Razor Mountain — Chapter 13.1

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

Beyond the ice cave was a world of snow. It filled the air. It covered the ground. The few trees appeared like spirits in front of them and faded as they passed. Travel down this gentle slope would be easy, were it not for the snow.

This kind of storm was strange so late into spring. They would not normally travel in such weather, but they were driven to keep moving. The supply of smoked fish was dwindling, and this land was barren. They had to hope that there would be better weather and more to eat somewhere beyond the snowstorm. Nobody mentioned the mountain. Although they could rarely see it, they walked in the shadow of the broken peak. It loomed over them. They felt it watching.

God-Speaker was certain it was the mountain itself pouring snow down onto them. It buzzed like the stone god, with voices that could not be understood. These voices felt different. They wanted. They hungered. He kept imagining the voices as wolves in the distance, beyond the white walls of snow.

They took shelter where they could, among small groups of trees or against boulders. They gathered dry wood when they found it, but there were few places sheltered enough for a fire. After two days of this misery, they came to a shallow overhang shaped in such a way that the wind kept the snow out. Dry grass prickled from the hard ground. They squatted and sat, huddled together, gathering their energy to move onward. Strikes-Flint collected the wood the others had gathered to try to light a fire.

Finds-the-Trail had been quiet and thoughtful since the river crossing. He reminded God-Speaker more and more of Braves-the-Storm. The two men, young and old, often walked side-by-side now. God-Speaker thought that this, at least, was a good thing. They could all see that Braves-the-Storm grew weaker every day. Perhaps this more thoughtful Finds-the-Trail could begin to fill his role when he was gone. If God-Speaker could fill the role of Makes-Medicine, they might serve their people together.

Far-Seeing, who was used to walking by Finds-the-Trail’s side, now walked alone most of the time. Even now, he squatted by himself, back against the rock face, scowling and gouging at the frozen earth with the butt of his spear. He had also become quiet, but it was not a peaceful silence. His face showed his dark moods, and God-Speaker often looked over to see his lips moving without voice. God-Speaker knew that kind of silence, and it usually ended with a fight. He knew he was a likely recipient of that anger when it came out.

As they rested, the wind calmed and the snow lessened. The blowing white powder snow turned into heavy, clumped flakes. They could see some of the world around them, bleak as it was. A few withered trees appeared. The clouds even broke, letting out dim sunlight.

God-Speaker could see some small relief spread among the people. They opened up from their hunched positions. Shoulders relaxed. But now they could see further and the shadow of the mountain grew more distinct. God-Speaker felt as though they had been approaching it for days, but the distance was hard to judge. They were beside it now. Its presence was still uncomfortable, but he had hope that they could begin to pass it by.

In the opposite direction, above the little wall of stone that sheltered them, he could now see that there was another rise. It looked climbable, although still dangerous-looking. While the storm was quiet, it might offer them a view of the path ahead.

God-Speaker stood and walked to the place where Finds-the-Trail and Braves-the-Storm sat together. Braves-the-Storm sat with eyes closed, his breath wheezing. God-Speaker and Finds-the-Trail both glanced at the old man, then back to each other. God-Speaker thought he saw in the other man’s eyes that he too had been thinking about the future.

“There is a high place,” God-Speaker said, pointing up through the rock wall. “It may be a hard climb, but it could show us a good path, if we can climb while the storm is quiet.”

Finds-the-Trail nodded and stood. “I will go with you.”

Braves-the-Storm opened his eyes to acknowledge them, then leaned back to rest. He would not be making any more dangerous climbs.

Finds-the-Trail, true to his name, found a place where the rock face had cracked and crumbled and they could climb up to the lip that hung out over their resting place. From there, they picked their way up the rough slopes between flat places. Sometimes they could walk carefully. More often they had to find handholds to pull themselves up. The stone god was heavy in God-Speaker’s pack, and his shoulders began to ache. Finds-the-Trail stayed close, though God-Speaker knew he could easily move ahead.

Despite the difficult climb, the high place seemed less high when they reached it than it had from the ground. Even with the storm quieted for the moment, their sight was limited. What they saw did not make God-Speaker happy. Not far ahead, the ground was once again lost in a sheet of cracked and broken ice. Opposite the face they had climbed, the high place jutted out, sending out rocky feet that went down into canyons of ice, their edges glowing blue in the dull sunlight.

God-Speaker knew the snowless lands they had seen in the distance must still be out there, somewhere in the distance, but they were hidden by the walls of snow that he had yet to pass through.

“We are not free of it yet,” Finds-the-Trail said, looking up at the mountain.

“Let me speak to the stone god,” God-Speaker said, “and see if I can learn anything of use.”

“I will wait for you,” Finds-the-Trail said, “but do not take too long. It would be bad to get caught up here if the storm gets worse again.”

Finds-the-Trail descended to a wide ledge just below the high place to wait. God-Speaker gently slid the stone god from its bag and sat with it in his lap, looking out over the ice. The stone chilled him more than the wind.

God-Speaker sat and listened. He had strained to hear the voice of the stone god as they traveled through the storm, and heard nothing. Now, he just sat, leaving himself open to whatever might come to him. He felt his own tiredness now, as he hadn’t let himself feel it in days.

The stone god whispered, but it was drowned in voices, waves crashing over them. The voices from the mountain fell on him like wild animals. They knew he could hear them. They sensed his weakness. Instinctively, God-Speaker pushed back against them. He did not understand what he was doing or how he was doing it. He sensed the spirit world, unseen all around them. Whatever was happening in this struggle, it happened there, beyond what others could see.

The voices were used to being obeyed. God-Speaker sensed the shock, the uncertainty as he pushed them back. He was suddenly reminded of young children demanding food or comfort and being told “no,” for the first time. God-Speaker pushed harder, taking advantage of their timidness. They fell silent.

In the silence, he heard the faint whispers of the stone god. It said the people were nearly through their hardship. They had to pass across the ice one final time. They would escape the shadow of the mountain. There would be better lands beyond the storm. They only had to be strong and keep going.

God-Speaker felt his body flooded with relief. He discovered that he was still sitting in the same place, now soaked with sweat and shivering, but the stone god was warm against his skin.

Finds-the-Trail’s voice came up to him. “Have you seen something? I think the storm is getting worse again.”

God-Speaker began the process of putting the stone god back into its pack. His hands shook.

“I heard the voices of evil spirits from the mountain. They are angry. They attacked me, and I pushed them back.”

Finds-the-Trail was silent for a moment. “How?”

God-Speaker said, honestly, “I do not know.”

“Are we safe then? I still feel the mountain watching us.”

“The stone god spoke,” God-Speaker said, closing the pack. “We must cross the ice again, but beyond that, our way will be easier.”

“Then we should hurry down and tell the others.”

God-Speaker backed carefully down toward the ledge where Finds-the-Trail was waiting, trying to summon strength into his weakened limbs. The spiritual battle seemed to have taken barely any time at all, but it had drained him of the little strength he had been holding on to.

The rock under his foot broke, and he slid the rest of the way to the ledge. Finds-the-Trail reached out a hand to steady him.

The voices from the mountain landed on him like rocks, without warning. He didn’t know if it was the weight of the stone god on his back, or the blows of the spirits, but he stumbled back; one step, then another.

Finds-the-Trail’s fingers brushed his arm, but he couldn’t grab hold. There was nothing beneath his back foot. The weight of the stone god carried him over backwards. Finds-the-Trail’s face appeared over the edge, watching in shock from above. God-Speaker was spun and thrown to the side, tumbling not back to the place where the people were sheltered, but to the other side of the hill, down toward the ice.

The outcrops and thorny bushes grasped and tore at him as he fell, slowing him, but not enough. He could no longer tell where he was or where the sky and ground were. He was lost in a storm of rock and snow and earth and pain, and he could only hope that it would end soon.

He landed hard on his back, knocking the breath out of him, and while he stopped tumbling he continued to slide. His vision swam dizzily, but the cloudy sky was above him again, blotched with sunlight. He reached out instinctively to grab onto something, but everything beneath him was slick and cold. Then he was in free-fall again, with nothing but cold air around him. This time, he landed in snow and was still.

Pain blossomed across his body. For a time, he could only lay where he had fallen and try to breathe.

He realized, laying on his back, that the pack and the stone god must have come off in the fall. This, more than anything else, gave him the strength to sit up. The snow was deep: he found himself sinking up to his thighs. If he was careful and spread his weight, he found that the crusty snow below would support him, and he only sank a few inches into the topmost layer of powder.

Crawling slowly and carefully on his hands and knees, God-Speaker saw that he was back under the ice. Walls of it jutted up on either side. A jagged strip of sky showed through the opening above.

A few feet away, he found two more holes in the crust of snow: the two pieces of the stone god. The hide bag was nowhere to be seen, lost somewhere on the hill above. He kneeled over the pieces, grieving.

He shouted. He shouted for Finds-the-Trail and Braves-the-Storm. He shouted all the names of the people, one after another. The snow came down heavily through the jagged hole above, muffling his voice.

When he couldn’t scream any more, he lay in the snow and wept.

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