloping against the wall in a tenuous equilibrium. Suddenly a stone, giving way to the cosmic force of gravity, rolled down amid a spattering of other rocks and landed at Jondalar's feet. He picked it up. At first glance, it appeared to be the same as all the other innocuous little pieces of broken granite and sedimentary rock. But when he turned it over, he was surprised to see a shining opalescence where the stone had broken. Fiery red lights gleamed from the heart of the milky white stone, and shimmering streaks of blues and greens danced and sparkled in the sun as he turned it this way and that.

"Ayla, look at this," he said, showing her the opal facet of the small rock he had picked up. "You'd never guess it from the back. You'd think it was just an ordinary stone, but look here, where it broke off. The colors seem to come from deep inside, and they're so bright, it almost seems alive."

"Maybe it is, or maybe it is a piece of the spirit of your brother," she said.

Ayla became aware of Jondalar's warm hand and the stone pressing against her palm. Its heat increased, not enough to cause discomfort, but enough to make her notice it. Was it Thonolan's spirit that was trying to be noticed? She wished she'd had a chance to get to know the man. The things she'd heard about him since she arrived indicated that he had been well liked. It was a shame that he'd died so young. Jondalar had often said that Thonolan was the one who had wanted to travel. He had gone on the Journey only because his brother was going, and because he didn't really want to mate Marona.

"O Doni, Great Mother, help us to find our way to the other side, to your world, to the place beyond and yet within the unseen spaces of this world. As the dying old moon holds the new within its slender arms, the world of the spirits, of the unknown, holds this world of the tangible, of flesh and bone, grass and stone, within its unseen grasp. But with your help it can be seen, it can be known."

Ayla heard the plea, sung in a strange muted chant by the huge woman. She had noticed that she was getting dizzy, though that was not quite the word to describe her sensations. She closed her eyes and felt herself falling. When she opened them again, lights were flashing from within her eyes. Though she had not really paid attention to them when she was looking at the animals, she realized now that she had seen other things, signs and symbols marked on the walls of the cave, some of which matched the visions in her eyes. It didn't seem to matter now whether her eyes were open or closed. She felt that she was falling into a deep hole, a long dark tunnel, and she resisted the sensation, tried to keep control.

"Don't fight it, Ayla. Let go," the great donier said. "We are all here with you. We will support you, Doni will protect you. Let Her take you where She will. Listen to the music, let it help you, tell us what you see."

Ayla dove through the tunnel headfirst, as though she were swimming underwater. The walls of the tunnel, of the cave, began to shimmer, then seemed to dissolve. She was looking through them, seeing into them, beyond them to a grassland and, in the distance, many bison.

"I see bison, huge herds of bison on a large open plain," Ayla said. For a moment the walls solidified again, but the bison stayed. They covered the walls where the mammoths had been. "They are on the walls, painted on the walls, painted in reds and black, and shaped to fit. They're beautiful, perfect, so full of life, the way Jonokol makes them. Don't you see them? Look, over there."

The walls melted again. She could see into them, through them. "They're in a field again, a herd of them. Heading toward the surround." Suddenly Ayla screamed. "No, Shevonar! No! Don't go there, it's dangerous." Then, with sorrow and resignation, "It's too late. I'm sorry, I did everything I could, Shevonar."

"She wanted a sacrifice, to show respect, so people know that sometimes they, too, must give of their own," the First said. She was there with Ayla. "You cannot stay here anymore, Shevonar. You must return to Her now. I will help you. We will help you. We will show you the way. Come with us, Shevonar. Yes, it's dark, but see the light ahead? The bright, glowing light? Go that way. She waits for you there."

Ayla held Jondalar's warm hand. She could feel that the strong presence of Zelandoni was with them, and a fourth companion, the young woman with the limp hand, Mejera, but she was ambiguous, inconsistent. Occasionally she would manifest quite strongly, then would fade to uncertainty.

"Now is the time. Go to your brother, Jondalar," the large woman said. "Ayla can help you. She knows the way."

Ayla felt the stone they held between them and thought about the beautiful, blue-toned milky surface with fiery red highlights. It expanded, filling the space around her until she dove into it. She was swimming, not on top but through the water, underwater, so fast that it felt as if she were flying. She was flying, speeding over the landscape, seeing meadows and mountains, forests and rivers, great inland seas and vast grassy steppes, and the profusion of animals those habitats supported.

The others were with her, letting her lead. Jondalar was closest, and she felt him most strongly, but she sensed the proximity of the powerful donier as well. The other woman's presence was so faint, it was hardly noticed. Ayla took them directly to the blind canyon on the rugged steppes far to the east. "This is the place I saw him. I don't know where to go from here," she said.

"Think of Thonolan, call to his spirit, Jondalar," Zelandoni said. "Reach out to your brother's elan."

"Thonolan! Thonolan! I can feel him," Jondalar said. "I don't know where he is, but I can feel him." Ayla had a perception of Jondalar with someone else, though she could not discern who. Then she sensed other presences, at first just a few, then many, calling out to them. Out of the throng, two stood out… no, three. One of them carried an infant.

"Are you still traveling, still exploring, Thonolan?" Jondalar asked.

Ayla heard no answer, but sensed laughter. Then, she had the feeling of an infinity of space to travel and places to go.

"Is Jetamio with you? And her child?" Jondalar queried.

Again, Ayla sensed no words, but felt a surge of love radiating from the amorphous form.

"Thonolan, I know your love of travel and adventure." This time it was the First who spoke with her thoughts to the elan of the man. "But the woman with you wants to return to the Mother. She has followed you only out of love, but she is ready to go. If you love her, you should go and take her and her infant with you. It is time, Thonolan. The Great Earth Mother wants you."

Ayla discerned confusion, a sense of being lost.

"I will show you the way," the donier said. "Follow me."

Ayla perceived herself being drawn along with the rest, speeding rapidly over a landscape that might have been familiar if the details were not so blurred, and if it were not getting so dark. She held tight to the warm hand on her right and felt her left hand being fervently clutched. A brightness appeared before them in the distance that was like a great bonfire, but different. It grew more intense as they approached.

They slowed. "You can find your way from here," Zelandoni said.

Ayla sensed relief from the elans, and then separation. A somber darkness engulfed them, and with the absolute absence of light, a silence, pervasive and complete, surrounded them. Then, faintly, in the unearthly quiet, she heard music: a fluctuating fugue of flutes, voices, and drums. She feltmovement. They were accelerating at a tremendous rate, butthis time it seemed to come from the hand on the left . Mejera was clutching hard, in fear, determined to return as fast as possible and dragging everyone else along in her wake.

When they stopped, Ayla felt both hands holding hers. They were in the immediate presence of the music, back in the cave. Ayla opened her eyes, saw Jondalar, Zelandoni, and Mejera. The lamp in their midst was sputtering, the oil almost gone and only one wick burning. In the darkness beyond, she saw the small fire of a lamp move, seemingly by itself, and shivered. Another lamp was brought forward and exchanged for the dying light in the center. They were sitting on the leather pad, but now, even in her warm clothing, she felt chilled.

They let go of each other's hands, though Ayla and Jondalar held on for a beat or two longer than the rest, and began to shift positions. The One Who Was First joined in with the singers and brought the musical fugue to a close. More lamps were lit and people started moving around. Some stood up and stamped their feet.

"I want to ask you something, Ayla," the large woman said.

Ayla looked at her expectantly.

"Did you say you saw bison on the walls?"

"Yes, the mammoths had been covered over and made into bison, with the shape of the head and the hump on the back filled in and made to look like the large hump on a bison's withers, and then the walls seemed to disappear and they became real bison. There were some other animals, the horses, and the reindeer facing each other, but I saw this place as a bison cave," Ayla said.

"I think your vision is because of the recent bison hunt and the tragedy surrounding it. You were in the midst of it, and you treated Shevonar," the First said. "But I think there is a meaning to your vision beyond that. They came to you in great numbers in this place. Perhaps the Spirit of Bison is telling the Zelandonii that there has been too much hunting of bison and we need to suspend the hunting of them for the rest of the year to atone, to overcome the bad luck."

There were murmurs of assent. It made the zelandonia feel better to think they could do something to placate the Bison Spirit and remove the ill fortune the unexpected death presaged. They would inform their Caves of the ban on bison hunting, almost grateful to have a message to bring them.

The acolytes gathered up the things that were brought into the cave, then the lamps were all relit and used to light their way out. The zelandonia left the chamber and retraced their steps. When they reached the ledge outside the cave, the sun was setting in a brilliant display of fiery reds, golds, and yellows in the west. On the way back from Fountain Rocks, no one seemed inclined to talk much about their experiences in the deep cave. As the various zelandonia left the group to return to their respective Caves, Ayla wondered what the others had felt and if it was the same thing that she had, buts he was reluctant to bring it up. Though she had many questions, she wasn't sure if it was appropriate to ask, or if she really wanted to know the answers.

Zelandoni asked Jondalar if he was satisfied that they had found his brother's spirit and helped his elan to find his way. Jondalar said he thought Thonolan was content, and therefore he was, but Ayla thought it was more that he was relieved. He had done what he could, though it hadn't been easy for him, now the burden of worrying about it was over. By the time Ayla, Jondalar, Zelandoni, and Jonokol reached the Ninth Cave, only the lonely flickering lights in the night sky and the small fires in their stone lamps and torches remained to light their way.

Ayla and Jondalar were both tired when they reached Marthona's dwelling. Wolf was nervously excited and very happy to see Ayla. After comforting the animal and exchanging greetings, they had a light meal and not long after went to bed. It had been a difficult few days.

"Can I help you cook this morning, Marthona?" Ayla asked. They were the first two awake and were enjoying a quiet cup of tea together while everyone else still slept. "I'd like to learn how you like food prepared, and where you keep things."

"I'd be happy to have your help, Ayla, but this morning we've all been invited to share a morning meal with Joharran and Proleva. Zelandoni has been invited, too. Proleva often cooks for her, and I think Joharran feels that he hasn't had much time to talk with his brother since he returned. He seems particularly interested in learning more about that new spear-throwing weapon," Marthona said.

Jondalar woke up remembering the discussion about abelans and how important it was to Ayla to feel that shebelonged. Since she had no memory of her own people, and no longer had any connection with the people who had raised her, it was understandable. She had even left behind the Mamutoi, who had made her one of them, to go home with him. The thought preyed on his mind all through the meal with Joharran's family. Everyone there belonged to the Zelandonii, they were all his family, his Cave, his people. Only Ayla was not. It was true they would soon be mated, but she would still be "Ayla of the Mamutoi, mated to Jondalar of the Zelandonii."

After a discussion with Joharran about the spear-thrower, exchanging anecdotes with Willamar about traveling, and general conversation with everyone about the Summer Meeting, the talk turned to Jondalar and Ayla's mating at the First Matrimonial. Marthona was explaining to Ayla that there were two mating ceremonies each summer. The first, and usually the biggest one, was held as early as reasonably possible. Most people who would be joined then had been making the arrangements for some time. The second one was conducted shortly before they left and usually mated those who decided to tie the knot during the summer. There were also two womanhood ceremonies, one shortly after they arrived and the second just before the Summer Meeting ended.

Impulsively Jondalar interrupted her explanations. "I would like Ayla to belong, to become one of us. After we are mated, I would like her to be 'Ayla of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii,' not 'Ayla of the Mamutoi.' I know that is usually a decision that a person's mother, or the man of her hearth, makes when that person wants to change affiliation, along with the leaders and Zelandonia, but Mamut gave the choice to Ayla when she left. If she is willing, can I have your agreement, mother?"

Marthona was startled by the suddenness of his request and was caught off guard. "I would not refuse you, Jondalar," she said, feeling that her son had put her in an untenable position to ask such a thing in public without warning. "But it is not entirely up to me. I am happy to welcome Ayla to the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, but it is your brother, and Zelandoni, and others, including Ayla herself, who have a say in that decision."

Folara grinned, knowing that her mother did not like to be taken by surprise like that. It rather pleased her that Jondalar had caught her without warning, but she had to admit, Marthona had recovered well.

"Well, I for one would not hesitate to accept her," Willamar said. "I would even adopt her, but since I am mated to your mother, Jondalar, I'm afraid it would make her a sister, like Folara, an unmatable woman. I don't think you would want that."

"No, but I appreciate the thought," Jondalar said.

"Why do you bring it up now?" Marthona asked, still a little miffed.

"It seemed as good a time as any," Jondalar said. "We'll be leaving soon for the Summer Meeting, and I would like it settled before we go. I know we haven't been home very long, but most of you have gotten to know Ayla. I think she would be a valuable addition to the Ninth Cave."

Ayla was more than a little surprised, too, but she said nothing. Do I want to be adopted by the Zelandonii? she asked herself. Does it matter? If Jondalar and I are going to be mated, I will be the same as one, whether I have the name or not. He seems to want it. I'm not sure why, but maybe he has a good reason. He knows his people much better than I do.

"Perhaps I should tell you something, Jondalar," Joharran said. "I think to those of us who know her, Ayla would be a more than acceptable addition to our Cave, but not everyone feels that way. When I was walking back from Down River, I decided to tell Laramar and some others about the bison feast, and when I approached, I overheard them talking. I'm sorry to say, they were making disparaging remarks, in particular about her healing skills and treatment of Shevonar. They seem to feel that anyone who learned healing from… the Clan, could not know much. It's their prejudice talking, I'm afraid. I told them no one, not even Zelandoni, could have done more, and I must admit they made me angry. That's not always the best time to make a point."

So that's why he was so angry, Ayla thought. The knowledge gave her mixed feelings. She was upset by what those men said about Iza's healing abilities, but pleased that Joharran had spoken up for her.

"All the more reason to make her one of us now," Jondalar said. "You know those men. They do nothing but gamble and drink Laramar's barma. They haven't even bothered to learn a craft or a skill, unless you consider gambling one. They are not even decent hunters. They are lazy, worthless men who contribute nothing, unless they're shamed into it, and they have little shame. They will do anything to avoid making an effort toward helping the Cave, and everyone knows it. No one will pay attention to what they say if the ones people respect are willing to accept her and make her Zelandonii." He was obviously upset. He wanted Ayla to be accepted for herself, and this put a different character on it.

"That's not entirely true about Laramar, Jondalar," Proleva said. "He may be lazy about most things, and I don't think he likes to hunt much, but Laramar does have a skill. He can make a drinkable beverage out of almost anything that will ferment. I've known him to use grains, fruits, honey, birch sap, even some roots, and turn out a drink that most people like, and he makes it for almost every occasion when people get together. It's true, some people overdo it, but he's just the provider."

"I wish he was a provider," Marthona said with a scornful edge. "Then maybe the children of his hearth wouldn't have to beg for everything they need. Tell me, Joharran, how often is he too 'sick' in the mornings to join a hunting party?"

"I thought food was for everyone, as they need it," Ayla said.

"Food, yes. They won't starve, but for everything else, they have to depend on the goodwill and generosity of other people," the First said.

"But if, as Proleva says, he has the skill to make a very good drink that everyone likes, can't he exchange that for whatever his family needs?" Ayla said.

"He could, yes, but he doesn't," Proleva said.

"What about his mate? Can't she convince him to contribute to his family?" Ayla said.

"Tremeda? She's even worse than Laramar. All she does is drink his barma and produce more children that she doesn't take care of," Marthona said.

"What does Laramar do with all the drink he makes if he doesn't trade it for things for his family?" Ayla wanted to know.

"I'm not sure," Willamar said, "But he would have to trade some of it for ingredients to make more."

"It's true, he always manages to trade for what he wants, but he never has enough for his mate and her children," Proleva said. "It's a good thing that Tremeda doesn't seem to mind asking people to give her things for her 'poor children.'"

"And he does drink a lot of it himself," Joharran said. "Tremeda does, too. I think he gives a good measure away. There is always a bunch around him hoping for drinks. I think he likes to have them around. He probably thinks they're his friends, but I wonder how long they'd stay if he stopped giving them barma."

"Not long, I'd guess," Willamar said. "But I don't think Laramar and his friends are the ones to decide whether Ayla becomes Zelandonii."

"You are right, Trade Master. I think there's no question that we would have no problem accepting Ayla, but maybe we should let Ayla decide," Zelandoni said. "No one has asked her if she wants to be a woman of the Zelandonii."

All heads turned to look at her. Now she was the one who felt uncomfortable. It was a while before she said anything, which made Jondalar a bit nervous. Maybe he had misjudged her. Maybe she didn't want to become Zelandonii. Maybe he should have asked her first before he started this, but with all the talk about Matrimonials, it seemed an appropriate time. Finally Ayla spoke.

"When I decided to leave the Mamutoi and go with Jondalar back to his home, I knew how the Zelandonii felt about the Clan, the people who raised me, and I knew that you might not want me. I admit I was a little afraid to meet his family, his people." She stopped for a moment, trying to gather her thoughts and find the right words to say what she felt.

"I'm a stranger to you, a foreign woman, with strange ideas and ways. I brought animals that live with me and asked you to accept them. Horses are animals that are usually hunted, and I wanted you to make a place for them. I have just been thinking today that I would like to make a covered shelter for them at the south end of the Ninth Cave, not far from Down River. During the winter, the horses are used to having a refuge that is out of the weather. I also brought a wolf, a meat-eating hunter. Some of his kind have been known to attack people, and I asked you to allow me to bring him inside, to sleep in the same dwelling that I sleep in." She smiled at Jondalar's mother.

"You didn't hesitate, Marthona. You invited me and Wolf to share your home. And Joharran, you allowed the horses to stay nearby, and let me take them right up on the ledge in front of your dwellings. Brun, the leader of my clan, would not have. You all listened when I explained about the Clan, and you didn't turn me away. You were willing to consider that the ones you call flatheads might be people, perhaps a different kind of people, but not animals. I didn't expect that you would be so thoughtful, but I am grateful.

"It's true that not everyone has been kind, but many more of you have defended me, though you hardly know me. I've been here only a short time. It may be because of Jondalar, because you trust that he would not bring someone who would try to harm his people or that you could not accept." She stopped and closed her eyes for a moment, then continued.

"For all my fears about meeting Jondalar's family and his people, the Zelandonii, when I left I knew there would be no turning back. I didn't know how you would feel about me, but it didn't matter. I love Jondalar. I want to spend my life with him. I was willing to do whatever was needed, to put up with whateverI had to, to be with him . But you have welcomed me, and now you ask if I want to become Zelandonii." She closed her eyes to maintain her control and tried to swallow the fullness in her throat.

"I have wanted that since I first saw Jondalar, and wasn't even sure if he would live. I grieved for his brother, not because I knew him, but because I recognized him. It troubled me that I would never have an opportunity to know one of the first people of my own kind that I could remember seeing. I don't know what language I spoke before the Clan found me and took me in. I learned to communicate the way the Clan does, but the first language I can remember speaking is Zelandonii. Even if I don't speak it quite right, I think of it as my language. But before we could even speak to each other, I wished that I was one of Jondalar's people so that I would be acceptable to him, so that someday he might consider me for his mate. Even if it was his second or third woman, it would have been enough.

"You ask me, do I want to be a Zelandonii woman? Oh, yes, I want to be a Zelandonii woman. With all my heart I want to be a Zelandonii woman. I want that more than I have ever wanted anything in my life," she said, her eyes sparkling with tears.

There was a stunned silence. Without even realizing how he got there, Jondalar had taken the few