'I think not.'
'Yer brother took his off - look!' She pointed, and Roland spied the gold medallion lying far down the aisle, where it had landed when Ralph threw it.
Sister Tamra looked at him, still smiling.
'He decided it was part of what was making him sick, and cast it away Ye'd do the same, were ye wise.'
Roland repeated: 'I think not.'
'So,' she said dismissively, and left him alone with the empty beds glimmering in the thickening shadows.
Roland hung on, in spite of growing sleepiness, until the hot colours bleeding across the infirmary's western wall had cooled to ashes. Then he nibbled one of the reeds and felt strength - real strength, not a jittery, heart-thudding substitute -bloom in his body. He looked towards where the castaway medallion gleamed in the last light and made a silent promise to John Norman: he would take it with the other one to Norman's kin, ifka chanced that he should encounter them in his travels.
Feeling completely easy in his mind for the first time that day, the gunslinger dozed. When he awoke it was full dark. The doctor-bugs were singing with extraordinary shrillness. He had taken one of the reeds out from under the pillow and had begun to nibble on it when a cold voice said, 'So - Big Sister was right. Ye've been keeping secrets.'
Roland's heart seemed to stop dead in his chest. He looked around and saw Sister Coquina getting to her feet. She had crept in while he was dozing and hidden under the bed on his right side to watch him. 'Where did ye get that?' she asked. 'Was it 'He got it from me.'
Coquina whirled about. Jenna was walking down the aisle towards them. Her habit was gone. She still wore her wimple with its foreheadfringe of bells, but its hem rested on the shoulders of a simple checkered shirt. Below this she wore jeans and scuffed desert boots. She had something in her hands. It was too dark for Roland to be sure, but he thought
YOU,' Sister Coquina whispered with infinite hate. 'When I tell Big Sister -
'you'll tell no one anything,' Roland said.
If he had planned his escape from the slings which entangled him, he no doubt would have made a bad business of it, but, as always, the gunslinger did best when he thought least. His arms were free in a moment; so was his left leg. His right caught at the ankle, however, twisting, hanging him up with his shoulders on the bed and his leg in the air.
Coquina turned on him, hissing like a cat. Her lips pulled back from teeth that were needle-sharp. She rushed at him, her fingers splayed. The nails at the ends of them looked sharp and ragged.
Roland clasped the medallion and shoved it out towards her. She recoiled from it, still hissing, and whirled back to Sister Jenna in a flare of white skirt. 'I'll do for ye, ye interfering trull!' she cried in a low, harsh voice.
Roland struggled to free his leg and couldn't. It was firmly caught, the shitting sling actually wrapped around the ankle somehow, like a noose.
Jenna raised her hands, and he saw he had been right: it was his revolvers she had brought, holstered and hanging from the two old gunbelts he had worn out of Gilead after the last burning.
'Shoot her, Jenna! Shoot her!'
Instead, still holding the holstered guns up, Jenna shook her head as she had on the day when Roland had persuaded her to push back her wimple so he could see her hair. The bells rang with a sharpness that seemed to go into the gunslinger's head like a spike.
The Dark Bells. The sigil of their
The sound of the doctor-bugs rose to a shrill, reedy scream that was eerily like the sound of the bells Jenna wore. Nothing sweet about them now. Sister Coquina's hands faltered on their way to Jenna's throat; Jenna herself had not so much as flinched or blinked her eyes.
'No,' Coquina whispered. 'Youcan't!'
Jenna said, and Roland saw the bugs. Descending from the legs of the bearded man, he'd observed a battalion. What he saw coming from the shadows now was an army to end all armies; had they been men instead of insects, there might have been more than all the men who had ever carried arms in the long and bloody history of World.
Yet the sight of them advancing down the boards of the aisle was what Roland would always remember, nor what would haunt his dream for a year or more; it was the way they coated thebeds. These were turning black two by two on both sides of the aisle, like pairs of dim rectangular lights going out.
Coquina shrieked and began to shake her own head, to ring her bells. The sound they made was thin and pointless compared to the sharp ringing of the Dark Bells.
Still the bugs marched on, darkening the floor, blacking out the be
Jenna darted past the shrieking Sister Coquina, dropped Roland's beside him, then yanked the twisted sling straight with one hard p Roland slid his leg free.
'Come,' she said. 'I've started them, but staying them could be a different thing.'
Now Sister Coquina's shrieks were not of horror but of pain. The bugs had found her.
'Don't look,' Jenna said, helping Roland to his feet. He thought that never in his life had he been so glad to be upon them. 'Come. We mu be quick - she'll rouse the others. I've put your boots and clothes aside the path that leads away from here - I carried as much as I could. How ye? Are ye strong?'
'Thanks to you.' How long he would stay strong Roland didn't know... and right now it wasn't a question that mattered. He saw Jenna snatch up two of the reeds - in his struggle to escape the slings, they had scattered all over the head of the bed - and then they were hurrying up the aisle, away from the bugs and from Sister Coquina, whose cries were now failing.
Roland buckled on his guns and tied them down without breaking stride.
They passed only three beds on each side before reaching the flap of the tent . . . and it was a tent, he saw, not a vast pavilion. The silk walls and ceiling were fraying canvas, thin enough to let in the light of a threequarters Kissing Moon. And the beds weren't beds at all, but only a double row of shabby cots.
He turned and saw a black, writhing hump on the floor where Sister Coquina had been. At the sight of her, Roland was struck by an unpleasant thought.
'I forgot John Norman's medallion!' A keen sense of regret - almost of mourning - went through him like wind.
Jenna reached into the pocket of her jeans and brought it out. It glimmered in the moonlight.
'I picked it up off the floor.'
He didn't know which made him gladder - the sight of the medallion or the sight of it in her hand. It meant she wasn't like the others.
Then, as if to dispel that notion before it got too firm a hold on him, she said: 'Take it, Roland - I can hold it no more.' And, as he took it, he saw unmistakable marks of charring on her fingers.
He took her hand and kissed each burn.
'Thankee-sai,' she said, and he saw she was crying. 'Thankee, dear. To be kissed so is lovely, worth every pain. Now . . .'
Roland saw her eyes shift, and followed them. Here were bobbing lights descending a rocky path. Beyond them he saw the building where the Little Sisters had been living - not a convent but a ruinedhacienda that looked a thousand years old. There were three candles; as they drew closer, Roland saw that there were only three sisters. Mary wasn't among them.
He drew his guns.
'Oooo, it's a gunslinger-man he is!' Louise.
'Ascary man!' Michela.
'And he's found his ladylove as well as his shooters!' Tamra.
'His slut-whore!' Louise.
Laughing angrily. Not afraid ... at least, not ofhis weapons.
'Put them away,' Jenna told him, and when she looked, saw that he already had.
The others, meanwhile, had drawn closer.
'Ooo, see, she cries!' Tamra.
'Doffed her habit, she has!' Michela. 'Perhaps it's her broken vows she cries for.'
'Why such tears, pretty?' Louise.
'Because he kissed my fingers where they were burned,' Jenna said. 'I've never been kissed before. It made me cry.'
'Next he'll stick his thing in her! Even luv-lier!'
Jenna bore their japes with no sign of anger. When they were done, she said: 'I'm going with him. Stand aside.'
They gaped at her, counterfeit laughter disappearing in shock.
'No!' Louise whispered. 'Are ye mad? Ye know what'll happen!'
'No, and neither do you,' Jenna said. 'Besides, I care not.' She half-turned and held her hand out to the mouth of the ancient hospital tent. It was a faded olive-drab in the moonlight, with an old red cross drawn on its roof.
Roland wondered how many towns the Sisters had been to With this tent which was so small and plain on the outside, so huge and gloriously on the inside. How many towns and over how many years.
Now, cramming the mouth of it in a black, shiny tongue, were doctor-bugs. They had stopped their singing. Their silence was somehow terrible.
'Stand aside or I'll have them on ye,' Jenna said.
'Ye never would!' Sister Michela cried in a low, horrified voice.
'Aye. I've already set them on Sister Coquina. She's a part of the medicine, now.'
Their gasp was like cold wind passing through dead trees. Nor was all that dismay directed towards their own precious hides. What Jenna h done was clearly far outside their reckoning.
'Then you're damned,' Sister Tamra said.
'Such ones to speak of damnation! Stand aside.'
They did. Roland walked past them and they shrank away from him. but they shrank from her more.
'Damned?' he asked after they had skirted thehaci and reached the path beyond it. The Kissing Moon glimmered above a tumbled scree of rocks In its light Roland could see a small black opening low on the scarp. guessed it was the cave the Sisters called Thoughtful House. 'What did they mean, damned?'
'Never mind. All we have to worry about now is Sister Mary. I like not that we haven't seen her.'
She tried to walk faster, but he grasped her arm and turned her about. He could still hear the singing of the bugs, but faintly; they were leaving the place of the Sisters behind. Eluria, too, if the compass in his head was still working; he thought the town was in the other direction. The husk of the town, he amended.
'Tell me what they meant.'
'Perhaps nothing. Ask me not, Roland - what good is it? 'Tis done, the bridge burned. I can't go back. Nor would if I could.' She looked down, biting her lip, and when she looked up again, Roland saw fresh tears falling on her cheeks. 'I have supped with them. There were times when I couldn't help it, no more than you could help drinking their wretched soup, no matter if you knew what was in it.'
Roland remembered John Norman saying Aman has to eat... a woman, too. He nodded.
'I'd go no further down that road. If there's to be damnation, let it be of my choosing, not theirs. My mother meant well by bringing me back to them, but she was wrong.' She looked at him shyly and fearfully ... but met his eyes. 'I'd go beside ye on yer road, Roland of Gilead. For as long as I may, or as long as ye'd have me.'
'you're welcome to your share of my way,' he said. 'And I am -'
Blessed by your company,
he would have finished, but before he could, a voice spoke from the tangle of moonshadow ahead of them, where the path at last climbed out of the rocky, sterile valley in which the Little Sisters had practised their glamours.
'It's a sad duty to stop such a pretty elopement, but stop it I must.'
Sister Mary came from the shadows. Her fine white habit with its bright red rose had reverted to what it really was: the shroud of a corpse. Caught, hooded in its grimy folds, was a wrinkled, sagging face from which two black eyes stared. They looked like rotted dates. Below them, exposed by the thing's smile, four great incisors gleamed.
Upon the stretched skin of Sister Mary's forehead, bells tinkled ... but not the Dark Bells, Roland thought. There was that.
'Stand clear,' Jenna said. 'Or I'll bring thecan tam on ye.'
'No,' Sister Mary said, stepping closer, 'ye won't. They'll not stray so far from the others. Shake your head and ring those damned bells until the clappers fall out, and still they'll never come.'
Jenna did as bid, shaking her head furiously from side to side. The Dark Bells rang piercingly, but without that extra, almost psychic tone-quality that had gone through Roland's head like a spike. And the doctor-bugs
what Jenna had called thecan tam - did not come.
Smiling ever more broadly (Roland had an idea Mary herself hadn't been completely sure they wouldn't come until the experiment was made), the corpse-woman closed in on them, seeming to float above the ground. Her eyes flicked towards him. 'And put that away,' she said.
Roland looked down and saw that one of his guns was in his hand. He had no memory of drawing it.
'Unless it's been blessed or dipped in some sect's holy wet - blood, water, semen - it can't harm such as I, gunslinger. For I am more shade than substance ... yet still the equal to such as yerself, for all that.'
She thought he would try shooting her, anyway; he saw it in her eyes.Those shooters are all ye have, her eyes said.Without 'em, you might as well be back in the tent we dreamed around ye, caught up in our slings and awaiting our pleasure.
Instead of shooting, he dropped the revolver back into its holster and launched himself at her with his hands out. Sister Mary uttered a scream that was mostly surprise, but it was not a long one; Roland's fingers clamped down on her throat and choked the sound off before it was fairly started.
The touch of her flesh was obscene - it seemed not just alive but various beneath his hands, as if it was trying to crawl away from him. He could feel it running like liquid, flowing, and the sensation was horrible beyond description. Yet he clamped down harder, determined to choke the I out of her.
Then there came a blue flash (not in the air, he would think later; that flash happened inside his head, a single stroke of lightning as she touch off some brief but powerful brainstorm), and his hands flew away from h neck. For one moment his dazzled eyes saw great wet gouges in her flesh - gouges in the shapes of his hands. Then he was flung backwards hitting the scree on his back and sliding, striking his head on a jutting rock hard enough to provoke a second, lesser, flash of light.
'Nay, my pretty man,' she said, grimacing at him, laughing with those terrible dull eyes of hers. 'Ye don't choke such as I, and I'll take ye slow yer impertinence - cut ye shallow in a hundred places to refresh my thirst First, though, I'll have this vowless girl ... and I'll have those damned bells off her, in the bargain.'
'Come and see if you can!' Jenna cried in a trembling voice, and shook her head from side to side. The Dark Bells rang mockingly, provokingly
Mary's grimace of a smile fell away. 'Oh, I can,' she breathed. Her mouth yawned. In the moonlight, her fangs gleamed in her gums like bone needles poked through a red pillow. 'I can and I -'
There was a growl from above them. It rose, then splintered into a volley of snarling barks. Mary turned to her left, and in the moment before the snarling thing left the rock on which it was standing, Roland could clearly read the startled bewilderment on Big Sister's face.
It launched itself at her, only a dark shape against the stars, legs outstretched so it looked like some sort of weird bat, but even before it crashed into the woman, striking her in the chest above her half-raise arms and fastening its own teeth on her throat, Roland knew exactly what it was.
As the shape bore her over on to her back, Sister Mary uttered a gibbering shriek that went through Roland's head like the Dark Bells themselves. He scrambled to his feet, gasping. The shadowy thing tore at her, forepaws on either side of her head, rear paws planted on the grave-shroud above her, chest, where the rose had been.
Roland grabbed Jenna, who was looking down at the fallen Sister with a kind of frozen fascination.
'Come on!' he shouted. 'Before it decides it wants a bite of you, too!'
The dog took no notice of them as Roland pulled Jenna past. It had torn
Sister Mary's head mostly off. Her flesh seemed to be changing, somehow - decomposing, very likely - but whatever was happening, Roland did not want to see it. He didn't want Jenna to see it, either.
They half-walked, half-ran to the top of the ridge, and when they got there paused for breath in the moonlight, heads down, hands linked, both of them gasping harshly.
The growling and snarling below them had faded, but was still faintly audible when Sister Jenna raised her head and asked him, 'What was it? you know - I saw it in your face. And how could it attack her? We all have power over animals, but she has - had - the most.'
'Not over that one.' Roland found himself recalling the unfortunate boy in the next bed. Norman hadn't known why the medallions kept the Sisters at arm's length - whether it was the gold or the God. Now Roland knew the answer. 'It was a dog. Just a town-dog. I saw it in the square, before the green folk knocked me out and took me to the Sisters. I suppose the other animals that could run awaydid run away, but not that one. it had nothing to fear from the Little Sisters of Eluria, and somehow it knew it didn't. It bears the sign of the Jesus-man on its chest. Black fur on white. just an accident of its birth, I imagine. In any case, it's done for her now. I knew it was lurking around. I heard it barking two or three times.'