Jacob's Ladder - Part 2

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Chapter 2

Sometimes a man wakes with a start, his sleeping thrown from him like a blanket. Sometimes it is with a sudden breath as if their dreams were drowning them. Jac, though, gathered himself piece by piece. First in the darkness of his mind, seeking a centre and a name. Then, with his centre to hold him, his eyes grew wide and a deep blue sky filled them, fractured by hundreds of black lines. Jac built himself. He began separating out the pain into its components and assigning them here and there. The red agony was his hand, the throbbing ache came from his side just below the ribs, and the white needles ... those were jabbing through the back of his skull.

Still lacking context he struggled up and found himself within a hedgerow. Where his head had lain a dull grey rock rested, splashed with crimson. He tore free then stopped, held by the ruin of his hand. Three fingers were missing, though he felt them clenched tight against the pain. The lane before him looked normal enough save that dark splatters decorated the mud and stones.

"Catalin!" In an instant everything returned to him. He stood, cradling his maimed hand beneath his other arm as though both light and air might wound it further. There was no sign of the Sverlanders, no bodies, his sword was gone too. The terror that had left an echoing hole in his mind surged back to refill it. The fear for his son and daughter proved larger and harder to contain than the fear for himself ever had.

"How long..." They had taken their fallen. The raiders always did. But did they chase Catalin, Gaia and the children first?

Jac staggered along the lane. A black pall of smoke hung over the village now, the flames beneath oddly pale in the daylight. He came to the Cotters' gate and found their cottage ablaze. Out on their pasture field, in the direction Catalin would have taken to reach Hermit's Ridge, lay a dark shape. As he drew near enough to the object to see that it was a body Jac spotted a second shape close to the far hedge.

He approached the first, his feet slow and unwilling. The child lay on her back, opened by the blow of an axe, sightless eyes fixed on the blue sky. The sun shone brightly on her as if to underscore the gods' indifference to human affairs.

A crimson handprint marked the girl's face.

"Rula." Gaia's older daughter, disfigured by a red birthmark. But as he looked Jac realised the girl was too small and that the crimson fingers were not a birthmark but where a bloody hand had touched her. Sharli, the younger girl.

He ran now, despite the pain in his side and the bleeding. At the far hedge he found Milo. His son's body seemed unmarked at first and Jac tried to gather the boy to him, but his ruined hand was unequal to the task. When Milo fell back and his hair, as fair as a Sverlander's scattered across the mud, Jac saw the wound. His son had been run through with a single sword thrust that skewered all his days, past and future.

"No." Jac roared something wordless at the sky and ran on, clutching at his side. The leader of those men had done this, left him for dead and killed his sweet boy.

Hermit's Ridge lay five miles north of the village, and there were no settlements of any note beyond it. Those lands would be claimed and farmed one day, for the empire grew as blood spreads through cloth, but for now they were wild, home only to wild things and the hunter-clans of the Forgotten. Jac didn't know how long the hermit had lived on the ridge. Long enough to give it its name for certain. He crossed the open heath, half-running, half-staggering, trying to see what lay ahead but being drawn into the small world of his own pain and the rasp of his breath in and out of tortured lungs.

As the world grew tight around him Jac's thoughts retreated from what he might find and returned to his only previous visit to the ridge. He had been ten or eleven and it had been shortly after his mother brought him to the village. They had come to join her brother who had been one of the founding settlers. Jac had gone to see the hermit as a dare with Devid Smith, and the Coker boy who had died of fever the next winter.

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