Author's Note

Reminder – this fic is UNFINISHED...so when you get to (and through) part ten, don't bitch at me that you weren't warned! In fact, you are being warned at both the top AND bottom of each and every part, so...yeah!

So...I've put up two parts today...which is, let me just tell you, NOT an easy feat...because of the way I'm having to do this copy/paste, copy/paste, copy/paste...rinse...repeat...rinse...repeat. Total pain in the rse! *sigh*

Anyway, I worked really hard to make sure all the scene breaks are there...but again, I apologize if some are still missing. They were definitely there when I uploaded this document...I swear! But this site is weird about NOT including everything I write (especially if the breaks aren't the exact characters that the site wants). So VERY aggravating! *sigh*

And further...sorry about the typographical errors (spelling, grammar, and the like). This was written years ago, when I was new to writing and just didn't know any better. I have, since learned A LOT! However, not all the errors are mine, as this site seems to make changes without my knowledge and/or consent. It's WEIRD!

After the Death Curse – Part Six (of ten)

Travelers on their way to the Sungaea summer meeting at Maple Camp

Vincenzia (37) – man of Ayla's hearth, mated to Darvie
Darvie (26) – Vincenzia's second woman, born to the Mamutoi, mother of Crisana and Brenevia
~ Crisana (8) – Darvie's daughter
~ Brenevia (5) – Darvie's son
~~ Travie (44) – Darvie and Danie's mother

Ivanolia (22) – brother of Laurana, cousin to Ayla, man of Braydalana's hearth
Danie (21) – mated to Ivanolia, newly pregnant
~ Braydalana (8) – daughter of Ivanolia's hearth

Brulenzia (20) – man of Bruana's hearth
Laurana (15) – mother of Bruana
~ Bruana (newborn) – Laurana's daughter

Grov (18) – mixed man, man of Ora's hearth, mated to Ayla, man of Annaliza's hearth
Ayla (16) – mother of Durc and Annaliza
~ Durc (5) – Ayla's son
~ Ora (3) – daughter of Grov's hearth
~ Annaliza (1) – Ayla's daughter

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Traveling Again – Day One"

The traveling people started out, knowing that they wouldn't get very far that day. The meal had lasted far longer than it should have, bringing them all the way to midday, but they didn't care, because they had truly enjoyed their stay at Lion Camp. And besides, the journey to Maple Camp, which was deeply embedded in Mamutoi territory, was at most two and half days away. The hardest part would be crossing the three rivers, but thankfully Talut and Barzec had helped them across the first, Lev River. The second river, Skritiy River, would pose no problem either, since it was more of a large stream and had a habit of disappearing into the ground and then reappearing a short distance along, most probably due to the many caves that dotted the valley area between the two large hills where they would pass. And finally, Klyen River, which was larger than many of the others in the area, would not cause a problem, as they knew that Maple Camp would have boats waiting for arriving camps to use.

After crossing Lev River, they all watched as Talut and Barzec returned to the other side. Then, as a group, they all waved their final farewell, then turned to go.

As they traveled south, Ayla felt a huge sense of loss, unlike any she had ever felt—except maybe for the loss of Iza and then Creb. But that was somehow different, because they had died and she had had no choice in their leaving. In this case, she could have stayed, but painfully chose not to, instead following her family to her own people.

She realized that she had not felt so sad leaving the cave of the Clan and she had lived there for nearly her whole life. She did miss her family there—especially Uba, Oga, and Ebra—but she also knew that she would be back at the Clan's cave at end of the summer and wouldn't see those from Lion Camp for an entire year. She didn't really understand why, but for some reason she felt tremendously connected to Lion Camp. It was even different than leaving Oak Camp, though she didn't really know what to feel about being there, since she hadn't even been there for two full days.

As she walked with the others, she kept glancing back. When the people of Lion Camp were no longer in view, she let silent tears fall.

Grov, who had always been extremely in tune with his mate's feelings, noticed her tears immediately and went to talk to her.

"You will see them again, Ayla," he said, trying to comfort her. He too had felt comfortable there.

"I know, Grov, but I felt...I don't know...right about being there," she said.

Grov took Annaliza out of her arms and walked silently next to her for a while. Then, thinking about old Mamut, he spoke again. "What was it that Mamut was talking about? I know that you two discussed something, but you never told me what."

Ayla sighed, trying to think about her wording. She really didn't want to talk about her vision at the moment, but she was compelled to do so by her strict Clan upbringing. "While we were staying with Lion Camp I...had a vision," she said quickly—then waited.

"A vision?" he repeated with a question in his voice. "Like one that Mog-ur would have?"

Ayla blushed, always concerned about doing something unClan-like, but she nodded. "Yes," she said. "Like one the Mog-ur would have."

Grov silently walked for a while thinking, wondering what her vision could have been. He wanted to ask her—and knew she would tell him if he did—but thought that, if she had kept it to herself, then it might be something he didn't want to hear. Then, he decided he had to know. "Ayla, I'm not sure if it's going to be something terrible, something that I might not want to know, but I want you to tell me what you saw anyway."

Ayla frowned. "It is not terrible," she said. "It is exciting actually. I just don't really understand it...or what Mamut said when we left, so I have been trying to figure it out on my own."

"Oh," he replied, waiting for her to continue.

"I would rather tell you when we can be alone. Can you wait until tonight?"

He was now dying to know and felt like demanding that she tell him right then and there. But he decided to trust her, knowing that he could—and knowing that she said it was not terrible.

~oxoxo~

The rest of the day went too slowly for the man, but eventually it did finally come to an end. Vincenzia decided that they would stop just south of Skritiy River, which they had crossed at one of her hidden places, and just inside a small outcrop of rocks to keep the evening breeze off of them.

As daylight disappeared, a fire was built, tents were constructed and a meal was made. The two nursing mothers fed their babies and older children were tucked into their furs as soon as the meal was completed.

Laurana went to bed with her daughter, but most sat by the fire talking for a while. They had all slept in and weren't very tired just yet.

"Aren't you even the least bit nervous about your matrimonial this summer," Ivanolia asked Brulenzia. He was still fishing around to see if his friend might not be ready to be mated.

"Ivan!" Brulenzia said, looking annoyed. "Lay off! I'm mating your sister this summer because I want to. I have no interest in spending this summer, or any future summer, the way I have spent summers in the past."

"Well, if you're sure," Ivanolia said, drawing out his voice. "Because, if you change your mind, you know that there'll be more of a demand for her now that she's had a baby."

"I said...," Brulenzia started to say, flashing Ivanolia a dirty look, then he stopped, noticing the smirk on his friend's face. With a quick flip of his wrist, the man flung his cup of now cool tea at Ivanolia. "You know, you're a real trouble maker," he said, laughing heartily.

Ivanolia got up to retaliate, but was prevented from doing some when Danie and Darvie stepped in front of him. "Okay, enough of that," Danie said. "I'm not going to deal with you two pulling childish tricks on each other all summer." She was talking to both of them, but staring hard at her mate. "Don't you remember the misunderstandings that we had this last winter? I don't want that again."

Ivanolia was going to argue with her, but he remembered all too well that she had almost left him for his stupidity and he did not want that.

"I think I will go join Laurana in bed," Brulenzia said. "It's late and we have a full day ahead of us tomorrow."

"I think that's a good idea," Darvie said. Vincenzia nodded and stood up. He first went to Ayla and hugged her, then kissed her forehead. Then he waved goodnight to everyone and left with Darvie.

"Well, I guess we'll go too," Ivanolia said, taking Danie's hand, which left Grov and Ayla by the fire.

"Do you want to talk out here?" she asked her mate.

Grov shook his head. "It's getting sort of chilly. Wouldn't you rather go in where it's warmer?"

"Yes, I just didn't know what you wanted to do."

Ayla cleaned up their things while Grov added some more wood to the fire and banked it so that it would burn as long as possible, then they took each other's hand and went into their tent.

~oxoxo~

Inside their tent, Grov stripped down and crawled into the furs. It was extremely dark inside so Ayla couldn't really see him. She too took off her day clothing and changed into her only sleeping tunic, then crawled in beside him.

"I sure am grateful that we can speak with words," she said. "If we couldn't then we'd have had to stay outside to talk."

"Hmm. I guess you're right," he said, putting his arms around her and smiling in the darkness. "I'd rather be in here like this than out there in the cold." He nuzzled her neck. Then, searching for her lips, he kissed her.

Ayla moved so that she could receive his kisses better and kissed him back firmly. He didn't seem like he wanted to hear about her vision, but she knew that he did. "Do you want me to...tell you?" she asked, kissing him some more.

Grov hadn't forgotten her promise to tell him more and pulled back slightly. "Are you sure it's not terrible?" he asked. She thought he sounded like a boy, afraid of some unknown evil.

"What could be so terrible about my vision?" she countered.

He considered her question and answered carefully. "Well, you could have seen that we wouldn't be together anymore," he finally said, unable to make it sound any less desperate than he felt.

She knew that he was serious and pulled back slightly. She wished that she could see him, but it was too dark. "Would you really be that upset if that were the case?" she asked him.

"Ayla," he said, taking her face in the dark. "You are everything to me. Of course I would be upset."

Ayla frowned slightly. "But Grov, I am only a woman. Surely you don't need me," Ayla went on."

"Ayla, are you saying that in your vision we aren't together?" he asked, obviously upset.

"No, Grov, I did not see that. I did see us together. I saw other men there as well, but we were not not together," she said. "But that is not the part of my vision that I need to tell you about."

Grov lay there in the dark for a moment. "Well, what is it, Ayla?"

She was quiet for a time too. He was waiting, not so patiently, but he was waiting. Then, she finally went on. "Grov, I saw horses."

"Horses? What was so special about horses?" he asked.

Ayla smiled in the darkness. "We were sitting on their backs," she finally said.

~oxoxo~

Here are some translations (as far as I can translate myself...which isn't really saying much):

English pronunciation = Word using Russian alphabet = English word

Lev = Лев = lion
Skritiy = скрытый = hidden
Klyen = Клен = maple

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Grov Hears About Ayla's Vision"

Grov frowned in the darkness. "We were sitting on what?"

Ayla smiled and had to sit up. Feeling her movement, Grov sat up too. "Horses. I saw us...and Mamut did too...sitting on the backs of horses. We were riding them; they were our friends."

"But Ayla, no one rides horses. How can this be?" he asked, concern in his voice.

"That is what I said, but Mamut said that if we saw it, then it would come to be. That is why I have been so absent-minded. That is why I knew we had to leave Lion Camp. Otherwise I would have wanted to stay there longer."

Grov's mind was reeling. Ride a horse. That was the oddest thing he had ever heard, but then, Ayla did have a hawk, so why not a horse? he wondered He shook his head. But a horse is so much bigger than a hawk and...the hawk was hardly ever around anymore. Would a horse stay with them? "What else did you see?" he asked his mate.

"I saw us riding along the valley where we will find them, but I think I've seen us there at more than one time."

Grov frowned again. "Why do you think that?"

It was Ayla's turn to frown. "Well, because the two horses are hugely pregnant in one vision and not in the other."

Grov thought for a moment, wishing Mog-ur was there to hear all of this, then wondered if that would even help. The Clan's mog-ur would likely not believe that a woman could even have a vision. Mamut then, he thought. He wished the old man was there to explain the vision. "Have you tried to see it again?"

Ayla smiled. "Yes, many times," she said. "I first saw us on them when they are very pregnant. The one that I was on whinnied very loudly. And then I saw us trying to get close to the men in my vision, but the men were scared. They must think we are spirits."

"That is what I would think," Grov said.

"Then I saw just the two of us racing across the valley on the horses and they did not appear to be pregnant." Ayla paused and giggled slightly. "That was where I saw you with no beard. I looked back at you, Grov, and was shocked to see you without hair on your face."

"So you already knew that I would be shaving it off," he grinned.

"Well, no, not really. I saw it in my vision, but I did not know what shaving even was until I saw Brulenzia, Ivanolia, and Tornec and it was explained to me. I have to admit that you looked strange in my vision." They were still sitting up, but Ayla reached to touch his face, which had already become stubbly and she smiled. "But I really do like it, Grov. I hope you will shave it again when it grows back." She leaned to kiss him.

"Hmm. If you'll continue to do this, then I'll shave any time you want," he replied. They kissed a bit more, but then he directed them back to the conversation. "What else?"

She sat up again and thought for a moment. "The only other part that I saw was a day with black clouds blocking the sun. Mamut says that will be our sign to go looking for the horses, but I do not understand why there will be black clouds in the middle of summer. Don't you think that is strange?"

Grov nodded, then realizing that she could not see him, he said, "What did Mamut say about that part?"

"Well, that part is strange too," she said. "Just before we were about to leave Lion Camp, he said, It will be a day within a night and a night within a day. What could that mean?"

Grov's brow furrowed as he tried to imagine what the old man had meant, but he could not figure it out. "I don't know, Ayla, but I'm sure the sign will be obvious when it comes."

Ayla thought about it and agreed with him. She let out a sigh of relief. "Then I guess I don't have to think about it until the time comes." She smiled. "Thank you for listening to my vision," she said.

"I am glad that you told me about it. I do not like not knowing what my mate is thinking," he leaned to kiss her again and she kissed back. "Or seeing, in this case."

"I will always tell you what I am thinking or seeing, Grov. You just have to ask."

Grov gently eased her back down. He was happy that she had told him. He had feared that she had had some vision that didn't include him. Just the thought had been painful. He would do whatever he had to so that he didn't lose her. Though many in their cave were glad that someone had finally taken Ayla as a mate, no one else had wanted her. Even now, years later, Grov could not believe his good fortune to have been given this woman of the Others—and he didn't want to lose her.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Traveling – Day Two"

As the summer sun rose in the east, the morning light shone brightly into the eyes of the lone woman sitting outside drinking her tea. She had tossed and turned for what seemed like all night, then, as daylight began to creep in and her visions woke her yet again, she had risen to watch the splendor of the Mother break upon their small camp. She sat silently, considering all that had gone through her mind that night.

During the night, as she had lain awake, Ayla's mind had jumped back and forth, from Mamut's riddle to the horses, back to the riddle again, and every time that she had been able to doze off, she would suddenly jerk awake again, seeing more of what was to come. The strangest part about the whole vision was that Ayla seemed to be someone else, looking in from the outside. She could see herself, as well as most everything else around her, but it just seemed like she was looking at some other woman. She could even feel what the vision of herself was feeling. It was very odd.

The woman was sitting with some people from Oak Camp, along with others she had met on their journey, and also a group of people that she did not recognize. That final group of people was the largest. They were in a large conical tent, which seemed to be made up of many large hides sewn together. The hides had been draped over, and secured to, many stripped tree limbs that were resting on even larger branches from trees, whose trunks had been driven into the ground for the purpose of holding up the heavy construction.

Ayla saw herself surreptitiously inspecting the building, but she could also feel her own nervousness, which made her blood pump faster. She forced herself to focus on the vision again. Something was going on here, she thought. But what?

Feeling hands resting on her shoulders, she glanced up and back to see Grov kneeling behind her. He smiled and squeezed her shoulders firmly.

"I have no question in my mind that Grov—" Vincenzia was saying, before a scream could be heard from a short distance away. The woman suddenly stood up, jarred into action by the scream, and fled the tent.

Ayla wanted so badly to get up and run after herself and tried desperately to see beyond the woman in the vision, but it was as if she was only being allowed to see certain parts at a time; like someone was controlling the whole experience.

Arriving outside only an instant later, she stopped short to see another woman lying on the ground, a few small bowls scattered about and water running out of a skin that the woman had been holding. She quickly went to the woman and knelt down beside her. A quick check told her that the woman was not harmed in any way; she had fainted. She then looked at the man that was also kneeling beside the downed woman. "What happened to her?" she asked him.

The man shook his head. "She went out only a short time ago, to get some fresh water. I was coming out to help her, then she screamed." Her frown deepened; she wondered what was going on. Both she and the man looked at the woman again as she groaned and opened her eyes. The eyes of the woman lying on the ground immediately looked fearful and she pointed up at the sky.

At that point Ayla fought hard to focus on what was going on in the vision. It seemed to be fading away—and fast. She did notice that many people were standing around looking up at the sky too. Then, fighting hard, she was able to look there too. What she saw made a shiver go up her spine.

Ayla sat drinking her tea and thinking. It had been this vision that had jerked her awake so early that morning. Ayla had sighed, then carefully pulled off her blanket, dressed quietly and left the tent. It was her fear of waking her mate that drove her out of bed so early in the morning. That, and the fact that she wanted to think about the new piece to the puzzle that would lead her to the horses.

Finishing her usual morning tea, Ayla decided to do something helpful and began to fix a quick meal. First she went through the traveling food that Lion Camp had prepared for them and pulled out the only piece of fresh aurochs meat, sliced off enough to cook for all present, then pulled out a bowl to make a morning stew. She cut up vegetables, which had also been part of the gift from Lion Camp and added water. Then, using salt and other herbs, she seasoned it up, and set another bowl of water on the fire to start a morning tea for everyone.

As she worked, her mind never strayed far from her visions. For the moment, she turned her thoughts toward the horses, wishing that she could figure out how she would come to be sitting upon them; how they would eventually become her friends. The thought of them brought a smile to her face.

The woman stood out in front of the dun yellow mare. She was standing completely still, but she was holding out a small apple and making quiet horse sounding nickers, trying to gently coax the large animal to come the extra few steps to come within her reach. The horse whinnied loudly and pranced away.

Ayla shook her head, as the vision evaporated from view. She fought hard to make it return. She squinted hard, then closed her eyes and was surprised to see Grov standing there, behind herself, holding a rope that was slung around the neck of a smaller horse. "There's a third horse," Ayla said aloud. She smiled and tried to focus on the vision again.

As the yellow horse tossed her head and galloped a short distance away, the lighter horse came into view, stomping her hooves on the ground in front of the woman. She could tell that the horses wanted them to release the smaller horse, but they were not relinquishing their prize.

Again, Ayla smiled and saw herself hold out the small apple.

The light horse roughly pawed the ground again, which caused the yellow horse to whinny again, but she didn't come back. Then the lighter horse came close enough to snatch the apple out of the woman's hand and exuberantly trotted away, happy that she had gotten the treat. The woman giggled as the horse's lips gently nibbled the palm of her hand, then she reached into her pack to get another apple, hoping to lure in the other horse.

The yellow horse went to sniff her sister's muzzle, then whinnied and went looking for a treat from the human. This time she braved her fear of them and took the apple like her sister had done.

"What are you thinking about, cousin?" a voice sounded.

Ayla shook her head and looked up. "Wh-what?" she said, looking up into the smiling eyes of Ivanolia.

"Well, with that grin, I'm thinking you have some sort of secret."

Ayla shook her head and blushed. She hoped he wouldn't ask her what she was thinking, not directly anyway. If he did, she would have to tell him. "Do you want some tea," she asked, hurriedly getting up. "I could not sleep, so I got up and made a meal for us."

Ivanolia eyed her, then nodded. "I didn't sleep well either. I keep dreaming about horses. Isn't that a strange thing to dream about," he asked, picking up his cup, but not looking at her.

She had just taken a sip of her tea and coughed it up. "Ah-ha," was all she could manage.

"Hey, what are you two doing up so early?" Brulenzia asked, coming out of his and Laurana's tent.

"I've been cooking," Ayla stated plainly, handing him a cup of tea and smiling.

Brulenzia took the cup and looked around. "And cleaning up, I see."

"Yes, I couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd start getting us ready to leave," she went on.

Brulenzia sat down next to Ivanolia. "Hey did either of you notice how full the moon was last night?" he asked.

"It was not full last night," Ayla corrected. "The full moon is tonight."

"How can you tell?" Ivanolia asked her. "We couldn't even really see it, being stuck between these two canyons and all."

"You are right, it was hard to see last night, especially with the clouds that rolled in last night, but it was very bright out, and I like to keep track of the moon's cycles, so that is how I know." She paused, then repeated. "Tonight is the full moon."

~oxoxo~

Slowly, but surely, everyone else rose, and the day's trek began. As the day wore on, Ayla's thoughts kept drifting around. She listened to the travel conversation and enjoyed the view. She chatted with people and made time to care for her children. She even thought about her vision and the new parts that had been added that morning. She knew that there was something else to see, but she couldn't quite put her finger on what that something was and was nagged by it nearly all day. As she walked, she kept trying to figure it out, but it was just out of reach. Grov noticed that there was something was going on, but he decided to wait for the right moment to ask. He knew she'd tell him, but he wanted to give her more time, since it didn't look like she was quite sure about it just yet.

It took them the entire day to pass between the two hills and evening was upon them as they exited the valley area on the other side. Since they really weren't in much of a hurry, camp was set up early; early enough to allow time to do a little small game hunting, which was taken care of by Ayla and her sling.

Ayla had helped to set up camp, nursed her daughter, and then trotted off after spotting some of her favorite feathered friends, flying around near a small cluster of bushes. She returned shortly with two dead ptarmigan, which dangled by the feet from her left hand, while her right hand held several of the bird's small tasty eggs.

"Ayla, you are just amazing with that thing," Darvie said, pointing at the sling that Ayla had tucked back into her belt. "Are all Clan people that proficient with it?"

Ayla frowned. "Well, no, actually. Most people of the Clan are not good with the sling at all. They have limited arm movement that makes hunting with the sling very difficult. Except for Grov. He is just as good with it as I."

"Humpf," Grov snorted. "Don't let her fool you," he said working to make the fire a decent one. "She's the only person that I know of that can use it like that."

Ayla blushed crimson. She knew he was right; maybe he couldn't match her, but he was able to use the weapon with some skill. She wondered if she would ever get used to his praise.

Darvie smiled. "Well, here," she said, holding out her hands. "Let me take those. You made the morning meal, let me do the evening meal." Ayla relinquished her kill to the mate of the man of her hearth, then sat down to relax and to watch everyone.

Durc and Brenevia were off to the side a bit, playing at hunting. They had been watching Ayla with her sling and now Durc was trying to show Brenevia how it was done. Ayla could tell that her son would be more than proficient with the weapon someday, but that would be a while. Brenevia, on the other hand, was going to have to work at it, if he wanted to do well. Ayla watched her son, instructing her brother, and it made her smile.

Ora and Annaliza were sitting down on a blanket, watching Laurana nurse Bruana. Annaliza looked up when Ayla sat down with them. "Mamma, I am not a baby," she said, shaking her head. "I don't need to nurse anymore." Ayla smiled at her one year old daughter and nodded, knowing that the instant her daughter was hungry or tired, she'd want to nurse again.

Crisana and Braydalana were also sitting nearby, working on more bracelets. They had decided to continue to make them, so that they would have something to trade when they got to the summer meeting. They also decided to add in some Mamutoi variations, just to make them different, and to add value, since no one else would be offering Mamutoi style bracelets. Ayla had spent some time inspecting them, and thought the girls were doing a wonderful work, and had even asked them to make one or two for her to wear, agreeing to help them learn how to use her sling. Both girls were thrilled to make something for their sister/cousin, and readily got to work on what Ayla wanted.

~oxoxo~

That evening while they ate, they sat by their fire for warmth, because it was still rather chilly after the sun was gone. The sat up talking for quite some time, laughing and sharing stories—and learning more about each other's people. The children stayed with their mothers, enjoying the night and joining in when they could.

During a lull in the conversation, Braydalana exclaimed. "Look Ivan! I can still see the river. The moon is so bright tonight."

Ivanolia nodded and looked back at the river, which was glimmering brightly in the light of the full moon. "You're right, Bray. I don't think I've seen a brighter night," he said. "Ever."

"Mama, it's almost like day," Durc said.

Ayla had been lying back on her blanket, cuddling Annaliza and Ora, who had both just dozed off, when her son said what he did. "What did you say?" she asked, popping up quickly, trying not to disturb her two daughters.

"I said it looks like day," he repeated.

"Hmm. I do believe you are right, young man," Travie commented, staring at the young woman who was the boy's mother. Ayla suddenly remembered that Travie had heard Mamut's last words before they left.

Ayla looked over at Grov, who was sitting with Brulenzia. Their eyes locked for a moment. Each gave a clipped nod. The first part of Mamut's proclamation, a day within a night, had come to be. Ayla hadn't thought that she would recognize the sign when it came, and she might not have, had Durc not said anything, but she sighed with relief, hoping the next part would reveal itself so easily.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Traveling – Day Three"

Ayla had woken up several times during the night, so when the sun finally rose, she was thoroughly exhausted. One thing that gave her a reason to get up and move on that morning was the fact that she was one step closer to figuring out when to leave on her horse hunt. She knew that the day's hike would be consumed with thoughts about the horses, and knowing that more visions might come, she welcomed them.

Another reason to rise was fact that they should arrive at the Sungaea summer meeting by the end of that day. Although frightening, it would still be the end of a chapter in her life; she was no longer a missing child, but a young woman, finally found. She hoped that she would be able to find peace with her birth people.

Now, those were both huge reasons to get up and move on that morning, but they were not what made her throw back her furs and rise. That, of course, was accomplished by an incredibly loud shriek; a sound that everyone knew had to have come from none other than Shriek himself. Ayla's eyes had been closed as she thought about her vision and the upcoming meeting, but when the silence of the morning was broken by the sound of her beloved hawk, she jumped up happily.

As the people packed up and breakfasted on traveling food, Ayla fed Shriek, and watched him preen his feathers. It had been quite a while since she had seen him and he appeared to have filled out somewhat. She was so happy to have him back, and so were the children. Though they had all seen him before, he had not stayed with them for very long, and all were curious about the large bird that would only land on the blonde woman's arm. Ayla let them all come near and, after eyeing them all suspiciously, Shriek accepted a piece of meat from each, making them just as happy to see him as his human mother was.

Once they were on their way, the large bird lifted off once again. Ayla hoped he would stay close and was pleased to see that he did. When she no longer feared that he was going to disappear, she relaxed and let her mind wonder off to her other concerns: horses and the summer meeting.

Though very excited to be reunited with her people, their arrival at the summer meeting was also tinged with worry for the young woman, who was Clan at heart. She knew full well how her true people, the Others, felt about her Clan, and she was very nervous. She was so filled with nervous energy, but didn't know how to release it at the moment.

Grov could tell she was upset; he was too, but he was trying to hide those emotions, as any good Clan man would. To the average eye, no one could tell that he was the least bit worried about the meeting and introductions, but to Ayla, a woman that could see the subtle nuances that affected his speech, movement and stance, he appeared to be totally on edge, and that made her worry all the more. Grov was aware that his anxiety was completely transparent to Ayla, but there was nothing he could do about it. He just had to soldier on.

Ayla carried her pack, which seemed to be getting heavier and heavier with each step, with a struggling Annaliza in hand, and tried to stay as near to her mate as possible. Grov was also aware of that. He kept glancing at her as she was plodding along beside him, then finally lifted the child from her arm and took up her hand as they walked. That, would have been unspeakable if they had been with the Clan, but it was obvious that some tension immediately evaporated from both of them upon contact. At least we have each other and the children, they both thought simultaneously.

As the day wore on, most everyone was starting to get antsy about their arrival at Maple Camp. They knew they were close. As they walked, Vincenzia made a point of pointing out landmarks and telling them stories about this hunt or that journey—and many other things. Grov and Ayla couldn't help but get excited as well, despite their nervousness. The young couple did their best to keep up with the man of Ayla's hearth just so that they could hear every little bit of information he had for them—and so that they could keep their minds off their nervousness.

Everyone, at some point or another during the day, commented that the stop at Lion Camp had made the journey seem much shorter. True, they had actually traveled farther, a lot farther including the aurochs hunt that they went on with the Mamutoi, but it had been a welcome diversion and with the final leg only taking them three days, it truly felt like less. Most had already pushed the length of time it had taken to get from Oak Camp to Lion Camp out of his or her brain.

~oxoxo~

As evening was approaching, they decided to stop at a small stream to splash water on their faces, change their clothes, and to have a short bite to eat. They had no way of knowing whether the rest of Oak Camp had already arrived at the summer meeting, giving them a place to rest and freshen up, or if they would be the first to get there, and would have to camp out in their traveling tents until the rest of their camp arrived. That uncertainty was extremely nerve-racking to Ayla, as she was already unsure of so many things.

Ayla had heard the stories about previous summer meetings and had a good idea of what to expect. She had even been to one...through her visions, anyway. In her mind she could see the large space that was to house all her people for the duration of the summer and had tried to explain it to her mate. He seemed astonished that so many people would be in the vicinity at the same time. She was too, but since she had seen it in her vision, she was a little more ready. But not by much.

Then, when the comments about whether or not Oak Camp would be there first began to circulate, she and Grov exchanged looks. It was clear to each that the other had not thought about that; both had just assumed that they would be. Ayla dearly hoped that Oak Camp's space was already set up, so that she could hide if she had to. Just the short vision of the summer meeting that she had had, and her brief encounters with the Others—both Sungaea and Mamutoi—were enough to show her the differences between the ones that had raised her and those to which she had been born. She knew that people were going to stare, and that they would all be talking at once. That raised her tension level even more.

On the other side of the stone, she also knew that there would be several people at this gathering that she could depend on to back them up, including most from Beech Camp and probably some from Pine Camp, since they were related to Oak Camp through Gredenzia. At least there were some, Ayla thought, trying to relax.

~oxoxo~

After washing the faces of her children, Ayla dried them off and dressed them in clean outfits. Then, using the teasel brush that Deegie had given her, she combed their hair. Durc's stubborn cowlick, a gift from Broud, was once again not cooperating. Ayla frowned in frustration, thinking of the man that had created her son, then moved on to Ora.

Ora's hair, which had turned nearly white in the summer sun, was rather wispy, but growing quite long; nearly to the middle of her back. Ayla brushed it back and tied it high on her head with a strip of leather to keep it out of the child's eyes.

Annaliza's hair, though not very long yet, only about to the bottom of her neck and turning up in the back, was rather thick and also very light. Vincenzia commented that the child looked identical to what Ayla looked like at her age. Ayla saw tears in the eyes of the man of her hearth as he thought about his loss and it brought tears to hers. Though she tried desperately, she still hadn't been able to recall much from her past. She thought it interesting that she could have visions of the future, but she couldn't remember what life had been like before she went to live with the Clan. She didn't understand that most people couldn't remember back that far.

After finishing the children, Ayla washed her own face, and then reached down to splash water on her arms. Then, looking at her filthy arms, she changed her mind; she immediately stood up, slipped her leggings off, then her tunic and went into the stream. It was still very cold, but she wanted to be really clean when she met the whole of her people.

Grov watched his mate, then smiled when several others joined her. She always seemed to do everything first, he thought.

"What a great idea, Ayla," Darvie said, as she too took off her tunic and stepped into the water. "I always hate arriving at a summer meeting all dirty and travel stained."

Ayla smiled. "I want to make a good impression," she stated, then finishing, stood up and dried herself.

Laurana frowned. She could see how worried her cousin was. The two of them had grown incredibly close over the last moon cycle. "Don't worry, Ayla," she said. "You have all of us to back you up."

"Ayla, we will just leave if there are too many problems," Travie said.

"Yeah," Danie chimed in. "That's right...but I'm sure it will be okay. Maybe not in the beginning, but it will get worked out.

Ayla looked at the other four women, three of which weren't really Sungaean. It might be easy for them to leave the summer meeting, but would the rest of Oak Camp really want to leave for her? She knew she couldn't ask them to do that. She looked over at her mate. He was standing with the men, but hadn't taken his eyes off of her. His posture changed just slightly to let her know that he was there for her. At least I'm not alone, she thought.

Ayla then looked at her son. Durc had already gone back to playing with Brenevia. It was amazing how accepting a child could be. Brenevia didn't even seem to notice how different Durc looked. She smiled. Would her people be able to accept her son? she wondered. Would they be able to accept her mate and her for having them?

Laurana put her arm around Ayla, bringing the woman out of her thoughts. "Really, Ayla, don't worry about it too much. Vincenzia will do whatever it takes to smooth things out...all of Oak Camp will."

Ayla smiled again. "I know, Laurana. I just don't want to cause trouble."

~oxoxo~

The small group of travelers finished up quickly and pushed on. They did not have very far to go. Within a short period of time, they could hear the buzz of activity in the distance and see light, which could only come from many people and many fires burning in the area ahead of them.

Just as daylight was fading, they reached Klyen River, where they encountered several people standing on a well lit up dock and a line of boats to cross the river, which were tied to the dock.

"Vincenzia," called out a voice. "We have been waiting for you."

Vincenzia smiled. "Bolo," he said, taking the man into his arms. "It's been a long time."

Bolodenkia laughed. "A year at least," he replied, hugging his friend back. "We wondered if you were coming this year." The man looked around at the small group of people, and quickly spotted the strangers that he had already heard much about through gossip.

"Now why wouldn't we be here?" Vincenzia asked, knowing full well why. "Last year was our trip to the Mamutoi, so this year is our Sungaea year."

The Maple Camp man was silent for a moment. He didn't know what to say. He wanted to ask about the proud young woman that stood beside and just behind Vincenzia with a defiant look in her eyes, but when Bolodenkia really looked at her, he was nearly mesmerized by her beauty and had to shake his head to return himself to the present. He then shifted his eyes to the tall man who was standing beside the woman, one hand on her shoulder, the other holding a child of perhaps a year. A momentary thought of disgust crossed the man's mind as he thought about what he had heard. Was the gossip true? he wondered. This man doesn't appear to be a flathead. He squinted in the fading light trying to see what he could not.

"I...um...well... We heard that...Andreyta has been returned to you," Bolodenkia finished lamely.

Vincenzia smiled and glanced at his daughter and her mate. "Why yes," he affirmed, "Ayla has been found and I would like you meet her and her family." Vincenzia held his hand out toward the daughter of his hearth and she took it and stepped forward. "This is Ayla. She is the first daughter of my hearth, born to Annalisa of Oak Camp of the Sungaea, found and raised by the first healer of the Clan of the Cave Bear, protected by the spirit of the cave lion, trained to serve as a healer of the Clan, mated to Grov, mother of Durc, Ora, and Annaliza, and friend to the meat-eater Shriek."

Ayla held out her hands, which the man accepted without question. "That is sure a long list of ties," he said. "I wish I knew what they all meant."

Vincenzia smiled. "Oh, you will, Bolo. I'm sure of it." Vincenzia then signaled Grov forward. "And this is Grov, born to the Clan of the Cave Bear, protected by the spirit of the leopard, master hunter among his people, previously mated to Evenora, and now mated to Ayla."

Bolodenkia's eyes widened. Evenora too? he wondered. Numbly, he offered his hands to the flathead man. He hadn't believed the rumors were true. When Beech Camp arrived and Balana began gossiping with her kin from Cedar Camp, he had completely discounted the woman's talk. But now, he had actually met them. It was real and he was shocked.

He quickly introduced the rest of the boatmen, and shuttled everyone across Klyen River, thinking about how interesting this meeting was going to be.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "They Finally Arrive"

The sun was pretty much gone as the boatmen helped the travelers onto the dock at the other side Klyen River. No one would stay at the river all night, because camps did not usually arrive after it became dark. As the group left, all but four torches were extinguished and they headed toward the huge encampment of people.

As they were escorted the last few hundred feet, Vincenzia and Bolodenkia talked amiably. However, both avoided certain topics. "So, when did Oak Camp get here?" Vincenzia asked.

"They have been here for four days and Serana is beside herself with worry over Laurana," the man said. He glanced back at the new mother, who looked to be doing very well.

"Yes, it is a good thing that she did not stay behind, since she delivered early," Vincenzia said. "Ayla is an excellent healer, so she was in good hands."

Ayla had been listening to them. "I did not really do much, Vincenzia. She could have given birth on her own."

"You know what I mean. A woman does not like to give birth without a healer there to help if necessary. And we all know how badly it can go sometimes." He looked back at Ivanolia. The man was at the rear of the group and had not been paying attention to the conversation. Vincenzia was glad.

"Yes, that is true," Bolodenkia said. "I'm sure Galina was happy that our healer was available when Bodana was born. Now that birth was difficult." The man paused for moment, thinking about the birth of the daughter of his hearth, then he looked at Ayla. "Who taught you all that you know about healing, Ayla?"

"The woman that raised me..." she began, then changed her wording with a touch of defiance. "My mother, Iza, was the first ranked medicine woman of the Clan. She taught me from the time that I was very young and I memorized as much as I could," Ayla said, then continued with a sad expression. "But then she died and I had to take over." The man frowned in the darkness, wondering how this young woman could learn healing from flatheads. He wondered how they had even raised her and why she considered them her family. Then he blushed, thinking that this young woman, whose background seemed so vile, was still the daughter of his good friend's dead mate.

As they approached the large tents, Ayla could see that the area was aglow with many, many fires—and that the area crowded with many, many tents. Bolodenkia took them around the outside of the tent space, where the light was dimmer than at the center. The torches lit their path well, but as they walked, the men one by one put their torches into tall stands that created a path behind the tents. Ayla and Grov inspected them as they walked, interested in their purpose.

Also, one by one, the men disappeared into this tent or that, or just into the fray of people in the center. As they passed tents and looked through the open spaces between the tents, they could see much activity. At some fires people were playing instruments, while others danced. At other fires people were having a meal and talking quietly. There were children and adults alike and everyone appeared to be having a good time. A few people glanced their way, but for the most part, they passed unseen.

By the time they reached Oak Camp's summer construction, only Bolodenkia remained from the group of men from the dock. The people from Oak Camp followed the man between two tents, then they stopped at the one that belonged to them.

"Well, I'm glad you made it," he said, grabbing his good friend in a hug. Ayla frowned. Something about his words didn't seem right. It wasn't that the man was speaking an untruth. She would definitely have known if he was, but it just might be that he didn't know what he was feeling at the time—and she could sense it. Then he turned and looked at her. "And it has been...interesting, meeting you, Ayla," he continued, looking down at her. She did not sense anything wrong with that statement. She nodded, but did not say anything. Promising to come by the next day, the man bid them all good night and left.

"Well," Vincenzia said. "We're finally here. Should we go in?" he asked his group.

"What in the Mother's name are asking that for," came Vilognia's voice from behind him. The man grabbed his brother and hugged him. "I'm so glad you finally showed up. We were starting to think you were going to summer with the Mamutoi instead."

Vincenzia returned his brother's hug, and smiled. "Nope! We were just delayed a bit. There was an injury at Lion Camp and a birth," he said, nodding toward Laurana.

Serana, who had been drying her hands, immediately appeared at the word 'birth.' "Has my daughter had her baby? Did I miss another birth?" she wailed. "Boy or girl?" she demanded.

Laurana laughed, as did everyone else. "Mother, please," she said, handing her mother her tightly wrapped bundle. "This is Bruana and she is sleeping, so...be quiet."

Suddenly, Jenadoza appeared. "You're here! And oh Mother, you had a girl. She is so beautiful. Look at all that hair." Jenadoza reached out to touch the long, dark brown hair of her sister's child, then turned toward Laurana.

Laurana hugged her sister tightly and looked around. "Well, are you people going to make us stand outside all night or can we come in and sit down? My legs are killing me."

Vilognia held the curtain open, allowing his people to enter. Everyone looked healthy, and not too drained from their travels. He was pleased to see a happier Ivanolia. The son of his mate had obviously come to terms with the Clan, which pleased him. Now, he thought, if only we can get the rest of our people to see the error of our ways. He thought about the troubles that were ahead of them, then pushed them away. Not tonight, he told himself.

Ivanolia stopped at his mother and leaned down to hug her. "Hello, son," she said. "I see peace in your eyes, yes?"

The young man nodded. "Yes, mother," he said, then smiled at Danie. Unseen communication went between them and he looked back at his mother. "Mother," he started with a smile, "Danie is blessed. We will have another baby at our lodge in the fall."

Serana searched her son's eyes for the pain that once seemed to dominate his whole being, but it seemed to be gone. She smiled up at him. "I am so happy for you both," she said and hugged Danie. "And where is my Bray?"

"I am here, Grandmother," Braydalana said, as she and Crisana came into view.

Serana sighed. "Well now," she said, as she put her free arm around her oldest grandchild, "You are going to have to tell me all about your trip to Lion Camp. This old woman wants to hear it all."

~oxoxo~

Once inside the tent, Ayla and Grov marveled at its size. It had seemed large from the outside, but now that they were inside, it seemed even bigger. Ayla noted to herself that the tent was made the same way as the one in her vision, but that it was perhaps smaller, or maybe it just appeared to be so. She looked around more and noticed curtained off areas, which she assumed were their sleeping places. She was right.

"Let me show you where you can put your things," Vilognia said, looking at Grov and Ayla. He pushed a curtain aside to reveal yet another space. "You can drop most of your things here." He pointed to the area that seemed to house the majority of the camp's packs and weapons. Everyone dropped their heavy belongings, and followed the man. Then, speaking to all the arriving people. "We put you three couples here, next to Donzolnia and Jenadoza. And Vincenzia, you, Darvie, and Travie are at the other end with us."

They opened the curtains that would make their space more private, and all sat down. "Where's Donzolnia and Tinozia?" Brulenzia asked.

"They're still out," Jenadoza said. "There's lots to do and see, but I had to come back. I was exhausted and I had to feed Teg. He's always hungry."

"Did you want to go find them, Bru?" Laurana asked, trying to keep her face expressionless.

The man shook his head. "I'm much too tired to go out gallivanting. Besides, it's not likely that I'd find them in this mad camp."

Laurana smiled up at him. He could see that she was still just a little nervous about him wanting to be out with others, instead of with her. He leaned over to kiss her. "Does your mother still have Bruana?" Then, without waiting for the young woman's answer, he continued on. "And why isn't my mother here wanting to see our baby?"

Jenadoza smiled. "Yes, my mother is still holding the baby, and your mother is already sleeping. Zarina outdid herself today. There was a small, informal, sort of impromptu, cooking contest, which she won, of course. She was in bed long before the sun went down."

Brulenzia nodded and lay back on the bed. "Hmm, I'd like to fall asleep right now and not wake up for days. Two, at least."

"Me too," Laurana agreed, lying down beside her man.

"Laur-ana" cried a voice. Laurana opened her eyes to see her younger sister, Serlona, who had jumped onto their makeshift bed and positioned herself between Laurana and Brulenzia.

"Hi there," she said, sitting up.

"Hi yourself!" Serlona said, flinging her arms around her sister. "Hey, I just saw your daughter, she is sooooo adorable." Serlona smiled at Brulenzia and then hugged him too. He laughed at her exuberance, fondly remembering that Laurana had not been much different a few years back.

Just then, Donzolnia, Tinozia, Fürlasa, and Tabita came in through the entrance. Brulenzia got up to hug his brother and friend, then they turned around to see Jenadoza coming forward with a baby in each arm. "Look what I have," she said.

"Oh," Laurana squealed. "Give me that little boy." Jenadoza smiled and handed her son to her sister. "Oh my, he has grown so much and I have missed it." Laurana pouted.

"But you're back now," Jenadoza said. "You will not miss anything else."

Laurana sighed. "I suppose not," she said. "But I guess I won't be able to go off hunting with everyone as much now that I have Bruana."

Danie sat up. "Ayla always manages to go on the hunts Laurana. Don't worry, we won't leave you behind."

"What is this we stuff," Ivanolia cut in. "Now that you're blessed, Danie, you're the one that won't be doing any hunting."

Jenadoza, who hadn't heard before that Danie was blessed, frowned and looked at her brother. He seemed only to have a natural concern for his pregnant mate, which made her relax. "Oh, Danie, I did not know that the Mother has blessed you," she said. "I am so happy for you. When are you due?"

Danie's light gray eyes sparkled as she smiled at her mate's sister. "Sometime this fall, just before winter."

"Wow, so much has happened since we saw you, and it hasn't even been that long," Tabita said. She hugged her friends, happy that they were back.

"So, what matrimonial will you two be joining in," Donzolnia asked his brother.

Brulenzia frowned. "Is there still room in the first one?" he asked. Everyone shrugged. No one else in their camp was getting mated, so no one could answer the man's question. Brulenzia then looked at Laurana. "Which one would you prefer, Laurana?"

She too shrugged. "I guess we'll have to go over there tomorrow to find out if there's still room for us in the first one. I know we've arrived a little late, so we may have to wait until the second one." She smiled at her mate to be. "Wherever there's space available is fine with me." Brulenzia grinned, then kissed her.

"How does the matrimonial work?" Ayla asked, with a tone of curiosity that made Grov open his eyes and look at her.

Jenadoza smiled. "Oh Ayla, I keep forgetting that you haven't been with us very long." Getting up from where she sat with her brother, she moved to sit next to her cousin. "There are usually three of them throughout the summer meeting. The first is just shortly after most camps have arrived. The second is about a month later, and the last is just before the meeting ends. Donzolnia and I were mated in the first one two summers ago."

"And Danie and I were mated at the last one, last summer," Ivanolia said.

Ayla was nodding. "So, what happens?"

"Well, there is a ceremony just before sunset, and then a big celebration, which the newly mated couple misses altogether, because they go into isolation," Donzolnia said, then laughed. "Unless of course you get mated in the final matrimonial. "Then sometimes you don't have to, because of the journey home."

Ivanolia laughed. "We did not plan it that way. We ended up isolating ourselves anyway though, when we got to Oak Camp that is."

"You didn't isolate yourself nearly long enough," Brulenzia said to his friend as he rolled his eyes. "I seem to remember that you were very annoying after we got back to the lodge."

Ivanolia took a mock swing at the man, but laughed again. "Okay, okay, so I had a little fun. I seem to remember that it was mutual."

"Hmm, I wouldn't really call it mutual," Laurana said, looking at Ayla. "I'm certain Brulenzia wouldn't have bothered with my brother if he hadn't been such a pain."

Ayla was enjoying the exchange between the two men and Laurana's input, but she wanted to hear more about matrimonials. "In the Clan, couples are isolated too. How long do the Sungaea require new couples to be isolated?" Grov looked from Ayla to the others. He too was interested.

"Oh, it's not long; two days and three nights," Jenadoza replied. "It begins after the mating ceremony and goes until the morning of the third day."

"The Clan has an isolation too?" Ivanolia asked.

"Yes, but it is much longer," Ayla said. "The newly mated couple must remain confined to the hearth for fourteen days, during which time they sleep separately. At the end of the isolation, a ceremony is held by the men in the men's ceremonial cave to cement the union.

"That is so long," Laurana said with a frown. "What did you do with your children?"

Ayla smiled. "The children were allowed to come and go as they needed to, but everyone else was to stay away."

"It was a little different when we were mated though," Grov interjected. "We had just found our cave, so Brun, our headman, allowed us two days to hunt and gather, then we were isolated for twelve days."

"That's still a long time," Ivanolia said. "But, it's interesting that the Clan has similar rituals as we do."

Jenadoza watched her brother closely, and was nearly satisfied with his apparent change. She still harbored some doubts about his new attitude and decided that she would have to wait until he was put to the test, which she was sure would be very shortly. She knew they wouldn't get through this summer meeting without some kind of trouble and she desperately hoped her brother would really be there to back up Ayla and her family.

"Well, tomorrow's a new day," Jenadoza said. "I think I'm going to turn in so that I can enjoy everything."

Brulenzia, who was still lying down, closed his eyes. "Yeah, Laur, we have to get over to the matrimonial tent early." Laurana exchanged babies with her sister and hugged each of her friends, then crawled into the furs with Brulenzia.

As everyone went off to bed, Ayla and Grov closed their curtain and lay down. "Well, at least the journey is done," Ayla said with a sigh.

"Let's just hope we don't have to turn around and leave," Grov retorted.

"Don't even talk like that, you two," came Brulenzia's voice from right next to them. "You're not going anywhere just yet."

"Yeah, you have to be here for our matrimonial," Laurana chimed in.

Ivanolia was on the other side of Grov and Ayla and heard the exchange between the four people. He didn't say anything and hoped it wasn't going to be so hard. However, deep down he knew there was going to be a problem. He himself had caused considerable trouble for his cousin already, but he wasn't the most prejudiced person of the Sungaea. That distinction belonged to the people of Sumac Camp. Their camp was like a poison, infecting the camps nearest them; Dogwood Camp and Cedar Camp.

The young man sighed, trying to clear his thoughts, then rolled over to hold his mate. Danie had similar thoughts running through her head, but she didn't really know the Sungaea yet, so she was thinking about Rydag and all that he and Lion Camp had faced over the years. Finally, before drifting off to sleep, she sent a plea to Mut, asking the Mother to watch over Ayla and her family, and to bring peace to her new people.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "The First Morning Meal"

Rustlings in the communal tent brought some of the travelers out of sleep. Ayla woke up to the dead weight of Grov's leg draped over her, which she gently pushed aside, and rolled over to see Annaliza lying next to her, eyes open and a thumb in her mouth. The one year old smiled and signed a quiet good morning.

"Good morning, my daughter," Ayla signed back. "Where is Ora?" Ayla gestured, noticing that Annaliza's older sister was not with them. Annaliza only pointed, worrying Ayla that her oldest daughter was off getting into things again. Ayla sat up and carefully climbed out of her furs, picking up Annaliza as she left her sleeping space.

Outside the space that was designated for sleeping, the area was buzzing with activity. She could see Zarina and Fraylora scurrying around making a morning tea for everyone, while others just sat conversing. She could see children playing and noticed that Durc was among them. Then she looked around for Ora. At first she did not see the child and frowned, but then Braydalana and Crisana appeared carrying the child and she relaxed. Ayla yawned and stretched and continued to watch the movement of her people.

"It's a lot to take in, isn't it?" said Jenadoza from behind her.

Ayla turned toward her cousin and smiled. The young woman stood there, blonde hair tousled, with her young son at her breast. "Yes, it is," Ayla admitted. "But I had to get up, I am so hungry."

"Yes, me too," Jenadoza said. "But, for the most part, you won't get food here. We make some things, but we'll need to go out to the fires to cook. That's how they get us to really mingle with everyone." Ayla frowned. "You're still worried, aren't you, Ayla?"

Ayla nodded. "We've come a long way, just to be rejected."

"I know, but you have us, remember? And, they can't make you leave," Jenadoza tried to reassure. "Vincenzia won't let them."

"Are you still going on about this, Ayla?" Laurana asked. She too had just appeared from her sleeping place, Bruana in her arms.

Ayla smiled. "I guess I am, but I can't help..."

Suddenly Vincenzia appeared and pulled Ayla into his arms. "Daughter! You are finally awake." Then he looked at the other two women. "Where are your men?"

The three women smiled. "They are still sleeping, of course," Laurana said, as if the older man should know.

"Well, well, come along," he continued. "Everyone wants to see the newest member of Oak Camp." He kept one arm about Ayla's waist, but took up Laurana with the other and started walking them toward the place where everyone sat.

Serana looked up when they arrived and tapped a busy Zarina, who dropped everything to come see the child of her son's chosen woman. "My, my, she has a lot of hair," the woman said. Everyone laughed.

"That is what everyone says," Laurana giggled, handing her daughter to Brulenzia's mother.

"How did the birth go?" Zarina asked as she cuddled her granddaughter.

"It went very well," Laurana said. "Ayla was amazing." Ayla blushed at the compliment.

"And my son? Was he helpful?"

"He was there, and yes, he was," Laurana answered. "And mother," she said, looking at her own mother. "Ivanolia was of great help too. He was much more encouraging that I thought possible."

Serana, a woman of average height, smiled at her second daughter. "See, I told you that he'd come around. He is a good man, you know?"

Laurana hugged her mother. "I know mother, but he was so awful before. It was hard to see that he might change." Jenadoza watched her sister and mother, dissimilar as they were. Laurana was slightly taller than their mother, with very pale blonde hair and blue eyes, while her mother had brown hair and hazel eyes, and a completely different look about her. It was obvious that Laurana, along with Ivanolia and herself, had been created by the spirit of Vilognia, since the three looked just like him. Jenadoza looked up as a sleepy eyed Ivanolia walked into the space where everyone was sitting, and still wondered about her brother. She hoped he had truly changed.

"Are you talking about me?" he asked innocently.

Laurana smiled. "About you, Ivan. Not to you." The man laughed and poured himself a cup of tea.

"Ayla, Danie is sick again," he finally said with a frown. "I think she might like some of your tea."

"She won't be like this much longer, Ivan," Ayla said, patting his arm and handing him Annaliza. "I will go get my medicine bag, so I can make her some tea."

"Thank you, Ayla," he said, giving her a hug.

Jenadoza was again stunned by her brother's seemingly miraculous transformation, and watched Ayla leave the space to retrieve her medicinal herbs. She then looked at Ivanolia, who was bouncing Annaliza up and down, trying to make her laugh. The child gurgled with laughter causing Jenadoza to grin; she was nearly certain she could trust her brother.

~oxoxo~

It was not long before the entire tent had risen. Some dressed quickly and left the area, while others lingered. Though she was hungry, Ayla was one that hung back. She was not sure what she was waiting for, except that she was very nervous about leaving the tent. Grov understood her nervousness and, though he wanted to get it over with, he waited patiently.

"Okay, Ayla," Laurana finally said. "We're going out there now. Are you ready?"

"As ready as I ever will be, I guess." Grov grabbed Ayla's hand and squeezed it tightly, causing Ayla to look at him. She could see that he too was just a bit tense. Ayla held out her hand to her young son and they headed toward the tent's entrance.

~oxoxo~

Outside the opening to Oak Camp's tent the morning sun shone brightly. Ayla clutched her youngest daughter to her breast, and blinked hard several times to repel the sun's brilliant light. Squinting, she could see that there was much more activity going on than she had first realized. All around her people were bustling, sitting and eating, laughing and talking. And still others were walking from one place to another. The air was charged with an energy the young woman had never seen before.

At first, no one even noticed their appearance. Well, except for Zarina. As soon as their eyes had adjusted to the bright light, Zarina came up to them with a bone platter filled with meat. "Find a seat, or you're going to have to eat standing up," she said quietly, exchanging her platter for Bruana so that the baby's mother could eat.

Ayla put Annaliza down next to Ora, then selected some meat and a piece of bread for each of her children, then sat down next to Grov. "Aren't you going to eat, Ayla?" he asked. She did not answer. He did not need her to; he could see that she could not.

Instead, Ayla was looking around at the many faces, which were now staring directly at them. It had been quite loud when they had first come out, but now the noise level had dropped to a dull whisper, and she was having a hard time concentrating. "Wha-what?" she said, turning to look at her mate.

He pushed a tendril of hair, which had fallen loose from its tie, out of her eyes. "You have to eat, Ayla," he went on. She frowned and finally responded with a shake of her head, then went back to trying to busy herself with her children. She could not ignore the fact that people were staring.

Brulenzia sat down next to Grov, as did Ivanolia and Donzolnia. "Where's Tinozia?" he asked.

"Gredenzia took him to see the other Shogurs. He is hoping to take him on as acolyte. I'm sure they will accept him," Donzolnia said. "He's been pretty serious about this for a while, we just didn't know it."

"Hmm, that's good," Brulenzia sighed. He suddenly noticed that someone was pointing at them and turned to Grov and Ayla. "So, that's Spruce Camp's tent," the man said, changing the subject and trying to get their minds away from those who thought it acceptable to stare. He was indicating the tent just north of their own, Ayla noticed. "And that's Poplar Camp. They are the two northern most Sungaean camps, and they have great furs to trade. It is much colder there, so the animals tend to have thicker fur."

"That's where my mother got the hide to make Bruana's birthing blanket," Laurana chimed in.

Grov was looking around the space. He too could not miss the visual intrusion of the surrounding people. They did not even try to hide their looks of disgust, or comments, which could be heard every now and then. "What is this construction for?" he asked, trying to focus on the people sitting down with him and not those around him. He was referring to a very large platform, made of many large planks of wood, which was the center of where most of the camp tents stood.

"Oh, this is mainly for the Matrimonials," Donzolnia said. "It's different every summer, depending on which camp you summer with, but Maple Camp always uses the best materials and are always able to accommodate the most couples at one time."

"And what is that tent for?" Ayla asked, pointing at the largest tent construction that was just west of Spruce Camp's space. Danie was nodding as if she wanted to know as well.

"That's where the Council of Sisters reside," Ivanolia said, as if that should explain everything. Then he took a bite out of a large hunk of meat and smiled at his mate.

"Oh," Danie said. "It is always good to have them close by."

"Yes, they are always at the center of all summer meetings," Jenadoza put in. "Just as the Mother is the center of all."

Danie smiled. "I like that. It's not always so at Mamutoi meetings, but I can see the benefit."

Grov waited for the women to finish speaking, then asked his question. "What is the Council of Sisters?" He did not understand, but he wanted to.

"They are the women of the Sungaea that make decisions on important topics," Zarina answered. "Should problems arise between people, or camps of people..." She paused for a moment, flashed a dirty look at some nearby people, then went on. "...the problem is brought to the Council of Brothers first, to see if a solution can be found, but then, if no solution arises, the Brothers bring the problem to the Sisters."

"Why don't the men just handle the problem?" Ayla asked, still thinking it strange that the Sungaea relied more on women for such important decisions.

"That's just the way it's always been, Ayla," Brulenzia stated simply. "Women are closer to the Mother and the Sisters always find a way to end the trouble." Brulenzia smirked and looked at Ivanolia. "And besides, we all know that sometimes men cause more trouble than they resolve." Everyone laughed, including Ivanolia.

"Hmm. In the Clan..." Ayla started to say, but was quickly interrupted by a shadow which fell across her face.

"Sorry to interrupt." It was Bolodenkia. Everyone looked up at the man. "Ah...where can I find Tagnolia?" he asked, looking at Zarina and swallowing hard.

The middle-aged woman glanced down at Ayla and Grov first, then eyed her long time friend, knowing that trouble had already found them. "Well hello to you too, Bolo," she said. The man blushed. "Actually, I don't know," she responded calmly when it was clear that he didn't know where to go from there. "I haven't seen him all morning." She paused. "But if you find him, be sure to tell him that I will be at the womanhood camp for most of the day." Then she smiled at him sweetly and turned back to the younger people sitting there.

Bolodenkia smiled and nodded and excused himself. Though she was normally a quiet woman, and one that he liked considerably, he could read her meaning well. Basically she was saying that he should not come looking for her if he wanted to cause trouble. She knew that he did not want to cause trouble, but she wanted it known that Oak Camp would stand up to any who opposed them, even friends or family.

When Bolodenkia was nearly out of earshot, he turned back around. "And what about Tifl—"

"Womanhood Camp," Zarina said sarcastically, never looking back at the man.

Everyone, and not just those sitting at their fire, had heard the exchange, and heard the irritation in Zarina's voice; irritation that rarely came out of that particular woman. In fact, having never heard their mother even seem upset before, her sons both raised an eyebrow at one another, and finished eating in silence.

~oxoxo~

"Well, if you're all set, I need to join Tiflona at Womanhood Camp," Zarina said. "We have two new women again."

"We're all good, Mother," Brulenzia said, giving his brother another look. "Laurana and I will be going to make the Council of Sisters aware of our intention to join."

"Hmm. You better find Serana. You know the Sisters won't let you declare anything without her consent," Zarina said as she started walking away.

"Yes, yes, we'll find them," Brulenzia said. Then, turning back to the others. "So, what are you doing today, Donzolnia?"

"I thought I'd do a little trading. We brought a sizable amount of salt, and Jenadoza wants some good furs for Teglodia. And, you know Hill Camp always makes the best spears; I'd like to trade with them too," he replied.

"But Hill Camp probably won't need any salt," Jenadoza said. "They're already very close the Beran Sea."

"I know, I'll just trade salt for furs with Spruce Camp first, then take some of my furs to Hill Camp," Donzolnia went on. "Do you want to come with me?"

Jenadoza smiled. "As much as I like trading, I promised Seriana that I'd bring Ayla by when she arrived. She's having a little trouble with her pregnancy," she said, turning to her cousin. "and wanted to see you. Do you mind going over to Beech Camp to see her, Ayla?"

"No, I do not mind," Ayla replied. She thought for a moment about the young woman she had met while traveling to Lion Camp. It will be nice to see a friendly face, she thought to herself, hoping that Seriana's mother, Belana, wouldn't be there.

"Danie, do you want to come too?" Jenadoza asked.

"Sure," she said. She also didn't really know anyone, but remembered Seriana and her sister from their journey. She had liked them. "What will you do, Ivan?" she asked.

"I guess I'll go with Donzolnia."

"Grov?" Ayla asked, feeling uncertain about everything; where they were going, who they'd be seeing. Everything!

"Well, he's coming with us of course," Ivanolia said with a grin, seeing his cousin's worry. Grov shrugged, then nodded assent.

"What about the children?" Ayla asked, glancing at Durc and Ora, who were eating their morning meal.

"We can take them with," Jenadoza said.

"Oh no, don't do that," Darvie said, coming up behind them. "At least leave Durc with me or Brenevia's going to be so bored."

"Yes, Mama, I want to stay with Brenevia," Durc said, totally oblivious to the mean spirited people around him.

Ayla thought for a moment. She could hear whispers around her as she contemplated the situation. "Look at them talking about that abomination...I can't believe it can talk to them." Ayla frowned and looked around for the people that had made the comments. Darvie and everyone else looked around as well, but the voices had been too indistinct to recognize. Grov stood up quickly, his face flushed with anger, but as he scanned the crowd, he too could not see where the comment had come from.

"Don't worry, Ayla, Vincenzia and Vilognia will be right back," Darvie tried to reassure her. "Let me keep Ora too or the girls will never forgive me. Crisana, Braydalana, and Serlona will be coming back with the men. What do you think?"

Ayla stood up and put her hand on Grov's arm, both of them swept the crowd with their eyes, but now neither could find a single person looking at them. "Maybe I should stay," Ayla said.

"No, Ayla, you can't do that," Laurana whined. "You'll miss everything."

"I know, but I guess I'm going to have to miss things," she said, then lowered her voice so Durc and Ora could not hear her. "I can't leave my children here with people that don't like them."

Darvie frowned and shook her head. "It's always the same, no matter where you go. Nezzie had to face this years ago when she decided to keep Rydag. Lion Camp has to listen to stupid people all the time. I just don't understand this non—"

"Understand what nonsense?" Vincenzia interrupted, finishing off his mate's sentence.

"Oh, Vinc, someone is making rude comments and Ayla doesn't feel like she can leave the children in camp."

"I don't blame you, Ayla, but it is okay," Vincenzia said. "I will stay with them and I'd be willing to wager that no one would be so bold as to comment with this old man caring for them."

Ayla smiled at the man of her hearth. "Thank you, Vincenzia. I promise not to stay away long. I just want to go see Seriana. Jenadoza tells me that her pregnancy is not going well. I'll come right back, I promise."

Vincenzia hugged his daughter and smiled down at her. "Go on. And don't rush back. Go see Seriana...and ignore her mother. That woman can be very stubborn...and that's putting it nicely." The man's grin made Ayla relax. "When you finish there, go see some more of this place. It really is beautiful around here. Maple Camp does a great job fixing up the area for a summer meeting. And don't worry, we'll be just fine here...go on," he finished up, giving her a little shove.

Ayla searched the crowd one more time, then smiled at the man of her hearth. Though she didn't like the comments and the unbelievable stupidity, she knew that she did not have to worry. She looked at Grov again. His look of anger was still there, but he did not look worried either. Finally, she knelt down next to Durc and Ora, as did Grov. "We will be back later. Listen to Vincenzia and Darvie, okay?"

"Yes, Mama, we will be good," Durc promised, and Ora nodded her head.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Their First Turn Through the Summer Meeting"

Though Beech Camp's space was so near to that of Oak Camp—only three tents south to be exact—the walk seemed to take forever. Ayla surreptitiously looked at everything and everyone around her, even as she clutched Annaliza to her breast and followed Jenadoza and Danie. The two women in front of her chatted as they went, but Ayla didn't really have anything to contribute so she kept silent, preferring instead to take in as much as she could.

When they reached the tent of Beech Camp, Ayla noticed that they had situated themselves back just a bit, so that they had space in front of their tent to just relax. She liked the idea. As they approached, she saw that there were some people sitting there, and that Balana was among them. Though most probably hadn't seen it, Ayla saw the woman quickly hide a scowl. She excused herself and went inside the tent. Tarana was lounging in the space as well and got up to greet them.

"I'm so glad you finally made it to the meeting," she said to Danie and Ayla. Ayla could tell that she was being honest. "There was talk that you wouldn't make it."

Jenadoza smiled. "They stopped off at Lion Camp to visit with Danie's kin," she said.

Tarana held out her hands, wanting to hold Teglodia. "I cannot believe how much he looks like Donzolnia already. He must be of his spirit."

"You will have to come see Laurana's daughter," Jenadoza smiled. "She has hair just like Brulenzia."

"Hmm. I'm sure there will be plenty of women with empty furs this summer that will be disappointed he's finally joining. No one saw that coming."

Jenadoza laughed. "Least of all him. I'm surprised that his spirit hasn't gotten around, considering all the furs he's managed to disappear into in years past." She frowned for a moment, then smiled, glad for her sister.

"So, have you come to see Seriana?" the headwoman asked.

"Uh-huh," Jenadoza said with a nod. "I promised that I'd bring Ayla as soon as she arrived. And she's here, so here we are."

"I'm sure she will be happy to see you," Tarana said, handing Teglodia back to his mother. "Well, go on in. I need to go join the Sisters. Something about some trouble," she said winking at the three young Oak Camp women—then noticed that Ayla's daughter was remarkably beautiful; just like her mother. She gave them one last wave and left the area.

Jenadoza smiled, but looked nervously at Ayla. "It's going to be all right, Ayla." Ayla nodded. She wasn't sure she believed her cousin, but at least no one had asked them to leave yet.

The three women pushed aside the outer windbreak of Beech Camp's tent flap, and stepped inside. It only took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the dim lighting inside—and it was in time to see Balana standing in front of her daughter, arms crossed over her chest. They couldn't help but hear what they were saying either. "And what does your future mate have to say about this?" she demanded.

"Mother, I have already explained this to you," Seriana said with a sigh. "Dima does not care."

"That's right, he doesn't care," her mother said angrily. "What kind of man is he, that he doesn't care?"

Seriana had been lying down, but she struggled to get up. "Mother, that's not what I meant and you know it." The young pregnant woman was standing with one hand on the small of her back and the other supporting the underside of her belly. "Dimia doesn't mind. Unlike some people, others aren't so impossible." Seriana paused. "Would you please just let me rest? Please just give it a rest." Seriana glanced over at the visitors, tried to smile and waved them over. Balana stood there for another moment, then pushed past them and left without greeting anyone.

"I am sorry about that, Ayla," she said after her mother had gone. She smiled and hugged her newest friend. "It is good to see you...all of you," she went on, kissing the cheek of each woman and reaching for Annaliza.

Ayla visually assessed the woman. "You need to sit down, Seriana," she said with a worried frown. "You should not even be out of bed." Ayla took her daughter back and set her down, then helped the young woman to sit down again. She then looked into her eyes and felt her skin. "Seriana, I do not want you to get up anymore, except to pass water. I do not want you to lose your baby." Then, turning to Jenadoza she continued. "Would you please get me some hot water?" Jenadoza nodded and went to get what her cousin wanted.

Seriana sighed and lay back. "Oh, Ayla, I am so glad that you are here," she said as she rolled her eyes. "I didn't think that I was going to make the trek here...that hill was horrendous."

Danie nodded. "I remember. Grov had to carry Laurana up it."

Seriana smiled. "Where is Grov, anyway?"

"He went with Donzolnia and Ivan to do some trading," Jenadoza interjected.

"Oh, that will be good for him. To get out, to see things and meet people," the young woman sighed, then threw her head back. "I am so bored. I've hardly been out of this bed since we got here. How am I ever going to get mated?" she whined.

"Don't worry," Ayla said. "We will do whatever we have to, to make you comfortable. And maybe you can rest outside too. The sun and fresh air will be good for you, but you can only go if someone helps you." Ayla felt the young woman's belly, causing her to groan at Ayla's probing hands.

"But what about my matrimonial?" she asked.

Ayla frowned. "You should be able to go through with it, if you rest a lot beforehand."

"I can't believe how hard this is," she said.

"Do the Sungaea ever have private ceremonies?" Danie asked. "The Mamutoi sometimes do that, if a couple does not want to wait for an entire winter. It doesn't happen much though...more often with First Rites. If a girl becomes a woman just after a summer meeting, we don't like for her to go unprotected all winter, so we send for someone who can make her a woman."

"That's a great idea, Danie," Jenadoza said as she waited by the fire for the water to heat. "It could happen here or...even within the isolation tent. That way you do not have to spend all that preparation time with the Sisters or wait on the platform with everyone. What do you think, Ayla?"

"Well, actually, I don't know anything about Sungaean matings," Ayla said. "So, I am not sure. I suppose it would be better to do it with as little movement as possible." Ayla looked around the tent. "Where is your sister?" she asked, thinking that someone should be here helping at all times.

"Oh, she and Mirra went to join the musicians for a while. I told them to go. They can't stay here with me all the time and...Mother was here."

"Here's the hot water, Ayla," Jenadoza said, handing her a large cup.

Ayla took the cup and thanked her cousin, then proceeded to make her patient some tea. "Well, you should not be left alone. What if you went into labor and no one was here to help you?"

Seriana frowned. "But, Ayla, it's too soon for me to have the baby," she said. Her eyes filled with tears as she thought about it.

"Let's just try to relax, okay? It is not good for the baby when the mother worries," Ayla said. "Where is...did you call him Dimia?"

Seriana nodded and smiled. "He went to the Council of Sisters to ask one of them to come visit me here, since I've been too tired to go over there. I haven't really been alone, Ayla, he's been here with me the whole time...or someone else has."

"That's good...here's some tea. It will help you to be stronger, to not get sick so much, but you still have to rest."

"Ayla's teas are so helpful, Seriana," Danie added. "I can hardly keep anything down in the morning, but as long as I have her morning tea, I don't get sick. This one," she said, touching her own, only slightly poochy tummy, "likes to reject everything I consume."

Seriana smiled. "I did not have so much trouble in the beginning," she said. "It's only been since...," she paused as someone entered the tent. "Oh, Dima, come meet Ayla and Danie."

The two new Sungaean women turned to see Seriana's intended. He was tall and thin; he hardly looked like a man. Ayla guessed that he just young looking, because he carried himself as though he was older. Dimia had shoulder length, nearly black hair and not a bit of stubble on his tanned face—another feature that made him look younger. When he got close to them, Ayla noticed that he had blue eyes and that he resembled Tagnolia, though he seemed somewhat different.

The young man hesitated a moment, then came forward. "Hello, it is nice to meet you both. Seriana has talked about you non-stop since she arrived." He smiled widely at his pregnant woman, who giggled a little.

"I guess I have mentioned you a time or...twenty," Seriana continued to laugh. "Let me introduce you. Dimia, this is Danie of the Mamutoi, daughter of Travie, sister to Darvie, mate of Ivanolia, blessed by Sumata."

"Welcome, Danie," he said, taking her hands. "I am Temina's son. She is Tagnolia's sister, but I don't suppose you know her yet, do you?"

Danie shook her head. "No, but thank you for your welcome."

Seriana smiled again. "And this is Ayla, daughter of Vincenzia's hearth, missing for a time, protected by the cave lion, mother of Durc, Ora, and Annaliza, and mated to Grov of the Clan of the Cave Bear." Her grin widened when she saw Ayla's surprise that she had remembered so much.

"Greetings Ayla, I have heard of not much else except for you and yours," he said with a smile. "I am so happy to finally meet you. I am Dimia, but please call me Dima, everyone always does."

They talked for a while longer, then Ayla explained to the young man that he and Seriana were going to have to be careful until the baby was born. They talked about delaying their mating until at least the second matrimonial or even the last one, and Ayla suggested having a private ceremony. She also mentioned that they should probably hold off on honoring the Mother until after the baby was born. She explained that the baby was probably going to come early, but that it could not survive if it came too early. That scared them both enough to agree to whatever precautions the young healer advised.

Ayla noticed that the young man didn't seem to have any of the preconceptions that many other Sungaeans had and she liked him more and more with each passing moment. Apparently Seriana had told him everything, or as much as she knew, and he did not have any objections to them. Ayla mentally noted that they had one more ally, and continued the conversation.

~oxoxo~

Brulenzia and Laurana held hands as they walked determinedly toward the entrance of the tent of the Council of Sisters. It was not a long walk, but there were many distractions along the way. Laurana had her daughter tucked under her tunic and strapped to her waist, making it easier to walk with her man, but she was aware of the many eyes of women that watched them pass. Several even snickered at the couple as they went by, making the young mother more nervous.

Brulenzia, having become very sensitive to his mate-to-be's worries, squeezed her hand, trying to reassure her, but before they entered to see the Sisters, he stopped and pulled her to the side. "Laurana, you're shaking," he said. "Are you okay?"

She nodded, but he could see that her eyes were welling up. "No," she finally cried.

"What is wrong?" he asked her. He was staring down at her, suddenly worried that it was she that didn't want him.

Laurana wiped at the tear that fell from her eye and glanced around. Her eyes were drawn to a small group of women who were sitting at a nearby fire, giggling and looking at them. Laurana recognized them as women that had previously hung around Brulenzia, trying to get his attention. She wondered if they had ever gained it. She then looked at the ground.

Brulenzia watched her, following her eyes. He saw where and who she was looking at and frowned. He could not take back that he had honored the Mother with so many in the past. It hadn't meant anything to him then. As recent as the beginning of the summer before, he had found pleasure in all, but not since he had been swept away by her.

The man looked down at the top of her blonde head, which was all that he could see with her looking at the ground. "Laurana," he said, placing his hand on her chin and gently tilting her face up so that he could see the tears that were now streaming down her cheeks. "You need to tell me what's wrong. Do you still want to join with me?" His voice cracked.

Laurana suddenly frowned. "Of course I do, Brulenzia," she said. "I am just still afraid that you will become bored with me and...and look...for others," she sniffled. "I mean, almost everyone finds someone at summer meetings to spice things up," she said with a slight smile. "But, what if you find someone else that you'd rather spend the rest of your time with...your wintertime, I mean?" The pout that he loved so much was back.

Brulenzia smiled. "That's not going to happen," he protested. "I cannot explain why I was the way I used to be, except that maybe I was bored and lonely all year and the summer meetings were a way have some fun. Or maybe I was searching. I didn't know that the one I was searching for was right under my own earthlodge." The tall, dark and handsome man led her to a log and sat her down. Then sitting beside her, he leaned in and kissed away each tear.

"Laurana, it would break my heart not to have you in my life. I want to join with you, and only you. Sure, we might look for someone else's furs to roll in now and then, but not for a long time. And it would never be something that would last, because I love you with all the pieces of my heart. You are what I've been looking for. You!" Brulenzia was looking deeply into her blue eyes and she stared back into his. Suddenly, she didn't see anything but him. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. It was only Bruana's squirming that made her back off and smile up at him.

"That is how I feel too," she responded, taking Bruana out of her tunic. "I just did not want you to be sorry. I was worried that you might want to..."

"Laurana, I already told you that I want this," he cut in and gestured at her and her daughter. "This makes me happy." He reached out and took the baby from her and smiled at the miniature replica of them both. "Yes it does," he said to the baby in the silly baby voice he had been using for the last few moons.

Laurana rolled her eyes and giggled, thinking he sounded like a child, but she was happy.

~oxoxo~

Completely unnoticed by the happy couple, the women that were watching also rolled their eyes. There was no mistaking that Brulenzia was permanently off their hunt list. Some were disappointed, but all of them liked Laurana. True, she was young and they had completely discounted her as competition, but she was perfect for the gorgeous man that had had a way with them all.

~oxoxo~

Donzolnia, Ivanolia, and Grov spent some time at Spruce Camp, trading salt for furs, and talking to some of the hunters. Grov did not say much, nor did many talk to him. People seemed to know who he was, even without introduction, but no one made any open objections to his presence.

One woman did ask about the small bag that he wore around his neck, so he answered simply. "This is my amulet; it holds the spirit of the leopard, of the Clan, and of me."

The woman smiled and nodded, noticing his decidedly foreign accent, which didn't seem to fit his face. She knew that he was part flathead...part Clan, as he said...and she was intrigued. She wanted to ask more, but an older man came out of their tent and gave her a dirty look. When she looked back at Grov, he had turned to leave with Donzolnia and Ivanolia.

Next, the men had to go around the Council of Sisters' tent to get to Hill Camp. Grov noticed that Ivanolia got a bit strange as they passed an area where several men were hanging out drinking what Grov could only guess was bouza. As they walked by, Ivanolia's pace quickened and he tried to stay out of their line of sight. It didn't work.

"Hey Ivan!" a man yelled. Grov could see his friend blush and look up. "Co'mere," the man slurred.

"Later," the young blond man called. "I have a few things to do, then I'll come by."

"Hey, we'eard that—" the man went on.

"Later!" Ivanolia said as he kept walking, noticeably speeding up.

Donzolnia knew that some of Ivanolia's friends weren't very respectable. He had never liked them. He thought they drank too much and often caused trouble, but he hadn't actually spent much time with them. He had never wanted to and had never understood why Ivanolia had.

Grov heard the word flathead come out of the man's mouth, but didn't say anything and didn't ask. He was well aware that every camp, even Clan camps, had men that most wouldn't spend time with. Of course the Clan didn't sit around and consume the liquid that these Others called bouza, but he knew that there were low-lifes everywhere.

When they arrived at Hill Camp, he received more stares, but his friends made their trades and they were invited to eat an evening meal. For the most part, Grov felt rather comfortable. He knew that people were curious about him and his mate and her children. Some looked on and didn't know what to say. Others commented in a not-so-quiet manner. But, for the most part, everyone was pleasant.

Grov knew, as did the others, that people were inviting them over just so that they could gawk, and though that was the hardest part, the young mixed man thought it might be the best way to show some of these people that they weren't so different. He was sure Ayla would be uncomfortable, but she would go and she would not complain.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – ? (didn't come up with a chapter name, I guess) ?

Most of the rest of that day passed quickly. The men finished trading and Ivanolia managed to avoid the men that wanted to talk to him—the men whom, up until this summer, he would have called friends; sorry as they were. Ivanolia had no doubts as to what they wanted to discuss. Or rather, badger him about. They were just never going to understand his change of opinion. In fact, it was going to be downright serious trouble. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that things were going to get ugly.

Donzolnia had watched and he too knew what Ivanolia's friends could be like. He wanted his friend—and brother through Jenadoza—to steer clear of the ugly confrontation that was bound to occur when they finally did meet up again. He wondered if Ivanolia was going to be able to stand up to them, being that he had previously harbored the same convictions as they. Later, he thought, after we are a little more settled. After we have a few more supporters.

~oxoxo~

Jenadoza, Danie, and Ayla spent a considerable part of the morning with Seriana and Dimia, but also managed to walk about a bit after leaving the happy young couple. They ran into Kristana, Seriana's sister, and Mirra somewhere near the musician's tent, but they didn't actually go in. Jenadoza wanted to wait for Laurana, who loved to listen to the music, before she brought them inside. Ayla was very curious about the sounds that emanated from the large roundish tent, but was happy to wait for her cousin. Danie was interested too, but she knew of music from her own people, so was not as eager.

Jenadoza did bring them by Womanhood Camp, which was of great interest to Ayla—and just a bit beyond her scope of understanding. "But why?" she asked with a confused frown. They had just been at the makeshift yet sturdy fence that surrounded the area in which the new young women waited, talking to Frala and Fräubita about their upcoming First Rites, and Ayla did not understand its purpose.

"It is what makes a woman, a woman," Jenadoza answered simply, as if that explained it all. Then, seeing that Ayla was still confused, she went on. "A young woman must be made ready to accept the spirit of a man, so that she can have a baby. It is the same with the Mamutoi, yes?" she asked, turning to Danie, looking for confirmation.

Danie nodded. "Yes and with all other people that I've heard of."

Ayla frowned. "Not with the Clan," she said, thinking of her first time, and Broud. She shook her head. That's over now, she thought. He's not so bad anymore, she told herself. "I have had no such ceremony and I am still a woman. And I have children."

Jenadoza frowned as well, thinking that is was not right for Ayla to have children and a mate and not to have had First Rites. Technically, she wasn't a woman...in the eyes of the Sungaea. But then, Jenadoza thought, the Sungaea didn't know much about how Ayla grew up. "It's just our way, Ayla. You could go through First Rites, you know? If you want to, that is."

Ayla thought for a moment. "No, I don't think so. I know that I am a woman. I do not need a ceremony to tell me, or anyone else, that I am." Of course not, Jenadoza thought, blushing slightly.

The three women talked as they walked through the Sungaea summer meeting, and stopped several times to talk to other people. Many were interested in meeting the two unfamiliar women. Danie was the beautiful younger sister of the Mamutoi woman, Darvie, whom everyone liked so much. No one had learned much about Danie since only a few had had the privilege of meeting her the previous summer due to their late arrival, but they did know that she was the one to bring Ivanolia out of his miserable existence, and that made her just as likable as Darvie.

Ayla, on the other hand, was infamous. All had heard of her return and most knew at least something about where she had been for all those years. There were many people that gave them uneasy looks. Jenadoza quickly filed the names of those people in her brain as ones that may be hard to convince. And there were others that looked disgusted at the mere thought of a civilized woman growing up with and mating a flathead male, normal as he seemed to appear. Those people made Jenadoza nervous. She did not think many of them could be convinced and worried about the trouble they could cause.

But, that was not all that was out there. There were also numerous looks of curiosity, and people that seemed more interested in learning before judging. Those were the people that Jenadoza introduced her cousin to—and most of them walked away questioning the beliefs that they had grown up with.

For the most part, Jenadoza was feeling a sense of relief. She knew that it was not over. Far from it, but it seemed to be going pretty well. That is, until they rounded the space that belonged to the Shogurs. Jenadoza grimaced and tried to hurry the other two along...but not before they were spotted.

"Hey! Thereths that woman," someone said loudly. "The one that birth'd that abomination."

"Come on, Ayla, we don't need to listen..." Jenadoza started to say, but Ayla stopped to take in her surroundings. There was a decidedly different air to the space they were now in. There were flies buzzing around, landing on dead animal carcasses, which were strewn about, and the smell was nearly enough to make one vomit. Ayla grimaced as she scanned the area. She saw that the dwellings were so tattered that they could hardly be called tents, and that the people were just as dirty as the space, maybe even more so. Ayla saw some children playing and noticed that they were covered in filth, and that many appeared to be sickly. An old woman let out a gurgling cough and eyed the three intruders.

After taking in the area and swallowing hard, she noticed that the man that had spoken was approaching them and that he was staggering drunk. There was no doubt in her mind that he had consumed too much bouza. She could not mistake his look of disgust and wanted to run, but something made her stay put. That something was a small child that happened to be lying on the ground nearby; a child that looked to be very ill.

Ayla glanced back at the man that was advancing on them, but she could not help but kneel down and to assess the child's condition. The child was filthy; Ayla could not even tell what color the child's hair was, but she appeared no worse than any of the other people of this camp. She's extremely thin, slightly dehydrated, and smelled of bouza. She also had a bump on her head. Apparently she had fallen and no one had even noticed.

"Whas you doin' wit that grl," the man shouted. "Get 'way from er!"

"Where is this child's mother?" Ayla demanded angrily, standing up and looking the man square in the face. "Do you allow the children to drink bouza?"

The man looked around nervously. No, he thought to himself. Even he knew that the children shouldn't be drinking, but he had been busy and...where was the girl's mother anyway. He squinted down at the child to see who it was, then hollered. "DANTA! Come git yer daughtr." He then turned to glare at Ayla. Within moments, a woman came out and scooped up the child, then scurried away.

"An you, woman!" he said, looking at Jenadoza and scowling. "Git that abomination woman outta 'ere." The man turned around and swaggered back to where he had been sitting. No one else said anything.

Ayla was aghast at the treatment, or lack there of, of the little girl. She was about to refuse to leave, but she felt Jenadoza's hand gently pulling on her arm. "There's nothing we can do right now, Ayla," Jenadoza whispered. "We'll have to go talk to the Sisters. But first, I think we should go talk to Tagnolia or Tiflona and tell them what happened." Reluctantly, Ayla allowed herself to be pulled, but she kept glancing over her shoulder as the walked away.

~oxoxo~

"It is always good to know where they are," Tagnolia said. He shook his head.

"We have them within the Mamutoi too, Tagnolia," Darvie said shaking her head and handing Annaliza to Ayla. "It really is best to just know where they are and stay away.

"Actually, Darvie," Vincenzia cut in. "I'm surprised that that's the stand that the Mamutoi take on the mistreatment of human beings."

Darvie frowned at her mate. "What do you mean?"

"Well, with how outspoken most of your people are, I would have assumed that they would put an end to these kinds of abuses." Vincenzia was worried that he'd upset his mate, but it had long been something he had wondered about. "And I don't just mean camps like Dogwood, Ash, Cedar, and Sumac."

"Are you referring to Nezzie and Rydag?" she asked. She had never understood this aspect of her people either. It seemed so contradictory to their ways.

"Yes," he said. "I guess I never paid much attention to it either, until I learned from my daughter that the Clan are people too." He glanced at Ayla and smiled. "But, we need to do something. We cannot continue on like this." He gestured toward the offending camps, while placing his other hand on Grov's shoulder.

"I do not understand it either," Darvie said. "And I agree, we need to do something, but...what? I mean, people don't like it when things change too quickly. We're going to have to take it slowly. One person at a time...one camp at a time. One people at a time," she said, looking at Grov and Ayla.

The Clan man smiled. "But at least your people are capable of change. I'm afraid my people could never overcome such a huge obstacle."

"I'm not so sure about that, Grov," Vincenzia said. "Look at what Brun did for my daughter...and then he took in your people. The Clan may struggle at it, but they do adapt and change. They have to or they wouldn't still be around."

Ayla was watching the exchange, but she was getting anxious. "Excuse me," she said. "All this talk of change is good, but what about that little girl?" Ayla asked, hugging her daughter to her breast protectively. She had been listening to everyone discuss the problem, but no one was actually really doing anything. "Someone has to get her out of there. She was hurt."

"Not to worry, Ayla," Tagnolia said patting the young woman reassuringly. "Jenadoza has already gone to find Tiflona and I'm sure the Council of Sisters will remove the child and place her in one of the healer's tents." He paused for a moment. "But, I think that...it might be best if you let others handle it for now," he said, seeing how badly the woman wanted to rush to the aid of the child. "Do you understand?"

Ayla frowned, but nodded. "Yes, I do understand, but I do not like it." Grov hugged his mate and kissed the top of her head. He knew that it was nearly killing her to not be allowed to assist.

~oxoxo~

Toward evening, Ayla and Grov were lying on their bed platform, resting before their first evening out. Brulenzia and Laurana had returned and were also resting, as were several other people.

"Well? What happened?" Laurana demanded, as soon as Jenadoza got back to the tent.

Jenadoza smiled. "Well, it was quite a scene. Zadneetsia had to be restrained. He will be spending a few nights within the tent of the Council of Brothers." Jenadoza looked at Ayla. "I wouldn't go over there if I were you, Ayla. He was carrying on about how this was all your fault."

Ayla blushed. "I did not mean to cause trouble. I was only worried about that little girl."

"Danara is going to be fine. Her mother went with her to see the healers and she didn't appear to be angry. She was definitely worried, but not angry."

Ayla sighed. "I am glad for that."

"Now, before we go over to Hill Camp," Jenadoza said. "I need to rest." She flopped down next to Donzolnia and closed her eyes.

~oxoxo~

Ivanolia lay silently, listening to the conversation. Hearing that Zadneetsia would be away for a few days made him relax slightly. At the very least, he wouldn't have to deal with him for a little while and it would give him a chance to organize his thoughts.

Ivanolia glanced at his mate, who had fallen asleep, then looked at his family and friends. Jenadoza's eyes were closed and he could see that she was about to drift off as well. Donzolnia was sitting on the edge of the platform, talking to Brulenzia and Grov. And Laurana had moved to Grov's bed platform, where she was talking animatedly with Ayla. Ivanolia could see how happy everyone seemed; he just hoped they stayed that way.

~oxoxo~

When Tinozia entered the tent with Tabita and Fürlasa a little while later, he noticed his friend was lost in thought and sat down with him. "What's up?"

Ivanolia smiled. "I'm just observing how happy everyone looks."

Tinozia glanced at his age mates and nodded. "Yes, they seem to be," he agreed. "Hey, let's go outside and talk," he went on, nodding toward the tent entrance. Ivanolia shrugged and followed his friend.

"So, do you have a problem with everyone being happy?" Tinozia continued, once they were seated outside.

"No, no, of course not," Ivanolia sighed. "But it was so much easier back at Oak Camp...when we didn't have so much to deal with." Ivanolia looked at the activity all around them and put his head in his hands.

Tinozia gave his friend an amused smile, then laughed. "Yes, you were more than enough to deal with there, Ivan."

Ivanolia looked up and frowned. "I know I was bad. Terrible even," he admitted. "But this could get ugly. You know Zadneetsia isn't going to just drop this whole flathead thing. For me it took almost losing Danie to see how ridiculous I was being. Zadneetsia has no reason to change his view.

Tinozia could see tears glistening in the man's eyes and knew there must be more to it than he was aware of. After all, Ivanolia was three years older than he was. Could there be things about his friend that he didn't have knowledge of? Probably.

"What is bothering you so much, Ivan?" Tinozia asked—but continued before the other man could respond. "So you blow him off. Just totally ignore him. What could he possibly do to you if you completely disassociate with him?

"You really don't know what you're talking about, Tin." The man had his head in his hands again and was shaking it.

Tinozia could see droplets of wetness falling on the dirt between his friend's feet. He didn't know what to say or do, but he was becoming frustrated. "You know, maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but I can't help you if you won't talk to me."

Ivanolia sighed. He knew his friend was right, but did he really want to tell Tinozia about the activities he used to engage in with his so-called friends. Only Donzolnia knew...and only because he had been unfortunate enough to come along on one of their outings.

"You're right, you can't help me if I don't tell you. I'm just...not ready to yet, Tin. Let's just say that there are some things that I did while hanging around with Zadneetsia that I'd rather people not know about." He frowned. "But...something tells me they won't be a secret much longer."

Now it was Tinozia's turn to sigh. "Well, I'll listen if you're ever ready," he said, putting an arm around his friend. "But don't forget that it may be easier on you if we know beforehand, so that we can back you up."

Ivanolia tried to smile and wondered if Tinozia, or anyone else for that matter, would back him up, once they knew the extent of his evil.

"Hey, we better go freshen up; here comes Donzolnia." Tinozia stood up and left. Ivanolia sat there watching the younger man leave and wiped away his tears. When Donzolnia neared, Ivanolia looked up at him and tried to smile.

"So, brooding over past events?" Donzolnia said. Ivanolia just stared at him and heaved a sigh. Donzolnia sat down.

"You know, I never approved of those friends of yours. Even back then I thought you guys did terrible things," the dark-haired man said. "But I think our people will surprise you, if you give them a chance. They will take into consideration that you were in a bad way. I mean, losing a mate can make a person crazy...but you have to say something before they here it from someone else, because they will heard it from someone else at some point, Ivan."

"I know, I know, it's just so hard to believe that I...that I—"

"Ivan!" Danie called from the tent opening. "Are you going to come in and get ready? Or am I going out without you?"

Ivanolia and Donzolnia turned and looked at her and both forced a smile. "We're coming," Ivanolia said. The woman smiled and disappeared back inside. "I guess this will have to wait a little longer."

"But not too long, I hope," Donzolnia said.

Ivanolia shook his head. "No, not too long." As they went back inside, he looked over at his cousin and her mate. They had both changed their outfits and looked very good in traditional Sungaean garb. It was hard for the man to believe that he had objected to them so intensely only a short time ago. They already seemed as if they had always been a part of his family; he only hoped they could find it in their hearts to forgive him when they found out about his past.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Just A Little Excitement"

Ayla was standing next to Grov and immediately noticed Ivanolia's reappearance. He had an odd look on his face and the unmistakable hint of tears in his eyes. Squeezing Grov's arm, Ayla made her way over to the other man that had just sat down on his bed platform.

"Is everything okay?" she whispered as she sat down next to her cousin. She was sure that something was not okay, but she needed to ask.

Ivanolia looked at her and tried to smile. "Of course, Ayla. Why do you ask?"

"Hmm. Maybe because I can see that you're upset." The man looked away. His eyes fell on Danie, who was standing with Grov. The man said something that made her giggle.

"There is something bothering me, but...well, I can't talk about it now," he said, looking back at her. Ayla's eyes went to where his had been and she wondered if her cousin still harbored ill feelings for Grov. However, when she looked back at the man, she didn't think that was the case. Instead, he appeared to be pleading with her.

The young woman continued to look at him. She searched his blue eyes, trying to figure out if she should press, but hugged him instead. "I don't know what it is, Ivan, but you can talk to me anytime. You know that, don't you?"

Ivanolia's eyes filled again and spilled over. Opening his eyes as wide as possible, and brushing them quickly, he managed to clear away the evidence of upset before anyone else looked over. "I hope you will be so willing to listen after you hear what I have to tell you, Ayla."

"I guess we won't know until you do, but I can be very forgiving," she said with a smile. She instantly thought about Broud. It was not hard to know what she was thinking. The man knew all about the man that had taken his cousin when she was barely a woman and nodded, hoping that she could forgive him as well.

~oxoxo~

The young couples hung around Oak Camp's tent awhile longer, then finally decided it was time to go. Though he wanted to, Tinozia had decided not to attend the evening meal with the young couples. He had been invited to join the Shogurs, which was a great opportunity for him, considering that he was about to devote his life to serving.

Fürlasa was disappointed that Tinozia wouldn't be going to Hill Camp with the others, and pouted for a bit. However, seeing that her friend was not happy made it easy for Tabita to convince her to go out and about instead, making Tinozia wonder where he wanted to be more. The quiet man didn't want to lose the young woman now that he knew she liked him, but he knew where he needed to be on that night; with the Shogurs.

Knowing that they had to walk around the Council of Sisters to get to Hill Camp made Ivanolia worry. Though he was aware that Zadneetsia wouldn't be around to make trouble, that particular man was not the only problem of the group; not the only man present during their escapades. That route was just too close to the camps that knew him best.

"Uh," he stammered, as everyone was heading toward the tent flap. "I think I'm going to meet you over there," he said as everyone was leaving. "I have to...find something."

Ayla and Grov heard him, looked at each other, then frowned. They could hear the untruth even with their backs turned, but when their eyes fell upon him, it was as if he just finished with, "That was a lie." The couple looked at each other, wondering what was going on. No one else seemed to notice. Danie just nodded and hugged him. Ayla gave her cousin a look that told him she wasn't fooled, but followed the others out.

Ivanolia sighed after they left. He knew he needed to get up the strength to talk to them; to talk to everyone in Oak Camp. They all needed to know.

~oxoxo~

Once outside, Grov and Ayla stopped at Oak Camp's fire to talk to Darvie. "Are you sure you don't mind us leaving the children with you?" Ayla asked with uncertainty.

"Gosh no," the woman replied. "I had no intention of going out tonight. And besides, you two need to get out and meet people." Darvie hugged her and smiled. "Are the girls already asleep?"

"I think so. I put them down earlier and left Braydalana and Crisana to watch them. Maybe I should go check on them before we go," Ayla said, feeling strange about just going out without her children.

"No, no," Darvie cut in. "Grov, take her away before she decides to stay all night."

The man smiled, but it was Jenadoza, Laurana, and Danie who came to escort the woman away.

"Come on, Ayla," Jenadoza said. "We don't get many nights to do this when we have little ones, so let's enjoy."

"Yes, Ayla," Laurana chimed in. "I'll have to come back early to feed Bruana, so you can come back then too, if you want to check on them." Ayla sighed, then followed everyone.

~oxoxo~

As the young couples walked around the encampment toward Hill Camp, Grov and Ayla tried to melt into the group and watch the goings on surreptitiously. The night was full of activity and nearly every fire had something going on.

As they approached Spruce Camp, a man came out. "Donzolnia," he called. "Here's that fur you said you wanted. I was just bringing it to you."

Donzolnia, who'd had his arm around Grov's shoulder and was talking about the summer hunt, turned to look at the man who had addressed him.

"Jondaria," Donzolnia said, removing his arm from Grov and taking the fur that was being held out to him. "Look at this Jenadoza. Isn't it exquisite?" Jenadoza smiled and nodded.

As they stood there talking, a young woman came out of the tent and smiled. Grov recognized her as the woman that had been interested in his amulet earlier that day.

"This is my sister, Janika," Jondaria said. He looked at his sister. "And this is Grov and Ayla and Ivanolia's mate, Danie."

"Yes, I remember Grov from this afternoon," she said, taking the man's hands in greeting and smiling up into his eyes, completely ignoring the two women. She had heard so much about these people, especially the flathead man, and had wanted to continue her talk with him. Unfortunately, her mother's mate had put an end to that during the day, but now that he was gone, she decided to jump for the opportunity.

"This is my mate, Ayla," Grov said, disentangling his hands from the young woman's. Janika frowned, then looked at the woman that stood next to him.

Ayla smiled. "Hello," she said, as she took the woman's reluctant hands.

Janika looked at the flathead's mate. She had heard the woman was strikingly beautiful, but she was even more beautiful than the young woman had thought possible. She wondered how they had come to be together. Stories, or rather, gossip, which had openly torn through the meeting prior to their arrival, were now much more secretive. That didn't, however, stop the young woman from wondering.

"Greetings," Janika stated flatly. "Welcome to Spruce Camp's space."

Ayla glanced at Grov. He looked uncomfortable. This woman obviously wanted to get to know him better, but not her. Ayla smiled. "And this is Danie, Darvie's sister."

"It's nice to meet you, Danie," Janika said. "I have met your sister. She is very nice."

"Thank you," Danie said politely, noting to herself that the young woman was a bit rude. "My sister is mated to the man of Ayla's hearth, so I guess you could say that I am Ayla's aunt," Danie said, showing the woman where her loyalties lay.

Janika frowned again, and was about to say something else, when her brother cut in. "You'll have to excuse my sister, Ayla...our mother's mate doesn't let her out much," he said, putting his arm around her and giving his sister a silencing grin. She flashed him an angry look, then spun on her heel, leaving everyone staring after her.

Ayla, who had not been upset by the woman's advances on her mate, nervously smiled at the man. Grov looked relieved that Janika was gone, but suddenly became aware that Jondaria was looking at Ayla the same way in which Janika had been looking at him. He didn't know what to think.

Noticing the new couple's discomfiture, Brulenzia decided to rescue them. "Well, we need to get over to Hill Camp," he said, taking Ayla's hand and helping to lead her away. Both Grov and Ayla gave him an appreciative look, and they continued on.

~oxoxo~

Ivanolia stayed in the tent, waiting for them to leave. He stepped outside once to see that they were talking to Jondaria, so he continued to wait.

"Ivanolia," came a voice behind him. "Why are you still here?" The man had been peeking out of the tent flap, but turned to see his mother.

"I...um...well, I was looking for something. I told them that I'd meet them there," he stammered.

Serana narrowed her eyes at her son. "Did you find what you were looking for?" She obviously didn't buy his lie.

Looking down at his empty hands. "No."

"Well then, you'll have to look later." The man stared at her for a moment, then nodded and left.

~oxoxo~

Outside, he could see everyone had left Spruce Camp. He decided to make his way towards Hill Camp by way of the outer path. It would take longer, but that way he could get there without passing the camps that could give him trouble.

~oxoxo~

Brulenzia continued to hold Ayla's hand as they walked along and Grov took up the other one. Ayla smiled gratefully at the two men. As they walked, she looked around, recognizing where they had been earlier in the day. As they rounded the tent of the Council of Sisters, she glanced toward the area where Zadneetsia resided.

"Don't worry, Ayla," Brulenzia said. "He's not there, remember?" She nodded.

They continued their course, finally arriving in front of Hill Camp, the only camp not named after some sort of tree or plant. Several young couples were sitting outside by their fire, obviously waiting for them, and others were lingering around, wanting to see the flathead man for themselves.

Donzolnia stood in the lead, Jenadoza right next to him, both had smiles on their faces, as they looked at the people standing there to greet them. "Greetings, Lenora," Jenadoza said, taking the hands that were being offered.

"Welcome to our fire," the woman said with a grin. "It is so good to have you and your missing family among us." Lenora looked at the new faces. She had figured that Ayla would be beautiful, all the Oak Camp women were, but she was surprised that the flathead was good looking as well. Her eyes traveled over the couple; they looked good together.

"Well, we thought you might not come," a man sneered from off to the side and slightly behind.

Donzolnia squinted down at the man that had not gotten up to greet them. He was hard to see, as he was just out of the fire's light. Donzolnia realized that it was someone he didn't like at all...someone from Sumac Camp. "Why wouldn't we come, Igorvia?" Donzolnia asked. "We were invited, weren't we? What are you doing here?"

"I too was invited," the man said, taking a gulp of his drink and getting up. "Where's Ivanolia?" he asked, looking around. "I figured I would find him here."

Donzolnia was about to speak up, but Danie opened her mouth first. "He's coming," she said as she eyed the man shrewdly. She already didn't like the man.

Igorvia hadn't met his old friend's new mate, though he'd heard a lot about her. He wondered if she was the cause of his change in attitude. He'd heard she was related to some flathead boy that her Mamutoi relatives had taken in. She sure was pretty, with her short dark hair. "Darvie's sister, right?" he said, as he swaggered over to her.

Danie squared her shoulders and stood as tall as she could. "Sure am," she said with a proud smile. She tried to look strong.

Igorvia slipped his arm around her. She had to hide her grimace. He smelled dirty and his breath reeked of bouza.

Everyone watched, not sure what to do. Igorvia wasn't exactly hurting Danie, but she was clearly uncomfortable. Seeing that Danie had had enough, Donzolnia was about to intervene, but again, someone got there first.

Ayla could not control herself and stepped forward. "Greetings," she said, offering her hands to the foul smelling man.

"Well, you must be the other woman I've heard so much about," he continued, arm still draped over Danie's shoulder. "The one mated to the flathead."

Grov was nearly ready to step in, but Brulenzia and Donzolnia put a hand on each of his shoulders. "Just wait," Brulenzia whispered. "We don't want a fight and he hasn't really done anything yet." Grov stood down, but stayed ready.

Then suddenly, another man was there. He had come from behind, but was now standing next to Ayla. It was Ivanolia and he looked angry. Igorvia released Danie and took a step back. "Well, well, well...look who decided to show up." Everyone was pretty quiet, but many were staring over at Hill Camp's fire from other fires. "I thought I'd have to track you down," the man continued.

"Nope, I'm right here," Ivanolia said.

"Well then, maybe you could tell me why you didn't come see us today? Or maybe you could tell me why you're hanging around with the flathead," Igorvia sneered, gesturing toward Grov, but not looking at him. "Or maybe, you could let me know why Zadneetsia is being held by the Council of Brothers, because I'm sure you know more than you're saying...or not saying, as the case may be."

Ivanolia blushed. "Igorvia, couldn't we talk about this somewhere else. People are trying to enjoy an evening meal here."

"I was thinking that it might be better to talk about it right here, in front of everyone."

Ivanolia eyes flashed with anger and he stepped forward, getting right up into the other man's face and grabbing his tunic. Igorvia took another step back, but didn't back down. "Look, Igorvia, we don't want trouble. If you want to talk to me, then I'll go with you, but don't come in here and threaten me." Donzolnia and Brulenzia—and a few men of Hill Camp—were standing there, waiting to see what they'd have to do.

Igorvia finally held up his hands and shrugged. When Ivanolia let go he took a few steps backward. "Okay then, I expect to see you...sometime soon." The man downed his drink and set the cup down, then sauntered off.

Ivanolia watched him go and sighed heavily. When he turned around everyone was staring at him. He tried to avoid Danie's eyes, but her penetrating stare was fixed on her mate and he could not not look at her.

"Ivan, what was that all about?" she demanded. He mumbled something, not wanting to get into it at that moment and looked to Donzolnia for assistance.

"Okay, now that that's over, let's visit," Donzolnia said. Jenadoza looked at her mate, wondering what he was covering up. She could tell that he knew something that he wasn't saying. Danie thought the same.

Laurana looked from her brother, to her sister, to Brulenzia, trying to figure it out. Then she glanced at Grov; he looked angry. And Ayla was frowning as well. What was going on here? she wondered. She knew Ayla had been worried that something like this might happen, but what did her brother have to do with it? She thought this evening was going to be fun. What had happened?

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "More Trouble"

Donzolnia did his best to get things to a more relaxed state, but the evening meal continued to be tense. No more mention was made about Ivanolia's friend, or why the man had been there in the first place, but the subject was not far from anyone's mind.

Many members of Hill Camp appeared to be extremely embarrassed about the incident. However, there were plenty of others that hadn't bothered to come to the defense of Oak Camp, but instead stayed silent, or even worse, they left before the Sumac Camp man had sauntered off.

The evening meal, however, was a delicious meat dish and several sides, all made by the young headwoman, and several cups of some kind of wine, which was stronger than any Grov or Ayla had tried before. It was not long before most were intoxicated, including the young Clan couple.

For the most part, Grov had hovered close to his mate, thinking that he needed to protect her from these stupidly prejudiced people, but when Janika showed up, he seemed to get himself cornered by the young, yet awfully persistent, woman. The woman seemed determined to keep him to herself, despite his attempts to dash away. The man didn't understand why she was acting the way she was, especially after all the bad attention their presence seemed to draw. Grov hadn't forgotten the look she had received from the man of her hearth earlier that day. It made him nervous.

As the man conversed with her, she kept taking steps closer, causing him to back away further. Grov glanced over the woman's head, searching for Ayla, but she was busy standing with and talking to Ivanolia, Danie, and some others he hadn't met.

Janika smiled up at him and giggled, brushing her hand on his arm. Had he said something funny? he wondered. He frowned and took another step back, then looked for Ayla again. For a moment, he couldn't find her—then he saw that she was talking to Jondaria again. When had he arrived? Ayla seemed fine, but where was Ivanolia, he thought, looking around for his mate's cousin. At a touch on his arm, Grov glanced down at Janika again. She was holding his arm and leaning into him—and talking about something. His head sure seemed to be whirling.

"Umm...Janika, I...I need to go find...Ayla," he finally stammered, gently pushing her back.

The woman frowned. She was not used to being pushed away and she didn't like it one bit. "But why?" she asked. "Don't you want to have some fun?"

"Well...yes," he answered. "But I would like to share it with my mate...Ayla."

"But Ayla's fine. She's over there with my brother," she said, tipping her head in the direction of the other two. Grov glanced over at them and frowned. Did Ayla look as distressed as he felt?

"Yes, you are right. Maybe we should join them." He started to walk away, but Janika caught his hand and pulled him into the nearest tent.

"Or maybe they want to be alone," she said, pulling him in close and kissing him. "Maybe we could be alone too." She put her arms around him and pressed herself up against him.

Grov accepted her kiss, but suddenly pushed her away. He liked it when, on occasion, Ayla was demanding, but this woman was not Ayla and he didn't like her manhandling him. It didn't feel right. "No Janika!" he finally said. "I don't even know you."

For a moment, an angry look flashed through Janika's dark eyes, but just as quickly as it had come, it disappeared and she smiled. "Okay," she said. "Suit yourself." The woman walked out of the tent, leaving a bewildered Grov standing in the opening, staring out after her. She didn't go back to the gathering, but instead went the other way, presumably back to Spruce Camp. Grov ran a hand through the stubble on his chin and shook his head.

~oxoxo~

On the other side of the gathering, Jondaria was talking to Ayla. They were sitting at one of the fires and were discussing different ways to cure and tan hides.

"That's fascinating, Ayla," the man was saying. "I wouldn't have guessed that the...Clan?" She nodded. "That the Clan was so skilled. Truly fascinating," he said again. "And I've heard that you have a language, which uses signs only and no sounds. What is it like, to talk that way?"

Ayla shrugged. "It is the same as talking out loud, except that you cannot talk when it is dark."

"But oh, not the same at all. If you can talk without sound, then you can have private conversations and no one will know what you're saying."

"Well, I guess so, as long as people don't know the signs," she replied. "Or...aren't watching, if they do know them. Our language isn't completely silent though."

Ayla was smiling, but her smile broadened when Grov came up beside them. Then suddenly, her smile faded, when she saw her mates face. "What is it, Grov?" she asked, standing up.

"Ahh, nothing, I'm fine," he said. She knew that he was not fine and touched his arm questioningly.

Jondaria stood up then as well, and looked around for his sister. He had seen her flirting with the strangely handsome and interesting flathead man. He had even had a fleeting thought that if his sister was successful, then he might have a chance to tempt the man's beautiful, blonde mate into his furs. But now he could tell that wouldn't happen. Janika was not likely to be in a good mood, if she's just been turned down. That thought made him smile a bit. Well, can't always have what you want, he reasoned.

When the man looked back at the couple, it was as if he didn't even exist. He and Ayla had just been talking about the way the Clan communicated, but now he was witnessing it. He had no idea what they were saying, but it was beautiful.

~oxoxo~

It was not long afterward that the gathering started to break up. As they were walking back to Oak Camp, Ayla noticed that Laurana and Danie had already left. Ivanolia and Brulenzia were carrying on loudly, which caused several people to shush them. When Jenadoza, who had wanted to retire early, tripped over some unseen obstacle and started giggling loudly herself, Donzolnia picked her up and carried her.

"Ayla, this was so fun," she said. "I'm so glad you decided to come out with us." She wasn't aware of Grov's run-in with Janika, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves after their initial problem with Igorvia.

Ayla and Grov were mostly happy. Grov had told her about Janika, which had amused his mate. "Well, it could have been worse," she gestured. "She could have caused a scene."

"I'm not sure it could have been worse," he gesticulated angrily. "It was pretty bad."

Ayla frowned at him. She hadn't seen him so angry since Ivanolia had accidentally punched her, causing her to go into labor. "I just mean that..."

"Oh, never mind, Ayla," he gestured, seeing that he'd hurt her feelings. "I didn't mean to seem so angry. I just don't understand these Others. Do they hate us or not?" Ayla shrugged.

"Hey you two," Jenadoza said, squinting over at them from Donzolnia's arms. "I've had too much wine to see what you're saying."

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "An Early Morning"

Ayla lay still on her sleeping platform, but was aware that her head hurt badly. Why did I drink so much of that wine last night? she questioned herself. She turned her head slightly to see that Grov had already awakened and had gotten up. The woman frowned, knowing that she'd have to get up, make some painkilling tea, then nurse her daughter.

After gathering all her strength, she sat up and sighed. The tent seemed to be rather quiet. Either people were still sleeping or they were gone. She could hear some shuffling, but not much. Pulling on her leggings, she got up and went to find her children. She found Ora first. The child was with Serana, who was drinking a cup of tea in the main space of the tent.

"Mamma, I thought you would sleep all day," Ora said with a smile.

Ayla grinned back and tickled her daughter. "Of course I wouldn't sleep all day."

"Well good morning, Ayla," Serana said when the young woman turned to look at her. "I have some tea for you." The woman was holding a steaming cup of tea, and Ayla could tell immediately that it was the tea she needed.

"Thank you, Serana," Ayla replied, after she took a sip. "I am sorry to have slept so long. I didn't mean for you to have to take care of Ora for me."

The older woman smiled. "Not to worry. It is my pleasure. And it isn't really late. The sun has only just come over the horizon. Many are still asleep, actually. Only the very young and old rise with the sun." The woman thought for a moment. "Anyway, it is so nice to have so many little ones around again." She looked at Ora, who had just put a piece of dried meat in her mouth, and smiled. "After Braydalana was born...well, I didn't think there'd be another birth in our family, but you have been there to welcome each new birth, haven't you?"

Ayla smiled that the woman. "It was little."

The woman raised an eyebrow. "Well, little or not, I am grateful to you...and your mate."

"Thank you, Serana," Ayla replied. "And speaking of my mate, where is he?"

Serana put her cup down. "Well, you know, I haven't actually been outside yet, but I did see him leave with Durc and Annaliza. He might be outside by the fire."

"I guess I will go check. Do you want to come with me, Ora?" Ayla asked, looking at her middle child. The girl shook her head.

"You can leave her, Ayla. I'm not going anywhere today, at least not right now." Ayla gave the woman an appreciative look and excused herself.

~oxoxo~

At the tent's entrance, Ayla pushed the tent flap aside and stepped out. Outside, the morning air was still crisp and a light summer fog was blanketing the area. It wouldn't last long—the sun would burn it off quickly—but it was nice for the morning.

Ayla immediately saw Grov sitting there by the fire, with his back to the tent. She could tell by the way he sat that he wasn't very happy. He had Annaliza on his lap and Durc was sitting there eating.

"Mama," her son called. "Come sit with us. Grov has made me something to eat," the boy said with a smile.

The woman went over to her family and frowned down at what her son was eating. "And what did Grov make for you," she asked, unable to tell what it was.

"I don't know, but it's good," the boy said. Ayla leaned down to kiss her mate's head and picked up Annaliza, who had reached up to her mother.

Grov smiled at her as he released their daughter. "Well, the boy had to eat, didn't he?"

Ayla giggled, then scrutinized her mate further. "You did not look very happy when I came out. It wasn't about cooking, was it?" she asked, sure that it wasn't.

The man frowned again. "No. It's about...that woman. That Janika was here this morning," he replied. "I do not like the way she pushes herself on me. Something about it feels wrong."

"How do you mean?" Ayla asked.

"I can't say, exactly, it just...doesn't feel right." He paused. "But, I have no experience with this."

Ayla smiled. "Well, neither do I. No one has ever wanted me before, until you."

"And Broud," the man reminded her.

She grimaced. "Broud did not want me. He only wanted to hurt me. Besides, that is in the past."

"I'm sure you will have to get used to people wanting you here, Ayla. I think Jondaria wanted you last night."

Ayla frowned. "Do you think so? Or was he just being nice?"

The man grinned at his mate. "Come on, Ayla, if I had gone with Janika, he would surely have tried harder with you. Don't forget that among the Others, you are a very beautiful woman. They see you the way I do, not the way the Clan does."

Ayla smiled. She still could not get used to thinking of herself as anything but big and ugly, despite how many people had told her otherwise. To others, she was clearly one of the most beautiful Sungaean women, if not one of the most beautiful women anywhere.

"So, what happened this morning with Janika?" she asked her mate.

The man sighed, squinting into the fog toward Spruce Camp's fire. "She saw me sitting here, though I can't tell how with all the fog, and brought me some tea." The man paused to look at Durc. "And she kept staring at Durc," he gestured when he was sure the boy wasn't watching. "She had an odd look about her and it bothered me." Then going back to speaking. "Then she picked up Annaliza and asked where you were."

"Well, that seems harmless," Ayla said.

"No Ayla, it wasn't," the man said.

~oxoxo~

"Ayla's still asleep," Grov replied to the nosey young woman.

Janika smiled slyly, put the child down, and then sat down beside the man. "Oh good. Now I can have you all to myself." She reached up and ran her fingers through his short dark hair.

The man's eyes opened wide. Was she really suggesting what she seemed to be. "No Janika," Grov said to her, leaning back. "I do not want to make you feel bad, but I am not interested. This is not how I was raised."

The young woman's eyes flashed angrily, just as they had the night before, but this time she did not hide it. "Feel bad?" she said. "Do you think I cannot get whomever I want?" she demanded, standing up suddenly.

The man stared at her. "Ah...no, that is not what I meant, Janika. I said that I'm just not intere..."

"I heard you!" she spat. "Do you think Ayla will stay with you after she meets a

real man? Not some mixed up perversion, such as yourself."

Grov continued to stare at her for a moment, then he looked at Durc. The boy had stopped eating and was frowning up at the woman. Only Broud had been so mean in his short past.

Grov looked around the encampment, hoping someone from Oak Camp could save him from this angry woman, but no one seemed to be around; it was too early. "I think that you should probably go, Janika. I do not want trouble; Oak Camp does not want trouble."

"Humph," she said, hands on her hips. "Then why'd they bring

you here, if they don't want any trouble?" She waited for a response, but he was speechless. "And don't think you will be able to spend a whole summer meeting with the Sungaea and not encounter trouble. I'm sure there's going to be some." With that, the woman stomped off.

~oxoxo~

"Ayla, it seemed like a threat." The man frowned at his mate. "I do not understand these Others. They act like they hate flatheads, yet..." His voice trailed off. Ayla could tell he was extremely upset, and not just by Janika's advances.

The woman put her arms around the man and kissed him tenderly. "Well, we can tell Tagnolia and Tiflona. That way, if there is trouble, at least someone will know about it beforehand." The man nodded, the whole thing just felt so uncomfortable to him. Ayla sat down next to him, and began nursing her daughter in silence.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Ivanolia's Misery"

After Grov told Ayla about Janika's visit, they tried to relax. Though the incident was not completely erased from his mind, he was able to enjoy the peaceful time with his mate and her children without dwelling on the other woman's unpleasant visit.

As they sat there together the fog burned away, gradually extending their vision across the encampment. Soon they could see that several camps were rising and making ready to begin a brand new day. Women came out to stoke fires and begin meals as children played quiet morning games. Some men walked by, on their way somewhere, perhaps an early morning hunt or off to do some trading. A few of them offered a morning greeting to the young couple that no one knew very well, but for the most part people kept to themselves. Grov and Ayla gave polite greetings in return, but mainly averted their eyes from the goings on around them, so as not to intrude upon the other people's quiet morning. This is how they would have acted within the Clan. They were quite aware that looking directly at other people was not considered rude among the Others, but they both had a hard time breaking their lifetime of conditioning. Even Grov, who had lived a much more relaxed life than his mate, could not overcome his upbringing.

However, despite their attempt to shut out the private conversations of others, people were talking all around them and they could not close their ears. They could hear people talking about this and that, making quiet morning jokes, and laughing about the previous night's happenings. They even heard their own names mentioned once or twice, but still they did not look around to see who was talking. No one seemed to be gossiping, or talking about them with malice. People were just conversing. Everything seemed to be fine.

The young foreign couple sat by the warm morning fire for quite some time, talking quietly with one another and the children, waiting for others to join them.

~oxoxo~

Due to the large quantity of bouza he had taken in at Hill Camp, Ivanolia slept through the night. It was not, however, without disturbance. Though the man seemed to be sleeping deeply, he was plagued with terrifying dreams about losing everything that had meaning to him: his newly found cousin, his mate and her unborn child, the daughter of his hearth, and the rest of his people.

As he began to come out of sleep, he became aware of the dull pain that had been residing in his head for some time. Before opening his eyes the man slid his hand out, searching for his mate. He was pleased to find her there, and smiled as she snuggled up to him in her sleep.

Opening his eyes, he stared over his sleeping woman's frame toward Grov and Ayla's bed platform. Their coverings were tossed aside. The couple was already up. Seeing them gone brought his mind back to his dreams, causing him to frown. He needed to talk to them.

The man lay there for what seemed like a long time, considering the different reactions he could get from his cousin and her mate when he told them about what he had done. Then, when he felt Danie stirring, his mind went to what she might think of him. There was no doubt in his mind that she would be angry. He was sure she would explode in fury; that was just her way. A single tear slid down his cheek as he considered his actions. He squeezed her tight, hoping that it would not be the last time he held her.

"Morning," she said sleepily, waking up and hugging him back. He didn't respond with words, but hugged her tighter.

"Danie?" he began.

"Hmm?" she responded, eyes still closed. The woman lay there for a moment, waiting for him to continue. When he didn't she opened her eyes and pushed back a little so that she could look at him. "Ivan? Is everything okay?" she asked worriedly. She could see that his eyes were wet. Something was most definitely wrong.

"I hope so," he replied. "I need to tell you something. Something...not good."

The woman sat up. She knew this was serious, but she had no idea what he was thinking. Maybe he had changed his mind about being with her. She frowned and her eyes started to fill. "Ivan? Are you unhappy with me?"

Ivanolia stared at her for a moment, then smiled and took her into his arms again. "Of course I'm happy with you, Danie. I have never been so happy. It's something else." He paused, holding her tight. "A long time ago I did something very bad. I've needed to tell everyone for a long time, but I haven't known how and...for so long I didn't even think that I had done anything wrong. Now I know that I have."

Danie was still holding him, but wanted to see his face. She sat up again and waited. He went on. "I know I should have told you before, but I really need to tell you now, Danie," his voice was pleading with her. She waited. He started in.

~oxoxo~

Grov and Ayla were sitting outside relaxing when Vincenzia and Darvie came out of Oak Camp's tent. Vincenzia was carrying Ora, who struggled to get down when she saw her mother.

"Mamma, I'm hungry," she stated.

Ayla smiled as she got up to get her daughter. "Weren't you just inside eating with Serana?" Ora nodded.

Vincenzia brushed Ayla's cheek with his and smiled down at her. "Little ones are always hungry, my daughter."

"Hmm. Except when you want them to eat," Ayla said with a broad smile.

Darvie laughed. "Isn't that the truth." She looked around the camp, then back at the young family. "So, you got in late last night. How did you both sleep?" she asked.

"I slept well," Ayla replied, but Grov did not answer. Ayla could tell that he was thinking about the incident with Janika again, so she answered for him. "I think Grov slept okay." She frowned. "But, he had some trouble with a woman from Spruce Camp.

Hearing the concern in Ayla's voice, Vincenzia turned toward the young woman's mate. He seemed to be lost in thought. "Grov, is everything alright?" Vincenzia asked.

Grov shook his head to bring himself back from his thoughts. "What?"

Vincenzia laughed. "You must be worried about something."

Grov frowned. "Is it that obvious?"

Vincenzia smiled. "The Clan aren't the only people that can read body language. Come on, out with it."

"Well, it's about—" he began. But as he started, a loud scream came from inside their tent, quickly followed by Danie angrily pushing the tent flap aside and running out. Her face was red and tear-streaked...and Darvie could tell that her sister's blood was boiling. Ivanolia stepped out only moments later.

"Danie, please, you can't just run off like this. We need to talk," the man said, reaching for her arm as she fled. But, as soon as he touched her, she stopped and yanked her arm away from him. It was as if his touch had burned her.

"How DARE you!" she screamed at her mate. "How dare you tell me what we need to do. YOU have done enough!" Then, switching to Mamutoi, the woman began pacing and continued to rant her frustration and anger, though most could not understand a word she said. Even Darvie did not know what her sister was raging about.

"Danie, please let me explain. I..." the man said, reaching out to try to get her to look at him again.

Danie flinched at his touch and once again pulled her arm out of his reach. "I do not want you to touch me," she said through gritted teeth. "I do not even want you to LOOK at me!" Her eyes flashed with hatred. The woman gave him one last look of disgust, and then she stormed away. Ivanolia could only watch her go. Tears were streaming down his face as he sank to the ground where he stood.

The scene could be heard by many and people were coming out to see what all the yelling was about. Darvie watched her sister with wide eyes. Not even Danie liked yelling, though she had always been the most outspoken person of their camp. What had the man done now this time? she wondered. Then, when Danie ran off, Darvie followed her.

Ayla's face didn't look much different than Darvie's had; she was shocked at the display. But, when Darvie ran after Danie, Ayla handed Annaliza to Grov and went to her cousin, who still sat near the opening of the tent.

The woman approached him slowly, but when she touched him he pulled back, startled. "Ivan?" she said questioningly. She was kneeling down in front of him, at about eye level. The man looked up at her, wondering how he was going to go through this again. Now he had to tell Grov and Ayla...and who else? Maybe he'd have to tell everyone. Surely Danie was telling Darvie as he sat here in the dirt. Maybe they'd all hate him after today.

Ivanolia glanced around at the staring people—and wished he would have had the sense to just go back inside when Danie left. He saw his mother standing there and several others from Oak Camp, and knew he was going to have to tell them. What would they think? he wondered desolately. Would his mother turn her back as well? He was sure this was the end of life as he knew it.

However, when he looked back at Ayla, he didn't just see curiosity. Her eyes held such concern and patience that he had to blink back tears again. She had picked up his hands and was holding them, waiting for him to be ready. Glancing over at Grov, he whispered, "Ayla, I need to talk to you and Grov. I need to tell you something. I've done something awful and I really need to tell you both." Ayla nodded.

Though no one except Ayla and his mother could hear him, Grov got up and walked over to them. Serana looked down at her son, wishing she could ease his pain. She knew there had been something he had wanted to talk to them about, but had no idea what it could be. She only hoped that Grov and Ayla would be more forgiving than Danie had been.

"I'll watch the children," Serana stated, taking Annaliza from Ayla's mate. "Maybe the three of you could take a walk." Grov looked at her gratefully and nodded at her suggestion. It was a good one.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Ivanolia's Secret"

Ayla continued to kneel in front of her cousin, waiting for him to look at her once again. Ivanolia watched his mother take Ayla's daughter from Grov and hug her tenderly, then his eyes followed her as she walked over to Ayla's other two children. Serana took one of Ora's hands as Durc took the other, and led them back inside the tent. Vincenzia followed. Ivanolia watched his people moving, going; it seemed to be happening in slow motion. After several others had gone, Ivanolia noticed for the first time that Fraylora was standing there with Braydalana as well. The woman took the hand of the daughter of his hearth and led her away. As Braydalana disappeared into the tent, the man sighed audibly; they were the last of Oak Camp to go. Then, knowing there was no one left to look at, he turned back toward his cousin.

When his eyes were upon her again, they filled, just as they had before. It took a moment for him to compose himself, to focus on her face. When she could tell that he could see her, she squeezed his hands and smiled at him. Ivanolia looked at her as if he hadn't seen her before; she was a very beautiful woman. He had known that, but something seemed different about her. The man stared at her, then looked up at Grov. Ayla's mate stood there silently, waiting for him to get up. Finally, after mustering all the strength he had left, he squeezed Ayla's hands in return and struggled to lift himself off the ground. Grov reached out to assist them for it was obvious the man needed them both.

For just a moment, they stood there waiting as Ivanolia tried to decide what to do, where to go. He knew he had to get out and away from the summer meeting, but where should they go? he wondered. Then it came to him. The man went into Oak Camp's tent and returned carrying their three parkas. The day would not be cold, but it was still brisk, as the sun had not finished burning off the morning mist. It was obvious to the young couple that this might take a while; that they might be out for some time.

Ivanolia, his mind still on his furious mate, hoped that it would take a while, that they wouldn't go rushing off angrily—as Danie had done—though he would not blame them, or anyone else, if they never spoke to him again. He fervently hoped that they would find it in their hearts to forgive him.

After putting on her parka, Ayla adjusted the hood so that it lay against her back; it really wasn't necessary at this time as she could already feel the warmth of the sun. When she finished, she looked toward her cousin. He had been silently biting his lip and waiting. But, when he could see that she was ready, he started off.

~oxoxo~

The man headed east, taking them between Oak Camp and Spruce Camp's tents toward the outer path that surrounded the entire encampment. Grov noticed that Janika was still sitting by Spruce Camp's fire and that her eyes never left him as he passed between the two tents. She narrowed her eyes and gave him an odd smile as he turned away from her. The man frowned and took up Ayla's hand.

Once out on the outer path, Ivanolia turned and headed north. He knew the area pretty well, though he had not been here in years, and he wanted to find the place where they could be alone, so he could talk to them without the watchful eyes of his people on them.

After reaching the northern most part of the summer meeting, Ivanolia veered northwest, heading away from the summer meeting. The man planned on taking them up the hill that housed Maple Camp's winter caves to the plateau above. Atop the hill, there would be a large patch of trees, not quite a forest, but still rather large. And, among those trees there would be an arrangement of benches that Maple Camp often used for meetings. It would be a nice, secluded place to tell them of his indiscretion.

As they crossed the nearly flat land that led to the hill they would climb, Grov and Ayla watched the man ahead of them. He looked as if the world was ending. Ivanolia trudged along, his thoughts weighing heavily upon him as Grov and Ayla followed silently. As the couple walked hand in hand, they both surveyed the land around them. It was a truly stunning land, much different than the land that was nearer to their home.

When finally they reached the hill, Ivanolia stopped for a moment, waiting for them to catch up. It only took moments. The man did not say a word when they reached him, but turned toward the path that had been cut into the hill and began the ascent.

As they hiked up the path, Grov and Ayla could see the many caves that belonged to Maple Camp. Both were curious about the openings they saw and wished they could see inside, but they also knew that this was not the time. Perhaps there would be time for that later, perhaps not. They did not know if that was something caves normally shared with summer meeting visitors.

Before long Ivanolia reached the top of the hill. The climb did not take long as he had set a decent pace. At the top, the man once again waited for his cousin and her mate to be standing beside him. As they approached slowly Ivanolia could see that they were winded from the climb. He gave them a moment to catch their breaths.

When all were ready Ivanolia took up the lead and headed northwest again. The land on top of the hill was nearly flat, making their hike easy. They could see a line of trees not too far ahead and followed Ivanolia toward it.

As they approached the stand of trees before them, they could see that it was much more dense than it had appeared to be from a distance. Ivanolia stopped for a moment and looked back at the other two people. He could see only trust and concern on their faces. The man sighed heavily, then entered the tree line.

As they entered, the light of the sun faded as the trees cast shadows upon them and the ground around them. They could hear the rustling of leaves, as a gentle breeze blew through the trees and, here and there, the chirp of a bird. Ayla was instantly reminded of the hunt that had exposed her hunting skill when she was still a girl. It did not look any different among these trees than it had on that day. She shivered without meaning to. Grov, feeling her shiver, squeezed her hand.

They did not walk long, not more than fifty paces, when finally Ivanolia stepped out into a large clearing. Grov and Ayla followed the man slowly. As they stepped out, the light of the sun hit them, causing them to have to blink hard. It was time to shed their parkas. After they did so, they sat down upon a bench that had been made by Maple Camp, and waited for Ivanolia to begin.

Ivanolia, who had not taken off his parka, was walking around the cleared space, almost pacing. He had one hand in a pocket of his parka and the other covering his eyes and forehead. He stopped and looked at them, then continued to pace. Now that he had their undivided attention he didn't know where to begin. Finally, he sat down, head in hands and took a deep breath.

Slowly, and with much effort, the man looked up and focused on the expectant couple. "Ayla, I do not know how to tell you what I need to tell you. What I have done is so very terrible," he said, pausing.

"Ivan, you can only be honest with us," Ayla said, getting up, going to the man, then kneeling before him again. "I know that it must be bad, but I will not turn my back on you. You are my family."

Ivanolia frowned at the beautiful woman. "How can you be so sure, Ayla? You do not even know what I have done. I assure you, what I have done is unforgivable."

Ayla looked back at Grov. He was not showing that he would be as forgiving, but he would not contradict his mate. "Maybe unforgettable, but you have changed so much Ivan. I cannot imagine that I could be so unforgiving. Whatever it is, no matter how terrible, I will forgive you." She paused. "I'm not saying that I...that we...won't be angry. If it is as terrible as you believe, then I'm sure we will be angry, but I promise that time will ease our anger." Ayla hoped that it would be that simple, that Grov could do as she had promised.

Ivanolia stared at her, then shook his head. It was obvious he did not believe it was possible. He stood up and began pacing again. "You have to understand that what I've done, what I did, is not considered as awful as I now know it to be. Many young men talk about it secretly when others aren't around." Ivanolia stopped and looked at them both. Ayla was still kneeling where he had been and Grov had not gotten up from the bench that he had been sharing with his mate. Both faces held an expectant look. The man sighed and began again, almost talking to himself.

"No, no, that's wrong. Who do I think I'm fooling?" He was almost ranting. "It is considered awful, but men do it anyway. I did it anyway." Ivanolia sank onto one of the benches and put his head in his hands again.

"Why don't you just tell us what happened, Ivan," Grov stated plainly. "Ayla has already told you that we will eventually forgive you."

Ivanolia's head snapped up. Could this man really forgive him without knowing what he had done? He did say eventually. Ivanolia sighed and got up; he started pacing again. "It was...um...five years ago and we were at the summer meeting...a summer meeting just like this one, but we were summering with Ash Camp. Do you know where Ash Camp is?" he asked stopping only long enough to see them shake their heads.

"With the exception of Beech Camp, Ash Camp is probably the closest camp to Oak Camp, but it is one of the most eastern camps." The man waited, watching them. They still did not know where he was going. How could they? "Do you know which camp is Ash Camp?"

"Yes," Grov replied just before Ayla said, "Yes, their tent is between Dogwood Camp's tent and Cedar Camp's tent." Ayla grimaced, which made Ivanolia nervous. He decided to changes angles.

"You have to understand that when Braydalana's mother died in childbirth eight years ago, I felt like I had died. I spent all my time taking care of Nemlora's daughter; it was all I could do to keep going. I didn't want to keep going and I never believed life would be good again. Then, when Bray was only a couple years old, Fraylora, and my mother, thought it best for me to get out again. They took many pains to see that I had other places to go...but they didn't know that I wasn't ready." The man heaved a sob and sat down again. "I started drinking more bouza than one person should. It was just to push my pain away, but I was quite aware of what people thought of that, so I hid it; I had to start going outside of Oak Camp for the bouza. Soon, I went to people like...like...Zadneetsia...and Igorvia to find what I wanted." Ivanolia looked away from his cousin. He did not want to see her look of disgust. What he didn't know was that her eyes only held pity. He wouldn't have wanted to see that either.

"So, some people knew I was going there; some even joined me with them occasionally. Others conveniently ignored where I spent my time, but I wasn't fooling most people. They knew I was drinking...and that I was spending my time with less than desirable people." The man paused to think.

"When I first began to spend time with them it was only for the drink. But soon I began to enjoy their company. They never tried to tell me the pain would go away like everyone else did. They seemed to understand me and offered what I thought I needed; as much bouza as I wanted. I really thought I could mask my pain with bouza. That was at Cedar Camp's summer meeting. Cedar Camp is directly north of Ash Camp, and very near to Sumac Camp and Dogwood Camp," Ivanolia informed them. The information didn't really mean much, because they didn't know where any of these camps were, except that Ash Camp was east of Oak Camp.

"My new friends...they talked of having adventures, of taking journeys; I had never considered this before. It sounded interesting. Then, when we got together at Ash Camp's summer meeting, some of the man started talking about going south...into Clan country." It was here that Ivanolia stopped and watched his cousin and her mate.

Ayla cocked her head and frowned. Why would they want to go into Clan country? she asked herself. But even as she considered what her cousin said, she realized that she knew exactly what he meant—and she knew precisely what those men had wanted. She had heard Oda's story about the man of the Others that forced her, killing her first daughter. No, she did not need to ask why they went there, she knew exactly what her cousin had done down there.

The young woman looked over at her mate. It was as if she could see inside his mind. She thought about what she knew about her mate's life, and the lives of the women among his people, and she shuddered.

Grov's mind was just a step behind Ayla's, and only moments after she had, he too realized what the man had done. An image of his mother came into his mind. He knew that women of the Clan were required to submit to any man, though his Clan had been much different than other Clans, often not following Clan tradition, but the thought of one of the Others taking her, without so much as giving her the signal, made him truly furious. He was also aware that he himself would not exist if one of the Others had not done this to his mother, but he would rather not exist if it meant that his mother could have been spared this violation. It had always haunted her.

Grov was on his feet. "Are you telling us that you took a woman of the Clan?" he demanded angrily. Ivanolia did not even have time to answer for the Clan man was rushing at him. Ayla stared with wide eyes for only a moment, then she acted. She was much closer to Ivanolia than Grov was, so she was able to intercept her mate. He would not push past the woman to reach the other man.

"Grov," Ayla said, standing between the two men and looking up at her mate. This position somehow seemed very familiar to all three of them, but this time it was Grov that was looking at Ivanolia with fury, almost without seeing at all. Ayla had never seen him so angry. He hardly looked like the calm, quiet man she had mated, and there appeared to be no trace of Clan in the man at the moment. She briefly glanced at Ivanolia; he stood there, shoulders slumped, ready to take any punishment that came his way. She could immediately tell that he would not put up any kind of fight.

"GROV!" she said again, this time raising her voice to get his attention. The man's eyes flickered a little. She could tell that he had heard her, but he did not stand down.

"Grov," she started again. "We promised."

"But we didn't promise not to be angry," Grov replied through clenched teeth. Ayla sighed. No, they hadn't promised that, and she was angry, but she could also tell that Ivanolia was truly sorry for what he had done. He was not like those other men that didn't seem to care about anything or anyone. Then another thought came to her.

"Ivanolia, you said this was five years ago?" she asked.

Ivanolia blinked and thought for a moment, then nodded. "Yes Ayla. It's been almost five years. This happened at the very end of our summer meeting, almost five years ago."

"And Ash Camp, you said they live east of Oak Camp, but north of Clan country?" she asked again.

"Yes Ayla, that is right. There is a river that separates the two areas. We crossed it and went south," the man stated.

"How many women did you force, Ivan?" she asked sternly.

He frowned, not sure why that would make a difference. The fact still remained that he'd forced one of their females. "Just one Ayla, but I don't see how that really matters. I still did it...only once, but I still did it." The man had tears in his eyes.

Ayla frowned again. "It matters to me, Ivan. I need to know if you were the first man to take the woman."

Ivanolia's frown deepened as he thought back to that day. He hadn't even wanted to do what he had done, but he got caught up in the excitement of it. He had never allowed himself to do it again though; he knew it was wrong. He had even blocked the deed from his mind. "I know it was wrong, Ayla." He shook his head. "But, no Ayla, I was not the first, nor the last." He hung his head.

Grov was standing behind his mate fuming, and not understanding her questioning. She seemed to be going somewhere with it, but where? he wondered.

Ayla's mind was now on Oda. Could her cousin have been one of the men that forced her? Then suddenly, she sucked in her breath, could he possibly be responsible for the birth of Ura? Ayla looked at him and studied the man's face, his hair, his eyes, his build. Yes, she thought to herself, it was entirely possible. Ura could be his daughter.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "And the Story Continues"

Danie was absolutely furious with her mate. How could he have forced that Clan woman? What was he thinking? I can't spend my life with a brute such as him, she thought. She ran north through the summer meeting between the hunter's tent and the musician's tent, then she passed by the Shogur's tent, Womanhood Camp, and the northern most healer's tent. When she broke free of the summer meeting's boundaries, she heaved a sob and took a deep breath. She had been running blindly, tears streaming down her face, but now she needed to focus.

At the edge of the summer meeting, she glanced around. Where could she go to be alone, to think about this? I have been in this area before, not far from here in fact, she thought to herself. Then she remembered that Maple Camp was deeply embedded within the usual hunting territory of the Mamutoi. She had probably been on a hunt somewhere very near to this very spot.

Danie looked around for another moment, then through her tears she saw the blur of the river to the east, and headed toward it. There were several trees clustered very near to the river, just enough to give her some privacy.

The river was not far. When she reached it, she sat down on a rock and cried her heart out. What kind of man had she mated? "Oh, what am I going to do?" she moaned aloud. The woman thought she was alone, but what she didn't know was that she was being pursued by her sister.

~oxoxo~

Darvie, trying very hard not to allow her sister to disappear from sight completely, followed as quickly as she could. She ran through the summer meeting, watching as Danie dashed between tents, then out into the open space. She saw her sister pause for only a moment, then dart eastward. Darvie ran, and caught up just as her sister sank down upon a rock on the riverbank.

"Danie?" Darvie said.

Danie looked up at her sister, then rushed her. "Oh Darvie," she sobbed. Darvie held her sister as she cried. She had no idea what Ivanolia had done, only that he had done something that had hurt her sister terribly. She held Danie while she cried, gently rocking her, then released her when her tears seemed to subside.

"Danie, can you tell me what Ivanolia's done?" Darvie asked, not sure she really wanted to know.

"Oh Darvie, I don't know if I should. It is the most horrible thing I have ever heard. I don't see how I can get past it."

~oxoxo~

Grov listened to his mate question the man. He could tell that her questions were purposeful, but what was she getting at? he wondered. He was so furious with Ivanolia at the moment that he could not think straight to even try figure it out—and he didn't know any of Oda's story, so that was the farthest thing from his mind. All he could think about was that it was a man like this one that had caused his mother deep mental anguish, a pain that she never really got over.

Ayla placed her hands on Grov's clean-shaven face, then hugged him lovingly. She knew the pain and anger the man was feeling. She knew more than most women; she too had been forced. "I know he has done wrong," she whispered into the man's ear. "But I need for you to forgive. I beg you," she said quietly, pulling away slightly, tears glistening in her eyes. "Think of Broud; he was able to change and I have learned to forgive him."

Another flicker of anger went through the man's eyes. Broud was still a sore spot when it came to his Ayla, but it was true that that man had changed—and Ayla had indeed forgiven him. He glanced over his mate's head toward Ivanolia. The man had his back to them. Grov frowned. He did seem to be a different man. He would never have guessed that the man had done what he had just told them he had done.

When Grov finally looked back at Ayla, she had a hopeful look in her eyes. He sighed and gave her a brief nod, which made her face break into a wide grin. It was the smile that melted his heart.

The woman gave her mate a thankful hug, then turned back toward Ivanolia. The man stood there, facing away from them. "Ivanolia," she said, placing her hand on his shoulder. He turned around. "I think there is more we need to talk about. Maybe we should sit down." She gestured toward the nearest bench.

Ivanolia narrowed his eyes and glanced at Grov. Then, curious about what else they wanted to know, he did as he was bid.

Ayla sat down next to him and took up his hands. "Ivan, there is a woman that lives with our Clan...her name is Oda and she has a mixed child. Do you remember her?" The man thought for a moment. He didn't remember much about the women of the Clan. They had kept their faces averted, as if they didn't want to be seen—not that he'd been in the right frame of mind to get to know them anyway. The man shook his head.

Ayla watched him as he thought, then continued. "I met Oda at our last Clan gathering. It was there that her daughter was promised to Durc, because they are both mixed. They were just babies at the time." Ayla paused for a moment as she thought back to that time.

"But, before that happened, she told me the story about how men of the Others had forced her and other women of her Clan; it was a story that sounds nearly the same as yours." It was here at Ayla stopped. She left out that Oda's first daughter being killed by the men. It seemed that Ivanolia hadn't been responsible for that, so she decided to omit that part for now.

Ivanolia just stared at her for a moment, then he swallowed and glanced at Grov again. The other man was just standing there. "What are you saying Ayla?" Ivanolia asked her, not quite sure he understood.

"I'm saying that I think it's possible that we are talking about the same incident. That it's possible that Oda's daughter is a child of your spirit. Ura is four years old now. I think that she might be your daughter."

Ivanolia frowned, wishing he could remember the woman, from either the day he had assaulted her or from when he had spent time with Ayla's Clan. He wished he could remember her daughter. "But Ayla, there were many of us," he said with a shudder. "How can you be sure that she is of my spirit?"

"Well, I can't really, except that she looks very similar to my son Durc. Her eyes and hair are much lighter than Durc's, but still, she looks like him. She looks like you."

"Oh Ayla, what have I done?" Ivanolia cried. "I have not only forced this woman Oda, but she has had to birth a mixed child." The man gasped, realizing what he had just said. "Uhh, that came out wrong, Ayla. I didn't mean that anything is wrong with mixed children." He looked mortified that he'd insulted the one person that seemed to possess an endless amount of forgiveness.

Ayla only smiled. He continued. "I mean, the one thing I have learned is that mixed children aren't tolerated well by the Clan either." He paused again.

"I know what you meant, Ivan. Please calm down." Ayla tried to console the man, but he was much too distressed.

"What can I do to make up for what I have done? I will do anything. Ayla, please tell me what I can do? Does she need someone to provide for her and her daughter?"

"No Ivan, Oda has someone to provide for her; she is mated. I'm not sure if there's anything you can do. Maybe you could come see her and tell her you are sorry, and meet her daughter, your daughter, I think.

Ivanolia frowned. "My daughter?" he said. Then a thought came to him. "What am I going to tell Braydalana...and my mother. And Danie. Oh Sumata!" he suddenly cried. "Danie has left me. She will never forgive me for what I have done to Oda." Ivanolia stood up and began pacing again. He was nearly hysterical. Ayla didn't know what to do.

Grov had been watching them and was considering what the man had done—and to whom. He hadn't understood that he knew the woman Ivanolia had forced, but now that he knew what Ayla had been thinking, he wanted to know more about the incident. But now was not the time to ask. Right now, he was thinking about how he would feel if he lost Ayla and he didn't like it. He was feeling very bad for Ayla's cousin at the moment. He had changed; he was a good man, in spite of what he'd done.

"Ivan?" Ayla said, trying to get the man's attention. He stopped and looked at her, then dropped down at her feet and put his head in her lap and began to sob. Grov's eyes widened. He had not seen a man react so strongly, but he knew that his own feelings for Ayla were this strong; he just might react this way if he lost her love.

"Ivan," Ayla began again. "You have done a very bad thing, but this is not the end of your life. You can make up for it. You have already started making up for the wrong you have done. Just think about how you've changed."

"But Ayla, I have lost Danie and her child. I did not think I could get past losing Nemlora, and then I found Danie. Now I've lost her too," he whined.

"No Ivan, you haven't lost her yet; she's just angry." Ayla stood up, forcing him to stand as well, so she could look into his eyes.

Ivanolia searched his cousin's face, hoping that she spoke the truth. "Didn't you see how angry she was?"

"Of course I did," Ayla stated. "Everyone saw her anger. We," Ayla gestured toward her mate and then herself, "are still angry as well Ivan, make no mistake about it, but everyone will forgive you eventually. I will talk to Danie; she is a good woman. You might have to prove to her that you are sorry, that you are a changed man. I don't know what she will want you to do, but I will support you."

Ivanolia looked deep into her eyes. "Why would you do this for me, Ayla? After the way I behaved toward you, how could you be so forgiving?"

Ayla gave the man a warm smile. "I already explained this to you Ivanolia; we are family. That is what family does." Ayla continued to smile, then took the man into her arms. "I will talk to her." Ivanolia hugged her back tightly, daring to hope that his life might go back to the way it used to be.

~oxoxo~

Back at the summer meeting Oak Camp was within their tent talking quietly about the explosion between the young couple. Serana and Fraylora both tried to shield Braydalana from the conversations that, at this point, were just gossip.

Jenadoza and Laurana sat together listening to the people talk. They both wondered what their brother had done to make his mate so angry. Jenadoza glanced at Donzolnia, then recalling the feeling that he had been hiding something the other night, she narrowed her eyes at him.

When he saw her looking at him he sighed; he knew he was going to have to tell her something, but should he be the one to tell her? When he saw her hand Teglodia to her mother, he quietly slipped out of Oak Camp's tent. Jenadoza followed.

~oxoxo~

The couple walked together silently. Donzolnia didn't know where to begin, and didn't want others to overhear them, so he led her through the summer meeting looking for somewhere to talk. He was not only nervous about telling her what Ivanolia had done, but also that he himself had been there that day. He had not participated, but he had been there—and he'd done nothing to stop them.

They followed nearly the same path as Danie and Darvie had, though they did not know it. Then, when they came to the edge of the summer meeting, they too headed east toward the small, usually secluded space near the river.

~oxoxo~

"Danie, please talk to me," Darvie begged. "Tell me what he did. You know I can be open-minded."

"Oh Darvie, it's just so awful," Danie cried.

Darvie frowned, wondering what could possibly be so bad that Danie would be afraid to tell her own sister. Again she questioned whether she really wanted to know. She was about to press her sister for more information when she saw movement in the distance. She leaned to the side, trying to see through the small stand of riparian growth.

Seeing that Darvie's attention was suddenly on something else, Danie turned around. She was shocked to see Donzolnia and Jenadoza approaching, though the two seemed unaware of the sisters' presence.

Danie's shock, however, only lasted a moment. She jumped to her feet, ready to defend her choice to leave Ivanolia no matter what excuses they may have for the man.

~oxoxo~

Donzolnia and Jenadoza were still walking quietly and didn't see the two women in front of them until Danie stood up. Jenadoza gasped and stepped back, a little startled. When she realized it was Danie and Darvie, she relaxed. Then seeing Danie's defensive look, she frowned.

"Danie, what has happened?" Jenadoza asked.

Danie looked from Jenadoza to Donzolnia, then back to the woman again. "Are you saying that you do not know what your brother has done?" she demanded angrily.

Jenadoza's brow knotted. "Yes, actually, I am saying that. I have no idea what Ivan has done," she replied shaking her head. Then, because the Mamutoi woman didn't appear to believe her, Jenadoza looked to her mate for help.

Donzolnia sighed loudly. "I know what he's done, Danie," the man said sadly. "But Jenadoza doesn't yet." The man's eyes were pleading with the young woman. He wanted to be the one to tell her.

She narrowed her eyes at the man suspiciously. "Were you a part of what Ivanolia did?" she asked, tears beginning to fall again.

"In a way, yes," he answered painfully. "I did not..." He could not finish; he looked at the ground. She knew what he meant. "But, I was there," he finally continued, looking back at her. "I was there and I didn't stop them." Donzolnia glanced at Darvie; she clearly didn't know what was going on either.

Danie's eyes were a mixture of pain and anger. What is wrong with these people? she wondered.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Everyone Learns a Little More"

Danie continued to stare at the man trying to determine if he spoke the truth. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. Then she glanced at Jenadoza, where she saw only a look of confusion on her friend's face. She clearly doesn't know what's being discussed, Danie thought immediately. Next, Danie looked at her sister, who still hadn't been told and who looked very confused as well. Finally, the woman turned back to Donzolnia and, seeing only honesty in his eyes, she sighed and sat down.

Jenadoza watched silently then turned to her mate. "Donzolnia, what has Ivan done?" she asked, a deep frown creasing her forehead. "What have you done?"

The man took a deep breath and looked up toward the sky, sending a silent plea to the Mother. Sumata help me, he thought, then looked down into his mate's expectant eyes. He took her hand and led her to the nearest rock, easing her down. "Jen, this is so hard to tell you. It's been so long since this happened and I've tried so hard to push it out of my memory. I hoped you'd never have to know, but...well..." His voice trailed off, and he looked at Danie, who waited silently. "I guess these things never stay hidden forever."

Jenadoza glanced at her friend. "Donz, what did you see that you should have stopped? What has my brother done?" Jenadoza asked desperately, considering the bad things he could have been part of.

He took another breath. "It was five years ago, so you were still very young; your brother and I were pretty young too. Please remember that he was young and stupid and...grieving. He was still desperately hurting over Nemlora's death..."

"Donzolnia!" she interrupted abruptly. "Just tell me what's going on," she demanded.

The dark-haired man stopped and stared at her. "Five years ago Ivanolia used to hang out with some of the less desirable camps."

"I know that. He was still doing that up until the summer before last." She eyed the man. "But that's not wrong. Disgusting, but not wrong."

"No Jena, that's not the bad part," Donzolnia said. "I never really hung out with them, except for the one time, so I don't know what they usually did, but the one time that I was there they did something terrible and I have kept it secret all these years." Jenadoza sat waiting, watching her sweet, gentle mate, knowing that if he said it was terrible, then it must be reprehensible. There were tears in her eyes as she waited for him to continue.

"It was the year that we summered with Ash Camp. I don't know why I let him talk me into going with them, but I did." The man shook his head. "They said they wanted to make a short trip; just over night, so I said okay. I figured, what could it hurt, right?" Jenadoza nodded. "So, we left early one morning, but soon the plan changed." Donzolnia stopped and ran his hand through his long, dark hair. "I don't know who had the idea, but suddenly I found that we were crossing the river and going south into Clan territory, and...and...well, Ivanolia and the others...they..." Donzolnia stammered. He couldn't seem to get it out. Then, when he turned toward Danie, Jenadoza looked at the woman as well.

Danie could tell that Donzolnia couldn't do it. He couldn't tell her that her brother was a complete scoundrel. But she could. She sighed and put her hand on his knee, then looked at her friend. Then, not very gently, she put what she knew into words. "Jenadoza, when they were in Clan territory, they searched for unattended Clan women and made sport of them."

Jenadoza frowned and looked down at her hands, not entirely sure what Danie meant. Darvie, on the other hand, totally understood; her jaw dropped open and she gasped. She stared at her sister, but didn't say anything.

It took Jenadoza a few moments to put it together in her head, then she looked back at Donzolnia. "Donz?" she said questioningly. "Why would they do such a thing?" she asked. "They claim to hate them. Why would Ivanolia want to do something like that? Why didn't you stop him?" She was crying.

"Believe me, I wish I had, but I was shocked at the time. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I mean, I'd heard of young men doing this, but we were only seventeen and...at the time, I just didn't know what to do."

Danie watched them and began to feel bad for Jenadoza—and bad about the way she had told her. She obviously loved her brother and this was deeply hurting her. She reached out to hug her friend, which Jenadoza accepted gratefully. Jenadoza fell into her arms and sobbed quietly.

Darvie watched them. She was feeling quite a bit of shock and anger herself, but she was not directly affected by Ivanolia's actions, except for the fact that she lived in the same earthlodge as the man. She kept quiet anyway. Darvie continued to watch her sister take care of Jenadoza. She noticed that now that Danie had someone else to console, she wasn't as upset herself. Darvie thought that that part was good.

Donzolnia also watched without saying a word. He let the women comfort each other; they seemed to need it, and he was glad to keep silent. He dearly hoped that both Jenadoza and Danie would forgive Ivanolia; he was truly a changed man. But, he mostly hoped that Jenadoza would forgive him for not stopping the incident altogether. He wondered if any of it was possible.

~oxoxo~

Grov and Ayla sat there talking to Ivanolia for a lengthy portion of the morning. They went over every last detail of the incident, as much as could possibly be remembered after so long. Ayla was now certain that this was the very same incident that Oda had told her about all those years ago.

Ivanolia was quite distraught over what he had done and wondered if there was anything he could do to make everything right again. He didn't think so. There was nothing he could do, not for Oda and Ura, not for Danie, and certainly not for himself. How could he possibly make up for something so evil? At this point, he figured his life was over.

Ayla tried hard to convince him that eventually things would get better, but first he had to go back and face what he had done. That was the first step to making things right—and to making sure people were more aware so this didn't continue to happen. Ivanolia wanted so badly to believe her; he hung on her every word. He'd do anything, he promised himself. Even Grov could see that the man was willing to do whatever it took to make up for his wrong-doing.

Then finally, after discussing the matter extensively, the three of them left to return to camp. Grov and Ayla let Ivanolia set the pace, hanging back somewhat to give the man the space he may need. It turned out to be a pretty slow pace; the man used the time to think about everything that he'd been through and the pain he'd caused Oda, and others. Ivanolia had a lot more on his mind as well. He wondered where Danie had gone when she'd stormed out, if she was back yet, and whether or not she would be able to forgive him. It seemed like a very long walk back to the meeting.

~oxoxo~

Jenadoza heaved a final sob, then sat up and smiled at Danie. "Thank you, Danie," she said. "Thanks for letting me cry on your shoulder." Jenadoza studied her friend carefully. "I...I know this must be terrible for you," she stammered.

Danie frowned, then nodded and looked away. "I'm not sure what to do. I almost feel as if he did this to me. I don't even know him, Jena," she whined. "I've never known him."

"He's not that man anymore, Danie," Donzolnia tried to convince her. "And he loves you so much." The three women just stared at him.

"Donzolnia, this isn't the time!" Danie snapped sharply, then feeling bad, continued with a softer tone. "It's too late. I don't really care how much he loves me, I'm just not able to forgive such an awful act of..." She stopped as she saw movement off in the distance. The other three followed her gaze. Through the few trees that surrounded them and across the open plain, they could see Ivanolia walking back toward the summer meeting. Grov and Ayla were not far behind. "I can't believe this," she said angrily. "They need to know what he's done." She stood up, ready to charge after them.

"They do know, Danie," Jenadoza informed the woman. "When you ran off, Ivanolia took them off somewhere to tell them what he did."

Danie frowned then looked back through the trees. Ivanolia was heading back toward the summer meeting, but his posture told her that he was deeply troubled, even frightened. Next Danie looked at Grov and Ayla. They too looked upset, but they didn't look as if they hated the man. He had told them what he had done and they hadn't rejected him? She was very confused. She didn't understand what was going on.

Then, when she noticed that Ivanolia, Grov and Ayla had stopped walking, she got curious about what they were saying and began her approach. Slowly, she slipped through the trees, leaving her friends looking after her.

~oxoxo~

Ivanolia was heading toward the summer meeting at a pace nearly as slow as a turtle, but stopped just short. He stood some distance away from the northern healer's tent, just outside the outer perimeter, and turned to face Grov and Ayla. "I can't go back in there, I just can't."

"Yes, you can, Ivan. You have to. You have to find Danie and talk to her."

"Oh Ayla, I need help with Danie. She won't listen to me, but she might listen to you."

"I told you I would talk to her, but I want you to find her and try again first. Maybe she's cooled off by now."

"Or maybe she hasn't!" Danie snapped angrily, standing just behind them, hands on her hips. Ivanolia spun around quickly. Grov and Ayla shifted their gaze toward the other woman. Even they had not known she was approaching, but now they could see that Donzolnia, Jenadoza, and Darvie were there too.

"Danie, I need to talk to you," Ivanolia pleaded.

"No, I don't think that you do. I think I've heard enough from you," she said bitterly, then turned her attention to Grov and Ayla, boring her eyes into them. "How could you, of all people, forgive him for what he's done?" she demanded from the young Clan couple.

Ayla returned the woman's penetrating glare and squared her shoulders. Grov stood behind her, adding his support. "It is not up to me to forgive my cousin for what he has done, though I have already done that. Forgiveness is what he needs from the Mother...and from the woman that he forced. I believe that he can gain that from both of them." Ayla paused. "You do not have all the details, Danie."

"I do not need all the details, Ayla," Danie spat. "I have heard quite enough." She folded her arms across her chest and looked away.

"Danie, Ivanolia is not the first man to have done this. I'm not saying that what he did is okay, but he is a good man. He has changed so much and he is sorry for what he's done. He's willing to do anything to make things right again. I believe he can make up for this." Ayla stood waiting, but Danie continued to look away from her. Ayla didn't know what else to say to the hurt and angry woman.

Danie's mind was reeling. Did Ayla really believe what she was saying? How could Ayla forgive him? she thought angrily. But then, what does Ayla really know about this topic? "Ayla," she finally said, facing the young blonde again, "I'm glad that you have forgiven him. After all, he is your cousin." She glanced at her mate. He was standing there with a forlorn look on his face. Then she looked back at Ayla. "But do you really think the Mother would forgive his evil? And what about this poor Clan woman? If you were her, could you truly forget that some man made sport of you?"

Ayla's eyes glazed over for a moment as her mind went back in time. It was as if she were there, experiencing it again.

Broud gave her a signal, and Ayla's eyes flew open. It was unexpected. Iza told her men only wanted that from women they considered attractive; she knew Broud thought she was ugly. He signaled her again, imperiously, to assume the position so he could relieve his needs.

The young woman felt awkward; she knew she must comply, but she was flustered. He hovered close as she got up, then started to lower herself to her knees. Ayla wasn't accustomed to men of the Clan being so near. Broud's heavy breathing frightened her. She hesitated.

Broud got impatient, pushed her down, and moved aside his wrap exposing his organ, thick and throbbing.

As Broud closed in on her, something snapped. Her reason left her. It didn't matter that she was supposed to obey him. She scrambled to her feet and stared to run. Broud was too quick for her. He grabbed her, pushed her down, and punched her in the face, cutting her lip with his hard fist.

She tried to get up and he hit her again. He hit her again and again.

Her head was ringing, blood trickled out of her nose and the corner of her mouth. She tried to get up, but he held her down. She struggled against him, pummeling his chest with her fists. They had no effect on his hard muscular body.

She was nearly unconscious when he threw her over on her face, feverishly ripped her wrap aside, and spread her legs. With one hard thrust, he penetrated deeply. She screamed with pain.

Ayla shook her head, dispelling the dreadful memory. It seemed that the whole incident had flashed through her mind in only moments, then it was gone. Finally, she focused on Danie again. "No Danie, I could never forget such a thing." A tear slipped from each eye. She took a deep breath. "But forgiving is not the same thing as forgetting. I could forgive a man for such a thing, if I thought he'd really changed."

Danie stared at her. What was with the tears? "This is ridiculous!" she said with a laugh. "You have no idea what you're talking about.

"And you do, Danie?" Ayla countered, suddenly very frustrated with the woman's persistence on a topic that she had no true knowledge of. Ayla wiped her tears away.

"This is about being forced, Ayla?"

"I know what we're discussing, Danie, but you still haven't answered my question. Do you know what you're talking about?"

Danie frowned. Of course she did, she thought. "Well, I haven't been forced, if that's what you mean, but Rydag is my kin, so I do understand that what Ivanolia has done a very evil thing. Can't you see that? Why can't you see what he's done?" Danie threw her hands up in the air and began to pace.

Ayla heaved a sigh. "I know what Ivanolia's done, Danie. Don't think for a moment that I am not furious with him."

That got the other woman's attention. Danie stopped pacing and put her hands on her hips. "Really?" she said sarcastically.

Ayla rolled her eyes. "I'm just saying that he is not an evil man. He has changed," she finished, trying to lead the conversation back to the original topic, Ivanolia, and away from herself.

Danie studied the woman. Did she have an odd tone in her voice? What else was going on here? What was it that Ayla wasn't saying? "What could you possibly know about—"

"Danie!" Grov barked in his deep Clan voice, cutting the woman off. She turned to look at him. "Ayla knows plenty about being forced." He hadn't meant to give this woman more information than Ayla had wanted her to have, but he hadn't been able to stop himself. The woman was pushing too much and they were getting nowhere. He only hoped that Ayla wouldn't be angry. He looked at her to gauge what she may be feeling; it was obvious that she understood.

Danie stared at Grov for a moment, as did the others. Suddenly what he said registered in their minds. Darvie gasped. Ivanolia and Donzolnia's eyes widened. They knew much about Ayla's life with the Clan, but they hadn't known that part. Jenadoza blushed. She knew more about Ayla's experiences, but didn't think Ayla would ever tell others. Then she realized that it hadn't been Ayla that had told them.

"What?" Danie questioned. "What is Grov talking about?" Ayla didn't say anything as she collected her thoughts. "Ayla?"

Ayla finally sighed. "Okay. Yes, Danie, I do know what it feels like to be forced. I will never forget it, but I have forgiven the man that forced me. He even lives in my very own hearth."

Everyone's eyes suddenly swung over to Grov. He gave them a small shake of his head. Only Darvie and Danie didn't understand, because they had not been to the Clan's cave. "Ayla?" they said in unison.

"No, not Grov," Ayla informed them. "There is another man that lives at our hearth. It was the other man; I have been able to forgive this other man, just as you need to forgive Ivanolia."

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – ? (no chapter name again) ?

Danie frowned deeply as she considered what she had just learned about Ayla. "But, if you've experienced this first hand, how can you even think about forgiveness?" The woman was completely baffled.

"Like I said, the man has changed." Ayla shifted her eyes toward the three people that had actually met Broud and continued. "I'm not saying that I like him, or that he's my friend, but he wouldn't hurt me anymore. He's even protected me a few times." She looked back at Danie and shrugged her shoulders. "And besides, I wouldn't have my son, if it hadn't been for Broud. Durc was my reward for what I went through. I wouldn't trade him for anything in the world."

Danie frowned as she imagined someone from Ayla's own camp forcing her. What kind of people allowed that to happen? she thought. Maybe she didn't know anything about this Clan that she was so adamant to protect.

It was not hard to follow her line of thinking. Ayla was ready with a response before the woman could even form words. "It is the Clan way, Danie. A woman is must submit to the wishes of a man, any man, at any time."

Danie considered what Ayla had said. That was surely a strange custom. Then she eyed Ivanolia. "So then, the Clan women, they didn't even fight?"

Ivanolia gave her a pained expression, then shook his head and looked at the ground.

"So Ayla, you'd go through it again, to have your son?" Ayla was nodding before the woman was even finished; she did not even hesitate. Danie still didn't understand. She didn't have a child yet, so the concept was too farfetched for her. She unknowingly touched her belly as she wondered if her child would bring her that much joy. She stared at Ivanolia. Was he a good man? She desperately wanted it to be so. "But this is different, it was not me that he violated. I cannot be the one to forgive him and it's not likely he could find this woman, to make it up to her."

"Oh, but Danie," Ayla replied. "I already know who the woman is. She lives at our cave."

Danie stared at Ayla, then glanced at Grov. The man nodded. Next her eyes went to her mate. "I don't understand. You were at their cave. Didn't you recognize the woman?"

Ivanolia winced. "No, this happened so very long ago, five years. I just didn't remember what she looked like." Not that he'd really looked at the woman he'd forced when it was happening.

Danie nodded. "I suppose that's possible after several years of not seeing someone, but why didn't this woman say something? Surely she recognized you? Why didn't we know about this sooner?"

"The Clan is very different in that way, Danie," Grov interjected. "The men of the Clan do not like strangers looking at their women. Ivanolia would have received many angry looks, had he looked at the women, and Clan women don't usually look directly at men, especially strangers. She probably didn't even see him.

"Danie, I was there when Ivanolia...did what he did," Donzolnia said, putting in his own view of the situation. "And I was at Grov and Ayla's cave and didn't recognize her either. There's no way we could have known about this sooner."

The woman wanted to believe them so badly and was nearly ready to melt, but it was just so awful. "Yes, there is a way we could have known sooner. Ivan could have told us. I wouldn't have left my people. I wouldn't have mated him. I wouldn't have moved to Oak Camp. And we wouldn't be expecting a baby." She touched her stomach again as she spoke. "I wouldn't be trapped and I wouldn't be bringing a baby into this mess," she said as silent tears fell. Ivanolia didn't know what to say to her. She had gone from furiously angry to hurting desperately and he could do nothing to make her feel any better.

Danie wiped the tears from her face again. She stood there watching him, wishing that he'd say something else, wishing he'd try again, wishing he'd pull her into his arms and comfort her, but he didn't. Suddenly, the woman burst into sobs again and fled. She ran toward Oak Camp's tent.

Ivanolia watched her go, wondering if she'd ever be able to forgive him. She didn't even know that this Clan woman had a child, one that Ayla believed was of his spirit. What would she say when he told her that part.

~oxoxo~

Everyone had watched Danie run off again, but at least this time they knew she had gone home. Darvie excused herself, to follow her sister once again, but not before frowning at Ivanolia. She knew that some Mamutoi men made sport of the Clan, but it wasn't talked about much. Not in good company anyway. And almost never in front of the women. She wondered what Vincenzia thought of this Broud person. Did her mate know what the Clan man had done to Ayla? She decided not to mention it to him, just in case.

Jenadoza's eyes followed Darvie as she left. "So brother, made quite a mess of this one, haven't you?" she asked, not even looking at the man. "Why in the Mother's world," she began through gritted teeth, "did you think doing something like that was okay?"

Ivanolia blanched at her harshness. "Jenadoza, I..."

Jenadoza shook her head. "Don't even bother trying to explain. You can blame it on losing Nemlora or drinking too much bouza, but that is just not really a good excuse, now is it?"

"I wasn't going to blame my actions on anyone or anything," he said defensively. "I was stupid, Jena. That's all I can say; I was very stupid."

"Humph, well, I'd have to agree with that," Jenadoza said.

Ivanolia was standing there, staring at the ground, shoulders drooping, arms dangling down at his sides. He didn't even bother to respond to his sister. He'd let her do her worst; he knew he deserved it. Then suddenly, he felt arms wrap around him; it was Jenadoza.

"I am so angry at you, brother," Jenadoza said quietly as she squeezed him tightly. "But I still love you." Ivanolia instantly broke down and hugged his sister. She gladly held him while he cried, adding her tears to his. This is going to be a long road, she thought, then something else occurred to her, and she turned toward Ayla.

"Ayla, I spent much time with the women of your Clan. Which woman was it?"

"It was Oda," Ayla replied.

Jenadoza thought for a moment. It took a few moments, but she remembered the young woman. She's mated to that man that doesn't like the Others very much, she thought to herself. Jenadoza remembered that she hadn't spent much time with her, because of the woman's mate, but somehow she had known that it was that particular woman. She continued to think about the Clan woman, and remembered that she was the one that had a child of mixed spirits. Jenadoza's expression changed quickly as she considered how long ago the incident had occurred, the age of the mixed little girl, and Ayla's theory on how babies were made.

"Ivan?" she said questioningly. "Does this mean that...Braydalana has a little sister?"

"That's what Ayla thinks," Ivanolia replied. He turned away from his sister quickly, and waited for her to chastise him some more, but that is not what happened.

Jenadoza gasped audibly, but she was now quite fascinated. She couldn't believe that her brother had two children—and soon would have another. What was everyone going to think? She smiled. "We have to go see her," the woman finally said.

Ivanolia frowned. "I...well, I don't know, Jena. I'm sure she doesn't want to see me. I mean..." his voice trailed off.

Now it was Jenadoza's turn to frown. "Oh, I guess you're right. I wouldn't want to see you either." Ivanolia winced.

Ayla watched the pair. There was definitely a dilemma here. On one side, Ivanolia wanted to make amends for the suffering he had wrought. He didn't even know that the incident had caused Oda to lose her first daughter. True, he had not been the one to carelessly toss the woman's baby aside to violate her, but it was likely that Oda would not be able to see past that part. Who could? Ivanolia also wanted to meet his daughter, get to know her, but again, Oda probably would not understand that he was connected to her daughter or care even if she did understand, considering how the child had come to be made.

On the other side, there were bad memories and feelings to protect. Maybe Oda did not want to meet this man again. Maybe the Clan would not allow it. What would Corg think about this, being Oda's sibling and all? He was an unusual man of the Clan, giving his sister far more respect than most Clan men did. And then there was Ura to think about. What about Ura? What might she want? What would be best for her? Would it matter to anyone what the child could gain from all of this? Ayla didn't know, but what she did know was that things were getting very complicated, and that her mind was starting to hurt from all the thoughts there were running through her head.

After standing there talking for a short time the five of them decided to return to camp. They were very close to the outer path, which led back to camp on the east side of the meeting, so that was the route that they took. Jenadoza held her brother's hand as they walked. Donzolnia walked silently next to Grov and Ayla.

~oxoxo~

Back at the tent, most of Oak Camp had begun their day as usual. Many were gone, off doing whatever they'd had planned before Danie's outburst. That made it easy for Danie and Darvie to return and not have to answer a multitude of questions.

Outside the tent by their fire, Vincenzia sat talking to Durc and Brenevia, waiting for his mate to return. When Darvie and Danie appeared, the man stood up. He could see that Danie had been crying, but the woman quickly entered the large tent, hoping to find her mother. Darvie sighed and went to her mate.

"Mother, can we go and play now?" Brenevia asked as soon as his mother sat down.

Darvie smiled at her five year old son and nodded. "Yes, but do stay close, please." The boys grinned and ran off to play. Darvie and Vincenzia sat there silently for a time watching the boys, dissimilar as they were. They had run over to Alder Camp's fire where two other boys sat outside playing. It was amazing how well children adjusted, if given the chance.

"I take it you know what Ivanolia has done." Vincenzia finally asked his mate. She confirmed with a nod, but she stayed silent. He continued. "You do not have to tell me. I mean, if it would be better left private."

"It would, but I do not know if it can be," Darvie replied. "I think the Councils need to deal with the problem."

"It's that bad?" the man asked.

Darvie nodded. "And it's not just Ivanolia. He is just one of many."

~oxoxo~

Inside Oak Camp's tent Danie stopped to look around. She had hoped that her mother would be there waiting for her to come back, but the older woman was not. Danie frowned and peered down the long narrow corridor of the tent to see a few children playing. Braydalana and Crisana were entertaining Ora, while Annaliza was making an attempt to help Serana clean up. Zarina was sitting down holding Jenadoza's son. Danie smiled at the children, then slipped into her and Ivanolia's space to be alone. She closed the curtain and sat down to think. Could she forgive him? she asked herself. She sure wanted to, but...how was it possible?

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – ? (no chapter name...again) ?

By the time the others arrived back at Oak Camp's tent, the outside space surrounding the tent was empty. Vincenzia had left to attend the first hunt meeting, and Darvie had brought the boys inside so that she could clean them up, then they too left the tent. She had some visiting to do and decided to take the boys with her.

Ivanolia looked around, hoping to at least see Danie sitting outside talking to someone, but the man's mate was nowhere to be seen. He glanced hopefully at the tent, but hesitated to enter.

Jenadoza however, who needed to feed her son, entered the tent quickly and started to walk down its center to get to the woman and children. As she passed her brother's space she mentally noted that Danie had come in, but she didn't stop to talk to the confused young woman. She knew Danie had a lot to consider, more than the pregnant woman even knew at the moment. What would she say when she learned there was a child out there, most probably born due to her brother's evil deed? Jenadoza didn't like the sound of that word. It somehow made Ura seem, well, not right. More than not right; it made the child seem just as evil as the act which had created her. Jenadoza thought for a moment. Incident? Was that a better word for how Ura came to be? The woman frowned and continued to think. She shook her head, not liking the sound of that either. That made the child's life seem so insignificant, as if all she was was just the result of some unimportant happening. She was not just an unimportant happening, not just the result of the incident, evil as it may have been. Was she? Jenadoza didn't know what to think, except that she wanted to meet the little girl again. Really get to know her this time. After all, the child was family. Would she get that chance?

As she approached the small group in the back of the tent, she slowed down and continued to think about what had happened five years before. She had been very young, but she wished she could have helped her brother through that time, so that he wouldn't be suffering now. So that many wouldn't be suffering now, she thought as she remembered Danie's tear-stained face.

"Jenadoza," a voice said quietly. "You're back." It was her mother. Serana peered behind her eldest daughter, hoping to see her son, then frowned. He was not there.

"And it's a good thing too," Zarina said with a smile. "I think Teglodia is mighty hungry."

"I'm sorry," Jenadoza said guiltily. "I did not mean to be gone so long." She took her son and put him to her breast immediately. Teglodia nestled in quickly, making gurgling noises as he suckled, his eyes staring up at his mother's face. Jenadoza sat down on the nearest bench to be more comfortable and gazed into her son's light blue eyes. When she finally looked up she noticed that everyone was staring at her. "What?"

"Well?" Serana said with expectancy.

Jenadoza frowned. "Well, what?"

"Daughter, please do not attempt to hide whatever it is that you know," Serana said sternly. "You know that I do not waste time worrying when there is no cause to, but this is different. Your brother has clearly done something wrong...again."

Jenadoza's eyes became very gloomy. "Mother, this is not my story to tell. Please don't try to make me tell you; it should be Ivan."

The older woman narrowed her eyes. "Hmm." Serana desperately wanted to interrogate her daughter, but turned toward Annaliza instead. "And where is your mother?" she said, picking up the one year old.

~oxoxo~

Ivanolia had watched his sister enter Oak Camp's large construction, but was reluctant to follow. He looked at the Sungaean people from other camps around him, and noticed that they were talking and laughing and gaming as usual. Nothing had changed for any of them. They weren't embarrassed, or sad, or feeling lost, or hating themselves the way he was, but then, why should they? None of them had committed such an evil. None of them had forced some young woman. Ivanolia shuddered as he thought about what he had done.

"Ivan," Ayla whispered, bringing him out of his self-loathing. "Do you want to go inside?"

"Huh?" the man responded, turning his eyes back to his cousin. Ayla stood there waiting patiently. She had such a pleasant look on her beautiful face. Didn't she ever get angry with anyone? he wondered. He couldn't help but remember how awful he had treated her and her family when he had first met them. He blushed inwardly. No, she was angry with him, she was just very good at helping people, even bad people like himself.

Ayla's mate, Grov, was standing there waiting too. He was a surprisingly quiet man, and Ivanolia hadn't liked him in the beginning, though it was more the idea of the man being a flathead. Ivanolia knew now that Grov was a decent man. No, that's not right, he said to himself. He's much more than just decent; he's very good man, definitely worthy of respect. Ivanolia thought about what he had done to Oda and then about how Grov had reacted to it. It was as if the act had been committed on the man himself. Then a thought occurred to Ivanolia; Grov was definitely the product of a mixture. He stared at Ayla's mate and swallowed a large lump of remorse.

Ivanolia glanced at his long time friend, and brother through Jenadoza. Donzolnia was also standing there patiently. He hadn't followed his mate into the tent, but waited to back up his friend. Ivanolia clearly remembered the look of horror in Donzolnia's eyes at the mere suggestion of making sport of the Clan females, yet here he was, ready to support him.

"Are you ready to go inside?" Ayla repeated.

Ivanolia finally smiled. "Yes, Ayla, we can go in now."

They entered the tent in height order, Ayla, Ivanolia, Grov and finally Donzolnia, and paused only briefly to deposit their belongings in the small storage area just inside the tent flap. Ivanolia couldn't help be see that his own sleeping place was occupied; Danie had indeed returned and she was in their space with the curtain closed. That gave the man a small piece of relief for she could have packed her things and moved to someone else's bed, or thrown his things out of their space to tell him not to come back.

After putting their things away they started down the passageway toward the familiar, yet indistinct voices, at the other end. It was now Ivanolia that took the lead. He was definitely nervous, but relaxed when he recognized his mother's peaceful tone.

As they neared, the conversation in front of them became audible. "And where is your mother?" Serana was saying to Ayla's chubby one year old as she picked her up.

"I am here, Serana," Ayla called out from a short distance down the tent. Serana looked up to see her troubled son leading the group back into the tent. She frowned at his distressed face, and took him into her arms. He somehow seemed far worse off than he had in a very long time.

Serana sat down and patted the bench beside her, hoping Ivanolia would sit down and talk to her. He did sit, for the moment, but he did not utter a word. Ayla sat to nurse Annaliza, Donzolnia sat down beside his mate, and Grov picked up Ora and sat down beside Ayla.

"So, where is everyone?" Donzolnia finally asked, breaking the painful silence.

Zarina looked at her son. "They went to the hunt meeting," she said, as if he should have already known. He had forgotten. "I think the hunt will be the day after the first matrimonial, which is scheduled for the day after tomorrow."

Donzolnia suddenly realized that he didn't know when Brulenzia would be getting mated, but he didn't know if now was the right time to ask. After some more silence he decided that he didn't care; the silence was too painful. "Which mating ceremony did Brulenzia and Laurana decide on?" he asked hesitantly.

"Brulenzia convinced them to make room for them in the first one," Zarina stated. "I think he couldn't stand to wait." The woman grinned as she thought about her younger son and his very young mate-to-be.

Serana smiled too. She hadn't been very happy in the beginning when the two started spending so much time together, but when she'd figured out that there was nothing she could do about it, she had to admit that Brulenzia and Laurana were a perfect match. And, this was a perfect way to keep Laurana within Oak Camp.

Zarina frowned. "But, I'm not sure Laurana's matrimonital tunic is finished." She looked at Serana, whose brow wrinkled with concern.

"No, it's not finished, but it will be," she finished confidently. "I still have the rest of today and all of tomorrow."

"Is there anything we can do to help, Serana?" Ayla and Jenadoza asked in unison, then smiled at each other.

"No, no." She gave each of the women a smirk. "Nothing to do with the tunic anyway, but you'll both have to attend to your children while this old woman works Laurana's tunic."

Jenadoza laughed at her mother, but Ayla was mortified that she'd run off too many times, leaving her children as a burden to others. She could feel the heat of her blush all the way down to her toes. "I...I'm sorry, Serana," she stammered. "I didn't mean..." She couldn't even continue. Jenadoza was still laughing, which confused Ayla. Hadn't they just been scolded for not mothering properly? Ayla thought about Iza and knew her mother would be horrified at her daughter's inability to take care of her children. Ayla frowned.

"Oh Ayla, I didn't mean anything by that," Serana said, getting up and going over to the confused young woman. "I am just teasing you two." Ayla's frown deepened. Teasing?

Serana knelt down and took one of Ayla's hands. "Summer meetings are fun for everyone, but they are mostly for the young. You cannot enjoy them fully if you do not get out there and see things. Please do not think you need to be here mothering all the time. I only meant that I have to work hard today."

Ayla tried to smile. She looked at Jenadoza, who was still giggling, then at Zarina. "We are just so happy to have you back, Ayla. You have done so much for us, and you continue to help, even when you do not have to." Everyone else there was nodding as well. Ayla suddenly felt overwhelmed with emotion and let her tears spill.

"Besides," Serana cut in, trying to lighten the mood. "These men can definitely do more to take care of the children. After all, they are the cause of them, right?" Serana winked at the woman and waited for her to catch on.

Ayla smiled back. She understood that no one was upset with her for leaving her children among them when she had somewhere to be. Further, they considered her help with situations more valuable than she could have ever expected. She wasn't even sure that she'd been of any help. And then finally, it seemed that everyone within Oak Camp seemed to be backing her theory on how a woman got pregnant. So much so that significant changes were being made in just casual conversation. All of this made Ayla feel good.

"They certainly can," Darvie said, coming into the small space with her son and Durc in tow. She was referring to the men taking care of the children. "Ayla, we were just over at Beech Camp and Seriana was complaining of cramps. Would you mind going over to see her?"

"Oh, of course not," Ayla said, hugging her son as he came up to her. "I just have to clean up a bit." Ayla started to get up, but wondered what to do with her children. She felt bad; she had to run out again.

"Don't worry, Ayla," Darvie said. "I'll take care of them."

Ayla frowned. She had been gone all morning and wished that she could at least sit with them for a moment, but she knew Seriana needed her. "Um. I think that I will take them with me," she finally said. "I haven't seen them all morning."

Darvie frowned. She had had to ignore several loud and very rude remarks about Durc. Remarks that she knew Ayla would have to hear if she took Durc with her. Remarks that Durc would have to hear all over again if he went with his mother. The boy didn't seem to be bothered by them, but how long would that last. "Ah, Ayla," Darvie began. "Do you really think you should bring the children?" Everyone froze for the moment; they all knew what the woman was really saying. "I mean..." she stammered.

Ayla smiled. "I know what some think of me, Darvie. I am not ashamed."

"No Ayla, I do not think that you should be ashamed. I'm just saying that...well, some people are saying...not nice things," Darvie said lamely. She knew that Ayla already knew that.

"It's okay, I will just ignore them," Ayla began. "I..."

"I will walk her over there," Ivanolia said. "No one will say anything if I'm there; at least not loud enough for us to understand them."

Ayla smiled at the man. "See? We will be just fine." She turned toward Grov. "Did you want to come with us?"

"He can't," Donzolnia said, answering for Ayla's mate. Both Ayla and Grov, along with most everyone else, turned to stare at the man. "He has to come with me to the hunt meeting. Everyone that's going must attend the meeting or they're not permitted to go."

"Oh," Ayla said with a frown. She wanted to attend the first hunt too, but after thinking about it, she knew that she couldn't; she just had too many responsibilities, her children, Ivanolia and Danie, Seriana, and whatever else came up. She knew she'd have to stay behind this time. "Okay, I'll let you take me over to Beech Camp, Ivan, then you can join them at the hunt meeting."

Ivanolia nodded, glad he could do something, and that everyone had, for the moment, forgotten that he'd done something terrible. Donzolnia and Grov quickly slipped away to get to their meeting, and Jenadoza said she needed to go lie down. And finally, Ayla collected her children and left with Ivanolia for Beech Camp.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Others to Consider"

Though in a hurry to get out of Oak Tent and away from his mother's scrutiny, Ivanolia wasn't in any rush to get anywhere else in particular. He would escort Ayla to Beech Tent, as it was something he thought he could do to be helpful without having to discuss his troubles any further; at least for the time being.

As he and Ayla walked slowly away from Oak Camp's space, Ayla held her youngest child. Ivanolia helped out by carrying Ora on his shoulders. The mouthy toddler had stamped her foot and declared that she didn't want to go, but when the man had swung her up there without reacting to her misbehavior, she had grinned with delight, all protests gone. He figured it was just the thing to keep her quiet. Durc walked between them, holding Ayla's hand. At just five the boy seemed to be maturing much faster than other children his age, but he still liked the reassurance of his mother's hand.

Ayla hadn't really thought an escort was necessary, after all Beech Camp was not very far away; it was only three tents south of Oak Camp's tent, and she had already been there when they had first arrived at the summer meeting. But, she really didn't mind and it had been obvious that no one wanted her to go alone so she allowed the company. At least it kept Ivanolia busy.

However, since Ivanolia was in no rush to get back to Oak Camp's tent or the hunt meeting, his gait was very slow; it seemed to be taking them much longer to get to Beech Tent than it should have. Ayla figured that it was the tension. There was a whole lot of that going around, she thought as they inched along. She looked at the people around her. Many seemed to either be staring at them, or doing their best not to see them. Oh well, it doesn't really matter, she told herself.

Ayla watched Ivanolia as he stopped to talk to a man that had greeted them friendly. The man smiled at her, but only conversed with Ivanolia. As the two man talked, Ayla surreptitiously glanced up at her cousin. She wondered what was going on in his mind. He had caused much pain, but the pain he seemed to be experiencing now appeared to be worse than what she remembered going through after Broud had forced her. She shook her head. How can that be? Have I forgotten how badly Broud hurt me? She frowned. No doubt Oda had felt pain too, though probably not physical, like her own had been. Oda had felt pain for the loss of her first daughter, and then later the pain of rejection due to the birth of a child whom her mate called deformed. He had insisted Ura's deformity was her punishment for wishing for a girl, but Oda had only been confused. She had only really wanted to have her dead daughter back.

Ayla's own life had been confusing for many years too. She had been raised by people that looked so different, and who considered her big and ugly. She had always believed them, even after Grov came along. Part of her still believed it, even though there was evidence to the contrary. Oak Camp was full of people that were extremely tall and many looked very much like she did. And, Ayla had learned that most of the Sungaean people considered Oak Camp's members, both men and women, to be among the most beautiful of all the Sungaean peoples. Ayla's thoughts shifted to Jenadoza and Laurana, whom most believed to be extremely attractive, and either of which could almost pass as her very own twin. In fact, Laurana was the shortest adult member of Oak Camp, but she was taller than many Sungaean people and would still tower over all Clan people, except for those with mixed blood like Grov, and perhaps Durc someday.

When Ayla became aware that the man was making ready to leave, she smiled and watched him moved off into the crowd. He was on his way to the hunt meeting, and they resumed their walk to Beech Tent.

Ayla's mind then moved back to thoughts of her life. Throughout her short lifetime Ayla had always done her best to blend in. Many times it had been very hard, too hard in fact. The Clan were a people with customs that were so difficult to live by that she had often gotten into serious trouble. She thought about how she had learned to hunt, and about the punishment she had had to endure for going against Clan ways. That particular punishment had been worth it, she thought with an inward smile. Actually, they all had been worth it. Everything she had lived through, everything she was, was due to the experiences she had had. She knew she was different than her Clan family, but she could only work with what she was and what had been laid in front of her, and that was an Others woman living in a harsh world full of strangeness. She didn't think she'd ever know why certain things happened.

Her mind returned to Broud. She had never understood why Broud had hated her, or why the man had looked for reasons to hurt her. Back then she also hadn't understood why he signaled her that first time, or all those times after that. It had been the worst experience of her life, and the most painful. She remembered thinking that she didn't know he could beat her on the inside too. But she did understand now; it had been so she could have Durc. Ayla smiled and looked down at her son. His birth had been extremely painful, but he was worth every bit of pain she had felt.

Besides, everything was different now. She did not hate Broud anymore. She had to admit that she didn't like him either, but she had learned to live in harmony with the man. He had changed too, though she knew it had been forced on him. Forced on him, just as he had forced himself on her. If it hadn't been for the punishment Brun had imposed on the son of his mate, or Grov's loving protection, they might not be where they are today. She suddenly wondered what Broud thought of her, then shook her head. What did that matter right now? And why am I thinking about Broud?

Ayla looked up at Ivanolia again. He still had Ora on his shoulders, but he had a far away look and his brow was creased in despair. Was physical pain not as bad, once the actual pain part was gone? Was emotional pain worse? Anguish really, she reconsidered. Or was it that since time had eased her physical pain, she no longer remembered the rest? Had she buried it somewhere deep inside herself or was it gone completely? Or, was it that the pleasure of having Durc erased the awfulness of what she had gone through? She frowned, wondering what emotions Oda would feel five years later. Had the birth of Ura taken some of Oda's pain away? Of course, having Ura couldn't make up for losing her first daughter; no one could be replaced. Ayla thought about the loss of Iza and Creb. Their deaths had pained her greatly. With Iza's death, not even Durc could rouse her out of her misery, but later he had given her something to focus on. And then with Creb's death and her own death curse, Durc was all that she had had. Still, Durc had never been a substitute for Iza and Creb. And even now, though having Durc and Grov and Ora and Annaliza definitely helped to dull the pain of everything in her past, Ayla would forever miss Iza and Creb, no matter how many people she had around to love her. She would always mourn for them. She wished that they could see her now, happily mated with three children.

Ayla knew that she had been lucky. Sure, she'd had to put up with Broud, but she'd also had Iza, a loving mother to nurture and train her, and Creb, the man of her hearth, who'd loved her despite all the things she'd done to confuse the craggy, old, one-eyed man over the years. They'd never truly understood her, but they'd loved her all the same. What had Oda's life been like? Ayla didn't really know much about the woman, except what she'd learned at that Clan gathering. She knew that Oda had not had such a loving hearth. She'd had a sorry excuse for a mate who had blamed the birth of a mixed child on her for wanting another daughter, and apparently no one else to stand up for her. There was her sibling, Corg, a good man, but quiet and typically Clan when it came to women, or at least he had been, until the demolition of their cave and most of their people. He was still quiet, but it was obvious that he respected his sibling. Ayla wondered what Corg would think about Ivanolia. Could he forgive this Others' man? Ayla shifted her daughter so that she could see Ivanolia better.

And what about Norv? she wondered. She knew Oda's current mate would hate Ivanolia, but that wasn't because the man cared so much for his mate as it was that he just didn't like the Others very much. He wasn't much of a mate either, by Others' standards anyway, but he was a decent Clan man, she supposed. Oda never gave him reason to do anything to prove himself otherwise. Ayla did worry about Ura though.

Actually, Ayla thought, Norv was the reason why Ayla hadn't been able to get close to Oda, or even get to know her better. Ever since Corg's people had joined Brun's Clan, Norv had made it clear that he didn't want his mate socializing with certain people in their Clan, namely Grov's hearth. Of course he'd never come out and said it, but his facial expressions were all that were needed.

"It's going to be okay, Ivanolia," Ayla finally said to him.

"What?" She had startled him out of his own thoughts. "Oh...yeah...I guess. If I don't mind not having Danie for my mate anymore."

"No Ivan, I told you. She is angry, but you will both get through this."

He stopped walking and lowered a squirming Ora to the ground. "How can you be so sure?"

Ayla shrugged. "I don't know, but I am sure. Just give her time." Ayla looked around and noticed that for all the thoughts that had gone through her head in the last few moments, they had not made much progress in their walk to Beech Tent. But then again, thoughts seemed to speed so quickly through one's mind.

"Besides, I do not want to frighten you, but there is more than just Danie to be concerned about here."

"Yes Ayla, you are right of course," the man said sadly. "There is everyone else here too."

Ayla's eyebrows lifted. "And Oda and Ura, and Norv and Corg. There are them too."

Ivanolia frowned. He vaguely remembered who Norv and Corg were, but he did not know how they fit into this. "What do Norv and Corg have to do with this?" he asked worriedly.

"Norv is Oda's mate and he does not like the Others. And Corg is Oda's brother, sibling as they say, and he has respect for his sister."

"Oh," Ivanolia said with an even more worried look.

"You are going to have to come down there to try to make things right, you know that, don't you?" Ayla asked.

The man nodded. "I know that, Ayla, but how can I? They are going to hate me. What can I possibly do to make up for this?"

"Again, I don't know, but you can never truly get past this if you do not do everything in your power to try."

"Oh Ayla, there you are," a voice said from a few yards away. It was Kristana, Seriana's sister, and she looked worried. "I am so glad that I found you. Seriana says that she isn't feeling right."

"I'm sorry Kristana. I am coming," Ayla said, then she turned to Ivanolia. "I will be fine now." She patted the man's arm and smiled at him. "You can go to the hunt meeting; it will get your mind off...things."

He tried to smile back. He didn't think it would. "If you do not mind, I'll still come with you."

Ayla shrugged. "That is fine with me," Ayla said, then she looked at Kristana. "Will you take Annaliza for me so I can pick up Ora?" The woman nodded, took the child from her mother, then they walked swiftly toward Beech Tent.

"Oh good, you're here," Tarana exclaimed when they came into view. Her brow was wrinkled with worry. "I have to get to the hunt meeting, but I didn't want to leave until you got here." The woman smiled, then promptly left.

~oxoxo~

Inside Beech Camp's tent Seriana's brother was arguing with her mate-to-be. "Do you really think it's necessary to bring that woman into this tent?" Mikolavia said in a hushed, though angry, voice. They were standing some distance away from Seriana's bed, but not completely out of earshot.

Dimia took a deep breath. "Yes Mikolavia," he said patiently. "If Seriana wants her here, then it is necessary. You should meet her, she's quite nice."

"Nice does not matter," the man spat. "I do not want her to cause my sister to give birth to an abomination of mixed spirits."

"Mikolavia!" Seriana yelled. "You do not have a choice. This is up to me." She groaned as a pain went across her belly. "I want her here and I do not care what I give birth to, as long as it is healthy." Mikolavia glared at Dimia.

"Your sister may not give birth to a living baby at all," Dimia whispered worriedly. "And look at how weak Seri is." He paused to look at his woman. "I only want her to come through this," he said desperately.

Mikolavia looked at his sister. He didn't want to lose her either, but just the thought of this Ayla woman brought a sour taste to his mouth. Suddenly, the tent flap opened and a bright stream of sunlight came in, along with several people. No doubt it was the woman that he'd heard so much about, but hadn't met yet, he thought. The man wanted to just leave and he started to, but as they neared he saw that she'd brought her children with her; she'd brought that abomination son of hers into their tent. He scowled. He knew that his mother would be very unhappy about this. What had Tarana been thinking, letting them into their tent!

"See," he hissed at Dimia. "She's brought that...that flathead with her."

"Miko!" Seriana said curtly. "Just go away!" The man stared at her, then turned to go, noticing that someone else was with the woman.

"Ivan," he greeted stiffly. "I haven't seen you around much. But then, I've heard you're not the man you were."

Ivanolia shifted uncomfortably. "No, I'm the same man. I've just discovered that I was believing in the wrong people."

Mikolavia glanced around. He looked down at the flathead child, then his eyes settled on Ivanolia's cousin. She was beautiful, but beauty didn't mean much if someone brought danger. "And now I can see you're with the right people," he said sarcastically."

Ivanolia didn't even answer the man's retort. "So, I haven't seen you around either." Ivanolia knew that he had nothing to fear from this particular man. Mikolavia had spent much time with the likes of Zadneetsia when he was younger, but not much time since he'd mated Mirra and moved away. Mating the daughter of the hearth of the respected Beech Camp headman had been good for the lowly man, but he had never been part of making sport of the flatheads. Clan, Ivanolia repeated in his mind; I have to remember that they say Clan, he told himself. He wondered if Mikolavia even knew about what Zadneetsia's collection of miscreants had been up to. After all, it had been years since the man had been a part of Cedar Camp.

Ivanolia turned when Mirra walked up and stood next to her mate. "Hallo Mirra, how are you today?" Ivanolia said, stretching out his hands in greeting. Ayla watched the byplay between the three people before her, and wondered about their strange behavior. Had Mikolavia been a part of Ivanolia's indecent past? Or maybe Ivanolia had known Mirra before she had mated Mikolavia? Or was it something else? Ayla eyed them carefully.

Mirra looked from Ivanolia to her mate wondering why there was such tension, then, still looking at Mikolavia, she took the other man's outstretched hands. "Well hallo back," she said, kissing Ivanolia's cheek and smiling at him. "I am doing very well, thank you." She turned to Ayla. "It is so good to see you again, Ayla," she said, taking the woman into her arms. She did not miss Ayla's confusion, or her mate's upset over her contact with the woman, but she ignored it. "I hope you can do something for Seriana. We have all been worried."

Ayla narrowed her eyes, wondering what was going on. "That is my hope as well," Ayla replied. "I have brought a tea that is good for cramps, but Seriana really needs to rest more." She handed Ora to the woman.

"I am, Ayla," Seriana protested from the bed platform. She looked drawn and tired, and more than a little upset.

"Yes, I can see that, as much as I can see how upset you are," Ayla said, then knelt down. She felt the pregnant woman's forehead, then rested her hand on her protruding belly. After only a few moments Ayla could feel the muscles within bunch up.

"What is happening to me?" Seriana moaned. "This hurts."

Ayla smiled. "This is normal, Seriana. Your body is just getting ready for the job it has to do soon. You do seem to be experiencing more pain than discomfort," Ayla said with a frown. "But every woman is different. I would like to examine you to be sure, but as long as you rest, you shouldn't have to worry. I want you to rest, and by that I mean sleep. I'm going to have you drink a tea that will help with that," she said, pulling a small pouch out of her medicine bag and dumping some leaves into a wooden cup. "This tea tastes better when it is made from the berries of the Hawthorn plant, but I only have the leaves right now. But either way, it will help to calm you down and it will make it easier for you to get some sleep."

Ayla glanced up at everyone that was watching; everyone seemed to be mesmerized, even Mikolavia, and he seemed to be struggling with it. She didn't understand their apparent reverence, but she continued nonetheless. "Seriana really needs everyone's cooperation right now." Then she looked pointedly at Mikolavia and Dimia; one man she hadn't met and didn't know anything about, the other she knew to be a caring, loving man whose calmness and support might be everything this woman needed. One was a brother who wanted what he thought was best for his sister, the other man a man who was about to mate his best friend. "If you two have something to discuss, it would be better if you did it outside, so that you do not upset Seriana with it."

Dimia blushed, but nodded. Mikolavia blushed as well, but he crossed his arms over his chest in anger. How dare this woman come into their tent and start issuing commands, he thought, though he didn't say anything.

Finally Ayla looked away from them. She knew she had angered Milolavia, but he was not her concern at the moment, Seriana was. "Durc would you take care of your sisters for me while I look after Seriana?" He nodded.

"Ayla, they are welcome to go outside," Kristana cut in. "My sons are out there, but all their age mates are off somewhere else." Kristana didn't wait for the woman's response, but turned to her brother instead. "Here Mikolavia, take Annaliza outside to play," she said, handing the child over to him. Kristana masked a smile as she watched her brother's inner struggle.

Mirra too hid her smile and handed Ora to Ivanolia. "Good idea Kristana," she said. The two men glanced at each other. They did not seem to like each other much, but they slowly walked out, each with one of Ayla's daughters in hand. Ayla silently nodded to her son and he followed the men out. She was not worried; Ivanolia was there to take care of them. Dimia went with them.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Danie and Ayla Chat"

As it turned out Seriana's cramps subsided with only a small amount of Ayla's Hawthorn leaf tea and then she drifted off to sleep quickly. Ayla sat and talked to Kristana and Mirra for a short time, and let them know that she had been serious about not wanting the pregnant woman upset. "She must get through at least one more cycle of the moon for there to be any hope for her baby," she told them. "And even then, it's going to very hard." Both women nodded and walked the medicine woman out.

~oxoxo~

Outside, Ivanolia, Mikolavia and Dimia sat in silence watching the children play. For a brief moment Ivanolia had forgotten about his own troubles. He watched Ayla's children play with Kristana's sons, who seemed to be about six and eight years, and he couldn't help but smile. It was the first time he had noticed how much more mature Durc was than the average five year old, but there was no mistaking that he seemed to be closer in age, maturity-wise, to Kristana's older son, Degassia.

That, of course, brought his mind back to reality, where he started thinking about Ura, and what she might be like. I have another daughter, he thought with a slight smile. He wondered if he'd ever get to know her. Would the child's mother allow it? Would Norv and Corg allow it? he wondered. Then he thought about Danie again. He hadn't even told her about Ura yet. His mind went back to Ayla's words, "She is angry, but you will both get through this." How can she possibly know that? He shook his head.

Mikolavia was also struggling. He was sitting there battling the intense desire to get as far away from these abominations as he could and a strong force that told him to stay and protect his sister. Plus, there was the anger he felt toward Ivanolia for seemingly abandoning their friends. He didn't see that he wasn't really a part of that group anymore either.

Dimia, a high status man in his own right, didn't know what to say to either man. He knew both of them, but neither very well. He had been trying to stay away from Mikolavia, who had always been a hot-headed man and who seemed to have something against his sister getting mated. Why, the man didn't know. Maybe Mikolavia didn't like that he was considerably older than Seriana, or maybe it was just him that Mikolavia didn't like. And then there was Ivanolia, a man that seemed nice enough, but everyone knew he'd been a troublemaker in years past. Dimia had heard all the stories about the man, but he didn't know how much was true.

Finally, after what seemed like forever to the three men, the women emerged from the tent. Mikolavia and Dimia stood up quickly, both concerned about the woman inside. Ivanolia remained seated, waiting patiently. Ayla looked over at her children then addressed the men. "She's sleeping peacefully right now, but I don't want her left alone. I have left some of my tea for her to drink if she feels any discomfort." She wanted to add that everyone had to work together to help Seriana keep her baby, but she knew that they already knew that, and it would only make Mikolavia angry again, so she didn't say it.

Ayla looked from one man to the other, finally laying her hand on Dimia's arm. "I hope you will come and get me if Seriana needs anything," she finished. He nodded. "Are you going on the hunt?" she asked him.

"I wanted to, but I've decided to stay here with Seriana instead," Dimia answered.

Ayla smiled "I think that's a good idea. It will help keep her mind off things...and it will be good to have another person around that can stay with her." Then Ayla turned to Ivanolia. "Aren't you going to the hunt meeting, Ivan?"

"Uh, yeah. I guess I'll go then," the man said, turning to Mikolavia. "Are you coming?" he asked, knowing the man should be heading there too. They were already late. Mikolavia frowned for a moment, but finally nodded. After all, Ivanolia hadn't really done anything to him, had he?

"Okay then, please come get me if Seriana needs me," she reminded the ones staying at Beech Tent, then she picked up Annaliza, signaled to Durc that they were leaving, took Ora's hand, and began to walk away.

Mikolavia froze for a moment, watching the blonde woman retreat. He hadn't expected to go with her. He didn't want to be seen with the woman, but when Ivanolia began to walk away, he frowned and followed them.

~oxoxo~

The walk through the summer meeting back to Oak Camp was much quicker this time. There was no conversation between the three adults, for which Mikolavia was grateful.

Outside the tent Ayla hugged her cousin and watched him walk off with Mikolavia before turning to go inside. Ayla noticed that someone had tied the outer drape open. It had been accomplished with two pairs of leather straps that were wrapped around the rolled up drape and tied together, one pair high, the other low. Ayla smiled, thinking that it would be nice to have more light inside.

Ayla stepped in and went directly to her and Grov's sleeping place to put the girls down for a nap. "But I'm not tired, Mamma," Ora complained as she yawned and rubbed her eyes with balled fists. Ayla only smiled. The three-year-old looked at Durc, who was standing at the end of the bed platform, obviously not preparing to nap. "Why Durc not going to sleep?" she whined.

"Durc is older than you, Ora," Ayla said, trying to hide her smile this time.

"But, I'm not sleepy."

"Ora! That's enough. It's time to sleep," Ayla said sternly, causing her middle child to turn away and pout; the child knew she could not win.

Annaliza had been watching her mother and sister go back and forth, but stuck her two left middle fingers in her mouth when Ora rolled away and signed, "I sleepy, Mamma." She had no wish to argue with her mother.

Ayla smiled at her youngest and tousled her hair, then leaned over to kiss the back of Ora's head. "I'm going now," she gestured to Annaliza, then got up, closed the curtain, and left.

~oxoxo~

On the next bed platform Danie lay still, listening to Ayla put Ora and Annaliza down. She couldn't help but smile at the feistiness of the child and unconsciously rubbed her belly wondering if her child would be like that, like she herself had been. Then, hearing that Ayla had closed the curtain and walked away, Danie decided to get up. She couldn't just lie around being hurt and angry and crying all day.

Quietly, so as not to disturb Ayla's little girls, Danie opened her own curtain, and stood up. She still didn't want to run into Ivanolia, but she hadn't heard him in a while, so figured he had left the tent. She didn't know about the hunt meeting or the requirement to attend if one planned to go on the hunt. Not that it mattered; she wouldn't be going on the hunt anyway.

Out in the tent passageway Danie looked toward the brightness that emanated from the tent opening and smiled. Then, knowing that Ayla had probably gone to the main space, she looked the other way and gingerly stepped out. There was light at that end of the tent as well. Danie wasn't sure where she should go at the moment. She still did not know what to say to these people. She didn't want to tell them anything, but she knew questions were bound to come. She couldn't blame them after the way she had screamed at Ivanolia. Now she wished she had had the tact to hold her temper. Not that she thought she had been wrong. She thought she had every right to yell. It was just that, now she would have to explain herself, and she didn't want to.

Danie took a tentative step toward the main space and was startled when Ayla appeared at the end of the passageway. Ayla stood there for a moment, then smiled and waved her in. Danie sighed, figuring that she'd have to go in there and talk. At least it was someone that already knew Ivanolia's secret and she wouldn't have to be an informant.

"How are you feeling?" Ayla asked the woman as she came in.

Danie looked around, glad that no one else seemed to be in the tent at the moment. "I am feeling fine, Ayla," she answered, running her fingers through her short, dark hair.

Ayla eyed her, then handed her a cup of tea. "You were not sick this morning?" Danie shook her head. "That is good. You should be past that now." Ayla took a sip of her tea and stared at her hands. She didn't know what to say and neither did Danie it seemed.

Danie watched Ayla, wondering about how hard a life this woman had lived through. How had she done it? she wondered, thinking that Ayla was definitely stronger for it. She looked into her cup of tea, which she had not tasted yet, and smiled at the mint leaf that was swirling around. She leaned to smell the tea; it was her favorite, chamomile and mint. How did this woman always know what to make? she thought with a smile.

"So, where is everyone?" Ayla asked. She had not expected the tent to be empty when she returned.

"Jenadoza and Teglodia are still sleeping," she replied. Ayla nodded, she had noticed the closed curtain. "And Darvie told me that almost everyone was going to the hunt meeting."

"Do you know where Serana went to work on Laurana's matrimonial tunic? She said she needed to work on that today."

"No, but I think Zarina went with her."

Ayla frowned, not liking the small talk. She took another sip of her tea.

"Ayla?" said Danie with a frown that matched Ayla's. Ayla looked up expectantly. "Why is it so important to you that I forgive Ivanolia?" She had tears in her eyes again. "I mean, until this year, you didn't even know the man, so why do you care?"

"I guess that is why it matters so much to me, Danie. Last year I did not know who my people were, and now I have so many people to love. I do not want to lose any of them, not even Ivanolia. Do you want to lose him?" Ayla asked the woman. Danie did not answer, so Ayla continued. "I know Ivanolia has done something awful, but I know that he is not the same man that did what he did. The Ivanolia I know now could never repeat the things he's done in the past." Ayla paused. She wanted Danie to understand. "I am not excusing what he did either, Danie. I am so very angry and we plan to take this information back to our Clan. I am sure it will cause some anger there too, but Ivanolia has promised to make restitution for what he has done."

"But how can he? What could this woman possibly want from him?" she asked. "I wouldn't want to look at the man if I were her.

"In the Clan it is different. They will not be upset about what he did, only about how he did it." Ayla stopped for a moment again. "It was the same when Broud forced me. They did not understand why he did it...or why I resisted him. They only saw it as his right, as a man of the Clan. It is the Clan way."

Danie frowned. "What about the woman? What is her name?"

"Oda."

"Oda," Danie repeated. "And what about Oda? What if she doesn't want to see him? Will she have a say in anything?"

Ayla was shaking her head. "It is not likely. Oda has a mate and a brother; that is who restitution will be paid to, if it is going to be paid at all. This is a very rare occurrence though...not the forcing of Clan women, but actually knowing who did it." Ayla continued to frown. "I'm not sure if there is anything that they will want. They do not like that Others men take their women, but they may not make much of it. In the Clan, men are supposed to dominate women and women are supposed to be submissive."

"What did you want, Ayla, after that Clan man forced you?" Danie asked.

Ayla thought back and grimaced. "I wanted Broud to stay away from me and leave me alone."

"Did he?"

"Only after I was pregnant did he stop forcing me, but he was always mean to me and not nice to my son." Ayla smiled. "But Broud is not so bad anymore."

"How can you stand living in the same hearth as the man that did that to you?" Danie shuddered.

"It was very hard at first, but Grov asked me to try hard. I did not want to be a bad mate. Then, as time went on, it got easier. Now it sort of feels as if Broud is my brother. Mother knows that he treats me like a brother," Ayla said with a slight smile, thinking about the day that they were practicing with the Others' spears. "It is still hard sometimes, but it is not terrible."

Danie swirled the dregs of her tea, then took the last swallow. "I was thinking...that I'd like to come meet your Clan, Ayla...and meet this Oda too. Do you think that would be possible?"

"Of course it's possible...but there is one more thing you should know about this whole thing," said Ayla tentatively. She really wanted Ivanolia to be there, if not be the one to tell his mate himself, but then again, it might be better coming from her.

Danie's brows creased. What else could there be? What else had the man done? "I'm not sure if I can take much more, Ayla," the woman said sadly, indicating that she still needed some more time to think.

Ayla nodded and kept silent. Maybe it would be better to wait. Maybe Ivanolia should be there.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "The Close of Another Day"

After a short time of talking with Danie, Ayla excused herself to go lie down. It was hardly past midday, but it had been an exhausting morning. Durc, who had been entertaining himself while the two women talked, followed his mother and fell asleep promptly.

Danie watched them leave, and wondered what to do with herself. She didn't really know anyone at the summer meeting, except for those of Oak Tent, and none of them seemed to be around. After drinking another cup of tea, which Ayla had left for her, she finally decided to head out. It would be better than sitting around in here, she thought.

However, once outside she hesitated. She saw many people sitting down at their tentfires and others walking here and there, but again, she saw no one she recognized. She was just as much a foreigner here as Ayla was. More so, her people, the Mamutoi, were only distantly related to the Sungaea; Ayla was Sungaean. Danie felt tears sprout in the corners of her eyes again and she wished she could talk to some of her Mamutoi friends.

Then, just as Danie had lowered herself into a sitting position by Oak Tent's fire, she heard a woman's voice behind her. "Danie, right?"

Danie looked up and squinted into the sun. It was the dark-eyed Janika. Danie hadn't liked her, but she didn't want to be impolite. "Yeah, that's right." Danie gave the woman a thin-lipped smile, and tried to look like she wanted to be alone. She didn't actually want to be alone, but this woman wasn't the sort she wanted to be around.

Janika didn't get the hint and sat down. Danie rolled her eyes. "So, not planning on going with the hunters, huh?" Danie asked, trying to be friendly.

Janika frowned for a moment, as if she didn't know what Danie was talking about, then said, "No, I'm going. I only go sometimes, but I'm definitely going this time."

Danie looked confused. "Why aren't you at the hunt meeting? Ayla tells me you have to go to it or you can't go on the hunt.

Janika didn't even try to hide a scowl. That Ayla, she thought angrily, she thinks she knows everything. But of course she didn't say that to Ayla's aunt. "Yes, it is the requirement. I was there, but I hate all that discussion. I slipped out after they checked to see who was there."

Danie eyed the young woman, thinking her not very honest. Janika didn't even seem like someone that liked to hunt.

"So why aren't you there?" Janika asked her. "I've heard the Mamutoi hunt the great mammoth."

"Oh, we do. I do like to hunt, but I'm pregnant," Danie replied, smiling and patting her tummy. "There'll be no hunting for me, at least not for a while."

Janika glanced at Oak Tent. "What about Ayla? I didn't see her at the meeting, doesn't she like to hunt?"

"Oh yes, Ayla loves to hunt, but she's not going this time either. I told her that I'd watch her children, but she's worried about Seriana and thinks she should stay behind." Danie didn't mention that she was glad Ayla would be staying in camp with her.

Janika had figured Ayla wasn't going when she didn't see her at the meeting, and was glad that Danie had confirmed it. "But I saw her mate at the meeting. He's going, right?" she asked hopefully.

Danie suddenly realized why the woman was being so friendly; she was trying to get information about Grov. She was going to make another attempt at getting Ayla's mate into her furs. Danie hid a smile. This woman is going to find it hard to tempt Grov, she thought, knowing the man didn't much care for her. "Yes, you are right, Grov is going on the hunt." Janika smiled, then quickly made an excuse to leave. She had gained the information she had come for, and didn't really want to stay and talk to the Mamutoi woman. Danie watched her flounce away, and noticed that she joined some of her friends. They looked back at her, then turned and giggled. Danie shook her head.

~oxoxo~

The hunt meeting, which took place in an open arena that had been dug into the ground prior to the last summer meeting of which Maple Camp hosted, had started with much exuberance. They had much to discuss. The first hunt of every year was always a big to do, causing even those that did not plan on attending the actual hunt to spend at least some time at the meeting, listening to the leaders talk.

Though not the largest construction at the summer meeting, the arena took up the largest open space, and was the only permanent feature of the summer meeting. It was circular in shape and had been carved into the earth, like a bowl, with several steps gracing its circumference. This was where the official competitions were to be held, though many unofficial competitions went on all summer without the watchful eyes of the Councils.

For this meeting, however, the first order of business was to present possible sites for the hunt, and to receive input from the crowd. With more than fifteen Sungaean camps in attendance, and many people with suggestions, this part of the meeting took quite some time.

Second, it was necessary to single out who would be going. Again, there were well over one hundred fifty potential hunters present so this was another lengthy process, and not everyone that wanted to go was selected. It was only after finding out that she would be allowed to go that Janika had left.

After the final hunter selections were made, the topic turned to what there was to be hunted at certain locations and what animals were preferred this year. No one wanted to deplete the area of too many of one species, so this was very important, especially if they headed north, which would encroach on Mamutoi lands. It was finally decided that they would head southwest, where they would cross Big River, and hunt Bison, the most revered animal to the Sungaea. Crossing the river would make traveling much more difficult if heavily burdened, but Maple Camp's boats would make it less so. It seemed the better way to go.

Next, the lay of the land for the journey to the chosen hunt site, and the hunt site itself, was discussed in great detail. Grov was amazed that they took stock of every single aspect of the land, even down to the positioning of obstacles, such as hills and valleys, large rock formations, various trees, bushes and plant life that were known to exist in the area, and finally, the animals they might encounter on the way. Grov couldn't help thinking that Ayla would be most interested in learning about the plants of this area. He was sorry that she was not going.

After all of this, the floor was opened up to anyone that had something to say. There were many comments made, which gave way to more comments and the meeting ended with a questioning session. Many people, especially first time summer hunters, had questions they wanted answered. Grov had a few of his own, but resisted the urge to ask. He figured he could ask the people of Oak Camp.

It was nearly dusk when the hunt meeting broke up and people finally began climbing the steps of the arena, filtering out, and heading away. Grov couldn't believe that it had taken more than half the day to talk about the hunt; he hadn't known there was so much to say. It had been so different than what he was used to. In the Clan, the leader typically made all the decisions, conferring only with Mog-ur, and then finally telling the men what to do. This discussion seemed so strange; everyone seemed to have something to say, something to contribute.

But then, Grov thought, the Clan never had so many hunters to consider at one time. This got the mixed man thinking...wondering what a Clan gathering was like. His Clan had never gone to a Clan gathering in his lifetime, partly because there were no Clans in the region they inhabited, but also because their make up made them outcasts among the western Clans. He thought hard and realized there would have been two gatherings during his life, one when he was thirteen, the other when he was only six. He wondered about the next one. It would be two years from this very summer. Would Brun take them to wherever it would be held? The thought frightened him.

Grov was jarred out of his thoughts by Brulenzia's laughter. Apparently Ivanolia had made some comment about his friend's upcoming nuptials. Though Grov was still angry with his mate's cousin, it was good to see the man relaxing a bit. Grov looked at the younger hunters of Oak Camp as they walked back toward Oak Tent goofing off and laughing. They were a good bunch of men.

Then his thoughts returned to the reason for the meeting in the first place: the hunt. Grov couldn't help but ask about the meeting's length. It was explained to him by Donzolnia that the meeting was fairly typical for the first hunt meeting of every summer, but that there would be a second hunt meeting, which would take place before the final hunt. Ivanolia interjected that the second meeting was not a requirement if one had been present at the first meeting, and that most people preferred to go to the first meeting, leaving the second one to the hunt leaders. That explained why Brulenzia had been there, since he would obviously be in his matrimonial isolation during the coming hunt. Grov wondered if Ayla should have come; she was sure to want to go on the next hunt. He briefly thought about her vision, but pushed that aside; there was no way to know when they'd be called by the vision and have to leave.

The hunters stopped briefly at the Shogur's Tent, where they picked up Tinozia. He wouldn't be going on the hunt either, as he had just been accepted into the Shomata, the trials that were expected of someone who wished to serve the Mother as a Shogur. Though nervous about the trials, which must be passed before entering the training that would keep him away from Oak Camp for an entire year, he was very excited and proud that he had convinced the Councils.

~oxoxo~

Once back at Oak Tent, most of the hunters sat down outside to enjoy a meal. Without realizing it, they had been gone for most of the day without food. Grov quickly found Ayla, who was extremely well rested after her afternoon nap, and promptly accepted the plate of food she offered. As he ate, he happily played with Ora and Annaliza

Ivanolia, who had, for the time being, forgotten about his troubles, looked around for Danie, wondering if Ayla could possibly be right. He spotted her on the other side of the tentfire, talking to Laurana. She appeared to have not even seen him return, but he knew that she had. He had noticed her glance away quickly when he arrived. He sighed, thinking that it was better that she ignore him than show open hostility toward him, or worse, rush off in tears. He glanced around. Braydalana had just finished eating and was talking to...who was that? he thought with a frown. There was an unfamiliar boy there at their fire. Ivanolia's frown deepened. She was too young to be thinking about boys, wasn't she? He watched her giggle, then run off with Crisana and Serlona. That was better, he thought, though he wondered where they were going after dark. He looked over at his mother, thinking that she'd be watching her youngest daughter, but she hadn't even noticed Serlona's departure. Darvie too hadn't seen Crisana leave. He frowned again.

A few others joined their evening meal, turning it into an impromptu feast. Danie noticed that Janika and her friends made their way over to the group, but the young women managed to stay just far enough away that Grov didn't seem to react much. Danie did notice that he stayed at Ayla's side all evening, arm around her shoulder, but she wasn't sure if that was due to his day away from his mate or the disconcerting presence of Janika.

Another guest was Bolodenkia and his mate, Galina. They had been invited by Vincenzia and Darvie and were sitting with an older group of adults, making comments about the upcoming hunt. Bolodenkia kept his eye on Galina's daughter, who had come with them, and had been introduced to Grov and Ayla. Bolo was quite nervous about the flathead's presence, but he didn't say anything.

Finally, the night ended with everyone returning to his or her respective tents. Once inside, Ayla carried her droopy-eyed three-year-old to a bed platform within sight of her own, while Grov did the same with Annaliza. Durc climbed into the one next to his sisters, where he had spent the last two nights sleeping next to Brenevia. Ayla tucked them in soundly and smiled down at them. Grov stood watching her watch them and smiled. He was so happy at that moment that he suddenly grabbed her and kissed her. Ayla gasped, but responded with like feeling. No longer thinking about the children, or even seeing the other people within the temporary dwelling, Grov picked her up and carried her to their bed.

~oxoxo~

Most people were busy doing the same thing, putting children down, changing into night clothes, or just straightening up a bit, and smiled at the oblivious couple as they went by. Ivanolia was sitting on the edge of his and Danie's bed platform, wondering if he should find somewhere else to sleep or if he should force Danie to choose, when he saw Grov walk by carrying Ayla. Ivanolia smiled and glanced over at Danie, wishing he could do the same to her.

Danie's eyes had followed the couple as well, but she was now staring, eyes transfixed on their closed curtain. Ivanolia watched a tear slip down her cheek and he silently berated himself for being such a stupid man. He was just about to grab one of their furs and move to another bed when she crossed the passageway and crawled onto their bed.

Ivanolia didn't know what to do. She obviously thought he was staying and she had come anyway. The man turned his head to see her curled up under their furs, back facing him. He finally decided that he wasn't going to make it easy for her to ignore him. He would only leave their bed if she asked him to—and she hadn't done that yet. Ivanolia ran a hand through his pale blond hair and stretched out next to his mate. She smells so good, he thought as he listened to her breathing.

Danie lay there, trying to calm herself. She hadn't known what to do. He had been sitting on the bed, with that desolate look on his face. She thought she wanted him to disappear, but at the same time she prayed that he'd stay. She had been so nervous when she'd crossed over toward him and got into bed. He hadn't said a word. Nor had he looked at her. Then, when she had finally settled down, she felt him get into the bed too. Oh Mother, she cried silently. How I ache for him to hold me again, she thought as she drifted off to sleep.

Ivanolia waited until her breathing was even and he knew that she slept, then he rolled over so that he could look at her. She still had her back to him, but he stared at the back of her head. He couldn't help himself; he reached out and touched her short, dark hair. Then, letting his eyes drop to her shoulder, he slid his hand down and caressed her bare arm, finally letting it come to rest curled around her.

Danie had drifted off to sleep, but it was only a light sleep. When Ivanolia's hand touched her arm, her eyes snapped open as tingles touched the pit of her stomach. She closed her eyes again, careful not to do anything which might cause him to pull his arm back. No, she thought, I don't want to lose him. I can't lose him.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Laurana and Brulenzia's Big Day"

Ivanolia woke up in the morning with his right arm still draped over Danie. She was still on her left side, but apparently they hadn't moved much during the night. He noticed that his mate's left hand lay over his arm. She must have unknowingly moved to touch him in her sleep, he thought. He wished he could snuggle up to her, but he was afraid of making her angry.

Danie had awoken several times during the night due to the discomfort caused by staying in one position for too long. Her back ached, but she didn't move because her back was not the only thing that was aching. The pain over what Ivanolia had done was nothing compared to the thought of losing him. Everything can be just fine, if only I can get past this, she thought. While lying there perfectly still, she ran her fingers over the dead weight of the man's arm, wishing she could see him; it was too dark. Slowly she drifted back to sleep with her hand still on his.

Carefully, so as not to disturb the sleeping woman, Ivanolia tilted his arm, letting her hand slide off of his, then he propped himself up on his elbow so that he could really look at her. She groaned and rolled onto her back, making it easier for him to see her.

For a moment, he held his breath, then he let it out slowly and looked around. He had forgotten to shut their curtain, so when Tinozia's curtain opened he smiled sheepishly at his friend. Tinozia smiled back as he got up, extending a hand to the woman beside him. Ivanolia noticed that his friend was not alone and realized it was Fürlasa with him. It wasn't the first time he had seen them together. Ivanolia was glad Tinozia was finally taking an interest in her.

Ivanolia considered the Shomata that his friend was going to be put though. No one, save those who were dedicating their lives to the Mother, knew what one might be asked to do during these trials, and no Shogur ever spoke of it later; it was private. Ivanolia had never been interested in serving the Mother, but he was now thinking about the training that would keep Tinozia away for a year. He wondered if spending so much time with the young woman was his friend's way of laying claim to her while he was away. Ivanolia smiled. It wasn't likely she'd look for someone permanent while Tinozia was gone; she had liked him for some time.

Ivanolia studied Fürlasa as she walked away with Tinozia. She looked a lot like her sister had, though older now than Nemlora had been when she died. Fürlasa was, perhaps, shorter than Nemlora had been, and Nemlora's hair had been lighter, hadn't it? Ivanolia struggled to recall, then frowned in frustration. He hadn't thought of his dead mate in a long time; he was even starting to forget what she looked like.

The man finally pulled his thoughts back to the present. He looked around. Most everyone seemed to be up. On the other side of him he could see that Grov and Ayla were gone, their curtain was pushed completely open, as was Brulenzia and Laurana's. And finally, he noticed that Donzolnia and Jenadoza's curtain was open too. The man decided that he should rise as well.

Getting off of the sleeping platform without disturbing Danie proved to be difficult. Just when he thought he had pulled it off, she opened her eyes and watched silently as he pulled his leggings on. She didn't say anything for a moment afterward, preferring instead to continue to watch the man dress.

"Morning," she finally said, moving to scratch her head.

Ivanolia stopped mid-tie and looked down at her. "Did I wake you?" he asked, worried that he'd upset her again, though she didn't look as if he had. A muscle twitched on his chest.

Still lying down Danie yawned and rubbed her eyes, then shook her head. "Nope...well, yeah," she said, looking around the tent. "But I guess that's good. Everyone else is up." She sat up and smiled, then swung her legs over her side of the platform, stood up and walked to the end of the bed. Ivanolia's heart lurched; he wondered if her smile was for him. She was still dressed in yesterday's clothes, Ivanolia noticed as she walked toward him; they were all wrinkled from sleeping in them, and her short hair was sticking up in a few places. He couldn't help but grin at her.

"What?" she said self-consciously, running her hand over her head, knowing that her hair was at least one thing he could be grinning about. Ivanolia reached out to help her, pushed a short strand off her forehead, and caught her hand in his. As he did this, she froze and stared at him.

"Danie," he began. "We still need to talk..." His voiced trailed off.

She frowned. "I know. Ayla told me there was more, but...I don't want to do this right now, Ivan." She started to turn away from him. He understood, but he wasn't quite ready for her to walk off yet, so he held tight to her hand and pulled her into his arms, holding her as if he never wanted to let go. Danie allowed him to do this, but with her head on his bare chest, she heaved a sob.

They stood like that for some time, Danie crying, Ivanolia holding her, then suddenly Ivanolia felt her stomach lurch and he pulled back. "Was that the baby, Danie?" he asked her. She smiled and nodded, then took his hand and placed it on her belly. For a moment there was no movement, then Ivanolia's eyes opened wide when he felt it again. This was the first time he had felt the movement of her child, and he grinned.

"Amazing, isn't it?" she asked him. He nodded.

~oxoxo~

The day sped by without much happening, and before anyone knew where the day had gone, it was over, and they were once again sitting down to an evening meal by their tentfire. Of course, many people did not return for the meal. Some were eating at other fires; some were involved in other activities.

Danie and Ivanolia had spent the day apart, doing their separate things, but came together in the evening. Danie finally let Ivanolia tell her the rest of his secret, and surprisingly enough she didn't even get upset. For him to have another child of his spirit didn't really mean much; he already had one daughter, what was the difference between one daughter and two? It only made Danie's resolve to visit Ayla's Clan all the more strong.

~oxoxo~

When it seemed that many were retiring for the night, the younger adults of Oak Camp did the same. Once again Fürlasa joined Tinozia for the night. He only had four more days before his Shomata began, so she wanted to spend every second with him that she could.

As they entered Oak Tent, Ivanolia grew nervous. He knew Danie was following him, but he didn't want to push her, not after what he'd put her through, so when they reached their sleeping place he just sat down at the end of it, as he had done the night before. He decided that he'd give her the choice again.

The other three young couples were right behind them, laughing and talking as usual. Jenadoza and Laurana sat on the far platform, talking and nursing their babies. Ayla was just across the passageway, putting her three children down. And Donzolnia and Brulenzia were telling Grov about the previous summer's big hunt.

Danie watched the people talking, and sent a plea to Mut that she would be able to join in with them again. She untied her waistthong and slipped her leggings off, then pulled her tunic over her head so she could put on her sleeping tunic. With a quick glance at Ivanolia, she pulled their fur back and got in.

Though Ivanolia was observing his friends' jubilant conversation, he was quite aware that his woman had changed her clothing, and was now lying down. He sat there a while longer, adding a comment or two to the men's conversation, which had turned from last summer's hunt to a journey to Brun's Cave in the near future, then he decided to call it a night.

Ivanolia dropped his tunic onto the end of the bed, then got in, careful not to touch his mate. She might be willing to share his furs again, but that didn't mean she was ready for him to hold her. This time, he pulled their curtain closed, wishing to be alone with her, even if they weren't speaking.

For some time Ivanolia lay there staring at the tent ceiling. He could see the flicker of light that danced above him, and hear his family and friends talk happily. He wanted to be as happy as they were and wondered if he ever would be. He thought he was moving in that direction when he met and mated Danie, but things had become decidedly worse as of late. Could he get back to happy? he wondered.

Danie was on her side, facing away from him, but her backache was already starting. No, she thought, who am I fooling? It's my heart that aches. Her back did hurt, but it was insignificant.

Slowly, so that he did not become alarmed, she moved to roll over, so that she was on her other side. Now, she was facing him. He turned his head to look at her and their eyes locked. He wanted to grab her and hold her and kiss her, but he didn't move. He didn't want to make a mistake. Danie could see his desire and wanted him so badly, but she also didn't want to make a mistake. She closed her eyes. He did the same.

Then, just as he was falling asleep, she scooted closer and snuggled up to him. She placed her head in the hollow of his shoulder, and put her arm across his chest. Ivanolia opened his eyes and moved his hand to cover hers. That is how they fell asleep that night; that is how they woke up the next morning.

~oxoxo~

The day started very early. Serana still had to add the finishing touches to Laurana matrimonial tunic, but more importantly Laurana had to be removed from Oak Tent and brought to the tent of the Council of Sisters, where she would remain out of Brulenzia's sight, for most of the day. There was no restriction against him seeing her before the ceremony; it was just that they had rituals to perform before he did see her.

It was just before dawn when Tiflona, Zarina, Fraylora, and Serana, carrying everything for the night ahead, came down the passageway, silently opened the curtain to the platform where they knew Laurana slept, and hustled the young woman away. Zarina was the last to leave. Kissing the forehead of her sleeping son, she picked up the tiny Bruana, and followed the women out.

~oxoxo~

Though making her daughter's matrimonial tunic was entirely Serana's duty, it fell to the four elder women of Oak Camp to plait the mirt and barvinok wearths that would be placed on the heads of both Laurana and Brulenzia during the ceremony. Mirt, a shrub that grew down by Beran Sea, was usually difficult to find anywhere else. Because of this, the Sungaean people had worked hard to learn how to keep it living, so that it could be transported over long distances for mating ceremonies. Barvinok was an evergreen ground-covering vine that seemed to grow in many locations. These two items were meant to symbolize eternal love and fertility.

Laurana's only contribution to the wreaths was to add her favorite flowers, which had been collected by the women for her. It was considered good luck if the woman to be mated actually applied the finishing touches herself.

~oxoxo~

The day seemed to creep by, and Laurana's stomach was in knots. It was only when Donzolnia, Ivanolia, and Tinozia came bearing the man Laurana was to mate that she relaxed completely.

"I feel like I haven't seen you in forever," she gasped as he took her into his arms.

He laughed. "It's only been since last night."

"I know, but they practically kidnapped me," she said with a smile. "Not that I minded. This is where I want to be." She ran her fingers through his long, dark brown hair and gazed into eyes sky blue eyes.

"Me too, Laurana," he agreed passionately. "Me too."

~oxoxo~

The rest of the day was filled with getting to know the other couples that were getting mated, spending a short time with the Shogur that would join them, and then finally getting ready. Again, there was no restriction against seeing each other prior to the ceremony, so they dressed along side one another.

Laurana's mother helped her to pull her long tunic over her head, then tugged at the sides to make it fall just right. It nearly touched the ground, and it hugged her body snuggly. Laurana noticed first that it was of the softest leather that she had ever felt, and that it was a very pale color, almost white.

"How did you make this so white?" Laurana asked her mother.

"Hmm. Well..." Serana started, as she helped to adjust the thin leather straps over her daughter's shoulders, "apparently Travie is friends with a Mamutoi woman that specializes in white leather. When I saw those camp shoes she wears inside the earthlodge, I asked her about it."

Laurana smiled. "I love it mother," she exclaimed, hugging the woman.

"Yes, it's beautiful," said Brulenzia, adding his compliment to the chorus of watchers. He had just finished dressing himself, and stood there in complete contrast to her nearly white ensemble; his matrimonial outfit was so dark it looked black.

~oxoxo~

After dressing, nearly everyone left. Only Serana and Ivanolia remained. Ivanolia stayed because he would have a part in the ceremony that evening. Serana stayed because she had to help Laurana with her hair, which they decided to leave down. Once brushed, Laurana's long, honey blonde hair fell in gentle waves all the way down to her fingertips.

"Okay, I need to go get Vegodia," Serana stated as she was picking up her things to leave. "Your brother is very nervous." The woman patted Ivanolia's chest. "I hope you will walk him through this."

Ivanolia rolled his eyes. "Yes mother. Of course I will. He will do just fine."

~oxoxo~

As it turned out, they didn't have much more time. Serana had hustled away to get Vegodia, who was back at the tent pacing. He was more nervous than his mother was aware of, but he knew this was an important day for his sister; he would not let her down. After all, it wasn't like he had to do too much.

When Serana arrived at Oak Tent, she sent her younger son to the east entrance of the Council of Sisters. Laurana and Ivanolia met their brother at the opening to the tent, and assured him that everything would go smoothly. It was not long before it was time to line up.

~oxoxo~

Brulenzia and Laurana were the seventh of the many couples standing side by side waiting to walk out of the tent of the Council of Sisters. They stood nervously as they watched the couples before them, Brulenzia on the right, Laurana on the left. Each couple had stopped briefly in front of the Shogur, who represented the Mother in the ceremony, then proceeded outside to walk the path to the matrimonial platform.

When Brulenzia and Laurana reached Maple Camp's Shogur, they stopped. "Is it of your own will that you wish to mate?" she asked them.

"It is," they replied in unison. Their answer meant that they understood freedom was essential for a lasting mating.

The Shogur gave a clipped nod, indicating that they should step out. They did so and continued on until they were standing behind the couple that left before them. The Shogur continued on with the other couples, then walked out herself.

Outside, the couples had followed the path south, straight toward the platform in the dim light of the few torches that graced the first part of their journey, but had veered west when they came to the steps intended for the Shogur, and finally turned south again. At this point, the light of the torches got brighter. This was meant to symbolize going from the darkness of being alone, to the light of love from the union.

Custom dictated that they enter from the west, going toward the east, so the couples turned east to ascend the steps before them. It was here that they came into full light for all to see.

Brulenzia held Laurana's hand as they took the steps, only three of them, then they walked across the platform, forming a half circle around a small central table with the other couples that were mating.

Once all couples were in place, the Shogur took her place on the platform, standing just in front of the table, and bowed her head a moment in reverence to the Mother.

"Who has brought a piece of the earth that will always be with you wherever you go?" the Shogur asked. It was a question asked out of tradition, but everyone knew that it was the man who brought this spiritual necessity to the ceremony, just as it was the woman's family that brought the wreaths each would wear.

Each man pulled out a small pouch, which contained a handful of dirt that had either been brought to the summer meeting from the ground of his home camp, or had been attained while at the meeting. This earth was the tangible, emotional link of the Sungaean people to their territory and their traditions. The Shogur nodded and each man returned the pouch to his belt.

Then, looking out at the people below, the Shogur bagan. "A mating joins not only two individuals, but also the two immediate and extended families. Are there any here that do not wish to see these couples joined?" There was a hushed silence among the people. A baby could be heard crying quietly; Laurana and Brulenzia recognized it as Bruana, and both smiled. Then, when no objections were made, the Shogur turned back to the couples. With one gesture, she called the first couple forward, while everyone watched in rapt attention.

When finally the Shogur's eyes fell on them and her hand raised, indicating that they should approach, Brulenzia and Laurana smiled, glad it was their turn, but neither said a word, they only grasped each other's hands tightly and came forward. The Shogur, whom they had spent a small portion of the day with, smiled in return, but also did not say anything. Though Sungaean matrimonials were rich in tradition, they typically didn't include many spoken words, and there would be no vows for the couple to exchange.

When Brulenzia and Laurana stopped in front of her, the Shogur turned to face the table that was behind her. This was where Laurana's brothers had a part in the ceremony. The Shogur motioned the two onto the platform, and Laurana smiled to see Ivanolia and Vegodia, each holding one of the wreaths that had been so lovingly made by the women of Oak Camp. Laurana's brothers took their place on either side of the Shogur, and waited for the woman to give them the signal to continue. When she did, they stepped forward obediently. Laurana could see that Vegodia was still a bit nervous, but he was doing just fine. This was the first time he had been required to participate in the matrimonial ceremony of a sister, because he had been too young when Jenadoza had been mated.

Laurana then looked at Ivanolia. In spite of his own personal anguish, he appeared to be quite happy as he stepped toward Brulenzia. Being the taller of the two, Ivanolia placed a wreath upon Brulenzia's head at precisely the same moment that Vegodia placed the other on Laurana's, then both stepped back to allow the Shogur to finish.

Pausing for only a moment, the Shogur then asked the couple to clasp right hands, in a fraternal handshake, then she took out a cord, wrapped it around their arms and wrists, and tied a loose knot under their hands. Then, not waiting at all this time, she took a small torch from the table behind her, lit it, then placed it in Laurana's free hand.

Then focusing on the crowd of observers, the Shogur repeated for the seventh time, "For all to see, the Mother gives us the grace of matrimony, but we must make it our own by our own actions." Brulenzia slipped his left hand to Laurana's back, so that he could glide her around the table.

Once they had circled the table three times, they stopped in front of the Shogur one final time and waited. She took the torch back, extinguished it, then continued.

"In making this circle, the two shall be one, and the one shall be two." The Shogur motioned them back into the line, then continued on with the remaining couples.

Brulenzia smiled as he saw Ivanolia retreat down the steps behind the Shogur. His friend disappeared for a moment, then reappeared as he walked through the crowd toward their camp. Brulenzia could see all of them, grinning widely. He noticed others in the crowd that didn't seem as happy about their mating, but he wasn't going to dwell on them; they were just some of the many women he had spent his time with in previous summers. They were his past, Laurana was his future; Laurana and Bruana, he corrected himself, with another smile.

I can't believe I'm a mated man, he thought to himself. Without moving his head, he glanced down at Laurana, who was trying very had to stand perfectly still, but seemed to vibrating with excitement. They weren't supposed to move until everyone had had a chance to make the union, but Brulenzia couldn't help himself; he was so happy.

Laurana's eyes stared straight ahead, but she didn't see or hear anything that went on in front of her. She was thinking about how perfect everything was. She had never considered that she could have everything she wanted. Actually, she had never really known what she wanted, not until she and Brulenzia had gotten together anyway. Laurana was so happy; she felt tears threatening. Then, when she felt Brulenzia squeeze her hand, she glanced down at the rope that bound them together, and blinked hard so that she could meet his eyes with a smile. He was smiling down at her, so she squeezed his hand back, and tried to focus on the other matings. The Shogur was just completing the circuit with the final couple. It was almost over, she thought.

"Now, as tradition dictates, you shall all leave this platform and enter the isolation that will make your union permanent. But remember this ceremony and your isolation is only the beginning of your promise." The Shogur held up her hand so that the couples knew that they had been released.

Brulenzia and Laurana followed the others down the steps, staying on the path that would lead them to a larger area where they could see family and friends before leaving the festivities that were going to be held in their honor. Many people had crowded into the open space, wanting to congratulate and talk to the newly mated couples. There was no rule that required the couples to hurry to the isolation tent; they were only forbidden to leave the path, so they stayed to talk.

Donzolnia, Ivanolia, and Tinozia were the first of Oak Camp they saw, and allowed their three family members to hug them as a couple; they could not hug separately due to the rope that held them facing each other.

"So it's done, my friend," Ivanolia teased. Brulenzia rolled his eyes, but Laurana laughed.

Zarina made her way forward, handed over the babe she held in her arms, and grasped Laurana in a firm hug. "I am so glad that it was you," she said, tears in her eyes. She stepped back to let others through.

Though everyone from Oak Camp came forward to see the couple off, Jenadoza's group was the last. She brought Danie, Ayla, and Grov with her.

"I am so happy for you," she said, kissing her sister's cheek. Danie and Ayla hugged the newly mated woman as well, while Grov stood waiting. Laurana hugged him last.

"Thank you for the patience you are showing my brother," she whispered into his ear as she clung to the man with only her free arm. "I hope you will look after him on the hunt." As Grov held her he noticed that she smelled just like Ayla, and he smiled.

"Yes, Laurana, I will do that," he replied. Laurana smiled back at him, then allowed herself to be pulled with the crowd toward the isolation tent.

~oxoxo~

Okay, there were probably two unfamiliar words in this post...since I used Ukrainian words for the plants.

Mirt – myrtle
Barvinok – periwinkle

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Post Matrimonial Activities"

Upon leaving their friends and family, Brulenzia and Laurana entered the isolation tent and gathered in its large center with the other newly mated couples. Laurana couldn't believe the size of the tent; its center was significantly larger than Oak Tent.

It was here that it was explained to them that once they entered their private space, they would be required to stay there, and that the rope that bound them together must not be severed when they left isolation, or their mating would be considered dissolved. Though not common, some couples did decide during the isolation that it wouldn't work, and severed the knot.

Here, the couples were also told that there would always be a shogur in the tent, though sometimes it may only be a shogur-in-training, just in case anyone needed anything. Brulenzia and Laurana immediately thought about Tinozia, but knew he wasn't in training yet; he still had his Shomata to go through.

Next, Maple Camp's Shogur asked if they had any questions. There were a few, but none from Brulenzia or Laurana, who just wanted to get the isolation started, so they could start their life together.

Finally, when everyone seemed ready to explode, the Shogur began assigning their private spaces, and Brulenzia and Laurana were led to the space they would occupy for two days and three nights. Their space within the isolation tent was nearly as large as Brulenzia's hearth at Oak Camp; Laurana was amazed.

"I wish I had brought more of my things," Laurana said, as she laid Bruana down on the furs. She noticed that the furs on their sleeping place were the ones they always slept in, then looked around. Most of their stuff had been brought to the isolation tent. She frowned, wondering who had brought everything in. Then she looked at her mate.

Brulenzia had a huge grin on his face. "What did you think I was doing all day?" he asked her. "I wasn't just hanging around. You had your cleansing rituals to go through and I needed to give you a place to go after the ceremony."

"You did this for me?" she asked with tears in her eyes.

"Honestly, Laurana," he said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. "Don't you know our customs?" He grinned at her.

She smiled back, kissed him, and tried to put her arms around him, but couldn't because of the rope that bound them. "This is going to make doing anything difficult."

Brulenzia laughed. "I think that's the point," he said. "But, we aren't really expected to wear this for the isolation."

Laurana opened her wide. "We're not?"

Brulenzia laughed again. "Aren't you aware of any customs?" He continued to laugh.

She pouted. "Hey, it's not like I've been mated before," she said, trying to act hurt. It was too hard; her face melted into a smile.

"Well, I'm glad for that," he said, still grinning at her. "But weren't you even paying attention to the Shogur out there; she said it must not be severed, but we can take it off. That's why they tie it so loosely." He slowly began to twist his arm so that he could work his hand out of the rope, then pulled it off her arm, and tossed it onto their furs.

"I guess I wasn't really listening," she replied as she wrapped her arms around her mate's neck and pressed her lips onto his. He moaned softly as her tongue caressed his, and felt a tightening in his loins. Then, just as he was ready to rip off her dress, Bruana started to whimper, as if she sensed her mother might become too busy for her soon. Brulenzia groaned.

Laurana reluctantly pulled away from Brulenzia, and they both looked down at the baby. "I guess I should feed her first," the young mother said. "But I can't feed her in this." She indicated her matrimonial dress and attempted to remove it.

Brulenzia watched her struggle for a moment, then went to her aid. "Here, let me help you," he said, gently lifting the wreath from her head and setting it next to Bruana. Then, taking hold of the hem of her dress, he slowly pulled it up and over her head, leaving her completely naked except for her footwear. He smiled at her, then picked up the wreath and put it back on her head. "There," he said. "That's perfect."

Laurana giggled, feeling silly in only a hat and shoes, but leaned down to pick up her daughter. Bruana was always a good baby, never crying loudly, and sleeping more than new ones usually did. They could already see growth in the two-week-old. Laurana sat down on their furs to nurse, while Brulenzia knelt beside them to watch. He was always amazed that she could produce the very thing that would keep her daughter alive.

As Bruana suckled, she looked up at both her mother and Brulenzia, curling her tiny fingers around the man's smallest finger. They both stared at her as she drifted off to sleep, slowly releasing her mother's nipple as she did so. Brulenzia pried his finger out of her hand, and Laurana stood up to put her daughter down.

"Put her here," Brulenzia said, pointing at another, much smaller sleeping place.

Laurana smiled. "You thought of everything, didn't you?"

"Well, don't misunderstand. I love her, but I didn't want to have to share every moment with her." Laurana knew just what he meant, and put her daughter down, tucking her in securely.

"That was a good idea you had. I also do not want to share everything with her," she said, then she smirked as she looked at her mate. "You know, I think it unfair that you are fully clothed while I am nearly naked."

"Do you wish to unshoe me?" Brulenzia asked, playfully making fun of the Sungaean ritual that involved the woman removing the boots of her mate on the night of their matrimonial.

"I do," she answered, pushing him down onto their furs, and taking one of his feet into her hands. Slowly, so that she could draw out the moment, she pulled on the tie that secured his boot to his foot. After she had worked the knot, she slipped her hand to his heal and pulled his boot off. Laurana looked up at her mate, and realized she had delivered the desired effect by taking her time. She moved to remove his other boot, but it was getting very difficult to follow the custom.

Brulenzia groaned, as she attempted to remove his second boot, but couldn't stand it any longer, and reached to assist her. Once his boots were off he stood, and took her into his arms again, kissing her hard. Laurana kissed back fiercely, and gasped when he scooped her up and placed her in the middle of their furs.

~oxoxo~

Everyone outside stayed up late into the night, feasting and dancing and singing. The matrimonial platform had become the perfect place for such a display, and nearly everyone took their turn.

Jenadoza had just returned with Donzolnia, Danie, and Ivanolia and was trying to convince Ayla to try.

"Come on, Ayla. It's fun," Jenadoza begged, looking to Danie for support. Danie nodded. She was new to Sungaean dances too, but sorely wanted to fit in, so was taking pains to learn all that she could.

"Here," Donzolnia said, taking the young woman's hand. "I'll help you." Ayla glanced at Grov, who shrugged, then allowed her cousin's mate to lead her to the dancers.

Ayla had been watching everyone dance and knew that this particular Sungaean dance was one where the dancers continually changed partners. Then, each time there was a change, the new couple had a few moments to dance with and talk to their new partner, before moving on. It looked simple enough, she thought as she approached the platform, but learning yet another Sungaean dance proved to be emotionally more difficult than Ayla had realized.

Ayla stood with Donzolnia, waiting for a chance to get in there. They had to wait for a couple to leave before they could step in, which gave Ayla time to get nervous all over again. Then, when Donzolnia took her hands and pulled her out into the center, Ayla took a deep breath and tried to relax. She had to listen carefully to his instructions and thought she was getting it, but before she was ready, it was time to switch partners.

The next man, an older man from Pine Tent, took her hands firmly, and led her around. "Hallo, my name is Valencia."

Ayla smiled at him. He was perhaps close to Vincenzia in years. "Hallo," Ayla replied. "I am called Ayla. What camp are you from?"

He grinned at her. Everyone knew who she was. "Pine Camp," he answered her. "And you are from Oak Camp."

"How did you know?"

Valencia laughed. "Everyone knows who you are, Ayla," he replied. "But, I have a better explanation; our camps are related. Gredenzia is brother to our headwoman's mate, Zackodia.

Ayla nodded. "Oh yes, I met him on our way here. He brought Ivanolia and Braydalana up Big River, then helped us to cross it."

"Yes, that would be our Zackodia," the man said, then moved onto the next woman.

Ayla stepped forward, facing the next man, and took the hands that were extended out to her. She noticed that he was of average height and build, with serious, light hazel eyes. He didn't bother to introduce himself and seemed a little cold. Ayla felt awkward as he slipped his arm around her waist to lead her around, but tried to concentrate so that she didn't miss a step. The silence seemed to make the time pass slower, but eventually she moved to the next man.

As Ayla went from partner to partner, she began to get more comfortable with the dance, and smiled and talked more as she went. When it was time to change partners again, Ayla looked up at the hairless face of Dimia, and stared into his blue eyes. Smiling, she placed her hand in his.

"Where is Seriana," she asked him, hoping the woman wasn't participating in the dancing.

"Don't worry, she is sitting with my mother," he reassured the healer. "Have you met Temina yet?"

Ayla shook her head. "There are so many that I have not met. Temina is your mother, right?"

"Yes, but she is very busy. We have four new women this year, and three couples that are to be mated." Ayla was just about to say something else, but realized it was time to move on.

She partnered up with two more men, then turned to face Jondaria.

"Hallo Ayla," the man said to her. Ayla grinned at him. "I was disappointed to see that you were not at the hunt meeting. I have heard so much about your skill with the sling, I hoped to have a chance to see you use it."

Ayla blushed. "I would like to have been there, but I am not going on the hunt this time. Besides, it's not likely I'd be using my sling to hunt the mighty bison."

"True, very true." He was nodding. "Well maybe you can show me some other time." Jondaria frowned, thinking about his sister. "I did see Grov at the meeting." It was just a statement.

"Yes, he is going. He has only been on one hunt with the Others...I mean...with people that are not Clan," she corrected herself. "He is very interested in how they hunt." Jondaria smiled at her, then moved on. How they hunt, he thought as he took up someone else's hands. Ayla does not consider herself one of her own people.

There were three more partners, and Ayla was really getting comfortable. That is, until she turned to face the next man. Ayla had been facing away from him, but turned when she felt someone grab her roughly. She immediately stiffened when she looked into the intoxicated eyes of Zadneetsia.

"Miss me?" the man sneered.

Ayla suddenly got nervous, and could not answer him. Then she stepped on the man's foot, but he didn't seem to notice. She wanted to get away, but wasn't sure if she could do that. She didn't know what to do so she stayed and tried to concentrate.

"I said, did you miss me?" he repeated, just a little bit louder. He pulled her closer and breathed down into her face.

Ayla grimaced and shuddered. "Ah, n-no," she answered honestly, desperately trying to keep some distance between them.

The man stared at her for a moment. He hadn't expected her to say no, but it struck him as funny, so he laughed loudly and pulled her into him with force. Ayla was extremely uncomfortable and looked around for...someone, but everything seemed a little out of focus to her at the moment. The man was clutching her tighter than she would have liked, then suddenly let go and gave her a little shove. Startled for a moment, Ayla stared back, then turned to find herself facing Ivanolia.

Ivanolia had been watching the dancers, but when he saw Zadneetsia step onto the platform, he had grabbed his sister's hand, and pulled her up there with him. Jenadoza seemed confused at first, but noticed Zadneetsia right away, and suddenly began to worry about Ayla.

When they saw Zadneetsia finally reach Ayla, they watched him say something to her and saw the color drain from her face. They had no idea what he had said, but when they saw the man manhandling their cousin—and her struggling to remain calm—they were glad Ivanolia would be her next partner. Then, when Zadneetsia gave her a push, Ivanolia caught her and glared at the man as he moved away from them.

"Oh," Ayla exclaimed. "Thank you." Ayla hadn't seen Ivanolia come back up onto the platform, but was grateful that he had, and smiled at him as he took her hands and steadied her.

"Are you okay?" Ivanolia asked her.

Ayla took a deep breath. "Yes, but thank you. I did not expect to see him. I was not ready for that."

Ivanolia changed the subject. "I've been meaning to thank you, Ayla," he said, then continued on quickly when he saw a look of confusion. "For talking to Danie."

Ayla smiled at him. "She just needs time, but it looks like everything will be fine."

Ivanolia frowned and glanced around, trying to find his mate. "I think so."

"Did Danie come up here with you?" Ayla asked, looking around for the woman. He shook his head, then moved on.

Ayla continued around the circle, but when she came to Donzolnia she told him she wanted to go get a drink. They stepped out of the line and Ayla waited while Donzolnia went to change places with Ivanolia; he didn't want to leave Jenadoza out there without him.

It was not long before Ayla and Ivanolia had rejoined their mates at the tentfire. Someone handed them each a cup of something and Ayla gulped it down. Grov and Danie stood next to them, but the man frowned at his mate as she downed the liquid she didn't normally like. He had not missed her dance with Zadneetsia, or her discomfiture, but for the moment he didn't mention it; Ivanolia had handled it just fine.

~oxoxo~

They stayed outside with everyone for a while longer, then decided to end the night. Grov would be leaving with the hunters before dawn, so he wanted to get some sleep. Many of the people that would be going on the hunt had already left.

Inside Oak Tent they settled down. Ayla nestled Durc down next to his already sleeping sisters, then went to change her clothes. Grov was lying down, waiting for her to come to him. His mind was still on Zadneetsia when Ayla crawled into the furs.

"Are you sure you're going to be okay with me gone?" he asked his mate. He didn't usually worry about her, but he could clearly see that man's hands on his mate in his mind's eye.

"What do you mean?" she asked. He had gone on many hunting trips without her. What made this one different?

For a moment he didn't answer. He didn't really know what to say. "Well...Zadneetsia will be here, won't he? He couldn't have gone to the hunt meeting, he was still being...held at the Council of Brothers."

Ayla frowned. She did not like the idea of running into Zadneetsia, but Grov couldn't just not go. "I suppose he'll have to remain here," she replied thoughtfully.

"Maybe I should stay as well," Grov stated firmly.

Ayla shook her head. "No, no, you should go. There will be plenty of people staying here with me. And besides, Sumac Tent is halfway across the meeting. What are the chances I'll run into him again? Plus, Brulenzia will be back the day after tomorrow, and Tinozia will be here while Brulenzia is not. And that's not even mentioning everyone else that will be around. I will be fine."

Grov looked at her dubiously, thinking that she didn't look as confident as she was trying to sound, but decided she had a point. And, he was looking forward to the hunt; it was a chance to expand his knowledge. He decided he'd have to talk to Tinozia before he left.

~oxoxo~

"Grov," came a whisper from outside the curtain. It was Ivanolia's voice. "It's time to get up."

Grov pushed aside the drape and looked up at the man holding a small torch. "Already? It seems like I just fell asleep."

Ivanolia grinned. "The hunt leader just stopped by to wake us. He still has half the camp to organize, so we still have some time."

Grov scratched his stubbly face and got up. "Do you think I have time to shave this off?"

"Probably," the man answered, then headed toward the other end of the tent get a cup of tea. Grov shaved quickly, then went to talk to Tinoiza.

~oxoxo~

"Ayla's good at taking care of herself, but I'm still worried," Grov whispered.

Tinozia nodded. "I understand. I'll tell Brulenzia. I'm sure he'll gladly keep her safe." Grov smiled, then went to say bye to this mate.

~oxoxo~

"Ayla, I talked to Tinozia..." he began, but stopped when he saw her smile.

She had Annaliza to her breast. "I will be fine, my mate," she said. "Now go, and have a good time. Bring me back something furry." She giggled. "And be safe."

Grov leaned to kiss her, then ruffed Annaliza's blonde head, and disappeared from sight.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Chance Meeting at Big River"

The hunters of the first summer hunt gathered in the great arena to quickly go over a few things, but pushed out before the sun rose over the eastern horizon. Their plan was to cross Big River, then head in a generally southwest direction into the hills on the southwestern plain. This was the direction Maple Camp preferred to travel when going on a hunt, knowing that they wouldn't be in any of the usual hunting grounds of the Mamutoi. Generally, they were able to coexist with their more outspoken relatives, but sometimes there could be trouble and they wanted to avoid that if all possible.

The large group of people headed east through their encampment until they reached Klyen River, the river that Maple Camp recognized as their boundary, then turned south, toward Big River.

It didn't take much time to get to Big River, and the large group was across it in no time. Maple Camp's boats were of much use. At this point they decided to stop for their morning meal, which was only to be some small traveling cakes that each camp had prepared for themselves.

As they sat eating, the sun came into view, making Big River's water shimmer brightly. Many remarked on the beauty of the river that began at the glacier far to the north, carving its way through Mamutoi territory, then Sungaea lands to empty into Beran Sea. It was largest river in their area.

Just as they were about to continue on, someone saw movement on the other side of the river.

"Heyooo!" a voice called over the rushing water.

The hunters turned to look, noticing immediately that these people were not people they recognized. For a moment, nerves were on edge.

Grov was watching the hunter's reaction to the strangers, but could tell by the way they moved that he knew these people.

"Darvie, that is Talut," Grov said to the woman.

She squinted into the rising sun, and nodded. "I think you are right, but how can you see them."

"I can't really," he replied. "It is the way they move that I recognize, and his voice."

Darvie smiled. "Yes, that voice is distinctive."

Darvie and Vincenzia went to the hunt leader, to explain that these strangers were actually relatives of hers. The hunt leader, knowing that Lion Camp lived nearby, relaxed. Darvie then asked if they could help Lion Camp cross Big River, telling him that they were on their way to their own summer meeting, which was northwest of where they were at the moment. The hunt leader reluctantly gave his permission, though none of the Sungaean people seemed willing to assist; it was up to those from Oak Camp to do the work.

Some of the hunters seemed interested as they watched the six men of Oak Camp backtrack, cross Big River, load several people into their boats, then recross. They had to do this four times to get all of Lion Camp to the southern side of the river.

"Well thank you," Talut boomed, taking Vincenzia into his huge arms. "That saved us a lot of time."

"Yes, thank you very much," Tulie said, agreeing with her brother. "A hunting party?" she asked, nodding at the large group of people.

Vincenzia nodded. "Yes, first summer hunt."

"But where is Ayla?" a man asked, hobbling up on crutches and throwing an arm around Grov. "No hunting party is complete without her.

"Darnev, you are not supposed to be up," Tulie commented exasperatedly.

Barzec frowned. They had purposefully waited several days after Oak Camp left to begin their trek to their own summer meeting, hoping to give Darnev just a bit more time to rest and recuperate, but the man couldn't be kept down.

Vincenzia smiled. "Ayla chose not to come on the hunt this time, but I'm sure she'll be disappointed that she didn't get to see you again. When I see her, I will try to leave out that you were up walking around. I'm sure that will worry her."

"I told you you should still be lying down," Barzec stated dryly. "Ayla would not have insisted on it otherwise." Darnev only smiled.

Grov spoke with Mamut for a moment, who was wondering about Ayla's vision. Grov told him that she'd told him all about it, and that they'd already seen the first part of his vision, a full moon, but were still waiting on the rest. The old man nodded, but didn't give further information.

They only talked a short time before deciding to part. The hunters were getting anxious, partly because they did not understand most of what was being said, but also because they noticed another child of mixed spirits, holding the hand of a large motherly woman. The child had stayed out of sight, until Grov had gone over to him.

Grov knelt down. "How are you feeling?" the Clan man asked the boy.

Rydag smiled, then gestured, "I am better."

"I will tell Ayla when I see her. She will be happy that you are well." Grov ruffed the boy's hair, then said his goodbyes.

Darvie was a little irritated at the coldness shown to her people, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. She knew all too well that the nerves between the Mamutoi and Sungaea ran high, probably due, in part, to the occasional raiding that young men seemed disposed to.

~oxoxo~

As they continued on, Oak Camp fell back into step with the hunters. Grov walked with Donzolnia and Ivanolia, and a few other younger men, but frowned when he saw Janika approaching them.

Ivanolia saw her coming and smirked at his friend. "She's not going to give up," he said quietly. "You should just give her a turn and be done with it. That's all they really want, you know; to see what a new man is like." Grov just stared at the man. "Besides, it's not like you and Ayla don't share pleasures with others."

Grov frowned. "Ayla and I do not share pleasures with others," he denied.

"Oh come on, I saw you with Oga, and Durc is not the son of your spirit.

"Durc was born before I joined Brun's Clan, and well...Oga is different. And I don't use her anymore. Broud does not like it," he confided. "But that is not the problem here. It might be different if she was...different. I don't think that she is just curious." He paused, noticing that Janika was getting closer. "And she's too...forward."

Ivanolia laughed. "So you do like those submissive Clan women kneeling at your feet and getting your food."

Grov blushed and shook his head. "No, that's not it either...I..." He couldn't continue because the young woman had finally reached them. Grov noticed she didn't have that angry look in her eyes, but she still worried him.

~oxoxo~oxoxo~oxoxo~

Ayla's morning was so busy that she hardly had time to notice Grov's absence. After the hunters left, and she had finished nursing her youngest, she got up, deciding to make a morning meal for those left behind.

"Mamma, I'm hungry," Ora said when Ayla went to check on her. The three-year-old was standing, completely naked, in the center of her sleeping platform, and holding her arms out to her mother.

Ayla laughed. "Well, we better get you dressed first, daughter," she gestured, trying to keep her daughter's shrill voice down.

Ora caught on immediately. "But it's too hot to wear those," she signed back, pointing at a crumpled pile of her clothes. "I want to wear my wrap."

"Too hot," Annaliza repeated, nodding her head.

Ayla frowned. It was getting rather warm during the day. She had been thinking the same thing, but their Clan wraps were not an option here, and she didn't want Ora running around naked.

"You can't wear your wrap here, Ora. No one dresses in wraps. You would look silly," Ayla whispered, poking her daughter in the tummy. "Besides, we did not bring one." The child pouted. "But I'll think of something, okay?" Ora looked sad, but nodded. Ayla picked up her tunic and slipped it over the child's head, then did the same to Annaliza.

"I'm hungry," Ora said again.

"Okay, I'll make you something." Ayla looked to around. "Where is Durc?"

"Brenevia came and got him," Ora answered. Ayla smiled, glad her son had a found a playmate. He had been so worried about missing Grev.

~oxoxo~

Outside, Ayla made a meal, which she served to the members of Oak Tent as they rose one by one. Travie was the first to appear, with Brenevia and Durc in tow.

"Ayla," she said. "I'm taking Crisana and Braydalana out to trade some of their Mamutoi style bracelets. Do you want me to take Brenevia and Durc with me or shall I leave them?"

Ayla was still worried about Durc, but most people were keeping their comments to themselves, so she shrugged. "It's up to them, I suppose." Travie ended up taking them. She didn't know many people at the summer meeting, and it seemed to make her feel better to have the children to care for, and the boys liked getting out and seeing things.

Jenadoza and Danie came out next, Jenadoza carrying Teglodia, and sat down to eat. "Um, Ayla, this is so good," Danie said, taking another big bite. "I think this ptarmigan is my favorite thing you make."

Ayla smiled. "My mother used to make this when I was young. It was the favorite meal of the man of my hearth. She held out a small piece to Annaliza, who shoved it into her mouth.

Jenadoza stopped eating. Ayla had a sadness in her voice that caught Jenadoza's attention. "You must miss them...your Clan mother and her brother...don't you?"

Ayla sighed. "Yes, I do, very much. I do not remember much about Annalisa. I know that she is my real mother, but that is all. And Vincenzia...well, he's great. I love him, but he did not raise me. Creb was the man of my hearth; I will always miss him.

The three women finished eating in silence. Jenadoza wondered what it would be like to have so few memories of early childhood, and none of her mother. It would make her sad too, she thought. She suddenly wished Serana was there.

Danie was thinking about her choice to leave the Mamutoi and join the Sungaea, all for a man she hardly even knew. It had been a big change, leaving friends she'd had her whole life, to come live with a whole different people. It had been very hard, especially since she'd had so much trouble with Ivanolia. She did love him, for all that he could get under her skin, but sometimes she missed what she had grown up with. She was glad she had her mother and her sister. They, at least, would always be there. Then she smiled to herself. And I have made many new friends.

Suddenly, Zarina and Wäglodia arrived with a gaggle of children, ages ranging from seven to thirteen, most of which dispersed as soon as they got outside. With both their mates gone, they quickly fell into their old habit of spending time together. There was a real closeness between the headman and headwoman's mates.

"Mother," Zarina's daughter said. "Torina and I would like to go see Frala and Fräubita today. Is that okay?"

Zarina smiled at the two girls. They were both very close to having to spend time in Womanhood Camp themselves. It could be another year or a couple years yet, she thought, but they were definitely interested in the process that brought them to womanhood. Zarina looked at Wäglodia. "I think that's okay, don't you?" she asked him, touching his hand lovingly.

"Yes," he agreed with a nod. "But don't stay there all day. You two will have your chance only too soon." The two girls smiled and walked off. The man watched them go. They were nearly identical in appearance even though Morina was Zarina's daughter and Torina was Tiflona's daughter. He was quite certain that his spirit had been used to create both girls. Everyone thought so and remarked on it often.

~oxoxo~

Tinozia and Fürlasa showed up just as the food had been put away, but Ayla pulled it back out.

"Good afternoon," Wäglodia said to the first son of his hearth, grinning widely at the sleepy-headed couple.

Tinozia looked up at the sun. "It's not that late already, is it?" he asked, thinking that he didn't have many more days before his Shomata, and that he had a lot to do.

Wäglodia laughed. "Losing track of the day?"

Tinozia gave his mother's mate a dirty look, but everyone knew it was just in fun. Tinozia looked to Ayla. "Ayla, what did you want to do today?" he asked. He had promised Grov to keep an eye on her and he took that promise seriously.

"Well, I wanted to go visit the flint worker's area. I haven't had a chance to see more of the work they do."

"Okay, why don't we go over there after we eat," he suggested. "I need to make a new knife anyway." Ayla nodded. Tinozia turned to Fürlasa. "Do you want to come with us?"

The young woman shook her head. She wasn't at all interested in flintknapping. "No, but I'll be here when you get back." She smiled at him.

~oxoxo~

So Ayla spent her afternoon outside at the flintworker's area with Tinozia. The man told her that he needed a new knife for his Shomata, so after the man picked out the nodule of flint that suited his purpose, Ayla sat down to watch him work. He tried to explain to her that he really didn't make the best stuff. That he usually traded for blades, but the Shogurs said he had to make this one himself...and told her that she ought to watch someone else, but she shook her head, insisting that she wanted to see him work. When he was finished, she was extremely impressed. In her opinion, he had made a fine blade.

Next, he needed to haft it. Ayla knew what that meant, but only because she'd seen some of Oak Camp's knives, and had seen the work the Mamutoi did. "I am much better at this part," he told her. "But I cheated. I have an old one that I made during the winter." He pulled it out and went to get what he'd need to complete his task.

Ayla hadn't understood what cheated meant, but she smiled as she watched him attach his new blade to its handle.

"There." He held it up. "I guess it's serviceable," he said, examining his work.

"It's more than serviceable. That is beautiful," she exclaimed, taking it from him. "I will have to show you what a Clan knife looks like sometime."

"Do you have one with you?" he asked her.

"Yes. Brun gave one to me when he allowed me to hunt again," she began rummaging through a pouch that was tied to her belt. "Here it is." She handed it to the man. He turned it over in his hand. It was only made on a flake and didn't even have a handle. Tinozia handed it back to her.

"Now you can see why I like your knife so much," she said with a smile. "I'd like to learn how to make them the way you do, but I haven't had time."

Tinozia grinned. "How about right now. We have time."

Ayla took a deep breath and looked around. "No, I think it's getting late. I didn't realize so much time had passed. He nodded, wanting to get back to Fürlasa.

~oxoxo~oxoxo~oxoxo~

The hunting party stopped for the night and set up camp against a rocky outcrop in a wind-protected valley. The mood was jubilant as they ate their meal, which consisted of more traveling cakes and tea. Someone had brought out a skin of bouza and was passing it around.

Grov was sitting at a fire with the younger men, drinking his tea and staring into the flames, when Janika plopped down beside him again. "Here, drink this," she said, thrusting a cup of bouza at him.

Grov caught Ivanolia's laughing eyes from across the fire and thought about what the man had said that day, just give her a turn and be done with it. Would she leave him alone if he did? he wondered. Somehow he thought it would be worse.

"No, I'm drinking tea," he said trying to give it back to her.

"Oh, come on. Everyone else is having fun," she whined, setting the cup in his hands again. "Just a sip."

He frowned, wishing he had stayed at the summer meeting with Ayla. "Janika, I don't want the bouza!" She pouted. He could tell she was trying to be cute, but he just wasn't interested. "Okay, just a sip." She smiled as he took one and slipped her hand onto his knee. He stiffened, and looked around for his friends. He could see Ivanolia laughing with some people, but the man wasn't looking at him.

"Isn't it good?" she asked, pushing the cup back up to his mouth. "My mother's mate makes it. Have some more."

"You know, Janika, I think I'm just going to go to sleep."

She brightened. "Well, maybe I could come with you, you know...since Ayla's not here." She was trying so hard, but that was definitely the wrong thing to say; it made him stand up abruptly.

"NO! I'm going alone," he stated firmly. He downed the bouza she had brought to him, then stalked off.

Janika watched him go, then she picked up his cup of tea and took a sip. "Arghh!" She quickly spat it back out and dumped the rest of the cup's contents into the dirt at her feet, then stood up to return to her friends, taking his cup with her.

Ivanolia had seen Grov walk way. He didn't have to be a Clan man to know the other man was irritated. Ivanolia kept his eyes on Janika. She had a strange smile on her face. She didn't look very angry, he thought. Just more resolved. Suddenly, Ivanolia was quite worried about his friend.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Ayla and Durc Spend Some Time Together"

Just after sunrise the next day, Grov woke up with a sourness in his mouth and licked his dry lips, thinking about the last drink he had had the night before and who had given it to him. He knew that it was more than just the remnants of Janika's bouza that was causing the awful taste. It was the woman's forcefulness. He didn't even want to get up, because that meant leaving his tent and the security of privacy he had there.

At least I have my own tent, he thought. He had brought his and Ayla's traveling tent, which was really much too large for just him, but most people had done the same. Vincenzia and Darvie shared a tent to Grov's right. Ivanolia and Donzolnia had each brought a small personal tent, which had been set up to right of Vincenzia and Darvie. And the remaining Oak Camp members were interspersed among the other hunters.

The man sighed. He knew he had to get up; he could hear the movement of people packing things up. It was time to move on. Sitting up, he grabbed his tunic, and crawled out of the tent.

To the left of Grov's tent, Jondaria had just finished taking down his own tent. "Morning," he said to the mixed man. Grov nodded his good morning, glad that the man's sister was nowhere to be seen, then went to relieve himself.

~oxoxo~oxoxo~oxoxo~

It had been about mid-morning when Braydalana, Crisana, and Serlona had scratched on Ayla's closed curtain. Ayla hadn't been up late the night before, so she woke easily, and was surprised that she had slept as long as she had.

Pulling back the hide, she looked up into the smiling faces of the three girls. "Fraylora is taking us over to the musician's tent this morning," Braydalana informed her. "And we were wondering if we could take Ora and Annaliza with us."

Ayla frowned for a moment. She was sure her daughters would want to go, but how long would it be before the one and three-year-old impinged on the girls' fun. "I guess so, if you promise to bring them back when they become too much."

"Okay," Crisana agreed quickly. "We're not going to be there all day, so they should be fine.

Ayla smiled at them, then got up to dress her daughters. Ora and Annaliza were indeed excited, and both promised to obey properly. Ayla smiled as she watched the three older girls carry them outside to join Fraylora, wondering how long that would last. This is sure a busy meeting, she thought to herself, as she went back to her sleeping place to get dressed.

However, once she got there she decided that she didn't want to go out yet. I don't have anywhere to be this morning, so I guess there's no need to get up, she thought as she glanced at Durc's sleeping place. He wasn't there either. She frowned for a moment, thinking that she'd hardly seen her son the whole time they'd been there, but shrugged, glad that he was at least off having fun. Sighing, she lay back down and closed her eyes.

It was not long before she started drifting back to sleep, but voices in the passageway woke her. It was Danie telling Jenadoza that she missed Ivanolia already. Ayla smiled, her thoughts turned to Grov and the hunt. She wished she could have gone on the hunt. It's not like I'm doing anything here, she thought crossly. She wondered where he was at that moment and what he was doing, and smiled at the thought of how well he was fitting in. He didn't even seem that nervous anymore.

Ayla continued to lie there for quite some time, thinking about her life and everything that had changed it. When her mind moved on to the future and what she was to find there, she thought about the visions she had had. That caused her to frown; she hadn't had one in a while, about ten days. But then, she told herself, I haven't had the time to think about them.

But I'm not busy now, she almost said aloud, and turned her thoughts to the three horses she would have one day very soon; horses she was destined to ride. She wanted to see them again, and lay there concentrating, going over every bit she could remember, but nothing happened. After some time, she became frustrated and decided to get up.

~oxoxo~

Once Ayla got outside she didn't really know what to do with herself. She finally decided to do a little hunting and went back in to get her sling. That would certainly give her something to do. But where do I go? she wondered, as she walked back in. She didn't know the area at all, except for maybe the place she and Grov had gone with Ivanolia. I could go there. No, I'd rather not go that far. Then she remembered the small grove of trees that Danie had come out of. Just north of that might be good, she thought. That wouldn't be too far.

She stood inside Oak Tent for a few moments, holding her sling in her hand, feeling indecisive, until something else struck her. Her mind went back to the grove of trees. The positioning of them hinted at running water, which caused Ayla to remember the river they had followed to get to the summer meeting. For a moment she struggled to recall, but was finally able to reach into her vast memory and come out with the answer; it is the Klyen River, she thought happily. "I think I'll go swimming instead," she said out loud, picking up a small rucksack and stuffing a few things, including her sling, into it. Maybe she'd hunt too.

Back outside at the fire, Ayla sat down and drank a cup of tea. She wanted to take Durc with her, so she'd have to wait. It wasn't long before Gredenzia appeared. He needed to speak to Tinozia, who was busy at the moment, but he told her that Travie had the boys with her and that she'd be back shortly. Ayla sat with the man for the moment, finally asking why he had not gone on the hunt. She would have never asked that in the Clan, but here, it was okay.

"I don't do much hunting these days. There are always matters of the camp to deal with, especially at summer meetings," he said. "And now that Tinozia is likely to start training, I'll be even more busy for a while. At least until he leaves, then things should return to their normal busy." He laughed. "I guess I'll start hunting again when Tinozia becomes Shogur."

Ayla's mind went to the day Goov had taken Creb's place as mog-ur and wondered if Gredenzia's work ended when he stepped down. "When Tinozia becomes Shogur, what do you do?"

"Oh, my work won't be done. I don't think I could give it up completely; it is part of who I am. I will still work with him, but he will take on most of the responsibility for Oak Camp, and I will be able to do other things, like hunting."

Ayla was nodding, Goov may have turned to Creb for help too, if the Mog-ur had lived. Suddenly, she missed her Clan very much.

Gredenzia studied the woman. She seemed to be thinking about something else and she looked very sad. The man wondered if she was missing her mate. When finally she looked back at him, he continued. "You should have gone on the hunt, Ayla. There are plenty of people here to take care of your children."

"Yes, I would have liked to go, but there will be other hunts, right?"

The man nodded. "Of course, it's just that the first hunt is the biggest one. It's always..." Gredenzia started to say, but stopped. "Well, here comes Travie and the boys."

Travie approached the fire quickly. "Zarina has asked me to come to Womanhood Camp. Something to do with Frala...or maybe it was Fräubita?" She shook her head. "I can't remember."

"Is everything okay?" Gredenzia asked nervously, thinking about the daughter of his hearth.

"Oh yes, everything is fine," the older woman responded. "I think they just want a watcher, but I can't take the boys there."

"Well, you can leave Brenevia here. But I think Ayla wanted to take Durc somewhere." Ayla nodded. Travie shrugged and left.

Ayla watched her go, then turned to Durc with a smile. "What would you say to a little swimming and hunting?" she asked him.

He returned her smile. "Can I bring my spear?" She nodded, and almost laughed as he rushed toward Oak Tent. She thought about picking it up for him when she was inside, but decided the boy would like to get it himself. She couldn't help but smile as he raced inside, then returned with it in his hand. "Ready," he exclaimed.

Ayla looked at Gredenzia. "Will you let Tinozia know where we've gone? Grov wanted him to protect me."

Gredenzia smiled. "Of course I will, but where are you going?"

"Just north of the summer meeting there is a small patch of growth...I thought the hunting might be good there and maybe the swimming too."

Gredenzia nodded. "I know the place. I will tell him."

~oxoxo~

Ayla and Durc left Oak Tent and went north. They traveled through the summer meeting, only stopping a couple times to talk to people. At the northern end of camp they headed toward to stand of trees that was their destination.

"What should we do first?" Ayla asked, smiling down at her son and feeling like she hadn't been alone with in him a very long time. Then she switched to using Clan signs. "Hunt or Swim?"

Durc had a serious look in his eyes. "This boy thinks we should hunt first. Then wash in the river, so we will be clean."

Ayla smiled at him. "That is a good idea," she signed. "This woman is glad that her son is so logical." She only spoke the last word, because the Clan had no sign for that meaning.

"Mama," he started. "I still need to think of something to bring back for Grev. What do you think he would like?"

"Hmm," she thought. They had just skirted the trees that grew next to the river, and had come to an open area, one that would be good for hunting. "I could make him a tunic in the style of the Others."

Durc seemed to contemplate his mother's idea, then shook his head. "But that would be something from you. I want to bring him something from me."

Ayla nodded and frowned, then thought of something else. "What if you hunt something and I use what you kill to make him an outfit?"

Durc nodded. "I like that idea," he gestured. "But do you think he'd like an Other's outfit?"

"These clothes are much more restrictive," Ayla said, pulling on her own tunic. "But you did tell him you'd bring him something Others." Ayla paused. "Maybe I could make it shorter. That would make it easier to wear." Then a thought came to her.

"What are you thinking, Mama?" he asked.

Ayla smiled at him. He was very astute. "Yesterday your sisters were complaining about their clothing being too hot and I told them I think of something else for them to wear. Maybe they'd be happy with short leggings and a shorter tunic." Ayla suddenly thought of Laurana's thin strapped matrimonial dress. Could she do that with a tunic? she thought.

~oxoxo~

Durc and Ayla spent a considerable amount of time hunting. She did her best to direct him, but let him make his kills. She was impressed with her son's use of his sling. He appeared to have her same ability. She couldn't wait to tell Grov that the boy had brought down, if not killed, two large rabbits all on his own. She let him finish them off with his spear. She didn't think two rabbits would be enough to make Grev a whole outfit, but she'd fix that later, when her son was not there.

"Are you ready for a swim now?" she asked him, now that he'd satisfied himself with hunting.

"Yes, but I am hungry."

"I can spit the rabbit while you swim," she suggested. He nodded.

Ayla led him through the trees, and dropped her pack to start a fire. Durc took off his leggings and tunic and headed for the water. Ayla smiled as she watched her son. He splashed around in the shallow pools while she skinned his kills and worked to get them cooking. Then, when they were roasting, she stripped down and entered the river to join her son.

~oxoxo~

Another set of eyes watched the woman and her son. They had followed the two from the meeting and were hiding in the brush while the woman hunted with the boy and had finally come to watch them swim. It was Zadneetsia.

He had seen her pass the flintworkers area and noticed when she had stopped to talk to someone outside Womanhood Camp. Initially he had been disgusted that she had been allowed to remain at the summer meeting, especially after the incarceration she had caused for him. Everyone knew about her vile background and no one was openly objecting to her presence. That got him curious. Maybe she could be as fun as those flathead females were, he thought as he left the flintknappers.

Zadneetsia was behind a particularly bushy shrub when Ayla pulled her tunic over her head and dropped her leggings to enter the river. He stared at her. She was a perfect specimen, he thought as he looked at her supple breasts, firm stomach and muscled legs. Too bad she has been ruined by those flatheads.

He watched her splash water at her son, and laugh. The boy splashed back, then dove under water. He watched them play for a while. It was obvious that they were communicating somehow, though no words left their lips. He could not see the signs that passed between them. Finally, the woman left the water, dried off, and called her son to come eat.

"So what do you think?" she asked the boy with signs.

"Is good, Mama," he said out loud. "I always like what you make." Ayla smiled, then frowned, seeing the brush move behind her son. Her eyes grew wide when she saw Zadneetsia step out.

"Well, well, what do we have here?" he said. "A mother and son outing?" His eyes raked her naked body, making her feel awkward in her most natural state. No one had ever made her feel like that before, not even Broud.

Ayla stared at the man, but didn't reply. What could she say to him? She knew he didn't like her and that he only wanted trouble.

"Did you miss me?" he asked, repeating his question from the night of the matrimonial ceremony.

Ayla frowned. "What do you want?"

"Hmm, that's a good question? One better answered without words."

Ayla blanched, her mind went immediately back to Broud. She looked around for her rucksack; she had dropped it over by a boulder that was closer to the man than herself. He followed her eyes and crossed the distance to it before she could even react. He picked it up and pulled out her sling.

"I saw you two using these." He held it up between two fingers and stared at it. "Quite efficient," he said disdainfully. He threw it over his shoulder and took a few more steps toward the naked woman, then pulled something else out of her pack. "And this," he said, holding up the knife Brun had given her. He looked at it strangely. "What in the Mother's name is this?" He dropped it on the ground and stepped over it, then threw her pack behind him.

Durc looked from the man to his mother, but didn't know what was going on. He knew his mother was upset; his Clan upbringing had given him at least that much. "Mama?" he questioned.

Ayla knew full well what this man wanted and wasn't going to object. She didn't like it, but remembered all too well what she'd gotten when she'd refused Broud. She knew it would be easier this way. That was part of her upbringing.

"Durc," she said, never taking her eyes off Zadneetsia. "Get dressed and go back to the summer meeting." Then she added with silent gestures. "Go get Tinozia." Durc narrowed his eyes at his mother and glanced at the large, scary man.

"Yeah Durc," Zadneetsia sneered. "Go back to the meeting." He didn't even look at the boy.

Durc seemed about to object. As a five year old mixed boy, he was nearer to adulthood than one of the Others might think, but even he knew that he was nowhere near large enough to assist his mother with this problem.

Ayla saw her son's look and shook her head imperceptibly. "Go," she commanded. Durc slowly pulled on his leggings, then picked up his tiny spear and backed out of the grove, reluctantly leaving his mother all alone.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – "Not the Kind of Alone Time Ayla Expected"

Zadneesia watched the boy leave, then turned back to Ayla. "I thought he'd never leave. So tell me...what's it like to live with those flatheads?" Ayla just stood there not knowing what to say. He was tentatively taking steps toward her. "Oh come on, tell me...how can a woman like you stand to have them touch you?" he grimaced. Ayla looked at her sling; it was on the ground behind the man. There was no way to get it, or her knife for that matter.

"W-what do you want, Zadneetsia?" she asked again, backing up a bit.

He smirked. "Well, I figure that you owe me, since it was your fault that I had to spend three nights in the tent of the Council of Brothers."

Ayla frowned. "I do not understand how that was my fault. I was just worried about that child."

"That child was none of your concern," he spat back. "You should learn to mind your own."

Ayla looked around, hoping to stall the man. "Is she okay?" Ayla asked.

The man shrugged. "She's back home, where she belongs."

Ayla tried again. "What was her name again?" Ayla pushed. "Danara?"

This time he nodded. "Why do you care?" he demanded.

"I am a medicine woman. When I see that someone is hurt, I react. It is my calling."

The man sneered at her. "That means healer, right?" It was her turn to nod. "You are no healer! You are no better than those flathead animals that you live with," he said loudly, crossing the distance to the woman quickly and grabbing her upper arms.

Ayla stared up at him. She had not realized he was so big. "Ouch, that's hurts," she exclaimed, trying to back away, but he held tight. He did not even seem to hear her. She changed tactics. "If you hate the Clan, then why do you force their women?"

Zadneetsia laughed derisively. "Because I can." He ran one of his hands down her arm, while never letting go with the other. "Okay, I've answered your questions, how about answering some of mine...what's it like living with those flatheads?"

Ayla's brow furrowed. "Clan," she corrected firmly. "They call themselves Clan. And it is no different than living with the Sungaea." That was the woman's first lie, though she didn't know it. The Clan was much different, but she did not mean it the way it was taken.

"Not different," he practically yelled. "They are animals. They are filthy, dirty animals! How can you allow them to touch you? I have seen you with that abominable mate of yours. It is disgusting! You should have been thrown out of here as soon as you got here. What you need, is a man like me." He pushed her backwards, causing her to stumble on a vine and fall to the ground.

Ayla stared up at him. He had a crazed look in his eyes that frightened her. "I still do not know what you want," she replied from the ground. That was her second lie. She knew exactly what the man was planning, but she still needed to stall. Maybe Durc would get to Tinozia quickly.

"Well, let me show you," he said, as he started pulling down his own leggings. Ayla stared at his swollen manhood. She could not see any way around giving him what he wanted and swallowed hard.

The man was coming closer. He straddled her, grabbed her wrists, held them down on the ground on either side of her head and stared down at her nakedness. He watched her closely and saw defiance in her eyes, but she hadn't moved; she wasn't physically resisting him.

"You're not even going to struggle, are you?" he asked, seemingly disappointed. "You're just like those flatheads; they never struggle...sort of takes the fun out of it." He paused, as if deep in thought, then looked back at her. "Oh well," he said nonchalantly, letting go of her wrists and leaning down to nuzzle her neck.

Ayla moved her hands to the man's chest, but still did not resist. Now she could smell him and, when his lips touched her neck, she shuddered. He pulled back to look at her. He could see her disgust as he hovered over her, then he used his knee to force her legs apart. "Oh come on, I bet you let that abomination touch you all the time," he said as he breathed into her face and forcibly pushed his manhood toward her opening. "Gave you that miniature abomination that you love so much, didn't he?"

Ayla had been lying there, hands on his chest, silently accepting what this man was going to do, but when he mentioned her son, something snapped and she tightened the muscles of her thighs, pulling her knee up into his groin.

Zadneetsia groaned loudly and rolled over, clutching his suddenly no longer swollen member. He looked as if he might vomit.

"That is my SON you are talking about," she yelled angrily. "And Grov, he is my mate. I love them. They are not abominations! YOU are the abomination. What gives you the right to go around forcing women?"

Zadneetsia coughed hard and looked up at her. She was now hovering over him. "All right," he said. "So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you should show me where I went wrong," he said, then suddenly grabbed for her. She took a step away from him, but not before his hand had wrapped around her ankle, causing her to fall backward again. She was on the ground again, but recovered quickly, striking out with her free foot and catching him in the face. This time she was able to crawl away, putting more distance between them.

She did not know why she was fighting this man. Iza and Creb would be mortified at her behavior, she thought, and it would have been far easier to just give him what he wanted, but she could not do it. It was just like when Broud had forced her; she could not help but fight him. Only this time, she was a full-grown woman. She did not know that it was adrenaline that kept her going.

Ayla backed away from the downed man. He was still lying on the ground holding himself, but now blood was trickling out of his mouth and flowing freely out of his nose. She had gotten him good.

She watched him for a moment, then worried that he'd regain his strength and come after her again. Slowly, she circled around him to her discarded knife and picked it up, but never took her eyes off the man. Carefully, she put her knife between her teeth as she pulled on her leggings, slipped her tunic over her head, and pulled on her shoes. Then she went to her rucksack and pulled out her medicine bag.

"Here," she said, tossing the man a small leather pad that could be used to soak up the blood that poured from his nose. She then picked up her sling, slipped it around her head, and finally retrieved Durc's rabbit skins, before quickly exiting the small clearing.

~oxoxo~

Tinozia had been gone helping Brulenzia and Laurana bring their belongings back to Oak Tent when Ayla and her son had left, so he wasn't even aware of her absence. When they finally get everything put away and he noticed the younger woman was gone, he quickly went out looking for her.

"She said that she was taking Durc hunting, and that maybe they'd swim," Gredenzia informed his acolyte. "She wanted me to let you know that they headed toward that group of trees by the river."

Tinozia frowned. "How long ago did they leave?" he asked, nervously. "I told Grov that I'd watch out for her."

Gredenzia looked up at the sun. "The sun was about there."

Tinozia looked at the sky. "That's a long time," he said.

"What's a long time?" Brulenzia asked, coming out of Oak Tent with his new mate.

"Ayla's been gone since nearly the time I came to help you."

Brulenzia looked alarmed. Tinozia had told him about what Zadneetsia had done to Ayla after he and Laurana had left the matrimonial and about his promise to Grov before the man had gone on the hunt. Both men agreed that it wasn't like Ayla to disappear for so long, and decided to go search for her.

~oxoxo~

Durc had run back to the summer meeting as quickly as his little legs could take him. He carried only his tiny Clan spear in his hand, but there was a heavy weight on his shoulders. He was very frightened, and would have cried, if he could, but his eyes were all Clan; he had no tears to shed.

Finally, just passed the flintworker's area, he heard someone calling his name.

"Durc!" It was Brulenzia. He and Tinozia had searched several places and had just talked about heading to the river. "Where is your mother?" Tinozia was with him, the boy was glad to see.

Durc pointed, but had to take a breath before speaking. "At the river. She asked me to come get you," he said, looking at Tinozia. "There is a man there with her." Brulenzia and Tinozia stared at each other. "I think she is scared."

"Can you get yourself back to Oak Tent?" Brulenzia asked Ayla's young son, who nodded emphatically. Both men rushed off.

~oxoxo~

While still in the trees, Ayla moved slowly, holding her knife in her hand and continually looking back over her shoulder, but after breaking through the trees, she ran hard, tears blinding her vision. And it didn't help that the sun was getting low in the sky either.

She knew she was heading the right way, but only because she could hear the dull roar of so many human voices to the south. She kept looking back over her shoulder and finally stopped to catch her breath. Zadneetsia had not followed her. She put her hands on her knees and bend over, then collapsed to the ground. She sat there crying for a few minutes, but soon realized she didn't wanted to go back into camp crying, and began to wipe furiously at her tears.

How did I let this happen? she scolded herself. I should have waited for Tinozia to go with me. She continued to fume at herself, not even noticing the approaching men until they were upon her. For a moment, she was startled.

"Ayla, are you okay?" Tinozia asked, but one look at her face told them she was not.

Brulenzia looked toward the trees and balled his fists. "What happened?"

Ayla took a deep breath. "It's okay," she said, letting them help her up. "I'm fine. I handled him." She swayed and Brulenzia caught her.

"Handled who?" he demanded. "Was it Zadneetsia?" She nodded. Had he not been supporting her, he would have rushed off to find the man, but as it was, he could not.

Tinozia, a much calmer man by his very nature, looked back at the trees. "Ayla, what happened? Did he...?" The man couldn't finish.

Ayla grimaced. "He tried to, but I..." She blinked and took another breath. "I...Let's just say that I look better than he does." She tried to smile. "Please," she begged, placing her hand on Tinozia's shoulder. "Leave him be. I'll be fine." She leaned against Brulenzia. "Just take me home."

Brulenzia and Tinozia didn't see how they could leave her to go after Zadneetsia, especially since she had asked them not to. Besides, it wouldn't do any good, this was a matter for the Councils. They finally relented, deciding to take her back to Oak Tent by means of the outer path, so they wouldn't have to talk to anyone. Both wished the headman or headwoman could be there to lodge a complaint with either the Council of Brothers or the Council of Sisters, but the hunters were only two days into their trek. Neither man felt ready for this responsibility, but both decided then and there that they'd step up and do what was necessary.

~oxoxo~oxoxo~oxoxo~

Out on the southern plains, the hunters finally arrived in the area that the hunt leaders had been looking for, and called a stop for the night. Grov was glad he hadn't had to deal with Janika all day; she had kept her distance, though he didn't know why. That made him nervous.

He had spent much of the day toward the back of the line, but when the halt was called, he quickly caught up, pitched his tent with haste, ate even faster, then retired before the fires could even be lit. This hunt was becoming much too stressful.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – ? (titleless again) ?

Durc had passed through the summer meeting virtually unnoticed, and had slipped into Oak Tent when watching eyes were turned. He knew it was for bigger people to help his mother, and that Brulenzia and Tinozia would be the ones to do that. The boy went to his sleeping place and put away his spear. He realized then that he'd forgotten his sling by the river, but shrugged. It wasn't important.

The five-year-old boy sat down and begged Ursus to keep his mother safe. I wish Grov hadn't gone on that hunt, he said to himself. He always keeps Mama safe.

He sat down for a moment, and waited, hoping they'd get back quickly. After what seemed like forever to him, he stood up abruptly. What was taking them so long? he wondered, starting to pace. The boy was extremely frustrated, and almost decided to go back out to look for them. He quickly abandoned that idea; he didn't want to see anyone else yet. He finally decided to climb into his mother's sleeping place. He felt better immediately.

~oxoxo~

Brulenzia and Tinozia arrived back at Oak Tent with Ayla by means of the outer path, and took her directly inside to her sleeping platform. She smiled down at her sleeping son, glad that he had found his way there and wishing that he hadn't had to see what he did. She was sure that he was terrified.

The two men knew that they were going to have to go tell someone what had happened, but Ayla said that she needed to rest first. They both nodded, understanding completely, but after sitting with her long enough to know she slept, they got up to go find one or more of Oak Camp's elders; they needed to know what to do.

Outside, they came across Jenadoza, Danie, and Laurana, who were sitting down by the fire talking. They had seen the men take Ayla inside and were extremely curious about what had happened.

"Where did Gredenzia go?" Tinozia asked. The older man had been there when he and Brulenzia had gone looking for Ayla, but now, when they seriously needed him, he was gone.

"He went to the Shogur's Tent," Jenadoza answered the man. "What's going on?"

Brulenzia frowned at his brother's mate. "Ayla has been attacked."

"What?" exclaimed Jenadoza, at the same time that Laurana said, "By what?" Naturally she suspected an animal, but she was about to learn that the animal was human.

"Who actually," Brulenzia continued. "It was Zadneetsia. He tried to...to..." the man could not bring himself to tell them, but they knew what he meant. Laurana gasped. Jenadoza's eyes widened, but her mind went to her brother, causing her to look across the fire at Danie.

Danie was utterly shocked and more than a little worried. "Is she okay?"

"Yes, she's fine," Tinozia reassured them. "He didn't actually hurt her, but she's shaken up." He sat down next to the woman. "And I feel terrible. I promised Grov that I'd...that we'd make sure no harm came to her." He had his head in his hands. "I was only gone for a short time."

Danie touched the man's arm. "It is not your fault, Tinozia. You could not have known this would happen. I'm sure Grov will understand that."

"But what do we do now that it has?" Brulenzia asked. "There is no precedent for something like this. There are no steps to follow to make sure a man pays for hurting a woman."

Danie frowned. "But there should be...and not just for women like us." Jenadoza looked at her. She knew exactly what Danie was referring to. It made her worry about Ivanolia, but Danie was right; it shouldn't matter what type of woman it was, only that she had been violated.

"So what do we do?" Jenadoza asked.

"I don't know," Tinozia said. "That's why I wanted to talk to Gredenzia, he'd know..."

"There you are," came a voice. Tinozia looked up to see Gredenzia and Wäglodia approaching and sighed audibly.

"Thank the Mother you are back," the young man said. "We need to talk."

For the next few moments Tinozia and Brulenzia went through what had happened, giving the men the few details they had. Gredenzia and Wäglodia were as shocked as the young women had been, and decided to go straight over to the Council of Brothers, leaving the women to hold down the fort; they would be responsible for Ayla and needed to let the older women know what was happening, should they return.

As quickly as possible, the four men crossed the meeting and arrived at the tent of the Council of Brothers without speaking to anyone. Once inside the tent they went directly to Bolodenkia and interrupted the conversation he was having with two other men. The man seemed startled, but knew it must be very important if these men were willing to break in, when it was obvious he was busy. The man knew it was his duty to oversee all important matters of the meeting. After all, Bolodenkia was not just Maple Camp's headman this year, but Head Brother as well, since the summer meeting was being held in Maple Camp territory.

Bolodenkia glanced at the men his was talking with, both of whom nodded and moved off. Gredenzia started off without compunction.

"We have a serious matter to discuss," he said.

Bolodenkia raised his brow. "And it cannot wait until morning." It was more of a statement; he could tell that they meant now. "Should I call the Council? What little of them that are not on the hunt, that is." The four men nodded. The Head Brother sighed, then moved off to send runners to the various tents.

After the runners had gone, a young man approached them, saying that he'd show them to a place to wait. The man led them to a curtained off section of the tent where they tried to sit patiently. It was not easy. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime to the Oak Tent men, they were summoned to a larger space so that they could bring up their matter.

Looking around, Brulenzia and Tinozia suddenly became worried. Most of the more respectable brothers had gone on the hunt. In fact, of the nineteen camps attending the summer meeting, there were only eight brothers present for this meeting, and four of them were much less than respectable, since they headed Ash Camp, Cedar Camp, Dogwood Camp, and finally, Sumac Camp, the camp that had spawned the man of concern. Brulenzia frowned, leaned to say something to his cousin, then turned to face the Council.

Bolodenkia cleared his throat and extended his hand, giving any, or all of them, the floor.

"We are sorry to bring you all out of your tents this evening, but we have a problem. It has come to our attention that a woman of Oak Camp was attacked by someone at this summer meeting," Wäglodia started, since he was mated to Oak Camp's headwoman. Eyebrows shot up and there was a chorus of angry comments.

Bolodenkia frowned, but held up his hand and cleared his throat again when the men didn't seem able to calm down quickly enough. "Who? What happened?" he asked.

"Ayla," Wäglodia answered. "She went hunting and swimming with her son this afternoon and they were followed."

"And who attacked her?" the Head Brother asked.

Tinozia glanced nervously at Sumac Camp's headman and frowned. Zadneetsia was his youngest sister's son. "It was Zadneetsia."

Then headman from Sumac Tent opened his eyes wide and shook his head. His name was Ivarsia. "That is not possible, Zadneetsia was working flint all day; I saw him there."

"Well, he must have left at some point," Tinozia exclaimed angrily, "because Ayla said he attacked her; he tried to force her." Tinozia's voice cracked. Several men exchanged looks, but not as many as before.

"Are you saying that you weren't there to see this attack take place?" the Sumac head asked. Tinozia frowned and shook his head, then tried to explain, but Ivarsia scoffed and cut him off. "Well then, you don't really have much, do you?"

Wäglodia stood up. "Are you saying that the son of my hearth is lying about this?" he demanded.

"No, I did not say that," the Sumac headman said, shaking his head. "I am only saying that the son of your hearth does not know what happened, because he was not there."

Tinozia looked shocked. "But I...we found Ayla north of the summer meeting, crying. She told us what happened. She told us that Zadneetsia tried to force her."

"So, we only have the word of a woman that hasn't lived among us for eleven years, against that of a man that was born and raised here." Ivarsia snorted derisively. "Where is Ayla anyway? And why isn't she making this claim herself?"

"She is back at Oak Tent sleeping," Brulenzia put in angrily. "She was exhausted after what Zadneetsia put her through."

Ivarsia shook his head. "What Zadneetsia has done, and what you say she claims he has done, could quite possibly be two different things."

Now Gredenzia had something to say. "We don't exactly have his word either, now do we, Ivars? Maybe we should hear from them both." Several of the headmen were nodding.

Bolodenkia frowned, but nodded as well. "I think that is all we can do for tonight. We need to hear from both of them. I'd like to ask that both Zadneetsia and Ayla remain within their camps until we have a chance to question them." He paused. "And, let's continue this tomorrow at midday."

The four Oak Camp men stared in disbelief as they watched the headmen stand up to leave. Ivarsia left quickly with the three camps closely related to him, never even glancing back at them.

Bolodenkia went to them, shaking his head apologetically. "I was worried something like this would happen when Vincenzia brought Andreyta back here. She's..."

Brulenzia frowned, then corrected the man. "Ayla."

"Yes, yes, I'm sorry, Ayla." The Head Brother looked at each Oak Camp man in turn. "We are definitely in a difficult spot here. Ayla has been gone for so long and doesn't know our ways."

"And what ways do we have that allow men to force women?" Wäglodia demanded.

"I'm only saying that maybe she misinterpreted what Zadneetsia wanted."

Tinozia raised his eyebrows in angry. "Misinterpreted? With all due respect, Bolodenkia," the young man said, "but you did not see Ayla; she was terrified. You do not know what happened out there."

"No Tinozia, I was not there, but as Ivarsia pointed out, neither were you." The Head Brother looked more than upset. "Now, if you do not mind, we will meet again tomorrow." He nodded at the older men, men that he had always liked, then picked up his belongings and left for the night. With much frustration, Wäglodia, Gredenzia, Brulenzia, and Tinozia did the same.

~oxoxo~

"They want to speak to Ayla and Zadneetsia tomorrow," Gredenzia informed everyone back at their tentfire. The elder women had returned and were absolutely aghast at what had taken place, and more than furious that the Brothers could not do something about it immediately.

Zarina was sitting, holding Wäglodia's hand and staring into the fire. "I wish Tagnolia was here," she said with a frown. It would have been good to have their headman at the meeting.

"Do you think the Council of Brothers can take care of this?" Fraylora asked her mate.

Gredenzia looked distressed. "Ordinarily I would say that they could, but with so many headmen away on the hunt, it could be difficult."

"Well then, why don't the Sisters just step in," Travie interrupted irritably. "Isn't this something they're more suited to anyway? I mean, we're talking about the protection of women."

The women were nodding, but Gredenzia shrugged. "Yes, probably so, Travie. I know that within the Mamutoi, the Sisters would intervene, but this is going to be difficult. It's all a matter of he said, she said, and we really don't know what either of them are going to say yet. It definitely doesn't help that so many of our leaders are gone."

Brulenzia, Tinozia, and the other young adults were listening intently to the older, more experienced members speak, and all were worried. Jenadoza couldn't believe that Ayla's eleven-year absence might be used against her and that someone had accused her of misunderstanding Zadneetsia intent. She was more than a little frightened, and didn't want to go anywhere by herself. She wondered if they would be able to solve this problem.

After a little more discussion, the members of Oak Camp went inside to sleep. Travie brought Ayla's girls in, but they didn't want to sleep in their own bed without first talking to their mother, but Ayla was still sound asleep. Braydalana and Crisana offered to let the girls sleep with them, but when tears started to well in their little eyes, Danie suggested that they sleep with her, in the bed right next to their mother. Ora looked at her sleeping mother, then at Danie's bed; she really wanted her mother. It looked as if she was still going to protest, but when Annaliza reached up to Danie, Ora relented and crawled up onto the woman's bed platform and lay down. Finally, everyone took to their own beds, and that was the end of the night.

~oxoxo~

Ayla slept soundly for most of the night, but then, just before dawn, she began thrashing about. "NO! NO! NO!" she cried loudly.

Within moments, someone had a lamp lit, and Brulenzia and Tinozia where sitting on her bed platform trying to wake her.

"Ayla," Brulenzia said, shaking her gently. "Ayla, wake up." She opened her eyes and started to cry. He held her against his chest and rocked her softly. "Shhhhhh. He's not here."

Ayla cried for a few moments, letting the man hold her, then she glanced around; everyone seemed to be awake. "I am sorry to have woken everyone." Ora and Annaliza had crawled up beside her, and Durc was sitting up looking at her.

"It is not a problem, Ayla," Travie said, turning to leave the young adult's space.

"Mamma, okay?" Ora asked. She had tears in her eyes too.

Ayla smiled sheepishly at her daughter. "Yes, I am fine. I just had a very bad dream."

Ora looked back at Danie. "I want to sleep in Mamma's bed now," she said. Annaliza nodded. She did too.

Danie smiled. "Here, let me help you get under the furs," she said, getting up and helping the two girls to get comfortable. Durc squeezed in too. Ayla watched them for a short time, then put her head back on Brulenzia's shoulder and closed her eyes again.

"Is it morning yet?" Laurana asked, getting up at the sound of her daughter's quiet whimper.

"Almost...I think," Jenadoza replied, leaning to move aside an air flap in the side of the tent. Their tent faced southeast, so she could see that dawn was approaching. "Yep, just before dawn." She too got up; she could hear Teglodia starting to stir.

"I'll make some tea," Danie said, getting up to go to the cooking space.

"No need," Travie said. "I already had it started when someone caused a commotion." She smiled at Ayla. "Here." The older woman handed her a cup of tea, then proceeded to give some to everyone else.

Ayla sat up to take the cup from the woman and took a sip as soon as it was in her hands. She looked up at Brulenzia. "Thank you for being here." She looked around at everyone. "All of you, thank you."

Laurana smiled. "Ayla, you are family. We'll stand beside in this and in everything." Everyone was nodding his or her agreement. Ayla smiled, as tears came to her eyes again. She was so happy to have found her people.

~oxoxo~oxoxo~oxoxo~

As the sun came over the eastern hills of the southern plain, the hunters rose. They had made their hunting plans the night before, but those that had gone to sleep early needed to be told what would take place. Grov happened to be one of those people.

The hunt leader held a short meeting after the scouts returned, informing everyone that a herd was grazing not too far away and that a surround would have to be built. There was much work to do. Finally, after the hunters had been given a chance to comment, the leader pushed the hunters out.

The hunters left the campfires burning low and their tents in place. If all went well, they'd be back by evening, fully loaded down from a successful hunt, and they wanted the comfort of knowing they wouldn't have to set up sleeping places again after such a long and exhausting day.

Grov walked with Ivanolia, Donzolnia, and several other young men. He carried with him several of the Others-type spears that he had made with Vincenzia back at the Clan's cave, a knife that hung from his belt, his sling, not that he would need it for bison, and finally, the spear he used when hunting with the Clan. Though he probably wouldn't use his Clan spear, habit had caused the man to bring it with him.

The hunters moved along the plain quickly, coming to the place that was believed to be the best place to build their surround, and started working.

For some time, Grov watched, not knowing what to do. He had not heard of building something to assist a hunt; he was used to using the lay of the land and the cunning of men to get the job done. He was extremely intrigued by what had been proposed, but he hadn't moved to help. He was having a hard time picturing it in his mind.

Ivanolia had been working along side the other hunters when he noticed Grov wasn't helping. Then, seeing the man's frown of confusion, he wiped the sweat from his brow and went over to the man to see if he could help.

"Hey, I know you're a strong man," Ivanolia said, clapping the man on the back and smiling at him. "Why aren't you working?"

Grov brow furrowed even more. "I do not know what everyone is doing." He flushed. He hadn't wanted to admit that he didn't know what was going on or how to help.

"I can tell," Ivanolia replied, continuing to smile. "Okay, do you remember the canyon we drove the aurochs into when we hunted with Lion Camp?" Ivanolia asked. Grov thought about the hunt that had nearly killed Darnev, then nodded.

"Look." Ivanolia knelt down and drew the canyon they had hunted in, showing the Clan man where they had entered it and how they had trapped the aurochs. Then he pointed at what he had drawn. "Does this make sense?"

Grov nodded. "I think so." He paused for a moment. "And this is where Darnev was gored, right?" he asked, touching the dirt just past the entrance to the canyon.

"Yes, that's right. You got it." Ivanolia smiled again. "Okay, so for this hunt, what we're going to do is sort of the same as that, but we have to put manpower into building it, instead of using what's naturally here. We have to construct a canyon; that way they can't get away."

Grov was still frowning.

"Here, let me show you." Ivanolia moved over slightly and started to draw in the dirt again. "It's a lot of work to build a surround, but in some ways it's better, because you can put one wherever you need it. And, you can build a gate to enclose the beasts completely."

Grov watched the man draw, noticing that he drew it at the same angle as the previous drawing. He didn't know it, but the drawings were easier to compare that way.

"See," Ivanolia said, pointing to both the back canyon wall in his first illustration and the manmade surround in the second one. "We will use the surround in the same way we used the back of the canyon, as a wall to keep the bison in."

Grov examined the man's diagram, then looked around. He could see the great beasts far off in the distance and frowned. "But there are no canyon walls on this wide prairie. How will we get the bison to go to the surround? Surely they will see it and go a different way."

"For this hunt, we will be the canyon walls," Ivanolia informed him. Grov looked around at the busy people. There were about one hundred fifty hunters at work, possibly even more, but this still did not make sense to him. Ivanolia could still see the man's confusion, and turned back to his drawing.

"Okay, this is the surround, right?" Grov nodded. That much he could visualize. Ivanolia then moved over a bit and drew a shape in the dirt. "This is the bison herd." He turned back to the surround that he'd drawn. "We will leave a large group of hunters here and here," he said, marking the dirt with two lines on either side of the surround. "Perhaps nearly half of us. From there, the remaining hunters will make their way around the herd, on both sides and pretty far off." Ivanolia looked up at Grov. "We don't want to frighten them too soon, or they'll bolt and the hunt will be lost."

Grov nodded, he completely understood that part, after all, he was a hunter.

"They probably already know we're here, but they don't feel threatened yet, because we're so far away." Grov nodded again. That also made sense.

"So, as the hunters move east to the far end of the prairie, to get behind the herd, a series of hunters will drop off here and there," Ivanolia continued, drawing a bunch of dashes in the dirt on either side of the herd. This marked the distance between the surround and the herd. "These hunters will form a line to flank the animals, so they cannot escape either north or south, while the rest of the hunters continue on."

Grov was examining the drawing and listening intently.

"Once in place behind the herd, these hunters," he said, drawing yet another line, this time east of the herd, "will begin to drive the bison back here." He pointed at the surround. "Then, at the hunt leader's signal, all hunters will light torches, starting with the drivers. This will cause the bison to start moving west, toward the surround. Once the drive has begun, the flanking hunters will light their torches, and slowly move in to prevent the herd from going north or south. And finally, when the bison draw near, the west-end hunters will light their torches too."

Grov smiled. "So the west-end hunters will be responsible for keeping the animals from bypassing the surround," Grov concluded. He could finally see what they were doing.

"Yes. It's not too complicated, but it takes a lot of manpower," Ivanolia said. "Now, we better get to work, before they send us home for not helping." Grov smiled. Ivanolia handed him an axe and showed him where to start.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – ? (looks like I abandoned naming my chapters) ?

The hunters spent a great deal of the morning building the surround. It was an enormous construction that was roughly the shape of a pentagon, with one side missing so that the bison could be driven in, and a gate that could be closed so that they couldn't get out. It wasn't, however, the only place that the beasts would be killed. A great number would be downed before they even reached the hunter's trap. The surround would just be the end of the line, a final wall to insure positive results and protect the hunters.

When the surround was finished, the hunt leader discussed who would be where, giving the people at least some voice in what part they played in the first hunt of the season. Then, when several hunters had the position he or she wanted, the man issued orders as to where everyone else would go. He chose the drivers first, which included four of Oak Camp's elders, then those who would flank, and finally the hunters that would wait.

Being unsure where he wanted to be, or where he was needed most, Grov was glad the decision was made for him. After all, that was how it was in the Clan; the leader always directed the hunt, so he had never chosen a position before, except for when he hunted alone, and that wasn't that often.

As it turned out, Grov was selected to flank the north side of the herd, as were Ivanolia, Donzolnia, and Janika's brother, Jondaria. This pleased the Clan man greatly since he still didn't know much about an Other's hunt, and he thought it would be nice to have at least three men he knew to help him learn. He did not want to make the Clan look bad or appear stupid himself.

Vincenzia and Darvie were also selected to flank the herd, but they were being sent to the south. Before leaving the area at the surround, Vincenzia stopped Grov. "Be careful out there and don't worry," he said with a smile, seeing the man's nervous look. "This is a standard summer hunt and relatively simple. We should have many to bring back to the meeting."

Darvie smiled up at Ayla's mate. "Just have your spears ready to throw," she added. Though she was born Mamutoi, this was far from her first Sungaean drive and knew just how it went.

Just before midday, the hunt leader gave the signal and the drivers headed out. A group went north and a group went south, making a wide arc around the bison so as not to spook them. The others watched and waited.

~oxoxo~oxoxo~oxoxo~

The sun was directly overhead when Ayla stepped into the tent of the Council of Brothers. Only Tabita and Fürlasa did not accompany her; they stayed at Oak Tent to watch the children. Ayla, along with her entourage, waited in the same space that the four men were brought to the evening before, and again, it seemed like they sat there forever. Ayla sat between Brulenzia and Tinozia, nervously chewing on her lip.

When Bolodenkia finally stepped out from behind a curtain, he frowned slightly; he saw ten angry adults waiting with Ayla. He hadn't counted on this becoming so involved, and wished they could just put an end to it. He looked at the daughter of Vincenzia's hearth; she looked nervous.

"Good afternoon," he said to them when they looked up at him.

"What's so good about it?" Brulenzia said under his breath. Bolodenkia didn't hear him.

"Well, let's get this thing started," the Head Brother said, indicating that they follow him. The group of Oak Camp members stood up and followed Ayla, who followed behind Bolodenkia.

As they entered the same partitioned off room where the men had come the evening before, Ayla glanced around, taking in her surroundings; it was a full house. She did not immediately see Zadneetsia, but when she did, she blanched. She knew he'd be there, but seeing him made her uncomfortable, especially when he turned to stare at her. She noticed that he sported a swollen lip and bruised nose, and that somehow his left eye seemed to be blackened too. She frowned.

Zadneetsia was sitting just behind a tall, older man whom she did not know, but was talking to a younger man next to him. He had his arm draped rather casually over the other man's shoulder, and he was sitting with a number of people from Sumac Camp. She noted that he didn't appear too upset by this at all. Somehow, she felt like the person that had done wrong.

"Well, I guess we need to hear from Ayla," Bolodenkia said, turning to look at her.

Tinozia stood up. "We've already told you what happened," the young man said.

Ivarsia rolled his eyes and stood up. "No, you told us what she told you. I think we deserve to hear the story from her." Many people nodded. He sat back down.

Ayla swallow and stood up. All eyes turned on her. She tried to speak, but had to take a deep breath and lick her lips. "I..." she started, then stopped. Zadneetsia had turned to talk to one of the men sitting with him, and both stifled a laugh.

"Yesterday," she began, "I took my son hunting and swimming..."

"Where?" Ivarsia cut in.

Ayla looked at the man. "Just north of the summer meeting," she answered. "We hunted first, then went into the trees by the river to swim. Then..."

"How long were you there?" the man asked again.

Ayla frowned. "Hunting or swimming, or both together?" she asked. A few people snickered.

Ivarsia looked around annoyed. "Both."

Ayla nodded. "I'd say we spent more time hunting. I am working on my son's sling hunting skill," she tried to explain. "It is a difficult weapon to master, but he killed two large rabbits," she said proudly, then tried to continue. "By that time the sun was..."

"Fascinating," the man said with a feigned yawn. "But how long were you there?" he asked again.

Ayla was starting to get annoyed. Why was he interrupting? she wondered. "Do you want to hear this or not?" she asked the man in frustration. A few people smiled again.

Ivarsia flushed slightly. She sure has nerve, he thought, then gave a thin lipped smile and nodded. "Go on, then," he said.

Ayla took a deep breath. She had to think for a moment. How long were we there? "I'd say it was well past midday when we finished hunting, then we went into the trees so that we could swim. I..."

"And how long did you..." the Sumac man cut in again, but this time someone cut him off.

"Is Ayla going to be able to tell us what happened or is Ivarsia going to keep breaking in to ask her questions?" Wäglodia asked irritably. He was standing up facing the Council and looked none too happy that Ivarsia wouldn't even let the woman get a full sentence out. "Because I was under the impression that you wanted to hear from her."

Many people shifted their position. Ivarsia sat back in his chair and raised a hand, as if to say, Go ahead. Don't let me stop her.

Bolodenkia nodded, then turned back to Ayla. "Go on."

Ayla smiled at Wäglodia with gratitude, then turned back to the assemblage. Swallowing hard, she began again. "So, m-my son and I hunted, then we went into the trees by the river. I skinned his rabbits, spitted them over a fire, then we swam for a while." She looked at Ivarsia. "I can't say exactly how long that took. The position of the sun was blocked by the trees." A few people tried to hide their smiles when Ivarsia scowled. "That is when Zadneetsia showed up," she said, looking over at the man.

"And what did he do, Ayla?" Bolodenkia prompted her.

Ayla brow creased heavily, but she never took her eyes off the man. "He tried to force me to share pleasures with him," she accused. "Though I cannot call being forced any kind of pleasure."

Everyone looked over at the man, including Bolodenkia. "And, is this true, Zadneetsia?"

The man smirked at Ayla and started shaking his head. "Of course not," he lied. Ayla's jaw dropped open.

"So, you did not see Ayla yesterday while she was out hunting and swimming with her son?" the Head Brother asked.

"Oh, I saw her. I saw a lot of her," he said. "We both did." He was indicating the man sitting next to him. Ayla did not know who this other man was. "But I don't remember her son being there, do you?" he asked the other man. The man shook his head.

Bolodenkia looked back at Ayla. "You did not mention that Kurvlodia was there," he said.

"That is because he was not there," Ayla said nervously. She did not understand why Zadneetsia would say words that were so obviously untrue, or why this other man, whom she had never seen before, would attest to Zadneetsia's lies. She was getting angry and looked at the Council. "I have never seen that man before. Only Zadneetsia tried to force me."

Zadneetsia laughed. "Oh come on, Ayla. You were a perfectly willing partner." He looked at his friend again, elbowing him. "Wasn't she?" Kurvlodia smirked and nodded.

Ayla just stared at him. Had he just insinuated that she had shared pleasures with him? That she had welcomed his advances? Her eyes grew wide; he had indeed, and worse, the other man had implied that she had shared pleasures with the both of them. She was speechless. She could hardly move, but glanced around at the people. They were staring at her and shaking their heads. She blushed. Couldn't they see that he was lying? That both men were? She frowned. This was not going very well. Suddenly she wished Grov was there, or that she had gone on the hunt, or that they'd never even come to this summer meeting. She started to tear up.

Suddenly Brulenzia stood up, glaring at Zadneetsia in fury. "Are you saying that the both of you shared...her?"

Zadneetsia smirked again. "We sure are...and she loved every moment of it."

Brulenzia turned red. He was seeing red. "I find it hard to believe that this woman would look for pleasure in him. I mean, look at him; he's filthy," he spat with disgust. "And besides, this woman isn't accustomed to sharing pleasures with anyone except her mate, and he's not here. I'd have had better luck with her than him."

"Brulenzia, you're just upset because the focus isn't on you anymore," Zadneetsia countered. "This one wanted me." He pointed at Ayla.

Brulenzia blushed at the pointed comment about summers of the past and looked at Laurana. She didn't look upset by the man's comment. "Okay then," Brulenzia started again changing tactics. "If Ayla wanted you and she agreed to share pleasures with you, as you claim, then why is your face all bruised up?"

"She's wild; what can I say?" he commented nonchalantly, throwing his arms in the air. His friends laughed.

Ayla shook her head, upset that they were talking about her as if she were not even there and stood up again. This was too much. "I did not share pleasures with this man," she said coldly, pointing at him. "He tried to force me, but it did not happen. I kneed him in his manhood to get him off of me. Why don't you examine him to see if he has any bruises there! I also kicked him in the face to get him to stop. That is why his face is bruised."

"See, I told you she's wild," he repeated. "Probably comes from being raised by those flathead animals."

Now Ayla looked furious. "The Clan is not a bunch of animals...you are the animal, Zadneetsia," she began, then stopped and looked at the headmen. "I do not understand why we are even doing this. You have no intention of punishing him for what he did to me. And you," she said, turning on Ivarsia, "just want to defend him because he is part of your camp."

"That is not true, Ayla," Bolodenkia said calmly. He did want to get to the bottom of this. "But we have to determine what happened. And unfortunately your story and Zadneetsia's differ substantially. He claims that you were alone and that he and Kurvlodia both shared pleasures with you. You say you were with your son and that Zadneetsia, alone, tried to force you. There is a huge discrepancy here."

The Head Brother glanced at Zadneetsia, who looked as if he wasn't really paying attention, then his eyes went back to Ayla. "If only there was someone else there who witnessed what happened, or there was some kind of evidence on either side, then maybe it would be different." He paused.

He was very confused. Even if she was telling the truth and Zadneetsia had tried to force her, what should be done about it? This was not something the Sungaea had ever had to deal with before. He was so much more upset by the situation than he sounded. He didn't know what to do or who to believe. He had been watching them both closely, trying to make a decision. The woman seemed so hurt and angry. And why wouldn't she be, if she was telling the truth, he asked himself. He glanced at Zadneetsia again. He was lounging about, only taking a mild interest in what was going on; the man is just too full of himself, Bolodenkia thought. Suddenly he realized that Ayla was being truthful.

"Maybe we could bring your son in here. Maybe he could add something to your story," the Head Brother suggested.

Ayla frowned. "My son is only five. He has been through enough. He does not need to be brought in here, to be brought before people that think him less than human." The Oak Camp members were nodding. She was right.

"Well then," Ivarsia said. "You can't prove that Zadneetsia did what you claim, so I guess we need to vote and be finished with this. Who believes Zadneetsia?" he asked the eight brothers. Four of them, Ivarsia being the first, immediately put their hands up, and though quite reluctantly, Bandolia from Pine Camp did as well. He was not a fan of the flatheads and distrusted anyone that had contact with them.

"And who believes Ayla? Ivarsia asked, knowing the vote was now five to three in Zadneetsia's favor. The Willow Camp headman put up his hand. Ayla did not know who he was, but she was grateful. His name was Vardasia and he was a cousin of Vincenzia; their mothers had been sisters, and he felt it was his duty to support kin, especially since she looked so trustworthy. I never did like Zadneetsia, he thought, holding his hand high.

The other Ayla supporter was the headman from Spruce Camp. Though he did know Vincenzia, he was not related to the man, or the beautiful young woman. He was, however, related to Vardasia, and felt the same way about kin. He had watched Ayla closely during the whole process; something about her spoke truth.

Finally, Bolodenkia chose not to vote because, though he now believed Ayla, he felt that he could not take sides. And, after seeing the first part of the vote, he figured that it didn't matter; Ayla had lost.

Ivarsia smiled. It was now five votes to two in their favor. "So, I guess this is over then." He stood up to leave.

Bolodenkia continued to frown. "I'm afraid so, unless anyone has anything further to add," he said hopefully. It looked as if it was over, then Travie stood up and placed her hand on Ayla's upper arm.

"I do not have anything to add, but I will be taking a complaint to the Sisters. This is absolutely ludicrous," she burst out angrily. "What is wrong with you people?" she demanded. "And you!" she exclaimed as she turned to face Bolodenkia. "You did not even vote. What kind of Head Brother are you?"

The man took a deep breath. He did not blame her. "We understand your frustration...Travie, is it?" She nodded. Her arms were now folded across her chest, but she still stood next to Ayla. "But there is nothing else we can do. You are quite welcome to take this matter to the Sisters."

"Oh, we will. I guarantee it," she said. She was shaking with angry. Ayla watched the woman, then smiled slightly and put her hand on Travie's arm; Ayla's touch was able to get through the older woman's anger, causing her to look at the young woman. She suddenly relaxed. It was the first smile that she'd seen on Ayla's face since they'd arrived at the tent of the Council of Brothers.

Bolodenkia saw how the younger woman's touch calmed the older woman, and he could see her strength and resolve. This definitely wasn't over, but at least Ayla was not going to take it lying down. She is a strong woman, he thought.

~oxoxo~

After they left, Travie wanted to march directly over to the Council of Sisters, but Zarina and Wäglodia suggested that they wait for the hunters to return.

"It's going to be the same with the Sisters," Zarina said. "With so many Sisters gone, we'd be lucky if we got half of them to side with Ayla.

"Well, that's better than with the Brothers," Travie said.

"Yes, better, but not enough," Wäglodia put in. "We need a majority here. I think we should wait too."

Sighing, Travie reluctantly agreed.

~oxoxo~oxoxo~oxoxo~

During the meeting that was taking place in the north, the hunters to the south were steadily driving the great herd of bison across the plains toward their death. Grov could see them coming now. The bison were slowly moving in a westerly direction. The man carefully watched the long line of people flanking the herd. Occasionally someone would wave his or her torch at an approaching beast, causing it to return to its brethren.

Grov stood still, gripping a torch in one hand and a spear in the other. He had tied his other spears to his back, the way he had seen Donzolnia do just before the hunt. They didn't feel right there, cumbersome, but he could see that most people had done the same thing.

Looking down the line of hunters Grov saw that closer torches were being lit. He waited patiently. Donzolnia's was now lit and the man turned to Ivanolia. Ivanolia turned and touched his torch to Grov's and Grov did the same to Jondaria. For a moment, Grov watched the fire spread west, then noticed that the southern fires were doing the same thing. It was time to go.

Grov followed the lead of the two men beside him. First they walked south, to close in a bit, but then they started walking west to keep in line with the bison trail. They were using their bodies as a wall and the fire to keep the beasts moving. It was rather effective, Grov thought. Soon he could see that the hunters that had waited behind the surround were approaching as well, but much more slowly. They couldn't afford to turn the bison back toward the drivers; they wanted as many as possible to go into the surround.

During the drive, the hunters took shots at the bison, killing a couple here and there, and some, of course, were either allowed to escape or got away on their own. That was just the way it was, and they didn't want to kill the entire herd, just enough so that each Camp there had something to show for their hard work.

Grov watched Jondaria begin to stalk a cow that had wondered off toward them. He glanced back at Ivanolia, but the man was gone; he had moved in to assist someone else. Grov decided to stick with the man near him and circled the animal.

Jondaria waved his torch at the animal, then threw his first spear. It plunged deep into the upper part of her rear leg, but it was not fatal, and only served to anger her. The bison roared in pain and turned on the man. Jondaria reached around for another spear, ripping it easily from its tie, but the bison had turned again, and was heading slightly away from them. When she circled back he threw hard. His second spear hit at an odd angle, grazing her and bouncing off. She stopped, snorted, and pawed the dirt, trying to decide which man to go after. She stayed with Jondaria.

Grov took his chance and aimed carefully, and sent his first spear deep into her belly. She bellowed, circled around, then continued toward Jondaria.

Jondaria reached for yet another spear. This time it wouldn't break free from the tie that bound it to the man's back. The man was yanking hard with one hand, waving his torch with the other, and backing up. Grov could tell that the man was panicking. Without thinking he picked up a stone, pulled out his sling, and cast a stone quickly. It hit the cow in the rump, distracting her enough to give Jondaria the time he needed to work his spear free.

Grov had seen the other man struggling with his spear holder, and stopped as soon as he'd flung the stone to remove his own spears; he had not liked them there in the first place.

Jondaria, who now had his third spear in hand, charged the evading cow, stopping just short and throwing with all him might. This time it went through her neck. Grov watched the spear point come out on the other side, but she was still standing. He threw a second spear. It hit the cow's neck too. She roared in anger and pain, and took off running toward the open prairie and away from them. Both men thought they had lost the kill, but suddenly she veered back to begin a slow and exhausted, yet steady, charge. She was heading for Jondaria again. He had another spear in his hand, but she was coming straight at him. He had to take a stand.

Grov watched her coming, trying to judge her speed and the distance between her and the other man. He thought he was closer to the animal by at least half the distance, but he was not in her line of charge. Quickly, and without thought, the man grabbed his Clan spear and countered the beast's charge. He kept his eyes on the animal as he ran hard to head her off, then thrust his spear into her side, plunging it through the thick skin and between ribs, where it settled in the animal's heart. Grov slammed into the side of the dead beast as it crashed to the ground just short of Jondaria.

Jondaria exhaled loudly. He was still holding his spear, but had not had to use it. Grov was lying on the ground breathing hard, but grabbed Jondaria's hand when it was extended out to him. "Good chase," the man exclaimed, pulling Grov to his feet.

Grov smiled. Their hunt had not been too much different than a Clan hunt, he thought. They had tired her out, while continuing to wound her, then finished her off. "Thanks," Grov said, brushing himself off.

Jondaria scoffed. "I should be thanking you. She would have trampled me for sure if you hadn't killed her. And look at her," he said, pointing. "We got her five times before she succumbed."

The two men grinned at each other and looked around at the other hunters. Many of them were finishing off their own bison, while others were already skinning. Grov could see that there was much activity at the surround, but he could not see what was actually happening. Hunters were everywhere and the bison that had managed to escape were moving off in the distance. The hunt was over. Now the butchering began.

AtDC

NEW CHAPTER – ? (sorry about the lack of chapter names) ?

The two men worked together to butcher the animal, though Grov had to ask a few times what he needed to do. He was still used to letting the women do this part, but he learned a lot about the process from Jondaria—and gained a friend in the man during the job.

"Do the Clan women really do all of this for the men?" Jondaria asked, stopping for a moment.

"Yes, the men cannot do this kind of work," Grov answered.

"But...you're doing it." Jondaria was confused.

Grov stopped to look at the other man. "There is not much Clan in me," he said with a frown. "I am a little different. As far as I know, my mother's mother was only half Clan, possibly even less, so I am really more Others than Clan."

Jondaria nodded. That was why the man was nearly passable.

"And what about hunting?" Jondaria continued. "I've heard that Clan women do not hunt."

Grov was up on his knees, leaning over the dead animal, but sat back on his feet to answer the man. "No, they do not participate in the hunt; they do not know how to hunt."

"They really don't hunt?" Jondaria asked, incredulous at the idea of separation of work. He shook his head. "I don't know how we'd stop our women." He was pulling out the cow's entrails and moved to put them on the carrier that Grov had made.

Grov smiled. "All of them, except for Ayla. She is a good hunter, possibly the best I've seen."

Jondaria smiled, thinking about the beautiful woman that was mated to this man. "Is she really that good?" he asked. They were talking about one thing, but the man's eyes spoke of more. He was definitely attracted to the young woman.

Grov grinned. "She is better," he replied, thinking about his mate and wishing she were there too.

~oxoxo~

For quite a long time, the two men worked alone, talking happily, laughing often, and learning a lot about each other. Jondaria was glad he had not listen to what people said about the Clan man; he was a good man, a hard working man, and it would be good to call him friend.

Grov's thoughts were not very far from the other man's. He was glad that he had not listened to his own misgivings about this man. Jondaria was, after all, not his sister. Grov shook his head to dispel the pestering woman's image from his mind. No, Jondaria was a good man, Grov thought. And, he was pleased that he'd made a friend on his own. So pleased, in fact, that not even the approaching Janika bothered him—well, not too much.

Jondaria saw his sister crossing the plain with two of her friends. He knew his sister was quite persistent and had her sights set on Grov. He hadn't understood her fascination with the Clan man until he'd gotten to know him. Now he wondered what was going on in his sister's mind. What is she planning? She didn't seem to be able to take no for an answer. How many times did she have to hear it? he wondered. He looked at Grov, who was watching the three women with a slight frown. "We could use the extra hands," he said.

"Huh?" Grov said, turning to face him.

Jondaria nodded toward the women. "Hands...we could use them."

Grov looked down at the cow, then back at the women. "I guess so..."

Jondaria smiled, then looked up at the women. "Have you come to help us?" Grov looked up at them too, shading his eyes against the sun.

Janika smirked and shifted her position, so that she was blocking the sun from Grov's eyes, and looked down at him. "We were just at the surround. They're still killing there, but we weren't needed." She looked at her friends. "You know my brother, don't you?" They nodded. She turned back to Grov. "And this is Grov," she said. She didn't bother to give him their names, but her friends smiled down at him. He smiled back at them.

"Well, we're glad you're here," Jondaria said, hoping Grov didn't mind. "We could use some help butchering or we're going to be here all night." The three women pulled out their tools, knelt down, and went to work.

~oxoxo~

After several hours of work, they'd finished butchering the cow and had her loaded onto a couple of small stretchers that Grov had suggested. Jondaria and the women hadn't known what the man was doing when he started building the strange contraptions, but when it was finally built and loaded, they understood and smiled with happiness; they wouldn't have to carry so much to the campsite on their backs and it could be moved all at once, instead of in several trips.

"I still think this animal is your kill," Jondaria said, as they trekked along.

"No, I could not have killed her alone," Grov said, shaking his head. "I think it is our kill." He paused for a moment. "I would like to have the hide though, if that is okay." He smiled. "Ayla asked me to bring her back something furry."

Jondaria glanced at his sister. She was scowling and mimicking the man...Ayla asked me to bring her back something furry. One of her friends giggled, causing Grov to look over at them. He narrowed his eyes at them, but could not see Janika's face. Jondaria gave his sister a dirty look, then directed his words to Grov. "That is fine. I have a bison hide from last year's hunt; I do not need another one."

~oxoxo~

Back at the campsite, everyone unloaded. A portion was selected to be dried and was placed on racks near fires that were lit for that purpose. An even smaller portion was taken away by people that were planning the evening meal. They would have a feast that night. And finally, most of the meat was placed far enough away from the fires so that it could begin freezing over the cold night. Janika and her friends helped the two men, but quickly disappeared afterward, much to Grov's relief.

~oxoxo~

After all the meat and other bison parts had been handled, the hunt leader stood up and declared the first summer hunt officially over. It didn't seem to matter that they still had to carry everything back to the meeting. "It was a very lucky hunt," the man exclaimed loudly. "Let us thank the Mother that no one was hurt and that we have much to bring back!" Everyone bowed his or her head for a moment, giving thanks to the Mother. Grov did the same, thanking Ursus as well.

It had been lucky, he thought; they had killed nearly three dozen beasts. The kill would feed many for a long time and provide many needed materials. He smiled and looked around at the happy people. He was standing with Ivanolia and Donzolnia again.

"So, Jondaria told us that you singled-handedly killed a bison," said Donzolnia with a raised brow. "Impressive."

Grov shook his head. "No, Jondaria and I share that kill. Didn't he tell you that he—"

"This man is too modest," Jondaria cut in as he came up beside them. "It was his spear that ended the cow's life, not mine. I was the one in her path, cowering."

Grov frowned. "You were not cowering." Why did the man say words that were not true? he wondered. "You held your spear, ready to fight."

Jondaria grinned and put his arm around Grov's shoulder. "Yes, I stood there spear in hand, poised and ready to be trampled, but you saved me of that fate."

The men smiled. Grov was about to protest again, but Ivanolia spoke up first. "Well, either way, you will be able to bring back the hide Ayla wanted. She will be very happy."

Grov grinned. "Yes, I think she will."

~oxoxo~

Later that night, after everyone had eaten, the fires were built high so that the hunters could tell of their hunts. Many skins of wine and bouza came out and the people drank freely. After drinking a few cups of bouza and listening to several hunt stories, Grov and Jondaria took turns telling of their hunt. It was one of the most exciting stories; everyone was amazed at the Clan man's strength and bravery.

"Then Grov charged the beast and...that was the end of her," Jondaria finished. Grov was smiling, the man had, after all, been pretty close to accurate this time, with only slight embellishments here and there.

As they sat back down to listen to another hunt story, Grov picked up his cup and emptied it into his mouth. He was having a good time and he was happy that he was getting on so well with Ayla's people. He was in such a good mood that he even smiled when Janika sat down next to him and refilled his cup.

"I enjoyed your story," she said, smiling up into his eyes.

Grov looked at the woman's dark eyes and tensed up a little before responding to her. "Thank you. Your brother is a good hunter." Grov looked over at Jondaria, who had recently gotten up and was now sitting on the other side of the fire with one of Janika's friends. He then looked for Ivanolia or Donzolnia, but both seemed to be off somewhere for the moment. Grov sighed, guessing that he'd have to talk to the woman.

"And thank you for your help," he continued. "It made the work go so much faster."

Janika beamed at him, happy that he was finally talking to her. "I'm glad we were of assistance," she replied, trying to flirt with the man.

"We'd probably still be out there, if you and your friends had not shown up," he said, trying to be friendly.

Janika giggled. "Oh, go on," she said, putting her hand on his arm. "You would not." She giggled again.

Grov stiffened slightly and looked down at her hand with a frown. Why is she always touching me? he wondered. It's not like I've encouraged her. His mind went to the times he'd told this woman no. He did not think that she'd just been disappointed. Then he thought about Ivanolia's words. Just give her a turn and be done with it, the man had said. That's all they really want; to see what a new man is like. Grov wondered if that was all it was, but then he remembered the dark look of anger he'd seen in her eyes and the mean-spirited words she had spewed that one foggy morning. He was still a little nervous around her.

"How about some more bouza," she offered. She was smiling sweetly at him and she started pouring before he could answer one way or the other. He tried to smile back as he watched her pour some into her own cup. "Did I tell you my mother's mate made this?"

"You did," he replied, taking a sip. "Last night. It is good. It tastes less bitter than what I have tasted before." He took a breath and brought his cup to his mouth to down the bouza again. He tried to relax.

"That is why I like it. Most bouza is too much for me, but my mother's mate has perfected his." She smiled again—and touched him again. This time she put her hand on his leg. "More?" she asked, snuggling up to him.

Grov frowned, contemplating her offer. More what? he asked himself, looking down at her hand on his thigh. He looked around at the other people nervously, then considered the offered bouza. He'd already had five cups of it and things were starting to look just a bit distorted.

"Oh come on, Grov," she whined. "We're supposed to be having fun here. The hunt was a success. We should be celebrating."

He looked back at her and nodded acceptance to more bouza. He watched her as she poured. She didn't seem so bad to him at the moment—and the brew was good.

"So, where did you put the hide that you saved?" she asked him.

"I rolled it up and left it out next to my tent," he answered her, pointing toward his tent.

She turned her head to look in the direction of his tent; it was just out of the ring of firelight. "It's going to get stiff if you do not work it," she said with a frown.

Grov shrugged. "I do not know how to work it."

"Why not?"

Grov shook his head. "Men of the Clan do not know how to do women's work," he answered.

Janika's eyebrows shot up. "Women's work?"

The man smiled, knowing that the Others didn't have gender-defined jobs. "Yes, in the Clan, men hunt and protect, and women cook, clean, and take care of the children. Ayla will work the hide for me."

Janika frowned at the mention of his mate, then brightened. "I could do it for you." She started to get up, as if she was going to do it at that very moment, but Grov put his hand on her shoulder.

"No, that is not necessary," he said. "Ayla can do it." The woman frowned again. "Besides, I do not know what she wants it for, so it's better to just let it sit. She can soak it and work it later."

Janika nodded, then changed the subject; she did not want to talk about Ayla. "Hey, can I see that spear you used to kill the bison?"

"Uhh. Well...okay," he replied. "But I'll have to go get it. It's in my tent." He got up and headed toward his tent, noticing that she got up and followed.

As they weaved their way across the campsite, in a rather drunken manner, Grov watched the blurred people around him. Everyone seemed quite happy and busy with those around them. Some told hunt stories, while others listened. Some sang songs or played small bone instruments that had been brought along for post-hunt entertainment, while others danced in tune to the music. Everyone was busy.

It only took moments to cross the campsite area, going from the brightly lit up space near the fires, to the dimly lit area where the tents were. When they got to his tent, he handed her his cup. "Wait here," he said, then knelt to enter.

Inside the tent it was almost completely dark. The man crawled across the furs that were on top of one of Ayla's thick hides, and over to the place where he'd put his Clan spear. He had tucked it under his fur, but on top of the hide. As the man touched the hide, he thought of Mog-ur One-Eye, and wished he could have met the man that had died before he had joined Brun's Clan. He knew that this particular hide had once been Creb's hide shelter and that Ayla had turned it into a nice waterproof ground covering.

He shook his head and searched in the darkness, finally grabbing the lonely spear. He would have placed all his spears there, but the Others' spears were too long to fit in his tent. Turning around, he crawled back toward the entrance, noticing that he could see Janika's silhouette. She was just standing there waiting for him to return. He sighed, wishing Ayla was there, then pushed aside the tent flap and exited.

Once outside, he stood up and brushed off his knees. Janika was still holding his cup, so he took it and handed her his spear. "I guess it's too dark over here. Let's go back over to the fire so you can see it." He smiled down at her and put his free hand on her arm as if to guild her over there.

She hesitated for a moment, taking the opportunity to lean into him as she looked over at the fire. She wished she could think of a reason to stay where they were, now that he was finally paying attention to her, but she couldn't. Janika looked at the spear in her hand. She was interested in seeing his spear, but she had other interests too. Finally, unable to come up with something plausible, she nodded.

As they headed back toward the fires a group of people from Hill Camp stopped them, wanting to see Grov's spear as well. Janika handed it to them to inspect. One man hefted it above his head, making a mock throwing motion. "How can you throw this?" he asked. "It's too heavy."

Grov smiled. "The Clan does not throw their spears. They are only for thrusting," he explained.

The man's eyes widened. "Wow! That must be very dangerous. I don't think I'd want to get so close to anger animal."

"You should have seen him kill the bison," Janika said, as if she had. "He saved my brother from being trampled." Grov started to object, but someone else started talking first—it was the man of Janika's hearth and he did not look happy to see her with him.

"So I've heard," the man said flatly, looking from Janika to Grov. What is she doing with this flathead? he wondered. I have told her to stay away from him. He eyed the man, then turned back to Janika and said, "Don't you think it's getting late?"

Janika smiled coolly at the man of her hearth, thinking that he was being a pain. She did not want to sleep and had no intention of doing so. After all, she was a grown woman now and didn't have to go to bed early if she did not want to. "We are celebrating," she exclaimed, taking a gulp from her cup. "It's much too early to go to sleep." The older man frowned and turned to eye Grov again.

Grov stared into his cup, then drank so that he did not have to look at the penetrating eyes of the older man. At the moment, he wanted to run. He didn't really want to spend time with Janika anyway, especially now that the man of her hearth was scowling at him. It was obvious that this man did not like him, and that he wasn't happy that Janika was with him. Then someone else walked up, redirecting Grov's thoughts.

"Hey, I was looking for you," said a torch wielding Ivanolia, who had come up out of breath. "I was wondering if you had any Clan knives with you?"

Grov thought for a moment, swaying slightly from the large amount of bouza he had consumed. "I might," he said uncertainly, looking embarrassed. "Ayla was the one that packed my bag, so I'll have to go check." He turned to face the other people. "Excuse me," he said, accepting his spear back from the man that still held it and walking away with Ivanolia. Janika gave the man of her hearth a quick glance, then followed the two men before he could object.

Ivanolia looked back over his shoulder at Janika and watched as she ran to catch up with them, then he glanced at Grov. Grov rolled his eyes as if to say, I'm trying to be nice. Ivanolia hid a smile. "I thought that maybe you'd gone to bed, but Vincenzia told me you had just gone by."

"Janika wanted to see my spear."

Ivanolia nodded, then silently signed so Janika wouldn't understand him. "I'll bet. I just wonder which one."

Grov's face reddened at the other man's reference, but looked surprised to see him signing. He hadn't known Ivanolia had picked it up.

~oxoxo~

Back at Grov's tent the man set his cup down and handed his spear to Janika, then crawled inside again. Hurriedly, he grabbed his pack, went back out, and dumped the pack's contents on the ground. Rummaging through it quickly, the man smiled. "Here's one," he said, picking up the best one there and handing it to Ivanolia.

"Do you mind if I borrow it? I was just telling a few people about Clan tools and they wanted to see one."

Grov didn't think they'd be too impressed with Clan tools when they made such beautiful ones themselves, but shook his head anyway. "No, go ahead. In fact," he said, looking down at the pile. "You can keep it; I have several here." Ivanolia smiled, then turned to leave.

"Hey, Ivan," Janika said sweetly. "Can we have your torch?" The man shrugged and handed it to her, then left.

As the man left, they watched him melt back into the fray of people. When he was out of sight Janika leaned Grov's spear against the tent and squatted down to look at one of the other blades. "This is a knife?" she asked skeptically, eyeing what looked to her to be a sharp piece of flint.

Grov understood her disbelief; there was a huge difference in their people's technology. Slowly, he took it out of her hand and held it the way it was supposed to be held so that she could see it properly. "Yes. It's rather crude compared to your knives, but it works well enough," he said, slipping his belonging back into his pack and standing. "I'll just put these away, then we can go back to the fire."

Janika waited while he was inside, wishing he'd invite her in. Then, when he came out again she started giggling.

He frowned. "What?"

"You have something caught in your hair," she said, reaching up to pull it out. It was a leaf. How'd that get there? he wondered. He hadn't been anywhere near a tree, he thought with a frown. Janika smiled up at him and let the leaf flutter out of her hand, then she moved in closer to caress his cheek.

The man stiffened at her touch, using his hand to pull hers away. "We should get back," he said, taking the torch back from her.

The woman stood there holding tight to the hand that was brushing her off again. What is wrong with him? she kept repeating in her head. Here I am, offering myself to him and he keeps pushing me away. A muscle twitched in her face. She was getting angry again, but was forcing herself to be nice. She stood there for a moment, staring up at him, then let herself sway closer and brushed his lips with hers.

Grov saw it coming, but too late to pull back. He let her kiss him, but when she dropped his spear and tried to wrap her arms around him, he backed off again. "Janika," he said, taking a step away. She opened her eyes and frowned. In the torchlight he thought he saw that angry look flash across her face, then disappear. It had come and gone so quickly, he questioned whether or not he'd really seen it. "We should get back," he repeated, starting to pull her toward the fire again.

"Wait," Janika said, bending over and grabbing his spear. "You still haven't shown me your spear."

Grov frowned at her. He knew she had seen it perfectly well when they were with that group from Hill Camp. Why did she want to see it again? "It's really nothing special," he said, taking it from her and holding it up to the torch she was now carrying. "Just thicker and shorter, but much heavier."

She looked and nodded, not really that interested. "Here, let me put it back for you," she said, grabbing it back and thrusting the torch at him, then entering his tent before he could object. She had hoped he would follow her, if only to ask her to leave his tent, but he didn't; he just stared after her.

Though Janika had done this in part so he would come after her, she also wanted to see inside his tent and took the chance to look around; his torchlight outside was just enough to see her surroundings. Setting his spear down, she noticed that she was kneeling on his bedding. Running her hand along the thick fur, she closed her eyes, trying to imagine herself lying next him. An image of Grov's mate came to her mind causing her to frown. She shook her head to push it away. Then, opening her eyes again, she saw his pack at the far side of the tent, but not much else. He only had what he could reasonably carry. She sighed and left his tent.

Outside, he was just standing there. She picked up their cups. "Let's go back and get some more bouza," she smiled at him again.

"Maybe just one more," he replied. "Then I need to sleep."

AtDC

End of Part SIX!

Post Script

As stated at the top of this page (part six)—and every other part—there are TEN parts to this. However, part ten is unfinished...and I hardly ever update it anymore. Sorry! I repeat...you are reading an "in progress" story...which has very little hope of ever being completed. Continue at your own risk!

Okay. It took me over part of a MLB game and one Law & Order: CI to transfer part six from the site where I originally posted it to this site (which means...copy/paste, copy/paste, copy/paste, copy/paste, copy/paste...and so on), so it might be a while before I transfer parts seven through ten. I promise that I'll eventually get it all moved over—I do NOT, however, promise to finish the story.

Thanks for reading and for your patience!