Chapter three! This is the second draft of the chapter and I’m happy with how it turned out, although some things may be dialed up for drama in editing.
Anyway, unedited. Typos, etc.
If you’ve missed the earlier chapters of Blackthorn, you can catch up here.
A thick, wet fog rolled in that morning and despite it being the middle of the day, it lingered. Even now, it choked the streets of Sweetwater Point in a cold blanket. It wasn’t a freezing mist and it wasn’t snow, but it was miserable all the same. Charlotte pulled her cloak tight around her but the wool couldn’t keep out the frigid damp.
Sweetwater Point wasn’t much of a town but it bustled with energy. It was larger than Boxon Village, certainly, but most places were. The roads were unpaved, muddy mires. The mean looking buildings leaned and sagged together, keeping each other upright. Soldiers filled the streets, emerging and vanishing into the fog like ghosts. Charlotte had never seen so many uniformed soldiers in one place, not even in Founding. The crisp white uniforms and deep navy coats looked too clean to have seen much use in the field, unless the military knew a secret to keeping mud and dirt off white trousers.
The people of Sweetwater Point were downright rude, giving her scathing looks and muttering about how some people thought they had the right to park their cart anywhere. The cold soured her mood.
Charlotte drew her cloak tighter around her, her entire body folding in on itself to keep warm.
She hadn’t chosen to leave the cart on a busy road. That was Luis’ doing. He brought them to a halt, ordered her to stay with the cart, and lept out. Did he explain himself? No. Did he offer to bring back something hot? Also no.
Charlotte rubbed her hands together, hoping to bring back some feeling in her fingers. For much of their journey, they had enjoyed warm days and comfortable nights. Yesterday the cold arrived with the mystery fog, slicing through unseasonably warm weather like a frozen blade. Snow fell steadily overnight, turning the road which was barely more than a dirt track, into a muddy mess.
Fog hid the mountain– Draven’s mountain– in the distance. Occasionally the fog would part and the mountain appeared, only to vanish again. For two weeks, they traveled across the relative flat plains of the West Lands, the mountains nothing more than a purple smudge in the distance. Luis said they were still a week away but the mountains took up so much of the sky. Apparently the journey would grow harder and the terrain rougher. Wonderful.
Sweetwater Point was the last outpost. Honestly, Charlotte had been surprised by how not empty the West Lands were. She’d been under the impression that there was nothing out here. Literally nothing but the native flora and fauna, all deadly to humans. Maps had vivid lines of demarcation between the terraformed “civilized” human settlements and a great blank space to the west. No rivers. No half-completed railroad tracks. No occasional homestead by someone foolish enough to try to tame the wilderness. Certainly no Sweetwater Point.
As unimpressive as Sweetwater Point was, she hoped they stayed the night. She wanted a bath. A proper bath, not a cursory scrub from a bucket or– heaven’s forbid– a freezing cold river. She’d scrubbed away the grime of the road and soak in a hot tub until her fingers went pruney. Then she’d fall into a soft, warm bed. Ideally, the room would have a little stove or a fireplace, but she’d be happy with a bed warming pan, too. Then, in the morning, she’d have a breakfast that wasn’t oats soaked overnight. And toasted bread with so much butter it dripped down her fingers. Tea with real milk, not the reconstituted powder.
Soon enough, they’d be back on the road, following an abandoned railroad track into the heart of the West Land, and leaving the comforts of civilization behind.
She really enjoyed the comforts.
For all the effort people put in while trying to convince Charlotte not to go to Draven, no one ever mentioned how sore she would be riding in a cart all day. Riding horseback was just a different kind of sore with her thighs screaming in agony rather than her behind. Or how dust would cake in all her nooks and crannies. Or how, despite using perfectly acceptable soap, she would never feel clean when she washed in a stream. If anyone had mentioned that, she might have stayed back in Boxon.
Or she may have rolled her eyes and declared that she was not such a delicate, hot-house flower that she could not endure a few weeks of travel. She was stubborn like that but even she could admit that travel in the West Lands was not the same as traveling from Founding to Boxon, where the roads were paved and roadside inns appeared at regular intervals.
“You look particularly miserable,” a man said.
Charlotte’s head snapped up, knocking back the hood of her cloak. “Excuse me?”
A figure emerged from the fog, standing alarming near the cart. He was tall and glared at her like her state of miserableness was a personal insult. He was uncomfortably handsome. No, that wasn’t quite right. His face had an elegant cast, like an idealized painting come to life. Dressed in a heavy wool great coat over a navy blue army uniform, his long, pale hair was bound back in a style that suggested he was too highly ranked to be concerned with regulations. His brows were thick and dark. He was pale, too pale, from the cold. He watched her with dark, serious eyes.
“Of course you’re miserable. You’re cold,” he said with a grumble. He stripped off his gloves and held them out to her, frowning. “Well, go on. Take them.”
“No thank you,” Charlotte said, bristling at his tone. She had no idea who this rude man was but she knew she did not want to accept anything from him.
He sighed dramatically. “I offer these gloves freely. You are under no obligation if you accept other than not catching frostbite in your fingers.”
For such a handsome man, he was quite arrogant. That shouldn’t be surprising. The world had a way of catering to the whims of attractive people.
“I’m not in the habit of accepting gifts from rude strangers,” she said.
“So you would punish yourself by shivering in the cold because I forgot my manners?”
“I’d rather not associate with the type of man who berates strangers in the street. Now, if you don’t mind, my companions will return shortly. You do not want to explain yourself to them.”
“Ah, yes, your companions who leave a fully loaded cart on a busy street, interrupting the flow of traffic.”
Charlotte waved a hand around to the traffic. Despite the dozens of people in close proximity, no one seemed to be paying much attention to them. “And the dozens of other carts? They must be inconsequential. Insubstantial, even, as they do not disturb the flow of traffic.” Her tone deepend, mocking him.
“They are military.”
“Ah. So common courtesy does not apply.”
“They have priority. This is a military outpost.”
“Is it?” Charlotte twisted in her seat, as if seeing the town for the first time. “I mistook the barracks for a tavern.”
“You are being willfully obstinate.”
“No, I am being wisely cautious of a stranger who demands that I accept garments from him without an introduction.”
A grin spread across his face, like a wolf catching sight of his prey. It was the first expression he displayed other than irritation and it made Charlotte nervous. Very, very nervous.
“A trade, then. My gloves for your name,” he said.
“I have gloves.” She poked her hand out from her cloak and wiggled her fingers.
He looked at her gloves with an unimpressed expression. “The weather will only grow harsher as you approach the Aerie. Those are not suitable.”
“Then I will purchase a suitable pair.” She had the coin to outfit herself three times over. A heavier coat wouldn’t go amiss, either.
“Good luck. The army has bought out every shopkeeper.”
“Surely you will require them if the weather is that inclement.”
“I do not feel the cold. These,” he said, holding out his pair, “are lined and the stitching is waterproof and they could be yours for your name.” Then, in a gentler tone, “Don’t make yourself suffer for your pride.”
Charlotte looked at the gloves with longing. Her own woolen mittens really weren’t up to the journey. They were fine for a stroll in the village but could not stand against the cutting north wind that swept across the prairie. She could have her pride or she could have frozen fingers. It was not a choice at all when it came down to it.
She snatched the gloves from his outstretched hand. “You may address me as Miss Wodehouse.”
Some expression other than irritation flickered across his face but he quickly settled back to his default of annoyed. “Miss Wodehouse. What do I need to trade to get your first name? My scarf? It’s not as fine as the gloves but it is warm.”
“Just information. How did you know my destination?”
“It is everyone’s destination. There is no other reason to be in Sweetwater Point.”
“So the military moves on the Aerie?” The mountain fortress had once been under military control until Draven seized it. That was basic history.
“Every few decades, some general has aspirations of reclaiming the Aerie,” he said, sounding almost bored. “I cannot imagine how they justify the expense when every campaign before has failed. Now, your first name, Miss Wodehouse.”
He repeated her name, like it was a morsel to be savored. In fact, she didn’t appreciate the way he was looking at her, like she was the morsel to be savored.
“Don’t you want to know my name? Then we will no longer be strangers, but friends,” he said.
Charlotte twisted the fine leather gloves in her mitten-clad hands. She should throw the gloves in his face. In no way did she want to be this man’s friend. “You’ll forgive me if I worry about the price you’ll demand in trade for your name. I am content with our acquaintance as it is.”
“You make an excellent point. A more respectable gentleman would bid you good day but, alas, I am not that gentleman. Take my coat.” He removed his great coat and tossed it at Charlotte.
She caught the bundle, the fabric surprisingly heavy in her arms. “Sir! What are you doing?”
“Give you my coat so you don’t freeze. What do you think I am doing?”
“I cannot accept this. I do not need you to outfit me.” The gloves were more than generous.
“A city lady like yourself? You most certainly do. You’ll never make it up the mountain. Now, put that on.” He spoke in an authoritative tone that suggested he was a man used to giving orders and being obeyed.
“What do you ask in trade since I doubt this is charity.”
That predatory gleam to his eyes came back, flashing violet in the sunlight. “Perhaps it is enough that I want such a pretty woman to smell like me.”
Charlotte laughed, loud and harsh, at the bold lie. Embarrassed, she covered her mouth. Well-bred ladies did not laugh like they were three pints into the evening at the tavern. “Forgive me, but you need to be subtle with your lies.”
His gaze swept over her. When his eyes met hers, the hunger in them removed any doubt that she was a morsel. “I’m sorry you think that and I humbly request the names of the scoundrel who mistreated you so badly that you hold such a low opinion of yourself.”
A blush flooded her cheeks. Charlotte dropped her gaze, refusing to answer. Instead, she said, “Your price? I’ll toss this to the ground if you refuse to tell me.”
“A kiss,” he said, without hesitation.
“Sir!” Charlotte clutched the coat to her chest, following a well-worn script. Ladies did not speak with strangers in the street and they certainly did not barter away kisses, even as tempted as she might be.
“I’ll collect the next time we meet,” he said. With a tip of his hat, he stepped back and vanished back into the fog.
Charlotte sat stunned. When she was certain he was gone, she lifted the coat and sniffed. The smell of woodsmoke and bright, citrus spiced soap clung to the fabric. It was wild and refined at the same time.
That man, through sheer arrogance and hubris, made her forget herself.
“There you are. I couldn’t find you in all this fog,” Luis said, slapping the side of the cart. “I found a cartwright to reinforce the axle, but they won’t be able to do it today.”
Miles appeared over Luis’ shoulder. He looked pale and exhausted. “Which is ridiculous. I could make the repair in no time.”
“But you don’t have the tools or the right materials.”
A few days ago, the cart got stuck and made an alarming noise. After they pulled it free, Miles crawled under and declared it fit for travel. Just.
“We’ll have to stay overnight,” Luis said, answering Charlotte’s earlier prayer.
“I’m not going to refuse a hot bath and a proper bed. Are you comfortable with that?” Charlotte asked Miles. Since his relatively recent transformation, he avoided crowds. Not that Sweetwater was a bustling metropolis but it was the largest town they encountered so far on their journey.
“It’s fine. It’s only one night and I’d also like a hot bath,” Miles said, his tone implying that staying in town wasn’t fine but he would endure it. He wrinkled his nose. “What is that smell?”
“The town has no sanitation to speak of,” Charlotte said. She had successfully ignored the odor of mud and manure until Miles pointed it out.
He hopped onto the cart’s running board and leaned close to Charlotte, sniffing. “No. It’s that. What is that?”
“Oh. It’s the strangest thing,” Charlotte said, unexpectedly flustered. “A man insisted I take his coat and gloves. He didn’t even tell me his name.”
“Not a man,” Miles said. “Not entirely.”
“What do you mean?” A new chill settled over Charlotte.
Miles shook his head. “I can’t tell. This town stinks. It’s messing with my senses.”
He climbed onto the cart and settled next to her on the bench. Taking the reins in hand, he eased the horse into motion.
Charlotte slipped the coat over her shoulders. When Miles wasn’t looking, she pressed her nose to the fabric and breathed in deeply. All she could detect was the pleasant aroma of woodsmoke and citrus soap.
Who was that grumpy man? Let me know what you think.
3 thoughts on “Blackthorn Chapter 3”
and lept out (leapt) Yesterday(,) the cold arrived with the mystery fog, slicing through (the) unseasonably warm weather like a frozen blade. For two weeks, they(‘d) traveled across the relative(ly) flatApparently(,) the journey would grow harder and the terrain rougher. She’d scrubbed away the grime of the road and soak in a hot tub until her fingers went pruney. (scrub)”Give you my coat so you don’t freeze. What do you think I am doing?” (Giving)
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Excellent!!! I can’t wait for chapter 4, 5, 6, I think you get my meaning ☺️
Just enough of a hint to leave you making your own guess. Love it!