Elda looked around, wondering what she was supposed to do. She wished Ayla were with her, but the other woman had said she needed to be with Zelandoni, and Elda had not been able to stop her. Ord too was gone, off with the men. She bit her lip and looked down, wishing she didn't have to be here. She didn't even know what was going to happen, only that Ayla had lent her some clothes and told her to be excited.
She turned to see Folara slip in next to her. Elda smiled. "Hello Folara."
"Are you excited? I bet it's your first Mother Festival, isn't it?"
Elda frowned. "Not sure what mean, 'Mother Festival,'" she admitted.
Folara's eyes widened in shock. "You don't know what the Mother Festival is?" she repeated. "Didn't Ayla tell you?"
Elda shook her head. "Only say fun. Not tell me what expect."
"Well, it's starting now, so I can't explain it, but you'll see." Folara squeezed Elda's hand. "Don't worry. You'll like it."
Elda did not answer, but she did not let go of Folara's hand either.
Suddenly, her attention was drawn towards Ayla and Zelandoni. They stood at the very front of the cave, both dressed in ceremonial outfits. Elda had never seen anything like them before. Ayla wore tight-fitting pants made of soft bison leather, died a deep, earthy red. A fringe ran down each side, and Elda saw that most of the men of the cave seemed fixated on that fringe. Ayla also wore a bright red top, which was cut low so that it displayed only the most tantalizing of hints of her breasts. She wore her Clan amulet, of course, and her long blond hair hung loose around her. Elda could see how she would be considered absolutely irresistible.
Next to her, Zelandoni wore a long skirt, died the same deep red. Her skirt was devoid of fringe, but it was heavily decorated with painted symbols and animals. Above that, she wore a shirt similar to Ayla's, though not as low cut. Her long gray hair had been carefully arranged on top of her head. Both women wore strange designs on their faces, and Zelandoni sported a number of small bones and shells stuck through her face. Ayla had no piercing, but she did not need any. She was captivating enough without them.
Zelandoni's voice was powerful as she cried out, "We give thanks to Doni for another harvest. We thank Her for bringing our hunters home and keeping them safe. We thank Her for Her bounty and Her generosity in sharing the creatures She created with us."
"We thank Her," the multitude of Zelandoni chanted, eyes fixed on their donier and her acolyte.
Ayla took up the prayer. "We thank Doni for giving us many children this season, and we thank Her for the children which will be born during the winter. We thank Her for bringing our mothers and our men home, and for helping us keep the peace with our neighbors."
"We thank Her," the Zelandoni repeated, and, this time, Elda joined in.
"We thank Doni for giving us Her blessing," both women cried out together. "And we pray that She will continue to bless us."
"We thank Her!" the Zelandoni and Elda cried. "We thank Her!"
"We ask that Doni keep watch over us and protect us," Zelandoni continued.
"We ask that Doni save our children from death and our women from the pain of it," Ayla added.
"We ask that Doni continue to show us Her favor," both women insisted.
"We thank Her," the Zelandoni echoed.
"We promise to honor Doni tonight and all nights," Zelandoni swore, her powerful voice growing even richer as she spoke.
"We promise to respect Her creatures and take only what we need," Ayla continued. Her voice too had swelled, until she seemed to be shouting as loudly as she could, yet Elda could see that she was not straining at all.
"We promise never to forget that we owe all our luck and our wealth to Her," both women chorused.
"We thank Her," the Zelandoni repeated, and they continued to repeat it, over and over and over again. "We thank Her. We thank Her. We thank Her." Elda felt herself being carried away with them, and she cried out with the rest of them, feeling that she really did believe that Doni would hear them. Still, just to make sure, she added in a silent thank to Ursus for smiling on Ord and her and leading them to people who could help them.
Suddenly, Zelandoni raised an enormous mammoth bone high above her head and brought it crashing down on the ground. The sound of it echoed and swelled until it was all Elda could hear. The chanting stopped, and the only sound was the ringing of the mammoth bone. Slowly, even that faded away, and the only sound was the slight chirping of the last crickets.
The sun had gone down almost all the way, and Ayla and Zelandoni stood in the last pools of the sunset, the crimson and gold rays pooling around them, making it seem as though they stood behind a huge fire.
"Doni has accepted our thanks," Zelandoni said at last, breaking the stillness. "She will bless us for another year."
Elda felt as though everyone around her let out their collective breath in a sigh of relief. She felt herself doing the same, though she had not remembered holding her breath.
And then, it was over, and everything returned to normal. Ayla lit fires with her firestones and Proleva and the other women moved over to the feast table. The people began to chatter as they milled around the table.
Folara grinned at Elda. "That's only the beginning," she assured the Clan woman. "The rest is even better."
"What happened?" Elda asked. "Seemed like get bigger, but not move." That was not quite what she meant, but she did not know how to express herself properly in Zelandoni. She wished Ayla were here to translate. Then, with a slightly rueful smile, she realized that Ayla would probably let her fend for herself. The blond woman had been trying to convince Elda to become completely fluent, after all.
Thankfully, Folara seemed to understand anyway, and she nodded. "I know," she said. "I don't know how they do it. But you're right, they do seem to get bigger. It happens every time."
Elda followed Folara over to the food table, and was delighted to see that Ayla was already there. Even better, she wasn't talking to anyone.
"That was beautiful," Elda signed excitedly. "How did you do it?"
Ayla grinned. "A Mog-ur never tells her secrets," she informed Elda with signs. Aloud, she said the same thing, though she substituted 'Zelandoni' for 'Mog-ur.' A few people around them chuckled.
Ayla, Folara, and Elda quickly got their food and moved to find a place to eat. They were quickly joined by Jondalar, though not Ord, and a young man Elda did not know. Folara grinned in delight as she saw him, though, and set her food down to kiss him. Elda shook her head. She could never get used to such public displays of affection.
"Elda, this is Dorelam, of the nineteenth cave of the Zelandonii, son of Martela, former leader of the nineteenth cave of the Zelandonii, brother to Malora, acolyte to Zelandoni of the nineteenth cave of the Zelandoni," Folara said. "Dorelam, this is Elda, of the Clan of the Cave Bear."
Dorelam held out both hands. Elda put her food down and took them, blushing slightly. She was still not used to touching men so openly, and she kept expecting one of them to cuff her for being presumptuous and improper. But he didn't. Instead, he smiled. "In the name of Doni, I greet you, Elda of the Clan of the Cave Bear."
She nodded. "In name of Ursus, I greet Dorelam of Zelandoni nineteenth cave."
He seemed surprised at her accent, but he kept smiling anyway as she dropped his hands and picked her food up again. Ayla winked at Folara, then rose. "I'm going to go find Lanoga," she told the brown-haired woman. "Jondalar, Elda, would you like to come?"
Jondalar started to protest, but Ayla silenced him with a look. Elda smiled as she followed her friend. She knew that Ayla wanted to give Folara and Dorelam some time alone together.
"Who is Lanoga?" Elda asked as they walked back into the crowd.
"Lanoga is a young woman who lives in the ninth cave," Ayla answered. "She and Lanidar will be mated this summer, along with Folara and Dorelam."
Elda frowned. "All four mate?" she asked.
Ayla nodded. "Yes. At the first matrimonial. Then, Lanoga and Lanidar will go back to the fifth cave, where he lives, and Folara and Dorelam will stay here."
"Not mate together, then?" Elda asked, thoroughly confused.
Ayla frowned, then realized what Elda meant and shook her head. "No. Among the Zelandoni, all couples are mated at the same time. They are not all mated to each other, though."
Elda nodded to show that she understood. They continued to walk until Ayla's face brightened. "Lanoga!" she called.
A small young woman turned to look. She too smiled, and Elda could see that she practically worshiped Ayla. She came over to the three adults, trailed by a smaller girl that Ayla introduced as Lorala, Lanoga's sister. Lorala looked up at Ayla, then all around, as though looking for something. Finally, she demanded, "Where is Jonayla?"
Ayla laughed. "Jonayla is with Marthona and Willamar. I think they're over there." She gestured back the way they had come.
Lorala looked up at her sister. "Can I go find her?" she begged.
Lanoga nodded. "Be careful," she warned. Lorala rolled her eyes, then sped off into the crowd.
Lanoga smiled, watching the young girl maneuver easily between much taller people. Then, she turned back to Ayla. "You were amazing," she said earnestly. "Better than Zelandoni, even!"
Ayla reddened slightly. "Don't say that," she told Lanoga. "I have many years to train before I am a better Zelandoni than the One Who Is First."
Suddenly, a drum started pounding. Elda started, then relaxed as she realized that it was nothing like the Clan rhythms she had learned as a girl. Lanoga's eyes brightened. "It's time!" she exclaimed. "Come on!" She too darted off into the crowd. Elda looked at Ayla and Jondalar.
"What happening?" she asked.
"The dancing is going to start," Ayla told her. "Come, I'll teach you the steps." They followed Lanoga. When they arrived at the center of the cave, Elda saw people already dancing, men and women together. She shrank back.
"What's wrong?" Jondalar asked, concerned.
"Not want dance with men," Elda admitted. "Not proper."
Ayla smiled. "Don't worry," she said. "You don't have to dance with men if you don't have to." She reached out and took a cup of tea for herself and one for Elda from the table that contained the remnant of the feast. "Drink this. It will make you feel more relaxed."
Elda sipped, and discovered that it was in fact quite good tea. She finished it quickly, then set it down, looking at Ayla. "What do now?"
"Come with me," Ayla said. "I'll help you." She glanced at Jondalar. "If I come back to find you dancing with either Marona or Folara I will be very upset, do you understand?" she asked severely.
Jondalar ducked his head meekly. "I understand," he agreed. Then he made a face. "Though why you think I would dance with Marona, I don't know."
"Just making sure," Ayla said simply. "Come on Elda." Ayla drew her into the center of the ring. People made way for them, and Elda saw most of the men looking at them with lust in their eyes. She frowned, wondering if Ayla noticed. Ayla's slight sigh told her that she had, but she said nothing about it. Instead, Ayla concentrated on showing Elda the steps to the dance. They were not hard, Elda discovered, far easier than the steps to the women's ceremony she had learned as a girl.
Eventually, Ayla left, grinning as she did so. Then, she did a very odd thing. She leaned across the distance between them and said urgently, "Just remember two things Elda. One, they don't know the Signal, and two, you have the right to refuse. Do you understand?"
Elda nodded, confused. Ayla grinned, then turned and vanished into the crowd, leaving Elda on her own. Elda continued to dance by herself, concentrating on the steps. She did not know how long she danced – time seemed to blur into itself until a minute could have been an hour or a day.
Eventually, she noticed that fewer people were dancing. She remembered what she knew about Doni, and realized what they must be doing. She wondered if she should look for a partner, but her Clan instincts would not let her. They screamed at her to wait until a man chose her, not the other way around. So she danced, and wondered if anyone would choose her.
She should not have worried. Moments later, a brown haired man she vaguely remembered as being named Charezal tapped her on the shoulder. Obligingly, she followed him into a corner, and they did not leave that corner for quite some time.