Back across the glacier

A/N: The last two (no, make it three) books of the Earth Children series left me deeply dissatisfied. The plot was contrived, the characters were made of cardboard, and the closure was so inadequate I kind of began to wish Ayla had never left the Lion Camp. So, in this little AU of mine she makes it back across the continent to the Mamutoi.

Ayla felt her eyes stinging and burning as she glimpsed the familiar surroundings of the Lion Camp. She blinked back unshed tears, surveying the lovely prospect of a bright and golden autumn day. The Camp, she knew, should be back from Summer Meeting by now. She thought of the reunion with some trepidation – it has been over two years since her departure, after all – but she knew she would be accepted. She had been made a Mamutoi, adopted into the Lion Camp, and she could always find a home at the Mammoth Hearth.

On her way she came upon a thick row of blackberry bushes, heavily laden with round ripe berries. The harvest should be plentiful this season, Ayla noted to herself. Suddenly she heard a sound and froze in place, alert and ready to fight or flee if need be. But a moment later she realized it was only a woman, a plump motherly woman who carried a gathering basket. Another moment later, the woman had noticed Ayla, let out a gasp, and the basket fell from her slackened grip. Berries came tumbling down in all directions.

"Nezzie!" cried Ayla as tears obscured her vision again. The woman ran a hand over her eyes, as though unable to believe what she saw.

"Ayla! It is you! It is really you!" She approached and locked Ayla in a spontaneous, warm embrace. "We never thought we would see you again!" Nezzie looked around, puzzled, and a frown appeared between her eyebrows. "Where is Jondalar?" she asked and, seeing the pained expression on Ayla's face, added in a faltering voice. "Did he – is he - "

Ayla swallowed the lump in her throat. "He is fine, Nezzie," she assured the older woman. "Or at least he was fine when I left the Zelandonii a year ago."

Nezzie gave a nod, though it was plain she understood only in part. Ayla herself didn't feel prepared to delve into the subject right now. She couldn't even begin to explain how, shortly after arriving with Jondalar at the land of his people, she realized she probably should never have followed him there in the first place. Things were very different from how she imagined and dreamed and planned. Very different indeed...

"So you are back now? Back for good?" pressed Nezzie.

"Yes," said Ayla. "Luckily for me, some Sungaea people who were on a long Journey came to the Zelandonii lands shortly after my arrival. I was able to go back across the glacier with them, and we stuck together most of the way. We only split a few days ago, and I made the last part of the journey alone."

And, though Ayla didn't say so aloud, it was her luck that she never stopped taking her special tea, the one that stopped new life from beginning. A baby would have made the journey back impossible. Though often she ached with the emptiness of lost possibilities, she knew it was for the best.

Nezzie beamed at her. "I am so glad, Ayla," she said. "Everyone will be thrilled to have you back. We never got another healer after you left, you know, and now that old Mamut is gone we need a skilled healer more than ever."

Ayla raised her head with a jolt. "Mamut is dead?"

She shouldn't have been surprised, of course – Mamut was so old, after all – but her pain was more intense than reason would allow. She couldn't stand any more losses.

"It happened a short time before we went to the Summer Meeting," Nezzie told her as they gathered the berries that had fallen and put them back into the basket. "We hoped we would get a new Mamut at the Meeting, but it seems we will have to wait until next year."

"What about everyone else?" asked Ayla as they walked towards the Lion Camp lodge.

"Oh, we are doing well, for the most part," said Nezzie. "Danug has Promised a girl from another camp, and it looks like they will be mated at the next Summer Meeting. And Latie has already been spoken for by several young men. They were good offers, but she didn't seem particularly thrilled about any of them... well, she has time to think, she is young yet. Deegie and Branag have set camp not far from here and come to visit often. She has a little girl and is pregnant with her second child now. Fralie has had another baby, too, and little Bectie has grown so much, you won't recognize her..."

"What about Talut? And Tulie?" asked Ayla.

"Oh, they are as good as ever. Last winter was mild, even Crozie got through it without being any worse. Just wait until they see you, they will be so surprised – but wait, Ayla – where are your animals?"

Another grimace of pain flitted across Ayla's face. "I had to leave them behind," she told Nezzie. "They barely made it across the glacier once, I couldn't put them through it again, though not having a horse anymore meant I could carry far less with me. I managed to find a home for Wolf in one of the Zelandonii caves, once the people there got used to the idea of a tame wolf. And Whinney... it was hard to let her go, Nezzie, and I'm not sure she will ever adapt to living in the wild. She was so tame, she might be easy prey for hunters. But Racer had grown, and he was never as tame as she was, and when I left it seemed she would follow him to live with a herd of wild horses. Still..." her eyes misted over again. "It was hard. They were my friends."

Nezzie patted her arm sympathetically. "I am sorry, Ayla, but perhaps you will be able to tame some more animals. You have such a way with them."

"Maybe," said Ayla, "if the animals are young, and have the right temper to be tamed - "

As they were walking and talking, the Lion Camp drew nearer. They could see some children playing in the distance – little children, by the look of them. Ayla was sure none of them would be old enough to remember her.

"Ah," said Nezzie, "look! Crisavec and Bectie are here, and Nuvie and Hartal... and..."

A boy detached himself from the group and toddled over to them. He was about two and a half years old. And though a long time has passed, the distinctive features of his face and his springy, curly hair left no room for doubt.

"That is Ralev!" exclaimed Ayla. "Isn't it? I met him once, when he was only a baby."

"Yes, this is Ralev," said Nezzie, "no wonder you recognized him at once – his looks are something special, aren't they?"

The first genuine smile – a smile of relief – spread across Ayla's face. "This means Tricie is here, too," she said. She knew what the child's presence must mean – Tricie had come to make a hearth with Ranec after all. She had hoped it would be so; she could never stop feeling guilty about the heartbreak and humiliation she brought to the dark-skinned man who had wanted her so much. But if he has Tricie now, all is right, and her riding off with Jondalar doesn't matter anymore.

Nezzie's face darkened unexpectedly. "Ayla," she said quietly, taking her by the arm, "I think I must tell you this before you go into the lodge and meet the others. It is true that Ranec and Tricie were mated – he made her an offer, and she accepted, and they made a hearth at the very same Summer Meeting which you and Jondalar had left. Now," she went on, "at the time I thought it was a rash decision. Forgive me, Ayla, but Ranec was deeply hurt by your rejection. I know you couldn't help it," she hastened to add, "but it was so. He was acting out of hurt pride, and Tricie probably knew it, but still she agreed to become his mate. And well, she was a good woman, and already had a child of Ranec's spirit, and he liked her very much – he wasn't as deeply attracted to her as he was to you, of course, but after a time they did seem settled, happy."

Ayla listened to the story with an odd sense of foreboding. "And what happened then?"

Nezzie heaved a sigh. "Tricie died in childbirth a year ago. None of us expected that, she was young and healthy and had already had a baby before. It came as a real blow to us all, but most of all, of course, to Ranec."

Ayla bit her lip and looked down at the child. His large, intelligent brown eyes met her own. "I am so sorry," she whispered, looking back at Nezzie. "They deserved to be happy together."

Nezzie picked up the child and balanced him on her hip. "I adopted Ralev to our hearth," she told Ayla, "to give him more status. This, essentially, makes him and Ranec brothers – but Ralev still continues to live at the Fox Hearth with Ranec and Wymez. Ranec loves the boy."

"I'm sure he does," Ayla whispered sadly.

And, steeling herself to face painful memories, she continued to walk towards the camp with Nezzie.

A/U: I'm sorry, but I had to dismiss the animals. I found the scenes with them incredibly tedious, and there's no way I would write anything similar.

Your comments, suggestions and requests will be most welcome!