Hello everyone! Today we continue on with the second chapter of CHARLOTTE (if you missed the first chapter you can find it here). Hope you all enjoy it! Happy reading!
Charlotte and Dimitri hurried up the path, pulling their cloaks tight against the evening chill, despite it being midsummer. The chilly mountain air and northern twilight, which seemed to linger for hours, weren’t all that was different from their old village. Charlotte’s mother was right—the Hunters in Rowen were unlike anything they had seen before. In Arrowhead, where Charlotte and Dimitri had been born, the searches usually consisted of the Hunters taking whatever food and drink they could find in your home and then heading back to their own houses to enjoy it. Here the Hunters were far more ruthless in their enforcement of the law. Hopefully, Charlotte thought as she felt the cool silver of the coin pressed against her collarbone, the man she had seen on the path would be more reasonable.
Charlotte and Dimitri followed the winding path that led from their house, isolated and largely hidden by trees, on the western border of the village to the center of town. The rows of wooden houses grew denser and the trees grew sparser as they hurried along, walking as quickly as they could without drawing attention, until they rounded a corner and a man with tattered clothing, light sandy hair, and a strip of fabric covering one eye knocked into Charlotte. She turned to look over her shoulder, but the man was already disappearing behind a house without so much as a backward glance. Dimitri tugged at her arm—they’d reached the square.
Despite the fading light, the day’s market continued into the long gloaming; the square, large and lined with shops on three sides, was still busy with villagers. In front of the shops were wooden pushcarts with built-in canopies. Children with hollow cheeks and hungry eyes, most of them years younger than Charlotte, tended them for the shop owners, watching over the displays of goods—shoes, stacks of cloth, woven baskets, even a selection of finely carved instruments—for a few extra pieces of iron to take home to their families. Women who walked the square with baskets, selling vegetables or herbs grown in their gardens, were hurrying to make their final attempts at sales before darkness arrived. Others who carried old clothes, worn blankets, and various items that had long since lost their value in the marketplace, lingered—calling out their wares with a more desperate look in their eyes, no doubt anxious to keep the Hunters demanding silver at their doors at bay. Rowen might be closer to Whitecliff, the king’s city, with its influx of money and food, but like any other village in Braudland, it had no immunity to poverty.
Across the square stood massive wooden gates, with iron braces and heavy slabs of wood, that served as the only way in and out of the village. The gates were guarded on either side by two Hunters. In the center of the square stood a platform—empty but for a solid wooden block with a dark stain down the front, that none of the villagers acknowledged, their eyes skirting down and away whenever they happened to draw near. These days, the axe of a Hunter saw more use at the execution block than it did out in the forest.
When Charlotte had first arrived in Rowen, the square had been an interesting mix of sights and smells, different than anything Charlotte had seen in her old village, with shop doors flung wide and pushcarts filled with goods and wares she had been drawn to examine. That evening, however, the square was busy but entirely absent of its festive air. Doors and windows were shuttered and there was almost no talk from the villagers, apart from the muted whispers that skirted through the crowd, brushing up against their feet like fallen leaves tossed by the wind. Hardly anyone felt like laughing or joking after a Taxing, especially one that meant imprisonment for one of their fellow villagers.
On the far side of the square, hitched to a pair of sleek black horses, was a wagon with an iron cage attached to it. Inside was a frail man, somewhere in his late forties, clearly starving and weak from hunger, chained and bound for a lifetime of slavery in Whitecliff. Charlotte had seen other homeless people back in Arrowhead, but for the most part the Hunters there had ignored them. True, they couldn’t pay their tax at each full moon, but they also didn’t have anything worth taking, so why bother? Clearly, the Hunters here felt differently.
The Hunters almost always gathered in the village square at the end of each Taxing Day and today was no exception. They were all there, trading with each other and showing off the spoils they’d taken from families, flaunting their stolen goods in front of the villagers—one of the many ways the Hunters demonstrated their superiority—a great teeming mass of them in their black uniforms, spreading out through the square and reminding Charlotte of spiders crawling across a web. The man who had taken Lucy hadn’t been in a Hunter’s uniform, but he’d seemed well-acquainted with the Hunter he’d sold Lucy to—and even from a distance his clothes looked clean and well-kept, a sure sign that he was some kind of trader or shop owner. Farming families, like her own, often had a more ragged and worn look about them. If he was both friendly with the Hunters and a shop owner, odds were he’d be here in the square.
As the moon peeked out from behind an eastern crag, Charlotte entered the square, keeping to the back of the crowd. She tucked her arm around Dimitri’s shoulders as she searched for the man. If she could find him, she might be able to convince him to trade the bird for her silver. Live chickens were rare outside of Whitecliff, but even so they weren’t worth what she was offering in exchange. A full silver, or seventy pieces of iron, would keep the average family in food for a month. It was her entire savings and a foolish trade, but Charlotte didn’t care. Right now, all she cared about was getting the bird back and getting Dimitri home.
Sure enough, seated on the porch of one of the shops were several Hunters and the man who’d paid for Lucy, all drinking dark amber liquid out of cups made from horns. Even from across the square, Charlotte could pick him out from the group. His clothes of mixed browns and dark grays, slightly lighter in shade and somewhat less fine than those the Hunters wore, marked him as not quite one of them. Nevertheless he sat amongst them as an equal, his head thrown back in raucous laughter as one of his companions reenacted an apparently funny story for the benefit of the others.
Charlotte considered her options. She couldn’t very well storm over and demand that he return Lucy, especially not in front of all the Hunters in the square. She’d likely be arrested and tossed into the guardhouse overnight. No, she’d do much better trying to barter with him away from the crowd, where he wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen giving a poor farm girl the time of day. Besides, she couldn’t see the basket anywhere near him. He wouldn’t have had time between trading the Hunter for Lucy and joining the rest of them in the square to have done much more than stash the hen somewhere she wouldn’t be found by other greedy hands. Charlotte had only been a few minutes behind him on the path, so his home or shop had to be somewhere nearby, which meant Lucy wasn’t cooked, yet. Unless . . . Charlotte glanced at the other side of the square where the shop nearest the gates, larger and busier than the others, stood at the end of the row, surrounded by Hunters and far too close to the wagon with the cage for Charlotte’s liking.
The trade post, where villagers who had paid their tax could buy things made in other villages along with stores of grain carted in from Whitecliff, also served as the butchery for the rare bit of fresh meat. Usually meat that came into the villages had already been salted, cured, or dried back in Whitecliff, but sometimes the Hunters would risk taking a pen of chickens or a fat turkey along on one of the supply wagons, though Charlotte couldn’t think why. She’d spent the entire journey from Arrowhead to Rowen looking over her shoulder, fearful of what she might see hunting them. Everyone knew the dangers of beasts, sick with disease, that waited in the wild and untamed forests of Braudland looking for a meal—and a fat bird would do nothing but attract them. Perhaps the man had already taken Lucy to the trade post with a similar hunger.
Charlotte gritted her teeth, knowing there was only one means of finding out and it was better that she know if Lucy was already a lost cause before she showed the man the money she was carrying.
She took Dimitri tightly by the hand and made her way along the edge of the square, keeping her eyes down and pulling him close as they passed through clusters of Hunters and villagers, but as they reached the stairs to the trade post Charlotte felt someone’s eyes on her.
She glanced up to find the man sitting with the Hunters staring at her from across the square, wearing a look she couldn’t name. Something about the way he was watching her made Charlotte feel like he recognized her, almost as if he’d been waiting for her to show up.
Several loud bangs came from the other side of the gates, making Charlotte and Dimitri jump, and Charlotte pulled her gaze from the man. The Hunters on guard called through to the other side and grasped the thick chains hanging down from the massive wooden doors, pulling to lift the heavy beams that bolted them shut. Groaning and creaking, the gates swung wide, admitting a line of wagons pulled by horses as well as several dozen Hunters, all heavily armed and clothed in black.
The villagers scattered to the far sides of the square as the procession entered, led by a man with thick, steely gray hair and a wide regal face. Another man, with black hair shaved short and a wiry beard and black eyes that made him look sharp and hungry, stepped out of the crowd of villagers. He was dressed similarly to the gray-haired man, but more warmly, in the Hunter’s uniform of black and leather, with the addition of an expensive cloak, all trimmed with fur, the likes of which Charlotte had never seen. Hunters didn’t dress so finely back in Arrowhead. He greeted the gray-haired man with a slight bow as the rest of the square began to buzz.
Charlotte could guess what most of the other villagers were whispering to each other because she was wondering it as well. More Hunters? How could anyone think Rowen, a village containing at best a few hundred people, needed additional protection? Or was that not the reason they’d come? Charlotte watched the two men speak to each other, the gray-haired man confident and evaluating the scene around him, the black-haired man eager to see the other pleased. A younger man with gold-brown hair came up to speak to them and the two Hunters listened, nodding and looking satisfied.
Dimitri poked his head out from around Charlotte’s dress to watch as the Hunters unloaded the wagons, carrying baskets of fruits and vegetables, large bundles of firewood, and bags of sugar and flour to the Hunters’ Quarter, the southern end of the village dedicated almost entirely to housing and workshops for the Hunters. The supplies came from Whitecliff, where the lands surrounding the palace were worked to provide food for the king and his court. Most of what was grown there was set aside for the Hunters in the king’s service as well as the population of Whitecliff, where retired Hunters, esteemed craftsman favored by the king, and nobles not quite important enough to reside in the palace lived in luxury. The remaining supplies were carted off to the villages to be sold to ensure the survival of the rest of Braudland, but little of it beyond stale flour and rotted firewood ever made it into the hands of the villagers. The Hunters took most of the meat and fresh food, despite the exorbitant amount given them as part of their pay, either to keep for themselves or for trading. Whatever was left over was put in the trade post where villagers could purchase goods from the Crown if they had the money—and all the profits went back to Whitecliff. There was no alternative; if you wanted flour, meat, a small pouch of sugar, or piece of fruit you had to buy it from the king—and Lord Markus ruled with an iron fist, clutching the silver of the people of Braudland tightly in his hand.
The square had finally grown dark, the sky fading into a dusty blue as villagers left for their homes, and the full moon showed its face from behind the mountains. Tall evergreens along the fence cast long shadows over the dark wood and neatly thatched roofs of the shops as the Hunters continued unloading the supplies from the carts. The front gates were unlocked again with the loud scraping of heavy iron and the rattling of chains as the Hunters opened the village to the dark forest beyond. A handful of the Hunters appeared to be leaving immediately with some of the wagons, including the one bearing the iron cage and its prisoner. The black- and gray-haired men were issuing orders as the Hunters lined up, preparing for departure. The Hunters who were staying moved deeper into the square, peering into the closing shops and eyeing the remaining villagers with amusement. A nervous pit settled in Charlotte’s stomach. The quicker they left, the better, she decided.
She turned away from the crowd and guided Dimitri up the steps to the trade post. She hesitated, having never been inside before and wanting to be able to prepare her brother for whatever they might find, especially if it was a gutted and plucked Lucy, when she heard her name called.
Charlotte turned, searching for the source of the voice.
Making her way through the crowd was a pretty girl with auburn hair, hazel eyes, and a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks.
“Hello, Sarah,” Charlotte said.
Sarah climbed the steps to the trade post and pulled Charlotte in for a hug. Charlotte returned the embrace, but caught a flash of blonde hair and light eyes over Sarah’s shoulder as a girl in a blue dress passed them, giving Charlotte a dirty look.
“How are you?” Sarah asked, pulling Charlotte’s attention back.
“Fine, thank you,” Charlotte said, rather formally. Charlotte had met Sarah her first week in Rowen when Sarah had practically accosted them on one of the village paths and had quickly learned that Sarah was friends with most of the village. She had gushed and fawned over Dimitri, asking quite a lot of questions about him that Charlotte didn’t want to answer, and insisted that both Charlotte and Dimitri accompany her to the square to be shown around properly, or for a treat of some kind, or a visit to her home for a meal, or for any number of potential activities until finally Charlotte had managed to shake her off by telling her they were late for dinner. Since then, Sarah had made a point of regularly seeking them out and stopping to speak with them any time she saw them around the village. Charlotte was flattered, if mildly embarrassed, by Sarah’s effusiveness and liked the idea of having a friend, something that hadn’t been an option for many years back in Arrowhead, but her eager interest in Dimitri and the attention she drew to all three of them whenever they were in public made Charlotte nervous. Attention, particularly where it concerned Dimitri, was exactly what they’d come to Rowen to avoid.
“It’s so lovely to see you!” Sarah said, smiling cheerfully. Her smile faltered. “Are you all right?” she asked, looking at Charlotte with concern.
Charlotte dabbed at her bloody lip with the hem of her sleeve. “I’m fine,” she said. “It’s nothing.”
“Are you out shopping?” Sarah asked, peering around Charlotte to smile at Dimitri.
“Not really,” Charlotte answered, with a nervous glance at the door of the trade post.
“Then you should come with me, back to my house! I’d love to show you around and have you and Dimitri meet my parents. We can even have spiced cider. My mother made it this morning,” she said. She bent down to speak to Dimitri. “Do you like cider?”
Dimitri hid shyly behind Charlotte and Sarah smiled, giving him a wink.
“That’s very kind of you—” Charlotte started.
Sarah suddenly looked up, interrupting her. “Wait, is he old enough for cider? How old is he?”
Charlotte hesitated, her nervousness expanding into her chest. Being able to hide Dimitri’s true age was another benefit of their move, but something about Sarah’s sharp gaze as she waited for an answer made the lie Charlotte had prepared for moments exactly like this stick in her throat.
Just then, strange sounds came from the alley next to the trade post and Charlotte and Sarah both turned. And old man was slowly wandering up the narrow gap between shops, his white hair sticking out from his head in wispy tufts. His clothes were mismatched and full of holes, and he muttered to himself as he passed the trade post, shuffling into the square. His brow was furrowed and he seemed unaware of his surroundings. He twisted his hands together as he walked with shaky steps. As the old man wandered deeper into the crowd he grew more agitated, knocking into people and waving his arms, shouting, “The moon rises! The moon and the ripples and they don’t speak, but they know—and they fight!” Villagers and Hunters were turning to stare at him, some with sympathy, but others with obvious annoyance. The old man started twisting and swinging his arms back and forth, turning in circles as he cried, “The black and silver sun comes for them all! The wolves!” He tripped, caught on his own feet, and Charlotte knew what was going to happen.
She reached out to the old man, a cry of warning on her lips, but it was already too late. He fell right into a group of Hunters, knocking several of them to the ground with surprising force for someone who looked so frail. The old man rolled onto the ground looking bewildered and the square fell silent.
The Hunters pulled each other to their feet and one by one they turned to look at the old man, their faces changing from surprise to anger. Several villagers helped the old man to his feet and he started muttering quietly again. Charlotte knew she should take Dimitri and leave, but something held her rooted to the spot. She pulled Dimitri in close to her so that he wouldn’t see, but couldn’t stop herself from turning back to watch.
One of the Hunters who had been knocked down stepped forward and grabbed the old man by the arm. In one sharp movement he drew his fist back and struck the man in the jaw with a loud crack that echoed through the square.
Sarah gasped from beside Charlotte, her hand flying to her mouth. The old man stumbled back, his eyes wide. A second Hunter aimed a kick at the old man’s legs, knocking his feet from beneath him as he let out a terribly cry. He cowered on the ground, shaking, as a third Hunter stepped forward. The rest of the Hunters gathered around the scene, laughing and calling out as the third Hunter yanked the old man man up from the ground and started dragging him to the wagon with the iron cage. The man flailed and struggled, his eyes wide with terror as he saw his fate coming closer. The other Hunters were jeering and laughing, pulling open the cage door, shouting to its occupant about how he’d have a friend for the trip to Whitecliff. Across the square Charlotte saw the man with dark hair who had taken Lucy watching the scene with a kind of bored amusement. The old man twisted violently and managed to break free, falling to the ground once more as the Hunters all laughed. The Hunter leered down at him, removing his club from his belt and a cold chill ran through Charlotte. She gripped Dimitri even more tightly to her, preparing for the worst when—
The door to the trade post flew open behind them with a loud crash and a man came tearing out. He pushed his way through the circle of Hunters and villagers and stepped directly between the Hunter brandishing his club and the old man. He gently pulled the old man to his feet and shouldered his weight. The Hunter with the club grabbed the man from the trade post by the shoulder, but the man shook him off.
“What do you think you’re doing, Runeck?” the Hunter asked.
“He’s in good standing, Gough. I’ve made sure of it,” the man from the trade post, Runeck, said roughly.
“Just because you keep the books doesn’t mean you decide who stays and goes. He’s behind on his tax if I say he’s behind.”
Runeck shoved past him, leading the old man away. The Hunter looked like he was going to come after them but after a moment he returned his club to his belt and rejoined his companions who had already resumed drinking.
At the door to one of the shops the man paused, glancing at Charlotte, Sarah, and Dimitri where they still stood on the porch of the trade post. He caught Charlotte’s eye for a brief moment and then turned away as he helped the old man up the steps and inside.
“That was awful,” Sarah said faintly as the villagers stepped around the blood-splattered dirt, avoiding each other’s eyes as they hurried to leave.
Charlotte nodded, alarmed. The whole thing had happened so quickly and, unlike her old village, the Hunters here seemed to view the villagers more as a source of sport than of profit. The realization was deeply troubling. What sort of place had she brought Dimitri to?
The Hunter with the black hair and beard seemed to be trying to regain control of his men, calling orders to them as they worked to finish unloading the wagons. The drivers preparing to leave were lining up by the gates, checking their teams and readying themselves for the journey ahead.
Dimitri clutched at Charlotte’s dress, pointing across the square toward the trees beyond the gates.
“What?” Charlotte asked, turning to see what he was looking at.
He pointed again, pulling on her dress anxiously.
“Is he all right?” Sarah asked kindly, looking down at Dimitri.
“What is it?” Charlotte said, pushing his hand down gently, fearful of the attention they might draw after what had just happened. Dimitri shook his head and continued pointing, insisting that she look. Charlotte knelt down next to him, trying to understand what he wanted to show her.
“What is it?” she asked, but Dimitri’s eyes were wide and fixed on something in the distance. Charlotte turned and scanned the square.
“I don’t see anything,” she said, but then she spotted him—the man who had bought Lucy, the one who had been watching her, heading to one of the empty wagons with the basket under one arm. He tucked the basket in the back of the wagon and Charlotte saw a flash of white feathers. A Hunter climbed up to the seat and snapped the reins, driving his team on, and before Charlotte could react Dimitri let out a faint cry of “Lucy!” and slipped from her grasp, scampering across the square, through the open gates, and out into the darkening forest.
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