Read The Shelters of Stone Online

Authors: Jean M. Auel

Tags: #Historical fiction

The Shelters of Stone (5 page)

he huge woman glanced up at the movement of the leather drape stretched across the entrance, then quickly looked down as the young blond stranger emerged from Marthona’s dwelling. She was sitting in her accustomed place, a seat carved out of a solid block of limestone, strong enough to support her massive bulk. The leather-padded stone seat had been made especially for her, and was located exactly where she wanted it: toward the back of the large open area under the enormous overhanging cliff that protected the settlement, but within sight of almost the entire communal living space.

The woman appeared to be meditating, but it wasn’t the first time she had used the place to quietly observe some person or activity. The people had learned not to intrude upon her meditations, unless it was an emergency, especially when she wore her ivory chest plaque with the plain, undecorated side facing out. When the side that was carved with symbols and animals was showing, anyone was free to approach her, but when she reversed the plaque to the blank side, it became a symbol of silence and meant that she did not wish to speak and did not want to be disturbed.

The Cave had grown so accustomed to her being there, they almost didn’t see her, for all her usually commanding presence. She had cultivated that effect carefully and had no
compunctions about it. As spiritual leader of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, she considered the welfare of the people her responsibility and used every means her fertile brain could devise to carry out her duty.

She watched the younger woman leave the rock shelter and head toward the path that led to the valley, and noticed the unmistakably foreign look of her leather tunic. The old donier was also aware that she moved with the resilience of health and strength, and a confidence that belied her youth and the fact that she was among complete strangers in their living place.

Zelandoni got up and walked toward the structure, one of the many such dwelling places of various sizes scattered within the limestone abri. At the entrance to the dwelling that divided the private living space from the open public area, she tapped on the stiff rawhide panel next to the drape-closed entry and heard the padded strides of soft leather footwear approaching. The tall, fair-haired, surprisingly handsome man pulled back the drape. Eyes of an unusually vivid shade of blue looked surprised, then warmed with pleasure.

“Zelandoni! How nice to see you,” he said, “but mother isn’t here right now.”

“What makes you think I’m here to see Marthona? You’re the one who’s been gone five years.” Her tone was sharp.

He was suddenly flustered and at a loss for words.

“Well, are you going to leave me standing out here, Jondalar?”

“Oh.… Come in, of course,” he said, his brow knotting into a habitual frown, erasing the warm smile. He stepped back, holding the drape aside as she entered.

They studied each other in silence for a time. When he’d left, she had just become First Among Those Who Served The Mother; she’d had five years to grow into the position and she had grown into it. The woman he knew had become immensely fat. She was two or three times the size of most women, with huge breasts and broad buttocks. She had a soft full face crowded by three chins, but her piercing blue eyes seemed to miss nothing. She had always been tall and strong,
and she carried her great size with grace, and a demeanor that asserted her prestige and authority. She had a presence, an aura of power about her that commanded respect.

They both spoke at once. “Can I get you …” Jondalar started.

“You’ve changed…”

“I’m sorry…” he apologized for what seemed like an interruption, feeling oddly constrained. Then he noticed just the slightest hint of a smile, and a familiar look in her eye, and he felt himself relax.

“I am glad to see you … Zolena,” he said. His brow smoothed out and his smile returned as he focused his compelling eyes full of warmth and love on her.

“You haven’t changed that much,” she said, feeling herself respond to his charisma and the memories it evoked. “No one has called me Zolena for a long time.” She appraised him again carefully, “You have changed, though. Grown up some. You’re more handsome than ever.…”

He started to protest, but she shook her head at him. “Don’t make objections, Jondalar. You know it’s true. But there’s a difference. You look … how can I say it … you don’t have that hungry look, that need that every woman wanted to satisfy. I think you have found what you’ve been searching for. You are happy in a way that you have never been.”

“I never could keep anything from you,” he said, smiling with an excited, almost childlike delight. “It’s Ayla. We plan to mate at this summer’s Matrimonial. I suppose we could have had a mating ceremony before we left, or along the way, but I wanted to wait until we got home so you could slip that thong over our wrists and tie the knot for us.”

Just talking about her had changed his expression, and Zelandoni had a momentary sense of the almost obsessive love he felt for this woman called Ayla. It concerned her, raised all the protective instincts she felt for her people—particularly this person—as the voice, surrogate, and instrument of the Great Earth Mother. She knew the powerful emotions he had struggled with growing up, and finally learned to keep under control. But a woman he loved that much could hurt
him terribly, perhaps even destroy him. Her eyes narrowed. She wanted to know more about this young woman who had captivated him so completely. Just what kind of hold did she have on him?

“How can you be so sure she’s right for you? Where did you meet her? How much do you really know about her?”

Jondalar sensed her concern, but something else, too, something that worried him. Zelandoni was the highest ranked spiritual leader of all the zelandonia, and she was not First for nothing. She was a powerful woman and he didn’t want her turning against Ayla. The greatest concern he—and, he knew, Ayla, too—had had during their long and difficult Journey to his home was whether or not she would be accepted by his people. For all her exceptional qualities, there were some things about her that he wished she would keep secret, though he doubted that she would. She could have enough difficulties—and probably would have from some people—without incurring the enmity of this particular woman. Quite the opposite, more than anyone Ayla needed the support of Zelandoni.

He reached out and held the shoulders of the woman, needing to persuade her, somehow, not only to accept Ayla but to help her, but he wasn’t sure how. Looking into her eyes, he couldn’t help remembering the love they once had shared, and suddenly he knew that, as difficult as it might be for him, only complete honesty would work … if anything would.

Jondalar was a private man about his personal feelings; it was the way he’d learned to control his powerful emotions, to keep them to himself. It was not easy for him to talk about them to anyone, not even someone who knew him as well as she did.

“Zelandoni…” His voice softened. “Zolena … you know it was you that spoiled me for other women. I was hardly more than a boy, and you were the most exciting woman any man could hope for. I wasn’t alone in wetting my dreams with thoughts of you, but you made mine come true. I burned for you, and when you came to me, became my donii-woman, I couldn’t get enough of you. My first man
hood was filled with you, but you know it didn’t end there. I wanted more and as much as you fought it, you did, too. Even though it was forbidden, I loved you, and you loved me. I still love you. I will always love you.

“Even afterwards, after all the trouble we caused everyone, and mother sending me to live with Dalanar, when I came back, no one ever came close to you. I hungered for you lying spent beside another woman, and I hungered for more than your body. I wanted to share a hearth with you. I didn’t care about the difference in age, or that no man was supposed to fall in love with his donii-woman. I wanted to spend my life with you.”

“And look what you would have gotten, Jondalar,” Zolena said. She was moved, more than she imagined she could be anymore. “Have you taken a good look? I’m not just older than you. I’m so fat, I’m starting to have trouble getting around. I’m still strong or I’d have more, and will as time goes on. You are young, and so good to look at, women ache for you. The Mother chose me. She must have known I would grow to look like her. That’s fine for Zelandoni, but at your hearth, I would have been just a fat old woman, and you would still be a handsome young man.”

“Do you think I would have cared? Zolena, I had to travel beyond the end of the Great Mother River before I found a woman who could compare with you—you can’t imagine how far that is. I would do it again, and more. I thank the Great Mother that I found Ayla. I love her, as I would have loved you. Be good to her, Zolena … Zelandoni. Don’t hurt her.”

“That’s just it. If she’s right for you, if she ‘compares,’ I couldn’t hurt her, and she wouldn’t hurt you, could not. That’s what I need to know, Jondalar.”

They both looked up as the drape over the entrance was moved aside. Ayla came into the dwelling carrying traveling packs, and saw Jondalar holding the shoulders of an enormously fat woman. He pulled his hands away, looking disconcerted, almost ashamed, as though he was doing something wrong.

What was it about the way Jondalar was looking at the woman, about the way his hands had held her shoulders? And the woman? In spite of her size, there was a seductive quality to the way she held her body. But another characteristic quickly asserted itself. As she turned to look at Ayla, she moved with a sense of assurance and composure that was a manifest sign of her authority.

Observing small details of expression and posture for meaning was second nature to the young woman. The Clan, the people who raised her, did not speak primarily with words. They communicated with signs, gestures, and nuances of facial expression and stance. When she lived with the Mamutoi, her ability to interpret body language had evolved and expanded to include understanding the unconscious signals and gestures of those who used spoken language. Suddenly Ayla knew who the woman was, and realized something important had transpired between the man and the woman that involved her. She sensed she was facing a critical test, but she didn’t hesitate.

“She’s the one, isn’t she, Jondalar?” Ayla said, approaching them.

“I’m the one what?” Zelandoni said, glaring at the stranger.

Ayla stared back at the woman without flinching. “You’re the one I must thank,” she said. “Until I met Jondalar, I didn’t understand about the Mother’s Gifts, especially Her Gift of Pleasure. I had only known pain and anger, but he was patient and gentle, and I learned to know the joy. He told me about the woman who taught him. I thank you, Zelandoni, for teaching Jondalar so he could give me Her Gift. But I am grateful to you for something much more important … and more difficult for you. Thank you for giving him up so he could find me.”

Zelandoni was surprised, though she showed little sign of it. Ayla’s words were not at all what she expected to hear. Their eyes locked as the woman studied Ayla, searching for a sense of her depth, a perception of her feelings, an insight to the truth. The older woman’s comprehension of unconscious
signals and body language was not dissimilar to Ayla’s, though more intuitive. Her ability had developed through subliminal observation and instinctive analysis, not the expanded application of a language learned as a child, but was no less astute. Zelandoni didn’t know how she knew, she just knew.

It took a moment before she became aware of something curious. Though the young woman seemed to be entirely fluent in Zelandomi—her command of the language was so good, she used it like one born to it—there could be no doubt she was a foreigner.

The One Who Served was not unfamiliar with visitors who spoke with the accent of another language, but Ayla’s speech had a strangely exotic quality, unlike anything she’d ever heard. Her voice was not unpleasant, somewhat low-pitched, but a little throaty, and she had trouble with certain sounds. She recalled Jondalar’s remark about how far he had gone on his Journey, and a thought crossed Zelandoni’s mind in the few heartbeats that the two women stood confronting each other: this woman had been willing to travel a great distance to come home with him.

Only then did she notice that the young woman’s face had a distinctly foreign look and tried to identify the difference. Ayla was attractive, but one expected that of any woman Jondalar would bring home. Her face was somewhat broader and shorter than that of Zelandomi women, but nicely proportioned, with a well-defined jaw. She was a shade taller than the older woman, and her rather dark blond hair was enhanced with sun-lightened streaks. Her clear gray-blue eyes held secrets, a strong will, but no hint of malice.

Zelandoni nodded, and turned to Jondalar. “She’ll do.”

He let out a breath, then looked from one to the other. “How did you know this was Zelandoni, Ayla? You haven’t been introduced yet, have you?”

“It was not hard. You still love her, and she loves you.”

“But … but … how…?” he sputtered.

“Don’t you know I’ve seen that look in your eyes?
Don’t you think I understand how a woman who loves you feels inside?” Ayla said.

“Some people would be jealous if they saw someone they loved looking at someone else with love,” he said.

Zelandoni suspected that the “some people” he was thinking of was himself. “Don’t you think she can see a handsome young man and a fat old woman, Jondalar? It’s what anyone would see. Your love for me is no threat to her. If your memory still blinds you, I am grateful enough.”

She turned to Ayla. “I wasn’t sure about you. If I had felt you weren’t right for him, it would not matter how far you have traveled, you would never mate him.”

“Nothing you could do would stop it,” Ayla said.

“See?” Zelandoni said, turning to look at Jondalar. “I told you if she was right for you, I couldn’t hurt her.”

“Did you think Marona was right for me, Zelandoni?” Jondalar said with a touch of irritation, beginning to feel as though between them, he had no right to make up his own mind. “You never objected when I was promised to her.”

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