The sky was white, perfectly white, the smell of rain strong in the air. The smell of hedges and growing green was sweet. It was deep spring, what some called New Earth.
David sat on Cuthbert’s arm, a small engine of destruction with bright golden eyes that glared outward at nothing. The rawhide leash attached to his jesses was looped carelessly about Bert’s arm.
Cort stood aside from the two boys, a silent figure in patched leather trousers and a green cotton shirt that had been cinched high with his old, wide infantry belt. The green of his shirt merged with the hedges and the rolling turf of the Back Courts, where the ladies had not yet begun to play at Points.
“Get ready,” Roland whispered to Cuthbert.
“We’re ready,” Cuthbert said confidently. “Aren’t we, Davey?”
They spoke the low speech, the language of both scullions and squires; the day when they would be allowed to use their own tongue in the presence of others was still far. “It’s a beautiful day for it. Can you smell the rain? It’s—”
Cort abruptly raised the trap in his hands and let the side fall open. The dove was out and up, trying for the sky in a quick, fluttering blast of its wings. Cuthbert pulled the leash, but he was slow; the hawk was already up and his takeoff was awkward. The hawk recovered with a brief twitch of its wings. It struck upward, trudging the air, gaining altitude over the dove, moving bullet-swift.
Cort walked over to where the boys stood, casually, and swung his huge and twisted fist at Cuthbert’s ear. The boy fell over without a sound, although his lips writhed back from his gums. A trickle of blood flowed slowly from his ear and onto the rich green grass.
“You were slow, maggot,” he said.
Cuthbert was struggling to his feet. “I cry your pardon, Cort. It’s just that I—”
Cort swung again, and Cuthbert fell over again. The blood flowed more swiftly now. “Speak the High Speech,” he said softly. His voice was flat, with a slight, drunken rasp. “Speak your Act of Contrition in the speech of civilization for which better men than you will ever be have died, maggot.”
Cuthbert was getting up again. Tears stood brightly in his eyes, but his lips were pressed together in a tight line of hate which did not quiver.
“I grieve,” Cuthbert said in a voice of breathless control. “I have forgotten the face of my father, whose guns I hope someday to bear.”
“That’s right, brat,” Cort said. “You’ll consider what you did wrong, and sharpen your reflections with hunger. No supper. No breakfast.”
“Look!” Roland cried. He pointed up.
The hawk had climbed above the soaring dove. It glided for a moment, its stubby wings outstretched and without movement on the still, white spring air. Then it folded its wings and dropped like a stone. The two bodies came together, and for a moment Roland fancied he could see blood in the air. The hawk gave a brief scream of triumph. The dove fluttered, twisting, to the ground, and Roland ran toward the kill, leaving Cort and the chastened Cuthbert behind him.
The hawk had landed beside its prey and was complacently tearing into its plump white breast. A few feathers seesawed slowly downward.
“David!” the boy yelled, and tossed the hawk a piece of rabbit flesh from his poke. The hawk caught it on the fly, ingested it with an upward shaking of its back and throat, and Roland attempted to re-leash the bird.
The hawk whirled, almost absentmindedly, and ripped skin from Roland’s arm in a long, dangling gash. Then it went back to its meal.
With a grunt, Roland looped the leash again, this time catching David’s diving, slashing beak on the leather gauntlet he wore. He gave the hawk another piece of meat, then hooded it. Docilely, David climbed onto his wrist.
He stood up proudly, the hawk on his arm.
“What’s this, can ya tell me?” Cort asked, pointing to the dripping slash on Roland’s forearm. The boy stationed himself to receive the blow, locking his throat against any possible cry, but no blow fell.
“He struck me,” Roland said.
“You pissed him off,” Cort said. “The hawk does not fear you, boy, and the hawk never will. The hawk is God’s gunslinger.”
Roland merely looked at Cort. He was not an imaginative boy, and if Cort had intended to imply a moral, it was lost on him; he went so far as to believe that it might have been one of the few foolish statements he had ever heard Cort make.
Cuthbert came up behind them and stuck his tongue out at Cort, safely on his blind side. Roland did not smile, but nodded to him.
“Go in now,” Cort said, taking the hawk. He turned and pointed at Cuthbert. “But remember your reflection, maggot. And your fast. Tonight and tomorrow morning.”
“Yes,” Cuthbert said, stiltedly formal now. “Thank you for this instructive day.”
“You learn,” Cort said, “but your tongue has a bad habit of lolling from your stupid mouth when your instructor’s back is turned. Mayhap the day will come when it and you will learn their respective places.” He struck Cuthbert again, this time solidly between the eyes and hard enough so that Roland heard a dull thud—the sound a mallet makes when a scullion taps a keg of beer. Cuthbert fell backward onto the lawn, his eyes cloudy and dazed at first. Then they cleared and he stared burningly up at Cort, his usual easy grin nowhere to be seen, his hatred unveiled, a pinprick as bright as the dove’s blood in the center of each eye. He nodded and parted his lips in a scarifying smile that Roland had never seen.
“Then there’s hope for you,” Cort said. “When you think you can, you come for me, maggot.”
“How did you know?” Cuthbert said between his teeth.
Cort turned toward Roland so swiftly that Roland almost fell back a step—and then both of them would have been on the grass, decorating the new green with their blood. “I saw it reflected in this maggot’s eyes,” he said. “Remember it, Cuthbert Allgood. Last lesson for today.”
Cuthbert nodded again, the same frightening smile on his face. “I grieve,” he said. “I have forgotten the face—”
“Cut that shit,” Cort said, losing interest. He turned to Roland. “Go on, now. The both of you. If I have to look at your stupid maggot faces any longer I’ll puke my guts and lose a good dinner.”
“Come on,” Roland said.
Cuthbert shook his head to clear it and got to his feet. Cort was already walking down the hill in his squat, bowlegged stride, looking powerful and somehow prehistoric. The shaved and grizzled spot at the top of his head glimmered.
“I’ll kill the son of a bitch,” Cuthbert said, still smiling. A large goose egg, purple and knotted, was rising mystically on his forehead.
“Not you or me,” Roland said, suddenly bursting into a grin. “You can have supper in the west kitchen with me. Cook will give us some.”
“He’ll tell Cort.”
“He’s no friend of Cort’s,” Roland said, and then shrugged. “And what if he did?”
Cuthbert grinned back. “Sure. Right. I always wanted to know how the world looked when your head was on backwards and upside down.”
They started back together over the green lawns, casting shadows in the fine white springlight. The cook in the west kitchen was named Hax. He stood huge in foodstained whites, a man with a crude-oil complexion whose ancestry was a quarter black, a quarter yellow, a quarter from the South Islands, now almost forgotten (the world had moved on), and a quarter gods-knew-what. He shuffled about three high-ceilinged steamy rooms like a tractor in low gear, wearing huge, Caliph-like slippers. He was one of those quite rare adults who communicate with small children fairly well and who love them all impartially—not in a sugary way but in a businesslike fashion that may sometimes entail a hug, in the same way that closing a big business deal may call for a handshake. He even loved the boys who had begun the way of the gun, although they were different from other children—undemonstrative and always slightly dangerous, not in an adult way, but rather as if they were ordinary children with a slight touch of madness—and Bert was not the first of Cort’s students whom he had fed on the sly. At this moment he stood in front of his huge, rambling electric stove—one of six working appliances left on the whole estate. It was his personal domain, and he stood there watching the two boys bolt the gravied meat scraps he had produced. Behind, before, and all around, cookboys, scullions, and various underlings rushed through the steaming, humid air, rattling pans, stirring stew, slaving over potatoes and vegetables in nether regions. In the dimly lit pantry alcove, a washerwoman with a doughy, miserable face and hair caught up in a rag splashed water around on the floor with a mop.
One of the scullery boys rushed up with a man from the Guards in tow. “This man, he wantchoo, Hax.”
“All right.” Hax nodded to the Guard, and he nodded back. “You boys,” he said. “Go over to Maggie, she’ll give you some pie. Then scat. Don’t get me in trouble.”
Later they would both remember he’d said that: Don’t get me in trouble.
They nodded and went over to Maggie, who gave them huge wedges of pie on dinner plates—but gingerly, as if they were wild dogs that might bite her.
“Let’s eat it understairs,” Cuthbert said.
They sat behind a huge, sweating stone colonnade, out of sight of the kitchen, and gobbled their pie with their fingers. It was only moments later that they saw shadows fall on the far curving wall of the wide staircase. Roland grabbed Cuthbert’s arm. “Come on,” he said. “Someone’s coming.” Cuthbert looked up, his face surprised and berry-stained.
But the shadows stopped, still out of sight. It was Hax and the man from the Guards. The boys sat where they were. If they moved now, they might be heard.
“. . . the good man,” the Guard was saying.
“In two weeks,” the Guard replied. “Maybe three. You have to come with us. There’s a shipment from the freight depot . . .” A particularly loud crash of pots and pans and a volley of catcalls directed at the hapless potboy who had dropped them blotted out some of the rest; then the boys heard the Guard finish: “. . . poisoned meat.” “Risky.”
“Ask not what the good man can do for you—” the Guard began.
“But what you can do for him.” Hax sighed. “Soldier, ask not.”
“You know what it could mean,” the Guard said quietly.
“Yar. And I know my responsibilities to him; you don’t need to lecture me. I love him just as you do. Would foller him into the sea if he asked; so I would.”
“All right. The meat will be marked for short-term storage in your coldrooms. But you’ll have to be quick. You must understand that.”
“There are children in Taunton?” the cook asked. It was not really a question.
“Children everywhere,” the Guard said gently. “It’s the children we—and he—care about.”
“Poisoned meat. Such a strange way to care for children.” Hax uttered a heavy, whistling sigh. “Will they curdle and hold their bellies and cry for their mammas? I suppose they will.”
“It will be like going to sleep,” the Guard said, but his voice was too confidently reasonable.
“Of course,” Hax said, and laughed.
“You said it yourself. ‘Soldier, ask not.’ Do you enjoy seeing children under the rule of the gun, when they could be under his hands, ready to start making a new world?” Hax did not reply.
“I go on duty in twenty minutes,” the Guard said, his voice once more calm. “Give me a joint of mutton and I’ll pinch one of your girls and make her giggle. When I leave—”
“My mutton will give no cramps to your belly, Robeson.”
“Will you . . .” But the shadows moved away and the voices were lost.
I could have killed them, Roland thought, frozen and fascinated. I could have killed them both with my knife, slit their throats like hogs. He looked at his hands, now stained with gravy and berries as well as dirt from the day’s lessons.
He looked at Cuthbert. They looked at each other for a long moment in the fragrant semidarkness, and a taste of warm despair rose in Roland’s throat. What he felt might have been a sort of death—something as brutal and final as the death of the dove in the white sky over the games field. Hax? he thought, bewildered. Hax who put a poultice on my leg that time? Hax? And then his mind snapped closed, cutting the subject off.
What he saw, even in Cuthbert’s humorous, intelligent face, was nothing—nothing at all. Cuthbert’s eyes were flat with Hax’s doom. In Cuthbert’s eyes, it had already happened. He had fed them and they had gone understairs to eat and then Hax had brought the Guard named Robeson to the wrong corner of the kitchen for their treasonous little tete-a-tete. Ka had worked as ka sometimes did, as suddenly as a big stone rolling down a hillside. That was all.
Cuthbert’s eyes were gunslinger’s eyes. Roland’s father was only just back from the uplands, and he looked out of place amid the drapes and the chiffon fripperies of the main receiving hall to which the boy had only lately been granted access, as a sign of his apprenticeship.
Steven Deschain was dressed in black jeans and a blue work shirt. His cloak, dusty and streaked, torn to the lining in one place, was slung carelessly over his shoulder with no regard for the way it and he clashed with the elegance of the room. He was desperately thin and the heavy handlebar mustache below his nose seemed to weight his head as he looked down at his son. The guns crisscrossed over the wings of his hips hung at the perfect angle for his hands, the worn sandalwood grips looking dull and sleepy in this languid indoor light.
“The head cook,” his father said softly. “Imagine it! The tracks that were blown upland at the railhead. The dead stock in Hendrickson. And perhaps even . . . imagine! Imagine!”
He looked more closely at his son. “It preys on you.”
“Like the hawk,” Roland said. “It preys on you.” He laughed—at the startling appropriateness of the image rather than at any lightness in the situation.
His father smiled.
“Yes,” Roland said. “I guess it . . . it preys on me.”
“Cuthbert was with you,” his father said. “He will have told his father by now.”
“He fed both of you when Cort—”
“And Cuthbert. Does it prey on him, do you think?”
“I don’t know.” Nor did he care. He was not concerned with how his feelings compared with those of others.
“It preys on you because you feel you’ve caused a man’s death?”
Roland shrugged unwillingly, all at once not content with this probing of his motivations.
“Yet you told. Why?”
The boy’s eyes widened. “How could I not? Treason was—”
His father waved a hand curtly. “If you did it for something as cheap as a schoolbook idea, you did it unworthily. I would rather see all of Taunton poisoned.”
“I didn’t!” The words jerked out of him violently. “I wanted to kill him—both of them! Liars! Black liars! Snakes! They—”
“Go ahead.” “They hurt me,” he finished, defiant. “They changed something and it hurt. I wanted to kill them for it. I wanted to kill them right there.”
His father nodded. “That’s crude, Roland, but not unworthy. Not moral, either, but it is not your place to be moral. In fact . . .” He peered at his son. “Morals may always be beyond you. You are not quick, like Cuthbert or Vannay’s boy. That’s all right, though. It will make you formidable.”
The boy felt both pleased and troubled by this. “He’ll—”
“Oh, he’ll hang.”
The boy nodded. “I want to see it.”
The elder Deschain threw his head back and roared laughter. “Not as formidable as I thought . . . or perhaps just stupid.” He closed his mouth abruptly. An arm shot out and grabbed the boy’s upper arm painfully. Roland grimaced but didn’t flinch. His father peered at him steadily, and the boy looked back, although it was more difficult than hooding the hawk had been.
“All right,” he said, “thee may.” And turned abruptly to go.
“Do you know who they were talking about? Do you know who the good man is?”
His father turned back and looked at him speculatively. “Yes. I think I do.” “If you caught him,” Roland said in his thoughtful, near-plodding way, “no one else like Cook would have to be neck-popped.”
His father smiled thinly. “Perhaps not for a while. But in the end, someone always has to have his or her neck popped, as you so quaintly put it. The people demand it. Sooner or later, if there isn’t a turncoat, the people make one.”
“Yes,” Roland said, grasping the concept instantly—it was one he never forgot. “But if you got the good man—”
“No,” his father said flatly.
“Why not? Why wouldn’t that end it?”
For a moment his father seemed on the verge of saying why, but then shook his head. “We’ve talked enough for now, I think. Go out from me.”
He wanted to tell his father not to forget his promise when the time came for Hax to step through the trap, but he was sensitive to his father’s moods. He put his fist to his forehead, crossed one foot in front of the other, and bowed. Then he went out, closing the door quickly. He suspected that what his father wanted now was to fuck. He was aware that his mother and father did that, and he was reasonably well informed as to how it was done, but the mental picture that always condensed with the thought made him feel both uneasy and oddly guilty. Some years later, Susan would tell him the story of Oedipus, and he would absorb it in quiet thoughtfulness, thinking of the odd and bloody triangle formed by his father, his mother, and by Marten— known in some quarters as Farson, the good man. Or perhaps it was a quadrangle, if one wished to add himself.