The sun beat hard on the weary plain, as it had for a thousand years and may yet for a thousand more - during these days of sorrow, it was hard to say what the future might hold.
Yellow grass bent and swayed with every warm breeze that came from the south, carrying with it the faint scent of the ocean. The rains would not come for another two months. Death was all around and the world was moving on.
The gunslinger rode alone, following the path of trampled soil that lead to the lair of the beast. Droplets of sweat stung his eyes. His horse wasn't breathing right. Yet he pushed on, his mind only on the task ahead.
Once, long ago, Galataine was a barony, not unlike New Canaan - the gunslinger's home - in splendor. Then, as a great poison soured the earth, the rivers grew shallow and farms turned no crops. The population had dwindled. Since then, they had been plagued by droughts and famine. And now... a wyrm.
The mayor of Driftwood - a small town at Galataineís coast - had come to him. He blubbered and pleaded, ready to fall to his knees should he be required to do so. Early in the year, a foul creature had emerged from underground and began devouring Driftwood's meager livestock. It devoured some people too. Among the list of victims was the mayor's nephew, who had been out for an afternoon ride. The only thing that was left of him was a bloody stump of a leg.
There was hope. As long as the Affiliation remained in tact, there would always be hope. However, as the gunslinger rode, he figured that by the next ten years, Galataine would be nothing but a memory.
Would New Canaan and the other baronies of In-World end up the same way?
As long as he was alive, the gunslinger vowed to never let such a thing happen. He would fight to the end. He would go all the way to the Tower if need be.
The earth opened up in a great zig-zagging crevice that plunged a hundred feet down. Below, where the rocky ground was shrouded in shadows, the gunslinger could smell the foul stench of death.
He dismounted and stood at the edge of this ravine, pushing back the brim of his hat, looking down. A strong wind came and pushed back the flaps of his leather duster, revealing the holstered guns at his sides, the sandalwood grips gleaming like sand on a beach.
He crouched down and picked up a small rock. Throwing it down into the ravine, he listened to the dull sound of its impact after a brief moment of silence. Then, shortly after, there was a deep grumble from inside the earth, something which caused a tremor under the gunslinger's boots.
The gunslinger stood up, reached into the pocket of his denim jeans and pulled out a bundle of rolled cigarettes tied together with string. He withdrew one of them, used a match to light the tip, and then took a drag. The smoke was harsh but satisfying. He started walking.
He went along the rim of the ravine, observing every incline and outcropping, until he spotted what he was looking for. Beyond a short drop-off, a winding slope was carved into the side of the crevice, slippery but not very steep; this is where the wyrm would come crawling out from its den to feed on the open plains. He could see the trail of its body in the dirt, pushed aside in a fanning motion like that of a snake.
The gunslinger went down this slope, being careful not to slip or do anything stupid of that sort. As he descended, the smell got worse. It was like rotting meat combined with something else.
He drew his hand to the grip of his gun, his sharp blue eyes fixed on his surroundings, readying himself for whatever may happen.
Once he reached the bottom, he saw the dark shape of a cave nearby. The mouth was large and round and didn't appear to be a natural formation. Scattered among the rocks in front of the entrance were bones, hundreds of them. Some were cattle, some were sheep, and the rest were human.
One slender bone, gleaming with saliva, still had bits of flesh stuck to it. There was a cloud of flies hovering over the carnage, buzzing and humming. The gunslinger swatted them away and continued onward.
He stood in front of the portal, staring inside, unable to clearly make anything out further than twenty feet. The cave was deep, he could tell that much. He could hear the creature breathing, slow and heavy. He was trying not to inhale through his nose - the odor was enough to make a man of less will puke up everything in his stomach.
He took one last drag of his cigarette, exhaled, then set the half-spent butt down on a rock by the lip of the cave. Then, putting his fingers in his mouth, he blew a sharp whistle. The shrill noise echoed far in the dark depths - the gunslinger wondered just how far the cavern went.
Maybe all the way to the sea.
Or all the way to the waste lands.
He moved quick, moving away from the cave and ducking behind a large boulder that was about twenty yards away. There, he drew his gun and waited, remembering the face of his father.
There was a rumble like the one before, except this one was much louder and caused some small rocks to be dislodged from the crevice walls. It was followed by a shrieking sound that pull a chill in the gunslinger. It reminded him of fingernails being dragged across a stone board.
The wyrm slithered out into the light. It was over forty feet long and its body was covered in glistening black scales - it seemed to be covered in some kind of mucus though none of the slime was left behind as it moved. It had legs, but they were nothing more than boneless protrusions that wiggled each time it coiled its body.
Its eyes were small and gleamed bright yellow and its mouth seemed much too big for its head.
Its nostrils flared open, smelling, trying to find the gunslinger's scent. Instead, the smoke of the cigarette caught its attention. Its head craned, making an assortment of snorting sounds as it tried to figure out what the cigarette was.
The gunslinger slowly leaned out from behind the rock, aiming his gun at the wyrm's head. Without a momentís pause, he pulled the trigger.
His aim was true but the shot was bad. Just as he fired his weapon, a strong gust of wind swept up sand and dust. One granule went right into his eye. He had blinked and, startled, pulled back slightly.
The back of the wyrm's neck jerked and a red mist of blood sprayed against the pale rock of the cavern. Shrieking, the wyrm whirled its head around and spotted the gunslinger. Its lips curled back and its huge mouth opened, revealing a bright pink gullet and a large row of twisted teeth.
During that brief moment before the wyrm lunged, the gunslinger found it somewhat amusing that after all this time - of all the skills he'd acquired and of all the trials he'd completed and of all the worthy enemies who fell under his guns - that a grain of sand would have been the death of him.
Ka had a strange sense of humor.
Instead of accepting that fate, the gunslinger dived and rolled just before the wyrm's head came down right where he had been standing, its teeth making a loud snapping sound as they came together.
It was fast. Faster than the gunslinger had expected. And the crevice was too small for him to keep dodging it. In a flash, the wyrm had twirled around again and went for another lunge.
He spun and took another shot. A chunk of meat was blown off its flank. The creature squealed, its body lashing around in pain. It crashed into the wall of the crevice, causing a small avalanche of rocks to come tumbling down.
By this time, the gunslinger had reached the mouth of the cave again. This was his last stand. The thing had him cornered. It closed the distance, coiled up and then went in for the kill.
The gunslinger pulled off his hat and threw it into the air like a discus. On instinct, sensing the hat's movement, the wyrm veered, opened its mouth and snatched it in mid-flight.
The gunslinger fired.
The bullet tore through the wyrm's left eye and blew out the right, taking a good portion of its brain with it. The creature's neck spasmed and then suddenly went limp. It crashed down to the ground and was still, thick blood oozing out from its skull, the gunslinger's torn hat wedged in between its teeth.
He stood there for a moment, wisps of smoke coming out from the barrel of his gun. Gazing into the cave, he figured that if something like this could crawl its way to Galataine, no doubt something even worse could do the same. He figured a few well-placed shots should seal up the caveís entrance nicely.
Before doing so, he went back up to get his axe.
The people of Driftwood cheered and threw flowers petals at the gunslinger when he came through the town gates, dragging the bloody head of the wyrm behind him. It would be hung from the highest tower and, in the years to come, when nothing of Galataine was left but shadows and dust, the hideous skull remained there, gleaming under the sun.
The gunslinger was fed and bathed. His horse was given proper care. In the morning, he left Driftwood and the barony of Galataine. He did not give them any false hopes. He did not promise them everything they needed. It would have been a lie. The harsh truth was that the Affiliation could no longer afford to sustain unprofitable lands in Mid-World.
At least, on that day, they were free to celebrate and know that while gunslingers guarded this world, there would always be order.
As he, Henry Deschain, rode east to Gilead, he thought of his wife, and his son, and the green fields of his home.
He also missed his hat.
The room was warm, dark and wrought with shadows. There were no windows. It was buried deep inside the old walls of the castle, a place that only a few were ever allowed to see. It smelled of raw smoke, of burning coals, and, most of all, age.
Gregor sat at a crafterís table, thick-lensed glasses perched low on his crooked nose. His calloused fingers, empowered by years of training and skill, were busy in assembling an assortment of metal pieces. He went about his task - his purpose in life - like one would go about breathing or walking.
He wore simple clothes: a sleeveless jerkin, a workmanís apron and pants that had sagging holes at the knees. His sinewy arms were bare and marked with numerous burn-scars that went all the way up to his shoulders. His face was hard, chiseled, covered in a sheen of sweat that glimmered in the wavering light of the forge. Like the skill he had mastered, he was old, dying; soon to be swept away in the ocean of time, where no memories would remain.
Reaching across the table, Gregor picked up a slender drill, which was curled at one end, and began prodding the metal pieces together. Other tools were there, some that would be recognizable even to a laymanís eye, plain-looking in every respect, while others would merely produce a puzzled frown. They all dated back to the early days when the Tower was brighter, as the saying goes, when men like Gregor were not a rare breed.
He did not lament this, however. Rather, he accepted his fate with tired resignation.
If ka wills it, then it will be so.
He closed his eyes and listened to the snapping sound of the final joints of metal coming together. It was harmonic, flawless - had he heard a single irregularity in that sound, no matter how small or trivial, he would have immediately dismantled the pieces and started the whole process over again without a second thought. This was his art - the precise and unique excellence of each weapon.
He opened his eyes and ran his fingertips over the gun, feeling the unborn power thrumming deep inside the cold steel and oiled parts. He hefted the weapon into his hand, testing its weight, its balance, its chamber. His senses were keen to every imperfection. There were some - there were always some, that could not be avoided - but not many. He judged the sandalwood grips felt rougher than they should be, so he took the time to smooth them down with a piece of grind-paper.
As he did this, the heavy door behind him opened, spilling fresh light into the room. Gregor turned and squinted. It took him a minute to clearly see the details of the man who stood there, though, right away, he already knew who it was. He had been expecting him.
The gunslinger was tall and lean, like a stuffy-guy you might chance to see in a cornfield, but was by no means frail or weak in that sense. He wore a cotton shirt that was an ivory color, the sleeves rolled up his elbows, and a rawhide vest that was left open. Slung across his narrow hips were a pair of criss-crossed gunbelts.
The shape of the guns were easily spotted by Gregor - those were made long before his time and, no doubt, would last long after he was gone.
Underneath these belts was a dark-green sash, the standard color of Gilead, the frayed ends hanging down past his holster on his left thigh. His blue dungarees were rust-colored around the knees and his cowboy boots were faded snakeskin.
As the gunslinger stepped forward, the glow of the forge spilled upon one half of his face. He was handsome in a rugged sort of way. He was middle-aged and showing the signs of age - crowís feet, graying hair, hard lines, and a weariness that Gregor could understand and respect. He was clean-shaven to a degree; a two-day stubble was visible. The most remarkable thing about the gunslinger, however, were his eyes. They were blue, bright blue, like sapphires.
The gunslinger, Henry Deschain, sometimes known as Henry the Tall or Henry the Lion-hearted, asked, "Are you finished?"
Gregor nodded, standing up from his bench, wincing at the cramp in his lower back. His left leg was lame and when he stood, he did so in a hunched stoop.
"Yes mílord, I am."
Gregor picked up the gun, drew in his breath and began speaking in the High Speech.
"By these hands, sire, I have forged a weapon. May you grant your favor and blessing upon this, as our fathers have before, to bring order and guard the White."
Gregor turned the gun around in his hand, holding out the grip to Henry while lowering his head.
Henry accepted the gun. He took a moment to inspect the weapon, pulling back the hammer and spinning the chamber. Then, satisfied, he raised the gun up into the air and declared in the same tongue: "Well made. By these hands, gunsmith, I bless this weapon in the name of our fathers. By ka and khef, it will serve true."
Henry lowered his hand, expertly spun the gun around in his hand and gave it back to Gregor, who then placed it upon the table. Later, it would be taken to the great vault, where other guns of its make resided in safety. Now that the brief Ďceremonyí was over - in days of yore, these kind of blessings were more elaborate, involving a whole company of gunslingers - Gregor adopted the low speech again, dropping the formalities.
"You donít look well, Henry."
Henry was impassive: "Do you think so?"
Gregor nodded, picked up a handkerchief and wiped his hands.
"Mayhap its about time you passed on your guns."
Henry shook his head. "No. Not yet."
Gregor sighed, "Steven is a good boy. A good man. How long since he earned his guns?"
"And you donít think heís ready?"
Henry lowered his eyes, glancing down at his guns, the ones which his own father had given to him when he was nineteen, a year younger than his son was now. "I think he needs more time."
Gregor grunted as he eased back down onto the bench, his old bones creaking like a rusty hinge.
"Its always hard to step down", the gunsmith reflected, "I got a Ďprentice of my own. A bright lad. Got soft hands though. Thatíll change after a month of hard work in here, I wot."
He chuckled and the gunslinger smiled.
"My time is coming," he continued, "I know that. Once I hand over these tools, Iíll have nothing left. Just a lot of scars and burns and weak eyes. Itís a crappy deal, I guess, but thatís just how things are. Doesnít mean my life is over, does it? Iím ready to go wherever ka leads me. Weíre moving on, Henry, and so is the world. Let your son bear the weight. Heís got a strong back. And a strong heart, like his father."
Henry was quiet for a while. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest, the glow of the forge flicking in his eyes as he stared into it in thought.
"At Years-End," Henry finally said, "if Steven is ready, I will pass him my guns. I still have matters to see through." He tried to sound decided, but that was just a thin veil of his own uncertainty.
Gregor nodded, knowing not to pursue the issue any further.
Henry lowered his arms. "Speaking of which, thereís a pregnant mare in the stables thatís starting into labor. I should attend to that." After a short pause, he added with a rueful smile, "I suppose no one is ever prepared to grow old."
Gregor smiled back at him, "No, I suppose not."
"Long days, Gregor." Henry turned to walk out of the room.
"Long days, mílord."
Gregor turned back to his work.