Author's Note

Reminder – this fic is 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!

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 Seven (of ten)

Ranking of Sungaean Camps

Pine – refer to Panther's listing for list of other names (may post them at a later date if I feel like I need to)

-~- Bandolia (Headman) - stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt, voted against Ayla
-~- Bidena (Headwoman)


-~- Andovia
-~- Headwoman – not named


-~- Headman – not named
-~- Headwoman – not named yet, stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt


-~- Tegassia (Headman) – brother of Tagnolia and Tiflona of Oak Camp, and Tigaria and Temina of Birch Camp
-~- Tarana (Headwoman) – sister of Tagnolia and Tiflona of Oak Camp, and Tigaria and Temina of Birch Camp

Oak – a full list of characters for Oak Tent is forthcoming

-~- Tagnolia (Headman)
-~- Tiflona (Headwoman)


-~- Bolodenkia (Headman) – Head Brother because Maple Camp is hosting the sUmer meeting, stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt, chose not to vote for or against Ayla
-~- Breidara – Head Sister, stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt


-~- Headman – not named
-~- Headwoman – not named, stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt


-~- Vardasia (Headman) – cousin of Vilognia and Vincenzia (mother's were sisters), stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt, supported Ayla
-~- Headwoman – not named


-~- Tigaria (Headman) - brother of Tegassia and Tarana of Beech Camp, and Tagnolia and Tiflona of Oak Camp
-~- Temina (Headwoman) – of Tigassia and Tarana of Beech Camp, and Tagnolia and Tiflona of Oak Camp, Dimia's mother, stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt


-~- Headman – not named
-~- Headwoman – not named


-~- Sardovia – related to Vardasia, but not Vincenzia, stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt, supported Ayla
-~- Headwoman – not named


-~- Headman – not named
-~- Headwoman – not named, stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt


-~- Headman – not named
-~- Headwoman – not named


-~- Headman – not named
-~- Headwoman – not named


-~- Headman – not named
-~- Headwoman – not named


-~- Headman – not named, stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt, voted against Ayla
-~- Headwoman – not named, stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt


-~- Headman – not named, stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt, voted against Ayla
-~- Headwoman – not named, stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt


-~- Ivarsia (Headman) - stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt, voted against Ayla
-~- Iyena – stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt


-~- Kazaskia – stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt, voted against Ayla
-~- Kazara – stayed at sUmer meeting during first sUmer hunt

Camps not attending this sUmer meeting – Acacia, Aspen, Hemlock, Sequoia and Syamore


NEW CHAPTER – "A Night of Dreams"

Grov did just what he said he was going to do; he drank one more cup of bouza with the woman, then left the fire to go to bed. It had been a long, hard day, and though the hunt had been successful, the work wasn't over yet, and wouldn't be until they got the meat back to the meeting.

After saying goodnight to several people, the man crossed the space and entered the shadows that hovered beyond the edge of firelight. His destination was his tent and the furs that would hold him throughout the night. He wished Ayla was there waiting for him, and hoped she was doing all right.

Just before reaching his tent, he turned and slipped between the tents to the open space behind; he needed to pass his water. For a moment, he fumbled with the tie that kept his leggings on, thinking that the clothing of the Others made things like this much more difficult. Had he been wearing a clan wrap, he could have just lifted it to do his business, but instead he struggled with drunken fingers in the darkness.

When finally the knot was loosened, he lowered his leggings, pulled out his member and let his stream flow. It was at that moment that a chill breeze blew from the north, reminding him that the Others did indeed make decent things to wear; his Clan wrap would not have been enough.


Janika had stared after him again, clearly frustrated that he wouldn't accept her advances, but no one noticed. Everyone else had either paired off and gone to bed, or were still enjoying themselves. She watched him, until he went between the tents, then she looked back at the fire. She knew where he was going.

Why won't he take pleasure in me? she asked herself tearfully. I am a perfectly good woman. I'm young and beautiful. I have high status. She sniffled. Her feelings were hurt, but with the hurt, Janika's thoughts were becoming twisted. She pushed angrily at the wetness on her face. And look at him...he is just a mixed up flathead. He is lucky that I'm so interested. She had to fight hard to control the anger that was building up. She took a deep breath and turned to look back in the direction the man had gone. He had just appeared again, and though darkness shrouded the tent area, Janika could see enough to know that the man had pulled off his tunic and entered his tent.


Grov crawled across his furs and lay down. His head was spinning slightly. Nothing too bad, but enough so that he just wanted sleep to take him. He was so tired that he didn't even realized he still clutched his tunic.


Despite all that had happened that day, or as Ayla thought about it, all that had not happened, she had been in a rather good mood that evening. She had eaten with Seriana and Dimia, over at Beech Tent, accompanied by Brulenzia and Laurana, of course, since the man was not allowing her out of his sight again, even for a moment.

Ayla had smiled. "I am sure Zadneetsia wouldn't try it again, Brulenzia."

"Well, we're not taking any chances," he said firmly. "Besides, Dima is my cousin, I'd like to share a meal with them." Ayla had shrugged. She had been glad for the company.

Now, as she looked down at her sleeping children, she sighed and turned toward her own bed. She was very tired. It had been a long, hard day. She quickly slipped off her leggings and climbed into bed. She was asleep almost instantly and dreaming within a very short time.

A woman stood in the center of a long, sheltered valley watching the two horses before her. The dun yellow mare was closer, and the woman was standing completely still, holding out a small apple and making quiet horse sounding nickers, trying to gently coax the large animal to brave the extra few steps to come within her reach. The horse was not fooled, whinnied loudly and pranced away.

As the yellow horse tossed her head and galloped a short distance away, the lighter horse came forward, stomping her hooves on the ground in front of the woman. She could tell that the horses wanted them to release the younger horse, but they would not relinquish the prize they had so recently gained.

The woman stood patiently, continuing to hold out her treat-filled hand. She watched the pale horse paw the ground roughly a short distance from her, causing the yellow horse to whinny loudly and prance around. The yellow horse had retreated halfway across the valley, and wasn't very happy, but the lighter horse was coming closer; she was more interested in the woman and what she held in her hand. After pawing the ground again, a little less harshly this time, the curious mare came up and snatched the apple out of the woman's hand, then trotted away exuberantly to enjoy the treat. The woman touched her palm where the horse's lips had nibbled her and giggled with delight, 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 nickered softly as she cautiously approached the apple-holding woman. The woman held her breath and stood perfectly still. She waited for the yellow mare, but the lighter horse came forward again and quickly snatched a second apple. This time she did not move too far off, deciding instead, that the woman with tasty treats might be safe.

The woman pulled another apple out of her pack, and held it out again. This time, when the lighter horse approached, the yellow horse nipped her, then braved her fear of the human and slowly came forward. The woman relaxed her arm slightly, trying to make the horse come just a little closer, but the mare held up a bit and nickered, then finally took the apple like her sister had done. The woman smiled widely and glanced back at the man, who, with one hand, still held the end of a small rope that restrained the younger horse. He was scratching the horse's neck with the other hand.

"Did you see that?" she signed to him. He nodded and smiled at her. She was about to say something else to him, when she felt a not-so-gentle nudge on her left arm.

Ayla opened her eyes and reached to touch her left arm. The touch almost felt real. She smiled, glad that her sleep was filled with dreams of horses. She had been wondering about her visions.

"Are you okay, Ayla?" a male voice asked.

Ayla was startled for a moment. It was Brulenzia. He was sitting on the edge of his and Laurana's bed platform watching her. "Oh yes, I am fine," she whispered. "I was just dreaming."

He nodded. "I thought you were. You were moving about a bit, but you didn't seem to be upset."

"No, it was not a bad dream," she said with a smile. She wondered how long he had been watching her.

"Do you need anything?" he asked. He and Tinozia were taking turns watching her sleep, but there was only one more night until the other man's Shomata. It would be up to Brulenzia after that.

Ayla thought for a moment, then shook her head. "I do not think so." She smiled at him. "You do not have to watch me, Brulenzia. I am fine now."

She saw him blush in the low lamp light, but he smiled. "I am glad you are fine, Ayla, but it makes better to know you are...okay. I still cannot believe what happened, or that they didn't do anything about it."

Ayla frowned; she could not believe it either, but for her, she knew it could have been a lot worse; she had lived through a lot worse. She shuddered at the thought of Broud's forceful penetration, then blinked her eyes to bring her back to the present, and sat up.

"Brulenzia, what happened was bad, but I really am fine." She had taken his hands and was smiling at him. "Please don't worry. I have been through much worse."

He blushed again. Yes, this woman knew what it was like to be forced, but that only made him worry more. He shook his head. "You have lived through so much, Ayla, and you are very strong, but please don't ask us not to worry."

She smiled again. "Fair enough."

"I am also worried about what will happen when the hunting party returns." His brow was knotted in a tight frown. "What is Grov going to think?" Ayla shrugged. "We have let him down," Brulenzia finished.

"No you haven't. He did not expect you follow me around constantly. If anything, he will be proud of Oak Camp for taking such good care of me. This is not Oak Camp's fault. There is only one person at fault and that is Zadneetsia." She patted the man's hand and stood up. "I am going to go check on my children."

Brulenzia watched her go, then got back into his bed. Unconsciously, Laurana snuggled up to him.


Grov had stared up at the tent top for a short time, thinking about Ayla, but had fallen fast. His sleep was filled with dreams as well, dreams of Ayla.

Ayla smiled and looked at him teasingly, then ran down the dimly lit cave passageway. He ran after her, catching her around the waist and pulling her in close for a kiss. She allowed it for a moment, then pushed him back and ran for their hearth. He smiled and followed.

At the hearth, the woman was suddenly naked, waiting for him to take her. He could not resist pulling her into his arms, and kissing her hard. When he opened his eyes, it was dark; the fire must have gone out, he thought.

Somehow they ended up in their furs, both groping in the darkness. She was kissing his neck; he felt his body shiver. She moved to his chest, then sat up to untie the knotted string around the waist of his leggings. He gasped and nearly sat up. "Let me do this," she whispered, pushing him back down and grasping his hard member. He groaned and opened his eyes to see her. He could see again, but not very well. Maybe the hearth fire hadn't gone out completely. He groaned again and closed his eyes. She leaned down and kissed him, but something wasn't right. He opened his eyes again; it was so bright Grov thought he was outside in the sun. Ayla was gone.

The man sat bolt upright in his tent. It was still night. He was confused. It took a moment to remember where he was, and then he realized he wasn't alone in his tent. He couldn't see well and he was still dizzy from the bouza, but he knew who was there; he could smell her.

"Janika!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing in here?" She didn't answer at first. Suddenly his dream came back to him. Ayla! He had been dreaming of Ayla, but Janika had been there touching him. "I said, what are you doing in here?"

"I...I wanted to..." she stammered.

"It's quite obvious what you wanted to do," he hissed angrily, yanking at his leggings and snapping the tie shut. "You need to leave; I did not invite you here. Please go." He pointed at the tent flap.

Janika was shocked by his vehemence, and her feelings were more than hurt. She knew she had done wrong, but she just could not understand a man telling her no and meaning it. There had been many men in the past that said no, but they always gave in. What made this man so different?

Slowly, she started to move back. She had pulled off her own tunic and had to put it back on before leaving. She had tears in her eyes, but he couldn't see them; the light was too low. Not that it mattered, he was so angry. She was too. It hurt that he kept telling her no, but she was furious that he had made her cry. She didn't like to cry. Quickly, she exited, and ran to her own tent.

Grov held his breath as she left, then let himself fall back into his furs, sighing loudly. How did he let this happen? he angrily asked himself. He thought about the hunt and how nice she had been afterwards. Extremely helpful with the butchering of the cow, and friendly during the evening; overly friendly, he now realized. Now he understood that she had been planning this?

The man lay there for quite some time, but slowly, sleep finally overcame him.


Ayla slept deeply the rest of the night, and awoke very early the next morning thinking of her dream. She desperately wished it was time to go find her horses, but the sign to leave had not come yet. She glanced over at Brulenzia; the man finally slept, but she could hear others stirring. No doubt Travie was up making tea. Ayla decided to rise.

Slipping on her leggings and camp shoes, she made her way toward the small cooking area. Passing her daughters, she noticed that Ora still slept, but Annaliza was awake. She was just lying there.

"Do you want to get up?" Ayla gestured. The girl nodded and extended her arms. Together, they went to see who else was up.


Ayla was indeed correct, Travie was there making tea. She could not sleep.

"Good morning, Ayla," the older woman said when Ayla appeared. "Can't sleep?"

Ayla shook her head. "I am usually up early."

"Hmm, me too." Travie handed Ayla a cup of tea and grunted, her mind straying to what had happened to the young woman. "No nightmares?"

"No...I did dream quite a bit, but no, no nightmares." Ayla sat down and smiled, and sipped her tea. Travie looked skeptical; she did not know that Ayla could not lie. "Really, no nightmares," Ayla promised, making Travie smile.

"Good, good," she said. "So, what will you do today?"

"You mean, if they let me out of their sight?" Ayla asked, grinning.

"Do you really expect them to?"

Ayla thought for a moment, then shook her head. "But I will be fine. And they can't just follow me around, can they?"

Travie smiled at the young woman. "I suppose not. So, what will you do?"

"Actually, I want to make the girls a new outfit," she answered the woman. "I have a few nice skins, but I would like to see how others make clothing for their children. Is there a place where that is done?"

"Yes, the leather worker's tent is on the west side of camp, just south of the healer's tent," Travie informed her, then she frowned. "But it is close to Sumac Camp...maybe you should work here, Ayla."

Ayla had no desire to run into Zadneetsia, but she also had no intention of staying at Oak Tent for the remainder of the sUmer meeting. "No, I will work there with everyone else."

The older woman continued to frown. "But, Ayla . . ."

"Travie, if I hide from him, then he wins," Ayla explained. "Besides, I'm sure I'm perfectly safe; there will be so many people there."

"You are right, of course, but...but I still don't like it." Travie was giving up her protest. It was obvious Ayla had made up her mind. Travie smiled at the young woman's stubbornness.


Grov woke up the next morning in quite a foul mood. He knew they would be leaving, so immediately upon rising, he threw his belongings into his pack, then stepped out and dismantled his tent, causing his spears, which had been so neatly leaning against the outside of his tent, to fall to the ground with a clatter. He left them sitting in a heap with the rest of his things, and stomped off to pass water.


Jondaria, who was over at the morning fire, turned at the noise. He saw his new friend's frustration and glanced over at his sister. Janika was sitting with her two friends, and she was not even looking in the direction of the man. Jondaria shook his head.


"You better go talk to him," insisted Darvie, leaning in to kiss her mate good morning. They had heard what transpired in Grov's tent the night before. There was no question in their minds that he had done nothing wrong, but if he carried on the way he was, others might be inclined to believe otherwise.

Vincenzia kissed the woman back. "Yes, I know," he said with a sigh. "I'll go now." He left their tent to go find the young Clan man.


When Vincenzia did find him, it appeared that the man was just standing at the place where the men relieved themselves. The older man did not want to interrupt, but it soon became apparent that Grov wasn't planning on coming back any time soon. Finally, he walked forward, and clapped Grov on the back.

"Quite an evening, huh?" Vincenzia said.

Grov was startled for a moment, and worried about what this man might think of him. "Uh-ha."

"You know, I just wanted you to know that I...well, Darvie and I, actually...heard what Janika did."

Grov stared at him. Then, realizing they had probably been in bed, in the tent right next to his, when the young woman had entered his tent to molest him. They had heard the whole conversation, he thought. He blushed and looked away.

"She should not have done that Grov, and you did nothing wrong. A man does not have to honor the Mother with a woman just because she is the chosen of Sumata." Vincenzia waited for the man to take control of his emotions, then he continued. "Come, let's go back. Darvie will have tea ready for us."

Grov nodded. He did not want to go back, but he knew he had to sooner or later, and tea did sound good.


As the hunters began their trek back to the sUmer meeting, Grov mostly kept to himself. He carried all of his own belongings, his share of his shared kill, plus Darvie's large pack. Most people did not know why he was so upset, but they kept their distance.

Janika watched him from a fair distance away as well. When she went to bed the night before, she was sobbing. She knew she had been sneaky and that she should not have gone into his tent, but she could not help herself. She was deeply hurt that he still did not want her, and she had cried herself to sleep.

By morning, she was embarrassed that she had gotten so upset, and then angry that he had embarrassed her. She did not understand that she had embarrassed herself, or that it didn't even matter because only a very few even had a clue as to what had happened the night before, and they only had knowledge of it due to the proximity of their tent.

As she watched him walk, she was seething with anger, and wishing she could get back at him for making her look bad.


Another person, or rather, people, that had heard the exchange were Jondaria and the woman that he took to his bed. Jondaria chose not to walk with either his sister or Grov that day. Grov was in no mood to converse; not even Ivanolia and Donzolnia were with him, and Jondaria was feeling some sort of pull, because Janika was his sister.

However, the man also didn't want to go anywhere near his sister. He felt that she was wrong, and he was disgusted with her behavior. He wanted to talk to his mother's mate, but wondered if it would do any good; the man of his hearth was clearly opposed to Grov even being at the sUmer meeting. Jondaria didn't know what to do. He believed his sister needed to be reprimanded before her behavior got any worse, but if not by the man their hearth, then who?


Ayla spent the day in the leather-working tent, and managed to make a sUmer outfit for each of her daughters. When she returned to Oak Tent in late afternoon, and dressed them, several people smiled as they showed off their new clothing. Ora twirled around, in what was to most there, a very short skirt and very short sleeve tunic. In actuality, Ayla had just fashioned for the child what would be a male breechclout in the Clan, then she had wrapped more leather around it, using a cut that a Sungaean girl might like, so that the child would not object to wearing a boy's wrap. Annaliza's was not much different, except that it needed room for the absorbent padding that she still wore most of the time, and easy access for changing her.

Many commented on the outfits and wondered why no one had thought of such simple attire. True, most young ones didn't wear too much anyway, but everyone noticed that Ayla's two girls liked having something cute to wear, and perhaps liked even more that people were watching them.

The day ended with several planning variations for older members of the meeting, and Ayla and a few others talked about something similar for boys. She had promised Durc that she'd use his rabbit skins to make something for Grev, and now she had a vision of what she wanted to make.


The hunting party stopped at dusk. It had been another long, hard day, and they had not gotten very far. The hike back was going to take much longer than the hike out, but that was to be expected with heavily loaded people.

The hunt leader ordered fires to be set, for a bit of warmth, but mostly to keep predators away. After the fires were going, tents were put up, most ate a quick meal, and everyone went to bed. Though it had been fun to celebrate their success the night before, everyone knew that they still had a great distance to go, and wanted to be rested. Another day was finally over.


NEW CHAPTER – "A Dinner Guest"

The next day passed quickly for everyone. Ayla spent much of the day sewing again, and made a similar sUmer outfit for Durc and Grev, using, of course, a less feminine style, so that the boys would not object to them. Several other women in the leather working tent were curious about the woman's activities and made no qualms about sitting close enough to see, though most didn't comment much.

Ayla did have a nice conversation with a shy, woman that sat off to the side working alone. Ayla felt there was something familiar about her, but couldn't place her finger on it. She observed her unobtrusively for quite some time, noticing first that the woman had shoulder-length, light brown hair and that she was, perhaps, a little older than herself. Ayla's trained eyes saw a sadness about her that made her heart go out to the woman even without knowing who she was or where she came from.

Ayla's eyes turned next to the woman's dress, which was an indistinct brown color, and totally void of decoration. Much like her own clothing, Ayla thought, as she looked down at the plain, slightly yellowish tunic and leggings she had chosen that morning. Ayla's mind went to the rest of her wardrobe. She did not have much. Then she looked over at the woman again.

From her place across the tent, Ayla continued her surreptitious observation. It was hard to tell with the woman sitting down working, but the dress she was wearing appeared to come down to her knees and was cut straight across at the bottom. Ayla could see that it had short sleeves and a square neckline, both of which, she thought to be very flattering on the woman.

The woman wore no jewelry, other than two plain bands around her right arm. Ayla tried to see them better, but the distance was too far and the light too low. They seemed out of place against the woman's drab attire.

Ayla then looked at what the woman was working on and noticed that she was also making an outfit for a child, or rather, that she was trying to reuse an old outfit to make a new one. From where Ayla was, she could see that the piece of leather had some fine beadwork on it, but that the beading was falling off, and the woman was carefully placing the beads in a pile, most probably to replace them later. Ayla also saw that she was using some rather old tools, hardly serviceable, as far as Ayla was concerned. Finally, she decided to go talk to her. She approached slowly.

"Hallo," Ayla said, coming up to her and smiling. The woman looked up at her. "May I sit down with you?"

The woman just stared up at her for a moment. Most people did not make offers to sit down with her. "Ah...of...of course," she stammered. The woman watched Ayla kneel down gracefully, wondering what the woman could possibly want.

"I am called Ayla." Ayla waited, expecting the woman to introduce herself, but she didn't, so Ayla continued. "I am first daughter of Vincenzia's hearth, born to Annalisa of the Snow Leopard Hearth of Oak Camp, 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."

The woman just stared again. She already knew who this woman was, everyone did, but she hadn't heard her ties before. Some of them sounded strange. Finally, she found her tongue. "What is a Shriek?"

Ayla smiled and picked up her leatherwork. "Shriek is my hawk." She stopped and frowned. "But he has been gone for several days." She shook her head. "But, he does that...take off, I mean. Sometimes I worry." The woman nodded. Ayla looked down at her work, then made the final stitch. "So, what do you think?" she asked, holding up her finished product.

"It is nice," the woman replied. She glanced at her own work, then back at Ayla. "Who is that for?"

"This one is for my son, Durc," she said, then picked up a nearly identical outfit. "But this one, is for my son's friend. We promised to bring something back for him when we go home to our cave, after the sUmer meeting." Ayla looked at the woman's work. "That is very nice beadwork. I do not know how to do that."

The woman frowned. "You don't?" Who didn't know how to bead a tunic? she wondered, suddenly aware that Ayla's clothing bore no decoration as well.

Ayla shook her head. "No, the people I am from do not decorate their clothing, so I never learned." Ayla was still looking at the other woman's work, and now that she was closer, she could see that though the woman's work was decent, the outfit she was reworking was so old that it was in tatters.

"You know," Ayla started in slowly, not wanting to offend, "I am finished with my work, and I have extra leather. Would you like to have it?"

The woman frowned. Why was this woman being so nice to her? She looked around to see a few people watching them. "I don't know..."

Ayla thought she knew the problem and tried again. "I would be happy to trade it to you, if you would show me how to bead a tunic."

The young woman just stared at her again, contemplating the offer and wondering why she didn't just get someone from her own camp to show her how to do beadwork. After all, despite being raised by flatheads, the woman came from a very highly ranked camp; there had to be a dozen women that could show her how to work with beading.

She again looked at the pieces of leather that Ayla was holding up, and wondered if they were as soft as they appeared. Then she looked down at the outfit she was repairing. She would definitely like to have the woman's leather. It was far nicer than the scraps she had been working with, but what would people think. She looked up at a woman that was rudely staring at them, then back at Ayla.

"Okay," she said with a smile, then she frowned again. She had not thought it through. "But I do not have many beads to trade for your leather, only these that have fallen off."

"That is okay. I can get more beads; I just want your skill." Ayla was excited. "You will show me?"

The woman smiled and nodded, then gingerly accepted the pieces of leather that Ayla held out to her. They were softer than she had anticipated, and such a nice color.

Ayla smiled, happy that she had convinced her. "So, who are you making this outfit for?"

"It is for my daughter. She is wearing something that has been too small for too long. This outfit," she said indicating what she held, "belonged to my sister's daughter...but she died last year."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Ayla said sadly. "It must be hard to lose a child." The young woman nodded, not adding that she had lost her sister too. Ayla looked at the size of the outfit, and considered what needed to be done. Though she hadn't seen the child yet, the work the woman had already done made it appear that the outfit would probably still be too small for the child.

"How old is your daughter?" Ayla asked. She wanted to help her, but she was curious about the shy stranger as well.

The woman appraised her for a moment. "She is four," she finally said.

Ayla thought about Ora and frowned; the outfit looked too small for her three-year-old. "Well then that's probably too small for her. Maybe we could start over."

Now the woman frowned. She did not have any extra leather, only the old outfit and the extra pieces from Ayla. "She is very small."

"Maybe we could make her a sUmer outfit, like the ones I made for my daughters yesterday. They look similar to these," she said, indicating Durc and Grev's new clothing. "And I hardly used any leather to make them. What do you think?"

The woman looked at the boy's outfits and smiled. "Do you think we could?" she asked hopefully.

"Sure," Ayla said, then suddenly remembered where she'd seen this woman before, but she could not remember her name. This was the woman that had come out to pick up the hurt child at Sumac Tent that first day. She looked different, cleaner, but Ayla was sure of it. Was that child she had picked up her daughter? Ayla wondered, trying to recall the child's size.


Ayla and the woman worked together for a while, talking mostly about their children, and only touching a few superficial topics. The woman still had not given Ayla her name, and Ayla was reluctant to ask; the woman obviously didn't want to give it. When they were finally done, the woman held up the outfit and smiled. Her daughter would be proud to wear this, she thought.

"Thank you, Ayla" she said. Ayla smiled at her, but didn't say anything. She didn't know what to say, and the woman seemed to be struggling as well. She too didn't know what to say. "When can I show you how to do beadwork?" she asked, wanting to hold up her end of the trade.

Ayla thought for a moment. "What are you doing this evening?" she asked.

The woman's forehead knotted. "I am not sure, why?"

"Why don't you join me at Oak Tent for an evening meal. We can discuss it then."

The woman frowned. "Why are you being so nice to me?" she asked.

Ayla was surprised. "Why wouldn't I be nice to you?

"Well...because...I am from Sumac Tent," she replied, and glanced around at the women that thought it okay to stare at them. "I know what Zadneetsia did to you. I am sorry." She looked down at her hands.

Ayla looked at some of the staring people and then back at the woman. "Yes, I know what camp you are from. I remember seeing you there." She paused. "But what he did is not your fault."

"I know, but you don't even know me. I don't know why you have helped me."

Ayla smiled. "I haven't," she said. "We helping each other. I gave you leather and you're going to give me your skill, remember?"

The woman looked down at the outfit again and nodded. "My name is Danta," she finally said, extending her hands in greeting. "In the name of the Mother, I greet you. And I would be honored to share a meal with you at Oak Tent. May I bring my daughter?"

"Of course, Danta," Ayla said, letting out her breath.


After leaving the leather-working tent, Ayla went straight back to Oak Tent. The sun had passed beyond its highest place in the sky, but it was not dropping fast yet. Tinozia and Brulenzia had agreed to let her go alone, with the condition that she'd return early and make no side trips. As it was the two men worried about her.

When she arrived at Oak Tent they sighed with relief, and tried to act as if they had not been counting the moments until she returned. She smiled at them as they left to do whatever it was they were going to do, then she sat down with the women. Jendoza and Laurana were sitting there nursing their babies and Danie was sitting there with them.

"So, how'd it go? Did you make what you wanted to make?" Jendoza asked.

Ayla grinned and held up her work. "Yes. I think they turned out nicely. What do you think?"

Danie took one from her. "I think you will have all the children dressed in these soon."

"Speaking of children," Ayla said. "Where are mine?"

"They are inside with Travie and Fraylora," answered Laurana. "It think they were going to feed them."

"Oh, maybe I should go help." Ayla stood up. "I need to talk to them anyway." She paused. "I have invited someone to our evening meal."

"You did? Who?" Jendoza asked curiously.

Ayla's brow wrinkled. She hoped they wouldn't object. "Danta."

Jendoza's eyes opened wide. "Danta?"

"Why did you invite her?" Laurana asked. There was a bit of repugnance in the young mother's voice. Danie was frowning too. She had been with Jendoza and Ayla when they'd come across Danta, and she wasn't impressed. The Mamutoi had similar camps among them, most of which, people tried to avoid if at all possible.

"Well, she was at the leather-working tent and I started talking to her. She was making an outfit for her daughter, but she was using such terrible old leather that I decided to make a trade with her."

"A trade? For what?" Jendoza asked. "She can't possibly have anything that you'd want."

"I traded my extra leather for her skill. Is that not okay?" Ayla asked, wondering if she'd done wrong.

Laurana was frowning. "Her skill? What skill does Danta have?

"She has agreed to show me how to bead a tunic. By the way, are there any beads I can trade someone something for? I told her I could get some."

Jendoza smiled. "Of course, Ayla, but you do not have to trade for them. I have plenty. I like making them during the winter; it passes the time." Jendoza eyed the woman. "But why did you trade for Danta's beading skill? I could have shown you how to do it again."

"Well, when I saw her there, working so hard with such awful leather, I felt bad for her." Ayla looked sad. "I started thinking that just because she's from Sumac Camp doesn't mean that she's happy there." Jendoza was nodding, that was true. "And her bead work was nice," Ayla finished.

"Well then, you should go tell Travie and Fraylora. They haven't started the meal yet, but they are likely too very soon."

"And here I thought the only skill Sumac Camp had was drinking bouza," Danie replied, as Ayla walked away.


Danta had gone back to Sumac Tent by means of the outer path. She didn't relish a chance meeting with someone from another camp; people could be so cruel. It was just as Ayla had told the young women of Oak Tent; she did not enjoy being part of Sumac Camp. She had always wished she could find some other camp to take her in, and had been close, once. For a moment, she thought about the young man that had wished to join with her five sUmers before, then frowned. His mother had not been happy about her son's choice and had done everything to stop it. Then, when she found out she was blessed, the man finally stood up to his mother and declared for her. That was just before the sUmer hunt that had taken his life. Since then, she had turned inward, trying to shut out everything and everyone. Most at Sumac Camp just ignored her. They didn't seem to care about anything except making and drinking bouza. She could see why people didn't want her around. She didn't want to be around herself. Her only joy was her daughter.

When she neared Sumac Tent, she used the back entrance to slip inside without being noticed. She looked around for her daughter. She had left her napping with the other small children. Kneeling down, she touched the child's head and smiled. Danara had always been tiny. She had been born early; Danta always thought it was a miracle she'd even survived.

"Sleep, little girl," she whispered, kissing her daughter's light brown hair. "We are going to have some fun tonight." Danta looked at the other sleeping children, then tucked the new outfit into her pack and shoved it under her daughter's sagging bed. She needed to clean herself up, so that she didn't look so bad. Grabbing the cleanest leather towel she could find she started for the tent entrance.


"You should have seen her face," a man said. Danta stopped and listened. It was Kurvlodia. "She was shocked that I backed you up," he went on.

"I did see her face. It was hysterical. And thanks for that, by the way," she heard Zadneetsia say. "There is no way the Sisters will come up with a different decision, as long as I have your word." The men laughed.

"Too bad you couldn't get her though," Kurvlodia said. "I would have liked to watch that struggle.

"Humph, she didn't even struggle," said Zadneetsia. "She just lay there like those nasty little flatheads...until I mentioned the dirty animals, then she kneed me." Danta could almost hear the pain in the man's voice. "I was so close," he said to the other man.

Danta frowned and backed away. She had been wondering if what she'd heard about Ayla was true. Apparently not, she thought. Quickly, she turned around to go use the other exit. She didn't want to run into Zadneetsia and have to explain where she was going, not that he'd even ask.


Danta hurried to the river to wash. Once there, she decided to wash her dress as well. This was the best one she had, but it looked dirty and she wanted to at least look presentable. She washed it first, then wrung it out and put it in the sun to dry. Finally, she waded into the water herself. The water was cold, but refreshing; she felt much better when she was finished.

When she got out of the river, she dried herself off and shook out her hair, then spread her towel out to sit in the sun. She spent some time reworking the leather of her dress, so that it did not dry too stiff. It dried quickly in the sUmer heat, but her working hands helped it along. By the time it was dry, so was her hair, and her skin had turned slightly pink from the sun. Danta held up her dress, wishing again that she had something else, then dressed hurriedly. It was the best she could do.


Back at Sumac Tent Danara had woken up, but she didn't get up. Though this camp was all that the four-year-old had ever known, she didn't like living there either. Most of the people scared her, even her grandmother, who came and went without saying much to the child.

After looking around to see that her mother wasn't there, she just closed her eyes again and tried to go back to sleep. She did that a lot.


Danta was able to slip back in without being seen again. That wasn't really a hard thing to do at Sumac Tent; everyone was always busy drinking, but she worried anyway.

Inside, she went to Danara's bed and frowned. She's still sleeping? she thought worriedly, then bent over to touch the child's forehead. Danara instantly opened her eyes.

"Hallo, Mama," she said, sitting up.

Danta smiled. "Were you faking it again?" she asked. Danara nodded and slipped her thin arms around her mother's neck. Danta hugged her tiny daughter tight. There wasn't a day that went by that she did not worry about her. Finally, she pulled back. "I have a surprise for you," she said. Danara's eyes got wide, but she did not say anything.

Danta reached for her pack. "I made you a new outfit," the woman said, pulling it out.

Danara smiled as she looked at what her mother made for her. "It's pretty."

Danta grinned again. "And I have another surprise for you. We have been invited to eat with someone."

Danara frowned, remembering the last time they'd been invited to eat with someone. It had been a man from Ash Camp that had turned out to be not very nice. "Who?" she asked guardedly.

Danta recalled their last invitation and shuddered. What had she been thinking when she brought her daughter with her that night? That man had clearly only been interested in one thing, and it wasn't her. She could still see her daughter's frightened eyes.

"Well, you don't know her, but her name is Ayla, and she is from Oak Camp. Do you want to go?"

Danara frowned. "Ayla is a woman?" The child wanted verification.

Danta smiled and nodded. "Yes, Ayla is a woman. Actually, she helped me make this outfit for you. Would you like to go there and meet her?" she asked the child again. Danara smiled and got up to get dressed.


Ayla had gone inside to see her children and talk to the women that would be cooking the evening meal. She found the children playing in the small central space where the children's sleeping places were, and sat down to see what they were doing. Some of the boys were wrestling, and the girls were watching. Annaliza was on Crisana's lap, but got down and came over when Ayla appeared.

"Hallo Mamma," she signed, and reached up. She was holding her doll, but dropped it quickly to nurse. Ayla held her nursing one-year-old and watched the others play for a while, then went to see the older women.


"You invited who?" Travie questioned. She did not know who Danta was.

Fraylora frowned and quickly explained who Danta was, then turned back to Ayla. "But why?" Fraylora asked.

Ayla gave them the same explanation she'd given the younger women, and wondered why no one wanted to help. It seemed to her that assisting the people that wanted out of that destructive lifestyle could only benefit the Sungaea as a whole. They seemed to agree, but admitted that they would not have invited her, or anyone else from Sumac Tent for that matter.


As it became late afternoon, Danta and her daughter left Sumac Tent. Again, no one questioned them about where they were going, though several noticed their departure, and the way they were dressed. Danta would have liked to bring something to Oak Tent, but that would have required requesting more than her share of meat from someone that would then question why she wanted it, and she did not want to bring attention to them and their activities. She considered bringing a skin of bouza; that would have been easy to acquire since it was quite plentiful around Sumac Tent, but she did not want to come bearing that, so she went with nothing, and hoped they wouldn't think too badly of her.

Mother and daughter slowly strolled through the sUmer meeting, feeling shy and awkward. They had not spent much time out with others and were nervous to be out in the open. They walked east, passing the tent of the Council of Sisters, then turned south to get to Oak Tent.

Then, a short distance from their destination, Danta stopped and knelt down in front of her daughter. She pulled on the child's tunic and smiled. "If you want to leave, just let me know, okay?" Danara nodded. Danta smiled and picked her up, then started walking again.

Danta held her daughter tight; both of their hearts were pounding. They were almost there. They stopped just short when they saw the crowd of Oak Camp people around their tentfire. There were many adults sitting there talking and laughing, and even more children running around playing.

"Danta!" a woman called. It was Zarina who had spotted her first. "Come on over," she said, getting up to bring the young woman over. She had been worried about having the woman over, but Ayla's so obvious conclusions about people wanting to improve themselves had won her over.

Danta took a few steps forward, and tried to smile, but she was very nervous. This was Oak Camp's headman's mate. Zarina stopped in front of her. "And who is this?" she asked sweetly, holding her arms out to take Danara from her mothers. Danara only hesitated for a moment, then surprised Danta by allowing herself to be taken.

"This is my daughter, Danara," replied Danta, with a smile like none that had ever graced her face.

Zarina smiled back. "Welcome to Oak Tent," she said. "Let's introduce you to everyone."

Danta followed the woman back to the fire and nervously took each person's hands as they were offered to her in greeting, then she smiled at Ayla, who had made it possible for her to be there. She was glad she had taken the time to wash her dress and bathe.


"I still have not shown you how to bead a tunic," Danta said with a frown, as she stood up to leave. It had been a good evening, but she worried about not making good on the trade. She already felt like she had gotten the better part of the deal and she didn't want Ayla to think badly of her.

Ayla shrugged. "Then we will have to do this again. Maybe you could come back tomorrow. What do you think?"

Danta looked over at Danara, who was sitting with Ayla's daughters and playing with some of the older girls. She saw her little girl giggle with pleasure. "I think we would like that, Ayla. Thank you for having us."

Ayla beamed at her. "You are most welcome."


Grov's day had been difficult. He was still brooding over what had happened the night before, but at least, he thought, Janika had not come within his sight. He was glad for that, because he did not know what he'd say to her.

He walked with Ivanolia and Donzolnia, but mostly in silence. The other two men talked a little about the hunt, but their conversation quickly turned to their mates, both were longing to get back quickly to see them. Grov listened to them, also wishing to be back with his mate. He had decided that he would not go on another Others hunt, unless she went with them. He might even make it a requirement when they went back to the Clan, he thought. He wondered what Brun would say if he insisted on bringing Ayla to every hunt. That thought actually made him smile. It was his first smile all day.

"What are you smiling about, Grov?" Ivanolia asked the man.

Grov turned to look at him and blushed. "I was just thinking about Ayla," he said, answering the man's direct question. "I miss her."

Both men nodded. They missed their mates too.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (Okay, the tangent chapter title, sorry!) ?

Ayla awoke the next morning thinking about Danta and her daughter, and wishing there was more she could do to help the woman out. She couldn't understand how the people of Sumac Camp, or the other lower ranked camps, could allow themselves to fall so low, or why the higher ranked camps did not help them. In the Clan, no one would have had to suffer if hunting was good and natural growth was plentiful, which it was at the moment. Ayla just couldn't see that camps like Sumac had other priorities, and the other camps did not see it as their business to intervene.

Ayla lay there thinking about her new friends. They seemed to enjoy themselves. Danara had joined the children's games, laughing and playing like all the rest, and Danta, though a little shy at first, had fit in just fine. Ayla thought about the reactions she had gotten from the people of Oak Camp. No one seemed to understand her desire to have the woman over, at first. But later, everyone had agreed that Ayla had been right; Danta was a good person. It was obvious the woman didn't like where she was and wanted to do better. Ayla smiled, glad that she had invited them over. She was happy to have made a new friend.

"Good morning, Ayla," Danie said. She was still lying in bed as well, but had noticed that the younger woman was awake. Ayla turned her head.

"Good morning yourself," she said with a smile, then looked around. Most were up already. "I guess it's time to get up. I don't know why I've been sleeping so late. I'm usually up early."

Danie smiled. "Well, with Ivanolia gone, I'm sure sleeping more than usual. Maybe that's it; with Grov gone, you don't have to get up to take care of him."

"Maybe," Ayla responded. "But I better get up to take care of the children." Danie absently stroked her belly and smiled. "You seemed to be feeling better, Danie. No more morning sickness?"

Danie shook her head. "Not for a few days now. I am so glad."

"It can be awful, but each one is different," Ayla said, thinking back. "Annaliza was much easier than Durc. "I hardly ever got sick with her." Ayla paused and looked at Danie. "Are you and Ivanolia...doing okay?"

The dark-haired woman sat up and shrugged. "I guess so. I have decided to give it some time. I am still angry, but I do not want to leave him."

"He does know that what he did was wrong," Ayla said. She was still trying to convince Danie that she'd made the right choice.

Danie smiled. "I know...I think we will be just fine." Ayla smiled.

"Oh look, they're up," Brulenzia said, coming into the tent with several others. The man sat down on a circular shaped bench in the middle of the sleeping area. "Tinozia has to leave us today, to start his Shomata. I was going to go over there with him. Gredenzia's going too, and we'll probably be there for a while...but I wanted to check on you first."

Ayla smiled at the man. "I am fine, Brulenzia. Go!"

He narrowed his eyes at her. "No hunting today, right?"

Ayla rolled her eyes at him. "If I go hunting, I'll take someone with me...I promise." He smiled at her, then turned to kiss Laurana and left the tent. The women watched him go, then turned back to Ayla.

"So, are you going to invite any more guests over, Ayla?" Jendoza asked.

"I might," Ayla replied. "I am going to see Danta again today. She still needs to show me how to bead a tunic."

Jendoza smiled. "You know, I wasn't sure at first, but Danta turned out to be pretty nice." The other women were nodding.

Laurana was nodding too, but frowning. "But I feel sorry for her. She's too nice to be living with Sumac Camp." Everybody's thoughts turned to Zadneetsia.

"You're not going over to Sumac Tent, are you, Ayla?" Danie asked with a concerned tone. "I'm sure Brulenzia wouldn't want you over there."

"Well, no. Danta and I agreed that she'd come back here today. If that's okay with everyone?" The women nodded.

"Yes, that is fine," said Jendoza. "You can invite anyone you like. Is she bringing Danara with her?"

Ayla frowned. "I did not ask her, but I would assume so. I wouldn't want her to leave her there."


Danta woke up later than she had planned, and looked over at her daughter. She expected to find the child with her eyes closed, either sleeping or feigning sleep, but she didn't. Danara was staring up at the tent ceiling and clutching something in her hands. Danta couldn't tell what it was. The woman quickly looked around the tent; nearly everyone was still sound asleep, sleeping off the night before. It was pretty typical of Sumac Camp to sleep well into the day.

Slowly, the woman got up and went to her daughter's bed. Danara smiled and moved over, so that her mother could climb in with her. "Hallo Mamma," she whispered. She had picked up the extra sound that Ayla's daughters used when they spoke to their mother. It made Danta smile.

"Hallo back," she whispered. "What do you have there." She had slipped her arm behind her daughter, and was looking at what the child was holding.

Danara pulled it out and offered it to the woman. "It's a doll. Crisana gave it to me."

"That was nice of her."

The child nodded. "I liked them Mamma. Can we go back there?"

"Well actually, we are going back there today," Danta informed the child. "I have promised to show Ayla how to bead a tunic."

Danara grinned, and sat up. "When?" she said excitedly. "Can we go now?"

The woman looked around that the sleeping people and frowned. A couple had stirred at the sound of her daughter's excited voice. They were likely to get quite upset with her if they found out where they were going. She put her finger to her lips and said, "Shhhh," then sat up to whisper in her daughter's ear. "Let's not tell anyone where we're going." Darana nodded her understanding. Then, getting up quickly, Danta dressed her daughter, and then herself, both in the same outfits as the night before, and left their tent.

Once outside, Danta realized that the sun was higher than she thought it would be, and she got worried when she saw several people milling about their area. Someone was making some tea at Dogwood Tent's fire, and there were a few women from Ash Tent by their tentfire, but none of them even looked over at her. She glanced back at Sumac fire; no one was there either. "Good," she whispered to herself. She was just about to head out of camp when she noticed Igorvia coming from beyond the outer path. He was still tying his waist thong. He must have gone to pass his water, she thought with a shudder and wishing she had hurried away before she saw him. She did not like Igorvia at all, though he seemed to try hard to get her attention. He noticed her immediately.

"Danta!" he called from a short distance away. She stopped to wait for him; she couldn't just pretend she didn't hear him and walk away, he would only follow her. She knelt down and faced Danara.

"Danara," she said quickly. "Whatever I say, please don't say anything, okay?" The child nodded. The woman stood up and watched the man approach. He didn't seem any more sober now than he was the night before when she had gotten back from Oak Tent. At least he had left camp to pass his water, she thought. He was one of the few that had the courtesy to do that, though that's where his courtesy ended. As he staggered up to her, she shuddered, knowing he was going to put an arm around her.

Ignoring the child, Igorvia slipped one of his large arms around the woman and pulled her close. "Hey, why didn't you come to my bed last night, Danta?" he asked, bending down to kiss her roughly. "Didn't I tell you I want'd you?"

Danta tasted bouza on his lips and grimaced. I wonder if he sleeps with a skin of it in his bed, she thought, as she squirmed out of his arms and took a step backward. "Actually Igorvia, you didn't," she answered him honestly. She hadn't been there for him to ask her, thank the Mother, she thought.

He seemed stumped for a moment. Why hadn't he asked her to his bed? he wondered. Then he remembered, he hadn't been able to find her the night before. "You weren't here last night, were you?" Danta shook her head. "Well then, come to my bed tonight!" It almost seemed like a command. Danta shuddered again.

"Igorvia, I've already told you that I'm not interested."

He narrowed his eyes at her. She always said that, but he'd convinced her to come to his bed several times in the past, so he figured if he kept asking, she come again. "But you've come to my bed before. Why not now."

Because I'm sober! she wanted to scream at him, but she didn't say that; he would only get angry. "I'm just not interested anymore."

He frowned. "Why not?"

She shrugged. She wouldn't tell him that she couldn't stand to see her daughter's sad face the morning after sharing the man's bed, even one more time. She didn't want to tell him that he was dirty and he smelled, or that he scared her, or that she hated Sumac Camp and all the men around it, or that she wished they'd all just disappear, or that sometimes, she even wished she'd never been born. She couldn't tell him that, though it was the truth.

"I'm just not," she said, wishing he'd just leave them alone.

The man was watching her closely and moved in on her again. "Is there someone else?" he asked, leaning down to nibble on her ear.

Danta put her hands on his chest and pushed him away with a little force. "Igor! Stop!" she demanded.

He stopped immediately at her tone and looked down at her. He was a big man and he scared her. "Well, is there?"

Danta had stepped back when he let go and was now holding Danara's hand. "Is there, what?" she asked. Her mind was a little jumbled.

Igorvia looked angry. "Someone else...I asked if there was someone else." She didn't respond immediately. "Well, is there?"

Danta frowned and shook her head. "No. There is no one," she answered the man. "I am interested in no one." She hoped that she was being clear; no one meant him too. "Now, if you will excuse us, we're going for a walk."

Igorvia watched the woman and child walk away. They headed south around Cedar Tent, then northeast toward the arena. He wondered where they were going so early in the morning, but shrugged and went back into Sumac Tent. He had a headache and wanted to go back to sleep.


Danta and Danara went northeast in the direction of the arena and turned to go around it, and the musician's tent. She glanced back over her shoulder twice, but didn't see the man following her. She didn't want Igorvia to know where they were really going.

As they came to the flint worker's area, she worried that they'd run into someone else from their camp, or that someone from Sumac Tent would see them across the distance. She kept a watchful eye on the working flint knappers, but didn't see anyone she knew. It was really much too early for anyone from her camp to be out yet, but she worried all the same. Then, as she was walking, someone called her name.

"Danta!" a male voice called out. She froze, then knelt down in front of Danara again.

"Do you remember what I told you before?" The girl nodded. "Good. Same thing now, okay?" The girl nodded again. Danta turned to face whoever it was, then smiled. It was Brulenzia.

The man came up to her and hugged her, then ruffed the hair of the child. "How are you two this morning?" he asked her, smiling down with his beautiful sky blue eyes.

"We are good," she said, blushing slightly. It was not often that someone she thought was decent gave her a hug. "We were j-just on our way to see Ayla, if th-that's okay," she stammered.

He continued to smile at her. He was quite aware of the effect he had on women, though he'd given up those things for the woman he loved. "Of course it is. She's waiting for you, I'm sure. I'd walk you there myself, but I told Tinozia that I'd be right back. Sorry."

Danta smiled. "That's okay. We're almost there." The man hugged her again, then walked off. She watched him go, then continued on her way.


Ayla was sitting by Oakfire, feeding her two younger children and worrying about Danta and Danara when they finally arrived. Durc and Brenevia were playing off to the side and saw them first.

"Mama," Durc said, causing his mother to look up and see them too. Ayla smiled and stood to welcome them.

"I'm sorry it's so late," Danta said. "I did not mean to sleep so long."

"That is okay. And it is not really late," Ayla said, squinting up at the sun. It was nearly overhead. Ayla looked back at the woman; she looked a little on edge. "Is everything all right? I was starting to worry." Danta frowned and looked down at her daughter. Ayla understood right away.

"Danara, why don't you and Ora go inside to play," Ayla said, thinking the girls would have more fun in there anyway. Danara looked up at her mother, who nodded, then the two girls ran off to play.

Annaliza pouted. "Me too, Mamma," she gestured.

"Of course you too, Anna. Go ahead." Ayla and Danta watched the one-year-old toddle off after the older girls, then Ayla looked back at her guest.

"I'm sorry I worried you."

Ayla shook her head and waved her hand. "Is everything okay?" she repeated.

Danta looked behind her and scanned the area. "I think so...I guess I'm just worried about being here. I'm sure some people wouldn't be too happy about it."

Ayla nodded. "Probably not...but we're just trading, right?" she said with a smile.

Danta frowned. "I guess so." Ayla could tell that she was still worried when she looked behind her again. Then, when she looked back, she pulled out a small piece of beaded leather. "I brought this. It's just a piece of beadwork that I cut off an old tunic. My sister did this a couple of years ago."

Ayla reached out and took the small square and examined it carefully, then pulled out a pouch that Jendoza had given her earlier. "These are some shells that Jendoza shaped into beads two winters ago. She said we could have them."

Danta took the pouch and waited while Ayla spread out a blanket for them to work on, then both women sat down. Ayla continued to inspect the beading, trying to figure it out on her own, and Danta opened the pouch and poured the shell beads into her hand. "These are very pretty," she exclaimed. "Jendoza should trade her beads. She could get a lot for them."

Ayla smiled. "That's what I said, but she likes to keep them for the people of Oak Camp, so that they have something different than everyone else. If you look at the Oak Camp people, you will see that nearly everyone has these shell beads on their clothing."

The woman was disappointed, but she nodded understanding. Most camps had at least one thing that was unique to their camp. She would have liked to trade for some, so that she would appear to have more wealth, not that she had anything decent to trade, but she did understand.

"This is very nice work," Ayla said, holding up the square again. "You said your sister did this?"

Danta nodded. "Yes, that is a piece of her matrimonial tunic," the woman said, then suddenly looked very sad. Ayla wondered why the tunic had been cut up; women generally saved their matrimonial tunics, or so she had heard, but one look at Danta's face stopped her from asking.

Danta was fighting hard to control her emotions and was blinking to stop tears that seemed about to fall. Ayla averted her eyes to give the woman time.

"I am sorry, Ayla," the woman finally apologized. "My sister is dead. She and her daughter died last year of spring sickness. She and I were very close." Her voice cracked and her tears began to fall. "Danara and Dätara were too."

Ayla reached out to hold the woman while she cried, wishing she could have been there to help. "I'm sorry, Danta."

Danta pulled back a little and wiped her face. She hadn't meant to start crying and was embarrassed. She hadn't cried for her sister in front of people since the day of her death.

"Do you want to tell me about it?" Ayla asked.

Danta shrugged. "There's not much to tell; they had spring sickness. Many people got it, but they were the only ones that died."

Ayla looked sad and wondered what had made their sickness so bad. Usually only the very young and the very old succumbed so easily. "How old were they?"

"My sister was eighteen, but her daughter was only two." Ayla nodded, thinking that that explained the child's death, but wondered why Danta's sister had not lived.

"It is most sad when the young die," Ayla finally said. She did not know what else to say.

Danta nodded, then held up the beads she had chosen. "Let's use these to practice," she said, changing the subject. Ayla agreed.


The two women worked for a long period of time without being disturbed. A few people returned to Oak Tent and some left, and all the while the women worked. After spending time practicing, Ayla began to get frustrated.

"This is impossible," she exclaimed, tossing the leather down and frowning. "The holes are just too small. I was hoping to be able to bead a tunic today, but I just can't do this."

Danta smiled. "Yes you can," the woman said. "Go get your tunic. I will help you."

Ayla hesitated, then smiled and turned to go inside to get a tunic. She really wanted to do it herself, but she'd just have to practice more before she could. She was happy Danta was so willing to help her.

"Will you come with me?" Ayla turned around and asked. Danta nodded, happy that she'd get to see inside Oak Tent.

Inside, Danta looked around. She was awed at how well organized their tent was and how clean they kept it. She thought about Sumac Tent and all their dilapidated belongings. It was awful. She followed Ayla to the third bed on the right and waited while the woman pulled a tunic out of a pack that was sitting on the bed platform.

"I want to bead this one," Ayla said, shaking it a little and holding it up. "This is the first tunic I ever made."

Danta looked at it and smiled. It was brown in color, but not very dark, and it was completely undecorated. "That is nice."

"Thank you," Ayla said, quickly putting her other things back in her pack before heading for the tent entrance.


"I saw her, Igorvia!" the woman sneered. She didn't like that the man had woken her up and sent her on his errand. And she was furious that he was so interested in the other woman. Hadn't she been enough comfort for him? she wondered.

Igorvia's forehead knotted in a frown. "Oak Tent?" he said questioningly. "She went to Oak Tent?" The woman nodded angrily. "Are you sure, Laska?"

"Of course I'm sure! I know which tent is which!" she snapped at him. "Do you think I'm stupid?"

He didn't answer her, but continued on instead. "Who was she with?" he asked her. The woman looked uncomfortable and glanced away, causing the man to grab her arm roughly to turn her around. "Who is she with, Laska?" he said angrily through clenched teeth.

"Ow," she said, yanking herself out of his grasp and glaring at him. "Ayla. She was with Ayla."

Igorvia's face turned red. "Where's Zadneetsia?"

While rubbing her sore arm and continuing to glare at him, Laska spat, "How should I know? I followed her like you asked me to, but you can go find Zadneetsia yourself!" she yelled, throwing her cup onto the ground and stomping away. He smiled at her retreating back. He knew she wouldn't go far, or stay angry long. She'd be back in his bed that night, he was sure of it. But right now, he needed to find Zadneetsia.

~oxoxo~'s another translation for you...

Laska - means weasel (in Russian)...spelled ласка in the Cryllic Alphabet.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (another unnamed chapter) ?

Igorvia hadn't been able to find Zadneetsia right away, so he stormed out on his own. When he was a short distance from Oak Tent, he stopped. He didn't see Danta at their tentfire and wondered if Laska had lied to him. That would be just like her, he thought, the little weasel. He was just about to turn away to leave when he saw Ayla and Danta come out of the tent laughing. He froze and watched them.

The two women walked over to a blanket and sat down. Igorvia could see that they exchanged a few words, but he was too far away to hear them. Then Ayla handed Danta a piece of leather and leaned in close to watch. They were attaching beads to a tunic, he realized.


"See Ayla, it's not so hard," Danta said, showing the woman the line she had created around the neck of the tunic.

"For you maybe," Ayla said. "But I just can't do this."

Danta stopped. "Didn't you tell me that your people don't decorate their clothing?"

Ayla shook her head and laughed. "We hardly even wear clothing. I did not learn how to make that tunic," she said, pointing at what Danta was holding, "until last year when I met Jendoza."

"It's so strange how you found Oak Camp again," Danta said. She had only heard rumors about it until the night before when Ayla told her the whole story herself. "Amazing really."

Ayla smiled. "Yes, I am happy to have met my mother's mate's people, but I love my Clan family too. I can hardly wait to see them again after this sUmer is over."

Danta smiled. "What are they like?"

"Different, I guess, but still good people."


Igorvia frowned as he watched them working and talking. What in the Mother's name was Danta thinking? he thought. This woman was going to taint her, and possibly draw mixed spirits into her. He couldn't hold back any longer.


Danta had sewed on another line of beads when a shadow fell across the blanket. Both women looked up and blanched at the sight of Igorvia, standing with his arms folded across his chest and his face red with anger.

"Just going for a walk, huh?" he said, reaching out and pulling the woman to her feet. Ayla was up immediately, hand on her sling. She didn't know what the consequences were for using a weapon against someone, but she didn't think he was allowed to treat this woman the way he was either. She held still, waiting to see what would happen next.

"Igorvia," Danta whined. "You're hurting me."

A few people turned to look at them, causing the man let go and step back, as if suddenly aware that he'd done something wrong in public. "What are you doing here?"

Danta looked frightened. "I made a trade with Ayla."

The man looked down at what they were doing and scowled. "You told me you were going for a walk."

Danta frowned. "I did, and we ended up here." She was clutching her arm where he had grabbed her. Ayla could see a bruise already starting to show.

"And last night, you were here, weren't you?" he demanded. She nodded meekly and looked down. "You do not belong here. Come back to Sumac Camp!" he said harshly.

Danta looked at Ayla. It looked to Ayla as if she was going to leave with him. "But we are not finished with our trade," Ayla blurted.

The man gave her a dirty look. "So, she doesn't need to trade with you." He turned back to Danta. "Get your things!" he commanded.

The woman looked apologetically at Ayla, then back at the man. "I do not have anything here. I will go get Danara; she is inside."

Ayla watched the woman walking toward Oak Tent and was frantic. "NO wait," she called, then turned back to Igorvia. "Danta doesn't want to go back to Sumac Tent," she finished lamely.

Igorvia stared at her. "Oh really. So now you're speaking for Danta."

Ayla blushed. She didn't want to be speaking for the woman, but Danta wasn't speaking up for herself. She didn't want to go, did she? Ayla wondered. "Ah, well..." Ayla stammered. "Maybe you should ask her if she wants to go back there."

"Ask her?" he scoffed. "Why would she want to stay here when she has a home with Sumac Camp?" Ayla didn't say anything.

Danta frowned. She didn't want to go back, but the man was right about one thing; Sumac Camp was her home, and though she didn't want to be there, that was all she had. "It is okay, Ayla," she said, then went to get her daughter.

Ayla's eyes followed Danta as she stepped through the opening into Oak Tent, and then she looked back at the man. He was gloating and it made her furious, but there was nothing she could do if Danta wouldn't say she wanted to stay.

Igorvia waited, as patiently as was possibly, and continued to sneer at Ayla. When Danta returned, he put his hand on her shoulder, as if to lead her away, but Danta immediately pulled away from him. "Don't touch me," she snapped. "I told you I'm not interested." Then she looked at Ayla and said goodbye before taking Danara's hand and walking off.

Danara had stared at the man with a terrified expression, then looked back over her shoulder at Ayla; her were eyes begging for help. Ayla had tears in her eyes, but she was at a loss. What could she do if Danta wouldn't speak up?


Danta was walking quickly, much too quickly for Danara to keep up, so the woman stopped to pick her up. Neither had wanted to leave Oak Tent and both had tears in their eyes, but Danta didn't feel she had a choice; Sumac Camp was where they belonged. That was a cold hard fact, even if they hated it.

Igorvia walked just behind the woman and child, to make sure they made no further detours. Zadneetsia was going to be very angry that she'd gone over to Oak Camp, especially since the man still had to face the Council of Sisters. And Igorvia was still fuming that she'd lied to him. Walk, he scoffed in his head. What did she take him for?


"He just came here and dragged her away?" Laurana asked.

Ayla frowned. "Well, not really, she did go on her own. He told her to come and she went. It reminded me of the men of the Clan."

"Did she want to go?" Danie asked with a note of concern in her voice.

"I don't think so, but I think she just didn't want trouble." Ayla was looking around at everyone. "And I feel terrible. Maybe we should have met at the leather-working tent. He wouldn't even have followed her if she'd gone in there."

Jendoza was frowning. "Maybe, but you don't know that for sure, Ayla. This isn't your fault. And besides, that wouldn't really solve anything. You two would have probably finished your tunic today, but Danta would still have had to go back to Sumac Camp tonight." The young woman paused. "That's the problem, I think. She has nowhere else to go, so why fight it? It would only cause more trouble and unhappiness for her."


That evening they continued to discuss Danta's situation over their evening meal, bringing it up with the elder members of Oak Tent. They didn't seem to have a solution either.

"Well, maybe she'll meet a young man from another camp, then she can move away from them," Travie said.

Ayla frowned. "She tried that, but he was killed before they could mate, and she hasn't had any other offers since then."

"That's because no one looks at the women from those camps," Brulenzia said. "They are, well...undesirable." He grimaced.

"It's not just the women," Zarina said with a disgusted look on her face. "The men there are even less desirable, and they're always drinking bouza. I wouldn't want my daughters to consider a mating to one of them." Zarina thought about Danta and looked sad. "It's really a shame though, Danta cleaned up nicely and she seems to be a decent person. There are probably others like her; we just can't see it through the filth and drink."

"Maybe we haven't been looking," Wäglodia put in. "Maybe we just ignore what's bad so we don't have to do something about it." Everyone considered the man's words, thinking that he was probably right, but no one could come up with any solutions to the problem.


Danta had gone back to Sumac Tent just ahead of Igorvia and went directly inside the tent. She knew Danara was going to want to go to sleep, so that's where she took the child. At least she ate at Oak Tent today, the woman thought, wondering when she'd be able to get the child to eat again. Most days she only ate once or twice, and even then, she only nibbled.

Danta frowned down at her daughter, then glanced back at the tent entrance; Igorvia was standing there, arms folded across his chest again, watching her. Is he going to watch me constantly? she wondered. She had wanted to go get a drink of water before lying down, but didn't want to deal with him, or any of the other staring people. It would be easier to ignore her thirst. She lay down instead.


The woman lay there for a while, watching Igorvia watching her, then finally rolled over. She couldn't stand to look at him any longer. Finally, she fell asleep.

Moments later, or so it seemed, she awoke to a hand on her arm and the smell of bouza at the back of her neck. More time must have passed than she thought; the light of the sun shining through the tent was rather dim, and the dampness of evening was setting in.

"Go away, Igor!" she said through clenched teeth. The hand was not removed. Instead, she felt what she thought was the man's head, pressing against the back of her arm. She tried to shake him off. "How many times do I have to tell you no?" she said, rolling over. It was not Igorvia. It was her brother.

"Davaria," she said, wrinkling her nose at the smell of him. "What do you want?"

"Why did you have to go over to Oak Tent, Danta?" he asked, taking another sip from his cup. "Mother is very upset with you."

"When isn't she upset with me? She doesn't even like me," she said angrily. Trata had never put any effort into raising her last born child. "No one does."

Davaria frowned. He knew Danta was just feeling sorry for herself again, not that he blamed her. It was true that their mother had never liked Danta. She practically despised her.

"That's not true, Danta. I love you. And I even like you sometimes," he said with a smile, then pushed her over to get into the bed next to her.

Danta smiled too and leaned her head on his shoulder. No, he was right; he did love her. At least someone did, she thought.

They lay there for a while, staring at the tent ceiling, then he finally spoke again. "And Igorvia likes you too, Danta. Why won't you just accept him? I'm sure he'd give up Laska if you'd go to his bed again."

Danta grimaced and turned her head to look at her brother. "Are you joking?" she asked incredulously. "I don't care if he takes Laska to his bed. I don't want to have anything to do with him. I wouldn't accept that man if he were the last man left. I would rather be alone."

"But why, what's so bad about him?"

Danta stared at her brother. Of course he didn't understand, he wasn't much different than Igorvia himself. How could she tell her brother that she thought Igorvia was a loser without telling him that he was one too? "He's mean and I don't like him. Isn't that enough?"

Davaria shrugged. He knew what she was saying, but there weren't a hell of a lot of choices around here. He certainly didn't have any prospects either. "Well, you can't just go off and meet up with some people, Danta! You can't do things that are against the people of Sumac Camp!" he said, feeling a little defensive. He hadn't missed her cut, though she'd tried to veil it.

"Why in the Mother's name not?" she asked angrily. "If I ever want to get out of here, I have to do something." She sounded desperate.

Davaria sat up and looked down at her. It was getting pretty dark in the tent and he'd forgotten to bring a lamp. "So, you're just going to leave me? First Dreena and Dätara, and now you too," he said with hurt in his voice.

"Dreena and Dätara did not leave you, Davaria. They are dead!" she said coldly. Danta was suddenly angry, and wished her brother would just go away. She did not need him to remind her that Dreena was gone.

Davaria got up, but continued to look down at her. He obviously wasn't too happy with her reminder of where Dreena was. "I know that," he said angrily. "You are not the only one hurting over them. A third of me died with Dreena too, Danta. I am no different than you are." The man finished off his drink.

Danta got to her feet to face the man. They were nearly the same height and looked very much alike. "No, you just fill yourself with bouza to forget what we lost, don't you?" Danta said, poking him in the chest. "I did too, at first, but I don't want to live like that anymore, Davaria. It doesn't help me...or Danara," she finished, then glanced at her daughter. "I have to think of Danara. I don't want her to grow up here, or worse, die here," she whispered, her voice choking. She had tears in her eyes. Davaria knew she was right, but he couldn't stand the thought of losing another sister. He looked over at Danara, then walked away.


Trata - means waste...трата
Davaria - sort of means wreck...авария - really it should be Avareea


NEW CHAPTER – ? (sorry for the lack of chapter names) ?

Danta awoke in the middle of the night to the sounds of someone sharing pleasures. She could tell immediately that was Igorvia and Laska, and not just because the man's sleeping place was so near to hers or that they had not constructed privacy screens; Igorvia was doing his best to make himself heard and Laska didn't bother to keep her cries within a polite range.

The woman opened her eyes and glanced over at them, expecting to only see darkness or perhaps vague shapes moving rhythmically in the darkness, but the man had lit a small lamp, which illuminated the area. Danta rolled her eyes, knowing he had done that on purpose. It had been his intention for her to hear and see them. He didn't seem to understand that she really did not care. She rolled over and went back to sleep.


The next morning, Grov woke up and struck his tent. He was pleased that he hadn't had to deal with Janika for two days, but as he packed his bag, he caught sight of her approaching him again. He sighed heavily and tried to slip through the tents to go pass his water before she reached him.

Janika saw him go and hesitated a moment, then decided to follow him. Coming around the tents to the open area, she stopped and waited. He had his back to her.

"What do you want, Janika?" he asked, without turning around to face her; he was still making his stream, but was completely aware that she was watching him.

"I . . ." she began, then stopped, deciding to let him finish. When he was finally done and he still did not turn around, so she crossed the short distance to stand there with him. "I...I wanted to say...that I'm sorry."

Grov hadn't looked at her, but she was standing right beside him. He looked at her then, and only saw dishonesty; she was not sorry. "Janika, I come from a people that cannot tell untruths, because they can be seen. I can read you very easily and what you have just said has no truth to it. You are not sorry, and I want you to stay away from me." Grov finished by walking away, leaving her standing there alone.

Janika stared after him for only a moment, then she ran after him. When she caught up he was packing his rucksack. She grabbed his arm, and was about to spew something mean, but changed her mind. Instead, she grabbed him and kissed him hard.

Grov was shocked for a moment, then reacted by grabbing her arms and pushing her back roughly. "What is wrong with..." he began, but suddenly her hand reached up and slapped him hard across the face.

"Keep your hands OFF of me!" she screamed at the top of her voice and struggling to pull back from the man who still had one hand on her in shock. Several people turned around to stare at them and to them, it appeared as if he was forcing himself on her. Suddenly he was surrounded by several angry looking men, one of which was the man of Janika's hearth.

"What is going on here?" the man demanded furiously, standing in front of the young woman.

Grov was in shock and said nothing, but Janika was ready with her accusation. "He kissed me!" she said, pointing at Grov. "He grabbed me and forced himself on me."

Grov's jaw dropped open. "What?" he said. He was astonished. "That is not what happened." He was shaking his head vigorously. "I have not touched her," he said, finally removing his hand from her arm. "She is the one that has been trying to force herself on me."

The man of Janika's hearth scowled at him. He looked ready to tear Grov's head off. So did several of the other men standing there. "Yes, that is what you'd like us to believe, isn't it flathead?" A few men nodded.

"Hey, watch what you're calling people of Oak Camp, Jeeteria," Ivanolia snapped, stepping up to the older man.

"He is not a member of Oak Camp," Jeeteria said angrily. "He is not even Sungaea. He is just some mixed up flathead that the daughter of Vincenzia's hearth had no sense to mate."

Vincenzia was now frowning. "The daughter of my hearth has much sense," he insisted, calmly looking at Jeeteria. "And Grov is a good mate to her."

Jeeteria looked at the tall, blond man. "Yes, so good to her that he has to force himself on a woman that does not welcome his advances? That is not a good mate."

"Now wait just a moment," Vincenzia said with more than a hint of annoyance in his voice. He was a calm man by nature, but Jeeteria was going too far. "Have you not been watching and listening, Jeeteria?"

"What are you talking about?" the man snapped.

"It is the daughter of your hearth that has been pursuing this man; it is not the other way around. Open your eyes."

Jeeteria narrowed his eyes at Vincenzia. "Are you calling Janika a liar?" he asked.

Vincenzia didn't say anything at first; he didn't want to call the woman a liar, though she obviously was. Janika had the decency to blush; she hadn't wanted this to be blown out of proportion. She was just hurt and wanted to hurt back.

Darvie leaned over and said something in Vincenzia's ear, which caused the man to nod. "I do not want to call Janika a liar, but we overheard a conversation between her and Grov the other night." Many had turned to listen to the man. "She was in his tent, without being invited, and he asked her to leave. No, demanded is more like it."

"Sounds to me like she is the one making the advances," Darvie added, standing tall with her mate and glaring over at the now hiding young woman.

Jeeteria chose to ignore the daughter of his hearth, but did frown. "Well, seeing as you are the man of Ayla's hearth, I can understand why you would defend this man, but I think you might be a little biased.

Vincenzia laughed. "And you are not? Tell me you are not biased and I will back down."

Jeeteria didn't deny it; there was no way to deny that fact, so instead, he decided to switch to insulting Darive. "Well...Darvie is not even Sungaea. Are we supposed to believe someone that was not even born to us?"

Darvie folded her arms across her chest. "Being born Mamutoi does not make me a liar, Jeeteria," Darvie stated coldly. "I am from a brutally honest people, more honest than most would like sometimes."

"And that should not matter anyway," Vincenzia put in. "Darvie has been adopted by the Sungaea. She is just as much a part of us as anyone. And you should know that I would not mate a woman that isn't completely forthright."

"Strange how you always choose foreign women, though, isn't it?" Jeeteria said. "First Annalisa. What was she? Rosantio? And now Darvie, a Mamutoi. Are the Sungaea lacking?" he finally asked.

Vincenzia was starting to look angry. "And what in the Mother's name does that have to do with this. My choice in mates has nothing to do with the daughter of your hearth being a over indulged and overgrown child," he finished hotly, throwing in his own insult.

Jeeteria knew the man spoke the truth; he had known this about Janika for some time, but he continued to support the young woman by going back to putting down the mixed man. "Well, I do not believe the story you tell, Vincenzia. We have all heard about these flatheads; they are animals. It is not right that he is even here. I plan on taking this to the councils when we matter what you say Vincenzia."

Jondaria was watching the man of his hearth and his sister. Jeeteria was making a fool of himself and Janika was letting him. Was she really going to stand there and allow Jeeteria to make things worse? He knew she was selfish and spoiled, but she was messing with a man's life. He shook his head. The man looked around, nearly everyone was there watching now. He couldn't stand it; he had to say something.

"Wait!" he called, giving his sister a regretful look. She was going to be angry, but he had to do the right thing. Grov was a good man and he wouldn't let Janika ruin him. "I heard this conversation too. I was in the tent on the other side of Grov's and I heard him tell Janika to leave. He has never given her even the slightest bit of attention, Jeeteria."

Jeeteria stared at the son of his hearth. It looked as if he was going to reject Jondaria's word as well, but then a young woman stepped forward. It was one of Janika's friends.

"I am sorry, Janika," she said, looking directly at her friend, "but I was with Jondaria. I heard it too. I cannot let you do this." Janika glared at them, but seeing that everyone was now looking at her and shaking their heads, she hung her head in shame. She had been exposed and she knew it.

Jeeteria turned to stare at her, hoping she'd step up and deny what they said, but she didn't. The man turned red with embarrassment. He did not enjoy being made a fool of. He would definitely have some words for her later, but right now he only gave her a dirty look and breathed in deeply. Slowly, he looked Grov up and down. He still did not like that the man was there, but it appeared that he had not done anything wrong, that he had just been part of one of Janika's games.

"It seems I have jumped to conclusions," Jeeteria stated coldly. "I apologize."

Grov nodded. There was no more sincerity in this man's voice than Janika had had in hers when she had apologized for sneaking into his tent, but he nodded anyway. Finally, the crowd of people dispersed.

For a while, Grov just stood there, angry that he'd been accused of something he did not do, something he would never do, even in the Clan where it would not have been considered forcing himself on a woman. And, he was angry that no matter how decent he was, people kept referring to him as a flathead. Would he always be an animal in their eyes? he wondered.

He did thank Jondaria for supporting Vincenzia's claim and for backing him up against his sister. He knew that must have been a difficult choice, but he was glad the man had been raised better than his sister.

Grov glanced over at Janika once or twice, and finally saw a look of contrition on her face. Jeeteria had pulled her aside and scolded her like a small child, and she was now crying while she finished packing her belongings. That dissolved his anger somewhat. That, and the hike home, that began shortly after the scene.


Ayla woke early and got up quickly. She went first to check on her children, all of which still slept soundly, then she pulled out her medicine bag, selected her favorite herbs, and went outside to make her morning tea.

Oak Camp's tentfire, though not flaming, was still smoldering from the night before, so she tossed on a log and built it up. It did not take long to have roaring fire going again, or water boiling for her tea. When the tea was finished, she sat back with a cup, and watched the people beginning to stir around her. Her mind quickly turned inward.

She thought about her dreams. She had had them all night long. Dreams of poor Danta and Danara, stuck at Sumac Camp, unhappy forever, and dreams of horses, carrying her across the hilly plains. Dreams of Uba and her twin sons, and dreams of Oga, Grev and Agra.

Ayla hadn't known she would miss the Clan so much, but she truly did. They were her family, just as much as the Sungaea now were. Even more so, really, she thought, since they had raised her. She wondered how big Uba's boys were getting and smiled at the thought of them. How long has it had been since I've seen them? she thought with a frown, then shook her head, unable to figure it out.

Her mind went to Broud and Oga, and she wondered if the man was still being decent to her and if Oga was still happy. And she wished more than anything that she could see Agra. Ayla smiled at the thought of the child that was of Grov's spirit and how easily Broud had accepted her. For a brief moment, a painful memory of the man crossed her mind, but then it was gone. That time was gone. She smiled again.

Then, as her thoughts turned to Danta and Danara, she stared into the fire. She wished she could do something, anything, but she could not, not unless Danta asked for help. She knew that Danta was suffering from more than just lack of food, but what else, she was not sure. The loss of a sister was painful, Ayla was sure, but this seemed to be more. It made her sad to think of people suffering, especially when they did not have to. Ayla shook her head, then sipped her tea. Her mind moved on.

The young horse was a short distance away from the two people and was breathing hard from the run. The people were too, but they were determined. The man stood still, holding the long length of rope they had made, and the woman approached slowly, holding out a small apple, hoping to entice the animal.

The horse, which they could now tell was male, was a shade darker than the dun yellow mare in the distance and

nearly his full grown height, though he had not filled out yet. He was still quite young, they realized.

The young horse pranced away from the woman, then turned around again; there was nowhere for him to go except back toward the people. The woman nickered softly, which caused him to perk up his ears and nicker back. The woman nickered again, this time holding up the apple again and inching toward him. He was too young and curious not to be tempted.

As the young animal took the treat, the woman chanced touching his shaggy fur. And when that was accepted, she scratched his neck and gave him another apple. She smiled as she watched him chew, and when he finished the second apple, he nosed her for another.

"Are you daydreaming again, Ayla?" a voice came. Ayla had to shake her head to focus. It was Brulenzia smiling down at her. Ayla grinned back.

"I guess I am," she answered. She watched the man pour himself some tea and sit down, then she spoke again. "I think I will be leaving soon."

Brulenzia stared at her. "What? Why?"

"Oh, not permanently." She shook her head and waved her hand, realizing that she'd worried him again. "Let me explain." She took another sip of her tea, then continued. "When we were staying with Lion Camp, Mamut had a vision." She frowned, then shook her head again. "Well, actually, that's not right. We both had a vision. We shared one. Or part of one, I think." She frowned again, then looked into the man's eyes. "Anyway, there is somewhere I have to go this sUmer, but I will be back."

Brulenzia frowned. "Where are you going?"

"Mamut said it was a small valley west and slightly south of here. He did not think he had been there, or maybe he had, but not for sometime. I am not sure which. I am not sure he knew which." She grinned.

Brulenzia smiled too. "That is often the way with those that serve," he said. "But Ayla," he went on, obviously still worried. "I do not think you should go off alone. It can be dangerous out there."

Ayla was still smiling. "I will not be alone. Grov will go with me; I have discussed it with him. I have talked to Gredenzia and Travie about it too. And Tinozia knows as well."

The man nodded. "I guess those are the right people to know of such a vision. When will you go?"

"I don't know that part yet. I have had a vision of what seems to be a darkness in the middle of day." She frowned. "I have not figured that part out yet, but I think I will know when the time comes."

He nodded again. "The ways of the Mother are always strange to those that do not study them. Do you know how long you will be gone?"

"I do not know, but there is something special waiting for us in this valley. I am very excited, but we will hurry back. As soon as we can, we will return."

Brulenzia eyed her, wondering what could be so special for them to travel away from the sUmer meeting just to see it. He wanted to know more and knew she would tell him if he asked, but her tone made it sound as if she wanted to keep this to herself. He decided to let her.


Danta opened her eyes the next morning to Danara staring down at her. She wondered how long the child had been there and then sat up worriedly; Danara did not get up, ever, unless something was wrong.

"Are you all right?" the woman asked quietly.

Danara nodded. "Can we go see Ora today, Mamma?" she asked.

Danta sighed in relief, but frowned, then lifted her fur, indicating that the child should climb in. "I do not think so," she said, holding the child tight in her arms. "Do you remember that I wanted you not to talk about where we were going, because some would not like us to go there?" The child nodded. "Well, they do not want us to go there anymore."

Danara's eyes filled with tears. "But why, Mamma? I like them."

Danta held her daughter close. "I don't know why, but this is where we live, so we have to do what makes people here happy." Danara did not understand. She only knew that she hated where they lived and the people there, and that she liked being with the other people. Slowly, the child drifted back to sleep.

Danta lay there for a while, until she realized that Danara slept again, then she carefully got up. She needed to relieve herself, so went to do that.

The woman had gone to the night basket, but could immediately tell from the buzzing of insects that it had been overused again and that no one had bothered to empty it. The woman shook her head in disgust, then hefted it to take out.

Carrying the basket of waste, Danta left the tent and headed away from camp toward the place that she'd dumped the basket on several occasions. It was not a difficult job, but most left it for someone else to do. Many times it fell to Danta, who didn't want the stench sitting in their tent.

After dumping the contents of the basket, the woman dunked it in the small body of water that was nearly dried up and set it aside. Finally, she took care of herself and started back to camp.

Upon returning, she found Igorvia, along with a couple of other people, at the fire. One of the men was Zadneetsia. She tried her best to ignore them.

"Hey! Danta!" Zadneetsia called, as she started to walk by without even looking at them. "Do you mind telling us why you were over at Oak Tent with that abomination of a woman?"

Danta stopped and stared at the man. "Where I go and who I see is none of your concern," she snapped.

"Oh really," the man went on. "I thought I was just showing concern for someone from Sumac Camp. My mistake." The group laughed at the man's comment.

Danta frowned at him, at all of them. Kurvlodia was lounging about, along with a few other Ash Camp people that she didn't know very well, and Igorvia had his arm draped over a leering Laska. And Davaria, well, her brother was sitting there, laughing with the rest of them and drinking something. They are at it again, she thought. The sun was hardly even up and they are already at the bouza. She shook her head

"What are you doing up so early?" she asked sarcastically. "Didn't you drink enough last night to keep you miserable hyenas in bed for half the day?"

That got their attention. Everyone stopped laughing and looked at Zadneetsia. The man got up slowly and came to stand in front of her. Then, using his body, he backed her away from the group and up against their tent.

"Look Danta," he snarled. He was breathing down into her face and speaking so quietly that none of the others could hear him. "No one outside of Sumac Camp is ever going to want you, so you better get used to us." He held her and pressed himself up against her, then he grabbed her by the chin and tilted her face up to his. She shuddered and tried to look away, but he held fast, forcing her to look into his eyes.

"I kn-know what you did to Ayla," she whispered back defiantly. "You cannot fool me with your lies."

The man stared at her for a moment, then countered with an evil smile. "Then you know what I am capable of, don't you?" he asked. She did not respond. His face was so close to hers that she felt his stubble scratch her chin. "I would be careful if I were you, Danta, because you have no one here that would stop me." Danta glanced over at her brother who just sat there with his friends, watching them and doing nothing. Zadneetsia followed her gaze and smiled. "Not even Davaria," he said, shaking his head. "You are utterly alone. But it doesn't have to be that way. I'm sure Igorvia would take you...I might even take you, if you promise to behave yourself."

Danta's eyes filled with tears. She knew her brother could not hear them, but it made her furious that he would sit there and watch Zadneetsia do this to her. This is not how people are supposed to be, she thought angrily. This is not how the people of Oak Camp treat each other. She looked back at the man that held her, and suddenly the woman snapped. She angrily pulled herself out of his grasp, and slapped him hard across the face.

"Do NOT threaten me, Zadneetsia, or you will be sorry," she spat with such venom that the man took a few steps back and stared at her, before turning back to his friends to laugh it off.

Danta stormed away. She headed west and away from the sUmer meeting, back toward the small pool. She just wanted to be alone for a while. She wished she could just run away somewhere and never come back, die even, but she couldn't; she had Danara to think about. She couldn't bear the thought of raising her child among such rotten people, but what choice did she have?

The woman ran for a short distance, until she found the small patch of growth that surrounded the pool. I can hide here, she thought, at least for a while. She sank down and cried.


Davaria had laughed with the rest, but his eyes followed his sister until she passed beyond his sight. Other than Danara, he was probably the only person that cared what happened to her, though at the moment, he wasn't willing to stand up to Zadneetsia to show her he cared.

The man had watched Igorvia's eyes follow her too, but he did not see any love for her in the man, only lust, and he suddenly realized that Danta was right. There was nothing here for her, or Danara, or him for that matter. But what could they do about it? he wondered. This was their life. The man focused on his drink.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (no chapter name) ?

On the day the hunters would return to the sUmer meeting, their first task was to break camp and get everyone to the river's edge. Next, they needed to load their burdens into Maple Camp's boats and cross Big River. It would take many trips to get everyone and everything across, but everyone was pleased that the hunt would end shortly, and that they could all see loved ones again.

No one was quite as happy as Grov. It seemed that his trouble with Janika had finally ended, though it had gotten quite serious. The man was not just physically drained from the traveling and hunting, but mentally and emotionally worn as well due to the young woman's constant advances. But it did not matter to him; he pushed it away. No exhaustion could keep him from thinking about Ayla. He could hardly wait to fall into her arms.

Several noticed a difference in the man as they crossed Big River. Whereas others were at a point of exhaustion that they didn't seem to be able to come out of, he appeared to regain some of his strength, and was of great assistance getting the meat across.

Janika watched him from afar, as Jeeteria had instructed her to stay away. He did not want any more trouble, though he did not expect any anymore. She seemed to have learned a lesson.

Even Jondaria thought she had, and he hadn't thought it possible. He tried to talk to her once and thought her rebuff was still anger, but later realized the woman was mortified that she had been caught lying.

Jondaria helped Grov pile the last load of meat in a boat, then the two men got out to let others take it across. They turned to the second to last boat and climbed in with some of the people left, then they glanced up. Janika was still standing on the river edge. She appeared to be waiting for the last boat.

Grov frowned at her, but finally waved her over, extending a hand to help her in. She hesitated for a moment, then stepped up and took his hand. Silently, she sat down at the back of the boat and stared down river as they crossed. How could he be nice to her after what she had done to him? she wondered.

On the other side of the river, he helped her out again, but turned away quickly to begin unloading. Once everyone was ready, they moved out once more. They would be back at the meeting very soon.


Ayla had spent most of the morning at the music tent with Jendoza, Laurana and Danie, but now the four women were sitting on the top steps of the arena, eating their afternoon meal and watching some of the wrestling matches. Ayla handed a strip of dried meat to Durc, and listened to Laurana.

"I do not understand why men do this," she said. She was nursing her daughter and shaking her head. "Why does it matter who is stronger?" The women all laughed.

"Men of the Clan do this too, at our Clan gatherings," informed Ayla. "I think it has something to do with proving they are strong enough to take care of us."

Jendoza watched quietly for a moment. "I'm glad Donzolnia isn't into this. I don't need him to prove he can take care of me by smashing another man's face into the ground."

Danie laughed. "What about Ivanolia? Would he be involved if he were here?" the woman asked, suddenly aware that she had no idea.

The man's sisters looked at each other, then shook their heads. Both held back on reminding Danie that Ivanolia usually spent his sUmers drinking lots of bouza and disappearing to rustle up other sorts of trouble. They didn't need to go through that again; Danie already knew what kind of trouble, and Ayla didn't need to hear any more about Zadneetsia's group.

The women were just finishing up when Vegodia came running up to them. "The hunters are almost here," he informed them. The boy was out of breath from running. " saw them...from...Beech Tent. They are heavily...burdened," he finished.

The women smiled. "Thank you for coming to tell us, Vegodia," Ayla said, getting up quickly and herding her children. She was quite anxious to see her mate, and a little nervous about the upcoming Council of Sisters meeting that would be inevitable now that the hunters were back. The other woman got up as well and they started back.


Back at Oak Tent Ayla realized that a great number of people had come to the south end of the meeting to see the return of the hunters. She, of course, did not want to mix in too much with the loud people, but chose instead to wait by their tentfire. They did not have long to wait.


Grov was walking at a fast pace, nearly at the front of the pack of hunters, and was astonished at how many people were there to greet them. He looked around for Ayla, but figured she would not want to be in the crush; she still did not like large crowds. Neither did he, he thought, as someone took his end of the stretcher out of his hands. The meat would go to the hunter's tent, to be divided fairly before being distributed. The man kept hold on the bison fur he had saved for Ayla, then started toward Oak Tent with Jondaria.


Ayla waited patiently, but when she saw him coming, she was up and running. He had been gone for almost seven days and she had missed him. It had seemed like so much longer to her. To him too, but she did not know that.

When she reached him, she didn't even look at Jondaria, but threw herself into her mate's arms and kissed him. Grov caught her up and kissed back, forgetting his friend was standing there.

The man laughed at them. "Well, this is the first time I wish I was mated," he said.

Grov and Ayla both pulled back and laughed. "Hallo Jondaria," she said, brushing the man's cheek with her own. "You are both back safely, I see."

"Only because of this man," Jondaria said, and was about to go into Grov's heroics again, but the man stopped him.

"Oh no, not again," he said, holding up his hand. "Ayla will know you don't speak the truth, so don't bother."

The words died on Jondaria's lips, but he smiled. "It was a good hunt and an interesting trip back," the man finished.

Grov raised his eyebrows. "Interesting wording, my friend." He shook his head. Ayla watched them, knowing that more had gone on than they were saying, but she did not ask. She too had plenty to tell her mate, but wanted to get back to Oak Tent before going into any of it.

Instead, Ayla pulled the man's pack off, and slung it over her own shoulder, and the three continued on to Oak Tent, where Jondaria said goodbye and moved on. He watched them for a moment and smiled. It's no wonder my sister could not sway him, he thought.


Janika was also watching the man and his mate, and blushed again at the thought of her feeble attempts to tempt the man. This couple was truly in love, and she could see why he had spurned her crude advances.

She had watched her brother hug the woman as well and could see his attraction for her, attraction that didn't seem to bother Grov at all. Then she remembered that Ayla had been the same way; it hadn't bothered Ayla in the slightest that she had tried to attract the man. She was suddenly embarrassed at how she had treated Grov's mate when she had been introduced to her. Ayla had not deserved it.

Janika followed slowly as she headed back to Spruce Tent, and saw them come up to Ayla's children, who were playing happily outside. Grov grabbed the two girls and swung them around, producing a string of delighted giggles before he put them down to greet the boy. She couldn't understand what they were saying, because they were using Clan gestures, but she could tell they were communicating. Grov then handed the child something, possibly a knife, and followed Ayla inside.


Ayla dropped his pack inside the large storage area and then continued on to their space to put away the rest of the man's things. Ayla took his things one by one, putting each item in its correct spot, then she turned to look at the man.

"Did you bring me back something furry?" she asked.

The man raised his eyebrows and grinned at her. "That all depends," he countered. "What do you have for me?" Ayla smiled and threw herself into his arms again, then kissed him. Grov kissed back and maneuvered her toward their sleeping place. Ayla stopped him for a moment, pulled her long tunic over her head, then reached for the drawstring of his leggings. She had missed him so much.

Grov noticed that she was wearing something he had not seen on her before. She was not wearing leggings with her long tunic, and now stood before him without a thing on. He smiled, realizing that he was so eager he could hardly control himself.

The two fell onto their bed platform, yanked their curtain closed and went about honoring the Mother in their own private ceremony. Both promptly fell asleep afterward.


The rest of the hunters returned more slowly. They had stopped to talk to people and hadn't gone inside immediately. By the time Donzolnia and Ivanolia unloaded their meat, reached Oak Tent and then dropped their packs off in the storage space, Grov and Ayla were already asleep.

The young people entered the tent, and laughed at the closed curtain of the sleeping couple. "Well, that was fast," Ivanolia said, looking from the closed curtain to Danie with a smile. They still had not shared pleasures since he had told her about forcing Oda, but at least they seemed to be back together. The two of them lay down on their bed as well, and Ivanolia put his hand on her belly.

"How's the baby doing, Danie?" he asked her, hoping to feel the child move within her.

"Fine, I think," she answered. "I have not been sick for few days now."

Ivanolia smiled. "That is good. Where is Braydalana?"

"She is out with some of the other girls...and mother," she added. "There has been some trouble here, so we have been making sure no one is left alone."

"Trouble? What kind of trouble?" he asked her.

Danie was frowning. "Well, I think we should probably all meet to discuss it."

Ivanolia sat up and looked at her. "Danie, what is going on? What trouble has there been?"

At that moment, Zarina came into the space. "We need everyone from Oak Tent to gather so we can discuss what has happened while the hunters have been gone." Everyone nodded, but Ivanolia turned back to Danie before getting up.

"Danie?" he questioned again.

Danie looked at Ivanolia and frowned. "It is your friends," she said irritably.

The man blushed. "They are not my friends anymore, Danie."

"I know that, but they were," she retorted angrily. Then she touched his arm. "I'm sorry. I did not mean to snap at you. It has just been...difficult while the hunters have been away." Ivanolia hugged her. The woman got up to join the others, and the man followed.


Ayla had been the hardest to rouse. Partly because she hadn't slept well the night before and was tired, and partly because she just didn't want to go through this again. The woman entered the small cooking space and stood at the back, not wanting to say anything.

Brulenzia wished that Tinozia was there to help him with this, but since he wasn't, it was going to fall to him to explain it as he saw it; he had been the first on the scene. Brulenzia went through what happened slowly, watching Grov closely. The man was shocked, but showed no anger toward him for not being there to protect his woman, and only held Ayla when she leaned against him for support.

Gredenzia spoke next, talking about what had happened at the Council of Brothers, and how the issue had not been solved. And how the four camps had banded together to shut them out. Gredenzia glanced at Vincenzia, who was standing just behind Grov and Ayla, a hand on each of them. The Shogur could see the pain in the man's eyes as he thought about what the daughter of his hearth had been through in her lifetime.

"So," Travie said. "What do we do now? We have to put a stop to this, before that man succeeds in forcing some young woman."

Tiflona glanced at Tagnolia and sighed. "It is a shame that so many headmen and headwomen were gone on the hunt. This should have been cleared up immediately. This should not have happened at all." The woman turned toward Ayla and frowned. "I am sorry that you have had to deal with this, Ayla. I am embarrassed for my people."

Ayla shook her head and tried to smile. "Don't be, Tiflona. Every people seem to have a few bad ones, and I was not hurt."

Danie had been watching and wanted to interject the part about these men forcing women of the Clan as well, but she didn't know how to bring it up without informing everyone about Ivanolia's sUmer activities. Then she noticed that Ivanolia wasn't even there anymore. She looked around, then slipped out herself. Where could he be? she wondered.


Ivanolia had heard enough. Zadneetsia had tried to force Ayla...that was all he needed to know. He couldn't believe his ears. Up until this very sUmer he would have said that it was one thing to force those Clan women, but quite another to attempt to force a Sungaean woman. Now he was all together disgusted that any man would attempt to force any woman. He thought about all his cousin had lived through and planned to do something about Zadneetsia's abuse, even if it killed him.

The man quickly crossed the sUmer meeting and arrived at Sumac Camp in time to see Zadneetsia making crude gestures at a passing woman. Ivanolia tapped the man on the shoulder then promptly punched in square in the nose when he turned around. Zadneetsia, though a big man, went down.

Igorvia, along with several others, was on his feet quickly. "What in the Mother's name are you doing, Ivanolia?"

Zadneetsia was slowly getting up, but the large amounts of bouza weren't helping the man right himself. It was hardly noon and they were well on their way to the end of the evening.

Ivanolia went after him again, this time kicking him before he could get to his feet. "That is for Ayla!" he shouted. Then he turned around quickly to face Zadneetsia's friends.

"This is about Ayla?" Igorvia growled, shaking his head. "Are you out of your mind? If you would have checked with the Council of Brothers, then you would know they sided with Zadneetsia, not Ayla. Zadneetsia gave them the facts and Ayla couldn't offer any proof of her claim."

Ivanolia scoffed. "Oh yeah, and he's an honest man. I wouldn't trust him as far as he can stagger."

"Well, he has a witness," Igorvia spat.

"Yes, I heard. Kurvlodia. Some witness. A witness is someone that saw what happened, not someone that claims to be involved." Ivanolia glared at Kurvlodia. "You, are a liar!"

That was enough to make Kurvlodia charge the man. Both went down throwing punches.


Danta had heard the shouting and came out to look. When she saw Ivanolia there, she headed out of camp. She was running as fast as she could and looking back over her shoulder, when suddenly she ran into someone else and fell to the ground; it was Danie.

"Danie!" Danta exclaimed from the ground. "I...I..." but she couldn't continue.

"Have you seen Ivanolia?" Danie asked.

The woman nodded and pointed. "I was just coming to get someone from Oak Camp. I do not know what is going on, but he came into Sumac Camp, and he punched Zadneetsia and now he's fighting with Kurvlodia." Danta did know what was going on, sort of, but she hadn't let anyone know she knew yet.

Danie looked worried. Fighting was not tolerated among the Mamutoi, and she thought it was the same among the Sungaea. Both women ran back to Oak Tent to get some help.


When the two women got there, Danta stopped, thinking she should wait outside while Danie went in, but Danie grabbed her arm. "You have to come in with me, Danta," Danie exclaimed. "Come on!"

Danta didn't argue and ran inside with the woman. They didn't have to go far, Oak Camp's meeting was breaking up; everyone was coming out. The people that had been away on the hunt were shocked to see Danta there, but all could tell it was an emergency.

"What's wrong, Danie?" Serana asked, looking at her son's mate and suddenly realizing that he was nowhere to be seen.

"He's at Sumac Camp," she told them breathlessly. "Danta came to tell us that he's fighting."

Vilognia frowned. "We should have known this might happen," he said, looking at Serana. "We better go get him."

"I am sorry about this," Ayla said worriedly. She was close to tears. "This would not have happened if we had not come."

Vilognia looked down at her. "No Ayla, this is not your fault. Something like this has been coming for a long time," he said, glancing at Danta and wondering why the Sumac woman was there. "Ivanolia should not be over there fighting, but something does have to be done about those camps."

Danta blushed and looked down. Vilognia was right, she thought. This was her fault, or rather, her camp's fault, but wasn't that the same thing? she thought.


A few people stayed, to look after the children, but most of the adults went over to Sumac Camp. When they got there, Ivanolia was still in the mix, but wasn't doing so well, since there were several more Sumac men there and only one of him.

Tagnolia and Vilognia went immediately to the two fighting men and pulled them apart. Tagnolia stood holding Kurvlodia, who had a bloody nose and black eye, while Vilognia held the son of his hearth.

Ivanolia spat on the ground, then wiped his bleeding lip on his tunic sleeve and retreated. "This is not over!" he shouted angrily, standing next to Vilognia.

"You can count on it!" Kurvlodia yelled back.

"There will be no more fighting!" Tiflona said calmly, noticing that Ivarsia was just lounging about watching. "Fighting is not allowed. What is going on here?" she demanded.

Ivarsia started to get up. "They are fighting," he stated plainly. "What does it look like they are doing?"

Tiflona gave him a withering look. "I can see that Ivars, but why?"

The man shrugged. "Because sometimes, men need to get some aggression out. It's nothing more." A few bystanders laughed. "Besides, I think you know why."

Tiflona glanced at Zadneetsia, who was sitting back, sporting a severe abrasion on his cheek and holding his ribs. "Where is your healer?" Oak Camp's headwoman asked. "That man needs attention."

Ivarsia looked at his sister's son and frowned. "We do not have one at the moment." He did not mention that they hadn't had one for a long time, not since the last one died.

Tiflona looked back at Danie. "Would you please go get your mother." Travie had stayed behind to care for the children, but she was needed now. Danie nodded.

Ayla, who had been standing with Grov, but was now squatting down next to Ivanolia, stood up. "That is not necessary," she said, slowly approaching the injured man. Grov scowled, nearly ready to deny the man care, but he didn't say anything. He knew his mate would help any man that was injured, even one as nasty as this one.

Danie stopped and looked at Tiflona. The headwoman held up her hand, indicating that Danie should wait.

Ivarsia also seemed about to object, but Zadneetsia did not look very good. Zadneetsia, on the other hand, did not want the woman to touch him.

"I am fine," he snarled up at the woman when she got to him. He didn't want anything from her.

Ayla glanced at Tiflona, who shrugged, then at Ivarsia, who was sitting again, then knelt down to examine the man. She opened her medicine bag and pulled out another piece of leather. "I need hot water," she said, looking around for help. No one moved. The members of Oak Camp didn't come forward. They did not know where the water was kept; this wasn't their camp. And no one from Sumac Camp offered water either. Finally, Danta went to get Ayla the water she needed, then started it boiling.

While she waited, Ayla felt the man's ribcage, much to the man's displeasure.

"Ouch!" he exclaimed loudly, pulling away from her. "Watch it! That hurts!"

Ayla shook her head and looked back at Tiflona. "This man has two broken ribs."

Zadneetsia glared over at Ivanolia. "It is his fault. He came out of nowhere and punched me, then started kicking me while I was down." He winced as Ayla began wrapping his ribs.

Ivanolia had been sitting with Donzolnia and Grov, holding a piece of leather to his lip, but stood and had to be restrained again. "You deserved it!" he hollered. "If you would have kept your hands off Ayla, then I wouldn't have had to beat you down. What is wrong with you?" Zadneetsia only smiled.

Ivarsia started shaking his head and stood again. "We have already gone through this," he stated, looking at Ivanolia. "The council believed Zadneetsia, not Ayla. You can't go around accusing people of things they did not do." He glanced over at Ayla, who was still working on Zadneetsia.

"We all know what the Brothers decided, Ivarsia," Tiflona said coldly. "And I'm sure you know this is going to the Sisters too. We will not stand for this."

"Yes, it certainly is. We will not stand for this either," the Sumac headman said. "We will be making a claim against Ivanolia. And we expect restitution for the injuries he has inflicted on Zadneetsia."

Tiflona's face turned red with anger, and she was about to say something else when Tagnolia put his hand on her arm to stop her.

"That is fine with us, Ivars. Ivanolia was wrong to come over here like this," the Oak Camp headman said, looking pointedly at the young man to let him know he was not happy about this turn of events. "But do not think for one moment that the issue between Zadneetsia and Ayla is over. Just because the Brothers could not handle it, doesn't mean the Sisters won't be able to. I have confidence that she will be vindicated."

Ivarsia shrugged again and sat down. "Suit yourself." He didn't seem concerned at all.

Tagnolia turned to look at Ayla. "What else to you need, Ayla?" he asked.

Ayla had just finished wrapping the man's ribs, and was now wiping his face with the piece of leather she had dipped into the water that Danta had brought for her. He was filthy. "I do not need anything else," she said, glancing at Kurvlodia. She needed to attend his wounds too, but first she needed to finish with Zadneetsia. She turned back to the man.

Zadneetsia was in pain, but as he looked her up and down, he began to enjoy the woman's attention, or more accurately, he was enjoying how Ivanolia was reacting to Ayla attending his injuries. He flashed a gloating look at Ivanolia, who seemed to be struggling against Donzolnia and Grov again.

Zadneetsia looked at Ayla's mate and he wondered why the flathead was not the one putting up a fight. Then he thought about how Ayla hadn't fought him either...until he had mentioned her family of flatheads. Was that the way of all flatheads? he wondered. He hadn't come across any of the males before. They purposely had only gone after lone females or small groups of females, so he did not know.

"This man should not move around too much," Ayla stated, bringing Zadneetsia out of his musings. "A broken rib can causing internal bleeding, which I cannot fix." She looked back at the man. "His face will heal on its own." Ayla then looked up at Danta, who was standing there with a hot cup of water. Ayla smiled and took it, then made the man a painkilling tea.

"Here," she said, handing the man a cup of tea. "This will take your pain away." Zadneetsia looked at the cup and grimaced. He hated tea, especially any tea with painkilling herbs in it; it always tasted terrible, but he accepted it anyway. Ayla then went to Kurvlodia.

Kurvlodia was sitting with another man now, and was just letting his bloody nose drip on the ground in front of him. Ayla knelt down with a piece of leather and told him to hold it on his nose and tilt his head back. There was nothing she could do about the black eye; that too would have to heal on its own.

Ayla glanced at the other man. She had not met him before, but he looked familiar. Then it struck her; this man is related to Danta. He must be her brother, Ayla thought, and by the looks of him, he might have been in the fray of the fight too, though he wasn't bruised or bleeding anywhere.

Danta suddenly came up and confirmed what Ayla had been thinking. "This is my twin brother, Davaria," she said, giving the man a dirty look.

Davaria frowned at his sister. That was not entirely correct, he thought, but nodded at Ayla anyway. No one had mentioned to him that the woman was beautiful.

"Are you hurt anywhere?" Ayla asked him.

He shook his head. He liked her voice. It was deeper than some other women and she had a strange accent. "No, I am fine," he replied.

Ayla nodded, then got up to go stand with the people of Oak Camp.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (more lack of chapter names, sorry) ?

Both issues were brought to the Councils immediately and two meetings were going to be held the next day; First, Zadneetsia and Kurvlodia would make a claim to the Brothers, and second, Ayla would be expected to restate her claim for the Sisters. And no one was looking forward to the meetings, least of all, Ayla

It was evening by the time the people of Oak Camp left the tents of the Brothers and Sisters to return to their tentfire to try to relax. Again, several had stayed behind to care for younger children, and those that did, had prepared the evening meal.

Ayla sat disconsolately with her plate of food, thinking about the meeting. It was going to be hard to go through the whole thing again, and Ayla did not want to do it. But they are right, she thought. If I don't make a claim, then Zadneetsia is likely to do this again, and possibly be successful. She closed her eyes. I have to do this, she told herself.

Grov watched her and once again wished he had not gone on the sUmer hunt. "What can I do, Ayla?" he asked.

Ayla opened her eyes and tried to smile at him. "Nothing," she said, leaning into him. "I am okay. I just don't want to go through this again. It's bad enough that it happened, but then I had to talk about it, and not be I have to talk about it again." She shook her head. "What will make this time different?"

Grov took her into his arms. He didn't know what to say, and there was nothing he could do; that was the hardest part.


Ivanolia sat on the other side of the fire watching Grov and Ayla, and wishing that he could do something. He had to admit that he'd not made a smart choice by storming over to Sumac Camp, but he could not have helped himself if he had tried, which he hadn't. He couldn't believe he used to hang out with those men.

Danie was being rather attentive, he observed. She had fixed him a plate of food and was trying to get him to talk to her, but he just didn't feel much like talking. Besides, his lip hurt and he was tired from the hike back to the meeting.

Finally, he could not stay there any longer, he had to leave. Giving Danie a kiss, he excused himself to go to bed. He didn't even look back to see Danie frown with concern.


Ayla was chewing on a small bite of food when she saw Ivanolia get up to leave. She watched Danie frown and sit back down, then turned to Grov.

"Do you mind if I go talk to Ivanolia?" she asked.

Grov looked over at Danie. He hadn't seen the woman's mate leave. "No," he said. "Go ahead."

Ayla gave him her most beautiful smile and got up to follow her cousin into the tent.


Inside the tent, Ayla found Ivanolia lying on his bed, eyes closed, but she knew he was not asleep. She sat down on her own sleeping place. "I wanted to thank you, Ivanolia," she said. He opened his eyes. "For standing up for me."

The man smiled at her. "Yeah, but I've made more of a mess of this now, haven't I?"

Ayla shrugged. "For you maybe," she responded, smiling. "I don't think it will affect me much." She paused. "But it's good to have your support."

Ivanolia sat up and faced her. "He really doesn't think he's done anything wrong," he said, referring to Zadneetsia. "Ayla, I was just like him." He shook his head.

"But you're nothing like him now. You are a good man."

"Thank you," he said, smiling at her. Then he changed the subject. "So, it looked like maybe you've made a friend in Danta," he said. Ayla nodded and he continued. "I could tell you two knew each other."

"Yes, we made a trade a few days ago, and I ended up inviting her over for an evening meal, but that's as far as it went. When Igorvia found out she was here, he came and made her leave."

"I am not surprised," Ivanolia scoffed. "After all that's happened, he probably expects her to be loyal to Sumac Camp. Not to mention, he's been after her for years. I'm sure he doesn't want her off somewhere where she could find a decent man."

Ayla wrinkled her nose at the thought of Igorvia and Danta being together. "I feel sorry for both Danta, and Danara too," Ayla said.

"I don't know her daughter too well," he said with a frown. "If I remember correctly, the child is nearly always asleep."

"I think that is just because she is so unhappy," Ayla mused. "She was pretty lively when they were here." Ayla eyed her cousin. "You also seem to know Danta pretty well."

Ivanolia blushed. "Yeah, I was the one she asked for."

Ayla frowned. "Asked for, for what?"

"For her First Rites," he said. He kept forgetting how new Ayla was. "I really wasn't old enough, but she became a woman pretty late, fourteen, I think. She was pregnant not long afterwards. I heard she was going to mate some young man from Poplar Camp, but he died."

Ayla's brow furrowed. "Her life seems terrible. Living in that horrible camp. Losing a sister."

"You don't know that half of it," Ivanolia said.

"At least she has a brother."

Ivanolia shook his head. "Davaria is just as worthless as the rest."

Ayla frowned. Davaria seemed nice to her, though it did appear that he had been in the fight too. "Where is Danta's mother?"

"Oh, Trata is there, but she is a waste of a woman. And she can't stand her daughter. She won't even look at her."

"But why? How can a mother hate her own child?" Ayla asked incredulously.

Ivanolia frowned. "Well actually, I don't know. Davaria didn't like to talk about it. I just know that Trata doesn't even speak to Danta. I've never seen her say one word to her youngest daughter. She'll talk to Davaria, and I saw her with Dreena, before she died, but never Danta."

Ayla was still frowning. "Well, I like Danta, and I don't like to see her hurting. She doesn't belong there."


The rest of the camp finished their meal and stayed up for a while, but everyone was tired, especially the hunters, and everyone needed to rise early for their meetings with the councils. Most turned in early.


Danta tucked her daughter in, after feeding her little more than crumbs. After the big hunt, there was plenty of food coming, so food was not a worry, but the child just wouldn't take any. She had eaten even less than was normal for her, worrying her mother greatly. Danta thought it was her daughter's way of rebelling against not being able to go to Oak Camp again, and wondered if she should try it herself.

Danta smiled as she thought about refusing food, and wondered if anyone would even notice. Certainly Trata wouldn't care. Maybe I can just fade away to nothing, she thought, then looked down at her daughter and shook her head. No, I can't do that.

The woman, glanced down at her child one more time, then decided she needed to relieve herself before going to sleep.

Not wanting to go outside, Danta made her way over to the night basket, and grimaced as the stench of waste wafted up to her. It was more than half full. What is wrong with these people? she asked herself, as she pulled up her long tunic to squat over the basket.

After finishing, she stood and adjusted her dress, then replaced the lid that only hid their waste from view, and started for her bed. She was still thinking about what a waste her life was when she got there, and was startled to realize that her bed was occupied. She sighed.

"Igorvia," she said. "Get out of my bed."

He groaned and reached up to pull her down. "Oh come on, Danta," he exclaimed loudly. "You haven't shared anyone's bed since the last time you shared mine." He held her tight and pressed his mouth onto hers.

Danta tensed up, but let him kiss her. When he finished she pulled back. "Igor, I just don't want to share anyone's bed. I want to be alone."

"But why?" he asked still holding her against his large frame. "Don't you know how much I want you?"

Danta rolled her eyes in the darkness. "Yes," she said. "So much so that you take Laska to your bed every night."

"Is that it?" he asked. "I only do that to make you jealous, Danta. Come to my bed and I will never pleasure her again."

"No Igor, I am not jealous." She knew it sounded that way, but that wasn't it at all. She just didn't want to be mean. "You can pleasure anyone you want; I really don't care."

"Then let me pleasure you," he said, rolling her over so that he was on top of her. Then he smothered her lips with his again.

Danta pushed him away. Firmly, but gently. "No Igorvia," she said. "How many times do I have to tell you that I'm not interested?" He tried to kiss her again, but she turned her head. "Please, just leave my bed. Go find Laska."

Igorvia frowned. "No! I want to spend the night with you," he said.

"But I don't want to spend the night with you. I want you to leave me alone."

"What if I refuse to leave?" he asked.

"Then you are as bad as Zadneetsia," she answered.

Igorvia frowned in the dark, but slowly got up. His first thought was to go find Laska, hoping to torment Danta throughout the night. But if it doesn't even bother her, he thought, then why bother? The man decided to go to his bed alone.


The next morning came before anyone was ready for it. The people of Oak Camp ate a cheerless morning meal and prepared to go over to the tent of the Council of Brothers.

When they arrived, they were ushered in quickly and were asked to take their seats. Ayla noticed immediately that there were many more people in attendance for this meeting than had been there for hers. She knew that was partly because all the headmen had returned from the hunt, and partly because so many had heard about the fight and wanted to see the proceedings.

Bolodenkia stood tall in the center of the tent and called everyone to order. "Who is making a claim?" the Head Brother asked, though he already knew.

Zadneetsia and Kurvlodia stood. "We are." Both were bruised and battered-looking, but had cleaned themselves up somewhat.

"What say you?" the man asked formally, causing Brulenzia to frown. They had not been this formal when they were questioning Ayla, he thought.

Zadneetsia cleared his throat and looked over at Ivanolia. "Yesterday, Ivanolia came over to Sumac Tent to fight. He punched and kicked me," he said, pointing out his injuries. "Then he moved on to Kurvlodia."

Bolodenkia looked at Kurvlodia. "Do you have anything to add?" Kurvlodia looked at Zadneetsia, then shook his head. Bolodenkia then turned to Ivanolia. "And what say you?

Ivanolia stood up and squared his shoulders. "I do not deny what I did yesterday. I was angry about what Zadneetsia did to Ayla, and I lost my head. I know I was wrong," he finally said, glaring over at his accusers. Ivanolia wasn't happy that Tagnolia had asked him to admit to being wrong, but he did what his headman had asked.

Bolodenkia was nodding. He was glad the young man was able to admit to his wrongdoing. It always looked better when people could do that, he thought. He was about to continue when Ivarsia stood up.

"How many times do we have to go through this?" he asked. "Zadneetsia has done nothing to Ayla. The Brothers have already decided on this. Therefore, Ivanolia's attack was completely unfounded."

Tiflona stood up. "Ivarsia, you know that that matter has not been concluded yet, and that the Sisters will be discussing it more today. Further, though slightly misguided, Ivanolia's anger is not unfounded."

Ivarsia was shaking his head. "Why is this woman talking?" Ivarsia asked, looking about the room. "Isn't this the Council of Brothers?"

Bolodenkia sighed. "Ivarsia, you know that everyone has a right to speak. Just because this is the Brothers' tent, it doesn't mean that a sister cannot add something." He held up his hand when Ivarsia tried to speak again. He turned to Oak Camp's headwoman.

"Tiflona, you are right that the claim Ayla has made against Zadneetsia is not over, but this claim is about Ivanolia's violence against Zadneetsia and Kurvlodia." The man looked at Ivanolia, who stood there looking strong.

"Young man," he said formally. "Violence is forbidden among our people, no matter the reason. We are all raised knowing this. Therefore, we are not even going to discuss excuses. You will forfeit your share of the bison hunt, and you will not participate in the second sUmer hunt."

The Head Brother turned back to Zadneetsia and Kurvlodia, who were both gloating. "The two of you will split this man's share of the hunt, and that is the end of this," he concluded.

Ivanolia flashed another angry look at Zadneetsia and Kurvlodia. They were both still smiling. Then he looked at the people of Oak Camp. Tagnolia was talking to Tiflona, but both seemed pleased with the outcome. His mother and Vilognia looked pleased as well. He supposed it could have been far worse. He observed that Ivarsia was not happy and was off to the side arguing with Bolodenkia. Ivanolia let out his breath, then walked over to Tagnolia and Tiflona and waited for them to finish speaking.

"Thank you, Tiflona," he said to his headwoman when she looked at him.

Tiflona smiled. "Think nothing of it. Though I do not condone what you did, we are all very angry about what Zadneetsia did to Ayla."

"You handled yourself well, Ivanolia," Tagnolia said. "It looked better that you admitted to doing wrong, and made it easier for Bolodenkia to make a decision. He didn't even bother to ask for a vote, which could have been worse. If he'd asked for a vote, then he'd have had to ask Ivarsia what sort of restitution was wanted. This was much better; we only lose a bit of meat."

Ivanolia frowned. "I am sorry about the loss of my portion of the hunt though."

"Again, not a problem. We have plenty of food," Tiflona said. "More than many others. Besides, you can make it up with a side hunt or two." She smiled at him. "Just because you cannot go on the next sUmer hunt, doesn't mean you can't plan a hunt or two of your own."

Tagnolia looked at his sister. "Good thinking!" he exclaimed. "So, when are we due at the Sisters' tent?" he asked.

"We do not have to be there until midday, so we have some time. This went much quicker than I had anticipated."


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

The crowd that gathered for the Council of Sisters' meeting was enormous in comparison to the two previous meetings. Everyone was interested in the foreign woman's claim against Zadneetsia, and though many thought her background vile, many more could not stand the man she would stand against.

Ayla stood nervously with everyone from Oak Camp, waiting for the Head Sister to call them in. She knew that all the headwomen and headmen would be present, along with everyone that would fit in the tent, and that she'd be expected to recount the entire situation, again. She wondered if this would ever end.

Tiflona had advised her to go through her description of Zadneetsia's attack as quickly as possible, leaving out details such as why they were out hunting, so as not to distract from the true issue, but also to be as accurate as possible. Ayla was concerned about the many questions that had been asked before, which seemed to draw her off topic, but Tiflona told her that that was less likely with the Sisters; the Head Sister would direct them back quickly if that happened.

"Remember to speak loud and clear. Don't be shy; we want them to hear what happened." Ayla nodded. "And, don't worry," Tiflona told her, "I will be there to assist you if you need it." Ayla was glad for that. "That also means I cannot vote in the end," Tiflona went on. "But who knows, maybe there won't even be a vote. I really don't think it will matter." She smiled. "There will be a few people there today that have something important to add to our side."

Ayla frowned, and wondered who else could possibly add something. She had made it clear that she didn't want Durc involved, and had been promised that he would not be. Who else could help? There had been no witnesses...or had there? Ayla was going to ask the headwoman, but Tiflona needed to leave to go to her place inside.


Inside, the Head Sister, whose name was Breidara, had just settled everyone down, after asking a few people to leave. She was not going to put up with the private conversations that were going on, or extra commentary about the issue; this was too important for any of that, she believed. She wanted to keep this meeting on track.

Breidara stood, holding up her hand, waiting for the noise level to drop. She would not talk over anyone. When the people finally hushed, she began to speak.

"I am not going to make a long speech here," she said, looking around at all the observers. "Except to say this: We all know the essence of this claim and the seriousness of it. It has caused much anger among our people, and rightly so. It is so grievous that I feel a decision must be reached today, so that the rest of the sUmer meeting is not tainted with it.

"Further, I will not allow anyone to disrupt this meeting, in any way; those that do, will be asked to leave. And, we will stay on topic," she said, looking over at Ivarsia and his sister, Iyena, who already seemed ready to protest.

"And finally," she continued. "Unlike my brother, I will be voting at the end of this." The Head Sister then turned to Ayla and waved her forward. "Please state the nature of your claim."

Ayla smiled nervously at Breidara. She liked the woman's delivery, and was glad she had given some rules before allowing things to get under way. Ayla felt that Breidara's requirements would make going through this again easier on her. One glance at Ivarsia told her that he was not happy about these restrictions.

Ayla stood up and approached the center of the tent and began her version of the attack. As instructed by Tiflona, she spoke clearly and loudly, so that everyone could hear every word, and she managed to make eye contact with Zadneetsia several times. Zadneetsia only smirked at her, hoping to throw her off, but he was not successful; she would not back down.

Breidara nodded at Ayla, then turned to Zadneetsia. "You obviously have a different version of this, or we would not be here. Please tell us."

Zadneetsia stood up, and went through his tall tale, which seemed ludicrous to the people that actually knew Ayla, but by the time he had finished, several others were casting questioning glances at the strange, foreign woman. Ayla became more nervous.

Breidara then called up Kurvlodia, whom Zadneetsia claimed was not only present, but had also been an active participant on the day in question. Kurvlodia did not add much, except to confirm Zadneetsia's words.

Breidara looked back at Ayla. "Do you have anything else to add, any witnesses of any kind?"

Ayla frowned. This was not going to go any differently than the last time, she thought. Why did I even agree to do this? she asked herself.

"No, other than my son, whom I will not expose to this, I have no witnesses. But, so that you may understand me better, I will say this: I come from a people that are incapable of lying. In the Clan, no one makes untruths – therefore, I have not learned how to lie. This man," she said, looking at Zadneetsia again, "is lying about what happened that day. I did not welcome his advances, nor did I share pleasures with either of these two men." Her eyes went to Kurvlodia, who looked away.

Breidara nodded. "Does anyone else have anything to add?" she asked, looking at Tiflona.

Tiflona stood up and smiled. "We certainly do," she replied. "I would like to question Danta, daughter of Trata of Sumac Camp."

There were several gasps and many loud comments, but only Ivarsia and Iyena stood up to object. Breidara held up her hand and looked at the people sternly. "Tiflona is well within her right to question anyone she feels can help Ayla's case. She is, after all, the headwoman of Oak Camp." Everyone quieted and looked at Tiflona. Ayla suddenly realized the headwoman had a few tricks up her tunic sleeve and looked over at Danta, who had just stood up and was slowly making her way to the front of the crowd.

Tiflona smiled at the young woman. "Good afternoon, Danta," she said. Danta looked nervous, but managed to smooth out her long tunic and smile. "Can you add to Ayla's claim in any way?"

Danta nodded and cleared her throat. "Yes."

"In what way?"

Danta glanced over at Zadneetsia, who was glaring at her so fiercely that she visibly shuddered, then looked back at Tiflona. "Well, I overheard a conversation between Zadneetsia and Kurvlodia."

Tiflona smiled. "And what did they say?"

"Kurvlodia said that Ayla was shocked that he'd backed up Zadneetsia, that it was too bad Zadneetsia couldn't get her, and that he would have liked to see Ayla struggle."

"Now wait just a minute," a man said loudly. Everyone turned to look at him. It was Kazaskia, the headman of Ash Camp and the man of Kurvlodia's hearth. "What in the Mother's name is...," he began, before being cut off by Breidara.

"Let Danta finish," the Head Sister replied, giving the man a reproachful look, and turning back to Tiflona again.

Tiflona smiled appreciatively, then went on with her questioning. "And Zadneetsia? What did he say?" she asked Danta

"Zadneetsia said there was no way the Sisters would go against him since he had Kurvlodia's word, but that he had come so close."

"Thank you, Danta," Tiflona said with a smile, then turned back to Breidara, who looked back at the Ash Camp Headman.

"The son of my mate is not part of this woman's claim," he stated angrily, pointing at Ayla. "Why is she," he said, turning to Danta, "bringing him into it?"

Iyena was on her feet as well. "And Danta is not a fit witness," Iyena called out. "She is a member of Sumac Camp."

Another woman stood. It was Trata. "My daughter is a liar," she said with enough hatred in her voice to make Danta lose her color. Ayla worried that her new friend might faint, but she squared her shoulders and stood her ground.

"Yes, obviously she lies. There was no such conversation," Kurvlodia stated.

Breidara held up her hand again. "Now wait just a moment here. First of all, we are starting to talk out of turn here. The next person to speak without permission is going to have to leave. Secondly, Kurvlodia is most definitely part of Ayla's claim. He made himself such when he stepped up with Zadneetsia." She paused. "And third, just because Danta is a part of Sumac Camp, it doesn't mean she cannot justify a claim made by some other camp. Isn't Kurvlodia doing the same by backing up Zadneetsia's claim?" Many people were nodding their agreement. "I think there is no more reason to doubt her than Kurvlodia."

Danta was pleased to hear Breidara's words of support, but frowned as she watched her mother stand up and stock off. She was seriously questioning her choice to tell Oak Camp what she had heard. She liked Ayla and knew she was doing the right thing, but this was going to get her into trouble with Sumac Camp. She was already treated as if she were nothing, now it would be worse. Danta glanced at her brother; he had a deep frown on his brow, but at least he had not gotten up to leave, or objected to her claim.

Breidara waited while the people settled down, then looked again at Tiflona. "Are you finished?"

"Well actually, no," the Oak Headwoman said. "I would also like to question Mikolavia of Beech Camp, mated to Mirra, the daughter of the headman's mate, and son of Belana, formerly a member of Cedar Camp."

Breidara turned her gaze on the man standing at the back of the tent, as did everyone else. Ayla looked at Mikolavia, who was coming forward to join Tiflona at the center of the tent. He hadn't been very warm toward her when she had visited his sister at Beech Tent, but something had obviously changed. Ayla then glanced over at the people of Sumac and the surrounding camps, and frowned. She had no idea what was going on, but apparently they weren't very happy. She saw Kurvlodia shift uncomfortably, then she looked back at Mikolavia.

"Can you add to Ayla's claim in any way?" Tiflona asked.

Mikolavia looked at Ayla. He hadn't wanted to come to speak out against his friend, but he knew first hand that Kurvlodia was not being honest. To him, it could only mean that Ayla was telling the truth. Her background made him nervous, but that didn't mean she deserved what Zadneetsia was doing to her, or what he had tried to do.

He frowned and looked over at Kurvlodia, then back at the Headwoman of Oak Camp. "Yes," he said.

"And," Tiflona prompted.

Mikolavia took a deep breath. "There is no way Kurvlodia could have been with Zadneetsia and Ayla," he said.

Tiflona raised her eyebrows. "And how do you know this?"

"Because Kurvlodia and I went hunting on that afternoon. We did not return until late in the day."

The crowd gasped again and Ash Camp's headwoman was on her feet, nearly bursting, but she didn't speak. Instead she held up her arm and waved it wildly. Breidara nodded to her, indicating that the woman could speak.

"What did you do, Tiflona? Did you go to every camp to create witnesses since Ayla had none," the Ash Headwoman yelled.

"No, I simply went around to find out if anyone knew more than was being told. Is there something wrong with that?"

The Ash Camp Headwoman frowned. She supposed not. "But how do we know this man does not lie?"

Tiflona rolled her eyes. "Oh come on, Kazara. What does Mikolavia have to gain by lying about this? He does not live at Oak Camp. He is not friendly with Ayla. And, if I remember correctly, he used to be quite close to Kurvlodia when he was a member of Cedar Camp. Is that not correct? Obviously they are still friends, if they're out hunting together."

The woman nodded. "Yes, that is correct, they are friends. Or they were, until now. But Mikolavia is mated to your brother's mate's daughter," she yelled at Tiflona. "Apparently that's reason enough for him to lie now." Kazara did not notice Mikolavia's mother frown; she had always been very friendly with Ash Camp's headwoman. This accusation hurt.

"That is not how we work, Kazara. Mikolavia has no reason to lie to us. If he was a liar, then we wouldn't take his word, or ask him to speak for us. He has absolutely nothing to gain here. In fact, he only stands to lose a friend," Tiflona said. She wanted to throw in that Kurvlodia wasn't much of a friend, but she held her tongue. Tiflona watched the other camps stew angrily, and wanted to smile, but kept a straight face. "Mikolavia is a good man. Are you really going to dispute that?"

Kazara scowled and sat down. She glanced over at Mikolavia's mother, who hadn't been very happy that Tiflona had asked her son to speak, but was now refusing to look at her old friend. Belana could not believe Kazara had even suggested her son would lie.

Breidara looked around the room. "Tiflona, do you have anything else to add?"

Tiflona frowned. "On the issue of Zadneetsia and am finished."

"Does anyone else want to say anything?" the Head Sister asked. Iyena's hand shot up. "Yes?" said Breidara.

"It is very nice for Oak Camp that Tiflona has managed to persuade a few people to come forward for Ayla, but neither one of these witnesses actually witnessed anything. Neither one of them was present during the incident, so aren't we still at an impasse? I do not see how a different decision than the Brothers came up with can be reached."

"Yes, Iyena, this certainly does make decisions difficult, but now that we've heard from Mikolavia, we have to discount that Kurvlodia was with Zadneetsia. Mikolavia has no reason to lie and though Kurvlodia doesn't really either, it seems obvious to me that one of these two men has less of a reason." Several people were nodding as she glanced at Mikolavia.

"So, let's vote on this to see what the Sisters think," she said, turning to the group. "I need to see a number of hands of people that believe Kurvlodia was with Mikolavia during this incident, and not with Zadneetsia." All but six hands were raised, including the Head Sister's. "Well, then, that part is settled. It is the decision of the Sisters that Kurvlodia was with Mikolavia, and that Zadneetsia was alone. This definitely casts a shadow on Zadneetsia's defense."

"Further, what Danta overheard seems to indicate that not only are Zadneetsia and Kurvlodia conspirators in a plot to make Ayla look bad, but also that Zadneetsia did indeed attempt to force Ayla. I see no reason to believe that Danta is lying. I want to see the hands of those that believe Danta speaks the truth." All the same hands went up.

"So, that brings us to what the woman said." Breidara looked at Zadneetsia and frowned. "Zadneetsia, you have lost your witness and you have been overheard talking about this incident as if it did take place the way Ayla says. It sounds to me, as well as to most of the other Sisters, Zadneetsia, that you did attack Ayla. Do you have anything to say?"

Zadneetsia was very red in the face and folded his arms across his chest. "This is ridiculous! I have not done what I have been accused of. Ayla is a liar! Danta is a liar! And so is Mikolavia!" He was shaking his head, as were all his supporters.

Breidara allowed him to speak, but shook her head. "I am afraid that this matter is over Zadneetsia. I hereby declare you guilty. I am sorry that you could not own up to this most grievous mistake." Breidara sighed, then went on.

"As restitution, the Sisters will require that you forfeit your share of the bison hunt. To Ayla, of course," she said, thinking that the man did not even deserve a share, since she could not ever remember him attending a sUmer hunt. Most of the people from Sumac Camp didn't bother with sUmer hunts, but that didn't mean anything; the Sungaea always granted a share to every adult. "Further," Breidara continued. "Both you and Kurvlodia will give Ivanolia's share of the bison hunt to Ayla. I think she deserves it, after what you two have put her through."

"As punishment for the attack, and for lying about it," Breidara continued. "Zadneetsia, you will not leave the area surrounding Sumac Tent until Sumac Camp is ready to leave this year's sUmer meeting. That will at least keep you away from other unsuspecting women.

"As for Kurvlodia," she said, looking at the other man. "You will not be restricted from leaving Ash Tent's space, but you will not be allowed to participate in the second sUmer hunt. I hope you will think long and hard about lying to the Sisters again."

Breidara took a deep breath and looked around. "Does anyone else want to add anything?" No one spoke up. Many angry Sumac and Ash Camp members stood up and stormed out, followed quickly by several Dogwood people. Cedar Camp, however, followed more slowly.

Tiflona turned to Ayla and smiled. "See? There was nothing to worry about," she said.

Ayla shook her head. "I did not know that you had others ready to support me," she said with a smile. "I must admit that I wish you had told me about them."

"I'm sorry that I did not tell you sooner, but I was not sure they would both come, and I did not want to get your hopes up. It was very last minute. Mikolavia admitted last night that Kurvlodia was with him during Zadneetsia's attack on you, but Danta only came to me after our visit to the Council of Brothers this morning." Tiflona frowned. "I'm afraid this is going to cause much trouble for her."

"I am also worried about her," Ayla said, glancing over at Danta. The woman was turning to leave the Sister's tent. "I want to do something for her, but I don't know what."

Tiflona looked back at Danta. "Maybe she could spend the night with Oak Camp. That would at least give Sumac Camp a chance to calm down."

Ayla nodded. "I will ask her," she said with a smile, then rushed off to catch up with Danta before she left. Tiflona watched the daughter of Vincenzia's hearth run off, then went to speak to Breidara; she still had another issue to bring up.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

Ayla caught up of Danta just outside the Sisters' tent, and smiled widely at her. "Thank you for coming forward. I'm sure you made the difference," Ayla said confidently.

Danta smiled and said, "I'm glad I could help," though now she wasn't sure she was. Ayla saw a flicker of deceit in the woman's eyes, and knew she must be struggling with returning to Sumac Camp.

"I was wondering," Ayla started. "Well actually, we were wondering if you'd like to join us again this evening. We're going to have a celebration. And you and Danara can stay the night, if you want to."

Danta smiled again, but slowly her smile faded. She wanted to go, but she didn't know what was going to become of her place at Sumac Camp if she kept getting involved with Ayla and Oak Camp. "I don't know. I think I am in a lot of trouble. It may not be smart of me to leave camp." She was frowning. Ayla's frown matched hers.

"But that is exactly why we want you to come over, that they can calm down." Ayla shrugged. "It might help."

Danta thought it over. She doubted that anything she did was going to be enough to quell the anger Sumac Camp had for her, but at least she could spend the night away. "Okay, but I'll have to go to Sumac Camp to get Danara." She smiled. "She will be very excited," she said. She was excited too.

Ayla nodded. "I can come with you, if you need me to," Ayla said. She did not like the idea of going into Sumac Camp, but she didn't want Danta to go alone.

Danta frowned again. "No, I do not think you should, Ayla. I will be fine. I will meet you back at Oak Tent, okay?" Ayla nodded and hugged the young woman, then Danta walked off.

For a moment, Ayla was struck with the fear that she would not see Danta that night, but what could she do, Danta had told her she'd meet her back at Oak Tent. Ayla turned and left.


Danta made her way back to Sumac Tent and hoped that she could get in and out of there without any trouble, but that was not to be. The moment she walked back into Sumac Tent's space, several people confronted her.

"That was just great, Danta," Ivarsia said angrily. He was sitting in his usual place and had not gotten up. "Could you have done anything more against the camp of your birth?"

Danta just stared at her headman for a moment, then looked at all the other angry people. "I was telling the truth, Ivarsia," she stated. "Whether you want to believe it or not, your sister's son attacked Ayla. And you should be ashamed of yourself for standing up for him."

Ivarsia sat with his fingertips together and was about to speak again, when Kurvlodia stood up angrily. "You are a liar, and you made me look bad."

"No!" she yelled stubbornly. "You made you look bad. I only told the truth. You are despicable," she said with disgust. "How could you lie for Zadneetsia?" Zadneetsia was watching, but hadn't said anything; he was letting his friend deal with this one. This time, he thought.

Kurvlodia threw down his cup and approached her. "That's it," he yelled. "Someone needs to teach you a lesson, woman!" But, as he approached her, someone blocked his way. Instead of coming down on Danta, he looked into the angry eyes of Davaria, who stood between them.

"Get out of my way!" Kurvlodia snarled.

Davaria frowned. He wasn't used to standing up to the other men of the camp, but he didn't want to see the man hurt Danta, and that's what he appeared ready to do. Davaria knew violence was not allowed, but as he looked around, he didn't think anyone there cared what was allowed or not allowed. They were going to let Kurvlodia do anything he wanted.

"Kurvlodia," he said with a warning tone in his voice. "I think you need to leave my sister alone." Danta stared at her brother; he had never spoken out for her before.

"But look at the trouble she has caused," Kurvlodia said angrily. "She lies to the Council of Sisters, makes us look bad, and loses us meat from the sUmer hunt."

Davaria glanced at Danta, whose face only showed shock. "No Kurvlodia. Danta did not lie. I can tell that she speaks the truth.

"What makes you so sure, Davaria," Kurvlodia asked, narrowing his eyes and scowling.

Davaria shrugged. "A man just knows this about his twin," he said, looking at Danta again.

Kurvlodia turned a dark shade of purple as he tried to control his anger. "You are going to take her side over mine?" the man asked. "You are going to take the word of a bad luck woman over a friend."

"Kurvlodia, you are no friend. A friend would not do something like this. Yes, I will take Danta's side over yours any day." Davaria didn't have to look at Danta again to know she was smiling; he could feel it. "Leave my sister alone."

Kurvlodia hesitated for only a moment, then stepped back, allowing the woman to pass. Danta looked at her brother as she went by and smiled gratefully, then quickly headed into Sumac Tent to get her daughter. Davaria followed her, only glancing back at the rest of the camp once before entering the tent himself.


Davaria went to his sister's bed platform and sat down. He watched her dress and attempt to clean up Danara without saying a word. When she finished with her daughter and started in on herself, he grabbed her hand.

"Danta, what are you going to do?" he asked. "This is not the end, and I cannot be here to help you every time someone starts in on you."

Danta stopped and looked at him. "I know that you can't, Davaria," she said. "And I don't know what I'm going to do. But right now, I am going to go over to Oak Tent, and we are going to have a good meal and spend the night. I will have to worry about later, later." She paused. "I guess I need to thank you, Davaria," she said, hugging her brother. "But, what about you? If you keep defending me, then you will be as bad off as I."

Davaria smiled. "Well, what could I do? Let the man hurt my twin?"

Danta frowned and looked her brother in the eye. "I know you did not like that I introduced you that way," she said. Her eyes were shining with tears.

Davaria shrugged. "It just felt like you had forgotten about her, Danta. But you are right, that is what we are now." He pulled her into his arms again.

"So, Oak Tent, huh?" he said with a sigh.

Danta nodded, her head still on his chest. Then suddenly, she pushed away. "Maybe you could come with us. I do not think they would mind." She could see him start to shake his head; though she may be ready to wage war against their camp, he wasn't sure he was.

"I don't think so, Danta. Besides, I wasn't invited."

"They won't care," she said, standing and tugging on his tunic sleeve. "Please, Davaria. Please come with us," she begged.

Davaria frowned. This was sure to make things really bad for both of them, but things were already bad, weren't they? Finally the man nodded. "Okay, I will go with you."

Danta smiled widely and threw her arms around his neck. "Oh thank you," she exclaimed.


Danta spent a short time helping her brother look more presentable. There was no time to wash his clothing, but she used some teasel to brush them to get off some of the grime, and then pulled out a blade so that he could shave his face. After he had finished, she wiped off his face with a wet piece of leather, and finished by straightening his hair somewhat.

Danara just smiled at her uncle and sat quietly as her mother worked on him. She could hardly wait to get Oak Tent to see her friends, but she was patient. Plus, she did not want to say anything to make her mother change her mind.

When they were finished, Davaria followed his sister outside to leave. He shot a quick look at Kurvlodia and the others, who eyed them suspiciously, then continued on with his sister and her daughter.


"Are you sure they will not mind me coming with you?" Davaria asked. He knew he was considered as bad as the other young Sumac Camp men.

Danta stopped and shook her head. "No, I'm not sure, but they will not ask you to leave, so don't worry...and don't drink too much bouza," she said, straightening his tunic again. "I don't want to give them any reason to wish they hadn't invited me."

Davaria nodded. "I won't drink any," he said with a smile.

Danta smiled. "I didn't say not to have fun, Davaria. I just don't want you to...drink a lot. Sometimes you're hard to handle when you've had too much."

"I understand, Danta. Please don't worry. I will behave myself," he reassured her. "Promise." She smiled.


By the time Davaria, Danta and Danara reached Oak Tent, the celebration was well underway. Danara immediately ran off to play with her new friends, which surprised Davaria; he had never seen Danta's daughter so lively.

A few people cast questioning glances at him, and he was sure he was going to be asked to leave, but he wasn't. Ivanolia even brought him a drink, which he politely accepted, but only sipped, to honor his sister's request.

Danta introduced him to the people he did not know, including Grov, and then was pulled away from him by Tiflona; the headwoman seemed to have a few questions to ask her.


"So, Davaria," Ivanolia said. "What brings you to Oak Tent?"

Davaria frowned. "Danta asked me to come with her," he stated honestly.

Ivanolia's brow furrowed. "I don't seem to remember you spending much time with your sister in the past."

"I suppose I didn't Ivanolia, but things are a little different right now."

Ivanolia just nodded. That is good to hear, he thought, though he didn't know exactly what was different between the brother and sister.


For most of the evening, the people sat and talked outside by their fire. Several other people joined them, including Mikolavia from Beech Camp, who had only come because Tiflona had still wanted to talk to him. After speaking with her, he was drawn into a conversation with Ivanolia and Davaria, and ended up staying for most of the celebration.

Others that had joined Oak Tent in their celebration were Vincenzia's cousin, Vardasia, who was the headman of Willow Camp, and the headman from Spruce Camp, Sardovia.

"I wanted to thank you two," Vincenzia said to the men. "Ayla mentioned that both of you supported her claim at the first meeting." The men nodded.

"You are most welcome, Vincenzia," said Vardasia. "Ivarsia was trying so hard to make Ayla look bad, but I could tell she was speaking the truth. And, we are kin. That has to mean something in this mixed up world, doesn't it?" Vincenzia smiled. As did Sardovia.

"Yes," said Sardovia. "And there is just something about that daughter of your hearth, Vincenzia; she seems more honest than most. But I'm sure it would have been impossible to make her look bad." He paused, glancing over at the woman who was talking amiably with some of the younger adults. "She is quite striking," he finished.

Vincenzia and Vardasia followed the other man's gaze and both smiled. "Yes, she is," Vincenzia agreed. "Though one isn't supposed to say that about the daughter of one's own hearth, is he?" The men laughed.

"So Sardovia, has something been done about Janika?" Vincenzia asked. "She was quite a handful during the hunt, but I haven't seen her around today."

Sardovia frowned. "Yes, Jeeteria came to me immediately with what had happened, and I restricted her to our Tent and Tentfire. Jeeteria wasn't too happy about it, but he's not very happy with her right now either. To be honest, he's quite uncomfortable with having Grov so close, but he can just live with it, as far as I'm concerned." They now looked over at Grov, who had been drawn into the conversation with Ivanolia, Davaria and Mikolavia. "I really don't see anything wrong with the man."

"No, there isn't anything wrong with him, or any of the other Clan people, for that matter," Vincenzia said. "I spent a large amount of the winter with them, and they are good people."

Vardasia frowned. "People are going to be hard to convince though. Most think they are animals."

"I know," Vincenzia said. "But if we do it a few at a time, then it won't be so hard. Look at you two. Would you have believed that you'd be supporting Grov, a man of the Clan, before this sUmer meeting?" Both of the men shook their heads; no, they would not have believed it if the Mother had told them.


The celebration went on until late into the night, but slowly people started to drop off. The elder members of Oak Tent had disappeared in ones and twos, and finally the younger adults left the tentfire and went inside. This was where Danta and Davaria didn't know what to do. They knew they had been invited to stay over, but they didn't know where they would stay.

Ayla walked Danta back to where the girls would sleep, and both women smiled when they found the three girls already sound asleep on top of the furs. Danta picked up Danara and held her while Ayla maneuvered her daughters around to make it possible to pull the fur over them, then Danta put Danara back down.

"She looks so peaceful," Danta commented. "She never looks that way in her own bed." Ayla frowned, but didn't know what to say.

"Ahh, I was going to make tea," Ayla said. "Would you like some?" Danta nodded. "You go back to the others, I'll go get it." Ayla turned and walked toward the back of the tent. Danta went the other way.


Back where everyone else was, Danta's eyes quickly found her brother. He was sitting on a semi-circular bench in the middle of the space and he looked somewhat uncomfortable, though it was only because he didn't know what he was supposed to do. Danta noticed that Ivanolia was with him and she smiled. She had always liked Ivanolia. He was so fair-haired, quite unlike anyone at Sumac Camp. That was why she had asked for the man when it had been time for her First Rites. Well, that, and the fact that she didn't want any of the men from Sumac Camp to touch her, she thought.

Danta looked over at Ivanolia's mate. Danie was so opposite to the man, with her short, nearly black hair, but they did seem to fit together well, and the woman was pregnant already. That was good luck, Danta thought. Danta watched Ivanolia's mate. She didn't know Danie very well; she had only met her on that first night that Ayla had invited her over, but she had liked her a lot, and thought she was very lucky to have mated Ivanolia. Danta smiled and crossed the space to join the woman.

Danie, who was relaxing on the bed platform she shared with Ivanolia, was talking to a few others, but looked up at Danta and smiled. "Come, sit down," she said, patting the bed next to her. Danta smiled and nervously sat down.

"We were just talking about Davaria," Laurana said. "He looks good."

Danta looked over at her brother. "I guess so," she responded. "We did not have much time to clean up. I hope it's okay that I brought him."

"Of course it is," Danie said.

"I had some trouble getting out of Sumac Camp, and Davaria made it possible for Danara and me to come here. I just couldn't leave him there."

Laurana smiled. "You don't have to explain, Danta. It's okay, really."

"Tea?" Ayla said, suddenly appearing with a tray of cups. Everyone smiled and nodded.


As it turned out, Danta and Davaria shared Tinozia's bed, since the young man was still away enduring his Shomata. They lay awake long after everyone else slept, whispering to each other in the darkness.

"This is what I want," Danta whispered. "I want to live with people that don't drink themselves to sleep every night and who care for each other."

"I know you do, Danta. And I think you should have this, but these are not our people," Davaria said quietly. "And you can't have everything you want, you know?"

"I know that," she said sadly, leaning her head on her brother's shoulder. "But I can wish for it though, can't I?" She closed her eyes. "I am going to, beg the Mother for help."

Davaria frowned in the dark. Yes, he thought, she could wish things were different. And she could beg the Mother for help, but the Mother had never granted any of his wishes before. Why would she answer Danta's? he wondered.

Then he thought that maybe, if he added his plea to Danta's, the Mother might take notice and remove his sister from their miserable camp and give her what she deserved. He would miss her, but he did want her to be happy, even if he was not. And having her alive and happy somewhere else, was better than having her nearby and in pain, or dead, like Dreena. The man's heart still ached for their dead sister. But really, he thought, she is better off too. Though Dreena had at least been loved by their mother, she had been miserable too; she had had to watch their mother ignore Danta, as Davaria continued to do now. He still did not understand why Trata felt the way she did.

Finally, Davaria fell asleep, but it was just after he sent his request to the Mother. All I ask is that you help my sister.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

The next morning everyone was up early, but not by choice. Travie had risen before dawn and had a morning meal going. She was going around waking everyone.

"Get up, get up!" she called out loudly, clapping her hands together, as she walked through the central passageway of Oak Tent. "It's time to eat." A few people groaned, but most rolled out of bed.

Danta sat up and rubbed her eyes, then smiled over at Ayla. Ayla was up already, pulling a long fringed tunic over her head.

"Does she do this often," Danta asked, glancing down at her closed-eyed brother. She could tell Davaria was awake, but he wasn't usually an early riser, mostly due to the amount of bouza he had the habit of taking in; she was glad he had limited the previous night's consumption to two cups.

Ayla shrugged. "I don't know," she answered. "This is the first time she's done this since we've been around."

Danie groaned. "Yes, this is quite normal for my mother," she confirmed. "Maybe I should have encouraged her to move to Oak Camp without me."

"Hey!" Ivanolia exclaimed. "What about me?" He was standing above her trying to look upset. "What am I? Chopped bison? It thought you came here for me."

Danie hid a smile. "Hmm, I've been questioning that decision since I got here."

Ivanolia looked hurt for a moment, then realized she was only joking and reached down to pull her out of bed. "Okay, that's enough out of you," he said, tickling his mate without mercy.

"Mother." Darvie could be heard from the other end of the central passageway. "Some people would like to get some sleep."

"Yes, yes, I know," Travie said. "But I've made a meal, so get up."

"I am up, though I wish I weren't," Darvie said with a frown. Then she noticed Vincenzia walking down the passageway. Her mate was an early riser as well; he had already been up and out. "What is it with you old people?" Darvie asked the tent at large and smiled.

Vincenzia laughed. He could tell she was irritated, but as usual, she had turned it around. That's what he liked about her; she had no temper whatsoever. "Old people?" he questioned, raising his eyebrows. "Who you calling old?" He slipped his arm around Darvie and grinned at her.

Darvie tried to look serious. "Well you, of course. After all, I am eleven years younger than you, you old man."

He continued to grin, but leaned down to kiss her. Then he called out to Travie. "We're coming, Travie. Hold your grain."


Outside they ate a full meal. It was not just the grain cereal that they had so often. Travie had outdone herself, and nearly everyone went back for seconds.

Davaria and Danta were surprised at the amount of food that was prepared for a morning meal; no one ever cooked so much at Sumac Camp. In fact, it was more of a fend-for-yourself type of lifestyle at Sumac Camp. Even celebrations produced meager amounts of food, since most people preferred to drink themselves full.

Danara ate heartily, asking her mother for thirds, then went off to play with the other children. Davaria just stared after the child, shaking his head. Danta is right, he told himself again. This is all her daughter needs, love, acceptance and good food.


After eating, Tagnolia and Tiflona called for everyone's attention. Ayla looked up at them and was surprised at the seriousness of their expressions. She glanced around at the other people; everyone had expectant looks...everyone, but Ivanolia, she realized. He seemed to know what was going on, and it suddenly struck Ayla that he had told them his secret and that this meeting was about that secret.

"Yesterday, after Ayla's meeting with the Sisters, we brought another grave matter to them, and we decided to push for a meeting today," Tiflona said.

"I think it would be better to ask the children to leave," said Tagnolia, looking at Frala and Fräubita, who had only recently become women. "Would you two please bring them inside, so that we may talk?" Both young women frowned, wishing they could be part of the discussion, but nodded and got up to leave.

Tiflona watched them go, then looked back at her people.


"So, obviously Ivanolia is going to go with us to the meeting, but I would like to have Donzolnia there too, because it could be most helpful to have first hand information to pass on to the Councils if we want to put an end to this. And Grov, Ayla and Travie, Darvie or Danie too, if you do not mind. All of you have stories to tell that might be convincing. Grov is the product of this, Ayla knows of this happening, and our Mamutoi members are related to Rydag, also the product of this. What do you say?"

Ayla watched Grov. He nodded. "I will go," he said. His mind was on his mother, Ayla knew.

Ayla then looked at Tiflona. "I could tell Oda's story," she said. "The way I heard it at the Clan gathering.

Travie and Darvie nodded. They would go. And Danie put up her hand. "I do not know if what we have to add about Rydag will be important enough to make a difference, but I will go, if only to support Ivanolia." Ivanolia smiled at her sadly.

And finally, Vincenzia stood. "And I will go too, if that is okay. I would like to be there for Ayla and Darvie."

Tagnolia and Tiflona nodded. "That is good. It will be most helpful to have speakers," Tiflona said with a sigh. Tagnolia was about to say something when another hand went up.


Davaria had been sitting there quietly, listening to the meeting of Oak Camp members and wondering if they had forgotten that they had visitors. They were discussing the favorite pastime of some of Sumac Camp's younger men: forcing Clan women. He was quite nervous.

Slowly, he looked over at Danta, who was staring wide-eyed at Tiflona, and then he looked at Ivanolia; the man hadn't looked at him. Davaria quickly made a decision; he would do the right thing. He put his hand up.

"Davaria?" Tagnolia said. "Did you want to add something?" Danta turned to stare at her brother.

Davaria looked back at her for a moment, then nodded. "Y-yes," he said, then he cleared his throat. "I know that I am not part of Oak Camp, but if you do not mind, I . . ." He stopped.

Tiflona frowned. "If you have something that will help, then of course we don't mind."

Davaria turned to Danta and frowned. She took his hand. "I have been a part of these raids myself," he finally said and blushed crimson. Danta's eyes widen again. "It is always something that young men talk about, but never do. Or at least never admit to doing."

Tiflona nodded. "Well, if you will come with us and speak as well, then we would be grateful."

Tagnolia nodded as well. "And we are not planning on exposing the men that have taken part in this. We just want to have a ban put on it, so that it cannot happen any longer. So it is your choice to make such an admission, Davaria. We do not expect you to do this, nor will we point out that you have told us, should you choose to change your mind. Davaria nodded. He understood.

"So we will go over there shortly. All the headmen and women have been notified, but only some know what we are coming together to discuss. Again, we just want a ban put on this act, not punishment to those that have participated in it."


They decided to keep their numbers down, so as not to appear ready to make more trouble than was necessary; only the few that would speak would come, with Vincenzia coming only for support. Davaria had gone to walk Danta and Danara back to Sumac Tent, and would join them later, if he still wanted to.


This time when they entered the Sister's tent, Ayla let herself look around to really see where she was. This time she was not so nervous, not yet, anyway. They entered and sat down at the back. The Sisters' tent was large and conical in shape, and 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 wondered why she had not noticed how it was made when she had been there the day before.

After inspecting the tent, Ayla looked around to see all the headmen and women coming in. She frowned when she saw Ivarsia and Kazaskia look over at her and scowl, then turned her attention back to the others that were sitting around waiting. There were the eight Oak Camp members, and a few Beech Camp members, and some others she knew, but there was also a great many people that she did not recognize. That final group of people was the largest.

Finally, the meeting was called to order and Tiflona was asked to explain why everyone was there.

"This is ridiculous," Ivarsia shouted. "Why do we care what some young men are doing to the flatheads; they are just animals." He glanced over at Grov. "They are of no concern to us."

Ash Camp's headman was standing as well. "Why is Oak Camp trying to cause more trouble? Haven't we had enough of this?"

Tiflona was shaking her head. "That is not true, Ivarsia...Kazaskia, they are not animals and we do not want to make trouble. We only want to stop trouble." Tiflona paused, then continued. "I would like to let a few people tell of their experiences with this, so that we may understand this more. It is much more common than we know." Tiflona looked at Grov. "Grov, would you tell us about your people?"

Grov stood up and faced the group of people staring at him.

"Well, I do not know much about my mother's people, and her mother's people, but I do know that it was very difficult. My mother died before she could give me enough details to really understand, so most of my information came from other people. I know that we came from farther west than any clan around here, nowhere near the peninsula in the south where Ayla and I now reside, and that some of the clans to the west have lighter hair." Ayla realized he was repeating the same story he had told Darnev, almost word for word.

"I know that my mother looked more clan than I do, and that she was attacked by the Others. That is what we call people like you, the Others. I also know that her mother had had to endure a similar attack many years before my mother. And, my mother seemed to think that even her mother's mother had been mixed, but she wasn't positive about that." Some of the women were frowning at the insight into the lives of some flathead women.

"I remember my mother telling me how badly she was treated for looking so different, and that sometimes there were things she just could not understand. She said that eventually it got so bad that she and her mate, and some others left, and went to look for some place else to live. She said that her mother's people had done the same years before, and that each group that left didn't seem to learn a lesson; they continued to be intolerant of the newest babies that were born." Grov continued to talk.

"I'm not really sure when or how it happened, because I was still young, but we left our territory again, and I guess we entered Sungaea territory. As you obviously know, most Sungaeans don't tolerate the Clan, but there were some people just north of Beran Sea that joined us; they were mixtures of Clan and Sungaea. We traveled until we found some caves long a nice river valley, and settled there. After that we tried hard to live in harmony. Among us we had full clan people, mixed people, and later, a few people that were full Others. We did not have the rigid rules that so many clans have. It was just our way. That is how I grew up."

Grov swallowed and continued again, this time coming to his most recent experience with his mother, which was also his last. "I was eight years old when my mother died. It happened just after Nora...I mean, Evenora arrived with her family and joined our clan. My mother just disappeared; we never found her. It was a good thing I had Evenora's family...I'm sure that Vinoza's presence saved me." Grov looked around at the shocked people. Most had no clue as to where Teglodia, Vinoza and Evenora had gone, but now they did and it was a shock.

"After that move and coming across Teglodia and Vinoza, I remember being treated very well by most people. I remember that Teg and Oza were very good to me, but we didn't have contact with any Others; it was too dangerous."

That is where the man stopped. It was obviously painful to go through that story and many had wet eyes and a new appreciation of what some flatheads had had to go through.

Tiflona gave the man a moment to return to his seat, then she moved on. "Ayla, why don't you tell us how you met Grov, and what you know about this topic."

Ayla stood and approached. Her heart was pumping wildly again. "I would like to start with before meeting Grov, if that is all right." She was looking at Tiflona. The headwoman nodded.

"I do not remember my young life, here with you people, the Sungaea," Ayla began. "I only remember the earthquake, and a cave lion who made these scars on my leg." Ayla pulled down her leggings to expose the scars and turned so all could see them. "Iza, my Clan mother, told me that she found me by the river, unconscious. I now know that I was five years old then." Ayla swallowed.

"Iza was a medicine woman...but you would call her a healer. She healed my leg. She saved me and the leader, Brun, allowed me to become Clan. And Creb, our Mog-ur, which is like your Shogur, taught me the ways of the Clan, and he taught me how to speak the way they do, and he loved me. Iza and Creb...all of the Clan...took care of me. I was not Clan, but they took care of me."

Ayla went through some of her experiences, but not all of them of course; there really wasn't time for that. When she got to the Clan gathering she told Oda's story, but did not mention Ivanolia or any of the other men that had taken part. She did, however, look over at her cousin and see pain in his eyes; she had finally mentioned the death of Oda's first daughter, which she had so carefully avoided before. Ivanolia was grief stricken at the thought of the child's death. His only consolation was that he knew he had not been responsible for the death, and now he understood Ayla's extensive questioning on the day he told them about the incident.

Ayla finally moved on to Grov. "I met Grov after another earthquake; this one took our cave. We were out searching for a new one when we had an accident that drew us down river. That is where we met the survivors of Grov's clan. There weren't many of them, only ten survivors from the earthquake and they wanted joined us. When we found the cave we now live in, Grov and I were mated." Ayla stopped and looked at Tiflona. "I am finished now," she said.

Tiflona smiled. "Thank you, Ayla." The headwoman turned to look at the three Mamutoi women. "Would one, or all of you tell us about Rydag?" Travie stood up and approached the front.

"This story is about a boy named Rydag; a boy that looks nearly identical to Ayla's son Durc. I was not there, but Nezzie, who is my cousin's mate, is the boy's adopted mother, so I have heard this story plenty.

"They were out hunting megaceros when Nezzie noticed a Clan woman hiding near their hunting camp. Nezzie says that the woman didn't run away when she saw her looking, only when she tried to get closer, but she did notice that the woman was very pregnant. She decided to leave food out for her." Travie paused and looked around at the people, staring in rapt attention.

"Nezzie says that she saw the woman several times, but every time she tried to get closer, the Clan woman would run away. Finally, she realized the woman was in labor, so she asked her mate to go after the woman. Nezzie helped to deliver the boy, but the Clan woman died before the sun came up." Travie paused again.

"The boy is very sickly and hasn't been treated well by the Mamutoi people, but he much loved by those of Lion Camp. And now that Ayla has taught him how to speak the way the Clan does, he is much happier. But he, and others like him, need to be accepted; they are people, not animals."

Tiflona stood again and people could tell that Travie was finished. She was about to go on again, but Ivarsia had his hand up.

"This is all very interesting," he said, giving a fake yawn. "But really, who cares? All this is, is just a bunch of stories about the lives of flatheads, and not even stories told by the people that had these experiences. It might be different if Grov's mother was here," he said, looking at the mixed man. "Or this Oda woman...or maybe even the little abomination's mother, but they're not. Personally, I think this," he said, gesturing about, "Doesn't mean anything." Several people were nodding.

Tiflona smiled. This was exactly what she wanted to hear. "Well, I do have some first hand accounts to present, if you are willing to hear them?" Ivarsia narrowed his eyes, but shrugged.

Tiflona looked at Ivanolia and Donzolnia, who both stood and came forward. Ivanolia was quite nervous, but went through his story. He never mentioned who the other culprits were, as they had promised Davaria, but he gave a detailed account of the incident, including the fact that the woman he had forced was Oda, the very same woman that lived with Grov and Ayla's clan. He even mentioned that Oda had given birth to a child that Ayla believed to be of his spirit. There were several gasps of dismay at that information, then everyone turned to look at Donzolnia. Donzolnia confirmed that he had been present during the incident, but that he had not participated.

Kazaskia scoffed at the new information. "So? Is that it? One man admits to doing what many young men talk about, and we need to have a meeting. Tiflona, you are wasting our time...again."

"This is not a waste of time, Kazaskia. We need to put a stop to this kind of behavior," Tiflona said angrily. "And no, that is not it?" she went on, glad to see Davaria enter the tent. "I have one more person to call...Davaria?"

Davaria came forward, but avoided the angry looks from the headmen of his area. "My experience is probably similar to that of Ivanolia, though I was not there with him. I have participated in the forcing of Clan females several times. And there are many of us that do it. It is not uncommon at all." Davaria decided that that was all he could contribute and went to sit down. Tiflona was quite pleased. Ivarsia and Kazaskia, however, were glaring furiously at the young man, as were many of the men that had been a part of this.

"Okay Tiflona, you have made your point," one of the headwomen said. "I agree, this is a problem. But what do you want to do about it?"

"I want it to stop. I want forcing Clan women to be banned. I want anyone caught forcing any woman, Clan or Others, to be permanently restrained. I want camps that gain knowledge that they have men like this among them, to turn them over to the Councils or face disbandment for supporting such evil. I want this to end, here and now." Tiflona stopped, arms folded across her chest, and waited for someone to say something, but she wasn't ready for what happened next; the tent erupted with shouts from all sides.

Davaria watched for a short time, then sneaked out to get back to Danta. He had done what he could.


Back at Sumac Camp, Danta had spent a little time with her brother, before he had left to go to the Sisters' meeting. Davaria had felt he needed to sit down with her and tell her more about all he had done. He had actually cried while he told her.

"Do you hate me?" he had asked her.

Danta had smiled and wrapped her arms around him. "Of course not, Davaria. I could never hate you. I do not understand how you could do it, but I will not waste time being angry. Life is too full of that," she said sadly.

Davaria had frowned. "You are too good to me, Danta. After all I have done to you, you still support me."

"You are all I have left. You and Danara." She paused. "Maybe the three of us could leave together. It would be hard, but we might be able to do it. Maybe we could make a journey, or find some other people," she said hopefully. "What do you think?"

Davaria sat up and looked at her. "Are you serious? You'd really leave the safety of a camp of people, to be alone with just me and Danara?"

Danta shook her head. "I am not safe here. It is only a matter of time before someone hurts me for what I have done."

Davaria frowned again. She was probably right, and what about him. After he went to this meeting, he was bound to be in for it too. "Okay, Danta. I will think about it, but it's going to take some planning. We can't leave today."

She nodded. "Did you decide to go speak at the meeting?"

"Yes. I am going to go there now. Are you coming?"

Danta frowned. She wanted to be there to support him, but Danara was sleeping. "I think that I should stay here with Danara."

"That is fine. I understand. You should try to get some sleep too," he said with a smile. "You look terrible."

Danta grinned and gave him a push. "Just go!"


Danta had watched her brother go, then sighed and walked toward their tent to check on her daughter and then get some sleep. She suddenly realized that she was extremely tired.

However, the moment she entered the tent, she was accosted by Zadneetsia.

"So, you think you can give information about me and get away with it," he said, grabbing her by the hair and dragging her through the tent. Danta screamed in pain, but knew there was no one around to hear her. She had been wondering where everyone was.

"How dare you even come back here," he sneered, and shoved her back. Danta flew back and toppled over one of the empty bed platforms, falling hard to the ground.

"Zadneetsia, please," she cried. "You were lying. I could not not say anything."

Zadneetsia had crossed the space quickly and was now reaching down to pick her back up. He looked as if he was going to hit her, and she cowered in fear, holding one arm up over her head to protect herself. No one had ever struck her before, not even Trata.

The man watched her and lowered his hand. He didn't want to hurt her, he thought. At least not in that way. There were far better ways of hurting this woman.

"Take off your dress, Danta," he demanded with a sly look. Danta just stared at him. His eyes were roving up and down her body.

"W-what? N-no," she finally responded, holding her arms crossed over her chest and backing away.

"Oh, come on," he said, stepping forward and pulling her toward him. "This is how you can pay for making me lose the bison meat, and for making me look bad. And for running off to Oak Tent again last night." He was holding her wrists with one hand and shaking the index finger on his other hand at her. "We can't have that, now can we?" He flashed her a vicious smile.

Danta continued to struggle against him. "No. You cannot make me do this," she said, managing to pull her hands away and smack him a few times. He only laughed and grabbed her again, then picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. She kicked hard and screamed, but it did no good, he was too strong and no one was there to hear her.

"I'm not sure you understand," he said, shaking his head as carrying her to his bed. "I can make you do this." He laughed. "You are going to do this, or things could get much worse for you."

Danta was in a panic, and was pounding her fists on the man's back and screaming. She got once glimpse of her frightened daughter, who was across the tent in her bed, before the man tossed her onto his bed and began untying the waistthong of his leggings.

Danta watched him and looked around for an escape, but there was none. "Please, Zadneetsia," she whimpered. "Don't do this. Please don't force me to do this," she begged.

The man stared down at her and smiled. This was turning out to be much more fun than he had hoped, he thought, as he stepped out of his leggings. Danta stared at his hard manhood and began to cry.

"Please Zadneetsia," she said again, holding her arms against her chest, fingers intertwined and to her lips. "Please," she begged.

The man only stared down at her for a moment. He eyes seemed to become unfocused, then he reached down and roughly pushed up her dress to give himself access. Then he climbed on top of her.

Danta tried to fight against him, twisting around in the bed and hitting him repeatedly, and holding her legs together as firmly as she could, but the large and powerful man easily pushed her legs apart with his knee and pushed himself into her. She cried out loudly, not from pain, but instead, from anger and frustration. She couldn't believe this was happening to her.

It did not take long for the man to reach his climax, and with his last few pumps, he groaned loudly and collapsed on her. "Now, isn't that better?" he asked. Danta had tears streaming down her face, and all she wanted to do was run away, but she couldn't move; he had her pinned down. She was sobbing quietly and he was breathing heavily, but both stopped to listen when they heard something.

"Danta?" came a voice from behind one of the hide partitions. It's Davaria, she thought frantically, and began to struggle again. Danta would have screamed, but Zadneetsia had clapped his hand over her mouth and shook his head. They lay there like that until Davaria disappeared, then Zadneetsia spoke.

"And don't think you can go tell anyone about this, or you'll be sorry. You have that little girl to worry about," he said with a threatening tone. "Wouldn't want anything to happen to her, would you?" Danta's eyes widened. A few more tears fell, then she shook her head.

Zadneetsia gave her another malevolent smile. "That's a good girl," he said. "Now get dressed and get out of my bed! I need to get some sleep."


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

Danta got up as he had instructed and tugged at her dress; Zadneetsia had pushed it up over her breasts. Danta had let her tears fall freely while the man violated her, but now that it was over, she wiped them away furiously. She glanced over her shoulder, but didn't move to leave right away. She just stared at Zadneetsia with angry, hate-filled eyes. Finally he opened his eyes.

"Are you still here?" he asked. "I need to sleep, so get out of here!" The man rolled over to sleep.

Danta gave him a defiant look and crossed her arms over her chest. "Do not think you will get away with this, Zadneetsia. I guarantee you will not!"

Zadneetsia opened his eyes again and rolled back over to look up at her. "I already have Danta," he said, giving her his most vicious smile. "You won't be able to prove anything, just like Ayla couldn't, so you better forget it. And don't forget that you have someone to protect." He nodded his head toward the partition that separated them from her daughter. "If I were you, I'd be ready to service me again...if ever I feel the need to use you again." He rolled back over.

Danta glanced in the direction of her daughter, then she shuddered, realizing what he had just said. Hurt Danara? Use me again. Finally, she couldn't take it, she retreated.

At first, she didn't know what to do with herself. She wanted to go to the river to bathe; she just had to get the smell of Zadneetsia off of her, but she couldn't leave her daughter there, where the man could hurt her.

She went to check on Danara, who was lying in her bed pretending to sleep. The woman blushed with shame for exposing her daughter to such a scene. At least she could not see what happened in the end, she thought, glad for once that Zadneetsia had put forth the extra effort to separate himself from the others.

Danta smiled down at her daughter, then placed her hand on the child's forehead. Danara opened her eyes. "Hallo Mamma," she whispered with a worried frown. "Are you okay?" Danta nodded. "Why are you crying?" Danta let slip another tear and swallowed hard. "Did Zadneetsia hurt you, Mamma?" Danara pushed. Danta nodded again, then buried her head in her daughter's shoulder.

The woman sat there crying for a short time, then decided they needed to get up. She needed to go wash, but didn't want to take Danara with her; she needed some time to cleanse herself, and she wanted to be alone for that. But she couldn't leave Danara alone there either, not after Zadneetsia had threatened to hurt her as well. Danta frowned. Maybe Davaria is still nearby, she thought, he'd watch his niece. Quickly, she dressed her daughter and they went outside.

The two of them stepped outside and Danta squinted into the bright sunlight and went to where the water was kept so that she could give her daughter a drink. The water basket was low again. There was enough for a couple more cups, but that was all.

Danta looked around. Davaria was nowhere to be seen. Sighing, Danta decided that she'd have to take her daughter with her. Then she saw her mother come out of Ash Tent. The older woman saw her too, and turned to go, but Danta rushed over to her.

"Mother, I need you to watch Danara for a while," Danta said, standing in front of the woman. "I...ah...need to go get some water from the river. We are all out."

Trata shook her head. "I do not need to do anything, Danta," the woman said coldly.

Danta frowned. "You know what, Trata," Danta said, using her mother's given name in frustration. "I have never asked you for anything! My whole life you have ignored me, and I don't even know why. What have I done?" Danta yelled. "Just tell me why you hate me to!"

Trata scowled at her. "It is the very fact that you exist, Danta."

Danta laughed. "Yes, and that is my fault, how?" Trata only looked away, which caused Danta to straighten up angrily. "You are very sick! A waste of a woman!" Danta flared with such venom that Trata finally looked back at her. "Just stay here with Danara and tell Davaria where I went, if he comes back." With that, Danta turned and went over to Danara.

"I will be back soon," she said to her daughter. "I want you to stay with Trata. Do not go back inside our tent, for any reason. Do you understand me?" Danara nodded, but looked over at Trata nervously. The older woman hadn't said more than ten words to her in her entire life and now her mother wanted her to stay with the woman.

"I know you are scared, but she won't let anything happen to you. When Davaria gets back, you can stay with him, okay?" Danara nodded, then watched her mother pick up a towel, some soaproot and teasel, and the water basket, then head out of camp.

Danara looked back at Trata. The older woman was staring at her. "Come here, girl," she commanded, snapping her fingers and then pointing. "Just sit down there and stay out of my way." Danara sat down and frowned into her cup.


Danta hurried east through the sUmer meeting, then, once she was outside the outer ring of the meeting, she ran as fast as her feet would carry her. When she arrived at the river, she stripped down quickly and entered the water. Danta spent a few moments pounding the soaproot, then roughly rubbed herself down, mixing sand with the soaproot to make it abrasive. She needed to wash the man's touch off of her. Only when her skin was shiny and pink in color was she satisfied that it was gone. Then she dunked under the water to rinse before getting out. She wanted to spend some more time there, resting and trying to get the rape out of her head, but she needed to get back to Danara. She knew her daughter was safe with Trata, but she didn't want to be too long.

Once out of the water, Danta shook out her dress and put it back on, then smoothed back her medium-length brown hair, and used the teasel to comb out her tangles. When she finished, she sighed. She definitely felt better; she didn't even feel Zadneetsia's hands on her anymore. She headed back.


Davaria had gone to Oak Tent looking for Danta. It was the only place he could think of that Danta might have gone. Zarina had frowned and shook her head. "No, Danta is not here," she said. "She left with you and has not returned."

Davaria's brow furrowed and his mind raced. He thanked Zarina and headed back to Sumac Tent. Was Danta inside Sumac Tent and I didn't see her? he asked himself. I don't think so, he thought. Wouldn't she have answered me when I called out to her, if she had been? He shook his head and thought about Danara. Danara had been there; he did see her, but no Danta. He frowned. It wasn't unusual for Danta to leave her daughter there alone. The child never wanted to get up, and Danta had things to do. Davaria was worried and started to run.


Davaria arrived at Sumac Tent and frowned in confusion when he saw Danara sitting there with Trata. Trata never put forth any grandmotherly effort, not that she was now, he thought. They were just sitting there.

"Mother?" Davaria said questioningly, looking from his mother to Danara. "Where is Danta?"

Trata scowled. "Your sister found it necessary to burden me with her responsibility." She didn't even glance at Danara, but Davaria did.

"Mother, I asked you where Danta went," Davaria said.

Trata shrugged noncommittally, causing Davaria to look toward Sumac Tent. Slowly, he turned and entered the tent, checking each bed for his sister. The only person inside was Zadneetsia, apparently sleeping off another skin of bouza.

"Mother, do you know where Danta is, or not?" the man asked once outside again.

Trata shrugged again, but answered this time. "Yess," she said, rolling her eyes. "She went to get water from the river."

Davaria frowned. "Alone?" he asked.

"Of course alone," Trata snapped at him. "Who would go with her? She didn't even want to take her daughter," the woman yelled angrily.

"I'm sure it's not like that, mother," Davaria said, defending his sister's choice to leave Danara behind. "She must have had a good reason." He paused. "Unlike you."

Trata's face turned red. "You have no idea what you're talking about, son. You better watch what you say to me, or you might just find yourself as alone as she is."

Davaria blanched. She is truly evil, he thought. "Well, that would be a punishment," he threw back. "It's not like you put much into me either, mother." He glanced at Danara, who was shrinking into her seat. "Come here, Danara," the man said, holding out his hand. "We're leaving." Danara got up and went to the man and they left.


Just outside Sumac Camp's space Davaria knelt down and looked into Danara's face. "I need to go find your mother. Do you think you can find your way to Oak Camp?"

The girl smiled and nodded. "Of course I can," she said.

Davaria grinned, then hugged her. "I'm sure they will let you stay there until we get back, but I'll hurry, okay?" The girl nodded again. Davaria patted her back and watched her run off, then went east, toward Klyen River.


Back at the meeting in the tent of the Sisters, people were shouting and arguing, and accusations were being made. The people were out of control

Tiflona looked around. She hadn't expected things to get so out of hand, but the entire meeting had gone awry. Someone had brought up the incident with Janika and someone else turned it around to make it look as if Grov were to blame. Finally, the Oak headwoman couldn't take it anymore; she shouted for everyone's attention.

"What in the Mother's name is going on here?" Tiflona yelled angrily. "This is not about Grov. This is about putting an end to forcing Clan women."

Ivarsia sat back down. "Well, we think this is about Grov. I mean, really, should the daughter of Vincenzia's hearth be allowed to bring this flathead here?" Several were shaking their heads, obviously some agreed with him.

Ayla was watching and wondering why everyone was so concerned about the man she had mated. Grov was a good man. She put her hand up and waited for someone to notice. Tiflona nodded at her.

Staying where she was, Ayla spoke. "Ivarsia," she said looking at the man. "I do not understand why you trouble yourself thinking about who I am mated to, when I am perfectly happy with him. I am not asking you to love him."

Ivarsia flushed. "Do not think I trouble myself for you, Ayla. That mate of yours is a danger to us all. Just because you choose to expose yourself to him, doesn't mean we all want to be tainted by those animal flatheads."

"They are not animals," Ayla cried in frustration. "What is wrong with you?" Ayla felt hands resting on her shoulders, and glanced up and back to see Grov kneeling behind her. He smiled and squeezed her shoulders firmly. She relaxed, but shook her head sadly.

Vincenzia looked at Ayla's sad face and turned to speak. "Ivarsia," he said. "Everyone, we do not expect you to be comfortable with this. I know that we have hated the Clan for a long time, but we have to make changes. We have no choice. These people are part of this world and we cannot pretend they don't exist." Vincenzia looked back at Ayla and Grov, and smiled.

"I had a hard time with this too, when first I learned where the daughter of my hearth was, but then I went there. I visited them and learned that they are not just people, but good people." The man paused and looked back at Grov again. "I have no question in my mind that Grov . . .," Vincenzia said before hearing a loud scream from a short distance away. Everyone stopped listening to Vincenzia and turned to look at the tent entrance. Ayla did too, but being a medicine woman put her in motion faster than anyone else. Jarred into action by the scream, Ayla stood and fled the tent.

Arriving outside only an instant later, she stopped short to see a woman lying on the ground, a few implements scattered about and an empty basket that had tipped and spilled on the ground. Ayla quickly went to the woman, and knelt down beside her; it was Danta. Ayla frowned.

A quick check told her that Danta was not harmed in any way; she had only fainted, but why? Ayla then looked at Davaria, who had just arrived and who was also kneeling down beside his downed sister. "What happened to her?" she asked him.

The man shook his head. "I don't know. I couldn't find her, but Trata said she went out only a short time ago, to get some fresh water. I was coming out to help her, then I heard her scream."

Ayla's frown deepened; she wondered what was going on. Both she and Davaria looked at Danta again as she groaned and opened her eyes. Ayla tried to help her sit up, but the eyes of the woman lying on the ground immediately looked fearful and she pointed up at he sky.

Ayla and Davaria turned to look, as did several others that were standing around. Someone gasped loudly. Ayla frowned in confusion. The sun was disappearing.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

People had seen Danta pointing at the sky and were now looking up. Ayla heard a scream from someone nearby, and then more screams, from others, farther away. She looked around, to see the Sungaean people coming out of tents, to see what the commotion was. Everyone looked at the sky and stared in fear. She had to look too; she was drawn to the strange phenomenon. It was fascinating.

The sun was disappearing and the sky was darkening, as if a cloud was covering it. But this was frightening, because there were no clouds in the sky to cover the sun on this day. Ayla watched, as did everyone else, as the sun was slowly obliterated.

As Ayla watched, the sun seemed to be swallowed by a round darkness, it almost looked like something had taken a bite out of it. The sun, their most valuable source of heat and light, was disappearing, yet the people still stared. Ayla shuddered at the thought of losing the sun forever. What if it doesn't come back? she thought, worried again. But then, thinking about her visions, she relaxed; the sun had been there in her visions. It would come back.

Ayla looked up at the sun again. It was still going. Then after a few moments, she looked around at gawking people. She had to blink. Staring at the waning sun had caused spots to appear before her eyes. She realized that they probably shouldn't be staring at it, but she knew she couldn't stop them; she couldn't stop herself. She glanced back up. It was starting to look like the most brilliant sunset one had ever seen, like the sun was falling between two western mountains, glaring at them as it disappeared for the night. But different too, in that this was happening in the middle of the sky, in the middle of the day. She looked away; it was starting to hurt her eyes.

Ayla's eyes quickly looked up again, when she heard the people gasp. She was awed by the beautiful, shining ring in the sky, then noticed that stars had even begun to appear. Ayla suddenly thought of Mamut.

"Safe journey," he had replied, turning away from her. But then the old man had looked back at her. "It will be a day within a night and a night within a day," he had said.

She wondered what the Mother was doing, which made her think about Mamut's words again...and Travie's words too. "I sometimes wonder about those that serve the Mother. Do you think that they even know what they're saying?" the older woman had asked. It made Ayla smile. Ayla looked up again and noticed that the sun was already starting to return.

"It's a sign," someone cried, as they watched the large disk of light reappear.

"But a sign of what?" someone else asked. People turned to look at the Shogurs. There was a Shogur in pretty much every area within the sUmer meeting camp, so people did not have to look far.

"I think the Shogurs are going to have to mediate on this." People were nodding in fright.


Ayla smiled. Yes, it certainly was a sign, but she was not as worried as everyone else. This was the sign she had been waiting for. This was her sign to go find her horses.

"It is time for me to go," she whispered, as she helped Danta to stand.

Danta still looked frightened. She glanced up at the sun, which had returned to normal, but now she was more afraid. Ayla was leaving. "Go?" she asked with a confused tone. "Where do you have to go, Ayla?"

Ayla looked back at the woman, her new friend, and suddenly realized something; this was how she could get Danta out of Sumac Camp, and not just for a night. Danta and Danara could make the journey to the valley with them. And Davaria too, if he wanted to. She smiled, which only seemed to scare the woman more.

"Danta," she said, looking at the woman and her brother. "For some time now, I have been having...visions...about a valley of horses that is southwest of here. I have been waiting for a sign, to let me know it's time to go there. This," she said, pointing at the sky, "Is the sign I have been waiting for."

Danta looked extremely distressed. She didn't want Ayla to go, but what could she do.

"What is it, Danta?" Ayla asked.

"Well, I...I don't want you to go," she said lamely. Danta looked at her brother with tears in her eyes. Davaria narrowed his eyes and frowned. Danta was not one to cry. Ayla smiled, but she quickly noticed Danta's tears and Davaria's frown. Something else is going on here, she thought.

"Danta?" Davaria said, cocking his head to the side. He knew her too well and he could tell she was hiding something. Ayla waited. Danta only shook her head and looked away.

Davaria was watching her closely and he started thinking about how he couldn't find her at Sumac Tent. "Danta, where were you when I came back to Sumac Tent?" Danta shrugged. "Danta," he said more firmly, reaching out to touch her arm. "Were you there when I came looking for you?" Danta looked away. "DANTA!" He grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her to look at him.

"YES! I was there," she yelled, then yanked herself out of his grasp and started to walk away. Davaria looked at Ayla, then ran to catch up with his sister.

"Danta," he said, stopping her again. "Tell me where you were."

Danta thought about her daughter and frowned. "Please leave me alone, Davaria. I need to get back to Danara. I left her alone with Trata."

Davaria immediately noticed that she was calling their mother by her name. "Did mother do something to you?"

Danta stopped and shook her head. "No," she answered. "We argued...but no, she did nothing. Nothing more than normal, anyway."

Davaria searched her eyes, trying to see what Danta seemed so intent on keeping from him. There was something, he could tell that much. "Danara is at Oak Tent, Danta. I sent her there before going to look for you." He paused. "Now tell me!" he said, almost angrily. "What happened at Sumac Tent?"

"I don't want to talk about it, Davaria!" Danta snapped, and turned away from him. "Not right now." He walked around her to see tears spilling down her face. "Please don't make me talk about it right now," she said, finally falling into his arms. "I can't." Davaria held her as she sobbed, but frowned over her shoulder at Ayla. Both knew that something very bad had happened to the woman, but neither had even a guess as to what it may be.


The meeting at the Council of Sisters broke up quickly. All those who had dedicated themselves to serving Sumata, left to meet within the Shogurs' tent, and most of the Brothers and Sisters returned to their own camps to await word from the men and women that knew the spirit world. Many people were scared.

Ayla arrived back at Oak Tent with Danta and Davaria and went straight to Grov. "It's time," she told him.

He nodded. "I thought as much. A night within a day," he said, repeating what Ayla had told him. Ayla nodded.


Danta had immediately gone to her daughter. Danara didn't seem scared at all, only pleased that her mother was back and that they weren't at Sumac Tent. Danta hugged her, then pulled Davaria to the side so that she could talk to him privately.

"I have to leave here," she said to him.

The man frowned. "You're going back to Sumac Tent? Why?" He was worried about the argument he had had with his mother and wanted to stay away for a while.

"No, Davaria," she said, shaking her head. "I don't just mean leave here." She gestured at Oak Tent. "I mean leave leave. I cannot go back to Sumac Tent today, or Sumac Camp, ever. I would rather die out there, somewhere."

Davaria didn't understand. He knew he had promised her that he'd think about leaving with her, but he'd also said it would take planning. He thought that planning would take some time, not just a day. His mind went back to the conversation they had had that morning. What was it that she'd said? I am not safe here. It is only a matter of time before someone hurts me for what I have done. He frowned.

"Who has hurt you, Danta?" he asked again. But still, she would not answer. She folded her arms across her chest.

"You do not have to come with us, Davaria," she informed him. "But I am taking Danara and we are leaving."

"But where will you go?" he asked. He couldn't think of any place nearby where she would be better off.

"I don't care. Away from here and away from Sumac Camp. It doesn't matter."

Davaria was starting to panic. Two people couldn't survive out on their own. And three wasn't much better. "But Danta, it's dangerous out there. How will you survive? You don't even have provisions."

"I can gather food and I'm a pretty good hunter. I have a traveling tent and a few other things," she said. "It will be hard, but we'll manage."

The man was now frantic. She was serious. "How will you protect Danara?"

Danta frowned at this. "I don't know, but I will. I have a much better chance of keeping her safe if we are away from Sumac Camp." Her arms were still folded across her chest, and she looked more adamant than ever before. "You do not have to come, Davaria," she finally said. "I know it is too much to ask you to leave our people, but I have to go."

"No Danta, I will go with you," he said sadly. He knew she was right, but he was scared. "I just wish you'd tell me why you have to leave. I know it's bad for you here, but...leave? Forever? It's just so...permanent.

"I know it is, but it's time. The disappearance of the sun told me that. It is Ayla's sign to go and it is ours too." The man nodded. Danta suddenly grabbed her brother and hugged him. "I will be forever grateful that you are coming with us." Danta held him tight. He did the same.

"When do you want to go?" he asked.

"I would like to go back and gather our things now, and leave tomorrow morning while everyone is still asleep. That way no one will follow us. Not that they would," she finished.

Davaria thought for a moment. "I think that I should go back for our things, Danta. I know someone hurt you and that you are keeping it from me. I don't want to give anyone a chance to hurt you again." She nodded. He continued. "What direction do you want to go?"

"I think south and then west, because that is heading away from Sumac Camp and the Sungaea. I want a fresh start."

"Okay. Southwest it is then."


Ayla had been watching the brother and sister, and knew that something was up. Davaria left for a while, then returned, but both of them looked quite nervous. Ayla, however, didn't have much time to question them. She needed to inform Oak Camp of their intention to make a short sUmer journey.

Some people weren't too happy about it, but Travie, and the few others that already knew about Ayla's vision, helped to explain that the Clan family would indeed return. Vincenzia was most upset since he knew he wouldn't be seeing her all winter.

"I could come with you," he offered, not wanting to let her out of his sight now that he had her back.

Ayla grinned and patted his chest. "No, you can't do that. You have to stay here with Darvie, Crisana and Brenevia. Besides, you don't have to worry Vincenzia, Grov will be with me, and we will be back before the sUmer meeting is over."

Darvie was standing there too and she looked no less upset than her mate. "What about the children? Are you taking them with you?"

"I was wondering about that too, but yes, we are taking them. Something has come up that has made it possible for them to go with us." She looked over at Danta; she still had not talked to her about going with them.

Darvie nodded, but she continued to frown. "Are you sure you don't want Vincenzia to go with you? Because, I would not mind."

Ayla grinned at the chosen woman of the man of her hearth. "Yes you would, Darvie. I will not take him away from you and the children, or the meeting."

"When will you go?" Tagnolia finally asked.

Ayla looked at Grov. "Tomorrow, or the next day, I think." The man nodded. "We need some time to get our things together."

Tagnolia grinned. "Then we celebrate tonight, and work to get you ready tomorrow."

Tiflona rolled her eyes. "Brother, they are leaving. Do you really think this is the right time for a celebration?"

"Of course it is!" he exclaimed. "They'll be back. Besides, a celebration is overdue."

"How do you figure?"

"I figure that since I am the Headman, I can proclaim it overdue."

Tiflona put her hands on her hips and stared at him. "And what am I? A woman with no status?" she asked seriously.

Tagnolia's grin widened. "Now Tiflona, you know I didn't mean that. I just think we should have some fun before Grov and Ayla leave. That's all." Tiflona's lips thinned, but she nodded.

Zarina had been watching her mate and his sister go back and forth, everyone had, but now she was frowning at the man. "What about what happened to the sun today? I know that what happened was a sign for Ayla, but what does it mean to the rest of the Sungaea? Shouldn't we wait for Gredenzia to return before we start planning celebrations?" She was clearly still shaken up.

Tagnolia went to his mate and held her. "Maybe," he said. "But a celebration can't hurt anything, can it? Especially if we honor the Mother."

"I suppose not," she finally said with a sigh.


Danta and Davaria were invited to stay for the celebration, as were several others, and Ayla was pleased that they had agree, though they seemed reluctant. Several times she started to make her way over to them, to ask them to join them on their little journey, but every time she was distracted by someone who wanted to have a conversation about something else. Then, when it was time to sleep, Ayla noticed that Davaria and Danta had already gone off to bed. She shrugged. I'll ask them tomorrow, she thought.

However, when tomorrow came, Ayla woke up and looked over at an empty bed; they were already gone.


Danta had woken up before the sun rose, because she wanted to get in and out of Sumac Camp before anyone else could wake up. Davaria had already packed most of their things in his rucksack, hiding it under his bed for safe keeping, but not everything could be packed or someone would figure out that they planned to leave.

Danta crossed the quiet sUmer meeting site in the early morning darkness and peered into the camp area. She sighed with relief; no one was up yet. The woman went to the dying fire and lit a lamp, then carefully entered the tent.

Inside, she stepped over the snoring people that littered the ground of their tent space like waste in a night basket, swiftly making her way to Davaria's sleeping space. Once there, she set her lamp down and dragged his rucksack out. It was heavier than she had anticipated, but still manageable. Someone groaned causing her to freeze. She suddenly wished she had not brought in the lamp. She glanced in the direction of the groan. It was Igorvia. The man was lying on his back; Laska was next to him, her bare arm dangling over the side. They were sound asleep. Danta smiled.

Danta sent one last look at her mother, then turned away. She didn't want to waste any more time. Quickly, she hefted the rucksack to her back, gathered the furs from each of their beds, picked up her lamp and left before she could be caught.


Back at Oak Tent, Danta dropped everything outside, then crept inside. She thanked the Mother that the bed they were sleeping in was so close to the opening, though Danara's was not. Gently, she shook her brother.

Davaria opened his eyes and got up quietly to go get Danara. The child slept in his arms as they exited the tent. Danta wrapped one of the furs about her brother, tucking in under the child so that it would not fall off of him, and then she wrapped another one around her daughter. She would carry the rucksack until it became too heavy for her. She hoped that by then, Danara would be awake and could walk.

It was nearly time for sunrise when brother and sister left the sUmer meeting at Maple Camp. They didn't have much of a goal as to where they were going. They only knew that they wanted to head southwest. Their first challenge would be crossing Big River in one of Maple Camp's large boats.


Ayla frowned at the empty bed, but figured they had had to get back. She knew it made for problems at Sumac Tent when they joined Oak Tent, but it saddened her that they were gone. She never had a chance to mention their journey to the valley of horses. Now she might not get a chance.

The woman looked at her sleeping mate, then decided to get up to make tea. Grabbing her medicine bag, Ayla pulled out the ingredients she wanted, and went outside.

The fire, which had burned late into the night, was still red with heat; it only needed a fresh log and someone to get it going again. That person was Ayla. Ayla made her tea and sat down to think.

"Can I join you?" a voice said from behind. Ayla turned to see Janika standing there shyly. Ayla frowned. She had heard what the young woman had done to Grov. Ayla raised her hand, palm up, indicating that he woman could sit, but she did not speak to her.

Janika hesitated. It was not the warmest offering. But what do you expect? she thought. Slowly, she sat down where Ayla had indicated and tried to sort out her words. The words, which had seemed so right back at her own camp's tentfire, just sounded dumb in her mind now. She didn't know what to say, but tried anyway.

"Ah...Ayla?" she started. Ayla looked at her. "I was not very nice to you...when I met you that first time." She frowned. "I wanted you to know that I'm sorry." Ayla nodded.

"And ah...well...I'm sure you already know what I did to Grov during the hunt." Ayla nodded again. "I...I'm sorry about that too," she said, tears welling up. Ayla didn't say anything. Janika waited, hoping that she would, then got up to go. "I guess that's all I wanted to say," she said, and started to walk away.

Ayla watched her go. She wasn't angry with the woman for her rudeness, or for the fact that she had been attracted to Grov. Ayla was only angry about what the woman had put Grov through.

"Ah...Janika," Ayla said, then waited for the woman to turn around again. "Were you up early this morning?"

Janika frowned. "Yes. I was up before the sun was. I hope the sun doesn't disappear again," she said nervously.

"I don't think it will," Ayla said. "I really don't think it's anything we have to worry about."

Janika smiled. Something about Ayla's voice calmed her. "Oh, I'm glad for that."

"Did you happen to see Danta leave here this morning?"

"Which time?" she asked. Ayla raised her eyebrows in surprise, and the woman continued. "She left once, long before sunrise, then came back with quite a lot of stuff. Then she, Davaria and Danara left again."

Ayla frowned. "Which way did they go?"

Janika pointed. "South." Then she frowned. "Didn't you know they were going?" Ayla shook her head.


Ayla sat there quietly thinking, wondering where Danta and Davaria could have gone and why they had said nothing about leaving. Had they gone on a hunt? Had Danta asked her brother to accompany her while she gathered? Where would they go?

Ayla was so intent on her musings that she didn't see another person approach. "Where is my son?" a woman demanded angrily.

Ayla looked up to see the woman that had denounced her daughter as a liar in front of all the Headmen and Headwomen and all the others attending the Sisters' meeting. "W-what?" Ayla asked, confused.

"You heard me!" the woman snapped. "Where is my son?"

"Davaria is not here."

"You are lying," the woman accused. "His bedding is gone, and I know that he stayed here last night with that worthless sister of his."

Ayla frowned at the woman's harsh words, the shook her head. "I did not say that they did not stay here. I said that they are not here now."

The woman looked furious. "I will not let you steal my son," the woman yelled.

"Is everything okay, Ayla?" Jondaria asked. Janika had seen Trata storm up to Ayla and went to get her brother. She was standing there with him.

Ayla looked at them. "I think so." She looked back at the older woman. "Trata?" she questioned. The woman nodded. "I do not know where your son and daughter are. They were here last night, but they left before I woke up." Ayla noticed several Oak Camp members come out.

"What's going on here?" Tiflona asked.

Trata crossed her arms and scowled. "My son and all his belongings are missing."

Gredenzia frowned. "Don't you mean your son and daughter are missing, Trata? Because both Davaria and Danta were here, together, though they are not here now."

"Do not mention Danta," Trata said in a harsh, cold voice. "I do not have a daughter." She looked away.

Fraylora, who was standing with her mate, seemed to lose her color, then turn bright red. "What is the matter with you?" she said through gritted teeth. "You gave birth to five perfect children - five children, I said. Don't give us this nonsense about not having a daughter. It is not her fault that she was the third of three born together. That does not make her bad luck. She is a fine girl and she certainly has more sense than her mother."

Trata looked at Fraylora with hatred. "You do not know what you are talking about. The birth of that child caused the death of so many; my mother, my mate, my two older sons. Even Dreena's death is her fault. The Mother would have given a woman three breasts if she was supposed to birth three children in one pregnancy. Danta should never have been born. She is bad luck, and I will never forgive her."

Fraylora shook her head. "I know it hurts to lose a child Trata. I lost Nemlora and it's painful every day, but at least I still have Fürlasa, Fräubita and Gildenozia. And Braydalana too. You still have Davaria and Danta. And even Danara. How can you not love them?"

"No, I had only Davaria left, and apparently he's gone now too." Everyone watched as the angry woman stomped away.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

"That woman is beyond help!" Fraylora spat. Gredenzia held his mate. He knew how badly the loss of Nemlora had affected her. He still hurt over his mate's daughter's death too. In fact, he thought about her every day. It had been eight long years since her death, and though it was a constant struggle, they had moved on. That was what the living had to do, but apparently Trata refused to do that.

"Are you all right, Ayla?" Grov finally asked his mate.

Ayla nodded, but her brow creased in worry. "I am fine, but we need to find Danta and Davaria. Janika told me this morning that she saw Danta leave Oak Tent, then return with several things, then leave again with Davaria and Danara. She said they headed south, away from the sUmer meeting."

Grov grimaced. "Janika?" the man said, looking over at her. She and Jondaria were still standing there. They were talking to a few people that had witnessed Trata's foul temper.

"Yes," Ayla said, getting up. "I think they are running away, and not just from Sumac Camp; they are leaving the Sungaea."

Tagnolia overhead the woman and frowned. "But why?" he asked.

Ayla shook her head. "I don't know for sure. Something happened to Danta at Sumac Tent yesterday. Someone hurt her, but she wouldn't tell Davaria who hurt her or why." Ayla paused. "I fear...well, what if..." Everyone was staring at her now. She blushed.

"What if, what, Ayla?" Ivanolia finally asked. Danta was such a nice, and decent, young woman. He had always liked her.

Ayla looked at him. "What if someone did hurt her? What if someone did to her, what Zadneetsia tried to do to me? I mean...they hate me and she's gotten friendly with me. What if someone hurt her because she is friends with me?" Ayla finished, feeling extremely responsible for whatever Danta might have had to go through.

A few women gasped at the idea of one of the Sumac Camp men even thinking he could get away with forcing Danta, or any other woman, after what Zadneetsia had done to Ayla. Ivanolia flushed with anger at the thought. The man balled his fists, ready to charge over there again.

"Well, something has to be done about this," Vilognia said angrily, glancing at the son of his mate. He didn't want Ivanolia to get into any more trouble, but if someone had done what Ayla had suggested, then there was going to be trouble, there was no doubt about it.

Seeing the people ready to act on her words, Ayla suddenly got worried. "Wait!" she exclaimed. "We don't really know anything yet. Maybe what happened isn't what we're thinking.'s something else all together. I don't think we can do anything until we talk to Danta. We have to find out from Danta."

Tiflona was nodding her head. "You are right, Ayla. We have to talk to Danta first, but I think we can do something for her even without her making a claim." Several people frowned. "It's clear to me that Danta and Danara, and now Davaria too, are desperate to be away from Sumac Camp. So desperate, in fact, that they are willing to leave their people, the Sungaea, to get away from the camp of their birth." She looked around at the people of Oak Camp and smiled. "I am not sure about the rest of you, but I have been quite impressed with them, especially considering their camp's status."

"So, what are you saying, Tiflona?" Tagnolia asked his sister.

"Well," she said. "As Headwoman, I think we should petition the Brothers and Sisters to adopt them into Oak Camp. We have the space...or at least, we could build more space...and they need a home; a home where people don't hurt each other; a home where everyone takes care of everyone else."

Zarina frowned. "But we can't do that, Tiflona. They are not here to say whether or not they want to join Oak Camp. We cannot just decide for them."

"No, we cannot," Tagnolia said. "But if they are willing to leave the Sungaea, then things at Sumac Camp must be worst than everyone is aware. Maybe they would come back if they knew they had a place somewhere else."

"But they are gone," said Zarina. "What can we do?"

Ayla smiled. This is a perfect solution, she thought. "We need to go after them. We will go find them," she offered, looking at Grov to make sure it was all right. He nodded. "We were leaving on our journey tomorrow anyway, so why not let us track them. We can even take them with us, if they want to go. That will keep them away from here for a while."

"Do you really think you can find them?" Tagnolia asked.

Ayla smiled. "I'm sure of it. Grov is an excellent tracker, and I am not so bad myself. Besides, Janika said they headed south, so we know which way they went. I'm sure their trail will be easily found, two adults, roughly the same size, and both semi-heavily burdened. And, they haven't been gone long. We can do it."

Wäglodia nodded. "That's a good idea," he said, looking at Zarina. "That way we'll at least know they're safe, and we can go make our petition. What do you think, Zarina?"

Zarina continued to frown. "I have no doubt that you will find them, but how will we know they want to join Oak Camp. Maybe they will decline. We can't just go storming into the Councils with a petition if we don't know they're willing to accept."

Ayla frowned. She didn't know what to say to satisfy the woman. All she knew what that they needed to find Danta and Davaria, and quickly.

Suddenly, Grov interrupted. "I think I have an idea," he said. "If anyone wants to hear it." Everyone turned to him and nodded. "Well, how about, we go find them and ask them...and if they say no, then we will return to let Oak Camp know they do not wish to be adopted. And if we don't come back, in say...five days, then you will know that they have accepted."

Zarina was listening carefully and nodded her head. "That sounds fair enough."


Grov and Ayla sat briefly to eat their morning meal, then spent a short time inside packing. Grov smiled down at their pile and shook his head.

"Ayla, this is too much. Why do you always want to bring everything?" he asked.

Ayla looked around. "Because we don't know when we'll be back. What if we need something?"

"Mama, I can help too," Durc offered, trying to sound more grown up. He was sitting on the end of their bed platform, excited about their impending trip.

"Yes, Durc, you sure can. Here, you can carry your own rucksack," she said, helping her son to put it on his back. She hadn't put much in it, but it would be helpful all the same.

The boy smiled and looked up at Grov. "See? I can help."

The man nodded. He knew Ayla was right, but travel was going to be difficult with all she wanted to bring, and three small children. He looked at Durc. The boy could contribute, but the girls would not be able to; they'd even have to be carried during much of the trip. It worried him, but again, Ayla was right.

"I guess we will need all of this," he said, as he started putting things into his own pack. Ayla smiled and did the same. In no time, they were ready to leave.


It was decided that several people would walk them to Big River, to help them cross, and everyone else at Oak Tent would follow them to the edge of the sUmer meeting. Even Jondaria and Janika, who had stayed for the meal, were accompanying them.

At the edge of camp, people were exchanging hugs and saying their goodbyes when Ayla noticed Janika standing there looking unsure of herself.

"What is it?" Ayla finally asked her.

Janika frowned. "I just...well, I wanted to apologize again. And I hope that, in time, you can both forgive me." Janika stopped talking for a moment, then pulled a wrapped package from behind her back. "Here, I made this for your journey," she said, holding it out to Ayla.

Ayla tentatively reached out to take the woman's gift. "What is it?"

"Open it and see." Ayla quickly turned it over and untied the thong that held it closed. They appeared to be cakes of traveling food. "They're a little different," Janika said. "Not so much to keep you from getting hungry. They're more like something you'd finish your meal off with; they're sweet. And when they're gone, you can use the wrapping as a towel."

Ayla smiled and hugged the woman. "Thank you, Janika. This is very nice of you." Ayla wrapped up the cakes again and put them in the bag that was hanging from her right shoulder, then went to hug Vincenzia, who was talking to Grov.

"And you will take good care of her?" Ayla heard Vincenzia ask Grov. She rolled her eyes.

"Of course he will," said Darvie. "He is her mate. Would you do less?" Vincenzia frowned.

"We will be fine, Vincenzia," Grov reassured. "It is not like we haven't traveled before."

Vincenzia nodded and handed Annaliza to Ayla. "I know, but a man can worry about the daughter of his hearth, can't he?"

"I suppose." Ayla strapped Annaliza to her left hip and took Ora's hand. "You will have to do some walking, Ora."

Ora nodded. "I can walk, Mamma," the child gestured one handedly. Both Grov and Ayla knew it wouldn't last long, but they were glad Ora was willing to try.


The man and woman waved to Ivanolia, Donzolnia and Brulenzia, who had just recrossed Big River and were about to head back to the sUmer meeting, then they turned to start their journey alone.

They quickly found Davaria and Danta's trail, which was plain to see; the two had done nothing to hide it. Why would they? Ayla asked herself. They didn't think anyone cared enough to follow them. That saddened Ayla. She thought about Trata and frowned. How could a mother blame her child for so much? It's just awful! How could Danta even stand to live with those people? Ayla then thought about Tiflona's idea; it was a perfect solution that might convince Davaria and Danta to stay with the Sungaea. They're sure going to be surprised when we find them, she thought. I hope they will accept.

Ayla still had Annaliza tied to her hip, but Ora had run on ahead. Durc was doing his best to help by keeping his sister close. The couple walked together, side by side, occasionally holding hands, and watching the two children ahead of them. Both smiled at their antics. Ora would run ahead, causing Durc to have to speed up to catch her, then he'd order her to slow down. Ora always listened to him, but as soon as he went back to trudging along, she would burst forth again, starting the whole thing over.

Grov and Ayla smiled. Things had been so different since they had been away from their Clan. It was definitely louder and much more rowdy; people just did and said whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Sometimes it was confusing. However, despite the differences, they had learned to be like the Others, in many ways, and that felt good. They could adapt and change.

But now, as they walked along, they were enjoying the peace they were experiencing by being away from the boisterous Sungaean people. The silence between them felt good too. It gave them time to think their own thoughts, and ponder life.

They walked for some time, before speaking. But finally, Grov brought up what he had been thinking about.

"So, what did Janika give you?" Grov asked her. He had not been standing with the two women, but he had seen Ayla hug Janika and then tuck something into her bag.

"She made us some sweet traveling cakes." Ayla saw his disbelieving look. "And she apologized for how she treated me and for what she did to you." He frowned. "I think she meant it, Grov."

He nodded. "I suppose." He knew Ayla would know if Janika was sincere or not. She must have been, he thought.

Ayla frowned and stopped for the moment. "I know what she did to you was...wrong, but I think she will be okay that she's been punished. She seems better."

He shrugged. "Yes, she seemed better to me too, but she makes me uncomfortable."

Ayla could understand that. "Well, if you don't want me to be friends with her, then just tell me not to. What you want is most important. I will do whatever you say."

"How very Clan of you," Grov said with a smile, as he leaned to kiss her. "No Ayla. You can be friends with whomever you want. I know that she has changed. I just need some time." Ayla grinned, and started walking again.

As Grov walked beside his mate, he looked down at her, and noticed that she always seemed able to match his stride. No matter how slow or fast he went, she always stayed with him. He liked that about her.


As the day wore on, they continued to talk amiably, thoroughly enjoying their time together and the freedom they were sharing. Periodically Ayla let Annaliza down so that she could stretch her arms, and while the child was away, Ayla gathered a few plants without missing a step. When they noticed that the sun was getting low, they knew that it would soon be time to stop for the night. They decided to push on just a bit more, hoping that Davaria and Danta had already stopped for the night, making them just that much closer in the morning.

"I think we should stop now," he finally said. "They have to have halted for the night by now. Ayla nodded and quickly untied the strap that held Annaliza to her hip and set the child down, while Grov took off his rucksack. He was about to say comment about building a fire, when she saw Ayla's expression change. She had pulled out her sling and he could tell she held a few stones in her other hand. She was stalking something. Silently, he just watched, but he had to smile; she was always so aware of her surroundings. He had almost forgotten that about her since they had not been alone in so long.

Suddenly, as he watched, her pace changed and she flung a stone, downing a rabbit. They had their evening meal.

"You are amazing with that thing, Ayla," he said, hugging her once she came back with her prize. She smiled.


Danta watched the sun drop behind the western hills and shivered. They had been stopped for quite some time, but were struggling at getting a fire going. She didn't remember this being so difficult in the past, but then, it wasn't often that they had to start a fire from nothing. Even Sumac Camp always had a fire going.

Davaria had set up their tent while Danta worked on the fire, but when he finished and the fire still wasn't going, he suggested that she and Danara go into the tent to keep warm. Danta brought Danara inside, gave her some dried meat to eat, then tucked her into her furs. The child was a little confused as to what was going on; she had never been away from people, but this little adventure was not unpleasant, or at least, not yet.

After trying to reassure Danara that everything was fine, Danta went back outside. Davaria stopped working on the fire when he saw her.

"Danta," Davaria said. "Go inside. Keep yourself warm. There's no sense in both of us being cold."

She frowned. "Just forget it, Davaria," she pleaded. "We don't really need a fire tonight. Just come to bed."

"Danta, we need warmth, and in the morning we'll need a fire to make tea."

Danta shook her head. "It's not that cold out tonight, Davaria," she said, looking up at the sky and shivering again, despite the semi-warm sUmer evening. "I think we'll be fine if we just go inside the tent. We can keep warm together." He frowned. "What we really need is some sleep, and then we can try to make a fire again in the morning."

The man wasn't very happy. He didn't like that they were struggling to make a fire, or that they were having trouble already. This doesn't bode well, he thought, but he finally nodded acquiescence. She was right about one thing; he was extremely tired. They just weren't used to so much travel. It was a lot of work to walk all day, carrying more than just the usual. The man put his firemaking implements down and followed her inside their tent.


It was not very far from the fleeing brother and sister that Grov and Ayla had set up their camp, but they, of course, were having no difficulties at all. Grov quickly built up a fire, while Ayla placed the rabbit on a spit, then they worked together to put up their tent; it was the same one they had used when traveling to Oak Camp, the sUmer meeting, and when Grov was on the sUmer hunt.

"Mamma, I'm hungry," Ora said, coming up and sitting down. She was finally tired of Durc stopping her play. Durc sat down too, glad that she had finally stopped running off.

"Me too, Mamma," Annaliza gestured.

Ayla smiled at them and handed them each some rabbit and the greens she had prepared, then she gave some to Grov and finally took some for herself. Everyone ate silently.

After finishing their meal, Ayla put the children to bed. Ora tried to fight it again. She always fought sleep, but one stern look from Grov made her stop, and go off to bed with a pout.

"Do you think they're far ahead of us?" Ayla asked with a slight frown, as she sat back down with Grov and picked up her cup of tea.

"No, probably not," he said. "They did get a pretty good jump on us, but I don't think they're too accustomed to travel. They're like the Clan in that way." Ayla nodded.

"And we're very close to where the hunting party stopped on our first night out. Maybe they stopped there."

Ayla frowned, wishing they had been able to make it that far, but with all they carried, and three children, it was just too much. Ayla's thoughts were drifting when suddenly she heard a loud shriek. Grov and Ayla both looked up to see Shriek gliding overhead.

The woman got up quickly and pulled out the thick glove she used to protect her hand and arm. She had almost not packed it. It had been so long since she had seen him that she had considered the possibility that he was gone forever. She was so glad to see him.

Shriek swooped down gracefully, and landed on her covered wrist, promptly squawking in her face. Ayla smiled.

"Where have you been?" Ayla asked her feathered friend as she stroked his back with her free hand. Grov watched in fascination as she fed her hawk; no one he knew had ever had control over any kind of animal, no one except Ayla that is, and now they were on their way to capture horses. He smiled at the thought. One thing was for sure, nothing was every dull with her around.

After eating, Shriek sat perched on the apex of their tent, preening his feathers. The couple watched him for a time, then went to bed. Ayla worried that he'd be gone by morning; he usually was, but she hoped that he'd return more often, now that they were away from all the people. They must make him nervous, she thought. They certainly made her nervous.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

Ayla woke up early and went outside to see if Shriek was around. At first she saw nothing, but movement in the sky to the north caused a delighted grin to creep across her face; he was still around. She quickly pulled out a strip of meat, which the bird accepted then flew up to a nearby tree to eat in peace.

Ayla watched him, then turned to the fire to get it going, so that she could make tea. They would eat the previous night's leftovers, the same meat she had given to Shriek, but a fresh tea would be required. When the water was boiling, she added each of their favorite herbs, then let them steep.


Davaria awoke abruptly, coming out of that dream where one feels like they're falling, and realized that he was sweating profusely. He had not slept well. Actually, he thought, I didn't sleep at all; he had only just fallen asleep, and then he had fallen awake. He shivered violently and looked at his sleeping sister. Danta was lying on her back, mouth slightly open. At least she looks to be sleeping peacefully.

He then turned his head to look at Danara, who was on the other side of him, and realized the child was awake as well. With her finger, she tracing the shadow of a blowing tree branch on the tent ceiling. She too looked peaceful. Davaria smiled, then rolled over. When Danara looked over at him, he pointed to the tent opening. The child smiled back and got up to go with him.

"How did you sleep?" he asked her.

She shrugged. "Good, I guess."

He smiled again. "I'm going to try to make a fire, okay?" She nodded.

Davaria picked up his discarded firemaking materials and went to work. Danara watched him for some time, but he didn't appear to be having much luck. Finally, Danara got up to gather some dried brush.

"Here," she said, holding it out to him. "Ayla uses this."

Davaria stared at her outstretched hands, then reluctantly reached out to take it. He pushed aside what he had been using, replaced it with her kindling, then began again. He was surprised when flames burst forth in moments. Davaria fed the flame, quickly building it up to a decent fire.

"Well, thank you, Danara," he said. "Did Ayla show you what to use?"

Danara shook her head. "No, I just watched her."

"Hey," Danta said, coming outside. "You have a fire going."

Davaria grinned. "You should ask your daughter about the fire. We would not have had one if she wasn't so observant."

"Oh really?" Danta came over to sit down with them, and put her arm around her daughter.

"Yes, apparently she watched Ayla build a fire and now she's our little expert."

Danta smiled at her daughter. "Well good, we definitely need one of those." Then she looked at Davaria. "So, what direction do we go today?"

Davaria frowned. "I'm thinking we should continue southwest. I think Sycamore Camp is that way, and there's a river running south through that area. Right now we have a good amount of water, but it won't last longer than three days. I'd like to get there quickly so we don't have to worry. And, if I recall correctly, there are two rivers that flow west into that river. We could fill up there."

Danta nodded. "Okay, that sounds good...but what do we tell them?"

"Who? Sycamore Camp?" he asked. She nodded. "We're on a journey, Danta. They won't care why. Besides, they're obviously not going to the sUmer meeting, or they'd already be there. Don't worry, we're safe."


Ayla sat, drinking her tea, and enjoying the peace. She was instantly aware that her family was awake when she heard a peel of babyish laughter inside the tent. Then Grov suddenly appeared, a daughter under each arm.

"Someone thinks it's funny to put her fingers in this man's ear," he gestured, after putting them both down.

Ayla smiled. "Tea?"

"Um, that would be great."

Ayla quickly made him a cup, then fixed the girls a morning meal. "Sit down," she ordered the girls. "We have to start walking again soon and I don't want you hungry." Both did as they were told. Ayla turned back to Grov. "Did Durc sleep through all of that?"

Grov nodded. "I think he worked hard yesterday, chasing this one," he commented, roughing up Ora's hair. Ora grinned. "I think that we need to carry his pack today."

"Okay, I'll do it," Ayla offered with silent gestures. Naturally she took it as her duty, but Grov shook his head.

"No Ayla. You always have to carry Annaliza, and she's getting pretty heavy. Let's share the burden. Put half of his pack in my rucksack." She nodded.


Danara was watching them closely. Safe? She liked safe. She still didn't know why they had left the sUmer meeting or where they were going, but she was happy about it. Of course, she had no concept of the danger of a journey; she only knew that she hated Sumac Camp.

Sycamore Camp? she thought. She didn't know anyone from there, but she hoped it would be safe. She looked at her mother and frowned. She thought about the man, Zadneetsia, and could almost see the man push her mother again; she could almost hear her mother pleading with him to something. She didn't know what it was, but whatever it was, her mother didn't like it and he was doing it anyway. She hated Zadneetsia too.

Danara focused on Davaria again. He was staring at her. She looked away.

Danta had gotten up to take down their tent; Davaria had said that he wanted to get going, but he was watching Danara. She had been listening to their conversation, but now she was staring into the fire. He saw her look up at her mother and her eyes became unfocused. He could see fear and anger, and even hatred in them, but then her eyes focused on him again. Finally she looked away. He looked at Danta, working hard to get their things together, then back at Danara. He wondered what was going on in the child's head, but he'd have to ask later; they needed to leave.


Ayla stood holding Annaliza, waiting while Grov pulled on his rucksack. They were ready to go.

Once again, Ora ran ahead and Durc went after her. Soon the boy was exasperated, which caused Grov to bark at the child.

"Ora!" he finally said. "Stay with us!" Ora pouted, but did as she was told, shuffling quietly behind them. Durc seemed much happier after that.

As they walked, Grov kept glancing back at her. She had her arms crossed over her chest and she was angrily kicking rocks. He didn't know what they were going to do with her; she was definitely going to have trouble back at the Clan if her behavior continued on the way it was. He finally mentioned his concern to Ayla.

"I think Ora's going to have problems back at the Clan."

Ayla glanced back at her and nodded. "Yes, I think so too. She is very headstrong."

Grov frowned. "She is going to end up getting cuffed for being defiant," he gestured angrily. "And I won't be able to blame the man that punishes her, even if it's Broud."

Ayla shuddered as thoughts of Broud beating her went through her mind. She had been defiant at times, but he had hit her for no good reason as well. She would not let that happen to Ora, or Annaliza. "We will have to work harder with her. She will have to stop this selfishness."

Grov nodded. "Maybe it's time we give her some responsibility. I know she's only three, but what else can we do?"

"I think that would be good. I will make her a pack to carry, not too heavy, but at least it'll be something." She paused. "And I'll start having her help me with things."

Grov smiled, and put an arm around his mate. "Thank you Ayla, for being so willing to teach the daughter of my hearth."

Ayla stopped walking for a moment and looked at him seriously. "Grov, I may not have given birth to Ora, but she is my daughter. I do not want to see her hurt, and that's exactly what will happen if she cannot behave properly."


Grov and Ayla continued on again, but didn't have far to go before they came to where Davaria and Danta had camped for the night. Ayla stood near their fire pit.

"It's still very hot," she said, crouching and holding her hand over it. "They have not been gone long."

"And their tracks lead off this way," Grov said, inspecting the dirt just southwest of the fire.

Ayla stood to join the man. "What do you think we should do?"

Grov looked around, and thought hard. "I think of us should continue on alone, while the other stays here with the children. I'm sure they slow us down; one of us would be much faster than the five of us."

"Okay," said Ayla, thinking that that made sense. She set Annaliza down, then removed her rucksack and shoulder bag. "What do you want to take?"

Grov frowned. "Actually...I was thinking that you should go."

She was busy taking off her medicine bag and looked up at him. "Me? Why me? His suggestion caught her off guard; a woman of the clan would never stray far from a man.

"I think they will be more likely to listen to you. Danta is your friend, and really...I am still just a flathead to Davaria."

Ayla nodded. She didn't like that Davaria might think that of him, but she knew that he was right. "Okay, what should I take then?

"Just the minimum. I'm hoping you can catch up quickly and bring them back no later than just after the midday meal."

Ayla nodded, and put her medicine bag back on, then slipped a skin of water over her shoulder.

Grov handed her a spear and kissed her. "Be careful," he said. Ayla nodded, then quickly said goodbye to the children, and headed off to find Davaria and Danta.


"Mamma," Danara said, "I'm tired of walking."

Danta frowned. "I know Danara. I am too, but we haven't gone very far yet, and we want to get to the river by this evening." She knew her daughter wasn't used to this, none of them were. "Here, let me carry you for awhile."

"No," Davaria said, picking Danara up and putting her on his shoulders. "We can stop." He looked around and pointed. "Let's rest over there under those trees." Danara grinned and clapped her hands with delight.

Danta looked up at her brother appreciatively and patted his arm. "Okay, sounds good to me."


Under the trees, Davaria set Danara down and took off his pack. "We shouldn't stay long, but some rest won't hurt our journey." Danta nodded and watched him sit down on a large rock, then she removed her own pack and lay down against it to rest.

"Mamma?" Danara said, sitting down next to mother. "I'm hungry."

Danta opened her eyes and smiled. Danara had never been so hungry before. Danta thought her daughter's sudden increased hunger was a good sign. "You can have some of that dried meat that I brought, but we do have to be careful about what we eat." Danara nodded and went into her mother's pack to get the meat.

"Mamma, can I go over and look at those plants?"

Danta looked in the direction her daughter was pointing. "Yes, that's fine," she answered, closing her eyes again.

Davaria watched the child run off, chewing on the dried meat as she went. "You know, Danta, we really have plenty of meat. She can have whatever she wants."

"All right." Danta never opened her eyes.

He frowned, feeling guilty. "I know we didn't go on the sUmer hunt, but I did take all of our share this time. I figured that we'd need it, and we've never taken a full share in the past." He finally grinned. "I wonder what mother is thinking right now."

"Who cares," Danta said, squinting up at him and wrinkling her nose. Davaria frowned. "Do you really expect me to care what Trata is thinking."

"No...I guess not." He watched her close her eyes again, then he turned to look at Danara. She was crouching down inspecting something on the ground. It made him smile. She was a much more curious child than he thought she was. He was quite pleased that he was getting the chance to see this part of his sister's daughter. It was something he might never have seen had they not left Sumac Camp.

The man continued to watch her, then suddenly his eyes were attracted to something in the sky. A large bird was circling overhead.


Ayla walked for a time, following the clearly defined tracks of Davaria and Danta, then she noticed Shriek fly into view. She stopped, pulled out her glove, put it on, then held out her arm. Shriek swept down, gracefully landing on her arm, and then, true to his name, he shrieked in her face. Ayla smiled and stroked his back.

"I thought you stayed with Grov," she said. He shrieked loudly again, then flapped his wings several times and lifted off again. Ayla watched him circle above her a few times, then frowned when he shot off in a southwesterly direction. She decided to quicken her step; she could tell he wanted her to hurry.


"Danara?" Davaria called nervously, still watching the bird above them. The child looked over at him. "Please come here...quickly." Danara dropped the stick she was digging with, and ran over to him.

"What is it?" Danta asked, sitting up.

Davaria was staring at the bird. "Look," he said, pointing. "There's a big bird up there."

Danta looked up, her brow knitting with concern as she watched it make a large circle in the sky, then dive down toward them before quickly arcing back up. Then it circled around again "What's it doing?"

The man shook his head. "I don't know. It's almost like it's hunting." He glanced around. "But I don't see anything nearby that it might be going after."

"Look Mamma," Danara said, nervously hiding behind her mother. "Someone's coming."

Danta and Davaria tore their eyes from the avian show, and tried to see who was there, but whoever it was, was too far away to see.

"Someone's followed us. Davaria," Danta cried, turning to face her brother and grabbing his tunic roughly. "I'm not going back there. I can't!" She started to sob.

Davaria looked over his shoulder at the approaching figure, then back at Danta. "Calm down, Danta. I said we'd leave and we will. I promise." He wiped her tears away with his thumbs and pulled her into his arms.

Danara looked up at them, then she looked north and narrowed her eyes. "Ayla!" she squealed loudly, running toward the woman and calling over her shoulder. "Mamma, it's Ayla.

Danta and Davaria separated and followed after the child. It was indeed Ayla, and as they watched, she looked up at the bird and held out her arm. They were amazed to see it land on her arm.


"Hallo," Ayla said when she was close enough to speak to them, then she slipped her free arm around Danara.

Danta stared at the huge bird on the other woman's arm. "W-what is that bird d-doing on your a-arm?" she stuttered.

"This is Shriek. He is my friend," Ayla said, giving the hawk a piece of meat and waving her arm to release him. Shriek took fight again, and disappeared from sight.

They all watched him go, but Davaria recovered the fastest. "What are you doing here, Ayla?" he asked her.

Ayla took a few steps closer and took off her glove. "Well, we were going to leave on our journey, but when we realized you three had disappeared, we decided to follow you instead."

"How did you find out we were gone?" Davaria asked.

"When I woke up and you were gone, I thought you had returned to Sumac Tent, but Janika told me you left the meeting." Ayla shook her head. "But I didn't really know until your mother came to Oak Tent, demanding to know where you were." She didn't mention that Trata didn't ask about Danta.

Danta frowned. "But why, Ayla? Why'd you come after us? We're not going back. We have no reason to go back there."

Ayla smiled. "Oak Camp thought you might say that. They've offered to adopt you."

Danta glanced at Davaria; he looked suspicious. "You came out here offer to adopt Danta into Oak Camp?" It seemed too good to be true.

"Well, sort of," Ayla said, shaking her head at the same time. "Oak Camp wants to adopt all three of you, but I did not come out here alone."

Davaria looked over the blond woman's shoulder. "I do not see anyone else with you." He looked back at her.

"Grov and my children stayed just beyond that hill." Ayla nodded at the hill off in the distance behind her. "They are at the place that you camped last night. He thought it would be faster if I came alone."

Davaria nodded. That was certainly true. "And why would Oak Camp want to adopt us?" He looked confused. They were just three unfortunate, low status losers from Sumac Camp; why would a high status camp like Oak Camp want to take them in? he wondered.

Ayla thought for a moment. She didn't want to make disparaging remarks about their camp, but what could she say? Sumac Camp was full of waste. She shrugged. "Because you need a place to go, and they have room for you. Is that not reason enough?"

Davaria glanced at Danta, who held her arms out to Danara. The four-year-old quickly went to her mother. Danta shook her head. "We no longer need a place, Ayla. We are leaving."

Ayla frowned at them. "But Danta, why leave your people, if you could have a new home with Oak Camp? It can be dangerous out there alone."

"Yes, and it can be dangerous within a camp of people that you think you know too." Ayla could see tears streaming down Danta's cheeks.

"I don't know what happened to you at Sumac Tent, Danta, but I promise it won't happen at Oak Camp," Ayla reassured. "Oak Camp just wants to help."

Davaria looked sadly at his sister, and then hopefully at Ayla. He didn't know why Oak Camp wanted them, but this could be a good chance for them to get out of Sumac Camp, yet stay with their people. "Danta," he whispered. "Maybe we should listen to her."

Danta only looked scared. "Why did they send you, Ayla? Why didn't Tagnolia or Tiflona come?" That would have been more convincing, she thought.

"Well, we were making a journey and we offered to go. I told them I would make the offer for them. We are on our way to that valley I told you about, and I thought could come with us...just get away for awhile, before we return."

"With you, on your journey, and then back to Oak Tent?"

Ayla nodded. "I wanted to invite you to go sooner, but you disappeared before I could ask."

Danta glanced at Davaria again, to see if she could read his face. He seemed willing to accept the offer, but then...he wasn't the one that was so desperate to leave. Danta looked back at Ayla. "And what if we say no? What if we don't want to join Oak Camp? Then what?"

"We told Tagnolia and Tiflona that we would return in five days if you said no," Ayla answered her.

"So what then?"

Ayla shrugged. "Nothing. Then you leave the Sungaea, and we go back to inform them."

"And what about your journey?" Davaria cut in.

Ayla shrugged. "So then we get a later start than we had planned. We will have to go after we tell Oak Camp the bad news."

Danara suddenly pulled on her mother's tunic sleeve. "Mamma, I want to be 'dopted by Oak Camp. Pleeasse," the child whined. "Pleeasse Mamma, let's be 'dopted." She was almost crying. Danta hugged her, but looked at Davaria. He shrugged; he would do whatever she wanted. Danta gave a slight nodded, hardly believing that they had a place to go. And to Oak Camp too; she couldn't believe it.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

"All right, Ayla," Danta said, sending one last look at her brother. "We'll come with you."

Ayla smiled widely. "Good, I am so glad." Ayla reached out to hug the other woman; she couldn't help herself. Then she picked up Danara. "Let's get back to Grov then."

Danara happily put her arms around Ayla's neck. "Are we going to come live with you at Oak Camp, Ayla?"

Ayla frowned. "Well, actually Danara, I don't live at Oak Camp all the time." Danara looked displeased, so Ayla continued. "But I will come to visit. I promise."

"What camp are you from, Ayla?" the child asked.

Ayla glanced at Danta and Davaria before answering. "I was born to Oak Camp, Danara, but I live with the Clan."

Danara didn't know who the Clan was, but she wasn't happy about this. She thought she would be going to live where Ayla lived. She frowned. "Why?"

Ayla set Danara down and knelt in front of her. "Well, when I was a little girl, just a little older than you, I got lost, and I was found by the Clan. They are the people that raised me."

"Can I come visit you there?"

Ayla looked at Danta and Davaria again, and frowned. "I don't know. We will have to see." Ayla paused, then seeing tears in Danara's eyes, she considered. "Maybe."

Danara smiled. "You have two families? You are very lucky."

Ayla grinned. "Yes, I do have two families, and so will you."

Danara shook her head. "No, we don't have anyone at Sumac Camp," she said. "No one loves us there."

Ayla frowned. "But Danara, when you come to Oak Camp, you will have lots of people to take care of you, to love you."

"But not you." Danara turned away slightly to pout.

"Well no, I won't be there during the winter, but I will come back next spring. I promised, remember?" The child nodded. "And I do love you." Danara smiled. "Now come on; let's get back to Grov and the children."

Ayla picked up Danta's pack and waited for Davaria to pick up his. Danta carried Danara and they started back.


While Ayla was gone, Grov spent some time talking to Durc about the ways of the Clan, and about leadership, then the two practiced with their slings to pass the time. Grov watched the boy maneuver the strange weapon, thinking that one day, he'd be as good as his mother. There was a slight awkwardness in the way the boy's arm moved; probably caused by being half Clan, but he seemed to possess the same natural talent with the weapon that his mother had. Grov knew that Ayla was going to be quite proud of his skill.

Grov glanced over his shoulder at the girls. He had set up the hide and told them to stay put before going to work with Ayla's son, and for the most part, they hadn't objected. Annaliza was now sleeping, he observed, but Ora was a different story. Now that her sister was out, the three-year-old was inching off the hide...again.

"Ora stay!" he barked sternly. Possibly too sternly, he thought with a sigh when she looked up and started to cry. She must be tired, he rationalized as he watched her, then the man got up to go to her. "Are you sleepy," he gestured. She shook her head. "No? Are you hungry?" She nodded. Grov looked down at Annaliza, then his eyes went south, hoping to see movement in the distance. He didn't yet, so he figured he'd have to fix the child something to eat. He tried giving her some dried meat, but she shook her head.

"Want Mamma," she whined. He finally understood, but he couldn't help her there.

"She'll be back soon. Do you want some water?" Ora frowned, considering his offer. She wanted her mother's milk, but she knew Ayla wasn't there. Finally, she nodded her head. Water was all that there was.

Grov got out his skin of water and Ora drank thirstily. After finishing, the three-year-old pulled out her doll, then lay down. She fell asleep quickly. Grov watched the daughters of his hearth as they slept, then glanced at the hot sUmer sun. He wondered if Ayla would be back soon, as he had told Ora, or if he should set up a tent. One more look at the sleeping girls told him to set up their tent. Either way, they needed some shade.


As they walked, Ayla and Danta talked, but Davaria walked behind them, not saying much. He wasn't so sure about going with Grov and Ayla on their little journey, but he was glad they would be going back to the Sungaea, eventually. He hadn't really wanted to leave, but he'd do anything for Danta.

The thought of going back to the meeting was unsettling as well. He wasn't looking forward to seeing his mother, or to petitioning the Councils about being adopted by Oak Camp. Sumac Camp was likely to fight hard against it, though why, he didn't know; winters would be easier with three less mouths to feed, and most people couldn't stand Danta. He knew they'd fight just to make trouble.

Danara had started in her mother's arms, but she was too excited to stay there for long. Soon she was running ahead, then running back. Her energy seemed endless, and it made everyone smile.

"Davaria," Danara called out. "I see smoke fire. Look." She pointed.

The man smiled. "Fire smoke," he corrected.

"Mamma, can I run ahead to see Ora?"

Danta smiled. "Yes, but be careful."

The three of them grinned as they watched the child run off. "I can't believe how different she is," Davaria said shaking his head. "It's like she's a completely different child.


Grov was sitting with Durc on the hide next to his sleeping girls, and eating some dried meat, when he saw a figure approaching; it was Danara, and beyond her he could see the others.


"So, what's the plan?" Davaria asked, putting his pack down and looking around. "Where is this valley of horses?"

"Well, from the sUmer meeting, we knew we needed to head west and slightly south," Grov answered, but then he looked at Ayla. After all, this was her journey.

"But I think we have come too far south," Ayla added with a frown. "We still need to go west, but maybe a little north now too."

Davaria returned her frown. "How do you know?" he asked.

Ayla shook her head. "I do not know how I know...or at least, I am not sure how I know...I just know. We are doing this by feeling alone. Northwest is the direction that feels right to me...right now, anyway."

"So that is where we are going," said Grov, ignoring Davaria's unsure look and smiling at his mate.

Ayla gave him a grateful look; no other clan man would have done this for her. "But I think we could just camp here for the night."

Grov looked surprised. "Are you sure, Ayla? It's barely passed midday. We could cover quite a distance before nightfall."

"I know, but why not relax for the rest of the day? The disappearing of the sun was the sign to leave the meeting, but I don't think what we do now matters much. When we get there, we get there. Besides, it looks like you've already set up camp."

Grov nodded. "All right."

"And what are we going to do when we get there?" Davaria asked. "What's so important about this valley of horses anyway?"

Both Ayla and Grov grinned. "We are going to make friends with some horses."


The rest of the day was relatively relaxing for everyone. The men went off to do a little hunting. They didn't really need any meat, but it was something to do to pass the time, and the meat would definitely get eaten at some point. Plus, the two men needed some time to get to know one another.

Ayla and Danta stayed at their campsite talking and watching the children play. Durc got along quite well with Danara, who was a year younger than him, and Ora was a little more quiet than usual. Ayla thought that she was possibly trying to act older, since her friend was there. Annaliza just curled up with her mother, holding her doll and sucking her two middle fingers.

Ayla tried to get Danta's secret out of her, but the woman seemed completely unwilling to budge.

"You know, it will be easier later if you tell us why you were running away from the Sungaea."

Danta looked away. "Easier for who?"

"For everyone, for you and Oak Camp. If Oak Camp has a good reason to present to the Councils, then Sumac Camp cannot object."

Danta looked back at her. "Yes, I know, but it won't really matter. They can object all they want, but they can't stop Oak Camp from adopting us if we accept, which we have. They really have no choice, Ayla. Besides, I am afraid of what Davaria will do...if he finds out."

"You mean, when he finds out," Ayla corrected.

Danta's eyes narrowed at the perceptive young woman. "You know what happened, don't you?"

Ayla shrugged. "I am not sure who it was, but I have an idea of what he did to you."

Danta looked down at her hands. "Then you know why I can't say anything."

"No, I don't know why. Danta, what he did to you...whoever it wrong, and you have to do something about it." Danta's tear-filled eyes turned back to her, so Ayla went on.

"I have been there, and I do not mean what Zadneetsia did to me at the sUmer meeting." Ayla paused when she noticed Danta shudder and focus on her hands again. It was Zadneetsia; she should have known.

"Danta, the people I grew up with did not do anything about it because that is their way, but it is not like that for The Sungaea will do something. Please don't let Zadneetsia get away with this."

Danta looked up sharply. How had Ayla known it was Zadneetsia? "He got away with hurting you," she spat. "What makes you think he won't get away with hurting me?"

"It's not the same this time and you know it. They will do more than just return our meat."

She sighed heavily. "But what if they don't?"

Ayla shrugged. "It will not matter, Danta. You will not live there anymore. You will be at Oak Camp."

Ayla was right, it wouldn't matter what happened to him, just so long as she didn't have to be anywhere near the man. Danta finally nodded. Then, noticing Davaria and Grov returning, she wiped her tears away. "Okay, Ayla, but I don't want to talk about this. Not right now," she said, nodding her head toward the approaching men. Ayla turned to look, then got up to take their kills, which gave Danta some time to wipe up her tear-stained face.


Davaria watched Ayla skin the animals that he and Grov had brought back, and noticed how proficient at it she actually was. In no time she had the meat spitted over the fire that Grov had made, and then she reached for a scraper, to remove the bloodvessels from the back side of the hides. He had never seen someone work so quickly, and was further impressed that she never missed a beat of the conversation the whole time she worked.

When the meal was finished, Ayla served Grov first, which struck Davaria as odd; the Sungaea traditionally offered first choice to women, but then, he thought, they aren't really Sungaean. Or at least Grov's not, he thought with a frown.

Ayla then brought him a plate of food and he suddenly realized she had added vegetables and some other greens to the roasted meat; it was a full meal. He thanked her, then watched her as she finished passing out food to everyone else.


After the meal, Ayla spent some time showing Ora how to clean off their eating utensils. She wanted to make good on her promise to Grov to give the girl some responsibilities, and this seemed easy enough for the little girl to do. Ora balked somewhat, but one look from Grov made her do as she was told, though somewhat grudgingly.

Danara watched them for a moment, then asked if she could help. Ayla readily accepted the help, and Ora seemed more willing to do the work since Danara made it more fun.


After putting the children to bed, the four adults sat up by the fire for a short time, drinking tea and talking, mostly about superficial things. Ayla didn't mention Zadneetsia's rape of Danta, like she had promised, though she desperately wanted to.

"So we'll leave here first thing in the morning?" Davaria asked.

Grov nodded. "We will eat first, of course. And I think we should redistribute out packs. You have more than you should in yours. It may seem fine right now, but it will eventually become too much. And, Ayla wants to give the children something to carry as well. Plus, we have all this new meat to find room for."

Davaria frowned as he considered Grov's words. He thought it would be nice to not have to carry so many things. He had to admit his pack was too heavy, but he hadn't wanted Danta to carry more than she should. Finally, he nodded at Grov, glad the man had made the suggestion. Grov and Ayla then said goodnight, and promptly excused themselves. Davaria watched them go, then he looked at his sister.

"Are you sure you want to go with them to this...valley full of horses?" he whispered. He was shaking his head. "I mean, they want to make friends with horses. Don't you think that's strange?"

Danta smiled and nodded at Grov and Ayla's tent; Shriek was perched on its top. "They have a hawk for a friend. Why not a horse?"

Davaria followed her eyes, then smiled back at her. "I guess you're right."


Ayla lay next to Grov silently for a few moments before snuggling up to him. Grov smiled in the darkness and curled his arm around his mate. Though he didn't relish the thought of spending nights crammed into a tent of five, it was going to be nice to have some time away from all the people at the sUmer meeting. He liked all the people there, or at least most of them. He had been looking forward to spending this time alone with his mate and the children, but he decided that, after the day, it wouldn't be so bad to have another man along to talk to. Plus, it would be good for their new friends.

Ayla nestled into the crook of Grov's shoulder and smiled. They could hear Davaria and Danta talking outside, but neither could tell what they were saying.

"So, what do you think?" Grov asked. "Are they going to be all right?"

"It's going to be hard, but I think so." Ayla hadn't mentioned Danta's rape. She wanted to, but telling Grov wouldn't change anything, and she thought that, maybe, Danta wouldn't want her to just yet, so she didn't. "What do you think?"

"I know Ivanolia said he was as bad as the others, but he doesn't seem so terrible to me," Grov said, obviously referring to Davaria. "He's unsure of me, but he seemed better after we went hunting. He certainly has some decent hunting skills; two of today's kills are his."

"That is good. Oak Camp already has several good hunters, but any camp can use another good hunter." Ayla thought for a moment. "And, they're going to need to do some hunting in order to make all they will need at Oak Camp."

Grov sighed. "I'm sure they're carrying all they have from Sumac Tent, so they're sure going to need a lot. It's going to take time to build up their possessions and gain status within Oak Camp, but everyone will help them. Moving will be an adjustment, but I think they can do it.

"It will be interesting to see them next sUmer," Ayla commented. "They may seem like different people by then."

Grov frowned in the dark. She sounded sad. "Are you wishing you could stay at Oak Camp this winter, Ayla?" he asked, deciding to be direct.

"Oh no," Ayla said, shaking her head in his shoulder. "I miss the Clan very much. I can hardly wait to see Uba and her sons, and Oga and her children. And Ebra and Eda too." She paused. "I will definitely miss Oak Camp during the winter, but no...I am not wishing to stay with Oak Camp for the winter."

Grov's wrinkled brow eased. He was glad, because it wasn't likely that they would be able to stay with Oak Camp. He needed to start training to take Brun's place as leader, though now he questioned agreeing to take over; what if Ayla wanted to leave the Clan to live with the Others.

"Maybe we can visit Oak Camp...if the snows aren't too bad," he suggested.

"And I think Ivanolia and Danie will be coming to visit us," she said.

Grov's frown returned. "But that may not be such a good visit...after what he did to Oda."

"I know, but he does want to make up for what he did to her, and he wasn't the one that killed her baby. I think he'd even take her, if there was no Norv." Ayla grimaced. She didn't like Norv very much.

"I think you are right...I was so angry with Ivanolia, for what he did to Oda, but after he charged over to Sumac Tent to defend you...well...I can't be angry any longer. Is that wrong of me?" He was thinking of his mother, and hoping her spirit wasn't angry with him.

Ayla smiled. "No, I do not think it is wrong of you, Grov. He did do wrong, but he is doing what he can to show us he is sorry. He is much different now. Don't you think so?"

"Yes, Ayla, you are right; he is different," agreed Grov. "I guess we will have to wait and see."


The next day could be described as nothing more than an ordinary day of travel, except for one minor distraction during their midday meal. They were sitting under a lone tree, which shaded a few boulders on the side of a hill, watching the children play, when they heard a snuffling noise behind them. They all turned around to see two wolverines attempting to drag away one of their packs of meat. Danta screamed, getting up quickly to go to Danara. Grov and Davaria pulled out their spears, but it was unnecessary as Ayla already had her sling in hand; two stones thrown in quick succession ended the lives of the little gluttons and added two more kills to the small band of travelers.

Grov lowered his spear first; he was not surprised that Ayla has dispatched the animals before a spear could be thrown, but Davaria was. Davaria stood there, spear in hand, staring at Ayla as she picked up the stolen pack, then collected the dead thieves.

"H-how did you do that?" he finally asked.

Ayla turned to look at him. "What?"

He looked at the weapon in her hand. "Is that a sling?" he asked. She nodded. "I have not seen one used before. That was amazing!"

Ayla blushed. She still was not used to comments of praise where hunting was concerned. "Thank you."

Grov grinned and clapped Davaria on the back. "She is amazing, isn't she? I am not sure we are even needed here."

Davaria nodded his agreement, then put his spear away. Danta approached slowly, still somewhat nervous by the sudden appearance of animals, then went to help Ayla to skin her kills. They kept only the furs and tossed the carcasses; no one wanted the meat from the meat eaters.


Late in the afternoon, they arrived at the river that signaled their stop for the day. They had covered a lot of land that day and everyone was tried. The children plopped down on the ground, waiting for instructions that were sure to come. The two men went to work putting up tents, while the women started the fire. After the fire was going, Danta collected the children's packs, which Ayla had made and filled with a few light things the day before, while Ayla started their meal.

"While this is cooking," said Ayla, "I think I am going to swim. I feel sticky and dirty." She went over to her children, and gestured that they should come as well.

"Oooo, that sounds good, Ayla," Danta said. "I think we'll come with you, if you do not mind."

Ayla smiled. "No, of course not."

Grov and Davaria decided to do the same, but they took Durc and went down river just slightly, giving the females some space to bathe in peace. Davaria couldn't help but stare at Ayla as she pulled her tunic over her head and stepped out of her leggings. Despite what he'd heard about this woman, she was a beauty. He was starting to disregard the opinions of others, where this woman was concerned.

Grov turned his head and smiled, pretending not to notice, though he had. That was just one more difference between Grov and any other Clan man; he did not take offense to another man staring at his woman; he took it as a compliment of her strength and beauty.

Ayla would have noticed as well, had she been facing the men, but as it was, she was busy with her daughters.


During that evening they sat around their fire eating a meal and telling stories. Danta was quite interested in the Clan couple's life within the clan, but Davaria wanted to know about how Ayla learned to hunt with the sling.

"Hmm, I was seven when I first picked up a sling." Ayla smiled as her mind went back to that time. "It was a beautiful spring morning the day my mother asked me to go out and gather some wild cherry bark for her, and I was easily distracted. I stared at the sky; it was so blue. And I found all kinds of plants that I wanted to gather. On the way back, I told myself. I walked and walked, enjoying the day. Then, as I approached the place where the wild cherry trees grew, I heard activity in the clearing. The men had gone out to practice with their bolas and slings. I wasn't sure what I should do; the men wouldn't be happy if they saw me there, but Iza wanted the cherry bark. I finally decided to hide and watch them." Ayla paused. Grov was shaking his head, but with a smile. He had not heard this story yet, but he was not surprised that Ayla had done what she had.

"So, when the men left," she continued. "I noticed that they'd left behind a sling and I picked it up. I wondered if it was as hard as they made it out to be. I ended up spending all afternoon practicing. Toward the end of the day, I finally hit the post I had been aiming for.

"After that day, I practiced as much as I could. I wore out my sling so quickly that I knew I'd have to make a new one. I started watching Zoug, our clan's old toolmaker. He allowed me to sit and watch him while he worked. He even gave me his extra strips of leather, which I secretly used to make myself a new sling. I learned much from him, though he did not know it.

"After a while, hitting the post was not a challenge, so I looked for harder targets. I was getting very good with my sling. Then there was one day that I was upset about something, and I started slinging stones angrily." She glanced at Grov, which told the man that she had been upset over Broud. "I hurt a porcupine, which made me realize how angry the Clan would be if they found out what I was doing. I decided to stop practicing with the sling on that day."

Davaria frowned. "But if you stopped practicing, then how did you get so good at hunting with it?"

Ayla smiled. "Well, obviously I didn't quit permanently. It was almost winter before I picked up my sling again. I knew I couldn't bring back kills, so my thoughts went to meat eaters. I thought that maybe I could help out the Clan by hunting them. It was a very difficult decision for me, but I could not help myself; I decided that I would hunt them. Then, right after that, I found this stone," she said, removing her amulet to show them the fossil cast of a gastropod that she found that day. "I took this as a sign that I should indeed hunt meat eaters."

Davaria and Danta examined what Ayla handed them, then gave it back to her. They both had wondered about the amulets that hung around all five of their necks; even little Annaliza had one.

"During my eighth year, I learned to track animals and I learned to distinguish their spoor. I even learned what dropping belonged to what animal. I made my first kill that year," Ayla said proudly, then something else occurred to her. "My first kill was a wolverine."

"You were only eight?" Danta asked. Ayla nodded. "That is amazing." Davaria was more than impressed. He had been nearly thirteen before he had made his first kill.

"So, that is how I learned to hunt with the sling," Ayla said, concluding her story.

Davaria frowned as he thought about something else. "That is amazing, but why did you have to hide your hunting?"

Grov smiled. They had not had this conversation in quite a while. "Because women of the Clan are forbidden to hunt." Davaria and Danta frowned, wondering why.

"They did find out...eventually. And I was severely punished, but that's another story." Davaria and Danta nodded.


The four of them talked for a short time longer. It wasn't very late, but they had another long day ahead of them, and no one wanted to be tired while they traveled the next day. Everyone went off to bed.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

The next morning, Ayla woke up thinking of horses. She had dreamed of them...again, but no new parts to her vision had been added.

Outside, the wind whipped Ayla's long hair into her eyes, causing her to frown. She didn't like the wind; it never seemed to stop blowing on the steppes. It only varied in intensity. Ayla sighed and looked across the steppes; today would be worse than others, she thought.

After pushing her hair off her face, she looked up, surprised to see Davaria sitting by an already burning, but low fire. He seemed to be deep in thought and didn't see her right away. Slowly, so as not to startle him, she approached and sat down. He finally looked at her.

"Morning," he said with a friendly tone. He had been thinking about the strange turn of events that would move them to Oak Camp after the sUmer meeting, and how it was this woman that was responsible for it.

Ayla smiled. "Morning. Did you sleep well?" she asked, once again pushing her hair out of her eyes.

"Actually, yes." He paused for a moment. "It is not often that I wake up so early. I think it was the bouza that made me sleep so late."

"That, and staying up late each night."

Davaria nodded. "Probably so." He looked at the fire. "You know, I don't even like bouza...I just drink it because it seems to make life easier."

"I can understand that," Ayla commented. "But it does not really make anything easier; it just makes it so you cannot remember, or shadows the things you do remember. I know that everything seems sort of...foggy...when I drink it."

"Well that is the point, isn't it?" he asked with a smile. "I mean, wouldn't you want everything to be foggy if you lived at Sumac Camp?"

"Good point," Ayla said, nodding affirmatively. "I am just saying that it makes it hard to pull yourself out of there, if you're too foggy to better yourself." Ayla paused for moment. "But you won't have to deal with Sumac Camp anymore, so things should get better, right?"

Davaria stared at her for a moment and nodded. "Thanks to you." She blushed, and was about to protest when he changed the subject. "I am sorry about what Zadneetsia did to you, Ayla. I did not believe you at first, but I do now. I feel bad for that too."

"Don't feel bad, Davaria. It was not you that tried to hurt me. But remember that this still isn't over; someone hurt Danta too."

"I know, but she won't tell me what happened." He looked real angry. She couldn't imagine how angry he'd be when he did find out what happened.

"That is because she does not want you to get into any trouble. She fears for her big brother."

Davaria smiled at her wording. He was, after all, Danta's big brother, but only by a slight shift in the sun; Dreena had been born between them. He shook his head, trying to think about now, and not then. Then he narrowed his eyes at the blonde woman sitting next to him. "And you know what happened to her, don't you?" he asked.

Ayla nodded. "I do." She could not lie to him. "But please do not ask me to tell you. Danta is not ready for anyone to know yet." Davaria sighed heavily. He would not ask, and Ayla was grateful; she did not think she could avoid a direct question, had he asked.


Everyone else was up shortly. They had a leisurely morning meal, washed their dishes in the river, then swam again before packing up to leave.

Ayla adjusted her shoulder bag, then picked up Annaliza to strap the child to her hip again. She glanced up at Grov, who was waiting patiently, then over at the other two. Danta was helping Davaria to situate his pack, but they were ready to go as well.


As they headed north and slightly west across the open steppeland full of waist high grasses in search of Ayla's valley, the travelers stayed close together. The children suddenly became glued to them, as the nervousness of not being able to see very far forced them to slow down. Ayla handed off Annaliza to Danta to rest her arms for awhile, but ended up collecting as she walked instead of resting.

When the sun was directly overhead, they stopped for a meal, but didn't stay long. With no growth to shadow themselves beneath, they were anxious to move on.


The sun was blinding as it sank low in the western sky. They had been hiking up a long incline, looking for a place to make camp. They were tired and hungry, and the children were starting to complain.

The glare on the horizon was so bright that they nearly missed the abrupt edge of the plateau. Ayla stood on the lip, shielding her eyes from the disappearing sun and looked down a ravine. Everyone joined her there.

Below, there was a small river of sparkling water, flanked on both sides by trees and brush. A gorge of rocky cliffs opened out into a cool, green, sheltered valley. Halfway down in the middle of the field, the last long rays of the sun fell on a small herd of horse, grazing peacefully.

Ayla grinned in anticipation. "Look, horses," she said, grabbing Grov's tunic sleeve. "This is the valley. We are here."


The first stars pierced the evening sky as the travelers carefully picked their way down the steep rocky side of the ravine, each adult helping one child. As soon as they had cleared the edge, the wind ceased abruptly, and they stopped for a moment to savor its absence. But the walls cut off the failing light as well. By the time the people reached the bottom, the dense brush along the small river was a tangled silhouette seen against the moving reflection of the myriad shining points above.

The people went first to the river to take a deep refreshing drink, then felt their way into the deeper black near the wall. They decided not to bother with their tents, instead they just rolled up in their furs, feeling more secure with a wall at their backs than they had on the open plains under a tent. They watched a waxing crescent show just a sliver of its face over the edge of the ravine before they fell asleep.


The next morning, the people awoke to the early morning twitterings, chirpings, and raucous caws of many different birds. One by one, they pulled back their coverings and looked around with delight. A world of green, still wet with morning dew, glistened brightly in the morning sun. They were on a broad rocky beach at a place where a small river took a turn toward the east in its winding, generally southward course.

On the opposite bank, a row of dark green pines reached to the top of the wall behind them but no farther. Any tentative strivings above the lip of the river gorge were cut short by the slashing winds of the steppes above. It gave the tallest trees a peculiar blunted look, their growth forced to branching fullness. The trees were growing on a narrow strip on the other side of the river between the bank and the wall, some so close to the water that bare roots were exposed.


their side, upstream of the rocky beach, supple willows arched over, weeping long, pale green leaf-tears into the stream. The flattened stems on the tall aspens made the leave quiver in the gentle breeze. White-barked birches grew in clumps while their alder cousins were only high shrubs. Lianas climbed and twined around the trees and bushes of many varieties in full leaf crowded close to the stream.

It was early, but everyone was up, enjoying the sounds and surrounding beauty of the Ayla's valley. The small river sparkled an irresistible invitation, which caused the travelers to cross the beach and undress for a morning swim.

Grov, who had removed his clothing the fastest and was already in the water, noticed that the bank dropped off quickly and dove under. He came up halfway across the river, shook the water out of his hair, then swam back. The water was cool and refreshing, and washing off the dust and grime of the steppes was a welcome pleasure.

Back at the shore, Grov watched the children. Ayla was still stripping Ora and Annaliza, but Durc and Danara had already jumped in. Only two of the four could swim, and Danara wasn't as proficient at it as was Durc. She was staying pretty close to the water's edge, but Grov could see that Durc was fairly far out, treading water quite easily. The boy shared his mother's aptitude for swimming, as well as her love for the water, but the man kept a close eye on him.

Ora and Annaliza, on the other hand, were still learning. Grov watched as Ayla signaled Annaliza to wait at the water's edge while she brought Ora out to him. When she got close, he extended his arms to accept the child. Ora squealed loudly as the cool water touched her belly, but she grinned as well. She also shared Ayla's love of the water.

Ayla returned to her youngest, who still stood on the bank waiting patiently. Annaliza was no different in her love for the water, but she was nowhere near ready to enter without someone there to help her. As her mother picked her up and brought her out into the river, the one-year-old splashed her chubby hand in the water and giggled. Ayla waded out a bit and lowered her daughter so that her chin was touching the water's surface. Annaliza showed no fear of the water; she only grinned as it splashed up into her face.

"Hold your breath," Ayla said, demonstrating by pulling in her own and holding it for a few moments, then releasing. Annaliza didn't seem to understand, so Ayla blew in her face to get her to hold her breath. Ayla grinned as she watched Annaliza open her eyes wide and suck in her breath. "Hold your breath," Ayla repeated, then blew in the child's face again. Annaliza's eyes widened again, but this time when she sucked in her breath, she held it longer. Ayla repeated herself one more time, then dunked the little girl under, quickly bringing her back up. Annaliza came up smiling, but immediately shoved her chubby fists into her eyes, to clear the water out of them. Everyone heard a peel of babyish laughter as the child said, "Again."

Davaria and Danta had waded in more slowly than the rest, obviously less used to swimming so often. Though they were enjoying the freedom that being with Grov and Ayla brought them, they were more tentative about some things than others may be. This was definitely new to them. Danta watched Danara and wondered where the child had learned to swim; she certainly hadn't taught her.


After swimming for awhile Danta got out and dressed. She started back to get a fire going, because she wanted to eat. On her way back, she chopped a branch from a tree, sharpened a point on one end, and used it to dig up some wild carrots that Ayla had pointed out to her on their way down to the river. She wondered how Ayla had even seen them; they were very well hidden. She hoped that she would be able to learn more from the woman.

Once she got to their campsite, she got the fire drill and platform out of Ayla's pack, then began gathering dry driftwood, and deadfall from beneath the protective branches of the trees. With the same tool she had used to sharpen her digging stick, she shaved curls from a dry stick. Then she peeled loose hairy bark from the old stalks of sagebrush, and dried fuzz from the seed pods of fireweed.

Danta found a comfortable place to sit, then sorted the wood according to size and arranged the tinder, kindling, and larger wood around her. She thought for a moment, trying to remember what she'd seen Ayla do when starting a fire the night before. She examined the platform, a piece of dry clematis vine, dug a little notch out along one edge with a flint borer, and fitted an end of the previous season's dry woody cattail stalk into the hole to check the size. She arranged the fireweed fuzz in a nest of stringy bark under the notch of the fire platform, and smiled, thinking that it was Danara that had showed them what to use. Next, she braced the platform with her foot, then put the end of the cattail stalk in the notch and took a deep breath. Fire making took concentration.

Placing her palms together at the top of the stick, she began twirling it back and forth between her hands, exerting a downward pressure. As she twirled it, the constant pressure moved her hands down the stick until they nearly touched the platform. At this point she had to let go at the bottom and reach quickly for the top again, never letting the rhythm of the twirling stop, nor letting up the pressure for more than an instant.

Danta got into the rhythm of the movement, ignoring the sweat that formed on her brow and started running into her eyes. With the continuous movement, the hole deepened and sawdust from the soft wood accumulated. She smelled woodsmoke and saw the notch blacken before she saw a wisp of smoke, encouraging her to continue though her arms ached. Finally, a small glowing coal burned through the platform and dropped onto the nest of dry tinder beneath it.

She bent over so that her face was so near the coal she could feel the heat, and began to blow on it. She watched it grow brighter with each breath, then die down again as she gulped another mouthful of air. She held tiny curled shavings to the bit of smoldering wood and watched them brighten and turn black without igniting. Then a tiny flame burst out. She blew harder, fed it more shavings, and, when she had a small pile burning, added a few sticks of kindling, and then some logs to get the fire blazing.

Then, quite proud of herself, she sat back for a moment to rest. I did it! she thought excitedly. She could hardly believe it.

Danta sent a look down to the river, then started water boiling for tea and skewered some meat for a morning meal. Once the water was boiling, she moved it to the side, then started for the river's edge to get the girls; she saw them getting out of the water. She glanced upstream; Davaria, Grov and Durc had already gotten out of the river and had gone exploring, but Ayla was standing there, still naked, drying off the three girls, and looking as if she still wanted to swim.

"Ayla," she said, kneeling to help her daughter dress. "I can take the girls back to the fire, if you want to keep swimming. You didn't have much time to yourself."

Ayla smiled. "Are you sure?" Danta nodded. "Well, all right, if you really don't mind." Ayla finished dressing Ora, then picked up Annaliza and put her in Danta's arms. "I won't be long. I promise."

Danta shook her head. "We'll be fine," she said. She took one of Ora's hands and told Danara to take the other, then they walked back to her fire and the food that was cooking.


Ayla swam upstream and felt the current growing stronger and the water chilling as the sheer walls closed in, narrowing the river. She looked over at Grov, who was watching her swim and waved, then she rolled over on her back and, cradled by the buoyant water, let the flow carry her back downstream. She gazed up at the deep azure filling the space between the high cliffs, then noticed a dark hole in the wall across from the beach upstream. Could that be a cave? she thought with a surge of excitement. I wonder if it would be hard to reach?

The young woman waded back to he beach and sat down on the warm stones to let the sun dry her. Her eye was drawn by the quick perky gestures of birds hopping on the ground near the brush and flitting from branch to branch feeding on bushes heavy with berries.

Ayla looked over at Danta and the girls, then upstream toward Grov, Durc and Davaria. They were still exploring. Then she grabbed her clothing and headed toward the birds. Look at those raspberries! she thought to herself. They're so big. A flurry of wings welcomed her approach, then settled nearby. She stuffed a handful of the sweet juicy berries in her mouth, then decided to go get something to put them in so she could bring them back for everyone. At the fire, she rUmaged through her pack to get a small collecting basket.

Danta looked up at her and smiled. "What are you doing, Ayla?" she asked.

Ayla held up her index finger, indicating that the woman should wait, then she rushed back over to collect berries for everyone. While collecting, she realized how hungry she was and ate a few more, but rather than satisfying her appetite, the raspberries only stimulated it. She sniffed the air, realizing she could smell Danta's meal cooking. She wanted something more substantial and walked back to the fire with her treat.

"What did you find?" Danta asked when Ayla returned with a smirk on her face.

"This," Ayla answered with excitement as she reached into her bag and pulled out a handful of fresh raspberries.

"Oooo, Mamma, I love razzberries," Ora squealed, getting up quickly to get some.

Ayla grinned and kneeled. "I know that," she said, and handed her daughter some of the berries. Then she brought some to the others.


Davaria and Grov had gone upstream to look around. Durc was picking up and looking at smooth round pebbles, and occasionally tossing them into the river. Close inspection revealed the beach held more than just stones. It was also strewn with dull gray driftwood and bleached white bones, many of them piled in a huge mounds against a jutting wall. Violent spring floods had uprooted trees and swept away unwary animals, hurled them through the narrow constriction of sheer rock upstream, and slammed them against a cul-de-sac in the near wall as the swirling water tore around the bend. They saw giant antlers, long bison horns, and several enormous, curving ivory tusks in the heap; not even the great mammoth was immune to the force of the tide. Large boulders were mixed in the deposit, too, but the men's eyes narrowed when they saw several medium-size, chalky gray stones.

Grov picked up a few pieces and turned them over in his hand. "This is flint," he said, scanning the beach for a smooth oval stone. When he found one, he struck the chalky outer covering of the nodule. A piece of the whitish cortex broke off, exposing the dull sheen of the dark gray stone within.

Davaria watched him. "Maybe we should collect some of it. We might need to make something while we're here."

"HUm, good idea." Both men sifted through the stones, choosing only a few good ones each, then feeling the familiar pangs of hunger, returned to their campsite.


"Look what we found," Grov said, holding up the flint, when the got back to the campsite.

"Is that flint?" Ayla asked.

Grov nodded. "The beach is strewn with it."

"That's great. Maybe we can make some new tools while we're here." She paused. "How far did you go?" she asked.

"Not far, but I'd like to explore further. Do you want to come?"

Ayla nodded. "I think I saw a cave in the side of that hill." Ayla pointed across the river and everyone turned to look. "I could not tell for sure, but it looked like one."

"Hmm, that would be nice," Danta said. "Then we wouldn't have to sleep outside while we're here."

Ayla grinned. "My thoughts exactly. And it would be safer too." Everyone agreed.


The sun was high when they decided to investigate the hole in the wall on the other side of the river, but the crossing would be difficult, considering all their belongings, so Danta decided to stay behind with the children, just in case it was nothing.

"Alone? I don't know," said Davaria, looking at her and shaking his head worriedly.

Danta smiled. "I will be fine, Davaria," Danta said, patting his chest. "You won't be gone very long, right?" She looked over at Ayla, who shook her head.

Davaria frowned. "Maybe I should stay here with you and the children."

The woman laughed. "No, all three of you should go. The cave could be more dangerous than staying here. Besides, I will have Durc here to protect me." She smiled at the five-year-old boy who puffed up proudly. "Go! We'll be fine."

Reluctantly, Davaria finally agreed to go, but he left her two of his spears, and Grov asked Durc to keep his sling handy, just in case.


The three people stripped and swam across the river, scrambling up the tree roots to climb out of the deep water. It was difficult scaling the nearly vertical wall, making them wonder if it was worthwhile even if they did find a cave. They ended up being disappointed anyway when they reached a narrow ledge in front of the dark hole and found it was hardly more than a depression in the rock.

They turned to start down, then turned farther. Downstream and slight lower on the other wall, they could see the top of the rock barrier that jutted toward a bend in the river. It was a broad ledge, and at the back of it there appeared to be another hole in the face of the cliff, a much deeper hole. From their vantage point, they could see a steep but possible way up. Ayla's heart was beating with excitement.

"We must have passed it on our way down last night," she said as they started back down. About halfway down, they jumped back into the river, and started up again. As they neared the ledge, Grov and Davaria pulled out spears and Ayla took out her sling. They advanced cautiously.

They listened for the sound of breathing or small scufflings, and looked to see if there were any telltale signs of recent habitation. Ayla smelled the air for the distinctive odors of carnivorous animals, or fresh scat, or gamy meat. Grov even opened his mouth to allow taste buds to help catch the scent, and let his bare skin detect any sense of warmth coming out of the cave. They allowed intuition to guide them as they noiselessly approached the opening. They stayed close to the wall, crept up to the dark hole, and looked in. They saw nothing.

The opening, facing the southwest, was small. The top cleared Ayla's head, but she could reach her hand up and touch it. The floor sloped down at the entrance, then leveled out. Loess, blown in on the wind, and debris carried in by animals that had used the cave in the past had built up a layer of soil. Originally uneven and rocky, the floor of the cave had a dry, hard-packed, earth surface.

As they peered around the edge, they could detect no sign that the cave had been used recently. Grov slipped in first, followed quickly by the other two. All three of them noticed how cool it was compared with the hot sunny ledge, and waited for their eyes to adjust to the dim interior. There was more light in the cave than they had expected, and when they moved in farther, they saw sunlight through a hole above the entrance and understood why.

The cave was not large, but not small either. The walls angled back from the entrance, widening until they came to a fairly straight back wall. The general shape was roughly triangular, with the apex at the mouth and the east wall longer than the west. The darkest place was the east back corner; the place to investigate first.

Grov crept slowly along the east wall, watching for cracks or passageways that could lead to deeper recesses holding hidden menaces, but there were none. Near the dark corner, rock cleaved from the walls lay on the floor in a jumbled heap. Ayla came forward, climbed the rocks, felt a shelf, and emptiness beyond it, but she couldn't see inside. Grov helped to hoist her up on the shelf.

The dark opening was low; she had to stoop to move inside. But it was only a recess that ended with the roof sloping to meet the floor of the niche. At the back was a pile of bones. Ayla frowned, interested in what had lived in the cave before they had come, but decided she would have to come back later. Turning, she climbed out of the niche and allowed Grov and Davaria to help her back down from the ledge. They followed the west wall back to the entrance. It was a blind cave, and, except for the small niche, had no other chambers or tunnels leading to unknown places.

Outside, they had to shade their eyes against the bright sunlight as they looked around. Below them on the right was a pile of driftwood and bones, and the rocky beach. To the left, they could see far down the valley. In the distance, the river turned south again, curving around the base of the steep opposite wall, while the left wall had flattened into steppes.

"What do you think?" asked Davaria.

Ayla smiled. "I do not know how long we are going to be here, but it seems perfect."

Grov nodded. "I would have to agree. Now we just have to get all of our things over here."

Ayla frowned. "But how do we know that it's all right with Ursus that we stay here?" she asked.

Grov's brow furrowed. "I do not think it matters, Ayla. We are not planning on living here permanently." She nodded and her frown eased, but Grov noticed that Davaria looked confused. "The Clan will not occupy a cave unless they have a successful hunt. That way they know Ursus is pleased with the place they have chosen to live."

Davaria nodded. "Huh, that's interesting. But what if the hunt isn't successful?"

Grov shrugged. "Then they look for a different cave."

Now it was Davaria's turn to frown. "Good caves are very hard to come by and from what I've heard, the Clan never builds an earthlodge." Grov shook his head, so Davaria continued with a frown. "It must be quite a hardship when a hunt is unsuccessful then."

"I suppose, though I have never heard of it happening." Grov smiled. "I think the hunters always put forth an extra effort when possession of a cave is at stake." He paused. "Now, shouldn't we go get Danta and the children?" Davaria and Ayla nodded. "I think if we go down that way, and cross the river there." He pointed at the rocky beach on their side of the river. "Then it will not be so difficult." They agreed with him and started down from the cave's ledge.


NEW CHAPTER – "The First of Three"

Danta had watched them cross the river and disappear, then come back across. She thought they were on their way back to her, but then they veered and were gone again for awhile. It had worried her, but she continued to wait, though somewhat impatiently. She sighed when she saw them again. Now they were returning.

"So?" she asked, but she could tell by their expressions that they had in fact found a usable cave.

"It's not huge, but it will work," Davaria said happily.

Ayla nodded her head. "And it will keep us warm," Ayla said, picking up her pack and looking up at the cloudless, azure blue sky. "Though, with this nice sUmer weather, I'm not sure that will be a concern."

Grov shrugged. "SUmer storms can come at any time. It will be nice to know we will not have to worry about that now."

Ayla was looking at her mate and nodded her agreement. "You are right." Then, turning back to Danta, she went on. "The way up is a little steep, but it's not too bad."

Danta smiled and stood up. "Should we put this out," she asked Ayla, whom she considered in charge. Ayla turned toward her mate and raised her eyebrows, expecting him to decide. Though they were here because of her vision, she did not see herself as the leader.

"Uh no," he answered, glancing down at their nicely burning morning fire. "Let's leave it until we have a fire going inside the cave. We can use a coal from this fire to start that one." Everyone nodded.


It did not take long for the travelers to walk down the rocky beach, then hike up the steep incline to the cave. Ayla and Danta took a few things, but decided to leave most behind, as they would need to help the children up to the ledge. Grov and Davaria also left their packs on the beach. Grov instructed Davaria to carry a burning piece of wood, while he carried wood for their indoor fire.

Once inside, Grov arranged the wood in a central location, somewhat under the smoke hole in the cave's ceiling, then extended a hand for the burning piece. Davaria quickly handed it over so Grov could finish his job.

"I guess we can go down to get the packs now," Davaria said, starting for the cave's entrance. Ayla nodded and turned to go with him, but Grov stopped her.

"We will get them, Ayla," Grov said. "You and Danta should stay here with the children." Ayla frowned for a moment, then shrugged. She was still holding Annaliza on her hip, but decided to put the child down. The two men left to gather their belongings.

"This is actually quite nice," Danta said with a slight smile as she gazed around the small cave that would be perfect for them. Durc and Danara had already climbed up onto the rocky shelf in the back of the cave and were exploring the little niche.

"Mama, look," Durc said, coming out of the niche with a bone in his hand. "Come look at this bone."

Ayla had to smile as she walked to the back of the cave to her curious son. He was no less curious than she, she thought. She reached to take it from him and then examined the bone in her hand. It was the long legbone of a giant deer, aged and dry, with teeth marks clearly imprinted where it had been split to get at the marrow. The pattern of teeth, the way the bone had been gnawed, looked familiar, and yet not. It had been made by a feline, she was sure.

"These marks were made by a large cat, a very large cat," she said with surprise, then she spun around and looked at the cave again.

Danta was watching her and frowned. "What is it, Ayla?" she asked worriedly.

"A cave lion did this," Ayla remarked. "This must have been the den of cave lions once." She glanced back at the niche that Durc had disappeared into again. "And that niche would be a perfect place for a lioness to have her cubs," she said with a smile. She looked back at Danta, who looked more worried than ever. "What?"

"Maybe we shouldn't stay in here then, Ayla," she said nervously. "What if the cave lions come back?"

Ayla looked around the cave, then down at the bone in her hand, then shook her head. "I do not think we need to worry, Danta. This bone is so old, and the cave hasn't been used for years." She paused as if thinking about it some more. "Besides, a fire near the entrance will keep animals away." Danta nodded, somewhat appeased by Ayla's analysis.


Grov and Davaria made their way down to the rocky beach to strike camp. Grov put his bedroll in his rucksack, then hefted the thing to his back, and shouldered Ayla's pack. Davaria struggled to do the same, but in the end, he required Grov's help to get Danta's pack on his arm. They were heavily loaded, but it was a short trip; they could make it.


Standing on the ledge, waiting for the men to return, Ayla stared out over the valley, breathing in the beauty and tranquility of the scene. She could hardly believe such a place could exist in the middle of the dry windy prairie. The woman noticed movement out of the corner of her eye and smiled as she watched the men cross the beach.

They seem to be getting along quite well, she thought with a slight smile. She could see them exchanging words and wondered what was being said. The woman considered the issues between them; Grov's rightful anger over the forcing of Clan women and Davaria's involvement in it should be enough to end any friendship before it could start, but both were working to get beyond such difficulties. It helped that Davaria was regretful of his actions and that Grov had been exposed to Ivanolia's activities prior to meeting Davaria; it gave the mixed man some time to get used to what the Others had done to women like his mother. Ayla frowned at the thought of men of the Others attacking Clan women. Her thoughts went to Oda, and all the Clan women like her. Her heart went out to them, to Oda, to the other women, and to Grov's mother. She wished she could have met Grov's mother, and suddenly realized she didn't even know what the woman's name had been.

Ayla frowned, then shook her head to dispel her unpleasant thoughts. Turning, she to looked the other way, into the valley that had been carved out by the river, and at the horses that were grazing there. It made her smile. The young woman studied the horses in the distance, intrigued by them. They were sturdy, compact animals with rather short legs, thick necks, and heavy heads with overhanging noses that reminded her of the large overhanging noses of some men of the Clan. They had heavy shaggy coats and short stiff manes. Though some tended to gray, most were shades of buff ranging from the neutral beige of the dust to the color of ripe hay. Off to one side stood a hay-colored stallion, and Ayla noticed several foals of the same shade. Then she frowned. There was another stallion, on the other side of the river and looking very possessive. He was slightly away from his bevy of females, but still close enough to keep them close. This one was darker, though not too dark, and he seemed to have gained dominance over a few mares from the other herd, though how, Ayla did not know, but she could definitely see a difference between the two herds.

Ayla's eyes scanned the two herds, searching for the horses from her vision. Several of the females were the same dun yellow color of the one in her vision, but there were very few that were so light that they were almost white. She narrowed her eyes as she watched them; one shook its head and pawed the ground roughly. A smile spread across the woman's face; she knew immediately that this one was one of her horses.

"Ayla?" Grov said. "Are you listening to me?"

"W-what?" Ayla said, as she shook her head to bring herself out of her thoughts. She looked down at her mate; he looked irritated. "I am sorry, Grov," she said as she blushed. He was coming up the steep path, but he had stopped and was frowning at her.

Grov turned his head to look in the direction that she had been looking and saw the horses below. He suddenly realized where her mind had been and relaxed his creased brow. "That's okay, but would you take this," he said as he hefted her pack up to the ledge. Ayla grabbed at it, then extended a hand to pull him up as well. When he was standing next to her he smiled down at her. "So, have you found yourself a horse already?"

"I think so, yes," Ayla said with a grin. Then she looked back at the horses and pointed. "See that light horse there; the one that is so light that it's almost white?" He squinted at the animals. "See the one that is stomping her front hooves?" He nodded. "She seems to be the same one from my vision."

Grov studied the horse, then frowned. "But how can you tell that she's the same horse? There are three horses that are that color."

Ayla shook her head. "She is the only one with the same personality as the one in my vision, and the other two are too young, and male. She is definitely our horse," she said, then reached to help Davaria up over the ledge. When she looked back at Grov he was still staring down at the horses.

"And what about the little one?" he asked.

Ayla glanced back down too. "Hmm, I am not sure yet." She frowned. "And I don't think he is so much little, as he is young. Maybe only two years." Her eyes scanned the two herds again, looking for the young male horse from her vision; there were several horses that could be the one, but none seemed quite right.

Grov nodded again, then reached to take her pack back. "Well, why don't you stay out here and try to figure it out. We will take these inside." Ayla hesitated for only a moment, then released her pack, thankful for such an understanding mate. The man leaned to kiss her, then left. Davaria had already gone in.

Ayla watched him go and smiled. Then, turning back to the grazing horses, she sat down on the ledge to study them in earnest.


Inside, Danta was attempting to manage the four children that were exploring inside when the two men came in bearing their belongings. Quickly, she went to help them.

"Here," she said. "Let me take that." She pulled her pack off Davaria's shoulder and began pulling things out of it. "What do you think we should do with our things?" she asked as she looked around, then focused on the men. Grov and Davaria had dropped their packs as well, but they only shrugged. "Well, how long are we staying?"

"As long as it takes for Ayla to capture three horses," Grov informed them.

Davaria's forehead furrowed. "Three?"

Grov grinned at the man's questioning look. "That is what she saw," he answered. "So that is what we are here for."

"What does she plan to do with three horses anyway?" asked Davaria, still quite unsure about the purpose of this little journey.

"Do you really want to know?" Grov's grin had not dissipated.

"Well, I do," Danta answered curiously and without a glance at her brother.

"Well, I do not know all that she expects to do with them, but I do know that she plans to ride them." Grov paused and watched their stunned expressions.

"Ride them?" the Davaria and Danta said in unison. "How does she expect to do that? Danta continued.

Grov shrugged. "I have no idea, but that is her plan."

Davaria's features clearly showed shock, but he had something to ask. "And...are we supposed to help her with this?" he asked nervously and completely doubtful that this could be done.

Grov shrugged again, but then held up his hand when Davaria seemed ready to ask another question. "Don't ask; I not sure how this is to work yet. We will have to wait and see." He was about to go on, but suddenly he heard Durc's voice.

"Grov," Durc called, poking his head out of the niche's entrance, then climbing down. "Mama says cave lions used to live in this cave." The boy held up the bone his mother had inspected. Grov took it and smiled.

"I think she is right." He grinned. "That means this cave will be good luck for us." He handed the bone back to Ayla's son. "And I also think we need you to gather some wood." Durc nodded, put the bone down and started for the cave's entrance.

"Hold on, Durc." Danta turned to look at her daughter. "Danara, can you help Durc gather wood?" she asked. Danara grinned, happy to be useful, and nodded her head. Danta looked at the two men. "I will go with them. Should I take Ora and Anna?"

Grov looked at Ayla's daughters. They were sitting down, somewhat near the fire, playing with some pebbles they had brought up with them. "No, they can stay here."


Ayla had watched the horses for a few moments following the men's departure, but a sound off to her right caught her attention. She glanced up at the face of rock behind her and noticed a path leading up and around the hill behind the cave. She didn't see any movement, but something had definitely stirred in the brush, making her curious about what might be there.

Slowly, she stood and reached for her sling, which, as always, was tucked in her waistband. She considered going into the cave to let someone know where she was going, but then she'd lose whatever had rustled the growth. She decided not to go in the cave first.

With much care, Ayla followed the narrow path that led up the hill behind their new temporary home. At the top Ayla noticed the blowing wind had died down somewhat, but that it still blew gently. She was, once again, glad for the protection the hills gave the valley. Smiling, she peered into the brush, but didn't see anything, then she glanced around. The land above the cave was relatively flat, with a patch of trees growing off in the distance. Ayla started walking toward the trees, but before she could reach the treeline, a few birds took flight. The woman smiled, glad to know what the sound had been, then pulled out her sling; they would feast on ptarmigan that evening.

After retrieving her kill, Ayla quickly tied the feathered feet together and headed back to the downward winding path. Looking down at the valley before her, she gasped in awe; it was more than breathtaking.


Danta and the children walked outside and picked their way down the path to the beach. Durc had gone first, but paused to help Danara down a particularly steep part. Danta grinned as she watched them.

At the bottom Danara took the boy's extended hand and jumped down into the sand beside him. Danta followed them, continuing to observe her daughter's complete change in personality. The little girl seemed as pleased as sweet cakes to be here with these people she hardly knew. Danta considered her daughter's slight build; she was not much larger than Ora, and Danta had always believed her daughter to be sickly, but she no longer thought so. Danara had merely been depressed, but now she was blossoming.

Danta quietly watched the two children. They were working, but they had somehow turned the work into a game, and both were laughing. Danta suddenly noticed the boy's odd...accent? Is that an accent? Danta asked herself as she thought about Grov and Ayla's speech. They all had deep voices, as if they were speaking more from their throat than the tip of their tongue. She thought it strange that she hadn't really thought about it before, at least not this extensively. Finally, she decided that it was an accent, a Clan accent.

Danta continued to observe the two children, and suddenly realized that Durc had directed Danara to pile the wood at the base of the hill, just to the side of the path leading up to the cave. He had just dropped another piece there when Danta stopped him.

"Let's take some up now," the woman said, wondering how many trips would be necessary to bring up enough wood to keep them through the night. Durc handed Danara a decent sized piece to carry, then picked up two for himself and started for the path. Danta smiled at Ayla's young son, then took up a few pieces and followed them.

After making a few trips, Danta finally stopped them. "I think that's enough wood for now," Danta told them. "I think we need a break."

Danara grinned. She didn't mind the work, but she was tired. "Can we go swimming, Mamma?" she asked with a pleading look.

Danta glanced up at the cave opening, and suddenly became aware that Ayla was not on the ledge, where Grov had said she was. She had been so busy with wood-gathering that she hadn't even noticed.

"Umm, I think we should talk it over with everyone else first. Let's go see what they say." Danta smiled at the children then extended her arms. "Here, let me take the last load up." Durc put his wood in the woman's arms, then took Danara's and did the same with it. Danta watched the two scramble up the path to the cave. She followed them.


Grov frowned at the woman. "What do you mean Ayla's not on the ledge?"

Danta shrugged, suddenly upset and thinking she did something wrong. "I...I don't know. We were down on the beach," she said, pointing at the opening to the cave. "But when I looked up, she wasn't there."

"How long wasn't she there?" Grov asked, picking up a spear and starting for the lighted opening.

Danta frowned again. "Actually, Grov, I don't remember seeing her at all." She paused. "I'm sorry."

Something about her tone caused the man to turn back to her. He could see serious worry in her eyes and possibly fear, though the fear was not for Ayla; it was for herself. He had scared her and he felt bad about that. This woman had been through enough fright. Grov's eyes took on a more tender look. "Do not feel sorry, Danta," he finally said. "I will find Ayla." Then he quickly left the cave.


Ayla had been standing there, hand clasping the dead ptarmigan, and staring out over the valley when she heard a noise behind her again. She turned around and looked, expecting to see nothing, or perhaps more birds in flight, just as before. But this time, she saw a young male horse, peering out from behind the trees.

For a moment, she couldn't move; she just stared at him and he at her. Bravely, the horse stepped out from behind the growth that hid him; his body was the color of a tanned deer hide, but his short, stand up mane, tail, and lower legs were quite dark; maybe even black, Ayla thought. This was him, the young male that was supposed to be hers. He was a beautiful animal.

Slowly, she turned her head to look down at the other horses, then quickly back at the young horse when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw him cautiously approaching her.

"Hallo, horsey," Ayla said softly. "Are you all by yourself up here?" The horse's ears perked up and he stopped his slow gait toward her. He stood stock-still and studied the woman as she talked to him. Ayla knew immediately that he was sizing her up. She knew that animals, being nonverbal, picked up clues about other animals, including humans, by observing their posture and movements; very much like the Clan, Ayla thought as she continued her chatter, hoping to gently lull the horse over to her.

After some time, and more chatter, he started his approach again. Ayla slowly extended her arm, expecting him to shy away, but he didn't. Instead she was rewarded with a wet nose in her hand; she was utterly amazed as questions flew through her mind. Obviously he was acting out of intense curiosity, yet for him to take such a risk, something more had to be going on his head, but what was it?

Ayla looked around a bit. First down at the two herds again. He didn't seem to be part of either one, though he looked similar to some of the horses from each herd. Then she squinted into the trees again. Was he alone? she wondered. Ayla knew that horses were social animals, that they liked being around other horses. So why was this horse alone? And how long had he been that way?

Ayla looked at him again and smiled. He had stretched out his neck, pushing his nose into her face and sniffing her. Could he be seeking the companionship of another living creature? she wondered with a frown creasing her brow. "Are you lonely, little horsey?" she asked him. She did not expect an answer, but he nickered softly, giving her the impression that he had indeed answered her.

Slowly, so as not to frighten him, Ayla lifted her hand and placed it on the sloping bridge of the horse's nose. Again, she expected him to get spooked and shy away, or even bolt, but he didn't, so she scratched him gently and raised her other hand to do the same.


Grov had gone outside and went to where Ayla had been sitting. He immediately found his mate's footprints on the ledge and frowned when he saw that they led up a narrow path to the plateau above the cave. Carefully, he made his assent, but stopped short when he got there, what he saw shocked him beyond belief; Ayla was standing there with her arms around a young buckskin colored horse.

The horse, who should have immediately shied away from the woman, perked up his ears again, then snorted when the man appeared. Ayla moved slightly to see what had caused the horse to move, and seeing Grov, smiled and spoke in a quiet crooning voice. "I think that I have found our young one," she said. She lifted her hand to the man, indicating that he should approach.

Grov frowned slightly. "Are you sure?" he asked, not wanting to frighten the horse away since Ayla seemed to have charmed him already. But he needn't have asked, because the horse shifted on its feet, then took a step toward him. Before he knew it, the horse had his nose in his hand and Grov found himself petting him, just as he had seen Ayla doing only moments before. It was quite overwhelming.

Finally, the man smiled and looked up at Ayla. "This is unbelievable. How did you . . ."

"I didn't do anything," Ayla said as she shrugged her shoulders. She had followed the horse over to Grov and ran her hand over the horse's back, causing him to shift his feet and lean into her touch. "I just came up here, because I heard a noise. Then I saw these ptarmigan." She held up the dead birds. "Then he came out of the trees." She patted the horse's rump and grinned at her mate.

Grov continued to pet the horse. "He's not as small as I thought he would be."

Ayla frowned and shook her head. "I thought he would be smaller too." Ayla studied him for a moment. He did look thin. "He is young, maybe two or three years old. I am guessing that he has been out on his own for awhile." The horse nickered, as if in answer, and nudged Grov for attention.

"He sure is a friendly thing, isn't he?" Grov said with a grin.

Ayla nodded, but looked toward the two herds down in the valley. "I wonder why he's alone?" she asked, not really expecting an answer; she knew there was no way the man could answer. "It seems strange that he is not with one of those herds. He even seems to look somewhat like them. I am almost certain that he used to be part that herd," she said, pointing down at the first herd she had been looking at. She thought about her vision and frowned. "And he must be related to that pale horse. She is the one that kept trying to get him away from us in my vision." Ayla frowned as she looked back at her mate. "But what should we do with him."

Grov grinned. "We keep him, of course," the man said. "Isn't that what we came here for?"

Ayla nodded. "I guess so, but it is not like we can bring him down into our cave."

"So, do we just leave him up here and hope he stays?" Grov asked.

The woman glanced around and shrugged. "I do not know. I did not have any visions about how I got him. I just had him." Ayla frowned. "Wait!" she said suddenly. "I do remember that in one of the visions you were holding a rope that was wrapped around his neck."

"So, we need to make a rope to hold him. We can do that, right?"

Ayla was still frowning. "We could do that, but I'd hate to tie him up and leave him. Something might attack him and he would not be able to get away. I would rather not do that." She paused. "I guess we just have to do what you said, leave him up here alone and hope he stays."

"All right then," Grov said, giving the horse one last scratch. "We better get back to the cave."

Ayla nodded, then reluctantly turned to go. Grov followed her and to their astonishment, so did the lonely horse. Both humans stopped and looked at him.

"Stay here horsey," Ayla crooned. "It's better for you on this plateau." Ayla rubbed him and held up her hand as she started to walk away. The horse nickered again and shook his head, then neighed quite loudly, so loud in fact, that several horses in the valley tossed their heads and whinnied back.

Grov and Ayla backed down the path to the cave, watching the horse as they went down. He had come to the edge and was watching them closely. He had not attempted to follow them down the path, but he also didn't leave. He just stood there staring down at them as they went. Ayla wondered if he'd still be there the next time they went up onto the plateau, and wished she could think of some way to keep him close. But, at the moment, she could not, so there he'd have to stay.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

"O Mother, Ayla," Danta said, hugging her friend. " I was so worried about you.

Ayla hugged her friend back. "I am fine, Danta," Ayla said. "I was just exploring the plateau above, and guess what I found?"

Danta frowned and was about to reply, but the sound of falling rock outside diverted everyone's attention to the mouth of the cave. For a moment Danta thought a cave lion, or some other predator, had jumped down upon the ledge. Her eyes widened when she saw a horse standing in the light of the entrance.

"Well," Ayla sighed at the appearance of her four-legged friend. "I guess I don't have to tell you what I saw." Ayla walked over to the horse, and slipped her arm around the neck of their extremely curious visitor. "This is my new friend, Curious."

"Ooooo, Mamma," Ora exclaimed loudly, already up and coming toward her mother and the horse. "What is that?"

"This is a horse," Ayla said, picking up her daughter and letting her pet the horse's nose. "He's a colt." Curious sniffed the child's hand, then pushed his nose into her face and blew.

Ora giggled, and reached for the friendly creature. "What'sa colt?" she asked.

"It's a young male horse," Ayla answered.


The woman smiled at the three-year-old in her arms. "A young boy horse," Ayla elaborated.

"Curious?" Danta said. "Is that what you're going to name him?"

Ayla shrugged. "I don't know, why?"

Danta frowned. "It just doesn't sound like a horse's name."

Davaria still had a stunned look on his face, but suddenly recovered at his sister comment. "What does?" he asked, shrugging his shoulders. "I mean...who's named a horse before?"

"Hmm, I guess you're right," Danta said with a frown. "But he is a male horse. Shouldn't his name sound like a male name?"

Ayla frowned, she hadn't thought of naming the horses, but Curious did seem like a strange name to her. "We could call him Curia," she suggested, though that seemed strange to her as well. What did it mean? "What do you think of that name?" Ayla asked the horse. He nickered loudly and shook his head. Ayla frowned.

Danta frowned as well and shook her head. "I don't think he likes it," she said as the horse nickered loudly again. She picked up her frightened daughter, and eyed the horse skeptically, still unsure about having the large equine in the cave.

"Hmm, I am thinking the same thing," Ayla said.

Davaria moved to stand next to his sister. The horse nickered again at his movement. "How about Nicker? He seems to be doing a lot of that." The horse nickered yet again.

Ayla looked from Davaria to the horse. "How about...Nicker?" Ayla asked the horse, then cocked her head and attempted to copy the horse's nickering sound. He shook his head and pranced in place, but nickered again, confusing everyone.

Ayla frowned. She wondered what horses called each other. They all must have the same name, she thought. "He doesn't seem to like Nicker or Curia . . ." she started to say, but the horse nudged her rather roughly, causing her to stop and look at him. What had she said to upset him? she wondered. She glanced at Grov, who had picked up Annaliza and was now approaching slowly.

"Nicuria, Mamma," the one-year-old said, reaching for the horse. "He is Nicuria," she gestured, only verbalizing the name she was giving the horse. Everyone blinked and looked at the horse. He was, once again, nickering loudly, and this time, he was nodding his head up and down, as if he was agreeing to this bizarre name, a cross between the sound he kept making and his natural disposition.

Ayla frowned. "Well, okay," she said. "But if this is to be his name, then shouldn't he be named properly?" She as looking at Grov, but Davaria spoke first.

"Properly? How do you name a horse properly?" Davaria asked with a frown creasing his forehead. This was getting complicated. "A horse has never been named before, has it?"

Grov shook his head. "I do not think so," he answered the other man, then looked at Ayla. "We could name the horse as the Clan names a child."

"And how is that?" Davaria asked with curiosity. He didn't know much about the Clan, but this was a great opportunity to learn a little about them.

Grov frowned, then explained how Clan children were named. "But we need red earth to do it," he finished, shaking his head. "And I don't know where to find any...or at least, I haven't seen any around here."

Ayla's frown matched that of her mate. "I haven't either," she said, then thought for a moment. "But maybe we could use something mud. Mud might be better for a horse. What do you think?"

"Yes, we could do that," he said. "But who will do it? We have no Mog-ur."

Davaria and Danta didn't know what they were talking about, but they were listening intently. Ayla was frowning. "You can do it, Grov," she said. "We're only going to use mud, so it's not really an official ceremony. Do you think that will be all right?" She was starting to wonder if they were doing the right thing too.

Grov looked at her nervously, then glanced at the horse. Though he came from a rather unconventional clan, it made him feel strange to do something so unorthodox. His eyes slowly went back to his mate. "Ayla, are you sure we should name him?"

"No," she said. "But we cannot keep calling him, the horse, or little horsey," she said, turning to the horse and scratching his muzzle. "Especially after we have two more horses. That will get confusing. Besides, we named Shriek, why not the horses?"

Grov frowned, then nodded. "You are right. But...Nicuria? What does that mean?"

Ayla shrugged. "Who cares. He seems to like it," she said, patting the horse's withers. "So that is all that matters."

Davaria had been watching them discuss the horse's name, but he was no less nervous now that it had been decided. "Umm," he started. "So, what exactly are we going to do with this horse? I he going to stay in here, in the cave?" His eyes were raking over the large animal and their relatively small cave.

"I guess we will have to make a place for him, won't we?" She looked around, trying to figure out what to do with her new friend. Then she realized they still needed to finish unpacking, so that they could get things organized for their stay in the valley. Naming the horse would have to wait for awhile, she thought, opening her shoulder bag and pulling out a small apple. She held it out to the horse, who sniffed it for a moment before grabbing it with his lips and eating it. Ayla smiled, as did Grov.

"Where did you get that apple, Ayla?" he asked his mate.

Ayla held her bag open so that he could see into it. It was full of small apples. "I have been collecting them while we traveled. That is the only thing I saw us feeding them in my vision, so I figured we would need them." Ayla paused for a moment. "Where would you like our hearth to be?"

Grov glanced at Davaria. Though the Sungaean man had low status within his own camp and among his people as a whole, he was still older than Grov by a year and Grov did not want to insult the man by assuming that he was the lower status man. "Where will you place your hearth Davaria?" the younger man asked.

Davaria frowned. He had never been given a choice before; he usually just took whatever space was available after most others had already chosen. "Ahhh, I d-don't know." Danta gave her brother a look of sympathy. She understood the honor Grov was showing her brother by asking him to choose first, and she understood her brother's confusion by it. This was the first time this had ever happened to them, but it made Danta feel good; they could, and would become more. Davaria looked around, then turned back to Grov. "You can pick first," he finally said.

Grov nodded, then looked around the cave. "We should set up here, Ayla," he said, pointing to the western side of the cave; it was the larger side. They were, after all, five, and there would only be three at the other hearth.

"What should we do about sleeping places?" Grov asked, after moving his things over to what would become their hearth. "Should we dig shallow holes like the Clan does, or build sleeping platforms like the Sungaea?"

Ayla shrugged. This wasn't going to be a permanent home, but both types of beds were hard work. "The platforms are more comfortable, but I don't know if we have what we need to make them. I don't even know how to make them, but I'm sure we can find enough hay to fill Clan sleeping places."

Danta had moved her belongings over to where she would stay with her brother and was listening to the couple's conversation. "We could probably find what we need to make them, Ayla," she said. "Sleeping platforms aren't that hard to build. We could do it together." Grov and Ayla nodded. If they weren't going to be so hard to build, then they might as well have beds that were comfortable.


For quite some time, the four adults worked to make the cave livable. Grov and Davaria left the cave to get the materials needed to construct sleeping platforms, while the women straightened the inside of the cave. It was decided that they would only make three sleeping platforms: one large for Grov and Ayla, and two smaller, for Davaria and Danta, and that they would dig four shallow holes to fill with hay for the children.

Danta did her best to sweep the cave floor, so that there would be as little dust as possible, and Ayla marked off the place where the three sleeping platforms would go, then started digging the holes for the children's beds. She would go get the hay needed to fill them later.

The four children, who really weren't much help, sat on the small interior ledge, so that they would be out of the women's way. They watched the activity around them, and smiled at the horse as he roamed freely around the cave.

Nicuria walked around the cave, sniffing every corner or recess within the cave, learning about his new home. He made a short visit to the children, who giggled when the horse nudged them curiously, hoping to find a treat. Then he moved on to nosing their packs and their backs as they worked, generally making a nuisance of himself.

"Nicuria!" Ayla finally said, giving the horse a frustrated look as she shoved his nose away from the pile of dirt she had created during her digging. "Stop that!"

The horse, who was finished exploring the cave and had moved on to playfully pushing dirt back into the hole, shied away at the volume of Ayla's voice, then nickered loudly. Ayla immediately felt bad; she knew he didn't mean to do anything wrong, but the work was hard and he was making it more difficult.

Slowly, she reached for the bag containing the apples, which she had stashed behind the children in the small niche. Pulling one out, she held it up to the horse, and nicked softly to calm him. Nicuria flicked his ears back, then approached the woman and took the apple. After taking it, he stood quietly munching on it.


Not long afterward, Grov and Davaria returned with all the necessary materials to make sleeping more comfortable than it had been in their tents, and quite quickly had the three sleeping platforms finished. Ayla stood and watched the construction for a short time, but needed to finish the children's beds, so went back to that after her curiosity was satisfied.


The sun was long past its height by the time they finished working on the cave and their beds, and everyone was hungry and exhausted. Ayla wiped her arm across her sweaty forehead, and looked around the cave.

"I think I would like to swim, to get all this dirt off me," she said. "If no one minds."

Danara squealed. "Mamma, can we go swimming too?" she asked. With the excitement of having a horse within the cave, she had completely forgotten about her wish to go swimming.

Danta smiled and picked up her small daughter. "I think that would be a great idea." Danara clapped her hands happily.


Ayla had gone to get her children. She helped Ora down and placed Annaliza on her hip, but Durc jumped down on his own and went to join Danara. Everyone decided that a swim would do them all good, so they were all heading for the cave entrance when Nicuria nickered loudly, confused by everyone's movement. Ayla stopped and looked at him, then handed Annaliza to Grov.

"Would you mind taking her down for me?" she asked her mate. He shook his head, and turned to leave. "We will be right out," she told everyone as they left, hoping that she would be able to get the horse to follow her outside. She decided to use the apples again.

"Come here, little horsey," she called, holding it out and backing toward the entrance. Nicuria nickered and walked after the treat in Ayla's hand. Once outside, Ayla handed it to him, then scurried down the path to the beach, leaving Nicuria above, staring after her.

The horse lowered his head, eyeing the steep path with fear, then he whinnied loudly and pawed the ledge in frustration. Ayla only glanced back up at him once, then went to joined everyone at the river. As she reached the river's edge, she heard the whinny of an entirely different horse; it was the light mare that Ayla knew to be one of the other horses she would soon have. The mare was on the other side of the river, but was in the water and looked to be coming to retrieve the younger colt. Ayla suddenly understood; the colt was her son, but something was amiss. Why wasn't this colt still with his herd? Surely he was too young to be off on his own.

Suddenly, while she was still contemplating the strangeness of the situation, the dark bay stallion moved to head the white mare off, snaking his neck forward to herd her back to his ranks. The mare, angry that she was being prevented form joining her colt, pawed the river water roughly and whinnied loudly, which elicited a nip from the domineering stallion.

Ayla watched the scene, but turned when she heard Nicuria return his mother's whinny. She was stunned to see that he'd come down from the ledge and was pacing back and forth on the rocky beach, nickering as he went. As he entered the river to join what Ayla believed was he mother, the dark bay stallion splashed into the river. Crossing over easily, he went after his mare's son, snaking his neck out angrily to push the young colt back. The dark stallion was not going to allow the young colt to get close to his mares, even if one was his mother.

As Ayla watched, she realized that her colt did not belong to this stallion's herd, and that the light mare had probably been stolen at some point. Ayla glanced at the other herd. They matched the light mare's coloring; that was her original herd, she thought to herself. She looked back at the dark bay stallion, then at Nicuria. Though the colt might have initially been accepted into his mother's new herd, he had probably been driven away some time ago; the dark stallion did not want his new mare's offspring to be around his harem of females.

Ayla looked again at the dark bay's herd. The lead mare had taken flight, drawing all of the other females with her, with the exception of Nicuria's mother. She was still at the edge of the river, rearing and neighing loudly, stomping her front hooves to display her frustration. The stallion stood in the river between his angry mare and her son, preventing them from reaching one another. Finally, with a painful nip, he got her to follow the herd. Ayla watched as they raced off. They headed up the hills that lined the southern end of the valley, and out of sight.

When they were gone, Ayla's attention went back to the other herd of horses that had been standing back, watching the goings on. Most of them seemed to have shied away from all the noise, except for the buckskin stallion who stood watch, guarding his own mares. He was waiting to see what would happen, but would take advantage of the other stallion's absence if he could. He would go after his lost mare if the bay stallion stayed away too long.

When the dark bay left the river to follow his herd, taking the light mare with him, the buckskin approached, possibly trying to retrieve his offspring. Ayla eyed him, then quickly pulled out her sling and let fly. A stone painfully struck him in the rump, and then a second one found its mark. She did not want to hurt him, but she was not about to let him take Nicuria away from her now that she had him.

"Go away!" Ayla shouted at the buckskin, as he slowed.

The stallion stopped to contemplate the situation. He eyed her warily; he eyed all the movement of the strange two-legged creatures. They were small in comparison to himself, but there were several of them, and the loud one in the front was able to hurt him from far away. He flicked his ears back and snorted, then turned and fled. As Ayla watched him bound back down the beach toward his own herd, she saw his lead mare suddenly turn and bolt. The stallion brought up the rear as they retreated around the curve of the canyon and out of sight.

Ayla turned back to Nicuria, who was prancing around, nickering loudly, but when she held out another apple, his ears perked up immediately and he quickly went to the woman. Ayla scratched his withers and gave him her best calming nicker; it seemed to work, for both of them.

"Yes Nicuria, you belong to us now," she said, hugging her new friend. She hoped she would be able to get him to stay with them.


After swimming for quite a long time, the group of people, and one horse, left the beach to get back up to their cave. On their way back up, everyone grabbed several handfuls of hay, to feed the horse, and Ayla retrieved the ptarmigan that she had put in a ground oven on the beach. Everyone was pleased to have made it to the valley safely, to have found a cave to keep them out of the elements, and to have a decent evening meal to eat. Ayla was ecstatic that she had attained her colt so easily. Now she needed to work on getting her two mares.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

The people had feasted on Ayla's ptarmigan, then sat around by the fire talking. Grov and Ayla told a few Clan stories, including Ayla's favorite, the Legend of Durc, and then listened intently while Davaria and Danta told some Sungaean stories that they had not heard before. Ayla was always delighted by stories.

Everyone was having a good time, including Nicuria, who, much to the delight of the children, spent some time nosing around the cave again, before settling down along the west-end wall where Ayla had placed his food. Ayla watched her new friends laughing with Grov and smiled. She was enjoying this peaceful time alone with them, and she was greatly pleased to see that Danta and Davaria were finally starting to relax and open up. She knew that part of it was just the knowledge that they wouldn't have to return to Sumac Camp, the other part was that they weren't going to have to search for a new people to live with. Both would have been quite unpleasant. Ayla was sure that their minds were more at ease now, though they were aware there was still going to be some trouble ahead. No one had mentioned it, but all were certain that Sumac Camp was bound to object, if only to make things difficult.

As Ayla watched them talk and laugh with her mate, she considered all she knew about them. Danta had divulged quite a bit to her during their short journey to the valley. They had had a hard life, growing up with people that, for the most part, didn't like them. Only Davaria had been loved by his mother, though the older woman's treatment of her son was often less than loving. Ayla looked at the man. He was young and relatively attractive; he looked very much like Danta, both had brown hair and eyes, high cheekbones and a small nose, though hers was slightly smaller. Ayla frowned. They had seemed so plain to her when she first met them. But now that they were smiling, they looked unbelievably different to her. Yes, smiling made the difference, Ayla thought. They can and will be happy now. She couldn't help but smile at her thoughts, but then her mind went back to their lives at Sumac Camp and her forehead creased again. At least Davaria had had friends, nasty as they were, she thought. Danta hadn't even had that.

To begin with, Danta had her daughter, her brother, and her sister and niece. Then, after her sister and niece's deaths, she had not only been ignored, but hated as well. Her mother blamed her for Dreena's death and put an end to all contact, even the snide remarks Danta had become used to over the years. And Davaria, lost in his own pain over the loss of their sister, drank himself into oblivion, and ignored her more than ever. Ayla couldn't imagine how painful their lives had been.

"I think it is time that the children went to bed," Ayla finally said when she noticed Ora yawning. Annaliza had already fallen sleep in her mother's lap.

Grov glanced at Ora, who was about to protest, and leveled a look at her. She was silenced before she could even get one word out.

Durc quickly got up and went to his mother. "I will take Annaliza, Mama," he offered, holding his arms out to accept his youngest sister.

Ayla smiled up at her five-year-old son, then let him take her. He is going to be such a good mate some day, she thought, as she watched the boy tuck Annaliza into her furs. Her mind went to Ura and she frowned. Now that they knew Durc and Ura were related, could they still be mated? she wondered. And if they couldn't, then who else was there for either one of them? Ayla shook her head. It wouldn't be for her to decide, so why worry? Besides, she knew Grov would handle it.


After they had gone to bed, Danta had lain awake for awhile, thinking about all that had happened to them in the last few days. She couldn't believe they had finally run away from Sumac Camp, or that Davaria had come with her, and she still couldn't fathom that they were going to be adopted by Oak Camp, that there were people that actually wanted them. It still amazed her.

Danta's mind went to Sumac Camp and what they might be thinking about their sudden disappearance. She knew Trata was probably steaming mad, not about her or Danara being gone, but the woman did have at least some affection for her son. It was going to be so hard to go back, even if they weren't really going back. She hadn't told her brother about Zadneetsia's attack and she dreaded that part of their coming difficulties. Though many weren't going to believe her, Davaria was quite likely to become enraged; what brother wouldn't? she thought. Maybe if she just kept it to herself, then there wouldn't be any trouble. She shook her head; she didn't want to think about it. She was trying so hard to put on a happy face and push away her sadness. She didn't need to be sad anymore, right?

Slowly, she turned her head to look across the fire at Grov and Ayla's sleeping place. She smiled and quickly looked away not wanting to be rude; they were sharing pleasures. She greatly appreciated the opportunity Ayla and Grov had extended them by allowing them to tag along. This was a nice breather from camp life; something none of them were much used to, but Danta was still quite worried about their return. At least she knew that eventually they would be free of their birth camp, and that was reason enough to be happy.

Danta was just drifting off to sleep when she felt someone touch her hand. She was lying on her sleeping platform on her stomach with her right hand dangling over the edge. She looked up to see Davaria. He too was on his bed, stomach down, facing her, as their beds were placed head to head. He was holding her right hand in his right hand and smiling at her in the dim light of the fire.

"Thank you, Danta," he whispered.

Danta smiled back at her brother and squeezed his hand. "For what?" she asked.

"Danta, you know very well what for," he said, shaking his head. "I would not be getting this chance in life, if you had not insisted on befriending them." The man nodded his head toward the now still couple.

Danta continued to smile. "Well, I need to thank you too, Davaria." She paused, but continued on quickly. "I am so happy that you chose to come with us."

Davaria disentangled his hand from hers and quietly got up to go to her. She moved over, allowing her brother to slip into her bed, then she leaned her head on his shoulder. She was quite used to him doing this; it comforted them both. "Danta, there was no choice. I only want to be where you are."

Danta nodded into his shoulder and hung onto him. He stayed there with her until he knew she slept, then he crept out of her bed and into his own.


The night went fast and everyone slept better than they had in awhile. Ayla was awake early, earlier than usual she decided after glancing toward the cave's entrance, which faced southwest. It was not very light out at all, she thought, though it was difficult to tell from the direction they faced. She then turned her head to look up at the hole in the cave's ceiling. The early morning light was just starting to filter in through. She smiled. She had always liked rising early.

Carefully, so as not to wake her sleeping mate, she slipped out of the furs. She stood for a moment looking down at him, listening for a moment as he mumbled sleepily. His dark hair was messed up and his lips, showing prominently on his shaved face, were slightly parted as he breathed softly against their furs. He was sleeping on his side. His strong body had been curled around her, but when she had gotten up, he had moved restlessly, seeking out the warm spot she had vacated. Now, moving again, he turned on his stomach, burying his face in the furs. In a few moments his breathing was deep and even. She knew he still slept.

Ayla pulled on her leggings and reached for her tunic, conscious of the fact that the fire had gone out at some point during the night, leaving the cave almost cold.

Hot tea, she thought. That's what everyone needs when they get up. She went to stoke the still warm coals, and added a new log. Then, glancing at their shallow bowl of water, she decided to go get some fresh water from the river; there wasn't much left in the bowl.


In passing Nicuria, Ayla patted the colt's withers and tried to slip past him, but he would have none of it. Nicuria eagerly followed her outside and, now that his fear of the slope was gone, down the steep path to the beach below. Ayla was quite intent on getting the water from the river, but the horse's antics caused her to pause.

"What are you doing, Nicuria?" she asked. She used signs and words when talking to the young colt, which seemed to please him. He nickered at her and tossed his head, then raced up the sandy beach, making a large arch, then returning. Ayla had filled her basket by the time he had returned and was walking back toward the cave. Nicuria followed her to the edge of the slope, but stopped as she started up.

"Aren't you coming?" she asked. Nicuria tossed his head again and whinnied. "Well, okay then, stay, but don't go too far away." Wondering how much the horse understood, she smiled, then put her basket of water down and fished an apple out of her shoulder bag. Nicuria came forward immediately when he saw the small red apple in her hand and took it greedily. She smiled again and patted his rump, then went up to the cave. She wasn't too worried about him running off; he had had plenty of chances to leave if he'd wanted to. He could have left at any time during the night and he didn't. And it wasn't like she could really stop him if he wanted to go. Plus, her vision told her he was there to stay. He wasn't going anywhere.


Inside the cave again, Ayla boiled the water for tea and started a light morning meal. She was sure everyone would be awake soon and they were bound to be hungry. Ayla wanted to do some scouting that day, to find her horses, and didn't want to have to waste too much time cooking that morning. She hoped they would not mind that she was not cooking a full meal.

After the meal was finished, but before everyone woke, she sat there staring at the fire, sipping her tea, and thinking about Nicuria's mother. Suddenly, as if being pulled through time, her mind was in another place.

A strong-looking, buckskin-colored stallion lazily grazed as he kept watch over his mares, never allowing them to scatter. When one strayed slightly, he either moved the others to join her or went after her with a snaking neck and herded her back into his ranks.

Ayla smiled as she watched the scene that she quite literally saw dancing within the fire before her.

Out of nowhere, the stallion nipped one of the mares and proceeded to drive her, and the others, back and forth across the length of his territory. There was no threat in sight, nor were they going anyplace in particular, yet he forced them to run at top speed, in single file. He was just exercising his authority.

Ayla continued to drink her tea, if only absently, and focused on the horses.

"What are you smiling about?" a voice asked. Ayla shook her head and focused. Danta was sitting right next to her, waving her hand in front of her face.

"Um...about horses, I guess," Ayla answered, continuing to smile. "I made a meal."

Danta grinned and accepted a plate of food from Ayla. "Thank you." She took a bite. "Mmmm, this is very good," she said, mouth still full. "How do you manage to have a meal ready before anyone else can even get out of bed."

Ayla shrugged. "I was up early." She glanced over at Grov; his change in breathing told her he'd be awake shortly. Davaria too, she thought, after a look at him. "Actually, I did not make much this morning. I would like to go search for the horses. I do not want them to get too far away."

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Danta didn't relish the idea of chasing horses, but she'd do whatever her friend asked of her.

Ayla thought for a moment, then nodded. "I think there is, yes," Ayla said with a smile. "In my vision, we did not have the children with us. I think it would be very helpful if they stayed here with you, so that they will not be in any danger. Would you mind terribly?"

Danta shook her head. "No, of course not, Ayla. Actually, I'm glad that you didn't ask me to help capture a horse. I have to admit that they frighten me a little; they are so big."

"I can understand that, but watching the children will be just as helpful. I really do not think we could do this if we had to take them with us. Thank you!"

"Thank you, what?" Davaria asked nosily, sitting up in his bed and scratching his head.

The two women looked over at him and laughed. His hair was sticking up at odd angles and he had lines running across his face where the furs had creased his skin.

"We are discussing the search for my horses," Ayla informed the man.

"Ayla has asked me to look after the children while they are out with the horses."

"Oh," he said. He swung his legs over the edge of the platform, then stood up. He swayed slightly, like he'd had a long night drinking, but it was only that he'd stood up too quickly. The man ran a hand through his hair to smooth it down, then sat down beside his sister. "What smells so good?"

Danta rolled her eyes. "I forgot how hungry you can be," she said, getting up to fix him a plate of food. "When you wake up before midday, that is." She giggled, then quickly stopped when she saw Davaria blush. She was, of course, referring to very recent days when the man's only sustenance was bouza. She quickly changed the subject.

"Ayla was up early and fixed us this fine meal." Danta handed the man his food and kissed the top of his head. "It is as delicious as it smells," she said, hoping he'd let her remark slide.

Davaria frowned as he took the plate from his sister and tried to push away his embarrassment. "Thank you," he said quietly, staring down at his plate. Danta never had understood his drinking; she'd had her daughter to focus on after their sister's death. He'd had nothing, and hadn't known what to do with himself at the time, so he'd thrown himself into his friends and their all consuming pastime of drinking bouza until the sun came up. No, he said to himself when he looked at her, she didn't understand the drinking...but she did understand the pain.

Danta saw the look of pain cross her brother's face before he was able to mask it, and she immediately felt bad that she'd hurt him. Only Davaria's pain over Dreena equaled hers; she knew that was true. She had just coped better.

Sitting down beside him, she laid her head upon his shoulder and whispered. "I'm sorry, Ari." That was what she had called him when they weren't able to pronounce their full names. It had been a long time since they had used them.

For a moment, he didn't say anything, but his arm slipped around her and he held her tightly. He understood she needed the closeness they had always shared; he did too. "It's okay, Ata."

Ayla sat quietly, trying not to intrude on the brother and sister's time. She could tell that they needed it. Then, as quickly as it had come on, it was over.

"So, horse tracking, huh?" Davaria asked with a full mouth. He still had his arm around Danta, but he was shoveling food into his mouth with the other hand, his plate balanced on his knees. It made Ayla smile.

"Yes, but I do not want take the children." Ayla was nodding. "I would like to track them today, and see where they are. I still need to find the dun yellow horse. There were several in both herds, but I want to start with the bay stallion's herd, since that is where Stomp went."

"Stomp?" Grov said from behind her. "Have you already named her?"

Ayla nodded again. "Yes, and I think you will agree that it is quite fitting. Besides neighing a lot, she stomps her hooves constantly." She smiled. "It is perfect."

"Well, okay then," Danta said with a smile. "At least we don't have to spend any time thinking about her name."

"Hey, speaking of names." Davaria was frowning. "Didn't you say you needed to name Nicuria...properly?"

"Yes, I think we should do that before we go off to track Stomp." Ayla was making a plate of food for Grov, then noticed the children approaching. "Hungry?" she asked them. The four children nodded their heads. Ayla offered Annaliza some first, but the one-year-old, two middle fingers in her mouth, shook her head; she wanted her mother's milk. The others sat down and accepted their morning meal.


After eating, everyone went outside for the horse's naming ceremony. Grov was going to act as Mog-ur and Ayla would be take the place of the horse's mother. She wouldn't be able to pick him up and hold him in her arms as was Clan custom, but they decided it didn't really matter.

Ayla led them over to a muddy area that she'd seen when she'd come out earlier. Nicuria nosed around the cloudy stream near the cave, then began to drink.

Ayla swished her fingers around in the mud and made a mark on her forearm. It made her smile. "Look," she said to get everyone's attention. She pointed at the brownish red stain on her skin, then picked up a handful of the squishy, rich brown mud at the water's edge. "It's almost red."

"Red?" Davaria asked questioningly.

Ayla looked at the man. "Yes, red earth is always used for naming ceremonies...and when people die." Davaria nodded. He knew that, he just didn't know that the flatheads understood the purpose of the sacred red earth. They must be human, he thought. Why can't our people see that? he wondered.

"But I think this mud might be better for the horses," Grov interjected. "Can you call him over to you, Ayla?" They turned to look at the horse. He had drunk his fill and had moved off.

"I will try," she said. "Nicuria," she called. The horse's ears perked up, but he didn't join them. She called him again. "Little horsey, come here." He swished his tail and nickered. Ayla nickered back at him, which caused him to repeat the sound, but he still didn't come. He even seemed amused by the game of making noises back and forth. Ayla decided she'd have to go get him, but when she moved to do so, he pranced away. Ayla immediately stopped and turned around, as if to ignore an insolent child.

Nicuria eyed her and nickered again, but when that elicited no response from her, he whinnied loudly. And when he still got no response, he came up and nosed her back. Ayla finally turned around and scratched him, then gestured for him to follow. This time he seemed to understand.

"Ayla, you will have to hold his head," Grov said, holding a handful of dark, reddish mud. Ayla put her arm around the horse's neck and scratched him, trying to calm him, then waited for Grov to begin. Ayla watched the set of Grov's shoulders and could tell that he was uncomfortable. He was clearly nervous, and Ayla knew that it was because he didn't want to offend the spirits by naming a horse in the same way the Clan named its people. Ayla wished the horse would settle down; it might help Grov relax as well.

Grov was thinking along the same lines as his mate, but waited patiently. It couldn't matter, could it? he asked himself. He took a deep breath, then, at the precise moment that Nucuria stilled, he began.

First, he made some movements in the Old Language requesting the attention of the spirits. Everyone watched his graceful movements, but only two there understood him, Ayla and Durc. Ora and Annaliza might have understood, if they were older, but neither had been around long enough to have seen much of the Old Language used. Davaria and Danta watched with rapt attention, understanding none of the beautiful movements the man made, yet thinking it a wonderful way to name the horse.

"The name of this male horse is Nicuria," Grov said, making the Clan gestures at the same time he spoke the words in Sungaean. Then he smeared the wet reddish-brown earth down the colt's face, from the tuft of dark brown hair on his forehead to the end of his long nose.

As soon as Grov finished, Nicuria pulled away from Ayla and pranced away. He let out a loud nicker and tossed his head wildly, expelling the wetness from his face. It splattered on the people sitting there watching. They all laughed.

"Well, now that that's done, we should start thinking about tracking Stomp," said Grov, as he wiped a spot of mud off of his face. Nucuria snorted, then came up and nudged the man. "What are we going to do with him?" he asked.

Ayla frowned. "I am not sure what we should do. In my vision, he was with us when we were trying to get Stomp and the other horse to follow us. That is how we were able to attract them. That, and the apples," she said with a smile. "But we are just going to track them today, right?"

He nodded. "Unless you think we can track them and entice them to come with us all in one day."

Ayla continued to frown. She didn't know what to do. "I am sure we can find Stomp, if the bay stallion's herd didn't go too far, but we don't even know if the other mare is with that herd."

"Well, was she in your vision?" asked Grov.

Ayla shook her head. "No...but neither of them were. In my vision the two of them were alone, and we used Nicuria and apples to draw them near to us."

"You could take Nicuria with you even if you're just tracking them today," Davaria suggested. "I mean, it wouldn't hurt, would it?"

Ayla shrugged. "I guess not...unless his presence causes the herd to flee again."

Davaria frowned. "True...but what if his presence could actually help you?"

Now Grov was frowning. "How do you mean?"

"Well, remember the way that mare tried to come to him?" They nodded. "Well, maybe she'll make it easier to get her than you think. Maybe she'll leave the herd on her own and come with you willingly, if her colt is there to draw her away."

Ayla grinned and threw her arms around the man. "Yes, I think that is a great idea," she said happily.

Davaria blushed, but hugged her back. "I'm glad you think so."

"I think we will need a rope," Ayla said. "Not that I think we could restrain Nicuria with only a rope, but we had one in my vision, so maybe we should make one."

"No need," Davaria said. "I didn't know what Danta and I might get ourselves into on a journey across unknown land, so I brought one with us. It's in my pack in the cave. I'll go get it for you."

While the man was gone they discussed what they'd bring with them for a day's worth of tracking. They decided to keep it light, and only bring the necessities: water, weapons, a small amount of traveling food, including a few apples for Nicuria, and Ayla's medicine bag, just in case there was an injury.

When Davaria returned with the rope, he handed it to Ayla. "I hope this will work," he said. "It's rather old."

Ayla took it from him and tested its strength. "It will be fine," she said, hugging him again. "Thank you." Ayla looked over at Nicuria, who was drinking out of the small, murky stream again, and let out one of the whistles she used to call Shriek. The horse's ears perked up and he surprised her by starting in her direction, but she was even more surprised when she heard a loud shrieking noise coming from the plateau above. Everyone turned to see the woman's large predatory bird soaring above them, searching of his landing spot.

"Oh no," Ayla whined, and started for the cave. "My glove is inside." She was glad to see Shriek, but knew she couldn't let him land on her bare arm.

"Wait, Ayla," Grov said, pulling his tunic over his head. "We can use the rope to tie this around your arm."

"But I don't have any food for him."

"I will go get some, Mama," Durc quipped. "Come on Danara," the boy said, grabbing the girl's small hand. Danara allowed herself to be pulled, but had to run hard to keep up. Ayla's eyes met Danta's and both women grinned; their children were already good friends.

Ayla finally turned to Grov and put out her arm so that he could wrap the makeshift protection around it. When he finished, she held up her arm, giving Shriek his signal that she was ready. Shriek circled around one more time, then dropped quickly, landing lightly on her arm and ruffling his feathers.

"Hallo Shriek," she said. "It is so good to see you." He shrieked in her face and cocked his head to allow her to rub his favorite places. While Ayla was petting him, Nicuria approached curiously, causing Shriek to squawk loudly and flap his wings. The horse immediately shied away. Ayla reached up and ran her hand down Shriek's back, and waited patiently for him lower his outstretched wings. "Shhhhhh." Then she looked over at the spooked horse and made the nickering sound that seemed to calm him. When his ears came up, she held out her free hand to him and made a beckoning motion, hoping he'd come closer. He nickered back at her, and took a step toward her. He could not help himself; he was too curious.

Shriek eyed the equine suspiciously and almost took flight when the colt brought his nose up close and blew out, but instead, he only puffed up his feathers and shrieked again. Nucuria nickered, then seemed to lose interest and headed away for another drink.

"Here Mama," Durc said, returning with a few strips of meat.

Ayla smiled. "Would you like to feed him, Danara?" she asked.

The little girl's eyes became as round as river stones. "Me?"

Ayla nodded. "Sure. Durc can show you."

Durc took Danara's hand again and led her closer. "It's easy. See?" he said, holding the meat out to Shriek. Shriek took the offering, then waited for more. Danara was still scared, but decided to be brave. If Durc could do it, then so could she.


Shortly after feeding him, Shriek took off again. Ayla watched him fly overhead, then disappear as he flew toward the plateau. She hoped he'd stay close; perhaps even stay in one of the trees on the plateau. She decided she'd have to go back up there when they got back, if only to go looking for him.

Slowly, she turned back to the group. She had removed Grov's tunic from her arm and handed it back to him. "So, what should we do with this?" she asked, holding up the rope.

Grov smiled. "I don't know, Ayla. It was your vision. You will need to tell me how we used it."

Ayla frowned and started working with the rope. She made a loop and then tied a knot, then shook her head. It didn't seem right. She tried again and smiled. "I think it was something like this," she said, holding up the rope again.

"All right," Grov said. "Now what?"

Ayla glanced over at Nicuria and whistled; this time he came right away. When he got to her, she held the rope out to him. He sniffed it curiously, then took hold of it with his teeth. When Ayla didn't let go, he thought it was a game and pulled harder. The more Ayla tried to pull it out of his mouth, the more he resisted. Finally, Ayla had to let go, but she decided to let him know she wasn't happy by turning her back on him. He hadn't liked that before, so it just might work again.

Still holding the rope in his mouth, Nicuria nudged her gently. Ayla folded her arms across her chest and refused to look at him. He nudged her again, and this time, when she ignored him, he dropped the rope and circled around her. She smiled and bent to pick up the rope. This time, before he could take it in his mouth, she slipped the loop over his head and slid the knot higher, so that he could not remove it himself, not that he didn't try. Everyone laughed when the colt took the length of rope that dragged on the ground and pulled hard. The only thing that happened was that he turned himself around in a circle. He whinnied his frustration and raced down the beach, rope flying in the wind behind him. When he returned, Ayla handed him an apple, then coiled up the rope so that it would not hinder the horse's movement. He seemed so preoccupied with his treat that he ignored the old rope around his neck.

"I think he will be all right," she said, watching him chew the apple up, then bend down and tear a mouthful of grass out of the ground. "Do you think we should go now?" she asked Grov.

Grov nodded and leaned to take Annaliza out of Danta's arms. He set her down on the ground next to Ora and sternly told them to behave. He was not worried about Annaliza's behavior, but Ora was another story. He figured he'd give them both the lecture, just in case. He didn't worry about Durc; he knew the boy would help out wherever he could.

Very quickly, they had their supplies packed and were ready to leave. Everyone said their good-byes and walked them to the river. At the river's edge, Grov and Ayla stripped down, and packed everything in packs to carry on their heads; they didn't want to have to travel in wet clothing. Davaria crossed the river with them, to help get their things across, but the horse stood there, seemingly unwilling to enter the water.

Once on the other side, and dressed again, Ayla called out to him.

"Nicuria. Come here," she called. He walked along the beach, splashing in the shallow river's edge, but he didn't enter the water to cross. "Why won't he come?" she asked in frustration.

"Maybe he's afraid, Ayla," Grov said. "Maybe he has never crossed a river before."

Ayla frowned. "But all the other horses crossed the river," she said, almost in a whine. She didn't want to leave him behind.

Grov smiled. If he knew his mate, and he thought he did, she had already accepted the horse as one of her children and was worried about him. "He doesn't have to come with us, Ayla. None of the children are coming with us. And besides, we will be back this evening.

Ayla smiled at him. He knew her so well. "Well, I guess he will have to stay here with you, Davaria. Do you mind?"

Davaria shook his head. He had been nervous about sharing their cave with the large animal, but after watching the way Ayla treated him, he was no longer worried. Nicuria was just a big baby, he thought. "No, it is not a problem, Ayla."

Grov and Ayla stood there as Davaria crossed back to the other side of the river, then they waved good-bye and turned to leave.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

Grov and Ayla turned and gave one last wave at the people across the river. They could see three tiny hands give the clan's customary come back motion. A slightly worried looked crossed Ayla's face as they went behind the wall rock that blocked their view of the children.

"Do not worry, Ayla," Grov said to her as they walked through the sand toward the incline of the hill where the bay stallion had gone with his mares. "We will be back with the children before the day's end."

Ayla frowned. "I know. It is not that. I...I guess I was just looking forward to Nicuria coming with us, and I didn't even know it."

Grov nodded, as he reached to assist the woman up the beginnings of the hill. "I can understand that," he said. "I was too, but if he's afraid to cross the river, then he's afraid. There is not much we can do about that."

"But what do we do when we have to go back to the Clan?" She continued walking up the slope, speaking with her back turned to him as they walked. "There is no way to get there without crossing rivers. How can we get him there? Or the other horses?"

"I don't know, Ayla," he answered her. It wasn't something he had considered, but now that she'd brought it up, it worried him too. Then he shook his head; they could not control these things, so why worry about them. "We will find a way, Ayla. Let's try not to think about it right now."

She stopped and looked at him. He looked so sure. She smiled. He was right; they would figure out a way to get them back.


They spent some time hiking up the hill. When they reached the top, they made a detour to the edge, so that they could look down upon their valley. The hill on this side of the valley was taller than the other side. To the north, they could see across the valley to the plateau on the other side and the stand of trees where Ayla had acquired Nicuria. Ayla squinted and pointed at Shriek. The hawk was flying over the trees.

To the west, they had a perfect view of the buckskin stallion's herd. The plateau that the herd was on was higher than that of Nicuria's trees, but still lower than where they were now. They had a perfect view of them, though somewhat far away.

Ayla smiled and glanced down. Below them, on the valley floor, they could see Davaria and Danta managing the children, and Nicuria drinking from the river. Ayla whistled and waved, wanting to send one last farewell before leaving for the day. Everyone waved, except Nicuria, of course, who nickered, then swished his tail around and ran long the river's edge again.

Grov and Ayla could not hear the horse's nicker, but his movement told them he was frustrated at not being able to reach them. They did, however, hear his loud squeal as he made his decision and galloped headlong into the river. From their vantagepoint they watched him cross, then head for their trail; he would be coming with them after all.

Ayla smiled as she and Grov made their way back over to the edge of the hill's decline. Ayla noticed from across the length of the valley that the buckskin stallion's herd had been listening intently. She wondered how much they could see from their distance. They were so far away, but she could tell that they had gone back to their grazing.

"So, you decided to join us, Nicuria," Ayla said, holding his head affectionately and scratching his neck. "I am so glad."

Grov watched her and smiled. She could sure become attached to things quickly, he thought.


They headed in a generally southward direction and moved as fast as their feet could carry them. With no small children to slow them down, and a horse that could easily keep up, they covered a lot of ground, in less time than they would have thought. It was still quite early when Nicuria's ears perked up, letting them know that something was near.

"Maybe one of us should go on ahead," Grov suggested. "If he is reacting to the herd, then we do not want to scare them off."

Ayla frowned. "Yes, I think that is a good idea," she said with a nod, but when he did not move to go, she continued. "Did you want me to go?"

"Don't you think that you should go?" he asked. "After all, you know which horse you want."

Ayla glanced toward the hills ahead of them. They could not see the horses yet; they must be around the bend, she thought. The woman wasn't sure what they should do. If she went ahead to scout, then they'd know immediately if they had the right herd. But that would mean leaving Grov behind to deal with the rambunctious young colt that, so far, only wanted to listen to Ayla. If Grov went ahead, Ayla would probably be able to handle Nicuria, but her mate may not be able to tell her if Stomp was with the herd. Ayla looked at the young horse, who now seemed perfectly happy to graze on the side of the hill.

"And you will hold him back?" she asked, biting her lip.

"I think I can do it," he said. "There are a few trees over there." The man pointed. "We could tie him to one of them, so that he cannot follow you."

Ayla smiled. "I do not think he will like it very much, but it just might work."


After persuading Nicuria to come over to the trees, Ayla unlooped the rope that hung around his neck and wrapped it around one of the trees. Nicuria followed her and nosed at her hands as she tied the knot, then tried to follow her when she walked away. Before moving out of his reach, she turned around and handed him an apple, then stepped back to stand next to Grov. They both watched as the colt chewed the apple, then smiled when he moved to join them; he couldn't take more than two steps without the rope going taut.

For a moment Nicuria just stood there, then he tried again. The second time he pulled harder, but still got nowhere. Then he nickered softly and backed off. He went to investigate. Ayla and Grov watched him walk back to the tree. He sniffed the rope and walked around the tree, then went back to where Grov and Ayla were standing. Now he was one step farther away from them. He whinnied his frustration. Ayla went to calm him.

"I am not sure about this," she said as she untied the rope. "I do not want to keep him captive." She held the end of the rope in her hand and starting walking back to Grov. Nicuria followed her. "I do not tie up Shriek."

"We will not always have to tie him up, Ayla," Grov said. "We are just doing it now so that you can go see if the bay stallion's herd is grazing over there."

Ayla's forehead was creased, but she nodded. "I know, but...I would not like to be tied up, would you?"

"Of course not, but if we don't tie him up, he might scare the other horses away."

Ayla took a deep breath. "You are right. But I think we should spend some time with him, so that he knows we are not leaving him tied up here."

Grov smiled. "Ayla, we're not leaving him here. I am staying with him, and you are only going to be gone for a few moments. How long do you think it will take you to walk around that hill, make sure the herd and Stomp are there, and come back?"

"You are right again." Ayla started walking back to the tree, but when the rope went taut, she had to stop. Nicuria knew exactly where the woman was taking him and he didn't want to go back there. Ayla pulled on the rope, but he just stood there while she pulled. Then she walked back to him and went to his hindquarters. She tried pushing him with all her strength, but the large animal just wouldn't budge; he was too strong.

"See? He does not want to be tied up," she said in frustration as she wiped a sweaty strand of hair off her forehead.

"I know, but he does not have a choice this time." Grov stopped talking for a moment and thought about the situation. "I think you need to pretend you are a man of the Clan."

Ayla's eyes opened up as wide as possible. "What? A man? How can I be a man of the Clan?"

Grov smiled at her confusion. It was a ludicrous suggestion. "What I mean is, if you make Nicuria think you have more status than him, then he will do as you wish. He needs to know that you are the leader. You need to dominate him, like Clan men dominate Clan women."

Ayla frowned and looked at the horse. "But I do not want to dominate Nicuria, Grov. I want him to be our friend."

Grov's brow furrowed. He understood the feelings she was having, as he had no wish to dominate anyone or anything either. Then something struck him and he smiled. "All right, Ayla. I want that too, so let's look at this differently. What if you just treat him like he's your son?"

Ayla glanced at the large horse skeptically. "My son?" she said incredulously. She couldn't imagine giving birth to something so large. Durc had just about killed her. "And how do you purpose I do that?"

"You already have been, Ayla," he said. "Think about this morning, when he would not come to you. What did you do?"

Ayla thought for a moment. "I ignored him."

"And when he wanted to play with the rope when you wanted to tie it around his neck. What did you do then?"

"I ignored him again," Ayla said with a smile. "All right, I can do this."

The woman started for the tree again, and just as before, Nicuria resisted going with her, so she let go of the rope and walked over there on her own and turned her back on him.

Nicuria nickered, trying to get her attention, but she ignored him. The young horse turned his head to look at Grov, then approached the woman. When he reached her, she scratched his neck, then took the rope and tied it around the tree again. She continued to scratch him for a few moments, but backed away slowly. Nicuria followed her until the rope tightened, then he pulled hard, swished his tail and pinned his ears back. He still looked agitated to Ayla, so she quickly went and untied him.

"Here," Grov said, reaching for the rope. "Let me try." Ayla handed it over willingly and watched her mate walk the horse around in a circle, and then another one. Nicuria pricked his ears forward and followed curiously. Grov made several rounds, then led him to the tree and tied him up again. This time when Nicuria tried to pull away from the tree, he only nickered softly. He did not look so upset. Ayla smiled.

Grov untied him again and walked him back to Ayla. "Now you try."

Ayla took the rope and repeated Grov's actions, finally bringing Nicuria to the tree. He did not resist one bit. Ayla was so happy that she rewarded him with another apple.

Grov grinned at her. He could tell that she was happy and that made him happy. "So, are you going now, or what?"

Ayla smiled. "I am going now," she said.


Grov did not figure that she'd be gone very long, but while she was he stretched out under one of the trees and closed his eyes. He was not tired, but it felt good to relax. A gentle breeze blew through the grasses on the hill and he could hear the rustle of the tree's leaves. He opened his eyes to see the tree above him sway and smiled when Nicuria lowered his head and blew in his face. The horse did not seem at all upset about being tied to the tree.

"Stop that," the man said, pushing the horse's nose out of his face.


Ayla was on her way back. She had found the herd, and Stomp, and had gotten more than she had counted on.

When she came across the herd, they were not grazing lazily, as she had expected them to be. They were at the far end of the high meadow and all were at attention; they seemed to be watching something else. But what? Ayla wondered, as she tried to see through the thick cloud of dust at the other end of the meadow.

Ayla looked around. Spotting a boulder that Ursus had conveniently placed just a few steps from her, she climbed up for a better view. She still could not tell what was going on, so she sat down to observe with some comfort. After a few moments of watching them, she realized that there was no stallion present. "What is going on here?" she said out loud. She did not expect an answer, but continued to watch.

Then suddenly, out of the haze, the bay stallion materialized, and he was coming straight for her. When he reached her, she was still sitting on the boulder, but that changed quickly. He circled the boulder, and her, rearing up and squealing angrily.

Ayla's fear was great, but she tried to stay calm. She reached for her sling; she had driven him off with it before, but to her dismay, her pouch of stones had fallen to the ground when she had jumped to her feet. Think! she told herself, as she turned around and around, trying to keep the wheeling horse in view. "THINK!" she screamed at herself in frustration. What should I do? "What should I do?" she repeated out loud, as she tried to keep her focus. The spinning was having a dizzying affect on her, but she knew she had to staying facing the angry animal, and she had to stay on the boulder; it was the only thing keeping her from being kicked by the mad beast and trampled to death.

Ayla took a deep breath and slowed her turning. The bay horse's circle was becoming larger and larger, allowing the speed of her spin to slow. That was when he stopped circling. He snorted and pawed at the ground, then took a step toward her. She backed away from him as he came closer, and took another deep breath. She knew he couldn't get her as long as she stayed up on the boulder, but her heart was pounding and she wished Grov was there to help her. She wanted to run, but she knew that that would do no good; the stallion would only chase her down. She had to stay put.

Then suddenly, the stallion let out another loud squeal of anger, and as quickly as he had come, he raced off across the meadow. It took only moments for Ayla to calm down, and when she did, she saw the reason the bay had rushed off with such speed; there was another stallion in the area. Ayla suddenly realized that that was what caused the bay to come after her in the first place; he had seen a threat coming from both ends of his territory and he had reacted. He had chosen unwisely, though she did not think that he usually made such mistakes. He had...she squinted to count...fourteen mares to look after. She knew he would not have so many if he was always so careless.

Carefully, when she was sure the bay would not come for her again, she jumped down from the boulder, and headed back to Grov and Nicuria.


Ayla had started her way back to Grov at top speed, but slowed quickly. She kept glancing over her shoulder, just to make sure the stallion had not changed his course and come after her. She wondered at his strange behavior. Surely he did not me as another stallion, she thought. Maybe a predator then, which I guess I am. She smiled at the thought. They were not planning on hunting the horses, but they did intend on stealing two of the stallion's mares. Yes, I guess we are predators.

Ayla walked at a good pace, not fast or slow, and came upon her sleeping mate and her new horse friend. Nicuria saw her first and nickered, happy to see her. Grov opened his eyes at the sound and focused on Ayla. He knew immediately, without her saying a word, that something had happened. He was up and crossing the distance to her before she could even call out to him.

When he reached her, she wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his chest. He held her for a moment, then pushed her back and looked her over. He noticed that she was quite sweaty and her hair was overly windblown. Much more so than her short jaunt should have caused, he decided. And there was also a smudge of dirt on her cheek. It almost looked like she had been crying.

"Ayla?" said the man questioningly. "Are you all right?"

She placed her hands on his chest and nodded. "Yes," she answered breathlessly. "I am fine." She leaned against her mate to draw some of his strength into herself, then pushed back and looked into his eyes. "Let's sit down. I will tell you about it."


None of the dirty bunch had gotten up, but all were angrily glaring up at the unwanted visitors. Most had only just recently rolled out of their furs after another long night of drinking too much bouza, but this visit could wait no longer; the sun was past the center of the sky and this was serious business.

"Oh-ho, look what we have here," Ivarsia said, waving his arm about lazily. "Visitors." Then he smirked at those standing before him. "So, to what do we owe this honor?" he asked, looking up at Oak Camp's headwoman who stood in front of the rest.

Tiflona stood perfectly still, biting back her sarcastic remark. She absolutely detested this man; she always had. She thought back to when they were still youths and grimaced. How he had become a leader was completely beyond her. He had never had leadership qualities. But then, no one from any of these camps had the ability to lead. She sighed and crossed her arms over her chest.

"We have come with an offer," she said simply.

Ivarsia narrowed his eyes at dark-haired Oak headwoman, wondering what kind of offer they might have. He could tell they didn't want to be here, yet here they were, and with an offer too. He shook his head. "You have nothing we want, Tiflona."

Tiflona looked around in disgust. The place was a mess; things were strewn about haphazardly; some things were broken, but not removed from the area. Tents had holes in them and it was obvious no one planned to make the necessary repairs. Several tools were lying on the ground in a heap, yet they looked as if they had never even been used. There were even a few dead animals sitting next to one of the fires, unskinned, as if someone had suddenly become too tired to finish their task, or too full of bouza, Tiflona thought.

Tiflona glanced at those sitting around. The people were dressed in shabby clothing. Clothing hardly fit to wear, in her opinion. They were filthy and reeked of bouza, yet most looked perfectly content living life the way they were.

"Hmm," the Oak headwoman said with a sigh. "That's hard to imagine," she said under her breath. She paused and studied the man, then continued. "Unfortunately, you have something we want."

The man laughed. "Oh really? And what is that?" He glanced at Tagnolia, who hadn't said anything yet. It wasn't like the man to let his sister do all the talking. Ivarsia remembered quite a few youthful arguments with the man; he certainly didn't hesitate to defend his sisters, yet he was keeping silent for some reason. Ivarsia turned and narrowed his eyes at the woman again.

"It's three somethings, really," Tiflona said, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, and pausing for a more dramatic effect. She really did not want to have this conversation. She knew it was not going to go well, but she had to take the proper steps if Oak Camp had any hope of adopting Danta, Danara and Davaria without their presence. The first step was a direct request to the birth camp of those to be adopted, and then a petition to the Council of Sisters if, for any reason, the request was denied, which they were sure it would be.

In actuality, Sumac Camp would not be able to stop Danta, Danara, or Davaria from leaving their birth camp; no one had to live where he or she did not want to be, they only needed to find a camp to take them and they were free to go. They were lucky that they had made friends in Oak Camp; it would be a welcome change, and Oak Camp was happy to have them, but without the adoptees there to say what they wanted, no one could be sure.

Tiflona stood silently for a moment, considering the people before her. We just have to go through the process, she thought. It will look better for Oak Camp when the matter goes to the Sisters if we do things the way they are supposed to be done. And, there really isn't anything they can do to stop this, she told herself.

Suddenly, Iyena stood up and placed her hands on her hips. "Why has Oak Tent sent a delegation to Sumac Tent, Tiflona?" she asked. "We don't have time for this!"

Tiflona took a deep breath, then nodded. "You are right. We also don't have time for this." The Oak headwoman glanced briefly at those behind her, then she swallowed; she knew what their answer would be, but she continued on anyway.

"As headwoman of Oak Camp, I have brought with me a delegation to request Sumac Camp's permission to adopt Danta, Danara and Davaria."

Iyena looked at her brother, who had gotten up and was approaching them. "You can't serious. Do you really think we are going to give up a brother and a sister?"

"We are very serious, Ivarsia," Tagnolia cut in. He had placed his hand on Tiflona's shoulder, and had pulled her back slightly; he did not want Ivarsia to touch her. "And yes, we do expect you to give up a brother and sister." The Oak Headman glanced around the atrocious surroundings, then back at Ivarsia. "They are only taking up space here anyway. Why do you even care?"

For a moment, Iyena seemed to be at a loss, but she recovered quickly. "Well, you cannot have them," she spat possessively, as if the three people in question had suddenly become valued members of their camp.

"And why is that, Iyena?" Tiflona asked.

The Sumac Headwoman frowned. She did not want to admit that the three had already left Sumac Camp. "Because...because, they were born to Sumac Camp, they will stay with Sumac Camp."

Gredenzia stepped forward. "Now, Iyena, you know that's not how this goes. You may not want to let them go, but it is not really up to you, is it?" the Oak Shogur asked with more patience than anyone else present was feeling. "Maybe we need to discuss this with Danta and Davaria," he added.

"They are not here right now," Ivarsia put in quickly. "You will have to come back later." He started to turn away, but the smile on Tiflona's face made him freeze. "What are you smiling about, Tiflona? I do not think this is very funny; Oak Camp coming over here and announcing that they want to steal three members of Sumac Camp."

"You are right, Ivars. This is far from funny," Tiflona said seriously. "But it is quite interesting how you are trying to keep people here that don't want to be here, people you don't even want here."

Ivarsia's face turned bright red and he clenched his fists. "Tiflona, you should watch yourself," he warned angrily.

"Why? Because I am speaking the truth?" she asked. "Why does it upset you so that we want them? It can't be because you want them, or is it because they don't want you?" she asked.

"What makes you think they don't want to be here?" Ivarsia countered.

Tiflona raised her eyebrows. "Well, they are not here. That speaks volumes to us."

"They are just out," Iyena put in quickly.

"Oh really?" Tiflona said, glancing around at the watching people. Some of them tried to stare her down, but several looked away. She noticed that Trata stood nearby, arms folded across her chest. "Trata, where are your son and daughter? They haven't left Sumac Camp for good, have they?" The older woman only tightened her grip on her own arms, but she did not dare reply. Tiflona waited out the pause, then looked around again. Her eyes stopped on Ivarsia. The man stood only inches from her.

"Ivars, we are only here to get your consent, but if you will not give it, then we will go to the Sisters."

The Sumac Headman gave her a baleful glare. "Then I suggest you do that, Tiflona," he said through gritted teeth. "We will not agree to your request!"

Tiflona gave the man a clipped nod; she had known it would go this way. "Very well. You can expect to get a sUmons from them then." With that, the Oak Camp delegation turned and left.

They went directly to the Sister's tent.


"Well, we found them, Ayla," Grov said. He was sitting behind her, trying to rub the tension out of her shoulders.

"I know," she sighed and leaned back into him. "But with all the confusion, I am not even sure I saw Stomp."

Grov wrapped his arms around her. "I am just glad that you got away from that stallion." He still wondered where he'd be if this woman had not been given to him and he didn't like to think about losing her. "We should turn him into some weapons, water bags and a few meals."

"Grov!" Ayla said with a smile. "How can you say that? He is a magnificent creature."

The man squeezed her tightly. "I am only concerned about this magnificent creature." He leaned to nibble on her neck.

"Mmmmm, that feels good." Ayla moved to give him better access to her neck and smiled as she slipped her arms around his neck. "It is so nice to have some time alone with you."

"Mmmmm, this man agrees with you," he gestured, then shifted and moved her to her back.

The two struggled to remove their clothing, using their tunics and leggings to protect them against the rocks and brush that made lying on the ground uncomfortable, and giggling like it was the first time they had shared one another.


Afterwards, they lay quietly in each other's arms, smiling contentedly. Grov was cradling her head in one arm, his fingertips tangled in her hair, and he was running the index finger of his opposite hand along the dip of her waist. She was so precious to him.

"Are you sure that you are all right?" he asked her.

She smiled. "I am fine, Grov. Really. He was very angry and I was very scared, but the stallion did not touch me."

"Are you sure you do not want me to turn him into an evening meal?"

Ayla giggled again. "Are you offering to cook a meal?" she asked. "Because, for that, I might agree." He gave a rather guttural laugh and squeezed her again.

"You are pushing it, woman," he said jokingly, rolling her over onto her back again.

"And what would the Clan say, if I bring back my cooking mate...along with our horses?"

He grinned. "I do not care what they say, Ayla," he said, leaning down to kiss her. "It is only you that I care about."

She smiled and kissed him back, then started to sit up, but something caught her attention and she froze. "Grov," she whispered. "Look." Her eyes were wide and she was nodding toward the dip between the two hills.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

Grov looked over his shoulder to see what Ayla was staring at. Off in the distance he could see two very similar looking horses, one dun yellow, the other more of a whitish color. He moved to get off of his mate and she slowly got to her feet, picking up her tunic as she went.

Nervously, Ayla looked down the narrow valley, wondering if their bay stallion had accompanied them. She did not see him. That was a good thing; she did not want another meeting with him. He must have lost these two while dealing with another stallion. Ayla wondered if it was the buckskin, or if there were other stallions nearby.

Ayla glanced at Grov, who was now standing next to her. He had pulled on his leggings and foot coverings, but didn't move to put on his tunic. Ayla briefly admired his tanned chest, then quickly dressed and went to Nicuria. Though he had seen his approaching dam and was at full attention, he was not straining against his ties to join her. Ayla bent to pick up her pack and produced an apple to distract the horse before he did try to go to his mother.

"Ayla," Grov said, coming up to her. "What should we do?"

"I do not know." She looked down at the bag of fruit she was holding and smiled. "I am hoping we can lure them with these." She looked up at him. "That is what we did in my vision."

He nodded. "All right. What do you need me to do?"

She grinned again. "Actually, you were just standing here with Nicuria while I tried to entice them to come to us."

The look on his face matched hers. "So you are the hunter this time? Well then, go to it," he ordered.

Slowly, Ayla crept out of the shade from the trees and worked her way toward the two horses. Both pricked their ears up. The lighter horse, Stomp, as Ayla was calling her, pawed the ground and cantered away somewhat, causing Ayla to stop her approach. It looked as if that horse was ready to bolt. The other horse whinnied loudly, but did not move to leave. Stomp stopped when her sister did not follow her.

For long moments Ayla stood in the center of the long, narrow high valley. From her distance, she studied the two horses before her. The dun yellow mare was much closer and seemed less frightened of the human standing there, completely still. Ayla did not want to scare her by moving, but wanted to try and tempt her with an apple. Reaching for her bag, she pulled one out and held it up for the horse to see, then tossed it to Grov.

"Hold it up, for her to see, then give it to Nicuria," she signed. Grov nodded and did as she had asked. Then Ayla pulled out another apple and held it up; she wanted the mare to know that she was offering food.

The horse took a few curious steps toward her, but she stopped out of reach. Her ears twitched and she nickered softly, giving Ayla another idea. She glanced back at Nicuria, who had finished his apple and was now watching with his usual amount of curiosity. She sent a calming nicker to him, then turned toward the mare and made more quiet nickers to her as she extended her arm to hold out the apple to her, trying to gently coax the large animal to brave the extra few steps to come within her reach. The horse was not fooled. She whinnied loudly and pranced away.

Ayla and Grov watched as the yellow horse tossed her head and galloped a short distance away. But as she did this, the lighter horse came forward, stomping her hooves on the ground in front of the woman. They could tell that the horses wanted them to release the younger horse, but they would not relinquish the prize they had so recently gained. Ayla glanced back at Grov and saw him scratching Nicuria's neck. Both seemed relaxed.

Then, looking back at the horses, Ayla stood patiently. She continued to hold out her treat-filled hand, keeping her eyes on the nearest horse. Stomp pawed the ground roughly a short distance from her, causing the yellow horse to whinny loudly and prance around again. The yellow horse had retreated halfway down the small valley, and wasn't very happy, but the lighter horse was coming closer; she was more interested in the woman and what she held in her hand. After pawing the ground again, a little less harshly this time, the curious mare came up and snatched the apple out of the woman's hand, then trotted away exuberantly to enjoy the treat. The woman touched her palm where the horse's lips had nibbled her and giggled with delight, then she reached into her pack to get another apple, hoping to lure in the other horse.

Grov and Ayla watched as the yellow horse went to sniff her sister's muzzle, then nicker softly as she cautiously approached the apple-holding woman. Ayla held her breath and stood perfectly still. She waited for the yellow mare, but the lighter horse came forward again and quickly snatched a second apple. This time she did not move too far off, deciding instead, that the woman with tasty treats might be safe, or at least, handy.

Ayla grinned and pulled another apple out of her bag. Again, she held it out to them. This time, when the lighter horse approached, the yellow horse nipped her, then braved her fear of the human and slowly came forward. As she neared, Ayla relaxed her arm slightly, trying to make the horse come just a little closer, but the mare held up a bit and nickered, then finally took the apple like her sister had done. Ayla smiled and glanced back at the man, who, with one hand, held the rope that restrained Nicuria. He was still scratching the horse's neck with the other hand.

"Did you see that?" she signed to him silently. He nodded and smiled at her. She was about to say something else to him, when she felt a not-so-gentle nudge on her left arm. It was the dun horse, nosing her for another treat.

"Did you want one of these?" she asked the mare. She had produced another apple, but she held it close to her, to make the horse come closer. As she held the apple in one hand, she reached out with the other. The horse whinnied, snatched the apple from Ayla and backed off, just as the woman's fingers were caressing the horse's cheek.

Behind her she heard Nicuria blowing. She knew he wanted a treat too, and probably some water. They should start back soon, but would these horses follow them? she wondered.

"Should I untie him?" Grov asked, nodding toward Nicuria.

Ayla frowned and looked at the mares. Would they take him and run? Or was he content to stay with them, even if his dam and the other mare left? She was nervous, but she knew they had to try it sometime. They couldn't stay there all night. She nodded.

Grov went to the colt and, pulling on the end of the rope, he quickly undid the knot. Nicuria was free and he was excited about it. He burst forth, going directly to Stomp and nuzzling between her legs for the mare's familiar milk. Stomp stood there patiently, allowing her son to find out on his own that she no longer had any milk for him. When he did notice, he lost interest and nosed Ayla for more treats. Soon, she had three horses crowding her for more.


After spending some time feeding the horses, the couple sat down to eat their own meal. It wasn't much of a meal; traveling food wasn't the most exciting thing to eat, but they did eat a few of the horse's apples. And every time they did the hay-colored horse whinnied.

"I think you have had too many apples, little horsey?" Ayla said with signs. The mare cocked her head, as if trying to understand the woman's motions, and whinnied again in response. "I wonder how much horses eat."

Grov shrugged, took the last bite of his apple, then gestured. "I don't know." They had fallen right into using the Clan's way of communication again, and were enjoying the peaceful silence. "Why are you thinking about that?"

"Because they will have to eat during the winter and I do not know if there will be enough food for them by Brun's cave. If not, then I will have to get food for them."

Grov grinned. "I am still wondering how you are going to convince Brun to allow you to keep horses."

Ayla frowned. "I am thinking about that too, but I have a plan," she gestured with a smirk. "I am hoping that...the future leader will help with that part."

Grov's eyes popped open. "Me? What do you want me to do?"

Ayla kept smiling. "You could suggest to him that they will not be a problem."

"But Ayla, I do not know that they won't be." He had gotten to his feet and was looking out at the horses. "I could not tell Brun something that I do not know for sure."

"I know, but by the time we get there, you will know." Her eyes were pleading with him. She was speaking out loud now. "I have even thought about where they can stay in the cave."

Grov's brow wrinkled and he turned to face her. "Where?"

"That area where Igra spent her first woman's curse. It would be perfect; the horses would be able to go outside on their own, without actually being in the midst of the people, and I would be able to visit them without having to go outside, when the weather is bad." She paused to study him. He had turned from her again, but only slightly. She could tell he was considering. She tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. "What do you think?"

He nodded his head. "I think that it might work."

She threw her arms around him. "Oh thank you!"

"But we still have to get Brun to agree." He pushed her back and continued on. "I am not leader yet, Ayla, and even when I am, I cannot do everything that you want, just because you are my mate. I would not be respected if I did."

Ayla looked up into his eyes and swallowed her smile. "Yes, Grov, I know that you can't. I do not expect things to be like they are here; I just want your help." She was mildly irritated. She didn't think he had to remind her of how things would be at the Clan's cave.

Grov studied her face, searching for the smile that had just been there, but he couldn't find it. She was not just hiding it. It was completely gone, and now he felt bad. "Ayla, I do not mean that I won't do things to make you happy. I like making you happy. I just can't allow you to dictate things. I would not stay leader very long if I did, and then Durc would lose out on leading too. Do you understand?"

Now it was Ayla's turn to search his face. She knew that he liked making her happy and that he almost always did things just for her. She knew he was right and it made her feel bad, but the freedom she had here, in her movements, in her speech, was going to be hard to lose when they went back to the Clan. She considered Ora and wondered if the child was going to be able to fit back in.

"Maybe we need to go back to acting like we are with the Clan, Grov. At least within our own hearth. It is getting much too easy to have my own opinion."

Grov grinned. "Ayla, you have always had your own opinion," he said, pulling her into his arms. They stood like that until the yellowish horse nudged them, then they separated.

"Are you listening to us, little horsey?" she asked. The horse whinnied and tossed her head.

"I think she is trying to talk to you, Ayla."

"She is going to have a hard time talking without hands." Ayla shook her head. "I cannot understand you, little horsey."

"Well maybe we are going to have to learn her language, like we learned Sungaea and Mamutoi," he suggested.

Ayla eyed the horse. "Are you trying to talk to us with all that noise you are making?" she asked. The horse whinnied again, and Ayla attempted to copy it, just as she had copied Nicuria's nicker. She made a fairly good approximation of a horse's whinny, so good in fact, that the horse whinnied back. "I think we need to name her." The horse neighed and tossed her head.

"Make that noise again, Ayla. I think she is listening for her name."

Ayla looked at the horse and whinnied. Again, the horse whinnied back. "They must all have the same name. I cannot tell them apart." She paused and looked at the horse again. "Whiiinneeey!" Ayla mimicked her again. "Is that what your sister calls you?" Ayla stomped her foot on the ground and was surprised to see the other mare approaching. She smiled at Grov. "Well, I got one of their names correct."

"So we will call her Stomp," he said, stroking the pale horse's back.

"And she, will be Whinney," Ayla finished, making the name sound like a horse's whinny. "What do you think of their names, Nicuria?" The young colt only nickered his response. They decided that he liked the names too.


Oak Camp's delegation left Sumac Tent and went over to the tent of the Council of Sisters. They wanted to get their petition to the Sisters immediately. When they entered, they looked around the tent in search of the Head Sister. They found her quickly.

Breidara was standing at the other end of the tent having a discussion with a few Cedar Camp women who seemed to be quite angry about something. Tiflona indicated that everyone should take a seat; she thought it best to wait their turn. Their business with Breidara was not as pressing as the muffled, yet angry, argument seemed to be.

From where they sat, they could not hear the conversation, but they watched carefully. It was obviously a heated topic, and the Oak Headwoman wondered what was going on. Had there been more trouble, trouble outside Oak Tent. Surely it did not involve Sumac Tent; women from Cedar Tent would not be complaining about people from their neighboring camp, would they?

For some time they waited and watched. Breidara kept shaking her head. One of the women was crying and waving her arms around angrily, so much so that one of the other women had to restrain her. Finally, the crying woman threw down a bundle she had grabbed from someone else, then stomped out of the tent. The Cedar women gathered up the discarded items, then followed her out. Breidara watched them go, then took a deep breath and turned around. Seeing Tiflona sitting there waiting caused a momentary flicker of annoyance, but then she relaxed. She knew the Oak Headwoman well enough to know she wanted something, but at least Tiflona would not be reduced to tears.

"Hallo, Tiflona...Tagnolia, everyone. How can the Sisters help you all today?"

Tiflona stood and kissed Breidara's cheek. "Good afternoon, Breidara." Tiflona waited while the Head Sister greeted everyone, then she continued. "We have come today to request permission to adopt three people into Oak Camp."

Breidara smiled. "Well, isn't this happy news. I love adoptions. They are so happy." She looked around at the delegation and shook her head. "Not this time though, huh?" She rolled her eyes. "Who do you wish to adopt, Tiflona?" she asked.

The Oak Headwoman bit her lower lip. "Danta and Danara...and Davaria too."

Breidara exhaled loudly. "Can I assume you have already gone to Sumac Tent?"


"And they have said no. Am I correct?"

"Yes, you are correct, they have said no."

The Head Sister rubbed her face and sighed. "This sUmer meeting is too much," she said, shaking her head. "Remind me to turn down hosting a sUmer meeting the next time it is our turn." Tiflona gave her a sympathetic smile.

"All right, obviously Danta and Davaria have accepted, or you wouldn't be here. This shouldn't be too difficult."

"Well, that is a problem as well," Tagnolia cut in. "Danta and Davaria have left Sumac Camp."

"Then we will have to wait for them to come back," Breidara stated plainly.

"No, you do not understand," Tagnolia continued. "I do not just mean Sumac Tent; I mean they have left Sumac Camp. They have left the sUmer meeting and the Sungaea."

Breidara frowned. "Are you sure?" Oak Tent's delegation nodded. "Then how do you propose to adopt people that are gone?"

"Ayla and Grov have gone after them, to extend our offer. We agreed to wait five days for their return."

"I am confused." Breidara shook her head and held up her hands. "Are you saying that they are back now?"

Tiflona shook her head. "No, Ayla and Grov were only going to return if Danta and Davaria's answer was no."

Breidara frowned. "That makes even less sense. Why wouldn't they return if the answer was yes?"

"I'm sorry. If you will let me finish, then I think you will understand." Breidara nodded. "Five nights ago, Danta and Davaria stayed over at Oak Tent after an evening meal. When we woke up the next morning, they were gone. After talking to a few people, it was decided that they left the Sungaea. All of their things were gone; they ran away. Trata even came over to Oak Tent and accused us of stealing her son." Breidara nodded, she had heard about the incident.

"Now, this is where it gets a little strange. Some time back, Ayla started having...visions, or dreams. I don't know what they were, but it seems that she had one about a valley and some horses, and she was waiting for a sign to leave. She said that sign was the disappearance of the sun. She and Grov said they would go after Danta and Davaria. They said they would return in five days if their answer was no, but if it was yes, they would take them on their short journey. It has been five days; they have not returned, so Danta and Davaria must have said yes."

Breidara frowned as she considered the situation. "And how much of this does Sumac Tent know?"

"They are obviously aware that Danta and Davaria are gone, but other than that." Tiflona shrugged. "I do not know. When we went to request permission to adopt Danta and Davaria, they wouldn't even admit that they were gone from the sUmer meeting. They just claimed that they were out."

Breidara ran her hand through her hair and sighed. "And you are sure Danta and Davaria want to be adopted?"

Tiflona shrugged. "Our only sign is that they are not here. That was the plan. Besides, why would they want to remain at Sumac Camp if another camp wanted them. Almost any camp would be better than Sumac Camp."

"I know that, Tiflona. And you know that," Breidara said. "Oh Mother," she exclaimed loudly, throwing her arms up in the air. "Everyone knows it...but we cannot be hasty here. This is going to cause more bad blood between our camps." She paused for a moment to think. "I will talk to the leaders of Pine Camp, Alder Camp, Elm Camp and Beech Camp first, then we will send a delegation to Sumac Tent. You both will need to be present again," she indicated Tiflona and Tagnolia. "But we will not need all of you." The members of Oak Tent nodded. They knew that they weren't all necessary, but they had wanted to support their leaders in the original delegation. "I will call the meeting with the High Camps tonight and present your case, but don't count on being called until tomorrow."

Tiflona nodded. Usually Oak Camp would be at a meeting of the High Camps, since they were the fifth ranked camp among the Sungaea, but due to the fact that the issue involved them, they could not be present.

"Thank you, Breidara," Tiflona said, touching the woman's cheek with her own. "This really means a lot to Oak Tent."

Breidara smiled. "I know. And I also know that Oak Camp would stand by Maple Camp. And don't forget that you will have Tigassia and Tarana there. It is convenient to have many brothers and sisters, is it not?"

"Yes, you are so right."


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

"So, how old do you think she is?" Grov said, nodding toward Stomp as they walked back to the valley. The three horses were trailing behind slowly, but all were following willingly.

"Well, she is Nicuria's mother, and I would say he is about two years, so maybe she is close to five years."

"What about the other mare?" he asked.

Ayla looked at the hay-colored mare, then over at Nicuria. "I think they are close to the same age. I would say she is around two years too."

Grov frowned. "What makes you so sure."

"I am not sure, but I looked at their teeth. Nicuria's teeth look like hers do, but Stomp's teeth look different."

Grov smiled. "I would not have thought of that, Ayla. You are very smart."

"Well, thank you, but I have to admit it was by accident that I saw Whinney's teeth, then I decided to check Nicuria's. When I saw that his were the same as hers, I decided to see if Stomp would open her mouth for me. Of course, I cannot be sure if teeth are an accurate way of detecting a horse's age...unless I had a foal to keep an eye on for several years."

"You will have that, next year. Right? Didn't you say that you saw them pregnant, in your vision?"

"Yes, they were very pregnant in the vision that takes place at the beginning of next sUmer, so I would guess that they are only just pregnant now. Horses are pregnant for long time, almost a year."

"How do you know this?"

Ayla shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I just pay attention."


Davaria had spent most of the day making a spear. He had borrowed one from Grov, so that he could duplicate it, but his spear making skills were rather lacking, and he was getting frustrated.

"Why does Oak Camp even want us?" he asked dejectedly, then flung the spear into the sand and hung his head. "I'm not even capable of straightening a spear shaft."

Danta had just given the children a snack and was now playing with Ora and Annaliza, but asked Durc and Danara to look after them so she could sit with her brother. She picked up the spear that he had discarded and examined it. It definitely wasn't the best she had seen, but it had its good points.

"You make beautiful spear points, Ari," she said.

Davaria straightened up and looked at her, then took the spear back and looked at his spear point. It was a nice flint tip, he thought. "But what does it matter that my point is good? If the shaft isn't straight, then it will never hit its target. It is useless!" He stabbed the spear into the sand next to him and looked away.

Danta placed her hand on his arm to get him to look at her. "Please don't worry, we will learn everything we need to know once we are at Oak Camp. I cannot imagine they'd let us continue on without any decent skills. I want to learn how Jendoza makes those beads that everyone at Oak Camp decorates their things with. Have you seen them?" He shook his head, though he had.

"They will teach us, Ari," she went on. "They will be our new family. That is what an adoption means. And they will be family that actually cares." She smiled and patted his leg. "They are adopting us because they are good people, and they can see that we are be good too. Or can be, if we're given a chance."

Davaria sighed. "If you say so, Danta."

"I do say so. Think about it. They are the fifth ranked camp among the Sungaea. Would their status be so high if they didn't have a skilled toolmaker?"

Davaria frowned. "I suppose not." He hadn't even considered that someone might be willing to teach him something. No one at Sumac Camp had ever been willing to teach him anything. He had only decided to make himself some weapons a few years ago, because they had been short on food and nobody seemed to care. He had made a crude-looking spear and stuck with it for years. It had been serviceable, but certainly not pretty. He glanced at Grov's spear and smiled. "I will learn, Ata. I promise to learn."

She smiled at him. "I know you will. Ayla says that Vincenzia makes fine spear points. Maybe he would be willing to work with you. You should ask him," she said.

"Yes, I will do that."

"And I'm sure Grov would show you how he makes spears. Have you seen that Clan spear he has?"

Davaria nodded and smiled. "Now that is an interesting spear if I ever saw one. I can't imagine throwing it though; it's too heavy."

"Me either, but he seems to be much stronger than other men to me. Did you see how much he carries?" Davaria nodded. "And he doesn't even look tired when we rest."

Davaria narrowed his eyes at her. He wondered if she was interested in Ayla's mate, not that he'd blame her; he was quite taken with Ayla. She was beautiful and she seemed capable of doing anything.

"Laurana said that he carried her for an entire day, when they were going to visit the Mamutoi."

"Really?" Davaria looked skeptical. "That's hard to believe."

"And Danie said he had to carry her on that journey too."

"Well, I've heard those flatheads are pretty strong. Even the women look strong, though they don't seem willing to use their strength."

"Davaria!" Danta exclaimed with a shocked look on her face. She glanced over at Durc, who was just out of earshot. Thank the Mother, Danta thought, as she turned back to her brother. "I'm surprised you'd even bring that up. It is horrible, what you and your friends did to those women. It is detestable!"

He blushed. "I'm sorry, Danta. I know it is. I was not thinking, then or now."

Danta folded her arms across her chest angrily. "No, you weren't, were you? And I'd prefer that you don't use the word flathead anymore. It isn't right. Grov and Ayla have been so good to us, even after finding out what you did. You should be more respectful.

Davaria sighed. "I know, Ata. It just slipped out."

"Well, try to be more careful. It would have been awful if Durc had heard you." She looked back over at the boy and smiled. "He has been so sweet to Danara. Look at how he takes care of her."

Davaria turned to look at the children. They were climbing on some rocks near the edge of the river. Durc had Annaliza on his hip, but he was holding Danara's hand as she climbed up to join Ora, who was already sitting on top.

The man smiled. "You are right again, Danta. I will not make that slip again. I promise."

Danta flashed her identical smile back at him, glad that he was so willing to change, and that she had broken his bad mood. "Now, you have been working on this all day, brother," she said, standing up and pointing at the spear sticking up out of the sand. "And you haven't eaten. Would you like a meal?"

Davaria looked at his spear, then up at his sister. "Why yes, I would...I think I am starving."

Danta rolled her eyes. "Ari, you have never been starving, might not hurt if you tried to eat more," she said, poking him in the ribs. "You're sort of skinny. No woman's going to be interested in you if you look like a boy."

"Hey, I'm not too skinny," he exclaimed. "I am good shape."

"Um-hUm, okay. If you say so," she said, starting for the cave. At her movement, Durc looked up and she motioned for them to follow. He quickly gathered the girls and did as he was bid.

Davaria frowned, but followed her. "I have been with a woman, Danta," he said.

"Your Redfoot doesn't count," she said, as she continued to walk toward the cave. "Because she was not interested in you. She was only interested in teaching you how to treat a woman." She paused, then went on. He wasn't going to bring it up, so she decided to. "And the Clan women didn't count either."

"Why n . . ." he began, but his mouth snapped shut when she spun around, hand held up.

"Don't even ask me why not, Ari. Do you really want to go through that again?" He shook his head. "Okay then, let's get you some food," she said with a smile.


It was evening when Grov and Ayla reached the top of the hill that overlooked the small river valley that they were calling home for a time. They didn't see anyone on the beach and figured they were inside. They stood for a moment, waiting for the horses to come to them. Ayla scratched Nicuria and gestured that he should go down. The young colt seemed to understand perfectly and began his descent. Stomp pawed the ground, but followed him, and Whinney followed her. Grov and Ayla smiled at their new horse clan.

At the bottom, they stripped and crossed the river, just like they had done that morning. This time Nicuria didn't seem so nervous about the crossing, though he was still the last to get across. Ayla grinned as he nickered loudly and took off across the beach at full speed.


Danta had fed the older children and was trying to feed Annaliza, but she was fussing. She wanted her mother and was refusing any sort of solid food that Danta offered. She had just popped the middle fingers of one hand into her mouth and turned away from Danta when a nicker could be heard from the beach. She pulled her fingers out of her mouth quickly, eyes wide.

"Curia," she said as she stood up. "Mamma's with Curia."

Danta smiled. "I bet she is," she said and scooped the one-year-old up. "Let's go see."

The other children had already made it to the cave's entrance and were staring wide-eyed at what they saw.

"Mamma! Look!" Danara exclaimed with much excitement. "Ayla and Grov brought back more horses. Can we go see?"

Danta frowned at Davaria, who had just come up beside her. "I don't know. What do you think Davaria? Do you think they are safe?"

He shrugged. "I don't think they would have brought them back if they weren't." He smiled and waved at Grov and Ayla. They were still on the beach putting their clothes on. I think that we can go down." He picked up Ora, who still had trouble on the slope and started down. Durc grabbed Danara's hand and they went next. Only Danta stayed on the ledge with Annaliza, until she complained.

"I want to go too," she gestured tiredly. Danta didn't understand the child's signs, but her meaning was clear enough. Danta sighed and followed the others.


Davaria reached the couple and the horses first and smiled at them. "Well, it seems you got what you went for."

"We did," Ayla said. "We will name them tomorrow, but that is Stomp," she said pointing across the beach to the nearly white animal. "And this is Whinney." She ran her hand down the length of the hay-colored mare's back, then leaned against her. It seemed that the horse leaned into her too.

Davaria's jaw had dropped open. To him, the sound she made was not a name – it was a perfect imitation of a horse's whinny. "Ayla, you sound just like a horse."

She grinned. "I know. I have been practicing as we traveled. I think they think I'm a horse too." She turned to accept her youngest child from Danta, then put her arm around Davaria and started for the cave. "But you can call her Whinney." This time she said it more like a word than a horse's whinnying sound. "That is what Grov is choosing to call her."

At Ayla touch, Davaria glanced back at his sister and blushed slightly, remembering their earlier conversation. Danta had a smile on her face that told him she understood his attraction to the beautiful blond woman.


Once inside the cave, Danta prepared a plate of food for the returning couple. Both accepted the food, but Ayla set hers down to nurse Annaliza first.

"Did everyone behave?" Ayla asked.

Danta nodded. "Of course. They were perfect."

Grov arched his brow. "Don't forget that we can tell when you don't speak the truth."

Danta giggled. "Well, I did have to reprimand Davaria. Does that count?" Davaria blushed, causing Grov to laugh.

"Ayla did say everyone. So, what did you do, Davaria?"

Davaria's face got even redder than it already was. "I'd rather not talk about it, if you don't mind," he said, looking away. He didn't want them to know she'd scolded him for using the word flathead.

"No. I don't mind at all." Grov could tell he was embarrassed about something and didn't want to push. "This is very good, Danta."

"Thank you. Cooking is about the only thing I can do well," she said. "Though I'm sure I will be learning quite a few new things after we are adopted." She smiled. "Ayla, didn't you say that Vincenzia is a good toolmaker?"

"Yes, he is. Better than good, I would say. Wouldn't you, Grov?" The man nodded. Ayla went on. "He grew up at Willow Camp and learned much about toolmaking alongside his brother, Vilognia, and their sister, Vinoza, but he says he's learned a lot since then too. Apparently he learned quite a bit from my mother and her people."

"Her people? I did not know your mother was not Sungaean. Who were her people?" asked Danta curiously.

"Vincenzia says they are called the Rosantio, and that they live quite a distance to the east. My given name, Andreyta, is actually a Rosantian name. I think it was my mother's, mother's name too." Ayla was trying to remember all that Vincenzia had told her, but there were just so many facts to remember. She shook her head. "Anyway, he says he learned much from them."

"Hmm, do you think that he would be willing to teach us how to make better tools?" Davaria asked when it appeared Ayla story was finished.

Ayla smiled. "Well, I cannot say for sure, but I do not see why he wouldn't. He also knows how the Mamutoi make their tools. Their way is similar, but not exactly the same. He will have much to teach you, if you really want to learn."

Davaria smiled. "I think that I would like that."


Everyone was tired, but after tucking the children into their furs, the adults sat down for a final cup of tea. All seemed relaxed, except for Davaria; he was eyeing the horses strangely.

The horses had come up to the cave a short time before and were now resting in Nicuria's spot. Whinney and Nicuria had lowered themselves to a lying position and were quietly blowing back and forth, but Stomp had apparently decided to continue standing.

Not taking his eyes off the large creatures, he wondered if some horses slept standing up. "So, what do we do now that we have them? Do we go back to the meeting?" Davaria asked, to no one in particular. Ayla was the one that answered.

"Actually, if no one would mind, I would like stay here for a little while, at least a few days. I think it might be good for the horses; they need to get to know us."

Grov was nodding. "I would have to agree. And I have seen a lot of good flint on this beach. We could spend some time making tools. I am still not very good at making spear points the way the Others do, but my blades come out fairly well. What do you two think?" He was looking at Danta and Davaria.

Danta shrugged and looked at her brother. "I don't care. I'm enjoying this time away." And I'm not exactly looking forward to returning and having to face Trata, she thought silently.

Davaria smiled. "Well, okay then, we stay."


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

For the remainder of that day, the mood at Oak Tent had been subdued. They wondered how the meeting of High Camps was going and wished that they didn't have to wait until the next day to be sUmoned. But, as it was, all they could do was wait.

Since they had to wait, and to cause a bit of distraction while they did, those of Oak Tent decided to make an evening out of it and invited several from Birch Tent over for an evening meal. And though he knew Belana was likely to object, Dimia had gone to Beech Tent to collect Seriana. She was supposed to stay in bed, per Ayla's orders, but with Mikolavia's help, she was carried over to Oak Tent and placed comfortably on some carefully placed furs to enjoy the evening.

"Thank you, Mikolavia," said Dimia, to Seriana's brother. "It means a lot to me that you have helped."

Mikolavia finished settling Seriana, then eyed the man that was promised to his sister. What was it about the man that bothered him so? he silently asked himself. He was tall and thin, and considerably older than Seriana...but he did love her, Mikolavia could tell that much.

"You're welcome, Dima," he finally said, using, for the first time, the more feminine name that most called the man. He wondered why a man would want to go by such a name, but had never wanted to ask. He was rather feminine looking; he was too thin and had much less body hair than other men, Mikolavia thought. He looked around. Everyone was getting ready to eat. "I guess I will go back now," he said, getting up to leave.

"Nah, don't go," Ivanolia said, coming up behind them with Danie. "Why don't you go back to Beech Tent and get Mirra...and Kristana too."

"Yes, Mikolavia," Tiflona said, overhearing the young people talking. "You should join us."

The young man frowned at the Oak Headwoman; they had never invited him over before. "Are you sure you don't mind?"

Tiflona smiled at him. "Our camps are related, Mikolavia. Of course we don't mind. Besides, we have plenty of food for everyone. My mate has been cooking all day. He does that when he is worried about something." She paused and looked over at Wäglodia. He was offering a platter of some kind of seasoned meat to Tiflona's older brother and sister. "I can only thank Sumata that he enjoys cooking. I can't stand it." She grinned as she looked back at Mikolavia. "And you should invite your mother as well." Tiflona caught the expression on Seriana's face as she turned away and guessed that the young, pregnant woman was hoping for a night away from her overbearing and prejudiced mother. "That is...if you would like to."

Mikolavia glanced at Seriana. He knew that she would not like him to. "Thank you Tiflona. I will go get Mirra and Kristana. Would you mind if Kristana brought her sons?"

"Of course not," replied Tiflona.

Mikolavia had gone back to Beech Tent, collected his mate and his sister and her sons, then they all had enjoyed an evening at Oak Tent.


Ayla woke up to the soft nose of one of the horses nudging her gently, then blowing in her face when she opened her eyes. She had to smile. It was the mare she had named Whinney. Ayla looked around the cave to see if she was the first one awake; she was not. Grov, Durc and Davaria, along with the other two horses, were gone, but Danta and the girls were still there, sleeping. Ayla yawned, wondering why she was sleeping so late so often, then got up.

"How did you sleep, Whinney?" she signed silently, not wanting to wait the other sleeping people. She lovingly took hold of the mare's muzzle and exhaled into the mare's face in the same way that the horse had blown into hers. "And where is your sister and her son?"

Whinney cocked her head, as if trying to figure out what the woman was saying, then nickered softly. Ayla smiled and patted Whinney's rump as the horse turned to leave the cave, then went to the fire pit to start a fire to make tea. The woman's eyes were still on the mouth of the cave as she knelt down, but she quickly noticed that someone had already stoked the coals; the fire was already burning, though quite low. She decided to go outside to the pile of wood they had stacked on the ledge to get a few new pieces to build it up.

Once outside on the ledge, Ayla realized it was later than she realized. The sun was fairly high in the sky and it was remarkably warm. Well, it is sUmer, she thought with a smile. Then, scanning the beach, her eyes focused on the horses. Whinney was just joining the other two horses at the western end of the valley and Stomp was drinking water out of the river, while Nicuria tried to get her attention. He had quickly realized that his mother no longer had any milk for him, but that did not stop him from nuzzling her. Ayla smiled when Stomp snorted and nipped at her son to get him to leave her alone and then pawed the ground when he tried to approach her again. Nicuria backed away and whinnied loudly, then exuberantly raced down the beach.

The direction that Nicuria went focused the woman's eyes on the three people sitting down on the rocky beach. Grov and Davaria appeared to be working on something. Spears? she thought, as she squinted down at them. It looked like they were making spears. Ayla noticed that Durc was sitting there too and seemed to be listening to them intently. She smiled, then picked up two logs and went back inside.

"Mamma," Ora whispered. She had gotten up. "Where did you go?"

Ayla smiled. "I went to get wood," she said, holding a piece of it up. "I'm going to make tea and then a meal. Are you hungry?"

Ora smiled and nodded, then looked around. "Where is Grov?"

"He and Durc are outside making spears?" answered Ayla as she carefully placed the logs into the fire and then started some water for their tea.

"I want to go outside too."

"You will have to eat first, Ora," Ayla signed. "And then you can go outside to wash your cup and bowl." The woman paused and glanced over at Danta. The other woman was stirring. "When that is done," she continued. "You can play outside...if someone is out there to watch you."

Ora frowned. She wanted to go out now and she didn't want to have to wash her cup and bowl, or wait for someone to watch her. "Mamma, I'm not hungry."

Ayla had just fished out the first set of cooled stones and added more hot stones to her basket of water, but stopped and turned to look at Ora. "Ora, just a moment ago you said that you were hungry, now you're saying that you are not. Which is it?"

Ora continued to frown. She was hungry, but she wanted to go outside. She shrugged.

Ayla sighed. "Well, I want you to eat first. The meal will be ready very soon, so you can wait." Ora pouted, causing Ayla to shake her head.


Breidara stood with the other members of the High Camps, discussing their meeting from the evening before one last time. Only the headman of Alder Camp, Andovia, seemed unsure of an adoption without the adoptees present, but he had allowed the others to override his objections, claiming that the majority should rule.

"Okay then, I will go and get Tagnolia and Tiflona," stated Breidara when they had finished. "I would like to get this over with."

"Yes, we all would," Tegassia said with a nod. "But, let us go get them." He tipped his head toward Tarana. "After all, they are our brother and sister."

Breidara smiled. "We will wait for you here."


Tegassia and Tarana walked swiftly to Oak Tent. Just as the rest of the High Camps, they did not like the situation, but they were glad that someone was stepping up to give Danta and Davaria a chance; and they were proud that it was Oak Camp that was doing it.

"This is a good thing," said Tegassia as they neared Oak Tent. No one seemed to be outside the tent yet, but he was sure someone was awake inside.

"A very good thing." Tarana smiled. "Now, if only we could get other camps to help with others like Danta and Davaria."

Tegassia smiled at his sister. "It takes time, Tarana." The woman nodded as Tegassia scratched on the closed flap of Oak Tent.


"They're here," Tabita called out. She had been sitting with Fürlasa on Tinozia's bed, but went to let in her aunt and uncle when she heard the scratching.

"Hallo, Tabita," Tarana said, hugging her sister's daughter. "Are they ready to go."

Tabita nodded, then hugged Tegassia. "I think so. Come in. I will go get them."

"No need," Tiflona said, coming down the narrow tent passageway with Tagnolia. "We are ready." She stopped next to her younger brother and sister. "How did the meeting go?"

"It went well," Tegassia said. "Everyone agreed that Danta and Davaria deserved to be at a better camp." He frowned.

Tagnolia eyed his brother. "What is it?"

Tarana smiled and patted the man's arm. "Andovia wasn't sure we should do this until Danta and Davaria return...but don't worry, we convinced him. He has agreed to accompany us over to Sumac Tent."


"Oh, Ayla," Danta exclaimed. "You should let me make the morning meal. You have done far too much already." Danta had woken up to the smell of Ayla's cooking and was feeling rather guilty about her lack of assistance. She wasn't used to helping others, just as no one at Sumac Camp ever helped anyone else, but she knew that things would change once they moved to Oak Camp. She wasn't worried about changing. That part wouldn't be difficult at all, but she wanted to start getting in the habit of offering to help, even when no one had asked.

Ayla smiled as she looked at the sleepy-eyed woman. "I am usually awake early enough to have a meal ready...though not this morning it seems," she said with a frown. She shook her head. "I usually wake up quite early, but Grov and Davaria were up and down on the beach before I woke up." Ayla smiled at Danara, who had gotten up to sit beside her mother, then she looked back at Danta. "Maybe you could be responsible for our evening meals, since I get up early...usually, and you seem not to."

Danta smiled. "I'd be happy to, Ayla." The woman stood and pulled on a tunic she'd borrowed from Ayla, then got up to join the other woman next to the fire. Danta glanced over at Ora; the child was facing away from them, talking under her breath to her doll. She didn't look very happy.

"Do you want me to take her outside," Danta whispered as she pointed at the child.

Ayla glanced at her three-year-old and frowned. "No," she said, shaking her head. "I wish she would stop this...this pouting. Things are going to be very difficult for her if she doesn't. And she has to stop resisting. This behavior will not be accepted when we get back to the Clan. Some man is going to cuff her if she keeps it up.

Danta gasped slightly and frowned. "How can you let that happen, Ayla?"

"There is nothing I can do about it, Danta," Ayla said, looking sad. "I would only get cuffed myself if I said or did anything, and that would make Grov look bad. I cannot do that to him. And if I cannot teach her how to behave properly, then they will look down on me. I have high status, because I am a medicine woman, but that will mean nothing if no one respects me."

Ayla could not help but think back on her own life; it had been anything but easy. "Life for girls within the Clan is not easy," she said, then frowned. "That is not completely true." Ayla was shaking her head. "Life for a girl of the Others is very difficult, if she grows up with the Clan."

Danta was listening carefully. "Are you talking about your life, Ayla?" Danta knew about the rape Ayla had suffered and wondered if that was something that typically happened within the Clan, or if it had only happened to Ayla.

Ayla looked down at the pot of boiling water and poured some into two cups. After adding the herbs that she liked in her morning tea, she handed Danta a cup and continued. "Yes, my life was quite difficult...but it isn't anymore."

Danta waited for her friend to continue, but when Ayla didn't say anything else, she took a sip of tea and gestured for Danara to get up. Danara hadn't gotten up when her mother had, but instead had snuggled down into the woman's bed. But now that her mother wanted her, she got up quickly to join the two women. For a moment, the slight girl stood next to her mother, but when Ayla's youngest sat up, she went to the baby.

"Thank you, Danara," Ayla said to the girl as she accepted her baby. Then she shifted the way she was sitting so that she could nurse her daughter.


After meeting at the tent of the Council of Sisters, Tagnolia and Tiflona, followed by the group of High Camps, started over to Sumac Tent. They entered the filth-ridden area and stared around in disgust. No one seemed to be there. The arriving group glanced at each other; all knew they were probably too early for this particular group of people and wondered if they should wake someone or come back later. They were about to leave, thinking they'd have to make a second trip, when they noticed a young woman sitting near Cedar Tent's fire.

Cedar Tent's fire, which was not grouped with the other three Low Camp fires, was positioned just southwest of the Shogur's Tent, but clearly out of the path of most people. Tiflona narrowed her eyes, then nodded in the woman's direction. They could speak to her.

As the small group made their way over to the woman, Tiflona realized that the woman kneeling on the ground and staring into the flames could hardly be called a women; she had probably just had her first rites, though Tiflona did not recognize her from Womanhood Camp. The Oak headwoman frowned as they approached. When they stopped at her side, she did not even look up. Tiflona glanced at those standing with her. Breidara shrugged and knelt down next to the woman.

"Excuse me," the Head Sister said, laying her hand on the woman's shoulder lightly. They were shocked by the reaction they received. The young woman simultaneously cringed and gasped loudly, then jumped to her feet.

"W-what? W-what d-do you w-want?" she exclaimed fearfully as she backed away from the group that had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.

"We are sorry that we have frightened you,..." Breidara offered, waiting for a moment to allow the woman to tell them her name. But, when no name came, Breidara studied the women a bit more. She did not know her, yet she seemed familiar.

Breidara glanced at the others, then continued. "We have come to speak to the headman and headwoman of Sumac Tent, but they do not seem to be around. Is it too early?" The young woman nervously looked toward Sumac Tent and frowned. She seemed close to tears, which confused them, but they waited patiently for her answer.

"Um, I..." she started as she looked back at the group of people. "I d-don't know. Maybe."

Breidara was still kneeling where the young woman had been, but stood when she noticed another woman approaching.

"Have the High Camps come to do something about that man?" the woman demanded angrily after marching up to the group of people. The younger woman standing there blushed a deep shade of red, then rushed into Cedar Camp's tent.

Breidara frowned as she watched the woman go, then shifted her weight to the other foot. "No, Hetara. That is not why we are here today."

"Why not? Can't something be done?"

Breidara glanced around at the other headwomen and headmen and sighed. She had not had time to mention the matter to them, as they had been discussing other topics, but she fully intended to do so, once the matter at hand had been cleared up. This sUmer meeting was turning out to be far more difficult than she had envisioned.

"The councils have not talked about it yet, Hetara," the Head Sister replied. The headmen and headwomen present stood there listening, but did not comment; they knew they'd hear about it when the time was right. "We have been tied up with other issues. But, if you remember correctly, I told you that your daughter was going to have to come forward to lodge the complaint herself."

"But she won't," the woman cried unhappily. "She is afraid. I am surprised that she was even out here. She has refused to do anything since..." Finally the woman broke down in tears and refused to continue. Instead, she held up her hand and walked toward her tent.

Breidara, along with the other High Camp leaders, watched her go, then the woman turned to the others.

"This is getting ridiculous," she said, almost to herself. "It seems we have another issue, when we conclude with this one. I will have to explain later." She paused. "Right now we have to decided what we want to do about the adoption."

"I want to wait here until someone wakes up," Tiflona said.

The other leaders of the High Camps frowned, but it was Breidara's brother that spoke. "But we don't know how long that will take, Tiflona."

"I do not care. I want this matter finished so that we can relax," she said with frustration. "And so that we can move on to other issues. It sounds to me like we're going to be discussing problems all sUmer, instead of enjoying being together, and I, for one, am tired of it."

Bolodenkia frowned. He was tired of it before it even began. "I completely understand. Maybe we could come back after our midday meal. They are bound to be up by then."

Tiflona frowned and looked at her brother. "What do you think?"

Tagnolia shook his head. "It seems we don't have much of a choice. We can't speak to people that are not awake."

Tiflona and the others nodded, accepting that they'd have to wait just a little longer.


After eating, the women and children went outside to join the men. Ayla had given Ora and Danara their few dishes to take to the river to wash, much to Ora's dismay. The child did not believe her mother was really going to make her do her own dishes again. Ayla and Danta watched the two girls go, both noticing that Danara seemed perfectly happy to help out. Ayla sighed in frustration, then continued on to where Durc and the two men were sitting.

"Is anyone hungry?" she asked when the got there.

Grov looked up and smiled. "Yes, I think we are," he replied, then looked at Davaria.

Davaria was nodding and he looked quite proud of himself. "Look Danta," he said, holding his spear. "It's straight."

Danta smiled. "It is very nice." She took the spear from her brother and inspected his work carefully. She noticed that there were some carvings along the shaft. "Hey, this looks like Nicuria," she exclaimed. Ayla leaned in to look at it. "I didn't know you could carve," Danta said.

Davaria smiled. "I didn't either. I was just watching the horses and decided to give it a try. I am going to carve the heads of all three of Ayla's horses into this one, because I am making it for her."

Ayla had been running her finger over the man's carving, and it took a moment for his words to register in her mind. "What? For me? But why, Davaria?" she asked.

"Because, Ayla," he said with a smile. "It is because of you that Oak Camp is offering to adopt us, and I want to let you know how grateful I am."

Ayla was stunned and attempted to blink back tears, but finally she just let them fall.

Davaria stood up. "Thank you, Ayla, for all that you have done," he said, hugging her. Grov watched his mate cling to the other man as tears of joy swept down her cheeks, and smiled at her happiness. He never dreamed that taking her to meet her people would make her so happy, but he was glad that she was.

Davaria pushed her back slightly and looked into her tear-filled eyes. "But you can't have it yet. I need to finish it and it will have to be the gift I give you at the adoption ceremony."

Ayla frowned. "Gift?"

"Yes, gift," Danta said. "When someone is adopted, there is a ceremony and gifts are exchanged." The woman looked at her brother and frowned. "But we don't have anything to give everyone, Ari. What will we do?"

The man shrugged. "What can we do? We'll have to make things while we are here."

This statement only seemed to upset Danta more. "But how can we make enough for everyone at Oak Camp, in just a few days?"

Ayla smiled and patted Danta's arm. "Don't worry, Danta, we can help you. We will hunt and fish and gather, and make whatever you want to make."

Danta smiled. "Thank you, Ayla. You are such a good friend," she said, hugging the blonde woman.


The High Camp leaders waited until the sun was directly overhead, then they came together again and went to Sumac Tent. This time the camp was not empty and the two Sumac leaders were lounging lazily in their usual places. As they always did, both looked tired and much too thin, and seemed to be nursing a morning headache with a large cup of something. All assumed it was bouza.

Heads turned when the delegation entered their space, but just as before, no one got up to welcome them. Instead, they just received angry stares, as if Sumac Tent hadn't been expecting them.

"Back so soon?" Ivarsia slurred as he squinted up at them. "What can we do for you today...Tiflona?" The man then drank deeply from the cup in his hand, apparently draining it, because he held it up and someone came with a skin to refill it. His sister sat at his side, but she did not say anything, she only scowled.

"You know why we are here, Ivarsia," Tiflona said through clenched teeth. "We want to..." she began, but then she felt a hand on her arm so she stopped. It was Tarana; it was nice to have Beech Tent's support.

Breidara stood there calmly. Though she personally wished they could just rid the Sungaea of these vultures, she also didn't want there to be a scene. Unfortunately, she knew that a scene was quite likely; these weren't people to give up easily, even when they didn't really have a choice. Silently, she asked Sumata to help them, all of them, including the ignorant members of Sumac Tent.

The Head Sister glanced at her delegation of people. She was grateful that Tarana and Tegassia were there to help keep Tiflona and Tagnolia's anger in check, not that they needed it in general. Their anger only seemed to surface around Ivarsia. Breidara guessed that something had happened between them in the past, but she didn't know what, and she didn't want to ask; they had enough problems.

"Ivarsia, Iyena," the Head Sister said, looking at both of them in turn. "It has been brought to the councils' attention that Oak Camp would like to adopt Danta, Danara and Davaria, and that you have denied their initial request."

Ivarsia raked his eyes over the group. "Yes, that is correct. We are have no intention of giving up a brother and a sister. Who knows," he said, throwing up his arms. "They might be our leaders one day."

Now it was Tiflona's turn to scowl. "Not very likely though, is it Ivars?" she spat. "Considering how highly you all regard Danta." She looked over at Trata, who looked away quickly.

"That is not your concern, Tiflona," Iyena said coolly. "Regardless of the feelings of some." She glanced over at Trata. "We still do not want to give up a brother and a sister."

"Well, you can't always have what you want, can you?"

Iyena narrowed her lips and stood, then sneered at Oak Tent's headwoman. "No, you can't."

Tiflona was standing, hands on her hips, about to counter the woman's words, but Breidara stopped her.

"Tiflona...Iyena," Breidara said warningly. "Iyena, I'm afraid that this is our concern. Oak Tent has made a request and Sumac Tent has denied it. That means the councils will have to decide...unless..."

"Unless what?" Ivarsia said, suddenly standing up and joining his sister.

"Well...unless you can produce Danta and Davaria, and they let us know that they do not wish to be adopted. That would end the matter immediately."

"Well, like we told Oak Tent," Ivarsia said. "They are not here right now, so you will have to come back at another time."

"Hmm, it seems like I haven't seen them around at all lately," Breidara said. "And I've heard that they've left the sUmer meeting." She was looking at the Sumac leaders, but turned her head toward Trata. "Trata, where are your son and daughter?"

Trata's pinched old face turned red as she folded her skinny arms over her sunken chest. "My son is out hunting," she lied. "And his sister must have gone with him." The old woman didn't like being put on the spot and honestly didn't care one bit if Oak Camp took Danta and Danara off their hands. And Davaria...well, she was just about ready disown him as well; he had clearly chosen with whom he wanted to be and it wasn't with her. She believed this was all Danta's fault. Everything is always Danta's fault, she thought angrily, and she didn't understand why Ivarsia and Iyena were putting up such a fight for the worthless and ungrateful parasite.

"All right," Bolodenkia cut in, trying to settle the potentially ugly scene. "We can still solve this easily. We will just go after them; we can send a runner with a message to return." He paused. "Which way did they go?"

"North!" Ivarsia said, just as Trata threw out, "East!"

Everyone glanced between the two of them. Bolodenkia sighed. "Well, which is it?"

Iyena shot Trata a dirty look. "Northeast."

"Yes, northeast," Trata said nodding.

Tiflona pursed her lips, then smiled. "Fortunately for us, Iyena," Tiflona said, shaking her head. "We know that this is not true. Danta, Danara and Davaria were sighted traveling south, and they weren't only carrying hunting gear; they were fully loaded. They were leaving, leaving permanently!"

Trata's eyes widened and she wondered how this had all happened. Suddenly she made a decision; she didn't want to deal with this anymore. She could put an end to it all immediately and she would. It would be easier to just be alone. Slowly, she crossed the short distance that separated her from Ivarsia. The headman had backed off from the group of people slightly and looked down at the older woman. They whispered back and forth for a moment and seemed to be arguing. The man's face turned a bright shade of purple; he was clearly furious with the old woman, but he nodded at her and she turned to look at the High Camps.

"You can have them, permanently," she finally said. "And let Davaria know that his mother is dead to him now." With that, the woman turned and stalked off. Everyone watched as she disappeared into Sumac Tent, then they turned back to the scene.

Iyena was staring at her brother in disbelief; she could not believe he had allowed Trata to make such a decision, even though it was true that they never really had a chance of keeping Danta and Davaria there against their will. She was stunned into silence, but Ivarsia was not.

"Well, apparently, you can have what you have come for," he said, sitting down again and picking up his abandoned drink. "But, not without paying a price." He looked at Tarana and Tegassia, who had recently adopted several members of Cedar Camp. "We have already lost a few to other camps and we can't afford to let more go. It will leave us without resources that we need."

"What is it that you want, Ivars," asked Tagnolia. "After all, this is where this was going from the beginning, wasn't it?"

Ivarsia glared at the Oak headman, then looked at the Head Brother. "As payment for losing three valued members of Sumac Camp, we would like Oak Tent's share of the sUmer meeting hunt." He held his hand up; he could see Tagnolia nodding, but he wasn't finished yet. "Actually, we want your share of all of this sUmer's hunts."

"WHAT!" Tiflona yelled. "You have got to be joking. You know that the meat we gain is a gift from the Mother and it is for all to share." She was seething. "Are you insane?"

"Oh, I do not mean just the meat. We want it all...and we want Zadneetsia and Kurvlodia's shares back as well," he added. He did not expect to get what he was asking for, but it was bringing him great pleasure to watch Tiflona become irate.

"Now wait just a moment," Breidara interrupted. "First, you cannot have meat back that has been paid as restitution for crimes that have been committed, so you can forget about getting Zadneetsia and Kurvlodia's shares back. Secondly, you cannot have meat, or other materials from the hunt, that have already been used. And third, Tiflona is right, the Mother wants everyone to benefit from the sUmer hunts. That is why Sumac Tent gets a share even though you don't bother to participate in the hunt or assist in anything worthwhile during the sUmer. When was the last time one of you hunted with us?" Nobody answered, but many looked away. "And finally," Breidara went on. "No matter how much Oak Camp wants these three people, no three people are worth that much meat and supplies."

Ivarsia was smirking. He completely agreed with the woman's final statement. "Yes, especially the three people that Oak Camp wants, but that is what we want."

"Well, your request is denied!" Bolodenkia said. The expression on Tiflona's face told him that she just might agree to the man's unreasonable demands, but he could not let that happen. It would set a precedent that the Sungaea could not afford.

"It is too late to give you anything from the first hunt," the Head Brother said. "As Breidara said, much has already been eaten, used, or prepared. And she is right about Zadneetsia and Kurvlodia's shares as well. You will not get that meat back."

He paused and glanced at Tiflona and Tagnolia; both stood, arms crossed over their chests, silently waiting for him to make a decision. They knew he'd be fair.

"And though it seems Oak Tent would be willing to give up everything from the second and third hunt," he went on. "I have to agree that that is too much in exchange for three people. I will grant you half of Oak Tent's share of our second hunt."

Ivarsia shook his head. "That is not acceptable. Give us all of their share of the second hunt, including several decent hides."

Bolodenkia shook his head. "That is too much. Who do you think you...?" he started to say, but Tiflona interrupted.

"We will accept your offer," she stated. It was a lot of meat, but Oak Camp was quite wealthy and could make it up.

Bolodenkia frowned down at her, wondering why Oak Camp was fighting so hard to obtain these three people. It wasn't like they were related to them in any way, and no one was asking to promise to either Danta or Davaria. It just made no sense to him, but if they were willing, who was he to dispute it?

"So are we finished then?" the Head Brother finally asked, looking at the four head people involved. Tagnolia and Tiflona nodded simultaneously. Iyena looked at her brother, then reluctantly added her agreement. Finally, Ivarsia gave a clipped nod and smirked at the Oak headman and headwoman. He believed Sumac Camp had gotten the better deal. It was a deal that rid them of three leeches and gave them almost enough meat and supplies to get through the winter. It would only be necessary to arrange a few minor hunts. He was pleased.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

After everyone had eaten the meal that Ayla and Danta had brought out, the conversation turned toward practical matters. "Well, maybe we should get started then," said Grov, setting down his empty plate and standing up.

Everyone frowned up at him. "Get started doing what," they all said at the same time. Then they looked at one another and smiled.

"What do we need to start doing, Grov?" Ayla asked.

"We need to get started on making gifts," he said excitedly. He had never made things for others before and it seemed interesting. "Right?" He looked toward Danta for confirmation. She nodded, but she was still frowning; she still couldn't imagine making something for everyone at Oak Camp, even with Ayla's help. Grov brow creased, then he glanced at Ayla. Ayla's frown had changed into a smile, as her mind briefly conjured a picture of him sitting calmly weaving a basket.


Ayla's smile faded as she shook her head and tried to focus on her mate. "I was...well...I..." she mumbled, not wanting to tell him what had gone through her head.

The man looked confused. "You were what? What were you smiling about?" he asked, knowing she wouldn't avoid a direct question.

Ayla blushed. "I...I was imagining you...weaving a give to someone at Oak Camp." She cringed slightly, as if she expected a reprimand for envisioning him doing something so female, but none came, he only laughed.

"I could weave a basket," he said through his laughter. "If I wanted to."

Ayla smiled at him. "Oh really?" she said. Then, feeling a little more confident, she went on. "Well, I would like to see you weave a basket."

Grov folded his arms over his chest and tried to look serious, though he really wasn't. "You don't think I can, do you?"

Ayla eyed him carefully. He was trying hard not to smile, but Ayla could see the humor in the way his eyes sparkled. "Well, if you weave a basket anything like you cook, then I'm not sure we will be able to recognize it as a basket," she finally said.

Grov laughed again. "Fair enough," he said, remembering the morning meal he had cooked for her children one morning; it was indeed unrecognizable as food, though Durc swore it was good.

Danta was watching them closely and liked the way they teased one another. Though all in fun, she was sure that any man at Sumac Camp would have taken offense to their kind of teasing, and was glad to see that it was taken better by other camps.

What she didn't know was that Grov and Ayla did not do much of this at their clan's cave, at least not outside of their own hearth. No one there would have understood their joking and many would even be angry if they carried on there, the way they did here. In fact, Broud often became frustrated with the goings on within the hearth, but he didn't have enough status to complain.

"Baskets," Danta said. "I could make several baskets rather quickly." She frowned. "But not for everyone. Baskets won't do for most people. And we don't even know what everyone at Oak Tent likes," she almost whined. "We don't even know what their hearths are called."

Ayla smiled. "But we can help with that, Danta. We know their hearths," she said, scrunching up her forehead and thinking about Oak Camp's earthlodge. "The first and second hearths are the Visitor's Hearth and the Cooking Hearth, then there is a long center passageway. On the left there is Antelope Hearth, the Healer's Hearth, which is empty most of the time, but I think Travie is going to take it. And then Winter Stoat Hearth and Reindeer Hearth...and that last one is kept empty too, plus there were two other empty hearths toward the back of the lodge, and something called a sweat bath."

Davaria frowned. "Their Reindeer Hearth is empty? Why do they have so many empty hearths?" He couldn't imagine keeping a space empty when there were probably plenty of people that could use more space. Sumac Camp's lodge was extremely over populated; many arguments started over space, people there just never seemed to have enough.

"It is a very large lodge...I think anyway," Ayla said with a frown. "I haven't seen other Sungaean lodges though, so I am only guessing, but it seems like everyone has plenty of space."

"Actually, I talked to Vincenzia about this," Grov interjected. "Reindeer Hearth belonged to Vincenzia and Vilognia's sister, Vinoza and her mate Teglodia, who was Tagnolia good friend. They are honoring them by keeping it empty."

Davaria nodded his understanding, though that was something that would never happen at Sumac Camp. Someone would have moved in right quick if a death had occurred within Sumac Camp. There was no question in his mind. "What about the right side of the passageway?" he asked, curiously.

Ayla thought for a moment. "On the right they have Antelope Hearth, Bison Hearth and a small gathering space that is used by Gredenzia. Then there's a short passageway leading south to three other hearths: Cave Bear Hearth, Arctic Fox Hearth and Gray Wolf Hearth. And on the other side of the passageway is Snow Leopard Hearth, the food storage area, and another sweat bath."

"Which hearth is your hearth, Ayla?" Danta asked.

"We do not have a hearth at Oak Camp; we do not live there," Ayla stated plainly. "We stayed at the Visitor's Hearth while we were there...but we were only there for a very short time."

"Oh." Danta didn't know why she was surprised, but for some reason she was. She knew that they did not live at Oak Camp, but had assumed that they still had a hearth there. "What is your hearth called at your clan's cave then?"

"The Clan does not name its hearths," Ayla informed her.

"That's not entirely true, Ayla," Grov interjected. "There is the leader's hearth, Mog-ur's hearth, the visitor's hearth and two medicine hearths." Ayla frowned, thinking it not the same, but then she nodded.

"Hmm. So then, if you lived at Oak Camp, what would you call your hearth?" Danta persisted.

Ayla looked at Grov, expecting him to answer, but he only shrugged. "My totem is the Leopard, but they already have a Snow Leopard Hearth."

Davaria shook his head. "It does not matter what spirit protects you," he said with a smile. "Among the Sungaea, the hearth belongs to the woman...though you'd never guess that at Sumac Camp," he said with a tinge of embarrassment in his voice.

Danta was shaking her head. "But, Sumac Camp isn't a good representation of a decent Sungaean we all know," she added, almost under her breath. She looked at her brother and saw him blush slightly. "But sometimes a hearth can be named after a man's protecting spirit," she went on. "If he isn't mated when he makes his hearth. But usually, the name changes when he mates, unless there is already a hearth with the woman's animal spirit."

Davaria was nodding his agreement. "She's right there," he said, then he looked at Ayla. "What would your hearth be called, Ayla?"

Ayla's eyes opened wide. "Ah, I am not sure. My totem is the Cave Lion, so I guess we would have the Cave Lion Hearth," she said with a shrug.

Danta frowned and shook her head. She was thinking space again. "Are you sure that they have room for three more people?" she asked. If they hadn't given space to the daughter of Vincenzia's hearth, then perhaps there really wasn't enough room for them. She didn't want to be in anyone's way.

"Well, they talked of adding on to the lodge," said Grov. "Donzolnia said that they added on at the end of last sUmer, but that they wanted to give Tinozia his own hearth." Danta nodded.

"And there are the two unnamed hearths," Ayla added. "I am sure they have plenty of space for you. What will your hearth be called, Danta?"

Danta looked at her brother and then shrugged. "I've never thought about it before. At Sumac Camp, there is only Bison Hearth. No one else ever names their hearths there. I think they just don't want to trouble themselves with extra names."

"Originally," Davaria began hesitantly, "Mother's hearth was Mink Hearth."

Danta brow furrowed. "I don't think I want to name our hearth after anything that even closely reminds me of Trata," she said, shaking her head vehemently. Davaria frowned.

"All right," Ayla said, hoping to calm a potentially ugly exchange between the two siblings. She knew that Danta hated Trata, and in Ayla's opinion, for good reason. And even though she herself believed the older woman to be quite detestable, they couldn't expect a son to dislike his mother. "What animal do you like then?"

"I don't know. I guess I will have to think about it," said Danta, trying to push aside her frustration over Davaria's attachment to their mother. Then she changed the subject. "Maybe we can start making some baskets. If I show you how the Sungaea makes baskets, would you show me how the Clan makes them?" she asked Ayla.

Ayla smiled. "Of course," she said, then looked at Grov. "You weren't really going to attempt basket weaving, were you?"

"Well, maybe you can teach me later," he said. "I was thinking that we should get some hunting done. I know we have several furs, from our trip here, but if they have to give gifts to everyone at Oak Camp, then they're going to need more."


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

As a group they discussed their hunting options; there were so many possibilities, yet they seemed to find something wrong with all of them. South was eliminated first. Grov and Ayla had already gone over the southern hills and hadn't seen much more than the bay stallion's herd. They knew that there was probably plenty that they hadn't seen, and indicated a wish to explore more later, but struck south from their options.

Then Ayla expressed that she'd also like to explore the northern plateau, where she found Nicuria; she had seen much to gather in the area, and was already forming an idea for what Danta and Davaria could give to Travie. And further, she was hoping to find out what Shriek was up to up there, but didn't want the two hunters to scare away fauna that may lead to him finding a new place to reside. Grov agreed not to go north.

West was not desirable either, mostly due to the fact that the sheer wall of the western plains was much too difficult to climb. It was brought up that there was a passable, though steep and narrow, path that had given the buckskin stallion's herd an escape, but in the end, they decided that east was most probably the best direction to go. Plus, they also knew that there were herds of deer, bison, horses and even a small band of saiga antelopes to the east, though Ayla asked them not to hunt the horses, thinking that her new friends might not like it. She was yet to understand that they wouldn't care for anything dead, horses or otherwise.

The woman glanced over at her three horses. Nicuria was still frolicking at a shallow area of the river, trying to get Whinney to play, while Stomp looked on as if they were beneath her. Ayla smiled, then looked back toward the two men. They had just arrived at the slope. Both women waved as the men headed up the gradual incline that gave easy access to the steppes east of the valley.

"What did you want to make first, Danta?" Ayla finally asked once the men were out of sight.

"Um, I don't really know," replied the woman, thinking hard about the people of Oak Camp. The only person there that she knew prior to meeting Ayla was Ivanolia, but she didn't really know him very well either. She tried to think about what she'd heard. "Didn't Grov say that Tinozia was going to make his own hearth soon?"

Ayla nodded. "He still lives with his mother, but he spends so much time with Fürlasa that I think they wish to give him his own space." Ayla paused, looking thoughtful, then continued. "Though I'm not really sure if they plan to do that right away. I think I remember Gredenzia saying something about him going away to train." She shook her head to stop her musings. "So, do you have something in mind for him?"

Danta smiled. "I think so. I was thinking that, if he's going to make a hearth, then he might like to have some nice bowls and cups, but instead of weaving them out of grasses or reeds, I could use some of these chunks of wood," she said, picking up a small piece. "Don't you think that would be better for man?"

Ayla smiled. "It will be hard work, but yes, I think a man would like that better than a woven basket." Ayla glanced over at the playing children. Durc and Danara were entertaining Ora, while Annaliza sat with them sucking her middle fingers. "If you pick out what pieces you'd like to use, and tell me how you want it done, I will get started on one."

Danta smiled, picked out eight pieces, four for bowls and four smaller ones for cups, then explained her method. Soon the two women were hard at work.


"Well, what do you think?" Davaria asked Grov as they stood on the plains east of the valley. There was a herd of horses off in the distance, which they had already agreed not to hunt, some deer grazing, who were standing stock still, eyeing them nervously, and several bison that seemed somewhat less fearful of the human duo.

Grov shrugged. "I am not sure that we could chase down any of those animals," the Clan hunter said. "There are only two of us."

Davaria looked over the herds again and nodded his agreement. "That's what I was thinking too, but we do need a large animal or two to make all that we what should we do?"

Grov frowned. "We could build a we did on the bison hunt," he said, thinking hard. "But there are still only two of us. We couldn't possibly build it while guarding to make sure they don't bolt, and then drive them into it. I think we are going to have to stick to smaller least until we come up with a better plan," he added when he saw Davaria's upset look.

"I guess you're right," Davaria said with a nod. "Besides, anything is better than nothing, right?"

Grov smiled. "Right."


As it turned out, the two men spent a considerable amount of time sitting and watching the herds of animals before finally going off to hunt. They were there for so long, in fact, that even the skittish deer went back to grazing, only glancing up at them when they finally decided to leave.


"This is going to take forever," Danta said, brushing the beads of sweat off of her forehead with the back of her arm and looking up into the hot sun. She was holding the chunk of wood that was now roughly the shape of a bowl in one hand and Grov's hand-axe, which she was using as an adze, in the other. She had spent the better part of their time gouging out the inside of the wood piece, and she was exhausted.

Ayla grinned and set down the knife she had been using. "Not forever, but probably several days." She hadn't finished her first piece yet either, but held it up for Danta to see. "What do you think?"

Danta smiled and emptied her hands so that she could look at Ayla's work. "It looks great," she exclaimed. "I can hardly wait to see them when they are finished." She rubbed her shoulder and stretched out her arms. "But I think I need to call it quits for today."

"Okay," Ayla said.

Danta glanced at the children. Annaliza had fallen asleep on a mat that Ayla had placed under a nearby tree and Durc was still playing with the other two girls. He had arranged some rocks in the shallow water and they were stepping from one rock to another, trying to keep from getting wet.

Danta looked back at Ayla, who was also watching the children. "How about a swim?"

"That sounds good," Ayla answered, standing up quickly to remove her clothing. Danta did the same, and when the children saw what they were doing, they readily joined in.


"We didn't do so bad," stated Davaria as they walked west toward the hill that would take them down into the valley. He was carrying two large rabbits that Grov had taken down with his sling and one that he had been lucky enough to skewer with his spear. But their biggest prize, was the injured deer they had come upon.

The two men had stopped short when they saw the buzzards flying overhead. They listened carefully, to make sure they didn't hear predators of the sharp-clawed, fanged variety, or any others for that matter, then crept slowly through the waist high grass to find the wounded deer.

It had appeared to have broken its leg. Grov had noticed that it was an especially bad break and, looking around, then up at the birds waiting for it to die, wondered why nothing had finished it off yet, but was grateful all the same. He had grinned at Davaria, who had pulled out his spear and raised the it over his head to put the creature out of its misery, then closed his eyes to thank the Mother before ending the deer's earthly existence.

"No, not bad at all," Grov agreed, hoisting the heavy deer on his back. There was no way Davaria could have carried it back, but the stronger mixed man was easily shouldering the burden.

"But maybe we can set some traps next time, so we can concentrate our efforts on hunting larger game."

Grov frowned. "Traps?"

"Yeah, traps." Then seeing that Grov had no idea what he meant, he went on. "My sister, Dreena used to do it a lot," he said sadly. His eyes seemed to become unfocused as he talked about it. "I always used to tell her it was cheating, but she was good at getting her own food and furs. Fox was her favorite fur."

He shook his head and went on. "The traps are easy to make, I think. I haven't actually made them, but I'm sure Danta knows how. Basically, using sinew you make a loop and place it along a trail where there are animals you want to catch. In Dreena's case, red foxes. Then, when the animal runs along the trail, the head goes through the loop and as he runs, it tightens the noose around his neck. The more the animal struggles, the tighter the noose gets. And the best part is that you don't even have to be there for it to work...that's why I always said it was cheating."

Grov nodded. He could see why the man thought so. Clan men would never consider that hunting. "It's a good idea though."

The two men walked the rest of the way without talking. Davaria couldn't stop thinking about Dreena, and her daughter Dätara , and wondering if they would have lived had Sumac Camp had a healer. The possibility that their deaths were unnecessary made him hate Sumac Camp even more, and he felt terrible about how he had teased her in the past, though he knew that's how brothers and sisters were. He'd give anything to have her back, hunting any way she liked. Then he thought about how others had treated Danta, in comparison to Dreena, and his face flushed with anger. He would make it up to her; she would be his number one priority.

Grov walked alongside the man, knowing that he was deep in thought. It wasn't hard to imagine his line of thought; he had not missed the man's watering eyes or the obvious sadness that emanated from him anytime his dead sister was brought up. Grov had also lost a sister, many, many years before, but he had never talked about it to anyone, not even Ayla.

"Hey look!" Davaria exclaimed as they made their decent. "They're swimming." He looked at Grov. "And here we were, out hunting."

Grov grinned. They were able to approach unseen. Then, dropping their kills next to the fire that Ayla had built up on the sandy beach, they stripped and dove into the water.

"Working hard, I can see," he said, coming up behind Ayla and grabbing her around the waist.

She grinned. "We were, but it got too hot. Did you have any luck?" she asked.

"Um-hum," he answered, caressing her breast under the water. "Three rabbits and a deer."

"A deer?" she said with an impressed expression. "That is very lucky."

Grov smiled. "We sort of cheated though," he finally said, using Davaria's word.

"Cheated?" She looked confused. "I do not understand. How can you cheat at hunting?"

"I would have asked the same thing." He was still smiling at her and couldn't help but lean forward to kiss her. She was even more beautiful when water was glistening off her sUmer-tanned skin.

"Actually," he went on, "We only found a dying deer and Davaria speared it, but you should hear about the other ways I've learned to cheat at hunting."

"Other ways to hunt?" She ignored the cheating part; she was always interested in different ways to hunt.

"Yeah...but we will have to talk about it later. I have been out hunting all day and I'm hungry." He started for the shore.

"Oh yes, we knew you would be. Danta made our evening meal. I have already fed the children...I hope you do not mind."

"No, of course not," he said, as they waded their way out of the river. They dried quickly. He left his chest bare, only pulling on his leggings and she slipped on her thigh-length, sleeveless tunic.

Once they got to the fire the man noticed what they had been doing all day. "Looks like you two have been busy." He picked up the cup that Ayla had been working on. "This is going to be nice...and look at all the gathering you have done." He was always amazed at how productive his mate could be.

"I'm not so sure about the drying rack, though," she said with a frown, looking at where she had placed it. "I think I should have made it inside. It needs to be in a cool, dark place. Not outside."

"We can carry it in for you," Davaria offered. "You might have to remove what's on it, but we'll get it in."

Ayla beamed a smile at him. "Oh thank you, Davaria," she said happily. "And I heard all about your hunting luck. It will not take long to make all that you will need if you keep up this pace."

Grov grinned. "Too bad we can't find a dying deer every day, because we certainly can't hunt them with only two of us."

"Hmm." Ayla frowned. "Then we will have to come up with some other way, because we can't make everything out of rabbits," she said as she sliced open the deer and started removing its parts, placing them on a mat that she'd made for that purpose.

While the two men ate, Ayla and Danta finished gutting the animals, and started carrying things up to the cave. It was getting late and the sun would be dropping behind the western mountains shortly, so the men got up to help.

Ayla glanced up at the retreating sun and looked down at Ora. "Ora, I want you to wash Grov and Davaria's dishes," she said, handing the child the two bone plates and pointing toward the shallow pool.

Ora pouted as she usually did, but the look on Grov's face stopped any protest. "Durc, please watch your sister," Grov said.

Durc got up to stand protectively over her while she worked and Danara joined them, intent on helping Ora with her work.


It was nearly dark by the time everything was inside, including the horses, who settled down in their spot. Grov and Davaria had just finished setting up the drying rack when Ayla decided she'd need a second one for the meat.

"Would you mind making me another rack?" she asked her mate. "I think I have too much for that, I would like to keep the meat separate from the plants.

"Um...okay," he said, looking around. "Where is the wood?""

I gathered plenty of long sticks, but they are on the ledge."

"I'll do it," Davaria said, noticing Grov's furrowed brow. "Do you have more cordage?"

"Yes, it is in my pack." She watched as Grov got up to get it and then proceeded to help Davaria with the construction. While they worked, Ayla and Danta skinned the animals.

When the rack was finished, Ayla asked the men to place it near the fire and immediately began cutting the meat into thin strips and placing them on the rack to dry. Danta did the same. Ayla also saved some deer meat, which she began cooking in a pot, and she put one of the rabbits into the shallow ground oven, along with a ptarmigan that no one had noticed.

After all the meat, and all the other various parts of the dead animals, had been taken care of, the women turned to scraping the hides. Once they were reasonably satisfied with their work, they rolled them up and sat down to rest with a cup of tea. It had been a long day.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

For several days following Grov and Davaria's lucky hunt, the travelers sat out by their fire on the beach, working hard to process the spoils of what had already been gained, and used the time to make more gifts for Oak Camp.

On one side of the fire, Grov and Davaria worked on many different projects, from wood, bone and ivory carving, which was quite interesting to the Clan couple, to flintknapping, knife making, shaft straightening and spear assembling. And on everything that he possibly could, Davaria carved very realistic-looking representations of his new camp's symbol: the oak leaf. And on some pieces he carved the animal that showed to what hearth the person belonged.

Grov noticed that Davaria seemed to be taking great pride in his work, something he didn't think the man usually did. And though Grov helped where he could, making flint blades and points, Davaria tried to make sure that the majority of the work was done by himself. It didn't bother Grov at all that he wasn't helping more, because he knew that this was a good time for him to watch and learn about how the Others made things. Plus, he had the time to make things for himself. Grov smiled at how the other man had changed. This was definitely a different Davaria, he thought to himself.

Davaria, on the other hand, knew that the gifts didn't have to be made solely by himself and his sister, but he felt a great need for them to be, as much as possible, truly from just the two of them. He did, however, like the help, limited as it was, but enjoyed the companionship even more. He was not used to working so closely with someone, or to having someone to talk to. He had already decided that Grov was a good man; a man that he would definitely call a friend. As they worked, his mind kept drifting to thoughts of living at Oak Camp, and he wished that Grov was going to be there over the long winter.

On the other side of their beachfire, Danta was having similar thoughts about Ayla; she didn't want to spend the winter away from her. After all, awful as it was, they were leaving everything they knew to live out the rest of their lives with people they hardly knew. It was what she wanted, and knew it was for the best, but it was a frightening thought that might have seemed less so, if only Ayla and her family were going to be at Oak Camp too.

About the process of making gifts, Danta didn't seem as concerned about who made what. She and Ayla had finished the wooden cups and bowls by rubbing them smooth with round rocks and sand, and sat to admire them; they were exquisite. Then the two women moved on the other things. They wove mats for sitting and baskets that they planned to fill. Some with vivid designs, while others were quite subtle. They discussed each and every person at Oak Camp. They were still having trouble coming up with ideas for some people, but they figured that, eventually, something would come to mind.

Ayla also spent time with her horses. She talked to them constantly, brushed their coats with a dried piece of teasel, and spent long periods of time gathering grains and hay to feed them and make them comfortable. It was obvious to everyone that she already loved her newfound friends and that they, in return, loved the two-legged creature that took them in.

Ayla loved to watch her three horses interact, and noticed that not a day went by without them grooming each other, even if she had just done it for them. Sometimes they would stand side by side, or nose to tail, using their teeth to scratch each other's itchy places. Other times they'd stand, huddled together, nickering softly back and forth. Ayla soon realized that, much like humans, touch was an important sense to a horse. That body contact was frequently used to communicate mood. There were also times that the contacted served more of a purpose; sometimes she saw all three of them, with their heads together, using their tails to swat the flies away.

Through her observations, Ayla noticed that Stomp was much more reserved than she had previously thought. And though she obviously enjoyed the companionship of the other two horses, she generally preferred to graze in peace, sometimes even alone, while Whinney and Nicuria had the tendency to be more playful and curious.

Whinney had taken to watching Ayla intently whenever the woman was talking to her, and even sometimes when she was not. And though she never got in the woman's way, the yellow mare also seemed to like to follow her around; like she was more relaxed when the woman was in sight. Sometimes Ayla would look up to find Whinney standing there, silently watching her work, and she'd smile, stop what she was doing and give the horse some attention. Other times, Whinney would nudge her gently to let her know it had been a while since she'd had spoken to her or touched her. Ayla wondered why the horse was so interested in what she was doing. Why would the horse find her more interesting than anyone else? she wondered. But it wasn't really that hard to figure out; Ayla was the one that was always providing attention.

Nicuria also liked to follow Ayla, though his presence was sometimes more bothersome than the woman would have liked. His nudges weren't always so gentle and Ayla found herself irritated with him often, though not too badly. He was, after all, only a horse, she thought.

Another of Nicuria's quirks was that he seemed to enjoy taking her things. If she was working on a hide, but set it aside, he'd pick it up and walk away with it, causing her to go after him. He always dropped it when she turned her back on him, which led her to believe that he only did it to make her get up. It annoyed her, but it also made her smile.

Another one that was annoyed by him was Stomp; she seemed extremely bothered by her son and his antics, but that was soon to end. After a particularly hard kick to the face, he stopped trying to suckle his mother, and generally stayed out of her way. Though Ayla understood the mare's frustration, she felt bad for Nicuria and did her best to compensate, giving him treats whenever he behaved. She was sure that the young colt noticed her extra care.

"Am I your mother now, Nicuria?" Ayla had asked him one day after she'd finished brushing dirt out of his short stand up mane. He had nickered softly and leaned into her, as if answering.


On another day, early in the morning before anyone else had risen, Ayla got up and went out onto the broad ledge outside the cave. The moon had gone through half a cycle of its phases since they had arrived, and they had managed to accumulate almost everything that they wanted, though they had not worked out how they were going to get everything back yet. They had hunted three more times since their first lucky hunt, only managing to kill small animals, and still wanted to make a bigger kill, but they had not figured out how to do it yet. Other than being short one large animal, and having a few things to make, they were essentially ready to go back to the meeting. It would not be much longer, Ayla thought. In a way it made her sad, but she was looking forward to seeing everyone again.

Standing on the ledge, she sipped her tea and watched the horses. Stomp and Whinney were casually drinking water from the river, while Nucuria wandered around, looking for things to get into. Ayla had to smile as she watched them.

Finally, having drunk the last of her tea, the woman went down to the beach for a morning swim. After saying a silent good morning to her horses, she removed her clothing, put them on a large piece of driftwood, and before diving into the water, she dropped her amulet onto the pile.

Using powerful strokes, the woman pulled herself upriver, then allowed the current to bring her back. Looking back at the shoreline, she noticed Nicuria, following her on the beach as she drifted back downstream in the river. She smiled and thought about why they had come to the valley in the first place: to get horses that she was supposed to ride.

Ayla relaxed in the water as the current pulled her even further downstream, then turned over to push her way back up. Once at the place where she had entered the water, she decided to get back out again.

Breathing hard, she got out of the river. As she crossed the beach to the log where her clothes lay, she pushed the excess water from her body. She pulled her amulet over her head first, then quickly dressed again. Finally, she turned her attention to Nicuria and Whinney, who had come to receive her scratches. Her mind was trying to process the absurd thought of sitting on a horse's back. She frowned and shook her head, wondering if it would work. She glanced at Stomp, trying to decide which horse she should ride. The white horse was the calmest of the three, when left alone, but tended to let everyone know she was upset by pawing the ground roughly, and Ayla had seen her lash out angrily at her own son on more than one occasion. Not a good sign, she thought. What would she do if Ayla attempted to sit on her back? Maybe she wasn't the best choice for a first ride.

Ayla ran her hand down the length of Nicuria's nose and considered him. Unlike his mother, he probably wouldn't object, she thought. She watched as he took a few steps away from her, shift on his feet and shake his head wildly. No, she thought, not him either; he's not very predictable.

Finally, she looked at Whinney. The mare had watched Nicuria's exuberant movements with calm curiosity. Would she mind? Ayla thought. Would she let me? Ayla watched the mare wander back to where Stomp was, while her mind went to her vision. Whinney had been the one that she'd been on in her vision. She smiled.

"So, Whinney it is," she said out loud. The woman gave a short whistle, to see if the horse would come to her. It seemed to have worked on other occasions and this morning was no different. She led the horse to the log and climbed up on it, then put her arms around the horse's neck and lifted a leg. Run with me, Whinney. Run and take me with you, she thought, then straddled the horse.

The young mare was unaccustomed to weight on her back, and she flattened her ears back and pranced nervously. But, though the weight was unfamiliar, the woman was not, and Ayla's arms around her neck had a calming influence. Whinney almost reared to throw the weight off, then tried to run away from it instead. Breaking into gallop, she raced down the

small stretch of beach with Ayla clinging to her back. When her nervousness at the sudden burst of speed subsided, the woman looked to her side to see Nicuria matching the mare's pace.

After making a circle at the end of the beach, Whinney turned and headed back to where they had been. It had been an amazing ride and before they had even stopped, Ayla slid off the horse's back and threw her arms around the horse's neck.

"Oh, Whinney, that was wonderful!" Ayla exclaimed loudly, her eyes sparkling with excitement. She lifted the drooping muzzle with both hands and laid her cheek on the animal's nose. This is what she had come for, she thought with a wide grin. I have what I came for.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

Ayla thanked Whinney for the amazing ride again, this time giving her one of the tart apples the horses like so much along with her loving touches. She held one out to Nicuria as well, and laughed when his soft muzzle tickled her palm. Then, picking up a piece of teasel that she had sitting with her small shoulder bag, she began brushing out the horses' sweaty coats. Whinney nickered softly, letting the woman know that she was enjoying the attention, then moved off to get a drink when Ayla finished. After his brushing, Nicuria nudged her for more treats, but Ayla wouldn't be taken advantage of.

"That's enough, Nicuria," Ayla said, gently pushing the colt's head away. "You didn't do anything to deserve a treat." Nicuria nickered back at her, then went off to get a drink of water. He had, after all, run alongside Whinney, and was thirsty too.

After watching the horse's bound away, Ayla sat down by the traveler's daily fire pit. It was cold and she considered making a fire, but she didn't know what everyone would want to do that day and didn't feel like taking the time to make a fire. For a while she continued to watch the horses, wishing that she could ride Whinney again. Stomp seemed interested in sniffing Whinney, making the woman wonder if the other horse could smell her scent on Whinney. Nicuria was his usual curious self, but returned to Ayla after drinking heavily. Whinney followed him.

"Are you ready to take me running already, Whinney?" Ayla asked the young mare. The horse tossed her head and pranced around, which made Ayla smile. Ayla quickly led the horse back over to the log to try again. This time, when she lifted her leg and straddled the mare, Whinney seemed more relaxed. Her ears twitched slightly and she shifted on her feet, but she didn't take off running immediately. Ayla couldn't help but grin when Nicuria came up to find out what was going on.

"Do you want me to ride you too?" she asked him, patting the top of his head. As if answering her, he whinnied, then blew in her face, but she turned her attention back to the mare that carried her.

"Come on, Whinney," she said, gently tapping the horse's sides with her feet and unconsciously leaning forward. "Let's run again." The horse instantly started moving, though not too fast at first, but the more the woman leaned forward, the faster the horse seemed to go. Is that your signal to go faster? Ayla wondered to herself as she leaned forward more. She instantly noticed that Whinney's gait changed and she smiled. It must be, she mused.

As they ran down the beach, Ayla saw Nicuria racing alongside them, then pull ahead. He was a fast runner and had apparently wanted to join in on the racing fun. Ayla watched him move far out in front of them; it seemed like he was going to continue on, but when she signaled Whinney to turn, he pulled up short and, making a sharp arc, burst forth once again to catch up. Ayla watched him over her should with a smile; he caught up quickly.

By the time the woman and the two horses reached the place on the beach where they had begun, all three were breathless.


In his groggy, only partially aware morning state, Grov noticed his mate's absence. He had rolled over to snuggle up to her, but found a cold bed instead. He had stayed up late with Davaria the night before and was still tired, but it had been worth it, because they had continued their work on spear points. He was quite pleased with his own progress at manipulating flint the way the Others did, but Davaria was still better at it.

Opening his eyes slightly, to visually verify that Ayla was not next to him, he gave a cursory glance at the empty space beside him, then he rolled over. Danta was sitting up and smiling at him.

"Good morning," she said cheerfully, then nodded in his direction. "Someone missing?"

Grov pulled himself up onto his right elbow and smiled across the fire at her sheepishly. "Um-hum," he answered. "Is it morning already?"

Danta grinned. "Yes, and it's pretty late too...I think." She glanced at the cave's entrance to judge the position of the sun, then she looked back at him. "But then, I slept late too, and I wasn't up half the night. I guess I can't tease about how late you've slept."

Grov continued to smile. "You've just gotten up too?" he asked.

She nodded. "Though you can hardly call me up," she answered, gesturing at her position on her sleeping platform. She blushed slightly, wondering what he thought about her laziness. She was used to sleeping quite a lot at Sumac Camp and supposed that would end when they moved to Oak Camp, but for now, it was still okay.

"How about some tea?" She asked, standing up and going to the fire.

"Sure," he said, lying back again and sighing heavily. "That'd be great." He lay there for a moment, staring at the pattern of rock above his head, then he glanced over at the children. Durc and Ora were still asleep, but Annaliza was awake, staring over at him round-eyed. She was holding her doll, clutched tightly in her arms, but she hadn't made a sound. She was always so quiet; quite unlike her sister, he thought with a smile. Finally, smiling an invitation, he patted the empty space beside him on the bed platform to encourage the tiny girl to get up. Annaliza smiled and, still holding her doll, crawled out of her own bed to join the man on his.

Grov held her lovingly, rubbing the top of her small blond head as she nestled into him. Annaliza was still in his arms, quietly enjoying the comforting embrace of the man of her hearth. Grov could not help but compare this child to Ora, a much more active and mouthy child. Though he was sure there was plenty of time for Annaliza to change, Ora had never been one to allow him, or anyone else, to hold her for very long. In fact, he thought, she was very much like he remembered her mother to be. And from what he'd heard about Nora...Evenora...the child was an exact replica of her.

Grov tried hard to think about his first mate and frowned. He hardly ever thought of her anymore and when he did, things seemed a little cloudy. His memories of her seemed to be fading. Was that normal? he asked himself. He tried to picture Nora's face, in his mind's eyes. At first could only see Ayla, but then Nora's face appeared. Then a thought occurred to him; if it wasn't for Ayla, I don't think I'd even be able to see Nora's face anymore. He thought about his Clan memories, obviously less than someone that full Clan, and wondered if they could fade over time. He had never been able to remember things as well as the other members of their clan, but to forget a face? That seemed odd to him. He shook his head slightly, then, still holding Annaliza, sat up and looked over at Danta.

"So, where's Ayla?" he asked her.

Danta had just dropped some tealeaves into the man's cup and was pouring freshly heated water over them. "Your guess is as good as mine," she said, shrugging. "My guess is, outside somewhere," she said, whispering the last part and pointed toward the cave's entrance.

The man glanced toward the opening of the cave, then back at the woman. "Hmm, good guess," he said, gently placing Annaliza beside him, so that he could get up and pull on his leggings.

"Would you mind if I left Iza here while I went to look for Ayla," he asked as he picked up Annaliza again and walked toward Danta and the cup of hot tea she was now offering him.

"No, of course not," she answered, smiling up at the handsome man. She held out a cup of her tea to the sleepy man, then took the baby from him. Annaliza laid her head on the woman's shoulder and stuck her two middle fingers into the mouth.

"Thanks," he said, sipping the tea. It wasn't what Ayla would have made for him, but it was good nonetheless.


Once outside on the ledge, Grov stopped and stared at what he saw. He knew that this was why they had come, but he was still shocked that he was actually seeing his woman ride the length of the sandy valley on one of the horses...Whinney, he noted, focusing on the golden mare beneath his mate.

Grov watched as they raced down the beach; Ayla's hair streaming behind her, and noticed that she sat up slightly to make the turn, then leaned forward again to urge the mare back into a gallop. He could tell that she already had a handle on the horse and smiled in amazement. Leave it to Ayla, he thought to himself.

"Danta," he called back over his shoulder. "You've got to see this."

Danta was busy fixing the mash that she'd seen Ayla give to her daughter, but stopped and walked out to the man.

"What is it?" she asked, stopping beside him, but she didn't need him to answer. When she looked out across the valley, she leaned into him, speechless for the moment.

Grov looked down at her and grinned at the amazed expression on the woman's face. "This is why we have come here," he said. Danta nodded. She knew that the purpose of their journey had been to attain and ride a horse, but it had seemed so impossible to her that she hadn't really thought the woman would be able to do what she had set out to do. This was utterly amazing.

"I can't believe it, Grov," Danta finally whispered.

He smiled at her again. "I can. There's nothing she won't try."

As the two of them watched Ayla riding back and forth on Whinney, Davaria came up beside them. "What are we looking at?" he asked, first rubbing his eyes and then draping his arm over his sister's shoulder, before looking down into the valley. "Oh Mother!" he exclaimed when he focused on the sight. "How did she do that?"

Danta laughed at her brother's exuberance, then shrugged. "I have no idea. You'll have to ask her."


After riding for a time, Ayla started to wonder if everyone was going to sleep all day. She had just completed another circle of the beach when she glanced up at the cave's entrance to see Grov, Danta, and Davaria standing there watching her. Smiling, she waved, then slid off her horse to go up to the ledge to join them. She had her answer.

"We see that you did it," said Grov, taking her into his arms; he could smell the horse mixed in with the woman's usual scent.

"Yes, and it was not very difficult either," Ayla said excitedly. "Whinney was frightened when I climbed on her the first time. She even tried to run away from me while I was on her, but she knew that I would not hurt her and calmed down quickly."

Danta looked surprised. "But weren't you frightened?" she asked, thinking that the horses were very large animals. She certainly didn't want to ride them.

Ayla shook her head. "No, Danta, this is why we are here," Ayla explained simply. "I knew Whinney would let me ride her, because I've already seen myself on her. Just as Grov is going to ride Stomp," she finished, smiling at him.

" it time to go back to the sUmer meeting then," Davaria asked with a frown. He was both looking forward to going back and extremely nervous at the same time. He wanted to be adopted by Oak Camp, and going back was the only way for that to happen, but he wished they weren't going to have to see anyone from Sumac Camp when they got there. He truly didn't want trouble, but knew that there was bound to be some, no matter what.

"Well, soon, I guess," Grov said. "There are still a few things that I'd like to spears are finished." He paused and smiled at the other man. "Thanks to Davaria...but I'd really like to make a new handle for this knife," he said, pulling out the knife in question and holding it up. It was one that Vincenzia had given to him when he had come to see Ayla at the clan's cave.

Ayla nodded. It was in need of a new handle, she thought. "And I would like to make a new hand-axe; I broke mine while I was chopping driftwood that first day we were here."

"And we need to figure out how we're going to get all our gifts back to the meeting," Danta said with a frown. "We were weighted down pretty heavily before...when we left the sUmer meeting. I don't see how we can carry everything now." She worried that they'd have to leave things behind after working so hard to make them.

Grov looked at the woman's stressed expression and almost read her mind. "Don't worry, Danta. We'll get everything back to the meeting." He glanced down at the horses in the valley and smiled. "Maybe the horses can help us," he suggested. "What do you think, Ayla?"

Ayla turned to look at the horses frolicking on the beach below and, raising her eyebrows, considered what Grov wanted to do. Then she nodded. "I think that is a very good idea." Ayla then looked at Danta and patted her arm. "Don't worry," Ayla said, repeating Grov's words. "We will think of something." Danta smiled, glad that she had her friends there to help her.

"So a few more days then," Davaria asked, feeling somewhat relieved. He wasn't completely ready to go back yet.

"I suppose a few more days will be enough to finish everything," Grov said. "But we should definitely get back after that. I'm sure Vincenzia is getting a little nervous about Ayla being gone for so long. How long has it been anyway?" he asked.

Ayla thought for a moment. "We have seen half a cycle of the moon's phases, plus...five more days," she answered, pressing her fingers against her leg as she counted the things they had done since they left the meeting.

"Then...that is what? About...nineteen days?" Grov added quickly, looking to Ayla for confirmation. She nodded. "So, we'll stay here...maybe three or four more days, and then start out. How does that sound?" Everyone nodded acceptance. That was certainly enough time to complete the rest of their tasks.

"How long do you think it will take to get back to the meeting?" Davaria asked. He was glad he had a few more days to mentally prepare himself for their return, but he wanted to know exactly how long he had.

"Well, it took us about four days to get here," answered Grov. "That's with the detour we took to find you three and a day's worth of rest. I would guess that it will take longer to get back because of all that we have to carry...maybe seven or eight days?"

Ayla nodded. "That sounds reasonable. But I will still think about how we can use the horses to help us." She looked down at them again. "If Whinney can carry me around, then I'm sure she can carry a few of your gifts. And with Stomp and Nicuria's help as well, we should be just fine. Maybe it will not take as long as we think."


Everyone seemed quite content for the rest of that day. Ayla made them a late morning meal, then nursed her daughter, before going out again to the horses. She spent a long time riding Whinney, trying different things until she felt like she had a good hand at directing the mare. Then, much to her son's delight, she offered to give him his first ride.

"Come over to this rock and I will help you get on," she said, leading her son.

Durc followed her and, with her help, bravely hopped on the mare's back and held onto Whinney's stiff mane as he had been instructed, while waiting patiently for his mother to climb on behind him. Whinney shifted her feet slightly and flicked her ears back. The extra weight was different, but she was comfortable with these people and did not panic.

Ayla reached around her son to hold onto the horse's mane as well, then spoke. "Fast or slow?" she asked, already knowing his answer. He took one hand off the horse and made the Clan gesture for fast. Ayla smiled at the one-handed gesture; she couldn't help but think about Creb.

"Ready?" she asked. Durc nodded and leaned forward as his mother leaned into him. Whinney knew the signal to go fast and took off across the beach. When they got to the far end, Ayla sat up slightly and tapped her left heal on the horse's side, signaling that she wanted the horse to slow and make a left turn, then they leaned into the horse again to enjoy the ride back.

"Me too! Me too!" Ora exclaimed when Ayla pulled Whinney to a stop in front of everyone. She was clapping her hands excitedly. "I want to ride Whiinneey.

Ayla smiled as she helped Durc slide down. "You can have a ride, Ora."

Still astride, she held out her arms to the little girl as Grov handed Ora to her. "Hold Whinney's mane right here," Ayla said, showing the three-year-old. "See?" Ora nodded, doing what Ayla told her to do, but seemed a little nervous when the horse swayed to the side. She tightened her grip on the horse.

"Not so tight, Ora," Ayla said, loosening the child's hands and putting an arm around the child's waist. "Mamma will hold onto you."

"Not so fast as Durc, Mamma," Ora said nervously.

"All right, we won't go fast." Ayla leaned forward slightly, which told Whinney to start moving, but to make it a slow ride, and the horse complied. They made a small circle on the beach, then returned once again to where everyone stood waiting.

Ora was all smiles as Grov took her down. "That was fun, Mamma."

"Anyone else?" Ayla asked, looking at Danara. She thought Annaliza was too young, but that Danta's daughter might like to try.

"Oh Mamma, can I?" she asked, intertwining her fingers and holding them up to her face. Danta looked nervous, but nodded reluctantly.

Grov set Ora down, then picked up Danta's daughter and settled her in front of Ayla. Danara didn't need to be told to hold onto Whinney's mane; she had already seen the other two ride.

"Okay," Ayla said with a grin. "Fast or slow?"

Though Danara was not as nervous as Ora had been, she wasn't sure she was as brave as Durc. But still, she wanted to impress her new friend. "I Durc," she finally said.

"Okay, ready?" Danara nodded, then gasped as Ayla urged Whinney on. Ayla made the ride exciting for the child, but not quite as fast as Durc's ride had been. Danara didn't seem to notice. When they got back to the others the child had tears of joy in her eyes.

"That was so much fun, Mamma," she exclaimed once she was in her mother's arms again.

Danta smiled. "What do you say?"

Danara turned to Ayla, who had just gotten off Whinney and slapped her rump to let her know she could go get a drink. "Thank you, Ayla."

"There is no need to thank me. It was Whinney that gave you the ride. Here," Ayla said, pulling an apple out of her shoulder bag, "you can thank Whinney next time she comes over here." Danara smiled and took the apple; she could hardly wait for the horse's return.


By the time they had finished riding, the sun was well past its midpoint in the sky and was beating down up the people. They had noticed quite quickly that it was significantly warmer in their protected little valley; the canyon walls blocked much of the breeze that one usually found out on the open steppes, and trapped the heat of the sun. Everyone decided that it was the perfect weather for a swim.

They all stripped down and jumped in, enjoying the clear, refreshing water, as they splashed it at one another. After playing with everyone for awhile, Ayla swam upstream to dig up the soaproot she had seen growing there, then brought it back so that she could pound the soapy foam from the roots. She gave some to Danta, then washed herself with it, first rubbing it on her body, then working it into her hair. Afterwards, she dove into the water to rinse, then returned to wash her three children. She started with Annaliza, who calmly sat there enjoying her mother's attention, while Durc washed himself. Only Ora protested; she was having too much fun swimming, but once again, Grov's stern look helped to silence the child.

After being washed, Ora didn't seem to want to go back into the water, but instead was drawn to their outside fire, where Danta was now cooking a late lunch. Ayla shook her head as she watched her naked daughter stroll over and sit down beside the other three children, food now the only thing on her mind. Glancing back at the river, Ayla watched Grov and Davaria climb up the opposite bank and disappear around the corner, then she looked to the horses, trying to think of a way to use them to carry their things back to the sUmer meeting. She wondered if she could make some kind of basket that the horses could carry on their backs. She looked back at Danta, who was stirring something in a small cooking pot. Danta has other things sitting around, including several larger, tightly woven baskets. An idea started forming in her mind, but she'd have to try it out before she was sure it would work.

Getting up, she walked over to where Danta was working. "Do you mind if I borrow one of your baskets?"

"Of course not, Ayla," Danta said. "What are you going to do with it?"

Ayla frowned. "I'm not sure yet, but I want to see if I can get Whinney to carry a basket for us." Danta continued to silently watch the younger woman; she could tell that she was trying to figure it out and didn't want to interrupt her thoughts.

"And this twine...can I borrow this too?" Ayla asked.

Danta nodded. "You can have it."

"Thank you," Ayla said, picking up the basket and twine.

"No, thank you," said Danta. "I have no idea where to start on this. I am grateful that you have some ideas."

Ayla smiled. "Well, let's just see if this works." She turned toward the horses and let out a loud whistle. All three heads came up, but only Whinney and Nicuria moved to join the women. Ayla decided to start by giving them a treat, and then another before attempting to set the basket on Whinney's back. When she finally did set it there, it immediately toppled over and fell off the other side. Ayla frowned and went around to pick it up.

"Maybe this basket is too tall," she said, looking at the other baskets Danta had sitting there. There was one that was much bigger around, but significantly more shallow. "Can I try this one?" Danta handed the basket to Ayla, then stood up to watch her work.

Ayla placed the shallower basket on Whinney's back and frowned again. It stayed on, but it was quite large and drooped over Whinney's sides, making the sides of the basket turn in on themselves; this will not hold anything, she thought with frustration.

Danta could tell Ayla wasn't happy and chanced making a suggestion. "What if we weave a basket that's as long as this basket," she said, touching the drooping basket. "But no wider than Whinney's back?"

"That sounds good, but how will we get it to stay on Whinney's back?" Ayla asked, not really expecting an answer. "Because that's the real problem, isn't it? The taller basket would be good too, but it falls off."

"Do you think she would let us tie the basket on her?"

Ayla looked at Nicuria. He still had Davaria's rope around his neck with the length coiled up and dangling. The colt didn't even seem to notice it anymore; he wasn't any worse for the wear, she thought.

"Maybe," Ayla said. "Let's try it, but let's just use that mat." Danta nodded as she picked it up and placed it over the mare's back lengthwise. Ayla then unwound the twine and handed one end to Danta under Whinney's belly. "We could weave it through the side of the mat and then tie a knot." Both women attached the twine to the front end of the mat, then attached a second one at the back so that the mat was strapped onto the horse's back, but it wasn't very tight and it seemed to bother the horse. When Whinney turned her head around to try and pull it off, it slipped to her side, making the two women frown again.

"Well, that's not going to work," Ayla said dejectedly. She pulled on the twine over Whinney's back and looked at the mat on her side. Suddenly another idea came to her.

"I've got it, Danta!" she exclaimed, as she untied the knots on one end of the mat and pulled it off the horse. Excitedly, she picked up the first basket she had tried to use and walked around to Danta's side of the horse. "What if we make two baskets, similar to this one, that can hang on either side of Whinney's back, like this?" She demonstrated by attaching the twine to one side of the basket, but leaving enough length to go over the horse's back. When she finished, she swung the mat over the horse and held it in place.

"Of course it will work better with a basket on each side. And with all of our things in them, they should stay in place nicely. What do you think?"

Danta was frowning, trying to picture the device Ayla was describing, then nodded her head. "Sounds like it'll work, but we'll have to make the baskets the right shape, so that they lay nice on either side of her." She nodded her head again and smiled, then hugged Ayla. "Grov is right, there's nothing you can't do."


As the people sat by their outside fire having a late lunch, Ayla and Danta explained their idea to get everything back to the sUmer meeting. "We'll still have to walk back, but at least we won't have to carry anything," Ayla said.

"Do you really think we can get everything on Whinney?" Davaria asked, completely ignoring her comment about walking; he hadn't even considered riding the horses back. For one thing, there were eight people and only three horses. But the biggest reason was that he was still frightened of them.

Ayla shrugged. "Well, we have Stomp and Nicuria too. We can make a set baskets to go over their backs as well, though I think they might be less cooperative."

"And a stretcher...maybe the horses could carry a stretcher somehow too," Grov suggested. "If we need more help."

"And maybe the children could ride sometimes too," Danta suggested.

"Yes," Davaria said. "Traveling is pretty hard on them."

"And on Ayla too," Grov added. "She's always carrying Iza."

Ayla smiled at him, grateful that he was always thinking of her, then nodded her agreement about traveling with children. Traveling was definitely hard on the young.

As she listened to everyone talk about ways to get back to the meeting, she was quite thankful everyone had ideas about making the trip easier. And though she hoped the panniers worked the way she thought they would, so that they wouldn't have to use stretchers, she was no longer worried about how they'd get everything back. They'd make it, no matter what they had to do. She considered the use of stretchers; they hadn't brought any with them, because they hadn't needed them at the time they left the meeting. It would be extra work if it was decided they needed them now, but it didn't really matter, Grov would take care of it.

Ayla continued to watch everyone talk and laugh and she smiled at the group; they had brought much joy to the journey. She watched her mate laughing with the other man and smiled; she would never have been able to hear him laughing so freely if they hadn't have left their clan for the sUmer. It was something she would never forget.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

The next morning when Ayla woke, she was the one alone in bed; Grov was gone and his space was cold. She frowned at the empty place beside her, then sat up quickly and looked around the cave, the girls were still sleeping soundly, cuddled up close in their bed, but Durc was not in his. She frowned again as a moment of panic washed over her. Where was her son?

Next, she looked toward the cave's entrance. The light coming from there was only minimal. It must still be very early, she thought to herself. But then...where is Durc? she wondered, looking to the back of the cave where her son's bed was. This time she could not even see his bed and automatically closed her eyes. The daylight, low as it was, had caused her pupils to shrink, making it hard to see in the low light of the cave.

Jumping out of bed, she went to stoke the low-burning fire, then squinted into the near darkness with her sunlight impaired eyes to see that Danta and Danara were still sleeping as well, but that Davaria wasn't in his sleeping place. Hoping to be able to see better, she closed her eyes again, then looked back at her girls to make sure they were indeed there. She sighed with relief, they were. But then she frowned again because Durc was not.

"Where are they?" she whispered, sitting down on her bed platform again and searching her mind. Suddenly she remembered. The night before they had talked about hunting again today. Now she remembered saying that she didn't want to go; that she had a few things to do. They are hunting, she said to herself, relieved that she had finally remembered, but embarrassed that she had forgotten.

Sighing heavily, Ayla went back to the fire and made herself a cup of tea, then started the morning meal.


With Danta and the girls watching, Ayla spent the first part of the day riding again. She could hardly keep herself off the horse's back. Riding the young mare as she galloped at top speed was an inexpressible joy. It thrilled her more than anything she had ever known. And Whinney seemed to enjoy it as well, so she quickly became accustomed to carrying the woman on her back.

"Okay, who's next?" Ayla asked, smiling at Danta.

Danta smiled back, then realized that Ayla wanted her to ride the horse. "Me?" she said, holding up her hand and shaking her head. "I...I don't think so."

Ayla grinned. "Oh come on, Danta. It's easy...and Whinney's real gentle. She won't go fast."

"Oh, I don't know, Ayla," said Danta, frowning with fear and looking at her daughter, hoping the child would back her up. Unfortunately for her, Danara wasn't any help at all.

"Yes Mamma," Danara squealed delightedly. "You have to ride. It is so much fun." Danta frowned again and looked back at Ayla, who had hopped down off the horse and was quickly approaching.

"Come on, it's easy," Ayla said, taking her friend's hand.

Danta stood up and looked over at the horse, then back at Ayla. "But I'm scared," she admitted, resisting Ayla's gentle tug. "What if I fall off?"

Ayla smiled. "Don't worry, Danta, I will ride with you. You won't fall off Whinney; I won't let you."

Danta glanced at the horse again. Whinney was standing there calmly, her tail swishing back and forth. "You're going to ride with me?" Ayla nodded. "Don't you think Whinney will mind?"

Ayla shrugged. "I am not sure. She did not mind when Durc was on her back with me."

"But Durc isn't as big as me," Danta said, trying to get out of riding. "Do you think she is big enough to carry both of us?"

"I think she is," Ayla said, glancing at Whinney again, then back at Danta. She was sure the woman was just trying to make excuses. "Danta, you don't have to ride if you don't want to, but it is safe. I've been riding all day and look at me." Ayla dropped the other woman's hand and spread her arms wide so that Danta could see her better. "I am fine...right?"

Danta nodded slowly. "Yes, Ayla, I can see that you are just fine." She looked at the Whinney and stroked the horse's long nose. "Will you give me a gentle ride, Whinney?" she asked, and smiled when the horse nickered and nodded her head. Danta laughed, wondering if Whinney could really understand her.

"Are you going to ride Whinney, Mamma?" asked Danara with a smile.

Danta knelt down in front of her daughter and smiled. If the child was brave enough to ride, then surely she could, couldn't she?

"Sure I will," she answered her daughter. Danara clapped her hands together loudly, and so did Ora and Annaliza.

Ayla smiled. "Well okay then. "Let's go over to the rock so we can climb on," she said, pointing excitedly at the rock she had used to help the children get on the horse.

Danta grinned at her friend's excitement, then nodded and followed Ayla. When they got to the rock, she grabbed Ayla's hand again and nervously climbed up. Then, just as Ayla was explaining what she should do, Danta hesitated, frowned, and jumped back down from the rock.

"What is it?" Ayla asked, thinking that Danta had changed her mind.

"How are you going see if you are behind me?"

Ayla frowned and cocked her head to the side. She hadn't thought about that part. "Maybe I should be in front then, and you can hold on to my waist instead of Whinney's mane. What do you think?"

Danta shrugged. "I don't know, Ayla. Whinney's your horse. If you think that's best, then that's what we'll do."

Ayla grinned and grabbed onto Whinney's stiff mane to swing herself onto horse's back. Once settled, she moved closer to the rock that would help her friend; she no longer needed it, but she knew that Danta did. Calmly, she waited as the nervous woman took a deep breath and climbed back onto the rock again. Finally, she patted Whinney's back behind her and looked at Danta.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" Ayla asked, holding out her arm to assist the other woman. "Come on up."

Taking another deep breath, Danta placed her right hand on Ayla's outstretched arm and gingerly lifted her left leg to slide it over the mare's back. Ayla used her strong right arm to help swing the other woman up behind her, then waited while Danta settled herself.

"You can put your arms around my waist and just lean with me." Danta nodded. "Are you ready?" Ayla asked. Danta nodded again, but when Ayla leaned forward and Whinney took off, the woman let out a scream and buried her face in Ayla's hair. Ayla slowed a bit, to allow Danta to calm down, but kept going. Eventually Danta pulled her face out of Ayla's hair and looked around. They were already almost to the far end of the beach. Danta blinked with surprise, hardly believing that she hadn't fallen off.

By the time the two women arrived back at the children again, Danta couldn't wipe the grin off of her face. Riding the horse was an experience she had never dreamed of before; one more exciting than anything she knew.

After jumping down off Whinney, the women and children swam for awhile, before going back to their fire for an afternoon meal. Ayla had lifted a few fish out of the river before getting out and, as promised, Danta had cooked them, while Ayla ran off to gather some fresh greens. The meal did not take long to make, or eat, then they got out the things they would need to start the horse panniers.

Sitting to Ayla's left, Danta glanced at Ayla's hands as she quickly wove the basket's base and copied the size and shape as exactly as she could. She knew that Ayla wanted the two baskets to be identical, so that they would lie nicely on each side of the horse, but it was hard to keep up with her. Danta smiled with joy as she listened to the other woman chattering away and shook her head in disbelief. Not only was she fast, but she could talk the whole time that she was working.

For a moment, the dark-haired woman stopped and watched Ayla's speedy hands as her thoughts turned inward. She hadn't thought it possible to truly live again, but now she knew she had been wrong. She just knew she could be happy again...if her luck did not change; she just hoped that happiness wouldn't be ripped from her, like it had been when her mate-to-be had died. Then, knowing she had no control over luck, she shook her head and focused on her weaving again.


"I cannot believe our luck!" Davaria exclaimed as he walked behind Grov's loaded carrying contraption. They had been out since before dawn and had managed to take down two deer all on their own.

As Grov walked, carrying the front end of the stretcher, he smiled down at Durc, who walked beside him. "I would not call that luck at all, Davaria. You are a very good hunter; Oak Camp is lucky to be getting you."

Davaria beamed at the other man's praise. He knew that he hunted well enough. Sometimes it was the only way to keep himself and his sister fed at Sumac Camp, because eating wasn't always a priority there. It felt good to hear someone else say it though; no one from Sumac Camp ever passed out compliments so freely.

"And that sling of yours," Davaria went on. "It's hard to believe someone could be so accurate with it, or that you just took down a full-grown deer with it, or that Durc could pluck a ptarmigan out of the sky with it." He nodded his head up into the air, his long dark hair swinging back out of his eyes.

Grov smiled down at the boy again. "Well, he learned from the best; he's definitely his mother's son," he said and watched the boy puff up his chest with pride.

"And this thing you have created," Davaria continued, now nodding down toward the stretcher, "it's ingenious!"

"Actually, this is not my creation," Grov admitted, shaking his head. "There was this very interesting, old couple that visited the clan I belonged to before I met Ayla's clan; they brought it with them and left it with us when they finally decided to leave."

"What were a couple of old people doing out on their own, and in fla...," Davaria started to say. Then, thinking better of it, he blushed furiously and corrected himself. "I Clan territory?" Davaria asked.

Grov raised his eyebrow and looked at Davaria over his shoulder. "That's a good question," he said, ignoring the man's mistake, "but what makes you think the couple wasn't Clan? I didn't say they weren't."

Davaria frowned. Grov was right, he hadn't said the old couple wasn't Clan. But then, he hadn't said they were either. "Were they Clan?" Davaria asked, still feeling strangely about calling the ones he had always known as flatheads Clan, and feeling guilty that he couldn't seem to get it straight in his head, so that the wrong thing didn't come out of his mouth. He glanced down at Ayla's son and blushed again. He could believe he had made such a mistake, especially since Ayla's son was right there with them.

Grov smiled. "No, they were Others...well, not completely. I was just a child when they visited, but I'd guess that they were about as much Clan as my mother was. They could almost pass as Others, but not quite," he said, shaking his head, then smiling again.

"They were great storytellers. I remember one that they told about a river crossing. They were on some kind of floating device that got out of control. Apparently they had to jump off of it before it broke up on some rocks. They ended up on opposite sides of the river and had to search for help. They said it was a great adventure, but that they were quite terrified at the time."

"I can imagine," Davaria said. "Did they find help quickly.

Grov shook his head. "No, just as the Others think of the Clan as flatheads or a bunch of animals, the Clan believes the Others to be...well, unintelligent and dangerous. They are extremely fearful of you Others. And as for those that are mixed, well...they are considered deformed and unlucky." Both men glanced at Ayla's son, but neither saw a reaction.

In fact, it didn't bother Durc one bit; he was used to such talk and, at the young age of five, already considered it pure nonsense. He knew he looked different, but that certainly didn't make him deformed. And he wasn't unlucky either. He had a good man at his hearth, two cute sisters, and a perfect mother. He was a good hunter and already had a girl promised to him. He was quick, strong, intelligent and funny. And, he had several friends. What more could he ask for?

"They said that they had a lot of trouble finding someone that was willing to help them; it took many moons to find help," Grov continued.

"That's just awful," Davaria said with a frown, "but I guess it ended okay, right? Or you wouldn't have met them."

"Yes, they wintered with a small group of mixed people on the most southern part of the peninsula; very close to where Ayla's clan used to live, then they moved on again when the sUmer came. That's when they wandered north and into my clan," Grov finished.

Davaria continued to frown. "I still think that it's awful, to be old and alone. Did they talk about what people they came from?"

Grov shook his head. "No. They said that that was one story they would never tell. It must have been very sad, because they both teared up when my mother asked about their people." Grov thought about the tearful old man; it was the first time he had seen a man cry.

Still frowning, Davaria was thinking about what would have happened to Danta and himself, had Oak Camp not offered to adopt them. Would they have wandered the land into old age, all alone? He shuddered at the thought. "I wonder what happened to them."

Grov shrugged. "They were pretty old then and it's been years." He frowned. "I was about Durc's age when they visited our caves, and Teglodia and Vinoza hadn't yet join our clan," he said, feeling a sudden rush of emotion for the people that had loved him like a son and had allowed him to mate their daughter. His adoptive family had died so young, he thought, then shook his head slightly to try to shift his thoughts back to the old couple again. "I suppose they're dead by now."

"So, this," Davaria said, tipping his head down toward the stretcher, "was their invention then?" Grov nodded. "Well then, thank Sumata for the old Clan couple."


It was close to evening when the small hunting party finally made it back to the valley. Their hunt had taken them pretty far to the east and they had been walking for nearly half the day. When they finally came to the trail that led down into the valley, they breathed a sigh of relief; they were exhausted, hungry and somewhat cold.

As they approached the place where their daily beachfire usually burned, they noted that it had been banked to burn long and low; surely a sign from those within the cave that they were expected back after darkness. All would be glad to have them back early.

After setting the heavily loaded stretcher down beside the beachfire, and tossing a few pieces of driftwood into it, they turned toward the cave. On their approach, their stomachs growled in anticipation; the air promised that an evening meal was waiting for them. Having only brought with them a few dry, tasteless traveling cakes, all three were ready for something more.

"We're back," Davaria called out from the bottom of the steep slope.

Almost instantly, Ayla appeared on the ledge above them with a sleepy Annaliza on her hip. She smiled down at them, then looked out at the blazing beachfire.

"You had luck, I see," she said. "I will put Annaliza down, then I will come help you." She disappeared again and was gone for a moment, then returned with Danta just as the hunters got up to the ledge.

Ayla hugged her mate, who was bare from the waist up, then picked up her son. "You are both so cold. Why aren't you wearing your tunics?" she asked, walking back into the cave and over to the fire.

Grov smiled at her back. "We were not cold while we were walking," he said, sitting down by the fire.

Ayla went to her bed and pulled the furs off of it, then dropped them over her mate and son. Looking at Davaria, she pointed at his usual place beside the fire and went to get his furs. Danta was busy preparing a plate of food for each hunter.

"Mama, I killed a ptarmigan with my sling...just like you do," Durc informed her.

Ayla smiled. "You did? In the air?"

"Yes," he exclaimed excitedly. "High up in the air."

"That's wonderful. Did you search out its eggs?" The boy nodded. "Well then, I will stuff it and put it in a ground oven. I will make Creb's favorite meal for our morning meal. How does that sound?" she asked as she ruffed his hair. He only smiled and nodded; his mouth was too full to speak.


As the hunters ate, Ayla and Danta went outside to guard and start processing the meat. They wouldn't dare leave it out there alone for too long, some predator was bound to come take it if they did.

With Ayla working on one animal and Danta on the other, they went to work. However, close inspection of the animals let them know that the men had already started their work. The animal's throats had already been slit, and they had attempted to make a straight cut from the anus up the belly, chest, and neck, to the throat. She could immediately tell which animal Grov had worked on; he had almost no experience with butchering, but he had done a fairly decent job, probably with Davaria's instruction. Ayla inspected the cut and noted that though it was not perfect, they had made a better effort at not cutting into the meat during their first cut, so that skinning would be easier. She smiled at the work of the men, glad that they had gotten it started; it was not quite clean, but it was definitely serviceable.

Leaning down to look inside the deer, she was pleased to see that they had also removed the entrails, cleaned the usable parts – stomach, intestines, bladder – and put them back into the abdominal cavity along with the edible parts. Again, she assumed Davaria had helped Grov through the process.

"It looks like all we have to do is skin them and then process the meat," Ayla finally said.

Danta stopped her inspection of the dead deer and nodded. "Do you want to do that out here or inside?"

Ayla looked up at the sun, which was quickly falling behind the western mountains. The sky was riddled with pink and orange clouds as the sun disappeared. She wiped at a stray stand of hair that the evening breeze had blown into her eyes and noticed it was rather chilly. "I think I'd rather do this inside," she finally said. "What do you think?"

Danta smiled. "Inside."


After eating, Grov and Davaria left Durc in charge of the cave so that they could go down to help bring up the deer. It was a hard job, lugging the dead weight up the steep incline, but once it was finally done, they were able to rest.

The women began by pulling out the animals' innards, which the men had so carefully removed, cleaned and put back into the animals for safe keeping. They took the stomachs and intestines, rinsed them again, then filled them with water to keep them soft for later use, then set the other organs aside or discarded what they did not want. Finally, they set to work skinning.

Ayla held her sharp, flint knife in her hand with her index finger along the back and the cutting edge up, and inserted just under the skin to gently sliced the connective tissue away from the skin. Sticking her hand in and sliding it back and forth, she easily separated the two materials. After making the initial tear, she would only have to use her knife when the tissue was too tough to clear away with her bare hand, but for the most part, skinning was an easy job.

After separating the skin from the deer, Ayla rolled it up and put it to the side, to be scraped and cured later. When Danta finished her deer, she tossed the skin at Davaria, then the two women began cutting up the meat. When the first thin, tongue-shaped slices of meat were ready to hang, Danta started picking them up to hang them over the drying rack, while Ayla started a stew that they'd be able to eat for the next few days.

It was fairly late when the two women had finished the task of processing the men's kills, but when they were finally done there were strips of drying tendon for sinew, lengths of washed intestine, a pile of hooves and bones and another of lumps of fat waiting to be rendered and poured into the intestines for storage.

"I am so tired," Danta said, standing and brushing herself off.

Ayla was still kneeling on the ground, considering what she should do next, but looked up at the other woman. "Me too."

"Then let's go to bed," Grov said quickly, hoping Ayla would agree. He was sitting beside her, using her scrapper to removed the bloodvessels from the back of one of the deer hides. It was a job that would be considered women's work if they were with the Clan, but he didn't feel right about just sitting there since Danta had put Davaria to work. Ayla frowned and was just about to shake her head, but Danta spoke first.

"I think that's a good idea. We've done so much already; the rest can wait, can't it?" She too looked hopefully at Ayla.

Ayla looked at her three companions. Grov sat silently, with no expression on his face. He did not want to influence her decision by looking eager. He knew she would drop what she was doing to go to bed if he wanted her to, but he wanted it to be her decision. Ayla smiled to herself; she knew what he wanted even though he was trying to hide it. The other two didn't even bother to hide their opinions. Davaria looked utterly exhausted from hunting all day, and Danta just looked as if she was tired of working on the deer.

Ayla smiled. There was definitely more work to do, but they were right, it could wait. "All right," she finally said, nodding her head and standing up. The effort made her realize that she was exhausted from their work as well, and a bit sore from riding Whinney all day. Looking down at herself she sighed, then glanced wistfully at the cave opening, wishing it wasn't dark. She was covered in blood and would have loved to run down to the river to bathe.

Grov had followed her eyes as she looked from herself to the dark hole that led outside. But even if he hadn't been watching her, he would have known what was going on in her mind; he knew his mate well enough to know that all she would be thinking about now was cleaning herself up. And he didn't even have to look at himself to know how filthy he was. After a day of hunting, gutting, walking, and then hide scrapping, he knew he must look awful. He had to admit he was uncomfortable, but he'd have waited until morning, if it wasn't for Ayla.

"Do you want to go down to the river?" he asked knowingly.

Ayla smiled. "Would you mind? I don't think I could sleep like this," she said, holding her arms out so that he could see how dirty she really was.

"No, I don't mind," he said, shaking his head. "The beachfire is still burning, so we'll have a little light." He paused and looked at Davaria and Danta. "Do you two want to come along?" Both of them frowned, not relishing the idea of a nighttime dip in the cold glacial river.

"Maybe I'll just wipe myself down with a wet piece of leather," Davaria said, thinking that the last thing he wanted to do at the moment was go outside, take his clothes off, and jump into the river, though he desperately needed to.

Danta continued to frown. She also didn't want to go outside, but she knew she'd feel better if she did. "I guess I'll go with," she finally said. "Won't you come too, Ari? You're very dirty."

Her twin sighed, then said, "okay, I'll go...but don't you think we should go in shifts?"

"In whats? Grov and Ayla asked in unison.

"You know, shifts. You two go first, and then when you get back, we go," he explained. "So we don't leave the children alone."

"Oh yes," Ayla said. "That is a very good idea." She didn't think they had anything to worry about, most animals would stay away from a cave with a fire burning brightly within it, but she was grateful that Davaria was concerned about the children.

Grov was nodding his agreement. And he was glad to hear Davaria's concern as well. He didn't imagine that the man was usually so thoughtful, but it was good to see that he was adapting to a new lifestyle; it was important that he did, or Oak Camp wouldn't be likely to keep him.

Then, glancing down at Ayla's son, Grov frowned. "Do you think we should take Durc with us?" Grov asked. The boy had been sitting next to them for most of the evening, but was now slumped over, sound asleep in front of the fire.

Ayla looked down at her son and smiled. "No, I will just put him in his sleeping place. He can swim tomorrow."


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

Everyone slept late the next morning, but when they woke up, they were quite hungry. Ayla had stuffed the ptarmigan that Durc had killed with its own eggs and put it into the ground oven to slow-cook throughout the night. It was one of her favorite meals, but everyone else seemed to like it too.

After eating, Grov left the cave, saying that he'd start the beachfire, while the others busied themselves around the cave. In the warm sUmer heat a beachfire was not entirely necessary, but they liked having it burning. Predators didn't like fire, so it made them feel safer.

They all worked quickly because they wanted to get outside as well, especially Durc, who was still rather dirty from the day before, but he was getting impatient.

"Mama," the boy said. "I need to get cleaned up."

Ayla smiled at him and nodded. "Yes, I know that you do, but I am not ready to go yet." He frowned, but nodded acceptance. He could see that she was busy.

"I will go out with him," Davaria offered. Ayla and Danta were still cleaning up after their morning meal and still had to ready their daughters.

"Oh, would you?" Ayla asked. "That would really help me a lot."

Davaria smiled at her. "Sure."

"Would you mind taking Danara too?" Danta asked her brother.

The man gave his sister a loving grin. "Of course not," he said, turning to Danara, then picking up the skinny little girl and throwing her over his shoulder. She squealed delightedly as she hung upside down.

"You better get dressed then, if you want to come outside with us," he said to her.

"I can't," the red-faced child replied, still dangling over his shoulder.

Davaria pretended to be confused. "But why not?" he asked.

Danara giggled. "Because you have to put me down first, silly."

The man laughed and swung her around, setting her lightly on her feet. "Oh. That'd help, wouldn't it?" he asked, poking her in the belly and making her giggle again. She nodded and ran off to get dressed.

"But, don't put too much on...if you want to swim with us."


Durc and Danara were quickly ready to go and Davaria left with them, one under each arm. Durc mostly considered himself too old for such goings on, but things here were much more relaxed than he was used to, and Davaria certainly made things fun. Ayla watched them go, suddenly worried about losing the freedom to laugh and play, like they could while they were away from the Clan.

On their way down, they passed Grov, who was on his way back up.

"I brought some decent sized pieces of flint over to the fire," Grov called over his shoulder as he headed for the cave. Davaria nodded and continued on; his mind was on swimming, not flintknapping.


"Aren't you ready yet?" Grov asked when he came into the cave and found Ayla and Danta still cleaning. "This place is clean enough."

The two women smiled at him and looked around; it was rather clean, much cleaner than a temporary shelter needed to be.

"I think that you are just trying to get me outside so that you can ride everyone else," Ayla said, looking at him suspiciously.

"You win! That's exactly what I want," he said, but took her into his arms and kissed her.

Danta grinned at them and, for a moment, wished she had someone like Grov to take care of her, though she didn't believe she could ever be that lucky, or happy.

"Well, if you ever want to ride," Ayla said, pushing him back, "then you better stop kissing me and help bring these girls down to the beach." She picked up Annaliza and plopped her into Grov's arms, then picked up Ora. "Ready?" she asked.


Down on the beach, Ayla went through the same process of giving Grov a ride on Whinney that she had gone through with Danta, though Grov didn't seem frightened at all. Ayla knew that though he might feel some nervousness about the new experience, he would never show it, and her keen Clan senses could not detect even the slightest bit of fear in him.

At first, she rode with him, as she had with Danta and the children, but then he wanted to try it on his own, so Ayla nodded and easily slipped off Whinney's back; she understood his desire to learn more about the horses. In that way, they were exactly alike.

Once again she explained how she directed the horse, but then let him see what worked for him. He made a few circles on the sandy beach, then took off down the beach. It seemed that he was already quite comfortable. Finally, he returned to the beachfire where everyone stood watching him.

"Now I want to try riding Stomp," he said excitedly.

Ayla frowned. "Stomp?" She gave the moody horse a cursory glance, then looked back at her mate. "Why Stomp?"

Grov grinned. "Because that's the horse you said was your vision. Right?"

Ayla nodded her understanding, but still wasn't sure. "I'm not sure it's such a good idea. She's...not very nice."

Grov looked over at the nearly white horse and smiled. "Well, I have to try sometime, don't I?" Ayla nodded. "And I'd rather try it here, while we're away from the sUmer meeting and all the loud people," he said, sliding down off Whinney and handing her a treat. "Would you call her over here?"

"Well, okay," Ayla said, then let out the whistle that had come to be Stomp's call. Each horse had a different whistle and they seemed to understand which was which. That was just one more thing that amazed them about the animals; they were quite smart.

Stomp's head came up right away and she seemed to contemplate the command for a moment before moving to join her human herd. Ayla gave her a treat and stroked her face, then led her over to the rocks so that getting on wouldn't be so difficult. But, it proved to be anyway.

Standing on the rock, Grov leaned over the horse and tried to use her mane to help himself get on her back. But as he did that, his foot gently brushed the horse's side, causing her to startle and abruptly step away from the rock, making him fall to the ground.

"Are you all right?" Ayla and Danta asked, both immediately kneeling down on either side of him to help him up.

Grov took a deep breath and nodded. "Yeah." Getting up quickly, they prepared to start again, but the same thing happened on the second and third try as well. Stomp seemed determined to keep Grov off her back.

"What am I doing wrong?" he finally asked, staring at the animal in frustration.

Ayla had been watching carefully and shook her head. "I do not think that you are doing anything wrong. It looks to me Stomp may be...ticklish," she finally said. "Every time your foot touches her side, she jerks away from you and you fall. But that can't be right, can it?"

They all looked at the horse and shrugged, but Ayla wanted to test her theory. Tentatively, she reached out and ran her hand over Stomp's middle. The horse's skin shuddered, as if trying to remove unwanted flies from her side, making Ayla wonder. Then gently, she poked Stomp in the ribs, and sure enough, Stomp jerked away and even turned to nip at her. Ayla frowned again, then whistled for the other two horses and went through the same thing with them. They did not seem to react to it at all.

"I think she is ticklish," Danta said, after Ayla finished her testing.

"Ticklish?" Davaria exclaimed. "I didn't know that animals could be ticklish too."

Ayla smiled. "Well, I do not know about other animals, but Stomp here, is definitely ticklish. I cannot think of any other explanation, can you?" Davaria shrugged and shook his head.

"Grov," she went on, turning to look at him again, "I think you're going to have to get on her without touching her sides."

Grov frowned. "Well how am I going to do that?" he asked, looking at the horse strangely.

For a few moments everyone stood around trying to think of a way, then Danta suggested that maybe they'd have to lift Grov to Stomp's back. Everyone frowned and watched the woman, who had only just recently gotten over her fear of the four-legged creatures, as she stood next to the horse and placed her hands in various locations. Finally she smiled; she thought she had a way that would work.

"Okay, let me show you what I'm thinking," Danta said. Then, looking Grov up and down, she turned to Ayla. "I could probably lift you easier than Grov. Would you mind?" Ayla shook her head and stepped forward.

"I think that if you put your left hand here," she began, placing her hand lightly on the back of Stomp's lower neck, just above the withers, and letting her forearm rest on the side of the horse's neck, "and put your right hand here," she went on, reaching over Stomp's back and putting her hand flat against the far side of the horse's broad back. "Then, I think you could lean on her while I lift you up." She stood there for a moment while Ayla thought it through. Then, clasping her hands and bending over slightly, she looked at Ayla.

"Now, if you put your left foot in my hands and jump up a little, I'll lift you and you can swing you other leg over her back. This way your foot will never touch her side, and she won't jump away."

They went through several practice attempts without actually trying to sit on the horse's back. Ayla even decided to lay over Stomp's back once to see what the horse would do. They just wanted to see if Stomp would accept someone one her back and let her get used to the weight without an upright rider. It seemed to be working; Stomp was no longer objecting now that she wasn't being poked in the side, though she still seemed quite nervous.

Danta was still holding Ayla up over Stomp's back when Ayla said, "I think you can let me down now."

Danta lowered Ayla to the ground, but frowned. "Aren't you going to ride her?" she asked.

Ayla grinned and shook her head. "Stomp is Grov's horse. I think he should be the first to ride her." Danta nodded her understanding and looked at the man. He was smiling at his mate.

"Maybe Davaria could help you get on her though," Ayla suggested. She knew that she could probably do it too, but she wanted to be able stand back, so that she to see him get on. "Would you mind?" she asked, turning toward the other man.

Davaria shook his head. "Of course not."

Going through the process with Grov was much easier. He put his hands where he had seen Ayla put hers, and then Davaria clasped his hands and hoisted Grov up. In a matter of seconds the man was sitting on Stomp's back and looking around from his new vantagepoint. For a moment, he just sat there, then he thought of something else.

"Okay, now that I'm up here, how can I make her go without kicking her sides? And how do I get down when I'm done?" he asked, looking down at everyone and frowning slightly. He could see all of their expressions change immediately. Now they all looked thoughtful again and he wished he'd thought to ask those questions before he'd gotten onto the horse's back.

"Well, I think that you could probably jump down without touching her side," Ayla said, "like I do when I jump off Whinney." He thought for moment, then nodded. "On Whinney, I only have to lean forward to tell her I want to go, but I think you're going to have to see what works for Stomp."

Grov nodded again and bent over to pat the horse's neck. She seemed extremely nervous about having him there and he didn't want her to be, but he didn't know what to do. "Maybe I'll just let her go where she wants to for a while," he said. "That can't hurt, can it?"

"I don't think so," Ayla replied, eyeing the horse as she shifted on her feet.

They all stood there watching and waiting, but Stomp didn't seem to be losing the nervous edge and she wasn't moving. She stood stiff-necked, swishing her tail around almost violently.

"Maybe you should try leaning forward, like Ayla does on Whinney," Danta suggested. "Maybe she'd figure out that you want her to go."

Grov nodded. "Okay, back up then, just in case she takes off." They moved back, but when the man leaned, like Ayla always did, Stomp only shook her head and pawed the ground, but she didn't even take one step.

"Oh!" Davaria said excitedly. "We could tie a rope like Nicuria's around her neck and lead her."

Ayla nodded and whistled for the younger horse. As he neared, Stomp seemed to get more agitated, so Ayla went to head him off. Quickly, she untied his now ignored restraint, then patted his backside and watched as he went back to the river to drink. Then slowly, she approached the horse in question and tied the rope around her neck, leaving the coil unwound, so that she could try to lead her.

But, that idea didn't work either. At first Ayla pulled gently, but Stomp didn't move. Then she pulled harder, but still nothing. Finally the woman pulled with all of her might, but still the horse resisted. Even Davaria gave it a try, but it was no use; Stomp had no intention of being pulled.

Everyone was frowning, but Ayla started looking around. There has to be a way, she thought. Then, glancing at the other two horses, she got an idea and whistled for Whinney this time.

When Whinney arrived, Ayla grabbed her mane and, swinging herself up onto the mare's back, she urged her to circle Stomp and Grov. Soon the dun yellow horse was nosing at her sister and she seemed to be getting a reaction. Whinney seemed to understand the problem better than they did, and without any further encouragement, Whinney went to Stomp's rear and gave her a not-so-gentle nudge. Stomp immediately turned on her sister and whinnied loudly, causing Grov to clutch her mane more tightly. It wasn't exactly a step down the beach, but it was something. And when Whinney did it again, Stomp snorted and took a few steps to get away from her. Grov smiled; it was working.

They went through that a few more times, then Nicuria came to see what was happening. He watched Whinney give another gentle nudge and was about to do it too, but his appearance was too much for Stomp. She had finally had enough. After rearing up, she bolted down the sandy beach, Grov hanging on for dear life.

The man felt a momentary jolt of fear as the horse went up onto her hind legs, but as she came down and took off, he didn't have time to think about being afraid. He held tight to her mane as they flew down the beach. He was not directing her; she was just running. She was running hard. Running from Whinney. Running from Nicuria. Probably running for him as well. Then suddenly he caught movement to his side and saw Ayla on Whinney, and Nicuria too, running alongside them. He saw his mate push her ride hard and pass him so that she could turn Stomp back to the group. Stomp turned and headed back, though much more slowly this time. When they got back, the man slid off the mare as Ayla had instructed and grinned his delight.

"Now that was exciting!" he exclaimed breathlessly, taking his woman into his arms. "I didn't think she would ever go. And then...when she did...oh Ursus! I didn't think she'd ever stop." Everyone smiled back at him. "It was amazing!"

"Now there's just one of us that hasn't had a ride yet," Danta said, folding her arms across her chest and eyeing her brother.


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Davaria frowned when he heard his sister's words and he quickly turned away. He pretended to be looking at the horses, but he wasn't, not really. He just didn't want them to see the color that he knew flooded his face, but he could feel it, burning into his skin as it rose from his neck up to his forehead, causing him to feel slightly lightheaded. Silently, he gasped for air, trying to make it go away and trying to come up with a good excuse for not riding one of the horses.

How could he tell them that he had no desire to ride any of the horses, not even Ayla's calm mare, Whinney, without admitting that he was terrified of them. He didn't want anyone to know of his fear; fear was not manly. And besides that, they might laugh at him and he didn't think that he could take that. He had been laughed at far too much in his life. He had learned at a very young age that showing fear, of any kind, was a serious blow to one's manhood. He could still hear Igorvia's raucous laughter and Zadneetsia's calm, yet demeaning taunts, though it had been years since he had given either man a reason to laugh at or make fun of him.

"What are you so afraid of, Davaria," Zadneetsia sneered. "I told you, it's easy. Just run down there and do it!"

Davaria stayed crouched down behind the boulder and stared at the animals roaming below. He watched them as they meandered through the meadow; their purpose seemed unintentional, though the ten-year-old boy somehow knew that it wasn't. He knew that they had to have

some reason, for doing what they were doing, but he didn't know what it was. He only knew what Zadneetsia expected him to do and he frowned.

It was the first time he had been allowed to go on a hunting trip with the men, but this wasn't what he had expected, not at all what he thought

hunting was going to be like. Early that morning the men had gone off, leaving him alone with some of the older boys. At first he didn't understand, but then Zadneetsia told him what he had to do, what they all were going to do. Zadneetsia said it was a test for bravery. That it was an easy test and that there would be harder ones to follow.

"A bravery test?" Davaria said with a frown. He glanced at Leneevia, who was only a year older than he, but who had gone out

hunting with the men before. The other boy looked nervous, but he didn't say anything, so Davaria looked back at the older boys.

"What for?" he asked them curiously, then blushed with embarrassment as the boys laughed at him unmercifully. Even Leneevia, his only real friend, was laughing at him; it made him mad. He didn't like being laughed at. Not one bit. He decided right there that he wouldn't ask any more questions. Then he noticed that Zadneetsia and Igorvia weren't laughing and he eyed them suspiciously. Davaria was used to Zadneetsia's bad treatment, but the look in the older boy's eyes made him leery.

"What do you mean,

What for?" Igorvia was frowning at him. He was three years older than Davaria was and was usually pretty nice to him. Only recently had things changed and the older boy seemed to be connecting more with Zadneetsia, who had never been very nice to anyone. "Are you stupid or something?" Igorvia finally asked, then started laughing with the rest.

Davaria looked around at the boys he called friends and squirmed with shame. When his eyes stopped, he was looking at Zadneetsia; he was the only one that was not laughing.

Zadneetsia forced a yawn and tried to look bored. He was fourteen years old and all the boys looked up to him. He looked at Davaria critically, then held up his hand to quiet the others. Everyone ceased laughing immediately and tried to look serious as they waited for Zadneetsia to speak.

"You can't be a member of Sumac Camp if you're a coward, Davaria," he finally said. Davaria could tell that it the boy was making fun of him, though his voice was even.

Davaria stared at him, then nodded dumbly. He knew

that . All his life he'd been told that he had to be brave, but he hadn't really known what they were talking about. No one at Sumac Camp seemed particularly brave to him, unless you called pushing the women around brave. The word brave didn't even come to mind when he thought about the man of his hearth, who had always been just a little nicer to the women than the other men were. In fact, the man's niceness actually seemed to lower his status. Davaria frowned at the thought; he supposed that that didn't matter at the moment. Right now, he needed to be accepted.

Once again, he glanced down at the animals, then looked back at Zadneetsia and folded his arms over his chest. "I'm

not scared," he declared defiantly.

Zadneetsia only smirked at him. "Good! Then let's see you prove it." The older boy cocked his head toward the boulder that concealed their position and waited for Davaria. "It's your move,

Ari," Zadneetsia said, imitating what the boy's two sisters called him.

Standing up slowly, Davaria tried to look taller than he actually was. Then, with everyone following him, he dashed from behind their cover and ran off to touch one of the flathead women that were in the open meadow collecting whatever it was that flatheads ate.

Taking a deep breath, the man shook his head and turned around to look at his sister and their friends. They were all standing there staring at him, waiting for him to agree to ride one of the horses; he knew that he couldn't say no. No, he couldn't afford to show any fear.

"Okay, what do I have to do?" he finally said.

Danta smiled. There was little he could hide from her. She knew that he was afraid and that he was struggling with it. She knew better than anyone what he had had to go through while growing up. She remembered how the older boys had ganged up on him and how he had changed because of it. She was only grateful that she had him back now.

Ayla smiled as well. She could tell that he was frightened of the horses, but sensed that something else was going on. She had no way of knowing what it was and didn't figure that he'd tell her if she asked. Not that she would ask, it wasn't the way of a Clan woman to ask a man personal questions. So instead, she moved toward her horse, so that she could give him a ride. Jumping up on Whinney's back, she motioned that he should get up on the rock. Davaria followed her eyes and knew what she wanted. Having resigned himself to riding Whinney, he took the steps to the rock and climbed up behind Ayla, then sat there wondering what he should do. He didn't have to worry about that part though, because Ayla knew what to do.

"Just put your arms around my that you do not fall off when Whinney runs," Ayla said, taking the man's hands as he tentatively wrapped his arms around her.

As Davaria settled his arms around her midsection, Ayla gave the horse a gentle nudge to move and Whinney surged forward. Davaria stiffened at Whinney's sudden movement and tightened his grip around Ayla's waist. He couldn't help but lean into her as the horse picked up speed. At first he hung on in fear, even closing his eyes to shut out the blur of things flying by. But then, with his eyes still closed, the young man's nervousness suddenly changed as he took in Ayla's woman scent, making him conscious that his body was intimately touching hers. A sudden rush of desire gripped him as he felt a tightness between his legs

Ayla drove Whinney down the beach hard and didn't notice a change in Davaria until she went to turn the horse around. He was still holding on to her, but he had changed his position and was pushing himself backwards. As they started back, the man groaned and finally spoke up.

"We need to stop," said Davaria, just a little louder than was necessary as he gripped her hips firmly in a futile attempt to hold himself away from her.

Ayla frowned, but knowing that something was wrong, she nodded and halted her horse immediately. As Whinney came to a stop, Davaria was no longer able to hold himself back and slid into her again, making Ayla aware as to his reason for wanting to stop. She blushed, wondering what she was supposed to do. She knew that they were not with the Clan and that no signal was coming, but she wished someone had explained what a woman did at a time like this.

Quickly, the man threw his leg over the horse and jumped down. Ayla sat atop Whinney's back for only a moment longer than the man, then she too hopped down, but to the opposite side. An uncomfortable silence followed as they slowly walked toward the others. Neither knew what to say.

Ayla walked, keeping her eyes straight forward and saying nothing. She didn't have much experience with men desiring her and didn't understand. Broud and Grov had been the only two men in her life to show interest, and Broud had only given her the signal because he knew she had hated it. And Grov was her mate and loved her.

But this was different. Davaria was a friend and Danta's brother, not someone that she should have to consider relieving. Or should she? Heat flooded her face as she thought about the hardness of his manhood against her. There was no question that he had wanted her. But now, all she wanted to do was to get back on Whinney's back and run away, so that he could not see her confusion.

Davaria glanced at Ayla over the horse and saw that her face was slightly pink. He wondered why she was embarrassed when it was he that couldn't control himself. He felt terrible that he'd made her feel that way and wished he'd been able to think of a way to refuse the ride on Whinney, but it was too late for that. He stared at her as they walked and ground his teeth to keep from making another mistake. All he wanted to do was push her down onto the soft beach sand and share pleasures with her.

Then, as they approached the others, but were still a short distance away, Ayla stopped and looked at him. "What?" she said, feeling like she had done something wrong.

Davaria looked at her and blushed. He knew he had been staring; he had committed another mistake, along with mentally taking her, but he couldn't help himself. Oh Mother, she is so beautiful, he thought, but he didn't say it, he just continued to stare. And he couldn't help the desire that was still in his eyes. He wanted to reach across Whinney's back and take her hand, but he didn't do it; he knew that it wouldn't be right. Instead, he glanced over at Grov, who stood patiently with Danta and the children, and blushed again. How could he be thinking about sharing pleasures with his friend's mate when there was no Mother festival? Oh Mother, he wished they could have a Mother festival.

"I'm sorry, Ayla," he finally said. "I didn't mean to make you...feel uncomfortable. It's just that...I's been..." His voice trailed off as he became frustrated with his inability to express himself. Why would she even care? he wondered. Quickly, he searched her eyes for understanding, then turned and ran toward the cave. Ayla watched him go, then started back toward the others, then changed her mind, grabbed Whinney's mane and vaulted onto the horse's back to take off across the beach again.


Grov and Danta had watched them ride. Danta had been shocked that her brother actually agreed to ride one of the horses. She had sensed that he was terrified of them, though he'd never expressed it. There were just some things that one knew about a twin. But then, when she saw Whinney slow and Davaria get down, she frowned with concern.

Grov noted the lines of worry on the woman's face, but continued to watch his mate and Danta's brother; they didn't appear to be hurt in any way, so he tried not to react. It was only when Davaria turned and ran toward the cave, and Ayla fled on Whinney that he too wondered what had happened. It wasn't like Ayla to run off. She had only done that when Broud had moved into their hearth.

Danta took a step in the direction of the cave, to go after her brother, then looked back at the other man. "I...I guess I'll go talk to Davaria," she said.

Grov only nodded. He didn't know what he should do. He didn't want to sit there waiting, just in case something was seriously wrong, and he didn't want to leave the children unattended. And he certainly couldn't catch up to Ayla on foot.

"Mamma!" Annaliza said, pointing in the direction that Ayla had gone. "Where Mamma going?" she gestured.

Grov looked down at her and shrugged, then looked around, feeling a desperate need to follow his mate. Then, when his eyes fell on the other two horses, he decided that he'd go after Ayla on Stomp. He was sure he could find her that way.

"Durc stay with the girls," the man said, as he handed the boy his youngest sister. "I need to go after your mother." Durc nodded.

"Ora," he went on sternly, "you need to listen to your brother." The three-year-old nodded. Grov quickly glanced at Danara. She had taken up Ora's hand. He didn't think he needed to say anything to her, she was quite responsible for her short number of years.

Then, as the four pairs of eyes watched him, Grov gracefully swung himself up onto Stomp's back and race down the beach.


NEW CHAPTER – ? (new chapter) ?

Danta had reached the ledge outside the cave quite quickly, but after getting there she wasn't sure what she should do. She glanced back only once to see Grov speeding down the beach in pursuit of his mate. Her eyes moved to the children, who were already sitting down on the beach, safely playing with the beach stones. She smiled, then entered the cave slowly.

"Davaria?" she called out questioningly. There was no answer, though she heard his heavy breathing in the back of the cave. "Davaria?" she called out again, this time a little louder.

"Go away," he replied angrily. Much too angrily, she thought. She didn't go.

"Davaria," she said again, coming up to him. He was lying on his sleeping platform under his furs, and he was shaking in a rhythmic way that made her frown. "Why did you run off?"

"Danta!" he growled, still angry. But then his voice softened. He couldn't be angry with her; she hadn't done anything. "Please go away," he almost whined.

The woman was tempted to go, to leave him alone in his misery, but that wasn't who she was. This was her brother, her twin brother and she couldn't abandon him. Just like he hadn't abandoned her. She sat down on his bed beside him and lay her hand on his arm. His shaking immediately ceased. Now he was more still than ever.

"I will not go," she said gently and then she was silent. She wanted to slip under his covers and hold him, like she had done so many times in the past, but for some reason that seemed inappropriate at the moment, though she didn't quite know why. Instead, she just lay down beside him and stared up at the cave's ceiling.


Grov pushed Stomp into a fast gallop and sped down the beach. Ayla had already ridden out of sight and he wanted to catch up to her fast. He rode hard, pausing at the place where they had burned their first fire, then he turned and followed the river south until he found Whinney grazing peacefully near a small stand of trees. Grov could see Ayla sitting down on a rock among the trees, head in her hands. She didn't seem to have heard Stomp's approach, nor did she look up when the man came to stand beside her.

"Ayla?" he said, kneeling down and touching her forearm.

Startled, she jumped at his touch and stared uncomprehendingly at him for a moment, then she looked beyond him to see Stomp chomping grass next to Whinney. "HUm," she finally replied, looking back at her mate.

"Are you okay?" he asked, physically looking her over for injuries. He could see that she was upset about something, but he couldn't have guessed why, and he was worried, despite seeing with his eyes that she was unharmed.

Ayla could see the confusion in her mate's eyes and felt bad that she had pulled away after running off without word. He was not the cause of her flight, yet something in his eyes made her think that he thought he was. Taking a deep breath, she leaned into him and then sighed.

"Yes, I am that you are here."

Grov held his woman, still not knowing what had happened that had made her run away, but at least glad to know that she was okay.


"Well, are you going to tell me what happened?" Danta asked after a considerable silence. She was tired of staring up at the nooks and crannies of the top of the cave and wanted him to explain himself. "Or do I have to guess?"

Davaria was still facing away from her. He couldn't bear to roll over on his back with his blood pumping through him so fiercely, but her silence had allowed him the time he needed to relax, to let his blood go back to where it belonged. With a sigh, he rolled to his back, where he continued to lie in silence for a while, shoulder to shoulder with his sister.

Danta frowned, but didn't say anything for a moment. She wanted him to say something. Then she decided to try something else.

"Okay then, I'll guess," she said childishly as she grabbed his hand.

Davaria sensed a hint of annoyance in her voice, but there was something else there too. She wanted to play their most favorite childhood game of Guess What I'm Thinking. He couldn't help by smile, despite the embarrassment he was feeling.

"You'll never guess," he said, giving the customary response, though he didn't believe she wouldn't be able to guess; Danta had always been the best guesser out of the three of them, and he wasn't sure he wanted to do this.

"We shall see," they both whispered in unison. That had been the third line of their game, but now there was not a third person to say it. Both sniffed and tried to go on.

"Hmm," said Danta, trying go on and trying to think up a good question, a question he was required to answer with either a yes or a no. "Did something go wrong on your ride with Ayla?" she asked, already knowing the answer to her question.

"Yes," Davaria whispered, feeling his face redden.

"Does it have anything to do with the horse?" She already knew the answer to this one too, but she always threw in similar questions to give him hope that she'd fail to guess.

"No," Davaria said, shaking his head.

"Hmm! How about Ayla?" she said, exaggerating a frown, just in case he was watching. "Is this about Ayla?"

Davaria felt the blood go to his face again, and to somewhere else, as he gave half a nod. His answer was barely discernable, but Danta felt his movement and recognized it as an affirmative. She turned to look at him and to choose her next question carefully.

"Are you in love with Ayla?" she asked him after an extremely long pause.

Davaria's head snapped in her direction, then he dislodged his hand from hers and jumped up. "No!" he said adamantly. "I am not in love with her." I do not want play this game with her, he thought in frustration. She doesn't need to know about what happened to me when I touched Ayla.

Danta sat up and watched him pace back and forth. She smiled to herself, though she still tried to look at him with a serious expression. "Oh Davaria," she said gently, getting up and going to him, "you're not the first man to want an unavailable woman."

Davaria stopped and stared at her, then he ran his hand through his brown hair and plopped down on his bed. Now he knew he didn't want to play this game, Danta was too good at it.

"I don't want her want her, Danta. I just wanted her, like I did those Clan women. It was awful." He dropped his head into his hands. "It was all I could do to stop myself."

Danta watched him and shook her head. "Oh come on, Davaria, you wouldn't have done that," she said, almost laughing. "I know that you wouldn't."

"Well, I am not so sure, Danta," he replied. "I'm no better than Igorvia and Zadneetsia."

"Oh, for the love of the Mother, Davaria." Danta pushed herself off the bed platform and threw her hands up on the air angrily. "You are nothing like Zadneetsia," she spat. Now it was she who paced back and forth, while wringing her hands.

Davaria only watched her for a moment, then his eyes narrowed as his embarrassment over Ayla turned to curiosity over Danta's sudden anger. What had Zadneetsia done to her? he wondered.

"What do you mean by that?" he finally asked her.

Danta stopped abruptly and looked at him. "We're not discussing me," she said curtly, then she knelt down in front of her brother and took up his hands. "I do not believe, for one moment, that you would have...forced Ayla. Do you?"

Davaria looked down at his sister's hands, so like his and entwined with his own, then up into her eyes, before shaking his head. "No, I would not have. I could not have, but...I wanted her so badly, Danta," he whined, dropping his head onto her shoulder and heaving a sob. "Sitting on Whinney behind her was...unbearable. I had to get down and I had to get away from her." He looked up with tears in his eyes. "How will I face her? How will I face Grov?" he asked, forgetting Danta's anger over the other Sumac Camp man.

"I don't know," she said, "but I know that you can do it." Danta reached up and wiped away her brother's tears, but he would not meet her eyes. She hated seeing him in pain; it was as if she too had been injured during the incident.

"Davaria," she said to get his attention, "you have done nothing wrong. There is nothing wrong with wanting to share pleasures with a beautiful woman. It is a natural thing. They will not fault you for your desire." He looked away again. "Do you hear me?" she asked him.

Davaria looked at her again. He could see his pain mirrored in her eyes and felt bad that he had not been strong enough to keep from hurting her. He nodded his head to acknowledge that he had heard her, but he wasn't so sure Grov and Ayla would be as sympathetic.

Danta smiled at him, then stood up and tugged at his hand. "Now come on. Let's go outside. The children are all alone."

"All right," he said, standing and allowing her pull him outside. "But I'm not playing your guessing game anymore. You always win."


"Are you sure," Grov asked her, "that you're okay?"

Ayla pulled back and nodded emphatically. "Yes, I am fine. I think that...I am just confused."

Grov frowned. "Why? What are you confused about?"

Ayla frowned back at him, trying to figure out how to explain what had happened. "I am confused about Davaria."

Grov cocked his head and then shook it. "I do not understand. Did he do something to you?" he asked, suddenly agitated about an unknown violation against his mate.

Ayla shook her head. ", Davaria didn't do anything to me. He just..." She shook her head again.

"He just what?" Grov prompted. "What happened?"

Ayla could see that he was frustrated with her reluctance to tell him what had happened on the beach. So, taking a deep breath, she tried to explain. "I was only taking him for a ride on Whinney; that was all it was supposed to be," she said, suddenly tearful. Grov only nodded, not knowing where she was going.

"And then we sped off and it was good...or so I thought. But then, when we got to the end of the beach, he started backing away from me. I thought that something was wrong, that I had done something wrong. When I turned Whinney around, he said that we had to stop, so I stopped her right away." She stopped then and looked into Grov's expectant eyes.

"So, what happened?"

Ayla frowned again. "When I stopped Whinney, Davaria slid into me." She paused again, but he only looked confused.

"Ayla, you have not told me anything that I did not see. Why did Davaria want to get down and why did he run into the cave? And why did you jump back on Whinney and run off?"

Ayla sighed. She knew that she wasn't doing a very good job of explaining this to him. "When Davaria got close to me, I could feel...that he...needed to relieve himself...I could feel that he wanted to...but I didn't know what to do," she ended, shaking her head.

Grov stared at her, then he blinked. Then comprehension dawned on him. "What did you do?"

"He got down. And then I got down. And then we walked. He said that he was sorry. And then he ran off. I wondered if I had done something wrong. Was I supposed to do something?" she asked. He shrugged. "I was so confused, so I let Whinney run for me."

"Did you want to relieve his needs?" he asked her.

Ayla thought about it for a moment then lifted her shoulders. "It is not for me to say; I am a woman."

He smiled at her and shook his head. "You are responding like a Clan woman, Ayla, but you know that you have a choice here. Did you want to share pleasures with Davaria?" he asked, this time using the words the Others used.

Ayla frowned. "I did not want to share pleasures with him and I did not not want to. I was just confused. I did not know what I was supposed to do."

Grov had watched her and shrugged again. "With the Others I don't think there's anything that you are supposed to do. You just do whatever it is that you want."

"But I am your mate. How can do whatever I want and still be your mate," she asked.

Grov took a deep breath. "Ayla, I will be your mate no matter what you do. And I am not telling you to share pleasures with him, or anyone else, but I also don't want you to...avoid it just because you are my mate; you are your own person. And if you remember, I relieved myself with Oga."

"But that is different," Ayla said, shaking her head.

Grov smiled again. "Why is it different?"

"That is not the same...because...because you are a man," she finished lamely.

He laughed. "And you are a beautiful woman. You cannot avoid attracting men, Ayla. Sooner or later you will have to make a choice. I just want you to know that the choice is yours." He leaned down to kiss her. "Let's go back. I left the children alone on the beach," he said, extending a hand to help her up.

Ayla stared at his outstretched hand, then took it. "You will always be my mate?" she asked uncertainly as she rose.

"Of course I will," he said. "Now, let's go back. I left the children alone on the beach."

"But where is Danta?"

"She went to check on Davaria, and I asked Durc to stay with the girls, then came after you."

She nodded absently as she took steps toward the horses, but stopped just short of their vicinity. "How can I go back there, Grov? How can I look at him after not responding to his need? I just said nothing to him. What must he think of me?"

"Ayla, you didn't do anything wrong. Women of the Others aren't expected to relieve the needs of a man just because the man might want them to. I am sure that Davaria will understand. Everything is going to be all right. Besides, you have to go back there," he said, then continued when she looked confused again. "Because your children are back there."

Ayla smiled sheepishly and nodded. She knew it was going to be okay because her mate had said so, but she wished things weren't so complicated. Why were things always so difficult? she asked herself as she gave Grov a leg up onto Stomp, and then mounted Whinney.


End of Part SEVEN!

Post Script

As stated at the top of this page (part seven)—and every other part—there are TEN parts to this. However, part ten is unfinished...and I hardly ever update it anymore. Sorry! I are reading an "in progress" story...which has very little hope of ever being completed. Continue at your own risk!

Thanks for reading and for your patience with my transfer!