The gunslinger began to climb, and after a moment Jake came after. Together they mounted the tumbled rock beside the steely-cold falls, and stood where the man in black had stood before them. And together they entered in where he had disappeared. The darkness swallowed them. The gunslinger spoke slowly to Jake in the rising and falling inflections of one who speaks in his sleep:
“There were three of us that night: Cuthbert, Alain, and me. We weren’t supposed to be there, because none of us had passed from the time of children. We were still in our clouts, as the saying went. If we’d been caught, Cort would have striped us bloody. But we weren’t. I don’t think any of the ones that went before us were caught, either. Boys must put on their fathers’ pants in private, strut them in front of the mirror, and then sneak them back on their hangers; it was like that. The father pretends he doesn’t notice the new way the pants are hung up, or the traces of boot-polish mustaches still under their noses. Do you see?”
The boy said nothing. He’d said nothing since they had passed from the daylight. The gunslinger, on the other hand, had talked hectically, feverishly, to fill the silence. He had not looked back at the light as they passed into the land beneath the mountains, but the boy had. The gunslinger had read the failing of day in the soft mirror of Jake’s cheek: now faint rose, now milk-glass, now pallid silver, now the last dusk-glow touch of evening, now nothing. The gunslinger had struck a false light and they had gone on.
Finally they camped. No echo from the man in black returned to them. Perhaps he had stopped to rest, too. Or perhaps he floated onward and without running lights, through nighted chambers.
“The Sowing Night Cotillion—the Commala, some of the older folk called it, after the word for rice—was held once a year in the Great Hall,” the gunslinger went on. “The proper name was The Hall of Grandfathers, but to us it was only the Great Hall.”
The sound of dripping water came to their ears.
“A courting rite, as any spring dance surely is.” The gunslinger laughed deprecatingly; the insensate walls turned the sound into a loon-like wheeze. “In the old days, the books say, it was the welcoming of spring, what was sometimes called New Earth or Fresh Commala. But civilization, you know . . .”
He trailed off, unable to describe the change inherent in that featureless noun, the death of romance and the lingering of its sterile, carnal revenant, a world living on the forced respiration of glitter and ceremony; the geometric steps of make-believe courtship during the Sowing Night Cotil’ that had replaced the truer, madder, scribble-scrabble of love which he could only intuit dimly; hollow grandeur in place of true passions which might once have built kingdoms and sustained them. He found the truth with Susan Delgado in Mejis, only to lose it again. Once there was a king, he might have told the boy; the Eld whose blood, attenuated though it may be, still flows in my veins. But kings are done, lad. In the world of light, anyway. “They made something decadent out of it,” the gunslinger said at last. “A play. A game.” In his voice was all the unconscious distaste of the ascetic and the eremite. His face, had there been stronger light to illumine it, would have shown harshness and sorrow, the purest kind of condemnation. His essential force had not been cut or diluted by the passage of years. The lack of imagination that still remained in that face was remarkable.
“But the Ball,” the gunslinger said. “The Sowing Night Cotil’ . . .”
The boy did not speak, did not ask.
“There were crystal chandeliers, heavy glass with electric spark-lights. It was all light, it was an island of light.
“We sneaked into one of the old balconies, the ones that were supposed to be unsafe and roped off. But we were boys, and boys will be boys, so they will. To us everything was dangerous, but what of that? Had we not been made to live forever? We thought so, even when we spoke to each other of our glorious deaths.
“We were above everyone and could look down on everything. I don’t remember that any of us said anything. We only drank it up with our eyes.
“There was a great stone table where the gunslingers and their women sat at meat, watching the dancers. A few of the gunslingers also danced, but only a few. And they were the young ones. The one who sprang the trap on Hax was one of the dancers, I seem to recall. The elders only sat, and it seemed to me they were half embarrassed in all that light, all that civilized light. They were revered ones, the feared ones, the guardians, but they seemed like hostlers in that crowd of cavaliers with their soft women . . .
“There were four circular tables loaded with food, and they turned all the time. The cooks’ boys never stopped coming and going from seven until three o’ the clock the next morning. The tables were like clocks, and we could smell roast pork, beef, lobster, chickens, baked apples. The odors changed as the tables turned. There were ices and candies. There were great flaming skewers of meat.
“Marten sat next to my mother and father—I knew them even from so high above—and once she and Marten danced, slowly and revolvingly, and the others cleared the floor for them and clapped when it was over. The gunslingers did not clap, but my father stood slowly and held his hands out to her. And she went to him, smiling, holding out her own.
“It was a moment of enormous gravity, even we felt it in our high hiding place. My father had by then taken control of his ka-tet, you must ken—the Tet of the Gun—and was on the verge of becoming Dinh of Gilead, if not all In-World. The rest knew it. Marten knew it better than any . . . except, perhaps, for Gabrielle Verriss that was.”
The boy spoke at last, and with seeming reluctance. “She was your mother?”
“Aye. Gabrielle-of-the-Waters, daughter of Alan, wife of Steven, mother of Roland.” The gunslinger spread his hands apart in a mocking little gesture that seemed to say Here I am, and what of it? Then he dropped them into his lap again.
“My father was the last lord of light.”
The gunslinger looked down at his hands. The boy said nothing more.
“I remember how they danced,” the gunslinger said. “My mother and Marten, the gunslingers’ counselor. I remember how they danced, revolving slowly together and apart, in the old steps of courtship.”
He looked at the boy, smiling. “But it meant nothing, you know. Because power had been passed in some way that none of them knew but all understood, and my mother was grown root and branch to the holder and wielder of that power. Was it not so? She went to him when the dance was over, didn’t she? And clasped his hands. Did they applaud? Did the hall ring with it as those pretty boys and their soft ladies applauded and lauded him? Did it? Did it?”
Bitter water dripped distantly in the darkness. The boy said nothing.
“I remember how they danced,” the gunslinger said softly. “I remember how they danced.” He looked up at the unseeable stone roof and it seemed for a moment that he might scream at it, rail at it, challenge it blindly—those blind and tongueless tonnages of granite that now bore their tiny lives like microbes in its stone intestine.
“What hand could have held the knife that did my father to his death?”
“I’m tired,” the boy said, and then again said no more.
The gunslinger lapsed into silence, and the boy laid over and put one hand between his cheek and the stone. The little flame in front of them guttered. The gunslinger rolled a smoke. It seemed he could see the crystal light still, in the eye of his memory; hear the shout of accolade, empty in a husked land that stood even then hopeless against a gray ocean of time. Remembering that island of light hurt him bitterly, and he wished he had never held witness to it, or to his father’s cuckoldry.
He passed smoke between his mouth and nostrils, looking down at the boy. How we make large circles in earth for ourselves, he thought. Around we go, back to the start and the start is there again: resumption, which was ever the curse of daylight.
How long before we see daylight again?
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 of sickness and 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 the passage under the mountains, which was lightless. Neither of them had any means of telling the clock, and the concept of hours became meaningless, abnegate. 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 thin meals that did not satisfy their bellies. Their only companion was a steady thundering rush of the water, drilling its auger path through the stone. They followed it and drank from its flat, mineral-salted depth, hoping there was nothing in it that would make them sick or kill them. 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 stagehorses had been 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 conversations of rattled pebbles as Jake 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 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 Roland 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. They had discovered one could grow as hungry for light as for food.
The boy was standing beside a curved rock wall that was lined with parallel metal staves running off into the darkness. Each carried black nodes 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 sleek electric bullets, firing their courses through this forever night with affrighted searchlight eyes going before. He had never heard of such things, but there were many remnants of the gone world, just as there were demons. The gunslinger had once come upon a hermit who’d 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 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 slaughter of sheep and the sound of engines: Rumm! Rummm! Rum-rum-rummmmm!
Hulks, the gunslinger thought. Only meaningless hulks poking from 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 Roland 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, Roland leading, Jake 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, angry, 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 plate of metal that sat mutely on the tracks. There was a seesaw handle in the center of the square. It descended into a connection of cogs. The gunslinger had no immediate sense of the thing’s purpose, but the boy grasped it at once.
“It’s a handcar.”
“Handcar,” the boy said impatiently, “like in the old cartoons. Look.”
He pulled himself up and went to the handle. He managed to push it down, but it took all his weight hung over the handle to turn the trick. The handcar moved a foot, with silent timelessness, on the rails.
“Good!” said a faint mechanical voice. It made them both jump. “Good, push ag . . .” The mechanical voice died out.
“It works a little hard,” the boy said, as if apologizing for the thing.
The gunslinger pulled himself up beside Jake and shoved the handle down. The handcar moved forward obediently, then stopped. “Good, push again!” the mechanical voice encouraged.
He had felt a driveshaft turn beneath his feet. The operation pleased him, and so did the mechanical voice (although he intended to listen to that no longer than necessary). Other than the pump at the way station, this was the first machine he’d seen in years that still worked well. But the thing disquieted him, too. It would take them to their destination that much the quicker. He had no doubt whatever that the man in black had meant for them to find this, too.
“Neat, huh?” the boy said, and his voice was full of loathing. The silence was deep. Roland could hear his organs at work inside his body, and the drip of water, and nothing else.
“You stand on one side, I stand on the other,” 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 or so after the Sowing Night Cotillion. By then it had been nothing but shattered shards in the wake of revolt, civil strife, and invasion. This image was followed by one of Allie, the scarred woman from Tull, pushed and pulled by bullets that were killing her for no reason at all . . . unless reflex was a reason. Next came Cuthbert Allgood’s face, laughing as he went downhill to his death, still blowing that gods-damned horn . . . and then he saw Susan’s face, twisted, made ugly with weeping. All my old friends, the gunslinger thought, and smiled hideously.
“I’ll push,” the gunslinger said.
He began to push, and when the voice began to speak (“Good, push again! Good, push again!”) he sent his hand fumbling along the post upon which the seesaw handle had been balanced. At last he found what he was surely looking for: a button. He pushed it.
“Goodbye, pal!” the mechanical voice said cheerily, and was then blessedly silent for some hours.