Hello everyone. I’ve decided to do a new little series on here and release some of the chapters of Charlotte so that you guys can read them outside of the dreadful preview function that is Amazon’s “look inside” feature. Hope you enjoy them!
Charlotte sat on the thatched roof of her house, her knees tucked to her chest. The last rays of evening light, a fiery swath of red and gold, colored the sky, warming her face as the sun sank behind mountains of jagged slate with snow-capped peaks. From her perch she could see over the towering log fence—an impenetrable wall of wood and iron, topped with sharp spikes—surrounding the village. A dark forest lay beyond, blanketing the small valley beneath an ever-shifting layer of fog.
The wind carried sounds from within the house up to Charlotte’s ears, sweeping her long, dark hair back from her face. Her mother was inside, preparing dinner, waiting for Charlotte to come lend a hand, but the pull of the crisp mountain air and the chance to glimpse a world free from walls held her there for a moment longer as another midsummer’s day faded into the long northern dusk.
Charlotte waited until the final sliver of the sun had vanished, before sliding to the edge of the roof. She climbed down, stepping onto the sill of the loft window and shaking out her dress. The wind picked up again, filling the evening air with the scent of rain and pine. She hooked a hand inside the open window, holding onto the frame. A cool breeze was whispering down from the mountains, making the trees sway. Charlotte closed her eyes, turning her face upward and letting one foot drift away from the ledge, balancing halfway between earth and sky. The wind rushed beneath her, a great inhale taken by the lungs of the forest, and, for the briefest of moments, Charlotte felt free.
Footsteps—loud and heavy, with deep voices to match—interrupted Charlotte’s moment of escape. Her eyes flew open. She pulled herself upright and stood on her toes, peering over the corner of the thatched roof.
At the far edge of the grove that hid Charlotte’s home, barely distinguishable between the thick trunks of evergreens, was a group of men. They stood together, speaking in low voices and exchanging words Charlotte couldn’t make out. Several more men appeared, joining the others. One of them gestured at the nearby houses. There were sounds of agreement and the men broke apart, heading out of the trees and up the various paths. A flash of silver shone through the branches and Charlotte froze. Hunters.
Charlotte ducked through the open window and into the house, crossing the narrow loft, and dropping down the ladder to the main floor. Her mother was at the hearth, a wooden spoon in hand as she stirred a large pot over the fire, while Charlotte’s younger brother played with a collection of stones on the floor at her feet. She glanced over her shoulder toward Charlotte, but before she could speak a loud horn sounded over the village, echoing off the mountains.
Charlotte looked out the front window toward the sound.
“Taxing Day,” her mother said, following Charlotte’s gaze.
The full moon had arrived. Payment was due.
“I already saw the Hunters,” Charlotte said. “They’re on their way.”
Her mother nodded, placing the spoon on the mantel and wiping her hands on her long apron.
“Start there,” she said to Charlotte, motioning toward the large wooden table in the center of the room. “Anything that might be seized.”
“You think they’ll do a search too?” Charlotte asked, pushing the table up against the far wall.
“I don’t know.” Her mother moved along the hearth, quickly gathering things into baskets as she went. “It’s possible.”
Charlotte’s little brother, nine-years-old, quiet, and small for his age, hovered nearby. His forehead was creased with worry as he watched the sudden flurry of movement.
“Dimitri,” their mother said, motioning to him. “Come here and sit.”
Dimitri glanced at Charlotte.
“Fetch your box first,” Charlotte said, giving him what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
Heavy fists pounded on wooden doors somewhere in the distance as Dimitri scurried up the ladder to the loft, but Charlotte didn’t pause to listen or try to gauge how close the Hunters might be. She kicked the threadbare rug in the center of the room to the side, and ran her hands along the floor until she found the groove she was looking for. Digging her fingers in, she pried up a loose bit of old wood to reveal an iron latch, pulling on it until it gave way and the cleverly disguised door lifted open, revealing an earthen cellar deeper than Charlotte was tall and nearly as wide.
As soon as the cellar door was open Charlotte’s mother was there, lowering baskets filled with valuables to the dirt floor below. She pulled a chair out from the table, waving Dimitri down from the loft. He climbed down the ladder, a small wooden box tucked beneath his arm.
Charlotte took the box from him, placing it gently on the table, and guided him to a chair. She pressed a ball of yarn and a wooden crochet hook into his hands. “Remember how?” she asked.
Dimitri looked up at her with a frown, fear beginning to cloud his eyes.
“It’s fine,” Charlotte said, clasping his hands around the hook and yarn. “Everything is fine. Just work on this for a few minutes, all right?”
Dimitri nodded and began awkwardly moving the hook, slipping it in and out of the yarn.
Charlotte darted beneath the loft, tearing the blanket from her mother’s bed, and began rummaging through the baskets and cloth bags that were scattered around the house. Her mother was close by, hurriedly pulling things from shelves. It had barely been two weeks since they had moved here and the one-room cabin wasn’t properly unpacked. As it was, Charlotte didn’t know where to find everything that needed hiding.
She grabbed a set of silver knives engraved with the letters P and R, her mother and father’s initials, along with the flint and firesteel from the mantel, the few vials of contraband medicine they owned, and her mother’s hand-carved rolling pins. Spreading the blanket out on the kitchen table, she emptied everything in her arms onto it along with Dimitri’s box. Her brother’s box contained nothing the Hunters would be interested in, let alone anything illegal, but for his sake Charlotte didn’t want anyone touching it.
At the back of the house Charlotte wrenched a small chest out from underneath her mother’s bed. She added it to the pile on the table while her mother hurried out the door and around the corner to the other side of the house, empty baskets hanging from her arms. Dimitri abandoned his hook and yarn, following her out the back door.
They didn’t have much longer. The Hunters could arrive at any moment. Charlotte scaled the ladder to the loft and felt underneath her bed, retrieving a bundle containing small, cream-colored bird carved from wood, a pale white stone that had been a gift from Dimitri, and a leather pouch with a single silver coin. Unlike Dimitri’s box of keepsakes which was filled to the brim, mostly with polished rocks and colorful feathers he had collected, Charlotte’s treasures were few in number and spent their days wrapped in cloth and stowed beneath her old straw mattress.
Charlotte climbed back down and deposited everything onto the table. Pulling up the corners of the blanket, she tied the whole thing together into one big bundle, scooped it up and then crouched down, perching on the edge of the opening in the floor. She tucked the bundle under one arm and then dropped down into the dark, earthy cellar. The discovery of the cellar had been only one of the surprises they’d had following their move. Houses in Charlotte’s old village didn’t have anything like this beneath them. Why would they?
She tucked the bundle and its contents in the corner of the cellar next to a stack of firewood and arranged a few logs on top of it just in case. She looked around for the step stool, but couldn’t see it anywhere. Charlotte stood on her toes, reaching for the edge of the floor, but came up several inches short. She tried to climb, digging the toe of her boot into the packed earth, but her feet slipped on the smooth dirt. Her leg scraped against something sharp and she let out a hiss of pain. Panic began to well up in her throat. Time was running out; the Hunters could show up at any moment and she would be trapped down in the cellar with all of their valuables, an easy target.
“Mother?” she called out, fearful of making too much noise.
No answer came.
Still nothing. The Hunters were on their way. She needed to get out of the cellar now.
“I could use a little help here!” she huffed.
She paced the cellar, her leg stinging with each step. Whatever was in the wall must be sharp, a rock or something—
Charlotte scrambled over to the far side of the cellar, feeling her way across the dirt until she found it: a rock as wide as her hand, jutting out from the wall. Charlotte hitched up her dress, wedged her boot into the dirt, and stepped up onto the rock. The rock started to give way the moment she put her weight on it, but the leverage was enough. She managed to get one elbow up onto the kitchen floor, then the other, and all of a sudden her mother was kneeling next to her, hooking her arm around Charlotte’s waist and pulling her out of the cellar as fast as they could both manage. Without a word, her mother closed and latched the cellar door and started to put the room back in order with swift, precise movements.
Charlotte grabbed the rug, spreading it back out over the floor and pulling the table back into place, concealing the cellar door once more. She glanced at the corner, but her brother’s chair was still empty.
“Dimitri?” Charlotte asked, looking over at her mother.
“Outside,” her mother replied, without looking up.
Charlotte hurried out the back door and peered around the edge of the house. Two Hunters were just coming out of the home at the far end of the path, barely visible through the trees.
Charlotte ducked out of view, her heart hammering in her chest. The garden and thicket of trees behind her home were both empty. The towering evergreens stood tall and silent. Dimitri was nowhere in sight.
Charlotte ran her hands through her hair. Where had he gone? They needed to be back inside and present when the Hunters arrived and she needed time to calm and prepare Dimitri before the stress of the Taxing, but she didn’t dare call out for him in case it drew attention. She scanned the back of the house and realized Dimitri wasn’t all that was missing.
Lucy, Dimitri’s pet chicken, lived in a small hutch behind the house, but at the moment both the bird and its cage were absent. Dimitri must have taken them somewhere to hide—but where? Back into the trees? Out by the stone wall? This place was as new to him as it was to her.
Charlotte closed her eyes, trying to ignore her growing panic. Where would Dimitri have taken Lucy? A picture of the woodpile on the far side of the house flashed through her mind and she took off running.
As soon as she turned the corner she spotted Dimitri, crouched down and pushing desperately on a cage holding a fat white hen, trying to force it into a small gap between the stacked logs. The bird and the cage were both still clearly visible and though Dimitri was pushing hard, trying with all his might to move it deeper into the pile, the cage wasn’t budging. The bird flapped her wings as Dimitri continued to strain. Soon it would be making noise as well. Charlotte ran to Dimitri’s side and started pushing with him.
“Lucy! Lucy!” Dimitri whispered anxiously, as if somehow the bird might understand the gravity of their situation and be able to help.
Charlotte shoved the cage. “Stupid—useless—chicken!” she muttered between breaths as she struggled to force the bird and its home out of sight but the cage refused to move. Deep voices came from up the path, drawing closer. Fear clenched at Charlotte’s stomach and she pushed harder, thinking what a nice feather mattress or pot of stew this bird would make as opposed to a pet that was going to get them all into trouble.
“Dimitri!” she whispered as she pushed. “Go back inside!”
Dimitri looked up at her, tears streaming down his face. He knew what it meant if Lucy was found. Charlotte fumed silently, wishing she had never convinced her mother to let Dimitri bring the bird along with them in the first place.
“All right, stop—wait a second,” she said, pulling Dimitri’s hands away.
Charlotte felt around the back of Lucy’s cage and found a large stick blocking it. She jerked the cage upwards and then, with Dimitri rushing to help, slid it back into the pile of wood until finally it was buried deep enough that Lucy wouldn’t be seen.
A loud pounding came from the front of the house. “Hunters! Open up!” shouted a harsh voice.
Charlotte quickly yanked a clean blanket down from the nearby clothesline and tossed it over the whole thing as though it were a means of keeping their firewood dry. She checked to make sure Lucy was well hidden and then grabbed Dimitri’s hand and pulled him around the house and through the back door.
She was barely inside when a large hand gripped her by the arm, yanking her forward so that she was face to face with a tall man. His brown hair was flecked with gray and he stared down at her with a look of having just smelled something foul.
Charlotte’s mother caught her eye from across the room and gave her a look that plainly said she was to remain silent. She turned to the Hunter to answer. “My daughter, Charlotte.”
The man sneered down at Charlotte. His gaze traveled from her brown hair and dark eyes to her strong nose and straight jaw. He glanced over at Charlotte’s mother and Dimitri, with their delicate features and eyes and hair the color of warm wood, flecked with gold. Charlotte didn’t have to guess his thoughts. She knew she didn’t resemble the rest of her family.
“You sure she’s yours?” he scoffed.
Charlotte’s mother nodded.
“Sure doesn’t look it,” he said. “Doesn’t look underage either.”
“She is,” Charlotte’s mother said, stepping forward slightly. “She’s seventeen.”
“For now,” he smirked, looking back to Charlotte. “What were you doing outside?”
Charlotte swallowed and said, “Chores.”
The Hunter eyed her for a moment before shoving her aside. “Don’t speak and don’t interfere,” he told them.
Charlotte backed into one of the chairs that had been carelessly shoved up against the wall and sat down, her eyes trained on the floor. Her mother stood silently next to the hearth. There was a gentle tugging on her arm. Dimitri had slipped into the chair next to her and was pulling on her sleeve. She glanced over at him. He was holding the hook and the yarn she had given him earlier and staring at her with wide eyes. Charlotte took his hand and wrapped it around the hook, but didn’t know what to do. Her mother had tried countless times to teach her how to turn the yarn into blankets or hats, but for some reason it never stuck. She edged her chair closer to Dimitri and put the yarn in his lap, leaning in as if she were showing him how it was done. A second pair of black boots stepped through the door and Charlotte’s hands began to shake. She willed herself to remain calm and tried to focus on Dimitri’s quiet breathing.
The first Hunter made his way around the room, inspecting it through narrowed eyes, his heavy black boots making the wood floors groan and creak. Charlotte held her breath as the rug in front of the hearth shifted slightly beneath his feet.
Charlotte looked up. Standing in the doorway was a man with blond and stringy slicked-back hair, a long thin nose, and a leering gaze that fixed on Charlotte’s mother in a way that made Charlotte’s stomach turn. He was dressed in the same uniform as the first Hunter—black clothes with matching black boots—and carried a heavy, double-sided silver axe on his belt, paired with a thick wooden club. The back of his left hand bore a scar in the shape of two crossed, double-sided axes, burned into his skin—a mark of his service as a Hunter.
He stepped farther into the room, surveying it with disdain. “Go ahead,” he nodded to the other Hunter, who began searching the room, turning over baskets and boxes, pulling items out and tossing them on the floor.
“New here in town, aren’t you?” The stringy-haired man asked as he continued to eye Charlotte’s mother.
“Yes, we are.” Charlotte’s mother extended her hand to the Hunter, which Charlotte never would have considered doing. “I’m Ruth Moore. These are my children.” She motioned toward Charlotte and Dimitri without taking her eyes off the Hunter.
The Hunter looked her up and down with a somewhat amused expression but didn’t shake her hand. “Just moved here?” he asked, taking several steps toward her.
Charlotte’s mother stiffened and gave a nod.
“Transfer permits are pretty rare for these parts. Where you from?”
A loud crash shook the small house. The other Hunter was working his way around the room, using his club to sweep items from the shelves and table. Dimitri hid his face in Charlotte’s dress. Charlotte gripped the seat of her chair with one hand so she wouldn’t jump and further alarm her brother.
“Well?” the Hunter repeated, taking no notice of the noise.
Charlotte’s mother cleared her throat. The stringy-haired Hunter stared at her with impatience. “Arrowhead,” she said.
The second Hunter was now looking under furniture, pulling clothes out of Charlotte’s mother’s wooden chest, and tossing pots and pans to the floor with loud bangs that rattled Charlotte’s bones, but the rug in front of the hearth lay undisturbed.
“Arrowhead,” the Hunter repeated as his companion passed uncomfortably close to Charlotte and Dimitri. “That’s pretty far south from here. Why the move?”
“We couldn’t afford to stay.”
Dimitri trembled next to her and Charlotte reminded herself how lucky they were, in these moments, that Dimitri was naturally quiet. She closed her hand around his and tucked him in closer, hoping he wasn’t remembering the last encounter they’d had with the Hunters back in Arrowhead, when Charlotte hadn’t been able to get to him in time.
“Well,” he said as the last of the unpacked crates were dumped out onto the floor. “Welcome to Rowen.”
He glanced over at her and Dimitri, and Charlotte felt a faint prickling of heat along her spine.
“I’m Cowel. Second to Raab, the Head Hunter here in Rowen.”
Charlotte’s mother gave a slight incline of her head but said nothing. Charlotte kept her eyes trained on the floor.
“How many in the household?” Cowel demanded.
“Three,” Charlotte’s mother answered.
“Three?” The Hunter asked, tilting his head as he looked at her. He glanced around the room. “No husband?”
“He passed. Some years ago.”
Charlotte’s stomach twisted at the lie.
“Illness?” Cowel asked, looking suspicious.
“No, nothing like that.” Charlotte’s mother answered quickly. “An accident. He was a woodcarver.”
“Well, then,” Cowel said, looking Charlotte’s mother up and down, who, to her credit, did not flinch. “Two silvers,” he said, looking around the room. “And we’d better make it a thorough search—since you’re new.”
Charlotte’s mother produced two silver coins, nearly a full month’s worth of labor, from within a small pouch and handed them over. Cowel slipped them into his pocket with a smile.
The other Hunter spoke from across the room. “Not much here.”
Cowel nodded up to the loft. “Search up there as well.”
The other Hunter climbed the ladder, ducking his head as he stepped onto the loft.
“I’m sure you don’t mind,” Cowel said with a twisted smile.
“Not at all,” Charlotte’s mother answered.
As the Hunter in the loft threw blankets and pillows down from above, Cowel examined the contents of the house spread out on the floor. He toed through their possessions with one of his heavy boots, kicking things aside here and there.
“Nothing up here either,” the second Hunter called out as he climbed down from the loft. He stepped on a small stuffed rabbit and Dimitri flinched. The Hunter noticed and he sneered again, coming to tower over Dimitri and Charlotte.
“What’s this?” he asked, snatching the yarn and hook from Dimitri’s trembling fingers.
“Yarn. For socks,” Charlotte answered, hating the smallness of her voice as she spoke.
Charlotte’s mother stood watching the second Hunter with sharp eyes. Cowel had noticed the exchange as well and strolled over, laughing. He grabbed Dimitri by the scruff of his hair, yanking his head forward. “You should learn to answer to your superiors, boy,” he said as Dimitri trembled.
Charlotte grabbed Dimitri’s arm, keeping a tight hold, but not daring to pull him back to her. Heat rose into her face and her pulse quickened.
Cowel’s gaze locked on Charlotte’s hand, holding her brother tightly, and traveled up to her face. “Watch it, girl,” he said, shoving Dimitri back at her, knocking them both into the wall. “We don’t tolerate disobedience here in Rowen.”
Charlotte said nothing, keeping her eyes fixed on Cowel.
He glared at her for a moment before signaling to the other Hunter. “Let’s go,” he said, kicking things out of his way as he crossed to the door. “We’re done here.”
He paused in front of Charlotte’s mother, letting the other Hunter pass him, and leaned in. “Lovely to meet you, Ruth.”
“And you,” Charlotte’s mother answered with another respectful nod.
The deputy Hunter exited the house, but before Charlotte could even breathe a sigh of relief she heard—
The other Hunter was shouting from outside and Charlotte could hear the flapping of wings. She swore under her breath.
Cowel shot a quick glance back at Charlotte before following the Hunter out the back door.
“Stay here,” Charlotte told Dimitri, releasing his hand before hurrying to the back door and opening it just in time to see Cowel disappear around the corner of the house.
Her mother followed her to the door. “Charlotte, stay—”
Charlotte ignored her, darting out the door and after Cowel.
The Hunter was kneeling in front of the wood pile, yanking on the cage, pulling it out bit by bit as Lucy, Dimitri’s most precious and beloved hen, squawked and flapped anxiously.
“Nice and plump,” he grinned up at Cowel. “Looks like fresh meat tonight!”
“Not for you,” Cowel said.
The Hunter’s face fell, but he reached in to take hold of Lucy just the same.
Charlotte rushed forward. “Wait,” she said. “You don’t understand. Lucy isn’t—”
“Shut your mouth, girl,” Cowel said, glaring down at her. “You know the law.”
Charlotte faltered. She did know the law—the law that said the Hunters could take what they wanted, whatever they deemed dangerous or a threat to the village. But Lucy wasn’t a threat. Birds didn’t carry Fever, everyone knew that. This wasn’t protection, it was greed. And Charlotte wouldn’t let Dimitri suffer for the sake of one Hunter’s appetite.
Charlotte grabbed Cowel’s cloak, pleading with him. “No, don’t—”
Cowel raised his arm, backhanding her hard across the face. She stumbled backward, her mouth and cheek stinging from the blow. A cut opened on her lip, filling with blood.
“Please,” Charlotte said, her hand pressed to her cheek, as Lucy was pulled from her pen. “She’s my brother’s.”
The Hunter grabbed a basket from beside the door and stuffed Lucy inside, passing her to Cowel.
Cowel took a final look at Charlotte. “I’ll be keeping an eye on you and your pretty mother,” he said with a smirk.
Charlotte bit back her retort as Cowel and the other Hunter left with the basket holding Dimitri’s feathered friend.
Charlotte stood behind the house, angry and upset, the crushing weight of the iron-forged constraints of her life bearing down on her. A faint prickling of heat worked its way up her spine, filling her with restless energy, until she couldn’t stand it any longer.
She hurried along the side of the house in the direction the Hunters had gone, hopped the low garden wall and made for the path, when she saw two men standing in the trees beyond her home. She jerked to a halt, watching nervously.
One of them was the Hunter whose name Charlotte had never learned. The other was a man she hadn’t seen before, taller than the Hunter, but younger, with a slighter build and dark hair that fell in waves below his chin. He was dressed in dark clothes, but not the black uniform of his companion. The two men spoke quietly for a moment and then in a brief exchange the younger man offered the Hunter a small leather pouch and accepted the basket holding Lucy in return. Charlotte’s anger mounted; the Hunter was profiting off what he had stolen from her family.
The men shook hands and headed off in opposite directions, and suddenly Charlotte knew what to do. She ran back inside the house, heading for the cellar. Her mother had already retrieved most of their belongings from their hiding place beneath the floor and Charlotte tore through the mess of contraband piled high on the wooden table.
“I need your help cleaning up,” Charlotte’s mother said to her.
Charlotte didn’t answer, continuing to search. She spotted her tattered pouch beneath an old bottle of hard drink and grabbed it, pulling the single silver coin, stamped with an image of the sun, from inside and tucking it into the collar of her dress. She turned away, passing her mother who eyed her sternly.
“I’ll be right back,” Charlotte said, pulling open the front door.
“And where are you going?” her mother asked, catching the door with one hand and blocking Charlotte’s exit.
“I’m getting Lucy back,” she said, glancing over at Dimitri who was picking his scattered toys up off the floor.
“Charlotte,” her mother said. “We don’t need any trouble.”
“I know,” she answered.
Her mother frowned, but released the door. “Hurry back,” she said.
Dimitri ran to Charlotte’s side, clutching at her dress with one small hand.
“Dimitri,” Charlotte said, nervous about the idea of him coming with her.
He tugged on her dress again, his eyes earnest, his mouth set in a firm line. His determination was one thing they’d both inherited from their mother.
Charlotte glanced up at her mother.
“Fine. As long as you come straight back,” her mother said with a nod. “In all our years in Arrowhead, I’ve never witnessed such an intrusive search,” she continued, looking worried. “I want you both to be careful.”
“We will,” Charlotte answered. She took Dimitri’s hand and together they stepped out into the fading light.
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