The Amber Spyglass Chapter 21 The Harpies

The Amber Spyglass Chapter 21 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 daemon 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 daemon!”

“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 daemon 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 daemon 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 daemon 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 daemon 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 daemon, and that whatever his daemon 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 daemon, 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.