A/N: I had to think up a new direction for the plot because I accidentally resolved most of it in the last chapter. This should eventually tie together all the plot elements and lengthen the fic a great deal.
Chapter 8: Reversal
Three months later . . .
Dastan had always been most at home in the wrestling ring, and what was battle but one, chaotic, loud wrestling match? Bodies pressed up against one another, armor clanking, fists pummeling. There was no room for technique and finesse in the thick of the fight, where endurance, brute strength and luck alone prevailed.
The dust swirled into clouds that choked him. The torturous sun blinded him. His knuckles were bloodied, his muscles ached. He bled from four different wounds, and the world around him was growing dark, closing in on him as if death were drawing the curtains. And he was amazed at the peacefulness of it all. Everyone seemed to move more slowly than usual, as if they had all the time in the world, and he alone understood how near they all were to the end.
Beneath him, his legs buckled. They had failed. As he lay down, without strength to fight any longer, Dastan reflected upon how colossally they had failed. Kosh's men had taken the oasis, as Tus had expected. But they had not forseen his great armies sweeping like a hook through the barren desert to surprise them. Kosh's men arrived at their rear bedraggled, starved, dying of thirst, but in such great numbers that it was like a swarm of locusts come to strip an already dying crop.
Persia's armies were overrun. Kosh had flanked them, and Garsiv's cavalry was enveloped. Their archers were decimated. The infantry (what remained of it) was surrounded, and for all Dastan knew he was the last of Sharaman's sons. He had last seen Garsiv being pulled from his horse too far away for Dastan to reach him in time. Tus, he presumed had either retreated or fallen into enemy hands. Somehow, he knew this was not how his future was supposed to be, but how else could it have happened?
All Dastan wanted now was to lie down and sleep. Somewhere in the background he could hear voices screaming his name. Could it have been Bis? But he no longer cared if it was or it wasn't, for Bis did not belong to the approaching silence.
As he closed his eyes, for what he thought would be the last time, he felt great, strong arms surrounding him. He felt himself being hoisted up, but perhaps that was only death coming to carry him home. His last thought as he lost consciousness was of Tamina, and how he wished now that he had kissed her before he left.
Too late. Not enough time. Never enough time.
News of the defeat came to Alamut before it reached Nasaf. And the last of the Persian contingent came to the gates not as conquerors but as beggars pleading for sanctuary. They entered within with timid faces blacked by dust and blood and shame. Alone among the proud princes who had ridden forth from the city's gates was Tus, who had been so badly wounded that it was probably that he too might die. And when the Persians came into the Princess's throne room, it was a lowly servant garbed in the black of mourning, who came forth and set Prince Dastan's sword before Tamina's feet.
"He died well, my lady. In battle, as befits a true warrior," he said. And as Tamina looked on him, she seemed to recognize him as Bis, Dastan's friend.
She couched upon the dais, shrouded in white and gold. Her eyes were lined with kohl and dark ash, and she appeared to everyone in the throne room like a frozen statue upon a pedestal. Yet inside she was flesh and blood, and her heart was beating faster as she considered the servant's words. They held no meaning for her at first, but seemed as empty as the cold air that blew in the lonely night. Only when he set the sword within her hands, and she felt its weight, saw the ugly notches that marred the blade, and the fraying strips of cloth that Dastan had wound about the hilt . . . only then did she understand what his servant was saying.
It meant there was to be no marriage. The handsome prince whom she had almost learned to love was never to return. She had not known him long enough to truly mourn him, and yet Tamina understood perfectly that her life and her future had grown inescapably darker. His death had cut her youth in twain. The twisting pain in her heart and head confirmed what she had known since his departure: that if she could choose between life with Dastan and life without him, she would pick Dastan . . . Dastan . . . Dastan.
"How?" she managed. She thought of his young body, lifeless now and rotting in the desert sun, and his great soul lost forever. It did not seem fair to her.
"Kosh overran our armies," he explained, with tears streaming from his eyes. "Dastan fought them off, but he was in the thick of the fight. He suffered many wounds. I was with him at the last."
Tamina nodded. "And Kosh?"
"He marches on Alamut."
Her lips fell open, and she stared down at Bis as she struggled to process this information. It was worse than the news of Dastan's death, for Alamut's walls were unrepaired. Its armies were few. The Persians were routed, and reinforcements from Nasaf could not arrive before Kosh. Her conquerors would storm the city, pillaging and raping, and she had no doubt of what might happen to her and her temples.
There was but one course of action, but it was forbidden to her. She could not even think it, and perhaps never would have if the idea of its possibility had not already been planted in her mind. If Dastan had done it before, as she was certain that he had . . . did she have the strength to resist?