Razor Mountain — Chapter 2.2

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

God-Speaker did not know what to do. The rare contact they had made with others had been hard. They spoke with different words and made confusing gestures. But he had never imagined that people, even these strangers who seemed so different, would hunt another of their kind. People worked together. They left their houses strong and clean when they traveled, for others who might find them. This was the way of their elders, and the elders before them. They did not hurt one another.

Far-Seeing, the strongest and fiercest hunter, approached the stranger with his spear in his hand, shouting. To God-Speaker, his words were quiet and far away. Was the stranger desperate for food? Why had he done this terrible thing?

God-Speaker didn’t hear if the stranger made any reply, but the hand-axe rose again. But the stranger could barely stand, and Far-Seeing was quick and strong. His spear plunged into the stranger’s chest. There was a cry from someone nearby.

The stranger must have been near death already. He did not move. The hand-axe fell to the ground with a thud, and the man fell onto it. God-Speaker approached cautiously, but the stranger’s wide eyes were dead.

God-Speaker fell to his knees next to Makes-Medicine. The rest of the people had come, and there was now a small crowd looking down, whispering among each other and trying to understand what had happened.

There was a sticky red furrow along Makes-Medicine’s hairline where the stone had struck. God-Speaker could see white bone. She struggled to breathe and reached out to him.

“You are God-Speaker and God-Carrier,” she croaked. She was trying to perform the ritual, even as she lay dying. He held her hand to comfort her.

“Listen to the stone god,” she said. “Only with the favor of the spirits of the earth will we find a new land to make our home.”

She pulled out of his grasp, made gestures of naming in the air between them, hands shaking. Then she lay still.

He could barely hear her dying words. “Give my spirit to the river. You must show the way to the people. The god will lead you.”

She slumped as her spirit left her body. He had not been training long, but he knew the words to speak over her, hands out-raised to ward off evil spirits. As a shaman and medicine-maker, her spirit would be strong. She would bring great power to the river.

When he had finished, he looked up. The others had waited in silence. Now, they looked to him, and to Braves-the-Storm, who was now the oldest of the people. God-Speaker was young to be shaman, an apprentice who would now have to do his best with what little he had learned from his mentor. Makes-Medicine had said that he heard the voices of the spirits more clearly than anyone she had known. This and the stone god gave him considerable clout, but he was young and inexperienced. The people revered their elders for their knowledge, and Braves-the-Storm was known to be wise and measured. With Makes-Medicine gone, the flexible social order of the tribe had been thrown into confusion.

God-Speaker thought he should want to lead the people, but all he wanted to do was to run into the trees where nobody could see him. He thought he would have years still to learn how to listen to the spirits, to make medicine and practice rituals. He knew he had a responsibility to the people. For the first time, he wished he couldn’t hear the spirits. He wanted to grieve without all of this added responsibility.

“Makes-Medicine wishes to be given to the river,” he said, looking to Braves-the-Storm. “We should prepare her.”

Braves-the-Storm nodded. God-Speaker let out his breath in relief.

“We must do as she said,” Braves-the-Storm confirmed. “We must give her to the river. Then, we will travel, as was planned.”

It was too much. He had lost his mentor. The whole tribe was in shock. And they had to still prepare to leave the valley today?

God-Speaker frowned. Braves-the-Storm was wise. They were nearly packed and prepared to leave. The death rituals would slow them, as would their sorrow, but it didn’t make sense to put off the journey for another day. For all they knew, there could be more of these strangers somewhere close.

After a moment of thought, God-Speaker nodded. Only as he looked up did he realize that many of the others were watching him. He could see relief on several faces. As long as the hierarchy of the tribe was unclear, there would be this cloud of uncertainty. As long as he and Braves-the-Storm were in agreement, it would be tense. As soon as they disagreed, however, that tension would need to be resolved. The people would be watching, deciding for themselves who was best-suited to make decisions for the group.

God-Speaker’s skin tingled, a sensation that had become familiar. The stone god called out to him. He had left it, unready, in the cave.

“I must finish getting ready for the journey,” he said. The others would know what he meant. He stood and hurried back to the crack in the cliff face, shoving his way through the narrow gap. He was lost in thought and again the narrow passage scraped his shoulders.

He found the god where he had left it, next to his pouches of color. He put everything into his personal bag, then spoke to the stone god. He knew he didn’t really need to speak — spirits understood feelings and actions as well as words — but he had enough trouble understanding his own thoughts right now. Putting them into words helped him to make sense of it all.

“Why did Makes-Medicine die?” he asked.

The voice of the god spoke to him, speaking from the earth itself.

“The people have traveled for a long time, but the journey is nearly over. The people will face great danger in the coming days. Evil spirits block your path. Makes-Medicine goes to the spirit world as an envoy for the people. Her strong spirit will speak to other good spirits on your behalf. Her spirit will make the evil spirits afraid to stand in your way.”

The spirit of earth chipped at his doubt. It seemed so unfair that Makes-Medicine be taken away from them. But when the spirits were considered, it made much more sense. If there were evil spirits blocking their way, they would need strong protection on their journey. Makes-Medicine could protect them far better in the spirit world. God-Speaker wished he had learned more about these matters of the spirits.

“Did she know that this would happen?” he asked.

The stony rumble was already fading. “She knew the journey would be dangerous. She protects the people.”

God-Speaker knew this was true, though it did not answer his question. Makes-Medicine had told him that it was always hard to know what to tell the people about the spirits, and what a shaman should keep to themselves. Even great shamans did not always understand.

God-Speaker carried the stone god and his personal bag out of the cave. He was careful to carry the god with the care it deserved. The last thing they needed was to turn the god against them.

As he came out, he found the others still standing where he had left them, talking among themselves.

“Why did the stranger attack her?”

“He does not look like us. He looks starved. Maybe he was hunting us.”

“What strangers could be so evil that they hunt their own kind?”

They looked to Braves-the-Storm.

“He was alone. Did you see his eyes? Those eyes did not see. I have seen eyes like that before. When we hunt, when we drive an animal away from its herd, when it knows it cannot flee our spears, you can see death in its eyes. This man had dead eyes.”

God-Speaker walked over to them.

“The god has spoken to me. There are many evil spirits in this land. We must pass them to reach a safe place again. It may be that this stranger was used by evil spirits, a spear thrown by hunters.”

God-Speaker looked at their faces. Some seemed to understand what he said. Others looked unsure. He wondered if he should pretend to be more certain about the strange and mysterious matters of spirits. Makes-Medicine always spoke with great authority.

“Makes-Medicine has a strong spirit. We must help her as she goes to the spirit world. She will watch over us and keep the evil spirits at bay. We will give her to the river, as she said.”

Braves-the-Storm nodded, as did several of the others. Even in death, her authority would not be questioned. Everyone set to work. Some finished preparing for the journey. Others wrapped her in fishing nets weighted with heavy rocks.

God-Speaker searched the small hide pouches and bags Makes-Medicine had prepared for the journey, finding the ingredients for the ritual. He laid her flat on her back, unable to look at her staring eyes. He marked her skin with color and placed herbs in a small pouch, tied round her neck by a leather cord.

He made a small fire, lighting it with coals from one of the still-smoldering morning fires, and set the stone god before it. Makes-Medicine was arranged, facing up with arms bound at her sides, between the fire and the river, head toward the water.

God-Speaker spoke the words, only faltering once. He had heard them only a few times, at other death ceremonies, and in bits and pieces from Makes-Medicine. The full ritual could not be practiced. It could only be performed when the tribe wanted the full attention of friendly spirits to guide one of their own to the spirit world.

God-Speaker moved to her head and disrobed. The four strongest hunters stepped forward and removed their furred wraps as well, taking positions at her bound arms and feet. They lifted her together, and slid her into the river, guiding her into the deepest waters. The rocks would weigh the corpse down, but it would still be pulled along by the current. Her body would sink into the river mud. It would bind her to the river.

They came out, shivering, and took places squatting around the fire. God-Speaker faced the stone god.

“Spirit of earth, god of the people, you have chosen us. Gather the other spirits and guide Makes-Medicine to the spirit world. Protect us on our journey. Makes-Medicine, spirit of the river, protect us.”

God-Speaker threw dried herbs on the fire. They crackled and popped, sending fierce sparks and smoke into the air with a cloying sweet smell.

God-Speaker and the hunters wrapped themselves in furs once more. He made a thick paste of ashes and water, closed the eyes of the dead stranger, and covered his face in the mixture, to close the eyes, mouth, nose and ears. Then all the people piled large rocks over the body to protect it from scavengers. Better that any evil remain there, sealed away.

Finally, God-Speaker placed the stone god inside its carrier and hauled it onto his back. He put his own bag over his other shoulder, along with the bag of smaller pouches that had belonged to Makes-Medicine.

God-Speaker studied the faces of the people around him. They were grim and determined.

In all the horror of the day, there was one thing for which he was grateful. Makes-Medicine had given him a path to follow. She was bound to the river. If they spoke of who she had been, she would be Makes-Medicine, but if they spoke of her now, she was River Spirit. They would follow her and trust in her protection as far as she would take them.

The people walked along the stream through the valley and down into the gravel-strewn gully that would take them to the roots of the mountains. The homes where they had wintered were behind them. An uncertain future lay ahead.


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.