The Subtle Knife Chapter Thirteen

The Subtle Knife Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Thirteen


As the moon rose, the witches began their spell to heal Will’s wound.

They woke him and asked him to lie the knife on the ground where it caught a glitter of starlight. Lyra sat nearby stirring some herbs in a pot of boiling water over a fire, and while her companions clapped and stamped and cried in rhythm, Serafina crouched over the knife and sang in a high, fierce tone:

“Little knife!

They tore your iron out of Mother Earth’s entrails,

built a fire and boiled the ore,

made it weep and bleed and flood,

hammered it and tempered it,

plunging it in icy water,

heating it inside the forge

till your blade was blood-red, scorching!

Then they made you wound the water

once again, and yet again,

till the steam was boiling fog

and the water cried for mercy.

And when you sliced a single shade

into thirty thousand shadows,

then they knew that you were ready,

then they called you subtle one.

But little knife, what have you done?

Unlocked blood-gates, left them wide!

Little knife, your mother calls you,

from the entrails of the earth,

from her deepest mines and caverns,

from her secret iron womb.


And Serafina stamped again and clapped her hands with the other witches, and they shook their throats to make a wild ululation that tore at the air like claws. Will, seated in the middle of them, felt a chill at the core of his spine.

Then Serafina Pekkala turned to Will himself, and took his wounded hand in both of hers. When she sang this time, he nearly flinched, so fierce was her high, clear voice, so glittering her eyes; but he sat without moving, and let the spell go on.

“Blood! Obey me! Turn around,

be a lake and not a river.

When you reach the open air,

stop! And build a clotted wall,

build it firm to hold the flood back.

Blood, your sky is the skull-dome,

your sun is the open eye,

your wind the breath inside the lungs,

blood, your world is bounded. Stay there!”

Will thought he could feel all the atoms of his body responding to her command, and he joined in, urging his leaking blood to listen and obey.

She put his hand down and turned to the little iron pot over the fire. A bitter steam was rising from it, and Will heard the liquid bubbling fiercely.

Serafina sang:

“Oak bark, spider silk,

ground moss, saltweed –

grip close, bind tight,

hold fast, close up,

bar the door, lock the gate,

stiffen the blood-wall,

dry the gore-flood.”

Then the witch took her own knife and split an alder sapling along its whole length. The wounded whiteness gleamed open in the moon. She daubed some of the steaming liquid into the split, then closed up the wood, easing it together from the root to the tip. And the sapling was whole again.

Will heard Lyra gasp, and turned to see another witch holding a squirming, struggling hare in her tough hands. The animal was panting, wild-eyed, kicking furiously, but the witch’s hands were merciless. In one she held its forelegs and with the other she grasped its hind legs and pulled the frenzied hare out straight, its heaving belly upward.

Serafina’s knife swept across it. Will felt himself grow dizzy, and Lyra was restraining Pantalaimon, hare-formed himself in sympathy, who was bucking and snapping in her arms. The real hare fell still, eyes bulging, breast heaving, entrails glistening.

But Serafina took some more of the decoction and trickled it into the gaping wound, and then closed up the wound with her fingers, smoothing the wet fur over it until there was no wound at all.

The witch holding the animal relaxed her grip and let it gently to the ground, where it shook itself, turned to lick its flank, flicked its ears, and nibbled a blade of grass as if it were completely alone. Suddenly it seemed to become aware of the circle of witches around it, and like an arrow it shot away, whole again, bounding swiftly off into the dark.

Lyra, soothing Pantalaimon, glanced at Will and saw that he knew what it meant: the medicine was ready. He held out his hand, and as Serafina daubed the steaming mixture on the bleeding stumps of his fingers he looked away and breathed in sharply several times, but he didn’t flinch.

Once his open flesh was thoroughly soaked, the witch pressed some of the sodden herbs onto the wounds and tied them tight around with a strip of silk. And that was it; the spell was done.

Will slept deeply through the rest of the night. It was cold, but the witches piled leaves over him, and Lyra slept huddled close behind his back. In the morning Serafina dressed his wound again, and he tried to see from her expression whether it was healing, but her face was calm and impassive.

Once they’d eaten, Serafina told the children that the witches had agreed that since they’d come into this world to find Lyra and be her guardians, they’d help Lyra do what she now knew her task to be: namely, to guide Will to his father.

So they all set off; and it was quiet going for the most part. Lyra consulted the alethiometer to begin with, but warily, and learned that they should travel in the direction of the distant mountains they could see across the great bay. Never having been this high above the city, they weren’t aware of how the coastline curved, and the mountains had been below the horizon; but now when the trees thinned, or when a slope fell away below them, they could look out to the empty blue sea and to the high blue mountains beyond, which were their destination. It seemed a long way to go.

They spoke little. Lyra was busy looking at all the life in the forest, from woodpeckers to squirrels to little green moss snakes with diamonds down their backs, and Will needed all his energy simply to keep going. Lyra and Pantalaimon discussed him endlessly.

“We could look at the alethiometer,” Pantalaimon said at one point when they’d dawdled on the path to see how close they could get to a browsing fawn before it saw them. “We never promised not to. And we could find out all kinds of things for him. We’d be doing it for him, not for us.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Lyra said. “It would be us we’d be doing it for, ’cause he’d never ask. You’re just greedy and nosy, Pan.”

“That makes a change. It’s normally you who’s greedy and nosy, and me who has to warn you not to do things. Like in the retiring room at Jordan. I never wanted to go in there.”

“If we hadn’t, Pan, d’you think all this would have happened?”

“No. ‘Cause the Master would have poisoned Lord Asriel, and that would’ve been the end of it.”

“Yeah, I suppose… Who d’you think Will’s father is, though? And why’s he important?”

“That’s what I mean! We could find out in a moment!”

And she looked wistful. “I might have done once,” she said, “but I’m changing, I think, Pan.”

“No you’re not.”

“You might not be… Hey, Pan, when I change, you’ll stop changing. What’re you going to be?”

“A flea, I hope.”

“No, but don’t you get any feelings about what you might be?”

“No. I don’t want to, either.”

“You’re sulking because I won’t do what you want.”

He changed into a pig and grunted and squealed and snorted till she laughed at him, and then he changed into a squirrel and darted through the branches beside her.

“Who do you think his father is?” Pantalaimon said. “D’you think he could be anyone we met?”

“Could be. But he’s bound to be someone important, almost as important as Lord Asriel. Bound to be. We know what we’re doing is important, after all.”

“We don’t know it,” Pantalaimon pointed out. “We think it is, but we don’t know. We just decided to look for Dust because Roger died.”

“We know it’s important!” Lyra said hotly, and she even stamped her foot. “And so do the witches. They come all this way to look for us just to be my guardians and help me! And we got to help Will find his father. That’s important. You know it is, too, else you wouldn’t have licked him when he was wounded. Why’d you do that, anyway? You never asked me if you could. I couldn’t believe it when you did that.”

“I did it because he didn’t have a daemon, and he needed one. And if you were half as good at seeing things as you think you are, you’d’ve known that.”

“I did know it, really,” she said.

They stopped then, because they had caught up with Will, who was sitting on a rock beside the path. Pantalaimon became a flycatcher, and as he flew among the branches, Lyra said, “Will, what d’you think those kids’ll do now?”

“They won’t be following us. They were too frightened of the witches. Maybe they’ll just go back to drifting about.”

“Yeah, probably. They might want to use the knife, though. They might come after us for that.”

“Let them. They’re not having it, not now. I didn’t want it at first. But if it can kill the Specters…”

“I never trusted Angelica, not from the beginning,” Lyra said virtuously.

“Yes, you did,” he said.

“Yeah. I did, really… I hated it in the end, that city.”

“I thought it was heaven when I first found it. I couldn’t imagine anything better than that. And all the time it was full of Specters, and we never knew…”

“Well, I won’t trust kids again,” said Lyra. “I thought back at Bolvangar that whatever grownups did, however bad it was, kids were different. They wouldn’t do cruel things like that. But I en’t sure now. I never seen kids like that before, and that’s a fact.”

“I have,” said Will.

“When? In your world?”

“Yeah,” he said, awkwardly. Lyra waited and sat still, and presently he went on. “It was when my mother was having one of her bad times. She and me, we lived on our own, see, because obviously my father wasn’t there. And every so often she’d start thinking things that weren’t true. And having to do things that didn’t make sense – not to me, anyway. I mean she had to do them or else she’d get upset and afraid, and so I used to help her. Like touching all the railings in the park, or counting the leaves on a bush – that kind of thing. She used to get better after a while. But I was afraid of anyone finding out she was like that, because I thought they’d take her away, so I used to look after her and hide it. I never told anyone.”

“And once she got afraid when I wasn’t there to help her. I was at school. And she went out and she wasn’t wearing very much, only she didn’t know. And some boys from my school, they found her, and they started…”

Will’s face was hot. Without being able to help it he found himself walking up and down and looking away from Lyra because his voice was unsteady and his eyes were watering. He went on: “They were tormenting her just like those kids at the tower with the cat… They thought she was mad and they wanted to hurt her, maybe kill her, I wouldn’t be surprised. She was just different and they hated her. Anyway, I found her and I got her home. And the next day in school I fought the boy who was leading them. I fought him and I broke his arm and I think I broke some of his teeth – I don’t know. And I was going to fight the rest of them, too, but I got in trouble and I realized I better stop because they’d find out – I mean the teachers and the authorities. They’d go to my mother and complain about me, and then they’d find out about how she was and take her away. So I just pretended to be sorry and told the teachers I wouldn’t do it again, and they punished me for fighting and I still said nothing. But I kept her safe, see. No one knew apart from those boys, and they knew what I’d do if they said anything; they knew I’d kill them another time. Not just hurt them. And a bit later she got better again. No one knew, ever.”

“But after that I never trusted children any more than grownups. They’re just as keen to do bad things. So I wasn’t surprised when those kids in Ci’gazze did that.”

“But I was glad when the witches came.”

He sat down again with his back to Lyra and, still not looking at her, he wiped his hand across his eyes. She pretended not to see.

“Will,” she said, “what you said about your mother… and Tullio, when the Specters got him… and when you said yesterday that you thought the Specters came from your world…”

“Yes. Because it doesn’t make sense, what was happening to her. She wasn’t mad. Those kids might think she was mad and laugh at her and try to hurt her, but they were wrong; she wasn’t mad. Except that she was afraid of things I couldn’t see. And she had to do things that looked crazy; you couldn’t see the point of them, but obviously she could. Like her counting all the leaves, or Tullio yesterday touching the stones in the wall. Maybe that was a way of trying to put the Specters off. If they turned their back on something frightening behind them and tried to get really interested in the stones and how they fit together, or the leaves on the bush, like if only they could make themselves find that really important, they’d be safe. I don’t know. It looks like that. There were real things for her to be frightened of, like those men who came and robbed us, but there was something else as well as them. So maybe we do have the Specters in my world, only we can’t see them and we haven’t got a name for them, but they’re there, and they keep trying to attack my mother. So that’s why I was glad yesterday when the alethiometer said she was all right.”

He was breathing fast, and his right hand was gripping the handle of the knife in its sheath. Lyra said nothing, and Pantalaimon kept very still.

“When did you know you had to look for your father?” she said after a while.

“A long time ago,” he told her. “I used to pretend he was a prisoner and I’d help him escape. I had long games by myself doing that; it used to go on for days. Or else he was on this desert island and I’d sail there and bring him home. And he’d know exactly what to do about everything – about my mother, especially – and she’d get better and he’d look after her and me and I could just go to school and have friends and I’d have a mother and a father, too. So I always said to myself that when I grew up I’d go and look for my father… And my mother used to tell me that I was going to take up my father’s mantle. She used to say that to make me feel good. I didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded important.”

“Didn’t you have friends?”

“How could I have friends?” he said, simply puzzled. “Friends… They come to your house and they know your parents and… Sometimes a boy might ask me around to his house, and I might go or I might not, but I could never ask him back. So I never had friends, really. I would have liked… I had my cat,” he went on. “I hope she’s all right now. I hope someone’s looking after her.”

“What about the man you killed?” Lyra said, her heart beating hard. “Who was he?”

“I don’t know. If I killed him, I don’t care. He deserved it. There were two of them. They kept coming to the house and pestering my mother till she was afraid again, and worse than ever. They wanted to know all about my father, and they wouldn’t leave her alone. I’m not sure if they were police or what. I thought at first they were part of a gang or something, and they thought my father had robbed a bank, maybe, and hidden the money. But they didn’t want money; they wanted papers. They wanted some letters that my father had sent. They broke into the house one day, and then I saw it would be safer if my mother was somewhere else. See, I couldn’t go to the police and ask them for help, because they’d take my mother away. I didn’t know what to do.”

“So in the end I asked this old lady who used to teach me the piano. She was the only person I could think of. I asked her if my mother could stay with her, and I took her there. I think she’ll look after her all right. Anyway, I went back to the house to look for these letters, because I knew where she kept them, and I got them, and the men came to look and broke into the house again. It was nighttime, or early morning. And I was hiding at the top of the stairs and Moxie – my cat, Moxie – she came out of the bedroom. And I didn’t see her, nor did the man, and when I knocked into him she tripped him up, and he fell right to the bottom of the stairs…”

“And I ran away. That’s all that happened. So I didn’t mean to kill him, but I don’t care if I did. I ran away and went to Oxford and then I found that window. And that only happened because I saw the other cat and stopped to watch her, and she found the window first. If I hadn’t seen her… or if Moxie hadn’t come out of the bedroom then…”

“Yeah,” said Lyra, “that was lucky. And me and Pan were thinking just now, what if I’d never gone into the wardrobe in the retiring room at Jordan and seen the Master put poison in the wine? None of this would have happened either.”

Both of them sat silent on the moss-covered rock in the slant of sunlight through the old pines and thought how many tiny chances had conspired to bring them to this place. Each of those chances might have gone a different way. Perhaps in another world, another Will had not seen the window in Sunderland Avenue, and had wandered on tired and lost toward the Midlands until he was caught. And in another world another Pantalaimon had persuaded another Lyra not to stay in the retiring room, and another Lord Asriel had been poisoned, and another Roger had survived to play with that Lyra forever on the roofs and in the alleys of another unchanging Oxford.

Presently Will was strong enough to go on, and they moved together along the path, with the great forest quiet around them.

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 daemon, cat-formed, was dozing with folded paws only a foot or two away from him, and Will whispered, “Pantalaimon?”

The daemon’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 daemon.

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 daemon 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 daemon. 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 cluttering 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 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 south lands; 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 Leva 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 cliff-top. 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 Aesahaettr. Without Aesahaettr, 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 Aesahaettr, but all I could hear over the howling of the wind was a young ghast asking, ‘If Lord Asriel needs Aesahaettr, why doesn’t he call him?'”

“And the old ghast said, ‘Lord Asriel knows no more about Aesahaettr 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 Aesahaettr 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 Aesahaettr 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 Aesahaettr. 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.