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The Subtle Knife Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fourteen

Alamo Gulch

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

“And this is a new world?” he said.

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

“New or old, that’s a strange world down there,” said Lee.

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

“It looks empty,” said Lee.

“Not so. Beyond that headland you’ll find a city that was once powerful and wealthy. And it’s still inhabited by the descendants of the merchants and nobles who built it, though it’s fallen on hard times in the past three hundred years.”

A few minutes later, as the balloon drifted on, Lee saw first a lighthouse, then the curve of a stone breakwater, then the towers and domes and red-brown roofs of a beautiful city around a harbor, with a sumptuous building like an opera house in lush gardens, and wide boulevards with elegant hotels, and little streets where blossom-bearing trees hung over shaded balconies.

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

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

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

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

“The people call them Specters.”

“What do they do, exactly?”

“You’ve heard of vampires?”

“Oh, in tales.”

“The Specters feast as vampires feast on blood, but the Specters’ food is attention. A conscious and informed interest in the world. The immaturity of children is less attractive to them.”

“They’re the opposite of those devils at Bolvangar, then.”

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

“They’re clustered around that kid down there.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Except for the older ones. Like that poor kid down there.”

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

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

“Oh, but I have.”

“How d’you make that out?”

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

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

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

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

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

“And this journey we’re on? Is that folly or wisdom?”

“The greatest wisdom I know.”

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

“Tell him what his task is.”

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

“It will protect all of us.”

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

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

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

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

Grumman had seen it too.

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

“There can’t be a doubt. I’m uncertain whether to lose ballast and go higher, to catch the quicker wind, or stay low and be less conspicuous. And I’m thankful that thing’s not a zeppelin; they could overhaul us in a few hours. No, damn it, Dr. Grumman, I’m going higher, because if I was in that balloon I’d have seen this one already; and I’ll bet they have keen eyesight.”

He set Hester down again and leaned out to jettison three bags of ballast. The balloon rose at once, and Lee kept the telescope to his eye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll try and get as high up that range as I can. It’s a question of balance, because the farther we go, the closer they’ll be behind us. If I land when they’re too close behind, they’ll be able to see where we go, but if I take us down too early, we won’t find the shelter of those trees. Either way, there’s going to be some shooting before long.”

Grumman sat impassively, moving a magical token of feathers and beads from one hand to the other in a pattern that Lee could see had some purposeful meaning. His eagle daemon’s eyes never left the pursuing zeppelins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you bring that storm?” said Lee.

Grumman nodded.

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

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

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

“I trust you, Mr. Scoresby,” said the shaman.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m going to take us down, Dr. Grumman,” Lee shouted above the wind. “You should stand and be ready to jump clear. Hold the ring and swing yourself up when I call.”

Grumman obeyed. Lee gazed down, ahead, down, ahead, checking each dim glimpse against the next, and blinking the rain out of his eyes; for a sudden squall had brought heavy drops at them like handfuls of gravel, and the drumming they made on the gasbag added to the wind’s howl and the lash of the leaves below until Lee could hardly even hear the thunder.

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

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

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

He shouted, “Fifty feet above the trees – “

The shaman nodded.

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

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

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

“Still here, Mr. Scoresby.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shaman reached the ground.

“Did you hear it?” said Lee.

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

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

“Tell me what to do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You heard those zeppelins again?”

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

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

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

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

“You will be dry by the morning,” said the shaman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Lee sat and watched helplessly as the zeppelin flew on directly into a scarp of the mountains that rose up before them.

The pilot watched it rear up in the window, but nothing could interest him. Lee pushed back against the seat in horror, but nothing happened to stop it, and at the moment of impact he cried, “Hester!”

And woke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What now, Hester?” he said.

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

“I mean, have we discharged our duty?”

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

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

“We got one more zeppelin to think about before you start fretting about morals, Lee. There’s thirty, forty men with guns all coming for us. Imperial soldiers, what’s more. Survival first, morals later.”

She was right, of course, and as he sipped the scalding brew and smoked a cigar, with the daylight gradually growing stronger, he wondered what he would do if he were in charge of the one remaining zeppelin. Withdraw and wait for full daylight, no doubt, and fly high enough to scan the edge of the forest over a wide area, so he could see when Lee and Grumman broke cover.

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

“Busy night,” Lee remarked.

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

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

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

“You can see that, can you?”

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

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

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

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

“I guess they want to catch us alive,” Grumman replied, stripping a branch of its leaves so he could use it as a walking stick, “and they’re waiting to see where we leave the forest.”

And sure enough, the drone of the zeppelin soon became audible even over the sound of the flames and of their own labored breathing, for they were hurrying now, clambering upward over roots and rocks and fallen tree trunks and stopping only to gather breath. Sayan Kotor, flying high, swooped down to tell them how much progress they were making, and how far behind the flames were; though it wasn’t long before they could see smoke above the trees behind them, and then a streaming banner of flame.

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

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

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

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

His daemon, gliding and circling above, tipped her wings and sped to the ravine on a billowing updraft. The men didn’t pause, climbing on as quickly as they could, but Lee said, “Excuse me for asking this if it’s impertinent, but I never knew anyone whose daemon could do that except witches. But you’re no witch. Was that something you learned to do, or did it come natural?”

“For a human being, nothing comes naturally,” said Grumman. “We have to learn everything we do. Sayan Kotor is telling me that the ravine leads to a pass. If we get there before they see us, we could escape yet.”

The eagle swooped down again, and the men climbed higher. Hester preferred to find her own way over the rocks, so Lee followed where she led, avoiding the loose stones and moving as swiftly as he could over the larger rocks, making all the time for the little gulch.

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

“They’ve seen us,” he said.

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

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

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

“They’re after me, Mr. Scoresby,” said Grumman, “not you. If you give me the rifle and surrender yourself, you’ll survive. They’re disciplined troops. You’ll be a prisoner of war.”

Lee ignored that and said, “Git moving. Make the gulch and I’ll hold them off from the mouth while you find your way out the other end. I brought you this far, and I ain’t going to sit back and let ’em catch you now.”

The men below were moving up quickly, for they were fit and rested. Grumman nodded.

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

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

“It’s going to help her,” said Grumman.

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

“I won’t forget.”

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

“I understand. And you have my word.”

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

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

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

There was a roaring in Lee’s ears that had nothing to do with the conflagration in the forest below, or with the laboring drone of the zeppelin trying to rise again. It had to do with his childhood, and the Alamo. How often he and his companions had played that heroic battle, in the ruins of the old fort, taking turns to be Danes and French! His childhood was coming back to him, with a vengeance. He took out the Navajo ring of his mother’s and laid it on the rock beside him. In the old Alamo games, Hester had often been a cougar or a wolf, and once or twice a rattlesnake, but mostly a mockingbird. Now –

“Quit daydreaming and take a sight,” she said. “This ain’t play, Lee.”

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

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

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

Hester crept up close to his left shoulder.

“I’ll watch this way,” she said.

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

Her ears flicked slightly.

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

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

“Aim straight,” she said.

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

“Ours or theirs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hester moved around to look.

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

“Did you count how many fell, Hester?”

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

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

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

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

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

“How we doing?” he muttered.

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

He looked, aimed, shot. The figure fell.

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

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

“Do you believe him? Grumman?”

“Sure. Plumb ahead, Lee.”

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

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

“Lee, this is my fault,” she said.

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure she did. The flower.”

“In my breast pocket. Fetch it, Hester, I cain’t move.”

It was a hard struggle, but she tugged out the little scarlet flower with her strong teeth and laid it by his right hand. With a great effort he closed it in his fist and said, “Serafina Pekkala! Help me, I beg…”

A movement below: he let go of the flower, sighted, fired. The movement died.

Hester was failing.

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

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

“You think the witch will come?”

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

“We should have done a lot of things.”

“Maybe so…”

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

“He’s the one,” Hester breathed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roxanne Roxanne (2017) | United Arab Emirates | Personal Narrative- Most Memorable Christmas