The bird was smashed between them, and the boy felt a callused thumb probe for the socket of his eye. He turned it, at the same time bringing up the slab of his thigh to block Cort’s crotch-seeking knee. His own hand flailed against the tree of Cort’s neck in three hard chops. It was like hitting ribbed stone.
Then Cort made a thick grunting. His body shuddered. Faintly, the boy saw one hand flailing for the dropped stick, and with a jackknifing lunge, he kicked it out of reach. David had hooked one talon into Cort’s right ear. The other battered mercilessly at the teacher’s cheek, making it a ruin. Warm blood splattered the boy’s face, smelling of sheared copper.
Cort’s fist struck the bird once, breaking its back. Again, and the neck snapped away at a crooked angle. And still the talon clutched. There was no ear now; only a red hole tunneled into the side of Cort’s skull. The third blow sent the bird flying, at last clearing Cort’s face.
The moment it was clear, the boy brought the edge of his hand across the bridge of his teacher’s nose, using every bit of his strength and breaking the thin bone. Blood sprayed.
Cort’s grasping, unseeing hand ripped at the boy’s buttocks, trying to pull his trousers down, trying to hobble him. Roland rolled away, found Cort’s stick, and rose to his knees.
Cort came to his own knees, grinning. Incredibly, they faced each other that way from either side of the line, although they had switched positions and Cort was now on the side where Roland had begun the contest. The old warrior’s face was curtained with gore. The one seeing eye rolled furiously in its socket. The nose was smashed over to a haunted, leaning angle. Both cheeks hung in flaps.
The boy held the man’s stick like a Gran’ Points player waiting for the pitch of the rawhide bird.
Cort double-feinted, then came directly at him.
Roland was ready, not fooled in the slightest by this last trick, which both knew was a poor one. The ironwood swung in a flat arc, striking Cort’s skull with a dull thudding noise. Cort fell on his side, looking at the boy with a lazy unseeing expression. A tiny trickle of spit came from his mouth.
“Yield or die,” the boy said. His mouth was filled with wet cotton.
And Cort smiled. Nearly all consciousness was gone, and he would remain tended in his cottage for a week afterward, wrapped in the blackness of a coma, but now he held on with all the strength of his pitiless, shadowless life. He saw the need to palaver in the boy’s eyes, and even with a curtain of blood between the two of them, understood that the need was desperate.
“I yield, gunslinger. I yield smiling. You have this day remembered the face of your father and all those who came before him. What a wonder you have done!”
Cort’s clear eye closed.
The gunslinger shook him gently, but with persistence. The others were around him now, their hands trembling to thump his back and hoist him to their shoulders; but they held back, afraid, sensing a new gulf. Yet this was not as strange as it could have been, because there had always been a gulf between this one and the rest.
Cort’s eye rolled open again.
“The key,” the gunslinger said. “My birthright, teacher. I need it.”
His birthright was the guns, not the heavy ones of his father—weighted with sandalwood—but guns, all the same. Forbidden to all but a few. In the heavy vault under the barracks where he by ancient law was now required to abide, away from his mother’s breast, hung his apprentice weapons, heavy cumbersome barrel-shooters of steel and nickel. Yet they had seen his father through his apprenticeship, and his father now ruled—at least in name.
“Is your need so fearsome, then?” Cort muttered, as if in his sleep. “So pressing? Aye, I feared so. So much need should have made you stupid. And yet you won.”
“The hawk was a fine ploy. A fine weapon. How long did it take you to train the bastard?”
“I never trained David. I friended him. The key.”
“Under my belt, gunslinger.” The eye closed again.
The gunslinger reached under Cort’s belt, feeling the heavy press of the man’s belly, the huge muscles there now slack and asleep. The key was on a brass ring. He clutched it in his hand, restraining the mad urge to thrust it up to the sky in a salutation of victory.
He got to his feet and was finally turning to the others when Cort’s hand fumbled for his foot. For a moment the gunslinger feared some last attack and tensed, but Cort only looked up at him and beckoned with one crusted finger.
“I’m going to sleep now,” Cort whispered calmly. “I’m going to walk the path. Perhaps all the way to the clearing at the end of it, I don’t know. I teach you no more, gunslinger. You have surpassed me, and two years younger than your father, who was the youngest. But let me counsel.”
“Wipe that look off your face, maggot.”
In his surprise, Roland did as he was bid (although, being crouched hidden behind his face as we all are, could not know it).
Cort nodded, then whispered a single word. “Wait.”
The effort it took the man to speak lent his words great emphasis. “Let the word and the legend go before you. There are those who will carry both.” His eyes flicked over the gunslinger’s shoulder. “Fools, perchance. Let your shadow grow hair on its face. Let it become dark.” He smiled grotesquely. “Given time, words may even enchant an enchanter. Do you take my meaning, gunslinger?”
“Yes. I think I do.”
“Will you take my last counsel as your teacher?”
The gunslinger rocked back on his heels, a hunkered, thinking posture that foreshadowed the man. He looked at the sky. It was deepening, purpling. The heat of the day was failing and thunderheads in the west foretold rain. Lightning tines jabbed the placid flank of the rising foothills miles distant. Beyond that, the mountains. Beyond that, the rising fountains of blood and unreason. He was tired, tired into his bones and beyond.
He looked back at Cort. “I will bury my hawk tonight, teacher. And later go into lower town to inform those in the brothels that will wonder about you. Perhaps I will comfort one or two a little.”
Cort’s lips parted in a pained smile. And then he slept.
The gunslinger got to his feet and turned to the others. “Make a litter and take him to his house. Then bring a nurse. No, two nurses. Okay?”
They still watched him, caught in a bated moment that none of them could immediately break. They still looked for a corona of fire, or a magical change of features.
“Two nurses,” the gunslinger repeated, and then smiled. They smiled in return. Nervously.
“You goddamned horse drover!” Cuthbert suddenly yelled, grinning. “You haven’t left enough meat for the rest of us to pick off the bone!”
“The world won’t move on tomorrow,” the gunslinger said, quoting the old adage with a smile. “Alain, you butter-butt! Move your freight.”
Alain set about the business of making the litter; Thomas and Jamie went together to the main hall and the infirmary.
The gunslinger and Cuthbert looked at each other. They had always been the closest—or as close as they could be under the particular shades of their characters. There was a speculative, open light in Bert’s eyes, and the gunslinger controlled only with great difficulty the need to tell him not to call for the test for a year or even eighteen months, lest he go west. But they had been through a great ordeal together, and the gunslinger did not feel he could risk saying such a thing without a look on his face that might be taken for arrogance. I’ve begun to scheme, he thought, and was a little dismayed. Then he thought of Marten, of his mother, and he smiled a deceiver’s smile at his friend.
I am to be the first, he thought, knowing it for the first time, although he had thought of it idly many times before. I am the first.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“With pleasure, gunslinger.”
They left by the east end of the hedge-bordered corridor; Thomas and Jamie were returning with the nurses already. They looked like ghosts in their white and gauzy summer robes, crossed at the breast with red.
“Shall I help you with the hawk?” Cuthbert asked.
“Yes,” the gunslinger said. “That would be lovely, Bert.”
And later, when darkness had come and the rushing thundershowers with it; while huge, phantom caissons rolled across the sky and lightning washed the crooked streets of the lower town in blue fire; while horses stood at hitching rails with their heads down and their tails drooping, the gunslinger took a woman and lay with her.
It was quick and good. When it was over and they lay side by side without speaking, it began to hail with a brief, rattling ferocity. Downstairs and far away, someone was playing “Hey Jude” ragtime. The gunslinger’s mind turned reflectively inward. It was in that hail-splattered silence, just before sleep overtook him, that he first thought that he might also be the last. The gunslinger didn’t tell the boy all of this, but perhaps most of it came through anyway. He had already realized that this was an extremely perceptive boy, not so different from Alain, who was strong in that half-empathy, half-telepathy they called the touch.
“You asleep?” the gunslinger asked.
“Did you understand what I told you?”
“Understand it?” the boy asked with surprising scorn. “Understand it? Are you kidding?”
“No.” But the gunslinger felt defensive. He had never told anyone about his coming of age before, because he felt ambivalent about it. Of course, the hawk had been a perfectly acceptable weapon, yet it had been a trick, too. And a betrayal. The first of many. And tell me—am I really preparing to throw this boy at the man in black?
“I understood it, all right,” the boy said. “It was a game, wasn’t it? Do grown men always have to play games? Does everything have to be an excuse for another kind of game? Do any men grow up or do they only come of age?”
“You don’t know everything,” the gunslinger said, trying to hold his slow anger. “You’re just a boy.”
“Sure. But I know what I am to you.”
“And what is that?” the gunslinger asked, tightly.
“A poker chip.”
The gunslinger felt an urge to find a rock and brain the boy. Instead, he spoke calmly.
“Go to sleep. Boys need their sleep.”
And in his mind he heard Marten’s echo: Go and find your hand.
He sat stiffly in the darkness, stunned with horror and terrified (for the first time in his existence) of the self-loathing that might come afterward. During the next period of waking, the railway angled closer to the underground river, and they came upon the Slow Mutants.
Jake saw the first one and screamed aloud.
The gunslinger’s head, which had been fixed straight forward as he pumped the handcar, jerked to the right. There was a rotten jack-o’-lantern greenness below them, pulsating faintly. For the first time he became aware of odor—faint, unpleasant, wet. The greenness was a face—what might be called a face by one of charitable bent. Above the flattened nose was an insectile node of eyes, peering at them expressionlessly. The gunslinger felt an atavistic crawl in his intestines and privates. He stepped up the rhythm of arms and handcar handle slightly.
The glowing face faded.
“What the hell was that?” the boy asked, crawling to him. “What—” The words stopped dumb in his throat as they came upon and then passed a group of three faintly glowing forms, standing between the rails and the invisible river, watching them, motionless.
“They’re Slow Mutants,” the gunslinger said. “I don’t think they’ll bother us. They’re probably just as frightened of us as we are of—”
One of the forms broke free and shambled toward them. The face was that of a starving idiot. The faint naked body had been transformed into a knotted mess of tentacular limbs and suckers.
The boy screamed again and crowded against the gunslinger’s leg like a frightened dog.
One of the thing’s tentacle arms pawed across the flat platform of the handcar. It reeked of the wet and the dark. The gunslinger let loose of the handle and drew. He put a bullet through the forehead of the starving idiot face. It fell away, its faint swamp-fire glow fading, an eclipsed moon. The gunflash lay bright and branded on their dark retinas, fading only reluctantly. The smell of expended powder was hot and savage and alien in this buried place.
There were others, more of them. None moved against them overtly, but they were closing in on the tracks, a silent, hideous party of rubberneckers.
“You may have to pump for me,” the gunslinger said. “Can you?”
“Then be ready.”
The boy stood close to him, his body poised. His eyes took in the Slow Mutants only as they passed, not traversing, not seeing more than they had to. The boy assumed a psychic bulge of terror, as if his very id had somehow sprung out through his pores to form a shield. If he had the touch, the gunslinger reasoned, that was not impossible.
The gunslinger pumped steadily but did not increase his speed. The Slow Mutants could smell their terror, he knew that, but he doubted if terror alone would be enough to motivate them. He and the boy were, after all, creatures of the light, and whole. How they must hate us, he thought, and wondered if they had hated the man in black in the same way. He thought not, or perhaps he had passed among them only like the shadow of a dark wing in this greater darkness.
The boy made a noise in his throat and the gunslinger turned his head almost casually. Four of them were charging the handcar in a stumbling way—one of them in the process of finding a handgrip. The gunslinger let go of the handle and drew again, with the same sleepy casual motion. He shot the lead mutant in the head. The mutant made a sighing, sobbing noise and began to grin. Its hands were limp and fish-like, dead; the fingers clove to one another like the fingers of a glove long immersed in drying mud. One of these corpse-hands found the boy’s foot and began to pull.
The boy shrieked aloud in the granite womb.
The gunslinger shot the mutant in the chest. It began to slobber through the grin. Jake was going off the side. The gunslinger caught one of his arms and was almost pulled off balance himself. The thing was surprisingly strong. The gunslinger put another bullet in the mutant’s head. One eye went out like a candle. Still it pulled. They engaged in a silent tug of war for Jake’s jerking, wriggling body. The Slow Mutants yanked on him like a wishbone. The wish would undoubtedly be to dine.
The handcar was slowing down. The others began to close in—the lame, the halt, the blind. Perhaps they only looked for a Jesus to heal them, to raise them Lazarus-like from the darkness.
It’s the end for the boy, the gunslinger thought with perfect coldness. This is the end he meant. Let go and pump or hold on and be buried. The end for the boy.
He gave a tremendous yank on the boy’s arm and shot the mutant in the belly. For one frozen moment its grip grew even tighter and Jake began to slide off the edge again. Then the dead mud-mitts loosened, and the Slow Mutie fell on its face behind the slowing handcar, still grinning.
“I thought you’d leave me,” the boy was sobbing. “I thought . . . I thought . . .”
“Hold on to my belt,” the gunslinger said. “Hold on just as tight as you can.”
The hand worked into his belt and clutched there; the boy was breathing in great convulsive, silent gasps.
The gunslinger began to pump steadily again, and the handcar picked up speed. The Slow Mutants fell back a step and watched them go with faces hardly human (or pathetically so), faces that generated the weak phosphorescence common to those weird deep-sea fishes that live under incredible black pressure, faces that held no anger or hate but only what seemed to be a semiconscious, idiot regret.
“They’re thinning,” the gunslinger said. The drawn-up muscles of his lower belly and privates relaxed the smallest bit. “They’re—”
The Slow Mutants had put rocks across the track. The way was blocked. It had been a quick, poor job, perhaps the work of only a minute to clear, but they were stopped. And someone would have to get down and move them. The boy moaned and shuddered closer to the gunslinger. The gunslinger let go of the handle and the handcar coasted noiselessly to the rocks, where it thumped to rest.
The Slow Mutants began to close in again, almost casually, almost as if they had been passing by, lost in a dream of darkness, and had found someone of whom to ask directions. A street-corner congregation of the damned beneath the ancient rock.
“Are they going to get us?” the boy asked calmly.
“Never in life. Be quiet a second.”
He looked at the rocks. The mutants were weak, of course, and had not been able to drag any of the boulders to block their way. Only small rocks. Only enough to stop them, to make someone—
“Get down,” the gunslinger said. “You’ll have to move them. I’ll cover you.”
“No,” the boy whispered. “Please.”
“I can’t give you a gun and I can’t move the rocks and shoot, too. You have to get down.”
Jake’s eyes rolled terribly; for a moment his body shuddered in tune with the turnings of his mind, and then he wriggled over the side and began to throw rocks to the right and the left, working with mad speed, not looking up.
The gunslinger drew and waited.
Two of them, lurching rather than walking, went for the boy with arms like dough. The guns did their work, stitching the darkness with red-white lances of light that pushed needles of pain into the gunslinger’s eyes. The boy screamed and continued to throw away rocks to either side. Witch-glow leaped and danced. Hard to see now, that was the worst. Everything had gone to shadows and afterimages.