To keep track of the changes occurred in the last three years, I am posting the Hearth Listings of Vorn's Clan at the beginning of the third summer after the Clan Gathering.

To be consistent with the cave's distribution, the hearths are listed in order starting at the entrance and running along the right wall of the cave.

Vorn's Clan: Hearth Listings

Broud (28) - Former Leader, Ebra's son born to Brun's hearth (Wooly Rhinoceros totem)
Oga (24) - Broud's mate, mother of Brac and Grev
Erga (3) - Oga's daughter (Dove totem)
Brooz (Newborn) - Oga's son (To be introduced later on this chapter)

Vorn (20) - Temporary leader, Aga's son, born to Norm's hearth
Uba (15) - Medicine woman, Iza's daughter
Creb (5) - Uba's son (Eagle totem)
Ila (Newborn) - Uba's daughter

Borg (16) - Ika's son (Boar totem)
Ona (16) - Borg's mate (Owl totem), Aga's daughter born to Norm's hearth
Norm (4) - Ona's son (Boar totem)

Crug (29) - Second-in-command
Ika (27) - Crug's mate, mother of Borg and Igra
Dorv (8) - Ika's second son
Burt (2) - Ika's third son (Lynx totem)

Grev (11) - Spear maker, Oga's second son
Uma (8) - Grev's mate, Oda's daughter, childless (Hare totem)

Durc (10) - Future leader, Ayla's son, Uba's adoptive son, (Gray Wolf totem)
Ena (10) - Durc's mate born to the Others, future medicine woman, childless (Wolverine totem)

Grod (36) - Former second in command, (Brown Bear totem)
Aga (31) - Grod's second mate, mother of Vorn Ona and Groob
Ayla (5) - Aga's daughter born to Droog's hearth (Ground Squirrel totem)

Groob (13) - Toolmaker, Aga's son born to Droog's hearth
Igra (13) - Ika's daughter, childless

Brac (14) - Mog-ur's acolyte, Oga's first son
Ura (10) - Oda's daughter, mixed, originaly promised to Durc (Hamster totem)
Rec (Newborn) - Ura's son, mixed
Ebra (38) - Brun's mate, Broud's mother, born to Brug's hearth

Goov (27) - Mog-ur (Arouchs totem/Ursus totem)
Ovra (25) - Goov's mate, Uka's daughter born to Grod's hearth (Beaver totem)
Una (4) - Ovra's daughter (Roe Deer totem)
Oda (23) - Goov's second mate, from other clan, mother of Ura and Uma (Hamster totem)

Chapter Seven: Facing Destiny

Ena was exhausted from the stress of spending an entire moon alone in the woods, but a woman of the clan could not afford the luxury of resting in the middle of the day, so she went to help Ura with the cooking at Brac's hearth where both women lived.

- Durc was so happy when you became a woman, - was saying Ura, while nursing her son, - he had Brac and all the "wolf pack" planning a manhood hunt for him and talking Vorn into it. They even prepared a hunt dance; I had never seen a dance about a future hunt before.

- A hunt dance? - asked Ena - And they did all that for me?

- Nope, Durc did all that for you. They did it for Durc, they would do anything for Durc, - said Ura, - even Brac talked to Mog-ur to help him convince Vorn to include your mating in his manhood ceremony. You will sleep in your own hearth tonight, baby!

- A mating ceremony? Tonight? And Durc did that for me?

- No! Brac did it... for Durc! Wake up, honey! It is mid morning! The sun is shining outside! Open your eyes! Close your mouth! Hello!

- It is so good to see you so happy. - said Ena – Aren't you mad at me? You should be; you were the one supposed to mate Durc, you were the one supposed to become the leader's mate. I feel as if I had stolen your man.

- I wasn't supposed to become the leader's mate, - said Ura, - I was supposed to be the mate of the deformed son of some medicine woman born to the Others; and just because no other man would have me. But Brac wanted me, he asked for me, he even talked to Durc and asked him for me. Now I have Rec, and one day my mate will be the greatest mog-ur of all the clans. I'm not mad at you. You are my best friend, and I'm so happy; so happy for me, and so happy for you. The question is, are you happy?

- I don't know, really, mostly I am scared; everything is happening so fast. What is it like to be mated? Do you like to be mated? Do you like to be mated… to Brac?

- To be mated is good, - said Ura, - and yes, I like it. I do whatever I want within my hearth and nobody dares so much as to look bad at me now; they fear the spirits that talk to my mate. And Brac is so good to me, he likes everything I do for him and I like doing things for him. And he listens to me, he always listens to me; no man ever listens to a woman but Brac is different, he is so wise, so smart, he is not afraid to speak to a woman.

- They are coming! They are coming! - Young Ayla came running inside the cave, shouting and waving her arms, but Grod's angry look cut her short; that behavior was unacceptable on such a grown up girl.

It was barely noon and they were coming back, five of them, led by Vorn and loaded with the cow Durc had killed. Vorn told Grod, briefly, about the outcome of the hunt, calming his fears that two more hunters may have been killed; Crug and Borg had stayed to guard their other kills with the help of a circle of fires.

While the leader stayed at the cave, the second-in-command took the other four hunters back to retrieve their other kills while Broud, at a slower pace, set out with the women to help. Ebra, Ura and Uba stayed to prepare the cow for Durc's manhood banquet, but every other able woman, including the older girls Ayla, Erga and Una, went with Broud to help bring the meat home. Once on the hunting grounds, the women quickly took both heads off the young bulls, took out the entrails, and cut the largest one of them in several pieces to carry; the heads, less the horns which were taken as trophies, were abandoned to the scavengers. Then Grod, with the help of Crug, Borg and Groob, carried the smaller bull in the traditional manner of the clan hunters, while the entrails and the other bull, already cut to pieces, were carried by the women. Broud, Brac, Grev and Durc, all armed with slings and traditional heavy clan spears, flanked the group as protection. It was barely past mid afternoon when the entire group arrived to the cave.

- Are you sure, Mog-ur? - asked Vorn - What sense does it make to lose one fine hunter when we have just gotten him. Most of our hunters are too inexperienced and not too effective; the hunting season has begun late this year and we need all the hunters we can get. Maybe we should wait until winter for the mating.

- I am sure, - said Goov, - this is what the spirits want. Don't you see it Vorn? From now on, every hunt will count for three hunts. And once Durc finishes his isolation period you will have the most effective hunting team of all clans. Also, more mated women means more babies. Spirits like all women to be well cared for and all hunters to be well served; and when the spirits are happy they send many hunting animals and many babies. It is a known fact.

- I won't claim to know more than you about the spirits, Mog-ur. - said Vorn, - You could be right, maybe it is good to mate Durc this soon; he will be free to hunt long before the time when the herds are bigger and roam closer to the cave.

By the time the sun disappeared below the horizon, the whole clan gathered outside the cave, around a big fire and surrounded by a circle of several medium sized fires, to gorge on fresh tender aurochs meat in celebration for a new hunter added to their ranks. Everybody was talking about what a fine hunter he was, how brave he was, how much help he would be to the clan; also how wonderful his kill was, how tender and delicious. It was the usual treatment all clan boys got when they became men, but that didn't make it any less exciting for the new man. It never did.

After the meal the ceremonies began, as usual in these cases, with a hunt reenactment. Durc, who had inherited Broud's theatrical skills, led the most exciting hunt dance of his life. Everyone nodded approval and admiration when Grev's spear pierced the heart of the first bull and when Durc's second spear killed the cow they had just eaten from. Everyone showed fear and anxiety when the second bull went after Crug and, after Grev's second spear downed it, everyone praised Grev's skill with the new weapon.

But no one was more excited than Broud. Ever since Vorn had allowed that new weapon to be tested by any hunter at will, he had been practicing with a thrower that Grev had made for him, every free moment he had; and he was slowly getting the nick of it. The hunt dance gave him more ideas as to how to use the new weapon and the resolve to itensify his practices. He even got some additional pleasure from the fact that Grev, the son of his hearth, was receiving more attention for his skill with the thrower, than Durc for his manhood hunt. He felt a little vindicated for Ayla stealing the glory of his own manhood hunt. Broud hadn't been in a better mood since the Clan Gathering.

After the hunt dance, Crug ceremoniously gave Brac a small token of kinship, for saving his life turning the bull around with his spear, and Brac gave another one to Crug in return. Those were very personal objects and both hunters put them in their amulets without showing to anyone. Crug then announced that he acknowledged the young acolyte to carry a piece of his spirit. Being done with the formalities Brac disappeared inside the cave to look for The Mog-ur.

Goov, who had not eaten all day in preparation for the ceremonies, appeared dressed in full ceremonial outfit and followed by his acolyte. Brac carried a ceremonial knife and three wooden cups with magical preparations. Standing in front of the fire, surrounded by the clan, the magician called the protective totem spirits with powerful and commanding, if silent, gestures. Then, when the presence of the all powerful spirits was being felt by all of the clan members, Goov called the new man-to-be in front of him. Durc was not as prepared as he thought he was and found himself almost panicking in the presence of the powerful magician; this was not Goov, this was The Mog-ur. Taking hold of himself, the tall boy glanced around to see Ena's admiring eyes and managed to find the inner strength he needed to face the spirits embodied in Goov.

Taking the old ceremonial knife of his beloved mentor, Goov raised it high towards the starred sky and addressed Durc's mighty totem spirit.

-Spirit of the Gray Wolf, totem of Durc, - said Goov in the silent gestures of the ancient Clan language, - this boy was once delivered to your protection. Now we ask you to guide this hunter in the ways of the Gray Wolf, and in the ways of the Great Ursus.

Then, The Mog-ur made four curved cuts in Durc's upper right arm, forming two very narrow, V-shaped, downward pointing marks arranged to resemble the upper canines of a wolf. After cleaning the bleeding wounds with an antiseptic solution, Goov covered them with a salve especially made to leave a permanent mark, half a scar half a tattoo; the mark of his totem. Fighting not to start trembling, Durc turned slowly around to show everybody his tattooed arm, proof of his new status. Ena was then called to come forward and seat on the ground in front of him.

- Durc, hunter of Vorn's clan of the Cave Bear, - asked Goov with silent gestures, - do you agree to take the woman Ena, here, into your hearth as your mate?

Ena was frozen still, her eyes refusing to open. What if he had changed his mind? What if he didn't want her? What if... Durc's tap in her left shoulder burned her skin as if his fingers had been live coals instead. Standing up, Ena rearranged her wrap to bare her small, still growing, breasts. Taking the yellow ochre paste from the second bowl Brac was carrying, Goov drew on Ena's left breast, the two undulating lines that were the sign of her totem; then, taking more paste from the third bowl Brac had brought, The Mog-ur drew on Ena's breast the sign of Durc's totem, this time with red ochre, covering and blurring hers to show his dominance.

- Spirit of the Gray Wolf, totem of Durc, - said Goov in silent formal gestures, - your sign has overcome the sign of the spirit of Wolverine, totem of Ena. Let it always be so, for the good of The Clan.

Durc turned towards the cave and, followed by Ena, walked to what used to be Brun's hearth to begin their isolation period while the rest of the men went into the second chamber of the cave for the private ceremony that would cement the new mating.

For Ena it felt strange to come back to the hearth where she had lived since she first came to this clan, three years ago, and that from now on was going to be hers to tend. In the privacy of their own hearth, away from curious eyes thanks to Clan's rules of courtesy, Durc turned to his new mate and took her in his arms. After holding her tightly for a while, lost in the firelight reflected in her green eyes, the new man attempted to lick his mate's ear.

- Does the hunter want to play wolves right now? - she asked.

The look in Durc's eyes was all the answer she needed. "Are you happy?" Had Ura asked her, earlier that same day. Surrendering her long pale neck to her mate's hungry mouth, Ena was now completely sure of the answer. She could not possibly be happier.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

The piercing shriek of the hawk claiming that particular portion of the sky as his very own territory was the only indication of his presence. Flying high, in the clear blue sky of a summer day, it was impossible to see the small bird of prey against the bright sun. He was, of course, not hunting; the lizards and the mice that were his prey had all sought cover at the sound of his voice. He was just expressing his joy, his lust for life, his freedom. Masuko shrieked back at the bird trying unsuccessfully to catch a glimpse of him in the vast blue, it was a beautiful summer day in the middle of the prairies and she was enjoying the sun, the soft wind, the yellow-green of the land and the blue of the sky. She was young, she was happy, she was loved and she was in love.

- Sukie!

He never called her by her given name anymore, he had made her a name in his own language, and she liked it. She had liked it since the very first time he called her that way, because she was not going to be Masuko of the Sabanii anymore; she would be Sukie for him, she would be anything he wanted her to be, for he was everything she wanted for her.

- Are you talking to birds now?

- I am just trying to find it, - she said, opening her arms wide and turning around, - you know how I love birds of prey. I always dream I'm an eagle, flying high over the land and the mountains and the sea; all the way to the end of the world and back.

- Back to…

- Back to my nest, - she said, throwing her arms around him, - to my lover, to my mate.

And then they were furiously kissing each other, rolling on the fresh hay. It seemed that she could never have enough of him, and he could certainly never have enough of her. They spent honoring the mother more time than they spent hunting or anything else at that; no wonder the journey was taking so long.

Their journey had begun before the winter was entirely over, but winters were not so cold that far south. They had traveled north with the summer, but the season had caught up with them long ago and now they were not even going north anymore. he said he wanted to look for some friends he had made in his travels and, after crossing a large river where it emptied into the inland sea and following the northern shore of that sea for several days, they were now traveling into what seemed to be a large peninsula towards a range of high mountains raising over the horizon far to the south.

- How long will it take to get to your friends? - asked Masuko

- I don't know.

- Can we winter with them if it gets too late in the season?

- I don't know.

- Is there anything at all that you… know?

- One thing, there is; that you are the most beautiful woman alive, and that I am crazy in love with you.

- Well, - she said with a wide, open mouthed smile, - those are two things actually. And to make you a really really wise man, I'll tell you a third thing for you to know; I love you too my beautiful crazy mate.

And feeling her mate's hands and mouth all over her deeply tanned skin, setting on fire her naked body, Masuko realized they were not traveling anywhere that day, either.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

The old leader crawled under the bushes and the exposed roots of the fallen trees, slowly, carefully, fully alert to any strange sound or scent. Walking in circles, and looking back at his own trail trying to spot any follower, the wolf leader approached the den where the lead female of his pack hid her new puppies. After making sure that he was not being followed, the old wolf called his mate with a short bark; he was not going to see his puppies yet, not until the day when she would present them to the pack, but he brought her food in his stomach, so she would produce enough milk for her babies. But, despite all his efforts, he was not as alone as he thought; from a cliff, high on the hillside, four pairs of eyes watched him.

- He brings food to his mate and her children in the cave, - said Ura, - just as you do with us.

- Only we don't carry it in our stomachs, - said Durc.

- This is most amazing, - said Ena, - I never dreamed of seeing a living wolf in her den. How did you find the den? I think he doesn't even leave tracks, he is so careful.

- Not careful enough for Brac here, - said Durc looking at the acolyte who also accompanied them.

- It was just luck, - said Brac, - I think your totem wanted me to find the den for you.

Soon after he went out of his isolation period Durc had asked Brac to find out if the puppies were already at the nursery and Brac decided to search instead of going out. The puppies were not out of the den yet, they were late this year, but the acolyte had managed to follow the wolf leader to the female's den and now they were there.

Durc told Brac of his promise to Ena and they decided to go out with their mates and take a look at the den from afar. Ura had wanted to see the wolves too, but Brac insisted that she left Rec with Ebra if she wanted to go; he was not about to risk the baby chasing wolves. Women of the clan were naturally noisy creatures, when traveling or foraging, it was instinctive and a protection against the smaller predators; but now they had been required to act stealthy and move silently and they both had surprised their mates by being able to comply. Brac in particular was very interested in the adaptability of those two women to a behavior that was unnatural for them; none of the other women, he was sure, could have controlled her instincts so well.

- He looks so much older, - said Durc, - if the white wolf came back now he would not only steal one female.

- I don't know, - said Brac, - he could probably beat him, but I don't think the pack would accept the white one as their new leader. Wolves don't like wrong color wolves, old Zoug always said that. Remember?

- Some other wolf will soon fight him for the leadership of the pack, - said Durc.

- Most probably, - agreed Brac.

- But if it happens this summer, - added Durc, - all the puppies will die. The new leader will kill them.

- But why? - said Ena - Didn't you say that the whole pack cared for the puppies? They wouldn't let them be killed by the new leader. And why would he want to kill them? They mean no danger for him.

- That is the way of the wolf. - said Brac, - Only the mother will try to defend the puppies but she will not succeed; not against a full grown male.

- But why? - insisted Ura.

- The pack will not follow the new leader unless the lead female accepts him, - explained Durc, - and she will not accept a new mate while she still have puppies born to her former mate's hearth, so to speak.

- I would never accept a mate who killed my babies, - said Ura, - I would rather die.

Brac listened to his mate with surprise, a woman was supposed to do what she was told. She would mate whomever the leader gave her to, it was no in her to accept or not to accept a mate. What would have Ura done, he wondered, if she hadn't wanted to mate him? If she had hated him? What could she do? She could die, that is what she said she would do. Would she really let herself die if she was given to a man she hated? He knew more than anyone else the strength of her mate's personality, she certainly would.

- But you don't worry, baby, I will live forever; - continued Ura, talking to Ena but casting sidelong glances at her mate, - if only to please Brac.

The male wolf left and the female disappeared into her den. Durc made a short imperative gesture and the four of them left their hiding place and began to walk back home in silence. After a while, Durc stopped and pointed at a patch of green ahead, looking at Brac.

The acolyte nodded and signaled the women to stay close and as stealthy as they did when approaching the wolf's den, and began to follow Durc with the women close behind them; all of their senses in full alert. Ura was overexcited, they were hunting! The men had said nothing but she was sure; Durc had found a track, some mysterious invisible set of marks only hunters could see, and they were following it. They were hunting with their mates!

After a very short time, Durc stopped again and pointed to the woods; Brac nodded again and both men took out their spear throwers and loaded each a spear. Durc walked slowly forward, one step at a time, seeking for cover staying close to the trees; Brac stayed with the women. Ena froze, her eyes glued to her mate, while Ura tried desperately to see what was Durc going after.

Durc approached his prey, alternatively walking a few paces and stopping still for a few moments. Then, very slowly, aimed his weapon and waited for the best moment to cast his spear. His throw, when it came, took Ura by surprise; his spear flew into the dark woods seeking a prey only he, and Brac, could see. Brac walked to where his friend stood, signaling the women to follow, and then the four of them went to retrieve Durc's kill; a red deer.

While the women gutted, skinned and cut the small deer in pieces to carry, both men stayed alert in guard against any invisible predator that could endanger their women; the relaxed mood of the walk in the woods early that same day was gone. A deer so small would usually have been carried over the hunter's shoulders, but having the women with them, the hunters needed to be free to use their weapons to protect them; also having the women, they did not need to carry their own kill. The Clan's proven gender related specialization was fully at work.

- Do you think these puppies will die? asked Ena to her mate, once they had resumed their trek back home.

Durc nodded affirmatively.

- There is a new wolf in the territory, - he said, - young, full grown adult. Most probably a wanderer. He was stalking the same deer he hunted; I saw his tracks, Brac saw them too.

- We must warn Vorn, - confirmed Brac, - a lone wolf in the territory is a danger to all women and children, especially newborns.

Ura shivered, not precisely from the cold, and the small group continued in complete silence towards the cave; the young men watching for the slightest sign of the presence of the wolf, the young women ready to obey any emergency order from their mates. As soon as they got back home, Durc and Brac went to talk to Vorn while the women went to their hearths, divided the meat between both of them, and set apart the head with the neck and the entire hide to give it to Oda as Mog-ur's share of the hunt. But as soon as Durc got back to his hearth, Ena came to him and requested permission to speak.

- When you said back there that the pack would let the new leader kill the puppies, - said Ena, very worried, - you said it was the way of the Wolf.

Durc nodded.

- Your totem is the Gray Wolf, would you let my babies be killed?

- We are not wolves, - said Durc, pensively, he knew there was more to what Ena was saying than what was actually said, - we are Clan. We follow the way of the Clan.

- If I have babies...

Ena saw the hard look in her mate's eyes and quickly corrected herself

- ...I mean, when I have babies, they will be considered deformed; you know that. The leader could order them to be killed, to be exposed and left to die; that is the way of the Clan.

- I would ask Vorn that their life be spared, - said Durc, - just as Brac did with Rec, that is my right as your mate; that is the way of the Clan. I would never allow one baby of yours to be left to die.

- But the leader might not agree, - said Ena, turning to cast a glance towards Broud's hearth, - or the leader might not be Vorn. You know that could happen.

- Look at me Ena, - said Durc looking deep into his mate's tearful green eyes, - I will never allow one single baby of yours to be killed or to be left to die. Never! I will do whatever it takes. Do you understand? Whatever it takes! I will never allow a baby of yours to be killed or left to die. That is my promise to you; that is my promise to them.

Taking his crying mate in his arms, Durc held her tight for a long while. He then began to caress her head, her hair, her arms, her back; and closing his eyes he vowed to himself... "Whatever it takes…"

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

They had reached the west end of the mountain range that extended like a wall, from east to west, between the sea and the rest of the peninsula, and were now traveling eastwards along the northern hillsides. Masuko could tell that her mate was not very sure about where to go; he had doubted whether to go around and follow the southern face before deciding to take the route they had finally taken and, even now, he was not completely sure about what was he looking for.

- Are you sure that you recognize this region? - she asked.

-I am sure I don't, - he said, - I have never been here before.

- But you said you met your friends during your journey, I am sure you can remember if you try.

- They were traveling too, - he explained, - they were several days away from their home; but they told me their cave was in these hillsides, close to the prairies, not too high. It is supposed to be very hard to see, the entrance is barely a small hole on the ground, like a wolf's den; the children call their cave "The Den". There is a clue, though, a small mountain creek flows westwards right in front of it.

- No creeks here, - said Masuko, - but the small river we crossed yesterday flows more or less westwards. If we follow it upstream, it might get closer to the hillsides; it might be the creek you are looking for.

- Yes, it might be. But I don't think we should go back; if we go east, we must eventually find it.

Masuko was not worried about journeying through an unknown land; she loved traveling, knowing new places, meeting new people. That was why she had become a traveling trader, that was why she only came home for the winter, that was how she had met her mate two years ago. Last winter had been her first away from home; but she did not miss too much her people, she could make any place her home, and she had already decided that home, for her, was wherever he was.

- Look! - she said, pointing northeast to the prairies - There is a group of people there! It looks like a hunting party returning home; and they are traveling south, they might be them! Hurry up! They are going to pass us by!

Masuko ran, followed by her mate, to intercept the slow traveling band but, as she came closer, something about the hunting party began to bother her; something was not quite right.

- Flatheads! - she said, abruptly stopping and dropping to the ground - Lie low! Great Earth Mother, those are flatheads! Could this be flathead country? My lover, you are so very lost!

Vorn saw the movement, far to the southwest, and warned Crug with a short low pitched grunt. He was leading the women and Crug was, with Durc, covering the right flank. They had killed four reindeer and the women were very heavily loaded, the large amount of meat a treat to any four legged scavenger or predator, and the seven hunters were extremely alert. Brac and Grev covered the left flank of the group and hadn't seen anything, as neither had Borg and Groob, who were in the most dangerous position covering the rear. But Vorn's grunt, and Crug's reaction, alerted the whole group.

The women closed in together, while Vorn and Crug concentrated in following with their eyes the suspected stalkers, without stopping, changing course or slowing down. The rest of the hunters looked around to find more stalkers; they knew they shared their hunting territory with a wolf pack, and were not about to let themselves be surprised them or any other pack hunters.

- Others! - gestured Vorn.

- I only see two of them, - said Crug, - threre might be more though.

Vorn began to feel very agitated; Others in their territory, and so close to their cave, were very bad news. Even if there were only two of them they posed a real danger; he could not allow them to follow him to his cave, they would come back later with more Others. The first order of business was not to let them know they had been spotted; if he managed to lead them to the woods by the hillside he would be able to hide the women and trap the intruders. Just then one of the Others dropped to the ground trying to hide in the hillside vegetation, they were stalking his group alright.

- Vorn!

The leader turned his head, without breaking his stride, to look what was it that Durc wanted to tell him.

- It is Ranec!

- Who? Do you know these Others?

- I am sure it is Ranec... Rec, - said Durc using the Clan version of the name, - and the other one is a woman.

- No, - said Crug, - no woman, they are both carrying spears.

- Women of the Others hunt, - insisted Durc, - remember?

Vorn gestured Durc back to his proper position, and kept walking while he decided what to do. If the young man was right, he should greet the stranger and offer him the hospitality of his cave. That was the man who had brought them the spear throwers and, even if they had been, ostensibly, a gift for Durc and even if Goov had assured him that they had given the man proper retribution, he knew he was indebted to that man; the spear throwers had turned out to be more valuable than anyone might have thought back then. But he wasn't sure, he had never actually seen the man, he had been gone hunting when he visited his camp. What if Durc was wrong? What if it was other man? How could anyone tell? All the Others looked alike! But this man had brown skin, as he was told Rec had; and the woman, he could now tell it was effectively a woman, had the same color of skin as the clan, not the pale skin of Ena or the first Ayla. Vorn thought hard about what to do; if it really was Rec and he didn't acknowledge him, it would anger the spirits, he was indebted to the man of the Others. But if it was not Rec... They were closer now...

- Durc! Grev! Groob! - Vorn stopped and the whole party followed suit; the three young men ran to the leader.

- Yes Vorn?

- Drop all your weapons, - said Vorn addressing his youngest hunter, - and approach the man of the Others; if it is Rec, bring him to me.

- Yes Vorn, - said Durc dropping immediately all his weapons to the ground.

- Groob, Grev, - continued the leader, - take two spears each one of you and follow Durc with your spear throwers, cover him like we do in a hunt. If the man threatens any of you, kill him and kill his woman; if any of them tries to run away, kill them both at once.

- Oh Bana, Great Mother of All! They've seen us! They are coming, they are coming!

- Calm down, Sukie, they are my friends. Don't you see the young man in front? He is coming in peace, without weapons.

- Your friends? Man? - Masuko was horrified, - That is an abomination of mixed spirits! And those are flatheads! Animals!

- I wouldn't call them names right now; he is unarmed, but the other two have spears and are covering him. Drop your weapons, Sukie, don't frighten them; I'll do the talking.

- Talking? They are animals! They can't talk!

- They are not animals, Sukie, they are people, men of the Clan; and I know their language. Now, stay put and follow my clue; you will like them and they will like you, you'll see.

- Greetings! - the man of the Others stood up in the open, gesturing with his arms extended and his hands empty, showing he carried no weapons - Durc of the Clan of the Cave Bear! This man is Ranec of the Mamutoi! Does Durc remember this man?

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

- This man is Ranec, - said the man of the Others, speaking to the whole clan gathered around a big fire just outside the cave, - master carver Lion Camp of Mamutoi. Mamutoi have no personal totem, totem is for hearth. This man… born… hearth of Whymez, master tool maker Lion Camp, Fox hearth. Mother die, boy Ranec go hearth of Talut, leader of Lion Camp, Lion hearth. This woman is mate, name is Sukie.

Masuko was seated at Ranec's feet, obviously scared, trying to hide behind his legs. Her attitude looked very feminine to the clan men. "Not like Ayla's," thought Broud.

- Rec, Uky, - Vorn did his best to imitate Ranec's sounds.

- Rec, Uky – repeated, very seriously, all the members of the clan. Name words were important.

The man of the Others was less apt at speaking than a small child, but most of the Clan hunters were surprised that he talked at all. The first time he met the clan, the hunters had been gone and he had talked to the mog-ur and the older boys, now the younger hunters; but this time, at Vorn's indication, he was talking to the entire clan. In the three years he had been traveling, Ranec had gotten used to tell his story every time he found a new cave of people, and had discovered he was a good storyteller who enjoyed the reactions of his audience.

Vorn pondered what the man had said, it was strange that he had no totem but Others were known to be strange; however the man seemed to be one of high status, master… something, born to the hearth of the master toolmaker, raised at the hearth of the leader.

- What is carv? - asked Vorn, brusquely -What is Mutoi? Your cave was a Lion's den?

- Mamutoi is people, - answered Ranec, the best he could, - Others many people, not one people like Clan. Mamutoi means mammoth hunters, live far north. Sungaea other people, live close north and west. Matenorai is people live close south; Sukie people is Sabanii, they live far south.

The people of the clan thought it was very confusing, so many different people, and they had thought there were only Clan and Others.

- Lion Camp is home, - continued Ranec, - like cave. Many Mamutoi camps. Camp has same name of leader hearth totem. Carver (Ranec knew no clan sign for his craft, so he used the mamutoi word for it) is man make this.

And then Ranec displayed on the floor, a small ivory horse, one of his bird-woman Mutas and a wooden bowl with a hunting scene carved on it.

- Why would a man waste so much time making that? - asked Vorn - Why make it at all?

- Make for special ceremonies, - explained Ranec pointing at the Muta, - like matings. Make for good luck - pointing at the horse - when hunting and also because people like.

Durc took out the eagle-like carved thrower Ranec had given him three years ago, and that he had brought to the meeting.

- Is this for good luck hunting? - he asked laying the weapon on the ground for all to see.

- Yes, good luck hunt, - said Ranec - honor Spirit of Eagle, spirit happy make spear fly far and true.

The men nodded understanding, carv was evidently something that had a lot to do with the spirits. The meticulous carvings on the spear thrower, the horse figurine, the hunting scene, all were evidence of very powerful magic. It made Ranec, before the Clan's eyes, a man of the spirits; maybe not like a mog-ur, maybe more like an experienced acolyte, but nonetheless powerful.

- Why Rec leave Lion Clan? - asked Vorn. No other man or boy would ask anything unless Vorn was finished. No girl or woman would ask anything at all.

- This man had woman promised to mate. - said Ranec; he knew that, to the clan men, it would look unworthy of a man to be so emotional over a woman, but he could not lie; Ayla always knew when someone lied, - Other man, visitor, go back to his people, take promised woman; this man cannot stay. This man leaves to find people of mother, mother not Mamutoi. This man meets Clan, travels far; cannot find people of mother but meets new people, finds new mate. Now is time to come back.

The clan men nodded understanding again. They couldn't even begin to suspect the emotional impact that loosing Ayla had on Ranec, it was beyond their understanding, but they understood status. If the leader let a visitor take away a woman already promised to one of his hunters, that was a serious offense to that hunter. It merited leaving the clan where one was so little appreciated to find a new clan; it was also a hard blow to one's status; no wonder the man had gone so far and for so long. Being a man of the spirits he was now, most assuredly, coming back for his revenge. An angered magician was, definitely, not a man to cross; it was better to be in good terms with him.

- Rec, - said Vorn solemnly, - the gift you have made to the Clan, this spear thrower, puts me as leader in your debt. I offer you the hospitality of our cave for as long as you wish, you will be given a space to set up your hearth. You are welcome to join us in our hunts, as the least ranked hunter, and to receive a fair share of the meat; and when you choose to leave, you will be given whatever you need for your travels in payment for our debt.

With these words Vorn let it known that he was through questioning the stranger, other hunters might question him now. Mog-ur would surely talk at length with the man and Vorn counted with Goov to help him in managing his visitor. Fortunately, the cave was big and there was plenty of space between Brac's hearth and the storage area, Rec could set up his hearth next to Brac's.

- Rec! - it was Durc, the least ranked hunter, who spoke - If you are not too tired, I would like to know of your travels since the time we met the year of the Clan Gathering.

Sukie looked around and saw curiosity reflected in everyone's face, Ranec had translated Durc's request for her benefit. Clan people were not so different after all; they loved to hear long stories told by mysterious strangers, just like anyone else.

- This man happy to tell, - said Ranec in his rudimentary clan, - will tell both in clan and mamutoi language so mate not miss story; mate cannot talk clan.

The women, who were mostly afraid of strangers, began to warm towards him; he was being so considerate to his mate, and they could not help but to like that.

- After this man meet clan, - began Ranec, - travel west to find river as Mog-ur say. Big river, hard to cross; this man put his pack in log and swim the river with log…

Sukie was not as interested in Ranec's story as the people of the Clan was. She had heard the story of his journey several times already, but he had never talked about meeting flathead's or having flathead friends; and he was not going to talk about them now either. She began, instead, to observe the clan members with less fear and more interest.

The Clan men were very interested; they wanted to know about the dangerous Others that surrounded their territory. Durc and Ura were even more interested; they knew they were part Others and wanted to know everything there was to know about their ways. But no one was as interested as Ena, she was completely mesmerized, those were the Others, those were her kind. The young woman was trying to imagine what her life would have been if she hadn't been raised by the Clan; and she felt irresistibly drawn to Uky, it was the only woman of her kind she had ever seen, she just could not take her eyes away from the stranger.

- … When first winter of journey was close, - was telling Ranec, - I find cave of Matenorai, they live in west coast of big sea to the south, good hunters, good fish hunters. They offer hospitality and I spend winter with them. In spring I hunt with Matenorai to repay hospitality and in summer travel south. Many moons I travel and I get to very big sea far to the south, I know people of mother live at the other side of that sea, must travel east and then south, but winter is coming again and I must find people to stay the winter. But I find no people, then, one day I find woman travel alone. She travel… ( Ranec knows no clan sign for trader ) with things to give other people and bring other things to her people. Woman is Sukie.

- Why Uky travel alone? - Asked Durc

- Her clan live in… ( Ranec doesn't know a clan sign for island ) small land with sea all around. Many fish, many shellfish, much salt; not much meat, not much furs, very little vegetables. She take salt and dried fish and shells, go to other caves to give, gets furs and vegetables as payment. She fast runner, travel alone, travel faster.

- She goes to other clans to trade! - Brac was astonished; trading was very infrequent between clans, and was always done by a very high status hunter, usually the second-in-command, who traveled with two or more women to carry all things. – Isn't that a man's job?

- Others different, many different, - said Ranec, - Others men and women all make same things. No men jobs, no women jobs, all the same. Men are bigger and stronger, but only women can make babies, is only difference. Sukie good trade ( he remembered the sign from Brac, ) very high status.

- If her clan is surrounded by sea, - asked Durc, - how can she travel to other clans?

- Sabanii, Sukie people, make canoe, - Ranec used the sabanii word for canoe, - canoe is big log with hole. People and stuff get in hole, not drown, not get wet.

The look in the faces of the clan told Ranec they didn't believe him, or rather, they didn't understand him. Maybe he would make a little canoe to show them in the river. But for now he decided to go on.

- Sukie tell me to winter with her cave, - continued Ranec, - Sabani, their mog-ur, know of people of mother, he travel to people of mother when young. He tell they leave cave, go south, very far, cannot find.

The disappointment in Ranec's expression was clear to all clan members; they could understand him through his body language more accurately than from his imperfect gestures. They understood also what it meant to abandon their home and travel into the unknown in search for a new home. One clan had been lost from the last Clan Gathering that way; they had left their home, and nobody knew where they went.

- I stay all winter, train with Sabani, their mog-ur, and learn more of carving than I think possible; Sabani great carver. - Ranec's words confirmed to the Clan his condition of trainee magician - Then in spring I hunt fish with Sabanii, and in summer I mate with Sukie. In late summer I leave to return home; people of mother is no more, this man want to go home with new mate. We travel west, meet other Sabanii caves; then travel north, meet other Matenorai cave that live closer to the mountains, far from the sea.

- Winter come and we stay with Matenorai, - Ranec had still all the attention of the clan, - but winter is not too cold, we leave early and travel north to big river. In river we find new people, Ramudoi people make big canoe, they call boat, boat can take many people in river. We travel with Ramudoi in boat many days northeast, then river turns south and we get off to travel north. When we get close to peninsula, this man decides to look for clan; want to meet friend Durc again, want to know great leader Vorn, want to learn more of clan ways. We travel many days in clan territory and then you find us.

Ranec and Masuko went into the cave to settle in the place Vorn had decided to give them. That first night they caused a few blunders since Masuko didn't know anything about clan women's proper behavior. Uba, as the leader's mate, as well as Ura and Ena, had gone to help her since it was a woman's job to set up the hearth; it was the man's prerogative to decide on the hearth's space distribution, but the woman was the one supposed to actually do the work. Masuko was astonished the first time she saw Ena; she never imagined to find a woman living with those flatheads, much less mated to one, and regarded the other flatheads, specially Durc and Ura, with disgust. She was a nice, open minded, person, but she couldn't help her upbringing. For the first time in almost a year and a half she doubted the wisdom of joining her life with Ranec's. Why did he never talk about these flatheads?

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

- Uky does not like us, - said Ena to Durc, - she looks at us as if we were a rotten carcass of a hyena. Why doesn't she like us? We have been nice to her. And she is very impolite, she keeps looking into other people's hearths; not like Rec, he is very nice.

They were eating at Durc's hearth, after helping Ranec and Masuko to set up their hearth. Ena used to talk with Durc about all kind of things in the privacy of their hearth, without asking for permission first; she knew Durc liked her to do so. Ranec and Masuko were invited to eat at Mog-ur's hearth, and Brac had decided to share dinner with Durc; Grev was there too as were the sisters Ura and Uma, their mates. The six of them were eating together, that was not the clan way, but it was Durc's hearth and he liked it that way; Ura and Uma liked it too, so they were always nice with Ena and they both worshiped Durc. Sometimes Groob and Igra joined the group, but they were very uncomfortable about men and women sharing meals and conversation; so when those two were present, the women ate together after the men were finished, and didn't participate in their conversation, as was the Clan way. But that was not the case that night.

- I don't think she is acting that way on purpose, - said Brac, - I can see she is very afraid of us, also Other's customs might be different; but we must talk to Rec, she must learn not to offend other people.

- I think we should take him out tomorrow, - said Durc, - leave Uky with the women and talk to him in private.

- I don't think she will want to stay, - said Uma, - and I don't think I would like to be with her. She is mean, I don't like her.

- She will stay, - said Grev, - if Rec tells her to, and you will be nice to her if I tell you to.

- I want to ask him about Other's spirits, - said Brac.

- I want to ask him about Mama, - said Durc.

- I am glad you finally seem to be ready to talk about her, - said Grev, - and it is good, because I think you needed to outgrow that problem with Ayla. It will do you a lot of good and us too; somehow, I feel there is something very important to the Clan still missing in Ayla's story.

Durc and Brac looked open mouthed at Grev, but Uma was beaming. They never thought Grev, playful, immature, carefree Grev, capable of such seriousness and insight; but Uma knew otherwise, she knew her mate was as wise as Brac and a better hunter than Durc or even Groob. She had been disappointed at being given to him as his mate, considering him irresponsible, but living with the cheerful young hunter changed her mind and now she was very happy and very proud of him.

- Now that you say it, brother, - said Brac, - I've been feeling that way ever since we learned Ayla was not dead.

It was very late that night when Ranec walked to his clan hearth with his mate, after a long evening of conversation with Goov.

- Y would never have imagined flatheads were like this, - said quietly Masuko, coming into the sleeping furs she shared with Ranec, - they almost seem people.

- They are people, Sukie, - said Ranec, - of a different kind to be sure, but people nonetheless. And you should not call them flatheads anymore, now that you know; they are Clan. - and Ranec added the proper gesture to the word.

- Clan?

- Yes, but you move your hand like this when you say the word. Actually the gesture means Clan, the spoken word is only for emphasis.

- How do you know so much about flathe… Clan? And why did you never tell about them? Not even to me! Your mate!

- I know because I had a brother who was mixed, like Durc, - said Ranec, - and I didn't tell you because that story is mostly about a woman I loved so much that I left my people when she decided to mate another man. I am so sorry, Sukie, but I was afraid to talk with you about another woman. A woman I had loved so much.

- Was she… Clan? - he felt her stiffening under his touch.

- No, she was like Ena, - he said, - raised by the Clan. Very wise, a woman of great spiritual power, the best healer I've ever known of, a searcher and a caller; adopted to the Mamut hearth by Old Mamut himself. - The legend of the unbelievably old shaman of the mamutoi was known even as far as the Sabanii.

- Was she… pretty?

- Yes, she was. Tall, blue eyed, golden haired, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, - said Ranec, smiling, - until I saw you.

- Wait! Stop! I can't! - said Masuko while Ranec tried to climb on her, kissing her all over - There is no privacy here! Everybody is looking at us!

- Nobody is looking at us, - said Ranec, insisting, - they never look inside other people's hearths. And you shouldn't look either, or they will think you are very impolite, not well raised, low status…

And as Ranec continued whispering in her ears, Masuko succumbed, as she always did, to his great charm and his love for her. But Ranec was wrong on one count; from the neighboring hearth, Ura, being as inconspicuous, almost invisible, as only a clan woman could be, couldn't take her eyes of them. She had talked with her friend, Ena, about her "playing wolves" with Durc and was curious about the mating customs of those Others; she would find a way to talk with Brac about it, Ena seemed to enjoy that wolf game with Durc and Uky seemed to enjoy herself quite a lot too.

The following morning Groob, Brac, Grev and Durc, took Ranec "hunting" to the hillsides, and ended up talking about Clan and Other's ways and customs; while Igra, Ura, Uma and Ena went to "visit" Masuko, and ended up cooking together and learning a lot about each other's ways despite the difficulties in communication.

After lunch, Brac invited Ranec and Masuko to come into the sacred second cave, along with Durc, Grev, Groob and their mates. The invitation had been suggested by Ranec so he could tell the story of Ayla to Durc, his mate and his friends, as well as to his own mate.

- The story begins one day almost winter, - began Ranec, talking both in clan and in mamutoi, to the assembled group, - I come back to Lion Camp with young brother who stay all summer in other camp, learning craft. Young brother is toolmaker like Groob. I see two horses standing close to cave, strange horses, not afraid of people. Then I find two visitors, man and woman; the horses, I am told, answer to the woman. The man was Jondalar, the woman was Ayla. That evening all camp gather, like clan last night, and Jondalar and Ayla tell their stories….

The storytelling took all the afternoon and Ranec held nothing to himself; everything was out and said. The story of Baby, and the story of Whinney. The story of Racer, and the story of Wolf. The story of the discovery of the fire stone, the invention of the spear thrower and the invention of the thread puller. The story of Rydag, the sick mixed boy who couldn't talk and who many considered an animal, not a person; and his clan funeral conducted by Ayla. But most of all, it was the story of Ayla, her infinite medical knowledge, her searching with Old Mamut, her calling the mighty beasts to the mammoth hunters, her pain over Durc, her wisdom about people, his love for her and her love for Jondalar.

Many questions were made, most by Durc, but also many by Brac, Ena, Ura, and Masuko. At the end, only Uma and Igra hadn't asked questions; it was not in their nature. Durc asked about Ayla, the lion, the horses and the wolf; about Jondalar and about her memories of him. Ena asked about medicine and female magicians, about Rydag and the feelings of the Others for the Clan, and about Ayla's theories on mixed children and babies being started by the men. Ura asked about the hunting women and the female leaders. Masuko asked mostly about Ranec's feelings for Ayla and Ayla's feelings for Ranec.

Brac was more interested in the spiritual matters, he asked about the Old Mamut and the Mother; then he told about Creb, the great Mog-ur-One-Eye, and Ursus. He also asked about the calling and the searching gifts, and, in particular, about the spring ceremony when Ayla and Old Mamut almost got lost in the spirit world.

- I was there, - he said, raising the curiosity of Ranec and Masuko, - I saw Ayla and Old Mamut; I saw Jondar, and I also see you, Rec. That is when I know Ayla is not dead.

The revelation is a stunning blow on Masuko's previous beliefs about flatheads, especially when, after being prompted by Ranec, Brac told the entire story of the discovery of his own searching powers.

- And you can take other untrained men with you when you search? - such power was unheard of.

- Yes I can, - said Brac, - at least clan men. But it takes a lot of effort, it drains me a lot; it is far easier with the trained minds of other mog-urs and their acolytes.

- Can you take me with you? - asked Ranec, suddenly very excited.

But it was nothing compared with Durc's agitation.

- If you take Rec and me with you, - asked the young mixed man, - can we go and find Mama?

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

At about noon he following day, Ranec and Durc were seated on the ground around a ceremonial fire in the second cave, one to the right and the other to the left of Brac, who was holding a bowl with the magic datura preparation; but they were not alone, Grev was there with the ceremonial drum, and Goov was present too. Masuko had argued forcefully to participate, but Brac had been adamant; no women were allowed. This was a clan ceremony and, despite whatever Ranec said about women mog-urs, he just wouldn't risk angering the clan's totem spirits. Goov, informed of Brac's plan, decided that the private ceremony was exactly what he needed to assess Ranec's spiritual standing and insisted in his own participation, "to help Brac". Groob was still uncomfortable about Ayla's death-cursed-but-alive status and declined to participate; although he would never admit it he was actually afraid that they might succeed in finding her.

- How do you plan to search for her? - asked the clan's mog-ur - Won't she be too far away?

- Rec knows the way they were going, - said Brac

- Jondalar explained us how to get to his people, - confirmed Ranec, - in case anyone wanted to journey that way. I know I can find the Mother River; I've crossed it twice on my journey. We must follow it to its source and then cross a small glacier; I am not so sure after that, though, but I know it is west and a little south.

- We will follow that route as far as we can hear the drums, - decided Brac, - but we come back as soon as we begin to lose their sound. I am not planning on getting lost in the spirit world.

Grev nodded, looking very serious, he was to be in charge of the drums and there was nothing of the high spirited carefree Grev in the young man there. They all knew there were real dangers in what they planned to do that day, but all of them had their own reasons. Goov knew he just had to know; and seeing Ayla alive was the only way to know for sure. Brac was young and impetuous; he wanted to find out just how far he could search. Although he never showed it outwardly, so strong was his trained self control, he was just as adventurous as Grev; deep inside, the two brothers were more alike than anyone would think. Durc wanted vehemently to face his mother, he had to ask the question; he understood her, now, but he just had to ask her. Why? Why did you leave me? And Ranec, he had two powerful reasons. First, he had to see her to know for sure that he had really gotten over losing her, he could not live with Sukie unless he knew, not now that she knew; and second, he knew that losing Durc had been, for Ayla, the hardest part of leaving, so he wanted to do this as a gift for her, his parting gift.

Half a world away to the west, a man was nervously looking at four others, gathered around a fire too; his forehead was frowning with concern, his hands twisting with anguish. He had accepted Ayla's training for the Zelandonia as inevitable, but it had never ceased to worry him. That summer the Lanzadonii were holding their first summer meeting, and Ayla and Jondalar had decided to accept Dalanar's invitation. Two new Lanzadonii caves had been opened last year when several families had decided to join them after the Zelandonii summer meeting where Joplaya and Echozar were mated; and now that they had their own first Lanzadoni, having convinced a young shaman to join them, they were no longer going to the Zelandonii summer meetings. That day Lanzadoni was taking advantage of Ayla's presence to have her helping him with two young acolytes going in their first search. For almost a whole year Ayla had been training under Zelandoni, refining her Searching and Calling gifts as well as her Medical knowledge, but the memory of that almost fateful spirit journey with the old Mamut of Lion Camp still haunted Jondalar.

Ayla felt entirely confident, floating in the mist of the spirit world while she assessed the spiritual presence of Lanzadoni and his two acolytes; she knew Jondalar would be worried but she had done this many times now, he would have to get used to it eventually. Soon she became aware of Lanzadoni and the youngest of his acolytes, a young girl who had undergone her rites of first pleasures barely a week before, but the other acolyte was nowhere to be found.

- Don't worry, - Lanzadoni's voice filled her head without any discernible sound, - he is not lost, he is just not coming.

Too bad, Ayla had been told that this was to be the third attempt for the young man; it seemed that he simply did not have the Gift. The mist began to clear, as the familiar floating sensation told Ayla that Lanzadoni was beginning the search, being herself just an acolyte, she followed the young shaman's guidance. They were going east, close to the glacier she and Jondalar had crossed two winters ago; Ayla looked at the large range of ice thinking in the people that lived across it, people she already missed and longed to see again. Madenia, the young losadunai girl with whom she identified herself. Yorga, the young pregnant clan woman with the incredibly blond hair and her mate, Guban who was now kin. Losaduna, Solandia and so many more friends lived just across the ice. They were traveling north again, along the western face of the glacier, always looking for game, when it happened. The mist thickened around her, as in her dreams on the long journey, and Creb came again to her, covered in his ceremonial Cave Bear cloak.

The cloak covered clan magician made a formal greeting gesture. With both hands! It was not Creb! Aylas's blood chilled while she looked for help from Lanzadoni, but soon she understood that he could not help her, he was not sharing her vision. Remembering that other time, at the Clan Gathering, she broke contact with Lanzadoni just as Creb had broke contact with the other mog-urs back then. She was afraid, terrified, but she could not help herself; she felt herself irresistibly drawn to the mysterious mog-ur. Looking away, in the most approximate imitation of seating on the ground she was capable of, Ayla waited. The tap on her shoulder felt like a bunch of snow, sliding down on her back.

- Ayla! Is this you, or are you a spirit?

- Goov! I am sorry! This unworthy woman meant not disrespect, Mog-ur. It was the surprise. This is me, but I am visiting the spirit world. This woman is alive, and training under a female Mog-ur of the Others as her acolyte. This woman would know how did you find her, and what do you want from her.

- I did not find you, woman of the Others, Brac did. The man of the Others, Rec, showed us the way; and your son, Durc, wanted us to find you.

- Rec?

- Ranec, my beautiful promised, I remembered the route as Jondalar explained it. But how did you know we were coming? How did you find us? Are you really here? I can't see you, but I feel you inside my mind, and inside my soul.

The mist began to clear, a little, and Ayla could see the clouded outline of several figures accompanying Goov. She knew who was there, she could feel their presence, and now she could see them if only as shadows.

- Ranec! My dear, dear friend, I can feel you are happy now. Did you mate Tricie? How did you find my clan?

- I am happy, yes, but I was devastated when you left. I left the mamutoi and traveled south to meet my mother's people. I did no find them but I found Durc, I met many new people, I found a woman to love and to mate, and I am visiting the Clan in my way back.

Ranec could feel the sweet sensation of relief growing inside Ayla. She loved Jondalar alright, but she loved him too and she worried about him. He discovered that he loved her too, he still loved her; but it was different now, it was just the same kind of love she felt for him. He was free at last; free to be happy with Sukie.

- Brac! Is this true? Are you a powerful mog-ur now? Is Grev, then, going to be the next leader?

- No, and no. I am just an acolyte, but I discovered this searching while trying to reproduce old Mog-ur's ceremony with the sacred root. I can search without the root now, and I can take other men with me in my search, even untrained men; but of course it is easier with other mog-urs. And Grev is not going to be the next leader, Durc is.

- Durc! My baby, my son, you are a man now! Look how tall you are, so big, so powerful, and future leader! What happened? Did you mate Ura? Is she a good mate? Has she given you children?

- Why? Why Mama! Why?

- You were so young, I was so young! - Ayla felt her hearth break in little pieces, she knew very well what was Durc asking, she had asked that same question herself so many times - You wouldn't be alive now if I hadn't given you to Ura, neither would I my son. There hasn't been a day that my hearth doesn't ache for your absence; there hasn't been a night that I don't look for you in my dreams.

Ayla's suffering was plain for all of them; they were sharing each other's minds and hearts. Durc's heart ached too; ached for her mother's leaving and ached for her suffering, and he new the later was his fault.

- Forgive me Mama! I miss you so much! You weren't there to see my fox, my first kill. You weren't there for my manhood hunt, or for my mating. I love Uba, she has been a wonderful mother, but I wanted you to be there; I always wanted you, I love you so much, I miss you so much. I am a man now, and I am whimpering like a child, that is how much I miss you.

- I miss you too my son, but tell me. How is it that you are going to be the next leader?

- Broud broke a leg in a hunt, it didn't heal right, Vorn is the leader now. But Grev might still be leader; if Broud hunts again, Vorn will hand him the leadership back.

- And Ura? You must be mated now. Does she have any children yet?

- Yes she has, a boy named Rec; but he is the son of Brac's hearth, Ura is Brac's mate.

- And you? She was supposed to be your mate! It was arranged! Who are you going to mate now?

- I am mated, her name is Ena and she is just like you; but for her black hair and green eyes. A medicine woman, almost, and a woman of the Others. She has no children, but we have not been mated two moons yet.

- That is wonderful, I am so happy I could cry. You know, when my eyes water, it can be that I hurt too much, but it can be that I am too happy; you must know that, because, What is her name? Ena, her eyes will water too.

- They do, she cry when Uka die and she cry when we were mated. She is a very good mate, she cares for me, and she is a good friend of Ura. She is a very good medicine woman too; one day she will be as good as Uba, even better. Ranec says you are.

- I am sure she will be, but I am not. I am still learning, there is so much to learn, a medicine woman never stops learning. This I have learned, if Ena ever has children, don't be too quick to consider them deformed; the spirits of the mother and of the man whose totem starts the baby do mix, and Ena's babies will be more Others than Clan if it is your totem the one that defeats hers. Don't let anyone tell you that they are deformed. By the way, what is her totem?

- The wolverine, I know it is strong but I am not worried; your totem is the Cave Lion, and you had me. Also I have promised her to never allow a baby of hers to be left to die. And, speaking of strong totems, what is Jondar's totem? Have you had any more babies?

- Jondalar's totem is the Cave Lion; he was chosen, like me. And I have one daughter, Jonayla, your sibling; she hasn't finished her birth year yet. I can see that you love your mate, and I can't see how could she not love you. I know you are going to be very happy together, and that makes me very happy too. But listen to me, my son; if you are not the next leader, if Broud regains leadership, you will have to leave the Clan with Ena. And if Brac cares for Ura, he should go with you too.

- Leave? Leave the clan?

- Yes, like Durc of the legend, or you won't be able to keep your promise. Don't go to the Others; they hate the Clan, they say the Clan are animals, like hyenas, they will call you and the sons of your hearth horrible disgusting things, half people half animals. You can go to the Lion Camp, though, it is Ranec's Clan. Ranec is a good man, one of the best there is; you can trust him with your life, he will do everything in his power to help you. And you can trust the people of Lion Camp too; but it is best if you find your own home. When my mother Iza died, she told me to leave the clan. "Find your own people" she said; but I did not leave, and I ended up losing you. Don't let that happen to you; there must be others like you, like Ura, find them and leave the Clan. If you are not going to lead, leave the Clan, my son, leave the Clan…

The mist thickened around her as she lost contact with the clan group. She felt cold and she felt alone, so lonely, and so much alone…

- Durc! Goov! Brac! Ranec! Durc! Duuuuuuuurrrc…!

- Maammaaaaaa…! Mmaaaaa…!

- Ayla! Oh Doni, not again! Ayla! - Jondalar was taking his mate's cold face in both hands trying to wake her up, when, slowly, her eyes opened.

- Don't worry, my love, I am fine, - she said while her eyes flooded with tears.

- You are not fine! - he said - You are cold as dead, and crying! - Her tears were still something he could not stand. - You'v been gone for so long! Lanzadoni said that you broke contact and went away, that he could not follow you. Where did you go? Why do you do this to me?

Ayla smiled behind her tears, with that smile that never failed to melt her mate like the fire melted the snow.

- Durc! - she said, - I found Durc, Jondalar, I found my son!. And I don't do this to you, silly. Please don't worry, my sweet mate, I am really alright; I've never been better and I couldn't be happier.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

All of the Clan hunters, and most of the women, were on their way to the steppes; they were on an extended hinting trip after a large herd of bison found by Brac while returning from his Ayla encounter. Vorn had granted Broud's request to join the hunting expedition, and the man of the Others had been invited to join the Clan on a hunt for the first time; Goov had requested to stay to protect the cave and Vorn got the clear impression that the clan's magician had lost the edge, he would be staying home more and more often in the future.

Ranec was very excited about going along; he was impressed by the Clan society, far more advanced and sophisticated than anyone could have imagined, and had been most impressed by Brac's power. He knew he had no other Gift than his art, and had never been more interested in the spirit world than any other normal young man; but sharing the search with the Clan magician and his young acolyte, without having any talent for it, had been for the mamutoi artist a mind-blowing experience that would forever change his life and his art. He remembered what Old Mamut had told about his own Clan experience and was now eagerly anticipating the hunt ceremony that he knew was coming and in which he hoped to participate.

Masuko had been, once again, excluded from all male activities, and allowed to join the hunting party only as one of the women. Not wanting to offend neither Clan nor Others spirits, Vorn had ruled that she would be permitted to hunt as long as she hunted alone or with her mate; she was not to touch any clan weapon and Ranec would not use any weapon touched by his mate when hunting with the Clan. After long consideration, Brac's request, on behalf of his own mate, that Clan women were allowed to accompany her just as they did with the male hunters, was granted; but it was made clear that they could not touch her weapons. Masuko was fuming, but Ranec convinced her that it was pointless to offend the spiritual beliefs and traditions of their hosts. They could still hunt together and she could go hunting by herself accompanied by Ura and Ena whom, despite the communication limitations, she had befriended in the couple of days they were with the Clan.

After traveling all day at a deliberate pace, normal for the clan but exhausting for Ranec and Masuko, the hunting party found the bison herd just before sunset. They were upwind from their intended prey and the bison were traveling downwind towards a river, so they moved to one side of the herd's track before setting camp. That night all the hunters, included Ranec, gathered to plan the hunt.

- The bison are on the move, - said Vorn, - heading downwind, and there is no tall grass around here to hide. The herd is too big and traveling too fast to go around it, so we will be approaching from upwind and without cover; it will be very difficult to get close enough even for the flying spears. If anyone has a good plan I would like to hear it.

- There cannot be a good plan, said - Crug, - if the plan is to hunt in these conditions. We should follow the herd until they find better grass and slow down. We can go around then, and approach from downwind.

- We might have to do that, - said Vorn, - but it could take a couple of days, maybe more.

- There is a good sized river ahead, - said Borg, the young hunter had scouted the lay of the land earlier that afternoon - the herd will get there tomorrow by noon. We can hunt them when they get there.

- Too dangerous, - countered Vorn, - the herd is too big. Trapped between the river and the hunters the bison might turn on us; we wouldn't survive if that happened. Rec! what would your people do?

- I think we wait, - said Ranec, - better opportunity like Crug say. Could be days too.

- What would you do then, - Vorn was curious about Other's hunting methods, - how would you hunt?

- If few hunters, - said Ranec pointing at Vorn, Crug and himself, - stalk herd, throw all spears to one animal, ensure kill. If many hunters, and he made a circular motion around all hunters, build surround, trap bison, kill many.

- What is "ssrond"? - asked Grod, Ranec had used the mamutoi word for it.

Ranec tried to explain the concept but, without having actually seen one, the Clan hunters were unable to imagine it. Only Durc seemed to grasp the idea.

- Like closed canyon but built with trees? - asked the young Clan hunter.

- Yes! - said Ranec - Bison cannot go, hunters throw spears, many spears.

- No trees here, - said Grod. It was too difficult to picture the concept of something not in their memories, and it was a useless effort since there were no trees. The experienced former second-in-command discarded the concept entirely.

- Broud would talk! - The former leader's formality surprised everyone and got him everyone's attention.

- Broud may talk, - said Vorn.

- The Bison will stop by the river tomorrow - said the former leader - and the river lies downwind from the herd. If a few hunters approach carefully, they could set the grass in fire and the wind would take the fire to the bison. The herd would panic, most will cross the river, but many will run along the riverbank; some upriver, most downriver.

- We can dig pit traps by the riverbank! - said Durc receiving immediately a dark look from Broud and disapproving nods from most of the other hunters.

- Broud is talking, - said Vorn, sternly, - wait your turn!

- There is o time to dig, - said Broud, - the herd will be there tomorrow before noon.

Durc, embarrassed by his own lack of manners, looked down.

- This is what we do, - Broud's proven hunting instincts were working at full speed now, - we place our best hunters upriver, close enough to barely reach the riverbank with the spear throwers. The other hunters will set fire to the grass and then will chase the bison going upriver so they won't stop when approaching the stalking hunters. The bison will then pass between them and the river; they should be able to kill some.

- Like a pit trap, - said Ranec, - without the pit.

- Why not downriver? - asked Groob - You said most of the bison not crossing the river would go downriver.

Broud shook his head meaning tiredness over a not too intelligent question.

- Too dangerous, - explained Vorn, - I will be hard to tell how wide will the herd spread downriver; the hunters waiting might get stepped on. It is a good plan, Broud, I think we will do just that. Anyone else wants to say anything?

- One thing, - said Ranec and, after an approving nod from Vorn, continued, - best let first many bison go, if bison find dead bison ahead maybe run away from river, maybe over hunters.

The next morning, the Clan hunters deployed according to Broud's plan. Vorn, with Grod, Crug and Borg slowly approached the big herd widely spread along the riverbank. When it was evident that their presence was getting some young bulls too nervous, Vorn signaled; Borg ran halfway towards where the rest of the hunters were waiting, and relayed Vorn's command. The three older hunters used the firestones, and the fast-fire-making materials they had brought to start a raging prairie fire that, as Broud had predicted, was taken by the wind to where the bison were. A couple hundred animals ran upriver followed by the four clan hunters, including Borg, while several thousands ran downriver and much more thousands jumped into the river to attempt the crossing.

As the smaller herd stampeded towards them, Broud, Ranec, Groob, Brac, Grev and Durc, loaded their spear throwers and stood their ground, shaking. Almost half the bison had passed by when Broud yelled and launched his first spear; the former leader's aim was true and a young bull in its prime fell to the ground with its heart pierced by the weapon. All of the other hunters took it as a signal, and by the time the last bison disappeared over the horizon each of them had launched two or three spears. Nine animals of all sizes were lying dead along the blood covered riverbank, and two more followed the wake of the herd leaving a bloody trail, mortally wounded.

The carved spears of Durc and Ranec were easily recognizable, showing they had not failed a single throw, all three of Durc's spears and all four of Ranec's had found their mark. But they shared two of their kills, all of the dead animals had two or three spears on them save for the first one, killed by Broud with only one masterful throw. Another three bison had their hearts stabbed through, and it was conceded that those were Grev's spears, but the young hunter pointed to the other spears in the bison's bodies, including one of Ranec's, meaning the kills were shared. Right then Vorn arrived with Borg and Crug, followed a little later by Grod. Looking at the carnage the leader felt elated, this meant that they would not have to hunt so often now, and still would have enough meat stored for the winter long before the summer was over. Turning to look at his hunters, the leader made The Question.

- Who made the first kill?

Everyone was exhausted by the time the expedition arrived back home. They had only been gone for the duration of a woman's curse, but it seemed twice that time for all that had happened. While they had employed only a day getting to the hunting grounds, the journey back, heavily loaded, had taken twice that time. Also, processing the meat of nine full grown bison had demanded a monumental effort from the clan's women. But it had been done.

For a moment, it seemed that the meat was going to be too much for the women to carry, and Vorn had considered making two trips home; drying the meat on place, like in a mammoth hunt, had been another option. Taking the choicest parts and leaving the rest, like the Others did, was not considered, it went against thousands of years of Clan tradition. In the end, Ranec had come with the solution; chopping a couple young trees by the riverbank, the man of the others, with the help of his woman, made a strange wooden contraption that he called "a travois". With it, two men could haul a load equivalent to what all the clan's women could carry. Ranec had insisted that it had to be hauled by men, not by women, so Vorn had ordered that only two travois were to be made, he was not prepared to take more than four hunters off the protection duty. With so much meat, not less than six hunters were needed to protect the group. Once the group was packed and began the trip home, Vorn led the group followed by Uba and all the women, with Ranec and Durc pulling the first travois, Borg and Groob the second, and Brac, Grev and Broud walking at the rear end of the group, Grod and Crug flanked the group of heavily loaded travelers. Vorn would have preferred to have eight men free to guard the expedition, feeling that Grod and Crug were not enough to protect the flanks; but that would have meant leaving one travois behind so Vorn decided to risk it, not without consulting with his hunters first.

- I can protect the rear with the sons of my mate, said Broud, and if any danger comes from either side, one of them can run ahead to help Crug or Grod.

- We can put our spears and throwers on the "trois," said Groob, and if it comes to it, we can drop the trois and take our weapons.

- That is exactly what mamutoi do, - said Ranec, - I carry spears, thrower, in basket on back. Ready to throw fast.

It was clear that nobody wanted to stay to process the meat, much less to leave one travois behind. But Vorn still doubted. The safety of his clan was, still, his main concern.

- Two bison escaped wounded, - said Grod.

- The wounds were fatal, - confirmed Crug, - we would have followed them if we did not have so much kills. Those bison will keep the other predators and scavengers away from us providing we leave fast.

And that, finally, convinced Vorn; not only were all his men eager to leave, but it was also the safest course of actions. The Clan left early and traveled the whole day stopping only at noon for a short rest. When they set up camp for the night, Ranec's shoulders were all sore, scratched and covered with blood; Uba and Ena treated him, but Ranec was surprised to see that neither Durc, nor any of the other two clan hunters pulling travois were hurt in the slightness.

The second day Vorn ordered a switch, Grod and Grev took the first travois while Crug and Brac took the second; Borg and Groob took then the rear with Broud while Ranec and Durc covered the flanks. It was late evening when the group finally arrived to The Den, but the exhaustion did not prevent the Clan from honoring the spirits of the totems with a celebration. A succulent meal of fresh, tender bison meat, accompanied with fresh and cooked vegetables was prepared by the women. A hunt dance, a vivid recreation of the incredibly successful bison hunt, was performed, not only for the benefit of the protective totem spirits but also as a way to teach the young, to impress the women and, most important, to firmly engrave the experience in their phenomenal inheritable memories. For Ranec and Masuko, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience; the dance was so evocative that Ranec felt like if he was there again, and had no problem doing his part. For Broud, it was renaissance; for the first time, after almost four years, he was, once again, leading a hunt dance. After the feast, the dance and the storytelling, the hunters went inside the second cave for their own private ceremony, to offer thanks to the Clan Totems for such a successful hunt. Ranec was invited to join them.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

- I had never seen so many bison together in my life, - said Masuko, she and Ranec were hunting together in the hillsides close to the cave, but they were paying more attention to their conversation than to finding game, - I have seen very little bison in fact; they are not so common where I live.

- It is because of the steppes, - said Ranec, - the Sabanii territory is mostly mountains and valleys. But I had never seen so many either, this herd was at least ten times bigger than I had ever seen before. They don't gather in so big numbers in the north, where the mamutoi live, but I had heard of such big herds from the Sungaea; their territory is mostly between the clan and the mamutoi, I think theirs is the best hunting territory.

- How was it? - asked Masuko - The ceremony, I mean. You were not yourself last night, and you slept late; you never sleep late.

- It was amazing, he said, I could see my memories of childhood, and strange memories too, very ancient, of Wymez, and of my mother too; and more ancient memories, some that I could not understand. But I tell you this, in the beginning there were no humans and Clan, there was only people. Then we were all clan, and then we changed into what we are now; but some people did not change, they are still Clan.

- Do you at least understand yourself?

- I am not sure, - said Ranec thoughtful, - you should come with me in one such trip to the spirit world to understand. And there is more. Goov says that the mog-ur before him could control the minds of all the other men and guide them to their beginnings, the beginning of life; but he does not have that power, we were all just drifting through our memories without control. But I tell you this, in the beginning there were no humans and Clan, there was only people. Then we were all clan, and then we changed into what we are now; but some people did not change, they are still Clan.

- You are getting crazy, my love, crazier than you already were. - Masuko hid her worry with the banter - Are you now going to join the sabania, or the mamuti?

- I have no talent for that, he answered, but I sure want to repeat this experience, and I would like you to do the same. There will be a woman's ceremony tonight, and another men's ceremony.

- What is the occasion?

- Goov says today is Summer Day, whatever it means, and he is planning a big ceremony; he is going to reveal the totems of the babies born this last year, and he is raising Ena to the status of Medicine Woman in the same ceremony…

- Hey! Look! - Masuko was suddenly alert - Fresh blood in the bushes, and wolf tracks!

Fearing a dangerous encounter with a wounded wolf, Ranec and his mate began to follow the tracks, only to find a big dead wolf lying under a tree.

- Looks like as if he was on a big fight, said Ranec examining the dead body.

- Yes, and he lost, - said Masuko taking out her knife to skin the wolf. There was no point in loosing a wolf pelt.

- By the look of the tracks, - said Ranec, - he was wounded sometime yesterday and crawled here to die. But he died just about now, the body is not cold yet.

- Well, whoever killed him made you a favor, - said Masuko, - just wait to see what I can make you with this.

And making a roll with the wolf pelt, she put it in her carrying bag and they both began to walk back to the cave.

Ranec and Masuko arrived to the cave in the early afternoon, on time for the ceremonies. Totem ceremonies were usually held at dawn, before the spirits dispersed around for the day, but the making of a new medicine woman, just like the making of a new hunter, was almost always done at dusk. It was considered a major event, since it meant the elevation of a Clan member to a higher status in the spirit world. Even if she did not talk to the spirits nor they talked to her, the medicine woman dealt with evil spirits her whole life, fighting them. She was also the keeper of the magical black stone that held the spirits of all the clan members, and not only her own clan but the whole Clan of the Cave Bear. Such ceremony was always followed by a large feast, made possible by the successful bison hunt, and two private esoteric ceremonies, one for the men and one for the women.

After Goov painted the sacred esoteric markings on Ena's naked body, for the first time in her life, and introduced her to the clan's protective spirits asking them to help her in her fight against the evil ones, the mog-ur presented the new medicine woman with the small manganese dioxide stone that gave her the highest status among the women of her clan. Second only to other medicine women, more experienced, or born to a higher ranked line; Ena's status among her people was ensured for life.

The Totem ceremonies were conducted to the full satisfaction of the children's mothers and their mates; with the years, Goov had become good at discovering the protective spirits of the clan's youngsters. Broud almost exploded with pride when the mog-ur announced that the Wooly Rhinoceros was the totem of Oga's youngest son, Brooz. Uba could barely maintain her composure when baby Ila was delivered into the protection of the Saiga Antelope, Iza's totem. Brac, on his part, was fully satisfied to learn that Rec's totem was, indeed, the Bison; it was not only late Brun's totem but it was the first totem revealed to him. Even if he had not talked about it with Goov, he had had strong feelings about it during the last bison hunt, and now Goov had just confirmed them.

After the feast, the children were mildly sedated and put to sleep and the women began their dance while the men disappeared into the second chamber of the cave. The strange, compelling, relentless rhythm of the clan ceremonial drums, played by Uba and Ena, took hold of Masuko, and soon she found herself dancing around the fire just like one more clan woman. The drinking and the dancing went well past midnight, before the exhausted women fell asleep to the ground.

-It was the most incredible experience, - told Masuko to her mate, the next morning, - it gives a whole new meaning to the word intense; pretty much like a Mother festival, but without pleasures, and much more frenetic.

- A Mother festival without pleasures? And you enjoyed it?

- Enjoy it I did, - said Masuko coming all over her mate, - and I bet you can fix the Pleasures part right now.

It was well past noon when Masuko finally walked out of her hearth to look for what she needed to work in her wolf. The processing of the wolf pelt to make a soft fur out of it, turned out to be a surprise; but it wasn't Ranec the one surprised by Masuko's skill, it had been she the one surprised by the clan women's. When the woman of the Others first took the pelt to Durc's hearth and tried to get the required tools and materials from Ena, a difficult task given the lack of a common language, she excited the curiosity of Ura and Uma as well. It was common practice for clan women to compare their skills in curing hides and furs at the Clan Gatherings, and they were curious to see just how skilled that strange woman was. Her traveling clothes, strange as they were, did not speak so well for her, but they were old and worn by use as expected from long used traveling outfits; this was the time to really assess her skill. Trying to make a good impression on the strange woman, Uma took a wolf fur that her mother, Oda, had cured and given to her before she mated, and brought it to Durc's hearth to show it to the stranger. Masuko was a trader, and not too adept at domestic tasks like working furs and hides, but the Sabanii were noted for their technique with furs and her mother was still considered the best; Masuko was sure she could impress any non-Sabanii with what her mother had taught her. But when she touched the fur Uma gave her, she was left open mouthed; it was unbelievably, no, impossibly soft and pliable. So, with the help of Ranec for translation, she asked Uma to show her the Clan's technique.

The wolf pelt was not only discussed by the women; the men also gathered to debrief Ranec.

- …and there it was, - said Ranec, concluding his retelling, - it cannot be long time dead. Me guess it fight other wolf, lose fight, go there to die. Much blood all around, wolf bled to death.

- I think this was the old leader of the wolfpack that lives nearby, - said Crug, - maybe other wolf fought for leadership and there is a new pack leader now.

- I am sure it is, - said Brac, - I am sure I saw tracks of a young adult wanderer before the bison hunt. I told Vorn.

Vorn assented with his head and asked - Could it be the white wolf that was lurking around here last summer?

- I don't think so, - said Grod, - the white one fought and lost, later stole one female and ran away. It must have started a new pack away from here; this must be a new wolf.

Most hunters nodded agreement. They respected and valued the experience of the oldest hunter of their clan. Durc was pensive.

- The old leader, - said Groob, - had learned to keep his pack away from us. Maybe this new leader will act differently, maybe the wolves will try to attack us, our pregnant women or our children.

Groob was genuinely worried, after all those years, Igra was finally pregnant.

- Maybe we should go after the wolves, - agreed Borg, - kill them all or, at least, chase them away from our territory.

Norm was already in his learning year and liked to wander around the cave trying to kill his first small animal; this was the worst time to begin having problems with the wolves

- Maybe we will have to do that, agreed Vorn, but this is a very large pack and they know us very well after all this years. It will not be easy, and it will be very dangerous; we better wait and see what the wolves do.

- Broud would speak! - again, the former leader surprised everyone with his exaggerated formality.

- Broud may speak, - answered Vorn.

- I say Vorn is right, - said Broud, - it is too dangerous to go after the wolves; but Groob is right too, they might come after our women and children. I say we must double the vigilance and the protection of women and children, then wait and see. If there are problems with the wolves we don't have to kill them all, we kill the new leader; without him, the pack will stay away from us as they are used to.

All the hunters agreed; Broud had stayed out of their circle for so long that they had almost forgotten just how vast his knowledge of hunting and competing four legged hunters was.

Walking back to his hearth, accompanied by Brac, Groob, Grev and Ranec, Durc was still thinking about the behavior of the neighboring wolf clan; they were intelligent animals with a complex social behavior, so much alike to men in some traits and so different in others. And they were the embodiment of his totem, the Spirit of Gray Wolf.

- Ena! - he said upon entering his hearth - You are not to go walking around the cave alone anymore. There is a new wolf leader in the pack that lives nearby; the wolves might become more aggressive.

- The same goes to you, - said Brac to Ura, - never leave Rec on the ground outside the cave unless there are many hunters all around, and… - the acolyte was not sure how to say it, or if it was appropriate, but little Rec and his mother meant more than life to him, - …always take with you that new cooking tool of yours when you are out of the cave. - And having said that, he stormed out of Durc's hearth and headed to Mog-ur's hearth, his entire body language implying he had urgent important business to deal with.

Similar orders given by the other hunters, as they also left Durc's hearth with their mates, made the women really nervous. Masuko did not understand any of the signs, but got the feeling that they were talking about her wolf pelt.

- What is the problem Ranec? - she asked as soon as they entered their own temporary hearth - Is there any problem with my wolf pelt? I am not giving it up no matter what, so be advised.

- There is no problem with your pelt, Sukie, the problem is with the one that made it a pelt. - and Ranec explained to his mate what had been said at the men's meeting.

- This Broud is a wise fellow, - said Masuko, - he seems to know a lot more than he appears to.

- He was the leader, - explained Ranec, - until a hunting accident forced him to step down; his knowledge of wild animals, the hunted and the hunters, is amazing. But be very careful around him, he is a cruel vicious man, I knew of him from Ayla; be very careful around him.

Almost alone in her hearth, accompanied only by Ura who made herself almost invisible as a courtesy to her friend, Ena sat in front of her mate requesting his attention; Durc tapped, immediately, her shoulder.

- There is a new wolf leader, - said the clan's second medicine woman, - that means that all the baby wolves will die. Isn't that so?

- Yes, that is so; they are most probably dead already.

- Does the hunter remember the last time we talked about wolf babies?

- Yes, - said Durc, first curious about how much affected seemed to be his mate by the fate of some wild animals, and almost immediately remembering where that conversation had taken them to, - I remember that conversation very well; all of it. What are you trying to tell me, medicine woman?

- This woman is pregnant, - said Ena looking to the ground, her fears evident to her mate, - the baby will be born next year, early in spring.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

Six reindeer were the result of the second hunt where Broud participated, and it took the women two trips to bring all the meat to the cave even if two deer were carried by the men, one in each trip, to be processed at home. The deer hadn't been found by Brac's searching but by Broud, himself, from the old lookout; less than half a morning away from the cave, and with only half the available hunters, the hunt had been an easy affair. Vorn, Borg and Grev, along with the man of the Others, had accompanied Broud in this short expedition, while the other five hunters and the mog-ur had stayed protecting the children and the women that stayed at the cave.

After Ranec arrived to the cave in the first trip back, helping Vorn, Grev and Borg to carry home the first of the deer carried by the men, he stayed there to have his bruised and scratched back treated by Ena and Masuko. Grod took his place, returning with the women and the other three hunters to where Broud waited, protecting the rest of their kills.

- I knew flat… clan men were strong, - he said to his mate, sitting on the floor in Durc's hearth while Ena treated his back, - but these boys are amazing, Borg is not full grown yet and Grev is barely a child; still they carry the deer as easily as if it were a rabbit, while I, what can I say, just look at my back.

- But, my love, you are an artist, - said Masuko caressing his sore arms, - not a deer carrier. Besides, you are a fine hunter, and, - kissing his mouth, - more than strong enough for me.

Ranec returned the kiss and caressed his mate's small but hard and muscular body, making Ena and Durc curious of their behavior. The clan considered inappropriate such display of affection outside one's hearth, but these Others were caressing and licking each other's face all the time. Ena would die of shame before doing such a thing, but in the privacy of their own hearth, she and Durc had been mimicking what they saw Rec and Uky doing, and had been discovering a lot about their own bodies and their own tastes. Ena enjoyed herself so much with Durc, that she couldn't help but to talk about it with Ura, her best friend, who in turn, had been trying with moderate success to introduce her own mate to this new activities.

- That be all, - said Ena in barely passable mamutoi, - Rec put fur on back best next time carry deer.

Ena's incredibly fast progress in learning the spoken language never ceased to amaze Masuko, but Ranec remembered Ayla had showed the same skill. Of course he did not mention it, least of all to his mate, because the short tempered Sabanii woman he loved was, in her own words, "fed up with that perfect Ayla". Durc, the only other clan member capable of verbal speech, had also been learning the mamutoi language; while he seemed unable to get the right pronunciation of some words and could not grasp the trick on grammar and syntax, no matter how hard he tried, his vocabulary was already astounding. In Ranec's opinion, the young man had inherited his mother's phenomenal memory, and carried it to higher levels; he hadn't realized yet that it was a clan trait.

- Ranec, my love, - aid Masuko, - I am not sure, but I believe Ena has been talking about the new wolf leader killing the puppies born before he was leader; she seems to be affected somehow by the fate of those little wolves.

- Not only the puppies, their mother might have been killed too if she tried too hard to protect her young; you know that. But why are you suddenly so much interested in baby wolves?

- Trade! Have you seen the furs these clan women make? I can trade them and get…

- No you can't, - interrupted Ranec, - the furs are not yours and the Clan does not trade… as far as I know.

- No, but you know it will take the new wolf leader from two days to a week to kill the puppies. We could track him back to the female's den and get the pelts of the dead puppies, maybe that of their mother too; then we give them to Ena and Ura, they turn them into these wonderful furs and we give them one or two in payment.

- There is the Sabanii master trader speaking, - said Ranec smiling at his mate's enthusiasm, - but you know the saying; don't trade the pelt of a living wolf. Besides, we might not be able to find the wolf's den; it is usually very well hidden.

- Durc know!

- What? - Masuko turned her head, surprised to find out Durc had been listening to her conversation with Ranec. It was impolite from the young clan man to hear a private conversation, but they were in his hearth, and it had been impolite from them to leave him out of the conversation to begin with.

- Durc know den, Durc show. - He had been listening innocently, as Ena had been, driven only by their desire to learn the Other's language; but he also had a personal interest in the wolves, they were the embodiment of his Totem.

After a short conversation between Ranec and Durc, in a mixture of Clan signs and mamutoi words, the four of them agreed to go out next morning looking for the wolves. Brac and Grev would also be invited; it was a wise move especially if the women were going along. Planning was left for the night since Durc was being summoned by the mog-ur for a private meeting in the second chamber of the cave.

- I have an important decision to make, - said Vorn, - and I want your opinion, before making my mind, since you are the ones most affected.

The meeting included Goov the mog-ur, Brac his acolyte, Crug the second in command, Grev and Durc.

- Broud is hunting with the clan again, - continued Vorn, - and no only is he hunting but the last two hunts, under his strategy, were the most successful ever.

The five other men at the meeting looked at each other trying to guess each others thoughts; they all knew what this meeting was about.

- I made it clear, upon assuming leadership, - said Vorn confirming his men's suspicions, - that my intention was to hand back leadership to Broud if he ever recovered enough to hunt again. Broud is hunting, he is planning the hunts, and he has been respecting my authority without making any demands. I thing he is ready to lead again, I think he deserves to lead, I think he is our rightful leader. What do you think?

- I think you are right, - said Crug, - Broud is the rightful leader. The spirits have been good to us since you assumed leadership, which I think means it was right to make you leader then; but if you don't hand him back leadership, now that he is well again, the spirits might get angry and turn against us.

- I don't think so, - said Brac, - you have been a far better leader than Broud ever was. I doubt that we would still be first had Broud been the leader at the Clan Gathering. I doubt we would have taken in Ena, who now is an excellent medicine woman, and I doubt we would have tried these new Other's weapons which are, precisely, what have made possible for Broud to hunt again. I think we are better off with you as our leader, I think even Broud is. And I don't think the spirits would disapprove; as leader, you are the only one to decide when to step down if at all, there is nothing in the traditions against it.

- I won't state an opinion against or in favor of making Broud leader again, - said Grev, - because it would decide my position as possible future leader. All I say is, I know you are the best leader right now, I know Durc would become just as good a leader, I will support whatever decision you make.

- I say the same as Grev, - said Durc, - I know he would become as good a leader as you are now.

Goov looked around, there was one opinion in favor of Broud and one against; two in favor, counting Vorn's. He was reluctant to support Broud, the clan was doing so well under Vorn, but he knew that could change if the spirits got angry. Brac was right, there was nothing in the traditions forcing Vorn to step down again, but, in the other hand, there was Vorn's word. He had stated his intentions from the beginning. What if that was what the spirits approved?

But, what about Broud himself? Was he ready to lead again? He was less irascible now, more controlled; of course, he was older and presumably wiser. But was it true, or was he just bidding his time? He had looked mature and ready for leadership the first time, yet as soon as he had the power he used it in a very bad way. Was that going to happen again? What would he do if that happened? Brun was not there to help him anymore, and Grod had no heart for it now, either. And most important; what was the will of the spirits? Vorn had taken him by surprise; he had not had the time to meditate properly.

- I know that you feel bound by your words, - said the mog-ur, - but what the spirits care more is; what is best for your clan? You are the leader now, not Broud, and you must decide what is best for every member of your clan. If you thing that Broud is not going to be a better leader than you are, then you must not hand him back the leadership. But don't do it because of your words, a leader has not only the right but the obligation to change his mind when the circumstances force him to. I will not tell you which the best decision is, as leader, it is your decision to make; but if you put your pride on keeping your word before the interests of the people who depend on you, you will be acting wrong and you will raise the anger of the spirits.

- You are right, Mog-ur, it is my decision to make and I had already made it. I wanted to know your opinions, but nothing I have heard now makes me think my original decision was wrong. Tomorrow, at dawn, you will conduct the ceremony to reinstate Broud as leader of this clan. I will go to talk to Broud now.

Dawn found the clan gathered just outside the cave. Goov, dressed in full ceremonial outfit performed the required ceremony with as little enthusiasm as ever before; the ceremony making Broud leader was almost as fast as the one that took leadership of him four years ago. Upon finishing, Goov turned around and, followed by Brac, went into the cave, through it, and straight into the second chamber. It was done. Broud was once again the leader of the first clan.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

Brac, Grev and Durc, with Ranec, Masuko, Ena and Ura, were stalking carefully and from a long distance the den of the female wolf; Uma had stayed in the cave, wanting nothing to do with the living wolves. After the ceremony Broud had called for a meeting to be held at sunset, and the small group decided to proceed with their planned expedition. The den looked empty, no signs of life around it; but that was just how it was supposed to look like, so Ranec suggested to approach, slowly, walking in circles around the den. They were doing just that when they found her.

- Look! - said Grev pointing to a dark spot under a fallen tree's exposed roots - That is the mother wolf!

- It is dead, - said Durc after carefully examining the carcass, - a couple of days now.

- The fur is ruined, - said Masuko, looking at the rotten carcass already eaten by the scavengers, - we are too late!

- Any sign of the puppies? - asked Ranec

- None, - said Grev.

- Maybe we should look at the den, - said Ranec, remembering the way Ayla got Wolf.

- But let's be very careful about that, - said Brac, - one of us tracks and the rest of us watch.

Soon the small group gathered around the mouth of the wolf's den.

- Can you hear anything? - asked Masuko.

- Nope, - said Ranec, - someone might have to go inside.

- Not me, - said Masuko

And although no one else said a word, all of their faces showed the same feeling. It was just as well, besides Ena and Masuko, all the others including Ura were bigger, if not taller than him.

- I am going in, - said Ranec, - but first let's make sure the wolf is not in there. And lighting a torch, the man of the Others tried to look into the dark den as far as he could.

- It looks empty, - he said, - and taking his knife went into the narrow opening feeling his way with his knife.

It was very dark, his own body blocking the light, but the den did not went too deep and soon he found its end. Feeling with his stretched hands to the sides, he soon found the cold bodies of four little wolf puppies, three actually, because the fourth was not so cold.

- I found them! - said Ranec, - Pull me out! It is too narrow to turn around or even to crawl back!

Masuko dived into the den, up to her waist, and taking her mate by the feet pulled him out. Once Ranec got out of the dark hole he showed his prize, four almost grown wolf puppies.

- These were almost ready to leave the den, - said Brac, - too bad.

- One is still alive, - said Ranec.

- Let me see it, - said Ena

- What for? - asked Masuko, - we will have to kill her anyway.

- No we don't; - countered Ranec - if she survives I am planning to keep her.

All of them had heard, from Ranec, the story of Wolf, the puppy raised by Ayla at Lion Camp, but no one had thought in actually taking in a living wolf. Masuko saw in her mate's eyes that he meant what he said, the other two women wouldn't even imagine questioning a man's decision, and the clan hunters were prepared to expect anything from the strange man of the Others. Ena, though, knew what was expected of her; she wouldn't dare to ignore a man's order, so she turned to examine the baby she-wolf.

- She has been bitten in the neck by a full grown wolf, - said the medicine woman, - she probably passed out and stopped breathing for a while, so the wolf thought she was dead and moved on to kill her siblings.

- Probably, - said Durc, who was examining the other three bodies, - these ones all have their necks broken. They were killed probably yesterday, but I think the furs can be saved.

- I will need a fire to make medicine for the little wolf, - said Ena, - not even bothering to suggest that the small predator was taken to the cave

- Let's set up camp in this clearing in front of the wolf den, - said Durc, - the fire will keep animals, including the other wolves, away.

In a moment, the women gathered dry wood for the men to start the fire, and arranged the area around the fire in a manner of a small campsite. Ranec and Masuko were impressed by their speed and efficiency.

While Ena boiled water and prepared a medicine to treat the young wolf's injuries, the rest of the group sat around the fire and began a conversation in mixed clan gestures and Mamutoi words.

- Are you sure there were no more puppies? - asked Masuko - Four puppies seem too few for a healthy female with a big pack.

- There were only the four, - answered Ranec

- We might find more bodies around, - said Grev, looking at the tracks around the camp.

And just as he had predicted, three more little bodies were found in the vicinity; but their pelts were completely destroyed. Only the bodies inside the den had stayed undisturbed; Durc got the feeling that if they had waited a couple days more the scavengers would have ventured inside the den too.

- Is she going to live? - asked Ranec.

- I don't know, - said Ena, - without her mother, I don't think so. She is dehydrated and hungry; I can treat her injures, but I have no wolf milk for her.

- I know how to feed her, - said Ranec, - I've seen it done before. Besides she is old enough to have begun eating meat.

- Broud will not let you take the wolf inside the cave, - said Durc, - Mama used to bring wounded animals into the cave to heal them, but never meat eaters; Brun didn't allow it Broud won't either.

- That is fine, - said Ranec, - it is time for us to leave, anyway, or we won't get home before the end of the summer meeting.

- That I won't find acceptable, - said Masuko, - you promised…

- And I will deliver, - said Ranec; - our mating will be recognized and you will be adopted into the Mamutoi this summer meeting.

- Are you not mated yet? - asked Brac, curious - You said she was your mate.

- She is, - explained Ranec, both in Clan and in mamutoi, - we mated at the Sabanii matrimonial, but the Mamutoi live so far away that her mother worried about our mating being recognized by my people. Mating involves serious obligations, and she worried that I could abandon her daughter alone and far away from home. Of course I would never do that, but she made me promise that I would have our mating recognized by the Mamuti.

- Mut..ti? Mut…toi? Why is that a different word? - Asked Brac

- The Mamuti are the mog-urs of the Mamutoi, - said Ranec - once our mating is recognized, she will become Sukie of the Mamutoi; she will always be taken care for even if we don't stay mated.

- Why change name? - asked Ena, encouraged by Masuko's attitude of never asking permission to speak.

- Name not really change, - said Ranec, - is same name but in Mamutoi language. In clan her name is Uky, and my name Rec; in Mamutoi your name would be Enie.

- So you leave today? - asked Durc.

- I would prefer to leave tomorrow morning, - said Ranec, - but if there are going to be problems with Broud, we would camp nearby tonight, probably just across the river, and leave early in the morning.

- I might have to leave soon too, - said Durc, thoughtful, almost to himself, - but maybe wait until spring. It is to late now to find new place and settle for winter.

Ena reacted with surprise and fear. Leave? Was her mate gone mad? In Spring when she was heavy with pregnancy or burdened with a newborn baby? Where would they go? What clan would want them? But she said nothing; a Clan woman never questioned her mate's decisions. Ura was just as surprised and looked into her friend's eyes offering support, but she did not say anything either.

- Leave? - exclaimed Grev - Are you nuts?

- We might have to, - said Brac, somberly, and it was Ura's turn to react with surprise and fear.

- Are you both crazy? - asked Grev - Why? And to where?

- Do you remember, - explained Brac, - when Broud was first made leader? He made it clear that he would not accept any deformed baby. And I am sure that he would not have accepted Rec. Ena is pregnant, her bay will be deformed just as Durc was, Broud will not allow it to live. I also worry for Igra, after all this years she is finally pregnant; what if her baby is of Durc's spirit? We are too close, the four of us, and our mates are in each other's hearths all the time; we even use each other's mates to relieve our needs when our own mate has her woman's curse. That is too close, any of our totem spirits could overcome any of our mate's; and if the spirits mix as Ranec says, and I think it is true, any of our mates could have a mixed baby who will be considered deformed by Broud… even Uma.

- Uma is not pregnant, - said Grev.

- But she will be, one day, - insisted Brac; - and what are you going to do? Are you going to forbid her visiting Durc's hearth? She and her sister are good friends with Ena, and Ena is Medicine woman. Are we going to stop being friends with Durc? Are we going to isolate Durc and Ena?

Grev's expression turned serious, but he said nothing. The women were present, as usually between the four friends (including Groob), but they did not dare to speak.

- Ayla was right - continued Brac, looking directly at Durc, - we may have to leave, eventually.

- Ayla? - asked Grev, surprised, - What do you mean Ayla?

- That time when we went searching for Mama, - answered Durc, - she said this would happen. She said that if Broud regained leadership, Brac and I would have to leave. It is too late in the season to start searching for a new cave now, but next spring, as soon as Ena's baby is born, I will leave. I will not have Broud killing Ena's baby only because he thinks it is deformed.

- I think you must not act recklessly, brother, - said Grev, - Broud has changed a lot; things might be different. I think you should wait and see.

- Maybe you are right, - said Durc, - maybe not. Broud has called for a meeting this afternoon, let's see what happens then.

- Speaking of meeting, - said Brac, - we must eat something and start back immediately if we don't want to be late for the meeting.

Hearing what her mate said, and before he had to tell her anything, Ura began to unpack the food they had taken for the trip, including some fat, fresh meat from the last hunt and some fresh vegetables, and began to prepare the meal, aided by Ena; Masuko went also to help, but she was more interested in learning the clan way to prepare meals than in actually helping.

After eating the soup and the spitted meat with cooked vegetables, the group started back to the cave, there was almost no conversation since everyone was concentrated in his, or her, own thoughts. Ranec and Masuko took stayed a little behind so they would be able to talk with some privacy.

- Is Durc serious? Would Broud order Ena's baby to be killed if it is mixed? Would the rest of the clan let him? The baby will most probably be mixed.

- Yes he would, - said Ranec, - it is their custom and it is his right. Besides, would it be any different if a Sabanii woman had a child of mixed spirits?

- No, it would be worse; she would be most probably killed along with her abomination. What would happen if I get pregnant from a Clan male spirit? We have been living in their cave several days. It could happen, you know.

- I don't think so, - said Ranec remembering Ayla's promise about Ralev, the child of his spirit born to Tricie, - but it is best if we leave soon. This little one here is the perfect excuse.

Ayla had told him that babies were started when a man shared pleasures with a woman. "I promise you this is true, and this promise cannot be broken" she had said; Ranec hadn't believed her then, but he wanted to believe now.

- They don't have to wait for next spring, you know, - said Masuko, - I can take a bunch of those wonderful furs their women make and trade them for enough food to last half the winter; and make a decent profit myself too.

- And what about the other half winter?

- I don't know Clan customs, but I would say that they have the right to a share of what is already stored. - said Masuko.

- If it comes to it, - said Ranec, - they could winter with Lion Camp, I am sure; and now that I think of it, I know of a cave where they could go if they don't want to winter with strange people.

- Is it a safe place? - asked Masuko - Is it not within the territory of another Clan or, even worse, out of flathead country?

- It is out of Clan territory, - admitted Ranec, - and very close but outside Mamutoi hunting territory. For some reason, the Mamutoi never go that way, and it is out of Sungaea territory too. It is perfect for them, - exclaimed Ranec with sudden enthusiasm, - as if the Mother had reserved that place for this people! I know of someone who lived there for three years and never saw anybody.

- Please don't tell me who.

- I won't, - smiled Ranec, - but it is true. The cave might be small but will be enough for them the first winter. Later I can teach them how to build a lodge, mamutoi style. I will talk to Durc about it.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

As soon as the sun began to turn red in the horizon, Broud signaled everyone to gather around the big fire, used in the morning ceremony, to hear what he had to say.

- Now, at last, things are the way they should have always been, - began Broud, - and the Clan has its rightful leader again! It is time to set some other things straight too!

Goov looked at Vorn, and then to the ground; Broud was the same Broud he had always been. He knew what happened in Vorn's mind and had refrained to do anything that might make the temporary leader change his intentions; but now that he was in command again, he was refraining no more.

- The man of the Others, Rec, has brought a living wolf form his excursion of today, said Broud - As grateful as I am for the new weapons, and the magic firestone that he has brought to us, I must ask him to kill that animal for I cannot allow a meat eater to find shelter in our cave.

Everybody agreed with this. They had been surprised to see the wolf puppy carried by the stranger, but remembered that Ayla used to bring wounded animals to the cave too; maybe all the Others acted alike. They also remembered that Brun had drawn the line at meat eaters; Broud's request was fair and understandable.

- That will not be necessary, - answered Ranec, he had practiced his speech in advance and was prepared, - I will leave to my people with my mate in the morning. If the leader thinks that my wolf is unacceptable even for one night, I will leave tonight right after this meeting, and set camp across the river.

- Across the river is far enough, - said Broud, trying to sound reasonable and generous even at refusing Rec the shelter of the cave, - I have no objections to that. Other things must be set straight too. Vorn, who was my friend and second-in-command, betrayed me to make himself leader; as of now he is the second lowest ranked hunter, and Crug, who agreed to be his second-in-command is now the third lowest ranked hunter. Durc, the deformed man who never should have become a hunter, is and will always be the lowest ranked hunter. Starting now, Borg is my new second-in-command.

Now the clan began to feel alarmed, Vorn had had no choice but to become leader, and he had been a good leader; as for Crug, he was without doubt the best hunter of the clan. What was Broud doing? Borg was too inexperienced to be second!

Goov looked at Borg, who proudly positioned himself behind the leader; it was evident that Broud had spoken to him during the day, and the young hunter knew in advance what was going to happen.

- Not only a deformed woman has been taken into this clan, - continued Broud, - but also a woman of the Others who will bring us as much bad luck as the other one we had before. And that is not all; instead of giving the deformed woman as a mate to the deformed man as it had been arranged, she has been given to the son of my mate! Then she has given birth to a deformed son and he has been allowed to live! I made it clear before and I repeat it now; I will not allow any more deformed children in this clan. If the woman Ena, who is now pregnant, or any other woman gives birth to a normal baby, I will accept it. So I don't want anyone to think that I have anything personal against those women or their mates; any deformed baby born to any woman will be rejected.

A sudden rush of motion called everyone's attention to Durc and Ena; with a muted cry, Ena fainted and fell to the ground. Durc turned to help her while Uba rushed to her side. Seeing his mate lying on the ground, barely recovering under Uba's care, and with her eyes beginning to fill with tears; Durc raised to face Broud.

- I will not let you kill the sons of my mate, Broud! - said Durc, surprising the leader since he had never shown before any of the willfulness of his mother, - You are not my leader anymore! As of this moment I am leaving this clan. I will take my mate with me and leave tonight.

- Leave if you wish! - said Broud, - This clan will be better off without you and your ugly mate! And you won't find any clan stupid enough to take you in, you and your mate will die this winter!

- I could leave and let you believe that we died, - said Durc angrily, - but I won't give you that pleasure. I know of a cave, so far away to the north that it will take most of the warm season to get there, where I can live with my mate and with anyone else that wants to follow me. I will take my share of the stored food and I will find the way to get the rest of the meat I need for the winter. With the spear thrower, the same weapon that gave you back your leadership, I will be able to hunt in winter if I need to. And I won't die, Broud, my mate won't die and her children won't die. And you cannot do anything about it.

- How do you dare to defy the leader, you miserable brat! - Reacted Broud red with fury - You will see if I cannot make you die! Goov! Curse him! Curse him and his ugly mate with death! Curse them now!

The clan looked aghast as their leader lost control just as he had, so many years ago over Ayla. They almost expected the earth to start shaking at any moment. But something went different this time.

- No! - The mog-ur was firm.

Broud was astounded; how could Goov refuse to obey? But this was not the newly appointed inexperienced mog-ur of the last time. This was the all-powerful first ranked magician of all clans; this was The Mog-ur. And Broud cowered, as always, before his mysterious powers.

- Durc has left your clan, - said Goov, - and you agreed. You said "leave if you wish"; you have no authority to curse him or his mate now.

- Alright! - Said Broud, even more furious, - But he will take nothing with him! I will not let him take any of this clan's food! He and his ugly mate will starve to death before the winter is over!

- Wrong again, - said Goov; - he has been a hunter of the clan all this summer; he has the right to a share of the stored food according to his rank, which is the lowest. This is very clear according to the most sacred and ancient Clan traditions. Dorn and his young hunters took their fair share of the stored food when they left Norg's Clan. If you transgress this sacred tradition you will raise the anger of the spirits against you and your clan.

Broud was shaking, unable to control himself, but he feared the invisible omnipresent spirits more than anything in the world.

- Take your share of the food, - said Broud, - looking at Durc, you will not be able to survive alone no matter the weapons you use.

- I am going with him! - suddenly announced Brac - Durc, do you accept me in your clan?

- I do, my friend, I was counting on you.

- I am going too, - said Groob, surprising everyone; he had not been included in the conversations of that morning; - Igra is pregnant, she has waited too long to become pregnant and I don't know if this baby will be the only one she ever has. I will not risk the chance of having to kill it if you thing it is deformed, Broud. Durc has been trained for leadership by Vorn and by Brun himself, Brac is going to be the best mog-ur, I am going with them. Durc, do you accept me?

- I accept you, Groob, and I will accept any and every child Igra gives birth to.

Broud was open mouthed unable to believe this was really happening; his clan was disintegrating before his eyes! He was trying to asses the situation when the last blow came.

- Do you accept me, brother?

- I accept you, Grev, - said Durc, feeling more confident with every second, - welcome to our new clan, my milk brother.

- Grev, - cried Broud, - are you crazy? You are the son of my mate! You will be the next leader! Will you abandon your Clan and run away to die with this deformed man? This stupid monster who will lead you all to death in the land of the Others? You are the next leader of the first clan Grev! How can you leave?

- I have trained for leadership along with Durc, Broud, - said Grev, - and I can tell you two things I know for sure; Durc will be the best leader ever known, and you are already the worst. This clan will be last, under your leadership, long before I get to lead. In fact, I don't think this clan will survive that long under your leadership. I am going with Durc!

- No you are not, - shouted Broud, - None of you is! I am not allowing it!

- I am afraid you are wrong once again, Broud, - Goov would have laughed if he knew how, - your permission is not required. Durc has already accepted them, he is their leader now, not you, and every one of them has the right to his fair share of the stored food and of all the other clan's possessions. There is nothing you can do about it, unless you want to face the anger of the spirits.

And as if to confirm the mog-ur's words, a bright lightning crossed the sky and the ray fell on a tree, not too far uphill from the cave, setting it on fire. The thunder shook the guts of the already frightened leader and the heavy rain of the summer thunderstorm broke loose. The meeting disbanded on its own accord and everybody ran into the cave.

While Ranec and the members of Durc's new clan gathered their belongings Broud, frightened to the marrow of his bones, stayed at his hearth refusing to look at what was going on in the cave. Goov determined how much of the stored food was the fair share of the departing hunters and their women collected it. When the small group was ready, they left the cave to find that the short thunderstorm was over and the summer night sky was clear.

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Ena walked at a fast pace, despite her heavy load, following her mate and the dark man of the Others who had brought so much change into her life in so short a time. As befitted to her status of medicine woman, she walked in front of the group, only behind the two men leading the march; strangely enough she was not afraid anymore, her mate seemed to know what he was doing and all the other men seemed to trust him. And her baby would live, that was the most important, all her babies would live.

Durc meditated on what had happened since predawn, when Goov came to their camp to perform a ceremony raising Brac to full mog-ur status. He had also brought Oda, who had asked him to let her go with her daughters if one of their mates would have her; Goov had granted her request and Brac had agreed to provide for her. When a woman got old and her mate died, she usually went to live with one of her sons or daughters; Oda, being childless and second woman, would have a hard old age without her daughters. On the other hand, Ebra, who lived at Brac's hearth, had stayed with the clan; she was too old to travel and Goov promised to provide for her in the unlikely event that Broud refused. When the first sunrays fell over the land, they were already gone.

As the day ended and the sun began to dive for the horizon, Durc worried about the days to come; it was a heavy burden for his young age, he was responsible for the life of ten people including his own. But Ranec was optimistic and his other three men were confident; they had a plan, a good one. They were going to Mama's cave, Uky would take all the newest furs to the Others gathering and she would get food in exchange, of course a share of the furs would be hers in payment. Ranec and his mate would spend the winter with the Others, but they would be back in spring to help them, and they would be paid for their help with more furs, watertight baskets, woven grass mats and wooden bowls.

What would they do surrounded by Others, so far away from Clan territory? Would they honor Clan traditions or would they follow the ways of the Others? To Durc, the answer was simple, but he would have to convince the men. They were all Clan, even if Ena was born to the Others and if baby Rec, Ura and himself were, as Ranec said, "mixed"; so they would follow Clan traditions. But they did not belong to the Clan anymore, there would be no Clan Gathering for them to go; they were a new people, part Clan and part Others, so they would adopt some of the ways of the Others when they proved better than the clan ways. And what would the spirits do about it? Would the protective totem spirits desert them if they followed some new foreign ways? That would be a question for Brac to answer, but he was sure that the Others had strong protective spirits as well. Maybe they would be able to seek help from both Clan and Others spirits.

A river appeared ahead, a good place to set camp; Durc signaled a stop for the night. Looking at his people, working at setting up the camp, Durc took a time to really look at every one of them. He had got the very best of Broud's clan; he even had Oda, to help the women with her experience, and he had Ranec. Looking at the dark man of the Others, so full of enthusiasm and high spirits, Durc understood that he had him; Ranec might spend this winter with his original clan, but when he came back next spring, he would never go again. The man of the Others did not know it yet, but Durc was sure.

- He will be a great asset to our new clan, - gestured Brac, suddenly appearing at Durc's side.

How did mog-urs do to always know what a man was thinking?

- Yes he will, - answered Durc, - and so will be Uky.

And turning to face the darkening sky to the north Durc looked ahead the way they were going to travel tomorrow, to Mama's cave, to his own people, to a new life.

The End.


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