Gallows Hill was on the Taunton Road, which was nicely poetic; Cuthbert might have appreciated this, but Roland did not. He did appreciate the splendidly ominous scaffold which climbed into the brilliantly blue sky, an angular silhouette which overhung the coach road.
The two boys had been let out of Morning Exercises—Cort had read the notes from their fathers laboriously, lips moving, nodding here and there. When he finished with them, he had carefully put the papers away in his pocket. Even here in Gilead, paper was easily as valuable as gold. When these two sheets of it were safe, he’d looked up at the blue-violet dawn sky and nodded again.
“Wait here,” he said, and went toward the leaning stone hut that served him as living quarters. He came back with a slice of rough, unleavened bread, broke it in two, and gave half to each.
“When it’s over, each of you will put this beneath his shoes. Mind you do exactly as I say or I’ll clout you into next week.”
They had not understood until they arrived, riding double on Cuthbert’s gelding. They were the first, fully two hours ahead of anyone else and four hours before the hanging, so Gallows Hill stood deserted—except for the rooks and ravens. The birds were everywhere. They roosted noisily on the hard, jutting bar that overhung the trap—the armature of death. They sat in a row along the edge of the platform, they jostled for position on the stairs.
“They leave the bodies,” Cuthbert muttered. “For the birds.”
“Let’s go up,” Roland said.
Cuthbert looked at him with something like horror. “Up there? Do you think—”
Roland cut him off with a gesture of his hands. “We’re years early. No one will come.”
They walked slowly toward the gibbet, and the birds took wing, cawing and circling like a mob of angry dispossessed peasants. Their bodies were flat black against the pure dawnlight of the In-World sky.
For the first time Roland felt the enormity of his responsibility in the matter; this wood was not noble, not part of the awesome machine of Civilization, but merely warped pine from the Forest o’ Barony, covered with splattered white bird droppings. It was splashed everywhere—stairs, railing, platform—and it stank.
The boy turned to Cuthbert with startled, terrified eyes and saw Cuthbert looking back at him with the same expression.
“I can’t,” Cuthbert whispered. “Ro’, I can’t watch it.”
Roland shook his head slowly. There was a lesson here, he realized, not a shining thing but something that was old and rusty and misshapen. It was why their fathers had let them come. And with his usual stubborn and inarticulate doggedness, Roland laid mental hands on whatever it was.
“You can, Bert.”
“I won’t sleep tonight if I do.”
“Then you won’t,” Roland said, not seeing what that had to do with it.
Cuthbert suddenly seized Roland’s hand and looked at him with such mute agony that Roland’s own doubt came back, and he wished sickly that they had never gone to the west kitchen that night. His father had been right. Better not to know. Better every man, woman, and child in Taunton dead and stinking than this.
But still. Still. Whatever the lesson was, rusty, whatever half-buried thing with sharp edges, he would not let it go or give up his grip on it.
“Let’s not go up,” Cuthbert said. “We’ve seen everything.”
And Roland nodded reluctantly, feeling his grip on that thing—whatever it was—weaken. Cort, he knew, would have knocked them both sprawling and then forced them up to the platform step by cursing step . . . and sniffing fresh blood back up their noses and down their throats like salty jam as they went. Cort would probably have looped new hemp over the yardarm itself and put the noose around each of their necks in turn, would have made them stand on the trap to feel it; and Cort would have been ready to strike them again if either wept or lost control of his bladder. And Cort, of course, would have been right. For the first time in his life, Roland found himself hating his own childhood. He wished for the long boots of age.
He deliberately pried a splinter from the railing and placed it in his breast pocket before turning away.
“Why did you do that?” Cuthbert asked.
He wished to answer something swaggering: Oh, the luck of the gallows . . . , but he only looked at Cuthbert and shook his head. “Just so I’ll have it,” he said. “Always have it.”
They walked away from the gallows, sat down, and waited. In an hour or so the first of the townfolk began to gather, mostly families who had come in broken-down wagons and beat-up buckas, carrying their breakfasts with them—hampers of cold pancakes folded over fillings of wild pokeberry jam. Roland felt his stomach growl hungrily and wondered again, with despair, where the honor and the nobility was. He had been taught of such things, and was now forced to wonder if they had been lies all along, or only treasures buried deep by the wise. He wanted to believe that, but it seemed to him that Hax in his dirty whites, walking around and around his steaming, subterranean kitchen and yelling at the potboys, had more honor than this. He fingered the splinter from the gallows tree with sick bewilderment. Cuthbert lay beside him with his face drawn impassive. In the end it wasn’t such of a much, and Roland was glad. Hax was carried in an open cart, but only his huge girth gave him away; he had been blindfolded with a wide black cloth that hung down over his face. A few threw stones, but most merely continued with their breakfasts as they watched.
A gunslinger whom the boy did not know well (he was glad his father had not drawn the black stone) led the fat cook carefully up the steps. Two Guards of the Watch had gone ahead and stood on either side of the trap. When Hax and the gunslinger reached the top, the gunslinger threw the noosed rope over the crosstree and then put it over the cook’s head, dropping the knot until it lay just below the left ear. The birds had all flown, but Roland knew they were waiting.
“Do you wish to make confession?” the gunslinger asked.
“I have nothing to confess,” Hax said. His words carried well, and his voice was oddly dignified in spite of the muffle of cloth which hung over his lips. The cloth ruffled slightly in the faint, pleasant breeze that had blown up. “I have not forgotten my father’s face; it has been with me through all.”
Roland glanced sharply at the crowd and was disturbed by what he saw there—a sense of sympathy? Perhaps admiration? He would ask his father. When traitors are called heroes (or heroes traitors, he supposed in his frowning way), dark times must have fallen. Dark times, indeed. He wished he understood better. His mind flashed to Cort and the bread Cort had given them. He felt contempt; the day was coming when Cort would serve him. Perhaps not Cuthbert; perhaps Bert would buckle under Cort’s steady fire and remain a page or a horseboy (or infinitely worse, a perfumed diplomat, dallying in receiving chambers or looking into bogus crystal balls with doddering kings and princes), but he would not. He knew it. He was for the open lands and long rides. That this seemed a good fate was something he would marvel over later, in his solitude.
“I’m here.” He took Cuthbert’s hand, and their fingers locked together like iron.
“Charge be capital murder and sedition,” the gunslinger said. “You have crossed the white, and I, Charles son of Charles, consign you ever to the black.”
The crowd murmured, some in protest.
“Tell your tale in the underworld, maggot,” said Charles of Charles, and yanked the lever with both yellow-gauntleted hands.
The trap dropped. Hax plummeted through, still trying to talk. Roland never forgot that. The cook went still trying to talk. And where did he finish the last sentence he would ever begin on earth? His words were ended by the sound an exploding pineknot makes on the hearth in the cold heart of a winter night.
But on the whole he thought it not so much. The cook’s legs kicked out once in a wide Y; the crowd made a satisfied whistling noise; the Guards of the Watch dropped their military pose and began to gather things up negligently. Charles son of Charles walked back down the steps slowly, mounted his horse, and rode off, cutting roughly through one gaggle of picnickers, quirting a few of the slowcoaches, making them scurry.
The crowd dispersed rapidly after that, and in forty minutes the two boys were left alone on the small hill they had chosen. The birds were returning to examine their new prize. One lit on Hax’s shoulder and sat there chummily, darting its beak at the bright and shiny hoop Hax had always worn in his right ear.
“It doesn’t look like him at all,” Cuthbert said.
“Oh yes, it does,” Roland said confidently as they walked toward the gallows, the bread in their hands. Bert looked abashed.
They paused beneath the crosstree, looking up at the dangling, twisting body. Cuthbert reached up and touched one hairy ankle, defiantly. The body started on a new, twisting arc.
Then, rapidly, they broke the bread and spread the rough chunks beneath the dangling feet. Roland looked back just once as they rode away. Now there were thousands of birds. The bread—he grasped this only dimly—was symbolic, then.
“It was good,” Cuthbert said suddenly. “It . . . I . . . I liked it. I did.”
Roland was not shocked by this, although he had not particularly cared for the scene. But he thought he could perhaps understand what Bert was saying. Perhaps he’d not finish as a diplomat after all, jokes and easy line of talk or not.
“I don’t know about that,” he said, “but it was something. It surely was.”
The land did not fall to the good man for another five years, and by that time Roland was a gunslinger, his father was dead, he himself had become a matricide—and the world had moved on.
The long years and long rides had begun.