Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
They made their way to the draeganjhere command tent without Wesley having to stop again, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t feeling worse by the minute.
The big flakes once more falling from the leaden sky settled heavy and wet on his head, forcing him to hitch up the hood of Wen’s cloak for more protection. But the cloak did little to ease the iciness building inside him. It took all his concentration to put one foot in front of the other. His stomach still churned. And his skin felt raw to the touch, though he didn’t think that was solely because of the wretched weather. It felt more like the cold came from inside him now, slowly taking him over, freezing his veins, settling in his bones, seeping through his pores.
As they entered through the flap of the tent, a wave of warmth from the fire burning inside hit him. He expected it to feel good, but instead, it barely made a difference.
With a shiver, Wesley drew in a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. He hadn’t ever dealt directly with Iann before, the steadfast old draegan loosely in charge of the draeganjhere along with Captain Rizik, and the last thing he wanted to do was make a bad impression or have Iann hustle him off to Lilia’s, as Jarrad had implied. So he forced himself to ignore his current agony and did his best to appear normal, though he didn’t have high hopes he could succeed. If he could just get through the next few minutes…
He had only been an official member of the guard for a couple of days, and Iann had been away from camp most of that time, returning only last night. Wen, Jarrad, and Allend, as well as the draegan lords, thought highly of the old man. Old, truly, because draegans lived longer than humans and wore their age well. Wen had implied to him that Iann was well over a hundred. Yet he was still tough.
This morning, he stood bent over a rough-hewn table, his long, white-gray hair falling around his shoulders, his gnarled hands moving over a map. He looked up and nodded at them as they entered.
“Morning, Jarrad and…?” His gaze passed curiously over Wesley. “I don’t think we’ve been introduced.”
“Iann, this is Wesley Brannock. He just became a member of the draeganjhere under Lord Rizik’s and Wen’s recommendation a few days ago. He was, by far and away, the fastest learner and most talented of all the new recruits in training.”
Wesley was surprised by, and felt his face heat, at Jarrad’s praise. He would have protested, but before he could, the old draegan reached out to grasp Wesley’s arm in greeting.
“Wesley. Welcome. You were one of the residents of the camp near the Zekklesian that the draegan lords aided a few months ago, weren’t you?”
Wesley pushed back the hood of Wen’s cloak and nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“As I recall, your mother’s in charge of the planting tents now and having great success with them.”
Iann chuckled, and the sound was gritty but also oddly comforting. “You don’t have to stand on formality with me, son. I haven’t held a rank in a very long time, at least not a formal one. ‘Iann’ is fine.”
“Yes, s— Iann.”
“What brings you by so early this morning, gentlemen?”
“Wesley went out scouting with Wen last night,” Jarrad said.
Iann’s attention immediately settled on Wesley again, his gaze questioning. “Ah, to see if we had unfriendly eyes on the camp. Any luck?”
“Actually, yes. Wen and I followed the tree line near where the evidence of someone watching was found, and we ended up at that large outcropping of rocks up against the ridge. Wen felt that if anyone were still out there, that’s where they’d be hiding.”
“We waited them out and, eventually, two came out from behind the rocks and began talking. They seemed unaware they were being observed. When it appeared one of them was getting restless and wanted to report in to his lieutenant that they might have found the camp, we confronted them. Unfortunately…there were more soldiers hidden nearby.”
Wesley remembered again the sounds of the battle, the scent of blood, but most of all the moment of horror when, after they’d thought all the soldiers were dead, one had risen long enough to run Wen through with a sword.
Nausea swept through him again and he barely managed to swallow it back and then drag in a slow, deep breath to keep it down.
“How many soldiers in all?” Iann asked.
“Hard to say for sure—we were fighting in the dark and some were atop the ridge above us—but probably ten or eleven.”
Iann’s eyes widened, much as Jarrad’s had earlier. His voice, however, was calm when he said, “Tell me everything. Don’t leave out any details.”
So, Wesley talked, conveying everything but the part about Wen being injured. Even Jarrad listened with rapt attention as Wesley described the conversation he and Wen had overheard between the men, then how he’d taken out the archers above them, while Wen had dealt with the swordsmen, and how, ultimately, they’d defeated the final few in close combat.
“You got them all,” Iann said, more a statement of fact than a question.
“Yes, sir. We believe so. We didn’t want to take a chance on any of them getting away to tell what they’d seen.”
The old draegan slowly nodded. Then a hint of a smile curved his mouth and lit in his blue eyes. “Nicely done, Mr. Brannock. Though, you got a bit of an initiation by fire in your first battle as a member of the draeganjhere, didn’t you?”
Wesley nodded and managed a smile of his own despite his growing distress at putting on a front like he was fine when he was feeling anything but.
“Not too many new recruits could have handled themselves so well under such incredible odds. That says a lot about your skills, and your ability to think and react quickly.”
“I had good training, sir, from Captain Rizik and Lieutenant Daneson.”
“They’re both very good at what they do,” Iann agreed, “but don’t discount your own contributions.”
Then he sighed and shook his head. “Unfortunately, I think these types of incursions by the high sorcerer’s soldiers are going to become more the norm as he hunts for us. He’s getting desperate to find us and, I suspect, will risk more and more of his troops to do so. I just hope that as other members of the guard are forced to face off with Byram’s soldiers, they’ll handle themselves as admirably as you and Wen did.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“It’s Iann, remember? And speaking of Wen, where is he right now?”
Jarrad stepped in, for which Wesley was a thousand times grateful since he was barely managing to stay on his feet and keep up the pretense that he was all right. The intense pain of earlier was trying once again to rear its ugly head, and that, in addition to the nausea, was almost more than Wesley could bear and still maintain his composure.
Jarrad told Iann he’d wondered how things had gone last night and found Wen and Wesley out near the barrier this morning. He repeated the story he’d already suggested to Wesley, that Wen was checking the barrier to be sure there were no openings or weak spots anywhere, just in case, and he’d asked them to come let Iann know what had happened. “Wen suggested we might want to remove the bodies in case any other soldiers come looking for their companions.”
“It started snowing pretty hard shortly afterward, so they’re probably mostly covered right now,” Wesley added, “but if it begins to melt…”
“Yes, we’ll want to dispose of them and any signs of the fight.”
“I can do that,” Jarrad offered, giving Wesley a quick, knowing sidelong glance. “I can round up a few guards who aren’t at a post this morning and take care of it. And then we can also scout farther out afterward, just to be sure none got away or there aren’t any other soldiers lingering nearby. Though it sounds like Wen and Wesley made sure that didn’t happen.”
Iann stroked his chin in thought, then nodded. “All right. Make it so. But take Solanis with you. After Wen and Lords Rizik and Hareldson, Solanis is the best tracker. If any of Byram’s soldiers got away, he’ll know and be able to follow.”
He turned his gaze on Wesley. “No offense to you, Wesley. I do trust that you and Wen cleaned things up just fine, but you understand, we can’t take any risks.”
“Of course. I understand completely.” And he did. Especially since he and Wen had been otherwise occupied after the fight and if anyone might have snuck away, they wouldn’t have known it. He felt guilty for not being completely honest with Iann, and hoped he and Wen hadn’t inadvertently let anyone escape to tell the sorcerer the secret of the camp. That would be disastrous for everyone here. He felt certain they had stopped all of them, but just in case, he was relieved someone else would be following up.
“Jarrad, gather some guards and take care of your assignment, then report back when you and Solanis return. I’ll be out of camp most of the day today on another issue.”
“Shall I speak to Lord Hareldson then, when we’re done?” Jarrad asked.
Iann shook his head. “He’s not here at the moment—left yesterday morning and I don’t expect him to return until tomorrow. I should be back by tomorrow morning as well. If I’m not here, and you and Solanis uncover anything urgent before I return, take it to Lord Rizik or your mother.
“Yes, s— Um, Iann?”
The old draegan smiled at his slip. “Again, no offense, son, but you look like something cold and congealed that just got scraped off the bottom of a boot. Were you injured in the fight? Do you need to go see the healer?”
“No. I’m…I’m all right.”
Iann gave him an assessing once over, his gray brows drawn together, and for a moment Wesley held his breath, afraid Iann would insist he make a trip to see Lilia. Gods, please don’t order me to go there. All Wesley wanted right now was to get back to Wen’s tent, make sure Wen was okay, then crawl into bed next to him and sleep for about a year.
Finally, the old draegan nodded and once again clasped Wesley’s shoulder and gave it a warm squeeze. “All right. Even if you’re not injured, you still look to be dead on your feet. Go find your bed. And, Jarrad”—he turned to the younger draegan—“When you next see your brother, tell him to do the same. In fact, tell him I don’t want to see him until sometime tomorrow. He burns the candle at both ends far too often as it is.”
“Will do.” Jarrad gave Wesley another quick, knowing glance.
“Thank you,” Wesley said, feeling like he needed to offer something.
“A good night’s work, Wesley. But right now you need to go, before you fall over and Jarrad has to clean you up off the ground, along with Byram’s men.”
“Yes, s— Um…okay, thanks.” He didn’t bother to mention Jarrad already had cleaned him up off the ground once this morning.
They left, and Wesley moved as quickly as he could into the cover of some nearby trees. When they were out of sight of the tent, he bent double, gasping for air and fighting off the surge of pain and sickness and cold…the fucking miserable cold that ate through him.
Jarrad rested a hand on his back, and with the other, he passed over his water skin again. “Take a few sips. Slowly.”
Wesley did. Or tried. But the water didn’t help this time.
“Wesley,” Jarrad said, his voice tight, “are you sure you don’t want to go see Lilia? You look worse now than you did earlier, and I don’t think this is just you being tired or not having eaten. I’m worried about you.”
He truly was, too; Wesley felt concern radiating off him in waves. Why was everyone so worried about him? He wasn’t the one who’d almost died last night.
“No,” he said, forcing himself upright. “I’ll be okay. I…I think I just need to go to bed. I’m sure sleep will help.”
Jarrad looked less than convinced. “Are you positive you weren’t injured and you’re just not telling me?”
“Why would I not tell you if I were?”
“I don’t know. Why wouldn’t you?”
“I’m okay, Jarrad.”
“He’s going to be fine.”
Jarrad sighed. “Can you make it back to your tent…or Wen’s?”
“Yeah. I’ll be all right.”
“You keep saying that, but you don’t look right in any way, Wesley.”
“I know, you’ll be fine.” He sighed. “Okay, if you think you can get back without help, I’ll go roust some people and see about putting things to rights outside the boundary.”
“Thank you for that. I mean really, thank you. And for coming with me to talk to Iann.”
Jarrad nodded. He looked like he wanted to say something else, and the odd tangle of emotion Wesley had felt earlier radiated off him again. But, as before, it disappeared as quickly as it had arisen. Jarrad patted his shoulder in an awkward sort of way. “Go to bed, Wes, and take care of yourself. And my brother.”
“I will.” At this point Wesley just wanted him to leave already because it was taking the last bit of his energy to keep himself upright and not collapse into a heap on the ground, which he knew would only upset Jarrad. And then Jarrad would never let him be. “Go do your work. I’m fine.”
“Yeah, keep saying it and one of these times you might actually even convince yourself,” Jarrad mumbled under his breath. He gave Wesley one last anxious look, then turned and stalked away, his boots squeaking in the snow.
Wesley watched him go, his gaze tracking Jarrad until he disappeared through the trees, in case he decided to turn around and check up on Wesley one last time.
When he was finally out of sight, Wesley staggered to the closest tree and leaned against it to get his bearings. His stomach, which had been roiling the whole time he talked to Iann, did another particularly brutal somersault, and this time he didn’t have the energy to fight off the inevitable. He bent over and lost the food and water Jarrad had given him earlier. He retched until his insides ached and he was doing nothing but dry heaving. His head hurt, and he began to shiver in earnest again. He scooped up a handful of snow and wiped his mouth with it, then swallowed a bit of it, letting the icy liquid cool his raw throat.
When he thought he could walk, he straightened and set off at a slow pace, making his way back through the woods, back to Wen.
By the time he reached the tent, he was shaking so hard he could barely wrap his hand around the tent flap, and it took an absurd amount of concentration to tie it off once he was inside.
Wen lay sprawled on his stomach in bed, sound asleep and unmoving. The fire, Wesley noticed, was still giving off warmth, though it had burned down considerably. He managed to tug off Wen’s cloak and drape it over the wooden trunk to dry from the fresh bout of snow falling outside, then discarded his belt and weapons. With stiff, trembling fingers, and his palms even more itchy now than they had been earlier, it took another ridiculous level of concentration to unfasten his leather jerkin and get it off, then loosen the ties on his shirt and drag the wet fabric over his head. The laces on his pants proved more difficult and, finally losing patience, he yanked hard enough the lace broke. He didn’t even care because at least he was free. He kicked off his boots and somehow got his pants off as well.
He managed to put a few more pieces of wood on the fire, then crouched for a moment next to it, trying to get warm. But dizziness and an unsettling sense he was floating outside of his body finally sent him staggering to the bed.
He pulled back the covers and shivered his way into the welcoming warmth next to Wen.
Wen stirred and rolled onto his side, his arms automatically opening and gathering Wesley in against him.
“You’re back,” he murmured, still half asleep. Then, becoming more alert… “And you’re freezing!” He dragged Wesley more tightly to his body, wrapping him close.
“S-sorry. D-didn’t mean to w-wake you.”
“It’s okay. I’m glad you did.” He pressed a kiss against the top of Wesley’s head, which was buried against his chest as Wesley tried to soak up some of his heat. “Gods, you’re shivering.”
“Shhh, stop apologizing. Let’s just get you warm.”
Wen held him and, slowly, eventually, the shaking that wracked Wesley eased off some. He still felt frozen inside, but Wen’s body heat helped, as did the continuous litany of soothing noises Wen made and the gentle stroking of his hands up and down Wesley’s back.
“Feeling any better?” Wen asked after a while, his voice low.
“Yeah,” Wesley whispered.
Wen leaned back to study him. With a worried frown he pressed his lips against Wes’s forehead. “You don’t look well.”
Even though he felt a little warmer, Wesley couldn’t quite stop his teeth from chattering. “T-tired of people saying that.”
“Who else has been saying it?” Wen asked, stroking Wesley’s hair.
“Iann. And J-Jarrad.”
“You saw Jarrad?”
“He w-went with me to talk to Iann.” Wesley winced. “I’m sorry, but I had to t-tell Jarrad you were hurt. He knew something wasn’t right.”
Wen’s forehead creased with concern.
“He wanted to come check on you, so I had t-to tell him something. I didn’t say how badly hurt you were, just that you were injured from a blade, but that you were okay and sleeping. I t-told him about the healing water at the hot springs and let him th-think that’s what had healed you.”
Now Wen’s eyebrows shot up. “And he believed it?”
“Mostly, yeah. I sh-showed him one of my hands and how it was healed from the water. And I told him you didn’t want anyone else to know because you didn’t want to worry your mother.”
“Well, that’s partly true.”
“I f-figured. He knew it, too, because he said he w-wouldn’t tell anyone. He volunteered to do the clean up and to make sure no soldiers got away last night. Iann let him.” Wesley looked up at Wen. “Iann also said you aren’t allowed to report in until tomorrow because you b-burn the candle at both ends too often.”
Wen rolled his eyes. “Everybody’s a critic.”
“It’s true. You don’t t-take care of yourself.”
“Wes…” Wen cupped his cheek and he was frowning again. “I’m doing better. Right now, you’re the one who needs taking care of.” Wesley felt his worry along the thread of their connection. “I’m going to make you some hot tea, see if that’ll help.”
“N-no.” Wesley grabbed his arm as Wen started to roll away. “Please, Rowen. I just…I just want to sleep. With you. And you need to go back to sleep, too.”
Wen relented and his expression softened. “Okay. Come here then.”
That wasn’t exactly a hardship for Wesley. He was still lightheaded and afraid if he moved the nausea might return. He was certain if he could just sleep, somehow everything would be all right.
But even as he closed his eyes, he felt Wen’s worry rippling around him like waves in a lake, ebbing and flowing in time to each breath Wesley took. In spite of Iann’s comments, and Jarrad’s, and even Wen’s, it was Wen’s anxiety that finally made him wonder, as he drifted off, if maybe he was sicker than he was willing to admit.
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