There has never been a series that I have loved in its entirety as obsessively as this one—each new story in this spellbinding historical romance series hooking me in from the get-go and instantly becoming a new fave of mine—but this latest instalment in the Victorian Rebels series knocked my socks off. Once again, Kerrigan Byrne crafts an extraordinary love story threaded with mystery and suspense, and written in such exquisite prose, every word took my breath away. So I am THRILLED to be able to exclusively share with you today the Prologue of The Duke With the Dragon Tattoo, releasing on Aug 28.
Newgate Prison, London, Autumn 1858
“I’m going to hurt you,” Walters warned in a cockney inflection graveled by pipe tobacco and East End coal smoke. He could have passed for a much older man if one never marked the almost infantile features supported by a neck the width of a mooring post.
“I rather find I like the pain.” Even as he said it, the boy wondered if he’d ever mean it. In Newgate Prison, if one did not make friends with his pain, it became nothing but a constant tormentor. There was no escaping it, so the boy and his mates had learned to invite it in, study its effects, and then mete it out with vicious efficiency.
The boy was almost a man. Indeed, at the age of eighteen, he was a leader of men. Walters, likely the largest brute of his acquaintance, did his bidding without question. Everyone did. Some because they liked and respected him. Others because they owed him. More yet, because they feared him.
Well, if he was being honest, they all feared him.
Because he was an agent of pain.
“Just get on with it, will you?” he ordered.
Walters’s meaty fingers wrapped around the sharpened quill, which he proceeded to dip into the ink.
Such delicate motions, the boy thought, for such a large and unwieldy man. This precision of movement probably made Walters the best forger in the empire.
Or had, before his incarceration.
In prison, Walters became an artist of a different kind. A man had to do what he could to stay busy behind these gray stone walls. To stay sharp. Either to stave off madness, or monsters.
For every kind of torment lurked in the shadows of this place.
“Where’d you say you got this again?” Walters gestured toward the dingy leather scrap upon which intriguing lines forked in black ink, weighted by the ancient sigil etched into obsidian.
“From the first blighter I killed,” the boy lied. “A pirate.”
A man was as good as his reputation. As true in prison as it was on the outside. The boy had never been one to let the truth get in the way of a good story, especially if it made him appear more dangerous.
Truth was, he’d filched the map and sigil on the day he’d been arrested, from a kindly but impoverished Danish historian who’d boarded with his mother.
That had also been the day they’d pulled Caroline Morley’s corpse out of the Thames.
Swallowing emotion he’d considered as dead as the beautiful golden-haired girl, he found the first sting of the quill a distracting relief as it broke the thin skin on the underside of his forearm.
An easier pain to bear than that of Caroline’s death.
The boy made calculations in his head as Walters worked. Plans. Contingency plans. Failsafe plans. Infinite estimations.
What if he pulled this off? The Blackheart Brothers could rule the empire by the time they turned twenty.
Controlling the excitement palpitating in his chest, he did his best to keep the quivers in his belly under control. The last month inside this hell on earth would be nothing less than excruciating. Like the tattoo, the moments of pressure before the skin broke caused the most discomfort.
He just wanted it over with. He wanted to breathe in the night air again. To enjoy food free of maggots. And drink water that didn’t taste of piss and smell of rotten eggs. He dreamt of a bed of fresh straw but would settle for a blanket against the cold.
Just one soft thing. One kind word. One beautiful sight.
In his years at Newgate, he’d forgotten such pleasures existed.
Except in his dreams. He’d always had such vivid dreams.
“Tell me again what this pirate said,” Walters encouraged, rubbing away wells of blood from the boy’s flesh with a tattered cloth. “Talking will help keep you still and pass the time.”
The boy nodded, recalling that the historian, Johan Sandergaard, had enthralled him and his mother with the story over dinner one night. The usually sedate man’s glacial blue eyes flashed with the fires of conquest he’d inherited from his ancestors.
“Legend has it that approximately fifty years after Christ was killed, Claudius, the first Roman to successfully invade Britannia, wrote in his personal journals that he found something here so astonishing it would make him wealthier than any emperor had ever been. Because of the wars with the vicious native tribe, the Trinovantes, he was unable to bring whatever it was back with him. Desperate to claim it, he sealed it up, and left it guarded by the Sigil of the Scythian Dragon, the banner of the Roman Cavalry. And do you know what dragons protect?”
“Everyone knows that dragons protect treasure.” Walters dipped the quill once more, wiping the trails of blood down the boy’s forearm. The repetitive abrasion over the fresh wounds inflamed the skin. Resisting the urge to grind his teeth to nubs, the boy bared his teeth in the semblance of a smile.
“Exactly,” he validated through a jaw that wouldn’t unbind. “Claudius was poisoned before he could ever return to Britannia, and the only clue he left was this sigil.”
Both men gazed down at the seal. The figure of a serpentine dragon with four claws and a tongue snaking between fearsome teeth snarled beneath the etching of two words. NIGRAE AQUAE.
The boy had hoped when his blood brother, Dougan, had taught him to read, that he’d finally be able to make out what the words meant, but no such luck. They certainly weren’t English.
“So, wot’s the sigil got to do with the map?” Walters prodded, as he finished the forked lines in their exactitude, and began to etch the sigil into the boy’s raw skin.
“Nine hundred years later, King of the Danes Sweyn Forkbeard invaded Britain. Only one bridge stood over the terrain, and three heroic Anglo-Saxon warriors held that bridge with but a few of the village men, fending off all two thousand marauders. It is said they protected a secret wealth, a buried magic treasure that lent them indefinable strength and stamina.
“Thus defeated, the Danes took sanctuary on a small island, where they found a cave protected by a dragon. This dragon. Inside the cave was treasure too large to be conducted back to Denmark by a fleet of ships carrying two thousand men, can you imagine?”
“Indeed, I cannot.” Walters’s bulbous, bald head swung back and forth on something too short and thick to truly be considered a neck as he etched the words beneath the crease of the boy’s elbow.
Impassioned and a little drunk on pain, the boy barely felt the meticulous punctures anymore. “Invigorated by his find, King Sweyn attacked Maldon, and was paid off by King Æthelred the Unready to leave Britain. King Sweyn was never able to retrieve the treasure and it remains in that spot to this very day. The one marked by the dragon on this map.”
“’Ow do you know that?” Walters queried.
“Because Sweyn left this map with his daughter, but she hated and distrusted her father, and never came to look for it. So, it sat in a royal library in Denmark until recently.”
“I don’t know . . . these don’t look like any roads ’round here, and I’ve been all over.” Walters skeptically gestured to the strange branching lines.
“I don’t think they are roads,” the boy speculated. “The Vikings were seafarers, sailors, so it makes sense that their maps did not depict roads, but rivers.”
Walters froze, studying his work with new eyes. “Well . . . buggar me both ways.”
“So you’re going to ’unt this treasure when you’re released in a month?”
“I’m not going to stop hunting this treasure until I find it,” the boy vowed.
By the time Walters finished, the boy’s nerves were as frayed as a tired gallows rope, but the tattoo was some of the finest work he’d ever seen.
Packing his implements into a loose stone crevasse in the floor, Walters asked, “Are you going to tell Dougan?”
“Of course I’m going to tell him, just as soon as we are able to switch cells again.” The boy moved to the far wall, to Dougan’s pallet, and slid a stone free of its place in the wall. Reaching in, he pulled out some contraband, and then removed one more stone behind that. There lay the hideaway no one thought to look for after discovering the initial alcove. “I’m leaving this map and sigil for him. For you, and Murdoch, and Tallow. But Dougan has three years left on his sentence, so I’ll be searching while he’s still incarcerated. Maybe I’ll have found it by the time you’re all out. I’ll send word, of course. I’ll come back for you all.”
“Sure you will.”
The boy looked up sharply, ready to deliver a reprimand for the disrespect he heard in Walter’s tone. But the hint of melancholy etched into the craggy lines prominently displayed on the forger’s filthy face turned any words to ash in his mouth.
Walters had lived long enough to doubt every man’s word. He regarded the boy with pity, but no scorn. With kindness, but no faith.
“I’ll. Come. Back.”
Walters turned away. “You’ll want to wrap that before we start work on the rails in the morning. Don’t want it going putrid.”
He’d show Walters, the boy thought. He’d blow the walls of this place wide open. He wouldn’t leave his family behind.
Swallowing his frustration, the boy carefully replaced the stones over the map, placed the contraband in front of it, and then secured the outer stone.
He’d tell Dougan where to find it in the morning.
Walters blew out the candle he’d worked by, and stowed it somewhere the guards wouldn’t think to look for it.
Stretching his long body out on the pallet, the boy laced his fingers over his empty stomach and contemplated the darkness. He counted moments by the throb of his new tattoo. The acrid scent of candle smoke was a welcome temporary balm over the ever-present wreak of dank humanity clinging to these ancient walls.
Once they released him from this place, the boy decided he’d find Cedric. He’d take his oldest friend on this adventure with him. For, as Dougan had become his brother in Newgate, Cutter had always been his brother on the streets.
It was Cutter’s crime for which the boy paid, and he did it gladly. He owed him after what happened to Cutter’s twin sister.
Caroline . . . sweet Caroline. Gone forever . . .
He couldn’t say why the scuffle of the boot broke his drowsy ruminations. The night guards made rounds every hour. Maybe he heard a few boots too many. Or the twinge of violent anticipation raced like a specter through the still, humid night.
One developed a sense for danger in this place. Especially one so young as he. Unlike in the wild, predators outnumbered the prey in here, and would tear each other apart to make a meal of him.
In the early days . . . they had.
In the days before Dougan and Argent. Before the Blackheart Brothers.
The ominous creak of the cell door brought him to his feet, the knife he’d fashioned from obsidian he’d found in the tunnels at the ready.
Lanterns blinded him in the windowless room. He slashed out at the men spilling into his cell, his power and speed wrought by days of backbreaking work digging railways beneath the city. He cut something. Someone. The warm rush of blood slicked over his hand.
Fuck. Now his knife would be difficult to wield.
His vision cleared in time to see the back of Walters’s head connect with the stones, leaving so much blood and some of his skull behind when he fell.
Five guards cornered the boy in a room hardly big enough for two grown men to stretch across.
“Dougan Mackenzie?” The Sergeant sneered, close enough that the boy could count the flecks of tobacco in his teeth.
“No! I’m not Dougan Mackenzie. I’m Dor—”
“Your father sends his regards.”
The boy blocked the first blow with his fresh tattoo, the pain turning him feral. He didn’t see the cudgel arcing toward his temple until it was too late. Nor the boot that snapped his ankle, dropping him to the ground.
Now he counted time with impacts. With the snaps of bones and spurts of blood.
The boy’s last thought was that Walters had been right to doubt him.
He’d never hunt for his treasure. He’d never return for his friends.
For no one could come back from the dead.
Copyright © 2018 by Kerrigan Byrne and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Paperbacks.