He crouched low and moved very slowly, keeping his eyes fixed on the grazing bison, and that quite nearly cost him his life.
A sudden blast of cold wind struck his back and a blinding swirl of dense snow came rolling down the side of Mount Shrak to engulf him.
He prudently suppressed his sudden panic. His heavy winter cloak gave him some protection, but that might start to fade if the wind grew colder. What he needed right now was shelter of some kind, but there wasn’t anything nearby that would shelter him. All that there was in his vicinity was snow. “It’s the wind that’s trying to turn me into ice,” he muttered. “I’ve got to get in out of the wind.”
Then “snow” and “shelter” suddenly came together. Snow wasn’t warm, exactly, but it wasn’t nearly as cold as that cursed wind. If he could somehow burrow down into a patch of deep snow, it would get him in out of the wind, and right now that would probably give him his best chance of surviving.
He dropped to his knees and began probing at the snow beneath him. “Not deep enough,” he muttered and crawled on several yards farther, but the snow was still too shallow.
Then he came to a hilltop that the howling wind had swept clear of snow. If the snow had piled up behind that hill, there’d almost certainly be deep snow beyond that bare hilltop. He quickly scurried on across that grassy knob and immediately sank down to his hips in soft snow. “Now we’re getting someplace,” he muttered. He kicked at the snow around his feet and knees until he’d managed to open a fairly sizeable pit. Then he dropped to his knees and began to scoop out loose snow. As he went deeper, he found that tramping the snow with his leather-clad feet packed it, and packed snow didn’t take up as much room as loose snow did.
He stopped to catch his breath and to think his way through what he was doing. He needed shelter from the wind, and “shelter” meant something very much like one of the lodges of Asmie—except that shelter could be made out of blocks of snow rather than sod. He was going to have to tunnel down a ways and then open up something like a chamber. Then he’d need to block off his tunnel to keep out the bitterly cold air that was driving the snow down the side of Mount Shrak. “I’ll have air to breathe—if I don’t stay there too long, and I can eat snow if I get thirsty.” He was sure that it was going to be a bit dangerous, but the cold was much, much more dangerous.
He burrowed on down until he came to grass and then he followed the grassy slope down a bit farther, packing the snow of his makeshift tunnel with his shoulders and elbows. It wasn’t nearly as cold down here as it had been up on the surface, and he could breathe. “That’s all that matters right now, I think,” he said, and went back to work.
He ended up with a small, dome-shaped chamber with a partially blocked-off tunnel. It was dark and chilly, but he was getting fresh air to breathe, and, though it wasn’t exactly warm there, it wasn’t nearly as cold as it’d been outside in the screaming wind.
Then he remembered something and almost laughed. He untied the leather pouch hanging from his belt and found several thin slabs of smoked bison meat in the pouch. “Food, water, and a sort of warm place to sleep. It doesn’t get much better than that,” he said out loud.
He periodically went up through his tunnel to push away the snow that had accumulated in his tunnel-mouth and to find out if it was still snowing out there.
After about four days, the cold wind apparently decided that Tlantar wasn’t really worth all the time she’d been spending trying to freeze him into a block of solid ice, so she moved on. Tlantar waited for a while, just to be on the safe side, and then he tied his furry winter cloak shut, crawled on out through his tunnel, and waded through the new snow back to Asmie.
When he arrived back home, he was more than a little surprised to find his friends holding a “farewell ceremony for my dear son Tlantar.” It took him a while to convince his father and friends that he was not a ghost coming back to haunt dear old Asmie. He explained several times how he’d managed to survive, and then Dahlaine insisted that he take all the men of Asmie to his hidden hole in the snow and show them exactly how to make one of their own should it ever become necessary. “We lose hundreds of men in Matakan every winter to those deadly blizzards, Tlantar,” Dahlaine said. “You’ve managed to come up with a way to survive. I want you to show every man in Asmie how to do it. Then we’ll bring in men from other tribes, and you’ll teach them as well. I think you’ve stumbled across something that’ll save thousands of lives, Tlantar Two-Hands, and Matans will remember you long after you’ve gone to your grave.”
Tlantar thought that being famous might be sort of nice, but he didn’t care much for the word “grave” that Dahlaine had just dropped on him.
When Tlantar was about twenty, his father, Chief Tladan, was killed in a stampede of frightened bison. “He shouldn’t have been out there with us, Tlantar,” a hunter named Tlodal, who’d been a member of the hunting party, asserted. “He’s been slowing down for the past few years—probably because his back was bothering him quite a bit. You might not have noticed it, but it was all he could do to walk when he first got up in the morning. We tried our best to persuade him to stay home, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He loved the hunt, and I guess he thought that his back and legs could get him through one more season.”
Tlantar sighed. “He was always like that,” he said. “He was probably the most stubborn man in all of Matakan.”
“I’m sure that was what made him such a good chief,” Tlodal said, “but it seems to have caught up with him finally. Maybe we should make it a rule that nobody over thirty can go to the hunt.”
“That might get both of us in a lot of trouble, Tlodal,” Tlantar told his friend.
Chieftainship in the tribes of Matakan was usually hereditary, but the men of the tribes always had the final say when the previous chief died, and “Tlantar is too young” began to crop up fairly often after Chief Tladan’s death. There seemed to be a strong odor of ambition floating around in the village of Asmie.
“We’ve talked it over, Tlantar,” Tlerik, one of the elders of the tribe, told him, “and we pretty much agree that things will go more smoothly for you if you have a mate. The men who don’t approve of you keep pointing out the fact that you aren’t mated. You’ll look more stable if you have a mate. A few children would probably help even more, but that usually takes a while.”