The Subtle Knife Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Fifteen

Bloodmoss

On, said the alethiometer. Farther, higher.

So on they climbed. The witches flew above to spy out the best routes, because the hilly land soon gave way to steeper slopes and rocky footing, and as the sun rose toward noon, the travelers found themselves in a tangled land of dry gullies, cliffs, and boulder-strewn valleys where not a single green leaf grew, and where the stridulation of insects was the only sound.

They moved on, stopping only for sips of water from their goatskin flasks, and talking little. Pantalaimon flew above Lyra's head for a while until he tired of that, and then he became a little sure-footed mountain sheep, vain of his horns, leaping among rocks while Lyra scrambled laboriously alongside. Will moved on grimly, screwing up his eyes against the glare, ignoring the worsening pain from his hand, and finally reaching a state in which movement alone was good and stillness bad, so that he suffered more from resting than from toiling on. And since the failure of the witches'spell to stop his bleeding, he thought they were regarding him with fear, too, as if he was marked by some curse greater than their own powers.

At one point they came to a little lake, a patch of intense blue scarcely thirty yards across among the red rocks. They stopped there to drink and refill their flasks, and to soak their aching feet in the icy water. They stayed a few minutes and moved on, and soon afterward, when the sun was at its highest and hottest, Serafina Pekkala darted down to speak to them. She was agitated.

’’I must leave you for a while,’’ she said. ’’Lee Scoresby needs me. I don't know why. But he wouldn't call if he didn't need my help. Keep going, and I'll find you.’’

’’Mr. Scoresby?’’ said Lyra, excited and anxious. ’’But where - ’’

But Serafina was gone, speeding out of sight before Lyra could finish the question. Lyra reached automatically for the alethiometer to ask what had happened to Lee Scoresby, but she let her hand drop, because she'd promised to do no more than guide Will.

She looked across to him. He was sitting nearby, his hand held loosely on his knee and still slowly dripping blood, his face scorched by the sun and pale under the burning.

’’Will,’’ she said, ’’d'you know why you have to find your father?’’

’’It's what I've always known. My mother said I'd take up my father's mantle. That's all I know.’’

’’What does that mean, taking up his mantle? What's a mantle?’’

’’A task, I suppose. Whatever he's been doing, I've got to carry on. It makes as much sense as anything else.’’

He wiped the sweat out of his eyes with his right hand. What he couldn't say was that he longed for his father as a lost child yearns for home. That comparison wouldn't have occurred to him, because home was the place he kept safe for his mother, not the place others kept safe for him. But it had been five years now since that Saturday morning in the supermarket when the pretend game of hiding from the enemies became desperately real, such a long time in his life, and his heart craved to hear the words ’’Well done, well done, my child;no one on earth could have done better;I'm proud of you. Come and rest now...’’

Will longed for that so much that he hardly knew he did. It was just part of what everything felt like. So he couldn't express that to Lyra now, though she could see it in his eyes, and that was new for her, too, to be quite so perceptive. The fact was that where Will was concerned, she was developing a new kind of sense, as if he were simply more in focus than anyone she'd known before. Everything about him was clear and close and immediate.

And she might have said that to him, but at that moment a witch flew down.

’’I can see people behind us,’’ she said. ’’They're a long way back, but they're moving quickly. Shall I go closer and look?’’

’’Yes, do,’’ said Lyra, ’’but fly low, and hide, and don't let them see you.’’

Will and Lyra got painfully to their feet again and clambered on.

’’I been cold plenty of times,’’ Lyra said, to take her mind off the pursuers, ’’but I en't been this hot, ever. Is it this hot in your world?’’

’’Not where I used to live. Not normally. But the climate's been changing. The summers are hotter than they used to be. They say that people have been interfering with the atmosphere by putting chemicals in it, and the weather's going out of control.’’

’’Yeah, well, they have,’’ said Lyra, ’’and it is. And we're here in the middle of it.’’

He was too hot and thirsty to reply, and they climbed on breathlessly in the throbbing air. Pantalaimon was a cricket now, and sat on Lyra's shoulder, too tired to leap or fly. From time to time the witches would see a spring high up, too high to climb to, and fly up to fill the children's flasks. They would soon have died without water, and there was none where they were;any spring that made its way into the air was soon swallowed again among the rocks.

And so they moved on, toward evening.

The witch who flew back to spy was called Lena Feldt. She flew low, from crag to crag, and as the sun was setting and drawing a wild blood-red out of the rocks, she came to the little blue lake and found a troop of soldiers making camp.

But her first glimpse of them told her more than she wanted to know;these soldiers had no daemons. And they weren't from Will's world, or the world of Cittagazze, where people's daemons were inside them, and where they still looked alive;these men were from her own world, and to see them without daemons was a gross and sickening horror.

Then out of a tent by the lakeside came the explanation. Lena Feldt saw a woman, a short-life, graceful in her khaki hunting clothes and as full of life as the golden monkey who capered along the water's edge beside her.

Lena Feldt hid among the rocks above and watched as Mrs. Coulter spoke to the officer in charge, and as his men put up tents, made fires, boiled water.

The witch had been among Serafina Pekkala's troop who rescued the children at Bolvangar, and she longed to shoot Mrs. Coulter on the spot;but some fortune was protecting the woman, for it was just too far for a bowshot from where she was, and the witch could get no closer without making herself invisible. So she began to make the spell. It took ten minutes of deep concentration.

Confident at last, Lena Feldt went down the rocky slope toward the lake, and as she walked through the camp, one or two blank-eyed soldiers glanced up briefly, but found what they saw too hard to remember, and looked away again. The witch stopped outside the tent Mrs. Coulter had gone into, and fitted an arrow to her bowstring.

She listened to the low voice through the canvas and then moved carefully to the open flap that overlooked the lake.

Inside the tent Mrs. Coulter was talking to a man Lena Feldt hadn't seen before: an older man, gray-haired and powerful, with a serpent daemon twined around his wrist. He was sitting in a canvas chair beside hers, and she was leaning toward him, speaking softly.

’’Of course, Carlo,’’ she was saying, ’’I'll tell you anything you like. What do you want to know?’’

’’How do you command the Specters?’’ the man said. ’’I didn't think it possible, but you have them following you like dogs... Are they afraid of your bodyguard? What is it?’’

’’Simple,’’ she said. ’’They know I can give them more nourishment if they let me live than if they consume me. I can lead them to all the victims their phantom hearts desire. As soon as you described them to me, I knew I could dominate them, and so it turns out. And a whole world trembles in the power of these pallid things! But, Carlo,’’ she whispered, ’’I can please you, too, you know. Would you like me to please you even more?’’

’’Marisa,’’ he murmured, ’’it's enough of a pleasure to be close to you...’’

’’No, it isn't, Carlo;you know it isn't. You know I can please you more than this.’’

Her daemon's little black horny hands were stroking the serpent daemon. Little by little the serpent loosened herself and began to flow along the man's arm toward the monkey. Both the man and the woman were holding glasses of golden wine, and she sipped hers and leaned a little closer to him.

’’Ah,’’ said the man as the daemon slipped slowly off his arm and let her weight into the golden monkey's hands. The monkey raised her slowly to his face and ran his cheek softly along her emerald skin. Her tongue flicked blackly this way and that, and the man sighed.

’’Carlo, tell me why you're pursuing the boy,’’ Mrs. Coulter whispered, and her voice was as soft as the monkey's caress. ’’Why do you need to find him?’’

’’He has something I want. Oh, Marisa - ’’

’’What is it, Carlo? What's he got?’’

He shook his head. But he was finding it hard to resist;his daemon was twined gently around the monkey's breast, and running her head through and through the long, lustrous fur as his hands moved along her fluid length.

Lena Feldt watched them, standing invisible just two paces from where they sat. Her bowstring was taut, the arrow nocked to it in readiness;she could have pulled and loosed in less than a second, and Mrs. Coulter would have been dead before she finished drawing breath. But the witch was curious. She stood still and silent and wide-eyed.

But while she was watching Mrs. Coulter, she didn't look behind her across the little blue lake. On the far side of it in the darkness a grove of ghostly trees seemed to have planted itself, a grove that shivered every so often with a tremor like a conscious intention. But they were not trees, of course;and while all the curiosity of Lena Feldt and her daemon was directed at Mrs. Coulter, one of the pallid forms detached itself from its fellows and drifted across the surface of the icy water, causing not a single ripple, until it paused a foot from the rock on which Lena Feldt's daemon was perched.

’’You could easily tell me, Carlo,’’ Mrs. Coulter was murmuring. ’’You could whisper it. You could pretend to be talking in your sleep, and who could blame you for that? Just tell me what the boy has, and why you want it. I could get it for you... Wouldn't you like me to do that? Just tell me, Carlo. I don't want it. I want the girl. What is it? Just tell me, and you shall have it.’’

He gave a soft shudder. His eyes were closed. Then he said, ’’It's a knife. The subtle knife of Cittagazze. You haven't heard of it, Marisa? Some people call it teleutaia makhaira, the last knife of all. Others call it Aesahaettr.’’

’’What does it do, Carlo? Why is it special?’’

’’Ah... It's the knife that will cut anything. Not even its makers knew what it could do. Nothing, no one, matter, spirit, angel, air - nothing is invulnerable to the subtle knife. Marisa, it's mine, you understand?’’

’’Of course, Carlo. I promise. Let me fill your glass...’’

And as the golden monkey slowly ran his hands along the emerald serpent again and again, squeezing just a little, lifting, stroking as Sir Charles sighed with pleasure, Lena Feldt saw what was truly happening: because while the man's eyes were closed, Mrs. Coulter secretly tilted a few drops from a small flask into the glass before filling it again with wine.

’’Here, darling,’’ she whispered. ’’Let's drink, to each other...’’

He was already intoxicated. He took the glass and sipped greedily, once, again, and again.

And then, without any warning, Mrs. Coulter stood up and turned and looked Lena Feldt full in the face.

’’Well, witch,’’ she said, ’’did you think I don't know how you make yourself invisible?’’

Lena Feldt was too surprised to move.

Behind her, the man was struggling to breathe. His chest was heaving, his face was red, and his daemon was limp and fainting in the monkey's hands. The monkey shook her off in contempt.

Lena Feldt tried to swing her bow up, but a fatal paralysis had touched her shoulder. She couldn't make herself do it. This had never happened before, and she uttered a little cry.

’’Oh, it's too late for that,’’ said Mrs. Coulter. ’’Look at the lake, witch.’’

Lena Feldt turned and saw her snow bunting daemon fluttering and shrieking as if he were in a glass chamber that was being emptied of air;fluttering and falling, slumping, failing, his beak opening wide, gasping in panic. The Specter had enveloped him.

’’No!’’ she cried, and tried to move toward it, but was driven back by a spasm of nausea. Even in her sickened distress, Lena Feldt could see that Mrs. Coulter had more force in her soul than anyone she had ever seen. It didn't surprise her to see that the Specter was under Mrs. Coulter's power;no one could resist that authority. Lena Feldt turned back in anguish to the woman.

’’Let him go! Please let him go!’’ she cried.

’’We'll see. Is the child with you? The girl Lyra?’’

’’Yes!’’

’’And a boy, too? A boy with a knife?’’

’’Yes - I beg you - ’’

’’And how many witches have you?’’

’’Twenty! Let him go, let him go!’’

’’All in the air? Or do some of you stay on the ground with the children?’’

’’Most in the air, three or four on the ground always - this is anguish - let him go or kill me now!’’

’’How far up the mountain are they? Are they moving on, or have they stopped to rest?’’

Lena Feldt told her everything. She could have resisted any torture but what was happening to her daemon now. When Mrs. Coulter had learned all she wanted to know about where the witches were, and how they guarded Lyra and Will, she said, ’’And now tell me this. You witches know something about the child Lyra. I nearly learned it from one of your sisters, but she died before I could complete the torture. Well, there is no one to save you now. Tell me the truth about my daughter.’’

Lena Feldt gasped, ’’She will be the mother - she will be life-mother - she will disobey - she will - ’’

’’Name her! You are saying everything but the most important thing! Name her!’’ cried Mrs. Coulter.

’’Eve! Mother of all! Eve, again! Mother Eve!’’ stammered Lena Feldt, sobbing.

’’Ah,’’ said Mrs. Coulter.

And she breathed a great sigh, as if the purpose of her life was clear to her at last.

Dimly the witch saw what she had done, and through the horror that was enveloping her she tried to cry out: ’’What will you do to her? What will you do?’’

’’Why, I shall have to destroy her,’’ said Mrs. Coulter, ’’to prevent another Fall... Why didn't I see this before? It was too large to see...’’

She clapped her hands together softly, like a child, wide-eyed. Lena Feldt, whimpering, heard her go on: ’’Of course. Asriel will make war on the Authority, and then... Of course, of course. As before, so again. And Lyra is Eve. And this time she will not fall. I'll see to that.’’

And Mrs. Coulter drew herself up, and snapped her fingers to the Specter feeding on the witch's daemon. The little snow bunting daemon lay twitching on the rock as the Specter moved toward the witch herself, and then whatever Lena Feldt had undergone before was doubled and trebled and multiplied a hundredfold. She felt a nausea of the soul, a hideous and sickening despair, a melancholy weariness so profound that she was going to die of it. Her last conscious thought was disgust at life;her senses had lied to her. The world was not made of energy and delight but of foulness, betrayal, and lassitude. Living was hateful, and death was no better, and from end to end of the universe this was the first and last and only truth.

Thus she stood, bow in hand, indifferent, dead in life.

So Lena Feldt failed to see or to care about what Mrs. Coulter did next. Ignoring the gray-haired man slumped unconscious in the canvas chair and his dull-skinned daemon coiled in the dust, the woman called the captain of the soldiers and ordered them to get ready for a night march up the mountain.

Then she went to the edge of the water and called to the Specters.

They came at her command, gliding like pillars of mist across the water. She raised her arms and made them forget they were earthbound, so that one by one they rose into the air and floated free like malignant thistledown, drifting up into the night and borne by the air currents toward Will and Lyra and the other witches;but Lena Feldt saw nothing of it.

The temperature dropped quickly after dark, and when Will and Lyra had eaten the last of their dry bread, they lay down under an overhanging rock to keep warm and try to sleep. At least Lyra didn't have to try;she was unconscious in less than a minute, curled tightly around Pantalaimon, but Will couldn't find sleep, no matter how long he lay there. It was partly his hand, which was now throbbing right up to the elbow and uncomfortably swollen, and partly the hard ground, and partly the cold, and partly utter exhaustion, and partly his longing for his mother.

He was afraid for her, of course, and he knew she'd be safer if he was there to look after her;but he wanted her to look after him, too, as she'd done when he was very small. He wanted her to bandage him and tuck him into bed and sing to him and take away all the trouble and surround him with all the warmth and softness and mother-kindness he needed so badly;and it was never going to happen. Part of him was only a little boy still. So he cried, but he lay very still as he did, not wanting to wake Lyra.

But he still wasn't asleep. He was more awake than ever. Finally he uncurled his stiff limbs and got up quietly, shivering;and with the knife at his waist he set off higher up the mountain, to calm his restlessness.

Behind him the sentry witch's robin daemon cocked his head, and she turned from the watch she was keeping to see Will clambering up the rocks. She reached for her pine branch and silently took to the air, not to disturb him but to see that he came to no harm.

He didn't notice. He felt such a need to move and keep moving that he hardly noticed the pain in his hand anymore. He felt as if he should walk all night, all day, forever, because nothing else would calm this fever in his breast. And as if in sympathy with him, a wind was rising. There were no leaves to stir in this wilderness, but the air buffeted his body and made his hair stream away from his face;it was wild outside him and wild within.

He climbed higher and higher, hardly once thinking of how he might find his way back down to Lyra, until he came out on a little plateau almost at the top of the world, it seemed. All around him, on every horizon, the mountains reached no higher. In the brilliant glare of the moon the only colors were stark black and dead white, and every edge was jagged and every surface bare.

The wild wind must have been bringing clouds overhead, because suddenly the moon was covered, and darkness swept over the whole landscape - thick clouds, too, for no gleam of moonlight shone through them. In less than a minute Will found himself in nearly total darkness.

And at the same moment Will felt a grip on his right arm.

He cried out with shock and twisted away at once, but the grip was tenacious. And Will was savage now. He felt he was at the very end of everything;and if it was the end of his life, too, he was going to fight and fight till he fell.

So he twisted and kicked and twisted again, but that hand wouldn't let go;and since it was his right arm being held, he couldn't get at the knife. He tried with his left, but he was being jerked around so much, and his hand was so painful and swollen, that he couldn't reach;he had to fight with one bare, wounded hand against a grown man.

He sank his teeth into the hand on his forearm, but all that happened was that the man landed a dizzying blow on the back of his head. Then Will kicked again and again, and some of the kicks connected and some didn't, and all the time he was pulling, jerking, twisting, shoving, and still the grip held him fast.

Dimly he heard his own panting and the man's grunts and harsh breathing;and then by chance he got his leg behind the man's and hurled himself against his chest, and the man fell with Will on top of him, heavily. But never for a moment did that grip slacken, and Will, rolling around violently on the stony ground, felt a heavy fear tighten around his heart: this man would never let him go, and even if he killed him, his corpse would still be holding fast.

But Will was weakening, and now he was crying, too, sobbing bitterly as he kicked and tugged and beat at the man with his head and feet, and he knew his muscles would give up soon. And then he noticed that the man had fallen still, though his hand still gripped as tight as ever. He was lying there letting Will batter at him with knees and head;and as soon as Will saw that, the last of his strength left him, and he fell helpless beside his opponent, every nerve in his body ringing and dizzy and throbbing.

Will hauled himself up painfully, peered through the deep darkness, and made out a blur of white on the ground beside the man. It was the white breast and head of a great bird, an osprey, a daemon, and it was lying still. Will tried to pull away, and his feeble tug woke a response from the man, whose hand hadn't loosened.

But he was moving. He was feeling Will's right hand carefully with his free one. Will's hair stood on end.

Then the man said, ’’Give me your other hand.’’

’’Be careful,’’ said Will.

The man's free hand felt down Will's left arm, and his fingertips moved gently over the wrist and on to the swollen palm and with the utmost delicacy on to the stumps of Will's two lost fingers.

His other hand let go at once, and he sat up.

’’You've got the knife,’’ he said. ’’You're the knife bearer.’’

His voice was resonant, harsh, but breathless. Will sensed that he was badly hurt. Had he wounded this dark opponent?

Will was still lying on the stones, utterly spent. All he could see was the man's shape, crouching above him, but he couldn't see his face. The man was reaching sideways for something, and after a few moments a marvelous soothing coolness spread into his hand from the stumps of his fingers as the man massaged a salve into his skin.

’’What are you doing?’’ Will said.

’’Curing your wound. Keep still.’’

’’Who are you?’’

’’I'm the only man who knows what the knife is for. Hold your hand up like that. Don't move.’’

The wind was beating more wildly than ever, and a drop or two of rain splashed onto Will's face. He was trembling violently, but he propped up his left hand with his right while the man spread more ointment over the stumps and wound a strip of linen tightly around the hand.

And as soon as the dressing was secure, the man slumped sideways and lay down himself. Will, still bemused by the blessed cool numbness in his hand, tried to sit up and look at him. But it was darker than ever. He felt forward with his right hand and found himself touching the man's chest, where the heart was beating like a bird against the bars of a cage.

’’Yes,’’ the man said hoarsely. ’’Try and cure that, go on.’’

’’Are you ill?’’

’’I'll be better soon. You have the knife, yes?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’And you know how to use it?’’

’’Yes, yes. But are you from this world? How do you know about it?’’

’’Listen,’’ said the man, sitting up with a struggle. ’’Don't interrupt. If you're the bearer of the knife, you have a task that's greater than you can imagine. A child... How could they let it happen? Well, so it must be... There is a war coming, boy. The greatest war there ever was. Something like it happened before, and this time the right side must win. We've had nothing but lies and propaganda and cruelty and deceit for all the thousands of years of human history. It's time we started again, but properly this time...’’

He stopped to take in several rattling breaths.

’’The knife,’’ he went on after a minute. ’’They never knew what they were making, those old philosophers. They invented a device that could split open the very smallest particles of matter, and they used it to steal candy. They had no idea that they'd made the one weapon in all the universes that could defeat the tyrant. The Authority. God. The rebel angels fell because they didn't have anything like the knife;but now...’’

’’I didn't want it! I don't want it now!’’ Will cried. ’’If you want it, you can have it! I hate it, and I hate what it does - ’’

’’Too late. You haven't any choice: you're the bearer. It's picked you out. And, what's more, they know you've got it;and if you don't use it against them, they'll tear it from your hands and use it against the rest of us, forever and ever.’’

’’But why should I fight them? I've been fighting too much;I can't go on fighting. I want to - ’’

’’Have you won your fights?’’

Will was silent. Then he said, ’’Yes, I suppose.’’

’’You fought for the knife?’’

’’Yes, but - ’’

’’Then you're a warrior. That's what you are. Argue with anything else, but don't argue with your own nature.’’

Will knew that the man was speaking the truth. But it wasn't a welcome truth. It was heavy and painful. The man seemed to know that, because he let Will bow his head before he spoke again.

’’There are two great powers,’’ the man said, ’’and they've been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.’’

’’And now those two powers are lining up for battle. And each of them wants that knife of yours more than anything else. You have to choose, boy. We've been guided here, both of us - you with the knife, and me to tell you about it.’’

’’No! You're wrong!’’ cried Will. ’’I wasn't looking for anything like that! That's not what I was looking for at all!’’

’’You might not think so, but that's what you've found,’’ said the man in the darkness.

’’But what must I do?’’

And then Stanislaus Grumman, Jopari, John Parry hesitated.

He was painfully aware of the oath he'd sworn to Lee Scoresby, and he hesitated before he broke it;but break it he did.

’’You must go to Lord Asriel,’’ he said, ’’and tell him that Stanislaus Grumman sent you, and that you have the one weapon he needs above all others. Like it or not, boy, you have a job to do. Ignore everything else, no matter how important it seems, and go and do this. Someone will appear to guide you;the night is full of angels. Your wound will heal now¨C Wait. Before you go, I want to look at you properly.’’

He felt for the pack he'd been carrying and took something out, unfolding layers of oilskin and then striking a match to light a little tin lantern. In its light, through the rain-dashed windy air, the two looked at each other.

Will saw blazing blue eyes in a haggard face with several days'growth of beard on the stubborn jaw, gray-haired, drawn with pain, a thin body hunched in a heavy cloak trimmed with feathers.

The shaman saw a boy even younger than he'd thought, his slim body shivering in a torn linen shirt and his expression exhausted and savage and wary, but alight with a wild curiosity, his eyes wide under the straight black brows, so like his mother's...

And there came just the first flicker of something else to both of them.

But in that same moment, as the lantern light flared over John Parry's face, something shot down from the turbid sky, and he fell back dead before he could say a word, an arrow in his failing heart. The osprey daemon vanished in a moment.

Will could only sit stupefied.

A flicker crossed the corner of his vision, and his right hand darted up at once, and he found he was clutching a robin, a daemon, red-breasted, panicking.

’’No! No!’’ cried the witch Juta Kamainen, and fell down after him, clutching at her own heart, crashing clumsily into the rocky ground and struggling up again.

But Will was there before she could find her feet, and the subtle knife was at her throat.

’’Why did you do that?’’ he shouted. ’’Why did you kill him?’’

’’Because I loved him and he scorned me! I am a witch! I don't forgive!’’

And because she was a witch she wouldn't have been afraid of a boy, normally. But she was afraid of Will. This young wounded figure held more force and danger than she'd ever met in a human before, and she quailed. She fell backward, and he followed and gripped her hair with his left hand, feeling no pain, feeling only an immense and shattering despair.

’’You don't know who he was,’’ he cried. ’’He was my father!’’

She shook her head and whispered, ’’No. No! That can't be true. Impossible!’’

’’You think things have to be possible? Things have to be true! He was my father, and neither of us knew it till the second you killed him! Witch, I wait all my life and come all this way and I find him at last, and you kill him...’’

And he shook her head like a rag and threw her back against the ground, half-stunning her. Her astonishment was almost greater than her fear of him, which was real enough, and she pulled herself up, dazed, and seized his shirt in supplication. He knocked her hand away.

’’What did he ever do that you needed to kill him?’’ he cried. ’’Tell me that, if you can!’’

And she looked at the dead man. Then she looked back at Will and shook her head sadly.

’’No, I can't explain,’’ she said. ’’You're too young. It wouldn't make sense to you. I loved him. That's all. That's enough.’’

And before Will could stop her, she fell softly sideways, her hand on the hilt of the knife she had just taken from her own belt and pushed between her ribs.

Will felt no horror, only desolation and bafflement.

He stood up slowly and looked down at the dead witch, at her rich black hair, her flushed cheeks, her smooth pale limbs wet with rain, her lips parted like a lover's.

’’I don't understand,’’ he said aloud. ’’It's too strange.’’

Will turned back to the dead man, his father.

A thousand things jostled at his throat, and only the dashing rain cooled the hotness in his eyes. The little lantern still flickered and flared as the draft through the ill-fitting window licked around the flame, and by its light Will knelt and put his hands on the man's body, touching his face, his shoulders, his chest, closing his eyes, pushing the wet gray hair off his forehead, pressing his hands to the rough cheeks, closing his father's mouth, squeezing his hands.

’’Father,’’ he said, ’’Dad, Daddy... Father... I don't understand why she did that. It's too strange for me. But whatever you wanted me to do, I promise, I swear I'll do it. I'll fight. I'll be a warrior. I will. This knife, I'll take it to Lord Asriel, wherever he is, and I'll help him fight that enemy. I'll do it. You can rest now. It's all right. You can sleep now.’’

Beside the dead man lay his deerskin pack with the oilskin and the lantern and the little horn box of bloodmoss ointment. Will picked them up, and then he noticed his father's feather-trimmed cloak trailing behind his body on the ground, heavy and sodden but warm. His father had no more use for it, and Will was shaking with cold. He unfastened the bronze buckle at the dead man's throat and swung the canvas pack over his shoulder before wrapping the cloak around himself.

He blew out the lantern and looked back at the dim shapes of his father, of the witch, of his father again before turning to go down the mountain.

The stormy air was electric with whispers, and in the tearing of the wind Will could hear other sounds, too: confused echoes of cries and chanting, the clash of metal on metal, pounding wingbeats that one moment sounded so close they might actually be inside his head, and the next so far away they might have been on another planet. The rocks underfoot were slippery and loose, and it was much harder going down than it had been climbing up;but he didn't falter.

And as he turned down the last little gully before the place where he'd left Lyra sleeping, he stopped suddenly. He could see two figures simply standing there, in the dark, waiting. Will put his hand on the knife.

Then one of the figures spoke.

’’You're the boy with the knife?’’ he said, and his voice had the strange quality of those wingbeats. Whoever he was, he wasn't a human being.

’’Who are you?’’ Will said. ’’Are you men, or - ’’

’’Not men, no. We are Watchers. Bene elim. In your language, angels.’’

Will was silent. The speaker went on: ’’Other angels have other functions, and other powers. Our task is simple: We need you. We have been following the shaman every inch of his way, hoping he would lead us to you, and so he has. And now we have come to guide you in turn to Lord Asriel.’’

’’You were with my father all the time?’’

’’Every moment.’’

’’Did he know?’’

’’He had no idea.’’

’’Why didn't you stop the witch, then? Why did you let her kill him?’’

’’We would have done, earlier. But his task was over once he'd led us to you.’’

Will said nothing. His head was ringing;this was no less difficult to understand than anything else.

’’All right,’’ he said finally. ’’I'll come with you. But first I must wake Lyra.’’

They stood aside to let him pass, and he felt a tingle in the air as he went close to them, but he ignored it and concentrated on getting down the slope toward the little shelter where Lyra was sleeping.

But something made him stop.

In the dimness, he could see the witches who had been guarding Lyra all sitting or standing still. They looked like statues, except that they were breathing, but they were scarcely alive. There were several black-silk-clad bodies on the ground, too, and as he gazed in horror from one to another of them, Will saw what must have happened: they had been attacked in midair by the Specters, and had fallen to their deaths, indifferently.

But -

’’Where's Lyra?’’ he cried aloud.

The hollow under the rock was empty. Lyra was gone.

There was something under the overhang where she'd been lying. It was Lyra's little canvas rucksack, and from the weight of it he knew without looking that the alethiometer was still inside it.

Will was shaking his head. It couldn't be true, but it was: Lyra was gone, Lyra was captured, Lyra was lost.

The two dark figures of the bene elim had not moved. But they spoke: ’’You must come with us now. Lord Asriel needs you at once. The enemy's power is growing every minute. The shaman has told you what your task is. Follow us and help us win. Come with us. Come this way. Come now.’’

And Will looked from them to Lyra's rucksack and back again, and he didn't hear a word they said.


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