The Little Sisters of Eluria

Chapter IV. A Bowl of Soup. The Boy in the Next Be


Roland dreamed that a very large bug (a doctor-bug, mayhap) was flying around his head and banging repeatedly into his nose-collisions which were annoying rather than painful. He swiped at the bug repeatedly, and although his hands were eerily fast under ordinary circumstances, he kept missing it. And each time he missed, the bug giggled.
I'm slow because I've been sick, he thought.
No, ambushed. Dragged across the ground by slow mutants, saved by the Little Sisters of Eluria.
Roland had a sudden, vivid image of a man's shadow growing from the shadow of an overturned freight-wagon; heard a rough, gleeful voice cry, "Booh!"
He jerked awake hard enough to set his body rocking in its complication of slings, and the woman who had been standing beside his head, giggling as she tapped his nose lightly with a wooden spoon, stepped back so quickly that the bowl in her other hand slipped from her fingers.
Roland's hands shot out, and they were as quick as ever-his frustrated failure to catch the bug had been only part of his dream. He caught the bowl before more than a few drops could spill. The woman-Sister Coquina-looked at him with round eyes.
There was pain all up and down his back from the sudden movement but it was nowhere near as sharp as it had been before, and there was no sensation of movement on his skin. Perhaps the "doctors" were only sleeping, but he had an idea they were gone.
He held out his hand for the spoon Coquina had been teasing him with (he found he wasn't surprised at all that one of these would tease a sick and sleeping man in such a way; it only would have surprised him if it had been Jenna), and she handed it to him, her eyes still big.
"How speedy ye are!" she said. "'Twas like a magic trick, and you still rising from sleep!"
"Remember it, sai," he said, and tried the soup. There were tiny bits of chicken floating in it. He probably would have considered it bland under other circumstances, but under these, it seemed ambrosial. He began to eat greedily.
"What do "ee mean by that?" she asked. The light was very dim now, the wall-panels across the way a pinkish-orange that suggested sunset. In this light, Coquina looked quite young and pretty... but it was a glamour, Roland was sure; a sorcerous kind of make-up.
"I mean nothing in particular. " Roland dismissed the spoon as too slow, preferring to tilt the bowl itself to his lips. In this way he disposed of the soup in four large gulps. "You have been kind to me"
"Aye, so we have!" she said, rather indignantly.
"and I hope your kindness has no hidden motive. If it does, Sister, remember that I'm quick. And, as for myself, I have not always been kind."
She made no reply, only took the bowl when Roland handed it back. She did this delicately, perhaps not wanting to touch his fingers. Her eyes dropped to where the medallion lay, once more hidden beneath the breast of his bed-dress. He said no more, not wanting to weaken the implied threat by reminding her that the man who made it was unarmed, next to naked, and hung in the air because his back couldn't yet bear the weight of his body.
"Where's Sister Jenna?" he asked.
"Oooo!" Sister Coquina said, raising her eyebrows. "We like her, do we? She makes our heart go... " She put her hand against the rose on her breast and fluttered it rapidly.
"Not at all, not at all," Roland said, "but she was kind. I doubt she would have teased me with a spoon, as some would."
Sister Coquina's smile faded. She looked both angry and worried. "Say nothing of that to Mary, if she comes by later. Ye might get me in trouble."
"Should I care?"
"I might get back at one who caused me trouble by causing little Jenna trouble," Sister Coquina said. "She's in Big Sister's black books, just now, anyway. Sister Mary doesn't care for the way Jenna spoke to her about ye... nor does she like it that Jenna came back to us wearing the Dark Bells."
This was no sooner out of her mouth before Sister Coquina put her hand over that frequently imprudent organ, as if realizing she had said too much.
Roland, intrigued by what she'd said but not liking to show it just now, only replied: "I'll keep my mouth shut about you, if you keep your mouth shut to Sister Mary about Jenna."
Coquina looked relieved. "Aye, that's a bargain. " She leaned forward confidingly. "She's in Thoughtful House. That's the little cave in the hillside where we have to go and meditate when Big Sister decides we've been bad. She'll have to stay and consider her impudence until Mary lets her out. " She paused, then said abruptly: "Who's this beside ye? Do ye know?"
Roland turned his head and saw that the young man was awake, and had been listening. His eyes were as dark as Jenna's.
"Know him?" Roland asked, with what he hoped was the right touch of scorn. "Should I not know my own brother?"
"Is he, now, and him so young and you so old?" Another of the sisters materialized out of the darkness: Sister Tamra, who had called herself one-and-twenty. In the moment before she reached Roland's bed, her face was that of a hag who will never see eighty again... or ninety. Then it shimmered and was once more the plump, healthy countenance of a thirty-year-old matron. Except for the eyes. They remained yellowish in the corneas, gummy in the corners, and watchful.
"He's the youngest, I the eldest," Roland said. "Betwixt us are seven others, and twenty years of our parents" lives."
"How sweet! And if he's yer brother, then ye'll know his name, won't ye? Know it very well."
Before the gunslinger could flounder, the young man said: "They think you've forgotten such a simple hook as John Norman. What culleens they be, eh, Jimmy?"
Coquina and Tamra looked at the pale boy in the bed next to Roland's, clearly angry... and clearly trumped. For the time being, at least.
"You've fed him your muck," the boy (whose medallion undoubtedly proclaimed him John, Loved of Family, Loved of God) said "Why don't you go, and let us have a natter?"
"Well!" Sister Coquina huffed. "I like the gratitude around here, so I do!"
"I'm grateful for what's given me," Norman responded, looking at her steadily, "but not for what folk would take away."
Tamra snorted through her nose, turned violently enough for her swirling dress to push a draught of air into Roland's face, and then took her leave. Coquina stayed a moment.
"Be discreet, and mayhap someone ye like better than ye like me will get out of hack in the morning, instead of a week from tonight."
Without waiting for a reply, she turned and followed Sister Tamra.
Roland and John Norman waited until they were both gone, and then Norman turned to Roland and spoke in a low voice. "My brother. Dead?"
Roland nodded. "The medallion I took in case I should meet with any of his people. It rightly belongs to you. I'm sorry for your loss."
"Thankee-sai. " John Norman's lower lip trembled, then firmed. "I knew the green men did for him, although these old biddies wouldn't tell me for sure. They did for plenty, and cotched the rest."
"Perhaps the Sisters didn't know for sure."
"They knew. Don't you doubt it. They don't say much, but they know plenty. The only one any different is Jenna. That's who the old battle-axe meant when she said "your friend". Aye?"
Roland nodded. "And she said something about the Dark Bells. I'd know more of that, if would were could."
"She's something special, Jenna is. More like a princess-someone whose place is made by bloodline and can't be refused-than like the other Sisters. I lie here and look like I'm asleep-it's safer, I think-but I've heard "em talking. Jenna's just come back among "em recently, and those Dark Bells mean something special... but Mary's still the one who swings the weight. I think the Dark Bells are only ceremonial, like the rings the old Barons used to hand down from father to son. Was it she who put Jimmy's medal around your neck?"
"Don't take it off, whatever you do. " His face was strained, grim. "I don't know if it's the gold or the God, but they don't like to get too close. I think that's the only reason I'm still here. " Now his voice dropped all the way to a whisper. "They ain't human."
"Well, perhaps a bit fey and magical, but-"
"No!" With what was clearly an effort, the boy got up on one elbow. He looked at Roland earnestly. "You're thinking about hubber-women, or witches. These ain't hubbers, nor witches, either. They ain't human!"
"Then what are they?"
"Don't know."
"How came you here, John?"
Speaking in a low voice, John Norman told Roland what he knew of what had happened to him. He, his brother, and four other young men who were quick and owned good horses had been hired as scouts, riding drogue-and-forward, protecting a long-haul caravan of seven freightwagons taking goods-seeds, food, tools, mail, and four ordered brides-to an unincorporated township called Tejuas some two hundred miles further west of Eluria. The scouts rode fore and aft of the goods-train in turn and turn about fashion; one brother rode with each party because, Norman explained, when they were together they fought like... well...
"Like brothers," Roland suggested.
John Norman managed a brief, pained smile. "Aye," he said.
The trio of which John was a part had been riding drogue, about two miles behind the freight-wagons, when the green mutants had sprung an ambush in Eluria.
"How many wagons did you see when you got there?" he asked Roland. "Only one. Overturned."
"How many bodies?"
"Only your brother's."
John Norman nodded grimly. "They wouldn't take him because of the medallion, I think."
"The muties?"
"The Sisters. The muties care nothing for gold or God. These bitches, though... " He looked into the dark, which was now almost complete. Roland felt lethargy creeping over him again, but it wasn't until later that he realized the soup had been drugged.
"The other wagons?" Roland asked. "The ones not overturned?"
"The muties would have taken them, and the goods, as well," Norman said. "They don't care for gold or God; the Sisters don't care for goods. Like as not they have their own foodstuffs, something I'd as soon not think of. Nasty stuff... like those bugs."
He and the other drogue riders galloped into Eluria, but the fight was over by the time they got there. Men had been lying about, some dead but many more still alive. At least two of the ordered brides had still been alive, as well. Survivors able to walk were being herded together by the,," green folk-John Norman remembered the one in the bowler hat very well, and the woman in the ragged red vest.
Norman and the other two had tried to fight. He had seen one of hi pards gutshot by an arrow, and then he saw no more-someone had cracked him over the head from behind, and the lights had gone out.
Roland wondered if the ambusher had cried "Booh!" before he had struck, but didn't ask.
"When I woke up again, I was here," Norman said. "I saw that some of the others-most of them-had those cursed bugs on them."
"Others?" Roland looked at the empty beds. In the growing darkness, they glimmered like white islands. "How many were brought here?"
"At least twenty. They healed... the bugs healed "em... and then, one by one, they disappeared. You'd go to sleep, and when you woke up there'd, be one more empty bed. One by one they went, until only me and that, one down yonder was left."
He looked at Roland solemnly.
"And now you."
"Norman," Roland's head was swimming. "I-"
"I reckon I know what's wrong with you," Norman said. He seemed to speak from far away... perhaps from all the way around the curve of I the earth. "It's the soup. But a man has to eat. A woman, too. If she's a natural woman, anyway. These ones ain't natural. Even Sister Jenna's not natural. Nice don't mean natural. " Further and further away. "And she'll be like them in the end. Mark me well."
"Can't move. " Saying even that required a huge effort. It was like moving boulders.
"No. " Norman suddenly laughed. It was a shocking sound, and echoed in the growing blackness which filled Roland's head. "It ain't just sleepmedicine they put in their soup; it's can't-move-medicine, too. There's nothing much wrong with me, brother... so why do you think I'm still here?"
Norman was now speaking not from around the curve of the earth but perhaps from the moon. He said: "I don't think either of us is ever going to see the sun shining on a flat piece of ground again."
You're wrong about that, Roland tried to reply, and more in that vein, as well, but nothing came out. He sailed around to the black side of the moon, losing all his words in the void he found there.
Yet he never quite lost awareness of himself. Perhaps the dose of "medicine" in Sister Coquina's soup had been badly calculated, or perhaps it was just that they had never had a gunslinger to work their mischief on, and did not know they had one now.
Except, of course, for Sister Jenna-she knew.
At some point in the night, whispering, giggling voices and lightly chiming bells brought him back from the darkness where he had been biding, not quite asleep or unconscious. Around him, so constant he now barely heard it, were the singing "doctors".
Roland opened his eyes. He saw pale and chancy light dancing in the black air. The giggles and whispers were closer. Roland tried to turn his head and at first couldn't. He rested, gathered his will into a hard blue ball, and tried again. This time his head did turn. Only a little, but a little was enough.
It was five of the Little Sisters-Mary, Louise, Tamra, Coquina, Michela. They came up the long aisle of the black infirmary, laughing together like children out on a prank, carrying long tapers in silver holders, the bells lining the forehead-bands of their wimples chiming little silver runs of sound. They gathered about the bed of the bearded man. From within their circle, candleglow rose in a shimmery column that died before it got halfway to the silken ceiling.
Sister Mary spoke briefly. Roland recognized her voice, but not the words-it was neither low speech nor the High, but some other language entirely. One phrase stood out-can de lach, mi him en tow-and he had no idea what it might mean.
He realized that now he could hear only the tinkle of bells-the doctor-bugs had stilled.
"Ras me! On! On!" Sister Mary cried in a harsh, powerful voice. The candles went out. The light which had shone through the wings of their wimples as they gathered around the bearded man's bed vanished, and all was darkness once more.
Roland waited for what might happen next, his skin cold. He tried to flex his hands and feet, and could not. He had been able to move his head perhaps fifteen degrees; otherwise he was as paralysed as a fly neatly wrapped up and hung in a spider's web.
The low jingling of bells in the black... and then sucking sounds. As soon as he heard them, Roland knew he'd been waiting for them. Some part of him had known what the Little Sisters of Eluria were, all along.
If Roland could have raised his hands, he would have put them to his ears to block those sounds out. As it was, he could only lie still, listening and waiting for them to stop.
For a long time-for ever, it seemed-they did not. The women slurped and grunted like pigs snuffling half-liquefied feed out of a trough. There was even one resounding belch, followed by more whispered giggles (these, ended when Sister Mary uttered a single curt word-'Hais!'). And once there was a low, moaning cry-from the bearded man, Roland was quite sure. If so, it was his last on this side of the clearing.
In time, the sound of their feeding began to taper off. As it did, the bugs began to sing again-first hesitantly, then with more confidence. The whispering and giggling recommenced. The candles were re-lit. Roland was by now lying with his head turned in the other direction. He didn't want them to know what he'd seen, but that wasn't all; he had no urge to see more on any account. He had seen and heard enough.
But the giggles and whispers now came his way. Roland closed his eyes concentrating on the medallion which lay against his chest. I don't know if it's the gold or the God, but they don't like to get too close, John Norman had said. It was good to have such a thing to remember as the Little Sister drew nigh, gossiping and whispering in their strange other tongue, but the medallion seemed a thin protection in the dark.
Faintly, at a great distance, Roland heard the cross-dog barking.
As the Sisters circled him, the gunslinger realized he could smell them. It was a low, unpleasant odour, like spoiled meat. And what else would they smell of, such as these?
"Such a pretty man it is. " Sister Mary. She spoke in a low, meditative tone.
"But such an ugly sigil it wears. " Sister Tamra.
"We'll have it off him!" Sister Louise.
"And then we shall have kisses!" Sister Coquina.
"Kisses for all!" exclaimed Sister Michela, with such fervent enthusiasm that they all laughed.
Roland discovered that not all of him was paralysed, after all. Part of him had, in fact, arisen from its sleep at the sound of their voices and now stood tall. A hand reached beneath the bed-dress he wore, touched that stiffened member, encircled it, caressed it. He lay in silent horror, feigning sleep, as wet warmth almost immediately spilled from him. The hand remained where it was for a moment, the thumb rubbing up and down the wilting shaft. Then it let him go and rose a little higher. Found the wetness pooled on his lower belly. Giggles, soft as wind. Chiming bells. Roland opened his eyes the tiniest crack and looked up at the ancient faces laughing down at him in the light of their candles-glittering eyes, yellow cheeks, hanging teeth that jutted over lower lips. Sister Michela and sister Louise appeared to have grown goatees, but of course that wasn't the darkness of hair but of the bearded man's blood.
Mary is hand was cupped. She passed it from Sister to Sister; each licked from her palm in the candlelight.
Roland closed his eyes all the way and waited for them to be gone. Eventually they were.
I'll never sleep again, he thought, and was five minutes later lost to himself and the world.