Chapter 3: Bunfa

Proverbs 23:22: Listen to your father who begot you,
And do not despise your mother when she is old.

Karat Eku Ra 1822: Dlarka vara gral kaefli kaefli Dlarka srideb bunee kaefli kaefli chreb.

Dlarka told her children she'd always protect them.

I woke on a soft bed under heavy covers, with a gentle voice calling my name, and a small hand wrapped around mine.

"Frieda," I murmured. I was sure it wasn't Mom, unless miracles really did happen, and she'd magically regained her full strength, or at least enough to put on a show for us. But then, Frieda's hands were big as oven mitts, and not really gentle in anything she did. So it could be an angel, for all I knew. "Who are you?" I added.

The voice shushed me, and I think she told me to rest, but I wasn't sure. The words were unfamiliar.

I almost screamed, suddenly remembering the nightmare I'd just had. I slowly opened my eyes and pulled my hand away from whoever was holding it, waving my fingers in front of my face. I almost cried when I realized I could see and move. It hardly mattered where I was anymore, as long as my body was my own. The covers on top of me stifled me; I was tucked in to my chin on my right side, but only up to my armpit on the left, so I had an arm free. I was in a rather hard bed, only a foot tall, and no softer than sleeping on carpet. A dark-haired woman sat by my side, on the floor, so her head wasn't much higher than mine where I lay. She wrapped her hand around mine again. Her deep green eyes gleamed almost like a cat's, even in the dim light that came from a single candle on a nightstand. She looked pretty, but the room was dark enough to hide any wrinkles or scars.

It seemed so real, I didn't think I was dreaming anymore.

"Where am I?" I asked. The hoarseness of my voice surprised me.

The woman told me to hush, gently touching my forehead in the dark. "Dlee Bonnie, slu Bunfa."

"Bunfa?" I asked softly.

The woman smiled, as if to tell me everything was all right, but she held me down when I tried to sit up. Her strength took me aback--she was a lot smaller than me, but nearly as strong as Frieda, if not Frun. She spoke, and I was sure she said I needed to rest, though I still didn't have full grasp of the words.

"I'm not tired," I said. Bunfa loosened her hold on me, smiling, as I pulled away. "What did I just say?" I asked, not recognizing my own words. They weren't English, and Bunfa seemed to understand them.

Bunfa spoke again, a little more quickly. I wasn't exactly sure, but I thought she said Frun commanded her to keep someone revered here--but she could get up if she wanted. I looked around, but I was alone. I couldn't think of how to ask ask who she meant, so I just repeated the word for someone revered. "Clahren?"

Bunfa smiled warmly, and she explained she'd been asked to call me by that name. I was sure it meant "Your Greatness," but I quickly heard it as "you."

I sat up. "Are you my servant?" I asked.

Bunfa smiled. "That's one way of putting it. But I asked Your Greatness to call me Bunfa."

I closed my eyes, and it came to me. Mother. "I have a mother of my own, though," I said softly. I suddenly felt sick--my real mother might be dead. "I have a mother of my own, don't I?" I repeated.

Bunfa softly said, "Your Greatness may have her own mother, but while Your Greatness is here, she will be as my children, If Your Greatness allows it."

"Are you Frun's mother?" I asked.

Bunfa nodded. "And Leander's. They were worried about you." And her smile faded as she said, "But they were sure you were a woman of Eku."

"What's Eku?" I asked, wondering at the word that had apparently drawn me even more deeply into my dreams, or the world I'd dreamt of.

"You were summoned in his name, brought for his sake; surely you know," Bunfa said. I couldn't read her expression. "But Your Greatness doesn't want to hear a woman as lowly as myself speak of him. Are you hungry?" she quickly added. "I'll order our meal brought to us." She left the room for just a moment. When she opened the door, more dim light came in, sickly green, from what looked like luminescent leaves. I made out faintly patterned carpet on my floor, stretching from wall to wall, and an ornate wardrobe near the door. Bunfa was back, and the door was closed, before I could see anything more.

"Would you tell me of your land?" Bunfa asked hopefully.

"How do you know I come from another land?" I asked.

"It's been prophesied," Bunfa said, "and you were summoned."

I knew I had to say something, and "It's awful hot," was the first thing that came to mind. "Our buildings look like buildings, and there's hardly any trees. Some cactuses, but those don't count. They're like prickly tree trunks." I was boring myself; Bunfa must have been ready to fall asleep. I got the idea to lie--to tell her I ruled my world. The more I spoke, the more I found I could say, and even though I'd only been awake for a few minutes, I now knew the language well enough, I didn't have to invent a story just for conversation. But I couldn't tell her about my real life, how poor we were--she'd think less of me. I could've told a story, but it seemed silly to repeat a fairy tale, when I was inside a castle more fantastic than I could have dreamt up, being addressed as a princess. And I didn't want to tell of heroic exploits by other people, either; that would just remind me and inform Bunfa of how unimportant I really was. So I finally said, "My world is far removed from yours, so far I really don't know where to begin to enlighten you about it. Do you have any questions?"

I'd expected Bunfa to ask what we ate, what our buildings looked like, how we amused ourselves, why I was wearing such a strange dress, when she was in a long, plain yellow sheath, herself. But she grabbed my Bible and held it up, with the spine upward. "What is this? A book?"
"Yeah," I said with a shrug. "From nirayime." The only word I could come up with for "church" meant "temple," but I used it anyway.

"You go to temple too?" Bunfa asked.

"Yeah. Everyone goes once a week, even if they don't like it."

Bunfa didn't reply, though she looked surprised.

"I guess you like going to temple," I said.

"No, not at all," she replied softly.

"Then what are you thinking?" I asked when she stayed quiet. "Or can a lowly woman not say?"

Bunfa didn't look at me, and after a moment, she dropped to one knee. For just a second I feared the fantasy had gone all wrong and she was going to propose. But luckily she just asked, "Forgive my indiscretion--but--might Your Greatness be here to fight Eku?"

So "Eku" was a person, or a force, or, possibly, a sporting event. I still didn't know exactly what. The word itself still made my stomach uneasy, either in excitement or fear. Before I could answer Bunfa's question, a man shouted something through the door. Bunfa answered and brought in a tray of food.

There was only one plate on the tray, a deep plate, not quite a bowl, and it was full of tiny bits of food, each the same size and shape (and some the same color) as a half-used eraser that fell off the end of a pencil. There were two wooden spoons, one on either side of the plate, but I didn't pick one up.

Bunfa smiled encouragingly. "Slu hegligram."

I firmly told her I wasn't eating that stuff. My stomach was clawing at me from the inside, but I was sure I'd rather starve than touch the mess in front of me.

Bunfa picked up the other spoon and filled it full, then ate, to prove it wasn't poison. She stopped eating after one bite, so I figured it couldn't taste that good. But I was hungry, and I finally tried a couple yellow bits that had the color (though not the shape) of canned corn. They were as sweet as M & M's, and I was hungry enough to enjoy them. Maybe the stuff was just soggy cereal, like the parallel world's Lucky Charms. I took another big spoonful, and almost spit it out, because it was sweet, salty, and citrusy, with a texture like meat. There wasn't a napkin to spit into, so I forced myself to swallow. It was worse than anything I'd made before, even the makeshift chili.

Bunfa looked a little surprised. "It's not an unusual dish," she murmured. "Very good for the ill."

"Ugh," I said, sure the dish was best for making people ill. "Do they think I'm sick? What did they do to me?"

"Nothing was done to you," Bunfa said. "But when you came in the sun was shining and you were asleep, so we knew you weren't well. I was asked to care for you. Please, eat something."

I remembered the terror of being struck blind and immobile, like a tree. I jerked my head around, just to be sure I could still move. My gaze fell again to the food at hand. Despite that it reminded me of half-thawed mixed vegetables and hamster pellets, I grew hungry, and started picking at the stuff. None of the colored pieces were actually spoiled or even bad-tasting, but together they were awful. So I had to separate all the same-colored bits to eat them. I worked for half an hour until I was satiated.

"Has Your Greatness eaten enough?" Bunfa asked once I set my spoon down. I remembered that at home I used to laugh at Nat for taking the lettuce off a hamburger. But I was sure I was the pickiest eater this castle had ever seen.

When I told her I was finished, Bunfa started in on what I'd left behind. I felt a little sorry, since I'd touched every crumb there with my spoon (and occasionally my fingers), several times. But Bunfa didn't hesitate to clean the plate.

Once the tray was out of the room, we each drank a tiny glass of sweet wine. I felt my cheeks flush, but no other effects.

Bunfa got up and looked out the door, both ways, then returned. "You truly don't know who Eku is?" she asked, leaning closer to me. "They summoned you in his name."

"So he's a magician," I said.

Bunfa took my hand. "Who is your god, then?"

Not being sure myself, at this point, I didn't answer.

"Who do you worship at your temple?" she pressed.

"Feem," I said. That was their word for "god"--any god at all.

The door swung open without a knock, and Frun strode in unapologetically. He was in a more regal outfit now, a long dark jacket buttoned from the neck to the belt, with darts also gathering it, maybe an inch above the waist. The thick fabric trailed behind him like an evening gown. The whole garment was embroidered in leaf-designs, with golden thread, stuff that would take most the day to do even with a fancy machine. Frun's long hair was still loose. He smiled to see me awake, and very slowly asked how I was feeling.

"I'm fine," I said, in his language.

Frun grinned. "Bunfa's been teaching you?"

"She's remembering," Bunfa replied, so quietly it wasn't an interruption.

"Excellent," Frun said. "We've been calling Your Greatness for some time, though I suppose Your Greatness will come and go as she pleases. Or as Eku pleases."

I couldn't tune out the fact that he was addressing me as a princess.

"Frun, would you tell me of Eku?" I asked.

"Call me Kelar," the man said, somehow missing my question.

"Kelar," I repeated, pausing to think for a moment. Frun meant "king," just as Bunfa went by "mother" instead of her given name. I couldn't think of any meaning for "Kelar," but it was probably just his given name.

"Then you should call me Bonnie," I said.

Kelar nodded. "Bonnie, I'd like my priest Chran to teach you--" He stopped, reworking the sentence. "Chran's the priest who played the song to ask Eku to send you. I'd be honored if you'd let him explain why you came, perhaps give you a few lessons."

I didn't reply, so Kelar asked me what was wrong. Of course I couldn't tell him I was afraid Chran would discover I was a fraud. The best I could offer was, "Chran won't use his magic against me, will he? Even if I displease him?"

Kelar stared at me in disbelief, and Bunfa took my hand again.

"He's a priest," Kelar said, still grimacing, "and you're our Clahren. Do you think our people are all so corrupt?"

Maybe they were; priests on Earth didn't have much of a reputation. (At least, not the unmarried ones.) Chran could be married, though, and even if he did like women, I'm sure if he had the desire to hurt a girl, he'd find someone the king didn't address as a goddess. But just the thought of the man brought back memories of him putting me to sleep, and the vines that dragged me from home, twice. I was still scared.

"Bunfa can stay with you until you realize Chran's a good priest and a good man," Kelar declared.

I knew I'd feel safer with her by my side, but Bunfa grimaced. "Frun," she murmured, "you know I don't--"

"I know you'll take care of Her Greatness," her son said firmly. Bunfa looked down, and the argument was apparently over.

Kelar then asked about where I'd come from, and I gave some vague description of heaven, guarding my comments. They saw me as a queen, and if they realized they'd called the wrong person, someone who didn't even know who Eku was, they might hang me. For now, Kelar hung on my every word, and I enjoyed it.

Kelar yawned suddenly. "I'm sorry, Clah--Bonnie," he said, "but it grows late, and after your journeys today, I feel you should rest. I'll see you tomorrow, however, if you and Eku both will it."

Once he was gone, Bunfa sighed, or maybe it was a belated yawn, in sympathy with Kelar's.

"If the king's your son, shouldn't you be the queen?" I asked softly.

"Is that how it works in your world?"

"People vote for their leaders where I come from," I said.

There was a soft whisper at the door, so quiet I never would've heard it if I'd been at home listening to the radio or the TV, or anything louder than my own breathing. Bunfa answered, and Leander peeked in. He was wearing a long, long shirt, like an old-style nightshirt. It fell well past his knees, and could have fit three men all together. He wore furry shoes or slippers; I couldn't see the soles for the long, thick-pile fur.

"How is Her Greatness?" Leander asked Bunfa softly, as if not to disturb me.

"Much better," Bunfa said, smiling warmly. "She was about to go to sleep, if she wishes. Would you like to see her?"

Leander smiled, peeking in at me through the doorway. "I just wanted to check that Your Greatness was all right." His eyes met mine as he said, "Take care, even in your dreams."

I smiled, a little touched at his words, though I found out later it was just a common way to say "good night." Leander grinned back, and then left.

"He was as worried about you as his brother was," Bunfa said softly. "He's a good man." The woman yawned again, struggling to keep her mouth closed, trying to hide it.

"It's bedtime, isn't it?" I asked.

Bunfa smiled gratefully. "Would you like me to stay?"

"No, no," I said.

Bunfa nodded. "I'll be in to assist you in the morning." She bowed slightly to me, picking up the candle. "I'll be in the next room, if you need me. May I take the light, or did you want to read your temple book? I'll bring you a steady light if you do."

"I'm not going to read," I said softly. "Good night."

"May Your Greatness always be guarded," Bunfa replied.

"Call me Bonnie," I said, laying down.

"Bonnie, then," Bunfa said with a smile, and suddenly I knew that as long as I tried my best, she wouldn't be ashamed of me.

When I woke the next morning, I was still in the low bed, still far from home. I felt guilty for just a moment, but for all I knew my body was still in the church, or maybe at home, zoned out entirely. But even if I wasn't dead, and even if I'd wanted to go home, I didn't know any spell or magic word to get there. Chran could hardly make vines grow without tiring himself. I didn't trust him, but even if had, he probably wouldn't be of much help.

Something inside me said to just enjoy it, and though it's usually a bad idea to take advice from the voices in one's head, I figured no harm could come from obeying just once.

My room was bigger than it had looked in the dark, five or six steps from wall to wall, and square. There was a window recessed into one of the walls, and my eyes instantly sprang to its odd metal shutters that somehow let some light in. There was a huge latch between the two closed shutters, and two sliding panels, each about the size of my hand, one on each shutter. I wasn't strong enough to open the latch, or else it was stuck, but the panels had already been pushed in their grooves up the shutters, letting indirect sunlight brighten the room. There were fine metal screens behind the openings, through which a breeze could enter, and through which I could only see a bit of the surrounding countryside. It was all wild land, not a city or village within sight, like an ordinary castle would have had. These people must find nature holy, I realized, to have the king's residence out in it. Treetops of all colors extended for miles and miles over the flat land, with only a few gaps--probably lakes, or towns. The trees extended far into the horizon, where they blurred into a smudge of purple that might have been hills, or trees, or maybe some type of land formation unheard of on Earth.

There was a voice at my door. "Who is it?" I asked in English.

"Rayklaf?" came the reply. "Sla Bunfa." For a moment, I didn't understand what was said, but as soon as I opened the door and saw Bunfa's face, it came back to me--who she was, and that she'd begged my pardon for not understanding me. Bunfa came in and bowed to me four times, quickly. Then she knelt in a bow so deep, the top of her head touched the carpet.

"You look silly," I said quietly, but Bunfa didn't rise until I bid her to.

"It's our way to show respect," she said softly.

"Then why didn't you bow to me yesterday?"
"I did," Bunfa replied. "All who you passed in the castle did. But you were asleep. We only bow once a day, even to a king, but if you demand more of us, we'll gladly obey."

She didn't sound glad.

"That's not necessary," I said.

"Then, does it please you to get dressed to study today?"

I didn't know what clothes they had for me, but the shift they'd dressed me in while I was unconscious was too big to be comfortable, and made of fabric less breathable than polyester. It was so slick I feared the garment would slip right off if I moved the wrong way.

Bunfa pulled out a dress so big it nearly filled the wardrobe. The fabric was a nice texture, like cotton, but there was probably 15 yards of it, making the dress so heavy, I was sure it'd make me a few inches shorter if I wore it for long.

"Let's try it," I said, pretty sure this wasn't a weird practical joke, and certain that there were no video cameras around to broadcast the scene to audiences outside the castle. Bunfa set to work helping me into it. To keep from thinking about where she was putting her hands, I asked her about Chran.

"Do you trust him?" I asked.

Bunfa paused. "He's a man," she said flatly.

"A man of Eku, right?"

"A man," Bunfa said. "He won't hurt you, if you're who we think you are. And if not, you'll still be protected."

She reminded me a little of the nurse in the hospital, insisting Mom would be OK, with no evidence to back it up except the fact that she wasn't on oxygen yet. So I didn't feel a bit better.

The sleeves of my dress were lavender, so full that each weighed more than a hardcover dictionary, even though the fabric was thinner than it had looked. The dress was high-waisted, made of a weird earth-colored fabric. (I mean a rich dirt brown, not blue with green continents and white clouds.) My skirts trailed the ground, so I'd have to walk with a shuffle or risk falling. My hands were lost in my sleeves, so holding the skirts up wasn't really an option. I liked eccentric clothes, but I was beyond being a hippie in this getup. Even without a mirror I knew I looked ridiculous. But the dress wasn't stifling, and Bunfa told me how beautiful I was, so I figured I'd try it for today, anyway. Bunfa's yellow dress looked about a hundred times better, a bit like something out of Titanic, though simpler, like it had been sewn by a cross-eyed yet determined boy in Home Ec.

There was another shout at the door, and Bunfa let Chran in. The priest cradled three hard-bound books close against his chest, a bit like one would hold a baby. As soon as he'd set the books down, he bowed three times and knelt to me. When I let him stand, he invited the two of us to sit on the carpet to study.

"I thought we'd go to your office," I said, suddenly afraid I wasn't being protected in my room, but imprisoned.

"I thought Your Greatness would be more comfortable where she came to," Chran said. "Where she sprouted up again."

I didn't reply, and he awkwardly--and a little coldly--said, "What should I tell Your Greatness of our god?"

Had he guessed that I knew nothing at all? I put on my best bored student face, figuring I'd look a bit like a stuck-up princess, and said, "I know all there is to know about Eku. But Bunfa needs refreshed."

Chran looked darkly at the woman. "Your Greatness speaks the truth on that matter."

Bunfa gazed at Chran with a bit of a stuck-up expression of her own, but she didn't speak.

Chran opened a book with weird illustrations, opening to a weird, illegible diagram. Lines crossed over again and again, a tiny bit like a stereotypical redneck family tree. It didn't mean anything to me; I'd seen inkblots that looked clearer.

Chran cleared his throat and spoke, loudly, like he was addressing a crowd, never looking down at the pages before him. "The one God--Feemfa--formed our world of dust and stars. He caused the winds to blow, and the waters to flow, and the trees to grow over the earth. He lent light and fire to us, put life into the animals, and gave them the nighttime in which to sleep. The females among them bore dozens of offspring apiece, and their females did the same, again and again, until Feemfa had trouble watching over all of them. And so he set the humans over the world, to care for the animals.

"Yet the humans expected Feemfa to care for them as well. And though they didn't cover the earth as quickly as the animals, they made so many requests that Feemfa grew exhausted, and nearly abandoned the world altogether. So he arranged the people into groups, into Sheshack and all the other nations. Then he reproduced himself and split into pieces, into eight gods, each with his same strength, to rule over each of the nations." He went on to tell me the names of each god or each nation; I couldn't tell which.

"So Eku is the god who defends Sheshack and all our people," Chran continued. "The young, strong god, who rules over the most ancient of living beings. The god all good people serve. The god who heeded our humble petition and brought you to us. He has the strength of the trees, and lends that to us. We can sprout up anywhere, like the grass itself. We proudly serve our god."

The more Chran spoke, the darker Bunfa's expression grew.

I didn't believe a bit of Chran's story, but I found myself saying, "So why did Eku send me? Just because you asked?"

The priest quickly opened another of his books, pointing to dozens of weird, simple drawings that I couldn't understand any better than the big one he'd shown me. These pictures looked more like tiny wordless traffic signs.

"Eku's book says at our time of greatest need, we will summon a rescuer to our land. A woman, so that we know it is truly Eku's power."

"Continue," I said.

Chran put on a weird, vile grin, the kind of look a know-it all gets when the doom he predicted comes to pass. "Eku's book says she'll know when she is needed," he said.

"And that she won't help us at all, if we don't treat her as well as we'd treat Eku himself," Bunfa said, fire in her eyes.

Chran lost his smile. "Hold your tongue, woman. You've treated the Clahren with more respect than you'd give our very god. And I wonder that Her Greatness doesn't scold your blasphemy."

"I'll do as I choose," I said, and Chran quietly agreed, though he didn't apologize for his own insolence.

I had Chran read from Eku's book; since preachers back on Earth were always reading from the Bible, I thought it'd please him, and maybe I'd learn enough to play the part of their rescuer. Apparently the little pictures were characters, like Chinese, though not as cool-looking. No punk kid would want a T-shirt with, say, the Sheshan character for "bad" on it, I was sure. Chran read me a story about a warrior named Elbligh who fought a hundred men from Benduka to win back the holy land the enemy had seized. It's hard to imagine how an adventure tale with 100 deaths in it could be dull, but this managed. Even so, I didn't drift off at all, and my thoughts hardly even wandered to Mom or Frieda.

When he was done, Chran laid himself flat on the ground, knees held against his stomach, and recited a little prayer. Then he got up to fetch our meal. I didn't realize how hungry I was until I smelled the food, some kind of soup in a huge bowl. Chran seemed offended when I suggested he and Bunfa might have some first. I didn't really want to drink stuff full of their germs and spit, so he didn't have to argue with me for long before I took up my spoon.

Once we'd all eaten in turn (Bunfa last, of course), Chran lectured me for the rest of the day, and even before he stopped I had a pretty good idea of who Eku was, if not the other gods of the world. I also had some guesses of how they expected their Chosen One to act, and I hoped to live up to it.

They never told me what danger they were facing, and I didn't ask, afraid they expected me to already know.

Once Chran was gone, Bunfa took to her knees and muttered something I could neither hear nor understand.

When she finished, I asked her, "Didn't you get bored sitting there, listening to lessons you must have learned as a child?"

"No," Bunfa replied, but she still looked dissatisfied.

"You don't have to sit through them," I said. "I'll be safe with Chran."

Bunfa shook her head. "You're a good girl, Bonnie. Be careful."

"Why?" I asked. "I doubt anyone here would let any harm come to me."

Bunfa paused. "Learn about Eku, all you can," she said softly. "I did, and that's why I don't care to hear more." She slowly asked, "But you said you didn't serve Eku in your world."

"No, but if Feemfa was god of this world, and if everything good about him went into Eku, then it's the same as serving the god of my world, isn't it? You should serve the god of the world you're in, right?"

"Perhaps," Bunfa murmured. "But I've heard there's a god greater than Feemfa, who spans all worlds."

"I doubt it," I said, and Bunfa was too meek to argue further.

Perhaps as compensation for her failure at theology, Bunfa insisted on helping me into a rather thick robe, coarse like an old towel. She led me down the hall to the bathing-room, a place larger than my bedroom, with a sidewalk-width platform all the way around a square bath sunk into the floor. The water was clear, and steam came up from it. An attendant waited for me, and insisted on helping me down the stone steps and into the tub. I was pretty sure she'd expected to wash me, too, but she restrained herself--I almost thanked Eku for that. I still hated washing in front of the attendant, though when I told her to, she turned her back to me and busied herself scrubbing the walls, which were wet with steam.

When I returned to my room, Bunfa helped me into my silly slick nightgown, and my low bed. When she left me, I dreamed of casting spells like Chran's, only a hundred times more powerful. I towered over the whole nation of Sheshack, caught up in tree branches, as all did my bidding. And I thought I'd never been happier.

On to Chapter 4: For Eku's Glory

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