Razor Mountain — Chapter 2.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with a new chapter published every week. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

The sky shimmered with green and blue light, but the spirits refused to speak. Once again, God-Speaker wondered if he was suited to his new name. He sat for most of the night, wrapped in seal furs outside his pit house, listening and watching the sky. He slept little. When the first pink light touched the peaks of the mountains, he stood, knees stiff.

The pit house had a roof of branches, dry grass, and moss, bent over a shallow hole in the hard earth. God-Speaker crawled through the entry tunnel — the dip and turn that stopped the wind — to the room inside. Old coals still glowed at its center, a thin line of smoke rising to a small hole in the ceiling.

God-Speaker’s house was small. He had no mate to share it with. His things all fit in one bag. It was similar to what the others would carry: a waterproof seal hide with a leather strap. Along with food, a spear, hides, and a few stone tools, he had herbs, paints, and other tools of magic.

He slung another, empty bag over the other shoulder. He would carry less of the tribe’s supplies than others, but he would carry a heavier weight: the stone god.

It took only a few minutes to pack everything and be ready to leave the winter settlement. When he came out into the cold morning air, it was brighter and others were awake. They ate dried fish, meat or berries; tended their fires; and packed their own things for the upcoming journey.

God-Speaker took a few small bites of smoked salmon as he walked among the pit houses. His stomach churned.

The valley followed a river running between two snowy peaks. The gurgling sound and clean smell of water permeated the little village. The river was deep, and though it had turned icy and shrunk during the winter, it had never frozen or dried up completely. The houses were dug into a flat area of hard earth that led down to the water. God-Speaker walked away from the river, toward a steep, gravel-strewn wall of striped rock on the far side of the houses.

At the end of the little cluster of houses was another house so small that only one person could live there. This was the house of Makes-Medicine, oldest and wisest of their people; shaman and herbalist. She had her own special pouches of herbs and tools to pack, but God-Speaker knew she had risen early as well. Whenever the group traveled, she would look for signs from the spirits, and prepare magic to aid them on their journey. She had built a fire in a shallow hole outside her house and was prodding it with a stick.

“Are you ready?” she asked him, without looking up.

He took a deep breath. He was proud to carry the god, but also nervous.

“Today, you will be God-Speaker and God-Carrier to the tribe,” she said. “I will name you to the spirits before we set out.”

Their people had many names as they grew older. Each person was named soon after birth, for a physical feature, a personality trait, or the hopes that the tribe had for them. As they grew, they acquired new names by their actions. Names were given by the other members of the tribe, but it was good to offer those names to the spirits of the world around them. The spirits were powerful and mysterious. If they recognized the people by their actions, friendly spirits might help them and keep them safe.

God-Speaker was unusual. While men were often hunters and protectors, it was not common for them to be shamans. Women seemed to be more adept with the herbs, potions, and paints. More importantly, they were more likely to hear the spirits. Makes-Medicine often heard the spirits in dreams, but she had told him that others witnessed the spirits in other ways.

God-Speaker had earned his name before the winter set in, by finding the stone god and the place for the village. A voice had called out to him, a voice that nobody else could hear, leading him to a shallow place in the river right before a waterfall. There, sitting on top the other rocks, was the stone god. After that he heard the voices of spirits almost daily.

God-Speaker still wasn’t used to the whispers he heard from the god, and from spirits he couldn’t yet name. They had led him past the waterfall, down to the green valley where his people had spent the winter, and to the cave.

God-Speaker left Makes-Medicine and walked to the sheer rock face. It looked as though a long line of earth had heaved up, making a wall of layered, crumbling stone. A jagged crack split the face from the ground to its upper ridge. God-Speaker squeezed himself sideways into the crack, into the cold darkness. The spring sun was warming the world outside, but it was still winter in the earth.

The crack bent and turned. God-Speaker took his bags off his shoulders, crouched, and pressed through. Beyond the tight entryway was a little chamber. The crack opened up into a low room with a shelf of broken rock at one end. Sharp shards crunched under his feet. On the shelf, surrounded by little offerings of flowers and food, was the god.

It was oblong, with a flat, neckless head. Thick arms and legs wrapped around the huge belly. He had accentuated its features by careful chipping, bringing out the eyes and clawed hands and feet. It was a strange form, a little like the people, and a little like the animals they hunted. Makes-Medicine told him this was how the spirits were: they took whatever forms suited them, and shaped the world in their image.

God-Speaker had to crawl on hands and knees to enter the space, carefully avoiding the sharp rocks. He bent his head low and spoke to the spirit of the rock, in the way that Makes-Medicine had shown him.

“The people must continue our journey today,” he said. “We ask the god of the earth to speak to us. Lead us to safe places. Lead us to food and shelter. The people will give you many good things.”

The god made no response. It was often silent, and would speak to him in its own, mysterious, time.

From his bag, he took several little pouches. Each pouch had a different color of powder prepared by Makes-Medicine. There were orange-red and white powders made by pounding certain river rocks, yellow and bluish-purple from dried flowers, and a dark green paste made from fresh grass and caribou fat.

God-Speaker rubbed the colors into the pitted surface of the stone god. The white of the eyes and the predatory claws. The green of the fertile earth on the body. The yellow of the life-giving sun on the head. The purple-blue of defeated winter ice on the soles of the feet.

With the god suitably honored and prepared, God-Speaker gently placed it into the bag that he had made for it and pulled the rawhide drawstring closed.

God-Speaker heard whispering from the bag, like the sound of leaves in the wind. He opened it. The god spoke to him, though he did not understand how he understood the meaning of the sound. It spoke to him of the journey, of crossing the river and leaving the valley, and of following the rising sun.

The tribe had followed the rising sun for years, searching for a place where the sun was strong enough to hold back the great ice. Searching for a place with more abundant plants and game, and fewer people to hunt the animals.

The whispers continued, and the cave became colder. The journey would be hard. Harder than it had been so far. The blood of the people would be poured out, and the earth would drink it. The people would be tested. God-Speaker would be tested.

The whispers faded, but God-Speaker heard another noise. There was shouting outside the cave.

God-Speaker left the god on the shelf. He squeezed his way back through the crack as quickly as he could. He came out of the cold earth, scraping his shoulder on a sharp edge as he did.

The people were coming out of their pit houses, running toward the noise, which was coming from Makes-Medicine’s house.

A stranger stood there. God-Speaker stopped in shock. It was once rare to meet other tribes, but they were more and more common. Others were also looking for warmer, more hospitable lands. They were not the only ones struggling to find the food to feed everyone.

Still, this stranger was alone, and that was unusual. Nobody could live very long on their own. His tangled hair was a reddish-brown that shone in the sun, unlike the black hair of God-Speaker’s people. He looked sick and starved, his skin taut over the bones of his arms and legs, his ribs showing and his belly round. His eyes were open too wide, bright against his dirty face.

In one hand, he held a stone hand-axe. Something wet hung from it, dripping onto a crumpled shape. It was Makes-Medicine on the ground.

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