The Great City of Erzincan Finally in View
Eleven days later the caravan was approaching Erzincan. As the chill of late September began to settle in, a haze hung in the sky from the cooking fires of many homes. As the sun tucked itself away behind the mountains in the west, a brilliant purple and orange glow hung in the sky. This was the second of the larger cities they would cross through on the journey, Erzurum being the first, though it paled by comparison in many ways. Marco Polo had written about Erzincan, calling it the noblest of cities, with its large contingent of metal workers who crafted fine copper bowls and decorum. The grandeur of the city was incomparable, with the mountains surrounding it on either side, the wide river valley where cattle and sheep grazed which rolled out before them like an endless green carpet.
Nearly two hundred years had passed since a large earthquake had shaken the city to its core, leaving the markets in shambles and homes in piles of rubble. But the people of the city were strong, resilient, and numerous. It was rebuilt quickly and had recovered even stronger than before. Its markets were a bustle of people and goods lining the streets with colorful carts and food stalls. There were also numerous soaking pools and bath houses with naturally hot waters flowing through them which had remarkable healing properties.
Easier Travels Along The River
The caravan moved quickly along the road the past few days. Along the Euphrates river, the road is well maintained. Travel between Erzincan and Erzurum was frequent, and they passed many other travelers along the way. Food had been plentiful along the road as well, and easier to obtain. Tulum peyniri cheese and dried beef were common in the area and were traded for cheaply. Spirits among the group were high as they approached the city, and it helped ease the minds of the group to stop in Erzincan for a couple of days to refuel.
There had been moments of tension among the group as they left Selim ten days before. Upon departing the tiny outpost there, they had to cross a dangerous pass on a poorly traveled section of road. Adding to the tension was the presence of a group of mysterious travelers who flanked their group from a distance.
Whispers amongst the men in the caravan had them all at the ready, expecting confrontation. This other group was traveling by horseback which made them much faster, and they did not appear to be carrying any kind of significant load. The combination of the presence of this group and crossing the mountain pass had the caravan on high alert.
The group had to make camp alongside the road several nights in a row due to the lack of suitable outposts along this particular stretch. Once they had finally descended into the narrow Karakurt valley where the Aras river made a bend to the southwest, they joined the main east/west road and the travel improved considerably. The mountain pass was navigated without incident in spite of all of the worry going around the group. Ultimately this leg of the journey passed without incident. The mysterious riders had disappeared the second night in the mountains, likely riding ahead on the road making better time on horseback.
The group passed through Erzurum quickly, hardly stopping to rest. A fairly major post along the road, Erzurum had suffered repeated devastation and looting the last hundred years. Erzurum was slower to recover from these incidents. Many of the citizens who survived the Mongol attacks had migrated westward to Erzincan. The presence of the archdiocese and a large army there made for a safer home. The city was still in considerable disarray when the caravan passed through, they stopped only to rest overnight and resupply the group with necessities for the next leg of their journey from Erzurum to Erzincan.
The Caravan Arrives at Erzincan
The caravan made for the outpost toward the center of Erzincan where they would rest for the next few days. They had planned on staying at minimum two nights in Erzincan, to do some trading and rest the weary legs of the camels and men. There was much food and drink and song to be had. No time to be wasted once they arrived, they housed the camels in a crowded stable and left quickly, disappearing into the streets.
Melek remained behind, staying with Nazli, who had little interest in wine and song. Instead, she wished only to stroll through the market and dream of her old home in Pazarkoy. They walked for a while and found a place to sit outside a picturesque mosque in the town center. They spoke casually about the trip ahead and behind them, and the mysterious group of travelers following them days before. Night was beginning to fall over the city, and Melek decided to go to a bath house known for its healing waters for a soak before returning to the caravanserai for the night. After seeing Nazli safely back to the outpost, he bid her a good evening, and with a respectful bow he headed to the bath house.
A Strange Conversation in a Crowded Bath
Bath house packed with people, Melek enters through an archway ornately decorated with tile patterns picturing Isparta roses. The sulfuric scent of the waters wafted from the pools. The murmuring of bathers was a low rumble echoing through the tiled rooms. Melek undressed, leaving his robes in a woven basket against the wall outside the grand chamber and climbed into the hottest pool of steaming water. Melek began feeling the effects of the soak almost immediately, the heat radiating through his weary leg muscles and back. He leaned his head against one of the soaking pillows which ringed the large pool and closed his eyes.
He tried to tune out the conversations around him as he stroked his coarse beard, combing through its many tangles. A group of four men entered the pool and sat across from him, and Melek noticed that their conversation was slightly unusual. They were discussing details of an important mission and spoke in hushed tones so as not to be overheard. Melek wondered for a moment if these were the same travelers he had seen following the caravan days before.
Melek listened carefully, eyes closed. He could distinguish only snippets of the conversation, and it sounded as though the men were looking for someone. Someone who held a certain importance to other men of stature and importance in Istanbul. It did not sound like they were looking for a criminal, but it was difficult to determine exactly what they were seeking. Melek listened intently at first but found himself drifting off into sleep. He repeatedly had to force himself awake. It was not good to sleep in the bath, one could drown that way, or cook themselves in the hot steamy water.
Melek started to feel he was overheating. Standing, he slicked his hair back and moved to a smaller cooling pool on the opposite side of the grand chamber. The hour was getting late and most people were beginning to clear out.
The group of four men had disappeared into another pool partially obscured by steam. Melek closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them the bath house had nearly emptied. He rose from the cool water and found his clothing in the wicker basket against the wall. Dressing, Melek left the grand chamber and passed into the entry hall lined with padded benches where men gathered talking smoking from tall hookahs.
Melek is Captured. Has Someone Mistaken His Identity?
The streets had emptied out considerably since he had gone into the bath, and Melek hurried back to the outpost. The air had a snap of cold which nipped at his skin, still perspiring beneath the robes. He turned a corner away from the market streets into a dark passage running between rows of closely situated stone buildings. He had gone about half the distance to the outpost when he heard an abrupt snapping sound behind him. Turning to see, he felt a firm hand suddenly on his shoulder and a cloth bag was thrown over his head. Before he could even begin to struggle he felt a sharp blow near the base of his skull and he lost consciousness, collapsing onto the ground.
When he awoke, he felt his arms shackled to a chair. The bag was lifted from his head, and Melek saw he was in a dimly lit windowless room. Three of the four men from the bath house were sitting in chairs in front of him. The fourth held the bag in his hand at his side, stooping over to look him in the eyes. He smiled through a scraggly and unkempt beard. “Greetings, Micaloz!” he said in an exaggerated cheery tone, his unabashed smile showing his jagged crooked teeth stained brown.
The three seated men chuckled amongst themselves, exchanging knowing glances. They nodded as though pleased with themselves. Melek, struggling against his restraints, panicked. “You have the wrong man, I am not Micaloz! I know of no one with that name!”
“Oh, it is not your name, this we know. Now, what is your name, your true name? This is what we do sincerely hope to find out,” the man seated in the center said, clasping his hands. “And we fully intend to do whatever we must do in order to find out.”
“Melek! Melek is my name! I am from Gyumri. I assure you, I am not the man you seek.” Struggling against his restraints, his head throbbing from the blow. A row of candles burned half way down flickered gently on the small table in the corner.
“Oh, you are the one we seek. This we know. We have been watching you for some time and we are quite certain we have the right man. You have nothing to fear from us, we just want to talk,” said the man seated to the left.
The man with the stained teeth turned and spat on the floor. “You are a very special prize to our associates in Istanbul. A very special prize, indeed.”
Melek struggled against his restrained arms, clenching his fists tightly and pulling. “I have no idea what you are talking about, or why you would consider me such a prize. I swear to you I am nothing more than a humble peasant and servant of our Lord and only wish to make my way in peace. Please release me at once! I am trying to get to Pazarkoy. This is truly an outrage! Why am I shackled so?”
“Oh, a servant of our lord, are you?” The men chuckled again. “I swear we mean you no harm, but we cannot let you go. Our associates have paid us dearly to find you. It has taken us a long time, and we have traveled very far. We have seen the mark on your chest and we know it is you we seek.”
Melek thought of the birth mark on his chest which resembled a key. Lodged deep in his memory, Melek recalled it had always been there upon his chest, though he thought nothing of it. Every host body he had ever found himself in bore the same mark.
“We are aware you likely do not understand. But we are here to help you. Our associates have much to teach you, and in time you will understand. For now you must come with us, back to Istanbul. If you come willingly, you shall truly be treated as a prince. If you do not, we must take you by force. Either way, you are coming with us and we are prepared to take drastic action to ensure your safe delivery to our associates.”
Melek puffed heavily, pulling against his restraints. “There is a girl traveling with me, what shall become of her? I cannot leave her to travel alone with the caravan. She will wonder what happened to me and I do not wish to leave her to worry. My every thought is of her and for her alone my heart beats out of my chest. I have promised her I would return her to Pazarkoy. I protect her! What of my promise to her?”
The men laughed amongst themselves, nodding and motioning to Melek as he spoke.
“Oh, you love her, do you? Do you protect her? All things considered, we know who you are. So please drop the needless pretense.” The man seated in the middle suddenly stood. He had Melek’s leather satchel in his hand, from which he retrieved the vial of red-brown liquid and held it in front of his face, flicking it with his index finger. “You killed her father! You snuck into her home under cover of night and mercilessly slaughtered him while he slept! And what of this? This foul alchemical solution? What, precisely is your inner intent here? You best begin being honest with us, let alone honest with yourself. You are a monster, Micaloz, but you don’t have to be. In time you can learn to go great good in this world.”
“You call me Micaloz again! I do not nor have I ever known anyone bearing that name.” Melek was shouting now, though suddenly his heart beat not out of love for his Nazli, because instead he was frightened. How could they possibly know it was he who had committed the act of killing Nazli’s father? He was a different man then, in a different body, a different lifetime. His mind rushed for a possible explanation but there was none. For a brief moment, he began to doubt himself.
“I told you to drop the act, Micaloz. We already know more about who you are then you are likely to even know yourself. As for this foul tincture, you carry. Perhaps a demonstration will jog your memory?” He motioned to the man with the brown teeth, who then proceeded to a door in the wall behind where Melek was seated. He returned with a stray dog, leading it with a scrap of meat. The dog greedily scarfed down the scrap and sniffed at the man’s pouch for more. He took another larger scrap of meat from the pouch and handed it instead to the man holding the vial. He uncorked the vial and dripped a small amount of the tincture on the meat. The dog whined hungrily, instinctually sucking in his ribs to appear more emaciated and pathetic.
“Let us see what becomes of our little experiment.” The man clicked his tongue and dropped the tainted meat to the floor where the dog again gobbled it up.
No sooner had the poor animal swallowed the meat than it started to whine uncomfortably. The dog suddenly begins pawing at its snout and rolls over onto the floor with a sad whimper. With a sound like the crumpling of parchment, right before their eyes the dog was turned to stone. The transformation began at the dog’s mouth and then proceeded through its body, finally emanating from its gut. The room fell silent and the candle light flickered.
“Care to explain?” The man said, looking Melek in the eyes with a steadfast gaze.