Troubles on the Gumushane road

On the move, northward

“We will be dispensing with this dreadfully slow method of travel, Micaloz,” Vlastimir was explaining. “We have a merchant ship docked north of here at Trabzon. This will take us west to Istanbul where we will meet several members of the order, including our esteemed Cosimo, who even now waits with great anticipation for your arrival.”

“But what will happen with my Nazli?” Melek intoned pleadingly.

“She will also be joining us, though we honestly have no real use for her and can see no reason to bring her along.” Vlastimir paused as he looked around the room, and then motioned to the toothless man and his other companion. They quickly stood and left the room through the heavy wooden door. “Despite the small trouble it causes us to bring an extra body of no use to us, there is certainly value in your continued cooperation, which I assume we would not have if we were to leave her behind. We gave her the choice of continuing onward to Istanbul with us or rejoining the caravan on its way to Pazarkoy. Evidently, she has chosen to stay by your side, though personally, I cannot imagine why.”

“The others in the caravan will be curious as to where we disappeared, and why. They will be asking questions,” Melek said as his left wrist was freed from the leather strap which was binding it. “Are you not worried they will go to the authorities and report us missing?”

Vlastimir struggled momentarily with the right-hand strap as he unbuckled it. “We have also taken care to arrange for that eventuality. Ayberk has made all arrangements for your caravan to continue onward without you. He has delivered a message to them that you were to be detained and delayed, along with your Nazli. Suffice to say, they have business aside from your own and are eager to continue their journey. We paid them rather handsomely to not ask any questions. How easily their silence was bought,” Vlastimir exhaled sharply with a huffing sound. “I don’t think they cared one way or the other, honestly.”

Melek goes peacefully

With both of his restraints released, Melek sat stroking his wrists with the opposite hands. The straps had been rather tight, cutting off circulation to his hands. The feeling returned slowly as he continued rubbing.

“Now, do I need to restrain you further, or are you willing to come along peacefully? I’d rather not execute any further means of restraint. I ask that you come along of your own will and not compel the use of force on our part. Know that we will take you to Cosimo, one way or another.” Vlastimir took a dramatic pause to stoop down and look Melek directly in the eyes with a gaze cold and calculating.

“I will come of my own accord, there will be no struggle,” Melek said, uncomfortable in Vlastimir’s continuing gaze. He was thinking of Nazli again, his mind racing. What had she been told about their predicament? He imagined there would be some explaining he needed to do and his stomach was knotted over what he would say and what she possibly already knew.

Ayberk returned through the large wooden door, leaving it ajar as he stepped into the room, the other nameless man lurked behind him in the hallway outside the door.

“We are ready.” He said, nodding as he glanced over at Melek and back to Vlastimir.

“Good,” Vlastimir said. “Has the cart been pulled around the rear of the building?”

“Yes, we have it all ready and the horses have been watered and fed. We are ready to go.”

“Thank you, Ayberk.” Vlastimir then turned to Melek, his left hand extended toward the door. “Shall we?”

Into the wagon

The morning September air was bright and crisp, having been inside, strapped to the chair, Melek had not noticed how stale the air had become indoors until he stepped outside where it stung his nostrils and chilled his face. There were men standing to either side of him, to his right was Ayberk, to his left the other man who had remained silent and so far, nameless. In front of him walked Vlastimir, his red robes tucked into a pair of heavy wool pants now, another woolen throw wrapped around his shoulders.

Little bursts of steam puffed from the horse’s noses as they pawed anxiously at the street, behind them in tow was a simple canvas covered wooden caravan. Vlastimir walked to the rear of the caravan and parted the heavy canvas flaps. Inside were many sacks containing various rations and supplies for the trip. Lying against one of the larger sacks was his Nazli, who only glanced upward for a moment to meet Melek’s probing eyes.

“OK, up we go,” Vlastimir said, nudging Melek gently.

Melek climbed up over the rear gate between the parted canvas flaps and situated himself against the side caravan wall. Ayberk then climbed in behind him and also situated himself against the side wall across from Melek. The third man also climbed into the back and situated himself next to Melek. Vlastimir closed the canvas flap and climbed into the shotgun seat behind the horses.

“Well, now we will have plenty of time to get acquainted, won’t we?” Ayberk laughed, slapping Melek on the knee as the caravan jerked forward and rattled down the bumpy street.

“What happened to the fourth man?” Melek asked Ayberk.

“Huh? What?” Ayberk acted startled.

“The fourth man. When you first captured me, and when you stalked me in the bathhouse. There were four of you. Now I count only three.”

“Ah. Observant one aren’t you?” Ayberk chuckled as he dug a piece of food from between his teeth with a small pointed stick. He spat it aimlessly into the back of the caravan near the opening.

“Baris has gone ahead of us. He departed two days ago by horseback. He is riding ahead and taking another boat to Istanbul, to let Cosimo know we are coming, and that we have a very special surprise for him in tow.” With this, he glanced over at Nazli, who was still silent. “Well, two surprises that is,” he paused while continuing to pick his teeth. “Provided our luck with weather is good, and the gods of travel bless our journey. We should be over the mountains and in Trabzon by weeks’ end. It’s about a three-day journey by caravan. Settle in, the ride in these things is awful bumpy at times, but it’s a stretch faster than walking.”

The nameless man sitting next to Melek leaned forward and cocked his head, giving Melek an almost cross-eyed look. “I am Kuzey,” he said, smiling.

“Kuzey is…how do we say this? A tad simple, I guess. But he is strong and he is loyal.” Ayberk said.

Kuzey smiled and laughed.

The Gumushane road and a long night at the mosque

The caravan bumped and jostled down the Gumushane road, the mountains looming to the north. All throughout the first day of travel, Nazli remained silent, uttering not a single word the entire trip. Melek was beginning to worry about what they had told her, and why she was not speaking to him. He had to find a way to get alone with her and pry for details of what she had been told. That night at the Buyuk mosque outside Kelkit he finally got an opportunity to speak with her briefly.

The sun was setting in a wine-colored spectacle as they sat together on a makeshift bench outside the lodging hall outside the colorful mosque, not entirely alone. Kuzey, a large brute of a man, stood to watch over them from a distance while they spoke softly.

“I am at a loss as for what to even ask you, Nazli. Not certain what they told you about me, but I am curious as to the nature of your silence. I can hardly bear to see you with that look of distrust in your eye.” Melek finally said, breaking a long silence, half whispering as he leaned toward her.

Nazli turned to him, a look of disbelief and distrust upon her face. “I don’t know what to believe about you. These men tell me that you are a very special person, that a man in Istanbul has been looking for you, and that they must take you to him before we can be allowed to return to Pazarkoy.

“I don’t know who these men are, or how they know you. You are the modest and rather shy church hand from Gyumri. I know you only through your service to the church there, that you served as an undertaker and a handyman. You were tasked with disposing of the corpse of the man who murdered my father and threw my entire life into utter chaos.” She paused for a moment and glanced over her shoulder at Kuzey, who was lingering near the north corner of the outbuilding adjacent to the mosque, watching them carefully as they spoke.

“After the murderer was interred, you disappeared from Gyumri for several weeks. While you were away, the village was raided and razed. I barely escaped with my life intact, and I had nowhere to go. I had no idea what I was going to do, so I traveled north with a small group of women and men who were seeking sanctuary at Marmashen.

“Then, suddenly and rather out of the blue, there you were again. It was a stretch for me to recall your name, as we were never closely acquainted. But yet somehow you were familiar to me, as though we had a history together, perhaps in another life? I did not know what to think of our newfound friendship at the time, but in our journeys together I have come to trust you, which was difficult for me. I’d say I have nurtured a growing fondness for you, as a protector, a companion, and a friend.

“But these events of the last few days have left me very confused, Melek. These men seem dangerous, and I don’t know what they want with you, but I find myself suddenly in fear for my safety again. These men have promised me they will let us both go, and even arrange for our travel to Pazarkoy once we have met with their associate in Istanbul, but I tell you Melek, there is something about them which I do not trust. I feel they are lying to us. I don’t know what they are truly after, but I fear they have motives to which we are not immediately privy.”

“Yes,” Melek sighed, a mixture relief and dread. “They have not really told me much more than they have told you. I am as perplexed as you are. However, I figure they can get us, you, to Pazarkoy much sooner than we would have arrived with the caravan from Marmashen, and with far less peril along the road. I have reservations for our safety as well, but I am also plagued by a nagging curiosity. Part of me really wants to meet this man they speak of in Istanbul, to hear what he has to say, why they have abducted me only to speak with him. What could possibly be so important about a simple man from Gyumri such as me?”

“But why me, Melek? Why have they taken me as well?”

“Well, I suppose it may be because I asked them to. I told them I was acting as your protector. The silk road is no place for a woman such as yourself to be traveling alone. The Marmashen caravan has no personal allegiance to your safety. I feared that left alone, they would just as soon have their way with you. Leave you along the road for dead. I said I would travel with you to Pazarkoy, not because I have any personal interest in going there.

“I said so because I had no interest in staying where we were, at the monastery. Getting you to Pazarkoy again would help ease your mind, and get you away from the pain you have lived through in Gyumri. And I admit, I have some motives of my own which are not entirely unselfish.” Melek paused and swallowed uncomfortably at what he was about to say.

“You are a very beautiful woman, and I had hoped in our travels together we would become close. Close enough that I could be considered your friend and companion. Maybe as a result of this developed closeness, we could find some way to remain together once we reached Pazarkoy. Perhaps even start a new life, together.” Melek reached out and gently placed his hand over hers as it rested on the bench, letting his fingers slowly curl around into her palm, until they were holding hands together, gazing in silence to the west as the final rays of sun disappeared over the mountains.

The two sat in silence for some time before deciding it was time for sleep. Both returned quietly to their group lodging outside the mosque where Vlastimir was already snoring. Vlastimir’s red robes hung from a protruding peg on the far wall near the entrance. Ayberk followed them inside, standing guard at the open doorway as they settled into sleep.

As Melek lay down, he couldn’t help but think of Vlastimir’s robes hanging not twelve feet from where he slept. His mind raced through visualizations of himself sneaking into the robes and finding his small glass vial, stealing away in the night with Nazli at his side. Each time he opened his eyes and glanced toward the door, Ayberk was still standing guard, he was too close and too alert to try anything tonight, though the opportunity was there. It would be a matter of timing if he decided to try anything. He fought sleep for many hours, replaying the information he had gathered in the company of their captors. He had been given no real reason to be afraid or to flee, but something about all of this didn’t make sense. Why would they bother bringing Nazli, other than to ensure his own cooperation?

Troubles appearing on the road

The following day Melek was awakened by Ayberk nudging him in the chest with the butt-end of his wooden staff. When Melek rose, he found that the others had already been loaded into the caravan, waiting for him. He couldn’t recall having fallen asleep the night before and his eyes burned with lack of rest. He rose to his feet and slung on his outer robes, it was cold that morning.

Ayberk followed him outside where they both climbed into the back of the wagon. Vlastimir readied the horses and clicked his tongue loudly, signaling the horses it was time to go. The sun had scarcely risen over the horizon as the wagon dropped into the basin where a secondary fork of the deresi river ran rushing down the hillsides. Here, the road narrowed and began winding along the hillsides punctuated by rocks and scrubby trees. AS vast jagged sea of green sparsely dotted with small farms and simple dwellings rolled out before them.

Rounding a corner of a particularly steep hillside, the caravan was stalled by a landslide blocking the road. Ayberk was called upon to help clear the road of debris rocks so the horses could pass. Vlastimir and Kuzey both also joined in, helping to roll the larger rocks off the road where they tumbled down the ravine, finally splashing into the deresi.

Melek stayed inside the caravan, trying to catch up on his lost sleep the night before.

As he shifted his weight to find a more comfortable spot to lay, he felt with his hand something long and sharp. He had nearly cut his hand on it while shifting the cargo around. His heart raced momentarily as he felt around for the thing, trying to get a hold of it without cutting himself. He carefully situated his body over a pile of bags where he stashed the object within easy reach of his left hand. He still wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but it felt to be about 8 inches long, wide on one end and gradually coming to a sharp point at the other. The thickness tapered, it felt like a long wedge-shaped nail of some sort. Perhaps an iron nail stored for wagon repairs should they encounter a broken wheel or strut?

Melek tried to hide his accelerated breathing and excitement as he felt the other men begin climbing aboard the wagon. He heard Ayberk’s feet dragging outside the canvas flaps behind the caravan as he approached. Ayberk poked his head between the flaps first, then climbed clumsily inside, situating himself opposite Melek on a stack of empty wool sacks. He said nothing to Melek, whose eyes remained closed, feigning sleep as the wagon jolted forward again and bumped over the landslide detritus which remained on the road.

Not long later, they have stopped again, obscenities spewing from Vlastimir’s mouth as the wagon crunched to a full stop again in the road. Ayberk shook himself awake and climbed out of the wagon. Melek could hear him speaking with Vlastimir and Kuzey in hushed tones.

Melek gripped the object behind him, and carefully drew it from its hiding place and into his robes where he held it in his left hand and sat upright.

He looked at Nazli who was hunkered quietly in the front corner of the wagon. ”I suppose I shall see if I can be of any assistance to the other men. It does none of us any good to be delayed on the road at this point.”

Nazli nodded in acknowledgment as he climbed out the back of the wagon, wincing momentarily at the bright sunlight beaming down.

Melek walked to the front of the wagon and saw immediately there was a huge boulder blocking the road again. Several other mid-size boulders and rocks were scattered around the road, embedded in a wave of reddish dirt which had slid from the hillside above.

“This section of road is totally impassible,” Vlastimir rubbed his rippled forehead, shaking his head in disappointment.

“We can clear it, boss,” Ayberk said with a measure of resignation. “But we will need to forage a bit for something to use as a lever to free that large one,” he said, nodding to the huge boulder in the center of the road.

Without a word, Vlastimir paused. He then turned to the front of the wagon, lifting up on the drivers’ bench to retrieve a small iron hatchet from within. He handed this to Kuzey, while glancing suspiciously at Melek, then back at Ayberk. “You take Micaloz here with you up on the hillside and find a strong sapling you can fall. Get us a lever to work the large stone, while Kuzey and I remain here. We will try to clear some of the smaller debris while we wait.” Vlastimir paused again, looking hard at Melek. “And keep a close eye on this one. There really isn’t anywhere for him to go should he escape, and he knows what will become of his girl if he were to try. Still, keep an eye on him.” Then he turned to Melek. “No funny stuff.” He said sternly, pointing a long bony finger.

Melek sees his opening

Melek and Ayberk began climbing the hill to their left, circling the large bare spot where the hill had slid away, heading toward a small clump of pines about a third of the way up the hill.

Ayberk climbed quickly, without much puffing of breath, but Melek was having some trouble keeping up. His feet occasionally slipped out from underneath him, sending little cascades of pebbles rolling down the hill. When they finally reached the clump of trees, Melek sat on a large rock catching his breath. Ayberk immediately began chipping away at an eight-foot sapling. Melek rested for a moment, watching the muscles ripple in Ayberk’s upper shoulders as he swung the small metal hatchet against the tree over and over, sending spicy smelling chips of white wood flying through the air.

Melek stood and stretched, Ayberk almost through the stump with the hatchet. He stopped chopping for a moment and stood, pressing his body weight against the tree, rocking it. Still unable to break it off, he resumed swinging the hatchet. Melek crept behind him, still clutching the sharp nail, shifting it to his right hand under cover of his robes. He got to within striking distance of Ayberk and was poised to stab him in the right side of the neck when suddenly Ayberk stood again and turned around.

There was an awkward pause filled with silence as he quickly surveyed Melek’s posture. Seeing the nail he held in his hand, Ayberk defensively reached out to grab Melek by the wrist just as the nail was coming down. Melek twisted free, the nail missing it’s intended mark. Melek staggered and lost his balance. He clutched at a branch of the tree but only caught a twig, which broke free and sent Melek tumbling down the steep hillside. Ayberk clutched at the hatchet in one hand while holding a tree branch in his other to stabilize his balance as he swung his head around to watch Melek tumbling down the hill.

Ayberk shook his head and continued chopping away until the tree snapped over and slid twenty feet down the hill. He grabbed the tree by its top and rotated it on the hill. This way he could pull it down by its stump, the branches would fold upward and not impede its travel. He continued downhill, laughing to himself as he approached Melek, who groaned and rolled over as he heard Ayberk approaching. Protruding from Melek’s chest, the sharp nail intended for Ayberk, now a gaping chest wound in Melek’s chest, blood pulsing out around it.

Melek had fallen on the nail as he tumbled, it plunged deep into his chest, nicking his heart. Bleeding profusely, Melek gripped the nail and tried in vain to remove it, but it was wedged in the bones of his ribcage. Melek struggled through another short series of gurgling breaths as he heard Ayberk call out for Vlastimir in a panic. The world began fading into dark blotches, eclipsing his vision. Melek faded slowly into death, his blood seeping steadily into the orangey soil. The last sound he heard was Ayberk’s voice calling: “Vlastimir, we have a problem.”