PRISONER CHAPTER 1 THE DOOR
Three. This is the number of your fate.
Yes, three is mystic. Three stands at the heart of the mantra.
The first is dark-haired. He stands on the brink of robbery and murder. A demon has infested him. The name of the demon is HEROIN.
Which demon is that? I know it not, even from nursery stories.
He tried to speak but his voice was gone, the voice of the oracle, Star-Slut, Whore of the Winds, both were gone; he saw a card fluttering down from nowhere to nowhere, turning and turning in the lazy dark. On it a baboon grinned from over the shoulder of a young man with dark hair; its disturbingly human fingers were buried so deeply in the young man's neck that their tips had disappeared in flesh. Looking more closely, the gunslinger saw the baboon held a whip in one of those clutching, strangling hands. The face of the ridden man seemed to writhe in wordless terror.
The Prisoner, the man in black (who had once been a man the gunslinger trusted, a man named Walter) whispered chummily. A trifle upsetting, isn't he? A trifle upsetting...a trifle upsetting...a trifle锟?
The gunslinger snapped awake, waving at something with his mutilated hand, sure that in a moment one of the monstrous shelled things from the Western Sea would drop on him, desperately enquiring in its foreign tongue as it pulled his face off his skull.
Instead a sea-bird, attracted by the glister of the morning sun on the buttons of his shirt, wheeled away with a frightened squawk.
Roland sat up.
His hand throbbed wretchedly, endlessly. His right foot did the same. Both fingers and toe continued to insist they were there. The bottom half of his shirt was gone; what was left resembled a ragged vest. He had used one piece to bind his hand, the other to bind his foot.
Go away, he told the absent parts of his body. You are ghosts now. Go away.
It helped a little. Not much, but a little. They were ghosts, all right, but lively ghosts.
The gunslinger ate jerky. His mouth wanted it little, his stomach less, but he insisted. When it was inside him, he felt a little stronger. There was not much left, though; he was nearly up against it.
Yet things needed to be done.
He rose unsteadily to his feet and looked about. Birds swooped and dived, but the world seemed to belong to only him and them. The monstrosities were gone. Perhaps they were nocturnal; perhaps tidal. At the moment it seemed to make no difference.
The sea was enormous, meeting the horizon at a misty blue point that was impossible to determine. For a long moment the gunslinger forgot his agony in its contemplation. He had never seen such a body of water. Had heard of it in children's stories, of course, had even been assured by his teachers锟?some, at least锟?that it existed锟?but to actually see it, this immensity, this amazement of water after years of arid land, was difficult to accept ... difficult to even see.
He looked at it for a long time, enrapt, making himself see it, temporarily forgetting his pain in wonder.
But it was morning, and there were still things to be done.
He felt for the jawbone in his back pocket, careful to lead with the palm of his right hand, not wanting the stubs of his fingers to encounter it if it was still there, changing that hand's ceaseless sobbing to screams.
He clumsily unbuckled his gunbelts and laid them on a sunny rock. He removed the guns, swung the chambers out, and removed the useless shells. He threw them away. A bird settled on the bright gleam tossed back by one of them, picked it up in its beak, then dropped it and flew away.
The guns themselves must be tended to, should have been tended to before this, but since no gun in this world or any other was more than a club without ammunition, he laid the gunbelts themselves over his lap before doing anything else and carefully ran his left hand over the leather.
Each of them was damp from buckle and clasp to the point where the belts would cross his hips; from that point they seemed dry. He carefully removed each shell from the dry portions of the belts. His right hand kept trying to do this job, insisted on forgetting its reduction in spite of the pain, and he found himself returning it to his knee again and again, like a dog too stupid or fractious to heel. In his distracted pain he came close to swatting it once or twice.
I see serious problems ahead, he thought again.
He put these shells, hopefully still good, in a pile that was dishearteningly small. Twenty. Of those, a few would almost certainly misfire. He could depend on none of them. He removed the rest and put them in another pile. Thirty-seven.
Well, you weren't heavy loaded, anyway, he thought, but he recognized the difference between fifty-seven live rounds and what might be twenty. Or ten. Or five. Or one. Or none.
He put the dubious shells in a second pile.
He still had his purse. That was one thing. He put it in his lap and then slowly disassembled his guns and performed the ritual of cleaning. By the time he was finished, two hours had passed and his pain was so intense his head reeled with it; conscious thought had become difficult. He wanted to sleep. He had never wanted that more in his life. But in the service of duty there was never any acceptable reason for denial.
"Cort," he said in a voice that he couldn't recognize, and laughed dryly.
Slowly, slowly, he reassembled his revolvers and loaded them with the shells he presumed to be dry. When the job was done, he held the one made for his left hand, cocked it ... and then slowly lowered the hammer again. He wanted to know, yes. Wanted to know if there would be a satisfying report when he squeezed the trigger or only another of those useless clicks. But a click would mean nothing, and a report would only reduce twenty to nineteen ... or nine ... or three ... or none.
He tore away another piece of his shirt, put the other shells锟?the ones which had been wetted锟?in it, and tied it, using his left hand and his teeth. He put them in his purse.
Sleep, his body demanded. Sleep, you must sleep, now, before dark, there's nothing left, you're used up锟?
He tottered to his feet and looked up and down the deserted strand. It was the color of an undergarment which has gone a long time without washing, littered with sea-shells which had no color. Here and there large rocks protruded from the gross-grained sand, and these were covered with guano, the older layers the yellow of ancient teeth, the fresher splotches white.
The high-tide line was marked with drying kelp. He could see pieces of his right boot and his waterskins lying near that line. He thought it almost a miracle that the skins hadn't been washed out to sea by high-surging waves. Walking slowly, limping exquisitely, the gunslinger made his way to where they were. He picked up one of them and shook it by his ear. The other was empty. This one still had a little water left in it. Most would not have been able to tell the difference between the two, but the gunslinger knew each just as well as a mother knows which of her identical twins is which. He had been travelling with these waterskins for a long, long time. Water sloshed inside. That was good锟?a gift. Either the creature which had attacked him or any of the others could have torn this or the other open with one casual bite or slice of claw, but none had and the tide had spared it. Of the creature itself there was no sign, although the two of them had finished far above the tide-line. Perhaps other predators had taken it; perhaps its own kind had given it a burial at sea, as the elaphaunts, giant creatures of whom he had heard in childhood stories, were reputed to bury their own dead.
He lifted the waterskin with his left elbow, drank deeply, and felt some strength come back into him. The right boot was of course ruined ... but then he felt a spark of hope. The foot itself was intact锟?scarred but intact锟?and it might be possible to cut the other down to match it, to make something which would last at least awhile....
Faintness stole over him. He fought it but his knees unhinged and he sat down, stupidly biting his tongue.
You won't fall unconscious, he told himself grimly. Not here, not where another of those things can come back tonight and finish the job.
So he got to his feet and tied the empty skin about his waist, but he had only gone twenty yards back toward the place where he had left his guns and purse when he fell down again, half-fainting. He lay there awhile, one cheek pressed against the sand, the edge of a seashell biting against the edge of his jaw almost deep enough to draw blood. He managed to drink from the waterskin, and then he crawled back to the place where he had awakened. There was a Joshua tree twenty yards up the slope锟?it was stunted, but it would offer at least some shade.
To Roland the twenty yards looked like twenty miles.
Nonetheless, he laboriously pushed what remained of his possessions into that little puddle of shade. He lay there with his head in the grass, already fading toward what could be sleep or unconsciousness or death. He looked into the sky and tried to judge the time. Not noon , but the size of the puddle of shade in which he rested said noon was close. He held on a moment longer, turning his right arm over and bringing it close to his eyes, looking for the telltale red lines of infection, of some poison seeping steadily toward the middle of him.
The palm of his hand was a dull red. Not a good sign.
Ijerk off left-handed, he thought, at least that's something.
Then darkness took him, and he slept for the next sixteen hours with the sound of the Western Sea pounding ceaselessly in his dreaming ears.
When the gunslinger awoke again the sea was dark but there was faint light in the sky to the east. Morning was on its way. He sat up and waves of dizziness almost overcame him.
He bent his head and waited.
When the faintness had passed, he looked at his hand. It was infected, all right - a tell-tale red swelling that spread up the palm and to the wrist. It stopped there, but already he could see the faint beginnings of other red lines, which would lead eventually to his heart and kill him. He felt hot, feverish.
I need medicine, he thought. But there is no medicine here.
Had he come this far just to die, then? He would not. And if he were to die in spite of his determination, he would die on his way to the Tower.
How remarkable you are, gunslinger! the man in black tittered inside his head. How indomitable! How romantic in your stupid obsession!
"Fuck you,'' he croaked, and drank. Not much water left, either. There was a whole sea in front of him, for all the good it could do him; water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. Never mind.
He buckled on his gunbelts, tied them锟?this was a process which took so long that before he was done the first faint light of dawn had brightened to the day's actual prologue锟?and then tried to stand up. He was not convinced he could do it until it was done.
Holding to the Joshua tree with his left hand, he scooped up the not-quite-empty waterskin with his right arm and slung it over his shoulder. Then his purse. When he straightened the faintness washed over him again and he put his head down, waiting, willing.
The faintness passed.
Walking with the weaving, wavering steps of a man in the last stages of ambulatory drunkenness, the gunslinger made his way back down to the strand. He stood, looking at an ocean as dark as mulberry wine, and then took the last of his jerky from his purse. He ate half, and this time both mouth and stomach accepted a little more willingly. He turned and ate the other half as he watched the sun come up over the mountains where Jake had died锟?first seeming to catch on the cruel and treeless teeth of those peaks, then rising above them.
Roland held his face to the sun, closed his eyes, and smiled. He ate the rest of his jerky.
He thought: Very well. I am now a man with no food, with two less fingers and one less toe than I was born with; I am a gunslinger with shells which may not fire; I am sickening from a monster's bite and have no medicine; I have a day's water if I'm lucky; I may be able to walk perhaps a dozen miles if I press myself to the last extremity. I am, in short, a man on the edge of everything.
Which way should he walk? He had come from the east; he could not walk west without the powers of a saint or a savior. That left north and south.
That was the answer his heart told. There was no question in it.
The gunslinger began to walk.
He walked for three hours. He fell twice, and the second time he did not believe he would be able to get up again. Then a wave came toward him, close enough to make him remember his guns, and he was up before he knew it, standing on legs that quivered like stilts.
He thought he had managed about four miles in those three hours. Now the sun was growing hot, but not hot enough to explain the way his head pounded or the sweat pouring down his face; nor was the breeze from the sea strong enough to explain the sudden fits of shuddering which sometimes gripped him, making his body lump into gooseflesh and his teeth chatter.
Fever, gunslinger, the man in black tittered. What's left inside you has been touched afire.
The red lines of infection were more pronounced now; they had marched upward from his right wrist halfway to his elbow.
He made another mile and drained his waterbag dry. He tied it around his waist with the other. The landscape was monotonous and unpleasing. The sea to his right, the mountains to his left, the gray, shell-littered sand under the feet of his cut-down boots. The waves came and went. He looked for the lobstrosities and saw none. He walked out of nowhere toward nowhere, a man from another time who, it seemed, had reached a point of pointless ending.
Shortly before noon he fell again and knew he could not get up. This was the place, then. Here. This was the end, after all.
On his hands and knees, he raised his head like a groggy fighter ... and some distance ahead, perhaps a mile, perhaps three (it was difficult to judge distances along the unchanging reach of the strand with the fever working inside him, making his eyeballs pulse in and out), he saw something new. Something which stood upright on the beach.
What was it?
(three is the number of your fate)
The gunslinger managed to get to his feet again. He croaked something, some plea which only the circling sea-birds heard (and how happy they would be to gobble my eyes from my head, he thought, how happy to have such a tasty bit!), and walked on, weaving more seriously now, leaving tracks behind him that were weird loops and swoops.
He kept his eyes on whatever it was that stood on the strand ahead. When his hair fell in his eyes he brushed it aside. It seemed to grow no closer. The sun reached the roof of the sky, where it seemed to remain far too long. Roland imagined he was in the desert again, somewhere between the last out-lander's hut
(the musical fruit the more you eat the more you toot)
and the way-station where the boy
had awaited his coming.
His knees buckled, straightened, buckled, straightened again. When his hair fell in his eyes once more he did not bother to push it back; did not have the strength to push it back. He looked at the object, which now cast a narrow shadow back toward the upland, and kept walking.
He could make it out now, fever or no fever.
It was a door.
Less than a quarter of a mile from it, Roland's knees buckled again and this time he could not stiffen their hinges. He fell, his right hand dragged across gritty sand and shells, the stumps of his fingers screamed as fresh scabs were scored away. The stumps began to bleed again.
So he crawled. Crawled with the steady rush, roar, and retreat of the Western Sea in his ears. He used his elbows and his knees, digging grooves in the sand above the twist of dirty green kelp which marked the high-tide line. He supposed the wind was still blowing锟?it must be, for the chills continued to whip through his body锟?but the only wind he could hear was the harsh gale which gusted in and out of his own lungs.
The door grew closer.
At last, around three o'clock of that long delirious day, with his shadow beginning to grow long on his left, he reached it. He sat back on his haunches and regarded it wearily.
It stood six and a half feet high and appeared to be made of solid ironwood, although the nearest ironwood tree must grow seven hundred miles or more from here. The doorknob looked as if it were made of gold, and it was filigreed with a design which the gunslinger finally recognized: it was the grinning face of the baboon.
There was no keyhole in the knob, above it, or below it.
The door had hinges, but they were fastened to nothing锟?or so it seems, the gunslinger thought. This is a mystery, a most marvellous mystery, but does it really matter? You are dying. Your own mystery - the only one that really matters to any man or woman in the end锟?approaches.
All the same, it did seem to matter.
This door. This door where no door should be. It simply stood there on the gray strand twenty feet above the high tide line, seemingly as eternal as the sea itself, now casting the slanted shadow of its thickness toward the east as the sun westered.
Written upon it in black letters two-thirds of the way up, written in the high speech, were two words:
A demon has infested him. The name of the demon is HEROIN.
The gunslinger could hear a low droning noise. At first he thought it must be the wind or a sound in his own feverish head, but he became more and more convinced that the sound was the sound of motors ... and that it was coming from behind the door.
Open it then. It's not locked. You know it's not locked.
Instead he tottered gracelessly to his feet and walked above the door and around to the other side.
There was no other side.
Only the dark gray strand, stretching back and back. Only the waves, the shells, the high-tide line, the marks of his own approach锟?bootprints and holes that had been made by his elbows. He looked again and his eyes widened a little. The door wasn't here, but its shadow was.
He started to put out his right hand锟?oh, it was so slow learning its new place in what was left of his life锟?dropped it, and raised his left instead. He groped, feeling for hard resistance.
If I feel it I'll knock on nothing, the gunslinger thought. That would be an interesting thing to do before dying!
His hand encountered thin air far past the place where the door锟?even if invisible锟?should have been.
Nothing to knock on.
And the sound of motors锟?if that's what it really had been锟?was gone. Now there was just the wind, the waves, and the sick buzzing inside his head.
The gunslinger walked slowly back to the other side of what wasn't there, already thinking it had been a hallucination to start with, a锟?
At one moment he had been looking west at an uninterrupted view of a gray, rolling wave, and then his view was interrupted by the thickness of the door. He could see its keyplate, which also looked like gold, with the latch protruding from it like a stubby metal tongue. Roland moved his head an inch to the north and the door was gone. Moved it back to where it had been and it was there again. It did not appear; it was just there.
He walked all the way around and faced the door, swaying.
He could walk around on the sea side, but he was convinced that the same thing would happen, only this time he would fall down.
I wonder if I could go through it from the nothing side?
Oh, there were all sorts of things to wonder about, but the truth was simple: here stood this door alone on an endless stretch of beach, and it was for only one of two things: opening or leaving closed.
The gunslinger realized with dim humor that maybe he wasn't dying quite as fast as he thought. If he had been, would he feel this scared?
He reached out and grasped the doorknob with his left hand. Neither the deadly cold of the metal or the thin, fiery heat of the runes engraved upon it surprised him.
He turned the knob. The door opened toward him when he pulled.
Of all the things he might have expected, this was not any of them.
The gunslinger looked, froze, uttered the first scream of terror in his adult life, and slammed the door. There was nothing for it to bang shut on, but it banged shut just the same, sending seabirds screeching up from the rocks on which they had perched to watch him.
What he had seen was the earth from some high, impossible distance in the sky锟?miles up, it seemed. He had seen the shadows of clouds lying upon that earth, floating across it like dreams. He had seen what an eagle might see if one could fly thrice as high as any eagle could.
To step through such a door would be to fall, screaming, for what might be minutes, and to end by driving one's self deep into the earth.
No, you saw more.
He considered it as he sat stupidly on the sand in front of the closed door with his wounded hand in his lap. The first faint traceries had appeared above his elbow now. The infection would reach his heart soon enough, no doubt about that.
It was the voice of Cort in his head.
Listen to me, maggots. Listen for your lives, for that's what it could mean some day. You never see all that you see. One of the things they send you to me for is to show you what you don't see in what you see锟?what you don't see when you're scared, or fighting, or running, or fucking. No man sees all that he sees, but before you're gunslingers锟?those of you who don't go west, that is锟?you'll see more in one single glance than some men see in a lifetime. And some of what you don't see in that glance you'll see afterwards, in the eye of your memory锟?if you live long enough to remember, that is. Because the difference between seeing and not seeing can be the difference between living and dying.
He had seen the earth from this huge height (and it had somehow been more dizzying and distorting than the vision of growth which had come upon him shortly before the end of his time with the man in black, because what he had seen through the door had been no vision), and what little remained of his attention had registered the fact that the land he was seeing was neither desert nor sea but some green place of incredible lushness with interstices of water that made him think it was a swamp, but锟?
What little remained of your attention, the voice of Cort mimicked savagely. You saw more!
He had seen white.
Bravo, Roland! Cort cried in his mind, and Roland seemed to feel the swat of that hard, callused hand. He winced.
He had been looking through a window.
The gunslinger stood with an effort, reached forward, felt cold and burning lines of thin heat against his palm. He opened the door again.
The view he had expected锟?that view of the earth from some horrendous, unimaginable height锟?was gone. He was looking at words he didn't understand. He almost understood them; it was as if the Great Letters had been twisted....
Above the words was a picture of a horseless vehicle, a motor-car of the sort which had supposedly filled the world before it moved on. Suddenly he thought of the things Jake had said when, at the way station, the gunslinger had hypnotized him.
This horseless vehicle with a woman wearing a fur stole laughing beside it, could be whatever had run Jake over in that strange other world.
This is that other world, the gunslinger thought.
Suddenly the view ...
It did not change; it moved. The gunslinger wavered on his feet, feeling vertigo and a touch of nausea. The words and the picture descended and now he saw an aisle with a double row of seats on the far side. A few were empty, but there were men in most of them, men in strange dress. He supposed they were suits, but he had never seen any like them before. The things around their necks could likewise be ties or cravats, but he had seen none like these, either. And, so far as he could tell, not one of them was armed锟?he saw no dagger nor sword, let alone a gun. What kind of trusting sheep were these? Some read papers covered with tiny words - words broken here and there with pictures锟?while others wrote on papers with pens of a sort the gunslinger had never seen. But the pens mattered little to him. It was the paper. He lived in a world where paper and gold were valued in rough equivalency. He had never seen so much paper in his life. Even now one of the men tore a sheet from the yellow pad which lay upon his lap and crumpled it into a ball, although he had only written on the top half of one side and not at all on the other. The gunslinger was not too sick to feel a twinge of horror and outrage at such unnatural profligacy.
Beyond the men was a curved white wall and a row of windows. A few of these were covered by some sort of shutters, but he could see blue sky beyond others.
Now a woman approached the doorway, a woman wearing what looked like a uniform, but of no sort Roland had ever seen. It was bright red, and part of it was pants. He could see the place where her legs became her crotch. This was nothing he had ever seen on a woman who was not undressed.
She came so close to the door that Roland thought she would walk through, and he blundered back a step, lucky not to fall. She looked at him with the practiced solicitude of a woman who is at once a servant and no one's mistress but her own. This did not interest the gunslinger. What interested him was that her expression never changed. It was not the way you expected a woman锟?anybody, for that matter锟?to look at a dirty, swaying, exhausted man with revolvers crisscrossed on his hips, a blood-soaked rag wrapped around his right hand, and jeans which looked as if they'd been worked on with some kind of buzzsaw.
"Would you like ..." the woman in red asked. There was more, but the gunslinger didn't understand exactly what it meant. Food or drink, he thought. That red cloth锟?it was not cotton. Silk? It looked a little like silk, but锟?
"Gin," a voice answered, and the gunslinger understood that. Suddenly he understood much more:
It wasn't a door.
It was eyes.
Insane as it might seem, he was looking at part of a carriage that flew through the sky. He was looking through someone's eyes.
But he knew. He was looking through the eyes of the prisoner.