Inheritance, part one of the Heir to the Blood Throne duology for younger readers (aged 8 and up) is available now! (Amazon)
Chapter One - In The Dark of Night
Rupert’s heart leapt into his throat as the pitch sky above the Whitcomb Orphanage roared to life. A brilliant flash of light pierced the cracks between the boarded windows, setting the shadows to dance. Shook loose from the rafters by the thunder’s percussion, dust floated daintily through the charged air.
Rupert pulled his blanket tight, curling up behind its tattered patchwork of faded colors. He clutched to a handful of yellowed paper scraps and watched the motes of dust as the lightning’s glimmer faded. Only the dim flicker of the nearby oil lantern kept the blackness from overwhelming him. Headmaster Dobbs would beat him soundly if he knew it was being used, but that rarely kept Rupert from doing so. He cast a glance about the communal room to see if his fellow orphans had been disturbed by the storm. A few twitched and muttered in their sleep, but none of them woke.
He sighed with a mix of relief and disappointment. Certain the rest of the boys would tell Dobbs about the lantern–earning an extra portion of dinner while Rupert starved–he found himself wishing he weren’t quite so alone. There was no one to turn to. Despite having spent his entire life at Whitcomb, he had made no allies within its walls.
Rupert knew nothing of family or friends. Abandoned at birth, he knew only of the hard floor upon which he slept, the moldering bread and bitter gruel that turned his stomach daily, and the constant feeling he didn’t belong. Driven by more than just survival, Rupert strove to better himself. The thought of pandering or breaking his back in the black shafts of the mines set his heart to fluttering.
Having taught himself to read at an early age, every free moment was spent camped out near where the street vendors hawked the London Times. He devoured each and every scrap of writing he could get his hands on, every discarded piece a treasure. This trait had not endeared him to the Whitcomb boys. They knew an orphan’s place. Rupert would be no exception to the rule, if they could help it.
Though the others did their best to grind him down, they could do nothing to extinguish his optimism. It came in the form of the weathered remnants of newspapers the wind had blown into the alley behind the orphanage and trapped against the crumbling brick wall. Rupert gathered them every opportunity he got.
Within their words, he found hope.
On lonely nights like tonight, when the storms rattled the heavens and the encroaching darkness begged him to douse the lantern’s flame and let it come close, he pulled the scraps from the pocket of his stained breeches. He found strength in their frayed words. Beneath the flickering light, he recited the articles over and over, his voice little more than a breathy whisper.
In an attempt to ease the burden on the overcrowded foster care system–England’s throwaway children–the London Times posted a series of articles featuring orphans from across the city. Every few weeks, both the honored child, and the orphanage they sheltered at, would receive well-meaning couples and well-to-do philanthropists looking to adopt. Though Whitcomb had hosted many such visitors over the past year since the articles began circulation, Rupert had yet to be selected. He still held out hope his time would come. It had happened to others, so why not to him? Warmed by the thought, he clutched his stained treasures in shaky hands as the night wore down, and he as well.
With a wide yawn, he folded the papers with reverential care and returned them to his pocket just as his heavy-lidded eyes threatened to close. Resolved to sleep at last, the drumming rhythm of the rain on the roof slowing to a gentle pitter-patter, he curled up beneath his blanket and gave in to his tiredness. And just as the gentle tingles of sleep lapped at the edge of his consciousness, he remembered the lantern.
Stifling an irritated groan, he forced himself from beneath his covers. On his feet, his legs uncooperative, he reached for the lantern. As he grabbed it, he spotted a blur of motion out of the corner of his eye.
Rupert groaned. One of the other boys must have caught him with the lamp and was sneaking off to inform Dobbs. He spun around to stop the boy, no longer willing to accept the consequences he so casually dismissed just moments earlier.
Thoughts of punishment, however, became the least of his concerns. It wasn’t an orphan lurking in the dark, but something else; something unexpected.
A shadowy figure peered at him. Without a sound, it moved forward amidst a swelling wash of obsidian. The room became dimmer by degrees as the pulsing blackness devoured the weak glow of the lantern. Before the darkness swallowed everything, Rupert caught a glimpse of its source.
Inside the inky cloud stood a tall man dressed in immaculate finery: flared black pants with calf-high leather boots, a black vest with matching jacket finished off by a regal top hat. However, it wasn’t the clothes that caught Rupert’s attention, but the pale grinning face.
The man’s features were sharp, almost hawk-like. The long mane of silvery hair that flowed from beneath the hat, and splayed across his shoulders, offset his hairless, youthful face. His narrow eyes, their color a malevolent red, burned deep inside their sockets, visible just below the rounded brim. Thin lips curled into a grin, revealing elongated eyeteeth whose sharp points glistened in the unnatural darkness.
The man took another step forward and the light dimmed a bit more, stealing the vestiges of Rupert’s courage. He opened his mouth to scream. The man raised a bony finger to his lips and gestured for silence. Much to his surprise, and even more to his dismay, Rupert was compelled to comply. His scream died a silent death in his throat. He tried once more to cry out, but found his voice would not obey. His stomach twisted into a hard knot of despair.
The dark man laughed, like a choir of devils loosed from the depths of Hell. Rupert prayed the sound would wake the other orphans, but the man’s voice seemed to reach only his ears. His heart rumbled as he watched the stranger came even closer, his gait graceful, refined; threatening. More afraid than he ever remembered, a feat unto itself, Rupert darted for the door. The intruder simply smiled.
“Sit,” the man’s voice flowed from his pale lips like velvet. “Be calm.” Once more, his words drifted through the air like feathers, brushing Rupert’s ears alone.
He did as he was told and dropped onto his bedding without hesitation. An overwhelming sense of serenity washed over him, and for the first time in his life he found himself unafraid. It was a strange yet delightful feeling, yet some inner voice screamed at him to defy the order, to keep running. Rupert sat in silence, the voice fading. He stared up at the approaching stranger and awaited his next utterance. He did not have long to wait.
“A fellow creature of the night, how fortuitous is this?” The man’s smile widened. “We have crossed paths at a most opportune time.”
Rupert nodded, a model of unflinching agreement despite the strangeness of it all.
The dark man chuckled as if he had expected no less, before turning serious again. “I’m sorry I cannot be more polite and offer you my name, but these are trying times and one can never be too careful.” He bowed deep, his hand resting on the brim of his hat to keep it steady on his head. All the while, his ruby gaze remained locked on Rupert. “We are, however, well met, my young friend.”
Again, Rupert nodded, unable to do anything else.
“But enough with such mundane pleasantries, I’m in a bit of a rush this fine morning.” The man moved alongside Rupert and placed a waxen hand upon his shoulder. The grip, like a steel vise, belied the delicate appearance of the long, unblemished fingers. “Please, turn your head to the left.”
Rupert did as he was asked and the intruder pulled back the collar of his dirty nightshirt. A moment later, Rupert felt a sudden, sharp pain at the base of his neck as the dark man bit down. His skin burned with searing agony. Rupert’s thoughts cleared, his fear screaming back, but he was unable to move. He could do nothing to stop the assault.
He endured the torment in forced silence while the man gorged on his blood. Quiet slurps gave his efforts away. Rupert felt the oozing warmth as it was drawn from the artery in his neck, the dull throb of the suction. His strength waned with every morbid gulp. Sight became blurry and he felt faint. Then, just when he believed he could stand it no longer, the dark man pulled away with a satisfied sigh. He turned Rupert’s head about, their faces aligning.
Rupert saw his attacker in the fluttering lamplight, lips red with blood. That was all it took. Rupert’s vision narrowed, his thoughts slipping into in a murky quagmire. His eyes rolled back into his head and the world went black.