The Soul of a Rogue – K. J. Jackson

The pistol shot rang in his ears, suffocating every other sound as the world slowed down in front of him. His father staggered a step backward. Then another. And another. Falling. Falling. The mass of him that had always been so huge, so strong. Falling backward. Down. The thud shook the floor under Rune’s feet—vibrating beneath the half wall that supported the crisscross wooden screen partition that separated the hallway from the private dining room of the tropical Weller Inn. Blood spread onto his father’s chest. Onto the white of his shirt and his waistcoat. If he’d been wearing the coat he hated to wear for the heat, the blood would have soaked into the fibers, hiding the crimson. Instead, the blood seeped upward. Vibrant.

A red like he’d never seen. Splatters of blood flew up from his mouth, gurgle after gurgle as the blood trailed down his cheek onto his neck. Gross. Ignoble. Nothing of the strength and dignity of the man. The honor of him. The integrity. The small diamonds of open space in the wooden panel didn’t afford Rune a solid view of his father. Broken. Only bits and pieces of his body and his face.

Not enough. Rune had to reach him. Reach him before his last breath. He charged toward the side door of the room, only to be jerked backward. His feet swung out from under him, flying up in the air. A hand clamped over his mouth as whispered words hissed in his ear. “Don’t do it. It’s death for sure.” Bloody idiot. Rune bit the hand across his mouth.

“Shit,” Strider hissed, but his hand didn’t leave Rune’s mouth, only dug harder across his lips. “Don’t make me knock you out.” Rune thrashed, silent, determined to free himself from his friend. “Sink me, Rune. Still or they’ll find us.” His muscles exploding, Rune tried to break free. Strider’s hold was a rock and he—he was weak. Damn, but he was slight—too slight. Couldn’t even break free from another fourteen year old’s grip. Couldn’t hold himself against Strider’s weight—his strength.

“Yer dead—dead if I let ye go. So the next move ye make I’m knocking ye out and ye won’t see any of this,” Strider whispered, the hiss gone from his voice. No option, Rune stilled with Strider’s hand suffocating the gasps he was aching for. His body frozen, his eyes locked onto his father’s face. He saw it, watched it, his insides tearing out. The moment his father’s face relaxed. Not struggling. Not trying to stay alive. Gave up. No more blood to pump his heart.

The man he’d idolized since he could walk. The man that had never given up on him. The man that was everything he ever wanted to be. Dead. He didn’t get to say goodbye. Tell him everything he would become as a man. Tell him his life was not for naught. That he wouldn’t let the dream die. That he would pick up the mantle—continue on with the lifework that had consumed their bloodlines for centuries. He couldn’t tell him any of that.

All Rune could do was look up and find the gun that had just killed his father. Trace the gun from barrel, to finger, to arm, to face. One face. The man he would kill one day. But not today. Strider knew it as well as he did. He moved forward and he was dead. Stay in the shadows. The shadows would keep him alive. The shadows would hide him until he was strong.

And then he would dole out justice. Dole out death. { Chapter 1 } June 1826 Somerset, England The carriage hit a sharp bump in the road and Elle’s hand dropped to the side of her thigh for the hundredth time that day to finger the small wooden box hidden in a pocket under the skirts of her deep blue carriage dress. The Box of Draupnir. Discover its origins. Break the curse of it. It’d seemed like such a silly, simple task the previous evening when she’d committed to doing it. The promise to research the history of the box and hopefully discover where it came from had come easily from her lips partly because the adventure of a cursed box sounded like a wonderful distraction, but mostly because she would do anything for her niece, Jules. And it wasn’t just Jules— truly, she’d do anything for Jules and her husband, Des, the Earl of Troubant, and most importantly, for their newborn babe, only a day old. All of them deserved the peace that would come only by removing this cursed box from their lives for good.

Jules and Des were the only family she had. The only people she could unequivocally count upon. She was younger than the two of them—a late-in-life babe born after her elder sister had Jules —and she knew how seriously both Jules and Des took protecting her. It was her turn to return the favor. She would find where the Box of Draupnir had come from and return it to its origins, giving them that peace. No matter what. The wheels of the carriage suddenly lagged, the constant clitter-clatter of the rear left wheel and its loose steel tire slowing into a dull thud. Moving her bonnet in her lap to the seat next to her, Elle scooted forward on the rear cushion as the carriage slowed. Not again. Sheep on the road? A deep rut from yesterday’s rain? The carriage had been stalled several times in the last eight hours since she’d left Jules and her family at Seahorn Castle along the Somerset coast.

Eight dreadfully long, silent hours. Rune, the man Jules had saddled to Elle’s side to keep her safe on the journey home to the Isle of Wight, had chosen to ride outside the carriage on horseback rather than keep her company. Which was completely fine. Elle didn’t need the man to entertain her. Except for the fact that she was terribly bored and too much time in her own head was never good. But from the first moment she saw Rune at Seahorn Castle a day ago, she recognized exactly what the man was. A hundred layers of sin. One after another, wrapped in the most ridiculously handsome man she’d ever set eyes upon. His odd copper-green eyes had looked her up and down and she had gaped for a too-long moment at his perfectly molded cheekbones and jawline. His light brown hair held streaks of almost blond and was longer than fashionable, but not so long it was out of control, the tips of it curling about his neck.

The whole of him was lean—smooth and sleek—almost like the panther she’d once seen in Lord Larring’s menagerie during a house party at his country estate. The whole of Rune was dangerous. A fact she instantly understood. Sin like his had its place, but not at the moment. Complications were the last thing she needed. She’d promised Jules and Des that she would do her best to discover the genesis of the Box of Draupnir in the ancient mosaics buried near her home on the isle, and then return the cursed thing to wherever it belonged. She meant to deliver on that vow, as impossible as it seemed. For their safety, for their new babe’s safety. She wasn’t about to let a stupid box threaten their lives, and she could have no other mission, no other distractions until she’d fulfilled her promise to them. That she’d recognized the box as the same one depicted in those mosaics had been eerie—a coincidence like no other that even her skeptical, logical mind couldn’t explain away.

It didn’t matter that she didn’t believe in the curse of the box. They did—others did—and the threat the box created was very real. Too many evil men were determined to possess the box for the power it supposedly carried—the promise of untold riches and power. Men who would stop at nothing to make the box their own. Which made the threat very real for all who possessed it. Cursed or not. So Elle hadn’t even suggested that Rune ride in the carriage with her. He was a complication she wasn’t about to entertain—no matter how bored she was. No matter how many hours of silence she had to endure. The hiccups along the roadway had been her only excitement that day.

The muck at the bottom of a hill they’d had to push the carriage through. A farmer and his slow mule. A flock of ducks that had decided that waddling along the middle of the road was convenient. Elle leaned slightly out of the open window and into the summer air, looking ahead. Hopefully this delay would be more exciting than the squawking ducks. A rush of air and mass shot by her head, close to decapitating her if she’d been leaning out a trifle bit farther. The muscle and sweat of Rune’s brown horse buzzed past her face, splattering flecks of dirt and wet droplets onto her cheek. She jerked back into the carriage, wiping her face. Blast that man. What sort of boorish ogre had Jules set upon her? No matter how handsome he was to look at, Rune had no manners.

None. Nearly killing her like that. Shouts cut through the air—she couldn’t make out what was said, but the carriage slowed even further, almost to a stop. And then it did. She poked her head out the window once more. “Lady Raplan—open the door—get out to the edge of the carriage.” Just ahead of the team of horses, Rune had twisted on his mount back toward her, screaming, waving his arm to the side. “Now! Open it and be ready.” Ready? Ready for what? Her look flickered off of him and she saw it. Three men on horseback set along the roadway in a wall blocking their path.

All with pistols drawn. Two aimed at Rune. One aimed at her driver. She looked behind them. Not another soul on the road, no one to help them. The carriage shifted to the side, then bounced, her footman jumping off the back of the carriage. The Box of Draupnir. Her hand flew down to the deep pocket in her dress, feeling the hard corners of the box under her skirts. She wasn’t but a day away from Seahorn. The box couldn’t have possibly cursed her so soon —curses didn’t work like that, did they? Who was it that Des had said was after the box? A man named Hoppler that had sent his thugs after Des’s friends, Weston and Laney—almost killing them—when they had brought the box to Seahorn.

That man couldn’t possibly have been following them the entire day without Rune realizing it, could he? Maybe Rune wasn’t as strong and smart as Des thought he was. More shouting. So slurred she couldn’t make out a word. The low rumble of Rune’s voice. Vicious wrapped in a veneer of calm. Crack. The boom of a pistol cut into her ear, slicing across her brain and spinning, whirring inside her skull. Splintering the world around her. Dragging her down. No.

Not again. Not another bullet. Not more blood. A scream—she guessed of the driver—echoed in her ears. Fading. Fading far away. Fading until she couldn’t hear it anymore. She was losing it. Losing space. Time.

The world slowing. Turning to black. She had the vague sensation of falling to the floor of the carriage, of her limbs pulling inward. And then nothing. Nothing around her. Nothing in her mind. Nothing.

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