Wolves of the Calla Part One ToDash Chapter III: Mia

ONE

Once upon a time, back in the sixties (before the world moved on), there had been a woman named Odetta Holmes, a pleasant and really quite socially conscious young woman who was wealthy, good-looking, and perfectly willing to look out for the other guy. (Or gal.) Without even realizing it, this woman shared her body with a far less pleasant creature named Detta Walker. Detta did not give a tin shit for the other guy (or gal). Rhea of the Coos would have recognized Detta, and called her sister. On the other side of Mid-World, Roland of Gilead, the last gunslinger, had drawn this divided woman to him and had created a third, who was far better, far stronger, than either of the previous two. This was the woman with whom Eddie Dean had fallen in love. She called him husband, and thus herself by the name of his father. Having missed the feminist squabbles of later decades, she did this quite happily. If she did not call herself Susannah Dean with pride as well as happiness, it was only because her mother had taught her that pride goeth before a fall.

Now there was a fourth woman. She had been born out of the third in yet another time of stress and change. She cared nothing for Odetta, Detta, or Susannah; she cared for nothing save the new chap who was on his way. The new chap needed to be fed. The banqueting hall was near. That was what mattered and all that mattered.

This new woman, every bit as dangerous in her own way as Detta Walker had been, was Mia. She bore the name of no man's father, only the word that in the High Speech means mother .

TWO

She walked slowly down long stone corridors toward the place of feasting. She walked past the rooms of ruin, past the empty naves and niches, past forgotten galleries where the apartments were hollow and none was the number. Somewhere in this castle stood an old throne drenched in ancient blood. Somewhere ladderways led to bone-walled crypts that went gods knew how deep. Yet there was life here; life and rich food. Mia knew this as well as she knew the legs under her and the textured, many-layered skirt swishing against them. Rich food. Life for you and for your crop, as the saying went. And she was so hungry now. Of course! Wasn't she eating for two?

She came to a broad staircase. A sound, faint but powerful, rose up to her: the beat-beat-beat of slo-trans engines buried in the earth below the deepest of the crypts. Mia cared nothing for them, nor for North Central Positronics, Ltd., which had built them and set them in motion tens of thousands of years before. She cared nothing for the dipolar computers, or the doors, or the Beams, or the Dark Tower which stood at the center of everything.

What she cared about was the smells. They drifted up to her, thick and wonderful. Chicken and gravy and roasts of pork dressed in suits of crackling fat. Sides of beef beaded with blood, wheels of moist cheese, huge Calla Fundy shrimp like plump orange commas. Split fish with staring black eyes, their bellies brimming with sauce. Great pots of jambalaya and fanata, the vast caldo largo stews of the far south. Add to this a hundred fruits and a thousand sweets, and still you were only at the beginning! The appetizers! The first mouthfuls of the first course!

Mia ran quickly down the broad central staircase, the skin of her palm skimming silkily along the bannister, her small slippered feet stuttering on the steps. Once she'd had a dream that she had been pushed in front of an underground train by an awful man, and her legs had been cut off at the knee. But dreams were foolish. Her feet were there, and the legs above them, weren't they? Yes! And so was the babe in her belly. The chap, wanting to be fed. He was hungry, and so was she.

THREE

From the foot of the stairs, a wide corridor floored with polished black marble ran ninety feet to a pair of tall double doors. Mia hurried that way. She saw her reflection floating below her, and the electric flambeaux that burned in the depths of the marble like torches underwater, but she did not see the man who came along behind her, descending the sweeping curve of the stairs not in dress pumps but in old and range-battered boots. He wore faded jeans and a shirt of blue chambray instead of court clothes. One gun, a pistol with a worn sandalwood grip, hung at his left side, the holster tied down with rawhide. His face was tanned and lined and weathered. His hair was black, although now seeded with growing streaks of white. His eyes were his most striking feature. They were blue and cold and steady. Detta Walker had feared no man, not even this one, but she had feared those shooter's eyes.

There was a foyer just before the double doors. It was floored with red and black marble squares. The wood-paneled walls were hung with faded portraits of old lords and ladies. In the center was a statue made of entwined rose marble and chrome steel. It seemed to be a knight errant with what might have been a sixgun or a short sword raised above his head. Although the face was mostly smooth - the sculptor had done no more than hint at the features - Mia knew who it was, right enough. Who it must be.

"I salute thee, Arthur Eld," she said, and dropped her deepest curtsy. "Please bless these things I'm about to take to my use. And to the use of my chap. Good evening to you." She could not wish him long days upon the earth, for his days - and those of most of his kind - were gone. Instead she touched her smiling lips with the tips of her fingers and blew him a kiss. Having made her manners, she walked into the dining hall.

It was forty yards wide and seventy yards long, that room.

Brilliant electric torches in crystal sheaths lined both sides. Hundreds of chairs stood in place at a vast ironwood table laden with delicacies both hot and cold. There was a white plate with delicate blue webbing, a forspecial plate, in front of each chair. The chairs were empty, the forspecial banquet plates were empty, and the wineglasses were empty, although the wine to fill them stood in golden buckets at intervals along the table, chilled and ready. It was as she had known it would be, as she had seen it in her fondest, clearest imaginings, as she had found it again and again, and would find it as long as she (and the chap) needed it. Wherever she found herself, this castle was near. And if there was a smell of dampness and ancient mud, what of that? If there were scuttering sounds from the shadows under the table - mayhap the sound of rats or even fortnoy weasels - why should she care? Abovetable, all was lush and lighted, fragrant and ripe and ready for taking. Let the shadows belowtable take care of themselves. That was none of her business, no, none of hers.

"Here comes Mia, daughter of none!" she called gaily to the silent room with its hundred aromas of meats and sauces and creams and fruits. "I am hungry and I will be fed! Moreover, I'll feed my chap! If anyone would say against me, let him step forward! Let me see him very well, and he me!"

No one stepped forward, of course. Those who might once have banqueted here were long gone. Now there was only the deep and sleepy beat of the slo-trans engines (and those faint and unpleasant scampering sounds from the Land of Undertable). Behind her, the gunslinger stood quietly, watching. Nor was it for the first time. He saw no castle but he saw her; he saw her very well.

"Silence gives consent!" she called. She pressed her hand to her belly, which had begun to protrude outward. To curve. Then, with a laugh, she cried: "Aye, so it does! Here comes Mia to the feast! May it serve both her and the chap who grows inside her! May it serve them very well!"

And she did feast, but not in one place and never from one of the plates. She hated the plates, the white-and-blue forspecial.

She didn't know why and didn't care to know. What she cared about was the food. She walked along the table like a woman at the world's grandest buffet, taking things with her fingers and tossing them into her mouth, sometimes chewing meat hot and tender right off the bone before slinging the joints back onto their serving platters. A few times she missed these and the chunks of meat would go rolling across the white linen tablecloth, leaving splotches of juice in nosebleed stains. One of these rolling roasts overturned a gravy-boat. One smashed a crystal serving dish filled with cranberry jelly. A third rolled clean off the far side of the table, where Mia heard something drag it underneath. There was a brief, squealing squabble, followed by a howl of pain as something sank its teeth into something else. Then silence. It was brief, though, and soon broken by Mia's laughter. She wiped her greasy fingers on her bosom, doing it slowly. Enjoying the way the stains of the mixed meats and juices spread on the expensive silk. Enjoying the ripening curves of her breasts and the feel of her nipples under her fingertips, rough and hard and excited.

She made her way slowly down the table, talking to herself in many voices, creating a kind of lunatic chitchat. How they hangin, honey ?

Oh they hanging just fine, thank you so much for asking, Mia. Do you really believe that Oswald was working alone when he shot Kennedy?

Never in a million years, darling  - that was a CIA job the whole way. Them, or those honky millionaires from the Alabama steel crescent. Bombingham, Alabama, honey, ain't it the truth ? Have you heard the new Joan Baez record ? My God, yes, doesn't she sing like an angel? I hear that she and Bob Dylan are going to get themselves married ...

And on and on, chitter and chatter. Roland heard Odetta's cultured voice and Detta's rough but colorful profanity. He heard Susannah's voice, and many others, as well. How many women in her head? How many personalities, formed and half-formed? He watched her reach over the empty plates that weren't there and empty glasses (also not there), eating directly from the serving platters, chewing everything with the same hungry relish, her face gradually picking up the shine of grease, the bodice of her gown (which he did not see but sensed) darkening as she wiped her fingers there again and again, squeezing the cloth, matting it against her breasts - these motions were too clear to mistake. And at each stop, before moving on, she would seize the empty air in front of her and throw a plate he could not see either on the floor at her feet or across the table at a wall that must exist in her dream.

"There!" she'd scream in the defiant voice of Detta Walker. "There, you nasty old Blue Lady, I done broke it again! I broke yo' fuckin plate, and how do you like it? How do you like it now ?"

Then, stepping to the next place, she might utter a pleasant but restrained little trill of laughter and ask so-and-so how their boy so-and-so was coming along down there at Morehouse, and wasn't it wonderful to have such a fine school for people of color, just the most wonderful!... thing ! And how is your Mamma, dear? Oh I am so sorry to hear it, we'll all be praying for her recovery.

Reaching across another of those make-believe plates as she spoke. Grabbing up a great tureen filled with glistening black roe and lemon rinds. Lowering her face into it like a hog dropping its face into the trough. Gobbling. Raising her face again, smiling delicately and demurely in the glow of the electric torches, the fish eggs standing out like black sweat on her brown skin, dotting her cheeks and her brow, nestling around her nostrils like clots of old blood - Oh yes, I think we are making wonderful progress, folks like that Bull Connor are living in the sunset years now, and the best revenge on them is that they know it  - and then she would throw the tureen backward over her head like a crazed volleyball player, some of the roe raining down in her hair (Roland could almost see it), and when the tureen smashed against the stone, her polite isn't-this-a-wonderful-party face would cramp into a ghoulish Detta Walker snarl and she might scream, "Dere, you nasty old Blue Lady, how dat feel? You want to stick some of dat caviar up yo dry-ass cunt, you go on and do it! You go right on! Dat be fine, sho !"

And then she would move on to the next place. And the next. And the next. Feeding herself in the great banquet hall. Feeding herself and feeding her chap. Never turning to see Roland at all. Never realizing that this place did not, strictly speaking, even exist.

FOUR

Eddie and Jake had been far from Roland's mind and concerns as the four of them (five, if Oy was counted) bedded down after feasting on the fried muffin-balls. He had been focused on Susannah. The gunslinger was quite sure she would go wandering again tonight, and again he would follow after her when she did. Not to see what she was up to; he knew what it would be in advance.

No, his chief purpose had been protection. Early that afternoon, around the time Jake had returned with his armload of food, Susannah had begun to show signs Roland knew: speech that was clipped and short, movements that were a little too jerky to be graceful, an absent tendency to rub at her temple or above her left eyebrow, as if there was a pain there. Did Eddie not see those signs? Roland wondered. Eddie had been a dull observer indeed when Roland first met him, but he had changed greatly since then, and...

And he loved her. Loved her. How could he and not see what Roland saw? The signs weren't quite as obvious as they had been on the beach at the edge of the Western Sea, when Detta was preparing to leap forward and wrest control from Odetta, but they were there, all right, and not so different, at that.

On the other hand, Roland's mother had had a saying, Love stumbles . It could be that Eddie was simply too close to her to see. Or doesn't want to , Roland thought. Doesn't want to face the idea that we might have to go through that whole business again. The business of making her face herself and her divided nature .

Except this time it wasn't about her . Roland had suspected this for a long time - since before their palaver with the peopleof river crossing, in fact - and now he knew. No, it wasn't about her .

And so he'd lain there, listening to their breathing lengthen as they dropped off one by one: Oy, then Jake, then Susannah. Eddie last.

Well... not quite last. Faintly, very faintly, Roland could hear a murmur of conversation from the folk on the other side of yonder south hill, the ones who were trailing them and watching them. Nerving themselves to step forward and make themselves known, very likely. Roland's ears were sharp, but not quite sharp enough to pick out what they were saying. There were perhaps half a dozen murmured exchanges before someone uttered a loud shushing hiss. Then there was silence, except for the low, intermittent snuffling of the wind in the treetops. Roland lay still, looking up into the darkness where no stars shone, waiting for Susannah to rise. Eventually she did.

But before that, Jake, Eddie, and Oy went todash.

FIVE

Roland and his mates had learned about todash (what there was to learn) from Vannay, the tutor of court in the long-ago when they had been young. They had been a quintet to begin with: Roland, Alain, Cuthbert, Jamie, and Wallace, Vannay's son. Wallace, fiercely intelligent but ever sickly, had died of the falling sickness, sometimes called king's evil. Then they had been four, and under the umbrella of true ka-tet. Vannay had known it as well, and that knowing was surely part of his sorrow. Cort taught them to navigate by the sun and stars; Vannay showed them compass and quadrant and sextant and taught them the mathematics necessary to use them. Cort taught them to fight. With history, logic problems, and tutorials on what he called "the universal truths," Vannay taught them how they could sometimes avoid having to do so. Cort taught them to kill if they had to. Vannay, with his limp and his sweet but distracted smile, taught them that violence worsened problems far more often than it solved them. He called it the hollow chamber, where all true sounds became distorted by echoes.

He taught them physics - what physics there was. He taught them chemistry - what chemistry was left. He taught them to finish such sentences as "That tree is like a" and "When I'm running I feel as happy as a" and "We couldn't help laughing because." Roland hated these exercises, but Vannay wouldn't let him slip away from them. "Your imagination is a poor thing, Roland," the tutor told him once - Roland might have been eleven at the time. "I will not let you feed it short rations and make it poorer still."

He had taught them the Seven Dials of Magic, refusing to say if he believed in any of them, and Roland thought it was tangential to one of these lessons that Vannay had mentioned todash. Or perhaps you capitalized it, perhaps it was Todash. Roland didn't know for sure. He knew that Vannay had spoken of the Manni sect, people who were far travelers. And hadn't he also mentioned the Wizard's Rainbow?

Roland thought yes, but he had twice had the pink bend o' the rainbow in his own possession, once as a boy and once as a man, and although he had traveled in it both times - with his friends on the second occasion - it had never taken him todash.

Ah, but how would you know ? he asked himself. How would you know, Roland, when you were inside it ?

Because Cuthbert and Alain would have told him, that was why.

Are you sure?

Some feeling so strange as to be unidentifiable rose in the gunslinger's bosom - was it indignation? horror? perhaps even a sense of betrayal? - as he realized that no, he wasn't sure . All he knew was that the ball had taken him deep into itself, and he had been lucky to ever get out again.

There's no ball here , he thought, and again it was that other voice - the dry, implacable voice of his old limping tutor, whose grief for his only son had never really ended - that answered him, and the words were the same:

Are you sure? Gunslinger, are you sure?

SIX

It started with a low crackling sound. Roland's first thought was the campfire: one of them had gotten some green fir boughs in there, the coals had finally reached them, and they were producing that sound as the needles smoldered. But -

The sound grew louder, became a kind of electric buzzing. Roland sat up and looked across the dying fire. His eyes widened and his heart began to speed up.

Susannah had turned from Eddie, had drawn away a little, too. Eddie had reached out and so had Jake. Their hands touched. And, as Roland looked at them, they commenced fading in and out of existence in a series of jerky pulses. Oy was doing the same thing. When they were gone, they were replaced by a dull gray glow that approximated the shapes and positions of their bodies, as if something was holding their places in reality. Each time they came back, there would be flat crackling buzz. Roland could see thieir closed eyelids ripple as the balls rolled beneath.

Dreaming. But not just dreaming. This was todash, the passing between two worlds. Supposedly the Manni could do it. And supposedly some pieces of the Wizard's Rainbow could make you do it, whether you wanted to or not. One piece of it in particular.

They could get caught between and fall , Roland diought. Vannay said that, too. He said that going todash was full of peril .

What else had he said? Roland had no time to recall, for at that moment Susannah sat up, slipped the soft leather caps Roland had made her over the stumps of her legs, then hoisted herself into her wheelchair. A moment later she was rolling toward the ancient trees on the nordi side of the road. It was directly away from the place where the watchers were camped; there was that much to be grateful for.

Roland stayed where he was for a moment, torn. But in the end, his course was clear enough. He couldn't wake them up while they were in the todash state; to do so would be a horrible risk. All he could do was follow Susannah, as he had on other nights, and hope she didn't get herself into trouble.

You might also do some thinking about what happens next . That was Vannay's dry, lecturely voice. Now that his old tutor was back, he apparently meant to stay for awhile. Reason was never your strong point, but you must do it, nevertheless. You'll want to wait until your visitors make themselves known, of course  - until you can be sure of what they want  - but eventually, Roland, you must act. Think first, however. Sooner would be better than later . Yes, sooner was always better than later. There was another loud, buzzing crackle. Eddie and Jake were back, Jake lying with his arm curled around Oy, and then they were gone again, nothing left where they had been but a faint ectoplasmic shimmer. Well, never mind. His job was to follow Susannah. As for Eddie and Jake, there would be water if God willed it.

Suppose you come back here and they're gone ? It happens, Vannay said so. What will you tell her if she wakes and finds them both gone, her husband and her adopted son ?

It was nothing he could worry about now. Right now there was Susannah to worry about, Susannah to keep safe.

SEVEN

On the north side of the road, old trees with enormous trunks stood at considerable distances from each other. Their branches might entwine and create a solid canopy overhead, but at ground level there was plenty of room for Susannah's wheelchair, and she moved along at a good pace, weaving between the vast ironwoods and pines, rolling downhill over a fragrant duff of mulch and needles.

Not Susannah. Not Delta or Odetta, either. This one calls herself Mia.

Roland didn't care if she called herself Queen o' Green Days, as long as she came back safe, and the other two were still there when she did.

He began to smell a brighter, fresher green: reeds and water-weeds. With it came the smell of mud, the thump of frogs, the sarcastic hool! hool salute of an owl, the splash of water as something jumped. This was followed by a thin shriek as something died, maybe the jumper, maybe the jumped-upon. Underbrush began to spring up in the duff, first dotting it and then crowding it out. The tree-cover thinned. Mosquitoes and chiggers whined. Binnie-bugs stitched the air. The bog-smells grew stronger.

The wheels of the chair had passed over the duff without leaving any trace. As duff gave way to straggling low growth, Roland began to see broken twigs and torn-off leaves marking her passage. Then, as she reached the more or less level low ground, the wheels began to sink into the increasingly soft earth. Twenty paces farther on, he began to see liquid seeping into the tracks. She was too wise to get stuck, though - too crafty. Twenty paces beyond the first signs of seepage, he came to the wheelchair itself, abandoned. Lying on the seat were her pants and shirt. She had gone on into the bog naked save for the leather caps that covered her stumps.

Down here there were ribbons of mist hanging over puddles of standing water. Grassy hummocks rose; on one, wired to a dead log that had been planted upright, was what Roland at first took for an ancient stuffy-guy. When he got closer, he saw it was a human skeleton. The skull's forehead had been smashed inward, leaving a triangle of darkness between the staring sockets. Some sort of primitive war-club had made that wound, no doubt, and the corpse (or its lingering spirit) had been left to mark this as the edge of some tribe's territory. They were probably long dead or moved on, but caution was ever a virtue. Roland drew his gun and continued after the woman, stepping from hummock to hummock, wincing at the occasional jab of pain in his right hip. It took all his concentration and agility to keep up with her. Partly this was because she hadn't Roland's interest in staying as dry as possible. She was as naked as a mermaid and moved like one, as comfortable in the muck and swamp-ooze as on dry land. She crawled over the larger hummocks, slid through the water between them, pausing every now and then to pick off a leech. In the darkness, the walking and sliding seemed to merge into a single slithering motion that was eely and disturbing.

She went on perhaps a quarter of a mile into the increasingly oozy bog with the gunslinger following patiently along behind her. He kept as quiet as possible, although he doubted if there was any need; the part of her that saw and felt and thought was far from here.

At last she came to a halt, standing on her truncated legs and holding to tough tangles of brush on either side in order to keep her balance. She looked out over the black surface of a pond, head up, body still. The gunslinger couldn't tell if the pond was big or small; its borders were lost in the mist. Yet there was light here, some sort of faint and unfocused radiance which seemed to lie just beneath the surface of the water itself, perhaps emanating from submerged and slowly rotting logs.

She stood there, surveying this muck-crusted woodland pond like a queen surveying a... a what? What did she see? A banquet hall? That was what he had come to believe. Almost to see. It was a whisper from her mind to his, and it dovetailed with what she said and did. The banqueting hall was her mind's ingenious way of keeping Susannah apart from Mia as it had kept Odetta apart from Detta all those years. Mia might have any number of reasons for wanting to keep her existence a secret, but surely the greatest of these had to do with the life she carried inside her.

The chap, she called it.

Then, with a suddenness that still startled him (although he had seen this before, as well), she began to hunt, slipping in eerie splashless silence first along the edge of the pond and then a little way out into it. Roland watched her with an expression that contained both horror and lust as she knitted and wove her way in and out of the reeds, between and over the tussocks. Now, instead of picking the leeches off her skin and throwing them away, she tossed them into her mouth like pieces of candy. The muscles in her thighs rippled. Her brown skin gleamed like wet silk. When she turned (Roland had by this time stepped behind a tree and become one of the shadows), he could clearly see the way her breasts had ripened.

The problem, of course, extended beyond "the chap." There was Eddie to consider, as well. What the hell's wrong with you, Roland ? Roland could hear him saying. That might be our kid. I mean, you can't know for sure that it isn't. Yeah, yeah, I know something had her while we were yanking Jake through, but that doesn't necessarily mean ...

On and on and on, blah-blah-blah as Eddie himself might say, and why? Because he loved her and would want the child of their union. And because arguing came as naturally to Eddie Dean as breathing. Cuthbert had been the same.

In the reeds, the naked woman's hand pistoned forward and seized a good-sized frog. She squeezed and the frog popped, squirting guts and a shiny load of eggs between her fingers. Its head burst. She lifted it to her mouth and ate it greedily down while its greenish-white rear legs still twitched, licking the blood and shiny ropes of tissue from her knuckles. Then she mimed throwing something down and cried out "How you like that, you stinkin Blue Lady ?" in a low, guttural voice that made Roland shiver. It was Detta Walker's voice. Detta at her meanest and craziest.

With hardly a pause she moved on again, questing. Next it was a small fish... then another frog... and then a real prize: a water-rat that squeaked and writhed and tried to bite. She crushed the life out of it and stuffed it into her mouth, paws and all. A moment later she bent her head down and regurgitated the waste - a twisted mass of fur and splintered bones.

Show him this, then  - always assuming that he and Jake get back from whatever adventure they're on, that is. And say, "I know that women are supposed to have strange cravings when they carry a child, Eddie, but doesn't this seem a little too strange?Look at her, questing through the reeds and ooze like some sort of human alligator. Look at her and tell me she's doing that in order to feed your child . Any human child ."

Still he would argue. Roland knew it. What he didn't know was what Susannah herself might do when Roland told her she was growing something that craved raw meat in the middle of the night. And as if this business wasn't worrisome enough, now there was todash. And strangers who had come looking for them. Yet the strangers were the least of his problems. In fact, he found their presence almost comforting. He didn't know what they wanted, and yet he did know. He had met them before, many times. At bottom, they always wanted the same thing.

EIGHT

Now the woman who called herself Mia began to talk as she hunted. Roland was familiar with this part of her ritual as well, but it chilled him nevertheless. He was looking right at her and it was still hard to believe all those different voices could be coming from the same throat. She asked herself how she was. She told herself she was doing fine, thank you so vereh much. She spoke of someone named Bill, or perhaps it was Bull. She asked after someone's mother. She asked someone about a place called Morehouse, and then in a deep, gravelly voice - a man's voice, beyond doubt - she told herself that she didn't go to Morehouse or no house. She laughed raucously at this, so it must have been some sort of joke. She introduced herself several times (as she had on other nights) as Mia, a name Roland knew well from his early life in Gilead. It was almost a holy name. Twice she curtsied, lifting invisible skirts in a way that tugged at the gunslinger's heart - he had first seen that sort of curtsy in Mejis, when he and his friends Alain and Cuthbert had been sent there by their fathers.

She worked her way back to the edge of the

(hall)

pond, glistening and wet. She stayed there without moving for five minutes, then ten. The owl uttered its derisive salute again - hool ! - and as if in response, the moon came out of the clouds for a brief look around. When it did, some small animal's bit of shady concealment disappeared. It tried to dart past the woman. She snared it faultlessly and plunged her face into its writhing belly. There was a wet crunching noise, followed by several smacking bites. She held the remains up in the moonlight, her dark hands and wrists darker with its blood. Then she tore it in half and bolted down the remains. She gave a resounding belch and rolled herself back into the water. This time she made a great splash, and Roland knew tonight's banqueting was done. She had even eaten some of the binnie-bugs, snatching them effortlessly out of the air. He could only hope nothing she'd taken in would sicken her. So far, nothing had.

While she made her rough toilet, washing off the mud and blood, Roland retreated back the way he'd come, ignoring the more frequent pains in his hip and moving with all his guile. He had watched her go through this three times before, and once had been enough to see how gruesomely sharp her senses were while in this state.

He paused at her wheelchair, looking around to make sure he'd left no trace of himself. He saw a bootprint, smoothed it away, then tossed a few leaves over it for good measure. Not too many; too many might be worse than none at all. With that done, he headed back toward the road and their camp, not hurrying anymore. She would pause for a little housekeeping of her own before going on. What would Mia see as she was cleaning Susannah's wheelchair, he wondered? Some sort of small, motorized cart? It didn't matter. What did was how clever she was. If he hadn't awakened with a need to make water just as she left on one of her earlier expeditions, he quite likely still wouldn't know about her hunting trips, and he was supposed to be clever about such things.

Not as clever as she, maggot . Now, as if the ghost of Vannay were not enough, here was Cort to lecture him. She's shown you before, hasn't she ?

Yes. She had shown him cleverness as three women. Now there was this fourth.

NINE

When Roland saw the break in the trees ahead - the road they'd been following, and the place where they'd camped for the night - he took two long, deep breaths. These were meant to steady him and didn't succeed very well.

Water if God wills it , he reminded himself. About the great matters, Roland, you have no say .

Not a comfortable truth, especially for a man on a quest such as his, but one he'd learned to live with.

He took another breath, then stepped out. He released the air in a long, relieved sigh as he saw Eddie and Jake lying deeply asleep beside the dead fire. Jake's right hand, which had been linked with Eddie's left when the gunslinger had followed Susannah out of camp, now circled Oy's body.

The bumbler opened one eye and regarded Roland. Then he closed it again.

Roland couldn't hear her coming, but sensed her just the same. He lay down quickly, rolled over onto his side, and put his face in the crook of his elbow. And from this position he watched as the wheelchair rolled out of the trees. She had cleaned it quickly but well. Roland couldn't see a single spot of mud. The spokes gleamed in the moonlight.

She parked the chair where it had been before, slipped out of it with her usual grace, and moved across to where Eddie lay. Roland watched her approach her husband's sleeping form with some anxiety. Anyone, he thought, who had met Detta Walker would have felt that anxiety. Because the woman who called herself mother was simply too close to what Detta had been.

Lying completely still, like one in sleep's deepest sling, Roland prepared himself to move.

Then she brushed the hair back from the side of Eddie's face and kissed the hollow of his temple. The tenderness in that gesture told the gunslinger all he needed to know. It was safe to sleep. He closed his eyes and let the darkness take him.

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