A/N: Wow, it's been so long...! I have no excuse, except the truth. I've been occupied with other projects, but I've never forgotten about this gem. As always, comments are love!
012 Tamina (continued)
Her eyes narrowed scrutinizing my face, seeking recognition but when finding none, she continued to regard me with caution. Sheik Amar raised a bushy eyebrow in delight.
"You know her?" he demanded with gratifying mirth, looking at me with coquettish humor. "Well, then you'll fit right in!" With a shout the sheik declared in a loud cry that brought immediate chaos to the situation.
The mounted men began to close in, reigning their horses in a smaller loop. My grip on Dastan fastened tighter as he reached down and unsheathed one of the swords. Rough hands grabbed my arms from behind and I let out a scream that pierced the dust choked air. As I struggled to hold on, the sound of whistling sang past my ear. With a sharp clang, something collided with the sword Dastan was holding, causing it to fly out of his grasp.
I was hoisted from the back of our horse and into the filthy arms of one of the sheik's men. The man gruffly put his arm around me in an attempt to quell my squirming. I felt the horse underneath us shift slightly to accommodate the added weight. The cold touch of a blade suddenly caressed my neck and I ceased moving for fear of it cutting my flesh.
"Now, now. No one will get hurt if you just come quietly," Sheik Amar mused waving his hands. "Don't touch your other sword and Seso here won't cut off your hand," he warned nodding to a tall black man in orange robes. The black man played with a lethal looking knife between his fingers, rolling it back and forth across his fingers. It was only then that I noticed an identical one embedded in the sand next to Dastan's horse. I realized that must have knocked Dastan's sword from his hand.
"Let her go!" Dastan commanded, staring coldly at the sheik. I watched with mounting horror as Sheik Amar leaned on his horse and grinned showing his glittering gold teeth.
"I am a businessman and it's in my nature to bargain a proposal, so with that said, if we can come to an agreement…then she is all yours," the sheik slyly suggested. Dastan stared at him with an alert and vigilant expression. I could not see how he was going to get us out of here and my hopes spiraled gloomily.
"I am listening," Dastan declared, evenly and I could tell that he was calculating his chances.
"Well, I seem to be short a rider for my upcoming race, due to unfortunate circumstances," Sheik Amar revealed rather shrewdly. "You take that place and win…and I will give you the girl back."
Something about the sheik's tone was furtive and shifty, but Dastan agreed without hesitation. Commanding his company, Sheik Amar shouted orders and the thundering of hooves kicking sand created a cloud of dust behind us as we galloped away.
Passing the demolished buildings, we followed a faded path for several miles until we neared a fortified gate in the distance. As the entrance drew closer, I realized the barrier was actually long stripped branches fastened together by twine. Although it looked flimsy, it actually was quite strong. Several men in the same garb as the present company greeted us and let the horses through the opening. Riding through an archway, we stopped near a stone building and the men began to dismount.
I was pulled off the horse vehemently by one of the men and dragged into the wide door of the building. Craning my head back, my worried eyes gazed upon Dastan, who was hurrying in after, determination in his own gorgeous face.
"Do not hurt her!" Dastan yelled and proceeded to push the bodies in between us away, but the sheik grabbed his shoulder while the man called Seso loomed nearby, still fingering his throwing knife.
"Oh, do not worry about her. Tamina here will take good care of her. Meanwhile, you and I have to discuss the gold that is involved with this race," Sheik Amar assured Dastan in a fatherly gesture that was lost as soon as his next words appeared. "But just in case you have any tricks up your sleeve…search him!"
The shiek's men began patting down Dastan's robes and within seconds pulled out the steel tipped dagger. The sheik examined it with interest and then handed it to Tamina.
"Melt it down with the jewels," he directed, indifferently. Dastan and I locked gazes for a second, each determining what to do, but the men dragged me off into an adjoining room.
"Dastan!" I called, frightened as I was unceremoniously dumped onto a low bench. The quarters were small, consisting of a large bucket full of clear water, several white gowns, two stools, and a tattered blanket in the corner. The men left in a rush as Tamina entered and closed the door behind her. She glared at me with renewed surprise and came to sit next to me on the bench.
"How did you get this?" she demanded, her voice smooth and cultured, quite different from the men around her. She brandished the dagger in between us, urgency in her features. I swallowed, losing my voice and when I did not answer, she sighed and took a deep breath as if to relax herself.
"Something terrible must have happened, if you have this dagger," she reasoned more to herself than to me. Tamina shifted her dark eyes to stare at the opposite wall and I took the opportunity to observe her candidly. Her long black hair flowed easily down her back covering small shoulders, a slender body and shapely legs. She had removed the veil that covered her face and as I looked closely at the copper skin, sculpted lips, and regal demeanor, I had an uncanny feeling of déjà vu.
"I was told you could help me," I finally said, my voice unsteady. She returned her eyes to mine as if seeking answers. "Recognition in your eyes tell me that you know what this dagger can do. Can you please lead me to the sanctuary?"
Tamina blinked a few times as if what I said was not what she heard. She then whispered in a small voice as if afraid of my answer.
"Is Aara alright?"
I was not sure if I should tell her, but if Princess Aara had trusted me into her care than I owe Tamina the truth.
"She died…in my arms."
Tamina closed her eyes and then covered her face with her hands. The silence that followed was mournful as sobs wracked her body. Small sounds of muffled crying emitted from her as I watched with growing compassion. I did not know how to console her, so instead I remained silent. After several minutes of shedding tears, she wiped her wet face with the sleeve of her dress and raised her swollen eyes to mine.
"It is all my fault. I should have been there for her and now it is too late," Tamina remarked, sadly. Anguish colored her face pale as she sniffed away the impending tears. She reached over and patted my hand. "Thank you for being with my daughter in the last moments of her life."
I gawked at her in alarm, not quite sure I heard her right. My eyes widened in shock, not believing.
"Your daughter?" I whispered, stunned. "You are the Queen?"
A nostalgic smile appeared on her lips as if she remembered something from long ago. I glared at her in disbelief, a thousand questions chasing each other in my mind.
"Was the Queen. I left that life years ago," she simply replied. Her answer was somehow not sufficient to suppress my curiosity. I pressed forward as if needing to know.
"You left? Why?"
She sighed again as if exasperated, but willingly revealed in the same distraught and adrift tone that Princess Aara conveyed to me.
"I feared death and it was only a matter of time before it would claim me. The sacred promise of my order constricted my way of life, dogged my footsteps, always looming over me. The terror of maybe one day giving my life in return for the sins of man horrified my every waking moment. And so I ran…"
"Princess Aara spoke of the same promise, but 'the sins of man'? I do not understand," I said, bothered. Before Tamina could reply, a loud pounding erupted from the door. I jumped, startled.
"Almost ready?" a gruff male voice shouted from the other side. Tamina leaped up and quickly pulled me upright. She ran over to the pile of white gowns and brought one over.
"Hurry, put this on!" she urged. As I hastily undressed, pulling the gray dress robe off, Tamina wrapped the dagger in a swath of beige cloth and set it on the bench next to us. I looked at the white dress and realized it was a two piece sari. The top fit snugly around my chest with a low cleavage line and cut off sleeves that came up to an inch of my shoulders. The bottom consisted of a long flowing skirt that reached my ankles in vertical segmented ruffles. My midsection was bare, showing my flat stomach and skin. The attire was too gaudy and outlandish, but I really did not have a choice. Lastly, Tamina took a long sash the same color as what the dagger was folded in and tied it around my waist.
She eyed the silver chain around my neck for a second and then washed my face briskly and pulled a feathered crown that I had not seen from behind the wash bucket. She secured this headdress to my hair and then picked up the clothed dagger. Creasing back the layers of fabric so that the jeweled hilt of the dagger was revealed, Tamina flipped open the handle and gestured toward me.
"Give me your necklace," she instructed. I did as she asked and watched in dismay as she opened the tiny hourglass pendant. Tipping the white sand into the end of the blade, she gave me back the chain, closed the hilt and tucked the dagger into the folds of the sash at my waist. Tamina, then looked at me with two dark eyes of onyx.
"Press the jewel on the hilt. You will only have minutes to spare, do not waste them. There is a tunnel underneath us, protected by an inner gate. I will leave that gate open at the sound of the horn. You will need to find your way there quickly and leave before anyone finds out."
"What about Dastan? I cannot leave him here," I said, worriedly.
"Find a way to free him before time runs out," she simply replied. I looked at her firmly.
"You are not coming with us? How will I know the way to the sanctuary?"
"The tunnel underneath leads to the sand dunes surrounding Avrat. From there travel north into the mountains of Hindu Kush. The sanctuary is hidden within a small village at the foot of the Hajigak Pass."
Tamina ushered me to the door where more loud pounding sounded.
"My place is here," she said, softly. I turned to her and beseeched in a tone I did not recognize.
"Your place is with your people in Alamut. You do not need to run anymore."
She considered my words but shook her head in response. As if deaf to what I had suggested, Tamina lowered her lashes.
"You must go…now."
Yanking the door open, she led me towards a group of other women dressed the same way I was. We all stood clustered around a small alcove and beyond thunderous voices could be heard. Preoccupied with the noise, I lost sight of where Tamina went. She had disappeared and her voice rang in my head reminding me of what I must do.
To the right of the alcove were stone stairs which I surmised led down to the tunnel where escape beckoned. On the left were stacked several platters, cups, and a large wooden container with a spigot attached. The women began filling up the cups with the liquid from the vessel and then standing in line behind a large gate. I followed suit and when I retrieved my own platter of filled cups, I stood looking out through the barrier. A long dust covered path was made through a wide area. On both sides were fences made of the same bound branches and to the right of this track was a high dais, which stood Sheik Amar. Spectators crowded on both sides, most of them men.
I finally spotted Dastan at the beginning of the race astride the most unlikeliest racing animal: an ostrich. The tall birds with their long necks and black and white feathers were positioned in makeshift rows. Dastan was seated at the back of one of these birds, clearly uncomfortable. The gate in front of the women swung open and we were ushered out, carrying the drinks. As I stumbled out into the crowd, lewd catcalls and cries of vulgarity rang out as the surrounding men ogled us with hungry stares. As we made our way down the lane, we passed several pens holding more ostriches.
Suddenly, a loud sound blasted out from somewhere in the vicinity. The racers were let go as their birds rushed down the track. That must have been the horn Tamina mentioned. I looked around and knew what I must do. Dropping the platter, I stuck my fingers into the sash at my waist and pushed the crimson jewel. A soft crackling sound erupted like the popping of embers in a fire. It grew louder as I felt my body abruptly sway and float away as if I was nothing but a leaf in the wind. The world around me grew blurry as if I was looking through a thick sheet of rain. It seemed like events were suspended in the air and slowed down as if I was watching a picture show. Tendrils of gold flames trailed up the arm that held the dagger, creating ancient runes that seemed etched onto my skin and glowed like the rays of the sun.
I watched in horror and wonder as I saw everything rewinding: the platter at my feet jumping back into my arms, myself walking backwards and behind the gate. I saw myself standing there waiting and then slowly walking back to retrieve the cups and platter. Releasing the hilt, I felt a swoosh of air as if a high current of wind was pushing me forward. Before I knew it, I was standing in line looking around for Tamina. When I realized she had disappeared, I blinked still appalled that I am witnessing what just happened. Trying to calm myself and gather my wits, I filled the cups just like before and went to stand at the gate. Instead of peering at the racers, I looked toward the pens that housed the extra ostriches. There was probably ten to fifteen birds in each pen and there were two of them. My eyes squinted through the bright light to the fence that kept them at bay and I realized it was not locked. Latches were hooked into place and all I needed to do was turn those levers up and the door would open. If I released the birds quickly enough they would run amok throughout the track and cause hopefully pandemonium.
The gate finally opened and the women began walking down the path handing out drinks. As soon as we neared the pens, I dropped the platter and ran over to the door. Pushing the handle up, a soft click echoed and then the gate swung open. The ostriches began running out into every direction. Leaping over to the next pen, I pried that one loose also and more birds scattered into the fray. The result was just as I expected: chaos. Some of the spectators poured into the track, most of them running after the birds. The loud shouts of the sheik from up above were drowned out by the voices of the many men that were now all over. My eyes searched frantically for Dastan through the turbaned crowd. Spotting him not too far away, I maneuvered my way toward him. He was on the ground and as I grabbed his hand, the loud sound of the horn echoed above the din.
"We need to get to the tunnel!" I informed and tugged him toward the building's gate. As we moved through the throngs of bodies and into the small alcove, several soldiers blocked our way. Swinging curved scimitars, they advanced toward me. Dastan shoved me out of the way and grabbed a nearby platter which he used as a shield. Incapacitating the armed guards smoothly with his makeshift weapon, he rendered them unconscious and turned to me. Jumping down the stone stairs that I had noticed earlier, I led him down into a dim room. Torches lined the walls and in the distance, I saw the gate that Tamina indicated. It was operated by a winch and wheel and it was propped open by a block of wood.
"There!" I pointed to the opening as sounds of footsteps echoed behind us. Guards followed closely as Dastan urged me forward.
I hitched up the dress, yanked off the headdress and sprinted toward the gate. Crawling underneath, I appeared on the other side without incident. As I gazed through, Dastan was in combat with two of the men. Swinging a fist into the jaw of one of his assailants, Dastan swung around and kicked the other one in the chest. The two guards fell to the hard ground in grunts of pain as Dastan ran toward me. Rolling under the gate, he stood up and began to pull the heavy block of wood. I went over and tried with all my strength to push the gate up just enough for him to wedge the slab out. The guards had now gotten to their feet and were now rushing over.
"Dastan!" I cried out with exertion as he heaved the wood free. The heavy barricade closed shut with a clang just as the guards reached us. I stood back, my chest heaving from heavy gasps.
"Open the door!" one of the guards said to the other.
"It's locked! I don't have the key!"
Without waiting to see what happened, Dastan grabbed my hand and propelled me down the dark tunnel. Our footsteps echoed eerily through the corridor as we traversed blindly through. After some time, flickering torches greeted us with much needed light. Each of us took one and continued down the tunnel into blackness.
"Good thinking letting the ostriches out," he applauded and winked at me. I smiled, feeling proud.
"I had to do it twice," I answered. His blue eyes widened in pleasurable shock.
"You used the dagger?"
I nodded and told him about my conversation with Tamina. He shook his head as confused as I was.
"The Queen here? It does not make sense!" he voiced my thoughts. "Running away from responsibility is low. There must be another reason."
Could there be another reason? In the lambent darkness, the answers eluded me. I struggled to understand what little information had been given to me, but large holes split the tapestry of our journey making it hard to discern the whole picture.
The tunnel wove up and down for a long time encasing us in dust and gloom. The torches soon burnt out leaving us in blackness. Feeling our way against the hard-packed walls, we continued on until suddenly the path abruptly ended. On three sides there was only the walls and the fourth was the way we had come.
"There has got to be a way out," Dastan urged from somewhere near me. I heard him pounding and then his voice rose over the sound. "There is a door here, on the ceiling. Come here, Lillei."
I walked toward the sound of his voice and found that the floor of the tunnel arched upwards. Reaching out with my hand, my fingers grazed Dastan's arm. He handed me what felt like a cloth sash.
"Put this over your face. When I push this door up, sand is probably going to fall through," he advised. I did as he said and waited as he grunted with effort from pushing. Through the fabric, a sliver of faint light pierced through the darkness. As Dastan heaved open the door, a pile of heavy sand rushed down through the hole. The grit rained upon us, but with Dastan's smart thinking, we both were not buried underneath.
He climbed up using his upper body strength to propel him. Reaching down for me, Dastan hoisted me up through the door and into twilight. The day was almost gone and the sun had nearly disappeared from the horizon. Soon dusk will blanket the land and the stars would shine.
Shaking the excess sediment off my head and dress, I looked around at the dunes that stretched for as far as the eye could see. In the waning light, the landscape looked strangely beautiful. Dastan patted his shirt and swiped his pants and then looked at me with concern.
"Are you alright?" he asked worriedly. He touched my cheek tenderly with his fingers. A ripple of euphoria flashed through me causing affection to pound fiercely in my heart.
"Of course," I reassured him as he smiled.