Fog And Ice
Lee Scoresby arranged some furs over Lyra. She curled up close to Roger and they lay together asleep as the balloon swept on toward the Pole. The aeronaut checked his instruments from time to time, chewed on the cigar he would never light with the inflammable hydrogen so close, and huddled deeper into his own furs.
"This little girl's pretty important, huh?" he said after several minutes.
"More than she will know," Serafina Pekkala said.
"Does that mean there's gonna be much in the way of armed pursuit? You understand, I'm speaking as a practical man with a living to earn. I can't afford to get busted up or shot to pieces without some kind of compensation agreed to in advance. I ain't trying to lower the tone of this expedition, believe me, ma'am. But John Faa and the gyptians paid me a fee that's enough to cover my time and skill and the normal wear and tear on the balloon, and that's all. It didn't include acts-of-war insurance. And let me tell you, ma'am, when we land lorek Byrnison on Svalbard, that will count as an act of war."
He spat a piece of smokeleaf delicately overboard.
"So I'd like to know what we can expect in the way of mayhem and ructions," he finished.
"There may be fighting," said Serafina Pekkala. "But you have fought before."
"Sure, when I'm paid. But the fact is, I thought this was a straightforward transportation contract, and I charged according. And I'm a wondering now, after that little dust-up down there, I'm a wondering how far my transportation responsibility extends. Whether I'm bound to risk my life and my equipment in a war among the bears, for example. Or whether this little child has enemies on Svalbard as hot-tempered as the ones back at Bolvangar. I merely mention all this by way of making conversation."
"Mr. Scoresby," said the witch, "I wish I could answer your question. All I can say is that all of us, humans, witches, bears, are engaged in a war already, although not all of us know it. Whether you find danger on Svalbard or whether you fly off unharmed, you are a recruit, under arms, a soldier."
"Well, that seems kinda precipitate. Seems to me a man should have a choice whether to take up arms or not."
"We have no more choice in that than in whether or not to be born."
"Oh, I like choice, though," he said. "I like choosing the jobs I take and the places I go and the food I eat and the companions I sit and yarn with. Don't you wish for a choice once in a while ?"
Serafina Pekkala considered, and then said, "Perhaps we don't mean the same thing by choice, Mr. Scoresby. Witches own nothing, so we're not interested in preserving value or making profits, and as for the choice between one thing and another, when you live for many hundreds of years, you know that every opportunity will come again. We have different needs. You have to repair your balloon and keep it in good condition, and that takes time and trouble, I see that; but for us to fly, all we have to do is tear off a branch of cloud-pine; any will do, and there are plenty more. We don't feel cold, so we need no warm clothes. We have no means of exchange apart from mutual aid. If a witch needs something, another witch will give it to her. If there is a war to be fought, we don't consider cost one of the factors in deciding whether or not it is right to fight. Nor do we have any notion of honor, as bears do, for instance. An insult to a bear is a deadly thing. To us... inconceivable. How could you insult a witch? What would it matter if you did?"
"Well, I'm kinda with you on that. Sticks and stones, I'll break yer bones, but names ain't worth a quarrel. But ma'am, you see my dilemma, I hope. I'm a simple aeronaut, and I'd like to end my days in comfort. Buy a little farm, a few head of cattle, some horses...Nothing grand, you notice. No palace or slaves or heaps of gold. Just the evening wind over the sage, and a ceegar, and a glass of bourbon whiskey. Now the trouble is, that costs money. So I do my flying in exchange for cash, and after every job I send some gold back to the Wells Fargo Bank, and when I've got enough, ma'am, I'm gonna sell this balloon and book me a passage on a steamer to Port Galveston, and I'll never leave the ground again."
"There's another difference between us, Mr. Scoresby. A witch would no sooner give up flying than give up breathing. To fly is to be perfectly ourselves."
"I see that, ma'am, and I envy you; but I ain't got your sources of satisfaction. Flying is just a job to me, and I'm just a technician. I might as well be adjusting valves in a gas engine or wiring up anbaric circuits. But I chose it, you see. It was my own free choice. Which is why I find this notion of a war I ain't been told nothing about kinda troubling."
"lorek Byrnison's quarrel with his king is part of it too," said the witch. "This child is destined to play a part in that."
"You speak of destiny," he said, "as if it was fixed. And I ain't sure I like that any more than a war I'm enlisted in without knowing about it. Where's my free will, if you please? And this child seems to me to have more free will than anyone I ever met. Are you telling me that she's just some kind of clockwork toy wound up and set going on a course she can't change?"
"We are all subject to the fates. But we must all act as if we are not," said the witch, "or die of despair. There is a curious prophecy about this child: she is destined to bring about the end of destiny. But she must do so without knowing what she is doing, as if it were her nature and not her destiny to do it. If she's told what she must do, it will all fail; death will sweep through all the worlds; it will be the triumph of despair, forever. The universes will all become nothing more than interlocking machines, blind and empty of thought, feeling, life..."
They looked down at Lyra, whose sleeping face (what little of it they could see inside her hood) wore a stubborn little frown.
"I guess part of her knows that," said the aeronaut. "Looks prepared for it, anyways. How about the little boy? You know she came all this way to save him from those fiends back there? They were playmates, back in Oxford or somewhere. Did you know that?"
"Yes, I did know that. Lyra is carrying something of immense value, and it seems that the fates are using her as a messenger to take it to her father. So she came all this way to find her friend, not knowing that her friend was brought to the North by the fates, in order that she might follow and bring something to her father."
"That's how you read it, huh?"
For the first time the witch seemed unsure.
"That is how it seems....But we can't read the darkness, Mr. Scoresby. It is more than possible that I might be wrong."
"And what brought you into all this, if I can ask?"
"Whatever they were doing at Bolvangar, we felt it was wrong with all our hearts. Lyra is their enemy; so we are her friends. We don't see more clearly than that. But also there is my clan's friendship for the gyptian people, which goes back to the time when Farder Coram saved my life. We are doing this at their bidding. And they have ties of obligation with Lord Asriel."
"I see. So you're towing the balloon to Svalbard for the gyptians' sake. And does that friendship extend to towing us back again? Or will I have to wait for a kindly wind, and depend on the indulgence of the bears in the meantime? Once again, ma'am, I'm asking merely in a spirit of friendly enquiry."
"If we can help you back to Trollesund, Mr. Scoresby, we shall do so. But we don't know what we shall meet on Svalbard. The bears' new king has made many changes; the old ways are out of favor; it might be a difficult landing. And I don't know how Lyra will find her way to her father. Nor do I know what lorek Byrnison has it in mind to do, except that his fate is involved with hers."
"I don't know either, ma'am. I think he's attached himself to the little girl as a kind of protector. She helped him get his armor back, you see. Who knows what bears feel? But if a bear ever loved a human being, he loves her. As for landing on Svalbard, it's never been easy. Still, if I can call on you for a tug in the right direction, I'll feel kinda easier in my mind; and if there's anything I can do for you in return, you only have to say. But just so as I know, would you mind telling me whose side I'm on in this invisible war?"
"We are both on Lyra's side."
"Oh, no doubt about that."
They flew on. Because of the clouds below there was no way of telling how fast they were going. Normally, of course, a balloon remained still with respect to the wind, floating at whatever speed the air itself was moving; but now, pulled by the witches, the balloon was moving through the air instead of with it, and resisting the movement, too, because the unwieldy gas bag had none of the streamlined smoothness of a zeppelin. As a result, the basket swung this way and that, rocking and bumping much more than on a normal flight.
Lee Scoresby wasn't concerned for his comfort so much as for his instruments, and he spent some time making sure they were securely lashed to the main struts. According to the altimeter, they were nearly ten thousand feet up. The temperature was minus 20 degrees. He had been colder than this, but not much, and he didn't want to get any colder now; so he unrolled the canvas sheet he used as an emergency bivouac, and spread it in front of the sleeping children to keep off the wind, before lying down back to back with his old comrade in arms, lorek Byrnison, and falling asleep.
When Lyra woke up, the moon was high in the sky, and everything in sight was silver-plated, from the roiling surface of the clouds below to the frost spears and icicles on the rigging of the balloon.
Roger was sleeping, and so were Lee Scoresby and the bear. Beside the basket, however, the witch queen was flying steadily.
"How far are we from Svalbard?" Lyra said.
"If we meet no winds, we shall be over Svalbard in twelve hours or so."
"Where are we going to land?"
"It depends on the weather. We'll try to avoid the cliffs, though. There are creatures living there who prey on anything that moves. If we can, we'll set you down in the interior, away from lofur Raknison's palace."
"What's going to happen when I find Lord Asriel? Will he want to come back to Oxford, or what? I don't know if I ought to tell him I know he's my father, neither. He might want to pretend he's still my uncle. I don't hardly know him at all."
"He won't want to go back to Oxford, Lyra. It seems that there is something to be done in another world, and Lord Asriel is the only one who can bridge the gulf between that world and this. But he needs something to help him."
"The alethiometer!" Lyra said. "The Master of Jordan gave it to me and I thought there was something he wanted to say about Lord Asriel, except he never had the chance. I knew he didn't really want to poison him. Is he going to read it and see how to make the bridge? I bet I could help him. I can probably read it as good as anyone now."
"I don't know," said Serafina Pekkala. "How he'll do it, and what his task will be, we can't tell. There are powers who speak to us, and there are powers above them; and there are secrets even from the most high."
"The alethiometer would tell me! I could read it now...."
But it was too cold; she would never have managed to hold it. She bundled herself up and pulled the hood tight against the chill of the wind, leaving only a slit to look through. Far ahead, and a little below, the long rope extended from the suspension ring of the balloon, pulled by six or seven witches sitting on their cloud-pine branches. The stars shone as bright and cold and hard as diamonds.
"Why en't you cold, Serafina Pekkala?"
"We feel cold, but we don't mind it, because we will not come to harm. And if we wrapped up against the cold, we wouldn't feel other things, like the bright tingle of the stars, or the music of the Aurora, or best of all the silky feeling of moonlight on our skin. It's worth being cold for that." "Could I feel them?"
"No. You would die if you took your furs off. Stay wrapped up."
"How long do witches live, Serafina Pekkala? Farder Coram says hundreds of years. But you don't look old at all."
"I am three hundred years or more. Our oldest witch mother is nearly a thousand. One day, Yambe-Akka will come for her. One day she'll come for me. She is the goddess of the dead. She comes to you smiling and kindly, and you know it is time to die."
"Are there men witches? Or only women?"
"There are men who serve us, like the consul at Trollesund. And there are men we take for lovers or husbands. You are so young, Lyra, too young to understand this, but I shall tell you anyway and you'll understand it later: men pass in front of our eyes like butterflies, creatures of a brief season. We love them; they are brave, proud, beautiful, clever; and they die almost at once. They die so soon that our hearts are continually racked with pain. We bear their children, who are witches if they are female, human if not; and then in the blink of an eye they are gone, felled, slain, lost. Our sons, too. When a little boy is growing, he thinks he is immortal. His mother knows he isn't. Each time becomes more painful, until finally your heart is broken. Perhaps that is when Yambe-Akka comes for you. She is older than the tundra. Perhaps, for her, witches' lives are as brief as men's are to us."
"Did you love Farder Coram?"
"Yes. Does he know that?"
"I don't know, but I know he loves you."
"When he rescued me, he was young and strong and full of pride and beauty. I loved him at once. I would have changed my nature, I would have forsaken the star-tingle and the music of the Aurora; I would never have flown again - I would have given all that up in a moment, without a thought, to be a gyptian boat wife and cook for him and share his bed and bear his children. But you cannot change what you are, only what you do. I am a witch. He is a human. I stayed with him for long enough to bear him a child...."
"He never said! Was it a girl? A witch?"
"No. A boy, and he died in the great epidemic of forty years ago, the sickness that came out of the East. Poor little child; he flickered into life and out of it like a mayfly. And it tore pieces out of my heart, as it always does. It broke Coram's. And then the call came for me to return to my own people, because Yambe-Akka had taken my mother, and I was clan queen. So I left, as I had to."
"Did you never see Farder Coram again?"
"Never. I heard of his deeds; I heard how he was wounded by the Skraelings, with a poisoned arrow, and I sent herbs and spells to help him recover, but I wasn't strong enough to see him. I heard how broken he was after that, and how his wisdom grew, how much he studied and read, and I was proud of him and his goodness. But I stayed away, for they were dangerous times for my clan, and witch wars were threatening, and besides, I thought he would forget me and find a human wife...."
"He never would," said Lyra stoutly. "You oughter go and see him. He still loves you, I know he does."
"But he would be ashamed of his own age, and I wouldn't want to make him feel that."
"Perhaps he would. But you ought to send a message to him, at least. That's what I think."
Serafina Pekkala said nothing for a long time. Pantalaimon became a tern and flew to her branch for a second, to acknowledge that perhaps they had been insolent.
Then Lyra said, "Why do people have daemons, Serafina Pekkala?"
"Everyone asks that, and no one knows the answer. As long as there have been human beings, they have had daemons. It's what makes us different from animals."
"Yeah! We're different from them all right....Like bears. They're strange, en't they, bears? You think they're like a person, and then suddenly they do something so strange or ferocious you think you'll never understand them....But you know what lorek said to me, he said that his armor for him was like what a daemon is for a person. It's his soul, he said. But that's where they're different again, because he made this armor his-self. They took his first armor away when they sent him into exile, and he found some sky iron and made some new armor, like making a new soul. We can't make our daemons. Then the people at Trollesund, they got him drunk on spirits and stole it away, and I found out where it was and he got it back....But what I wonder is, why's he coming to Svalbard? They'll fight him. They might kill him....I love lorek. I love him so much I wish he wasn't coming."
"Has he told you who he is?"
"Only his name. And it was the consul at Trollesund who told us that."
"He is highborn. He is a prince. In fact, if he had not committed a great crime, he would be the king of the bears by now."
"He told me their king was called lofur Raknison."
"lofur Raknison became king when lorek Byrnison was exiled. lofur is a prince, of course, or he wouldn't be allowed to rule; but he is clever in a human way; he makes alliances and treaties; he lives not as bears do, in ice forts, but in a new-built palace; he talks of exchanging ambassadors with human nations and developing the fire mines with the help of human engineers....He is very skillful and subtle. Some say that he provoked lorek into the deed for which he was exiled, and others say that even if he didn't, he encourages them to think he did, because it adds to his reputation for craft and subtlety."
"What did lorek do? See, one reason I love lorek, it's because of my father doing what he did and being punished. Seems to me they're like each other. lorek told me he'd killed another bear, but he never said how it came about."
"The fight was over a she-bear. The male whom lorek killed would not display the usual signals of surrender when it was clear that lorek was stronger. For all their pride, bears never fail to recognize superior force in another bear and surrender to it, but for some reason this bear didn't do it. Some say that lofur Raknison worked on his mind, or gave him confusing herbs to eat. At any rate, the young bear persisted, and lorek Byrnison allowed his temper to master him. The case was not hard to judge; he should have wounded, not killed."
"So otherwise he'd be king," Lyra said. "And I heard something about lofur Raknison from the Palmerian Professor at Jordan, 'cause he'd been to the North and met him. He said... I wish I could remember what it was....I think he'd tricked his way on to the throne or something....But you know, lorek said to me once that bears couldn't be tricked, and showed me that I couldn't trick him. It sounds as if they was both tricked, him and the other bear. Maybe only bears can trick bears, maybe people can't. Except...The people at Trollesund, they tricked him, didn't they? When they got him drunk and stole his armor?"
"When bears act like people, perhaps they can be tricked," said Serafina Pekkala. "When bears act like bears, perhaps they can't. No bear would normally drink spirits. lorek Byrnison drank to forget the shame of exile, and it was only that which let the Trollesund people trick him."
"Ah, yes," said Lyra, nodding. She was satisfied with that idea. She admired lorek almost without limit, and she was glad to find confirmation of his nobility. "That's clever of you," she said. "I wouldn't have known that if you hadn't told me. I think you're probably cleverer than Mrs. Coulter."
They flew on. Lyra chewed some of the seal meat she found in her pocket.
"Serafina Pekkala," she said after some time, "what's Dust? 'Cause it seems to me that all this trouble's about Dust, only no one's told me what it is."
"I don't know," Serafina Pekkala told her. "Witches have never worried about Dust. All I can tell you is that where there are priests, there is fear of Dust. Mrs. Coulter is not a priest, of course, but she is a powerful agent of the Magisterium, and it was she who set up the Oblation Board and persuaded the Church to pay for Bolvangar, because of her interest in Dust. We can't understand her feelings about it. But there are many things we have never understood. We see the Tartars making holes in their skulls, and we can only wonder at the strangeness of it. So Dust may be strange, and we wonder at it, but we don't fret and tear things apart to examine it. Leave that to the Church."
"The Church?" said Lyra. Something had come back to her: she remembered talking with Pantalaimon, in the fens, about what it might be that was moving the needle of the alethiometer, and they had thought of the photomill on the high altar at Gabriel College, and how elementary particles pushed the little vanes around. The Intercessor there was clear about the link between elementary particles and religion. "Could be," she said, nodding. "Most Church things, they keep secret, after all. But most Church things are old, and Dust en't old, as far as I know. I wonder if Lord Asriel might tell me...."
"I better lie down," she said to Serafina Pekkala, "else I'll probably freeze. I been cold down on the ground, but I never been this cold. I think I might die if I get any colder."
"Then lie down and wrap yourself in the furs."
"Yeah, I will. If I was going to die, I'd rather die up here than down there, any day. I thought when they put us under that blade thing, I thought that was it....We both did. Oh, that was cruel. But we'll lie down now. Wake us up when we get there," she said, and got down on the pile of furs, clumsy and aching in every part of her with the profound intensity of the cold, and lay as close as she could to the sleeping Roger.
And so the four travelers sailed on, sleeping in the ice-encrusted balloon, toward the rocks and glaciers, the fire mines and the ice forts of Svalbard.
Serafina Pekkala called to the aeronaut, and he woke at once, groggy with cold, but aware from the movement of the basket that something was wrong. It was swinging wildly as strong winds buffeted the gas bag, and the witches pulling the rope were barely managing to hold it. If they let go, the balloon would be swept off course at once, and to judge by his glance at the compass, would be swept toward Nova Zembla at nearly a hundred miles an hour.
"Where are we?" Lyra heard him call. She was half-waking herself, uneasy because of the motion, and so cold that every part of her body was numb.
She couldn't hear the witch's reply, but through her half-closed hood she saw, in the light of an anbaric lantern, Lee Scoresby hold on to a strut and pull at a rope leading up into the gas bag itself. He gave a sharp tug as if against some obstruction, and looked up into the buffeting dark before looping the rope around a cleat on the suspension ring.
"I'm letting out some gas!" he shouted to Serafina Pekkala. "We'll go down. We're way too high."
The witch called something in return, but again Lyra couldn't hear it. Roger was waking too; the creaking of the basket was enough to wake the deepest sleeper, never mind the rocking and bumping. Roger's daemon and Pantalaimon clung together like marmosets, and Lyra concentrated on lying still and not leaping up in fear.
'"S all right," Roger said, sounding much more cheerful than she was. "Soon's we get down we can make a fire and get warm. I got some matches in me pocket. I pinched 'em out the kitchen at Bolvangar."
The balloon was certainly descending, because they were enveloped a second later in thick freezing cloud. Scraps and wisps of it flew through the basket, and then everything was obscured, all at once. It was like the thickest fog Lyra had ever known. After a moment or two there came another cry from Serafina Pekkala, and the aeronaut unlooped the rope from the cleat and let go. It sprang upward through his hands, and even over the creak and the buffeting and the howl of wind through the rigging Lyra heard or felt a mighty thump from somewhere far above.
Lee Scoresby saw her wide eyes.
"That's the gas valve!" he shouted. "It works on a spring to hold the gas in. When I pull it down, some gas escapes outta the top, and we lose buoyancy and go down."
"Are we nearly - "
She didn't finish, because something hideous happened. A creature half the size of a man, with leathery wings and hooked claws, was crawling over the side of the basket toward Lee Scoresby. It had a flat head, with bulging eyes and a wide frog mouth, and from it came wafts of abominable stink. Lyra had no time to scream, even, before lorek Byrnison reached up and cuffed it away. It fell out of the basket and vanished with a shriek.
"Cliff-ghast," said lorek briefly.
The next moment Serafina Pekkala appeared, and clung to the side of the basket, speaking urgently.
"The cliff-ghasts are attacking. We'll bring the balloon to the ground, and then we must defend ourselves. They're - "
But Lyra didn't hear the rest of what she said, because there was a rending, ripping sound, and everything tilted sideways. Then a terrific blow hurled the three humans against the side of the balloon where lorek Byrnison's armor was stacked, lorek put out a great paw to hold them in, because the basket was jolting so violently. Serafina Pekkala had vanished. The noise was appalling: over every other sound there came the shrieking of the cliff-ghasts, and Lyra saw them hurtling past, and smelled their foul stench.
Then there came another jerk, so sudden that it threw them all to the floor again, and the basket began to sink with frightening speed, spinning all the while. It felt as if they had torn loose from the balloon, and were dropping unchecked by anything; and then came another series of jerks and crashes, the basket being tossed rapidly from side to side as if they were bouncing between rock walls.
The last thing Lyra saw was Lee Scoresby firing his long-barreled pistol directly in the face of a cliff-ghast; and then she shut her eyes tight, and clung to lorek Byrnison's fur with passionate fear. Howls, shrieks, the lash and whistle of the wind, the creak of the basket like a tormented animal, all filled the wild air with hideous noise.
Then came the biggest jolt of all, and she found herself hurled out altogether. Her grip was torn loose, and all the breath was knocked out of her lungs as she landed in such a tangle that she couldn't tell which way was up; and her face in the tight-pulled hood was full of powder, dry, cold, crystals -
It was snow; she had landed in a snowdrift. She was so battered that she could hardly think. She lay quite still for several seconds before feebly spitting out the snow in her mouth, and then she blew just as feebly until there was a little space to breathe in.
Nothing seemed to be hurting in particular; she just felt utterly breathless. Cautiously she tried to move hands, feet, arms, legs, and to raise her head.
She could see very little, because her hood was still filled with snow. With an effort, as if her hands weighed a ton each, she brushed it off and peered out. She saw a world of gray, of pale grays and dark grays and blacks, where fog drifts wandered like wraiths.
The only sounds she could hear were the distant cries of the cliff-ghasts, high above, and the crash of waves on rocks, some way off.
"lorek!" she cried. Her voice was faint and shaky, and she tried again, but no one answered. "Roger!" she called, with the same result.
She might have been alone in the world, but of course she never was, and Pantalaimon crept out of her anorak as a mouse to keep her company.
"I've checked the alethiometer," he said, "and it's all right. Nothing's broken."
"We're lost, Pan!" she said. "Did you see those cliff-ghasts? And Mr. Scoresby shooting 'em? God help us if they come down here...."
"We better try and find the basket," he said, "maybe."
"We better not call out," she said. "I did just now, but maybe I better not in case they hear us. I wish I knew where we were."
"We might not like it if we did," he pointed out. "We might be at the bottom of a cliff with no way up, and the cliff-ghasts at the top to see us when the fog clears."
She felt around, once she had rested a few more minutes, and found that she had landed in a gap between two ice-covered rocks. Freezing fog covered everything; to one side there was the crash of waves about fifty yards off, by the sound of it, and from high above there still came the shrieking of the cliff-ghasts, though that seemed to be abating a little. She could see no more than two or three yards in the murk, and even Pantalaimon's owl eyes were helpless.
She made her way painfully, slipping and sliding on the rough rocks, away from the waves and up the beach a little, and found nothing but rock and snow, and no sign of the balloon or any of the occupants.
"They can't have all just vanished," she whispered.
Pantalaimon prowled, cat-formed, a little farther afield, and came across four heavy sandbags broken open, with the scattered sand already freezing hard.
"Ballast," Lyra said. "He must've slung 'em off to fly up again...."
She swallowed hard to subdue the lump in her throat, or the fear in her breast, or both.
"Oh, God, I'm frightened," she said. "I hope they're safe."
He came to her arms and then, mouse-formed, crept into her hood where he couldn't be seen. She heard a noise, something scraping on rock, and turned to see what it was.
But she choked the word back unfinished, for it wasn't lorek Byrnison at all. It was a strange bear, clad in polished armor with the dew on it frozen into frost, and with a plume in his helmet.
He stood still, about six feet away, and she thought she really was finished.
The bear opened his mouth and roared. An echo came back from the cliffs and stirred more shrieking from far above. Out of the fog came another bear, and another. Lyra stood still, clenching her little human fists.
The bears didn't move until the first one said, "Your name?"
"Where have you come from?"
"In a balloon?"
"Come with us. You are a prisoner. Move, now. Quickly."
Weary and scared, Lyra began to stumble over the harsh and slippery rocks, following the bear, wondering how she could talk her way out of this.