Tlantar began to practice with one of his father’s worn-down spear-throwers, casting spear after spear at an old, worn-out bison-hide blanket stuffed full of straw. What he was doing seemed to bother the old hunter who was giving the boys instructions. “Will you make up your mind, Tlantar?” he demanded. “Are you right-handed or left-handed?”
“Both, I think,” Tlantar replied. “Whichever hand I pick something up with seems to work just as well as the other one does. I’ve always sort of wondered why everybody else in the tribe only uses one hand.”
“Let’s find out which of your hands works best right now. One of them has to be better than the other.”
It took Tlantar the better part of a week to convince the old hunter that there was no significant difference between what he could do with either hand, and his teacher began to refer to him as “Two-Hands.” Chief Tladan seemed to be a bit puzzled by that. “Everybody has two hands,” he objected.
“Maybe so,” the old man replied, “but they don’t—or probably can’t—use them the way your boy does.”
Tlantar felt that they were all getting excited about something that didn’t really mean very much, but if they wanted to make a big thing out of it, that was up to them.
After the boys of the tribe of Asmie had grown more proficient, the men of the tribe took them out into the grassland to give them a chance to hurl spears at live bison instead of stationary targets, and even Tlantar was a bit surprised when he felled a full-grown bison with his very first cast.
“Which hand did you use?” his old teacher asked.
“I’m not too sure,” Tlantar admitted. “I was just a little bit excited, so I can’t really remember.”
His teacher walked away, shaking his head and muttering to himself.
There was a fair amount of discussion among the men of the tribe that evening. Tlantar was still just a growing boy, but it had long been a custom in the tribe to elevate a young man to the status of adulthood when he made his first kill. Ultimately, “first kill” won out over “just a boy,” and “Tlantar Two-Hands” was now a grown-up, probably the youngest grown-up in the history of the tribe. Chief Tladan was so proud of his son that the other men of the tribe began to avoid him, since his boasting was getting to be just a bit tiresome.
Tlantar spent the next several weeks scraping and curing the shaggy hide of his first kill in keeping with yet another tired old custom. He was required to make new clothes for himself from that hide. The older men of the tribe could give him advice, of course, but the scraping, curing, and sewing were his responsibility. He made several mistakes, naturally, but he was able to conceal them fairly well, and he was quite proud of the winter cloak he’d put together.
Unfortunately, however, he outgrew his new winter cloak in about a year and a half, so he had to make himself a new one before his fourteenth birthday—and yet another one when he was sixteen.
He began to have a recurrent nightmare about then—a horrible dream in which he was about forty feet tall and had to make yet another winter cloak out of the hides of a dozen or so bison.
Winters were most unpleasant in the Domain of Dahlaine of the North. It turned bitterly cold, and howling blizzards swept in to bury everything in deep snowdrifts. The winter of Tlantar’s seventeenth year was particularly savage. The previous summer had been a good hunting season, so there were ample supplies of smoked bison meat in Asmie, and the stores of beans had been building up for years now. The members of the Asmie tribe were quite smug about that. If winter wanted to howl and scream all around them, let her. They had food in plenty, fuel for their fires, and the thick sod walls of their lodges held the screaming winter at bay.
But there was nothing to do. Tlantar was a very active young man, and just sitting by the fire in his father’s lodge day after day after day was almost more than he could bear.
And then there came a day when the wind seemed to have died and the bitter chill softened, and the sun even came out low over the southern horizon. The sky overhead was blue, and except for a patch of dark clouds off to the west, things seemed almost springlike.
“I need to stretch my legs, father,” Tlantar said along about noon. “If I sit here for much longer, I’ll probably forget how to walk.”
“Just be careful, Tlantar,” his father cautioned. “Don’t go out into the open too far. Winter’s still lurking out there, and she could come crashing back without much warning if she decides to have you for lunch.”
“I won’t be too long, father,” Tlantar promised. “I just want to stretch the kinks out of my legs.”
His father smiled faintly. “When you get a bit older, your legs won’t kink up quite so bad.”
“That’s then, father,” Tlantar replied. “This is now, and now’s been piling kinks all over me since last fall.” Tlantar gathered his heavy winter cloak around him and went on out into the open.
There was still a definite chill in the air, he noticed, and the sunlight gleaming from the vast sea of snow was almost blindingly bright. Tlantar squinted and tried to shade his eyes with his hand.
The howling blizzard that had savaged the village of Asmie for the past several weeks had come up out of the southwest rather than the usual northwest, and the unobstructed wind had swept most of the snow away from the village. Tlantar thought that might be a good sign. Mount Shrak normally sheltered Asmie from the wind, and snow seemed to be very fond of shelter. It hadn’t been at all uncommon for the snowdrifts in Asmie to be twelve feet deep, and in shaded spots, they’d still been there in midsummer. So far this year, however, there wasn’t more than a few inches of snow lying on the village. That promised to make life much more pleasant in early summer.
Tlantar strode away from the village, squinting out over the gleaming snow. He was just a bit surprised when he saw a herd of bison raking their hooves across the snow to uncover the grass. If the weather held steady, there might even be an opportunity to take fresh meat. It was something to think about, that was certain. Tlantar began to move carefully at that point. He didn’t want to frighten the grazing bison, and he wished that he’d remembered to bring his spear and spear-thrower with him.
He moved cautiously, of course. He wanted to see just how close he’d be able to come to the herd of bison, but he most definitely didn’t want to startle them. Startled bison usually ran, and about half the time they ran right over the top of whatever—or whoever—had surprised them.