See Part 1 for disclaimers.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wanted to focus more on the relationship between Tus & Dastan in this last part so Tamina has taken a back seat. When I began writing this fic, the film had not yet been released on DVD & now, after watching the movie again, I realise how flawed my timeline was! Given that this was primarily a hurt/comfort fic, I hope that you can just go with me on that & enjoy the story as it is!
Tamina stretched her limbs with catlike grace as her mind slowly sharpened back into reality. Her first thought was of the warmth of Dastan's shoulder beneath her hand. Sinewy muscle cloaked in smooth, tanned skin pressed against her own pale flesh. Silently contemplating the strange, warm feeling of closeness with this Persian warrior, she flinched in surprise when her hand was covered by a rough, calloused one.
Eyes snapping up, Tamina found herself staring back into the dazed blue eyes of Dastan, hollowed out with fever. "Dastan!" she smiled, leaning over him. "Thank the gods!" she breathed. Dastan held her gaze, his ashen face reflecting how exhausted and ravaged his body was. "How are you feeling?" she asked, hardly daring to take her eyes off him in case he slipped away from her.
Dastan blinked wearily, "Wha..." His voice was thin and cracked, barely able to carry across the tiny space between them.
Tus was stirring and sat up, rubbing his eyes blearily. He glanced over, his face a pantomime of expressions as he registered the situation. Quickly getting to his knees, he bent over his brother. "Little brother! The gods have indeed smiled upon us at last." A faint smile twitched the corners of Dastan's lips but his eyelids already drooped with fatigue.
"No, Dastan...please, stay awake," Tus urged, cupping his brother's cheek with his open palm.
Tamina gently touched her hand to the king's wrist. "Tus, let him rest. He has much healing to do."
For a second, a flash of indignation crossed the man's face before he caught himself and nodded, silently.
"His fever has abated, but we should check his injuries for signs of further infection," Tamina said. "I will fetch some water."
Gently drawing the blanket down to Dastan's waist, Tus levered up the corner of the bandage crossing his brother's chest and examined the stitched wounds. The flesh was still an angry shade of pink but the inflammation seemed to be abating. Tus pressed a finger lightly to the edge of each wound and was relieved when no pus squeezed out.
Dastan moved restlessly under his brother's ministrations and his breath hissed through parched lips when the pressure increased. "Tus?" he murmured, eyes opening to slits of colour.
"I am here." Tus shifted so that he was clearly in his brother's line of sight. "How are you feeling?"
If Dastan heard the question, he did not reply. His face dimmed and crumpled into anxiety. "Tus...I didn't kill..."
Tus leaned forward, placing a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Sssh, do not fret, I know. Tamina has told me everything. The slate is clean, Dastan. I am just so glad to see my brother alive and safe."
"As am I," Dastan sighed. His eyes travelled lazily over the confines of the tent, then to the array of instruments and bowls strewn on the ground around him. His brow furrowed in confusion. "What happened?"
"You do not remember?" Tus asked, anxiety edging his voice.
"I remember climbing...Nizam...he betrayed us," Dastan's eyes shone with wild panic and his fingers gripped Tus' arm with every ounce of strength he possessed.
Tus patted the prince's hand, gently prising bloodless fingers from his forearm. "I know, brother, I know. It is over. Do you remember how you got here?"
Dastan held his brother's gaze and Tus saw the turmoil reflected there as he pieced together the traumatic events of the past days. "The hassansin...I tried to escape but there was nowhere..." Dastan lifted his head, his hands struggling to find some purchase on the blankets beneath so that he could sit up. A veil of dark fog surged across his vision and Tus' face swam before his eyes.
"Shhh," Tus soothed, pressing the injured man back down. "You are safe now but you must rest. Your body has much healing to do."
Dastan waited for the black fog to lift before resolutely saying, "Tus, please, help me."
Against his better judgement, Tus shifted behind his brother and helped him manoeuvre into a semi-sitting position. As he held Dastan against his chest, the king could feel the rapid thumping of the younger man's heart through his back. Even though Dastan had not been missing for long, his maltreatment had taken its toll. The pressure of his spine and bony ribs could be felt keenly through the thin material of Tus' shavalar.
Dastan's breathing hitched against the sharp assault of pain through every limb as he tried to find a comfortable position. Finally, he was able to see the mangled mess of his own body. Black stitches stood out starkly against the skin on his torso and he could feel the jangle of injured nerves on his legs even when they were covered by the rough blanket. He reached down to run a trembling finger over the sewn gash on his rib cage. "You did this?" he enquired, his hoarse voice barely rising above a whisper.
"Tamina. She did a good job," Tus noted.
As if on cue, the tent flap lifted and Tamina ducked inside with a large bowl of water. She quickly took in the scene before her and scolded, "Dastan is in no state to be sitting up. He needs to rest and sleep."
Dastan looked at her, his eyes clear of fever and confusion. "Thank you, princess. You saved my life."
"I only helped," she replied, smiling at Tus. She placed the bowl down and peered at the wounds on Dastan's chest. "These look much better." She pressed a hand to his brow, monitoring for fever. "And you do not appear to have a fever anymore."
"Anymore?" Dastan echoed.
"If you do not remember then I am glad of it. We thought we were going to lose you," Tus said, his voice close in Dastan's ear.
Tus kept Dastan distracted with the details of how he and Tamina found him in the desert dunes while the princess tended to the wounds on his legs, clearing and replacing the poultice. The stoic prince remained silent throughout the treatment but his breathing belied the calm exterior, almost halting completely when Tamina was a little too rough removing the last of the unction from his thigh.
The king slipped his hand into his brother's , letting Dastan squeeze back as he fought to regain his composure. Tus felt the slim fingers tremble with a frail grip and he struggled to match this broken version of his brother with the vibrant, cocky young man he was accustomed to. As Tamina applied fresh bandages, he noticed how Dastan's eyelids began to droop and Tus gently slid from behind his back and slowly lowered his brother back onto the soft blankets.
Dastan started awake again, his gaze immediately seeking Tus out once more. "Brother?"
"Don't go, don't leave me," Dastan urged, his voice cracking with the need to keep his loved one close. "I cannot lose you again."
"Nor I you," Tus affirmed. "I will be here when you awake." He pressed a hand against Dastan's forehead, smoothing the anxious frown from his brow.
~~~ PoPoPoPoPoP ~~~
Dastan woke to the blood red glow of the setting sun filling the tent. A light breeze lifted the door flap and he turned his face to let it soak the sweat from his face. For a moment, he floated somewhere between wakefulness and slumber, unable to find the energy to launch himself back into the world. There was not an inch of his body which did not ache or twinge with pain at every slight move. But thirst overpowered the desire to remain still and he reached for the cup of liquid beside him.
Taking a gulp, his throat revolted at the vile bitterness which attacked his taste buds. Spluttering, he dropped the cup and squeezed his eyes tightly closed against the rainbow of pain which shimmered through his body. Dastan coughed relentlessly, feeling the stitches tugging against the sensitive skin on his chest and he saw the all too familiar blackness reaching back over his vision.
"Dastan?" Tamina's clear voice rang like a bell in his ear and he felt her hands on his shoulders.
"Tus..." he managed to choke out before a strong hand thumped him hard on the back.
"I am here, brother. I promised I would be," Tus replied, his voice tinged with fear, as he watched his brother's colour shift from red to pink while he thumped his back. It felt wrong to be hitting an invalid so violently in an attempt to keep him alive but the action appeared to be working.
Dastan took a steadying breath, wincing at the tug of pain in his chest as he did so. He pointed an accusatory finger at the overturned cup, "That is not water."
Tamina took one look at the spilled contents and gasped, "No, it is not! That was a rare and expensive ointment to keep your wounds clean."
"Oh," Dastan remarked in a small voice, his throat feeling as if it had been ravaged by fire.
Tamina gave him a look of admonishment and poured him a cup of fresh water. "Here." She motioned for Tus to support his brother to avoid another choking incident. The renewed bond between the brothers was not lost on her. Tus' fear that he might lose his last remaining brother had been palpable from the moment she had told him of the dagger and its power. Now that Dastan was alive and awake, the familial ties which bound the two together had grown even stronger.
Dastan was unwilling to let the king leave his side and Tamina found herself feeling like an outsider, witnessing a private moment she had no right to watch. She glanced up at Tus' face as he carefully held the cup to his brother's lips, catching the older man's glance. He nodded and Tamina shifted away from the pair, busying herself with sorting the mess they had made in their desperate bid to save Dastan's life.
Dastan gulped the water down, wishing there were more, but Tus withdrew the cup. "A little at a time or you will make yourself sick." Releasing his brother, he plumped the blankets and skins to create a more comfortable upright position then gently shifted Dastan until his back was raised from the ground. "How are you feeling today?"
Dastan took a moment to catch his breath, feeling like a man of ninety. "Better." He surveyed Tus' face and saw something – guilt? – flash in them before he looked away. "Tus? What is it?" Dastan felt his stomach clench with dread. With all the tragedy that had befallen their family in recent days, fear came to him all too quickly.
Tus shook his head and picked at a fraying hole in the blanket. Dastan sealed a hand over his brother's. "You can tell me."
Tus looked up and met his brother's blue eyes. They were no longer fever bright but lit with the mellow light of evening, exhaustion clear in the dark smudges of shadow beneath the sockets. His cheekbones were carved with lines of fatigue and weight loss, his lips were dry and cracked from enduring hours in the unforgiving heat of the desert. The words burned in his mind and sat like ash on his tongue. He knew what Dastan would say and that made Tus hate himself even more for making it sound like they had a choice.
"Tus, tell me." Dastan's eyes had lost the soft edge of fatigue and were now wide with unease.
"Dastan, we cannot remain here. We do not have supplies enough to hold out another day, not if we want to make it back to Alamut. The journey will take another day or more even if we leave now..." The words tumbled from his mouth, each sentence more loathsome to him than the last.
"Tus, it is all right. I understand. I can do this." Dastan smiled but Tus could see how worn and thin it was compared to the grin he used to flash when a challenge came his way.
"It is too soon...you need more time," Tus murmured, huffing out a breath of frustration.
"Which we do not have," Dastan pointed out. "I can ride. It is dusk. We should leave soon to give us the coolness of the night."
Tus nodded, his face stern and unbending. He could feel himself stiffening inside, stately detachment taking the place of a brother who needed to keep his sibling safe, who needed to know that he would not lose entire family to this cursed dagger. "I will ready the horses."
Dastan waited until his brother had left the tent before closing his eyes heavily against the fading light. He had the strength of a newborn kitten; the prospect of sitting astride a horse, let alone riding one across the desert, seemed as alien as becoming the warrior he used to be. His brother carried enough guilt without Dastan letting him see his misgivings about the stamina he would need for the journey.
They could not remain at this outpost for a night longer, that was a fact that no one could hide from. The other fact, Dastan realised, was that if Tus or Tamina witnessed the enormous effort it was going to take to get dressed, they would not let him leave. If he was going to do this, he needed to get through the agony of movement alone.
Palms to the ground, he held his breath and slowly bent his legs. Dastan's wasting, lacerated muscles protested but he had been sliced in the leg before. He could deal with the relentless dull pain of walking on an injury and a limp was better than not walking at all. Once his feet were planted on terra firma, Dastan braced himself for the onslaught of pain when he actually pulled himself to his feet.
He gingerly leaned forwards, one arm hugging his ribs as if it would hold his insides still, the other anchoring and steadying him to the ground as he began to stand slowly. White pain lanced across his chest and he swallowed the cry, forcing it back down his sore, swollen throat. He thought he heard something tear in his side but did not dare look. He focused on the central tent pole, edging his fingers up it with a white knuckled grip until his legs straightened.
By the time he was standing, or leaning, against the pole, Dastan felt as if his whole head were going to explode. He was gritting his teeth hard and his breaths sawed in and out of agonized lungs, forcing his lacerated chest to rise and fall with cruel intensity. He dropped his forehead against the pole, unable to do anything more than clutch the wooden strut as if his life depended upon it. He concentrated on calming his shuddering breaths and felt the warm trickle of sweat track a path down his neck. Tremors ran through his body without cessation and he began to wonder whether it were his legs holding him up or the vice-like grip he had on the pole.
"Pull yourself together," he quietly chided himself and opened his eyes slowly, casting a searching glance around the confined space for something resembling clothes. Dastan tried to remember what he had been wearing but found it a struggle to keep track of any thought for longer than a second. He did not want Tus to see him like this but a greater part of him knew that, if he did not ask for help in this moment, he would become intimately acquainted with the hard packed sand beneath him very soon.
Clearing his throat, he called for his brother as loudly as he could manage, even that small action causing pain in his throat and chest. For a few frightening moments, Dastan was not sure Tus had heard him and the likelihood of passing out loomed large in the injured man's mind. He called again, hearing the desperate high-pitched edge in his own voice and hating it. The room was shifting more violently now and Dastan began to feel sick. He pressed his forehead against the tent pole once more and closed his eyes but that only made him feel worse.
Just as he began fighting his gag reflex and the urge to vomit, Tus ducked through the tent flap. "Dastan! What were you thinking?!"
"Thank the gods," Dastan breathed, crumpling against his brother's sturdy frame, his forehead coming to rest on the king's shoulder. "Tus..." his voice trailed off as his remaining strength left him and darkness overcame him.
Tus stumbled under the dead weight of his unconscious brother and caught Dastan under his arms. "Woah, woah...Dastan?" His brother's head lolled loosely against his arm and Tus carefully shifted his weight as he lowered the young man back onto the makeshift bed. He arranged his pliable limbs as comfortably as he could then poured fresh water. Supporting Dastan's neck in the crook of his arm, Tus trickled water between his brother's parched lips.
At first, there was no response and the water dribbled uselessly from the corners of Dastan's mouth. "Come on, Dastan, come back to me..." Tus prayed aloud. As if in answer, dark lashes fluttered and the prince's brow furrowed as the cup of water was pressed against his lips. "Drink," Tus urged, and Dastan swallowed reflexively, letting the cool liquid wet his dry throat.
Dazed, blue eyes opened and a half smile crossed Dastan's confused face. "How did I get down here again?"
"Stubbornness," Tus chided, grinning with relief. "What possessed you to try and get up alone?"
Dastan frowned and his eyes lingered on the folds of the tent above his head as he tried to unjumble the thoughts spinning in his brain. "I...wanted to get dressed...but I couldn't find my clothes. I think it started going wrong from there."
"Mmhmm," Tus noted, unconvinced. Then, his eyes hardened and Dastan thought how much he looked like their father in that moment. "Dastan, you could have re-opened your wounds. You are not up for travelling. I do not know what I was thinking."
Dastan levelled an unwavering gaze on his big brother. "But we must...I must. Please, let us not argue. I can do this, Tus. I just need a little help if you will give it."
For a moment, Tus held his gaze and Dastan could see the worry etched on his face. Finally, the king nodded and swallowed, "What would you have me do?"
"Finding me some clothes would be a welcome start," Dastan said, hopefully.
~~~ PoPoPoPoPoP ~~~
It took the pair the better part of twenty minutes to dress Dastan for the arduous journey ahead. Each task of putting an arm through a sleeve or a leg into his braccae was torment for the healing prince. Tus watched his brother closely, noting with anxiety the beads of sweat forming on the patient's skin. Dastan gritted his teeth in determination against the waves of pain wracking his body and swallowed back cries into grunts and gasps. When he caught Tus' worried gaze, he quickly looked away, refusing to be stopped or told that he could not travel. The pain of riding a horse would be nothing if he ended up dead because they stayed here and starved. Nevertheless, he still felt the heat of Tus' eyes upon his every motion, burning like a brand into him.
The injured prince tried to make light of the situation, "I usually like blondes to dress me...a little less hairy, too," but his voice trembled when he spoke, only betraying his weakness even further.
If Tus noticed, he chose not to comment, instead keeping up the pretence. "Looking the way you do, I would be surprised if any woman would come in half a mile of you."
"You're just jealous," Dastan muttered, unable to contain a retort, but just those few syllables left him breathless. He was grateful for Tus' unexpected sensitivity as the two men wrestled with the remaining clothes wordlessly. It was as if the king knew how close his little brother was to the brink of tolerance. Just one kind word of reassurance would vanquish the strength he needed to keep pushing his body. This journey home had to be made. Tus could pretend that they had time to wait but, deep down, both of them knew they did not. Yet, with Dastan's health still greatly compromised, neither wanted to consider that riding out of this small camp might still be the death of him.
~~~ PoPoPoPoPoP ~~~
The sun had almost set by the time Dastan emerged from the tent, grey faced and leaning heavily on Tus. Tamina took one look at the two men and immediately dashed over, pressing a hand to Dastan's hot forehead. "Tus, you cannot be serious. He cannot travel like this."
Tus opened his mouth to respond but was interrupted by Dastan, "I have ridden in worse condition," he said, gripping the princess's wrist and forcing her hand away from his face.
"I seriously doubt that," Tamina snorted, the superior 'know-it-all' tone in her voice that irked Dastan.
Dastan looked imploringly at his big brother. "Just get me astride a horse and I will be fine." To back up his argument, he straightened as much as he could bear and took a faltering step away from Tus' side. Turning his eyes to the sky, he added, "It is almost a full moon. We will have good light to ride by. We should make haste."
Tamina and Tus stood side by side and watched suspiciously as Dastan walked slowly towards the horses. The princess crossed her arms and shook her head. "Tus, really..."
"I know," Tus cut in, his eyes never leaving Dastan's back. "Do you think this is any easier for me? Believe me, I do not wish to lose anyone else close to me." He turned to face her, his voice low and edged with desperation. "If there were time to wait, I would do it. There is nothing to be gained by waiting." Without waiting for her response, he ducked back into the tent to gather the last of their belongings.
~~~ PoPoPoPoPoP ~~~
Dastan needed help to mount the spare horse and Tus was reluctant to let go of his brother when he saw him sway in the saddle. He could see the tension in the prince's face, the planes of his cheekbones drawn in with barely concealed pain. Whitened knuckles gripped the reins and the horse whickered impatiently as Dastan tried to balance himself comfortably in the saddle.
He looked down at Tus' anxious face and patted the hand still vice-like around his thigh. "You can let go now, brother." He did not want to add that the hand was pressing painfully on one of his wounds.
Tus grudgingly dropped his hand to the reins and gently calmed the horse. "Dastan..."
"Don't," Dastan said.
"You did not let me finish," Tus protested.
"I do not need to. I know exactly what you are going to say...so please don't. Let's just get started. Waiting will not make it any easier." Dastan pressed his heels gently into the horse's flanks, urging the beast forwards and away from Tus' reproachful gaze.
The trio struck out into the desert. Tus led the way; many years of study had taught him how to read his direction in the stars and he turned his horse with a surety that put Tamina's mind at ease. It still felt like a dream that their lives had taken such an unexpected turn – her conquerors, once her enemies, could now become dearer than friends to her. Tus' sincerity and kind heart made her pulse quicken but Dastan was a true match for her. He did not treat her as a prince should treat a princess, yet it made the dance even more enjoyable. Tamina's feelings shifted like the sand dunes on the horizon, their allegiance swayed from one moment to the next. These men had brought her city low, yet her hatred had melted into an affection unattained by any reputable suitor at court.
Tamina glanced back at Dastan, slowing her horse long enough for him to catch up. His skin looked ashen, the shadows of his eye sockets and cheekbones like black soot in the pale moonlight. "Have you ever ventured this far south before?"
Dastan blinked wearily as if the princess had roused him from slumber. "I have never had cause to. You have seen for yourself – it is a bleak place."
Tamina looked around her, taking in the gentle gradients of the dunes and the twinkling stars overhead. "You mean there is nothing worth ransacking? I do not see bleakness, I see wild, untamed beauty." She thought how apt a description that might be of the man beside her.
Dastan let out a slight snort of derision. Every step the horse took lighted new beacons of pain throughout his muscles and left him devoid of even an ounce of energy to appreciate the twilight world around him. His broken body cried out for the rest he knew would not come for several hours yet. He wished Tamina would stop talking to him; he did not have the breath to waste on idle chatter. It was all he could do to draw air through his swollen throat and punctured, stitched chest.
Still, it would have been too much to ask that the princess relent. "You disagree?"
"It is easy to see beauty when you travel with food in your belly and fresh water. The desert is nothing more than a graveyard when you are starving." Dastan heard the bitterness in his own voice and immediately regretted his words. From the corner of his eye, he saw Tamina's eyes flash with the prospect of a challenge and felt his heart sink.
"It is really true then? That you grew up on the streets?" Tamina asked, her voice soft, curious and uncertain.
"King Sharaman lifted me from the gutter and made me a prince. I owed him my life and I would have given it freely so that he might live," Dastan whispered, melancholy clouding his voice. He felt a weariness deep within his bones; it was too much to break open these painful, conflicted memories when he was already laid so low. "Tus is far ahead. We must make haste," he said, diverting the attention away from himself. Spurring the horse forwards, dark blotches suddenly danced across Dastan's vision as a wave of nausea rose like the tide, stinging pain lancing through him with every galloping step on the soft sand. He gripped the reins tighter, forcing deep breaths into his aching lungs. He only knew that he had to escape Tamina's incessant questions and bring this torture to an end as quickly as possible.
~~~ PoPoPoPoPoP ~~~
Tus did not like that Dastan had insisted on remaining at the rear of the party. It might be the more chivalrous option to shield Tamina between the two of them but the injured prince was in no state to be protecting anyone. As one hour wore into the next, Tus found himself glancing back with increasing regularity to check that his brother was keeping up. He had been grateful for Tamina's decision to ride alongside Dastan for a time but gradually the gap between them had opened up and the princess had picked up the pace, hoping to encourage the prince's horse along with her own.
In all the battles and skirmishes they had fought alongside one another in, Tus had never worried about Dastan. In fact, he did not recall even sparing a thought for his adopted brother until the fray had come to an end. Tus wanted to believe it was because he knew what a capable warrior the young prince was but he feared it had more to do with an emotional detachment he had developed at an early age. Sharaman and Nizam had always instilled the importance of family in the royal princes but they had also made it clear that emotions were a weakness. They clouded one's judgement and left you vulnerable to attack.
Whether he had taken the lesson too far, Tus only remembered that, as he had learned more about the role of king, he had also learned to block his emotions. It had taken a murderous blow from within the heart of the household for him to break through the dam and realise that even royal blood was fallible. Whether murdered by Dastan or Nizam, the father whom he had never pleased had gone to his grave disbelieving that Tus was ready to be king. Tus would never have the opportunity to prove him wrong. He had lost his father, his brother and, with them, the chance to make them proud. All those dammed emotions now boiled in his veins, making him want to scream to the heavens for the chance to turn back time, to show his family how much he loved them. Only Dastan remained and the king had never felt such strength of love and fear as he did now, seeing his little brother on the brink of death.
He wished they did not need to make this journey and, seeing Dastan's failing strength, Tus questioned his decision. Yet, it had not been his alone. Dastan had understood the situation and insisted that they leave. A strong stubborn streak ran deep in them both, perhaps the closest thing to a filial bond that they shared. Tus had never really considered the ways in which he and Dastan were alike. In truth, aside from his carefree nature and unconventional battle strategies, Tus realised he knew next to nothing about the man he called 'brother'.
Where Garsiv had often done little more than tolerate Dastan, Tus was accustomed to being the older brother and the young street urchin's arrival in the family did not threaten him in the same way. He knew his duty was to become a decisive and formidable king for the Persian people and child's play had always been overshadowed by this knowledge. His relationship with Garsiv had not been much different to the one he shared with Dastan. He saw Dastan as a much needed ally and a link with the people of Nasaf, a loyal commander, bound by family ties. He had shown his new brother affection and enjoyed his company but, until the recent events unfolded, Tus had not questioned the prince's role in his own life.
The gods played cruel games, that they would take away a father and a brother before they could give Tus the capacity to care for his family. The only remaining link with the childhood Tus had lost was riding at his side, and they did not even share blood. For so long, he had been a planet caught in orbit, marked for an endless path, always the same distance from everyone he should want to keep close. Now, the untimely death of Sharaman, followed so swiftly by Garsiv's, had ripped Tus from his moorings.
He watched Dastan valiantly struggle to keep his pain hidden from view as they chased the night across the horizon. What Tus would not give to see the joyous, mischievous warrior he had come to rely on returned to him.
Turning his eyes to the sky, the king searched for the North Star, charting the path that would lead them safely home. They could not afford for him to make an error.
~~~ PoPoPoPoPoP ~~~
By the time dawn broke on the horizon, the trio had made good time but they would not reach the gleaming minarets of Alamut before the heat of the day was upon them. They rode their horses hard for as long as the animals could stand but Tus soon had greater concerns than the state of their steeds. Dastan had been flagging for the past hour, insisting that he could continue and, in spite of Tus' better judgement, they had little choice but to push on.
But, in the grey light of dawn, Dastan's weariness was more pronounced. His face was drawn into tight lines of agony and, when Tus decided to keep pace with his brother, he could hear the rasping breaths of a man fighting against deep pain. The dark line where the hassansin's whip had ravaged the prince's throat stood out in stark contrast to the pale skin beneath. Calloused fingers gripped the reins and pommel as if they were the only things keeping Dastan upright.
"We will find a place to rest soon. We still have an hour before the heat." Tus glanced at Tamina for a response and she nodded. He turned to his brother. "Dastan? Can you keep going?" One look at his brother gave him his answer. Dastan's head rolled loosely, drooping to his chest. This time he made no pretence of being fine. "Dastan?" Tus called, anxiety lacing his voice. He watched helplessly as Dastan's hands dropped limply from the reins and he slid from the saddle, dropping like a stone to the sand. His horse sidestepped and whinnied in protest at the sudden shift of weight.
"Dastan!" Tus shouted, leaping from his horse and rushing to his brother's side. He gently rolled Dastan onto his back, cursing at the heat that rolled off his brother's skin.
Tamina was at his side in an instant. "Dastan?" she echoed, running feather light fingers over his face, gently trying to bring the prince back to his senses. She met Tus' eyes, his panic reflecting her own. "We must get him into the shade." Her eyes scanned the empty horizon where the sand drifted uselessly from one dune to the next.
"There!" Tus pointed to the shadow of a rocky outcrop on far on the horizon, faint enough to make the pair blink and squint, fearful that it was nothing more than a mirage sent to hector them. Turning his attention back to his ailing brother, the king attempted to rouse him. Cupping a hand to Dastan's cheek, he jostled him as roughly as he dared. "Dastan, can you hear me, brother? You must wake up." Dastan's head flopped lifelessly against the king's hand and no words could rouse him.
Glancing up at the princess, Tus instructed, "Help get him on my horse." Easing a hand behind Dastan's back, he pulled the young prince upwards before slipping a hand beneath his knees, gathering him into his arms. Tus swayed for a moment against the weight and shifting sands beneath his feet. He moved towards his horse and, with Tamina's help, managed to secure Dastan in front of him in the saddle.
The heat from Dastan's fevered body seeped through his clothes into Tus and, as he reached steadying arms around his brother, the king felt the fluttering of his struggling heart beneath his palms. Dastan's forehead rolled into the crook of Tus' neck and the king could barely feel the warmth of breath against his shoulder. He sent a silent prayer to the gods for their salvation as he pushed his horse on, diverting the group's course long enough to reach the sanctuary of shade before the sun reached its height.
~~~ PoPoPoPoPoP ~~~
Once he was resting comfortably against the cool wall of rock, Tamina dribbled water between Dastan's pliant lips. She watched him slowly come back them, his dark blue eyes staggering to half mast as the cool water slid down his parched throat. "That's it," the princess coaxed. "Just a little more." He obediently drank, his eyes sliding to Tamina's face, pain reflected like a sparking flame there. Smiling in reassurance, the princess carefully withdrew the skin and placed a cool cloth against his forehead. "How do you feel?" she asked, quietly.
Dastan swallowed, savouring the dampness in his mouth. "Better..."
"Why did you not say anything?" Tus demanded, his voice calm but tinged with frustration and fear.
"Would it have made any difference?" Dastan asked, his lips quirking into a weak smile.
"You may not have needed to plant yourself into the sand so dramatically," Tus asserted, a smile playing on his own lips.
Tamina snorted back a laugh. "I will see what provisions we have left for food." Darting a warning look at Tus, she added, "He needs rest."
Dastan slowly took in their surroundings and he frowned in confusion, "This is not Alamut."
"Very astute, little brother. We have another half night's ride before we reach the city. We would not have made it before the heat of the day. So, tonight we make camp here." Tus gestured to the camp he had erected while Dastan was unconscious.
"I am sorry, brother," Dastan said sadly, his eyes searching Tus' face for his redemption.
Tus reached forwards and took the prince's hand in his own. "Do not be sorry, little brother. You are not to blame. You did what any man would do in your place. I am only sorry that I did not play my part better."
Dastan looked down at the strong, brown hand covering his own. He did not remember the last time he had been so close to his brother. His chest constricted with emotion and he swallowed back the lump in his throat. "Thank you," Dastan murmured, hoping that his voice did not betray him, as he tried to get a hold on the torrent of emotion trying to burst free.
"Dastan?" Tus asked, seeing the struggle in his brother's face.
Those kind words were enough to break the dam and Dastan swiped angrily at the tears that sprang from his eyes and carved rivulets down his sand streaked face. "Gah, I thought I was going to lose you," he choked. "Father, Garsiv...I could not..."
Tus was momentarily too shocked to speak; he had rarely seen emotion in his brothers beyond anger. Dastan had always seemed so carefree and heedless of the real horrors of the world, it was hard to believe he considered anything beyond where the next adventure would arrive from. Tus had learned to confide his secret fears and worries in his wives or, occasionally, the guiding hand of his father. It was alien to see Dastan brought so low. He pressed a hand to his little brother's shoulder in solidarity.
"You may not be my blood...but you are my family. You are all I have left," Dastan whispered, turning swimming blue eyes on his brother's face. "I do not deserve..."
"Sshhh," Tus soothed. "Blood be damned!" Pulling a knife from his belt, he swiftly drew the blade across his fingertip and grabbed Dastan's hand, quickly slicing into the tender flesh of his brother's thumb. Dastan hissed in a breath but, before he had time to react, Tus pressed their bleeding hands together, forcing blood to mingle with blood. "We are one, Dastan. You are my true brother. Never feel that you do not deserve this life." Searching Dastan's face for acceptance, he continued, "We will return to Alamut and Nizam will pay for what he has done."
Blinking back the prickle of tears, Dastan nodded. "My brother," he sighed.
~~~ PoPoPoPoPoP ~~~
Dastan slept for much of the day, roused occasionally by Tamina or Tus trying to force food or water into him. He still ached all over, each muscle and tendon protesting every movement. But he no longer felt light-headed, a small mercy. The shadows on the sand lengthened and Dastan mentally prepared himself for the hard ride ahead of them. Levering himself up with his back flat against the rocky wall, the prince forced his jelly legs to take his weight, and waited for a moment while he fought hyperventilation.
He watched Tamina and Tus prepare the horses, packing up the camp and ensuring the animals were fed and watered for the ride. Dastan swallowed hard. The memory of last night's agonising journey made his head spin and he wanted nothing more than to curl up under a blanket until his body had healed itself.
He had already made a fool of himself, crying in front of his brother, so he may as well continue the trend. "Tus!" he called, focusing on choosing some heroic words to excuse his weakness, but finding none. Suddenly, the king was in front of him and Dastan just blurted his thought out before stubbornness betrayed him. "I do not think I can ride alone. Can I ride with you?"
Tus masked his shock admirably but Dastan had already clocked the look of surprise. "Of course." Wrapping a supportive arm around his brother, the king helped Dastan towards their waiting mount. He hoisted himself into the saddle and reached down a hand to help the prince up in front of him. Dastan took a deep breath, corralling the pain shooting through his limbs and torso. For a moment, he felt the awkwardness of being in his brother's arms but, as Tus urged the horse into motion, an unfamiliar swell filled the prince's chest. He did not know what caused it but somehow it was all intertwined with the man at his back, the girl at his side and hope in the golden glow of home on the distant horizon.