Razor Mountain — Chapter 16

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

God-Speaker woke in the near-darkness of the cave and tasted the cool air of spring. His body was stiff and sore, despite the mat of soft reeds and layers of furs that made his bed. He sat for a moment and studied his hands. He remembered when they had been young and strong. Now they were gnarled. He felt the years sapping his strength. His skin was thinner and looser. Soon he would need to address that problem, but this morning he had more immediate matters to attend.

A fresh group of migrants had arrived with one of his scouts last night. They had spent the night in the woods at the base of the mountain, as was customary, and they would come up today.

He prepared himself and put on his usual clothes, a finely woven robe dyed in a pattern of deep reds and browns, and trimmed in bright yellow.

The mountain was riddled with caves, and God-Speaker could navigate most of them by touch. Only he and his acolytes were permitted in the deeper areas of the mountain. God-Speaker made his way through a series of chambers until he came to a tall, narrow crack that led to the outside world. He stood for a moment and let the morning sun warm his old bones while his eyes adjusted.

From each of the many cave entrances came a path, maintained by the acolytes. They  were cleared of tree branches and the densest brush, but were no more obvious than any natural game trails or gaps in the foliage, unless you knew where to look. Only secret symbols, carved subtly into the trees, marked the different ways. One of these paths took God-Speaker down to the village.

He knew how the voices in the mountain would look at the village: simple, quaint, and unimpressive. Beneath them. But when he looked with his own eyes, it was a small miracle. It was like a much-expanded version of the winter villages of his youth. The pit houses were larger and sturdier. Already, there was a bustle of activity as people ate their morning meals and got about the business of the day. It smelled of woodfire and roasted fish and the rich pine of the surrounding forest.

When God-Speaker walked through the village, the people paid attention. There were no overt signs, but he felt their glances, and the sound of conversation grew slightly more subdued as he approached. How different from his tribe, his people, who had known him since he was a squalling baby and had witnessed his every weakness and indignity. Those people had gone on, he hoped, to those distant snowless lands he had once glimpsed. At least his scouts had never found them.

No, he thought, this was his tribe now. These were his people. They knew him only as the man who spoke to the gods of the mountain, the man who knew things nobody else knew, the secret knowledge of the spirits. He had brought this community together and created a place where everyone was safe and well-fed.

God-Speaker met his scout and the newcomers in the forest, in a place where the sounds and smells of the village were perceptible, but it could not yet be seen. He always insisted on being the one to bring newcomers into the community.

“God-Speaker!” the scout exclaimed. He was called Swift-Over-Snow,  named because he was small, light, and fast, even in deep winter snow: one of God-Speaker’s best scouts.

“Swift-Over-Snow,” God-Speaker replied, nodding. “I hear you have brought us newcomers.”

“Yes, these are our guests,” Swift-Over-Snow said.

God-Speaker and his scout knew that such guests would almost always accept the invitation to stay, but it was better not to presume. The guests would understand that they brought a food-burden to God-Speaker’s people, in addition to the smoked fish and other gifts that the scouts carried and gave to traveling peoples to entice them to make the journey to the village. The village was daunting to newcomers, and God-Speaker made sure to give them good reasons to stay and see everything he wanted them to see.

“Welcome, honored guests,” God-Speaker said to the newcomers as he looked them over. There were ten of them: five adult men, three women, a baby and a child just old enough to stand on his own feet. They were thin and had no doubt felt hunger this winter, but their eyes were bright and curious. One of them, a young man, showed a hint of defiance in his expression, a refusal to be impressed despite the stories that Swift-Over-Snow had no doubt already imparted.

“I know you have not yet eaten a morning meal,” God-Speaker said. “Come, I want you to eat with us. I will tell you about my people.”

He led them through the trees to the village. Ten more people. He needed more people for his plans. He was eager for everything to move faster, but he would need to temper the growth of the community to ensure that it was stable and strong.

The entrance to the village was carefully prepared—a dense wall of pines with a narrow pathway through. It led into the wide clearing where the pit-houses clustered.

God-Speaker stepped out through the gap and indicated everything with a sweeping gesture.

“This is our home.”

He watched each of the newcomers as they stepped out. Their eyes widened in surprise or narrowed with worry. The young child clung to his mother’s leg. It would be far more houses and people than they had ever seen in one place.

To the left of the houses was the lumber workshop. To the right were the stone-workers and other craftspeople. The faint crack of rock-on-rock came from somewhere higher up the slope, where his people searched for metal-bearing ores, flint, and other useful resources.

God-Speaker led the newcomers on a path around the pit-houses. The village of strangers was too overwhelming for some when they first arrived. This path let them look without feeling surrounded or trapped.

The people of the village who passed close knew to nod and politely welcome the guests without lingering or staring. God-Speaker had carefully prepared everything about this first experience.

“How do so many people live here?” asked one of the guests. “Do all of these people travel together in the warm season?”

“This will be our home forever,” God-Speaker said. “Some of us may go out a long ways to hunt or fish or find plants for food and medicine, but we always come back to the mountain. The gods of the mountain watch over us. I have learned great wisdom from them. We have all we need here.”

On the far side of the village, the path led to a long row of steps—flat stones set into the steep mountainside. They wound their way up to a wide plateau that had been cleared of debris and edged neatly with rocks. At the center of the space was a long, flat boulder set as a table and already covered with a feast. There were berries, mushrooms, seeds, nuts and edible roots. There was smoked fish, fresh roasted fish, and venison stew. And there was a sort of flatbread made from ground seeds and baked in a simple stone oven.

“Please, sit and eat,” God-Speaker said, indicating simple log seats set around the stone table.

They sat, some still looking uncertain, but enticed by the food. God-Speaker and Swift-Over-Snow sat at one end of the stone table. God-Speaker tore off a chunk of the flatbread.

“This is bread made from seeds, a food my people love. Many like to dip it in the stew, or fill it with meat and vegetables. Do as you like.”

He ate, again watching the newcomers closely as they tried some of the unfamiliar foods. The voices had shown God-Speaker new ways of cooking and processing foods, including this bread, but it would take many years of careful cultivation to grow crops that would be ideal for flour. Still, this was something the newcomers would have never experienced before.

The plateau was built to offer a perfect view of the village and surrounding forest. The smoke of the fires wafted up from the pit-houses, and they could see beyond, over the trees and down into the valley where the river glinted.

The young man looked out over the village as he ate, and God-Speaker could see he was still looking for reasons to be unhappy. It was amazing what God-Speaker could read from eyes and faces by combining what he knew about people with the things he learned from the voices inside the mountain.

“Why are there gods in the mountain?” the young man asked, as though he had heard God-Speaker’s thoughts, “and why do they speak only to you?”

God-Speaker interlaced his fingers.

“Everything in the world has a spirit. Every rock, every tree, every river. But some spirits are stronger than others. The spirits of these mountains are very strong. They shouted out into the world for many seasons, but nobody listened to them. I am strange. I hear the voices of some spirits. When I came this way, long ago, I heard them calling and they guided  me here. I have searched for others who can hear them, but there are very few others, and even they can hear the spirits only faintly.”

“How do you have so much?” asked one of the others. “This was a bad winter. It is hard to feed a few people, but you have so many. And you say you do not travel to hunt in new places.”

“We have not forgotten our old ways, but we have learned new ways too,” God-Speaker said. “I will show you when we are done eating.”

When they had eaten their fill, God-Speaker asked them about themselves.

“You are guests, and welcome to stay for a time before continuing your journey. You will have a place at our fires. If you are tired of walking long paths, know that you are also welcome to stay. You can join us and become

part of our people.

“With so many of us, we find things for everyone to do that match their skills. You may find something new that you are drawn to among the many crafts and skills we practice in the village. Some even become my acolytes and learn to listen to the spirits. For now, though, I want to know what you are good at. What are you named for?”

The young man spoke first.

“I am a hunter. I am called Outruns-the-Deer and Far-Thrown-Spear. But we are our own people. We live as our elders lived. We will not become part of your people.”

God-Speaker kept his expression friendly. “You show the strength of your ancestors.”

Some of the other newcomers looked less certain about how they felt than Outruns-the-Deer. They told God-Speaker of their skill in fishing, knapping flint, and identifying herbs.

Next, God-Speaker led them around the other areas of the village. They saw the weavers making simple cloth and soaking it in dyes. They saw the gardens with young grain grasses, and where root vegetables and raspberry bushes would grow as the weather grew warmer. They saw the cave filled with a thick loam of rotten wood where mushrooms were grown. They even saw the experimental forge where God-Speaker’s people were working to get their fires ever hotter. God-Speaker showed them a handful of little golden nodules coaxed from rock.

Lastly, God-Speaker showed them the caves where his people stored dried meat and berries, smoked fish, firewood, and all the supplies that would see them safely through hard winters.

Outside the storeroom, some of the hunters were meeting, preparing their spears and knives and slings while discussing where in the area to hunt. God-Speaker told them that Outruns-the-Deer was a guest and an expert hunter, and they took the hint, immediately asking for his opinions on hunting in the area. He talked with the hunters while God-Speaker told the others about the foods his people preserved and stored for winter.

When they left the storehouse and the hunters, Outruns-the-Deer was still quiet and kept his expression neutral, but he held himself differently after being consulted as an equal.

“Will you take us to these spirits of the mountain?” Outruns-the-Deer asked.

The other newcomers looked shocked and worried. These were spiritual matters, and not to be trivialized. Even Swift-Over-Snow looked at God-Speaker uncertainly.

God-Speaker only smiled.

“That is a place where only my people may go. Even among us, it is a holy place, not to be entered without care and understanding.”

There was a moment where God-Speaker and Outruns-the-Deer locked eyes. God-Speaker sensed that the young man might be looking for some sort of confrontation. Discomfort rippled through the rest of the group.

Outruns-the-Deer was the one to waver and look away. The tension dissipated.

“Still,” God-Speaker said, “It is not for me to say who might be close to the spirits. If any of you choose to stay, you may find that you come to hear them, in time.”

With the tour of the village concluded, God-Speaker left Swift-Over-Snow to show the guests to the pit-houses reserved for them while they decided to leave or join the village. God-Speaker thought it was likely that this group would stay, even Outruns-the-Deer. He was the sort who had to make a show of being convinced, but God-Speaker saw his interest in the spirits, and the change in his disposition after talking to the hunters. Besides, he wouldn’t leave if most of the others wanted to stay.

Whether this group stayed or went, the village would continue to grow. There would be other weary travelers making the hard journey through the mountains.

As he left the village, God-Speaker took a different path through the trees and up the slope. His knees ached. He felt death as a lurking presence, always close at hand. Ever since Makes-Medicine had died in his arms, he had felt it, but it was closer than ever now.

He entered the mountain by another opening in the rock and made his way deeper inside. The whisper of the voices was faint at first, but it grew as he went deeper.

He knew what needed to be done. The voices spoke to him of their empires and their endless rule. They told him how to overcome the specter of death and be reborn into immortality. He knew how. The only question was whether he could do it.

Soon, he thought. Soon he could show his people something truly amazing: his own rebirth.

He just had to do it before his body gave out.

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