A day later they rode steadily through the barren southern deserts. They traveled southward, where, according to the Matriarch and her uncanny sight, they would find the trail of the gunslinger they followed. Their saddlebags were full with provisions and supplies, and their water skins, so flat and dry before they had ridden into Colby, were now fat with the clear water of the Colby well. The Matriarch had blessed them, too.
"Go in peace, and find this knight of the White."
And her grandson Courtway had said, "To ye, all ka, khef, and the water of life."
"And to you," Careah said, sitting high on her mount. "May your luck rise."
"Twice," added Merritt. Charity laughed.
"Yes, twice," she agreed, "now get ye gone!", and slapped the shaggy rump of Merritt’s mount. The surprised beast had half-reared and bolted toward the edge of town.
They rode slowly, or at least they did not press on as quickly as they might have; for Careah was silent and thoughtful, and wished to think certain things over before she met the gunslinger and his fellows. It was for this reason that the messenger from Colby was able to catch them, to see them in time to halt their forward progress, and take them back to aid the town to meet the hard fate that awaited them there.
And perhaps, too, it was ka.
Merritt, on guard and riding watch (as Careah was too lost in thoughts to give much attention to their surroundings), saw the cloud of red dust first. He pulled up on his mount’s reins and halted Careah with a touch on her arm. She turned, jolted out of her reverie, and saw what he saw.
Behind them, a single mount kicked up a line of billowing dust, moving fast toward them as its ride spurred it to ever greater speeds.
"What say you?" Careah asked, laying a hand on the leather-covered bulge of her right revolver. "Friend or foe?"
"I would say friend," Merritt said, his keen eyes tracking the progress of the dust cloud while it raced toward them, "for he makes no effort to hide himself, and at the pace he sets, his mount will die if used so for too long."
"No mistake there," she agreed. "He is headed for us." She unsnapped the leather flaps covering the holsters at her hips (she’d found the covers necessary, so keep the invading grit from fouling her guns twice a day), and edged the grips out to where they could be easily grasped. Merritt did the same.
"Bullets?" she asked, and his fingers danced over his gun belt, checking his ammunition quickly.
"Yes," he said.
"We ride to meet him," she said, and spun her mount around, toward the cloud on the horizon. Merritt raced along at her side, his churra eager to keep company with hers. They kicked up clouds of sand and red dust as they rode, making no attempt to hide their trail, either; if it were a friend, then the quicker to see what ailed them. If it were an enemy, well, there were few living now on the earth who would find it easy to slip past the death-machines in the hands of Careah and her man.
But as they approached, they saw that it was a man of Colby, one who’d dined with them at the table of the Matriarch Charity the night prior. He reined his mount in harshly as they neared, and waved his arms in a frantic flagging motion.
"What ails thee?" Careah cried as she thundered to a halt beside him.
"The town!" he said, gasping. His mount rolled its eyes wildly, afraid and exhausted, and its sides rose and fell in rapid succession. "It’s - under attack - harriers!"
"Gods," Merritt said.
The messenger seemed to recover his breath. "We think they may ’ave followed ye there and waited ’til the dust settled behind ye afore attacking. Please - " his old face was very white and tense " - they’re back there fightin’ wi’ pitchforks and gardening stakes. Please, for the love of yer gods, help us."
There was a terrible moment when Careah’s eyes met Merritt’s, and she knew, she knew -
Then Merritt said, "Aye, and we must," and Careah thought, ka will forgive, ka will forgive.
But even as she spurred her churra forward and screamed, "Then ride! Ride for your life!", she knew that ka did not forgive. Ka never forgave - mistakes of the past, nor decisions of the present. Ka rode in terrible, unyielding splendor toward whatever end it sought, heedless of the human lives which fell to pave its way in blood. But though she knew this - aye, knew it and understood it well - the thoughts flowed past her like water, slippery and uncontrollable, and she found that she was powerless to do anything but give herself over to the will of the battle-rage of old, the red veil of intensity and killer serenity that settled over her shoulders and caused her to dig her heels into her mount’s sides and ride, ride for her life, guns out and in her hands, leaning low across the churra’s neck.
They thundered into town and battle.
There were harriers, a good two scores of them, armed with knives and swords (and Careah saw at least two ancient guns, not well-oiled revolvers like her own but rusted, untrustworthy old things). The folk of Colby were fighting, true, and true it was that some of the harriers bled from cuts and wounds - but the huddled shapes that lay on the ground, still in death, were all those of Colby’s folk. They were old, and though they fought with the strength of desperation, the harriers were stronger, and slyer, and better.
"Hile!" she screamed. "Forward!" And behind her Merritt let loose his own blood-curdling howl, a battle cry of old that she had thought never to hear again. It was one she had taught him, long ago, in a night of near-drunkenness.
She saw several of the folk look up, and saw a look of - it seemed almost to be terror - arise in their eyes, as though they were not quite sure that these two figures with their hands full of hot death had come to help them rather than to slay them. Then Courtway, the grandson of the town’s Matriarch, saw them.
"The gunsmen have returned!" he cried, and as if this gave him new strength, he turned with a speed and viciousness that Careah had not thought of him, and buried his knife in the back of the harrier nearest.
Her churra died almost immediately. While the beasts were capable of great speed across the desert wastes, they were neither quick nor agile on a battlefield, and hers was killed with two great thrusts of a harrier’s ragged sword. As the beast fell, blood staining the shaggy cream hide crimson, she tumbled off and to the side, rolling clear of the great body. The harrier who slew it was not so clever or lucky; his legs were caught beneath the heavy hulk, and he saw the sharp green of its master’s eyes quite clearly before the thunder of her guns carried him all the way to the clearing at the end of his path.
She caught Merritt’s eyes, once, and he grinned at her, a feral grin full of teeth, his hat falling back from his brow and dangling by its jaw-cord; he too was unmounted. Then he was gone, a whirlwind of red dust swirling emptily where he had been.
And, slowly, the tide turned.
The folk of the town, heartened by the presence of the two gunsmen in their midst, and heartened also by the number of harriers whose bodies now decorated their town square, fought with renewed strength and energy. Careah’s hands did their work well, as did the hands of him whom she had taught; and the guns fired again and again, discharging death.
The eyes of the people around her held more than simple anger or fear now, more than simple hope or gratitude. Townspeople and harriers alike, their eyes gleamed with something like awe, like wonder when they saw her turn and fire, reload, turn and fire again; when they saw how those who stood in her way died with a smoking hole in their throats, in their foreheads, in their hearts.
And still they fought on.
From the corner of her eye she saw Courtway spin around, turned by the speed of a bullet, and fall with a last graceful pirouette into death. She cried out inarticulately and with her left gun shot his killer down, even as two harriers descended on her with knives. One slashed out and she caught a burning gash across her ribs, but the guns in her hands bucked again and moments later both were dead or dying. She whirled, looking feverishly for Merritt, scanning the fray through the curtain of ever-shifting dust. She did not see him, but picked off another harrier, this one a gaunt blonde woman, and reloaded as she dashed for a particularly nasty entanglement.
Across the plaza she saw Merritt, locked in hand-to-hand combat with a raider; and she saw another turn on him and throw something hard and silver. A knife? A -
She saw him fall.
She screamed wordlessly, and stretched one gun-filled hand out toward him - then the dust and the fighting obscured her vision. She fell back into the fray, still screaming, and her guns roared again and again and again, and suddenly she was emptying her right gun into the back of a fleeing harrier, and when the hammer clicked down on the spent chamber she found that silence had settled over the plaza.
The silence lasted a few moments, while streamers of red dust settled, and then the groaning of the wounded began. She dropped the empty guns and ran toward where she had seen Merritt fall.
He was there, fallen, the body of the harrier he’d slain lying half across him. She shoved the body off him with a moan and dropped into the dust beside him. The knees of her pants soaked immediately with a warm liquid - blood.
He lay on his back, one arm outstretched, fingers still loosely circling the grip of his gun. He stared quietly at the sky with sightless eyes until she reached out and touched his face with gentle fingers, crying silently.
He smiled blindly. "I cry you welcome," he said, as he had when first they met.
"Merritt," she whispered. A trickle of blood ran down his cheek from his mouth, mixing with the red dust to form an ocher paste. As she watched, another trickle seeped out of his nose and joined the first. "Oh Merritt."
"Knew... you’d come... " he said. His eyes were trained blankly on the sky above. "Can’t see you... but knew you’d come." He gasped. "Careah, love... think I may be... done."
"Oh no," she denied, but her voice was a cracked whisper.
"Here," he said; blood bubbled up from his mouth. She saw that one arm lay limply across his chest, fingers weakly scrabbling to reach the inside pocket of his jacket. "Got you… something in... Kell... Kellytown... ’afore the harriers." A great gush of blood flowed from his mouth with his words. "Wish... I could see... you... "
"Hush," she told him, and covered his hand with her own. His fingers were loosely clasped around a dusty packet; she took it from him and shook it open. Something fell out, sparking gold and emerald in the light. "A ring," she whispered, holding it up.
"I know you like green," Merritt smiled, and then his head snapped back, neck muscles suddenly taut, and his fingers went rigid in hers; and he spasmed once and died.
"Merritt," she said soundlessly. The ring fell from her numb fingers, glinting as it spun down into the dirt. It landed in the blood and dust next to his head and lay there, gleaming innocently.
Careah took his hands in hers and pulled him into her lap, held his limp body and rocked it, and cried great heaving sobs that made no noise. She bent her dirty head over his and cradled him while the blood dried on his forehead, on his face; and when her tears were gone she lay him down, gently, upon the red and sorrowful earth, and sat back on her heels. Behind her she heard a limping, dragging approach.
"Lady," someone said humbly. She did not respond.
"Lady," he said again; then, reverently, "Gunslinger."
At this her head rose and shook once, wearily. "No," she said, staring at her hands lying loose in her lap. "Never that. I was one they would not take; I failed and they sent me West."
The man - it was the messenger who had come for them in the desert - took a step back, then steadied himself and said, "They were wrong, lady gunslinger. You are worthy and more."
And she folded Merritt’s still hands across his chest and shook her head again, gazing blindly at his body, and said quietly, "No - they are never wrong." She stroked the matted hair away from his face with the tips of her fingers, so soft and gentle, as though they had never handled death.
"What will you do, lady?"
She stared at Merritt’s still face, her eyes bleak and unseeing. "I will go northwest," she said. "Away from the gunslinger and his fellows. I was a fool to think that I could aid him - I should have known. The Tower was never mine to battle for; the winds of ka decided that, and long ago. I should have known from the first, when they sent me from the fields of trial by the western doors." Her right hand ran around his face one last, lingering time.
She turned, finally, and stretched toward the messenger that blood-streaked hand. Her smile was bitter. "They were not wrong, those who sent me into exile. I am cursed, by life and by ka. Do you see? The soul of one such as I can never leave the West."
They were still and silent in the relentless heat of the afternoon, staring at the blood as it ran down her wrist from her hand, and dried in the crevasses of her palm.
After she had buried Merritt she went to the outskirts of town, away from the oldsters and the poor desperate folk of that sad, ruined place. The next day she would mount her churra - once, you know, she’d ridden a horse; she and Merritt had had horses both - and canter out of ailing Colby; away, away. She would go north and west, away from the gunslinger and the death that stalked those who sought to aid him. Tomorrow she would ride as she had always ridden before, alone again, just as it had been in the long years before she had known and loved Merritt. But today she merely sat on the quiet hillside, his ring green on her finger and his grave dirt black beneath her nails, and watched the sun setting forever on the dying world.