Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
Late that night, at the end of their flight to scout out any new nets, Wen and Lord Rizik made a stop at the guard camp.
Lord Rizik wanted to speak with Solanis on a matter, and Iann had told Wen earlier that Phee was working at the camp the next couple of nights. So, while Lord Rizik went off to find Solanis, Wen, along with Iann—who had flown down earlier to attend to some work—entered one of the cozy meeting rooms to wait while a guard sent a message to Phee that he was needed.
Wen took advantage of the massive fireplace to warm up. He seldom got chilled in his winged form, but the cold had been particularly bitter tonight, so when they’d landed and he’d shifted, the walk from the clearing to the caves had been more than a little bracing. Draegans, in general, tended to run warmer than average, even in their human forms. Which meant the cold tonight had been worse than usual. He’d dressed in his spare clothes as quickly as he got to them, but was still shivering even now, which didn’t happen to him very often. So he moved closer to the flames and held out his hands to the heat. Iann poured him a mug of hot, spiced wine while they waited, which he gratefully accepted.
As he drank the wine and stared into the flames, he remembered Wesley wanting to know where in hel his clothes were when he’d shifted yesterday evening. Seemed his mate had concerns about “pertinent” parts of him freezing and falling off. Tonight, he was afraid that might very well have happened if he’d been outside much longer. And then what would Wesley have said? Probably a huge “I told you so.”
The thought caused Wen to chuckle softly.
When Iann raised a questioning eyebrow, Wen shook his head. “A memory.”
“Obviously a good one,” Iann said with a smile.
A tentative knock on the door drew their attention.
“Come in,” Iann called.
The heavy wood door slowly creaked open, and a young man entered. He looked back and forth between Iann and Wen, his eyes wide.
While Wen wasn’t an empath like Wesley, that particular gift wasn’t required to see Phee was obviously shaken about having been summoned in the middle of the night to meet with them. He looked as if he expected to be punished. Or chased off with a hot poker.
Iann didn’t seem to notice, or if he did, he didn’t acknowledge it. He spoke to the young man with a kind tone. “Phee. Come in. Would you like some wine?”
Phee shook his head, looking slightly terrified. “N-no thank you,” he murmured.
“Wen, since I understand you haven’t directly met before, this is Phee. Phee, this is Lieutenant Daneson. The lieutenant would like to speak to you about something. Meanwhile, I’m heading back up to the castle, so I’ll leave you two to take care of your business.”
“Night, Iann. Thanks.”
With a smile, Iann left the room, closing the door behind him.
After he’d gone, Wen studied Phee, wondering what his story was and why he was so spooked. He appeared to be Wesley’s age at most, but was probably younger. He was certainly smaller in stature, and thin almost to the point of looking fragile. Wen remembered Lord Rizik saying Phee had been near starvation when he’d been found, and, after seeing him up close, Wen could well believe it. Phee looked like he could stand to eat a few more good meals to fully regain his strength.
Though he didn’t appear very sturdy, he was strangely captivating in an almost too-pretty and innocent sort of way. His hair, so dark it looked blue-black in the fire-lit room, fell in loose, unruly curls against his neck, not quite touching his shoulders. And his pale skin made his dark eyes look even darker and bigger.
“Did I do something wrong?” Phee asked, his voice barely above a whisper, his eyes still wide. “Please don’t send me away.”
Wen was taken aback by the plea. “You’re not in trouble,” he quickly assured him, crossing over to where the young man still stood with his fingers twisted together in front of him, clenching and releasing.
Wen stopped a step or two back from him, not wanting to crowd him since he looked so ill-at-ease. Hoping to calm him, he held out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you. I’ve seen you around, but have never had the chance to speak to you.”
Slowly, almost painfully, Phee detangled his fingers from their death grip on each other and raised his hand. He and Wen grasped arms, but the moment Wen had released Phee’s, Phee’s hands returned to their anxious clutching.
“Come on, let’s sit by the fire where it’s warmer,” Wen said, moving in that direction.
He heard Phee’s shuffling feet behind him.
When they were seated across the wooden table from each other, Wen picked up the still-warm pitcher Iann had taken off the rack near the fire, and once again offered to pour Phee some wine.
Wen got the feeling he did want wine but was afraid to say so. What had happened to this poor young man to make him so nervous and fearful that he couldn’t even speak up about wanting a drink?
Without waiting for an answer, Wen simply filled another of the pottery mugs with the fragrant wine and slid it across the table to him. “Here, it’ll help you stay warm. It’s damned cold out there tonight.”
Phee looked both grateful and cautious as one of his thin, oddly elegant hands moved up to wrap around the mug. “It is,” he murmured. He pulled the mug toward him, then lifted it to his lips and took a sip.
Wen drank from his own mug, debating about whether or not to launch into his explanation for why he wanted to talk to the young man. Phee’s skittishness troubled him. Mostly he found himself wanting to put Phee’s mind at ease. To erase the haunted shadows from his eyes.
“Look, I don’t know what might have happened to make you seem like you want to bolt before someone tears into you,” Wen said gently, “but I swear to you, you’re not in trouble. Nor are you in any kind of danger with me, in case that concerns you. I would hope no one in the draeganjhere, or anywhere in the castle or guard camp for that matter, might have made you feel afraid at any time since you’ve been here. But if anyone has, please tell me so I can deal with it. Because there’s no place here for anyone who doesn’t respect all members of this community.”
Odd that he’d be having to give this speech again, twice within a couple of days, yet under completely different circumstances.
“Has anyone here harmed you or threatened you in any way?” he asked directly.
Phee took a hard swallow, but then shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “People have been…they’ve been fine when they’ve had dealings with me.”
He seemed to be telling the truth, but Wen would give anything to have Wesley here right now to know that for sure.
“Good. That’s good. Well, let me put your worries to rest about why I wanted to speak with you. I actually came to see you because Lord Rizik and Iann thought you might be able to help me with something.”
“Oh” Phee said, his voice still quiet but slightly less terrified. “I’ll do whatever you require of me.”
“No, you misunderstand me. You make it sound like I’m going to order you to do something, but that’s not the case at all. I’m here to ask you if you’d be willing to do something. And if you aren’t, that’s all right. You don’t have to.”
Phee seemed to ponder that news a moment before he finally responded with an uncertain nod.
Wen was feeling less sure about this by the moment. He didn’t know what to think of the odd young man.
“If I make you uncomfortable, Phee, you can leave right now and I won’t be upset.”
That seemed to startle Phee, causing his eyes to go wide again. But then he began shaking his head more vigorously than necessary. “No. No! If…if I can help, I want to,” he said earnestly. “I…I like to help. I want to help.”
“All right,” Wen said slowly, even though he couldn’t fully shake his concern. “But let me first tell you what I’m thinking. And then, remember, you’re completely free to say no.”
So Wen proceeded to lay out his proposition, asking Phee if he’d be willing to follow Lochlann when he left Kellesborne in the morning. He didn’t say why he wanted him followed—not in detail, anyway. He didn’t want to go into the long story of Lochlann’s history or family. He merely told Phee that Lochlann had caused some problems and was leaving the castle, but that he had concerns about where Lochlann might go and what he might do.
“I can’t spare a member of the draeganjhere right now. With so many of the sorcerer’s troops on the roads and passing through the forest, I need every guard I have to keep our perimeter safe and to scout as needed. So Lord Rizik proposed that since you’ve been such an excellent and reliable aide to Iann, you might be interested in this job.”
Phee had been listening attentively, but Wen recognized the quickening pulse in the young man’s throat and the faint hitch in his breathing that indicated he was afraid. Of course, that seemed to be a constant state for Phee. Still…
“I…I’ve seen him before.”
“This draegan you’re talking about. He’s not very nice.”
Wen’s sixth sense pricked. What had Phee seen or heard concerning Lochlann? “Did you have a run-in with him at some point?”
Phee drew in a deep breath but shook his head. “No. Not me. But I saw…” He swallowed hard again. “I was in the kitchen, early one morning, before anyone else was around. Dorothea had given me some bread and cheese to eat—she’s always been very kind to me.”
Wen knew Dorothea was an older human woman who had been helping in the kitchens since the move to Kellesborne.
“I had taken my food over by the fire and was sitting back in one of those little alcoves near the grate, to stay warm, when he came in.”
Another nod. “He wanted food, wanted it before other people were up, so he didn’t have to eat with anyone. Dorothea told him she was just about to begin cooking for the day, so all she had right then was some leftover bread and cheese from the night before. But he didn’t believe her. He…” Phee winced. “He said she was nothing but a…a lying, filthy human…and that she was just trying to give him scraps and keep all the good stuff for herself. She’s so nice to everyone, and she stayed nice even after he’d said those thing. She told him she was sorry, but the bread and cheese were truly all that was available right then, but if he’d come back in an hour, she’d have more.”
Wen’s heart pounded as anger rose in him. “Did he hurt her?”
Phee looked startled at his tone, and flinched back in his chair, trying to get a little farther away from Wen, which instantly made Wen feel bad. “I’m sorry, I’m not angry at you. I’m angry at him. Did he harm her?”
“He…said some more hateful things. Then he shoved her out of the way, making her trip over a stool and fall. He didn’t help her up. Just stepped around her, took the bread and cheese she’d offered, and left. He never saw me or knew I was there. It…it happened so fast I couldn’t do anything. After he’d gone, I went to help Dorothea, and she…she said she was fine and tried to act like it didn’t bother her, how he’d treated her. But I knew.”
“I knew his words and actions hurt her inside, where no one could see.”
Wen wondered if Phee knew because he himself was hurting from some kind of abuse in his past.
“If you don’t want to have anything else to do with Lochlann…if you don’t want to follow him, I’ll understand. Because you’re right, he’s not a nice person. And, honestly, it’s probably not fair to even ask you to do this at all. I’m sorry, Phee.”
Phee looked for all the world like he’d very much rather curl into a ball under a table or into a dark corner somewhere and disappear than go off alone to track a man who was clearly unstable.
Which was why it surprised the hel out of Wen when Phee said, in a quiet voice, “I’ll do it.”
Phee nodded. “I’ll follow him.”
“Are you sure? You’re under no obligation to do this, at all.”
“Will…will it help you?”
Wen sighed, then slowly nodded. “It will, but—”
“Then I’ll do it. I just…I don’t want to have to talk to him or get too close to him.”
“You wouldn’t need to. In fact, I’d very much rather you didn’t even let him see you. If you really want to do this, it’s strictly a follow-only assignment. I don’t want you to engage with him in any way. And if, at any point, you feel afraid of him or uncertain about a situation, I want you to return to Kellesborne. Your safety is important to me. Don’t take any risks. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” he said quietly. “How…how long do you want me to stay away? Or do I just follow him from now on?”
“No, of course I don’t want you to follow him forever. I’m mainly curious about where he’s going to go right away when he leaves. He may simply return to the forest, perhaps where he and his brother and sister lived before they came here. But I’d like to know if he remains alone, or if he meets up with other people. And if he is in contact with other people, I’d be interested in knowing who they are, what they talk about, how long he stays with them. In short, I want to be sure he’s not going to cause any problems for the draegan lord, and I’ll trust you to use your discretion about what that might mean.”
“You…want to be sure he isn’t going to plot against Lord Rizik or aid the…” He took yet another hard swallow. “…the s-sorcerer in any way?”
“Yes, exactly. If you see anything at all that makes you think Lochlann could be a threat, please return here and let me know. Also, it’s not common knowledge that we’re having Lochlann followed. So when you return, don’t speak to anyone but me about what you’ve found.”
Phee nodded, but he was once again looking like he’d rather crawl into a dark cupboard to hide than be here.
How in the world was he going to follow Lochlann when he was scared of his own shadow? Gods, this was a terrible idea. Maybe Lord Rizik and Iann saw something in Phee that Wen didn’t. Both of them had seemed as if it were a perfectly reasonable plan. But sitting face-to-face with Phee, Wen wasn’t at all sure it was.
How can you actually be considering letting him do this?
Then he remembered Phee’s determination to help, and though Wen wasn’t sure what drove it, or him, as long as the young man was willing…shouldn’t that be enough of a reason to have him go?
If that were the case, then why was Wen’s conscience telling him otherwise?
Damn it all.
“There’s a possibility Lochlann might go off to quietly live by himself,” he continued, in spite of the nagging voice in his head. “And if you don’t see or hear anything that makes you think he could be a problem, by all means, return and let me know that as well. Again, use your discretion as to how long you think he should be followed. Okay?”
“He’s being escorted down the mountain in the morning. We’ll make a point of stopping here at the guard camp, if you want to keep watch for us. That way you’ll know in which direction he heads.”
“Can you handle a weapon?”
Phee’s eyes grew as wide as Wen had seen them yet. “W-weapon?”
“A bow, sword, anything?” He’d never seen Phee with one, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t use one. “I think it’s a good idea to have something with you for protection. Just in case. Not necessarily from Lochlann, but even wild animals can surprise you.” He thought of Wesley and Al encountering the sabeen. Though, he was afraid if Phee ran into one of the fierce wildcats, he wouldn’t stand a chance.
“I…I don’t know how. I…I have nothing. I’ve never even… I…”
“That’s okay,” Wen said quickly to soothe him. “But, please, take this at least.” He unclipped the leather sheath that held his spare vrieg from his belt and handed it to Phee.
The young man gingerly accepted it.
“I’ll feel better if you have something for emergencies.”
“Thank you,” he whispered.
“You’re welcome. Also, I’m assuming you’ve been assigned an aelric to come and go between the guard camp and the castle?”
Aelrics were small stones with runes on them that were entrusted to non-draegans at Kellesborne, usually human guards and scouts, that would allow them to leave the magick barrier around the base of the mountain and re-enter it later without the magick messing with their memories or sense of direction. In the past, the ancient dragon lords reserved aelrics only for a handful of trusted members of other races who came to visit. They’d never been intended for long-term or widespread use. But with so many humans working in and scouting for the draeganjhere now, they’d become a practical necessity.
So far, no one had abused the system, but the aelrics were regulated, and anyone who’d been issued one had to turn it in at the end of their shift or mission. And they were magickally assigned to a specific person, so if one were lost on the outside of the barrier, even if someone who found it knew what it was, they wouldn’t be able to use it. That was one of the jobs Wen’s mother did—assigning the aelrics—as she had a particular gift for working with ancient Draega runes.
“Yes, I have one,” Phee said, fishing the small white bit of stone out of a pocket in his jerkin and showing it to Wen.
“Good. Keep it safe, so you’ll be able to get back up to the castle whenever you return.”
“I will.” He placed it back in the pocket and patted it as if reassuring himself it was truly there.
“Thank you,” Wen told him, “for being willing to take this assignment. Just, please, be careful.”
Another nod, followed by an awkward silence.
“I won’t keep you any longer if you’ve got something else to do tonight,” Wen said.
“I…I was… Um, do I need to check with you tomorrow before I leave?”
“No. You know what to do. I have complete faith in you.”
He hoped. Though, gods, mostly he hoped he wasn’t sending Phee to his doom by asking him to go back out into the world when he seemed so unprepared to deal with…well…anything that might come up. But then he reminded himself again that Iann liked and trusted the young man, and if he hadn’t spoken well of him, then Lord Rizik would never have suggested this in the first place.
Phee looked at Wen, his breath coming quickly, the pulse in his neck racing again. “I… Thank you. Sir.”
“You don’t have to call me sir,” Wen said with a smile.
He stood because he got the sense Phee wouldn’t think it was okay to stand until Wen did. And sure enough, the moment Wen was on his feet, Phee pushed back his chair and rose as well.
Wen walked with him to the door, but as Phee was opening it, Wen couldn’t stop himself from asking the question that had been burning inside him from the moment Phee had said he’d take the job.
“Why are you doing this, Phee? You don’t have to. And clearly you’re not fully comfortable with it. So I can’t help but wonder…why would you choose to leave the warmth and security of Kellesborne to track someone you’ve said yourself is not a nice person?”
The young man bit his lip, then shrugged a thin shoulder and said in almost a whisper, as if he were speaking more to himself than to Wen, “Everyone here has been kinder to me than I deserve, and I…I’m not used to that. I…I’m tired of being useless. I want to help and make a difference.”
Once again Wen wished Wesley were here because he was certain a churning wealth of emotion was going on behind those words. Emotion Wesley could probably piece together and learn much from. Emotion that would also probably cause Wesley to give Wen holy hel for even thinking about sending Phee to do this job when he was so obviously terrified and unprepared.
But Wesley wasn’t here, and all Wen could do right now was hear the words, see the scared but determined look on Phee’s thin yet striking face, and wonder again what had happened to him before he arrived here. Because whatever it was, it had molded Phee in such a way that deep beneath the frightened, pale exterior beat the heart of someone with enough strength to fight back against whomever or whatever had oppressed him.
And for the first time all night, even if only for a fleeting moment, Wen had hope Phee might actually, indeed, be the right person for this job.