Title: Listen to Your Heart

Author: Morgana
Author's Email: morganalebeau
Web page: .nl/avalon

Pairing: Prince Tus/ OMC

Rating: PG-13

Summary: King Sharaman commands his son to wipe out the Hassansin death squads.

Disclaimer: Not mine. No copyright infringement is intended.

Warning: AU of course.

All mistakes are mine.

Additional note: This story takes place before "Sands of time."

Listen to Your Heart

Prologue

I live through my dreams. I am alive in them. I see the future in my visions. I smell the truth and I hear the lies men tell to each other. I feel the hatred and sense the love they share. I see their true nature.

My trance-like state allows me to leave my earthly body and to travel into the next dimension. Their spirituality – their souls – lie naked in front of me and often I recoil in horror. It is only seldom that I find love and goodness, which attract me closer then. Most of the time, I want to flee the scene and leave their vileness behind me.

However, I am never free to choose the way I react. I am a prisoner here, trapped, incarcerated in this earthly grave. The only reason why the Hassansin keep me alive is because I am of great use to them. I help them plot their actions, warn them about traps, and tell them all I know about the enemy.

The day this accursed gift leaves me, will be the day I die. Hassan told me so. Hassan leads the Hassansin, the feared and despised assassins. King Sharaman commands them and Hassan makes sure everyone carries out his orders.

As of late, my visions warm me though that things are about to change. King Sharaman has grown wary of the Hassansin – and rightly so. My visions tell me that it won't be long before he will order their destruction.

I wonder what will happen when the King issues that order to his brother Nizam – that dark and cursed soul. I do not care about the Hassansin – I would applaud them being destroyed, but what will happen to me?

I do not know how old I am. I do not know for how long I have dwelled here. I do not know how I came to be here, but I do know why I am a prisoner here. My ability to foretell the future while under the influence of their drugs makes me useful, even precious to them.

Is it not ironic that, although I can tell the future, I know so little about myself? Will I die in this dark pit or will I live to see the light of day again?

"Arash!"

I do not bother to lift my head, as I have already recognized his voice. It is Hassan, my tormentor. He only visits when he is need of information. I wish they would stop feeding me these sedatives for if I ever want to escape from this place, I will need a clear mind. Now that Hassan is here, he will slip me more of those drugs and I will lose control over my mind again. I hate feeling helpless… I hate the fact that they have such control over me.

"Arash! Pay attention… Work awaits!"

Hassan squats in front of me and I smell his pet upon him. I hate snakes, especially his favorite. She stinks of evil, like he does. I raise my head slowly, look up, but avoid making eye contact. The malevolence that shines from their pale blue depths would cause me to feel nauseous and I do not want to appear weak in front of him. "What do you want?" I speak slowly, stressing each word. It is important to me to maintain my facade.

"I want you to find someone for me…" Hassan reaches deep within the folds of his robes and removes a small bundle of herbs. He sets fire to it, and places it into the container standing in front of me. "The dark smoke will take you to him…You know him…His name is Sharaman…and he dares to call himself King… Right now, he should be in conference with his family – his brother and sons… Let your mind fly… Seek them out… Hear their words and convey them to me… Do my bidding, Arash… I am master here… Do not fight me, or your punishment will be severe and painful."

He does not need to remind me. I experienced his methods of discipline before and I am not eager for endure a repeat performance. My body still carries the scars from all the prior times that he punished me. There were times when I had done nothing wrong, but he still delighted in torturing me.

My fingers dig into the earth beneath me. I need to ground myself while my mind soars into another dimension – one where time is nothing but grains of sand, slowly falling through an hourglass. It does not take me long to find the right moment and place in time and I become a silent and invisible witness to their meeting.

"Did you find them?"

Hassan sounds impatient and it urges me to placate him. "I did…"

"Tell me – who are present?"

"The King…" Old king Sharaman sits at a golden desk and looks at several papers, which are spread in front of him. "He is not alone… His brother is with him."

"Nizam said that he would attend the meeting," Hassan confirms, as he caresses his favorite snake, which lashes out with her tongue each time he touches her. "Who else is present?"

"Young men… Two of them." I reach deeper and find their names engraved on their souls. "Prince Dastan… He stands to the King's right… and Prince Garsiv… They listen closely to the King's words."

"What are they discussing? Be as precise as you can."

Apparently this is a matter of great importance to Hassan and I should keep him appeased by feeding him each bit of information that I can find. I listen more closely and involuntarily flinch. "They are discussing plans to annihilate the Hassansin!" Hassan remains in control of his emotions and keeps calm. I expected him to lash out instead.

"How do they plan to achieve this?"

I listen in on their conversation again. "The King has maps… Maps, which show our hideaways. He will send his soldiers to wipe us out. They will burn down our shelters and kill us… There will be no mercy…" Hearing this fills me with dread, as I will die along with the rest, but another part rejoices as my imprisonment will end – one way or another. Either by death or by gaining freedom.

"To whom does he entrust command? Who comes after us?"

I grow tired due to the heavy fumes that surround me. Hassan lighted too much of the incense, and although it helps me travel through time and space, it also weakens me. At times, I feel it eat away at my very soul and I wonder how much longer I will remain sane. The day will come that it will darken my thoughts to such a degree that I won't find my way back… I will be lost forever then – lost in my mind…

"To whom does he entrust command? Who comes after us? Focus, Arash or feel my wrath!"

Hassan's threat makes me concentrate again. "To someone called Tus…" Right then, another man enters the throne room. I can't see his face, as he wears a helmet. "His oldest son – his firstborn…"

"Tus… That is unfortunate," Hassan comments. "It should have been Nizam."

Although I hear the comment, I do not react to it. I can't… I can't divert my gaze away from Tus… He possesses the kindest eyes I ever saw. They are as blue as the sky, which I haven't seen for so long. They make me yearn to look at that sky again, but as I can't, I feast upon those eyes instead. He has a kind and open face, but I see hesitance and insecurity in his gaze. This is an extraordinary man. His heart rules him, and by allowing that, comes strength, but also weakness. My mind reaches out without me willing it and tries to connect with him. I never believed the old tale that said that some souls are connected through time and that they will find each other, regardless of the obstacles. For one second, Tus raises his head and scans his surroundings. I quickly retreat from the situation. He can't have sensed my presence! That is impossible.

"You did well," Hassan comments in that drawling voice of his. "You may rest now. I will seek you out when I need more information." His pet snake disappears into his sleeve again and he rises from the ground.

I listen closely, and once I am convinced that he has left the room, I give in to my fatigue. I can't support myself any longer and collapse. I fall to the right and simply lie there, as I try to pull my mind together. I can't allow my soul to fall apart. With my last remaining strength, my foot lashes out at the container that holds the incense and I manage to kick it to the side. Now that the fire below it no longer fuels it, the fumes grow less and I can breathe more easily.

Too close – I came too close to losing myself. My mind was about to crumble and my soul was drawn to Tus – the Prince with the sky clad eyes. Oh, to look upon the blue heavens just once more – or to look into those eyes… for real… for one time… I would die in peace after that. But chances are that I will die without ever seeing them – the sky or those eyes… I don't know how much more I can take and with no hope to sustain me, darkness surrounds me and pulls me in.

"Brother! I do not envy you! Father gave you a dangerous task!" Garsiv moves forward and laughs warmly.

I give him an indulging smile. I love my entire family, but my two brothers are dearest to me. I love Garsiv and Dastan and I would die for them, should such a sacrifice be necessary. We never had carefree times. There was always a fight to win, a battle to fight, or a war to survive, but we always covered our backs and so far, the three of us managed to survive. "I agree, it is not a small task, but one that I will manage. I will make our father proud!" Maybe it is my biggest mistake that I always want to please people and my father especially. It is a weakness, but one I can't seem to rid myself of.

"Tell me, should you need help," Dastan offers. "I do not want to see you dead because no one covered your back, brother!"

Dastan pulls me into a hug and holds me close. I smile and wonder about him. He isn't of royal blood, but in many ways, he is the better man. Sometimes I even feel jealous of him. Dastan is everything I want to be. He is decisive and doesn't hesitate. He speaks his mind and is quick to make new friends. In many ways, I am his opposite. "Dastan, thank you for your kind offer… But do you realize the dangers you would face? The Hassansin are lethal. This is no game… They will kill you."

"They have to get to me first, brother!" Dastan exclaims. "And I have no intention of letting them get close to me!" A smile spreads across his face. "Does this mean that you accept my offer? Will you let me tag along?"

"I should not do this… Encourage you, let alone accept your offer. Father would have my hide if you would die while helping me. I can't let you do this, Dastan." I want him at my side though, but I am too much of a coward to admit to it. I am sacred, deep down. I have seen the Hassansin in action and I know what they can do. If I let my guard down for only one second in battle I will be dead, and I don't want to drag Dastan along with me. "Stay and look after father." Dastan however doesn't agree and wags a finger at me. So I try to talk some sense into him again. "Dastan, you must understand…"

"And you must understand that I won't let you go after them on your own. Someone needs to watch your back."

"I could watch his back," Garsiv comments.

Garsiv's expression tells me that he feels left out. "Brother, father would never allow it and you know it. At least one of us needs to stay with him… If I am killed, you are next in line for the throne."

Dastan casts a triumphant look at Garsiv. "Thankfully I am not of the royal bloodline so father will permit me to accompany Tus…"

I always admired Dastan for accepting his origins. I can't remember a single time where he envied Garsiv or me for being royalty. Maybe he is happy, even relieved, that he won't be called upon to rule one day. "Dastan, I wish you would reconsider."

"You want me to tag along, Tus," Dastan states in that smug way of his. "And I am eager to accompany you, so let us stop playing games and concentrate on a game plan instead. We can't simply attack them. We need a cunning plan!"

A tormented sigh escapes me involuntarily. "Let me guess – You have a plan?"

"Maybe," Dastan replies and chuckles, "But before we discuss strategy, let us have a drink. The mere thought of facing those wretched souls fills me with disgust… I need a drink first!"

I smile at Dastan again. I know what he is doing and why he is doing it. The ever so alert Dastan picked up on my nervousness and tries to distract me. "We will have one," I state decisively.

"Only one," Dastan replies in a mocking tone, which tells me that he has no intention of sticking to one drink. "Come on, Garsiv, do not be glum!" Dastan links his arm with Garsiv's, and as he still has a hold on mine, pulls both of us toward the doorway.

I smile silently, relieved and glad to have my brother's support. I will need his strength and stealth if I am to end this mission successfully.

"Dastan, maybe you should stop drinking now. We will leave first thing in the morning and you need to be sharp when we venture into their layer." Why must I always be the voice of reason? Why can't I let go like my brothers do? Garsiv is drunk and playing the dice in the hope to make a profit. It does not matter to him that we are Princes and rich. He likes that small thrill and so I let him. I rather have him betting and being drunk than plunging himself from rooftops like Dastan does. My heart misses a beat each time Dastan does something like that.

Dastan gives me a remarkably alert look and I suspect that he might not be as drunk as I thought. He is a good actor that one, and he managed to mislead me more than once.

"You are probably right, dear brother," Dastan says and pushes his drink away from him. "It is time to talk strategy. Do you have a plan?"

Dastan did it again – he confuses me. I was convinced he was drunk and now it turns out that he is remarkably sober. "The latest intelligence that I received tells of a lair in Sagartia… The Hassansin took possession of a part of the city. They hold their rites in public and no one dares to intervene. I suggest we start there."

"And their leader, Hassan, do we know where we can find him?" Dastan asks.

Again he surprises me. I was under the impression that I alone possessed this information. Dastan must have his own set of spies – something he never revealed to me. "I believe we might find him there…" Interpreting his look, I add, "We can't be sure. Apparently the Hassansin have an oracle that foretells the future. If this is true, the oracle probably warned Hassan that he is in danger. He might have left the city."

"Oracle, brother? Why do I know nothing of this?" Dastan reaches out to steady Garsiv, who crumbles next to him. Dastan smiles in amusement and says, "Garsiv should know by now that he has a hard time holding his liquor!" Dastan eases Garsiv's head against the wall, and once he is sure that our brother rests comfortably, directs his attention to me once more. "What oracle?"

I lean in closer so only Dastan can hear me. I do not want this formation to fall into the wrong hands. "It is nothing but a rumor, but one I take serious, for if it is true, it will complicate our search for Hassan."

"Go on, you have my attention, brother."

Dastan seems eager to learn more – I am not surprised. Dastan thrives on action and adventure, whilst I prefer peace and calm. "We caught a Hassansin two months ago and interrogated him. We did not expect for him to crack, but he did. He told us that Hassan has help. Apparently an oracle of some sort tells him what he needs to know. This oracle goes into trance and when he comes out of it, he knows certain things. That is why Hassan is always one step ahead of us."

Dastan nods. "In that case we need to incapacitate this oracle first. He should be our priority. Do we know where to find him?"

"In Sagartia," I tell him. "That is why I want to head there first."

"Makes sense," Dastan comments. "I never liked the Hassansin," he admits. "They are plain evil."

I laugh at him. "You, brother, simply do not like snakes! And the Hassansin love them!" I am merely joking though – I know that the Hassansin are pure evil. Their black sorcery affects their surroundings, corrupts people, and ruins life wherever they go. I agree with father that they need to be eradicated and I plan on killing each and every one of them. Dastan returns the smile and nods. "We will show them no mercy, Dastan. When we go in there, we will kill them all."

Dastan nods again, but more earnestly this time. "I agree, brother, these vile creatures need to be taken out. We can't allow them to prosper."

My gaze drifts from Dastan to Garsiv. "We should take him to his bed where he can sleep off his rush."

Dastan gets to his feet and hauls Garsiv to his. "I have got him," Dastan says as he pulls Garsiv along. "It is a good thing that we will not take him along. I love him dearly, but he is not as good with a sword as he thinks he is."

I hate admitting it, but Dastan is right. Garsiv is a capable warrior, but I doubt he would manage to stand his ground when fighting the Hassansin. "Someone should stay behind in case they kill us." Dastan understands my reasoning.

"The Gods help us should Garsiv ever become king," Dastan jokes. "He would turn the kingdom into one big tavern!"

I chuckle along with him. Dastan might be right about that. No matter what, I feel better knowing it will be just the two of us going in after the Hassansin. Garsiv is needed at home – at our father's side.

I mount my horse and steer him away from the stables. Dastan is in the process of climbing onto his mare's back and I can tell, even from this distance, that he is a bit unsteady. "Short night?" I remark once I am close enough for him to hear.

"Don't remind me!" Dastan settles in the saddle and sighs. "Garsiv threw up all night and guess who cleaned up after him?" Dastan cocks his head to the side. "Well?"

Ah, he is in of those moods this morning. I had best indulge him. "You, by any chance?"

"Yes! And I am fed up! He is my older brother. He should look after me instead!"

Dastan steers his mare toward the road and my stallion falls into pace with her. Twenty of our best soldiers line up behind us and follow us. I considered taking along more soldiers, but in the end, I decided to pick the very best and settled on a smaller number. Maybe we can work more effectively that way. "You like looking after him," I tell him eventually. "And don't forget the times he did the same thing for you."

"You are right, of course."

Dastan gives me another one of his charming smiles, but I'm not impressed. "I am always right."

"Of course, you are, Tus… Always, brother…"

I hear the teasing tone, but let it slide. I am not interested in carrying on this verbal banter. I have different things on my mind. "My spy reported to me last night. Hassan is in Sagartia and so is that oracle. We should be able to kill both if we act swiftly and cunningly."

Dastan shivers momentarily. "I really hate those snakes…"

"Take their heads off should you encounter any," I advise, and Dastan chuckles loudly.

"I am so glad you are my brother, Tus. I do not say it often enough, but I love you."

Dastan's admission brings a smile to my face. Out of the three of us, he finds it easiest to express his feelings. I always need a little push to open up to someone. "I love you too, brother."

"Then let us do this! Let us ride in there and end their reign of terror!"

I hope it will be as easy as Dastan makes it sound. I worry though – the Hassansin are killers… Their reputation is well-deserved. Should they get the chance to kill us, they will, and then I might not be able to protect my brother.

That night, we rest without the warmth a fire would offer us. I can't take the risk of the Hassansin sighting us just yet. We need to be as stealthy as they are. Dastan lies close to me. He is on his right side and I feel his eyes upon me. I turn onto my side as well and return his gaze. "You are worried." The years we spent together taught me how to read his moods.

"They are killers, brother. I do not worry about my own safety, but about yours. You are to succeed father should something happen to him. I wonder why he sent you on this mission. He knows how dangerous this is."

"Maybe it is a test," I tell him, confiding in Dastan. "Maybe he wants to make sure that I am worthy to succeed him." Dastan's hand moves into my direction and he wraps his fingers around my wrist. My expression softens, and for one moment, I forget my worries. Dastan possesses a quality that makes you feel at peace – one wants to trust him and lay one's worries into his hands.

"Tus, you doubt yourself too much." Dastan's fingers squeeze my hand and he smiles warmly. "Everyone makes mistakes – even me! - but the trick is to learn from them and not to make them again! Do not hold each mistake you made against yourself. You will make a great King one day. I believe in you… You need to do the same thing!"

"Such a passionate speech," I say, only half jokingly. I know he got to the heart of the matter with his statements. I do not believe in myself. I do not think I will make a good King. I will do my best, should that day come, and I will hide my fears and insecurities, but deep down, they shape me. "You would make a great King, Dastan… Maybe you –" But Dastan pulls at my hand and cuts me short.

"Do not say that! Or even think it! Tus, I have faith in you… I want you as my King one day… I have no desire to take that place in the future – it is my worst nightmare! I am a free spirit and you want to tie me down to the throne? Never! I need you to be King and I know that you will make a great King!"

I close my eyes and his words accompany me into sleep. Dastan squeezes my hand again and I return the gesture. Dastan believes in me, he made that clear, and I wish I shared that belief… But I don't… I can't…

That night, my sleep is restless and I move about, trying to settle down into a comfortable dream, but for some reason, I only dream of darkness. The dark, moist earth beneath my fingertips rubs against my skin and I bury my nails into the earth. Something strikes me as odd and out of place, but I don't know what vexes me. Maybe the earth is too moist…maybe the darkness too consuming. Whatever it is, in the end, I force myself to wake up and open my eyes.

Terror grips me the moment I open my eyes. I expect to find the star-lit sky above me and to feel the silver moonbeams on my skin, but that doesn't happen. Instead the shadows remain and it feels like the dark has intensified. It is hard to see anything.

"Get a grip," I admonish myself and force myself to calm down. Maybe I am stuck in a nightmare within a dream. It has happened before. I close my eyes again, draw in a series of deep breaths, and only then open my eyes again. Damn, the darkness still surrounds me. What is wrong?

Now that I seem stuck in this nightmare, I had better find out why it refuses to go away. I scan my immediate surroundings and discover that I am in a cave of some sort. Walls of stone enfold me and the only source of light is a small fire to my right. It is tiny though and lacks the power to illuminate the cave.

I direct my stare beneath me and find that the moist earth still clings to my fingers. My fingers… Those are not my fingers though… I do not wear my nails that long and they lack the rings I normally wear. These are not my hands! I raise one of them at stare at it in wonder. What is happening to me?

My curiosity grows and I examine the clothes I wear. Black robes, torn and soiled with earth. I find blood as well, dried and fresh. I blink in surprise as I try to move so I can have a better look at my clothing. I can't seem to move my right foot. Bending from the hip, I want to find out what is hampering me, and I am stunned to find the shackle around my foot. Following the direction of the chain, I find that it is connected to a metal ring, wrought into the stone wall. There is no way I can escape this place shackled like this.

Realizing I hit a dead end, I raise the alien hands and touch a strange face. The first thing I notice is the long hair that dances through my fingers. It is long and pitch black, badly snarled and basically a mess. Still wondering what is happening to me – and why – my attention shifts to the door, which opens. A figure, clad in midnight-blue robes enters and sits in front of me.

"You are awake – good…"

The voice sends shivers down my spine as it awakes memories. I have heard it before, but when and where? To whom does it belong?

"Focus! Arash!"

Arash? I don't know that name – have never heard it before… Suddenly something stirs inside me. It is hard to explain, but it is like there is another person, a stranger, trying to push me out of the body I am in. I feel, something, someone… There is surprise, curiosity, and then, shock.

"No!"

The word practically catapults me out of my dream and into reality. The next moment I find myself sitting upright on a blanket, with Dastan rushing to my site. He looks worried and I do not blame him. I must have given him a fright, screaming like that.

"Tus, what is happening?" Dastan looks about like he expects an attack to hit us every second, but then he directs his gaze back to me. "We are the only ones out here… Did you have a bad dream?" Dastan sits down next to me and his hand sneaks into mine again. "You used to have them as child, but…"

"Yes, it has been a long time since I last suffered from one…" Sitting upright, I move closer to him and pull his hand into my lap. "But I can't recall ever having a nightmare like this before… It was odd… I was trapped inside a cave, shackled to the wall and it was dark in there… Then the door opened and someone entered. I did not recognize his voice at first, but I remember now… It was Hassan's…" Dastan gives me a stunned look and I nod understandingly. "Trust me, I do not know either why I should dream something like that."

"Maybe Hassan found a way to reach you in your dreams and attempted to manipulate you?" Dastan offers. "Maybe he wants to frighten you so you order our retreat?"

I shake my head. "It did not feel like he knew I was there… He called me Arash – not Tus… It felt like I was in someone else's body… That body was not mine… The hands were not and neither was my hair… It was long and black." I try to make sense of something that does not make sense at all. "I do not know what happened, Dastan, but my mind traveled to a different place."

Dastan appears thoughtful and then nods his head. "Maybe it has something to do with that oracle you mentioned earlier. What do you think? You said that his mind could travel through space and time… Maybe Hassan ordered him to confuse you?"

Again, I shake my head. "I do not believe that… Towards the end, I felt this other person wake up. I sensed surprise and curiosity at first, and then horror that I was present as well. He cast me out as quickly as he could."

A sigh leaves Dastan's lips. "That leaves us with only one option: we need to find Hassan and learn what happened to you."

I nod in accordance. "You are right, brother. I want to get my hands on him too and ask him just that. And I want to find this person imprisoned in that cave." I want to find out who he is and why the Hassansin – the most lethal killers on earth – find it necessary to keep him locked up and shackled.

TBC

Part 2

My hands tremble and desperately, I try to hide that fact from Hassan. He can't know what happened just now. I am at a loss to explain it myself. How could Tus enter my mind? The last thing I remember is falling asleep and dreaming of his blue eyes, but that was just a dream and nothing else. Although I can reach out to him, it should be impossible for him to reach out to me – or at least, I thought so. Somehow Tus' mind traveled into mine and anchored himself to my soul – long enough for him to grow aware of what was happening. I fear to think of what might have happened if I had not woken in time. Hassan might have found out and that would have sealed my fate. Hassan would have killed me – instantly.

"Arash, I asked you a question… You had better answer it."

Hassan's vile voice pulls me back into the present and I recoil upon seeing his pet snake sway in front of my face. Her tongue lashes out and I know it is only a matter of time before she will spit her venom at me. I raise my arm to protect my face, and when she does spit, the venom eats into the fabric of my sleeve, which is thin, and eventually the poison burns my skin.

"What happened, Arash? You do not act like yourself… Do I need to worry?"

"No! I was still in a trance when you entered… I was lost in time and space!" Hopefully he believes me and I fooled him. If he finds out I am lying I am in trouble and I doubt I can protect Tus the way I want to should that happen.

"Then fall into a trance again. My spies have lost track of Tus 'party and I need to know where to find them. Tonight, I will slit Tus' throat – personally. Now tell me, where are they?"

His pet snake disappears into Hassan's robes and I lower my arm. The skin burns, but I blend it out. I have more important things to worry about – misleading Hassan for example. Tus' party made camp to the north of the city, but I won't tell Hassan that. I will do my best to stop him from killing Tus – I won't allow it. "They made camp to the south of the city, but you must be quick. It won't be long until they move and then you will be too late." Sooner or later I will pay the price for betraying Hassan, but I do not care at the present. Keeping Tus alive and safe is my sole priority.

"Good," Hassan says, drawing out the word. "I will kill him tonight…" Hassan rises from the earth and leaves the cave, taking that accursed snake with him.

Now that he is gone, I have time to recover from Tus' unexpected visit. This was the first time ever that someone reached out to me in such a way. Why did he do it? And how did he manage to slip into my mind? Can it be that my defenses were down during my sleep and that he slipped past me that way? Even more importantly, how do I keep him out in the future? I can't stay awake forever.

But maybe I don't need to stay awake forever – Tus plans on killing each Hassansin he can find. That will most likely include me as well. I am no Hassansin, but as I act as their spy, I am dangerous and he will take me out.

Curling onto my side, I wrap my arms around me. Do I mind dying? I know that this world is only a shadow of the world which lies ahead. Death is a transit, a gate, which we must cross, but I had hoped to postpone that journey… But is that the truth? In the past I often yearned for that release. I would have helped myself had I been given an opportunity, but shackled as I am, my space is limited and Hassan always makes sure there are no objects about which I could use to hurt myself with.

Death is not a bad thing – I will move on to the next world and I will be happier there, but… It is hard to admit this, but yes, I would have liked to see the sky just once more. I close my eyes and call upon my memory, but it fails me. I simply can't remember what the sky looks like. I pray to the Gods that it won't be Tus who will kill me. Although I would love to look upon his face, and those eyes, just once, I do not want to see the disgust when he ends my life. Let it be Dastan, or someone else who takes my life.

Fatigue sneaks up on me and involuntarily I close my eyes. "No, I can't sleep," I tell myself and force myself to stay awake. "I can't sleep… I can't run the risk of Tus finding me in my sleep." But for how long can I fight off sleep? But maybe, just maybe, it was an incident and it won't happen again.

Yes, that is it. It won't happen again… It won't… I can sleep now… Sleep and forget, and maybe, if I am fortunate, they won't bother to wake me and kill me in my sleep – that would be perfect.

"You seem distracted, brother."

I draw in a deep and steadying breath and look at Dastan. "You are right. I can't seem to concentrate, which is a bad thing in our current situation." We are closing in on Sagartia and heading for that part of the city where the Hassansin have their lair. "I can't stop thinking about that nightmare though. It felt so real." It still feels real and that worries me.

"Tell me more," Dastan says invitingly. "You always have a listening ear with me, brother."

"It started a moment ago… Something changed… I do not feel alone any more, brother. This presence, which I felt last night, is back."

"Does it hamper you? Is it hurting you?"

Dastan seems worried and I wish I could sweep his worries away, but I can't. "No, it does not interfere with my emotions or actions. It is merely present… I feel it in my mind… Oh Dastan, I do not know how to explain this impossibility to you!"

"The Hassansin's black sorcery is at work here… They are working their magic on you… Brother, do you feel fit to lead the attack or do you think it will stop you from attacking them?"

"I am fit to lead, Dastan… As I said, it does not hamper me…" I feel at a loss – how do I explain this to my brother? "It does not influence or affect me in that way…"

"Please tell me the moment it does, for we can't afford to enter this battle in a weakened state," Dastan says. "They won't think twice about killing us… Come to think of it, do you not find it odd that we have not sighted a single Hassansin yet?"

Dastan is right about that. "I do find it odd, brother, but remember, they are masters at disguise and blending in with their surroundings. They would not show themselves to us until the moment of the attack itself."

"You are right," Dastan admits. "They could be all around us and we would not know." He looks about and his eyes narrow. "But for some reason I do not think they know our whereabouts. I feel safe."

"So do I… I should not feel safe – not with this strange presence in my mind - but I do." I tell my stallion to stop as we have reached the outskirts of the city. "We can forget about sneaking in there. It is wide open terrain."

Dastan nods. "We need to cover thirty meters before we can use those houses as cover. Maybe I should go in first and make sure it is safe to continue?"

"No, I will not send you in alone." I quickly raise a hand in order to silence him as he wants to protest my decision. "I know you are capable of keeping yourself safe, brother, but sending you in alone would not aid our mission."

"What do you propose? Riding in plain sight? That is madness too."

I consider Dastan's words carefully. Follow your instincts, always listen to your heart and do not go against your judgment – those are the three lessons our father drilled into me. "We will circle the city and see if we find a better spot." Dastan seems to agree, as he nods. "Patience," I caution him. "You will get your fight eventually." Dastan raises his hand and rests it on my shoulder. "You will get your fight," I repeat, "And I will do my best to keep our men safe. I want to keep our losses to a minimum." The expression in Dastan's eyes tells me that he understands and agrees.

"I find it odd that we did not encounter any problems so far," Dastan remarks. "We managed to take out three guards without losses because the element of surprise was on our side. How can they not know that we are here?"

That question crossed my mind as well, and I feel like I should know the answer. Somewhere, deep in my mind, hidden in the shadows of those foreign thoughts, lies the answer. "We had better not question our good luck or it might end." I consider our next move. "How many Hassansin did you count inside their stronghold?" Dastan had scouted ahead earlier to supply us with information.

"I counted ten, brother… We outnumber them and should be able to take them out."

Dastan is right. We won't get another chance like this anytime soon. "Listen to me, Dastan. We will attack, take out as many as we can, and swipe the place. Maybe we will find information about other strongholds. Before we leave, we will burn the place to the ground."

"I agree, brother. We should be quick and leave as little as possible intact."

Now that we have decided on a course of action, I turn to instruct our men. They are nervous – they knew the Hassansin's reputation is well-deserved, but they will fight bravely and not give an inch.

"Brother?"

Dastan sounds oddly hesitant and I search his eyes. "What troubles you, Dastan?"

"That presence in your mind… Is it still there?"

"Yes, Dastan, it is."

"It knows about our plans now… What if it is the enemy?"

Dastan raised a valid point and I can't sweep his observation aside just like that, but still… "It feels friendly, Dastan… I do not think it wants to harm us… It also feels asleep… Like it is dreaming… At times a sea of blue surrounds me… It is almost like I am steering a ship through the heavens."

"It does not sound evil," Dastan agrees, "but can you trust it?"

Oddly enough I do not need to consider my answer. "I trust it…"

"In that case, let us charge, brother… Let us send these devils back to the hell they came from!"

"Brother, behind you!"

Dastan's warning reaches me just in time. I swirl around and decapitate the Hassansin who sneaked up on me. I give Dastan a smile that speaks of gratitude and focus on the battle, but I find that hard, if not so impossible. Something tugs at my thoughts and keeps from concentrating. I need to take charge – I need to do something! I can't lead our men like this! "Dastan!" I fight my way over to him and we end up back to back. "We need to talk!"

"In case you had not noticed, brother, this is not the best time to talk!" With one flowing motion of his sword, Dastan takes down two Hassansin simultaneously. "I am rather busy!"

"Dastan, listen, I can't concentrate on this fight! This presence has grown stronger: it feels like it is waking up. I can't lead our men like this! You are in command from this moment on." Dastan takes out another Hassansin and manages to turn around so we can lock eyes.

"Brother, thank you for telling me. I will not disappoint you."

"I know you won't…Dastan, I do not know why, but I have the feeling my path lies elsewhere… I need to do something, but I do not know what it is – not yet… Let me do this and lead our men!"

Dastan nods. "I will do this for you. Stay close, brother, so I can keep an eye on you. As I said before, I do not want to lose you because your back is not covered."

I nod, but I do not intend to do as Dastan says. I am not sure yet where my destiny will lead me, but I do know that I am here for a reason. The alien presence stirs, comes fully alive, and instantly I feel the pull – it pulls me towards and down the stairs and I comply.

"Tus, no! Where are you going? Stay here!"

"Sorry, Dastan, but I need to do this…" I merely whisper the words, and although Dastan can't hear them, I am certain he heard them in his heart. I take out one Hassansin that throws himself on me from the dark of the passage-way and continue my way. No one will stop me from reaching my goal. This is part of my destiny – this is part of the reason why I was born.

"You betrayed me…." The snake-like whisper slices through my head and I turn around, startled, to take out the assassin that must stand behind me, for the words were whispered into my ear. But when I turn I find only air. I am alone.

"You betrayed me, Arash… You sent me the wrong way… You will pay for betraying me."

Again, the voice, and yet, I am alone. I follow this pull and descend another flight of stairs. I am deep beneath the earth now, ten, maybe twenty meters below the surface and it is dark here. My eyes need a moment to adjust to my new surroundings, but once they do, I see another stairway, one, which leads to a heavy door. The voice, which I heard in my mind a moment ago, now echoes from behind that door, which is, as I see now, ajar. Raising my sword and readying myself for battle, I sneak closer. I am careful not to make any sounds, and once I have reached the door, I press my back against the wall behind me. Cocking my head I manage to cast a look inside. The sight that greets me should stun me, but it doesn't. Somehow I knew all along that I was headed for the cave, which I saw in my dreams.

Cowered on the floor, with his foot trapped inside the shackle, is the mysterious stranger, whose presence I feel in my mind. His face is hidden in the shadows of his hood and the long, black hair escapes from beneath the fabric. My soul reaches out in recognition and in something which I can only call eager anticipation. The pull is at its strongest now and I can barely stop myself from storming inside and freeing Arash. But the sight of a second shadow, hanging over him, cautions me, and tells me to be careful.

"You betrayed me, Arash, and you know what punishment follows such a crime."

I know that voice—I heard it before. I heard in my dream last night and I heard it many nights ago when my father introduced me to Hassan, the leader of the Hassansin. Inside that cave is the deadliest enemy of them all. No one ever fought Hassan and lived. If I want to survive and free Arash then I need to be cunning.

"They are here, Hassan… You can threaten me all you like, but you have lost. They will kill you… Your only chance at survival is leaving now!"

Had it not been for the connection that binds our minds, I would have thought Arash worried about Hassan's well-being, but he is merely trying to save his own life. The longer Hassan is in that cave, the bigger the chance Arash will end up dead. I do not stop to consider my actions and step away from the shadows and into the cave. "He is right… You waited too long, Hassan… I will kill you now… And should I fail, then Dastan will." Hassan's pale blue eyes focus on me and they burn with venom. One of his snakes has wrapped itself around his wrist and hisses angrily.

"You are dead, Arash…but you do not know it yet. Rest assured that death will come silently and when you least expect it."

My heart misses a beat when he throws that damn snake at Arash, who can't move aside. I only have one second to make up my mind: do I defend Arash or kill Hassan? Hassan's ugly laughter drifts on the suffocating air and pulls me back to my senses. I charge forward, and just before the snake can reach Arash, I behead it. The ugly head, with its beak wide open and fangs showing, flies through the air, and comes to a stop at my feet. The snake's body twitches and slithers toward Arash, as if to finish the job. I walk toward the snake and kick it into a corner. One look tells me that Hassan is gone. He probably used a secret passage to leave the cave, and although I regret the fact that he got away, I am happy that I saved a life. I feel shaky as I kneel next to the crumbled form. Arash's fingers claw at the soil, and when I concentrate, I feel the moist earth beneath my fingers too. "I dreamt of you," I whisper and raise an arm to reach out to him. "Even now, I feel you in my mind."

Arash lifts his head and a pair of pale blue eyes looks into mine. I flinch at seeing that trademark of the Hassansin on him. Nizam told me it is because of the drugs they use… They affect the eye color. "Arash…" I wish he would say something, no matter what.

"Tus!"

Suddenly Dastan rushes into the cave and lifts his sword. "No!" I raise an arm and tell him to stop in his tracks. "Arash is not the enemy."

"But look at his eyes!" Dastan does not lower his sword and keeps on guard. "You said that there would be no mercy, brother."

"I made a mistake," I admit. "I want him to live, brother. We will not take his life." Dastan finally lowers his sword, but his gaze remains trained on the prisoner and I can tell that he feels suspicious of Arash. I can't blame him. "Hassan was here," I inform him as I examine the shackle which keeps Arash a prisoner. "He wanted to kill Arash and I had to prevent that… Hassan got away in the meantime."

"We won't be able to find him now that he knows we are here," Dastan remarks. "But we will continue the hunt." Dastan squats next to me and gives me a quizzical look. "Tus, what is going on here?"

I shrug. "I do not know the answer to that question either, Dastan, but I do know that Arash poses no threat. We need to help him instead." I shift my gaze from Dastan to Arash and find that he is hiding within his hood again. The black hair acts like a curtain and blocks all contact, but in my mind I feel his wonder. He wonders why I saved his life… How odd to have such a connection to another human being.

"We will free you and take you out of here," I promise, at which Dastan gives me another odd look. "I am serious, Dastan. We need to free him of that shackle so we can take him away from here. This cave has been his prison for too many years." Dastan doesn't question my decision, for which I am grateful.

"I trust your judgment, brother," Dastan says. He walks over to the metal ring to which the chain is anchored and examines it. "We can't force it… It is anchored deeply within the wall."

I reach for Arash's shackled foot and examine the contraption. "Dastan, you used to be good at picking locks." At hearing my words, Dastan smiles brilliantly.

"I am still good at picking locks!" Dastan kneels next to Arash's foot and turns it slightly so he has better access to the lock. "I need something to pick it with," he comments and searches his pockets until he finds the object he needs. "This might take a while though. The lock is rusty and has not been used in a long time."

"We have time," I reassure my brother. "Just make sure you are careful." Now that Dastan is working on the lock, I focus on Arash again. I want to see his face, but do not wish to force him into revealing it to me. Instead, I inch closer and watch him closely. "I know you… I know you from within my dreams… Last night, I dreamt I was inside this cave and that I was you." Arash turns away from me, but his space is limited due to the fact that Dastan is working on the shackle. "Do not fear me. I mean well."

"I didn't mean for it…to happen… It was an accident."

Yes, I know that voice. I heard it in the depths of my mind and it resonates in my heart. "Accidents do not exist; at least that is what my father always says. He thinks that all events are linked to our destiny and for some reason you are part of mine."

"Damn that lock! A curse on it!"

"Dastan!" I quickly look at my brother to find out what is happening.

"It refuses to open…" Dastan doesn't sound like he plans on giving up, and I would have been surprised, had he let that lock win. "But it is only a matter of time, brother. It will open!"

"Hassan has the key…"

Arash's soft voice echoes through the cave and hearing it makes me focus on him. "Hassan tried to kill you just now." Dastan looks up and gives me a curios look. I had hoped to draw a reaction from Arash instead. "Hassan threw his pet snake at Arash so it would kill him. You can find its head over there."

Dastan's gaze settles on the snake's head and he spits at it. "I hate snakes…"

"I didn't expect you to save me," Arash whispers softly.

I would do anything to be able to look at his face. I know what his hair feels like as it glided through my fingers that night, but I still do not know what Arash looks like. I have so many questions, and yet, I know that this is not the time to ask them. Hopefully I will get my chance later. "I will never stand by idly when murder is committed."

Suddenly, Dastan releases a triumphant yelp. The next thing we hear is metal falling to the ground and I feel proud of my brother that he managed to best the damn lock. "Well done, brother."

"It has been a long time since any lock presented a challenge to me," Dastan quips. "But in the end, it had to yield."

"You are free now… Arash, can you get to your feet?" I wonder about the gentle tone to my voice, the tenderness which I feel for him, and which shows in my touch when I reach for him. "Or do you need help?"

"I don't know…"

Arash sounds weak and that worries me. "Dastan, make camp at a safe distance from their lair and make sure our men know that I am bringing a friend. Go now, I will follow shortly." I need a moment alone with Arash and I would be surprised if Dastan didn't understand.

"I will make sure everything is ready when you join us. Be careful, brother… After all, this is a Hassansin lair." Dastan gives me a look that begs me to be careful around Arash and I nod. I do not hold it against him that he is suspicious of Arash – he doesn't know him the way I do. Dastan leaves the cave and I draw in a deep breath. I am finally alone with Arash.

"Arash… I have a thousand questions for you, but I will be patient instead. But there is one thing, just one thing that I want you to do for me." Shivers travel through the body in front of me, and in my mind, a myriad of emotions run through my thoughts—confusing me.

"What do you want from me?"

He sounds cautious – almost like he expects the worst, but how can he? Does he not live inside my thoughts the way I live in his? "I want to look upon your face."

"Why?"

Arash is hesitant and does not want to comply. I wonder why. "I know your thoughts… I know your voice and somehow I have known you my entire life. I need to know what you look like…" And then I add a word which I seldom use as a Prince. "Please…" Surrender pours from his mind and I sense his consent, but it is not me who should pull down the hood. That is Arash's decision.

"I do not know what you hope to gain by that…" Arash sounds tired and only slowly, does he lift his head.

"You can rest soon, I promise," I tell him. He needs the rest, needs to draw in fresh air, and to feel the sun on his skin. He needs freedom as much as I need him.

His hand trembles when he pulls the hood away from his face and I draw in a deep breath in wonder. The pale blue eyes sit inside an even paler face – a gaunt face with high cheekbones and narrow lips. He is beautiful in an unearthly way. "Thank you." He did not have to do that – he knows that I would not have forced him.

"I have not seen the sun for a long time… Or the sky…"

Yearning sounds in his voice and echoes in my mind. "You will see them again – soon. Arash…this connection that has formed between us, will it remain in place? Or will it go away again? I find it unnerving in one way, but at the same time, I also want it."

"I do not know," Arash replies as he pulls the hood back in place. "I never expected for something like this to happen… I do not know what caused it, or if and when it will go away again. I can merely tell you that I did not do this on purpose."

I sense the truth in his words and offer him my hand. I wonder if he will take it. "Let us leave this prison. You said you wanted to see the sky again… I am offering it to you." Arash raises his head again and stares into my eyes. I see desire there and foremost hope.

"I want to see them all – the sun, the sky, the moon and the stars."

"You will, but in order to do so we need to get to our feet and leave this accursed place." Arash struggles to his feet and I am surprised to find how weak he is. I wrap my arm around him and pull him to his feet. "Are you ill?"

Arash moistens his lips and shakes his head. "The shackle kept me from walking and the darkness is oppressive…"

Being a prisoner weakened him, but it is nothing that can't be fixed. "We need to climb a number of stairs… Can you do that?" If need be, I will carry him.

"I will do it, even if it is the last thing I will ever do!"

His comment makes me smile: it is good to know that his spirit remained unbroken. Slowly, we climb the stairs and we stop more than once so he can catch his breath. I am surprised to find that he is taller than me, not much, just one or two inches. He can't weigh much though as I can easily wrap an arm around his waist.

"Do you need help?"

Looking up the flight of stairs – the last one we need to master – I see Dastan standing there with a worried look on his face. Poor Dastan, I must seem mad to him. "We can manage, but thank you, brother." Next to me, Arash gathers his strength and we ascend the stairs. He is out of breath when we reach the main hall.

Dastan takes up position next to Arash, and at first I wonder why, but then I realize he wants to help. He might not trust Arash, but the fact that I am helping him, makes Dastan want to help too. I doubt Arash will accept his help though.

Arash carefully puts one foot in front of the other and I know that he is afraid he will stumble and make a fool out of himself. I have a good hold on him though. "You are going to see the sun again – and the sky," I tell him in the hope that it will give him new strength. Arash nods and we continue our way. The first sun beams crawl into the hall and suddenly Arash stops in his tracks. He seems to be in pain, but I do not know why.

"My eyes… The light hurts my eyes."

How very stupid of me! I should have thought of that. "Dastan?"

From one of his many hidden pockets, Dastan gathers a piece of cloth and lightly wraps it around Arash's head. He pulls the hood deeper into the face and exchanges a worried look with me. I feel the need to explain this to him and say, "Arash has been a prisoner for years and was always confined to the cave. That is why the light hurts his eyes." Dastan's eyes widen slightly and the distrust that lingered there disappears.

"I asked the men to erect a tent… That way, you will have shelter."

"Thank you, brother…" I feel grateful and smile at Dastan. "It will be a while before Arash's eyes are used to the light again." A sharp pull coming from Arash's mind alerts me that something is wrong and I am ready for him when he faints. "I have him…"

"Tus, what is this all about?"

"I have no idea, Dastan… The only thing I know for sure is that his soul is kindred to mine… The moment I sensed him, I recognized him…" I can't explain the matter to Dastan – it is something one needs to experience first-hand.

TBC

Part 3

The surface beneath me isn't as hard and moist as I have become used to. Moving my fingers about, I encounter soft fabric instead of soil. My memory is hazy and I wonder what happened. I open my eyes, but only partly, and immediately close them again. I am no longer in my prison… I can't believe it… Where am I then?

I peek again and allow myself the time to take in my surroundings. It seems like I am in a tent and I am resting in the corner on a pile of fabric. I blink and try to remember what happened. What is the last thing I remember?

Hassan entered my cell and was furious because he had found out about my betrayal. He said he was going to kill me and his pet snake would carry out the sentence. In my mind, I relive the snake strike at me, but its fangs never buried itself into my skin. Why not? What happened? I release a soft yelp, recalling the way Tus stormed into the cave and beheaded the snake before it could strike. Hassan fled and Tus knelt next to me. He talked to me and his brother Dastan picked the lock. Amazed, I stare at my right foot only to find the hated shackle gone. Closing my eyes, I force myself to remember. What happened next?

Tus asked me to show myself to him and I pulled down my hood. I wonder why he wanted to see my face, but I shouldn't question his request as he saved my life. I owe him. I center myself and remember climbing the stairs towards my freedom. Doing so exhausted me though. For most of my life, I was in a vegetative state, moving as little as possible. Therefore it came as no surprise that I fainted in the end. I hope they do not think me weak because of it.

I move slightly and end up on my right side. A nagging pain burns my arm and I look at it to find out what is wrong. Ah yes, Hassan had his snake spit at me yesterday and the wound has not yet healed. I cover it up by pulling down the sleeve and close my eyes again.

What are Tus' plans for me? For some reason he seems protective of me, and that is something I never expected to happen. I assumed he would feel threatened, having someone invade his mind and taking up residence in it. Instead, he seems to care about me – how very odd.

Now what do I do? Stay here and wait for Tus to return? I could try to escape, but then again, I am not strong enough to pull it off. I would crumble after a few meters. Damn Hassan for never letting me out of that cave! It looks like I am at Tus' mercy. Tus might let me live, but I am not sure what Dastan will do. I recall seeing distrust in his eyes and I wonder if he will try to change Tus' mind.

"Are you awake?"

Dastan's voice takes me aback. I had thought that I was alone in the tent. I open my eyes, search for him, and find him sitting in front of me, cross-legged and with a wondering smile on his lips.

"Ah, you are awake! That is good!"

Dastan's eyes are surprisingly kind and free of evil intent. He does not mean me harm – not at the moment.

"Tus regrets that he can't be here, but he will join us as quickly as he can. They are burning the lair, and as he is in charge, he has to be present."

Dastan carefully searches my eyes and I wonder what he is looking for. I remain quiet and motionless.

"I want to know something… Are you part of the Hassansin? Your eyes are as blue as theirs… But then again, you were shackled to the wall and a prisoner there. Tus says that I can trust you, but I am not sure."

Is he really asking me to reassure him? Did he ever consider that I might lie or manipulate him?

"Arash? That is your name, is it not?"

This time, I give in and nod. "It is."

"Great, now that we established you can speak, you might want to answer my other questions too!"

I moisten my dry lips. "Maybe I should tell you my story with Tus present as well…" My voice sounds horrible and my throat feels awfully raw.

"You sound like you could do with some water, and yes, you might be right about that. We shall wait for Tus to join us and then you will tell us your story."

Dastan rises from the floor and moves into a corner. He picks up a water skin and returns with it. After sitting down again, he hands it to me. I stare at it for some time as I am not certain I should accept the offer. The water might be drugged or Dastan might pull it out of my reach once I move. Dastan remains quiet, but he removes the lid and wraps my fingers around the skin.

"Drink," he says. "We will arrange food for you later. You need to drink first."

I can barely believe my luck and lift the water skin to my lips. Eagerly, I drink, and spill some water in the process. I love the feel of the water in my mouth and the way it moves down my throat.

"In case you are wondering why I am here – Tus asked me to keep an eye on you during his absence. He is very protective of you, which is odd, as he barely knows you. He goes on and on about you being in his mind. Apparently he feels connected to you in some odd way."

Absentmindedly, and without realizing it, I nod. "I can't explain it either… I can't seem to undo this connection… I am sorry… Maybe it will fade in time." Dastan actually seems pleased to hear me speak.

"I am not sure he wants it to go away… It is odd, but Tus seems happy about it."

I blink in surprise. I never expected to hear anything like that. I drink more of the water, but then my stomach releases warning sounds and I stop drinking. I am not used to such large amounts of water. "I expected him to kill me when he found me," I offer. "I did not think he would save my life the way he did." Dastan leans in closer and I fight the impulse to shy away from him.

"You might not realize it, but you have a protector in Tus."

"And what about you?" I want to bite off the tip of my tongue for asking that. I should not question my luck and accept that Dastan does not seem eager to kill me.

"I am not sure yet," Dastan replies without giving it any second thought. "Tus is my brother and I trust him. Normally I also trust his judgment, but you mystify me. Your eyes show that you belong with the Hassansin, but your actions speak differently."

That explanation must do, for Dastan stops talking and merely grins at me. He does not mean me ill – he simply does not know what to make of me. The fabric that covers the entrance moves aside and Tus enters the tent. Involuntarily, I draw in my breath and close my eyes. His presence hits me unprepared and I feel at a loss at how to act.

"Dastan, how fares our guest?" Tus asks.

"He is awake. I asked him whether he was a Hassansin and he told me that he would share his history upon your return."

Dastan does not lose any time to get what he wants. Unexpectedly, fingers move across mine and the touch causes me to open my eyes. Dastan has moved away, and Tus took his place in front of me. It is he, who caresses my fingers and draws my hand closer to him. The expression in his eyes takes my breath away – by the Gods, what did I do? Why did he allow for this connection to form and why can't I break it?

"I would love to hear your history, Arash, but contrary to my brother, I think it can wait. I want you to eat first and then I want to give you the night's sky. If you wish to talk after that, we will."

"Thank you…" What else can I say? From the corner of my eye I monitor Dastan's reaction. I expect him to be annoyed, but instead, he is all smiles.

"I will have food delivered to the tent," Dastan says as he walks toward the entrance. "It won't be anything special, but it will fill your belly."

Now that Dastan has left, I am alone with Tus. I gather my courage and look him in the eyes. That is when I realize that I could happily die without seeing the sky again. I see it in his eyes. "I do not know what to say," I offer truthfully. "I fully expected to die in that cave yesterday."

"I know you did," Tus replies. "But I could not allow it."

"Why?"

Tus hands me the water skin and urges me to drink again. "You sound hoarse… You need the water."

I indulge him and sip. "Why?" I ask, repeating my question.

"You are in my mind and in my soul… If I had let Hassan kill you, a part of me would have died with you."

That sounds poetic – too poetic. "Tus, I was ready to die. You should have killed Hassan instead of saving me." Tus shakes his head and guides the water skin back to my lips. I sip carefully, as I do not want to upset my stomach.

"I disagree… Arash, I want to learn more about you, but only if you are willing to share… Not now," he adds as I try to speak. "Later… We have time…"

Dastan returns carrying a tray and sits down close to Tus. "We were lucky. The people are grateful that we took out the Hassansin and want to thank us… So we told them we needed food and they supplied it in surplus!" He cuts off a slice of meat and munches on it. "You might want to try this instead… It is soup."

Tus grabs hold of the bowl which Dastan raised from the tray and then offers it to me. I wrap my fingers around it and sip slowly. It tastes sweet and spicy at the same time and it refreshes me.

"What is that?" Dastan frowns and points at my arm.

A quick look tells me that the sleeve slipped and reveals the burned skin. "Hassan's pet snake spat at me. It is nothing." Dastan and Tus exchange an odd look and I wonder what it is about.

"Do you carry more injuries?"

I blink at hearing Tus' question. "I do not know…" I really do not. Usually when I am in a trance I do not notice much of the things happening around me – and thanks to Hassan they kept me in a trance almost constantly.

"We will attend to your wounds later… Now eat the rest of your soup."

Tus then turns toward Dastan and they whisper softly – too softly for me to make out their words. I finish the soup and put the bowl aside. My stomach feels full and my eyes are starting to close. I do not want to go back to sleep though and fight it.

"He is asleep again."

That is Tus' voice. I want to tell them that I am still awake, but I am too tired to keep my eyes open.

"Are you sure we can trust him, Tus?"

"We can trust him, brother. Believe me."

That is nice to hear – that Tus knows I can be trusted.

"What are your plans for him, Tus?"

Ah, I want to know that too. Damn fatigue… Why can't I open my eyes? Why does my body want to shut down right now?

"First, we strip him and attend to any injuries we might find… Then, when he wakes, we will take him outside so he can look upon the sky. Dastan, you can't imagine how desperately he wants to see the moon, the stars, and the heavens… I want to give him that."

Thank you, Tus… I will always treasure that gift.

"And then what, brother?"

"Dastan, I want him close. No matter what we do –whether we seek out more of their lairs or return home – I want him at my side. I want to know more about him and I want to see him healed."

Tus… Why are you doing this? You do not know anything about me and yet you want to give me this – you want to return my life to me.

"He is awake," Tus says unexpectedly.

I have been found out then. "I did not do it… on purpose… Too tired… to keep my eyes open…" I whisper, hoping to appease them.

"We do not mind, Arash. But you should sleep now. I will wake you in an hour, when the moon is high in the sky."

I smile happily and press deeper into the pile of fabric beneath me as sleep beings to claim me. Yes, I want to see the moon again…and the stars… and the sky…

"He is asleep now… He did not mean to eavesdrop… But he was too tired to keep his eyes open." Now that Arash is asleep, I sweep his long hair away from his face. "We should make good use of our time and attend to any injuries he might have. I also want him out of those clothes and into clean ones." Dastan places the tray which holds the food to the side and rises from the ground.

"I will fetch water and clean clothes," Dastan says. "Tus…" Dastan reached the entrance and turns around. "Tus, how do you know that you can trust him?"

I look him in the eyes and say, "Our father always urges us to listen to our heart, Dastan. That is exactly what I am doing right now – and my heart tells me to trust Arash and to protect him." I count on Dastan to understand and he does not disappoint me. Dastan nods before leaving the tent.

I turn my attention back to Arash and manage to get him out of his robes. I examine him closely and find countless stripes of burned flesh on his body. It appears that Hassan seldom kept his pet snake under control. Arash is lucky that he was not bitten. I ignore most of the bruises which I find, dismissing them as unimportant, and focus on the burns instead. Dastan returns and places a bucket with water next to me. He brought stripes of cloth as well, which I will use to clean up Arash. " Hassan's pet lashed out at him several times, but I did not find other injuries worth mentioning."

Dastan hands me a wet cloth and I clean and cool the burned skin. "Do we have any salve with us?" Dastan hands me a small container and I smile at him. I should have known he would think of it. I smear the substance onto the burned skin and then put it aside again. " Clean clothes?"

Dastan hands me some blue robes, and working together, Dastan and I manage to put them on Arash. It surprises me that Arash does not wake, as we are moving him about. I seek out Arash' face, which is exposed, and am stunned to find his eyes open. He looks at me in wonder. "I thought you were still asleep."

"Your touch woke me."

"Dastan? I want to take Arash outside…"

Dastan nods. "I will help, should you need assistance."

"Are you ready to see the moon?" I ask my charge and smile at seeing the yearning in those blue eyes. "There is a full moon tonight."

"I want to see the moon," Arash replies as he pushes himself to his feet.

I move forward and wrap an arm around his shoulders as I do not want him to fall. He is still wobbly and I refuse to take any risks. Dastan pulls the fabric that covers the entrance aside and I guide Arash outside. Arash wraps an arm around me in turn and I pull him closer against me. His sense of wonder flows into my mind and I share the sensation with him, seeing everything through his eyes instead of mine.

"It is beautiful."

I lower Arash onto the sand and sit down next to him. Dastan gives me an inquisitive look, and leaves us after I gave him a reassuring nod. Dastan probably knows that I want to be alone with Arash and I am grateful for it. "I never considered the moon beautiful, or the sky, but now that I see them through your eyes, I have gained a whole new understanding of beauty." Arash cocks his head and seeks out my gaze. I return his look and smile at him. "It is odd… I welcome being connected to you, but I do not know why. I have no idea why I do not feel threatened instead. Dastan thinks I should feel threatened."

"I did not create that connection on purpose… I did not even know I could create it. It never happened before."

I grin smugly. "Maybe it is my doing then I… Maybe I have special powers which attract you to me." My grin seems to be infectious as Arash smiles at me in a similar way.

"Are you a sorcerer then?" Arash inquires in a teasing tone.

"Not to my knowledge, but maybe I have hidden powers!" I do not know when it happened, but somehow my fingers ended up curled around his. Arash allows the touch and I wonder if he is even aware of it. His gaze is trained on the moon and he smiles at seeing the stars. "Arash, I hate bringing this up right now, but… Do you think Hassan will come after you?"

Arash wavers before he answers my question. "I can't be sure… He might… Maybe he will think of me as a risk, as I can tell you where to find him. He might think that you will use my powers to your advantage. Will you?"

"I haven't given the matter any thought yet…" I think Arash's question over, and realize I would never force him into something like that. "Should you choose to give me that information out of your own free will I will use it, of course, but I won't force you."

"I thought so…" Arash returns to stare at the moon. "Tus, I need to know… What are your plans for me?"

"I will keep you close – I want you close, and you should remain close to me at any rate. My men know that you are under my protection, but the color of your eyes might make them attack you anyway." I regret scaring Arash in such a way, but he needs to understand his position here.

"You are right… I need to be careful."

"We should go inside again… The night grows cold and I want you safe and warm." I hate taking the moon and the sky away from him, but the shivers that rock his body tell me that he feels cold even though he might not realize it himself.

"I promised I would tell you my history," Arash whispers as he rises from the sand.

"If you feel up to it, you may tell me, otherwise it can wait until tomorrow." Arash gives me another odd look and I add, "Everything I need to know, I know already – in my heart." It is the truth: I know he will tell me everything eventually, but I can do without the details.

"Your lack of curiosity puzzles me," Arash admits as we enter the tent again. "I expected Dastan to be here as he wants to learn about my past as well."

"Dastan trusts my judgment. He knows you present no danger, and although he is curious, he will give you the time you need to open up to us." I lower him onto the improvised bed and cover him with some furs. "You should sleep some more, Arash… I do not know what tomorrow will bring. I await instructions from my father, and once I get them, we might have to take to the road again. In the meantime you should get as much rest as you can."

"I will be ready to leave should the word come…"

Arash's eyes close and I tuck the furs tighter around his form. "Yes, sleep…rest…"

"Tus?"

I turn around at hearing Dastan's voice. I suspect he either lurked in the shadows, or waited outside for Arash and me to stop talking. "Any word yet from our father?"

"Nothing yet. We can stay, if that is what you want. We can study the maps we found when we searched their lair. I suspect they will lead us to other hideaways."

"Studying them would be the best thing to do," I realize. "Dastan, thank for trusting me in this matter." His hand settles on my shoulder and he squeezes lightly.

"You are my brother, Tus…"

Those words say it all and mean the world to me. "We should get some sleep as well, brother." I will stay close to Arash though – he might be right regarding Hassan. The leader of the Hassansin might be set on killing him and I am not taking any chances!

TBC

Part 4

I wake sometime during the night. The fabric in front of the entrance moves in the breeze and reveals the dark night outside. My fingers curl around one of the furs Tus covered me with and I pull them closer to my body. I had forgotten that nights are cold in the real world. There was always a constant temperature in the cave I was imprisoned in.

My gaze sweeps through the tent and I discover Tus, who is asleep as well. He spread his bed roll onto the earth and seems to be comfortable. His eyes are shut and his breathing is calm and steady. I sense another presence though and find Dastan present as well. He sits cross-legged next to the fire, which burns in the center of the tent. Every now and then, he adds wood to it so the fire keeps going.

He is destined for great things – Dastan – and though I only see glimpses of his future, I realize he will face grave dangers. However, the love the three brothers share will pull him through. Dastan turns his head and looks at me from his over his shoulder. He probably felt my eyes upon him.

"Are you comfortable or do you need anything?"

"I am fine," I tell him. "I am warm and safe, what else can I wish for?" Dastan's expression reveals his curiosity, and I would indulge him, but I only want to tell my story once.

"The nights grow cold out here so I made peppermint tea to keep warm. Do you want some?"

I am tempted… I feel cold and hot tea sounds good to me. "If you have some to spare…" I push myself into a sitting position and wonder if I should move over to the fire.

"Stay there… I will bring it to you." Dastan fills a glass and walks over to me. "Be careful though, it is hot."

I blow onto the steaming surface and a noise coming from the side draws my attention. Our talking woke Tus, who stretches and takes in our forms.

"Is there any tea left?" Tus asks.

Dastan fills another glass and Tus joins us. The three of us sit close to each other now and the silence that descended onto the tent feels reassuring. "I want to thank you, both of you," I say, addressing them, "for taking me in and trusting me."

Tus waves the comment away. "Even without this connection I would have freed you. My honor demands it."

Carefully I sip from the still hot tea. I reckon I owe them and there is only one way I can think of to repay them. "Dastan, you asked me whether I belonged with the Hassansin. I do not. They grabbed me off the streets when I was little… I can't have been older than four or five when they got their hands on me."

Dastan raises his head and gives me a look full of interest. "I lived on the streets as well. I was fortunate though –the King happened upon me and adopted me."

"You were lucky then…" I draw in a deep breath and then sip again. "Originally it was their plan to train me as a Hassansin, but I lacked the necessary skills… I do not excel at fighting and they were rather disappointed. But they had realized I possessed a differed gift. They often rob children off the streets, and when they do, they also expose them to their hypnotic fumes. Some children react rather strongly and they see visions… Others show no reaction at all… I reacted rather strongly to their drugs…" Again I sip from the tea as my mouth has run dry.

"Hassan immediately realized my potential and kept me separated from the other boys. I did not train with them – instead he locked me up in that cave… Whenever he wanted information, he would burn those accursed herbs and it would put me into a trance. At first, I told him everything – I couldn't control it. Later on, I learned to be careful and I did not always tell him the truth."

Dastan cocks his head. "Tell me… Was Hassan also interested in finding out our game plan? You see, the fact that the Hassansin were not onto us makes me wonder."

He is quick, that one. "I sent them into the opposite direction."

Tus whistles softly and then grins at Dastan. "That is why we were able to take them out so easily."

Dastan nods and studies me. "You did not want them to find us."

"I did not want them to kill Tus…" I place my empty glass onto the ground and pull my hand beneath the furs again. "The day before that, Hassan had visited with me and wanted information about your council with the King. While I listened in on that conversation, Tus entered the room and…"

"How do you do it?" Dastan asks unexpectedly. "Listening in?"

"I do not know how – my mind simply travels there." I really have no idea how it works.

Tus suddenly leans in closer and makes eye-contact. "You said that I entered the room – then what?"

"It was your eyes," I admit. "I yearned to see the sky again and your eyes reminded me of it. I felt drawn to you."

"The connection had not formed yet. I would have sensed it," Tus remarks.

"That did not happen until that night," I confirm. "I fell asleep and somehow… I do not know what happened… When I woke up, I startled, realizing there was someone else close – another mind and I do not mean Hassan's…"

"You cast me out," Tus reminds me.

"But you failed to undo the impression you made. From that moment on, you were in my mind – constantly. I wanted to keep you safe."

"Arash," Dastan says, "You were four or five when the Hassansin picked you from the streets… Does that mean you were trapped in that cave all that time?"

In his eyes I read many things: shock, pity, and curiosity. "I was trapped in there, yes. Hassan did not allow me to leave…"

Dastan's gaze seeks out Tus'. "I wonder… How many years were you trapped in there?"

Tus shrugs and then turns his head towards me. "How old are you, Arash?"

"I do not know… It is hard to keep track of time when you live in the dark and are being fed drugs constantly…" Now that they brought up the question, I grow curious myself. "How old do you think I am?"

Tus and Dastan exchange a pondering look. "About seventeen…" Dastan says eventually.

"Maybe eighteen, but not much older," Tus adds.

I feel shocked. "That means they had me for…for…"

"Thirteen. Fourteen years," Tus finishes for me. "I am sorry, Arash."

I close my eyes and fight for composure. I refuse to give into this dreadful feeling of loss and anger that moves through me. "It is a strange thing," I share with them, "when I am in a trance, I travel through time and space and to find out just how much time has passed by makes me…angry."

"I do not blame you," Tus says. "I would be angry too if they had robbed me of so many years."

I need a moment to compose myself. It is useless to mourn these past years. They are lost to me and will remain lost. The only thing I can do is focus on the present. In the last fourteen years I found the courage to continue and to fight for my life each day all over again. I can't stop now. I owe it to myself to keep on fighting, especially now that I am free. "Time is nothing but fleeting grains of sand falling through an hourglass. The years are lost to me and I must accept that…"

"No one will hold it against you if you need time to accept—"

Dastan stops talking because I started to laugh—rather loud at that. "Time…We have so much of it, and yet, we keep chasing for more." I lower my head, close my eyes, and center myself. A new life is about to begin and I need to shed my old life like a snake sheds its skin. The imagery is badly chosen though as it makes me shiver – recalling Hassan's pet snake.

"Arash…"

Tus' hand settles on my shoulder and stays there. I open my eyes and look at him.

"You have my support… I will do everything within my power to make your life better."

"I know you will…" I sense sincerity in his mind, but does he know where his commitment will take us? Visions of the future visit me uninvited and I try to cast them out. I do not want to see us hold hands or make love. The future consists of many paths and there is no way of telling if this particular future will come to pass.

It is Dastan who breaks the spell that has befallen us. He stretches his legs, rises from the ground, and walks toward the entrance of the tent. "The sun will rise in a few hours… You should rest now. Talking drained you and caused you to feel melancholy."

Dastan is very sensitive and he senses my need for silence. I doubt I can sleep, but I would love to close my eyes and listen to the silence.

"I will visit with you in the morning. Sleep well, brother… Arash." Dastan pushes the fabric out of his way and steps outside. That leaves only Tus and me in the tent.

"My brother is right," Tus whispers. "We should sleep."

I nod to show I agree. Tus' hand still rests on my shoulder and I wonder why he does not remove it. His gaze searches mine and I wish I knew what he is looking for.

"I will be over there," Tus says and points at his makeshift bed. "Feel free to wake me if you need something."

Tus remains in place though and seems reluctant to leave my side. "I will," I promise. Apparently that is what he wanted to hear, for Tus nods and then gets to his feet again. He makes his way over to his bed and lies down in such a way that he can still see me. "May your dreams bring you rest," Tus whispers: a smile accompanies his words.

"And may yours bring you peace…" I make myself comfortable, and although I enjoy looking at Tus, I force myself to close my eyes. The connection still binds us: I had expected for it to fade now that the effects of Hassan's drugs wore off. I am still at a loss to explain it though – what created it and why does it stay in place?

I watch Arash sleep and find great comfort in the fact that he is safe and comfortable. I do not know what caused this connection to form, but I am grateful it did, for it enabled me to find him. I pull my pillow closer and continue to study Arash. He has only known twenty-four hours of freedom, but he looks healthier already. Being outside that cave does him a world of good.

I continue to study him and only stretch when the first rays of the sun sneak into the tent. The soldiers woke up and make noise, as they go about their business. I should wake Arash as well, but I do not want to interrupt his healing sleep. In the end, I get to my feet and leave the tent, as I do not want to wake Arash accidentally. Dastan is already washing up and his eyes sparkle with energy. He is obviously eager to start the day. "Morning, Dastan," I greet him.

"Morning, brother. Did you sleep well?"

I shake my head. "I was not tired, Dastan. Instead, I watched Arash sleep."

Dastan cocks his head. "You really like him."

"I do, brother, but I also worry for him." Dastan looks at me questioningly and I add, "Hassan won't let him live. He will attempt to end Arash's life."

"Why do you think so?" Dastan frowns.

"Dastan, think! If Arash can pinpoint our position from inside that cave, he can also find Hassan. Hassan knows this…"

The expression in Dastan's eyes changes. "I did not think about that yet."

"We need to be vigilant, Dastan. I do not know how Hassan will carry out his attack, but he will try to end Arash's life."

"In that case, someone should stay with him all the time," Dastan remarks.

"Yes, I agree… Maybe we can take turns?"

"You can watch him at night and I will keep an eye on him during the day." Apparently, Dastan already knows how to proceed. "In a way, I hope Hassan will come for Arash. That will give us a change to kill him."

"I do not think Hassan will carry out the attack himself. He will send in his best men or his snakes. He will not endanger himself in that way."

"But if we eliminate his men and snakes, Hassan will have to go after Arash himself," Dastan says. "We need to be patient, but in the end, we might attain our goal."

"I do not want to pay too high a price, Dastan. I do not want Arash to die because of it."

"We will keep Arash safe," Dastan promises. "Are the maps which we found still in the tent? We should study them. Maybe they will provide us with clues as to Hassan's hideaways."

"Yes, we should do that… I wonder when father will contact us."

"That might take another day," Dastan remarks. "It takes time for the messenger to get to him and to return to us."

We enter the tent and one look at Arash tells me that he is still asleep. We sit down on the sand and I open the maps. I put them on the ground in front of us and study them. "This particular city is rather nearby. We could make it our next target." Dastan looks everything over and nods. "Hassan might have fled there," I add.

"He might…" Dastan casts a look at Arash. "He could tell us."

"I am not forcing him into anything," I tell my brother. I want Dastan to know where I stand in the matter. "Either Arash tells us out of his own accord, or we find Hassan ourselves. Arash has been forced too many times in the past."

"Are we taking him with us? Or do you think he is safer here?"

"We will take Arash with us. Even with our best men guarding him I would not feel at ease. I want to make sure he is safe myself." At that moment, Arash stirs and I walk over to him. I sit on my heels next to him and wait for him to open his eyes. When he does, I smile at him. "Good morning."

Arash gives me a lazy smile. "You could have woken me when you got up."

"No," I tell him. "I wanted you to sleep and wake up by yourself." I feel lost, staring into his eyes. "You can rest all you want today… We will not leave camp yet." Arash sits up and looks about. His stomach growls loudly and he shrugs at hearing it.

"I will see what I can do regarding food," Dastan offers. "Some fruit, bread, and hot tea should be doable."

"Sounds good," Arash replies. He raises his hand and swipes his hair behind an ear.

Dastan leaves the tent and I cherish having some privacy. "Maybe we can talk more later? I want to spend time with you."

"I want to get to know you too," Arash admits. His eyes seek out mine, but then he looks away again. "It feels odd—waking up here instead of in that cave."

"You need time to grow accustomed to your new situation…" I admire him for adapting so quickly. Had I been imprisoned for so many years I wouldn't adjust that easily.

"I brought food," Dastan announces as he makes his way over to us.

"Ah, I am hungry too," I remark and grab a slice of cold meats from the tray. "Arash, I want you to eat your fill and should you remain hungry, tell me. I am sure Dastan will manage more food."

Dastan nods. "There is plenty more where that came from!"

Arash takes hold of an apple, gives it an odd look, and sinks his teeth in to it. I leave him to his breakfast and return to Dastan who studies the maps once more. "So it is decided? We attack here next?" I point out the city to him.

"I would not do that…"

Arash' voice is soft, but firm. I turn to look at him and find that he is looking at the map from behind us. "And why not?"

"Hassan would not go there… He would pull out his men as quickly as possible. That stronghold is located in a valley and it is easy to attack. Hassan knows this," Arash explains.

"What city would you suggest then?" Dastan wants to know.

Arash walks over to us and his fingers move across the map. He then points at a city to the east. "He will go there… He will assemble his men and wait for you."

"You do not think he will come for you instead?" Dastan asks.

"Maybe," Arash says and shrugs. "But if he does, he will send his men… I doubt he will come for me himself."

"Are you sure of that?" Dastan looks sternly at Arash.

"I can't be completely sure," Arash admits. "If he turns this into a personal matter, he might lead the attack himself, but even if he would, he would only take a small amount of his men here."

"There is a way to make sure," Dastan hints.

Arash pales and his hands shake. He pulls back and returns to his bed. "I would not advise that course of action."

"Why not?" Dastan doesn't let Arash off the hook yet and I wonder if I should get involved and stop it.

"I am not the only one who sees events while in trance. Hassan can do it too, and some of his men. He will feel me reaching out and that will warn him that we are on to him."

"Sounds sensible," I comment and shake my head at Dastan. It is my way of telling my brother to back down. "We will follow our instincts instead and yes, we will keep your advice in mind."

Dastan however seems determined to have the last word in the matter. "Arash, I do not possess your talents, but I am convinced that Hassan will come for you. He wants revenge… That is the way he is. I also believe that he will come for you personally. You might underestimate his anger. For Hassan this is a matter of honor – his honor – to take you out."

Dastan's words send shivers down my spine. "My brother might be right." It is most likely that Hassan will take Arash' betrayal and escape personal, but I hope that Hassan does not think Arash important enough to endanger his life.

"Either Tus or I will stay close," Dastan concludes. "Especially at night… I expect Hassan to attack when it is dark."

"Dastan, aren't you exaggerating?" I agree with my brother that we need to keep an eye on Arash, but does he really expect Hassan to sneak into our camp and take out Arash like that?

"I can't explain it," Dastan says. "It is only a feeling, but I trust my instincts."

"Then we will take the matter seriously." I learned to trust Dastan's instincts a long time ago. "We will be alert at all times."

"I am sorry for causing problems," Arash whispers.

For some reason, which escapes me, Arash feels guilty and I can't allow the feeling to continue. I make my way over to him and sit next to him. "We will take out Hassan, and then your problems will end. You have no reason to feel guilty." I carefully gather his hands in mine and rub his fingers. I like reassuring him, touching him, and having him close. "You are among friends now and Dastan and I will take care of this threat." The look Arash gives me speaks of gratitude.

"Tus…" Dastan gets to his feet, walks over me, and squeezes my shoulder rather harshly. "You have ten wives already… and yet you sound… like you want to make him into another addition to your harem."

"Dastan!" I elbow him in his side, but he barely notices. "Behave yourself!" But damn it, he nailed it right down. I am behaving like I am in love for the first time! Arash averts his gaze and I feel ashamed for my brother's forwardness. I grab Dastan's arm and pull him along. Once we have left the tent, I turn to confront him. "Why did you do that?"

Dastan actually appears remorseful and bows his head. "I regret saying that. I shouldn't have, but brother, the way you act one would think that you are in love with him! Not that I would mind, but… Tus!"

I can't blame him – not really – and I sigh. "I understand why you would think that, but Dastan, you can't speak your mind like that! I do not care if you expose my feelings, but you need to think of Arash! You embarrassed him!"

"I could apologize to him," Dastan offers. "But I believe that he feels the same way about you. Maybe it is because of this connection you keep mentioning."

Another sigh escapes my lips. "Brother—"I do not get the chance to finish though, because a sudden scream, coming from the tent, alarms me. "It is Arash!" I move forward and want to march into the tent, but Dastan beats me to it and reaches it first. He storms inside and I follow him.

I curse myself for being careless. Only moments ago, we assured Arash that we would keep him safe and now he is danger. Hassan's pet snakes appeared from beneath the sand and circle Arash. I count five of them and I hope we can kill them before they reach Arash. Dastan does not waste any time and has reached the snake closest to Arash. He manages to behead it with a single blow of his sword and his action urges me into motion as well. I move forward and manage to take out another serpent.

Arash remains motionless and stares at the snakes with a mix of dread and anger. Good, he has not succumbed to fear then. "Stay where you are and do not move!"

Arash does not reply, but in my mind, I sense his understanding. He will stay put while we do our best to take out the enemy. Suddenly, everything happens simultaneously. The three remaining snakes reach for Arash at once. Dastan manages to cut one in two and I impale another snake on the tip of my sword, but the third one gets away. It buries his fangs in Arash's arm and releases its deadly venom.

"Do something!" I call out to my brother, who is closest to Arash. Dastan's reaction is immediate and he severs the snake's lower body from the top. It drops to the ground, but the fangs remain locked in Arash's arm.

As children we encountered a fair amount of snakes and they bit us occasionally. We learned to pull the fangs out of the flesh and I do so now, slowly and carefully, though the slow pace is killing me. In the end, the fangs release Arash's arm and I fling the head aside. I look at Arash and hold my breath. He is even paler than normal and his eyes burn with poison. By the Gods, I can't fail him! "You must fight, Arash! Do not give in to it!" All is lost if he gives up now! I gather his arm and guide it down his side. "It needs to stay below your heart… Do not lift it. We do not want the poison to spread."

"Tus, I have snake-stones on me… We need hot water and we need to act quickly!" Dastan reaches into one his many pockets and retrieves a small pouch.

I run toward the entrance, scream at one of the soldiers to bring hot water right away, and return to Arash. A layer of sweat has formed on his face and his breathing is labored. "Arash, please do not let Hassan win!" I take his good hand in mine and squeeze his fingers lightly. I force myself to calm down: the worst that can happen is that Arash panics. A moment later, a soldier brings a bowl of hot water and Dastan guides Arash's injured arm into it. He makes sure the wound is immersed in the water and then he drops the snake-stones into it. "They will draw out the poison, Arash. We need to be patient though… It is no instant cure…" I explain to Arash. I am not sure he understands though. Only time will tell if we acted quickly enough and if the snake-stones will work. It is our only option though.

"The sand people use them," Dastan says in a calm voice. "The Bedouins believe that these bones will draw the snake poison from your body. You will not die."

Arash loses the fight to stay awake and loses consciousness. I hope it is not a bad sign.

"The stones will work, Tus," Dastan says in an effort to comfort me.

I hope my brother is right – I really do.

TBC

Part 5

The room I am in is luxuriously furnished. The silk curtains move along with the breeze. The goblet in my hand is pure gold and the wine the best in the land. I have never known such luxury and yet, it surrounds me. I do not know where I am or why I am here, but I feel at home.

"Arash…"

I turn my head at the mention of my name and see Tus moving into the room. He wears thin robes and his hair is a mess. He looks like he left bed just now.

"Why did you leave me? Come back to bed." Tus raises his arm and looks expectedly at me. "It is too early to be up yet."

Feeling mesmerized, I walk over to him and place my hand in his. Tus curls his fingers around it and pulls me along. Then the scenery changes – suddenly I am in the dessert and the cruel sun mercilessly burns down onto me. I am on horseback and Tus is in front of me, while Dastan rides behind me. In the distance, I see the silhouette of a city and I reckon reaching it is our goal.

Suddenly everything turns dark around me and for one moment I am scared that I am back in the cave, but then I make out the stars above me and realize I am staring at the midnight sky. Dastan pushes himself against the wall behind him and places a finger across his lips, telling me to remain silent. I obey and wonder what is happening. Where am I?

"Arash? You must continue to fight… Do not give into the venom!"

Tus' voice reaches me through the dark and I open my eyes. How odd- when did I close them? Tus hovers above me and his worried look makes me nervous.

"The snake-stones fell apart, Arash… They drew out the poison, but you are still weak. You need to rest – do not move, do you hear me? Close your eyes and sleep!"

Yes, I hear Tus' voice, but the meaning of his words escapes me. What is he talking about? I moisten my lips because they feel awfully dry, and then I realize that my mouth is equally dried out. "Wa…ter…" I stutter.

"I am sorry," Tus replies, "But we can't give you any fluids yet – or food for the matter. You will get plenty later though… Now close your eyes and sleep, Arash…"

I have no say in the matter and my eyes close at any rate. I fall into the abyss and the dreams take me once more.

The next time I wake up, Dastan is nearby. He sits on a chair next to my bed and his gaze searches mine when we make eye-contact. A part of me notices that I am not in the tent anymore – we seem to be inside a house. Another part searches for Tus and startles because he is not near. "Tus…?"

Dastan moves his chair closer and smiles at me. "No need to worry about him. He will be back within the hour."

I notice the way Dastan speaks to me – like I am a child and do not need to know where Tus is and what he is doing. I am too exhausted though to call him on it.

"You probably wonder what is happening," Dastan continues. He places a cool, wet cloth onto my brow and makes sure he has my attention before adding, "Hassan's snakes attacked and one serpent bit you. We managed to draw most of the poison from your body, but you still run a fever. Honestly Arash, I did not expect you to live – that bite should have killed you."

I know why it did not kill me… "Hassan's snakes…nipped at me… He let them bite me… Small bites, but…still…"

Dastan's expression changes – it turns angry. "He did that to you on purpose? It makes me want to take him out even more."

His comment causes me to smile weakly. "Dastan…you are…a noble soul…I like…you…"

"You should stop talking," Dastan says quickly. "I do not wish to exhaust you… Rest, Arash, and the next time you wake, you will have improved enough to drink something…"

"Is…Tus…safe?" I need to know, otherwise I can't go back to sleep.

"Do not worry about him. Tus is an excellent warrior and he is in no danger."

I am fatigued and my eyes close again. The last thing I register is Dastan taking hold of my hand and rubbing its back.

"He woke up… You are not lying to me, are you?"

Tus' voice wakes me and I move my head so I can better hear him. I am still too tired to fully open my eyes, but I peek at him through a slit. Tus sits on the side of the bed and holds my hand. He is focused on Dastan and hasn't noticed that I am awake.

"I told you the truth, brother. He woke up and we talked. He worried about your safety."

A brilliant smile appears on Tus' face and he looks extremely pleased. I wonder if he would still feel like that if he knew I was awake!

"I care about him greatly," Tus says. "I do hope he will recover…"

"Any news about Hassan's whereabouts?" Dastan wants to know.

"I received new information, but I am not sure if the source is trustworthy. I will make inquiries though."

Tus squeezes my fingers and the intensified touch draws a sigh from my lips.

"You are awake!" Tus exclaims rather pleased. "Dastan told me that you had regained consciousness, but I was too scared to believe him!"

I open my eyes further and smile at him. "Thank you…for visiting…"

Tus shakes his head. "I am sorry that I had to leave. I would have stayed with you otherwise. My father sent a message and I had to attend to some matters. I am here now and I do not plan on leaving your side any time soon."

I focus on Tus and recall the stricken expression I had seen on his face when the snake had bit me. "Tus…it was not…the first bite..."

"Dastan told me. I want to kill Hassan myself. I want to wrap my hands around his throat and squeeze the life from him – slowly. I want him to suffer for what he did to you."

I rub his fingers soothingly, and at the same time, I try to calm his thoughts. "Anger will make you…reckless. Do not…give him that…advantage."

"You are right," Tus admits as he moves closer still. "You must be wondering about your whereabouts… Tus and I had you moved to one of the dwellings we encountered when we entered the city. The people are grateful and want to help. I did not think it was safe to stay in the tent. The snakes got to you too easily."

I find it hard to concentrate, but I force myself to do so anyway. "Once I am rested…I will try to find…Hassan for you…" It is in my best interest that Hassan is found. As long as he remains free, he will try to kill me.

"Do not worry about that… Dastan's men have arrived and they will stay to make sure you are safe. They are an unruly bunch, but they know how to fight."

"Are you…leaving then?" I do not want Tus to go away. I want him to stay.

"No, I will stay…but I can't keep you safe on my own. I need help."

My eyes close and I tighten my grip on his hand. "Sorry…tired…"

"Rest then… And please believe me when I say that you are safe, Arash."

Yes, I believe him…

As sitting on the bed wrecks havoc with my back, I pull a chair close and sit down on it. I gather Arash's good hand in mine and rub his fingers. We came too close to losing him. Even Dastan worries about Arash and I am grateful that my brother accepted Arash into our lives so easily. Neither Arash, nor I, can explain the powerful connection that binds us, but it is something I do not want to lose again. Now that I have experienced being connected to him, I realize how much it means to me.

We have a probable location regarding Hassan. My spies think they have tracked him down, and normally, I would lead the attack myself, but I will send Dastan and his men instead. I do not wish to leave Arash's side and I need to be sure that he is safe at all times.

"You think…too much," Arash whispers in a hoarse voice.

I jump at hearing it and focus on my charge. "That way, you need not think yourself. Leave everything to me." I move closer and smile at him. "You seem better." I place a hand on his brow and am under the impression that the fever is gone. "You can drink now, if you want that."

"Yes… Please…"

I reach for the carafe and pour water into a glass. After helping Arash into a sitting position, I help him empty the glass. He drinks eagerly, but still paces himself. "How do you feel?"

"Better…" Arash leans heavily into the heap of pillows piled at the head end of the bed and releases a deep sigh. "Thank you for staying…"

"Even if I had wanted, I would not be able to leave you alone for a longer time," I admit. "Something pulled me right back after I left."

Arash gazes me with a warm smile. "I had visions while I was asleep."

"Do you wish to share them?" I must admit I am curious.

"I am not sure it would be wise…"

Arash's expression changes and I see insecurity in his eyes.

"You might not want to hear what I am about to say."

"I have the feeling I might know what you will tell me."

Arash cocks his head. "And what do you expect me to tell you?"

I chuckle at his attempt to lure the truth out of me. "That we are destined to be together?" Arash blushes, much to my delight, and I realize that admitting the truth is not as hard as I thought it would be. "As lovers?" Arash's blush deepens and his expression betrays uncertainty. "I would welcome that," I tell him as I am eager to take away any apprehension he might feel. "I would like that."Arash swallows hard, lowers his head, and stares at his good hand, which is tightly buried in-between mine.

"Tus…during my imprisonment… I never thought that…that I would be with someone –ever."

"I understand that." I place my fingers beneath his chin and lift his head that way. "You are in good hands with me though. Do not worry about it."

"That is easily said!"

"I know your feelings, remember? I experience them too." Arash looks me in the eyes at hearing that. "Do you not feel mine in turn?"

Arash shakes his head. "Not always…"

Maybe it is because he is fighting this on some level. "Your eyes are changing," I realize all of a sudden. The liquid blue has left them and green peeks out instead.

"It is because I am no longer exposed to those fumes… Their drugs caused the change…"

"Do you need them to…? Well, whatever it is that you do to get the information you need?" I did not give it much thought until now, but how can Arash's mind travel such distances?

Arash nods once. "If you want the information to be accurate… It helps."

"Does it endanger you in any way? Using these drugs?"

"My eye color changes, as you have noticed and I tend to feel sluggish afterwards. But it always goes away eventually."

In my heart, I know that Arash has to do this, but I do not like the involved drawbacks. "But not yet… I want you to rest one more day… You are still too weak." For one moment, it seems like Arash is about to protest, but he says quiet instead. I turn his hand in mine until I can caress the palm. "Arash, I want you to stay with me."

"Did you consider the consequences? Certain people will not like it that you are harboring a former Hassansin."

"You never were one – if they choose to think differently, it is their problem. I will make sure you get rooms close to mine in the palace." I do not merely want him near – I *need* him near.

Arash cocks his head. "May I make a suggestion?"

"Of course!"

"Don't do that… Find a nice, secluded place for me away from the palace. You can visit whenever you like and I do not need to worry about complots and manipulation."

I do not want to admit it, but his suggestion sounds sound. "I will see what I can do. For the time being, we will stay here. At least until you have recovered sufficiently to take to the road again. By the way, can you ride?"

"I never rode a horse before, so my guess is no." Tus looks at me at hearing that and I shake my head. "Do not think about putting me in some sort of carriage. I would rather walk."

Tus moistens his lips and leans in closer. "It is a good thing that I can read your thoughts – I might not have understood your refusal otherwise."

I lift a hand and allow for my fingers to slide through Tus' hair. "I still wonder how such a thing is possible…"

"Maybe the Gods intervened? They wanted you freed and maybe they decided I needed a lesson in love?"

"Love…" I whisper the word and lose myself while staring at his face. I might not be able to read his thoughts – or maybe I just do not want to intrude like that – but I do sense his feelings. The most prominent is love – love and respect. I rest my hand at the nape of his neck and pull him toward me. Arash moves most willingly, and a moment later, his lips press against mine. I close my eyes, as I want to savor this moment. The kiss ends too quickly though. I releases his lips, cock my head and smile at him. "I love you…" I can't hide the truth much longer – not for him and certainly not for myself. I love this man – and a part of me always did, even when I did not know he existed.

"Do you believe in past lives?" Arash asks and sighs deeply.

I exchange my chair for the side of the bed. I wrap my arms around him and pull him into a caress. I can't recall a time when I like this - like I belonged. "I never gave it much thought to be honest," I say. "But since I met you, I have turned into a believer. Something connects us – something profound and yes, maybe it stems from a former life." Arash rests his head against my shoulder and closes his eyes again.

"Tus, I am sorry, but… I am tired…"

"Go back to sleep then… When you wake up again I will have food ready. You need to regain your strength…" Arash smiles happily and presses tighter against me.

"Tus… I love you…"

"I love you too, Arash. Sleep now. I will stay close…"

Tus' soft voice pulls me from my sleep and I instantly focus on his words.

"Arash? Please wake up… I would love to let you sleep, but you need to eat as well."

I open my eyes, stretch, and smile at him. "I feel better." Tus grins at hearing that. "So you have food?"

"All the food you want!" Tus walks over to the table, picks up the tray, and takes it to the bed. He puts it down on my lap and sits on the side. After leaning his back against the wall behind the bed, he stretches his legs and makes himself comfortable. "We have meat, bread, and fruit."

I select a slice of meat and chew on it. When I was still a prisoner I got moldy bread, water, milk at times, and lots of rice. "Is it night or day?"

"Night… We can sit on the balcony later, if you would like that."

Tus should know the answer by now. "I would love to go outside…"

"Dastan sent word… He pursuits Hassan, but Hassan is always one step ahead of him. Dastan won't be able to catch him in that way."

I know what is happening. "Hassan knows Dastan's next step because he uses his drugs – either on himself or another Hassansin." The news urges me to help capture Hassan. "I can track him down for you - right now."

But Tus shakes his head. "Right now, you will eat. Then we will settle down on the balcony and enjoy the midnight sky, and then, if you still want to do this, you can locate Hassan for us."

"Agreed." Tus' thoughts tell me that he won't allow any protests. If he is set on doing this his way, we will. Tus urges me to continue to eat and I eat some bread as well. I feel queasy though and should not eat more. "I will eat later," I promise. "Can we go outside now?" My urge to be in the open surfaces again. I still regret the time I spent being Hassan's prisoner.

Tus nods. I can tell he would like for me to reconsider, but he also knows he promised and he can't back down now. With Tus' help I manage to get to my feet. I wrap my good arm around Tus and allow for him to support me while we make our way onto the balcony. A blanket covers the wooden floor and Tus slowly lowers me onto it. I rest my back against the wall and draw in a series of deep breaths. It is summer and the night is heavy with floral scents which take my breath away. "It is beautiful." I look at the heavens and smile at seeing the myriad of stars above me.

Tus sits down next to me and wraps an arm around me. I rest my head against his shoulder and simply enjoy the peace and quiet around me. "I missed this… I did not fully realize it when I was locked inside that cave, but I realize it now. I lost my freedom so many years ago and I always yearned for it. Now that I have it back, I feel at peace." Tus pulls me closer and presses a kiss onto my hair. "Will you let me search for Hassan now?" His body tenses and I sense a change in his thoughts. "You need not worry about my well-being. There is no danger."

Tus swallows hard. "I will let you if you are determined to do this."

"Tus, I need you to find particular herbs for me…" I raise my head and look him in the eye while delivering the list. It escapes me why he is that worried. Venturing into the stream of space and time is second nature to me.

"My men will find them for you."

I can tell that Tus does not want to let go, but in the end he releases me from his hold. He rises from the floor, talks to one of his men which he posted at the door, and then returns to the balcony. Something worries him – worries him greatly – but I can't tell what it is. I wait for him to take his place at my side again and then look at him. "Tell me."

"Arash… What if Hassan knows you are going to go into a trance and took counter measures? Is there a way he can hurt you?"

Tus' question makes me frown. "I honestly do not know. I never encountered anyone in that state before. I have no idea what would happen if Hassan were waiting for me." I never thought of that possibility before. "Tus, chances are slim that Hassan will be there at exact the same time and I doubt he can hurt me… It is my mind that travels there…not my body."

"That does not reassure me," Tus says and he sounds remarkably stern. "Arash, I do not want you to do this."

Tus might be a Prince, but no one commands me. "Tus, I make my own decisions and I want to do this. I want to be free of Hassan."

"But Arash…"

Quickly, I place a finger across his lips and it silences Tus. "I do not take orders from you, Prince of Persia… I love you, but that does not mean I will let you command me."

"You are annoying…"

I shake my head at him. Yes, my words annoy Tus, but he will not fight me over it. "Tus, we need to be free of Hassan. I do not want to have to look over my shoulder for the rest of my life and fear he might kill me."

"You are right, but still… I do not like it."

Someone knocks on the door and the sound makes Tus rise from the floor again. "We are not done discussing this," he says.

He is still in an argumentative mood then. "Tus, we *are* done discussing it." Tus however gives me a look that speaks of frustration before he heads for the door. I turn my head and avoid looking at him. He cares for me – that is why this is so hard on him.

"They found your herbs…" Tus sits down and hands me the bundle. "I fear for you…"

I accept the assorted herbs and draw in a deep breath. "Tus, I was locked up for over a decade… Give me my freedom – do not chain me down in this way." I can only hope that he understands what I am trying to tell him. Tus' expression changes and he nods. Maybe he did understand.

"What do you need?"

"A fire… We need to burn the herbs. I need to inhale their essences."

Tus fetches two burning candles and puts them on the floor. "Will this do?"

"Yes…" I hand Tus the herbs and add, "Hold them over the fire until they burn…then move the smoke toward me." Tus wavers, but then he does as he is told. I love him even more for letting me be my own master.

"I will pull you back if anything goes wrong," Tus announces. "I will be with you in spirit."

I know that I can't stop him for our connection is too strong. I lean against him and let him wrap an arm around me. The herbs burn and their essences drift toward me. Instantly everything changes around me and I fall into a world of blue sand.

"Do not drift too far away from me," Tus whispers into my ear. "And do not fight me, should I intervene."

"I won't," I promise. I sense Tus' presence in my mind and allow him to drift along on the stream of space. "I see him…there…" Hassan is closer than I thought. I reach for him and try to see his surroundings. I attempt to read his mind, but he is alert and very, very close. My eyes widen upon realizing why Hassan feels so close. "He is in a trance too."

"Arash…"

In my mind, Tus' and Hassan's voices become one – it is impossible to separate them from each other.

"Arash, stop it and come back to me…"

"Arash, I will end your life… Slowly and painfully…"

Some force wraps itself around me and squeezes – lightly at first, but then more forcefully. I fight for breath and pant hard. Something cuts off my air supply and I feel like I am about to suffocate. Tus was right: Hassan can hurt me when we are both in a trance. I should have heeded Tus' warning, but I was stubborn and didn't.

"No! I will keep you safe!"

Tus' voice rings in my head and I hold on to it. His strength throws Hassan off balance and the mental leash momentarily weakens. I quickly pull away from Hassan and move toward Tus.

"Arash!"

Tus enfolds me in a tight hug and I am relieved that I can breathe freely again. "Tus…" My voice is shaky and my hands tremble, but I still manage to hold onto him. "You were…right…"

"I was afraid something like that would happen," Tus whispers. "I won't forbid you to try this again, but please, if you love me, you won't attempt this again."

Now that Hassan is gone, I lift my head and make eye contact with Tus. My breathing is still sped up, but at least I can breathe again. "I know where he is, Tus, and where he will head next."

"Still, that information comes at too high a price."

I calm down and pull at his tunic. "You need to send Dastan a message. Tell him to head for Areia. He will find Hassan and his men there. Hassan does not know that I saw his plans… You need to act – now!"

Tus makes his decision that second. He calls out loudly, and once the guard appears, Tus gives his orders. The guard rushes away and with him gone, peace returns.

"Tus, I am sorry that I did not believe you… I should have considered your concern."

"It is too late for regrets now – thank the Gods nothing happened to you."

"You pulled me back. You saved my life – again." I rest my head against his shoulder. I seek out his hands and Tus eagerly covers them with his. Tus tightens his embrace and I soak up the love he radiates. In the future, I *will* listen to his warnings.

TBC

Part 6

Arash fell asleep in my arms, and although I should return him to the bed, I stay where I am – on the balcony and under a starlit sky. The moon is hidden and the night is darker than usual.

My heart missed a beat when I sensed Hassan's attack. I had tried to warn Arash, but he did not listen. I am not used to disobedience – except coming from Dastan – and did not know how to respond to Arash earlier. Forcing him to do things my way would have been wrong though. Maybe I should be grateful that everything ended the way it did.

Looking at the stars twinkling above me, I thank the gods for changing my life the way they did. Although I have a dozen wives, I do not love any of them. My father arranged those marriages and all were political. I bed them because it is expected of me – I am the firstborn and need to produce an heir. But when I lay with them, I feel nothing but a sense of duty. It is the same way for them. They told me that they are content with the way things are. Our contact is limited to a minimum – that of performing our duties in the bedroom – but they enjoy a great measure of freedom in all other areas.

I never wanted to be bound to them – I do want to be bound to Arash though. "I am already bound to you…" The night grew cold and Arash shivers against me. I cradle him in my arms, rise from the floor, and carry him over to the bed where I lay him down. Arash curls up on his side and makes himself comfortable.

I do not expect any problems to arise tonight and stretch next to him. I open my arms, and even in his sleep, Arash moves into them. I complete the embrace and hold him cradled against me. I end up kissing the soft skin below his ear and I smile at him. Arash is everything I ever wanted.

Although sleep eludes me, I do not regret it. This way, I can look at Arash and guard his sleep.

Sometime during the night I succumbed to fatigue, but I am awake at the rise of dawn. Arash comfortably sleeps in my arms and each time he exhales, his breath caresses my skin. Carefully, as I do not want to wake him, I brush his long hair away from his face and study his expression. He still looks under the weather – the poison already weakened him and then he put himself in a trance. What Arash needs is rest. Violent knocking on the door ruins his sleep though.

"Prince Tus, a message arrived just now! From Dastan!"

Arash startles and stares at me wide-eyed. "It is the guard… I need to collect the message… Stay where you are…" Arash is still too sleep drunk to react and lets me go. The guard hands me the piece of paper and I return to the bed. I sit on the side and unfold the note. "Dastan arrived at Areia and his spies confirm that Hassan is on his way over there. With some luck, Dastan can take Hassan out."

"I hope Dastan won't underestimate Hassan…" Arash moves the pillows about until he reclines against them. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Staying put," I tell him. "Hopefully Dastan will take out Hassan, but if he fails, we need to be ready for him. Arash, I have been thinking… Can Hassan also reach you when you are not in a trance? I do not want him to attack you again."

"I do not know that, Tus. I wish I did, but I never had a Hassansin attack me before."

I claim Arash's hand and trace the lines in the palm. "And old teacher of mine tried to teach me how to read these…" I trace his life line and Arash shivers. "The life line breaks apart at this point, but it reconnects later. That is most odd." Arash pulls his hand away from my hold and tucks it beneath his body. "One might think you died in the past…" Arash grows restless and seems close to panicking. "What are you not telling me?"

"It is nothing important…" Arash shrugs.

"I will be the judge of that. Please tell me." I stroke his hair and enjoy feeling the strands glide through my fingers.

"I do not even know if it really happened… It is merely something Hassan told me once." I nod at Arash and hope it will encourage him to continue. "Inhaling those sedatives for the first time can be dangerous… I have seen men die because of it."

Surprised, I seek out his gaze. "I did not know that."

Arash shrugs. "When they exposed me to the fumes I did not know they could kill me. I do not remember much of what happened. I only recall that I fell into a pitch dark abyss. Later, Hassan told me that I had died – that my heart had stopped. Miraculously though, it started again, and I lived through my first vision. I do not know if the tale is true… Hassan said it was, but I always thought that I would remember dying. Something like that would cause an impact, don't you think?"

"Maybe," I admit. "Maybe you were too young to realize what had happened. I am glad you returned to life though."

Arash' expression brightens and he looks at me with big eyes. "Maybe I had work to do. Maybe the gods sent me back because I had to meet you."

"That is a nice thought – hold onto it." I would love to cuddle up with Arash in bed, but unfortunately I am in command here. My men expect me to show up and instruct them. "I must leave you for a few minutes… I will make sure though that a guards remains close to you. I do not expect Hassan to attack, but I refuse to take risks."Arash nods, and his eyes, which are a liquid blue once more, fasten on mine. He does not speak, but opens his mind instead. Feelings, instead of words flow into my mind and I smile at receiving them. "So you stopped fighting this?"

"I do not stand a chance… I never did – and I do not wish to fight you any longer. I accept the connection and the love you have for me as I feel the same way."

I wrap my arms around him and briefly hold him. "I will be back within the hour," I promise and press a kiss onto his brow.

"And I will be here, waiting."

After Tus leaves, the guard takes up position at the door. I am surprised that he stays inside the room, instead of in the corridor, but Tus probably instructed him that way. I turn onto my side, close my eyes, and focus within. Although I am no longer under the direct influence of the sedatives, a hint of clairvoyance remains.

The moment I close my eyes, Hassan's face stares back at me and seeing it makes me shiver. I want to open my eyes again, but realize I can't. I am trapped and he pulls me deeper into the vortex. I fight him – hard, but I am powerless and I realize that Hassan somehow tricked me into this. He must have waited for Tus to leave, and the moment my mind opened, he moved in. I try to attract the guard's attention, but my body is paralyzed. I can't even lift my little finger. How am I going to fight Hassan this way?

"Give up, Arash. You are in my power. You made the mistake to open your mind and I took advantage of it. You are in my realm now. Do you really think that you are more powerful than me? Who taught you everything you know, traitor? I did… I showed you so much, taught you everything I knew, and this is the way you thank me? By betraying me? You deserve to die for what you did and I promise you that you will. Your death will be painful, Arash… Now that I drew you into the stream, I can stop you from leaving it again. Your mind will stay here forever… Your body will die and your life will be forfeit."

His words cause me to panic, as I know that he is serious. Hassan has the power to do this and I can't stop him. I do not know how! "Stop this, Hassan…" But he won't listen to me – he is too bend on getting his revenge.

"You told Dastan where to find me, traitor… He is close – trying to get into this room so he can kill me, but I will take you into death with me."

Still frozen in my body I fail even at moaning and I wonder if I can still breathe. I feel light-headed; maybe it is due to the lack of oxygen? I do not want to die… I am too young, and I found Tus only just now. I never prayed to the gods before, but I do now – please, do not let me die.A scream cuts through my mind and I recognize Dastan's voice. He found Hassan then, but if he kills Hassan, I will die with him. I can't warn Dastan, and even if I could, I would not, as Hassan needs to be eliminated. At least this way, my death will serve a purpose!

"Arash… What are you doing? Arash, look at me… Talk to me!"

Tus' voice sounds near and I reckon it is my mind, which is playing tricks on me, maybe trying to ease the moment of my death.

"I am not letting this happen, Arash! Fight! I need you to fight, do you hear me?"

Tus' voice takes on a frantic tone and that startles me. Why would my mind make him sound panicked? Something warm cradles me and moves my body. I wish I could open my eyes and make sure it is really Tus, but my eyelids refuse to obey. At the same time, that warmth also glides into my mind and a golden glow enfolds me.

"No!" Hassan sounds furious and I sense his growing anger.

"Yes…" Tus moves closer still and the glow surrounding me intensifies. "Be gone, demon. Leave Arash alone."

Another scream rips through me – Hassan cries out in pain. He might have drugged himself to the gills, but he still feels the pain when Dastan's sword moves into his chest to pierce his heart. Suddenly, everything happens simultaneously. Convulsions take me and I shake myself apart. Tus' arms tighten around me, and in a reflex, I open my eyes. Tus is at my side and the determination in his eyes makes me fight.

Hassan releases me from his hold, but the sudden loss of contact makes me shake. I latch onto Tus' golden presence and hold onto his strength. I tremble in his arms and manage to lift an arm, and I claw at his tunic. "Tus…" Saying the name saps my strength and my arm drops onto the bed.

"A curse on his name! May Hassan's death be painful and slow! I wish I had taken him out myself!"

Tus sounds driven and I can't blame him: Hassan attacked me the moment he left. My eyelids feel heavy and I want to close them again, but then I would not be able to look at Tus any longer. I came so close to losing him. Had Tus arrived later, he wound have found me dead.

"Arash, did Hassan die? It felt like he died…"

I gather my strength and nod. "Felt…it…too." I hope he does not want me to elaborate, because I can't. Tus rocks me in his arms and I smile against his chest.

"Arash, I felt your pain and rushed back to your side. Had I arrived a moment later, I would have found you dead! I feared that Hassan might know of a way to hurt you, but I did not think he would do so right away."

"Maybe…he sensed…Dastan moving in…"

"You are probably right… Arash, I almost lost you!" Tus tightens his embrace and continues to rock me. "Thank the gods I reached you in time!"

His love enfolds me and strengthens me, but I still lack the power to stay awake. "Tired…"

"I understand, Arash… Close your eyes and go to sleep. I won't leave your side… Rest assured, now that Hassan is dead, he can no longer hurt you."

Tus' words accompany me into sleep and I feel safe now –finally. My nemesis is dead.

I came too close to losing him again. I do hope that Dastan took out Hassan, for Arash's life will normalize if he did and then he can finally start to recover. Knowing Dastan the way I do, I expect him to either send a message, or to come here himself to share the news. All I can do now is being patient and it is killing me. I need to know if Hassan is dead.

I lose track of time as I continue to hold Arash in my arms and to watch over him. His sleep is peaceful and he finally gets the rest he needs. Suddenly, the door opens and Dastan marches inside. Dust and dried blood stain his clothes, but a quick look assures me that he is not seriously wounded. His expression is alert and he grins at me. That can only mean one thing: Hassan is dead.

"We did it!" Dastan pulls up a chair to the bed and sits on it. "With your help, we managed to stay one step ahead of Hassan! We were waiting for him in Areia and he walked right into our trap! Hassan is dead, brother. I killed him myself!"

This is the news I had been waiting for. "Thank you, brother. Thank you for doing this for me!" Arash remains asleep and I resist the urge to wake him. He needs his rest and I can tell him later – when he awakens out of his own accord. "Arash is safe then. Hassan tried to kill him using his mind…"

"Arash is safe…" Dastan's smile brightens. "I need to get back to my men, but I will return later." He rises from the chair and continues to grin. "I am happy for you, Tus… I really am."

"Thank you. It means much to me that you bless this union." Dastan gifts me with another warm smile before he leaves the room.

Now that I am alone again with Arash, I relax. Dastan brought me the best possible news and I can finally focus on the future. Somehow Arash and I will find a way to be together, I am sure of that. "I love you," I whisper into his ear. "And I will love you for the rest of my life."

The end