The gunslinger, p.16
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       The Gunslinger, p.16

         Part #1 of The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
 
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  The boy spoke less and less, but at their stopping place one sleep-period not long before they were attacked by the Slow Mutants, he asked the gunslinger almost shyly about his coming of age.

  "For I would hear more of that," he said.

  The gunslinger had been leaning with his back against the handle, a cigarette from his dwindling supply of tobacco clamped in his lips. He'd been on the verge of his usual unthinking sleep when the boy asked his question.

  "Why would thee sill to know that?" he asked, amused.

  The boy's voice was curiously stubborn, as if hiding embarrassment. "I just would." And after a pause, he added: "I always wondered about growing up. I bet it's mostly lies."

  "What you'd hear of wasn't my growing-up," the gunslinger said. "I suppose I did the first of that not long after what thee'd hear of--"

  "When you fought your teacher," Jake said remotely. "That's what I want to hear."

  Roland nodded. Yes, of course, the day he had tried the line; that was a story any boy might want to hear, all right. "My real growing-up didn't start until after my Da' sent me away. I finished doing it at one place and another along the way." He paused. "I saw a not-man hung once."

  "A not-man? I don't understand."

  "You could feel him but couldn't see him."

  Jake nodded, seeming to understand. "He was invisible."

  Roland raised his eyebrows. He had never heard the word before. "Do you say so?"

  "Yes."

  "Then let it be so. In any case, there were folk who didn't want me to do it--felt they'd be cursed if I did it, but the fellow had gotten a taste for rape. Do you know what that is?"

  "Yes," Jake said. "And I bet an invisible guy would be good at it, too. How did you catch him?"

  "That's a tale for another day." Knowing there would be no other days. Both of them knowing there would be no others. "Two years after that, I left a girl in a place called King's Town, although I didn't want to--"

  "Sure you did," the boy said, and the contempt in his voice was no less for the softness of his tone. "Got to catch up with that Tower, am I right? Got to keep a-ridin', just like the cowboys on my Dad's Network."

  Roland felt his face flush with heat in the dark, but when he spoke his voice was even. "That was the last part, I guess. Of my growing-up, I mean. I never knew any of the parts when they happened. Only later did I know that."

  He realized with some unease that he was avoiding what the boy wanted to hear.

  "I suppose the coming of age was part of it, at that," he said, almost grudgingly. "It was formal. Almost stylized; like a dance." He laughed unpleasantly.

  The boy said nothing.

  "It was necessary to prove one's self in battle," the gunslinger began.

  IV

  Summer, and hot.

  Full Earth had come to the land like a vampire lover that year, killing the land and the crops of the tenant farmers, turning the fields of the castle-city of Gilead 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 paled to insignificance before the heat that rested over this place of the center. Cattle lolled empty-eyed in the pens of the stockyards. Pigs grunted lustlessly, unmindful of sows and sex and knives whetted for the coming fall. People whined about taxes and conscription, as they always did; but there was an apathy beneath the empty 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 thread that held the last jewel at the breast of the world was 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 dangerous and empty, waiting to be filled.

  It was three years since the hanging of the cook who had always been able to find snacks for hungry boys; Roland had lengthened and filled out both at shoulder and hip. Now, dressed only in faded denim pants, fourteen years old, he had come to look like the man he would become: lean and lank and quick on his feet. 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: "You. Boy."

  It was Marten, the counselor. He was dressed with a suspicious, upsetting casualness--black whipcord trousers almost as tight as leotards, and a white shirt open halfway down his hairless 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--and in his eyes--there was only coldness.

  In truth, 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 that kept slipping from one white shoulder and looked at the boy only once--a quick, glinting rueful smile, like autumn sun on a rill of water. During the interview which followed, she studied her hands rather than her son.

  He saw her seldom now, and the phantom of cradle songs (chussit, chissit, chassit)

  had almost faded from his brain. But she was a beloved stranger. He felt an amorphous fear, and an inchoate hatred for Marten, his father's closest advisor, was born.

  "Are you well, Ro'?" she asked him softly. 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? Vannay is pleased? And Cort?" Her mouth quirked at this second name, as if she had tasted something bitter.

  "I'm trying," he said. They both knew he was not flashingly intelligent like Cuthbert, or even quick like Jamie. He was a plodder and a bludgeoner. Even Alain was better at studies.

  "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 to 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 cut on your forehead," Marten said, still smiling, and pointed a negligent finger at the mark of Cort's latest

  (thank you for this instructive day)

  bashing. "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."

  "My mother has not yet dismissed me, bondsman!"

  Marten's face twisted as if the boy had lashed him with a quirt. 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."

  Smiling rather horribly, the boy went.

  As he closed the door and went back the way he came, he heard his mother wail. It was a banshee sound. And then, unbelievably, the sound of his father's man striking her and t
elling her to shut her quack.

  To shut her quack!

  And then he heard Marten's laugh.

  The boy continued to smile as he went to his test.

  V

  Jamie had come from the shops, and when he saw the boy crossing the exercise yard, he ran to tell Roland the latest gossip of bloodshed and revolt to the west. But he fell aside, the words all unspoken. They had known each other since the time of infancy, and as boys they had dared each other, cuffed each other, and made a thousand explorations of the walls within which they had both been birthed.

  The boy strode past him, staring without seeing, grinning his painful grin. He was walking toward Cort's cottage, where the shades were drawn to ward off the savage afternoon heat. Cort napped in the afternoon so that he could enjoy to the fullest extent his evening tomcat forays into the mazed and filthy brothels of the lower town.

  Jamie knew in a flash of intuition, knew what was to come, and in his fear and ecstasy he was torn between following Roland and going after the others.

  Then his hypnotism was broken and he ran toward the main buildings, screaming, "Cuthbert! Alain! Thomas!" His screams sounded puny and thin in the heat. They had known, all of them, in that intuitive way boys have, that Roland would be the first of them to try the line. But this was too soon.

  The hideous grin on Roland's face galvanized him as no news of wars, revolts, and witchcrafts could have done. This was more than words from a toothless mouth given over fly-specked heads of lettuce.

  Roland walked to the cottage of his teacher and kicked the door open. It slammed backward, hit the plain rough plaster of the wall, and rebounded.

  He had never been inside before. The entrance opened on an austere kitchen that was cool and brown. A table. Two straight chairs. Two cabinets. A faded linoleum floor, tracked in black paths from the cooler set in the floor to the counter where knives hung, and to the table.

  Here was a public man's privacy. The faded refuge of a violent midnight carouser who had loved the boys of three generations roughly, and made some of them into gunslingers.

  "Cort!"

  He kicked the table, sending it across the room and into the counter. Knives from the wall rack fell in twinkling jackstraws.

  There was a thick stirring in the other room, a half-sleep clearing of the throat. The boy did not enter, knowing it was sham, knowing that Cort had awakened immediately in the cottage's other room and stood with one glittering eye beside the door, waiting to break the intruder's unwary neck.

  "Cort, I want you, bondsman!"

  Now he spoke the High Speech, and Cort swung the door open. He was dressed in thin underwear shorts, a squat man with bow legs, runneled with scars from top to toe, thick with twists of muscle. There was a round, bulging belly. The boy knew from experience that it was spring steel. The one good eye glared at him from the bashed and dented hairless head.

  The boy saluted formally. "Teach me no more, bondsman. Today I teach you."

  "You are early, puler," Cort said casually, but he also spoke the High Speech. "Two years early at the very best, I should judge. I will ask only once. Will you cry off?"

  The boy only smiled his hideous, painful smile. For Cort, who had seen the smile on a score of bloodied, scarlet-skied fields of honor and dishonor, it was answer enough--perhaps the only answer he would have believed.

  "It's too bad," the teacher said absently. "You have been a most promising pupil--the best in two dozen years, I should say. It will be sad to see you broken and set upon a blind path. But the world has moved on. Bad times are on horseback."

  The boy still did not speak (and would have been incapable of any coherent explanation, had it been required), but for the first time the awful smile softened a little.

  "Still, there is the line of blood," Cort said, "revolt and witchcraft to the west or no. I am your bondsman, boy. I recognize your command and bow to it now--if never again--with all my heart."

  And Cort, who had cuffed him, kicked him, bled him, cursed him, made mock of him, and called him the very eye of syphilis, bent to one knee and bowed his head.

  The boy touched the leathery, vulnerable flesh of his neck with wonder. "Rise, bondsman. In love."

  Cort stood slowly, and there might have been pain behind the impassive mask of his reamed features. "This is waste. Cry off, you foolish boy. I break my own oath. Cry off and wait."

  The boy said nothing.

  "Very well; if you say so, let it be so." Cort's voice became dry and business-like. "One hour. And the weapon of your choice."

  "You will bring your stick?"

  "I always have."

  "How many sticks have been taken from you, Cort?" Which was tantamount to asking: How many boys have entered the square yard beyond the Great Hall and returned as gunslinger apprentices?

  "No stick will be taken from me today," Cort said slowly. "I regret it. There is only the once, boy. The penalty for overeagerness is the same as the penalty for unworthiness. Can you not wait?"

  The boy recalled Marten standing over him. The smile. And the sound of the blow from behind the closed door. "No."

  "Very well. What weapon do you choose?"

  The boy said nothing.

  Cort's smile showed a jagged ring of teeth. "Wise enough to begin. In an hour. You realize you will in all probability never see your father, your mother, or your ka-babbies again?"

  "I know what exile means," Roland said softly.

  "Go now, and meditate on your father's face. Much good will it do ya."

  The boy went, without looking back.

  VI

  The cellar of the barn was spuriously cool, dank, smelling of cobwebs and earthwater. The sun lit it in dusty rays from narrow windows, but here was none of the day's heat. The boy kept the hawk here and the bird seemed comfortable enough.

  David no longer hunted the sky. His feathers had lost the radiant animal brightness of three years ago, but the eyes were still as piercing and motionless as ever. You cannot friend a hawk, they said, unless you are half a hawk yourself, alone and only a sojourner in the land, without friends or the need of them. The hawk pays no coinage to love or morals.

  David was an old hawk now. The boy hoped that he himself was a young one.

  "Hai," he said softly and extended his arm to the tethered perch.

  The hawk stepped onto the boy's arm and stood motionless, unhooded. With his other hand the boy reached into his pocket and fished out a bit of dried jerky. The hawk snapped it deftly from between his fingers and made it disappear.

  The boy began to stroke David very carefully. Cort most probably would not have believed it if he had seen it, but Cort did not believe the boy's time had come, either.

  "I think you die today," he said, continuing to stroke. "I think you will be made a sacrifice, like all those little birds we trained you on. Do you remember? No? It doesn't matter. After today I am the hawk and each year on this day I'll shoot the sky in your memory."

  David stood on his arm, silent and unblinking, indifferent to his life or death.

  "You are old," the boy said reflectively. "And perhaps not my friend. Even a year ago you would have had my eyes instead of that little string of meat, isn't it so? Cort would laugh. But if we get close enough . . . close enough to that chary man . . . if he don't suspect . . . which will it be, David? Age or friendship?"

  David did not say.

  The boy hooded him and found the jesses, which were looped at the end of David's perch. They left the barn.

  VII

  The yard behind the Great Hall was not really a yard at all, but only a green corridor whose walls were formed by tangled, thick-grown hedges. It had been used for the rite of coming of age since time out of mind, long before Cort and his predecessor, Mark, who had died of a stab-wound from an overzealous hand in this place. Many boys had left the corridor from the east end, where the teacher always entered, as men. The east end faced the Great Hall and all the civilization and intrigue of the lighted world
. Many more had slunk away, beaten and bloody, from the west end, where the boys always entered, as boys forever. The west end faced the farms and the hut-dwellers beyond the farms; beyond that, the tangled barbarian forests; beyond that, Garlan; and beyond Garlan, the Mohaine Desert. The boy who became a man progressed from darkness and unlearning to light and responsibility. The boy who was beaten could only retreat, forever and forever. The hallway was as smooth and green as a gaming field. It was exactly fifty yards long. In the middle was a swatch of shaven earth. This was the line.

  Each end was usually clogged with tense spectators and relatives, for the ritual was usually forecast with great accuracy--eighteen was the most common age (those who had not made their test by the age of twenty-five usually slipped into obscurity as freeholders, unable to face the brutal all-or-nothing fact of the field and the test). But on this day there were none but Jamie DeCurry, Cuthbert Allgood, Alain Johns, and Thomas Whitman. They clustered at the boy's end, gape-mouthed and frankly terrified.

  "Your weapon, stupid!" Cuthbert hissed, in agony. "You forgot your weapon!"

  "I have it," the boy said. Dimly he wondered if the news of this lunacy had reached yet to the central buildings, to his mother--and to Marten. His father was on a hunt, not due back for days. In this he felt a sense of shame, for he felt that in his father he would have found understanding, if not approval. "Has Cort come?"

  "Cort is here." The voice came from the far end of the corridor, and Cort stepped into view, dressed in a short singlet. A heavy leather band encircled his forehead to keep sweat from his eyes. He wore a dirty girdle to hold his back straight. He held an ironwood stick in one hand, sharp on one end, heavily blunted and spatulate on the other. He began the litany which all of them, chosen by the blind blood of their fathers all the way back to the Eld, had known since early childhood, learned against the day when they would, perchance, become men.

  "Have you come here for a serious purpose, boy?"

 
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