The winter came slowly this time. We were ready for the cold, the dark and the wind-driven snow. We knew we would not have enough food for the tribe, not for the whole winter. We also knew that not all the tribe would make it through to the spring thaw.
It is not just the old and the very young that winter takes from us when its icy fingers close around their throats. We, the young, the strong, die too: in storms, in hunting accidents, in the darkness and the cold that can rip the life from the living as easy as the sharpest flint axe.
Death is always easy, too easy in this cruel world, but when that cruelty turns cold, death is only a quick breath away.
Some think that the warm breath in the icy air is the soul trying to escape the cruelty of the winter. Attempting to float up close to a sun that offers little warmth in these seasons where it turns away from us. We have seen the same souls rise from the dead animals when the blades rip them open. Others say it is just the warmth of the body escaping, but I believe it is more than that.
This winter, though, has been strange, warmer. We even had warm days as those day drew shorter. Some think it is a sign, a portent, perhaps of good times to come, others believe that if it is a sign, then it can only mean bad things.
Some think the gods could be angry, some think the gods could be pleased. I do not know what to think. Sometimes I think there are no gods at all, even though I am meant to speak to them and for them. Old Blenka the shaman taught me the secret of speaking with the gods when I became his apprentice. The secret I learnt is that there is no secret. A shaman takes the drink of the holy herbs and disappears into the shelter with the unmarried women.
Then days later after the ritual, he emerges and tells everyone what the god told him. Blenka told me to just enjoy the women and then just tell everybody what they want to hear.
The trouble is, with this unusual winter, I do not know what people want to hear. Either they want to hear that the gods are angry and they are preparing a disaster for us, or the gods are pleased with us and are sparing us the cold cruelty of the winter.
All I know is what happens to a shaman who the people feel has fallen foul of the gods, and never spending another night alone in the shelter with the unmarried women is the least of it.