The sun climbed to its zenith, seemed to hang there more briefly than it ever had during the desert crossing, and then passed on, returning them their shadows. Shelves of rock protruded from the rising land like the arms of giant easy-chairs buried in the earth. The scrub grass turned yellow and sere. Finally they were faced with a deep, chimney-like crevasse in their path and they scaled a short, peeling rise of rock to get around and above it. The ancient granite had faulted on lines that were step-like, and as they had both intuited, the beginning of their climb, at least, was easy. They paused on the four-foot-wide scarp at the top and looked back over the land to the desert, which curled around the upland like a huge yellow paw. Further off it gleamed at them in a white shield that dazzled the eye, receding into dim waves of rising heat. The gunslinger felt faintly amazed at the realization that this desert had nearly murdered him. From where they stood, in a new coolness, the desert certainly appeared momentous, but not deadly.
They turned back to the business of the climb, scrambling over jackstraw falls of rock and crouch-walking up inclined planes of stone shot with glitters of quartz and mica. The rock was pleasantly warm to the touch, but the air was definitely cooler. In the late afternoon the gunslinger heard the faint sound of thunder. The rising line of the mountains obscured the sight of the rain on the other side, however.
When the shadows began to turn purple, they camped in the overhang of a jutting brow of rock. The gunslinger anchored their blanket above and below, fashioning a kind of shanty lean-to. They sat at the mouth of it, watching the sky spread a cloak over the world. Jake dangled his feet over the drop. The gunslinger rolled his evening smoke and eyed Jake half humorously. “Don’t roll over in your sleep,” he said, “or you may wake up in hell.”
“I won’t,” Jake replied seriously. “My mother says—” He broke it off.
“She says what?”
“That I sleep like a dead man,” Jake finished. He looked at the gunslinger, who saw that the boy’s mouth was trembling as he strove to keep back tears—only a boy, he thought, and pain smote him, the icepick that too much cold water can sometimes plant in the forehead. Only a boy. Why? Silly question. When a boy, wounded in body or spirit, called that question out to Cort, that ancient, scarred battle-engine whose job it was to teach the sons of gunslingers the beginning of what they had to know, Cort would answer: Why is a crooked letter and can’t be made straight . . . never mind why, just get up, pus-head! Get up! The day’s young!
“Why am I here?” Jake asked. “Why did I forget everything from before?”
“Because the man in black has drawn you here,” the gunslinger said. “And because of the Tower. The Tower stands at a kind of . . . power-nexus. In time.”
“I don’t understand that!” “Nor do I,” the gunslinger said. “But something has been happening. Just in my own time. ‘The world has moved on,’ we say . . . we’ve always said. But it’s moving on faster now. Something has happened to time. It’s softening.”
They sat in silence. A breeze, faint but with an edge, picked at their legs. Somewhere it made a hollow whooooo in a rock fissure.
“Where do you come from?” Jake asked.
“From a place that no longer exists. Do you know the Bible?”
“Jesus and Moses. Sure.”
The gunslinger smiled. “That’s right. My land had a Biblical name—New Canaan, it was called. The land of milk and honey. In the Bible’s Canaan, there were supposed to be grapes so big that men had to carry them on sledges. We didn’t grow them that big, but it was sweet land.”
“I know about Ulysses,” Jake said hesitantly. “Was he in the Bible?”
“Maybe,” the gunslinger said. “I was never a scholar of it, and can’t say for sure.”
“But the others . . . your friends—”
“No others,” the gunslinger said. “I’m the last.”
A tiny wasted moon began to rise, casting its slitted gaze down into the tumble of rocks where they sat.
“Was it pretty? Your country . . . your land?” “It was beautiful,” the gunslinger said. “There were fields and forests and rivers and mists in the morning. But that’s only pretty. My mother used to say that the only real beauty is order and love and light.”
Jake made a noncommittal noise.
The gunslinger smoked and thought of how it had been—the nights in the huge central hall, hundreds of richly clad figures moving through the slow, steady waltz steps or the faster, light ripples of the pol-kam, Aileen Ritter on his arm, the one his parents had chosen for him, he supposed, her eyes brighter than the most precious gems, the light of the crystal-enclosed spark-lights shining in the newly done hair of the courtesans and their half-cynical amours. The hall had been huge, an island of light whose age was beyond telling, as was the whole Central Place, which was made up of nearly a hundred stone castles. It had been unknown years since he had seen it, and leaving for the last time, Roland had ached as he turned his face away from it and began his first cast for the trail of the man in black. Even then the walls had fallen, weeds grew in the courtyards, bats roosted amongst the great beams of the central hall, and the galleries echoed with the soft swoop and whisper of swallows. The fields where Cort had taught them archery and gunnery and falconry were gone to hay and timothy and wild vines. In the huge kitchen where Hax had once held his fuming and aromatic court, a grotesque colony of Slow Mutants nested, peering at him from the merciful darkness of pantries and shadowed pillars. The warm steam that had been filled with the pungent odors of roasting beef and pork had changed to the clammy damp of moss. Giant white toadstools grew in corners where not even the Slow Muties dared to encamp. The huge oak subcellar bulkhead stood open, and the most poignant smell of all had issued from that, an odor that seemed to express with a flat finality all the hard facts of dissolution and decay: the high sharp odor of wine gone to vinegar. It had been no struggle to turn his face to the south and leave it behind—but it had hurt his heart.
“Was there a war?” Jake asked.
“Even better,” the gunslinger said and pitched the last smoldering ember of his cigarette away. “There was a revolution. We won every battle, and lost the war. No one won the war, unless maybe it was the scavengers. There must have been rich pickings for years after.”
“I wish I’d lived there,” Jake said wistfully.
“Do you say so?”
“Time to turn in, Jake.”
The boy, now only a dim shadow, turned on his side and curled up with the blanket tossed loosely over him. The gunslinger sat sentinel over him for perhaps an hour after, thinking his long, sober thoughts. Such meditation was a novel thing for him, sweet in a melancholy sort of way, but still utterly without practical value: there was no solution to the problem of Jake other than the one the Oracle had offered—and turning away was simply not possible. There might have been tragedy in the situation, but the gunslinger did not see that; he saw only the predestination that had always been there. And finally, his more natural character reasserted itself and he slept deeply, with no dreams. The climb became grimmer on the following day as they continued to angle toward the narrow V of the pass through the mountains. The gunslinger pushed slowly, still with no sense of hurry. The dead stone beneath their feet left no trace of the man in black, but the gunslinger knew he had been this way before them—and not only from the path of his climb as he and Jake had observed him, tiny and bug-like, from the foothills. His aroma was printed on every cold down-draft of air. It was an oily, sardonic odor, as bitter to the nose as the stench of the devil-grass.
Jake’s hair had grown much longer, and it curled slightly at the base of his sunburned neck. He climbed tough, moving with sure-footedness and no apparent acrophobia as they crossed gaps or scaled their way up ledged facings. Twice already he’d gone up in places the gunslinger could not have managed, and anchored one of the ropes so the gunslinger could climb up hand over hand.
The following morning they climbed through a coldly damp snatch of cloud that blotted out the tumbled slopes below them. Patches of hard, granulated snow began to appear nestled in some of the deeper pockets of stone. It glittered like quartz and its texture was as dry as sand. That afternoon they found a single footprint in one of these snowpatches. Jake stared at it for a moment with awful fascination, then looked up frightfully, as if expecting to see the man in black materialize into his own footprint. The gunslinger tapped him on the shoulder then and pointed ahead. “Go. The day’s getting old.”
Later, they made camp in the last of the daylight on a wide, flat ledge to the east and north of the cut that slanted into the heart of the mountains. The air was frigid; they could see the puffs of their breath, and the humid sound of thunder in the red-and-purple afterglow of the day was surreal, slightly lunatic.
The gunslinger thought the boy might begin to question him, but there were no questions from Jake. The boy fell almost immediately into sleep. The gunslinger followed his example. He dreamed again of Jake as an alabaster saint with a nail through his forehead. He awoke with a gasp, tasting the cold thinness of altitude in his lungs. Jake was asleep beside him, but his sleep was not easy; he twisted and mumbled to himself, chasing his own phantoms. The gunslinger lay over uneasily, and slept again. A week after Jake saw the footstep, they faced the man in black for a brief moment in time. In that moment, the gunslinger felt he could almost understand the implication of the Tower itself, for that moment seemed to stretch out forever.
They continued southeast, reaching a point perhaps halfway through the cyclopean mountain range, and just as the going seemed about to become really difficult for the first time (above them, seeming to lean out, the icy ledges and screaming buttes made the gunslinger feel an unpleasant reverse vertigo), they began to descend again along the side of the narrow pass. An angular zigzagging path led them toward a canyon floor where an ice-edged stream boiled with slatey, headlong power from higher country still.
On that afternoon the boy paused and looked back at the gunslinger, who had paused to wash his face in the stream.
“I smell him,” Jake said.
“So do I.”
Ahead of them the mountain threw up its final defense—a huge slab of insurmountable granite facing that climbed into cloudy infinity. At any moment the gunslinger expected a twist in the stream to bring them upon a high waterfall and the insurmountable smoothness of rock—dead end. But the air here had that odd magnifying quality that is common to high places, and it was another day before they reached that great granite face.
The gunslinger began to feel the tug of anticipation again, the feeling that it was all finally in his grasp. He’d been through this before—many times—and still he had to fight himself to keep from breaking into an eager trot.
“Wait!” The boy had stopped suddenly. They faced a sharp elbow-bend in the stream; it boiled and frothed around the eroded hang of a giant sandstone boulder. All that morning they had been in the shadow of the mountains as the canyon narrowed.
Jake was trembling violently and his face had gone pale.
“What’s the matter?”
“Let’s go back,” Jake whispered. “Let’s go back quick.”
The gunslinger’s face was wooden.
“Please?” The boy’s face was drawn, and his jawline shook with suppressed agony. Through the heavy blanket of stone they still heard thunder, as steady as machines in the earth. The slice of sky they could see had itself assumed a turbulent, gothic gray above them as warm and cold currents met and warred.
“Please, please!” The boy raised a fist, as if to strike the gunslinger’s chest.
The boy’s face took on wonder. “You’re going to kill me. He killed me the first time and you’re going to kill me this time. And I think you know it.”
The gunslinger felt the lie on his lips, then spoke it: “You’ll be all right.” And a greater lie yet. “I’ll take care.”
Jake’s face went gray, and he said no more. He put an unwilling hand out, and he and the gunslinger went around the elbow-bend that way, hand in hand. On the other side they came face-to-face with that final rising wall and the man in black. He stood no more than twenty feet above them, just to the right of the waterfall that crashed and spilled from a huge ragged hole in the rock. Unseen wind rippled and tugged at his hooded robe. He held a staff in one hand. The other hand he held out to them in a mocking gesture of welcome. He seemed a prophet, and below that rushing sky, mounted on a ledge of rock, a prophet of doom, his voice the voice of Jeremiah.
“Gunslinger! How well you fulfill the prophecies of old! Good day and good day and good day!” He laughed and bowed, the sound echoing over the bellow of the falling water.
Without a thought the gunslinger had drawn his pistols. The boy cowered to his right and behind, a small shadow.
Roland fired three times before he could gain control of his traitor hands—the echoes bounced their bronze tones against the rock valley that rose around them, over the sound of the wind and water.
A spray of granite puffed over the head of the man in black; a second to the left of his hood; a third to the right. He had missed cleanly all three times.
The man in black laughed—a full, hearty laugh that seemed to challenge the receding echo of gunshots. “Would you kill all your answers so easily, gunslinger?”
“Come down,” the gunslinger said. “Do that I beg ya, and we’ll have answers all around.”
Again that huge, derisive laugh. “It’s not your bullets I fear, Roland. It’s your idea of answers that scares me.” “Come down.”
“We’ll speak on the other side, I think,” the man in black said. “On the other side we will hold much council and long palaver.”
His eyes flicked to Jake and he added:
“Just the two of us.”
Jake flinched away from him with a small, whining cry, and the man in black turned, his robe swirling in the gray air like a batwing. He disappeared into the cleft in the rock from which the water spewed at full force. The gunslinger exercised grim will and did not send a bullet after him—would you kill all your answers so easily, gunslinger?
There was only the sound of wind and water, a sound that had been in this place of desolation for a thousand years. Yet the man in black had stood there. Twelve years after his last glimpse, Roland had seen him close-up again, had spoken to him. And the man in black had laughed.
On the other side we will hold much council and long palaver.
The boy looked up at him, his body trembling. For a moment the gunslinger saw the face of Allie, the girl from Tull, superimposed over Jake’s, the scar standing out on her forehead like a mute accusation, and felt brute loathing for them both (it wouldn’t occur to him until much later that both the scar on Alice’s forehead and the nail he saw spiked through Jake’s forehead in his dreams were in the same place). Jake perhaps caught a whiff of his thought; a moan slipped from his throat. Then he twisted his lips and cut the sound off. He held the makings of a fine man, perhaps a gunslinger in his own right if given time.
Just the two of us.
The gunslinger felt a great and unholy thirst in some deep unknown pit of his body, one no draft of water or wine could touch. Worlds trembled, almost within reach of his fingers, and in some instinctual way he strove not to be corrupted, knowing in his colder mind that such strife was vain and always would be. In the end there was only ka.
It was noon. He looked up, letting the cloudy, unsettled daylight shine for the last time on the all-too-vulnerable sun of his own righteousness. No one ever really pays for betrayal in silver, he thought. The price of any betrayal always comes due in flesh.
“Come with me or stay,” the gunslinger said.
The boy responded to this with a hard and humorless grin—his father’s grin, had he but known it. “And I’ll be fine if I stay,” he said. “Fine all by myself, here in the mountains. Someone will come and save me. They’ll have cake and sandwiches. Coffee in a Thermos, too. Do you say so?”
“Come with me or stay,” the gunslinger repeated, and felt something happen in his mind. An uncoupling. That was the moment at which the small figure before him ceased to be Jake and became only the boy, an impersonality to be moved and used.
Something screamed in the windy stillness; he and the boy both heard.