PROLOGUE etween a grandmother and a granary?"
"ASK ME A RIDDLE," Blaine invited.
"Fuck you," Roland said. He did not raise his voice.
"WHAT DO YOU SAY?" In its clear disbelief, the voice of Big Blaine had become very close to the voice of its unsuspected twin.
"I said fuck you," Roland said calmly, "but if that puzzles you, Blaine, I can make it clearer. No. The answer is no. "
There was no reply from Blaine for a long, long time, and when he did respond, it was not with words. Instead, the walls, floor, and ceiling began to lose their color and solidity again. In a space of ten seconds the Barony Coach once more ceased to exist. They were now flying through the mountain-range they had seen on the horizon: iron-gray peaks rushed toward them at suicidal speed, then fell away to disclose sterile valleys where gigantic beetles crawled about like landlocked turtles. Roland saw something that looked like a huge snake suddenly uncoil from the mouth of a cave. It seized one of the beetles and yanked it back into its lair. Roland had never in his life seen such animals or countryside, and the sight made his skin want to crawl right off his flesh. Blaine might have transported them to some other world.
"PERHAPS I SHOULD DERAIL US HERE," Blaine said. His voice was meditative, but beneath it the gunslinger heard a deep, pulsing rage.
"Perhaps you should," the gunslinger said indifferently.
Eddie's face was frantic. He mouthed the words What are you DOING? Roland ignored him; he had his hands full with Blaine, and he knew perfectly well what he was doing.
"YOU ARE RUDE AND ARROGANT," Blaine said. "THESE MAY SEEM LIKE INTERESTING TRAITS TO YOU, BUT THEY ARE NOT TO ME. "
"Oh, I can be much ruder than I have been. "
Roland of Gilead unfolded his hands and got slowly to his feet. He stood on what appeared to be nothing, legs apart, his right hand on his hip and his left on the sandalwood grip of his revolver. He stood as he had so many times before, in the dusty streets of a hundred forgotten towns, in a score of rocky canyon killing-zones, in unnumbered dark saloons with their smells of bitter beer and old fried meals. It was just another showdown in another empty street. That was all, and that was enough. It was khef, ka, and ka-tet. That the showdown always came was the central fact of his life and the axle upon which his own ka revolved. That the battle would be fought with words instead of bullets this time made no difference; it would be a battle to the death, just the same. The stench of killing in the air was as clear and definite as the stench of exploded carrion in a swamp. Then the battle-rage descended, as it always did . . . and he was no longer really there to himself at all.
"I can call you a nonsensical, empty-headed, foolish machine. I can call you a stupid, unwise creature whose sense is no more than the sound of a winter wind in a hollow tree. "
"STOP IT. "
Roland went on in the same serene tone, ignoring Blaine completely. "You're what Eddie calls a 'gadget. ' Were you more, I might be ruder yet. "
"I AM A GREAT DEAL MORE THAN JUST - "
"I could call you a sucker of cocks, for instance, but you have no mouth. I could say you're viler than the vilest beggar who ever crawled the lowest street in creation, but even such a creature is better than you; you have no knees on which to crawl, and would not fall upon them even if you did, for you have no conception of such a human flaw as mercy. I could even say you fucked your mother, had you one. "
Roland paused for breath. His three companions were holding theirs. All around them, suffocating, was Blaine the Mono's thunderstruck silence.
"I can call you a faithless creature who let your only companion kill herself, a coward who has delighted in the torture of the foolish and the slaughter of the innocent, a lost and bleating mechanical goblin who - "
"ICOMMAND YOU TO STOP IT OR I'LL KILL YOU ALL RIGHTHERE!"
Roland's eyes blazed with such wild blue fire that Eddie shrank away from him. Dimly, he heard Jake and Susannah gasp.
"Kill if you will, but command me nothing!" thegunslinger roared. "You have forgotten the faces of those who made you! Now either kill us or be silent and listen to me, Roland of Gilead, son of Steven, gunslinger, and lord of ancient lands! I have not come across all the miles and all the years to listen to your childish prating! Do you understand? Now you will listen to ME!"
There was another moment of shocked silence. No one breathed. Roland stared sternly forward, his head high, his hand on the butt of his gun.
Susannah Dean raised her hand to her mouth and felt the small smile there as a woman might feel some strange new article of clothing - a hat, perhaps - to make sure it is still on straight. She was afraid this was the end of her life, but the feeling which dominated her heart at that moment was not fear but pride. She glanced to her left and saw Eddie regarding Roland with an amazed grin. Jake's expression was even simpler: pure adoration.
"Tell him!" Jake breathed. "Kick his ass! Right!"
"You better pay attention," Eddie agreed. "He really doesn't give much of a fuck, Blaine. They don't call him The Mad Dog of Gilead for nothing. "
After a long, long moment, Blaine asked: "DID THEY CALL YOU SO, ROLAND SON OF STEVEN?"
"They may have," Roland replied, standing calmly on thin air above the sterile foothills.
"WHAT GOOD ARE YOU TO ME IF YOU WON'T TELL ME RIDDLES?" Blaine asked. Now he sounded like a grumbling, sulky child who has been allowed to stay up too long past his usual bedtime.
"I didn't say we wouldn't," Roland said.
"NO?" Blaine sounded bewildered. "I DO NOT UNDERSTAND, YET VOICE-PRINT ANALYSIS INDICATES RATIONAL DISCOURSE. PLEASE EXPLAIN. "
"You said you wanted them right now" the gunslinger replied. "That was what I was refusing. Your eagerness has made you unseemly. "
"I DON'T UNDERSTAND. "
"It has made you rude. Do you understand that?"
There was a long, thoughtful silence. Centuries had passed since the computer had experienced any human responses other than ignorance, neglect, and superstitious subservience. It had been eons since it had been exposed to simple human courage. Finally: "IF WHAT I SAID STRUCK YOU AS RUDE, I APOLOGIZE. "
"It is accepted, Blaine. But there is a larger problem. "
"Close the carriage again and I will. " Roland sat down as if further argument - and the prospect of immediate death - was now unthinkable.
Blaine did as he was asked. The walls filled with color and the nightmare landscape below was once more blotted out. The blip on the route-map was now blinking close to the dot marked Candleton.
"All right," Roland said. "Rudeness is forgivable, Blaine; so I was taught in my youth. But I was also taught that stupidity is not. "
"HOW HAVE I BEEN STUPID, ROLAND OF GILEAD?" Blame's voice was soft and ominous. Susannah thought of a cat crouched outside a mouse-hole, tail swishing back and forth, green eyes shining with malevolence.
"We have something you want," Roland said, "but the only reward you offer if we give it to you is death. That's very stupid. "
There was a long, long pause as Blaine thought this over. Then: "WHAT YOU SAY IS TRUE, ROLAND OF GILEAD, BUT THE QUALITY OF YOUR RIDDLES IS NOT PROVEN. I WILL NOT REWARD YOU WITH YOUR LIVES FOR BAD RIDDLES. "
Roland nodded. "I understand, Blaine. Listen, now, and take understanding from me. I have told some of this to my friends already. When I was a boy in the Barony of Gilead, there were seven Fair-Days each year - Winter, Wide Earth, Sowing, Mid-Summer, Full Earth, Reaping, and Year's End. Riddling was an important part of every Fair-Day, but it was the most important event of the Fair of Wide Earth and that of Full Earth, for the riddles told were supposed to augur well or ill for the success of the crops. "
"THAT IS SUPERSTITION WITH NO BASIS AT ALL IN FACT," Blaine said. "I FIND IT ANNOYING AND UPSETTING. "
"Of course it was superstition," Roland agreed, "but you might be surprised at how well the riddles foresaw the crops. For instance, riddle me this, Blaine: What is the difference b
"THAT IS OLD AND NOT VERY INTERESTING," Blaine said, but he sounded happy to have something to solve, just the same. "ONE IS ONE'S BORN KIN; THE OTHER IS ONE'S CORN-BIN. A RIDDLE
BASED ON PHONETIC COINCIDENCE. ANOTHER OF THIS TYPE, ONE TOLD ON THE LEVEL WHICH CONTAINS THE BARONY OF NEW YORK, GOES LIKE THIS: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A CAT AND A COMPLEX SENTENCE?"
Jake spoke up. "I know. A cat has claws at the end of its paws, and a complex sentence has a pause at the end of its clause. "
"YES," Blaine agreed. "A VERY SILLY OLD RIDDLE, USEFUL ONLY AS A MNEMONIC DEVICE. "
"For once I agree with you, Blaine old buddy," Eddie said.
"I AM NOT YOUR BUDDY, EDDIE OF NEW YORK. "
"Well, jeez. Kiss my ass and go to heaven. "
"THERE IS NO HEAVEN. "
Eddie had no comeback for that one.
"I WOULD HEAR MORE OF FAIR-DAY RIDDLING IN GILEAD, ROLAND SON OF STEVEN. "
"At noon on Wide Earth and Full Earth, somewhere between sixteen and thirty riddlers would gather in the Hall of the Grandfathers, which was opened for the event. Those were the only times of year when common folk - merchants and farmers and ranchers and such - were allowed into the Hall of the Grandfathers, and on that day they all crowded in. "
The gunslinger's eyes were far away and dreamy; it was the expression Jake had seen on his face in that misty other life, when Roland had told him of how he and his friends, Cuthbert and Jamie, had once sneaked into the balcony of that same Hall to watch some sort of dance-party. Jake and Roland had been climbing into the mountains when Roland had told him of that time, close on the trail of Walter.
Marten sat next to my mother and father, Roland had said. Iknew 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. But the gunslingers did not clap. . . .
Jake looked curiously at Roland, wondering again where this strange man had come from . . . and why.
"A great barrel was placed in the center of the floor," Roland went on, "and into this each riddler would toss a handful of bark scrolls with riddles writ upon them. Many were old, riddles they had gotten from the elders - even from books, in some cases - but many others were new, made up for the occasion. Three judges, one always a gunslinger, would pass on these when they were told aloud, and they were accepted only if the judges deemed them fair. "
"YES, RIDDLES MUST BE FAIR," Blaine agreed.
"So they riddled," the gunslinger said. A faint smile touched his mouth as he thought of those days, days when he had been the age of the bruised boy sitting across from him with the billy-bumbler in his lap. "For hours on end they riddled. A line was formed down the center of the Hall of the Grandfathers. One's position in this line was determined by lot, and since it was much better to be at the end of the line than at the head, everyone hoped for a high draw, although the winner had to answer at least one riddle correctly.
"OF COURSE. "
"Each man or woman - for some of Gilead's best riddlers were women - approached the barrel, drew a riddle, and if the riddle was still unanswered after the sands in a three-minute glass had run out, that contestant had to leave the line. "
"AND WAS THE SAME RIDDLE ASKED OF THE NEXT PERSON IN THE LINE?"
"SO THE NEXT PERSON HAD EXTRA TIME TO THINK. "
"I SEE. IT SOUNDS PRETTY SWELL. "
Roland frowned. "Swell?"
"He means it sounds like fun," Susannah said quietly.
Roland shrugged. "It was fun for the onlookers, I suppose, but the contestants took it very seriously. Quite often there were arguments and fistfights after the contest was over and the prize awarded. "
"WHAT PRIZE WAS THAT, ROLAND SON OF STEVEN?"
"The largest goose in Barony. And year after year my teacher, Cort, carried that goose home. "
"I WISH HE WERE HERE," Blaine said respectfully. "HE MUST HAVE BEEN A GREAT RIDDLER. "
"Indeed he was," Roland said. "Are you ready for my proposal, Blaine?"
"OF COURSE. I WILL LISTEN WITH GREAT INTEREST, ROLAND OF GILEAD. "
"Let these next few hours be our Fair-Day. You will not riddle us, for you wish to hear new riddles, not tell some of those millions you already know - "
"We couldn't solve most of them, anyway," Roland went on. "I'm sure you know riddles that would have stumped even Cort, had they been pulled out of the barrel. " He was not sure of it at all, but the time to use the fist had passed and the time to use the feather had come.
"OF COURSE," Blaine agreed.
"Instead of a goose, our lives shall be the prize," Roland said. "We will riddle you as we run, Blaine. If, when we come to Topeka, you have solved every one of our riddles, you may carry out your original plan and kill us. That is your goose. But if we pose you - if there is a riddle in either Jake's book or one of our heads which you don't know and can't answer - you must take us to Topeka and then free us to pursue our quest. That is our goose. "
"Do you understand?"
"Do you agree?"
More silence from Blaine the Mono. Eddie sat stiffly with his arm around Susannah, looking up at the ceiling of the Barony Coach. Susannah's left hand slipped across her belly, stroking the secret which might be hidden there. Jake stroked Oy's fur lightly, avoiding the bloody tangles where the bumbler had been stabbed. They waited while Blaine - the real Blaine, now far behind them, living his quasi-life beneath a city where all the inhabitants lay dead by his hand - considered Roland's proposal.
"YES," Blaine said at last. "I AGREE. IF I SOLVE ALL THE RIDDLES YOU ASK ME, I WILL TAKE YOU WITH ME TO THE PLACE WHERE THE PATH ENDS IN THE CLEARING. IF ONE OF YOU TELLS A RIDDLE I CANNOT SOLVE, I WILL SPARE YOUR LIVES AND LEAVE YOU IN TOPEKA, FROM WHENCE YOU MAY CONTINUE YOUR QUEST FOR THE DARK TOWER, IF YOU SO CHOOSE. HAVE I UNDERSTOOD THE TERMS AND LIMITS OF YOUR PROPOSAL CORRECTLY, ROLAND SON OF STEVEN?"
"VERY WELL, ROLAND OF GILEAD.
"VERY WELL, EDDIE OF NEW YORK.
"VERY WELL, SUSANNAH OF NEW YORK.
"VERY WELL, JAKE OF NEW YORK.
"VERY WELL, OY OF MID-WORLD. "
Oy looked up briefly at the sound of his name.
"YOU ARE KA-TET; ONE MADE FROM MANY. SO AM I. WHOSE KA-TET IS THE STRONGER IS SOMETHING WE MUST NOW PROVE. "
There was a moment of silence, broken only by the hard steady throb of the slo-trans turbines bearing them on across the waste lands, bearing them along the Path of the Beam toward Topeka, where Mid-World ended and End-World began.
"SO," cried the voice of Blaine. "CAST YOUR NETS, WANDERERS! TRY ME WITH YOUR QUESTIONS, AND LET THE CONTEST BEGIN. "