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

A/N: This work was originally posted by me on the Auelboard some years ago under the screen name Taty, and is being reposted here now. It is long, and may take me a few days to transfer in its entirety.

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Lanidar watched, eyes shining with hero-worship and something more, as the people of the Ninth Cave began the trek back to their home territory. Just before they slipped out of sight over the ridge, the tall blond couple leading the horses turned to wave. He waved back, brandishing the spear-thrower that Jondalar had made especially for him. Then he waved again as a smaller figure turned back to wave, the girl of the Ninth Cave he hoped to mate someday.

With a sigh, Lanidar turned back toward his own Cave, the Nineteenth. He knew he would have to work hard to learn the skills he'd need to provide for a mate and her children. And with his handicap... he grimaced. Make that with his two handicaps, he thought to himself. His crippled right arm made some things difficult, but not as difficult as his mother could make things. Mardena had, at best, mixed feelings for her son and he well knew it, no matter that she tried to hide it. Oh, she loved him, but at the same time was embarrassed to have birthed a deformed child. But because she did love him, she felt guilty for wishing he'd never been born. That combined with her nervous disposition made her very overprotective of him. He'd been kept with the women gathering plants for his whole life. Right up until this Summer Meeting, that is, and his chance encounter with the tall beautiful stranger named Ayla. He'd slipped away from his mother, trying to get a glimpse of the horses that accompanied the Ninth Cave, when he'd heard an unusual whistle. He couldn't resist repeating it. To his surprise, the young brown stallion - and Ayla - responded.

From that point on, Lanidar thought, had been the best time of his life. Unlike his mother, Ayla saw no reason he shouldn't learn to hunt; she not only showed him how to use a spear-thrower, she coaxed her mate into making one sized just for him. She also permitted him to help with the horses. And because he spent so much time with the Ninth Cave, he met Lanoga. He felt all warm inside just thinking about her. She was the first girl he'd ever met that didn't either stare pityingly at his crippled arm or avoid touching him as though she thought his deformity might be contagious. She was so pretty and fragile-looking, too, he wanted to keep anything from hurting her ever again. And she had a hard life, too. Her mother drank a lot and Lanoga was more of a mother to her youngest sister than Tremeda had ever been, even though she was still just a girl. Her mother's mate was not a very nice person either; Lanidar remembered Laramar and a few other people making trouble at the first Matrimonial, trying to prevent the visiting Lanzadonii couple from tying the knot because the man was of mixed spirits... an abomination. Ayla didn't think the mixed man was abomination though. She told him that the Clan, the ones most people called flatheads, were people and not animals. Lanidar honestly hadn't thought much one way or the other about the flatheads... Clan people, he reminded himself... but he certainly thought that Ayla knew more than Laramar about pretty much everything. If she said they were people, he was willing to take her word for it.

Lanidar blinked as he came out of his reverie. He gave one final glance in the direction the Ninth Cave had taken, then marched determinedly to the Nineteenth Cave's practice field. Ignoring the stares, whispers and snickers, he sent spear after spear hurling down the course towards the targets. He didn't hit very often yet, but considering that he had never cast a spear until perhaps a moon and a half ago, he was content with his progress so far.

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Lanoga turned and waved at the small figure down the hill, just before the Ninth Cave topped the ridge that took them out of sight of the Nineteenth Cave and the Summer Meeting site. Hefting her sleeping eight month old sister to a more comfortable position on her hip, she moved up to where Ayla and Jondalar were leading the heavily laden horses.

"Ayla? I... I wanted to thank you. Lanidar told me you were the one who convinced Proleva to let me keep Lorala."

The tall blonde woman smiled at the slender girl, "Lanoga, you are a wonderful mother to Lorala. It doesn't matter that you are not yet a woman. But, Lanoga, try to understand that Proleva did not mean to be cruel or to hurt you in any way. She truly thought that a girl as young as you would be happier without the responsibility for such a young baby. It was as much seeing how badly you felt about Lorala being adopted by another woman as anything I said that made her change her mind."

Lanoga nodded slowly, considering Ayla's words. "I think I understand," she said. She walked along quietly for a while, cuddling the sleeping baby, obviously lost in thought. Finally, she drew in a deep breath, "May I ask you a question?"

"Of course. What would you like to know?"

"How do I learn to be a good mate? Lanidar... he said he wants to join with me when we are both old enough. He even said I could bring Lorala with me. And he doesn't mind that my mother and Laramar have such low status. I want to be a good mate for him, but I don't know what a good mate does!" Lanoga spoke in a rush, as if she were afraid the words would freeze in her mouth unless she uttered them quickly.

Ayla smiled, "Lanoga, I think you'll be a fine mate. You already know how to care for babies, and you can cook reasonably well. Those are the most important... or at least, what men seem to think are the most important."

Jondalar broke in then, "Oh, I can think of something else that men find important!" He grinned and waggled his eyebrows at Ayla.

"Oh... you...!" Ayla sputtered. She gave him a push as Lanoga blushed bright red. "Go! Go find Matagan and talk flint! This is a women only discussion." Jondalar obligingly moved on ahead while Ayla turned back to Lanoga. "Take no notice of Jondalar's teasing. Pleasures do have their place, but very few men would be happy with a woman who can't cook, no matter her skill in the furs. But to go back to your question... tell me, have you been taught any crafts? Sewing, basket weaving, woodworking, anything like that?"

Lanoga hung her head, "No. No one ever thought to teach me. My mother..." Her voice trailed off and she looked uncomfortable.

Ayla nodded, understanding what probably happened. By leaving Lanoga in charge of her younger siblings for days at a time, Tremeda had effectively kept Lanoga from having the opportunity to learn from others in the Cave. And human nature being what it was, if anyone noticed that Lanoga was not applying herself to a craft, they would have assumed her to be as feckless as her mother. "Well," Ayla said. "This winter, that will change. I will see that you get the chance to try your hand at any craft that interests you, even if I have to teach you the basics myself!"

Overwhelmed with gratitude, Lanoga blinked tears from her eyes. "Thank you!" was all she said, but the determined look on her face spoke volumes.