New York Wildlands, Amherst Province, 18161.Every heartbeat brought the boy closer. Charlotte heard the shallow pulls of his breath, the uneven, heavy pounding of his footfalls. She stayed curled within the hollows of the massive tree’s roots, body perfectly still other than the sweat that beaded on her forehead in the close air. A single drop of moisture trailed along her temple, dripped from her jaw, and disappeared into her bodice.
The boy threw another glance over his shoulder. Five more steps, and he’d hit the tripwire. Four. Three. Two. One.
He cried out in alarm as his ankle hooked on the taut line stretched between two trees. His yelp cut off when his body slammed into the forest floor, forcing the air from his lungs.
Charlotte lunged from her hiding place, muscles shrieking in relief as they snapped out of the tight crouch. Her practiced feet barely touched the ground and she ran with as much silence as the low rustle of her skirts would allow.
The boy moaned and started to push himself up on one elbow. He grunted when Charlotte kicked him over onto his back and pinned him against the ground with one foot.
His wide eyes fixed on the revolver she had aimed at his chest.
“Please,” he whispered.
She adjusted her aim—right between his eyes—and shook her head. “I’m not in the habit of granting the requests of strangers.”Charlotte put more weight onto her foot, and he squirmed.
“Who are you?” she asked, and wished her voice were gritty instead of gentle.
He didn’t blink; his eyes mirrored the rust-tinged gleam of the breaking dawn.
“I don’t know.”
“Say again?” She frowned.
Fear bloomed in his tawny irises. “I . . . I don’t know.”
“You don’t know,” she repeated.
He shook his head.
She glanced at the tangle of brush from which he’d emerged. “What are you running from?”
He frowned, and again said, “I don’t know.”
“If you don’t know, then why were you running?” she snapped.
“The sounds.” He shuddered.
“Sounds?” Charlotte felt as though frost had formed on the bare skin of her arms. She scanned the forest, dread building in her chest.The whistle shrieked as though her fear had summoned it. The iron beast, tall as the trees around it, emerged from the thick woods on the same deer trail the boy had followed. Imperial Labor Gatherers were built like giants. The square, blunt head of the machine pushed through the higher branches of the trees, snapping them like twigs. Two multijointed brass arms sprouted on each side of its wide torso and its long fingers were spread wide, ready to clutch and capture. Charlotte’s eyes immediately found the thick bars of its hollow rib cage.
“Who sent a Gatherer after you?”
His voice shook. “Is that what it is?”
“Are you an idiot?” She spat on the ground beside him. “You must know a Rotpot when you see one! Everyone out here knows how the Empire hunts.”
The screech of metal in need of oiling cooled Charlotte’s boiling temper. A horn sounded. Another answered in the distance. But not nearly distant enough.
She didn’t have time to mull over options. She lifted her foot from the boy’s chest and offered him her hand. The only advantage they had over the Rotpots was that the lumbering iron men maneuvered slowly in the forest.
“We need to leave this place. Now.”
The boy gripped her fingers without hesitation, but he shot a terrified glance at the approaching Gatherer. They were partially concealed from view by a huge oak, but the machine was close enough that Charlotte could see its operator shifting gears from within the giant’s iron skull. She watched as the man reached up, pulled down a helmet with telescoping goggles, and began to swivel the Rotpot’s head around.
Charlotte hesitated a moment too long. And he saw her.
Cranking hard on a wheel, which made steam spout from the machine’s shoulders, the operator turned the iron man to pursue them.
“Go!” Charlotte shoved the boy away from her. “Run east! I’ll catch up.”
“What are you—” he started to ask, but began to run when she pushed him so hard that he almost fell over.
When she was certain he wasn’t looking back, Charlotte reached into her skirt pocket. Her hand found cool metal, and she pulled a small object from within the folds of muslin. It only took a few winds of the key before sputters and sparks leapt from her palm. She sighed and regretfully set the magnet mouse on the ground, pointing it at the encroaching machine. The little creature whirred and skittered away, its spring-anchored wheels accommodating the rough path she’d set it upon.
When Charlotte caught up with the boy, she ignored the puzzled look on his face and grasped his hand, forcing him to run with her into the dark western wood, away from the now bloodred haze of early sun that stretched through the forest canopy.
Between gasps of breath, his fingers tightened on hers. She glanced at him.
His tawny eyes had sharpened, and he peered at her like a hawk. “What’s your name?” he asked.
Charlotte dropped his hand and gathered her skirts to accommodate her leap over a moss-covered log.
“Thank you for not leaving me back there, Charlotte.”
She looked away from him, nodded, and ran a bit faster. Behind them she heard the explosion she’d been waiting for. Though they were hardly out of danger, Charlotte smiled, feeling a surge of triumph. But a moment later, a single thought chased her giddiness away.
Ash is going to kill me.