Half a moon later, when they made camp for the night, Crebulan told his companions, "We'll be home tomorrow afternoon."
Darnev smiled. "It will be nice to settle down finally," he said. "Not that I mind traveling with the right company, but I am looking forward to establishing my hearth."
Oma blushed. "So am I," she said. "I just hope Durc's Mama be happy to see me." As had happened before, her nervousness showed through a slight thickening of her accent and an error in her choice of words.
"She'll be very happy to see you, Oma," Crebulan reassured his niece. "So will all the rest of your kin."
Oma's eyes grew wide and her face paled. She jumped up and darted into the forest. Ranie, who had been picking at her own meal, set her dish down as the sound of retching reached them. "I'll, uh, go make sure she's all right," Ranie said, trying to hide her own suddenly roiling belly. "I expect she's just that scared."
Ranie managed to get out of sight of the men before losing control of her own stomach. She was pleased to spot a patch of spearmint growing nearby. She plucked and chewed a few leaves to get the taste out of her mouth, then plucked more leaves for Oma. "Oma?" she called. "Where are you?"
"Over here," the younger woman called back. She emerged from behind a large oak tree, rubbing at her lips.
"Chew on these," Ranie suggested, handing Oma the spearmint leaves. She looked at the younger woman with a mischievous grin. "So, neither of us has used the straps since we left the S'Armunai," she said. "Do we say something to Crebulan and Darnev tonight? Or should we let them think we are just that nervous about meeting everyone and making a good impression?"
"I am that nervous," Oma retorted, spitting out the chewed leaves. "Meeting all my kin? Ranie, Crebulan have three sister and one brother, all with mates and children. And Durc's Mama and her mate also. Other kin as well. I am scared! But I do think I am going to have baby."
"So, do you want to tell Darnev? I'd like to tell Crebulan… being pregnant before we join means our joining will be lucky. Darnev would like hearing that your joining will also be lucky."
"In that case, yes, we should tell them. Besides," Oma grinned, "if we tell them, they can make excuses if either of us get sick when meeting everyone."
Ranie laughed and the two young women walked back to the fire. Darnev took Oma's hands anxiously. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"I am fine," Oma replied. "It is normal for nerves to get to stomach, especially when a woman is pregnant."
Now Darnev grew pale. "P-pregnant? You're pregnant?" His shock turned to elation as he picked her up and kissed her fiercely. "Oma, this is wonderful news!"
Ranie grinned up at Crebulan. "She's not the only one with wonderful news. Markolan won't be 'one up' on you for long."
Crebulan's jaw dropped and he could only stare at Ranie in astonishment for a moment. "Doni bless!" he finally managed to say.
"Looks like She already did, boy, and twice at that!" Dalanar chuckled. "And may I be the first to offer my congratulations to both of you ladies." He kissed each of them on the cheek and gave Crebulan and Darnev each a clap on the shoulder. "And now I really can't wait to see Jondalar's face when we get there tomorrow!" He walked off to his tent, still chuckling.
The morning dawned bright and sunny. Crebulan was up early, but forced himself to refrain from waking the others. Instead, he burned off some of his excess energy with his sling. He got a pair of rabbits, which he brought back to the fire and spitted. While they cooked, he gathered some fern fiddleheads and some puffball mushrooms for a salad, then fixed mint and chamomile tea for everyone. He chuckled to himself as he did so, thinking that he was lucky to be the son of a healer. Even without any sort of training, he'd picked up a few common remedies… and people requested stomach-soothing teas for pregnancy nearly as often as they asked for willowbark. He hoped they would be pleased with his little surprise.
They were. Ranie was touched by Crebulan's thoughtfulness, both in letting them sleep and in fixing a meal. Oma was overwhelmed. She'd heard, ever since leaving the Clan, that men of the Others could cook. But this was the first time she'd seen it for herself. Darnev emerged, took in the sight of Crebulan bustling around the fire while the women relaxed with tea, and laughed aloud. Without saying a word, he packed all the bedrolls and the two tents. Then, when Dalanar got up and joined the others at the fire, he also packed the old man's gear. They would be ready to go as soon as they were done eating.
Despite his eagerness to get home, Crebulan lingered a moment, gazing back at their final campsite. "I'm almost going to miss the traveling," he mused. "Not the travel itself so much as the closeness we've had."
Ranie nudged Star closer to Cloud and placed a hand on her intended mate's arm. "We'll keep the closeness," she promised. "I know you'll miss Markolan, but I've seen you and Darnev becoming good friends. Oma and I will always be good friends. We're already looking forward to our children growing up friends as well as cousins. Besides," she grinned impishly, "If you really decide you miss the traveling that much, we can always set up the tents and live in them instead of shelters."
Crebulan laughed and raised Ranie's hand to his lips. "You always know how to make me feel better. Thank you." He glanced around at the others. Dalanar grinned from his perch aboard Amber. Oma, up in front of Darnev on Wind this morning, looked nervous, but happy. "Ready to go?" he asked.
They nodded, and Crebulan led them toward a well-defined trail. By midday, they could hear the sounds of people ahead. "This trail comes out at The Gathering," he told the others. "That's the work area shared by all of the caves, although Mammoth Cave and Lion Cave are the two closest home caves. Mother is the One Who Serves for Mammoth Cave, and Jondalar is the leader. Zarina's mother Latie is mated to Jerekal, founder of the Zarnadonii and leader of Lion Cave. Willora's mother Folara is Jondalar's sister and she is mated to Latie's brother Danug. They also live at Lion Cave."
"What about Dalzarna?" Dalanar asked eagerly. "Where does she live?"
"She, her mate Elleron, and her co-mate Lorala live at Lion Cave," Crebulan told the older man. Then he chuckled as Dalanar, who had never ridden until half a moon back, nudged Amber with his heels. "We can hurry," he laughed, "but I'd suggest learning how to guide your mount before trying to take the lead." He urged Cloud to a faster pace as Dalanar grinned apologetically.
The trail curved around to the left and down a slope. They continued downward as the trail followed a ravine between the steep hills. Up ahead, sunlight glinted on moving water.
Suddenly, they were out of the woods and into the open. Cliffs fell back to either side, backing a wide space along the riverbank. About thirty people were engaged in various tasks around the open area. They all stopped what they were doing and turned towards the sound of the approaching horses. Crebulan drew his mare to a halt and dismounted, signaling the others to do the same. Then he stepped forward with a grin. "Well," he said to the silently staring crowd, "isn't anyone going to welcome me home?"
"Uncle Crebulan?" a boy's voice sounded incredulously. "Is it really you?" The voice cracked suddenly partway through the question, indicating a youth on the verge of manhood. The speaker stepped to the front of the crowd as he spoke
"It's really me, Soleran," Crebulan replied. "Great Mother, boy, you've gotten tall since I've been gone! Run to Mammoth Cave and get your grandma and Jondalar… heck, get everyone! And someone else run to Lion Cave as well. I've got stories to tell and people for everyone to meet!" In an aside to his traveling companions, he added, "Soleran is my sister Jonayla's oldest."
Soleran and another young man darted off in opposite directions. As if at a signal, the remainder of the people at The Gathering all began to talk at once. "Where's Zarina and Willora and Markolan? Who are these people with you? Did you get to the Mamutoi like you wanted? Are you here to stay?"
Crebulan laughed at the babble. "No introductions until Mother is here," he said. "And no stories until after the introductions. If anyone wants to be helpful, we could use a hand getting the horses unloaded and brushed down."
A score of eager volunteers worked together to strip the horses of packs and rub them down. Then the horses were led across the river ford to the field opposite where other horses grazed. The volunteers returned just as the populations of Mammoth and Lion Caves arrived at The Gathering.
Crebulan climbed up on a large rock and waved to get people's attention. "All right," he announced, "First thing I'd like to do is say that Zarina and Willora both found mates and are settled with the Mamutoi." He smiled at Latie and Folara and their mates. "Nezzie and Talut were ecstatic to welcome them." Now his eyes sought Kandeval, the mate of Markolan's late mother. "Markolan is settled with the S'Armunai of the Camp of the Three Sisters, and will join with Elleron's youngest sister this summer."
Elleron looked astonished. "Youngest sister?" he broke in. "But I only had one sister when… oh! Esavoa must have been Blessed when I left on my Journey!"
"That's right!" Crebulan laughed. "So, you'll want to stick around for the full story. But before that, I'd like to introduce these people with me. This is Ranie of Mouflon Camp of the Mamutoi," he indicated the dark-skinned woman beside him. "This is her cousin Darnev of Aurochs Camp," he indicated the auburn-haired young man. Dalanar stepped forward and Crebulan noticed Jondalar give a start. He smiled. "Some of you know this man already, as he is kin. This is Dalanar of the Lanzadonii." He ignored the happy gasp from Dalzarna and Jondalar's rush forward to pull Oma out from behind him. He smiled directly at his mother. "This young woman is also kin. I'd like you to meet Oma, daughter of Ura and born to the hearth of Durc of the Clan."
Pandemonium erupted as Ayla burst into tears of joy and hugged the hearth-daughter of her oldest child.
Jondalar relinquished his place with Dalanar to Dalzarna, who was eagerly pulling her family over to meet the mate of her birth mother's mother. He walked over and placed an arm over Ayla's shoulders as she stood with her arms still wrapped around Oma. "Just because you're her grandam doesn't mean you should break her ribs," he teased gently. "You didn't even stop to get a good look at her. Why don't you let go long enough to hear what she and Crebulan have to say? After all, I know you always wished you could get some news of Durc."
Ayla laughed through her tears and addressed her granddaughter directly. "You must think I'm a crazy old woman," she said, wiping her eyes. "But I never thought I'd hear of my son ever again… and to be presented with his hearth-child…" she shook her head. "It's quite a shock to say the least." She took a good look at Oma, noting the absence of Clan features save for the brown eyes. "Doni bless, but no one would ever know you were born to the Clan to look at you," she commented.
"I do not think you are crazy," Oma said. "Nezzie of Lion Camp said you would cry when you met me. And I know I look like one of the Others. That is why Durc sent me with Crebulan," Oma elaborated. "He worried what to do with me because I am different, no man wanted me because I look Others. Then Crebulan came. He and Durc talked, then Durc decided, Crebulan is my brother, I will send Oma with him to the Others so she will find a mate. Durc also told me, 'When you see Mama, tell her I love her.' Then he said he is glad Crebulan came, to give me a chance at a happy life like his Mama had with the Others."
"I'm very grateful he did," Ayla said, hugging the younger woman again. "I won't ever see Durc again in this world, but at least now I have his mate's child with me."
"How in Doni's name did you manage to run across your mother's old clan, anyway?" Jondalar asked Crebulan.
"I went looking for them," Crebulan replied dryly. "I knew Mother never really stopped wondering about Durc, so when Zarina and Willora wanted to go as far east as the Mamutoi, I decided, why not head south and see what I could find out. And I got lucky."
Crebulan's eye inadvertently drifted to Ranie with his last comment. Jondalar followed his hearth-son's gaze and chuckled. "I hope you don't think we're being rude on purpose," he addressed the young woman. Then he held his hands out to her. "In the name of the Great Mother of All, it is my pleasure to welcome you, Ranie of the Mamutoi. And you as well, Darnev of the Mamutoi. Welcome to the Zarnadonii."
Ranie accepted Jondalar's hands with a hint of a blush as she tried not to stare. Jondalar looked so much like the son of his hearth, it was almost uncanny. "In Doni's name, I greet you, Jondalar, leader of Mammoth Cave of the Zarnadonii," she said. Then she glanced over at Dalanar as well and chuckled. "It's odd, seeing how Crebulan is going to age. But nice to know he will always be handsome." She spoke loudly enough for Dalanar to hear as well, and the two older men chuckled appreciatively as Crebulan blushed.
Darnev also accepted Jondalar's hands. "In the name of the Great Earth Mother, I greet you, Jondalar, Leader of Mammoth Cave of the Zarnadonii," he said. "Deegie, my mother, spoke of you and Ayla sometimes. She told me a lot about you when I decided to come west."
Jondalar laughed. "Ayla, did you hear that?" he asked. "Darnev here is Deegie's son. And from the looks of her, I'd have to say Ranie is kin to Ranec…"
"He's mated to my mother, Tricie," Ranie put in.
"So," Jondalar continued, "since we obviously have a lot of stories to listen to, we ought to think about feeding everyone. You know nobody is going to go home tonight until all the stories are told."
"I'm not cooking until I've heard about Durc," Ayla grinned. "I've spent thirty years wondering about him, and I'm not going anywhere until Crebulan and Oma tell me everything!"
"No need for you to go anywhere, Ayla," spoke an auburn-haired woman pushing her way through the crowd. "When Ellezar charged into Lion Cave yelling that Crebulan was back, Lanoga and I figured we'd be celebrating tonight. I had Bologan bring a side of elk and some mammoth for stew besides. He and Lanidar are already building up a fire and spitting the elk. We'll cook right here." She smiled at Crebulan. "Just be sure to talk loudly, all right? Lanoga and I want to hear the stories too."
"I will, Madenia," he chuckled.
"And thanks," Ayla added.
Crebulan sat down on the big rock with Oma and Ranie at his feet. Darnev sat beside Oma, while Ayla arranged herself so she could look at Oma. Everyone in the crowd found seats, except for a few who headed to the fire to help Lanoga and Madenia with the meal. But even the cooks remained silent, for they all wished to hear the tales.
"All right," Crebulan said. "I'll tell of Durc first, since Mother has been waiting so many years to hear about him." He winked at Latie and Folara, who grinned. They were eager to hear the details about their own daughters, but understood Crebulan's reasoning for telling this story first.
"From what Durc told me, Mother, there was another aftershock shortly after you left. He said that the passage to the old cave's place of spirits partially collapsed, so that Goov, the Mog-Ur, wasn't able to go into it. Goov sent Durc and Grev in after the sacred stones, as they were the smallest males in the clan at the time. The boys found the curse broken when they went in, although Goov made them promise not to tell anyone else… especially Broud.
"Old Brun quietly appointed himself as an advisor to Vorn, both because Vorn was a relatively inexperienced hunter with a heavy responsibility as second-in-command, and because he'd promised Mother to keep Broud from harming Durc. Vorn grew to care for Durc, especially as Uba never had a son, only daughters. The clan found a new cave, just across the swamps.
"But Broud was not a particularly good leader. He often started chases too soon, resulting in a lot of injuries to his hunters, and a lot of unsuccessful hunts. The clan never starved, but they did often go hungry. Finally, Goov told Broud that the spirits wanted Vorn to be tested, and that Vorn had to lead a hunt on his own. Broud was angry, but allowed it. He became still angrier when Vorn's hunt was more successful than his had been. He decided his mate's son Brac was old enough for his manhood hunt. Broud also told Vorn that he would replace him with Brac as second-in-command as soon as the boy was a man. But in his impatience, Broud stampeded the bison herd too early. Brac was gored and Broud was trampled. Brac died before they could bring him back to the cave, and Broud died the next day. Since Grev was still a child, the leadership fell to Vorn.
"Vorn proved to be a better leader than Broud, perhaps because he listened to Brun's advice. The clan remained first in the competitions at the Clan Gathering the following summer. They said you died, Mother, but they refrained from mentioning the curse. They all considered Durc to be Uba's son by then. Ura's mother was thrilled… her daughter's promised mate was not only the son of the first-ranked medicine woman, he was also the son of the leader's hearth." Crebulan smiled at Ayla's happy gasp. "Durc is now the leader of your old clan, Mother."
"I'm so pleased for him!" Ayla exclaimed. "And happy that he grew up happy!" Tears were pouring down her face again, but she was smiling.
"Anyway," Crebulan continued, "Ura went to live with Brun and Ebra until she and Durc were old enough to mate, as had been planned. I understand Ura matured quite a bit later than most Clan girls, but that her childbearing time also lasted longer than most Clan women. Oma is the youngest of five. Oma, why don't you tell everyone about growing up with the Clan?" He offered her a hand as he patted a place beside him on the rock.
Oma looked around nervously, but took her uncle's hand. Darnev smiled encouragement as she sat beside Crebulan. "As Crebulan says, I am the youngest child of Ura, born to the hearth of Durc," she began. "Brun is my oldest brother, it is he who will lead the clan when Durc becomes too old. Then there is Iva, Zoud, Corb, and me. Brun, Iva, and Corb are mixed, like Mother and Durc. Zoud seems to be all Clan. I am all Others. This worried Durc, especially because I do not have memories. He always said I remind him of his Mama, both by the way I look and by the way I am curious about everything. He worried for me, because I do not behave as a good Clan woman. He did not know what man would take me, and worried that if he told someone to accept me, that man would not be happy with me, and make me unhappy as well.
"Then Crebulan came. Mog-Ur thought he was a spirit at first, but Crebulan said no, he was Durc's brother from the Others. That Durc's Mama didn't actually die when she was supposed to, but found her own people and her own mate. Durc thought that if his Mama was happy with the Others, perhaps I would be happy with the Others. Perhaps I would find a mate with the Others."
Ayla, more observant than most, noted Oma's quick glance at Darnev and smiled. "I think you have, am I right?" she asked. "Am I going to have a Matrimonial to plan for this summer?"
"I do wish to join with Darnev," Oma said with a blush, "as long as you approve."
"How could I not?" Ayla said, delightedly. "My grandchild and the son of my best Mamutoi friend? Of course I approve!" She jumped up and hugged and kissed them both, to the laughter and applause of the crowd.
"I hope you want to plan for two Matrimonials, Mother," Crebulan laughed. "I plan to join with Ranie this summer as well, in case you hadn't guessed."
Just then, Lanoga called from the cooking fire. "The food is ready! Come and eat, everyone, we can hear the rest of the stories later!"
Ayla gave Ranie a hug and kiss as they trooped over to the food. "My son has good taste," she smiled. "And I can't wait to hear your stories as well!"
Once everyone ate, people gathered around to hear the rest of the stories. Crebulan perched back up on the big rock, this time with Ranie beside him. Darnev and Oma sat together on one side of Ayla, while Jondalar sat on her other side with Dalanar between him and Dalzarna. Kandeval, Latie, Jerekal, Danug, and Folara also sat close by.
Crebulan smiled. "All right," he said, "Now that Mother's gotten to hear about Durc and we've all got full bellies, I can tell the long story, the one of the Journey itself. It started out uneventfully enough, until we got north of the glacier and started to turn east. We'd gotten several birds as we rode that day, and Zarina requested an early stop so we would have time to cook them all to last us for a couple of days. We made our camp and I went for a walk. And found myself face-to-face with a pair of Clan hunters. They sent for their leader when I explained that we were going to be passing through their territory." He smiled at Ayla and Jondalar. "The leader surprised me by having blond hair. He said his name was Dyondar, and that he was named after a man of the Others, a man whose mate was a medicine woman raised by a clan. That medicine woman healed the broken leg of his mother's mate when the Others helped Guban drive away the men who had tried to attack his mother before he was born."
Jondalar laughed. "I certainly hope Dyondar is considered handsome among his people, since he bears my name," he said, playfully smoothing his hair and posing as he spoke. Dalanar rolled his eyes and dumped a cup of wine over Jondalar's head, causing him to sputter and everyone else to laugh.
Once everyone settled down, Crebulan continued. "Shortly after our meeting with Dyondar, we came to the S'Armunai Camp of the Three Sisters. They seemed unsure of us at first because of the horses, until a middle-aged man with a bad leg came out and saw me. He came right over and welcomed us, introducing himself as Ardoban, their flint knapper. I gave him greetings from you and Jondalar, Mother, and the whole camp seemed more comfortable with us once Ardoban made it clear that he'd known you and we weren't spirits. Zarina caused a bit of a happy stir when she passed Elleron's greetings to Anderon, Esavoa, and Anaroa who is now their S'Armuna. Oh, and Mother, Cavoa's twins are now the leaders of Three Sisters Camp.
"While we were there, Markolan fell in love with a young woman named Elleroa… Esavoa's youngest child, born not long after Elleron left. He asked her to come with us, but she refused because she had accepted responsibility for helping Ardoban that winter. His mate had recently died and left no children, and with his bad leg he needed help around the hearth. Elleroa is his apprentice, so she'd already volunteered to be the one. Markolan had promised to help me find Durc, so he felt that he couldn't stay, but he promised her he'd return for her. Ardoban offered to adopt Markolan as the son of his hearth when we returned, so that he and Elleroa could continue sharing his lodge. Markolan agreed.
"But we had to leave then, to make it to the Mamutoi before winter. Anderon, who'd been to the Mamutoi on a couple of trade missions, gave Zarina a map showing a few of the westernmost camps. We rode hard, and made it to Mammoth Camp within two moons. We all got a laugh when the old woman who saw us first yelled that visitors from Lion Camp were coming… Lion Camp is still the only one with more than one or two horses. Anyway, Vincavec recognized me right away as being the child of Jondalar's spirit. He suggested we travel to Lion Camp in the company of Tarvec, the son of his hearth, since Tarvec was going there for the winter to learn about wolves from Frebec."
"Wolves? From Frebec?" Ayla laughed.
"Apparently Frebec liked Wolf a lot more than he ever admitted to you, Mother. Vincavec said that a couple of years after you left, Frebec live-trapped a wolf pup and started training it. Not only that, the wolf he has now is a female and he takes her out to find a male loner when she comes into season, then trains the pups for others. Tarvec… and Tusec, Bectie's oldest… planned to spend that winter learning to train wolves from Frebec. Anyway, we were a complete surprise to Lion Camp when we arrived. Nezzie's twins, Lativec and Dannie are the leaders now. Tulie and Talut were advisors, although Tulie and Barzec decided to go live with Tusie at Mouflon Camp not long after we got there. Such a welcome we got! Especially Zarina and Willora, once Latie and Danug were mentioned," he grinned.
"Zarina was accepted all right?" Latie asked anxiously.
"By Lion Camp, yes," Crebulan reassured her. "I won't say there weren't any problems with others, there were. But the majority of the Mamutoi have become at least tolerant of mixtures over the years."
Latie looked relieved. "What kind of problems and how bad?"
"Well, Tarvec had a bit of a struggle with himself over her. He fell for her before he learned about Echozar," Crebulan elaborated. "Do you recall who Vincavec mated?"
Latie thought for a moment. "He mated the daughter of a Mamut mated to another Mamut… everyone said he mated her for Mammoth Hearth. I know she was from one of the low-status Camps, Badger, I think it was. Tarvie, that's right. Oh, she hated the Clan. Let me guess, she filled her son with all sorts of stories, right?
"Exactly! It seems that Vincavec mostly left the children to their mother, since he was so busy between his duties as Mamut and headman. Tarvec, of course, didn't know better than to believe them. Zarina did get some bruised feelings before he figured out that his mother was wrong, but they did get things worked out between them," Crebulan said. "Anyway, Lion Camp offered to adopt Zarina and Willora fairly quickly, and they both decided they wanted to accept. Willora started making her clay dishes right away. When I helped Tulie and Barzec arrange their move to Mouflon Camp, Ranie decided to come back to Lion Camp with me to learn from Willora…"
"That was the best way I could think of to get to Lion Camp for the winter," Ranie interrupted with a grin. "It gave me a new skill and it let me get to know you over the winter without making you feel like a rabbit in a snare." Everyone chuckled as Crebulan blushed.
"Anyway," Crebulan tried to move along with the story. "Ranie volunteered to go south with me and Markolan. So we missed the real excitement over Zarina… which happened when they got to the Summer Meeting and Tarvie heard that her son wanted to mate one of the foreigners. As I heard it, Tarvie started questioning Zarina about her background and Zarina said flat out that she was mixed. Tarvie started a big argument and threatened to go to the Mamuti to stop the joining. But Vincavec, who approved the match, got there first and made sure that wouldn't happen. That night, an unplanned celebration sprang up when people from Camps related to Lion Camp came by to meet Zarina and Willora and found out about the planned joining. Vincavec was also there."
"Tarvie showed up at the party, furious at Vincavec," Darnev supplied. "She scattered the hearth… but she threw the hearthstones high and hard. She broke Vincavec's collarbone and gave Willora a concussion."
Folara gasped in distress. Crebulan resumed the tale before he aunt became too upset. "Actually, some good came out of it. You see, Willora had fallen in love with Tusec over the winter. He'd come to care for her as well, but was slow to recognize it… until he saw her get hurt like that. I understand they started planning for the Matrimonial less than a day after she came to.
"The Council of Sisters stripped Tarvie of her belongings and sent her to live with relatives at Badger Camp. They also tattooed her face with a mark to let people know that she had hurt people by acting in anger. Meanwhile, Vincavec did some thinking as he healed. Tarvec's sisters had no interest in leadership, and his own sister's children already started their own Camp. But he didn't want to see Mammoth Camp break up when he and Avarie got too old to lead. So, since he said Willora put him in mind of Tulie in her younger days, he offered to adopt Willora to his hearth, so that she and Tarvec could eventually take over the leadership of Mammoth Camp."
Now Folara gave a happy gasp. "My baby is going to be a headwoman? Danug, can you believe it? My little Willora!"
Danug laughed. "Why do you always call her little?" he asked rhetorically. "But yes, I can believe it. Her size isn't the only thing about her that reminded me of Aunt Tulie."
Crebulan picked up the thread of the tale once more. "So, we found out all of this when we got back from the peninsula with Oma. Nezzie introduced her around while I dealt with telling Ranec that I wanted to bring Ranie home with me. He grumbled a bit about blue-eyed western men always making off with the women he cared for, but promised not to hurt me as long as I didn't try to take Tricie along too. We stayed just long enough to see the Matrimonial… and I promise, one of us will give the full details tomorrow, all right?" He smiled winningly at Latie and Folara. "Markolan, of course, was impatient to get back to the S'Armunai and Elleroa. And he got quite a surprise when we arrived… she'd had a baby girl while we were gone! She's sure her daughter is of his spirit; the baby and Markolan have the same eyes. We got another surprise when Darnev showed up. He'd gotten acquainted with Oma at the Mamutoi Summer Meeting and decided he liked her enough to want to get to know her better… I guess they still like each other," he chuckled, seeing that Oma was half-asleep on Darnev's shoulder. "Anyway, Tusec showed up shortly before we left Three Sisters, with the news that Zarina and Willora were settled in happily at Mammoth Camp. Zarina had boy-girl twins named Latie and Echozar, and sent the message that her next son will be Jerekal. Willora also had boy-girl twins named Folie and Danug, and while the boy is bald, Folie has the thickest, reddest hair anyone there has ever seen on a newborn. Apparently, she takes after the man of her mother's hearth."
Danug blushed while Folara and Latie beamed happily at the news.
"What about you, Dalanar?" Jondalar asked curiously. "I'm very happy to see you, but definitely wasn't expecting it."
"Well, the Lanzadonii heard about what happened at the Ninth Cave, what is it, fifteen years ago now?" the old man said. "Only, we thought there were no survivors. All we knew was, the First got possessed by an evil spirit and the Ninth Cave no longer existed. Jerika died three years ago, and of course Joplaya died in that accident ages ago. Joplaya's only child was with the Zarnadonii. I was lonely," Dalanar said simply. "I may have founded the Lanzadonii, but I have no kin there. Then I met Crebulan and the others as they were passing near our Cave. That's when I found out you were still alive, Jondalar. And I decided I wanted to spend whatever time I have left with kin… you and Dalzarna. So I asked Crebulan to bring me along."
Tears glistened in Jondalar's eyes as he hugged the man of his hearth. "I'm glad you came," was all he said.
Over the next few days, the newcomers settled into Zarnadonii life. Ranie and Oma spent quite a bit of time visiting with Latie and Folara, telling all the details of the Mamutoi Matrimonial. The two young women also spent time with Ayla, learning the customs of their new people. Ayla and Jondalar welcomed Dalanar into their hearth. For the moment, Crebulan and Ranie, Darnev and Oma also shared Mammoth Hearth. However, the two young men quickly began negotiations with older people who planned to leave Mammoth Cave to move in with relatives, as they both wanted to give their mates-to-be homes of their own. They would take possession of the shelters immediately after the Summer Meeting.
Word of Crebulan's return spread quickly. The Summer Meeting place filled up much faster than usual, as no one wished to miss hearing the tales of Crebulan's adventures. Quite a few people were surprised that Zarina and Willora settled with the Mamutoi, but Latie just smiled. "No one seems to think it's strange that I left the Mamutoi to come here," she told them. "So what is so strange about my daughter leaving and becoming Mamutoi? It's a full circle. In fact, I'd wager that fifteen or twenty years from now, one of Ranie's children decides to go find the other half of his or her heritage and Journeys to the Mamutoi."
While Crebulan told his stories, Ayla worked with Ranie and Oma to prepare for the Matrimonial. She taught them their part of the ceremony, as well as what to expect afterwards. To her delight, both young women told her they were pregnant and wished her to use the wording variation acknowledging the Mother's Blessing.
Knowing Mamutoi customs, Ayla gave her own Matrimonial outfit to Ranie. The color suited the dark-skinned young woman well, although the leggings did need to be shortened, as Ranie was a petite woman. Jonayla, the best seamstress of Ayla's daughters, took charge of making a Matrimonial outfit for Oma. To compliment her niece's coloring, Jonayla made a loose dress of forest green linen, with white embroidery around the neck and armholes. A white sash tied just below Oma's breasts, and headband of white shells confined her hair. She was delighted with the dress, and especially pleased that she could wear her white shell necklace from Darnev with it.
Stars shone brightly overhead as the about to be mated women filed out of the seclusion shelter. Oma smiled as she gazed across the fire to where Darnev waited. She was proud that she had overcome her fear of making a bad decision and picked him as her mate. Her grandam, Durc's Mama, approved of her choice. And somehow, Oma knew her mother and Durc would approve as well. She clasped Darnev's hand as they slipped their wrists into the thong held by a teary-eyed Ayla. She pictured her happy future with Darnev as Ranie and Crebulan stepped up for their turn.
Jondalar had to blink back tears as well when Crebulan stepped forward to take Ranie's hand. He felt as though he was seeing into the past, for he had given Crebulan the white Matrimonial tunic Ayla had made for him so many years before. His feeling of déjà vu strengthened when he saw Ranie wearing Ayla's Matrimonial outfit. Crebulan smiled happily as his mother bound his wrist to that of the woman he loved. He'd set out on his Journey seeking an answer for his mother. He'd found that answer… and so much more besides. Best of all, he was home again, and looking forward to a long and contented life with Ranie by his side.