Razor Mountain — Chapter 5.1

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

The people followed the river for days as it descended through the mountains. The great ice that filled in the cracks of the world was here, as it was everywhere. They could often see fields of ice filling the low places. Sometimes it was milky white, sometimes it was the deep blue of the sky just before nightfall. Even though winter was fading, the wind still cut like sharp flint, and the nights were bone-numbingly cold.

Early spring was a dangerous time. The reserves of dry meat, fish and berries that had sustained them through the winter were nearly gone, but the land was just beginning to awaken. There would be few edible plants to find, and nothing would fruit until well after the next full moon. Some animals were still in their long winter sleep. What few could be found would be lean and tough.

The river was a lifeline, not only because it gave them a path to follow, but because it kept them close to the river spirit, who could watch over and protect them. The tribe made good speed after the mild winter in the valley, but they were uneasy. They spoke little as they walked. They had suffered already this spring, and everyone was waiting to see if that hardship would lead to better days, or to more troubles.

God-Speaker felt the weight of their stares, saw them looking away when he turned. There were some who had grumbled when Makes-Medicine had adopted God-Speaker as family. The grumbling was quieter, but no less, when he had heard the stone god speaking and Makes-Medicine had announced that he was a shaman and spirit-talker. Now that she was gone, they were getting louder again. God-Speaker heard the whispers, and he could guess what was being said beyond his hearing.

There was no question of Makes-Medicine’s authority, at least while she was alive. She was beloved by the people, and a hard loss to bear. Now, the unspoken order of the tribe was unsettled. Despite Makes-Medicine’s blessing, God-Speaker was young and untested as a shaman. The tribe had not yet seen proof of the powerful visions or the deep understanding of the spirits that Makes-Medicine had shown. And God-Speaker knew there were some who expected him to be a failure. The grumblers were eager for Braves-the-Storm to lead. He was Makes-Medicine’s brother, now the eldest of the tribe, and wise by all accounts. And he had been a great hunter in his younger days.

Still, the people were a community that worked together. Respect had to be given to those who earned it. For now, the questions of leadership would remain open, and the people would watch and judge everything that God-Speaker did and said. God-Speaker had never wanted the burden of leading, but he had been chosen by the stone god, and by Makes-Medicine, and now he was trapped. When the stone god had first spoken to him, it was thrilling. For once, he felt useful. Now, he wondered if it would have been better for him to have not been chosen.

Three days into the journey, a storm crept over the mountains, dumping heavy, wet snow on them. Travel was slow and miserable, and there were no dry places to sleep. The tribe’s mood worsened, but they continued to descend, following the river and hoping to get clear of the snow.

They came to a place where the river wound back on itself, running between a series of ridges. He heard talk at the front of the group: some of the hunters, men his own age. They were talking about climbing the nearest ridge to see the lay of the land and the course of the river below.

The stone god had been quiet for days, only whispering wordlessly now and then. Now it spoke to him clearly. Go up.

Two of the tribe’s best hunters, Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail, were already scrambling up the steep, slippery ridge. It was icy, and covered in loose rock that skittered down behind them.

God-Speaker wanted to back away, into the group that was settling in to wait. Instead, he stepped forward and took a deep, shaky breath. He set down his pack of personal belongings next to the packs the hunters had left behind. Finally, he adjusted the second pack, the one that held the stone god, and began to climb. He heard a few whispers from behind. Nobody had expected him to go up. They did not hear the stone god. They did not feel the compulsion that gripped him.

The slope was shallow enough that it could be walked, if it weren’t so slippery and loosely-packed. God-Speaker kept his hands out, sometimes for balance, sometimes scrabbling on all fours. He slid and scraped his knees and hands. He slowed. The other two continued up the slope above, getting further and further ahead. One of them looked back down at him and grinned mockingly.

To God-Speaker’s surprise, someone else came up the slope behind him. It was Braves-the-Storm. Unlike the younger men, he was clearly taking his time, picking each step and hand-hold carefully. Despite his age and his deliberate movement, he soon caught up to God-Speaker and began to move ahead. As he passed, he nodded to God-Speaker, his face showing no emotion beyond the strain of climbing.

God-Speaker knew he could not catch the hunters, especially once they had seen him coming up behind. Unlike them, he had never earned names praising his strength or hunting prowess. He had always been weak and clumsy. But it was embarrassing to be unable to even keep up with Braves-the-Storm, no matter how strong the old man was for his age.

The two hunters reached the top of the ridge when God-Speaker was only halfway up. They turned back and shouted offers of assistance down to Braves-the-Storm, but he only waved them off. They looked past him to God-Speaker, but said nothing more and walked out of sight.

By the time Braves-the-Storm reached the top, God-Speaker was struggling. He was hot with exertion and freezing at the same time. The cold wind turned the sweat to ice in his hair and beard. His back burned and his hands and arms were shaking with effort. For a moment, he thought about stopping, letting go and sliding back down.

The stone god whispered and hissed. He kept going.

Braves-the-Storm sat at the top of the ridge, catching his breath and waiting for God-Speaker. He offered a hand and pulled him up the last few feet. They sat for a moment, together, looking down on the rest of the people at the bottom of the slope.

Before God-Speaker could calm his breathing, Braves-the-Storm stood with a grunt, giving him a light slap on the shoulder as he turned and followed the two hunters. God-Speaker wanted to sit until the shakiness left his limbs, but he stood and followed.

“We wondered if you would make it,” Far-Seeing said, and both men smirked.

Braves-the-Storm did not smile. “He carries a heavier burden.”

“Heavier than the seasons you carry?” Finds-the-Trail replied. But his smile faded in the face of Braves-the-Storm’s stoic stare.

There was a smooth outcrop of rock at the top of the ridge. Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail stood side-by-side, looking down at the land beyond. God-Speaker and Braves-the-Storm stood beside them. From where they stood, the land fell, and fell again down bare stony ledges. The river twisted and turned before pouring into a canyon crusted with ice. It was narrow before the falls—narrow enough that the people might be able to cross it. It was clear that they couldn’t follow the river down. They’d have to pick one side of the canyon or the other.

It was the moment God-Speaker had dreaded. They could no longer follow the river. They might be able to stay close and find it again below, but they had to make a choice now.

“Which side of the river looks best?” asked Finds-the-Trail. He was clearly thinking along the same lines as God-Speaker.

“Even where it’s narrow, it will be dangerous to cross,” Braves-the-Storm replied. “We should not take that risk without good reason.”

“We could stay on this side for now,” God-Speaker said. “We may follow the canyon down to that far ridge and see more of what lies ahead.”

The hunters both narrowed their eyes, as though annoyed that God-Speaker would involve himself in their conversation.

“Yes,” said Braves-the-Storm, “but the path is rough with rocks and ice. It will be slow. We may spend a day or more getting there, and if the trail ahead looks bad, then we will have to come back to the narrow place.”

“Whichever side we pick, we may not find a good path,” Finds-the-Trail said.

Their voices faded from God-Speaker’s ears. At the top of the ridge, the whispers of the stone god grew to a roar. They clung to him and made him itch. He felt compelled to kneel on the flat stone. He swung the leather pack around in front of him. His shoulders throbbed as the burden was removed. The outside world dulled and blurred. He opened the pack and gently slid the stone from it. It was all he could focus on. He cradled the god in his lap, and they surveyed the land together, like a parent cradling a child.

God-Speaker could not tell if the others were still talking amongst themselves. Everything close had become hazy, but the land in the distance was bright and clear. God-Speaker couldn’t hear his own breath. He couldn’t hear the wind scouring the ridge or his companions’ voices, but he could hear the rustle of trees across the river. He could hear the water far away as it quickened down its narrow channel, falling into the canyon in a foamy rush.

Away, beyond the next ridge, before the river dropped from sight, there were other noises. A dull thumping, as of hooves on hard ground, and then a deep bellow. The low groan rose into an eerie trumpeting that echoed among the rocks. It was a sound like elk or deer might make, but strange enough that God-Speaker wondered if it was some other, stranger beast the people did not know.

“Have you ever heard such a noise?” he asked.

“What noise?”

The fog fell away. Once again, the far-away ridge and the river and the woods were distant and muted, and the rock was hard beneath him. He could hear his own breathing again. It was slow and steady now. He shivered as the sweat of the climb dried on his neck and face.

The others stood nearby, looking down on him. The hunters wore their familiar irritated expressions. Braves-the-Storm was impassive.

“You were in a trance,” he said. “We heard nothing but the wind. Did the god speak to you?”

“Not with words,” God-Speaker said. He pointed toward the patch of forest. “I heard hooves on the other side of the river, beyond the ridge. Maybe among those trees. I heard bellows, too.”

“Deer?” asked Finds-the-Trail. He looked interested, in spite of himself.

God-Speaker shook his head. “I don’t know. They were strange, not like deer or elk I have heard before.”

“We should be wary,” Braves-the-Storm said. “It may be some new kind of deer, or a predator.”

“Deer meat would be worth crossing the river for,” Far-Seeing said.

The people still had some of their winter fare. They dug up what edible roots and plants they could find as they traveled, and Far-Seeing had killed a hare with a well-aimed sling-stone, but something as large as a deer could feed everyone.

Finds-the-Trail nodded. “We should cross if there is a chance of deer.”

Braves-the-Storm crossed his arms over his chest. “What do you think, God-Speaker? Did the God show you anything else?”

God-Speaker looked down at the smooth stone head. It was silent now. Even the whispers had quieted.

“Nothing,” he said. “I think it must have a reason to let me hear this, but even Makes-Medicine said that signs from the spirits could often be interpreted in many different ways. I think we should cross, but we should watch carefully for animal signs.”

They said nothing more, but stood for a moment, looking out over the land and holding as much of it in their memories as they could. The hunters seemed caught between their irritation with him and the hope of fresh meat. God-Speaker slid the stone god into its pack and pulled it onto his aching shoulders once more. They all went down together, the hunters again leading the way.

Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail moved among the group to explain what they had seen ahead. The people began walking again, with Braves-the-Storm leading the way. God-Speaker walked in the middle of the group. He heard mentions of deer here and there in the group, but nobody approached him to ask what he had seen or heard on the ridge.

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