/ Language: English / Genre:sf_history / Series: Earth Children

The Land of Painted Caves

Jean Auel

Thirty thousand years in the making and 31 years in the writing, Auel's overlong and underplotted sixth and final volume in the Earth's Children series (The Clan of the Cave Bear; etc.) finds Cro-Magnon Ayla; her mate, Jondalar; and their infant daughter, Jonayla, settling in with the clan of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonaii. Animal whisperer and medicine woman Ayla is an acolyte in training to become a full-fledged Zelandoni (shaman) of the clan, but all is not rosy in this Ice Age setting; there are wild animals to face and earthquakes to survive, as well as a hunter named Balderan, who has targeted Ayla for death, and a potential cave-wrecker named Marona. While gazing on an elaborate cave painting (presumably, the Lascaux caverns in France), Ayla has an epiphany and invents the concept of art appreciation, and after she overdoses on a hallucinogenic root, Ayla and Jondalar come to understand how much they mean to one another, thus giving birth to another concept — monogamy. Otherwise, not much of dramatic interest happens, and Ayla, for all her superwomanish ways, remains unfortunately flat. Nevertheless, readers who enjoyed the previous volumes will relish the opportunity to re-enter pre-history one last time.



First born, last cited, always loved,

and for FRANK,

who stands by her side,

and for AMELIA and BRET, ALECIA, and EMORY,

fine young adults,

with love


I am grateful for the assistance of many people who have helped me to write the Earth's Children(r) series. I want to thank again two French archaeologists who have been particularly helpful over the years, Dr. Jean-Philippe Rigaud and Dr. Jean Clottes. They have both enabled me to understand the background and to visualise the prehistoric setting of these books.

Dr. Rigaud's help has been invaluable beginning with my first research visit to France, and his assistance has continued over the years. I particularly enjoyed the visit, which he arranged, to a stone shelter in Gorge d'Enfer, which is still much the way it was in the Ice Age: a deep protected space, open in the front, with a level floor, a rock ceiling and a natural spring at the back. It was easy to see how it could be made into a comfortable place to live. And I appreciated his willingness to explain to reporters and other media people from many countries the interesting and important information about some of the prehistoric sites in and around Les Eyzies de Tayac when Book 5, The Shelters of Stone, was launched internationally from that location in France.

I am also most grateful to Dr. Jean Clottes, who arranged for Ray and me to visit many remarkable painted caves in the south of France. Particularly memorable was the visit to the caves on the property of Comte Robert Begouen in the Volp Valley — l'Enlene, Trois-Freres, and Tuc-d'Audoubert — whose art is often pictured in texts and art books. To actually see some of that remarkable art in its environment, escorted by both Dr. Clottes and Count Begouen, was a treasured experience, and for that thanks in great measure are also due to Robert Begouen. It was his grandfather and two brothers who first explored the caves and began the practice of maintaining them, which continues to this day. No one visits the caves without the permission of Count Begouen, and usually his accompaniment.

We visited many more caves with Dr. Clottes, including Gargas, which is one of my favourites. With its many handprints, including those of a child, and the niche, large enough for an adult to enter, whose inner rock walls are completely covered with a rich red paint using the ochres from the region, I am convinced Gargas is a woman's cave. It feels like the womb of the earth. Above all, I am grateful to Jean Clottes for the visit to the extraordinary Grotte Chauvet. Even though he became too ill with the flu to accompany us, Dr. Clottes arranged for Jean-Marie Chauvet, the man who discovered it and for whom it was named, and Dominique Baffier, curator of Grotte Chauvet, to show us that remarkable site. A young man who was working at the site was also with us and helped me through some of the more difficult parts.

It was a deeply moving experience that I will never forget and I am grateful to both M. Chauvet and Dr. Baffier for their clear and astute explanations. We went in through the ceiling, much enlarged since M. Chauvet and his colleagues first found their way in, and down a ladder that was attached to the rock wall — the original entrance was closed by a landslide many thousands of years ago. They explained some of the changes that have occurred during the past 35,000 years since the first artists made their magnificent paintings.

In addition, I would like to thank Nicholas Conard, an American who lives in Germany and is in charge of the Archaeology Department at the University in Tubingen, for the opportunity to visit several of the Caves along the Danube in that region of Germany. He also showed us several of the ancient carved ivory artifacts that are more than thirty thousand years old, including mammoths, a graceful flying bird that he found in two parts several years apart, and a most amazing lion-human figure. His latest find is a female figure that was created in the same style as others from France, Spain, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic from the same era, but that is unique in its execution.

I also want to thank Dr. Lawrence Guy Strauss, who has been so willing and helpful in arranging for visits to sites and caves and often accompanying us on several trips to Europe. There were many highlights during those trips, but one of the most interesting was the visit to Abrigo do Lagar Velho, Portugal, the site of the 'lapedo valley child', whose skeleton showed evidence that contact between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans resulted in interbreeding. The discussions with Dr. Strauss about those Ice Age humans were not only informative, but always fascinating.

I have had discussions and asked questions of many other archaeologists, palaeanthropologists and specialists that I have met, about that particular time in our prehistory, when for many thousands of years both kinds of humans occupied Europe at the same time. I have appreciated their willingness to answer questions and discuss the several possibilities of how they lived.

I want to give special thanks to the French Ministry of Culture for the publication of a book, which I found invaluable: L'Art des Cavernes: Atlas des Grottes Ornees Paleolithiques Francaises, Paris, 1984, Ministere de la Culture. It contains very complete descriptions, including the floor plans, photographs, and drawings, as well as an explanatory narrative of most of the known painted and engraved caves in France, as of 1984. It does not include Cosquer, whose entrance is below the surface of the Mediterranean, or Chauvet, neither of which were discovered until after 1990.

I have visited many caves, so many times, and I can remember the ambiance, the mood, the feeling of seeing exceptional art painted on the walls inside caves, but I couldn't recall precisely what the first figure was, or on which wall it appeared, how far into the cave it was, or what direction it was facing. This book gave me the answers. The only problem was that it was published in French, of course, and while I have learned some French over the years, my command of the language is far from adequate.

So I am deeply indebted to my friend, Claudine Fisher, Honorary French Consul for Oregon, French Professor and Director of Canadian Studies at Portland State University. She is a native speaker who was born in France and she translated all the information I needed of every cave I wanted. It was a lot of work, but without her help, I could not have written this book, and I am more grateful than I can begin to express. She has been helpful in many other ways, too, besides just being a good friend.

There are several other friends I'd like to thank for their willingness to read a long and not-quite-polished manuscript, and make comments as readers: Karen Auel-Feuer, Kendall Auel, Cathy Humble, Deanna Sterett, Gin DeCamp, Claudine Fisher, and Ray Auel.

I want to offer gratitude in memoriam, to Dr. Jan Jelinek, who was an archaeologist from Czechoslovakia, now known as Czech Republic, who helped me in many ways. From the beginning when we first exchanged letters, and then visits that Ray and I made to see the palaeolithic sites near Brno, and then his and his wife's (Kveta) trip to Oregon. His help was invaluable. He was always kind, and generous with his time and knowledge, and I miss him.

I am lucky to have Betty Prashker as my editor. Her comments are always insightful, and she takes my best efforts and makes them better. Thank you.

Gratitude always to the one who has been there from the beginning, my wonderful literary agent, Jean Naggar. With every book, I appreciate her more. I also want to thank Jennifer Weltz, Jean's partner at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. They continue to perform miracles with this series, which is translated into many foreign languages and available all over the world.

For the past nineteen years Delores Rooney Pander has been my secretary and personal assistant. Unfortunately, she has become ill and has retired, but I want to thank her for her many years of service. You don't really know how much you count on someone like that until she is gone. I miss more than the work she did for me, I miss our conversations and discussions. Over the years she became a good friend.

And most of all, for Ray, my husband, who is always there for me. Love and gratitude beyond measure.

Chapter 1

The band of travellers walked along the path between the clear sparkling water of Grass River and the black-streaked white limestone cliff, following the trail that paralleled the right bank. They went single file around the bend where the stone wall jutted out closer to the water's edge. Ahead a smaller path split off at an angle toward the crossing place, where the flowing water spread out and became shallower, bubbling around exposed rocks.

Before they reached the fork in the trail, a young woman near the front suddenly stopped, her eyes opening wide as she stood perfectly still, staring ahead. She pointed with her chin, not wanting to move. 'Look! Over there!' she said in a hissing whisper of fear. 'Lions!'

Joharran, the leader, lifted his arm, signalling the band to a halt. Just beyond the place where the trail diverged, they now saw pale-tawny cave lions moving around in the grass. The grass was such effective camouflage, however, that they might not have noticed them until they were much closer, if it hadn't been for the sharp eyes of Thefona. The young woman from the Third Cave had exceptionally good vision, and though she was quite young, she was noted for her ability to see far and well. Her innate talent had been recognised early and they had begun training her when she was a small girl; she was their best lookout.

Near the back of the group, walking in front of three horses, Ayla and Jondalar looked up to see what was causing the delay. 'I wonder why we've stopped,' Jondalar said, a familiar frown of worry wrinkling his forehead.

Ayla observed the leader and the people around him closely, and instinctively moved her hand to shield the warm bundle that she carried in the soft leather blanket tied to her chest. Jonayla had recently nursed and was sleeping, but moved slightly at her mother's touch. Ayla had an uncanny ability to interpret meaning from body language, learned young when she lived with the Clan. She knew Joharran was alarmed and Thefona was frightened.

Ayla, too, had extraordinarily sharp vision. She could also pick up sounds above the range of normal hearing and feel the deep tones of those that were below. Her sense of smell and taste were also keen, but she had never compared herself with anyone, and didn't realise how extraordinary her perceptions were. She was born with heightened acuity in all her senses, which no doubt contributed to her survival after losing her parents and everything she knew at five years. Her only training had come from herself. She had developed her natural abilities during the years she studied animals, chiefly carnivores, when she was teaching herself to hunt.

In the stillness, she discerned the faint but familiar rumblings of lions, detected their distinctive scent on a slight breeze, and noticed that several people in front of the group were gazing ahead. When she looked, she saw something move. Suddenly the cats hidden by the grass seemed to jump into clear focus. She could make out two young and three or four adult cave lions. As she started moving forward, she reached with one hand for her spear-thrower, fastened to a carrying loop on her belt, and with the other for a spear from the holder hanging on her back.

'Where are you going?' Jondalar asked.

She stopped. 'There are lions up ahead just beyond the split in the trail,' she said under her breath.

Jondalar turned to look, and noticed movement that he interpreted as lions now that he knew what to look for. He reached for his weapons as well. 'You should stay here with Jonayla. I'll go.'

Ayla glanced down at her sleeping baby, then looked up at him. 'You're good with the spear-thrower, Jondalar, but there are at least two cubs and three grown lions, probably more. If the lions think the cubs are in danger and decide to attack, you'll need help, someone to back you up, and you know I'm better than anyone, except you.'

His brow furrowed again as he paused to think, looking at her. Then he nodded. 'All right … but stay behind me.' He detected movement out of the corner of his eye and glanced back. 'What about the horses?'

'They know lions are near. Look at them,' Ayla said.

Jondalar looked. All three horses, including the new young filly, were staring ahead, obviously aware of the huge felines. Jondalar frowned again. 'Will they be all right? Especially little Grey?'

'They know to stay out of the way of those lions, but I don't see Wolf,' Ayla said. 'I'd better whistle for him.'

'You don't have to,' Jondalar said, pointing in a different direction. 'He must sense something, too. Look at him coming.'

Ayla turned and saw a wolf racing toward her. The canine was a magnificent animal, larger than most, but an injury from a fight with other wolves that left him with a bent ear gave him a rakish look. She made the special signal that she used when they hunted together. He knew it meant to stay near and pay close attention to her. They ducked around people as they hurried toward the front, trying not to cause any undue commotion, and to remain as inconspicuous as possible.

'I'm glad you're here,' Joharran said softly when he saw his brother and Ayla with the wolf quietly appear with their spear-throwers in hand.

'Do you know how many there are?' Ayla asked.

'More than I thought,' Thefona said, trying to seem calm and not let her fear show. 'When I first saw them, I thought there were maybe three or four, but they are moving around in the grass, and now I think there may be ten or more. It's a big pride.'

'And they are feeling confident,' Joharran said.

'How do you know that?' Thefona asked.

'They're ignoring us.'

Jondalar knew his mate was very familiar with the huge felines. 'Ayla knows cave lions,' he said, 'perhaps we should ask her what she thinks.' Joharran nodded in her direction, asking the question silently.

'Joharran is right. They know we're here. And they know how many they are and how many we are,' Ayla said, then added, 'They may see us as something like a herd of horses or aurochs and think they may be able to single out a weak one. I think they are new to this region.'

'What makes you think so?' Joharran said. He was always surprised at Ayla's wealth of knowledge of four-legged hunters, but for some reason it was also at times like this that he noticed her unusual accent more.

'They don't know us, that's why they're so confident,' Ayla continued. 'If they were a resident pride that lived around people and had been chased or hunted a few times, I don't think they would be so unconcerned.'

'Well, maybe we should give them something to be concerned about,' Jondalar said.

Joharran's brow wrinkled in a way that was so much like his taller though younger brother's, it made Ayla want to smile, but it usually showed at a time when smiling would be inappropriate. 'Perhaps it would be wiser just to avoid them,' the dark-haired leader said.

'I don't think so,' Ayla said, bowing her head and looking down. It was still difficult for her to disagree with a man in public, especially a leader. Though she knew it was perfectly acceptable among the Zelandonii — after all, some leaders were women, including, at one time, Joharran's and Jondalar's mother — such behaviour from a woman would not have been tolerated in the Clan, the ones who raised her.

'Why not?' Joharran asked, his frown turning into a scowl.

'Those lions are resting too close to the home of the Third Cave,' Ayla said quietly. 'There will always be lions around, but if they are comfortable here, they might think of it as a place to return when they want to rest, and would see any people who come near as prey, especially children or elders. They could be a danger to the people who live at Two Rivers Rock, and the other nearby Caves, including the Ninth.'

Joharran took a deep breath, then looked at his fair-haired brother. 'Your mate is right, and you as well, Jondalar. Perhaps now is the time to let those lions know they are not welcome to settle down so close to our homes.'

'This would be a good time to use spear-throwers so we can hunt from a safer distance. Several hunters here have been practising,' Jondalar said. It was for just this sort of thing that he had wanted to come home and show everyone the weapon he had developed. 'We may not even have to kill one, just injure a couple to teach them to stay away.'

'Jondalar,' Ayla said, softly. Now she was getting ready to differ with him, or at least to make a point that he should consider. She looked down again, then raised her eyes and looked directly at him. She wasn't afraid to speak her mind to him, but she wanted to be respectful. 'It's true that a spear-thrower is a very good weapon. With it, a spear can be thrown from a much greater distance than one thrown by hand, and that makes it safer. But safer is not safe. A wounded animal is unpredictable. And one with the strength and speed of a cave lion, hurt and wild with pain, could do anything. If you decide to use these weapons against those lions, they should not be used to injure, but to kill.'

'She's right, Jondalar,' Joharran said.

Jondalar frowned at his brother, then grinned sheepishly. 'Yes she is, but, as dangerous as they are, I always hate to kill a cave lion if I don't have to. They are so beautiful, so lithe and graceful in the way they move. Cave lions don't have much to be afraid of. Their strength gives them confidence.' He glanced at Ayla with a glint of pride and love. 'I always thought Ayla's Cave Lion totem was right for her.' Discomfited by showing his strong inner feelings for her, a hint of a flush coloured his cheeks. 'But I do think this is a time when spear-throwers could be very useful.'

Joharran noticed that most of the travellers had crowded closer. 'How many are with us that can use one?' he asked his brother.

'Well, there's you, and me, and Ayla, of course,' Jondalar said, looking at the group. 'Rushemar has been practising a lot and is getting pretty good. Solaban's been busy making some ivory handles for tools for some of us and hasn't been working at it as much, but he's got the basics.'

'I've tried a spear-thrower a few times, Joharran. I don't have one of my own, and I'm not very good at it,' Thefona said, 'but I can throw a spear without one.'

'Thank you, Thefona, for reminding me,' Joharran said. 'Nearly everyone can handle a spear without a spear-thrower, including women. We shouldn't forget that.' Then he directed his comments to the group at large. 'We need to let those lions know that this is not a good place for them. Whoever wants to go after them, using a spear by hand or with the thrower, come over here.'

Ayla started to loosen her baby's carrying blanket. 'Folara, would you watch Jonayla for me?' she said, approaching Jondalar's younger sister, 'unless you'd rather stay and hunt cave lions.'

'I've gone out on drives, but I never was very good with a spear, and I don't seem to be much better with the thrower,' Folara said. 'I'll take Jonayla.' The infant was now thoroughly awake, and when the young woman held out her arms for the baby, she willingly went to her aunt.

'I'll help her,' Proleva said to Ayla. Joharran's mate also had a baby girl in a carrying blanket, just a few days older than Jonayla, and an active boy who could count six years to watch out for as well. 'I think we should take all the children away from here, perhaps back behind the jutting rock, or up to the Third Cave.'

'That's a very good idea,' Joharran said, 'hunters stay here. The rest of you go back, but go slowly. No sudden moves. We want those cave lions to think we are just milling around, like a herd of aurochs. And let's keep together. They will probably go after anyone alone.'

Ayla turned back toward the four-legged hunters and saw many lion faces looking in their direction, very alert. She watched the animals move around, and began to see some distinguishing characteristics, helping her to count them. She watched a big female casually turn around — no, a male, she realised when she saw his male parts from the backside. She'd forgotten for a moment that the males here didn't have manes. The male cave lions near her valley to the east, including one that she knew quite well, did have some hair around the head and neck, but it was sparse. This is a big pride, she thought, more than two handsful of counting words, possibly as many as three, including the young ones.

While she watched, the big lion took a few more steps into the field, then disappeared into the grass. It was surprising how well the tall thin stalks could hide animals that were so huge.

Though the bones and teeth of cave lions — felines that liked to den in caves, which preserved the bones they left behind — were the same shape as their descendants that would someday roam the distant lands of the continent far to the south, they were more than half again, some nearly twice, as large. In winter they grew a thick winter fur that was so pale, it was almost white, practical concealment in snow for predators who hunted all year long. Their summer coat, though still pale, was more tawny, and some of the cats were still shedding, giving them a rather tattered, mottled look.

Ayla watched the group of mostly women and children break off from the hunters and head back to the cliff they had passed, along with a few young men and women with spears held in readiness whom Joharran had assigned to guard them. Then she noticed that the horses seemed particularly nervous, and thought she should try to calm them. She signalled Wolf to come with her as she walked toward the horses.

Whinney seemed glad to see both her and Wolf when they approached. The horse had no fear of the big canine predator. She had watched Wolf grow up from a tiny little ball of fuzzy fur, had helped to raise him. Ayla had a concern, though. She wanted the horses to go back behind the stone wall with the women and children. She could give Whinney many commands with words and signals, but she wasn't sure how to tell the mare to go with the others and not follow her.

Racer whinnied when she neared; he seemed especially agitated. She greeted the brown stallion affectionately and patted and scratched the young grey filly; then she hugged the sturdy neck of the dun-yellow mare that had been her only friend during the first lonely years after she left the Clan.

Whinney leaned against the young woman with her head over Ayla's shoulder in a familiar position of mutual support. She talked to the mare with a combination of Clan hand signs and words, and animal sounds that she imitated — the special language she had developed with Whinney when she was a foal, before Jondalar taught her to speak his language. Ayla told the mare to go with Folara and Proleva. Whether the horse understood, or just knew that it would be safer for her and her foal, Ayla was glad to see her retreat to the cliff with the other mothers when she pointed her in that direction.

But Racer was nervous and edgy, more so after the mare started walking away. Even grown, the young stallion was accustomed to following his dam, especially when Ayla and Jondalar were riding together, but this time he did not immediately go with her. He pranced and tossed his head and neighed. Jondalar heard him, looked over at the stallion and the woman, then joined them. The young horse nickered at the man as he approached. With two females in his small 'herd', Jondalar wondered if Racer's protective stallion instincts were beginning to make themselves felt. The man talked to him, stroked and scratched his favourite places to settle him, then told him to go with Whinney and slapped him on the rump. It was enough to get him started in the right direction.

Ayla and Jondalar walked back to the hunters. Joharran and his two closest friends and advisers, Solaban and Rushemar, were standing together in the middle of the group that was left. It seemed much smaller now.

'We've been discussing the best way to hunt them,' Joharran said when the couple returned. 'I'm not sure what strategy to use. Should we try to surround them? Or drive them in a certain direction? I will tell you, I know how to hunt for meat: deer, or bison or aurochs, even mammoth. I've killed a lion or two that were too close to a camp, with the help of other hunters, but lions are not animals I usually hunt, especially not a whole pride.'

'Since Ayla knows lions,' Thefona said, 'let's ask her.'

Everyone turned to look at Ayla. Most of them had heard about the injured lion cub she had taken in and raised until he was full grown. When Jondalar told them the lion did what she told him the way the wolf did, they believed it.

'What do you think, Ayla?' Joharran asked.

'Do you see how the lions are watching us? It's the same way we're looking at them. They think of themselves as the hunters. It might surprise them to be prey for a change,' Ayla said, then paused. 'I think we should stay together in a group and walk toward them, shouting and talking loudly perhaps, and see if they back off. But keep our spears ready, in case one or more come after us before we decide to go after them.'

'Just approach them head-on?' Rushemar asked, with a frown.

'It might work,' Solaban said. 'And if we stay together, we can watch out for each other.'

'It seems like a good plan, Joharran,' Jondalar said.

'I suppose it's as good as any, and I like the idea of staying together and watching out for each other,' the leader said.

'I'll go first,' Jondalar said. He held up his spear, already on his spear-thrower ready to launch. 'I can get a spear off fast with this.'

'I'm sure you can, but let's wait until we get closer so we can all feel comfortable with our aim,' Joharran said.

'Of course,' Jondalar said, 'and Ayla is going to be a backup for me in case something unexpected happens.'

'That's good,' Joharran said. 'We all need a partner, someone to be a backup for the ones who throw first, in case they miss and those lions come at us instead of running away. The partners can decide who will cast first, but it will cause less confusion if everyone waits for a signal before anyone throws.'

'What kind of signal?' Rushemar asked.

Joharran paused, then said, 'Watch Jondalar. Wait until he throws. That can be our signal.'

'I'll be your partner, Joharran,' Rushemar volunteered.

The leader nodded.

'I need a backup,' Morizan said. He was the son of Manvelar's mate, Ayla recalled. 'I'm not sure how good I am, but I have been working at it.'

'I can be your partner. I've been practising with the spear-thrower.'

Ayla turned at the sound of the feminine voice and saw that it was Folara's red-haired friend, Galeya, who had spoken.

Jondalar turned to look, too. That's one way to get close to the son of a leader's mate, he thought, and glanced at Ayla, wondering if she had caught the implication.

'I can partner with Thefona, if she would like,' Solaban said, 'since I'll be using a spear like her, not a spear-thrower.'

The young woman smiled at him, glad to have a more mature and experienced hunter close by.

'I've been practising with a spear-thrower,' Palidar said. He was a friend of Tivonan, the apprentice of Willamar, the Trade Master.

'We can be partners, Palidar,' Tivonan said, 'but I can only use a spear.'

'I haven't really practised much with that thrower either,' Palidar said.

Ayla smiled at the young men. As Willamar's apprentice trader, Tivonan would no doubt become the Ninth Cave's next Trade Master. His friend, Palidar, had come back with Tivonan when he went to visit his Cave on a short trading mission, and Palidar was the one who had found the place where Wolf had got into the terrible fight with the other wolves, and took her to it. She thought of him as a good friend.

'I haven't done much with that thrower, but I can handle a spear.'

It's Mejera, the acolyte of Zelandoni of the Third, Ayla said to herself, remembering that the young woman was with them the first time Ayla went into the Deep of Fountain Rocks to look for the life force of Jondalar's younger brother when they tried to help his elan find its way to the spirit world.

'Everyone has already picked a partner, so I guess we're left. Not only have I not practised with the spear-thrower, I have hardly ever seen it used,' said Jalodan, Morizan's cousin, the son of Manvelar's sister, who was visiting the Third Cave. He was planning to travel with them to the Summer Meeting to meet up with his Cave.

That was it. The twelve men and women who were going to hunt a similar number of lions — animals with greater speed, strength, and ferocity that lived by hunting weaker prey. Ayla began having feelings of doubt and a shiver of fear gave her a chill. She rubbed her arms and felt an eruption of bumps. How could twelve frail humans even think of attacking a pride of lions? She caught sight of the other carnivore, the one she knew, and signalled the animal to stay with her, thinking, twelve people — and Wolf.

'All right, let's go,' Joharran said, 'but keep together.'

The twelve hunters from the Third Cave and the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii started out together walking directly toward the pride of massive felines. They were armed with spears, tipped with sharpened flint, or bone or ivory sanded to a smooth, round sharp point. Some had spear-throwers that could propel a spear much farther and with more power and speed than one thrown by hand, but lions had been killed with just spears before. This might be a test of Jondalar's weapon, but it would test the courage of the ones who were hunting even more.

'Go away!' Ayla shouted as they started out. 'We don't want you here!'

Several others picked up the refrain, with variations, shouting and yelling at the animals as they approached, telling them to go away.

At first the cats, young and old, just watched them come. Then some began to move around, back into the grass that hid them so well, and out again, as though they weren't sure what to do. The ones who retreated with cubs returned without them.

'They don't seem to know what to make of us,' Thefona said from the middle of the advancing hunters, feeling a little more secure than when they started, but when the big male suddenly snarled at them, everyone jumped with a start, and stopped in their tracks.

'This is not the time to stop,' Joharran said, forging ahead.

They started out again, their formation a little more ragged at first, but they pulled together again as they continued on. All the lions started moving around, some turning their backs and disappearing into the tall grass, but the big male snarled again, then rumbled the beginning of a roar as he stood his ground. Several of the other big cats were arrayed behind him. Ayla was picking up the scent of fear from the human hunters; she was sure the lions were, too. She was afraid herself, but fear was something that people could overcome.

'I think we'd better get ready,' Jondalar said. 'That male doesn't look happy, and he has reinforcements.'

'Can't you get him from here?' Ayla asked. She heard the series of grunts that was usually a precursor to a lion's roar.

'Probably,' Jondalar said, 'but I'd rather be closer, so I can be more sure of my aim.'

'And I'm not sure how good my aim would be from this distance. We do need to be closer,' Joharran said, continuing to march forward.

The people bunched together and kept going, still shouting, though Ayla thought their sound was more tentative as they drew closer. The cave lions became still and seemed tense as they watched the approach of the strange herd that didn't behave like prey animals.

Then, suddenly, everything happened at once.

The big male lion roared, a staggering, deafening sound, especially from such close range. He started toward them at a run. As he closed in, poised to spring, Jondalar hurled his spear at him.

Ayla had been watching the female on his right. About the time that Jondalar made his cast, the lioness bounded forward running, then vaulted to pounce.

Ayla pulled back and took aim. She felt the back of the spear-thrower with the spear mounted on it rise up almost without her knowing it as she hurled her spear. It was so natural for her, it didn't feel like a deliberate move. She and Jondalar had used the weapon during their entire year-long Journey back to the Zelandonii and she was so skilled, it was second nature.

The lioness soared into her leap, but Ayla's spear met her more than halfway. It found its mark from beneath the big cat, and lodged firmly in her throat in a sudden fatal slash. Blood spurted out as the lioness collapsed to the ground.

The woman quickly grabbed another spear from her holder, and slapped it down on her spear-thrower, looking around to see what else was happening. She saw Joharran's spear fly, and a heartbeat later another spear followed. She noticed that Rushemar was in the stance of one who had just thrown a spear. She saw another large female lion fall. A second spear found the beast before she landed. Another lioness was still coming. Ayla cast a spear, and saw that someone else had, too, just a moment before her.

She reached for another spear, making sure it was seated right — that the point, which was affixed to a short length of tapering shaft made to detach from the main spear shaft, was firmly in place and the hole in the butt of the long spear shaft was engaging the hook at the back of the spear-thrower. Then she looked around again. The huge male was down, but moving, bleeding but not dead. Her female was also bleeding, but not moving.

The lions were disappearing into the grass as fast as they could, at least one leaving a trail of blood. The human hunters were gathering themselves together, looking around and beginning to smile at each other.

'I think we did it,' Palidar said, a huge grin starting.

He had barely got the words out when Wolf's menacing growl caught Ayla's attention. The wolf bounded away from the human hunters with Ayla on his heels. The heavily bleeding male lion was up and coming at them again. With a roar, he sprang toward them. Ayla could almost feel his anger, and she didn't really blame him.

Just as Wolf reached the lion and leaped up to attack, keeping himself between Ayla and the big cat, she flung her spear as hard as she could. Her eye caught another one hurled at the same time. They landed almost simultaneously with an audible thunk, and thunk. Both the lion and the wolf crumpled in a heap. Ayla gasped when she saw them fall, swathed in blood, afraid that Wolf was hurt.

Chapter 2

Ayla saw the heavy paw of the lion moving, and caught her breath, wondering if the big male could still be alive with all the spears in him. Then she recognised Wolf's bloody head working its way out from under the huge limb, and rushed toward him, still not sure if he was injured. The wolf squirmed free of the forearm of the lion, then grabbed the paw with his teeth and shook it with such vigour, she knew it had to be the blood of the lion on him, not his own. Jondalar was at her side the next moment and they walked toward the lion together, smiling with relief at the wolf's antics.

'I'm going to have to take Wolf to the river to get him cleaned up,' Ayla said. 'That's all lion's blood.'

'I'm sorry we had to kill him,' Jondalar said quietly. 'He was such a magnificent beast, and only defending his own.'

'I feel sorry, too. He reminded me of Baby, but we had to defend our own. Think how much worse we would feel if one of those lions had killed a child,' Ayla said, looking down at the huge predator.

After a pause, Jondalar said, 'We can both lay claim to him; only our spears reached him, and only yours killed this female who stood by his side.'

'I think I may have hit another lioness, too, but I don't need to claim any part of that one,' Ayla said. 'You should take what you want of the male. I'll take this female's pelt and tail, and her claws and teeth as tokens of this hunt.'

They both stood silently for a while, then Jondalar said, 'I am grateful that the hunt was a success and no one was hurt.'

'I would like to honour them in some way, Jondalar, to acknowledge my respect for the Cave Lion Spirit, and show gratitude to my totem.'

'Yes, I think we should. It is customary to thank the spirit when we make a kill, and to ask the spirit to thank the Great Earth Mother for the food she has allowed us to take. We can thank the Cave Lion Spirit and ask the spirit to thank the Mother for allowing us to take these lions to protect our families and our Caves.' Jondalar paused. 'We can give this lion a drink of water so the spirit won't arrive in the next world thirsty. Some people also bury the heart, give it back to the Mother. I think we should do both for this great lion who gave his life defending his pride.'

'I will do the same for the female who stood with him, fighting at his side,' Ayla said. 'I think my Cave Lion Totem protected me, and maybe all the rest of us. The Mother could have chosen to let the Cave Lion Spirit take someone to compensate for the pride's great loss. I am grateful She didn't.'

'Ayla! You were right!'

She spun around at the sound of the voice and smiled at the Ninth Cave's leader coming up behind them. 'You said, "A wounded animal is unpredictable. And one with the strength and speed of a cave lion, hurt and wild with pain, could do anything." We shouldn't have assumed that because that lion was down and bleeding, he wouldn't try to attack again.' Joharran addressed the rest of the hunters who had come to see the lions they had killed. 'We should have made sure he was dead.'

'What surprised me was that wolf,' Palidar said, looking at the animal, still covered with blood, nonchalantly sitting at Ayla's feet, with his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth. 'He's the one who warned us, but I never imagined a wolf would attack a cave lion, wounded or not.'

Jondalar smiled. 'Wolf protects Ayla,' he said. 'It doesn't matter who or what it is, if it threatens her, he'll attack it.'

'Even you, Jondalar?' he asked.

'Even me.'

There was an uncomfortable silence; then Joharran said, 'How many lions did we get?' Several of the big cats were down, some with a number of spears in them.

'I count five,' Ayla said.

'The lions with spears from more than one person should be shared,' Joharran said. 'Those hunters can decide what to do with them.'

'The only spears in the male and this female belong to Ayla and me, so we can claim them,' Jondalar said. 'We did what was necessary, but they were defending their family and we want to honour their spirits. We don't have a Zelandoni here, but we can give each a drink of water before we send them on their way to the spirit world, and we can bury their hearts, give them back to the Mother.'

The other hunters nodded in agreement.

Ayla walked to the lioness that she had killed and took out her waterbag. It was made of the carefully washed stomach of a deer, with the lower opening tied off. The upper opening was pulled up around a deer vertebra, with the projections cut away, and sinew wrapped tightly around it. The natural hole in the centre of the section of spine made a more than serviceable pour spout. The stopper was a thin leather thong that had been knotted several times in the same place, and stuffed into the hole. She pulled out the knotted leather cord stopper, and took a mouthful. Then she kneeled over the head of the lioness, pulled it around and opened the jaws, and squirted the water from her mouth into the mouth of the big cat.

'We are thankful, Doni, Great Mother of All, and we are grateful to the Spirit of Cave Lion,' she said aloud. Then she began speaking with the silent hand signs of the formal language of the Clan, the one they used when addressing the spirit world, but in a quiet voice, she translated the meaning of the signs she was making. 'This woman is grateful to the Spirit of the Great Cave Lion, the totem of this woman, for allowing a few of the Spirit's living ones to fall to the spears of the people. This woman would express sorrow to the Great Spirit of the Cave Lion for the loss of the living ones. The Great Mother and the Cave Lion Spirit know it was necessary for the safety of the people, but this woman wants to express gratitude.'

She turned around to the group of hunters who were watching her. It wasn't done in quite the manner they were used to, but it was fascinating to watch her, and felt utterly right to those hunters who had faced their fears to make their territory safer for themselves and for others. It also made them understand why their Zelandoni Who Was First had made this foreign woman her acolyte.

'I will not make a claim to any other lions that may have been pierced by one of my spears, but I would like the spear back,' Ayla said. 'This lion has only my spear in it, so I will claim it. I will keep the skin and tail, the claws and the teeth.'

'What about the meat?' Palidar said. 'Are you going to eat some?'

'No. The hyenas can have it as far as I'm concerned,' Ayla said. 'I don't like the taste of the meat of meat-eaters, especially cave lions.'

'I've never tasted lion,' he said.

'Neither have I,' said Morizan of the Third Cave, who had paired up with Galeya.

'Did none of your spears reach a lion?' Ayla asked. She saw them shake their heads in sadly negative response. 'You're welcome to this one's meat, if you want it, after I bury the heart, but I wouldn't eat the liver if I were you.'

'Why not?' Tivonan asked.

'The people I grew up with believed the liver of meat-eaters could kill you, like a poison,' she said. 'They told stories about it, especially of a selfish woman who ate the liver of a cat, a lynx, I think, and died. Perhaps we should bury the liver, too, with the heart.'

'Is the liver of animals who eat any meat bad for you?' Galeya asked.

'I think bears are all right. They eat meat, but they eat everything else, as well. Cave bears don't eat much meat at all, and they taste good. I knew some people who ate their liver and didn't get sick,' Ayla said.

'I haven't seen a cave bear in years,' Solaban said. He'd been standing close by, listening. 'There aren't many around here anymore. Have you really eaten cave bear?'

'Yes,' Ayla said. She considered mentioning that cave bear meat was sacred to the Clan, eaten only for certain ritual feasts, but decided it would just encourage more questions that would take too long to answer.

She looked at the lioness, and took a deep breath. It was big and would be a lot of work to skin. She could use some help, and observed the four young people who had been asking her questions. None of them had used spear-throwers, but she guessed that might change now, and though they hadn't landed a spear, they had been a willing part of the hunt and exposed themselves to danger. She smiled at them. 'I'll give each of you a claw if you'll help me skin this lioness,' she said, and watched them smile back.

'I'll be glad to,' Palidar and Tivonan said almost simultaneously.

'Me too,' said Morizan.

'Good. I can use the help.' Then she said to Morizan, 'I don't think we have been formally introduced.'

She faced the young man and held out both her hands, palm up, in the formal gesture of openness and friendship. 'I am Ayla of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, Acolyte of Zelandoni, First Among Those Who Serve The Great Earth Mother, mated to Jondalar, Master Flint-Knapper and brother of Joharran, Leader of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii. Formerly I was Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth of the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi, Chosen by the spirit of the Cave Lion, Protected by the Cave Bear, and friend of the horses, Whinney, Racer, and Grey, and the four-legged hunter, Wolf.'

It was enough of a formal introduction, she thought, watching his expression. She knew the first part of the formal recitation of her names and ties was probably somewhat overwhelming — her associations were among the highest ranked of all the Zelandonii, and the last part would be completely unfamiliar to him.

He reached for her hands and began his names and ties. 'I am Morizan of the Third Cave of the Zelandonii,' he started nervously, then seemed to be trying to think what to say next. 'I am the son of Manvelar, Leader of the Third Cave, cousin of …'

Ayla realised he was young and not accustomed to meeting new people and making formal recitations. She decided to make it easy for him, and ended the formal meeting ritual. 'In the name of Doni, the Great Earth Mother, I greet you, Morizan of the Third Cave of the Zelandonii,' she said, then added, 'and I welcome your help.'

'I want to help, too,' Galeya said. 'I'd like to have a claw as a memory of this hunt. Even if I didn't get a spear into any of them, it was exciting. A little frightening, but exciting.'

Ayla nodded in understanding. 'Let's get started, but I should warn you to be careful when you cut out the claws, or the teeth; don't let them scratch you. You have to cook them before they can be safely handled. If you get a scratch, it can turn into a foul wound, one that swells up and suppurates with a bad-smelling discharge.'

She looked up and noticed in the distance that some people were coming around the jutting wall. She recognised several from the Third Cave who had not been with the first group that joined them before. Manvelar, the strong and vigorous older man who was their leader, was among them.

'Here come Manvelar and some others,' Thefona said. She had obviously seen and recognised them too.

When they reached the hunters, Manvelar walked up to Joharran. 'I greet you, Joharran, Leader of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, in the name of Doni, the Great Earth Mother,' he said, holding both hands out.

Taking both hands in his, Joharran returned the short formal greeting to acknowledge the other leader. 'In the name of Great Earth Mother, Doni, I greet you, Manvelar, Leader of the Third Cave of the Zelandonii.' It was a customary courtesy between leaders.

'The people you sent back came up and told us what was going on,' Manvelar said. 'We've seen the lions around here the past few days, so we came to help. They were returning regularly and we were wondering what we should do about them. It looks like you have taken care of the problem. I see four, no, five lions down, including the male. The females will have to find a new male, now; maybe they'll separate and find more than one. It will change the entire structure of the pride. I don't think they will be back bothering us soon. We need to thank you.'

'We didn't think we could pass them safely, and didn't want them threatening Caves in the vicinity, so we decided to chase them away, especially since we had several people with us who could use spear-throwers. It's a good thing we had them. Even though he was badly wounded, that big male attacked again, after we thought he was down,' Joharran said.

'Hunting cave lions is dangerous. What are you going to do with them?'

'I think the hides, teeth, and claws have all been claimed, and some say they want to taste the meat,' Joharran said.

'It's strong,' Manvelar said, wrinkling his nose. 'We'll help you with the skinning, but it will take some time. I think you should plan on spending the night with us. We can send a runner ahead and tell the Seventh that you've been delayed, and why.'

'Good. We will stay. Thank you, Manvelar,' Joharran said.

The Third Cave served a meal to the visitors from the Ninth before they set out the next morning. Joharran, Proleva, Proleva's son, Jaradal, and new baby daughter, Sethona, were seated together with Jondalar, Ayla, and her daughter, Jonayla, out on the sunny stone front porch, enjoying the view along with their food.

'It would seem that Morizan is taking quite an interest in Folara's friend, Galeya,' Proleva said. They were watching the group of not-yet-mated young people with the indulgent eye of older siblings with families.

'Yes,' Jondalar said, with a grin. 'She was his backup yesterday during the lion hunt. Hunting together and depending on each other like that can create a special bond quickly, even if they didn't land a spear so they could lay claim to a lion. But they helped Ayla skin out her lioness, and she gave each of them a claw. They were done so fast, they came over and helped me, and I gave each of them a small claw, too, so they all have mementos of the hunt.'

'That's what they were showing off last night over that cooking basket,' Proleva said.

'Can I have a claw for a memento, Ayla?' Jaradal asked. The youngster had obviously been listening closely.

'Jaradal, those are mementos of a hunt,' his mother said. 'When you get old enough to go on hunts, you'll get your own mementos.'

'That's all right, Proleva. I'll give him one,' Joharran said, smiling gently at the son of his mate. 'I got a lion, too.'

'You did!' the six-year boy said excitedly, 'and I can have a claw? Wait until I show Robenan!'

'Make sure you cook it before you give it to him,' Ayla said.

'That's what Galeya and the rest were cooking last night,' Jondalar said. 'Ayla insisted that everyone cook the claws and fangs before they handled them. She says a scratch from a lion claw can be dangerous unless it's cooked.'

'Why should cooking make a difference?' Proleva asked.

'When I was little, before I was found by the Clan, I was scratched by a cave lion. That's how I got the scars on my leg. I don't recall much about getting scratched, but I do remember how much my leg hurt until it healed. The Clan liked to keep the teeth and claws of animals, too,' Ayla said. 'When she was teaching me to be a medicine woman, one of the first things Iza told me was to cook them before they were handled. She said they were full of evil spirits, and the heat of cooking them drove the foulness out.'

'When you think of what those animals do with their claws, they must be full of evil spirits,' Proleva said. 'I'll make sure Jaradal's claw gets cooked.'

'That lion hunt did prove out your weapon, Jondalar,' Joharran said. 'Those who just had spears probably would have been good protection, if the lions had got closer, but the only kills were made with spear-throwers. I think it's going to encourage more people to practise.'

They saw Manvelar approach, and greeted him cordially.

'You can leave your lion skins here and pick them up on your way back,' he said. 'We can store them in the back of the lower abri. It's cool enough down there that they should keep for a few days; then you can process them when you get home.'

The tall limestone cliff they had passed just before the hunt, called Two Rivers Rock because Grass River joined The River there, had three deeply indented ledges, one above the other, that created protective overhangs for the spaces below them. The Third Cave used all of the stone shelters, but they lived mainly in the large middle one, which enjoyed an expansive panorama of both rivers and the area around the cliff. The others were mainly for storage.

'That would be a help,' Joharran said. 'We're carrying enough, especially with babies and children, and we've already been delayed. If this trip to Horsehead Rock hadn't been planned for some time, we probably wouldn't be making it. After all, we'll be seeing everyone at the Summer Meeting, and we still have a lot to do before we leave. But the Seventh Cave really wanted Ayla to visit, and Zelandoni wants to show her the Horsehead. And since it's so close, they want to go to Elder Hearth and visit the Second Cave, and see the ancestors carved in the wall of their lower cave.'

'Where is the First Among Those Who Serve The Great Earth Mother?' Manvelar asked.

'She's already there, has been for a few days,' Joharran said. 'Conferring with several of the zelandonia. Something to do with the Summer Meeting.'

'Speaking of that, when are you planning to leave?' Manvelar asked. 'Perhaps we can travel together.'

'I always like to leave a little early. With such a large Cave, we need extra time to find a comfortable place. And now we have animals to consider. I've been to the Twenty-sixth Cave before, but I'm not really familiar with the area.'

'It's a large, flat field right beside West River,' Manvelar said. 'It's good for a lot of summer shelters, but I don't think it's a good place for horses.'

'I like the site we found last year, even if it was rather far from all the activities, but I don't know what we'll find this year. I was thinking of scouting it out earlier, but then we got those heavy spring rains and I just didn't want to slog through the mud,' Joharran said.

'If you don't mind being a bit out of the way, there may be a more secluded place nearer Sun View, the shelter of the Twenty-sixth Cave. It's in a cliff near the bank of the old riverbed, somewhat back from the river now.'

'We may try that,' Joharran said. 'I'll send a runner after we decide when to leave. If the Third Cave wants to go then, we can travel together. You have kin there, don't you? Do you have a route in mind? I know that West River runs in the same general direction as The River, so it isn't hard to find. All we have to do is go south to Big River, then west until we reach West River, and then follow it north, but if you know a more direct way, it might be a little faster.'

'In fact, I do,' Manvelar said. 'You know my mate came from the Twenty-sixth Cave, and we visited her family often when the children were younger. I haven't been back since she died and I'm looking forward to this Summer Meeting and seeing some people I haven't seen for a while. Morizan and his brother and sister have cousins there.'

'We can talk more when we return for the lion skins. Thank you for the hospitality of the Third Cave, Manvelar,' Joharran said, as he turned to leave. 'We need to be going. The Second Cave is expecting us, and Zelandoni Who Is First has a cave with a surprise to show Ayla.'

Spring's first shoots had made a watercolour smear of emerald on the cold, brown defrosting earth. As the short season advanced and jointed stems and slender sheathing leaves reached their full growth, lush meadows replaced the cold colours along the floodplains of the rivers. Billowing in the warmer winds of early summer, the green of rapid growth fading to the gold of ripening maturity, the fields of grass ahead named the river beside them.

The group of travellers, some from the Ninth Cave and some from the Third, walked beside Grass River, retracing their steps from the previous day. They walked around the jutting stone in single file along the trail between the clear running water of Grass River and the cliff. As they continued, some people moved forward to walk two or three abreast.

They took the path that angled toward the crossing place — it was already being called the Place of the Lion Hunt. The way the rocks had been placed naturally was not an easy crossing. It was one thing for agile young men to leap from stone to slippery stone; it was quite another for a woman who was pregnant or carrying a baby, and perhaps other packs of food, clothing, or implements, or for older women or men. Therefore more rocks had been carefully positioned between those the lower water level had uncovered to make the spaces between the stepping-stones closer. After they all had reached the other side of the tributary, where the trail was wide enough, they tended to walk two or three abreast again.

Morizan waited for Jondalar and Ayla, who were bringing up the rear in front of the horses, and stepped in beside them. After a casual exchange of greetings, Morizan commented, 'I didn't realise how good your spear-throwing weapon could be, Jondalar. I've been practising with it, but watching you and Ayla use it has given me a new appreciation for it.'

'I think it's wise of you to make yourself familiar with the spear-thrower, Morizan. It is a very effective weapon. Is it something Manvelar suggested, or did you decide to do it on your own?' Jondalar asked.

'I decided, but once I started, he encouraged me. He said I was setting a good example,' Morizan said. 'To be honest, I didn't care about that. It just looked like a weapon I wanted to learn.'

Jondalar grinned at the young man. He had thought it might be the younger ones who would be willing to try out his new weapon first, and Morizan's response was exactly what he had hoped would happen.

'Good. The more you practise, the better you will get. Ayla and I have been using the spear-thrower for a long time, all during the year-long Journey back home, and for more than a year before that. As you can see, women can handle a spear-thrower very effectively.'

They followed Grass River upstream for some distance, then came to a smaller tributary that was called Little Grass River. As they continued upstream along the smaller waterway, Ayla began to notice a change in the air, a cool, moist freshness filled with richer smells. Even the grass was a darker shade of green, and in places the ground was softer. The path skirted marshy areas of tall reeds and cattails as they proceeded through the lush valley and approached a limestone cliff.

Several people were waiting outside, among them two young women. Ayla grinned when she saw them. They had all mated at the same Matrimonial during last year's Summer Meeting, and she felt especially close to them.

'Levela! Janida! I was looking forward to seeing you so much,' she said, walking toward them. 'I heard you had both decided to move to the Second Cave.'

'Ayla!' Levela said. 'Welcome to Horsehead Rock. We decided to come here with Kimeran to see you, so we wouldn't have to wait until you came to visit the Second. It's so good to see you.'

'Yes,' Janida concurred. She was considerably younger than the other two women, and rather shy, but her smile was welcoming. 'I am glad to see you, too, Ayla.'

The three women embraced, though they were all rather careful about it. Both Ayla and Janida were carrying infants, and Levela was pregnant.

'I heard you had a boy, Janida,' Ayla said.

'Yes, I named him Jeridan,' Janida said, showing her baby.

'I had a girl. Her name is Jonayla,' Ayla said. The infant was already awake from the commotion and Ayla lifted her out of the carrying blanket as she spoke, then turned to look at the baby boy. 'Oh, he's perfect. May I hold him?'

'Yes, of course, and I want to hold your daughter,' Janida said.

'Why don't I take your baby, Ayla,' Levela said. 'Then you can take Jeridan, and I'll give … Jonayla?' she saw Ayla nod, 'to Janida.'

The women shifted infants and cooed at them, while they looked them over and compared them with their own.

'You know Levela is pregnant, don't you?' Janida said.

'I can see that,' Ayla said. 'Do you know how soon you will have yours, Levela? I'd like to come and be here with you, and I'm sure Proleva would, too.'

'I don't know for sure, some moons yet. I would love to have you with me, and definitely my sister,' Levela said. 'But you won't need to come here. We'll probably all be at the Summer Meeting.'

'You're right,' Ayla said. 'It will be nice for you to have everyone around you. Even Zelandoni the First will be there, and she is wonderful at helping a mother to deliver.'

'There may be too many,' Janida said. 'Everyone likes Levela, and they won't let everyone stay with you. It would be too crowded. You may not want me; I'm not very experienced, but I would like to be there with you, the way you were with me, Levela. I'll understand, though, if you would rather have someone that you've known longer.'

'Of course I want you with me, Janida, and Ayla, too. After all, we shared the same Matrimonial, and that's a special bond,' Levela said.

Ayla understood the feelings that Janida had expressed. She, too, wondered if Levela would rather have friends she had known longer. Ayla felt a flush of warmth for the young woman, and was surprised at the sting of tears she fought to hold back at Levela's willing acceptance of her. Growing up, Ayla hadn't had many friends. Girls of the Clan mated at a young age, and Oga, the one who might have been close, had become Broud's mate, and he wouldn't allow her to be too friendly with the girl of the Others he had come to hate. She loved Iza's daughter, Uba, her Clan sister, but she was so much younger, she was more like a daughter than a friend. And while the other women had grown to accept her, and even care about her, they never really understood her. It wasn't until she went to live with the Mamutoi and met Deegie that she understood the fun of having a woman friend her own age.

'Speaking of Matrimonials and mates, where are Jondecam and Peridal? I think Jondalar feels a special bond for them, too. I know he was looking forward to seeing them,' Ayla said.

'They want to see him, too,' Levela said. 'Jondalar and his spear-throwing weapon is all Jondecam and Peridal have talked about since we knew you were coming.'

'Did you know that Tishona and Marsheval are living at the Ninth Cave now?' Ayla said, referring to another couple who had mated at the same time as they did. 'They tried living at the Fourteenth, but Marsheval was at the Ninth Cave so often — or I should say at Down River learning how to shape mammoth ivory, and staying overnight at the Ninth — that they decided to move.'

The three Zelandonia were standing back, watching, as the young women continued to chat. The First noticed how easily Ayla fell into conversation with them, comparing babies and talking excitedly about the things that were of interest to young mated women with children, or expecting them. She had begun teaching Ayla some of the rudiments of the knowledge she would need to become a full-fledged Zelandoni, and the young woman was without doubt interested and quick to learn, but the First was now realising how easily Ayla could get distracted. She'd been holding back, letting Ayla enjoy her new life as a mother and mated woman. Maybe it was time to push her a little harder, get her so involved that she would voluntarily choose to devote more time to learning what she needed to know.

'We should go, Ayla,' the First said. 'I would like you to see the cave before we get too involved with meals and visiting and meeting people.'

'Yes, we should,' Ayla said. 'I left all three horses and Wolf with Jondalar, and we need to get them settled. I'm sure he has people he wants to see, too.'

They walked toward the steep wall of limestone. The setting sun was shining directly on it and the small fire that had been built nearby was almost invisible in the bright sunlight. A dark hole was visible but not obvious. There were several torches propped against the wall and each of the Zelandonia lit one. Ayla followed the others into the dark hole, shivering as the darkness enveloped her. Inside the cavity in the rock cliff, the air suddenly felt cool and damp, but it wasn't only the abrupt drop in temperature that chilled her. She hadn't been there before and Ayla felt a touch of apprehension and trepidation when she entered an unfamiliar cave.

The opening was not big, but high enough so that no one had to bend over or stoop to enter. She had lit a torch outside and held the light in her left hand high in front of her, reaching for the rough stone wall with her right to steady herself. The warm bundle that she carried close to her chest with the soft carrying blanket was still awake, and she moved her hand from the wall to pat the baby to quiet her. Jonayla probably notices the change in temperature too, Ayla thought, looking around as she moved inside. It was not a large cave but it was naturally divided into separate smaller areas.

'It's here in the next room,' said Zelandoni of the Second Cave. She was also a tall blond woman, though somewhat older than Ayla.

The Zelandoni Who Was First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother stepped aside to let Ayla move in behind the woman who was leading them. 'You go ahead. I've seen it before,' she said, shifting her considerable size out of the way.

An older man stepped back with her. 'I, too, have seen it before,' he said, 'many times.' Ayla had noticed how much the old Zelandoni of the Seventh Cave resembled the woman who was leading the way. He was also tall, though a little stooped, and his hair was more white than blond.

Zelandoni of the Second Cave held her torch up high to cast its light ahead; Ayla did the same. She thought she saw some indistinct images on some of the cave walls as they passed by, but since no one had stopped to point them out, she wasn't sure. She heard someone begin to hum — a rich, lovely sound — and recognised the voice of her mentor, the Zelandoni Who Was First. Her voice echoed in the small stone chamber, but especially as they entered another room and turned a corner. As the Zelandonia held their torches up to highlight a wall, Ayla gasped.

She wasn't prepared for the sight in front of her. The profile of the head of a horse was carved so deeply into the limestone wall of the cave, it appeared to be growing out of it, and so realistically, it almost seemed alive. It was larger than life-size, or else it was a carving of a much larger animal than she had ever seen, but she knew horses and the proportions were perfect. The shape of the muzzle, the eye, the ear, the nose with its flaring nostril, the curve of the mouth and jaw, everything was exactly as it would be in real life. And in the flickering torchlight, it looked as if it were moving, breathing.

She let out a sobbing burst of air; she had been holding her breath and didn't realise it. 'It's a perfect horse, except it's just the head!' Ayla said.

'That's why the Seventh Cave is called Horsehead Rock,' the old man said. He was just behind her.

Ayla stared at the image, feeling a sense of awe and wonder, and reached out to touch the stone, not even questioning whether she should have. She was drawn to it. She held her hand on the side of the jaw, just where she would have touched a living horse, and after a time the cold stone seemed to warm as though it wanted to be alive and come out of the stone wall. She took her hand away, and then put it back. The rock surface still held some warmth, but then it cooled again, and she realised that the First had continued to hum while she touched the stone, but had stopped when she let go.

'Who made it?' Ayla asked.

'No one knows,' said the First. She had come in after Zelandoni of the Seventh Cave. 'It was made so long ago, no one remembers. One of the Ancients, of course, but we have no legend or history to tell us who.'

'Perhaps the same carver who made The Mother of Elder Hearth,' said the Zelandoni of the Second Cave.

'What makes you think so?' asked the old man. 'They are entirely different images. One is a woman holding a bison horn in her hand; the other is the head of a horse.'

'I have studied both carvings. There seems to be a similarity of technique,' she said. 'Notice how carefully the nose and the mouth, and the shape of the jaw of this horse are made? When you go there, look at the hips on the Mother, the shape of the belly. I've seen women who look just like that, especially those who have had children. Like this horse, the carving of the woman that represents Doni in the cave at Elder Hearth is very true to life.'

'That's very perceptive,' said the One Who Was First. 'When we go to Elder Hearth, we'll do as you suggest, and look closely.' They stood quietly, staring at the horse for a while; then the First said, 'We should go. There are some other things in here, but we can look at them later. I wanted Ayla to see the Horsehead before we got involved with visiting and such.'

'I'm glad you did,' Ayla said. 'I didn't know carvings in stone could look so real.'

Chapter 3

'There you are!' Kimeran said, getting up from a stone seat on the ledge in front of the shelter of the Seventh Cave to greet Ayla and Jondalar, who had just climbed up the path. Wolf followed behind them and Jonayla was awake and propped up on Ayla's hip. 'We knew you had come, and then no one knew where you were.'

Jondalar's old friend, Kimeran, the leader of Elder Hearth, the Second Cave of the Zelandonii had been waiting for him. The very tall light-haired man bore a superficial resemblance to six-foot-six-inch Jondalar with his pale yellow hair. Though many men were tall — over six feet — both Jondalar and Kimeran had towered over their other age-mates at their puberty rites. They were drawn to each other and quickly became friends. Kimeran was also the brother of the Zelandoni of the Second Cave, and the uncle of Jondecam but more like a brother. His sister was quite a bit older, and she had raised him after their mother died, along with her own son and daughter. Her mate had also passed on to the next world, and not long afterward she began training for the zelandonia.

'The First wanted Ayla to see your Horsehead, and then we needed to get our horses settled,' Jondalar said.

'They are going to love your field. The grass is so green and rich,' Ayla added.

'We call it Sweet Valley. The Little Grass River runs through the middle of it, and the flood plain has widened into a large field. It can get marshy in spring from snowmelt, and when the rains come in fall, but in summer when everything else is dried out, that field stays fresh and green,' Kimeran said, as they continued walking toward the living space beneath the overhanging upper shelf. 'It attracts a nice procession of grazers through here all summer long and makes hunting easy. Either the Second or the Seventh Cave always has someone watching.'

They approached more people. 'You remember Sergenor, the leader of the Seventh Cave, don't you?' Kimeran said to the visiting couple, indicating a middle-aged dark-haired man who had been standing back eyeing the wolf warily, and letting the younger leader greet his friends.

'Yes, of course,' Jondalar said, noting his apprehension, and thinking that this visit might be a good time to help people get more comfortable around Wolf. 'I remember when Sergenor used to come to talk to Marthona when he was first chosen as leader of the Seventh. You have met Ayla, I believe.'

'I was one of the many to whom she was introduced last year when you first arrived, but I haven't had a chance to greet her personally,' Sergenor said. He held out both hands, palms up. 'In the name of Doni, I welcome you to the Seventh Cave of the Zelandonii, Ayla of the Ninth Cave. I know you have many other names and ties, some quite unusual, but I will admit, I don't remember them.'

Ayla grasped both of his hands in hers. 'I am Ayla of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii,' she began, 'Acolyte to Zelandoni of the Ninth Cave, First Among Those Who Serve'; then she hesitated, wondering how many of Jondalar's ties to mention. At the Matrimonial Ceremony last summer, all of Jondalar's names and ties were added to hers, and it made for a very long recitation, but it was only during the most formal of ceremonies that the whole list was required. Since this was her official meeting of the leader of the Seventh Cave, she wanted to make the introduction formal, but not go on and on.

She decided to cite the closest of his ties and continue with her own, including her previous ties. She finished with the appellations that had been added in a more lightearted vein, but that she liked to use. 'Friend of the horses, Whinney, Racer, and Grey, and the four-legged hunter, Wolf. In the name of the Great Mother of all, I greet you, Sergenor, Leader of the Seventh Cave of the Zelandonii, and I would like to thank you for inviting us to Horsehead Rock.'

She is definitely not a Zelandonii, Sergenor thought, as he heard her speak. She may have Jondalar's names and ties, but she's a foreigner with foreign customs, especially about animals. As he dropped her hands, he eyed the wolf, who had come closer.

Ayla saw his uneasiness around the big carnivore. She had noticed that Kimeran was not particularly comfortable near the animal either, though he had been introduced to Wolf last year shortly after they arrived, and he had seen him several times. Neither of the leaders was accustomed to seeing a hunting meat-eater moving so easily among people. Her thoughts were similar to Jondalar's: this might be a good time to get them more accustomed to Wolf.

The people of the Seventh Cave were noticing that the couple everyone talked about from the Ninth Cave had arrived, and more people were coming to see the woman with the wolf. All the nearby Caves had known within a day when Jondalar returned from his five-year-long Journey the summer before. Arriving on horseback with a foreign woman guaranteed it. They had met people from most of the nearby Caves at the Ninth Cave when they came to visit, or at the last Summer Meeting, but this was the first time they had paid a visit to the Seventh or the Second Cave.

Ayla and Jondalar had planned to go the previous fall, but never quite made it. It wasn't that their Caves were so far away from each other, but something always seemed to interfere, and then winter was upon them, and Ayla was getting along in her pregnancy. All the delayed expectation had made their visit an occasion, especially since the First had decided to have a meeting here with the local zelandonia at the same time.

'Whoever carved the Horsehead in the cave below must have known horses. It is very well made,' Ayla said.

'I always thought so, but it is nice to hear it from someone who knows horses as well as you do,' Sergenor said.

Wolf was sitting back on his haunches with his tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth, eyeing the man, his bent ear giving him a cocky, self-satisfied look. Ayla knew he was expecting to be introduced. He had watched her greet the leader of the Seventh Cave and he had come to expect to be presented to any stranger that she greeted in that way.

'I also want to thank you for allowing me to bring Wolf. He's always unhappy if he can't be near me, and now he feels that way about Jonayla, since he loves children so much,' Ayla said.

'That wolf loves children?' Sergenor asked.

'Wolf didn't grow up with other wolves, he was raised with the Mamutoi children of the Lion Camp and thinks of people as his pack, and all wolves love the young of their packs,' Ayla said. 'He saw me greet you and now he expects to meet you. He has learned to accept anyone that I introduce him to.'

Sergenor frowned. 'How do you introduce a wolf?' he said. He glanced at Kimeran and saw him grinning.

The younger man was remembering his introduction to Wolf, and though he might still be somewhat nervous around the carnivore, he was rather enjoying the older man's discomfiture.

Ayla signaled Wolf to come forward and knelt down to put her arm around him, then reached for Sergenor's hand. He jerked it back.

'He only needs to smell it,' Ayla said, 'so he becomes familiar with you. It's the way wolves meet each other.'

'Did you do this, Kimeran?' Sergenor said, noticing that most of his Cave and their visitors were watching.

'Yes, in fact I did. Last summer, when they went to the Third Cave to hunt before the Summer Meeting. Afterward, whenever I saw the wolf at the Meeting, I had the feeling that he recognised me, though he ignored me,' Kimeran said.

He didn't really want to, but with all the people watching, Sergenor was feeling pressed to comply. He didn't want anyone to think that he was afraid to do what the younger leader had already done. Slowly, tentatively, he stretched out his hand toward the animal. Ayla took it and brought it to the animal's nose. Wolf wrinkled his nose and with his mouth closed, bared his teeth so that his large carnassial shearing teeth showed, in what Jondalar always thought of as his feeling-full-of-himself grin. But that wasn't how Sergenor saw it. Ayla could feel him shaking, and noticed the sour smell of his fear. She knew Wolf did, too.

'Wolf won't hurt you, I promise,' Ayla said softly, under her breath. Sergenor gritted his teeth, forcing himself to hold steady while the wolf brought his tooth-filled mouth close to his hand. Wolf sniffed, then licked.

'What's he doing?' Sergenor said. 'Trying to see what I taste like?'

'No, I think he's trying to calm you, like he would a puppy. Here, touch his head.' She moved his hand away from the sharp teeth, and was speaking in a soothing voice. 'Have you ever felt the fur of a living wolf? Do you notice that behind his ears and around his neck, the fur is a little thicker and rougher? He likes being rubbed behind his ears.' When she finally let go, the man moved his hand away and held it in his other hand.

'Now he will recognise you,' she said. She had never seen anyone so afraid of Wolf, or more brave in overcoming his fear. 'Have you ever had any experience with wolves before?' she asked.

'Once, when I was very young, I was bitten by a wolf. I don't really remember, my mother told me about it, but I still have the scars,' Sergenor said.

'That means the Wolf spirit chose you. The Wolf is your totem. That's what the people who raised me would say.' She knew totems were not viewed the same way by the Zelandonii as they were by the Clan. Not everyone had one, but they were considered lucky by those who did. 'I was clawed by a cave lion when I was young, when I could count perhaps five years. I still have the scars to show for it, and I still dream about it sometimes. It is not easy to live with a powerful totem like a Lion or a Wolf, but my totem has helped me, taught me many things,' Ayla said.

Sergenor was intrigued, almost in spite of himself. 'What did you learn from a cave lion?'

'How to face my fears, for one thing,' she said. 'I think you have learned to do the same. Your Wolf totem may have helped you without your knowing it.'

'Perhaps, but how would you know if you have been helped by a totem? Has a Cave Lion spirit really helped you?' Sergenor asked.

'More than once. The four marks that the lion's claw left on my leg, that is a Clan totem mark for a Cave Lion. Usually it is only a man who is given such a strong totem, but they were so clearly Clan marks, the leader accepted me even though I was born to the Others — that's their name for people like us. I was very young when I lost my people. If the Clan hadn't taken me in and raised me, I would not be alive now,' Ayla explained.

'Interesting, but you said "more than once",' Sergenor reminded her.

'Another time, after I became a woman and the new young leader forced me to leave, I walked for a long time looking for the Others as my Clan mother, Iza, had told me to do before she died. But when I couldn't find them, and I had to find a place to stay before winter came, my totem sent a pride of lions to make me change my direction, which led me to find a valley where I could survive. It was even my cave lion who led me to Jondalar,' Ayla said.

The people who were standing around listening were fascinated with her story. Even Jondalar had never heard her explain her totem in quite that way. One of them spoke out.

'And these people who took you in, the ones you call the Clan, are they really Flatheads?'

'That's your name for them. They call themselves the Clan, the Clan of the Cave Bear, because they all venerate the spirit of the Cave Bear. He is the totem of all of them, the Clan totem,' Ayla said.

'I think it's time to let these travellers know where they can put down their sleeping rolls and get settled so they can share a meal with us,' said a woman who had just arrived. She was a pleasantly round, attractive woman with the glint of intelligence and spirit in her eyes.

Sergenor smiled with warm affection. 'This is my mate, Jayvena of the Seventh Cave of the Zelandonii,' he said to Ayla. 'Jayvena, this is Ayla of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii. She has many more names and ties, but I'll let her tell you.'

'But not now,' Jayvena said. 'In the name of the Mother, welcome, Ayla of the Ninth Cave. I'm sure you would rather get settled now rather than recite names and ties.'

As they were starting to leave, Sergenor touched Ayla's arm and looked at her, then said, quietly, 'I sometimes dream of wolves.' She smiled.

As they were leaving, a voluptuous young woman with dark brown hair approached, holding two children in her arms, a dark-haired boy and a blond girl. She smiled at Kimeran, who lightly brushed her cheek with his, then turned to the visitors. 'You met my mate, Beladora, last summer, didn't you?' he said, adding in a voice filled with pride, 'and her son and daughter, the children of my hearth?'

Ayla recalled meeting the woman briefly the summer before, though she hadn't had a chance to get to know her. She knew that Beladora had given birth to her two-born-together at the Summer Meeting around the time of the First Matrimonial, when she and Jondalar were mated. Everyone had been talking about it. That meant the two would soon be able to count one year, she thought.

'Yes, of course,' Jondalar said, bestowing a smile on the woman and her twins, then without really being aware of it, paying closer attention to the attractive young mother, his vivid blue eyes full of appreciation. She smiled back. Kimeran moved closer and put an arm around her waist.

Ayla was adept at reading body language, but she thought anyone could have understood what had just transpired. Jondalar found Beladora attractive, and couldn't help showing it, just as she couldn't help responding to him. Jondalar was unaware of his own charisma, didn't even realise he projected it, but Beladora's mate was very aware of it. Without saying a word, Kimeran had stepped in and made his claim known.

Ayla observed the byplay and was so intrigued, that even though Jondalar was her mate, she didn't feel any jealousy. She did, however, begin to appreciate the comments she had been hearing about him ever since they had arrived. At a deeper level she knew that Jondalar was only appreciating; he had no desire to do more than look. There was another side to him, one that he rarely showed even to her, and then only when they were alone.

Jondalar's emotions had always been too strong, his passions too great. All his life he had struggled to control them and had finally managed only by learning to keep his feelings to himself. It was not easy for him to show the full intensity of his feelings. That was why he never displayed publicly the depth of his love for her, but sometimes when they were alone he couldn't control it. It was so powerful, it sometimes overwhelmed him.

When Ayla turned her head, she noticed Zelandoni Who Was First observing her, and understood that she, too, had been aware of the unspoken interactions and was trying to judge her response. Ayla gave her a knowing smile, then turned her attention to her baby, who was squirming in her carrying blanket, trying to find a way to nurse. She approached the handsome young mother who was standing beside Jayvena.

'Greetings, Beladora. I am glad to see you, especially with your children,' she said. 'Jonayla has soaked her padding. I brought some extra to replace it; would you show me where I can change it?'

The woman with a baby on each hip smiled. 'Come with me,' she said, and the three women started toward the shelter.

Beladora had heard people talk about Ayla's unusual accent, but she hadn't really heard her speak before. She was in labour during the Matrimonial when Jondalar mated his foreign woman, and she'd had little occasion to talk to Ayla later. She was busy with her own concerns, but now she knew what they meant. Though Ayla spoke Zelandonii very well, she just couldn't make some of the sounds exactly right, but Beladora was rather pleased to hear her. She had come from a region far to the south, and though her speech wasn't as unusual as Ayla's, she spoke Zelandonii with her own distinctive accent.

Ayla smiled when she heard her talk. 'I think you were not born a Zelandonii,' she said. 'Just as I was not.'

'My people are known as the Giornadonii. We are neighbours of a Cave of Zelandonii far south of here, where it's much warmer.' Beladora smiled. 'I met Kimeran when he travelled with his sister on her Donier Tour.'

Ayla wondered what a 'Donier Tour' was. Obviously, it had something to do with being a Zelandoni, since 'donier' was another word for One Who Served The Great Mother, but Ayla decided she would ask the First later.

The fire's lambent flames cast a comforting ruddy glow beyond the confines of the oblong hearth that contained it, and painted a warm dancing light on the limestone walls of the abri. The rock ceiling of the overhanging ledge above the fire reflected the glowing hue down on the scene, giving the people a radiant look of well-being. A delicious communal meal that had taken many people a great deal of time and effort to prepare had been consumed, including a huge haunch of megaceros roasted on a sturdy spit stretched across large forked branches over that same extended rectangular firepit. Now the Seventh Cave of the Zelandonii along with many relatives from the Second Cave and their visitors from the Ninth and Third Caves were ready to relax.

Beverages had been offered: several varieties of tea, a fermented fruity wine, and the alcoholic brew called barma made from birch sap, with additions of wild grains, honey or various fruits. They had each taken a cup of their favourite drink, and were milling about, looking for a place to sit near the welcoming hearth. A heightened feeling of anticipation and delight permeated the group. Visitors always brought a bit of excitement, but the foreign woman with her animals and exotic stories promised to be more stimulating than usual.

Ayla and Jondalar were in the midst of a group that included Joharran and Proleva, Sergenor and Jayvena, and Kimeran and Beladora, the leaders of the Ninth, Seventh and Second Caves, and several others, including the young women Levela and Janida, and their mates, Jondecam and Peridal. The leaders were discussing with the people of the Seventh Cave when the visitors should leave Horsehead Rock and go to Elder Hearth, with jocular asides, in a friendly rivalry with the Second Cave about where the visitors should stay the longest.

'Elder Hearth is senior and should be higher ranking and accorded more prestige,' Kimeran said with a teasing grin. 'So we should have them longer.'

'Does that mean because I'm older than you, I should be accorded more prestige?' Sergenor countered with a telling smile. 'I'll remember that.'

Ayla had been listening and smiling with the rest, but she had been wanting to ask a question. At a break in the conversation, she finally said, 'Now that you have brought up the ages of the Caves, there is something I would like to know.' They all turned to look at her.

'You have only to ask,' Kimeran said with exaggerated courtesy and friendliness that intimated the suggestion of more. He had drunk a few cups of barma and was noticing how attractive his tall friend's mate was.

'Last summer Manvelar was telling me a little about the counting-word names of each Cave, but I'm still confused,' Ayla said. 'When we went to the Summer Meeting last year, we stopped overnight at the Twenty-ninth Cave. They live at three separate shelters around a big valley, each with a leader and a zelandoni, but they are all called by the same counting word, the Twenty-ninth. The Second Cave is closely related to the Seventh Cave, and you live just across a valley, so why do you have a Cave with a different counting word? Why aren't you part of the Second Cave?'

'That's one I can't answer. I don't know,' Kimeran said, then gestured toward the older man. 'You'll have to ask the more senior leader. Sergenor?'

Sergenor smiled, but pondered the question for a moment. 'To be honest, I don't know, either. It never occurred to me before. And I don't know of any Histories or Elder Legends that tell about it. There are some that tell stories of the original inhabitants of the region, the First Cave of the Zelandonii, but they have long since disappeared. No one even knows for sure where their shelter was.'

'You do know that the Second Cave of the Zelandonii is the oldest settlement of Zelandonii still in existence?' Kimeran said, his voice slightly slurred. 'That's why it's called Elder Hearth.'

'Yes, I knew that,' she said, wondering if he would need the 'morning after' drink she had concocted for Talut, the Mamutoi leader of the Lion Camp.

'I'll tell you what I think,' Sergenor said. 'As the families of the First and Second Caves grew too large for their shelters, some of them, offshoots of both Caves as well as new people who had come into the region, moved farther away, taking the next counting words when they established a new Cave. By the time the group of people from the Second Cave who founded our Cave decided to move, the next unused counting word was seven. They were mostly young families — some newly mated couples, the children of the Second Cave — and they wanted to stay close to their relatives, so they moved here, just across Sweet Valley, to make their new home. Even though the two Caves were so closely related, they were the same as one Cave, I think they chose a new number because that's the way it was done. So we became two separate Caves: Elder Hearth, the Second Cave of the Zelandonii, and Horsehead Rock, the Seventh Cave. We are still just different branches of the same family.

'The Twenty-ninth is a newer Cave,' Sergenor continued. 'When they moved to their new shelters, I suspect they all wanted to keep the same counting word name, because the smaller the counting word, the older the settlement. There is a certain prestige in having a lower counting word and Twenty-nine was rather large already. I suspect none of the people founding the new Caves wanted a larger one. They decided to call themselves Three Rocks, the Twenty-ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, and then use the names they had already given to the locations to explain the difference.

'The original settlement is called Reflection Rock, because from certain places you can see yourself in the water below. It is one of the few shelters that face north and is not quite as easy to keep warm, but it is a remarkable place and has many other advantages. It is the South Holding of the Twenty-ninth Cave, or sometimes the South Holding of Three Rocks. South Face became the North Holding, and Summer Camp became the West Holding of the Twenty-ninth Cave. I think their way is more complicated and confusing, but it's their choice.'

'If the Second Cave is the oldest, then the next-oldest group still in existence must be Two Rivers Rock, the Third Cave of the Zelandonii. We stayed there last night,' Ayla said, nodding as she understood more.

'That's right,' Proleva said, joining in.

'But there is no Fourth Cave, is there?'

'There was a Fourth Cave,' Proleva replied, 'but no one seems to know what happened to it. There are Legends that hint at some catastrophe that struck more than one Cave, and the Fourth may have disappeared around that time, but no one knows. It's a dark time in the Histories, too. Some fighting with the Flatheads is inferred.'

'The Fifth Cave, called Old Valley, upstream along The River, is next after the Third,' Jondalar said. 'We were going to visit them on our way to the Summer Meeting last year, but they had already left, remember?' Ayla nodded. 'They have several shelters on both sides of Short River Valley, some for living, some for storage, but they don't give them separate counting words. All of Old Valley is the Fifth Cave.'

'The Sixth Cave has disappeared, too,' Sergenor continued. 'There are different stories about what happened to it. Most people think illness reduced their numbers. Others believe there was a difference of opinion between factions. In any case, the Histories indicate that the people who had once been the Sixth Cave joined up with other Caves, so we, the Seventh Cave are next. There is no Eighth Cave, either, so your Cave, the Ninth, comes after ours.'

There was a moment of silence while the information was absorbed. Then changing the subject, Jondecam asked Jondalar if he would look at the spear-thrower he had made, and Levela told her older sister, Proleva, that she was thinking about going to the Ninth Cave to have her baby, which elicited a smile. People started having private conversations and soon split up into other groups.

Jondecam was not the only one who wanted to ask questions about the spear-thrower, especially after learning about the lion hunt the day before. Jondalar had developed the hunting weapon while he lived with Ayla in her eastern valley and had demonstrated it shortly after he had returned to his home the previous summer. He had held further exhibitions at the Summer Meeting.

Earlier in the afternoon, when Jondalar was waiting for Ayla to visit Horsehead cave, several had practised casting spears with throwers they had made, patterned after the ones they had seen him use, while Jondalar gave them instructions and advice. Now a group of people, primarily men but including some women, were gathered around him, asking questions about the techniques of making spear-throwers, and the lightweight spears that had proved to be so effective with it.

Across the hearth, near the wall that helped contain the heat, several women who had babies, Ayla among them, were gathered together feeding, rocking, or keeping an eye on sleeping ones while they chatted.

In a separate, more isolated area of the shelter, Zelandoni Who Was First had been talking with the other Zelandonia and their acolytes, feeling just a little annoyed that Ayla, who was her acolyte, had not joined them. She knew she had pushed her into it, but Ayla was already an accomplished healer when she had arrived, and had other remarkable skills besides, including knowing how to control animals. She belonged in the zelandonia!

The Zelandoni of the Seventh had asked the First a question and was waiting for an answer with a patient expression. He had noticed that the Zelandoni of the Ninth Cave seemed distracted and a bit annoyed. He had been observing her since the visitors had arrived and had seen her irritation grow, and guessed why. When Zelandonia visited each other with their acolytes, it was a good time to teach the novices some of the knowledge and lore they had to learn and memorise, and her acolyte was not here. But, he thought, if the First was going to choose an acolyte who had a mate and a new baby, she had to know her full attention would not be devoted to the zelandonia.

'Excuse me for a moment,' the First said, pulling herself up from a mat on a low stone ledge and walking toward the group of chattering young mothers. 'Ayla,' she said, smiling. She was adept at hiding her true feelings. 'I'm sorry to interrupt, but the Zelandoni of the Seventh Cave just asked me a question about setting broken bones, and I thought you might have some thoughts to contribute.'

'Of course, Zelandoni,' she said. 'Let me get Jonayla; she's right over there.'

Ayla got up, but hesitated when she looked down at her sleeping baby. Wolf looked up at her and whined, beating his tail against the ground. He was lying beside the infant that he considered to be his special charge. Wolf had been the last of the litter of a lone wolf that Ayla had killed for stealing from her traps, before she knew it was a nursing mother. She had tracked back to the den, found one living cub, and had brought him back with her. He had grown up in the close confines of the Mamutoi winter dwelling. He was so young when she found him — he would have counted perhaps four weeks — that he had imprinted on humans, and he adored the youngsters, especially the young one born to Ayla.

'I hate to disturb her. She just fell asleep. She's not used to visiting and has been overexcited this evening,' Ayla said.

'We can watch her,' Levela said, then grinned. 'At least help Wolf. He won't let her out of his sight. If she wakes, we'll bring her over. But now that she has finally settled down, I don't think she'll stir for some time.'

'Thank you, Levela,' Ayla said, then smiled at her and the woman beside her. 'You really are Proleva's sister. Do you know how much you are like her?'

'I know I've missed her since she mated Joharran,' Levela said, looking at her sister. 'We were always close. Proleva was almost a second mother to me.'

Ayla followed the One Who Was First back to the group of Those Who Served The Mother. She noticed that most of the local zelandonia were there. In addition to the First, who was the Zelandoni of the Ninth Cave, and of course the Zelandonia of the Second and Seventh Caves, there were also the Zelandonia of the Third and Eleventh Caves. The Zelandoni of the Fourteenth had not come, but she had sent her First Acolyte. There were several other acolytes. Ayla recognised the two younger women and a young man, from the Second and Seventh Caves. She smiled at Mejera from the Third Cave and greeted the elderly man who was the Zelandoni of the Seventh, and then the woman who was the granddaughter of his hearth, the Zelandoni of the Second, who was also the mother of Jondecam. Ayla had been wanting to get to know the Second better. Not many of the Zelandonia had children, but she was a woman who had been mated and had raised two children — and her brother Kimeran after their mother died — and now was a Zelandoni.

'Ayla has had more experience than most in setting bones, Zelandoni of the Seventh. You should ask her your question,' the First said, settling back down and indicating a mat next to her for Ayla.

'I know if a fresh break is set straight, it will heal straight — I've done it many times — but someone was asking me if anything could be done if a break was not set straight and it healed crooked,' the older man asked immediately. He was not only interested in her response, he had heard so much about her skill from the One Who Was First, he wanted to see if she would be flustered by a direct question from someone of his age and experience.

Ayla had just dropped down to the mat and turned to face him. She had a way of lowering herself that was particularly fluid and graceful, he noticed, and a way of looking at him that was direct yet not quite, that somehow conveyed a sense of respect. Though she had expected to be formally introduced to the other acolytes, and was surprised to be questioned so quickly, she responded without hesitation.

'It depends on the break and how long it has been healing,' Ayla said. 'If it's an old break, it's hard to do much. Healed bone, even if it healed wrong, is often stronger than bone that was not injured. If you try to rebreak it to set it right, the uninjured bone is likely to break instead. But if the break has just started to mend, sometimes it can be broken again and set straight.'

'Have you ever done it?' the Seventh asked, a bit put off by the way she spoke; it was odd, not like the way Kimeran's pretty mate spoke, with a rather pleasant shift in certain sounds. When Jondalar's foreign woman spoke, it was almost as though she swallowed certain sounds.

'Yes,' Ayla said. She had the feeling she was being tested, something like the way Iza used to ask her questions about healing practices and plant uses. 'On our Journey here, we stopped to visit some people that Jondalar had met earlier, the Sharamudoi. Nearly a moon before we arrived, a woman he knew had taken a bad fall and had broken her arm. It was healing wrong, bent in such a way that she couldn't use it, and it was very painful. Their healer had died earlier that winter, and they did not have a new one yet, and no one else knew how to set an arm. I managed to rebreak her arm and reset it. It was not perfect, but it was better. She would not have full use, but she would be able to use it, and by the time we left, it was healing well and not causing her pain anymore,' Ayla explained.

'Didn't breaking her arm cause her pain?' a young man asked.

'I don't think she felt the pain. I gave her something to make her sleep and relax her muscles. I know it as datura …'

'Datura?' the old man interrupted. Her accent was particularly heavy when she said the word.

'In Mamutoi it's called a word that might mean "thorn apple" in Zelandoni, because at one stage it bears a fruit that could be described that way. It's a strong-smelling large plant with big white flowers that flare out from the stem,' Ayla said.

'Yes, I believe I know the one,' the old Zelandoni of the Seventh Cave said.

'How did you know what to do?' asked the young woman who was sitting beside the old man, in a tone that sounded full of wonder that someone who was just an acolyte could have known so much.

'Yes, that is a good question,' the Seventh said. 'How did you know what to do? Where did you get your experience? You seem quite knowledgeable for one so young.'

Ayla glanced at the First, who seemed rather pleased. She wasn't sure why, but she had the impression that the woman was satisfied by her recitation.

'The woman who took me in and raised me when I was a little girl was a medicine woman of her people, a healer. She was training me to be a medicine woman, too. Men of the Clan use a different kind of spear than Zelandonii men when they hunt. It's longer and thicker and they don't usually throw it; they jab with it, so they have to get close. It's more dangerous and they were often hurt. Sometimes the hunters of the Clan travelled quite a long distance. If someone broke a bone, they weren't always able to return right away and the bone would start to heal before it could be set. I assisted Iza a few times when she had to rebreak and reset bones, and I also helped the medicine women at the Clan Gathering do the same.'

'These people you call the Clan, are they really the same as Flatheads?' the young man asked.

She had been asked that question before, and she thought by the same young man. 'That is your word for them,' Ayla said again.

'It's hard to believe they could do so much,' he said.

'Not for me. I lived with them.'

There was an uncomfortable silence for a few moments, then the First changed the subject. 'I think this would be a good time for the acolytes to learn or, for some of you, to review counting-words, some of their uses and meanings. You all know the counting words, but what can you do if there are large amounts to count? Zelandoni of the Second Cave, would you explain?'

Ayla's interest was quickened. Suddenly fascinated, she leaned forward. She knew counting could be more complex and powerful than just the simple counting words, if one understood how to do it. The First noted her attention with satisfaction. She was sure that Ayla had a particular curiosity about the concept of counting.

'You can use your hands,' the Second said, and held up both hands. 'With the right hand, you count on your fingers as each word is said up to five.' She made a fist, and lifted each finger in turn as she counted, beginning with the thumb. 'You can count another five on your left hand until you get to ten, but that is as far as you can go with just counting. But instead of using the left hand to count the second five, you can bend down one finger, the thumb, to hold the first five,' she held up her left hand with the back facing out, 'then count again on the right hand, and bend down the second counting finger of the left hand to hold it.' She bent her index finger on top of her thumb, so that she was holding open both hands, except for the index finger and thumb of her left hand. 'That means ten,' she said. If I hold down the next finger, that means fifteen. The next finger is twenty, and next one twenty-five.'

Ayla was amazed. She comprehended the idea immediately, though it was more complex than the simple counting words Jondalar had taught her. She remembered the first time she learned the concept of calculating the number of things. It was Creb, the Mog-ur of the Clan, who had shown her, but essentially he could only count to ten. The first time he showed her his way of counting, when she was still a girl, he placed each finger of one hand on five different stones and then, since one arm had been amputated below the elbow, he did it a second time imagining that it was his other hand. With great difficulty, he could stretch his imagination to count to twenty, which was why it had shocked and upset him when she had counted to twenty-five with ease.

She didn't use words, the way Jondalar did. She did it with pebbles, showing Creb twenty-five by placing her five fingers on different stones five times. Creb had struggled to learn to count, but she understood the concept with ease. He told her never to tell anyone what she had done. He knew she was different from the Clan, but he hadn't understood how different until then, and he knew it would distress them, especially Brun and the men, perhaps enough to drive her out.

Most of the Clan could count only one, two, three and many, though they could indicate some gradations of many, and they had other ways of understanding quantities. For example, they didn't have counting words for the years of a child's life, but they knew that a child in his birthing year was younger than a child who was in his walking year or his weaning year. It was also true that Brun didn't have to count the people of his clan. He knew the name of everyone and with just a quick glance, he knew if someone was not there, and who it was. Most people shared that ability to some degree. Once they were with a limited number of people for a period of time, they intuitively sensed if someone was missing.

Ayla knew that if her understanding of counting upset Creb, who loved her, it would disturb the rest of the Clan even more, so she never mentioned it, but she hadn't forgotten. She used her limited knowledge of counting for herself, especially when she lived alone in the valley. She had marked the passing of time by cutting marks on a stick every day. She knew how many seasons and years she had lived in the valley even without having counting words, but when Jondalar came, he was able to tally the marks on her sticks and tell her how long she had been there. To her, it was like magic. Now that she had an idea how he had done it, she was hungry to learn more.

'There are ways to count even higher, but it is more complicated,' the Second continued, then smiled, 'as with most things associated with the zelandonia.' Those watching smiled back. 'Most signs have more than one meaning. Both hands can mean ten or twenty-five, and it's not hard to understand what is meant when you are talking about it, because when you mean ten, you face the palms out; when you mean twenty-five, you turn the palms inward. When you hold them facing in, you can count again, but this time use the left hand, and hold the number with the right.' She demonstrated and the acolytes mimicked her. 'In that position, bending down the thumb means thirty, but when you count and hold to thirty-five, you don't hold the thumb down; you just bend the next finger down. For forty, you bend down the middle finger, for forty-five the next; for fifty the small finger of the right hand is bent, and all the other fingers on both hands are out. The right hand with bent fingers is sometimes used alone to show those larger counting words. Even larger counting words can be made bending more than one finger.'

Ayla had trouble bending just her little finger and holding that position. It was obvious that the rest of them had more practice, but she had no trouble understanding. The First saw Ayla grinning with amazement and delight, and nodded to herself. This is the way to keep her involved, she thought.

'A handprint can be made on a surface like a piece of wood or the wall of a cave, even on the bank of a stream,' the First added. 'That hand sign can mean several different things. It may mean counting words, but it may mean something else entirely. If you want to leave a handprint sign, you can dip your palm in colour and leave the mark, or you can place your hand on the surface and blow colour on and around the back of it, which leaves a different kind of handprint. If you want to make a sign that means a counting word, dip the palm in colour for the smaller ones, and blow colour on the back of your hand to show the larger ones. One Cave to the south and east of here makes the sign of a large dot using colour on only the palm, without showing the fingers.'

Ayla's mind was racing, overwhelmed with the idea of counting. Creb, the greatest Mogur of the Clan, could, with great effort, count to twenty. She could count to twenty-five and represent it with just two hands in a way that others could understand it, and then increase that number. You could tell someone how many red deer had congregated at their spring calving grounds, how many young were born; a small number like five, a small group, twenty-five, or many more than that. It would be harder to count a larger herd, but it could all be communicated. How much meat should be stored to last how many people through the winter. How many strings of dried roots? How many baskets of nuts. How many days will it take to reach the Summer Meeting place? How many people will be there? The possibilities were incredible. Counting words had tremendous significance, both real and symbolic.

The One Who Was First was talking again, and Ayla had to wrench her mind away from her contemplations. She was holding up one hand. 'The number of fingers on one hand, five, is an important counting word in its own right. It represents the number of fingers on each hand, and the toes on each foot, of course, but that is only its superficial meaning. Five is also the Mother's sacred counting word. Our hands and feet only remind us of that. Another thing that reminds us of that is the apple.' She produced a small, unripe hard apple and held it up. 'If you hold an apple on its side and cut it in half, as if you were cutting through the stem within the fruit,' she demonstrated as she spoke, 'you will see that the pattern of the seeds divides the apple into five sections. That is why the apple is the Mother's sacred fruit.'

She passed out both sections to be examined by the acolytes, giving the top half to Ayla. 'There are other important aspects of the counting-word five. As you will learn, you can see five stars in the sky that move in a random pattern each year, and there are five seasons of the year: spring, summer, autumn, and the two cold periods, early winter and late winter. Most people think the year starts with spring when new green starts growing, but the zelandonia know that the beginning of the year is marked by the Winter Shortday, which is what divides early winter from late winter. The true year begins with late winter, then spring, summer, autumn, and early winter.'

'The Mamutoi count five seasons, too,' Ayla volunteered. 'Actually three major seasons: spring, summer and winter, and two minor seasons: fall and midwinter. Perhaps it should be called late winter.' Some of the others were rather surprised that she would interject a comment when the First was explaining a basic concept, but the First smiled inwardly, pleased to see her getting involved. 'They consider three to be a primary counting word because it represents woman, like the three-sided triangle with the point facing down represents woman, and the Great Mother. When they add the two others, fall and midwinter, seasons that mean changes are coming, it makes five. Mamut said five was Her counting word of hidden authority.'

'That's very interesting, Ayla. We say five is Her sacred counting word. We also consider three to be an important concept, for similar reasons. I'd like to hear more about the people you call the Mamutoi, and their customs. Perhaps the next time the zelandonia meet,' the First said.

Ayla was listening with fascination. The First had a voice that captured attention, demanded it, when she chose to focus it, but it wasn't only the voice. The knowledge and information she was imparting were stimulating and absorbing. Ayla wanted to know more.

'There are also five sacred colours and five sacred elements but it's getting late and we'll get into that next time,' said the One Who Was First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother.

Ayla felt disappointed. She could have listened all night, but then she looked up and saw Folara coming with Jonayla. Her baby was awake.

Chapter 4

Anticipation for the Summer Meeting intensified after the Ninth Cave returned from visiting the Seventh and Second Caves. Everyone's time and attention was occupied with the hectic rush of getting ready to leave, and the excitement was palpable. Each family was busy with its own preparations, but the various leaders had the additional duty of planning and organising for their entire Cave. That they were willing to assume the responsibility and able to carry it out was why they were leaders.

The leaders of all the Zelandonii Caves were anxious before a Summer Meeting, but Joharran was especially so. While most Caves tended to have some twenty-five to fifty people, some as much as seventy or eighty, usually related, his Cave was an exception. Nearly two hundred individuals belonged to the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii.

It was a challenge to lead so many people, but Joharran was up to the task. Not only had Joharran's mother, Marthona, been a leader of the Ninth Cave, but Joconan, the first man to whom she was mated and to whose hearth Joharran had been born, was the leader before her. Joharran's brother, Jondalar, who was born to the hearth of Dalanar, the man Marthona mated after Joconan died, had specialised in a craft in which he showed both skill and inclination. Like Dalanar, he was recognised as an expert flint-knapper because it was what he did best. But Joharran grew up immersed in the ways of leadership and had a natural propensity to take on those responsibilities. It was what he did best.

The Zelandonii had no formal process for selecting leaders, but as people lived together, they learned who the best person was to help them to resolve a conflict or sort out a problem. And they tended to follow the ones who took on the organisation of an activity and did it well.

If several people decided to go hunting, for example, it wasn't necessarily the best hunter they chose to follow, but the one who could direct the group in a way that made the hunt most successful for everyone. Often, though not always, the best problem solver was also the best organiser. Sometimes two or three people, who were known for their specific areas of expertise, worked together. After a while, the one who dealt with conflicts and managed activities most effectively was acknowledged as the leader, not in any kind of structured way, but by unspoken consent.

Those who obtained leadership positions gained status, but such leaders governed by persuasion and influence; they had no coercive power. There were no specific rules or laws requiring compliance, or means of enforcing them, which made leadership more difficult, but peer pressure to acknowledge and accept suggestions by the head of the Cave was strong. The spiritual leaders, the Zelandonia, had even less authority to compel, but perhaps more power to persuade; they were greatly respected and a little feared. Their knowledge of the unknown and their familiarity with the terrifying world of the spirits, which was an important element in the lives of the community, commanded respect.

Ayla's excitement about the upcoming Summer Meeting increased as the time to leave approached. She hadn't noticed it as much the previous year, but they had arrived at Jondalar's home not long before the annual gathering of the Zelandonii after travelling for a year, and she had felt excitement and tension enough just meeting his people and getting accustomed to their ways. This year she had been aware of her mounting enthusiasm since the beginning of spring, and as the days passed, she was as rushed and eager as everyone. It was a lot of work to get ready for the summer, especially knowing that they would be travelling around, not staying at any single place for the whole season.

The Summer Meeting was where people gathered together after the long cold season to reaffirm their ties, to find mates, and to exchange goods and news. The location became a sort of base camp from which individuals and smaller groups would be going on hunting expeditions and gathering excursions, exploring their land to see what had changed, and visiting additional Caves to see other friends and kin, and some more distant neighbours. Summer was the itinerant season; the Zelandonii were essentially sedentary only in winter.

Ayla had finished changing and nursing Jonayla and had put her down to sleep. Wolf had gone out earlier, probably to hunt or explore. She had just spread out their travelling sleeping roll to see what repairs it might need when she heard a tapping on the post beside the drape that closed the entrance to their dwelling. Her home was located near the back of the protected space, but closer to the southwestern, downriver end of the living area, since it was one of the newer constructions. She got up and pulled aside the drape and was pleased to see the One Who Was First standing there.

'How nice to see you, Zelandoni,' she said, smiling. 'Come in.'

After the woman entered, Ayla caught a sense of movement outside and glanced up at another construction that she and Jondalar had made somewhat farther on across the vacant space as a place for the horses to shelter when the weather was especially disagreeable. She noticed that Whinney and Grey had just come up from the grassy edge of The River.

'I was going to make some tea for myself — can I make some for you?'

'Thank you, yes,' the large woman said as she headed for a block of limestone with a large cushion on top that had been brought inside especially for her to use as a seat. It was sturdy and comfortable.

Ayla busied herself placing some cooking stones on the hot coals she had stirred up in the fireplace, and adding more wood. Then she poured water from the waterbag — the cleaned stomach of an aurochs bulging with fullness — into a tightly woven basket, and added some broken pieces of bone, to protect the cooking basket from the sizzling-hot cooking stones.

'Is there a particular tea you'd like?' she asked.

'It doesn't matter. You choose — something calming would be nice,' Zelandoni replied.

The padded rock had appeared in their dwelling shortly after they returned from the Summer Meeting the year before. The First had not asked for it, and she wasn't sure whether it was Ayla's idea or Jondalar's, but she knew it was meant for her and she appreciated it. Zelandoni had two stone seats of her own, one in her dwelling, and one near the back of the exterior common work area. In addition, Joharran and Proleva provided her a solid place to sit comfortably in their dwelling. Though she could still get down on the floor if it was necessary, as time went on and she continued to grow fatter, she was finding it harder to get up. She assumed that since she was chosen to be First by the Great Earth Mother, She had a reason for making her look more like Her every year. Not every Zelandoni who had become First was fat, but she knew most people liked seeing her that way. Her size seemed to lend presence and authority. A little less mobility was a small price to pay.

With wooden tongs Ayla picked up a hot stone. The tongs were made from a thin piece of wood from just under the bark of a living tree, peeled in a long strip, the top and bottom cut, then bent around with steam. Fresh wood kept its springiness longer, but to keep the tree from dying, it was best if taken from only one side. She tapped the cooking stone against one of the rocks that circled the firepit to shake off the ashes, then dropped it into the water amid a cloud of steam. A second hot stone brought the water to the boil, though it settled down quickly. The pieces of bone kept the hot rocks from scorching the bottom of the basket, giving the fibre cooking pot a longer life.

Ayla looked through her supply of dried and drying herbs. Chamomile was always calming, but it was so commonplace, she wanted something more. She noticed a plant she had picked recently and smiled to herself. The lemon balm wasn't entirely dry yet, but she decided it didn't matter. It was entirely usable for tea. A little added to the chamomile along with some linden for a bit of sweetening would make a nice calming infusion. She put the chamomile leaves, the lemon balm, and linden into the water and let it steep a while, then poured two cups and brought one to the Donier.

The woman blew on it a bit then, sipped it carefully, and cocked her head, trying to identify the taste. 'Chamomile, of course, but … let me think. Is it lemon balm, with perhaps some linden flowers?' she asked.

Ayla smiled. It was exactly what she did when she was given something unknown; she tried to identify it. And of course Zelandoni had known the ingredients. 'Yes,' Ayla said. 'I had dried chamomile and linden flowers, but I just found the lemon balm a few days ago. I'm glad it grows nearby.'

'Perhaps you could collect some lemon balm for me the next time you get some for yourself. It could be useful to take to the Summer Meeting.'

'I'd be happy to. I could even get it today. I know exactly where it grows. On the plateau above, near the Falling Stone,' she said. Ayla was referring to the unique formation of an ancient columnar section of basalt that had once found its way to the bottom of the primordial sea and was now eroding out of the limestone in a way that made it appear to be falling, though it was still firmly imbedded into the upper face of the cliff.

'What do you know about the uses of this?' Zelandoni asked, holding up the cup of tea.

'Chamomile is relaxing and if you take it at night, it can help you to fall asleep. Lemon balm is calming, especially if you feel nervous and stressful. It will even relieve the stomach upset that sometimes comes with stress and it will help you sleep. It has a pleasant taste that is good with chamomile. Linden helps with headaches, especially when you feel tight and tense, and adds a little sweetening.' Ayla thought of Iza, and the way she would test her with similar questions to see how much she remembered of the knowledge Iza was teaching her. She wondered if Zelandoni was also trying to find out how much she knew.

'Yes, this tea could be used as a mild sedative, in sufficient strength.'

'If someone is really excitable, anxious and can't sleep, and something a little stronger is needed, the liquid from boiled valerian roots is settling,' Ayla said.

'Particularly at night, to bring on sleep, but if the stomach is also upset, then vervain, a tea of the flower stems and leaves, may be better,' the First said.

'I've also used vervain for someone recovering from a long illness, but it should not be given to a pregnant woman. It can stimulate labour, and even milk flow.' The two women stopped, looked at each other, and chuckled, then Ayla said, 'I can't tell you how happy it makes me to have someone to talk to about medicines and healing. Someone who knows so much.'

'I think you may know as much as I do — in certain ways, more, Ayla, and it is a pleasure to discuss and compare ideas with you. I look forward to many years of such rewarding discussions,' Zelandoni said; then she looked around and motioned toward the sleeping roll spread out on the floor. 'It appears you're getting ready for the trip.'

'I was just checking the sleeping roll to see if it needed mending. It's been a while since we've used it,' Ayla said. 'It's a good one for travelling in all kinds of weather.'

The sleeping roll consisted of several hides sewn together to make a long top and bottom to accommodate Jondalar's height. They were attached at the foot, and removable thongs were threaded through holes down the sides that could be lashed tightly together or left loose, or even removed if it was especially warm. Thick furs were on the outside of the bottom piece, to create an insulating cushion against the hard and often cold ground. Any of several furs could be used, but it was usually made from an animal killed in cold weather. On this one, Ayla had used the supremely dense, naturally insulating winter fur of reindeer. The top of the sleeping roll was lighter weight; she had used the summer hides of megaceros, which were large and didn't require as much piecing together. An extra hide or fur could be thrown on top if it cooled down, or if it got really cold, additional furs could be put inside and the sides laced up.

'I think you'll get some use out of that,' Zelandoni said, recognising the versatility of the sleeping roll. 'I came to talk to you about the Summer Meeting, or rather, about after the early ceremonial part of it. I was going to suggest that you make sure you have adequate travelling equipment and supplies with you. There are some sacred sites in this area you should see. Later, in a few years, I want to show you some other sacred sites and take you to meet some of the zelandonia that live farther away.'

Ayla smiled. She liked the idea of seeing new places, so long as it wasn't too far. She'd done enough long-distance travelling. She remembered just seeing Whinney and Grey, and an idea occurred to her that could make travelling with the First easier. 'If we use the horses, we could travel much faster.'

The woman shook her head and took a sip of tea. 'There is no way I could get up on the back of a horse, Ayla.'

'You wouldn't have to. You can ride on the pole-drag behind Whinney. We can make a comfortable seat on it.' She had been thinking of how to convert the travois so that it could be used to carry passengers, especially Zelandoni.

'What makes you think that horse could pull someone my size on that dragging thing.'

'Whinney has pulled much heavier loads than you. She's a very strong animal. She could take you and your travelling things, and medicines. In fact, I was going to ask if you would like her to carry your medicines along with mine to the Summer Meeting,' Ayla said. 'We won't be taking passengers on the way there. We won't even be riding ourselves. We've promised several people that Whinney and Racer would carry certain things to the Meeting. Joharran wanted us to haul some poles and other building parts for some of the Ninth Cave's summer dwellings. And Proleva wanted to know if we could take some of her special large cooking baskets, and bowls and serving equipment for feasts and shared community meals. And Jondalar wants to lighten Marthona's load.'

'It appears that your horses are going to be put to good use,' the First said, taking another sip of her tea, her mind already formulating plans.

The First had various journeys planned for Ayla. She wanted to take her to meet some of the Zelandonii Caves that were farther away and visit their sacred places, and perhaps meet some of the people who were neighbours of the Zelandonii who lived near the boundaries of their territory. But Zelandoni had a feeling that the young woman, after coming so far to get here, might not be especially interested in making the extended trip she had in mind for her. She hadn't really mentioned anything about the Donier Tour that acolytes were expected to make.

She began to think that, perhaps, she ought to agree to allowing the horses to pull her on that thing; it might encourage Ayla to make the excursions. The large woman wasn't really interested in being dragged around by horses, and if she were honest with herself, she'd have to admit that the idea actually frightened her, but she had faced worse fears in her life. She knew the effect Ayla's control of the animals would have on people; they likely would be a little frightened, and very impressed. Maybe one day she ought to see what it would be like to sit on this pole-drag thing.

'Perhaps sometime we'll try to see if your Whinney can pull me,' Zelandoni said and watched a large grin expand across the young woman's face.

'This is as good a time as any,' Ayla said, thinking it might be best to take advantage of the woman's agreeable mood before she changed her mind, and watched the startled look appear on the face of the One Who Was First.

Just then, the drape covering the entrance was pulled back and Jondalar strode in. He could see Zelandoni's startled expression and wondered what had brought it on. Ayla stood up and they greeted each other with a light embrace and a touching of cheeks, but their strong feelings for each other were obvious and did not escape their visitor's attention. Jondalar glanced toward the baby's place and noticed that she was sleeping, and then he walked to the older woman and greeted her in a similar fashion, still wondering what had disconcerted her.

'And Jondalar can help us,' Ayla added.

'Help you with what?' he said.

'Zelandoni was talking about making some trips this summer to visit other Caves, and I thought it would be easier and faster using horses.'

'It probably would, but do you think Zelandoni could learn to ride?' Jondalar asked.

'She wouldn't have to. We could make a comfortable seat on the pole-drag for her and Whinney could pull her.' Ayla said.

Jondalar's forehead wrinkled as he thought about it, then he nodded his head. 'I don't see why not,' he said.

'Zelandoni said sometime she'd be willing to try to see if Whinney could pull her, and I said, "this is as good a time as any." '

Zelandoni glanced at Jondalar and detected a glint of enjoyment in his eyes, then looked at Ayla and tried to think of a way to put it off. 'You said you would have to make a seat. You don't have one made yet,' she said.

'That's true, but you didn't think Whinney could pull you. You don't need a seat to try it and see if she can. I don't have any doubt, but it might reassure you, and give us a chance to think about how to make a seat,' Ayla said.

Zelandoni felt that somehow she had been snared. She didn't really want to do this, especially not right away, but she didn't think she could get out of it now. Then, recognising that in her eagerness to have Ayla begin her Donier Tour, she had done it to herself, she heaved a big sigh and stood up. 'Well, let's get it over with then,' she said.

When she lived in her valley, Ayla had thought of a way to use her horse to transport things of considerable size and weight, such as an animal she had hunted — and once, Jondalar, wounded and unconscious. It consisted of two poles attached together at the shoulders of the horse with a kind of strap made of thongs that went across Whinney's chest. The opposite ends of the poles spread out and rested on the ground behind the horse. Because only the very small surface area of the ends of the poles were dragged on the ground, it was relatively easy to pull them, even over rough terrain, especially for the sturdy horses. A platform made of planks or leather hides or basketry fibres was stretched across the poles to carry the loads, but Ayla wasn't sure if the flexible platform would hold the large woman without bending down to the ground.

'Finish your tea,' Ayla said as the woman started to get up. 'I need to find Folara or someone to watch Jonayla. I don't want to wake her up.'

She returned quickly, but not with Folara. Instead Lanoga, Tremeda's daughter, followed Ayla in, carrying her youngest sister, Lorala. Ayla had tried to assist Lanoga and the rest of the children almost since she arrived. She couldn't ever remember being so angry with anyone as she was with Tremeda and Laramar because of the way they neglected their children, but there was nothing she could do about it — nothing anyone could do — except help the young ones.

'We won't be gone long, Lanoga. I should be back before Jonayla wakes up. We're just going to the horse shelter,' Ayla said, then added, 'There's some soup behind the fireplace with several good pieces of meat left and a few vegetables, if you or Lorala are hungry.'

'Lorala might be. She hasn't eaten since I brought her to Stelona to nurse this morning,' Lanoga said.

'You have something, too, Lanoga,' Ayla said as they were leaving. She thought Stelona had probably given her something to eat, but was sure the girl hadn't eaten since the morning meal either.

When they were some distance from the dwelling, and Ayla was sure she wouldn't be overheard, she finally voiced her anger. 'I'm going to have to go over there and check to see if there's any food for the children.'

'You brought food over there two days ago,' Jondalar said. 'It shouldn't be all gone yet.'

'You must know that Tremeda and Laramar are eating it, too,' Zelandoni said. 'You can't prevent them. And if you bring grain or fruit, or anything that will ferment, Laramar will take it and add it to the birch sap for his barma. I'll stop by on the way back for the children and take them with me. I can find someone to give them an evening meal. You shouldn't be the only one feeding them, Ayla. There are enough people in the Ninth Cave to make sure those children get enough to eat.'

When they reached the horse shelter, Ayla and Jondalar gave Whinney and Grey some individual attention. Then from the end of a post, Ayla got the special harness she used for the pole-drag and led the mare outside. Jondalar wondered where Racer was, and looked over the edge of the stone porch at The River to see if he could catch sight of him, but he didn't seem to be nearby. He started to whistle for him, then changed his mind. He didn't need the stallion now. He would look for him later, after they got Zelandoni on the travois.

She looked around the horse shelter and noticed some planks that had been pried out of a log with wedges and a maul. She had planned to make additional feeding boxes for the horses with them, but then Jonayla was born, and they kept using ones she had made before, and she never got around to making more. Since they were kept under the overhanging ledge, protected from the worst of the weather, they seemed to be usable.

'Jondalar, I think we need to make a platform that won't bend so easily, for Zelandoni. Do you think we could fasten these planks across the poles to use as a base for a seat?' Ayla asked.

He looked at the poles and the planks, and then at the abundantly endowed woman. His forehead wrinkled in a familiar knot. 'It's a good idea, Ayla, but the poles are flexible, too. We can try it, but we may have to use sturdier ones.'

There were always thongs or cords around the horse shelter. Jondalar and Ayla used some to fasten the planks across the poles. When they were done, the three of them stood back and looked at their handiwork.

'What do you think, Zelandoni? The planks are slanting, but we can fix that later,' Jondalar said. 'Do you think you could sit on them?'

'I'll try, but it may be a little high for me.'

While they were working, the Donier had become interested in the apparatus they were making, and was curious herself to see how it would work. Jondalar had devised a halter for Whinney similar to the one he used for Racer, though Ayla seldom used it herself. She usually rode bareback with only a leather riding blanket, directing the animal with her position and the pressure of her legs, but for special circumstances, especially when other people were involved, it gave her an added measure of control.

While Ayla put the halter on the mare, making sure Whinney was calm, Jondalar and Zelandoni went to the reinforced travois behind the horse. The planks were a bit high, but Jondalar lent his strong arm and gave her a boost. The poles did bend under her weight, enough that her feet could touch the ground, but it gave her the feeling that she could get down easily enough. The slanting seat did feel somewhat precarious, but it wasn't as bad as she thought it would be.

'Are you ready?' Ayla asked.

'I'm as ready as I'll ever be,' Zelandoni said.

Ayla started Whinney at a slow walk in the direction of Down River. Jondalar walked behind, smiling encouragingly at Zelandoni. Then Ayla led the horse under the overhanging shelf and made a wide complete turn until they were facing in the opposite direction, and headed toward the east end of the front ledge, toward the dwellings.

'I think you should stop now, Ayla,' the woman said.

Ayla stopped immediately. 'Are you uncomfortable?' she said.

'No, but didn't you say you wanted to make a real seat for me?'


'Then the first time you take me for everyone to see on this, I think it would be better to have the seat fixed up the way you want it, because you know people will be looking and appraising,' the large woman said.

Ayla and Jondalar were taken aback for a moment, then Jondalar said, 'Yes, you are probably right.'

In the next breath, Ayla said, 'That means you would be willing to ride on the pole-drag!'

'Yes, I think I could become used to it. It's not like I couldn't get off any time I wanted to,' the great Donier said.

Ayla wasn't the only one working on travelling gear. The entire Cave had various items spread out in their dwellings or outside workplaces. They needed to make or repair sleeping rolls, travelling tents, and certain structural elements of the summer shelters, although most of the materials to make them would be gathered at the campsite. Those who had made objects as gifts or for trade, especially those who were proficient in certain crafts, had to make decisions regarding what and how much to bring. Those walking could carry only a limited amount with them, especially since they also had to carry food, both for immediate use and for gifts and special feasts, clothing, and sleeping rolls and other necessities.

Ayla and Jondalar had already decided to make new pole-drags for Whinney and Racer — the ends of the poles that dragged on the ground were the part that wore down first, especially when dragging heavy loads. After several people had made requests, they had offered the additional carrying power of the horses to family and close friends, but even the sturdy horses could take only so much.

From the beginning of spring, the Cave had hunted meat and collected plants — berries, fruits, nuts, mushrooms, edible stems, leaves and roots of vegetables, wild grains, even lichen and the inner bark of certain trees. Though they would bring a small amount of fresh food recently hunted or foraged, most of their food was dried. Drying preserved food for a long time and it weighed less, allowing them to carry more to eat while travelling and after they arrived until hunting and gathering patterns could be established at the location of the current year's Summer Meeting.

The site of the annual gathering changed every year in a regular cycle of suitable places. There were only certain areas that could accommodate a Summer Meeting and any area could only be used for one season and then had to rest for several years before it could be used again. With so many people congregated in one place — somewhere between one and two thousand people — by the end of the summer they would have used up all the resources for some distance around, and the earth needed to recover. The year before they had followed The River north about twenty-five miles. This year they would be travelling west until they reached another waterway, West River, which ran generally parallel to The River.

Joharran and Proleva were inside their dwelling finishing a midday meal along with Solaban and Rushemar. Ramara, Solaban's mate, and her son Robenan, had just left with Jaradal, Proleva's son, both of whom could count six years. Sethona, her baby daughter, had fallen asleep in Proleva's arms and she had just stood up to put her down. When they heard a tapping on the hard rawhide panel beside the entrance, Proleva thought that Ramara had probably forgotten something and returned, and was surprised when a much younger woman entered at her call to come into the dwelling.

'Galeya!' Proleva said, rather surprised. Though Galeya had been friends with Joharran's sister, Folara, almost from birth, and often came to their dwelling with her friend, she seldom came alone.

Joharran looked up. 'Are you back already?' he said, then turned to the others. 'Since she's such a fast runner, I sent Galeya to the Third Cave earlier this morning to find out when Manvelar plans to leave.'

'When I got there, he was just going to send a runner to you,' Galeya said. She was a little out of breath, and her hair was wet from the sweat of her effort. 'Manvelar said the Third Cave is ready to leave. He wants to start tomorrow morning. If the Ninth Cave is ready to go, he would like to travel with us.'

'That's a little sooner than I had planned, I was thinking of leaving in the next day or so,' Joharran said, his frown lines showing. He looked at the others. 'Do you think we can be ready to go by tomorrow morning?'

'I can,' Proleva said, without hesitation.

'We probably can,' Rushemar said, 'Salova has finished the last of the baskets she wanted to take with her. We haven't packed, but I have everything ready.'

'I'm still sorting through my handles,' Solaban said. 'Marsheval came by yesterday to talk about what he should bring. He seems to have a talent for working with ivory, too, and is gaining skill,' he added with a smile. Solaban's craft was making handles, mostly for knives, chisels, and other tools. Though he could make handles out of antler and wood, he particularly liked working with mammoth tusk ivory and had begun making other objects from it, like beads and carvings, especially since Marsheval had become his apprentice.

'Can you be ready to leave by tomorrow morning?' Joharran asked. He knew Solaban often agonised to the last moment over the decision of which handles to bring with him to the Summer Meeting, for gifts and for trading.

'I suppose I can,' Solaban said, then coming to a decision. 'Yes, I'll be ready, and I'm sure Ramara can be, too.'

'Good, but we need to find out about the rest of the Cave so I can send a runner back to Manvelar. Rushemar, Solaban, we need to tell everyone that I'd like to have a short meeting, as soon as possible. You can say what it's about if anyone asks and tell them that whoever comes to represent each hearth should be able to decide for the rest,' he said. He dumped the last remnants left in his personal eating bowl into the fire, then wiped it and his eating knife with a damp piece of buckskin before putting them into a carrying pouch attached to his belt. He'd run them under water when he had a chance. As he got up he said to Galeya, 'I don't think you need to run back there again. I'll send another runner.'

She looked rather relieved, then smiled. 'Palidar runs fast. We were racing with each other yesterday, and he almost beat me.'

Joharran had to stop and think a moment; the name wasn't immediately familiar to him. Then he remembered the lion hunt. Galeya had hunted with a young man from the Third Cave, but Palidar had also been with them on the hunt. 'Isn't he a friend of Tivonan, the young man Willamar has been taking with him on trading missions?'

'Yes. He came back with Willamar and Tivonan last time, and decided he might as well go with us to the Summer Meeting and meet his Cave there,' Galeya said.

Joharran nodded. It was acknowledgment enough. He didn't know if he would send the visitor, or someone else who was a member of the Ninth Cave, but he was aware that Palidar seemed to be of interest to Folara's friend Galeya, and obviously the young man had found a reason for staying. If there was a possibility that he might someday become a member of the Ninth Cave, Joharran wanted to know more about him, and tucked the thought away in his memory. He had more pressing issues to think about at the moment.

Joharran knew that at least one person from each dwelling would be present at his meeting, but as people started coming out, he saw that nearly everyone wanted to find out why the leader was calling a sudden meeting. When they had gathered in the work area, Joharran stepped up on the large flat stone that had been placed there so that he, or anyone who had something to say, could be seen more easily.

'I spoke with Manvelar not long ago,' Joharran began without preamble. 'As you know, the site of the Summer Meeting this year is the big field near West River and a tributary near the Twenty-sixth Cave. Manvelar's mate was from the Twenty-sixth Cave, and when her children were young they used to visit often to see her mother and family. I know how to get there by going south to Big River, then west to another river that joins with West River, and then following it north to the Summer Meeting place, but Manvelar knows a more direct way, starting out at Wood River and going west from here. We'd get there more quickly, and I had hoped we could travel with the Third Cave, but they are leaving tomorrow morning.'

There was a murmuring from the gathered assembly, but before anyone could speak out, Joharran continued. 'I know you like to have a few days' warning before we leave, and I usually try to do that, but I'm sure most of you are nearly ready to go. If you can pack and be ready by morning, we can travel with the Third Cave and get there much faster. The sooner we get there, the better our chances will be of finding a good place to set up our camp.'

The crowd broke out in conversation and Joharran heard various comments and questions. 'I don't know if we can be ready by then.' 'I need to talk to my mate.' 'We aren't packed yet.' 'Won't he wait another day or so?' The leader let it go on for a few moments; then he spoke again.

'I don't think it's fair to ask the Third Cave to wait for us. They want to find a good place, too. I need an answer now so I can send a runner back to him,' he said. 'One person from each hearth must make the decision. If most of you think you can be ready, we'll leave in the morning. Those who want to go then, come and stand to my right.'

There was an initial hesitation, then Solaban and Rushamar walked up and stood on Joharran's right. Jondalar looked at Ayla, who smiled and nodded; then he moved to stand beside them on his brother's right. Marthona did the same. Then a few more came up and joined them. No one moved to his left side, which would have indicated an unwillingness to leave so soon, but several were hanging back.

Ayla was using the counting words as each person joined the group, saying the word under her breath and tapping a finger on her thigh at the same time. 'Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one — how many hearths are there?' she wondered. When she reached thirty, it was obvious that most of the people had decided they could be ready by the following morning. The idea of getting there faster and finding a more desirable location was a powerful incentive. After five more people joined them, she tried to count the hearths left. There were quite a few still undecided people milling around, but she thought they represented only seven or eight hearths.

'What about those who are not ready by then?' a voice from the undecideds spoke out.

'They can come along later, on their own,' Joharan said.

'But we always go as a Cave. I don't want to go alone,' a person said.

Joharran smiled. 'Then make sure you are ready by morning. As you can see, most people have decided they can leave then. I'm sending a runner to Manvelar to tell him we'll be ready to join the Third Cave tomorrow morning.'

With a Cave the size of the Ninth, there were always a few who couldn't make the trip, at least not then — people who were sick or injured, for example. Joharran assigned a few people to stay with them to hunt and help take care of those left behind. The helpers would be replaced after about a half a Moon, so they wouldn't miss out on the entire Summer Meeting.

The people of the Ninth Cave were up much later than usual, and in the morning when everyone started gathering, a few were obviously tired, and grumpy. Manvelar and the Third Cave had arrived fairly early and were waiting in the open area that was just beyond the dwellings, toward Down River, not far from the place where Ayla and Jondalar lived. Marthona, Willamar, and Folara were ready early and had come to their dwelling so some of their things could be packed on the horses or the travoises.

They also brought some food for a morning meal to share with Manvelar and a few others. The evening before, Marthona had suggested to her sons that it might be appropriate for her and Jondalar to entertain Manvelar and his family at Ayla's dwelling — so called since Jondalar had made it for her — and therefore allow Joharran and Proleva to get the rest of the Cave organised for the trek across country to Sun View, the home of the Twenty-sixth Cave of the Zelandonii, the place of the Summer Meeting.

Chapter 5

It was a large group — nearly two hundred and fifty people — that started out later that morning, most of the Ninth and Third Caves. Manvelar and the Third Cave took the lead, heading down the slope from the eastern end of the stone shelter. Unlike the vegetation of Grass River Valley near the Third Cave, where they found the lions, the path from the northeastern edge of the stone porch of the Ninth Cave led down to a small tributary of The River, called Wood River, because its protected valley was unusually rich with trees.

Wooded areas were rare during the Ice Age. The edge of the glaciers that covered a quarter of the earth's surface were not very far to the north, and created conditions of permafrost in the nearby periglacial regions. In the summer the top layer melted to various depths, depending on conditions. In cool, shaded areas with heavy moss or other insulative vegetation, the ground melted only a few inches, but where the land was exposed to direct sunlight, it softened more, enough to allow an abundant grass cover.

For the most part, conditions did not favour the growth of trees with their deeper root systems, except in certain locations. In places that were protected from the coldest winds and the hardest frosts, several feet of topsoil might be thawed, enough for trees to take root. Gallery forests often sprung up alongside the water-saturated edges of rivers.

Wood River Valley was one of those exceptions. It had a relative abundance of both coniferous and deciduous trees and brush, including varieties of fruit and nut trees. It was an amazingly rich resource that provided a wealth of materials, especially firewood, for those who lived near enough to benefit, but it wasn't a dense forest. It was more like a narrow valley parkland with open clearings of meadows and lovely glades between heavier wooded patches.

The large band travelled northwest through Wood River Valley for about six miles of gentle upgrade, a very pleasant beginning of the trek. At a tributary that cascaded down a hillside on the left, Manvelar stopped. It was time for a rest and to let some of the stragglers catch up. Most people built small fires to make tea; parents fed children and snacked on travelling food, dried strips of meat or pieces of fruit or nuts saved from the previous year's harvest. A few ate some of the special travelling cakes that nearly everyone had, a mixture of dried meat ground fine, dried berries or small chunks of other fruit, and fat, shaped into patties or cakes and wrapped in edible leaves. They were filling, high-energy food but they took some effort to prepare and most people saved them for later when they wanted to cover long distances quickly or were stalking game and didn't want to start a fire.

'This is where we turn,' Manvelar said. 'From now on, if we just continue due west, when we reach West River, we should be close to the Twenty-sixth Cave and the floodplain, which is where the Summer Meeting will be held.' He was sitting with Joharran and several others. They looked at the hills rising up on the west bank and the tumultuous tributary tumbling down the slope.

'Should we camp here tonight?' Joharran asked, then looked up at the sun to check its path across the sky. 'It's a little early, but we got off to a late start this morning, and that looks like a hard climb. We might be able to handle it better after a good night's rest.' He feared it might be hard for some.

'Only for the next few miles, then it levels out on higher ground, more or less,' Manvelar said. 'I usually try to make the climb first, then stop and set up camp for the night.'

'You're probably right,' Joharran said. 'It's better to have this behind us and start out fresh in the morning, but some people may find this climb more difficult than others.' He looked hard at his brother, then flicked his eyes toward their mother, who had just arrived, and seemed grateful to sit and rest. He had noticed that she seemed to be having a harder time than usual.

Jondalar caught the silent signal, and turned toward Ayla. 'Why don't we stay back and bring up the rear, and direct any stragglers who may have fallen behind.' He motioned toward a few others who were still coming.

'Yes, that's a good idea. The horses would rather be behind everyone, anyway,' she said, lifting Jonayla up and patting her back. She had finished nursing, but seemed to want to play around at her mother's breast. She was awake and lively, and giggled at Wolf, who happened to be behind them. He reached out and licked her face and the milk dribbling down her chin, which made her giggle more. Ayla, too, had seen the signal pass between Joharran and Jondalar, and like Joharran, she had noticed that Marthona seemed to be slowing as the day progressed. She had noticed that Zelandoni, who had just arrived, had been falling back also, but she wasn't sure if it was because she was tiring, or if she was slowing down to keep pace with Marthona.

'Is there some hot water to make tea?' Zelandoni said when she reached them, pulling out the pouch in which she kept her medicines, and bustling around preparing to make her tea. 'Have you had any tea yet, Marthona?' Even before the woman shook her head from side to side to indicate that she hadn't, the Donier continued, 'I'll make some for you along with mine.'

Ayla watched them both closely and quickly realised that Zelandoni had also noticed that Marthona seemed to be having some difficulty with the hike, and was preparing some medicinal tea for her. Marthona knew it, too. Many people seemed to be concerned for the woman, but they were keeping it at a subtle undercurrent. Ayla could tell, however, that no matter how they tried to minimise it, they were genuinely worried. She decided to see what Zelandoni was doing.

'Jondalar, will you take Jonayla? She's fed and wide awake and wants to play,' Ayla said, giving the baby to him.

Jonayla waved her arms and smiled at him and Jondalar smiled back as he took her. It was obvious that he adored this baby girl, this child of his hearth. He never seemed to mind taking care of her. To Ayla he seemed more patient with her than she was. Jondalar himself was a little surprised at the strength of his feeling for her, and wondered if it was because for a time, he had doubted that there would ever be a child of his hearth. He feared he had offended the Great Earth Mother when he was young by wanting to mate with his donii-woman, and wasn't sure She would ever choose a piece of his spirit to mix with the spirit of a woman to create a new life.

That was what he had been taught. The creation of life was caused by the spirits of women mingling with the spirits of men with the help of the Mother, and most people he knew, including those he had met on his Journey, believed essentially the same thing … except for Ayla. She had a different view of the way new life came to be. She was convinced that there was more to it than just the mixing of spirits. She had told him that it wasn't only his spirit that had combined with hers to create this new person, but his essence when they shared Pleasures. She said Jonayla was as much his child as hers, and he wanted to believe her. He wanted this child to be as much his as hers, but he didn't know.

He knew Ayla had come to that belief when she lived with the Clan, though it wasn't what they believed either. She had told him that they thought it was totem spirits that caused a new life to start growing inside a woman, something about the male totem overpowering the female totem spirit. Ayla was the only one he knew who thought that a new life was begun by something more than spirits. But Ayla was an acolyte, training to become a Zelandoni, and it was the zelandonia that explained Doni, the Great Earth Mother, to Her children. It made him wonder what would happen when the time came for her to explain how new life began to the people. Would she say that the Mother chose the spirit of a particular man to combine with her spirit the way the other Zelandonia did, or would she insist that it was a man's essence, and what would the zelandonia have to say about it?

When Ayla approached the two women, she noticed Zelandoni looking through her bag of medicinal herbs, and Marthona sitting on a log in the shade of a tree near Wood River. Jondalar's mother did look tired, though it seemed to Ayla that she was trying not to make an issue of it. She was smiling and chatting with some people nearby, but she looked as if she would rather just close her eyes and rest.

After she greeted Marthona and the others, Ayla joined the One Who Was First. 'Do you have everything you need?' she asked quietly.

'Yes, though I wish I had time to prepare a fresh foxglove mixture properly, but I'll have to use the dried preparation I have,' the woman said.

Ayla noticed that Marthona's legs seemed a little swollen. 'She needs to rest, doesn't she? Not visit with those people who just want to be sociable,' Ayla said. 'I'm not as good as you at letting people know they should let her be for a while, without embarrassing her. I don't think she wants people to know how tired she feels. Why don't you tell me how to make the tea for her.'

Zelandoni smiled and said almost inaudibly, 'That was perceptive of you, Ayla. They are friends from the Third Cave whom she hasn't seen recently.' Then she quickly explained how to make the infusion she wanted, and approached the chatting friends.

Ayla was concentrating on the instructions she had been given, and when she looked up, she saw that Zelandoni was walking away with Marthona's friends, and Marthona had closed her eyes. Ayla nodded to herself; that will discourage others from stopping to talk, she thought. She waited a while to let the hot drink cool, and just as she was bringing it to Marthona, Zelandoni returned. They both hovered around the former leader of the Ninth Cave, making a point of showing their backs while she sipped her tea, blocking the view of passers-by. Whatever was in Zelandoni's mixture, after a while it seemed to help, and Ayla thought that she would ask the Donier about it later.

When Manvelar started out again, leading the way up the incline, Zelandoni followed, but Ayla stayed seated beside Marthona. Willamar had joined them, and was seated on the other side of his mate. 'Why don't you wait with us and let Folara go ahead,' she said. 'Jondalar has volunteered to stay until the last, to make sure everyone gets started in the right direction. Proleva has promised to save something for us to eat whenever we get to the camp.'

'I will,' Willamar said, without hesitation. 'Manvelar said from here, it's straight west for the next few days. How many days depends on how fast someone wants to go. No one has to be in a hurry. But it's good if someone follows along at the end just to make sure no one is delayed because they got hurt or ran into some other problem.'

'Or has to wait for a slow old woman,' Marthona said. 'There may come a time when I won't be going to Summer Meetings.'

'That's true for all of us,' Willamar said, 'but not yet, Marthona.'

'He's right,' Jondalar said, holding a sleeping baby in one arm. He had just arrived after talking to a family group with several young children, making sure they got started in the right direction. The wolf was following behind, keeping watch on Jonayla. 'It doesn't matter if we take a little longer to get there. We won't be the only ones.' He motioned toward the family starting the climb. 'And once we get there, people will still be wanting your counsel and advice, mother.'

'Do you want me to take Jonayla in my carrying blanket, Jondalar?' Ayla said. 'We seem to be the last ones.'

'I'm fine with her, and she seems comfortable. She's sound asleep, but we have to find an easy way for the horses to get to the top of that waterfall,' he said.

'I'm looking for the same thing. An easy way. Perhaps I should follow your horses,' Marthona said, not entirely in jest.

'It's not so much the horses — they are good climbers — it's getting up there with the heavy pole-drags and the loads on their backs,' Ayla said. 'I think we need to traverse our way up, making wide turns to allow for the poles they are dragging behind them.'

'So you want an easy way with a gentle slope,' Willamar said. 'As Marthona said, that's what we want. If I'm not mistaken, I think we passed a gentler slope on our way here. Ayla, why don't we walk back a ways and see if we can find it?'

'Since Jondalar is so comfortable holding the baby, he can stay and keep me company,' Marthona added.

And watch out for her, Ayla thought as she and Willamar started out. I don't like the idea of her waiting alone. There are many animals that might wander by and think of her as fair game: lions, bears, hyenas, who knows what? Wolf, who had been resting on the ground with his head between his paws, got up and seemed uneasy when he saw that Jonayla was staying, but Ayla was getting ready to leave.

'Wolf, stay!' she said, signalling the same thing to him. 'Stay with Jondalar and Jonayla, and Marthona.' The wolf lowered himself back down, but his head was up and his ears cocked forward, alert to any other words or signals from her as she walked away with Willamar.

'If we hadn't loaded the horses so heavily, Marthona could ride up that hill on a pole-drag,' Ayla commented, after a while.

'Only if she were willing,' Willamar said. 'I've noticed something interesting since you came with your animals. She has absolutely no fear of that wolf, who is a powerful hunter that could easily kill her if he chose, but the horses are another matter. She doesn't like to get too close to them. She hunted horses when she was younger, but she fears them much more than the wolf, and they only eat grass.'

'Perhaps it's because she doesn't know them as well. They are bigger, and can be skittish when they are nervous, or if something startles them,' Ayla said. 'Horses don't come into the dwelling; maybe if she spent more time with them, she wouldn't be so anxious about them.'

'Maybe, but first you'd have to persuade her, and if she gets it in her mind that she doesn't want to, she's very good at evading what you want and doing what she wants, without seeming to. She's a very strong-minded woman.'

'Of that, I have no doubt,' Ayla said.

Though they weren't gone very long, by the time Ayla and Willamar returned, Jonayla had awakened and was now being held by her grandam. Jondalar was with the horses, checking their loads, making sure everything was securely fastened.

'We found a better place to climb that ridge. In some places it's a little steep, but it is climbable,' Willamar said.

'I'd better get Jonayla,' the young woman said, heading toward Marthona. 'She's probably made a mess and doesn't smell too good. She usually does when she wakes in the afternoon.'

'She did,' Marthona said, holding the baby so that she was sitting on her lap, facing her. 'I haven't forgotten how to take care of a baby. Have I, Jonayla?' She bounced the infant lightly and smiled at her, and saw her smile returned along with some soft cooing sounds. 'She is such a sweet little thing,' she added, giving up the child to her mother.

Ayla couldn't help smiling at her daughter when she picked her up, and saw the smile returned as she arranged her baby in her carrying blanket, tying it securely. Marthona seemed rested and more lively when she stood up, which pleased her. They headed back along Wood River and around a bend, then started up the easier slope. When they reached the top, they went north again until they reached the small stream that had been spilling down to the river below, then proceeded west. The sun was shining almost directly in their eyes as it neared the horizon before they reached the camp that had been set up by the Third and the Ninth Caves. Proleva had been watching out for them and was relieved to see them when they finally arrived.

'I kept some food warm by the fire. What took you so long?' she said, leading them to the travelling tent they were sharing. She seemed particularly solicitous of Joharran's mother.

'We walked back along Wood River and found a slope that was easier for the horses to climb, so it was easier for me, too,' Marthona said.

'I didn't think that the horses would have difficulties. Ayla said they were strong and could carry the loads,' Proleva said.

'It wasn't the size of the loads, it was those pole things trailing behind them,' Marthona said.

'That's right,' Jondalar said. 'The horses need a wider, easier path up a steep hill. They can't turn as sharply when they are pulling the pole-drags. We found a way up that allowed them to traverse their way up the hill, but we had to backtrack a ways down Wood River.'

'Well, it's nearly level and open for the rest of the way,' Manvelar said. He and Joharran had just joined them, and had heard Jondalar's comments.

'That will make it easier for everybody. Keep the food warm for us, Proleva. We have to unload the horses and find a good place for them to graze,' Jondalar said.

'If you have a nice bone with some meat left on for Wolf, I'm sure he'd appreciate it,' Ayla added.

It was dark when they returned from settling the horses and were finally able to have their meal. Everyone using their family travelling shelter was gathered around the fire: Marthona and Willamar, and Folara; Joharran and Proleva, and her two children, Jaradal and Sethona; Jondalar, Ayla, and Jonayla, and Wolf; and Zelandoni. Although she wasn't technically part of the family, she didn't have any other family in the Ninth Cave and usually stayed with the leader's family when they travelled.

'How long until we reach the Summer Meeting, Joharran?' Ayla asked.

'It depends how fast we go, but Manvelar said probably no more than three or four days.'

It rained off and on most of the way and everyone was glad when, by the afternoon of the third day, they saw some tents ahead. Joharran and Manvelar, and Joharran's two close aides, Rushemar and Solaban, hurried ahead to find a place to set up their camps. Manvelar chose a place along a tributary, near its confluence with West River, and claimed it with his backpack. Then he found the leader of Sun View, and they all went through a short form of the formalised greeting.

'… In the name of Doni, I greet you, Stevadal, leader of Sun View, the Twenty-sixth Cave of the Zelandonii,' Joharran finished.

'You are welcome to the Gather Field of the Twenty-sixth Cave, Joharran, leader of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii,' Stevadal said, letting go of his hands.

'We are glad to be here, but I'd like to ask your advice about where to set up our camp. You know how big we are, and now that my brother has returned from his Journey with some rather unusual … companions, we need to find a place where they won't disturb neighbours, and won't feel too crowded by people they don't know yet.'

'I saw the wolf and two horses last year. They are rather unusual "companions",' Stevadal said, grinning. 'They even have names, don't they?'

'The mare is Whinney — that's the horse Ayla usually rides. Jondalar calls the stallion he rides Racer; the mare is his dam, but it's three horses now. The Great Mother saw fit to Bless the mare with another young one, a little female. They call her Grey, for the colour of her coat.'

'You may end up with a whole herd of horses at your Cave!' Stevadal said.

I hope not, Joharran thought, but he didn't say anything, just smiled.

'What kind of place are you looking for, Joharran?'

'You remember last year we found a place somewhat out of the way. At first I thought it might be too far away from all the activities, but it turned out to be just right. There was a place for the horses to graze and for the wolf to be away from the people of the other Caves. Ayla controls him perfectly, and he even pays attention to what I say sometimes, but I wouldn't want him frightening anyone. And most of us liked that we were able to spread out a bit.'

'As I recall, you also had plenty of firewood right to the end of the season,' Stevadal said. 'We even came and got some the last few days.'

'Yes, we were fortunate. We weren't even looking for that. Manvelar told me he thought there might be a place for us a little closer to your Sun View. A little valley with some grass?'

'Yes, we sometimes have small gathers there with nearby Caves. Hazelnut grows there and blueberries,' Stevadal said. 'It's actually not far from a sacred cave. It's a little distance from here, but it might work for you. Why don't you come and take a look at it?' Joharran beckoned to Solaban and Rushemar and they followed after him and Stevadal.

'Dalanar and his Lanzadonii stayed with you last year, didn't they? Are they coming this year?' Stevadal asked as they walked.

'We haven't heard. He didn't send us a runner, so I rather doubt it,' Joharran said.

Some members of the Ninth Cave, who had planned to stay with other kin or friends, left the group to find them. Zelandoni went to find the large special dwelling that was always set up for the zelandonia, right in the middle of everything. The rest waited just beyond the field where most of the Caves had gathered for the Summer Meeting, greeting many friends who came to see them. While they waited, the rain began to let up.

When Joharran returned, he went to the waiting group. 'With Stevadal's help, I think I've found a place for us,' he said. 'Like last year, it's a little distance away from the main meeting place, but it should work.'

'How far is it?' Willamar asked. He was thinking of Marthona. The trek to the Meeting had not been easy on her.

'You can see it from here, if you know where to look.'

'Well, let's go look at it,' Marthona said.

A group of more than one hundred and fifty trailed along after Joharran. By the time they reached the place, the rain had stopped and the sun broke through, highlighting a pleasant little blind valley, with room enough for all of those who were staying together with the Ninth Cave, at least for the beginning of the Summer Meeting. After the first ceremonies that marked the initial coming together, the peripatetic summer life of foraging, exploring, and visiting would begin.

Zelandonii territory was much larger than the immediate region. The number of people who identified themselves as Zelandonii had grown so large, their territory had had to expand to accommodate them. There were other Zelandonii Summer Meetings and some individuals or families or Caves did not go to Summer Meetings with the same people every year. Sometimes they went to Meetings that were farther away, especially if they had goods to trade or distant kin. It was a way of maintaining contact. And some Summer Meetings were held jointly between Zelandonii and neighbouring people who lived near the ill-defined boundary of their territory.

Because they were such a large and prosperous people, in comparison to the other groups, the name Zelandonii carried a certain prestige, a cachet that others wanted to be associated with. Even those who did not think of themselves as Zelandonii liked to claim a relationship with them in their names and ties. But although their population was large in relation to other people, in reality it was insignificant in terms of their actual numbers and the territory they occupied.

People were in the minority among the inhabitants of that cold ancient land. Animals were far more numerous and diversified; the list of different kinds of living creatures was long. While some of them, such as roe deer or moose, lived singly or in small family groups in the few scattered woodlands or forests, most of them were dwellers of open grasslands — steppes, plains, meadows, parklands — and their numbers were huge. At certain times of year in regions not all that distant from each other, herds of mammoths, megaceros, and horses gathered together in the hundreds; bison, aurochs, and reindeer in the thousands. Migrating birds could darken the sky for days.

There were few disputes between the Zelandonii and their neighbours, partly because there was so much land and so few people, but also because their survival depended on it. If a living site became too crowded, a small group might splinter off, but they only went as far as the nearest available, desirable location. Few wanted to move very far from family or friends, not only because of ties of affection, but in times of adversity they wanted and needed to be close to those they could rely on for help. Where the land was rich and able to support them, people tended to cluster together in rather large numbers, but there were sizable tracts of land that were totally unoccupied by people, except for an occasional hunting foray or gathering expedition.

The world during the Ice Age with its glittering glaciers, transparently clear rivers, thundering waterfalls, and hordes of animals in vast grasslands was dramatically beautiful, but brutally harsh, and the few people who lived then recognised at a fundamental level the necessity of keeping strong affiliations. You helped someone today because you would likely need help tomorrow. It was why customs, conventions, mores, and traditions had developed that sought to diminish interpersonal hostility, ease resentments, and keep emotions in check. Jealousy was discouraged and vengeance dealt with by the society, with retribution meted out by the community that would give the injured parties satisfaction and ease their pain or anger, but that still would be fair to all concerned. Selfishness, cheating, and failing to assist someone in need were considered crimes, and the society found ways to punish such criminals, but penalties were often subtle and inventive.

The people of the Ninth Cave quickly decided on the individual locations for their summer lodges and began to construct semi-permanent dwellings. They had been rained on enough and wanted a place where they could be dry. Most of the poles and stakes that were the major structural elements had been brought with them, carefully selected from their nearby wooded valley, cut and trimmed before they left. Many had been used for the travelling tents. They also had smaller, lighter-weight portable shelters that were easier to carry for overnight hunts or other treks.

The summer lodges were all made in generally the same way. They were round with room around the centre pole so that several people could stand, with a thatched roof that slanted down toward the vertical outer walls, where the sleeping rolls were laid out. The top of the tall central pole of the travelling tent had been shaped into a long, tapering diagonal. It was made longer by attaching another pole with a similar tapering diagonal on the bottom facing the other way. They were held together with a sturdy rope wrapped round and round and pulled tight.

Another length of rope was used to mark off the distance from the central pole to the circular outer wall, and using that as a guide, they erected an enclosure of upright supports using the same posts that had been used for the tent, plus some additional ones.

Panels made of woven cattail leaves or reeds, or rawhide or other materials, some brought with them and some made on the spot, were fastened to both the outside and the inside of the posts, creating a double wall with air in between for insulation. The ground cloth only went a short distance up the inside wall, but it was enough to keep out drafts. Any moisture that condensed in the cool of the evenings would form on the inside of the outer wall, leaving the inside of the inner wall dry.

The roof of the shelter was made of thin poles of young fir or small-leaved deciduous trees, like willow or birch, which were placed from the central pole to the outer wall. Branches and sticks were fastened between them, and a rough thatch of grasses and reeds was added on top, making a waterproof ceiling. Since it only had to last for a season, most people didn't make the thatch particularly thick and it was usually made only well enough to keep out rain and wind. Before the end of summer, however, most roofs had to be patched more than once.

By the time most of the structures were finished and everything brought in and arranged, it was late afternoon and would be dark soon, but it didn't deter people from heading for the main camp to see who was there and greet friends and relatives. Ayla and Jondalar still had to make provisions for the horses. Remembering the year before, they fenced in an area somewhat away from the camp with support posts, some brought with them, some found. They used anything that would work, sometimes whole young trees that they dug up and replanted. Crosspieces might be wood or branches or even rope, mostly collected nearby. It wasn't that the horses couldn't have jumped over or broken out of the enclosure, it was more to define their space, both for them and for curious visitors.

Ayla and Jondalar were among the last to leave the camp of the Ninth Cave. When they finally started toward the main Summer Camp they passed by eleven-year Lanoga and her thirteen-year brother, Bologan, struggling to make a small summer lodge at the edge of the camp. Since no one wanted to share a dwelling with Laramar, Tremeda, and their children, it only needed to house their family, but Ayla noticed that neither parent was there helping the children.

'Lanoga, where is your mother? Or Laramar?' Ayla asked.

'I don't know. At the Summer Meeting, I suppose.'

'Do you mean they've left you to make your summer lodge by yourselves?'

Chapter 6

Ayla was appalled. The four younger children were standing around staring with eyes wide open. She thought they looked frightened.

'How long has this been going on?' Jondalar asked. 'Who built your lodge last year?'

'Mostly Laramar and me,' Bologan said, 'with a couple of his friends, after he promised them some barma.'

'Why isn't he building it now?' Jondalar asked.

Bologan shrugged. Ayla looked at Lanoga.

'Laramar got into a fight with mother and said he was going to stay in one of the fa'lodges with the men. He took his things and left. Mother chased after him, but she hasn't come back,' Lanoga said.

Ayla and Jondalar looked at each other and without saying a word, they nodded. Ayla put Jonayla down on her carrying blanket, then they both started working with the children. Jondalar soon realised that they were using the poles from their travelling tent, which would not be enough to build a lodge. But they couldn't put up the tent because the wet leather hide was disintegrating, and the damp floor mats were falling apart. They had to make everything — wall panels, floor mats, and thatch for the roof — with materials found locally.

Jondalar started by looking for poles. He found a couple near their lodge, then cut down some trees. Lanoga had never seen anyone weave mats and panels quite the way Ayla did, or as fast, but the girl learned quickly when Ayla showed her. The nine-year girl, Trelara, and seven-year boy, Lavogan, tried to help as well, after they were given some instruction, but they were more occupied with helping Lanoga with one-and-a-half-year Lorala, and her three-year brother, Ganamar. Though he didn't say anything, Bologan noticed as they worked that Jondalar's techniques created a dwelling of a much sturdier construction than he had made before.

Ayla stopped to nurse Jonayla, and nursed Lorala, too, then got some food for the children from their lodge since apparently the parents hadn't brought any. They had to build a couple of fires to see what they were doing to finish the work. By the time they were nearly through, people were coming back from the main camp. Ayla had gone back to their dwelling for a covering for Jonayla since it was getting chilly. She had just put her baby down in their new summer lodge when she saw people approaching. Proleva, with Sethona on her hip, was walking with Marthona and Willamar, who was carrying a torch in one hand and guiding Jaradal with the other.

'Where did you go, Ayla? I didn't see you at the main camp,' Proleva said.

'We never got there,' Ayla said. 'We've been helping Bologan and Lanoga build their lodge.'

'Bologan and Lanoga?' Marthona said. 'What happened to Laramar and Tremeda?'

'Lanoga said they got into a fight. Laramar decided to go to a fa'lodge, took his things and left, and Tremeda chased after him and didn't come back,' Ayla said. It was obvious that she was having some trouble controlling her anger. 'Those children were trying to build a lodge by themselves with nothing but tent posts and wet floor mats. They didn't have any food either. I nursed Lorala a little, but if you have any milk, Proleva, she could probably use some more.'

'Where is their lodge?' Willamar said.

'At the edge of the camp, near the horses,' Ayla said.

'I'll watch the children, Proleva,' Marthona said. 'Why don't you and Willamar see what you can do.' She turned to Ayla. 'I'll watch Jonayla, too, if you like.'

'She's almost asleep,' Ayla said indicating where she was to Marthona. 'Tremeda's children could use a few more floor mats, especially since they don't have enough sleeping rolls. When I left, Jondalar and Bologan were finishing up the roof.'

The three of them hurried toward the nearly completed small dwelling. They could hear Lorala crying as they approached. To Proleva, it sounded like the fussiness of a baby who was overtired, and maybe hungry. Lanoga was holding her, trying to settle her down.

'Why don't you let me see if she'll nurse a little,' Proleva said to the girl.

'I just changed her padding, stuffed it with her nighttime sheep's wool,' Lanoga said, handing the toddler to Proleva.

When she offered her breast, the baby went for it eagerly. Since her own mother's milk had dried up more than a year before, many other women had taken turns feeding her and she was used to taking milk from any woman who offered. She also ate different kinds of solid food that Ayla had taught Lanoga to make for her. Considering her difficult beginning, Lorala was a remarkably healthy, happy, gregarious, though somewhat undersized child. The women who fed her took a certain pride in her good health and good nature, knowing that they had contributed to it. Ayla knew that they had kept the baby alive, but Proleva knew it was Ayla's idea originally, after she discovered that Tremeda's milk had dried up.

Ayla, Proleva, and Marthona found some additional skins and furs that they didn't mind giving up for the children to use as sleep coverings, and more food. Willamar, Jondalar, and Bologan collected some wood.

The structure was nearly finished when Jondalar noticed Laramar coming. He stopped some ways back, and stared at the small summer lodge, frowning.

'Where did this thing come from?' he asked Bolagan.

'We built it,' the boy said.

'You didn't built it by yourselves.' Laramar said.

'No, we helped him,' Jondalar interjected, 'since you weren't here to do it, Laramar.'

'No one asked you to butt in,' Laramar sneered.

'Those children had no place to sleep!' Ayla said.

'Where's Tremeda? They're her children; she's supposed to see to them,' Laramar said.

'She left after you did, chasing after you,' Jondalar said.

'Then she's the one who left them, not me,' Laramar said.

'They are the children of your hearth; they are your responsibility,' Jondalar said with disgust, struggling to contain his anger, 'and you left them without shelter.'

'They had the travelling tent,' Laramar said.

'The leather of your travelling tent was rotten. After it got soaked, it fell apart,' Ayla said. 'They had no food either, and several of them are hardly more than babies!'

'I assumed Tremeda would get some food for them,' Laramar said.

'And you wonder why you are the lowest ranked,' Jondalar said with scorn and a look of disgust.

Wolf was aware that something seriously distressing was going on between the people of his pack and the man that he didn't like. He wrinkled his nose and started growling at Laramar, who jumped back to stay out of his way.

'Who are you to tell me what to do?' Laramar said. He was now getting defensive. 'I shouldn't be the lowest ranked. It's your fault, Jondalar. You're the one who suddenly came back from a Journey with a foreign woman and you and your mother connive to put her ahead of me. I was born here; she wasn't. She should be the lowest ranked. Some people may think she's special, but anybody who lived with Flatheads is not special. She's an abomination, and I'm not the only one who thinks so. I don't have to put up with you, Jondalar, or your insults.' Laramar said, then turned and stomped off.

Ayla and Jondalar looked at each other after Laramar left. 'Is there truth in what he says?' Ayla asked. 'Should I be ranked lowest because I am a foreigner?'

'No,' Willamar said. 'You brought your own bride price with you. Your Matrimonial outfit alone would put you among those with the highest status in any Cave you might choose, but you have also shown yourself to be a worthwhile and valuable person in your own right. Even if you had started out as a low-ranked foreigner, you wouldn't have stayed there for long. Don't let Laramar concern you about your place with us; everyone knows what his status is. Leaving these children alone to fend for themselves with no food or shelter bears it out.'

As the builders of the small summer dwelling prepared to return to their own lodge, Bologan touched Jondalar's arm. When he turned back, Bologan looked down, and his face became a deep shade of red, noticeable even in the firelight.

'I … ah … just want to say, this place is nice, the best summer lodge we ever had,' Bologan said, then quickly went in.

As they were walking back, Willamar said, under his breath, 'I think Bologan was trying to thank you, Jondalar. I'm not sure if he has ever thanked anyone before. I'm not sure he knows how.'

'I think you are right, Willamar. But he did just fine.'

The morning dawned clear and bright and after the morning meal, and checking to see that the horses were comfortable, Ayla and Jondalar were eager to go to the main camp to see who was there. Ayla wrapped Jonayla in her carrying cloak and settled her on a hip, then signalled Wolf to come with her, and set out. It was a bit of a walk, but not bad, Ayla decided. And she did like having a place that was somewhat out of the way, when she wanted it.

People started hailing them as soon as they appeared, and it pleased Ayla that she recognised so many, unlike the summer before when she hardly knew anyone, and even those she had met, she didn't know well. Though most Caves looked forward to seeing certain friends and relatives every year, because they regularly changed locations for the Summer Meetings, and other groups of Zelandonii did the same, there usually was some difference in the mix of Caves from year to year that gathered at any particular place.

Ayla saw some people that she was sure she had not seen before; they tended to be the ones who stared at Wolf, but the animal was welcomed with a smile or a greeting by many, especially children. He stayed close to Ayla, however, who was carrying the baby for whom he had a special affection. Large groups that included strangers were difficult for him. His instinct to protect his pack had grown more compelling as he matured, and various incidents in his life had reinforced it. In a sense, the Ninth Cave became his pack, and the territory they inhabited became the area he watched, but he couldn't protect the entire large group, much less the many additional people that Ayla had 'introduced' to him. He had learned not to treat them with hostility, but they were too many to fit into his instinctive conception of a pack. Instead, he decided that the people he knew were close to Ayla were his pack, the ones he was required to protect, especially the new young one he adored.

Though she had visited with them shortly before they left, Ayla was especially glad to see Janida with her baby and Levela. They were talking with Tishona. Marthona had told her that people often formed especially close friendships with the couples with whom they shared their Matrimonial, and it was true. She was glad to see all three women, and they all greeted Ayla and Jondalar, embracing each other and touching cheeks. Tishona had become so used to seeing the wolf, she hardly noticed him, but the other two, who still felt a little fear around him, took special pains to greet him, even if they didn't try to touch him.

Janida and Ayla fussed over each other's babies, talking about how much they had grown, and how wonderful they looked. Ayla noticed that Levela had also grown.

'Levela, you look like your baby will come any time,' Ayla said.

'I hope so. I'm ready,' Levela said.

'Since we're all here, I can come and be with you when you have your baby, if you would like. And your sister Proleva can be with you, too,' Ayla said.

'And our mother is here. I was so glad to see her. You've met Velima, haven't you?' Levela said.

'Yes,' Ayla said. 'But I don't know her well.'

'Where are Jondecam, Peridal, and Marsheval?' Jondalar asked.

'Marsheval went with Solaban to look for an old woman who knows a lot about carving ivory,' Tishona said.

'Jondecam and Peridal were looking for you,' Levela said. 'They couldn't find you last night.'

'That's not surprising, since we weren't here last night,' Jondalar said.

'You weren't? But I saw many people from the Ninth Cave,' Levela said.

'We stayed at our camp,' Jondalar said.

'Yes,' Ayla said. 'we were helping Bologan and Lanoga build a summer lodge.'

Jondalar felt a twinge of indiscretion on her part when Ayla so openly revealed what he thought of as the confidential problems of their Cave. Not that there was anything expressly wrong with talking about them. It was just that he had been raised by a leader and knew how personally most leaders took unresolved situations within their Cave that they hadn't been able to settle. Laramar and Tremeda had been an embarrassment to the Ninth Cave for some time. Neither Marthona nor Joharran had been able to do much about them. They had lived there many years, and had the right to stay. As he suspected, Ayla's statement brought curious queries.

'Bologan and Lanoga? Aren't they Tremeda's children?' Levela said. 'Why were you building their summer lodge?'

'Where were Laramar and Tremeda?' Tishona asked.

'They got in a fight, Laramar decided to move to a fa'lodge, Tremeda went after him, and didn't return,' Ayla explained.

'I think I saw her,' Janida said.

'Where?' Ayla asked.

'I think she was with some men who were drinking barma and gaming at the edge of the camp, near some of the men's far lodges,' Janida said. She spoke softly, and seemed shy about speaking out. She shifted her baby and looked at him for a moment before she continued. 'There were a couple of other women there, too. I remember being surprised to see Tremeda because I knew she had some little ones. I don't think those other women had young children.'

'Tremeda has six children, the youngest little more than a one-year. The oldest sister, Lanoga, takes care of them, and she's barely an eleven-year, herself,' Ayla said, trying to contain herself, but her irritation was obvious. 'I think her brother, Bologan, tries to help, but he's only a thirteen-year. They were trying to put up a tent for themselves last night when we walked past on our way here. But it was wet and falling apart, and they didn't have any materials for a summer lodge. So we stayed and built one for them.'

'You built a summer lodge by yourselves? With nothing but local materials?' Tishona said, looking at them with awe.

'It was a small one,' Jondalar said, with a smile. 'Just enough for their family. No one is sharing with them.'

'I'm not surprised,' Levela said, 'but it is a shame. Those youngsters could use someone to help.'

'The Cave helps,' Tishona said, in defence of the Ninth Cave, of which she was now a member. 'The other mothers even take turns nursing the baby.'

'I was wondering about that when you said Tremeda didn't return and the youngest was little more than a one-year,' Levela said.

'Tremeda ran dry a year ago,' Ayla said.

It happens when you don't nurse enough, she thought, but didn't say it aloud. There were reasons, sometimes good ones, for a mother's milk to dry up. She recalled when she had grieved so much after the death of her Clan mother, Iza, that she was oblivious to the needs of her own son. The other nursing mothers of Brun's clan had been willing to feed Durc, but in her heart she would never quite get over it.

The other women of the Clan understood more than she that it was as much Creb's fault as anyone's. When Durc cried to be fed, instead of putting him in his grieving mother's arms and letting him rouse her, he brought the baby to one of the other women to be fed. They knew he meant well, he hadn't wanted to disturb Ayla in her sorrow, and they couldn't refuse him. But the lack of nursing had made her sick with milk fever, and by the time she recovered, she was dry. Ayla held the baby girl in her arms a little closer.

'There you are, Ayla!' Proleva said as she approached. She had four other women with her.

Ayla recognised Beladora and Jayvena, the mates of the leaders of the Second and Seventh Caves, and nodded at them. They acknowledged her as well. She wondered if the other two women were also the mates of leaders. She thought she recognised one of them. The other was drawing back from Wolf.

'Zelandoni has been looking for you,' Proleva continued. 'And several young men have been asking about you, Jondalar. I told them if I saw you, I'd tell you to meet them at Manvelar's lodge in the camp of the Third Cave.'

'Proleva, where is the zelandonia lodge?' Ayla asked.

'Not far from the Third Cave's camp, right next to the camp of the Twenty-sixth Cave,' Proleva said, pointing in the general direction.

'I didn't know the Twenty-sixth had set up a camp,' Jondalar said.

'Stevadal likes to be in the middle of things,' Proleva said. 'His whole Cave isn't staying at the Meeting camp, but there are a couple of lodges for those who happen to stay late and want a place to sleep. I'm sure there will be a lot of coming and going, at least until after the First Matrimonial.'

'When will that be?' Jondalar asked.

'I don't know. I don't think they've decided yet. Maybe Ayla can ask Zelandoni,' Proleva said, as she and the women with her continued on to wherever they were heading when she stopped to pass on the messages.

Ayla and Jondalar said their farewells and headed toward the camps to which they had been directed. When they neared the camp of the Third Cave, Ayla recognised the large zelandonia lodge with its ancillary lodges close by. Right now, she thought, recalling the Summer Meeting of the year before, the young women who were being prepared for their Rites of First Pleasures were cloistered in one of the special dwellings, while appropriate men were being selected for them. In the other lodge were the women who had decided to wear the red fringe, to be donii-women this season. They had chosen to make themselves available to the young men who were wearing puberty belts, to teach them how to understand a woman's needs.

Pleasures were a Gift from the Mother, and the zelandonia considered it a sacred duty to make sure the first experience of young adults was appropriate and educational. It was felt that both young women and young men needed to learn how to appreciate the Mother's Great Gift properly, and that older, more experienced people needed to demonstrate and explain, to share the Gift with them the first time under the discreet but watchful eyes of the zelandonia. It was a Rite of Passage too important to be left to chance encounters.

Both ancillary lodges were very well guarded since most men found them almost irresistible. Some men couldn't even look in the direction of either lodge without feeling aroused. Men, especially young men who had already had their manhood rites but were not yet mated, tried to peek in, and sometimes sneak into the lodge of the young women, and some older men liked to hover around it in hopes of catching a glimpse. Nearly every available man wanted to be selected for a young woman's First Rites, though there was also a certain anxiety involved if they were. They knew they would be observed and they feared they might not perform well, but there was also a special sense of satisfaction when they did. Most men also had exciting memories of their own donii-women when they first became men.

But there were restrictions imposed on those who had the important task of sharing and teaching the Mother's Gift of Pleasure. Neither the selected men nor the donii-women were to have any close ties with the younger ones for a year after the ceremony. They were considered too impressionable, too vulnerable, and not without reason. It wasn't unusual for a young woman who had had a pleasurable first experience with an older man to want to share it again, even though it was forbidden. After First Rites, she could have any other man she wanted — who also wanted her — but that made her first partner all the more appealing. Jondalar had been chosen often before he went on his Journey, and he had learned to gently evade sometimes persistent young women with whom he'd shared a loving and tender ceremonial experience, who tried to get him alone. But it was, in a sense, easier for the men. Theirs was a single event; one night of special Pleasure.

The donii-women were expected to be available for the entire summer, or more, especially if they were acolytes. Young men had frequent urges, and it took a while for them to learn that the needs of women were different, their satisfactions more varied. But the donii-women were required to make sure that the young men didn't form a lasting attachment, which was sometimes difficult.

Jondalar's donii-woman was The First, when he was known as Zolena, and she had taught him well. Later, after he returned to the Ninth Cave after spending several years with Dalanar, he was often chosen. But at the time of his puberty, he became so enamoured of Zolena, he would choose none of the other donii-women. More, he wanted her to be his mate, even though there was an age difference. The difficulty was that she also developed strong feelings for the tall, handsome, extremely charismatic young man with the pale blond hair and unusually vivid blue eyes, and that had created problems for both of them.

When they reached Manvelar's lodge, they knocked on a wood panel near the entrance, and speaking in a louder voice, said who they were. He called to them to come in.

'Wolf is with us,' Ayla said.

'Bring him in,' Morizan said as he pushed open the door drape.

Ayla hadn't seen much of Manvelar's son since the lion hunt, and she smiled cordially at him. After everyone had been greeted, Ayla said, 'I need to go to the zelandonia lodge. Could you keep Wolf, Jondalar? Sometimes he creates such a distraction, he disrupts things. I like to ask Zelandoni first, before I bring him there.'

'If no one minds,' Jondalar said, giving Morizan and Manvelar and the others in the lodge a questioning look.

'It's fine. He can stay,' Manvelar said.

Ayla stooped down and looked at the animal. 'Stay with Jondalar,' she said, making the hand signal at the same time. He nosed the baby and made her giggle, then sat down. Whining with concern, he anxiously watched her as she and the baby left, but he didn't follow her.

When she reached the imposing lodge of the zelandonia, she tapped on the panel, and said, 'It's Ayla.'

'Come in,' she heard the familiar voice of the First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother say. The drape covering the opening was pushed aside by a male acolyte and Ayla stepped in. Though oil lamps were burning, it was dark inside and she stood without moving for a while waiting for her eyes to adjust. When she could finally see where she was going, she saw a group of people sitting near the large figure of the First. 'Come join us, Ayla,' she said. She had waited before speaking, knowing how the darkness inside left people momentarily blinded.

As Ayla headed toward them, Jonayla started fussing. The change in lighting had disconcerted the baby. A couple of acolytes made a space for her, and she sat down between them, but before she could focus her attention on the proceedings inside, she had to settle her child. Thinking that she might be hungry, she exposed her breast and brought the baby to it. Everyone waited. She was the only one there with a child and she wondered if she had interrupted something important, but she had been given a message that Zelandoni wanted to see her.

When Jonayla settled down, the First said, 'I'm glad to see you here, Ayla. We didn't see you last night.'

'No, we didn't make it to the Meeting camp,' she said.

Some of the people who hadn't met her before were surprised at the way she said certain words. It made them curious. It wasn't like anything they had heard before. They had no trouble understanding her; she knew the language well, and had a pleasing low-pitched voice, but it was unusual.

'Were you or the baby not feeling well?' the First asked.

'No, we were fine. Jondalar and I went to check on the horses, and on our way back we saw Lanoga and Bolagan trying to build a shelter. They didn't have any materials for a lodge, and were trying to put up the tent poles. We stayed and built a lodge for them.'

The First frowned. 'Where were Tremeda and Laramar?'

'Lanoga said they argued, Laramar left saying he was going to stay in a fa'lodge, Tremeda went after him, and neither one returned. Janida just told me that she saw Tremeda last night with some men who were drinking barma and gaming. I guess she got distracted,' Ayla said.

'So it would seem,' the Zelandoni of the Ninth Cave said. Though she was First, she was still responsible for the well-being of her Cave. 'The children have a place now?'

'You built them an entire lodge?' said a man who was a stranger to Ayla.

'Not as big as this one,' Ayla said with a smile, waving her hand to indicate the especially large shelter of the zelandonia. Jonayla seemed to have had enough. She let go and Ayla picked her up, put her over her shoulder and started patting her back. 'They aren't sharing with anyone so it just had to be big enough for the family, the children and Tremeda and Laramar, if he decides to come back.'

'How nice of you,' someone said. The tone sounded rather derisive. Ayla looked and saw that it was Zelandoni of the Fourteenth, who had spoken, an older, rather skinny woman, whose thin hair always seemed to be falling out of her bun.

Ayla noticed that Madroman, who was sitting near the Fourteenth, along with the Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave, turned to look at her with a condescending expression. He was the one whose front teeth Jondalar had knocked out in a fight when they were younger. She knew that Jondalar didn't like him, and she suspected the feeling was mutual. She didn't much care for him either. With her ability to interpret nuances of attitude and expression, she always felt a certain deceit in his manner, a falseness in his smiling greetings, a lack of sincerity in his offers of welcome and friendliness, but she had always tried to treat him politely.

'Ayla has taken a special interest in the children of that family,' the First said, careful to keep the exasperation out of her voice. The Zelandoni of the Fourteenth had been an annoyance ever since the Zelandoni of the Ninth Cave had become First, always trying to provoke someone, particularly her. The woman had felt she was next in line and had expected to be made First. She never quite got over the fact that the younger Zelandoni of the Ninth had been chosen instead.

'It seems they need it,' said the same man who had commented earlier.

Jonayla had fallen asleep on her shoulder. Ayla took her carrying blanket and spread it out on the ground, the young acolyte on her right moved over to make room, then she put her infant down on it.

'Yes, they do,' the First was saying, shaking her head; then she realised that Ayla didn't know the man, and though he had no doubt heard of her, he had not met her. 'I don't think everyone here has met my new acolyte. Perhaps some introductions would be in order.'

'What happened to Jonokol?' Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave asked.

'He moved to the Nineteenth Cave,' the First said. 'The White Hollow that was found last year enticed him. He always was more artist than acolyte, but he's serious about the zelandonia now. He wants to be sure that whatever is done with the new cave is appropriate … no, more than that. He wants it to be right. That white cave has called him now, more than any training could have done.'

'Where are the Nineteenth Cave? Are they coming this year?'

'I believe they are, but they haven't arrived yet,' the One Who Was First said. 'I will be glad to see Jonokol; I miss his skills, but fortunately Ayla arrived with many skills of her own. She is already a fine healer, and brings some very interesting knowledge and techniques. I am pleased she has begun training. Ayla, will you stand so I can introduce you formally?'

Ayla got up and took a few steps to stand beside the First, who waited until everyone was looking at them, then said, 'May I present to you Ayla of the Zelandonii, mother of Jonayla, Blessed of Doni, acolyte of the Zelandoni of the Ninth Cave, the One Who Is First Among Those Who Serve The Great Earth Mother. She is mated to Jondalar, son of Marthona, former leader of the Ninth Cave and brother to Joharran, present leader. Formerly she was a Mamutoi of the Lion Camp, the Mammoth Hunters who live far to the east, and an acolyte of Mamut, who adopted her as Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth, which is their zelandonia. She was also chosen and physically marked by the spirit of the Cave Lion, her totem, and is Protected by the spirit of the Cave Bear. She is a friend of the horses, Whinney and Racer, and the new filly, Grey, and the four-legged hunter, she calls Wolf.'

Ayla thought it was a very comprehensive reciting of her names and ties, complete with explanations. She didn't know if she was actually an acolyte of Mamut, but he had adopted her to the Mammoth Hearth and he was training her. The Donier hadn't mentioned that she had also been adopted by the Clan, whom they called Flatheads. The only reference was that she was protected by the spirit of the Cave Bear. Ayla doubted if Zelandoni fully understood that it meant she was one of them, she was Clan — at least she was until Broud disowned her, cursed her and made her leave.

The man who had spoken earlier approached Ayla and the First. 'I am Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth Cave, and in the name of Doni, I welcome you to this Summer Meeting camp that we are hosting.' He held out both hands.

Ayla took his hands. 'In the name of the Great Mother of All, I greet you, Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth Cave,' she said.

'We have found a new deep hollow. It has wonderful resonance when we sing, but it is very small,' the man said. He was obviously quite excited about it. 'One must crawl in like a snake, and it is best for only one or perhaps two people, though three or four could go in. I think it is too small for the First, I am sorry to say, though I would certainly let her make that decision. I promised Jonokol I would show it to him when he came. Since you are now the First's acolyte, Ayla, perhaps you would like to see it, too.'

The invitation caught her by surprise, but she smiled, then said, 'Yes, I would like to see it.'

Chapter 7

The Zelandoni Who Was First had mixed feelings upon hearing about the new cave. New discoveries of hollows that were likely to be entries to the Mother's Sacred Underworld were always exciting, but the thought that she might be excluded for purely physical reasons was disappointing, though the idea of crawling on her belly into a small space was not exactly appealing anymore. It did, however, please her that Ayla was accepted enough to be offered the opportunity in her place. She hoped it meant that her choice of a newcomer as an acolyte was already taken for granted. Of course, having a woman with such obviously unusual powers safely under the authority of the zelandonia was probably a relief to many. That she was also an inherently normal and attractive young mother made her acceptance easier.

'That is an excellent idea, Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth Cave. I had planned to begin her Donier Tour later this summer, after the First Matrimonial and Rites of First Pleasures ceremonies. A visit to a new sacred hollow could be an early introduction, and give her a chance to understand from the beginning how sacred sites are known to the zelandonia,' the First Donier said. 'And while we are talking about introductions and training, I notice several of the newer acolytes here. This seems a good time to reveal some knowledge they will need to know. Who can tell me how many seasons there are?'

'I can,' said a young man. 'There are three.'

'No,' said a young woman. 'There are five.'

The First smiled. 'One of you says three, another says five. Can anyone tell me which is correct?'

No one spoke for a while; then the acolyte next to Ayla on the left said, 'I think both are.'

The First smiled again. 'You are correct. There are both three and five seasons, depending upon how you count them. Can anyone tell me why?'

No one spoke up. Ayla remembered some of Mamut's teachings, but she felt somewhat shy and hesitant to speak. Finally, when the silence grew awkward, she said, 'The Mamutoi also have both three and five seasons. I don't know about the Zelandonii, but I can tell you what Mamut told me.'

'I think that would be quite interesting,' the First said, looking around and seeing nods of agreement from others of the zelandonia.

'The downward-pointing triangle is a very important symbol to the Mamutoi,' Ayla began. 'It is the symbol of woman, and it is made with three lines, so three is the number of the power of … I don't quite know the word … motherhood, giving birth, creating new life, and is very sacred to Mut, to the Mother. Mamut also said the three sides of a triangle represent the three major seasons, spring, summer, and winter. But the Mamutoi recognise two additional seasons, the ones that signal change, fall and midwinter, making five seasons. Mamut said five is the Mother's hidden power number.'

Not only were the young acolytes surprised and interested, the older Zelandoni were fascinated by what she said. Even those who had met her the year before and had heard her talk noticed the way she spoke, her accent. To those who were seeing her for the first time, especially if they were young and had not travelled much, her voice seemed absolutely exotic. For most of the zelandonia she had spoken of information unknown to them but that essentially agreed with their way of thinking, which tended to confirm their own beliefs. That gave her added credence and an element of prestige. She was travelled, knowledgeable, but not really threatening.

'I didn't realise the ways of the Mother were so similar even from such a great distance,' said Zelandoni of the Third. 'We also speak of three main seasons — spring, summer and winter — but most people recognise five: spring, summer, autumn, early winter, and late winter. We also understand that the inverted triangle represents woman and that three is the number of generative power, but five is a more powerful symbol.'

'That is true. The ways of the Great Earth Mother are remarkable,' the First said, then continued with the instruction. 'We talked about the counting-word five before, the five parts of an apple, five fingers on each hand, five toes on each foot, and how to use the hands and counting words in a more powerful way. There are also five primary, or sacred, colours. All other colours are aspects of the main colours. The first colour is red. It is the colour of blood, the colour of life, but just as life does not last, the colour red seldom stays true for long. As blood dries it darkens, becomes brown, sometimes very dark.

'Brown is an aspect of red, sometimes called old red. It is the colour of the trunks and branches of many trees. The red ochres of the earth are the dried blood of the Mother, and though some can be very bright, almost new looking, they are all considered old red. Some flowers and fruits show the true colour of red, but flowers are ephemeral, as is the red colour of fruits. When red fruits, such as strawberries, are dried, they turn to old red. Can you think of anything else that is red, or an aspect of it?'

'Some people have brown hair,' said an acolyte sitting behind Ayla.

'And some people have brown eyes,' Ayla said.

'I've never seen anyone with brown eyes. The eyes of everyone I know are blue or grey, sometimes with a little green,' said the young male acolyte who had spoken earlier.

'The people of the Clan who raised me all had brown eyes,' Ayla said. 'They thought my eyes were strange, perhaps even weak, because they were so light.'

'You are talking about Flatheads, aren't you? They're not really people. Other animals have brown eyes, and a lot of them have brown fur,' he said.

Ayla felt her anger flare. 'How can you say that? The Clan are not animals. They are people!' she said through gritted teeth. 'Have you ever even seen one?'

The First jumped in to quell the incipient disruption. 'Acolyte of the Zelandoni of the Twenty-ninth Cave, it is true that some people have brown eyes. You are young and obviously inexperienced. That is one reason that before you become a full Zelandoni, you need to make a Donier Tour. When you travel south, you will meet some people with brown eyes. But perhaps you should answer her question. Have you ever seen the "animal" you call a Flathead?' she said.

'Well … no, but everyone says they look like bears,' the young man said.

'When she was a child, Ayla lived among the ones that the Zelandonii know as Flatheads, but that she calls the Clan. They saved her life after she lost her parents; they took care of her, raised her. I think she has more experience with them than you. You also might ask Willamar, the Trade Master, who has had more contact with them than most. He says they may look a little different, but they behave like people and he believes they are. Until you have had some direct contact yourself, I think you should defer to those who have had personal experience with them,' the First said, in a stern, lecturing tone.

The young man felt a flare of anger. He didn't like being lectured, and he didn't like that the ideas of a foreigner should be given more credence than those he had heard all his life. But after his Zelandoni signalled with a shake of his head, he decided not to dispute the One Who Was First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother.

'Now, we were speaking of the Five Sacred Colours. Zelandoni of the Fourteenth Cave, why don't you tell us about the next one,' the First said.

'The second primary colour is green,' the Zelandoni of the Fourteenth began. 'Green is the colour of leaves and grass. It is also a colour of life, of course, plant life. In winter you will see that many trees and plants are brown, showing that their true colour is old red, the colour of life. In winter the plants are only resting, gathering strength for their new green growth in spring. With their flowers and fruits, plants also show most of the other colours.'

Ayla thought her delivery was flat, and if the information itself had not been so interesting, she could make it seem dull. No wonder the rest of the zelandonia didn't select her to be First. Then Ayla wondered if she just thought that because she knew how much the woman annoyed her Zelandoni.

'Perhaps the Zelandoni whose Cave is hosting this Summer Meeting would tell us about the next Sacred Colour?' the First interjected just as the Fourteenth was taking a breath to continue. The Fourteenth couldn't really object, under the circumstances.

'Yes, of course,' he said. 'The third primary colour is yellow, the colour of the sun, Bali, and the colour of fire, although there is also much red in both, which shows that they have a life of their own. You can see the red in the sun mostly in the morning and in the evening. The sun gives us light and warmth, but it can be dangerous. Too much sun can make skin burn, and dry out plants and watering holes. We have no control over the sun. Not even Doni, the Mother, could control her son, Bali. We can only try to protect ourselves from him, get out of his way. Fire can be even more dangerous than the sun. We do have some control of it, and it is very useful, but we should never get careless with fire, nor take it for granted.

'Not all things that are yellow are hot. Some soil is yellow, there is yellow ochre as well as red ochre. Some people have yellow hair,' he said, looking directly at Ayla, 'and of course, many flowers show its true colour. They always age to brown, which is an aspect of red. It is for that reason that some argue that yellow should be considered an aspect of red and not a sacred colour in its own right, but most agree that it is a primary colour that attracts red, the colour of life.'

Ayla found herself fascinated by the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth Cave, and observed him more closely. He was tall, muscular, with dark blond, almost brown hair with streaks of lighter colour, and dark eyebrows that blended into his Zelandoni tattoo on his left forehead. The tattoo was not quite as ornate as some, but very precise. His beard was brown with a reddish tone, but small and with a distinct shape. She thought he must use a sharp flint blade to trim it, to keep it that way. He was probably approaching middle age, his face had some character, but he seemed young and vibrant and quietly in control.

She thought most people would think that he was handsome. She did, though she didn't fully trust her sense of who was attractive to her own kind of people, the 'Others' to the Clan. Her perception of who looked good was strongly influenced by the standards of the people who raised her. She thought people of the Clan were handsome, but most of the Others did not, though many had never seen any, and most of those who had, had only seen them from a distance. She watched some of the young women acolytes and decided that they were attracted to the man who was speaking. Some of the older women seemed to be, too. In any case, he was very good at communicating the lore. The First seemed to agree. She asked him to continue.

'The Fourth Primary colour is clear,' he said. 'Clear is the colour of the wind, the colour of water. Clear can show all colours, as when you look in a still pond and see a reflection, or when drops of rain sparkle in all colours when the sun comes out. Both blue and white are aspects of clear. When you look at wind, it is clear, but when you look into the sky, you see blue. Water in a lake, or in the Great Waters of the West is often blue, and the water seen on glaciers is a deep, vivid blue.'

Like Jondalar's eyes, Ayla thought. She remembered when they were crossing the glacier that it was the only time she saw a blue colour that matched his eyes. She wondered if the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth Cave had ever been on a glacier.

'Some fruit is blue,' he was saying. 'especially berries, and some flowers, although blue flowers are more rare. Many people have blue eyes, or blue mixed with grey, which is also an aspect of clear. Snow is white, as are clouds in the sky, or grey when they are mixed with dark to make rain, but their true colour is clear. Ice is clear though it may appear white, but you know the true colour of snow and ice as soon as they melt, and clouds when they rain. There are many white flowers, and one can find white earth in certain places. There is a location not far from the Ninth Cave where white earth, kaolin, can be found,' he said, looking directly at Ayla, 'but it is still an aspect of clear.'

The Zelandoni Who Was First picked up the lecture. 'The fifth Sacred Colour is dark, sometimes called black. It is the colour of night, the colour of charcoal after fire has burned the life out of the wood. It is the colour that overcomes the colour of life, red, especially as it ages. Some have said that black is the darkest shade of old red, but it is not. Dark is the absence of light, and the absence of life. It is the colour of death. It does not even have an ephemeral life; there are no black flowers. Deep caves show the primary colour of dark in its truest form.'

When she finished, she stopped and looked at the assembled acolytes. 'Are there any questions?' she said. There was a diffident silence, some shifting and shuffling, but no one spoke out. She knew there probably were questions, but no one wanted to be first, or appear not to understand if everyone else did, or seemed to. It was all right — questions could come later, and would. Since so many of the acolytes were there, and she had their attention, the First wondered if she should continue with the instruction. Too much at one time was hard to retain, and people's minds could wander. 'Would you like to hear more?'

Ayla glanced at her baby and noticed that she was still asleep. 'I would,' she said softly. There were other murmurs and sounds from the group, most of them positive.

'Would someone like to talk about another way that we know five is a powerful symbol?' the One Who Was First asked.

'One can see five wandering stars in the sky,' said the old Zelandoni of the Seventh Cave.

'That is true,' the First said, smiling at the tall, elderly man, then announced to the rest, 'And Zelandoni of the Seventh Cave is the one who discovered them and showed them to us. It takes time to see them, and most of you won't until your Year of Nights.'

'What is the Year of Nights?' Ayla asked. There were several others who were glad she did.

'It is the year when you will have to stay awake at night and sleep during the day,' the First replied. 'It is one of the trials you will face in your training, but it is more than that. There are certain things you need to see that can only be seen at night, like where the sun rises and sets, especially during midsummer and midwinter, when the sun stops and changes direction, and the risings and settings of the moon. The Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave is the one who knows most about that. He made notations for half a year to keep track.'

Ayla wanted to ask what other trials she would have to face in her training, but didn't speak up. She guessed she would find out soon enough.

'What else shows us the power of five?' the First asked.

'The Five Sacred Elements,' the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth said.

'Good!' the large woman Who Was First said. She shifted to a more comfortable position on her seat. 'Why don't you begin.'

'It's always best to talk about the Sacred Colours before the Sacred Elements because colour is one of their properties. The First Element, sometimes called a Principle or Essential, is Earth. Earth is solid, it has substance, it is soil and rock. You can pick up a piece of earth with your hand. The colour most associated with Earth is old red. As well as being an element in its own right, Earth is the material aspect of all the other essentials; it can hold them or be affected by them in some way,' he said, then looked toward the First to see if she wanted him to continue. She was already looking at someone else.

'Zelandoni of the Second Cave, why don't you continue.'

'The Second Element is Water,' she said, standing up. 'Water sometimes falls from the sky, sometimes rests on the surface of the earth or flows across it, or through it in caves. Sometimes it is absorbed and becomes part of the earth. Water is movable; the colour of Water is usually clear or blue, even when it looks muddy. When water is brown, it is because you are seeing the colour of Earth, which has mixed with Water. Water can be seen and felt, and swallowed, but you cannot pick it up with your fingers, though your hand can make a cup for it,' she said, holding her two hands together to form a cup.

Ayla enjoyed watching her because she used her hands a lot when she was describing things, although it wasn't intentional the way it was with the Clan.

'Water must be held in something, a cup, a waterbag, your own body. Your body needs to hold water, as you will find out when you go through your trial of giving it up. All living things need water — plants and animals,' the Second finished and sat down.

'Would anyone else like to say something about water?' the leader of the zelandonia asked.

'Water can be dangerous. People can drown in it,' said the young acolyte sitting on the other side of Jonayla. She spoke softly and looked sad and Ayla wondered if she had personal knowledge of what she spoke.

'That's true,' Ayla said. 'On our Journey, Jondalar and I had to cross many rivers. Water can be very dangerous.'

'Yes, I knew someone who broke through the ice on a river and drowned,' said the Zelandoni of South Face, of the Twenty-ninth Cave. He started to embellish the story about drowning, but the main Zelandoni of the Twenty-ninth interrupted and cut him short.

'We understand water can be very dangerous, but so can Wind, and that is the Third Element.' She was very pleasant with a nice smile, but an underlying strength, and she knew this was not a time for a digression into anecdotes. The First was discussing a serious matter with important information that needed to be understood.

The First smiled at her, knowing exactly what she had done. 'Why don't you continue to tell us about the Third Element,' she said.

'Like water, wind cannot be picked up, nor can it be held or seen, though its effects can be seen,' she said. 'When wind is still, it cannot even be felt, but wind can be so powerful it can pick up trees and knock them over. It can blow so hard, you can't move against it. Wind is everywhere. There is no place that you won't find it, not even in the deepest cave, though it is usually still there. You know it is present because you can make it move by flapping something. Wind also moves inside a living body. It can be felt when you suck in your breath and when you blow it out. Wind is essential for life. People and animals need wind to live. When their wind stops, you know they are dead,' the Zelandoni of the Twenty-ninth Cave ended.

Ayla noticed that Jonayla was beginning to squirm; she would be waking up soon. The First was aware of the baby, too, and an air of restlessness in the assembly. It was necessary to finish this session soon.

'The fourth element is cold,' the First continued. 'Like wind, cold cannot be picked up or held, but it can be felt. Cold causes changes, makes things harder and slower. Cold can harden the earth, and cold can harden water, turn it into ice and make it stop moving, and turn rain into snow or ice. The colour of cold is clear or white. Some say that dark causes cold. It does get cooler when the dark of night comes. Cold can be dangerous. Cold can help dark to drain life, but dark is unaffected by cold, so things that are partly dark are less affected by cold. Cold can be helpful, too. If food is put into a cold pit in the earth, or in water covered with ice, cold can stop it from going bad. When cold stops, things that are clear can usually go back to the way they were, like ice back to water. Old red things or elements can usually recover from cold — the earth, the bark of trees for example — but green, yellow, or true red seldom do.'

The First thought about asking for questions, but decided to hurry through. 'The fifth element is Heat. Heat cannot be picked up or held, but it, too, can be felt. You know when you touch something hot. Heat also changes things, but where cold makes slow changes, heat is quick. As cold drains life, heat and warmth can restore it, bring it back. Fire and sun can make heat. The heat from the sun softens the cold, hard earth, and turns snow to rain, which helps green life sprout; it turns ice to water, and helps it move again. The heat of fire can cook food, both meat and vegetables, and warm the inside of a dwelling, but heat can be dangerous. It can also help dark. The primary colour of heat is yellow, often mixed with red, but sometimes it is mixed with dark. Heat can help the true red of life, but too much heat can encourage the dark that destroys life.'

The First's timing was just about right. Just as she finished, Jonayla woke up with a loud wail. Ayla quickly picked her up, rocked and bounced her to settle her, but knew she needed to be tended to.

'I want all of you to think about what you have learned today and remember any questions you may have so we can talk about them the next time we meet like this. Any of you who wish to leave can go now,' the One Who Was First concluded.

'I hope we'll be able to meet again soon,' Ayla said as she stood up. 'This was very interesting. I'm looking forward to learning more.'

'I'm glad, Acolyte of the Zelandoni of the Ninth Cave,' the First said. Though Zelandoni called her Ayla when they were in a more casual situation, she always referred to everyone by formal titles when they were in the zelandonia lodge at Summer Meetings.

'Proleva, I need to ask you something,' Ayla said, feeling uncomfortable.

'Go ahead, Ayla.' All of the people who shared the dwelling were eating their morning meal, and turned toward her, their expressions full of curiosity.

'There is a sacred cave not far from the home of the Twenty-sixth Cave, and their Zelandoni has asked me to go with him to see it, since I am the First's acolyte. It is very small and the First would like me to go, to represent her.'

Jondalar was not the only one whose attention was piqued. He glanced around and noticed that everyone was watching Ayla, and saw Willamar shudder. The Trade Master loved to travel great distances, but didn't much care for small, cramped spaces. He could make himself go into a cave if it was necessary, especially if it wasn't too small, but he preferred the open outdoors.

'I need someone to watch Jonayla, and feed her, if she needs it,' Ayla explained. 'I'll make sure she nurses before I leave, but I'm not sure how long it will take. I would take her with me, but I'm told one must crawl in like a snake, and I don't think I could do that with Jonayla. I think Zelandoni is pleased that I was asked.'

Proleva thought for a moment. She was always busy at Summer Meetings, the Ninth was a large and important Cave, and she had many things planned for that day. She didn't know if she had time to take care of another baby besides her own, but she hated to refuse. 'I'd be glad to feed her, Ayla, but I have promised to meet with some people today and I don't think I will be able to take care of her.'

'I have an idea,' Marthona said. Everyone turned to look at the former leader. 'Perhaps we can find someone to go with Proleva to watch both Jonayla and Sethona while she is busy, and bring the babies to her when they need feeding.'

Marthona looked hard at Folara, then surreptitiously poked her, wanting her to volunteer. The girl understood the message, and had thought about it even before, but wasn't sure if she wanted to spend a whole day taking care of the babies. On the other hand, she did love them both dearly, and it might be interesting to see what Proleva was going to be talking about at her meetings.

'I'll watch them,' she said, then in a moment of inspiration added, 'if Wolf will help me.' That would bring her a lot of attention.

Ayla paused to think. She wasn't entirely sure if Wolf would obey the young woman in the middle of the Meeting area in the midst of so many strangers, though he would probably love to be around the little girls.

Adult wolves were devoted to their young, and happily took turns watching them while the rest of the pack hunted, but a pack could not raise more than one litter. They had to hunt not only for themselves, but for several growing and hungry young wolves. To supplement nursing and to help wean the litter, the hunters brought back meat they had chewed and swallowed, regurgitating the partially digested food, making it easier for the pups to eat. It was the job of the alpha female to make sure no other females of the pack mated when they came into season, often interrupting her own mating to drive males away from them, so that her litter would be the one that was born and raised.

Wolf bestowed his normal wolfish adoration on the human babies of his pack. Ayla had observed and studied wolves when she was young, which was why she understood Wolf so well. As long as no one threatened the little ones, it was unlikely he would cause any trouble, and who would threaten them in the middle of a Summer Meeting?

'All right, Folara,' Ayla said. 'Wolf can help you watch the babies, but Jondalar, will you check on Wolf and Folara once in a while? I think he will mind her, but he may get too protective of the little ones, and not want to let anyone near them. He always does what you say when I'm not around.'

'I was going to stay close to our camp and knap some tools this morning,' he said. 'I still owe special ones to some people for helping me build our dwelling at the Ninth Cave. There is a knapping area at the edge of the Meeting camp, and it is paved with stones so it won't be muddy. I can work there and go to see how Folara and Wolf are doing occasionally. I did promise to meet with some people in the afternoon. After the lion hunt, many more are interested in the spear-thrower.' His forehead wrinkled in a familiar frown as he thought about it. 'But maybe we can meet where I can keep an eye on them.'

'I hope we'll be back by afternoon, but I don't know how long the cave visit will take,' Ayla said.

They all headed for the main encampment not long after, separating to go to their individual destinations when they reached the site. Ayla and Proleva, with their two babies, Folara, Jondalar, and the wolf all went to the large zelandonia dwelling first. The donier of the Twenty-sixth Cave was already there waiting outside, and an acolyte Ayla had not seen for some time.

'Jonokol!' she said, rushing toward the man who had been the First's acolyte before her, and was considered one of the finest artists of the Zelandonii. 'When did you arrive? Have you seen Zelandoni, yet?' she asked after they had embraced and touched cheeks.

'We got here just before dark last night,' he said. 'The Nineteenth Cave got off to a late start, and then the rain slowed us down. And yes, I have seen the First Among Those Who Serve The Mother. She's looking wonderful.'

The other members of the Ninth Cave warmly greeted the man who had been, until recently, a valued member of their Cave and a good friend. Even Wolf sniffed him in recognition and was given a scratch behind the ears in return.

'Are you Zelandoni, yet?' Proleva asked.

'If I pass the testing, I may be at this Summer Meeting. Zelandoni of the Nineteenth is not well. She didn't come this year; she just couldn't walk so far.'

'I'm sorry to hear that,' Ayla said. 'I was looking forward to seeing her.'

'She has been a good teacher and I've been performing many of her tasks. Tormaden and the Cave would like me to take on the rest of the functions as soon as possible, and I think our Zelandoni wouldn't mind either,' Jonokol said, then looking at the bundles Ayla and Proleva had in their carrying blankets, he added, 'I see you have your little ones. I heard you both had girls, the blessed of Doni. I am happy for you. May I see them?'

'Of course,' Proleva said, taking her infant out of her carrying blanket and holding her up. 'Her name is Sethona.'

'And here is Jonayla,' Ayla said, holding up her child as well.

'They were born within a few days of each other, and they are going to be great friends,' Folara said. 'I'm taking care of them today, and Wolf is going to help me.'

'You are?' Jonokol said; then he looked at Ayla. 'I understand we're going to visit a new sacred cave this morning.'

'Are you coming with us, too? How wonderful,' Ayla said; then she looked at the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth Cave. 'Do you have any idea how long it will take? I would like to be back by afternoon.'

'We should be back sometime in the afternoon,' he said. He had been observing the reunion of the artist acolyte and his former Cave and their interactions. He had wondered how Ayla was going to handle visiting a difficult cave with a young baby and quickly understood that she had made arrangements for the care of her infant, which was wise. He wasn't the only one who wondered how a young mother was going to take on the full duties of a Zelandoni. Apparently with the help of family and friends in the Ninth Cave. There was a reason that few in the zelandonia chose to mate and have a family. In a couple of years, when the child was weaned, it would be easier for her … unless she were blessed again. It would be interesting to watch the development of this young, and attractive, acolyte, he thought.

Saying she would be back soon, Ayla left with the others from the Ninth Cave to go with Proleva to her meeting. The Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth Cave sauntered after them. She tried to nurse Jonayla, but the child was satisfied, and smiled at her mother while the milk dribbled out of the corner of her mouth; then she struggled to sit up. Ayla handed the baby over to Folara, and then stood in front of the wolf and tapped herself just under her shoulders. The animal jumped up, putting his large paws where she had tapped, as she braced herself to support his weight.

The demonstration that followed made people who hadn't seen it before stare in shocked disbelief. Ayla lifted her chin and exposed herself to the huge wolf. With great gentleness he licked her neck, then took her tender throat in his teeth in a wolfish gesture of acknowledgment of the alpha member of his pack. She returned the gesture near his mouth, getting a mouthful of fur; then holding him by his ruff, she looked into his eyes. He dropped down when she let go, and she stooped down to his level.

'I'm going away for a while,' she said softly to the animal, repeating the meaning in the sign language of the Clan, though it was inconspicuous to most of those watching. Sometimes Wolf seemed to comprehend hand signals even better than words, but she generally used both when she was trying to communicate something important to him. 'Folara is going to watch Jonayla and Sethona. You can stay here with the babies and watch them, too, but you must do what Folara tells you. Jondalar will be nearby.'

She stood up and hugged her baby, and said good-bye to the others. Jondalar embraced her briefly as they pressed cheeks, and then she left. She wouldn't say even to herself that Wolf really understood everything she said, but when she talked to him like that, he paid close attention to her, and did seem to follow her instructions. She had noticed that the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth Cave had followed them and she knew he saw her with Wolf. His face still showed his surprise, though it wasn't obvious to everyone. Ayla was accustomed to reading meaning from subtle nuances; it was necessary in the language of the Clan, and she had learned to apply the skill to interpreting unconscious meaning in her own kind.

The man didn't say anything as they fell into step and walked back to the zelandonia dwelling together, but he had been astounded when she bared her throat to the wolf's fangs. The Twenty-sixth Cave had gone to a different Summer Meeting the year before and he hadn't seen her with the animal when she first arrived. First, he was surprised to see a hunting meat-eater calmly approaching with the people of the Ninth Cave, then he was amazed at the size of the animal. When he saw Wolf jump up on his hind legs, he was sure it was the biggest one of his kind he had ever seen. Of course, he'd never been quite so close to a living wolf before, but the animal was nearly as tall as the woman!

He had heard that the First's new acolyte had a way with animals and that a wolf followed her around, but he knew how people exaggerated and while he didn't deny what anyone said, he wasn't sure he fully believed it either. Perhaps a wolf had been seen near the Meeting and people were led to believe it was watching her. But this wasn't a creature skulking around the outskirts of the group, who may have been watching her from a distance, as he'd imagined. There was direct communication, understanding, and trust between them. The Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth Cave had never seen anything like it and it piqued his interest in Ayla even more. Young mother or not, perhaps she did belong in the zelandonia.

It was well into the morning by the time the small group approached the unremarkable cave in the face of a low limestone cliff. There were four of them: the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth Cave; his acolyte, a quiet young man named Falithan, although he often referred to himself as the First Acolyte of the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth; Jonokol, the talented artist who had been the First's acolyte the year before; and Ayla.

She had enjoyed talking to Jonokol along the way, though it made her realise how much he had changed in the last year. When she first met him he was more artist than acolyte, and had joined the zelandonia because it allowed him to freely exercise his talent. He'd had no great desire to become a Zelandoni, he was content to remain an acolyte, but that had changed. He had become more serious, she thought. He wanted to paint the white cave that she, or rather Wolf, had found the previous summer, but not just for the joy of the art. He knew it was a remarkably hallowed place, a sacred refuge created by the Mother, whose white calcite walls offered a extraordinary invitation to be made into a distinctive place to commune with the world of the spirits. He wanted to know that world as a Zelandoni so he could do justice to its sanctity when he created the images from the next world that he was sure would speak to him. Jonokol would soon be Zelandoni of the Nineteenth Cave and give up his personal name, Ayla realised.

The entrance to the small cave seemed barely large enough for a person to enter and it seemed to get smaller as she looked farther inside. It made Ayla wonder why anyone would want to go inside it. Then she heard a sound that made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end, and gooseflesh appear on her arms. It was like a yodel, but faster and more high pitched, an ululating wail that seemed to fill the cave hole in front of them. She turned and saw that it was Falithan who was making the sound. Then a strange muted echo reverberated faintly back to them that did not quite synchronise with the original sound, but seemed to originate from deep inside the cave. When he finished, she saw Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth smiling at her.

'It's quite a remarkable sound he makes, isn't it?' the man said.

'Yes, it is,' Ayla said. 'But why did he make it?'

'It's one way we test the cave. When a person sings or plays a flute or makes a sound like Falithan in a hollow, if the cave responds, sings back with a sound that is true and distinctive, it means the Mother is telling us that She hears, and She is telling us that one can enter the spirit world from here. Then we know it is a sacred place,' the Twenty-sixth said.

'Do all sacred caves sing back?' Ayla asked.

'Not all, but most do, and some only in certain places, but there is always something special about sacred sites,' he said.

'I'm sure the First would be able to test a cave like this, she has such a beautiful and pure voice,' Ayla said, and then she frowned. 'What if you want to test a cave but you can't sing, or play a flute or make a sound like Falithan. I can't do any of those things.'

'Surely you can sing a little.'

'No, she can't,' Jonokol said. 'She speaks the words of the Mother's Song, and hums in a monotone.'

'You have to be able to test a sacred site with sound,' the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth Cave said. 'That's an important part of being Zelandoni. And it must be a true sound of some kind. You can't just yell or scream.' He seemed gravely concerned, and Ayla was crestfallen.

'What if I can't make the right kind of sound? A true sound?' Ayla said, realising at that moment that she did want to be a Zelandoni someday. But what if she couldn't just because she couldn't make a proper sound.

Jonokol looked as unhappy as Ayla. He liked the foreigner Jondalar had brought back with him from his Journey, and he felt he owed her a debt. She was not only the one who found the beautiful new cave; she had made sure he was among the first to see it, and had agreed to become the First's acolyte, which had allowed him to move to the Nineteenth Cave, which was near it.

'But you can make a true sound, Ayla,' Jonokol said. 'You can whistle. I have heard you whistle just like a bird, and you can make many other animal sounds. You can whinny like a horse, you can even roar like a lion.'

'That I'd like to hear,' the Donier said.

'Go ahead, Ayla. Show him,' Jonokol said.

Ayla closed her eyes and gathered up her thoughts to concentrate. She put her mind back to the time when she was living in her valley and raising a young lion alongside a horse, as though they were both her children. She remembered the first time Baby managed to make a full-throated roar. She had decided to practise making the sound, too, and a few days later answered him with a roar of her own. It wasn't quite as thunderous as his, but he recognised it as a respectable roar. Like Baby, she had always built up to it with a series of distinctive grunts, and began with a series of unhk, unhk, unhk sounds that grew louder with each repetition. Finally she opened her mouth and pushed out the loudest roar she could. It filled the small cave. Then after a period of silence the roar echoed back on itself with a distant, muted sound that with a chill of gooseflesh made each of them feel that a different lion had answered from a place far away, deep in the cave and beyond.

'If I didn't know better, I'd vow there was a lion in here,' the young acolyte of the Twenty-sixth said with a smile when the echoes died down. 'Can you really whinny like a horse, too?'

That one was easy. It was the true name of Ayla's horse, Whinney, the one she named her when she was a foal, though now she more often said it like a word rather than a whinny. She made the sound the way she usually greeted her friend when she hadn't seen her for a while, a happy, welcoming whiiinnneeey.

This time the Donier of the Twenty-sixth Cave laughed out loud. 'And I imagine you can whistle like a bird, too.'

Ayla smiled, a big delighted grin, then whistled through a series of bird calls that she had taught herself when she was still alone in her valley, and had learned to coax birds to eat out of her hand. The bird trills and chirps and whistles reverberated with the strangely muted echoing of the cave.

'Well, if I had any doubts about this being a sacred cave, I couldn't any more. And you won't have any problem testing with sound, Ayla, even if you can't sing or play a flute. Like Falithan, you have your own way,' the Zelandoni said. Then he signalled to his acolyte, who removed his backframe and took out of it four small bowls with handles that had been carved out of limestone.

The acolyte next brought out an object that looked like a small white sausage; it was a piece of the intestine of some animal filled with fat. He untwisted one end and squeezed out some of the slightly congealed fat into the bowl of each lamp, then put a strip of a dried boletus mushroom into each. Then he sat down and prepared to make a small fire. Ayla watched him, and almost offered to make a fire with one of her firestones, but the First had made a point the previous year to make a ceremony of showing the firestone, and though many of the Zelandonii now knew how to use it, Ayla wasn't sure how she wanted to show those who hadn't seen it the first time.

Using materials he had brought with him, Falithan soon had a small fire going and from it, using another strip of dried mushroom to transfer the fire, he melted some of the fat to make it more easily absorbed then lit the mushroom wicks.

When the fire was well established in each grease lamp, the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth said, 'Well, shall we explore this tight little cave? But you will have to assume that you are another animal, Ayla, a snake. Do you think you can slither in here?'

Ayla nodded her assent, though she felt some doubt.

Holding on to the handle of the small bowl-shaped lamp, the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth Cave put his head into the small opening first, getting down on his knees and one hand, and finally down on his stomach. Pushing the small oil lamp in front of him, he squirmed into the unique little space. Ayla followed him, then Jonokol and finally Falithan, each of them holding a lamp. She now understood why the Zelandoni had discouraged the First from attempting to enter the place. Though Ayla had occasionally been surprised at what the large woman could do if she set her mind to it, this cave really was too small for her.

The short walls were more or less perpendicular to the floor, but curved together at the ceiling, and appeared to be rock covered with a damp soil. The floor was a wet clayey mud that stuck to them, but actually helped them to slide through some of the tighter places, but it didn't take long for the cold clammy muck to seep into their clothing. The chill made Ayla aware that her breasts were full of milk and she tried to get up on her elbows so she wouldn't have to put all her weight on them, though it was difficult while holding the lamp. Small spaces didn't particularly bother Ayla, but when she got stuck in one place that curved sideways, she began to feel a touch of panic.

'Just relax, Ayla. You can make it,' she heard Jonokol say, then felt a push against her feet from behind. With his help she squeezed through.

The cave was not uniformly small. When they got beyond the constriction, the cave opened up a little. They could actually sit up, and holding their lamps up, see each other. They stopped and rested for a while, then Jonokol couldn't resist. He took a small, chisel-pointed piece of flint from a pouch tied to his waist thong and with a few quick strokes, engraved a drawing of a horse on the wall on one side, and then in front of it, another.

It had always amazed Ayla how skilled he was. When he was still at the Ninth Cave, she had often watched him when he practised on the outside wall of a limestone cliff, or a slab of stone that had broken off, or on a section of rawhide with a piece of charcoal, or even on a smoothed-out area of dirt on the ground. He did it so often and with such ease, he almost seemed profligate, wasteful of his talent. But just as she had had to practise to gain skill with her sling or Jondalar's spear-thrower, she knew Jonokol had needed to practise to gain his level of proficiency. It was just that to her the ability to think of a living, breathing animal and reproduce its likeness on a surface was so extraordinary, it couldn't be anything but a great and amazing Gift from the Mother. Ayla was not alone in those feelings.

After they rested a while, the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth Cave continued leading the way into the cave. They encountered a few more tight places before they reached a place where slabs of rock blocked their way; it was the end of the cave. They could go no farther.

'I notice that you felt compelled to make drawings on the wall of this cave,' the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth said, smiling at Jonokol.

Jonokol wasn't sure he would put it quite that way, but he had drawn two horses, so he nodded assent.

'I have been thinking that Sun View should have a ceremony for this space. I am now more sure than ever that it is sacred, and I would like to acknowledge that. It could be a place for young people who want to test themselves to come, even those who are quite young.'

'I think you are right,' the artist acolyte said. 'It's a difficult cave, but staightforward. It would be hard to get lost in here.'

'Would you join us in the ceremony, Jonokol?'

Ayla guessed the Zelandoni wanted Jonokol to make more drawings in this sacred cave that was so close to them, and wondered if his drawings would add more status to the place.

'I believe a mark of closure is needed here, to show it is as far as one can go within the cave — in this world,' Jonokol said, then smiled. 'I think Ayla's lion spoke from the next world. Let me know when you plan to have the ceremony.'

Both the Zelandoni and his acolyte, Falithan, smiled their pleasure. 'You are welcome to come, too, Ayla,' the Twenty-sixth said.

'I will have to see what the First has planned for me,' she said.

'Of course.'

They turned around and started back, and Ayla was glad. Her clothes were soggy and caked with mud, and she was getting cold. It didn't seem to take as long to return, and she was happy that she didn't get stuck again. When they reached the entrance, Ayla breathed a sigh of relief. Her oil lamp had gone out just before they saw light coming in from outside. This may be a truly sacred cave, she thought, but she didn't think it was a particularly pleasant cave, especially having to crawl on her stomach most of the way.

'Would you like to come to visit Sun View, Ayla? It's not very far,' Falithan said.

'I am sorry. Some other time I would love to visit, but I told Proleva I would be back in the afternoon. She is watching Jonayla, and I really do need to go back to the camp,' Ayla said. She didn't add that her breasts were aching; she was feeling the need to nurse and getting very uncomfortable.

Chapter 8

When Ayla returned, Wolf was waiting at the edge of the Summer Meeting Camp to greet her. He had somehow known she was coming. 'Where's Jonayla, Wolf? Find her for me.' The animal dashed out in front of her, then turned to look back and make sure she was following him.

He led her directly to Proleva, who was at the camp of the Third Cave, nursing Jonayla. 'Ayla! You're back! If I'd known you were coming, I would have held off. I'm afraid she's full now,' the woman said.

Ayla took her child and tried to nurse her, but the infant just wasn't hungry, which seemed to make Ayla's breasts ache even more. 'Has Sethona nursed? I'm full, too. Full of milk.'

'Stelona was helping me today, and she always has plenty of milk, even though her baby is eating some regular food. She offered to feed Sethona not long ago when I was talking to Zelandoni about the Matrimonial. Since I knew I'd be feeding Jonayla soon, I thought that would be perfect. I just didn't know when you would be back, Ayla.'

'I didn't either,' Ayla said. 'I'll see if I can find someone else who needs milk, and thank you for taking care of Jonayla today.'

Walking toward the big zelandonia lodge, Ayla saw Lanoga carrying Lorala on her hip. Three-year Ganamar, the next to the youngest in the family, was holding on to her tunic with one hand, the thumb of his other hand firmly in his mouth. Ayla hoped that Lorala might want to nurse, she was usually ready anytime. When she mentioned it, Lanoga told her, much to her relief, that she was looking for someone to feed the child.

They sat on one of several logs with seating pads on them that were arranged around a darkened fireplace outside the entrance of the big lodge and Ayla gratefully took the older baby in exchange for her own. Wolf sat down near Jonayla, and Ganamar plopped down beside him. All the children of Laramar's hearth were comfortable around the animal, though Laramar was not. He still tensed up and backed away when the big wolf came near him.

Ayla had to wipe her breast off before she could nurse the child; the wet mud had soaked through. While Ayla was feeding Lorala, Jondalar returned from an afternoon of spear-throwing practice and Lanidar was with him. He smiled shyly at her and more warmly at Lanoga. Ayla gave him a quick appraising look. He was a twelve-year now, close to a thirteen-year, and he'd grown quite a bit in the past year. Even more in self-confidence, she noticed. He was taller and he wore a unique spear-thrower holder, a kind of harness that she could see accommodated his deformed right arm. It also held a quiver of several of the specialised spears that were used with a spear-thrower, which were shorter and lighter than the usual spears meant to be cast by hand, more like long darts tipped with sharp flint. His well-developed left arm looked almost as strong as a grown man's, and she suspected he had been practising with the weapon.

Lanidar was also wearing a manhood belt with a red fringe, a narrow finger-woven strip of various colours and fibres. Some were natural vegetal colours like ivory flax, beige dogbane, and taupe nettles. Others were the natural fibres of animal fur, usually the dense, long coat of winterkills like white mouflon, grey ibex, dark red mammoth, and black horsetail. Most of the fibres could also be dyed to change or intensify the natural colours. The belt not only announced that he had reached physical maturity and was ready for a donii-woman and manhood rites, but the designs indicated his affiliations. Ayla was able to identify the symbolism that proclaimed he was of the Nineteenth Cave of the Zelandonii, though she couldn't yet identify his primary names and ties by their distinctive patterns.

The first time Ayla had seen a manhood belt, she had thought it was beautiful. She'd had no way then of knowing its meaning, however, when Marona, the woman who had expected to mate Jondalar, tried to embarrass her by tricking her into wearing it, along with the winter undergarments of a young man. She still thought the belt ties were beautiful, though they reminded her of the unpleasant incident. She had, however, kept the soft buckskin garments the woman had given her. Ayla wasn't born to the Zelandonii, and in spite of their intended use, she didn't have the ingrained culture-driven sense that they were inappropriate. They were comfortably soft suede leather, velvety to the touch, and she decided she would wear them sometimes, after she made some adjustments to the leggings and tunic so they fit her womanly shape better.

People of the Ninth Cave looked at her strangely the first time she wore the undergarments of a young man as casual outer clothing in warm-weather to go hunting, but they got used to it. After a while she noticed that some of the younger women started wearing similar clothing. But it embarrassed and angered Marona when Ayla wore them, because she was reminded that her trick had not been appreciated by the Ninth Cave. Instead they felt that she had disgraced them by treating the foreigner, who was destined to become one of them, so maliciously. Distressing Marona had not been Ayla's original intention when she first wore teenage boy's undergarments publicly, but the woman's reaction was not lost on her.

As Ayla and Lanoga exchanged babies again, several laughing young men approached, most of them wearing manhood belts and several of them carrying spear-throwers. Jondalar attracted people wherever he went, but young men in particular looked up to him and liked to cluster around him. She was pleased to note that they greeted Lanidar in a friendly way. Since he had developed such skill with the new weapon, his deformed arm no longer caused the other young men to avoid him. She was also pleased to note that Bologan was among them, though he lacked both a manhood belt and a spear-thrower of his own. She knew Jondalar had made several of the hunting weapons for people to practise.

Ayla knew that both men and women went to the practice spear-throwing sessions that Jondalar had begun to hold, but although the two genders were very aware of each other, the young men liked to socialise with their age-mates who were going through the same stage of development and looking forward to the same rituals, and young women tended to avoid the 'boys with belts'. Most of the young men glanced at Lanoga but pretended to ignore her, except Bologan. He did look at his sister and she looked back, and though they didn't smile or nod a greeting, it was an acknowledgment.

The boys all smiled at Ayla in spite of her mud-caked clothing, most of them shyly, but a couple were more bold in their appraisal of the beautiful older woman that Jondalar had brought home and mated. Donii-women were invariably older and knew how to handle cocky boys trying to be men, to keep them in check without discouraging them too much. The impudent smile of some that she hadn't met before was exchanged for a fleeting expression of apprehension when Wolf got up at her signal.

'Have you spoken to Proleva yet about the plans for tonight?' Jondalar asked Ayla as she started toward the camp of the Ninth Cave. He smiled at the baby and tickled her, and received a delighted giggle in return.

'No. I just returned from the new sacred cave the First wanted me to see, and then went to find Jonayla. I'll ask her after I change,' Ayla said, as they touched cheeks. A couple of the young men, primarily the ones who were nervous about Wolf, looked surprised when Ayla spoke; it proclaimed her distant origins.

'Your clothes really are coated with mud,' Jondalar said, wiping his hand on his pants after touching her.

'The cave had a very wet clay floor, and we had to crawl like a snake most of the time. The mud is cold and heavy, too. That's why I have to change.'

'I'll walk back with you,' Jondalar said; he hadn't seen Ayla all day. He took Jonayla in his arms so she would not get full of mud.

When Ayla found Proleva again, she learned that the Ninth Cave, along with the Third Cave — at the Third's camp — were hosting a meeting of the leaders of the rest of the Caves, and their assistants, who were at this Summer Meeting. All their families would join them for the evening meal. Proleva had organised the preparation, which included some people to care for children so their mothers could help.

Ayla signalled Wolf to come along. She noticed one or two women who looked uneasily at the carnivore, but was glad to see several people who recognised and welcomed Wolf, knowing what a help he could be in watching over them. Lanoga stayed to help mind the children, Ayla returned to see what Proleva wanted her to do.

In the course of the evening, she did stop to nurse Jonayla, but there was so much work to do to prepare and cook the large feast, she hardly had the chance to hold her infant until after everyone ate, and then she was summoned to the zelandonia lodge. She took Jonayla with her, and signalled Wolf to follow.

It was late and dark outside as she walked toward the large summer lodge along a path that had been laid with a paving of flat stones. She carried a torch, though light from various fireplaces lit her way reasonably well. She left the torch outside, propped up in a pile of rocks constructed to hold hot torches. Inside, a small fire near the edge of a larger fire ring and a few flickering lamps scattered here and there were glowing softly but gave scant illumination. Little could be seen beyond the lambent flames in the fireplace. She thought she heard someone snoring softly on the other side of the shelter, but she only saw Jonokol and the First. They were just within the circle of light, sipping cups of steaming tea.

Without interrupting their conversation, the First nodded to Ayla and motioned for her to sit. Glad to finally have a chance to relax in quiet and comfort, she gratefully settled down on a well-stuffed seating cushion, one of several scattered around the fireplace, and began to nurse her child while she listened. Wolf sat down beside them. He was welcome inside the zelandonia lodge, most of the time. Ayla had been gone for some time during the day and he didn't want to leave her or Jonayla.

'What was your impression of the cave?' the large woman said, directing her comment to the young man.

'It is very small, hardly big enough to squeeze through in places, but quite long. An interesting cave,' Jonokol said.

'Do you believe it is sacred?' she asked.

'Yes, I do believe it is.'

The First nodded. She hadn't doubted the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth Cave, but it was nice to have a corroborating opinion.

'And Ayla found her Voice,' Jonokol added, smiling at Ayla who was listening to the conversation, unconsciously rocking in a desultory fashion as she nursed her child.

'She did?' the older woman said.

'Yes,' Jonokol said with a smile. 'The Twenty-sixth asked her to test the cave, and was surprised when she said she couldn't sing or play a flute or do anything to test it. His acolyte, Falithan, sings a strong, high-pitched ululating wail that's very unique. Then I suddenly remembered Ayla's bird calls and reminded her that she could whistle like a bird, and whinny like a horse, even roar like a lion. So she did. All of them. Amazed the Twenty-sixth, too, especially that roar. Her test substantiated the cave. When the roar came back, it was diminished, but clear, more than audible, but seemed to be coming from a very distant place. The other place.'

'What did you think, Ayla?' the First asked, as she poured a cup of tea and handed it to Jonokol to give to her. She had noted that the infant had stopped nursing and had fallen asleep in Ayla's arms with a dribble of milk running down the side of her mouth.

'It's a difficult cave to get into, and long, but not complicated. It could be frightening, especially where it narrows down to some very tight passages, but no one could get lost in it,' Ayla said.

'From the way you describe this new cave, it makes me think that it might be especially good for young acolytes who want to test themselves, to find out if the life of a Zelandoni is actually for them. If they are afraid of a small dark place that offers no real danger, I doubt that they could handle some of the other ordeals that truly can be perilous,' the Woman Who Was First said.

It made Ayla wonder what some of those ordeals might be. She had been in enough risky situations in her life already; she wasn't sure if she wanted to face more, but perhaps she should wait and see what would be asked of her.

The sun was still low in the eastern sky, but a brilliant band of red, fading to purple at the edges, announced the coming day. A tinge of pink highlighted the thin, nebulous bank of stratus clouds on the western horizon, reflecting the back side of the glowing sunrise. As early as it was, almost everyone was already at the Main Camp. It had rained, off and on, for several days but this day looked more promising. Camping out when it rained was only endurable, never enjoyable.

'As soon as the First Rites and Matrimonial Ceremonies are over, Zelandoni wants to do some travelling,' Ayla said, looking up at Jondalar. 'She wants to begin my Donier Tour with some of the closer sacred sites. We need to make that seat on a pole-drag for her.' They were walking back from seeing to the horses before heading toward the Meeting Campground for a morning meal. Wolf had started out with them, but was distracted and dashed into the brush.

Jondalar's brow wrinkled. 'A trip like that could be interesting, but some people are talking about a big hunt after the Ceremonies. Maybe going after a summer herd so we can begin drying meat for next winter. Joharran has been talking about how useful the horses can be in driving animals into surrounds. I think he's counting on us to help. How do we decide which one to do?'

'If she doesn't want to go too far, maybe we could do both,' Ayla said. She wanted to go with the First to visit sacred sites, but she also loved to hunt.

'Perhaps,' Jondalar said. 'Maybe we should talk to both Joharran and Zelandoni and let them decide. But in any case, we could go ahead and make a pole-drag seat for Zelandoni. When we were making the summer shelter for Bologan and Lanoga and the rest of that family, I noticed some trees that I thought might work.'

'When do you think would be a good time to make it?'

'This afternoon, perhaps. I'll ask around to see if I can get a few people to help,' Jondalar said.

'Greetings, Ayla and Jondalar,' a familiar young voice said. It was Lanoga's younger sister, nine-year Trelara.

They both turned around and saw all six of the children coming out of their summer shelter. Bologan tied the opening flap closed, then caught up with them. Neither Tremeda nor Laramar was with them. Ayla knew the adults used the shelter sometimes, but they either had left earlier or, more likely, had not returned the night before. Ayla thought the children were probably heading to the Meeting Camp, hoping to find something to eat. People often made too much food and someone was usually willing to give them the leftovers. They may not always have received the choicest selection, but they seldom went hungry.

'Greetings, children,' Ayla said.

They all smiled at her except Bologan, who tried to be more serious. When she first became familiar with the family, Ayla knew that Bologan, the eldest, stayed away from home as often as he could, preferring to associate with other boys, especially those who were more rowdy. But lately, it seemed to her, he was becoming more responsible toward the younger children, especially his brother, Lavogan, who was a seven-year. And she'd seen him several times with Lanidar lately, which she thought was a good sign. Bologan walked up to Jondalar, rather diffidently.

'Greetings, Jondalar,' he said, looking down at his feet before raising his eyes to meet the man's.

'Greetings, Bologan,' Jondalar said, wondering why he had been approached.

'Can I ask you something?' Bologan said.

'Of course.'

The boy reached into a pocket-like fold of his tunic and pulled out a colourful manhood belt. 'Zelandoni talked to me yesterday, then gave this to me. She showed me how to tie it, but I can't seem to make it look right,' he said.

Well, he was a thirteen-year now, Ayla thought as she fought back a smile. He hadn't specifically asked Jondalar for help, but the tall man knew what he wanted. Typically it was the man of a boy's hearth who gave him his manhood belt, usually made by his mother. Bologan was asking Jondalar to stand in for the man who should have been there for him.

Jondalar showed the young man how to tie the belt, then Bologan called to his brother and started out toward the main camp; the others followed behind more slowly. Ayla watched them go, thirteen-year Bologan walking beside seven-year Lavogan, eleven-year Lanoga, with Lorala, one-year plus a half, on her hip, and nine-year Trelara holding the hand of three-year Ganamar. She remembered being told that one who would have been a five-year had died in infancy. Though she and Jondalar helped them, and several others from the Ninth Cave as well, the children were essentially raising themselves. Neither their mother nor the man of their hearth paid much attention to them, and did little to support them. She believed it was Lanoga who held them together, though now, she was glad to see, Trelara was helping her and Bologan was more involved.

She felt Jonayla moving in her carrying blanket, waking up. She pulled it around from her back to her front, and took the baby out of it. She was naked, with no absorbent padding. Ayla held her out in front of her while the child wet on the ground. Jondalar smiled. None of the other women did that, and when he asked her, Ayla told him that was how Clan mothers often took care of their children's wetting. Though she didn't do it all the time, it certainly saved time cleaning up messes and gathering materials that could soak up liquid. And Jonayla was getting so used to it, she tended to wait until she was out before she let go.

'Do you think Lanidar is still interested in Lanoga?' Jondalar asked, obviously thinking about Tremeda's children, too.

'He certainly gave her a warm smile when he first saw her this year,' Ayla said. 'How is he doing with the spear-thrower? He looks to me as though he's been practising with his left arm.'

'He's good!' Jondalar said. 'Actually, it's amazing to watch him. He has some use of his right arm, and uses it to help place the spear on the thrower, but he throws with great force and accuracy with his left arm. He's become quite a hunter and has gained the respect of his Cave, and more status. Now everyone at this Summer Meeting is looking at him with new eyes. Even the man of his hearth, who left his mother after he was born, has been showing an interest in him. And his mother and grandmother are no longer insisting that he go berry-picking and food-collecting with them all the time for fear he won't be able to support himself any other way. They made that harness he wears, but he told them what he wanted. They give you credit for teaching him, you know.'

'You taught him, too,' she said; then after a while she added, 'He may have become a good hunter, but I still doubt that most mothers would want him to mate their daughters. They would be afraid that the bad spirit that deformed his arm is still hovering and might give their daughter's children the same problem. When he said last year that he wanted to mate Lanoga when they grew up, and help her raise her sisters and brothers, Proleva said she thought that would be a perfect pairing. Since Laramar and Tremeda have the lowest status, no mother would want her son to mate with her, but I don't think anyone would put up much objection to Lanidar mating Lanoga, especially if he's a good hunter.'

'No. But I'm afraid Tremeda and Laramar will find a way to take advantage of him,' Jondalar said. 'I notice Lanoga isn't ready for First Rites, yet.'

'But she will be soon. She's beginning to show signs. Maybe before the summer is over, the last First Rites ceremony of the season. Have they asked you to assist with First Rites this summer?' she asked, trying to seem unconcerned.

'Yes, but I told them I wasn't ready to take on that responsibility yet,' he said, grinning at her. 'Why? Do you think I should?'

'Only if you want to. There are some young women who might be very happy if you did. Perhaps even Lanoga,' Ayla said, turning to look at Jonayla so he wouldn't see her face.

'Not Lanoga!' he said. 'That would be like sharing First Rites with the child of my own hearth!'

She turned and smiled at him. 'You are probably closer to it than the man who is,' Ayla said. 'You've provided more for that family than Laramar has.'

They were approaching the main camp and people had started calling greetings to them. 'Do you think it will take very long to make a pole-drag with a seat?' Ayla asked.

'If I can get some help and we start soon, maybe later this morning, we can probably have it done by afternoon,' he said. 'Why?'

'Then should I ask her if she would have time to try it this afternoon? She said that was what she wanted to do before she used it in front of other people.'

'Go ahead and ask her. I'll ask Joharran and some others to help. I'm sure we'll get it done.' Jondalar grinned. 'It will be interesting to see how people react when they see her riding behind the horses.'

Jondalar was working on cutting down a straight, sturdy sapling that was a good deal thicker than the size they usually selected for a travois. The stone axe-head he was using had been shaped so that the thicker top was tapered up to a kind of point, and the cutting end knapped into a narrow thinning cross-section with a sharp, rounded bottom edge. The wooden handle had a hole gouged all the way through in one end into which the tapered top of the axe-head could fit. It was affixed in such a way that each time a blow was struck, the axe-head would wedge more firmly into the hole of the handle. The two pieces were firmly lashed together with wet rawhide that shrank and pulled tighter as it dried.

A stone axe was not strong enough to cut straight across the trunk of a tree; the flint would shatter and break if used in that way. To fell a tree with such a tool, the cuts needed to be made at an angle, whittling down the tree until it broke apart. The stump often looked as though it had been chewed down by a beaver. Even then, stone chips usually spalled off the axe-blade, so that it needed constant resharpening. This could be done by using a carefully controlled hammerstone, or pointed bone punch hit by a hammerstone, to remove narrow slivers of stone to thin down the cutting edge again. Because he was a skilled flint-knapper, Jondalar was often called upon to cut down trees. He knew how to use an axe properly, and how to resharpen one efficiently.

Jondalar had just cut down a second tree of similar size when a group of men arrived: Joharran, along with Solaban and Rushemar; Manvelar, the leader of the Third Cave, and the son of his mate, Morizan; Kimeran, leader of the Second Cave, and Jondecam, his same-age nephew; Willamar, the Trade Master, and his apprentice, Tivonan, and his friend Palidar; and Stevadal, the leader of the Twenty-sixth Cave, within whose territory this year's Summer Meeting was being held. Eleven people had come to make one pole-drag, twelve counting Jondalar. If she counted herself, thirteen. Ayla had made her first one by herself.

They were curious, she thought; that's brought them. Most of the new arrivals were familiar with the contrivance she called a pole-drag, which Ayla used with her horses to transport goods. It began with two poles made from whole trees with tapering tops, and all the branches trimmed off. Depending upon the variety, the bark was sometimes removed as well, especially if it slipped off easily. The narrow ends were fastened together and attached to a horse at the withers with a harness of sturdy cords or leather thongs. The two trees angled out slightly in front, and much more toward the back, with only the ends of the heavier base dragging on the ground, which created relatively little friction, making it fairly easy to pull even with a heavy load. Crosspieces of wood, leather, or cordage, anything that could support a load, were attached to both poles across the space between.

Jondalar explained to the ones who had come to help that he wanted to make a pole-drag with special crosspieces put together in a certain way. Before long, more trees had been cut down, and a few suggestions offered and tried before they worked out something that seemed suitable. Ayla concluded they didn't need her, and while they were working, decided to get Zelandoni.

Taking Jonayla with her, she slipped away heading toward the main Meeting Camp thinking about the adaptations to a pole-drag and the one they had made on their long return Journey to Jondalar's home. When they came to a large river they had to cross, they constructed a bowl boat similar to the kind the Mamutoi used to cross rivers: a frame of wood bent into the shape of a bowl and covered on the outside with a heavy well-greased aurochs hide. It was simple to make but a little difficult to control in the water. Jondalar told her about the boats the Sharamudoi made, dug out of a log, widened with steam, with a pointed prow on each end. They were much more difficult to make, but it was much easier to make them go where you wanted, he explained.

The first time they crossed a river, they used the bowl boat to hold their things, and themselves, and propelled it with small oars across the river, while the horses swam behind. They repacked their things in panniers and saddle-baskets, then decided to make a pole-drag for Whinney to take the boat with them. Later they realised that they could attach the bowl boat between the poles of the travois and let the horses swim across a river pulling the load while Ayla and Jondalar rode on their backs, or swam along beside them. The bowl boat was lightweight and since it floated, it kept their things dry. When they reached the other side of the next river, instead of emptying it, they decided to leave their things in the bowl boat. While the pole-drag with the boat made crossing rivers easy and usually presented no problems travelling across open plains, when they had to move through woods or areas of high relief that required sharp turns, the long poles and the bowl-shaped boat could be a hindrance. They almost left them behind a few times, but didn't abandon them until they were much closer and had a much better reason.

Ayla had told Zelandoni earlier what they were planning, so she was ready when Ayla came for her. When they got back to the camp of the Ninth Cave, the men had moved closer to the fenced enclosure that had been made for the horses and didn't see them. The First slipped into the sleeping lodge used by Jondalar's family with the sleeping baby while Ayla went to see what was happening with the pole-drag seat. Jondalar had been right. With all the help, it hadn't taken long to construct. It had a deep bench-like seat with a back between the two sturdy poles, with a step up to it. Jondalar had taken Whinney out of the enclosure and was strapping the conveyance on the mare with a harness arrangement of thongs across her chest and high on her shoulders.

'What are you going to do with that?' Morizan said. He was still young enough to ask directly.

It was not considered courteous for adults to be quite so blunt, but it was what all the the others were thinking. Such directness might not have been appropriate for a mature Zelandonii, but it wasn't wrong, just naive and unsophisticated. Experienced people knew how to be more subtle and implicit. Ayla, however, was used to candour. It was common and entirely appropriate for the Mamutoi to be frank and forthright. It was a cultural difference, although they had their own kinds of subtleties. And the Clan could read body language as well as their sign language and, though as a result they couldn't lie, they did understand nuances and could be extremely discreet.

'I do have a particular idea of how to use it, but I'm still not sure if it will work. I'd like to try it out first, and if it doesn't work, it is a sturdy and well-made pole-drag and I will probably find another use for it,' Ayla said.

While her reply didn't really answer his question, it satisfied the men. They assumed that she just didn't want to announce an experiment that might not work. No one liked to advertise their failures. Ayla was actually fairly certain it would work, she just didn't know if the First would be willing to use it.

Jondalar started walking slowly back toward their camp, knowing that if he moved, the others would. Ayla went into the horse enclosure to settle the horses after all the excitement of so many people around, nodding to the men to acknowledge their leaving. She patted and stroked Grey, thinking what a beautiful young filly she was. Then she talked to Racer and scratched his favourite itchy parts. Horses were very social animals, and like being around their kind and others for whom they had affection. He was of an age that if he were living with wild horses, he'd be leaving his dam to run with a bachelor herd. But since Grey and Whinney were his only equine companions, he had grown quite close to Grey and had become somewhat protective of his young sister.

Ayla went out of the enclosure and approached Whinney, who was standing patiently with the pole-drag behind her. As the woman hugged her neck, the mare put her head over Ayla's shoulder, a familiar position of closeness between the two. Jondalar had put a halter on the mare, since it was easier for him to direct her with it. Ayla thought it might be better to use it while the First was trying out her new means of transportation. Taking the lead attached to the halter, she headed toward their sleeping lodge. By the time she reached it, the men were walking back to the main camp and Jondalar was inside the lodge talking to Zelandoni and holding Jonayla, who was quite content.

'Shall we try it out?' Jondalar said.

'Is everyone gone?' the large woman asked.

'Yes, the men are gone and no one else is in camp,' Ayla said.

'Then I suppose this is as good a time as any,' the First said.

They walked out of the lodge, each of them glancing around to make sure no one else was there, then approached Whinney. They went around the back of the horse.

Suddenly Ayla said, 'Wait a moment,' and went into the summer dwelling. She came back out holding a padded cushion and placed it on the seat, which was made of several small logs lashed firmly together with strong cordage. A narrow back, perpendicular to the seat and made the same way, kept the cushion in place. Jondalar handed Ayla the infant, then turned to help Zelandoni.

But when the Donier stepped onto the crosspiece of wooden logs made into a step that was close to the ground, the springy long poles gave a little, and Whinney took a step forward because of the shift in weight. The First quickly backed off.

'The horse moved!' she said.

'I'll go hold her steady,' Ayla said.

She went around to the front of the mare to calm her, holding the lead rope with one hand and the infant with the other. The horse sniffed at the baby's tummy, which made her giggle and her mother smile. Whinney and Jonayla were familiar with and completely comfortable around each other. The child had frequently ridden on the horse, in her mother's arms or slung in her carrying blanket on the woman's back. She had also ridden on Racer with Jondalar, and had been placed lightly on Grey's back, while the man kept a secure hold on her, just so the two of them could get used to each other.

'Try it again,' Ayla called out.

Jondalar held out his hand for support, smiling at the large woman encouragingly. Zelandoni wasn't used to being encouraged or urged to do anything. She was the one who usually took on that duty and she gave Jondalar a hard look to see if he was patronising her. In truth, her heart was pounding though she did not want to admit to her fear. She wasn't sure why she had agreed to do this thing.

Again the fresh trees that were used as poles yielded as the First put her weight on the thinner logs that had been lashed together to form the step, but Ayla steadied the mare, and Jondalar's shoulder offered support to her. She reached for the seat, turned herself around, and sat on the cushion with a sigh of relief.

'Are you ready?' Ayla called back.

'Are you?' Jondalar asked the Donier quietly.

'As ready as I'll ever be, I suppose.'

'Go ahead,' Jondalar said, raising his voice a bit.

'Take it slow, Whinney,' Ayla said, going forward while holding the lead.

The horse started walking, pulling the sturdy pole-drag and the First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother behind her. The woman grabbed the front edge of the seat as she felt herself being moved, but once Whinney got started, it wasn't bad, though she didn't let go of the seat. Ayla looked back to see how things were going, and noticed Wolf, sitting on his haunches, watching them. Where have you been? You've been gone all day, she thought.

The ride wasn't smooth; there were a few bumps and dips along the way, and one place where one leg dropped into a ditch caused by a creek run-off, making the rider sway to the left, but the conveyance was soon righted when Ayla turned Whinney slightly. They headed toward the horse enclosure.

It was a strange sensation to move without using her own feet, Zelandoni thought. Of course, children who were carried by their parents were used to it, she realised, but she hadn't been small enough to be carried by anyone for many years, and riding on this pole-drag moving seat wasn't the same. For one thing, she was facing backward, looking at where she had been, not where she was going.

Before they reached the horse enclosure, Ayla started a wide turn that led them back to the Ninth Cave's camp. She saw a track that led in a direction different from the one they usually took to the main camp. She had noticed it before and wondered where it led, but never seemed to have time to follow it. This seemed like a good time. She started toward it, then looked back and caught Jondalar's eye. She indicated the unknown trail with a slight gesture and he nodded imperceptibly, hoping that their passenger wouldn't notice and object. Either she didn't notice or didn't object as Ayla continued. Wolf had been trotting beside Jondalar bringing up the rear, but loped to the front when Ayla changed direction.

She had draped the lead rope across Whinney's neck; the horse would follow the woman's signals more easily than a lead rope attached to a halter. Then she put Jonayla in her carrying blanket on her back where the child could look around but wasn't a constant weight on her mother's arm. The trail led to the waterway known to the Ninth Cave as West River, and followed it for a short distance. Just as Ayla was wondering if she should turn back, she saw several familiar people ahead. She stopped the horse and walked back to Jondalar and Zelandoni.

'I think we've reached Sun View, Zelandoni,' she said. 'Do you want to go ahead and visit, and if so, do you want stay on the pole-drag?'

'Since we're here, we might as well visit. I might not get here again for some time. And I'm ready to get off. It's not bad sitting on the moving seat, but it can be a bit bumpy sometimes.' The woman stood up, and using Jondalar for a bit of balance and support, stepped down.

'Do you think you would find it convenient to use when we go to visit the sacred sites you want Ayla to see?' Jondalar asked.

'I think it could be useful, at least for part of the Journey.'

Ayla smiled.

'Jondalar, Ayla, Zelandoni!' a familiar voice called out. Ayla noticed a smile on Jondalar's face as she was turning around. Willamar was walking toward them along with Stevadal, the leader of the Twenty-sixth Cave.

'How nice that you decided to come,' Stevadal said. 'I didn't know if the First would be able to visit Sun View.'

'Summer Meetings are always full for the zelandonia, but I do try to make at least one courtesy visit to the Cave that hosts the Meeting, Stevadal. We do appreciate the effort,' she said.

'It is an honour,' the leader of the Twenty-sixth said.

'And our pleasure,' said a woman who had just arrived and was standing beside Stevadal.

Ayla was sure the woman was Stevadal's mate, though she hadn't met her, and didn't remember seeing her at the Meeting Camp. It made her look closer. She was younger than Stevadal, but there was something else. Her tunic hung on her thin frame, and she seemed wan and frail. Ayla wondered if she had been ill, or had suffered some grievous loss.

'I'm glad you're here,' Stevadal said. 'Danella was hoping to see the First, and to meet Jondalar's mate. She hasn't been able to go to the Meeting Camp, yet.'

'You didn't tell me she was ill, or I would have come sooner, Stevadal,' the First said.

'Our Zelandoni has been here for her,' Stevadal said. 'I didn't want to bother you. I know how busy you are at Summer Meetings.'

'Not too busy to see your mate.'

'Perhaps later, after everyone else has seen you,' Danella said to the First, then turned to the tall blond man, 'but I would like to meet your mate, Jondalar. I've heard so much about her.'

'Then you shall,' he said, beckoning to Ayla. She approached the woman with both hands out, palms up, in the traditional greeting of openness, showing she had nothing to hide. Then Jondalar began.

'Danella, of the Twenty-sixth Cave of the Zelandonii, mate of the leader, Stevadal, may I present to you Ayla of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii …' He continued with her usual introduction until he got to 'Protected by the spirit of the Cave Bear.'

'You forgot "Friend of horses and the four-legged hunter she calls Wolf",' Willamar added, chuckling.

He had joined them along with the rest of the men who had come to help make the new pole-drag.

Ayla glanced at Zelandoni, who was looking at her. Their eyes met and while nothing was said, she felt that the First was thinking the same thing.

'My names and ties are not nearly so interesting, but in the name of Doni, the Great Earth Mother, you are welcome here, Ayla of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii,' Danella said.

'And I greet you, Danella of the Twenty-sixth Cave of the Zelandonii,' Ayla said as they took each other's hands.

'The sound of your speech is as interesting as your names and ties,' Danella said. 'It makes one think of faraway places. You must have some exciting stories to tell. I would like to hear some of them, Ayla.'

Ayla couldn't help but smile. She was more than aware that her speech was different from that of other Zelandonii. Most people tried to hide it when they noticed her accent, but Danella had such a charming and forthright manner that Ayla was immediately drawn to her. She reminded Ayla of the Mamutoi.

Ayla wondered again what illness or difficulty had caused Danella's physical frailty, which contrasted so sharply with her warm and winning personality. She glanced at Zelandoni and understood that the First also wanted to know, and would find out before they left the camp. Jonayla was squirming, and Ayla thought she probably wanted to see what was going on, and who her mother was talking to. She shifted the carrying blanket around so her baby could ride on her hip.

'This must be your "Blessed of Doni" infant, Jonayla,' Danella said.


'That's a beautiful name. After Jondalar and you?'

Ayla nodded.

'She is as beautiful as her name,' Danella said.

Although it wasn't obvious, Ayla knew how to read the nuances of body language and detected a hint of sadness in the fleeting frown and slight wrinkling of her brow. And suddenly the reason for both Danella's weakness and sadness came to her. She has miscarried quite late, or had a stillborn baby, Ayla thought, and probably had a difficult pregnancy, and very hard birth, and now had nothing to show for it. She is recovering from the strain on her body and grieving for her lost child. She looked toward the First, who was surreptitiously studying the young woman. Ayla thought she had likely guessed the same thing.

She felt Wolf push against her leg and looked down. He was looking up at her, making a slight whine, which let her know that he wanted something. He looked at Danella, then back at her and whined again. Did he sense something about the leader's mate?

Wolves were always sensitive to weakness in others. When living in a hunting pack, it was the weak ones they generally attacked. But Wolf had formed a particularly close bond with the weak half-Clan child that Nezzie, the leader's mate had adopted when the wolf was very young and imprinting on his Mamutoi pack. Wolves of a pack adore their puppies, but humans were Wolf's pack. She knew he was drawn to human babies and children, and those that his wolf-sense told him were weak, not to hunt them, but to bond with as wild wolves did with their puppies.

Ayla noticed that Danella seemed a little apprehensive. 'I think Wolf wants to meet you, Danella. Have you ever touched a living wolf?' she asked.

'No, of course not. I have never been this close to one before. Why do you think he wants to meet me?'

'He is drawn to certain people sometimes. He loves babies — Jonayla crawls all over him and even if she pulls his hair or pokes at his eyes or ears, he never seems to mind. When we first arrived at the Ninth Cave, he acted like this when he saw Jondalar's mother. He just wanted to meet Marthona.' Ayla suddenly wondered if Wolf had sensed that the woman, who had once been the leader of the largest Cave of the Zelandonii, had a weak heart. 'Would you like to meet him?'

'What do I have to do?' Danella said.

The visitors to Sun View were standing around watching. The ones who were familiar with Wolf and his ways were smiling, others were interested, but Stevadal, Danella's mate, was concerned.

'I'm not sure about this,' he said.

'He won't hurt her,' Jondalar said.

Ayla handed Jonayla to Jondalar, then led Wolf to Danella. She took the woman's hand and went through the process of Wolf's introduction.

'The way Wolf recognises someone is by scent, and he knows that when I introduce him to someone like this, they are friends.' Wolf sniffed at Danella's fingers, then licked them.

She smiled. 'His tongue is smooth, soft.'

'Some of his fur is, too,' Ayla said,

'He's so warm!' Danella said. 'I've never touched fur on a warm body before. And right here, you can feel something throbbing.'

'Yes, that's how a living animal feels.' Ayla turned to the leader of the Twenty-sixth Cave of the Zelandonii. 'Would you like to meet him, Stevadal?'

'You might as well,' Danella said.

Ayla went through a similar process with him, but Wolf seemed eager to return to Danella, and walked near her when they continued on to Sun View. They found places to sit — logs, padded stones, sometimes on the ground. The visitors took out their cups from pouches attached to their waist bands. They were served tea by the few people who had not gone to the Meeting Camp, among them both Danella's and Stevadal's mothers, who had stayed to help the leader's mate. When Danella sat down, Wolf sat beside her, but he did look at Ayla, as though asking for permission. She nodded, and he put his head down on his paws that were stretched out in front of him. Danella found herself petting him now and then.

Zelandoni sat beside Ayla. After she drank her tea, Ayla nursed Jonayla. Several people had come to chat with the First and her acolyte, but when they were finally alone, they began to discuss Danella.

'Wolf seems to be offering her some comfort,' Zelandoni said.

'I think she needs it,' Ayla said. 'She's still so weak. I think she may have had a late miscarriage or a stillborn, and probably a difficult time before.'

The First gave her a look of interest. 'What makes you say that?'

'Because she's so thin and frail, I'm sure she's been ill or has had some problem for some time, and I noticed a certain sadness when she looked at Jonayla. It made me think she had had a long, hard pregnancy, and then lost the baby,' Ayla said.

'That's a very astute judgment. I think you are right. I was thinking something very similar. Perhaps we should ask her mother. I'd like to examine her, just to make sure she's recovering well,' the Donier said. 'There are some medicines that could help her.' The First turned to Ayla. 'What would you suggest?'

'Alfalfa is good for fatigue, and the stinging pain when you pass water,' Ayla said, then paused to think. 'I don't know the name, but there's a plant with a red berry that's very good for women. It grows along the ground as a small vine and the leaves are green all year. It can be used for the cramps that can come with the moontime bleeding, and can ease heavy bleeding. It can encourage birth, and make it easier.'

'I'm familiar with that one. It grows so thick, it sometimes forms a mat on the ground, and birds like the berries. Some people call it birdberry,' the First said. 'Alfalfa tea might help restore strength, also a decoction of the roots and bark of spikenard …' She stopped when she saw the puzzled expression on Ayla's face. 'It's a tall bush with big leaves and purple berries … the flowers are small, greenish white … I'll show you sometime. It can help if the sac that holds the baby inside a woman drops down, slips out of place. That's why I'd like to examine her, so I know what to give her. Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth is a good general healer, but he may not be as knowledgeable about women's ailments. I'll have to talk to him before we leave today.'

After a polite length of time, the men who came to help build the pole-drag and then went to visit the home shelter of the Twenty-sixth Cave finished their tea and got up to leave. The First stopped Joharran. Jondalar was with him.

'Will you go to the zelandonia camp and see if you can find Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth?' the Donier said quietly. 'Stevadal's mate has not been well and I'd like to see if there is anything we can do. He's a good healer, and he may have done everything that can be done, but I need to talk to him. I think it's a woman's problem, and we are women …' She left the rest unsaid. 'Ask him to come here; we'll wait awhile.'

'Should I wait here with you?' Jondalar asked the two women.

'Weren't you planning on going to the practice field?' Joharran said.

'Yes, but I don't have to.'

'Why don't you go, Jondalar. We'll be along later,' Ayla said, brushing his cheek with hers.

The two women joined Danella and the two mothers, and a few others. When he saw that the First and her acolyte were not leaving, Stevadal stayed behind as well. The head Zelandoni was adept at finding out what was wrong with people, and soon discovered that Danella had been pregnant, and the baby was stillborn as they suspected, but she sensed that the two older women were holding something back, especially around Danella and Stevadal. There was more to the story than they were willing to say. The Donier would have to wait for the Twenty-sixth. In the meantime, the women chatted. Jonayla was passed around to the women. Although at first Danella seemed reluctant to take her, once she did, she held her for quite a while. Wolf seemed happy to stay with both of them.

Ayla took the pole-drag off Whinney and let her graze, and when she returned, they asked some tentative questions about the horse and how Ayla came to have her. The First encouraged Ayla to tell them. She was developing into quite a good storyteller and enthralled her listeners, especially when she added the sound effects of horse-neighs and lion-roars. Just as she was finishing, the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth Cave appeared.

'I thought I heard a familiar lion-roar,' he said, greeting them with a big smile.

'Ayla has been telling us how she adopted Whinney,' Danella said. 'Just as I guessed, she has some captivating stories to tell. And now that I've heard one, I want to hear more.'

The First was getting anxious to leave, though she didn't want to show it. It was entirely appropriate for the First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother to visit with the leader of the Cave that was hosting the Summer Meeting and his mate, but she had many things to do. The ceremony of the Rites of First Pleasures would be the day after next, and then the first Matrimonial of the season. Though there would be another mating ceremony near the end of the summer for those who wanted to finalise their decisions before they returned to their winter shelters, the first one was invariably the largest and most well attended. There were many plans yet to be made.

While people fussed around making more tea, since they had drunk all there was, the First and her acolyte managed to get the Twenty-sixth aside and speak privately with him.

'We learned that Danella delivered a stillborn,' the First said, 'but more happened, I'm sure. I'd like to examine her and see if there is anything I can do to help.'

He breathed a long sigh and frowned.

Chapter 9

'Yes, you are right, of course. It wasn't just a stillborn baby,' the Twenty-sixth said. 'They were two-born-together, or would have been, but they were more than born together, they were joined together.'

Ayla remembered that the same thing had happened to one of the women of the Clan, two babies joined together with a monstrous result. She felt a great sadness for Danella.

'One was normal size, the other much smaller and not fully formed, and parts of the second were attached to the first one.' the Twenty-sixth continued. 'I'm glad there was no breath in them, or I would have had to take it. It would have been too hard for Danella. As it was, she bled so much, I'm surprised she survived. We, her mother, Stevadal's mother, and I decided not to tell either one of them. We were afraid it would make any later pregnancy even more distressing than a stillborn would. You can examine her if you want, but it happened some time ago, in late winter. She has healed well; she just needs to recover her strength, and get through her grief. Your coming to visit may have helped. I saw her holding Ayla's baby, and I think that's good. She seems to have made a friend of you, Ayla, and your wolf, too. Perhaps she'll feel more inclined to go to the Summer Meeting now.'

'Jondalar!' Ayla said when she and the First arrived back at the camp of the Ninth Cave. 'What are you doing here? I thought you were going to the Summer Meeting Camp.'

'I am going there,' he said. 'I just decided to check on Racer and Grey while I was here. I haven't spent much time with Racer, and they both seemed to enjoy the company. Why are you here?'

'I wanted to let Whinney feed Grey, while I nurse Jonayla. I was going to leave Whinney here, but then we thought this would be a good time for Zelandoni to ride into Camp on the pole-drag,' Ayla said.

Jondalar grinned. 'Then I'll wait,' he said. 'In fact, why don't I ride in with you on Racer?'

'We'll have to take Grey with us, too,' Ayla said, frowning slightly. Then she smiled. 'We can use the small halter you made for her; she's getting used to wearing it. It might be good for her to get accustomed to being around people she doesn't know.'

'That should make quite a show,' Zelandoni said. 'But I think I like it. I'd rather be part of a bigger production than the only one for people to stare at.'

'We should bring Wolf, too. Most people have seen the animals, but not together. There are still a few who can't quite believe that Whinney allows Wolf near her baby. If they see that he is no danger to Grey, it could help them realise that he's no danger to them, either,' Ayla said.

'Unless someone attempted to harm you,' Jondalar said, 'or Jonayla.'

Jaradal and Robenan came running into the summer dwelling of the leader of the Seventh Cave. 'Weemar!' Thona! Come and see!' Jaradal shouted.

'Yes, come and see!' Robenan echoed. The two boys had been playing just outside.

'They brought all the horses, and Wolf, even Zelandoni is riding! Come and see!' Jaradal exclaimed.

'Calm down, boys,' Marthona said, wondering what Jaradal meant. It did not seem possible that Zelandoni could be sitting on the back of a horse.

'Come and see! Come and see!' both boys were yelling, while Jaradal tried to pull his grandam up from the cushion upon which she was seated. Then he turned to Willamar. 'Come and see, Weemar.'

Marthona and Willamar were visiting Sergenar and Jayvena to discuss their part in an upcoming ceremony that would involve all leaders and former leaders in a small way. They had taken Jaradal with them to keep him out from underfoot of his mother. Proleva, as usual, was involved in meal planning for the event. Solaban's pregnant mate, Ramara, and her son, Robenan, who was Jaradal's age-mate and friend, had come along so the boys could play.

'We're coming,' Willamar said, helping his mate up.

Sergenar pushed aside the drape that covered the entrance and all of them crowded out. A most surprising sight met them. Parading toward the zelandonia lodge were Jondalar on Racer's back, leading Grey, and Ayla riding the mare with Jonayla in her carrying blanket sitting in front of her. Whinney was pulling a pole-drag upon which the First was seated, facing backward. The wolf was padding along beside them. It was still unexpected for most people to see horses with people on their backs, not to mention the wolf nonchalantly walking with them. But to see the First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother riding on a seat that was being pulled by a horse was nothing less than astonishing.

The procession passed quite near the camp of the Seventh Cave and although Marthona and Willamar and the rest of the people of the Ninth Cave were quite familiar with the animals, they gawked at the demonstration as much as anyone. The First caught Marthona's eye and, though she smiled in a decorous way, Marthona detected a sparkle of impish delight in the woman's gaze. It was more than a parade, it was a spectacle, and if there was one thing members of the zelandonia enjoyed staging, it was a spectacle. When they reached the entrance to the big lodge, Jondalar stopped and let Ayla and Whinney pull ahead, then dismounted and offered a hand to the First. For all her size, she stepped down from the seat on the travois gracefully and, perfectly aware that everyone was watching her, entered the lodge with great dignity.

'So that's what he wanted us to help him make,' Willamar commented. 'He said he needed to build a very sturdy pole-drag, with shelves. It wasn't shelves he wanted, but it was clever of him to say that. None of us could imagine that they would turn out to be a seat for Zelandoni. I'll have to ask her what it's like to sit on a seat that is pulled by a horse.'

'It is brave of her to do that,' Jayvena said. 'I'm not sure that I would want to try it.'

'I would!' Jaradal said, his eyes full of excitement. 'Thona, do you think Ayla would let me sit on a pole-drag seat while Whinney pulled it?'

'I'd like to do it, too,' Robenan said.

'The young are always willing to try something new,' Ramara said.

'I wonder how many similar conversations are going on around this Camp right now,' Sergenar said. 'But if she lets one boy do it, every other boy in camp will be clamouring to do the same.'

'And quite a few girls, too,' Marthona added.

'If I were her, I would wait until we get back to the Ninth Cave,' Ramara said. 'Then it wouldn't be much different from letting a child or two ride on the mare's back while Ayla leads her around, the way she does now.'

'It does make quite a demonstration, though. I recall how I felt when I first saw those animals. It could be frightening. Didn't Jondalar tell us that people ran away from them when they were on their Journey here? Now that we're used to them, it just seems rather impressive,' Willamar said.

Not everyone was so pleasantly impressed by the demonstration. Marona, who loved to be the centre of attention, felt a surge of jealousy rise up. She turned to her cousin, Wylopa, and remarked, 'I don't know how anyone can stand to be around those dirty animals all the time. When you get close to her she smells for horse, and I've heard she sleeps with that wolf. It's disgusting.'

'She sleeps with Jondalar, too,' Wylopa said, 'and I'm told he won't share Pleasures with anyone else.'

'That won't last,' Marona said, giving Ayla a venomous stare. 'I know him. He'll be back in my bed again. I promise you.'

Brukeval saw the two cousins talking, recognised the nasty look Marona gave Ayla, and felt two opposing emotions. He knew it was hopeless, but he loved Ayla and wanted to protect her from the spitefulness of the woman who was also his cousin — he had been the brunt of her malice himself and knew how hurtful she could be. But he was also afraid that Ayla would suggest that he was a Flathead again and he couldn't stand that, even though he knew in his heart that she didn't mean it in the unkind way that most people did. He never looked at a polished blackened-wood reflector, but sometimes he caught glimpses of himself in still water and hated what he saw. He knew why people called him by that hateful name, but he couldn't bear the idea that there might be some truth to it.

Madroman was also scowling at Ayla and Jondalar. He resented the way Ayla was getting so much attention from the First. Yes, she was her acolyte, but he didn't think it was right for the one who was supposed to be overseeing all the acolytes to favour her so much when they were together at a Summer Meeting. And of course Jondalar had to be in the middle of things. Why did he have to come home? Things were better while the big oaf was gone, especially after the Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave decided to take him as an acolyte, though he thought he should have been a Zelandoni by now. But what could he expect with the Fat One in control? I'll think of a way, he thought.

Laramar turned his back on the whole thing and walked away, thinking his own thoughts. He'd seen enough of those horses and that wolf, especially that wolf. As far as he was concerned, they lived too close to his dwelling in the Ninth Cave, and they had spread out so far, the horses were on the other side of him. Before they came he could cut across the space they occupied. Now every time he went home, he had to make a wide circle around their lodge to avoid the wolf. The few times he got too close, the animal got his hackles up, wrinkled his nose, and showed his teeth, as though the whole place belonged to him.

Besides, she interfered, coming over and bringing food or blankets as though she was being nice, but she was really checking up on him. Now he didn't even have a lodge to go to. Not one where he felt he belonged. The children acted as though it was theirs. But it was still his hearth, and what he did at his own hearth wasn't any of her business.

Well, there were still the fa'lodges. He actually liked staying there. He wasn't bothered by children crying in the night, or his drunken mate coming in and starting an argument. At the fa'lodge where he was staying, the other men were mostly older and didn't bother each other. It wasn't boisterous and loud like the fa'lodges of the younger men, though if he offered one of his lodge-mates a drink of his barma, they were more than happy to drink with him. Too bad there were no fa'lodges at the Ninth Cave.

Ayla rode Whinney slowly around the outside of the large zelandonia lodge pulling the pole-drag, then started out of the Summer Meeting Camp back the way she had come. Jondalar followed leading Racer and Grey. The area where the Summer Meeting had been set up, called Sun View after the name of the nearby Cave, was often used as a campground for large gatherings. When it rained, stones were brought from the river and the nearby cliffs to pave the ground, especially when it was unusually muddy. Each year more were added until the campsite was now defined by the large area paved by the stones.

When they were somewhat outside the boundary of the Camp, beyond the paving stones and in the middle of a grassy field on the floodplain of the river, Ayla stopped. 'Let's take off Whinney's pole-drag and leave the horses here for a while,' she said, 'where they can graze. I don't think they will wander far, and we can whistle them back, if we have to.'

'Good idea,' Jondalar said. 'Most people know not to bother them if one of us isn't around and we can check on them. I'll take their halters off, too.'

As they were tending to the horses, they saw Lanidar approaching, still wearing his specially made spear-thrower holder. He waved, then whistled a greeting, and received a welcoming neigh from Whinney and Racer in return.

'I wanted to see the horses,' he said. 'I liked watching out for them last year and getting to know them, but I haven't spent any time with them this summer, and I don't know Whinney's baby at all. Do you think they will remember me?'

'Yes. They answered your whistle, didn't they?' Ayla said.

He had brought some dried wild apple slices with him in a fold of his tunic and fed the young stallion and then his dam from his hand, then the young man squatted down and held out a hand with a piece of the fruit to the little filly. She stayed near Whinney's back legs at first. Though Grey was still nursing, she had started mouthing grass in imitation of her dam, and it was obvious that she was curious. Lanidar was patient, and after a while, the filly started edging toward him.

The mare watched, but neither encouraged nor restricted her foal. Eventually, Grey's curiosity won out and she nosed Lanidar's open hand to see what it held. She got a piece of apple in her mouth, then dropped it. Lanidar picked it up and tried again. Though she wasn't as experienced as her dam, she managed to use her incisors and flexible lips and tongue to get it in her mouth and bite. It was a new experience for her, and a new taste, but she was more interested in Lanidar. When he began to stroke her and scratch her favourite places, she was won over. When he stood up, he had a big smile.

'We were going to leave the horses here in this field for a while, and check on them every so often,' Jondalar said.

'I'd be happy to watch them, like I did last year,' Lanidar said. 'If there are any problems, I'll look for you, or whistle.'

Ayla and Jondalar looked at each other, then smiled. 'I would be grateful for that,' Ayla said. 'I wanted to leave them here so people would get more used to seeing them, and they'd get more comfortable around people, especially Grey. If you get tired or have to go, whistle loud or come and find one of us and let us know.'

'I will,' he said.

They left the field feeling much more relaxed about the horses. When they returned in the evening to invite Lanidar to share a meal with their Cave, they found that several young men, and a few young women, including Lanoga carrying her youngest, sister Lorala, were visiting with him. When Lanidar had watched the animals the year before, it was at the enclosure and nearby field that was close to the camp of the Ninth Cave, which was some distance from the main camp. Not many people went there and he had few friends then, anyway, but since he had developed his skill with the spear-thrower and was hunting regularly, he had gained more status. He had also gained several friends and, it seemed, a few admirers.

The young people were involved with each other and didn't notice Ayla and Jondalar coming. Jondalar was pleased to see that Lanidar was acting very responsibly, not allowing the group of youngsters to crowd in around the horses, especially Grey. He had obviously allowed the visitors to stroke and scratch them, but only let one or two at a time get close. He seemed to sense when the horses were tired of all the attention and just wanted to graze, and quite firmly told one of the youngsters to leave them alone. The couple didn't know that he had banished some young men earlier who had become too rambunctious by threatening to tell Ayla, who, he reminded them, was the Acolyte of the First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother.

The zelandonia were the ones that people went to for help and assistance, and though they were respected, often revered, and many of them were loved, the feeling for them was always tempered with a little fear. The zelandonia were intimate with the next world, the world of spirits, the fearsome place where one went when the elan — the life force — left their body. They had other powers that went beyond the ordinary, too. Youngsters often spread rumours, and boys in particular liked to scare each other by telling stories about what a zelandoni might do, especially to their male parts, if one of them made one angry.

They all knew that Ayla seemed to be a normal woman with a mate and a baby, but she was still an acolyte, a member of the zelandonia, and a foreigner. Just listening to her speak emphasised her strangeness and made them aware that she was from some other place, a distant place, farther away than anyone had ever travelled, except for Jondalar. But Ayla also exhibited extraordinary abilities, like having control over horses and a wolf. Who knew of what she might be capable? Some people even looked askance at Jondalar, though he was born to the Zelandonii, because of the strange ways he had learned while he was gone.

'Greetings, Ayla and Jondalar, and Wolf,' Lanidar said, which caused some of his young visitors who had not noticed their arrival to turn around sharply. They seemed to appear so suddenly. But Lanidar knew they were coming. He had noticed a change in the behaviour of the horses. Even in the darkening twilight, the animals were aware of their approach and were edging toward them.

'Greetings, Lanidar,' Ayla said. 'Your mother and grandmother are at the camp of the Seventh Cave, along with most of the Ninth Cave. You have been invited to share a meal with them.'

'Who will watch the horses?' he said, leaning down to pet Wolf, who had come to him.

'We have already eaten. We'll take them back to our camp,' Jondalar said.

'Thank you for looking out for them, Lanidar,' Ayla said. 'I appreciate your help.'

'I liked doing it. I'll watch them anytime,' Lanidar said. He meant it. Not only did he enjoy the animals, he liked the attention it brought him. Being responsible for them had brought several curious young men, and young women, to visit.

With the arrival of the First Among Those Who Served, the Summer Meeting camp was soon caught up in the usual hectic activity of the season. The Rites of First Pleasures had the usual complications, but none that had been as difficult as the one Janida had posed the year before when she turned up pregnant before she'd had her First Rites. Especially when Peridal's mother had objected to the mating of her son with the young woman. The mother's opposition was not entirely unreasonable, since her son could count only thirteen years and a half, and Janida could count only thirteen.

It wasn't only their youth. Although Peridal's mother didn't want to admit it, the First was sure she also objected because a young woman who shared Pleasures before her First Rites lost status. But, because Janida was pregnant, she also gained status. Several older men had been more than willing to offer her their hearths and welcome her child, but Peridal was the only one with whom she had shared Pleasures, and she wanted him. She had done it not only because he had pressed her so persistently, but because she loved him.

After the ceremony of First Rites, it was time to organise the first Matrimonial of the summer. Then a large herd of bison was spotted nearby, and the leaders decided that a major hunt was in order before the Matrimonial Rites. Joharran discussed it with the First, and she was agreeable to postponing the ceremony.

He was anxious to have Jondalar and Ayla use the horses to help drive the bison into the surround that was constructed to corral the animals. The value of the spear-throwers could be shown in hunting down the ones that evaded the surround trap. The leader of the Ninth Cave continued to encourage people to see how a spear could be cast from a much greater, and safer, distance with the spear-thrower. The implements were already becoming the weapon of choice for most of the people who'd had a chance to see them in action. The lion hunt was already common knowledge at the Meeting; the lion hunters had been enthusiastically telling the story of the dangerous confrontation.

Younger hunters were especially excited about the new weapon, and quite a few of the older ones were as well. Many of those who were less keen were the ones who were skilled in using a hand-flung spear. They were comfortable hunting the way they always had and not eager to learn a new method at such a late stage in their lives. By the time the hunt was over and the meat and skins preserved or put aside for further processing, the First Matrimonial had already been delayed too long to suit many.

The day of the communal Mating Ceremony had dawned bright and clear, and an air of anticipation filled the whole Camp, not just those who would be participating. It was a celebration that everyone looked forward to, one that they all took part in. The ceremony included the voiced approval of the newly mated couples by all the people at the Summer Meeting. The matings created changes in the names and ties of more than the new couples and their families; the status of nearly everyone shifted to some degree, some more than others, depending on the closeness of their relationships.

The Matrimonial the year before had been a stressful time for Ayla. Not only because it was her Mating Ceremony, but because she had so recently arrived and was the centre of so much attention. She wanted Jondalar's people to like and accept her and was trying to fit in. Most of them did, but not all of them.

This year the leaders and former leaders, as well as the the zelandonia, were seated strategically so they could answer when the First asked for responses from those present, which to her meant approvals. The First had not been pleased with the hesitation from some of the crowd the year before when she asked for the endorsement responses for Ayla and Jondalar, and she did not want that to become a practice. She liked her ceremonies to run smoothly.

The accompanying festivities were anticipated with great relish. People prepared their best dishes and wore their best clothes, but the Mating Festival was not only a joyous occasion for the ones that were mating, it was also the most appropriate occasion for a Mother Festival. Then everyone was encouraged to honour the Great Earth Mother by sharing Her Gift of Pleasure, with joinings and couplings as often as one was able, and with whomever one chose so long as the feeling was reciprocated.

People were encouraged to honour the Mother, but it was not required. Certain areas were set aside for those who did not wish to participate. Children were never required, though if some of them bounced around with each other in imitation of the adults, it usually drew indulgent smiles. Some adults just didn't feel like it, especially those who were sick or hurt or recovering from accidents or just tired, or women who had recently given birth, or were having their moontime and bleeding. A few of the zelandonia, who were undergoing certain trials that required abstaining from Pleasures for a period of time, volunteered to tend to the young children and help the others.

The One Who Was First was inside the zelandonia dwelling, sitting on a stool. She swallowed the last of her cup of hawthorn flowers and catmint tea and pronounced, 'It's time.' She gave the empty cup to Ayla, got up, and walked toward the back of the lodge to a small, secondary, somewhat concealed access that was camouflaged on the outside by a construction used to hold additional wood.

Ayla sniffed the cup; it was an automatic, habitual action, and almost as subconsciously, she noted the ingredients and reflected that it was probably the woman's moontime. Catmint, the waist-high, downy-leafed perennial with the whorls of white, pink, and purple flowers, was a mild sedative that could relieve tension and cramps. She wondered about the hawthorn, however. It had a distinctive taste and maybe she liked the flavour, but it was also one of the ingredients the First used in the medicinal preparation that she made for Marthona. Ayla was now aware that the medicines the Zelandoni gave Jondalar's mother were for the heart, the muscle in her chest that pumped blood. She had seen similar heart muscles in the animals she hunted and subsequently butchered. Hawthorn helped it to pump more vigorously and more rhythmically. She put the cup down and exited out the main entrance.

Wolf was waiting outside and looked expectantly at Ayla. She smiled, shifted Jonayla who was asleep in her carrying blanket, and hunkered down in front of the animal. Taking his head in both hands, she looked in his eyes.

'Wolf, I am so glad that I found you. Every day you are here for me, and you give me so much,' she said, ruffling his shaggy hair. Then she bent her forehead to touch his. 'Are you coming with me to the Matrimonial?' Wolf continued to look at her. 'You can come if you want, but I think you'll get tired of it. Why don't you go hunt?' She stood. 'You can go, Wolf. Go ahead, hunt for yourself,' she said, moving her hand toward the boundary of the Camp. He looked up at her a little longer, then jogged off.

Ayla was wearing the clothing that she had worn when she mated Jondalar, her Matrimonial outfit, which she had carried with her for the entire year-long Journey from the home of the Mamutoi far to the east to the home of Jondalar's people, the Zelandonii, whose territory extended to the Great Waters of the West. The Matrimonial did remind many people of the previous year's event. Several people talked about Ayla's unusual outfit when she appeared wearing it again. But it also reminded Zelandoni of the objections to her that some people had put forth. Although they weren't usually direct about it, the First knew it was primarily because Ayla was a stranger, and a stranger with uncanny abilities.

Ayla was going as a spectator rather than a participant this time and was looking forward to just watching the ritual. Recalling her Mating Ceremony, she knew the ones who were Promised were gathering in the smaller lodge nearby, dressed in their finery and feeling nervous and excited. Their witnesses and guests were also congregating in the front section of the viewing area, with the rest of the Camp filing in behind them.

She walked toward the large area where people gathered for various functions that involved the whole Camp. When she arrived, she stopped to scan the crowd, then headed toward the recognisable faces of the Ninth Cave. Several people smiled when she approached, including Jondalar and Joharran.

'You are looking particularly nice this evening,' Jondalar said. 'I haven't seen those clothes since this time last year.' He was wearing the simple pure white tunic, decorated only with ermine tails, that she had made for him for their mating. On him, it looked stunning.

'That Mamutoi outfit does become you,' his brother said. He did think so, but the leader of the Ninth Cave also understood how much wealth it displayed.

Nezzie, the mate of the headman of the Lion Camp, and the woman who had persuaded the Mamutoi to adopt her, had given the garments to Ayla, but their creation had been requested by Mamut, the holy man who had actually adopted her as a daughter of the Mammoth Hearth. They originally had been made for her when it was thought that she would mate Ranec, who was the son of the mate of Nezzie's brother, Wymez. Wymez had travelled far to the south in his youth, mated an exotic dark-skinned woman, and returned after ten years, unfortunately losing his woman on the way.

He brought with him fantastic stories, new flint-knapping techniques, and an amazing child with brown skin and tight black curls, who Nezzie raised as her own. Among his light-skinned, fair-haired northern kin, Ranec was a unique boy who always caused an exciting stir. He grew into a man with a delicious wit, laughing black eyes that women found irresistible, and a remarkable talent for carving.

Like the rest, Ayla had been fascinated by Ranec's unusual colouring, and charm, but he also found the beautiful stranger enthralling, and showed it, which brought out a jealousy in Jondalar that he didn't know he had. The tall, blond man with the compelling blue eyes had always been the one that women couldn't resist, and he didn't know how to handle the emotion he had never experienced before. Ayla didn't understand his erratic behaviour, and finally promised to mate Ranec because she thought Jondalar no longer loved her, and she did like the dark carver and his laughing eyes. The Lion Camp grew fond of Ayla and Jondalar that winter they lived with the Mamutoi, and they all had been more than aware of the emotional difficulties of the three young people.

Nezzie in particular developed a strong bond with Ayla because of her care and understanding of the unusual child the woman had adopted, who was weak, unable to speak, and half Clan. Ayla treated his weak heart and made his life more comfortable. She also taught Rydag the Clan sign language, and the ease and speed with which he learned it made her understand that he did have the Clan memories. She taught the whole Lion Camp a simpler form of the unspoken language so he could communicate with them, which made him extremely happy, and Nezzie overjoyed. Ayla quickly grew to love him — in part because Rydag reminded her of her own son, whom she'd had to leave behind, but more for himself, though ultimately she hadn't been able to save him.

When Ayla decided to return home with Jondalar instead of staying to mate Ranec, though Nezzie knew how much Ayla's leaving hurt the nephew she had raised, she gave the young woman the beautiful garments that had been made for her, and told her to wear them when she mated Jondalar. Ayla didn't quite realise how much wealth and status the Matrimonial clothing conveyed, but Nezzie did and so did Mamut, the perceptive old spiritual leader. They had guessed from his bearing and manner that Jondalar came from people of high status, and that Ayla would need something to give her a good standing among them.

Though Ayla didn't quite understand how much status her Matrimonial outfit displayed, she did understand the quality of the workmanship. The hides for the tunic and leggings had come from both deer and saiga antelope and were an earthy, golden yellow, almost the colour of her hair. Part of the colour was the result of the types of wood that were used to smoke the hides to keep them supple, and part the result of the mixtures of yellow and red ochres that were added. It had required a great deal of effort to scrape the skins to make them soft and pliable, but rather than being left with the velvety suede-like finish of buckskin, the leather had been burnished, rubbed with the ochres mixed with fat using an ivory smoothing tool that compacted the hide to a lustrous, shiny finish that made the soft leather almost waterproof.

The long tunic, sewn together with fine stitches, fell to a downward-pointing triangle at the back. It opened down the front with the sections below the hips tapering so that when it was brought together, another downward-pointing triangle was created. The full leggings were close fitting except around the ankle, where they could bunch softly or be brought down below the heel, depending on the footwear that was chosen. But the quality of the basic construction only laid the groundwork for the extraordinary outfit. The effort that went into the decoration made it an exquisite creation of rare beauty and value.

The tunic and lower part of the leggings were covered with elaborate geometric designs made primarily of ivory beads, some sections solidly filled in. Coloured embroideries added definition to the geometric beaded pattern. They began with downward-pointing triangles, which horizontally became zigzags and vertically took on the shapes of diamonds and chevrons, then evolved into complex figures such as rectangular spirals and concentric rhomboids. The ivory beads were highlighted and accentuated by amber beads, some lighter and some darker than the colour of the leather, but of the same tone. More than five thousand ivory beads made from mammoth tusks were sewn onto the garments, each bead carved, pierced, and polished by hand.

A finger-woven sash in similar geometric patterns was used to tie the tunic closed at the waist. Both the embroidery and the belt were made of yarns whose natural colour needed no additional dyeing: deep red woolly mammoth hair, ivory mouflon wool, brown musk-ox underdown, and deep reddish-black woolly rhinoceros long hair. The fibres were prized for more than their colours; they all came from animals that were difficult and dangerous to hunt. The workmanship of the entire outfit was superb in every detail, it was evident to knowledgeable Zelandonii that someone had acquired the finest materials and assembled the most skilful and accomplished people to make the garments.

When Jondalar's mother had first seen it the year before, she knew that whoever had directed the outfit to be made commanded great respect and held a very high position within his community. It was clear that the time and effort it took to make it were considerable, yet the outfit had been given to Ayla when she left. None of the benefits of the resources and work that went into making it would stay within the community that made it. Ayla said she had been adopted by an old spiritual man she called Mamut, a man who obviously possessed such tremendous power and prestige — in effect, wealth — that he could afford to give away the mating outfit and the value it represented. No one understood that better than Marthona.

Ayla had, in effect, brought her own bride price, which gave her the status that she needed to contribute to the relationship so that mating her would not lower the position of Jondalar or his kin. Marthona made a point of mentioning that to Proleva, whom she knew would tell her husband, Joharran, Marthona's eldest son, leader of the Ninth Cave. Joharran was glad to have an opportunity to see the prized possession again, now that he fully understood its value. He realised that if properly cared for — and he was sure it would be — the clothing would last a long time. The ochres used to burnish the leather did more than add colour and make it water resistant, it helped to preserve the material, and make it resistant to insects and their eggs. It would likely be used by Ayla's children, and perhaps their children, and when the leather finally disintegrated, the amber and ivory beads could be reused for many more generations.

Joharran knew the value of ivory beads. Recently, he'd had occasion to trade for some, for himself but especially for his mate, and recalling the transaction, he looked at Ayla's rich and luxurious clothing with new appreciation. As he looked around he noticed that many people were surreptitiously watching her.

Last year, when Ayla wore it for her Matrimonial, everything about her was strange and unusual, including the woman herself. Now people had become more accustomed to her, to the way she spoke, and to the animals she controlled. She was looked upon as a member of the zelandonia and therefore her strangeness seemed more normal, if one could consider any Zelandoni normal. But the outfit made her stand out again, made people recall her foreign origins, but also the wealth and status she brought with her.

Among those watching her were Marona and Wylopa. 'Look at her flaunting that outfit,' Marona said to her cousin, her eyes full of envy. She would have been more than happy to flaunt it. 'You know, Wylopa, that wedding outfit should have been mine. Jondalar Promised me. He should have come back and mated me, and given that outfit to me.' She paused. 'Her hips are too broad for it anyway,' Marona said with scorn.

As Ayla and the others were making their way to a place that the Ninth Cave had claimed for watching the festivities, both Jondalar and his brother saw Marona. She was staring at Ayla with such malevolence, it made Joharran apprehensive, for Ayla's sake. He glanced at Jondalar, who had also seen Marona's glare of hatred, and a look of shared understanding passed between the two brothers.

Joharran moved closer to Jondalar. 'You know that if she can, she will cause trouble for Ayla someday,' the leader said under his breath.

'I think you're right, and it's my fault, I'm afraid,' Jondalar said. 'Marona thought I Promised to mate her. I didn't, but I understand why she may have thought so.'

'It's not your fault, Jondalar. People have a right to make their own choices,' Joharran said. 'You were gone a long time. She had no claim on you, and shouldn't have had any expectations. After all, she mated and separated in the time you were gone. You made a better choice, and she knows it. She just can't stand it that you brought back someone who has more to offer than she does. That's why she'll try to cause trouble someday.'

'Perhaps you are right,' Jondalar said, though he didn't quite want to believe it. He wanted to give Marona the benefit of a doubt.

As the ceremony got under way, the two brothers got caught up in it, and thoughts of the jealous woman were forgotten. They hadn't noticed another pair of eyes that were also watching Ayla: their cousin, Brukeval. He had admired the way Ayla stood up to the derisive laughter of the Cave when Marona tricked her into wearing inappropriate clothing that first day. When they met that evening, Ayla recognised his look of the Clan and felt comfortable with him. She treated him with an easy familiarity that he wasn't used to, especially from beautiful women.

Then, when Charezal, that stranger from a distant Zelandoni Cave, began to make fun of him, derisively referring to him as a Flathead, Brukeval flew into a rage. He had been teased with that name by the other children of the Cave for as long as he could remember, and Charezal had obviously got wind of it. He had also heard that the way to get a reaction from the strange-looking cousin of the leader was to make innuendos about his mother. Brukeval never knew his mother; she died soon after he was born, but that only gave him reason to idealise her. She was not one of those animals! Could not be, and neither was he!

Though he knew Ayla was Jondalar's woman, and there was no way he could ever win her from his tall, handsome cousin, in his mind, seeing her stand up to everyone's laughter and not giving in to the ridicule made him admire her. For him it was love at first sight. Though Jondalar had always treated him well and never joined in when the others teased him, at that moment, he hated him, and hated Ayla as well because he couldn't have her.

All the hurt that Brukeval had felt in his life, together with the nasty remarks from the young man who was trying to take Ayla's attention away from him, erupted into uncontrollable anger. Afterward he noticed that Ayla seemed more distant, and no longer spoke to him with that familiar ease.

Jondalar didn't say anything to Brukeval about her change in feeling toward him after his outburst, but Ayla had told him that Brukeval's anger reminded her too much of Broud, the son of the leader of her clan. Broud had hated her from the beginning, and had caused her more pain and heartache than she ever could have imagined. She had learned to hate Broud as much as he hated her and, with good reason, to fear him. It was because of him that she was finally forced to leave the Clan, and to leave her son as well.

Brukeval remembered the warm glow he'd felt when they first met and watched Ayla from a distance whenever he could. The more he watched, the more enamoured he became. When he saw the way she and Jondalar interacted, Brukeval would imagine himself in his cousin's place. He even followed them when they went to some secluded place to share Pleasures, and when Jondalar tasted her milk, he hungered to do the same.

But he was wary of her, too, afraid she would call him a Flathead again, or her word for them, the Clan. Just their name, Flatheads, had caused him so much pain as he was growing up that he couldn't bear the sound of it. He knew she didn't think of them the way most people did, but that made it worse. She sometimes spoke of them fondly, with affection and even love, and he hated them. Brukeval's feeling for Ayla were at cross-purposes. He loved Ayla, and he hated her.

The ceremonial part of the Matrimonial was long and drawn out. It was one of the few times when the complete names and ties of each of the Promised mates were recited. The matings were accepted by the members of their Caves agreeing aloud, and then by all the Zelandonii in attendance doing the same. Finally they were physically joined by a thong or cord that was wrapped, usually, around the right wrist of the woman and the left wrist of the man, although it could be the reverse, or even both left or both right wrists. After the cord was knotted, it would stay that way for the rest of the evening's festivities.

People always smiled at the inevitable stumblings and bumpings of the newly mated ones, and while it might be funny to watch, many observed carefully to see how they reacted, how quickly they learned to accommodate each other. It was the first test of the bond to which they had just committed, and the elders made whispered opinions to each other about the quality and longevity of the various matings based on how well they became accustomed to the restriction of being physically bound to each other. Mostly, they would smile or laugh at each other and themselves and make efforts to work things out until later, when they were alone and could untie — never cut — the knot.

As difficult as it might be for couples, it was even more so for those who had decided on a triple, or more rarely a foursome, but that was considered only proper, since such a relationship would require more adaptation to succeed. Each person had to have at least one free hand, so it was usually the left hands of multiples that were bound together. Walking from place to place, getting food and eating, even passing water or more solid elimination all had to be synchronised whether it was two or more that had joined. Occasionally, a person just couldn't stand the restraint and would become frustrated and angry, which never boded well for the mating, and rarely, the knot would be severed to break the relationship before it ever began. The severed knot was always the sign of the end of a mating, just as the tying of the knot symbolised the beginning of one.

Chapter 10

The Matrimonial usually began in the afternoon or early evening to leave plenty of time for the festivities as it grew dark. The singing or reciting of the Mother's Song always ended the formal Mating Ceremony and signalled the beginning of the feasting and other celebratory activities.

Ayla and Jondalar stayed through the entire formal ceremony, and though she was feeling bored before it was over, she would never admit it. She had watched people coming and going throughout the afternoon, and realised that she was not the only one who grew tired of the long recitation of names and ties, and the repetition of ritual words, but she knew how important the ceremony was to each couple or multiple and to their immediate kin, and part of that was the acceptance by all the Zelandonii in attendance. Besides, all of the zelandonia were expected to remain until the end, and she was included among them now.

Ayla had counted eighteen individual ceremonies, when she saw the First gather them all together. She had been told there might be twenty or more, but some of them were not certain. There were any number of reasons why participation in the formal Mating Ceremonial might be postponed, especially the first one of the season, ranging from uncertainty if the couple was ready to make the commitment to an important relative being delayed. There was always the Matrimonial at the end of the season for final decisions, late arriving kin, arrangements not yet completed, or new summer liaisons.

Ayla smiled to herself when she heard the rich full tones of the First singing the opening verse of the Mother's Song:

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 Mother was lonely. She was the only.

Ayla had loved the Legend of the Mother the first time she heard it, but she particularly loved the way it was sung by the One Who Was First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother. The rest of the Zelandonii joined in, some singing, some reciting. Those who played flutes added their harmonies, and the zelandonia chanted a fugue in counterpoint.

She could hear Jondalar, who was standing beside her, singing. He had a good true voice, though he didn't sing often, and when he did it was usually with the group. Ayla, on the other hand, couldn't carry a tune; she never learned how, and didn't seem to have a natural inclination for singing. The best she could do was a singsong monotone, but she had memorised the words and spoke them with deep feeling. She particularly identified with the part where the Great Earth Mother had a son, 'The Mother's great joy, a bright shining boy,' and lost him. Tears came to her eyes whenever she heard:

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.

Then came the part where the Mother delivered all the animals, also Her children, and especially when she gave birth to First Woman and then First Man.

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 honours the Mother with the joy of their pairing.The Gifts are well earned, When honour'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.Earth's Children were blessed. The Mother could rest.

That was the part everyone was waiting for. It meant the formalities were over, it was time for feasting and other festivities.

People started milling around waiting for the feast to be set out. Jonayla, who had been sleeping contentedly while Ayla was sitting quietly, started to squirm around when they all joined in on the Mother's Song. She woke up when her mother got up and started moving. Ayla took her out of her carrying blanket and held her out over the ground, where she let go of her water. She had learned quickly that the sooner she went, the sooner she'd be out of the cold and held close to a warm body again.

'Let me take her,' Jondalar said, reaching for the child. Jonayla smiled at the man, which elicited a smile in return.

'Wrap her in this blanket,' Ayla said, handing him the soft hide of a red deer that she was using to carry her. 'It's getting chilly, and she's still warm from sleep.'

Ayla and Jondalar walked toward the camp of the Third Cave. They had enlarged their space to include room for their neighbouring Cave in the main Summer Meeting area. The Ninth put up a couple of shelters for their own use especially during the day, but they still referred to it as the camp of the Third Cave. They also tended to share meals and join together for feasts, but Matrimonial Feasts were always prepared and shared by the entire group.

They joined the rest of Jondalar's family and friends who were bringing food to the large meeting area of the Summer Camp near the zelandonia lodge. Proleva, as usual, organised the entire affair, assigning tasks and delegating individuals to be responsible for various jobs. People were coming from all directions bringing the components of the great feast. Each Camp had developed their own variations on the standard ways of cooking the substantial quantity and diversity of foods that were available in the region.

The abundant grasslands and gallery forests along rivers provided rich feed for the many varieties of large grazing or browsing animals, including aurochs, bison, horse, mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, megaceros, reindeer, red deer, and several other types of deer. Some animals that in later times retreated to mountains spent certain seasons on the cold plains, like the wild goat known as ibex, the wild sheep called mouflon, and a goat-antelope referred to as chamois. A sheep-antelope named saiga lived on the steppes all year. In the coldest part of winter musk-oxen also appeared. There were also small animals, usually caught in traps, and fowl, often brought down with stones or throwing sticks, including Ayla's favourite, ptarmigan.

A wide selection of vegetables was available, including roots such as wild carrots, cattail rhizomes, flavourful onions, spicy little pignuts, and several different kinds of starchy biscuit roots and ground nuts that were collected with digging sticks, then eaten raw, cooked, or dried. Thistle stems, held up by the flower head so the sharp thorns could be scraped off before cutting, were delicious when lightly cooked; burdock stems required no special handling but needed to be picked young. The green leaves of lamb's quarter made a wonderful wild spinach; stinging nettles were even better, but had to be picked with a large leaf from another plant to protect the hand from the stinging, which disappeared when they were cooked.

Nuts and fruits, especially berries, were also in abundance, and an assortment of teas was provided. The steeping of leaves, stems, and flowers in hot water, or just letting them sit out in the sun for a while, was usually enough to make an infusion with the desired flavours and characteristics. But steeping was not a sufficiently rigorous process to extract the flavours and natural constituents from hard organic substances; barks, seeds and roots usually required boiling to make the proper decoctions.

Other beverages were available, like fruit juices, including fermented varieties. Tree saps, particularly birch, could be boiled down to bring out the sugar and then fermented. Grains and, of course, honey could also be made into an alcoholic drink. Marthona provided a limited quantity of her fruit wine, Laramar some of his barma, and several others had brought their own varieties of drinks with variable alcoholic content. Most people brought their own eating utensils and bowls, although a supply of wood or bone platters, and carved or tightly woven bowls and cups were offered for those who wanted to use them.

Ayla and Jondalar walked around greeting friends and sampling the foods and drinks offered by different Caves. Jonayla was often the centre of attention. Some people were curious to see if the foreigner who had grown up with Flatheads, whom some still considered animals, had given birth to a normal child. Friends and relatives were just pleased to see that she was a happy, healthy, and very pretty little girl, with fine, almost white, soft curly hair. Everyone also knew immediately that it was Jondalar's spirit that the Great Mother had selected to mix with Ayla's to create her daughter; Jonayla had the same extraordinarily vivid blue eyes.

They passed by a group of people who had set up camp on the edge of the large communal area, and Ayla thought she recognised some of them. 'Jondalar, aren't those people Travelling Storytellers?' she asked. 'I didn't know they were coming to our Summer Meeting.'

'I didn't know either. Let's go and greet them.' They hurried to the camp. 'Galliadal, how nice to see you,' Jondalar called out as they neared.

A man turned around and smiled. 'Jondalar! Ayla!' he said, approaching them with both hands stretched out to them.

He clasped Jondalar's hands. 'In the name of the Great Earth Mother, I greet you,' Galliadal said.

The man was nearly as tall as Jondalar, somewhat older, and nearly as dark as the Zelandoni man was light. Jondalar's hair was light yellow, Galliadal's was dark brown but with lighter streaks, and thinning on top. His blue eyes were not as striking as Jondalar's, but the contrast to his darker skin colouring made them intriguingly noticeable. His skin is not brown like Ranec's, Ayla thought. It's more like he has been out in the sun a lot, but I don't think it fades much in winter.

'In the name of Doni, you are welcome to our Summer Meeting, Galliadal, and welcome to the rest of your Travelling Cave,' Jondalar replied. 'I didn't know you had come. How long have you been here?'

'We arrived before noon, but we shared a meal with the Second Cave before we set up camp. The leader's mate is a far cousin of mine. I didn't even know she had two-born-together.'

'You're related to Beladora? Kimeran and I are age-mates; we went through our manhood rites together,' Jondalar explained. 'I was the tallest one there and felt out of place, until Kimeran came. I was so glad to see him.'

'I understand how you felt, and you are even taller than me.' Galliadal turned his attention to Ayla. 'Greeting to you,' he said, grasping her outstretched hands.

'In the name of the Great Mother of all, welcome,' Ayla replied.

'And who is this pretty little thing?' the visitor said, smiling at the baby.

'This is Jonayla,' Ayla said.

'Jon-Ayla! Your daughter, with his eyes, that's a good name,' Galliadal said. 'I hope you are coming tonight. I have a special story for you.'

'For me?' Ayla said with surprise.

'Yes. It's about a woman who has a special way with animals. It's been very well liked everywhere we've been,' Galliadal said with a big grin.

'Do you know someone who understands animals? I'd like to meet her,' Ayla said.

'You already know her.'

'But, the only person I know like that is me,' Ayla said, then blushed when she understood.

'Of course! I couldn't pass up such a good story, but I don't give her your name, and I changed some other things. Many people ask if the story is about you, but I never tell them. It makes it more interesting. I'll be telling it when we get a good crowd. Come and listen.'

'Oh, we will,' Jondalar said. He had been watching Ayla and from her expression, he didn't think she was particularly happy about the idea of a Storyteller making up stories about her and telling them to all the Caves. He knew many people who would love the attention, but he didn't think that she would. She already got more attention than she wanted, but he couldn't blame Galliadal. He was a storyteller and Ayla's story was a good one.

'It's about you, too, Jondalar. I couldn't leave you out,' the Storyteller said, with a wink. 'You're the one who was gone on a Journey for five years and brought her back with you.'

Jondalar winced to himself to hear that; it wasn't the first time that stories had been told about him, and they weren't always ones he wanted to have spread around. But it was best not to complain or make anything out of it; that would just add to the story. Storytellers loved to tell stories about individuals who were known, and people loved to hear them. Sometimes they used real names and other times, especially if they wanted to embellish the story, they would make up a name so people would have to guess who the story was about. Jondalar grew up hearing such stories, and he loved them, too, but he loved the Elder Legends and Histories of the Zelandonii better. He'd heard many stories about his mother when she was leader of the Ninth Cave, and the story about the great love of Marthona and Dalanar had been told so many times, it was almost legend.

Ayla and Jondalar chatted with him a while, then wandered toward the camp of the Third Cave, stopping along the way to talk with various people they knew. As the evening deepened, it grew quite dark. Ayla stopped for a moment to look up. The moon was new, and without its glowing light to moderate their brilliance, the stars filled the night sky with an awe-inspiring profusion.

'The sky is so … full … I don't know the right word,' Ayla said, feeling a touch of impatience with herself. 'It is beautiful, but more than that. It makes me feel small, but in a way that makes me feel good. It is greater than us, greater than everything.'

'When the stars are bright like that, it is a wondrous sight,' Jondalar said.

While the bright stars did not bestow as much radiance as the moon would have, they did provide almost enough illumination to see their way. But the multitude of stars was not the only light. Every camp had great bonfires, and torches and lamps had been placed along paths between camps.

When they reached the camp of the Third Cave, Proleva was there with her sister, Levela, and their mother, Velima. They all greeted each other.

'I can't believe how much Jonayla has grown in just a few moons,' Levela said. 'And she's so beautiful. She has Jondalar's eyes. But she looks like you.'

Ayla smiled at the compliment to her baby, but deflected the one directed at her. 'I think she looks like Marthona, not me. I'm not beautiful.'

'You don't know what you look like, Ayla,' Jondalar said. 'You never look at a polished reflector, or even a pool of still water. You are beautiful.'

Ayla changed the subject. 'You are really showing now, Levela,' Ayla said. 'How are you feeling?'

'Once I got over feeling sick in the morning, I've been feeling good,' Levela said. 'Vigorous and strong. Although, lately, I get tired easily. I want to sleep late and take naps in the day, and sometimes if I stand for a long time, my back hurts.'

'Sounds about right, wouldn't you say,' Velima said, smiling at her daughter. 'Just the way you are supposed to feel.'

'We're setting up an area to take care of children so their mothers and mates can go to the Mother Festival and relax,' Proleva said. 'You can leave Jonayla, if you want. There will be singing and dancing, and some people had already drunk too much before I left.'

'Did you know the Travelling Storytellers are here?' Jondalar asked.

'I heard they were supposed to come, but I didn't know they had arrived,' Proleva said.

'We talked to Galliadal. He said he wanted us to come and listen. He said he has a story for Ayla,' Jondalar said. 'I think it's a thinly disguised story about her. We should probably go and listen so we'll know what people will be talking about tomorrow.'

'Are you going, Proleva?' Ayla asked as the woman was putting down her sleeping baby.

'It was a big feast, and I've been working on it for many days,' Proleva said. 'I think I'd rather stay here and watch the little ones with just a few women. It would be more restful. I've been to my share of Mother Festivals.'

'Maybe I should stay and watch the children, too,' Ayla said.

'No. You should go. Mother Festivals are still new to you, and you need to become familiar with them, especially if you are learning to be a Zelandoni. Here, give me that little one of yours. I haven't cuddled her for days,' Proleva said.

'Let me nurse her first,' Ayla said. 'I'm feeling rather full anyway.'

'Levela, you should go, too, especially since the Storytellers are here. You too, mother,' Proleva said.

'The Storytellers will be here for many days. I can see them later, and I've been to my share of Mother Festivals, too. You've been so busy, we haven't had much time to visit. I'd rather stay here with you,' Velima said. 'But you should go, Levela.'

'I'm not sure. Jondecam is already there, and I told him I'd meet him, but I am tired already. Maybe I'll just go for a while, to hear the Storytellers,' she said.

'Joharran is there, too. He almost has to be, just to keep an eye on some of the young men. I hope he takes some time to enjoy himself. Tell him about the Storytellers, Jondalar. He always enjoys them.'

'I will if I can find him,' Jondalar said.

He wondered if Proleva was staying away to give her mate the freedom to enjoy the Mother Festival. Although everyone knew they could take partners other than their mates, he knew that some people didn't necessarily want to watch their own mate couple with someone else. He knew he didn't. It would be very hard for him to see Ayla go off with some other man. Several men had already shown an interest in her, the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth, for example, and even the Storyteller, Galliadal. He knew that such jealousy was frowned on, but he couldn't help how he felt. He just hoped he would be able to hide it.

When they returned to the large gathering area, Levela quickly spied Jondecam and hurried ahead, but Ayla stopped at the edge just to watch for a while. Almost all the people who were attending the Summer Meeting at this location had already arrived and she was still not entirely comfortable with so many people in one place, especially in the beginning. Jondalar understood and waited with her.

At first glance the large space seemed filled with a vast amorphous throng surging in an eddying mass, like a great roiling river. But as she watched, Ayla began to see that the crowd had formed itself into several groups, generally around or near a large fire. In one area near the edge, close to the Storytellers' camp, many people were gathered around three or four people talking with exaggerated gestures, who were standing on a platform-like construction made of wood and hard rawhide that raised them somewhat above the crowd so they could be seen more easily. Those nearest to the platform were sitting on the ground or on logs or rocks that had been dragged closer. Almost directly opposite, across the gathering area, other people were dancing and singing to the sound of flutes, drums, and other percussion musical instruments. Ayla felt drawn to both and was trying to decide where to go first.

In another area people were gambling, using various tokens and gaming pieces, and in a nearby area, people were getting refills of their favourite beverages. She noticed Laramar doling out portions of his barma, with a false smile.

'Garnering favours,' Jondalar said, almost as though he knew what she was thinking. She wasn't aware of the look of distaste that had appeared on her face when she saw the man.

Ayla saw that Tremeda was among those who were standing around waiting for more of his barma, but Laramar wasn't offering any to her. She turned toward the nearby group who were picking at what was left of the food, which had been gathered together and offered for whoever wanted more.

Throughout the entire space, people stood together talking and laughing, or drifting from one place to another for no apparent reason. Ayla didn't immediately notice the undercurrent of activity around the darker edges of the crowd. Then she happened to catch sight of a young woman with bright red hair whom she recognised as Folara's friend, Galeya. She was walking away from the eating area with the young man from the Third Cave, who had joined the lion hunt, Ayla recalled. They had chosen to partner together to watch out for each other.

Ayla watched the young couple as they headed for the darkened periphery of the gathering and saw when they paused to embrace. She felt a moment of embarrassment; she hadn't meant to observe them when they were being intimate. Then she saw that there were others in certain areas away from the main activities who also appeared to be closely involved with each other. Ayla felt herself flush.

Jondalar smiled to himself. He had seen where she was looking. The Zelandonii tended not to stare at such activity either. It wasn't so much a matter of embarrassment; intimacy was commonplace and they just ignored it. He had travelled far and was aware that people's customs could be different, but she had too; he knew that she had seen people together before — they lived in such close quarters it couldn't be avoided. She must have seen similar activity at the Summer Meeting the year before. He wasn't quite sure what was causing her discomfort. He was going to ask, but then he saw Levela and Jondecam returning and decided to wait until later.

Her discomfiture stemmed from her early years when she had lived with the Clan. It had been strongly stressed to her that some things, even though they could be observed, were not supposed to be seen. The stones that outlined each hearth in the cave of Brun's clan were like invisible walls. One did not see past the boundary stones, did not look into the private areas of another man's hearth. People averted their eyes, or assumed the far-off look of gazing into space, anything to avoid seeming to stare into the area enclosed by the stones. And as a rule they were careful not to stare inadvertently. Staring was part of the body sign language of the Clan, and had specific meanings. An intense look from a leader, for example, could be a reprimand.

When she realised what she had seen, Ayla had quickly looked in another direction, and saw Levela and Jondecam approaching. She felt an odd sense of relief. She touched cheeks and greeted them affectionately, as though she hadn't seen them for a while.

'We're going to watch the Storytellers,' Levela said.

'I was just trying to decide if I wanted to listen to stories or music,' Ayla said. 'If you are going to watch the Storytellers, maybe I'll go with you.'

'So will I,' Jondalar said.

When they arrived at the place, there seemed to be a break in the performance. A narrative had apparently just been concluded and a new one hadn't yet begun. People were milling around; some were leaving, some were arriving, some changing positions. Ayla looked over the area to get a sense of the place. The low platform, though empty now, was big enough to hold three or four people with room to move about. There were two somewhat rectangular fire trenches not directly in front of the platform, but on either side, for light rather than heat. In between and on either side of the fires were several logs arranged somewhat haphazardly in rows and a few good-sized stones, all of them covered with stuffed pads for easier sitting. There was an open space in front of the logs where people were sitting on the ground, many on some kind of ground covering, like woven grass floor mats or hides.

Several people, who had been sitting on a log near the front, stood up and walked away. Levela headed purposefully in that direction and sat down on the soft pad that covered the tree trunk. Jondecam quickly sat beside her; then they claimed space beside them for their friends who had been delayed by someone who greeted them along the way. While they were exchanging pleasantries, Galliadal approached.

'You did decide to come,' he said, bending down to greet Ayla, touching his cheek to hers and, Jondalar thought, holding it there too long. Ayla felt Galliadal's warm breath on her neck and noticed his pleasant manly smell, different from the one she was most familiar with. She also noticed the tension in Jondalar's jaw, in spite of his smile.

Several people were crowding around them and Ayla thought they probably wanted the Storyteller's attention. She had noticed that many people liked to flock around Galliadal, especially young women, and some were looking at her with a kind of expectancy, as though they were waiting for something. She didn't think she liked it.

'Levela and Jondecam are holding places in front for us,' Jondalar said. 'We should go and claim them.'

She smiled at Jondalar, and they went to join their friends, but when they arrived, some other people were also sitting on the log, taking some of the space Levela and Jondecam had been holding. They all crowded together, then waited.

'I wonder what's taking so long,' Jondecam said, getting a bit impatient.

Jondalar noticed that more people were arriving. 'I think they are waiting to see how many are coming. You know how it is: once they start, Storytellers don't like to have a lot of people moving around; it disrupts the telling. They don't mind a few slipping in quietly, but most people don't like to come in the middle of a story either. They'd rather hear it from the beginning. I think a lot of people were waiting until they were done with the story they were on. When they saw people moving away, they decided that was the time to come.'

Galliadal and several other people had stepped up to the low platform. They waited until people noticed them. When everyone stopped talking and it became quiet, the tall dark-haired man began.

'Far away in the land of the dawning sun …'

'That's the way all stories start,' Jondalar whispered to Ayla, as though he was pleased that it had begun right.

'… there lived a woman and her mate and her three children. The eldest was a boy named Kimacal.' When the Storyteller mentioned the first of the woman's offspring, a young man who was also on the platform stepped forward and made a slight bow, implying that he was the one referred to. 'The next one was a girl named Karella.' A young woman did a pirouette that ended in a bow when he mentioned the second child. 'The youngest one was a boy named Wolafon.' Another young man pointed to himself and grinned proudly when the third child was announced.

There was a slight murmur in the audience, and a few chuckles when the name of the youngest child was mentioned as people perceived a connection with Ayla's name for her four-legged hunter.

Although he wasn't shouting, Ayla noticed that the Storyteller's voice could be heard very well by the entire audience. He had a special way of speaking that was powerful, clear, and expressive. It made her think of her visit to the cave with the Zelandoni of the Twenty-sixth and his acolyte and the sounds the three of them had made in front of the cave before crawling in. It occurred to her that Galliadal could have become one of the zelandonia, if he wished.

'Though they were old enough, none of the young people were mated yet. Their Cave was small and they were closely related to most of the people near their age. The mother was beginning to worry that they would have to go far away to find mates, and she might not see them again. She had heard of an old Zelandoni who lived alone in a cave some distance up the river to the north. Some people talked in whispers about her, saying she could make things happen, but she might exact a payment that would be hard to make. The mother decided to go and find her,' the Storyteller said.

'One day after she returned, the woman sent her children out to the edge of a stream to collect cattail roots. When they arrived they met three other young people, a girl about the age of Kimacal, a boy about the age of Karella, and a girl about the age of Wolafon.'

This time the first young man on the platform smiled coquettishly when the older girl was mentioned, the young woman took a bravado stance, and the other young man assumed the posture of a shy young girl. There was laughter from the audience. When Ayla and Jondalar looked at each other, both were smiling.

'The three newcomers were strangers who had recently arrived from the land to the south. As all of them had been taught was appropriate, they greeted each other and introduced themselves, reciting their important names and ties.'

' "We have come looking for food," the eldest visitor explained.' Galliadal changed the timbre of his voice when he spoke as the young woman.

' "There are many cattails here; we can share them," Karella said.' The young woman mouthed the words Galliadal spoke, again changing his tone. 'They all started pulling cattail roots out of the soft mud by the edge of the stream, Kimacal helping the older foreign girl, Karella showing the middle boy where to dig, and Wolafon pulling out some roots for the shy younger girl, but the fair young woman wouldn't accept them. Wolafon could see that his brother and sister were enjoying the company of their pleasurable new friends, becoming very friendly.'

The laughter was now quite loud. Not only were the innuendos obvious, the young man portraying the older brother and the young woman on the platform were in an exaggerated embrace, while the younger brother looked on with envy. When Galliadal narrated, he changed his voice for each character as he spoke for them, while the others on the raised platform demonstrated, often very dramatically.

' "These are good cattails. Why won't you eat them?" Wolafon asked the appealing stranger, "I cannot eat cattails," the young woman said. "I can only eat meat." ' When he spoke as the woman, he pitched his voice quite high.

'Wolafon didn't know what to do. "Maybe I can hunt for some meat for you," he said, but he knew he wasn't a very good hunter. He usually went along on game drives. He meant well, but he was a little lazy and never tried very hard to hunt himself. He went back to the home of his mother's Cave.

' "Kimacal and Karella shared cattails with a woman and man from the south," he told his mother. "They have found mates, but the woman I want can't eat cattails. She can only eat meat, and I'm not a very good hunter. How can I find food for her?" ' Galliadal related.

Ayla wondered if 'sharing cattails' had some second meaning that she wasn't familiar with, like a joke she didn't understand, since the Storyteller went from eating cattails together to being mated in the next breath.

' "There is an old Zelandoni who lives alone in a cave north of here near the river," his mother said. "She may be able to help you. But be careful what you ask for. You may get exactly what you want." ' Galliadal again changed the timbre of his voice when he spoke as the mother.

'Wolafon set out to find the old Zelandoni. He travelled upriver for many days, looking into all the caves he happened to see along the way. He was almost ready to give up, but he saw a small cave high up in a cliff and decided that would be the last cave he would investigate. He found an old woman sitting in front of it, who seemed to be sleeping. He approached quietly, not wanting to disturb her, but he was curious and looked at her carefully,' Galliadal continued.

'Her clothes were nondescript, the same kind of thing most people wore, though rather shapeless and shabby. But she wore many necklaces made of a variety of materials: beads and shells; several pierced animal teeth and claws; animals carved out of ivory, bone, antler, and wood, some of stone and amber; and disc-shaped medallions with animals carved on them. There were so many objects on the necklaces, Wolafon couldn't even see them all, but even more impressive were her facial tattoos. They were so intricate and embellished, he could hardly see her skin under all the squares, swirls, curlicues, and flourishes. She was without doubt a Zelandoni of great stature and Wolafon was a little fearful of her. He didn't know if he should bother her with his little request.'

The woman on the platform had seated herself and although she hadn't changed clothes, the way she wrapped them around herself gave the impression of an old woman in the shapeless clothing Galliadal had described.

'Wolafon decided to leave, but as he turned to go, he heard a voice, "What do you want from me, boy?" she said.' Galliadal's voice took on the sound of an older woman, not thin and quavery, but powerful and mature.

'Wolafon gulped, then turned around. He introduced himself properly, then said, "My mother told me you might be able to help me." '

' "What is your problem?" '

' "I met a woman, who came from the south. I wanted to share cattails with her, but she said she couldn't eat cattails, she could only eat meat. I love her and I would hunt for her but I am not a very good hunter. Can you help me to become a good hunter?" '

' "Are you sure she wants you to hunt for her?" the old Zelandoni asked. "If she doesn't want your cattails, it may be that she won't want your meat, either. Did you ask her?" '

' "When I offered her the cattails, she said she couldn't eat them, not that she didn't want to, and when I told her I would hunt for her, she didn't say no," Wolafon said.' The voice Galliadal used for the young man sounded hopeful, and the expression of the young man on the platform mimicked the tone.

' "You know that all it takes to become good hunter is practice, lots of practice," the old Zelandoni told him.

' "Yes, I know. I should have practised more." ' The young man on the platform looked down, as though contrite.

' "But you didn't practise, did you? Now, because a young woman interests you, you want to suddenly become a hunter, is that right?" ' Galliadal's tone as the old Zelandoni became a reprimand.

' "I suppose so." The young man looked even more ashamed. "But I adore her." '

' "You must always earn whatever you get. If you don't want to make the effort to practise, you must pay for the skill some other way. You give your effort to practise, or you give something else. What are you willing to give?" the old woman asked.

' "I'll give anything!" ' The audience gasped, knowing it was the wrong thing to say.

' "You could still take the time to practise and learn how to hunt," the old Zelandoni said.

' "But she won't want to wait until I learn how to hunt well. I adore her. I just want to bring her meat so she will love me. I wish I was born knowing how to hunt." '

Suddenly the audience and the ones on the raised platform detected a commotion in their midst.

Chapter 11

Wolf was slipping through the crowd, occasionally brushing against someone's leg but gone before they could catch more than a glimpse of what had touched them. Though most people were familiar with him, he was still a surprise that could bring a gasp or a squeal of apprehension when he was noticed. He even surprised Ayla when he appeared so unexpectedly and sat in front of her, looking up at her face. Danella was startled, because he had appeared so quickly, but she wasn't afraid.

'Wolf! You've been gone all day. I was beginning to wonder where you were. Exploring the whole area, I think,' Ayla said as she rubbed the ruff of fur around his neck and scratched behind his ears. He reached up to lick her neck and chin, then put his head in her lap, seeming to enjoy her welcoming strokes and caresses. When she stopped, he curled up in front of her and laid his head on his paws, relaxed, but watchful.

Galliadal along with the others on the platform watched him, and then the man smiled. 'Our unusual visitor has come at an appropriate time in the story,' he said. Then back in character, he continued.

' "Is that what you want? To be a natural-born hunter?" the old Zelandoni asked.

' "Yes! That's it. I want to be a natural-born hunter," Wolafon said.

' "Then come into my cave," said the old woman.' The tone of the story was no longer at all humorous; it was ominous.

'As soon as Wolafon walked into the cave, he became very sleepy. He sat down on a pile of wolf furs, and was instantly asleep. When he finally woke up, he felt that he had slept for a long time, but he didn't know how long. The cave was empty, with no sign that it had ever been inhabited. He quickly ran outside.' The young man on the platform ran out of the imaginary cave using both hands and feet.

'The sun was shining and he was thirsty. As he headed for the river, he began to notice that something was strange. For one thing, he was seeing things from a different angle, as though he were lower to the ground. When he reached the edge of the stream, he felt the cold water on his feet as though he didn't have any foot-coverings on. When he looked down, he didn't see feet at all; he saw paws, the paws of a wolf.

'At first he was confused. Then he realised what had happened. The old Zelandoni had given him exactly what he asked for. He wanted to become a natural-born hunter, and now he was. He had become a wolf. That wasn't what he meant when he asked to be a good hunter, but it was too late now.

'Wolafon was so sorry he wanted to cry, but he had no tears. He waited at the water's edge, and in the stillness, began to be aware of the woods in a new way. He could hear things he had never heard before, and smell things he hadn't even known existed. He picked up the scent of many things, especially animals, and when he focused on a large rabbit, a white hare, realised that he was hungry. But now he knew exactly what to do. Quietly, slowly, he stalked the creature. Though the hare was very fast, and could turn in an instant, the wolf anticipated his moves and caught him.'

Ayla smiled to herself at this part of the story. Most people did believe that wolves and other meat-eaters were born knowing how to hunt and kill their prey, but she knew better. After she had mastered the use of the sling, practising in secret, she wanted to take the next step, to actually hunt with it, but hunting was forbidden to the women of the Clan. Many carnivores often stole meat from Brun's clan, particularly smaller meat-eaters like martens, stoats, and other weasels, small wild cats, foxes, and middle-size hunters like vicious wolverines, tufted lynxes, wolves, and hyenas. Ayla justified her decision to defy the Clan taboo by resolving that she would hunt only meat-eaters, animals that were destructive to her clan, leaving the hunting of food animals to the men. As a result, she not only excelled as a hunter, but she learned a great deal about her chosen prey. She spent the first few years observing them before she managed to make her first kill. She knew that while the tendency to hunt was strong in meat-eaters, they all had to be taught by their elders in one way or another. Wolves weren't born knowing how to hunt; young ones learned from their pack.

She was drawn back into Galliadal's storytelling. 'The taste of warm blood running down his throat was delicious and Wolafon quickly devoured the hare. He went back to the river for another drink and cleaned the blood off his fur. Then he nosed around looking for a secure place. When he found one, he curled up and using his tail to cover his face, he went to sleep. When he woke up again, it was dark, but he could see better at night than he ever had before. He stretched languorously, lifted his leg and sprayed a bush, then went out hunting again.' The young man on the platform did a good job of mimicking a wolf's actions, and when he lifted his leg, the audience laughed.

'Wolafon lived in the cave that had been abandoned by the old woman for some time, hunting for himself and enjoying it, but after a while he began to get lonely. The boy had become a wolf, but he was still a boy, too, and he began to think about returning home to see his mother, and the attractive young woman from the south. He headed back toward the Cave of his mother, running with the ease of a wolf. When he saw a young deer who had strayed away from its mother, he remembered that the girl from the south liked to eat meat, and decided he would hunt it and bring it to her.

'When Wolafon got close, some people saw him coming and were afraid. They wondered why a wolf was dragging a deer toward their home. He saw the attractive young woman, but he didn't notice the tall, handsome, fair-haired man standing beside her holding a new kind of weapon that enabled him to throw spears very far and fast, but as the man was preparing to cast a spear, Wolafan dragged the meat to the woman and dropped it at her feet. Then he sat down in front of her and looked up. He was trying to tell her that he loved her, but Wolafon couldn't speak anymore. He could only show his love by his actions and the look in his eyes, and it was obvious that he was a wolf who loved a woman.'

All of the people in the audience turned to stare at Ayla and the wolf at her feet, most of them smiling. Some began to laugh, then others started to slap their knees in applause. Although it wasn't quite where Galliadal had intended to end the story, the response from the listeners made him realise that it was a good place to stop.

Ayla felt embarrassed to be the centre of so much attention, and looked at Jondalar. He was smiling, too, and slapping his knees.

'That was a good story,' he said.

'But none of it is true,' she said.

'Some of it is,' Jondalar said, looking down at the wolf who was now standing in an alert and protective posture in front of Ayla. 'There is a wolf who loves a woman.'

She reached down to stroke the animal. 'Yes, I think you are right.'

'Most of the stories that Storytellers tell are not true, but they often have some truth in them, or satisfy a desire for an answer. You have to admit, it was a good story. And if someone didn't know that you found Wolf as a very young cub alone in his den, with no siblings, or pack, or mother left alive, Galliadal's story could indulge their wish to know, even if they understood that it probably wasn't true.'

Ayla looked at Jondalar and nodded; then they both turned and smiled at Galliadal and the others on the platform. The Storyteller acknowledged them with an elaborate bow.

The audience was getting up and moving around again, and the Storytellers stepped down from the platform to make room for a different set of people to tell a story. They joined the group around Ayla and Wolf.

'It was incredible when the wolf appeared. He came at just the right time,' said the young man who had portrayed the boy-wolf. 'It couldn't have been better if we'd planned it. I don't suppose you'd like to come and bring him every night?'

'I don't think that would be a good idea, Zanacan,' Galliadal said. 'Everyone will be talking about the story we told this evening. If it happened all the time, it would take away the special quality of tonight. And I'm sure Ayla has other things to do. She is a mother, and the First's acolyte.'

The young man flushed a little red and looked embarrassed. 'You're right, of course. I'm sorry.'

'Don't be sorry,' Ayla said. 'Galliadal is right, I have many things to do, and Wolf wouldn't always be here just when you might want him, but I think it would be fun to learn something about Storytelling the way you do it. If no one would mind, I'd like to visit sometime when you are practising.'

Zanacan, and the others, became very aware of Ayla's unusual accent as she spoke, especially because they all knew the effect of different tonal qualities and voices, and had travelled around the region much more than most.

'I love your voice!' Zanacan said.

'I've never heard an accent like yours,' the young woman said.

'You must come from very far away,' the other young man added.

Ayla was usually a little embarrassed when people mentioned her accent, but the three young people seemed so excited and genuinely pleased, she could only smile.

'Yes. She does come from very far away. Much farther than you can imagine,' Jondalar said.

'We would love it if you came to visit us anytime you want while we're here, and would you mind if we tried to learn your way of speaking?' the young woman said. She looked up at Galliadal for approval.

The Storyteller looked at Ayla. 'Gallara knows that sometimes our camp is not open to casual visitors, but, yes, you would be welcome to visit our camp any time.'

'I think we could make a wonderful new story of someone who comes from very far away, maybe even farther than the land of the dawning sun,' said Zanacan, still full of excitement.

'I think we could, but somehow I doubt if it would be as good as the real story, Zanacan,' Galliadal said, then to Ayla and Jondalar he added, 'The children of my hearth sometimes get very excited over new ideas, and you have given them many.'

'I didn't know Zanacan and Gallara were the children of your hearth, Galliadal,' Jondalar said.

'And Kaleshal, too,' the man said. 'He's the eldest. Perhaps we should make proper introductions.'

The young people who had portrayed the characters of the story seemed quite pleased to meet the living counterparts of their tale, especially when they got to Ayla's names and ties as Jondalar recited them.

'May I present to you Ayla of the Zelandonii,' Jondalar began. When he got to where she came from, he changed the introduction somewhat. 'Formerly she was Ayla of the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi, the Mammoth Hunters who live far to the east, in "the land of the dawning sun", and adopted as Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth, which is their zelandonia. Chosen by the spirit of the Cave Lion, her totem, who physically marked her, and Protected by the spirit of the Cave Bear, Ayla is friend to the horses, Whinney and Racer, and the new filly, Grey, and loved by the four-legged hunter she calls Wolf.'

They understood the names and ties that Jondalar brought to the list when they mated, but when he spoke of Mammoth Hearth, and Cave Lion and Cave Bear, not to mention the living animals she brought with her, Zanacan opened his eyes very wide. It was a mannerism of his when he was surprised.

'We can use that in the new story!' Zanacan said. 'The animals. Not exactly the same, of course, but the idea of hearths named for animals, and maybe Caves, too, and the animals she travels with.'

'I told you her real story is probably better than any story we could make up,' Galliadal said.

Ayla smiled at Zanacan. 'Would you like to meet Wolf? All of you,' she said.

All three young people looked surprised, and Zanacan's eyes opened again. 'How do you meet a wolf? They don't have names and ties, do they?'

'Not exactly,' Ayla said. 'But the reason that we give our names and ties is to learn more about each other, isn't it? Wolves learn more about people and many things in their world by scent. If you let him smell your hand, he will remember you.'

'I'm not sure … would that be good or bad?' Kaleshal said.

'If I introduce you, he will count you as a friend,' Ayla said.

'Then I think we should,' Gallara said. 'I wouldn't want to be counted as anything but a friend of that wolf.'

When Ayla reached for Zanacan's hand and brought it to Wolf's nose, she could feel the slight resistance, a tendency to pull back at first. But once he realised that nothing bad would happen, his innate curiosity and interest was aroused. 'His nose is cold, and wet,' he said.

'That means he's healthy. How did you think a wolf's nose should feel?' Ayla said. 'Or his fur? What do you think that feels like?' She moved his hand to stroke his head, and feel the fur along his neck and back. She went through a similar process with the other two young people, while many others stood back and watched.

'His fur is smooth and rough, and he's warm,' Zanacan said.

'He's alive. Living animals are warm, most of them. Birds are very warm, fish are cool, and snakes can be either,' Ayla said.

'How do you know so much about animals?' Gallara said.

'She's a hunter, and she's caught almost every kind of animal there is,' Jondalar said. 'She can kill a hyena with a stone, catch a fish with her bare hand, and birds come to her whistle, but she usually lets them go. Just this spring, she led a lion hunt, and killed at least two with her spear-thrower.'

'I didn't lead the hunt,' Ayla said, frowning. 'Joharran did.'

'Ask him,' Jondalar said. 'He says you led the hunt. You were the one who knew about lions, and how to go after them.'

'I thought she was a Zelandoni, not a hunter,' Kaleshal said.

'She's not a Zelandoni, yet,' Galliadal said. 'She's an acolyte, in training, but I understand a very good healer already.'

'How can she know so many things?' Kaleshal asked, doubt in his tone.

'She had no choice,' Jondalar said. 'She lost her people when she was five years old, was adopted by strangers and had to learn their ways, then lived alone for a few years before I found her, or I should say, she found me. I had been attacked by a lion. She rescued me, and treated my wounds. When you lose everything at such a young age, you have to adapt and learn quickly or you won't survive. She's alive because she was able to learn so many things.'

Ayla was paying attention to Wolf, stroking him and rubbing behind his ears, keeping her head down, trying not to listen. It always embarrassed her when people talked about her as though the things she had done were accomplishments. It made her feel as though she thought she was important, and that made her uncomfortable. She didn't think she was important, and she didn't like being singled out as different. She was just a woman, and a mother, who had found a man to love and people like herself, most of whom had come to accept her as one of them. Once she had wanted to be a good Clan woman, now she just wanted to be a good Zelandonii woman.

Levela walked up to Ayla and Wolf. 'I think they are getting ready to tell the next story,' she said. 'Are you staying to hear it?'

'I don't think so,' Ayla said. 'Jondalar may want to stay. I'll ask him, but I think I'll come back another time to listen to stories. Are you staying?'

'I thought I might see if there is anything good left to eat. I'm getting a little hungry, but I'm tired, too. I may go back to our camp soon,' Levela said.

'I'll go with you to get something to eat. Then I have to pick up Jonayla from your sister.' Ayla took a few steps to where Jondalar and the others were talking, and waited until there was a break in the conversation. 'Are you going to stay to hear the next story?' she asked.

'What do you want to do?'

'I'm getting tired and so is Levela. We thought we'd go and see if there is anything good left to eat,' Ayla said.

'That sounds fine to me. We can come back another time to listen to more stories. Is Jondecam coming?' Jondalar said.

'Yes, I am.' They heard his voice coming toward them. 'Wherever you are going.'

The four of them left the Storytellers' camp and headed for the area where the food had been gathered together. Everything was cold, but cold slices of bison and venison were still tasty. Globular root vegetables of some variety were soaking in a rich broth that had a thin layer of congealed fat on top, which added flavour. Fat was a desirable quality, relatively rare on free-ranging wild animals, and necessary for survival. Hidden behind some empty bone platters they found a woven bowl with some round blue-coloured berries left in it, several varieties mixed together like huckleberries, bearberries, and currants, which they gladly shared. Ayla even found a couple of bones for Wolf.

She gave one to the canine, which he carried in his mouth until he found a comfortable place to settle down and gnaw on it, near the place where his people ate. Ayla wrapped the other one that had more meat on it in some large leaves that had lined a platter to make a nice presentation, to carry back to the camp for later. She tucked the bone into the small one-sided haversack that she used to carry things, especially things for Jonayla like a hard rawhide scrap that the baby liked to chew on, a hat and a small extra blanket, and some soft absorbent material like mouflon wool that she stuffed around the baby. She also carried her tinder kit for starting fires in a pouch tied to her waist, and her personal dishes and eating knife. They found some logs with pads on them nearby, obviously dragged there for seating.

'I wonder if any of mother's wine is left,' Jondalar remarked.

'Let's go see,' Jondecam said.

There was not even a drop, but Laramar had noticed them, and hurried over with a freshly opened waterbag of barma. He filled the personal cups of both the men, but both Ayla and Levela said they didn't want much, and would just take a sip from the men's drinks. Ayla didn't want to make pleasant talk with the man for too long. After a few minutes, they went back to the logs with pads on them that were near the food. When they finished, they strolled back to Proleva's shelter at the camp of the Third Cave.

'There you are. You're back early,' Proleva said, after they brushed each other's cheeks in greeting. 'Did you see Joharran?'

'No,' Levela said. 'We only listened to one story, then got some food. It was a story about Ayla, sort of.'

'Actually, it was about Wolf. It was a story about a boy who turned into a wolf that loved a woman,' Jondalar said. 'Wolf came and found Ayla right in the middle of it, which pleased Galliadal and the three young people of his hearth, who were helping him tell the story.'

'Jonayla is still sleeping. Would you like a nice cup of hot tea?' Proleva said.

'I don't think so. We're going back to our camp,' Ayla said.

'You're not going back, too?' Velima said to Levela. 'We've hardly had any time to visit. I want to know about your pregnancy and how you are feeling.'

'Why don't you stay here tonight,' Proleva said. 'There's room for all four of you. And Jaradal would love to see Wolf when he wakes up.'

Levela and Jondecam quickly agreed. The camp of the Second Cave was nearby, and the idea of spending some time with her mother and her sister was appealing to Levela, and Jondecam didn't mind.

Ayla and Jondalar looked at each other. 'I really should check on the horses,' Ayla said. 'We left early and I don't know of anyone who stayed at camp today. I just want to know they are all right, especially Grey. She can be a tempting treat for some four-legged hunter, though I know Whinney and Racer will protect her. I would just feel better going back.'

'I understand. She's a little like your baby, too,' Proleva said.

Ayla nodded and smiled in agreement, 'And where is my baby?'

'She's over there, sleeping with Sethona. It's a shame to disturb her — are you sure you won't stay?'

'We'd like to, but one of the problems with having horses as friends is that you feel responsible for them, especially if you keep them in an enclosure that is not closed to four-legged hunters,' Jondalar said. 'Ayla is right. We need to check on them.'

Ayla had wrapped her child in her carrying blanket and was hoisting the baby onto her hip. She woke briefly, but then settled down next to her mother's warmth and went back to sleep. 'I really appreciate your watching her, Proleva. The Storytelling was interesting, and it made it much easier to watch and listen without interruption,' Ayla said.

'It was my pleasure. Those two girls are getting to know each other and they are starting to entertain each other. I think they are going to be real friends,' Proleva said.

'It was fun watching them together,' Velima said. 'It's good if close cousins spend time with each other.'

Ayla signalled Wolf, who picked up his bone, and they all left the summer dwelling. Jondalar selected a torch that was stuck in the ground, one of many lighting a path outside the shelter, and checked it to see how much burning material was left to make sure it would last until they reached their camp.

They left the warm glow of fires in the Main Camp and moved into the deep soft obscurity of night. The enveloping darkness wrapped itself around them with an intensity that absorbed the light and seemed to smother the flame of the torch.

'It's so dark; there's no moon tonight,' Ayla said.

'But there are clouds,' Jondalar said. 'They are blocking out the stars. You can't see many.'

'When did it cloud up? I didn't notice them when we were in Camp.'

'That's because all the fires are distracting, and the light from them fills your eyes.' They walked quietly side by side for a while, then Jondalar added, 'Sometimes you fill my eyes, and I wish there weren't so many people around.'

She smiled and turned to look at him. 'On our way here when it was just the two of us and Whinney, Racer, and Wolf, I was often lonely for people. Now we have people and I'm glad, but sometimes I remember when it was just the two of us and we could do whatever we wanted whenever we felt like it. Maybe not always, but most of the time.'

'I think about that, too,' Jondalar said. 'I remember when, if I looked at you and felt you fill my manhood, we could just stop and share Pleasures. I didn't have to go with Joharran to meet some people to make arrangements for something, or do something for mother, or just see so many people around that there is no place to stop and relax and do what I want with you.'

'I feel the same way,' Ayla said. 'I remember when I could look at you and feel inside how only you could make me feel, and know that if I gave you the right signal, you would make me feel that way again because you know me better than I know myself. And I wouldn't have to think about taking care of a baby, and maybe several others at the same time, or plan a feast with Proleva, or help Zelandoni take care of someone who is sick or hurt, or learn about some new treatments, or remember the five sacred colours, or how to use counting words. Although I love all of it, sometimes I miss you, Jondalar, I miss being with just you.'

'I don't mind having Jonayla around. I like to watch you with her; sometimes that fills me even more, but I can wait until she's content. The trouble is that usually someone comes and interrupts, and I have to go someplace, or you do.' He stopped to kiss her tenderly; then they continued, walking in silence.

The walk was not long but as they neared the camp of the Ninth Cave, they almost stumbled over a cold fireplace before they noticed it. There were no fires anyplace, not a single dying ember or tent glowing from the light within or line of light from a crack between planks. They could smell the vestiges of old fires, but it appeared that no one was there and hadn't been for some time. Every single person from the most populous Cave in the region had left their camp.

'No one is here,' Ayla said, very surprised. 'Everyone is gone. Except for the ones who may have gone hunting or visiting, they must all be at the Main Camp.'

'Here's our dwelling, at least I think it is,' Jondalar said. 'Let's build a fire inside to warm it up, then go check on the horses.'

They brought in some wood and dried aurochs dung patties that had been stacked outside and started a fire in the small fireplace they had created near their sleeping places. Wolf came in with them and parked his bone in a small hole near an area of the wall that was seldom used by anyone but him. Ayla checked the large waterbag near the main hearth.

'We should bring in some water, too,' she said. 'There's not much left in this. Let's go find the horses. Then I'm going to have to feed Jonayla; she's starting to fuss around.'

'I'd better get a new torch. This one will go out soon,' Jondalar said. 'I should spend some time tomorrow making new ones.'

He lit a new torch off the old one, then put the remains of the first in the fireplace. When they left the shelter, Wolf followed them out. Ayla heard him make a low throaty growl as they approached the fence of the horse surround.

'Something's wrong,' she said, hurrying.

Jondalar held the torch high to spread the light it gave off. There was a strange lump of something near the centre of the enclosed space. As they neared it, Wolf's growl grew louder. When they got closer they could see pale grey, spotted, rather fluffy fur with a long tail, and a lot of blood.

'It's a leopard, a young snow leopard, I think. It's been trampled to death. What's a snow leopard doing here? They like the highlands,' Ayla said. She ran toward a roofed shelter they had constructed for the horses to get out of the rain, but it was empty.

'Whiiinnney,' she called, 'Whiiiinnney!' making it a loud neigh that sounded to Jondalar exactly like a horse.

It was the name she had originally given the mare. The name she was called by most people, Whinney, was an accommodation Ayla had made to the language of people. She whinnied again, then blew her special call whistle very loudly. Finally, from a distance, they heard an answering neigh.

'Wolf, go find Whinney,' she said to the canine. The animal raced off in the direction of the neigh with Ayla and Jondalar following behind. They went through the fence where the horses had stomped it down to break through, and she understood how they got out.

They found all three horses near a creek at the back of the area the Ninth Cave was using for their camp. Wolf was sitting on his haunches guarding them, but, Ayla realised, he wasn't too close. They had obviously had a bad scare, and somehow the wolf sensed that even the friendly carnivore felt threatening at the moment. Ayla rushed to Whinney, but slowed down when she noticed that Whinney was watching her intently, her mouth tight, her ears, nose, and eyes pointed toward her, focused on her, sometimes swinging her head slightly.

'You're still afraid, aren't you?' Ayla began talking to the mare softly in their special language. 'I don't blame you, Whinney.' Again she said her name the way a horse would, but more softly. 'I'm sorry I left you alone to fight off that leopard by yourselves, and I'm sorry no one was here to hear you when you were screaming for help.'

She had been slowly walking toward the horse as she spoke until finally she reached her and put her arms around the sturdy neck. The horse relaxed, put her head over the woman's shoulder and leaned into her as Ayla leaned back in the familiar comforting stance that had been their custom since the early days in the valley.

Jondalar followed her lead, whistling his call to Racer, who was also still feeling frightened. He stuck the torch in the ground, then approached the young stallion, and stroked and scratched him in his favourite places. The handling by their familiar friends comforted the animals, and soon Grey also joined in, nursing from her dam for a while, then going to Ayla for some affectionate touching and scratching. Jondalar also joined in stroking the little filly. But it was only after the five of them were all together — six including Jonayla, who was awake and squirming in her carrying blanket — that Wolf joined them.

Even though Whinney and Racer had known him from the time he was a four-week-old pup and had helped to raise him, his underlying scent was still of a carnivore, a meat-eater whose wild cousins often preyed on horses. Wolf had sensed their discomfort when they saw him, probably from their scent of fear, and knew to wait until they were comfortable again before approaching them. He was welcomed to the pack of people and horses that he had imprinted on, the only pack he had known.

About then Jonayla decided it was her turn. She let out a hungry wail. Ayla took her out of her carrying blanket and held her out in front to pass her water on the ground. When she was through, Ayla propped her up on Grey's back for a moment, holding her with one hand while she straightened out the carrying blanket and exposed a breast with the other hand. Soon the infant was wrapped up again, held close to her mother, happily nursing.

On the way back, they made a detour around the enclosure, knowing that the horses would never go into it again. Ayla thought that she would get rid of the leopard carcass later and she wasn't sure about the enclosure. At the moment she never wanted to put the horses in one again and would be happy to give the wooden poles and planks to whoever wanted them, for firewood if nothing else. When they reached their lodge, they led the horses around to an area on the back side of the summer dwelling that was used infrequently, where some grass still grew.

'Should we put a halter on them and tie them to a ground stake?' Jondalar said. 'It would keep them close by.'

'I think it would upset Whinney, and Racer, after their scare, if they couldn't run freely. For now I think they will want to stay close, unless something scares them again, and we'd hear them. I think I'm going to leave Wolf out here to guard them, at least for tonight.' She went to the animal and bent down close. 'Stay here, Wolf. Stay here and watch Whinney, and Racer and Grey. Stay and guard the horses.' She wasn't entirely sure if he understood, but when he lowered his hind quarters and looked toward the horses, she thought he might. She pulled out the bone she had tucked away for him and gave it to him.

The small fire they had started inside the shelter had long since gone out, so they started a new one, bringing in more fuel to keep it going. About then, Ayla noticed that the nursing was encouraging Jonayla to generate more than water. She quickly spread out a small pile of soft absorbent cattail fibres, and laid the child's bare bottom on it.

'Jondalar, would you get the large waterbag and bring me whatever is left in it, so I can clean her up, then go and fill it with fresh water, and our small one, too,' Ayla said.

'She is a smelly little thing,' he said with an adoring smile at the little girl he thought was utterly beautiful.

He found the bowl made of tightly woven osier willow withes with an ochre-stained red cord worked in near the top, which was often used to clean especially dirty messes of various kinds. It was marked with the colour so it wouldn't inadvertently be used for drinking water or cooking. He brought it and the nearly empty waterbag to their hearth, filled the bowl, then took their waterbag, made of the stomach of an ibex, the same one that provided the hide for Jonayla's carrying blanket, along with the large general one to the entrance. He picked up one of the unlit torches that was nearby, took it to their fireplace to light it, and picking up the waterbags on the way, went out.

Animal stomachs, when thoroughly cleaned and with extra holes at the bottom sewed or tied off, were nearly waterproof and made excellent waterbags. When Jondalar came back with the water, the soiled water bowl was beside the night basket near the door, and Ayla was nursing Jonayla again in hopes of putting her to sleep.

'I suppose I should empty the bowl and the night basket, while I'm at it,' he said, planting the end of the lighted torch in the ground.

'If you want, but hurry,' Ayla said, looking at him with a languorous yet mischievous smile. 'I think Jonayla is almost asleep.'

He felt an immediate tightening in his loins and smiled back. He brought the large, heavy waterbag to the main hearth and hung it on its accustomed place, a peg on one of the strong posts that supported the structure, then brought the second one to their sleeping place.

'Are you thirsty?' he asked, as he watched her nurse the baby.

'I wouldn't mind a little water. I was thinking of making some tea, but I think I'll wait until later,' she said.

He poured some water in a cup and gave it to her, then went back to the door. He poured the contents of the bowl into the night basket, then picked up the torch and went back outside taking the night basket and soiled bowl with him. Propping the torch in the ground, he dumped the large, malodorous night basket in one of the trenches the people used for passing their wastes. Dumping such wastes was a job no one liked to do. Picking up the torch, he then took them both to the lower end of the stream, far away from the place upstream that they had designated as their source of water. He rinsed them both out, letting the water flow through them; then with a shovel made of the scapula of some animal, with one edge thinned and sharpened, that was left there for the purpose, he filled the night basket something less than half full of dirt. Then, using clean sand from the bank of the waterway, he carefully washed and scoured his hands. Finally, with the torch to guide his way, he picked up the basket and bowl and headed back to the dwelling.

He put the night basket in its usual place, the bowl beside it, and the flaming torch in a holder made for it near the entrance. 'That's done,' he said, smiling at Ayla as he walked toward her. She was still holding the baby. He kicked off his sandals made of woven grass — the usual foot-coverings worn in the summer — and lay down beside her, propping himself up on one elbow.

'It will be someone else's turn next,' she said.

'That water is cold,' he said.

'And so are your hands,' she said, reaching for them. 'I should warm them up,' she added, the hint of suggestion in her voice.

He looked at her with glowing eyes, his pupils enlarged with desire, and the dim light inside the dwelling.

Chapter 12

Jondalar enjoyed watching Jonayla, whatever she was doing, whether it was nursing or playing with her feet or putting things in her mouth. He even liked to look at her when she was sleeping. Now he gazed at her trying to resist falling to sleep. She would start to let go of her mother's nipple, then suckle a few more times and hold on for a moment, then begin to let go, and repeat the process. Finally she lay quietly in her mother's arms. He was fascinated as a drop of milk formed at the end of the nipple and fell.

'I think she's asleep,' he said, softly.

'Yes, I think so,' Ayla said. She had packed the baby in clean mouflon wool, which she had washed a few days before, and wrapped her up in her usual swaddling night clothes. The woman stood up and gently carried her infant to a nearby small sleeping roll. Ayla didn't always move Jonayla out of her bed when she went to sleep, but on this night she definitely wanted their sleeping roll for just Jondalar and her.

When she went back, the man who was waiting watched her as she slipped back into her place beside him; she looked directly at him, which still took some conscious thought for her. Jondalar had taught her that among his people, and most of his kind — and hers — it was considered impolite, if not devious, if you didn't look directly at the person to whom you were speaking.

While Ayla was looking at him, she started thinking about how other people saw this man she loved, how he appeared, his physical look. What was it about him that drew people to him before he even said a word? He was tall, with yellow hair lighter than hers, and he was strong and well made, with good proportions for his height. Though she couldn't see the colour in the dim light of the shelter, she knew that his eyes, which always caught people's attention, matched the extraordinary blue of glacier water and the ice of its depths. She had seen both. He was intelligent and skilled in making things, like the flint tools he crafted, but more than that, she knew he had a quality, a charm, a charisma that attracted most people, but especially women. Zelandoni had been known to say that not even the Mother could refuse him if he asked.

He didn't quite know he had it — it was an unconscious appeal — but he did tend to take for granted that he would always be welcomed. Though it wasn't something he used on purpose, exactly, he knew he had an effect on people and benefited from it. Even his long Journey had not disabused him of the notion, or changed his perception that wherever he went, people would accept him, approve of him, like him. He had never really had to explain himself or find out how to fit in, and he never learned how to ask for pardon for doing something inappropriate or unacceptable.

If he seemed contrite or acted sorry — feelings that were usually genuine — people tended to accept that. Even when he was a young man and had beat Ladroman so badly that he knocked out his permanent front teeth, Jondalar didn't have to find the words to say he was sorry, then face him, and say them. His mother paid a heavy compensation for him, and he was sent away to live with Dalanar, the man of his hearth, for a few years, but he didn't have to do anything himself to make amends. He didn't have to beg forgiveness, or even say he was sorry for doing something wrong and injuring the other boy.

Though to most people he was considered an amazingly handsome, masculine man, Ayla thought of him in a somewhat different way. Men of the people who raised her, men of the Clan, had features that were more rugged, with large round eye sockets, generous noses, and pronounced brow ridges. From the first moment she saw him, unconscious, almost dead, after being attacked by her lion, the man had aroused an unconscious memory of people she hadn't seen in many years, a memory of people like herself. To Ayla, Jondalar's features were not as strong as those of the men with whom she had grown up, but they were so perfectly shaped and arranged, she thought that he was incredibly beautiful, like a fine-looking animal, a healthy young horse or lion. Jondalar had explained to her that it was not a word usually used to describe men, but though she didn't say it often, she did think he was beautiful.

He looked at her as he lay beside her, then bent his head to kiss her. He felt the softness of her lips and slowly moved his tongue between them, which she obligingly opened. He felt a tightening of his loins again.

'Ayla, you are so beautiful, and I am so lucky,' he said.

'I am so lucky,' she said. 'And you are beautiful.'

He smiled. She knew it wasn't quite the word to use, though she used 'beautiful' correctly in all other instances. Now, when she said it to him in private, he just smiled. She hadn't closed the ties at the top of the opening of her tunic, though her breast had slipped back inside. He reached in and pulled it out again, the same one she had just used to nurse, and ran his tongue around the nipple, then suckled on it, tasting her milk.

'It feels different inside me when you do it,' she said softly. 'I like it when Jonayla nurses, but it doesn't feel the same. You make me want you to touch me in other places.'

'You make me want to touch you in those places.'

He undid all the ties and opened her tunic wide, exposing both breasts. When he suckled her again, her other nipple dribbled milk, and he reached over to lick that one.

'I'm coming to like the taste of your milk, but I don't want to take what belongs to Jonayla.'

'By the time she's hungry again, more milk will be there.'

He let go of the nipple and ran his tongue up to her neck and then kissed her again, this time more fiercely, and felt a need so strong he wasn't sure he could control it. He stopped and buried his face in her neck, trying to regain his composure. She began tugging on his tunic to pull it over his head.

'It's been a while,' he said, sitting up on his knees. 'I can't believe how ready I am.'

'Are you?' she said, with a teasing grin.

'I'll show you,' he said.

He stripped off his tunic with a two-handed pull over his head, then standing, untied the drawstring around his waist and pulled off his short-legged trousers. Under those he wore a protective pouch that covered his man parts, tied on around his hips with thin strips of leather. Usually made of chamois or rabbit or some other soft skin, the thong pouches tended to be worn only in summer. If the weather became very warm or a man was working especially hard, he could strip down to just that and still feel protected. Jondalar's pouch was bulging with the member it contained. He slipped the thongs down, releasing his straining manhood.

Ayla looked up at him, a slow smile showing her response. There was a time when the size of his member had frightened women, before they knew with what care and gentleness he used it. His first time with Ayla he was afraid she might be nervous, before they both understood how suited they were to each other. Sometimes Jondalar really couldn't believe how lucky he was. Whenever he wanted her, she was ready for him. She never acted coy or disinterested. It was as if she always wanted him as much as he wanted her. He responded with a grin of such happiness and delight that in response her smile grew into the glorious manifestation that transformed her in his eyes, and those of most men, into a woman of unsurpassing beauty.

The fire in their small hearth was burning down, not yet out, but not giving much light or heat. It didn't matter. He dropped down beside her and began to remove her clothing, first the long tunic, stopping to suck on her nipples again, before untying the thongs around her waist holding up her half-leggings. He loosened the waist ties, and pulled the leggings down, running his tongue down her stomach, dipping into her navel, then pulling them down more, uncovering her pubic hair. When the top of her slit showed, he dipped his tongue there, savouring her familiar taste and searching for the small knob. She made a small squeal of pleasure when he found it.

He pulled off her leggings, and bent down to kiss her again, then tasted milk and worked his way down and tasted her essence again. He spread her legs, opened her lovely petals, then found her swelling nodule. He knew just how to stimulate her; he suckled it and worked it with his tongue while he put his fingers inside her and found other places that stirred her senses.

She cried out, feeling jolts of fire rising through her. Almost too soon he felt a spurt of fluid, tasted her, and his urge to let himself go was so strong, he very nearly couldn't hold back. He raised up, found her opening with his swollen manhood, and pushed in, grateful that he didn't have to fear that he would hurt her, that she could take him all, that he fit so well.

She cried out again, and again each time he pulled out and moved in. And then he was there. With a groaning shout that he seldom expressed when others were around, he reached an intensely powerful peak and surged into her. As she heard his cries, she felt herself matching his movements, not even hearing her own sounds as the waves of sensation, matching his, flooded over her. She arched her back, pushing into him as he pushed against her. They held for a moment, shaking with the convulsions, pushing against each other as though trying to get inside each other and become one, and then they dropped down, panting to catch their breaths. He lay on top of her, the way she liked it, until he thought he must be too heavy on her and rolled over.

'I'm sorry it was so fast,' he said.

'I'm not. I was just as ready as you were, maybe more.'

They lay together for a while, then she said, 'I'd like to take a quick dip in the stream.'

'You and your cold-water baths. Do you have any idea how cold that water is? Remember when we stayed with the Losadunai on our Journey here? The hot water that came out of the ground, and the wonderful hot baths they built?' Jondalar said.

'They were wonderful, but cold water makes you feel fresh and tingly. I don't mind cold water baths,' she said.

'And I've become accustomed to them. All right. Let's build up the fire so it's warm when we come back, and go take a cold wash, a quick cold wash.'

When glaciers covered the land not far to the north, even at the height of summer the evenings could be cool at latitudes midway between the pole and the equator. They took with them the soft chamois drying skins that had been given to them by their Sharamudoi friends on their Journey, and wrapping themselves in them, ran out to the stream, downriver of their usual water source, but not as far down as the waste basket washing place.

'This water is cold!' Jondalar protested when they ran in.

'Yes, it is,' Ayla said, crouching down so that the water reached her neck and covered her shoulders. She splashed cold water on her face, then used her hands to rub herself all over under the water. She ran out, picked up the chamois towel and wrapped it around herself, and dashed toward their shelter. Jondalar was close on her heels. They hovered over the fire and dried off quickly, then hung the wet skins on a peg. They crawled into their sleeping roll and cuddled close to get warm.

Once they felt comfortable again, he whispered in her ear, 'If we go slowly, do you think you can be ready again?'

'I think so, if you can.'

Jondalar kissed her, searching with his tongue to open her mouth and she responded in kind. This time, he didn't want to rush it. He wanted to linger over her, explore her body, find all the special places that gave her pleasure, and let her find his. He ran his hand down her arm and felt her cool skin that was beginning to warm, then caressed her breast, feeling the contracted, hardened nipple in his palm. He manipulated it between his thumb and finger, then ducked his head under the cover to take it in his mouth.

There was a noise outside. They both lifted their heads above the covers to listen. There were voices, coming closer, and then the flap over the entry was pushed aside as people walked in. They both lay still listening. If everyone went right to bed, they could continue their new explorations. Neither one of them felt entirely comfortable sharing Pleasures while other people were sitting nearby fully awake and talking, although some people didn't seem to mind. It wasn't all that unusual, Jondalar realised, and tried to remember what he did when he was younger.

He knew they had grown used to seclusion when they spent a year travelling alone together to his home, but he thought that he was always a man who liked his privacy, even when Zolena was teaching him. Especially when the teaching became more than a donii-woman and her young charge, when they actually became lovers, and he wanted her to be his mate. Then he recognised her voice along with that of his mother and Willamar. The First had come with them to the camp of the Ninth Cave.

'Let me get some water heating for tea,' Marthona said. 'We can get a light from Jondalar's hearth.'

'She knows we're awake,' Jondalar whispered to Ayla. 'I think we're going to have to get up.'

'I think you're right,' Ayla said.

'I'll bring you some fire, mother,' Jondalar said, pushing the covers back and reaching for his pouch thong.

'Oh, did we wake you?' Marthona said.

'No, mother,' he said. 'You didn't wake us.' He got up and found a long, thin piece of kindling and held it to the fire until it caught, then brought the fire to the main hearth in the shelter.

'Why don't you have some tea with us,' his mother said.

'I guess we might as well,' he said. He knew that they were all fully aware that they had interrupted the young couple.

'I've been wanting to talk to both of you anyway,' Zelandoni said.

'Let me go back and put some warmer clothes on,' he said.

Ayla had already dressed herself when Jondalar got back to their small sleeping area. He quickly put on his clothing and both of them went to the main hearth, carrying their personal drinking cups.

'Someone filled up the waterbag,' Willamar said. 'I think you saved me the trouble, Jondalar.'

'Ayla noticed it was empty.'

'I saw Wolf and your horses out back of the dwelling, Ayla,' Willamar said.

'No one was in camp all day, and a snow leopard tried to get Grey. Whinney and Racer fought him off and killed him, but they broke out of the surround,' Jondalar said.

'Wolf found them way in the back of this meadow, near the cliffs and a small stream. It must have been terrible for them. They were even afraid of him and us at first,' Ayla said.

'And they wouldn't go anywhere near the surround, so we brought them here,' Jondalar said.

'Wolf is watching them now, but we'll have to find some other place to keep the horses,' Ayla said. 'I was going to find someplace to get rid of that snow leopard carcass tomorrow, and give away the wood from the surround. It would make good firewood.'

'There are some good planks on that surround. It's good for more than firewood,' Willamar said.

'You can have it all, Willamar. I don't even want to see it again,' Ayla said, with a shudder.

'Yes, why don't you decide what to do with that wood, Willamar. There are some good pieces,' Jondalar said, thinking to himself that the snow leopard had scared Ayla even more than it did the horses. It made her angry, too. She'd probably burn the surround herself just to get rid of it.

'How do you know it was a snow leopard? They are not usually found around here,' Willamar said, 'and never in summer, that I can remember.'

'When we got to the enclosure, we found the remains of the leopard, but no sign of the horses,' Jondalar said. 'Ayla found a long fluffy tail of greyish white fur with dark spots and recognised it as belonging to a snow leopard.'

'Sounds right to me,' Willamar said. 'but snow leopards like the highlands and mountains, and go after ibex, chamois, and mouflon, not usually horses.'

'Ayla said she thought it was a young one, possibly male,' Jondalar said.

'Maybe the mountain feeders are coming down early this year,' Marthona said. 'If that is true, it could mean a short summer.'

'We'd better tell Joharran. It might be wise to plan some major hunts soon, and lay in a good store of meat early. A short summer can mean a long, cold winter,' Willamar said.

'And we'd better pick all we can of whatever ripens before any cold weather comes,' Marthona said. 'Even before it ripens, if necessary. I remember one year many years ago when we collected very little fruit, and had to dig roots out of almost frozen ground.'

'I remember that year,' Willamar said. 'I think it was before Joconan was leader.'

'That's right. We weren't even mated yet, but we were interested,' Marthona said. 'If I remember correctly, there were several bad years around that time.'

The First had no recollection of the event. She was probably a very young child, at the time. 'What did people do?' she asked.

'At first, I don't think anyone believed the summer could be over so fast,' Willamar said. 'And then everybody started hurrying to lay in food for the winter. It was good that they did. It turned out to be a long cold season.'

'People should be warned,' the First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother said.

'How can you be sure it means a short summer? It's just one snow leopard.' Jondalar said.

Ayla was thinking the same thing, but didn't say anything.

'No one has to be sure,' Marthona said. 'If people dry extra meat or berries, or store more roots or nuts early, and it doesn't turn cold, it won't hurt anything. It will get used up later. But if we don't have enough, people could go hungry, or worse.'

'I told you I wanted to talk to you, Ayla. I've been thinking about when we should start your Donier Tour. I wasn't sure if we should go early, or wait until the end of summer, maybe even after the Second Matrimonial. Now I think we should start as soon as we can. We can warn people of the possibility of a short season at the same time,' the First said. 'I'm sure the Fourteenth would be more than happy to conduct the Late Matrimonial. I don't think there will be many couples anyway. Just the few who may meet and decide this summer. I know of two couples who aren't sure if they want to mate yet, and one whose Caves are slow in coming to agreements. Do you think you can be ready to go in a few days?'

'I'm sure we can,' Ayla said. 'And if we leave, I won't have to find another place for the horses.'

'Look at the crowd,' Danella said, watching the people who had congregated in groups and pockets around the large zelandonia dwelling. She was walking with her mate, Stevadal, the leader of Sun View, and with Joharran and Proleva.

They were watching the crowd who were gathered around the large shelter, watching to see who would come out, not that there wasn't enough to see anyway. The special pole-drag with the seat that had been made for the First had been hitched to the dun-yellow mare of Jondalar's foreign woman, and Lanidar, the young hunter from the Nineteenth Cave with the deformed arm, was holding a rope attached to a halter, a device made of rope that went around the horse's head. He was also holding a lead attached to the young brown stallion, who had a similar pole-drag hitched to him, loaded with bundles. The grey foal was standing near him, as though looking to him for protection from the crowd. The wolf was beside them, sitting on his haunches, watching the entry, too.

'You were still weak and weren't here when they arrived,' Stevadal said to his mate. 'Do they always get so much attention, Joharran?'

'It's always like that when they load up,' Joharran said.

'It's one thing to have the horses around the edges of the Main Camp, and the wolf at Ayla's side; you get used to seeing the animals being friendly to a few people. But when they attach those things they pull, and load them up, when they ask the horses to work and the horses are willing, I think that's what comes as a real surprise,' Proleva said.

There was a stir of excitement as people started leaving the summer dwelling. The four of them hurried so they could make their farewells. When Jondalar and Ayla came out, Wolf stood up, but stayed where he was. They were followed by Marthona, Willamar and Folara, several Zelandonia, and then the First. Joharran was already planning a large hunt, and though Stevadal was a little reluctant to accept their warning of a short summer entirely, he was more than willing to go along on the hunt.

'Will you be coming back here, Ayla?' Danella asked, after she had brushed cheeks. 'I've hardly had time to get to know you.'

'I don't know. I think that depends on the First,' Ayla said.

Danella also brushed Jonayla's cheek with hers. The child was wide awake, held to her mother's hip with her carrying blanket, and seemed to be sensing the excitement in the air. 'I wish I'd had the chance to know this little one better, too. She is such a delight, and so pretty.'

They walked to where the horses were waiting, and took the lead ropes. 'Thank you, Lanidar,' Ayla said. 'I am grateful for your help with the horses, especially these past few days. They trust you, and feel comfortable around you.'

'I've enjoyed it. I like the horses and both of you have done so much for me. If you hadn't asked me to watch them last year, and taught me how to use the spear-thrower, and given me my first one, I never would have learned how to hunt. I'd still be following my mother around picking berries. Now I have some friends, and some status to offer Lanoga, when she's older.'

'So you still plan to mate with her,' Ayla said.

'Yes, we are making plans,' Lanidar said. He stood for a moment, as though he wanted to say more. Finally he did. 'I want to thank you and Jondalar for the summer dwelling you built for them. It made such a difference. I have stayed there a few times — well, most nights — to help her with the little ones. Her mother came back two, no three times. Tremeda always asks me for something, but not until the next morning. At night, she can hardly walk. Laramar even spent the night once. I don't think he noticed that I was there. He left in the morning right after he got up.'

'How about Bologan? Does he stay there at night and help with the younger children?' Ayla asked.

'Sometimes. He's learning to make barma, and he stays with Laramar whenever he makes it. He's also been practising with the spear-thrower. I've been showing him. Last summer, he didn't seem interested in hunting, but this year, I think after he saw what I've learned, he wants to show that he can do it.'

'Good. I'm glad to hear that. Thank you for telling me about them and yourself,' Ayla said. 'If we don't come back here after our travels, I will look forward to seeing you next year.' She brushed her cheek with his and gave him a hug.

Ayla noticed the crowd's attention was drawn to Whinney's pole-drag. The large woman who was the Zelandoni of the Ninth Cave, and the First Among Those Who Served was walking toward it. Ayla had some idea how nervous she was, but she didn't show it. She walked with an air of confidence, as though it were nothing at all. Jondalar was standing there with a smile, and held out his hand to assist her. Ayla stayed at Whinney's head, to steady her when she became aware of the added load. The woman stepped up on the lower step, and felt it give as the poles bent with her weight, but no more than the normal spring of the wood. Still holding Jondalar's hand for balance, and reassurance, she continued up, then turned around and sat down. Someone had made a very comfortable pad for the seat and backrest, and once she had seated herself, she felt better. She noticed arm supports that she could hold on to once they started moving, which also eased her concerns.

Once Zelandoni was settled, Jondalar went to Ayla, and locked both hands together to make a place for her foot. He stood beside Whinney and helped Ayla, carrying Jonayla, get up on her horse. When she was carrying her baby, it was difficult to jump up in her usual way. The man tied the long lead that was attached to Grey's small halter to the frame of the pole-drag, then went to Racer, who was beside them, and easily climbed on.

Ayla started out, leading the way out of the Main Camp of the Summer Meeting. In spite of all her encumbrances, supporting a rider and hauling a heavy load on the pole-drag, Whinney was not about to let her offspring get in front of her. She was lead mare, and in a herd, the lead mare always led the way. Ayla smiled down at him as Wolf fell in beside her.

Racer and Jondalar fell in behind them. He was glad to be bringing up the rear. It gave him the opportunity to keep an eye on Ayla and her baby, not to mention Zelandoni, to make sure nothing went wrong. Since the First was facing backward, he could smile at her, and if he got close enough, even have a conversation, or at least say a few words.

The Donier waved sedately at the receding Camp of people, and continued to watch them until they were too far to see clearly. She, too, was glad Jondalar was behind her. She was still a little nervous about riding behind the horse, and just watching the place she had been and the landscape passing by was not terribly interesting after the first few miles. It was a bumpy ride, especially when the going was a little rough, but all in all, it was not a bad way to travel, she decided.

Ayla headed back the way they had come until they came to a stream coming down from the north, near a landmark they had discussed the night before; then she stopped. Jondalar, with his long legs, had to do little more than step off the young stallion and went ahead to help Ayla, but she had already swung her leg over and slid down.

The horses were compact animals, not ponies, but wild horses in their natural state were not tall. They were, however, sturdy, robust, and exceedingly strong, with a rather thick neck capped by a short mane that stood upright. They had tough hooves that could run over any land — sharp stones, hard ground, or soft sand — without needing protection. They both walked back to Zelandoni and held out hands, which she took to help her balance as she got down.

'It's not difficult to travel like that,' the First said. 'A little bumpy, sometimes, but the seat pad eases that and the arm rests give you something to hang onto. It feels good to stand up and walk, though.' She looked around, then nodded. 'From here we travel north for a while. It's not too far, but it will be uphill and the climb is steep.'

Wolf had raced ahead, following his nose to explore the area, but returned when they stopped. He loped back into sight as they were helping Zelandoni back on the pole-drag; then they got up on their horses. They crossed the stream and followed it north, upstream on the left bank. Ayla noticed cutmarks on trees and knew the trail had been blazed by someone who had gone that way before. When she looked closely at one of the marks used to indicate the path, she could see it was just a fresh renewal of an older blaze that had darkened and was not as readily seen; there was an older mark that was partly grown over and, she thought, another even older one.

Ayla kept the horses at a slow walk so as not to tire them. Zelandoni talked to Jondalar, who felt like walking and had got off Racer and was leading the brown horse along the marked trail. It was a rigorous uphill climb and as they ascended, the landscape changed with deciduous trees that became brush that was interspersed with taller conifers. Wolf kept disappearing into the woods, then would materialise from another direction.

After about five miles, the trail led them to the entrance of a large cave high up in the hills of the watershed between The River and West River. It was well into the afternoon by the time they reached the place.

'That was much easier than walking up,' Zelandoni said as she stepped down from her seat on the pole-drag, not even waiting for help from Jondalar this time.

'When do you want to go in?' Jondalar asked, going to the entrance and looking in.

'Not until tomorrow,' Zelandoni said. 'It's a long way in. It will take all day to go in and come back.'

'Do you plan to go all the way in?'

'Oh, yes. All the way to the back.'

'Then we should probably set up camp here since we'll be staying at least two nights,' Jondalar said.

'It's still early. After we set up camp, I think I'll look and see what is growing around here,' Ayla said. 'I may find something nice for our evening meal.'

'I'm sure you will,' Jondalar said.

'Do you want to come? We can all go,' Ayla said.

'No. I've already seen some outcroppings of flint coming out of the rock walls, and I know there's some inside the cave, too,' Jondalar said. 'I'm going to take a torch and go in and look.'

'What about you, Zelandoni?' Ayla said.

'I don't think so. I want to meditate a bit about this cave, and I want to check the torches and lamps and think about how many we will need. And what else we should bring in with us,' the One Who Was First said.

'It looks like a huge cave,' Ayla said, stepping inside, peering into the darkness, then looking up at the roof.

Jondalar followed her in. 'Look, here's another piece of flint coming out of the wall, right near the entrance. I'm sure there's more deeper inside,' he said, his excitement evident from the sound of his voice. 'It would be heavy to carry very much of it out, though.'

'Is it this high all the way in,' Ayla asked the woman.

'Yes, more or less, except at the very end. This is more than a cave. It is a huge cavern — actually there are many large rooms and tunnels. There are even lower levels, but we won't need to explore them this time. Cave bears have come in here in winter; you can see their wallows and scratchings on the walls,' the First said.

'Is it big enough for the horses to walk in?' Ayla asked. 'Maybe with a pole-drag, so we could take some of Jondalar's flint out?'

'I think so,' Zelandoni said.

'We'll have to make blaze marks on our way in to make sure we can find our way out,' Jondalar said.

'I'm sure Wolf could help us get out if we get turned around,' Ayla said.

'Will he come in with us?' Zelandoni asked.

'If I ask him to,' Ayla said.

The area had obviously been used before; outside the entrance, the ground in places had been levelled, and several fireplaces set up, evident by the ashes and charcoal, and fire-burned rocks around them. They selected one to reuse, but added stones from another one around the edge, and made a spit for roasting using some forked branches wedged in with stones and greenwood sticks that would be used to impale the food. Jondalar and Ayla unhitched the horses, removed their halters, and led them to an open patch of grass nearby. They could take care of themselves, and would come at the sound of their whistles.

Then they all set up a travelling tent that was bigger than usual. They had put two together and tried it out before they left to make sure it would be comfortable for all of them. They had dried travelling food with them, plus some cooked leftovers from their early meal, but they had also brought some fresh meat from a red deer kill that had been made by Solaban and Rushemar. Leaning the poles from the pole-drags together, Jondalar and Ayla made a high tripod construction fastened at the top from which they suspended rawhide-wrapped packages of food to keep animals from getting it. To leave it in the tent would have been to invite a carnivore in to search for it.

They collected fuel for the fire, mostly deadwood from downed trees, and brush, but also the dried twigs and branches of the coniferous trees, low down on the trunks below the last living ones, dried grasses, and the dried droppings of the animals that ate grass. Ayla started a fire and banked it to make coals for later. They all had a lunch of leftovers, and even Jonayla mouthed the end of a bone after she nursed. Then they went to their separate tasks. Zelandoni began checking the bundles that had been on Racer's pole-drag, looking for torches and lamps, bags of fat for lamp fuel, and lichen, dried mushroom, and various other wick materials. Jondalar picked up his bag of flint-knapping tools, lit a torch from the fire, and went into the large cavern.

Ayla put on her haversack, the Mamutoi carrying bag that was worn over one shoulder, somewhat softer than Zelandoni backframes, though still roomy. She wore it on her right side along with her quiver with its spear-thrower and spears. She tied her baby high up on her back with the carrying blanket on the other side, but Jonayla could be easily shifted around to sit on her left hip. In front on her left side, she shoved her digging stick under the sturdy leather thong she wore around her waist, while the sheath with her knife hung down the right. Several pouches hung from her waist band, too. She wore her sling around her head, but she carried the stones for her weapon in another pouch fastened to her waist thong. Another pouch was for general things like eating dishes, a fire-starting kit, a small hammerstone, a sewing kit that included thread of various sizes, from fine twists of sinew to sturdy cord that fitted through the holes of the larger ivory needles. She also had some coils of larger cordage, and a few other odds and ends. The last object was her medicine bag.

She carried her medicine bag attached to her waist thong. The otter-skin pouch was something she seldom went anywhere without. It was very unusual; even Zelandoni had never seen one like it, although she immediately grasped that it was an object of spiritual power. It was made like the first one Iza, Ayla's Clan mother, had made for her out of a whole otter skin. Instead of cutting through the stomach in the usual way of field-dressing an animal, the throat had been cut not quite all the way around, so that the head, with the brains removed, was attached at the back by a flap of skin. The innards, including the backbone, had been carefully drawn out of the neck opening, while the feet and tail were left in place. Two red-dyed cords were threaded around the neck in opposite directions making the closure secure, and the head, dried and somewhat compressed, was used as a cover flap.

Ayla checked the quiver, which held four spear-darts and her spear-thrower; then she picked up her collecting basket, signalled Wolf to come with her, and started down the trail back the way they had come. When they were approaching the cave, she had seen and evaluated most of the vegetation that was growing along the way and had assessed its uses. It was something she had learned as a girl, and was, by now, second nature. It was an essential practice for people who lived off the land, whose survival depended on what could be hunted or gathered or found as they foraged each day. Ayla always categorised the medicinal as well as the nutritional properties of what she saw. Iza was a medicine woman, and had been determined to teach her knowledge to her adopted daughter along with her own daughter. But Uba was born with memories inherited from her mother, and she only needed to be reminded once or twice to know and understand what her mother showed or explained.

Since Ayla didn't have the Clan memories, Iza discovered it was much more difficult to train her. She had to teach her by rote; only by constant repetition could the girl of the Others be made to remember. But then Ayla surprised Iza because once she did learn, she could think about the medicine she had been taught in a new way. For example, if one medicinal plant wasn't available, she was quick to think of a substitute, or a combination of medicines that would bring together similar properties or actions. She was also very good at diagnosis, at being able to determine what was wrong when someone came with a vague complaint. Although she couldn't explain it, it gave Iza a sense of the differences in the way the Clan and the Others thought.

Many in Brun's clan believed that the girl of the Others who lived in their midst wasn't very smart because she couldn't remember as quickly or as well as any of them. Iza had realised that she wasn't less intelligent, but that she thought differently, in another way. Ayla had come to understand it as well. When people of the Others would make comments about the people of the Clan being none too bright, she would try to explain that they were not less intelligent, but differently intelligent.

Ayla walked back along the trail to a place she distinctly remembered, where the trail through the woods they had been following went over a slight rise and opened out to a field of low-growing grass and brush. She had noticed it when they passed by before, and as she approached it again, she detected the delicious fragrance of ripe strawberries. She untied the carrying blanket and spread it out on the ground, then put Jonayla in the middle of it. She picked a tiny berry, squashed it a little to bring out the sweet juice and put it in her baby's mouth. Jonayla's expression of surprise and curiosity made Ayla smile. She put a few in her own mouth, gave another to her baby, then looked around to see what she could use to bring some back to camp.

She spied a stand of birch trees nearby and signalled Wolf to watch Jonayla while she went to examine them. When she reached the trees, she was glad to see that some of the thin bark had started to peel. She pulled several wide strips off and brought them back with her. From the sheath that was attached to her waistband she withdrew a new knife, which Jondalar had recently given to her. It was made of a flint blade he had knapped and inserted into a beautiful handle of yellowing old ivory shaped by Solaban with some carvings of horses done by Marsheval. She cut the birch bark into symmetrical pieces, then scored them to make it easier to fold into two small containers with lids. The berries were so tiny, it took a long time to pick enough to give three people a reasonable taste, but the flavour of the wild strawberries was so luscious, it was worth it. From the pouch in which she carried her personal drinking cup and bowl, she always carried a few other items, including coils of twine. Cordage of various sizes was always useful. She used some to tie the birch-bark containers together, then put them in her gathering basket.

Jonayla had fallen asleep, and Ayla covered her with a corner of the soft buckskin carrying blanket, which was getting a little tattered at that end. Wolf was lying beside her, his eyes half closed. When Ayla looked over at him, he thumped his tail on the ground, but stayed close to the newest member of his pack, whom he adored. Ayla got up, picked up the gathering basket, and walked across the grassy field toward the woods on the fringe.

The first thing she saw in a hedge bank were the star-like whorls of the narrow leaves of cleavers, growing abundantly up and through other plants, aided by the tiny hooked bristles that covered them. She pulled out several of the long, trailing stems by the roots, bunching them up together easily because the bristles made them stick together. In that state they could be used as a strainer and for that quality alone they were useful, but they had many other properties, both nutritional and medicinal. The young leaves made a pleasant spring green, the roasted seeds an interesting dark beverage. The pounded herb mixed with fat into an ointment was helpful for women whose breasts were swollen with caked milk.

She was drawn to a sunny dry, grassy place, detected a delightful aromatic fragrance, and looked for the plant that liked to grow there. She quickly found hyssop. It was one of the first plants Iza had taught her about and she remembered the occasion well. It was a woody little shrub that grew something more than a foot high, with narrow evergreen leaves, small and dark green, crowding together along the branching stems. The intense blue flowers, circling the stem among the upper leaves on long spikes, had just started to appear and several bees were buzzing around them. She wondered where the hive was, since honey flavoured with hyssop was especially tasty.

She picked several of the stalks, planning to use the flowers for tea, which was not only delicious, but especially good for coughs, hoarseness, and deep chest conditions. The leaves when bruised were also good for relieving cuts and burns, and for reducing bruises. Drinking the tea of the leaves and soaking the limbs in a bath of it were a good treatment for rheumatism. Thinking of that brought a sudden thought of Creb, which made her smile even as it brought a memory of sadness. One of the other medicine women at the Clan Gathering had explained that she also used hyssop for the swelling of the legs caused by retaining too much fluid. Ayla glanced up and saw Wolf still lying beside her sleeping baby, then turned and went more deeply into the woods.

On a shady bank near some spruce trees Ayla spied a patch of woodruff, a little plant about ten inches high with leaves growing in circles, similar to cleavers, but with a weak stem. She bent down on her knees to carefully pick the plant with its leaves and tiny white four-petalled flowers. It had its own delicious scent and made a tasty tea, and Ayla knew the fragrance would grow stronger when it was dried. The leaves could be used for wounds, and when boiled they were good for stomachaches and other internal disorders. It was useful to disguise the sometimes unpleasant smell of other medicines, but she also liked to spread it around her dwelling, and to stuff pillows with it because of its natural perfume.

Not far away she saw another familiar plant that liked shady banks in woods, this one close to two feet high, wood avens. The toothed leaves, shaped somewhat like wide feathers and covered with small hairs, were sparsely scattered along its wiry stems, which branched slightly. The leaves were not uniform in size or shape, depending upon their position on the stem. On the lower branches, the leaves grew on long stalks and had irregular spaces between the leaflets, with the terminal one large and rounder. The intermediate pairs were smaller and somewhat different in shape and size. The higher-up leaves were three-fingered, the lower ones rounder and the upper narrower. The flowers, which rather resembled buttercups, had five bright-yellow petals with green sepals between, and seemed too small for such a tall plant. The fruits, which appeared together with the flowers, were more conspicuous and ripened into the small, bristly heads of dark-red burrs.

But Ayla dug down for the rhizome from which the plant grew. She wanted the small, wiry rootlets that had the scent and flavour of cloves. She knew they were good for many things, for stomach problems, including diarrhoea, for sore throat, fever, and the stuffiness and mucus of a cold, even for bad breath, but she especially liked to use them as a pleasant, mildly spicy, clove-like seasoning for food.

She saw plants some distance away that she thought at first were a patch of violets, but which on closer inspection turned out to be ground ivy. The flowers were different in shape and grew from the base of leaves that grew in whorls of three or four around the stem. The kidney-shaped leaves with rounded teeth and a network of veins grew opposite each other on long stalks on alternate sides of square stems and stayed green all year, but the colour varied from bright to dark green. She knew ground ivy was strongly aromatic and sniffed it to confirm the identity. She had made a thick infusion along with licorice root for coughs, and Iza had used it to soothe inflamed eyes. One Mamut at the Mamutoi Summer Meeting had recommended ground ivy for humming noises in the ears, and for wounds.

The damp ground led to a marshy area and a small stream, and Ayla was delighted to see an extensive stand of cattails, a tall reed-like plant six feet or more in height and among the most useful of all plants. In spring, the young shoots of new roots could be pulled loose from the rootstalk, exposing a tender young core; the new shoots and the core could be eaten raw or cooked lightly. Summer was the season for the green flower stalks growing at the top of the tall stems, which when boiled and gnawed off the stem were deliciously edible. Later they would turn into brown cattails, and the long pollen spike above each cattail would ripen, making the protein-rich yellow pollen available for harvesting. Then the cattail would burst into tufts of white down, which could be used as stuffing for pillows, pads, or diapers, or as tinder for starting fires. Summer was also the season when the tender white sprouts that represented next year's plant growth were growing out of the thick underground rhizome, and with such a large concentration, gathering a few would not harm next year's crop.

The fibrous rootstalk was available all year, even in winter if the ground wasn't frozen or covered with snow. A white, starchy flour could be extracted by pounding it in a shallow, wide bark container of water so that the heavier flour would settle to the bottom while the fibres floated, or the rhizome could be dried and later pounded to remove the fibres, leaving the dry flour. The long, narrow leaves could be woven into mats for sitting upon or could be turned into envelope-like pouches, or waterproof panels, several of which could be made into a temporary shelter, or into baskets or cooking bags that could be filled with roots, stalks, leaves, or fruits, lowered into boiling water, and easily retrieved, and if they cooked long enough, the leaves could also be eaten. The dried stalk from the previous year's growth could be used as a fire drill when spun between the palms against a suitable platform to make fire.

Ayla put her gathering basket down on dry ground, pulled her digging stick, which was made from an antler of a red deer, out of her waistband, and waded into the marsh. With the stick and her hands she dug down through the mud about four inches and pulled out the long rootstalks of several plants. The rest of the plant came with, including the large sprouts attached to the rhizome, and the six-inch-long, nearly inch-thick, cattail-shaped green flower-seed heads, both of which she was planning to cook for their evening meal. She wrapped some cordage around the long cattail stalks, making a bundle that was more easily managed, and headed back to the open field.

She passed an ash tree along the way, and she recalled how prevalent they had been near the home of the Sharamudoi, although there were a few in Wood Valley. She thought about preparing the ash keys the way the Sharamudoi did, but the winged fruit had to be picked when very young, crisp but not stringy, and these were already past their prime. The tree had many medicinal uses, though.

When she returned to the meadow, she was immediately alarmed. Wolf was standing near her baby, staring at some high grass, making a low, menacing growl. Was something wrong?

Chapter 13

She hurried to find out. When she reached them, she saw that Jonayla was awake and oblivious to the danger the canine seemed to sense, but she had somehow turned herself over from her back to her stomach and was holding herself up on her arms looking around.

Ayla couldn't see what Wolf was looking at, but she heard movement and snuffling sounds. She put down her collecting basket and the bundle of cattails, picked up her baby, and put her on her back with the carrying blanket. Then she loosened the ties and reached into the special pouch for a couple of stones as she pulled her sling off her head. She couldn't see what was there, no point in using a spear if there was nothing to aim at, but a stone flung hard in the general direction might scare it off.

She cast one stone, followed quickly by another. The second hit something with a thump and a yelp. She heard something moving in the grass. Wolf was straining forward, whining softly, eager to go.

'Go ahead, Wolf,' she said, making the signal at the same time.

Wolf dashed ahead while Ayla quickly wrapped her sling back around her head, then took her spear-thrower out of its holder, and reached for a spear as she followed behind.

When Ayla reached Wolf, he was facing off with an animal the size of a bear cub, but much more fierce. The dark brown fur with a lighter band that ran along its flanks to the upperside of its bushy tail was the distinctive marking of a wolverine. She had dealt with this largest of the weasel family before, and had seen them drive bigger four-legged hunters away from their own kills. They were nasty, vicious, and fearless predators that often hunted and killed animals much larger than themselves. They could eat more than looked possible for a creature their size, which probably accounted for their other name, 'glutton', yet sometimes, it seemed, they slaughtered for pleasure, not hunger, leaving behind what they killed. Wolf was more than ready to defend her and Jonayla, but in any fight a wolverine could inflict serious injury, or worse, if not on a pack, certainly on a solitary wolf. But he wasn't a lone wolf; Ayla was part of Wolf's pack.

With cool deliberation, she fitted a spear onto her thrower, and without hesitation hurled it at the animal, but Jonayla made a crying sound that alerted the wolverine. The creature had seen the woman's swift movement at the last moment, and started to scurry away. It might well have dashed out of her line of fire entirely if it hadn't been distracted by having to watch the wolf. As it was, it moved enough that her spear missed its mark slightly. Though the animal was hurt and bleeding, the sharp tip had only penetrated the hind quarters, which was not immediately fatal. The flint point of her spear was attached to a short, tapering length of wood that fit into the front of a longer shaft, and had separated from the long end of the spear as it was supposed to.

The wolverine ran for cover in the wooded underbrush with the point still embedded in him. Ayla could not leave the injured animal. Though she thought it was mortally wounded, she needed to finish it. It was probably hurting and she didn't want anything to hurt unnecessarily. Besides, wolverines were bad enough under normal circumstances — who knew what kind of damage it might inflict if it was frantic with pain, perhaps to their own camp, which wasn't so far away. In addition, she wanted to retrieve her shaped flint point, to see if it was was still usable. And she wanted the fur. She took out another spear, noting where the shaft of the first lay so she could come back for it.

'Find him, Wolf!' she signalled without saying the words, and followed behind.

Wolf, running in front, quickly sniffed out the animal. Not far ahead, Ayla found the canine snarling threateningly at a mass of dark brown fur snarling back from within a coppice of bushes.

Ayla quickly studied the position of the animal, then flung her second spear, hard. It pierced deeply, going all the way through the neck. A spurt of blood declared that an artery was severed. The wolverine stopped snarling and dropped to the ground.

Ayla disengaged the second spear shaft and considered dragging the wolverine back by its tail, but the nap of the fur lay in the other direction and pulling with the grain rather than against it would make it easier to tow the animal across the grass. Then she noticed more wood avens with their strong, wiry stems growing nearby, and yanked them out by the roots. She wrapped the stems around the head and jaws, and hauled the wolverine back to the clearing, stopping to pick up her first spear shaft on the way.

When she reached the place where she had left her gathering basket, Ayla was shaking. She dropped the animal a few feet away, loosened the carrying blanket, and shifted Jonayla around to the front. She hugged her daughter as tears rolled down her cheeks, finally letting her fear and anger out. She was sure the wolverine had been after her baby.

Even with Wolf on guard — and she knew he would have fought to his death for her — the large, vicious weasel could have hurt the healthy young canine, and attacked her child. There were very few animals that would go up against a wolf, especially one as big as Wolf. Most large cats would have backed off, or just passed them by, and those were the predators that were most on her mind. That was the only reason she had left Jonayla, not wanting to disturb her sleeping infant while she went to gather a few greens. After all, Wolf was watching her. Jonayla wasn't out of her sight more than a few moments, just when she was in the marsh getting the cattails. But she hadn't considered a wolverine. She shook her head. There was always more than one kind of predator around.

She nursed the baby for a while, as much to comfort herself as the child, and praised Wolf, petting him with her other hand and talking to him.

'Right now I have to skin out that wolverine. I would rather have killed something we could eat, though I suppose you could eat him, Wolf, but I do want that fur. It's the one thing wolverines are good for. They are mean and vicious and steal food from traps and when meat is drying, even if people are around. If they get inside a shelter, they destroy everything they can and make a big stink, but their fur makes the best trim around a winter hood. Ice doesn't cling to it when you breathe. I think I'll make a hood for Jonayla, and a new one for me, and maybe Jondalar, too. But you don't need one, Wolf. Ice doesn't cling much to your fur, either. Besides, you'd look funny with wolverine fur around your head.'

Ayla recalled the wolverine that had been bothering the women of Brun's clan when they were cutting up an animal from a hunt. It kept dashing into their midst and stealing the freshly cut strips of meat they had set out to dry on cords stretched close to the ground. Even when they threw stones, it wasn't deterred for long. Finally some of the men had to go after it. That incident had given her one of the reasons she had used to rationalise her decision when she resolved she would teach herself to hunt with the sling she had secretly learned to use.

Ayla put her baby down on the soft buckskin carrying blanket again, this time on her stomach, since she seemed to like pushing up and looking around. Then she dragged the wolverine carcass a few more paces away and turned it on its back. First she cut out the two flint points that were still embedded in the animal. The one stuck in the hindquarters was still good — she would only need to wash off the blood — but the one she had thrown with such force that it went clear through the neck had a broken tip. She could resharpen it and use it for a knife if not a spear point, but Jondalar could do it better, she thought.

With the new knife he had recently given her, she turned to the wolverine. Starting at the anus, she cut away his genital organs and made a deft cut up toward the stomach but stopped short of the ventral scent gland. One of the ways wolverines marked their territory was to straddle low logs or bushes and rub the strong-smelling material that issued from the gland on them. They also marked territory with urine and faeces, but it was the gland that could ruin the fur. It was almost impossible to get the smell out and unbearable to wear the fur around the face if it was contaminated by the gland whose smell was almost as strong as a skunk's.

Carefully pulling the skin away to avoid cutting through the stomach lining and breaking into the intestines, she cut all the way around the gland, then gingerly feeling with her hand, reached under it with the knife and cut it free. She was going to just toss it toward the woods, then realised that Wolf would likely pick up the odour and go after it, and she didn't want him smelling terrible either. She cautiously picked it up by the edge of the skin and walked back toward the woods where she had killed the creature. There was a fork in a tree above her head and she laid the gland on top of a branch. When she came back, she finished cutting through the skin, making a slit up the stomach to the throat.

Next she went back to where she started, at the anus, and began to slice through both skin and flesh. When she got to the pelvic bone, she felt for the ridge that was between the left and right sides, and cut through the muscle down to the bone. Then forcing the legs apart and again feeling for just the right spot, she exerted more pressure, and split the bone, cutting the stomach membrane just a bit to relieve tension. Now the bowel could be removed with the rest of the innards after she finished cutting the opening. Once this delicate task was accomplished cleanly, she cut the meat up to the breastbone, being careful not to penetrate the intestines.

Cutting through the breastbone would be somewhat more difficult, and would require more than just her stone knife. She needed a hammer. She knew she had a small hammerstone in the same pouch in which she kept her bowl and cup, but she looked around first to see if she could find something else to use. She should have taken the rounded stone out before she started the task of field-dressing the wolverine, but she had been a little disconcerted and forgot. She had some blood on her hands and didn't want to reach into her pouch and leave wolverine blood inside. She saw a stone sticking out of the ground and, using her digging stick, tried to pry it out, but it turned out to be bigger than it seemed. Finally, she wiped her hand on the grass and removed the hammerstone from her pouch.

But she needed more than a stone. If she just hit the back of her new flint knife with a hammerstone, it would chip. She needed something to soften the blow. Then she remembered that a corner of the baby's carrying blanket was getting tattered. She got up and walked back to where the baby was kicking her feet and trying to reach for Wolf. Ayla smiled at her then cut off a piece of soft leather from the ragged corner. When she got back to her chore, she placed the blade of her knife lengthwise along the sternum, put the folded-up soft leather over the back of the blade, then picked up the hammerstone and hit the blade. The knife made a cut, but did not split the bone. She hit it again, and then a third time before she felt the bone give way. Once the breastbone was split open, she continued to cut up to the throat to free the windpipe.

She stretched the rib cage apart, then with her knife she cut the diaphragm, which separated the chest from the stomach, free from the walls. She got a good hold on the slippery windpipe and began to pull out the viscera, using her knife to free them from the backbone. The whole connected package of internal organs fell out on the ground. She turned the wolverine over to let it drain. It was now field dressed.

The process was essentially the same for any animal, small or large. If it was an animal that was intended for food, the next step would be to cool it as quickly as possible, by skinning it, rinsing it with cool water, and if it had been winter, laying it on snow. Many of the internal organs of herbivorous animals like bison or aurochs or any of the various deer, or mammoth or rhinoceros, were edible and quite tasty — the liver, the heart, the kidneys — and some parts were usable. The brains were almost always used for tanning the hides. The intestines could be cleaned out and stuffed with rendered fat, or cut-up pieces of meat, sometimes mixed with blood. Well-washed stomachs and bladders made excellent waterbags, and were good containers for other liquids. They also made effective cooking utensils. Cooking could also be done in a fresh skin spread out and stuffed loosely into a hole dug in the ground, adding water, then boiling it with heated rocks. When used for cooking, stomachs, hides, and all organic materials shrank some because they also cooked, so it was never a good idea to fill them too full of liquid.

Though she knew some people did, she never ate the meat of carnivores. The clan who raised her didn't like to eat animals that ate meat, and Ayla found it distasteful the few times she had tried it. She thought that if she was really hungry, she might be able to stomach it, but she was sure she'd have to be starving. These days, she didn't even like horsemeat, though it was the favourite of many people. She knew it was because she felt so close to her horses.

It was time to gather up everything and head back to camp. She stashed the spear shafts in the special quiver, along with her spear-thrower, and put the points she had retrieved into the cavity of the wolverine. She put Jonayla on her back with the carrying blanket, then picked up her gathering basket, and tucked the bundled long stems of cattails under one arm. Then grabbing the avens stems still tied to the head of the wolverine, she started out dragging it behind her. She left its innards where they had fallen; one or more of the Mother's creatures would come along and eat them.

When she walked into their camp, both Jondalar and Zelandoni gawked for a moment. 'It's looks like you've been busy,' Zelandoni said.

'I didn't think you were going hunting,' Jondalar said, walking toward her to relieve her of some of her burdens, 'especially for a wolverine.'

'I didn't plan to,' Ayla said, then told him what had happened.

'I wondered why you were taking your weapons with you just to gather some growing things,' Zelandoni said. 'Now I know.'

'Usually women go out in a group. They talk and laugh and sing, and make a lot of noise,' Ayla said. 'It can be fun, but it also warns animals away.'

'I hadn't thought of it that way,' Jondalar said, 'but you're right. Several women together probably would keep most animals away.'

'We always tell young women whenever they leave their homes, to visit, or to pick berries, or gather wood, or whatever, to go with someone,' Zelandoni said. 'We wouldn't have to tell them to talk and laugh, and make noise. That happens whenever they get together, and it is a measure of safety.'

'In the Clan, people don't talk as much, and they don't laugh, but they make rhythms as they walk by banging digging sticks or rocks together,' Ayla said, 'and sometimes shouting and making other loud noises along with the rhythms. It's not singing, but it feels something like music when you do it.'

Jondalar and Zelandoni looked at each other, at a loss for words. Every so often Ayla would make a comment that gave them an insight into her life when she was young and living with the Clan, and how dissimilar her childhood had been from theirs, or anyone they knew. It also gave them an insight into how much the people of the Clan were like themselves — and how much different.

'I want that wolverine fur, Jondalar. I could make a new lining around the face of a hood for you with it, and for me and Jonayla, too, but I need to skin it right away. Would you watch her?' Ayla asked.

'I'll do better than that. I'll help you with it, and we can both keep an eye on her,' Jondalar said.

'Why don't you both work on that animal, and I'll watch the baby,' Zelandoni said. 'It's not like I haven't cared for babies before. And Wolf will help me,' she added, looking at the large, usually dangerous animal, 'won't you, Wolf?'

Ayla dragged the wolverine to a clearing some distance beyond the boundaries of their camp; she didn't want to invite any passing scavengers into their living area. Then she took her salvaged flint points out of its belly cavity.

'Only one has to be reworked,' she said, giving them to Jondalar. 'The first spear went into his hind quarters. He saw me make the throw and moved fast. Then Wolf chased him and cornered him in some bushes. I threw the second spear hard, harder than I needed to. That's why the tip broke, but I knew he was going after Jonayla, and I was angry.'

'I'm sure you were. I would have been, too. I think my day was much less exciting than yours,' Jondalar said as they began skinning the wolverine. He made a cut through the pelt down the left hind leg to the belly cut Ayla had made earlier.

'Did you find flint in the cave today?' Ayla asked, making a similar cut down the left foreleg.

'There's a lot there. It's not the finest quality, but it's serviceable, especially for practice,' Jondalar said. 'Do you remember Matagan? The boy who was gored in the leg by the rhino last year? The one whose leg you fixed?'

'Yes. I didn't get a chance to talk to him, but I saw him. He walks with a limp, but he seems to get around fine,' she said, making a cut in the right front leg, while Jondalar worked on the right hind leg.

'I talked to him and to his mother and her mate, and some others from their cave. If it's agreeable to Joharran and the Cave — and I can't imagine why anyone would object — he's going to come and live at the Ninth Cave at the end of summer. I'm going to show him how to knap flint, and see if he has any talent or inclination for it,' Jondalar said. Then, looking up, 'Do you want to save the feet?'

'Those are sharp claws, but I don't know what I'd use them for,' Ayla said.

'You can always trade them. I'm sure they'd make good decorations, for a necklace, or sewn on a tunic. The teeth, too, for that matter. And what do you want to do with this gorgeous tail?' Jondalar said.

'I think I'll keep the tail along with the pelt,' Ayla said, 'but I may trade the claws and the teeth … or maybe I could use a claw as a hole-maker.'

They cut off the feet, breaking through the joints and cutting the tendons, then pulled the furry skin off the right side to the backbone, using their hands to tear it off more than their knives. They balled up fists to break through the membrane between the body and the hide as they got to the meatier part of the legs. Then they turned it over and started on the left side.

Talking as they worked, they continued separating the hide from the carcass by pulling and tearing, wanting to make as few cuts in the skin as possible. 'Where will Matagan stay? Does he have any family at the Ninth Cave?' Ayla asked.

'No, he doesn't. We haven't decided yet where he should stay.'

'He'll miss his home, especially at first. We have a lot of room, Jondalar; he could stay with us,' Ayla said.

'I was thinking of that, and was going to ask if you'd mind. We'd have to rearrange some things, give him his own sleeping space, but that might be the best place for him. I could work with him, watch what he does, see how much interest he shows. No point in making him work at it if he doesn't like it, but I wouldn't mind having an apprentice,' Jondalar said. 'And with his bad leg, it would be a good skill for him to learn.'

They had to use their knives more to release the skin from the backbone and around the shoulders, where it was tight and the membrane between the meat and the skin was not as defined. Then they had to remove the head. With Jondalar holding the animal taut, Ayla found where the head met the neck and swivelled easily, then cut through the meat to the bone. With a twist, a quick break, and a cut through membranes and tendons, the head was off, and the pelt was free.

Jondalar held up the luxuriant hide, and they admired the thick, beautiful fur. With his help, skinning the wolverine had been short work. Ayla recalled the first time that he had helped her cut up a kill, when they were living in the valley where she found her horse, and he was still recovering from being mauled by the lion. It had come as a surprise to her not only that he was willing, but that he was able. Men of the Clan didn't do that kind of work, they didn't have the memories for it, and Ayla still forgot sometimes that Jondalar could help her with tasks that in the Clan had been women's work. She was accustomed to doing it herself and seldom asked for assistance, but she was as grateful now as she had been then for his help.

'I'll give this meat to Wolf,' Ayla said, looking down at what was left of the wolverine.

'I was wondering what you were going to do with it,' Jondalar said.

'I'll wrap the hide up now, with the head inside, and make us an evening meal. Maybe tonight I can start scraping the skin,' Ayla said.

'Do you have to start on it tonight?' Jondalar said.

'I'll need the brains for softening it, and they'll go bad fast if I don't start using them soon. This is such beautiful fur, I don't want to spoil it, especially if it is going to be as cold next winter as Marthona thinks it will.'

They started to leave, but Ayla spied a patch of plants with coarsely toothed heart-shaped leaves growing about three feet tall in the rich, moist soil along the stream they were using for water. 'Before we go back to camp, I want to collect some of those stinging nettles,' Ayla said. 'They'll be good to eat tonight.'

'They sting,' Jondalar said.

'Once they are cooked, they don't sting, and they taste good,' Ayla said.

'I know, but I wonder how people first thought of cooking nettles for food? Why would they even think of eating them?' Jondalar said.

'I don't know if we'll ever find out, but I have to find something to pick them with. Some big leaves to cover the hands so the nettles won't sting me.' She looked around, then noticed a tall, stiff plant with showy thistle-like purple flower heads, and big heart-shaped soft, downy leaves growing from the ground around the stems. 'There's some burdock. Those leaves feel like fine buckskin, they'll work.'

'These strawberries are delicious,' Zelandoni said. 'A perfect ending to a wonderful meal. Thank you, Ayla.'

'I didn't do much. The roast came from the hind quarters of a red deer that Solaban and Rushemar gave me before we left. I just made a stone oven and roasted it, and cooked up some cattails and greens.'

Zelandoni had watched Ayla dig a hole in the ground with a small shoulder bone that had been shaped and sharpened at one end and used like a trowel. To remove the loose dirt, she transferred it by small shovelfuls onto an old hide; then gathering the ends together, she hauled the hide away. She lined the hole with stones, leaving a space not much bigger than the meat, then built a fire in it until the rocks were hot. From her medicine bag, she took out a pouch and sprinkled some of the contents on the meat; some plants could be both medicinal and flavourful herbs. Then she added some of the tiny rootlets growing out of the wood avens rhizome, which tasted like cloves, along with hyssop and woodruff.

She wrapped the red deer roast in the burdock leaves. Then she covered the hot coals in the bottom of the hole with a layer of dirt so they wouldn't burn the meat, and dropped the leaf-wrapped roast in the little oven. She piled wet grasses on top and more leaves, and covered it all with more dirt to make it airtight. She topped it with a large, flat stone that she had also heated over a fire, and let the roast cook slowly in the residual heat and its own steam.

'It wasn't just cooked meat,' Zelandoni insisted. 'It was very tender and had a flavour that I wasn't familiar with, but it tasted very good. Where did you learn to cook like that?'

'From Iza. She was the medicine woman of Brun's clan, but she knew more than the healing uses of plants; she knew how they tasted,' Ayla said.

'That's exactly how I felt when I first tasted Ayla's cooking,' Jondalar said. 'The flavours were unfamiliar, but the food was delicious. I've got accustomed to it now.'

'It was also a smart idea to make those little cooking bags out of the cattail leaves, then putting the nettle greens and the green cattail tops and shoots in them before putting them in the boiling water. It was so easy to pull them out. You didn't have to fish around in the bottom of the pot,' the First said. 'I'm going to use that idea for making decoctions and tisanes.' She saw a frown of puzzlement on Jondalar's face and added a clarification. 'Cooking medicines and steeping teas.'

'I learned that at the Summer Meeting of the Mamutoi. A woman there was cooking that way, and many of the other women started doing it too,' Ayla said.

'I also liked the way you put a little fat on top of the hot flat stone and cooked those cattail flour cakes on it. You put something in them as well, I noticed. What is in that pouch that you use?' the Woman Who Was First asked.

'The ashes of coltsfoot leaves,' Ayla said. 'They have a salty flavour, especially if you dry them first and then burn them. I like to use sea salt, when I can get it. The Mamutoi traded for it. The Losadunai live near a mountain made of salt, and they mine it. They gave me some before we left, and I still had some when we arrived here, but it's gone now, so I use the ashes of coltsfoot leaves made the way Nezzie did. I used coltsfoot before, but not the ashes.'

'You have learned a lot from all your travels, and you have many talents, Ayla. I didn't realise cooking was one of them, but you are very good at it.' She didn't quite know what to say. She didn't consider cooking a talent. It was just something you did. She still didn't feel comfortable with direct praise and didn't know if she would ever be, so she didn't respond to it. 'Big, flat rocks like that are hard to find. I think I'll keep that one. Since Racer is pulling a pole-drag, I can pack it and won't have to carry it,' Ayla said. 'Would anyone like some tea?'

'What kind are you making?' Jondalar said.

'I thought I'd start with the cooking water that was used for the nettles and cattails, and add some hyssop,' Ayla said, 'and maybe woodruff.'

'That ought to be interesting,' Zelandoni said.

'The water is still warm. It won't take much to heat it up again,' she said, putting cooking stones in the fire again.

Then she started putting things away. She carried aurochs fat in a cleaned intestine, and had used some to cook with. To close it, she twisted the end of the intestine, then put it in the stiff rawhide container that held meats and fats. The fat had been rendered in simmering water to a smooth white tallow and was used both for cooking and for light when it got dark, and on this trip when going into a cave. The food left over from their evening meal was wrapped in large leaves, tied with cord, and hung from the tripod of tall poles along with the meat container.

Tallow was the fuel that was put in the shallow stone lamps. Wicks could be any of a number of absorbent materials. When lit in the absolute dark of a cave, the light shed by the lamps was much brighter than seemed possible. They would be using them in the morning when they went into the nearby cave.

'I'm going to the river to clean our bowls. Would you like me to clean yours, too, Zelandoni?' Ayla asked as she added hot stones to the liquid, watched it boil up in a hiss of steam, then added whole fresh hyssop plants.

'Yes, that would be nice.'

When she returned she found her cup filled with hot tea, and Jondalar holding Jonayla, making her laugh with funny sounds and faces. 'I think she's hungry,' he said.

'She usually is,' Ayla said, smiling as she took the child and settled down near the campfire, with her cup of hot tea nearby.

Jondalar and Zelandoni had been talking before the baby started fussing, apparently about his mother, and picked up the conversation once Jonayla was content and quiet again.

'I didn't know Marthona all that well when I first became a Zelandoni, though there were always stories about her, stories of her great love for Dalanar,' the First said. 'Once I became the acolyte of the Zelandoni before me, she told me about the relationships of the woman who was known for her competent leadership of the Ninth Cave so I would understand the situation.

'Her first man, Joconan, had been a powerful leader and she learned a great deal from him, but in the beginning, I was told, she didn't so much love him as admire and respect him. I had the feeling that she almost worshipped him, but that isn't the way Zelandoni put it. She said Marthona worked very hard to please him. He was older, and she was his beautiful young woman, though he had been ready to take on two women at the time, perhaps even more. He hadn't chosen to mate before, and didn't want to wait long to have a family once he decided to have one. More than one mate would give him more assurance that there would be children born to his hearth.

'But Marthona was soon pregnant with Joharran, and when she gave birth to a son, Joconan wasn't in such a hurry anymore. Besides, not long after her son was born, Joconan started to get sick. It wasn't obvious at first and he kept it to himself. Soon he discovered that your mother was more than beautiful, Jondalar; she was also intelligent. She found her own strength in helping him. As he grew weaker, she took on more and more of his responsibilities as leader, and did it so well that when he died, the people of her Cave wanted her to stay on as leader.'

'What kind of man was Joconan? You said he was powerful. I think Joharran is a powerful leader. He usually manages to persuade most people to agree with him and do what he wants,' Jondalar said. Ayla was fascinated. She had always wanted to know more about Marthona, but she was not a woman to speak much about herself.

'Joharran is a good leader, but not powerful in the same way that Joconan was. He's more like Marthona than her mate. Joconan could be daunting sometimes. He had a very commanding presence. People found it very easy to go along with him, and difficult to oppose him. I think some people were afraid to disagree with him, though he never threatened anyone, that I was aware of. Some people used to say he was the Mother's chosen. People, young men in particular, liked to be around him, and young women threw themselves at him. They say almost all young women wore fringes then, trying to snare him. It's no wonder he waited until he was older before he mated,' Zelandoni said.

'Do you think fringes really help a woman snare a man?' Ayla asked.

'I think it depends on the man,' the Donier said. 'Some people think that when a woman wears a fringe, it suggests her pubic hair, and that she is willing to expose it. If a man is easily excited, or interested in a particular woman, a fringe can arouse him and he'll follow her around until she decides to capture him. But a man like Joconan knew his own mind, and I don't think he was interested in a woman who felt she needed to wear a fringe to attract a man. It was too obvious. Marthona never wore fringes and she never lacked for attention. When Joconan decided he wanted her and was willing to take the young woman from the distant Cave as well, since they were like sisters, they all agreed. It was the Zelandoni who objected to the double mating. He had promised that the visitor would be returned to her people after she learned the skills to be a Zelandoni.'

Ayla knew the Donier was a good Storyteller, and she found herself totally enraptured, partly by the Storytelling, but more by the story that was being told.

'Joconan was a strong leader. It was under his leadership that the Ninth Cave grew so large. The cave always had the size to accommodate more people than usual, but not many leaders were willing to be responsible for so many,' Zelandoni said. 'When he died, Marthona was overcome with grief. I think for a time she wanted to follow him to the next world, but she had a child, and Joconan left a big hole in the community. It needed to be filled.

'People started coming to her when they needed the kind of help that a leader provides. Things like resolving disputes, organising visits to other Caves and travels to Summer Meetings, planning hunts and deciding how much each hunter needed to share with the Cave, both immediately and for the next winter. After Joconan got sick, they got used to coming to Marthona, and she to handling the problems. Their need and her son may be what kept her going. After a while, she became the acknowledged leader, and eventually her grief eased, but she told the Zelandoni before me that she didn't think she would ever mate again. Then Dalanar walked into the Ninth Cave.'

'Everyone says that he was the great love of her life,' Jondalar said.

'Dalanar was the great love of her life. For him, Marthona could almost have given up her leadership, but not quite. She felt they needed her. And though he loved her as much as she loved him, after a while, he needed something of his own. He wasn't content to sit in her shadow. Unlike you, Jondalar, his skill in working with the stone wasn't enough.'

'But he is one of the most skilled I have ever met. His work is known by everyone, and they all acknowledge him as the best. The only flint-knapper I've ever known who can compare with him is Wymez, of the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi. I always wished the two of them could meet,' Jondalar said.

'Perhaps, in a sense they have, through you,' the large woman said. 'Jondalar, you must know that if you aren't already, you will soon be the most renowned flint-knapper of the Zelandonii. Dalanar is a skilled tool-maker, there's no question of that, but he's Lanzadonii now. Anyway, his real skill was always people. He is happy now. He has founded his own Cave, his own people, and though in a way he will always be Zelandonii, his Lanzadonii will someday come into their own.

'And you are the son of his heart, as well as the son of his hearth, Jondalar. He's proud of you. He loves Jerika's daughter, Joplaya, too. He's proud of you both. Although in a hidden place in his heart, he might always love Marthona, he adores Jerika. I think he loves that she looks so exotic, and that she is so little, yet so fierce. That's part of what attracts him. He's so big that next to him she looks half his size, she looks delicate, but she is more than a match for him. She has no desire to be leader; she's happy to let him do it, although I have no doubt that she could. Her strength of will and character are formidable.'

'You are certainly right about that, Zelandoni!' he said, with a laugh, one of his big, lusty warm laughs, its spontaneous enthusiasm all the more astonishing because it was unexpected. Jondalar was a serious man, and though he smiled easily, he seldom laughed out loud. When he did, the unreserved exuberance of it came as a surprise.

'Dalanar found someone after he and Marthona severed the knot, but many doubted that she would ever find a man to replace him, would ever love another man in the same way, and she didn't, but she found Willamar. Her love for him is not less than her love for Dalanar, but of a different character, just as her love for Dalanar was not the same as her love for Joconan. Willamar also has a skill with people — that's true of all the men in her life — but he satisfies it as the Trade Master, travelling, making contacts, seeing new and unusual places. He has seen more, learned more, and met more people than anyone, including you, Jondalar. He loves to travel, but even more, he loves coming home and sharing his adventures and knowledge about the people he met. He has established trading networks all across the Zelandonii land and beyond, and has brought back useful news, exciting stories, and unusual objects. He was a tremendous help to Marthona as leader, and now to Joharran. There is no man I respect more. And, of course, her only daughter was born to his hearth. Marthona always wanted a daughter, and your sister, Folara, is a lovely young woman,' Zelandoni said.

Ayla understood the feeling. She too had wanted a daughter very much, and she glanced down at her sleeping infant with a strong feeling of love.

'Yes, Folara is beautiful, and also intelligent and fearless,' Jondalar said. 'When we first arrived, and everyone else was so uneasy about the horses and all, she didn't hesitate. She ran down the path to greet me. I'll never forget that.'

'Yes, Folara makes your mother proud, but more, with a daughter one always knows that her children are your own grandchildren. I'm sure she loves the children born to her sons' hearths, but with a daughter there is no doubt. Then, of course, your brother Thonolan was also born to Willamar's hearth and though she played no favourites, he was the one who made her smile. But he made everyone smile. He had a way with people that was even more winning than Willamar's — warm, open, and friendly — qualities no one could resist, and he had the same love of travel. I doubt that you would ever have gone on such a long Journey if not for him, Jondalar.'

'You're right. I never thought of making a Journey until he decided to go. Visiting the Lanzadonii was far enough for me.'

'Why did you decide to go with him?' Zelandoni asked.

'I don't know if I can explain it,' Jondalar said. 'He was always fun to be around, so I knew it would be easy travelling with him, and he did make the trip sound exciting, but I didn't think we'd go as far as we did. I think part of it was that sometimes he could be a little reckless and I felt a need to look out for him. He was my brother and I think I loved him more than anyone I knew. I knew I'd come home someday, if it was possible, and I felt that if I was with him, he'd come back home with me, eventually. I don't know … something was pulling me,' Jondalar said. He glanced at Ayla, who had been listening even more intently than Zelandoni.

He didn't know it, but my totem and maybe the Mother pulled him, Ayla thought. He had to come and find me.

'What about Marona? Obviously you didn't feel enough for her to make you want to stay. Did she have anything to do with your decision to go?' the First asked. This was the first time since his return that the Donier had an opportunity to really talk to him about why he took his long Journey, and she was going to take advantage of it. 'What would you have done if Thonolan had not decided to make a Journey?'

'I guess I would have gone to the Summer Meeting and probably mated Marona,' Jondalar said. 'Everyone expected it, and there wasn't anyone I cared for more, at that time.' He looked up and smiled at Ayla. 'But to be honest, I wasn't thinking about her when I decided to go, I was worried about mother. I think she guessed Thonolan might not return, and I was afraid she might worry that I wouldn't either. I did plan to come back, but you never know. Anything can happen on a Journey, and many things did, but I knew Willamar wouldn't be going away, and she had Folara and Joharran.'

'What makes you think Marthona did not expect Thonolan to return?' the First asked.

'It was something that she said to us when we left to go visit Dalanar. Thonolan was the one who noticed it. Mother said "Good journey" to him, not "Until you return", as she did to me. And remember when we first told mother and Willamar about Thonolan? Willamar said that mother never expected him to return, and as I feared, she was afraid I wouldn't come back either when she found out I had gone with him. She said she was afraid she had lost two sons,' Jondalar said.

That was why he couldn't stay with the Sharamudoi when Tholie and Markeno asked us to, Ayla thought. They were so welcoming and I had grown so fond of them during our visit, I wanted to stay, but Jondalar couldn't. Now I know why, and I'm glad we came all the way back. Marthona treats me like a daughter and a friend, and so does Zelandoni. I really like Folara, and Proleva and Joharran, and many others. Not everyone, but most people have been nice.

'Marthona was right,' Zelandoni said. 'Thonolan was favoured with many Gifts, and he was greatly loved. Many people used to say he was a favourite of the Mother. I never like it when people say that, but in his case it was prophetic. The other side of being one of Her favourites is that She can't stand to be separated from them for too long and tends to take Her favourites back early, when they are still young. You were gone so long, I wondered if you were a little too favoured, also.'

'I didn't think I'd be gone five years,' Jondalar said.

'Most people doubted that you or Thonolan would ever return after you were gone two years. Occasionally someone would mention that you and Thonolan had gone on a Journey, but they were already starting to forget you. I wonder if you know how stunned people were when you returned. It wasn't only that you appeared with a foreign woman, and those horses and a wolf,' Zelandoni said, and smiled wryly. 'It was that you came back at all.'

Chapter 14

'Do you think we should even try to take the horses inside that cave?' Ayla said the next morning.

'Most of the cave has high ceilings, but it is a cave. That means once we get away from the entrance, it's dark, except for the light we bring with us, and the floor is uneven. You have to be careful because it falls down to a lower level in several places. It should be empty now, but bears use it in winter. You can see their wallows and their scratch marks,' Zelandoni said.

'Cave bears?' Ayla asked.

'From the size of the scratches, it's very likely that some cave bears have been inside. There are smaller marks, but I don't know if they are from smaller brown bears, or young cave bears,' the Donier explained. 'It's a very long walk to the primary area, and just as long back. It will take us, or at least it will take me, all day. I haven't done it for some years and, to be honest, I suspect this will be my last time.'

'Why don't I take Whinney inside and see how she behaves,' Ayla said. 'I should take Grey, too. I think I will use halters for both of them.'

'And I'll take Racer,' Jondalar said. 'We can walk them in by themselves, and see how they take to it, before we connect the pole-drags.'

Zelandoni watched as they put halters on the horses and walked the animals toward the mouth of the large cave. Wolf followed them. The Donier didn't plan to take them through the entire cavern. She herself didn't know exactly how extensive this sacred site was, though she had a good idea.

It was a massive cavern more than ten miles long made up of a maze of galleries, some connected and some going off in every direction, with three underground levels, and about seven miles to the part she wanted to show them. It would be a long walk, but she had mixed feelings about using the pole-drag. Even if she was slower, she felt she could still make the trek and while it might be easier, she didn't really want to be going into the sacred cavern looking backward.

When Jondalar and Ayla came out, they were shaking their heads and comforting the horses. 'I'm sorry,' Ayla said. 'I think it could be the scent of bears, but both Whinney and Racer were very nervous in that cave. They shied away from the bear wallows, and the darker it got, the more uneasy and agitated they became. I'm sure Wolf will come with us, but the horses don't like it in there.'

'I'm sure I can walk it, but it will take more time,' Zelandoni said with a feeling of relief. 'We will need to bring food and water with us, and warm clothes. It will get cold in there. And plenty of lamps and torches. Also those thick mats you made out of the cattail leaves, in case we want to sit. There will be some rocks or cave growths on the ground, but they will likely be damp and muddy.'

Jondalar packed most of their supplies in his sturdy backframe, but Zelandoni also had one, like Jondalar's though not as big, made of stiff rawhide attached to a frame. The slender round poles of the frame came from the new stems of fast-growing trees, like the variety of willow known as poplar that shot up straight in one season. Jondalar and Zelandoni also had implements and pouches dangling from their waist thongs. Ayla had her haversack, and the rest of her equipment, and of course, Jonayla.

They made one last check of their campsite before they left, with Ayla and Jondalar also trying to make sure the horses would be fine for the day while they were deep in the cavern. They lit one torch to start with from the fire before they banked it down. Then Ayla signalled to Wolf to stay with them, and they started into Mammoth Cavern.

Though the entrance was rather large, it was nothing to the actual size of the cave, but it gave natural light for the first part of the trek and their single torch was sufficient. As they continued into the enormous space, the only thing to be seen was the inside of a huge cave that had obviously been used by bears. Ayla wasn't sure, but she thought that no matter how big a cave was, only one bear at a time would use it in any one season. Many large oval depressions cratered the ground, which implied that bears had used the cave for a very long time, and the bear claw scratches on the walls left no doubt about what had made the bear hollows. Wolf stayed close, walking beside her, occasionally brushing against her leg, which was reassuring.

After they had proceeded deeply enough into the cave that no outside light could be detected and the only way they could find their way was with the light sources they brought with them, Ayla began to feel the cold inside the cave. She had brought a warm tunic with long sleeves and a separate head covering for herself, and an elongated parka with a hood for her infant. She stopped and untied Jonayla's carrying blanket, but as soon as she was away from her mother's warmth, she too noticed the cold and began to fuss. Ayla quickly dressed both of them, and when the baby was close to her mother again and felt her warmth, she settled down. The others also put on warmer clothing.

When they started out again, the First began to sing. Both Ayla and Jondalar looked at her, rather surprised. She started with a soft hum, but after a while, though she didn't use words, her singing grew louder, with greater changes in scale and in pitch, more like tonal exercises. Her voice was so full and rich it seemed to fill the huge cave, and her companions thought it was beautiful.

They had gone about a half mile into the cavern, and were walking three abreast in the large space, with Zelandoni in the middle between Ayla and Jondalar, when the sound of the woman's voice seemed to change, to gain an echoing resonance. Suddenly Wolf surprised them all and joined in with the eerie howl of wolfsong. It sent a shiver down Jondalar's back, and Ayla felt Jonayla squirming and seeming to crawl up her back. Then suddenly without saying a word but still singing, the Donier reached out with both hands and stopped her companions. They looked at her and seeing that she was gazing at the left wall, they also turned to see what was there. That was when they saw the first sign that the cavern was more than a huge, rather frightening, empty grotto that seemed to go on forever.

At first Ayla didn't see anything except some reddish-coloured rounded flint outcroppings, which had been a common sight on all the walls. Then, high on the wall, she noticed some black marks that did not look natural. Suddenly her mind made sense of what her eyes were seeing. Painted on the wall in black outline were the shapes of mammoths. As she observed more closely, she saw three mammoths facing left, as though marching out of the cave. Then behind the last one, the outline of the back of a bison, and slightly confused with that, the distinctive shape of the head and back of another mammoth facing right. A short distance and a little higher up was a face with a distinctive beard shape, an eye, two horns, and the hump of another bison. Six animals in all, or enough of an impression to identify that many, had been painted on the wall. Ayla felt a sudden chill and shuddered.

'I've camped in front of this cave many times, and I didn't know these were here. Who made these paintings?' Jondalar asked.

'I don't know,' Zelandoni said. 'No one knows for sure — the Ancients, the Ancestors. They are not mentioned in the Elder Legends. It is said that long ago there were many more mammoths around here, and woolly rhinoceroses, too. We find many old bones and tusks yellowed with age, but now we rarely see the animals. It has become quite an event when they are spotted, like the rhinoceros those boys tried to kill last year.'

'There seemed to be quite a few where the Mamutoi live,' Ayla said.

'Yes, we went on a big hunt with them,' Jondalar said, and added thoughtfully, 'But it is different there. It's much drier and colder. Not as much snow. When we hunted mammoth with the Mamutoi, the wind just blew the snow around the dry grass still standing on the open land. Here, when you see mammoths heading north in a hurry, you know a big snow storm is on the way. The farther north you go, the colder it is, and after a certain distance, it gets drier too. Mammoths flounder in heavy snow, and cave lions know it and follow them. You know the saying "Never go forth, when mammoths go north," ' Jondalar said. 'If the snow doesn't catch you, the lions will.'

Since they had stopped, Zelandoni took out a new torch from her backframe and used the one Jondalar was holding to light it. Although his was not burned out yet, it was smouldering and had been giving off a lot of smoke. When she was through, he hit his torch against a stone to knock off the burnt charcoal from the end, which caused it to burn brighter. Ayla felt her baby still squirming a little in the blanket on her back. Jonayla had been sleeping, the darkness and the motion of her mother walking lulling her, but she might be waking, Ayla thought. Once they started walking again, the infant settled down.

'The men of the Clan hunted mammoth,' Ayla said. 'I went along with the hunters once — not to hunt, women of the Clan don't hunt — but to help dry the meat and carry it back.' Then, as an afterthought, she added, 'I don't think the people of the Clan would ever come into a cave like this.'

'Why not?' Zelandoni asked as they walked deeper into the cave.

'They wouldn't be able to talk, or maybe I should say they couldn't understand each other very well. It's too dark, even with torches,' Ayla said. 'Besides, it's hard to talk with your hands when you are holding a torch.'

The comment made Zelandoni again aware of her odd way of saying certain sounds, as was often the case when Ayla talked about the Clan, especially the differences between them and the Zelandonii. 'But they can hear and they have words. You've told me some of their words,' she said.

'Yes, they have some words,' Ayla said, then continued to explain that to the Clan, the sounds of speech were secondary. They had names for things, but movement and gestures were primary. It wasn't only hand signs, body language was even more important. Where the hands were held when the signs were made, the posture, bearing, and stance of the person communicating, the ages and genders of those both making the signs and to whom they were given; and often barely perceptible indications and expressions, a slight movement of a foot or hand or eyebrow, were all part of their sign language. One couldn't even see it all if one focused only on looking at the face, or just listening to the words.

From an early age, children of the Clan had to learn how to perceive language, not just hear it. As a result, very complex and comprehensive ideas could be expressed with very little obvious movement and even less sound — but not over a great distance or in the dark. That was a major disadvantage. They had to see it. Ayla told them of one old man who had been going blind, who finally gave up and died because he couldn't communicate anymore; he couldn't see what people were saying. Of course, sometimes the Clan did need to speak in the dark, or shout over a distance. That was why they had developed some words, used some sounds, but their use of speaking words was much more limited. 'Just as our use of gestures is limited,' she said. 'People like us, the ones they call "the Others", also use posture, expression, and gesture to speak, to communicate, but not as much.'

'What do you mean?' Zelandoni said.

'We don't use sign language as consciously, or as expressively, as the Clan. If I make a beckoning gesture,' she said, showing the movement as she explained, 'most people know it means to "come". If I make it quickly or with some agitation, it implies urgency, but from any distance there's usually no way to tell if the urgency is because someone is hurt or if the evening meal is getting cold. When we look at each other and see the shape of the words or the expressions on a face, it tells us more, but even in the dark, or in a fog, or from a distance we can still communicate with almost as much understanding. Even shouting from a great distance, we can explain very complete and difficult ideas. Such ability to speak and understand under almost any circumstance is a real advantage.'

'I never thought of it that way,' Jondalar said. 'When you taught the Mamutoi Lion Camp to "speak" the Clan way with signs, so Rydag could communicate, everyone, particularly the youngsters made a game of it, had fun giving each other signals. But when we got to the Summer Meeting, it became more serious when we were around everybody else but wanted to let someone from the Lion Camp know something privately. I remember one time in particular when Talut was telling the Lion Camp not to say something until later, because there were some people nearby that he didn't want to know. I don't recall what it was now.'

'So, if I understand you correctly, you could say something in words, and at the same time say something else, or clarify some meaning privately, with these hand signs,' the One Who Was First said. She had stopped walking, and the frown of concentration indicated that she was thinking of something she felt was important.

'Yes, you could,' Ayla said.

'Would it be very difficult to learn this sign language?'

'It would be if you tried to learn it completely, with all of its shades of meaning,' Ayla said, 'but I taught the Lion Camp a simplified version, the way children are taught at first.'

'But it was enough to communicate,' Jondalar said. 'You could have a conversation … well, maybe not about the finer points of some point of view.'

'Perhaps you should teach the zelandonia this simplified sign language,' the First said. 'I can see where it could be quite useful, to pass on information, or to clarify a point.'

'Or if you ever met one of the Clan and wanted to say something,' Jondalar said. 'It helped me when we met Guban and Yorga just before we crossed the small glacier.'

'Yes, that too,' Zelandoni said. 'Maybe we could make arrangements for a few teaching sessions next year, at the Summer Meeting. Of course, you could teach the Ninth Cave during the next cold season.' She paused again. 'You're right, though, it wouldn't work in the dark. So they don't go into caves at all?'

'They go into them; they just don't go in very far. And when they do, they light the way very well. I don't think they would go this far into a cave,' Ayla said. 'except alone, or for special reasons. The mog-urs sometimes went into deeper caves.' Ayla vividly recalled a cave at the Clan Gathering, where she followed some lights and saw the mog-urs.

They started walking again, each caught up in private thoughts. After a while Zelandoni started singing again. When they had gone another distance that was not quite as far as it had been to the first paintings on the walls, the sound of Zelandoni's voice developed more resonance, seemed to echo from the walls of the cave, and Wolf began to howl again. The First stopped and this time faced the right wall of the cave. Ayla and Jondalar again saw mammoths, two of them, not painted but engraved, plus a bison, and what appeared to be some strange marks made with fingers in softened clay or something similar.

'I always knew he was a zelandoni,' the First said.

'Who?' Jondalar asked, although he thought he knew.

'Wolf, of course. Why do you think he "sings" when we come to the places where the spirit world is near?'

'The spirit world is near, here in this place?' Jondalar said, looking around and feeling a touch of apprehension.

'Yes, we are very close to the Mother's Sacred Underworld here,' said the Spiritual Leader of the Zelandonii.

'Is that why you are sometimes called the Voice of Doni? Because when you sing you can find these places?' Jondalar said.

'It's one reason. It also means that sometimes I speak for the Mother, as when I am the Surrogate of the Original Ancestress, the Original Mother, or when I am the Instrument of She Who Blesses. A Zelandoni, especially One Who Is First, has many names. That's why she usually gives up her personal name when she serves the Mother.'

Ayla was listening carefully. She really didn't want to give up her name. It was all she had left of her own people, the name her mother had given her, although she suspected 'Ayla' wasn't exactly her original name. It was only as close as the Clan could say it, but it was all she had.

'Can all Zelandonia sing to find these special places?' Jondalar asked.

'They don't all sing, but they all have a "voice", a way to find them.'

'Is that why I was asked to make a special sound when we were examining that small cave?' Ayla asked. 'I didn't know that would be expected.'

'What sound did you make?' Jondalar asked, then smiled. 'I'm sure you didn't sing.' Then turning to Zelandoni he explained, 'She can't sing.'

'I roared like Baby. It brought back a nice echo. Jonokol thought it sounded like there was a lion in the back of that little cave.'

'What do you think it would sound like here?' Jondalar asked.

'I don't know. Loud, I suppose,' Ayla said. 'It doesn't feel like it would be the right sound to make here.'

'What would be the right sound, Ayla?' Zelandoni asked. 'You will have to be able to make some sound when you are Zelandoni.'

She paused to think about it. 'I can make the sound of many different birds; maybe I could whistle,' Ayla said.

'Yes, she can whistle like a bird, like many birds,' Jondalar said. 'She is such a good whistler, they will actually come and eat out of her hand.'

'Why don't you try it now?' the Donier said.

Ayla thought for a while, then decided on a meadow lark, and brought forth a perfect imitation of a soaring lark. She thought she heard more resonance, but she would have to do it again in another part of the cave, or outside, to be sure. Somewhat after that, the sound of Zelandoni's singing changed again, but in a slightly different way than it had before. The woman motioned to the right and they saw that a new passageway opened out.

'There is a single mammoth down that tunnel, but it's quite a long ways, and I don't think we should take the time to visit it now,' the Donier said, and added in an offhand way, 'There's nothing in there,' indicating another opening almost directly across on the left. She continued singing past another passage opening off to the right. 'There's a ceiling in there that brings us close to Her, but it's a long walk in and I think we should wait until we're coming out to decide if we want to visit it.' Somewhat farther on she warned them, 'Be careful ahead. The passageway changes direction. It makes a sharp turn to the right, and at the turn there is a deep hole that leads to an underground section of the cave, and it's very wet. Perhaps you should follow me now.'

'I think I should light another torch, too,' Jondalar said. He stopped and took another one out of his backframe, and lit it from the one he was holding. The floor was already wet with small puddles and damp clay. He snuffed out the torch that was nearly burned out and put the stub in a pocket of the pack he was carrying. It had been drilled into him from a young age that one didn't litter the floor of a sacred place unnecessarily.

To rid it of the burned ash, Zelandoni tapped the torch she was holding on a stalagmite that seemed to be growing up from the ground. It burned more brightly immediately. Ayla smiled when she caught sight of Wolf. He brushed against her leg and she scratched behind his ears, a reassuring touch for both of them. Jonayla was moving around again as well. Whenever Ayla stopped walking, the baby noticed it. She would have to feed her soon, but it seemed that they were heading into a more dangerous part of the cave, and she wanted to wait until they were past it. Zelandoni started out again. Ayla followed and Jondalar brought up the rear.

'Watch your footing,' the First said, holding the torch high so that the light spread out more. It lit a stone wall on the right, then suddenly it disappeared, but a glowing light outlined the edge. The floor was very uneven, rocky and covered with slippery clay. The moisture had seeped through Ayla's footwear, but the soft leather soles gripped well. When she reached the lighted edge of the stone wall and looked around, Ayla saw the large woman standing behind it, and a passageway continuing on to the right.

North, I think we're heading north now, she said to herself. She had been trying to pay attention to the direction they had been moving since they entered the cave. There had been a few slight turns in the passageway, but they had travelled essentially west. This was the first major change in direction. Ayla looked ahead and saw nothing beyond the light of the torch held by Zelandoni, except the dark, yawning intensity found only in subterranean depths. She wondered what else there was farther on in this cavernous hollow.

Jondalar's torchlight preceded him around the edge of the wall that changed their direction. Zelandoni waited until they were all together, including Wolf, before she spoke. 'A little ways ahead, where the ground levels out, there are some good stones to sit on. I think we should stop there and have something to eat and fill our small waterbags,' she said.

'Yes,' Ayla said. 'Jonayla has been moving around waking up, and I need to feed her. I think she would have been awake some time ago, but the darkness and movement while I walked have kept her quiet.'

Zelandoni started humming again until they reached a place where the cave resonated with a different sound. She sang with more tonal clarity as they neared a small side tunnel on the left. She stopped where it opened out.

'This is the place,' she said.

Ayla was glad to unload her haversack and spear-thrower. They each found a comfortable stone and Ayla took out three mats woven of the cattail leaves to sit upon. As soon as she moved her infant to her breast, Jonayla was more than ready to nurse. Zelandoni took three stone lamps out of her pack, a decorated one made of sandstone, which Ayla had seen her use before, and two of limestone. The stone of all of them had been shaped and abraded into small bowls with straight handles formed on a level with the rim. The First also found the carefully wrapped package of wicking materials and extracted six strips of dried boletus mushroom.

'Ayla, where is that tube of tallow you had?' the woman asked.

'It's in the meat parfleche in Jondalar's backframe,' Ayla said.

Jondalar took out the food packages and the large waterbag that he had been carrying on his back as well and brought them to Ayla. He opened the rawhide meat container and she pointed out the intestine stuffed with clean white grease that had been rendered from the hard fat near the kidneys, which gave it a little more body. He brought it to the Donier.

While Jondalar refilled the small waterbags each had with them from the large one he carried, Zelandoni put some globs of the tallow into the bowls of each of the three stone lamps, and used her torch to start them melting. She then laid two dried mushroom wicks into the pools of melted fat in each of the lamps so that more than half the length of each absorbent strip was in the liquid fat, leaving two small ends sticking out over each rim. When she lit them they sputtered a bit, but the heat drew the fat into the wicks and soon they had three additional sources of light, which made it seem quite bright inside the absolute darkness of the cave.

Jondalar passed out the food that had been cooked during their morning meal for their trek inside the cave. They put pieces of roasted red deer meat into their personal eating bowls, and used their cups for cold broth with cooked vegetables from another waterbag. The long pieces of wild carrots, small round starchy roots, trimmed thistle stems, shoots from hops, and wild onions were quite soft and required little chewing; they drank them into their mouths with the soup.

Ayla had also cut up some meat for Wolf. She gave it to him, then settled down to eat her own food while she finished nursing her daughter. She had noticed that though he explored a little during their walk, Wolf didn't stray too far. Wolves could see amazingly well in the dark and sometimes she could see his eyes from the dark recesses of the cave reflecting even their small light. Having him nearby gave her a feeling of security. She felt sure that if something unforeseen happened to make them lose their fire, he would be able to lead them out of any cave using only his nose. She knew his sense of smell was so keen, he could easily retrace their steps.

While everyone was quietly eating, Ayla found herself paying attention to her surroundings, using all her senses. The light from their lamps illuminated only a limited area around them. The rest of the cave was black, a rich, all-encompassing darkness that was never found outside even in the deepest gloom of night, but while she could not see beyond the glow of the small double fires in each of their lamps, if she tried she could hear the the soft mutterings of the cave.

She had seen that in some areas the ground and stones were fairly dry. Others glistened with shimmering wetness as water from rain and snow and melting runoff seeped slowly, with inestimable patience, through earth and limestone, accumulating calcareous residue on its way, and depositing it drop by drop to create the stone icicles above them and the rounded stumps of stone below. She could hear faint soft drips, both nearby and farther away. After time beyond measure, they joined into the pillars and walls and draperies that shaped the inside of the cave.

There were tiny scrabblings and chitterings of minute creatures, and an almost undetectable movement of air, a muted soughing that she had to strain to perceive. It was almost drowned out by the noise of the breathing of the five living beings who had entered the silent space. She tried to smell the air and opened her mouth to sample it. It felt moist with a slight decaying taste of raw earth and ancient seashells compressed into limestone.

After their meal, Zelandoni said, 'There is something I'd like you to see in this small tunnel. We can leave the packs here and pick them up on the way back, but each of us should carry a lamp.'

They all found a private corner to pass water and relieve themselves first. Ayla held the baby out to let her pass her wastes as well and cleaned her with some soft fresh moss she had brought with her. Then she used the carrying blanket to hold Jonayla on her hip, picked up one of the limestone lamps, and followed Zelandoni into the passageway that split off toward the left. The woman started singing again. Both Ayla and Jondalar were becoming familiar with the echoing timbre of the tone that informed them they were near a sacred site, a place that was closer to the Other World.

When Zelandoni stopped, she was looking at the right wall. They followed her gaze and saw two mammoths facing each other. Ayla thought they were particularly remarkable, and wondered what all the different placements of mammoths in this cave meant. Since they were created so long ago that no one knew who made them, or even the Cave or the People to whom the artists belonged, it wasn't likely that anyone would know, but she couldn't resist asking.

'Do you know why the mammoths are facing each other, Zelandoni?'

'Some people think they are fighting,' the woman said. 'What do you think?'

'I don't think so,' Ayla said.

'Why not?' The First said.

'They don't look fierce or angry. They seem to be having a meeting,' Ayla said.

'What do you think, Jondalar?' Zelandoni asked.

'I don't think they are fighting, or planning to fight,' he said. 'Maybe they just happened to meet.'

'Do you think whoever put them there would go to the trouble if they just happened to meet?' The First asked.

'No, probably not,' he said.

'Maybe each mammoth represents the leader of a group of people who are coming together to make a decision about something important,' Ayla said. 'Or perhaps they have made the decision and this commemorates it,'

'That's one of the more interesting ideas I've heard,' Zelandoni said.

'But we'll never know for sure, will we?' Jondalar said.

'No, not likely,' the One Who Was First said. 'But the guesses people make often tell us something about the one doing the guessing.'

They waited together in silence; then Ayla had an urge to touch the wall between the mammoths. She reached out with her right hand and placed it palm down on the stone, then closed her eyes and held it there. She felt the hardness of the rock, the cold, rather damp sensation of the limestone. And then she thought she felt something else, like an intensity, a concentration, heat — maybe it was her own body heat warming the stone. She took her hand down and looked at it, then shifted her baby into a slightly different position.

They went back to the main passageway and headed north, with lamps for light now instead of torches. Zelandoni continued using her voice, sometimes humming, sometimes expressing greater tonal qualities, stopping when she thought there was something she wanted them to see. Ayla was particularly fascinated by the mammoth that had lines indicating fur hanging below, but that also had marks, perhaps bear claw marks, scratching through it. She was intrigued by the rhinoceroses. When they got to a place where the song in the large cave grew more resonant, Zelandoni stopped again.

'We have a choice here of which way to go,' she said. 'I think we should go straight first, then turn around and come back to here and take the left passage for a while. Then turn around and go back the way we've come, and out of the cave. Or we can just take the left way, and then return.'

'I think you should decide,' Ayla said.

'I think Ayla's right. You have a better sense of the distance, and you know how tired you are,' Jondalar said.

'I am a little tired, but I may never come here again,' Zelandoni said, 'and tomorrow I can rest, either in camp, or with a horse dragging me on that seat thing you made. We'll go straight ahead until we find the next place that could lead us closer to the Mother's Sacred Underworld.'

'I think this whole cave is close to Her Underworld,' Ayla said, feeling a tingling sensation in the hand that had touched stone.

'You are right, of course, which is why it's more difficult to find the special places,' the First said.

'I think this cave could take us all the way to the Other World, even if it's in the middle of the earth,' Jondalar said.

'It is true that this cave is much larger and there is much more to see than we will in this one day. We won't go into the caves below at all,' Zelandoni said.

'Has anyone ever got lost in here?' Jondalar said. 'I should think it would be easy enough.'

'I don't know. Whenever we come here, we always make sure we have someone with us who is familiar with the cave and knows the way,' she said. 'Speaking of familiar, I think this is where we usually replenish the fuel in the lamps.'

Jondalar got out the fat again and after the woman added some to the stone bowls, she checked the wicks and pulled them out of the oil and up a little higher, making them burn brighter. Before they started out again, she said, 'It helps to find which way to go if you can make sounds that resonate, that make a sort of echo. Some people use flutes, so I think your bird whistling should work, Ayla. Why don't you try it.'

Ayla felt a little shy about it and wasn't sure which bird to choose. Finally she decided on a skylark and thought about the bird with its dark wings and long tail framed in white, with bold streaks on its breast and small crest on its head. Skylarks walked rather than hopped and roosted on the ground in well-hidden nests made of grass. When flushed out, a skylark warbled a rather liquid chirrup, but its early morning song was sustained for a long time as it flew high up in the sky. That was the sound she produced.

In the absolute dark of the deep cave, her perfect rendering of the song of a skylark had an eerie incongruity, a strangely inappropriate haunting quality that caused Jondalar to jerk with a shudder. Zelandoni tried to hide it, but she also felt a unexpected quiver. Wolf felt it, too, and didn't even try to hide it. His astonishing howl of wolfsong reverberated throughout the massive enclosed space, and that set Jonayla off. She began to cry, but Ayla soon understood it wasn't so much a cry of fear or distress as a loud wail that sounded like an accompaniment to Wolf.

'I knew he belonged to the zelandonia,' the First said, then decided to join in with her rich operatic voice.

Jondalar just stood there, astonished. When the sounds ended, he laughed rather tentatively, but then Zelandoni also laughed, which brought out his hearty animated laughter that Ayla loved and caused her to join in.

'I don't think this cave has heard so much noise in a long time,' said the One Who Was First. 'It should please the Mother.'

As they started out again, Ayla displayed a virtuosity of bird calls, and before very long, she thought she detected a change in the resonance. She stopped to look at the walls, first right, then on the left, and saw a frieze of three rhinoceroses. The animals were only outlined in black, but the figures contained a sense of volume and an accuracy of contour that made them remarkably realistic. It was the same with the animals that were engraved. Some of the animals she had seen, especially the mammoths, were drawn with just an outline of the head and the distinctive shape of the back, some added two curved lines for tusks, and others were remarkably complete, showing eyes and a suggestion of their woolly coats. But even without the tusks and other additions, the outlines were sufficient to display the sense of the complete animal.

The drawings made her wonder if the quality of her whistles, and Zelandoni's songs, had really changed in certain regions of the cave, and if some Ancestor had heard or felt the same qualities there, and marked them with mammoths and rhinos and other things. It was fascinating to imagine that the cave itself told people where it should be marked. Or was it the Mother Who was telling Her children through the medium of the cave where to look and where to mark? It made her wonder if the sounds they made really led them to places that were closer to the Mother's Underworld. It seemed that they did, but in a small corner of her mind, she had reservations and only wondered.

As they set out again, Ayla continued her bird whistles. Somewhat farther along, she wasn't sure, but felt almost compelled to stop. She didn't see anything at first, but after taking a few more steps she looked on the left side of the broad cave. There she saw a rather remarkable engraved mammoth. It must have been in its full shaggy winter coat. It showed the hair on its forehead, around the eyes and on the face, and down the trunk.

'He looks like a wise old man,' Ayla said.

'He's called the "Old One",' Zelandoni said, 'or sometimes the "Wise Old One".'

'He does make me think of an old man who can claim many children to his hearth, and their children, and perhaps theirs,' Jondalar said.

Zelandoni started singing again, returning to the opposite wall, and came to more mammoths, many of them, painted in black. 'Can you use the counting words and tell me how many mammoths you see?' she said to both Jondalar and Ayla.

They both walked close to the cave wall, holding out their lamps to see better, and made a game of counting out the number word for each one they saw. 'There are some facing left, and others facing right,' Jondalar said. 'and there are two in the middle facing each other again.'

'It looks like those two leaders that we saw before have met again and brought some of their herd with them,' Ayla said. 'I count eleven of them.'

'That's what I got, too,' Jondalar said.

'That's what most people count,' Zelandoni said. 'There are a few more animals to see if we continue this way, but they are much farther on, and I don't think we need to visit them this time. Let's go back and take that other passage. I think you'll be quite surprised.'

They returned to the place where the two tunnels diverged, and Zelandoni led them into the other one. She hummed or sang softly as they went. They passed by more animals, mostly mammoths, but also a bison, perhaps a lion, Ayla thought, and she noticed more finger markings, some in distinctive shapes; others seemed more random. Suddenly the First raised the tone and timbre of her voice, and slowed her steps. Then she began the familiar words of the Mother's Song.

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 Mother was lonely.
She was the only.

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.
Around Her he'd hover.
Her pale shining lover.

Her full, rich voice seemed to fill the entire space and depth of the great cave. Ayla was so moved, she not only felt shivers, she felt her throat constricting and tears forming.

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 new grass and leaves grew,
And lush verdant plants made all the Earth new.
Her waters were flowing.
New green was growing.

In violent labour 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.

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.

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.

The deep cave seemed to be singing back to the One Who Was First, the rounded shapes and sharp angles of the stone causing slight delays and altering tones so that the sound coming back to their ears was a fugue of strangely beautiful harmony.

For all that her full-bodied voice filled the space with sound, there was something comforting about it to Ayla. She didn't hear every word, every sound — some verses just made her think more deeply about the meaning — but she had the feeling that if she were ever lost, she could hear that voice from almost anywhere. She watched Jonayla, who seemed to be listening hard too. Jondalar and Wolf both seemed to be as enraptured by the sound as she was.

Her fair shining friend struggled hard, gave his best,
The conflict was bitter, the struggle 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.

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.

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.

Ayla always cried at this part. She knew what it was like to lose a son and felt as one with the Great Mother. Like Doni, she also had a son who still lived, but from whom she would be forever apart. She hugged Jonayla to her. She was grateful for her new child, but she would always miss her first one.

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.

Both Ayla and Jondalar looked around the great cavern, and caught each other's eye. This was certainly a sacred place. They had never been in such a huge cave and suddenly they both understood the meaning of the sacred origin story better. There might be others, but this had to be one of the places from which Doni gave birth. They felt they were in the womb of the Earth.

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 labour began,
To share life with Woman,
She created First Man.
Again She was giving.
One more was living.

Both Zelandoni and Ayla looked at Jondalar and smiled, and their thoughts were similar. They both felt that he was a perfect example, he could have been First Man, and they were both grateful that Doni had created man to share life with woman. From their expressions, Jondalar could almost guess their thoughts, and felt a little embarrassed, though he didn't know why he should.

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 honours the Mother with the joy of their pairing.
The Gifts are well earned,
when honour'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.
Earth's Children were blessed.
The Mother could rest.

As she always did when she heard the Mother's Song, Ayla wondered why there were two lines at the end. It felt like something was missing, but maybe Zelandoni was right, it was just to give it finality. Just before the woman finished her song, Wolf felt the need to respond in the way wolves always communicated with each other. While the First continued her singing, he sang his wolfsong, yipping a few times then making a great, loud, eerie, full-throated howl, followed by a second, and a third. The resonances in the cave made it sound that wolves from a great distance were howling back, perhaps from another world. And then Jonayla started her wailing cry, that Ayla had come to understand was her way of responding to wolfsong.

In her mind, Zelandoni thought, whether Ayla wants it or not, it seems that her daughter is destined to become part of the zelandonia.

Chapter 15

As the First continued into the cave, she held her lamp high. For the first time they began to see a ceiling. As they neared the end of the passage, they entered an area where the ceiling was so low, Jondalar's head almost brushed it. The surface was almost, but not quite, level and very light coloured, but more than that, it was covered with paintings of animals in black outline. There were mammoths, of course, some almost completely drawn, including their shaggy fur and tusks, and some showing just the distinctive shape of their backs. There were also several horses, one quite large that dominated its space; many bison, wild goats, and goat-antelopes; and a couple of rhinoceroses. There was no order to their placement or size. They faced all directions, and many were painted on top of others, as though they were falling out of the ceiling at random.

Ayla and Jondalar walked around, attempting to see it all and trying to make sense of it. Ayla reached up and brushed her fingertips across the painted ceiling. Her fingers tingled at the uniform roughness of the stone. She looked up and tried to take in the entire ceiling the way a woman of the Clan learned to see an entire scene with a quick glance. Then she closed her eyes. As she moved her hand across the rough ceiling, the stone seemed to disappear, and she felt nothing but empty space. In her mind a picture was forming of real animals in that space coming from a long distance, coming from the spirit world behind the stone ceiling and falling to the earth. The ones that were larger or more finished had almost reached the world she walked in; the ones that were smaller or barely suggested were still on their way.

Finally she opened her eyes, but looking up made her dizzy. She lowered her lamp and looked down at the damp floor of the cave.

'It's overwhelming,' Jondalar said.

'Yes, it is,' Zelandoni said.

'I didn't know this was here,' he said. 'No one talks about it.'

'The zelandonia are the only ones who come here, I think. There is a little concern that youngsters might try to look for this and lose their way,' the First said. 'You know how children love to explore caves. As you noticed, this cave would be very easy to get lost in, but some children have been here. In those passages we passed on the right near the entrance, there are some fingermarks made by children, and someone lifted at least one child up to mark the ceiling with fingers.'

'Are we going any farther?' Jondalar asked.

'No, from here, we'll head back,' Zelandoni said. 'But we can rest here for a while first, and while we're here, I think we should fill the lamps again. We have a long way to go.'

Ayla nursed her baby a little, while Jondalar and Zelandoni filled the lamps with more fuel. Then, after a last look, they turned around and began to retrace their steps. Ayla tried to look for the animals they had seen painted and engraved on the walls along the way, but Zelandoni was not constantly singing, and she wasn't making her bird calls, and she was sure she missed some. They reached the junction where the large passage they were in reached the main one, and continued south. It was quite a long walk, it seemed, before they reached the place where they had stopped to eat and then turned in to the place of the two mammoths facing each other.

'Do you want to stop here to rest and have a bite to eat, or go around the sharp bend first?' the First asked.

'I'd rather make the turn first,' Jondalar said. 'But if you are tired, we can stop here. How do you feel, Ayla?'

'I can stop or I can go on, whatever you want, Zelandoni,' she said.

'I am getting tired, but I think I'd like to get past that sinkhole at the turn before we stop,' she said. 'It will be harder for me to get going once I stop, until I get my legs used to moving again. I'd like to have that hard part past me,' the woman said.

Ayla had noticed that Wolf was staying closer to them on the way back, and he was panting a little. Even he was getting tired, and Jonayla was more restless. She had probably done her share of sleeping, but it was still dark and it confused her. Ayla shifted her from her back to her hip, then to the front to let her nurse a while, then back to her hip. Her haversack was getting heavy on her shoulder, and she wanted to shift it to the other, but it would mean changing everything else around, too, and that would be difficult while they were moving.

They worked their way carefully around the turn, especially after Ayla slipped a little on the wet clay, and then Zelandoni did, too. After they made it around the difficult corner, with little effort they reached the turnoff that had been on their right and was now on their left and Zelandoni stopped.

'If you recall,' she said, 'I told you there is an interesting sacred space down that tunnel. You can go in and see it, if you want. I'll wait here and rest, Ayla can use her bird whistle to find it, I'm sure.'

'I don't think I want to,' Ayla said. 'We've seen so much, I doubt that I could appreciate anything new. You said that you may not come back here again, but if you've been here several times before, I think it's likely I may come back again, especially since it's so close to the Ninth Cave. I'd rather see it with fresh eyes, when I'm not so tired.'

'I think that's a wise decision, Ayla,' the First said. 'I will tell you it's another ceiling, but on this one, the mammoths are painted in red. It will be better to see it with fresh eyes. But I do think we should have a bite to eat and I need to pass water.'

Jondalar breathed a sigh of relief, took off his backframe, and found a darkened corner for himself. He had been sipping on his small waterbag all day, and he felt a need to relieve himself, too. He would have gone in the new passage if the women had wanted to go, he thought as he stood hearing his stream on the stone, but he was tired of the marvellous sights of this cave for now, and tired of walking, and just wanted to get out. He didn't even care if they ate right now.

There was a small cup of cold soup waiting for him, and a bone with some meat on it. Wolf was working his way through a small pile of cut-up meat, too. 'I think we can chew on the meat as we walk,' Ayla said, 'but save the bones for Wolf. I'm sure he'd like to gnaw on them while he's resting by a fire.'

'We'd all like a fireplace about now,' Zelandoni said. 'I think we should also put the lamps away when they run out of fat, and use these torches for the rest of the way out.' She had a fresh torch ready for each of them.

Jondalar was the first to light his as they walked by the other passage opening out on their left, across from the first painted mammoth they had seen.

'This is the place where you turn in to see the children's fingermarks, and there are other kinds of interesting things on the walls and ceilings, deep in that passageway and it's several turnoffs.' Zelandoni commented, 'No one knows what they mean, though many have made guesses. Many are painted in red, but it's a bit of a walk from here.'

Not long afterward, both Ayla and Zelandoni lit their torches. Ahead, where the tunnel split, they took the right-hand path, and Ayla thought she could see the hint of light ahead. When it angled farther to the right, she was sure, but it wasn't bright light, and when they finally walked out of the cave, the sun was setting. They had spent the entire day walking in the great cavern.

Jondalar stacked wood in the pit to light with his torch. Ayla dropped her haversack on the ground near the firepit, and whistled for the horses. She heard a distant whinny, and started in that direction.

'Leave the baby with me,' Zelandoni said. 'You've been carrying her all day. You both need a rest.'

Ayla put the blanket down on the grass, and put Jonayla on it. She seemed glad to kick her feet in freedom, as her mother whistled again and ran toward the answering sounds of horses. She always worried when she was gone from them for some time.

They slept late the next morning, and didn't feel any particular rush to continue their travels, but by midmorning, they were getting restless and anxious to go. Jondalar and Zelandoni discussed what would be the best way to get to the Fifth Cave.

'It's east of here, maybe two days' travel, or three if we take our time. I think if we just headed in that direction, we'd get there,' Jondalar said.

'That's true, but I think we are also a little north, and if we just go east, we'll have to cross both North River and The River,' Zelandoni said. She picked up a stick and started drawing lines on the ground where it was bare. 'If we start out going east but somewhat south, we can reach Summer Camp of the Twenty-ninth Cave before nightfall and stay with them tonight. North River joins The River near South Face of the Twenty-Ninth Cave. We can cross The River at the ford between Summer Camp and South Face and have only one river to cross. The River is bigger there, but shallow, and then we can go on toward Reflection Rock and to the Fifth Cave the way we did last year.'

Jondalar studied her scratchings on the ground, and while he was looking at them, Zelandoni added another comment. 'The trail is fairly well blazed on the trees between here and Summer Camp, and there's a path on the ground the rest of the way.'

Jondalar realised that he had been thinking about travelling the way he and Ayla did on their Journey. On horseback, with the bowl boat attached to the end of the travois to float their things across streams, they didn't need to concern themselves much about crossing any but the biggest of rivers. But with the First sitting on the pole-drag Whinney was pulling, it wasn't likely to float, and neither was the one Racer was dragging with all their supplies. Besides, it would be easier to find their way with blazed trails.

'You are right, Zelandoni,' he said. 'It might not be quite as direct, but your way would make it easier, and likely get us there just as fast or faster.'

The trail blazes weren't quite as easy to follow as the First had remembered. It seemed that people hadn't been that way very often lately, but they renewed some of them as they went along so the trail would be easier for the next person to use. It was nearing sunset when they reached the home of Summer Camp, also known as the West Holding of the Twenty-ninth Cave, which was sometimes known as Three Rocks, meaning three separate locations.

The Twenty-ninth had a particularly interesting and complex social arrangement. They once had been three separate Caves that lived in three different shelters that looked out on the same rich expanse of grassland. Reflection Rock faced north, which would have been a major disadvantage except that what it had to offer more than compensated for its north face. It was a huge cliff, a half mile long, two hundred sixty feet high, with five levels of shelters and a vast potential for observing the surrounding landscape and the animals that migrated through it. And it was a spectacular sight that most people looked upon with awe.

The Cave called South Face was just that: a two-storey shelter facing south, situated to get the best of the sunlight in summer and winter, high enough up to get a good view of the open plain. The final Cave was Summer Camp, which was on the west end of the plain and offered among other things a wealth of hazelnuts, which many of the people from the other Caves went to pick in late summer. It was also the one with the closest proximity to a small sacred cave, which was called by the people who lived in the vicinity simply Forest Hollow.

Since all three Caves utilised essentially the same hunting and gathering areas, hard feelings were developing, leading to fights. It wasn't that the area couldn't support all three groups — it was not only rich in itself, it was a major migration route — but often two or more gathering groups or hunting parties from different Caves went after the same things at the same time. Two uncoordinated hunts trying for the same migrating small herd interfered with the plans of both, and had been known to chase away the animals, with neither group getting a kill. If all three groups went after them independently, it was worse. All the Zelandonii Caves in the region were being pulled into the disagreements, one way or another, and finally, at the urging of all their neighbours, and after difficult negotiations, the three separate Caves decided to join together and become one Cave in three locations, and to work together to mutually harvest the plenty of their rich plain. Though there were still occasional differences, the unusual arrangement seemed to be working.

Because the Summer Meeting was still going on, not many people were at the West Holding of the Twenty-ninth Cave. Most of those who stayed back were old, or sick, and unable to make the trip, plus the ones who stayed to care for them. In rare cases, someone who was working on something that couldn't be interrupted or could only be done in summer also stayed. Those who were at West Holding welcomed the travellers enthusiastically. They seldom had visitors this early in the summer and since they were coming from the Summer Meeting, they could bring news. In addition, the visitors themselves made news wherever they went: Jondalar, the returned traveller, and his foreign woman and her baby, and the wolf and horses, and the First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother. But they were of especial interest to those who were ill or failing, because of who they were: healers, and at least one of them acknowledged as among the best of their people.

The Ninth Cave had always had a particularly good relationship with the people of Three Rocks who lived at the place called Summer Camp. Jondalar recalled going there when he was a boy to help harvest the nuts that grew so abundantly in their vicinity. Whoever was invited to help harvest always got a share of the nuts, and they didn't invite everyone, but they always invited the other two Caves of Three Rocks, and the Ninth Cave.

A young woman with light blond hair and pale skin stepped out of a dwelling that was under the abri and looked at them with surprise. 'What are you doing here?' she said, then caught herself. 'I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be so rude. It's just such a surprise to see you here. I wasn't expecting anyone.'

Ayla thought she looked sad and drawn, a darkness circled her eyes.

Zelandoni knew it was the Acolyte to the Zelandoni of the West Holding of the Twenty-ninth Cave. 'Don't be sorry,' said the First. 'I know we caught you by surprise. I am taking Ayla on her first Donier Tour. Let me introduce you.' The First went through an abbreviated version of a formal introduction, then said, 'I'm wondering why an acolyte would stay behind. Is someone especially sick here?'

'Perhaps no more than others here who are close to the Next World, but she's my mother,' the Acolyte said. Zelandoni nodded with understanding.

'If you like, we can take a look at her,' the One Who Was First said.

'I'd be grateful if you would, but I didn't want to ask. My Zelandoni seemed to help her when she was here, and she did give me some instructions, but mother seems to have got worse. She's much more uncomfortable, but I can't seem to help her,' the young acolyte said.

Ayla remembered meeting the Zelandoni of Summer Camp the year before. Since each one of the Caves of Three Rocks had a Zelandoni that lived with them, it had been concluded that if all three had a deciding voice at the meetings of the zelandonia, it would give the Twenty-ninth Cave too much influence. Therefore, a fourth Donier was chosen to represent the entire group, but she functioned more as a mediator, not only between the three other Zelandonii, but also between the three separate leaders, and it took much time and a great deal of skill with people. The other three Doniers were called colleagues. Ayla remembered the Zelandoni of Summer Camp as a middle-aged woman, nearly as fat as the One Who Was First, but rather than tall, she was quite short and seemed warm and motherly. Her title was Complementary Zelandoni of the West Holding of the Twenty-ninth Cave, although she was a full Zelandoni, and accorded the complete respect and status of her position.

The young Acolyte seemed relieved to have someone else look at her mother, especially someone of such prominence and knowledge, but seeing that Jondalar was just beginning to unpack the things from the pole-drag, and Ayla's baby, who was riding her back, seemed to be getting fussy, she said, 'You should get yourselves settled in first.'

They greeted everyone who was there, put down their sleeping rolls, settled the horses to a good open space of fresh grass, and got Wolf acquainted with the people, or rather, the people familiar with him. Then Zelandoni and Ayla approached the young acolyte.

'What is it that is troubling your mother?' Zelandoni asked.

'I'm not entirely sure. She complains about stomach aches or cramps, and lately she has no appetite,' the young woman said. 'I can see that she's getting thin, and now she doesn't want to get out of bed. I am very worried.'

'That's understandable,' Zelandoni said. 'Do you want to come with me to see her, Ayla?'

'Yes, but let me ask Jondalar to watch Jonayla first. I just nursed her, so she should be fine.'

She took the baby to Jondalar, who was talking to an older man who didn't seem weak or ill. Ayla supposed he was there on behalf of someone else, like the young acolyte. Jondalar was delighted to look after Jonayla, smiling as he reached for her. Jonayla smiled back; she liked being with him.

Ayla returned to the place where the other two women waited and followed them into a dwelling, similar to the ones made by the Ninth Cave, but this one was much smaller than most of those she had seen. It seemed made to house only the woman who occupied the sleeping place within. It wasn't much bigger than the bed, just a small space around it and a small storage and cooking area. Zelandoni alone seemed to fill it, with very little extra room for the two younger women.

'Mother. Mother!' the Acolyte said. 'There are some people here to see you.'

The woman moaned and opened her eyes, and then opened them wider when she saw the large figure of the First.

'Shevola?' she said with a raspy voice.

'I'm here, mother,' the Acolyte said.

'Why is the First here? Did you send for her?'

'No, mother. She just happened to stop by and said she'd look in on you. Ayla is here, too,' Shevola said.

'Ayla? Isn't she Jondalar's foreign woman with the animals?'

'Yes, mother. She brought them with her. If you feel up to it later, you can go out and see them.'

'What is your mother's name Acolyte of the West Holding of the Twenty-ninth Cave?' Zelandoni asked.

'Vashona of Summer Camp, the West Holding of the Twenty-ninth Cave. She was born at Reflection Rock before Three Rocks joined together,' the young woman explained, then felt slightly embarrassed, aware that she didn't need to go through so much explanation. This wasn't a formal introduction.

'Would you mind if Ayla examined you, Vashona?' the First asked. 'She is a skilled healer. We may not be able to help you, but we'd like to try.'

'No,' the woman said softly, and it seemed with some hesitation. 'I wouldn't mind.'

Ayla was a little surprised that the First wanted her to look at the woman. Then it occurred to her that the space inside the dwelling was so cramped, the large woman might have some difficulty getting down to the bedside. She knelt down and looked at the woman. 'Are you feeling pain now?' she asked.

Both Vashona and her daughter suddenly became aware of Ayla's unusual way of speaking, her exotic accent.


'Will you show me where it is?'

'It's hard to say. Inside.'

'Higher up or lower down?'

'All over.'

'May I touch you?'

The woman looked at her daughter, who looked at Zelandoni. 'She does need to examine her,' the First said.

Vashona nodded agreement and Ayla pulled down the cover and opened her clothing, exposing her stomach. She noted immediately that the woman was bloated. She pressed down on her stomach, starting at the top and working her way down over the rounded bulge. Vashona winced, but didn't cry out. Ayla felt her forehead and around the back of her ears, then bent closer and smelled her breath. Then she sat back on her heels and looked thoughtful.

'Do you get a burning pain in your chest, especially after you eat?' Ayla asked.

'Yes,' the woman replied, with a questioning look.

'And does air come out of your mouth with a loud noise in the throat, like when you burp a baby?'

'Yes, but many people belch,' Vashona said.

'That's true, but have you spit up blood, too?' Ayla asked.

Vashona frowned. 'Sometimes,' she said.

'Have you noticed blood, or a dark sticky mass in your excrement?'

'Yes,' the woman said, almost in a whisper. 'More lately. How did you know?'

'She knows from her examination of you,' Zelandoni interjected.

'What did you do for your pain?' Ayla asked.

'I did what everybody does for pain. I drank willow-bark tea,' Vashona said.

'And do you also drink a lot of peppermint tea?' Ayla said.

Both Vashona and Shevona, her acolyte daughter, looked at the stranger with surprise.

'It's her favourite tea,' Shevona said.

'Liquorice root or anise tea would be better,' Ayla said, 'and no more willow bark, either, for now. Some people think that since everybody uses it, it can't hurt you. But too much can. It is a medicine, but it's not good for everything, and should not be used too frequently.'

'Can you help her?' the acolyte asked.

'I think so. I believe I know what is wrong. It's serious, but there are things that can help. I must tell you, though,' Ayla added, 'that it could be something even more serious that is much harder to treat, although we can at least relieve some of her pain.'

Ayla caught the eye of Zelandoni, who was nodding slightly with a knowing expression on her face.

'What would you suggest for treatment, Ayla?' she asked.

She looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, 'Anise or liquorice root to settle the stomach. I have some dried in my medicine bag. And I think I have dried sweet flag — although it is so sweet it's almost bitter — which can stop cramping spasms, and there are plenty of dandelions around to cleanse her blood and help her insides work better. I just picked some cleavers, which can purge her body of residues of wastes, and a decoction of the woodruff I just gathered is good for stomachs, can help her feel better all over, and tastes good. I may be able to find more of those wood avens rootlets I used for flavouring the other evening. They're especially good for stomach disorders. But what I'd really like to have is celandine; that would be most helpful. It's a good treatment for either one of her possible problems, especially the more serious one.'

The young woman looked at Ayla with awe. The First knew she wasn't the Summer Camp's Zelandoni's First Acolyte. She was still new to the zelandonia and had much to learn. And Ayla could still surprise even the First with the depth of her knowledge. She turned to the young Acolyte.

'Perhaps you could assist Ayla with the preparation of your mother's medicine. It will be a way for you to learn how to make it after we leave,' Zelandoni said.

'Oh, yes. I'd like to help,' the young woman said, then looked at her mother with tenderness in her eyes. 'I think this medicine will make you feel much better, mother.'

Ayla watched the fire sending flickering sparks up into the night as though trying to reach their twinkling brethren far up in the sky above. It was dark; the moon was young and had already set. No clouds obscured the dazzling display of stars that were so thick, they seemed to be strung together on skeins of light.

Jonayla was asleep in her arms. She had finished nursing some time before, but Ayla was comfortable relaxing by the fire holding her. Jondalar was sitting beside her and a little behind, and she leaned into his chest and the arm that had found its way around her. It had been a busy day and she was tired. There were only nine people of the Cave who had not gone to the Summer Meeting, six who were too sick or weak to make the long walk — she and Zelandoni had looked at all six — and three who had stayed behind to care for them. Some of those who couldn't make the journey were nonetheless well enough to help with certain chores like cooking and gathering food. The older man Jondalar had been talking with earlier, who was staying for a while to help, had gone hunting and brought down a deer, so they put together a venison feast for their guests.

In the morning, Zelandoni took Ayla aside and told her that she had arranged for the young Acolyte to show their sacred cave to her. 'It isn't very big, but it is very difficult. You may have to crawl through parts of it, so wear something to climb through caves and cover your knees. When I was young, I went into it once, but I don't think I could do it now. I think the two of you will manage just fine, but it will be slow going. You are both strong young women, so it shouldn't take too long, but because it is difficult, you might want to consider leaving your baby here.' She paused, then added, 'I will watch her if you like.'

Ayla thought she detected a reluctance in Zelandoni's voice. Taking care of babies could be tiring, and the First might have other plans. 'Why don't I ask Jondalar if he will. He likes to spend time with Jonayla.'

The two young women started out together, with the young Acolyte showing the way. 'Should I call you by your full title, a short version of it, or by your name?' Ayla asked after they had walked a short distance. 'Different acolytes seem to have different preferences.'

'What do people call you?'

'I am Ayla. I know I'm the Acolyte of the First, but I still have trouble thinking of myself that way, and "Ayla" is what everyone calls me. I like it better. My name is the only thing I have left from my real mother, my original people. I don't even know who they were. I don't yet know what I'm going to do when I become a full Zelandoni. I know we're supposed to leave our personal names behind, and I hope when the time comes, I'll be ready to, but I'm not yet.'

'Some Acolytes are happy to change names, some would rather not, but it all seems to work out. I think I'd like you to call me Shevola. It seems more friendly than Acolyte.'

'So please call me Ayla.'

They walked further along a trail through a narrow canyon, dense with woods and brush, between two imposing cliffs, one of which held the stone shelter of the people. Wolf suddenly bounded up. He startled Shevola, who wasn't used to wolves appearing suddenly. Ayla grabbed his head between her hands, roughing up his mane, and laughed.

'So you didn't want to be left behind,' she said, actually glad to see him. She turned toward the Acolyte. 'He always used to follow me everywhere I went, unless I told him not to, until Jonayla was born. Now he's drawn between us when I am in one place and she is in another. He wants to protect both of us, and can't always make up his mind. I thought I'd let him choose this time. I think he must have decided that Jondalar could protect Jonayla well enough and come to find me.'

'Your control over animals is amazing, the way they go where you want and do what you want. You get used to watching you after a while, but it is still hard to believe,' Shevola said. 'Did you always have these animals?'

'No, Whinney was the first, unless you count the rabbit I found when I was a little girl,' Ayla said. 'He must have got away from some predator, but he was hurt, and didn't, or couldn't, run away when I picked him up. Iza was the healer and I took him back to the cave so she could help him. She was more than surprised, and told me that healers were supposed to help people, not animals, but she helped him anyway. Maybe to see if she could. I suppose the idea that people could help animals must have stayed with me when I saw the little foal. I didn't realise at first that the animal that fell into my pit trap was a nursing mare, and I don't know why I killed the hyenas that were after her, except I hate hyenas. But once I did, I felt that Whinney had become my responsibility, that I had to try to raise her. I'm glad I did. She has become my friend.'

Shevola was fascinated by the story Ayla told with such casualness, as though it were an ordinary thing. 'Still, you have control over those animals.'

'I don't know if I would call it that. With Whinney, I was like her mother. I took care of her and fed her and we came to understand each other. If you find an animal when it is very young and raise it like a child, you can teach it how to behave, the same way a mother teaches a child how to behave,' Ayla tried to explain. 'Racer and Grey are her son and daughter, so I was there when they were born.'

'What about the wolf?'

'I set some traps for ermines, and when Deegie — she was my friend — and I went to check them, I discovered that something was stealing them from my snares. When I caught sight of a wolf eating one, it made me angry. I killed her with my sling; then I saw that she was a nursing mother. I didn't expect it. It was out of season for a wolf to have cubs young enough to still be nursing, so I backtracked her trail to her den. She was a lone wolf, didn't have a pack to help her, and something must have happened to her mate, too. That's why she was stealing from my snares. There was only one puppy left alive, so I took him back with me. We were living with the Mamutoi then, and Wolf was raised with the children of the Lion Camp. He never knew what it was like to live with wolves; that's why he thinks people are his pack,' Ayla said.

'All people?' Shevola asked.

'No, not all people, although he has got used to large crowds. Jondalar and I, and now Jonayla, of course — wolves love their young — are his primary pack, but he also counts Marthona and Willamar and Folara among his family, Joharran and Proleva and her children, too. He accepts people I bring to him to sniff, that I introduce to him, as friends, sort of temporary pack members. He ignores everyone else, so long as they offer no harm to those he feels close to, those he considers his pack,' Ayla explained to the avidly interested young woman.

'What if someone did try to harm someone that he felt close to?'

'On the Journey Jondalar and I made to get here, we met a woman who was evil, who took pleasure in hurting people. She tried to kill me, but Wolf killed her first.'

Shevola felt a chill, a rather delicious thrill, like she did when a good Storyteller recounted a scary tale. Although she didn't doubt Ayla — she didn't think the Acolyte of the First would make up something like that — nothing like that had ever happened in her life and it just didn't seem quite real. But there was the wolf, and she knew what wolves could do.

As they continued along the trail between the cliffs, they came to an offshoot toward the right that led up to a split in the stone face, an entrance into the cliff. It was a rather steep climb, and when they reached it they found that a large block of stone partially closed off the way in, but there was an opening on both sides of it. The left side was narrow but passable; the right side was much larger, and it was obvious that people had stayed there before. She saw an old pad on the ground with grass stuffing sticking out where the leather was split on one side. Scattered around it was the familiar debitage of chips and pieces left from someone knapping flint to make tools and implements. Bones that someone had chewed on had been thrown at the wall nearby and fallen to the ground at the foot of it. They went inside and walked a ways into the cave. Wolf followed them. Shevola led them to some stones, then slipped off her backframe and propped it up on one.

'It will soon be too dark to see,' Shevola said, 'It's time to light our torches. We can leave our packs here, but drink some water first.'

She started looking into her pack for fire-making material, but Ayla already had her fire-starting kit out, and a small unwoven basketlike shape made of dried shreds of bark pushed together. She stuffed it with some of the quick burning fireweed fluff that she liked to use for tinder. Then she withdrew a piece of iron pyrite, her firestone, with a groove already worn into it from the many times it had been used, and a fragment of flint that Jondalar had shaped to fit the groove. Ayla struck the firestone with the flint and drew off a spark that landed in the flammable fluff. It sent up a faint curl of smoke. Ayla picked up the bark basket and began to blow on the tiny ember, which caused it to flare up in small licks of flame. She blew again, then set the little basket of fire down on the stone. Shevola had two torches ready and lit them from the small fire. Once the torches were burning, Ayla squeezed the bark shreds together and tamped them down to put out the fire so the bark that was left could be used again.

'We have a couple of firestones, but I haven't learned to use them yet,' the young Acolyte said. 'Would you show me how you do that so fast?'

'Of course. It just takes some practice,' Ayla said. 'But now, I think you should show me this cave.' As the young woman headed deeper in, Ayla wondered what this sacred place would be like.

Some light was coming from the opening that led outside, but without the light from the torches, they would not have been able to see their way, and the floor of the cave was very uneven. Pieces of the ceiling had fallen down and sections of walls had collapsed in. They had to walk very carefully, climbing up and over the stones. Shevola headed for the left wall and then stayed close to it. She stopped where the cave narrowed and seemed to divide into two tunnels. The right side was wide and easy to enter; the other passage on the left side was quite narrow and got smaller. As one looked into it, it appeared to be a dead end.

'This cave is misleading,' Shevola said. 'The larger opening is on the right, and you might think that would be the way to go, but it leads nowhere. A little farther along, it divides again and both ways get smaller and smaller, then just end. Here on the left, the cave gets very narrow and small, but once you get past that, it opens out again.' Shevola held up her torch, pointing out a few faint tracings on the left wall. 'Those were put there to let someone who isn't familiar with this cave know that this is the way to go, if they understand what the markings mean.'

'That would be someone in the zelandonia, I suppose,' Ayla said.

'Usually,' Shevola said, 'but youngsters sometimes like to explore caves, and they often work out what the markings mean.' After a short distance, the young woman stopped. 'This is a good place to sound your sacred voice,' she said. 'Do you have one yet?'

'I haven't decided,' Ayla said. 'I've whistled like birds, but I also roared like a lion. Zelandoni sings and it is always beautiful, but when she sang in the mammoth cave, it was unbelievable. What do you do?'

'I sing, too, but not like the First. I'll show you.' Shevola made a very high-pitched sound, then dropped to a low pitch, then continuously increased her pitch until she reached the first sound. The cave sang back a muted echo.

'That is remarkable,' Ayla said, then whistled her medley of birdsong.

'Now that is remarkable,' Shevola said. 'It really sounded like birds. How did you learn to do that?'

'After I left the Clan and before I met Jondalar, I lived in a valley far to the east. I used to feed the birds to entice them to come back, and then started to mimic their calls. Sometimes they would come when I whistled, so I practised more.'

'Did you say you could roar like a lion, too?'

Ayla smiled. 'Yes, and whinny like a horse and howl like a wolf, and even laugh like a hyena. I started trying to make the sounds of many animals, because it was fun, and challenging.' And something to do when you are alone, and birds and animals are your only company, she thought, but didn't say out loud. Sometimes she avoided mentioning things just because it would have required too much explanation.

'I know some hunters that can make pretty good animal sounds, especially to entice them closer, like the call of a male red deer and the bawl of an aurochs calf, but I've never heard anyone make a lion roar,' Shevola said, looking at her with a hopeful expression.

Ayla smiled, took a deep breath, then faced the cave opening and started with a few preliminary grunts, the way a lion did. Then she let out a roar, like one Baby used to make after he reached maturity. It may not have been as loud as the roar of a real lion, but it had all the nuances and intonations and sounded so much like a real lion roar that most people who heard it believed it was real, and therefore believed it was louder than it actually was. Shevola paled for a moment at the sound, and then when the cave echoed it back, she laughed.

'If I had just heard that, I don't think I'd go into that cave. It sounds like there is a cave lion inside.'

Just then Wolf decided to respond to Ayla's lion roar with his own sound, and howled his wolfsong. The cave resounded that back as well.

'Is that wolf a Zelandoni?' the young Acolyte asked with surprise. 'It sounded like he was using a sacred voice, too.'

'I don't know if he is. To me he's just a wolf, but the First has made similar comments when he does something like that,' Ayla said.

They started into the narrowed space, Shevola first, followed by Ayla, and then Wolf. It wasn't long before Ayla was thinking how glad she was that Zelandoni had told her to dress for clambering around in a cave. Not only did the walls of the cave narrow, but the level of the floor rose and the ceiling lowered. It left such a small, cramped space to work their way through, they couldn't even stand upright in it, and in some places they had to get on their knees to go forward. Ayla dropped her torch going through the narrow section, but managed to pick it up before it went out.

Progress became easier after the cave passage opened out, especially when they could walk upright again. Wolf, too, seemed happy to be beyond the tight space, even though he could go through it much more easily, but they still had some narrow sections to squeeze through. In one area the wall on the right had crumbled into a scree slope of loose dirt and small stones, leaving barely a level path on which to put their feet. As they carefully picked their way through, more stones and pebbles rolled down the rather steep grade. They both crowded closer to the opposite wall.

Finally, after another narrowing of the passage, Shevola stopped, held up her torch, and faced the right. Wet, shiny clay partially covered a small section of the wall, but it became part of the medium of expression. A sign was engraved on it, five vertical lines and two horizontal lines, one of which crossed all five of the upright lines, while the second only went about halfway across. Next to the sign was an engraving on stone of a reindeer.

By now Ayla had seen enough paintings, drawings, and engravings to have developed her own sense of those she considered good and those she thought were less well done. In her opinion, this reindeer was not as well made as some others she had seen, but she would never say anything like that to Shevola or the rest of the Cave, or anyone else. It was a private thought. Not so long ago, just the idea of drawing anything resembling an animal on a cave wall was unbelievable. She'd never seen anything like it. Even a partial drawing of a shape that suggested an animal was astonishing and powerful. This one, particularly by the shape of its antlers, she knew was a reindeer.

'Do you know who made this?' Ayla asked.

'There's nothing in the Elder Legends or Histories, except general references that could be alluding to almost any cave markings, but there are a few hints in some of the stories that are told about our Cave that suggest it could have been an ancient one of West Holding, perhaps one of the founders,' Shevola said. 'I like to think it was an ancestor who made them.'

As they continued farther into the cave, the difficulties lessened only slightly. The floor was still very rough and the walls had projections that they had to watch out for, but finally at about fifty feet into the long, narrow space, Shevola stopped again. On the left side of the passage they came to a narrow room, and on the right wall of it was a projection near the ceiling where there was a panel of several engraved figures at an inclination of about forty-five degrees from the horizontal. It was the principal composition of the cave, consisting of nine engraved animals on a limited surface area, perhaps thirty inches by forty-five inches. Again, clay on the wall became part of the medium.

The first image on the left was partly carved in the clay; the rest were incised into the stone, probably with a flint burin. Ayla noticed that there was a fine transparent covering of calcite on the frieze, an indication that it was already old. The projection was coloured in part with a natural pigment of black manganese dioxide. The fragility of the surface was extreme; a small section of the carbonate material had flaked off, and another looked as though it would soon detach from the rest of the rock.

The central subject that dominated the frieze was a magnificent reindeer, with the head raised and antlers extended back, and carefully drawn details like the single eye, the line of the mouth, and the nostril. The flank was marked with nine cuplike holes parallel to the line of its back. Behind it, facing in the opposite direction, was another partial animal, probably a deer, or perhaps a horse, with another line of engraved holes running across the body. On the far right of the panel was a lion, and between them a series of animals, including horses and a mountain goat. Under the chin of the central figure, and utilising the same line as the neck of the reindeer, was the head of a horse. In the lower part of the panel, below the main figures was an engraving of another horse. In all, Ayla used the counting words to tally nine fully or partially drawn animals.

'This is as far as we need to go,' Shevola said. 'If we go straight, it just ends. There is another very tight passage to the left, but once you get through it there's nothing except another little room that also just ends. We should go back.'

'Do you ever do ceremonies or rituals when you come here?' Ayla asked, as she turned around and stroked the wolf, who was patiently waiting.

'The ritual was the making of these images,' the young Acolyte said. 'The person who came here, perhaps once, or maybe more times, was making a ritual Journey. I don't know, it may have been a Zelandoni, or an Acolyte becoming a Zelandoni, but I can imagine that it was someone who felt a need to reach for the Spirit World, for the Great Earth Mother. There are some sacred caves that are meant for people to visit and conduct rituals, but I think this was done as a personal Journey. In my mind I try to acknowledge that person when I come here, in my own private way.'

'I think you are going to be a very good Zelandoni,' Ayla said. 'You are already so wise. I was feeling the need to recognise this place and the one who created this work. I think I will follow your advice and reflect on it and the one who made it, and offer a personal thought to Doni, but I would like to do more, perhaps reach for the spirit world, too. Have you ever touched the walls?'

'No, but you can if you want.'

'Will you hold my torch?' Ayla asked.

Shevola took the torch and held both of them high to shed more light in the tiny cramped cave. Ayla reached up with both hands outstretched and put them palm down on the wall, not on any of the engravings or paintings, but near them. One hand felt the wet clay, the other the rough surface of the limestone. Then she closed her eyes. It was the clay surface that first gave her a tingling feeling; then a sense of intensity seemed to flow out of the rock wall. She wasn't sure if it was real or if she was imagining it.

For an instant, her thoughts flashed back to when she was living with the Clan and her trip to the Clan Gathering. She had been the one who was required to make the special drink for the mog-urs. Iza had explained the process to her. She had to chew the hard, dry roots, and spit the mash into the water in the special bowl, then stir it with her finger. She wasn't supposed to swallow any, but she couldn't help it, and she felt the effects. After Creb tasted it, he must have thought it was too strong, and gave each mog-ur less to drink.

After she consumed the women's special drink and danced with them, she went back and found the bowl with some of the white milky liquid still in the bottom. Iza had told her it should never be wasted, and Ayla wasn't sure what to do, so she drank it, then found herself following the lights of lamps and torches into a sinuous cave to the special meeting of the mog-urs. The rest didn't know she was there, but the Mog-ur, her Creb, did. She never did understand the thoughts and visions that filled her head that night, but afterwards they came back to her sometimes. That's how she was feeling now, not as strongly, but the same sensation. She lifted her hands from the cave wall, and felt a shiver of apprehension.

Both young women were quiet as they retraced their steps, stopping for a moment to look again at the first reindeer and its accompanying signs. Ayla noticed some curved lines that she hadn't seen the first time. They continued past the unstable scree slope, which made Ayla shudder, and the narrowed places until they reached the very difficult passage. This time Wolf went first. When they reached the place that required them to proceed ahead on hands and knees, one hand since the other was holding the light, she saw that her torch was burning low, and hoped it would last until they were through.

When they reached the other side, Ayla could see light coming in from the opening, and her breasts felt full. She hadn't thought they were gone that long, but she knew Jonayla needed feeding or would soon. They hurried to the stones where they had left their backframes, and both young women reached for their waterbags. They were thirsty. Ayla dug down in the bottom of her pack for a small bowl she kept for Wolf. She poured some into the bowl for the animal, then took a drink from the bag herself. When they were through, and she had repacked Wolf's bowl, they hoisted their packs to their backs and started out of the cave to return to the place called Summer Camp of Three Rocks, the West Holding of the Twenty-ninth Cave of the Zelandonii.

Chapter 16

'There's Reflection Rock,' Jondalar said. 'Did you plan to stop at the South Holding of the Twenty-ninth Cave, Zelandoni?'

The small procession of people, horses, and Wolf came to a halt beside The River and looked up at the impressive limestone cliff divided into five and in some places six levels. Like most of the cliff walls in the region, there were naturally occurring black vertical streaks of manganese that gave a distinctive look to the face of the cliff. They noticed some movement of people who were looking at them but apparently didn't necessarily want to be seen. Ayla recalled that several people of this Cave, including the leader, were quite apprehensive around the horses and Wolf, and she rather hoped they would not be stopping here.

'I'm sure there are a few people there who stayed back from the Summer Meeting,' the woman said, 'but we visited last year and we didn't get the chance to visit the Fifth Cave. I think we should keep going.'

They continued upstream, following the same trail that they had the year before, heading for the place where the river spread out and the water became shallow, and more easily crossed. If they had planned to follow The River, and if they had made arrangements before they left, they could have travelled by raft, a journey that required poling the bulky craft upstream. Or they could walk on the trail beside The River, which would require going due north, then east as the waterway started into a broad bend that curved around in a large loop, and then south and east again, making another large loop that would end up bearing north again, a trek of ten miles. After the large looping S-curves, the path along The River proceeded upstream with gentler meandering turns toward the northeast.

There were some small living sites near the northern end of the first loop, but Zelandoni was planning to visit a sizable settlement at the southernmost end of the second loop, the Fifth Cave of the Zelandonii, sometimes known as Old Valley. It was easier to reach Old Valley by going across country rather than following the river around the extensive 'S' curves. Starting from Reflection Rock on the left bank of The River, it was only a little more than three miles east and just slightly north to the large Fifth Cave, though the trail, following the easiest way across the hilly terrain, was not quite so direct.

When they arrived at the shallow crossing of The River, they stopped again. Jondalar got down from Racer's back and scrutinised the river crossing. 'It's up to you. Would you rather get down and wade across, or stay on the pole-drag, Zelandoni?'

'I'm not sure. I think both of you would know better,' the Donier said.

'What do you think, Ayla?' Jondalar said.

She was in front of the group, using the carrying blanket to secure Jonayla in front of her on the mare's back. She twisted around to look at the others. 'The water doesn't look deep, but it could be deeper farther on and you might find yourself sitting in water,' Ayla said.

'If I get out and wade, I will certainly get wet. Maybe I'll take a chance and see if this seat keeps me drier,' the First said.

Ayla looked around at the sky. 'It's a good thing we got here now while the river is low. I think it might rain, or … I don't know,' she muttered. 'It feels like something is coming.'

Jondalar remounted his horse and Zelandoni stayed on the pole-drag. As they crossed, the horses were in water up to their belly and the two on horseback got their lower legs and bare feet wet. The Wolf, who had to swim a short distance, actually got fully soaked, but he shook it off when they reached the opposite bank. But the wooden pole-drag floated a bit, and the water level was low. Except for a few splashes, Zelandoni stayed quite dry.

Once across The River, they followed a well-marked path heading away from the river, traversed up the side of a ridge, over a rounded top where another trail joined it, then down the opposite side and along the customary short-cut. The walking distance to the Fifth Cave of the Zelandonii was about four miles. As they were travelling, the First offered them some information and history about the Fifth Cave. Although Jondalar knew most of it, he still listened attentively; Ayla had heard some of it before, but learned much that was new.

'From the counting word in their name, you know that the Fifth Cave is the third oldest existing group of the Zelandonii,' the Donier began, speaking in her instructional voice, which carried quite a distance though it was not excessively loud. 'Only the Second and Third Caves are older. While the Histories and Elder Legends speak of the First Cave, no one seems to know what happened to the Fourth. Most people assume that some illness reduced its numbers until they were less than viable, or a difference of opinion among a number of the people caused some to leave, with the remaining ones then joining another Cave. Such an occurrence is not uncommon, as the missing counting words in a naming and tallying of all the various Caves will attest. Most Caves have Histories of assimilating members or joining other groups, but none has any stories about the Fourth Cave. Some people imagine that a terrible tragedy befell the Fourth Cave, which caused the death of them all.'

The First Among Those Who Serve The Great Earth Mother continued to lecture as they proceeded, thinking that Ayla in particular needed to know as much as possible about her adopted people, especially since she would someday have to teach the younger ones of the Ninth Cave. Ayla found herself listening with fascination, watching the trail they were following only peripherally, guiding Whinney unconsciously with the pressure of a knee or a shift in her position as the woman behind her spoke, and though facing backward, filled the surrounding air with her voice.

The home of the Fifth Cave was a comfortable little valley between limestone cliffs below a high promontory with a clear stream running down the middle, which began in a lively spring and ended where it debouched straight into The River several hundred feet away. The high cliffs rearing up on both sides of the small stream offered nine rock shelters of various sizes, some rather high up on the walls, but not all of them had people living in them. The valley had been in use for as long as anyone could remember, which is why it was called Old Valley. The Histories and Elder Legends of the Zelandonii affirmed that many Caves had ties to the Fifth Cave.

Each one of the Caves in the Zelandonii territory was essentially independent, and could take care of its own basic needs. Members could hunt and fish, gather foods, and collect materials to make whatever they needed, not just to survive, but to live well. They were the most advanced society not only in their region, but perhaps in all the world in their time. The Caves cooperated with each other because it was in their best interests to do so. They sometimes went on group hunting expeditions, especially for larger animals like mammoth and megaceros, the giant deer, or for dangerous animals like the cave lion, and shared the dangers and the results. They sometimes gathered produce in large parties and were able to collect an abundance in a short ripening season before the food was past its prime.

They negotiated for mates from the larger group because they needed a more extensive pool of people to draw from than their own small Cave, and they exchanged goods not because they needed to, but because they liked what other people made. Their products were similar enough to be understandable, but offered interest and diversity, and when things went wrong, it was good to have friends or relatives they could turn to for help. Living in a periglacial region, an area that skirted glaciers, with exceedingly cold winters, things could go wrong.

Each Cave tended to specialise in various ways, partly as a result of where each one lived, and partly because certain people developed ways to do certain things especially well and passed on the knowledge to their closest kith and kin. For example, the Third Cave were considered to have the best hunters, primarily because they lived high up on a cliff at the confluence of two rivers with large grassy meadows on the floodplains below that attracted most varieties of game as they migrated through, and they were usually the first to see them. Because they were considered the best, they were continually perfecting their hunting and observing skills. If it was a large herd, they would signal nearby Caves for a group hunt. But if it was only a few animals, their hunters often went out themselves, though they often shared their bounty with neighbouring Caves, especially during gatherings or festivals.

The people of the Fourteenth Cave were known as exceptional fishers. Every Cave fished, but they specialised in catching fish. They had a fairly healthy stream running through their small valley that began many miles upstream and was home to several different varieties of fish, in addition to being a spawning creek for salmon in season. They also fished The River and used many different techniques. They developed weirs to trap fish, and were very skilled in spear-fishing, net fishing, and the use of fish gouges, a kind of hook that was straight and pointed at both ends.

The shelter of the Eleventh Cave was close to The River. They had access to trees, and had developed the skills to make rafts, which had been passed down and improved through several generations. They poled the rafts up and down The River, hauling their own goods as well as goods for the other Caves, thereby acquiring benefits and obligations from their neighbours, which could be traded for other goods and services.

The Ninth Cave was located next to Down River, a site that was used as a gathering place by the local artisans and craftspeople. As a result, many of those people moved to the Ninth Cave, which partly accounted for the fact that so many people lived there. If someone wanted a special tool or knife made, or rawhide panels that were used for constructing dwellings, or new cordage, whether heavy rope or strong twine or fine thread, or clothing or tents or the materials to make them, or wooden or woven bowls or cups, or a paiting or carving of a horse or bison or any other animal, or any number of other creative things, they went to the Ninth Cave.

The Fifth Cave, on the other hand, thought of themselves as being very self-sufficient in every way. They counted themselves as having extremely skilled hunters, fishers, and artisans of every kind. They even made their own rafts, and claimed to be the Cave that invented them in the first place, though that claim was disputed by the Eleventh. Their Doniers were well respected and had always been. Several of the stone shelters in the small valley were decorated with paintings and carvings of animals, some in high relief.

However, most of the Zelandonii thought of the Fifth Cave as specialising in the making of jewellery and beads as personal decorations and ornamentation. When someone wanted a new necklace, or various kinds of beads to sew on clothing, they often went to the Fifth Cave. They were especially skilled at making beads out of ivory, and each single bead was a long and painstaking process to make. They also carved holes through the roots of the teeth of various animals for pendants and distinctive beads — fox teeth and red deer canines were favourites — and they managed to acquire seashells of various kinds from both the Great Waters of the West and the large Southern Sea.

When the travellers from the Ninth Cave reached the Fifth Cave's little valley, they were quickly surrounded. People were coming out of several stone shelters in the cliffs on both sides of the small river. Several were standing in front of the large opening of a shelter that faced southwest. Others emerged from another shelter just to the north of it, and on the other side of the valley more people were coming out of shelters. The travellers were surprised to find so many people, more than they expected. Either a large proportion of the Cave had decided not to go to any Summer Meeting, or they had come back early.

The people approached with curiosity, but none came too close. They were held back a little by fear and awe. Jondalar was a familiar figure to all the Zelandonii, except for the younger people who had come of age while he was gone. And everyone knew about his return from a long Journey and had seen the woman and animals he had brought with him, but the unusual procession of Jondalar and the foreign woman with her baby, the wolf, three horses, including a foal, and the One Who Was First sitting on a seat dragged by one of the horses, made quite an impression. To many there was something eerily supernatural about animals behaving so docilely when they should be running away.

One of the first who saw them had run to tell the Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave, who was waiting for them. The man, who was among those in front of the shelter on the right, approached, smiling cordially. He was middle aged, but on the young side of the range. He had long brown hair pulled back and wrapped around his head in a complicated coiffure, and the tattoos on his face that announced his important position were more elaborate than they needed to be, but he wasn't the only Zelandoni who had embellished his tattoos. There was a soft roundness about him, and the fleshiness of his face tended to make his eyes look small that gave him an air of shrewd cleverness, which wasn't entirely incorrect.

In the beginning, Zelandoni had reserved judgment of him, not sure if she could trust him, not even sure if she liked him. He could argue his opinions very strongly, even when they were opposed to hers, but he had proven his reliability and loyalty, and in meetings and councils, the First came to rely on the shrewdness of his advice. Ayla was still withholding her complete trust of him, but when she learned that Zelandoni thought well of him, she was more inclined to give him credence.

Another man followed him out of the stone shelter, one that Ayla had distrusted the first time she met him. Madroman had been born to the Ninth Cave, though later he moved to the Fifth Cave, and obviously became an Acolyte from that group. The Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave had several acolytes, and though Madroman may have been among the oldest of his acolytes, he was not the one ranked as first. But Jondalar was surprised to discover that he had been accepted into the zelandonia at all.

In his youth, when Jondalar had become enamoured of the First, then an acolyte named Zolena, another young man, called Ladroman, had wanted Zolena for his donii-woman. He was jealous of Jondalar and had spied on them, and heard Jondalar trying to persuade Zolena to become his mate. It was the donii-women who was supposed to keep such entanglements in check. The young men they were instructing were considered too vulnerable to the knowing older women. But Jondalar was tall and mature for his age, incredibly handsome and charismatic with striking blue eyes, and so appealing that she didn't reject him immediately.

Ladroman told the zelandonia and everyone else that they were breaking taboos. Jondalar got into a fight with him about it, and for spying on them, which became a big scandal, not only because of the liaison but because Jondalar knocked out Ladroman's two front teeth in the confrontation. They were permanent teeth that could never grow in again. It not only left him talking with a lisp, but made normal biting difficult for him. Jondalar's mother, who was leader of the Ninth Cave at the time, had had to pay heavy compensation for her son's behaviour.

As a result of the whole affair, she decided to send him to live with Dalanar, the man to whom she was mated when Jondalar was born, the man of his hearth. Although Jondalar was upset at first, eventually he was thankful. The punishment — as he interpreted it, although his mother thought of it more as a cooling-off period until things settled down and people had time to forget about it — gave the young man the chance to get to know Dalanar. Jondalar resembled the older man to a remarkable degree, not only physically, but in certain aptitudes, particularly flint-knapping. Dalanar taught him the craft, along with his close cousin, Joplaya, the beautiful daughter of Dalanar's new mate, Jerika, who the most exotic person Jondalar had ever met. Jerika's mother, Ahnlay, gave birth to her during the long Journey she had made with her mate, and had died before they had reached the flint mine Dalanar had discovered. But her mother's mate, Hochaman, had lived to fulfil his dream.

Hochaman was a Great Traveller who had walked all the way from the Endless Seas of the East to the Great Waters of the West, although Dalanar had walked for him at the end, carrying him on his shoulders. When they returned Jondalar home to the Ninth Cave a few years later, Dalanar's Cave made a special trip a little farther west just so the diminutive old man, Hochaman, could see the Great Waters once more, again riding on the shoulders of Dalanar. He walked the last few feet himself and at the edge of the ocean, dropped to his knees to let the waves wash over him and to taste the salt. Jondalar grew to love all of the Lanzadonii, and became grateful that he'd been sent away from home, because he discovered he had a second home.

Jondalar knew that Zelandoni didn't care much for Ladroman either after all the trouble he'd caused her, but in a way it made her more serious about the zelandonia and her duties as an Acolyte. She developed into a formidable Zelandoni, who had been called on to be the First just before Jondalar left on the Journey with his brother. In truth, that was one of the reasons he went. He still harboured strong feelings for her and he knew that she would never become his mate. He was surprised, when after five years he returned with Ayla and her animals, to learn that Ladroman had changed his name to Madroman — though he never understood why — and had been accepted into the zelandonia. That meant that no matter who had proposed him, the One Who Was First had had to accept him.

'Greetings!' said the Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave, holding out both his hands to the First as she was stepping off the special travois. 'I didn't think I'd have a chance to see you this summer.'

She took both his hands, and then leaned forward to touch his cheek with hers. 'I looked for you at the Summer Meeting, but was told you went to a different one with some of your neighbouring Caves.'

'It's true, we did. It's a long story that I'll tell you later, if you want to hear it,' She nodded that she did. 'But first let's find a place for you, and your … ahhh … travelling companions to stay,' he said, looking significantly at the horses and Wolf. He led them across the small creek, and as he started walking down a well-worn path beside the stream in the middle of the small valley, he continued the explanation. 'Essentially it was a matter of reinforcing friendships with closer Caves. It was a smaller Summer Meeting, and we took care of the necessary ceremonies rather quickly. Our leader and some of our Cave went hunting with them, others went visiting and gathering, and the rest of us came back here. I have an Acolyte finishing her year of watching the sunsets and marking the moons, and I wanted to be here for the end, when the sun stands still. But what are you doing here?'

'I am also training an Acolyte. You've met Ayla,' The large woman indicated the young woman who was with her. 'You may have heard that Ayla has become my new Acolyte and we have begun her Donier Tour. I wanted to make sure she saw your sacred places.' The two elder members of the zelandonia nodded to each other in recognition of their mutual responsibilities. 'After Jonokol moved to the Nineteenth Cave, I needed a new Acolyte. I think he fell in love with that new sacred cave Ayla found. He always was an artist first, but he puts his heart into the zelandonia now. The Nineteenth is not as well as she might be. I hope she lives long enough to finish training him properly.'

'But he was your acolyte. I'm sure he was well trained before he moved,' the Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave said.

'Yes, he's had training, but he wasn't really interested when he was my Acolyte,' the First said. 'He was so good at creating images, I had to bring him into the zelandonia, but that was his real love. He was bright and he learned quickly, but he was content to remain an Acolyte; he had no real desire to become a Zelandoni, until Ayla showed him White Hollow. Then he changed. Partly because he wanted to make images in there, I'm sure, but that wasn't all. He wants to make sure his images are right for that sacred space, so now he embraces the zelandonia. I think Ayla must have sensed that. When she first discovered the cave, she wanted me to see it, but it was more important to her that Jonokol see it.'

The Fifth turned to Ayla. 'How did you find White Hollow?' he asked. 'Did you use your voice on it?'

'I didn't find it. Wolf did,' Ayla said. 'It was on a hillside buried in brush and blackberry canes, but he suddenly disappeared into the ground beneath the brush. I cut some of it back and went after him. When I realised it was a cave, I came out and made a torch and went back in. That's when I saw what it was. Then I went to find Zelandoni and Jonokol.'

It had been some time since the Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave had heard Ayla speak, and her manner of speaking was noticeable, not only to him, but to the other members of his Cave, including Madroman. It reminded Madroman of all the attention Jondalar got when he came back with the beautiful foreign woman and her animals, and how much he hated Jondalar. He always gets noticed, the Acolyte thought, especially by women. I wonder what they would think of him if he was missing his two front teeth? Yes, his mother paid reparations for him, but that didn't bring my teeth back.

Why did he have to come back from his Journey? And bring that woman with him? All the fuss they make about her and those animals. I've been an Acolyte for years, but she's the one who is getting all the special attention from the First. What if she becomes Zelandoni before I do? She didn't pay much attention to him when they met; she was little more than polite, and she still ignored him. People gave her credit for finding the new cave, but by her own admission, she wasn't the one who found it. It was that stupid animal who did.

He was smiling while he was mulling his thoughts, but to Ayla, who wasn't watching him directly, but observing him closely the way a woman of the Clan would, with indirect glances that took in all of his unconscious body language, his smile was deceitful and devious. She wondered why the Fifth had taken him as an Acolyte. He was such a shrewd and canny Zelandoni, he couldn't have been fooled by him, could he? She glanced at Madroman again and caught him staring directly at her with such a malevolent glare it made her shudder.

'Sometimes I think that Wolf belongs in the zelandonia,' the One Who Was First said. 'You should have heard him in Mammoth Cave. His howl sounded like a sacred voice.'

'I'm glad you have a new Acolyte, but I have always been surprised that you have only one,' the Fifth said. 'I always have several; right now I'm considering another. Not all Acolytes can become zelandoni, and if one decides to give it up, I always have someone else. You should consider that … not that I should tell you.'

'You are probably right. I should consider it. I always have my eyes on several people who might make good acolytes, but I tend to wait until I need one,' the First said. 'The trouble with being First Among Those Who Serve The Great Earth Mother is that I'm responsible for more than one Cave and I don't have as much time to devote to training Acolytes, so I'd rather concenrate on one. Before I left the Summer Meeting, I had to make a choice between my responsibility to the Zelandonii, and my obligation to train the next Zelandoni for the Ninth Cave. The Late Matrimonial had not yet been performed, but since there were only a few who were planning to mate then, and I knew the Fourteenth could handle it, I decided it was more important to start Ayla's Donier Tour.'

'I'm sure the Fourteenth was quite pleased to take over for you,' the Fifth said, with conspiratorial disdain. He was well aware of the difficulties the First had with the Zelandoni of the Fourteenth Cave, who not only wanted her position, but felt she deserved it. 'Any of the Zelandoni would. We see the prestige, but the rest of us don't always see the problems … including me.'

The abris that hovered around them were shelters of stone scoured out of the limestone cliffs by wind, water, and weather through eras of erosion. At any one time, only some were lived in, but others were available to be used for other things. Some of them were utilised for storage, or as a quiet place to practise a craft, or as a meeting place for a couple who wanted to be alone, or for small groups of young or old to plan activities. And one was usually set aside as a place for visitors to stay.

'I hope you will be comfortable here,' the Fifth said as he led them into one of the natural stone shelters near the base of the cliff. The space within was quite roomy with a level floor and a high ceiling, open in the front but protected from rain. Near one side wall, several tattered padded cushions were strewn about, and a few lens-shaped dark circles of ash, a couple with some stones around them, showed where previous tenants had made fires.

'I'll send over some wood, and water. If there is anything else you need, let me know,' the Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave said.

'This looks fine to me,' the First said. 'Is there anything you think we might need?' she asked her companions.

Jondalar shook his head and grunted in the negative as he went to untie Racer's pole-drag to relieve him of his load, and to start unpacking. He wanted to set up the tent inside the shelter so it could air out and not be rained on. Ayla had mentioned that she thought it might rain, and he respected her sense of changing weather.

'I just want to ask something,' Ayla said. 'Would anyone mind if we bring the horses under the shelter? I've been noticing clouds building up, and it seems like rain, or something … is coming. Horses like to stay dry, too.'

Just as Jondalar was leading the young stallion away, the horse defecated, leaving plops of brown, grassy dung on the ground behind him, which gave off a strong horsey odour.

'If you want to give your horses shelter from rain, go right ahead,' the Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave said, then grinned. 'If you don't mind, I doubt that anyone else will.'

Several others smiled or snickered as well. It was one thing to look at the animals and those who had the ability to control them with awe, but seeing an animal perform its natural functions took some of the glamour away, made them seem less magical. Ayla had noticed the reserved reactions of the people when they first arrived and was glad Racer had chosen that moment to show he was just a horse.

Zelandoni collected the padded cushions and looked them over. Some were made of leather, some of woven vegetal fibres like grass, reeds, and cattail leaves, and several showed their stuffing material out of cracked or torn edges, which was likely why they were left in the seldom-used shelter. She banged several against the stone wall to clean them of dust and dirt, then stacked them up near the fireplace near where Jondalar had taken the folded tent. Ayla started to shift Jonayla around to her back so she could help him put up the tent.

'I'll take her,' the large woman said, reaching for Jonayla. She watched the baby while Jondalar and Ayla raised their tent inside the stone shelter in front of one of the circles of ashes surrounded by stones and laid out fire-making and burning materials for a quick start whenever they wanted a fire. Then they spread out their sleeping rolls and other equipment inside; Wolf always stayed with them in the tent. Finally they put both pole-drags toward the back of the abri and arranged places for the horses under the shelter in front of them, moving Racer's recent droppings out of the way.

Some children from the local Cave stood around watching them but didn't venture too close, except for one girl, whose curiosity finally got the better of her. She approached the Zelandoni and the baby; The First thought the girl could probably count nine or ten years.

'I'd like to hold the baby,' she said. 'Could I?'

'If she'll let you. She has mind of her own,' the woman said.

The girl held out her arms to her. Jonayla hesitated, but smiled shyly at her, when she moved closer and sat down. Finally Jonayla let go of Zelandoni and crawled to the stranger, who picked her up and put her on her lap.

'What's her name?'

'Jonayla,' the woman said. 'What's yours?'

'Hollida,' the child replied.

'You seem to like babies,' Zelandoni said.

'My sister has a baby girl, but she went to visit her mate's family. He comes from a different Cave. I haven't seen her all summer,' Hollida said.

'And you miss her, don't you?'

'Yes. I didn't think I would, but I do.'

Ayla saw the girl as soon as she approached, and noticed the interaction. She smiled to herself, remembering how much she had wanted a baby when she was younger. It made her think about Durc and she realised that he could probably count about the same number of years now as the girl, but in the Clan he would be considered much closer to adulthood than the girl obviously was. He's growing up, she thought. She knew she would never see her son again, but she couldn't help thinking about him sometimes.

Jondalar noticed the wistful expression on her face while she was watching the girl play with Jonayla and wondered what was going through her mind. Then Ayla shook her head, smiled, called Wolf to her, and walked toward them. If the girl is going to spend time with Jonayla, Ayla thought, I'd better introduce her to Wolf so she won't be afraid of him.

After all three adults had unpacked and were settled in, they walked back to the first stone shelter. Hollida was with them, walking with the First. The rest of the children, who had been watching, raced ahead. When the visitors neared the shelter of the Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave, several people were in front of the large opening in the stone wall waiting. Their coming had been announced by the children before they arrived. It also appeared a celebration was planned; several people were cooking at hearths in this one location. Ayla wondered if she should have changed out of her travelling clothes, and worn something more suitable, but neither Jondalar nor the First had changed. Some people emerged from the shelter to the north, and from the ones on the other side of the valley when they passed by. Ayla smiled to herself. It seemed obvious that the children had let the others know they were coming.

The area of the Fifth Cave suddenly made her think of the Third Cave at Two Rivers Rock and Reflection Rock of the Twenty-ninth Cave. Their living areas were spread out on residential terraces, one over another, in commanding walls of cliffs, with protective overhangs to shelter the interior spaces from rain and snow. Here, instead, there were several shelters closer to ground level on both sides of the small stream. But it was the close proximity of the several locations where people lived that made them one Cave. Then it occurred to her that the entire Twenty-ninth Cave was attempting to do the same thing, except that their living places were more widely dispersed. It was their mutual hunting and foraging area that brought them together.

'Greetings!' the Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave said when they neared. 'I hope you find your place comfortable. We are going to have a community feast in your honour.'

'It isn't necessary to go to so much trouble,' the One Who Was First said.

He looked at the First. 'You know how it is; people love to have an excuse for a celebration. Your coming is a particularly good excuse. We don't often have the Zelandoni of the Ninth Cave who is also the One Who Is First as a visitor. Come inside. You said you wanted to show your acolyte our Sacred Places.' He turned to address Ayla. 'We live in ours,' he said, as he led them in.

The inside of the stone shelter made Ayla stop short with surprise. It was so colourful. Several of the walls were decorated with paintings of animals, which was not so unusual, but the background of many of them was painted a bright red shade with red ochre. And the renderings of the animals were more than outlines, or drawings; most of them were infilled with colour, shaded to bring out the contours and shapes. One wall in particular caught Ayla's attention. It was a painting of two exquisitely portrayed bison, one of them obviously pregnant.

'I know most people carve or paint the walls of their abris, and may consider the images sacred, but we think of this entire space as sacred,' the Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave said.

Jondalar had visited the Fifth Cave several times and had admired the wall paintings of their stone shelters, but he had never thought of them any differently than he did the paintings and engravings inside the shelter of the Ninth Cave, or any other cave or abri. He wasn't sure if he understood why this shelter should be any more sacred than any other, though it was more highly coloured and decorated than most. He just assumed that it was the style that the Fifth Cave preferred, like the ornate tattoos and hair arrangement of their Zelandoni.

The Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave looked at Ayla with the wolf standing alertly at her side, then at Jondalar and the baby, who was tucked contentedly into the crook of the man's arm, looking around with interest, then at the First. 'Since the feast is not yet ready, let me show you around,' he said.

'Yes, that would be nice,' the First said.

They walked out of the shelter and into another one that was immediately to the north. It was essentially a continuation of the first one. And it was also decorated, but in a very different way, which created the sense that they were two different shelters. There were paintings on the walls, like the mammoth that was painted in red and black, but some walls of this cave were deeply engraved and some were both engraved and painted. Other engravings intrigued Ayla. She wasn't sure what they meant.

She approached a wall to look more closely. There were some cup-like holes, but other oval carvings with a second oval around them and a mark like a hole extended into a line in the middle. She saw a horn core on the ground nearby that had been carved into a shape that appeared to be a man's organ. She shook her head and looked again, then almost smiled. That was exactly what it was, and when she looked at the oval shapes, it came to her that they might represent female organs.

She turned around and looked at Jondalar and the First, and then the Zelandoni of the Fifth. 'Those look like man and woman parts,' she said. 'Is that what they are?'

The Fifth smiled and nodded. 'This is where our donii-women stay, and often where we have Mother Festivals, and sometimes where we have Rites of First Pleasures. It is also where I have meetings with my acolytes when I am training them, and where they sleep. This is a very Sacred Place,' the Fifth said. 'That's what I meant when I said we live in our Sacred Sites.'

'Do you sleep here, too?' Ayla asked.

'No, I sleep in the first shelter, the other side of this one, near the bison,' he said. 'I don't think it is good for a Zelandoni to spend all his time with his acolytes. They need to be able to relax, away from the restraining eye of their mentor, and I have other things to do and people to see.'

As they walked back to the first part of the shelter, Ayla asked, 'Do you know who made your images?'

The question caught him a little off guard. It was not a question usually asked by Zelandonii. The people were accustomed to their art; it had always been there, or they knew the ones who were currently making it, and no one had to ask.

'Not the engravings,' he said after pausing to think for a moment. 'They were made by the ancient ones, but several of our paintings were made by the woman who first taught Jonokol, when she was younger. The one who was Zelandoni of the Second Cave before the one who is now. She was acknowledged as the finest artist of her time, and she was the one who saw the potential in Jonokol even when he was just a boy. She saw potential in one of our young artists too. She now walks the next world, I am sorry to say.'

'What about the carved horn?' Jondalar queried, indicating the phallus-shaped object, which he had also seen. 'Who made that?'

'That was given to the Zelandoni before me, or perhaps the one before him.' the Fifth said. 'Some like to have it around during Mother Festivals. I'm not sure, it may have been used as a way to explain the changes in a man's organ. Or it may have been a part of First Rites, especially for girls who didn't like men, or were afraid of them.'

Ayla tried not to show it in her expression, it wasn't for her to say, but she thought it would be uncomfortable, perhaps even painful, to use a hard carved object rather than the warm manhood of a caring man, but then she was used to the tenderness of Jondalar. She glanced at him.

He caught her eye and the facial expression she tried to hide, and smiled reassuringly. He wondered if the Fifth was making up a story because he didn't really know what the image meant. Jondalar was sure it had been symbolic of something at one time, probably having to do with a Mother Festival since it was an erect male organ, but that its exact meaning probably had been forgotten.

'We can go across the stream and visit our other Sacred Places. Some of us also live in them. I think you may find them interesting, as well,' the Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave said.

They walked toward the small stream that divided the valley, and then upstream to where they had crossed before. There were two solid stepping stones in the middle of the waterway, which they used to get to the other side; then they went back downstream toward the shelter in which they were staying. There were several abris on this side of the stream nestled into the slope of the valley that continued up to a high promontory that dominated the whole region, and served as a good lookout point. They walked to one that was about six hundred feet from where the spring-fed stream flowed into The River.

When they walked under the overhanging stone of the shelter, they were struck immediately by a frieze of five animals: two horses and three bison all facing right. The third figure in particular was a bison about three feet long, deeply incised into the stone wall. Its voluminous body was carved in such strong relief, it was almost a sculpture. Black colouration was used to accentuate the outline. Several other engravings covered the walls: cupules, lines, and animals, most not as deeply carved.

They were introduced to several of the people who were standing around watching them, looking rather proud. They were no doubt pleased to show off their stunning home, and Ayla didn't blame them. It was very impressive. After she had carefully looked over the engravings, Ayla began to take in the rest of the shelter. It was obvious that quite a few people lived there, though there weren't very many at the moment. Like all the rest of the Zelandonii, in summer people travelled; visiting, hunting, gathering, and collecting various other materials that they used to make things.

Ayla noticed an area that had been left recently by someone who was working with ivory, judging from the material scattered around. She looked more closely. There were pieces in different stages of production. The tusks first had been scored over and over again to detach rod-shaped sections, and several small rods were stacked together. A couple of rods had been divided into sections of pairs, which were then worked into two round segments attached together. The flattened piece between was pierced just above each round, then scored and cut through to create two beads, which then had to be smoothed into the final form, a rounded basket-shape.

A man and a woman, both middle aged, came and stood beside her as she was hunkered down to look closely; she wouldn't dream of touching the beads. 'These are remarkable — did you make them?' Ayla said.

They both smiled. 'Yes, bead-making is my craft,' they said together, then laughed at their inadvertent timing.

Ayla asked how long it took to make the beads, and was told one person would be lucky to complete five or six beads from first light until the sun was high and they stopped for a midday meal. Enough beads for one necklace, depending upon how long it was, took anywhere from several days to a moon or two. They were extremely precious.

'It looks like a difficult craft. Just looking at the various steps it takes makes me appreciate my Matrimonial outfit even more. There are many ivory beads sewn on it,' Ayla said.

'We saw it!' the woman said. 'It was beautiful. We went to see it afterward, when Marthona had laid it out on display. The ivory beads were expertly made, by a somewhat different process, I think. The hole seemed to go all the way through the bead, perhaps working from both sides. That is very difficult to do. If you don't mind my asking, where did you get it?'

'I was a Mamutoi — they live far to the east — and the mate of the leader gave it to me; her name was Nezzie of the Lion Camp. Of course, that was when she thought I was going to mate the son of her brother's mate. When I changed my mind and decided to leave with Jondalar, she told me to keep it for my mating with him. She was very fond of him, too,' Ayla explained.

'She must have been fond of him, and you,' the man said. He thought, but didn't say, that the outfit was not only beautiful, it was extremely valuable. To give so much to someone who would take it away meant she must have cared a great deal for the young woman. It made him better understand the status the foreign woman had been accorded, though she was not born a Zelandonii, as her speech certainly attested. 'It is without doubt one of the most stunning outfits I have ever seen.'

The Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave added, 'They also make beads and necklaces out of seashells from both the Great Western Waters and the Southern Sea,' the Zelandoni of the Fifth said, 'and they carve ivory pendants, and pierce teeth. People especially like to wear fox teeth and those special shiny eyeteeth of deer. Even people from other Caves want their work.'

'I grew up near a sea, far to the east,' Ayla said. 'I'd like to see some of your shells.'

The couple — Ayla couldn't decide if they were mates or sister and brother — brought out bags and containers from where they were stored, and poured them out for display, eager to show their riches. There were hundreds of shells, mostly small, globular molluscs like periwinkles or long shapes such as dentalia that could be sewn onto clothes or strung into necklaces. There were also some scallop shells, but for the most part, the shells were from creatures that were essentially inedible, which meant they had been collected for their decorative value alone, not as food, and from a great distance away. They had either travelled to both seashores themselves, or traded for them from someone who had. The amount of time invested in acquiring items solely for display meant that as a society, the Zelandonii were not living on the edge of survival; they had abundance. According to the customs and practices of their time, they were wealthy.

Both Jondalar and the First had come to see what had been brought out and displayed for Ayla. Though they had both been aware of the Fifth Cave's status, partly because of their jewellery-makers, seeing so much at once was almost overwhelming. They couldn't help but make comparisons in their minds to the Ninth Cave, but when they thought about it, they knew that their Cave was equally wealthy, in a slightly different way. In fact, most of the Zelandonii Caves were.

The Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave took them into another shelter nearby, and again it was well decorated, primarily with engravings of horses, bison, deer, even a partial mammoth, often accented with both red ochre and black manganese paint. The antlers of an engraved deer, for example, had been outlined in black, while a bison had been painted mostly red. Again they were introduced to the people who were there. Ayla noticed that the children who had been around their shelter, which was on the same side of the small stream, had gathered around again; she recognised several of them.

Suddenly Ayla felt dizzy and nauseous, and had a very strong need to get out of the shelter. She couldn't explain her intense urge to leave, but she had to get outside.

'I'm thirsty, I want to get some water,' she said, walking out quickly, and heading toward the stream.

'You don't have to go out,' a woman said, following behind her. 'We have a spring inside.'

'I think we all need to go anyway. The feast must be ready, and I'm hungry,' the Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave said. 'I should think you must be, too.'

They returned to the main shelter, or what Ayla had come to think of as the main shelter, and found everything for the feast set up and waiting for them. Although extra dishes were stacked up for the visitors, Ayla and Jondalar got their personal eating cups, bowls, and knives out of their pouches. The First carried her own dishes as well. Ayla took out Wolf's water bowl, which also served as an eating dish if one was needed, and thought that she should start making eating dishes for Jonayla soon. Though she planned to nurse her until she could count at least three years, she would be giving her tastes of other food long before that.

Someone had recently hunted an aurochs; a roast haunch, turned on a spit over coals, was the main dish. Lately, they only saw the wild cattle in summer, but it was one of Ayla's favourite foods. The taste was similar to bison, except richer, but then they were similar animals, with hard, round, curving horns that grew to a point and were permanent, not shed every year like deer antlers.

There were summer vegetables, too: sow-thistle stems, cooked pigweed, coltsfoot, and nettle leaves flavoured with sorrel, and cowslips and wild rose petals in a salad of young dandelion leaves and clover. Fragrant meadowsweet flowers gave a honey-like sweetness to a sauce of crabapples and rhubarb served with the meat. A mixture of summer berries required no sweetening. They had raspberrries, an early-ripening variety of blackberries, cherries, blackcurrants, elderberries, and pitted blackthorn plums, though pitting the small sloes was a time-consuming job. Rose leaf tea finished off the delicious meal.

When she took out Wolf's bowl and gave him the bone she had chosen with a little meat left on, one of the women looked at the wolf with disapproval, and Ayla heard her say to another woman that she didn't think it was right to feed a wolf food that was meant for people. The other woman nodded her head in agreement, but Ayla had noticed that both of them had looked at the four-legged hunter with trepidation earlier in the day. She had hoped to introduce Wolf to the women to perhaps reduce their fearfulness, but they made a point of avoiding both Ayla and the meat-eater.

After the meal, more wood was put on the fire to provide stronger light against the encroaching darkness. Ayla was nursing Jonayla and sipping a cup of hot tea with Wolf at her feet in the company of Jondalar, the First, and the Zelandoni of the Fifth. A group of people approached, including Madroman, though he stayed in the background. Ayla recognised others, and gathered that they were the Acolytes of the Fifth, probably wanting to spend some time with the One Who Was First.

'I have completed "Marking the Suns and Moons",' said one of them. The young woman opened up her hand and revealed a small plaque of ivory covered with strange markings.

The Fifth picked it out of her hand and examined it carefully, turning it over to see the back side and even checking around the edges. Then he smiled. 'This is about a half year,' he said, then gave it to the First. 'She is my Third Acolyte, and started the Marking this time last year. Her plaque for the first half is put away.'

The large woman looked at the piece with the same careful scrutiny as the Zelandoni of the Fifth, but not as long. 'This is an interesting method of marking,' she said. 'You show the turns by position and the crescents with curved marks for two of the moons you've marked. The rest are around the edge and on the back. Very good.'

The young woman beamed under the praise from the First.

'Perhaps you could explain what you've done to my Acolyte. Marking the Suns and Moons is something she has yet to do,' the First said.

'I would have thought it was something she had already done. I've heard she is known for her medicinal knowledge, and she is mated. There are not many Acolytes I know who are mated and have children, not even many Zelandonia,' the Third Acolyte of the Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave said.

'Ayla's training has been unconventional. As you know, she was not born to the Zelandonii, so the order in which she has gained her knowledge is not the same as ours. She is an exceptional healer. She started young, but she is just beginning her Donier Tour, and hasn't yet learned to Mark the Suns and Moons,' the Zelandoni Who Was First carefully explained.

'I'll be happy to explain the way I marked them to her,' the Third Acolyte of the Fifth said, and sat down next to Ayla.

Ayla was more than interested. This was the first she had heard of Marking the Suns and Moons, and didn't know it was another task she'd have to complete as part of her training. She wondered what else there was that she didn't know she would have to do.

'You see, I made one mark each night,' the young woman said, showing her the marks she had etched into the ivory with a pointed tool of sharp flint. 'I'd already marked the first half year on another piece, so I was getting an idea of how to keep track of more than just the count of the days. I started this just before the moon was new and I was trying to show where the moon was in the sky, so I began here.' She indicated a mark that was in the middle of what seemed to be just random haphazard pitting. 'The next few nights it snowed. It was a big storm and blocked out the moon and the stars, but I wouldn't have been able to see the moon anyway. It was the time when Lumi was closing his great eye. The next time I saw him, he was a thin crescent, waking up again, so I made a curved mark here.'

Ayla looked where the young woman indicated and was rather surprised to see that what had appeared at first to be hole made by a sharp point was indeed a small curved line. She looked more closely at the group of markings and suddenly they didn't look so random. There did seem to be a pattern to it, and she was interested in how the young woman would proceed.

'Since the time of Lumi's sleeping is the beginning of a Moon, that's here on the right where I decided to turn back to mark the next set of nights,' the Third Acolyte continued. 'Right about here was the first eye-half-closed; some people call it the first half-face. Then it keeps getting bigger until it's full. It's hard to tell when it's exactly full — it looks full for a few days — so that's here on the left where I turned back again. I made four curved marks, two below and two above. I kept marking until it was the second half-face, when Lumi starts to close his eye again, and you notice it's just above the first half-face.

'I kept marking until his eye was closed again — see here on the right, where I curved down? All the way around the line with the first right-end turn. You take it and see if you can follow it. I always make the turns when he's full face, on the right, or when he's sleeping, on the left. You'll see that you can count two Moons, plus another half. I stopped at the first half-face after the second Moon. I was waiting for Bali to catch up. It was the time when the sun is as far south as it goes and stands still for a few days, then changes direction and goes north again. It's the ending of First Winter and the beginning of Second Winter, when it's colder but has the promise of Bali's return.'

'Thank you,' Ayla said. 'That was fascinating! Did you work it all out yourself?'

'Not exactly. Other Zelandonia showed me their way of marking, but I saw a plaque at the Fourteenth Cave once that was quite old. It wasn't marked in quite the same way, but it gave me the idea when it was my time to Mark the Moons.'

'It's a very good idea,' the First said.

It was very dark when they started back to their sleeping place. Ayla was holding the baby, who was sound asleep wrapped up in her carrying blanket, so both Jondalar and the First each borrowed a torch to see their way.

As they approached the visitors' shelter, they passed by some of the other shelters they had seen earlier. When she came to the one where she had felt so uncomfortable, Ayla shuddered again and hurried past.

'What's wrong?' Jondalar asked.

'I don't know,' Ayla said. 'I've been feeling strange all day. It's probably nothing.'

When they reached their shelter, the horses were milling around outside, rather than in the large roomy space she had made for them inside. 'Why are they out here? The horses have been acting up all day; that may be what's bothering me,' Ayla said. As they turned into the shelter toward their tent, Wolf hesitated, then sat down on his haunches and refused to enter. 'Now, what's wrong with Wolf?'

Chapter 17

'Why don't we take the horses for a run this morning?' Ayla said softly to the man who was lying beside her. 'Yesterday they seemed restless and edgy. I am too. They don't really get to go free and fast when they are pulling the pole-drags. It's hard work, but not the kind of exercise they like.'

Jondalar smiled. 'That's a good idea. I don't get to exercise the way I'd like to either. What about Jonayla?'

'Maybe Hollida would like to watch her, especially if Zelandoni will keep an eye on them,' Ayla said.

Jondalar sat up. 'Where is Zelandoni? She's not here.'

'I heard her get up earlier. I think she went to talk to the Fifth,' Ayla said. 'If we leave Jonayla, perhaps we should leave Wolf, too, though I'm not sure how the people of this Cave feel about him. They seemed a little nervous around him while we were eating last night. This is not the Ninth Cave … Let's take Jonayla with us. I can take her in her carrying blanket. She likes to ride.'

Jondalar pulled the top of their sleeping roll back and got up. Ayla got up too, leaving the baby who had been sleeping at her side to wake up while she went to pass her water.

'It rained last night,' Ayla said when she got back.

'Now aren't you glad you stayed inside, in the tent and under cover?' Jondalar said.

Ayla didn't answer. She hadn't slept well. She just couldn't get comfortable, but they did stay dry and the tent aired out.

Jonayla had rolled over on her stomach and was kicking her legs and holding her head up. She had also rolled out of her swaddling, and the soiled absorbent wadding it held in place. Ayla collected the unpleasant material and dumped it in the night basket, rolled up the damp, softened-leather swaddling blanket, then picked up the baby and headed down to the small stream to clean the little one, herself, and the blanket. She rinsed herself and the baby in the running water, a procedure to which the baby was now so accustomed, she didn't even fuss about it, though it was cold. Ayla hung the swaddling across some brush near the water, then got dressed and found a comfortable place to sit outside of the stone shelter to nurse her infant.

In the meantime, Jondalar had found the horses not far up the valley, brought them back to the abri, and was tying riding blankets on the backs of both Whinney and Racer. At Ayla's suggestion, he tied equally balanced pack baskets across the mare's rump as well, but had some difficulty when Grey started nuzzling her dam, trying to nurse. About the time they were ready to go to what Ayla thought of as the main shelter in this place of many shelters, Wolf returned. She assumed he had gone off to hunt earlier, but he appeared so suddenly, he spooked Whinney, which surprised the woman. Whinney was normally a calm horse and the wolf didn't usually alarm her; it was Racer who was more excitable, but all the horses seemed skittish, even the little filly. And Wolf, too, Ayla thought as he pressed against her as though looking for attention. She felt odd herself. Something seemed off, just not quite right. She looked at the sky to see if any storm threatened; a film of high clouds made the sky white with telltale traces of blue. They probably all needed a good run.

Jondalar put the halters on Racer and Grey. He had also made one for Whinney but Ayla used it only on special occasions. Before she even knew she was training Whinney, she had taught the mare to follow her; she still didn't think of it as training. When she showed Whinney what to do, and repeated the instruction many times until she understood, then the mare did it because she wanted to. It was similar to the way Iza had trained Ayla to remember the many different plants and herbs, and their uses, by repetition and rote memorisation.

When they were all packed, they walked to the shelter of the Zelandoni of the Fifth Cave, and again the procession of man, woman, baby, wolf, and horses caused the people to stop what they were doing and watch, hard pressed to avoid the discourtesy of outright staring. Both the Fifth and the One Who Was First walked out from the shelter.

'Come and join us for a morning meal,' the man said.

'The horses are agitated and we've decided to take them out for some exercise to run off their restlessness and settle them down,' Jondalar said.

'We just arrived yesterday. Don't they get enough exercise travelling?' the First said.

'When we're travelling and they are pulling loads, they don't run or gallop,' Ayla explained. 'Sometimes they need to stretch their legs.'

'Well, at least come and have some tea, and we'll pack up some food for you to take with you,' the Zelandoni of the Fifth said.

Ayla and Jondalar looked at each other, and understood that although they would have preferred to just leave, it might offend the Fifth Cave, and that would not be appropriate. They nodded to each other in acquiescence.

'Thank you, we will,' Jondalar said, reaching into the carrying pouch attached to his waist thong and pulling out his personal drinking cup. Ayla also found her cup and passed it down to a woman near the fireplace who was ladling out the hot liquid. She filled the drinking containers, and handed them back. Rather than settling down to graze while they were waiting, the horses were markedly apprehensive, displaying their anxiety. Whinney was dancing in place, sniffing loudly as furrows appeared over her eyes. Grey was picking up her dam's nervous symptoms, an