Chapter 4: For Eku's Glory

Jeremiah 22:20: "Go up to Lebanon and cry out,
And lift up your voice in Bashan;
Cry out also from Abarim,
For all your lovers have been crushed...

Karat Eku Ra 4562: Efha Jelin leer gral Frun nleb Trarick nleb bonren Frun ra.

So Jelin slew the king, on account of Trarick, the king's wife.

The next day, Bunfa helped me into a slightly fancier dress. It was trimmed with ribbons that looked like gold, but felt much softer than any metallic trim from a craft store. The huge, bell-shaped sleeves were dark green this time. More green fabric fell from the collar to the waist, over the tan body of the dress. It was a bit tight in the chest and waist, but I was sure they'd alter it before the next time I wore it. The skirts were so ample, when I sat down, they were almost a cushion.

Bunfa stayed with me as Chran taught me, but only an hour into our session, Kelar interrupted us. His jumpsuit (an article of clothing I'd never seen him in before) hugged almost every one of his muscles. It was rather flattering. The king fell and bowed three times, then stood before I bade him to, excitement gleaming in his eyes.

"Bonnie, would you like to watch me and my brother spar today?" he asked.

Chran grinned, and Bunfa frowned, unhappily, a look like a motionless shake of the head. But I didn't really care what those two thought. Kelar smiled at me, and I said, "I'd love to."

"Good," Kelar said brightly. "Although you're beautiful in that dress, I'll leave Bunfa to put you into something more appropriate for the occasion. I need to go ready myself."

Chran quickly packed his books and left as well. Once we were alone, I casually asked Bunfa what kind of sparring they'd be doing, imagining kickboxing or a fistfight. The word she replied with meant "blade-fighting." I wondered if they'd each pull a knife, like a gang fight, but I didn't ask.

Bunfa put me in a new dress, simpler, a little like hers, very high-waisted, and all green. It was so easy to move in, I wondered if they'd expect me to spar too. Bunfa was so upset, maybe they would. But of course, even if they did, I could always say "no." Even now, if I asked them to renounce "blade-fighting," they'd probably have to give up their knives.

Once I was ready, Bunfa walked me down countless halls and several flights of stairs, until we reached a grassy courtyard. I felt the sun on the top of my head, and laughed out loud. I felt free despite the walls, and the cool air circulating was a pleasant change. I hadn't realized it was so stuffy indoors.

Bunfa stopped about ten steps away from an arch set into one of the weird green stone walls.

"Aren't you going in?" I asked.

"I don't want to live to see another of my children slain," Bunfa said in the soft, firm voice of a servant or child who knows she's right but hardly dares to stand up for herself.

I paused, then asked, "Did another of your sons die in a blade-fight?"

Bunfa meekly answered, "No." But I saw pain in her eyes as she turned away. I headed towards the arch without her.

Vines hung down over the entrance, and they seemed to part for me as I walked through. I found myself in an enclosed courtyard, like a small football field, with benches on all sides, arranged for far more people than the couple dozen spectators who were now seated. Leander and Kelar wore similar brown jumpsuits, gathered at their natural waists, so well-fit they were obviously tailored just for them. Kelar's long hair was tied back into a ponytail. Leander looked even skinnier than usual, and he bore more than a passing resemblance to a stick. Two swords poked out of a bronze stand set into the ground at the center of the clearing. A thin canopy shaded the whole area, but the sun still shone through onto the thick grass. A bug nipped my leg. Leander and the few spectators bowed to me three times, and knelt. There were no women present, besides me. I smiled back, and bid them all to enjoy the fight.

Chran had seen me before that day, so he kept his seat and hardly acknowledged me. Though the fight hadn't yet started, his eyes were on the field, his face lit up like his team was in the Super Bowl. I sat in the center of the front bench, next to him. The seat seemed to yield to my body, though it was made of polished wood.

Kelar offered me a smile from his spot in the field. Then he and Leander knelt, facing each other. When they got up, Chran stood and raised his hands, calling for Eku to watch over the fight and take joy in the strength of his royal family. Chran sat down again, and the king and the prince walked to the center of the field. Kelar was much bigger than his brother, and more confident. I was sure he would win. Leander extended his arm to his brother, and Kelar took his arm and shook it--a handshake of unequals. Then each took one of the swords from the stand and took three steps backwards. A boy ran forward and pressed the stand down flat, so the grass seemed to swallow it up. The fighters stared at each other another few moments. Kelar broke eye contact with Leander to smile at me again, briefly. Then he ran forward, his sword gleaming gray-green in the muted sunlight. Leander blocked with his own sword, deflecting the blow, and then swung at his brother, missing wide. Kelar slashed again, and Leander jumped like a cat to dodge.

The two men stepped back again, circling slowly. Each of them looked at me in turn this time, silently asking for Eku's help, or mine. Then Leander was swinging at Kelar, so close I thought he'd cut the king's ponytail right off. I silently asked Eku to protect them both. Kelar put all his weight behind a swing, but Leander leapt back, so the sword sliced through the prince's pantleg. Leander yelled, probably curses, but didn't fall.

Kelar instantly knelt beside Leander, checking the prince's wound. "Forgive me, brother."

Leander just smiled, through clenched teeth. "It was an accident, and I'm all right. My king, let's finish."

They nodded to each other, stepped back again, and resumed the fight. Blood blackened the leg of Leander's jumpsuit, and had nearly spread down to his foot. Kelar tried to hit his brother with the flat of his sword. But Leander suddenly took the offensive and drove his brother back. Kelar was distracted, and didn't notice how near a vacant bench he was. When he tried to dodge Leander by stepping back one more step, he tripped and fell, avoiding bumping his head, but landing flat on his back. Leander held his sword at his fallen brother's stomach. I barely stifled my laughter; Kelar's legs were sticking up in the air like in a cartoon, and he looked silly. No one else smiled; in fact, I heard several horrified gasps.

Leander quickly lay his sword down and offered his hand to Kelar, but the king got up on his own.

"You won't always be able to win with games, brother," Kelar said softly. "And if we'd been fighting to the death--"

"You'd probably have killed me five times over," Leander interjected. When Kelar smiled proudly, the prince added, "After all, you weren't supposed to draw any blood in this battle, but you cut me up pretty good. Even in war you only kill your enemy once, maybe twice if you're thorough, but I guess you'd overdo that too."

Kelar's smile faded, and he looked down at Leander's wound. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that, brother."

"Let's be thankful no one was really hurt," Leander added, though he looked pretty pale as he limped away, leaning heavily on the arm of a military man. On his way out, the prince bowed deeply to me on the way, his triumphant smile fading at the pain of moving his bleeding leg.

The king came to me. From the look on his face, I'd have guessed he'd been hurt even worse than his brother. He bowed to me. "Forgive me, please, Your Greatness."

"For losing?"

"I should have been stronger. I'm sorry. But truly, my brother cannot fight. If we'd been serious, I'd have slain him without hesitation."

"Why do you fight, if it's not serious?" I asked. "Couldn't you practice against other warriors?"

Kelar stared at me. "Your Great--Bonnie--it's to show our gratitude to Eku, that we perform for him."

To nearly kill each other for a god's amusement struck me as incredibly stupid. But I held my tongue, or maybe Eku held it for me. "Oh," was all I said.

"And to praise him," Kelar added. "And to ask for his help," Kelar added quietly. "But that's what you're here for."

"Whatever you need," I said.

"Are you all right?" Kelar asked, taking my arm. "You seem to be wilting, just a bit, like a flower away from the sun. I'll see that we get out in the open tomorrow, if you'd like.

I didn't know exactly what he meant; I was still missing about one in twenty of their words. But whatever we'd do, I'd be away from Chran's speeches for a day.

Kelar drew my hand to his lips.

"Tomorrow," I said. Kelar bowed to me, and I added, "I'm glad you weren't hurt, Kelar."

Kelar smiled softly. "I'll dine with you tonight, if you like."

I nodded, but Chran took me back to my room to study for a couple hours first. No one made me change out of the comfortable dress. I was sure I'd pick up all the priest was teaching me soon, without even working at it. But I still tried my hardest to learn, like I had an important test ahead of me.

When we had supper that night, it was in a great hall like in a King Arthur movie, without the dogs, and without so much smoke. It even smelled a little like the run-down, two-dollar theater a mile away from our house, the place people without air conditioning sometimes went in the summer, to escape the heat. But this scent was more like old food, not unwashed people. Tapestries covered the walls, most of them fine, vinework designs, and many marred by well-scrubbed stains from soup or grease. Kelar and Leander were already seated at one of the long benches at a table near the center of the room. The prince looked better, but I'm sure he had a bandage under his pantleg. He and Kelar both wore high-collared navy blue jackets over black pants and boots, and Kelar had a weird skirt on top of that. It started at his waist, and opened in front like a bathrobe in the wind. It was as long as my skirt, and it dragged the floor while he was seated. His hair was loose at his back, and he stood to help me into the bench. I probably looked beautiful in my fancy new dress, but getting to my seat was like climbing into the seat of a one-piece picnic table in the park, with weights on my ankles. But with Kelar's help, I managed it.

Bunfa had put me into fancier clothes that had long golden fringe on the sleeves--fancier than a ball gown, and stiffer. So I probably looked nice enough. I almost missed my attendant as I settled my skirts. I'd asked her to come too, but she was either still upset about the fight, or just not allowed, because she refused to join me.

The meal was full of colorful foods, and I could tell the meal's elements had been plopped down on the plate separately, though the chunks of vegetables and meats were all smaller than marbles, so they were still mixed by the time the dish reached our table. Before we ate, we all prayed to Eku. I didn't mean a word I said, but I spoke anyway, words I hardly knew how to say, and I got a chill when I'd finished. During the meal, we didn't really say anything of substance, but I just liked hearing Kelar's voice. He promised again that he'd take me out of the castle the next day, and I took a long bath that night to get ready.

Now that I wasn't afraid for my life, I could take notice of all the beauty of the forest, its many colors and smells, and the weird animal cries and birdsongs. And now that I knew for sure I wasn't lost, even the shadows seemed inviting instead of menacing. Kelar and I shared a ride on one letun, and even though it the path was rough, I didn't care--it was nice to feel the wind muss my hair. It was cool enough it felt very good to press my chest against Kelar's back as we rode. Although, even if it had been as hot as it was at home, I think I would've enjoyed having my arms around him.

I wore a ridiculous outfit with a long skirt and a pair of coarse knit pants underneath. The fabric was a weird mix of purple, blue, pink, green, and brown bits, like a colorblind person's idea of camouflage. Bunfa had explained it was a woman's traveling outfit, and I had tried to explain it was ugly, but it was all they had for me. Besides, the trees' very leaves were colorful, and half the forest seemed to be in bloom, so I probably blended in pretty well.

Our letun was very large and bright blue, bright as the brightest tree. Kelar explained that meant she was especially healthy, but an enemy probably could've spotted her from a mile away.

"Don't you find the trees beautiful?" Kelar asked, almost shouting, so I could hear him over our letun's irregular footfalls.

"Very," I said. They reminded me of going to a national park as a kid, when we'd vacationed up north. We hadn't gone since Dad left, but in my memory, those forests had been almost as pretty as this one.

Kelar laughed in pure joy. "We serve the greatest god. How could anyone love the sky, the fire, the ocean, compared to this? Trees feed the animals, they house the birds and give us warmth..."

I didn't hear Kelar continuing, because I saw a strange figure--the "Young Green Elf" I'd seen my first time in the forest. He looked more majestic than he had previously, like he was a part of the forest's grandeur. He almost appeared to be climbing, like a panther through the branches. But when I stopped to consider it, I realized he was on ground level. I never decided whether he was walking upright or on all fours. His green hair was much longer than Kelar's, and much wilder. He had a smirk on his face, and he had the alert, mischievous expression of a bright child. My heart beat faster when I saw him.

"Who is that?" I asked, grabbing Kelar's shoulder, hoping for an answer this time.

The king followed my gaze and stopped the letun, but he didn't dismount. "He'll do as he pleases," he murmured, in a rather strange tone. "You know that."

My eyes couldn't leave the green man, though he was just walking away, paying no attention to us. "What does he please?" I asked.

"Well, he's probably pleased to see his clahren with the king," Kelar said, a smile in his voice.

Of course, the green man was Eku.

"Are you sure he's happy?" I asked.

"He would have confronted us if he weren't pleased with us," Kelar continued.

I shivered, briefly recalling Chran's powers again. I knew I didn't want to get on the wrong side of a god.

It seemed hours before Kelar finally said, "We're nearly at the lake." I thought I saw Eku again, very near to me, his skin much darker green than it had been.

I gasped, and the king slowed the letun. "Are you all right, Bonnie?"

His voice kept my worries at bay, though I still felt a little ill. "Yes," I said. "Do you see anyone?" I looked around, but there were only tall trees and the wild path ahead of us.

Kelar stopped the animal and dismounted, drawing one of the swords that was harnessed to the letun's side. He kept me in his sight, slowly circling to make sure no one was about.

"No," he said as he resheathed his sword. "We're safe."

"Is it dangerous? Should you have brought a guard?"

"If it came to it, I could protect you," Kelar said. "And Eku will watch over you as well. He's with us, even when we can't see him."

I hoped I hadn't done anything to anger Eku.

The king remounted and we continued on for a few minutes. The sun suddenly shone brightly on us as we came into a natural clearing surrounding a lake, or a pond. I could see across the water's sparkling surface to the forest on the far side, but I was hard-pressed to call it a pond. There wasn't a beach, but instead grass and flowers grew almost to the water's edge. I already knew the water itself, having swam there in my dreams. Kelar tied the letun and we walked along the shore, treading lightly on the grasses and avoiding the plants and flowers altogether.

"I played here when I was a child," Kelar said quietly. "There was a cabin just a quarter-day's walk away. No one else lived anywhere nearby; the land was all ours."

"Of course it was yours," I said. "You're the king."

Kelar nodded, although it almost looked like he wanted to correct me.

"It's a beautiful place," I said, daring to put a hand on his arm. The king stared at me, not offended as much as completely floored, as though I'd just offered him the moon and the stars. I smiled encouragingly at Kelar, and he slowly reached and took my hand. The man looked so uncomfortable, I joked, "I'll bet you wouldn't be so shy if I weren't the clahren."

Kelar suddenly swept me in his arms, laughing, and spinning me around so that we were both dizzy.

"I feel like you've been with me all my life," Kelar said breathlessly.

I wondered if he'd dreamed of me before--and right then I realized that I wasn't dreaming anymore. Whether or not I was dead, my very soul was in this world, not my own.

My eyes were still on Kelar. His cheeks glowed pink under his tan, and if a strong man like him was blushing, my face must have been near combustion. The king suddenly put his arms around me strongly, as if he were afraid to lose me. I liked to feel him close, and only pulled back when the sun got too hot.

We sat down by the water and had a picnic lunch. Our meal was sandwiches made on flat bread, and it felt wonderful to tear at the meat with my teeth, instead of ladling small chunks to my mouth with a spoon.

Kelar pressed me to tell him more of my land, and I described air conditioning (he didn't need to know that we didn't have it ourselves), electricity, and running water. These all seemed suitably magical to Kelar, and he seemed to grow more enchanted with me all the while. He explained anything I asked as well, but I'm not an anthropologist, so I really didn't ask anything about his culture, just about his childhood.

Either his life had been perfect when he was growing up, or he was just protecting me from anything dark. I figured this land was so magical, and Kelar wanted to impress me so much, either could be true.

He told me of archery competitions, of his tutors, of how he used to quarrel with his brother, but got along wonderfully now.

"Except when you're dueling," I said softly.

Kelar shook his head. "He worries me, Bonnie. It seems life is a game to him."

"He's the prince. Maybe he doesn't have to be serious like you," I suggested.

"At a time like this, he should be," Kelar said.

He frowned, almost lost in brooding, it seemed, and I knew he didn't want to be pressed further on the subject. I remembered another question. "Was Leander your only sibling, then?" I asked.

"Yes," Kelar said without hesitation.

I slowly said, "Bunfa told me something about one of her children being slain."

Kelar's face scrunched up almost like he was in pain, and it was a rather unbecoming look for him. "My mother has strange, unholy ideas," he said quietly. "It would grieve you to hear them. But rest assured, the dead child wasn't of our blood, nor of hers."

"Then what happened?"

"She was a rebel against Eku, a dozen times more audacious than my mother or any of the other misled people." Just as I was starting to wonder if that meant Kelar's guards had killed a child, the king took my hand. "Please, let's not discuss this now."

The thoughts of Bunfa and the child easily fled my mind as I lay my head on Kelar's strong soldier.

We weren't there as long as I would have liked before we had to go back to the castle, but we went out about once a week after that. Sometimes we'd go swimming in the lake, wearing ridiculous blue and green clothes so heavy that only my face got sunburned.

The last time we swam there, I suddenly got the urge to swim away, across the pond, to see what was on the other side. Kelar followed me, and just as I grew tired, he caught me and supported me.

"Be careful, Bonnie," he murmured.

"Eku wouldn't like his clahren to be hurt, right?" I teased.

"Bonnie," Kelar said softly, "even if you weren't the clahren, I'd love you."

I flushed, and almost grew faint, knowing he meant what he said. He pulled me near to him, treading water for the both of us, and we shared our first kiss.

The next week, we just sat by the water, holding hands (something we didn't dare do back in the castle). I finally asked Kelar what happened to his father.

Kelar didn't hesitate, now that we'd spent so much time that we knew we loved each other. "He died honorably in battle five years ago, and I became king."

"How old were you?" I asked.

"Three years from being a man."

I knew he meant he'd been three years shy of 15. So Kelar was only 17 now. But maybe people grew up faster in Sheshack. I was younger than Kelar, but I felt like an adult.

"Do you miss him?" I asked.

"He was the king," Kelar said quietly.


Kelar took my hand. "You understand, don't you? Surely you've seen, even through my words?"

Kelar hadn't said anything about his father, good or bad. So I closed my eyes, willing myself to see what Kelar couldn't bring himself to say. "Eku," I murmured, "show me."

My abdomen burned like I was being stabbed, just for a moment, and it all came to me. How Kelar's father was gone so often and came back with so many new scars, the family could hardly remember his face, and relied on his jewelry and robes to recognize him. How they all hid from him when he was away from battle too long, because he was the type who had to keep up his skills by raging against whatever was most convenient. And though Kelar couldn't possibly have seen it firsthand, I even saw how Bunfa hadn't wanted to marry him at all, how she'd tried to run away a few times, and how she was whipped when she was caught--only her back, so as not to mar her beauty.

"I'm so sorry," I murmured, and I fell into Kelar's arms. He didn't hold me, though, and in a moment he'd turned his back to me and was drawing the sword strapped to our nearby letun.

Two men came out from the trees just a few yards away. Each wielded a heavy broadsword. They were muscular, one with a pale complexion, and the other sunburned. They both wore deep burgundy jackets, double-breasted and long, a little like the British wore in the Revolutionary War, with loose sleeves coming out under the cuffs. They stepped forward quickly, as if expecting to win.

"Retreat now," Kelar said. The king was tense, but still had the air of an action-hero, cool and in-charge. He stood in front of me, and I was sure he'd protect me.

Our enemies just smiled, and the pale one said, in accented but grammatical Shesha, "We're taking her, and we'll have your head, exalted 'king' of Sheshack."

"You'll not touch her!" Kelar yelled, and he sprang forward. The men were expecting him, but perhaps not his ferocity. Kelar swung like a beast--nothing like when he'd fought Leander--and he slashed the pale man square in the chest, knocking him to the ground. He dodged a blow from the other man, and used the speed of his smaller weapon to get in past the broadsword and strike the man's hand. Blood shot out of the man's arm almost like an explosion, and the enemy's sword fell uselessly to the ground. I half-expected his hand to do the same.

Kelar stood towering over the men, kicking the pale one, who looked white enough to be dead. The one with the bloodied arm screamed, "We have men all around the forest!" I thought we might want to know where the soldiers were. But before the man could draw another breath, Kelar had killed him. And before I could draw a breath of relief, a calloused hand was over my mouth, and my wrists were bound behind my back. I tried to kick, but I couldn't make contact, and was pulled up and slung over a broad shoulder. I was spirited into the forest, and I knew that no matter how bright the man's coat was, Kelar would never find us once we were out of sight. I heard him yelling, but the cries grew faint I was taken away from him. Kelar was probably fighting a dozen soldiers, and I could hardly imagine he'd win. I struggled harder, but I couldn't get free.

It grew dimmer suddenly, and I looked up to see I was in a cabin. I was gently set on the floor, and a very big man, who was slightly cross-eyed, and whose jaw was set at a weird angle, untied me. Something about his expression looked a little off, like he'd been hit in the head, hard, and was now a few turnips short of a garden. I ran to the door as soon as I was loosed, but it was locked from the outside, and metal grates covered the windows. There were two men in the corners next to the door, and they eyed me with sneering, lustful expressions. I backed away, somehow hoping to melt into the wall and escape. One of the men caught me by the shoulder, but he didn't try to kiss me or rip my clothes; he just yelled at me, like a command. I couldn't understand him, and then the large, slow-looking man stepped between us, saying some harsh words to both the other men. The soldiers nodded deeply--they didn't apologize, but I could tell they wouldn't touch me again. At least, not while I was protected.

My kidnapper/defender turned towards me, nearly smiling, but gazing at the floor, like an isolated child. "What are you going to do to me?" I asked slowly. He smiled, said a few words I didn't understand, and then bent at the knees so that his fingertips grazed the floor, never once looking up at me. There was something reverent about his attitude. He said something else I didn't understand, and I somehow felt a little safer.

The three men's uniforms were all tattered, and browner than the others' had been. I was pretty sure they were low ranked men. But if they kept me to use me as a hostage against Sheshack, or worse, they'd probably get promoted. So they'd never let me go. I found myself asking Eku to protect me, and to bless the man who had protected me, so that he could continue to defend me.

My captors lit a candle as night started to fall, and then the big man led me to the other room, a bedroom. I knew I wouldn't be able to get to sleep lying on the floor of the main room, but I wasn't sure I could manage it in a bed, either, with the enemy about. But once the door was closed (and it sounded like it latched), I lay down on the bed, fully-dressed. No one came in to see me, and I managed to close my eyes in the dark, though I couldn't sleep.

It was still dark when I heard shouts and cries outside my door. I tried to peer out, but I was locked in, and I probably couldn't have seen anything in the dark, anyway. There were screams and yells, wordless shouts without a language, for several minutes, before everything grew quiet. I heard the latch in the door rasp open, and I backed away, considering using the pillow to suffocate whoever came in.

Instead, I nearly choked him with a hug.

It was Kelar, holding a torch in one hand and a sword in the other.

"Did they hurt you?" he asked.

"They didn't touch me," I replied.

"Praise Eku." Kelar lightly touched my face with the back of his sword hand. (He had no place to set the torch and he couldn't drop his sword, of course.) I hugged him again, and held his arm as we went back into the main room.

The two men who had nearly come at me in the cabin were dead; even in the dim torchlight, I could see that. There were a few green-jacketed men from Sheshack inside, too, one clearly dead, and the other two barely moving.

"We took the door off its hinges," Kelar said proudly, motioning to the fallen plank of wood on the floor. "Then we used it as a bit of a shield to make our way in! The enemy were stronger than they look, but we took them."

I was only half-listening. "Don't you have bandages for the wounded?" I asked. Kelar didn't reply, and I pulled away from him, went back into the bedroom, and grabbed a sheet off the bed. "Kelar, help me."

Kelar ran to my side, but lost interest upon seeing I wasn't bleeding. I had to beg him to cut the sheet into strips, telling him I wouldn't leave without the wounded. So we bandaged the two living men of Sheshack. There were several dead men outside the cabin, most of them ours, and only one with his eyes closed. There must have been guards outside, too.

In the moonlight, I could tell one of our two wounded men wouldn't live long; the blood had already soaked through the sheet, not to mention his jacket, and he was slowly gasping for breath. The other looked to have only light wounds, but he was unconscious and groaning softly. Kelar extinguished the torch; he didn't want to draw attention to our location, and the moonlight was bright enough.

The big man who'd defended me from the other soldiers had propped himself up against the wall outside. His leg was cut pretty deeply, but he was still awake, biting his lip grimly. He had lost a lot of blood, but he was big enough, he probably still had a lot of blood inside him. Kelar saw the concern on my face and roughly held my shoulder, but I ducked out of his grasp and knelt beside the soldier, wrapping his leg with what was left of the bandages. He murmured what I'm sure was thanks, though he appeared more shocked than grateful.

"We can't carry a prisoner, too," Kelar said quietly, putting his hand on his sword.

"We'll leave him," I replied. Kelar drew his sword, but I stood in front of the soldier to block him.

"He's the enemy," Kelar said, trying to get past me.

"He protected me, and he can't chase us now. Please, Kelar. As a favor to me." When Kelar stayed silent, I added, "In Eku's name."

Kelar cringed, and I took his free hand. He slowly lowered his sword. "It's a perverse sacrifice." He turned to the soldier. "Yet, Eku stays my hand," he said, slowly and loudly, as though that would transcend the language barrier. But he didn't turn his back to the enemy as he lifted our wounded men onto one of the waiting letun.

There were three letun; there must have been more, at first. One lay dead, but the rest must have fled, or been stolen. The three left alive were harnessed in a line, and the lead one was either patient, brave, or stupid, because throughout all the fighting, it apparently had stood its ground, while the two tied to it behind were anxious and pulled on the harness. The lead letun hadn't budged, and that had kept the others from escaping. They all shied away a bit from the corpses, though, and the center one, the one loaded with the wounded, kept ducking and trying to edge away, as though it could escape the burden on its back by running.

"You're going to send someone back to bury our dead, right?" I asked.

"Why?" Kelar replied, with an edge in his voice, because he was tired.

"We owe it to them, don't we?" I replied. "They died rescuing me, right?"

"If they had been stronger, or had more faith, they wouldn't have died," Kelar said, adjusting the bleeding soldier on the letun's back. When he saw the look on my face, his expression softened just slightly. "But I'll have them buried, if you wish," he murmured. "Perhaps it will make our forest a little stronger."

Of course; the trees would use the dead men as nourishment as their bodies decomposed. I shuddered instinctively, but then, wasn't that the way of the world, the living feeding off the dead? It was a beautiful thing, really.

"They'll live on that way," Kelar continued, "as a part of that which gives us life. They'll be in the leaves, in the bark, in the very shade and shelter and warmth they grant. And Eku will continue to watch the trees, and the trees' seeds and saplings."

Kelar took the back letun, with me on the front one. That way, he could make sure the wounded didn't fall off, and that nothing attacked me. Besides, I was sure it was more comfortable to ride this leading, confident letun than it would to be on one of the others, which shied constantly. Kelar shouted directions to me when necessary, and I took the reins. The letun didn't fight the lines, which were tied at either side of its neck, and I hardly had to guide it. It seemed to know the way home. The stone-treehouse-castle was the most beautiful sight I'd seen for a long time, and when we were safely inside, I dismounted and hugged Kelar. I meant to thank him for rescuing me, but all I said was, "Let's stay in the castle for a while."

Kelar looked troubled, but he just agreed, and kissed me, not caring who saw.

Even though it was morning by the time I got back, Bunfa took me to bathe and then dressed me for bed. I was so glad to be back, I let the attendant wash me.

"How are the other men?" I asked Bunfa once I was in my nightgown.

News traveled quickly in the fortress. "One's dead, but the other may live," she said softly. "Their wives are thankful you brought them back."

I fell asleep quickly, but I'm pretty sure I heard Bunfa praying over me that night. It was a prayer of thanksgiving, and it wasn't to Eku.


On to Chapter 5: Nirayime

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