'Why?' Jenna whispered. 'Why would it come? Why would it stay? And why would it take on her as it did?'
Roland of Gilead responded as he ever had and ever would when such useless, mystifying questions were raised: 'Ka. Come on. Let's get as far as we can from this place before we hide up for the day.'
As far as they could turned out to be eight miles at most ... and probably, Roland thought as the two of them sank down in a patch of sweet-smelling sage beneath an overhang of rock, a good deal less. Five, perhaps. It was him slowing them down; or rather, it was the residue of the poison in the soup. When it was clear to him that he could not go farther without help, he asked her for one of the reeds. She refused, saying that the stuff in it might combine with the unaccustomed exercise to burst his heart.
'Besides,' she said as they lay back against the embankment of the little nook they had found, 'they'll not follow. Those that are left - Michela, Louise, Tamra - will be packing up to move on. They know to leave when the time comes; that's why the Sisters have survived as long as they have. As We have. We're strong in some ways, but weak in many more. Sister
Mary forgot that. It was her arrogance that did for her as much as the cross-dog, I think.'
She had cached not just his boots and clothes beyond the top of the ridge, but the smaller of his two purses, as well. When she tried apologize for not bringing his bedroll and the larger purse (she'd tried she said, but they were simply too heavy), Roland hushed her with a finger to her lips. He thought it a miracle to have as much as he did. And besides (this he did not say, but perhaps she knew it, anyway), the guns were the only things which really mattered. The guns of his father, and his father before him, all the way back to the days of Arthur Eld when dreams about dragons had still walked the earth.
'Will you be all right?' he asked her as they settled down. The moon had set, but dawn was still at least three hours away. They were surrounded the sweet smell of the sage. A purple smell, he thought it then ... and ever after. Already he could feel it forming a kind of magic carpet under him, which would soon float him away to sleep. He thought he had never been so tired.
'Roland, I know not.' But even then, he thought she had known. Her mother had brought her back once; no mother would bring her back again. And she had eaten with the others, had taken the communion of the Sisters. Ka was a wheel; it was also a net from which none ever escaped.
But then he was too tired to think much of such things ... and what good would thinking have done, in any case? As she had said, the bridge was burned. Even if they were to return to the valley, Roland guess they would find nothing but the cave the Sisters had called Thoughtful House. The surviving Sisters would have packed their tent of bad dreams and moved on, just a sound of bells and singing insects moving down the late night breeze.
He looked at her raised a hand (it felt heavy), and touched the curl which once more lay across her forehead.
Jenna laughed, embarrassed. 'That one always escapes. It's wayward Like its mistress.'
She raised her hand to poke it back in, but Roland took her fingers before she could. 'It's beautiful,' he said. 'Black as night and as beautiful as forever.'
He sat up - it took an effort; weariness dragged at his body like soft hands. He kissed the curl. She closed her eyes and sighed. He felt her trembling beneath his lips. The skin of her brow was very cool; the dark curve of the wayward curl like silk.
'Push back your wimple, as you did before,' he said.
She did it without speaking. For a moment he only looked at her. Jenna looked back gravely, her eyes never leaving his. He ran his hands through her hair, feeling its smooth weight (like rain, he thought, rain with weight), then took her shoulders and kissed each of her cheeks. He drew back for a moment.
'Would ye kiss me as a man does a woman, Roland? On my mouth?'
And, as he had thought of doing as he lay caught in the silken infirmary tent, he kissed her lips. She kissed back with the clumsy sweetness of one who has never kissed before, except perhaps in dreams. Roland thought to make love to her then - it had been long and long, and she was beautiful but he fell asleep instead, still kissing her.
He dreamed of the cross-dog, barking its way across a great open landscape. He followed, wanting to see the source of its agitation, and soon he did. At the far edge of that plain stood the Dark Tower, its smoky stone outlined by the dull orange ball of a setting sun, its fearful windows rising in a spiral. The dog stopped at the sight of it and began to howl.
Bells - peculiarly shrill and as terrible as doom - began to ring. Dark bells, he knew, but their tone was as bright as silver. At their sound, the dark windows of the Tower glowed with a deadly red light - the red of poisoned roses. A scream of unbearable pain rose in the night.
The dream blew away in an instant, but the scream remained, now unravelling to a moan. That part was real - as real as the Tower, brooding in its place at the very end of End-World. Roland came back to the brightness of dawn and the soft purple smell of desert sage. He had drawn both his guns, and was on his feet before he had fully realized he was awake.
Jenna was gone. Her boots lay empty beside his purse. A little distance from them, her jeans lay as flat as discarded snakeskins. Above them was her shirt. It was, Roland observed with wonder, still tucked into the pants. Beyond them was her empty wimple, with its fringe of bells lying on the powdery ground. He thought for a moment that they were ringing, mistaking the sound he heard at first.
Not bells but bugs. The doctor-bugs. They sang in the sage, sounding a bit like crickets, but far sweeter.
No answer ... unless the bugs answered. For their singing suddenly stopped.
Nothing. Only the wind and the smell of the sage.
Without thinking about what he was doing (like play-acting, reasoned thought was not his strong suit), he bent, picked up the wimple, and shook it. The Dark Bells rang.
For a moment there was nothing. Then a thousand small dark creatures came scurrying out of the sage, gathering on the broken earth. Roland thought of the battalion marching down the side of the freighter's and took a step back. Then he held his position. As, he saw, the bugs holding theirs.
He believed he understood. Some of this understanding came from his memory of how Sister Mary's flesh had felt under his hands... how it had feltvarious, not one thing but many. Part of it was what she had Said:I have supped with them. Such as them might never die but they mightchange.
The insects trembled, a dark cloud of them blotting out the white powdery earth.
Roland shook the bells again.
A shiver ran through them in a subtle wave, and then they began form a shape. They hesitated as if unsure of how to go on, regrouped, began again. What they eventually made on the whiteness of the sand there between the blowing fluffs of lilac-coloured sage was one of Great Letters: the letter C.
Except it wasn't really a letter, the gunslinger saw; it was a curl.
They began to sing, and to Roland it sounded as if they were singing his name.
The bells fell from his unnerved hand, and when they struck ground and chimed there, the mass of bugs broke apart, running every direction. He thought of calling them back - ringing the bell again might do that - but to what purpose? To what end?
Ask me not, Roland. 'Tis done, the bridge burned.
Yet she had come to him one last time, imposing her will over thousand various parts that should have lost the ability to think when the whole lost its cohesion . . . and yet shehad thought, somehow enough to make that shape. How much effort might that have taken?
They fanned wider and wider, some disappearing into the sage, some trundling up the sides of rock overhang, pouring into the cracks where they would, mayhap, wait out the heat of the day.
They were gone.She was gone.
Roland sat down on the ground and put his hands over his face. He thought he might weep, but in time the urge passed; when he rai
sed his head again, his eyes were as dry as the desert he would eventually come to, still following the trail of Walter, the man in black.
If there's to be damnation,
she had said,let it be of my choosing, not theirs.
He knew a little about damnation himself ... and he had an idea that the lessons, far from being done, were just beginning.
She had brought him the purse with his tobacco in it. He rolled a cigarette and smoked it hunkered over his knees. He smoked it down to a glowing roach, looking at her empty clothes the while, remembering the steady gaze of her dark eyes. Remembering the scorch-marks on her fingers from the chain of the medallion. Yet she had picked it up, because she had known he would want it; had dared that pain, and Roland now wore both around his neck.
When the sun was fully up, the gunslinger moved on west. He would find another horse eventually, or a mule, but for now he was content to walk. All that day he was haunted by a ringing, singing sound in his ears, like bells. Several times he stopped and looked around, sure he would see a dark following shape flowing over the ground, chasing after as the shadows of our best and worst memories chase after, but no shape was ever there. He was alone in the low hill country west of Eluria.