Jamie had come from the shops, and when he saw the boy crossing the exercise yard, he ran to tell Roland the latest gossip of bloodshed and revolt to the west. But he fell aside, the words all unspoken. They had known each other since the time of infancy, and as boys they had dared each other, cuffed each other, and made a thousand explorations of the walls within which they had both been birthed.
The boy strode past him, staring without seeing, grinning his painful grin. He was walking toward Cort’s cottage, where the shades were drawn to ward off the savage afternoon heat. Cort napped in the afternoon so that he could enjoy to the fullest extent his evening tomcat forays into the mazed and filthy brothels of the lower town.
Jamie knew in a flash of intuition, knew what was to come, and in his fear and ecstasy he was torn between following Roland and going after the others.
Then his hypnotism was broken and he ran toward the main buildings, screaming, “Cuthbert! Alain! Thomas!” His screams sounded puny and thin in the heat. They had known, all of them, in that intuitive way boys have, that Roland would be the first of them to try the line. But this was too soon.
The hideous grin on Roland’s face galvanized him as no news of wars, revolts, and witchcrafts could have done. This was more than words from a toothless mouth given over fly-specked heads of lettuce.
Roland walked to the cottage of his teacher and kicked the door open. It slammed backward, hit the plain rough plaster of the wall, and rebounded.
He had never been inside before. The entrance opened on an austere kitchen that was cool and brown. A table. Two straight chairs. Two cabinets. A faded linoleum floor, tracked in black paths from the cooler set in the floor to the counter where knives hung, and to the table.
Here was a public man’s privacy. The faded refuge of a violent midnight carouser who had loved the boys of three generations roughly, and made some of them into gunslingers.
He kicked the table, sending it across the room and into the counter. Knives from the wall rack fell in twinkling jackstraws.
There was a thick stirring in the other room, a half-sleep clearing of the throat. The boy did not enter, knowing it was sham, knowing that Cort had awakened immediately in the cottage’s other room and stood with one glittering eye beside the door, waiting to break the intruder’s unwary neck.
“Cort, I want you, bondsman!”
Now he spoke the High Speech, and Cort swung the door open. He was dressed in thin underwear shorts, a squat man with bow legs, runneled with scars from top to toe, thick with twists of muscle. There was a round, bulging belly. The boy knew from experience that it was spring steel. The one good eye glared at him from the bashed and dented hairless head.
The boy saluted formally. “Teach me no more, bondsman. Today I teach you.”
“You are early, puler,” Cort said casually, but he also spoke the High Speech. “Two years early at the very best, I should judge. I will ask only once. Will you cry off?”
The boy only smiled his hideous, painful smile. For Cort, who had seen the smile on a score of bloodied, scarlet-skied fields of honor and dishonor, it was answer enough—perhaps the only answer he would have believed.
“It’s too bad,” the teacher said absently. “You have been a most promising pupil—the best in two dozen years, I should say. It will be sad to see you broken and set upon a blind path. But the world has moved on. Bad times are on horseback.”
The boy still did not speak (and would have been incapable of any coherent explanation, had it been required), but for the first time the awful smile softened a little.
“Still, there is the line of blood,” Cort said, “revolt and witchcraft to the west or no. I am your bondsman, boy. I recognize your command and bow to it now—if never again—with all my heart.”
And Cort, who had cuffed him, kicked him, bled him, cursed him, made mock of him, and called him the very eye of syphilis, bent to one knee and bowed his head.
The boy touched the leathery, vulnerable flesh of his neck with wonder. “Rise, bondsman. In love.”
Cort stood slowly, and there might have been pain behind the impassive mask of his reamed features. “This is waste. Cry off, you foolish boy. I break my own oath. Cry off and wait.”
The boy said nothing.
“Very well; if you say so, let it be so.” Cort’s voice became dry and business-like. “One hour. And the weapon of your choice.”
“You will bring your stick?”
“I always have.”
“How many sticks have been taken from you, Cort?” Which was tantamount to asking: How many boys have entered the square yard beyond the Great Hall and returned as gunslinger apprentices?
“No stick will be taken from me today,” Cort said slowly. “I regret it. There is only the once, boy. The penalty for overeagerness is the same as the penalty for unworthiness. Can you not wait?”
The boy recalled Marten standing over him. The smile. And the sound of the blow from behind the closed door. “No.”
“Very well. What weapon do you choose?”
The boy said nothing. Cort’s smile showed a jagged ring of teeth. “Wise enough to begin. In an hour. You realize you will in all probability never see your father, your mother, or your ka-babbies again?”
“I know what exile means,” Roland said softly.
“Go now, and meditate on your father’s face. Much good will it do ya.”
The boy went, without looking back. The cellar of the barn was spuriously cool, dank, smelling of cobwebs and earthwater. The sun lit it in dusty rays from narrow windows, but here was none of the day’s heat. The boy kept the hawk here and the bird seemed comfortable enough.
David no longer hunted the sky. His feathers had lost the radiant animal brightness of three years ago, but the eyes were still as piercing and motionless as ever. You cannot friend a hawk, they said, unless you are half a hawk yourself, alone and only a sojourner in the land, without friends or the need of them. The hawk pays no coinage to love or morals.
David was an old hawk now. The boy hoped that he himself was a young one.
“Hai,” he said softly and extended his arm to the tethered perch.
The hawk stepped onto the boy’s arm and stood motionless, unhooded. With his other hand the boy reached into his pocket and fished out a bit of dried jerky. The hawk snapped it deftly from between his fingers and made it disappear.
The boy began to stroke David very carefully. Cort most probably would not have believed it if he had seen it, but Cort did not believe the boy’s time had come, either.
“I think you die today,” he said, continuing to stroke. “I think you will be made a sacrifice, like all those little birds we trained you on. Do you remember? No? It doesn’t matter. After today I am the hawk and each year on this day I’ll shoot the sky in your memory.”
David stood on his arm, silent and unblinking, indifferent to his life or death.
“You are old,” the boy said reflectively. “And perhaps not my friend. Even a year ago you would have had my eyes instead of that little string of meat, isn’t it so? Cort would laugh. But if we get close enough . . . close enough to that chary man . . . if he don’t suspect . . . which will it be, David? Age or friendship?”
David did not say.
The boy hooded him and found the jesses, which were looped at the end of David’s perch. They left the barn. The yard behind the Great Hall was not really a yard at all, but only a green corridor whose walls were formed by tangled, thick-grown hedges. It had been used for the rite of coming of age since time out of mind, long before Cort and his predecessor, Mark, who had died of a stab-wound from an overzealous hand in this place. Many boys had left the corridor from the east end, where the teacher always entered, as men. The east end faced the Great Hall and all the civilization and intrigue of the lighted world. Many more had slunk away, beaten and bloody, from the west end, where the boys always entered, as boys forever. The west end faced the farms and the hut-dwellers beyond the farms; beyond that, the tangled barbarian forests; beyond that, Garlan; and beyond Garlan, the Mohaine Desert. The boy who became a man progressed from darkness and unlearning to light and responsibility. The boy who was beaten could only retreat, forever and forever. The hallway was as smooth and green as a gaming field. It was exactly fifty yards long. In the middle was a swatch of shaven earth. This was the line.
Each end was usually clogged with tense spectators and relatives, for the ritual was usually forecast with great accuracy—eighteen was the most common age (those who had not made their test by the age of twenty-five usually slipped into obscurity as freeholders, unable to face the brutal all-or-nothing fact of the field and the test). But on this day there were none but Jamie DeCurry, Cuthbert Allgood, Alain Johns, and Thomas Whitman. They clustered at the boy’s end, gape-mouthed and frankly terrified.
“Your weapon, stupid!” Cuthbert hissed, in agony. “You forgot your weapon!”
“I have it,” the boy said. Dimly he wondered if the news of this lunacy had reached yet to the central buildings, to his mother—and to Marten. His father was on a hunt, not due back for days. In this he felt a sense of shame, for he felt that in his father he would have found understanding, if not approval. “Has Cort come?”
“Cort is here.” The voice came from the far end of the corridor, and Cort stepped into view, dressed in a short singlet. A heavy leather band encircled his forehead to keep sweat from his eyes. He wore a dirty girdle to hold his back straight. He held an ironwood stick in one hand, sharp on one end, heavily blunted and spatulate on the other. He began the litany which all of them, chosen by the blind blood of their fathers all the way back to the Eld, had known since early childhood, learned against the day when they would, perchance, become men.
“Have you come here for a serious purpose, boy?”
“I have come for a serious purpose.”
“Have you come as an outcast from your father’s house?”
“I have so come.” And would remain outcast until he had bested Cort. If Cort bested him, he would remain outcast forever.
“Have you come with your chosen weapon?”
“What is your weapon?” This was the teacher’s advantage, his chance to adjust his plan of battle to the sling or spear or bah or bow.“My weapon is David.”
Cort halted only briefly. He was surprised, and very likely confused. That was good.
Might be good.
“So then have you at me, boy?”
“In whose name?”
“In the name of my father.”
“Say his name.”
“Steven Deschain, of the line of Eld.”
“Be swift, then.”
And Cort advanced into the corridor, switching his stick from one hand to the other. The boys sighed flutteringly, like birds, as their dan-dinh stepped to meet him.
My weapon is David, teacher.
Did Cort understand? And if so, did he understand fully? If he did, very likely all was lost. It turned on surprise—and on whatever stuff the hawk had left in him. Would he only sit, disinterested and stupid, on the boy’s arm, while Cort struck him brainless with the ironwood? Or seek escape in the high, hot sky?
As they drew close together, each for the nonce still on his side of the line, the boy loosened the hawk’s hood with nerveless fingers. It dropped to the green grass, and Cort halted in his tracks. He saw the old warrior’s eyes drop to the bird and widen with surprise and slow-dawning comprehension. Now he understood.
“Oh, you little fool,” Cort nearly groaned, and Roland was suddenly furious that he should be spoken to so.
“At him!” he cried, raising his arm.
And David flew like a silent brown bullet, stubby wings pumping once, twice, three times, before crashing into Cort’s face, talons searching, beak digging. Red drops flew up into the hot air.
“Hai! Roland!” Cuthbert screamed deliriously. “First blood! First blood to my bosom!” He struck his chest hard enough to leave a bruise there that would not fade for a week.
Cort staggered backwards, off balance. The ironwood staff rose and beat futilely at the air about his head. The hawk was an undulating, blurred bundle of feathers.
The boy, meanwhile, arrowed forward, his hand held out in a straight wedge, his elbow locked. This was his chance, and very likely the only one he’d have.
Still, Cort was almost too quick for him. The bird had covered ninety percent of his vision, but the ironwood came up again, spatulate end forward, and Cort cold-bloodly performed the only action that could turn events at that point. He beat his own face three times, biceps flexing mercilessly.
David fell away, broken and twisted. One wing flapped frantically at the ground. His cold, predator’s eyes stared fiercely into the teacher’s bloody, streaming face. Cort’s bad eye now bulged blindly from its socket. The boy delivered a kick to Cort’s temple, connecting solidly. It should have ended it, but it did not. For a moment Cort’s face went slack; and then he lunged, grabbing for the boy’s foot.
The boy skipped back and tripped over his own feet. He went down asprawl. He heard, from far away, the sound of Jamie screaming in dismay.
Cort was ready to fall on him and finish it. Roland had lost his advantage and both of them knew it. For a moment they looked at each other, the teacher standing over the pupil with gouts of blood pouring from the left side of his face, the bad eye now closed except for a thin slit of white. There would be no brothels for Cort this night.
Something ripped jaggedly at the boy’s hand. It was David, tearing blindly at whatever he could reach. Both wings were broken. It was incredible that he still lived.
The boy grabbed him like a stone, unmindful of the jabbing, diving beak that was taking the flesh from his wrist in ribbons. As Cort flew at him, all spread-eagled, the boy threw the hawk upward.
“Hai! David! Kill!”
Then Cort blotted out the sun and came down atop of him.