Monday, May 18, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 20)

Chapter 34 
Rumelia Hissar, The Bosphorus. 
27 June 1638

The long caigue with its' eight yedekdjis boatmen was making slow progress against the very strong current that swept the waters of Euxine around the promontory known to local fishermen as the Cape of Women. The name alluded to a fair Sultana drowned at this point when her boat was wrecked by the viscous swell. Although the journey distance of six miles from their embarkation at the arsenal on the Mamora shore of the city was not unduly long the effort of overcoming the current had fully exhausted the oarsmen. In addition, a strong southerly wind was getting up and its opposing force was whipping up the river surface and submerging the quay and jetty piles. High above them Rumelia Hissar – the Fortress of Europe – brooded with its' three massive towers. 
As Catherine looked up at the south-eastern tower - its' conical wooden roof surmounted by green and blue banners - she nearly fell overboard as the boat thudded against the quayside. The helmsman was shouting out orders at the bowman who was having difficulty in securing the mooring lines on the wet wooden platform. Catherine slipped as she stepped over the gunwale but helped by Murad - who had insisted on accompanying her - regained her footing and soon reached the dry steps of a small kiosk perched beneath the walls.
From the castle gates a troop of soldiers were rushing to meet them. They wore green dolama coats over blue trousers and were armed with  saska sabres and large calibre snap-lock muskets with rounded shoulder butts. None were wearing bork caps and instead their heads were covered with tightly wound turbans. As they approached at speed Catherine remarked to Murad that they did not look like Janissaries. 
He whispered in her ear. “You are right. They are kale azaps, volunteer Anatolian bachelors. This particular unit are known as the divanegan or madmen but are commanded by a Janissary corbasi from the fourteenth cemaat division. His name is Hosrev Beg and a more soulless man you are unlikely to meet. His sinecure here is a reward for his loyalty to the Sultan in suppressing other Janissary units. We will meet him soon enough.”
Catherine adjusted her veil to fully cover her face and they were escorted through the gates to the inner courtyard of the castle. As they did so she noticed the marble lintel stone with the Arabic letter mim engraved on it just above the gate. After climbing the interminable steps they reached the courtyard and were met there by a small man in an elaborate uniform and with a tightly curled moustache. He had trouble controlling his sneering welcome. “What brings the famous Black Murad Aga on a visit to my garrison to share my meagre pilaff? If I had known you were coming my mehterhane band would have been at the quayside.”
Murad bristled and touched the hilt of his sword briefly before deciding to ignore the sarcasm. “I am here to see your prisoner . . . the Patriarch Loukaris.”
Hosrev Beg eyed Catherine suspiciously. “And this woman?”
Catherine and Murad had already discussed a cover story. “She is the Patriarch’s niece and you will see from this passport issued by the azar basi she has permission to see him.” Murad proffered the sealed scroll and after allowing the garrison commander time to read it, snatched it back. 
Hosrev Beg spat at the ground. “Very well then. But you’d better be quick and say your farewells. The Greek is to be executed at sunset. The order came through earlier today. Cavus!” He shouted at the nearby azap sergeant. “Show them to the prisoner.” Hosrev Beg smiled as he watched them being escorted away. 
Catherine barely suppressed a gasp as she staggered and leant heavily against Murad. The cavus led them across the courtyard and down the steps towards the south-western tower. This had been built by the pasha Khalil and was known as the Tower of Blood. Here -Catherine knew - had been incarcerated the most important prisoners of the Sultan’s wrath, and she could feel the desperation of past agonies from the walls as they were led through a rat infested tunnel until eventually reaching a heavy wooden door. The iron bolt was pulled aside and Catherine went in. Murad remained in the corridor.
The cell was dark and dank and as Catherine lifted her veil it took some time for her eyes to adjust to the small amount of light coming from a slit sentry window high above her. She first heard the rasping cough and then saw the curled figure of a frail old man on a litter in the corner. She knelt by his side. “Patriarch Loukaris! What have they done to you? ”
The elderly man dressed in his simple monk’s habit struggled to sit up. His eyes lit up when he recognised his visitor. “Catherine my child. Thank you for coming.” By now she was crying and as he took her hands in his, he could feel Catherine shuddering when she felt the cold clamminess of his skin. “Stop that my daughter. I am an old man and your tears will break what brittle sinews I have left.”
It took Catherine some time to compose herself before she could tell Loukaris of the execution order. He appeared calm indeed almost relieved.

“Do not distress yourself further my child. I knew this was imminent and that is why I arranged with the garrison Bektashi Imam to send a message to Murad to have him bring you here...” Loukaris began coughing and his fight for breath meant that his fingers and lips became blue. Catherine stood up and brought him a small beaker of water. She sat down beside him and held him until the coughing subsided. He took a small sip of the rancid water. “For many years I have been a thorn in the side of the French and their Austrian puppets. They recognised my antipathy to the overtures of Rome, and it’s desire to absorb my church, and were fearful of my dialogue with Protestant leaders such as Bishop Laud in England. My fate was finally sealed when I recently anticipated and blocked their attempts to give the Franciscan’s control of the Holy Places in Jerusalem. The Austrians I understand, prostituted by de Cesy, have lined the ample pockets of Grand Vizier Beiram Pasha and falsely accused me of inciting the Cossacks in Azzov to invade, thus interfering with the Sultan’s plans to attack Baghdad. It is on this account that I find myself here. Precedence for the firman ordering my execution already existed in that Sultan Murad had previously dispatched a Grand Mufti for his perceived lack of support for the Persian campaign...”
Another coughing fit brought his explanation to a halt and this time it took even longer to settle. Catherine was powerless to help. Loukaris struggled to control his breathing. He held her hand tightly and spoke quietly as he saw the concern in her eyes. “My child. Have we not travelled some interesting roads together exploring the limitations of intellect in understanding the true nature of our Creator?” Catherine lowered her head slowly and sadly. Loukaris paused again to draw some respite from the coughing and then continued. “It is far more likely, given the intensity of the French enquiries, that de Cesy acting for Richelieu, wished to prevent certain Scrolls in my possession falling into Protestant hands. It is my stout guardianship of these that has determined my fate.”
Catherine tried, unsuccessfully, to conceal her knowledge. “What . . . what Scrolls Patriarch Loukaris? Why are they so important? ”
Loukaris smiled. “Catherine my sister. You cannot hide your destiny from me. I have known since I first met you that your Path and mine are linked. The manuscripts that you seek came into my care from the Angelicks for a reason. The responsibility for their guardianship had to be removed from the world of men where the power of their revelations would be used for evil. That legacy, that onerous responsibility, whether you like it or not, is now yours.”
Catherine stuttered shamed by her puerile attempt to hide the truth. “Was . . .was it so obvious? ”
Loukaris nodded limply, the effort of speaking having drawn most of his depleted reserves of strength. “Not initially but when I was confronted by the various agents of France, Spain, Venice and England and their machinations to seek out the Scrolls then your destiny and my part in it became clear. Wherever your Path directs you, be assured that the true and intimate presence of our Creator will be guiding its direction. You have my blessing.”
Catherine once again knelt in front of Loukaris and held his hands. “Where are the Scrolls? ”
Loukaris watched as an ember of the evening light filtered through the window above. “In the monastery of St. George on the Prince’s Islands. You will have to hurry in your quest as I, with the agreement of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, have recently authorised their transfer to the Athonite Iviron Monastery.” He slipped a ring off his finger and pressed it into her hand. “Take this ring with my sigillion to the hegumen of St. George’s and its' authority will ensure that the Scrolls are given to you. Now call in Murad as I wish a private word with him.”
Catherine pulled down her veil and after taking her leave from Loukaris opened the door and called into the corridor. Murad came in and as she left the cell she caught his eye and shook her head silently. After a few minutes he returned, gently closing the door behind him. Catherine tried to push past him. “Murad I want to go back in to Loukaris. Let me pass.”
Murad turned his back to her and pulled the bolt across. The accompanying azap sergeant checked that it was secure. Murad turned again and taking Catherine’s elbow leant forward to whisper in her ear. “No Catherine, the Patriarch does not want you to. He asked that he be left alone to make his peace with God. We must leave quickly.”
Reluctantly she followed him back up the dark tunnel to the courtyard and without stopping to pay their respects to Hosrev Beg they descended quickly to the quayside gate. On reaching the boat the crew were startled by their sudden arrival and made an effort to jump out and meet them. They stopped when a harsh command from Murad ordered them to remain aboard and to ready their oars. He cast off the mooring lines himself before helping Catherine climb in.
The swift current immediately caught the hull and drew it away downstream towards Constantinople. Murad was aft giving instructions to the helmsman but Catherine could not make out what he was saying. Her gaze switched from the two men to the tower before finally turning to watch the rapidly setting western sun.

It was not long after they had left when Hosrev Beg entered the cell of Loukaris. He found him kneeling, facing towards the wall, deep in prayer. The old man did not turn to see his executioner. Taking a silk cord Hosrev placed it around the Patriarch’s neck and knotted it violently. Despite the little strength left in his battered body Loukaris struggled against the garrotte. Hosrev became angry and placing his knee in his victim’s back pulled back so hard he caused the neck to snap. All resistance was instantly gone and the body slumped to the ground. Hosrev removed the cord and replaced it with a noose of hemp rope. He then ordered the guards to drag the lifeless body through the courtyard and down to the quayside. It left a trail of blood and faeces behind it.
On reaching the water’s edge the azaps placed the body in a weighted sac and threw it into the black waters of the Bosphorous. Away from the lights of the quayside it was almost pitch-dark as the splashing sound of the thrown sac echoed against the fortress walls. It floated high on the surface for some distance only gradually sinking as the trapped air within it was expelled. Just as it appeared to finally submerge a fast moving boat approached. There was an urgent shout. “There it is! Hand me the boarding gaff. We have very little time. Get closer.” Murad’s voice was strident. The sac had dipped fully beneath the waves just as the bow of the boat reached it and released from its buoyancy began its sharp descent to the rivers bed. Murad plunged in the gaff, with the expert skill of the practised spear fisherman he was, and with a quick lateral movement searched for and snagged its sodden cloth. With great effort and slow movements least the weighted bundle be pulled from his tenuous hold, by the current, he guided the sac to the lee gunwale where it was hauled aboard. Murad cut open the cloth to confirm that the body was indeed that of Loukaris. Catherine’s anguished cry at the pained death mask of the gentle Patriarch was drowned out by the roar of a single cannon being fired from the now distant castle. “Make for the village of Arnaoutkeui, helmsman. The monks of the Church of St.  Michael will receive the body and execute his burial wishes. The akindi current will carry him to his final and deserved peace.” 
There was silence between them for a while as Catherine stared down at Loukaris' face. Murad eventually broke it. “ I know this is not a good time but I also received before we left Mamara some distressing news from Vlore.”
Catherine had learnt to dread Murad’s matter of fact tone. “Where is Vlore? ”
“Vlore or Valona, as the Italians call it, is in Albania. It seems that Ali Bitchnin’s fleet was suprised and routed by the Venetians. Over 2000 slaves were freed. Unfortunately Murat Reis was killed.”
Catherine stared at him. “ I thought Murat was a captive of the Knights in Malta. When did . . .”
Murad interrupted her. “Sorry. No...not the Murat we both know, but another, more famous, captain from Algiers who was the beylerbey in the Morea. He and Bitchnin were friends and had arranged to sail together...” He hesitated for a moment. “Djivo was with that fleet. There is no gossip of his whereabouts or even if he is alive. I am sorry.”
Catherine slumped to the crossbench. To Murad it appeared as if the black waters of the rushing current on which they rode rose up to carry away her spirit. 

©R.Derham, 2001,2009

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