Chapter One

At first, Uba thought the child had been stillborn. It had been a difficult birth, the most difficult she could remember attending, and there had been moments when she had wondered whether Avra would live to deliver the baby. And, when Avra's son finally emerged into the world, it was immediately apparent that something was wrong; the child's head was abnormally large, his limbs unmoving. There was no sign of life. But, as Uba reached out to take the baby and wrap him in a leather blanket to be disposed of along with the afterbirth, she heard a faint whimper.

Could it be . . .? Uba looked at the baby more closely and saw that he was breathing. He had been stuck for so long that Uba had feared he wouldn't survive even if Avra did live long enough to push him out. But, even though the baby was alive, there was no guarantee that Vorg would accept him, especially given the damage the difficult birth had inflicted.

Avra struggled to sit up. "Mother?" she signed. "Is my baby all right?"

Uba could only shake her head; she did not hold out much hope for the child. All she could do was hope that Avra's Duck totem would one day be defeated again. If it wasn't - and Uba knew a difficult birth could mean a woman's totem never again succumbed to the essence of a man's totem - Vorg would have to take a second woman to bear children for him. As the leader of the clan, he needed a mate who could bear him a healthy son, a son who would one day become leader himself. In which case, Uba reflected, it was lucky Avra had been born to such an illustrious line of medicine women; it meant she had status in her own right, not through the man to whom she was mated. Even if she never bore another child, even if Vorg made her leave his hearth, nothing could take that away from her.

"What is it?" Avra asked. "What's wrong?"

Uba looked at her daughter. "I'm sorry, Avra," she gestured. "Your son barely survived the birth and I don't hold out much hope of him living until his naming day, even if Vorg does allow you to keep him." She turned to the woman who had assisted with the birth, a task which normally fell to Avra. "Oka, go and report to Vorg."

Usually, it was the leader's mate who informed the leader of the outcome of a birth, but Avra was the leader's mate. So, as the mate of the second-in-command, Oka would have to fulfill this duty instead. She slowly made her way to the hearth where Vorg was waiting with the rest of the men, the hearth belonging to her own mate, Cruv.

At fifteen, Vorg was young to be leader; his manhood rites, at which the symbol of his Red Deer totem had been carved into his body, had taken place a little over three years before. But the leader before him, Dron, had died when an aurochs he and the other men were hunting turned at the last minute and gored him. Vorg had always known that the moment when he must assume his predestined role as leader would come one day, but he hadn't expected it to come so soon. Indeed, had it happened just a few years earlier, Cruv would have had to act as regent; leadership was a job for men, not boys.

But Vorg was a man, a young man but still a man, and his mother, Iga, had been mated to the previous leader. According to Clan tradition, this meant he was qualified to assume the role of leader and it would not have occurred to anyone in the Clan to question tradition, even if they did have doubts. But any doubts the members of Vorg's clan may have harboured had long since been put to rest. Vorg was a competent leader despite his youth, never rushing into decisions without consideration, worthy of his Red Deer totem.

Oka approached Vorg slowly and sat down at his feet with her head bowed, the traditional posture for a female who wished to speak to a male. She looked up as Vorg tapped her on the shoulder, allowing her to deliver the news Uba had sent her to deliver. "Avra has given birth to a son," she told him, omitting the signs for "I am pleased to report" that were traditionally used to announce the birth of a baby boy. "However, this woman regrets to report that there were problems during the birth. The child is alive but deformed. This woman would request that the leader examine the child so that the leader may determine the child's fate."

Vorg frowned as he learned that the first child of his mate had been born deformed. He had been pleased when Avra's totem was defeated and he knew she had asked her totem to make the baby a boy, a son who would one day inherit the leadership of the clan. Now, she had the son she had wanted, but the difficult birth had damaged the child, though Vorg could not yet tell how much damage had been done. He would have to examine the baby before he made any decisions.

Vorg got to his feet and, without acknowledging Oka, not that she had expected him to, made his way to his own hearth. The rest of the clan's male population remained at Cruv's hearth, nine of them in total, including two young boys: Dorv, who was nearly a man, and her own son, Zoug, who had been the youngest male in the clan until now. Depending on Vorg's decision, the number of males in the clan could soon total eleven.

The baby whimpered as Vorg took him from his mother and opened the wrappings to examine him. The child's head was unusually large, Vorg noted - no doubt that had caused the difficult delivery - and his limbs were barely twitching. He did begin to fuss a little at being exposed to the cold air of the cave, but he couldn't sustain the cry for long and soon fell silent. Vorg frowned; there was little doubt that the baby was deformed and tradition demanded that a deformed baby be disposed of, by the mother if she was able or by the medicine woman if she was not. In this case, however, there was no-one who could carry out the task.

Avra, who had been made medicine woman in the early stages of her pregnancy, was too weak to leave the cave; he couldn't ask her to do it. And, though Uba was still technically a medicine woman too, she was crippled by arthritis and unable to walk far. It was best if a stillborn or malformed infant was disposed of far away from the area of the cave to avoid attracting predators. And that, Vorg realised, meant there was only one decision he could make.

"The child is deformed," he gestured. "But, as there is no-one who can dispose of him, he will remain with his mother as though he had been normal. If he is still alive on his naming day, he will be named and accepted into the clan."

It was unlikely, however, that Avra's baby would live for the seven days which all newborns had to survive before they were recognised as part of the clan. The damage inflicted by the difficult birth was obvious even to Vorg; he had simply taken the only decision he could take under the circumstances. Most likely the child would be dead within a few days and, if he lived, there was a strong possibility that he would never be able to hunt like other males. That meant he would never truly become a man. But, even if he grew up to be a burden on the clan, there would always be someone to provide for him. No Clan person was ever allowed to go cold and hungry, however low their status. There was a woman in Vorg's clan called Inga who had never had any children and, because she had originally come from another clan, she had no family to take her in after her mate died. Since then, she had been traded from fire to fire, a woman with no status, but she was always given enough to eat and always had a warm wrap to wear.

And, if Avra's son lived, he too would always be provided for. He might grow up to be a burden, his afflictions might prevent him from becoming a hunter like other males, but no-one would ever deny him a share of the food the clan had hunted and gathered. The only people who were not given a share were those who had been subjected to the Clan's ultimate punishment, the death curse.

Against the odds, Avra's baby was still alive after two days. But Avra was having difficulty producing milk, even though Uba had given her a tea made from herbs which stimulated milk flow. Holding her baby in her arms, she searched her mind, drawing on both her own personal memories and the memories she had inherited from her ancestors, trying to find a solution to her problem. If she couldn't nurse her own baby, there was no way he would survive until the naming day.

"How is he?" It was Ora, one of the young women in the clan, who had come to visit Avra and have a sneak peak at the new baby. Ora had a baby of her own, a girl named Oudra who was a little over three moons old, and she looked down at the child sleeping contentedly in her arms. She knew there had been difficulties with the birth of Avra's baby; even with the stricture against looking into someone else's hearth, it was impossible not to notice the cries of a woman struggling in labour. Ora was grateful her own labour had gone well and that Oudra was a healthy baby. But Avra had not been so fortunate.

"Still alive," Avra gestured. She attempted to nurse her son again, only to find that her milk still wasn't flowing.

Ora knew what was wrong, even though she was neither a medicine woman nor training to be one. A mother knew these things and a mother also knew a baby needed to nurse if it was to stand any chance of survival. And it was clear that Avra was having difficulty producing the milk her son needed. "Why don't you let me nurse him?" she suggested, taking pity on the infant. Oudra was still young enough for her to be producing plenty of milk; it shouldn't be too much of a strain on her to nurse Avra's baby as well, at least until Avra's milk started flowing.

The two young mothers swapped babies and, as Ora took Avra's son in her arms, Avra looked down at the baby girl she had been handed. One day, she would need a daughter to continue her line, but not yet; as the mate of the leader, she also needed a healthy son to take over the leadership and, while she had a son, there was no getting away from the fact that he was not healthy. She still didn't know if he would survive until his naming day, but she reasoned that, if Ora could persuade him to take milk from her, he might have a chance. A slim chance, but still a chance.

Ora put Avra's baby to her breast, noting to her relief that he latched on right away. "At least there's nothing wrong with his appetite," she signed. But she and Avra couldn't help wondering what would happen to this child who had barely survived birth, whose future was still uncertain. And Clan people didn't like uncertainty; it upset the well-ordered, tradition-bound world in which they lived. Under normal circumstances, the future of Avra's son would have been clearly mapped out; he would have been destined to become the next leader. However, his deformities meant his fate was less certain.

Vorg looked at the son of his mate, the child no-one had expected would survive until his naming day. Now, according to the mog-ur, the naming day was tomorrow and that meant Avra's baby would have to be named and accepted into the clan. When Vorg had allowed the baby to stay with Avra, he had expected the child to be dead within a few days. Deformed babies rarely lived long, even on the rare occasions they were allowed to stay with their mothers. But this child seemed to have an unusually strong will to live; against the odds, he had survived. And, first thing in the morning, his naming ceremony would be held.

The naming ceremony. As the baby had been born to his hearth, it was Vorg's duty to choose a name for the child. Women had no direct say over what their children were called, though, if they were on good terms with their mates, they were allowed to suggest names. It was then up to the man whether he used the name his mate had suggested or not. Most men, however, did at least choose names which would please their mates.

Vorg had not given the matter a great deal of thought, not while the child's life still hung in the balance. It was not worth choosing a name for a baby who might not live to use it, who might not live to become an officially recognised member of the clan. Now, however, the baby had survived against the odds and, if he was to be a member of the clan, he would need a name. But what name should he been given? What name would suit a boy who had survived when no-one had expected him to?

Towards evening, Vorg thought of an answer. The man who had been mated to his great-grandmother had also barely survived birth, but he had gone on to become one of the greatest leaders his clan had ever known. He had even had one of the most powerful totems, the Cave Lion, the totem that was second only to the Cave Bear in terms of strength. Vorg was too young to have known him personally, but Dron had told him about his ancestor while he was growing up, including the man's name. It was a fine name borne by a boy who had defied the odds to become a great leader.

That was it, Vorg decided. He would name Avra's son after the former leader and, while it was unlikely the baby would ever follow in his ancestor's footsteps, perhaps the name Vorg had in mind was lucky in some way. Vorg didn't know much about the ways of the spirits - no-one did unless he was a mog-ur or at least an acolyte - but he wondered if having the same name as a man who had not only survived against the odds but also become a great leader would cause some of that luck to rub off on the baby.

Having decided on a name for the son of his mate, Vorg made his way to the mog-ur's hearth to discuss the ceremony which would be held first thing in the morning.

By tradition, Clan naming ceremonies always took place at first light, while the totem spirits still hovered near after protecting the people during the night. So, as the sky lightened, the members of Vorg's clan gathered outside the cave, waiting for the ceremony in which Avra's son would be named and officially recognised as a member of the Clan. Many were curious to know what name Vorg had chosen for the child, but none of them asked; it would not be proper and they would find out soon enough anyway. So they stood and waited for Avra to emerge from the cave with her child, the child who had survived his first seven days when no-one expected him to.

As well as the human members of the clan (twenty-one of them, excluding Avra and her baby) the ceremony would be observed by the huge cave bear kept within the cage outside the cave. During the following summer, Vorg's clan would be hosting the Clan Gathering, the time when all the local clans would come together for a meeting which only took place once every seven years. The cave bear, captured as a young cub and raised as though he was a child of the clan, would play an important role in the ceremonies to come. In the meantime, he watched from behind a barricade of logs as Avra, in answer to a signal from the clan's mog-ur, carried her baby out of the cave.

Avra sat down on the ground in front of the mog-ur, a rather serious man named Breeg whose right arm bore a blackened, hook-shaped scar, the symbol of his Eagle totem. He was also the mate of Ora, the mother of Oudra. Keeping her head lowered so that she wouldn't look at him by accident - she was still bleeding following the birth, still subject to the women's curse - Avra unwrapped the baby's wrappings and held him up. As the baby began to cry from the shock of being exposed to the cold air, Breeg began the ceremony. In formal gestures, he called on the spirits to attend as the newest addition to the clan was named and accepted, then dipped his finger into a bowl of red ochre paste which he had prepared the previous day.

Breeg had to make all his preparations himself since he had no acolyte. The only male children in the clan were Dorv and Zoug, neither of whom had the inclination to become a mog-ur, and the rest of the male population were too old; acolytes had to begin training during childhood. Perhaps, Breeg thought, he should talk to the other mog-urs when the clans assembled for the Clan Gathering; one of them might know of a boy in his clan who might be a likely candidate. But the Clan Gathering was several moons away. At present, Breeg had to concentrate on the naming ceremony for Avra's child. He drew a line from the middle of the baby's undeveloped brow ridges to the tip of his nose.

"Creb," Breeg said out loud, before adding in formal gestures: "The boy's name is Creb."

"Creb," Avra repeated, pleased with the name Vorg had chosen for her son. She held the baby close to her as the clan began to file past, each of them repeating the child's name.