Standard Disclaimer: I do not own the Earth's Children series, I am only inspired by it.

Lanidar heaved a spear down the practice course, hearing a satisfying thwack! as it buried itself in the chest of the aurochs figure painted on the target. In the three moons since the Summer Meeting ended, he had become one of the most accurate in his Cave with the spear-thrower. As he was small for his age and looked some years younger than he could actually count, there were still some smiles when he practiced, but no one laughed at the crippled youth anymore. His unflagging drive to learn had earned him the respect of every hunter of the Nineteenth Cave. He retrieved his spears, checking the shafts carefully for damage. Finding none, he placed them into his spear carrier, along with his spear thrower. It was time, he decided, to try hunting.

He moved off into a wooded area where he knew there would be small game. He couldn't wait to see his mother's face the first time he brought a kill to the hearth. Especially because she still tried to convince him to give up the idea of hunting, sure that he would be injured or worse. Well, he'd see what she would think when he actually supplied meat to her fire; maybe then she'd see that he really could hunt, crippled arm or no. With Doni's favor, it might even happen today. He headed for the stream where he remembered a beaver dam, then flinched as he stepped on a dry branch that snapped with a loud crack! Lanidar mentally berated himself for his clumsiness; that's what he got for not paying attention. He decided to stay still for a while and wait for the forest creatures to resume their activities. He whistled a few bird songs as he waited, hoping to encourage the animals to believe that all was as it should be. Just as he was about to move off, he realized that he was standing quite near a game trail. Perhaps he wouldn't be limited to beaver or rabbit after all.

Lanidar found himself a hiding place along the game trail and close to the stream. Surely, he reasoned, the roe deer that made the trail would come to drink... and if they didn't, perhaps something else would. After a while, he spotted movement on the trail. Sure enough, a small herd of roe deer were headed for water. Carefully, he fixed a spear into position and stood poised to cast, not knowing that he was not the only hunter watching the game trail. The deer paused to drink. Lanidar aimed, drew back his arm, and let fly.

Suddenly, there was a bloodcurdling scream from across the trail, and a flash of black and white. Lanidar grabbed another spear, then stood, shaking with fear and astonishment, staring at what lay before him. A young buck lay sprawled across the trail... and pinned to him by Lanidar's spear through its foreleg was a snow leopard! "Doni bless!" breathed Lanidar, scarcely able to believe his eyes. Then he realized that the cat was only wounded, pinned to the deer's chest by one leg. Cautiously, he moved behind and to the side of the beast, keeping out of reach of the great cat's free claws, then pulled his knife and slit the carnivore's throat. "When you return to the Great Earth Mother, give Her my thanks," Lanidar said, savoring his first opportunity to use the words so often said by Zelandonii hunters, words that he never thought he'd be able to use. Once he was sure the great cat was dead, he pulled out his spear and rolled the animal off of the buck. Then he slit the throat of the buck as well, letting it bleed out and offering his thanks to Doni.

Somewhat awkwardly, Lanidar skinned both creatures and gutted the deer. He also removed the claws and teeth of the snow leopard. Then he realized he had a problem. The deer outweighed him; as small as he was, he'd never be able to carry it all back to the Cave. Then he remembered the pole drag Ayla used with the horses. He cut himself a pair of poles and some vine, and with a little experimentation, managed to attach his packframe to the poles and rig a harness for himself to pull it. He loaded the meat and both hides into the packframe, put the harness over his shoulders, and headed back toward the Nineteenth Cave.

Cries of astonishment erupted from everyone in the vicinity as Lanidar, the undersized crippled boy, pulled the heavy load of meat into view with great effort . "Here is a contribution of meat to feed the Cave this winter," the somewhat breathless boy announced to Tormaden, the leader. Then someone noticed the snow leopard skin.

Lanoga paused in her task to retie the thong holding her hair back. Lorala, now just over a year, had loosened it while Lanoga was settling her for a nap in the lean-to Ayla and Jondalar had helped her build at one end of the work area known as Down River. For this task, she didn't want any distractions. Carefully, she poured the lye solution she prepared earlier into the rendered fat. But this time, she added another step to the process, one of her own devising. The soft soap that Ayla taught her to make worked perfectly well, but wasn't very pleasant smelling. Lanoga decided to try adding a fragrance to it.

She thought back on the five moons since the Summer Meeting had ended. Ayla had once again become her champion, this time on her behalf. Ayla had casually pointed out to the other women that Lanoga was growing up at a hearth with no one capable of teaching her much in the way of useful skills. When the others realized that, they were quick to offer to teach her the skills that they excelled in. A few of them, like Proleva and Salova, had even apologized for not noticing her problem themselves. Not that she was completely ignorant, but it was nice having someone to show her the details that made the difference between "crudely functional" and "beautifully useful." Small for her age, Lanoga knew she was better off learning crafts that required more dexterity and attention to detail than ones which required physical strength. Ayla's mate Jondalar had offered to teach her flint knapping along with Matagan of the Fifth Cave, but after one lesson, she thanked him for the offer and didn't try again. She'd needed both hands to swing the hammerstone with any degree of control, which meant she couldn't use a punch, which meant she'd be unable to make anything but axes, at least until she grew bigger. And somehow, Lanoga suspected that she wasn't going to get much bigger. Jondalar was very nice though, he didn't seem insulted that she didn't keep on with the lessons. She liked him.

Next to Ayla, Proleva, Salova, and Sherola were the women she felt most comfortable with. Proleva was a wonderful cook; she taught Lanoga new seasonings and recipes that were so much better than what she had been making, even Laramar had taken notice. Or rather, she thought ruefully, he now complained that much louder when she wasn't around to fix a meal for him whenever he wanted one, never mind that he and her mother both tended to sleep so late in the mornings that it was nearly afternoon by the time they got up. Salova was the best basket weaver in the Ninth Cave. Her baskets were covered with figures of animals and plants. She even made one very special basket for Zelandoni with a figure of the Mother woven into it, for ceremonial use. She was teaching Lanoga to weave designs into baskets. Just simple geometric patterns so far, but even her weaving was much better that it used to be… she had taught herself by examining baskets while no one was looking, then trying to duplicate the structure. Sherola had two skills; she could sew better than anyone else in the Ninth Cave, and she made the face paint and perfumes that some of the women were so fond of using. Lanoga was happy to learn both skills. The first would let her keep herself and her baby sister clothed better… and the second, if her experiment worked, would give her something unique to trade.

Ayla had taught her about plants, how to recognize them, what plants were good for food, or for tea, or seasoning. But Sherola was the one who pointed out which plants – flowers, mostly, but some herbs as well – could be distilled into wonderfully fragrant oils. Ayla was the one who brought the skill of making soft soap with her from her visit with the Losadunai, but Lanoga quickly grew skilled in the making of it. And while people liked the soap, and Ayla didn't keep the skill to herself, most people didn't like making it because the lye mixture smelled so bad. Besides, it did take the better part of a day to complete the process, and most people already had more things they wanted to do than they had time to do. While she was quiet and shy, Lanoga was also very intelligent. It occurred to her that many people would be willing to trade for soap if it meant they didn't have to make their own. Now she was trying to combine Sherola's knowledge with Ayla's to make scented soap.

Working in small batches, she added fragrant oils to the lye-and-fat mixture. She stirred until the mixture thickened, then set that batch aside and started the next. When she was done, there were four containers of soap, one each of rose, lemon grass, lavender, and juniper scents. Now for the second part of her experiment. Lanoga put a small portion of each of the soaps onto a slab of granite on boulders that she had asked Jondalar to place near her work area… to keep Lorala from trying to eat the lye or the finished soap, she told him. Which was true, but today the table-like surface would serve a second purpose as well. After taking a quick peek to make sure Lorala was still asleep, she began to shape handfuls of the slimy soap into little flat cakes, which she placed on a hammock-like structure to dry.. She'd noticed that the soap dried somewhat as it aged, but that the drying didn't seem to hinder its cleaning ability. And, she reasoned, if this worked, the dry cakes of soap would be much easier to store and carry around than large bowls of the soft version.

Once the cakes were made, she cleaned her working space and herself, making sure to wash her hands well. She sat near the fire and nibbled on some cold roast and carrots. She glanced at her soap cakes from time to time, hoping that they would turn out well. Suddenly a small voice interrupted her thoughts. "Noga…. Noga… hunwgy!" Lorala appeared in the doorway of the lean-to. "Come have some carrots, Lorala, then we'll go back to the Cave," Lanoga told her baby sister, giving the little one a piece of carrot. Now that she had some teeth, Lorala enjoyed crunchy things to chew on. Her only younger sibling now, the others in between had died of some kind of coughing sickness shortly after the Summer Meeting ended. Lorala had been sick as well, but she had recovered. Lanoga wondered if it had something to do with mother's milk, Lorala was still being passed around to nurse, or maybe being clean. The ones who had died hadn't let her take care of them the way she did Lorala; they would turn up at the hearth for meals and otherwise wouldn't go near her, preferring to hang on their mother's leg if she was around. And Tremeda never bothered washing them, or herself, for that matter. She even objected when Lanoga tried to clean up around the hearth.

Lanoga sighed, wishing she had someplace else to stay. If it weren't for Lorala, she'd consider moving into her lean to right here at Down River. But the little one certainly needed the shelter of the Ninth Cave… and at least their mother didn't care if she kept the two of them clean, even if she didn't want the hearth cleaned. Lanoga put the Lorala into the back carrier, moved her drying soap into the lean-to in case it snowed before she could return, put out the fire, strapped on snowshoes and began the walk back to the Ninth Cave. She didn't notice the two pairs of eyes following her as she left.