Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
Wesley hadn’t gone far when another wave of nausea hit him, doubling him over in pain. With his hands braced on his knees, he drew in several deep breaths until the churning in his gut passed.
Damn it. Why was this happening? Was it just exhaustion, or was there something else going on?
Then it occurred to him… When was the last time he’d eaten?
Had it been dinner yesterday with his mother, after their talk about him being an ondaen? Probably. He couldn’t remember having had anything since then, nor, come to think of it, had he had anything to drink for hours either.
Somehow, that eased his mind. It was a simple explanation, and an issue he could easily remedy as soon as he’d spoken to Iann. And after that…getting in bed with Wen and closing his eyes sounded better than anything else in the world.
When the nausea had eased enough he could straighten without feeling too horrible, he set off again, though a heaviness dragged at his body.
Wen’s tent sat in an isolated section of the woods—close enough to still be within the magick barrier the draegans kept up around the perimeter of the camp, but far enough he had a surprising amount of solitude considering how much the camp had grown over the past couple of months. The draegan lords lived similarly, within the camp’s barrier, but set apart from the other structures for security and, Wesley had to assume, for privacy reasons.
He’d never been more grateful than he was this morning for Wen’s living arrangements. If Wen had been staying with the rest of his family—his mother and brothers—it would have been almost impossible to hide from them what had happened last night. There would have been questions. Wen’s mother almost certainly would have known something was wrong. And very quickly after that, Wesley’s secret would have been discovered.
After Wen’s easy acceptance, Wesley didn’t think the rest of the Daneson family would hate him or be afraid of him if they found out his heritage. But it only took one person letting the information slip, and soon others in camp would know. And he was certain not everyone would be as understanding if they found out they had an ondaen living amongst them.
He couldn’t understand why the ondaen were feared. He’d never had any desire to hurt anyone. Even in the battle last night with Byram’s soldiers, he’d done what he had to, but it’s not like he went into it hungry to take lives, nor did he get any enjoyment out of it. He certainly would never harm anyone innocent. So, he couldn’t fathom where the old legends and tales came from that made people scared of his kind.
With a sigh, he realized maybe he would never understand it. He just had to hope that should anyone besides Wen discover the truth, he wouldn’t be run out of camp or, worse, hunted down and killed like his parents had been. The thought sent a chill up his spine, but he did his best to tamp it down and remember that Wen accepted him, as did his own mother—his adoptive human mother—who’d taken him in and raised him as her own after she’d found his ondaen parents dead.
He was trying not to let his newfound knowledge he was an ondaen consume his every thought, but it was hard not to when, for the first time in twenty years, he had a name for what he was, and because there were so many things he still didn’t understand. Like the fact that he—his blood—had healed Wen’s mortal wound last night. He wasn’t sure the enormity of that event would ever fully sink in. What kind of magick could do such a thing?
The dark kind, something whispered in his head. Anything involving blood has to be dark, doesn’t it?
But he pushed away the thought, still too unsettled about what he was to acknowledge the possibility. Besides, Wen hadn’t seemed to think it was dark magick, and he knew more about the ondaen, and about magick in general, than Wesley did.
He’d almost made it to the edge of the inhabited part of camp when another pain ripped through his gut without warning. This time, it hit him with such severity he staggered and fell to his knees in the snow. No mere wave of nausea this time, the intensity shocked him. He wrapped his arms around his mid-section and tried to breathe through it like he had before.
But long seconds went by without relief. Then a minute. Then two. Gods…please…
As the ravaging continued unabated, it became more and more difficult to breathe, as if tight, dark claws squeezed at his lungs. His head began to pound from lack of air, causing the world around him to waver in a dizzy fog, which made the cramping in his stomach even worse. He’d also begun to shiver, so hard it rattled his teeth.
Suddenly, his gut heaved. He bent over, his hands dropping into the snow to support him, and it felt as if the entirety of his insides tried to tear free. But, although it was excruciating, nothing came up from his empty stomach.
Gods, make it stop!
Did he cry that aloud? Or…maybe it was someone else’s voice he heard? Someone calling his name?
He couldn’t lift his head to see if anyone was there. But then he heard the voice again, louder this time.
Scuffed brown boots came into view in the snow a short distance away from him. Boots that could have belonged to anyone. But the voice was familiar. Jarrad.
“Bloody hel!” The boots came closer at a fast clip, and then Jarrad was crouching in front of him. Wesley felt a hand come to rest on his shoulder. “Wes, what is it?” Jarrad asked urgently. “What’s wrong?”
“Don’t know…” Wesley’s eyes watered from the pain, and his voice sounded hoarse from the effort it took to speak.
“Are you injured?” Jarrad’s tone grew even more urgent. “When you and Wen went hunting for Byram’s soldiers last night, did you get hurt?”
“No,” Wesley gasped, still fighting for words, but the pain and nausea at last seemed to be easing. He reached for Jarrad, and the lean, blond draegan braced him up with an arm around him.
“It’s…it’s passing. I’m okay,” Wesley said with a groan.
“You don’t look okay, mate.”
Wesley was finally able to lift his head. When he did, he found green eyes, startlingly like Wen’s, staring back at him, flooded with concern.
“I…I’ll be all right.” Slowly, as he continued to feel some relief, and the dizziness cleared, he managed to sink into a sitting position in the snow. “I’m…probably tired. And I think…I think maybe I just haven’t had anything to eat or drink for a while.”
Even as he said it, he knew now the explanation was too simple. He’d gone stretches before without food or water but had never felt like this because of it. And he was exhausted, in ways he couldn’t even express. But pain and dizziness and the struggle to breathe seemed wrong for something like lack of sustenance, or from tiredness. Yet, he didn’t know what else it could be.
“Well, it’s a good thing I happened along then,” Jarrad said, pulling a water skin from his belt and handing it to Wesley. After Wesley had accepted it, Jarrad dug in a leather pouch and also produced a small hunk of dried meat. “I just raided Mum’s fresh stash this morning before the younger boys had a chance to gorge on it all.”
“Thanks,” Wes said gratefully. He tore off a piece of meat and slowly chewed, hoping it would stay down, then took several sips of water.
His gut slowly felt more settled, though he wasn’t convinced it would stay that way.
“Is it helping?” Jarrad asked, watching him with a worried look.
“I think so.” Wesley took another sip of water, then swiped his hand over the back of his mouth, which still felt dry even after the liquid.
“I told you, I think maybe I just—”
“No, Wes, I mean what happened last night?” Jarrad’s expression had turned intense.
Again, it reminded Wesley of similar expressions he’d seen on Wen’s face. The brothers were so alike in looks, yet so different in personality. All four of the Daneson brothers—Wen, Jarrad, Allend, and Edric—had their mother’s sandy blond hair, green eyes and freckles. But where Wen, as the oldest, was serious and loyal with a natural gift to lead, Jarrad was impulsive and competitive, as if he always felt he had something to prove. Both had a mischievous streak that snuck out from time to time, but Wen’s showed up in light, good-natured teasing, followed by a smile that could warm even the hardest heart, while Jarrad’s teasing of his brothers tended to be more pointed and reflective of his competitive streak. Allend, a few years younger than Jarrad, was tall and gangly and didn’t seem to have quite grown into his body yet. He had a hot head but a tender heart. And Edric, the youngest, was the quiet one of the bunch, minding his own business and working hard with the camp blacksmith since his sole fascination in life was designing and forging the weapons the draeganjhere carried.
The one thing all four had in common, however, aside from their fair looks, was a strong sense of family and friendship, and Wesley knew every one of them would give his life for the others. There had been days in the past he’d been jealous of them having such a close bond when he’d lived such a solitary existence before moving here. It had always been only his mother and him, in order to protect his secret. But, very quickly, the Daneson brothers had taken him into their trust and lives and become his friends…and in Wen’s case, so much more. So Wesley knew he wouldn’t be able to lie to Jarrad. Not outright anyway.
“Look, I can tell something’s wrong, Wesley. Something’s got you shaken, and it’s not just because you haven’t eaten. What is it? What going on? And where’s Wen?”
“Why does the way you say that scare me? What in all of hel happened last night?”
Sighing, Wesley knew he was going to have to divulge at least part of the night’s events. “We found some of Byram’s soldiers. They were staking out the magick boundary as we suspected—they’d seen someone entering it and then disappearing from sight, so they were watching, hoping to find the camp.”
“Did you and Wen—”
“We confronted them and stopped them. There was a fight.”
“Shit. How many?”
“I’m not sure. Ten? Eleven?”
Jarrad’s eyes widened and he whispered another curse. “You two…against upwards of a dozen of them?”
Wesley nodded and took another drink from the water skin, then handed it back to Jarrad. He was afraid if he drank too much his stomach would rebel.
He didn’t go into detail about how he and Wen had thought there were only two soldiers, but the rest had been lying in wait and it had been an ambush. Somehow he knew that would only upset Jarrad more.
Jarrad capped the water skin and hung it back on his belt as he spoke. “How many got away?”
Wesley wouldn’t have thought Jarrad could look any more shocked, but he did, his eyes gone wider still and his body tense.
“None that we know of anyway,” Wesley added. “But I don’t think any did.”
“You and Wen,” Jarrad said slowly, his voice tight, “took out a dozen of Byram’s soldiers…alone?”
“It might have just been ten or eleven.”
“Wesley! Missing the point here.”
“It happened fast. There was no time to get help. We had to act or risk some of them escaping to tell the sorcerer,” Wesley said.
Jarrad scuffed a hand over his suddenly pale face, stood, paced a couple of steps away, then returned and hunched down in front of Wesley again. “You two. Alone?” he repeated.
“Holy gods,” Jarrad whispered. “Wes, do you have any idea what could have happened to you guys? They could have—should have—torn you apart, that many of them. And you’re sitting here calmly telling me you and my brother took them all out by yourselves?”
“Like I said, it happened fast. We reacted and…and then it was over.”
“And you just now got back to camp?”
“More or less.” This was the first time he’d been this close to the main part of camp. “I’m going to report in to Iann. Tell him what happened.”
“He’s…” He thought fast, trying to come up with something Jarrad would believe.
“Wesley, where’s Wen?”
Obviously he’d been too slow with a response, because the worried haze was back in Jarrad’s eyes. “Why isn’t he with you? Why isn’t he reporting in?”
Another wave of dizziness hit Wesley and his stomach churned. He clutched at it and winced while trying to come up with something quick. “He’s…”
Jarrad dropped to his knees in the snow and gripped Wesley’s shoulder. “Something’s wrong. Something happened. Tell me.”
Damn it. Was it a draegan thing? Or a brother thing? How could Jarrad sense something was up? Or maybe it was just because Wesley was a horrible actor, since his fear from last night was still alive and well inside him.
“Wen got hurt. But he’s okay, Jarrad!” he rushed on, trying to quell the panicked look on his friend’s face. “He’s going to be all right.”
“It has to be pretty bad to stop him from going to see Iann himself. What happened? How is he? Where is he?”
“He caught one of the soldier’s swords. He’s at his tent, getting some sleep.”
“Has he seen the healer? Did you get Lilia for him?”
“He doesn’t need to see her. It’s okay.”
“If he took a sword, Wesley, it’s not okay!”
“He doesn’t want…” He sighed. “He doesn’t want anyone to know.”
Jarrad’s eyes widened again. “What? Why?”
“You know Wen. He doesn’t like to show any weakness. And…”
“And…” Gods, he was going to have to give Jarrad something more because citing Wen’s pride wasn’t going to keep Jarrad from rushing to see him. “He…he doesn’t need to see Lilia because…he’s healed already.” Damn it, he hadn’t meant to say that exactly, but now it was out and he was going to have to work even harder to explain it.
“Yeah, right.” Jarrad started to stand again, but Wesley held him back once more, pulling hard enough to make Jarrad fall on his backside in the snow.
“Listen to me, damn it,” Wesley ground out, trying very hard not to lose the little bit of food he’d just eaten.
His tone must have sunk in because Jarrad stilled.
“Wen’s fine. He’s just getting some rest because it was a long night, but he’s already healed and he’s not in any danger.”
“What do you mean he’s already healed?”
Wesley sighed. “Look, he doesn’t want anyone to know because it’s weird, how it happened.”
“How what happened?” Jarrad snapped. “How he was skewered with a sword?”
“I didn’t say he was skewered,” Wesley snapped back, then lowered his voice and sought to stay calm. Jarrad had come too close to the truth with the skewered comment and it had unsettled him. He needed to keep it together so he could soothe Jarrad, assure him Wen’s life wasn’t in danger, not make things worse. “And no, I didn’t mean how he was sk— injured. I meant how he was healed.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Do you remember that hot springs pool up at the edge of camp, the one you and Allend showed me not too long after I moved here, the one hardly anyone ever goes to because it’s right next to the barrier and it’s too far from camp for most people?”
“Yeah. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Wen told me a while back that legends said people used to use it for rituals and stuff because the water has healing power.”
“That’s just gossip spread around by old storytellers,” Jarrad scoffed.
“It’s not,” Wesley said quietly. He opened his fisted hands to glance briefly at his own palms, which he’d sliced open with a knife in order to draw blood to heal Wen last night. His palms, he realized, itched where he’d cut himself, but the skin looked to be healed even if a little irritated. And he wasn’t the one who had healed them. Though his blood contained the magick to heal others, he couldn’t use it to heal himself. So the only explanation for his palms was that the water in the pool really did have healing qualities. Not enough to have saved Wen’s life last night, but enough, apparently, for minor wounds.
Pleased with himself for sticking to the truth while not having to explain everything to Jarrad, he continued. “When Wen was injured, we were right outside the boundary by the hot springs, so we went there. He…he was bleeding, and the pool was by far and away closer than the healer’s tent, so we went in the water for a while. And, eventually…” He shrugged.
“It’s not, I promise. See.” He held out one of his hands. Not both—seeing two identical cuts might make Jarrad suspicious and have him demanding further explanations. But one hand, one cut, would be believable.
“I was cut as well, when a blade got me here.” Again, the truth. If Jarrad chose to believe it was a soldier’s blade that had done the cutting, so be it. “And look at it now.”
Jarrad took Wesley’s hand in his. Wesley let him spread open his fingers and examine the itchy scar on his palm, still new, but obviously healed over.
“You know I didn’t have a scar there before,” Wesley said. “This just happened last night. And now, it’s healed. And the same thing happened to Wen. His was deeper, so it took a little longer for it to heal. He’s sleeping, regaining his strength. He’s totally okay, though. I promise. But he doesn’t want anyone to know because he doesn’t want to have to explain it and have everyone poking and prodding at him, trying to figure it out, when all he wants to is to get some rest so he can go back to work. You know how he is.”
Jarrad looked at Wesley’s hand a few more seconds, then lifted his gaze to his face. “But wouldn’t it be better to have Lilia check him out anyway, just to be sure?”
“Jarrad, if Lilia gets involved, then your mother’s going to find out. And that, most of all, Wen wants to avoid because he doesn’t want her worrying about him.”
The last part was pure inspiration on Wesley’s part because it actually felt like the truth. He was certain Wen did feel that way. And from what he knew of Marta, Wesley suspected she would be concerned. She’d trained her sons to be fighters, like she was, because after so many years of exile, the draegans who survived the longest were the ones who could defend themselves against the high sorcerer’s raids and death squads. But at heart, she was still a mother who loved her sons, and Wesley knew, training or not, she worried about them.
“He said she’s got enough on her plate without having to be upset over something that’s already taken care of.”
Jarrad sighed and dragged a hand through his short, unruly hair—another difference between him and Wen, whose hair hung to his shoulders in a wild tangle of waves except for the occasions where he pulled it back with a leather tie.
“Mum would worry. And fuss. She always fusses when we get hurt.”
“Wen didn’t want that. Trust me, I had a hard enough time just getting him to go to bed. He wanted to keep working, come report in himself…all so your mother wouldn’t worry.”
Another sigh and another restless drag of his hand through his hair, and Jarrad finally nodded. “I guess I see his point. If Mum found out, she’d pester and fret and try to keep him from working, or from doing anything for that matter. Plus, Wen’s so damned noble, he probably wouldn’t want Mum to be afraid for him. He wouldn’t want to put her through that.”
“You swear he’s okay?”
“I swear. He’s just sleeping. Once he wakes up he’ll be fine and totally back to normal.”
Gods, Wesley hoped so anyway, as the uneasy niggle of warning deep inside him reared its ugly head again.
“All right,” Jarrad said slowly. “As long as you’re sure.”
“I am.” He tried to sound more confident than he felt. Not that he didn’t think Wen was truly all right, but he still couldn’t shake the feeling the storm was only just beginning.
“And what about you? You look awful, Wesley.”
He groaned and rubbed his eyes, noticing his palms really were itchy. Damn. “I have a meeting with my bed, too. As soon as I fill Iann in on what happened last night.”
“Your bed…or my brother’s?”
“Wha—?” he asked sharply, glancing up at Jarrad.
Jarrad rolled his eyes. “Oh come on, surely you don’t think I haven’t noticed the tension between the two of you. He’s my brother and you’re my friend. All those hours you’ve spent training together? For weeks now I figured you two were either going to end up killing each other or you were going to wake up one day and realize how sickeningly perfect you are for one other and finally fuck.”
“Bloody hel, Jarrad!”
“Please. Since when are you a prude, Wes?”
“I’m not!” So why then did he feel heat sliding up his cheeks? “This just doesn’t seem like the time for this conversation. And… Well, you don’t have to be so damned blunt.”
That drew a chuckle from Jarrad. “Since you two were all gooey-eyed at each other last night before you went hunting, I figure you finally came to your senses. Besides, you smell like him.”
“I borrowed his spare cloak.”
“Because mine was soaked from the hot springs and the snow, and so was his. So are my clothes, if you’ll bother to notice. This cloak happened to be dry.”
Jarrad shook his head and gave Wesley a smile that was an odd mix of humor and what, for a brief moment, appeared to be a flicker of sadness, as if he were resigning himself to something. Wes wondered at it, but it was gone almost before he saw it, and Jarrad was back to normal, leaving Wesley to question if he’d seen it in the first place.
“It’s not just the cloak. We draegans have an acute sense of smell, and, like I said, he’s my brother so I’m familiar with his scent. I’m…I’m happy for you, though, Wes.”
Wesley felt himself blushing again. “Thanks,” he murmured, wondering why it felt so awkward to be talking about this with Jarrad.
“And good luck. Because Wen can be a right ornery git when he sets his mind to it. Just…tell me one thing.” Jarrad looked at him in earnest, his gaze intense once more, but in a different way from before. “Do you love him?”
The lump of emotion that had plagued Wesley earlier returned, hard and hot in his throat, making it difficult to speak. “Yeah,” he whispered. “I do.”
Jarrad slowly swallowed and then looked away and nodded. “I’m…I’m glad.”
Wesley studied him, experiencing another uncomfortable moment, and sensing a weird muddle of emotion coming off Jarrad. “Are you okay with this?” he asked. “With Wen and me?” After all, Jarrad was Wen’s brother and they were fairly close. Maybe it was strange for Jarrad to have to share his brother, or, even more, to have to share him with a friend.
Jarrad dragged in a breath, his shoulders sagging, but when he looked at Wesley he was smiling and, on the surface, seemed back to his usual self. “Of course I am. I care about you both, so, yeah, I’m glad you finally figured it out.” He shrugged. “From what I could tell last night, I haven’t seen Wen this content in a long time. I…I think you’re good for him.”
Not quite sure how to respond to that, Wesley murmured, “I really need to go see Iann now.”
That seemed to fully bring Jarrad back to the moment. “I’ll go with you.” He stood and offered his hand to help Wesley to his feet.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Wes, you look terrible, and you’re not exactly steady at the moment. If you go report in on your own, one look at you, and Iann will likely have you in Lilia’s healing tent forthwith, and probably ask all kinds of questions about where Wen is as well. If I come along I can divert Iann’s attention and do some of the talking. You know me, I can talk my way out of, or into, almost anything.”
That was probably true. “But you weren’t even there.”
“Not last night, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t gotten the rundown from you this morning and can’t volunteer to do some scouting to be sure the soldiers really were all stopped. In fact, as far as Iann’s concerned, you and I just left Wen, who sent us to report, while he double checks the barrier in the area where you fought the soldiers, to be sure everything’s secure.”
“I’ll go check the barrier for real after we leave Iann. And then do whatever else is necessary, while you get some rest.”
“Wesley I can’t…” He took a breath, and then released it. “I couldn’t be there for you last night, and I can’t physically help you and Wen recover. But I can keep attention off you for a while and make sure you don’t have anyone in the draeganjhere breathing down your neck today. You and Wen fought a battle last night and survived. You deserve to have some uninterrupted time to get some rest. And while Iann will most likely agree about that, there will still be some follow-up required. If I’m there, I can make sure he assigns that follow-up to me and not you guys. Let me make that happen for you, okay? I promise, I won’t let anyone else know what you told me.”
Wesley stared at him, torn over bringing Jarrad further into the deception. But at the same time, wasn’t this was exactly the bond of family and friendship he’d always longed for, this solidarity when people you cared for needed help? Finally, he nodded, accepting what Jarrad offered. “Okay. Thank you.”
“Besides,” Jarrad added with a grin as he dragged Wesley to his feet, “you look like you’re about to puke up your breakfast any minute, so the least I can do is make sure you have someone to hold you up when it happens.”
“Ungh. Remind me again why you’re my friend?” Wesley grumbled, leaning against Jarrad until he got his legs steady under him.
“Because you wouldn’t be able to make it through your day without my witty comebacks and charming smile?”
“Not to mention your enormous ego.”
Jarrad chuckled. “Yeah, that, too. Come on.”