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The Curse of Kalathan

Kate le Roux


Copyright ©2020 Katherine le Roux

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or other, except for brief quotations in critical reviews or articles, without the prior written permission of the author.

Any references to historical events, people or places are used fictitiously. Names, characters and places are products of the author’s imagination.

Cover Design: R&I Designs


The Curse of Kalathan

Trina has been thrown into prison for trespassing in the

Temple loft – not surprising for someone marked and cursed as

she is. What is astonishing, though, is that now that her time

is up she is not being thrown back onto the streets: she is being

taken, of all places in the whole of Kalathan, to the palace,

home of the six princes she has fangirled over all her life.

Theo, eldest of the princes, is convinced that the pilgrimage

he has been sent on by his father is a pointless waste of time.

But the shrine holds a sinister secret that plunges him, his

brothers and the devilclaw Trina into an adventure that will take

 them across Kalathan and into the Empire, where it will be up

to them to challenge the Emperor and his icy daughter for the

future of their beloved land.

Prologue

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.

Chapter 1

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.”

Chapter 2

Theo was mad. He stood with his brothers in front of the king and queen, his arms folded, trying to control the muscles in his face so he wouldn’t betray his frustration. Again, Father was going to make him waste his time on some stupid religious pursuit. There were a thousand things he would rather do than spend a week sitting on a horse, just to feed some poor cow or sheep to a fire in a shrine. He had only yesterday found another old scroll in the archives that he wanted to get stuck into translating, and he needed to keep up with his training if he wanted to beat Kaspar at the archery tournament again this year. Kaspar was nearly five years younger, still a boy really, but he was getting better every day. Theo wasn’t ready to give up his title to his seventeen-year-old scrap of a brother; no way was he going to let that happen. The twins didn’t care; they always did well in the games without training much, but all they really wanted to do was play their silly lutes and flutes and make up songs. If they were all going on this ridiculous pilgrimage, there would be plenty of time for singing and all that along the way. But there was no library on the road to blasted Paristia. Just miles of road, acres of fields and farms and a few dirty inns.

“Father,” he said, looking over at his mother, who had walked over to the window of the high-ceilinged parlour where the family had gathered. She gave him a sympathetic smile, pulling aside a heavy brocade drape to look out over the green courtyard. “Are you sure? I thought things were going better on the border.”

“No, no,” said the king, shaking his head and rubbing his forehead. “They were, for a while, but not lately. There have been rumours about the Empire’s latest plans, and a few unprovoked attacks on the garrisons near the Kirgiz pass. We need the Spirit’s help. We need to prove our devotion.” Father always wore his crown over his turban unless he was in his private apartments, and Theo knew the heavy jewel-encrusted gold was uncomfortable. He had to wear one himself, when they went to worship at the Temple, and he hated it. When I am king, he thought, I will not wear that crown every day. Neither would he wear one of those hot old-fashioned turbans or bother with that line of black kulal under his eyes. And he certainly wouldn’t waste precious time going on pilgrimages to appease spirits that he suspected didn’t care much whether anyone visited them or not. He doubted that appeasing a Spirit would make any difference to what was happening on the border. But he felt guilty, instantly, for his disloyal thoughts. His father was the king, placed and held on the throne by God himself. Even if Theo thought this pilgrimage was unnecessary, whatever his opinions regarding spirits and shows of devotion, that didn’t mean he should doubt his father’s authority and wisdom.

There was a rattling from the corner, a clanking of charms and a rustling of fabric as a figure rose from the chair in the corner. Theo’s heart sank as Shihazar, the prophetess, Father’s spiritual advisor, made her way across the room towards them, her thick hooded cloak a darker red than the robes the priests wore. Wonderful, he thought, watching as the fold of the cloak trailed behind her, making her look as if she was floating over the floor. Theo wondered if she practiced it in front of a mirror and decided he wouldn’t put it past her. He had never liked her; she smelt funny and he had always had the feeling that she didn’t like him. He should have realised she was behind this. “It is the will of God,” she said in her raspy voice. “The Spirit of Victory requires our devotion before he will aid us to defend ourselves against our enemies.”

“Why do we need to travel all the way to Paristia to show our devotion?” asked Kaspar. He looked around expectantly at his family and Shihazar, and Theo almost envied him his innocence. Kaspar always said what he thought and asked what he wanted. He was almost as tall as Theo now and promised to be taller, but his smooth open face under his glossy dark hair still betrayed his youth. Theo looked more like his father – the image of him in looks and character, people said, broader in the chest than his brothers and with the same softly curling dark hair as the king’s. Theo had questions and opinions, more, he suspected, than Kaspar did, but he had learnt not to speak out too quickly. He had learnt to look for answers himself.

If Kaspar was expecting a straight answer now, Theo doubted he would get one. Father was a good king – except for the recent trouble on the border, for the more than twenty years of his rule Kalathan had thrived. He was respected, if not always liked, and even his family were a little in awe of him, of the weight of the divine right he carried. But lately, when it came to religious matters, Theo felt that Father wasn’t as wise as he could be. He listened to crazy old Shihazar too much, that was certain.

“It’s because the shrine is there,” said Jandrin, one of the twins, leaning back on the long couch where he and Jameth had stretched out, all long arms and legs, when Father had finished explaining what he wanted them to do. They were both in green silk today, dressed alike as they often were. Dandies, thought Theo, noticing their pointed boots, the mother-of-pearl buttons on their thigh-length tunics, their long golden hair touching the embroidery on the high collars. “The spirit lives there, doesn’t it?”

“It is there,” said Shihazar, her gravelly voice rising in a crescendo and making Theo cringe, “that the Spirit is most accepting of our devotion and sacrifice!” She turned to the King and bowed low, the charms on her cape almost touching the carpet, then rose, her hands clasped before her. “To send all your sons to the shrine will be an act of devotion far  exceeding anything you have done before, my lord.”

The king did not look at Shihazar. He stared out, over his sons’ heads, towards the courtyard. “Yes,” he said, quietly. “I have in the past shown my devotion in many ways. But never like this.”

“All of us? Am I going too, Mother?” Maikal tugged on his mother’s sleeve and she looked down at him, her hand stroking his fair head.

“You are,” she said, as if she hated to say it. “If your father has his way, you are all going.”

“When?” Bendegarth was excited, as Theo knew he would be. He was only twelve, barely out of the nursery, and had never been anywhere outside Kalathan City. “When do we leave? Can I watch the sacrifice? What will it be – a lamb? A bull?”

“So many questions!” said Father, affectionately, placing his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “You will leave as soon as we can make the preparations. And as for the sacrifice, I will be sending a priest with you to take care of it.” The king looked over at his wife as he spoke, and Theo saw his mother meet his eyes, then look away again, her face expressionless. She’s not happy about this either, he thought. No wonder, if all six of her sons, even Ben and Maikal, were going. But Father was her king too. No one, not even Mother, questioned his will, even about something like this.

The king held Theo back as Mother and his brothers left the room, Maikal and Ben whispering excitedly, looking forward to the horses, the tents, the campfires, the adventure of the journey. But the king was serious. "Theo," he said, facing his son and placing his hands firmly on his shoulders. "Kalathan needs this. We are in more trouble than you know. I am counting on you."

Theo was confused. "More trouble? What do you mean, Father – on the border?"

The king sighed, releasing Theo and turning away, rubbing his forehead under the crown again. "Yes, on the border. But it is more than that, more than I need to explain now. It is the same old story, that our neighbours are not happy to leave Kalathan in peace as we demand. I am counting on you to make sure this pilgrimage is successful. We need God's favour, Theo. We need it desperately."

"I will ... make sure it is successful," said Theo, looking over to where Shihazar still stood, her face half-hidden by her hood. If it was so important to please the Spirit, why wasn't she going herself? As he followed his father out of the room, he looked back at her. There was a smile on her sour old face, he was sure of it. She realised he was looking at her and changed her expression, bowing low again in what he was sure was nothing but mock respect. He was glad she wasn't going on this journey. He didn't trust the old witch at all. And he wondered, for the thousandth time, why his father didn't feel the same way.

Chapter 3

The water smelled beautiful, of jasmine and roses. It was warm – perfectly, beautifully warm, and Trina closed her eyes, her arms floating at her sides. She was clean; for the first time in months she was clean and it felt so wonderful that she ignored her very, very strong suspicion that it was all a mistake, that the soldier had never meant to fetch her to the palace, to this bedroom hung with velvet curtains and rich tapestries, to this steaming, magical, fragrant bath that was dissolving her fear and her shame in its luxury.

It had been three months. She had asked Sabine, the stout, bustling woman who had taken her from the soldier, what the day was. She had been in prison for three months, without a trial, a visit, nothing. It hadn’t been especially surprising when she had been arrested. People like her expected injustice and accusations, persecution and random, unexplained imprisonments. It had always been part of her life, from the moment the red-robed, bald-headed greasy-faced priest had seen her innocently eating dried figs out of the bag her father had just bought at the market. “ The Devil’s claw! ” he had cried out, pointing a shaking finger at her left hand raised half way to her mouth. Her poor father, who had trained her so carefully ever since she was old enough to understand, never  to use her left hand for anything, anything at all, had to watch her being dragged away, screaming and crying, to the Temple and then to the prison at the castle. He was allowed to take her home three days later, and he had always said he hardly recognised the pale, limp, nearly frozen child they brought out from the dark cell, her secret discovered, her left wrist marked for life, her future now at stake. She was nine years old then, but she remembered it all. She remembered the fear, she remembered the hideous cleansing ceremony at the Temple, pigeon blood dripping from her head onto her dress. She remembered the cold cell, the needle and the pain in her wrist as they marked her. She remembered lying in the dark and wondering if she had died.

But that had all been ten years ago. She had stayed in the background since then, not going to school, staying at home with her parents mostly, ignoring the suspicious gazes of the people who knew what she was, learning what she could from the books her father and his friends could find for her. If she went out to the market, or to the woods with her mother to find herbs for medicines, she wore long sleeves to hide the mark. She tried, and she tried hard because she knew her future depended on it, but she was never able to do much with her right hand. She could not write, she could not sew, she could not cut up vegetables and herbs. Stir a pot; that was about all she could manage. Her father had learned to use his right hand, even to write, and no one but his family had ever known about his curse. He still used his left hand as he fashioned stools and tables and shelves out of wood, as he carved designs into his creations, all in private. In public, no one would ever have known he was a devilclaw. But Trina was different. Her right hand was stupid, useless at anything that might help her earn a living.

She did not try to hide it as she dressed. She noticed the servant girls staring at the way she buttoned the soft tunic they gave her, as she took the comb from them and worked it through her knotted, tangled hair. “Yes,” she said, shrugging at them as she tugged the pretty comb through the snarls. Was it ivory? She thought it might be; it was carved with elephants. “The Devil’s claw. But don’t worry, I don’t bite.” One of them suppressed a squeak, and she smiled to herself. It was strangely enjoyable, not to be bothering to hide it.

There was a mirror, in the room, a tall one framed in silver that showed her whole body at once. She stood in front of it and regarded herself, her whole self, for the first time in her life. The girl in the mirror was combing her hair with her right hand, she thought, wanting to laugh at the irony. She had dark circles under her eyes, but she was clean, shiny and scrubbed pink. Her hair was a nondescript brown, her face not particularly interesting, her nose perhaps a little too long, her dark grey eyes perhaps a little too large. Her arms were skinny and marked with raw red patches from sleeping in that cold, dirty cell for three months. No one had told her anything yet. She hadn’t been released. Sabine dismissed her questions and said very little else, and the other servants who brought food and bathwater and helped her to scrub off the months of dirt said nothing at all. She had given up asking when she realised she wasn’t getting any answers out of them.

Besides, right now Trina didn’t really want answers. She was locked in the room now, alone, but she was in the palace, in a pretty dress, and there was a fire burning in the grate. Her belly was full and her body was warm, and even if this was a huge mistake, which she was almost completely certain it was, there was just a chance she might actually see the princes.

It had been so long since she had been able to be in the crowd lining the road from the palace to the Temple, since she had stood with the other citizens of Kalathan and watched the King and the royal family ride by on their way to worship. The king himself, broad and strong, his dark hair curling over the white fur collar of his cape, in his heavy gold crown over the red turban, the black kulal around his eyes – he was like a picture of a king in a storybook. Then there was the fair-haired queen, Nuria, always so sad and regal on her white horse, and behind her the princes. All six of the beautiful princes, living proof of God’s favour on the king, riding behind their parents: from Theoland, the oldest, already a man and taller than his father, down to Maikal who was only Rilla’s age. While she was here, until this misunderstanding was found out and rectified, she might just catch a glimpse of one of them across a courtyard or a ballroom or whatever other kinds of fancy rooms they had in a palace. Even if she was going to be thrown back onto the street or back into the prison, she might actually see them. It was worth a wait, she thought, taking a plump, juicy grape from the bowl on the table beside the bed, and falling backwards onto the spotlessly white, impossibly soft feather pillows.

Chapter 4

There wasn’t much light in the archives; the old man who took care of the scrolls said the light damaged the old documents so he kept the place in near-darkness. Theo had to strain his eyes to read in the light of the dim lamp, but he was excited to have found this, excited as always to be putting together pieces in the puzzle of Kalathan’s history. He had never been satisfied with the too-perfect stories the tutors had told them, or with the books he and his brothers had studied about how their nation had come to be. For the last few years this had been his secret hobby, this pursuit of the truth, this chasing of the real story of the land that he was to inherit one day.

It had all sounded a little contrived to Theo, a little too good to be true; the story of the birth of Kalathan. Children were taught that the friendly blonde giants from the west had ridden over the mountains into this land, offering unity and security, and that after some insignificant skirmishes the local people had welcomed them, submitting gratefully to their rule as well as their religion. Since then the blood and the language of the conquerors and the conquered had mingled so extensively that no one, not even the kings, could be very sure whose side they should take if it were ever necessary. It made sense, he supposed, to imagine it to be a happy event – that the army had brought their swords along just for show, that the local people willingly shared their land, their food, their homes and their wealth with their invaders. It was

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