Authors: John Christopher
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To Liz, with love
HE 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 animalsâpolybeastsâand 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.
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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 toâit was a broad-backed, placid beast that traveled as suited the dignity of a party of Seersâbut 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 togetherâI 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 drawersâour joiner dwarfs in Winchester would have been ashamed to turn out anything of so poor a quality.