Kalathan. Still, when I say the name of my country my heart swells. What is it, that makes me love the land of my birth? How can a land, an inanimate land, inspire such loyalty and fierce devotion in me? There was a time when Kalathan tried to bury people like me, a time when I was worth less than nothing and was robbed of both my dignity and my freedom. I only have to look down at the mark on my wrist to remember. But then, there was a time when Kalathan needed me, a time when I had a choice: save yourself or save your land. I chose Kalathan.
I remember the deep, dark forests through which I journeyed, and the fertile plains beyond. I see the great river, born high in the Northern peaks, running determinedly past the city towards the great lake in the south and remember how its water was almost the end of me. I picture the desolate mountains in the north, the thirst that almost overcame us, and imagine the vast arid desert beyond them. I see the people, tasselled and embroidered scarves adorning their weathered faces, wrapping themselves in furs against the bitter winter winds, mirrored beads tinkling from the doorways of houses and tents in a summer breeze.
It is a different devotion to the one I have felt as I have gazed at my children after they were put into my arms for the first time, different to the love I have felt for my dear husband as we have walked through life together, as I have watched the hair at his temples turn to grey, as we clasp hands before each meal, our fingers no longer smooth and strong as they were in those early days together. It is different to the love and gratefulness I have to God who has made everything what it is, even Kalathan itself – Kalathan in a way is all of my loves, together. It is home, the source and the beginning of the people I love, it is God’s beautiful creation. It is life, sustenance; it is belonging. It is purpose, for me perhaps more than for others who love this land as I do.
Kalathan is a shadow, I believe, of a land that awaits the faithful beyond the borders of mortality. I once thought I was sacrificing everything for Kalathan, but in the end there was mercy; Kalathan has given me more, far more than I gave up.
When the door of the prison cell opened that day, flooding her face with light, she had almost given up hope. It had been months, she knew, since the soldiers had caught her sleeping in one of the lofts in the Temple and taken her away, but exactly how long she had been locked up she did not know. She did know that the cold that had settled itself in the dirty stone of the walls and the floor and mercilessly into every square inch of her body, was not quite as intense as it had been. Spring was coming, but it held no hope of warmth or new life for her.
Trina and her cellmates still kept the lumpy grey blankets they had been given wrapped around them all the time, their scratchy shifts completely inadequate against the might of the cold. For the past few days, Trina had found herself losing her determination to survive all this. She had been so sure, months ago, that she could live through it, that she had survived hard things before, and she would do it again. She huddled in a corner on the pile of musty straw, her fingers tracing the inked mark on her left wrist, not wanting for once to talk to the other two. Conversation and story-telling, clapping games and singing had helped to pass the long, icy hours, but as the days grew longer and she began to sense the change in the air, she struggled to stay cheerful. She wanted to be free again, to have choices again so badly that the feeling had settled in her gut like a stone, and she had to force down the dry bread and gritty porridge they were given twice a day.
When they heard the heavy footsteps outside, clearly not those of one of the silent grey women who brought food and emptied the slop buckets, she did not even consider that it could mean they were setting her free. She had been staring up at the window high in the wall, trying to remember what it felt like to be clean and warm. She did not usually allow herself to dwell on such things; it only made the grim reality of the present harder to bear, but today she had given in and let the memories come. The sound of her little sister’s laugh, the feel of a kitten on her lap ... her old life seemed so terribly far away. She was daydreaming about flying up and out of that window, to the little lop-sided cottage in the craft quarter of the city where she had once lived in the days when her father was still alive, in the days before they had waved good bye to him in his soldier’s uniform and watched him walk away from them forever. She longed to be free, but she knew that if she was ever released she didn’t really have anywhere to go. Trina had stayed in the city after they had got the news about Father, while Mother had gone to the country with Rilla, who must be nearly seven now. Mother had wanted her to come with them, to live with their grandparents, but Trina had pretended not to care. She didn’t want to do that to Mother and Rilla, or to her sweet grandparents. Without her, they had a chance at a life without stigma and persecution. It was just better for everyone, she knew, if she took her chances in the city. Alone. But now, when she had spent what must have been months in prison for nothing more than trespassing and loitering in the Temple, she was doubting her decision.
A key grated in the lock and the door opened. The old sentry stood aside and a soldier stood in the doorway, his red turban and tunic a striking contrast to the dim dullness of the cell. When he said her name it was such a surprise that she almost forgot to answer. “Trina Delkarsin,” he said, his voice echoing against the bare walls, his hand on the knife at his belt. He looked around at the three pale women staring up at him. “Which one is Trina?”
“I am,” she said, scrambling to her feet when she realised what he had said. Perhaps Mother had come to visit her. Her heart leapt with that small hope.
“Come with me,” he said, standing to one side of the doorway.
The others looked at her, their eyes wide. She lifted her chin as she reached the soldier, wishing that she wasn’t so dirty, willing herself to remember that she was innocent, that she was not a criminal, that she was more than the bedraggled, smelly girl he must see in front of him. But he barely looked at her, just grabbed her wrist to inspect the mark on it, took her arm and pulled her through the doorway into the courtyard outside.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked, not really expecting an answer.
He shrugged as he locked the door behind him and looked her in the eyes now, smirking, as if what he was about to say was amusing to him. “To the palace, girl,” he said. “I’m taking you to the palace.”