Beyond the Burning Lands ONE OUT OF SANCTUARY
THE SANCTUARY ITSELF LAY IN empty downland; ordinary men did not dare approach such a holy place. The nearest habitation was at Amesbury in the Avon Valley, three miles to the east, and it was there that the white horses were kept, on which the High Seers, when they had reason to travel abroad, would ride forth. The horses were housed in the stables of the Seer of Amesbury, who at the proper time gave orders to the grooms to have them saddled and made ready for the journey.
To the townspeople this was evidence of the magic of the Spirits which was at the Seer’s command. For how, except by magic, could the Seer of Amesbury know when the High Seers required their mounts? No messenger had come across the empty land to the west, and the Seer had no pigeons. Plainly the Spirits had brought him word in the hushed darkness of the Seance Hall where the Seer and his Acolytes conducted their devotions.
Such was the townspeople’s belief and the Seers were happy to encourage it. In fact communication was by radio. The main transmitter was underground in the Sanctuary, with a cunningly concealed wire leading to an aerial on top of one of the huge monoliths that stood in a broken circle above. The subsidiary set was in a heavily locked room in the Seer’s House to which only the Seer and his chief Acolyte had the key. Because radios, of course, were machines, and machines were forbidden by the Spirits, anyone building or using one was punishable by death. This was by the command of the Seers themselves.
My initial shock at learning the truth about the Seers had been great, but during the months in which I had lived in the Sanctuary I had grown accustomed to it. I had come there from Winchester where, following my father’s treacherous murder by the Prince of Romsey, my half-brother Peter had won back the city and claimed the title of Prince. It was I, Luke, who, though younger, had been my father’s heir, named as Prince in Waiting by the Spirits and promised great glory when the time came for me to rule. The blow of learning that the Spirits, since they did not exist, could not keep their promises had been bitter. Instead the High Seers unfolded what was, they said, a higher mission.
We lived in the ruins of a world that had once been great. Men thought our ancestors had shattered the planet with the machines which were now forbidden. This was not so. The disaster that took place had been a natural one. The earth had heaved itself up in earthquakes and volcanoes and at the same time the sun had poured forth radiations which altered the pattern of living things, creating strange plants and animals—polybeasts—and often causing men and women to be born misshapen. In civilized lands beasts and plants were destroyed if they did not breed true. Human children were permitted to live but, if they were not true men, were called dwarf or polymuf. The dwarfs were a breed apart and respected as craftsmen. Polymufs might have any manner of deformity; they lived as servants and could hold no property.
Spiritism had sprung up in the dark days after the world crashed into ruins. Those who survived had turned against machines, and the science which had produced them, thinking them responsible for the Disaster. The Seers had taken over the trappings of Spiritism, finding men’s belief in the Spirits and in the strange happenings that took place in the darkened Seance Halls a useful means of controlling them, and the revulsion against machines was part of this. For the present it had to be accepted.
But the time in which a change might be made was growing short. Recovery even to a primitive form of civilized life had been precarious. The concentration of volcanic dust in the air made winters longer and harder, and brought more pressure from savages in outlying lands. The little which had been regained could easily be lost.
It seemed to the Seers that the first and essential need was to unite the constantly warring cities under one ruler, and through him achieve a rebirth of science and knowledge. Winchester had been chosen as the city through which this was to be accomplished, and I as the Prince who would bring it about. The Seers’ plans had received a grievous setback with my father’s death when I was still only fifteen and unable to enforce my claims against those of my brother. That was when Ezzard, the Seer of Winchester, had taken me from the city in disguise and brought me to the Sanctuary. While I lived, the secret aim of the Seers was still possible.
I accepted this and my part in it but with less enthusiasm than theirs. I had been reared and trained as a warrior, at first a Captain’s son and then the son and heir of the Prince. My mind thought best in terms of military strategies, my hand was fitted neither for pen nor workbench but the hilt of a sword. The wonders that the High Seers showed me, of which radio was but one example, were interesting enough but a drab exchange for the life of the open air, of riding, jousting, the talk and laughter of soldiers. I knew the High Seers as men now, and liked them, but much of their converse was beyond me, and I missed the salty tang of camp and barracks.
It was because of this, and my evident and growing impatience with confinement and inactivity, that an extra white horse was saddled and led across the snowy plain by the Seer of Amesbury and two of his Acolytes. It was a custom of the High Seers to visit Salisbury for the Christmas Feast and hold a Seance there. (Salisbury, as the city holding theoretical title to the land in which the Sanctuary lay, had certain privileges which it jealously guarded; the Christmas visit was one of these.) This year the party would consist of four black-cloaked figures, not three.
The burly black-haired Murphy gave me warning before we left:
“There was some doubt of the wisdom of this, Luke. After all, to us you are a very precious possession and it makes no sense to hazard it.” He smiled. “But if we keep you bottled up much longer there is a risk you may explode; so you will ride with Lanark and Tanner and me to the Salisbury Feast, as our special Acolyte. Make sure you behave with the discretion a special Acolyte can be expected to show, and that you keep a pale and holy look on your face. And at the banquet, of course, you will eat and drink very little, only enough for politeness’ sake, because we High Seers live on air and the radiance of the Spirits, as all men know. We will take our dinners afterward in the Seer’s House. He has a good cook and keeps a fine ale.”
I promised to bear this in mind but in fact scarcely heard what he said. I was in a fever of restlessness, chafing more than ever at the restrictions of this man-made cavern. When we left I had to be restrained from leaping the stairs two or three at a time. On the top landing we had to wait while Lanark pressed the button which opened the trap door. It rose creaking above our heads. Daylight was strange and lovely after the artificial electric light, and my nostrils sniffed cold fresh air.
• • •
We went by way of Amesbury, where the people also claimed the right to see and venerate their High Seers, and then took the valley road south. Our cloaks were of heavy wool but it was still cold; snow lay thick and the river was rimmed with ice. The day was fairly clear, showing patches of blue, though the horizon at our backs was grimy with the smoke from the Burning Lands; we were much nearer to them than at Winchester, where one only saw the distant glow at night.
The winter landscape had little of interest to offer, but just to be in the open was enough. Nor was the horse such as I had been used to—it was a broad-backed, placid beast that traveled as suited the dignity of a party of Seers—but again it was a joy to be in the saddle even at this ambling pace. We took three hours to cover the twelve miles from Amesbury to the capital. The High Seers talked among themselves, and I thought of the two friends I had left behind in Winchester. Martin, as an Acolyte, would doubtless be at his books but Edmund, on an afternoon like this, was more likely to be at the tiltyard or out with his falcon after wild duck. I wondered if they still met in the place Martin and I had found under the great ruins behind the Seance Hall.
Salisbury lies where several valleys come together—I suppose that is why men built it there. Word had been sent of our coming and a crowd was gathered on the wall by the North Gate in front of it. When the High Seers came to Winchester the citizens had greeted them in awed silence, but the men of Salisbury shouted and cheered. It was a more usual thing with them, of course. They pressed close in on us as we rode through the streets, swept clear of snow by the polymufs, toward the Prince’s palace, and I caught the smell of humanity: pungent, almost overpowering after the filtered air of the Sanctuary, but also exciting. My father had been born a commoner and promoted to Captain’s rank on the field of battle. I myself had never been truly at ease with the mob, but I was glad now to see them, even to smell their rankness. I would have liked to respond to their cries and cheers; but I remembered what I was supposed to be and kept my eyes down and my lips tight shut.
Prince Harold came out of his palace to pay his respects and himself held the reins of Lanark’s horse while he dismounted. This Prince was a thin dark man who had gained a reputation as a warrior in the past but for some years had been in poor health. Even while addressing the High Seers he was forced to break off by a fit of coughing, and I noticed that the linen he put to his lips came away with its whiteness stained red with blood. His two sons were also present, deferentially in the background. It would not be long, the Seers had said, before one of them ruled in his place. They were planning for the Spirits to proclaim the younger, who had proved more amenable to their guidance.
From the palace we went to the Seer’s House where we were to lodge. The Prince had made formal offer of hospitality and had been formally refused. The High Seers were too holy to mix closely with ordinary men; and the arrangements for dining would have been difficult also. In the Seer’s House there were no polymuf servants: the Acolytes looked after us. We were given a substantial supper. If the populace could have seen Murphy, as I did, tucking into a third helping of game pie they might have cheered on a different note. I did not do badly myself and the ale, as he had promised, was excellent.
Afterward they sat and talked. I was soon bored by it. Lanark, noticing this, said:
“Fresh air is tiring, Luke. And tomorrow will be a long day, with the ceremonies and the Seance and the banquet at night. You should get to bed. We don’t want our special Acolyte yawning while we are summoning the Spirits.”
I said good night readily enough and went to the room which had been prepared for me. It was a small one on the first floor, normally belonging to one of the trainee Acolytes who I suppose had been made to double up with another for the period of our stay. It held, apart from the narrow bed, a chair and small table, a cupboard and a very roughly made chest of drawers—our joiner dwarfs in Winchester would have been ashamed to turn out anything of so poor a quality.
There was nothing to do here except go to bed—the only book I found was a standard work of Seance rituals—but my tiredness had left me as soon as I got away from the High Seers and their talk of science-this and science-that. Carrying the oil lamp I explored the prospects offered by the cupboard and chest of drawers. The former was empty and so were the two top drawers of the latter. There was something in the bottom drawer but only clothing. I put the lamp down. There were woolen pants and tunic, the pants red, the tunic blue and gray. Not Acolyte clothes, which like those of the Seers were black. They were most likely the dress in which the trainee had come to the Seer’s House, kept here until he passed his first apprenticeship and made his vows.
I measured the pants against my legs. They fitted well; the Acolyte, whoever he was, must be about my height. I wondered if he had accustomed himself yet to the somber garb of his calling: I felt sure I would not in fifty years. I had no fondness for those who peacocked about in scarves and gaudy trappings, but a warrior needed some color about him.
My eye caught a flare of light through the small square window to the right of the chest of drawers. I looked out to see what it was. Nothing much: a man (or more likely a polymuf servant) crossing the street with a torch. The room overlooked the street and stood no more than a dozen feet above it. I opened the double panes, with some difficulty. The cool night air came in and also the sounds of the city: the distant murmur of voices, a dog howling, a man singing far off.
They sounded sweet to me, these echoes of a world from which I was cut off. If I dressed myself in the pants and tunic . . . the drop into the street was nothing. And getting back? I leaned out and saw a drainpipe within reach. It should not be too difficult.
My enthusiasm was checked by a gust of breeze, cold against my skull. We had all cropped our heads before leaving the Sanctuary, and this would mark me even more plainly than the black dress. An Acolyte wandering the streets at night: it was unthinkable.
Reluctantly I returned the pants to the drawer, but as I did so I moved the tunic and saw something beneath it. It was a woolen balaclava, red with a blue pompom. It would cover the whole top of my head and much of my face. I pulled it on and twisted it into place. The fit was warm and snug. I stepped into the trousers and tied the waist with a cord. The tunic completed the outfit, buttoning over the top of the pants and the bottom of the balaclava. I would have liked to check my appearance in a mirror but since there was none available I had to make do with an inspection of what I could see of myself directly. It looked all right. The tunic was a little tight, but that would not be unusual on a lad whose parents’ purse found it hard to keep pace with his growing.
The sill was deep. I climbed up into it and balanced there crouching for a moment. Then I dropped down into the street.
• • •
It was a quiet spot, as was usually the case in areas surrounding a Seer’s House. I walked off quickly toward the sounds I had heard and a glow of light I came after a few minutes into one of the main streets of the city. It was busier than normal since this was the eve of the Christmas Feast. Extra oil lamps had been set up on poles and people strolled and chatted through the pools of light and the darker places between. They were mostly going one way and I followed the stream. The street turned a corner and opened into a square set up with booths. There were still more lamps, each stall having at least one, and a great crowd of people.
This would be where the Beast Fair was held; in fact at the end there were cattle still on show and men bidding for them. But there were also stalls selling food and drink—sweet cakes and toddies poured into small pewter pots from steaming tureens—and toys and trinkets and fir trees for the Christmas Feast; and others where one played games to win prizes. Or hoped to win: the odds were very much against the player. There were a couple of tents with men waiting outside for admission. In one, it seemed, there would be wrestling matches, and in the other girls dancing to music and minstrels and jugglers.
I had no money in my pocket and so could not buy anything, but I did not mind. It was enough to listen to the cries of the hucksters, the hum and laughter of the crowd, the thin hiss of the naphtha lamps. At one stall a man had puppies for sale. They whined when he picked them up and a woman upbraided him for his clumsiness. So he lifted another, a ball of golden-brown fur, and it howled louder than the rest, and I watched him sell it to her for five shillings, which was much more than was reasonable.
After the months of confinement everything was interesting. I reached another tent and, peering in at the entrance, saw that it had been set up as a tavern. Potmen served drinks from behind trestle tables and there were benches at which men sat. Braziers glowed red with coals. The men were talking and laughing, their faces crimson like the stoves. They would be singing soon.
I was about to move away when a hand clamped on my arm from behind. I turned quickly to see a man in sheepskin coat, square black hat and shining gaiters: a farmer, probably, and one who looked prosperous. He said:
“If you’re seeking a pot of ale, lad, enter and get it. Don’t block the road for thirstier men.”
I said: “I was just going, sir.”
“A draft of mulled ale will warm your heart on a night like this.” I shook my head. “Then in that case what were you up to, Tom-peeping in?”
I was anxious to get away from him and even more anxious not to raise suspicions. I said:
“I was looking for my father, but he is not there.”
“Have you looked properly?” I nodded. “Then come inside and wait. You are as likely to find him by staying as by wandering around. A drink will do you good.”
I tried to pull away but he had me fast. I said:
“I came without money . . .”
“Then you are lucky that I am in a different case! I’ve sold five cows today and for once I have no complaint about the price.” With his free hand he jingled coins in his pocket. “You will drink with me till your father comes, and then if he wishes he can buy me a pot in return. And if not, no matter. The Spirits would not look with favor on any man who showed a hard heart on the eve of the Christmas Feast.”
I said: “Thank you, sir. But I must . . .”
He pushed me ahead of him through the entrance to the tent and steered me to a table at the center. I realized that this was not the first tavern he had visited since he sold his cows. He shouted for mulled ale—a pint for him and a gill for me. There were others round us and he was between me and the entrance. For the moment there was nothing I could do.
I expected questions: who I was, where I lived, all natural enough but things to which I might find difficulty in making safe answer. To my relief, after he had seen me take my first sip of the hot spiced ale, he turned his attention to other men sitting at the table. They were talking of some scandal involving a Captain of the Prince’s guard, and my farmer had much to say and loudly. I sat quiet beside him. When I had finished my gill, I would slip away. He was so engrossed that he perhaps would not notice my going.
Concerned with this and not much interested in local gossip, I did not at first realize that the conversation had changed. I was made aware of it when my companion declared, loudly enough to make me sit up despite the wool over my ears:
“That I don’t believe! No one can cross the Burning Lands. Whoever says so is a liar.”
“But he that told me saw the man himself.”
It was a thin, leathery old fellow who spoke, a veteran judging by the scar that ran down one cheek. The farmer said:
“And knew it was so, I warrant, by the flames that came out of his boots and the cinders in his beard!”
The veteran said stubbornly: “There is a pass. It lies due north of Marlborough.” This was a town in Oxford’s territory and lying nearest to the Burning Lands. “He had to go through hot ash, he said, and he did indeed singe his boots with it. But he came through. His city lies far to the north, beyond savage places.”
“He tells a good tale,” the farmer said. “But there have always been liars and the world will never run short of fools to believe them.”
He laughed and so did others. The thin man said:
“The one who told me fought at my side through a score of campaigns. No liar and no fool.” He rose to his feet and stared at the farmer. “Do you say he is, friend?”
At our table there was sudden quiet. The veteran might be fifteen years older than the farmer and scarcely more than half his size, but his voice had a honed edge of menace. The farmer laughed again but with less ease.
“I say it is time we had another drink! All of us. You too, old soldier.” He waved to the potman. “And I will pay the round. And one for your comrade, if he comes in, and one for the traveler from beyond the Burning Lands!”
He was doing his best to pass it off as a joke but I knew, as all there did, that he was backing down from fear of an older and smaller man. The veteran said nothing but kept his cold gaze on him. The farmer said:
“By the Great, it’s hot in here!” He undid his coat. “I am sweating like a pig. And look at this lad!” He wished, I realized, to turn attention from himself. “Sitting there stewing in a balaclava. Take it off, boy, and be at your ease.”
“No, sir,” I said. “I do not—”
“I say you shall!” He had found someone he could safely bully and was not to be thwarted. His hand tugged open my tunic top and grasped the bottom of the balaclava. I tried to prevent him but he did not want for strength nor against a boy off the streets, courage. He ripped the woolen helmet roughly up over my face and head.
I heard a shocked murmur as my shaved head was exposed. The farmer said:
“What have we here?” Disgust and triumph were both present in his voice. “This is a fine sight—an Acolyte in an ale tent on the eve of the Feast! We will see what the Seer says to it.”
• • •
The stocks were in the open square in front of the Prince’s palace. I was fastened in, legs and arms through holes in the wood, and the planks locked down. There had been a heavy frost in the night which lingered in a dank white mist. But I did not have much time to brood on being cold. A crowd had collected even before I arrived under escort, and wasted scant time in showing what it thought of an Acolyte who went from the Seer’s House in disguise and supped in ale tents.
There was no shortage of rotting vegetables and similar refuse, and one would think the hens of Salisbury were trained to lay month-old eggs for this very purpose. A Sergeant stood by to make sure no stones were thrown, but a roll of stale bread, as I learned, can be hard enough. Several rapped my skull and one drew blood from my face when I did not duck fast enough.
But pain and discomfort were nothing compared with humiliation, and humiliation was overridden by hatred—not so much against the throwers as against the High Seers for allowing me to suffer such a punishment. I felt so bitter, so betrayed, that I had a mind to shout out the whole truth about them and the Sanctuary—to tell these people who mocked me that they themselves were mocked, that the Spirits were a lie and the Seances webs of trickery.
It would have done no good, of course. They would merely have thought me mad as well as wicked. There was nothing for it but to endure the jeers and the filth in silence.
At the point at which I reached this conclusion I found myself with defenders after all. A group came who by the crosses embroidered on their clothing were plainly Christians. There were half a dozen of them and they remonstrated with the ones who were pelting me with rubbish. I could just make out the drift of their argument above the din. The stocks, they declared, were an evil custom at best, but on this, the day of the birth of their Lord, it was foul blasphemy to torture another living creature.
I did not know which Lord they spoke of—I had thought they recognized no human authority except their priests—but I welcomed the small relief from my tormentors. Small indeed; they did not waste time arguing but continued throwing. Then the Christians carried their folly further, walking out to form a screen in front of me. I felt less gratitude for this than contempt for their idiocy. No guard could stand by and tolerate such interference with an official punishment, especially one not only ordered by the Prince but asked for by the High Seers.
The Sergeant gave his orders. The Christians offered no resistance as the guard put them up also to be shied at. There was only room for three more in the stocks, so the rest were manacled hand and foot and left lying in the snow beside us. All this put the crowd in a thoroughly good humor, and with so many more targets I got off more lightly for the rest of my stay.
The Christians sang their chants all the while they were there. They were still singing when the guards released me and led me away.
• • •
It was Murphy who received me in the Seer’s House. He was cold and distant in the presence of the soldiers, but said when we were left alone:
“Well, Luke, I hope they did not give you too hard a time of it.”
I stared at him. I was covered with filth and my head throbbed. The cut beneath my eye was swelling. I said:
“Hard enough, sir. It is kind of you to inquire.”
“Listen,” he said, “you did a foolish thing in going out last night. You were caught, and punishment followed. It is something that must be accepted.”
“I was brought to you. You did not need to hand me back to them, to ask to have me put in the stocks.”
“No? I think we did. You are by your age plainly a trainee, too young to have taken vows and so lacking the protection of our cloth. It is essential for the common people to respect that cloth. Since you disgraced it in their eyes, it was necessary that those eyes should witness your thing. To be made sport of by the mob is another.”
I said: “There are things due to me also. My father was Prince of a greater city than this. Punishment is one thing. To be made sport of by the mob is another.”
“It offends your dignity?”
“I have been trained to fight,” I said, “to face wounding or death, even death by execution. But not to endure the mockery of curs. I saw polymufs grinning at me.”
“Your dignity is not important. That is something you have to learn.”
“But the dignity of the High Seers is?”
Murphy shook his head. “No. What is important is the restoration of human order and human knowledge. Everything must serve that.”
I looked at him angrily, in silence. He said:
“Remember that we made your father Prince and made you Prince in Waiting. We brought you from Winchester when there was a score of men eager to cut you down, confident that the new Prince, your brother, would thank them for it, and glad anyway to see one Perry the less. We have kept you in the Sanctuary and may yet restore you to this dignity which you prize so much.”
“Yet! In what time? Five years? Ten? Fifty, perhaps?”
“Sooner, I hope.” He relaxed and smiled. “How would you like to leave the Sanctuary and go back to Winchester, Luke?”
I shook my head. “Do not mock me, sir.”
“No mocking. I have a Christmas gift for you. Your brother seeks your return and pledges his word to your safety.”
I said, scarcely trusting myself to believe it: “This is not a joke?”
“News came this morning while you were in the stocks. Your brother is married to a Christian, as you know. The man they say was a god was born, they also say, on this day more than twenty-two centuries ago. Perhaps she asked it of your brother; the Christians’ ways are strange.”
I thought of the Christians putting themselves between me and the mob. I wondered if they were still in the stocks, and still chanting.
I said: “It is really true? When do I leave?”
“You are eager to be rid of us,” Murphy said. “We return to the Sanctuary tomorrow and you will leave a few days after that.”
I believed it now and forgot my anger and my bruises. I forgot even the filth with which I was smeared. It was Murphy who reminded me of it. Sniffing, he said:
“A more urgent need is that you have a bath and change into clean linen. Our somber black for a while still. But because of your disgrace you will not appear at any ceremonies, nor sit solemn at the banquet. That is another good thing you get from today’s misfortunes.”