Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
Wen entered the training courtyard a few minutes later, Wesley at his side. The trainees who’d been working with Wesley for weeks now—close to fifty of them at this point—stood waiting, along with several members of the draeganjhere who weren’t currently on shift, out scouting, or traveling with one of the envoys.
“Captain present!” Hadlow shouted, and, in unison, every trainee and member of the draeganjhere turned toward Wen and Wesley and stood at attention.
Wen stared in surprise for a moment, but then felt Wesley’s pride fluttering along their link and instantly suspected Wes had known about this. Might even have been behind it.
With a slight shake of his head he glanced at Wesley with a look that said What the hel did you do? All he got in return was a flicker of humor.
“At ease,” Wen said to the gathering, biting back a smile.
It was a rare sunny day for winter, and though piles of snow lay up against the walls, where it had been pushed back out of the way for training, the sun created melting rivulets of water that seeped out in dark, muddy fingers across the stone courtyard.
Wesley moved to stand next to Allend and Risa, while Wen stepped up onto a low stone wall that surrounded a fountain at one end of the yard. The water in the fountain’s pool was frozen, unaffected by the brief display of afternoon sun except for small puddles glinting here and there. The ribbons of water that, in warm weather, flowed down through the graceful branches of the massive statue of a delik tree, today appeared more like dripping columns in an ice palace. In the summer it was probably a beautiful fountain, but Wen had only ever seen it frozen.
As he gazed out at the faces staring up at him, in spite of the dark times and his own anxieties over the past weeks, an unexpected surge of appreciation rippled over him.
Every one of these individuals was here because they wanted to be. Because they cared about what happened to the draegans and allies who lived within these walls. No one had tricked or coerced or conscripted them, like the high sorcerer had to do to get soldiers. These people were here—young and old, of different races and varying levels of experience—because they chose to be. And choice, he suddenly and deeply realized, was a powerful thing.
Wesley was right. It would be hypocritical to allow some individuals to choose a path while preventing others from doing the same.
In that moment, he took a deep breath, released it, and with it forced himself to release his guilt over Phee, his worry over the draegan lords, over Jax and Caleb, over Jarrad, who was still out on a scouting mission to escape his own fears. Each and every one of them had made a choice to take the action they had. It didn’t matter whether Wen liked those choices or agreed with them…because they weren’t his choices to make. He’d made his own. He glanced down at Wesley, who steadily met his gaze and offered him one of those sweet smiles that melted his heart.
Choice was the very soul of freedom. And freedom was what everyone here at Kellesborne wanted, what they fought for, and why the sorcerer’s reign had to end.
Wen smiled back at Wesley before returning his gaze to the gathered audience.
“Thank you, trainees, for taking time out of your day for this. And to those members of the draeganjhere who’re here, thank you for allowing me to dip into your limited free time and, in some cases, probably your sleeping time. Gods know none of us get enough of that these days, so I appreciate it. I know you’re all wondering why I’ve called you here this afternoon, so let’s get down to business.”
As he spoke, he’d noticed his and Wesley’s mums, Thomas, and several other civilians had come out of the castle and now stood listening to him as well. Which was fine with him. The more people who heard and understood what he was about to say, the better. They were all in this together.
“You’re here, everyone, because I want to tell you a story. A handful of you might know it already, or at least pieces of it, while others might not know any of it at all. But it’s important that you hear it because it involves all of us. And even though it is, in part, a story of the past, it concerns our future.
“A thousand years ago, the ancient draegan lords built Kellesborne on the side of this mountain. It was meant not only to be a home for the lords, but also a central stronghold for the draegan people. Before that, the draegans lived in groups scattered across Velensperia. And while many continued to do that after Kellesborne was built, this castle gave them a place they could always come to for support and protection should it ever be necessary. Like many folk, the draegans had been through their share of unrest, of failed invasions by leaders of other realms, of dangerous times that threatened the people they held dear. So they saw the value in having a central location where any draegan could come for sanctuary. They fortified Kellesborne with protection magick, surrounded it with a magick barrier, and created an elite guard—the draeganjhere— to protect their people.
“For those of you who speak little or no Draega, the word draeganjhere literally translates in the common tongue to ‘draegan guard.’ The draeganjhere’s first sworn duty was to protect the draegan lords. But the scope of their responsibility went beyond that. The draeganjhere protected all draegans who lived or sought sanctuary at Kellesborne.
“Ironically—perhaps because of it, or maybe in spite of it—the building of this castle ushered in an era of peace that lasted 900 years, so there was little need to use it as the stronghold for which it had been designed. During those years of peace, the draegans took seriously their commitment of watching over the skies, and of honoring the allied relationships they’d forged with humans and many other races. Meanwhile, the draeganjhere stayed true to their mission and watched over all who lived and visited here.
“Everything changed, however, when High Sorcerer Byram came into power a hundred years ago. The high sorcerer created a false narrative about the draegans, claiming that the draegans had done the unthinkable—that we’d slaughtered human children when, in fact, it was he who was responsible for that unforgivable deed in order to turn humans against us. We’ve found written proof of this, in the sorcerer’s own hand, in his journal the draegan lords stole months ago.”
The sound of several hushed conversations in the audience reached Wen and he paused to give people time to process what he’d just told them. He and all the draegan lords’ closest advisors had, of course, known of this for some time now, but it hadn’t occurred to him that many others probably had been unaware of it. Not that any of the humans here—he hoped—at this point still believed the lies the sorcerer had told, but they probably hadn’t realized there was actual proof of the sorcerer’s ultimate betrayal.
“Yes, it’s true,” he said, a few moments later. “The high sorcerer was responsible for the deaths of the children. It was all part of his plan for power. In retribution for the made-up charges against the draegans, Byram’s soldiers murdered the draegan lord and the entire draegan council, thereby eliminating the potentially biggest threat to his reign. And he didn’t commit those murders here at Kellesborne, where the draegan lord and her council would have been well protected and difficult to reach, but swiftly and unexpectedly while they traveled with only a handful of guards. Which was, of course, also part of the sorcerer’s plan—to attack them while they were the most vulnerable.
“Because they had no warning, the vast majority of the draegan race were also hunted and killed over the next several days. The few who escaped, went into hiding to avoid the same fate.
“After Byram’s massacre of the draegans, for one hundred years, Kellesborne sat mostly empty. The scattered remains of the draegan people, unable to take wing because of the sorcerer’s unnatural magick and dark alliances, fought and scraped for their very existence. But unbeknownst to most of us, two loyal and steadfast members of the draeganjhere continued doing their job, in secret, against all odds. They escaped Byram’s slaughter with the last remaining draegan of lord blood, who was only a child at the time, and devoted their lives to making sure he survived. For a hundred years he lived amongst us, with even those closest to him unaware of his heritage. You know him as Keiran Hareldson, and under his leadership, even before anyone was aware he was the last remaining draegan lord, he began to gather a following of people who wanted to see peace, prosperity, and freedom returned to Velensperia.
“He believed that all beings had the right to live freely, and he demonstrated that by not only accepting draegans into his camp, but humans as well. Because under Byram’s rule, everyone has suffered. People of all races have gone hungry, have been coerced into the sorcerer’s armies, have been enslaved, and countless numbers have been murdered in raids as Byram’s soldiers run amok across the land. Lord Hareldson saw this and welcomed any like-minded beings into his fold. His mate, Lord Rizik, believes the same. Together, they’ve held firm to the idea that the only way to fight tyranny is to stand united.
“Which is why, in this time of dark magick rising, Kellesborne has become the sanctuary it was built to be. Except now, it’s not only a sanctuary for the draegans. It’s a sanctuary for any people in Velensperia who seek protection from the disease spreading across our land. For the first time, the races aren’t just working together or fighting together. We are truly united and living at Kellesborne as one community. You…” He used his hand to gesture to everyone in the courtyard. “All of you, all of us…this is the future. This unity is how we defeat the high sorcerer.”
He took a breath and looked around for a sign of how his words were being accepted. He was shocked to realize even more civilians had poured into the courtyard, which was now packed. Obviously word had spread and people had been curious.
Wesley, gazing up at him, had a faint smile on his face. Wen already knew that he’d had Wesley’s support coming into this, but it was still nice to see reassurance of it now. It was the others he worried about.
But as he gazed around, his fears eased when he saw looks of approval on other faces as well—Allend and Risa, members of the draeganjhere and numerous trainees, Wesley’s mum Sarah. Even Thomas, who always looked a bit peeved and uptight, was nodding with an impassioned expression on his face. Wen’s mum smiled at him from her position near the castle, but like Wesley, she knew why he was standing up here today. And, like Wesley, he appreciated having her support in what he was about to do.
“Because of this unity,” he continued, “it’s important that not only the sorcerer and his armies see and hear of our solidarity, but that the free folk of Velensperia outside our walls see and hear of it as well. Even if they’re unsure exactly where Kellesborne is located, all metaphorical eyes are on us. We may be few in number, but we’re the driving core at the heart of the rebellion. That makes us powerful. What we do, our actions, ripple outward. And we are, and will continue to be, the beacon of hope for humans, draegans, and any other race seeking to change their fate and end the sorcerer’s reign.
“Kellesborne is no longer only a draegan sanctuary, but instead one for all people. And since the draeganjhere no longer protects only draegans and, in fact, is no longer made up of only draegans, the time has come to acknowledge that.”
He paused, measuring his next words carefully, because what he was about to say, and how it was accepted by the people it affected, was critical. He didn’t take lightly the fact he was about to challenge how things had been done for a millennium.
He glanced at Wesley, and Wesley gave him a faint nod. He knew Wes was reading the emotions of the people around him and was telling Wen that he sensed no potential problems. Grateful once again, in so many ways, that he had Wesley watching his back, he forged ahead.
“In order to have a guard that fully represents and embraces who and what we are, starting right now, the draeganjhere will have a new name. In Draega the word for ‘people’ is vellan. From now on, we will be the vellanjhere. The people’s guard.”
He didn’t have to be an empath to hear numerous startled intakes of breath, hear the faint murmuring of voices, or see the surprised expressions on many faces. Good surprised, he hoped. Once again he glanced at Wes, who smiled and gave him another slight nod.
Wen let out a breath of relief he didn’t realize he’d been holding. So far so good.
“In addition to that,” he continued, “as you’ve all noticed, we’ve recently been incorporating some guard rotations for some of the trainees. We’ll be doing even more of that in the coming days and weeks, giving every trainee a chance at hands-on experience. While drills and practice are vital, and they will continue to happen daily, Lieutenant Brannock and I feel that on-the-job experience is also highly valuable, especially in these troubled times where the unexpected can happen at any moment. Not only that, giving trainees guard experience helps our mission to protect this castle and her people.
“Because many of you trainees already have been, and others will be soon, putting your life on the line for Kellesborne by guarding its people…today I’m inducting all of the trainees who choose it into the vellanjhere.”
Another subtle round of gasps, along with a bit of whispering, drifted up toward him.
“The current existing members of the vellanjhere who don’t already hold a command position will be given the rank of senior guard, while the trainees who make the choice to join will be given the rank of watchman.”
He looked pointedly at the newbies. “Trainees, you don’t have to make a decision right this moment about joining the guard. You can do so at any time. And let me be clear that this is your choice. If you are here because you simply want to learn how to defend yourself or your family, I applaud you, and you are more than welcome to continue to attend training sessions with no pressure or obligation to the guard. For those of you who do aspire to become a member of the vellanjhere, make sure you understand the commitment and risk involved. Unlike the sorcerer, who lures with false promises or forces soldiers against their will to join his armies, here at Kellesborne we are free people, which means we each get to determine our own course. So, this choice is yours to make.”
He paused and watched as numerous trainees nodded, acknowledging his words.
“Good. Now, as a further show of our unity, for the existing members of the vellanjhere, and any trainees who are comfortable with the commitment to join, we have this to offer…”
He looked at Wesley, and at the same time, each of them took off their cloaks, revealing what they wore beneath.
Another round of exclamations and murmurs came from the audience, and Wen couldn’t help but be pleased at the numerous smiles he saw.
He knew exactly how they felt…because he and Wesley had experienced much the same reaction when they’d delved into the long-hidden storerooms of the armory several days ago and discovered the row after row of exquisitely made, lightweight, and seemingly indestructible blue and silver leather armor. The ancient draegan lords had obviously had it made centuries ago and possibly never used it because they’d never had reason to. The magick of the castle had, of course, protected it in its original state, so that it was like brand new. In the sunlight, the silver crest of Kellesborne glowed against the field of deep blue that made up the body of the armor—the colors of the draegan lords. The armor was, without a doubt, striking to look at.
Unable to stop himself, Wen smiled. “It’s lightweight, exceptionally strong”—he tapped a fist against his chest—“and protected with magick, thanks to the draegan lords of old. Every member of the vellanjhere will wear this from here on out when on duty or at training. The sorcerer’s armies are spreading over the land. Contact with them is inevitable. So, wear your armor. It might very well save your life. Understood?”
“Yes sir!” came the collective response.
“Excellent. Now…I’m sure you must have a lot of questions. I certainly would in your stead. So, I encourage you to ask anything you’d like and I’ll do my very best to answer.”