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

First led her rabble to the home territory of the Zarnadonii. The few scouts she'd sent reported that all of the Zarnadonii and the survivors of the Ninth Cave were all gathered at one of the caves, as though they were holding the Summer Meeting there. Many of the men and women followed her willingly; eager to be rid of the flathead-lovers once and for all, especially after those same flathead-lovers attacked their camp with fire and caused three deaths.

But many more were starting to wonder if they were really doing the right thing. After all, they reasoned, the Zarnadonii hadn't even had any contact with the Zelandonii in years. It wasn't as though that abomination was running around the Summer Meetings trying to foist his spirit on all the women. So, why were they trekking out here to persecute them, when they could be in their own caves preparing for winter? And what of the Ninth Cave? They were Zelandonii. Some of the mob had had kin there. Many of them felt distinctly guilty for having participated in that bloodbath. As yet, they feared the power of the First Among Those Who Serve, too much to move against her. But the whispers went around as the mob pressed south and west. Maybe, the rumors went, just maybe, the First wasn't following the will of Doni. Maybe, just maybe, she was the one who was possessed by an evil spirit. First didn't realize it, but she was slowly losing the support of her rabble.

First decided that this time, there would be no subtlety, no scouting, no chance of warning. She was going to lead her people straight to the flathead-lovers' cave and drive out anyone they didn't kill. But when they charged onto the beach in front of the cave just before sunset, they found the area deserted.

First was furious. She turned to her followers. "Who warned them?" she screamed. "There is no way they could have known we were coming, unless someone warned them! We have to find them! We have to be sure they don't contaminate anyone else with their flathead-loving ways! We have to…"

The kindly man who had been Jonayla's captor took a deep breath and broke into the tirade. "We have to go back to our own caves and prepare for winter, that's what we have to do! No one warned the Zarnadonii, at least not as far as I know. Maybe they are out on a hunt or something… which is what we ought to be doing. I'm going back to my cave. I'm not going to let my mate and her children starve this winter just because you want to get rid of some people who don't even live in Zelandonii territory." Boldly, he turned and strode out of the area. Nearly three quarters of the mob followed him.

"You will regret this!" First screeched. "Doni's will is clear! We must be rid ourselves of the abominations and those who would shelter them! You will see! You will see!"

Boromir stood at the forefront of those who remained. "There's a pretty blatant trail to the south, across the river," he growled. "Obvious enough that I can see it from here. And since there's no donii at the cave entrance, we know they aren't planning to come back here. I say we stay the night and go after them in the morning."

"Dear Boromir," First purred. "Always so eager to do the right thing. Yes, we will do just that. And, Boromir, you will be well rewarded for your loyalty to the Mother. I promise, when we are done with our task here, whatever it is you want, you will receive it."

Boromir grinned as he selected a shelter and a bedspace for himself and his mate. He knew exactly what… make that who… he wanted as his reward. The animal woman's whelp was surely a woman by now. And he intended to have her. He wondered whether she would be compliant or if she would struggle. He hoped she would struggle, at least a little. He enjoyed taming the spirited ones. Maybe he'd even take her as a second mate. Solana would like that, he was sure. Solana liked sharing Pleasures with other women as well as with men. His lust rising, he pictured Solana and Jonayla entwined on the furs, sharing Pleasures with each other, with him, with other men and women. When Solana entered the shelter with some food, he barely gave her enough time to set it down before he yanked her leggings off and pushed her onto the bed. He was so intent on his own Pleasure that he didn't notice at first when the ground began to shake.

But others within the cave noticed. The fortunate ones managed to get out before the cave collapsed. Others, like Boromir and Solana, were buried in the rubble before they knew what was happening. The First almost made it out of the cave when a new tremor caused her to fall. A chunk of the roof dropped onto her legs, crushing them and trapping her. She screamed, and the earth grew still once more.

The survivors huddled together in a daze, fearing aftershocks. "We have to go home," someone said. "It's over."

"No! No!" First cried. "Get me loose… we still have to take care of the flathead-lovers! It's the will of Doni!"

"It's over," the faceless voice repeated. "The Mother has made her will perfectly clear. She wants them left alone. I can only hope that She will forgive us the evil we've done in Her name by listening to you." One by one, the survivors crept into the cave to try to salvage any of their belongings. Then they headed back towards Zelandonii territory, leaving their former leader to her fate.

Ayla froze in terror as the earthquake shook the camp. Fortunately, they were in the open, and the tremors were not severe. While everyone was scared, no one was hurt. Lanidar, thinking quickly, rounded up all of the doniers. "We can Search," he said. "We can find out where the earthquake struck… make sure Crun's cave is all right!"

The doniers gathered around him as he rummaged through his pack for the herbs he needed for the spirit-trance enhancing tea. Meanwhile, Jondalar and Jerekal drew everyone else to the opposite end of the clearing, where everyone set about soothing frightened children. Ayla put a skin of water over the fire to heat while Danila and Lanidar measured the herbs. As soon as the water heated, they poured the tea and drank it, then sat in a circle. Jonetta played a heartbeat rhythm on her drum as they drifted into a spirit trance.

The doniers found themselves traveling north. Crun's cave looked to have suffered little damage. They continued northward, seeking the place where the quake struck the hardest, until they found themselves looking at the Lion Cave. The destruction there was unbelievable. There was no doubt in Lanidar's mind that if the Zarnadonii had still been there, they would have lost over half their population. As they drew closer, they could see figures moving on the beach. One seemed to be speaking, although they could hear nothing. As they drew closer still, they saw the First Among Those Who Serve of the Zelandonii pinned under a huge boulder. But those who had been her followers left, heading north and leaving her there.

They heard a woman's voice then. "You are out of danger, my people. Find your new home and live your lives with my blessing."

With incredible speed, the doniers found themselves heading back to the clearing.

As they returned to themselves, the doniers were awed by what they had experienced. For each of them had heard that voice once before in their lives… when they had faced the final testing to dedicate themselves to Her service. Now they had proof that they had done the right thing by leaving. Not only had they indeed avoided a second attack, but they also avoided being seriously harmed by the earthquake. And Doni gave them Her personal blessing. Reverently, Danila led them in chanting the Mother's Song in thanks before they reported their findings to everyone.

"Crun, you will be pleased to know that your cave looks to have suffered little damage," Lanidar spoke while Ayla signed. "The earthquake destroyed Lion Cave; however, the earthquake also destroyed the evil one. She and her people were at Lion Cave when the earthquake struck. Her followers have left her, fearing the Mother's wrath when they saw the First struck down by falling rocks. Doni has chosen to punish Her false servant in Her own way. And She has given us Her blessing."

Ripples of astonishment passed through the crowd. Crun, watching, was quite happy, both that his cave was still habitable, and that the enemy of his friends was no more. He was still uncomfortable with the idea of female Mog-Urs, but he was willing to accept that such a thing was permissible to the Others. And he was definitely not going to complain when those female Mog-Urs had brought him such good news. "I think," he signed, "if it is all right with your leaders, my people should stay here tonight, and we will return to our cave in the morning. The cave may be undamaged, but the trails may be. I'd prefer not to risk injury by chancing the trip back tonight."

"Of course we don't object," Jerekal was quick to reply. "We can rearrange ourselves to give you and yours the use of some tents. It will be a tight fit," he grinned wryly, "but it can be done." He took a quick mental count of the number of people in Crun's clan, and started asking for volunteers to either double up and leave their tents empty, or to double up with a Clan family for the night.

While Jerekal was settling the arrangements for the night, Ayla sought out Jondalar. She was surprised to see him clutching his amulet and gesturing. She'd never known him to speak to his totem before. Courteously, she glanced away, permitting him his privacy as he signed his thoughts to the spirit of the cave lion. But she smiled to herself as she waited for him to finish.

When Jondalar heard that the First was no longer leading the Zelandonii against the Zarnadonii, for one brief moment he imagined bringing his people back to the Ninth Cave. But the more he thought about it, the worse of an idea it seemed to be. The Ninth Cave would be haunted by the memories of the slaughter instigated by the First. And in the two moons since they had joined the Zarnadonii, the former Ninth Cave people had begun to recover from the trauma of the tragedy. No, he decided, going back is not an option. We are Zarnadonii now. Oddly, it no longer hurt to think of himself as something other than Jondalar of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii. He started to get up to speak with Ayla, when he heard a hollow popping noise under his foot.

He whistled softly as he picked up a stone even more unusual than the one from Thonolan's grave. It was round, or rather, it had been until he put his weight on it. Part of it had broken off to reveal a miniature cave within the stone, lined with glittering yellow crystals. He could almost hear Ayla telling him that his totem might give him a sign when he faced a difficult choice, as long as he made the correct decision. He placed the geode into his amulet and somewhat clumsily signed his gratitude to the spirit of the cave lion. He felt rather foolish, but the ceremony for Jaradal had convinced him once and for all that he really did have a totem. After he finished, he noticed Ayla waiting for him. He grinned. "So, am I about to get teased for finally talking to my totem after all these years?" he asked.

"No, of course not," Ayla replied. But then her own grin became teasing. "But if you really want me to…"

"Not on your life, woman!" Jondalar laughed. Then he grew serious. "I wanted to tell you, I think we should stay with the Zarnadonii. I know that with the First gone, we could go back, but I don't think it would be a good idea. I think too many people would be haunted by what happened in the Ninth Cave to ever live there again."

"I think you're right, Jondalar. In fact, that is what I was on my way to discuss with you," Ayla said. Then she laughed again. "You surprised me though. I thought I was going to have to talk you into it." She stretched up and gave him a kiss. "Oh, Bologan was telling me just before the quake hit, Thonolan and Logani get the credit for finding the place that is likely to be our new home. I can't wait to see it."

"Thonolan and Logani? But they are just boys," Jondalar said, surprised. "I knew Bologan was letting some of the boys act as scouts, but I thought he was just trying to make them feel useful."

Ayla smiled. "You might be right at that, but those two decided to take the responsibility seriously. They're both good riders, and because they're still fairly small and light, they were able to go farther and faster than the men. From the descriptions I've heard, this area sounds like a cross between the Ninth Cave and vicinity, and Lion Cave and vicinity."

"If that's true, they'll have found the ideal place for this group," Jondalar conceded. "I wonder how many caves we'll need for all of us? I know Jerekal wants to keep the caves small, in hopes of preventing a situation such as Laramar and Tremeda's from happening."

"Yes, well, it's getting late enough in the season that we're going to be lucky to get shelters built and enough meat stored before winter. Jerekal may well have to settle for two or three big caves, at least for now," Ayla said. "We can always spread out a bit more come spring. But I do agree with his reason for wanting smaller caves. The Mamutoi would have noticed and done something about Laramar and Tremeda much sooner, simply because of not having so many people around."

"Right now, I wish we didn't have so many people around," Jondalar teased gently, his gaze warm as he smiled at his mate.

Ayla could feel herself responding to the invitation in his eyes. "Crebulan and the twins are already in the tent," she said. "I don't expect there would be so many people around in the woods."

Jondalar smiled. "Shall we go for a walk then?" he asked.

Ayla smiled and gestured for him to lead the way.

In the morning, Crun's clan and the Zarnadonii went their separate ways with gestures of friendship and promises of trading in the spring. Crun, after thinking about Jondalar's proposal, had come to the conclusion that he would contact the other clan about trading with the Zarnadonii. If the other leader wished to avoid direct contact with the Others, Crun would offer to act in their behalf. After all, he thought, his clan had been trading with this particular group of Others for years. And despite dire warnings of bad luck from those clans that distrusted all Others, his clan had prospered as a result of the trading. Not once had his clan gone hungry at the end of winter.

Jerekal, leading the group with Thonolan and Logani, glanced up at the first hints of color tinting the treetops and came to a decision. He beckoned to Bologan, Lanidar, Jondalar, Peridal, and Torolan. They hurried forward, noting the grim look on his face. He quickly satisfied their curiosity. "There's one thing I hadn't taken into account," he told them. "The weather. We may be heading south, but we're also heading into higher terrain. Look at that," he gestured up to the small patches of scarlet and gold amidst the sea of green leaves. "If we're going to have any chance of getting shelters built before the snows come, we need to split up. Anyone with building experience who can also ride a horse will go on ahead with one of the boys, while the other stays and leads the rest of the group."

Jondalar didn't like the idea of leaving the more vulnerable members of the group behind, but he knew Jerekal was right. "How many horses do we have available?" he asked. "Leaving one here for Verdegia, that is. No, leaving two here. One for Verdegia and one for emergencies."

Bologan chuckled. "Latie and Drusilla have breeding herds, not just captured horses. Counting Whinney and Racer, we have nineteen horses. If we leave two here and ride double on the others, we can bring more than thirty men to the place the boys say will make our new home."

"So, who will stay, besides me and Danug?" Lanidar asked.

"We'll see who volunteers to go," Jerekal said. "Obviously, Peridal should go, since he is our expert builder. I intend to go as well, to make sure the caves are everything the boys think they are before we start building. If we get more volunteers than will fit on the horses riding double, we'll have them draw sticks or something."

"If Thonolan goes, I go," Jondalar stated firmly. "We all know what happened the last time one of Ayla's children went on ahead. I don't want him to go off alone." He knew that remark sounded ridiculous, since Thonolan would be traveling with over thirty other people. But Jondalar was willing to admit that he was not entirely logical when it came to the safety of the children of his hearth. Jonayla's capture by the rabble only intensified his worries.

Thonolan rolled his eyes as Logani chuckled. Jondalar was a wonderful man of the hearth, but he could be so overprotective at times. And Jondalar usually picked such silly times to become overprotective. Didn't the man realize that he'd already been out to the caves and back with only Logani for company, for Doni's sake?

"That suits me just fine," Bologan said calmly. "It would be better if I stayed here anyway. Lanidar and I… and Echozar, Doni give him peace… have always acted as Jerekal's seconds, so people are used to coming to us with problems when Jerekal isn't around. Logani can continue to guide the group. And I can try to organize some hunting along the trail. I know we can probably survive the winter on what we've already accumulated, but more meat would be good. Especially if we do get a longer or snowier winter than we are used to."

Jerekal called for volunteers that evening. In the morning, the thirty chosen, led by Thonolan, Jondalar, Peridal, and himself, set out at a trot. They also carried the bulk of the winter supplies, pulled along in the horses' pole drags. Jerekal, growing nervous about the imminent change of season, only wished they could sustain a faster pace. But he knew that the horses were too heavily burdened. Still, he thought, even at a trot they were moving much faster than the rest of the group, which was slowed by the small children and elderly people.

Within five days, the riders came to the area that Thonolan and Logani scouted. Jerekal was amazed at how nearly it matched the area near their old home. Several of the caves contained fresh water springs, one cave even had a hot pool. Across the small river, he could see a chalky cliff that Jondalar thought probably contained flint. Best of all was something completely unexpected: a herd of mammoth was within sight, meandering along far upstream. Apparently they were close enough to the glacier that was the source of the river for the wooly beasts to frequent the area. About the only difference that Jerekal could see was that the river here was much smaller than at their old home. They might not have quite as much fish from now on, unless of course small groups traveled to the edge of the Great Waters during sturgeon spawning season.

In other ways, the area did resemble that of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii. There were at least eight caves that appeared habitable concentrated in a relatively small area, with abundant plant and animal life all around. There was even a level area, partially sheltered by a cliff overhang, that resembled Down River. By unspoken consent, the cave with the hot pool would not become anyone's home. It would remain sacred to the Mother, and open to the use of everyone. Jondalar claimed the cave closest to the chalky cliff as his own future home. Jerekal chose the one adjacent to the hot pool cave. Jondalar's old apprentice Matagan had moved into a position of leadership along with Jondalar after the attack on the Ninth Cave; now he selected a cave as well. So did Torolan, Corridan, and Peridal.

Peridal and Corridan worked quickly to mark out a dozen shelters in each cave. The Zarnadonii men already familiar with the pounded-earth building technique showed the former Zelandonii men how to raise the walls of their new shelters. When the rest of the people arrived eight days later, they found half of the shelters already complete.

No one bothered to settle in to their new homes, beyond claiming shelters and bedspaces. There was too much to do to prepare for the rapidly approaching winter. Verdegia and Marala showed the other women the baby surround they had worked out years ago. Everyone loved it, because it meant that they could safely leave a greater number of little ones with the few elders, with less worry that the toddlers would elude the slower-moving older people and get themselves into danger. But with the youngest children taken care of, the women and older children added their efforts to the hunting and gathering.

Jerekal and Danug organized a mammoth hunt when the woolies put in another appearance. That single hunt, in addition to the supplies they already had, guaranteed them enough meat and fat to survive the winter. People still carried spears and other weapons with them when they were away from the caves, and took advantage if they happened across any animals, but hunting was now less important than gathering. Men who cheerfully admitted to not knowing one plant from another teamed up with women who showed them what to collect. Children found the best sport in harvesting apples and nuts, since that meant tree-climbing. Dalzarna was very happy to find flax growing nearby; for the oily seeds as well as for the fibrous stalks. Lanada and Zolena, Lanoga's twins, discovered a bee tree. Not wanting to share the credit for the find with any adults, they only enlisted the help of Latie's twins Nezzina and Tulira. The four girls were quite pleased with themselves when they managed to smoke out the bees and collect the honey with just a few stings as the price.

By the time the first snow fell, they were reasonably sure they would make it through the winter. Now they began the real settling-in process, adding the little touches that made each person's space uniquely theirs. Lorala, her pregnancy becoming advanced, began preparing exceptionally soft skins for her baby's swaddling. Lorala also noticed that Dalzarna was showing signs of sickness, but decided not to ask. Even though Dalzarna's miscarriage was a direct result of the attack she'd suffered, Lorala suspected that Dalzarna wouldn't want to voice her hopes until she felt sure in her own mind that she wasn't going to lose this baby too. Lorala thought humorously that it was a good thing Elleron had little experience with blessed women, or Dalzarna wouldn't have been able to keep it from him. But Elleron was busy as well, building himself a new and larger firing chamber and digging clay before the riverbank froze solid.

As winter deepened, Lorala's belly grew larger. Elleron loved to sit with his hand resting lightly on her middle, feeling the movement of the child within. He was also solicitous of Dalzarna, who hadn't hidden her sickness as well as she thought. He didn't want to say anything until she did, but he made a point of keeping mint and chamomile tea available for her.

Lorala went into labor a few days after Dalzarna confirmed that she was indeed blessed again. Elleron completely panicked when she asked him to go get her sister. He insisted on carrying her to her bed, even though she told him that she'd be better off standing up for as long as she could, before fetching Lanoga. Lanidar had to hide a smile when the frantic Elleron burst into Otter Hearth to summon Lanoga to Golden Eagle Hearth. He well remembered how nervous he had been when Lanoga went into labor with the twins. He tried to coax Elleron into staying at Otter Hearth, but the younger man insisted that he had to be with Lorala.

Lanoga, Dalzarna, and Latie tried to keep Elleron busy while Lorala labored. They had him tend the fire and heat water, and even asked him to lay out the swaddling that Lorala had prepared. But each time he finished, he went back in to hold Lorala's hand. He worried that the labor was taking too long, even though the women didn't seem to think so. And he felt horrible that Lorala was going through so much pain. He grew paler each time she groaned, but he wouldn't leave her.

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity. Latie gently but firmly shoved Elleron away as she helped Lorala into a squatting position. Lanoga knelt between her sister's legs to guide the baby out. He grew white as Lorala screamed aloud. Then he saw blood, and the ground rushed up to meet him.

Elleron came to in the common room, with a bandage on his head and Dalzarna chuckling at him. "I hope you don't repeat this performance when I have my baby," she said.

"What performance?" he asked dazedly, then he bolted upright. "Lorala! I have to be with her! She's having her baby!"

Dalzarna chuckled again. "You tried to be there for her," she laughed, "but you passed out and hit your head just as she was delivering. She has a beautiful baby boy, and you have a cut over your ear. I love you dearly, Elleron, but I do suggest that you not try to watch any more babies being born. Especially if they are mine and Lorala's."

He lifted a hand to the bandage, feeling foolish. "I guess I wasn't much help, was I?"

"No, you weren't," Dalzarna confirmed. "But everyone realizes that you wanted to be. I'm sure Lorala feels the same way I do. Why don't you come and see her now?" She led him back into the side room where Lorala lay cradling her son.

Elleron gaped at the tiny infant. Hesitantly, he reached out a gentle finger to touch the baby's cheek. "Lorala, he's beautiful," he breathed.

She smiled up at him. "I certainly think so," she agreed. "And look, he has your nose. I'm sure he is of your spirit."

Lanidar slipped inside just then, and handed Lorala her son's elandon. "All right, Lorala, are you going to introduce us to him now?" he asked.

"I'd like you all to meet Ellezar," the new mother said proudly, as her mate and co-mate embraced her.

Everyone was glad when spring arrived. They had indeed managed through the winter, but it was always nice when the weather grew warmer and they could get out of the caves more. Each cave had an area set aside for projects, but with the warmer weather people inevitably brought their projects to the partially-sheltered level area, which became known simply as the Gathering. People from all six caves could be found there at any given time, socializing as well as working.

Some interesting work partnerships formed. Naturally enough, Jondalar, Danug, and Matagan established a flint knapping area close to the chalky cliff that provided their raw material. But it was Danug who saw the possibilities offered by Elleron's firing chamber. He offered to help the younger man build a larger one near the flint area, in exchange for the right to use it to heat the flint when it wasn't being used to fire clay items. Elleron quickly agreed. Now the flint workers could use the techniques first developed by Wymez of the Mamutoi, and with less bone burned since the firing chamber concentrated the heat.

Jonayla, somewhat to her mother's amusement, had never shown much interest in anything but decorative embroidery and beadwork. As Ayla herself had little talent for such work, and much preferred more active pursuits such as hunting and herb-gathering, she could only wonder where Jonayla's preference came from. Now Jonayla attached herself to old Verdegia to learn quill embroidery as well.

Verdegia wasn't the only member of Roe Deer Hearth pleased at having Jonayla around. Logani, just verging on manhood, thought that Jonayla was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Verdegia was amused when Logani made a point of stopping by "just to see if she needed anything" several times throughout the day whenever Jonayla was around. She noticed what the young woman did not; that while Logani spoke to her, he gazed at Jonayla. Well, the old woman thought to herself, Jonayla might be a woman in body, but she is still more of a girl in spirit. She may notice my grandson one of these days. And Doni knows I'd love to see him mated to Ayla's child someday… if it weren't for whatever it was that Ayla said to coax my Madenia into going through with her First Rites all those years ago, I wouldn't have grandchildren at all.

The next time Jonayla was over for a quill work lesson, Verdegia decided to test the waters a bit. "You're coming along nicely with your work, Jonayla," she said. "Do you have anything in particular that you want to decorate with quills, a festival tunic maybe?"

Jonayla smiled. "Actually, I'd love to do something like Madenia's Matrimonial outfit, the one that Mother gave her that came from the Sharamudoi. Mother mentioned it sometimes, so I asked Madenia to show it to me. It's beautiful! I know we can't make leather like that, Mother said the Sharamudoi use sturgeon roe and bog myrtle to process the chamois hide but she didn't get to learn how. But Mother showed me how to make white leather… I was thinking, white leather with red quills and embroidery, and maybe amber beading..." her voice trailed off as she mentally pictured the outfit she wanted to make.

"Ambitious, aren't you, child? But it does sound lovely," Verdegia approved. "Will that be your Matrimonial tunic then?"

"I guess so," Jonayla shrugged. "I hadn't really thought about it." She giggled. "I hadn't really thought about mating much, to be honest. I mean, I want a mate and babies and all, but not right now. There are some nice young men among the Zarnadonii… like Logani. I think it's sweet that he's so attentive to you. I'm sure I'll get a mate eventually." She giggled again, "Anyway, I can't mate until I finish my Matrimonial tunic!"

Verdegia chuckled. "True. Well, since you don't have the white leather ready, why don't you work out the quill pattern for it in brown along the bottom of the yellow dress you just finished sewing for the Summer Meeting? I expect you'll attract quite a few admirers in it."

"Oh, I bet that will look pretty!" Jonayla exclaimed. Then she grinned impishly at the old woman. "Why do I get the feeling that you're trying to set me up for something?"

"Now why would I do that?" Verdegia contrived to look innocent. "No, child, I'm a nosy old woman, that's all. I've always enjoyed gossip. And with my hip, I can't get around as well as I used to, so I can't hear things for myself as much. You can expect me to ask you all kinds of questions," she grinned. "Besides, being nosy is a privilege of age!"

Jonayla laughed and agreed.

Dalzarna, beginning to become awkward with her pregnancy, was engaging in an experiment of her own. Lorala helped her collect a large quantity of the downy undercoat shed by mammoths with the warmer weather. She washed it and brushed it out, now she was twisting it into cords similar to the cords she made of flax for weaving. She couldn't get the mammoth wool cords as small, though, and the cords were somewhat fuzzy. Still, she thought she could manage to weave with them.

She had to ask Folara to set up the loom for her; her belly wouldn't let her get close enough to the frame to string it. But she was able to weave reasonably well once it was set up. The fabric she produced was a pretty reddish brown, and incredibly soft. Folara promptly resolved to collect mammoth undercoat for herself the following spring. And Latie was especially impressed. The Mamutoi collected mammoth undercoat, but they simply pounded it into a feltlike substance and used it to line foot coverings. They never thought of cording it, much less weaving with it.

Dalzarna made herself a dress of the fabric, and was amazed at how lightweight and warm it was. She used the remainder to make a wrap for her coming infant. And just in time, too, as she gave birth to a girl just before the Summer Meeting. Elleron knew he was the luckiest man alive. He had two loving mates and two beautiful children at his hearth, five month old Ellezar and newborn Lerona. He'd never even dreamed that he would be so happy. As they set out for the Summer Meeting, he breathed a silent prayer of thanks to the Mother.

They were holding the Summer Meeting upstream, near enough to the glacier to see it. A few joked that they didn't really need to have a Summer Meeting, since all six caves were so close together that it was no large matter to visit between them. But no one actually wanted to not hold one, either. The Summer Meeting was a nice break in the routine, a chance to travel a little and see someplace new.

Thonolan was a little disappointed when Logani camped in the fa'lodge with the other young men of an age to seek out donii-women. At ten years, Thonolan still couldn't see what was so fascinating about females. But at least Logani didn't mind that he and Talunar visited the fa'lodge sometimes to listen to the talk there. The younger boys didn't understand half of it, but it was entertaining.

Meanwhile, the competitions took on an added excitement because of the influx of new people. Lion Cave had always won the flint knapping competition because of Danug. But now, Danug had some serious competition from Jondalar and Matagan. Elleron turned out to be a good wrestler, and there were excellent runners from both Jondalar's Mammoth Cave and Matagan's Fox Cave to spice up the races.

Displays of crafts also drew attention. Dalzarna's mammoth wool fabric thrilled everyone who knew cording and weaving. An older woman from Fox Cave had worked out some new linen dyeing methods, which made Folara and Dalzarna very happy. But Elleron's fired clay objects got the most attention. Because of the attack the previous summer, he hadn't actually gotten to show off his work, except to members of Lion Cave. He couldn't believe the number of people who wanted his dishes and cups. Within four days, he had traded every piece he had with him. And so many others had requested items that he knew he'd be busy all winter. He didn't mind though. Each trade meant that he could supply Dalzarna and Lorala with luxuries as well as necessities. No matter how often they told him that he didn't need to keep giving them gifts, he just enjoyed doing so. And of course, now there were the children to think of as well.

Entering into the fun, Latie, Lanoga, and Madenia organized something that they called a try-it feast. Each hearth had to contribute one dish that would feed ten people. Everyone was encouraged to make the most exotic recipe they knew… or even to make up a new recipe for the occasion. And when the feast was ready, people were encouraged to sample as many different dishes as possible.

But all too soon, the Summer Meeting drew to a close. It was time to return to the caves and begin preparing for winter. Lanidar, as First Zarnadoni, led the closing ceremony. After leading the assembled people in chanting the Mother Song, he began to speak.

"Doni has given us many gifts," he said. "She gave us our home. She sends us the animals we need to hunt for food and clothing. And of course, it is She who gives us the Gift of Life. Yet of all Her Gifts, there is one more precious than all the rest, and that is the love we are able to feel for one another." He paused to smile at Lanoga.

All around, mated people were giving each other a similar smile. Logani, who had managed to end up sitting next to Jonayla, shyly grasped the young woman's hand. Startled, she looked at him as though seeing him for the very first time. But she didn't pull her hand away.

"It is love," Lanidar continued, "that lets us help each other through the most painful events of life. It is love that encourages us to do our best in any endeavor, for we all want the ones we love to be proud of us. And it is love… love of a mother for her child, love of a sister for a brother, love of a man for a woman and love of a woman for a man… that binds us all together and makes us one people. We thank Doni for giving us love, the greatest Gift of all."

A/N: So ends The Greatest Gift. Look for the sequel, Full Circle, to be posted soon. Catstaff