Jacob's Ladder - Part 5

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Chapter 5

On their first night out of Renstown they found shelter in woodland hugging the sides of a small valley that ran through the Wendelve Hills. The land was Lord Abervan's hunting ground but so large that the chances of ever seeing a hunting party were very low. One day it would be set to farms and fields but while better soil lay unclaimed the local lord simply held it in his unfeasibly large estate. Jac supposed that when Abervan came to court it might be that the number of acres at his disposal were all he had to boast about to the lords with more wealth, older lines, and holdings that lay deeper into the civilised world.

The three of them spent the night shivering for although they had taken food Jac had neglected to secure them suitable clothing for sleeping beneath the stars. He hadn't the means to start a fire and it would have been ill advised in any event.

Jac used his knife to cut branches and fashioned a rough shelter but he had never been a hunter or a wanderer and lacked the skill to do a good job. Armston and Rennor's experience had nothing to offer. They were town-bred. They knew that for shelter on a journey a man should carry coin and stick to civilisation.

"How can you be Jacob?" It was the first thing Gaia had said to him in all the long hours of their travelling. She had gathered bracken, found fallen branches, portioned out the food, all without complaint or comment. But now as she crouched, hugging her daughter to her and watching him, she asked the question that she must have carried every step of the way. Her breath plumed before her. "How can you be Jacob? You're not him."

"I don't understand it either, Gaia, but I've known you and Artur for years. I know you left that ribbon at the hermit's cave for me to see. I know that the last thing you brought out of your house was that butter churn even though you sold your last cow before the first snow. I-" His voice caught in his throat. He steeled himself and tried again. "I saw Sharli lying dead. Killed by those bastards that killed my Milo. And I know that before I gave you that money you said the Sverlanders took Baya and Catalin." His hands made fists. "And I know that I will bring them both back."

Gaia narrowed her eyes. "You could have forced Jac to tell you those things... And it was a different man that gave us the money. The older one with one leg. The one you killed!"

Jac nodded slowly. "I could have forced all that from Jac. But why would I? This man-" He gestured to himself with spread fingers. "This man had standing and prestige in Renstown. Why would he throw that away to help a woman he had never seen or spoken to? What would he be after? Your butter churn?"

Gaia shook her head in wonder and wiped away a tear. "It makes no sense. How are you Jac?"

"I don't know." Jac chewed on a heel of bread. "The Sverlanders left me for dead. I reached Renstown with money taken from dead raiders, and Armston, the one-legged man, killed me for it."

Gaia flinched at that. Rula watched, round-eyed.

"Somehow the God Below wouldn't let me die. I found myself owning the body of the man who killed me." Jac looked at his hands. "It was something in the blood, I think. My blood as I died... I felt it on his skin, as if I were sinking into his flesh and making it my own." He raised his eyes and was glad that Gaia would meet his gaze. "And again, when Armson died and his blood fell on Rennor ... this man before you ... he was mine too."

He thought Gaia would talk about curses and dark magics, but instead she addressed the issue with practicality of someone who survives by understanding how living things work.

"It has to be the blood?" she asked. "What if the cold kills us tonight. Or you a caught a summer fever like my Artur, or they hanged you, or-"

"I don't know, Gaia. I really don't know. And I don't want to find out. Dying hurts and it's a lonely place to be." His throat closed on the words as a vision of Milo rose from the darkness. Milo lying in the dirt. He saw the pain on Gaia's face and spoke again. "I saw Sharli ... she would have gone in a moment, before she even knew it." Small comfort, but true. True for both of the children. It didn't stop his tears though.

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