Forward

My only reason for writing this book is to continue the vibrant saga that Jean created over the past forty years. This book is canon to the original storyline, but many of the people and places are new and of my own imagination and cannot be blamed on Jean.

As you read this book - if you're familiar with the original storyline - you will notice that I have eliminated the overlong travelogues as well as the repeated use of the Mother's Prayer other than a few parts of it when it became essential to the story. The only other obvious change was that I reduced the title of; "The First among Those Who Serve the Great Earth Mother" to "First Zelandoni" since it has to be used so many times during the story and the longer title had always seemed a distraction in my opinion.

This story is set ten years after the conclusion of Jean Auel's sixth book Land of Painted Caves and is my version of what a 7th book might be like, I explore some of the issues brought up but not resolved in the original series of books and I supply some answers to lingering questions.

I am grateful to my wife Carole and my brother Charles for their early readings and help with my story. Also my thanks to 'Attila', a Hungarian physician and a fan of the Earth's Children series, for correcting my inaccuracies.

Finally, I would like to gratefully acknowledge the editing and proofreading done in 2016 by Tom Masters, aka 'Tombones', also an EC fan. He proves the old adage that 'a book is only as good as its editor'. Tom volunteered his talents in editing the written word and my book has benefited greatly from his gracious gift. Thank you Tom.

o

o o o

o

Chapter 1: Death

Rubio crouched at the edge of the forest, waiting. He'd been there most of the day and now the sun was low on the horizon. He nervously shifted his position and wondered for the hundredth time when the Doniers would arrive.

At eleven summers, Rubio as son of the leader of Old Valley Cave, had been assigned as one of the three children to alert the elders who were maintaining the sacred site and laying in supplies in preparation for the Doniers arrival.

The sacred place his people maintained was situated at the highest point in the eastern hills of Old Valley and was recognized by all the Zelandonii people as the Mother's Sacred Mountain. What made this tallest mountain special was what it held within. Hidden near the summit, facing away from the valley below, was a cave. This cave was considered one of the entrances into Mother Earth, but even more importantly, it was where important matters of the Spirit World were dealt with by their spiritual leaders. Deep within the cave proper was The Mother's Heart, the innermost sanctum of The Earth Mother. The Zelandonia called it 'Revelation Chamber'. Only Zelandonia and Acolytes could enter there.

Two Wolf Lodge had been responsible for the care and maintenance of the sacred cave for as long as anyone could remember. The Sacred Cave was the ceremonial gathering place for the spiritual leaders of the Zelandonii people, and had been, for so long, that no one knew when they had first started to use it.

As he thought about these things, Rubio began to realize why the sacred place was so important to his people, why his Cave had taken such efforts to keep everything repaired and ready for use. This was the place where all the Zelandonia from all the Caves would come to choose a new spiritual leader from among themselves. The old Zelandoni Who Was First had always been there, as far as Rubio was concerned, and when she died - making all this necessary - it made him realize that what he had always thought of as permanent, wasn't. That was a scary thought.

He'd heard that when his father was a young man there had been a Donier gathering to choose the former First Zelandoni. It was her ashes that were now being carried back there to be placed with those who had been First before her.

Rubio knew that the coming event would be one of the most important in his life. The people were without a spiritual leader and that was very unlucky. The one who had been First among the Zelandonia, and now walked the spirit world, had been dead for more than a full moon. That death, Rubio reflected, was why they were waiting for the bonfire beacon on the far side of the valley to be lit, showing that the Donier procession had reached that point. That would be his signal to run as fast as he could to alert the elders who were working on the mountain.

It suddenly came to the boy that important decisions and ceremonies would take place here that would affect all of them. He felt a flush of pride that the people of his cave were the ones who kept the sacred cave ready for important ceremonies such as this.

Everybody knew that there were troubles in the north and that conflict was on the rise. Rubio had heard the stories from traders visiting the valley. Since the First Zelandoni had become ill, things hadn't gone well for peace in the north, a peace that had always been present in the region before this time. But now big things were happening. All the Doniers from both the north and south holdings were journeying to Old Valley and Sacred Mountain to sanctify the ashes of their dead leader and to elect a new one so the problems could be addressed.

Rubio shivered with excitement. He would be at the center of it all. Since he had not yet passed his eleventh summer, he was young enough to serve those spiritual leaders who would attend. There were eight children from Two Wolf Lodge that would serve because they knew the area and had been carefully trained in the necessary traditions as Donier Helpers. It was important that they had not reached puberty; as a mature person who was not Zelandoni would pollute the ceremonies with their untrained adult passions.

Rubio felt important, but he also felt the heavy responsibility of his position as leader of the Donier Helpers. He led the helpers while the Zelandoni were in meetings or performing ceremonies.

The boy shaded his eyes from the orange-red glare of the setting western sun as it touched the horizon. Was that smoke he saw? He perked up and stood, straining his eyes. He couldn't be sure, but he knew as dusk fell that if it was a bonfire beacon on the other side of the valley, he would be able to see the flame as the sky grew darker.

Seeing the signal this late in the day would mean that the Donier procession would halt overnight and enter the sacred site the next day. He knew that this would be the best possible outcome. It would give Two Wolf Lodge one more evening to put everything in order and to leave the area at a convenient time for everyone.

o o o

As day turned into purple dusk, then finally into night, Rubio watched as a flicker of light sprang to life in the distance. He stood on his toes, straining to see across the valley, he wasn't sure if it was the bonfire beacon or not. He'd never actually seen a bonfire beacon before, at least not from this distance. He thought it must be one though. But what if some hunters were passing the head of the valley and had made a campfire?

The flame flared up brightly as if extra fuel had been added. It was now a large fire, bigger than anyone would make for a camp. Rubio immediately turned on his heel and began to race to his father and the elders.

They were coming! The Zelandonia were bringing their First Zelandoni's remains to help guide her spirit to the Spirit World. It was more than exciting now; it was frightening to have all those who dealt with spirits so close, soon to be among them for days and days. It was too much to think about so Rubio just concentrated on his footing as he ran. This was no time to trip and hurt himself when an event this important was on their doorstep.

o o o

Ayla was bone-weary as she slid from Summer Child's back. Her horse stood connected to an A-frame travois that had been colored red with sacred dyes. The group of Zelandonia and their Acolytes were stopping a little late in the day but they had all agreed to make it far enough that day so they could enter the sacred site the next morning and have most of the day to set up camp and rest in preparation for the difficult days to come.

Ayla loosened the straps of the travois to free her horse from its weight. The warm proximity of the animal made her reflect upon her past horse friends, those who she still missed so much. They had lived long and happy lives and she would always remember them with fond feelings and regret for their loss. At one time her Whinney had been the only friend and companion she'd had to fill the gaping loneliness in her life. Whinney gave her two daughters, Gray and Summer Child and one son, Racer. Whinney now walked the Spirit World with Racer, her first and only son.

Thinking these sad thoughts, she looked down at the bundle loaded on the travois. All that was left of her teacher and friend were ashes in a jar of fired clay, now wrapped in a rawhide covering dyed red. Ayla meditated on her losses: Creb and Iza, her horses Whinney and Racer then Jondalar's mother, Marthona, and now her loss of the First Zelandoni. Should she count Durc? She just didn't know...

It had been a difficult time for everyone as the First Zelandoni became ill and over time had wasted away. The first sign of her illness had been a rapid loss of weight. The people of the Ninth Cave had noticed the change in their First Zelandoni, but it was little commented on, after all, it was spring and many members of the cave lost some weight during the lean full moons of winter when fatty foods became scarce. But Ayla's instincts had told her that there was something more. Soon she was plying the First Zelandoni with her herbal medicines, using her prodigious knowledge of the healing arts.

The First Zelandoni had known she was ill, she had seen the same symptoms in others; people who she had nursed and she knew what the outcome of her illness would be. She allowed her colleague to ply her with medicines and as an accomplished healer herself, she used the opportunity to test her body's reaction to the younger woman's cures and to share her observations as any healer might under the same circumstances.

As the illness progressed, the First Zelandoni began to discuss the future with Ayla, trying to convince her to ready herself for the challenges that would come. Almost from the very beginning of her illness she had tried to convince the younger Donier that the important issue at hand, wasn't her health, but that Ayla should be ready for the challenges that would face the people after she was gone. "Times are becoming difficult and you are the answer, I'm sure of it." It was a refrain that Ayla would hear again and again, even from the First Zelandoni's deathbed.

Ayla hadn't wanted to hear that unrest in the north between the Clan and her adopted Zelandonii was becoming a problem. There had been reports of deaths on both sides. The First Zelandoni should have been the one to investigate the trouble and to work out a solution, but as she had become weaker, the journey was put off; full moon after full moon had passed. It was finally decided that she would travel north in the summer, only by then she was too weak to make the journey.

The trouble was real, Ayla knew that. Even when she tried to ignore the implication, and constant pressure coming from her friend and leader, Ayla knew deep down inside that she must accept a more direct role in events. She had found that now, after the last time she used the Sacred Clan root, she could enter the Spirit World by drinking a mild absinthe tea. She now called it her Dreaming Tea as the tea often took her on 'Dream Journeys'.

These 'Dream Journeys' seemed to show her images of future events. At first she didn't know what the images meant, but when something would happen later that she had dreamed about, she understood that her dream image had predicted the event.

In the beginning, almost ten summers before, the First Zelandoni had tried to follow Ayla on a trance journey and had taken the Clan root too, but beyond a mild stimulation and heightened awareness, the effects on the older woman were unremarkable. Finally she had realized that this was a unique condition that only her young colleague could experience to its fullest, so she encouraged the younger woman to continue the practice and share the dream images with her.

Over the past winter Ayla had seen more and more violence in her Dream Tea-induced dreams. The images indicated that if nothing was done, more lives would be lost and the violence would escalate. She knew the truth of it, but knowing the truth didn't make her feel confident in her ability to convince the other Doniers that she should serve her people as the First Zelandoni.

"Mother?" Ayla looked up to see her daughter, Jonayla, dismounting her horse with a look of concern as she hurried to her mother's side. "Mother, are you all right? I know you're sad, but lately it seems that your mind has been in the Spirit World and not with us. I wish you had let Wolf come with us, you know how he always lifts your spirits."

"Sweetheart, you know that Wolf is just too old to make a journey of several days, it would be very hard on him. He was born more than eighteen summers ago, that's quite an exceptional age for a wolf. Besides, Jondalar and your brother need Wolf to look after them while we're gone, don't you think."

"I know all that, but I still miss him. I also know if he were here, he would make you happier," said Jonayla, who was Acolyte of the Zelandoni of the Ninth Cave and Ayla's self-assured daughter. "There would be no prohibition against it, like there is for my brother or for father. Wolf is almost considered Zelandoni."

"I have a lot on my mind just now Jonayla," Ayla said, to change the subject. "I'm not sure how I can live up to the First Zelandoni's expectations of me. I don't even see how I can convince the others that I should be their leader. I wasn't born to the Zelandonii people and that will be a big impediment that I can't really see a way around. I want to do what First Zelandoni urged me to do, I just worry." She smiled at her sixteen-year-old daughter, to soften her words. No reason to frighten Jonayla more than she already had.

"Mother, you know that you can do anything you put your mind to. Isn't that what Durcan and I have heard from the day we were born? I have complete confidence in you, I know you'll come up with a way to make the others see what's needed and I'm not just saying that because you're my mother, I'm saying it because I know it's the truth."

Ayla hugged her earnest young daughter. What was she worrying about? Jonayla was as fierce an advocate as anyone in the Donier procession. She didn't have to worry about frightening her or making her feel insecure. Ayla felt a little ashamed; she didn't need to worry about letting her deceased mentor down. The only thing she needed to worry about was not letting her people down. She would find a way.

"You're right of course," Ayla said. "I'm going to finish unhitching the travois and give Summer Child a rubdown; you should do the same for Gray. Then we can organize some food."

"Not necessary, the Donier of Third Cave at Two Rivers has taken charge of that task. Look." Jonayla pointed to the group of people in the clearing, all Doniers and Acolytes. Several Acolytes were bringing stones to form a hearth circle and several others were foraging for firewood while the Donier of the Third Cave oversaw the effort. It was a very domestic scene and it surprised Ayla at first. Domesticity wasn't something she was used to when it came to her fellow spiritual leaders; although since the First Zelandoni's passing the Doniers had been quite subdued and had tried to be helpful to each other.

Now as the sole Donier of the Ninth Cave, Ayla was responsible for planning the procession to Sacred Mountain, situated on the eastern edge of Old Valley. She had been surprised when she had received runners from all the close caves that their Doniers wanted to join her. As this procession was the sole concern of the Zelandoni, and since the First Zelandoni had been their leader too, they felt they should join in and help. And besides, they said, there would be meetings to choose a new leader in a few days and the passing spirit ceremony anyway, so why not travel together.

The journey had started at dawn three days before. A trip that would normally be completed in two days on horseback was slowed by necessity. Travois slowed the horses and although the Doniers from Two Rivers, Little Valley and River Place had joined the procession from the start, other Doniers had traveled west and south to meet them on the trail so that as many of them as could, would arrive together. These meetings on the trail had slowed the procession further but had built solidarity of purpose.

Other Caves to the far north and far south were to meet them within a hand of time. Runners had been sent from Elder Hearth to all the outlying caves - as was their responsibility when such an important meeting of the Zelandonia took place. It had always been tradition that Elder Hearth should send runners to inform the people of any meeting held on Sacred Mountain. When it came to guiding a First Zelandoni's spirit to the Spirit World and choosing a new First, the runners were especially important.

Ayla had noticed that the procession had not run across any fresh human tracks to indicate that any group of people had traveled the river trail recently, so she was pretty sure that they would be the first group to reach Old Valley from the southern route. Ayla was especially relieved that there was no indication of other travelers; she wanted to arrive as early as possible so participants wouldn't have too much time to form opinions and make agreements among themselves, making her task harder to accomplish. She wasn't looking forward to the confrontations that would be sure to arise as she made her claim to the position of First Zelandoni. Being first to arrive, would give her a small advantage.

Ayla was finishing up Summer Child's curry as the aroma of meat grilling on the cooking fire reached her. She'd been fasting all day and the enticing aromas made her mouth water. Over the next few days she would not eat much and knew that she shouldn't miss a meal now if she wanted to be in shape for the approaching rigors.

"Donier of the Ninth, sit here beside me," the Zelandoni of the Third Cave called as Ayla was packing the grooming implements away in her carry basket. As she found a place beside the elderly man she was handed a bone platter with succulent pieces of Roe Deer cut into chunks cooked with greens and a baked tuber.

"Thank you Zelandoni, the food you have prepared looks very tasty, we're all grateful to you for taking charge of setting up the campsite. Lately I seem to forget that I'm hungry until I smell food cooking," Ayla said, grateful for the food.

"I know," said the old man. "I think you should take better care of yourself, you have so much to do at the gathering. I'm counting on you to convince the others that you're the right choice for our new First Zelandoni. It's so important that we have a resourceful leader in these times. And if you don't eat and pay attention to your health you won't be strong enough to endure all the arguing and bickering that will go on at the gathering."

Ayla looked into the eyes of the man sitting next to her, "Why are you supporting me?" she asked. "You could just as easily be a candidate yourself. Why not you? I wasn't even born to the Zelandonii people."

"I'm too old; I don't have the stamina, or the desire for it. Besides, you're the right choice. I know that the Donier of Horsehead Rock as well as Elder Hearth have put themselves forward, but you're the obvious choice. You know the Clan better than anyone else, while at the same time, you're one of us. Who better to lead us? Who better to sort out this trouble in the north between the Clan and our Zelandonii brethren? I don't like the violence and I want it to stop."

Ayla noticed that the Third used the term Clan, rather than the more derogatory "flathead" when describing the people in the north. "I thank you Zelandoni," she said, meaning it. "I just hope you're right. I can't help but feel hesitant; it's all a bit overwhelming to me."

"Well, I suggest you keep that thought to yourself, it won't do to let the other Doniers know that you're not sure of your calling to lead us."

"I understand what you're saying, but I also believe that anyone who is so sure of their abilities that they have no doubts, might be more dangerous to the peace and well-being of the Zelandonii people, than someone willing to admit they don't have all the answers."

"See, that's why I'm behind you," said the Zelandoni of the Third Cave. "You have always talked sense and you've never pretended to be something more than you are. And frankly, who you are is pretty impressive. How old are you now Zelandoni?"

"I count thirty-six summers, I believe. And I will try to be circumspect with my innermost feelings around the others, but I would like to consider you a friend and advisor that I can trust and confide in. I know that if I am chosen I will have to make decisions and do things that I haven't had to do before and it would be very helpful to have someone to talk to."

"You can count on me for as long as I'm able. I've lived almost sixty summers now and I don't expect to go on forever, but I'll help you any way I can, especially through this," the Third offered.

"I'm glad," Ayla smiled at the old man. "I feel that we have been friends for a long time now. Even when I first arrived with Jondalar as a stranger, you were kind to me and you've been a great help to me since the First Zelandoni died. I very much appreciate your help. I think your sixty summers of experience are just what I need now." Ayla was sincere in this.

The elderly Zelandoni of the Third Cave had helped Ayla with the cremation, as was required by tradition when a First Zelandoni passed to the Spirit World. It had been done this way for as long as anyone could remember. Since the ceremonies for the passing of a First Zelandoni took more than a full moon phase, cremation was the only practical way to handle the remains. Also, those who were First among the Zelandonia were not actually buried like everyone else, but rested for all time in a special place of veneration, adding their accumulated power to the sacred Zelandonia gathering area.

"You know, I still remember when you first talked me into riding that horse of yours. And when you gave me a colt to train," the Third said, with a smile of remembrance. "It's hard to believe that little more than fifteen summers ago no one even knew horses could be trained or ridden. That reason alone should be enough to make you our new First Zelandoni. You have brought more to the Zelandonii people than anyone I can think of in my sixty summers on this earth. I mean this from my heart," said the Third.

At that moment Jonayla walked over. "May I sit with you, or are you talking about something private?" She asked her mother.

"Certainly daughter, sit." Ayla gestured Jonayla to sit beside her. "Jonayla, I'm glad you decided to become an Acolyte. It's good to have you with me now and it would not have been possible if you hadn't made that decision. That's what the Donier of the Third Cave and I were just discussing. Support; something I will need now more than ever."

Jonayla looked at the Donier of the Third Cave questioningly. "Yes, young Acolyte, I will support your mother. And further, I will support her vocally with the others. I can't imagine what would happen to the Zelandonii if we didn't make this wise woman the leader of the spiritual aspect of our lives. Bless her, but the First Zelandoni was ill for too long. Things have gone wrong in that time, things that should have been attended to. I think your mother is the only one with the wisdom and ability to put things right. With her guidance, everything will be resolved for the best."

The Donier of the Third Cave turned to Ayla, "I just hope we don't have too many candidates from the southern caves. I don't know what they will do. They might form a conclave of all six southern caves to support their own candidate. I think they were satisfied with our past spiritual leader, but I also think they would be happy to have someone from their area as First Zelandoni for a change."

"Well," Ayla said. "If that happens and they succeed, who's to say that it isn't for the best. All I can say is that I'll do my best to convince our fellow Doniers that I feel the calling to be the one to represent them. Even if I don't become First Zelandoni, maybe I can influence the person who does."

The Donier of the Third Cave again turned to Ayla, "No matter what happens, I think you should be the one to mediate between the Clan and the affected caves in the north," having said that, the Third suggested that they turn in for the night.

Jonayla bedded down next to her mother, fervently wishing that she could do more to help, but as a new Acolyte, all she really could do was to offer loving support to her mother. To Jonayla, her mother was all that was good and strong and just in a person. There had never been a time in her life that she hadn't worshiped her mother for the exceptional human being that she was.