They were not old but they had lived a long time, had seen many seasons; for while the world spun itself slowly towards death, time grew thin and stretched, and it was possible to live days in one day, and years in one year. There were two of them, astride the shaggy beasts called churran; the tall one sporting a creased brown hat and the shorter a faded blue hankie drawn across the lower face. The hankie was, of course, a formality: like everything else that dared these barren lands, they were saturated in red dust.
"Hie," said the shorter one, digging a light heel into his churra’s flank. The beast, which was the product of many years of mutie horse stock, snorted and picked its way up the gully wall, moving reluctantly back into the red wind. At the top, the rider kneed his beast to a stop, and then yanked the hankie from his face with disgusted frustration. It was a woman.
At the gully bottom the taller rider, face unhidden, had dismounted and let his reins loose. He watched the woman on the ridge. She turned her head slowly, looking through filtering fingers, scanning the wastelands for something. At long last she pulled a thin metal tube from the neat pack laid across the churra’s shoulders, and with a quick tap on her open palm extended it into a look-scope. She gazed through it at something unseen, then nodded briskly and tucked the scope under the saddle. "Hup," she said, her voice gritty. The churra turned gratefully back down towards the gully bottom.
"Yon’s a town," said the woman when they reached the ground. She dismounted in an easy, fluid motion, and reached into a leather bag (brushing thick red dust off it first) for a handful of rough seeds and grain for the churra to chew. She leaned against the churra’s thick hide, working her fingers restlessly in the fibers.
The man glanced up, where winds blew ferociously above the lip of the gully. "If this wind lasts up, we shan’t be able to stay out much longer," he said. His voice was steady. "Even the beasts won’t make it."
"I couldn’t see much," she replied. This seemed to remind her of something - she retrieved the look-scope from under the saddle-hide and tapped it gently against her palm. A few grains of sand dropped out. "Damn," she said. "Grit’s in the lens again."
"Give it here." The man extended his arm and took the scope, producing a thin-bladed knife. He began to carefully pry away at the lens casing. "The thing’s going to quit working if we don’t treat it better, Careah," he warned.
She spat saliva, crimson with grime, aside. "You try and use it in the next wind-storm," she retorted. The handkerchief aside, her face was dirty, the lines around her mouth - from smiles or laughter or grief, one couldn’t tell - creased with the infernal dust. She was pretty, in a tired way - once, when she was younger and fresher, she might have been beautiful. "Before the world moved on, I was," she’d once told the man beside her. "I was."
"We’ll have to try and stop there," the man said, eyes fixed on the scope. "We can’t last another week in this storm - and we’re too low on water to wait for the next oasis. This damned wind won’t die down."
"Driest desert I’ve ever seen, Merritt," she said, and there was a touch of anger in her voice. "Even Kellytown was better than this."
In Kellytown harriers had chased them out. They were but two, and the harriers had been many: even with Careah’s lightening reflexes and Merritt’s steady fingers, escape had seemed unlikely. But here in this desert, somehow, any life, even life so corrupt as harriers, seemed better company than the rocky gullies and flat, wasted plains.
"Mayhap they will welcome us," Merritt said, his voice wry and wrung.
"Mayhap they will kill us," Careah countered; and smiled. "You are as you always were, Merritt."
"And how is that?"
Her voice was soft. "Hopeful. A dreamer of impossible dreams." She looked away, winding her fingers deeper into the churra’s pelt.
"Late tonight," she said quietly. "Mayhap they will be civilized."
Merritt was crouched on the ground, setting out pieces of collapsible pole and thin canvas sheeting to erect a small shelter from the red grit. He looked up at her, tanned fingers woven into fur, and green eyes set in her creased face. "No, you have the right of it, Careah," he said so-quietly, and the words were as she had taught him.
"No place is civilized here... this is the West."
She would not meet his eyes.
But Merritt was wrong - her teaching was wrong; sometime in the long day the wind did die, slightly; and the ocher dirt no longer crept so unceasingly into their cuffs and collars. And the place, called Colby, kept a nest of Old-timers - they who remembered the old ways, before the world moved on; as well as a number of younger folk.
They rode into town on the churran just before sundown, when any folk, if they existed, would feel safe in their homes. As always, Merritt let Careah take the lead: she had once been trained for this, but everything he knew he had learned from her.
She spurred the churra straight into the town center would, then raised her gun and fired one shot, piercing, into the air. Silence filled the square. She filled her lungs and called out in a ringing voice; and Merritt, watching for harriers, knew anyone in the old town had heard.
"Folk, if there be any of you left, hear me well!" Her voice was strong and true, and her seat on the churra was firm. "We two are outriders, come from lands afar: and we claim the Right of the Traveler!" She paused, and her words - Right of the Traveler! - echoed back and forth in the empty square. "If there be any among you who remember the old law, come forth and let us pay due!"
The churra snorted uneasily, and pawed the ground with its great webbed hoof. There was a slight noise to the left, and Merritt whirled towards it, hands throbbing for the ease of his guns. He did not let them touch the silky metal.
"… an’ I say that I remember the old law better’n ye an’ if they claim Right of th’ Traveler, they ain’t no harriers an’ there it is!"
To the left, a bent shape emerged from a doorway, shaking a withered arm at someone else. It was an old woman, thin and wrinkled, and she argued with a younger man, who pled with her to return to the shadows.
"Yer a damnfool, Courtway, that’s what ye are, they can see well’s ye that we have nothin’ worth the killing, and they ain’t th’ type to waste bullets on such as we." With her last words she wrenched free of the man, tottered a bit, then caught her balance, leaning heavily on a crooked stick, and shambled towards them. "Well met, travelers-mine! Ye’ve come a-fearful far, so ye have."
"Aye, grandmother, that we have," Careah said, a smile creasing her face. Merritt, remembering what she had taught him, leaned forward from his perch, tucking a hand into his waistband, then straightened and tapped his throat thrice with his right hand.
"Thankee-sai, grandmother, for your words of welcome," he said.
"It’s been long since we’ve seen such as ye," she said. "Come down from there, me laddie; my eyes are no longer what they were."
With a glance at Careah he slid down. Careah casually holstered her gun and dismounted. "Thankee-sai, grandmother," she repeated.
"Your welcome warms my heart in this desolate west."
The grandmother’s eyes narrowed a bit, and her shoulders drooped. "Th’ West, is it?" she murmured. "I remember well th’ days when th’ West were nothing near this place; an’ we were told that t’was safe enough to settle, so long’s we paid our dues t’ th’ Barony nearest." She shook her white head.
"You haven’t tithed to the Barony in years, have you?" Merritt asked softly. This time it was the man who answered, tired and sad. "We’ve not, sir, for many a year - mayhap ten years after my own birth, so t’was."
"An’ Courtway was born a good bit ago, my laddie was." She smiled fondly at him. "He’s me own grandson, so he is." She shrugged and turned her creased smile upon them. "Dare I ask ye from whence ye came? Dare I ask ye if ye’ve word of civilization risin’ again in th’ midst o’ this?"
Merritt shook his head regretfully. "Lady," Careah said sorrowfully, "outriders we may be, but we’ve not seen the lights nor heard the sounds of Gilead for many a year. Civilization is as it has been these years past: fallen, and too ruined to rise again."
The old-timer’s shoulders sagged just the slightest bit; Courtway, who had never known "civilization" as Careah put it, did not react.
"Be that as it may," said the white lady. "Still ye are welcome here. I am the Matriarch Charity - or was, when this place had enough folk to need a Matriarch - but ye may call me simply Charity. I bid ye welcome, and hail ye well-met."
"Thanks we give to thee in return," Careah replied. "We would replenish our stores and water our animals before moving on, if it would please you."
"It would please me well," said the matriarch, "but better than such as that can we do for ye. Courtway - " she turned to her grandson " - rouse the folk and prepare food. This night we dine with guests!" She faced them again, and her eyes were bright and intelligent in her creased face. "If yer outriders from Gilead, then th’ truth is that there’s somewut we must discuss w’ye."
"Yes, sai?" Merritt prompted when she paused. "What troubles you?"
"’Tis not trouble so much as... uncertainty," she said. "But I shall talk more o’ that after the meal. Truth is, me lass and laddie, there’s been word... been word... " She seemed choked and unable to speak. Merritt and Careah exchanged worried glances.
"Sai?" Careah asked.
The Matriarch of Colby sighed. "Word is that the White is returning again to this land. Word is, a gunslinger and his band walk th’ earth again."
They ate well at the table of the Matriarch that night, a feast of corn and okra and potatoes and gamy, tough meat stewed to softness. The old ones knew well how to find the flavor in what little they had, and Merritt found that he had not enjoyed a meal in so much in - well, it had been long. There were even a number of sweet dishes to round out the meal: bread pudding flavored with raisins and the faintest touch of cinnamon; a sticky sweet kind of candy that caught in the teeth; and the crowning achievement, a sad little pie made of lumpy dough, filled with honest-to-god fruit. They ate tiny slices with large jugs of chicory coffee; and Merritt though that they had found the last bastion of civility in the desolate West.
He worried about Careah - when the old grandmother had made her pronouncement about the return of the White, Careah had lost color and paled.
"There are none of that kind left, grandmother," she had protested.
"Aye," the Matriarch said, "nor thought I. But word has come that the time o’ th’ White has returned, and a gunslinger quests for the Tower."
Careah’s eyes had been bleak as she turned them to Merritt. "A gunslinger," she repeated. Merritt put his arm around her shoulders and spoke firmly to the old sai.
"Then the time of the White comes again, and we two rejoice. Mayhap there will someday soon be a civilization for us to be outriders for."
Now, the meal over and the cups of bitter coffee cooling in their hands, they sat in a circle around the low table, and the palaver began.
"Now, my friends," said Charity, "there are things we must speak of."
"Aye," Merritt agreed. Careah sat, stone-faced.
"From the look o’ ye, I would almost have taken ye to be gunslingers yerselves," the matriarch said. Her gaze shifted particularly to Careah as she said it.
"No," Merritt said, and eased a gun from his hip. "You see?"
"They lack the sandalwood," the grandmother agreed. She turned again to Careah. "And ye, lady? Dost thou carry the guns of a true killer?"
Careah raised her green eyes. Something glittered in them, strange and hard. "The guns of a killer, yes," she said, her hands splayed over the hard shafts of her revolvers. "I could not cry off of that. But the guns of a ’slinger? No, sai; I am a simple outrider. There has never been a woman who carried the guns with sandalwood grips."
The matriarch gazed at her steadily for a moment, then nodded sharply, as if in acceptance. "Aye, outrider, ye speak the truth as ye know it; this I doubt not. But the truth as ye know it may be wrong."
"What’s this?" Merritt asked sharply.
"I told ye that word has come that a ’slinger and his ka-tet ride the land again."
"So you did."
"And th’ wind tells me that one o’ his ka-tet is a woman. Th’ wind tells me that she o’ the brown skin moves as a gunslinger does, and that her eyes look as those o’ th’ gunslingers do, and that, like th’ two men she travels with, her hips are belted wi’ guns."
"Many carry guns, sai," Careah said dryly, "and many walk as the ’slingers did; we two do, you said so much yourself."
The old lady shook her head. "The wind o’ ka speaks, outrider, and I can but listen."
Merritt leaned forward. "What else does the wind of ka tell you, lady?"
"It says that those I spake of quest, an’ that their quest is for the Dark Tower."
Merritt shook his head. "There is none such, lady," he said; but Careah, who had once walked the same halls as a certain gunslinger who now strode the edges of the dark land of Thunderclap; Careah, who had learned, long before she’d met the man with whom she now rode, something both of ancient honor and ancient shame, knew better. She sucked in her breath painfully and put a quieting hand on Merritt’s knee.
"No," she said softly. "There is such; aye, there is such indeed."
Merritt turned to her, dark eyes wondering. "Careah?"
She stood abruptly. "Grandmother, we thank thee for thy hospitality and thy kindness. We must palaver, now, my man and I. We must think on the truths you have spoken, and decide our course."
The old matriarch was watching her hard. "Yes, palaver," she said.
"But I think that your course was decided long ago. Him, now - " she nodded her white head toward Merritt " - he might still cry off. His future is not yet fixed; but you, lady, your path is set."
"Be that as it may," Careah said softly. "It is ka."
"Aye," said the old Matriarch. "ka like a wind."
In the small, empty building where their bedrolls were laid, Careah stalked the creaking floorboards. Merritt watched her with troubled brown eyes from the corner where he sat, methodically breaking down and cleaning his guns.
"Sit, my love," he said at last. "Your pacing makes my head ache."
She whirled. "A gunslinger! A gunslinger, Merritt, and a band of those he makes into gunslingers! How could it be - I thought all of his kind were dead!"
"Then you were wrong," Merritt said. "If, that is, you trust the words of an old woman who claims that the winds of fate speak to her."
Careah shook her head impatiently. "Did I teach you nothing, then, that you still doubt? ka is very real, Merritt - and the Tower too is real."
"All I know of guns and survival come from you," Merritt said.
"But it is hard for me to believe these things that I have never seen. You, now - once you walked the streets of Gilead, and in that time when the masters of the White still held sway over Mid-World. It is different for you."
"Yes," Careah said, and her voice was very low and bleak. "It is different for me."
In a moment he had crossed the room, his guns laid aside - even in his haste, he set them aside with care, so thoroughly had she trained him - and his large hands set gently on her shoulders. Her shook her lightly, once, and turned her face up toward his. "Do not let the shadows of things past hurt you, Careah, daughter of Michael."
"You know nothing of it," she said miserably.
Merritt smiled. "No, Careah. I know everything about it. We are one, remember? A ka-tet of two."
At last she smiled, if wanly. "When Gilead fell, I made a vow," she said. "Despite the fact that - despite the fact that when it fell, I was no longer a part of it."
"I know," he replied. "And when our paths drew together, I made that same vow. We are sworn to aid the White, should it ever rise again from the ashes of the world."
"It has been long since such aid was needed," Careah said. "But it seems that the call comes now."
Merritt smiled, and planted a gentle kiss on her forehead, on the line of grief and pain that had been etched there long before. "So then, we are agreed?"
She nodded, but the face she turned to him was troubled. "My path is set," she said. "Mayhap it is not the same one that yon matriarch would tell, but set it is. But I worry for you. Those who ride with me ride with the curse of what has come before me, of my past failures. I worry that ka will not see fit to - to keep our paths together," she said, carefully, "if we choose to do this thing."
"Are you asking me to cry off?" Merritt asked, his voice very flat.
She took a deep breath. "I’m asking ... I’m asking you to consider carefully. I would not have you hurt, Merritt. You are very dear to me." His face eased. "Where you ride, I ride," he said fiercely. "Where you go, I go; your friends are my friends, your enemies my own. I love you, Careah, though often it seems as though you would rather I did not. What you would do, we will do together."
"Thank you," she whispered.
"And do not grieve," he continued. "Can you not forgive yourself for things that happened long ago, for things that might not have been your fault?"
"There is little doubt to whose fault it was," Careah said, with a little tired humor, "as there were only two of us on the trials-field, and the master failed not."
"You were too young," Merritt said, "you were pushed to it, you were not ready. That does not mean you are unworthy, do you hear? When Gilead fell you vowed to aid the White - that should be enough for anyone. For any destiny of ka. I see you very well, my love, and I say that you are worthy of any destiny of ka."
"Thank you," she said again. Her eyes were a little brighter.
"Though I think perhaps that ka would give lie to some of what you have said, still it eases my heart to hear your words."
She paused, then said lightly, "Do you know, I might even know him? I was in Gilead, at least near the end - and he would have been very near the end, to have lived this long. There were a number of the younger gunslingers who went questing, in several small ka-tets; all of the city knew that. And none of them ever returned. I wonder which he is."
"When we meet him," Merritt said, "you will know."
So it was settled, and Careah slept a little easier that night, knowing that finally, finally she might appease the ghosts that haunted her; the vows she had made so long ago - and it had been very long, indeed, for time had not been steady since before the Fall of Gilead.
Tomorrow, she thought as she slept. Tomorrow. Tomorrow they would ride in search of the last gunslinger and his ka-tet.