Chapter 5: "Giants I: The Incline"
The valley gradually heaved itself upward into a sloping hill. That was when the flowers started to become rarer and far less colorful, the grass began to fall away into rocky slabs, and the sweet scent of the valley turned to the acrid moisture of granite heaps. Before any of them knew it, they were struggling up the switchbacks of a mountain.
The valley that they’d spent days crossing was now just a smeared palette of color beneath them; the dense forest that they’d cut through now appeared as only a billowing green smoke in the distance that curled back toward a more civilized land. It was like gazing down upon a strikingly vivid map. As they climbed higher and higher, they watched as the view grew further and further…and eventually darker and darker as night set in.
At the Old Man’s request, they struck camp on a deeply inset shelf, still far below the clouds that masked the summit. Sorell unrolled her sleeping mat just beside the steep edge, hung her legs over, and peered down into the abyss below.
“Hello,” a voice interrupted her thoughts. “Sorell isn’t it? Do I have that name right?”
It was Asher. He was definitely younger than the others; closer to her own age. And he was a gentle looking boy who appeared stately and almost noble in his own way. Not snobby necessarily, but soft. Not the sort that one would expect on an adventure like this.
“Yep, that’s me. Sorell the orphan alone.” Sarcasm was her most comfortable greeting in any situation.
Asher smiled abashedly. “Just saying hello. If Sorell the orphan would rather be alone, I can say hello into the wind?”
Sorell scuttled over a bit to make room for him. “No no…it’s fine. Take a seat if you want. But you’d better not be trying to seduce me or anything. I’m not interested.”
He laughed almost to himself. “Don’t worry. Let’s just say that you are not my type.”
Sorell thought about that remark for a moment. “Hmm” she ventured, coming to her own conclusion. “Do you mean…because I’m a woman? A girl?”
Asher nodded his confirmation.
Sorell pondered on that a bit longer. “But you said before that you’re a holy man of some sort; doesn’t your god hate people like you?”
“My God doesn’t hate; people hate. My God rejoices in love of every kind and fosters that in all of us. Who we love and how we love them is no one’s judgment but our own. God sees only love. And, to clarify, I never said that I was a holy man; I claim only to be a man of God.” Asher settled himself down next to her. “I know what it’s like to have family troubles…and to hurt. I can see it when you look at Claire; both love and pain in your eyes. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“It’s hard to explain. In my heart, I’ve always loved her. She was the closest thing I ever had to a mother. I never hated her after she disappeared from my life; I just wished for her even harder. It made me a very lonely person…and angry. Angry at Claire for changing her mind, angry at myself for not being good enough, angry at the world for forcing me to watch her happiness from afar. Very angry, but never hateful. Not toward Claire.”
Asher nodded thoughtfully and touched her hand. “What will you do now?”
“I haven’t decided yet. Maybe we do need to just start fresh. Maybe she’s right; maybe we can be friends. I honestly don’t know.”
Sorell heard an uproar of laughter from around the campfire. She looked over to see Asher’s older brother, Felix, entertaining the others with some story. Felix was handsome; blonde curls cropped closely around his chiseled face, bright blue eyes, and a shimmering smile that could win an army from battle.
“That’s my brother: always playing to the audience.” Asher shook his head and glared off into the darkness below. “Felix thinks that I don’t have a mind or dream of my own; thinks that I just follow him through life. Suffice it to say that my big brother doesn’t much respect my decision-making ability.”
Sorell squinted uncomfortably, “Because of your romantic preferences?”
“No actually. That’s probably the only thing about me that he does respect…at least it’s my own. Felix doubts my faith. Not because he doesn’t believe, but because he does. He was always a very pious man of the Lord, believe it or not. He’s different now, of course. As with most things in life, I followed in my big brother’s footsteps. I always did…do. Felix is a great man: heroic, charismatic, honest. I’ve always admired him. So, like him, I studied the scriptures. When I decided to devote my life to the word of the Lord, Felix turned on me. He said that I had even managed to steal the Lord from him. I still struggle to make sense of that.” Asher paused and rubbed his chin, “He changed after that. Abandoned the good work and became a lady-charmer. He ran away from the life that he’d chosen because I ruined it for him. I still love my brother…but I can only pray that he still loves me.”
A sudden whooping sound trickled down from the cliffs far above their camp. The raucous good-natured fun had fallen to a hush and the travelers shifted their eyes warily along the crags above them.
The Old Man rose to his feet and gestured for Sorell and Asher to join the circle. They did so without hesitation. Felix sighed, “I didn’t like the sound of that at all. Sounded like an animal…a big one. And I can’t pretend that it sounded friendly.”
Lesedi quickly crafted a firebrand and started lighting small, controlled fires around the campsite. Once he had finished and the whole area was bathed in flickering firelight, Lesedi nodded gravely to the group. “Stay within the light. It keeps out the wilderness and the cold. I will hold watch.”