John 8:51: Verily, verily I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.
Karat Eku Ra 2910: Frun flin Eku fayd say ha Frun flin wilme say na fairatu. Bret nirayrak leeha chreb say frun fay say.
A prosperous king is blessed by Eku, and will live in heaven. As surely as the forests will always grow, he will be blessed.
I'm not sure how I dragged myself out of bed for the funeral, and once the ceremonies started, I wished I hadn't. Almost as soon as I reached the courtyard, my ears were assaulted by the wails of a dozen women and a dozen boys. Dlarka told me they were official mourners. Their heads were shaved, and they each had been whipped bloody. I couldn't ignore them, and even when they were out of earshot, I still saw them in my mind.
The services were outside, beneath a dark brown canopy, in the same yard where Leander and Kelar had sparred. A cubical bundle, wrapped in canvas, was at the center, on a new platform. It took me a minute to remember they'd bent Bunfa's body like she was sitting with her head on her knees, before they'd covered her. I shuddered.
The service was simple. Civilians and priests just queued up to speak in front of Bunfa's body. Most of them talked about her, but a few didn't seem to have even met her. One told a long story about Eku winning the heart of the water goddess Minna, thinking to entertain Bunfa's ghost. I knew I should get up and speak, but what could I do? Apologize for killing her?
All the people Bunfa had rescued in Baaknl were there. The children ate greedily of the food the servants brought hourly, but the adults stayed somber. The woman who had once been very wealthy was now dressed in castoffs from other servants, but she wasn't ashamed to get up and speak of Bunfa's bravery. It was about then that I started crying again, and my eyes didn't dry until well after Leander and Kelar both spoke. Kelar spoke of how dear a mother's love is, and how her affection was an honor to Eku. But Leander started speaking humbly and softly, from the heart.
"I hesitate to speak of it," he said, and though I was seated in front, I had to lean forward to hear him. "But there was a time when I was very small, and I had misbehaved. Bunfa and I were both very afraid of being punished. There was no place to hide; the fortress doors were closed off, of course, as Father was angry with us. And who dares to stand against a king? So we huddled together, behind the towels in the bathroom, hoping and praying not to be found, though we knew it wouldn't be long. And I remember knowing we were sure to be found, but Bunfa held me close, and murmured, 'Whatever happens, dearest, I'm here.'
"And I knew that, however we were beaten, Bunfa would always love me. And I don't know how--but it was enough. I stopped shaking and I lay still in her arms, sure she would take care of me.
"And now, I just wish I could do the same for her--that I could reach out and hold her and comfort her." His voice cracked, and he was crying as hard as I was. "May Bunfa live on, somehow," he murmured as he sat back down.
It was almost sunset by then, and when they realized I wasn't going to say anything, they packed up to take Bunfa out of the fortress and into the forest. They set her on Flatletun; the rest of us walked through the dense forest, stooping under low branches as we went. We finally came to a thick, young tree with a brown ribbon tied around its trunk. Kelar nodded to the soldiers, and they started digging at its foot. Kelar suddenly put his arm around me, and I pressed my forehead against his shoulder.
The men pushed aside some roots just under the ground, trying not to break them, and then struggled to haul up a metal cube. It was hollow--it had been placed there when the tree was just a seed, so its roots would grow around it, leaving a place for a body to be buried later. The men tucked Bunfa into the hole, packing the dirt over her, and spreading colored pebbles a foot deep on top to make a mound. Kelar knelt over the grave and placed a flat stone marker without a date. He told me it said "Tadravl" and listed the names of her husband and sons. I recognized the character for "Frun." Then the priest laid flat over the grave, praying that Bunfa would live on for many years in the leaves of the tree, and that she'd continue to give life and comfort to the birds and beasts of the forest.
I'd never been more exhausted than when we finally got back safe within the fortress walls. But I couldn't make myself walk back up the stairs to my room, the room Bunfa had died in. Kelar saw how upset I was.
"She wouldn't want you to be upset," he said, pulling me near.
I didn't reply.
Kelar bid me follow him, and we went into a small garden in the courtyard--not the tiny forest I'd once found Leander in, but a well-tended patch filled with flowers that had closed up for the night. The moon and the stars were all that lit our path, and they were enough. There weren't any benches or chairs, but Kelar helped me lay down on the fuzzy grass. He lay beside me, and we looked up at the stars. I wondered if they were the same ones I'd seen on Earth, from a different side of the galaxy, or if I was in a different universe altogether. I hadn't noticed before, but they shone down almost green.
"Do you think Bunfa's up there somewhere?" I asked Kelar.
"What do you mean?" Kelar asked.
"Or do you imagine heaven somewhere else? Like in the treetops?"
Kelar was silent for about a minute before he asked, "Why would Bunfa go to heaven?"
"Why wouldn't she? She's a good person. Wasn't she?" Kelar didn't answer, so I asked, "Or is it because she didn't worship Eku?"
Kelar sat up and looked down at me. I could hardly see his face for the shadows. "She wasn't a king, Bonnie. She wasn't even a man."
"That's part of the definition of 'mother,' isn't it?" I murmured.
"When I die, I hope none will mourn for me. I hope all will know I'm in heaven. But when a woman dies, it's always a tragedy."
I sat up too. "Of course it is, but when you die--"
"If I've led well, I'll go to heaven, and of course when you choose to leave us, you'll go wherever you desire. With luck, the braver soldiers will be in heaven to serve me, and you, if you wish. But commoners, and ordinary women, they perish like the grass and the beasts." He said this without any sadness.
"You don't really believe that?" I asked quietly.
"Please stop testing me," Kelar replied. "Eku himself said it, in person, and in his book. He wouldn't want his home cluttered with unimportant souls."
"And Bunfa's unimportant?"
"She means the world to us, but Eku is eternal. He's seen a lot of mothers."
I shuddered and stood up. "I'm going to bed."
"Bonnie, wait," Kelar called. "Perhaps we interpreted Eku's words wrong." When I didn't reply, he asked, "May I walk Her Greatness back to her room?"
I nearly told him I could escort myself, but he'd been through enough, and didn't need me to think I hated him on top of it. And when I put my small hand in his, I felt safe and protected.
Even though Kelar thought Bunfa was nothing more than food for her tree, I still loved him.
Dlarka helped me out of my dress, but I had to send her away immediately afterwards, because I didn't want her to see me cry.
I slept poorly in the place Bunfa had died in, even though all that remained of the bed was the frame; servants had changed the bedding and mattress. I studied Eku's Book the next day, but I didn't feel like I was learning anything, no matter how I tried. Chran grew short-tempered with me (though he never outright called me stupid). I wound up crying in front of him, and hating myself more with every tear that fell. I finally fled my room to hide.
Most the guards must have been out fighting, because no one stopped me on my way to the letun yard. The beasts milled about like cattle behind a fence, and I had a hard time choosing one. One stared at me, stupidly, and I finally grabbed its bridle. As I led it out of the pen, it purred. And it stood still as I clumsily climbed up onto its back. My skirts audibly tore as I positioned myself astride the letun, and I didn't care. I took the reins, and it started out of the yard. A single guard challenged me, but I just admonished him for not bowing to me. He instantly dropped to the ground in reverence, and I got the letun to run out the back gate. The vines instantly pulled the heavy wooden door back as I came near, opening it for me. But I knew they were enchanted by such a magic that they wouldn't let me, or anyone else, back into the fortress from the outside.
Soon the letun and I were free. The beast squealed in delight, and for a few minutes I enjoyed the presence of the trees and the flowers. I loved the very sensation of finally being outside, and away from hateful priests, for the first time since I'd left home.
The letun and I both jumped as a twig snapped, and though it was probably nothing, all I could imagine was a whole army of Tlaklen's soldiers, marching towards us in such perfect unison that their footsteps sounded like a single giant. I drew the reins tighter, but when the beast slowed, I panicked, sure we were being surrounded. My legs flailed and my foot dug into the letun's side. The beast squealed and took off at a run, and all I could think about then was just holding on. When the letun leapt over a dip in the road, I nearly bit my tongue, and I jarred my teeth so that they hurt for three days. I was sore and bruised by the time that stupid creature finally grew tired and stopped.
We were in a sober, tranquil part of the forest, and the letun was standing over a mound of colored rocks. There was a stone behind them. Though I couldn't read the writing, I recognized the word "Frun," and then knew the others as well. I'd never felt so sick.
Of all the letun in the yard, I'd picked Leander's. And Flatletun remembered the last place it had gone with its master...to Bunfa's grave.
"I'm sorry," I murmured, and the sight of the stones brought me to tears again. I slipped off the beast, knelt on the sharp pebbles, and sobbed. "Bunfa, I'm sorry."
I don't know how long I cried while Flatletun waited patiently, its head bowed, almost in sympathy. But finally I heard two sets of the familiar, irregular footfalls of letun.
Before I could run, a worried voice hailed me. "Bonnie!"
"Leander?" I asked, standing and wiping my eyes. I had to rub my eyes again to make sure I was seeing right. "And Chran?"
The two men had ridden out to find me.
"How'd you know I was here?" I asked softly.
"We saw Flatletun was gone," Leander said as he dismounted. He ignored the beast and patted my shoulder. "Are you all right?"
I nodded, a silent lie.
Leander kept his hand on my shoulder and turned to face Chran. "Is there anything Eku can do to help her?"
The priest scratched his head, then quietly said, "There's a spell in Eku's Book that might be able to raise your mother."
Leander froze, and for a moment I thought he was going to fall over. The idea of hope was so foreign to him, he almost laughed.
"Then why didn't you teach me that?" I asked.
Chran shook his head. "We have to save Sheshack first."
"Can't I learn this as practice? If I screw up, I can hardly make Bunfa any more dead. But if I strengthened Tlaklen's troops, we'd all be lost."
Chran's face was still hard.
"Please," I begged.
The priest finally nodded slowly. "If His Majesty the king allows it," he said in a low voice.
Leander grinned like a little boy on his birthday. "Now will you come home, Bonnie? Before Frun finds out we let you out unguarded, and he kills me and Chran both."
I knew Kelar would never hurt his brother. But I shuddered at the thought of what could have happened in the forest, had the enemy found me first. Leander helped me back onto Flatletun with a bigger smile than I'd seen on anyone, since Bunfa died. And we all rode back together.
Kelar just nodded when we asked, but I saw a smile in his eyes--he wanted his mother back too. Once we had his permission, Chran found the spell in Eku's Book for me. I marked it mentally, copied down the characters, and practiced them, with Chran and without him. I went over the words in my head when I woke, before I ate, when I bathed, and before I went to sleep each night. By the time a week passed, I was sure I could perform the spell.
We left for the temple at dawn the next day, figuring to draw extra power from being in a place sacred to Eku. I'd expected only Bunfa's body would be there, since the spell was to bring life to the lifeless. And the cubical bundle, plastered in mud and shaped like an ugly modern ottoman, was on the high platform. Beside it was what looked to be a fallen tree, covered in vines and leaves.
"What's that?" I asked Chran quietly.
"Bunfa's new vessel," Chran said. "You couldn't expect Eku to restore a rotten body, could you?"
And I knew the idea of putting life into a long-dead body was just a fairy tale. But this new body of Bunfa's would never grow old; she'd be better than new.
I stood before the body--pungent even through the layers of canvas that covered it--and looked down at the book Chran held before me. I took a breath deep enough to sustain a pearl diver, and started to read aloud. At the proper moment, Chran backed up and I knelt, pressing one hand into the felled tree, and the other into Bunfa's body. "Into" is the word, because I felt my fingers burrow into each body as though they were roots making their way through soil. The wood form suddenly shuddered, and shed quite a few leaves. It bent in the middle, like it was sitting up, and it really bore an uncanny resemblance to Bunfa. Two knotholes shone like eyes, and out of the top of the trunk grew long, dark grasses, framing something very much like a face. She only had two main branches, like arms, and her trunk was split above the roots, to form legs. She looked human enough that Leander instantly slipped out of his coat, to cover her for modesty's sake. Her knothole-eyes were wide, and a horizontal cut below them opened up in shock, displaying smooth wooden teeth, more perfect than her real ones had been.
"Bonnie," she said in a voice that was a cross between her own, and the wind through tree branches. She gasped at the sound.
Chran smiled a tiny bit as he turned to a younger priest. "Fetch her some water, and some loam."
Bunfa smoothed her grass-hair back, shaking her head, gazing at each of us in turn. "What have you done?" she finally asked.
"Mother," Kelar said, stepping forward. "We've saved you--we've brought you back to life."
"I never stopped living," Bunfa said softly.
"It's a strange transition, to go from nothingness, to having a body again," Chran whispered. "She'll recover soon enough."
Leander's smile faded. Kelar put an arm around me and murmured, "You performed the spell perfectly. Let's get back to the castle, so you can study to save the rest of the land."
Bunfa grew tired through the next few days, though she perked up when we made her spend more time outside, in the sunlight. The tailors sewed a simple yellow dress for her, little more than a wrap, but enough to keep us from blushing when we looked at her.
No matter what we did for her, Bunfa seemed in a bit of a daze. Her joints creaked when she sat down, and her leaves and grasses rustled if she so much as moved. She had no breath. Her twig-fingers scratched my skin when she dressed me, but I wouldn't have another attendant.
One night, when I came back late from studying, Bunfa crossed her arms and leveled her hollow eyes at me. "Bonnie."
At first I guessed she was grumpy because the day had been cloudy. "Dress me for bed, Bunfa."
"I'm not suited for the task," she said softly. "I'm not suited for living. Not in this body. Bonnie, please, let me go."
I almost slapped her, but she hardly would've felt it if I had. "How dare you!" I cried. "We missed you! I called you back from nothingness!"
Bunfa's voice was cold as winter. "You called on wicked forces, to rip me from the Exalted Father's presence, and keep me here in a cold dead body."
"You're too old to have dreams of heaven," I replied haughtily.
"It wasn't a dream," Bunfa replied.
"And besides, your so-called Exalted Father doesn't take kindly to his people killing themselves, does he? If I let you go, that's what I'd be doing--letting you commit suicide."
"He doesn't like others to summon the spirits of the dead," Bunfa said, her whole body rustling as she turned away.
"Then why'd he let me bring you back? Or is Eku stronger than him after all?"
"I know the Father raises the dead," Bunfa said, "and even saves the dying, and the dead, from death."
"But you were scared to die!"
Bunfa looked as sad as a weeping willow in a drought. "I was as a child. Now I know the better life lies beyond this one. Yet I'd stay here forever, if He willed it. Because all that matters, is to commune with Him, whether in this life, or not."
"Bunfa," I said slowly. "Of course we won't kill you--for that's all it would be, if we sent you out of your body. Ask your god to save you. Or if he fails you, you can put yourself in the woodpile."
Bunfa fixed her hollow eyes on me, opened her mouth to speak, and then stopped. After a moment, she serenely rustled out of the room, leaving me to struggle out of my dress by myself.
We went back to the temple the next week, and I called on Eku to bring Sheshack to victory, to strengthen the troops, to strike the enemy down. It felt weirder than raising Bunfa, and I felt even colder, but the coldness dissolved into an exhilarating tingle. I wryly thought that it was more amazing than anything even a dandruff shampoo commercial could promise. I could hardly wait to learn more, and I prayed to Eku silently, even on the trip back to the fortress, thinking I'd share his joy.
I still felt strange when we got back to the castle, but the coldness made itself at home in me. I hardly slept, and when I tried, all I could think of was men dying, losing limbs and eyes, and being stabbed through with a spear or shot with countless arrows. I saw our men kill the soldier from Tlaklen who had protected me even while I was prisoner in that cabin. And then it was Kelar, dead on the ground, his uniform almost glowing red from all the blood. I screamed, and strong arms held me down. Mom and Frieda were there, telling me it was all right, asking me to come back. The moment I tried to go with them, their clothes grew red, their faces cruel, until they became soldiers from Tlaklen, laughing over me. Finally, they, in turn, were struck down by Sheshan soldiers. The scenes all replayed, more times than I could count. It must have been at least an hour or two of steady nightmares, before I got control of myself enough to try to reassure myself that morning had come, and I was safe in bed.
When I could weakly notice who was around, Kelar was there. His face showed concern, but I saw a distinct hopeful look in his eyes. After a quick inquiry about my health, he said, "Our soldiers killed twenty enemy spies in the forest. And we've heard other good news, too--Clagni is in our hands again, and the enemy's been driven back from Reidtray. We're going to overcome." He grinned, taking my hand. "Thank you for your sacrifice."
"It's no sacrifice to do Eku's will," I said quietly, though I still saw severed heads, even when my eyes were open.
I didn't study that day, instead, just staying in my room. I heard Bunfa approaching my doorway, creaking like a tree in a storm, before she even knocked. I wanted her to hold me as she once had, but of course her skin was rough bark, her body hard and unyielding.
"Come in," I murmured.
"Are you all right?" Bunfa asked. Her mossy eyebrows were drawn up in concern over her knothole eyes.
I nodded, lying.
"Did you have a nightmare?"
I nodded again.
"Lay down, sweetheart," Bunfa said softly. "Let me tell you a story." She arranged my blankets for me, and I crawled under them, like a child.
"Over 100 years ago," Bunfa started, "it's said that a hunter found a beautiful, fair child, deep in the forests of Benduka. He couldn't afford to keep a baby, so he brought her to his two sisters, both childless widows who were glad to have her, despite their poverty. They loved the girl as their own, but sometimes she'd go into trances, and she had strange ideas. And when she was nearly grown, she told the whole town of a new god they'd never heard of--a god sent by his Father, the true God over all, to die as ransom for humans' wrongdoing."
I choked back a sob, and I didn't know why.
"She refused to go to the clearing to worship Slin, instead staying home and praying to this new god. She was so steadfast in her faith, her adoptive mothers believed, and then a few members of the village.
"Over the next hundred years, despite trials, Jesus"--(and she pronounced it wrong)--"has gained thousands of followers in this world, some even here in Sheshack. Like me."
I turned away. "How can you still believe, after all you've seen me do?"
"I've seen what Eku's done to you, and I believe more strongly than ever," Bunfa said.
For a moment, I almost thought she was right--that there was someone bigger than me, bigger than Eku. But I remembered how Kelar had smiled when he learned Sheshack was safe, and how we'd all cried tears of joy when we restored Bunfa's life. And, how Bunfa's god, the god who claimed to be sovereign of all, had left her whimpering in fear, as he let her die.
"Get out," I said softly.
Bunfa lightly ran a twig finger over my face, as gently as she could manage. She still scratched me a little, but I almost cried at her tenderness.
"Leave me," I said again.
"I'll be in the hallway, if you need me," Bunfa whispered, like wind through leaves.
And she left me to my tears.
On my way out of my room the next morning, I almost tripped over a woman who had fallen down in front of me. She wouldn't look up, not even when I commanded her to rise.
"What do you want?" I finally asked.
"Please help me cook Bendukan food," she said reverently, not raising her face from the ground.
"Why would I do that?" I asked. "Why would you even want to?" I'd had Bendukan food when an ambassador had visited. They ate soups and stews almost exclusively, and each course was as mushy as overcooked cabbage, and tasted even worse.
"There's a man named Thairly in the fortress," she explained softly. "He was born in Benduka. And if I could cook for him, I'm sure he'd fall in love with me."
"Get up!" I said, so firmly she sat up, though she remained on her knees. A piece of fuzz from the rug was stuck on her upper lip, and I wondered how long it would be before she noticed. She was pale and had a terrible nose, and suddenly I promised I'd help her.
Chran didn't seem so pleased about me pestering Eku about such a trivial matter, but now that our army was winning the war, it was my decision. Eku's Book didn't have a spell to teach women how to cook, but there was one for increasing knowledge and wisdom, so if I said it properly, in the right frame of mind, it would work.
Chran probably only helped me because he wanted to see if I could cast spells outside the temple. We tried it on the top turret of the castle, and it was so windy Chran had to brace me as I raised my hands, so I wouldn't be blown off. I read the words while the girl held the book in front of me, and I felt Eku's power. When I was done, she bowed to me and thanked me. She wasn't visibly different, but it's not like I could expect her to sprout a chef's kerchief just because I gave her some new skills.
She served Kelar, Chran and me the next day, and the food was perfectly awful, which is to say, she was a perfect Bendukan chef. She couldn't thank me enough; she was sure she'd win Thairly's heart.
Kelar didn't need to spend as much time training his men, or himself, now, and so he had more time for me. We still didn't dare leave the fortress, but we ate most of our meals together. Often, we'd just walk through the courtyard, holding hands. Sometimes we stole a long kiss among the trees. One evening when the sky was almost violet and the stars all sparkled, we nearly went farther, safe in the shelter of the trees. Kelar suddenly dropped his hands from the laces of my dress, then re-tied the bow.
"I'm sorry," he murmured. "It wouldn't be right to take you as my wife before we've won the war."
My face grew hot, as I realized how close I had been to making Kelar my husband. I wasn't sure I was ready for that yet.
"I'll be your wife someday," I murmured.
Kelar smiled widely. "When Eku wills it, I'll be honored."
Eku didn't will it yet, but that night, I fell asleep in Kelar's arms, under the night sky.
More people asked me for help. It was fun at first, but soon I got tired of it. So when people came up to me and asked for a favor, sometimes I said "yes," sometimes "no," and often, just promised to ask Eku later (which I never did).
But one day a man just wouldn't leave me alone. He was about the most pathetic person I'd seen outside Baaknl--his skin fell in deep folds on his face, and he was thinner than I'd ever even wished to be. He leaned heavily on a crutch, as he was missing a leg. That didn't stop him from dropping to bow three times to me when he saw me, and then staying bowed, hoping to ask me a question. I dreaded when he'd ask me to re-grow his leg, thinking he'd turn into a half-human, half-tree monster when I did so.
"What do you want?" I finally sneered, hoping to drive him away.
Not only did he stay, but it took him about two minutes of obsequious talk before he finally let me know someone needed healing.
"What will you do if I say I won't heal her?" I asked.
The man was still on the floor. "I'd follow Your Greatness until she changes her mind, or until I'm arrested, or until Bundran dies."
"Bundran" was just an affectionate term for a girl or woman--it could mean "daughter," or "Mommy," if a child said it. "What's her given name?"
"Rali," the man said softly.
"Rise and take me to her," I said, and the man leapt to his foot, grinning. If he'd had two legs I was sure he would've outrun me; with just one, I could barely keep up as he led me. We went down more flights of stairs than I knew the fortress had, and I heard squeaks and shuffles. Much later, Leander told me the lower levels of the fortress were full of kasay--weirdly-proportioned black creatures a lot like long-legged rats. It was too dark to see them now, and the only light in the corridor came from a couple sickly candles. I was hard-pressed to imagine the dungeon being much worse.
The man opened a tiny door and we both had to stoop to get in. It was dark until he lit a candle, and so small there was hardly room for us all. The bed was just a thin mat resting on a three-foot tall table...a rough bed to keep the kasay from biting, of course. A sword and a guard's green jacket hung on the wall, surprising me; I knew the one-legged man wasn't an active soldier.
Rali was a thin young woman with fairly long hair, laying on the bed, under some thin blankets. The man pushed the hair out of the unconscious woman's eyes.
"Your daughter?" I asked, and the man nodded.
I suddenly recognized her. She'd guarded the doctor's boy and the other children in the courtyard--though at the time, I'd decided she was a man.
"They let women serve as soldiers?" I asked quietly.
The man softly said, "Times are troubled, Your Greatness, and she's strong. Please don't hold her vocation against her, Your Greatness."
Tears shone in his eyes, and I suddenly imagined my own mother, crying over a lost daughter--over me.
"She'll be healed if you bid it," the man murmured.
"I bid it," I said.
The man instantly thanked me. He rose up and looked at his daughter, then back at me, as if he were afraid.
"Speak your mind," I told him.
"She...doesn't look any better, Your Greatness," he murmured.
"Of course not," I said sharply. "We need to perform the ceremony!"
"What can I do to help?" the man asked.
"Take her to the top turret of the castle two days from now."
The man turned pale; he didn't think his daughter had two days.
"You saw how I raised Bunfa!" I cried. "Even if she dies, I can restore her."
"Praise Eku," the man murmured, though he didn't really look joyful, and I went back upstairs to study.
When Chran and I got to the top turret, the man was there, holding Rali's hand, and Bunfa was waiting, with Leander and Kelar. The king and prince never tired of watching me perform miracles, but I was surprised to see Bunfa.
Chran held the book for me, and I put one hand on the girl's forehead and one on her chest. She was flushed, but her skin felt cold, and she was having trouble breathing.
I read the words perfectly, I'm sure, putting my whole heart into each syllable. Rali's skin grew colder as I spoke, and she whimpered. I didn't falter once.
When I was done, nothing happened for a couple moments. Then the girl screamed and wrested herself away from my grip. Her bloodshot eyes were open wide, and she yelled curses and nonsense words. Her father begged me to heal her, but I was afraid of the monstrous girl. I grabbed Kelar's sword right out of its sheath and moved to slash Rali's throat. But Bunfa was there, with her arms around the woman.
"In the name of Jesus, leave her be!" Bunfa yelled, staring at Rali.
Kelar's sword fell to my feet with a loud metallic clang that hurt my ears like a gunshot. I dropped to my hands and knees beside it. The woman looked around with eyes that now saw, and then ran to her father. They hugged each other tightly, and the woman looked more like a little girl, than a soldier. Everyone else, even Bunfa, looked sick.
"Your Greatness may have been working against Eku's will," Chran finally said. "Perhaps she might use Eku's power with more discrimination."
I nodded numbly, not correcting him, just imagining the one-legged man's grief at seeing his daughter lying dead, killed by the person he'd begged to save her. I wished I'd never come to Sheshack, almost wished I'd never been born.
Kelar picked up his sword, and then lifted me, pulling me to him. "It was well thought of, though. To try to slay the woman, so you could raise her to an incorruptible form, like you raised Bunfa."
I had meant to kill the girl for good, and if Bunfa hadn't interfered, the woman would be dead right now. Either I was a monster, or Eku was. I pressed my face against Kelar's chest and cried.
Kelar took me right to my bedroom, and Bunfa pulled my clothes off and put me into my nightgown. I was too numb to move, and I hardly even knew it when I fell asleep.
I'd slain Rali, though the woman, dressed in a bloody guard uniform, rose and attacked. I was holding Kelar's sword, and I slashed at her, but she dodged with reflexes better than the king's. And then she tackled me. I couldn't breathe until large hands pulled the woman off, throwing her aside. The life left Rali's body, and she was as useless as an abandoned puppet.
I thought it was Kelar who rescued me, but I was looking at Frieda. And Rali's limp body now had gray hair, and was wrapped in a heavy bathrobe.
"Bonnie!" Frieda yelled, shaking me. "If you're the Chosen One, heal Mom!"
As I walked over to her, I felt supple, rope-like fingers pull at my wrist. Eku was beside me, and he said, "It's not meant to be."
"Liar!" Frieda shouted. "Bonnie, Eku! Neither of you doubt your powers!"
"It's not my will," Eku said.
Frieda started to cry, and the sun was growing brighter, so her tears almost glowed. Eku lit up just like the sacred violet tree in Derayl had. And then suddenly, he caught fire. He screamed, and I tried to save him, but soon, he was just a blackened piece of firewood. Frieda and Mom had vanished, and I knew Mom was dead, or would be soon.
I sobbed, terrified and overwhelmed. I was alone, until I felt an unfamiliar hand on my shoulder.
"Don't be afraid. Just believe."
I'd never heard that voice before, and it made me tremble. "How can I?" I asked. "She's dead!"
"She believed," the voice said. "And truly I say to you, she lives."
I clung to those words like they were flesh, the same way I'd hugged my mother when I was a child. And I knew as long as I could believe it, I'd make it through. I woke to the sound of rain pattering against my shutters.
Bunfa leaned over me, rubbing her wooden eyes. She raised her candle to gaze at me. I quickly turned away. "Why are you here?" I asked. "Was I yelling?"
"I just knew," Bunfa said quietly. "I was told."
I was silent.
"It was a bad dream, right?" Bunfa asked.
I nodded. "But I don't know if I wanted it to end. I was so afraid, but the end..." I couldn't explain what I felt.
Bunfa gave me a handkerchief. "Would you like to tell me?" she asked gently.
And I told her everything--and all about my life at home, as well as the mother I'd lost and the sister I'd never see again.
Bunfa just listened sympathetically, and finally murmured, "Eku loves none but himself. The Father above all loves all, like a father." Almost as if she read my mind, she added, "Not like your father, and not like my husband, either. Like a father who would give anything in the world to save his children, even if he knew half of them would mock him for it."
"I know," I murmured brokenly. "I understood that he must have had some purpose in Mom's suffering, and that she's...she'll be all right..."
I knew I was being called, that I should choose the right, and love and follow the One who had given Himself so we could all live. The Father above all, who Bunfa served. And I realized He'd always been there, asking me to put Him above myself, to serve the good.
"Can he forgive me?" I asked quietly. "I prayed to Eku. I called on him and had him kill men."
"He's forgiven worse," Bunfa murmured.
I was trembling. "I will," I said, my voice shaking as badly as my body was. "Bunfa...I will. I'll follow the God of my world. Of all worlds."
The shutters flew open, and lightning illuminated the room, with thunder sounding just after. I yelled.
"He's shouting in joy," Bunfa laughed. The woman hugged me, and for a moment, she felt warm like flesh, like she was meant to be where she was. When I looked up, she was more human than tree--and was transparent, like a ghost.
I stared at her in horror, for as long as it took to take three deep breaths. "Kelar!" I finally yelled. "Leander!" I almost screamed. "Guards! Fetch them!" Once a guard shouted back, I turned to Bunfa.
"Bunfa," I begged. "Don't leave me."
"The Exalted Father let Eku work for a purpose," she said, and I saw her fade further. "But now Eku's spell is broken."
"Don't!" I yelled, trying to grab her wrist. But I couldn't touch her. "Bunfa, I need you!"
"You know all you need to know," she replied softly. "Cling to His words."
"Bonnie, I want you to be happy for me."
"I can't!" I shrieked.
Leander rushed into the room, staring in shock at his mother. She looked less like a tree by the moment, but more and more like a ghost. The prince tried to take Bunfa's hand, and when he couldn't, he dropped to the ground. "Eku...someone...help her!"
"The One greater than Eku is calling me," Bunfa said.
Leander looked up, tears flowing. "Bunfa, please. I beg you."
Bunfa was faint as a reflection in a window. Kelar came forward and gasped. "Bunfa! What are you doing?"
"I love you," the woman said. She was a woman now, hard to see, but her lips smiled, while her eyes shone with tears. "I love you all. And I'm all right. I promise you."
"Bunfa, stop it!" Kelar said.
"Kelar, the poor and women who perish are more than dust. All can go to the Exalted Father, if they just try to believe." And then, more quickly than a cloud of dust, she vanished. Her yellow dress dropped to the floor. When I closed my eyes, I saw that wonderful and terrible image of Bunfa fading, yet being perfectly sure everything was all right. And I tried my best to have faith, to believe that it would be all right.
That didn't keep any of us from crying, and watching the spot
she'd disappeared from, in the hopes she'd return.
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Chosen © Julie Bihn, 1999-2006