After the sound of his breathing had become long and steady and regular, the boy opened his eyes and looked at the gunslinger with an expression that was very much like love. The last light of the fire caught in one pupil for a moment and was drowned there. He went to sleep.
The gunslinger had lost most of his time sense in the desert, which was changeless; he lost the rest of it here in these chambers under the mountains, which were lightless. Neither of them had any means of telling time, and the concept of hours became meaningless. In a sense, they stood outside of time. A day might have been a week, or a week a day. They walked, they slept, they ate thinly. Their only companion was the steady thundering rush of the water, drilling its auger path through the stone. They followed it, drank from its flat, mineral-salted depth. At times the gunslinger thought he saw fugitive drifting lights like corpse-lamps beneath its surface, but supposed they were only projections of his brain, which had not forgotten the light. Still, he cautioned the boy not to put his feet in the water.
The range finder in his head took them on steadily.
The path beside the river (for it was a path; smooth, sunken to a slight concavity) led always upward, toward the river's head. At regular intervals they came to curved stone pylons with sunken ringbolts; perhaps once oxen or stage-horses had tethered there. At each was a steel flagon holding an electric torch, but these were all barren of life and light.
During the third period of rest-before-sleep, the boy wandered away a little. The gunslinger could hear small conversation of rattled pebbles as he moved cautiously. "
"Careful," he said. "You can't see where you are.
"I'm crawling. It's . . . say!"
"What is it?" The gunslinger half crouched, touching the haft of one gun.
There was a slight pause. The gunslinger strained his eyes uselessly.
"I think it's a railroad," the boy said dubiously.
The gunslinger got up and walked slowly toward the sound of Jake's voice, leading with one foot lightly to test for pitfalls.
"Here." A hand reached out and cat's-pawed the gunslinger's face. The boy was very good in the dark, better than the gunslinger himself. His eyes seemed to dilate until there was no color left in them: the gunslinger saw this as he struck a meager light. There was no fuel in this rock womb, and what they had brought with them was going rapidly to ash. At times the urge to strike a light was well-nigh insatiable.
The boy was standing beside a curved rock wall that was lined with parallel metal staves off into the darkness. Each carried black bulbs that might once have been conductors of electricity. And beside and below, set only inches off the stone floor, were tracks of bright metal. What might have run on those tracks at one time? The gunslinger could only imagine black electric bullets, flying through this forever night with affrighted searchlight eyes going before. He had never heard of such things. But there were skeletons in the world, just as there were demons. He had once come upon a hermit who had gained a quasi-religious power over a miserable flock of kine-keepers by possession of an ancient gasoline pump. The hermit crouched beside it, one arm wrapped possessively around it, and preached wild, guttering, sullen sermons. He occasionally placed the still-bright steel nozzle, which was attached to a rotted rubber hose, between his legs. On the pump, in perfectly legible (although rust-clotted) letters, was a legend of unknown meaning: AMOCO. Lead Free. Amoco had become the totem of a thundergod, and they had worshipped Him with the half-mad slaughter of sheep.
Hulks, the gunslinger thought. Only meaningless hulks in sands that once were seas.
And now a railroad.
"We'll follow it," he said.
The boy said nothing.
The gunslinger extinguished the light and they slept. When the gunslinger awoke the boy was up before him, sitting on one of the rails and watching him sightlessly in the dark.
They followed the rails like blindmen, the gunslinger leading, the boy following. They slipped their feet along one rail always, also like blindmen. The steady rush of the river off to the right was their companion. They did not speak, and this went on for three periods of waking. The gunslinger felt no urge to think coherently, or to plan. His sleep was dreamless.
During the fourth period of waking and walking, they literally stumbled on a handcar.
The gunslinger ran into it chest-high, and the boy, walking on the other side, struck his forehead and went down with a cry.
The gunslinger made a light immediately. "Are you all right?" The words sounded sharp, almost waspish, and he winced at them.
"Yes." The boy was holding his head gingerly. He shook it once to make sure he had told the truth. They turned to look at what they had run into.
It was a flat square of metal that sat mutely on the tracks. There was a see-saw handle in the center of the square. The gunslinger had no immediate sense of it, but the boy knew immediately.
"It's a handcar."
"Handcar," the boy said impatiently, "like in the old movies. Look."
He pulled himself up and went to the handle. He managed to push it down, but it was necessary to hang all his weight on the handle. He grunted briefly. The handcar moved a foot, with silent timelessness, on the rails.
"It works a little hard," the boy said, as if apologizing for it.
The gunslinger pulled himself up and pushed the handle down. The handcar moved forward obediently, then stopped. he could feel a drive-shaft turn beneath his feet. The operation pleased him - it was the first old machine other than the pump at the way station that he had seen in years which still worked well, but it disquieted him, too. It would take them to their destination that much quicker. The curse-kiss again, he thought, and knew the man in black had meant them to find this, too.
"Neat, huh?" The boy said, and his voice was full of loathing.
"What are movies?" The gunslinger asked again.
Jake still did not answer and they stood in a black silence, like in a tomb where life had fled. The gunslinger could hear his organs at work inside his body and the boy's respiration. That was all.
"You stand on one side. I stand on the other side," Jake said. "You'll have to push by yourself until it gets rolling good. Then I can help. First you push, then I push. We'll go right along. Get it?"
"I get it," the gunslinger said. His hands were in helpless, despairing fists.
"But you'll have to push by yourself until it gets rolling good," the boy repeated, looking at him.
The gunslinger had a sudden vivid picture of the Great Hall a year after the spring Ball, in the shattered, hulked shards of revolt, civil strife, and invasion. It was followed with the memory of Allie, the woman from Tull with the scar, pushed and pulled by the bullets that were killing her in reflex. It was followed by Jamie's face, blue in death, by
Susan's, twisted and weeping. All my old friends, the gunslinger thought, and smiled hideously.
"I'll push," the gunslinger said.
He began to push.
They rolled on through the dark, faster now, no longer having to feel their way. Once the awkwardness of a buried age had been run off the handcar, it went smoothly. The boy tried to do his share, and the gunslinger allowed him small shifts - but mostly he pumped by himself, in large and chest-stretching rises and failings. The river was their companion, sometimes closer on their right, sometimes further away. Once it took on huge and thunderous hollowness, as if passing through a prehistoric cathedral narthex. Once the sound of it disappeared almost altogether.
The speed and the made wind against their faces seemed to take the place of sight and to put them once again in a frame of time and reference. The gunslinger estimated they were making anywhere from ten to fifteen miles an hour, always on a shallow, almost imperceptible uphill grade that wore him out deceptively. When they stopped he slept like the stone itself. Their food was almost gone again. Neither of them worried about it.
For the gunslinger, the tenseness of a coming cl**ax was as unperceivable but as real and as accretive as the fatigue of propelling the handcar. They were close to the end of the beginning. He felt like a performer placed on center stage minutes before the rise of the curtain; settled in position with his first line held in his mind, he heard the unseen audience rattling programs and settling in seats. He lived with a tight, tidy ball of unholy anticipation in his belly and welcomed the exercise that let him sleep.
The boy spoke less and less; but at their stopping place one sleep-period before they were attacked by the Slow
Mutants, he asked the gunslinger almost shyly about his coming of age.
The gunslinger had been leaning against the handle, a cigarette from his dwindling supply of tobacco clamped in his mouth. He had been on the verge of his usual unthinking sleep when the boy asked his question.
"Why would you want to know that?" He asked.
The boy's voice was curiously stubborn, as if hiding embarrassment. "I just do." And after a pause, he added:
"I always wondered about growing up. It's mostly lies."
"It wasn't growing up," the gunslinger said. "I never grew up all at once. I did it one place and another along the way. I saw a man hung once. That was part of it, though I didn't know it then. I left a girl in a place called King's Town twelve years ago. That was another part. I never knew any of the parts when they happened. Only later I knew that."
He realized with some unease that he was avoiding.
"I suppose the coming of age was part, too," he said, almost grudgingly. "It was formal. Almost stylized; like a dance." He laughed unpleasantly. "Like love.
"Love and dying have been my life."
The boy said nothing.
"It was necessary to prove one's self in battle," the gunslinger began.
Summer and hot.
August had come to the land like a vampire lover, killing the land and the crops of the tenant farmers, turning the fields of the castle-city white and sterile. In the west, some miles distant and near the borders that were the end of the civilized world, fighting had already begun. All reports were bad, and all of them palled before the heat that rested over this place of the center. Cattle lolled empty-eyed in the pens of the stockyards. Pigs grunted listlessly, unmindful of knives whetted for the coming fall. People whined about taxes and conscription, as they always have; but there was an emptiness beneath the apathetic passion play of politics. The center had frayed like a rag rug that had been washed and walked on and shaken and hung and dried. The lines and nets of mesh which held the last jewel at the breast of the world were unraveling. Things were not holding together. The earth drew in its breath in the summer of the coming eclipse.
The boy idled along the upper corridor of this stone place which was home, sensing these things, not understanding. He was also empty and dangerous.
It had been three years since the hanging of the cook who had always been able to find snacks for hungry boys, and he had filled out. Now, dressed only in faded denim pants, fourteen years old, he had already come to the widened chest-span and lengthening legs that would characterize his manhood. He was still unbedded, but two of the younger slatterns of a West-Town merchant had cast eyes on him. He had felt a response and felt it more strongly now. Even in the coolness of the passage, he felt sweat on his body.
Ahead were his mother's apartments and he approached them incuriously, meaning only to pass them and go upward to the roof, where a thin breeze and the pleasure of his hand awaited.
He had passed the door when a voice called him:
It was Marten, the enchanter. He was dressed with a suspicious, upsetting casualness - black whipcord trousers almost as tight as leotards, and a white shirt open halfway down his chest His hair was tousled.
The boy looked at him silently.
"Come in, come in! Don't stand in the hall! Your mother wants to speak to you." He was smiling with his mouth, but the lines of his face held a deeper, more sardonic humor. Beneath that there was only coldness.
But his mother did not seem to want to see him. She sat in the low-backed chair by the large window in the central parlor of her apartments, the one which overlooked the hot blank stone of the central courtyard. She was dressed in a loose, informal gown and looked at the boy only once
- a quick, glinting rueful smile, like autumn sun on stream water. During the rest of the interview she studied her hands.
He saw her seldom now, and the phantom of cradle songs had almost faded from his brain. But she was a beloved stranger. He felt an amorphous fear, and an uncoalesced hatred for Marten, his father's right-hand man (or was it the other way around?), was born.
And, of course, there had already been some back street talk - talk which he honestly thought he hadn't heard.
"Are you well?" She asked him softly, studying her hands. Marten stood beside her, a heavy, disturbing hand near the juncture of her white shoulder and white neck, smiling on them both. His brown eyes were dark to the point of blackness with smiling.
"Yes," he said.
"Your studies go well?"
"I'm trying," he said. They both knew he was not flash ingly intelligent like Cuthbert, or even quick, like Jamie. He was a plodder and a bludgeoner.
"And David?" She knew his affection for the hawk.
The boy looked up at Marten, still smiling paternally down on all this. "Past his prime."
His mother seemed to wince; for a moment Marten's face seemed to darken, his grip on her shoulder tighten.
Then she looked out into the hot whiteness of the day, and all was as it had been.
It's a charade, he thought. A game. Who is playing with whom?
"You have a scar on your forehead," Marten said, still smiling. "Are you going to be a fighter like your father or are you just slow?"
This time she did wince.
"Both," the boy said. He looked steadily at Marten and smiled painfully. Even in here, it was very hot.
Marten stopped smiling abruptly. "You can go to the roof now, boy. I believe you have business there."
But Marten had misunderstood, underestimated. They had been speaking in the low tongue, a parody of informality. But now the boy flashed into High Speech:
"My mother has not yet dismissed me, bondsman!"
Marten's face twisted as if quirt-lashed. The boy heard his mother's dreadful, woeful gasp. She spoke his name.
But the painful smile remained intact on the boy's face and he stepped forward. "Will you give me a sign of fealty, bondsman? In the name of my father whom you serve??
Marten stared at him, rankly unbelieving.
"Go," Marten said gently. "Go and find your hand."