بخش 14

مجموعه: نیروی اهریمنی اش / کتاب: چاقوی ظریف / فصل 14

بخش 14

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They traveled on through the day, resting, moving, resting again, as the trees grew thinner and the land more rocky. Lyra checked the alethiometer: Keep going, it said; this is the right direction. At noon they came to a village untroubled by Specters. Goats pastured on the hillside, a grove of lemon trees cast shade on the stony ground, and children playing in the stream called out and ran for their mothers at the sight of the girl in the tattered clothing, and the white-faced, fierce-eyed boy in the bloodstained shirt, and the elegant greyhound that walked beside them.

The grownups were wary but willing to sell some bread and cheese and fruit for one of Lyra’s gold coins. The witches kept out of the way, though both children knew they’d be there in a second if any danger threatened. After another round of Lyra’s bargaining, one old woman sold them two flasks of goatskin and a fine linen shirt, and Will renounced his filthy T-shirt with relief, washing himself in the icy stream and lying to dry in the hot sun afterward.

Refreshed, they moved on. The land was harsher now; for shade they had to rest in the shadow of rocks, not under wide-spreading trees, and the ground underfoot was hot through the soles of their shoes. The sun pounded at their eyes. They moved more and more slowly as they climbed, and when the sun touched the mountain rims and they saw a little valley open below them, they decided to go no farther.

They scrambled down the slope, nearly losing their footing more than once, and then had to shove their way through thickets of dwarf rhododendrons whose dark glossy leaves and crimson flower clusters were heavy with the hum of bees. They came out in the evening shade on a wild meadow bordering a stream. The grass was knee-high and thick with cornflowers, gentians, cinquefoil.

Will drank deeply in the stream and then lay down. He couldn’t stay awake, and he couldn’t sleep, either; his head was spinning, a daze of strangeness hung over everything, and his hand was sore and throbbing.

And what was worse, it had begun to bleed again.

When Serafina looked at it, she put more herbs on the wound, and tied the silk tighter than ever, but this time her face was troubled. He didn’t want to question her, for what would be the point? It was plain to him that the spell hadn’t worked, and he could see she knew it too.

As darkness fell, he heard Lyra come to lie down close by, and presently he heard a soft purring. Her dæmon, cat-formed, was dozing with folded paws only a foot or two away from him, and Will whispered, “Pantalaimon?” The dæmon’s eyes opened. Lyra didn’t stir. Pantalaimon whispered, “Yes?”

“Pan, am I going to die?”

“The witches won’t let you die. Nor will Lyra.”

“But the spell didn’t work. I keep losing blood. I can’t have much left to lose. And it’s bleeding again, and it won’t stop. I’m frightened.…”

“Lyra doesn’t think you are.”

“Doesn’t she?”

“She thinks you’re the bravest fighter she ever saw, as brave as Iorek Byrnison.”

“I suppose I better try not to seem frightened, then,” Will said. He was quiet for a minute or so, and then he said, “I think Lyra’s braver than me. I think she’s the best friend I ever had.” “She thinks that about you as well,” whispered the dæmon.

Presently Will closed his eyes.

Lyra lay unmoving, but her eyes were wide open in the dark, and her heart was beating hard.

When Will next became aware of things, it was completely dark, and his hand was hurting more than ever. He sat up carefully and saw a fire burning not far away, where Lyra was trying to toast some bread on a forked stick. There were a couple of birds roasting on a spit as well, and as Will came to sit nearby, Serafina Pekkala flew down.

“Will,” she said, “eat these leaves before you have any other food.”

She gave him a handful of soft bitter-tasting leaves somewhat like sage, and he chewed them silently and forced them down. They were astringent, but he felt more awake and less cold, and the better for it.

They ate the roasted birds, seasoning them with lemon juice, and then another witch brought some blueberries she’d found below the scree, and then the witches gathered around the fire. They talked quietly; some of them had flown high up to spy, and one had seen a balloon over the sea. Lyra sat up at once.

“Mr. Scoresby’s balloon?” she said.

“There were two men in it, but it was too far away to see who they were. A storm was gathering behind them.”

Lyra clapped her hands. “If Mr. Scoresby’s coming,” she said, “we’ll be able to fly, Will! Oh, I hope it’s him! I never said good-bye to him, and he was so kind. I wish I could see him again, I really do.…” The witch Juta Kamainen was listening, with her red-breasted robin dæmon bright-eyed on her shoulder, because the mention of Lee Scoresby had reminded her of the quest he’d set out on. She was the witch who had loved Stanislaus Grumman and whose love he’d turned down, the witch Serafina Pekkala had brought into this world to prevent her from killing him in their own.

Serafina might have noticed, but something else happened: she held up her hand and lifted her head, as did all the other witches. Will and Lyra could hear very faintly to the north the cry of some night bird. But it wasn’t a bird; the witches knew it at once for a dæmon. Serafina Pekkala stood up, gazing intently into the sky.

“I think it’s Ruta Skadi,” she said.

They kept still, tilting their heads to the wide silence, straining to hear.

And then came another cry, closer already, and then a third; and at that, all the witches seized their branches and leaped into the air. All but two, that is, who stood close by, arrows at their bowstrings, guarding Will and Lyra.

Somewhere in the dark above, a fight was taking place. And only seconds later, it seemed, they could hear the rush of flight, the whiz of arrows, and the grunt and scream of voices raised in pain or anger or command.

And then with a thud so sudden they had no time to jump, a creature fell from the sky at their feet—a beast of leathery skin and matted fur that Lyra recognized as a cliff-ghast, or something similar.

It was broken by the fall, and an arrow protruded from its side, but still it lurched up and lunged with a flopping malice at Lyra. The witches couldn’t shoot, because she was in their line of fire, but Will was there first; and with the knife he slashed backhand, and the creature’s head came off and rolled over once or twice. The air left its lungs with a gurgling sigh, and it fell dead.

They turned their eyes upward again, for the fight was coming lower, and the firelight glaring up showed a swift-rushing swirl of black silk, pale limbs, green pine needles, gray-brown scabby leather. How the witches could keep their balance in the sudden turns and halts and forward darts, let alone aim and shoot, was beyond Will’s understanding.

Another cliff-ghast and then a third fell in the stream or on the rocks nearby, stark dead; and then the rest fled, skirling and chittering into the dark toward the north.

A few moments later Serafina Pekkala landed with her own witches and with another: a beautiful witch, fierce-eyed and black-haired, whose cheeks were flushed with anger and excitement.

The new witch saw the headless cliff-ghast and spat.

“Not from our world,” she said, “nor from this. Filthy abominations. There are thousands of them, breeding like flies.… Who is this? Is this the child Lyra? And who is the boy?” Lyra returned her gaze stolidly, though she felt a quickening of her heart, for Ruta Skadi lived so brilliantly in her nerves that she set up a responding thrill in the nerves of anyone close by.

Then the witch turned to Will, and he felt the same tingle of intensity, but like Lyra he controlled his expression. He still had the knife in his hand, and she saw what he’d done with it and smiled. He thrust it into the earth to clean it of the foul thing’s blood and then rinsed it in the stream.

Ruta Skadi was saying, “Serafina Pekkala, I am learning so much; all the old things are changing, or dying, or empty. I’m hungry.…”

She ate like an animal, tearing at the remains of the roasted birds and cramming handfuls of bread into her mouth, washing it down with deep gulps from the stream. While she ate, some of the witches carried the dead cliff-ghast away, rebuilt the fire, and then set up a watch.

The rest came to sit near Ruta Skadi and to hear what she could tell them. She told what had happened when she flew up to meet the angels, and then of her journey to Lord Asriel’s fortress.

“Sisters, it is the greatest castle you can imagine: ramparts of basalt, rearing to the skies, with wide roads coming from every direction, and on them cargoes of gunpowder, of food, of armor plate. How has he done this? I think he must have been preparing this for a long time, for eons. He was preparing this before we were born, sisters, even though he is so much younger.… But how can that be? I don’t know. I can’t understand. I think he commands time, he makes it run fast or slow according to his will.

“And coming to this fortress are warriors of every kind, from every world. Men and women, yes, and fighting spirits, too, and armed creatures such as I had never seen—lizards and apes, great birds with poison spurs, creatures too outlandish to have a name I could guess at. And other worlds have witches, sisters; did you know that? I spoke to witches from a world like ours, but profoundly different, for those witches live no longer than our short-lifes, and there are men among them, too, men-witches who fly as we do.…” Her tale was causing the witches of Serafina Pekkala’s clan to listen with awe and fear and disbelief. But Serafina believed her, and urged her on.

“Did you see Lord Asriel, Ruta Skadi? Did you find your way to him?”

“Yes, I did, and it was not easy, because he lives at the center of so many circles of activity, and he directs them all. But I made myself invisible and found my way to his inmost chamber, when he was preparing to sleep.” Every witch there knew what had happened next, and neither Will nor Lyra dreamed of it. So Ruta Skadi had no need to tell, and she went on: “And then I asked him why he was bringing all these forces together, and if it was true what we’d heard about his challenge to the Authority, and he laughed.

“ ‘Do they speak of it in Siberia, then?’ he said, and I told him yes, and on Svalbard, and in every region of the north—our north; and I told him of our pact, and how I’d left our world to seek him and find out.

“And he invited us to join him, sisters. To join his army against the Authority. I wished with all my heart I could pledge us there and then. He showed me that to rebel was right and just, when you considered what the agents of the Authority did in His name.… And I thought of the Bolvangar children, and the other terrible mutilations I have seen in our own southlands; and he told me of many more hideous cruelties dealt out in the Authority’s name—of how they capture witches, in some worlds, and burn them alive, sisters. Yes, witches like ourselves … “He opened my eyes. He showed me things I had never seen, cruelties and horrors all committed in the name of the Authority, all designed to destroy the joys and the truthfulness of life.

“Oh, sisters, I longed to throw myself and my whole clan into the cause! But I knew I must consult you first, and then fly back to our world and talk to Ieva Kasku and Reina Miti and the other witch queens.

“So I left his chamber invisibly and found my cloud-pine and flew away. But before I’d flown far, a great wind came up and hurled me high into the mountains, and I had to take refuge on a clifftop. Knowing the sort of creatures who live on cliffs, I made myself invisible again, and in the darkness I heard voices.

“It seemed that I’d stumbled on the nesting place of the oldest of all cliff-ghasts. He was blind, and they were bringing him food: some stinking carrion from far below. And they were asking him for guidance.

“ ‘Grandfather,’ they said, ‘how far back does your memory go?’

“ ‘Way, way back. Back long before humans,’ he said, and his voice was soft and cracked and frail.

“ ‘Is it true that the greatest battle ever known is coming soon, Grandfather?’

“ ‘Yes, children,’ he said. ‘A greater battle than the last one, even. Fine feasting for all of us. These will be days of pleasure and plenty for every ghast in every world.’ “ ‘And who’s going to win, Grandfather? Is Lord Asriel going to defeat the Authority?’

“ ‘Lord Asriel’s army numbers millions,’ the old cliff-ghast told them, ‘assembled from every world. It’s a greater army than the one that fought the Authority before, and it’s better led. As for the forces of the Authority, why, they number a hundred times as many. But the Authority is age-old, far older even than me, children, and His troops are frightened, and complacent where they’re not frightened. It would be a close fight, but Lord Asriel would win, because he is passionate and daring and he believes his cause is just. Except for one thing, children. He hasn’t got Æsahættr. Without Æsahættr, he and all his forces will go down to defeat. And then we shall feast for years, my children!’ “And he laughed and gnawed the stinking old bone they’d brought to him, and the others all shrieked with glee.

“Now, you can imagine how I listened hard to hear more about this Æsahættr, but all I could hear over the howling of the wind was a young ghast asking, ‘If Lord Asriel needs Æsahættr, why doesn’t he call him?’ “And the old ghast said, ‘Lord Asriel knows no more about Æsahættr than you do, child! That is the joke! Laugh long and loud—’

“But as I tried to get closer to the foul things to learn more, my power failed, sisters, I couldn’t hold myself invisible any longer. The younger ones saw me and shrieked out, and I had to flee, back into this world through the invisible gateway in the air. A flock of them came after me, and those are the last of them, dead over there.

“But it’s clear that Lord Asriel needs us, sisters. Whoever this Æsahættr is, Lord Asriel needs us! I wish I could go back to Lord Asriel now and say, ‘Don’t be anxious—we’re coming—we the witches of the north, and we shall help you win.’ … Let’s agree now, Serafina Pekkala, and call a great council of all the witches, every single clan, and make war!” Serafina Pekkala looked at Will, and it seemed to him that she was asking his permission for something. But he could give no guidance, and she looked back at Ruta Skadi.

“Not us,” she said. “Our task now is to help Lyra, and her task is to guide Will to his father. You should fly back, agreed, but we must stay with Lyra.”

Ruta Skadi tossed her head impatiently. “Well, if you must,” she said.

Will lay down, because his wound was hurting him—much more now than when it was fresh. His whole hand was swollen. Lyra too lay down, with Pantalaimon curled at her neck, and watched the fire through half-closed lids, and listened sleepily to the murmur of the witches.

Ruta Skadi walked a little way upstream, and Serafina Pekkala went with her.

“Ah, Serafina Pekkala, you should see Lord Asriel,” said the Latvian queen quietly. “He is the greatest commander there ever was. Every detail of his forces is clear in his mind. Imagine the daring of it, to make war on the Creator! But who do you think this Æisahættr can be? How have we not heard of him? And how can we urge him to join Lord Asriel?” “Maybe it’s not a him, sister. We know as little as the young cliff-ghast. Maybe the old grandfather was laughing at his ignorance. The word sounds as if it means ‘god destroyer.’ Did you know that?” “Then it might mean us after all, Serafina Pekkala! And if it does, then how much stronger his forces will be when we join them. Ah, I long for my arrows to kill those fiends from Bolvangar, and every Bolvangar in every world! Sister, why do they do it? In every world, the agents of the Authority are sacrificing children to their cruel god! Why? Why?” “They are afraid of Dust,” said Serafina Pekkala, “though what that is, I don’t know.”

“And this boy you’ve found. Who is he? What world does he come from?”

Serafina Pekkala told her all she knew about Will. “I don’t know why he’s important,” she finished, “but we serve Lyra. And her instrument tells her that that is her task. And, sister, we tried to heal his wound, but we failed. We tried the holding spell, but it didn’t work. Maybe the herbs in this world are less potent than ours. It’s too hot here for bloodmoss to grow.” “He’s strange,” said Ruta Skadi. “He is the same kind as Lord Asriel. Have you looked into his eyes?”

“To tell the truth,” said Serafina Pekkala, “I haven’t dared.”

The two queens sat quietly by the stream. Time went past; stars set, and other stars rose; a little cry came from the sleepers, but it was only Lyra dreaming. The witches heard the rumbling of a storm, and they saw the lightning play over the sea and the foothills, but it was a long way off.

Later Ruta Skadi said, “The girl Lyra. What of the part she was supposed to play? Is this it? She’s important because she can lead the boy to his father? It was more than that, wasn’t it?” “That’s what she has to do now. But as for later, yes, far more than that. What we witches have said about the child is that she would put an end to destiny. Well, we know the name that would make her meaningful to Mrs. Coulter, and we know that the woman doesn’t know it. The witch she was torturing on the ship near Svalbard nearly gave it away, but Yambe-Akka came to her in time.

“But I’m thinking now that Lyra might be what you heard those ghasts speak of—this Æsahættr. Not the witches, not those angel-beings, but that sleeping child: the final weapon in the war against the Authority. Why else would Mrs. Coulter be so anxious to find her?” “Mrs. Coulter was a lover of Lord Asriel’s,” said Ruta Skadi. “Of course, and Lyra is their child.… Serafina Pekkala, if I had borne his child, what a witch she would be! A queen of queens!” “Hush, sister,” said Serafina. “Listen … and what’s that light?”

They stood, alarmed that something had slipped past their guard, and saw a gleam of light from the camping place; not firelight, though, nothing remotely like firelight.

They ran back on silent feet, arrows already nocked to their bowstrings, and stopped suddenly.

All the witches were asleep on the grass, and so were Will and Lyra. But surrounding the two children were a dozen or more angels, gazing down at them.

And then Serafina understood something for which the witches had no word: it was the idea of pilgrimage. She understood why these beings would wait for thousands of years and travel vast distances in order to be close to something important, and how they would feel differently for the rest of time, having been briefly in its presence. That was how these creatures looked now, these beautiful pilgrims of rarefied light, standing around the girl with the dirty face and the tartan skirt and the boy with the wounded hand who was frowning in his sleep.

There was a stir at Lyra’s neck. Pantalaimon, a snow-white ermine, opened his black eyes sleepily and gazed around unafraid. Later, Lyra would remember it as a dream. Pantalaimon seemed to accept the attention as Lyra’s due, and presently he curled up again and closed his eyes.

Finally one of the creatures spread his wings wide. The others, as close as they were, did so too, and their wings interpenetrated with no resistance, sweeping through one another like light through light, until there was a circle of radiance around the sleepers on the grass.

Then the watchers took to the air, one after another, rising like flames into the sky and increasing in size as they did so, until they were immense; but already they were far away, moving like shooting stars toward the north.

Serafina and Ruta Skadi sprang to their pine branches and followed them upward, but they were left far behind.

“Were they like the creatures you saw, Ruta Skadi?” said Serafina as they slowed down in the middle airs, watching the bright flames diminish toward the horizon.

“Bigger, I think, but the same kind. They have no flesh, did you see that? All they are is light. Their senses must be so different from ours.… Serafina Pekkala, I’m leaving you now, to call all the witches of our north together. When we meet again, it will be wartime. Go well, my dear …” They embraced in midair, and Ruta Skadi turned and sped southward.

Serafina watched her go, and then turned to see the last of the gleaming angels disappear far away. She felt nothing but compassion for those great watchers. How much they must miss, never to feel the earth beneath their feet, or the wind in their hair, or the tingle of the starlight on their bare skin! And she snapped a little twig off the pine branch she flew with, and sniffed the sharp resin smell with greedy pleasure, before flying slowly down to join the sleepers on the grass.

14

ALAMO GULCH

Lee Scoresby looked down at the placid ocean to his left and the green shore to his right, and shaded his eyes to search for human life. It was a day and a night since they had left the Yenisei.

“And this is a new world?” he said.

“New to those not born in it,” said Stanislaus Grumman. “As old as yours or mine, otherwise. What Asriel’s done has shaken everything up, Mr. Scoresby, shaken it more profoundly than it’s ever been shaken before. These doorways and windows that I spoke of—they open in unexpected places now. It’s hard to navigate, but this wind is a fair one.” “New or old, that’s a strange world down there,” said Lee.

“Yes,” said Stanislaus Grumman. “It is a strange world, though no doubt some feel at home there.”

“It looks empty,” said Lee.

“Not so. Beyond that headland you’ll find a city that was once powerful and wealthy. And it’s still inhabited by the descendants of the merchants and nobles who built it, though it’s fallen on hard times in the past three hundred years.” A few minutes later, as the balloon drifted on, Lee saw first a lighthouse, then the curve of a stone breakwater, then the towers and domes and red-brown roofs of a beautiful city around a harbor, with a sumptuous building like an opera house in lush gardens, and wide boulevards with elegant hotels, and little streets where blossom-bearing trees hung over shaded balconies.

And Grumman was right; there were people there. But as the balloon drifted closer, Lee was surprised to see that they were children. There was not an adult in sight. And he was even more surprised to see the children had no dæmons—yet they were playing on the beach, or running in and out of cafés, or eating and drinking, or gathering bags full of goods from houses and shops. And there was a group of boys who were fighting, and a red-haired girl urging them on, and a little boy throwing stones to smash all the windows of a nearby building. It was like a playground the size of a city, with not a teacher in sight; it was a world of children.

But they weren’t the only presences there. Lee had to rub his eyes when he saw them first, but there was no doubt about it: columns of mist—or something more tenuous than mist—a thickening of the air.… Whatever they were, the city was full of them; they drifted along the boulevards, they entered houses, they clustered in the squares and courtyards. The children moved among them unseeing.

But not unseen. The farther they drifted over the city, the more Lee could observe the behavior of these forms. And it was clear that some of the children were of interest to them, and that they followed certain children around: the older children, those who (as far as Lee could see through his telescope) were on the verge of adolescence. There was one boy, a tall thin youth with a shock of black hair, who was so thickly surrounded by the transparent beings that his very outline seemed to shimmer in the air. They were like flies around meat. And the boy had no idea of it, though from time to time he would brush his eyes, or shake his head as if to clear his vision.

“What the hell are those things?” said Lee.

“The people call them Specters.”

“What do they do, exactly?”

“You’ve heard of vampires?”

“Oh, in tales.”

“The Specters feast as vampires feast on blood, but the Specters’ food is attention. A conscious and informed interest in the world. The immaturity of children is less attractive to them.” “They’re the opposite of those devils at Bolvangar, then.”

“On the contrary. Both the Oblation Board and the Specters of Indifference are bewitched by this truth about human beings: that innocence is different from experience. The Oblation Board fears and hates Dust, and the Specters feast on it, but it’s Dust both of them are obsessed by.” “They’re clustered around that kid down there.”

“He’s growing up. They’ll attack him soon, and then his life will become a blank, indifferent misery. He’s doomed.”

“For Pete’s sake! Can’t we rescue him?”

“No. The Specters would seize us at once. They can’t touch us up here; all we can do is watch and fly on.”

“But where are the adults? You don’t tell me the whole world is full of children alone?”

“Those children are Specter-orphans. There are many gangs of them in this world. They wander about living on what they can find when the adults flee. And there’s plenty to find, as you can see. They don’t starve. It looks as if a multitude of Specters have invaded this city, and the adults have gone to safety. You notice how few boats there are in the harbor? The children will come to no harm.” “Except for the older ones. Like that poor kid down there.”

“Mr. Scoresby, that is the way this world works. And if you want to put an end to cruelty and injustice, you must take me farther on. I have a job to do.”

“Seems to me—” Lee said, feeling for the words, “seems to me the place you fight cruelty is where you find it, and the place you give help is where you see it needed. Or is that wrong, Dr. Grumman? I’m only an ignorant aeronaut. I’m so damn ignorant I believed it when I was told that shamans had the gift of flight, for example. Yet here’s a shaman who hasn’t.” “Oh, but I have.”

“How d’you make that out?”

The balloon was drifting lower, and the ground was rising. A square stone tower rose directly in their path, and Lee didn’t seem to have noticed.

“I needed to fly,” said Grumman, “so I summoned you, and here I am, flying.”

He was perfectly aware of the peril they were in, but he held back from implying that the aeronaut wasn’t. And in perfect time, Lee Scoresby leaned over the side of the basket and pulled the cord on one of the bags of ballast. The sand flowed out, and the balloon lifted gently to clear the tower by six feet or so. A dozen crows, disturbed, rose cawing around them.

“I guess you are,” said Lee. “You have a strange way about you, Dr. Grumman. You ever spend any time among the witches?”

“Yes,” said Grumman. “And among academicians, and among spirits. I found folly everywhere, but there were grains of wisdom in every stream of it. No doubt there was much more wisdom that I failed to recognize. Life is hard, Mr. Scoresby, but we cling to it all the same.” “And this journey we’re on? Is that folly or wisdom?”

“The greatest wisdom I know.”

“Tell me again what your purpose is. You’re going to find the bearer of this subtle knife, and what then?”

“Tell him what his task is.”

“And that’s a task that includes protecting Lyra,” the aeronaut reminded him.

“It will protect all of us.”

They flew on, and soon the city was out of sight behind them.

Lee checked his instruments. The compass was still gyrating loosely, but the altimeter was functioning accurately, as far as he could judge, and showed them to be floating about a thousand feet above the seashore and parallel with it. Some way ahead a line of high green hills rose into the haze, and Lee was glad he’d provided plenty of ballast.

But when he made his regular scan of the horizon, he felt a little check at his heart. Hester felt it too, and flicked up her ears, and turned her head so that one gold-hazel eye rested on his face. He picked her up, tucked her in the breast of his coat, and opened the telescope again.

No, he wasn’t mistaken. Far to the south (if south it was, the direction they’d come from) another balloon was floating in the haze. The heat shimmer and the distance made it impossible to see any details, but the other balloon was larger, and flying higher.

Grumman had seen it too.

“Enemies, Mr. Scoresby?” he said, shading his eyes to peer into the pearly light.

“There can’t be a doubt. I’m uncertain whether to lose ballast and go higher, to catch the quicker wind, or stay low and be less conspicuous. And I’m thankful that thing’s not a zeppelin; they could overhaul us in a few hours. No, damn it, Dr. Grumman, I’m going higher, because if I was in that balloon I’d have seen this one already; and I’ll bet they have keen eyesight.” He set Hester down again and leaned out to jettison three bags of ballast. The balloon rose at once, and Lee kept the telescope to his eye.

And a minute later he knew for certain they’d been sighted, for there was a stir of movement in the haze, which resolved itself into a line of smoke streaking up and away at an angle from the other balloon; and when it was some distance up, it burst into a flare. It blazed deep red for a moment and then dwindled into a patch of gray smoke, but it was a signal as clear as a tocsin in the night.

“Can you summon a stiffer breeze, Dr. Grumman?” said Lee. “I’d like to make those hills by nightfall.”

For they were leaving the shoreline now, and their course was taking them out over a wide bay thirty or forty miles across. A range of hills rose on the far side, and now that he’d gained some height, Lee saw that they might more truthfully be called mountains.

He turned to Grumman, but found him deep in a trance. The shaman’s eyes were closed, and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead as he rocked gently back and forth. A low rhythmic moaning came from his throat, and his dæmon gripped the edge of the basket, equally entranced.

And whether it was the result of gaining height or whether it was the shaman’s spell, a breath did stir the air on Lee’s face. He looked up to check the gasbag and saw it sway a degree or two, leaning toward the hills.

But the breeze that moved them more swiftly was working on the other balloon, too. It was no closer, but neither had they left it behind. And as Lee turned the telescope on it again, he saw darker, smaller shapes behind it in the shimmering distance. They were grouped purposefully, and becoming clearer and more solid every minute.

“Zeppelins,” he said. “Well, there’s no hiding out here.”

He tried to make an estimate of their distance, and a similar calculation about the hills toward which they were flying. Their speed had certainly picked up now, and the breeze was flicking white tips off the waves far below.

Grumman sat resting in a corner of the basket while his dæmon groomed her feathers. His eyes were closed, but Lee knew he was awake.

“The situation’s like this, Dr. Grumman,” he said. “I do not want to be caught aloft by those zeppelins. There ain’t no defense; they’d have us down in a minute. Nor do I want to land in the water, by free choice or not; we could float for a while, but they could pick us off with grenades as easy as fishing.

“So I want to reach those hills and make a landing. I can see some forest now; we can hide among the trees for a spell, maybe a long time.

“And meanwhile the sun’s going down. We have about three hours to sunset, by my calculation. And it’s hard to say, but I think those zeppelins will have closed on us halfway by that time, and we should have gotten to the far shore of this bay.

“Now, you understand what I’m saying. I’m going to take us up into those hills and then land, because anything else is certain death. They’ll have made a connection now between this ring I showed them and the Skraeling I killed on Nova Zembla, and they ain’t chasing us this hard to say we left our wallet on the counter.

“So sometime tonight, Dr. Grumman, this flight’s gonna be over. You ever landed in a balloon?”

“No,” said the shaman. “But I trust your skill.”

“I’ll try and get as high up that range as I can. It’s a question of balance, because the farther we go, the closer they’ll be behind us. If I land when they’re too close behind, they’ll be able to see where we go, but if I take us down too early, we won’t find the shelter of those trees. Either way, there’s going to be some shooting before long.” Grumman sat impassively, moving a magical token of feathers and beads from one hand to the other in a pattern that Lee could see had some purposeful meaning. His eagle dæmon’s eyes never left the pursuing zeppelins.

An hour went by, and another. Lee chewed an unlit cigar and sipped cold coffee from a tin flask. The sun settled lower in the sky behind them, and Lee could see the long shade of evening creep along the shore of the bay and up the lower flanks of the hills ahead while the balloon itself, and the mountaintops, were bathed in gold.

And behind them, almost lost in the sunset glare, the little dots of the zeppelins grew larger and firmer. They had already overtaken the other balloon and could now be easily seen with the naked eye: four of them in line abreast. And across the wide silence of the bay came the sound of their engines, tiny but clear, an insistent mosquito whine.

When they were still a few minutes from making the shore at the foot of the hills, Lee noticed something new in the sky behind the zeppelins. A bank of clouds had been building, and a massive thunderhead reared thousands of feet up into the still-bright upper sky. How had he failed to notice? If a storm was coming, the sooner they landed the better.

And then a dark green curtain of rain drifted down and hung from the clouds, and the storm seemed to be chasing the zeppelins as they were chasing Lee’s balloon, for the rain swept along toward them from the sea, and as the sun finally vanished, a mighty flash came from the clouds, and several seconds later a crash of thunder so loud it shook the very fabric of Lee’s balloon, and echoed back for a long time from the mountains.

Then came another flash of lightning, and this time the jagged fork struck down direct from the thunderhead at one of the zeppelins. In a moment the gas was alight. A bright flower of flame blossomed against the bruise-dark clouds, and the craft drifted down slowly, ablaze like a beacon, and floated, still blazing, on the water.

Lee let out the breath he’d been holding. Grumman was standing beside him, one hand on the suspension ring, with lines of exhaustion deep in his face.

“Did you bring that storm?” said Lee.

Grumman nodded.

The sky was now colored like a tiger; bands of gold alternated with patches and stripes of deepest brown-black, and the pattern changed by the minute, for the gold was fading rapidly as the brown-black engulfed it. The sea behind was a patchwork of black water and phosphorescent foam, and the last of the burning zeppelin’s flames were dwindling into nothing as it sank.

The remaining three, however, were flying on, buffeted hard but keeping to their course. More lightning flashed around them, and as the storm came closer, Lee began to fear for the gas in his own balloon. One strike could have it tumbling to earth in flames, and he didn’t suppose the shaman could control the storm so finely as to avoid that.

“Right, Dr. Grumman,” he said. “I’m going to ignore those zeppelins for now and concentrate on getting us safe into the mountains and on the ground. What I want you to do is sit tight and hold on, and be prepared to jump when I tell you. I’ll give you warning, and I’ll try to make it as gentle as I can, but landing in these conditions is a matter of luck as much as skill.” “I trust you, Mr. Scoresby,” said the shaman.

He sat back in a corner of the basket while his dæmon perched on the suspension ring, her claws dug deep in the leather binding.

The wind was blowing them hard now, and the great gasbag swelled and billowed in the gusts. The ropes creaked and strained, but Lee had no fear of their giving way. He let go some more ballast and watched the altimeter closely. In a storm, when the air pressure sank, you had to offset that drop against the altimetric reading, and very often it was a crude rule-of-thumb calculation. Lee ran through the figures, double-checked them, and then released the last of his ballast. The only control he had now was the gas valve. He couldn’t go higher; he could only descend.

He peered intently through the stormy air and made out the great bulk of the hills, dark against the dark sky. From below there came a roaring, rushing sound, like the crash of surf on a stony beach, but he knew it was the wind tearing through the leaves on the trees. So far, already! They were moving faster than he’d thought.

And he shouldn’t leave it too long before he brought them down. Lee was too cool by nature to rage at fate; his manner was to raise an eyebrow and greet it laconically. But he couldn’t help a flicker of despair now, when the one thing he should do—namely, fly before the storm and let it blow itself out—was the one thing guaranteed to get them shot down.

He scooped up Hester and tucked her securely into his breast, buttoning the canvas coat up close to keep her in. Grumman sat steady and quiet; his dæmon, wind-torn, clung firmly with her talons deep in the basket rim and her feathers blown erect.

“I’m going to take us down, Dr. Grumman,” Lee shouted above the wind. “You should stand and be ready to jump clear. Hold the ring and swing yourself up when I call.” Grumman obeyed. Lee gazed down, ahead, down, ahead, checking each dim glimpse against the next, and blinking the rain out of his eyes; for a sudden squall had brought heavy drops at them like handfuls of gravel, and the drumming they made on the gasbag added to the wind’s howl and the lash of the leaves below until Lee could hardly even hear the thunder.

“Here we go!” he shouted. “You cooked up a fine storm, Mr. Shaman.”

He pulled at the gas-valve line and lashed it around a cleat to keep it open. As the gas streamed out of the top, invisible far above, the lower curve of the gasbag withdrew into itself, and a fold, and then another, appeared where there had been a bulging sphere only a minute before.

The basket was tossing and lurching so violently it was hard to tell if they were going down, and the gusts were so sudden and wayward that they might easily have been blown a long way skyward without knowing; but after a minute or so Lee felt a sudden snag and knew the grapnel had caught on a branch. It was only a temporary check, so the branch had broken, but it showed how close they were.

He shouted, “Fifty feet above the trees—”

The shaman nodded.

Then came another snag, more violent, and the two men were thrown hard against the rim of the basket. Lee was used to it and found his balance at once, but the force took Grumman by surprise. However, he didn’t lose his grip on the suspension ring, and Lee could see him safely poised, ready to swing himself clear.

A moment later came the most jolting shock of all as the grapnel found a branch that held it fast. The basket tilted at once and a second later was crashing into the treetops, and amid the lashing of wet leaves and the snapping of twigs and the creak of tormented branches it jolted to a precarious halt.

“Still there, Dr. Grumman?” Lee called, for it was impossible to see anything.

“Still here, Mr. Scoresby.”

“Better keep still for a minute till we see the situation clearly,” said Lee, for they were wildly swaying in the wind, and he could feel the basket settling with little jerks against whatever was holding them up.

There was still a strong sideways pull from the gasbag, which was now nearly empty, but which as a result was catching the wind like a sail. It crossed Lee’s mind to cut it loose, but if it didn’t fly away altogether, it would hang in the treetops like a banner and give their position away; much better to take it in, if they could.

There came another lightning flash, and a second later the thunder crashed. The storm was nearly overhead. The glare showed Lee an oak trunk, with a great white scar where a branch had been torn away, but torn only partially, for the basket was resting on it near the point where it was still attached to the trunk.

“I’m going to throw out a rope and climb down,” he shouted. “As soon as our feet touch the ground, we can make the next plan.”

“I’ll follow you, Mr. Scoresby,” said Grumman. “My dæmon tells me the ground is forty feet down.”

And Lee was aware of a powerful flutter of wingbeats as the eagle dæmon settled again on the basket rim.

“She can go that far?” he said, surprised, but put that out of his mind and made the rope secure, first to the suspension ring and then to the branch, so that even if the basket did fall, it wouldn’t fall far.

Then, with Hester secure in his breast, he threw the rest of the rope over and clambered down till he felt solid ground beneath his feet. The branches grew thick around the trunk; this was a massive tree, a giant of an oak, and Lee muttered a thank-you to it as he tugged on the rope to signal to Grumman that he could descend.

Was there another sound in the tumult? He listened hard. Yes, the engine of a zeppelin, maybe more than one, some way above. It was impossible to tell how high, or in which direction it was flying; but the sound was there for a minute or so, and then it was gone.

The shaman reached the ground.

“Did you hear it?” said Lee.

“Yes. Going higher, into the mountains, I think. Congratulations on landing us safely, Mr. Scoresby.”

“We ain’t finished yet. I want to git that gasbag under the canopy before daybreak, or it’ll show up our position from miles away. You up to some manual labor, Dr. Grumman?” “Tell me what to do.”

“All right. I’m going back up the rope, and I’ll lower some things down to you. One of them’s a tent. You can git that set up while I see what I can do up there to hide the balloon.”

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