Psalm 46:1-3: God is our refuge and strength, a very present
help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth
be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst
of the sea; Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though
the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
Karat Eku Ra 4921: Latalay vayr dice fed Feemfa rurumtu kam. Chee gral Latalay nleb shileed Latalay ra.
No matter what happened, Latalay called upon the God of all. And Latalay was punished for her foolishness.
With Eku's help, the symbols in Chran's books started to look like words. And as I learned, every day filled me with excitement instead of dread. I knew I wouldn't fail, because all I had to do was try my best, and Eku would work through me. Every night before I went to sleep, I daydreamed about how Kelar would be happy, and how Mom would be well--how everything would be perfect, once I summoned Eku's power. I even prayed to Eku at meals, confident the god was listening.
As Eku and I drew nearer to each other, Bunfa started to treat me differently. She grimaced when I went off to my lessons, and she wouldn't meet my eyes when I came back. Sometimes I overheard her talking about me to the other servants, behind my back. Though I couldn't hear what she was saying about me, I knew she was disgusted with me because I'd decided to follow Eku. She was the only person in the fortress who didn't worship me, and I couldn't stand it.
Bunfa was also the only person in the fortress who didn't grow excited as the days grew warmer. Warmer days meant more sunshine, and that meant the Celebration of the Greatest Noon was approaching. The celebration revolved around the outdoors, but we didn't dare go to the nearest village to observe it--that would put us closer to Tlaklen. Kelar was sure we'd be safe at Derayl, a town several hours' ride from the fortress, and that much farther away from the land of our enemies.
Bunfa came along, even though it was a celebration to Eku. I don't know if Kelar forced her or if she came on her own. She rode a letun near the back of our small caravan, wearing traveling clothes even uglier than my multicolored jumpsuit. It was a long trip through a forest of gnarled trees that I found intimidating--forest that would terrify the men of Tlaklen. But finally we reached a village as run-down as the places I'd seen on the ads asking for money to sponsor a hungry child. The place took up less space than my high school campus, but there were enough small huts for hundreds of people. All the villagers wore their finest, with ribbons around the wrists of the ladies and brightly-colored patches over the holes in everyone's clothes. They were all cheerful, and many of them had bathed. They didn't hesitate to get their clothes dirty, though, bowing to me the moment they saw me, not minding my informal costume a bit.
A tall, violet tree grew in the center of Derayl, and live, potted flowers nearby added color to the scene. Four complicated lenses stood on pedestals, circling the tree, their biggest surfaces pointed almost straight up, so they'd eventually be able to catch the noon sun.
Kelar had hesitated to come along, but he knew it would discourage his people if their king skipped a celebration in favor of planning battle strategies. And when the peasants played a flute and a stringed instrument I'd never seen, Kelar didn't need much encouragement to join me and the others in a wild, whirling, romantic dance. Our bodies leapt and twirled in perfect unison, and even though we rarely came nearer than arm's length, I felt at one with the king. The only thing that spoiled it was when I saw Bunfa's frown out of the corner of my eye. Kelar swung me about, and I actually had to focus on his smiling face to keep my temper.
The music finally faded, as neatly as a track on tape, and we all abandoned the dance to circle around the tree. The sun had reached its highest point, and the lenses shone white with its light. The lenses directed the sunlight to the tree, which sparkled pink in the sunlight, prettier than a fiber-optic Christmas tree. Even Bunfa smiled at the beauty of it.
Suddenly, a shadow crossed the tree--a woman had put her hand over one of the lenses. A man came near her to pull her back, and then for a horrible second he was frozen, like a tree. His arms grew to branches, his hair became vines, and then it was Eku before us. He grabbed the woman's arm and twisted it back so it snapped. She screamed.
"How dare you touch the light before it reached my tree?" Eku asked. Grasses grew up around the woman, wrapping her, as if trying to swallow her. The woman didn't try to bow; she hadn't stopped screaming. But Eku was louder. "I've given you all the herbs and flowers as medicine, and you still seek healing?" he growled. "Do you think the sunlight is holy? Do you serve Breinot?"
"Breinot?" I whispered.
"The god of light," Kelar whispered back.
The woman shook her head once. Eku leaned forward, and I think we all thought he was going to pull her into the ground alive. But a voice interrupted.
"The plants need sunlight to grow, but the sun shines whether or not the plants exist."
The words surprised everyone so much, it took a moment to find the speaker. Bunfa was only a stone's throw from Eku, and she was calm as could be. "And there's One even greater than the sun," she said. "One who needs nothing, and causes everything to live."
Instantly, the grasses around the woman withered, and Eku was angrier than I'd imagined anyone could be. Every blade of grass trembled, and the trees' roots quaked. Some of the color left Bunfa's face, but she didn't flinch. I saw her lips move, but the only word I caught was "Father."
And suddenly it wasn't Eku before us, but just a peasant, tired, bewildered, and a bit overweight--Eku's opposite. He called a name, and the woman who had sought healing cautiously approached him, her broken arm hanging limp. The man hugged her, so hard she yelled.
Kelar ran to his mother and forced her to lay down. "You were possessed," he murmured. And Bunfa didn't deny it. "Even Eku knew that," he added, "for he didn't punish you. And neither will we."
The woman who dared to touch the light was tied up, so three soldiers could take her to the fortress. The rest of us stayed at the festival, trying in vain to recover the spirit of celebration.
For her part, Bunfa spent a few minutes with the offender before she was carried away from her village. As the guards went back to the fortress, I saw their prisoner smile, just like Bunfa's very words had healed her.
Every time I saw Bunfa after that, I couldn't help but think
she was looking down on me, that she thought I was wicked, for
serving the god of her people. And I knew that someday she'd stand
up to me. Once in a while, she looked at me so haughtily, I had
to send her out of my presence.
And one day, she had a worried, hesitant look on her face, and I knew she was going to say something I didn't like. "Bonnie," she murmured, not making eye-contact. "I know you're trying your best, but Eku can't heal your mother."
For one moment, I imagined Mom lying in a coffin, dead, and Eku nowhere to be found. But who was Bunfa, to say what Eku couldn't do? I yelled, "He said he'd protect those dear to me, once I called on him!"
Bunfa looked steadily at me, proud as a goddess, prouder than she'd been in front of Eku. "Even if he weren't a liar, I doubt he meant her," she replied.
With a chill, I realized Eku had never once offered to heal the woman at the festival. "So he'll give us medicines!" I yelled.
"Do you think tree bark can cure her, when your doctors couldn't?" Bunfa asked calmly.
"And what do you think will cure her?" I yelled.
Bunfa bowed her head low. "I've been petitioning the Father of all. Perhaps He has already acted...or if not, maybe it's not His will."
My stomach hurt, and I felt the color leave my face. "If your god won't heal her, I want nothing to do with him!" I stormed out of the room, overwhelmed with disgust. I'd meant to go down to the courtyard to calm down. But I passed a couple guards, and then a green stalk drew itself over my face. It was Eku, right beside me, in place of one of the soldiers. I nearly screamed, and the other guard instantly fell down in reverence. Eku's eyes shone angrily, but he kept his temper in check.
"I have a hard time reaching you, with a disbeliever around," he said, in the slow voice of one greatly understating the problem.
"What do you want me to do?" I asked.
"Banish Tadravl," Eku replied. "Banish the wretch you call 'mother.' Send her away from the fortress, away from the king."
Even though I hated Bunfa at that moment, she was still my protector. I felt even sicker, considering my choices--to obey Eku, or to do what I thought was right. And I decided, regardless of my instincts, Eku must be right.
Then the guard was back, pale, looking down at the floor, at the fallen grasses at his feet. I took a deep breath and told him, "I want Bunfa taken from the castle!"
The guard who hadn't been possessed picked himself off the floor, and both men ran off to obey. I returned to my room, only to find Bunfa on the floor.
"Have mercy on Bonnie, and reveal Yourself to her," the woman murmured.
I stomped my foot. "You're banished!" I cried, hoping to get her attention.
She sat up, with an expression I'd never forget--like I'd hit her. "Bonnie, why?"
"Your blasphemy," I said. "The guards are coming now. I commanded them to drag you out of here, if you won't walk."
"Listen to yourself," Bunfa said softly. "Don't you know the way to greatness is to serve others?"
I'd served Frieda and Mom at home. Neither of them thought I was great.
Bunfa dared to smile as she said, "Sometimes those who appear foolish at first glance, show their superiors to be wrong."
"Eku will never look foolish," I replied.
Bunfa proudly continued. "A few years ago, the men of Tlaklen had just started to encroach on our lands, and so we moved to the fortress, hoping we'd be safe. A poor girl came from near the border, seeking shelter, and was set to work in the scullery. Those over her abused her horribly, beating her sometimes, and only feeding her scraps out of half-eaten bowls from meals. But the girl was always confident, always filled with joy, and always shared the little she had with others in need."
"Good for her." I instinctively glanced at my wrist, although I hadn't worn my watch since I'd realized Sheshan days were over an hour longer than ones on Earth.
"When we asked why she was so happy, she said she served the God over all, who had once been killed, but had been restored to life again, springing up like a tree's seed. And He promised the same resurrection to those who followed Him."
I didn't even feel like I was talking. "Be quiet, Bunfa!"
Bunfa didn't even flinch. "Everyone said this girl was a fool."
"They were right," I found myself saying.
"She refused to go to temple, even for First Sprout, and she was whipped and beaten when she wouldn't serve Eku. They put her in the stocks, and when she could still smile after two days of that, they locked her in the dungeon. The priests swore she wouldn't be released until she recanted."
"When did she?"
Bunfa smiled, but a tear escaped her eye. "She never did. She left the world. And she's happy now."
The silence hung between us, and I broke it by laughing. "You're as much a fool as she, if you think she's better off dead."
"Who's stronger?" Bunfa asked. "The one who suffers for her faith, or the one who persecutes her wrongly? Even now, even in the fortress, people are coming to believe the humble girl's words."
The guards finally arrived, four strong men, in case she fought. Two grabbed Bunfa's arms.
When the guards laid their hands on Bunfa, the small woman seemed to instantly grow years older. Yet, somehow, she almost looked relieved, like all her worries were out of her hands. I didn't like it. She softly murmured, "Exalted Father, I beg You, show Your love to Bonnie." The guards dragged her out; though Bunfa didn't walk, she didn't fight at all, but stayed as calm as a queen could have. And I suddenly understood her words. I looked a fool, sending a mere woman away. But I was sure I didn't care, although I found myself pacing my room once I was alone. Eventually one of the guards returned, saying, "We left her a half-hour's letun ride away, Your Greatness."
I sunk down into my bed, knowing I was finally free, that Eku was happy. But I didn't share his joy.
Soon after the guards left, I sent for Chran, and we got back
to work studying. But Kelar soon knocked on the door, and I left
my teacher and went into the hallway to meet him. The king drew
me into a room where we could be alone.
I'd never been in this room, which was much smaller than mine, and simple. There was the low bed of royalty, and also a vase full of cleedin, Bunfa's favorite flower, set into one wall. A small ledge served to display a couple drawings on thick paper. One portrait was very professional, almost as well-shaded as a photograph, with Bunfa, not looking any younger than she had before I sent her away, and two little boys. A man stood behind them, a man so stern and strong and scarred, he hardly seemed a part of the scene. I knew it was her husband. I recognized the other drawing as one of Leander's sketches, better than his average work. It was a thin, tired, proud girl, dressed in rags, and smiling like she'd been given the world, or something even better.
For a moment, I wondered if Kelar was trying to make me suffer for what I'd done. But before I spoke, he tenderly took my hand. "Bonnie, what happened?"
"Eku told me to banish Bunfa," I said, suddenly ashamed of myself.
Kelar squeezed my hand. "Forgive me," he said softly. My heart sank as I imagined him telling me he couldn't love me, after what I'd done. But he said, "I knew she had done wrong, but I thought she was possessed. I'd hoped she'd come to know Eku, once you summoned his power."
"Her very presence disgusts Eku," I said. "He can't come to me, with an unbeliever in our midst."
Though Kelar was a king, he wasn't much older than me, and he couldn't quite hide his feelings. He had a bleak expression, the very same look Frieda had put on when Mom told us she was dying. But he slowly nodded. "Eku's will be done." He leaned down and pressed his lips to my forehead for a moment. "Are you all right? You needn't be upset."
"You don't hate me? For sending your mother away?"
"How could I hate you?" Kelar touched my face with one hand and drew me to him with the other. "You are the Chosen One, after all." He kissed me, just for a moment, then asked, "Are your studies going well?"
"Yeah," I replied.
"They may go better, now that you're inside Eku's will." Kelar smiled at me, then pulled away. "I'm sorry," he said, "but if you're well enough, I need to resume my sword practice."
I suddenly laughed. "Do you really think the whole war will come down to your blade fighting skills?"
Kelar smiled, and though his expression was still a little bleak, I sensed he was more worried about me than his mother, or even himself. "I must do my part, regardless. I'll see you at supper, Bonnie."
I still didn't feel good, but I felt a lot better.
Chran and I studied for a few more hours, and then I sent him off so I could be dressed for dinner. I hadn't been given a new attendant yet, and when a knock sounded on my door, I was sure it would be her. Instead, Leander came in. I'd somehow assumed that if I saw him he'd tell me everything was okay, just like Kelar had. But he was frowning.
"Bonnie, where did you send Bunfa?" he asked softly.
Eku gave me the strength to answer quickly. "The guards took her away; wherever she went is her own business. She can make her own way--surely her so-called 'Exalted Father' will keep her from harm."
Leander cringed, then fixed his eyes on my open window. "She never meant you any harm, Bonnie."
"How dare you take her side?"
"Forgive me, Your Greatness," the prince quickly said. "You're the Chosen One, sent to us for our own good." He paused. "But I would have liked to have bid her goodbye, at least."
"Go out and track her, then."
Leander shook his head. "That's against Your Greatness's orders."
"You mean Eku's orders."
Leander nodded once. "I'm bound to stand by your decree. I'm sorry to have upset you; I had no right. But please let me know if you change your mind--or if Eku does--and we can bring Bunfa home."
"Are you giving me orders?"
Leander met my cold look with a sad smile. "A suggestion, Your Greatness," he said, bowing again.
"Could you find my new attendant?"
The prince nodded and turned to go. But I still saw the sorrow haunting his eyes, even after he'd turned his back, and I wondered if he was only deferring to me because I was the Chosen One.
My new attendant was named Dlarka, after a person in Eku's
Book, though she herself didn't know the story. I had to ask Chran
to tell it to me.
Apparently, the famous Dlarka had been a queen a long, long time ago. She and her sons had been kidnapped by the dark goddess Linnai, and Dlarka had sold her very being to the powers of darkness, in exchange for the safe return of her children. Chran said it was only right for a lowly woman to die to preserve the kingdom.
"She was brave," I said quietly.
Chran shook his head. "She did her duty. Just as your attendant will guard you."
My Dlarka was a quiet, thick woman, older than Bunfa, and nearly as tall as me. She rarely spoke, so I knew she wasn't going to lecture me. She was a comforting presence, a little like an old familiar sofa. She only served me at the king's orders, and like a piece of furniture, no matter what I did, she would neither like me, nor dislike me.
The next day, I studied even harder, and that night, I had an eerie dream. I was in a dark forest, and was raining. The cold water soaked through my heavy dress, pulling me down. I shivered, and then I saw Bunfa trudging through the mud, leaving sloppy footprints. I shivered and took shelter under the nearest tree. For one moment, I didn't care what Eku wanted. "Bunfa!" I called. "Get out of the rain!"
She looked back at me with that peaceful look of hers and shook her head. "I must move on."
"Get to a town!" I commanded.
"I will," Bunfa said. "Please meet me in Baaknl. Please, hurry. Ask Frun; he'll send troops with you."
"I banished you!" I shouted. Despite my words, I found myself realizing, with all the certainty and conviction of a dream, that I wanted to see her again. She was the only person in the whole fortress who had liked me for who I was, and who didn't care one bit whether or not I was the Chosen One. And I wanted to call to her, to bring her back to safety. But I found myself saying, "Go where you like, as long as you stay away from the fortress!"
"Eku's still attacking you," Bunfa said softly. "But please, listen to me. Come to Baaknl! The God over all will bless you!"
You'd think she would have known better than to bring him up.
I almost wished she'd catch a cold in the rain, as a punishment for her hatred of Eku. But I remembered how kind she had been to me, and called, "It's not too late! Turn to Eku and be saved!"
Bunfa shook her head sadly. "Baaknl," she repeated, and then the storm overtook her.
I woke to the sound of raindrops on my shutters. In that half-awake feeling of the early morning, I wanted to get up, to talk to Kelar, to get an army, to go to Bunfa.
The habak at my bedside had grown a few inches taller in the night. It was blooming, deep red blossoms, brighter than blood over its deep brown leaves. It trembled as I considered saving Bunfa. I knew Eku was here, and that he wanted Bunfa far, far away. Maybe the dream came from the enemy, or maybe it was just a test. But I couldn't give in.
I studied hard the next two days, and made such good progress, Chran didn't have a thing to complain about. The second day, he actually praised me. That night, like most nights, Kelar was too busy to meet me for dinner. I hated to eat alone in my room, so I ate with Leander in the great hall, which was mostly full of guards, soldiers, and a few servants. I enjoyed watching them bow when I entered, falling like dominoes that re-set themselves and dropped down twice more.
Lately, Leander's bows had seemed absent-minded, and that night he barely touched my leftovers.
"Why don't you just look for her?" I asked sharply, sure he was judging me, though hadn't said a word against me--not since the day I banished Bunfa.
"I wouldn't know where to start looking."
"Maybe Baaknl," I said before I could stop myself.
Leander's eyes widened. "Why would you say that? Was it a vision?"
"Maybe." When I saw the look on Leander's face, I didn't dare tell him that Bunfa herself seemed to have called me days ago. "I don't know what it meant, but I dreamt of the place this afternoon."
Leander's spoon clattered to the floor as he stood up. "Forgive me, please, Your Greatness."
"For leaving your company so abruptly," he said, and he seemed halfway out the door already. I ran to catch up with him.
"I want to come with you."
The words surprised the both of us. Leander looked at me, stunned into silence for a while before he smiled softly for a moment, like we were sharing an intimate secret. But the smile vanished as he yelled, "This is all madness!" And he took my arm and led me out of the great hall.
I felt a mix between relief, that I wouldn't have to endanger myself, and the disappointment that always comes from being told "no." But once we were alone in a passageway, Leander lowered his voice and said, "We can't bring an army; we've few men to spare. What I wouldn't give to have Eam with us; he's as good as ten men." He paused. "Must Your Greatness join us?"
Everything I was, wanted to run away from the adventure. But something made me say, "I should come along."
The prince smiled at me. "Then put on your traveling clothes."
I realized if I'd asked to accompany Kelar on a trip, the king would've forced me to stay behind. I don't know if I was pleased that Leander treated me as an equal, or hurt that he wasn't more concerned about my safety.
Dlarka helped me dress, and didn't ask any questions. I was soon waiting for Leander in the gatehouse. He brought a dozen men with him, most of them not much older than he was, and one I'd almost call a child. Each man rode his own letun. The beasts weren't harnessed together, so they didn't trust me to drive one. I sat behind Leander, on a large beast the prince had named Flatletun--a nonsense word and a pun, combining the word for "strong" with "letun". Its fur almost glowed blue, and Leander said that meant it was healthy. The prince patted the creature's neck affectionately, and let the reins rest on its back. It was nothing like when Kelar had control; it was almost as if Leander could guide his letun by thinking, or at least with a gentle nudge.
Baaknl was too far away for us to reach in one day--in fact, we were only a few miles from the castle before it grew dark and we had to make camp. Leander said there was a village nearby, but we all thought it was better to camp out, to avoid attracting attention. I could hardly sleep, too caught up in imagining the men from Tlaklen, and how they might be surrounding us in the night, despite the soldiers taking shifts to keep watch.
We weren't attacked, but I felt chilled and sick the next day, and I wished I was back in the fortress. Leander wouldn't have turned back even if I'd asked, though--and from the look in his tired eyes, I wasn't sure he'd obey me if I commanded it. The day started out fair, but by afternoon, it was raining so hard, even Leander admitted it wasn't worth trying to continue. We commandeered a farmer's cabin for the night. When we came in, we all put on knee-length shirts or shifts, and hung our clothes by the fire to dry. I was embarrassed, and a couple of the soldiers were definitely eying me through my thin shift. The farmers served us a poor meal, and then gave us the use of the house.
I made sure I had a couple of blankets to cover me as I took the bed. Leander slept on the floor, right next to my low bed, and I felt safer. Several other soldiers shared the floor with him. The farm family slept in the stables with the rest of our men. The letun, ours and theirs, were put out in the rain, though Leander said the creatures didn't mind. I slept a tiny bit better than the night before, although I dreamt of Bunfa, shivering, wet, and muddy.
Before dawn, I woke to hear the door open. I opened an eye; the farmer had entered the house, and Leander put his hand on the man's chest. Leander's hand glowed, and after several moments, he pulled it away. The farmer smiled at Leander, bowing deeply. I had no idea what spell Leander had performed, but I was almost jealous--I couldn't perform magic like that, yet. But if Eku didn't abandon me for tracking Bunfa down, I'd be able to do better than that, soon.
I fell back into bed and tried to sleep for another hour or so.
After eating breakfast, we set off early on our second full day outside the fortress, and it was a long day. My whole body ached, and my slightly damp clothes chafed. The sun was fairly low in the sky when we finally came upon the thinned forest that meant we were nearing a settlement. Leander's letun stumbled, and I grabbed the prince to keep from falling. My stomach grew fitful, so my body knew something was wrong.
Before I had any time to consider what was bothering me, one of the men up ahead yelled. Leander murmured, "Hold tight," and urged Flatletun to join the others.
I couldn't see much from behind the prince, but he was already drawing his sword from its sheath on the letun's side. I caught a glimpse of a red jacket ahead, and then Leander's arm came down, quick as a bullet. There was a terrible cry, almost inhuman, and Leander's letun stopped still for a moment before Leander guided it ahead again. The prince moved his arm to and fro, and once kicked someone. When he raised his sword, blood shone dark crimson on the blade. I pressed my head against his back, wishing to be safe in the fortress. Leander said some soft, wild words that sounded like the wind, and Flatletun shrieked and reared. A man ahead of us fell face-down under the beast's front talons. There was a muted "thank you" from one of our soldiers, and then everything grew quiet again.
A muscular, bearded man, older than my father had been when he left, and wearing a rather threadbare green uniform, circled back to us. He walked with such a pronounced limp, at first I thought he was hopping. "I believe they're gone, Your Majesty," he said. "We killed about half a dozen, as well as the three you took down."
Leander nodded. "Thank you, Glinv," he said. "How are our men?"
"Eerboak is dead, Your Majesty, and Tuaygid likely won't pull through. Several of the others are wounded. Is Your Majesty all right?"
Leander nodded soberly. "How about you, Bonnie?" He leaned back and turned his head to look at me.
I wanted to go back to the safety of the fortress, to Kelar. But I managed to murmur, "Not hurt."
The prince solemnly turned back to his soldier. "Glinv, take care of yourself, and please do all you can do for the other men. I doubt anyone's left alive here--" His voice cracked. "But it's possible. I must search the town."
Glinv nodded instantly. He was a strong man with his head held high, and I was sure he obeyed because he respected and trusted Leander, not because Leander was royalty.
"Bonnie," Leander said softly. "Will you wait here?"
I couldn't let go of Leander; he was the only one I knew would protect me. "No."
The prince didn't argue, but rode on.
I had been so caught up in the battle, at first I didn't even understand why Leander was certain Bunfa was dead.
A heavy, dirty smell hit my nose, and I realized what it was about the same moment I saw a scorched tree, its gray, weathered bark so dry I could have flaked it off with a fingernail. Flatletun shied back from the blackened grass beneath its feet. The color was gone from everything within sight, except the jackets of the dead soldiers we passed. The air still smelled like a fireplace, and I coughed 'til my chest hurt before I got enough breath to ask Leander when the fire had come.
"Probably yesterday," the prince murmured. "It looks like it died suddenly; the rain must have doused it."
Baaknl could no longer be called a town. There had once been a wooden fence around an area much wider than our fortress, but now the fence had fallen to force or fire. There was little left but charred frames of houses, and two stone buildings that were black with soot, their thatched roofs burned away. Leander had to coax the letun slightly to get it to walk through all the ash, and he examined the ground from astride the creature.
"This is where they started the fire," he murmured as we reached the edge of the ashes at the ruined fence that had once protected the far side of Baaknl. "The wind was almost due south yesterday, remember?"
"What about Bunfa?" I asked. I caught sight of a charred corpse slumped down against the wall of one of the stone buildings. Its clothes were burned away, and I couldn't see if it had been a man or a woman. I closed my eyes, but I still smelled the burnt, rotten flesh, pungent even through the lingering wood smoke.
Leander dismounted and helped me off the letun. We peeked inside one of the stone buildings, and I nearly screamed in despair. These bodies were only singed, and it was a whole family, even children. The family's ceremonial gold vase was dented but not taken--the enemy had only wanted to destroy.
A couple of the soldiers who weren't hurt checked the other few buildings that still had a wall or two, and Leander insisted on trying each as well. I just steadied myself against one of the filthy, blackened stone walls and cursed the names of every man and woman from Tlaklen, and Plir himself. Though our men had defeated the enemy soldiers who'd held the town, it wasn't enough to make up for the crimes of the enemy. I would've gladly traded my life to have revenge, and to see every one of Tlaklen's citizens stabbed and burned.
A weird noise broke into my thoughts--a snuffling, sad sound, like a voice, with no words, just pain. I instantly went back into that first house, daring to hope maybe one of them was alive. No one moved, but the noise continued, and then it humbly called for Kelar, and Leander, and Flidli...and me.
The man of the house was on his back, forever staring up at the sky through what used to be his roof. But he was higher than his family; he was laying on something--or someone. Bunfa was curled up under his body, so dirty and ragged she resembled a sack more than a woman. Her blouse was soaked through with dark blood, and her eyes were both bruised closed.
"Leander!" I yelled.
The prince was at my side almost instantly. Tears shone in his eyes as he looked down at his mother, struck silent and motionless, for what felt like hours, though I don't think I took one breath in that silence. Leander carefully took Bunfa into his arms. The woman groaned softly, but didn't wake. Leander carried his mother out of that awful house and onto the ground outside, setting her down on a fairly clean spot, a path from which the soldiers' footsteps had carried away most of the ash. Our men were quiet, although one motioned to his chest and told another that Bunfa had been robbed. Leander softly prayed over Bunfa, and Glinv rushed over and bandaged her. I prayed to Eku, as well, begging for his mercy, though I knew he wouldn't grant it, since he'd wanted her gone in the first place. No one believed Bunfa would even make it back to the fortress alive.
All the living soldiers, even the injured, suddenly drew their weapons, looking back at the intact forest beyond the town--they'd heard the group before they saw it. Two women, and the oldest man I'd ever seen, walked towards us. One of the women, and the man, had clothes that had once been as fine as any of mine, though now they were muddy and dirty. The other woman had been wearing rags before, and now she had a hole in her skirt, wide as her waist. Everyone's hair stuck out like tumbleweeds.
As soon as they saw the color of our soldiers' jackets, the three people dropped to the ground in pure, honest reverence.
"We are few," the man said, in a voice that cracked with age. "Please, escort us to the nearest village, so we may live a while longer."
There were tears in Leander's eyes as he walked over and helped the old man stand. He bid the women rise as well. "Do any others live?" the prince asked.
"Our children," the better-dressed woman said with a sad smile, "and the midwife. Ten people in all, sir."
Leander nodded, and quietly asked, "How did you escape?"
The woman who had once been wealthy told the story. "Three days ago, sir, a traveling merchant brought a woman named Tadravl to us. The merchant gave our household a new kettle in exchange for a promise to take care of the stranger. So we fed her and allowed her to lodge with us, and then she had a dream, so terrible she woke up screaming. She told us the village would fall, and soon--that it would be suddenly surrounded, and that all found inside its walls would perish.
"We couldn't imagine how Tlaklen could attack us, for we haven't heard of any nearby towns falling. Still, Tadravl was so concerned, she went out, begging for families to leave this place. Late that day, Creenha, my husband, may he blossom each year, took the family out to camp. Tadravl convinced another family of the danger, and they joined us. But the man and eldest son of their house stayed back in town, to fight any enemy that might come. Tadravl came out to see us that night, bringing a meal she'd helped cook, and she told us..." The woman stopped suddenly, a little flushed. "Well, you have no interest in that, I'm sure, sir. Forgive me, please."
Leander just nodded.
"The next afternoon, the midwife brought us another meal. The town had grown tired of laughing at us by then, and she was here when we heard a scream. My husband ran back to Baaknl, leaving his father in charge of us, and he never returned. Tlaklen's men had come in from all sides; it's a miracle we weren't spotted. And you saw what they did, sir." The woman paused, and looked at the mostly-dead form at Leander's feet. "Oh!" the woman shrieked. "Did someone survive?"
"The one you call Tadravl," Leander said distantly, "but she's nearly gone."
The woman ran to Bunfa's side and gently touched her shoulder. Bunfa barely turned, and the woman started to sob. "The Father will take care of you," she murmured, taking a deep breath. "May He welcome you into His arms."
Leander stood over the woman and said, "Bring the others here. I doubt any village is safe, but my men will take you into the king's fortress."
The woman was still crying, but she went almost limp in relief. She could hardly even mouth the words "Thank you." I wondered how she'd react when she found out the kind captain was actually the second-in-command of the country.
Leander put Glinv in charge of having the men dig a few large graves, and convinced the soldiers to come back as soon as they'd taken care of the village.
"Kelar wouldn't have buried them," I said softly.
"I'm not Frun," was Leander's clipped response. His mind was on someone else.
The prince took the letun that had belonged to the dead soldier Eerboak and harnessed it to his own. So I rode the beast behind him, holding poor Bunfa in place. The woman didn't wake on the whole trip to the fortress, and we could hardly even make her drink. When I was sure Leander was asleep, and whenever we were near a noisy stream, I told Bunfa I was sorry. She never responded.
The tiny light of hope we'd harbored grew dimmer than a star on a cloudy night when we finally reached the castle. I'd felt Bunfa grow warmer as we traveled, and when we went through the drawbridge, she moaned softly. Even in the weird green light of the fortress, I saw how flushed she was. Dust covered Bunfa's bedroom, so I had Leander put her into mine, which had been cleaned daily, even in my absence.
"I'll get the doctor," the prince said bleakly. I just nodded, and then sat down next to her. I couldn't bear to look at her face; she was so bruised and cut she hardly looked like a woman, let alone the woman who had cared for me when I was a stranger in the land.
The doctor wore a perpetual grimace, and he was dressed like a clown. He had a ponytail about as thick as his thumb, right on the top of his head, braided. His hair was naturally blonde, but the ends of the braids had been dyed black. Ran, the boy I'd seen losing the game of war in the courtyard, so long ago, was with him. The boy had a serious expression, and he was wearing the same robes he'd played in--robes like the man he was with had on. The two grew even more somber when they saw Bunfa, and I had no faith that they could help.
The doctor removed the bandages to paint over Bunfa's many cuts and bruises. But the paint had the color and consistency of thin mud, and even if it was medicine, it wouldn't do much good, after all the blood she'd lost. Finally the man poured some liquid down Bunfa's throat, laid a veil over her face so we didn't have to look at her, and then sat on the other side of the bed to wait.
"It will probably be a day or two," the doctor said.
"Before she wakes up?" I said, though I already knew.
"Before her spirit dissipates," he replied.
I felt sick, and tried to convince myself that I wasn't to blame. Eku was the one who made me send Bunfa away. Bunfa was a wicked person who distrusted Sheshack's very god. I'd even seen in my dream that she wanted to go to Baaknl.
But I'd dreamed she'd asked me to bring help, too.
Kelar should have lectured me for leaving the castle, but even he was just thinking of Bunfa. When he saw how ill she was, he immediately sent for Chran. The priest laid down to pray for her.
"Why did Eku ask me to kill her?" I asked, hardly realizing I was crying.
Chran's vaguely contemptuous expression faded as he looked up from the last rites. "Your Greatness obeyed his will. That's what's important."
Leander softly said, "She saved ten lives, warning them. If more had listened, perhaps the whole town would have struck a blow to the men of Tlaklen."
I almost felt better, but Leander's words reminded me that I had known what we needed to do, and I'd chosen not to. Surely Eku had given me my vision, and I'd ignored it. Surely the god would punish me for my disobedience.
I knew it would be awful--but I knew I had to stay by Bunfa until the end, even after Leander, Kelar, and Chran left to get some sleep.
The boy spoke to Bunfa sometimes, trying to reassure her, though she didn't respond. He and the doctor both bowed and called on Eku for help. Nothing they did helped Bunfa at all, and even though Kelar and Leander each spent hours by her side, she didn't wake. Only once, late the second night, did the woman open her eyes. Even though practically the whole fortress was asleep, I sent the doctor's boy to get Leander and Kelar.
Bunfa fixed her tired eyes on me for a moment, then closed them. "Bonnie," she murmured.
"Please rest, Bunfa," I said quietly. "Please get better."
"I'm sorry," Bunfa said. "The family I was with--I'm sure they're in heaven with Him. I'm sure they met Him, even when...when the soldiers were beating on the door. And I--I believe in Him. Even while I'm afraid, He'll save me too. Don't you think so?"
I squeezed Bunfa's hand, though it was bruised and it must have hurt her. "You're not going to die."
Leander ran in, not even bothering to nod to me, let alone bow, and he kissed Bunfa's forehead, through the veil. Kelar followed almost immediately. He nodded to me, but he quickly joined his brother at Bunfa's bedside.
"My children," Bunfa said softly, not opening her eyes. "The Exalted Father will care for me. Please..." Then she started to whimper, suddenly struck by the pain of her wounds. If she'd meant to tell us something, she couldn't finish.
The three of us stayed with her through the night, and we tried to make her comfortable. But nothing we could say seemed to get through, and none of the drugs the doctor gave her stopped her whimpering. I don't remember what any of us said to her, but in a couple hours, her sheets were damp with our tears. And we weren't even sure she knew what we were there. Her breathing grew labored, and between her cries were ragged gasps for air, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. And a few minutes before the sky grew light again, she stopped gasping. Even the doctor stood still, and the only motion in the whole room must have been the flickering candle and the tears tickling my cheeks. We just waited, somehow hoping this was a terrible dream or spell, and that, if no one did anything, she'd somehow wake up. Finally, Leander leaned forward and slowly touched his mother's neck. He quickly drew his hand back, choking back a sob. The doctor lay his head on her chest, to listen. Kelar hugged me, and none of us really listened when the doctor told us what we already knew. We all wept. At length, Kelar sent the doctor and his son away from the fortress, for his failure. I took pleasure in that, although the banished doctor was sure to fare better than Bunfa had.
Two men came and wrapped Bunfa's body, and took her away soon after she died. Kelar left with them. I knelt on the floor and laid my head where Bunfa's had been, crying.
I was surprised to hear Leander's voice.
"Bonnie...before you banished--" I looked up fiercely, and Leander stopped himself, softly apologizing. "Once, I heard her say she knew the Exalted Father. And that he could draw anyone to him, to paradise."
"Do you think she's in heaven now?" I murmured.
"No," Leander said gently, and the dark spot of sorrow in my soul grew wider. "After all, the priests say only an extraordinary woman can truly know Eku." I laid my face down on the bed again. The prince knelt next to me, lightly touching my shoulder. "I don't like to think all the things the priests say are true, though. I hope she's all right. I hope whoever's in charge is merciful."
I stayed in my room most of the day, looking blankly at Eku's Book, silently asking the god to comfort me. Kelar came to see me, his eyes pink with tears. He couldn't say much, and his presence just added to my guilt. Yet I felt even worse when he left. Finally, not two hours before dinner time, I tracked Chran down and asked him to resume teaching me the characters of Shesha.
On to Chapter 7: Revival
Go back to the Chosen Page (or The Stories of Julie Bihn)
Chosen © Julie Bihn, 1999-2005