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The Valley of Horses is an historical fiction novel by Jean M. Auel. It is the sequel to The Clan of the Cave Bear and second in the Earth's Children series.

Plot summary

The book starts off from the events at end of The Clan of the Cave Bear detailing the life of the female protagonist, a young Cro-Magnon woman named Ayla must face life after being exiled from the band of Neanderthals, known as the Clan, who had raised her from early childhood. The book follows the journey Ayla makes to find her own people, whom the Clan refer to as "the Others." It also follows the parallel travels of a new character, Cro-Magnon Jondalar of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, accompanying his impetuous younger half-brother Thonolan on a "great Journey" to walk the entire length of the "Great Mother River" (the Danube) and find its fabled mouth and the sea beyond (Black Seamarker).

Ayla, alone and ritually ostracized from the only people she has ever known, travels steadily from the Beran Sea peninsular home of her former tribe north for around half a year until finding the book's titular valley sunk deep into the windy landscape of the periglacial loess steppes Ukrainemarker. She begins to worry about never finding the Others and dwelling on the need to prepare for winter by setting in stores. Finding a suitable cave and many conveniences in the valley eventually leads her to establish a comfortable but lonely life there.

Her desire for companionship leads her to domesticate the foal of a horse she hunted, naming the filly Whinney, eventually learning how to ride her, and assisting in the later delivery of her foal. She also takes in and treats an injured cave lion cub, which she names Baby. Both Baby and especially Whinney figure as major characters in this book and the sequel "The Mammoth Hunters".

Meanwhile, Jondalar and Thonolan travel east along the mountainous course of Great Mother River's north (left) bank, making friends and facing dangers. Auel uses them in counterpoint to introduce her vision of the nature religion centered on the neolythic worship of the Great Mother of All (by several names, depending upon the local and language). The Great Journey was Thonolan's idea originally; Jondalar decided to accompany him partially to fulfill his dreams of travel, and partially to escape a mating he isn't sure he's ready for. Thonolan is a carefree likable charismatic joker of a character who provides a counter-point to his more serious, somewhat darker, and far more worrisome older brother.

Jondalar, who complements magnetic handsomeness with a quiet, brooding demeanor and supreme skills at pillow play, is often the recipient of female attention along the Journey, though Thonolan, with his candid nature and laughing eyes, is frequently able to charm the most lovely of the women around him. One of these, Jetamio of the Sharamudoi, becomes his mate, while Jondalar attempts to settle down with a woman named Serenio but fails to because of his confusing inability to fall in love with her, which she is able to sense. Thonolan resumes his travels after Jetamio's death in childbirth, intent on finding either the end of the river or death, while a worried Jondalar trails alongside him, trying to mitigate the semi-suicidal impulses of his grieving sibling. The two reach the end of The Great Mother River and nearly perish in quicksand, but encounter people of the Mammoth Hunters, or Mamutoi. Invited to join the Maumtoi Summer Meeting mammoth hunt, the two head north, intending to visit with the gathering groups and join the first hunt of the year.

Jondalar and Ayla meet when Thonolan attempts to hunt a wild deer but is relieved of his kill by a cave lioness. When the brothers enter a blind canyon to retrieve the carcass, the cave lions who reside there attack, and the screams alert Ayla who is out exercising a very pregnant Whinney. She is able to rescue Jondalar when the lioness's mate turns out to be none other than Baby. Though Thonolan has already been killed, Jondalar is still alive, though gravely wounded, and Ayla brings him back to her cave where she nurses him back to health, drawing on her skills as a medicine woman of the Clan, along with a few new innovations such as stitches.

The remaining chapters of the novel deal with Ayla and Jondalar's awakening love, which is handicapped by youthful inexperience and prejudices Jondalar's people refer to the Clan as "Flatheads" and think them loathsome sub-human animals. As Ayla and Jondalar learn to communicate, Ayla can only speak in the Clan's silent sign language, and Jondalar must teach her verbal speech, they begin to get to know each other, starting to overcome the many culture clashes resulting from their differing upbringings. Ayla's language skills take a progressive leap after she uncovers a repressed childhood memory about her mother and the earthquake that killed her parents. Despite having to overcome all these obstacles, the two fall in love as the book nears its end, and feeling themselves ready for winter decide to leave the Valley of Horses and strike out for a pre-winter exploratory holiday in regions around the valley Ayla hadn't explored. The story ends with Ayla and Jondalar meeting a group of Mamutoi, The Mammoth Hunters, which is the title of the next book in the series.

The series continues in sequels The Plains of Passage and The Shelters of Stone. Jean Auel has recently announced plans to write a seventh novel as a series finale.

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