The Subtle Knife Chapter Two
Among The Witches
The witch Serafina Pekkala, who had rescued Lyra and the other children from the experimental station at Bolvangar and flown with her to the island of Svalbard, was deeply troubled.
In the atmospheric disturbances that followed Lord Asriel’s escape from his exile on Svalbard, she and her companions were blown far from the island and many miles out over the frozen sea. Some of them managed to stay with the damaged balloon of Lee Scoresby, the Texan aeronaut, but Serafina herself was tossed high into the banks of fog that soon came rolling in from the gap that Lord Asriel’s experiment had torn in the sky.
When she found herself able to control her flight once more, her first thought was of Lyra; for she knew nothing of the fight between the false bear-king and the true one, Iorek Byrnison, nor of what had happened to Lyra after that.
So she began to search for her, flying through the cloudy gold-tinged air on her branch of cloud-pine, accompanied by her daemon, Kaisa the snow goose. They moved back toward Svalbard and south a little, soaring for several hours under a sky turbulent with strange lights and shadows. Serafina Pekkala knew from the unsettling tingle of the light on her skin that it came from another world.
After some time had passed, Kaisa said, “Look! A witch’s daemon, lost…”
Serafina Pekkala looked through the fog banks and saw a tern, circling and crying in the chasms of misty light. They wheeled and flew toward him. Seeing them come near, the tern darted up in alarm, but Serafina Pekkala signaled friendship, and he dropped down beside them.
Serafina Pekkala said, “What clan are you from?”
“Taymyr,” he told her. “My witch is captured. Our companions have been driven away! I am lost!”
“Who has captured your witch?”
“The woman with the monkey daemon, from Bolvangar… Help me! Help us! I am so afraid!”
“Was your clan allied with the child cutters?”
“Yes, until we found out what they were doing. After the fight at Bolvangar they drove us off, but my witch was taken prisoner. They have her on a ship… What can I do? She is calling to me and I can’t find her! Oh, help, help me!”
“Quiet,” said Kaisa, the goose daemon. “Listen down below.”
They glided lower, listening with keen ears, and Serafina Pekkala soon made out the beat of a gas engine, muffled by the fog.
“They can’t navigate a ship in fog like this,” Kaisa said. “What are they doing?”
“It’s a smaller engine than that,” said Serafina Pekkala, and as she spoke there came a new sound from a different direction: a low, brutal, shuddering blast, like some immense sea creature calling from the depths. It roared for several seconds and then stopped abruptly.
“The ship’s foghorn,” said Serafina Pekkala.
They wheeled low over the water and cast about again for the sound of the engine. Suddenly they found it, for the fog seemed to have patches of different density, and the witch darted up out of sight just in time as a launch came chugging slowly through the swathes of damp air. The swell was slow and oily, as if the water was reluctant to rise.
They swung around and above, the tern daemon keeping close like a child to its mother, and watched the steersman adjust the course slightly as the foghorn boomed again. There was a light mounted on the bow, but all it lit up was the fog a few yards in front.
Serafina Pekkala said to the lost daemon: “Did you say there are still some witches helping these people?”
“I think so – a few renegade witches from Volgorsk, unless they’ve fled too,” he told her. “What are you going to do? Will you look for my witch?”
“Yes. But stay with Kaisa for now.”
Serafina Pekkala flew down toward the launch, leaving the daemons out of sight above, and alighted on the counter just behind the steersman. His seagull daemon squawked, and the man turned to look.
“You taken your time, en’t you?” he said. “Get up ahead and guide us in on the port side.”
She took off again at once. It had worked: they still had some witches helping them, and he thought she was one. Port was left, she remembered, and the port light was red. She cast about in the fog until she caught its hazy glow no more than a hundred yards away. She darted back and hovered above the launch calling directions to the steersman, who slowed the craft down to a crawling pace and brought it in to the ship’s gangway ladder that hung just above the water line. The steersman called, and a sailor threw a line from above, and another hurried down the ladder to make it fast to the launch.
Serafina Pekkala flew up to the ship’s rail, and retreated to the shadows by the lifeboats. She could see no other witches, but they were probably patrolling the skies; Kaisa would know what to do.
Below, a passenger was leaving the launch and climbing the ladder. The figure was fur-swathed, hooded, anonymous; but as it reached the deck, a golden monkey daemon swung himself lightly up on the rail and glared around, his black eyes radiating malevolence. Serafina caught her breath: the figure was Mrs. Coulter.
A dark-clothed man hurried out on deck to greet her, and looked around as if he were expecting someone else as well.
“Lord Boreal – ” he began.
But Mrs. Coulter interrupted: “He has gone on elsewhere. Have they started the torture?”
“Yes, Mrs. Coulter,” was the reply, “but – “
“I ordered them to wait,” she snapped. “Have they taken to disobeying me? Perhaps there should be more discipline on this ship.”
She pushed her hood back. Serafina Pekkala saw her face clearly in the yellow light: proud, passionate, and, to the witch, so young.
“Where are the other witches?” she demanded.
The man from the ship said, “All gone, ma’am. Red to their homeland.”
“But a witch guided the launch in,” said Mrs. Coulter. “Where has she gone?”
Serafina shrank back; obviously the sailor in the launch hadn’t heard the latest state of things. The cleric looked around, bewildered, but Mrs. Coulter was too impatient, and after a cursory glance above and along the deck, she shook her head and hurried in with her daemon through the open door that cast a yellow nimbus on the air. The man followed.
Serafina Pekkala looked around to check her position. She was concealed behind a ventilator on the narrow area of decking between the rail and the central superstructure of the ship; and on this level, facing forward below the bridge and the funnel, was a saloon from which windows, not portholes, looked out on three sides. That was where the people had gone in. Light spilled thickly from the windows onto the fog-pearled railing, and dimly showed up the foremast and the canvas-covered hatch. Everything was wringing-wet and beginning to freeze into stiffness. No one could see Serafina where she was; but if she wanted to see any more, she would have to leave her hiding place.
That was too bad. With her pine branch she could escape, and with her knife and her bow she could fight. She hid the branch behind the ventilator and slipped along the deck until she reached the first window. It was fogged with condensation and impossible to see through, and Serafina could hear no voices, either. She withdrew to the shadows again.
There was one thing she could do; she was reluctant, because it was desperately risky, and it would leave her exhausted; but it seemed there was no choice. It was a kind of magic she could work to make herself unseen. True invisibility was impossible, of course: this was mental magic, a kind of fiercely held modesty that could make the spell worker not invisible but simply unnoticed. Holding it with the right degree of intensity, she could pass through a crowded room, or walk beside a solitary traveler, without being seen.
So now she composed her mind and brought all her concentration to bear on the matter of altering the way she held herself so as to deflect attention completely. It took some minutes before she was confident. She tested it by stepping out of her hiding place and into the path of a sailor coming along the deck with a bag of tools. He stepped aside to avoid her without looking at her once.
She was ready. She went to the door of the brightly lit saloon and opened it, finding the room empty. She left the outer door ajar so that she could flee through it if she needed to, and saw a door at the far end of the room that opened on to a flight of stairs leading down into the bowels of the ship. She descended, and found herself in a narrow corridor hung with white-painted pipework and illuminated with anbaric bulkhead lights, which led straight along the length of the hull, with doors opening off it on both sides.
She walked quietly along, listening, until she heard voices. It sounded as if some kind of council was in session.
She opened the door and walked in.
A dozen or so people were seated around a large table. One or two of them looked up for a moment, gazed at her absently, and forgot her at once. She stood quietly near the door and watched. The meeting was being chaired by an elderly man in the robes of a Cardinal, and the rest of them seemed to be clerics of one sort or another, apart from Mrs. Coulter, who was the only woman present. Mrs. Coulter had thrown her furs over the back of the chair, and her cheeks were flushed in the heat of the ship’s interior.
Serafina Pekkala looked around carefully and saw someone else in the room as well: a thin-faced man with a frog daemon, seated to one side at a table laden with leather-bound books and loose piles of yellowed paper. She thought at first that he was a clerk or a secretary, until she saw what he was doing: he was intently gazing at a golden instrument like a large watch or a compass, stopping every minute or so to note what he found. Then he would open one of the books, search laboriously through the index, and look up a reference before writing that down too and turning back to the instrument.
Serafina looked back to the discussion at the table, because she heard the word witch.
“She knows something about the child,” said one of the clerics. “She confessed that she knows something. All the witches know something about her.”
“I am wondering what Mrs. Coulter knows,” said the Cardinal. “Is there something she should have told us before, I wonder?”
“You will have to speak more plainly than that,” said Mrs. Coulter icily. “You forget I am a woman, Your Eminence, and thus not so subtle as a prince of the Church. What is this truth that I should have known about the child?”
The Cardinal’s expression was full of meaning, but he said nothing. There was a pause, and then another cleric said almost apologetically: “It seems that there is a prophecy. It concerns the child, you see, Mrs. Coulter. All the signs have been fulfilled. The circumstances of her birth, to begin with. The gyptians know something about her too – they speak of her in terms of witch oil and marsh fire, uncanny, you see – hence her success in leading the gyptian men to Bolvangar. And then there’s her astonishing feat of deposing the bear-king Lofur Raknison – this is no ordinary child. Fra Pavel can tell us more, perhaps…”
He glanced at the thin-faced man reading the alethiometer, who blinked, rubbed his eyes, and looked at Mrs. Coulter.
“You may be aware that this is the only alethiometer left, apart from the one in the child’s possession,” he said. “All the others have been acquired and destroyed, by order of the Magisterium. I learn from this instrument that the child was given hers by the Master of Jordan College, and that she learned to read it by herself, and that she can use it without the books of readings. If it were possible to disbelieve the alethiometer, I would do so, because to use the instrument without the books is simply inconceivable to me. It takes decades of diligent study to reach any sort of understanding. She began to read it within a few weeks of acquiring it, and now she has an almost complete mastery. She is like no human Scholar I can imagine.”
“Where is she now, Fra Pavel?” said the Cardinal.
“In the other world,” said Fra Pavel. “It is already late.”
“The witch knows!” said another man, whose muskrat daemon gnawed unceasingly at a pencil. “It’s all in place but for the witch’s testimony! I say we should torture her again!”
“What is this prophecy?” demanded Mrs. Coulter, who had been getting increasingly angry. “How dare you keep it from me?”
Her power over them was visible. The golden monkey glared around the table, and none of them could look him in the face.
Only the Cardinal did not flinch. His daemon, a macaw, lifted a foot and scratched her head.
“The witch has hinted at something extraordinary,” the Cardinal said. “I dare not believe what I think it means. If it’s true, it places on us the most terrible responsibility men and women have ever faced. But I ask you again, Mrs. Coulter – what do you know of the child and her father?”
Mrs. Coulter had lost her flush. Her face was chalk-white with fury.
“How dare you interrogate me?” she spat. “And how dare you keep from me what you’ve learned from the witch? And, finally, how dare you assume that I am keeping something from you? D’you think I’m on her side? Or perhaps you think I’m on her father’s side? Perhaps you think I should be tortured like the witch. Well, we are all under your command, Your Eminence. You have only to snap your fingers and you could have me torn apart. But if you searched every scrap of flesh for an answer, you wouldn’t find one, because I know nothing of this prophecy, nothing whatever. And I demand that you tell me what you know. My child, my own child, conceived in sin and born in shame, but my child nonetheless, and you keep from me what I have every right to know!”
“Please,” said another of the clerics nervously. “Please, Mrs. Coulter, the witch hasn’t spoken yet; we shall learn more from her. Cardinal Sturrock himself says that she’s only hinted at it.”
“And suppose the witch doesn’t reveal it?” Mrs. Coulter said. “What then? We guess, do we? We shiver and quail and guess?”
Fra Pavel said, “No, because that is the question I am now preparing to put to the alethiometer. We shall find the answer, whether from the witch or from the books of readings.”
“And how long will that take?”
He raised his eyebrows wearily and said, “A considerable time. It is an immensely complex question.”
“But the witch would tell us at once,” said Mrs. Coulter.
And she rose to her feet. As if in awe of her, most of the men did too. Only the Cardinal and Fra Pavel remained seated. Serafina Pekkala stood back, fiercely holding herself unseen. The golden monkey was gnashing his teeth, and all his shimmering fur was standing on end.
Mrs. Coulter swung him up to her shoulder. “So let us go and ask her,” she said.
She turned and swept out into the corridor. The men hastened to follow her, jostling and shoving past Serafina Pekkala, who had only time to stand quickly aside, her mind in a turmoil. The last to go was the Cardinal.
Serafina took a few seconds to compose herself, because her agitation was beginning to make her visible. Then she followed the clerics down the corridor and into a smaller room, bare and white and hot, where they were all clustered around the dreadful figure in the center: a witch bound tightly to a steel chair, with agony on her gray face and her legs twisted and broken.
Mrs. Coulter stood over her. Serafina took up a position by the door, knowing that she could not stay unseen for long; this was too hard.
“Tell us about the child, witch,” said Mrs. Coulter.
“You will suffer.”
“I have suffered enough.”
“Oh, there is more suffering to come. We have a thousand years of experience in this Church of ours. We can draw out your suffering endlessly. Tell us about the child,” Mrs. Coulter said, and reached down to break one of the witch’s fingers. It snapped easily.
The witch cried out, and for a clear second Serafina Pekkala became visible to everyone, and one or two of the clerics looked at her, puzzled and fearful; but then she controlled herself again, and they turned back to the torture.
Mrs. Coulter was saying, “If you don’t answer I’ll break another finger, and then another. What do you know about the child? Tell me.”
“All right! Please, please, no more!”
There came another sickening crack, and this time a flood of sobbing broke from the witch. Serafina Pekkala could hardly hold herself back. Then came these words, in a shriek: “No, no! I’ll tell you! I beg you, no more! The child who was to come… The witches knew who she was before you did… We found out her name…”
“We know her name. What name do you mean?”
“Her true name! The name of her destiny!”
“What is this name? Tell me!” said Mrs. Coulter.
“And how? Found out how?”
“There was a test… If she was able to pick out one spray of cloud-pine from many others, she would be the child who would come, and it happened at our consul’s house at Trollesund, when the child came with the gyptian men… The child with the bear…”
Her voice gave out.
Mrs. Coulter gave a little exclamation of impatience, and there came a loud slap, and a groan.
“But what was your prophecy about this child?” Mrs. Coulter went on, and her voice was all bronze now, and ringing with passion. “And what is this name that will make her destiny clear?”
Serafina Pekkala moved closer, even among the tight throng of men around the witch, and none of them felt her presence at their very elbows. She must end this witch’s suffering, and soon, but the strain of holding herself unseen was enormous. She trembled as she took the knife from her waist.
The witch was sobbing. “She is the one who came before, and you have hated and feared her ever since! Well, now she has come again, and you failed to find her… She was there on Svalbard – she was with Lord Asriel, and you lost her. She escaped, and she will be – “
But before she could finish, there came an interruption.
Through the open doorway there flew a tern, mad with terror, and it beat its wings brokenly as it crashed to the floor and struggled up and darted to the breast of the tortured witch, pressing itself against her, nuzzling, chirruping, crying, and the witch called in anguish, “Yambe-Akka! Come to me, come to me!”
No one but Serafina Pekkala understood. Yambe-Akka was the goddess who came to a witch when she was about to die.
And Serafina was ready. She became visible at once and stepped forward smiling happily, because Yambe-Akka was merry and lighthearted and her visits were gifts of joy. The witch saw her and turned up her tear-stained face, and Serafina bent to kiss it and slid her knife gently into the witch’s heart. The tern daemon looked up with dim eyes and vanished.
And now Serafina Pekkala would have to fight her way out.
The men were still shocked, disbelieving, but Mrs. Coulter recovered her wits almost at once.
“Seize her! Don’t let her go!” she cried, but Serafina was already at the door, with an arrow nocked in her bowstring. She swung up the bow and loosed the arrow in less than a second, and the Cardinal fell choking and kicking to the floor.
Out, along the corridor to the stairs, turn, nock, loose, and another man fell; and already a loud jarring bell was filling the ship with its clangor.
Up the stairs and out onto the deck. Two sailors barred her way, and she said, “Down there! The prisoner has got loose! Get help!”
That was enough to puzzle them, and they stood undecided, which gave her time to dodge past and seize her cloud-pine from where she had hidden it behind the ventilator.
“Shoot her!” came a cry in Mrs. Coulter’s voice from behind, and at once three rifles fired, and the bullets struck metal and whined off into the fog as Serafina leaped on the branch and urged it up like one of her own arrows. A few seconds later she was in the air, in the thick of the fog, safe, and then a great goose shape glided out of the wraiths of gray to her side.
“Where to?” he said.
“Away, Kaisa, away,” she said. “I want to get the stench of these people out of my nose.”
In truth, she didn’t know where to go or what to do next. But there was one thing she knew for certain: there was an arrow in her quiver that would find its mark in Mrs. Coulter’s throat.
They turned south, away from that troubling other-world gleam in the fog, and as they flew a question began to form more clearly in Serafina’s mind. What was Lord Asriel doing? Because all the events that had overturned the world had their origin in his mysterious activities.
The problem was that the usual sources of her knowledge were natural ones. She could track any animal, catch any fish, find the rarest berries; and she could read the signs in the pine marten’s entrails, or decipher the wisdom in the scales of a perch, or interpret the warnings in the crocus pollen; but these were children of nature, and they told her natural truths.
For knowledge about Lord Asriel, she had to go elsewhere. In the port of Trollesund, their consul Dr. Lanselius maintained his contact with the world of men and women, and Serafina Pekkala sped there through the fog to see what he could tell her. Before she went to his house she circled over the harbor, where wisps and tendrils of mist drifted ghostlike on the icy water, and watched as the pilot guided in a large vessel with an African registration. There were several other ships riding at anchor outside the harbor. She had never seen so many.
As the short day faded, she flew down and landed in the back garden of the consul’s house. She tapped on the window, and Dr. Lanselius himself opened the door, a finger to his lips.
“Serafina Pekkala, greetings,” he said. “Come in quickly, and welcome. But you had better not stay long.” He offered her a chair at the fireside, having glanced through the curtains out of a window that fronted the street. “You’ll have some wine?”
She sipped the golden Tokay and told him of what she had seen and heard aboard the ship.
“Do you think they understood what she said about the child?” he asked.
“Not fully, I think. But they know she is important. As for that woman, I’m afraid of her, Dr. Lanselius. I shall kill her, I think, but still I’m afraid of her.”
“Yes,” he said. “So am I.”
And Serafina listened as he told her of the rumors that had swept the town. Amid the fog of rumor, a few facts had begun to emerge clearly.
“They say that the Magisterium is assembling the greatest army ever known, and this is an advance party. And there are unpleasant rumors about some of the soldiers, Serafina Pekkala. I’ve heard about Bolvangar, and what they were doing there – cutting children’s daemons away, the most evil work I’ve ever heard of. Well, it seems there is a regiment of warriors who have been treated in the same way. Do you know the word zombi? They fear nothing, because they’re mindless. There are some in this town now. The authorities keep them hidden, but word gets out, and the townspeople are terrified of them.”
“What of the other witch clans?” said Serafina Pekkala. “What news do you have of them?”
“Most have gone back to their homelands. All the witches are waiting, Serafina Pekkala, with fear in their hearts, for what will happen next.”
“And what do you hear of the Church?”
“They’re in complete confusion. You see, they don’t know what Lord Asriel intends to do.”
“Nor do I,” she said, “and I can’t imagine what it might be. What do you think he’s intending, Dr. Lanselius?”
He gently rubbed the head of his serpent daemon with his thumb. “He is a scholar,” he said after a moment, “but scholarship is not his ruling passion. Nor is statesmanship. I met him once, and I thought he had an ardent and powerful nature, but not a despotic one. I don’t think he wants to rule… I don’t know, Serafina Pekkala. I suppose his servant might be able to tell you. He is a man called Thorold, and he was imprisoned with Lord Asriel in the house on Svalbard. It might be worth a visit there to see if he can tell you anything; but, of course, he might have gone into the other world with his master.”
“Thank you. That’s a good idea… I’ll do it. And I’ll go at once.”
She said farewell to the consul and flew up through the gathering dark to join Kaisa in the clouds.
Serafina’s journey to the north was made harder by the confusion in the world around her. All the Arctic peoples had been thrown into panic, and so had the animals, not only by the fog and the magnetic variations but by unseasonal crackings of ice and stirrings in the soil. It was as if the earth itself, the permafrost, were slowly awakening from a long dream of being frozen.
In all this turmoil, where sudden shafts of uncanny brilliance lanced down through rents in towers of fog and then vanished as quickly, where herds of muskox were seized by the urge to gallop south and then wheeled immediately to the west or the north again, where tight-knit skeins of geese disintegrated into a honking chaos as the magnetic fields they flew by wavered and snapped this way and that, Serafina Pekkala sat on her cloud-pine and flew north, to the house on the headland in the wastes of Svalbard.
There she found Lord Asriel’s servant, Thorold, fighting off a group of cliff-ghasts.
She saw the movement before she came close enough to see what was happening. There was a swirl of lunging leathery wings, and a malevolent yowk-yowk-yowk resounding in the snowy courtyard. A single figure swathed in furs fired a rifle into the midst of them with a gaunt dog daemon snarling and snapping beside him whenever one of the filthy things flew low enough.
She didn’t know the man, but a cliff-ghast was an enemy always. She swung around above and loosed a dozen arrows into the melee. With shrieks and gibberings, the gang – too loosely organized to be called a troop – circled, saw their new opponent, and fled in confusion. A minute later the skies were bare again, and their dismayed yowk-yowk-yowk echoed distantly off the mountains before dwindling into silence.
Serafina flew down to the courtyard and alighted on the trampled, blood-sprinkled snow. The man pushed back his hood, still holding his rifle warily, because a witch was an enemy sometimes, and she saw an elderly man, long-jawed and grizzled and steady-eyed.
“I am a friend of Lyra’s,” she said. “I hope we can talk. Look: I lay my bow down.”
“Where is the child?” he said.
“In another world. I’m concerned for her safety. And I need to know what Lord Asriel is doing.”
He lowered the rifle and said, “Step inside, then. Look: I lay my rifle down.”
The formalities exchanged, they went indoors. Kaisa glided through the skies above, keeping watch, while Thorold brewed some coffee and Serafina told him of her involvement with Lyra.
“She was always a willful child,” he said when they were seated at the oaken table in the glow of a naphtha lamp. “I’d see her every year or so when his lordship visited his college. I was fond of her, mind – you couldn’t help it. But what her place was in the wider scheme of things, I don’t know.”
“What was Lord Asriel planning to do?”
“You don’t think he told me, do you, Serafina Pekkala? I’m his manservant, that’s all. I clean his clothes and cook his meals and keep his house tidy. I may have learned a thing or two in the years I been with his lordship, but only by picking ’em up accidental. He wouldn’t confide in me any more than in his shaving mug.”
“Then tell me the thing or two you’ve learned by accident,” she insisted.
Thorold was an elderly man, but he was healthy and vigorous, and he felt flattered by the attention of this young witch and her beauty, as any man would. He was shrewd, though, too, and he knew the attention was not really on him but on what he knew; and he was honest, so he did not draw out his telling for much longer than he needed.
“I can’t tell you precisely what he’s doing,” he said, “because all the philosophical details are beyond my grasp. But I can tell you what drives his lordship, though he doesn’t know I know. I’ve seen this in a hundred little signs. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the witch people have different gods from ours, en’t that right?”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“But you know about our God? The God of the Church, the one they call the Authority?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Well, Lord Asriel has never found hisself at ease with the doctrines of the Church, so to speak. I’ve seen a spasm of disgust cross his face when they talk of the sacraments, and atonement, and redemption, and suchlike. It’s death among our people, Serafina Pekkala, to challenge the Church, but Lord Asriel’s been nursing a rebellion in his heart for as long as I’ve served him, that’s one thing I do know.”
“A rebellion against the Church?”
“Partly, aye. There was a time when he thought of making it an issue of force, but he turned away from that.”
“Why? Was the Church too strong?”
“No,” said the old servant, “that wouldn’t stop my master. Now this might sound strange to you, Serafina Pekkala, but I know the man better than any wife could know him, better than a mother. He’s been my master and my study for nigh on forty years. I can’t follow him to the height of his thought any more than I can fly, but I can see where he’s a-heading even if I can’t go after him. No, it’s my belief he turned away from a rebellion against the Church not because the Church was too strong, but because it was too weak to be worth the fighting.”
“So… what is he doing?”
“I think he’s a-waging a higher war than that. I think he’s aiming a rebellion against the highest power of all. He’s gone a-searching for the dwelling place of the Authority Himself, and he’s a-going to destroy Him. That’s what I think. It shakes my heart to voice it, ma’am. I hardly dare think of it. But I can’t put together any other story that makes sense of what he’s doing.”
Serafina sat quiet for a few moments, absorbing what Thorold had said.
Before she could speak, he went on: “‘Course, anyone setting out to do a grand thing like that would be the target of the Church’s anger. Goes without saying. It’d be the most gigantic blasphemy, that’s what they’d say. They’d have him before the Consistorial Court and sentenced to death before you could blink. I’ve never spoke of it before and I shan’t again; I’d be afraid to speak it aloud to you if you weren’t a witch and beyond the power of the Church; but that makes sense, and nothing else does. He’s a-going to find the Authority and kill Him.”
“Is that possible?” said Serafina.
“Lord Asriel’s life has been filled with things that were impossible. I wouldn’t like to say there was anything he couldn’t do. But on the face of it, Serafina Pekkala, yes, he’s stark mad. If angels couldn’t do it, how can a man dare to think about it?”
“Angels? What are angels?”
“Beings of pure spirit, the Church says. The Church teaches that some of the angels rebelled before the world was created, and got flung out of heaven and into hell. They failed, you see, that’s the point. They couldn’t do it. And they had the power of angels. Lord Asriel is just a man, with human power, no more than that. But his ambition is limitless. He dares to do what men and women don’t even dare to think. And look what he’s done already: he’s torn open the sky, he’s opened the way to another world. Who else has ever done that? Who else could think of it? So with one part of me, Serafina Pekkala, I say he’s mad, wicked, deranged. Yet with another part I think, he’s Lord Asriel, he’s not like other men. Maybe… if it was ever going to be possible, it’d be done by him and by no one else.”
“And what will you do, Thorold?”
“I’ll stay here and wait. I’ll guard this house till he comes back and tells me different, or till I die. And now I might ask you the same question, ma’am.”
“I’m going to make sure the child is safe,” she said. “It might be that I have to pass this way again, Thorold. I’m glad to know that you will still be here.”
“I won’t budge,” he told her.
She refused Thorold’s offer of food, and said good-bye.
A minute or so later she joined her goose daemon again, and the daemon kept silence with her as they soared and wheeled above the foggy mountains. She was deeply troubled, and there was no need to explain: every strand of moss, every icy puddle, every midge in her homeland thrilled against her nerves and called her back. She felt fear for them, but fear of herself, too, for she was having to change. These were human affairs she was inquiring into, this was a human matter; Lord Asriel’s god was not hers. Was she becoming human? Was she losing her witchhood?
If she were, she could not do it alone.
“Home now,” she said. “We must talk to our sisters, Kaisa. These events are too big for us alone.”
And they sped through the roiling banks of fog toward Lake Enara and home.
In the forested caves beside the lake they found the others of their clan, and Lee Scoresby, too. The aeronaut had struggled to keep his balloon aloft after the crash at Svalbard, and the witches had guided him to their homeland, where he had begun to repair the damage to his basket and the gasbag.
“Ma’am, I’m very glad to see you,” he said. “Any news of the little girl?”
“None, Mr. Scoresby. Will you join our council tonight and help us discuss what to do?”
The Texan blinked with surprise, for no man had ever been known to join a witch council.
“I’d be greatly honored,” he said. “I may have a suggestion or two of my own.”
All through that day the witches came, like flakes of black snow on the wings of a storm, filling the skies with the darting flutter of their silk and the swish of air through the needles of their cloud-pine branches. Men who hunted in the dripping forests or fished among melting ice floes heard the sky-wide whisper through the fog, and if the sky was clear, they would look up to see the witches flying, like scraps of darkness drifting on a secret tide.
By evening the pines around the lake were lit from below by a hundred fires, and the greatest fire of all was built in front of the gathering cave. There, once they had eaten, the witches assembled. Serafina Pekkala sat in the center, the crown of little scarlet flowers nestling among her fair hair. On her left sat Lee Scoresby, and on her right, a visitor: the queen of the Latvian witches, whose name was Ruta Skadi.
She had arrived only an hour before, to Serafina’s surprise. Serafina had thought Mrs. Coulter beautiful, for a short-life; but Ruta Skadi was as lovely as Mrs. Coulter, with an extra dimension of the mysterious, the uncanny. She had trafficked with spirits, and it showed. She was vivid and passionate, with large black eyes; it was said that Lord Asriel himself had been her lover. She wore heavy gold earrings and a crown on her black curly hair ringed with the fangs of snow tigers. Serafina’s daemon, Kaisa, had learned from Ruta Skadi’s daemon that she had killed the tigers herself in order to punish the Tartar tribe who worshiped them, because the tribesmen had failed to do her honor when she had visited their territory. Without their tiger gods, the tribe declined into fear and melancholy and begged her to allow them to worship her instead, only to be rejected with contempt; for what good would their worship do her? she asked. It had done nothing for the tigers. Such was Ruta Skadi: beautiful, proud, and pitiless.
Serafina was not sure why she had come, but made the queen welcome, and etiquette demanded that Ruta Skadi should sit on Serafina’s right. When they were all assembled, Serafina began to speak.
“Sisters! You know why we have come together: we must decide what to do about these new events. The universe is broken wide, and Lord Asriel has opened the way from this world to another. Should we concern ourselves with it, or live our lives as we have done until now, looking after our own affairs? Then there is the matter of the child Lyra Belacqua, now called Lyra Silvertongue by King Iorek Byrnison. She chose the right cloud-pine spray at the house of Dr. Lanselius: she is the child we have always expected, and now she has vanished.”
“We have two guests, who will tell us their thoughts. First we shall hear Queen Ruta Skadi.”
Ruta Skadi stood. Her white arms gleamed in the firelight; her eyes glittered so brightly that even the farthest witch could see the play of expression on her vivid face.
“Sisters,” she began, “let me tell you what is happening, and who it is that we must fight. For there is a war coming. I don’t know who will join with us, but I know whom we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all its history – and that’s not long by our lives, but it’s many, many of theirs – it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out. Some of you have seen what they did at Bolvangar. And that was horrible, but it is not the only such place, not the only such practice. Sisters, you know only the north; I have traveled in the south lands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did – not in the same way, but just as horribly. They cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls; they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel. That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling. So if a war comes, and the Church is on one side of it, we must be on the other, no matter what strange allies we find ourselves bound to.”
“What I propose is that our clans join together and go north to explore this new world, and see what we can discover there. If the child is not to be found in our world, it’s because she will have gone after Lord Asriel already. And Lord Asriel is the key to this, believe me. He was my lover once, and I would willingly join forces with him, because he hates the Church and all it does.”
“That is what I have to say.”
Ruta Skadi spoke passionately, and Serafina admired her power and her beauty. When the Latvian queen sat down, Serafina turned to Lee Scoresby.
“Mr. Scoresby is a friend of the child’s, and thus a friend of ours,” she said. “Would you tell us your thoughts, sir?”
The Texan got to his feet, whiplash-lean and courteous. He looked as if he were not conscious of the strangeness of the occasion, but he was. His hare daemon, Hester, crouched beside him, her ears flat along her back, her golden eyes half closed.
“Ma’am,” he said, “I have to thank you all first for the kindness you’ve shown to me, and the help you extended to an aeronaut battered by winds that came from another world. I won’t trespass long on your patience.”
“When I was traveling north to Bolvangar with the gyptians, the child Lyra told me about something that happened in the college she used to live in, back in Oxford. Lord Asriel had shown the other scholars the severed head of a man called Stanislaus Grumman, and that kinda persuaded them to give him some money to come north and find out what had happened.”
“Now, the child was so sure of what she’d seen that I didn’t like to question her too much. But what she said made a kind of memory come to my mind, except that I couldn’t reach it clearly. I knew something about this Dr. Grumman. And it was only on the flight here from Svalbard that I remembered what it was. It was an old hunter from Tungusk who told me. It seems that Grumman knew the whereabouts of some kind of object that gives protection to whoever holds it. I don’t want to belittle the magic that you witches can command, but this thing, whatever it is, has a kind of power that outclasses anything I’ve ever heard of.”
“And I thought I might postpone my retirement to Texas because of my concern for that child, and search for Dr. Grumman. You see, I don’t think he’s dead. I think Lord Asriel was fooling those scholars.”
“So I’m going to Nova Zembla, where I last heard of him alive, and I’m going to search for him. I cain’t see the future, but I can see the present clear enough. And I’m with you in this war, for what my bullets are worth. But that’s the task I’m going to take on, ma’am,” he concluded, turning back to Serafina Pekkala. “I’m going to seek out Stanislaus Grumman and find out what he knows, and if I can find that object he knows of, I’ll take it to Lyra.”
Serafina said, “Have you been married, Mr. Scoresby? Have you any children?”
“No, ma’am, I have no child, though I would have liked to be a father. But I understand your question, and you’re right: that little girl has had bad luck with her true parents, and maybe I can make it up to her. Someone has to do it, and I’m willing.”
“Thank you, Mr. Scoresby,” she said.
And she took off her crown, and plucked from it one of the little scarlet flowers that, while she wore them, remained as fresh as if they had just been picked.
“Take this with you,” she said, “and whenever you need my help, hold it in your hand and call to me. I shall hear you, wherever you are.”
“Why, thank you, ma’am,” he said, surprised. He took the little flower and tucked it carefully into his breast pocket.
“And we shall call up a wind to help you to Nova Zembla,” Serafina Pekkala told him. “Now, sisters, who would like to speak?”
The council proper began. The witches were democratic, up to a point; every witch, even the youngest, had the right to speak, but only their queen had the power to decide. The talk lasted all night, with many passionate voices for open war at once, and some others urging caution, and a few, though those were the wisest, suggesting a mission to all the other witch clans to urge them to join together for the first time.
Ruta Skadi agreed with that, and Serafina sent out messengers at once. As for what they should do immediately, Serafina picked out twenty of her finest fighters and ordered them to prepare to fly north with her, into the new world that Lord Asriel had opened, and search for Lyra.
“What of you, Queen Ruta Skadi?” Serafina said finally. “What are your plans?”
“I shall search for Lord Asriel, and learn what he’s doing from his own lips. And it seems that the way he’s gone is northward too. May I come the first part of the journey with you, sister?”
“You may, and welcome,” said Serafina, who was glad to have her company. So they agreed.
But soon after the council had broken up, an elderly witch came to Serafina Pekkala and said, “You had better listen to what Juta Kamainen has to say, Queen. She’s headstrong, but it might be important.”
The young witch Juta Kamainen – young by witch standards, that is; she was only just over a hundred years old – was stubborn and embarrassed, and her robin daemon was agitated, flying from her shoulder to her hand and circling high above her before settling again briefly on her shoulder. The witch’s cheeks were plump and red; she had a vivid and passionate nature. Serafina didn’t know her well.
“Queen,” said the young witch, unable to stay silent under Serafina’s gaze, “I know the man Stanislaus Grumman. I used to love him. But I hate him now with such a fervor that if I see him, I shall kill him. I would have said nothing, but my sister made me tell you.”
She glanced with hatred at the elder witch, who returned her look with compassion: she knew about love.
“Well,” said Serafina, “if he is still alive, he’ll have to stay alive until Mr. Scoresby finds him. You had better come with us into the new world, and then there’ll be no danger of your killing him first. Forget him, Juta Kamainen. Love makes us suffer. But this task of ours is greater than revenge. Remember that.”
“Yes, Queen,” said the young witch humbly.
And Serafina Pekkala and her twenty-one companions and Queen Ruta Skadi of Latvia prepared to fly into the new world, where no witch had ever flown before.