An Excerpt from Ascending Hearts
Numb fingers gripping the stalk, Jack held his breath as he swayed. The gust of wind howled in his ears and he closed his eyes, heart thumping. He’d been climbing for hours, and sure enough the stalk had begun to narrow. He forced his lungs to expand and suck in the thin, frigid air.
The stars were hidden by thick clouds, and the tiny slice of moon only appeared from time to time as the wind whipped up. Jack could barely see the stalk, relying on touch to find his handholds and footholds as he climbed. He hadn’t looked down once, and of course now it was pointless since there was only blackness around him.
While at first he’d climbed quickly and with a sense of abandon, anger and grief fueling him, now he plodded, lungs heaving in the thin air, his limbs burning with exertion yet the cold making him shiver. Sweat dried on his skin and his throat was parched. As he trembled with another gust of wind, he considered retreating.
Jack thought of what he would be returning to: nothing. An empty cottage without even Inga for company. A debt he couldn’t hope to pay if he still wanted to feed himself. Worst of all, more loneliness without end in sight. He exhaled deeply and reached up. No, even if he should die on this night, it would be preferable to going back to his hollow existence.
Pushing with his foot, he lifted himself up, continuing onward slowly and steadily until the air turned to a strange fog that he was afraid of choking on. Jack realized after a few moments that he had reached the clouds. His limbs ached, his muscles cramped and pushed to their limit from the hours of climbing. He willed himself to continue, knowing he must be close.
Jack’s pulse raced when the moon disappeared altogether and the darkness seemed to close in even tighter. As the narrowing stalk rocked from side to side, he curled his fingers around a thin stem, certain it would snap. But the stalk seemed made of iron at its core, and no matter how thin it became, it did not break, not even at the point where Jack wrapped his arms and legs around it, pulling himself up as he once did on the rope Adair nightly dropped from his chamber window so many years ago.
It wasn’t until the stalk was almost at an end that Jack looked up and realized the deeper darkness shrouding him was due to the hulking shadow of a structure above him. With a burst of adrenaline, he realized he’d made it to the giant’s lair. As he’d heard from those very few who had returned with their lives, it was a stone castle, as huge as any Jack had seen in picture books.
Eagerly, he looked for a way inside. He shimmied farther up the stalk and reached. He touched only air. In the dark hulk of the castle above, he could make out a hole in the bottom. With a sinking heart and a violent churn of his stomach, he realized his predicament.
The stalk had not finished growing, of course.
The wind, sharp as a blade, slashed Jack’s face, and he closed his eyes as the stalk wavered and whipped to and fro. Panic unspooled in his gut, and he swallowed hard, his throat like sandpaper. I’m going to die. A whimper escaped his lips, and he clung to the stalk, utterly rigid.
Earlier he’d told himself that death was preferable to his lot, but now as he faced the very real possibility of the end, he found the yearning for life still held sway over him. There was a frantic need deep within to survive, and Jack drew on that urge to bring energy to his body and clarity to his mind.
Inching up, Jack climbed as high as he could on the stalk, squeezing it between his knees as he stood on the last stem and reached. His fingertips barely grazed the stone. If he could go just a bit higher, he could grasp the ledge and pull himself into the castle. For a wild moment, he wondered how quickly the stalk grew, and whether he could simply wait.
Laughter tinged with an edge of hysteria escaped Jack’s lips. No, he must act now. He knew what he must do. He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly as he bent his knees. He would have but one chance. After all the years of dreaming, of imagining his victory over the stalk, the moment was here. He could go back, or he could go forward and make the world new.
With a desperate burst of power, he jumped, arms outstretched.
His left hand lost purchase almost immediately, and he gripped the ledge with only his right hand. Swinging his legs with a grunt, Jack propelled himself up and caught hold with his left hand. His fingernails cracked as he dug in, tendons in his fingers screaming.
His chin reached the ledge and he managed to get his arms up, digging in with his elbows. The wind shrieked, and he used it to rock back and forth until he had the momentum to swing his left leg up and over the ledge. With a groan, he hauled himself up and rolled to safety.
Heart pounding, he forced a deep breath into his lungs, exhaling slowly. I made it.
He panted and stared up at the domed ceiling above him, exhausted. He felt giddy as he chuckled softly, his body burning and aching all over from his climb. He knew he should move, should find the treasure, but for a minute, all Jack could do was breathe and revel in the fact that his heart still beat and his aching body remained in one piece and not splattered red on the fields far below.
But there was no rest to be had, for a bellow of rage boomed like thunder.
Jack clasped his hands over his ears, gasping as the very foundation of the castle seemed to shudder. Summoning strength from he knew not where, Jack leapt to his feet and turned this way and that, not sure where to run.
Light appeared in the passageway ahead, flickering flames that illuminated the great shadow of a beast. The giant’s growl filled the air as if dredged up from the depths of hell, and Jack quaked, clammy fear clawing its way from his throat in a cry. He stood and ran blindly into the castle.
The giant pursued.
Jack turned left, then right, running deeper into the darkness. Lurching forward, he sought a place to hide, but he could barely see in front of his face let alone discover a hidey hole. The giant’s booming footsteps filled Jack’s ears, moving ever closer.
The giant’s outraged roar reverberated off the walls, and with the ease of a child plucking a worm from the garden, Jack felt a rending tug on the back of his tunic. Then only blackness.
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