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The Field of Crows

Chapter Text

I thought of old friends
the one's who'd gone missing
Said all their names three times
Phantoms in the early dark
Canaries in the mines

Ghosts and clouds
And nameless things
Squint your eyes and hope real hard
Maybe sprout wings

— The Mountain Goats

 

My boy builds coffins with hammers and nails
He doesn't build ships, he has no use for sails
He doesn't make tables, dressers or chairs
He can't carve a whistle cause he just doesn't care

My boy builds coffins for the rich and the poor
Kings and queens have all knocked on his door
Beggars and liars, gypsies and thieves
They all come to him 'cause he's so eager to please

— Florence and the Machine

i.

Cuthbert waits for the gunslinger by the grave of the hawk which he has dug with his gloved hands. He sits cross-legged, in the way of the boys of Garlan, or so they were told, the first time Bert did it in sight of Cort, who beat Cuthbert while he told the story of the Garlan parrot and the unfortunate boy named Peter. He waits for Roland, and hears him first by his tread, which is a little less smooth tonight; the ankle that Cort grabbed for has begun to swell up now, making Roland's boots too tight. He is holding David in his arms and Bert can smell the blood — of bird, of boy, of teacher. Roland hunkers down by the scrape of dirt, and nods to Bert. Bert smiles back, half to Roland and half into the grave, and watches mild incomprehension pass over the gunslinger's face: was there ever, Bert thinks, an occasion less apt for smiling than this? Oh, Roland.

They pass the hawk across the grave, one pair of hands to another. He is a light thing between them; no weight at all. Roland has made his hands gentle and now Cuthbert to do the same as he lays David down on the small swatch of cotton with which he has lined the grave. He strokes the back of his index finger over the bird's head and beak, one brief arc. Their temporary heart, lying here in the dust now, weightless.

Roland and Cuthbert watch each other, for a stretch of unmarked time. The new gunslinger struggling to hold in, now, the blood of his kill, the blood of his birthright — all threatening to gush from his throat in a wretched, victory torrent.

Cuthbert looks down at the hawk again, then stretches out his left hand and touches the arc of Roland's cheekbone. The skin is thin there, still a little flushed, strawberry pink, from the fight. Bert brushes the backs of his fingers across the place.

"And you so clean, hardly a mark on you." Bert laughs, a little. His breath rustles the dust of the burying place. He looks back up at Roland. "Go on. I'll see him covered, gunslinger."

“Bert —"

“I imagine you have business to attend to in the town, Roland. Tell me about it sometime. But not tonight.”

Roland frowns at him; that expression which is familiar to Bert, long years of seeing it and choosing whether to explain or whether to tease — seeing in a face something bearing on the hearts of others, or his own, that Roland Deschain does not, or cannot, understand. Tonight, Bert chooses not to enlighten him. Instead he claps his ka-mate on the shoulder.

“Go on, to your business.”

Roland, still frowning, rises from his hunker. “Thank you, Bert.”

Cuthbert nods, back down into the dust. He listens to Roland’s footsteps as they fade away towards the town and thinks, dully: he isn’t even going to wash the blood off before he starts in on the local girls.

Cuthbert Allgood knows what he is not to his friend, his best friend, Roland, the first gunslinger

(and the last — I don't know how I know that, I shouldn't know it, but I am certain all the same)

of their crop, which may be the last of them ever to grow in Gilead. He can't remember when he understood, which is different from knowing, in your guts, the truth of a thing, that his own heart and Roland's were not the same shape. A child assumes everything is like enough to himself as makes no difference, as long as it doesn't look like a monster. And Roland never did. Or perhaps to another monster, monstrosity is the same as beauty.

Cuthbert makes quick work of David's grave, almost as if his hands have had plenty of practice at this task, on another turn of the wheel, and makes his way back to the palace. Night was purpling the sky an hour gone and now a moon is rising above the battlements. The Kissing Moon. Bert laughs to himself and scuffs his heels in the dirt, does a little jig, just for himself, before the gates of Gilead.

Perhaps it is odd to love something ugly, as he knows they are ugly, as gunslinger brats, their hands waiting for the guns: waiting to fill their hands with blood and summon the crows down into the field of death. But he has had the line of Roland's shoulders in his mind, the curve of Roland's shoulders like dead men lining a ditch, and the straight line of his neck in shadow against his jaw, and the little flick of his earlobe, that Bert has dreamt about feeling the heat of with his tongue.

Cuthbert pulls open heavy ironwood doors and pushes aside a curtain or two, makes his tired legs climb stairs without protest, until he reaches his own chambers. He toes off his boots, not bothering to unlace them (loose from the day, from sitting in the dirt), strips off shirt and unclasps belt, hooks his thumbs into his jeans and pushes them past his hips. He lets out a sigh when he is naked and standing in the dark. The moon is a thin crescent in the corner of his window and its light falls into the basin of water — fresh this morning, thank the Man Jesus for serving wenches — which lives on the bare wood of his dressing table. Bert takes up the cloth that lives there too, plunges it deep into the water and wets it through, then wrings it out over his head.

He is still young enough, despite his many nights and days under Cort's care, to think he deserves a soft bed at the end of the day. And so as he curls himself into his fresh linens (once again, my thanks, young wench) that darkly petulant expression common to all sleepy people with other things on their minds spreads over Cuthbert's face.

It is later that Cuthbert is touched by Roland's hand (and whether it is dead bird, or bloody tests, or something else, something Cuthbert can't recognise, but can guess at — bought love, that Roland's skin smells of he can never decide) and he wakes on the instant.

He had been dreaming. The dream is one he has had before, since his earliest childhood. He falls out of a void into Roland's eyes, and knows that they leaving, that there is finally something to do.

Later, saddling horses and preparing gunna in the middle of the night, the dream comes back to him.

He wakes up, as he always does, on his back, looking up at a sky which is not there. He has slept outside in the dark many times and knows the way lungs cough up in the morning, the way backs ache and feet complain, and he knows how to tell them to quiet. He tells them in Cort’s voice. But he doesn’t know this place; this is not the same place that he went to sleep in (cradle or cot or pallet or dry earth just outside Gilead’s walls) and Bert has come to expect a kind of grudging continuity from life in this regard. But it does not frighten him, even the first time, when he was three and half-hoping for his mother’s hands to part the darkness above his head and lift him out, head, shoulders, the night only clinging to his feet like mud until she pulls him clear, shakes him clean and kisses him. He was never scared.

The air is dark but tinged with green, as though the sky above him is a canopy of trees in their last days before the seasons yellow and kill their leaves. He is not quite walking on the earth beneath his feet; he weighs almost nothing, and if he wanted, he thinks, could propel himself through the air with little flicks of his hands as fish do through the sea.

A forest, then? There are tall columns of darker air that might be trees. But he isn't supposed to go that way. He needs to find the path.

It is dark and he has lost his way. He smells sap and clean wind and the scent of plants he does not recognise, not quite. There is water some way off — this too he can smell, rather than hear; a lake or the end of a river, something that feeds the green darkness. That there are monsters in the wood is also something he knows without knowing why. He has never been to this place before (except in his other dreams, that started in his cradle and have followed him up to his guns) but he can hear and see and sense the creatures that are even now crawling on their bellies behind him, faces hidden by grasses and mud, seeing with their teeth the red thing that has come into the circle of them, and must be eaten. Their eyes flicker in the night; maybe fireflies, maybe not. Cuthbert agrees with himself that the answer is probably not.

He walk/drifts faster. There is no break in the trees that he can see, no suggestion of light, but he can pick a direction and commit to it. It feels like North, but probably isn’t; true north is a little elusive these days. But something is tugging him in this direction, something that does not have little garnet red eyes.

Under his feet (still a mote or two above the ground) a path presents itself. It is just a scuff in the earth at first — someone’s boots killing a cigarette in the middle of a wood — but the mud widens over the leaf mulch as he passes over it, deepens into ruts and blackens the way forward, then begins to kill off the grass and make skeletons of the leaves, until he can see a way that boots have trod, and not long ago. As he looks up from the path he is aware of the light creating a corridor for him, a way ahead that is closing on a point ahead that he is not, suddenly, in the pit of his stomach, not eager to reach, but knows that he must.

He follows the path.

And, eventually, in the distance still, but coming up, is a small dwelling. A farmhouse of stone and a barn, spanning the side of the house. The door of the barn is ajar.

It is always at this point that he sees the little boy. About six or seven, black haired and tall for his age, but with poor eyes — he is wearing thick and ugly eyeglasses. He is also crying, pushing his fingers up under the heavy rims of the spectacles and pressing them against his eyes in the way of small children.

And suddenly, in the way of dreams, he is much closer to the farmhouse. The child is no more than twenty paces in front of him and Cuthbert is about to go to the boy and ask what is troubling him. Bert has always been good with children, at ease with their crying and bellyaching. Roland insists that this is because Cuthbert is not much more than a child himself; Bert himself likes to think it is because is has not entirely thrown away his natural instinct for compassion and doesn’t bother to point out that Ro never had much of that to start with.

He begins to walk

(or is he still drifting? no, he has come down to the ground)

towards the boy with his fingers in his eyes.

The kid is squalling, producing those little gulping sobs that make it sound like these lungs are close to just giving up. His hands are still firmly attached to his face, grubby with the dust of the farm. Clean rivulets of tears and larger smudges, still glistening damply in the ending daylight, mark his wrists and upper arms. His shoulders shudder.

“What fashes thee, little master?” Bert asks him, hunkering down in front of the boy, not too close.

So much time passes, in which there is nothing to hear but what his mind tells him is the rustle of the trees and the stuttering of the child’s breathing that Bert is sure the boy is going to need a great deal more coaxing before he will say anything. But as Bert starts to open his mouth again, the kid says —

“The b-barn … in the barn!”

“What’s in the barn, cully?”

“I … I was chopping the wood … Unc-uncle Oren said I — and and … I didn’t see them, in the chickens, t-they were all dead.”

Cuthbert, hunkered down on the ground with his strong brown hands crossed between his thighs, looks this child up and down and wonders exactly who would put an axe in his hands and expect anything but blood loss to result. But what does he know of children.

“You were chopping wood?”

“Y-yes.”

“For your uncle?”

“Yes. It was my turn. Dave did his share.”

“And who is Dave?”

“My brother. He … he didn’t see them.”

“Didn’t see who?”

The kid sniffs in a short breath. Bert sees, with complete clarity, a tear drop fall off the end of his nose. His eyes are shut, swollen a little and red from where his fingers have been pressed into them. The kid opens his mouth and takes in a long breath and then, without looking at Cuthbert, his face still downwards towards the earth, raises his arm towards the door of the barn.

“Them!”

Bert sees, finally, the spiders crowding the door of the barn. A crawling, skittering mass of bodies, dark against the red glow coming from their nesting place. They are rising up the door jambs, climbing each other’s backs, crawling across the frames and bricks and turning the grass in front of the building an ugly, bruised red. Each one of them, from those the size of his thumbnail to the ones as big as his open palm, has a red eye bubbling out of their backs, a million little sockets, all filled with blood.  The barn, which was a rough place to begin with, looks now like it has been standing a thousand years, incubating this terror in its womb. There are holes in its roof and only broken shards of glass in its windows and all the spaces which touch the light and the air have been turned deep, pulsing crimson. The spiders are basking in it, breathing its glow, its glammer.

“Them!” the boy cries again, “Them, them them!”

He raises his face to Cuthbert’s, at last, and as he opens his eyes Bert already knows what he will see there — blood red waters where there should have been eyes, the tears still dripping down the child’s cheeks sticky and rank now, covering the earth around him with spots and puddles of red that stink of week old flesh and mutie stock and abandoned cellars and poisoned earth, which the spiders — oh, Gan, the spiders! — have begun to drink.

He came,” the boy says, starting to grin. His gums are bleeding; there are trickles of blood running out of his ears, staining his collar. “He came and talked to me. The spiders were in the chickens. They were all dead.”

And the boy’s voice has changed, modulated down into a much lower range, like a man’s voice, and yet not a man’s. The boy's mouth opens again, in a mad laugh, and a torrent of spiders fall out of his throat. Cuthbert realises, as his bowels turn to water (no kind of gunslinger) that it is the spiders' legs that are making the buzzing, as the rub together, as they climb out of the child's (not a child) maw.

The boy is still laughing and still vomiting up spiders as he reaches out to touch Cuthbert's hand. To touch him to seal the day and win it for the spiderfolken and their furnace house, no saving lost, lonely gunslingers out scouting for trouble without their guns and —

the forest mouth opens up behind him, with a little roar, and —

he is pulled in butt first, folding down the middle, so elegant —

the wind around his face rips at his eyes and dries his mouth instantly. He can feel his tiniest bones begin to rattle, the ones in his ears and in his fingers and toes, grinding together and arguing with whatever is causing this unreasonable trauma, complaining that this just isn't something up with which they will put —

he is pulled into darkness until the forest, the barn, the spiders, and the child, are just a red point, disappearing as he flies faster and their laughter turns to screams —

you're not quite there yet, son. don't worry. these things have a way of coming round quicker than you'd like. plenty of time to put it right.

who are you?

(laughter) I'm sure you know. you haven't forgotten.

the darkness has texture now. Bert is aware of shapes and edifices that he cannot see but which his body is anxious to avoid. This is not the todash darkness, at least he fervently hopes it is not. The darkness is not unkind, not kind either; the darkness doesn't care about him, but at least it doesn't want to eat him, so Bert feels he's probably still ahead —

his body falls past mountains and stars. He tumbles in the dark. He closes his eyes and remembers that he is really asleep, and then wonders if he is. He laughs, because he is Bert Allgood —

something up ahead now. Something very very big. Cuthbert thinks he can work out the shape with his hands and puts them out in front of his face. He can't see anything. His hands know the shape, but his brain can't process the scale. A voice again —

ah, you're coming up on it now, son. try not to chip the shell, if you can?

laughing again! old friend, old friend, how did you get here?

oh, i've been here. just about forever

laughing again, Bert sees —

as he flies past it, circling the blank darkness which can only be the inside of his own mind —

he thinks it looks like the Turtle, like Maturin, his favourite of the Guardians, the one he always wanted to see, one day, always thought he would. He knows Roland would be impatient of him, angry, if Bert pushed it; Roland has no time for fairytales, not anymore.

He always has time to think he looks kind, the Turtle — Maturin, yes, it's him, for sure — and he looks kind, just like the rhyme promised before he wakes up.

ii.

The road to Hambry, to Meijis, to what waits for them at the end of their fathers' expectations of safety, is uneventful. For the most part. Cuthbert does dream, a little.

*

When they were children — true children, not these ambiguous half-men that they seem to have grown into while no one was really looking — Roland loved stories and tales. As they were both children then it is hard for Bert to remember what Steven's son Roland was actually like at the age of, five, seven, nine — Cuthbert remembers precious days spent in the dirt outside the castle walls, forgetful of their duties; and he remembers Roland's hair in the wind; and he remembers that he knew he was not supposed to feel like this, or feel anything particularly, that the lack of imagination is a gunslinger’s greatest gift, and he will always fall short.

But there were many stories, and many opportunities to tell them. Seven years old and newly installed in the barracks where the gunslinger 'prentices have lived for many generations, and it’s the first night and they are all afraid although they are all striving not to show it. (Well, most of them were: Bert is sure he remembers that Alain just lay down on his back and went to sleep, as if the burden of his coming ka and missing his mother and father were not much more than a feather's weight on his chest.) But that night they told each other all the stories they knew, and it helped the frighted ones to sleep and the brave ones to remember that their way was not, for the moment at least, the only way to be.

Roland had told a story, too. A tale they all knew, one from their cradles, but one which, when Roland told it, grew a new weight. All the whispers fell silent and all their breathing quiet under the sound of his voice. Only seven, but he held them in his hands. And Cuthbert, in the next-door bed, had watched him with pride and awe. His best friend, his hair curling on his collar and his eyes bright with the story.

It had been a story about the Guardians, and the adventures they had before they were bound to their Beams and Portals, Cuthbert seems to remember. As boys they loved those tales. And they all had a favourite, all the 'prentices did, including Roland. Alain's was the Dog. Cuthbert the Turtle. Jamie the Horse. Roland had favoured the Bear. Next-door Guardians and next-door Beams. Bert always felt good about that, as though it proved that they were well met, not just kids thrown together in a dusty little barracks because of their fathers and their fathers' expectations. That they were truly ka-tet.

That first night they had slept well, under the weight and warmth of the stories. Their last night as children.

*

There was another story told in the shadows of the lives of children born to the gun. They had all heard it before they were ten, but never spoke of it, never re-told it to each other. It burrowed into them, into their bellies, and slept, only to wake at the end.

The story of a battle. The battle of all battles.

The forces of the White had been chasing those of the Red for three days and nights along the path of the Beam, from Hare to Bat (or Lion to Eagle, or Bear to Turtle, it doesn't matter much) a long way away and far from Gilead and the business of its Barony. They had run through deserts and plains, mountains and forests and barren wastelands and on the fourth day of the chase the dead grey landscape, which had narrowed to a thin pass over a dizzying chasm, had opened up to show them a wide field. A river runs through the middle of it, and it is this that turns the field into a place fit for crops to grow in. And they have, abundantly. In some versions of the tale it is rice, in some wheat or grain, but whatever crop it is the farmer will have been pleased with its progress, for it has spread all across the field and greened it wonderfully. Its colours are the brightest things in the whole landscape, brighter than sky and the sun at noon, and the stars in the evening.

Trees line the edges of the field, breaking up one farmer's place from another. They are not the tall, thin trees that act as windbreakers but just rather squat affairs with windthrown leaves. Quickbeams or hoarnuts, perhaps. They look like a line of old men, huddling up against the wind. In the branches of the trees, like black snow gathering and eating up the light, are crows. A full murder of them, waiting in the trees.

The White army slow as they reach the field. They spread out to cover the way back through the pass.

The white army are tired, exhausted to their bones with running and endlessly looking. No sleep for three nights. Trying to follow the red through the night, having to pause to find tracks and sign, with the fighters at the front of the line getting impatient and shouting back to the rangers that they can still hear the cries of those red monsters, for your father's sake, just keep on running! The rangers harrumph and curse, but they do keep running. What else is there to do? The Red are on the run, and they must follow. And anyway, there is nowhere else to go but forward.

The forces of the Red turn at the river, for they cannot cross easily a spring river in full flow, without preparation and magics the like of which a army does not carry as a matter of course. Though they did have with them a magician. A man of great talent in glammers and illusions and sleights of hand. A man whose face is always hidden by a black hood. A man whose name no one wants to speak. And we will not speak of him, not just yet.

And now here they are, facing each other across the green field.

The eyes of the Red glimmer and laugh. A good number of the warriors cannot be seen clearly, even in this clear summer light, for they are shrouded by shadows and darkness. The glammer cast by their magician which makes them taller and broader, and yet harder to pinpoint individually; they shimmer, like the path shimmers in the heat of a hot day.

A cry goes up. The voice of their king raised high over the field: hile, gunslingers! To me!

Some versions of the tale describe the battle minutely, recording the movement of flanks of fighters and the strikes of the men who climbed the little hills and great rocks to shoot their bahs and bows. The tale follows the path of their arrows and the clout of swords and knives. It follows particularly the invisible flights of the bullets shot by the gunslingers who were first in the lines. A hundred of them, so the tale tells, the best that ever were.

This version of the tale does not, for the battle itself is not the point of its telling. Suffice it to say that many heroes were made, many duels were fought and won and lost, as ka decreed.

Fewer gunslingers fell than the others, as it should be. They stand by their king and watch the stragglers run. With them is the magician, whose cloak seems to bounce back all the bullets that were set on him. He is laughing, as he always is. He capers and dances, no blood on his feet. And he shimmers.

The king gathers all his men around him and sets them to watch him and to look at what they have done here, today, in the green field at the other end of the Beam. A great victory for White over Red, thus Gan wills ever. And all the gunslingers there present, who had all been boys once, been 'prentices sleeping in narrow cots in a dusty barracks, saw it, saw it very well.

And in the boughs of the trees, the crows wait, cawing, restless.

And in the distance, almost too far away to see, a peal of laughter comes. It comes at them like a bullet, straight if not true, and explodes in all their ears. After the laughter, the magician speaks:

"This is your legacy, gunslingers! How do you find it? Does it please you, King of the line of Eld? Does the blood of the dead and the caws of the crows please your chary hearts?"

And the king said: "This is how it ends, always. It is as it was always told to you. First comes smiles, then lies. Last is gunfire."

And the gunslingers looked up at the crows, now fair streaming out of the trees like a black whirlwind, going down to the field, to fight over the spoils that are theirs. The noise of their wings and their calls is almost deafening. The gunslingers stand, their heads ringing and their wounds aching; they stand and watch the magician disappear into the distance, darkle and tinct, until he is gone.

They stand, and are true.

iii.

The road from Hambry, back from Meijis to Gilead, to home and hearth and the expectation of safety (possibly, for now they are aware of what precarious promises safety has been making them all their lives while they were waiting to throw it away for the prospect of a little bloody excitement), is only uneventful in comparison to what went before.

But that story is told elsewhere.

iv.

After Roland kills  his mother and the woman he loves, things that were not there before — or not visible — bubble to the surface from time to time. For moments, and they are only moments, emotions seem to be all that knit together the body of Roland, son of Steven. He quivers with them and does not know their language; Bert wishes he could help, at least sometimes, but he can’t.

At these times it is as if his own nature and Roland’s have changed places. Cuthbert feels shadows at the corners of his eyes and he becomes watchful and clings to the corners of the castle, waiting instead of laughing. And Roland? His eyes are miles away and, just once, it is these eyes he shoots with, even though the target is nothing very important (just a rabbit) and the weapon is not his father’s gun but an old bah they found in one of the storerooms, but it turns Cuthbert’s hands to shaking, all the same.

Cuthbert couldn’t say how it happens, except that he knows that Roland has understood his heart at least since one of them became a makeshift man, if not before, and certainly since Susan Delgado, and maybe Roland thinks he owes these stumbling, rather absent kisses to a version of himself that does not exist on this level of the Tower. And because Roland is lost, walking down the paths that make up his heart, his boots bloody with its dead desires. Cuthbert holds him and makes no attempt to help him to forget, because forgetting is the end of this; the end of madness.

In the extremity of his desire, the only thing Bert can think to do is to place his bare cheek against Roland's bare back. He has Roland's mouth, distracted but still warm. Soft skin and hair that is slightly damp with sweat at temples and nape of neck. Bert presses his mouth to the delicate, paper-thin stretch of Roland’s throat, just above the collarbones, and tries to swallow his heartbeat.

It lasts, oh, a few weeks. Just a little time of madness. It is not enough.

v.

Madness swells, however. Madness makes itself a friend of the Barony of Gilead and under its grinning face all things begin their ending, including Cuthbert Allgood.

Steven Deschain is dead, Cort the teacher is dead. Bert's own father, Robert Allgood, lies in his chamber, sweating through the last of a fever that Cuthbert has been told not to expect him to survive. They don't know whether it was poison or misfortune, but it hardly seems to matter. They are the men now, the gunslingers, by process of elimination if nothing else. Cuthbert supposes that if he was entirely in possession of his faculties this would frighten him, because he is twenty-one years old and he knows how little he knows for sure, gunslinger or not. But sometimes it is enough like a game to suit him; he still laughs, even with the smell of blood in his nose.

The night that he has the dream is quiet; the first quiet night in a long time. They have all eaten and no one has been killed, nothing is on fire, and Roland has something that they are all prepared to believe is a plan. It has been a good night. Cuthbert was looking forward to the sleep that would round it off.

There was no one awake that night, certainly no one awake close enough to Cuthbert's chamber to hear. Maybe they wouldn't have heard even if they had been there. But there was a voice. It whispered:

come on, son. it's time now.

*

One on level of the Tower / on one side of the universe
Cuthbert Allgood walks north, boots untied and shirttails flapping in the not inconsiderable wind, half his mind still believing this is only a dream into the thinny that still echoes in his dreams / Eddie Dean walks south, ignoring the way his teeth have begun to sing about the quality of the friendship with Jesus, buzzing all around his fucking skull, into the thinny that pulls on his hand
not the true one / not the true one
the thinny of the mind
the blurring blue darkness, like a cave, just behind their eyes
they turn around in their minds, in their memories of the future
and see the door

*

"Here we are again," Bert says, under his breath, "Happy as can be."

It's the road to the little farm and its woodshed, of course. Although, now he thinks of it — when was the last time he had this particular dream? Since Cort died, or Steven Deschain? Since they came back from Meijis with gifts they would have been better without? He can't remember exactly, but the effort of remembering makes him feel a boy again, the way he was before the guns came to him, when his own father was alive and before death was all their inheritance, gunslinger or not.

Once again he is lying on his back, looking up at a canopy of what may be leaves and may be the fabric of the universe. He takes in a deep breath and lets it out, closes his eyes and then opens them again, and then gets to his feet.

The first thing he sees which he has not seen before is the young man of about his own age lying on the other side of the scrubby beginnings of the path he knows well. The second thing he sees is that this is not a man from his own when, or where, though how he can possibly know something like this he is not sure. He is wearing bluejeans and a pair of handmade moccasins, like the ones they used to make, when they were 'prentices. Cort used to beat him on account of the quality (lack of quality) of his stitches. The man is still sleeping and almost looks peaceful, like he doesn't mind bedding down on mud and dried leaves, or at least like he has grown to expect nothing better.

Bert sits, and waits for him to wake up. There isn't any rush; the barn isn't going anywhere.

When the man finally does wake up, Cuthbert realises something he had not seen before, when the man was (dead) sleeping. He has not had a long run at mirrors — there are few, even in Gilead, and what specimens there are do not typically put themselves to the use of slight young men with guns at their sides. And so his immediate thought is not that it is his own face looking at him above a checked shirt and beneath a rush of untidy black hair, but his father's. A terribly young version of his father, with a twist at his mouth so unlike the stiff pucker of his own Da. His Da never smiled (not for a long time before the end of it) but this man looks like one who always has a quick word and a joke just behind those lips, which is the only clue he was given, at least until the man looked back at him.

The first thing the man who could be Cuthbert's twin brother says is something that arrives in Bert's head as a slurred buzz of sound, until he realises that the familiar stranger is calling on the Man Jesus.

"Jeez, man. I hope you're not going to tell me your name is, I don’t know, Edwin or something, because that would be one creepy turn too many.”

Cuthbert stares at him for a long moment: it falls on the young man’s face like rain, washing out his smile and Bert can tell he is about to ask so who exactly are you? in his strange bee box accent in the second before Bert himself says

“Cuthbert Allgood,” and bows, one leg outstretched and a flourishing arm, “And I thought this was my dream, but if I have to share it, then welcome to you, sir.”

The man’s eyebrows raise and his mouth cracks itself ajar. He repeats Cuthbert’s name back to him, as if one of them has made a mistake.

“Cuthbert, son of Robert?”

“Aye.”

The man’s uncertainty cracks into a grin that it seems to Bert belongs to someone who has had many wheels to learn to stop worrying about the unexpected things ka pushes into his path. He does not bow, but sticks out his hand towards Bert, in a gesture that looks, for him, utterly natural.

“Eddie Dean, son of Wendell, of New York, ka-tet of the ninety and nine. Our dinh is Roland Deschain, of Gilead, who I believe you know.”

Bert listens to his own jaw uncouple and drop down a stretch.

“Roland?”

“Tall guy, no sense of humour that you’d notice, crazy blue eyes. Oh, and he has some seriously nice guns, with sandalwood grips. Little bit like these —”

The man’s right hand goes towards the docker’s clutch that Bert hadn’t even noticed he was wearing (maybe he wasn’t wearing it, until a second ago) and rummages around for a second, then produces, his white hand with its dirty fingernails curled around the ancient inlays of a gun that, along with its fellow, Cuthbert has been envying all his conscious life, Roland’s father’s gun, that made with the steel of Excalibur itself, of the line of Arthur Eld.

Bert reaches out to touch the barrel, then draws his hand away.

“How can you have this?”

“Ah, well, Roland he ain’t so hot with his right hand anymore. A lot’s happened to him, further down the path of the Beam.”

“Say true?”

The man — Eddie — nods, “Say thankya. He misplaced a couple of his fingers and since then I, and sometimes Suze, that’s my wife, Susannah, we look after them for him as you might say.”

Bert narrows his eyes and smiles. "Oh, really?"

Eddie smiles back and lodges the gun back into its resting place. "You'd be surprised. Probably." He squints another look at Bert, up and down from boots to brows, and then says, "Well, perhaps you wouldn't."

"Well, I always thought he was likely to get himself into the kind of trouble that needs a team of ... bodyguards?"

Eddie laughs. "No, man. The other way round, I think. He's just, well, softening up at the edges, just a little bit."

"A little bit."

"Sure. You'd hardly recognise him. He made a joke last month."

Cuthbert lets himself laugh, even though he's really not sure that this is a time for mirth, not with what he can see through the mouth of that door. It would surprise Roland — at least the Roland he knows — that there are times when he doesn't feel like laughing but they certainly do occur and are, in Bert's admittedly limited experience of this one time, most definitely triggered by pulses of dirty red light floating like smoke from a badly made fire up from a door where no door should be.

"Eddie Dean?"

The man who looks so like his father (like me, it's me he looks like, God and the Man Jesus) nods.

"Cuthbert Allgood," Eddie says. Cuthbert nods in turn. They clasp their hands together, and look towards the door.

Eddie stands with his hand on his hip, as though he misses an accustomed weight there. He watches the door with his head cocked on one side, like he expects it to jump him.

"I don't like the look of it, I have to say."

"Nor do I."

Eddie turns to face him again and Bert can't see it, but he knows from Eddie's voice that the slightly quizzical, slightly frightened look on his twinner's face has been replaced with one of suspicion.

"You've seen this one before," Eddie says, without bothering to make it a question.

"No. But I've seen what it leads to."

"I don't want to know, do I? Ah, Jesus. No one told me being a hero was such a colossal pain in the rear end."

Bert laughs again. "You've taken the words right out of my mouth, my friend."

"But we're going in anyway, am I right?"

Bert grins at him, shrugs. "I think this may well be one of those occasions where we have next to no choice in the matter."

Eddie sighs and nods his head. "I thought so."

The door yawns around them. Eddie thinks it's grinning; Bert that he hears a little chuckle, like the gurgle of water as it enters the depths of a drain. They don't look at each other before they do but they both reach out, before the void, and join hands. Their knees goes first, then their hair into their eyes and their bones into powder as the door sucks them into itself.

Eddie wakes up on his back and thinks: oh fuck, I've missed my watch. He gropes for the fire, and for Susannah, but of course — this is the wrong road, the wrong path. This isn’t River Crossing or Topeka. These aren’t the dreamplaces of Hambry. He can’t see the Beam overhead. All he can see overhead is a shifting pattern of leaves, thick as severed hands against the no-light that is struggling to pass through them. The air smells thick, of pine and mud and other things that a New York boy like Eddie will just have to call ‘outside’. He strongly suspects that he is, once more, no longer in Kansas, Toto.

"Up and waking, my cully. I don't know how long this road actually is, but it seemed to take most of the night to walk it to me."

Eddie groans. "You know, you're really kinda creeping me out, friend."

Cuthbert’s head pokes into Eddie’s field of vision, that big dumb grin once more plastered over it. Eddie has time to wonder if a version of the same grin has been pissing Roland off when he sees it on Eddie’s face for the last … howeverlong, before Cuthbert’s hand reaches out and pulls him to his feet.

“So how many times have you actually walked this road?”

Cuthbert shrugs. “Many and many, say delah. All those times were in dreams, though. I don’t know whether that matters at all.”

“Yeah, I’ve done a little of that, too.”

“One of these times I’m going to have to have a word with whoever’s in charge of this whole thing, see if I can’t see about getting some clarity on exactly why nothing is ever straightforward.”

Eddie laughs this time. “I think that’s the general plan for us, too. But, man, we are taking our sweet time about it.”

“This is about the time that Roland would start talking about ka.”

“Ha. You’re telling me. He was always like that?”

“He took our schooling very very seriously.”

"I can imagine that," Eddie says, sounding very serious. "So, anyway, how many times did you have this dream that we are apparently now both starring in?"

Time passes.

*

Red eyes, there are red eyes in the undergrowth.

At first Eddie thinks he’s imagining things — of course, why wouldn’t there be a couple of sets of fucking red eyes in the bushes, why not creep yourself right the hell out while you’re walking along a spirit path with a guy you know to be dead trying to sort out some mission the details of which everyone has forgotten to tell you. Why not add in some ball-crawling terror to that mix? It’d be boring without it, right? And he shakes his head and remembers bad acid trips and fucked up nights on heroin and the beach of the lobstrosities and tells himself that he has enough shit to worry about now without his brain looking for strange new adrenaline highs. Breathe the leaf-strained air and enjoy the feeling of nothing much under your moccasins, Eddie, my friend. Live the high life.

It was just out of the corner of his eye, for an instant, that he sees it — a twin set of muddy red eyes in a patch of darkness that seems slightly darker than the rest, as if it has eaten what little light there is here on the path. Eddie turns and looks for them, half listening to Cuthbert's quiet feet continuing along the way, and half there in the darkness with his quarry. But they have gone, and nothing around him looks like a pair of red eyes. He must have been imagining it. He walks on, closing his eyes for a second, then opening them again and looking straight down the path at Cuthbert's back and paying no attention whatsoever to his surroundings.

Then a pair in the arms of a tree; another set among brambles. Eddie has caught up with Cuthbert by this time and he coughs, just a hard exhalation of breath, and catches Bert's eye.

"Yes," Cuthbert answers, under his breath. "They're there. Never doubt it."

"What are they?"

"I wouldn't like to say."

"That helps me a lot, man."

"Don't think about them just now. They're just his messengers, I think."

"Whose messengers?"

Cuthbert turns to him and flashes his inexplicably white grin (when and with what, Eddie asks himself with a small part of his mind, do these guys brush their teeth anyway?) into the dark.

"You say you think you drive Roland crazy?"

Eddie looks back at him. "I think sometimes it's all he can do to go on."

Cuthbert laughs. "Good. He doesn't understand why he needs someone like that, never has. He doesn't value mirth or such frivolous things. He always used to say that I'd die laughing, but we'll see."

Eddie, who remembers the end of that particular story, says nothing.

"They are the messengers of the Lord of the Spiders."

Eddie opens his mouth to ask who in the hell that is, but shuts it again. He realises that all the tiny hairs on his arms, the back of his neck, have raised themselves up to hear that name which isn't a real name, but only the shibboleth they must pass between themselves. Cuthbert's eyes are shaded, scared, Eddie thinks.

(He's only a kid — he looks younger now, only fifteen, or even younger — but he's a gunslinger too. He's all the things he will ever be, because he's been having this dream all his life, on all levels of the Tower. Fuck, I hope he wins. Most of the time, at least.)

"There is a farmhouse up ahead and beside it a barn. There will be a child there. As a punishment from his mother's brother he will have been chopping wood. That is when the Red King will come to him. It is this we must stop, I think. Sometimes I find him in time and sometimes I don't. Sometimes the spiders ... " Cuthbert takes in a breath as they walk along, ignoring the red eyes and the muddy treachery of the path. "Sometimes the spiders have consumed him, alive, from the inside out. And when I get there, that's all there is."

Eddie looks ahead, up the path. He can see something, some point of light ahead. He continues to say nothing.

"He wants this child. Wants to eat him, somehow. To have him, as pet, or —"

"Or scribe," Eddie says, not sure why or where the words came from. Somewhere else. They were pulled out of his mouth on a thin, red thread.

Cuthbert darts him a quick, searching look. He is older again. There are flowerings of stubble in the hollows of his cheeks.

"Yes. Or scribe. We can suppose for nothing good, anyway."

"He doesn't go in for that, the ... the Spider King."

"He is very serious about what he eats. I was always told that."

"Dieting, man. It's rough. So I hear."

Bert smiles again, although Eddie gets the feeling that this is one of his America-side jokes which flies under the radar of the Gilead folken. Cuthbert's smile makes him younger again. "Come on. I think it's coming up now."

The eyes of the Red King, Los Lord of Discordia watch them as they leave the path behind. They skitter and chatter, and their little legs race industriously through the undergrowth making a noise that sounds like the rustle of leaves, but is not. The eyes on the backs of the spiders that have eaten out the hollows of the trees and clung together to make leaves and which line the bed of the only stream which runs through this place and with their bodies turn it red, their eyes bleed and pulse, bleed and pulse. They send their messages home to their father, whose face they almost wish they could forget.

*

Something opens out in the trees. The path widens and brightens, becomes gravel under their feet rather than the cold, sucking mud they have mostly been walking through up until now. The trees lighten: fewer leaves and greener, their bark silvering and ungnarling. It makes Eddie think of Bilbo, climbing to the top of the trees in Mirkwood where sunlight has not been forgotten and he can see a long, long way. He takes this for a good omen.

As the trees become thinner, it is easier to see the end of the path; what it has brought them to see. Cuthbert was right: a little New England farmhouse, with a barn, its door ajar. All the lights in the house are off, the door locked and no car waiting in the drive. But the barn ... the barn is lit by a low, reddish glow, as though there is a small fire or a dim lamp alight inside. The light makes a small line as it flows out of the barn door, pointing towards them.

And, inside the barn, silhouetted against the red light, is a small figure.

Eddie looks at Cuthbert and knows that something is different this time: some key that was wanted has been remembered this time around. They have arrived in time. Cuthbert grabs Eddie's hand and starts them running towards the barn.

The trees disappear and, as if they've been vomited up into the sunlight, they come into the clearing. Eddie and Cuthbert both skid to a stop outside the barn door, short of the reddish glow, as if they'd rather not get that glow over their shoes. Eddie looks at Cuthbert; Cuthbert looks at Eddie, and shrugs. He waves a hand towards the door as if to say: after you. Eddie returns a look with which he intends to convey a general idea of gee, thanks; I thought this was your party, friend, and then turns toward the door.

It responds a little too smoothly to Eddie's tentative push, swinging almost all the way open as soon as the tips of Eddie's fingers touch it.

It's bigger inside the barn. Actually it's like fucking Narnia in here, Eddie says to himself. The walls, which ought to be all of eight feet away from the end of his nose look more like twenty, and feel more like a mile. He can't see the corners of the place, because they're too far away. Above, in the ceiling, there is a single electric bulb swinging, shaded by a green metal shade. Its light shines down on the workbench, which is clean and tidy, a clamp affixed to the far left side with its handle a perfect horizontal line and a line of tools hung up from the other side. By the workbench, just outside the brightest cone of the light, is a pile of unchopped sections of some of the unnameable trees (unnameable to Eddie at least) outside, a basket of chopped logs, and a larger chopping slab. By this little tableau, a little boy is standing. He is wearing dungarees and a striped tee-shirt. His baseball hat (Red Sox) lies discarded on the workbench. He's been chopping the wood and this strikes Eddie as just goddamn stupid, because this is not the kind of kid you want to trust with your five pound axe and basket of maple wood. He's small for his age, which is probably about six or seven, and though Eddie has a feeling that he will one day be pretty tall, at the moment he's all spongy limbs and feet all crooked and needing both hands to even pick up the small axe. Eddie is pretty impressed that he still appears to have all his fingers.

Eddie thinks he remembers the boy, or, remembers seeing him in what for the sake of argument he will call the future. He knows this kid, yet has never seen him before. He knows he has observed the long top lip before, and the pale eyes behind the thick glasses, and the black hair. The boy reminds him a little of Roland (it's the eyes, the eyes are the same, only, the kid's are laughing eyes and Roland's, well, aren't) but that's not it.

But the kid isn't looking at the woodpile anymore and he is holding the axe tight in his hands, both his hands, as if to raise it against something a lot more sinister than a bunch of wood. Eddie thinks he's starting to cry.

In the other corner of the barn, or what ought to be its other corner — Eddie still can't see the edges, and the walls are murky, not quite there — something which isn't wood has been piled. As soon as he looks over, following the kid's gaze, Eddie wonders how in the hell he didn't look over there first. He presses his hand over his mouth and nose almost before he turns his head. There is an almighty stench coming from the dark, feathery pile on the opposite wall. And this is where Eddie really starts to question what the hell this kid's parents or whatever think they're doing, because this is a pile of dead birds, dead chickens, their beaks sharp and shining in the red glow and their feathers lank, the individual barbs sticking together in ugly clumps. Their eyes are dead, dull. The red glow, the red glow that flows across the floor of the barn, pooling around the kid's feet, lapping at them like a wave, is coming from them, from their eyes and open beaks.

Eddie looks away from the pile of dead birds with an effort. He calls out, "Hey kid," as he pushes on the door to the barn again, as far as it goes, so it lets in a little more light (dilute that fucking glow). "Hey, what's your name?"

The kid turns around, bodily, from the pile, and looks up at him. Blinks. Then pushes his glasses up his nose with the hand that isn't holding the axe. This movement gives Eddie the unsettling feeling of being observed through a makeshift microscope, or a gunsight.

"Hi."

"Hi yourself. What's your name, man?"

"'M not supposed to talk to strangers, mister."

"We're not strange," Eddie says. "Well, not much. Maybe a little. But not more than your average bear."

He feels Cuthbert step up behind him, his shoulder against the door jamb. He knows that Bert's right hand is on his gun, so he feels a little easier about stretching his own hands out, open and empty.

"Well, my name's Eddie."

The kid looks up. The axe is loose in his grip and as he meets Eddie's eyes it falls out of his fingers, just so, and makes a little spray of dust as it hits the floor. The kid frowns and then smiles at Eddie, a lovely smile, and then something goes slack in his face. It's not like his eyes turn up or drool starts pouring out of his slightly open mouth or anything. Something just switches itself to off. Something else is there now, something that passes through the body of the child and opens his mouth and has him say:

"Hile, Eddie Dean. Hile gunslinger."

"Do you know me, lad?" Cuthbert, from behind Eddie's shoulder, now stepping into whatever light there is in the woodshed, his shadow long over the kid's face.

"Aye. Cuthbert Allgood, son of Robert. Hile to thee also, gunslinger."

"You are named Stephen, or Steve, if it does ya, brother of David."

"Aye, you say true."

"You live here, Steve?"

"With my brother, and mother and her sister and her husband. Uncle Oren set me to chopping. We tried to run away."

"Aye. And your punishment was to come here and chop the wood."

"I didn't want to come. I knew there were spiders here. I have been here before. Or maybe just dreamt it. I don't know."

"Aye. There is evil here. You feel it, I can see."

The boy's face crumples, and his body begins to move again, to turn a little back towards the chickens. Eddie feels himself shudder as the boy turns his face back into the red light.

"They're ... they're h-here!"

Cuthbert hunkers down in front of the boy and holds his shoulders first, then turns the kid's head away from the glow with a gentle hand.

"We're here, too, Stephen. We will protect you."

"H-how, how can y-you?"

Good question, kid, Eddie thinks.

Bert smiles at the kid, the kind of smile that works on children because it doesn't admit of any possibility except the promised one, and the kid is too young to know about fallibility, about the failure of adults to keep children safe. This kid is still young enough, just, to fall for it.

"You said it yourself. We're gunslingers, Steve. That's what we do."

The boy looks up at Cuthbert, light in his eyes and an expression on his face like he wants to believe what he's hearing, but doesn't quite dare. He keeps darting looks at the chickens and when he turns his face his eyes turn, momentarily, red.

"He is coming," the boy says, "H-he's closer now. He will be here s-soon."

"The King of the Spiders," Eddie says.

"Yar," the boy says in a sad, resigned voice.

(we have all been here before)

"Come out of this barn, Stephen," Cuthbert says, reaching for the boy's hand, "Come out of the —"

As Cuthbert speaks, his eyes on the boy, Eddie feels a warm wave begin to break against his cheek, as though someone has suddenly turned an electric fire up to high and pushed it too close. He turns away from the boy and Cuthbert and looks —

the chickens are alive again, or coming alive, raising their wings feebly in the dark and trying to flap, unable to. Their eyes roll up in their heads, as if they understand; as if they know what has happened to them, and what is about to.

"He's here!" the boys cries it, the words bubbling up out of his throat. Eddie watches as all the colour sinks out of his face. "He's here." Slow this time, quiet, the words hardly moving his lips at all.

Eddie and Cuthbert, shoulder to shoulder, with a hand each on Steve's shoulders, turn towards the opposite side of the barn.

The red glow — it's not the chickens but the tiny red spiders that are streaming over them and out of them that is creating it — ought to show them the real size of the barn, maybe ten by twelve if Eddie's any judge and the outside walls bear any relationship to the dimensions inside. It doesn't. The glow spreads over the floor for a length that is easily double that, brighter near the chickens and an angry, duller shade as it nears them, but Eddie can't see the building's corners at all now. They might as well be back in the woods, with night all around them, and thousands of red eyes.

Cuthbert acts quicker than Eddie and takes hold of the child and pushes him behind both of them. "Get behind us, Stephen, and don't look, don't look at it at all —"

A noise that sounds like a little, liquid chuckle emanates from the corner of the barn. Eddie realises that all the hair on the back of his neck is standing to attention. Eddie turns to check Cuthbert's face (oh who's he kidding, to see what the hell they ought to be doing against the spiders in the dark) and —

It's Roland. Or it seems to be Roland. Standing in the doorway behind them with his guns crossed on his hips and his shirt the no-colour of rain water. Eddie frowns, and then smiles: you were looking for someone to tell you what the hell you do now? Here's your dinh, big as life and still every bit as ugly. And, hey, Cuthbert sees him too now and the expression on his face is even more grateful. It's as if Cuthbert hasn't seen his friend for many years, hundreds, say delah. Eddie sees tears in Bert's eyes.

"Roland — "

"You must come out of there, Bert. The spiders are on the advance and once they come they will eat the world. You must get out."

"But, the boy —"

"Leave him. It's no matter, he's not important."

Cuthbert attempts to smile at him, but the smile is uncertain, and Eddie notices that Bert's fingers are digging into the little boy's shoulders, and that the child is looking up at Roland with an expression of enormous, indigestible fear on his face. Eddie's pretty sure he just wet himself.

"Roland, I've been having this dream since we were children. I have to save him, that's the whole point."

"No, Bert, you just had it all wrong. He's supposed to go to the King, it's ka."

Little Steve's face is now bathed once again in an ugly red glow. His eyes are wide and shining, pink in the light as if he is looking up into the Demon Moon, as if his eyes are glued to that bloody grin. But, Eddie thinks, something beginning to shift in his mind, something that had tried for him, tried to put its hooks in his mind but not bothered with him too much, because this isn't his dream, not really, it's Cuthbert who —

"Roland, he's a child — " Cuthbert says, unsure now, but loosening.

"He's about to be a demon, now come out. As dinh I command it."

"Hang on, hang on," Eddie says. They both turn to him, Cuthbert from by his shoulder and the man who looks like Roland Deschain from the doorway. Both of them look surprised to see him: Bert like he just forgot and now he's grateful to see Eddie, maybe he can get a little help from him with the endless task of Dealing With Roland; the man himself, well, jesus, he doesn't look pleased at all, more like he thinks about as much of Eddie as he thinks of the dirt of this world that is now staining his boots. Well, gee, thanks so much, Roland.

"Look, Cuthbert knows what he's doing, he's had this dream a lot, Roland, and it's great that you're here and all but —"

"Eddie, please don't favour me with your opinions on what Cuthbert knows and should do. You're out of your depth here. Just listen and then obey."

"Roland —"

They both say it, Eddie and Cuthbert, together. But at the same time that they do the boy starts screaming. He's just thrown his head back and let go. The inside of his mouth is an impressively angry red and his little teeth seem almost lost in there, about to drown in the wave of his tongue.

"H-him, hiiiiiim, he's come," he says, the i's all little screams, little rents in the world they have found themselves standing in. It is the sound of an animal in terrible pain. Little Steve gulps, swallows and takes in a long breath. His crying stops, but only for a moment. The kid's voice is a low moan now, probably because he's wrecked it with screaming, with fear. He is pointing at Roland

(it's not Roland)

his finger trembling and the tears just painting his cheeks shiny and pink and repeating, over and over, he's come he's come he's come he's here he's come he's come.

That liquid chuckle again. Not from behind them, but ahead. Eddie looks up from the kid to see Roland

(it isn't Roland)

stifling a smile. His eyes — what's wrong with his eyes?

Red rimmed, as though he's been crying, or like someone's been very free with the weird red eyeliner. And his teeth? Roland's teeth don't look like that, do they? Eddie hasn't spent a lot of time observing his dinh's dental situation but he's pretty sure that —

"Cuthbert, get away from him," Eddie says, sharp, reaching out for Bert, who doesn't seem to have noticed anything, who is still walking towards Roland like he's the saviour Bert's been waiting for all this time.

"No, Bert, don't —"

Cuthbert's hands have moved from little Steve's shoulders and are reaching for Roland, as though he would grasp the man

(the creature, it's him, he has come, and in this shape)

by his hands and pull him into a hug, as though to close down those many and many years that they have been apart, even though it couldn't have been so long

(how dare you come in this shape, monster)

it couldn't have been as long as it seems, as it feels.

Cuthbert says, "Roland," and the way he says it hurts Eddie's heart. It is more than the (imagined?) time between their last meeting, more than the unexplained cruelty which the gunslinger

(get out of that shape, you fucker)

is apparently insisting that he give in to. There is a dreadful longing in Cuthbert's voice, and in his eyes too; something which he does not speak of, or think of, when he can help it, but which lurks in his heart like a little red spider, eating him up.

"Don't touch him, Bert," Eddie says. His voice sounds heavy, the way Roland

(the real Roland, not you, thing)

would sound — does sound — when he gives an order. Eddie supposes it's that which makes Cuthbert turn and when he turns back —

The chuckle again. Not bothering to hide his smile the creature begins to grin, then to laugh the way you do when you're at the beginning of an episode of hysterics, when you're worried that you won't be able to breathe, ever again.

"Oh," the thing says, its voice murky, the brown-red of dried blood, it buzzes in Eddie's mind, "Let him come, the fool, my ka mai. Look at that face. You couldn't refuse that face."

"You ain't kidding anyone, my friend," Eddie says. "I hate to tell you that, but you're just flunking out."

"Eddie, Roland — " Cuthbert says, still not all there, still caught between what he still sees as the pale blue eyes of the man that — yes, that must be it, the man he loves — and the red glow that has begun to shimmer around him, like a hand held up against a strong light. It pulses, like a heart coming to the end of its beating.

"Turn away, Cuthbert, son of Robert," Eddie says, softly. "Turn away."

Cuthbert looks at him, for a second that seems so much longer. He looks back at the monster, then closes his eyes. He squeezes them shut, hard, then puts his hands up to his face. When he takes them away again, his eyes are clear.

Cuthbert's head tilts to the side, just a few degrees, pondering. Eddie hears him laugh — a real laugh. It cheers him; it turns back the red like the page of a book.

"No," Cuthbert says, quiet now, his voice like Eddie's, like Roland's, like Suze and Jake. A gunslinger.

"No, you're not my friend. I don't suppose you have all that many friends, do you? And that's okay. The real Roland Deschain doesn't really have that knack either. But he never left a child to die in the hands of Dis. He never was a man crawling with spiders and rot and disease. And you aren't him, my cully. You know nothing of him. And I see you now, I see you very well. Be out of here, monster."

And the form of the man who looks like Roland Deschain —

or, rather, doesn't anymore; now stooped and crooked, his eyes red around the irises and his teeth long over his long top lip ... and yet there is a resemblance, a kinship somewhere, twisted in this one, turned towards darkness and chaos, oh Discordia, spitting on the roses from the balcony of the Tower, but somewhere joined

— crumples and screams, shaking its limbs and head like someone having a fit, only fast enough to make the flesh seem to blur. It folds in on itself, each fold making it smaller and smaller, fingers snapping and bones concatenating, its hair shredding into a little pile of dust on the barn floor, until all that is left is a spider. A spider, of course. As big as Eddie's head and bright artery blood red. On its back is an eye, unblinking, and full of blood.

It rises up on its back legs, almost like it's shaking its fists at them, and Eddie sees its mandible tremble and drip with poison.

"Last chance, Bert, last chance before he kills you, and he will you know. You always hurt the one you love, but your love isn't going to save you, only bury you, in a field of crooooo —"

Cuthbert's arms are trembling, his shoulders shaking. But his hands are steady, on little Steve's shoulders again, holding the boy close against his belly.

Eddie draws the big gun with the sandalwood grip and holds the spider in his gunsights.

Little Steve, through his tears and his sobs, with the red light retreating from him, as though he had kicked it away with his boots, opens his eyes.

Bert shakes him, just a little, hands still holding so tight. He calls out, his voice light and true, still a laugh in there somewhere:

"Say it, Stephen, say it! Say what you must say, to him!"

And the boy screams, a hundred decibels, enough to burst Eddie's eardrums:

"I turn aside from Dis! I repudiate Dis!" And, after a big breath in, "I. WON'T. GO!"

The spider recoils from the scream, its legs waving in the lee of it, as though little Steve's mouth was the mouth of a storm. Perhaps, Eddie thinks, that's really what it is. A high screech comes from the spider, at first like the scream of an animal in a trap, cut off in an instant. But then, starting again, a low sound like wind in trees, like water over a fall, only nothing like so natural. The sound of mass leaving one universe and creeping into another, through a pinhole opening which opens onto nothing, onto the todash darkness. Eddie thinks the scream modulates into a hum, into a purr as the thing crawls into the darkness, like it is soothed by that place. He supposes it is, must be.

Then — sudden — the spider winks out of existence (out of this existence, anyway) and they all turn to look at each other. As they do, something that looks to Eddie like a firework, if fireworks were in the habit of going off all of four feet from your face, explodes in the barn. But it's white this time, bright white light. It hurts their eyes, even through closed lids, but it feels better, cleaner than the other. Eddie thinks (oh jesus, Henry says in his head, you're such a fucking crybaby bro) he's started to cry. With relief, presumably.

Eddie opens his eyes again. Just a fizz of bright white light now, a bright lamp that spreads right to the corners of the barn, now just a barn again, its real corners, closer now, made of old bricks and rotten mortar. Eddie stares, unable to look away, at the spiderwebs in its corners. But they are old and ragged, and covered with dust. He is still looking when —

"Come, Eddie, come on!"

Cuthbert. He takes hold of Eddie's wrist in one hand and little Steve's in his other and drags them both out of the barn, now closing down on itself, no longer an endless portal, but just a barn, shrinking to its usual size, shrinking down in the centre of a white light, like moonlight, like the centre of a faraway star. They make it out, Cuthbert and Eddie on their feet (just about), and Steve tripping over his feet, so that he does not see how the barn explodes into light for a moment, making a brief day shine in the middle of the forest, and then winks out.

Nothing remains. Eddie is looking for something that makes sense of this, anything, anything at all, when he realises that Cuthbert is laughing. Not just laughing but having a pretty good set of hysterics, right there in the dirt. Steve is watching him, mouth open again and his glasses slipping down his nose. He watches Bert for a few seconds, and then starts in laughing himself. There's a thread in it, a thin, red one, that is more fear, more terror still lingering and failing to believe that it's all over, that it can be over now, once his eyes have seen you, but he does laugh.

Eddie just stands there and watches them both roll around in the mud. For once he doesn't actually feel that much like laughing.

*

It's almost like the boy disappears too. Without fireworks and screaming, but disappears all the same. They make the barn straight, chop the last of the wood for the boy because his hands are still trembling and his pants are still wet, and Eddie doesn't fancy having the severing of the kid's fingers on his conscience (even if it's just his dream conscience) for the rest of his life. If the chore isn't done, Steve tells them, his voice coming back now, just a little kid again, bouncing back from the truest horror of his life like it was nothing more than falling off his bike, his uncle will strap him. So they do the wood chopping. It takes about five minutes.

At some point the kid wanders off, or that's the explanation that Eddie's going to stick with because the alternative — that he just faded into nothingness, standing in the doorway of the barn, is too trippy even for this dreamer. Eventually, Cuthbert and Eddie turn back towards the path.

*

as they go through the door, hand in hand
both of them feel —
the bullet
the arrow
— travel right through the part of them that remembers
Roland
and so the next time, riding around the wheel again, ka's donkey again, they forget
Him, the one that started it all —
first gunslinger
last gunslinger
hile, gunslinger
who drew and drew onwards
and strung out their hearts on a little red string

And in another dream, one that smells of roses to the one doing the dreaming, he that floats at the end of a thin red thread, balanced by a rose, he too forgets. No more spiders, and the chickens will stay dead. The Red King is defeated; the King who is nothing of the kind, sitting in Gan's navel to squint at the world and write down its future, sometimes, can go on dreaming. He doesn't dream about the chickens anymore.

*

Sometime after, Cuthbert wakes. He remembers nothing (you did good, son.) except that he thinks his dream was a good one, that he remembered the face of his father.

vi.

There is a line ahead, a thin thread, a red path around the world they know, that they can see. Roland follows it with his eyes, as he follows the curve of a bullet into flesh. Alain with his mind, turning it over and through, twisting it so he understands it in all three dimensions, like the wooden blocks he played with as a child. And you, Cuthbert? How do you find the line, the path, the Beam? With your heart, and with your guts. The thread of it pulls at your navel, jerking you onwards. And very well, you say, as you will! Onwards! And you laugh, of course.

Roland walks with the bridges and battlements of Gilead breaking his shoulders.

Alain holds the line. He walks with the Beam at his feet, keeping it clear on the path with the soles of his moccasins. His boots were lost, weeks ago now (or maybe — well, maybe any time). It’s a good story and he hopes he lives to be able to tell it to someone, soon.

You, laughing crow, laughing boy, dead-eye cully. You walk without memories in your steps; every day is fresh to you, no twist yet of darkness. Or perhaps you have just forgotten it. Or perhaps you have decided to forget, for now

*

They walk many days, and on the thirtieth or fortieth, no one has remembered to count, they come to a long sloping field. It is filled with huge faces, of gray-black stone, and none of them look human anymore, none of them have eyes, for they have been standing there many centuries and the time has taken their faces away.

And in the trees, and in the crooks of the mountains which rise behind the field, there is a fall of black snow; the crows, waiting. They are still waiting for the shooting to begin.