بخش 15

مجموعه: نیروی اهریمنی اش / کتاب: چاقوی ظریف / فصل 15

بخش 15

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They labored for a long time, and in peril at one point, when the branch that had been supporting the basket finally broke and pitched Lee down with it; but he didn’t fall far, since the gasbag still trailed among the treetops and held the basket suspended.

The fall in fact made concealing the gasbag easier, since the lower part of it had been pulled down through the canopy; and working by flashes of lightning, tugging and wrenching and hacking, Lee managed to drag the whole body of the balloon down among the lower branches and out of sight.

The wind was still beating the treetops back and forth, but the worst of the rain had passed by the time he decided he could do no more. He clambered down and found that the shaman had not only pitched the tent but had conjured a fire into being, and was brewing some coffee.

“This done by magic?” said Lee, soaked and stiff, easing himself down into the tent and taking the mug Grumman handed him.

“No, you can thank the Boy Scouts for this,” said Grumman. “Do they have Boy Scouts in your world? ‘Be prepared.’ Of all the ways of starting a fire, the best is dry matches. I never travel without them. We could do worse than this as a campsite, Mr. Scoresby.” “You heard those zeppelins again?”

Grumman held up his hand. Lee listened, and sure enough, there was that engine sound, easier to make out now that the rain had eased a little.

“They’ve been over twice now,” said Grumman. “They don’t know where we are, but they know we’re here somewhere.”

And a minute later a flickering glow came from somewhere in the direction the zeppelin had flown. It was less bright than lightning, but it was persistent, and Lee knew it for a flare.

“Best put out the fire, Dr. Grumman,” he said, “sorry as I am to do without it. I think that canopy’s thick, but you never know. I’m going to sleep now, wet through or not.” “You will be dry by the morning,” said the shaman.

He took a handful of wet earth and pressed it down over the flames, and Lee struggled to lie down in the little tent and closed his eyes.

He had strange and powerful dreams. At one point he was convinced he had awoken to see the shaman sitting cross-legged, wreathed in flames, and the flames were rapidly consuming his flesh to leave only a white skeleton behind, still seated in a mound of glowing ash. Lee looked for Hester in alarm, and found her sleeping, which never happened, for when he was awake, so was she. So when he found her asleep, his laconic, whip-tongued dæmon looking so gentle and vulnerable, he was moved by the strangeness of it, and he lay down uneasily beside her, awake in his dream, but really asleep, and he dreamed he lay awake for a long time.

Another dream focused on Grumman, too. Lee seemed to see the shaman shaking a feather-trimmed rattle and commanding something to obey him. The something, Lee saw with a touch of nausea, was a Specter, like the ones they’d seen from the balloon. It was tall and nearly invisible, and it invoked such a gut-churning revulsion in Lee that he nearly woke in terror. But Grumman was directing it fearlessly, and coming to no harm either, because the thing listened closely to him and then drifted upward like a soap bubble until it was lost in the canopy.

Then his exhausting night took another turn, for he was in the cockpit of a zeppelin, watching the pilot. In fact, he was sitting in the copilot’s seat, and they were cruising over the forest, looking down at the wildly tossing treetops, a wild sea of leaf and branch. Then that Specter was in the cabin with them.

Pinioned in his dream, Lee could neither move nor cry out, and he suffered the terror of the pilot as the man became aware of what was happening to him.

The Specter was leaning over the pilot and pressing what would be its face to his. His dæmon, a finch, fluttered and shrieked and tried to pull away, only to fall half-fainting on the instrument panel. The pilot turned his face to Lee and put out a hand, but Lee had no power of movement. The anguish in the man’s eyes was wrenching. Something true and living was being drained from him, and his dæmon fluttered weakly and called in a wild high call, but she was dying.

Then she vanished. But the pilot was still alive. His eyes became filmy and dull, and his reaching hand fell back with a limp thud against the throttle. He was alive but not alive; he was indifferent to everything.

And Lee sat and watched helplessly as the zeppelin flew on directly into a scarp of the mountains that rose up before them. The pilot watched it rear up in the window, but nothing could interest him. Lee pushed back against the seat in horror, but nothing happened to stop it, and at the moment of impact he cried, “Hester!” And woke.

He was in the tent, safe, and Hester nibbled his chin. He was sweating. The shaman was sitting cross-legged, but a shiver passed over Lee as he saw that the eagle dæmon was not there near him. Clearly this forest was a bad place, full of haunting phantasms.

Then he became aware of the light by which he was seeing the shaman, because the fire was long out, and the darkness of the forest was profound. Some distant flicker picked out the tree trunks and the undersides of dripping leaves, and Lee knew at once what it was: his dream had been true, and a zeppelin pilot had flown into the hillside.

“Damn, Lee, you’re twitching like an aspen leaf. What’s the matter with you?” Hester grumbled, and flicked her long ears.

“Ain’t you dreaming too, Hester?” he muttered.

“You ain’t dreaming, Lee, you’re seeing. If I’da known you was a seer, I’da cured you a long while back. Now, you cut it out, you hear?”

He rubbed her head with his thumb, and she shook her ears.

And without the slightest transition he was floating in the air alongside the shaman’s dæmon, Sayan Kötör the osprey. To be in the presence of another man’s dæmon and away from his own affected Lee with a powerful throb of guilt and strange pleasure. They were gliding, as if he too were a bird, on the turbulent updrafts above the forest, and Lee looked around through the dark air, now suffused with a pallid glow from the full moon that occasionally glared through a brief rent in the cloud cover and made the treetops ring with silver.

The eagle dæmon uttered a harsh scream, and from below came in a thousand different voices the calls of a thousand birds: the too-whoo of owls, the alarm shriek of little sparrows, the liquid music of the nightingale. Sayan Kötör was calling them. And in answer they came, every bird in the forest, whether they had been gliding in the hunt on silent wings or roosting asleep; they came fluttering upward in their thousands through the tumbling air.

And Lee felt whatever bird nature he was sharing respond with joy to the command of the eagle queen, and whatever humanness he had left felt the strangest of pleasures: that of offering eager obedience to a stronger power that was wholly right. And he wheeled and turned with the rest of the mighty flock, a hundred different species all turning as one in the magnetic will of the eagle, and saw against the silver cloud rack the hateful dark regularity of a zeppelin.

They all knew exactly what they must do. And they streamed toward the airship, the swiftest reaching it first, but none so swiftly as Sayan Kötör; the tiny wrens and finches, the darting swifts, the silent-winged owls—within a minute the craft was laden with them, their claws scrabbling for purchase on the oiled silk or puncturing it to gain a hold.

They avoided the engine, though some were drawn into it and dashed to pieces by the slicing propellers. Most of the birds simply perched on the body of the zeppelin, and those that came next seized on to them, until they covered not only the whole body of the craft (now venting hydrogen through a thousand tiny claw holes) but the windows of the cabin too, and the struts and cables—every square inch of room had a bird, two birds, three or more, clinging to it.

The pilot was helpless. Under the weight of the birds the craft began to sink farther and farther down, and then another of those sudden cruel scarps appeared, shouldering up out of the night and of course quite invisible to the men inside the zeppelin, who were swinging their guns wildly and firing at random.

At the last moment Sayan Kötör screamed, and a thunder of wingbeats drowned even the roar of the engine as every bird took off and flew away. And the men in the cabin had four or five horrified seconds of knowledge before the zeppelin crashed and burst into flames.

Fire, heat, flames … Lee woke up again, his body as hot as if he’d been lying in the desert sun.

Outside the tent there was still the endless drip-drip of wet leaves on the canvas, but the storm was over. Pale gray light seeped in, and Lee propped himself up to find Hester blinking beside him and the shaman wrapped in a blanket so deeply asleep he might have been dead, had not Sayan Kötör been perched asleep on a fallen branch outside.

The only sound apart from the drip of water was the normal forest birdsong. No engines in the sky, no enemy voices; so Lee thought it might be safe to light the fire, and after a struggle he got it going and brewed some coffee.

“What now, Hester?” he said.

“Depends. There was four of those zeppelins, and he destroyed three.”

“I mean, have we discharged our duty?”

She flicked her ears and said, “Don’t remember no contract.”

“It ain’t a contractual thing. It’s a moral thing.”

“We got one more zeppelin to think about before you start fretting about morals, Lee. There’s thirty, forty men with guns all coming for us. Imperial soldiers, what’s more. Survival first, morals later.” She was right, of course, and as he sipped the scalding brew and smoked a cigar, with the daylight gradually growing stronger, he wondered what he would do if he were in charge of the one remaining zeppelin. Withdraw and wait for full daylight, no doubt, and fly high enough to scan the edge of the forest over a wide area, so he could see when Lee and Grumman broke cover.

The osprey dæmon Sayan Kötör awoke, and stretched her great wings above where Lee was sitting. Hester looked up and turned her head this way and that, looking at the mighty dæmon with each golden eye in turn, and a moment later the shaman himself came out of the tent.

“Busy night,” Lee remarked.

“A busy day to come. We must leave the forest at once, Mr. Scoresby. They are going to burn it.”

Lee looked around incredulously at the soaking vegetation and said, “How?”

“They have an engine that throws out a kind of naphtha blended with potash, which ignites when it touches water. The Imperial Navy developed it to use in their war with Nippon. If the forest is saturated, it will catch all the more quickly.” “You can see that, can you?”

“As clearly as you saw what happened to the zeppelins during the night. Pack what you want to carry, and come away now.”

Lee rubbed his jaw. The most valuable things he owned were also the most portable—namely, the instruments from the balloon—so he retrieved them from the basket, stowed them carefully in a knapsack, and made sure his rifle was loaded and dry. He left the basket, the rigging, and the gasbag where they lay, tangled and twisted among the branches. From now on he was an aeronaut no more, unless by some miracle he escaped with his life and found enough money to buy another balloon. Now he had to move like an insect along the surface of the earth.

They smelled the smoke before they heard the flames, because a breeze from the sea was lifting it inland. By the time they reached the edge of the trees they could hear the fire, a deep and greedy roar.

“Why didn’t they do this last night?” said Lee. “They could have barbecued us in our sleep.”

“I guess they want to catch us alive,” Grumman replied, stripping a branch of its leaves so he could use it as a walking stick, “and they’re waiting to see where we leave the forest.” And sure enough, the drone of the zeppelin soon became audible even over the sound of the flames and of their own labored breathing, for they were hurrying now, clambering upward over roots and rocks and fallen tree trunks and stopping only to gather breath. Sayan Kötör, flying high, swooped down to tell them how much progress they were making, and how far behind the flames were; though it wasn’t long before they could see smoke above the trees behind them, and then a streaming banner of flame.

Creatures of the forest—squirrels, birds, wild boar—were fleeing with them, and a chorus of squealings, shriekings, alarm calls of every sort rose around them. The two travelers struggled on toward the edge of the tree line, which was not far ahead; and then they reached it, as wave after wave of heat rolled up at them from the roaring billows of flame that now soared fifty feet into the air. Trees blazed like torches; the sap in their veins boiled and split them asunder, the pitch in the conifers caught like naphtha, the twigs seemed to blossom with ferocious orange flowers all in a moment.

Gasping, Lee and Grumman forced themselves up the steep slope of rocks and scree. Half the sky was obscured by smoke and heat shimmer, but high above there floated the squat shape of the one remaining zeppelin—too far away, Lee thought hopefully, to see them even through binoculars.

The mountainside rose sheer and impassable ahead of them. There was only one route out of the trap they were in, and that was a narrow defile ahead, where a dry riverbed emerged from a fold in the cliffs.

Lee pointed, and Grumman said, “My thoughts exactly, Mr. Scoresby.”

His dæmon, gliding and circling above, tipped her wings and sped to the ravine on a billowing updraft. The men didn’t pause, climbing on as quickly as they could, but Lee said, “Excuse me for asking this if it’s impertinent, but I never knew anyone whose dæmon could do that except witches. But you’re no witch. Was that something you learned to do, or did it come natural?” “For a human being, nothing comes naturally,” said Grumman. “We have to learn everything we do. Sayan Kötör is telling me that the ravine leads to a pass. If we get there before they see us, we could escape yet.” The eagle swooped down again, and the men climbed higher. Hester preferred to find her own way over the rocks, so Lee followed where she led, avoiding the loose stones and moving as swiftly as he could over the larger rocks, making all the time for the little gulch.

Lee was anxious about Grumman, because the other man was pale and drawn and breathing hard. His labors in the night had drained a lot of his energy. How far they could keep going was a question Lee didn’t want to face; but when they were nearly at the entrance to the ravine, and actually on the edge of the dried riverbed, he heard a change in the sound of the zeppelin.

“They’ve seen us,” he said.

And it was like receiving a sentence of death. Hester stumbled, even surefooted, firm-hearted Hester stumbled and faltered. Grumman leaned on the stick he carried and shaded his eyes to look back, and Lee turned to look too.

The zeppelin was descending fast, making for the slope directly below them. It was clear that the pursuers intended to capture them, not kill them, for a burst of gunfire just then would have finished both of them in a second. Instead, the pilot brought the airship skillfully to a hover just above the ground, at the highest point in the slope where he safely could, and from the cabin door a stream of blue-uniformed men jumped down, their wolf dæmons beside them, and began to climb.

Lee and Grumman were six hundred yards above them, and not far from the entrance to the ravine. Once they reached it, they could hold the soldiers off as long as their ammunition held out; but they had only one rifle.

“They’re after me, Mr. Scoresby,” said Grumman, “not you. If you give me the rifle and surrender yourself, you’ll survive. They’re disciplined troops. You’ll be a prisoner of war.” Lee ignored that and said, “Git moving. Make the gulch and I’ll hold them off from the mouth while you find your way out the other end. I brought you this far, and I ain’t going to sit back and let ’em catch you now.” The men below were moving up quickly, for they were fit and rested. Grumman nodded.

“I had no strength left to bring the fourth one down” was all he said, and they moved quickly into the shelter of the gulch.

“Just tell me before you go,” said Lee, “because I won’t be easy till I know. What side I’m fighting for I cain’t tell, and I don’t greatly care. Just tell me this: What I’m a-going to do now, is that going to help that little girl Lyra, or harm her?” “It’s going to help her,” said Grumman.

“And your oath. You won’t forget what you swore to me?”

“I won’t forget.”

“Because, Dr. Grumman, or John Parry, or whatever name you take up in whatever world you end up in, you be aware of this: I love that little child like a daughter. If I’d had a child of my own, I couldn’t love her more. And if you break that oath, whatever remains of me will pursue whatever remains of you, and you’ll spend the rest of eternity wishing you never existed. That’s how important that oath is.” “I understand. And you have my word.”

“Then that’s all I need to know. Go well.”

The shaman held out his hand, and Lee shook it. Then Grumman turned and made his way up the gulch, and Lee looked around for the best place to make his stand.

“Not the big boulder, Lee,” said Hester. “You cain’t see to the right from there, and they could rush us. Take the smaller one.”

There was a roaring in Lee’s ears that had nothing to do with the conflagration in the forest below, or with the laboring drone of the zeppelin trying to rise again. It had to do with his childhood, and the Alamo. How often he and his companions had played that heroic battle, in the ruins of the old fort, taking turns to be Danes and French! His childhood was coming back to him, with a vengeance. He took out the Navajo ring of his mother’s and laid it on the rock beside him. In the old Alamo games, Hester had often been a cougar or a wolf, and once or twice a rattlesnake, but mostly a mockingbird. Now— “Quit daydreaming and take a sight,” she said. “This ain’t play, Lee.”

The men climbing the slope had fanned out and were moving more slowly, because they saw the problem as well as he did. They knew they’d have to capture the gulch, and they knew that one man with a rifle could hold them off for a long time. Behind them, to Lee’s surprise, the zeppelin was still laboring to rise. Maybe its buoyancy was going, or maybe the fuel was running low, but either way it hadn’t taken off yet, and it gave him an idea.

He adjusted his position and sighted along the old Winchester until he had the port engine mounting plumb in view, and fired. The crack raised the soldiers’ heads as they climbed toward him, but a second later the engine suddenly roared and then just as suddenly seized and died. The zeppelin lurched over to one side. Lee could hear the other engine howling, but the airship was grounded now.

The soldiers had halted and taken cover as well as they could. Lee could count them, and he did: twenty-five. He had thirty bullets.

Hester crept up close to his left shoulder.

“I’ll watch this way,” she said.

Crouched on the gray boulder, her ears flat along her back, she looked like a little stone herself, gray-brown and inconspicuous, except for her eyes. Hester was no beauty; she was about as plain and scrawny as a hare could be; but her eyes were marvelously colored, gold-hazel flecked with rays of deepest peat brown and forest green. And now those eyes were looking down at the last landscape they’d ever see: a barren slope of brutal tumbled rocks, and beyond it a forest on fire. Not a blade of grass, not a speck of green to rest on.

Her ears flicked slightly.

“They’re talking,” she said. “I can hear, but I cain’t understand.”

“Russian,” he said. “They’re gonna come up all together and at a run. That would be hardest for us, so they’ll do that.”

“Aim straight,” she said.

“I will. But hell, I don’t like taking lives, Hester.”

“Ours or theirs.”

“No, it’s more than that,” he said. “It’s theirs or Lyra’s. I cain’t see how, but we’re connected to that child, and I’m glad of it.”

“There’s a man on the left about to shoot,” said Hester, and as she spoke, a crack came from his rifle, and chips of stone flew off the boulder a foot from where she crouched. The bullet whined off into the gulch, but she didn’t move a muscle.

“Well, that makes me feel better about doing this,” said Lee, and took careful aim.

He fired. There was only a small patch of blue to aim at, but he hit it. With a surprised cry the man fell back and died.

And then the fight began. Within a minute the crack of rifles, the whine of ricocheting bullets, the smash of pulverizing rock echoed and rang the length of the mountainside and along the hollow gulch behind. The smell of cordite, and the burning smell that came from the powdered rock where the bullets hit, were just variations on the smell of burning wood from the forest, until it seemed that the whole world was burning.

Lee’s boulder was soon scarred and pitted, and he felt the thud of the bullets as they hit it. Once he saw the fur on Hester’s back ripple as the wind of a bullet passed over it, but she didn’t budge. Nor did he stop firing.

That first minute was fierce. And after it, in the pause that came, Lee found that he was wounded; there was blood on the rock under his cheek, and his right hand and the rifle bolt were red.

Hester moved around to look.

“Nothing big,” she said. “A bullet clipped your scalp.”

“Did you count how many fell, Hester?”

“No. Too busy ducking. Reload while you can, boy.”

He rolled down behind the rock and worked the bolt back and forth. It was hot, and the blood that had flowed freely over it from the scalp wound was drying and making the mechanism stiff. He spat on it carefully, and it loosened.

Then he hauled himself back into position, and even before he’d set his eye to the sight, he took a bullet.

It felt like an explosion in his left shoulder. For a few seconds he was dazed, and then he came to his senses, with his left arm numb and useless. There was a great deal of pain waiting to spring on him, but it hadn’t raised the courage yet, and that thought gave him the strength to focus his mind on shooting again.

He propped the rifle on the dead and useless arm that had been so full of life a minute ago, and sighted with stolid concentration: one shot … two … three, and each found its man.

“How we doing?” he muttered.

“Good shooting,” she whispered back, very close to his cheek. “Don’t stop. Over by that black boulder—”

He looked, aimed, shot. The figure fell.

“Damn, these are men like me,” he said.

“Makes no sense,” she said. “Do it anyway.”

“Do you believe him? Grumman?”

“Sure. Plumb ahead, Lee.”

Crack: another man fell, and his dæmon went out like a candle.

Then there was a long silence. Lee fumbled in his pocket and found some more bullets. As he reloaded, he felt something so rare his heart nearly failed; he felt Hester’s face pressed to his own, and it was wet with tears.

“Lee, this is my fault,” she said.

“Why?”

“The Skraeling. I told you to take his ring. Without that we’d never be in this trouble.”

“You think I ever did what you told me? I took it because the witch—”

He didn’t finish, because another bullet found him. This time it smashed into his left leg, and before he could even blink, a third one clipped his head again, like a red-hot poker laid along his skull.

“Not long now, Hester,” he muttered, trying to hold still.

“The witch, Lee! You said the witch! Remember?”

Poor Hester, she was lying now, not crouching tense and watchful as she’d done all his adult life. And her beautiful gold-brown eyes were growing dull.

“Still beautiful,” he said. “Oh, Hester, yeah, the witch. She gave me …”

“Sure she did. The flower.”

“In my breast pocket. Fetch it, Hester, I cain’t move.” It was a hard struggle, but she tugged out the little scarlet flower with her strong teeth and laid it by his right hand. With a great effort he closed it in his fist and said, “Serafina Pekkala! Help me, I beg …” A movement below: he let go of the flower, sighted, fired. The movement died.

Hester was failing.

“Hester, don’t you go before I do,” Lee whispered.

“Lee, I couldn’t abide to be anywhere away from you for a single second,” she whispered back.

“You think the witch will come?”

“Sure she will. We should have called her before.”

“We should have done a lot of things.”

“Maybe so …”

Another crack, and this time the bullet went deep somewhere inside, seeking out the center of his life. He thought: It won’t find it there. Hester’s my center. And he saw a blue flicker down below, and strained to bring the barrel over to it.

“He’s the one,” Hester breathed.

Lee found it hard to pull the trigger. Everything was hard. He had to try three times, and finally he got it. The blue uniform tumbled away down the slope.

Another long silence. The pain nearby was losing its fear of him. It was like a pack of jackals, circling, sniffing, treading closer, and he knew they wouldn’t leave him now till they’d eaten him bare.

“There’s one man left,” Hester muttered. “He’s a-making for the zeppelin.”

And Lee saw him mistily, one soldier of the Imperial Guard creeping away from his company’s defeat.

“I cain’t shoot a man in the back,” Lee said.

“Shame to die with one bullet left, though.”

So he took aim with his last bullet at the zeppelin itself, still roaring and straining to rise with its one engine, and the bullet must have been red-hot, or maybe a burning brand from the forest below was wafted to the airship on an updraft; for the gas suddenly billowed into an orange fireball, and the envelope and the metal skeleton rose a little way and then tumbled down very slowly, gently, but full of a fiery death.

And the man creeping away and the six or seven others who were the only remnant of the Guard, and who hadn’t dared come closer to the man holding the ravine, were engulfed by the fire that fell on them.

Lee saw the fireball and heard through the roar in his ears Hester saying, “That’s all of ’em, Lee.”

He said, or thought, “Those poor men didn’t have to come to this, nor did we.”

She said, “We held ’em off. We held out. We’re a-helping Lyra.”

Then she was pressing her little proud broken self against his face, as close as she could get, and then they died.

15

BLOODMOSS

On, said the alethiometer. Farther, higher.

So on they climbed. The witches flew above to spy out the best routes, because the hilly land soon gave way to steeper slopes and rocky footing, and as the sun rose toward noon, the travelers found themselves in a tangled land of dry gullies, cliffs, and boulder-strewn valleys where not a single green leaf grew, and where the stridulation of insects was the only sound.

They moved on, stopping only for sips of water from their goatskin flasks, and talking little. Pantalaimon flew above Lyra’s head for a while until he tired of that, and then he became a little sure-footed mountain sheep, vain of his horns, leaping among rocks while Lyra scrambled laboriously alongside. Will moved on grimly, screwing up his eyes against the glare, ignoring the worsening pain from his hand, and finally reaching a state in which movement alone was good and stillness bad, so that he suffered more from resting than from toiling on. And since the failure of the witches’ spell to stop his bleeding, he thought they were regarding him with fear, too, as if he was marked by some curse greater than their own powers.

At one point they came to a little lake, a patch of intense blue scarcely thirty yards across among the red rocks. They stopped there to drink and refill their flasks, and to soak their aching feet in the icy water. They stayed a few minutes and moved on, and soon afterward, when the sun was at its highest and hottest, Serafina Pekkala darted down to speak to them. She was agitated.

“I must leave you for a while,” she said. “Lee Scoresby needs me. I don’t know why. But he wouldn’t call if he didn’t need my help. Keep going, and I’ll find you.” “Mr. Scoresby?” said Lyra, excited and anxious. “But where—”

But Serafina was gone, speeding out of sight before Lyra could finish the question. Lyra reached automatically for the alethiometer to ask what had happened to Lee Scoresby, but she let her hand drop, because she’d promised to do no more than guide Will.

She looked across to him. He was sitting nearby, his hand held loosely on his knee and still slowly dripping blood, his face scorched by the sun and pale under the burning.

“Will,” she said, “d’you know why you have to find your father?”

“It’s what I’ve always known. My mother said I’d take up my father’s mantle. That’s all I know.”

“What does that mean, taking up his mantle? What’s a mantle?”

“A task, I suppose. Whatever he’s been doing, I’ve got to carry on. It makes as much sense as anything else.”

He wiped the sweat out of his eyes with his right hand. What he couldn’t say was that he longed for his father as a lost child yearns for home. That comparison wouldn’t have occurred to him, because home was the place he kept safe for his mother, not the place others kept safe for him. But it had been five years now since that Saturday morning in the supermarket when the pretend game of hiding from the enemies became desperately real, such a long time in his life, and his heart craved to hear the words “Well done, well done, my child; no one on earth could have done better; I’m proud of you. Come and rest now.…” Will longed for that so much that he hardly knew he did. It was just part of what everything felt like. So he couldn’t express that to Lyra now, though she could see it in his eyes, and that was new for her, too, to be quite so perceptive. The fact was that where Will was concerned, she was developing a new kind of sense, as if he were simply more in focus than anyone she’d known before. Everything about him was clear and close and immediate.

And she might have said that to him, but at that moment a witch flew down.

“I can see people behind us,” she said. “They’re a long way back, but they’re moving quickly. Shall I go closer and look?”

“Yes, do,” said Lyra, “but fly low, and hide, and don’t let them see you.”

Will and Lyra got painfully to their feet again and clambered on.

“I been cold plenty of times,” Lyra said, to take her mind off the pursuers, “but I en’t been this hot, ever. Is it this hot in your world?”

“Not where I used to live. Not normally. But the climate’s been changing. The summers are hotter than they used to be. They say that people have been interfering with the atmosphere by putting chemicals in it, and the weather’s going out of control.” “Yeah, well, they have,” said Lyra, “and it is. And we’re here in the middle of it.”

He was too hot and thirsty to reply, and they climbed on breathlessly in the throbbing air. Pantalaimon was a cricket now, and sat on Lyra’s shoulder, too tired to leap or fly. From time to time the witches would see a spring high up, too high to climb to, and fly up to fill the children’s flasks. They would soon have died without water, and there was none where they were; any spring that made its way into the air was soon swallowed again among the rocks.

And so they moved on, toward evening.

The witch who flew back to spy was called Lena Feldt. She flew low, from crag to crag, and as the sun was setting and drawing a wild blood-red out of the rocks, she came to the little blue lake and found a troop of soldiers making camp.

But her first glimpse of them told her more than she wanted to know; these soldiers had no dæmons. And they weren’t from Will’s world, or the world of Cittàgazze, where people’s dæmons were inside them, and where they still looked alive; these men were from her own world, and to see them without dæmons was a gross and sickening horror.

Then out of a tent by the lakeside came the explanation. Lena Feldt saw a woman, a short-life, graceful in her khaki hunting clothes and as full of life as the golden monkey who capered along the water’s edge beside her.

Lena Feldt hid among the rocks above and watched as Mrs. Coulter spoke to the officer in charge, and as his men put up tents, made fires, boiled water.

The witch had been among Serafina Pekkala’s troop who rescued the children at Bolvangar, and she longed to shoot Mrs. Coulter on the spot; but some fortune was protecting the woman, for it was just too far for a bowshot from where she was, and the witch could get no closer without making herself invisible. So she began to make the spell. It took ten minutes of deep concentration.

Confident at last, Lena Feldt went down the rocky slope toward the lake, and as she walked through the camp, one or two blank-eyed soldiers glanced up briefly, but found what they saw too hard to remember, and looked away again. The witch stopped outside the tent Mrs. Coulter had gone into, and fitted an arrow to her bowstring.

She listened to the low voice through the canvas and then moved carefully to the open flap that overlooked the lake.

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