Hello everyone! Today we continue on with the third chapter of CHARLOTTE (if you missed the second chapter you can find it here). Hope you all enjoy it! Happy reading!
Charlotte couldn’t breathe. Terror bubbled up in her throat, hot and bitter. Dimitri was in the forest.
She jumped from the porch and pushed into the crowd, yanking her hood up over her head. The gates were still open. The driver of the wagon had paused to speak to another Hunter but once he left there would be no way in or out of Rowen and Dimitri would be lost to the woods.
Charlotte’s hands shook as she struggled through the throng of villagers, her mind refusing to do anything except replay over and over the moment that Dimitri had slipped from her grasp, as if she might somehow find a way to take it back, keep a tighter hold on him, and stop the whole thing from happening.
Someone grabbed her wrist, pulling her back. Charlotte turned and found Sarah, ashen-faced and confused.
“What are you doing?” Sarah asked.
“Dimitri—” Charlotte began. “I’ve got to—”
“No,” Sarah said anxiously, trying to pull Charlotte in the opposite direction. “We have to tell someone, we have to—”
Across the square the driver called to his team, starting them forward, and Charlotte felt all the air leave her lungs. There was no time to tell anyone, no time to get help. She had to act.
Charlotte wrenched her arm from Sarah’s grasp and slipped through a gap in the crowd, dodging villagers until she made it to the other end of the square. She broke through the edge of the crowd and ducked low, hurrying to the far side of the wagon and out of sight from the crowd. She crouched next to the rear wheel as it turned, scurrying alongside it, hidden from the view of the driver by the supplies he was transporting. The gates loomed large and ominous overhead and Charlotte couldn’t help her nervous glance upward as she and the wagon passed between them. The wagon straightened out as the driver guided it onto the only path leading into the depths of the forest. If Charlotte didn’t move soon she would be seen. A large crash came from the square behind her, startling the team. The horses jerked, shaking their heads and jostling the wagon, rattling both driver and goods, and Charlotte took her chance, pitching herself to the side of the path and tumbling into a thick cluster of ferns. As soon as she hit the ground she froze, listening for any noise from the driver or the halting of the wagon, but the wheels continued their creaking turns, rumbling end over end, as the sounds of the wagon and the horses slowly faded away.
When all was quiet, Charlotte peered around the edge of a large tree. The dim moonlight illuminated the forest around her. The path was empty and she couldn’t see any Hunters on patrol outside the village. The gates were still open, looking even more foreboding now that she was outside them, but just as Charlotte thought there was a chance she could quickly find Dimitri and get back inside without being seen there was a loud groan and a thunderous scraping—the gates were closing. Charlotte dropped back down, peering through the brush. Two Hunters had taken hold of the chains and were pulling them closed. Before Charlotte could think what to do the gates slammed shut with a resounding boom and she heard the heavy beams thudding into place on the other side. Charlotte stepped out of the trees and onto the path, staring up at the giant walls of wood and iron preventing her return to safety, their spiked points pushing up through the trees and out of sight. How would she and Dimitri get back inside now?
Charlotte pushed her hair back from her face and started up the path, her back to the gates. After she’d found Dimitri she would worry about how to get home without being seen. Right now she needed to focus on locating her brother.
Dimitri had only been gone a few minutes and it didn’t seem likely that he would have wandered too deeply into the forest—not if he was searching for Lucy, or the basket holding her. In unfamiliar surroundings Charlotte trusted that her brother’s instincts would keep him close to what he knew, high village walls and well-worn paths. Since she hadn’t seen him anywhere near the gates, nor had she heard the driver of the wagon take notice of a small boy outside the village, he was likely to be somewhere on the path, or close to it.
Charlotte made her way into the woods, the muffled sounds of Rowen fading behind her as she walked. The forest outside the village was unlike anything Charlotte had seen. The trees beyond the fence were even larger than the ones surrounding her new home: towering evergreens with trunks wrapped in moss, branches that wove a thick canopy overhead, blocking out the sky; twisting rowans, their limbs sprinkled with berries like clustered drops of blood; spruces that turned silver-blue in the gleaming moonlight; oaks that shook and whispered gently in the faint breeze, tellings stories of legends long lost. The air was heavy with the smell of earth and the lingering perfume of summer wildflowers. A growing fog clung to Charlotte’s legs as she walked, drifting up to brush her hands and coat her cloak, leaving tiny drops of chilled water on her wrists and calves and dampening the ends of her hair. The ground was dark—rich soil, still wet from rain and soft beneath her boots. A blanket of moss, draped over the forest floor, muted the sounds of her steps.
Charlotte continued up the path, keeping a careful eye out for Dimitri and hoping that she would find him before anyone or anything else had the chance. The forest carried the risk of Fever and the possibility of being arrested by the Hunters, but there were also deadly and diseased animals. Charlotte thought of the terror-filled nights she had spent on the journey to Rowen and her legs grew shaky imagining what might be lurking out here among the moss and trees.
A rustling sound came from nearby, as though someone was struggling through the brush just off the path. Charlotte stopped, peering into the trees.
“Dimitri?” she whispered.
Charlotte waited, hoping it was her brother and not a Hunter she was hearing, but the woods were silent. Charlotte realized that Dimitri’s natural quietness, for which she’d felt so grateful earlier that same evening, could now prove detrimental to finding him out in this sprawling forest. If they were going to find one another she’d have to risk making some noise.
“Dimitri?” she called again, a bit louder.
More noise came. Someone was walking through the brush but Charlotte couldn’t see anyone in the low light. She stepped off the path and into the trees.
“I’m here, Dimitri!” she called, no longer caring who else might hear.
The noise was closer now and Charlotte broke into a run. She rounded a large tree and something very solid came out of nowhere, smashing into her and knocking her to the ground.
Charlotte groaned, pushing herself up from the forest floor. What had she hit?
Someone moved nearby and Charlotte turned.
“Sarah?” Charlotte asked in disbelief, spotting her on the ground a few feet away. “What are you doing?”
“Helping,” she said with a grimace.
“Well done,” Charlotte said, rubbing her head.
“Sorry,” Sarah winced.
Charlotte clambered to her feet and then reached out to help Sarah up. “How did you get out here?” she asked.
“Through the gates, like you.” Sarah answered, brushing dirt from her dress. “They broke something that came out of one of the wagons and I slipped out while everyone was looking the other way.”
“I didn’t see you,” Charlotte said, feeling wary.
“I hid until the gates were closed and the wagon was gone. When I figured it was safe to come out you had already disappeared. You’re awfully fast.” Sarah looked harried.
“Why did you follow me?” Charlotte asked.
“Because of Dimitri,” Sarah said, as if it were completely obvious.
Charlotte crossed her arms. She suddenly realized just how little she really knew about Sarah.
“What’s your full name?”
“Sarah Mae Willis,” she answered, before turning curious. “What’s yours?”
“Charlotte Elizabeth Moore.”
“That’s pretty,” Sarah said.
Charlotte frowned at her. “How old are you?”
“Seventeen,” she answered, with no hint of trepidation about her next birthday. “You?”
“The same,” Charlotte said.
“My birthday’s in March,” Sarah said brightly. “When’s yours?”
“November,” Charlotte said, puzzled as to how Sarah could be so cheerful when they were almost certainly trapped out in the forest with no way back into Rowen. She wondered if Sarah had ever truly felt like she was in danger before.
Charlotte studied Sarah. She was wearing a new dress, cream turned a pale silver in the darkness, and a matching cloak. Her hair was smooth, shiny, and tied back in a long braid. Even in the low light Charlotte could tell Sarah had grown up with a full stomach and a warm bed. Her family’s money was written all over her, but it wasn’t Sarah’s wealth that concerned Charlotte. Trade families were more likely to be on good terms with the Hunters, but they weren’t entirely immune to their greed and abuse. Their income and security made them closer to the Hunters in status, but could also be cause for resentment if they felt mistreated. Was Sarah’s family one that catered to the Hunters or one that tolerated them? And why would she risk her own safety for Dimitri, a little boy she barely knew? Leaving the village, risking her freedom and possibly even her life, was no small act—so why had she done it? Was she planning on turning them in once they were back inside the village? Could she be an informant, sent by the Hunters to trap Charlotte into being arrested? Or did she genuinely want to help find Dimitri? Charlotte had no way of knowing if she could trust Sarah, but the minutes were ticking by as the forest grew darker. She had to make a choice.
“I think Dimitri ran this way,” Charlotte said, pointing back in the direction of the path.
Charlotte’s silver coin was still tucked into the collar of her dress. If Sarah intended to betray her, Charlotte might be able to buy her silence or else find some means of lying her way out of it with the Hunters. Either way, she would handle it once Dimitri was found and safe.
“Well, we better start looking for him,” Sarah said.
“Let’s search along the path,” Charlotte suggested. “I don’t think he would have gone very far from the fence.”
Sarah nodded, falling into step with Charlotte as they started back through the trees. A full round moon and a smattering of stars hung in the sky, their light filtering down through gaps in the canopy and onto the forest floor.
“So why did he run away?” Sarah asked as they made their way through the trees. “Does this happen often?”
“No,” Charlotte said, glancing up at the dark sky, visible only in small patches through the trees. “And I’m not sure why he ran,” she lied. Charlotte knew exactly what Dimitri had thought he’d seen leaving the village in a basket tucked in a wagon, but didn’t think it wise to tell Sarah.
“Why did you move here?” Sarah asked.
An owl hooted nearby and Charlotte gave her a sideways glance. This wasn’t exactly the ideal time to be having a conversation and that particular question was yet another Charlotte had been hoping to avoid.
“Sorry,” Sarah said with a half smile, apparently sensing her questions weren’t being received well. “It’s just that you’re the first family to move into Rowen in ages. Since before I was born, I think. The only new people I ever see are Hunters.”
“Really?” Charlotte asked.
Charlotte’s old village was far from paradise and moving from one village to another was expensive and difficult, as she now knew first hand, but Charlotte remembered at least a handful of people who had come to live there from other villages during her childhood. Usually it was a young trade couple looking to open a shop in town, but sometimes a farmer or day laborer would try someplace new if there were no cheap houses in their old village, and occasionally someone who had worked off their debts or their labor sentence at Whitecliff would decide to start over instead of returning home. Families like Charlotte’s, who lived off the land and had more children (and the taxes that came with them), didn’t relocate very often, but it was odd to hear that no one at all ever moved to Rowen.
Sarah nodded, her features illuminated for a moment as she stepped through a beam of moonlight. “I think we’re one of the smallest villages in all of Braudland. My father says people don’t move here because it’s so far north.”
Charlotte looked over in surprise. She knew almost nothing about the rest of the kingdom. She didn’t know how many other villages there were, let alone their locations and sizes. When they’d applied to move the Hunters had picked their new village at random. Charlotte’s family had no say in the matter. “How do you know that?” she asked.
Sarah stumbled slightly and cleared her throat. “Oh, I don’t. It’s just a guess. Sometimes the Hunters from other villages talk in the tavern. They make it sound like Rowen is small compared to other places.”
Charlotte could tell Sarah was lying, but decided not to press her, asking instead, “The tavern?”
“You know—drinks, food, that kind of thing. My parents own it. It’s been in our family for generations. It was one of the first buildings built here—back before the Fever. It’s on the east side, near the Hollows.”
Charlotte turned to ask what the Hollows were, but Sarah was already answering. “It’s where the abandoned houses are.” She paused. “And the graveyard. But no one goes there.”
“Oh,” Charlotte said, stepping over a fallen log.
“Did your old village have one? A tavern, not a graveyard, I mean.”
Charlotte shrugged, glancing beyond the path and into the trees. “Sort of, but my mother would never let us go anywhere near it. It was . . . ” She searched for the right word to describe the grimy shack that housed more prostitutes and poisonous drugs than actual drink. She certainly wouldn’t have called it a tavern or a pub. Back in Arrowhead they just called it “the hole.” Apparently the joke was that once you fell in you couldn’t get back out.
“Unseemly?” Sarah offered.
“Rough,” Charlotte replied. Her mother would have called it evil, but Charlotte didn’t really believe that. The hole was dangerous to be sure, the way the rattlers that burrowed beneath the wall around Arrowhead were—and best given the same wide berth—but not evil. She saw no evil in the men so desperate to escape the misery of their lives that they turned to the vices and distractions the hole offered or the women driven by hunger and fear to sell their bodies. All Charlotte saw there was weakness—weakness and despair. And how could she blame them? Her own father had sought escape as well.
“Ours is nice,” Sarah said with a smile. “You should come by.”
Charlotte gave her a slight nod in return.
“So, where did you move from?” Sarah asked, pushing some low hanging branches out of the way as they continued to walk.
Sarah didn’t answer right away and Charlotte thought she could guess the source of her hesitation since, apparently, Sarah was well informed about the rest of Braudland. “It wasn’t the nicest of places,” Charlotte said. “But it was home.”
Sarah nodded. “I can understand that.” She glanced up as a breeze blew around them, filling the air with the smell of trees and the sound of shaking leaves. “Sometimes I wish I could leave Rowen and visit some of the places I’ve read about, but this is all I’ve ever known. I’m not sure I could leave the village even if it wasn’t against the law . . .” She trailed off. The crime they were committing at present hung in the cool air between them.
“Have you ever been outside the fence before?” Charlotte asked quietly.
“No,” Sarah answered, for the first time sounding unsure about what she had done. “Have you?” she asked, turning to Charlotte.
“No,” Charlotte admitted. “Unless you count the journey from Arrowhead.”
“Then we’d better hurry and find your brother so we can get back inside,” Sarah said.
“Agreed,” Charlotte said, stopping as they reached the path.
She glanced around. The path was only distinguishable from the rest of the forest by the lack of moss and the deep ruts made by years of wagon wheels bringing food and supplies in and carrying taxes, and sometimes people, back out. As far as Charlotte could tell, there weren’t any footprints or other clues that might give an indication as to where Dimitri had gone, although, she had to admit, aside from the most obvious of signs—like a shoe or something left behind, she wouldn’t have been able to discern Dimitri’s whereabouts even if the evidence had been right in front of her.
“See anything?” Sarah asked quietly.
Charlotte shook her head. Somewhere in the distance a stream trickled and splashed down the mountainside. “It’s too dark, and there’s not much to go by.”
Sarah frowned. “Maybe we should spread out a bit?”
“All right,” Charlotte agreed, moving off the path to her left. “But not too far. And only in one direction. ”
Sarah nodded, looking around nervously as if she had only just realized the potential dangers of the forest at night, apart from the possibility of being arrested. “Good plan. I don’t want to end up lost out here.”
Charlotte wasn’t particularly keen on being out in the forest either. This was by far the most dangerous thing she had ever done. Her family’s poverty and their daily struggle to make ends meet meant Charlotte was used to a certain amount of bending the rules in order to survive. Keeping birds like Lucy and trading her eggs at back doors or baking them into her mother’s breads, though illegal, was the kind of offense punishable by fines or a couple days of hard labor for the Hunters—at worst you might spend a night or two locked up in the village guardhouse. Birds and other small creatures were known to be immune to Fever, though the reasons why were still a mystery, and back in Arrowhead, where searches were rare and neighbors were usually too busy with their own worries to care what you got up to, keeping chickens, a few quail, or the odd duck went largely unnoticed and unpunished. If the Hunters in Arrowhead had been as unconcerned with Dimitri as they had been with Lucy, Charlotte and her family might still be there now.
But leaving the boundary of a village, any village, was a far more serious crime—one that could easily earn you a lifetime of forced labor in Whitecliff, or even a death sentence. The forests were known to be home to warm-blooded beasts that carried Fever and could pass it to humans merely by sharing the same air. As a result, any activities that risked another outbreak like the one that had taken place some fifty years earlier—such as leaving the village, keeping large animals as livestock, or hunting for food in the forest—were strictly forbidden.
“We’ll stay in sight of each other,” Charlotte said, trying not to imagine exactly what kind of animals might be lurking in these dark woods.
“Good,” said Sarah with relief and she stepped off the path and into the trees, heading away from Charlotte with slow, cautious steps.
Charlotte and Sarah searched quietly, the bright moon and pale stars their only source of light. They walked and walked, pushing their way through massive bunches of ferns, stumbling over rocks and roots, and traipsing through the heavy moss that coated the forest floor, but always keeping each other in view. More than once Charlotte glanced behind her, certain she had heard the sounds of movement not belonging to her or Sarah, but finally, when the forest had grown completely dark and her legs and arms were scratched from bushes, Charlotte had to admit that, short of spotting Dimitri curled up next to a tree or bumping into him like she had Sarah, she had no idea how she was ever going to find him.
The forest beyond Rowen was enormous, that much she had learned on their journey through it from Arrowhead, and at least a couple of hours had passed since she had left the village. The sky was black and Dimitri could be anywhere by now. She was going to have to come up with a better plan. Charlotte crossed the path to tell Sarah she thought they should turn back and search along the fence, when a thundering crash shook the dark forest.
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