They rolled on through the dark, faster now, no longer having to feel their way. The mechanical voice spoke up once, suggesting they eat Crisp-A-La, and again to say that nothing satisfied at the end of a hard day like Larchies. Following this second piece of advice, it spoke no more.
Once the awkwardness of a buried age had been run off the handcar, it went smoothly. The boy tried to do his share, and the gunslinger allowed him small shifts, but mostly he pumped by himself, in large and chest-stretching risings and fallings. The underground river was their companion, sometimes closer on their right, sometimes further away. Once it took on huge and thunderous hollowness, as if passing through some great cathedral narthex. Once the sound of it disappeared almost altogether.
The speed and the made wind against their faces seemed to take the place of sight and to drop them once again into a frame of time. The gunslinger estimated they were making anywhere from ten to fifteen miles an hour, always on a shallow, almost imperceptible uphill grade that wore him out deceptively. When they stopped he slept like the stone itself. Their food was almost gone again. Neither of them worried about it.
For the gunslinger, the tenseness of a coming climax was as imperceivable but as real (and accretive) as the fatigue of propelling the handcar. They were close to the end of the beginning . . . or at least he was. He felt like a performer placed on center stage minutes before the rise of the curtain; settled in position with his first line held securely in his mind, he heard the unseen audience rattling programs and settling in their seats. He lived with a tight, tidy ball of unholy anticipation in his belly and welcomed the exercise that let him sleep. And when he did sleep, it was like the dead.
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?”
“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.
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 telling 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.