فصل 20-22

مجموعه: نیروی اهریمنی اش / کتاب: دوربین کهربایی / فصل 8

فصل 20-22

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20

I gained it so— / By Climbing slow— / By Catching at the Twigs that grow— Between the Bliss—and me—

• EMILY DICKINSON •

CLIMBING

The mulefa made many kinds of rope and cord, and Mary Malone spent a morning inspecting and testing the ones Atal’s family had in their stores before choosing what she wanted. The principle of twisting and winding hadn’t caught on in their world, so all the cords and ropes were braided; but they were strong and flexible, and Mary soon found exactly the sort she wanted.

What are you doing? said Atal.

The mulefa had no term for climb, so Mary had to do a lot of gesturing and roundabout explaining. Atal was horrified.

To go into the high part of the trees?

I must see what is happening, Mary explained. Now you can help me prepare the rope.

Once in California, Mary had met a mathematician who spent every weekend climbing among the trees. Mary had done a little rock climbing, and she’d listened avidly as he had talked about the techniques and equipment. She had decided to try it herself as soon as she had the chance. Of course she’d never expected to be climbing trees in another universe, and climbing solo didn’t greatly appeal, either, but there was no choice about that. What she could do was make it as safe as possible beforehand.

She took a coil long enough to reach over one of the branches of a high tree and back down to the ground, and strong enough to bear several times her weight. Then she cut a large number of short pieces of a smaller but very tough cord and made slings with them: short loops tied with a fisherman’s knot, which could make hand- and footholds when she tied them to the main line.

Then there was the problem of getting the rope over the branch in the first place. An hour or two’s experimenting with some fine tough cord and a length of springy branch produced a bow; the Swiss Army knife cut some arrows, with stiff leaves in place of feathers to stabilize them in flight; and finally, after a day’s work, Mary was ready to begin. But the sun was setting, and her hands were tired, and she ate and slept, preoccupied, while the mulefa discussed her endlessly in their quiet, musical whispers.

First thing in the morning, she set off to shoot an arrow over a branch. Some of the mulefa gathered to watch, anxious for her safety. Climbing was so alien to creatures with wheels that the very thought of it horrified them.

Privately Mary knew how they felt. She swallowed her nervousness and tied an end of the thinnest, lightest line to one of her arrows, and sent it flying upward from the bow.

She lost the first arrow: it stuck in the bark partway up and wouldn’t come out. She lost the second because, although it did clear the branch, it didn’t fall far enough to reach the ground on the other side, and pulling it back, she caught it and snapped it. The long line fell back attached to the broken shaft, and she tried again with the third and last, and this time it worked.

Pulling carefully and steadily so as not to snag the line and break it, she hauled the prepared rope up and over until both ends were on the ground. Then she tied them both securely to a massive buttress of one of the roots, as thick around as her own hips. So it should be fairly solid, she thought. It had better be. What she couldn’t tell from the ground, of course, was what kind of branch the whole thing, including her, would be depending on. Unlike climbing on rock, where you could fasten the rope to pitons on the cliff face every few yards so you never had far to fall, this business involved one very long free length of rope, and one very long fall if anything went wrong. To make herself a little more secure, she braided together three small ropes into a harness, and passed it around both hanging ends of the main rope with a loose knot that she could tighten the moment she began to slip.

Mary put her foot in the first sling and began to climb.

She reached the canopy in less time than she’d anticipated. The climbing was straightforward, the rope was kindly on her hands, and although she hadn’t wanted to think about the problem of getting on top of the first branch, she found that the deep fissures in the bark helped her to get a solid purchase and feel secure. In fact, only fifteen minutes after she’d left the ground, she was standing on the first branch and planning her route to the next.

She had brought two more coils of rope with her, intending to make a web of fixed lines to serve in place of the pitons and anchors and “friends” and other hardware she relied on when climbing a rock face. Tying them in place took her some minutes more, and once she’d secured herself, she chose what looked like the most promising branch, coiled her spare rope again, and set off.

After ten minutes’ careful climbing she found herself right in the thickest part of the canopy. She could reach the long leaves and run them through her hands; she found flower after flower, off-white and absurdly small, each growing the little coin-sized thing that would later become one of those great iron-hard seedpods.

She reached a comfortable spot where three branches forked, tied the rope securely, adjusted her harness, and rested.

Through the gaps in the leaves, she could see the blue sea, clear and sparkling as far as the horizon; and in the other direction over her right shoulder, she could see the succession of low rises in the gold-brown prairie, laced across by the black highways.

There was a light breeze, which lifted a faint scent out of the flowers and rustled the stiff leaves, and Mary imagined a huge, dim benevolence holding her up, like a pair of giant hands. As she lay in the fork of the great branches, she felt a kind of bliss she had only felt once before; and that was not when she made her vows as a nun.

Eventually she was brought back to her normal state of mind by a cramp in her right ankle, which was resting awkwardly in the crook of the fork. She eased it away and turned her attention to the task, still dizzy from the sense of oceanic gladness that surrounded her.

She’d explained to the mulefa how she had to hold the sap-lacquer plates a hand span apart in order to see the sraf; and at once they’d seen the problem and made a short tube of bamboo, fixing the amber-colored plates at each end like a telescope. This spyglass was tucked in her breast pocket, and she took it out now. When she looked through it, she saw those drifting golden sparkles, the sraf, the Shadows, Lyra’s Dust, like a vast cloud of tiny beings floating through the wind. For the most part they drifted randomly like dust motes in a shaft of sunlight, or molecules in a glass of water.

For the most part.

But the longer she looked, the more she began to see another kind of motion. Underlying the random drifting was a deeper, slower, universal movement, out from the land toward the sea.

Well, that was curious. Securing herself to one of her fixed ropes, she crawled out along a horizontal branch, looking closely at all the flower heads she could find. And presently she began to see what was happening. She watched and waited till she was perfectly sure, and then began the careful, lengthy, strenuous process of climbing down.

Mary found the mulefa in a fearful state, having suffered a thousand anxieties for their friend so far off the ground.

Atal was especially relieved, and touched her nervously all over with her trunk, uttering gentle whinnies of pleasure to find her safe, and carrying her swiftly down to the settlement along with a dozen or so others.

A soon as they came over the brow of the hill, the call went out among those in the village, and by the time they reached the speaking ground, the throng was so thick that Mary guessed there were many visitors from elsewhere, come to hear what she said. She wished she had better news for them.

The old zalif Sattamax mounted the platform and welcomed her warmly, and she responded with all the mulefa courtesy she could remember. As soon as the greetings were over, she began to speak.

Haltingly and with many roundabout phrasings, she said:

My good friends, I have been into the high canopy of your trees and looked closely at the growing leaves and the young flowers and the seedpods.

I could see that there is a current of sraf high in the treetops, she went on, and it moves against the wind. The air is moving inland off the sea, but the sraf is moving slowly against it. Can you see that from the ground? Because I could not.

No, said Sattamax. That is the first we ever heard about that.

Well, she continued, the trees are filtering the sraf as it moves through them, and some of it is attracted to the flowers. I could see it happening: the flowers are turned upward, and if the sraf were falling straight down, it would enter their petals and fertilize them like pollen from the stars.

But the sraf isn’t falling down, it’s moving out toward the sea. When a flower happens to be facing the land, the sraf can enter it. That’s why there are still some seedpods growing. But most of them face upward, and the sraf just drifts past without entering. The flowers must have evolved like that because in the past all the sraf fell straight down. Something has happened to the sraf, not to the trees. And you can only see that current from high up, which is why you never knew about it.

So if you want to save the trees, and mulefa life, we must find out why the sraf is doing that. I can’t think of a way yet, but I will try.

She saw many of them craning to look upward at this drift of Dust. But from the ground you couldn’t see it: she looked through the spyglass herself, but the dense blue of the sky was all she could see.

They spoke for a long time, trying to recall any mention of the sraf wind among their legends and histories, but there was none. All they had ever known was that sraf came from the stars, as it had always done.

Finally they asked if she had any more ideas, and she said:

I need to make more observations. I need to find out whether the wind goes always in that direction or whether it alters like the air currents during the day and the night. So I need to spend more time in the treetops, and sleep up there and observe at night. I will need your help to build a platform of some kind so I can sleep safely. But we do need more observations.

The mulefa, practical and anxious to find out, offered at once to build her whatever she needed. They knew the techniques of using pulleys and tackle, and presently one suggested a way of lifting Mary easily into the canopy so as to save her the dangerous labor of climbing.

Glad to have something to do, they set about gathering materials at once, braiding and tying and lashing spars and ropes and lines under her guidance, and assembling everything she needed for a treetop observation platform.

After speaking to the old couple by the olive grove, Father Gomez lost the track. He spent several days searching and inquiring in every direction, but the woman seemed to have vanished completely.

He would never have given up, although it was discouraging; the crucifix around his neck and the rifle at his back were twin tokens of his absolute determination to complete the task.

But it would have taken him much longer if it hadn’t been for a difference in the weather. In the world he was in, it was hot and dry, and he was increasingly thirsty; and seeing a wet patch of rock at the top of a scree, he climbed up to see if there was a spring there. There wasn’t, but in the world of the wheel-pod trees, there had just been a shower of rain; and so it was that he discovered the window and found where Mary had gone.

21

I hate things all fiction … There should always be some foundation of fact …

• BYRON •

THE HARPIES

Lyra and Will each awoke with a heavy dread: it was like being a condemned prisoner on the morning fixed for the execution. Tialys and Salmakia were attending to their dragonflies, bringing them moths lassoed near the anbaric lamp over the oil drum outside, flies cut from spiderwebs, and water in a tin plate. When she saw the expression on Lyra’s face and the way that Pantalaimon, mouse-formed, was pressing himself close to her breast, the Lady Salmakia left what she was doing to come and speak with her. Will, meanwhile, left the hut to walk about outside.

“You can still decide differently,” said Salmakia.

“No, we can’t. We decided already,” said Lyra, stubborn and fearful at once.

“And if we don’t come back?”

“You don’t have to come,” Lyra pointed out.

“We’re not going to abandon you.”

“Then what if you don’t come back?”

“We shall have died doing something important.”

Lyra was silent. She hadn’t really looked at the Lady before; but she could see her very clearly now, in the smoky light of the naphtha lamp, standing on the table just an arm’s length away. Her face was calm and kindly, not beautiful, not pretty, but the very sort of face you would be glad to see if you were ill or unhappy or frightened. Her voice was low and expressive, with a current of laughter and happiness under the clear surface. In all the life she could remember, Lyra had never been read to in bed; no one had told her stories or sung nursery rhymes with her before kissing her and putting out the light. But she suddenly thought now that if ever there was a voice that would lap you in safety and warm you with love, it would be a voice like the Lady Salmakia’s, and she felt a wish in her heart to have a child of her own, to lull and soothe and sing to, one day, in a voice like that.

“Well,” Lyra said, and found her throat choked, so she swallowed and shrugged.

“We’ll see,” said the Lady, and turned back.

Once they had eaten their thin, dry bread and drunk their bitter tea, which was all the people had to offer them, they thanked their hosts, took their rucksacks, and set off through the shanty town for the lakeshore. Lyra looked around for her death, and sure enough, there he was, walking politely a little way ahead; but he didn’t want to come closer, though he kept looking back to see if they were following.

The day was overhung with a gloomy mist. It was more like dusk than daylight, and wraiths and streamers of the fog rose dismally from puddles in the road, or clung like forlorn lovers to the anbaric cables overhead. They saw no people, and few deaths, but the dragonflies skimmed through the damp air, as if they were sewing it all together with invisible threads, and it was a delight to the eyes to watch their bright colors flashing back and forth.

Before long they had reached the edge of the settlement and made their way beside a sluggish stream through bare-twigged scrubby bushes. Occasionally they would hear a harsh croak or a splash as some amphibian was disturbed, but the only creature they saw was a toad as big as Will’s foot, which could only flop in a pain-filled sideways heave as if it were horribly injured. It lay across the path, trying to move out of the way and looking at them as if it knew they meant to hurt it.

“It would be merciful to kill it,” said Tialys.

“How do you know?” said Lyra. “It might still like being alive, in spite of everything.”

“If we killed it, we’d be taking it with us,” said Will. “It wants to stay here. I’ve killed enough living things. Even a filthy stagnant pool might be better than being dead.”

“But if it’s in pain?” said Tialys.

“If it could tell us, we’d know. But since it can’t, I’m not going to kill it. That would be considering our feelings rather than the toad’s.”

They moved on. Before long the changing sound their footsteps made told them that there was an openness nearby, although the mist was even thicker. Pantalaimon was a lemur, with the biggest eyes he could manage, clinging to Lyra’s shoulder, pressing himself into her fog-pearled hair, peering all around and seeing no more than she did. And still he was trembling and trembling.

Suddenly they all heard a little wave breaking. It was quiet, but it was very close by. The dragonflies returned with their riders to the children, and Pantalaimon crept into Lyra’s breast as she and Will moved closer together, treading carefully along the slimy path.

And then they were at the shore. The oily, scummy water lay still in front of them, an occasional ripple breaking languidly on the pebbles.

The path turned to the left, and a little way along, more like a thickening of the mist than a solid object, a wooden jetty stood crazily out over the water. The piles were decayed and the planks were green with slime, and there was nothing else; nothing beyond it; the path ended where the jetty began, and where the jetty ended, the mist began. Lyra’s death, having guided them there, bowed to her and stepped into the fog, vanishing before she could ask him what to do next.

“Listen,” said Will.

There was a slow, repetitive sound out on the invisible water: a creak of wood and a quiet, regular splash. Will put his hand on the knife at his belt and moved forward carefully onto the rotting planks. Lyra followed close behind. The dragonflies perched on the two weed-covered mooring posts, looking like heraldic guardians, and the children stood at the end of the jetty, pressing their open eyes against the mist, and having to brush their lashes free of the drops that settled on them. The only sound was that slow creak and splash that was getting closer and closer.

“Don’t let’s go!” Pantalaimon whispered.

“Got to,” Lyra whispered back.

She looked at Will. His face was set hard and grim and eager: he wouldn’t turn aside. And the Gallivespians, Tialys on Will’s shoulder, Salmakia on Lyra’s, were calm and watchful. The dragonflies’ wings were pearled with mist, like cobwebs, and from time to time they’d beat them quickly to clear them, because the drops must make them heavy, Lyra thought. She hoped there would be food for them in the land of the dead.

Then suddenly there was the boat.

It was an ancient rowboat, battered, patched, rotting; and the figure rowing it was aged beyond age, huddled in a robe of sacking bound with string, crippled and bent, his bony hands crooked permanently around the oar handles, and his moist, pale eyes sunk deep among folds and wrinkles of gray skin.

He let go of an oar and reached his crooked hand up to the iron ring set in the post at the corner of the jetty. With the other hand he moved the oar to bring the boat right up against the planks.

There was no need to speak. Will got in first, and then Lyra came forward to step down, too.

But the boatman held up his hand.

“Not him,” he said in a harsh whisper.

“Not who?”

“Not him.”

He extended a yellow-gray finger, pointing directly at Pantalaimon, whose red-brown stoat form immediately became ermine white.

“But he is me!” Lyra said. “If you come, he must stay.”

“But we can’t! We’d die!”

“Isn’t that what you want?”

And then for the first time Lyra truly realized what she was doing. This was the real consequence. She stood aghast, trembling, and clutched her dear dæmon so tightly that he whimpered in pain.

“They …” said Lyra helplessly, then stopped: it wasn’t fair to point out that the other three didn’t have to give anything up.

Will was watching her anxiously. She looked all around, at the lake, at the jetty, at the rough path, the stagnant puddles, the dead and sodden bushes … Her Pan, alone here: how could he live without her? He was shaking inside her shirt, against her bare flesh, his fur needing her warmth. Impossible! Never!

“He must stay here if you are to come,” the boatman said again.

The Lady Salmakia flicked the rein, and her dragonfly skimmed away from Lyra’s shoulder to land on the gunwale of the boat, where Tialys joined her. They said something to the boatman. Lyra watched as a condemned prisoner watches the stir at the back of the courtroom that might be a messenger with a pardon.

The boatman bent to listen and then shook his head.

“No,” he said. “If she comes, he has to stay.”

Will said, “That’s not right. We don’t have to leave part of ourselves behind. Why should Lyra?”

“Oh, but you do,” said the boatman. “It’s her misfortune that she can see and talk to the part she must leave. You will not know until you are on the water, and then it will be too late. But you all have to leave that part of yourselves here. There is no passage to the land of the dead for such as him.”

No, Lyra thought, and Pantalaimon thought with her: We didn’t go through Bolvangar for this, no; how will we ever find each other again?

And she looked back again at the foul and dismal shore, so bleak and blasted with disease and poison, and thought of her dear Pan waiting there alone, her heart’s companion, watching her disappear into the mist, and she fell into a storm of weeping. Her passionate sobs didn’t echo, because the mist muffled them, but all along the shore in innumerable ponds and shallows, in wretched broken tree stumps, the damaged creatures that lurked there heard her full-hearted cry and drew themselves a little closer to the ground, afraid of such passion.

“If he could come—” cried Will, desperate to end her grief, but the boatman shook his head.

“He can come in the boat, but if he does, the boat stays here,” he said.

“But how will she find him again?”

“I don’t know.”

“When we leave, will we come back this way?”

“Leave?”

“We’re going to come back. We’re going to the land of the dead and we are going to come back.”

“Not this way.”

“Then some other way, but we will!”

“I have taken millions, and none came back.”

“Then we shall be the first. We’ll find our way out. And since we’re going to do that, be kind, boatman, be compassionate, let her take her dæmon!”

“No,” he said, and shook his ancient head. “It’s not a rule you can break. It’s a law like this one …” He leaned over the side and cupped a handful of water, and then tilted his hand so it ran out again. “The law that makes the water fall back into the lake, it’s a law like that. I can’t tilt my hand and make the water fly upward. No more can I take her dæmon to the land of the dead. Whether or not she comes, he must stay.”

Lyra could see nothing: her face was buried in Pantalaimon’s cat fur. But Will saw Tialys dismount from his dragonfly and prepare to spring at the boatman, and he half-agreed with the spy’s intention; but the old man had seen him, and turned his ancient head to say:

“How many ages do you think I’ve been ferrying people to the land of the dead? D’you think if anything could hurt me, it wouldn’t have happened already? D’you think the people I take come with me gladly? They struggle and cry, they try to bribe me, they threaten and fight; nothing works. You can’t hurt me, sting as you will. Better comfort the child; she’s coming; take no notice of me.”

Will could hardly watch. Lyra was doing the cruelest thing she had ever done, hating herself, hating the deed, suffering for Pan and with Pan and because of Pan; trying to put him down on the cold path, disengaging his cat claws from her clothes, weeping, weeping. Will closed his ears: the sound was too unhappy to bear. Time after time she pushed her dæmon away, and still he cried and tried to cling.

She could turn back.

She could say no, this is a bad idea, we mustn’t do it.

She could be true to the heart-deep, life-deep bond linking her to Pantalaimon, she could put that first, she could push the rest out of her mind—

But she couldn’t.

“Pan, no one’s done this before,” she whispered shiveringly, “but Will says we’re coming back and I swear, Pan, I love you, I swear we’re coming back—I will—take care, my dear—you’ll be safe—we will come back, and if I have to spend every minute of my life finding you again, I will, I won’t stop, I won’t rest, I won’t—oh, Pan—dear Pan—I’ve got to, I’ve got to …”

And she pushed him away, so that he crouched bitter and cold and frightened on the muddy ground.

What animal he was now, Will could hardly tell. He seemed to be so young, a cub, a puppy, something helpless and beaten, a creature so sunk in misery that it was more misery than creature. His eyes never left Lyra’s face, and Will could see her making herself not look away, not avoid the guilt, and he admired her honesty and her courage at the same time as he was wrenched with the shock of their parting. There were so many vivid currents of feeling between them that the very air felt electric to him.

And Pantalaimon didn’t ask why, because he knew; and he didn’t ask whether Lyra loved Roger more than him, because he knew the true answer to that, too. And he knew that if he spoke, she wouldn’t be able to resist; so the dæmon held himself quiet so as not to distress the human who was abandoning him, and now they were both pretending that it wouldn’t hurt, it wouldn’t be long before they were together again, it was all for the best. But Will knew that the little girl was tearing her heart out of her breast.

Then she stepped down into the boat. She was so light that it barely rocked at all. She sat beside Will, and her eyes never left Pantalaimon, who stood trembling at the shore end of the jetty; but as the boatman let go of the iron ring and swung his oars out to pull the boat away, the little dog dæmon trotted helplessly out to the very end, his claws clicking softly on the soft planks, and stood watching, just watching, as the boat drew away and the jetty faded and vanished in the mist.

Then Lyra gave a cry so passionate that even in that muffled, mist-hung world it raised an echo, but of course it wasn’t an echo, it was the other part of her crying in turn from the land of the living as Lyra moved away into the land of the dead.

“My heart, Will …” she groaned, and clung to him, her wet face contorted with pain.

And thus the prophecy that the Master of Jordan College had made to the Librarian, that Lyra would make a great betrayal and it would hurt her terribly, was fulfilled.

But Will, too, found an agony building inside him, and through the pain he saw that the two Gallivespians, clinging together just as he and Lyra were doing, were moved by the same anguish.

Part of it was physical. It felt as if an iron hand had gripped his heart and was pulling it out between his ribs, so that he pressed his hands to the place and vainly tried to hold it in. It was far deeper and far worse than the pain of losing his fingers. But it was mental, too: something secret and private was being dragged into the open, where it had no wish to be, and Will was nearly overcome by a mixture of pain and shame and fear and self-reproach, because he himself had caused it.

And it was worse than that. It was as if he’d said, “No, don’t kill me, I’m frightened; kill my mother instead; she doesn’t matter, I don’t love her,” and as if she’d heard him say it, and pretended she hadn’t so as to spare his feelings, and offered herself in his place anyway because of her love for him. He felt as bad as that. There was nothing worse to feel.

So Will knew that all those things were part of having a dæmon, and that whatever his dæmon was, she, too, was left behind, with Pantalaimon, on that poisoned and desolate shore. The thought came to Will and Lyra at the same moment, and they exchanged a tear-filled glance. And for the second time in their lives, but not the last, each of them saw their own expression on the other’s face.

Only the boatman and the dragonflies seemed indifferent to the journey they were making. The great insects were fully alive and bright with beauty even in the clinging mist, shaking their filmy wings to dislodge the moisture; and the old man in his sacking robe leaned forward and back, forward and back, bracing his bare feet against the slime-puddled floor.

The journey lasted longer than Lyra wanted to measure. Though part of her was raw with anguish, imagining Pantalaimon abandoned on the shore, another part was adjusting to the pain, measuring her own strength, curious to see what would happen and where they would land.

Will’s arm was strong around her, but he, too, was looking ahead, trying to peer through the wet gray gloom and to hear anything other than the dank splash of the oars. And presently something did change: a cliff or an island lay ahead of them. They heard the enclosing of the sound before they saw the mist darken.

The boatman pulled on one oar to turn the boat a little to the left.

“Where are we?” said the voice of the Chevalier Tialys, small but strong as ever, though there was a harsh edge to it, as if he, too, had been suffering pain.

“Near the island,” said the boatman. “Another five minutes, we’ll be at the landing stage.”

“What island?” said Will. He found his own voice strained, too, so tight it hardly seemed his.

“The gate to the land of the dead is on this island,” said the boatman. “Everyone comes here, kings, queens, murderers, poets, children; everyone comes this way, and none come back.”

“We shall come back,” whispered Lyra fiercely.

He said nothing, but his ancient eyes were full of pity.

As they moved closer, they could see branches of cypress and yew hanging down low over the water, dark green, dense, and gloomy. The land rose steeply, and the trees grew so thickly that hardly a ferret could slip between them, and at that thought Lyra gave a little half-hiccup-half-sob, for Pan would have shown her how well he could do it; but not now, maybe not ever again.

“Are we dead now?” Will said to the boatman.

“Makes no difference,” he said. “There’s some that came here never believing they were dead. They insisted all the way that they were alive, it was a mistake, someone would have to pay; made no difference. There’s others who longed to be dead when they were alive, poor souls; lives full of pain or misery; killed themselves for a chance of a blessed rest, and found that nothing had changed except for the worse, and this time there was no escape; you can’t make yourself alive again. And there’s been others so frail and sickly, little infants, sometimes, that they’re scarcely born into the living before they come down to the dead. I’ve rowed this boat with a little crying baby on my lap many, many times, that never knew the difference between up there and down here. And old folk, too, the rich ones are the worst, snarling and savage and cursing me, railing and screaming: what did I think I was? Hadn’t they gathered and saved all the gold they could garner? Wouldn’t I take some now, to put them back ashore? They’d have the law on me, they had powerful friends, they knew the Pope and the king of this and the duke of that, they were in a position to see I was punished and chastised … But they knew what the truth was in the end: the only position they were in was in my boat going to the land of the dead, and as for those kings and Popes, they’d be in here, too, in their turn, sooner than they wanted. I let ’em cry and rave; they can’t hurt me; they fall silent in the end.

“So if you don’t know whether you’re dead or not, and the little girl swears blind she’ll come out again to the living, I say nothing to contradict you. What you are, you’ll know soon enough.”

All the time he had been steadily rowing along the shore, and now he shipped the oars, slipping the handles down inside the boat and reaching out to his right for the first wooden post that rose out of the lake.

He pulled the boat alongside the narrow wharf and held it still for them. Lyra didn’t want to get out: as long as she was near the boat, then Pantalaimon would be able to think of her properly, because that was how he last saw her, but when she moved away from it, he wouldn’t know how to picture her anymore. So she hesitated, but the dragonflies flew up, and Will got out, pale and clutching his chest; so she had to as well.

“Thank you,” she said to the boatman. “When you go back, if you see my dæmon, tell him I love him the best of everything in the land of the living or the dead, and I swear I’ll come back to him, even if no one’s ever done it before, I swear I will.”

“Yes, I’ll tell him that,” said the old boatman.

He pushed off, and the sound of his slow oar strokes faded away in the mist.

The Gallivespians flew back, having gone a little way, and perched on the children’s shoulders as before, she on Lyra, he on Will. So they stood, the travelers, at the edge of the land of the dead. Ahead of them there was nothing but mist, though they could see from the darkening of it that a great wall rose in front of them.

Lyra shivered. She felt as if her skin had turned into lace and the damp and bitter air could flow in and out of her ribs, scaldingly cold on the raw wound where Pantalaimon had been. Still, she thought, Roger must have felt like that as he plunged down the mountainside, trying to cling to her desperate fingers.

They stood still and listened. The only sound was an endless drip-drip-drip of water from the leaves, and as they looked up, they felt one or two drops splash coldly on their cheeks.

“Can’t stay here,” said Lyra.

They moved off the wharf, keeping close together, and made their way to the wall. Gigantic stone blocks, green with ancient slime, rose higher into the mist than they could see. And now that they were closer, they could hear the sound of cries behind it, though whether they were human voices crying was impossible to tell: high, mournful shrieks and wails that hung in the air like the drifting filaments of a jellyfish, causing pain wherever they touched.

“There’s a door,” said Will in a hoarse, strained voice.

It was a battered wooden postern under a slab of stone. Before Will could lift his hand and open it, one of those high, harsh cries sounded very close by, jarring their ears and frightening them horribly.

Immediately the Gallivespians darted into the air, the dragonflies like little warhorses eager for battle. But the thing that flew down swept them aside with a brutal blow from her wing, and then settled heavily on a ledge just above the children’s heads. Tialys and Salmakia gathered themselves and soothed their shaken mounts.

The thing was a great bird the size of a vulture, with the face and breasts of a woman. Will had seen pictures of creatures like her, and the word harpy came to mind as soon as he saw her clearly. Her face was smooth and unwrinkled, but aged beyond even the age of the witches: she had seen thousands of years pass, and the cruelty and misery of all of them had formed the hateful expression on her features. But as the travelers saw her more clearly, she became even more repulsive. Her eye sockets were clotted with filthy slime, and the redness of her lips was caked and crusted as if she had vomited ancient blood again and again. Her matted, filthy black hair hung down to her shoulders; her jagged claws gripped the stone fiercely; her powerful dark wings were folded along her back; and a drift of putrescent stink wafted from her every time she moved.

Will and Lyra, both of them sick and full of pain, tried to stand upright and face her.

“But you are alive!” the harpy said, her harsh voice mocking them.

Will found himself hating and fearing her more than any human being he had ever known.

“Who are you?” said Lyra, who was just as repelled as Will.

For answer the harpy screamed. She opened her mouth and directed a jet of noise right in their faces, so that their heads rang and they nearly fell backward. Will clutched at Lyra and they both clung together as the scream turned into wild, mocking peals of laughter, which were answered by other harpy voices in the fog along the shore. The jeering, hate-filled sound reminded Will of the merciless cruelty of children in a playground, but there were no teachers here to regulate things, no one to appeal to, nowhere to hide.

He set his hand on the knife at his belt and looked her in the eyes, though his head was ringing and the sheer power of her scream had made him dizzy.

“If you’re trying to stop us,” he said, “then you’d better be ready to fight as well as scream. Because we’re going through that door.”

The harpy’s sickening red mouth moved again, but this time it was to purse her lips into a mock kiss.

Then she said, “Your mother is alone. We shall send her nightmares. We shall scream at her in her sleep!”

Will didn’t move, because out of the corner of his eye, he could see the Lady Salmakia moving delicately along the branch where the harpy was perching. Her dragonfly, wings quivering, was being held by Tialys on the ground, and then two things happened: the Lady leapt at the harpy and spun around to dig her spur deep into the creature’s scaly leg, and Tialys launched the dragonfly upward. In less than a second Salmakia had spun away and leapt off the branch, directly onto the back of her electric blue steed and up into the air.

The effect on the harpy was immediate. Another scream shattered the silence, much louder than before, and she beat her dark wings so hard that Will and Lyra both felt the wind and staggered. But she clung to the stone with her claws, and her face was suffused with dark red anger, and her hair stood out from her head like a crest of serpents.

Will tugged at Lyra’s hand, and they both tried to run toward the door, but the harpy launched herself at them in a fury and only pulled up from the dive when Will turned, thrusting Lyra behind him and holding up the knife.

The Gallivespians were on her at once, darting close at her face and then darting away again, unable to get in a blow but distracting her so that she beat her wings clumsily and half-fell onto the ground.

Lyra called out, “Tialys! Salmakia! Stop, stop!”

The spies reined back their dragonflies and skimmed high over the children’s heads. Other dark forms were clustering in the fog, and the jeering screams of a hundred more harpies sounded from farther along the shore. The first one was shaking her wings, shaking her hair, stretching each leg in turn, and flexing her claws. She was unhurt, and that was what Lyra had noticed.

The Gallivespians hovered and then dived back toward Lyra, who was holding out both hands for them to land on. Salmakia realized what Lyra had meant, and said to Tialys: “She’s right. We can’t hurt her, for some reason.”

Lyra said, “Lady, what’s your name?”

The harpy shook her wings wide, and the travelers nearly fainted from the hideous smells of corruption and decay that wafted from her.

“No-Name!” she cried. “What do you want with us?” said Lyra.

“What can you give me?”

“We could tell you where we’ve been, and maybe you’d be interested, I don’t know. We saw all kinds of strange things on the way here.”

“Oh, and you’re offering to tell me a story?”

“If you’d like.”

“Maybe I would. And what then?”

“You might let us go in through that door and find the ghost we’ve come here to look for; I hope you would, anyway. If you’d be so kind.”

“Try, then,” said No-Name.

And even in her sickness and pain, Lyra felt that she’d just been dealt the ace of trumps.

“Oh, be careful,” whispered Salmakia, but Lyra’s mind was already racing ahead through the story she’d told the night before, shaping and cutting and improving and adding: parents dead; family treasure; shipwreck; escape …

“Well,” she said, settling into her storytelling frame of mind, “it began when I was a baby, really. My father and mother were the Duke and Duchess of Abingdon, you see, and they were as rich as anything. My father was one of the king’s advisers, and the king himself used to come and stay, oh, all the time. They’d go hunting in our forest. The house there, where I was born, it was the biggest house in the whole south of England. It was called—”

Without even a cry of warning, the harpy launched herself at Lyra, claws outstretched. Lyra just had time to duck, but still one of the claws caught her scalp and tore out a clump of hair.

“Liar! Liar!” the harpy was screaming. “Liar!”

She flew around again, aiming directly for Lyra’s face; but Will took out the knife and threw himself in the way. No-Name swerved out of reach just in time, and Will hustled Lyra over toward the door, because she was numb with shock and half-blinded by the blood running down her face. Where the Gallivespians were, Will had no idea, but the harpy was flying at them again and screaming and screaming in rage and hatred:

“Liar! Liar! Liar!”

And it sounded as if her voice were coming from everywhere, and the word echoed back from the great wall in the fog, muffled and changed, so that she seemed to be screaming Lyra’s name, so that Lyra and liar were one and the same thing.

Will had the girl pressed against his chest, with his shoulder curved over to protect her, and he felt her shaking and sobbing against him; but then he thrust the knife into the rotten wood of the door and cut out the lock with a quick slash of the blade.

Then he and Lyra, with the spies beside them on their darting dragonflies, tumbled through into the realm of the ghosts as the harpy’s cry was doubled and redoubled by others on the foggy shore behind them.

22

Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks In Vallombrosa, where th’Etrurian shades / High overarch’t imbowr …

• JOHN MILTON •

THE WHISPERERS

The first thing Will did was to make Lyra sit down, and then he took out the little pot of bloodmoss ointment and looked at the wound on her head. It was bleeding freely, as scalp wounds do, but it wasn’t deep. He tore a strip off the edge of his shirt and mopped it clean, and spread some of the ointment over the gash, trying not to think of the filthy state of the claw that made it.

Lyra’s eyes were glazed, and she was ash-pale.

“Lyra! Lyra!” he said, and shook her gently. “Come on now, we’ve got to move.”

She gave a shudder and took a long, shaky breath, and her eyes focused on him, full of a wild despair.

“Will—I can’t do it anymore—I can’t do it! I can’t tell lies! I thought it was so easy—but it didn’t work—it’s all I can do, and it doesn’t work!”

“It’s not all you can do. You can read the alethiometer, can’t you? Come on, let’s see where we are. Let’s look for Roger.”

He helped her up, and for the first time they looked around at the land where the ghosts were.

They found themselves on a great plain that extended far ahead into the mist. The light by which they saw was a dull self-luminescence that seemed to exist everywhere equally, so that there were no true shadows and no true light, and everything was the same dingy color.

Standing on the floor of this huge space were adults and children—ghost people—so many that Lyra couldn’t guess their number. At least, most of them were standing, though some were sitting and some lying down listless or asleep. No one was moving about, or running or playing, though many of them turned to look at these new arrivals, with a fearful curiosity in their wide eyes.

“Ghosts,” she whispered. “This is where they all are, everyone that’s ever died …”

No doubt it was because she didn’t have Pantalaimon anymore, but she clung close to Will’s arm, and he was glad she did. The Gallivespians had flown ahead, and he could see their bright little forms darting and skimming over the heads of the ghosts, who looked up and followed them with wonder; but the silence was immense and oppressive, and the gray light filled him with fear, and Lyra’s warm presence beside him was the only thing that felt like life.

Behind them, outside the wall, the screams of the harpies were still echoing up and down the shore. Some of the ghost people were looking up apprehensively, but more of them were staring at Will and Lyra, and then they began to crowd forward. Lyra shrank back; she didn’t have the strength just yet to face them as she would have liked to do, and it was Will who had to speak first.

“Do you speak our language?” he said. “Can you speak at all?”

Shivering and frightened and full of pain as he and Lyra were, they had more authority than the whole mass of the dead put together. These poor ghosts had little power of their own, and hearing Will’s voice, the first clear voice that had sounded there in all the memory of the dead, many of them came forward, eager to respond.

But they could only whisper. A faint, pale sound, no more than a soft breath, was all they could utter. And as they thrust forward, jostling and desperate, the Gallivespians flew down and darted to and fro in front of them, to prevent them from crowding too close. The ghost children looked up with a passionate longing, and Lyra knew at once why: they thought the dragonflies were dæmons; they were wishing with all their hearts that they could hold their own dæmons again.

“Oh, they en’t dæmons,” Lyra burst out compassionately; “and if my own dæmon was here, you could all stroke him and touch him, I promise—”

And she held out her hands to the children. The adult ghosts hung back, listless or fearful, but the children all came thronging forward. They had as much substance as fog, poor things, and Lyra’s hands passed through and through them, as did Will’s. They crammed forward, light and lifeless, to warm themselves at the flowing blood and the strong-beating hearts of the two travelers, and both Will and Lyra felt a succession of cold, delicate brushing sensations as the ghosts passed through their bodies, warming themselves on the way. The two living children felt that little by little they were becoming dead, too; they hadn’t got an infinite amount of life and warmth to give, and they were so cold already, and the endless crowds pressing forward looked as if they were never going to stop.

Finally Lyra had to plead with them to hold back.

She held up her hands and said, “Please—we wish we could touch you all, but we came down here to look for someone, and I need you to tell me where he is and how to find him. Oh, Will,” she said, leaning her head to his, “I wish I knew what to do!”

The ghosts were fascinated by the blood on Lyra’s forehead. It glowed as brightly as a holly berry in the dimness, and several of them had brushed through it, longing for the contact with something so vibrantly alive. One ghost girl, who when she was alive must have been about nine or ten, reached up shyly to try and touch it, and then shrank back in fear; but Lyra said, “Don’t be afraid—we en’t come here to hurt you—speak to us, if you can!”

The ghost girl spoke, but in her thin, pale voice, it was only a whisper.

“Did the harpies do that? Did they try and hurt you?”

“Yeah,” said Lyra, “but if that’s all they can do, I en’t worried about them.”

“Oh, it isn’t—oh, they do worse—”

“What? What do they do?”

But they were reluctant to tell her. They shook their heads and kept silent, until one boy said, “It en’t so bad for them that’s been here hundreds of years, because you get tired after all that time, they can’t ’fraid you up so much—”

“It’s the new ones that they like talking to most,” said the first girl. “It’s just … Oh, it’s just hateful. They … I can’t tell you.”

Their voices were no louder than dry leaves falling. And it was only the children who spoke; the adults all seemed sunk in a lethargy so ancient that they might never move or speak again.

“Listen,” said Lyra, “please listen. We came here, me and my friends, because we got to find a boy called Roger. He en’t been here long, just a few weeks, so he won’t know very many people, but if you know where he is …”

But even as she spoke, she knew that they could stay here till they grew old, searching everywhere and looking at every face, and still they might never see more than a tiny fraction of the dead. She felt despair sit on her shoulders, as heavy as if the harpy herself were perching there.

However, she clenched her teeth and tried to hold her chin high. We got here, she thought, that’s part of it anyway.

The first ghost girl was saying something in that lost little whisper.

“Why do we want to find him?” said Will. “Well, Lyra wants to speak to him. But there’s someone I want to find as well. I want to find my father, John Parry. He’s here, too, somewhere, and I want to speak to him before I go back to the world. So please ask, if you can, ask for Roger and for John Parry to come and speak to Lyra and to Will. Ask them—”

But suddenly the ghosts all turned and fled, even the grownups, like dry leaves scattered by a sudden gust of wind. In a moment the space around the children was empty, and then they heard why: screams, cries, shrieks came from the air above, and then the harpies were on them, with gusts of rotten stink, battering wings, and those raucous screams, jeering, mocking, cackling, deriding.

Lyra shrank to the ground at once, covering her ears, and Will, knife in hand, crouched over her. He could see Tialys and Salmakia skimming toward them, but they were some way off yet, and he had a moment or two to watch the harpies as they wheeled and dived. He saw their human faces snap at the air, as if they were eating insects, and he heard the words they were shouting—scoffing words, filthy words, all about his mother, words that shook his heart; but part of his mind was quite cold and separate, thinking, calculating, observing. None of them wanted to come anywhere near the knife.

To see what would happen, he stood up. One of them—it might have been No-Name herself—had to swerve heavily out of the way, because she’d been diving low, intending to skim just over his head. Her heavy wings beat clumsily, and she only just made the turn. He could have reached out and slashed off her head with the knife.

By this time the Gallivespians had arrived, and the two of them were about to attack, but Will called: “Tialys! Come here! Salmakia, come to my hand!”

They landed on his shoulders, and he said, “Watch. See what they do. They only come and scream. I think it was a mistake when she hit Lyra. I don’t think they want to touch us at all. We can ignore them.”

Lyra looked up, wide-eyed. The creatures flew around Will’s head, sometimes only a foot or so away, but they always swerved aside or upward at the last moment. He could sense the two spies eager for battle, and the dragonflies’ wings were quivering with desire to dart through the air with their deadly riders, but they held themselves back: they could see he was right.

And it had an effect on the ghosts, too: seeing Will standing unafraid and unharmed, they began to drift back toward the travelers. They watched the harpies cautiously, but for all that, the lure of the warm flesh and blood, those strong heartbeats, was too much to resist.

Lyra stood up to join Will. Her wound had opened again, and fresh blood was trickling down her cheek, but she wiped it aside.

“Will,” she said, “I’m so glad we came down here together …”

He heard a tone in her voice and he saw an expression on her face that he knew and liked more than anything he’d ever known: it showed she was thinking of something daring, but she wasn’t ready to speak of it yet.

He nodded, to show he’d understood.

The ghost girl said, “This way—come with us—we’ll find them!”

And both of them felt the strangest sensation, as if little ghost hands were reaching inside and tugging at their ribs to make them follow.

So they set off across the floor of that great desolate plain, and the harpies wheeled higher and higher overhead, screaming and screaming. But they kept their distance, and the Gallivespians flew above, keeping watch.

As they walked along, the ghosts talked to them.

“Excuse me,” said one ghost girl, “but where’s your dæmons? Excuse me for asking. But …”

Lyra was conscious every single second of her dear, abandoned Pantalaimon. She couldn’t speak easily, so Will answered instead.

“We left our dæmons outside,” he said, “where it’s safe for them. We’ll collect them later. Did you have a dæmon?”

“Yes,” said the ghost, “his name was Sandling … oh, I loved him …”

“And had he settled?” said Lyra.

“No, not yet. He used to think he’d be a bird, and I hoped he wouldn’t, because I liked him all furry in bed at night. But he was a bird more and more. What’s your dæmon called?”

Lyra told her, and the ghosts pressed forward eagerly again. They all wanted to talk about their dæmons, every one.

“Mine was called Matapan—”

“We used to play hide-and-seek, she’d change like a chameleon and I couldn’t see her at all, she was ever so good—”

“Once I hurt my eye and I couldn’t see and he guided me all the way home—”

“He never wanted to settle, but I wanted to grow up, and we used to argue—”

“She used to curl up in my hand and go to sleep—”

“Are they still there, somewhere else? Will we see them again?”

“No. When you die, your dæmon just goes out like a candle flame. I seen it happen. I never saw my Castor, though—I never said good-bye—”

“They en’t nowhere! They must be somewhere! My dæmon’s still there somewhere, I know he is!”

The jostling ghosts were animated and eager, their eyes shining and their cheeks warm, as if they were borrowing life from the travelers.

Will said, “Is there anyone here from my world, where we don’t have dæmons?”

A thin ghost boy of his own age nodded, and Will turned to him.

“Oh yes,” came the answer. “We didn’t understand what dæmons were, but we knew what it felt like to be without them. There’s people here from all kinds of worlds.”

“I knew my death,” said one girl, “I knew him all the while I was growing up. When I heard them talk about dæmons, I thought they meant something like our deaths. I miss him now. I won’t never see him again. I’m over and done with, that’s the last thing he said to me, and then he went forever. When he was with me, I always knew there was someone I could trust, someone who knew where we was going and what to do. But I ain’t got him no more. I don’t know what’s going to happen ever again.”

“There ain’t nothing going to happen!” someone else said. “Nothing, forever!”

“You don’t know,” said another. “They came, didn’t they? No one ever knew that was going to happen.”

She meant Will and Lyra.

“This is the first thing that ever happened here,” said a ghost boy. “Maybe it’s all going to change now.”

“What would you do, if you could?” said Lyra.

“Go up to the world again!”

“Even if it meant you could only see it once, would you still want to do that?”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!”

“Well, anyway, I’ve got to find Roger,” said Lyra, burning with her new idea; but it was for Will to know first.

On the floor of the endless plain, there was a vast, slow movement among the uncountable ghosts. The children couldn’t see it, but Tialys and Salmakia, flying above, watched the little pale figures all moving with an effect that looked like the migration of immense flocks of birds or herds of reindeer. At the center of the movement were the two children who were not ghosts, moving steadily on; not leading, and not following, but somehow focusing the movement into an intention of all the dead.

The spies, their thoughts moving even more quickly than their darting steeds, exchanged a glance and brought the dragonflies to rest side by side on a dry, withered branch.

“Do we have dæmons, Tialys?” said the Lady.

“Since we got into that boat, I have felt as if my heart had been torn out and thrown still beating on the shore,” he said. “But it wasn’t; it’s still working in my breast. So something of mine is out there with the little girl’s dæmon, and something of yours, too, Salmakia, because your face is drawn and your hands are pale and tight. Yes, we have dæmons, whatever they are. Maybe the people in Lyra’s world are the only living beings to know they have. Maybe that’s why it was one of them who started the revolt.”

He slipped off the dragonfly’s back and tethered it safely, and then took out the lodestone resonator. But he had hardly begun to touch it when he stopped.

“No response,” he said somberly.

“So we’re beyond everything?”

“Beyond help, certainly. Well, we knew we were coming to the land of the dead.”

“The boy would go with her to the end of the world.”

“Will his knife open the way back, do you think?”

“I’m sure he thinks so. But oh, Tialys, I don’t know.”

“He’s very young. Well, they are both young. You know, if she doesn’t survive this, the question of whether she’ll choose the right thing when she’s tempted won’t arise. It won’t matter anymore.”

“Do you think she’s chosen already? When she chose to leave her dæmon on the shore? Was that the choice she had to make?”

The Chevalier looked down on the slow-moving millions on the floor of the land of the dead, all drifting after that bright and living spark Lyra Silvertongue. He could just make out her hair, the lightest thing in the gloom, and beside it the boy’s head, black-haired and solid and strong.

“No,” he said, “not yet. That’s still to come, whatever it may be.”

“Then we must bring her to it safely.”

“Bring them both. They’re bound together now.”

The Lady Salmakia flicked the cobweb-light rein, and her dragonfly darted off the branch at once and sped down toward the living children, with the Chevalier close behind.

But they didn’t stop with them; having skimmed low to make sure they were all right, they flew on ahead, partly because the dragonflies were restless, and partly because they wanted to find out how far this dismal place extended.

Lyra saw them flashing overhead and felt a pang of relief that there was still something that darted and glowed with beauty. Then, unable to keep her idea to herself anymore, she turned to Will; but she had to whisper. She put her lips to his ear, and in a noisy rush of warmth, he heard her say:

“Will, I want us to take all these poor dead ghost kids outside—the grownups as well—we could set ’em free! We’ll find Roger and your father, and then let’s open the way to the world outside, and set ’em all free!”

He turned and gave her a true smile, so warm and happy she felt something stumble and falter inside her; at least, it felt like that, but without Pantalaimon she couldn’t ask herself what it meant. It might have been a new way for her heart to beat. Deeply surprised, she told herself to walk straight and stop feeling giddy.

So they moved on. The whisper Roger was spreading out faster than they could move; the words “Roger—Lyra’s come—Roger—Lyra’s here” passed from one ghost to another like the electric message that one cell in the body passes on to the next.

And Tialys and Salmakia, cruising above on their tireless dragonflies, and looking all around as they flew, eventually noticed a new kind of movement. Some way off there was a little gyration of activity. Skimming down closer, they found themselves ignored, for the first time, because something more interesting was gripping the minds of all the ghosts. They were talking excitedly in their near-silent whispers, they were pointing, they were urging someone forward.

Salmakia flew down low, but couldn’t land: the press was too great, and none of their hands or shoulders would support her, even if they dared to try. She saw a young ghost boy with an honest, unhappy face, dazed and puzzled by what he was being told, and she called out:

“Roger? Is that Roger?”

He looked up, bemused, nervous, and nodded.

Salmakia flew back up to her companion, and together they sped back to Lyra. It was a long way, and hard to navigate, but by watching the patterns of movement, they finally found her.

“There she is,” said Tialys, and called: “Lyra! Lyra! Your friend is there!”

Lyra looked up and held out her hand for the dragonfly. The great insect landed at once, its red and yellow gleaming like enamel, and its filmy wings stiff and still on either side. Tialys kept his balance as she held him at eye level.

“Where?” she said, breathless with excitement. “Is he far off?”

“An hour’s walk,” said the Chevalier. “But he knows you’re coming. The others have told him, and we made sure it was him. Just keep going, and soon you’ll find him.”

Tialys saw Will make the effort to stand up straight and force himself to find some more energy. Lyra was charged with it already, and plied the Gallivespians with questions: how did Roger seem? Had he spoken to them? No, of course; but did he seem glad? Were the other children aware of what was happening, and were they helping, or were they just in the way?

And so on. Tialys tried to answer everything truthfully and patiently, and step by step the living girl drew closer to the boy she had brought to his death.

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