The Subtle Knife Chapter Six
“Grumman?” said the black-bearded fur trader. “From the Berlin Academy? Reckless. I met him five years back over at the northern end of the Urals.
I thought he was dead.”
Sam Cansino, an old acquaintance and a Texan like Lee Scoresby, sat in the naphtha-laden, smoky bar of the Samirsky Hotel and tossed back a shot glass of bitingly cold vodka. He nudged the plate of pickled fish and black bread toward Lee, who took a mouthful and nodded for Sam to tell him more.
“He’d walked into a trap that fool Yakovlev laid,” the fur trader went on, “and cut his leg open to the bone. Instead of using regular medicines, he insisted on using the stuff the bears use – bloodmoss – some kind of lichen, it ain’t a true moss. Anyway, he was lying on a sledge alternately roaring with pain and calling out instructions to his men – they were taking star sights, and they had to get the measurements right or he’d lash them with his tongue, and boy, he had a tongue like barbed wire. A lean man, tough, powerful, curious about everything. You know he was a Tartar, by initiation?”
“You don’t say,” said Lee Scoresby, tipping more vodka into Sam’s glass. His daemon, Hester, crouched at his elbow on the bar, eyes half-closed as usual, ears flat along her back.
Lee had arrived that afternoon, borne to Nova Zembla by the wind the witches had called up, and once he’d stowed his equipment he’d made straight for the Samirsky Hotel, near the fish-packing station. This was a place where many Arctic drifters stopped to exchange news or look for employment or leave messages for one another, and Lee Scoresby had spent several days there in the past, waiting for a contract or a passenger or a fair wind, so there was nothing unusual in his conduct now.
And with the vast changes they sensed in the world around them, it was natural for people to gather and talk. With every day that passed came more news: the river Yenisei was free of ice, and at this time of year, too; part of the ocean had drained away, exposing strange regular formations of stone on the seabed; a squid a hundred feet long had snatched three fishermen out of their boat and torn them apart…
And the fog continued to roll in from the north, dense and cold and occasionally drenched with the strangest imaginable light, in which great forms could be vaguely seen, and mysterious voices heard.
Altogether it was a bad time to work, which was why the bar of the Samirsky Hotel was full.
“Did you say Grumman?” said the man sitting just along the bar, an elderly man in seal hunter’s rig, whose lemming daemon looked out solemnly from his pocket. “He was a Tartar all right. I was there when he joined that tribe. I saw him having his skull drilled. He had another name, too – a Tartar name; I’ll think of it in a minute.”
“Well, how about that,” said Lee Scoresby. “Let me buy you a drink, my friend. I’m looking for news of this man. What tribe was it he joined?”
“The Yenisei Pakhtars. At the foot of the Semyonov Range. Near a fork of the Yenisei and the – I forget what it’s called – a river that comes down from the hills. There’s a rock the size of a house at the landing stage.”
“Ah, sure,” said Lee. “I remember it now. I’ve flown over it. And Grumman had his skull drilled, you say? Why was that?”
“He was a shaman,” said the old seal hunter. “I think the tribe recognized him as a shaman before they adopted him. Some business, that drilling. It goes on for two nights and a day. They use a bow drill, like for lighting a fire.”
“Ah, that accounts for the way his team was obeying him,” said Sam Cansino. “They were the roughest bunch of scoundrels I ever saw, but they ran around doing his bidding like nervous children. I thought it was his cursing that did it. If they thought he was a shaman, it’d make even more sense. But you know, that man’s curiosity was as powerful as a wolf’s jaws; he would not let go. He made me tell him every scrap I knew about the land thereabouts, and the habits of wolverines and foxes. And he was in some pain from that damn trap of Yakovlev’s; leg laid open, and he was writing the results of that bloodmoss, taking his temperature, watching the scar form, making notes on every damn thing… A strange man. There was a witch who wanted him for a lover, but he turned her down.”
“Is that so?” said Lee, thinking of the beauty of Serafina Pekkala.
“He shouldn’t have done that,” said the seal hunter. “A witch offers you her love, you should take it. If you don’t, it’s your own fault if bad things happen to you. It’s like having to make a choice: a blessing or a curse. The one thing you can’t do is choose neither.”
“He might have had a reason,” said Lee. “If he had any sense, it will have been a good one.”
“He was headstrong,” said Sam Cansino.
“Maybe faithful to another woman,” Lee guessed. “I heard something else about him; I heard he knew the whereabouts of some magic object, I don’t know what it might be, that could protect anyone who held it. Did you ever hear that story?”
“Yes, I heard that,” said the seal hunter. “He didn’t have it himself, but he knew where it was. There was a man who tried to make him tell, but Grumman killed him.”
“His daemon, now,” said Sam Cansino, “that was curious. She was an eagle, a black eagle with a white head and breast, of a kind I’d never set eyes on, and I didn’t know how she might be called.”
“She was an osprey,” said the barman, listening in. “You’re talking about Stan Grumman? His daemon was an osprey. A fish eagle.”
“What happened to him?” said Lee Scoresby.
“Oh, he got mixed up in the Skraeling wars over to Bering-land. Last I heard he’d been shot,” said the seal hunter. “Killed outright.”
“I heard they beheaded him,” said Lee Scoresby.
“No, you’re both wrong,” said the barman, “and I know, because I heard it from an Inuit who was with him. Seems that they were camped out on Sakhalin somewhere and there was an avalanche. Grumman was buried under a hundred tons of rock. This Inuit saw it happen.”
“What I can’t understand,” said Lee Scoresby, offering the bottle around, “is what the man was doing. Was he prospecting for rock oil, maybe? Or was he a military man? Or was it something philosophical? You said something about measurements, Sam. What would that be?”
“They were measuring the starlight. And the aurora. He had a passion for the aurora. I think his main interest was in ruins, though. Ancient things.”
“I know who could tell you more,” said the seal hunter. “Up the mountain they have an observatory belonging to the Imperial Muscovite Academy. They’d be able to tell you. I know he went up there more than once.”
“What d’you want to know for, anyway, Lee?” said Sam Cansino.
“He owes me some money,” said Lee Scoresby.
This explanation was so satisfying that it stopped their curiosity at once. The conversation turned to the topic on everyone’s lips: the catastrophic changes taking place around them, which no one could see.
“The fishermen,” said the seal hunter, “they say you can sail right up into that new world.”
“There’s a new world?” said Lee.
“As soon as this damn fog clears we’ll see right into it,” the seal hunter told them confidently. “When it first happened, I was out in my kayak and looking north, just by chance. I’ll never forget what I saw. Instead of the earth curving down over the horizon, it went straight on. I could see forever, and as far as I could see, there was land and shoreline, mountains, harbors, green trees, and fields of corn, forever into the sky. I tell you, friends, that was something worth toiling fifty years to see, a sight like that. I would have paddled up the sky into that calm sea without a backward glance; but then came the fog…”
“Ain’t never seen a fog like this,” grumbled Sam Cansino. “Reckon it’s set in for a month, maybe more. But you’re out of luck if you want money from Stanislaus Grumman, Lee; the man’s dead.”
“Ah! I got his Tartar name!” said the seal hunter. “I just remembered what they called him during the drilling. It sounded like Jopari.”
“Jopari? That’s no kind of name I’ve ever heard of,” said Lee. “Might be Nipponese, I suppose. Well, if I want my money, maybe I can chase up his heirs and assigns. Or maybe the Berlin Academy can square the debt. I’ll go ask at the observatory, see if they have an address I can apply to.”
The observatory was some distance to the north, and Lee Scoresby hired a dog sledge and driver. It wasn’t easy to find someone willing to risk the journey in the fog, but Lee was persuasive, or his money was; and eventually an old Tartar from the Ob region agreed to take him there, after a lengthy bout of haggling.
The driver didn’t rely on a compass, or he would have found it impossible. He navigated by other signs – his Arctic fox daemon for one, who sat at the front of the sledge keenly scenting the way. Lee, who carried his compass everywhere, had realized already that the earth’s magnetic field was as disturbed as everything else.
The old driver said, as they stopped to brew coffee, “This happen before, this thing.”
“What, the sky opening? That happened before?”
“Many thousand generation. My people remember. All long time ago, many thousand generation.”
“What do they say about it?”
“Sky fall open, and spirits move between this world and that world. All the lands move. The ice melt, then freeze again. The spirits close up the hole after a while. Seal it up. But witches say the sky is thin there, behind the northern lights.”
“What’s going to happen, Umaq?”
“Same thing as before. Make all same again. But only after big trouble, big war. Spirit war.”
The driver wouldn’t tell him any more, and soon they moved on, tracking slowly over undulations and hollows and past outcrops of dim rock, dark through the pallid fog, until the old man said: “Observatory up there. You walk now. Path too crooked for sledge. You want go back, I wait here.”
“Yeah, I want to go back when I’ve finished, Umaq. You make yourself a fire, my friend, and sit and rest a spell. I’ll be three, four hours maybe.”
Lee Scoresby set off, with Hester tucked into the breast of his coat, and after half an hour’s stiff climb found a clump of buildings suddenly above him as if they’d just been placed there by a giant hand. But the effect was only due to a momentary lifting of the fog, and after a minute it closed in again. He saw the great dome of the main observatory, a smaller one a little way off, and between them a group of administration buildings and domestic quarters. No lights showed, because the windows were blacked out permanently so as not to spoil the darkness for their telescopes.
A few minutes after he arrived, Lee was talking to a group of astronomers eager to learn what news he could bring them, for there are few natural philosophers as frustrated as astronomers in a fog. He told them about everything he’d seen, and once that topic had been thoroughly dealt with, he asked about Stanislaus Grumman The astronomers hadn’t had a visitor in weeks, and they were keen to talk.
“Grumman? Yes, I’ll tell you something about him,” said the Director. “He was an Englishman, in spite of his name. I remember – “
“Surely not,” said his deputy. “He was a member of the Imperial German Academy. I met him in Berlin. I was sure he was German.”
“No, I think you’ll find he was English. His command of that language was immaculate, anyway,” said the Director.
“But I agree, he was certainly a member of the Berlin Academy. He was a geologist – “
“No, no, you’re wrong,” said someone else. “He did look at the earth, but not as a geologist. I had a long talk with him once. I suppose you’d call him a paleo-archaeologist.”
They were sitting, five of them, around a table in the room that served as their common room, living and dining room, bar, recreation room, and more or less everything else. Two of them were Muscovites, one was a Pole, one a Yoruba, and one a Skraeling. Lee Scoresby sensed that the little community was glad to have a visitor, if only because he introduced a change of conversation. The Pole had been the last to speak, and then the Yoruba interrupted: “What do you mean, a paleo-archaeologist? Archaeologists already study what’s old; why do you need to put another word meaning ‘old’ in front of it?”
“His field of study went back much further than you’d expect, that’s all. He was looking for remains of civilizations from twenty, thirty thousand years ago,” the Pole replied.
“Nonsense!” said the Director. “Utter nonsense! The man was pulling your leg. Civilizations thirty thousand years old? Ha! Where is the evidence?”
“Under the ice,” said the Pole. “That’s the point. According to Grumman, the earth’s magnetic field changed dramatically at various times in the past, and the earth’s axis actually moved, too, so that temperate areas became ice-bound.”
“How?” said one of the Muscovites.
“Oh, he had some complex theory. The point was, any evidence there might have been for very early civilizations was long since buried under the ice. He claimed to have some photograms of unusual rock formations.”
“Ha! Is that all?” said the Director.
“I’m only reporting, I’m not defending him,” said the Pole.
“How long had you known Grumman, gentlemen?” Lee Scoresby asked.
“Well, let me see,” said the Director. “It was seven years ago I met him for the first time.”
“He made a name for himself a year or two before that, with his paper on the variations in the magnetic pole,” said the Yoruba. “But he came out of nowhere. I mean, no one had known him as a student or seen any of his previous work…” They talked on for a while, contributing reminiscences and offering suggestions as to what might have become of Grumman, though most of them thought he was probably dead. While the Pole went to brew some more coffee, Lee’s hare daemon, Hester, said to him quietly: “Check out the Skraeling, Lee.”
The Skraeling had spoken very little. Lee had thought he was naturally taciturn, but prompted by Hester, he casually glanced across during the next break in the conversation to see the man’s daemon, a snowy owl, glaring at him with bright orange eyes. Well, that was what owls looked like, and they did stare; but Hester was right, and there was a hostility and suspicion in the daemon that the man’s face showed nothing of.
And then Lee saw something else: the Skraeling was wearing a ring with the Church’s symbol engraved on it. Suddenly he realized the reason for the man’s silence. Every philosophical research establishment, so he’d heard, had to include on its staff a representative of the Magisterium, to act as a censor and suppress the news of any heretical discoveries.
So, realizing this, and remembering something he’d heard Lyra say, Lee asked: “Tell me, gentlemen – do you happen to know if Grumman ever looked into the question of Dust?”
And instantly a silence fell in the stuffy little room, and everyone’s attention focused on the Skraeling, though no one looked at him directly. Lee knew that Hester would remain inscrutable, with her eyes half-closed and her ears flat along her back, and he put on a cheerful innocence as he looked from face to face.
Finally he settled on the Skraeling, and said, “I beg your pardon. Have I asked about something it’s forbidden to know?”
The Skraeling said, “Where did you hear mention of this subject, Mr. Scoresby?”
“From a passenger I flew across the sea a while back,” Lee said easily. “They never said what it was, but from the way it was mentioned it seemed like the kind of thing Dr. Grumman might have inquired into. I took it to be some kind of celestial thing, like the aurora. But it puzzled me, because as an aeronaut I know the skies pretty well, and I’d never come across this stuff. What is it, anyhow?”
“As you say, a celestial phenomenon,” said the Skraeling. “It has no practical significance.”
Presently Lee decided it was time to leave; he had learned no more, and he didn’t want to keep Umaq waiting. He left the astronomers to their fogbound observatory and set off down the track, feeling his way along by following his daemon, whose eyes were closer to the ground.
And when they were only ten minutes down the path, something swept past his head in the fog and dived at Hester. It was the Skraeling’s owl daemon.
But Hester sensed her coming and flattened herself in time, and the owl’s claws just missed. Hester could fight; her claws were sharp, too, and she was tough and brave. Lee knew that the Skraeling himself must be close by, and reached for the revolver at his belt.
“Behind you, Lee,” Hester said, and he whipped around, diving, as an arrow hissed over his shoulder.
He fired at once. The Skraeling fell, grunting, as the bullet thudded into his leg. A moment later the owl daemon swooped with a clumsy fainting movement to his side, and half lay on the snow, struggling to fold her wings.
Lee Scoresby cocked his pistol and held it to the man’s head.
“Right, you damn fool,” he said. “What did you try that for? Can’t you see we’re all in the same trouble now this thing’s happened to the sky?”
“It’s too late,” said the Skraeling.
“Too late for what?”
“Too late to stop. I have already sent a messenger bird. The Magisterium will know of your inquiries, and they will be glad to know about Grumman – “
“What about him?”
“The fact that others are looking for him. It confirms what we thought. And that others know of Dust. You are an enemy of the Church, Lee Scoresby. By their fruits shall ye know them. By their questions shall ye see the serpent gnawing at their heart…”
The owl was making soft hooting sounds and raising and dropping her wings fitfully. Her bright orange eyes were filming over with pain. There was a gathering red stain in the snow around the Skraeling; even in the fog-thick dimness, Lee could see that the man was going to die.
“Reckon my bullet must have hit an artery,” he said. “Let go my sleeve and I’ll make a tourniquet.”
“No!” said the Skraeling harshly. “I am glad to die! I shall have the martyr’s palm! You will not deprive me of that!”
“Then die if you want to. Just tell me this – “
But he never had the chance to complete his question, because with a bleak little shiver the owl daemon disappeared. The Skraeling’s soul was gone. Lee had once seen a painting in which a saint of the Church was shown being attacked by assassins. While they bludgeoned his dying body, the saint’s daemon was borne upward by cherubs and offered a spray of palm, the badge of a martyr. The Skraeling’s face now bore the same expression as the saint’s in the picture: an ecstatic straining toward oblivion. Lee dropped him in distaste.
Hester clicked her tongue.
“Shoulda reckoned he’d send a message,” she said. “Take his ring.”
“What the hell for? We ain’t thieves, are we?”
“No, we’re renegades,” she said. “Not by our choice, but by his malice. Once the Church learns about this, we’re done for anyway. Take every advantage we can in the meantime. Go on, take the ring and stow it away, and mebbe we can use it.”
Lee saw the sense, and took the ring off the dead man’s finger. Peering into the gloom, he saw that the path was edged by a steep drop into rocky darkness, and he rolled the Skraeling’s body over. It fell for a long time before he heard any impact. Lee had never enjoyed violence, and he hated killing, although he’d had to do it three times before.
“No sense in thinking that,” said Hester. “He didn’t give us a choice, and we didn’t shoot to kill. Damn it, Lee, he wanted to die. These people are insane.”
“I guess you’re right,” he said, and put the pistol away.
At the foot of the path they found the driver, with the dogs harnessed and ready to move.
“Tell me, Umaq,” Lee said as they set off back to the fish-packing station, “you ever hear of a man called Grumman?”
“Oh, sure,” said the driver. “Everybody know Dr. Grumman.”
“Did you know he had a Tartar name?”
“Not Tartar. You mean Jopari? Not Tartar.”
“What happened to him? Is he dead?”
“You ask me that, I have to say I don’t know. So you never know the truth from me.”
“I see. So who can I ask?”
“You better ask his tribe. Better go to Yenisei, ask them.”
“His tribe… you mean the people who initiated him? Who drilled his skull?”
“Yes. You better ask them. Maybe he not dead, maybe he is. Maybe neither dead nor alive.”
“How can he be neither dead nor alive?”
“In spirit world. Maybe he in spirit world. Already I say too much. Say no more now.”
And he did not.
But when they returned to the station, Lee went at once to the docks and looked for a ship that could give him passage to the mouth of the Yenisei.
Meanwhile, the witches were searching too. The Latvian queen, Ruta Skadi, flew with Serafina Pekkala’s company for many days and nights, through fog and whirlwind, over regions devastated by flood or landslide. It was certain that they were in a world none of them had known before, with strange winds, strange scents in the air, great unknown birds that attacked them on sight and had to be driven off with volleys of arrows; and when they found land to rest on, the very plants were strange.
Still, some of those plants were edible, and they found rabbits that made a tasty meal, and there was no shortage of water. It might have been a good land to live in, but for the spectral forms that drifted like mist over the grasslands and congregated near streams and low-lying water. In some lights they were hardly there at all, just visible as a drifting quality in the light, a rhythmic evanescence, like veils of transparency turning before a mirror. The witches had never seen anything like them before, and mistrusted them at once.
“Are they alive, do you think, Serafina Pekkala?” said Ruta Skadi as the witches circled high above a group of the things that stood motionless at the edge of a tract of forest.
“Alive or dead, they’re full of malice,” Serafina replied. “I can feel that from here. And unless I knew what weapon could harm them, I wouldn’t want to go closer than this.”
The Specters seemed to be earthbound, without the power of flight, luckily for the witches. Later that day, they saw what the Specters could do.
It happened at a river crossing, where a dusty road went over a low stone bridge beside a stand of trees. The late-afternoon sun slanted across the grassland, drawing an intense green out of the ground and a dusty gold out of the air, and in that rich oblique light the witches saw a band of travelers making for the bridge, some on foot, some in horse-drawn carts, two of them riding horses. Serafina caught her breath: these people had no daemons, and yet they seemed alive. She was about to fly down and look more closely when she heard a cry of alarm.
It came from the rider on the leading horse. He was pointing at the trees, and as the witches looked down, they saw a stream of those spectral forms pouring across the grass, seeming to flow with no effort toward the people, their prey.
The people scattered. Serafina was shocked to see the leading rider turn tail at once and gallop away, without staying to help his comrades, and the second rider did the same, escaping as fast as he could in another direction.
“Fly lower and watch, sisters,” Serafina told her companions. “But don’t interfere till I command.”
They saw that the little band contained children as well, some riding in the carts, some walking beside them. And it was clear that the children couldn’t see the Specters, and the Specters weren’t interested in them; they made instead for the adults. One old woman seated on a cart held two little children on her lap, and Ruta Skadi was angered by her cowardice: because she tried to hide behind them, and thrust them out toward the Specter that approached her, as if offering them up to save her own life.
The children pulled free of the old woman and jumped down from the cart, and now, like the other children around them, ran to and fro in fright, or stood and clung together weeping as the Specters attacked the adults. The old woman in the cart was soon enveloped in a transparent shimmer that moved busily, working and feeding in some invisible way that made Ruta Skadi sick to watch. The same fate befell every adult in the party apart from the two who had fled on their horses.
Fascinated and stunned, Serafina Pekkala flew down even closer. There was a father with his child who had tried to ford the river to get away, but a Specter had caught up with them, and as the child clung to the father’s back, crying, the man slowed down and stood waist-deep in the water, arrested and helpless.
What was happening to him? Serafina hovered above the water a few feet away, gazing horrified. She had heard from travelers in her own world of the legend of the vampire, and she thought of that as she watched the Specter busy gorging on – something, some quality the man had, his soul, his daemon, perhaps; for in this world, evidently, daemons were inside, not outside. His arms slackened under the child’s thighs, and the child fell into the water behind him and grabbed vainly at his hand, gasping, crying, but the man only turned his head slowly and looked down with perfect indifference at his little son drowning beside him.
That was too much for Serafina. She swooped lower and plucked the child from the water, and as she did so, Ruta Skadi cried out: “Be careful, sister! Behind you – “
And Serafina felt just for a moment a hideous dullness at the edge of her heart, and reached out and up for Ruta Skadi’s hand, which pulled her away from the danger. They flew higher, the child screaming and clinging to her waist with sharp fingers, and Serafina saw the Specter behind her, a drift of mist swirling on the water, casting about for its lost prey. Ruta Skadi shot an arrow into the heart of it, with no effect at all.
Serafina put the child down on the riverbank, seeing that it was in no danger from the Specters, and they retreated to the air again. The little band of travelers had halted for good now; the horses cropped the grass or shook their heads at flies, the children were howling or clutching one another and watching from a distance, and every adult had fallen still. Their eyes were open; some were standing, though most had sat down; and a terrible stillness hung over them. As the last of the Specters drifted away, sated, Serafina flew down and alighted in front of a woman sitting on the grass, a strong, healthy-looking woman whose cheeks were red and whose fair hair was glossy.
“Woman?” said Serafina. There was no response. “Can you hear me? Can you see me?”
She shook her shoulder. With an immense effort the woman looked up. She scarcely seemed to notice. Her eyes were vacant, and when Serafina pinched the skin of her forearm, she merely looked down slowly and then away again.
The other witches were moving through the scattered wagons, looking at the victims in dismay. The children, meanwhile, were gathering on a little knoll some way off, staring at the witches and whispering together fearfully.
“The horseman’s watching,” said a witch.
She pointed up to where the road led through a gap in the hills. The rider who’d fled had reined in his horse and turned around to look back, shading his eyes to see what was going on.
“We’ll speak to him,” said Serafina, and sprang into the air.
However the man had behaved when faced with the Specters, he was no coward. As he saw the witches approach, he unslung the rifle from his back and kicked the horse forward onto the grass, where he could wheel and fire and face them in the open; but Serafina Pekkala alighted slowly and held her bow out before laying it on the ground in front of her.
Whether or not they had that gesture here, its meaning was unmistakable. The man lowered the rifle from his shoulder and waited, looking from Serafina to the other witches, and up to their daemons too, who circled in the skies above. Women, young and ferocious, dressed in scraps of black silk and riding pine branches through the sky – there was nothing like that in his world, but he faced them with calm wariness. Serafina, coming closer, saw sorrow in his face as well, and strength. It was hard to reconcile with the memory of his turning tail and running while his companions perished.
“Who are you?” he said.
“My name is Serafina Pekkala. I am the queen of the witches of Lake Enara, which is in another world. What is your name?”
“Joachim Lorenz. Witches, you say? Do you treat with the devil, then?”
“If we did, would that make us your enemy?”
He thought for a few moments, and settled his rifle across his thighs. “It might have done, once,” he said, “but times have changed. Why have you come to this world?”
“Because the times have changed. What are those creatures who attacked your party?”
“Well, the Specters…” he said, shrugging, half-astonished. “Don’t you know the Specters?”
“We’ve never seen them in our world. We saw you making your escape, and we didn’t know what to think. Now I understand.”
“There’s no defense against them,” said Joachim Lorenz. “Only the children are untouched. Every party of travelers has to include a man and a woman on horseback, by law, and they have to do what we did, or else the children will have no one to look after them. But times are bad now; the cities are thronged with Specters, and there used to be no more than a dozen or so in each place.”
Ruta Skadi was looking around. She noticed the other rider moving back toward the wagons, and saw that it was, indeed, a woman. The children were running to meet her.
“But tell me what you’re looking for,” Joachim Lorenz went on. “You didn’t answer me before. You wouldn’t have come here for nothing. Answer me now.”
“We’re looking for a child,” said Serafina, “a young girl from our world. Her name is Lyra Belacqua, called Lyra Silvertongue. But where she might be, in a whole world, we can’t guess. You haven’t seen a strange child, on her own?”
“No. But we saw angels the other night, making for the Pole.”
“Troops of them in the air, armed and shining. They haven’t been so common in the last years, though in my grandfather’s time they passed through this world often, or so he used to say.”
He shaded his eyes and gazed down toward the scattered wagons, the halted travelers. The other rider had dismounted now and was comforting some of the children.
Serafina followed his gaze and said, “If we camp with you tonight and keep guard against the Specters, will you tell us more about this world, and these angels you saw?”
“Certainly I will. Come with me.”
The witches helped to move the wagons farther along the road, over the bridge and away from the trees where the Specters had come from. The stricken adults had to stay where they were, though it was painful to see the little children clinging to a mother who no longer responded to them, or tugging the sleeve of a father who said nothing and gazed into nothing and had nothing in his eyes. The younger children couldn’t understand why they had to leave their parents. The older ones, some of whom had already lost parents of their own and who had seen it before, simply looked bleak and stayed dumb. Serafina picked up the little boy who’d fallen in the river, and who was crying out for his daddy, reaching back over Serafina’s shoulder to the silent figure still standing in the water, indifferent. Serafina felt his tears on her bare skin.
The horsewoman, who wore rough canvas breeches and rode like a man, said nothing to the witches. Her face was grim. She moved the children on, speaking sternly, ignoring their tears. The evening sun suffused the air with a golden light in which every detail was clear and nothing was dazzling, and the faces of the children and the man and woman too seemed immortal and strong and beautiful.
Later, as the embers of a fire glowed in a circle of ashy rocks and the great hills lay calm under the moon, Joachim Lorenz told Serafina and Ruta Skadi about the history of his world.
It had once been a happy one, he explained. The cities were spacious and elegant, the fields well tilled and fertile. Merchant ships plied to and fro on the blue oceans, and fishermen hauled in brimming nets of cod and tunny, bass and mullet; the forests ran with game, and no children went hungry. In the courts and squares of the great cities ambassadors from Brasil and Benin, from Eireland and Corea mingled with tabaco sellers, with commedia players from Bergamo, with dealers in fortune bonds. At night masked lovers met under the rose-hung colonnades or in the lamp-lit gardens, and the air stirred with the scent of jasmine and throbbed to the music of the wire-strung mandarone.
The witches listened wide-eyed to this tale of a world so like theirs and yet so different.
“But it went wrong,” he said. “Three hundred years ago, it all went wrong. Some people reckon the philosophers’ Guild of the Torre degli Angeli, the Tower of the Angels, in the city we have just left, they’re the ones to blame. Others say it was a judgment on us for some great sin, though I never heard any agreement about what that sin was. But suddenly out of nowhere there came the Specters, and we’ve been haunted ever since. You’ve seen what they do. Now imagine what it is to live in a world with Specters in it. How can we prosper, when we can’t rely on anything continuing as it is? At any moment a father might be taken, or a mother, and the family fall apart; a merchant might be taken, and his enterprise fail, and all his clerks and factors lose their employment; and how can lovers trust their vows? All the trust and all the virtue fell out of our world when the Specters came.”
“Who are these philosophers?” said Serafina. “And where is this tower you speak of?”
“In the city we left – Cittagazze. The city of magpies. You know why it’s called that? Because magpies steal, and that’s all we can do now. We create nothing, we have built nothing for hundreds of years, all we can do is steal from other worlds. Oh, yes, we know about other worlds. Those philosophers in the Torre degli Angeli discovered all we need to know about that subject. They have a spell which, if you say it, lets you walk through a door that isn’t there, and find yourself in another world. Some say it’s not a spell but a key that can open even where there isn’t a lock. Who knows? Whatever it is, it let the Specters in. And the philosophers use it still, I understand. They pass into other worlds and steal from them and bring back what they find. Gold and jewels, of course, but other things too, like ideas, or sacks of corn, or pencils. They are the source of all our wealth,” he said bitterly, “that Guild of thieves.”
“Why don’t the Specters harm children?” asked Ruta Skadi.
“That is the greatest mystery of all. In the innocence of children there’s some power that repels the Specters of Indifference. But it’s more than that. Children simply don’t see them, though we can’t understand why. We never have. But Specter-orphans are common, as you can imagine – children whose parents have been taken; they gather in bands and roam the country, and sometimes they hire themselves out to adults to look for food and supplies in a Specter-ridden area, and sometimes they simply drift about and scavenge.”
“So that is our world. Oh, we managed to live with this curse. They’re true parasites: they won’t kill their host, though they drain most of the life out of him. But there was a rough balance… till recently, till the great storm. Such a storm it was! It sounded as if the whole world was breaking and cracking apart; there hadn’t been a storm like that in memory.”
“And then there came a fog that lasted for days and covered every part of the world that I know of, and no one could travel. And when the fog cleared, the cities were full of the Specters, hundreds and thousands of them. So we fled to the hills and out to sea, but there’s no escaping them this time wherever we go. As you saw for yourselves.”
“Now it’s your turn. You tell me about your world, and why you’ve left it to come to this one.”
Serafina told him truthfully as much as she knew. He was an honest man, and there was nothing that needed concealing from him. He listened closely, shaking his head with wonder, and when she had finished, he said: “I told you about the power they say our philosophers have, of opening the way to other worlds. Well, some think that occasionally they leave a doorway open, out of forgetfulness; I wouldn’t be surprised if travelers from other worlds found their way here from time to time. We know that angels pass through, after all.”
“Angels?” said Serafina. “You mentioned them before. They are new to us. Can you explain them?”
“You want to know about angels?” said Joachim Lorenz. “Very well. Their name for themselves is bene elim, I’m told. Some call them Watchers, too. They’re not beings of flesh like us; they’re beings of spirit. Or maybe their flesh is more finely drawn than ours, lighter and clearer, I wouldn’t know; but they’re not like us. They carry messages from heaven, that’s their calling. We see them sometimes in the sky, passing through this world on the way to another, shining like fireflies way, way up high. On a still night you can even hear their wingbeats. They have concerns different from ours, though in the ancient days they came down and had dealings with men and women, and they bred with us, too, some say.”
“And when the fog came, after the great storm, I was beset by Specters in the hills behind the city of Sant’Elia, on my way homeward. I took refuge in a shepherd’s hut by a spring next to a birch wood, and all night long I heard voices above me in the fog, cries of alarm and anger, and wingbeats too, closer than I’d ever heard them before; and toward dawn there was the sound of a skirmish of arms, the whoosh of arrows, and the clang of swords. I daredn’t go out and see, though I was powerfully curious, for I was afraid. I was stark terrified, if you want to know. When the sky was as light as it ever got during that fog, I ventured to look out, and I saw a great figure lying wounded by the spring. I felt as if I was seeing things I had no right to see – sacred things. I had to look away, and when I looked again, the figure was gone.”
“That’s the closest I ever came to an angel. But as I told you, we saw them the other night, way high aloft among the stars, making for the Pole, like a fleet of mighty ships under sail… Something is happening, and we don’t know down here what it may be. There could be a war breaking out. There was a war in heaven once, oh, thousands of years ago, immense ages back, but I don’t know what the outcome was. It wouldn’t be impossible if there was another. But the devastation would be enormous, and the consequences for us… I can’t imagine it.”
“Though,” he went on, sitting up to stir the fire, “the end of it might be better than I fear. It might be that a war in heaven would sweep the Specters from this world altogether, and back into the pit they come from. What a blessing that would be, eh! How fresh and happy we could live, free of that fearful blight!”
Though Joachim Lorenz looked anything but hopeful as he stared into the flames. The flickering light played over his face, but there was no play of expression in his strong features; he looked grim and sad.
Ruta Skadi said, “The Pole, sir. You said these angels were making for the Pole. Why would they do that, do you know? Is that where heaven lies?”
“I couldn’t say. I’m not a learned man, you can see that plain enough. But the north of our world, well, that’s the abode of spirits, they say. If angels were mustering, that’s where they’d go, and if they were going to make an assault on heaven, I daresay that’s where they’d build their fortress and sally out from.”
He looked up, and the witches followed his eyes. The stars in this world were the same as theirs: the Milky Way blazed bright across the dome of the sky, and innumerable points of starlight dusted the dark, almost matching the moon for brightness…
“Sir,” said Serafina, “did you ever hear of Dust?”
“Dust? I guess you mean it in some other sense than the dust on the roads. No, I never did. But look! There’s a troop of angels now…”
He pointed to the constellation of Ophiuchus. And sure enough, something was moving through it, a tiny cluster of lighted beings. And they didn’t drift; they moved with the purposeful flight of geese or swans.
Ruta Skadi stood up.
“Sister, it’s time I parted from you,” she said to Serafina. “I’m going up to speak to these angels, whatever they may be. If they’re going to Lord Asriel, I’ll go with them. If not, I’ll search on by myself. Thank you for your company, and go well.”
They kissed, and Ruta Skadi took her cloud-pine branch and sprang into the air. Her daemon, Sergi, a bluethroat, sped out of the dark alongside her.
“We’re going high?” he said.
“As high as those lighted fliers in Ophiuchus. They’re going swiftly, Sergi. Let’s catch them!”
And she and her daemon raced upward, flying quicker than sparks from a fire, the air rushing through the twigs on her branch and making her black hair stream out behind. She didn’t look back at the little fire in the wide darkness, at the sleeping children and her witch companions. That part of her journey was over, and, besides, those glowing creatures ahead of her were no larger yet, and unless she kept her eye on them they were easily lost against the great expanse of starlight.
So she flew on, never losing sight of the angels, and gradually as she came closer they took on a clearer shape.
They shone not as if they were burning but as if, wherever they were and however dark the night, sunlight was shining on them. They were like humans, but winged, and much taller; and, as they were naked, the witch could see that three of them were male, two female. Their wings sprang from their shoulder-blades, and their backs and chests were deeply muscled. Ruta Skadi stayed behind them for some way, watching, measuring their strength in case she should need to fight them. They weren’t armed, but on the other hand they were flying easily within their power, and might even outstrip her if it came to a chase.
Making her bow ready, just in case, she sped forward and flew alongside them, calling: “Angels! Halt and listen to me! I am the witch Ruta Skadi, and I want to talk to you!”
They turned. Their great wings beat inward, slowing them, and their bodies swung downward till they were standing upright in the air, holding their position by the beating of their wings. They surrounded her, five huge forms glowing in the dark air, lit by an invisible sun.
She looked around, sitting on her pine branch proud and unafraid, though her heart was beating with the strangeness of it, and her daemon fluttered to sit close to the warmth of her body.
Each angel-being was distinctly an individual, and yet they had more in common with one another than with any human she had seen. What they shared was a shimmering, darting play of intelligence and feeling that seemed to sweep over them all simultaneously. They were naked, but she felt naked in front of their glance, it was so piercing and went so deep.
Still, she was unashamed of what she was, and she returned their gaze with head held high.
“So you are angels,” she said, “or Watchers, or bene elim. Where are you going?”
“We are following a call,” said one.
She was not sure which one had spoken. It might have been any or all of them at once.
“Whose call?” she said.
“It may be.”
“Why are you following his call?”
“Because we are willing to,” came the reply.
“Then wherever he is, you can guide me to him as well,” she ordered them.
Ruta Skadi was four hundred and sixteen years old, with all the pride and knowledge of an adult witch queen. She was wiser by far than any short-lived human, but she had not the slightest idea of how like a child she seemed beside these ancient beings. Nor did she know how far their awareness spread out beyond her like filamentary tentacles to the remotest corners of universes she had never dreamed of; nor that she saw them as human-formed only because her eyes expected to. If she were to perceive their true form, they would seem more like architecture than organism, like huge structures composed of intelligence and feeling.
But they expected nothing else: she was very young.
At once they beat their wings and surged forward, and she darted with them, surfing on the turbulence their pinions caused in the air and relishing the speed and power it added to her flight.
They flew throughout the night. The stars wheeled around them, and faded and vanished as the dawn seeped up from the east. The world burst into brilliance as the sun’s rim appeared, and then they were flying through blue sky and clear air, fresh and sweet and moist.
In the daylight the angels were less visible, though to any eye their strangeness was clear. The light Ruta Skadi saw them by was still not that of the sun now climbing the sky, but some other light from somewhere else.
Tirelessly they flew on and on, and tirelessly she kept pace. She felt a fierce joy possessing her, that she could command these immortal presences. And she rejoiced in her blood and flesh, in the rough pine bark she felt next to her skin, in the beat of her heart and the life of all her senses, and in the hunger she was feeling now, and in the presence of her sweet-voiced bluethroat daemon, and in the earth below her and the lives of every creature, plant and animal both; and she delighted in being of the same substance as them, and in knowing that when she died her flesh would nourish other lives as they had nourished her. And she rejoiced, too, that she was going to see Lord Asriel again.
Another night came, and still the angels flew on. And at some point the quality of the air changed, not for the worse or the better, but changed nonetheless, and Ruta Skadi knew that they’d passed out of that world and into another. How it had happened she couldn’t guess.
“Angels!” she called as she sensed the change. “How have we left the world I found you in? Where was the boundary?”
“There are invisible places in the air,” came the answer. “Gateways into other worlds. We can see them, but you cannot.”
Ruta Skadi couldn’t see the invisible gateway, but she didn’t need to: witches could navigate better than birds. As soon as the angel spoke, she fixed her attention on three jagged peaks below her and memorized their configuration exactly. Now she could find it again, if she needed to, despite what the angels might think.
They flew on farther, and presently she heard an angel voice: “Lord Asriel is in this world, and there is the fortress he’s building…”
They had slowed, and were circling like eagles in the middle airs. Ruta Skadi looked where one angel was pointing. The first faint glimmer of light was tinting the east, though all the stars above shone as brilliantly as ever against the profound velvet black of the high heavens. And on the very rim of the world, where the light was increasing moment by moment, a great mountain range reared its peaks – jagged spears of black rock, mighty broken slabs, and sawtooth ridges piled in confusion like the wreckage of a universal catastrophe. But on the highest point, which as she looked was touched by the first rays of the morning sun and outlined in brilliance, stood a regular structure: a huge fortress whose battlements were formed of single slabs of basalt half a hill in height, and whose extent was to be measured in flying time.
Beneath this colossal fortress, fires glared and furnaces smoked in the darkness of early dawn, and from many miles away Ruta Skadi heard the clang of hammers and the pounding of great mills. And from every direction, she could see more flights of angels winging toward it, and not only angels, but machines too: steel-winged craft gliding like albatrosses, glass cabins under flickering dragonfly wings, droning zeppelins like huge bumblebees – all making for the fortress that Lord Asriel was building on the mountains at the edge of the world.
“And is Lord Asriel there?” she said.
“Yes, he is there,” the angels replied.
“Then let’s fly there to meet him. And you must be my guard of honor.”
Obediently they spread their wings and set their course toward the gold-rimmed fortress, with the eager witch flying before them.