Dream Master

Dream Master

 By

Elaine Young

Copyright © 2009 all rights reserved

Mendari Master Rourke Andras stood in front of the heavy, well locked door and chuckled.  “Did you really think this would keep me out?”  He put his hand on the door which burst inward.  A shrill scream echoed down a distant corridor.  He smiled grimly.  The room behind the shattered door appeared to be empty.  Rourke knew better.  “You cannot hide from me.” 

He felt his quarry’s fear.  “Show yourself.  Save yourself more pain.” 

Silence.

“You were warned.”  Rourke walked into the middle of the room, spread his arms out wide, took a deep breath and pushed outward with all his will.  The walls around him blew apart.  A shriek of agony reverberated throughout the building.

“Ah, there you are, you piece of filth.”  The object of his search, a craven little man of nondescript features, tried to run away down the now wide-open hallway.  Rourke held out his hand and a wall appeared in front of the man, who ran into it at full speed and went crashing to the floor.  “There is no escape from me.  You will tell me what I want to know.”

The little man tried to crawl away from the Mendari.  “No!  No!  I am protected, you cannot touch me!”

Rourke crossed the room in two strides and picked him up by his shirt collar.  “Wrong again.  You are mine now.  You WILL tell me what I want to know.”  Rourke thrust him into a chair that appeared in front of them.  Iron shackles snapped closed around the terrified man’s wrists and ankles.  “Where is she?”  When the man did not respond, Rourke leaned down and put his hands over his captive’s wrists.  “If you think you have experienced pain up until this moment, you have deluded yourself.  I have only just begun.  If I must, I will tear this place apart until I find what I am looking for.”

On the wall behind the trembling prisoner, the figure of a sleeping little girl appeared.  Her surroundings faded in gradually, a small bed, a room with no windows and only a single dim lantern hung high on the stone wall for light.

“Where is this place?” Rourke asked.

“Hammoth.”

“Hammoth Castle?  You sold her to the Duke of Hammoth?”

“It was supposed to be just for a ransom!”

“You are incredibly stupid for a tutor.”

“Will you let me go now?”

Rourke’s dry laugh caused the man to shudder.  “Oh no, you are mine until this is finished.”

“Please, I beg you!”

“You had best pray she is alive when we find her.”

“I didn’t know!  I swear, I didn’t know!”

**********

“By the gods!” his Lordship Geath Trafan, Duke of Isthmene exclaimed.  “He’s killing him!”

Novadi Master Leandra Devane did not move from her place beside Rourke.  “Master Rourke will not kill him.  We’ll leave that in your capable hands after we’ve found your daughter.”

“How are we going to find Elise if Chardis is an imbecile or insane by the time Master Rourke is done with him?  Taelerion’s beard!  The man is bleeding from his nose.”

Leandra shifted impatiently.  “My Lord, Chardis will neither be insane nor an imbecile when Rourke is finished.  This is only necessary because someone has placed psychic protections on his mind.  Breaking through such barriers takes time and effort and can often be quite…painful.  However, other than having a wretched headache when he wakes, Chardis will be the same as he was before.”

Rourke opened his eyes and took a cleansing breath.  “Scum.”  He stood up and looked over at Lord Trafan.  “The child is locked in a dungeon under Hammoth Castle.”

Lord Trafan stared at him in shock.  “I do not understand, the Duke of Hammoth has been one of the most zealous in the search for her.”

Rourke shrugged.  “Of course he has. What better way to deceive you than by being the most helpful to you.”

“How do you know she’s there?” Lord Trafan asked.  “How do you know he’s not lying.”

Rourke’s face was expressionless.  “Chardis is no longer capable of lying to me.”

Lord Trafan shuddered.  Just standing there the man looked menacing.  Maybe it was the black robes or the fact that his dark eyes were stone cold.  “Even if this is so—and I cannot see any reason for Hammoth to kidnap my daughter—I cannot storm his castle on the word of…”  He stopped and stared wide-eyed at Rourke.

Rourke finished for him, “On the word of Rourke Andras, notorious Mendari?”  He shrugged, “There is no need to storm the castle or even to accept my word.”  He held out his right hand and a shimmering portal slowly opened in front of him.  He looked at Leandra.  “Are you ready?”

She drew her two long-swords.  “Yes.”

“Lord Trafan if you would, please come over to the portal and stand at the ready,” Rourke said.

Startled, Lord Trafan said, “Stand at the ready for what?”

“To receive your daughter,” Rourke replied.  Leandra walked through the portal with Rourke close behind her.  Lord Trafan heard shouts and the sound of steel on steel, then silence.  Moments later, Leandra came through the portal dragging an unconscious Hammoth guardsman, followed by a frightened middle-aged woman and lastly, Rourke carrying Elise.  The portal closed behind them.

“Gods be praised!”  He took his sleeping daughter from Rourke’s arms.  “Thank you, Master Rourke, thank you!” 

Rourke looked over at Chardis and closed his eyes briefly.  The little man began to groan in pain as he rose to consciousness.  Indicating the prone guardsman and the now weeping woman, “Along with Chardis, this should be ample evidence of Hammoth’s treachery.”

Lord Trafan nodded.  “I will have to bring this before the king.”  He looked down at Elise, a worried frown furrowing his brow.  “Why does she not wake?  With all the noise, she should be crying for her mother.”

“She was given a potion to make her sleep,” Leandra replied.  “That was why Master Rourke could not touch her mind.”

 “You have a Priest of Asaeria here in the castle.  He will be able to cleanse her of the potion’s effects,” Rourke said. 

“Again I thank you, Master Rourke and Master Leandra.  I am in your debt.”

“I may hold you to that, my lord.”  Smiling at his lordship’s startled look, he nodded to Leandra, who put her hand on his shoulder.  “I bid you good night, Lord Trafan.”  The pair disappeared without a sound.

* * * *

“Ignorant fool,” Rourke said with disdain when they appeared in their bedroom.

Leandra unbuckled her sword belt.  “At least he called on you for help.”

“Only after she had been missing for three days,” Rourke growled.  “If he had accepted my offer of help when I first gave it I could have found her the day she went missing.”

“I know my love,” Leandra replied as she unfastened her shoulder sheath.  “But it was a difficult decision for him to make.  Your disfavor with the king is widely known.  He risks losing his title and his lands by calling on you.”

 Rourke shook his head and began unbuttoning his robes.  “Disfavor or not, Trafan put his title and his lands before the welfare of his daughter.  That idiot has no idea how close he came to losing her forever.  That guard had been told to kill her this day and hide her body somewhere on the Duke of Caratan’s lands in order to start a war between them.  It was Trafan’s good fortune that summoning me in secret in the small hours of the night meant we caught the guard unaware.”

“You got all that from the guard in the few seconds he was conscious?” Leandra asked.

Rourke shrugged.  “It was not difficult, the man has no original thoughts at all.”

Leandra went over to him and pushed his robes off his shoulders.  “Has anyone ever told you you’re an arrogant man?”

Rourke drew her in close.  “Many people.  But then you knew that when you married me, beloved.”

“Yes, I did.”  She put her arms around his neck.  “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

He leaned down to kiss her.  “Nor would I.”

* * * *

A tentative knock on their bedroom door awakened the couple a few hours later.  “Someone had better be dying,” Rourke growled as he pulled on a dressing gown. 

The servant standing at the door bowed his head slightly.  “I’m sorry to disturb you so early Master Rourke.  A king’s messenger is here and insists that he give his message only to you.”

“That took less time than I expected,” Rourke said.  “How many guards did he send this time?”

“Only two, Master Rourke.”

Rourke raised his brows in surprise.  “Interesting.  Tell his majesty’s messenger that I will be down presently.”

“Yes, Master Rourke.”  With short sigh, Rourke closed the door. 

“What is it?” Leandra asked.

Rourke’s gaze lingered on his wife, her golden copper tresses fanned out on her pillow, her eyes still heavy with sleep.  “The king has sent a messenger,” he said with regret in his voice.  “I must attend to him.”

Leandra sat up, sharpening her husband’s regret.  “What is a king’s messenger doing here so early?”

“I imagine the king has heard about my dealings with Lord Trafan and has, no doubt, taken offense.”

“Why would he take offense at you helping a man find his six year old daughter?”

A fleeting look of pain crossed his face.  “My very existence offends him.”

“But why?” she asked.  “You never told me how you came to provoke the king’s enmity.”

Rourke shrugged.  “I told him he was about to marry the wrong woman.”

“But the queen is dead.  She killed herself years ago, after the prince was born.”

Rourke nodded.  “Sixteen years ago, to be precise.  The king blames me for her death.  He believes I caused her melancholy.”

Leandra shook her head.  “That’s ridiculous.  Surely he knows better than that.”

 “Apparently not,” Rourke replied softly.

“Well then, he’s an idiot.”

Rourke gave a half smile.  “That may very well be.  I must however, honor his station—within limits.  He was quite vexed with me when I refused his previous invitations to spend time in his dungeon.”

Leandra got out of bed.  “I’m coming with you.  I will not allow this to turn into an arrest.”

 “Are you sure you want to get involved in this?”

She shrugged.  “The king has no power over me.  Only Master Philip and the Terin Novar order my comings and goings.”

Rourke smiled.  “I have never had a champion before.”

 Leandra went over to him and ran her fingers through his dark hair.  “Well get used to it.”

 Rourke wrapped his arms around her.  “You are the most beautiful champion a man could ask for.”  He drew her in and began kissing her deeply.

Leandra finally pulled away.  “We should get dressed before we make his majesty’s messenger wait far longer than he was expecting.”

 Rourke sighed.  “If you insist.”

* * * *

 “His Majesty requires your presence at the palace at once,” the messenger intoned.

 “Did his majesty say why?”  Rourke asked.

 “I do not presume to question his majesty’s commands,” the messenger replied.

“Of course not,” Rourke replied dryly.  “You may tell his majesty that I will be there in a short time.”

“His majesty has commanded that you come immediately,” the messenger replied.  “A carriage has been sent to take you to the palace.”

Rourke frowned.  “There is no need.  I am quite capable of transporting myself to the palace.”

The messenger shifted uncomfortably.  “His majesty does not wish you to enter the palace in such a manner.”

Leandra stiffened.  “His majesty has a lot to learn about manners.”

Rourke put his hand on her arm.  “It is of no consequence, beloved.”

“It is of consequence,” she retorted.  “This is supposed to give the appearance that you have done something for which you must be reprimanded by the king when, in fact, you have done no such thing. 

The guards took a step forward but Rourke put up his hand.  Looking at the guard on the right he said softly, “I believe you were present the last time the king’s guard attempted to take me somewhere against my will.”  The guard’s face went a little pale and he nodded.  “Master Leandra is a Novadi warrior.  It is unlikely you will be able to force her to do anything against her will either.”  Both guards took a step back.  “I will go with you in your carriage if Master Leandra accompanies me.”

“The king requires you come alone,” the messenger replied, appearing less sure of himself now.

“You have two choices—Master Leandra and I go with you now or you leave alone and tell his majesty that I respectfully decline his…invitation.”

* * * *

The messenger stepped into the king’s private audience chamber, bowed deeply to the king and his advisor, and said nervously, “Your Majesty, Master Rourke Andras, and Master Leandra Devane.” 

His Majesty, King Kael II looked at the pair and said, “We recall only requiring the presence of Master Rourke Andras.  Please explain, Master Rourke, how you have the audacity to bring an armed warrior into our presence.”

Rourke bowed his head.  “Your Majesty, may I introduce Novadi Master Leandra Devane, my wife and protector.”

For a fleeting moment, the expression on the king’s face changed to one of surprise and a smile almost touched his lips.  However, before he could comment, his advisor, Lord Vorzuan, spoke up.  “The Novadi order must be in a sad state indeed if one of their own weds herself to one such as you, Mendari.  Unless, of course,” he went on, “she has forsaken her oath in order to serve you.”

Leandra stiffened and her emerald eyes flashed with suppressed fury.  Rourke took her hand in his and squeezed it lightly.  He looked directly at King Kael, his eyes hard as flint.  “Your majesty, I honor you out of the love and respect I bore for your father.  I stay in Arkanna because of a promise I made to him before he died.  I will not, however, allow you or your lackey to insult my wife or question her honor.  Now, unless either of you has anything useful to say, Leandra and I will take our leave of this place.”

Lord Vorzuan sputtered indignantly but the king help up his hand.  “Silence.  Master Leandra, please accept my apologies for Vorzuan’s discourtesy.”  He pointed to Leandra’s sword belt.  “You should read your history Vorzuan.  She is wearing the dagger of the Novadi order, which she would not be able to do if she were an oath-breaker.  Now leave us.”

“But, your majesty…”

“Now, Vorzuan.”  Looking at the guards who were standing in the back of the room he added, “All of you, leave now.  I wish to speak to Master Rourke and Master Leandra alone.”

All in the room were completely silent while Vorzuan and the guards filed out.  After the door closed behind them, Rourke said quietly, “I am relieved you discarded the royal ‘we’ your majesty.”

“I was angry, I…” He put his head in his hands, “Asaeria help me.”

To Leandra’s surprise, Rourke went over and knelt beside the king.  “Kael, talk to me.  Tell me what is troubling you.  Why have you brought me here?”

Kael raised his head.  His eyes were filled with tears.  “Can you not read my mind?”

“Of course I can and you know I will not,” Rourke replied.  “Not uninvited, not with a friend.”

“Are we friends, Rourke?”

“We were once,” Rourke replied.

Kael closed his eyes bowed his head.  Very softly he asked, “Is it true that you can transport to a place you have seen in someone’s mind?”

“Yes.”

“Then read my mind,” Kael whispered.

Rourke looked back at Leandra, who nodded and joined them on the dais.  Rourke took a chair from beside the throne so he could sit directly in front of the king.  Very lightly, he touched Kael’s mind.  “Relax.  Show me what it is you want me to see.”  A bedroom, richly appointed but tastefully decorated slowly faded in.  Lying on the bed was a young man with his eyes wide open in an expression of horror.  “Is that Kiernan?”

“Yes.”  Kael’s anguish flooded into Rourke.

“Where is this place?”

“Winlodar.  He is at university there.”

“Rourke, we have spies.”  Leandra’s warning sounded in both their minds.

As Rourke withdrew from Kael’s mind, the room faded away.  “Perhaps I can give them something else to think about.”  A moment later Rourke smiled.  “They will be quite busy for a few days.”

“What did you do?” Leandra asked.

“They have been filled with an overwhelming desire to purchase sheep,” he replied.

Leandra threw back her head and laughed.  Kael did not laugh.  “I cannot trust anyone in this castle.  I do not know who my friends are anymore.”  He looked over at Rourke.  “Before he died, my father told me I could trust you with my life.  I let someone dissuade me of that belief, much to my detriment.”

Rourke stood up.  “Let us focus on today and your son.”  He held out his hand and the portal appeared in front of them. 

As Kael was about to walk through, Rourke put a hand on his arm.  “Let Leandra go first.  We do not know what or who awaits us on the other side.”

What awaited them on the other side was a very surprised manservant who stared wide-eyed at the dark-haired, black robed Mendari.

Rourke went over to the bed.  Kiernan was lying just as he had seen him.  “How long has he been like this?”

“Two days,” Kael replied.

“Tell me what happened.”

The manservant came forward hesitantly.  His voice trembled slightly when he spoke.  “Three nights ago the Prince came back from his classes looking very tired.  He refused his supper and went straight to bed.  When I came up to wake him the next morning, he was like this.”

“Has he made any movement or sound since you found him?” Rourke asked.

“Sometimes he thrashes about and screams,” the manservant replied.

“Thank you,” Rourke said.  “What has been done for him thus far?” he asked Kael.

“The headmaster of the Mage Academy came.  He said there was no spell or other magic.  Then I called on Sister Islene.  As soon as she saw him, she insisted I call on you.”

“Islene from the temple of Asaeria here?

“Yes,” Kael replied.  “She said she knew you.”

Rourke smiled.  “We know each other well.  We traveled together for many years.”

“She told me this looked like Mendari work,” Kael said.

Rourke looked down at the horror-stricken countenance of the young prince.  “We will know very soon.” 

He brought a chair next to the bed and Leandra took up her post next to him.  He placed his fingers lightly on the prince’s forehead and said aloud, “Kiernan.”  When he did not respond, Rourke gave a gentle push into his mind.

Kiernan let out a blood-curdling scream.  “No!  Get away from me!  Help me!”  He started to sob.  “Please do not hurt me.”

Kael rushed over to his son.  “What is he doing to him?!  He has to stop!”  He tried to push past Leandra but found himself suddenly facing her sword.

“Please step back your majesty, I don’t want to hurt you.”

Outraged, his majesty shouted, “You dare?!”

Leandra stood her ground.  “I dare for your protection as well as your son’s.  Rourke can be extremely unpredictable if his mindlink is broken.  It could also do irreversible damage to your son’s mind.”

Rourke looked up, his expression grave.  “You can let him go Leandra”

Leandra sheathed her sword and stepped aside.

“What is it?” Kael asked.  ‘What is wrong?”

“It is a trap,” Rourke replied.  “His mind is imprisoned in an endless nightmare and a trap has been set for anyone who tries to free it.”

“Blessed Asaeria,” Kael whispered.  “Why?  Why would someone do this to him?”

“I assume someone has their eye on the throne of Arkanna,” Rourke said.  “This is meant to last only until his mind is completely broken.  Then he will emerge, seeming on the surface unchanged, but in reality completely subject to the Mendari who set the trap.”

Kael sat on the edge of the bed.  “What can be done?  Can you stop this thing?”

Rourke nodded.  “I can, but it will be a very difficult and lengthy process for which I will need to prepare.  It would be best if you went back to the palace before you are missed.  If you are trying to keep this a secret, then your disappearance will not help.”

“But how can I leave him like this?”

“I will treat him as my own son,” Rourke said.  To Leandra he said, “Will you take him back?”

“Of course,” Leandra replied.

“Why can you not take me back?” Kael asked.

“I must conserve all of my energy for the task ahead,” Rourke replied.

The king stood up and Rourke followed suit.  “He is my life, Rourke.”

Rourke nodded.  “I know.  I will do everything in my power to bring him back to you.”

Leandra stepped into the center of the room and offered her arm.  “Whenever you’re ready, your majesty.”

“Falon will see to your needs.”  Kael said.  Then he went to his son, leaned down and kissed his forehead.  Letting out a soft sigh, he joined Leandra and said, “I am ready.”

A moment later, the king was back in his private audience chamber.  Leandra looked at the doors to the room.  “No doubt someone will be coming soon to make sure you are unharmed.”

“No doubt,” he replied.

“One thing before I go, your majesty,” Leandra began.  “Lord Trafan may come to you today requesting an audience.  He will probably tell you that Rourke helped him find his daughter and that the Duke of Hammoth arranged her kidnapping.  What he may neglect to tell you is that her kidnapper had psychic protections meant to stop anyone from reading his mind.  You may want to look more closely at the Duke of Hammoth as the Mendari who helped him may be the same person responsible for what has happened to your son.”

Kael’s eyes narrowed and glittered dangerously.  “I will most assuredly investigate this further.  Thank you Master Leandra.”

Leandra bowed her head.  “Your majesty,” and was gone.

* * * *

When Rourke emerged from his meditation, Leandra was speaking quietly to Falon.  When she heard him stir, she came over to him.  “I wanted to ask you something.”

“What is it?”

“Why didn’t you tell me you knew the king so well?”

Rourke let out a soft sigh.  “I apologize for that, my love.  It was very painful for me to talk about.  I have known Kael and his brother and sister since they were born.  I was an advisor to their grandfather in his later years and I was close friends with their father throughout his life.  I was a frequent visitor at the palace until Kael married.”

“What happened?  You said he blamed you for his wife’s death.”

Rourke nodded.  “Someone in her family convinced him I must have caused her deep sadness because I disliked her.  Our relationship was already strained, so it did not take much more to break it.  After she killed herself, he tried to have me arrested several times, but I would not allow it.”

Leandra shook her head.  “But you stayed in Arkanna because you made a promise to his father.”

“Yes, I promised Kael the elder that I would look after his son.  Kael the younger has always been impetuous and stubborn.  His father was worried he would do something foolish.”

“Which he did.”

Rourke nodded.  “He married a weak-minded woman and is now surrounded by her bloodsucking relatives and will be until he tells them to leave.”

Leandra brushed her hand across his cheek and kissed him.  “We should get started.  Are you ready?”

“Yes,” he replied, “But there is something I need you to do for me this time.”

The tone of his voice worried her.  “What is it?”

“The trap is well and intricately laid by a maker of no mean skill,” he said.  “I need you to form a light link with my mind so I have a way out if I need it.”  For the first time since she met him, Leandra felt afraid for Rourke.  He brushed her cheek with his fingers.  “Do not fear for me, beloved.  I have been doing this for more than one hundred years.  It took me very nearly that long to find you, I will not leave you now.”

Leandra nodded and let out a long slow breath.  She opened her mind to Rourke’s and connected to it.  “Now narrow the link until it is held only by a single thread.”  Leandra slowly closed her mind around the single strand that united their psyches.

* * * *

Before Rourke stood what had once been a beautiful, lush forest.  Now it was infested with vines that writhed and undulated among the trees, choking the life blood from them, leaving naught but leafless skeletons.  A broad-bladed short sword appeared in his hand and he swung down hard at the base of the nearest vine.  The vine instantly shot tendrils out of its severed base which entwined themselves around Rourke’s sword arm.  Images real and imagined invaded his psyche as the world around him shifted to familiar places now tinged with a nightmarish character.  “I hardly think so,” Rourke muttered as he grasped the base of the vine with his free hand.  The vine began smoking and burning and the tendrils retreated from his arm.  He uprooted the vine and tossed it on the ground where it withered and died.  With grudging admiration of his adversary’s skill, Rourke began the tedious process of uprooting each vine, one at a time.

* * * *

Leandra got the up from her chair and started pacing.  It had been almost two hours since Rourke had entered the prince’s mind.  He had never taken so long before.  Her link with his mind was still intact, but nevertheless she worried.  

Anguish, despair, horror, rage flooded her mind, hitting her so hard she nearly doubled over.  Gasping, she desperately tried to clear her mind.  “Rourke!”

* * * *

Finally he had gotten through the seemingly endless, vine infested forest to the small cave where Kiernan’s psyche was imprisoned.  He could hear the young prince’s cries of distress as he tried to keep himself away from the writhing vines that covered the entrance.  Rourke let out a slow breath and closed his eyes.  The hardest part of his journey was yet to come.  He had to convince the prince that he was there to help.

He opened his eyes.  He was back in Kiernan’s bedroom.  Kiernan lay on the bed, blood flowing from his ears, nose and eyes.  Falon lay in a crumpled heap in the corner of the room.  Panic filled him.  He rounded the corner of the bed and dropped to his knees.  Leandra lay dead in an ever widening pool of her own blood.  “NO!”  He gathered her lifeless body in his arms, tears streaming down his face.  He had failed.  His beloved wife was dead.  Kiernan was dead.  Now their enemy would go after Kael.  With no one to stop him, Kael too would die and the kingdom would be thrown into chaos and war.  He kissed Leandra’s face and let out a sob.  “I am so sorry, my love.”

“Rourke!”

His head shot up.  That was Leandra’s voice.  How could that be?  He called out to her, “Leandra!”

“Rourke, what’s happening?  Are you all right?”

He began to tremble.  Holy gods.  He put down the body of his wife, which slowly faded into nothingness, as did the room around him.  He was back in front of the cave, kneeling on the ground with vines entwined around his ankles and wrists.  With brute strength born of rage and fear, he tore the vines up by the roots.  “I am all right—now.  You saved me.”

Her alarm filtered through his mind.  “Are you coming out?”

“No, I must finish.”

“Please be careful, I love you.”

“And I love you.  I will be careful.”

Shaken, but firmer in resolve, Rourke turned back to the task at hand.  The vines imprisoning Kiernan crisscrossed the mouth of the cave, reaching out for the prince any time he made a move to escape.  Rourke grasped the base of the vine nearest him, searing it.  As the vine began to come up out of the ground, it sent out tendrils that wrapped around the legs of the frightened prince.  Kiernan began to struggle and scream as gruesome visions assailed his mind.  Kiernan’s fear seemed to give strength to the vine.  Rourke could not pull it up any further.  He released the vine and took a step back.  A different approach would be necessary.

“Kiernan.”

The prince looked around fearfully.  When he saw Rourke standing outside the cave, he cringed back.  “Who are you?  What do you want?”

“Your father sent me to help.”

The prince shook his head.  “You cannot help me, no one can.”

“Kiernan, can you see the forest behind me?”

“I see it in my nightmares,” Kiernan replied, “I almost died there.  The vines…they pulled at me, choked me, and now they have trapped me.  I will never be free.”

“Look behind me,” Rourke said, “I have destroyed them all.”

Kiernan craned his neck to look at the forest behind Rourke.  His eyes widened.  “They are all gone.”  He looked up at Rourke in wonder.  “You did that?”

“Yes.”

“Then you can destroy these as well?”

Rourke shook his head.  “I cannot without your help.  The vines feed off your fear, so they attack you when I attempt to uproot them.”

“So when I am afraid, they get stronger and you cannot pull them out.”

“Exactly,” Rourke replied.

“So I must find a way to fight my fear,” Kiernan said.

Rourke nodded. “Yes.  If you and I work together to uproot the vines, I am confident we will succeed in freeing you from this place.”

Kiernan took a deep breath and stood up, his eyes filled with resolve.  “I am ready.”

Rourke smiled.  “You remind me of your grandfather.”

“You knew him?”

“Very well.  We were good friends up until the day he died.”

“I never met him, but I heard he was a great king,” the young prince said wistfully.

“He was a great king and a good man,” Rourke said.  “He would be very proud of you.”

Kiernan shook his head.  “I have been such a coward.”

“Do not ever think that,” Rourke said sternly.  “The things you have seen in this place would bring the most courageous Warrior to his knees.”  He grasped the base of the vine nearest Kiernan.  “Take hold of the vine and remember, whatever you see, it is not real.”

Kiernan nodded and placed his hand above Rourke’s. 

* * * *

Leandra sensed a change in Rourke, a lightening of spirit.  She let out a small sigh of relief.  He would be finished soon.  But something was pressing on her consciousness.  She focused her thoughts outward.  “Damn!” she whispered.  Someone with ill intent was in the house.  As she probed further she touched at least ten other minds.  She went over to Falon, who was dozing in a corner.  “Falon, wake up.”

Startled, the manservant jumped up.  “What is it, my lady?”

“Is there a way for you to get out of this room without being seen?”

“Yes, my lady.”  He pointed to the opposite wall.  “Behind that wall is a staircase that leads to the stables.  Is something wrong?”

“There are people in the house who mean the prince harm,” she replied.  Before he could express his dismay, Leandra silenced him.  “This is what you need to do—go to the temple of Asaeria and ask for Sister Islene.  Tell her Master Rourke needs her help—now.  She will know what to do.”

“But, my lady,” he protested, “I am only a servant.  It will be very hard to get someone to listen to me.  By then it might be too late.”

Leandra bit back an impatient retort.  She knew he was right, but time was running out.  She could hear the sound of stealthy footsteps on the stairs.  Looking over at the double doors, she noticed bolts on the top and bottom of each door.  She made a slight movement of her hand and the bolts shot home into the floor and top of the doorframe.  That would hold them out for a little while anyway.  There was still the problem of getting Falon in to see Sister Islene.  When her hand fell to her belt, she got an idea.  She took the dagger of her order from its sheath.  “Take this with you.  Show it to anyone who stops you.  They will know what it is and will take you to Sister Islene.”  When Falon reached for the hilt, she added, “Take care that you do not try to wield it.  Keep it well hidden until you get to the temple.  There are those who would kill you to possess it.”  Falon gave her a terrified look.  She heard the footsteps stop outside the doors.  “Go now.  Do not let yourself be seen.”

She waited until the hidden door had closed behind Falon before she took her place in front of Rourke and Kiernan.  A slow, quiet turning of the door handle became rattling and then muttered cursing.  Leandra drew two daggers and stood at the ready.  The moment the doors burst open, her daggers flew and embedded themselves in the chests of the two men in front.  Both men went down, tripping up two others who sought to rush in behind them.  By the time they had righted themselves, Leandra had drawn her pair of long swords.  The pair pulled up short, seemingly surprised to see her standing there.  Leandra took advantage of their hesitance to say, “You have only this moment to leave this room alive.”

The men looked at each other then rushed her, followed by six others.  Sparks flew when the four swords met.  The force of Leandra’s parry sent the front pair stumbling back into their compatriots.  She followed through by slicing through the chest of one, then cutting the legs out from under the other.  The remaining six tried to swarm around her to get, not to Kiernan as she had first thought, but to Rourke.  She stepped back closer to her charges, her swords whirling and dancing in front of her.  Constrained as she was by her need to protect Rourke and the prince, Leandra’s swords still moved at a blinding speed, creating a deadly barrier which none of her attackers could cross and survive.  One by one they fell, dismembered limbs thrown across the room, their armor bloodied and shredded, gasping as they died mere inches from their quarry.  The last enemy charged her, his eyes blazing insanely.  Leandra stepped back, made a quick turn and sliced cleanly through his neck.

She saw the dagger only a split second before it flew through the air aimed at Rourke’s heart.  With no time to deflect it with her swords, Leandra launched herself in front her husband.  The dagger buried itself up to the hilt in her abdomen.  She gasped in pain and went down to her knees.  She grasped the hilt and pulled out the dagger, but already she could feel the burn of the poison as it slowly spread through her body.

* * * *

There were only a few vines left.  Kiernan had gained more strength and more hope with each small triumph.  Every time the vines desperately coiled themselves around his arms or legs, he would brace himself against the horrifying illusions and tear them away.  Very soon he would be free and Rourke would be able to bring him out of the nightmare.

“Rourke.  Assassin.  I am poisoned.  Forgive me.”  And Leandra’s mind link was gone.

Rourke looked around him.  Everything was the same.  This was real.  Leandra was dying or already dead and an Assassin was about to kill him or Kiernan or both.  He looked at the young prince, who was preparing to attack the next vine.  “Kiernan, you must listen to me carefully.  This is all a dream created by a Mendari who is trying to gain control of your mind.”

Kiernan gazed at him in shock.  “How can this be a dream?  I felt pain.  I bled.  I almost died!”

Rourke shook his head.  “I do not have time to explain.  I am about to be pulled out of this place.  You must believe me, none of this is real.  You have the power to free yourself.”

“But how can I do this myself?  I need your help!”

Rourke’s image began to fade.  “Remember what I told you.  This is not real.”

Vines began to wrap themselves around Kiernan’s legs.  “Wait!  Come back!”

* * * *

“I’ll admit, I didn’t expect that, Novadi,” the Assassin said as he stood over her.  “But no matter, you can watch while I cut his throat.”  He drew a dagger, grabbed the back of Rourke’s hair and yanked his head back.  He put the dagger against Rourke’s throat and smiled when Leandra tried to reach for him but could only slide back down to the floor.  “It’s rather enjoyable to have a Novadi warrior watch helplessly while I kill my mark.”

The Assassin pressed the blade deeper into Rourke’s skin, but then his hand would not move any further.  Fear coiled around him as he realized that the Mendari was looking right at him.  Pressure began to build behind his eyes.  The dagger slipped from his numbed fingers.  Pressure became excruciating pain.  His vision turned red as blood filled his eyes.  He heard a scream as if coming from a distance, but knew it was his own.  Pain was white hot.  He was blind and deaf.  There was nothing but pain.  The Assassin’s agonized screams ended abruptly and his body slumped to the floor, his left eye dangling from its bleeding socket. 

Rourke knelt beside his wife and gathered her into his arms.  “Leandra.”  Her eyes opened slowly and the ghost of a smile flitted across her lips.  He pulled her close and whispered, “Please beloved, do not leave me now.”

The faintest whisper drifted up.  “Trying.”

“I know,” he replied laying her gently on the floor.  He also knew her Novadi healing ability was no match for the powerful poison.  He brushed a lock of hair from her forehead.  “Stay with me just a little longer.  I am going to draw the poison into myself.”

“Considering your present condition, my friend, that seems like a very bad idea.”

Rourke looked up at the sound of the familiar voice.  “Islene, please help her.”

The white-robed Priestess knelt down on the other side of Leandra.  “Of course.”  She put one hand on Leandra’s forehead, the other on her chest and began softly intoning a prayer.  By the time the prayer ended, Leandra was breathing more deeply and evenly and color was returning to her cheeks. 

“She’s quite beautiful, Rourke,” Islene said with a smile.  “However did you convince her to marry you?”

“He didn’t have to.”  Leandra opened her eyes.  “You must be Islene.”

“And you must be the poor soul my deviant friend tricked into marrying him.”

Leandra sat up with Rourke’s help.  She flashed a wry smile at Islene.  “How do you know it wasn’t I who tricked him?”

Islene chuckled.  “I like you.”  She looked over at Rourke.  “I think you may have met your match.”

He pulled Leandra closer to him.  “I have indeed.”

A Warrior in a white surcoat bearing the eagle of Asaeria came into view.  “Your grace, one of the attackers is alive.”

Islene rose to her feet, as did Rourke and Leandra.  “Duty calls.  Perhaps you will be able to get some answers for the king from the survivor.”  Before she turned away, she handed Leandra her dagger.  “I believe this belongs to you.  It was wise to send it with Falon.”

“Thank you,” Leandra replied.  “But where is he?  Is he all right?”

“He’s fine.  He got violently ill when he saw the dead guards and servants downstairs so, after he composed himself, I sent him to get the magistrate.”

Rourke nodded.  “We will need to inform the king as well.”

“I had the temple mage teleport my assistant to Arkanna.  I am sure the king has been informed.

Rourke squeezed Islene’s hand.  “Thank you.”

“Any time,” the Priestess replied and then went about the task of healing the lone survivor. 

“What about the prince?” Leandra asked looking down at Kiernan’s still form.

 “I was forced to leave before I could finish,” Rourke replied.  “I was so close to freeing him.  Now I will have to start over and it will be significantly more difficult to persuade him to trust me a second time.”

Leandra shook her head.  “You cannot do that today.  You’ve depleted most of your energy.  Besides, this place obviously is not safe.  We’ll have to move him.”

“If Kael even allows me to come near him again.”

“This wasn’t you fault,” Leandra said firmly.

Rourke shook his head.  “Logic has little impact on a man whose son is in danger.”

“I am not in danger.”

The pair stared down at Kiernan, who was now staring back at them.  Leandra watched a myriad of emotions cross Rourke’s normally impassive visage.  All he could manage was, “Kiernan.”

“I remembered what you told me,” the young prince said.  “Every time the vines attacked me, I told myself it was not real.  When all the vines were gone, the whole place faded into nothing.  Then I heard your voice.”

Rourke sat down on the bed.  “Lie still for a moment longer,” he said softly.  He put his fingers lightly on Kiernan’s forehead and closed his eyes.  A short time later he opened them again.

“Is all well with me Master Rourke?” Kiernan asked.

Rourke stared down at him in surprise.  “You know me?”

Kiernan sat up slowly, a little unsteady after two days without food.  “There is a portrait of you and my grandfather in the great library,” he replied.  “My father never spoke of you to me, but Uncle Eamon told me about you.  He said he did not believe the things others were saying about you.  He said you were a good man.”  He frowned and pointed at Rourke’s neck.  “What happened?  You are bleeding.”  When he caught sight of the carnage in the room, his face went pale.  “Blessed Asaeria, what happened?” 

“Someone tried to stop me from freeing you,” Rourke replied.

The sound of a dozen pairs of steel boots marching on the marble floor echoed up the stairway.  Leandra picked up her bloodied swords and stood beside Rourke, shielding the prince from view.  Islene and her two temple guards turned to face the doorway.  The heavy footsteps stopped in front of the shattered doors and a booming voice said, “Make way for the king’s guard.”  Islene stepped aside.  Rourke and Leandra relaxed and breathed a sigh relief, until the captain of the guard pointed at Rourke.  “Arrest him!”

Leandra took two steps forward and glared at the captain.  “You will have to go through me first.”

The captain and his men made to move forward, but Kiernan called out, “Captain, hold!”  He struggled out of bed, standing with Rourke’s help.  “This man just saved me.  You cannot arrest him.”

The captain looked with pity on the young prince.  Bowing deeply he replied, “Your Highness, he is a Mendari.  He can make you think whatever he wants.”

“Surely Captain,” Islene interjected, “there is some misunderstanding.”

The captain shook his head.  “This man is responsible for the death of the queen.  He is to be arrested and thrown in the dungeon.”

“Is that the king’s command?” Rourke asked, weariness and sorrow evident in his voice.”

“It most certainly is not our command,” the king declared.

The small company of guardsmen whirled around and immediately bowed deeply.  “Your majesty,” the captain said in protest, “I was merely following your standing order.”

“That order is rescinded, Captain Harkin.  Now stand down.  Help Sister Islene remove these bodies.”

The captain bowed again.  “Yes, your majesty.”

Kael came forward, his eyes fixed on his son.  “Kiernan.”  Kiernan stumbled into his father’s arms.  Kael pulled him close and just held him without speaking.  Finally, he looked over his son’s shoulder to Rourke. 

Rourke nodded.  “All is well, your majesty.  The trap is completely gone.”

“Praise Asaeria,” the king said, his voice thick with emotion.  “Thank you, Rourke.”

“It was not only me, your majesty,” Rourke replied.  “Leandra kept the Warriors away from me and took a poisoned dagger meant for me.  When I was forced out of the prince’s mind by the Assassin’s attempt to kill me, the prince completed the work we started.  He freed himself.”

Kael took a step back from Kiernan.  “Is this true?”

Kiernan nodded.  “He told me what to do.”

Kael hugged him again.  “Thank Asaeria that you take after your grandfather.”

“Master Rourke said the same thing,” Kiernan replied.

The king smiled at Rourke.  Then he caught a glimpse of the gruesome corpse of the Assassin.  He stared at Rourke then said to Leandra, “This is what you meant by unpredictable.”

Leandra’s eye followed the king’s gaze.  “Yes, your majesty.”

Kael’s face paled a little.  “Then I think I owe you thanks for my own life as well as my son’s.  You were also right about Hammoth,” she explained.

Rourke looked at her curiously.  “I suggested to his majesty that the Duke of Hammoth might also be involved in what happened to the prince.”

The king nodded.  “Hammoth admitted to all of it, but he said he could not give me the name of the Mendari.  I think a few days in the dungeon might prompt his memory.”

Rourke shook his head.  “Unlikely, your majesty.  The name is gone.  You can be certain the Mendari erased it from his mind.”

“Can you retrieve it?” Kael asked.

“I could probe his mind for clues,” Rourke replied, “but I have no doubt all trace of the Mendari’s identity will be gone.”

Kael began to pace.  “Then what can I do?  How can I protect Kiernan or even myself from another attack?”

Kiernan took hold of his father’s arm.  “Father stop.  The answer is right in front of you.”

Kael stopped and found himself face to face with Rourke.  He blinked once and looked abashed.  “Rourke, I did not think I could ask you after everything I have said and done.”

Rourke took a step back and bowed deeply.  “Your majesty, I have and will always offer myself in service to the crown of Arkanna.”

Kael swallowed hard.  “You honor me.  I am ever in your debt.  I can put no price on the life of my son.  What can I offer you in return?”

Rourke smiled.  “I am honored to serve, your majesty.”

Kael shook his head.  “Surely there must be something I can do.”

“Actually there is,” Rourke replied.  “Rid yourself of your dead wife’s bloodsucking relatives, then find a woman who is your equal and marry her.”

Both Kael and Kiernan stared at him in stunned disbelief.  Finally Kael laughed.  “Only if you agree to meet her first.”

Rourke chuckled.  “That I will, your majesty, but right now I am going to go home with my wife.  We both need some sleep.”

“Of course,” the king replied.  “But what about this Mendari?  Will you be able to find him?”

“Or her, your majesty,” Rourke with a slight smile.  “I am going try.  I will probe the Duke of Hammoth’s mind for clues and perhaps the prince’s as well.”

Kael looked startled.  “Will that harm him?”

Rourke shook his head.  “I would never consider putting the prince in danger, your majesty.”

“What is to prevent this from happening again?”  Kale asked.  “He is not a Mendari, he has no protection.”

“I can give him protection,” Rourke replied.  “But for today at least, take him home and keep him—and yourself—well guarded.  I will come to the palace tomorrow.”

Kael moved in closer to him and spoke softly.  “Will you, Rourke?  I have treated you so poorly.”

“Kael,” Rourke replied more softly still, “Your father was my best friend.  You are like a son to me.  I promised him I would look after you and I will keep that promise to my dying breath.”

Kael’s eyes filled with tears.  “You honor me.”

Rourke smiled and bowed.  “The honor is mine, your majesty.”

Leandra took his arm.  “Come, my love.  You need to rest.”  To the king she bowed and said, “Your majesty, we will see you tomorrow.”

Kael grinned at Rourke.  “Now I understand what you mean.  You are a lucky man, Master Rourke.”

“That I am, your majesty.”  He bowed.  “I will see you tomorrow.”

“And for many years to come, my friend,” the king replied.