Razor Mountain — Chapter 10.1

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 left the basin and went down into the long and narrowing valley between two mountains. The path was easy where it came out of the basin, but as they went deeper, they were hemmed in by brittle and broken rock faces. There were shattered boulders everywhere, and the ground was covered in gravel and sand. It crunched and shifted under their feet as they walked. They often found the way blocked or difficult, and these sharp shards of rock could cut a misplaced hand, or even the hardened hide of a foot covering.

The little waters that trickled down from either side came together to form a stream that soon became a river. It was colder here than in the lake basin, and while the river ran clear of ice, there was snow nestled in crevices and beneath overhangs.

The people had all seen what God-Speaker had seen from the top of the hill. The sun-touched, snowless lands far in the distance. The shadowed, smoking mountain that stood guard off to the right, daring them to pass. There was no questioning the way now. They all felt the pull of that warm place, an idea that had almost become a myth, now brought to life in front of them. Their worries now came from the smoking mountain. They did not need to hear the spirits like God-Speaker to know that place was cursed. They now saw what God-Speaker had known already, what Makes-Medicine and the stone god had made plain to him: there would be danger and darkness they would have to pass through before they arrived at their destination.

Soon, the valley became enough trouble to busy their minds. It was slow getting the entire group across such rough terrain, and even slower when they found the way blocked and had to back-track. Strikes-Flint slipped and slid down a gravel slope, leaving a rash of red down her left leg. Then Black-Eyes-Staring slipped on a wet rock crossing the river, landing on his arm and leaving him wet and shaking even after he was wrapped in thick furs.

They came to a place where many boulders had fallen, leaving only narrow gaps for the river to flow through. It had backed up and spread to form a shallow pool that blocked the entire valley. The people sat and rested at the edge of the waters and ate. The hunters, once they had eaten, spread out and searched the huge rock piles for hidden ways. When the people were ready to travel again, they took a path found by Far-Seeing, around the edge of the water and over several long, flat slabs of rock. They had to help the young children and elders, but everyone eventually made it across.

Far-Seeing was the last one to come down, but as he did, he stepped on a head-sized rock in the pile, and it rolled out from under him. He fell back against one of the huge slabs. The others watched, not daring to breathe. It already felt as though this valley was cursed. Far-Seeing had landed flat on his back, but he moved himself into a sitting position. His face showed surprise, but no pain. After a moment he smiled in relief.

As he stood, the entire pile shifted beneath him again, more large rocks tumbling and sliding toward the gathered group. They all scrambled back. The rock-slide cascaded further and further up the slope to their right. Far-Seeing was once again on his back, riding the slab as it slid down smaller boulders. Fist- and head-sized rocks fell around them, shattering on impact. God-Speaker saw one hit the slab and shatter just above Far-Seeing’s shoulder. A line of red ran down his arm.

The slab slid to a stop among the rocks as the slide began to settle. God-Speaker moved forward, reaching out to help Far-Seeing stand, watching the rocks for any signs of movement. Suddenly, he stopped. His body froze, beyond his control. Sound was muffled. His eyes wandered, and the world became fuzzy and unfocused. Slowly, pain blossomed on the right side of his head. His own hand, no longer under his control, reached up to the place where the pain was, felt something wet.

God-Speaker felt he was floating in water. Then he was floating in the wind, somehow so light that he could soar like a bird. Then he felt sharp little rocks pressed against his back, and the pain in his head became sharp and throbbing. He found himself laying in the gravel. He realized his eyes were closed, and he opened them. The light was too bright.

He sat up, holding the right side of his head. Where the pain was, his hair was crusted. He looked at his hand. There was a smear of blood there, but it was dry.

The people were all sitting nearby, and God-Speaker realized that many of them were staring at him.

“We were worried,” Braves-the-Storm murmured. God-Speaker realized the old man was sitting close beside him. He could see that it was true. Worry and some relief were on the faces of the people around him. The sky was purple, fading into black.

“What happened?” God-Speaker asked.

“There was a rock-fall,” Braves-the-Storm said. He pointed to the place on God-Speaker’s head. “A rock hit you. Others were hurt too, but not so badly.”

God-Speaker looked at the people again. Many of them had scrapes and cuts on their arms or legs. They looked tired. He turned and found his pack and the stone god placed next to him. He began to take out the plants he would need to make medicine.

“Is there fire?” he asked Braves-the-Storm.

“There is no wood here,” he said. “We have only the little we brought with us.”

“I will need to heat a little water to make the medicine,” God-Speaker said. “A small fire should be enough.”

Braves-the-Storm spoke to others. His words faded against the buzzing in God-Speaker’s head.

God-Speaker found a bundle of dry leaves in his bag. He untied them and placed most of them in his lap, then retied a few to keep in reserve. Makes-Medicine had shown him the plant they were from, a tall shrub that grew in forests, its stems covered in tiny bristles, but they had not come across any so far this spring. He ground the leaves into a green-black powder. He set that aside and took out some thin strips of willow bark. He still had a good supply of that, at least.

After a time, someone brought God-Speaker a rough wooden bowl of water, hot rocks from the fire still in it. He placed the bark in the water to soak, and waited until the rocks  were cool enough to fish out without burning himself. Then he mixed in the ground leaves and stirred them with the bark until they became a thick paste. He added a small amount of animal fat to help it stick together. It smelled sweet and woody, with a hint of bright mint.

The injured came to him one by one, and he gently rubbed a thin layer of medicine on their cuts and scrapes, spreading it on with the softened willow bark as Makes-Medicine had shown him. Far-Seeing came last, with a long cut on his arm just below the shoulder. God-Speaker rubbed a thin line of the paste along the cut. Far-Seeing didn’t look at him, just nodded and walked away.

When he had finished tending to everyone, God-Speaker looked down at the sludge left in the bottom of the bowl. His head was still buzzing. Without a task, his head felt empty of thought.

“You should use it on yourself,” Braves-the-Storm said.

God-Speaker nodded and reached up to feel the swelling on the right side of his head. It was a big lump, but he ran his fingers slowly through the blood-crusted hair and found only a small cut. He scooped the last of the green paste out of the bowl and smeared it over the wound as best he could. It would help the swelling around the cut as well as the pain.

He sat, dazed, watching the light fade. Someone brought him smoked fish to eat. He drank cold water from the stream and chewed an unused piece of the willow bark. It had been a hard day, and many of the people were already asleep.

He stood, slowly and unsteadily, and made his way through the group. He hadn’t taken a good look at the land on this side of the rockslide. They were nestled in a narrow place between two high walls of rock, and it tightened even more ahead. Where the stream passed through, it cut to one side of the opening. The flat ledge along the other side was wide enough and flat enough to make a path.

God-Speaker approached and saw a spray of water. It looked like they had come to a cliff. When he peered over, he saw that the water fell only a short way, barely God-Speaker’s own height. The ground beyond widened and sloped down. They had reached the tightest point of the valley. Outside the shelter of the narrow pass, there was deep snow. Beyond, glowing in the last light, was the blue ice, a thick sheet that was smooth at first, then broke into a field of icy spines further out.

Once again, the shadow of the mountain loomed on the right, its black smoke melting into the darkening sky. The snowless lands were somewhere beyond that, lost in the smear of darkness just below the horizon. It all still seemed far away.

God-Speaker returned to his people and wrapped himself in fur against the cold. He sat with his back to the canyon wall and faced the stone god. There was only one path ahead of them, but now more than ever, God-Speaker wanted the god to speak to him, to tell him that they were on the right path.

The god remained silent, but as God-Speaker drifted into sleep he thought that the buzzing wasn’t in his head. It was coming from within that smoking black mountain.

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